The hours passed at an agonizingly slow pace for Larkins. The gunfire and sounds of ships overhead stopped shortly after Evison’s outburst, but she knew the aliens were still up on the surface, probably still hunting for any more survivors. She was growing stiff from holding her watchful position for so long, and she finally allowed herself to relax and sit down again. The other Marines were mostly quiet, although there was some occasional conversation between them.
Finally, a sergeant from Sulzen’s staff came up to them. “They’re pulling out,” he said. “All of them. Sulzen says we wait three more hours to make sure they aren’t trying to bait anyone still hiding into coming out, then we try to dig our way out.”
Larkins tiredly covered her face with her hands, ignoring the relieved chatter of the other Marines in the hallway. Three more hours. They could make it that long.
When the allotted time was up, they began trying to force open the hatch to the outside. They were able to get it open a few inches, but it was clearly blocked by debris. Lenhart and the next-strongest Marine were hanging on the ladder side-by-side and trying to shove it far enough up for someone to crawl through when someone called down the hallway, “They’ve got the west entrance open!”
Larkins dropped to the back of the group, sick of feeling like everyone was looking at her after what Evison had said. Lieutenant Phang and another Marine were just climbing the ladder to the open hatch as they arrived, and everyone waited tensely while the two checked the base outside. After a long time, Phang came back to the hatch. “All clear!”
Larkins wasn’t sure she wanted to see what was left of the base, but she climbed the ladder without hesitating when her turn came. The air outside was mostly clear, although smoke was drifting upwards from several fires that were still burning. Dead Marines and aliens lay scattered around, but there were far more human bodies than aliens. Almost all of the buildings had been completely destroyed, including the guard towers on the base perimeter. However, she noticed that a large part of the hangar was still intact, and she immediately thought of the trainees. Maybe one of the dropships was still airworthy. It was a desperate hope, but she had to check.
She began running across the ground towards the hangar, climbing over the rubble of what had been one of its walls. Coming around the corner of the partially-destroyed wall, she sighed with relief when she saw that although their UD-4H had been covered in debris they couldn’t possibly move, the RD-4K was mostly undamaged. Larkins quickly began inspecting it for anything that would prevent them from using it to look for the trainees as Evison followed after her.
“It’s okay,” she said after a quick inspection. “We can fly it.”
“Larkins,” Evison said slowly, “We should wait. We can’t be sure that it’s safe to fly this and there are a lot of people here who need help.”
“So, what? You just want to leave our kids out there?” Larkins demanded angrily.
“No, that’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is that we don’t know that we aren’t going to put ourselves at greater risk if we try flying this thing. We don’t even know if any of them are still alive. Look at what those fuckers did to the base. Do you really think four trainees on their own could stand a chance?”
“No!” Larkins snapped, pointing a finger at him angrily. “Don’t you fucking dare say that! Don’t you dare! They’re alive until we prove otherwise. And even if they aren’t, we can’t leave them out there. I’m going. Are you coming or staying?”
Evison sighed heavily. “Get the ship ready to go. I’ll go tell Sulzen what we’re doing.”
“Please work,” Larkins begged quietly when she got into the cockpit and tried to start the engines. When they spun to life with a loud whine, she let out a relieved breath. She didn’t even wait for Evison to get back and instead took off, slowly maneuvering the dropship towards him as he returned from talking to Sulzen.
“Pull up their locator beacons,” Larkins ordered when he was strapped in his seat, as she lifted them clear of the base and began flying towards the mountains. There was a moment of silence as he worked, and then he said softly, “Larkins. There’s only one beacon transmitting.”
“What?!” she demanded, almost jerking at the controls in surprise and anger.
“There’s only one beacon transmitting,” Evison repeated. “Renton and Taff. Risper and Farrelly’s is gone.”
“Then we find Renton and Taff, head to Risper and Farrelly’s last confirmed location, and track them from there,” Larkins said decisively as he transferred the tracking data to her screen.
