It seemed like a lifetime before February came. Larkins wasn’t sure how to feel about going to LV-542 for the final survival test. In some ways it felt like it might be a short vacation for her if she could just force herself to relax a little bit, but she also wasn’t looking forward to the boredom or to being deprived of alcohol. At least she could take her sleeping pills.
They were down to just four trainees, but it wasn’t until they made it to LV-542 and were prepping for the drop that Larkins was able to memorize their names. Renton and Taff had been partners for several months, but Risper and Farrelly had only been paired up recently, or at least that was what her notes said on her datapad. She couldn’t remember for sure.
The drop itself didn’t even bring the small amount of pleasure that their last trip to LV-542 had. Evison was serving as the jumpmaster this time, which left Larkins to fly the dropship. There had been a time when she would have enjoyed it, but now it was beginning to feel more and more like a chore and less and less like something she actually wanted to do. She was glad when they reached Meadow and set down in the hangar. “You report to Sulzen,” she told Evison. “I’ll do the post-flight check.”
She didn’t really do a proper check. It was still early in the day but she was starting to feel tired, and she abandoned even the pretense of inspecting the dropship when Captain Spears and two of her fighter pilots entered the hangar, talking and joking loudly together. Larkins fled the hangar as quickly as she could without making it look like she was actually running and went to the barracks building. She already knew which room was hers and when she got there she locked the door, unpacked her duffel bag, closed the blinds in the window, lay down on the bed, and fell asleep.
She felt better when she woke up but she had a feeling that her sleep schedule had been thrown off for the duration of their stay by sleeping during the day. At least there wasn’t much she would have to do. She had dinner and returned to her room, where she stayed up until the early morning before finally going to sleep again.
Sure enough, her sleep schedule was wildly different from what it normally was for the next two weeks. She slept on and off at random times during the day and sometimes briefly at night, but for the most part she was awake in the late evening and throughout the night. Although the base did have set times for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, the mess hall never fully closed down even at night and there was always food available, even if it was a premade cheese-and-meat sandwich from one of the refrigerators. She began to realize how much she enjoyed being up and around when no one else was awake except for the guards, but the downside was that she couldn’t move around as freely. The barracks connected to the mess hall, but she couldn’t leave the building and go out onto the base grounds after dark without being challenged by a guard. Meadow’s security was well-maintained, but under her circumstances it was an inconvenience more than anything else.
Because of how scattered her memories of training the current flight were, Larkins found herself thinking about the previous flight more and more often, and especially about Ferro, Spunkmeyer, and Sydell. She hoped they were all doing well. She didn’t know the exact details of what happened to Gravis, Connington, Porter, and Snyder, but she liked to think that Snyder had made a full recovery and that they had all still managed to make something of themselves even if they didn’t make the grade as RIFT members.
The downtime quickly proved to be a desperately-needed break for Larkins, particularly as she spent almost all her time lying around in her room even when she wasn’t sleeping. She kept the curtains closed and the lights dim, which made the room a restful, relaxing environment. She hadn’t taken any leave time the previous year, so her thirty days had rolled over into this year and she had already gotten approval to take them as soon as the current flight’s training was completed. She had been trying to decide where she wanted to go and now she was starting to think it might be a good idea to get a hotel room in Jacksonville for a month and do nothing but sleep and lie around. Being at the base on LV-542 was the first relief she had found in far too long, and she wanted more of that feeling.
Past experiences had already taught Larkins not to take life’s positives for granted, and the one thing ruining her downtime was the suspicion that something was going to happen to throw it all into chaos again. On the morning of the fifteenth day she decided to go to the communications center to check on the trainees’ progress before going to bed after staying up through the night, all of the day before, and even part of the previous night. Both pairs were making decent headway and would probably make it out of the jungle and into the mountains about halfway through the following day.
She was just turning to leave the room when an alarm began sounding. She whipped back around and saw one of the Marines snatching up a phone and dialing three numbers on it. “Colonel Sulzen,” the Marine said urgently, “We’ve got multiple bogey squadrons on radar, closing fast from the north at high altitude.”
“Stickland just detected three unidentified ships in orbit,” another Marine called out from her post. “They’re taking fire.”
