Boreal Nightmare: Chapter 1

When I came out of hypersleep over LV-400, I honestly wondered if any of the other Marines had the same exact stupid dream I did.

Come on. I can’t jot down my dream right here; that’s no way to start a story. Is it? Oh, well, I didn’t stick around long enough for the USCM to give us grunts a course in creative writing during boot camp, and frankly, I don’t care. Truth be told, this is my journal, and I write down whatever I want. Even if it’s gibberish. Even if it’s a weird dream about our upcoming mission.

From what we were told about LV-400 before being shipped off in a transport from Gateway Station, the planet is one big ball of ice, covered in pine forests and mountains, except for the polar regions, which have been referred to as “cold, desert hells” for a good reason. So a couple of dumbass explorers got stuck in a blizzard the size of a hurricane. That’s our mission: go find them and bring them back.

Anyway, the dream I had was like those dreams where you’re trying to get out of something and you just can’t for some reason. I was lugging my smartgun through the snow, and I was slowed down by my gear, my weapon, and, of course, the damn snow. I heard shrieking behind me, and I couldn’t tell if it was human or not.

Whatever, right? It was just a dream. Just the pre-mission jitters.

From that extremely brief briefing, we were headed to the mess hall for some stale pieces of cornbread and even staler cereal that I wouldn’t feed to a pet mouse. They claim this shit’s supposed to help with, you know, bowel movements, but all it does is constipate you. Space transport food is one step below boot camp food. I’m amazed it’s even edible.

I guess since I’ve gotten into the habit of keeping a journal, I should do more than just complain and bitch. I’ve been in this unit for about two years, and you might be a little surprised to know that… I barely know anybody.

Well, not closely. Other than Vasquez, but that’s only because we were in boot camp together. We were also in juvenile prison together, but… I’m not quite ready to talk about that, even to myself. The only thing I will say is that Vasquez and I got close. Really close, and closer still. Probably the only good thing to come out of the last seven fucking years of my life.

We were assigned to this particular unit right out of smartgun training, and my first impression was less than stellar. Of the people here, I mean. Despite everything I went through in basic and smartgun training, both Vasquez and I did good enough to where someone in the Special Forces branch approached us and assigned us to what they call a RIFT-or, Reconnaissance In Force Team.

Not gonna lie, that’s a pretty big-ass step up from what I thought we’d be assigned to. Most smartgunners get sent to the machine gun platoon of an infantry weapons company, with twelve gunners to a platoon. RIFTs are so small they have their heavy weapons stuck in with the rest of the squad-sized team, and they only have two smartgunners, so there’s a lot more responsibility for us. Vasquez and I were sent to RIFT 1, 9th regiment. The 9th is one of three regiments in the 3rd Division, and is under the command of Colonel Hardy. Since we report directly to him, he’s the one who does all our briefings. Seems like a good guy, but I don’t know much about him outside of that. On the other hand, I do get to see our happy little troop of nuts every single day.

It might not seem like any of us are Special Forces material, but that’s how it is with RIFT units. Discipline is a lot more lax, to the point that a squad of new recruits seems to have better discipline than a lot of RIFTs. But for all that, RIFTs have the highest combat effectiveness of any type of unit their size. They’re basically self-sufficient units, with trained scouts, weapons specialists, pilots, and mechanics, all in a 12-Marine team.

Our sergeant, Apone, is the type of guy who will put you in your place if you’re fucking around and not doing what you’re told. However, he’s also the type of sergeant you wish they made more of, because he seems to genuinely care about his Marines. He’s more laid-back than he’d care to admit, maybe even more laid-back than most RIFT sergeants, but that doesn’t mean he lets us do whatever we want. I know I’ve never gotten on his bad side, because I’m too shy to do anything out of place. What surprises me is how some of the nuts in here haven’t made him consider a transfer yet. Then again, they’ve been with the team for a long time, so he’s had time to get used to them and not give two fucks anymore.

