I became more alert when I heard snowmobile engines coming from the forest. Not too long after, I saw Apone, Dietrich, Hicks, and Hudson ride up to the edge of the camp. Apone and Dietrich got off almost as soon as the engines were turned off, as did Hicks, while Hudson was a bit more sluggish.
“Come on, Hudson, get up. This wasn’t a leisurely ride,” Hicks sighed.
“I’m almost asleep, man!” Hudson yawned from the back of the snowmobile.
“I said, get up!”
Hudson adjusted the seat of his pants as he left the snowmobile, then yawned and stretched. “Was nice and warm in the dropship, man. Fucking cold as balls out here. They better send us to Hawaii next, man. And I’m hungry.”
“You’re always hungry. Tell us something we don’t know,” I grunted.
“Why’re you so grumpy, man?”
I dropped my voice to a growl. “None of your business.” Hudson was the last person I wanted being aware of what was going on inside my head. Absolute last. Even behind Dietrich.
Vasquez, Redding, and Crowe immediately headed over to us when they saw the other four members of the squad. Four critters dashed up to Hicks, Hudson, Apone, and Dietrich, holding out their arms. Apone ignored them, Dietrich looked a bit scared of them, and Hicks dismissed them immediately and gestured for all of us to come over. Hudson looked a little nervous when all four of the creatures ran over to him. The little guys were not about to be rejected so easily. One of them grabbed Hudson’s leg, making a high-pitched barking sound.
“Um… you’re not trying to hump my leg, are you, little man?” Hudson gave the gas-mask creature a confused and almost half-disgusted look.
“They won’t leave you alone unless you pick ’em up and let ’em rub your face,” I sighed.
The creatures cooed and squealed excitedly when Hicks and Hudson picked them up, while Dietrich still refused to touch them. Apone played along but he didn’t look at all happy that this had turned into a cuddle session, and he glared past his critter at us. “Can any of you translate anything that they say?”
“No, unfortunately,” Wierzbowski replied.
I guess Apone figured the fact that the little critters could somehow understand us was good enough, so he began questioning some of the ones around us, asking them basic yes-or-no questions about whether they had seen any humans before we arrived. Of course, the creatures couldn’t exactly tell us where they had seen anyone, but they were insistent on showing us themselves. A couple of them ran off into their tents and tunnels, probably to gather up their buddies.
I wandered away from the group after Apone dismissed us, and found Little Shit holding his rifle and staring into one of the tunnels as if waiting for something to come out. He looked up at me and cooed when I walked up. I sighed, leaning over to pick him up, and let him bump his helmet against my forehead. I wasn’t entirely sure what I was doing, but I knew that I was wasting time.
Somehow, I didn’t care. I was so tired and frustrated that I didn’t care I was wasting time. “Hey, stupid,” I said.
He touched my face, massaging my cheeks. His head tilted a little, and he gave a confused-sounding purr.
“What? I got something in my teeth?”
He shook his head, continuing to rub my cheeks, softly purring.
I began to feel relaxed as he continued. “You keep right on doing that,” I whispered. “Please.”
Little Shit’s purring got louder, and he pressed my cheeks a little harder.
Vasquez came up, quietly observing me and the gas mask creature. She shifted her weight to one foot, folding her arms. “Drake?”
I slowly turned my gaze to her. “What?”
“What are you doing?”
“Nothing. Literally. Nothing.”
“Well, you have color in your face and your eyes are dilated. You look relaxed for once.”
“I know, right?” I smiled. “You gotta get your little creature to do this.”
“Drake, I need to talk to you.”
“Without your little friend.”
I looked at Little Shit. Honestly, I wasn’t ready for him to let go, but it was pretty obvious that he could understand us and he promptly let go of my face before hopping down and wandering off. Almost instantly, I lost that relaxed feeling. “Alright, Vasquez, what do you want?”
“I came looking for you so we could… talk alone. Crowe told Apone about you and Redding. Apone is not exactly a ray of sunshine at the moment, and he said he’ll personally drag you to the brig back on base if you even think about hitting Redding again.”
“I’m not going to get into another fight. I can’t blame Apone for being angry, though.”
“I hope not, because you could get in a lot of hot water if you do.” Vasquez punched my arm. “The little guys have multiple search parties organized, and we’re going to head out in a few minutes, so tell me what’s going on.”
“You know what’s going on,” I said. “I’m-”
We were interrupted by one of the little critters coming racing out of the tunnel, screeching excitedly. I was the closest, and it grabbed my arm and started trying to pull me towards the tunnel.
“Whoa, whoa!” I exclaimed. “Easy there, little guy! What’s gotten into you?”
He chirped loudly and tugged harder on my arm. I looked to Vasquez. “Think we should follow him?”
“Drake, I don’t think we would be Marines if we were chickens. Let’s arm up and take a look.”
