Whatever emotional issue I was having needed to become the last thing on my mind, no matter how painful it became. What was above us? Was it in the campsite? Whatever tears were left to shed, I swallowed them back. My first priority was to make sure Vasquez, Wierzbowski, Crowe, and Redding were okay. They were probably still in their tents if their critters hadn’t been annoying them like mine did. They’re not stupid, though; if they’re hearing the same things I am, they’re probably up and ready for a fight if need be.
Especially Vasquez. And I imagine she was worried about me. I know I was definitely worried about her.
The little gas-mask creatures were about to go bonkers. They were letting out shrill squeals to each other, and I guessed that whatever was going on above us wasn’t one of them. It sounded too big to be one of theirs, and it probably wasn’t something human. Looking around, I remembered I left my smartgun in my tent, and all I had was a Mk24 tucked in a holster under my vest. Come on, you’re just thinking about the cave paintings. Little Shit and his gang got rid of whatever those monsters were… there’s no way it’s anything too dangerous out there. Probably just a bear.
Suddenly, gunshots rang out in some part of the underground chamber, the sound echoing around the tunnels. I heard the shrieking again and suddenly, the gas-mask creatures began pushing forward, forcing me towards another tunnel. The group split up, with five creatures staying with me while others raced into separate tunnels. I heard barking and screeching, followed by more gunshots.
Little Shit leapt on the wall of the tunnel, using his hand to wave out the torches before urging all of us further down the tunnel. It was getting increasingly narrow, which, along with the increasing cold, told me we were getting close to the surface. I could see my breath whenever I exhaled, and could hear each individual critter breathing and making anxious, shaky cooing sounds. They glanced at each other, then at me. As if I have a solution to anything.
I heard something scratching, like claws in the dirt. I thought for a moment that it was one of the gas-mask creatures, but then I looked past them, seeing something darker than the darkness that had enveloped us. One of the creatures made a chattering noise and I heard the unmistakable click of a rifle safety being flipped off. Whatever it was in the darkness hissed and lunged, grabbing the leg of the smaller creature and trying to pull him back. One shot was fired and a horrendous screeching filled the tunnel. I grabbed the little guy, pressing him against my chest while using all the strength I had to crawl as fast as I could out of the tunnel. The entrance was covered in snow, but I shoved him through it and crawled out after him.
The other four gas-mask creatures made it out with us. They were running and turning behind them, aiming their rifles at the large, jet-black monster forcing its way out of the tunnel. Dirt and snow flew everywhere. I got up quickly, yanking my gun from its holster. The monster looked exactly like the one in the cave paintings, with an elongated skull, no sign of eyes, sharp teeth, and that long, sharp tail. It appeared to be covered in some kind of ribbed exoskeleton.
Three gas-mask creatures, including Little Shit, began scrambling up the trees around us, while two of them ran around in circles, occasionally pausing to shoot the hulking monster. Its exoskeleton was hard, but not impenetrable. Even when a round pierced through it, this thing kept trying to stab them with its tail. I fired at it, but it was moving too quickly and my shot missed. It did, however, make the damn thing focus on me instead of the gas-mask critters. I quickly realized that may have been a bad idea and kept backing away, unsure of where to run when the beast prepared to charge at me after it raised its bladed tail.
Within seconds, the three gas-mask creatures dropped down from the trees, landing on top of the monstrous alien. Raising their bayonets, they drove them into the monster’s skull and back, and the third one was trying to sever its tail. Greenish-yellow fluid sprayed out and the monster screeched in pain. Its attention was back on them. I watched its blood hit the ground and burn through the snow. Over the course of the fight, I watched patches of frozen grass appear all around us. Little Shit was on the monster’s head, mercilessly shoving his bayonet into it. He twisted it like a screwdriver, struggling to stand up as the monster tried to buck him off. At one point, he lifted his rifle high above his head, and smashed the butt of it against the monster’s upper jaw. He began howling and squealing, although I couldn’t tell if this was a war cry or him becoming frustrated.
The third creature had little luck, and ended up getting flung from the monster’s tail. He struck a tree and dropped limply into the snow, either dazed or dead. With something in a weakened state, the monster immediately tried going for that poor little guy, but Little Shit and his companion weren’t going to let that happen. His companion grabbed onto one of the dorsal tubes on the monster’s back and drove his bayonet in the side of the alien’s chest. The rifle was showered in acidic blood, holes burning through it. The critter didn’t give up, though, and pushed the knife deeper and deeper in.
I wanted to help, but with the little guys all over and the beast moving frequently, I couldn’t shoot without risking hitting one of the smaller creatures.
