DAMN THE ODDS!

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DAMN THE ODDS!

Postby Starfire on Tue 21 Jul 2009 09:21

DAMN THE ODDS!
by
Kenneth D. Rotar


MILITARY ARCHIVES/FOURTH INTERSTELLAR WAR

The bright heading on the computer screen pierced through the gloom of Eric MacDougal's writing room, drawing his strained eyes together in a squint. He preferred working in a dimly lit area. It seemed to put him in the mood for storytelling, as if he were a hunter in the dark just waiting to ensnare the perfect tale. Although the war with the Arachnids had ended five years ago, it still remained the most popular of holodrama themes. If there were such a thing as a sure-win idea for his next script, he hoped he could find it in these archives. It was one of the few hopes he had left; most of the others had been murdered.

Why do I keep trying? he asked himself again, the question having nearly become his mantra. This time, though, he couldn't dig up an answer. Instead he typed a command, mindlessly, like an automaton.

>DIRECTORY

Twelve holoplays written. Twelve holoplays rejected. Eric had truly thought his last one would snag someone's eye. Wrong again. So here he was, wasting his efforts on yet another.

His wife, Teri, entered the room with a cup of tea, setting it on his desk. She had encouraged him to scan the war archives today to come up with another script, his thirteenth. This will be the lucky one, she had said. Someday, some Earth snob had to notice his work.

"Thanks, Ter," Eric said, stirring the steaming tea. "Dry reading calls for good, wet caffeine."

"How's it going?"

Stifling a yawn, he answered, "Slowly."

"Keep trying, Hon; I know you'll find something," she said, massaging his shoulders for a moment before leaving the room.

Eric sipped his tea. At least Teri still believed in him, kept encouraging him despite the lengthy string of rejections he had collected. Hour upon hour spent tapping away at keys that almost seemed to suckle hope from his fingertips, leaving little but the grim conviction that his work was simply another lesson in futility. Certainly those in the holodrama industry on Earth didn't believe in him. He couldn't help but wonder if he still believed as he scanned the screen and depressed more keys.

>LIST JOURNAL EXCERPTS

The computer presented him several screens of entries. He scrolled through the choices, clueless as to which of them might give the story he was looking for. Nothing but names and ranks. With a shrug and sigh, he at last keyed in a random selection.

>DISPLAY JOURNAL EXCERPTS/PRIVATE MARINA L. TOPOV, TFPC

* * *

June 19, 2360, 2050 EST

If I had picked the worst place in the galaxy to be posted, it would have been paradise compared to Geode. This planet is nothing but a lifeless rock with 5,000 people buried inside, a mass grave drifting in space. Actually, it's a mining outpost with all the beauty of a pigsty. I joined the Peaceforce with hopes of seeing Earth or some of the corporate worlds; instead, they've shipped me even further out, two systems beyond Erebor, my homeworld, to the edge of explored Terran space. I guess my promise to Father to return to Russia, his homeland, will have to wait. The good news is that wherever I'm posted next, it'll have to be closer to Earth.

Reason #11 for keeping a journal: you can bitch whenever you want about whatever you want without being called a whiner.

They've kept me busy my first two weeks here, teaching me the layout and operations of this subterranean mining facility. The corridors are well organized and easy to learn, the designs having been perfected over years of colonizing hostile planets. On the other hand, the maze of access and air ducts are enough to challenge any cartographer. In an underground environment, it is crucial to know every path leading to a troublesome area. And where you have miners, you can expect plenty of trouble.

Take tonight for example. I was off duty having a drink by myself in Callahan's, a generally quiet tavern, when four grubby miners stormed in demanding immediate service. The bartender's best efforts did little to appease them and with each shot they grew more obnoxious. I keyed my wrist radio for help but before any could arrive, a fight had broken out between the four miners and another party. I took and gave a few good punches before we broke it up. Some argue that we shouldn't bother to stop these quarrels unless serious injuries are threatened; it's better to let the colonists burn off some fuel. Who am I to say?

So, other than breaking up bar fights, what are my duties here? For the most part, they entail patrolling the corridors, looking tough and official to make residents feel safe. I'm a soldier playing cop for a gang of miners with too much pent up energy. Unless something nasty from spaceside comes to visit, like the Tangri, it's unlikely that I'll ever need my flechette rifle--which is actually the way I'd prefer it. No company is better than unfriendly company.

Geode's spaceport doesn't handle much traffic other than the monthly freighters that bring supplies and haul away mined ore. Four months ago a survey flotilla passed by on their way to explore the warp point leading beyond this system (known as Indra) without hardly even pausing to say hi. (I'm uncertain whether I want them to discover another system out there; the way my luck is running, it would probably be my next posting.)

Thus ends my first journal entry of my Geode volume. I'll try to write more regularly from now on, though I'm not too sure there will be much of interest to relate. I can only pray that this ends up being one of my shorter volumes.

P.S. I had been in Callahan's one other time before the scuffle, a week ago with a man named Lee Jackson. He's a grunt like me. We had a drink and he seemed like a good guy who will go places. I wouldn't mind seeing him again soon.

* * *

June 20, 1510 EST

I'm lying on my back in the greenhouse with the rays from Indra's golden sun stroking my face. Though it's mid afternoon, the sun is directly overhead, a consequence of going by the EST (Earth Standard Time) clock instead of one that's set on Geode's movements. Since we're primarily stuck underground, the outpost has always chosen to avoid cumbersome time conversions entirely. I might never get used to this disjointed method of timekeeping, but right now I don't mind at all.

