The medevac request had come from a settlement called Drumlin Farm. Colm called the local artillery command post, located in a former mountaineering base camp on the island’s central peak, and asked them to lay off shelling the area until he got in and out. Just a professional courtesy. They said sure, we’re out of ammo, anyway. With Marines, it could be hard to tell when they were joking.

Anyway, no shells exploded below as Colm dropped the gunship towards Drumlin Farm. No tracer rounds lit the dark terrain.

Hot LZ? This didn’t even look like room temperature.

But the field sergeant on the radio sounded panicky, breathing hard, like he was running and talking at the same time. Holmundsen fed Colm the livestream from the guy’s helmet cam. Tight-curved, rough-hewn stone walls. A spiral staircase. The fighting had moved inside.

Colm simultaneously lowered the gunship onto his coordinates and watched it descend from a short distance. The sergeant had climbed onto some kind of balcony or lookout point. He leaned on a carved stone balustrade, helmet cam rising and falling as his shoulders heaved. The inverted blue candle-flames of the gunship’s plasma exhaust lit up the night. Another reason not to go down after dark: you made yourself into a big fat target. VTOL-capable, the gunship had secondary thrusters under its wings, pointing straight down. Colm had diverted the xenon-135 component of the exhaust to storage—that stuff was highly radioactive, not to be spewed all over friendly troops—but the un-spiked water plasma still glowed bright enough to leave after-images on your vision.

“Bang,” the sergeant said, making gun-hands. The ship-light silvered the backs of his battlesuit’s gauntlets. “Just to set your mind at ease, these Ghosts are Stage Two.”

“Very reassuring,” Colm said. Stage Two meant mortars. Those shells could actually do some damage to the gunship. He throttled back the combustion chamber’s output, aiming to get down fast—

“Incoming,” Smythe snapped. She pulsed the shockwave generator, the gunship’s key defense against explosive rounds. A pressure wave rushed outwards, generating a sonic boom. The sergeant on the balcony flung himself flat. Fuses triggered, the incoming shells exploded in mid-air.

Not far enough away.

Pain spasmed through Colm’s port wing. Half a dozen points of agony pulsed under the skin of his left arm. Shrapnel.

“Oh jeez, sorry,” Smythe cried. She had nothing to be sorry for. She had the best reflexes of any gunner he’d ever flown with.

Colm muted the pain and dropped the gunship the rest of the way to the ground. The jacks bit into soft, uneven soil. The jolt rattled their teeth in their heads. Not his cleanest landing ever. Residual exhaust heat incinerated vegetation, ringing the gunship in fire.

The computer fed him a detailed damage report. Shredded thermal tiles, not on the leading edge of the wing, thank God, but he didn’t fancy taking off again with damaged insulation. “I’m gonna slap a patch on that.” He sprang off his couch, while Holmundsen engaged in a shouting match with the field sergeant.

This was definitely not a routine triple call scenario. But right now Colm only cared about his ship. He bounded aft, grabbed tools from lockers in the annular space behind the crew cabin, and unsealed the side airlock with a thought. Pale smoke rolled in. He switched off all the lights, not to make the ship any easier a target than it already was.

Holmundsen brushed past him and dug in the ammo locker. Came out with a handful of spare mags for the machine pistols they wore as sidearms.

“Where’re you going, Vike?”

“Sarge said the casualties, plural, are somewhere around here.”

The gunship crew were not supposed to leave the bird.

“Lost him,” Holmundsen explained. “Last thing he said was ‘Ghosts are on the stairs.’”

“What a clusterfuck,” Colm said. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”

Holmundsen replied with a snigger. Colm was well known for bending the rules. In Colm’s own opinion that explained why he was still alive, but he tried not to be a bad example to his crew. Both of them were younger, on their first enlistments. Holmundsen’s pessimism was a defensive pose, his bravery the real thing. Colm watched him jog away across the smouldering field, remembering what it was like to be 25 and feel invincible.

The damaged wing claimed his attention. He manhandled a collapsible ladder down to the ground, propped it against the trailing edge of the wing, climbed up. Dull pinpricks in his left arm told him exactly where the shrapnel had hit. Esthesia implants had their detractors, chiefly among squeamish types who opposed any kind of body modification, but Colm, like most working pilots, would not be without his implant. Instead of having to sort through readouts on a clunky HUD, he experienced his ship’s status physically. Saved a ton of time and guesswork.

He could also see through the gunship’s external cameras, via his infolenses—electronic lenses implanted between his own lenses and irises. It was like having eyes in the back of his head, slightly offset by the fact that he was now crouching on the wing.

Smythe clambered down the steps behind him. She carried a combi—the standard Marine rifle with grenade launcher attachment—on a sling.

“Not you, too,” Colm said.

“Vike’s heading for the farm. He’s such a fucking idiot. He might need help getting back.”

