“Three of a kind,” I said, “Jacks.”

“Oh fuck off. How fucking lucky can you get?” said Rebecca with a groan.

Tom added his opinion, “Maybe if you stopped calling his ‘bluffs’ you’d actually have some chips left.”

“Yeah, well maybe if the cheating whore didn’t have his faceplate on during poker, I could tell if he was actually bluffing!” Rebecca snarled.

I held up my hands, “Hey, I’m just being cautious. If there’s an emergency, I’ve got to be ready to go, ASAP.”

“I’ve seen it deploy,” she said flatly, “It takes half a second.”

“Half a second is all it takes to be killed in a combat situation,” said Tom wisely, and I nodded sagely with him.

Rebecca rolled her eyes so hard that I thought they’d pop out of her head. “Please back me up here Adelaide.”

“What? I mean, I agree with Rebecca,” said Adelaide. She was currently busy keeping a close eye on all the scanners. I’d be helping her, but I had to entertain the guests. It was a little hard to do that when you didn’t have a body.

Tom looked a little guilty, then said, “Actually, I’m gonna have to side with Rebecca too, mate. You’re cheating hardcore.”

“You fucking traitor,” I gasped at him.

Rebecca looked at me triumphantly. “You’ve been overruled. By the power vested in me by democracy, I command you to lower your goddamn faceplate.”

“That’s bullshit, Adelaide didn’t even know what she was voting for!” I complained.

“Which is an accurate representation of the democratic process,” responded Rebecca with a smirk, “now take it off, pretty boy.”

I retracted my visor and faceplate, commenting to Tom as I did it, “Didja hear that? She called me pretty.”

He flicked his eyes between me and Rebecca. “Pretty sure that was sarcasm,” he said finally.

“It always is,” I sighed deeply.

This was the second day that we’d been out here. The first had mostly been spent doing some preliminary scanning, and setting up a proper field lab. It took a lot of time to set one up, especially because it was specifically designed to be taken down within a minute or two, in case of Worm attack. Not that there were any near us, but it was a good precaution nonetheless. I’d slept in the Merlin overnight, while Rebecca and Tom had returned to the rest of the Red Eagles. This morning, we were holding a steady hover above the site. It’d been a few hours, and we’d long since taken the airborne readings the science team had wanted.

So, we were really bored at this point. There just wasn’t much to do up here. Adelaide was far better at monitoring the scanners than I was, so I couldn’t even help out there. Luckily, Tom carried a poker deck in his kit, so we’d amused ourselves for a while with that. We were sprawled out on the floor, the cards laying in between us. Tom and Rebecca had their helmets off; they were resting on the benches behind them. Tom had a shiny bald head, and Rebecca had wispy blonde hair that fell to just above her shoulders.

I was in the process winning yet another round, and gloating heavily about it, when a transmission sounded over the Merlin’s coms, and Anton’s voice rang out, “Hey everyone, I’ve got a job for you.”

“Oh thank God,” said Rebecca, throwing down her losing hand, “Please tell us before I shank Sam in his stupid smug face.”

“Uh, okay. We want you to touch down at the coordinates I’m sending you. They’re on the far side of the ‘circle’, and we’re all very busy here. If you could use the recording equipment we gave you to capture some projections of the patterns there, it would be incredibly helpful.”

“Got it. We’ll head over there right now,” I replied.

“Excellent. We’ll be keeping an open coms channel, so that we can coordinate a little more easily,” Anton said happily. He paused, “Also, try not to shank anyone, Rebecca.”

“Will do,” she grumbled, shooting me a glare, to which I returned a smirk.

“I’m taking us to the designated location, Sam,” said Adelaide, “But then I will return to my hover and continue to monitor the scanners. I don’t like this place. Something is wrong here.”

I frowned, a little more serious, “Yeah. I know exactly what you mean. It gives me the heebie-jeebies.”

“I can’t believe you actually used the words heebie-jeebies, I haven’t heard that in years,” said Rebecca with a laugh.

Tom muttered something under his breath that I didn’t quite catch, but I think I heard the word ‘room’ in it somewhere. The Merlin touched down near the Western edge of the circle, right at the intersect of a dozen iridescent lines. We emptied out the back of the Merlin, fully geared up, then it took off again, soaring into the bluebird sky. Tom watched it as it rose further away.

“I hate to see her go,” he said wistfully, “But I love to watch her leave.”

I stared at him, repulsed and impressed in equal measure, “Did… you just quote Honky Tonk Badonkadonk?”

He at least had the decency to look ashamed of himself.