I jogged up here as soon as my shift had ended at 1500. It seems utterly impossible that I can be the sole person here, but it's true. It's incredibly peaceful, embraced by lush greenery. The rest of the outpost has the look and feel of a crowded space freighter thrust deep into rock, making this place seem a garden of Eden by comparison. In the distance I can see the spaceport, can see workers loading freight, and I want to call out to them, "Hey, over here! I've found Shangri-la! Come and enjoy!"

This has been a fairly decent day. Lieutenant Hodges, my squad leader, assigned Private Syd Bernstein and me the task of making a presentation to the outpost's preteen students. You'd never believe how many kids live on Geode until you see them in one place. There must have been over five-hundred children in the public auditorium, and they came from only the southeastern sector of the outpost. Syd, who doesn't care for kids, wasn't too keen on the assignment (as he says, "I didn't have the fun of making them so why should I have the torture of babysitting them?"). I, on the other hand, couldn't wait. I have to agree with the Lieutenant: the best way to help children grow up to be law-abiding citizens is to reach out to them early.

Our program went smoothly--with Syd letting me do most of the talking--but when we began the question and answer part, no one spoke. I tried to encourage the kids by telling them they shouldn't be afraid.

"Everyone's afraid of the police," a boy mumbled from the back.

"Really?" I asked. "Why do you think that is?"

The boy shrugged. "'Cause you're always telling everyone what to do."

I explained to the kids how we only tell people what to do when someone's safety is endangered. "We're here to help you." Though some of the kids didn't seem too convinced, the rest let loose a mounting flood of questions.

At the end of our program, while talking with a teacher, I felt a soft tug on my coverall. A round-eyed girl, no more than six years old, had a hold of it. Gazing up at me, she said, "I don't think you're scary."

I knelt beside her. "You don't?"

"Nope. I think you're very, very nice."

Maybe this place isn't so bad. It may lack some amenities --like unprocessed air--but it's still a home to many, a place where people work, play, dream. There are those who are rotten apples and those who are loving family members. When you look closely, you realize it's not much different from Terran worlds everywhere else.

Family is so important, so wonderful. Since Father passed away last year, I've been forced to get by without one. There's been no one to share my life, which has led me to reason #1 for keeping a journal: to let someone know that I'd once lived. I want to be remembered. Yet, until I can look for family back on Earth, might I not find a surrogate one right here among Geode's people? This is my new hope for--

* * *

June 20, 1745 EST

Lieutenant Hodges is dead. So are White, Field, Jablonski, and Catron. In fact, I think almost everyone is dead.

At 1532, a cloaked fleet bombarded us. The outpost seemed to crumble and before we knew it, boarders were all over, horrid monsters scurrying everywhere. They kept coming like an endless storm, killing us in the most ghastly of ways.

Half our squad is still alive. Sergeant Korbeal has given us a moment to rest before we move out again. I'm not sure what we're going to do. It all seems like a nightmare.

God, please let me wake from this!

I believe it's reason #6 for keeping a journal that says writing helps settle a frenzied mind. Either this isn't correct or my mind is far past the point of frenzy.

* * *

June 20, 2320 EST

It's now my turn at watch. In theory at least, I had just caught two hours of sleep; in reality, I had only stared at the debris scattered about this room, between which shadow memories of the past hours lurked and darted. I don't know if I'll ever be able to sleep again. Corpsman Shertzer is standing guard at the sole door into these quarters. Like most of the structure in here, the door is damaged, slightly bowed and jammed halfway open. Before I take my turn at the door, I am going to record --in greater detail than my prior entry--the events of the last eight hours.

I was in the greenhouse, writing in my journal, when the bombardment began. Primary beams brighter than daylight lanced the sky, slicing jagged holes in the outer hull of the outpost, through which atmosphere bled. In a flash, I was up and racing out of the greenhouse as its glass cracked and splintered from the stress of the destruction outside. I got out just in time, the pressure doors almost slamming shut on my heel.

I ran to the Sector N3 armory, the assigned rallying point for my squad. Actually, I think I was bounced there. Wreckage rained down everywhere, even in the lower levels, as colonists searched in vain for cover. The outpost was being shaken apart around me, yet somehow I got through, dodging at precisely the right moments.

Once I'd made it to the armory, I suited up for combat. I was already wearing my PRG (Pressure Regulatory Garment). Over this, I slipped on a kevlar vest and EVA suit. While doing so, I asked Syd if he knew what was happening.

He laughed. "They're bashing us open like a sledgehammer on a tin can. I think that pretty much sums it up."

"Yeah, I'd say so. But who are they?" We had no enemies near this system. Either they had entered through a closed warp point, or the survey flotilla that had passed by in February had stirred up a hornet's nest. "And why are they attacking us?"

"Don't ask me--I'm just a mushroom in the dark," he said, again forcing out a weak smile. "We're not getting a lot from command. Aux control's dead; nothing's been heard from them."

"What about central control?"

"I don't know. They should be okay." The central control room had been recently built in a well-protected space below the outpost. It was slated to fully replace the antiquated control room that now served only in an auxiliary capacity.

A nearby explosion shook the floor, jarring us to our knees like rag dolls. Picking ourselves up, I scoped the room and saw that two of our squad had not yet arrived.

"Where are Field and Jablonski?"

Syd shook his head. "They were in Sector N6 before it went down."

