Meg cleared the outbuildings one by one. She wasn’t a farm girl. Grew up in Tokyo, thinking that produce grew on supermarket shelves. She didn’t know what all these sheds and barns were for. What they had become was abattoirs. Ghosts lay everywhere, cut down by rifle or machine-gun fire. It didn’t help that they looked so goddamn human.

Her breath rasped fast inside her helmet. She had the bleed valves of her suit open, exchanging suit air for local air. It carried the smell of manure, mingled with the stomach-turning reek of death. Blood glistened black on the cobbles in the light of the gas giant. She trampled the snarled wire of an outdoor chicken run. Pulped Ghost parts testified to a Marine’s effective grenade throw. But where were the Marines?

She radioed Colm, showed him the mess. “And I can’t raise Erik. Or anyone.”

As she spoke, she looked up at the limestone cliff towering over the farmyard. Several large caverns yawned at the cliff’s foot, partially shuttered by slat doors like the one on her garage back home. Inside this massif, she knew, the colonists had made their dwellings in a network of caves and tunnels, some carved out by water seeping down from the clifftop, some shaped by human machinery. It made sense to live pueblo style on Upsandra d2, given the sweltering summers here, and also the risk of predators. Apparently this moon had some really choice wildlife. Flightless birds as mean as hippos. Turtles that climbed trees and spat poison.

But now something worse had come to Upsandra d2.

The same thing that had come to Sirius A c.

Ghosts.

Meg shuddered, and took a fortifying sip of sweet, gritty juice from her battlesuit’s hydration nipple. She knew what she had to do, little as she liked it.

“I’m going inside to look for survivors.” She didn’t give Lt. Mackenzie time to talk her out of it. She ducked under the nearest garage door, popping upright with her combi levelled, swinging to cover a wide arc.

Dark.

But not to her, not with every kind of sensor known to man embedded in her helmet.

Night vision showed tractors and other farm machinery, haphazardly parked. Everything lurid green.

Workbenches, a mechanic’s pit.

Infrared revealed several spots of warmth in the cab of an enormous tractor.

She climbed up.

OK, so that was three of the missing Marines.

“Hey, sir …”

Shit, of course, she was inside a mountain. The rock was blocking her signals. He wouldn’t be able to hear her.

Swallowing, she inspected the corpses. The Marines had died in their suits, but with their visors open, which was weird. Why would they have opened their visors? Because what had happened after that was they’d got shot in the face. Boom, strawberry jam. Still warm.

Meg’s gorge rose, and on the point of throwing up inside her helmet, she crossed over into detachment. This always happened. The tipping point was different every time, the result the same: things stopped affecting her emotionally. She wasn’t sure if this made her a horrible human being, or a good soldier, or both. Anyway, it was convenient. Dead Marines stopped being people who’d signed on the dotted line like her, gone through basic training like her, groused about the war like her. They became facts to analyze and react to.

These Marines had died in the cab of the tractor because they’d been planning to drive it out of here. But the Ghosts had got to them first.

What a bunch of numbskulls. Rule number one when engaging Ghosts: do not operate powered equipment. That made modern warfare pretty freaking difficult, and obviously you had to make exceptions for your personal equipment and weapons, but there it was. Everyone, even civilians, knew that if there were Ghosts around, electricity would draw them like flies to shit. Why? Who the hell knows. Just one of the charming traits of our enemy.

Meg took the rule about powered equipment seriously, but all the same she now broke it. She leaned across a dead Marine’s lap and switched on the tractor’s engine, just long enough to see the fuel cell’s charge indicator rise up and then sink back to zero.

Yup. Totally drained.

As good as graffiti scrawled on a wall: Ghosts Were Here.

Meg jumped down to the floor with a clang. She looked around the cavern and shivered. All these big, powerful vehicles. A feast. The Marines must’ve brought them inside to try to keep them out of the Ghosts’ clutches, but that obviously hadn’t worked.

Was there anyone left alive here? Hiding, maybe? Once bitten twice shy, gone off-grid, scared to operate so much as a radio?

“Vike?”

Her suit was sending out an auto-ping every ten seconds, so anyone with a radio would know help had arrived. Now she added her voice, boosting it through her radio and her suit’s external speaker.

“Vike, where are you?”

No answer.

“If you get yourself killed, I’m gonna be really pissed,” she mumbled.

She headed for the back of the cavern, where night vision showed doors leading to the rest of the pueblo.

An important question kept bouncing around in the back of her mind.

These Ghosts were Stage Two. The kit she’d seen outside confirmed it. Bolt-action rifles with fixed bayonets. Pudding-bowl helmets. A shotgun or two.

But what if they transitioned to Stage Three? What would happen then?

Despite her emotional detachment, she felt cold. Her teeth were chattering.

Click here for Chapter 4.

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