The terrain was rocky, not at all like the soft tropical soil of the South Pacific. Kai Roland couldnt figure out why she had such a difficult time with it; it wasnt that she had never been on such ground before.
She caught Nanoforges glare for slowing the team down as they marched briskly in the bright moonlight. Her tension only accelerated her heartbeat, and inside her faceplate, she could her own rapid breathing. Lieutenant Hook must have heard it, too, because he stopped suddenly and swiveled back to meet her.
Roland, you okay? There wasnt any emotion in the question.
Fine, sir, she replied forcefully.
He gave her a quick once-over, then resumed leading them through the valleys of Utah.
Home. Or what once was.
Like most of the squad, Kai Roland was an outsider with her natural family; even in war, they couldnt understand why shed risk everything for the Mobile Infantry. Fight alongside complete strangers. The few trips home on leave, she could never convince them that she felt more at home with her fellow troopers than she did with her immediate family members.
She stumbled again, and landed on all fours. Smoke quickly grabbed her under the arm and pulled her up.
There you go, he said softly. If youre not careful, the el-tees going to find a reason to scapegoat you.
Wouldnt be the first time, she muttered.
Smoke smiled at her, his warm dark eyes boosting her confidence. Come on, Kai, wheres that strong young woman you displayed back in Kaneohe?
She grinned at the memory of their recent practices that Hook had been putting them through. I guess Im tired.
He nodded. I know how that goes.
Speaking of hows the leg?
Its sore. I dont think it will ever go away, but at least its usable.
Shh! Chiquita looked at them.
Hook had frozen in place, his arm up indicating he wanted them to follow suit. They did. Quietly, Hook lowered his visor. Kai couldnt make out the curse he whispered, but she saw his shoulders tense. He turned around and faced them.
Nanoforge and Doc were mounted in the Marauders; Cyber and Spitz took up the rear, with Hook and Chiquita near the front. But with Kais sudden onset of clumsiness, she realized their line had stretched.
Spitz groaned and grabbed at her helmet, as if fighting something inside her head.
Spitz! Cyber didnt get one step towards her before he was flung to the ground from Spitzs psy-power. Chiquita brushed past Kai to get to Cyber.
Make it stop! Spitz pleaded. Hook also brushed past Kai and Smoke.
Spitz, his voice had that familiar level of danger. Whats going on?
She staggered under some unseen force.
Theyre here. Theyre here.
Bugs! Nanoforge screamed.
As if to support his shout, a flood of warriors descended from the hills.
Chiquita steadied Cyber; he nodded to her.
Im all right.
What about her? Chiquita indicated Spitz.
Never mind, Hook said brusquely. Weve got bigger things to worry about. Forge, how far away are we from our destination?
Barely a click, sir.
Double-time it, apes!
And they sprinted for higher ground. Smoke gasped as every step brought resounding pain, but he didnt complain. Spitz still struggled with something inside her head, but even she managed to stay with the squad. The second they got behind the rocks, Hook had them begin firing at the bugs.
Kai spotted the crevice on the valley floor, the one Spitz had to go through. This time, Intel got it right: it was going to be a tight squeeze.
Hook grabbed Spitz by the shoulders and shook her. Her eyes were tightly closed, and her skin was glazed with sweat.
Not good, he said through clenched teeth.
Im all r-right, she stammered.
He grunted her a reply. Kai, throw me your weapon. Youre going in.
Chiquita glared at him. No fair, el-tee. Its not her game.
It has to be, Chiq.
Chiquita clenched her jaw, her stomach now knotted with fear for Kai.
Sir, she didnt train for this. Why cant you call for retrieval? Or better yet, hotwire Spitzs head and get her down there.
Cyber glared at Chiquita. Oh, its Spitzs fault Kai has to go in?
Cyber, I like you. But isnt that why we have the psy-girl here?
Hook withered them with a silent look.
Mind if we argue somewhere else? Doc broke in. Its not like you two can talk and fire at the same time.
I can talk and fire. Chiquita unleashed a new round of fire. She grit her teeth. She and Cyber and Kai were the original three in Hooks squad; Cyber and Kai were like her younger brother and sister, and she didnt want those relationships to be taken away.
Cyber nudged her shoulder without looking at her. Shell be fine, he whispered.
She fired off a few more shots, before she whispered back, Sorry for the sarcasm.
Hook glanced at Kai, who in the meantime had frozen in place.
Did you hear me, ape? Give me your weapon and get down there.
She handed him her rifle and began climbing down. It was a tight squeeze, and her helmet light caused severe shadows on the rock wall centimeters in front of her face.
Kai, Hook said more gently, this will work. Youll be fine.
Her fingers ached as she gripped the wall, and maneuvered further down. She could hear the screeching warriors, and the rifle-fire and Hook imploring Spitz to come out of it enough to give Kai some mental strength.
