Ice Star: Chapter 2

There’s always a rush of anxiety and adrenaline when you’re prepping to go out for a mission. No matter how many times you’ve gone out, it doesn’t change. I always make sure I use the bathroom beforehand.

I had a feeling this would be my last mission before meeting with the civvie reps. Despite wishing I could leave tomorrow, I wanted to go out on a good note. I wanted to make Apone proud. I wanted to make Hicks proud. I wanted to make Ripley look at me and not have the impression that I was a juvenile felon.

Sitting in front of his locker, Hicks worked quickly to tighten the straps of his armor. In the past, he’s taken his time with it, because, technically, it isn’t his. Well, the chestplate isn’t his.

I can remember the absolute turmoil Hicks went through when he found out an old friend of his, who’d died by suicide, had left him a couple of things, namely his armor. Hicks was pissed that it took six years for him to find out, and it led to some pretty heated conversations between him and General Paulson’s widow. He snapped at everyone; me, Hudson, Wierzbowski, even Apone. Worst of all was his girlfriend. Needless to say, they’re not together anymore, and it took a few months before Hicks was himself again.

When he started to emerge from his depressive shell, Hicks spent a lot of time alone with Paulson’s armor. He really didn’t want to do anything to it, but he had this feeling that wearing it in combat would be a good way to honor his old friend. He rubbed out Paulson’s name, and stenciled in his own, but he left everything Paulson had put on there so many years ago. There was a big red heart with a lock over it, which Hicks was pretty sure meant that after Paulson got married, he put it there to show that his heart was closed to everyone except his wife. As of now, it makes no sense when you look at it and Hicks, because he’s alone. It’s a strange mishmash of Hicks’s and Paulson’s graffiti-Hicks had written “non-toxic” over his crotch guard, and he wrote “born again” over a bullet hole on his shoulder pad. Paulson had the heart, and a series of Japanese characters, as well as “lifer” written on the back.

Hicks also had “lifer” on his old armor. That’s probably the only thing that makes sense until he really comes to apply what the rest means to him. With a cigarette in his mouth, he finished tightening the straps, and grabbed his helmet.

“Alright, sweethearts, we are a team, and there’s nothing to worry about. We come here, and we’re gonna conquer, and we’re gonna take some. Is that understood?” Apone was in fine form today, walking among us as we finished pulling on our gear. “That’s what we’re gonna do, sweethearts. We are going to go and get some.”

“Hey,” I got Vasquez’s attention and leaned in for a half hug. “We’ll be okay, baby.”

“Alright, people, on the ready line!” Apone began yelling loudly and waving for us to hurry out to the armory. “Hudson! Get on the ready line, Marine!” he roared at Hudson as Wierzbowski pushed past. “Get some today! Get on the ready line!”

I could tell Apone was trying to keep us as sharp as possible so we weren’t fucking up in front of the new lieutenant, even though Gorman was nowhere to be seen at the moment. Frost stepped up to the rack of weapons he had prepped for us, turning around just as Crowe, the first in line, called out, “Yo!” Frost grabbed Crowe’s M41 off the rack and handed it to him. Crowe dashed off to the dropship bay as Frost continued handing out weapons to everyone, while Apone stood by the door and yelling for everyone to run out as soon as we had received our weapons. “Get hot! One, two, three, four! Come on, get out, get out, get out!” He continued shouting for us to get moving as we all jogged out to the ready line, forming up facing the APC for a quick inspection as he strode down the line. “Agh, absolutely badasses!” he exclaimed in satisfaction. Gorman, who was standing next to the door of the APC in full armor, his own pulse rifle in his hands, looked on approvingly.

“Let’s pack ‘em in! Get in there!” Apone threw the door to the APC open and stepped in, counting each of us as we followed him through the door and moved past him to our seats, stowing our weapons in the racks next to the seats. Frost went up to the driver’s seat, Gorman locked his rifle into the rack next to the command station before dropping into the chair, while Ripley was looking around uncertainly as she lowered the seat brace over her shoulders. Hudson was energetically helping everyone to lock down their own seat braces, and he gave me a huge, annoying grin as he slammed mine down over me with a thud. “I’m ready, man, ready to get it on!”