We finished dressing in silence and I then checked that my backpack had enough water and rations. To its other supplies, I added my knife, a hand-held radio with earphone, my journal, and extra ammunition. For whatever it was worth, I was ready.

"Okay, soldiers, move it out!" Sergeant Korbeal roared.

Grabbing the rest of my gear--including a flechette rifle and pistol, grenades, and a satchel charge--I bolted out of the room with the other seven squad members. Lieutenant Hodges and the Sergeant led the way.

The Lieutenant filled us in as we jogged to our post, his voice coming through the headsets in our helmets: "We are going to hold the main entrance to the spaceport. Boarders have already landed and are spreading out."

"Will we have any support?" Corporal Yancy asked.

"Not unless the militia is organized soon."

Our holding action was over almost before it began.

Taking cover beside the spaceport entry, we looked out and beheld a sea of black creatures charging toward us in an immense wave. They appeared to be spiders, each with a round, man-sized body--under which gaped a huge mouth--and eight hairy limbs, two of which were actually sturdy arms holding a rifle. Above each limb an eye stalk wriggled, giving them 360 degree vision.

We later nicknamed them 'Bugs.'

Syd peeked at me. "Do you think they're friendly?"

"Can the chatter," the Sergeant scolded, his voice oddly tight.

The fight never looked good for us. We shot so many Bugs, the entryway soon resembled a meat grinder, with us the blades. Still, they came on faster than we could shoot them. They were armed with slug guns, but most of the Bugs weren't firing them. They could've finished us with ease, yet they didn't, almost as if they were cats playing with mice.

As cats will, however, the Bugs soon did more than play.

Private Catron took a slug in the leg and fell, and before anyone could pull him to safety, three Bugs hopped on top of him and bit into his body, chewing off hunks of flesh unprotected by his kevlar vest.

They were eating him alive.

Our entire squad momentarily froze in disbelief until the Sergeant blew both the Bugs and Catron away with frag grenades. It was all the opening the Bugs needed to shift their advantage into a route. By the time we recovered, they were all over us.

"Fall back!" the Lieutenant yelled. "Everyone, fall back!"

We withdrew before the Bug rush, firing a lethal stream of flechettes and frag grenades at them. We slapped them back, far enough for us to make it into the corridor. As the rest of the squad rushed out, Lieutenant Hodges and I covered their retreat in the entryway.

"Get out of here, Topov!" Hodges ordered.

I ran as swiftly as I could in my EVA suit, believing the Lieutenant was following behind me. I was wrong. He must have known that with the Bug's speed we needed more space to escape, and he bought us that space with his life, holding the entry as long as possible. By the time I glanced back, Lieutenant Hodges was dead under a swarm of Bugs. Corporal Yancy heaved a satchel charge behind us, blowing the hallway, and we were safely away.

A short time later, we received the Code Omega message. I guess we weren't the only ones having problems.

The next hour was a dizzying ordeal as we rushed from one sector into another, staying one step ahead of the Bugs--when we were lucky. We survived the worst skirmishes only by collapsing corridors with satchel charges. Eventually, we found ourselves in areas that hadn't lost hull integrity, allowing us to remove our helmets and function more effectively. By then, however, we were no longer trying to delay the Bugs. We were just fighting to stay alive.

Private White was the sole person lost during this flight. She took a dart in the neck and was knocked out in seconds. The Bugs pounced on her as if famished, tearing her apart before we could even get near her. Many of the Bugs had stopped carrying weapons--relying on brut strength and speed instead--while those that still did had traded their slug guns for tranquilizer-dart rifles, evidently to keep their prey alive; they appeared to eat only live meat, simply tossing our dead into piles.

Due to our rate of movement, the level of destruction, and the spread of the Bugs, we saw few surviving colonists, and when we did, we could do little except advise them to stay in hiding until an organized rescue could be mounted.

At last we took a brief rest, during which I wrote my last entry. Afterwards, I overheard Sergeant Korbeal discussing the situation with Corporal Yancy.

". . . in bad shape. Hell, our troops are good, but what could one-hundred fifty of us do against this assault? I don't think many of us are left now--and I haven't heard from company command since an hour ago."

"If you're right about our courier drones not getting out, then I doubt the Navy will send help any time soon," Yancy said.

"I'd say we're on our own, Corporal." Korbeal pursed his lips as he thought. "These Bugs almost seem to be scouring the outpost for every little bit of information. I hope they can't reach our computers; the less military and scientific data they capture, the better. It's something we need to worry about."

"Don't you think the control room staffs were able to erase their data files?" Yancy asked, his face drawn with concern.

"Not both of them. I doubt aux control even had a chance. Central control might have, but there's no way for us to confirm it other than going there. Both places need to be checked."

"Well, we don't seem to have anything better to do."

"You may be right, but I need to think about it a while," Korbeal said. Rising to his feet, he added, "We'd better start moving. I want us to get deeper into the complex. Hopefully we can rally any surviving troops there, and it should prove safer territory."

Our trek to the lower levels met only slightly weaker Bug resistance than our earlier sally. They had occupied undamaged areas at a rapid pace, eating the living and stacking the dead. Though they were exclusively using dart rifles or no weapons at all (perhaps to free their hands for other work?), their weight in numbers made them quite formidable; on two more occasions, we had to use a satchel charge to escape (only two charges remain). With no discernible way of communicating, it's uncanny how well coordinated they were in combat and in calling reinforcements.

