Frost was right. Although we were too far away to hear anything other than a faint rumble, as we landed on the roof of the colony’s main complex and walked out of the ship, we could see the cloud of smoke in the distance. I noticed that Ripley was watching it with a look of grim satisfaction mixed with sadness. I was tempted to talk to her for a little bit, now that we’ve kinda made up, but I’d have to wait for that.
There was no time to enjoy the show, however. Since we had left the complex completely, Gorman ordered us to make a second complete sweep through it to make sure none of the aliens had come back and were waiting for us.
I got to enjoy some bonding time with the new lieutenant as we swept the colony. After a while, he started telling me about his mischievous combat engineer, a Lance Corporal Garnet Towers.
“…She has, on more than one occasion, put salt in my coffee, swapped my toothpaste for mayonnaise, switched the juice dispensers around, turned the laundromat into a bubble bath, and once, she somehow turned my bathroom sink into a pot for boiling ramen noodles,” Gorman was saying. “And those are the minor things.”
“She sounds like a fucking menace. How did you not boot her out?” I asked.
“Because even though she seems like a menace on the surface, she-well, she’s definitely a menace underneath, but she’s a good Marine, and an even better friend.” Gorman took on that distant look again. “I had to leave her behind when I was sent here. That tore her up, and she’s not someone who cries often.” Gorman glanced around, almost like he was making sure we were alone. “Could we keep this between us?”
I nodded. “Anything, sir.”
Gorman worked his jaw for a second. “I didn’t think I’d be welcome here.”
“You’re the newcomer. That’s normal. Hey, I was the new guy once. Granted, I was also just out of prison. It… wasn’t easy fitting in. I didn’t fit in for over a year because I spent all that time feeling guilty. Now, I wouldn’t trade these people for the world. Besides, even though we’re a tight-knit team, we’d never be hostile to newcomers.”
We kept walking, and I sensed Gorman’s tension ease a little. A thought hit me, and I turned to look at him. “Actually, we might not get to fight together again, but maybe we could hang out when you’re on leave. Tell you what, I’ll take you for drinks when we go home.”
“Thanks, but I should let you know that my alcohol tolerance is piss-poor.”
“Then I’ll have a beer and you can have… tea and cookies or something, I dunno.”
Gorman smirked. “Make sure the place you pick serves chamomile. That’s all I’ll drink in the afternoon.”
“Good to know.”
Gorman and I shut up when a contact appeared on the tracker. Gorman slowly swept it back and forth, finding the target was toward our left. I held my smartgun ready, anxious that an adult alien or a spider was going to jump out.
Instead, we heard a cautious, fearful voice asking shakily, “Who’s there?”
“Colonial Marines,” Gorman answered, and I relaxed as I realized it was another survivor.
The dirty face of a young woman appeared around a corner. Gorman and I stopped dead as she stepped out, a rifle in one hand, hanging limply by her side. She was wearing a Marshal’s uniform, which was badly torn and filthy. Her short blonde hair was unkempt and greasy, and her face and hair were both covered with dirt and blood specks.
Gorman glanced at me, confused. “Newt said there was no one else alive.” He looked back at the woman. “I’m Lieutenant Gorman of the Colonial Marines, ma’am. What’s your name?”
“Tab. Tab Renson. Colonial Marshals.”
“Are any of the others still alive?” Gorman asked.
“No. No one is.”
“Okay. Come with us. We’ve set up base in operations. We’ll get you checked out and we can talk there.”
We returned to operations around the same time as everyone else, and Dietrich insisted on making Gorman wait to talk to Tab until after she had finished her examination. Her final verdict was the same as Newt’s-malnourished and exhausted.
We gave her a ration pack and she tore into it as she told her story. “One of our exploration teams came back from a trip with something attached to their leader’s face. Some kind of parasite, or something. It looked like a big spider. It came off eventually, but then something… came out of his chest, like a big worm. It got away into the vents, and then a day later, we found something had broken into one of the store rooms. The next day, one of the engineers working in the processing plant went missing. We looked, but couldn’t find any trace of her. A day or two later, another one disappeared, then several more after that. Then people started going missing from the colony itself. Within a few days, fourteen people were gone. We, the Marshals, I mean, went into the processing plant to take another look, and…”
“We’ve been there,” Gorman said gently. “We know what you found.”