“Alright, Frost, let’s go,” Gorman instructed.

“Yes, sir!” Frost called out, throwing the APC smoothly into reverse and backing it up the dropship ramp. I felt my stomach turn a little bit as we went from being horizontal to sitting at an angle, and then horizontal again as the ramp lifted.

“Stand by, cross-locking now.” Ferro’s voice came over our headsets as she went through the normal drop prep. “Pre-launch auto-cycle engaged. Primary couplers released. Hit the internals.”

Even though I couldn’t see outside the APC, I could feel the sensation of the dropship and the APC being lowered into the airlock, and when the motion stopped with a loud clank, Ferro continued, “Confirm cross-lock and drop stations secured.”

“Affirmative,” Gorman replied calmly. “All drop stations secured.”

“Stand by, ten seconds,” Ferro said. That was the signal for all of us to brace ourselves as she added, “Stand by to initiate release sequencer on my mark.”

“We’re on an express elevator to hell! Going down!” Hudson chirped as she counted steadily down. I could feel my stomach bracing itself for the drop, and then it shot itself in my throat as the dropship abruptly fell away from the Sulaco. Hudson was whooping and cheering and making me wish I could just puke on him to make him shut up (then again, Miranda would kill me if I did that to her “precious baby,” so maybe another day).

Several minutes of heavy shaking passed, and I was doing my best just to keep everything down in my stomach. The shaking didn’t lessen as we entered the atmosphere, and after a moment, Ferro warned us, “Rough air ahead. We’re in for some chop.”

I could tell Ripley was trying not to think about the turbulence, nor did she know how to talk to any of us, so she brought up something that would seem like asking what the weather was like to a Marine. “How many drops is this for you, Lieutenant?”

“Thirty-eight,” Gorman said. He paused slightly before adding straight-faced, “…Hundred.”

That drew some shocked curses and muttering from almost everyone. Although it was doubtless lost on Ripley, there’s a tradition in the Marine Corps: ask a Marine how many times they’ve done something, and if they throw out a number and then dramatically tack on “hundred” at the end, it means they’ve done it so many times they’ve forgotten. All of us know exactly how many combat drops we’ve been on, except maybe Apone, and it’s not something any Marine would ever lie about, so this was no inexperienced officer leading us today.

Gorman, however, ignored the muttering and went back to checking the monitors at his station. After a moment, his voice came over my headset. “Drake, there’s something wrong with your camera. I’m not getting a visual.”

Of course, it’s my camera that doesn’t work. Of fucking course. Sighing, I whacked the headset against the brace of the seat. That should work.

It was quiet for another minute or two when Gorman spoke up again. “Okay, we’re gonna change things a little when we get down to the colony. Frost, you’re on the monitoring station. Wierzbowski, stick back with him and keep the APC secure. Give me your motion tracker. Ripley will be staying back here with you.”

“Got it, Lieutenant,” Frost said, his deep voice almost covering up Wierzbowski’s quiet, “Yes, sir,” as the big guy handed over his tracker.

I frowned. “Who’s gonna be my spotter, then?”

“Me,” Gorman said.

Well, fuck. I really had no words. I’ve never-repeat, never-had an officer as my spotter under normal circumstances. It’s just not the way RIFTs are meant to operate. Gorman seemed to be taking a much more active approach to commanding the team than any other RIFT commander I had ever heard of. I was willing to bet based on his little “thirty-eight hundred” remark that he knew how to do the job, but I was afraid of massively fucking up with him watching.

Hudson was up and talking again. He was hanging onto the ceiling, trying to avoid falling from the turbulence. “I’m ready, man. Check it out. I am the ultimate badass!” He shifted his grip as the dropship lurched again, and continued undeterred, “State-of-the-badass-art!”

Behind him, I faintly heard Frost ask sarcastically, “Who here’s running?”