Larkins heard the Marine on the phone passing the information on as the base alarms began sounding and she ran outside to see a flurry of activity from the Marine personnel, who were rushing to their stations. She looked to the north and saw a group of black shapes approaching rapidly. Then she saw the aircraft begin to emit bright flashes and brilliant blue spheres came streaking towards the base. They struck the ground and buildings in a series of rapid explosions, and the deafening noise was immediately joined by the sound of the base’s automated air defense systems returning fire.
Larkins ran for cover as the ships drew closer and the other Marines began firing at them with their personal weapons. In the distance, she saw two of the base’s SF-42s lifting off from the runway.
More incoming shots from the enemy ships destroyed several of the autocannon emplacements, and then the ships were over the base itself. Most of the smaller, dart-shaped craft continued straight on, but four larger ships came to a hovering stop and set down inside the base as gunfire poured in on them. Several ramps dropped from each one and tall, vaguely humanoid aliens with blue skin began rushing out, opening fire on the Marines with large black weapons that vaguely resembled rifles. Like the fighters, the handheld weapons were clearly also energy weapons of some type and fired smaller versions of the blue spheres the fighters had. Drawing her M86, Larkins began firing at the closest group of aliens as they disembarked their ships and ran for cover. She hit one of them with her fourth shot and saw purple blood spraying out as the alien dropped to the ground.
Two more of the Marine SF-42s made it off the ground as the enemy fighters began coming back for a second strafing pass, and behind the aliens she was shooting at, Larkins saw the final two taxiing down the runway. But just as they were about to lift off, both jets were struck by incoming fire and exploded, the wreckage skidding off the edge of the runway and through the perimeter fencing. A moment later, one of the SF-42s that had taken off came plunging out of the sky, smoke and flames streaming behind it as it slammed into the hangar and exploded. She saw a parachute with an attached ejection seat floating to the ground, but a moment later several of the aliens noticed and began directing their fire at it. Larkins could see the unfortunate pilot thrash and go limp as they were hit several times.
Larkins cursed as her handgun’s slide locked back on the empty magazine and she ducked back around the corner of the storage building she had taken cover behind. She ejected the magazine, causing the slide to slam forward again, dropped it on the ground, and pulled a fresh magazine from its carry pouch on her belt. Shoving it into her gun, she racked the slide and swung around the corner just in time to fire at a charging alien soldier just a few feet away. The body landed in front of her and Larkins knew she had to get to better cover and find Evison if she could. Maybe he had made it to the base’s underground command center. That was the safest place to be.
The alien troops were spreading out rapidly and sweeping through the base. Although a large number of them had been killed exiting their transports, they still outnumbered the small Marine force by a significant margin and their fighters were continuing to make repeated strafing runs over the base, each time wreaking more and more havoc on the defenders and quickly reducing the above-ground structures to piles of burning rubble. Larkins joined several other Marines making a run from the wreckage of one building to another and looked up in time to see one of their SF-42s shooting down two of the alien fighters in quick succession only to explode in midair a second later as another alien ship got behind it and fired a burst of shots. Spears and her pilots were good, but they were wildly outmatched in numbers and firepower.
“Move, move!” One of the Marines with Larkins yelled, leading them around the corner of what was left of the building they were hiding behind as more alien troops appeared from behind them. Larkins fired several more shots from her handgun and then heard a yell of pain from one of the Marines behind her as several blue spheres came back in her direction. She turned to run and saw the man fall to the ground, lying face up with his M16 lying across his body. Without pausing, she snatched it up and raced around the corner after the other Marines, who had forced open a door that led into the building. Larkins immediately realized that they were heading for a way down into the command center. She was several steps behind them and looked up just in time to see another enemy fighter swooping in towards them.