I turned to see Vasquez, Crowe, Wierzbowski, and Redding sprinting over. Vasquez had her smartgun already equipped, and she yelled a couple of dirty Spanish words when she saw the monster contending with the gas-mask critters. She looked like she was about to shoot, so I stepped in front of her.
“You might hit one of the little snots!” I yelled. “Let them handle it!”
“Why should I let them handle it?!” Vasquez shouted back. “Don’t tell me you’ve suddenly grown a soft spot for them, Drake!”
You know, I never stopped to consider why I told her not to shoot until now. I certainly didn’t love the little guys with all my heart, but I can’t deny they’re on our side. You don’t shoot your allies, even if they annoy the crap out of you.
A gas-mask creature popped up from behind an icy rock, shooting the big monster in the head. I heard the loud banging of the rifle, followed by the clicking of the critter pulling back the bolt of the rifle to chamber another round. The bullets tore through the creature’s skull, acid blood spilling everywhere. The little guys jumped off and ran when they realized the battle was just about won, as the monster fell to the ground.
“What the fuck is that?” Crowe said as the acidic blood pooled and burned through what little snow and ice was left around it. “Drake, we’ve been looking all over for you. Are you alright?”
I glanced over to catch a glimpse of four gas-mask creatures using their bayonets to tear the larger alien’s body apart, then I looked back at Crowe. “I’m fine.”
“You left your weapon in your tent, dumbass!” Vasquez shouted at me. “What’s the matter with you?!”
“I didn’t know this was going to happen! Little Shit here wanted to show me the big underground system his people live in, and then they start freaking out because this-this other thing was lurking around!”
“Damn it, Drake, you could’ve been killed!”
“All of you be quiet!” Wierzbowski snapped. The annoyed tone from someone usually so quiet made us all stop and look at him. More calmly, and almost looking embarrassed at his own outburst, he said, “Everyone’s alright. Let’s not spend a lot of time getting upset at each other. Everything’s been taken care of.”
I took a quick look over at where the other gas-mask creatures were gathered around the one who had been thrown from the large alien’s tail, and even though he was alive, it looked like he was paralyzed from the waist down. In a few moments, more of the creatures showed up and very carefully loaded him onto a stretcher, carrying him in the direction of the camp.
The wind was cold, and the stink of acid had filled the air. The gas-mask critters had completely destroyed the monster’s carcass. They tore the exoskeleton off in large, black chunks, exposing snot-green innards. An acrid steam rose up from them. I sighed, and felt hopeless, a feeling I’m not exactly a stranger to. I think I’ve felt hopeless a lot more than I’ve ever felt hopeful. I’ve never had much of an excuse to feel hopeful. I sighed, watching my breath vanish into the freezing breeze. “We should just go back to the dropship and get outta here,” I said.
“We can’t until we find those explorers,” Vasquez replied.
“Can we just admit that they’re dead and leave this hellhole?” It was all starting to make sense. The gas mask creatures had gotten rid of all of those things. This was a new one, probably born from one of the explorers. For all we knew, the other one had turned too. I started telling the others about the cave paintings and the tunnels, but all I got from them was disbelieving looks.
“You don’t know if it’s true that this thing came from one of the explorers,” Vasquez said. “You’re exhausted, Drake, and frightened, too. We’re not leaving until we have some kind of confirmation. We’re trying to rescue innocent people, not expensive equipment. If we have to blow up some creatures, then we’ll do it. That’s part of our jobs, which you agreed to get out of prison! Now you’re trying to give up. We’ve only been here two standard days, and you’re trying to give up. What’s gotten into you? You were never this pessimistic on the last mission.”
Great. Everyone thinks I’m insane. I tried to walk away, but Vasquez grabbed my shoulder.
“Oh, no, Drake, there’s no walking away from this! You better tell me what’s going on, or I’m going to pop you in the jaw until you start talking!”
“Maybe I’d like you to do that,” I taunted.
Well, she wasn’t kidding. A second later, I found myself lying on the ground, pain throbbing throughout my face, and I could hear Little Shit giggling.
“Your right hook is getting better,” I grunted. Truthfully, no intelligent person should challenge Vasquez to a fight. She toughened herself pretty good in prison.
“You’re not being funny. You’ve been pissy ever since we dropped onto this snowball.”
Little Shit squealed at me, pretending to rub his face in annoyance.
I turned to glare at him. “Shut up. I don’t recall you trying to be helpful.”
“He’s probably more optimistic than you,” Vasquez muttered.
“Oh, don’t take his side. His brain is probably less than half the size of ours.”
“Maybe, but he did save your ass.”