Hudson either didn’t hear or didn’t care, and went right on with his spiel. “You do not want to fuck with me. Check it out.” He leaned in over Ripley. “Hey, Ripley, don’t worry. Me and my squad of ultimate badasses will protect you!”

He gestured to us, accompanied by cheers of approval from some of the others. “Check it out,” he repeated, and patted one of the APC’s computers, bragging, “Independently-targeting particle beam phalanx. Whap! Fry half a city with this puppy.”

That was pure bullshit, and we all knew it. The only energy weapons in the USCM were on our ships. But Hudson will be Hudson, and he loves to brag about our firepower to the uninformed. He continued, his voice rising in his eagerness, “We got tactical smart missiles, phase-plasma pulse rifles, RPGs, we got sonic-electronic ball breakers!” He thumped the ceiling, and to my surprise, Dietrich let out an amused whoop. It was a bit out of character for her, which made me wonder if it was because she was thinking about breaking his balls to shut him up. Hudson still ranted on. “We got nukes, we got knives, sharp sticks-”

I think it was at this point that the BS become unbearable for all of us, and Apone exclaimed sternly, “Knock it off, Hudson,” finally silencing him.

I’ve been in a lot of bad situations before, mission-wise. While none of them top my experience with the silver flowers, they all had a couple things in common, one thing being that I had a nervous twinge in my stomach before anything even happens. I’m no psychic, but I think we’re all capable of sensing when something is going to get nasty.

The dropship landed, and Frost drove the APC out into the rain. “Ten seconds, people, look sharp!” Apone called out as we stood waiting for the APC to stop. “Alright, I want a nice, clean dispersal this time!”

I didn’t need to wonder why he had said that, even though there was nothing wrong with our dispersal; it was just another way for him to remind us not to fuck up in front of Gorman.

When the APC stopped in front of the colony’s main complex, I knew damn well that I probably wouldn’t see the mild comfort of it for some time. We jogged out into the miserable weather, positioning ourselves where Gorman told us. We paused as he and Apone each surveyed the colony with their binoculars. As I waited, I sniffed the air. Everything had a very dirty, dusty smell to it. Beyond the protective barriers of the colony, I could see oddly shaped mountains, and nothing but gray as far as the eye could see. Who’d want to live here is beyond me. It reminded me of pictures in one of my high school textbooks of artists’ impressions of what prehistoric Earth was like. Dark, dismal, haunting, and foreboding. This isn’t a place you want to be. This isn’t a place I want to be right now. The sheer emptiness and atmosphere of perpetual misery wouldn’t mix well with my mental health if I stayed here for much longer.

“Let’s move up,” Gorman ordered, and Apone led us in a dash to the door of the complex. We stood ready, watching both the door and the surrounding area as Apone tried the door. When it didn’t open, he ordered, “Hudson, run a bypass.”

Hudson switched places with Apone, opening the keypad to expose the circuitry and pulling out his toolkit. It only took a few seconds for him to open the door. Gorman and I were the first ones in, but we had to stop just a few feet in. The secondary door was jammed, the two halves not quite closed, but not far enough apart for us to pass through. I stood covering the doorway as Apone and Gorman forced it open.

As soon as I could step through into the hallway, I knew something was wrong. Part of the ceiling had been torn apart, and wires were hanging down from the twisted metal. Rainwater was pouring in and had already formed a large puddle on the floor.

“B-Team, take the upper level,” Gorman ordered as we advanced cautiously further into the complex. The halls were a scene of complete chaos. The ceilings were torn down in several other places, sometimes so badly that we had to squeeze against the wall to get past the hanging pieces. The floors were strewn with wreckage, broken furniture, and even loose papers strewn around.

“Sir, take a look at this.” Apone pointed to the wall. “Looks like hits from small arms fire.”

“Explosives damage too,” Gorman agreed. Frost chimed in over our headsets, “I’m seeing that, Lieutenant. Looks like seismic survey charges.”