Evison began trying to get in contact with the two trainees as they closed in on the beacon, but there was no response. Larkins’ stomach felt heavy with dread, but she didn’t want to acknowledge what the most-likely explanation was for that. The tree cover was too thick for them to see the ground once they were over the beacon’s position, but they found a clearing several hundred yards away and set down. The ground was scorched and blackened in several places, and Larkins couldn’t deny what they were about to find. As they came up to the beacon’s position, Larkins saw the body of an alien soldier slumped over a fallen tree, and then farther on, Renton was lying on the ground, slightly curled up. She saw a large blackened wound in his back and had to look away as Evison checked him. She already knew he was dead.
She gazed around for a moment before she saw Taff lying several yards away at the base of a tree. The young woman was on her back, her eyes open wide and staring blankly at the trees above, and her own survival knife was sticking up out of her ribs. The ground was plowed up and disturbed all around her body, and her M86 handgun was lying on the ground a short distance away. Larkins saw what she assumed was alien blood mixed with the soil and splattered on the brush as well as the glint of several spent 9x19mm casings. Taff’s hands and arms had been cut and slashed in several places, and Larkins could imagine what had happened. The only explanation was that Taff must have lost her gun and tried to defend herself with the knife just to have it turned on her.
Unlike most times, Larkins’ rage didn’t flash to an uncontrollable level. She only felt a cold, driving anger rising inside herself, and she drew her handgun and walked back to the body of the dead alien. Acting on nothing but pure spite, she raised the gun and emptied the magazine into the alien’s back. The shots were deafening and echoed off the surrounding trees, but she ignored the pain as she reloaded the handgun and put it back in its holster. Evison was staring silently at her as she returned to Taff’s body and gently picked her up, cradling Taff in her arms. Evison walked over to where the trainees’ packs were lying, found the locator beacon, and shut it off.
They carried the bodies back to the dropship and strapped them to stretchers just to keep them in place until they made it back to Meadow. Larkins was quiet as they lifted off again and headed towards Risper and Farrelly’s last known position. A few weeks ago she hadn’t even been able to remember any of their names. Now she was trying to hold back tears at the thought that all four might be dead.
When they reached the place where the other trainees’ locator beacon had last signaled from, they were able to set down almost on top of the position. They looked around for several minutes, calling out to the two Marines, but there was no answer and no sign that they were anywhere near. Then Evison called out, “Larkins! Over here!”
He was standing over the burned remains of a standard-issue survival pack. “That explains what happened to the beacon. Looks like it got hit and caught fire and they ditched it and kept going.”
Larkins looked around, trying to see any signs of tracks or disturbed vegetation. “But which way did they run? Towards the base, or were they chased in a different direction?”
“I don’t know,” Evison said slowly. “We should get back to Meadow and tell Sulzen what’s going on. We need to see if they can spare a few more people to help us look. It’s going to be too difficult to see anything from the air. We need to do this from the ground.”
“No!” Larkins protested. “We can’t leave them. We’ll be able to see them. And there’s no way Sulzen is going to send anyone to help us. We have to do this ourselves.”
“Larkins-” Evison began, but she cut him off ruthlessly. “No one left behind means no one fucking left behind, damn it! If you want to go back to the base, fine! Start hiking that way!” She flung a hand in the general direction of the base. “But if you don’t feel like walking, shut your fucking mouth and get back in the ship!”
She stormed back to the ship, swearing the whole way. She couldn’t believe he wanted to abandon Risper and Farrelly without looking for them properly. She wasn’t going to let that happen.
“This is more than we can handle,” Evison said as he followed her into the cockpit.
“Bullshit. They’re our kids. We owe them this.”
“Alright, alright. Look, it’s going to be dark in an hour. We’ll fly a search pattern until then and then head back to Meadow. Sulzen said he wants us back there to report in by sundown anyway.”
“Fine,” Larkins growled. They would do the search, report back to Sulzen, drop off Renton and Taff’s bodies, and get back to looking for Risper and Farrelly.
Larkins struggled to hold back the seething mix of emotions writhing around in her chest and stomach as she flew the dropship as low as possible over the jungle canopy, using the external cameras to get the best view she could. There was still no sign of the two trainees, and she was beginning to feel frustrated and frantic. Where were they? Almost half a day had gone by since the attack. They could be a good distance away by now depending on whether or not they were hurt or had been chased. Or maybe they were lying dead in the jungle below and she and Evison had already missed them. “No,” she whispered to herself. “They’ve got to be alive. They can’t be dead.”
