|Master Sergeant Victor Hendricksen||Unit Leader||Wake Mode||Corporal James Murphy||Alpha Team Leader||Wake Mode|
|Corporal Ellen Blake||Med-Tech||Wake Mode||PFC Ash Morgan||Com-Tech||Wake Mode|
|PFC Katherine Holmes||Smart-Gun Operator||Wake Mode (Special)|
|PFC Luthor Holmes||Smart-Gun Operator||Wake Mode (Special)|
|Corporal William Harvelle||Drop-Ship Pilot||Wake Mode||Private Deacon Hall||Drop-Ship Crew Chief||Wake Mode|
|Private Gordon Walker||Bravo Team Leader||Wake Mode|
|Carlton Creedy||Trooper||Wake Mode|
|Private Joshua Daniels||Trooper||Wake Mode||Lieutenant Stanley Kubrick||Executive Officer||Wake Mode|
|Bela Talbot||Colonial Guest||Wake Mode|
|Robert Singer||Civilian Consultant||Wake Mode|
Coming out of cryofreeze never failed to make the inside of Robert Singer’s mouth feel like he’d just licked the exterior of an engine - after a run through Jupiter’s rings. It was a sensation he thought he’d never experience again and, truth be told, at this point in his life, one he wasn’t really sure he wanted to relive. But Bobby Singer was also a pragmatic man. No sense railing against things he couldn’t change.
He casually observed the Marines around him as they attempted to shake off their own grogginess.
No one looked good after a six-week snooze. No one. Not even Ms. Perfect Corporate Attorney Bela Talbot, which only strengthened Bobby’s conviction that God actually existed. Although some people obviously weathered it better than others, if Executive Officer Stanley Kubrick’s zombie impersonation was any indication.
Deacon Hall groaned from the bed beside Bobby’s. “They ain’t paying us enough for this shit.”
A corpsman, Ellen something or other, snorted humorously. “Not enough to compensate for waking up to your face.”
Deacon’s face contorted as he got the full effect of the taste in his mouth. “Was that a joke?”
“I wish.” Kate Holmes shook her head in mock sorrow.
Bobby tried to suppress his shudder. Vampires. Vampires in space. It sounded like a really cheesy vid title, one of the types his wife used to like to watch. Bobby put the brakes on that train of thought immediately, knowing there wasn’t a chance in hell he was going to find a bottle of alcohol any time before the mission started. But still…vampires. This time he wasn’t as successful in hiding his shudder.
“Hey.” The corpsman stood in front of him, obviously making an attempt not to draw anyone else’s attention. “Are you okay?”
Bobby nodded, but couldn’t stop his eyes from tracking the two vampires as they headed toward the lockers.
Ellen nodded once in understanding. “How long were you out?”
“A little over a hundred years.” Bobby looked at her briefly then dropped his gaze, not wanting to see the pity in her eyes.
“A lot changed.”
“A lot stayed the same.”
“And how sad is that?”
When Bobby looked up at her again, she gave him a shit-eating grin.
“Ellen Blake.” She held her hand out.
He shook it. “Bobby Singer.”
“I heard tell you saw an alien.”
The sergeant came up behind Ellen and clapped both sides of her shoulders. “You’ll be briefed along with everyone else, corpsman.”
“Yes, Master Sergeant.” She gave Bobby a wink, then lurched a little unsteadily toward the lockers.
“Are you alright?” the sergeant asked.
“No ‘sir’ is necessary, Singer. I work for a living.” Victor Hendricksen gave Bobby a grin, then turned and inhaled deeply. “All right, sweethearts, what are you waiting for? Breakfast in bed? It’s another glorious day in the Corps! Where every meal's a banquet! Every paycheck a fortune! Every formation a parade! I love the Corps!”
The Marines around him groaned, which only made Hendricksen chuckle.
While Bobby knew he didn’t have to move as quickly as his counterparts (being a civilian consultant did have some benefits after all), he decided he better start moving. No point in purposely separating himself from the others. Taking a deep breath, he stood…then decided to count to three in the hopes his muscles would stop screaming by then.
Bobby followed Lt. Kubrick through the maze of machines in the ship’s main cargo hold, wondering for the hundredth time since he’d awoken how he allowed himself to be talked into accompanying these Marines on this particular mission. If he had had an ounce of sense, he would have shoved Talbot’s calling card down her corporate throat.
But he hadn’t.
All because of one word.
Shit, he hoped this was a wild goose chase. Please, he silently prayed, please, please let this be a wild goose chase. Let their communication tower be down and that be it.
As they neared the center of the hold, Bobby looked up and found the Marines in various states of repose beside their drop-ship. They looked like normal men and women. Tough, sure. Capable. Perhaps a little jaded. But they also exhibited the universal qualities that categorized them as grunts, no matter what era.
Kubrick had informed him that each and every one of them had gone through a highly specialized techno-combat training regime that had been developed while he was sleeping in a raft drifting through space. Apparently, only one Marine in a hundred scored high enough to be allowed the opportunity to even train for this unit. Half of those didn’t even make it. So despite their semi-slovenly appearance, they were supposedly the best of the best.
There was a casual pride emanating from the group. They knew there wasn’t another unit in the Corps who had anywhere near their mission success rate. They didn’t flaunt that knowledge, but they didn’t try to hide it either. If things turned ugly, Bobby truly hoped their training and experience would be enough.
“Atten-hut!” Hendricksen bellowed as soon as he saw them approach.
All the Marines snapped to attention.
Lt. Kubrick nodded in acknowledgment. “At ease.”
The Marines melted back into practically the same positions they’d been in before coming to attention.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t able to brief you before we left the Gateway, but--”
“Yes, Murphy?” Kubrick frowned, clearly not liking the interruption, making Bobby wonder if he’d ever worked with this unit before.
“I’m Walker, sir.” The private gave the lieutenant a shit-eating grin. “He’s Murphy.” The older man he pointed to didn’t look pleased at being dragged into this little act of insubordination.
“What’s the question, Walker?”
“I just want to know if this is going to be a stand up fight or a bug hunt.”
“We don’t know.” Kubrick took a step back and looked at the team, as if assessing them for the first time. “Gateway reports there still hasn’t been any further messages from the colony. But the one message they did get out before communications went down was that they’d discovered a xenomorph.”
“A what?” one of the technicians asked. Bobby thought the kid’s name was Joshua.
“It means it’s another bug hunt.” Luthor, the male vampire, was clearly unhappy by the prospect.
Hendricksen stepped forward, his arms crossed over his chest as he frowned at the troops. “All right, people, settle down.”
“Singer,” Kubrick prompted.
Bobby felt the palms of his hands begin to sweat, but he stepped forward and cleared his throat. “I’m not really much of an expert, but I can tell you what I know.” He cleared his throat nervously again. “My ship, the Sioux Falls, received a distress signal. We weren’t really equipped for any sort of rescue operation, but the Company sent a signal to wake us from cryofreeze so we could investigate and evaluate the situation. The signal appeared to be coming from KAZ-25…”
“What? Wait!” Corporal Jim Murphy sat up at attention, a look of horror on his face. “Say that again.”
Bobby blinked in confusion. “What?”
“The name of the planet. What was it?”
“Sheeeeeeet,” the drop-ship pilot, Bill Harvelle, swore softly.
“Was that…” Ellen started to ask.
“Yes,” Ash answered.
“What?” Kubrick demanded.
“That’s where Winchester’s widow lives, sir,” Murphy explained softly.
“I don’t understand.” Kubrick turned toward Hendricksen, silently demanding an answer.
The sergeant looked pained. “The reason our team was at the Gateway, sir, was because we’d just lost a team member. John Winchester. Our xenomorph expert. If it was alien, John could track it, categorize it and figure out a way to dispose of it, if need be.”
“The mission on RMD-52 was supposed to be John’s last mission,” Murphy added. “His wife’s a geologist and had been shipped off to a shake-and-bake. As soon as John got out, he was going to join her and the boys and provide security for the colony.”
“Which means what?” Kubrick asked, not following the explanations.
“It means, sir,” Harvelle said in a firm tone that almost bordered on insubordinate, “that this mission just became personal.”
Bobby expected the Marines to take potshots at his masculinity, but was surprised when they asked pointed and intelligent questions instead. There were no sly innuendos to indicate they thought he should have somehow been able to take care of the alien who wiped out his crew. Even the vampires had asked smart questions, wanting to know how the alien hunted.
He answered their questions for nearly two hours, surprising himself with the details he remembered.
When the briefing was over, he watched the Marines as they began to efficiently load the drop-ship, their orbit-to-surface vessel, with a vast array of weapons. Bobby was convinced they had equipment to cover practically any contingency. But the longer he watched, the twitchier he became. He wasn’t used to idly sitting by while others worked.
Finally, he took a deep breath, let it out slowly then worked his way over to Hendricksen. “Is there anything I can do to help?”
Instead of denying him outright, Hendricksen looked him up and down, as if truly registering him for the first time. “I don’t know, is there?”
Bobby knew the question wasn’t a challenge, but an honest query, basically asking him if there was anything he could do without being in the way or delaying their mission in any way, shape or form.
He tilted his head toward the empty power loader. “I can operate that loader.”
One of Hendricksen’s eyebrows shot upward.
“Part of my retraining after the company decided my knowledge of ship mechanics was a hundred years out-of-date and no longer something I needed to concern myself with.”
Hendricksen flashed a quick frown toward Talbot, who was sitting on a crate at the far end of the bay, before he returned his attention back to Bobby and gave him a sharp nod. “Why don’t you load those medical modules in the far left hold?”
Bobby nodded once in gratitude, then moved to the power loader. He climbed into the metal exoskeleton cage with an ease he found humiliating somewhere deep within his soul. He was a mechanic, damn it, not a laborer. But he quickly brushed aside the emotion, which would lead him nowhere good, and hooked his legs into the metallic structure before strapping himself into the safety harness.
He punched the power button and listened to the machine whine itself awake, then lightly gripped the servo-controls for the hydraulic arms, correctly guessing that the military loaders would be more sensitive than the ones the Company foisted on its low paid cargo staff.
He looked up and noticed the two vampires field-stripping their weapons with precise movements. He recognized the armaments as ‘smart-guns’ one of the most powerful hand-held weapons in existence, also one of the heaviest, which made sense as to why the vampires were wielding them. Bobby doubted a normal human male, even one in such an elite marine group, would have the endurance to carry that sort of weapon for any sort of prolonged mission.
Bringing his attention back to the task at hand, he spun the wrist servos, clinically watching the forklift-style claws opened and closed in response. He stepped forward, getting a tiny bit of a thrill as the reverberations echoed around the bay, then slid the claws into the brackets and lifted the container. After that, he allowed himself to put his mind on autopilot and finish the task at hand, as if it were just another day on the job.
Head bent, Bobby sat in front of the locker that had been designated as his. In his hands, he held a picture of his wife on her thirtieth birthday. She looked radiant, her eyes laughing with mischief.
He remembered the day he’d taken it as if it had happened only the day before, instead of nearly a hundred and five years earlier. Her one dream had been to walk the beaches of the South Pacific, to feel the ocean tickle her feet as she walked on white sands. It had taken him over two years, but he’d managed to secretly save enough credits to surprise her on her birthday -- one whole week at one of Earth’s swankiest tropical resorts.
He hadn’t skimped on anything, making sure the staff treated her like a queen, instead of like an orbit station rat. He’d known it was probably the only time they’d ever get Earth-side and he wanted to make the occasion memorable for her.
He still remembered how her hair looked in the setting sun, and how her eyes twinkled with love when it rose again the next morning.
She had been the one true love of his life. He’d served with other crew members who had spouses who didn’t always understand a wayfarer’s need to go out into space. But Karen had never minded. She used to tease him that the only reason she married him was because she knew he’d eventually get on her the nerves and the best way to preserve their marriage was if he’d leave long enough for her to forget why she was mad at him.
But she’d also made him promise to always return. And he always had -- even when it’d been too late.
She had never remarried, even though she’d lived to the ripe old age of ninety-three. She’d also never given up hope, not even after the Company had officially declared him dead and paid out his benefits. Her video diaries had been both a blessing and a curse. Everyday for sixty-two years, she made a recording for him, told him about her day and the events that happened around her. And every day she told him that she loved him and knew he’d be back someday.
He wished he’d been able to hold her one last time.
Bobby knew he didn’t have any particular reason to return to the Gateway Station, and he suspected the reason he agreed to this trip was because he didn’t really expect to survive it. He hoped and prayed the colonists on KAZ-25 were alive, but deep in his soul he was pretty sure they weren’t.
A gentle touch on his shoulder startled him. “Mr. Singer.”
Bobby looked up to find Ellen Blake standing behind him. “It’s just Bobby. Mr. Singer makes me sound so…”
He smirked at her and she returned it in full.
“Preacher’s gonna say a few words. Would you care to join us?”
“I didn’t realize you all had a chaplain.” But even as he spoke, he stood and slipped the picture into his shirt pocket.
“We don’t. Not officially. But Murphy plans on being one once he gets out, so we all agreed to let him practice on us from time to time.”
Bobby chuckled and followed her back to the drop-ship. He was surprised to find the lieutenant and Talbot there as well.
“Thank you all for coming.” And while Murphy spoke to the group, his eyes were specifically on Bobby. Bobby nodded once in acknowledgment.
“Let’s bow our heads.”
Bobby was surprised to find that even the vampires bowed their head in respect.
“Dear Lord, we want to take this opportunity to pray for the colonists on KAZ-25, and we fervently ask that they be safe and that this trip be nothing more than an opportunity for Ash to show off his electronic skills by upgrading the piece of shit communications satellite they’re no doubt dealing with.”
Bobby huffed in amusement. However, the rest of the crew said, “Hear our prayer.”
“Lord, we ask you to walk by our sides and if it’s our time to join you in your kingdom, let us do so as warriors, taking as many sons of bitches with us as we can.”
“Hear our prayer.”
“Lord, we ask you to be with Lieutenant Kubrick. Guide him. Let him make sound judgments.”
“Hear our prayer.” Bobby thought that petition had been agreed to a little more vehemently than the first two had been.
“Lord, if it’s a bug hunt, we ask that you keep the guts out of Luthor’s hair because none of us can take another two weeks of his bitching like a little girl.”
“Hear our prayer.”
“And if they’re friendly, Lord, please, please, please remind Creedy to check John’s journal before deciding on whether or not he wants to expand his sexual horizons.”
“Hear our prayer.”
Bobby had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from chuckling, and decided, right then and there that if he did, by some miracle, survive the trip, he was definitely joining this man’s church.
“And finally, Lord, we ask that you be with Mary and the boys. Let us find them whole, for John’s sake.”
“Hear our prayer.”
Sergeant Hendricksen cleared his throat, then spoke in a quiet voice. “Two minutes people.”
Bobby opened his eyes and found Talbot rolling her eyes in disgust. He shook his head, sad that she didn’t understand what had just happened.
“How’re you holding up?”
Bobby turned to find Murphy at his elbow.
“I’m all right. Good words there, preacher.”
Murphy grinned at him. “I like to think that God has a special fondness for jarheads.”
“I know he does, what with all that going in where angels fear to tread.”
“Well, I wasn’t gonna…”
Murphy laughed and gripped his shoulder, but then his voice grew quieter and he gently squeezed Bobby’s shoulder to let him know he wasn’t joshing around anymore. “I want you to stick as close to me as possible.”
Bobby blinked in surprise, not sure how to respond.
“Kubrick’s never gone out with this crew before. I’m not saying I don’t trust the man, but…”
“He hasn’t earned that trust yet?”
Murphy nodded. “And I definitely don’t trust Ms. Corporate.”
“Good call on that one.”
“We’ve all read how your case went down. The corporation had to find a scapegoat, and, unfortunately for you, you had the audacity to survive their cluster fuck.”
Bobby huffed once, not really in amusement, more as an agreement to the facts as stated.
“We also know the Company probably pulled some strong-arm tactics to get you here, but, despite that, you haven’t held yourself apart, unlike some. You’ve impressed everyone by getting your hands dirty and helping us ready the ship. And, possibly even more important, you haven’t made a big deal out of the Holmeses being on the team, although it’s a matter of public record that your family had a hunter or two several generations back. I know it may not seem like much, but both squads wanted me to let you know that they’ll be keeping an eye out for you.”
Bobby nodded, not trusting himself to speak.
“Good man.” Murphy patted him on the back.
Sergeant Hendricksen loudly clapped his hands together three times. “All right, people. It’s time for us to go and be some big damn heroes.”
Bobby had been surprised to discover that the Impala, the Marines’ mother ship, was fully automated and would remain crewless while the squads went planet-side. Even Talbot was joining the rescue party, trading her stylish shoes for a type of boot that seemed more conducive to hiking on a luxury planet than slogging through the mud that was sure to be covering most of the surface of KAZ-25.
One of the joys of being the ship’s mechanic for the Sioux Falls had been that unless the mother ship went down, Bobby never had to go planet-side. Her engines had been his top priority. He didn’t have to go gallivanting around the universe in tiny drop-ships. Okay, tiny was probably relative, but drop-ships that were substantially smaller than the Sioux Falls, or the Impala for that matter.
The only thing that made him feel better was the fact that Lt. Kubrick looked paler than he felt. Everyone else gave the impression that it was just another day in the life of a Colonial Marine. One by one, the Marines strapped themselves into their seats inside the APC--armored personnel carrier-- before Daniels drove it into the belly of the drop-ship.
Before the APC rolled, Corporal Murphy double-checked Bobby’s safety straps, giving him a small nod of encouragement, which went a long way to calming him down. It’s just another mission for these guys, he kept telling himself over and over.
Bobby noticed Walker finally taking in Kubrick’s pallor. The private bit his lips to quell his shit-eating grin. “How many drops is this for you, Lieutenant?”
Kubrick rubbed the knee of his pants, then cleared his throat. “Well, I’ve been through twenty-three…simulated drops.”
Bobby noticed everyone’s eyes widening in surprise.
“And actual ones? Sir.” The sign of respect Walker added on after a moment’s pause was clearly an afterthought.
“Including this one?” Kubrick cleared his throat again. “Three.”
The can-you-believe-this-shit looks flew furiously, but silently, around the cabin. Hendricksen cleared his throat once and everyone made a specific point to look anywhere but at their lieutenant.
“Initiating release sequencer on my mark.” Harvelle’s voice came over Bobby’s com. “Three. Two. One. Mark.”
Bobby felt his stomach slam into his Adam’s apple as the ship dropped. He could hear Talbot moan in distress, and watched Kubrick snatch for a handhold by his head. Daniels and Creedy whooped like they were on one of Mars’ gravity rides. Bobby simply clenched his teeth and crossed his arms over his chest, holding onto the straps that were keeping him in his seat.
For a few countless moments, the universe was silent as the ship shivered and plunged downward.
“We’re just about to enter the planet’s atmosphere,” Harvelle reported in a calm, detached voice. “Expect rough air ahead.”
The words had no sooner been spoken when the ship jolted sharply. Bobby had to remind himself that the smaller the craft the more they would feel each pocket of turbulence. Sound returned in a big way as the ship sliced through the upper stratosphere. The blackness of space slowly morphed into a gray sort of limbo. Even though, according to all the reports he had read about KAZ-25, there would be enough air to breathe planet-side, Bobby knew there wouldn’t be anything resembling a season or even soil viable enough to sustain planet growth for several decades to come.
They appeared to be coming in at night, which gave Bobby pause. If they were dealing with a xenomorph, he definitely wanted to be able to see it coming, but he also understood that time was of the essence. As they plunged further into the atmosphere, he realized that it wasn’t so much night as a sort of twilight, probably due to the lack of sunlight penetrating the clouds they sliced through. He was surprised to realize the quasi-light gave him some measure of hope. He vaguely remembered his great granpappy saying something about it being easier to hunt monsters in the light of day.