“Alright, deploy motion trackers,” Gorman ordered, pulling his out. He and Dietrich began scanning systematically, checking for any signs of movement or an ambush up ahead as we carefully swept the halls, with Apone watching our backs. As we went, we found more and more signs that some areas had been left in a hurry, while others seemed to have been fought over.

Then Hudson’s voice filled our headsets. “Got something, man. Got something…”

I glanced over to Gorman, who had stopped, standing perfectly still and scanning the way ahead as he listened intently. I said nothing, waiting with him. Then there was a crash over our headsets and a growl of disappointment from Hudson, followed by Hicks giving a slightly annoyed sigh and asking, “You doing okay over there, Hudson?”

“Uh, sir?” Hudson said, referring to Gorman, “we have a negative situation here. Moving on, sir.”

Gorman’s face turned to confusion for a moment, and he tapped his headset. “What did you find, Hudson?”

“Uh… hamsters, sir.”

I sighed. “I swear he loses more and more brain cells every fucking day,” I muttered. Then, realizing I had said it out loud, I gave Gorman an embarrassed look, only to find him smiling slightly. Apparently I wasn’t going to get in trouble for that.

Then, over the headset, I heard Ripley say, “Wait, Hicks, back up. Pan right. There.”

There was a pause, and then Hicks saying, “You seeing this alright? Looks melted.”

“What are you seeing, Hicks?” Gorman asked.

“Looks like someone must have bagged one of Ripley’s bad guys, sir. We’ve got a bunch of holes melted in the floor here.”

“Acid blood,” Gorman muttered softly. “Alright. Keep searching, and stay sharp.”

We continued working our sweep through the building, meeting up with Hicks and the others in the operations center.

“Sir, no one’s home,” Hicks reported. “We missed whatever happened here.”

Gorman looked around the room. “Hudson, get the CPU online. Hicks, Drake, I want you to go back out and escort Ripley in here. The rest of you, set up a defensive perimeter. I want all entrances and exits to this room covered. Keep scanning with your trackers for any signs of incoming. Ferro, you can come in and set down on the landing pad. Stay with your ship, and keep an eye out.”

It didn’t take us long to get back to the entrance. Ripley was standing in the rain waiting when we opened the doors. She was looking around distractedly, and Hicks asked gently, “Are you alright?”

She didn’t say anything, and only nodded as she walked past him. I kind of understood what she must be going through, and a part of me wanted to say something, but I didn’t know what.

Hicks was still scanning with the motion tracker as we made our way back to operations, and just as we reached the stairs up to the second level, Hicks stopped. “Hold it. I’ve got something.”

I looked over at the tracker and saw a blip appear up ahead. “Lieutenant, I’ve got a contact on the tracker,” Hicks said into his radio.

“Vasquez, Crowe, get down there and cover them,” Gorman ordered. “Hicks, Drake, hold your position until they get there.”

In a moment, we heard the clanking of boots on the metal walkway and then Vasquez and Crowe came down the steps. Vasquez covered behind us while Crowe took position next to me, with Hicks on my other side, still scanning with the tracker. “Which way?” I asked.

“It’s moving.” Hicks’ eyes flicked back and forth between the track screen and the hall ahead. “Coming straight at us.”

Keeping Ripley in our center, we slowly advanced down the hall towards the signal. Then suddenly, something dashed out in front of us. There was no time to stop and think, and I immediately fired a burst at the thing as it dove into an open vent grate at the base of the wall, but Hicks had been a bit quicker than I was and pushed my gun to the side just enough to make me miss. “Fuck!” I glared at him, startled.

“Hold up,” he ordered. “Crowe, drop back. Vasquez, get up here.”

Crowe and Vasquez switched places, and as we peered into the vent, illuminated by Hicks’ lamp, I could see a little girl hunched up against the side of the vent, clutching a ragged doll. Her face and clothes were dirty, and her hair was matted and tangled. I felt my stomach turn when I realized I had almost shot her.

“Can you get her?” Hicks asked Vasquez. She cursed in Spanish before asking, “You think I’m okay with kids, or they’re okay with me, just because I’m a woman?”