In our last fight, Sergeant Korbeal fell victim to a Bug ambush. By the time we fought them off, he had lost a leg below the hip as well as his right hand. He hasn't come to.

Corpsman Shertzer believes he'll die soon.

We are now in the remnants of a family's living quarters. Since the Bugs seem to be staying in structurally sound areas, we shouldn't be disturbed here. We have shed our EVA suits and are settling in as much as possible; although I can't speak for the others, the more time I spend here, the more I feel like an intruder. I find myself wondering about the fate of the family that used to call this place home. Maybe they're still alive somewhere, waiting to be rescued.

From the dwindling number of voices on my radio, I suspect that the time left to rescue people is growing short. Geode is dying between the razor-sharp teeth of the Bugs.

I need to stop writing now; Shertzer is going to sit with the Sergeant, so I'll have to be doubly alert for trouble.

* * *

June 21, 0135 EST

My watch ended with Corpsman Shertzer informing me that the Sergeant had passed away. I woke Syd and Corporal Yancy. After covering the Sergeant with a sheet from a nearby room and saying a prayer, we sat in a circle to discuss our plans.

Shertzer began by congratulating Yancy on his new command.

"Believe me, guys, I don't want this job," Yancy responded. He stared down at his clasped hands for a moment before glancing at each of us and continuing: "I think we should check out the control rooms to confirm that their data files have been erased. We'll have to get some C-4 from storage first in case we need to blow the rooms from a distance."

Fidgeting with a ration pack, Shertzer mumbled, "I think we should stay here. Screw the data files."

"I'd like to stay here too," Yancy said, "but it's our duty to make sure the Bugs don't get those files."

"It's not our duty to commit suicide," Shertzer retorted.

Yancy ignored Shertzer as the Corpsman opened his rations.

"What about you, Sydman? What do you think we should do?" the Corporal asked.

Syd shrugged. "Don't ask me--I'm just along for the ride."

"Hell, if we go back out there with those Bugs, it'll be a ride straight into the morgue," Shertzer said between bites. He peered in our eyes as if he were gaging our support. "We have a duty to stay alive so that we're still around when we're really needed. What good will we be if we're dead? In here we stand a chance. Out there the odds are--"

"Damn the odds!" Yancy snapped, glaring at Shertzer. The Corpsman glared right back.

"Hey, cool it guys. Save it for the enemy," Syd said, his chuckle cutting the tense silence. When Shertzer and Yancy both dropped their gazes, Syd added, "Maybe we should ask Marina what she thinks."

"Yeah, let's ask Marina," Shertzer said.

Yancy leaned towards me expectantly, as if he might let my vote settle the question. Somehow we had become a democracy and I didn't like it much. "I really don't believe it's my place to say."

"It's okay," Yancy said, "I want your input."

Nipping my lower lip, I fought to put my thoughts in order. I surely didn't want to go out again, didn't want to take on any more Bugs. The prospect of being eaten like Catron had been was too much for me. But what was our duty? Other than this, there could be nothing else that mattered.

"I guess we should check out the control rooms."

I hope I chose wisely, because we'll be moving out to get the C-4 from the supply room in ten minutes.

* * *

June 21, 1515 EST

One of the reasons for keeping a journal (I can't remember which) is to keep your eyelids from drooping while on watch. As far as I can tell though, this doesn't work after having dodged Bugs for over ten hours. I'm so worn down, it takes nearly all my concentration to merely scribble a coherent sentence. I will simply try to list some of the thoughts that come to me.

The Bugs are sticking mainly to the less damaged sections, clearing rubble and bodies, and eating those they find alive.

Syd has taken point most of the time, somehow managing to keep us from stumbling into too much trouble.

Yancy and Shertzer are still snapping at each other.

We've found a civilian named McCormick, a dock worker who can almost fire a rifle straight.

Twice we've had to eliminate Bug patrols and three times we've had to take lengthy detours to avoid large confrontations.

We're at least another five hours from the supply room.

I keep thinking of Lee Jackson and the drink I had with him last week, wishing I knew then that it might be my last time out with a guy.

At 1700 my watch will end and we'll begin our hellish march again.

God, give us strength.

* * *

June 21, 2255 EST

It all happened so fast.

It was about 2100. We were walking through a large office. I was instructing McCormick for the third time on the use of his rifle's frag grenade launcher. To our rear, Yancy and Shertzer were looking over a map. Syd was at point, exiting the room via the south door.

Suddenly, the calm fell to chaos.

Flechette bursts erupted in the southern corridor and Syd backed into the room. "Take cover!" Bugs swarmed in after him, over him, even as he fired wildly into their midst.

Syd vanished under a sea of Bugs as we formed a defensive line behind some furniture. Our weapons blasted them apart and despite their numbers, there seemed no way for them to hurt us, much less reach us. None of them even had dart rifles. Unlike their previous attacks, this one seemed ill planned.

Then out of the corner of my eye, I saw Bugs coursing into the room from the other doorway to the north.

"Behind us! It's a trap!" I shouted.

We quickly moved into a circle. Now with our reduced fire to each side, the Bugs closed in. We killed scores of them but they kept coming. At times they surged forward in mass, and at others, only in selected places--apparently unfazed by the body parts being blown over the room. Nothing deterred them.

And though none of the new Bugs had dart rifles either, it was clearly just a matter of time before they'd overwhelm us.