“Turning for final approach. Coming around to seven-zero-niner. Terminal guidance is locked in,” Harvelle reported.
Hendricksen and Kubrick popped their harness releases and moved to a row of computer displays across from Bobby. Kubrick started flipping switches and Bobby was amazed at how in his element the lieutenant seemed behind the computers.
Bobby looked at the monitors as they flickered to life and realized there were two for each solider. The upper screen gave a video feed from the soldier’s individual helmet cameras, while the lower screen was some sort of bio-monitor, showing stats such as EEG, EKG and other life-function readouts.
Kubrick nodded to himself. “Everyone appears to be online. Wait. Luthor, check your camera. There appears to be…”
Bobby turned in time to watch the vampire hit his head against the wall by his seat. Apparently, this was a familiar malfunction.
“That’s better,” Kubrick acknowledged. Once he was happy with the readings, he nodded once to Hendricksen, then turned his attention to a monitor at his side, which showed images from the exterior of the drop-ship.
The sergeant took a deep breath, then bellowed. “Alright, ladies, let’s get geared up. Two minutes. Everyone move like they have a purpose. And would someone please wake Murphy!”
There was a clatter of activity as the Marines released their safety harnesses and started reaching for their weapons and packs. Not wanting to be in the way, Bobby unbuckled his harness and went to stand next to the lieutenant, aware that Talbot had the same idea and was ghosting his movements.
Bobby looked at the structure the drop-ship was approaching. He hadn’t been on very many planets, let alone civilized ones, but the building, for lack of a better word, was the largest structure he had ever seen. Enormous wasn’t even an appropriate word to describe its size.
“Is that an atmosphere processor?” he asked in awe.
Before Kubrick could answer, Talbot nodded. “Yes. There’s already about ten or so operational on the planet. They’re completely automated, and only need minimal routine maintenance once they’re up and operating.” She looked smug, as if she was somehow personally responsible for their smooth operation. “The Company manufactures them, by the way.”
Bobby noticed Kubrick roll his eyes and decided that the lieutenant might not be as bad as he initially feared.
“Hold at forty.” Kubrick instructed into his mike. “Circle the complex.”
Bobby, Talbot and the lieutenant all leaned forward, studying the screen before them.
“It looks intact,” Talbot said, sounding pleased. “They also have power.”
“Yes, but you just said they were fully automated,” Bobby reminded her. “Having power doesn’t necessarily mean the colonists are safe.”
Talbot frowned, clearly not liking what he’d implied.
The ship continued to circle until a grouping of flat container-looking buildings came into view. Bobby couldn’t get over how much they looked like ancient cargo freighters wrecked on the bottom of a sea with their loads still intact. There wasn’t anything remotely aesthetically pleasing about the colony.
“Is there a settlement next to each processor?” Bobby asked.
Kubrick looked at Talbot, apparently wanting to know the answer as well.
“No. Once a processor is up and running, the colony moves to the site of the next processor. It takes between eight and ten years to put up a processor. The crew on KAZ-25 has been one of the most efficient colonies the company has ever employed. Once a processor is fully automatic, they don’t even have to leave anyone behind to look after it. They just insert it into their regular maintenance rotation. The colony is mobile. If there was a problem, they should’ve been able to move it.”
Bobby shivered, remembering how fast one alien had gone through the crew of the Sioux Falls. If the colony was still intact, it meant that the colonists had either been overwhelmed, much like the Sioux Falls had been, or it was a false alarm and their communication tower had somehow been damaged. He fervently prayed for the latter to be true.
“Alright, let’s do this!” Kubrick’s voice deepened as he spoke into the comm.
“You heard the man,” Hendricksen boomed. “I want a nice, clean exit dispersal this time, Walker.”
The private lowered his head slightly as his teammates threw jeers and playful barbs his way.
Murphy, who was standing fairly close to the console, looked at the lieutenant, then at Bobby. “Is Singer coming with us?”
The lieutenant shook his head. “We won’t send the civilians in until the area has been secured.”
Bobby looked at Murphy for further instructions.
“Stick close to the lieutenant,” Murphy mouthed.
Bobby nodded to let him know the message had been received. Probably just as well, he thought. Give him a failing engine any day and he could work miracles, but he knew he wouldn’t be much help in a firefight.
Pushing his mike, the lieutenant gave his instructions to the pilot. “Set down sixty meters to the starboard side of the telemetry mast. Dust off immediately on my ‘clear,’ then stay on station until you hear from me.”
“Affirmative,” Harvelle acknowledged.
“Look sharp, ladies.” Hendricksen looked pointedly at Walker and Creedy. “Five seconds.”
The noise around them increased ten-fold as the loading ramp of the drop-ship lowered. Everyone inside the APC was jolted as the ship hit the ground. Daniels punched the gas and the APC practically leapt from the belly of the ship.
The back of the APC dropped hard, apparently not having been completely off the ramp before the jump-ship leapt back into the air. Bobby noted that several of the Marines shot Kubrick a look of disgust.
Daniels drove the APC to a spot approximately twenty meters in front of one of the colony’s streets. Before the vehicle had even stopped, the side door slid open and troopers were hitting the ground and running, spreading out in formation. Bobby watched Daniels throw the APC in park before he joined his teammates.
With the APC empty of soldiers, Bobby focused on the monitors before him, showing those still inside the APC that the streets were completely devoid of people. Trash blew in the wind, but there was no other movement.
“That’s not a good sign,” Bobby whispered to himself.
“Alpha Squad on the line,” Kubrick called into his mike. “Walker, get yours in a cordon. Watch the rear.”
“Affirmative,” Walker called back.
Hendricksen’s voice came over the comm. “Kate, take point. Let’s move.”
Bobby watched the monitors as the female vampire took the lead, holding her smart gun as easily as if it were a normal rifle. She moved unerringly to the nearest door of the main building. When the door didn’t open, she held up her hand and flashed a series of quick hand-signals.
Ash, the unit’s com-tech, moved up and pulled some electronics from his vest. Ten seconds later the door was open.
“Alpha team in. Bravo team, line up,” Kubrick instructed.
“You heard the man, let’s move it,” Hendricksen growled over the intercom.
“There appears to be another floor above ground level,” Murphy reported from inside the building.
Kubrick considered this a moment. “Alpha team, upstairs. Bravo team, stay on the floor. Hendricksen stay by the door and coordinate.”
Bobby watched the monitors as the two teams moved further inside the building. Most of the lights had been blown out, although there were a few emergency lights still active in odd places. Pools of water covered whole sections of the bottom floor. Papers flittered along the hallways like fallen leaves. Ellen looked upward and Bobby could see there were blast holes in the ceiling, as if a pulse-rifle had lost control and shot up the roof.
However, all of Bobby’s observations stopped the moment he saw a medium-sized doll tossed carelessly against one of the corridor walls.
There had been children living here.
Intellectually, he’d known that fact. He’d been told there were between fifty to sixty families in the colony. But it wasn’t until he saw the doll that it truly hit home.
He closed his eyes and let the soldiers’ voices wash over him.
“Looks like someone bagged one of Singer’s bad guys.”
Bobby opened his eyes, trying to focus on the row of monitors before him. He zeroed-in on the one labeled Murphy, and saw the hole he was inspecting.
“Acid for blood,” Ellen murmured as she moved past their position.
A second later Gordon Walker appeared below, looking up at the group on the second floor, then downward, trying to follow the path the acid had taken. “It looks like it’s burned down to the sublevels. I can see pipes, conduit, and equipment below.”
“Status?” Kubrick demanded.
“It appears no one’s home on the main level, sir,” Luthor reported from further up the lower corridor.
Hendricksen added, “All two-by-two teams have reported in, sir. The main building appears dead. Whatever happened, we missed it.”
Kubrick turned toward Bobby and Talbot. “All right, the area’s secure. Let’s go see what their computer can tell us.”
“What?” Bobby was shocked. “The area isn’t secured. They haven’t checked the sublevels or even looked at anything besides the main building.”
The lieutenant frowned at him. “It’s secure enough, Singer. Come on.”
Whatever points Kubrick had gained from thinking Talbot was a corporate tool, quickly evaporated.
“Alpha team, head for Operations.” Kubrick stood and removed his headset. “Ash, see if you can get their computer servers online. Hendricksen, meet us at the door. We’re coming in.”
Bobby could hear the vampires whispering to each other over the comm, but couldn’t make out what they were saying; although if he had to speculate, he’d wager it wasn’t very kind.
Bobby followed the lieutenant like an automaton, giving a simple nod of acknowledgment to Hendricksen as they entered the building then followed the sergeant deeper inside. No matter how he twisted the puzzle of the missing colonists in his head, he couldn’t seem to make their disappearance make any sort of sense.
No bodies had been found, either colonists or xenomorphs. The buildings, which could be moved, hadn’t been. In fact there was nothing to indicate that the initiation process had even been started.
One fact he was cognizant of was that the interior of the building looked a lot worse in person than it did over the comms, as if it had been ground zero in a major fire fight. But yet, there were no apparent clues to indicate what the final outcome had been. If the colonists had lost, shouldn’t there have been signs of the xenomorphs? If they had won, why hadn’t anyone made an attempt to contact the Marines?
“Lieutenant,” Ash reported, “I’m patched into their servers.”
“Everyone to Operations,” Kubrick ordered.
“Sir,” Walker’s voice came over the comm., “I think you’re going to want to stop by Medical first.”
“Alright.” Kubrick turned to face Hendricksen. “We’ll hit Medical first, then proceed to Operations.”
Bobby tried not to shake his head as he followed them. The feeling of wrongness grew stronger with each step he took, giving him a déjà vu feeling of how the last day on the Sioux Falls had started.
Kubrick casually waved his hand around the corridor. “Looks like the Company is going to have to write off a portion of the colony structures.”
“They’re fully insured.” Talbot shrugged, her beautiful face unfeelingly cold. “On paper, even the loss of the colonists is minimal in the grand scheme of the overall operation. As long as the processing units are functional, the Company should be able to recoup any of its losses for the downtime.”
“That’s a little cold.” Hendricksen looked appalled by the attorney’s analysis.
“It’s business. If we can’t find the colonists, I’ll send a message before we head back. They’ll have their replacements ready before we come out of cryofreeze.”
Bobby bit the inside of his lips so hard he was surprised he couldn’t taste blood. While he knew the Company as an entity had no soul, he was beginning to wonder if Talbot had one. Surely no one was that heartless.
The further they move into the building, the worse the damage became. There was absolutely no power in the wing they turned into, and Bobby was forced to turn on his pack lights in order to see, although a part of him wished he hadn’t. Entire offices appeared to have been gutted by fire. Furniture was haphazardly strewn around the corridors as if they’d been flung about like discarded toys.
Bobby was relieved to see that while the lieutenant didn’t appear to be overly worried, the Marines around him were still on high alert. Each one of them held their weapons at the ready, their eyes scanning for any sort of movement, trying to take in everything at once.
As they moved down the corridor, Bobby noticed what appeared to be a hastily erected barricade. The colonists had apparently attempted to block off the corridor by welding several thick plates of steel over one of the section walls.
The walls leading up to the barricade were pitted with acid burns and there were even larger holes on the floor, forcing them to pick their path carefully. A huge chunk of metal from the barricade had been twisted back, making it appear as if the blockade was put together with nothing sturdier than the aluminum trays that came with most MRE meals, even though Bobby knew it was impossible to bend such metal without the use of some heavy-duty machines.
Bobby followed the others through the ripped opening, hoping against hope they’d find some positive sign that there might be some survivors.
Corporal Murphy was waiting for them on the other side of the barricade and gave Bobby a brief encouraging smile. Bobby returned it, but it slowly melted away as he noticed the new hallway was in even worse shape than the previous one. The walls were perforated by huge pulse-rifle fire and acid holes.
“Last stand,” Murphy reported in a somber voice.
Kubrick frowned. “Any bodies?”
“No, sir. But it looks like they put up a hell of a fight. Not too shabby for civilians.”
“Fat lot of good it did them,’ Hendricksen said softly. “With your permission, sir, I’d like to go ahead and check on our men in Operations and see if we can get the lights back on.”
Kubrick nodded, apparently as stunned as Bobby was over the destruction.
Daniels popped his head out of one of the nearby rooms as Hendricksen left. “In here, sir. You need to check this out.”
While everything around them had been pitch black, Bobby noticed there appeared to be several sources of light coming from one of the far medical bays.
As a group, they carefully worked their way past tables laden with equipment. When they finally entered the bay, they found seven transparent specimen stasis tubes glowing faintly from a work table. All of them were filled.
“While the rest of the lab is dead, the tubes appear to be operating off an independent power source,” Daniels reported quietly.
Each tube held what appeared to be a severed arthritic hand, its palsied fingers curled in a death-rictus, looking almost like a dead translucent spider.
Kubrick and Talbot both move forward in fascination.
Talbot’s eyes widened as she looked back at Bobby. “Are these…”
As soon as he realized what they were, Bobby’s throat went dry and he couldn’t quite suppress the shudder that ran through him. Knowing he wouldn’t be able to speak, he simply nodded. Even in death, they inspired fear. He could still remember fighting to get a similar thing off Gamble’s face. They thought they’d been successful, that they had somehow won…until….
Talbot had already turned back to the tube, practically pressing her face up against the cylinder.
“Watch it, ma’am,” Daniels warned.
The words were no sooner out of his mouth when the creature inside forcefully launched itself against the glass wall of its prison. Talbot jumped back as a tapered piece of intestinal-like tubing started sucking on the glass, desperately trying to get to her.
Walker smirked. “Hey, I think it likes you.”
Talbot frowned when she noticed the other soldiers in the room were smirking as well, although their humor disappeared when the creatures flailing woke two of its friends in neighboring tubes.
“Holy shit,” Creedy said quietly.
“Thank God the colonists were smart enough to put these on a separate power source.” Daniels shuddered involuntarily.
Kubrick paled as he noticed the long thick tails thrashing back and forth behind the main bodies. “Are these…are these the egg layers?”
“Yes,” Bobby finally managed. “The tail wraps around the victim’s neck, cutting off their air supply, forcing them to open their mouth so it can insert the tube down their throat and lay its egg.”
“You should insist on dinner first.” Walker winked at Talbot. “Let it know you aren’t the typical easy Company attorney.”
Talbot’s pretty face turned ugly, but Walker didn’t seem overly concerned.
Daniels tapped the remaining containers. “It looks like only these three are alive, sir. The rest appear to be dead.”
Before Kubrick could tell them how he wanted to proceed, a loud beep echoed around the room. Everyone turned en masse to look at Murphy. The corporal grabbed the motion tracker hanging from his belt and aimed it toward the opposite side of the medical bay.
The beeping became more insistent.
“Talk to me,” Kubrick said in a low voice.
Murphy swept the tracker left. The beeps grew slightly quieter, but when he moved it to the right, they became louder again. “We definitely have company, coming from deeper inside the complex versus from the outside.”
“Could it be one of us?” Bobby asked, praying it was true.
Kubrick whispered into his headset. “Hendricksen, who do you have in Operations with you?”
“Ash, Ellen and the vamps, sir. Why? Do you need us to make our way to you?”
“Negative. Stay where you are, but be on alert until you hear from me.”
The rest of the squad brought their weapons to the ready.
“Stay behind me.” Murphy waited until Bobby nodded, then moved slowly back through the medbay toward the corridor. The others followed behind him as best they could.
“It appears to be five or six targets,” Murphy quietly reported. He smacked the side of the tracker and frowned. “I can’t…something seems to be interfering with my locking system.”
When they reached the corridor, the soldiers fanned out. Bobby could feel the tension ratcheting up as the group prepared itself for a confrontation.
Murphy indicated a corner about fifteen meters from where they stood. He flashed five fingers, indicating how far the intruders were from the intersection, then dropped his thumb and his index finger to let them know that they were getting closer. Carefully, he let the tracker fall to his side, then brought his gun up to his shoulder and waited. The others followed suit.
Five seconds later a tiny blonde figure, no taller than a meter, and dressed in a dirty brown shirt that acted as more of a dress, appeared. Walker started to pull the trigger, but Murphy shouted, “Stand down!” Only years of training kept the next two seconds from being a bloody disaster.
Before the words were fully out of Murphy’s mouth, four more children--three boys and another girl--stumbled into the corridor; their arms full of rations, all looking like Martian drebnibs frozen in front of a carrier’s headlights.
The two groups stared at each other in shocked amazement as the overhead lights flickered on. The tiny girl they’d seen first, who was probably no older than three, pulled her thumb out of her mouth and gave them a timid smile; however, an older boy, probably around six years of age, gently put his hand on her shoulder and pulled her back, at the same time, using his opposite shoulder to push a boy of similar age behind him.
“Hey, no,” Bobby said quietly. “We’re here to help.”
The children remained silent, but as a group they took a step back toward the corridor from which they had just appeared.
The lieutenant cleared his throat and said in his most authoritative voice, “I am Lieutenant Kubrick of the Colonial Marines and I order you to stay where you are.”
With no apparent verbal cue, the children turned en mass and ran.
“Well, that could have gone better,” Bobby said in quiet exasperation.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” Kubrick turned toward the Marines, his face clearly one of disgust. “Go, bring them back.”
“You’re going to scare them to death if you go chasing after them,” Bobby protested. “Don’t you think they’ve probably been through enough already?”
“We have to know what’s going on here, Singer, and we don’t know if we have the time to mollycoddle them or not.”
Walker, Creedy and Daniels holstered their weapons and started down the hallway at a trot. Murphy lightly tapped Bobby’s shoulder twice, then pointed his chin down the hallway, indicating that he should join him in the hunt.
They had only moved a couple of feet when a small body seemed to explode from one of the ducts near the ceiling. Torn between trying not to hurt the boy and trying to capture him, the lead Marines found themselves in a tangled pile on the floor as the whirling dervish danced just beyond their hands. The boy shot straight down the hallway, surprising Bobby when he didn’t duck into the same corridor the other children had taken.
“For God’s sake!” Kubrick yelled at the ceiling in frustration.
“Go after the younger ones,” Murphy ordered the three picking themselves off the floor. “And remember, they aren’t the damn enemy.”
Without being prompted, Bobby ran after the lone boy, with Murphy just a step behind him, both of them barely able to keep him in their sights as he darted into and out of offices that lead into other hallways.
Even though the boy obviously knew the lay of the land, the two men chasing him had size and speed on their hands. The boy managed to keep just out of their reach, but didn’t have so much as a second to stop and close any of the portals behind him.
They were several minutes into the chase before Bobby realized the kid wasn’t making any noise. There was some scuffling sounds from the physical act of running, but the boy wasn’t even grunting as he ran. Bobby wondered if he was mute.
“Preacher, we got ‘em,” Walker reported over the comm unit. “All five of them. We’re taking them back to the MedBay now.”
And just that quick, the boy came to a dead stop in the middle of the corridor.
Bobby veered sharply to the left in order to avoid colliding with him and bounced off a metallic wall. Murphy was able to stop, but ended up a step in front of the now still boy.
They both watched in stunned silence as the boy executed a perfect about-face and stood at attention.
Murphy opened his mouth to speak, but Bobby gave him a minute shake of his head. He knew they weren’t going to get anything out of the boy until they were back with the other children.
Nodding, Murphy simply reached out and gently touched the boy’s shoulder. The boy didn’t flinch, he just started walking back the way they’d come, which Bobby decided was probably a good thing as he hadn’t been paying attention to where they were going and was pretty sure he had no idea how to get back to the MedBay.