One of those nuts just happens to be the biggest nut of them all. I have never in my entire life met a man as insane as this one. You just can’t use one word, or two words, or even three to describe our combat technician.

Yes, you read that right; Private Will Hudson is our fucking combat technician. But he’s nuts. He’s loud, obnoxious, and not to mention, gross. He’s given me the impression that he’s pretty damn shallow. He has two functions; one is to try to pick up chicks at what feels like almost every bar he visits, and the other is to eat. I shit you not, Hudson is a bottomless pit when it comes to eating every chicken wing and drinking every last beer the bar has in stock. I didn’t think Hudson had any odd dreams about the mission judging by how talkative he was at breakfast. But then again, he’s never learned to shut up and probably never will. Spend five minutes with him anywhere but in a fight, and you’ll wonder how he’s made it as far in the Marines as he has. But in combat, he at least seems to know what he’s doing.

Moving right along, we have Hudson’s usual partner-in-crime, Private Frost. Frost is the team’s weapons expert. If you need something that goes boom, he’s your guy. He also knows how to drive any ground vehicle we ever need to use, and operate the onboard weapon systems as well, so it’s not uncommon for him to be stuck back in the vehicle while the rest of us are on foot. I must reiterate that he hangs out with Hudson, but I will admit that he’s a much sharper tool than Hudson will ever be, and unlike Hudson, he never seems to freak out or get nervous when things start going south.

After Frost is Private Wierzbowski. Wierzbowski was assigned as my combat partner. Basically, he holds extra ammo for me, spots for targets when we’re doing any kind of long-range combat or fighting in an open area, and generally guards my ass in the field. He is definitely the guy you want guarding your ass. Everyone who meets him says they’re a little intimidated by him at first, because, well, he’s a big guy. He’s got broad shoulders and he’s one of the tallest guys in the squad. He’s also very capable of throwing a grown man across a room without breaking a sweat. How do I know? He did it to some loser who got in a fight with Hudson (at a bar, of course), and busted his face up real good. On the flipside, Wierzbowski is quiet. He rarely talks to anyone, and he seems like he’s got a lot going on in his mind. Definitely strikes me as the type who won’t say a word unless he’s got something really important to say. Then again, he also seems like the type who’ll keep his mouth shut because he’s just that fucking timid.

Both Wierzbowski and Crowe are Brits assigned as part of something they call a “cooperative exchange program” with us and the British Marines. Crowe’s our mechanic, and spends most of his day with his head wedged in some crevice or another in one of the various vehicles the team has at its disposal. He’s a bit more talkative than Wierzbowski, but I tend to ignore him whenever he starts talking about his long-distance, long-term girlfriend, or whatever the hell it is he calls her. He’s also Vasquez’s combat partner, so I kept an eye on him in the beginning, but I’ve learned to trust him to watch her back. That, and Vasquez threatened to knock me on my ass if I didn’t leave him alone.

Since mechanics trained for duty with RIFTs have to take care of every piece of rolling or tracked piece of equipment we have, Crowe’s mechanical abilities don’t just cover combat vehicles. He can also operate and work on our supply vehicles around base, like the cargo tractors, forklifts, and Private Spunkmeyer’s precious powerloader.

Spunkmeyer is as nuts about that powerloader as Hudson is in general. He’s way too protective of that piece of machinery. Why? I don’t know. He’s been using the same powerloader since he was trained to use it some four or five years ago, and he’s got quite the attachment to it. Personally, I think it’s a sign he doesn’t have a lot of friends, and he’s not going to get any soon if he keeps talking to his powerloader like it’s his baby.

Spunkmeyer hails from Manhattan. How do I know? Because he doesn’t shut the fuck up about it. He’s got the thick “New Yawk” accent and all, and he will defend his city’s pizza no matter what. Not even joking with that one. However, Spunkmeyer isn’t without his merits, because he’s the dropship co-pilot and weapons officer. He gets to play with all the cool toys that dropship can fire, and he’s saved our asses a few times, so, I can’t be too pissy with him even though he’s a little insane and really annoying.