It took all the self-control she had left not to protest when Evison finally pointed out that it was time to return to Meadow. It would only be a slight delay. She flew back to Meadow as fast as possible and set down on what was left of the runway. She could see that the surviving base personnel had taken shelter in the portions of the buildings that were still standing, including the hangar, and were using a mix of floodlights and personal flashlights for illumination. She and Evison handed over Renton and Taff’s bodies to the medics to put with the rest of the dead and went to report to Sulzen. The colonel listened silently as they explained what they had found, and then said, “I’m sorry, but I can’t spare anyone to help you look for your trainees. We need everyone here, not spread out over the jungle. We’re in no shape to mount a search-and-rescue operation of any kind. But you have freedom to conduct the search yourselves in whatever manner you see fit.”
He dismissed both of them and as they walked away, Evison said, “I’m sorry we didn’t find Risper and Farrelly, Larkins. But we can go out again tomorrow. Let’s see if we can find somewhere to get some sleep for a few hours.”
“Sleep?!” Larkins’ voice rose to a near-shriek. “Who the fuck said anything about sleep?! We’re going back out there right now!”
“Whoa, whoa!” Evison said, holding up his hands defensively. “Stop and think about this, Larkins. It’s nighttime. The chances of us finding anything out there are next to none right now. And we both need to rest. I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted. We’re not going to do them any good if we aren’t at our best.”
“I’m fine!” Larkins snapped. “I’m not leaving them out there alone! We’re going back out!”
“You can’t force me,” Evison said firmly. “And if I tell Sulzen what’s going on, he’ll definitely ground us until we get some sleep.”
“Fine,” snarled the redhead, turning away. “Go play blue falcon with Sulzen,” she growled, using the Marine slang term for a tattletale. “I’m going to see if I can get something to eat.”
Evison sighed and walked away, and Larkins stopped as soon as she saw he wasn’t paying attention to her anymore. She had no intention of eating anything right now. She didn’t feel hungry. She had just wanted to get away from him for a little while. She couldn’t believe the way he was behaving. If this was how he was going to act when other Marines were in danger, she was glad he was going to be transferring to a different position. She couldn’t count on him anymore.
But she began to realize that he was right about one thing. She was tired. Exhausted, really. Then she remembered that she hadn’t slept since early afternoon the day before. She had been up for over forty hours and her body was begging for sleep. She hadn’t even noticed the symptoms of exhaustion until she stopped and allowed herself to feel them.
But there was no time for sleep. Risper and Farrelly could still be alive and in need of rescue as soon as possible. She couldn’t let them down. But she couldn’t risk falling asleep at the controls of the dropship either.
She made her way to what was left of the medbay, where the medics had gathered most of the wounded and what medical supplies they had been able to salvage. She found Millam tending to several of the injured Marines and got his attention at the first opportunity.
“What can I do for you, Corporal?” he asked, reaching back to rub his shoulder tiredly.
“How much were you able to salvage?” she asked.
“A decent amount. Nowhere near what we’re going to need if help doesn’t arrive soon, but it is what it is. Everything’s right over here. He gestured to a row of damaged tables that had been put together and piled with supplies. Larkins took a quick look and saw what she was after. “I need stims,” she said bluntly, and lied, “Evison and I are going back out there to keep looking for our kids and we need to stay awake.”
Millam shook his head slowly. “I’m not giving you stims, Larkins. Look, I know what your sleep schedule is like. You’ve been up for well over a day, haven’t you? I can see how exhausted you are. You need sleep, not stims.”
“Sulzen said we’re free to do the search however we choose,” Larkins said icily, not wanting the medic to get in the way of the plan she had quickly formed.
“And as the senior medic here now, I’m saying ‘no’. No stims. You need to sleep before you’re fit to fly again.”
“Damn it, Millam!” Larkins slammed her hand down on the closest table, making the contents jolt. “Our kids are out there and we can’t leave them!”
“I understand, Corporal. But I don’t feel that doing this would be in your best interest or in theirs. Go get some rest.”