“Where are your parents?” Bobby could hear Kubrick’s aggravated tone as soon as they entered the main medical bay. It was apparent the lieutenant had been questioning the other children without much success.
“Concentrate. Just tell us anything. Do you know where they went? Have you seen any xenomorphs?”
Bobby saw Kubrick in one of the smaller bays. The lieutenant was bent forward, hands on his knees, in front of the older of the two girls, who couldn’t be more than five or six. She sat hunched on the edge of a work table, attempting to use her long dark hair as a shield against Kubrick. Her bottom lip was trembling, but she remained mute.
Ellen was standing at the next table, clearly unhappy with the lieutenant’s tactics, but gently attempting to clean the face of the tiny blonde girl before her.
Bobby stepped in front of Murphy and the boy. “Lieutenant, I doubt any of these children even know what a xenomorph is.”
The boy who had initiated the earlier retreat snorted softly, but wisely kept his mouth shut.
The lieutenant started to protest.
“Sir, please,” Murphy pleaded quietly.
“It’s like they’re all mute.” Kubrick shook his head as he threw his hands up in frustration. “Fine. I’ll be in Operations. See what you can do.” And with that, he stomped out of the room.
Bobby took a moment to study the other boys. Two of them could almost be twins. They each wore the same style of black denim pants, along with gray t-shirts, which might have been green once upon a time. In addition, each of them wore a much larger green plaid button-down shirt for warmth.
They were the same height and had the same curly hair, although one was blond and the other had darker hair. The blond boy looked pale and frail as if he were unable to warm up. The darker haired boy, while by no means chubby, was definitely heavier than his companion. He had an inquisitive little face that looked like it was used to smiling.
The third boy, the snorter, appeared to be taller than the twins and his hair and complexion fell somewhere in between the other two boys. He was wearing a jacket and blue denim pants. Bobby noticed that as soon as the snorter noticed the boy they’d brought back with them, his whole body relaxed.
All three boys looked to be about six or seven years old.
Once it was apparent the lieutenant wouldn’t be coming back anytime soon, the boy they’d caught made a small hand signal. The two curly haired boys moved immediately toward the two cots in the far corner of the room. Without making a sound, they pushed the cots together so they created one long bed. Once done, they sat together on the edge of one of the cots, waiting for their next orders.
The snorter moved toward the three-year-old. While polite, he stepped in front of Ellen and picked the tiny blonde girl off the table and walked toward the cots. The other two boys moved apart creating a space for the little girl. Once his charge was situated and the twins had each wrapped an arm around the little girl, the snorter moved to the other cot and, like the others, waited.
Their boy then walked over to the table and held his arms out to the dark-headed little girl, who immediately wrapped herself around him, hiding her face in his neck.
Bobby could hear him whispering something to her, but couldn’t make out the words. The boy carried her over to the second cot, and gently placed her beside the snorter, who immediately wrapped an arm around her. The older boy rubbed the younger one’s hair, then moved to the other three children and gently cupped their cheeks, as if reassuring himself that they were unharmed. They looked at him as if they were expecting a scolding, but relaxed when he smiled at them.
Bobby was fascinated by the children’s interaction. He would have expected the younger children to be asking a lot of questions of the older boy, demanding to know what was happening, perhaps even crying because they were scared, but they all remained silent. Their faces, which had been frightened earlier, shone with trust for the boy. Their relief that he was safe was clearly evident in their faces.
Ellen moved beside Murphy, but remained silent, apparently as fascinated by what she was observing as they were.
Once the boy was assured that his charges were safe, he turned to face the adults.
As Bobby watched the boy catalogue them, he realized the boy had never once looked at them in the corridor, making this his first real assessment of the adults around him.
The boy’s face immediately drained of all color as he looked at Murphy. His bottom lip started to quiver and it took him a moment to get his facial features under control. Bobby couldn’t imagine why he was falling apart just as the other children were calming down.
Once he composed himself, the boy walked toward the adults, then past them, until he was standing in the middle of the main medical bay.
Bobby, Murphy and Ellen all exchanged curious looks, but obediently followed.
The boy arranged himself so that he could see his charges, and the adults made it a point not to block his line of sight.
Murphy got down on one knee so that he didn’t tower over the boy, and Bobby and Ellen followed suit.
The boy turned his head slightly, away from the other children. “How did he die?” he asked, his voice barely above a whisper.
The three adults blinked in surprise, then Murphy’s eyes widened.
The boy gave one sharp nod.
Ellen’s face crumpled when she realized who the boy was. Bobby watched as Murphy unconsciously touched the patch on the sleeve of his jacket.
“Ambush on JDM-42. We thought we’d cornered a xenomorph that was terrorizing an agro-community. Turns out instead of one there were nearly a dozen of them.”
Dean clenched his teeth together and nodded. “A warrior’s death,” he finally said.
“Yes,” Murphy agreed softly.
“Yes, son, I am.”
“Do you have something for me?”
Murphy leaned heavily to one side as he dug into one of his pockets, then pulled out two small data crystals. He silently handed them to the boy. “Your Daddy wanted me to give you these…in the event of his death.”
Bobby could hear the boy’s breathing take on a distressed air, but no other sound emanated from him. He nodded once and accepted the crystals, then pulled an info pad from his pants pocket and slipped the crystals into the empty ports.
Dean closed his eyes, swallowed once, then reopened them. “We were attacked nearly three months ago by a race of xenomorphs.” He snorted once and gave Bobby a significant glance, then continued with his report. “They appear almost insectoid in appearance. They have a hard exoskeleton, which can be penetrated by small arms fire, but doesn’t do a whole lot to slow them down. They move incredibly fast and can fit into spaces that defy their size.” He punched several buttons on his info pad. When a picture pulled up, he turned it toward them.
Bobby felt a cold fist of fear clutch in his stomach.
Murphy raised an eyebrow at him and he nodded, not trusting himself to speak.
“Dad would have classified them as I-17s, although he never reported anything this vicious in that class.”
Ellen gave the boy a sad smile. “How old are you, Dean?”
The boy appeared startled by the question. “Ten. Why?”
“You sure you aren’t a forty-year-old midget?”
Dean flashed them a grin, but it evaporated quickly. “No, that would be Sammy.”
Murphy looked back at the other children, honing in on the boy sitting next to the dark haired girl. When he looked back, he gave Dean a small smile. “Your father would be so proud of you right now.”
Dean shook his head, unable to look at any of the adults. “I wasn’t able to save mom. She…she…” Tears welled up in his eyes and Bobby could see him clenching his teeth again.
“Are these your brothers and sisters?” Bobby asked, trying to give the boy an out.
It took a moment for Dean to get himself back under control, but when he finally spoke; his voice was strong and determined. “They are now.”
“Can you introduce us?” Bobby asked.
Dean started toward the other children, but stopped and turned back to the adults. “Don’t…please…”
“We won’t mention your father,” Murphy reassured the boy. “There’s a time and place for that conversation, but it won’t be planet-side.”
Dean nodded once in silent gratitude and headed toward his charges.
Bobby took Murphy’s outstretched hand and allowed the corporal to haul him to his feet, then the three of them followed Dean back across the room.
When they caught up with him, Dean was standing beside the dark curly haired boy.
“This is Andy. He talks a good game.”
The three adults glanced at each other, curious about how Dean introduced the boy, but remained silent.
“Beside him is JoJo. She’s a good girl.”
The tiny blonde girl grinned at them, then shyly hid her face behind Andy’s arm.
Dean crossed in front of the two children he had already introduced and laid his hand on the cold-looking boy’s shoulder. “This is Max. Max can move mountains.”
The boy smiled proudly up at Dean, but the grin disappeared when he looked at the adults.
“It’s okay,” Bobby heard Dean reassure Max before he moved to the other cot.
“This beautiful lady is Sarah. She keeps us connected.”
Bobby had a feeling there was more to Dean’s introductions than positive re-enforcement, but he had no idea what he was missing, other than the fact he was missing something important.
“And this is my lieutenant, Sammy. He’s our early warning system.”
Sammy nodded at the adults, although he never took his arm off Sarah.
Dean looked at the children. “These are…that is…”
“I’m Corporal Murphy,” Murphy said quietly when Dean appeared to be faltering. “You can call me Preacher. This here is Corporal Blake, but you can call her Ellen. And this gentleman is Robert Singer, but you can just call him Bobby.”
“Howdy.” Ellen smiled at the children.
“Hello,” Bobby added, feeling a little awkward.
“If you guys don’t mind, I’d like to have Ellen check you all over. Make sure you’re in tip-top condition.”
Sammy frowned. “We are.”
“Dean takes good care of us,” Andy said, his little voice clearly affronted.
Ellen held her hands up in a placating gesture. “Of course he does. But my boss is a by-the-book sort of guy and he’s going to want an official report.”
All the children snorted as one and Bobby almost laughed out loud.
“Help a gal out?”
All the children looked to Dean, and Bobby knew he wasn’t imagining the underlying eagerness in their eyes. Having only themselves to rely on for nearly three months, he could only presume that it would give them all a sense of comfort to be fussed over a bit. Once Dean had given his approval, they all nodded toward Ellen with bright smiles.
“Okay,” Ellen said brightly. “Who’s first?”
Bobby watched Dean oversee Ellen’s inspection of the children. The med-tech was definitely making points with the boy with her gentle approach. The boy smiled whenever one of the other children giggled at whatever silly little thing she said to them. She had even managed to coax a tiny laugh out of shy Max. But while the children were preening under her attention, Bobby noticed that each and every one of them knew exactly where Dean stood in the room at all times.
Bobby turned to find that Murphy had approached the boy from the other side.
“Would you be willing to give a report to the lieutenant about what happened here?”
Neither adult missed the boy’s reluctance, even though he nodded his consent.
“Do you want to come up to Operations with me?”
Dean shook his head.
“We can bring a full squad down to protect them if it’d make you feel better,” Murphy offered.
But Dean simply shook his head more emphatically.
Murphy pursed his lips. “I get it. We’re still an unknown quantity. How about if I bring the lieutenant back down here? We can meet in one of the smaller bays. That way they’re never out of your line of sight. They can get some rest and you don’t have to worry about them overhearing anything.”
Dean considered the corporal’s proposal for a moment, then nodded solemnly.
“Thank you.” Murphy tilted his head to one side, indicating that Bobby should follow him, then led him to the main bay doors before he stopped. “I’m going upstairs to give the lieutenant the low down. I’ll probably be bringing both squads back with me.”
“What do you want me to do?” Bobby asked.
“Stay with Dean. I doubt he’ll ever allow himself to relax completely, but maybe your presence can give him some comfort.”
Bobby was surprised by the sadness in Murphy’s voice.
“John used to…” Murphy took a deep breath to control his emotions before he continued. “After every mission, John used to make a data crystal for Dean. He’d catalogue every alien we ran across, detailing physical attributes and abilities. We used to razz him about it a bit, but he said that his boy wanted to follow in his footsteps and that he was going to make sure he was the best damn soldier the Colonial Marines ever saw. Dean would send back the most hysterical crystals about his and Sammy’s adventures. We used to laugh until we cried. That boy had more life in him than any ten station kids.”
Bobby waited, knowing there was more.
“It would’ve killed John to see his son like this.”
The shock on Murphy’s face was priceless.
“I may not have known Winchester or the relationship he had with his boys, but I’m guessing he would’ve been damn proud of them. Not only has Dean managed to survive three months in hostile territory, but he kept his brother and the others safe from harm.”
Murphy pinched the bridge of his nose. “He would have puffed up like a rooster. His boys meant the universe to him. But…”
“Dean’s ten years old for crying out loud. I’ve…I’ve seen admirals in the midst of planetary skirmishes who had less weight on their shoulders than that boy has on his.”
“Yeah, but that boy is a soldier, just like his daddy. I think John’s faith in him, along with those crystals probably saved their lives.”
“I know they did,” Murphy said with soft fierceness. The corporal looked like he wanted to say more.
“If Mary’s dead…”
Bobby shuddered to think what the Company would do with the children if extended family couldn’t be found. Off-stationed children were often frowned upon by the sterile company hierarchy. Karen, Bobby’s wife, had been raised under the space station’s tutelage and there had been more than a few times during their first two years of marriage when he wasn’t sure she’d ever feel comfortable letting her emotions go, so he could understand the corporal’s concerns.
“We’ll come up with something,” he assured him. “We won’t let it come to that.”
Private Walker entered the medbay a few seconds after Murphy left. He acknowledged Bobby with a nod and walked with him to the smaller bay where the children were. The moment they entered, Bobby could have sworn the temperature dropped several degrees as the children stopped what they were doing and glared at the private. Bobby ventured to guess that their capture was still a sore subject with them.
To his amazement, Walker swallowed nervously before thrusting a backpack at Ellen. Once the handoff had been made, he wasted no time in executing an about-face and leaving.
The boys smirked and Bobby would have sworn he heard Sam snort softly.
“So who’s hungry?” Ellen asked brightly.
The smirks disappeared as six children stared at her like she was speaking a foreign language.
But being made of sterner stuff than the private, Ellen simply put the pack on one of the worktables and opened it up. Instead of clamoring forward like a pack of hungry dogs, the children slowly edged toward Dean as if seeking his protection.
Ellen continued to unload several aluminum containers from her pack as if she wasn’t aware of the children’s movements, although Bobby didn’t doubt for a second she was completely cognizant of them.
“Hmmm. I think this one,” she said to herself.
Moving nonchalantly toward the little table that sat in front of the two cots, she placed a large container on its surface. Bending over it, she snapped each of the four corners then turned back toward the work bench and pulled out several disposable plates and a stack of utensils.
“And this one too, I think,” she added.
Again she snapped the corners. When none of the children came forward, she busied herself with removing the lid from the first container. Steam rose and the aroma of cooked spaghetti filled the room.
Ellen removed another container, snapped the corners, then set it aside when she removed the lid from the second container.
JoJo leaned forward ever so slightly, but her hand clenched Dean’s as if she were somehow anchoring herself.
The removal of the third lid permeated the room with the scent of garlic. When Ellen was done clearing the table of the excess lids, she looked at Dean and tilted her head ever so slightly.
The boy removed JoJo’s hand from his and placed it in Andy’s, then stepped forward to inspect the offering on the table. He frowned a bit, but when he turned back to the children he nodded once.
The children quickly moved around the table and took their seats.
Dean then proceeded to put food on everyone’s plates. Instead of digging in, like Bobby expected, the children closed their eyes and were silent for several moments. As one they crossed themselves, then opened their eyes and began to eat. Dean remained standing, on guard.
Bobby expected that the children’s mood would lighten with each bite they took, but again he found himself proven wrong. The mood remained solemn. Max’s eyes started watering, like he was about to cry.
JoJo looked curiously at him, then at Sarah.
“No, Sarah.” Dean’s whisper wasn’t harsh, in fact, Bobby probably wouldn’t have heard it if there had been any other noise in the room.
Dean moved around the table and knelt in between Sarah and Max. Tears flowed freely down both of the younger children’s faces as they tried to put on brave fronts and continue their meal. He put his right arm around Max, who turned his face and buried it in Dean’s chest.
Dean held the child, his hands absently rubbing up and down Max’s back. After several moments, the boy started to calm down. When he finally got his emotions back under control, Dean gave him a gentle smile and guided his hands back to the food.
Only when Max was eating again did Dean turn toward Sarah. He pressed his lips gently against her forehead and squeezed her to him. After a few moments, she nodded, gave a wobbly smile to JoJo and then started eating with more gusto.
Bobby blinked as the thought came to him. The children were communicating telepathically, which explained why they rarely spoke aloud.
While the children were eating, Dean wandered over to the cots, then looking back over his shoulder at the kids, he raised one eyebrow in an apparent question. The children hesitantly looked toward Bobby and Ellen then back to Dean, all nodding. He returned their nod, then efficiently removed the mattresses from the two cots and placed them in the corner of the room. The frames of the cots quickly became mini-walls, surrounding the mattresses.
As each child reached their saturation point, they stood, gathered their dishes and politely, but quietly, handed them back to Ellen. They then crawled into the nest that Dean had built.
Bobby watched as Dean put Jo and Max in the center of the mattresses. He then directed Sarah to lay behind Jo, which put her back to the wall. Andy then spooned in behind Max and Sam behind him. When everyone was lying where they were supposed to be, Dean made a big production out of unfurling the blankets over them.
A tiny giggle from the center of the pile made Bobby smile. He prayed that perhaps the children hadn’t been irreparably traumatized by their experiences.
When everyone had finished squirming, Dean bowed his head. The children lying below him all closed their eyes. After a few moments, Dean crossed himself, then stepped out from the nest.
Ellen dimmed the lights, but not so much that the children couldn’t be seen.
The boy moved toward Bobby, his eyes all business. And while Bobby knew that attitude would serve him well through the questioning he was likely to get from the lieutenant, he had the overwhelming urge to make sure the boy took care of himself. “The lieutenant isn’t here yet. Why don’t you fix yourself a plate?”
Bobby could see the refusal begin to take shape in Dean’s bright green eyes, but he shook his head. “You’re no good to them if you don’t keep yourself healthy. They’re all full. You aren’t taking anything away from them. We have plenty more where that came from.”
Dean frowned at being read so easily, but his eyes did glance over at the table and the containers on it.
Ellen stepped forward and put food on a plate, then handed it to the boy.
Dean rolled his eyes, but gratefully accepted the plate. Bobby led him out of the room and to one of the work benches in the main bay. He snagged a rolling stool and pushed it toward Dean.
Before he could speak, he found a plate of food sitting on the counter in front of him as well. When he looked up, Ellen gave him a pointed stare, silently reminding him that his advice worked just as well for him as it had for Dean. It was on his lips to argue, but he end up just nodding sheepishly and snagging another seat to sit beside the boy.
They both ate in silence for several minutes. Bobby watched the boy eat from the corner of his eye. With the way the boy wolfed down his food, he had to wonder when the last time any of the children had eaten a hot meal.
Ellen busied herself with bringing the various dishes out of the room where the children were sleeping and cleaning them in one of the sinks that lined the wall. It was on the tip of his tongue to invite her over, when Dean interrupted his thoughts.
“Did you know my dad?”
Bobby almost didn’t register the question, it was spoken so softly. But when he did, he turned to face the boy, who was very deliberately not looking at him, but instead, concentrating on his food.
“No, son, I didn’t. I’m sorry.”
The answer seemed to surprise Dean and he looked away from his food. “How long have you been with the unit?”
“Well, I’m not exactly with the unit.”
“I don’t understand.”
Bobby shifted until he was fully facing the boy. “What would you say if I told you I’d set down on this planet over a hundred years ago?”
Dean’s eyes grew large and Bobby expected the boy to proclaim his disbelief, but instead the boy nodded. “Your ship wandered off course while you were in cryofreeze?”
“Were they here back then?”
Bobby didn’t need to ask who ‘they’ were. “Yes. It’s why I was brought along. Until you showed up, I was the reigning expert on these critters – mostly because I was the only one of my crew to survive our first meeting with them.”
“They killed your crew?”
Swallowing hard, Bobby nodded. “Every single damn last one of them.”
“That’s how it was here too. They came in so fast.”
Bobby’s heart clenched as he heard the devastation in the boy’s voice. Dean’s life had changed in the blink of an eye, but instead of succumbing to the inevitable, he had found the grit to survive. And in that instant, as he watched the boy struggle to keep his emotions in check, Bobby knew he’d do whatever it took to get these children off the planet, whole and breathing.