“Alright, I don’t think we’re gonna do any rescuing standing around and having a lovers’ spat,” Crowe said, sighing. “Let’s see if we can get some of the other little guys to help us look for those explorers. Drake isn’t the only one who wants to go home.”
Redding, who’d been quieter than Wierzbowski up till now, stepped forward to look at each of us. He looked annoyed. “I haven’t been on that many missions with you, and I’m ashamed of what I’m seeing. Would you people behave this way if Viano was here?”
“I’d behave this way if fucking General Russell was here!” I shouted. “Everything we’ve done is no excuse for falling behind on this shitshow!”
“‘Falling behind-?’” Redding looked like he was struggling to hide a laugh. “Drake, everything we’ve done is perfectly in line with what any RIFT would have to do in this situation. Is that so hard for you to understand?”
Vasquez gave Redding a look. “Corporal, don’t-”
“I said, ‘is that so hard for you to understand,’ Private?” Redding completely ignored Vasquez, looking me hard in the eye. “Or has your time in prison eroded your ability to follow basic instructions?”
Wierzbowski gave Redding a dirty look. Crowe’s jaw dropped. Even Vasquez was speechless.
“Fuck you,” I growled, glaring at Redding. Everything that had happened the last couple days had reached a boiling point, but it felt less like a pot boiling over and more like a stick breaking. Honestly, it was painful. It was like my entire chest cavity was infected, but instead of a gradual drain, it exploded, and, naturally, what came out was fucking vile.
Redding was about to respond when I tore his M16A5 from his hands, tossing it in the snow before punching him hard in the jaw. He reeled for a second before his training kicked in, and he swung back at me. I ducked, and proceeded to kick his legs out from under him. He landed in the snow with a hard thump, and I heard his breath rush from his lungs.
I had the energy and rage to keep going, keep beating the shit out of him for talking about my past in front of everyone, but Wierzbowski yanked me back, holding my arms behind my back.
“That’s enough! What the bloody hell is wrong with you?!” Wierzbowski shouted.
Redding sat up with Crowe’s help. “You wanna talk about setting back the mission? Shit like this will do it.”
I struggled in Wierzbowski’s grip. “Keep talking. I’m gonna make you eat your teeth—”
“I said, that’s enough!” Wierzbowski shook me.
“Drake, stop,” Vasquez said, somewhat softly. “He got what he deserved, now let it go.”
“Do you need Dietrich?” Crowe asked Redding.
“No, I’ll be fine.” Redding slowly stood up. “Drake’s sorry discipline can be dealt with later.”
I know I was glad I wasn’t the one in charge, because Apone would not be happy when he found out how I’d acted the last few hours. We returned to the camp, letting the creatures deal with the monster’s carcass in their own brutal way. Wierzbowski stood on his own, holding his rifle by the sling while touching the side of his helmet to use the radio. I could only hear his side of the conversation, but it didn’t take much to figure out Apone’s response-he and the others would arrive as soon as they could.
Wierzbowski turned to me. “Could you keep watch for them?”
“Sure,” I said. I adjusted my scarf, covering my nose and mouth. My cheeks stung and burned with cold, as did my eyes. I blinked, feeling hot tears slice through the cold of my cheeks. As we got moving, I glanced around. Everything looked more foreboding in the dark. I could see the lights of the fires in other parts of the camp. So far, nothing but snow and shadows moved between the trees.
If a rifle as small as the ones the little critters were using can do damage to that creature, a smartgun should do a lot more. I shouldn’t have to worry about anything if we encounter another one.
Vasquez was right, though. We have no idea where the creature came from. It could’ve come from one of the explorers, or a gas-mask creature. Once we get confirmation about the explorers, we can go home, and never have to worry about it again. That’s all I wanted at this point. However, Apone was going to find out I nearly beat the crap out of Redding. This wouldn’t end for a little while, even after we left. I was probably going to face punishment of some kind, hopefully something minor. A couple days in the brig. A week without getting passes to leave base. Stuff like that. After that, I can put this behind me.
I can put the past behind me, can’t I? I can learn, can’t I? I can forget. I can move on.
Something deep inside my gut was telling me I can’t, and won’t. I know the difference between a brain feeling and a gut feeling. A brain feeling is usually me overreacting. I just think it. I don’t actually feel it. A gut feeling is, well, a gut feeling. The vast majority of the time, my gut is correct. I had to learn how to really listen to that when I was in prison, or else I could wind up in a corner, having my brains beaten out.
“Are you doing alright, Drake?”
I glanced over my shoulder at Wierzbowski, who was observing me with a look of concern. “I’m fine,” I lied. For a brief moment, I wished we knew each other better. But, we don’t. I’m going to have to fight this battle on my own.