Hicks looked embarrassed, but I understood what she meant. Number one, Vasquez isn’t the greatest with kids, and she admits it. Two, and I would never say this to her, her face isn’t exactly what you want to use to try to calm down someone who’s probably already scared out of their mind.

Luckily, Ripley was already reaching forward. “It’s alright, we’re not going to hurt you.”

Her hands were inches away from the girl when she suddenly darted away, crawling through the vent as quickly as she could. With a yell, Ripley climbed in after her, chasing her around the corner and out of sight. We heard clattering, several more yells from Ripley, and then the girl crying. Just as Hicks was about to go in after them, Ripley came crawling back out, holding the little girl to her chest. The girl was completely limp, a blank expression on her face, and she was making no attempt to get away. I realized pretty quickly that she was in shock.

“Let’s get her up to operations and have Dietrich take a look at her,” Hicks said.

When we got up to the operations center, Vasquez and Crowe went back to their defensive positions, and Hicks took Dietrich’s place with Apone while she looked over the little girl. Hudson was on one of the computers, and Gorman was watching Dietrich intently. I couldn’t help noticing Dietrich looked a little nervous whenever he walked near her. No, she looked pained. I know she hates people watching her work, and I could tell she wanted to tell Gorman to leave her alone.

“Anything?” I asked Hudson.

“Nope, not yet, man,” Hudson replied. “Is the kid okay?”

“Dietrich’s looking at her. She’s not talking to anybody, so far.”

“Well, I can’t imagine she just got off a cutesy little ride in the kiddie section of the amusement park. Might take a bit before she says something to anyone.”

From the corner of my eye, I saw Gorman switch his gaze to us. “She might know something about where the rest of the colonists are.”

“I don’t think now is a good time to question her,” I replied. Because I know what it’s like to be traumatized and not want to talk to anyone about it. “I’ll let you know if she wants to, though.” I patted Hudson’s shoulder before walking back over to Ripley and the girl. As I walked up, the girl said something to Ripley along the lines of, “They’re dead, alright? Can I go now?”

I guess she did try asking about the rest of the colonists. I leaned against the wall, quietly observing where the girl couldn’t see me. Part of me thinks she knows I almost shot her, and that she knew I was there. I felt bad for almost shooting her, but I also didn’t regret doing what I had to in order to make sure everyone with me was safe. I’m not used to dealing with kids, and a normal adult would have showed themselves carefully, or called out to us. When you’re in a potentially dangerous situation and something just jumps out at you, you don’t have the luxury of stopping to make sure it’s actually hostile. That split second could mean the difference between you or the guy next to you living or dying. I did what I had to do to protect myself and the others, and I’m not going to apologize for that. But that still didn’t mean I didn’t feel for her.

I know for a fact that no one in our unit has children, but even though I knew next to nothing about her, I got a sense that Ripley did, at one point or another. She did have fifty-seven years of her life wasted in hypersleep, and although she didn’t age, her kids must have. Worse yet, they might be gone. I have a feeling that’s why she’s here; she would’ve packed up and left Gateway if she had somebody waiting for her down on Earth.

The closest I got to bonding with a kid was a boy named Casey. He was ten when I met him at a beach in the Bahamas-roughly the same age as this girl-but I know he’s fourteen now. Not that long after, I rescued him from underneath the rubble of his home after a hurricane blew through, and because we couldn’t find his parents, he stayed with us for a little while. Overall, he made me feel like I’d be a good parent in the future.

“Yo!” Hudson called. “Stop your grinning and drop your linen. Found ’em.”

His screen was showing a map of the colony, with a cluster of dots under the atmospheric processing plant. Gorman and Apone stood on either side of Hudson, and Gorman asked, “Are they alive?”

“Unknown, but it looks like all of them. They’re at the processing station, sublevel three. Under the main cooling towers.” He paused, as if hesitating, and looked up at Gorman. “That could be a problem. Sir, you realize that bitch is a nuke, right?”