At Yancy's order, Shertzer tossed his satchel charge into the northern corridor. With a deafening boom, it collapsed the hall, showering debris on our ducked heads. One entry had been blocked.

"Marina, blow the south passage!" the Corporal commanded.

"We can't do that!" I protested.

"Yes we can! We'll find a way out later!" he replied, not grasping my actual concern.

"Syd's over there!"

Yancy threw me a quick glare. "Syd's dead and we have to seal that entry! Now do it!"

Although I had seen Syd go down, I couldn't give up on him. A satchel charge in the hall would surely kill him. He deserved a chance to live.

"No, I won't!"

Yancy appeared ready to snatch my satchel charge and throw it in himself, but before he could, the supply of Bugs streaming through the south door at last began to trickle to an end. More were sure to come, yet for now we only needed to eliminate those currently in the room. Unfortunately, there were still many.

A heavy Bug rush at Shertzer drew his attention, permitting one to flank him. It closed on Yancy's back.

Shertzer finally saw the danger. "Yancy, behind you!"

The Corporal swung around too late to fend off the Bug. As it plowed into him, sinking its teeth deep in his thigh, another leapt on him from behind. His screams filled the room.

"No!" Shertzer yelled as he charged the Bugs on Yancy.

With bare hands, Shertzer dragged a Bug away, only to have another take its place. The Corpsman seemed to go mad, his arms clubbing Bugs aside, forcing them off Yancy. But the frenzy of the Bugs soon overcame his own; they seized his arms and dragged him beneath their snapping jaws, biting his thrashing limbs off. It took frag grenades from McCormick's rifle to silence Yancy's and Shertzer's death cries.

Only McCormick and I remained.

"There's too many!" the dock worker shouted, appearing like he was ready to flee.

I placed my back to his. "C'mon, buddy, stay cool!"

McCormick, who was now covering the south side of the room, bolted for the doorway. Halfway there, the Bugs surrounded him and converged. I tried fighting my way to him, but found myself encircled. As they shredded him into a red mess, I turned away and crouched, setting my back to a large desk.

I felt the desk shake as Bugs climbed onto it to get to me. Freeing a hand, I grabbed a concussive grenade and braced myself for the end. You're not going to eat me.

Before I could detonate the grenade, Bug guts rained over me from behind as the sound of another flechette rifle joined my own. Firing frag grenades and a long flechette barrage, I mowed down the remaining Bugs in front of me. The room grew quiet. I stood, warily, but found no Bugs left to shoot.

Against the south entry leaned Syd, a rifle dangling from his right arm, blood dripping from his left.

"Syd, are you all right?" I asked, stepping over Bug bodies to get to him.

He glanced down at his bloody arm and smiled. "I think I gave it indigestion," he remarked, nodding to a dead Bug with a gaping hole in its body.

I caught Syd as he slumped to the floor. His left arm was ugly, but my cursory exam revealed only minor--though certainly painful--damage. A Bug bite to his upper arm had torn the skin and muscle but not a major blood vessel. I could find no other injuries besides small cuts and scratches on his face and limbs, as well as some bruised ribs. The Bug that had bitten Syd must have died before it could bear down and, as if believing him to be dead, the other Bugs had simply passed him by.

"Hang in there, Sydman. You're going to be fine."

We had to move out quickly for I knew more Bugs had to be on the way. After making certain that no one else was alive, I wrapped Syd's arm and gave him a local anesthetic. Prying open an air vent, I helped Syd crawl in, following him with as much as I could carry before closing the vent behind us.

So here we rest in an air duct with the sound of scavenging Bugs in the distant background. I've just finished cleaning and bandaging Syd's arm, and while it doesn't look too severe, I am almost glad he's fallen unconscious. I wish there was something I could do for him besides keeping him warm, but there isn't. I feel so damned inadequate. We have plenty of ammo and grenades, a satchel charge and med kit, all the rations and supplies we'll ever need, but none of them can get us out of this living hell.

Someone needs to care for Syd. Someone also needs to check the control rooms. Since I'm the only 'someone' available, I've got a real problem, one I'm not sure how to handle. Leaving Syd right now is not an option; I won't do that. Yet I must somehow see to my other duty.

At least I have something to ponder until Syd comes to.

* * *

June 22, 1005 EST

Within the hour, I will leave Syd. He came round a little while ago and is doing much better, having eaten a few bites and rested since. Still, he's not yet in shape to travel, so I must proceed on without him. It isn't too much farther to the supply room, but I'm worried that the Bugs might soon occupy this area in mass, making travel even more dangerous. Syd should be safe until I return. I have already helped him into the shelter of a caved-in room, out of the reach of any nosey Bugs.

My radio is nearly silent now. Like Syd and I, those few who are still alive have probably been forced to hide in heavily damaged sections where the com systems are out and rubble blocks reception. To avoid any Bug attention, I have maintained radio silence.

It's becoming hard to concentrate. I haven't been able to sleep much; my dreams are plagued by bloody visions of families, of children, being ripped apart in the jaws of Bugs. Yet when I awaken, I find the nightmare hasn't ended. I feel so helpless. I want to save everyone, but I can't. I can't even save myself! Where's our Navy? Unless our attackers choose to leave, I fear none of us stand a chance. We're all going to die.

I'm not terribly afraid of dying, not even of dying alone. I just don't want to die here, unremembered.

* * *

June 22, 1950 EST

The Bugs will soon overrun the entire outpost. During this last day, they have spread into the most severely damaged areas, lifting away rubble like an army of gigantic ants. Within a few days, there'll be almost nowhere left for any of us to hide.