Larkins was beginning to seriously contemplate knocking Millam out, grabbing the stimulant injectors from the table, and making a run for the dropship, but the medic’s attention was grabbed by one of the wounded Marines sitting partway up and beginning to cough loudly. The moment Millam’s back was turned, Larkins stuck out her hand, grabbed as many of the injectors as she could, shoved them in her pocket, and began to walk away. She hoped that he wouldn’t notice what she had done until it was too late, but as she made her way through the ruined building and scattered wounded personnel, she was stopped by someone calling out to her. “Skylark!”
She turned to see Captain Spears lying in one of the beds that had survived intact. “Captain,” she greeted, flinching as she forced herself to stop. “It’s… good to see you awake, ma’am,” she said awkwardly.
Spears laughed weakly. “Not sure if I’m glad to be awake or not. Part of me feels like I’d rather be unconscious right now, but at least I’m alive to feel the pain. How are you doing?”
Larkins wanted to walk away without answering and get back to the dropship, but she answered, “As well as can be expected, ma’am. I’m getting ready to go back out to keep looking for our missing trainees.”
“At night?” Spears asked, coughing slightly and clutching at her side.
“We’re no different from any other Marines, ma’am,” Larkins pointed out. “We don’t leave people behind. I want to find them as soon as I can.”
At least, I don’t. She thought angrily of Evison, who was probably already snoring away somewhere and not even thinking of the two young men lost in the jungle.
“Good luck,” Spears said. “I hope you find them.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” Larkins said sincerely, and then stumbled over her words. “I… you…”
Spears laughed softly and then winced. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll be just fine. Maybe this’ll turn out to be a good thing.”
“Oh?” Larkins asked, confused.
“Yeah.” Spears grinned weakly at her. “I’ve been trying to get transferred out of here for over a year now. I want to get back to a proper combat unit. I’m a fighter pilot, not a guard dog. I never liked this place. Way too boring for me. Maybe this is my chance to finally get out. Now go on. Find your kids and bring them home.”
She lay back down and closed her eyes, and Larkins realized there was nothing she could say in reply to that, so she turned and headed for the dropship, doing her best to draw as little attention to herself as she possibly could. Once she was inside the cockpit again, she took one of the stimulant injectors out of her pocket, pulled down the collar of her flight suit, put the injector to the side of her neck, and pressed the release button. The injector let out a soft thunk and she felt a slight pricking sensation as the needle sprang forward, piercing her skin and emptying the contents of the syringe into her system. She tossed the empty injector on the cockpit floor and strapped herself in. They couldn’t stop her now. She’d be off the ground and away before anyone could do anything. If Evison wasn’t going to help her, she’d look for Risper and Farrelly herself.
Taking a deep breath, Larkins turned on the dropship’s computer and powered up the engines. She knew Evison would hear and try to radio to her to stop, so she shut the radio off as the whine of the engines grew louder. She took one last look at the lights scattered around the ruined base as she lifted off, hoping the next time she saw Meadow it would be with Risper and Farrelly riding home alive and well with her.
Larkins flew straight back to where she and Evison had left off their search and resumed the pattern, turning on the dropship’s floodlights to augment the external camera views. The RD-4K dropships had more powerful lights than any other ship in the D-4 series in order to better spot stranded or injured personnel, but even with the lights it was still difficult to see through the jungle canopy. She continued looking, trying not to think about the possibility that Evison was right and she was going to fly right over Risper and Farrelly without seeing them.
“No, that’s not going to happen,” she whispered to herself. “I can’t let it. I have to be better than that. I have to be too good to miss them.”
The agonizing feeling of having to convince herself that she was too good to fail was bringing back painful memories of LV-327. How many times had she gone through that same battle with herself there? More times than she could count or remember. She had tried so hard not to let down anyone in her unit. She had always been the first to put herself at risk to save any of them who needed it, even if they never noticed it.
But she hadn’t kept that promise she had made. She had failed them. She had let Sloan win and had been taken away as punishment. She hadn’t been there to back them up. Mathis was in prison now because of her. And now she was going to let down Risper and Farrelly as well. She was going to miss them, because she wasn’t good enough to save them.
“Give up, Skye,” she whispered. “You can’t do this. Stop trying. Accept that you’re just not good enough. You already failed them.”