“Wait!” she yelled, realizing too late what was about to happen, but the Marines were already inside when the fighter opened fire. The blue spheres of energy impacted what was left of the building, which collapsed in on itself with a loud crash. Larkins was sprayed with debris and felt some of it cut her face and arms as her momentum carried her forward off her feet and she tumbled to the ground. Over the sound of gunshots, energy weapon fire, and the shrieking of aircraft engines, Larkins heard screams and wails of agony from inside the pile of rubble, but she knew there was nothing she could do for any of the Marines trapped inside. She had dropped her rifle when she fell and she picked it up and kept running, hoping that the small bunker that served as the main entrance to the command center was still intact. She dared to look upward as she ran and saw that there was only one remaining SF-42 maneuvering desperately among the enemy fighters, which were having a hard time shooting it without hitting each other.
An energy shot flashed past her head and she turned to fire a quick burst as two alien soldiers approached. Her aim was good and she downed both of them, but another shot passed so close to her arm that she felt the heat on her skin for a fraction of a second as it sped past.
The gunfire was growing more sporadic, and Larkins could only guess it was because the aliens were rapidly overwhelming the Marines and killing the majority of them. She could still see a few of them scattered around in small groups or alone, trying to fight back as they made their way to safety. She skidded to a halt and ducked behind the burning remains of one of the base’s trucks as a fighter swung towards her and began firing. The shots tore up the ground all around her, but none came close enough to hurt her. She was just about to get up and start running again when she heard another, louder explosion. She looked up to see the final SF-42 plummeting to the ground in flames as the pilot ejected. She expected they would meet the same fate as the previous pilot had, but the only shots directed towards them missed.
The ejection seat and its occupant hit the ground and Larkins was just about to run over to help when she saw the pilot slowly taking off their helmet, revealing it was Spears. The young captain unstrapped herself from her chair and got up, looking around dazedly until an alien soldier saw her and started shooting. Larkins swung to aim at him and fired two shots. She missed, but he ducked for cover and Spears took off running awkwardly towards the entrance to the command center. The alien Larkins had been shooting at reappeared and she fired again, hitting him in the chest. Dashing around the corner of the wrecked truck, Larkins began running after Spears only to swerve away as yet another alien ship fired a series of shots at the fighter pilot. The explosions ripped into the ground around Spears and Larkins saw the captain fall, her body rolling over and over and disappearing in a cloud of dust. Larkins went the other way around the medbay building and finally made it to the entrance to the command center. Several Marines were inside shooting through firing slits in the small concrete structure, doing their best to hold off the aliens for as long as possible to keep the entrance open for any survivors.
The hatch to the underground complex was open, and Larkins didn’t need the urging of the muscular Marine yelling at her to get inside to jump for the ladder and begin climbing down, where she was greeted by more Marines aiming their rifles and submachine guns at the open hatch above.
The command center was fairly small, with just a few rooms connected by two hallways that intersected in the middle and had an exit to the outside at each end. Larkins hurried to the main room to find Colonel Sulzen and his support staff watching video footage from the remaining security systems and vehicle-mounted cameras and communicating back and forth with Marines who were still on the surface.
“Corporal, what’s the situation up there?” Sulzen asked sharply as soon as he saw her.
“Bad, sir,” Larkins reported breathlessly. “We’ve lost all our fighters and the aliens have overrun most of the base. What the fuck are these things and why are they doing this?”
“We don’t know,” Sulzen’s executive officer, a lieutenant named Phang, told her. “They match the description of an alien race that attacked the colony on LV-112 almost fifty years ago, and we’ve had occasional run-ins with them since then, but nothing like this.”
“What’s the plan, sir?” Larkins asked, looking to Sulzen.
“Plan?” Sulzen repeated incredulously. “Corporal, right now we’ve lost at least two-thirds of our personnel and almost all control over the base apart from this facility, and the Stickland had to retreat from orbit. We sent out a call for reinforcements but the closest troops are at the Vietnamese base on LV-531. It’ll take at least a day for them to receive our message and send help. All we can do is try to hold out down here until they arrive. A few of our medtechs were able to make it down here and set up an emergency aid center. Get over there and get checked out, and then I want you to join the defenders at the south entrance. We need everyone possible guarding those hatches.”
“Yes, sir,” Larkins said, and then remembered, “D-did Corporal Evison make it here?”
“Yes,” Phang said. “He’s also at the south entrance. But Corporal,” he caught Larkins attention as she was about to leave, “We got a radio call from one of your trainee pairs just before the communications center was destroyed. They were being attacked by enemy fighters and trying to take cover. We think the aliens picked up the signals from their locator beacons and tracked them.”