Suddenly, Spitzs voice rang clear inside Kais head:
Kai, only a few more meters below, theres a ridge. Be careful, because Im not sure how big it is.
Kai was almost giddy with relief.
Im not alone.
No, youre not alone, Spitz whispered, Ill help guide you. You will make it out of there.
As soon as he saw Spitz was calm, Hook joined in on the firefight.
How you holding up? He asked everyone.
They were too busy to reply, which satisfied him.
Kai felt the ledge with her boot. Im there, she said aloud, frightening herself.
Wedge yourself in there, Spitz spoke calmly, so I can send these explosives down to you.
Please tell me these are the typical button-pressing explosives.
That would make it too easy for this op, Cyber sneered.
Whats wrong with easy? I like easy.
I hear ya, Smoke echoed in.
Kai didnt have to struggle to plant herself on the ledge and stand; she could barely turn sideways, there wasnt any room.
Spitz was already sending down the package. Kai caught it and unhooked it from Spitzs cable.
Okay, the top one you will need to deposit it further down. But be careful, because that one is unstable.
Like you, Forge chuckled to himself.
I heard that, Marauder, Spitz glared at him.
Hook reprimanded her with a look. She sighed and refocused on Kai. Kai had already unraveled the first explosive from the other two, when something made the ground shudder.
And then there were screams of pain.
Kais eyes widened, and she looked up.
There were too many voices screaming at the same time, she couldnt make out who was who. Visions returned of that day when her former squad saved only her.
Kai, get those things going now! Chiquita screamed in her headset.
Trooper down! Trooper down!
With shaky hands, Kai swiftly lowered the explosive.
Now what, Spitz?
There was no reply.
Kai, its Doc. Spitz, Cyber, and Hook are down. Weve got an entire smorgasbord of arachnid up here.
She could hear Chiquita calling for immediate retrieval.
ETA two mikes, she confirmed. Then yelled down, Kai, hurry up!
I dont know what to do! Chiq, hows Spitz? Kais nerves were taught with both fear and anger; she was no help to her team, and they were wounded for her sake. Help me! She screamed in anger.
Spitz, youre alive.
That remains to be seen.
Even inside her head, Kai could hear Spitzs agony.
Second explosive. Theres a timer on the bottom. It should already be set for two minutes.
It is what? Nanoforge shouted down, never taking his eyes off the bugs.
I think its a one-sided conversation. Smoke pointed to Spitz.
Both she and Kai ignored them.
That one gets set under the ledge.
Hell, Spitz, theres barely enough room to stand, and now I have to crouch and place it under the ledge?
Take it up with Intel.
Kai sighed, and removed the second explosive. Do I start the timer?
I thought that was understood.
It wasnt. Kai set the timer and quickly crouched down to place the second explosive under her foothold. Last timer?
Cliff wall as you climb back up.
Another shudder topside, and rock and debris rained down on Kai.
Whats happening up there?
Kai, Chiquita screamed, get your butt up here! Retrievals on the way, and I dont know how much longer we can do this.
Kai climbed as fast as she could, panic driving her. Her fingers felt the ridge between the crevice and the valley floor; she made it. Then saw to her horror she still had the final explosive in her hand.
The retrieval ship arrived, flanked by Fleet fighters. Both Doc and Nanoforge leaped from their Marauders to help Smoke and Chiquita with the very wounded Cyber, Spitz, and Lieutenant Hook.
Hook opened his eyes and found her. See you made it.
He collapsed in Docs arms.
Kai looked at the explosive in her hand. Her desire to flee was incredibly strong. And really, what was one more explosive?
But she didnt want to fail Hook. Or further endanger Cyber and Chiquita if the mission failed.
Kai slid back down the wall; it was faster for gravity to take effect. She stopped herself halfway down to the ledge, and placed the final explosive.
Kai, where the hell are you? She could hear Chiquita screaming frantically.
On my way home.
Two steps upward, and Kai heard a click, followed by a rush of heat and wind
and she sat up suddenly in bed, drenched with perspiration.
Her heart beat wildly in her ears. The tiny barracks was quiet and still. Her eyes adjusting to the dark, she saw that Spitz was on duty as her bunk was empty. She felt Chiquita nudge her.
You all right, the other girl asked sleepily.
Kai took a deep breath. Just a bad dream.
Chiquita was at her side in a second. Nightmare? You okay?
Kai smiled at her. Go back to sleep, the sun isnt up yet.
Not until you tell me youre all right.
I am. Im alive.
Chiquita squeezed her arm. Dont have nightmares on me. It stresses me out.
Then she climbed back into bed, and pulled the blankets over her.
Kai lied back down herself.
It stresses me out, too.