“Most small colonies like this one have atmosphere processors that are nuclear-operated,” Gorman replied. “Not much of a surprise to me. I see what you’re saying.” He reached up to his headset. “Frost, we’ve got to head over to the processing plant, but we’ve got to watch that we don’t damage any of the critical systems if we have to start shooting.”

“Got it,” Frost said. We heard him call out to Wierzbowski before the radio cut out, and there was a brief pause before he came back on. “’Ski says that the processing plant probably uses heavy-duty industrial piping, sir. I’d say we’ll be safe with shotguns and flamethrowers.”

“Refresh my memory, how many do we have with us?” Gorman asked.

“Shotgun, sir!” Crowe called from across the room, holding up his M322. Wierzbowski came over the radio a second later, saying, “I’ve got a flamethrower, Lieutenant.”

Gorman paused for a moment as if thinking. “Alright, Ferro, I want you to pick the APC back up and head up to the Sulaco again. Frost, Wierzbowski, I want the two of you to grab enough shotguns and flamethrowers to arm all of us, and then get back down here. The rest of us will hold operations until you get back.”

“Roger that, sir,” Ferro and Frost replied simultaneously. I saw Hudson giving Gorman a brief, appreciative look. I knew him well enough to know that he wouldn’t have even bothered saying anything if he didn’t think Gorman was would understand or even listen to him.

With the little girl trailing her, Ripley looked over Gorman’s shoulder to see what was going on. “If any of these people are still alive, we don’t have time to go back to Sulaco.”

“If this fucking processor has a meltdown, no one’s gonna be still alive, man,” Hudson said.

I can’t stand forever with my smartgun. At one point, I had to sit down, and let my thoughts flood to the forefront of my mind.

Hicks walked over to me, holding his rifle close. “Don’t let your guard down too much, Drake.”

“I’m not,” I said, smirking, petting my smartgun. “I can fire this baby prone if I have to.”

“Are you doing okay…” Hicks looked over his shoulder at Ripley, who was wiping the dirt and grime from the girl’s face, “mentally?” he whispered.

I shrugged. “We haven’t seen any action yet, and I’m a little anxious.”

Hicks knelt by me. “If it makes you feel better, I’m in the same boat as you. We might have made it through alright so far, but I still feel like we’re about to get ourselves in some serious shit.”

I nodded.

Hicks got up, and turned to face Ripley. “Is there anything I can get you?”

“Not at the moment,” she replied, not looking up at him.

Hicks took a breath. “Look… I get the feeling you’re upset we can’t immediately go down to the plant.”

“I’m not upset. The evidence is right there.” She gestured to the stasis tubes. “They used everyone as hosts. What you’re seeing on the monitors is the corpses of every man, woman, and child that lived here.”

“Unfortunately, we don’t know that yet. Others could be alive.” He looked at the girl. “She survived. No reason somebody else couldn’t.” He offered a weak smile, but got none in return. “Did you get a name?”

“Newt. Her name’s Newt,” Ripley said.

“Cool.” Hicks held out his hand. “I’m Hicks. Over there’s Drake. I know he seems a little rough, but-” Hicks’s gaze softened, “he’s really a big sweetheart. So’s Hudson, but he can’t be bothered right now.”

I was surprised at how quickly Newt took to us, but she remained close to Ripley most of the time as we continued to wait for Frost and Wierzbowski to return. When we got word from Ferro that they were prepping for drop again, I went through my pack for a small ration kit, and then sat on the floor with my smartgun still slung over my shoulder, resting across my chest.

“Hey, man, toss me one of those cakes if you got ’em,” Hudson said.

“No. I’m not giving you my food. Get your own.”

“Then toss me a ration pack, man.”

I did, and it smacked him in the side of the face.

“Thanks, man.”

“Whatever.” I opened my pack, and began pulling out the stuff I wanted to eat. Personally, I’ve always felt the field rations are a small step above ship rations. You’re supposed to be in hypersleep for the majority of your trip, so it’s no surprise that little thought goes into what’s served.