Something twisted in Larkins’ stomach at the thought of the trainees out in the jungle, under attack and helpless. She hadn’t even taken a moment to consider that they might be in danger as well, over a hundred miles away from the battle. “Thank you, sir.”
She ignored the order to get checked over by the medics and went straight to the south entrance, where she found Evison and several other Marines huddled in the hallway watching the hatch in the ceiling.
“Larkins.” Evison let out a sigh of relief when he saw her. “Glad you made it.”
“You too,” she said shortly as she took up position. “What’s the situation here?”
A Marine with gunnery sergeant stripes on his sleeves turned back to look at her, and she saw the name “Lenhart” on his uniform. “Nothing. No sign that they’re trying to get down here. We’re not even entirely sure they realize this complex exists.”
Larkins nodded. “They took out the building over the east entrance and a couple of our people with it. Probably collapsed right onto the hatch. The other ones could be the same.”
“Let’s fucking hope so,” another Marine growled, his voice low. “We won’t last two mikes if the sons-of-bitches make it down here.”
Larkins was opening her mouth to reply when there was a deafening blast and the entire complex seemed to shake as the lights flickered.
“What the fuck was that?!” the badmouthed Marine demanded, looking around anxiously.
“Easy,” Lenhart ordered firmly, still holding his rifle tightly.
Larkins could still hear muffled explosions and gunfire from up on the surface, and then she and the other Marines spun around as they heard rapid footsteps approaching them. A young, dirt-covered Marine with a bandaged arm was coming down the hall towards them. “They took out the bunker over the main entrance! We lost the entire team holding it and now we’re completely cut off from the surface!”
There were curses and exclamations of fear and anger from the men and women with Larkins, but she tried to stay calm despite the anxiety building inside her. There had been no time for fear in the mad rush for safety up on the surface, but now that she was standing in one position with nothing to do, it was creeping up on her. Trying to keep her voice firm, she asked, “But isn’t that a good thing? If they destroyed the bunker and the entrance is covered, that means they still don’t know we’re here.”
“You could be right,” Lenhart agreed, and jerked his head at her. “Go check in with Sulzen and see what the situation is.”
Larkins complied, hurrying down the hall to the main room where Sulzen and his staff were still watching the monitors. “Colonel, we’re still holding the south entrance and there are no signs the enemy is trying to force their way in. We just heard they took out the main entrance.”
“That’s correct, Corporal,” Lieutenant Phang answered for Sulzen. “Fortunately it looks like they didn’t realize the bunker was an entrance to this complex. They haven’t made any attempt to get to any of the hatches on the surface. We’re hoping they don’t know about them at all.”
“So what are they doing?” Larkins asked.
“Tracking down the survivors and executing them,” a staff sergeant told her numbly, staring at his screen. For the first time, Larkins took a closer look at exactly what was being shown on the monitors. Most of the feeds were from helmet-mounted cameras, but a few were from the base’s security system and one was an interior camera in an M570 Stryker 2 APC. Then she realized with horror that most of the helmet-mounted cameras weren’t moving. They were low to the ground, some at odd angles, and she understood what the sergeant was saying. Their wearers had been killed.
A flash of movement caught her attention and she turned back to the camera inside the Stryker in time to see a helmetless Marine ducking into the vehicle and firing an M4 handgun out the back ramp in the direction she had come from. The slide locked back as she emptied the magazine, and as she fumbled to reload, Larkins saw that the outer two fingers on her left hand were gone and all that was left was short, bloody stumps. Before the Marine could finish reloading, an alien soldier stormed into the Stryker after her. He knocked the gun out of her hand, pulled a large, black-bladed knife from his belt, and rammed it straight into her throat. Larkins gasped involuntarily as he pulled the knife back out and the Marine’s body collapsed to the floor, blood gushing from her throat. The corporal stared in horror at the body for a moment before she forced herself to look away, only to see similar executions were still happening all over the base. On one helmet-mounted camera which was lying upside down on the ground, she saw a Marine lying trapped in the rubble of a building and weakly struggling to free himself. An alien appeared on the feed, walking calmly towards the Marine. He aimed his rifle, shot the helpless man in the head, and turned to walk away.