Bobby leaned toward Dean. “You know, the lieutenant’s going to be down here any moment and I’m thinking he’s going to be more than a little stressed, and because of that fact, he’s not going to be as ‘sensitive’ as he should be. But I want you to know before he and the others get down here, that despite the fact I never knew your daddy, I know, with every cell of my being, he’d be proud of you for keeping those children alive.”
When Dean started to shake his head, Bobby cut him off. “No. He wouldn’t want you to beat yourself up over the things you couldn’t control. He’d just be proud of everything you accomplished.” Bobby reached out and took Dean’s chin in his fingers and held the boy’s gaze. “Son, just one of those creatures killed every member of my crew in under twenty-four hours. You’ve kept these children alive for almost three months. I know your daddy would be proud of you, because I am in awe of everything you’ve accomplished.”
Dean blinked back suspiciously bright eyes.
“And I’m going to make you a promise, Dean Winchester. I may not be blood, but I am a survivor of these damn creatures as well. And I promise that I’m going to be by your side every step of the way until we get off this blasted rock. I’m not leaving you nor am I going to let anyone bully you. Do you understand?”
Dean was silent for several moments before he slowly nodded. “Thank you,” he mouthed.
As soon as Lieutenant Kubrick and the other soldiers arrived, Dean got off his chair and headed toward the room beside the bay where the children were sleeping. Bobby silently followed and stood just inside the room, not wanting to hover over the boy, but wanting him to understand that he intended to start keeping his promise immediately. He watched the remaining soldiers as they slung off their packs and started pulling out their MREs.
Kubrick, Hendricksen and Murphy solemnly wound their way through the tables in the main bay. Talbot followed them, but Bobby coughed and gave Kubrick a pointed look. The lieutenant glanced over his shoulder then back at Bobby, clearly confused. Bobby shook his head, determined to make it an issue if need be, but Kubrick seemed to suddenly understand that the Company didn’t need a representative present during the boy’s questioning.
The lieutenant moved back toward Talbot and spoke softly to her. Whatever he said clearly didn’t make her happy. She started to protest, but then noticed Hendricksen and Murphy, both of whom had their arms crossed over their chests and looking every bit the soldiers they were.
Releasing a deep breath, she inclined her head then worked her way over to the side of the room directly across from their mini-bay, which would give her a clear view of the proceedings. It wasn’t an ideal situation, but Bobby knew there was no way to keep her completely out of the main bay.
Talbot glared at Bobby, but he ignored her. He knew he’d won this round, but suspected there’d be more rounds to come. And as a space rat, Bobby knew better than to poke a snake.
The soldiers entered the room with what Bobby considered the appropriate decorum. He had no doubt that Preacher had probably laid some words of wisdom on Kubrick while they were in Operations.
Bobby stepped far enough away from the double doors to allow the sensor to close them.
Dean nodded once at Bobby in silent thanks.
Kubrick snagged a rolling chair and sat on it, his attention wholly on the boy in front of him. “Are you sure you’re up to answering some questions for me, Dean?”
“Can you tell me what happened here?”
Dean took a deep breath. “Control received a message from the Company asking to have a set of coordinates checked out. All the independents bid on the job, but finally Max’s parents won the expedition.
“My mother was nervous because the company had sent coordinates into an area that hadn’t been explored yet.”
“Why would that make her nervous?” Kubrick asked quietly.
“Because it was unexplored, why was the company sending us coordinates?”
“Maybe a satellite…”
Dean shook his head, his voice, while quiet, was clearly agitated. “Control received all satellite telemetry before it got beamed to the Company. If the satellite had picked up something, they would’ve found it first.”
Kubrick raised his hands, letting Dean know he was backing off from that line of questioning. “Okay.”
Bobby waited until Dean’s gaze met his and then gave the boy a nod of encouragement. Dean took another deep breath and released it slowly. “Two weeks after they’d left, Mrs. Miller drove the family’s CAT into the main dining hall,” Dean said quietly. “Her husband had one of the egg layers clamped around his face.”
The lieutenant unconsciously glanced toward the mini bay that contained the specimen tubes. “Were the doctors able to remove it?”
Dean nodded. “Everyone thought he was okay.”
“But he wasn’t, was he?”
“No,” Dean whispered. “After the debriefing with Lt. Kripke, we were all in the main hall having a spaghetti dinner while Mr. Miller told everyone about the ship they’d found.”
Bobby bit his tongue as he finally understood Max’s emotional display over supper.
Preacher knelt beside Dean and took his hand. “And that’s when it--”
Dean nodded. “It managed to kill Anson and Dr. Edlund before security was able to destroy it.”
“Anson?” Kubrick asked.
“Andy’s twin brother.”
All four men closed their eyes for a moment, mourning a child they’d never met.
“Everything seemed to be okay for a day or two, although mom was nervous,” Dean continued quietly. “She kept saying we needed to leave and even made us get our packs ready.”
Dean paused as if trying to gather his thoughts, and Bobby braced himself, knowing the story was about to get worse.
“They must…they must have followed her back.”
“Her? Who?” Kubrick asked, clearly confused.
“Why do you think that, Dean?” Preacher asked.
“Because pods started showing up around the perimeter of the base within a week of her return. Most of them were still closed, although Mom said security had found a couple open ones.”
Kubrick frowned, but Bobby intervened on Dean’s behalf. “The pods house the egg layers, what I called face huggers in my report.”
Dean nodded, frowning.
Hendricksen rubbed the bridge of his nose. “The aliens were trying to infect as many colonists as they could?”
Dean nodded. “When security started breaking the eggs, the adults came. They came so fast. No warning. Nothing. There wasn’t any time to escape or build defenses. No time at all,” he trailed off. “And they weren’t little like the one that came out of Mr. Miller. They were huge.”
Kubrick cupped his hands over his face and took a deep breath, as if mentally preparing himself to push the boy a little further, although he clearly didn’t want to do it. “Are there any other survivors?”
“I don’t believe so, sir.”
“You don’t believe so? You mean you’re not sure?”
The boy’s face colored with confusion as he looked between the four men. “I thought you said you knew about these creatures.”
“Dean.” Bobby cleared his throat. “Don’t you remember I told you that one of those creatures infiltrated my ship and killed all my crew?”
Now Bobby was confused. “Yes.”
“Why do you seem surprised?” Hendricksen asked intently.
“They don’t kill you, sir. They take you and implant you with their eggs.”
“What?” Kubrick stood abruptly, running both his hands through his hair. “Are you saying there’s a chance there might still be survivors from the attack?”
Kubrick lifted his hands, as if trying to figure out the best way to phrase his question. “Dean, do you know where they took the colonists?”
“Where, boy? Where?”
“Sublevel six of the processing plant.”
All four men blinked at his matter-of-fact tone.
“Hendricksen, ready the men.”
“No, sir,” Dean said in the loudest voice Bobby had yet heard the boy use.
Kubrick turned, dismissal clearly written on his face. “Son, if there’s even a chance--”
“There isn’t, sir.”
“How can you possibly know that?”
Instead of launching into an explanation, Dean removed his data pad from his pocket and pulled a bluish crystal from the core. He held it up for the four men to see.
When Preacher nodded, Dean inserted the crystal into the computer port in front of him.
The pixilated picture shook for a moment while the computer aligned itself with its paths, then slowly solidified into a startling clear image. Bobby felt his heart rise in his throat as he saw a blonde woman thoroughly encased in a substance that looked a lot like a hardened spider’s web.
It was all Bobby could do not to weep. Without hearing another word, he knew how the crystal would end and he wasn’t sure if he was strong enough to watch it. He looked at Preacher, who closed his eyes momentarily as if girding himself for the inevitable. Hendrickson swallowed hard, once. Only Kubrick seemed to lack any sense of foreboding.
“Mama? Please wake up. Mama, please.”
Mary’s head began to bob as if it were too heavy to lift, but after a moment she seemed to find enough strength to hold it upright. Her eyes slowly scanned the area around her, not stopping until she was looking directly at the camera.
“Dean?” Her voice sounded horrible as if she had been screaming for days. “Thank God, you’re alive.”
“And Sammy. I have Sammy.”
“You’re a good boy. He’s not right there, is he?”
“No, ma’am. He’s sleeping with the others.”
“Who else do you have?”
“Max, Andy, Ava, Sarah, Jo and Jake.”
Bobby was momentarily startled away from the narrative. There were five children in the other room sleeping, not seven. His throat tightened, but decided now was not the time to pursue that train of thought.
A shudder ran through Mary Winchester’s form. With an effort, she seemed to quell it before she looked back at the camera. “I need you to do me a favor, baby.”
“Anything, Mama. You know that.”
“I do.” Mary graced her son with a beautific smile. “I’m so proud of you.”
“You shouldn’t be. I couldn’t save you. I couldn’t…”
“Shhh! Honey. No one could have saved me. No one. But you’ve saved my heart by making sure that you and Sammy got away. That’s all you need to continue to do.” Mary’s voice trailed off and her head began to droop.
“Mama? Mama?” Dean’s voice was edged with hysteria. “What’s the favor? What do you want me to do?”
Bobby watched the woman on the screen slowly raise her head and realized where Dean had gotten his inner strength.
“Do you have a crystal going?”
“I need to leave a message for your father.”
She hesitated for a moment.
“Go ahead, Mama. It’s recording.”
Bobby watched as she straightened as much as she could within her confines, as if refusing to let her husband see her in any sort of weakened state.
She opened her mouth to speak, but Bobby saw something change in her eyes as her face softened for a moment.
“I love you, John Winchester. I always have and always will.”
She closed her eyes for a moment, as if fighting off a bout of pain.
“We got a message from the Company asking for someone to check out a set of coordinates in an unexplored sector. Knowing the Company, everyone assumed the satellite had picked up a deposit of something valuable, something Command missed. Carver went over the telemetry with a fine tooth comb, but couldn’t find anything. Everyone wanted to be the ones to check it out so they could claim a percentage. There was a lottery and the Millers won.
“Two weeks later, Alice drove their tractor right through the damn cafeteria. There was some sort of creature attached to Roger’s face. I had a really bad feeling, but Command wouldn’t let anyone in Medical.
“I talked to Lydecker and asked him to send you a message. I figured he’d fight me, but I think he was just as spooked as I was. I didn’t trust the Company to pass the message along though, which is why I sent you the private message. It took most of our savings to send it, but I needed to know you were coming.”
“I started packing up our tractor. I figured the boys and I could head out to one of the other processors and find a defensible position until you got here.
“Simpson called me into his office and gave me a reprimand. Said I was making everyone jumpy for no good reason. He wasn’t such a smug bastard when that thing popped out of Roger’s chest.”
Mary’s face crumpled for a moment, but she quickly pulled herself back together.
“Even though we killed the larva before it got out of the room…we should have known there’d be others. We shouldn’t have been caught so unprepared.
“When they came…John…when they came…it was like a sea of evil washing over us. They moved incredibly fast. Three-fourths of the colony was gone in a matter of minutes. Men. Women. Children. It didn’t matter.
“When I heard the screaming in the corridor I grabbed Sammy and gave him to Dean and pushed them into the air vents, telling them to hide until you came for them.
Mary convulsed once.
“Don’t come looking for survivors, John. We’ve all been infected. Every single one of us.” Tears ran down Mary’s face as if she was relieving the horror of what she’d witnessed. “The children are already dead. Dear God, John, the children.” She shook herself once, although her tears continued to flow. “Gestation in adults seems to take anywhere from forty-eight to seventy-two hours, so don’t come down here. There won’t be anyone left.”
“But whatever you do, don’t take the boys back to Earth, John.” She sobbed once. “Do you understand me? The Company did this to us. They knew these creatures were out there. They didn’t warn us. They didn’t…”
Bobby felt like he was having a heart attack. He clenched his shirt over his heart, struggling to breathe, not caring that he was surrounded by soldiers.
Mary’s eyes grew wider as her face contorted with pain.
“I…oh God. Dean, turn off the comm! Turn off the comm!”
“Computer freeze!” Bobby shouted.
The picture froze with Mary Winchester’s head arched back as far as it would go within its confinement. And as Bobby looked at the trembling boy in front of him, he knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Dean Winchester hadn’t let his mother die alone.
“The Company sent them out there,” Hendricksen said quietly. “Why? Why would they do that?”
“My hearing.” Bobby gasped for breath, trying, yet failing to bring his emotions under control. “They told me they didn’t believe me. They told me they’d had a colony on the planet for decades and that they’d never discovered anything remotely like what I described.”
“Those bastards,” Henricksen whispered. “They had to have known that a family would be sent out to investigate.”
Preacher looked at his commanding officer, rubbing his own chest with the heel of his palm. “What are we going to do?”
Once Bobby got his emotions under control, he moved silently to Dean’s side and wrapped his arm around the boy’s shoulder. He semi-expected the boy to skitter away from him, but instead Dean leaned into his side. In fact, Bobby would have bet his last remaining credits that the boy wasn’t even aware of them, no doubt reliving his mother’s death all over again.
Bobby moved them toward the main bay. The others could discuss and decide what needed to be done. But for now, he needed to get his boy out of the room and away from the frozen screen of Mary in her death throes.
He could feel Talbot’s laser-like gaze on them as soon as they left the meeting, but he did nothing to acknowledge her or the curious soldiers lounging around the medical tables. Instead, he guided Dean into the bay where the other children were sleeping.
“I suppose you need to get back to the meeting.” Dean’s voice was flat, even though it was barely audible.
“You supposed wrong.” Without another word, Bobby stepped over the frame of the bed, then leaned back against the wall and slowly lowered himself onto the mattresses. Once he was down, he raised an eyebrow at Dean.
The relief in the boy’s eyes made Bobby bite the inside of his cheek so he wouldn’t tear up again. He lifted his left arm and held it out to Dean, then guided the boy over his legs and pulled him down so that he was sitting beside Bobby on the mattresses, but was closer to the children.
Dean tentatively leaned his head against Bobby’s arm, but Bobby wasn’t having it. He pulled the boy into his lap and wrapped him completely in his arms.
“I got you, Dean,” he breathed into the boy’s ear. “I have the watch. Just close your eyes, okay? Nothing’s going to happen to you as long as I’m here.”
The boy said nothing, but Bobby was aware of a wetness growing over the front of his shirt. And for the first time since he had awoken and discovered that his universe had irrevocably changed, Bobby truly felt something more than bone-numbing grief or horror; he felt love, a fierce love for six children who had survived what no adult could. Love for a small boy who had the heart of a lion and the head of a general. And he vowed to God and the universe at large that he would get these children, each and every one of them, off the damn planet if it was the last thing he ever did.
As Bobby slowly rose through the layers of consciousness, he became aware of not only the crick in his neck but the fact that he was being watched as well. He remained still for a moment, listening to his surroundings, but heard nothing out of the ordinary. Slowly, he opened his eyes….and found a tiny girl beside him, studying the sleeping boy in his arms with curious eyes.
Once she became aware that he was awake, JoJo’s gaze turned toward him and he got the distinct impression she was asking him a question, although he had no idea what the question was. But it was clear from the expression on her little cherub face that she was expecting an answer.
He inhaled to speak, but her eyes grew horrified, so he snapped his mouth shut. Once she realized he wasn’t going to try to talk, she tried her silent question again. She leaned toward him, her gaze narrowing and intensifying.
Bobby looked at her in sympathy, wishing he knew what she was trying to ask. He watched curiously as she broke eye contact with him and reached over to jiggle a foot in the dog pile of sleeping children.
The dark haired girl, Sarah, if he remembered correctly, woke instantly and looked unerringly at JoJo, then at him, forcing Bobby to quickly put a damper on his amusement. Sarah was clearly not happy about being awoken, especially to whining -- even if he couldn’t hear it, he could tell by Sarah’s face that was what she was hearing.
Sarah looked over at him, but instead of being curious, she looked slightly horrified. Carefully, so as not to wake the boys, she climbed out of the pile and knelt next to Jo. Both girls studied Dean, who was still sleeping in Bobby’s arms.
For an irrational moment, Bobby wanted to hide the boy deeper in his arms, but instead he watched the girls, fascinated by the fact he could tell they were having a conversation even if no words were being spoken.
Finally, Sarah rose to her knees and spread both of her hands in the air between them and gave him a look that was clearing asking for permission to touch him. Bobby nodded, curious about her intentions.
Sarah placed one hand on his forehead and one on her own.
Bobby heard a soft melodic chime, a note that sounded like music laughing. He gazed toward the main bay, but no one was at the door and the soldiers he could see appeared to be resting.
When he heard the chime again, his eyes grew wide. He quickly pictured a door and pressed the opening sequence.
“Hello.” Sarah’s clear little girl voice greeted him.
He started to open his mouth, but JoJo reached over and covered his lips with her tiny hand.
“Hello,” he thought back.
Sarah’s smile was radiant. But before he could say anything else, JoJo grabbed the hand on Sarah’s forehead and placed it on her own.
A chirp, like a bird he’d heard during his vacation with Karen, reverberated deep within his head. He had barely opened the door for her when his consciousness was flooded by a tiny but excited voice. “Hi. I’m Jo!”
“Good morning, Miss Jo. Good morning, Miss Sarah. Did you all sleep well?”
He could hear both girls giggles, although outwardly they did nothing more than smile brightly at him.
“You can hear us!” Jo said excitedly. “Sarah wasn’t sure it’d work on a grown-up.”
“Well, I’m not exactly sure I qualify as a grown up.”
Both girls tittered again.
Jo looked back down at Dean, who was still sleeping. “Why’s he doing that?”
“What? Darling, everyone has to sleep sometime.”
Sarah looked at Bobby. “He does. He’s just never does it in front of Jo.”
Bobby quickly glanced at Jo, but she gave no indication that she’d heard anything Sarah had said. Apparently, one could open and close doors to direct their thoughts to a specific person. Bobby figured that particular talent was going to take some practice for him to master.
“He looks like a little boy,” Jo thought.
Bobby wanted to tell her that he was a little boy, but knew he couldn’t diminish Dean in their eyes. Dean was their leader, larger than life. To see him being held like a sleeping babe must have been slightly disconcerting for both of them, but he also realized that he wasn’t particularly willing to wake the boy up just yet either.
“I told him I had the watch.”
Both girls nodded and he knew he had given an acceptable answer that wouldn’t damage the boy’s credibility.
As each of the boys woke up and realized that Bobby had been brought into their group, they demanded that Sarah make the connection for them as well. Sam’s connection sounded like a honk. Andy’s chime sounded like bubbles, while Max’s was so soft that if Bobby hadn’t been listening for it he might have missed it all together.
The needy look in the children’s eyes nearly gutted Bobby. After three months on their own, they were more than ready to return to being children again, to let someone else shoulder the burden they’d been living with day in and day out. But Bobby also knew that until they were actually off the planet’s surface the children needed to continue the way they had been. He wasn’t going to risk any of them by permitting them to let their guard down just yet.
“Okay, what’s the first thing you all normally do after waking up?”
“Dean says we should always make our bed first,” Andy supplied.
Bobby nodded, but was careful not to use his actual voice. “Okay, Andy, Sam, Jo and Max, why don’t you take care of that before we see what’s for breakfast?”
The children nodded happily and scrambled toward the blanket, each taking a corner. While they were giggling via telepathy and using the blanket to pull each other off balance, Bobby looked at Sarah and concentrated on making sure his thoughts went solely through her door. “Miss Sarah, can you connect Dean and I, even though he’s sleeping?”
Sarah smiled brightly and nodded as she reached out to touch both of them.
There was no sound to indicate that the connection had taken, but Bobby suspected it was because Dean was still asleep. He was the one who was going to have to ‘ring’ this time.
“Why don’t you use the facilities while I wake Dean up?”