I first learned of their change in activity when I was in the supply room stuffing C-4 into a backpack. During most of my three-hour hike there, I had tried to use only corridors choked with debris, which made for slower yet safer movement. My hopes to come across other survivors were never answered, but at least I didn't stumble on any Bugs. A gaping hole in the supply room wall permitted easy access to its treasures, including a sizable cache of C-4 and a remote detonator.

That's when I heard the unmistakable sound of scrambling Bug legs outside the room. Finishing my packing, I crept to the opening in the wall and peeked out. My eyes were greeted by the sight of about a half dozen Bugs heaving large segments of steel wreckage.

I went with my first instinct: I blew them away. Firing flechette bursts and a couple of frag grenades, I cleared a path and ran past their twitching bodies. I took the corridors that presented my feet the fewest obstacles and quickly found myself in an undamaged one that seemed to stretch on forever. From the rear I could hear the clicking teeth and legs of pursuing Bugs. It was likely that at least some were armed with dart rifles.

They were going to run me down.

Pulling out my knife, I pried open an air vent and squirmed into the duct. I had to leave the vent dangling open, unable to spare the time needed to close it. Instead, I crawled on hands and knees down the duct in the direction I had come from, towing along my pack of C-4.

Rounding a corner, I peered back at the vent through which I had entered. An arm and four eye stalks of a Bug were probing the opening. Backing away, it lifted two legs in and, with its arms, tried hauling in its torso. I grabbed my rifle but waited to see if it could slide in after me. It couldn't. In a moment I slunk away, trying to regain my bearings. From that point on, I stuck to the air ducts whenever I could.

I felt like a laboratory rat trapped in a maze.

After what felt like days, I made it back to Syd. I could immediately see he was doing better, his face no longer sporting the pallor of a ghost. His arm had nearly stopped bleeding.

"You look like shit," he said, grinning like an imp. "Oh, and by the way . . . hello. Glad you could drop in."

I actually managed to catch almost four hours of sleep just before writing this entry. Syd took watch while I slept, saying he'd had enough rest lately, which I doubt (I know I'd never be able to close an eye if I was left alone in this place). I must have appeared dead, so deeply was I out. Not even my nightmares could reach me, allowing me to wake refreshed for once.

Syd says he's ready to travel. I'll check his arm to make sure and then we'll head out to the central control room, taking the air ducts as much as possible. I can't speak for Syd, but I know I'm ready for some action.

* * *

June 23, 0930 EST

Decisions. I'm sick of decisions! Let someone else make them for once.

Since heading off with Syd toward the central control room almost fourteen hours ago, it's been one decision after another. Do we take the air duct or corridor? Do we fight or run? Do we rest or go on? Every intersection, every Bug swarm, forces yet another choice that could lead to someone's death.

We're both exhausted and Syd's arm continues to hamper him. Though I can't imagine the pain he's enduring, he keeps pushing himself on as fast as his injuries allow and with as few breaks as possible. Still, we're not making good progress, especially with the increasing number of Bugs at work clearing the outpost.

And now it's imperative that we make it to the control room promptly. About 0500, an alarm originating from there went off. Syd had traded a wordless glance with me and we raced off at our best speed, as if the klaxon were a call to salvation.

Only after four hours did we stop to rest again.

"What do you . . . think is happening?" Syd asked, panting through clenched teeth as I checked his bandages.

"The command staff must need help."

"There can't be too many of us left to give help."

Another group of Bugs approaching from an adjacent corridor interrupted our conversation, the scratching sound of their legs almost seeming to echo in the room. We huddled in silence until they scurried by and passed out of hearing.

"At least the alarm might be a good sign of something," I whispered, trying to offer some hope; "central control should've had enough time to erase their data files."

Syd didn't respond. Digging into my backpack, I handed him some rations.

"Marina . . . what if they're fighting our last stand?"

Ten minutes later, shortly before writing this entry, the alarm went silent. Who cut it, our people or the Bugs? What's going on there? We need to get to the control room as soon as we can, but Syd's slowing me down. If I go ahead without him, the command staff will get the help of one person sooner rather than that of two later.

What should I do? I don't want to make the decision.

Of course, I realize I'm just practicing reason #11 again. Well, since no one else can say it to me, I had better say it to myself: "Buck up, soldier! You've got a job to do, so do it."

I'm going on to the control room without Syd.

* * *

June 23, 1200 EST

I'm as close to the control room as I can get. Evidently the corridor and rooms leading to it had collapsed, imprisoning the command staff within. Now the passage is a nauseating blur of Bugs climbing over one another to clear rubble. I'm unsure how much longer I can stomach watching them, yet I have little choice; with the air duct having also caved in, I must wait for the Bugs to dig out a path before I can proceed.

Once I'd gone on without Syd, I made much better progress, getting here in less than an hour. I hope he's all right. I left him with the med kit and last satchel charge. He was in better spirits, saying he'd roast us up some Bugs for when I got back.

I'm definitely working up one hell of an appetite dragging this bag of C-4 around.

I wonder if the survivors in the control room are expecting company of the six-legged kind. If not, they're in for a bit of a shock. There's not much I can do to warn or help them without giving away my position. It would be great if I'd at least hear from them on my radio, which has been completely silent this entire day. I guess that I'll simply have to bide my time until I can sneak in to them, hoping they're still alive.