“Motherfucker!” Larkins spat furiously, horrified by the purposeless slaughter. “These things are fucking animals! There’s got to be something we can do!”
“There’s nothing,” Sulzen said, the agony of watching his own people being murdered clear in his voice. “We can’t get up to the surface, and even if we could, we’re still far outnumbered. We would all die. I can’t let anyone even try to go up there.”
Larkins was too shocked to even think about asking to be dismissed to return to her position with Evison and the others at the south entrance. She wandered out into the hallway, where the sound of groans and cries of pain from the room the surviving medics were using as an aid center drew her in. The room was full of wounded men and women sitting or lying down on the floor or various pieces of furniture, and two medics and a few other Marines who were in better condition were moving around trying to tend to them. “Millam,” Larkins called out, recognizing one of the medics. “How are things going here?”
The medic stopped what he was doing to look at her, and she saw his face was covered in soot and sweat. “Not well. We’ve got next to no medical supplies down here. We’ve had to resort to bandaging the wounded with material cut out of their own clothing. What’s going on out there?”
Larkins explained the situation briefly and was about to ask if she could do anything to help when she saw Captain Spears lying on a bench in the shadows at the back of the room, her own flight suit wrapped around her side as a bandage. “When did she get in?” she asked Millam.
“A couple of survivors carried her in right before we lost the bunker up top,” the medic explained.
“I saw her get shot down and then one of the fighters took a few shots at her after she hit the ground. I thought she was dead,” admitted Larkins, glad to see that the other pilot had survived.
“She’s had a rough time,” Millam sighed. “She has a massive burn all along the left side of her torso, probably a concussion, and some pretty serious injuries on her right side. And when I say that, I mean multiple through-and-through fragmentation wounds. They were close to the outer edge of her body, fortunately, but I can’t even tell if any major organs were hit or if there are any fragments still inside her. We’re not remotely equipped to handle those types of injuries right now so all we could do was bandage her up as best as possible to try to stop the bleeding. This kind of thing is exactly why all of us, the medics, I mean, have been trying to get Sulzen to let us expand the complex down here to add a proper aid shelter for attacks like this. I know it’s not his fault that he couldn’t get approval from the brass to do the work, but some of these Marines could die before we can get help because of the equipment and supplies we don’t have down here.”
“Of course it’s the brass,” Larkins muttered derisively. “Probably figured we’re so secure on this quiet little planet that no one would ever attack here. I bet they never thought we’d need it.”
“Yeah. Right.” Millam laughed bitterly and turned away. “If there’s nothing you need, Corporal, I should get back to my patients.”
Larkins watched him for a moment, feeling incredibly helpless before leaving and heading back to the south entrance. There was nothing she could do for any of the Marines in the aid center. She didn’t have medical supplies any more than Millam did.
“Still quiet?” she asked Evison softly when she made it to her position.
“Yeah,” he confirmed. “Nothing so far.”
“They… they were executing the survivors up top. They aren’t leaving anyone alive,” Larkins said, not taking her eyes off the hatch. She didn’t want to see the looks on the other Marines’ faces as the news sank in. There were more exclamations and curses, and two of them started to cry quietly. She ignored the pain in her own chest and forced herself to continue. “Um, Sulzen’s XO said they got a message from one of our trainees in the first few minutes of the attack. The aliens found them and were taking shots at them.”
“Damn it,” Evison sighed helplessly, leaning against the wall and sliding down to sit on the floor.
“What do you think they’re going to do?” one of the other Marines asked. “I mean, why did they do this? Are they just going to leave once they kill everyone up there? Are they trying to claim this planet for themselves? Set up a base? What are we going to do if they stay?”
“We hold out until reinforcements get here,” Lenhart said, his voice rough but calm. “I heard we got off a distress call before we lost comms. Sulzen’s hoping the Vietnamese on 531 will send help.”
“They’ve got a Ranger battalion on 531,” another Marine commented. “Those Rangers are serious shit. Not to be fucked with.”