She shook her head roughly, not sure where the words had come from. “No! I can’t give up on them. I’ve got to find them. I have to save them. They’re counting on me.”
Counting on a pathetic, alcoholic, washed-out excuse for a pilot. I can’t do it. Evison was right. I don’t deserve to be a Marine. Sloan was right too. I’m worthless. I should just kill myself.
She looked down at her wrists, even though her gloves were covering the scars where she had slashed herself the night she found out about Sloan’s death. She had already tried to do that once without even realizing it, but she hadn’t let go. She had kept fighting. Why? It certainly wasn’t for herself. She had nothing left to give herself. She couldn’t do anything to make her own life better. So why was she holding on?
“It’s for them,” she said out loud, choking on a sob as she said the words and tears began to stream down her face. “It’s all for them. I keep living because I want to do something good for someone else even if I can’t do it for me. I’ve got to live up to that now. It’s more important than ever.”
Her vision blurred and she blinked and shook her head, trying to clear it. She wasn’t going to be any good to Risper and Farrelly if she couldn’t see clearly.
The stimulant she had injected was doing its work, but Larkins was aware of an uncomfortable sensation in her chest and her arms and legs ached with exhaustion. The stims might be able to keep her awake, but that didn’t mean they would prevent her from feeling tired.
She had been on stim highs twice before. Both times were completely unnecessary; just another branch of Sloan’s cruelty. She had kept the entire unit awake for over thirty-six hours and then just as they were finally starting to drop off, had dosed them all up on enough stims to keep them awake for another twelve to sixteen hours whether they liked it or not. Then she had gone to sleep herself, leaving them to suffer the forced wakefulness. It was a miracle none of them had suffered any long-term effects from the amount of stims she had forced on them. Larkins had thought that was painful, but it was nothing compared to the complete exhaustion she was feeling now. Even the stim shot was having a hard time keeping her awake.
She looked at her chronometer and saw that two hours had gone by. It hadn’t felt like more than fifteen minutes. She knew the stim shots weren’t supposed to be taken any closer than three hours apart at minimum, and they really weren’t meant to be taken in sequence at all, but she needed to stay awake. She dug awkwardly in her pocket, pulled out another injector, and activated it the same way as the first. She could almost feel the drug rushing through her blood, and it made her dizzy. She flung the injector off to the side, barely hearing the clatter as it struck the floor. Her hands shook slightly but she forced them to steady as she continued alternating between looking through the canopy to keep the dropship stable and dropping her gaze down to her computer screen to see what the cameras were picking up. There was still no sign of the two trainees or of any of the aliens. All she could do was keep looking.
Larkins continued to fly an increasingly-large search pattern throughout the night. Her hope of finding the two men was steadily falling and her desperation was increasing. There had to be something more she could do. Something to give her a better chance of seeing them. Two hours after taking the last stim, she had to take another. The uncomfortable feeling in her chest had worsened to a dull, constant ache, her arms and legs were going numb, and her head felt like it was going to implode. Only an hour and a half after her third stim shot, she took another, and when it didn’t start working fast enough after several minutes, she thoughtlessly injected a fifth, dimly aware of her fingers only touching two more remaining injectors in her pocket. She had to find Risper and Farrelly before she ran out. That was all that mattered.
Unfortunately, injecting two stim doses so close to each other was a terrible idea. It made the pain in her chest worse, and her hands began to shake unstoppably. It wasn’t severe enough to prevent her from flying, but she was awake just enough to feel the dropship wobbling slightly. She could barely focus on watching where she was flying or looking at the camera feed. Most of it was because of her exhaustion, but part of it was because of the memories the stim high was bringing back. It didn’t feel like she was in a dropship cockpit. It was like she was back on LV-327, living through the two times Sloan had forced stims on them. Both times the sadistic sergeant had locked them in the gym before going to bed, and Larkins remembered the looks of pain and agony on her teammates’ faces as the stims wreaked havoc on their sleep-deprived bodies. Some of them had been so jittery that they had to start exercising just to control the unstoppable tremors. She remembered Wilderman and Silvain writhing on the ground grabbing at their chests and groaning, Collins doubled up on an exercise bench clutching at her stomach with one hand and rubbing her face frantically with the other, Reverdin sitting slumped against the wall cradling Lucero’s head in her lap and trying to act like she wasn’t crying in pain as the weapons specialist’s arms and legs clenched and spasmed, and Hanstad curled up whimpering softly in one corner of the room.