“Right. Thing is, I was briefed that there are still civilians at the farm. So if you get that far …”

“You’re kidding.”

“Nope.” You had to admire colonists. They hung on like grim death while the Ghosts fired mortars at them. All too often, they died for their right to call a piece of some alien planet home. “If you find any of them, offer them a ride.” Colm wasn’t here to evacuate civilians, but he was rapidly getting the impression that the next command decision regarding Drumlin Farm would be to order its abandonment. The radio silence from the Marines on the ground was ominous. So was the fact that the Ghosts had not lobbed any more shells at the LZ. It suggested the enemy was busy with other things. Spooked by the damage to his ship, Colm wanted to get back in the air pronto, but at this point the gunship might be the only way out for whoever was still alive here.

“You’re the best, Collie Mack,” Smythe said. She blew a kiss off her armored gauntlet and ran across the field, straight through a stand of burning crops. The flames licked over her steel greaves and cuisses.

Colm wasn’t too worried about her. Unlike him and Holmundsen, she had a battlesuit. These were only issued to the Marines, but gear got passed around on the Unsinkable, sold and resold. Meg kept her battlesuit in tip-top condition. It would take a direct hit from an artillery shell to get through that armor.

He squeezed buckyball paste into the holes, smoothed it out with a spackle knife, finished each patch with four-ply carbon nanotube sticky tape. By that time, the smoke had cleared away and he was getting hot in his leathers. They weren’t really made of dead cow, of course, but the same carbon-fiber stuff used for motorcycle ‘leathers.’ The opposite of breathable. He unsealed his visor and inhaled the air of Upsandra d2. The lingering acrid smell reminded him of winter muirburns, when farmers would burn back the heather for better grazing come spring. But that had been in Scotland, where he grew up, and this was 48 light years from Earth.

After the momentary déjà vu passed, he detected an alien perfume in the air, a hint of peppery tartness. On the other hand, the crops he had inadvertently incinerated were just good old terrestrial wheat.

All human-habitable planets have a lot in common. Soil is soil, water is water, sky is sky. That illusion of familiarity was what got people, convinced them to put down roots on distant worlds.

But the night was warmer than it had any right to be, and so bright that the finger-leaved trees at the edge of the field cast shadows on the charred wheat. Both the warmth and the blue-tinged ‘moonlight’ came from the turquoise-striped crescent dominating the sky. An omnipresent reminder that this was an alien world.

The silence felt intense, meaningful, a kissing cousin to the hiss-whoosh of incoming shells, infused with the same promise of death.

Colm climbed down from the wing. Returned his ladder and tools to their storage places. Approved his own repairs, thus cancelling the ghostly pain in his arm. Drank some caffeinated orange juice.

Holmundsen’s transponder winked out.

“Vike! Gimme a sitrep, you reindeer-fucker. Over.”

Colm had a radio transmitter implanted in his jaw. Holmundsen had the same implant, so he couldn’t have lost his radio without also losing his head.

“Smythe, come in.”

“Copy.”

“Vike just went dark.”

“I know. I’m almost at the farm. I’m diverting to his last known location.”

“Roger.”

Colm returned to the cockpit. Control was trying to get hold of him, wanting to know why he was still on the ground. He put them off by reporting the mortar fire incident, without mentioning that Smythe and Holmundsen had gone walkabout. No need to get everyone in even more trouble than they were already in. He kept his voice level and calm, although his internal FUBAR-o-meter had spiked into the red zone.

“Hey, sir—” Smythe broke in on the FM channel.

“Yeah?”

“I’m at some kind of outbuilding.” She shot him a picture of a drystone byre roofed with solar panels. Ghosts corpses sprawled across the doorsill, littered the paved barnyard. Anger heated Smythe’s voice. “Looks like our guys died hard.”

“Died?” The carnage was shocking, but Colm saw no Marine bodies.

“I can’t raise Vike. Or anyone. I’m going inside—” Her transmission broke up.

“Smythe!”

Static.

“Smythe!”

Silence.

Oh, Christ on a bloody bike.

Moving fast, Colm grabbed his sidearm. Got a couple of spare mags from the ammo locker. Holmundsen had taken all the armor-piercing rounds, damn him. Well, Ghosts didn’t wear armor, anyway.

Colm swung down to the ground. Charred wheat puffed into carbon dust under his boots. He folded the airlock steps up behind him with a thought, sealing the ship. He was not concerned about leaving it, since he could operate its flight controls and point defenses from anywhere within radio range. He set the external sensors to maximum sensitivity. Now it would let him know if it saw so much as a bunny rabbit, or whatever the hell the Upsandra d2 analogue of a bunny rabbit was.

He loped across the field, into the darkness of the finger-leaf forest.

Click here for Chapter 3.

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