Larkins had never served alongside Vietnamese troops, but their Ranger units were famous for their aggressive tactics and extremely high victory-to-loss ratio on the battlefield. They had as good a chance as any other force at driving away the aliens, and probably better odds than many others. If the Vietnamese did send Rangers, their chances of survival were fairly high as long as the troops arrived before the aliens found out about the underground complex.
“We might actually make it out of here alive,” she muttered to herself. “Thought I was done with this narrow-escape bullshit when I got pulled off combat status.”
“The joys of being a Marine,” Evison shrugged lamely, looking up from where he was sitting on the floor.
“Never thought I’d say this, but I’m just looking forward to getting the fuck out of here and back to Lejeune where it’s nice and quiet. Let things go back to normal.”
Evison shifted uncomfortably. “Um…”
“What?” Larkins gave him a look, but when he was silent, she pushed impatiently, “Spit it out.”
“Look, this might not be the best time to tell you about this, and really, I should have told you about it before, but…”
“It’s not like there’s anything else we can do at the moment. I’m waiting,” Larkins prodded when he hesitated again.
“I put in a request to transfer to a different position when this course is over,” Evison admitted. “Graham already approved it.”
“You what?!” Larkins hissed incredulously.
“I’m getting transferred,” the other corporal said again. “I’m staying at Lejeune, but they’re giving me a desk job. Might even move me to the recruiting center in Jacksonville eventually.”
“Why?” Larkins glared at him, her tone ice-cold. She didn’t know what to think. She had worked with him for almost four years, and the revelation that such a big part of her life was about to suddenly change shook her more than she would have ever guessed it could.
“Why?” Evison repeated. “Why? Because I’m tired, Larkins. Tired of you specifically. I’m tired of waking up every day knowing that I have to spend my life watching you bully and abuse the people who are supposed to be able to look up to you and respect you. I’m tired of you belittling me and acting like I can’t do my job for showing the slightest bit of emotion or compassion for one of my trainees. I’m tired of hearing you screaming at some poor kid for the slightest screw-up or something that doesn’t even matter.
“I used to have hope that you could change, and last year it seemed like you really did for a little while. I started to think things might get better, and then you completely flipped again and everything went back to hell. It got worse, not better. I can’t take it anymore. Working with you is like being trapped in an abusive relationship and not being able to get out of it. Worse, even, because I can’t just pretend to ignore you or stop talking to you. I have to put up with all of your bullshit and still treat you like my equal when all I want to do is go to Graham and demand that he throw your ass out of the Corps for the way you treat every single person you’ve ever encountered since you got assigned to Lejeune. Graham doesn’t like you at all, but he thinks that where you are right now is the best place for you. I don’t agree with him. I don’t think you’re fit for the Marines. I think the Corps would be better off without you. RIFT trainees would be better off without you. But if you’re not going anywhere, then I’ve got to be the one to make the move because I can’t do this anymore.”
Larkins gaped mutely at him, unable to believe what she was hearing. Her brain was racing, tripping over itself as a dozen possible replies got tangled up in each other before she could voice any of them, and she found herself struggling to hold back an urge to lunge at Evison and begin punching him. “Y-you…!” she stammered helplessly, squeezing her rifle so tightly her hands hurt. Then she realized with horror that all of the other Marines in the hall with them had gone silent and were staring at her and Evison. Whether intentionally or not, Evison had just called her out in front of all of them and thoroughly humiliated her in the process.
“What the fuck are you all looking at?!” she demanded, desperately hoping that the dim lighting was hiding her flushed complexion. “Someone got a problem with me?”
There were some muttered negatives as the Marines looked away or down at the floor, and Larkins slouched sulkily to the ground, refusing to look at Evison or anyone else. He was leaving. What did that mean for her? Would she get a new training partner? How could she possibly adjust to such a massive change? What if it was someone just like Evison who didn’t know how to properly handle trainees? She couldn’t even remotely think how she was going to work with a new partner when she already had a hard enough time with Evison after years of trying to change his viewpoint.
That was a problem for later, though. For now, her main priority had to be on surviving. She had to get out and find her trainees if they needed help. That was her primary concern at this point. Everything else would have to wait.