Sarah cocked her head at him in confusion. “Facilities?”
“Ah. Why didn’t you just say so?”
Bobby could pinpoint the exact moment when she realized she was going to be able to use the little room in the corner by herself, before the rest of her companions. Once she’d scurried off, he turned to look at the boy sleeping in his arms. Dean’s face was almost angelic, but Bobby suspected that before his world had ended the boy had been quite the imp. He seemed the type who would wear a perpetual innocent smile that bordered on mischievous, as if silently asking ‘who me’?”
“Dean. It’s time to wake up, son. Can you open your eyes for me?”
“Five more minutes.”
Bobby snorted aloud, which made Dean start in his arms. Green eyes looked up at him with sleepy curiosity.
“Yes. Jo wanted to ask a question and woke Sarah up to connect us. You don’t mind, do you?”
The boy shook his head as Bobby helped him sit upright. He watched as Dean’s gaze immediately sought out each child in the room. The boy frowned when he couldn’t spot Sarah.
“Polo,” Sarah mentally called out in exasperation. “I’m using the facilities, Dean.”
“Ask Mr. Singer.”
Dean turned his head to look at Bobby.
“It means bathroom.”
“Why didn’t she just say that?”
“Because she’s expanding her vocabulary horizons.”
Sarah’s laughter rang through Bobby’s head, although the room remained silent.
Dean guided Max out of the bathroom and immediately looked for the other children, whom he found sitting on Bobby’s lap and legs. Bobby could hear the boy’s mental snort of amusement.
“So what’s the plan?” Dean asked.
“I’m thinking breakfast.”
Five heads nodded happily.
“Not French toast,” Dean said.
Bobby could tell by the way Dean was looking at him that he was the only one who heard the comment.
“How about we see if Miss Ellen has any pancakes?” he asked the group.
The children scrambled quietly to their feet. Bobby wasn’t quite sure where to place his hand so he could brace himself off the floor without hurting any of the kids. He was surprised when he felt four sets of little hands take his arm and pull.
Not able to help himself, he laughed out loud. At first, all the children cringed in horror, but after a moment they smiled brightly at him.
Bobby stepped over the bed frames, then one by one plucked the children from behind the barrier, turning them upside down and making it as silly an experience as he could, by wiggling them just inches above the floor before setting them down. Each one giggled mentally and when they were all on one side, Jo and Sarah took his left hand, while Andy and Sam held onto separate fingers of his right.
He wondered if Dean felt left out, but when he looked over he found the boy holding onto Max, grinning and shaking his head in amusement.
“Wagon train, ho!”
“What’s a wagon train?” Andy asked curiously.
Once all the children were happily eating pancakes, Bobby made his way toward Murphy’s side.
“So what’s the plan?” He asked his question mentally, then barely stopped himself from slapping his forehead in exasperation when Preacher looked at him expectantly.
“What the plan?” While the soldiers were eating their own breakfasts and joking loudly with each other, Bobby had asked his question quietly. The children’s fear of speaking aloud was beginning to rub off on him.
“Miss Corporate Lawyer wants us to go over to the processor and retake it.”
Bobby’s eyebrows disappeared under his hair. “Please don’t tell me--”
“No, of course not.” Preacher frowned over Bobby’s shoulder, glaring at the woman in question. “But the question before us now is what are we going to do?”
“I say we go back to the Impala and nuke not only the processor but the original coordinates as well.”
“I agree.” Preacher gave him a wicked grin. “But unfortunately we are Colonial Marines, and a large part of our job involves protecting Company property.”
“Meaning Ash is uploading the data from the colony’s computers servers to the Impala even as we speak. We’ll do one last reconnaissance of the living quarters and then head back to the Impala, where we’ll probably wait for back up.” He glanced over at the children for a moment, his face bleak, before he looked back at Bobby. “Dean was correct about the colonists’ location. Not only was Ash able to survey sublevel six via the comms, but he also found the computer program that monitors all the locator implants.”
“And they’re all--”
“Every last one of them, which is why the lieutenant decided it’d be best to wait for backup. This is obviously a very hostile species. I don’t know how intelligent they are, but we don’t need to go down there guns blazing and needlessly getting ourselves killed.”
Bobby nodded, even though he wasn’t overly happy. He wanted to get the children as far away from the planet as he could, but he’d settle for getting them back to the ship as a start.
Preacher watched the children eat for a couple of minutes. “I was thinking perhaps the children might like an opportunity to go back to their quarters and see if there are any mementos they’d like to take with them.”
“Good idea. When’s dust off?”
“In about an hour.”
“Then let’s get to it.”
Before they went to their families’ living quarters, Dean guided the soldiers to the place where the children had been living after the attacks.
Dean stopped beside a small duct. “Through here.”
“You’re going to have to say it out loud, boy, so the others can hear you.”
Dean’s reluctant nod was barely perceptible. He stepped forward, then looked at the soldiers surrounding his small group, his gaze finally settling on Kubrick. “Through here.” His voice sounded gravelly as he spoke. “But you guys aren’t going to be able to fit in there. It’s why we picked it.”
Preacher grinned proudly as he knelt down beside the boy, unexpectedly usurping the lieutenant’s response. “Why don’t you guys go get what you want to take to the ship?” He hesitated for a moment. “You said that all of us can’t fit in there, but would it be possible for Bobby to go in with you?”
“Good. The rest of us will wait out here until you come back out.”
Preacher looked up at Kubrick, almost daring him to counter him, but the lieutenant simply nodded.
Bobby made a shooing motion toward the duct. The children grinned happily at him, then turned toward Dean, who stuck his fingers through the grill covering the duct and unlatched a lock.
Dean took immediate charge. “Sammy’s first, then the girls, and then the twins.”
The children got onto their hands and knees and filed through the duct one by one. Dean gave Bobby a quick backward glance, as if trying to reassure himself that Bobby was indeed going to follow them, then got onto the floor and followed the others.
Sergeant Hendricksen stepped forward before Bobby could follow the children and pressed a tiny camera into his hands. “These children have survived against incredibly odds. It’d be nice to see how they did it. Maybe we can convince the Company to make sure that other colonies have similar hidey-holes.”
Bobby accepted the camera before he turned and looked at the tiny tunnel and wondered how he was ever going to squeeze himself through it. A small whimper escaped him and the soldiers around him snickered. Bobby gave them a baleful glare, but they continued to grin unrepentantly at him.
Ah, the joys of being accepted by a unit of grunts, he thought.
Taking a deep breath and releasing it, Bobby got to his knees, then bent forward slowly, almost worming his way into the duct, which hugged his body.
“Head’s up,” Preacher called from behind him.
Bobby felt a pair of hands tightly grip his boots. Keeping his legs as straight as he could, he found himself sliding through the duct. Given the distance he travelled, he figured one of the vampires had been the one to give him the boost. Once he stopped, he used his elbows to crawl forward.
A small light shone about three feet in front of him. A moment later, Dean’s face appeared at the end of the tunnel. After the boy gauged his progress, he leaned into the duct and stretched both arms toward Bobby. Pushing with the toes of his boots and using his free hand to help move him forward, Bobby stretched one arm toward Dean, but realized it was going to take another minute or two before he got close enough to the boy to allow him to help.
Max peeked into the vent and gave him an encouraging smile. He smiled back automatically. This time when he pushed with his toes, he slid effortlessly toward the light as if he had somehow reached a well greased portion of the tunnel. Before he realized anything had changed, Bobby felt several small hands latching onto his arm and pulling him forward. He landed on the floor with a plop.
The children, who were on their knees, grinned down at him and Bobby sighed with affectionate exasperation as he slowly sat up, quickly realizing he would never be able to stand in the tiny space, let alone sit with a straight back.
He waved at the children. “Go get your things.”
Pulling the camera out of his jacket, Bobby showed it to Dean. “You heard?” Bobby had been intentionally leaving the connection open between him and Dean, to prove to the boy that he intended to keep his word about having his back and getting all of them off the planet.
“Do you mind?”
“Not if it’ll save other kids.” He then turned to supervise the children.
As he started recording, Bobby took his first real look at the space around him and shook his head in awe. A giant turbine, which comprised the entire ceiling, spun slowly above them, while a faster one acted as the right wall. The room was little more than an area to service the two industrial fans.
In the far left corner was a rather impressive pile of blankets and pillows, which made sense considering how cool the air in the area was. Beside the bedding was another pile of brick rations. Tasteless, but with all the required vitamins, minerals and amino acids needed to sustain life. There was also a tiny water spigot near the rations.
The turbines were noisy, and would definitely cover up any incidental noises. A rather thick pole lay against one wall, which confirmed his suspicions that the turbine above them could be stopped if they needed another emergency exit.
“Why did you leave this area?” Bobby asked Dean curiously.
Dean was helping Jo put two tiny stuffed animals into her pack. He answered without ever taking his eyes off his task. “The kids needed to stretch their legs and since the bugs hadn’t patrolled for over for a week I thought a small expedition to get more rations wouldn’t hurt.”
Bobby nodded, although a part of him was horrified by the thought that they might have come and gone without ever seeing the children.
”We would have seen you.” Dean pointed to a small data portal.
In a matter of minutes, each child clutched a small pack in their arms, containing pictures and personal items.
Bobby turned off the camera and put it back in his pocket. “You got everything?”
All six children nodded earnestly.
They nodded again.
“Because we won’t be able to come back.”
Max made a quick nervous visual sweep of the area, but then nodded again with the other children.
“Okay, then back the way you came.”
“Same order,” Dean said with quiet authority. “Are you going to be able to get out of here?”
Bobby snorted. “We’ll find out soon enough.”
Going back was easier than he expected, even though he didn’t have the extra boost. Again, the children had scrambled through fairly quickly, and again, Dean and Max smiled encouragingly at him as he made his way back. Although this time, instead of six pair of hands pulling him from the metal tube, there was only one strong one – Kate’s. He slid to the ground again and suffered the smirks of grunts and ungrateful children alike.
“Dust off in fifteen minutes,” the lieutenant informed the group.
Bobby nodded as he pushed himself to his feet.
“Singer, Murphy, take the brothers to their quarters and see if there’s anything else that needs to be gathered. Morgan, take Andy. Hendricksen, Sara. Blake, Jo…”
“I’ll take Max.” Talbot ran her hands over the top of the pale boy’s curly head.
The lieutenant looked startled, but shrugged it off. “Download the family computers. Look for journals. You have ten minutes. The rest of you, sweep the corridors. I don’t want any surprises.”
A round of ‘Aye, Sir’s’ filled the air as the group started down the hallway.
Bobby noticed Dean’s nervousness the moment they stepped into the Winchester living quarters.
“Are you okay, boy?”
But Dean didn’t answer his question out right.
“Polo,” came five different responses.
Bobby gave Sam, who was standing beside his brother, a curious look. The boy shrugged and grinned at him. “Habit.”
Unaware of their exchange, Jim placed a gentle hand on both boys’ shoulders. “Why don’t you two make one last sweep, while I download the computer?”
“I’ve already downloaded it, sir,” Dean informed him in a quiet, but respectful voice.
“I know you have, son. But do you mind if I do it again? You know, to keep the louie off my back and all.”
Dean rolled his eyes, but nodded before he turned and guided Sam back toward their room.
The plea was so quiet, Bobby wasn’t sure he’d actually heard it.
“Please, make her stop. Please.”
The child started to sob quietly through their connection.
Bobby looked through the door where the boys had disappeared, but Dean didn’t give any indication that he’d heard anything. He turned toward Preacher, who was already downloading the computer, and put his hand on the man’s back. “I’m going to check something out. I’ll be right back.”
“I’ll know in a moment.”
With that Bobby left the room and turned right, toward Max’s family quarters, suddenly grateful that Dean had insisted on dropping off each child before he went to his own quarters.
“You realize your parents are responsible for a great deal of damage. Since they’re dead, you’re the only one left who can pay their debt. But, you know, debts aren’t always repaid in money.”
He passed the vampires, then stopped.
“After all, you’re what? Five? Six years old? It’s not like you can get a job and, regrettably, the Company eliminated indentured servitude decades ago.”
“You two with me.”
Neither of them questioned his order, they simply fell in behind him.
“If you do what I ask, I’ll make sure the Company leaves you alone.”
Bobby quickened his pace.
“All I want is for you to carry something up to the ship for me.”
He slapped the door controls and shoved his way in before the door had completely opened.
At first glance, everything looked normal, but upon closer inspection, Bobby could see an ugly frown mar Talbot’s beautiful face. He also noticed that her hand was gripping Max’s upper arm and the boy, who appeared dry eyed, was cringing as far away from her as he could possibly manage.
She released the boy as soon as she spotted Bobby.
“Come here, Max.”
The boy practically flew into his arms. Bobby hugged him tight, mentally murmuring what he hoped were comforting words.
“What is the meaning of this?” Talbot demanded.
But Bobby ignored her. Instead, he turned to the vampires and handed the boy to Luthor. “As of this moment, I’m making both of you personally responsible for this child. If Talbot comes anywhere near him, you suck her dry and hide the body. Do you understand me?”
Both vampires smirked in amusement. “Yes, sir.”
“What?” Talbot shrieked behind them. “How dare you!”
“I’m not kidding around here.” He rubbed Max’s back as gently as he could. “I don’t give a rat’s ass what Kubrick orders; you will get Max off this damn planet if it’s the last thing either of you ever do or I swear to God I will go hunter on your asses and cut off both of your heads. Are we clear?”
The smirks disappeared, but instead of reacting angrily toward him they both looked at the trembling boy in Luthor’s arms. Luthor appeared stunned, as if he’d never held anything quite so fragile in his arms before. Bobby watched as the same fierceness he felt for Dean gradually welled up in their eyes.
“Yes, sir,” they both said in a more serious tone.
“Singer, I will see you--”
“Stuff it, Talbot.” To his surprise, his vehemence shocked her into silence. “How dare you try to use that boy for your own gain?”
Talbot’s face drained of all color. “I have no idea what you’re talking about?”
“Were you actually trying to convince him to smuggle a face hugger onto the ship or were you simply going to have him impregnated?”
For a split second, Talbot looked terrified, but Bobby watched as she quickly puffed herself up. “Are you delusional? I came here to help Max, to make sure he wasn’t leaving anything important behind.”
“Which is why you had a death grip on his arm?” Bobby countered.
At that moment, the door behind them opened up and Andy came running into the room. He moved unerringly and without hesitation toward the vampires, climbing up Luthor’s body, forcing the vampire to juggle his hold on Max in order to incorporate him as well.
Andy stared directly into Luthor’s face. “We’re twins.”
Luthor looked confused by the seemingly non sequitur statement. “No, you’re both a twin, but you’re not twins.”
Andy took the hand Max was reaching toward him and held it over his heart. “Dean says that twins are always twins. And since each of our twins are gone, we’re now each other’s twin.”
“Which means what exactly?” Luthor asked in amusement.
Bobby took his attention off Talbot for a moment then turned his head toward the vampires. “Which means you’re now responsible for both of them.”
Andy nodded and smiled brilliantly, while Max gave the male vampire a shy smile.
“Katie?” Luthor’s voice was barely above a whisper and he was clearly overwhelmed by the way things were escalating.
But instead of answering, Kate leaned forward, closed her eyes and sniffed deeply along Max’s arm and up to the juncture of his neck. The boy watched unafraid, smiling sweetly at her when she opened her eyes and studied him. She then took a step closer to her mate, placing one hand on Max’s back as she repeated the process with Andy. When she was done, she placed her hand on Andy’s back as well, so that the boys were held between her and Luthor. She was silent for several heartbeats, then raised her face to meet her mate’s eyes. “Ours,” she told him fiercely.
“Now see here,” Talbot said angrily. “These boys are orphans, which means the Company is responsible for them and as I’m the only corporate representative on the planet…”
The vampires ignored her. Luthor looked stunned, but repeated his mate’s actions as best he could with both of the boys in his arms. When he was finished, his smile was brilliant. “Ours,” he agreed in quiet satisfaction.
“If you think I’m going to…”
Both vampires turned toward her as one, dropped their fangs and hissed.
“That’s so cool,” Andy said gleefully. Max clapped his hands, although they didn’t make any noise.
Talbot had the good sense to stop her diatribe and take a step back.
Ash and Kubrick all but barreled into the room.
“What’s going on here?” Kubrick demanded. “Vampires, stand down. That’s an order.”
While the vampires complied, it was with a deliberate slowness, just short of insubordination. The door opened again and this time Sam and Dean came running into the room, with Murphy just a step behind. Dean moved directly to the boys. Bobby knew that questions and answers were flying fast and furious just beneath the radar, even if he couldn’t hear them.
“Don’t make me repeat myself,’ Kubrick said angrily.
“I was just trying to help Max gather his things when Singer came in and started making the most outlandish accusations.” Talbot was giving the performance of a lifetime. Her eyes actually sparkled with unshed tears.
“So that’s the story you’re going with?” Bobby asked in a low voice. He never considered himself a violent man, but he was beginning to feel the need to inflict some serious personal damage.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about?”
“PFCs?” Kubrick demanded.
“When we came in, she was gripping the child, Max, my Max, by the arm,” Kate said in a cold voice. “Like she was angry.”
“Stand down, soldier,” Kubrick tried again, without effect. “What was she saying?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t hear her.”
“So you don’t know if she was actually threatening the child or if he was simply misbehaving?”
Dean’s growl startled everyone. Bobby quickly gripped the boy’s shoulder as Dean moved toward Talbot, forcing the boy to stay by his side.
Bobby tried to work Talbot’s motivation out in his head. “Was it for the percentage?”
“You burst in here like a madman--”
“Did you actually hear her threaten him?” Kubrick asked, cutting her off.
“She wasn’t threatening him, she was trying to coerce him,” Bobby said in exasperation. “She told him that he was responsible for the damage his family had done to the base.”
“You weren’t even in the damn room,” Talbot said, spitting in self-righteousness.
“I didn’t have to be in the room.”
“Like I said, he’s delusional.”
“Singer, if you weren’t in the room--” Kubrick began.
“I heard exactly what she said,” Bobby said angrily.
“There’s no possible--”
Kubrick raised his hands, trying to calm the situation. “Singer, while I appreciate your wanting to protect the children, there’s no way--”
“The children are telepathic, damn it!” Bobby shouted. Then realizing what he’d just revealed, closed his eyes and swore quietly under his breath.
When he opened them again, Talbot was grinning with malicious glee.
“As I stated before, the children are orphans and as I’m the only corporate representative on the planet--”
“I say we drain her,” Kate said conversationally to her mate.
“I will if she finishes that statement.” Luthor’s eyes never left Talbot’s neck.
“I said stand down, damn it,” Kubrick shouted. “Unless you want to face a court martial.”
Bobby snorted in humor, never taking his eyes off Talbot. “You don’t know a lot about vampires, do you, sir?”
“What do you mean?” the lieutenant demanded, frustration obvious in his voice.
“They imprinted the twins. You’re going to have to take their heads if you want to separate them from the boys now. And personally, I don’t think they’d just stand around and let you do it.”
Talbot sneered. “I pulled you off the loading docks and this is how you repay me?”
“You put me there in the first place!” Bobby shouted. The pieces of the puzzle were rapidly beginning to fall into place. “I could never understand why you didn’t lift a finger to help me while the Company railroaded me on all those trumped up charges. You were supposed to be my attorney, but you just silently sat there. It was because you wanted to see if what I was saying was true, wasn’t it? Because if I wasn’t a madman who blew up his ship for no discernable reason, there might just be a healthy profit to be made. Think of the percentage you’d gain if you could somehow manage to bring an alien species to the Company’s attention. I’ll bet everything I own that you were the one who sent the coordinates to the colony.”