 

 

“You’re absolutely right, this place is creepy as all fuck,” declared Rebecca an hour later, as we finished recording our next pattern of lines. We’d been slowly making our way to the interior of the circle, and we were nearly at the center. The rest of the team was still with the vehicles at the south-eastern most edge, analyzing samples at the field lab.

I nodded rapidly in agreement, my face armored again, “Right? There’s something seriously weird, I just can’t put my finger on it.”

“I think I know what it is,” said Tom quietly. “There isn’t anything alive here, except us.”

A shiver ran down my spine, and I realized he was absolutely right. There wasn’t any grass rustling in the wind. There weren’t any birds flying overhead. Hell, I couldn’t even find a single insect as I looked around.

“Okay, that’s it, I vote we all get back on the Merlin, turn the cars around, and get the fuck out of dodge,” said Rebecca, her eyes darting around.

“Agreed,” I said immediately, “This is getting way too horror movie bullshit for me. I’m not going to be that hot underwear-clad blonde that wanders into a basement.”

“I’m a little insulted you didn’t say that about me, to be honest,” said Rebecca.

Anton’s voice came through the coms before I could respond. “I understand what you guys are feeling, but that’s even more reason to keep investigating. If this place is something sinister, we need to know exactly what it is.”

“Logic like that is what gets everyone killed in the movies,” I replied, “but I see your point.”

“Just hold on for a little longer. We’re keeping the scanners up, and we’ve got the Merlin overhead, so we’ll know if anything is coming up on us. The last samples are being collected, and when you get to the center of the circle we’ll have good recordings of all the patterns. I must say though, this dark material is incredibly bizarre. I’ve never seen anything like it. Anyway, keep us updated on any progress you make.”

“Roger that,” I sighed.

Jackson suddenly sounded in. He’d been quiet and pensive the whole trip, which was much different than last time. “I recognize this. I don’t know how. But I do.” He sounded unsettled.

Allie squawked over the coms, “Jesus fucking Christ Jackson, I already feel like I’m going to piss myself, did you really have to add to it?”

“Stay focused everyone. We need to be ready for anything,” said Aaron. Our coms channel was linked to both Anton and the rest of the scout team, so we had been in close contact while on the ground. Rebecca, Tom and I made our way slowly towards the center. There was this prickle on the back of my neck that was only getting stronger the closer we got to it. I walked ahead, morbidly curious to see what waited for us. When I reached it, I was surprised. It was beautiful.

The fractal patterns of iridescent lines bloomed and weaved together, binding together tighter and tighter as they came to the absolute center point. They seemed to dance around each other, a complex mesh unlike anything I’d seen before. I kneeled, and ran a metal finger over the lines. The haptic feedback let me feel their texture, or lack thereof. They were perfectly smooth, a stark contrast to the rough ground around them.

It was gorgeous, ethereal, not like anything I’d seen before. But I got a feeling in my stomach looking at it. A feeling I’d experienced many times in the simulator, when I’d been living through all those lives. It was just a feeling, something anyone rational would dismiss as silly. But I didn’t, because it was the sickly feeling of impending danger.

“Adelaide, something is about to happen, I know it. Be ready,” I said, making sure the transmission only went to her.

“Okay, Sam,” she replied, “be careful.”

I unholstered my SMGs, letting them fold out with a click and holding them by my side. I walked swiftly back towards my two friends, every muscle in my body tensed. We were about twenty feet west of the center of the circle, and Tom was busy recording the patterns. Rebecca shot me a glance as I approached, her eyes swiveling down to the guns in my hands.

“Wha-“ she started to say, but I cut her off.

“Tom, put that recorder away. Keep your weapons out, both of you. We’re heading back towards the field lab. Now.”

Something in my voice must have convinced them, because they listened to me without a second thought. I made sure we skirted around the center, and we were about thirty feet south-east of it when Anton’s started speaking to us again, “We’re going to start collecting that material in a few seconds, so it’ll only be a short while before we go. But we’d really like a recording of the center.”

“I’m sorry, but I don’t give a damn what you’d like,” I said coldly, “Something is wrong here. I’m not staying to find out what it is, and you shouldn’t either.”

“We can’t just leave now. We have to know what’s going on here,” Anton sounded frustrated.

There was silence for a moment then Jackson suddenly gasped, “Holy shit. I saw this pattern in Canon City. I didn’t recognize it because I was so far away the last time.”

“Taking the sample… now,” said Anton.

“We’re standing in a fucking Hive,” he whispered.

As his sentence trailed off, a low, deadly buzz started to sound, like a million wasps in a jar. I looked between my feet and the black, iridescent lines were suddenly streaked with dark red. The same color as an Assimilator’s tendrils. I looked at Rebecca and Tom, and we started sprinting forwards. I made sure to match my pace with them. As we ran, the earth beneath started to rumble and ripple.

