Trace flattened himself on the ice as best he could, and held the night-binoculars up to his faceplate. The world swirled into focus, displayed in shades of vibrant blue.
“How many?” Austin whispered from his side.
“I count thirty. Probably more inside the ship.”
That made thirty to five. Odds of six to one. And they would be fighting an entrenched enemy on its home ground. Even accounting for the element of surprise, Austin wasn’t exactly instilled with confidence. His eyes had started to adjust to the darkness. He saw the vastness of the ice cavern, the roof drooping a lot lower than in the one housing the Van Frost. The Tetran cruiser was half-submerged, its nose angled steeply down in a deep snow drift on the far side of the cave. Its massive form appeared as a silhouette in the gloom. None of the external lights were on. Maybe they had lost power altogether.
Greene shuffled up alongside the Commander. Trace hadn’t wanted her to come: she was the only qualified pilot they had left and that made her invaluable. But she had insisted they’d need the extra firepower, and she was right. “Sir, what’s our plan of attack?”
“We’re going to split up,” Trace whispered. “Austin and I will head into that tunnel over there,” he pointed to a dark opening in the ice a hundred metres away, at the side of the cavern. “We’ll be the diversion. We make a lot of noise, and hopefully a good portion of the Tetran infantry will follow us. After that, Langmire seals the tunnel behind us.” He patted a small bundle of mining explosives they had taken from the container. “We’ll cut them off from their own ship. Breaker and Greene, you get the parts we need from the reactor room on the cruiser. Stay low and cover each other. Is everyone clear?”
“Sounds like a plan to me, sir,” Austin said. “But just one thing: If we’re sealed inside that tunnel, how do we get back?”
“I checked Breaker’s scanners, and this place is riddled with more holes than a termite mound. When we get through, we find a passage running back in this direction. Chances are we’ll end up right back here. And if all else fails we can use some of this explosive to blast a way back. Any questions?”
They all shook their heads.
The tricky part was getting down the jagged ridge of ice to the mouth of the tunnel, and all the while avoiding detection. The slope was dangerously steep in places, and covered in fallen debris from the cavern roof. Remaining unseen would not be a simple task. Most of the Tetran squads were scattered around the ship, but a few lone troopers were encamped near the base of the ice cliff. And it would only take one of them to raise the alarm and blow the whole plan. Austin peered over the frozen precipice and looked down. Some twenty metres below them, a Tetran soldier squatted on the ice floor gripping a bulky assault rifle. He was stationed behind a makeshift barricade of loose rubble, his back moulded to the wall.
Austin turned back to Trace, who motioned for him to move forward. It was awkward going, trying to keep as low as possible while maintaining a decent foothold. The narrow ridge forced them to move in single file; Austin on point, followed by Trace, Langmire and Breaker. Greene brought up the rear.
After several minutes of slow movement, the path started to angle down sharply. They were now only ten metres above the cavern floor. The trail broadened out at this point and became treacherously slick. Almost there, Trace thought. If they could keep from losing their grip on the ice, the first part of the plan would go off without a-
The sudden crunch from behind was as loud as a gunshot in the stagnant air.
Hitch. Trace pivoted on his heel, just in time to watch the basketball-sized chunk of ice bounce down the ridge and crash into the ground. One of them must have dislodged it as they moved past. He held up a flat palm to the others, a sign for them to stop. They flattened themselves as best they could on the ridge.
Nearly a minute had passed, and Trace had heard no cry of alarm from below. Maybe no-one had noticed. After all, debris was probably falling from the roof all the time. He gingerly raised the night binoculars to his faceplate and peered over the edge.