Talbot opened her mouth to speak, but Ash beat her to the punch. “You’d win that bet.”
Everyone turned to face the com-tech. “I found the message. I was going to tell the lieutenant once we got back to the ship to see how he wanted to handle it.”
Bobby turned back to Talbot. “You sent them out there unprepared, without any sort of warning, didn’t you?”
But instead of looking cowed, Talbot just shook her head. “Look, you have to admit, your story sounded pretty farfetched. Besides, a century had passed. I figured the things had to have died out by now. Before the Company claimed the planet there wasn’t even a discernable atmosphere. There certainly wasn’t any flora or fauna to help them survive. I was just hoping they might’ve left some of their technology behind.”
“What?” Bobby shook his head in disbelief.
“If I turned it into a major security situation, the Company would’ve stepped in and then there wouldn’t have been any exclusive rights for anybody. I was going to cut you in on the profits if they’d found anything useful.”
“Sure you were.” Bobby sneered at her. “I wouldn’t want your blood money anyway.”
Talbot smoothed the front of her shirt. “It was a bad call.”
“A bad call?” Bobby shouted. “A bad call. The colonists are dead. These children’s families are dead.”
“Sometimes, in order for there to be significant advancement, sacrifices have to be made,” Talbot said in a bland voice.
Bobby felt a hand grip his shoulder and knew Murphy had anticipated his reaction. “She wouldn’t have gotten away with it,” Murphy said quietly.
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Bobby growled. “I bet if we look into Ms. Talbot’s past we’ll discover that she has some rather significant computer skills in her background. Who was going to die on the way back, Bela? The lieutenant? The master sergeant? Me?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about?”
“Oh, that’s it, we’re definitely wasting her,” Ash said at the same time.
“No one is wasting anyone!” Kubrick shouted. “We’re going to get off this damn planet and sort everything out from the ship.”
“One of them is awake,” Sam said in a quiet voice.
“What?” Preacher asked just as quietly. “Who’s awake?”
“One of the scouts.” Sam’s eyes were unfocused as if he wasn’t quite aware of what was happening around him.
“We need to get out of here, now!” Dean shouted through the link. “Sarah. JoJo! To me, now!”
The boys in Luthor’s arms wiggled themselves to the ground and stood plastered against Dean’s sides. Sam stood behind Dean, gripping the older boy’s shirt in his fist. A few seconds later, the girls arrived and threw themselves into the Dean’s arms. Hendricksen and Ellen followed a moment later, looking confused.
“One of the aliens is awake and on the move,” Bobby told the lieutenant urgently.
Kubrick blinked, but surprisingly didn’t argue with him or demand to know how he knew. Instead he just nodded. “Everyone to the APC!”
For a few moments, everything was chaos.
“Sarah!” Bobby heard Hendricksen shout through the link a split second before the master sergeant scooped up the girl and headed out the door.
“Jo!” Ellen yelled at the same time, grabbing the tiny girl and holding her tightly to her chest.
Bobby wondered inanely when Sarah had found the time to connect Jo and Ellen.
“Wait!” Dean was clearly overwhelmed as the soldiers split his group amongst themselves.
Murphy snatched Sam and swung him onto his back at the same time each of the vampires grabbed one of the twins.
“It’s okay, Dean.” Bobby assured the boy out loud. Taking the boy’s hand, he pulled him close to his side. “We’re getting out of here now and it’ll be quicker if they’re carried.”
Though clearly unhappy, Dean nodded.
Bobby could hear Talbot sputtering behind them, demanding to know how Sam knew there was an alien nearby, but chose to ignore her. His desire to get the children off the planet was practically choking him.
“Harvelle, Hall, prepare for immediate evac,” Kubrick yelled into the mic, his voice trembling ever so slightly. “Meet us at the rendezvous coordinates.”
“Aye, sir,” came the crisp response.
The group moved silently down the corridor and was quickly flanked by Bravo team. When they reached the section where the floors were practically nothing but holes, Bobby swung Dean into his arms.
The doors to the building were wide open and the relief Bobby felt when he saw the drop-ship approach practically overwhelmed him.
“Hurry,” Dean urged silently.
Bobby was just barely controlling his urge to run, when he noticed the ship lurch sharply to the left.
Without any further warning, the drop-ship’s engines revved loudly, then crashed into the ground beside the APC. The resulting explosion knocked everyone, vampires included, from their feet. Bobby landed on his back, but immediately rolled his body over Dean’s to protect him from the flying shrapnel.
It took nearly a minute for items to stop falling from the sky.
“Holy shit!” Creedy swore loudly.
Walker pushed himself to his feet. “What the fuck just happened?”
Bobby got to his knees, bringing Dean up in his arms as he did so.
Beside him, Ellen was awkwardly using her elbows to push herself to her knees while she continued to hug Jo to her chest. “Well, damn,” Ellen said in a choked voice.
Bobby noticed the tears running down her grief-stricken face.
She looked over at him and shook her head in bewilderment. “I…I was going to marry that man.”
“Hall?” he asked quietly.
She shook her head. “No. Harvelle.”
“Now what?” Creedy asked, his voice rising in panic.
“What do you mean ‘now what’?” Walker’s laugh was tinged with hysteria. “We’re screwed, that’s now what.”
“Unless you have something constructive to say, soldier, I suggest you zip it.” Hendricksen voice was soft, as if not wanting to further upset the little girl crying in his arms, but each word he spoke was just a little bit louder than the last.
“I guess this means we’re not leaving after all.” Dean looked at the faces of the soldiers surrounding them as they stared at the burning wreckage in disbelief.
“Not at the moment. I’m sorry, Dean.”
“It wasn’t your fault.”
Gently taking Dean’s chin in his fingers, Bobby turned the boy’s face toward his. “I know this looks bad, but I swear to you, Dean, I am going to get you and the others off this planet.”
The boy sniffed once. “Okay.”
Bobby hugged the boy to his chest. “I’m not going to lie to you, Dean. The wreck will delay us, but there’s another drop-ship on the Impala. It’s just a matter of time before someone can remote pilot it down here.”
Dean nodded and looked toward the processing plant. “If we don’t get off the planet before nightfall, we’re going to need to find a defensible position. They’ll be coming to investigate why their scout didn’t return home.”
Bobby closed his eyes and prayed they’d find a way off the planet before that happened.
While the Marines had been momentarily taken aback by the sight of their means of escape exploding before them, they quickly reorganized themselves.
It was decided the Ash had the best chance of successfully piloting the spare drop-ship down via remote control. He and Kate went to Operations to find the strongest signal possible.
The remaining soldiers split into two groups. One group went through the wreckage of the APC and drop-ship to try and salvage anything that might extend their survival in case of a confrontation with the aliens.
The other group started welding several layers of metal plates over what the colonists had originally done. Everyone knew it probably wouldn’t do much to slow the aliens, but they figured every moment was bound to count.
Talbot sat quietly in an out-of-the-way corner of the main medical bay, pale and withdrawn, but wisely saying nothing. Bobby wondered if she was just beginning to realize that being the Company’s representative didn’t mean squat in their current situation and her chances of getting off the planet rested solely in the hands of the soldiers around her, who, at the moment, didn’t give a rat’s ass about her.
Upon returning to Medical, Dean silently led the children into the small bay they had slept in before. He lifted each child over the metal frames of the beds that still bordered the mattresses in the corner. They huddled around him like nervous sheep until he sat with his back to the wall and his feet extended. Jo quickly laid claim to his lap and curled herself into a tight ball. The twins basically bracketed her, with each one lying against or on Dean’s legs. Sammy and Sarah sat beside him on the wall, leaning so their heads were resting on his shoulders.
Bobby sat outside the bay, determined to keep Talbot away from the children. The last thing they needed was her making vague threats about their becoming wards of the Company. Of course, knowing Talbot, she was probably just biding her time until they reached the safety of the ship.
He tried not to stare at the sad pile of children, not wanting them to feel any more exposed than they already were, but every time he glanced at them he couldn’t get over how fragile they appeared. They were no longer tough tiny soldiers who had weathered a horrific storm, but children who had lost everything and were clinging with all their might to what they had left.
He wondered how much longer it’d be before Dean took the children back to their hidey-hole. Lord knows they had failed the children rather spectacularly. He was enough of a realist to know that Dean was right; sooner probably than later the aliens were going to come looking for their missing scout. The question on everyone’s mind was could Ash navigate the ship down before they appeared. And while he had no doubt in the com-tech’s talents, Bobby also knew the universe seemed to take great delight in screwing with him.
Peering again into the little bay, he concentrated for a moment to make sure all his mental doors were open to the children. Not that it really mattered, for he knew he was being shut out of all their communications. He couldn’t even bring himself to blame them. After all, he’d betrayed their secret in a rather spectacular fashion.
“It’s not just you,” Luthor said quietly.
Turning, he found the male vampire squatting beside his chair. “Beg your pardon?”
“The twins are shutting me out as well.”
Bobby wondered if the vampire was reading his mind. “I didn’t realize Sarah had done her thing with you and the boys.”
“And Katie as well. Apparently, it doesn’t take much and the boys asked her to do it before we all went our separate ways.”
Curiosity got the better of him. “So how is the communication thing working for you all?”
“It works better between Katie and I. It probably has something to do with both of us being undead.” Luthor smirked at him. “We can hear the boys but it sounds like they’re talking over a static-filled comm channel. I can barely hear Max most of the time. I feel him more than anything else.”
“If it’s any consolation, I don’t think it’s you. I can barely hear him either.”
One of Luthor’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “Surprisingly, that actually does make me feel better.”
Bobby nodded. “I don’t think the boy’s shyness is a recent phenomenon. You can tell by the way he acts that he’s not used to being the focus of any sort of attention. I’ve noticed that when he starts to get nervous, Andy automatically steps in and draws attention away from him.”
“So they truly are twins.”
“They believe so.”
Luthor nodded as he looked over at the children. “Dean’s an excellent alpha.”
“While each of the children is starting to bond with an adult, none of them have given up their allegiance to him. They could easily be out here seeking comfort, but they’re not. They know Dean will keep them safe. As a child himself that is nothing short of remarkable.” Luthor stood and looked down at him. “Had you and Murphy not already claimed the brothers, Katie and I would have taken them as well. He will forgive you, Singer. I guarantee if you get them off this planet, he’ll forgive you any and all transgressions.”
Bobby swallowed hard, praying the vampire was correct. But he was also a realist. “If we manage somehow to get them off this damn rock, that’s when the real fight will begin.” He looked over to where Talbot was sitting, ignoring them.
“Don’t worry about Talbot.”
“Holmes--” Bobby started.
Bobby inclined his head, understanding the gift he’d been given. “Bobby,” he returned in kind.
Luthor smiled at him. “Do not worry about Talbot.” And with that, he left.
A part of him wondered if he should be more worried about Talbot’s safety, yet he couldn’t feel anything beyond exhaustion.
A hand gently squeezing his shoulder brought him out of a light doze. Bobby shook his head to clear the cobwebs, then smiled up at Murphy to let him know that he had his attention.
Murphy snagged a nearby chair and dragged it to Bobby’s side. “I think we’ve salvaged everything worth saving.”
“How’s it look?”
“Not as bad as it could be.”
Bobby huffed once with amusement. “Probably not as good either.”
Murphy grinned at him. “I think that goes without saying.”
“How’s Ash doing?”
“He’s making progress. He and Kate finally found a steady enough signal to maintain transmission up to the Impala. Apparently there’d been some damage done to the communications tower during the original siege, but they think they have it repaired enough for their purposes.”
“Any chance they’ll be able to get the reserve drop-ship down here before nightfall?”
Shrugging, Murphy looked through the glass door toward the sleeping children. “Sam’s worried.”
Bobby startled. “He’s talking to you? I was under the impression they were all maintaining radio silence.”
“They are, which is what’s worrying Sam.”
“I don’t follow.”
“Dean isn’t talking to them either.”
Bobby’s eyes widened. “What?”
Jim raised his hands, silently asking for a moment to clarify his statement. “Sorry, I didn’t quite explain that right. Apparently, Dean tends to fill the silence with chatter. He tells them stories, makes them do homework, gives them chores, that sort of thing. Basically, he doesn’t give them too much time to think or dwell on their situation. Right now, he’s simply speaking when spoken to and then doesn’t do much more than urge them to go back to sleep.”
Bobby leaned forward in the chair and used both of his hands to scrub his face, without lifting his elbows from his knees. He couldn’t quite bring himself to look at the soldier he was beginning to consider a friend. “I feel like I broke him.”
“You didn’t break him. He--”
But Bobby shook his head to cut off the rest of the platitude. “I gave him hope, made him see the light at the end of the tunnel and then took it away.”
“You can’t possible believe he’s holding you responsible for the drop-ship exploding.”
Shrugging, Bobby finally settled back into his chair. “Perhaps not, but I know he’s having a difficult time finding his equilibrium again.”
“He’s not the only one.”
They sat in silence for several moments, contemplating their situation. Finally, Murphy tapped Bobby’s thigh twice. “Come on.”
“What? Where are we going?”
“I think it’s high time to teach you how to handle our ordnances.”
Bobby frowned, then looked back at the children. As if anticipating his concern, Murphy flicked his fingernails together in a very casual way. Luthor, who was going through a box in the middle of the room, raised his gaze, though not his head, and didn’t stop his movements. Murphy inclined his head toward the door ever so slightly. Luthor waggled an eyebrow once before going back to his task
Murphy stood. “Come on.”
“Damn it, Jim. I’m a mechanic, not a Marine.”
The corporal led Bobby to a room across the hall from the Medbay. The doors opened to reveal a small array of weapons.
“Besides what we’re carrying, which will get us through a fairly impressive firefight, we were able to salvage four pulse rifles with about two hundred rounds apiece, twenty M40 grenades and one flame thrower that’s seen better days. We were also able to salvage four robot sentry units with their scanners and display units intact.
“Hendricksen went over the schematics and believes the aliens may be traveling back and forth through an access tunnel that runs between the colony and the plant. Walker, Creedy and Daniels are stationing two of the sentries in front of the blast doors on the colony end of the tunnel. They’re also going to be welding several more layers of metal over the hatch. Hendricksen is going over the rest of the blueprints with a fine tooth comb, trying to determine where else they might try to come through. We’ll set those areas up in a similar fashion.”
“Do you think that’ll be enough to stop them?”
Murphy shrugged. “This was supposed to be an uninhabitable planet. The colonists didn’t even know the aliens were here before they were overrun and therefore didn’t have any sort of defense measures in place. While we don’t know a lot about the aliens, we know significantly more than the colonists did, thanks to you and Dean.
“We’ve been able to formulate what we expect their attack strategy to be. While the colonists’ defenses were hastily thrown together, they weren’t totally without merit. We’re doing our best to fortify and improve upon them. If the aliens try another full frontal attack on the positions guarded by the robot sentries, we’re going to take a lot of them out. It might be enough to get them to back off long enough for Ash to get the drop-ship down here.”
“But if even one gets through--”
Murphy nodded his head in understanding.
“Preacher…Jim,” Bobby said softly. “If the worst happens--”
“Try not to worry about that.” He gave Bobby a winning smile. “We are, after all, supposed to be the best of the best.”
Bobby held out his hand, silently asking for the corporal to listen to him. “I didn’t come out here expecting to make it back home, but after what happened to my crew and this colony, I can’t…I need to know…you’ll take care of it, won’t you?”
Murphy studied him for a moment before he nodded. “If it comes to it, I’ll do us both. The boys too.”
Bobby swallowed hard and nodded his thanks.
“But let’s make sure it doesn’t come to that. Okay? It is, after all, the reason I brought you here.” He turned and picked up a rifle. “I’d like to introduce you to a close friend of mine.” Pulling out the magazine, he handed the rifle to Bobby. “This is an M-41A 10mm pulse rifle with a 30mm pump action grenade launcher.”
Bobby grunted softly as he accepted the rifle. “Heavy.” He took a minute to inspect the weapon, then looked up at the corporal. “Okay, show me what to do.”
Bobby had often heard people talk about how time seemed to slow down in life-or-death situations. He’d never experienced the phenomenon himself and considering that he’d survived the slaughter of his crew and a one-on-one fight with an alien, he thought maybe he would’ve.
But as he and Murphy stepped back into the Medbay, he felt as if the gravity in the room had doubled. His breath caught in his chest and he automatically turned to find Dean.
The children were eating what appeared to be meatloaf and mashed potatoes. Andy and Max were grinning at Luthor, Ellen was apparently teasing JoJo and Sarah was looking like she was trying to figure out a way to get Hendricksen to come sit by her without actually asking.
But between one heartbeat and the next, he watched Sammy’s head snapped up.
Dean leaned over the low table and grabbed the outstretched hand of each of the twins…
…and hauled them onto the center of the table, knocking dishes to the floor in the process.
Luthor was on his feet, his smart gun in his hands. The soldiers around him startled, but instantaneously realized something was seriously wrong.
Sarah yanked JoJo from her seat and practically tossed her to the twins.
Trays and mugs were tossed aside as soldiers reached for their weapons and gained their feet.
Dean leaned back and snagged Sammy’s shirt with his left hand and hauled the younger boy to his feet, while at the same time practically shoving Sarah onto the table.
Kubrick’s eyebrows furled in confusion as he stared at Bobby and Murphy, as if he thought they might somehow be the cause of the room’s panic.
Instead of huddling together, the children faced outward, JoJo standing between Sammy and Sarah.
Four face huggers leapt through the air, aiming straight for the children.
Andy lifted his arm and shouted, “No!”
One of the creatures fell to the floor.
Daniels’ obliterated the body by filling it with ammunition.
Max lifted his arm as the largest of the face huggers drew closer, freezing the creature in mid-air.
Walker pressed an automatic weapon against the creature’s body and pulled the trigger until it stopped moving.
A knife sliced through the air and pierced the third creature.
It shrieked in pain, but was cut off when Dean’s second knife severed it in half.
Luthor dropped his weapon and caught the fourth one as it launched itself toward Sarah.
Hendricksen was at his side in an instant, gun at the ready, but the vampire dropped his fangs and ripped the creature in half.
The rest of the soldiers surrounded the children, facing outward, weapons at the ready.
“Holy shit,” Creedy swore under his breath. “They came out of nowhere.”
Luthor, who had yet to sheath his fangs, looked at Talbot, who had pressed herself into the corner of the room. “They better have come out of nowhere.”
Murphy, instantly understanding his meaning, moved to the doorway of the bay that housed the captured face huggers.
“They’re all accounted for here,” he reported.
“They’re waking up,” Sam said in a flat, distant voice. “They heard the children crying.”
“Ash!” The lieutenant yelled into the comm. “How much longer?”
“Forty-five minutes at least, sir,” came the reply.
“You better find a way to shave a couple of corners, PFC. We have incoming and I’m not sure we have forty-five minutes.”
Kubrick looked at the soldiers surround him. “I want a complete sweep of this room. I sure as hell don’t want any more surprises. Afterwards, Creedy, Daniels and Walker, I want you in the hallway double checking our defenses. Hendricksen, double check the last two bots, make sure they’re ready to go. Holmes, assist him. Murphy, you’re with me. We’re going to go over the schematics one last time. Singer, you and Blake will stand watch over the children. Once we’re done, we’ll shore up the barricades on both ends of the corridor. Let’s move it people.”
“Aye, sir’s,” rang out around the room.
Just as Kubrick rallied his troops, Dean did the same. The meal the children had been eating was forgotten. Dean hopped from the table and assisted each child to the floor, then led them back into the smaller bay.