While squeezing a packet of peanut butter on a cracker, I caught Newt staring at me. I did feel bad that I almost shot her, and I had a feeling that forgiving me was going to take some time.

Then again, if we return to Earth, what are the odds we’re ever going to see each other again?

That’s not the point. I don’t want to deal with any kind of guilt anymore. It destroyed me once. It can do it again.

I’m supposed to be part of the team rescuing her. The least I could do was make her feel comfortable around me. After placing another cracker on top of the one covered in peanut butter, I tried breaking it in half, and held it out to her. “Want some?”

Hudson rolled his eyes. “But you won’t share your food with me, man. Thought we were friends.”

I ignored him, continuing to hold the half sandwich cracker out to the girl. “I don’t bite. Just take it.”

Hicks looked at me, and opened his mouth to say something, but apparently decided to let things play out as they were.

Shyly, Newt took what I offered. She sat across from me, gently nibbling on the cracker.

“This is the best we got, so, I’m sorry.” I smirked a little. “It’s better than what we got on our ship.”

“You know, speaking of ships,” Hicks said. “I think it might be a good idea we leave Newt with Spunkmeyer and Ferro when they get back. If something happens at the processor, we don’t need her getting lost or hurt.” He looked at Ripley. “What do you say? I’d trust Spunkmeyer and Ferro with my life. They’ll take care of her, I promise.”

I snorted. “Ferro, yeah, but with Spunkmeyer, it depends on what kinda mood he’s in.”

Hicks looked at me. “Would you rather wait outside with her?”

“No.” I glanced at Newt. “Not saying that to be mean. If Vasquez is going with you, I’m going, too. That’s my job.”

“Your job is to protect people,” Ripley said. “If you went out with the dropship, you’d still be doing your job.”

“Oh, who are you to tell me what my fucking job is?”

Hicks glared at me. “Drake-”

“I don’t care what her reason is for being here. The only people around here who can tell me what to do are Apone and Gorman.”

“And me, smartass.” Hicks leaned over to grab the front of my armor. “You wanna go to your hearing in December? Knock it off.”

I said nothing. After Hicks let go, I stood up to go find somewhere else to sit.

When the dropship returned, we all went back outside and boarded the APC again, where Frost and Wierzbowski were waiting to help us swap weapons out. Even though I was giving up my smartgun, I had to keep the helmet, since it was the only one I had. At least I could put the faceplate down to give my eyes some extra protection.

Gorman accepted an M322, saying, “Same pair-ups as before. Drake, you’re with me. Frost and Wierzbowski, stay behind with Ripley to guard the APC.”

Spunkmeyer appeared at the door, saying, “So you’re driving over, Lieutenant?”

“Yeah,” Gorman said briefly. “Stay on site, but keep a close watch. I want you and Ferro armed.”

Spunkmeyer nodded briefly. “Got it, sir.”

Hicks walked over to Spunkmeyer, holding Newt’s hand and guiding her along slowly. “Can you do us a favor?” Hicks asked.

“Sure, go ahead,” Spunkmeyer replied.

“Watch over Newt for us, okay?” Hicks knelt to look her in the eye. “Be nice to Spunkmeyer and Ferro, alright, honey? They’re gonna make sure nothing happens to you so we can all go home.” He smiled warmly, and managed to get a smile out of Newt as well. “We’ll be back as soon as we can.”

Frost held out a shotgun to Hicks as he stood up, but Hicks waved it off before opening the scabbard strapped to his back.

“Yeah, I should have guessed,” Frost grinned.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen Hicks actually use his shotgun. He does prefer it to the pulse rifle in certain close combat situations, or when we’re in disaster relief zones. I believe I’ve said before that it’s really, really old, and that I don’t know the full story behind it.

We took our seats again, and Frost shifted into gear, heading for the processing plant. As the APC bumped over the rough terrain, I couldn’t stop thinking about what Hicks had said, and that the tough part was only just beginning.

Chapter 1……………………………………………………………………………………………Chapter 3

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