The muzzle flash from below registered as a painful white flare through the night lenses. The first bullet exploded in the ice wall behind his left ear. The second round smashed into his binoculars, burying itself deep in the device’s electronics. Trace was thrown back from the impact. The binoculars hissed and sparked on the ground beside him. “Keep your heads down!” Three more rounds thudded into the lip of ice, and several large chunks dropped away. They had been sprung, and now they were at a great tactical disadvantage. Shit. Trace angled his carbine over the precipice and rattled off a short retaliatory burst. “Fall back!” He ordered. “Move up the slope. Austin, give us some covering fire!”
Corporal Austin shouted something, but his voice was lost in a buzz of static inside Trace’s helmet. Austin rose to his knee, resting the butt of his carbine against his shoulder plate. He let off a quick three-round burst. Somewhere below, somebody cried out in pain. Austin slipped on the ice, the recoil from his weapon having thrown him off balance on the uneven ground. His legs slid out from under him, and the gun clattered over the side. He groped around desperately for a handhold.
Trace lunged and threw out an arm to the Corporal. His gloved hand came within centimetres of Austin’s outstretched fingers. Then the Corporal skidded on his stomach, and hurtled down into the shadows. More rounds detonated a section of the ice wall behind Trace’s head, and he was showered in white powder. The shit had really hit the fan now.
Jessica Treylan shuddered violently in the still night air. She was certain the cold was getting through her suit. “God, I’m freezing,” she said in a hushed tone. Her voice sounded hollow over the intercom.
Gable moved the pistol around in a wide arc, covering every angle. “I don’t see anything,” he said.
“It’s out there,” Treylan breathed. “I can feel it.” She sat huddled on the snow, trembling from the icy chill which was now creeping through her veins. The shadows surrounding them seemed to slink in closer.
Brian Vlasich moved over to her. “Are you alright?”
“I’m….okay,” she managed. “Just a little….cold.”
Her usual glowing complexion was now a deathly pale, almost as white as the surrounding snow. It was as if the blood had frozen in her veins. “Come on.” Vlasich extended a hand. “Let’s get you inside.”
Treylan took his hand and raised herself unsteadily to her feet. It was not her physical state she was worried about. She was filled with a pure, irrational terror, of the like she had not experienced since she was a small child. Why was she so frightened? Was she losing her mind?
Their heads jerked up in unison at the abrupt sound from above.
A thin stream of ice and snow cascaded to the ground from the cavern roof, which was concealed in the shadows high above. It seemed that the previous fire fight had left the entire cavern unstable. The sooner they got out of this place, the better. Treylan took one last, wide-eyed look at the cavern’s veiled interior, and turned back to the ship.
It was then that she noticed it. An ominous rumble, almost beyond the range of her hearing. She felt it as well, deep in her gut. The resonant sound seemed to fill the air. It was accompanied by other sounds, these higher in pitch but also barely audible. The soft murmur seemed to be coming closer. It sounded vaguely like some form of…singing.
Vlasich froze beside her. He heard it too. “What the hell is that?” he gasped.
Gable moved over to them, still clutching the handgun. He saw the expressions on their faces. “What? What is it?”
“Don’t you hear that?” Vlasich whispered.
Gable shook his head. “My hearing’s not what it used to be.”
The haunting chorus continued, reverberating in the vast cavern. It seemed to be coming from all around them. “Jesus what is that?” Treylan panted. She breathed rapidly, starting to hyper-ventilate.
“Get her to the infirmary,” Gable said.
Jessica Treylan shuddered again in a sudden convulsion. “We’re all going to die,” she breathed.
Vlasich had never seen her like this. Mentally, she had always been one of the strongest onboard the Van Frost. “Whoa!” Vlasich yelled. His sudden outburst made the others jump. Gable glared at him through the frosted faceplate. “Damn it, what?” Maurice Gable did not like being scared.
“Something just brushed past my arm,” Vlasich stuttered, waving a hand at the darkness.
“Where?” Gable demanded. He squinted into the darkness. It was as if a black fog had descended into the cavern, leeching away the light. Even the Van Frost’s powerful running lights seemed to have dimmed. “There’s nothing here,” Gable said.