Our dropship’s pilot is Corporal Ferro. She seems a bit cool and distant at times, but she’s a damn good pilot, and despite her attitude she’s pretty much the only other person in the unit I’ve never had an issue with, even though we don’t talk much. She’s cute, in her own way. I’ve caught her looking in my direction once or twice since I got here, especially when I’m working out in the gym. At least somebody thinks I look good.

Compared to the opposite of our medtech, Corporal Dietrich. I swear, this woman is half-demon. Not one person in the unit likes her that much. None. If you look at her wrong, she’ll yell at you. If you talk when she’s treating you, she’ll yell at you. If you accidentally mess up the way she has her equipment and pill bottles set up, I wouldn’t blame you if you think she’s gonna kill you. The only plus to Dietrich is that she knows what she’s doing when treating you, even though her bedside manner is atrocious. She doesn’t seem to like us, either, because she spends her free time hiding in sick bay or her room, and I guess that’s just how she likes it. She’s the second most senior corporal in the squad, which means she sticks by Apone’s side, with A-section of the team. That means I get Apone, her, and Wierzbowski all on my side in combat. If anything ever happened to Apone, she’d be taking over my team. Bit scary to think about, but at least she wouldn’t have command of the whole squad. That would fall to Corporal Hicks, our B-section leader and the senior corporal in the squad.

As the senior corporal, Hicks is technically the team’s second-in-command. Good ol’ southern boy, straight from Alabama. Like Wierzbowski, he’s really quiet, but at least he speaks up more often than not. I mean, he kinda has to, because it’s his job. He yells more often than Apone, and I’ve heard horror stories that Hicks’s methods of discipline can go overboard if you piss him off at the wrong time. I haven’t seen that, though. He seems way too subdued for any of that to be true. Although I will say that when it comes to combat, he’s anything but subdued. Especially when it comes to close quarters and he pulls out his personal Ithaca shotgun. That gun was passed down from his great-great-grand-something-or-other, and he prefers it over the normal close-quarter weapons we use.

RIFT teams operate in pairs, with two assigned to each regiment. Since our team is the 9th Regiment’s first, or primary RIFT team, we actually have an officer leading us. Captain Viano is a few years younger than Apone, in her mid-thirties, but she has almost just as much experience as he does. Ordinarily, when we’re doing operations out of a vehicle like the M577 APC, the standard transport for RIFT teams, she stays back in the APC’s command center, where she can monitor our situation, vitals, and tactical information from any other units working with us, and also operate the weapons while Frost drives. Off the battlefield, she’s kind of distant. She mostly lets Apone take care of the day-to-day running of the squad. She’ll eat with us, and sometimes join us in the gym or on the range, and she’s nice enough then, but she still keeps to herself most of the time and doesn’t say much. I can’t tell if it’s shyness or if she feels like it’s more professional for an officer not to mix too closely with the troops under them, but at least she doesn’t talk down to us or act like she’s too good to be around us, and she’s not afraid to get dirty with everyone else when the time comes. From what I’ve seen so far, she seems like she’d do anything for any of us.

However, RIFT 2 is only led by a sergeant, so the twelfth member of their team is a corporal, Corporal Redding. He technically has the same role in combat as Captain Viano does, but with less authority. That’s so the two RIFTs have a clear chain of command when they’re operating together. And most of the time, if RIFT 2 gets sent on a mission while we’re staying behind for whatever reason, Colonel Hardy will pull him off the team and send Viano so they have an officer with them. If we have to get sent out before Viano gets back, Redding comes with us. That’s the way every pair of RIFTs operates.

This mission, we’ve got Redding with us because Frost, Ferro, and Apone were all on leave when Hardy got orders to send one of his RIFTs to scout a planet that was supposedly being used as a base for space pirates, and Viano went with them. Redding is a decent guy, but I really don’t know anything about him at all other than that he’s from Wyoming and likes soccer. It’s fairly obvious he hasn’t spent a lot of time with us, because he didn’t say much at the breakfast table. I don’t even think he’s said two words since we came outta hypersleep-well, at least not to us. I know he’s been talking to Apone. He kinda has to.