“Adelaide!” I yelled, “We need a pick up, now!”

“On my way, Sam,” said Adelaide, a note of panic in her voice, “My scanners are going crazy. I don’t know what’s happening on the ground right now.”

Anything I wanted to say to her was interrupted by the booming crack of earth breaking apart around us. Tom and Rebecca both fell, hard, rolling onto the heaving ground. My anti-gravs kept me standing, and I calmly watched the horror breaking out around me. Hundred, thousands of Assimilators were crawling up from the dirt, forcing their way through the hardened soil. Their grating screeches started to fill the air, tearing the still afternoon apart. There was chaos on the com channel, but Aaron was doing his best to organize everyone. From what I could tell, he was trying to get the field lab packed up. I grabbed Tom and Rebecca by the arm, extremely gently, and helped them stand.

“We’re going to wait here for the Merlin,” I said steadily, “I’ll cover the front and sides, you two cover my back.”

They gave quick sounds of assent, and I faced towards the center of the circle, hefting both my SMGs, watching the Worms wriggle their way from the ground. The vast majority were low class melee or ranged, and the moment they fully broke free… they ignored us completely, heading full tilt to the south-east. Directly towards the Red Eagles.

“Shit,” I muttered. Then I yelled into the coms, “Aaron, you have incoming! The entire Hive is headed your way!” And thank God they were. I would have been able to survive if we got the brunt of the attack, but I wouldn’t be able to protect Rebecca and Tom for long. A low curse over the coms told me that Aaron got my message, and I refocused my attention on the emerging aliens. It was like being in the middle of a stampede: there was a terrifying stream of red and black parting around us.

The patch of earth we were standing on didn’t have any Assimilators emerging from it, but I saw the massive head of an M2 Bison tearing itself out a dozen feet from me. I kept my weapons trained on it, but didn’t fire yet. Hopefully it would just pass us by like the rest. It shook the dirt free and bellowed out, and then something I couldn’t explain happened. The Assimilators around it cowered, and seemed to give it a wide berth as they passed by. I’d never seen behavior like that before. I’d never even heard of behavior like that. But I didn’t let myself get distracted, and that was a good thing, because the Bison Head turned its gaze, its two blood-red eyes locking directly on me. It charged in the next second, its footsteps shaking the ground. Tom and Rebecca must have turned around when they heard it, because they started gasping in fear. I ignored them.

It was barely six feet away when the rocket pod popped out of my shoulder, and two rockets flew out, taking the Worm in its right knee and the center of its face, spaced a second apart. The first destroyed its leg, causing it to lose its balance, while the other bloomed into a blue explosion on its head, heavily damaging it, but not destroying it. Without the support of its leg, the Assimilator fell forward, and as it did I fired four incendiary rounds from my SMGs, two from each, that caught the Worm in the hole blown in its forehead. It screeched as the fire blossomed in its skull, but it was dead before it hit the ground.

“Holy fuck,” breathed Rebecca from behind me.

“Focus,” I growled at her, then I spoke into my coms, “Adelaide, where the hell are you?”

“I apologize Sam, there were several class two and many dozens of class one Assimilators that attacked the field lab at the start of the incident; the Red Eagle teams were unprepared and would have been destroyed had I not interfered. I used the majority of my heavy munitions defending them. I am on my way, but we’ll have to be very quick about this. The Red Eagles won’t survive long without me.”

“Roger,” I said shortly. I was keeping my eye on my CAS, but for whatever reason our scanners weren’t picking any Worms up that were below the surface, so it wasn’t very helpful. It didn’t seem that any of the other Assimilators had taken an exception to us killing the Bison Head. I didn’t know why that one had decided to attack us when all the others didn’t. I had just realized why that was so bizarre when the earth near us began pitching wildly. The three of us tightened our little triangle, preparing for what was coming.

My HUD showed seventeen Assimilators pushing their way out of the ground in a ring around us, all class M1, all Panther-Spiders with eight furred legs and a feline head that bristled with fangs. Ten in my direction, seven in Rebecca and Tom’s. My breath caught in my throat. I prayed they wouldn’t attack us, but all the ones I faced started hissing and screeching at me, baring their teeth ferociously. On my HUD, I watched two sprint away from Rebecca and Tom, but the other five stayed, leaving fifteen in total to engage. When the first started moving towards me, I opened fire, and the chatter of assault rifles behind me told me that Rebecca and Tom had as well.