P.S. Wouldn't it be great if Captain Quintell had a fresh pot of that gourmet coffee that everyone talks about waiting for me?

* * *

June 23, 2220 EST

Please, help me. Someone. Anyone!

I can't tell anymore if I've gone crazy or if it's only the rest of the world that has. Maybe it's both; I've gone crazy in a crazy world. But wouldn't that mean I'm really sane? I don't know. I just don't know anything anymore.

Images of the last six hours keep flickering on the back of my eyelids like a nightmarish slide show repeated endlessly, yet I seem unable to make sense of any of it. Perhaps by putting it on paper I'll feel less disjointed, less like a leaf being flung about in a storm of insanity.

At 1630, as I continued watching the Bugs frantically move wreckage from outside the central control room, I heard gunfire and someone yelling. Despite the large number of Bugs still in the hallway, I readied myself to blast through. But the sounds of combat abruptly ended. I settled back again.

A half hour later, the Bugs dragged out the bodies of four humans and five Bugs from the control room. Only when the Bugs finished clearing the rest of the room did enough of them leave to allow me to sneak over to examine the bodies. Three of them were stacked in a pile together: Private Downy, Sergeant Barns, and Captain Quintell. They had been dead a long while. Moving over, I checked the last body.

It was Lee Jackson.

He had just died, apparently from a gunshot to the head. A Bug had bit into his hip, almost as if it had tasted him to make sure he was dead. A quick look at the dead Bugs showed they had died from small-arms fire; it was clear that Lee had killed them before taking his own life. A note stuck out from his breast pocket, addressed to his mother. I slipped it into my knapsack, promising him I'd get it to her (it's now tucked in my journal).

"Thank you for the date, Lee. I'll never forget it."

It was a fairly safe bet that Lee had had plenty of time to erase the data files in his control room, but I decided to smash the area with my supply of C-4 anyway. I would tear the walls down around the Bugs that had killed him. Darting between heaps of debris, I crept to the entry of the control room. As Bugs inspected the computer center inside, I planted my parting gift in the corridor and took off, the remote detonator in hand.

Before I could get to cover at a safe distance, a group of about a dozen Bugs appeared, blocking my path. Rather than take them on, I wedged myself into a deep crack in a wall and pressed the detonate button.

I blew up the control room at 1845, blew it up so well that nothing could have survived, especially not the data files. To my surprise I suffered only minor bruises. The Bugs in the hall didn't fare so well; most were no longer moving. Unfortunately, they were aware of my presence and as more were summoned to the area, I had to flee down the air ducts as fast as one can on all fours.

I couldn't ditch the pursuing Bugs. They must have been quite angry because it seemed they had called in an entire army. I had to treat every air vent with caution, bypassing those that had eye stalks peering in, and scrambling past the others before a dart could strike. It became increasingly difficult to avoid contact.

When it finally occurred to me that I was letting them herd me right to Syd, there was little I could do except warn him by radio. "Sydman, get ready to move. I've got lots of Bugs on my ass."

"Those are some lucky Bugs," his static-filled voice joked. "Okay, I'll be ready."

I tried a final time to lead the Bugs away from Syd, to no avail. Short of suicide my only choice was to race forward, and even that proved difficult. At last I met up with Syd, who was already packed and heading out.

"There you go again, Marina; inviting friends over without asking me first. This has got to stop."

Up ahead, a Bug leaned into an open vent and began wildly firing darts at us. Using his knapsack as a shield, Syd worked his way forward and on reaching the vent, shot the Bug with his pistol. Before another one could assume its place, he lobbed a frag grenade out into the corridor, eliminating them all.

Turning to me, he crossed his eyes and grinned. "Dah, killing Bugs is fun and easy."

I followed Syd as we crawled through the ducts, hoping to get to safer ground. At first I struggled to keep up with him; his half day of rest had done him much good while I was starting to falter from my last hour of flight. Before long, however, I found myself bumping into him. He couldn't keep up his pace for long without his injured body demanding a break.

The Bug attacks grew more numerous as they swarmed into our sector. Sometimes we lost them by taking a turn in a direction they didn't count on, but in time some Bug always picked up our trail and alerted the others. And with each passing minute, Syd continued to slow.

Reaching a fork in the duct, he grabbed my arm. "We have to separate."

I gaped at him. "What are you taking about? Why?"

"We can't outrun them and eventually they'll corner us. If we split, they might follow only one of us. Besides," he gasped as he fought to catch his breath, "I'm holding you up."

"No, I'm not leaving you to those--"

"Marina," Syd cut in, squeezing my shoulder, "I'll be okay. We can meet up again in duct C8-45."

"No! We have to stay together. We need each other! Your arm . . . your arm's not good. You need me." I need you. "We have to stay together!"

"Marina, trust me. I'll be okay."

"No you won't! You won't stand a chance in your . . ."

Syd smiled. "As Corporal Yancy said, 'Damn the odds.'" He then gave me the satchel charge, kissed my cheek, and raced down the right fork. I felt like an abandoned child as I watched him go. Blinking back tears, I thrust myself down the other branch.

About ten minutes later, I heard a distant explosion that shook the air duct. I nearly turned back but realized there was nothing I could do to help Syd. Even if I knew where he was, he wouldn't want my help. His sacrifice would prove meaningless if I didn't live, so I continued on, praying for his safety. This time I couldn't keep the tears from flowing.

The Bugs must have rallied to the explosion because I soon found myself free of pursuers.