I was picking at what I assumed to be oatmeal when Hudson’s happy-ass voice disrupted my thoughts with this stupid statement: “Merry Christmas, man!”

Spunkmeyer groaned aloud and said, “Okay, we all knew he was going to do this when Hardy described LV-400’s environment to us!”

“As long as he doesn’t show us his snowman underwear, we’re good,” Frost added.

Hudson gave us all a look. “I’m actually surprised you don’t have the snowman undies, Frost. I mean, it’s in your name, man. Frost-y. Get it?”

Spunkmeyer glared at him. “That sucked, Hudson.”

“Shut up, man.”

Of course, everyone was laughing. Everyone but me. My mind was still stuck on that dream, but I did pull myself from the whirlpool that is my thoughts to wonder if anyone had noticed I wasn’t laughing. I don’t think anyone did, and to be honest, I wasn’t sure how I felt about that.

We were in orbit of LV-400 when we got suited up to drop into the planet’s atmosphere. I was still trying to shake off the memory of the dream, and although I had repeatedly dismissed dreams as bullcrap before, there was still an uncertainty surrounding it.

“You look like you’re actually thinking for once, Drake.”

I looked over to see Vasquez picking up her smartgun. “I’m not thinking,” I said. “At least, not about anything important.”

“Your eyes got glazed over for a minute,” she replied. “Come on, it’s just me; what were you thinking about?”

“I was thinking about…” Oh, what the hell, she’ll probably think it’s crap, too. “Just a dream I had in cryo.”

“About what?”

“About where we’re going and what we’re doing. It’s just a big Arctic hellhole. Why should I be having weird dreams about it?”

“Are you worried?”

“No, of course not. We’ll go in, get those explorers out, and then go home. Nothing to be worried about or afraid of.” I strapped on my chestplate, continuing to make myself look like I wasn’t nervous or scared. Why am I scared, though? Why do I just have this bizarre feeling of impending doom? It was probably a combination of the aftereffects of cryosleep and the crappy food messing with my stomach.

Well, we didn’t have time to start talking about feelings and shit, because we heard Apone shouting that “you sweethearts” needed to get our asses in gear and on the dropship right then and there.

In the dropship, we were strapped in tightly so we didn’t smack our skulls against the overhead, and there was no way of seeing out into space and down at the planet we were about to descend upon.

Up front, Ferro and Spunkmeyer were doing whatever it is they do before a drop, and once Apone informed them everyone was in tight, Ferro began the countdown. Hudson was all cheery and cocky, like always. As soon as we got the weather report, he yelled, “Let it snow, baby!” and decided to yell that again as the dropship began careening through the atmosphere of LV-400.

I’ve done plenty of drops before. Each time, it feels like your stomach and intestines detach from the muscles holding them in their cavities and fly up into your throat. Hell, I threw up my first drop, got really nauseous the second one, and now I just feel like everything in my gut is floating. Not a pleasant feeling.

Once we were in the atmosphere, Ferro scouted out the coordinates we were set to land at, as close as possible to the last known location of the explorers.

“Isn’t that spectacular,” Spunkmeyer said, letting out a low whistle as we flew over a mountain range. There was nothing but snow and ice. Nothing. Just snow, ice, and taiga forests. A boreal nightmare.

The dropship settled down in a clearing in the forest as close as possible to the explorers’ last confirmed coordinates. There were no lifeforms in the area, aside from us. And the trees, if you count that. We left the dropship with our weapons and equipment, and saw we had arrived in a literal world of ice and snow. The only plant life seemed to be the massive pines and firs standing in front of us, and to the left of the dropship was a vast frozen lake, untouched, like a fresh sheet of paper. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, but Ferro reminded us we had a limited time before a blizzard would trap us in the dropship for a few hours, so we began pushing the snowmobiles down the dropship ramp and onto the ground and loading them up with equipment. Normally we would have used something bigger, like the snowcat APC, so we could all stay together, but the trees were too close for that. We wouldn’t even be able to go very fast on the snowmobiles.