My gunfire caught five of them, but they were moving too fast for me to shoot them all. I wanted to conserve my rockets, but I still fired one for each Worm, finishing the group that was headed at me. My HUD showed that Rebecca and Tom had only eliminated two of the Panther-Spiders approaching them, so I fired my bottom and front thrusters, sending me in a backwards arc just over the top of their heads. I flipped in the air, my anti-gravs spinning me, and I landed boot first on the shoulder of Worm that had avoided the assault rifle fire and was getting too close to Rebecca for comfort. I saw the shock and relief in her eyes as the Assimilator’s body crumpled under my weight, and as I crushed it I fired my SMG into the head of another Worm that was going for Tom, dropping it before it could reach him. But I wasn’t quick enough to get the last. It leapt at Tom and latched onto him, tearing his leg off at the knee. A bullet from my weapon ended it a half second later, but the damage had already been done.

He fell screaming to the ground, clutching at what remained of his leg. I snatched an emergency kit from a slot in my Paladin and tossed it to Rebecca, who caught it and pulled the mediband out. I took up a guard position, but the rest of the Assimilators had passed us during our skirmish, and it seemed like they had finished emerging.  Rebecca applied the band to the bloody stump, winding it tightly around the wound, then gave Tom a combat pain reliever. His eyes went unfocused, and his screaming stopped. But the measures were only temporary; he would need far more help than I could give him to survive, and quickly.

“Adelaide,” I yelled into the coms, “Tom’s hurt bad, where are you!?”

“I’m nearly there, just hold on for a bit longer,” she replied.

“Good. Alright, we can’t risk a full landing. Adelaide, bring the Merlin in with the ramp open, Rebecca will have to help Tom into it, and I’ll cover you as you do. Now, keep your eye-“

A deafening roar burst out from behind us, and we spun around to see a mass of earth exploding from the center of the circle, flung nearly forty feet in the air. There was something was moving, obscured by the rain of rocks and dirt that fell back to the ground. A massive shape, slowly struggling its way out of the center of the Hive. As I watched it, I knew there wasn’t enough time to come up with a great plan. So I made do with one that would work.

“Adelaide,” I said, my voice strangely calm, “Land and get Rebecca and Tom out of here. I’ll hold it off.”

“That’s fucking crazy!” Rebecca yelled desperately, “Are you an idiot? Come with us!”

I stowed my SMGs. The monster in front of us was still trying to pull itself free from the earth, and it looked like we had some time before it was fully free. “We have three options,” I said, I removing my railgun from my back, giving a mental command for it to unfold, “Option one, we all go with the Merlin back to the vehicles and the help rest of the Red Eagles escape, because they can’t survive without immediate assistance. Option two, I go to the vehicles and help them, while the Merlin holds it here. Option three, I stay and hold it while Adelaide goes to help the vehicles, then she comes back for me. We can’t go with option one because that thing will catch them in minutes, and if it reaches them it will tear them apart, even if both Adelaide and myself are there. Option two is out because Tom is badly injured and needs to get medical assistance as soon as possible. I can’t carry him without risking exacerbating the wound, but the Merlin can. That leaves option three.”

“Fine! Then I’m not going to leave you here alone!” Rebecca snapped back.

I retracted just my visor, and made eye contact with her, “You saw what I could do before. But I can’t protect you if I’m tangling with that.”

Rebecca looked like she wanted to keep arguing but couldn’t find the words to. The powerful hum of anti-grav engines announced the Merlin’s arrival, and it landed a short distance away. I helped Rebecca get Tom standing, and she supported his weight with her shoulder. His face was pale and loose from the pain killer. It left him responsive but not cognizant; a companion shot would restore his mental faculties so he could be diagnosed. I brought the railgun shoulder height, and we limped our way over to the gunship’s ramp. Rebecca helped Tom up, and looked back at me.

“You don’t have to do this,” she said.

I was going to say something witty and heroic but I was cut off by a horrible sound. A sound like a thousand roars and shrieks magnified and mixed into one, a sound that boomed around the Hive Cluster and pierced my skin, settling into my bones.

“Go, now,” I barked, and turned away as the ramp began to close. The Merlin rose into the sky, and blasted away. I lowered my visor, and my railgun hummed to life, ready to fire. I hadn’t wanted to draw its ire before everyone was safely away.

I faced the beast that was standing now, shaking off the dirt that coated it, the light from the sun dying off in the black and red tendrils that composed its gargantuan bulk.

“Hey Adelaide,” I said, “Why didn’t you argue with me?”

“I knew you wouldn’t listen to me, and I couldn’t come up with a better plan. I also know you won’t die and leave me alone, because you promised that you wouldn’t. I’ll be back for you as soon as I can.”

“Atta girl,” I said with a smile. I cut off the rest of my coms, except the one to her. I needed to be focused.

A hundred feet in front of me, I saw all six of the Hive Lord’s glowing red eyes swivel at once, and lock on to my Paladin.

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