“You’re dead but you still find ways to fucking drag me back there,” Larkins slurred weakly, struggling to keep her eyes open. “Fuck you, ma’am. No. I don’t call you ‘ma’am’ anymore. Fuck you, you sadistic bitch. Get out of my life. I’m done with you.”
This really was like LV-327. She was trapped in a constant loop of pain and desperation. She hadn’t been able to get out of it then and she couldn’t get out of it now. The first time it had been Sloan and the fear of being punished for deserting that had stopped her. This time it was her sense of duty, and she couldn’t escape it.
Larkins started crying at some point from a combination of physical and emotional pain, and she was too weak to even try to hold it back. 0400 came and went, marking forty-eight hours since she had last slept. She knew people had stayed awake longer, but very few of them had done so after going through the combination of physical, mental, and emotional stress she had. She wasn’t sure how much longer she could hold on.
By the time 0500 came, she was unable to resist her body’s desperate begging any longer. Barely feeling what she was doing, she used the sixth of her seven stim injectors, moaning in pain as it flooded her body and forced her back to wakefulness again.
Gradually, the sky began to lighten as the sun came up. Larkins was too tired and too thoroughly under the influence of the stimulants to have any real conscious thought, but she was dimly aware of the fact that she had to be getting close to the limit of how far the two trainees could have made it from where they had left their locator beacon behind. Still, she forced herself to keep flying even though it was all she could do just to keep the dropship in the air.
The minutes slowly ticked by, approaching 0700. When the six on her chronometer was finally replaced with a seven, Larkins began fumbling for the final stim. She was so weak and uncoordinated that it took a few minutes just to get it out. She blindly lifted it towards her neck, not even feeling when it was in position. The only indicator she had that it was in place was when she felt it stop moving, pressed up against what she hoped was the right spot. She pressed the button and after a few seconds let the injector drop from her fingers. This time, she didn’t even hear it clatter to the floor.
A few moments passed and she was just starting to feel fractionally more aware when suddenly an agonizing pain seared through the left side of her chest. Larkins felt her entire body tense up and she screamed loudly, jerking at the dropship controls. The craft swung wildly to the left, dipping towards the trees below. Barely able to see through the pain, Larkins forced herself to pull back on the stick, bringing the dropship back up into level flight. She slumped forward, staring at the screen as the pain subsided. Then, through vision so blurry she could barely see anything at all, she noticed something different at the edge a large, open space below her: a green blob that didn’t quite match the rest of the vegetation. She blinked, looked again, and almost broke down sobbing when she saw the shape of two bodies in green flight suits lying sprawled at the base of a tree.
Barely conscious, she reached for the radio. “Meadow,” she said weakly. “Found them. Can’t stay awake much longer. Help us.”
Her hands were shaking so badly she could barely land the dropship, and she nearly slammed it into the ground trying. Once it was on the ground, she struggled with her seat straps for several moments before freeing herself and getting up to stumble back into the cargo compartment and down the ramp.
Farrelly was sitting propped up against the tree, cradling Risper in his arms. Both men were covered in dirt and dried blood, and when Larkins looked past them into the brush, she saw the bodies of two alien soldiers stretched out on the ground.
“Ma’am?” Farrelly asked weakly, staring at her as if shocked someone had actually come for them. Larkins didn’t respond, and stared blankly at Risper, who was perfectly still. Farrelly looked down at the other man, saying softly, “He stopped breathing a little while ago. I couldn’t do anything. Those things… hunted us and shot at us for hours. One of them hit me in the leg. That’s when Risper decided it was time to set up an ambush. He got both of them, but one of them shot him. I would probably be dead if he hadn’t dragged me to cover after I got hit and then kept me safe.”
Larkins started to take a step forward to take Risper’s body from Farrelly, but as she picked up her foot, she felt herself sway uncontrollably forwards and the ground came rushing up and slammed into her face.