I helped Vasquez get her smartgun gear on, and she helped me. We were carrying the M45 this time. It’s bigger and makes a lot more of a mess than the M56, which we typically reserve for close-quarters assignments. Both are heavy as hell, though, and when you’re already weighed down with winter gear, it doesn’t seem to matter which of the two types you’re carrying.

Wierzbowski swung his leg over the machine. He was packing an M656P marksman rifle over his shoulder. He looked over his shoulder as I sat in the rear-facing seat behind him. “Doing alright, mate?”

“Fine. Let’s get this over with,” I grunted. I could feel some of the parts of Wierzbowski’s rifle poking through my thick jumpsuit. I was not looking forward to riding backwards. It’s just… a weird feeling. That’s the best way I can describe it. The cold was stinging my cheeks and drying out my eyes, which prompted tears to form. I don’t want to look like I’m crying. All I had to do with sit with my gun ready, although there was a very, very low chance we were going to get shot at today. Wierzbowski was doing all the work here.

We did stop at the last known coordinates of the explorers, and we got off the snowmobiles to look around. “I got something, man!” Hudson shouted, looking down at his motion tracker.

I thought this was it; we found those damn explorers and could get out of here, but then Redding rained on our parade: “It’s a bird.”

We all looked up to see a little white bird perched on a frosted tree branch. It chirped, then flew away. I wasn’t sure who I wanted to smack more, Hudson or Redding.

Aside from birds and mice, it seemed like this planet was untouched by anything that could develop civilization. I don’t see how anyone could develop civilization here; the average temperature is two degrees, there are no sources of food, and the ground is probably so frozen that you can’t farm here.

The pine forest became denser as we pressed forward, until we were almost in the dark. Eventually Apone ordered Hicks to take B Team off in a slightly different direction to search, while he, Dietrich, Wierzbowski, and I continued on in the direction we had been heading. The animals here weren’t interpreting us as threats at all, and they seemed genuinely interested in us, but so far we hadn’t encountered anything larger than a weasel-like creature. Eventually, we stopped again to take a look around on foot.

“Why do I get the feeling we’re being watched?” Dietrich asked, her even tone belying the nature of her statement.

“Check your tracker, Dietrich,” Apone ordered.

Dietrich looked down at it. “Contact, five meters two o’clock high.”

That meant there was something up in one of the trees next to us. I stared up, and sure enough, there was a squirrel-thing, gnawing on some kind of nut that manages to grow here. But then above that, I saw two glowing red dots. They held perfectly still and then began to move. “That’s not a squirrel,” I hissed.

“What is it?”

“I don’t know.” I angled my smartgun upward, then saw the dots vanish. “Just a second ago, there were two little red dots. They’re gone now.” I turned to the others, expecting them to think I was crazy.

Apone, however, had been watching the sky closely, and now he turned to us. “Alright, people. That blizzard’s going to be over us in a hurry. Let’s get back to the ship.” He reached up for his radio. “Hicks, you got anything yet?”

Instead of Hicks, it was Hudson who replied, calling into his radio over the roar of a snowmobile engine. “Nothing, Sarge! Hicks didn’t like the look of the weather, so we just mounted up to head back to the ship now!”

“We’re right behind you,” Apone said. “Keep it up and we’ll meet you there.”

I was upset that we didn’t find the explorers, and I think everyone else was too. Onboard the dropship, Apone handed out our rations as the wind began to batter against the hull.

“At this rate, I think all we’re gonna find next time we go out there is two frozen corpses,” Frost muttered darkly.

“Do you think we could’ve landed closer to their last coordinates?” Crowe asked.

“We landed as close as possible,” Ferro replied. “You were at their last known coordinates. There was no way of telling what direction they went in, and it didn’t look like they stayed in that area.”

“Is there any way of covering more ground?” I asked.