“I’m telling you, I felt it.” Vlasich snapped. “It was cold-like it somehow got through my suit… onto my skin… Am I leaking? Do I have a leak somewhere?” He was babbling now, becoming increasingly frantic.
Gable peered into the dimness near the mouth of the tunnel. “There’s nothing out there. Are you sure you weren’t imagining it?”
“I’m just telling you what I felt, and I’m telling you it wasn’t my… I mean, I don’t know!”
“Well you’d better fucking decide whether you imagined it,” Gable shot back. “Because if you didn’t, it means I have to go out there and check it out!”
All the while the men were fighting, the ghostly symphony continued. Treylan listened with increasing terror as it reached a crescendo….and died. The men must have sensed something as well, because they ceased arguing. A moment of complete silence passed in the cavern. It became as quiet as a tomb. “Oh no,” Treylan whispered.
First came the smell. It was like a mixture of rotting flesh and mould, a cocktail of death and decay that washed over them. Vlasich gagged and stumbled backwards. “What…” His voice failed.
Gable lurched forward, clutching at his faceplate with one hand while the other was clenched tightly around the gun.
Treylan willed herself to turn and run, but some all-powerful invisible force seemed to hold her in place. The air became a stifling cloak. She choked and collapsed to her knees, every ounce of strength sapped from her being.
The presence swept closer, throttling the light away. The form was indistinct, a dark purple threat like an after-image, burned into her retinas. And in the expiring light from the ship’s nose, she could see liquid, running upward from the ground, collecting around the apparition and giving it substance.
Treylan forced out a thin wail.
Maurice Gable managed to raise the handgun up to chest level. He fired wildly into the night, emptying the clip but hitting nothing but murky air. The gun clicked dry and tumbled out of his hand. The wraith drifted closer and gave a hollow sigh which reverberated in their bones. Treylan screamed inwardly, unable to make a sound. The tears welling in the corners of her eyes froze. The stench became intolerable. She could hardly see at all now, the darkness was almost absolute. She heard the thing make a gargling shriek, and felt it slide forward.
A hook-like limb solidified from the shadow and lashed at her. Treylan finally managed to scream.
A solid thud came from her left. Something spattered across the side of her helmet.
When she opened her eyes the darkness had eased, but only slightly. Maurice Gable wobbled on his knees. His body terminated at the shoulders, the head and faceplate gone. A well of dark liquid sprang up from the place his neck should have been, before it started to crystallize in the frozen air. As she stared in utter horror, his limp body flopped down into the grave he had dug for Lindy Banks. Treylan was filled with a deathly cold that flooded from her shoulders down her spine, and penetrated every bone in her body. The thing turned to face her, its incandescent glare boring through her skull. Oh no, she pleaded mentally. Please no, this can’t be happening! The spectre loomed before her….
A brilliant white glare erupted from some hidden source, temporarily blinding her. The darkness retreated. The spectre screamed, a hideous alien shriek.
Between the splatters of gore on her faceplate, Treylan watched as the thing hardened into a nightmarish stick figure of skin and bone. Somewhere in a detached part of her brain, she realised that she was going into shock. She took in snatches of detail: tangles of flaking skin, a sunken mouth, ravening violet eyes… Its movement was elastic, as if it wasn’t governed by an internal skeleton at all. It shrieked again, and made a threatening movement toward her.
“Hey!” A voice called out from behind her. Treylan turned to see Corporal Landell standing on the ice slope, framed against the dazzling halo of the flood lights. He grasped an over-sized sidearm in his right hand, while he used his left to steady himself against the ship‘s hull. “Why don’t you go fucking pick on somebody else?” The clap of the magnum’s report echoed around the cavern walls. The thing reeled back and made a hollow moan, but appeared to be undamaged by the high-calibre round to the body. Landell’s eyes went wide, and he levelled the gun at it again to line up another shot. The apparition advanced.