Tab looked sick, and I saw tears in her eyes. “I never want to see that again. Those… things attacked our team and killed half of us. After that, we tried to lock down the colony, but they attacked again. Our link to the comms tower got severed in the fighting, and when we tried to send a few people out to connect to it locally, they got slaughtered. Then there was really nothing we could do. We tried barricading off parts of the complex here, but they still got in and… killed just about everyone. I think a few people managed to get away, like I did. I grabbed one of the welders we had used to put up the barricades and sealed myself in the armory. After a day or two, I had to come out and look for food. I saw a few signs that someone had been through there recently, but I couldn’t track them. I spent the next two weeks hiding in the armory, only coming out when I needed supplies. Then one day I saw a survivor, I guess out looking for food like I was. One of those creatures grabbed him before I could even call out to him. He never had a chance. Just got dragged away into the vents. There was nothing I could do.”
“So you barricaded yourself back in?” Gorman finished for her.
“I grabbed all the supplies I could carry and welded the door to the armory shut again. Didn’t come out for another two weeks. My water ran out yesterday, so finally I came out looking for more. That’s when I ran into you.”
“I can’t imagine what you’ve been through,” was all I could think to say.
Tab laughed bitterly, looking as if she was on the verge of a complete breakdown. “Hell. I’ve been through hell, and worse. Now please say we’re getting the fuck out of here right now.”
Gorman shook his head. “Not for three weeks. But I can get our pilots to fly you back up to our ship. You don’t have to stay down here.”
“Is there…” Tab hesitated, “anyone else on your ship?”
“Just our android, Bishop.”
Tab nodded slowly. “An android? Okay.”
Gorman left the room, and a moment later he came back with Ferro. “Ferro here will escort you up to our ship and get you everything you need.”
“Don’t worry. Everything’s going to be fine. We’ll get you cleaned up and give you some proper food,” Ferro promised, helping Tab to her feet and guiding her out of the room towards the stairs to the roof. A few minutes later, I heard the sound of the dropship.
“I can’t even begin to imagine what that must have felt like,” Hicks muttered softly. There were mumbles of agreement from everyone, and then Ripley spoke up, from her place seated at one of the computer consoles. “Lieutenant, I found something in their logs. A directive, dated June 27th of this year, ordering an exploration team to the coordinates of the derelict. It’s signed by Burke, the company executive who was at my ICC hearing.” Her voice was angry as she continued, “He sent them out there, with no warning about what they’d find.”
Gorman cursed. “Why would he do that?”
“When the alien got onboard the Nostromo, I found a Weyland-Yutani directive buried in the ship’s computer, stating that retrieval of the creature was a top priority. I bet the company’s been trying to get their hands on one of these things for a long time.”
“That son of a bitch,” muttered Gorman. “Save a copy of that log. We’ll take it with us. Burke and the company won’t get away with this.”
On one hand, I was shocked. On the other, I wasn’t. I know first-hand the lengths Weyland-Yutani had gone to in order to develop a weapon based on the silver flower. And it was no stretch to think that they’d put an entire colony at risk just to get something so valuable for their bioweapons program.
Ripley, Gorman, Dietrich, Hicks, and Hudson stayed behind in operations to begin sealing it off and welding vents shut while the rest of us paired up and began sweeping through the rest of the colony. Even though the colony was small, there were still quite a few buildings, between the housing, work, and recreational spaces. As we cleared each building, we sealed it off as well so that we wouldn’t have to worry about it later on. I covered Wierzbowski as he pulled out the first Claymore from his pack and set it up at the base of one of the buildings in the housing district so the infrared laser beam shone across the street at the building on the other side. If anyone who wasn’t wearing one of our IFF transmitters came along and stepped through the laser beam, the Claymore would detonate and shred them to pieces. Off in the distance, we could see Vasquez and Crowe doing the same thing, while Apone and Frost were carrying sentry guns into position and setting them up.