Bobby watched as they scoured the area, making sure that all their too few precious possessions were in their backpacks. One by one, they presented themselves to their leader and stood still as he secured the packs to their backs, making sure that all the compartments were closed and double checking all clips and straps.
When he was satisfied with their appearance, he led them back into the main room. The children encircled him, hanging onto whatever piece of clothing they could reach, as if he were a nucleus of some powerful atom.
Kneeling, so that he wasn’t towering over the children, Bobby took a moment to study the small group. The children were obviously frightened, but their outer appearance remained placid.
“When the time comes, I want each of you to stay close to the adult who has been looking after you, understood?”
Five of the six children nodded their heads.
“We’re going to get out of here, but things might get a little hairy. You need to trust the adults around you.”
“Not that woman.” Dean frowned as he looked toward Talbot.
“Agreed. But the rest of them just want to get you off the planet.”
The children looked at Dean, waiting patiently for his approval. Bobby saw the conflict in the boy’s eyes. For three months he had successfully kept these children alive and now he was being asked to trust adults who had already failed once in getting them off the planet.
However, Bobby could also see that hope still lived in Dean’s eyes. He held his hand out to the boy, acknowledging him as an equal, silently letting him know that he still intended to do whatever it took to keep his promise. Dean swallowed hard, then took his hand and finally nodded.
“They’re coming,” Sam rested his forehead against Dean’s shoulder, refusing to look at the adults around him. His voice was quiet and flat.
Ellen touched her forehead and chest as she made the sign of the cross. “Do you know how many, honey?”
“All of them.”
Grabbing her comm. unit, Ellen spoke quietly but quickly. “Time’s up, Lieutenant.”
Kubrick’s response was crisp but resigned. “Affirmative. Ash, Kate, do you need back up?”
“Negative, sir. We’re on the move. Just keep them distracted.” Kate’s voice was calm.
“Somehow, I don’t think that’ll be a problem,” Kubrick replied. “Everyone else, fall back to Medical.”
Bravo team returned first, armed to the hilt and looking grim, followed by Kubrick. Bobby couldn’t help but notice the twins and Sarah looking anxiously toward the door.
The moment Luthor strode into the medical bay, his eyes sought the twins, who both shifted back and forth anxiously like they wanted to run to him. In four steps the vampire was across the room and had both of them in his arms, holding them tight to his chest, whispering something into their ears that made each of them nod.
Preacher came in next and walked to Bobby’s side, giving him a nod while casually resting his hand on Sam’s hunched shoulder. Without a word, Sam turned and raised his arms. Murphy picked him up and held him tight. Bobby noticed Dean’s frown and loosely put his arm around Dean’s shoulders.
Sarah bounced anxiously on her toes until Hendricksen strode into the room. But instead of going to her, he moved toward Kubrick and gave his report of where he placed the last two sentries. The longer the lieutenant and master sergeant spoke, the wobblier Sarah’s bottom lip became.
When the two men finished their short strategy session, Hendricksen looked around the room, taking in which of his team were holding children and which weren’t. His frown deepened when he noticed Sarah standing by herself.
He strode across the room and stopped just before he reached her, his clenched fists resting on his hips. “I’ve been married three times. All three of them will tell you that I’m the meanest son of a bitch they’ve ever known. In fact, my last wife called me the devil’s own son. The Corps is my life. I don’t have time for silly little girls.”
Sarah nodded, her eyes brimming with tears, although none fell down her face.
Bobby opened his mouth to call her over to him, but Dean stopped him.
“Pretty little thing like you should have someone who’ll treat her like a princess, not someone who’ll make her run drills with his troops.”
Sarah shrugged, but didn’t look at the sergeant.
“Women tell me that I’m too plain spoken, that I don’t take their feelings into consideration, which is true. I don’t have time to mollycoddle the weak when I have two squads of grunts to keep alive.”
Looking up at him, Sarah squared her shoulders. “I’m not a woman, I’m a little girl.”
Bobby watched Hendricksen roll his eyes. “Meaning what? That I should mollycoddle you?”
“No, Master Sergeant.”
Sarah was silent for a moment, her gaze dropping back to the floor. She nodded her head twice and Bobby glanced down at Dean, who gave no indication he was talking to the dark haired little girl. She sighed once, then lifted her face and locked her gaze with Hendricksen. “I choose you.”
“What?” And for the first time, Bobby saw Hendricksen look completely flabbergasted.
The soldiers surrounding them were abruptly and deliberately not looking in Hendricksen’s direction.
“You heard me,” Sarah said softly.
“Oh, I heard you alright,” Hendricksen said in a menacing tone. “You do realize that we’re probably going to die in a few minutes anyway, right?”
Bobby could hear Ellen’s quiet gasp, but couldn’t take his eyes off the drama unfolding in front of him.
“And just what do you have to say about that, Princess?” All six foot two inches of master sergeant towered over the three foot three inch girl.
“Booyah,” she whispered.
Hendricksen closed his eyes, took a deep breath and released it. “What was that?”
“Booyah,” she said a little louder.
He frowned and opened his eyes, glaring at her. “I didn’t hear you.”
“Booyah,” she shouted as loud as she could.
“Booyah!” she shouted again.
Hendricksen swooped her into his arms and momentarily buried his face into the juncture of her neck and shoulder. Bobby was stunned by the tenderness he saw on the master sergeant’s face, quickly followed by sorrow, then determination. But as quickly as the emotions appeared, they disappeared. Hendricksen turned to face the troops. “You gonna be outclassed by a six-year-old?”
“No, Master Sergeant,” the enlisted men shouted back.
“Seriously?” Hendricksen shook his head with disappointment. “That was just pitiful.”
Sarah nodded in sympathy.
Hendricksen turned and looked at the twins. “Well?”
“Booyah!” they both yelled.
Turning, the sergeant looked at the Winchester boys.
“Booyah!” they yelled without prompting.
“Who’s getting off this planet?”
“We are!” the room shouted.
“Booyah!” Hendricksen bellowed.
“Booyah!” Glass vials shook in their holders on various tables.
Hendricksen nodded once, although he didn’t smile. “Now that’s more like it.”
Bobby looked down at Dean, who was grinning from ear to ear, and ruffled his hair.
“Nobody can resist, Sarah.”
“I see that,” Bobby replied.
The sound of weapons firing reverberated from a handtop computer sitting on one of the tables.
“Showtime,” Hendricksen said in a soft voice that still managed to fill the room.
“Report,” Kubrick demanded.
Hendricksen, with Sarah still in his arms, moved quickly to the computer. “It’s the tunnel guns, sir.”
Both squads jockeyed for position behind Hendricksen, although there wasn’t much to see on the tiny screen. Smoke from the spent ammo obscured their view of the tunnel, although dark shapes could be seen stepping forward -- only to be cut down in mid-step. Loud shrieks screamed angrily over the repeated bursts of the guns. Yet, despite their companions being torn to shreds it appeared that wave after wave of aliens stepped forward to take their place, only to meet the same fate.
“Are they simply animals too dumb to comprehend?” Talbot asked in a slightly hopeful voice.
“No,” Dean said quietly. “They’ve been here multiple times and know they should be able to get through again.”
“For the guns to be going like that, they must be wall to wall down there.” Daniels’ gaze was fixed on the ammunition counters as they raced toward zero. “Why aren’t they retreating?”
“They’re testing the defenses,” Dean told him, “and waiting for their queen to tell them to stop.”
“Their queen?” Bobby felt a chill run through his body.
Dean nodded. “It’s who Sammy hears.”
One of the guns stuttered to a stop as its counter displayed zero. While it didn’t have any ammo, it still impotently swiveled and tracked the incoming targets.
“Sentry A is out,” Hendricksen reported. “Sentry B is holding its own, but it’s down to fifty rounds. Twenty. Ten. Five.” The second gun stopped. “That’s it.”
The aliens hesitated for a moment, not trusting the lull; but after a moment dozens raced forward until the image on the computer screen collapsed into darkness.
“Holy shit,” Creedy swore under his breath.
For a moment, all Bobby could hear was the beating of his heart in his ears, but then a loud gong-like booming reverberated through the complex.
“They’re at the pressure doors,” Hendricksen reported.
“How many layers of steel do we have over the doors?” Kubrick turned toward Creedy, Daniels and Walker.
Ellen and Preacher crossed themselves as the booming steadily increased in volume and ferocity.
Walker swallowed hard. “Six, sir. Each two inches thick.”
The screech of metal echoing around the complex told everyone in the room that the metal plates weren’t going to be much of a deterrent.
The noise grew to a steady crescendo then suddenly everything was absolutely silent.
Talbot looked hopeful once again. “Maybe--”
A high pitched trilling cut her off.
Hendricksen reached forward and tapped three buttons on the computer and the siren stopped, leaving them once again in silence. “They’re in.”
“How much time?” Kubrick asked in a voice barely above a whisper.
“Not much.” Hendricksen shut the handtop with one hand and slipped it into a pocket in his camouflage pants.
Preacher placed his hand, palm down, in between Ellen and Bobby. Bobby laid his hand on top of it and Ellen put hers over both of theirs.
“Where angels fear to tread,” Murphy said softly.
Ellen huffed with amusement. “We ain’t no angels, padre.”
“Close enough,” Bobby told her.
Hendricksen, with Sarah in his arms, joined their group. Without a word, Sarah leaned forward and placed a hand on Bobby’s forehead and Hendricksen’s. She repeated the gesture with each member of the group.
Hendricksen’s chime was a lot quieter than Bobby was expecting.
“Best way to keep track of everyone,” Hendricksen said by way of explanation.
Murphy gently took one of Sarah’s hands and guided it to Bobby’s forehead then guided the other one to his own. She repeated the process until everyone in their group was connected to each other.
“Alright, we’re going to need a solid plan,” Hendricksen said with quiet authority. “Any ideas?”
Before anyone could respond, the lights went out, plunging them into darkness.
“They cut the power,” Ellen said in quiet shock.
Talbot’s voice was tinged with hysteria. “What do you mean ‘they cut the power’? They’re just animals. Smart, but not that smart. They can’t be that smart. They can’t be.”
The backup lights flickered on lethargically, giving the room a slightly red hue.
“Dean, stick close to me.”
Preacher set Sammy on the ground beside his brother, then grabbed the tracker hanging from his belt and flicked it on as he moved to the main door.
“Anything?” Hendricksen asked in a tight voice.
The tracker gave a light beep and Murphy nodded. “Yeah, I have something.”
“Any chance it’s just us?” Bobby asked, hopefully, feeling an odd sense of déjà vu.
Murphy turned and scanned the group, then turned back toward the corridor. The tracker beeped again louder. “It’s not us.”
“Creedy, Walker, seal the door. Now!” Hendricksen ordered.
The soldiers moved in front of Murphy and ignited their mini welders.
“Hurry,” Preacher urged softly as he kept his gaze locked to the tracker.
When the door was sealed, they all stepped back until they were once again with the group.
“Here we go.” Murphy looked at Bobby. “Stick as close as you can and remember what I taught you.”
Bobby nodded as he gently pulled Dean’s arm until the boy was standing directly behind him, then brought his weapon to the ready.
“Twenty-five meters,” Murphy whispered as he pulled Sam behind him as well.
The rest of the soldiers brought the weapons to the ready and flicked off their safeties.
Daniels looked shocked. “You must be reading the tracker wrong. That would put them inside the barricade.”
Murphy raised the tracker and showed it to Hendricksen.
“They’ve found a way in, something we missed,” Bobby said barely above a whisper.
“We didn’t miss anything,” Kubrick snapped.
“Could they have left something off the schematics?” Murphy asked, bewildered. “Nine meters.”
“That can’t be right,” Daniels insisted. “The door’s ten meters away, they’d be inside the room.”
“I smell something.” Luthor wrinkled his nose, then took a deep breath and frowned. “Carrion.”
Sammy stepped forward so that he was standing between Bobby and Murphy, then slowly turned his face toward the ceiling.
A cold dread filled Bobby as Murphy raised the tracker toward the ceiling. The beeping became a solid whine. Murphy dropped the tracker and grabbed his gun at the same time Hendricksen shouted.
“Fire at will!”
The alien warrior that had decimated the crew of the Sioux Falls had haunted a majority of Bobby’s dreams and a good portion of his waking hours since he’d been released from cryofreeze. But even knowing what the creatures looked like, knowing what they were capable of, wasn’t enough to prepare him for the soul-wrenching horror of having dozens of the creatures drop from the ceiling.
He was vaguely aware of the line of soldiers on either side of him, but couldn’t bring himself to take his focus off the creatures. The only thought he was capable of maintaining was that he had to keep these creatures away from Dean and the other children.
Bullets ripped through the aliens, causing acid to spray all over the back of the room. Tables and equipment smoked and sizzled as the corrosive agents burned through everything. Smoke set off the fire control system and the sprinklers swirled to life, making it difficult to see.
And yet all Bobby could think was ‘kill them!’
“Fall back,” Kubrick yelled. “Fall back!”
Bobby heard the words, but their significance didn’t mean anything to him. He kept targeting the creatures as they jumped into the room, crippling them mid-air before they could land and jump toward the soldiers.
A pair of small hands tugged frantically at the back of his shirt.
Sanity reared its head and Bobby shook his head once to cut through the rage. With one hand, he grabbed Dean’s forearm and took a step backward, making sure the boy was covered. Luthor was moving by his side, doing the same with the twins.
Once they’d reached a small corridor created out of the backs of heavy machinery, they stopped firing and Creedy, Daniels and Walker backed in as well, taking over the duty of covering their retreat.
As they continued to back up, Bobby realized he had no memory of anyone else retreating. “Marco?”
All the children responded ‘Polo,’ along with Preacher and Ellen.
Strong hands gripped the back of his shirt, but before he could protest he heard Preacher’s words in his head. “I got you.”
He was pushed to the side and watched as Preacher grabbed both of the twins and brought them into the room as well.
A few seconds later, Luthor and the trio from Bravo squadron were in and the door was closed. Daniels, Creedy and Walker pulled out their mini welders and immediately started sealing the door.
Averting his eyes from the intense flames, Bobby got a chance to take in the tiny room crammed full with grim faced soldiers. Talbot and Kubrick looked on the brink of panicking.
The door dimpled as an alien threw itself at it from the other side.
“This way,” Dean said, taking charge. He moved to a largish air vent set low in the wall and unlocked it with an expertise that said he’d taken this route before.
Sammy started forward to take his normal position in the procession, but Preacher pulled him back. “Behind me,” he told the boy.
“Status,” Hendricksen yelled into his mic.
“Fifteen minutes until touchdown,” Kate reported back.
“We’re coming out hot!”
The door moaned as it withstood the second assault.
“Do you know the way to the landing field?” Preacher asked through the link, too distracted to narrow his conversation to just Sam.
Sammy looked quickly at Dean, who nodded at him. “Yes. Make a left at the first turn.”
Preacher nodded once to Bobby, then turned and plunged into the vent.
Hendricksen shoved Ellen and Jo toward the duct, then thrust his chin at Bobby, indicating that he and Dean should follow them. Bobby guided Dean to the vent, but the boy refused to enter.
“Not until the twins and Sarah are in.”
Hendricksen didn’t argue, he simply nodded to Luthor, who herded the twins into the duct.
The door dimpled again, this time separating it ever so slightly from the frame.
“No!” Bobby heard Sarah shout through the link. “Not without you.”
Picking the girl up, the master sergeant moved toward the vent, but Sarah became an octopus and wrapped herself around Hendricksen’s chest. “Not without you. Not without you.”
“Hendricksen, get in the damn vent,” Kubrick shouted.
For a moment, Hendricksen hesitated, but then wrapped his arms around Sarah and plunged into vent. Bobby didn’t need to prod Dean, the boy jumped into the vent as soon as the master sergeant disappeared from sight. Bobby looked at the remaining soldiers, who all nodded at him to follow.
He did his best to keep up with Dean, but running in a bent position made it difficult. His breathing and heartbeat echoed in his ears as he glanced at every vent opening to make sure there wasn’t an alien poised to attack.
He was having a hard time keeping a clear head as he could hear practically everyone through the connections Sarah had created. The soldiers were too busy trying to stay alive to worry about whether or not the children could hear them and the children were frightened and basically acted as amplifiers.
“Sammy, go left.”
“Damn it, get in the hole!”
“But they’re just animals.”
“I got you, baby.”
“Watch your six!”
“No, Andy. Dean said left.”
“How many of these fuckers are there?”
“On our asses. Keep moving!”
The duct grew progressively smaller until Bobby was forced to get on his hands and knees in order to progress forward. After a few feet, he tumbled out of the vent and was surprised to find himself in a large junction where several shafts had merged together.
“You know where to go, right Sammy?”
“Yep. I’ll make you proud, Dean.”
“You already do, squirt.”
He got to his feet, just as Sammy flashed his brother a huge grin.
“Sam.” Murphy was kneeling at the mouth of another duct, some ten feet above the floor. The boy nodded once, then concentrated on climbing a series of metal rungs that were built into the far wall.
Ellen and Jo watched his progress from a thin walkway set between two slowly spinning vaned turbines. Bobby absently speculated that they were probably blower drums which helped filter and circulate air to the colony.
When Sam had almost reached the top, Ellen lifted Jo as high as she could and placed her on the rimless ladder, then scrambled up behind her, using her knees and body as a shield to prevent the tiny girl from falling.
Hendricksen looked at Dean. “Are we close to the airfield?”
Dean nodded. “The duct up there will lead us directly to the landing pad.”
The master sergeant quietly spoke into his comm. unit. “Kate, report.”
“Best find someplace to fortify yourselves. Situation hasn’t cooled. Tell Ash the landing doesn’t have to be pretty as long as he can get it back into the air.”
JoJo finally reached the top. Preacher plucked her off the rungs and handed her to Sammy, before moving away from the mouth of the vent to make room for Ellen to enter.
Luthor followed Ellen’s example and placed both of the twins as high on the rungs as he could. Andy scrambled up the remaining wall like a spider, while Max, who was clearly exhausted, struggled. Between one heartbeat and the next, the vampire scooped the frailer child into his arms as he all but flew up the wall.
Bobby whirled and looked back at the vent he had just come out of when he heard the stutter of automatic weapons. The echo, however, made it impossible to discern how close the aliens or the other soldiers were to the chamber.
Without a word, Hendricksen scooped Sarah up and placed her on the ladder. She was almost to the top, one hand reaching toward Luthor when an explosion rocked the room around them. Sarah gasped once before her body slumped away from the wall.
The vampire lunged, trying to reach her, but missed. Hendricksen managed to snag her pack, but between her momentum and weight was unable to maintain his hold.
Before Bobby’s brain could even send a message to his arms to move, Dean was already in motion. The boy dove over the turbines, heedless of his own safety and wrapped his arms around the falling girl.
The thump as they landed reverberated dully around the room, but it wasn’t loud enough to mask the sharp snap. A second later Bobby’s connection with Dean was overwhelmed with pain. He could hear the other children in his mind as they cried out in response.
“Hendricksen, we need something to stop the turbine. Luthor!” Bobby didn’t wait for their response. He shook his head hard to break through the pain screaming through his brain, then jumped on the turbine, throwing his arms out to his side in an attempt to balance himself as he made his way to the children.
Dean was panting harshly, desperately trying to keep Sarah’s unconscious body from slipping between the vanes. Another explosion shook the complex, knocking Bobby from his feet.
His chest bounced hard off the vanes, practically knocking the breath from his body. However, he pushed himself forward and shot his arms out, just barely managing to grasp each child’s wrist before they disappeared down the shaft.
Dean screamed in pain and Bobby knew he had grabbed the boy’s broken arm, but unfortunately there wasn’t any way to relieve his suffering. Jamming his feet into a vane, he gritted his teeth together as he held on with all his might.