We had to tell Apone where we were going before we did anything. Since there was nothing to really indicate the creature wanted us for something important to the mission, he just sighed, motioned for Wierzbowski and Crowe to join us as we grabbed our smartguns, and ordered, “’Ski, keep ‘em together.”
Led by the gas mask creature, the four of us headed into the tunnel, another seven of the critters following behind us. The little guy who was guiding us was plodding ahead of me, cooing and whistling. Occasionally, he paused, looking around, and then would keep walking.
“You know, I kinda wonder if these guys would make good pets,” Crowe said out of nowhere. “They seem to like our company a lot.”
“They are way too sentient to become pets,” I replied, “although I don’t think they’d care much. They do all the things we wish regular pets would do, and they’re more loyal than dogs.”
“Aww, Drake, I didn’t know you’d want to take one of these little guys home.” Vasquez smiled at me.
“I don’t. I could never live with Little Shit for the rest of my life.”
“But he could live with you.”
“Well, the feeling’s not mutual, sweetheart.”
We entered a tunnel that was about as wide as a four-lane highway. Much like the entrance tunnel, this one was also covered in artwork, but there weren’t any depictions of big aliens or androids being ripped apart. Instead, there were paintings of glass chalices full of a purple liquid and sacrifices of black-and-white hares. Next to the chalices were branches loaded with fat berries. The sight of the berries made me a bit hungrier, but also made me want some alcohol when this crap is over. “Is this wine?” I asked.
The little guy shook his head. He didn’t stop for a single moment in the tunnel, only pausing to push open a partially rotted wooden door. Right at the door was a long spiral staircase, and it was soon made obvious that the stairs were not meant to hold full-grown humans.
I put one boot on a step, and heard some creaking. “Alright, let’s go one at a time,” I said, “just so this whole thing doesn’t collapse.”
“Yeah, and it doesn’t help is that we’re carrying these big fuckers,” Vasquez replied, lifting her smartgun a bit higher to prove her point.
Our guide had already trotted down the stairs and was waiting for me at the bottom. I was going painfully slow, each creak and groan of the stairs sending more adrenaline throughout my body, until I came to an area about fifteen feet from the bottom. Three things happened very quickly: a step gave way, my left leg was stuck, and I was given a reminder not only of one of the many reasons why we have armor to wear down there, but why it has more padding underneath it than any of the armor we wear anywhere else.
“Drake, are you okay?” Vasquez asked.
I grunted, trying to pull my leg free “I’m okay. My jewels are okay. Gotta love the guy who came up with the idea of putting extra padding under crotch armor.”
Wierzbowski covered his face, letting out an annoyed groan.
I pulled myself out of the collapsed step, and carefully continued downward. However, another five feet down both steps under me collapsed with no warning. My smartgun got caught on the stair in front of me and within a split second I was falling onto my back, gun on top of me. I hit the ground and then the gun hit me. It knocked the wind out of me, and I found myself gasping desperately as I struggled to get air back into the vacuum of my empty lungs. When I could breathe again, I tried to shake off the pain in my back and chest as I forced myself back upright.
Little Shit stood over me, laughing and chirping and snorting.
“Where the fuck did you come from?” I demanded as the others came down the stairs and our guide stood watching and laughing at me from under his gas mask. “See? This is why I’m not taking one of them home,” I grunted.
I’m not sure how far we were from the surface, but I knew that it must have taken forever for this tunnel system to be made, and maybe there were more under construction. Worse yet was that I had no idea where we were going. We hadn’t seen anything apart from dirt, stone, and more fucking dirt.
And an underground river.
The chamber the river was in seemed to amplify and echo everything; the walls were lined with bright, blue lights. The gas mask creatures walked ahead and then into a dimly-lit room on the other side of the chamber. It actually had the same lights as the water chamber, but they were further spread apart, creating a dim effect. Little Shit looked up at me, purring, and I honestly wished I had some kind of clue as to what he was trying to say, although I was starting to understand that this underground place was so big and so old there were parts of it they didn’t go into anymore. There was no telling what could be down here.
At the other end of the chamber was yet another door into another room. As we stepped through, I saw two of the little guys standing over a man lying curled up on the floor and seemingly sleeping. It looked like they were guarding him. I guessed the creatures had been looking for him too, and when one of their search parties found him, they sent someone to get us.
“Is that one of the explorers?” Vasquez asked slowly.
“Gotta be. I don’t think there are any other humans on this frozen wasteland,” I said.
I was about to prod the man awake when he suddenly grabbed my chestplate, yanking me close so he could gasp, “Are you friendly?!”
“Hey, take it easy!” I snapped, pulling his hands off. “Yes, we’re friendly.”