I'm now in the C8-45 air duct waiting for Syd. Except for the usual patrols, there are no Bugs. I want to radio him but I can't without possibly alerting the Bugs to our presence. Where are you, Sydman? Please be all right.

Though I should try to sleep, I know that I'll just end up reliving the last several hours until I'm utterly insane. No, I can't sleep. I can't risk a dream.

I'm beginning to believe dreams can kill.

* * *

June 24, 0245 EST

I couldn't help myself. After six hours without word from Syd, I tried to reach him on the radio. I had to know if he was okay, regardless of the risk of drawing Bug attention.

It's been over fifteen minutes and he hasn't yet responded.

I should never have split up from Syd. There had to have been another way to ditch the Bugs without him risking his life. Why didn't the Bugs chase me instead? Dammit, Syd, you weren't supposed to leave me to face all this alone!

I need you.

* * *

June 24, 0540 EST

Still no word from Syd. I must assume he's dead and that I'm now on my own. I can't wait any longer. Once I am packed, I'll try to sneak back to the supply room for more explosives. Then I'll take care of aux control.

P.S. I'm really thirsty.

* * *

June 24, 1955 EST

This will be my final entry.

I'm sitting in an air duct about a hundred meters from the auxiliary control room, or what remains of it. There aren't too many Bugs around; they must have finished digging out this place a while back. It looks like they've cleared in a few hours what would have taken us several days to move. Where there were once rooms and hallways, there is now only a rocky tunnel with gaping holes leading to other areas. Steel bands gird the passage like the shattered ribs of a decaying whale, wires and beams dangling like rotten flesh.

When I got here an hour ago, I managed to sneak past the Bug sentries (either I'm getting good or they're just extremely dense). From outside the control room, I spied a group of Bugs swarming around a beat up but intact computer console. Whether they were attempting to dismantle it or use it I couldn't tell. Of course, it would be easy to completely destroy everything in this vicinity with some C-4 as I had done before.

Unfortunately, I have no C-4.

It took five hours of dodging Bug patrols and two of their darts striking my kevlar vest to make me realize that there's no longer a way to reach the supply room short of launching a major assault, something I'm not quite up to. The entire sector was infested. After using three rifle clips to fight my way out of the area, I raced here hoping I wouldn't need the C-4. So much for hopes.

Other than a satchel charge and several grenades, I have no explosives. While these alone can take out the computer console if detonated close enough, I cannot set them off from a distance except by tossing them, which is too inaccurate to risk. I will get one chance at most, so I must make it good.

I must set the explosives right next to the console.

I don't want to think any more than I need to about what lies ahead for me, but when you're keeping a journal it's a bit difficult not to. Perhaps I should begin a list of reasons for not keeping a journal, with the first one being that it forces you to think far too much. Alas, it is too late for me to kick my writing habit, to stop my painful contemplation.

I'm going to strap my remaining satchel charge and grenades to my chest.

Then I'll charge past the Bugs to the computer console.

And I'll blow myself up.

I have only a little while to live.

I don't want to die. I would much rather hide in the air ducts, waiting for the Navy to come and squash these Bugs. I'm reasonably sure that I can survive until the Navy arrives. But if I fail my duty to safeguard Terran security, how will I ever live with myself? To save myself I must endanger others. This I cannot do.

There's no one I need to say good-bye to; everyone I knew is dead. I have no family to miss me. It would have been nice to start my own, but like so many other things, that shall not come to be. I wish I'd seen Earth. The universe is full of wonders that I will never know, yet I must accept this. It is tempting to hope for a miracle, that I'll somehow survive, but I will not allow myself to. I need to be ready for the worst. And though I can't predict success in my upcoming task, it does not matter, for I must at least try.

I have nothing left to say, no more business left untended. I will complete this entry, hide my journal, and destroy the aux data files. To whoever finds this, I ask you to remember me and my comrades who have given their lives in the name of duty.

Although destiny drives me along, I feel a sense of freedom overwhelming my soul.

Farewell.

* * *

After reading her final entry, Eric simply stared at the screen, his breathing still, his mind numb. Marina had brought him into her world and had just as quickly abandoned him. What had happened to her? Had she been successful?

An undeniable need to know the rest of her story sent him on a hunt through the computer archives. At last he discovered a list of historical footnotes, which gave him his only clues: . . . POST-WAR INVESTIGATION OF THE GEODE OUTPOST RUINS FOUND NO CONCLUSIVE EVIDENCE AS TO THE SUCCESS OR FAILURE OF PRIVATE TOPOV'S FINAL MISSION . . . THE REMAINS OF PRIVATE TOPOV WERE NEVER RECOVERED . . . PRIVATE TOPOV WAS POSTHUMOUSLY AWARDED THE MEDAL OF HONOR . . .

That's it? he wondered, his ire mounting. No conclusive evidence? Remains not recovered? Awarded medal? It was wrong. Marina had written that she had no family remaining, no one to remember her. She had done so much, given her life, and yet who would ever know? Now she was nothing more than a record in a computer file.

It was all wrong. She deserved more than a medal.

Eric snatched up his notebook and pen. "Your name will be remembered everywhere, Marina. This I promise you," he said as he began writing.

DAMN THE ODDS!

A holoplay by Eric MacDougal

He could almost hear Marina's spirit urging him on.


THE END
Nerf rock, paper is fine. signed:Scissors.
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Marvin Lamb
Marvin Lamb
 
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