Unfortunately, we had lost the four sentry guns that were being carried in the APC when we abandoned it, but we still had the other sixteen that we had loaded onto the dropship. Two of them were equipped with flamethrowers, two with grenade launchers, and the other twelve had machine guns. Out of those twelve, eight of them were the completely automated versions that most people associate with the Marines, while the two Delta-models had manual override controls and the last two, Echo-models, were set up for auxiliary remote control. Most of the sentry guns went in the streets, but Apone and Frost put two of the fully-automated machine gun units on top of buildings where they could sweep up and down the largest two streets in the colony, and the two units with manual override controls on two nearby rooftops where we planned to set up sniper nests. The last two went in the access tunnel between the processing plant and the administration complex, just inside the entrance, which we then sealed shut, but left it un-welded so we could open it again to reload the guns. If we absolutely had to, we could weld the door shut later.
We spent over two hours clearing the colony and setting up our traps and weapons, and when we got back, I found Hicks teaching Ripley how to use one of our pulse rifles and the grenade launcher, while Hudson was on the computer, double-checking their work sealing off operations by comparing the building blueprints to the work they had done, and Gorman and Dietrich were welding the last vent shut. As soon as they were done, Dietrich mumbled something to Gorman that sounded like an excuse and disappeared into the medlab next door. It looked like she wasn’t comfortable working with him for too long. Then again, she’s not comfortable with anyone except Wierzbowski and Crowe. I wanted to say that to Gorman when I noticed he looked a little hurt. He’s been nothing but nice to everyone, and gets his hands dirty like the rest of us, but Dietrich is Dietrich. That’s all I’ll say.
“Alright,” Gorman said to us. “It’s 1800. Take a rest and get something to eat. According to Newt,” he smiled slightly at Newt, who had taken an interest in Gorman’s helmet, “the creatures mostly come out at night. When 2000 comes, we’re going to set up guard positions on the rooftops across the colony. Hicks, Wierzbowski, Hudson, and Crowe, you’ll take up sniper posts in pairs by the Delta sentry guns on the rooftops. Apone, Vasquez, Drake, and I will pair up and take supporting positions nearby. Frost and Dietrich, you’re staying back here to guard operations, along with Ripley. Spunkmeyer and Ferro should be back in a few hours. Take four- or six-hour shifts, and wake up your partner if you see or hear anything suspicious. Maintain radio contact at least every ten minutes.”
The exhaustion from everyone was palpable. I don’t think any of us have sat down in hours. Hudson immediately tore into a ration pack when they were handed out, shoveling food into his mouth before anyone else even sat down with theirs. I had to smile, because that was what we’re used to seeing from Hudson. Frankly, I think we all felt more like a team here than we ever have before, aside from Cetii Epsilon IV, but it was definitely different with Gorman, Ripley, and Newt.
I didn’t think anyone was going to get any form of sleep over the next two hours, so I was a bit surprised to find Gorman curled up on the floor with his head on a duffel bag. If anyone needed sleep, it was definitely him.
Sitting in a chair nearby, I didn’t think I was going to be sleeping well after this mission, not after nearly becoming a host to an alien worm-thing. Hudson came in from another room, looking exhausted. “I’m guessing three weeks haven’t passed, man?”
I shook my head, then gestured to the sleeping Gorman before putting my finger to my lips.
“Sorry,” Hudson whispered. “At least he looks comfy. I can’t rest for shit.”
“Something bothering you?” I asked.
“I’m just tired, but… this just feels like one of those missions where anything can go wrong at any time. I mean, it feels like those things could just pop out around the corner and we have no fucking idea they’re there.”
“I’m going to be having nightmares about this one for a long time,” I admitted.
Hudson shook his head unhappily. “Just a few more weeks, man, and I would have been out. I could have skipped on all of this. The nightmares and everything. Hell, by the time we get home I’ll be overdue.”
“You should be glad,” I pointed out.
“Why the fuck would I be?”
I grinned at him. “Did you forget? The Marines give double pay for any service done after your contract is supposed to be up.”
That earned a smile from him. “Hey, you’re right. That’s two weeks of double pay for me, plus however long it takes for them to actually get me out.”
“Exactly. So enjoy this. Sure, we still have those things out there, but we’ve got good defenses set up. I don’t think they’re getting in there any time soon. And you’re not alone this time. It’s not like Romania.”
Hudson was quiet for a moment, and I regretted bringing that up. But then he whacked me on the shoulder. “Right again, man. And we made it out of the bear’s cave alive twice now.”
“Bear’s cave? That’s what you’re going to call it?”
“Hey, I’m tired,” he said defensively. “I’ll come up with a better name after I’ve gotten some sleep.”