I had seen people traumatized before, and this probably wouldn’t be my last. His eyes were wide, he stank of sweat, vomit, and excrement. There was blood all over his clothes. His face was stained with tears, and his eyes were red. There were rips and tears in his clothing, and he was shivering badly. “Get me outta here, please,” he stammered. “They did something to my partner… something that… made a thing come out his chest!” He couldn’t talk anymore, breaking off gasping and crying while gripping my arm.
“Who did what?” I asked.
“This… thing. It looked like a large, green egg.” More tears flowed down the man’s face. “A spidery scorpion… stuck to his face and… then it fell off… hours later… then… there was so much blood…”
I wasn’t sure how to feel. One explorer was dead, the other was alive and scarred for life. Did I fail?
Or did I still have a chance to at least get one man out before shit hit the fan for him?
Little Shit and his companions were crawling all over the explorer. The man was covering his face, clearly terrified. One of the critters was holding his face while the others appeared to be sniffing him. They were somewhat calm, I noted, and they didn’t jump or squeal. Eventually they moved away, allowing Wierzbowski to carefully help the explorer stand up.
“We need to get him aboveground, ASAP,” he said. “I’ll take him.”
“Right. Vasquez, Crowe, and I will check to make sure there aren’t any more eggs down here.”
“You shouldn’t be wandering around without your spotter.”
I shrugged, and resisted the urge to roll my eyes. “We got Little Shit. I’ll be fine.”
Little Shit perked up, shriek-chirping at me.
As soon as Wierzbowski left, I pointed my finger at the happy little gas mask creature. “Don’t fuck this up, or I’ll make you cry. After Apone chews my ass for violating basic combat rules.”
Little Shit clapped, and ran over to me, climbing up my leg and wrapping himself around my torso.
“Did you understand a word of what I said?”
“Maybe they like crying,” Vasquez sighed. “Quit fooling around, pendejo. Let’s go.”
I was real tempted to kiss her, and whispered when Crowe was out of earshot, “If we didn’t have a goofball troupe and Crowe with us, I’d say now is a good time we steal a kiss.”
Vasquez turned to face me. “What? Are you afraid they’ll tattle?”
“I bet they would.”
“You really have been odd this whole mission, Drake.”
Little Shit let out this gross-sounding snort, and then laughed.
Trailed by six gas mask creatures, Vasquez, Crowe, and I ventured further into the tunnels that made up these beings’ home. I wasn’t sure how far underground we were, and I wasn’t sure if we had gone deeper or were staying on the same level, and I hoped I wouldn’t develop any kind of déjà vu from this.
“We know one explorer is alive and the other was used as a host. I really hope that was the only big creature around,” I muttered.
“You can hope all you want, Drake, it’s not gonna do anything,” Vasquez replied. “Right?”
“Of course you’re right. I don’t think you’ve ever been wrong.”
“You’re just saying that.”
“No, I’m not. I’m-”
Little Shit started chirping, which led his companions to start chattering and squeaking. I adjusted my grip on my smartgun, and aimed it in the direction of whatever the gas mask creatures were excited about. I was tensed and poised to shoot, until I saw Redding emerge from a tunnel near us. With a sigh of both relief and annoyance, I hissed, “Damn it, Redding, I could’ve shot you!”
“But, you didn’t,” Redding replied. “Wierzbowski told me that the three of you were down here checking for eggs, so I volunteered to go after you.”
“Why?” I asked. “We can take care of ourselves.”
“I know, but you need a spotter, just in case. I don’t think you want more reasons to get in trouble today, Drake.”
I glared at him. “You’re really pressing your boundaries, aren’t you?”
Vasquez gave me a look. “We’re not doing this again.”
“I don’t want to do this again.”
“Then don’t,” Redding said.
“Don’t give me a reason, then.”
Vasquez gave me another look. “Drake. Para.”
Stop. Okay. I sighed. “Alright.”
Redding stood down as well. “Let’s keep searching. We’re not leaving till we know this area is secured.”
I really tried to not seem irritated. It seemed like it’d be a good idea to just leave this to the little guys, because this is their territory and they know it better than we ever will. It probably wasn’t even going to take Dietrich very long to check out the surviving explorer. The last thing I needed was my patience tested.
Vasquez could sense my tension. That was something we had developed with each other since we fell in love years ago—the ability to sense each other’s moods and feelings. She gently touched my shoulder (I can say for certain I’m the only person she’s gentle with), and whispered, “It is not Redding’s fault we’ve been here longer than we should.”
“I don’t care that it isn’t his fault! We’ve been on this icy rock for too long! We got one of the explorers, and we coulda saved the other one if we weren’t busy fucking around with-” In my fit, I slapped Little Shit’s helmet, knocking him over, “these little sons-of-bitches who fawn over us like we’re gods or something!”
Both Redding and Vasquez stared at me, uncertain of what to say. Little Shit was also looking at me, making no sounds at all.