“The ship won’t be able to take off,” Spunkmeyer said. “The wind’s picking up and you can’t see an inch in front of your face out there, not mention we might have to dig our way out and dig out the ship.”

We sat, eating, and listening to the wind outside. There really wasn’t anything to do, so we pretty much went to different parts of the dropship to sit and lounge and try to nap a little.

I still didn’t think the red dots were from an animal. Even if there was another squirrel or something like that, it was way too far up for a thing that small to be noticed. I know Dietrich said she felt like we were being watched, and you generally don’t feel like you’re being watched by a little woodland animal.

I managed to fall asleep for a few hours, and when I woke up, I didn’t hear the wind anymore. Standing up and leaving my weapon where it was, I went to the cockpit to look outside. The sun was out again, and a layer of fresh snow covered the area. Luckily, we weren’t buried, but that didn’t mean we didn’t have issues. Ferro was pulling a tool kit out from behind her seat. “Are we going back out there?” I asked her.

“Not yet. We lost our data link with the Sulaco,” she replied, “I’m guessing that ice build-up may have damaged the antenna. We shouldn’t continue on without it being repaired, so Apone told me to go check it out. Might take a while.”

That left us with nothing to do for the next hour. I was getting lost in my own head while Hudson was pulling apart ration packs and trying to put random condiments together on the whole-wheat constipation crackers.

“Is that fucking mayonnaise and barbecue sauce?” Spunkmeyer asked, grimacing.

Dietrich covered her face. “Hudson, no.”

“It can’t be that bad, man,” Hudson said.

“No, that’s disgusting, dude. Stop,” Frost begged. “Don’t eat that. Sarge, tell him not to eat that.”

Apone looked up from the book he was reading to see what we were doing, almost like a parent looks up to see what a group of three-year-olds is doing. “Hudson, if you eat that, you’re gonna be cleaning up whatever you puke after.”

“Or he might have the worst gas possible and make the dropship a biohazard zone,” Dietrich moaned, her hands still over her face.

Hudson actually stopped to think (and I may have heard the rusted gears in his head trying to turn), and looked at the abomination in his hands. He put it in an empty ration pack and decided to make something… safer. Like peanut butter and raisins.

Hicks was sitting in one corner of the cargo bay, quietly cleaning his rifle. I knew damn well it didn’t need to be cleaned, because it hadn’t been fired since the last time he cleaned it, but I guess he felt the need to keep his hands moving. Hicks is like that. He always seems to be fidgeting or playing with something in his hands, no matter how calm he is. When there’s nothing else around, he takes his rifle apart and cleans it.

The M16A5P isn’t quite the M41 pulse rifle you see in the recruitment posters. Back when the United States Marine Corps was still a thing, they began trying to standardize an electronically-fired rifle. The M41 was a success, and was adopted in the 2030s. We call it a rifle, but it’s so small and its ammo is so light it’s more of a submachine gun, and caseless ammunition has its shortcomings, so the M41 is really more for close-quarters combat in favorable conditions, like fighting on ships and in urban areas.

They tried designing an electronic rifle for longer-range combat, but none of the prototypes worked well. Then someone came up with the bright idea of taking an existing rifle and working out its known flaws. They skipped back over the old M4 carbine and went for the bigger but more effective M16. They slapped in the electronic firing mechanism, made a few other changes to make it more useful, and it became the standard rifle for the Marine Corps at the time. Then faster-than-light travel was discovered, and all the major powers on Earth formed a treaty that, among other things, limited how much they could develop new weapons. With the limitations of the treaty and the fact that the new M16 was a damn good rifle, the US military never bothered to replace it, and it and the M41 along with a couple of other designs, including both smartgun variants, have been in use for almost a hundred and fifty years. I know all this, by the way, because they drilled the history of our weapons into us over and over again in training. And the only reason I’m bothering to write it out is because a lot of people don’t seem to know much about military weapons. I’ve heard some ridiculous rumors from civvies, including a claim that the M41 is effective out to 500 meters, which just isn’t possible.