“The only bear around here is you when you take your shirt off. Hasn’t anyone ever told you that you need a wax?”
Hudson gave me a look of mock hurt, protesting loudly. “That’s not funny, man.”
Gorman rolled over at Hudson’s words, raising his head slightly and mumbling, “What time is it?”
“Time for you to go back to sleep, sir,” I told him. It hadn’t even been fifteen minutes.
“No, seriously, what time is it?”
“Okay.” Gorman settled back down on his duffel bag.
I had to take someone with me when going to the bathroom just in case some aliens managed to sneak in. Now, thankfully, we don’t have to have our partners in the bathroom with us, and I felt bad for Spunkmeyer because he’s gun-shy about doing his business with other people nearby. I wound up taking Wierzbowski with me, and we spent the whole time talking.
He was telling me that he wasn’t happy about sending the news about us staying to his wife, and I couldn’t blame him, but I did have to remind myself that he gets really anxious and agitated when he’s worried about Eliza, so when I left the bathroom, we took a walk in the halls outside operations to keep talking. I can remember we were sent to Cetii Epsilon IV right after his wedding, and that tore him up badly. It certainly wasn’t easy to help him get his head back in the game, and we were all worried about how he’d perform when we got to the contested planet. When we were facing down battalion after battalion of Dheldroi troops, though, he pulled himself together. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Wierzbowski is the best damn combat partner you could ask for.
“I don’t think there’ve been many missions where we’re not paired up,” Wierzbowski said as we circled operations another time. “It feels strange.”
“Yeah.” I looked in through a window, seeing Gorman was still asleep on the floor. “The new lieutenant’s not bad, though.”
“Good. You seemed a bit nervous about having him as your spotter when he made the switch on our way down here.”
“I was, but he’s… a lot more relaxed than I was expecting.”
“Compared to Viano, he’s very relaxed. I’m not sure if she’d be doing half the things he’s done.” Wierzbowski shrugged. “She was a good officer, but she wasn’t nearly as hands-on as Gorman.”
“No, and that’s got me wondering what his career’s been like. I don’t think there’s ever been a second lieutenant in charge of a RIFT. Not only that, he’s gotta be in his late thirties or early forties. That’s way too old for his rank.”
“RIFTs are full of outliers and misfits,” Wierzbowski said. “That’s one reason I’m proud to serve in one.”
“Most RIFT members seem to be broken people as well.” I leaned against the wall, sighing. “I’ve got post-traumatic stress. You were an alcoholic. Hicks has bipolar disorder. Hudson’s… Hudson. Spunkmeyer has attachment issues. Dietrich has problems interacting with people. Vasquez and I were in prison. Crowe’s got disagreements with his father.”
“Just because some of us are broken doesn’t make us bad people. I think it’s made us better teammates, in a way.” Wierzbowski looked in the window as well. “I know the two of us won’t get to serve with Gorman for very long, but I think the least we can do is make him feel like he’s one of us, regardless of what his story is. He may be just as broken as we are.”
As 2000 approached, I heard the dropship approaching and then landing on the roof again. Several minutes later, Ferro entered, trailed by Tab. The young marshal had showered and put on a pair of BDUs, and she was carrying a bag in one hand. Although she was still clearly tired, she looked stronger, and more in control of herself. Gorman, who was sitting on his duffel bag and eating, looked up. “Miss Renson, I didn’t expect to see you back here.”
“Tab,” she insisted. “For fuck’s sake, please don’t call me Miss Renson.”
“Alright then, Tab, why did you come back?”
She walked over to where her AUG had been left on one of the desks and set the bag down next to it, pulling out a cleaning kit before sitting down and beginning to take the rifle apart. “I spent the last month completely alone, Lieutenant. I didn’t feel like spending another three weeks floating up on your ship with no one around or to talk to other than an android. And I’m still a Marshal. I still have my training. I can be useful here. Your corporal was kind enough to get me set up with a cleaning kit and more ammo for my rifle.”
Unlike with Ripley, Gorman didn’t protest. “Alright. You and Ripley can alternate shifts guarding the dropship with Spunkmeyer and Ferro.”
Tab said nothing, only going back to cleaning her rifle. I watched her quietly, wondering how she still had the strength to stay for another three weeks. I knew there was no way I could do that.