I sat watching Hicks for several minutes and when he had finished, he looked up at Apone, pointing out, “Sarge, it’s been over an hour.”

Apone reached calmly up for his radio. “How’s it going, Ferro?”

There was no response. Apone waited a moment and then repeated, “Ferro, respond.”

“Sarge, we’ve got creatures of some type out here. I was just about to come back in when I saw them.” Ferro finally answered.

“Are they hostile?”

“No, they just look curious. They’re kind of cute.”

Apone stood up. “Alright, people, let’s get out there and see what this is all about.”

I gave a groan of disappointment before picking up my smartgun and plugging the targeting computer cord into the port in my helmet. Apone and Dietrich were out first, and I was right behind them. As I left the dropship, I saw four humanoid things inspecting it. They were all very short, dressed identically in black combat gear and each carrying a small bolt-action rifle with a long, thin bayonet folded backwards under the barrel. Each also wore a gas mask with glowing red eyepieces, and I could hear them all cooing and chirping.

One of them turned to me. It set down its rifle and trotted up to me. I backed away, a little frightened, but it remained still before holding up its hands, cooing at me.

I think it’s safe to assume that any idiot would look at this thing and its gesture and think it wants to be cuddled. I glanced over at the others and asked, “What do I do with it?”

“It looks like it wants to get picked up,” Hicks said.

“I can see that,” I told him. “I’m afraid it’s a trap.”

“We’re right here,” Vasquez replied. “If it tries to rip your head off, we’ll shoot it.”

I sighed and slung my smartgun over my shoulder. “Alright.” Nervously, I reached down to pick up the critter. The first thing it did was take my face and massage my cheeks. I would’ve tossed the thing if I didn’t suddenly feel incredibly relaxed when it touched my face. It continued to massage my face and purr and coo and giggle a little, and then let go to squirm and nestle in my arms. I mean, this thing wasn’t exactly very cuddly; it has a helmet and gas mask on and it’s wearing a black leather coat that was really cold because it was out in the elements. And there was no way of knowing what was under its clothing. I did, however, feel claws under its gloves.

“Okay” I said. “Does this mean it’s a friendly?”

The rest of the squad left the dropship, and the other three creatures began sniffing them and watching them. It was kinda weird, to say the least, but at least they weren’t hostile.

I could tell some of the others weren’t too sure what to do with them, but Vasquez didn’t hesitate to pick up the one near her, and just like the other one, it touched her face and massaged her cheeks. Crowe lifted up his creature, smiling at it and saying something in baby-talk to it like it was his pet. Wierzbowski seemed afraid that he’d accidentally kill his by squeezing it too hard, so he was being incredibly gentle with this person-thing. I mean, I get the feeling it’s a fairly durable species. No need to treat it like an antique glass Christmas ornament, big guy.

“You’re so bloody adorable, yes, you are,” Crowe cooed, bouncing the thing up and down in his arms.

The creature in his arms squealed with delight. I really don’t know why he said that. We have no idea what’s under those helmets and it could be something uglier than a naked Hudson. Doesn’t sound so cute now, does it, Crowe?

“I think we can say they’re friendly,” Apone said. He looked like he was trying not to laugh.

“Given their clothing and weaponry, they’re probably intelligent, too,” Hicks added. “And if they’re familiar with this area, they might know where those explorers are.”

“Possibly.” Apone took a moment to think. “Drake, you, Wierzbowski, Vasquez, and Crowe are gonna scout ahead with them. Redding, keep watch over them, and Frost, hang back here with Ferro and Spunkmeyer. Help ‘em keep the ship secure.”

I almost groaned aloud, partly because I had to go, and partly because Redding was going to be babysitting us. “And what’s everyone else gonna do?”

“We’re gonna search in another area. That lake is probably frozen enough to walk across, but we’re going to make sure it actually is before I send anyone across. You five head out. Keep in contact.”

Accompanying Music: Tramontane – Endgame

Mission Reports………………………………………………………………………………….Chapter 2

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