“Come on, damn it,” he growled.
The vane shuddered to a stop. Bobby watched helplessly as Dean wrapped both of his legs around Sarah’s legs, trying to keep her body from swinging too much as they hung off the edge of the turbine.
“Can you lift them?” Hendricksen scrambled over him, trying to get a read on the situation.
Bobby shook his head.
“Shit,” the master sergeant swore under his breath.
A second later he was lying beside Bobby, off his right side, reaching for Dean.
“No,” the boy whispered harshly. “Sarah.”
“Damn it, boy,” Hendricksen gritted. “Give me your frickin’ hand.”
“He can’t,” Bobby whispered, straining to speak. “The arm I’m holding is broken. The other one is securing Sarah.”
“Sarah,” Dean repeated. His face was stark white and he was sweating profusely, but determination burned brightly in his eyes.
Hendricksen pushed himself off the turbine and moved to Bobby’s other side. As soon as he was in position, Bobby tried to pull his left arm up a tad, but couldn’t manage more than a few inches. He watched Dean release his legs and try to help push Sarah upward with his good arm.
“I…I almost have her.” The sergeant’s massive hands wrapped around Sarah’s pale arm. “I got you, baby girl. I got you.”
A second later, Hendricksen pulled her to safety.
Bobby managed to catch Dean’s good arm before it fell out of reach.
“Get them to the ship,” Dean demanded softly.
“Boy, you got another think coming if you think I’m letting you go anywhere without me.”
Green eyes blinked at him in surprise.
“We’re in this together, remember? I can’t do any of this without you, so you just suck it up and hang on. Do you understand me?”
Bobby didn’t need their connection to know the boy was hurting, but there was no sign of pain on the boy’s face as he nodded.
“I made you a promise and, by God, I’m going to keep it if I have to crawl through every duct on this damn planet and kill every alien by myself.”
Hendricksen appeared by his side again and together they lifted Dean back onto the turbine. The sergeant rolled away, carrying Dean with him. Bobby rolled as well, surprised to see Luthor to his side, straining to hold the vane in place.
As soon as Bobby was off, Luthor released the turbine and took a quick step back.
“I owe you,” Bobby said quietly.
Luthor shrugged. “As I see it, that means I still owe you one.”
“One for each of my boys.” Luthor smiled grimly at him as he slapped him once on the back, nearly knocking him off his feet. The vampire then stepped forward and took Sarah from Hendricksen before he flew up the rungs to the pale and trembling twins, who were waiting at the mouth of the vent.
Hendricksen followed him up, but once he got to the top, he laid in the mouth of the duct, his arms hanging down.
Bobby didn’t need an explanation. He simply picked Dean up, so that the boy’s bottom was resting on his shoulders and started to climb the rungs. A few moments later, Dean’s weight was lifted off him and he finished his climb.
Just as he reached the top, he heard a panicked cry.
He looked down and found Talbot scrambling out of the smaller vent.
“C’mon,” he yelled at her. He then turned to the sergeant. “Take Dean. I’ll be right behind you.”
“No!” Dean struggled, his good arm reaching toward Bobby, but the sergeant hurried down the vent, ignoring his protest.
“Trust me, boy. I’m practically on your heels now.”
Talbot ran across the thin walkway toward the rungs.
“Where are the others?” he demanded, even as he pulled her to safety.
“Kubrick’s dead,” she sobbed. “And one of the others. I didn’t know his name.”
“Go on.” He pushed her past him.
He was debating whether or not to go back down to check if the others were coming when Daniels pulled himself out of the smaller vent. He grabbed a grenade out of his pocket, then bent toward the vent. “Move your ass!” he yelled.
A second later, Walker rolled out, his pant legs torn and stained with blood. “Clear!”
Daniels activated the grenade and lobbed it underhanded into the vent. A second later, he grabbed his companion by the back of his jacket and hauled him to his feet. Together, they raced toward Bobby.
Again, the complex shook, but amazingly the soldiers kept their balance.
Walker scrambled up the rungs. As soon as the soldier was close enough, Bobby grabbed the back of his shirt and pulled with all his might.
“Thanks.” Walker struggled to get to his hands and knees, then turned to help Daniels off the rungs. “Now go! We’re right behind you!”
Nearly a minute later, Bobby found himself in another junction, but whereas he had to crawl out of the last vent, this time he had to drop a couple of feet to the floor. The moment his feet touched the ground, a small body latched onto him.
He picked Dean up and hugged him tight against his chest even as he stepped out of the way so Daniels and Walker could join them.
As soon as Daniels’ hit the ground, he activated another grenade and tossed it into the vent as hard as he could.
“Fire in the hole.”
Everyone braced themselves as the room jolted once again.
“Report,” Hendricksen said softly, before the ringing in Bobby’s ears had completely stopped.
“It’s collapsed,” Daniels told him.
“Creedy and the lieutenant are dead,” Walker added.
“No, Master Sergeant. Dead,” Daniels told him.
Hendricksen nodded. “Luthor?”
“It’s almost here.”
“They’ll swarm outside as soon as they hear it coming,” Preacher predicted.
“Agreed.” Hendricksen nodded. “We’re only going to have one shot at this, which means we’re going to have to leave en masse. Tell Kate to give us a head’s up when they’re two minutes out.”
“Aye, sergeant.” The vampire looked out the door’s wire-meshed window as if he could actually see his mate. The twins were resting their heads on his chest. By the way his head was tilted, Bobby could tell they were talking amongst themselves, though he had no idea what they were saying. Apparently, things had calmed down enough for everyone to be able to direct their thoughts with a little more accuracy.
When Bobby finally pulled his eyes off the group in front of him, he found Preacher, holding Sam, next to him.
“Hanging in there?”
Bobby snorted humorlessly. “Is it always like this for you guys?”
“Would you believe it’s been a slow day?”
Rolling his eyes, Bobby tried to keep an inappropriate smirk from showing on his face. Then in a more somber mood, he looked around the tiny room at the grim faces of his companions. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
Murphy nodded, sobering. “Creedy was a good man; a bit of an idiot, but a decent guy. I wish we’d had a chance to know the lieutenant better.”
Bobby closed his eyes for a moment as he concentrated on the beat of Dean’s heart thumping against his own chest. “Murphy…” Bobby hesitated. “Jim. What are our chances are of making it out of here?”
Turning, so that he was standing directly in front of Bobby, Murphy looked him straight in the face. “You *are* going to get them off the planet, just like you promised. And, I swear, I am going to get *you* back to the Impala as well.”
“If it comes down to a choice…”
“It won’t. Just stick by me and Luthor.”
Bobby looked up and saw the vampire nod to him once.
“The ship’s two minutes out,” Luthor reported.
Hendricksen stepped into the middle of the group, holding Sarah’s unconscious form in his arms. “I want everyone to leave all non-essential items behind. We’re going to have to travel as light as possible.”
Andy tossed his little backpack to the floor.
The sergeant smiled at him as he shook his head. “No, son, you get to keep your pack. It’s these mooks I want to get rid of things.”
Daniels picked the pack up and handed it back to the boy as the soldiers quickly shed all items they thought might hinder them in their footrace to the drop-ship.
“We’re going to have to assume they’ll make us as soon as we head outside,” Hendricksen said gravely, “so give it everything you got. If you fall…” He hesitated for a moment. “For God’s sake, people, whatever you do, don’t fall. Walker, how are the legs?”
“I’m fully functional, Sergeant.”
“This is no time to be a damn hero, son. I need to know if you think you can make it.”
“Oh, I’ll make it, Sergeant. Don’t worry about that.” Then in a more serious tone, he said, “I swear, I can hold my own.”
Hendricksen looked him up and down for a moment and nodded, apparently satisfied that the private was telling the truth. “Then I want you and Daniels to flank either side of the group. Singer, Murphy, Holmes and Blake, your sole mission is to get these children onto that drop-ship. Talbot, stay close to me but don’t get in the way.”
Everyone nodded grimly.
“Now!” Hendricksen pushed the door open with his back. “Go! Go! Go! Go!”
Clutching Dean’s lithe body to his chest, Bobby ran as hard as he could. While he had spent the majority of his life on space stations and deep-space cargo ships, he discovered he was properly motivated to run as fast as any dirt-dweller. He kept his eyes glued to the drop-ship as it came in for a landing about fifty yards in front of them. The engines were almost deafening, but Bobby couldn’t remember ever having heard anything sound quite so sweet.
“Please. Please. Please. Please.” Dean gave voice to Bobby’s own prayers.
The soldiers around him were breathing just as hard as he was, as every last one of them pushed themselves to their limits. No one wanted to be the last person to die on this desolate planet. When they were twenty-five yards out, he noticed Kate ahead of them, smart gun at the ready as Ash clutched the remote control in both of his hands, his focus entirely on the ship.
“Fuck,” Luthor swore.
Bobby made the mistake of turning his head as Luthor passed him, the twins belted securely to his back, their small arms clutching each other around his neck.
An alien stood in a doorway almost a hundred yards away and shrieked an alarm. Bobby’s blood run cold as dozens of aliens replied.
The drop-ship lived up to its name as it plummeted the last five feet to the ground. The door opened and Kate bodily tossed the com-tech into the opening. As soon as he was in, she began targeting the aliens behind them.
Even as Luthor approached the ship, he was expertly removing Max from the bindings as if he had practiced the maneuver a thousand times. He lifted the child into the opening and pushed him through, then grabbed Andy and did the same thing. Once both children were in the ship, he took the opposite side of the opening from his mate and started laying down a non-stop suppressing line of fire.
“In, Preacher!” Hendricksen shouted as Murphy approached the ship. “Man Turbo One.”
“Aye.” Preacher leapt into the opening and disappeared.
Bobby refused to look at the aliens he knew were on their heels, instead he glanced to his side and noticed Ellen just a step behind him. Her face was grim and dirty with sweat as she clutched Jo tightly in her arms, her eyes never leaving the opening of the ship. Releasing one hand from the back of Dean’s shirt, he grabbed her by the arm and shoved her toward the opening in front of him before clambering in himself.
The 150mm guns started blasting a second later, telling him that Preacher had reached his post.
He could hear the aliens scream behind him, but knew every second counted and didn’t turn around to look. Instead, he moved away from the opening, giving Talbot enough room to enter. Hendricksen was a half second behind her. Daniels and Walker were practically shoving him out of the way as they entered. Both men turned and started firing out the door the moment their feet touched metal.
“Punch it, Ash!” Hendricksen shouted.
Even before the words were out of his mouth, Luthor and Kate were in the ship. Kate was pushing the door shut, while Luthor was firing at anything that moved outside.
The door was almost shut when an alien appeared from on top of the ship, trying to figure out a way to push its body inside. Luthor jammed his smart gun into its mouth and pulled the trigger. The alien fell back, but not before splattering Luthor with its blood. Luthor reeled back, shouting in surprise.
“No!” Kate screamed as she shoved the door the rest of the way until it closed.
“Walker, Daniels, check the door!” Hendricksen shouted. “Make sure we’re space tight.”
Ellen was instantly at Luthor’s side, frantically using a surgical knife to help tear off his battle armor. The vampire tripped and ended up on his back on the floor, writhing as he struggled to remove his clothes before the acid reached his skin.
Max knelt a few feet beside him. His usually pale face was practically translucent with panic, but there was a look of determination in his eyes that made Bobby think of a much older child. “Up!” Max’s little voice squeaked as the ship shuddered its way through the atmosphere.
Luthor continued to thrash on the floor.
Max raised his hand above Luthor’s body. “Up!” he shouted again.
Both medic and vampire fell back as little drops of acid rose from Luthor’s chest plate and coalesced into a ball in front of the little boy.
Dean wiggled out of Bobby’s grasp and Bobby let him down absently, unable to take his eyes off the miracle in front of him. A moment later, Dean led JoJo to Max’s side.
“No!” Ellen cried out, her voice trembling.
But Dean ignored her. He guided Jo’s hands until they were perpendicular to Max’s hands, creating a little square around the ball.
The little girl grinned. “Gone!”
And the acid flickered from view.
“Good girl!” Dean told her. “You did great!” Dean told Max proudly, squeezing him tightly to his side with his good arm.
The little boy blushed. A moment later he was engulfed in Kate’s arms. “My son!” she laughed joyfully.
Ellen examined Luthor’s chest and chuckled in disbelief. “You are the luckiest son of a bitch I know.”
Turbulence rocked the ship. Talbot landed on the floor beside Luthor, and Bobby fell into the seat behind him, while the soldiers fought to stay on their feet.
“I want everyone strapped in now!” Hendricksen ordered.
The soldiers around him moved quickly, scooping up the child closest to them and belting them into empty seats.
“Ash, talk to me.”
“We’ll breach the upper atmosphere in thirty seconds. I figured straight up and out was the best plan of action, given the circumstances.”
“Good thinking. Kate, co-pilot.”
“Aye.” But before the female vampire moved, she grabbed her husband by the front of his uniform and laid an almost brutal kiss on him. “Don’t do that again.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Luthor grinned at her when she finally let him go.
She then reached over to where her boys were strapped into their seats and laid a gentle hand on each of their cheeks before moving toward the front of the ship.
Bobby took the seat next to Dean and strapped himself in. A moment later Preacher appeared and double checked his straps, then the straps on Dean and Sam before he sat beside Sam.
“You did it.” Dean looked at him in awe. “You got us off the planet.”
Bobby ruefully shook his head. “Well, I’d say I had more than a little help.”
Joy bubbled effervescently in Bobby’s chest and he was almost giddy with relief. But two softly spoken words brought him screaming back to reality.
Bobby turn his head and saw Hendricksen tenderly cradle the little girl to his chest, his big hands gently stroking her cheeks.
“Please, baby girl, open your eyes for me.”
“Do you have any idea what’s wrong with her?” Bobby asked Dean.
Dean nodded. “She felt the first one die.”
“What?” Bobby whispered out loud.
“She’s connected to all the soldiers, so when--”
Bobby waved the rest of Dean’s explanation silent, his heart breaking for the dark-haired girl. He could feel the children’s grief pulsing through his link as they all willed Sarah to return to them. He wondered morbidly if the trauma she’d experienced was something she could even come back from? As an adult, it was one thing to know that someone had died or even to witness their death, but to actually feel a person’s life force as it slipped away was unimaginable. But to be a child experiencing it... Bobby closed his eyes and prayed.
“No one’s ever chosen me before, Sarah. Please don’t leave me. I choose you, little girl. I choose you too.”
When he lifted his head, Bobby saw tears running down Ellen and Jo’s faces. Even Daniels and Walker, who had always struck Bobby as the type who didn’t take much seriously, looked stricken.
The cabin was silent, no one wanting to intrude on Hendricksen’s grief, no one feeling like celebrating their escape if they lost the sweet little girl.
“I have a visual on the Impala,” Ash reported over the comm.
Hendricksen swallowed hard, nodding once, almost to himself. “Take us in.”
Dean tore his gaze away from the sergeant and Sarah and twisted in his seat in order to look out the closest portal. He blinked in surprise. “She’s beautiful,” he whispered in awe.
“That she is,” Bobby agreed.
Minutes ticked slowly by as the drop-ship entered the Impala at a glacial pace. Ash was being exceedingly cautious not to bump into anything. When the landing gear finally touched down, Bobby unconsciously crossed himself, then grinned when he noticed Ellen and Preacher doing the same thing. The cabin was bathed in red light as the ship began its decompression cycle. But instead of making him anxious, Bobby found himself slowly relaxing. They had done it. They had made it back safely with the children in tow.
When the light turned green, the snap of belts being unbuckled filled the air. The soldiers around him grinned, as if finally accepting the fact they were home.
Ellen knelt in front of Dean, her hand gently patting his knee. “What do you say we go to our medical bay and take a look at your arm?”
Dean nodded, although his gaze drifted over to Hendricksen. “And Sarah?”
“The sergeant will bring her down as well.”
Ash practically danced into the main cabin of the drop-ship. “Alright, bitches, who’s the man?”
The soldiers around him rolled their eyes.
“Oh, come on!” Ash cajoled, kicking the toe of his boot against the metal floor and looking a little like Andy.
Kate smirked, her voice droll as she spoke. “You’re the man, Ash.”
“Darn tooting.” He grinned happily and dodged Daniels, who tried to give him a playful shove.
Preacher reached over and gave Bobby a quick double slap to his upper arm.
Bobby grinned at him, extending his hand. “Thank you,” he said sincerely.
“All part of our deluxe package.” Preacher chuckled as he pumped Bobby’s hand joyfully, then guided him and the boys to the door.
The soldiers hopped from the drop-ship onto the deck of the Impala and stretched, grinning as their joints popped, enjoying the added reminder that they were not only alive, but safe as well.
“Excuse me,” Talbot said in a sharp voice. Everyone turned toward her as she deliberately, but carefully stepped down from the ship. “What are we going to do next?”
“About what?” Ellen asked.
“About the colony.”
Preacher ran his hands over his short-cropped hair, then grinned at Bobby. “I say we arm the nukes and drop one on the colony, one on the atmospheric processer and a final one on the original alien site.”
“Hell, yeah!” Walker high-fived him as he walked by.
“That’s company property!” Talbot protested.
“They can bill us.” Bobby was more than annoyed by her attitude. Because of her missive, hundreds of people had died, as well as Kubrick and Creedy. As far as he was concerned they should be locking her in the brig until they could figure out what to do with her. But knowing how the Company operated, they’d probably give her a promotion for innovative thinking.
Sammy’s head snapped up, a frown on his face as he frantically looked around the cargo hold.
“Very amusing,” Talbot snapped. “But I forbid you to destroy any more Company property than you already have.”
“What?” Ash asked, shocked.
“Than we already have?” Hendricksen did not look amused.
“Something’s wrong.” Sammy tugged on Murphy’s hand, but the corporal’s attention was on the attorney.
“And another thing,” Talbot said, getting a full head of steam behind her. “As a representative of the Company, I will be taking charge of the--” She gasped once, her hands futilely clasping the end of a wicked looking tail protruding from her chest. Blood bubbled from her lips as she whimpered in confused pain.
Everyone stumbled back a step as the rest of the alien warrior slowly emerged from the front landing leg bay.
“Fuck,” Daniels whispered as another one appeared out of the rear landing leg bay.
“Does anyone have their ordnances on them?” Hendricksen asked.
Bobby cursed silently when he realized he’d left his weapon on his seat in the drop-ship. Once they’d landed, his only thought had been to get Dean to the Medbay. He never imagined they wouldn’t be safe once they reached the Impala.
The aliens made no move toward them. They simply looked around as if taking in the sights.
The sergeant slowly pressed Sarah tighter to his chest. “Computer, activate,” he said in a barely audible voice.
“On-line,” a polite mechanical voice responded.
“Scan ship for any alien DNA, beginning with the cargo bay.”
“There are two sources of alien DNA in the cargo bay.”
“Be very, very certain.”
“There are only two sources of alien DNA in the cargo bay,” it reiterated.
Bobby remembered how cruel the alien who had killed the Sioux Fall’s crew had been. There’d been several times when he truly believed it’d been toying with them even as it hunted them to extinction. The creature with its tail in Talbot, brought the attorney closer and sniffed her hair, its eyes never leaving the soldiers. Bobby got the distinct impression it was laughing at them.
Talbot was taking shallow stuttering breaths, as if she couldn’t get enough air. The alien bared its teeth in an obscene sort of grin as it slowly pulled its tail from her chest, then pushed it slowly into her back and out through her abdomen.
“Does anyone have a shot?” Hendricksen asked.
Preacher moved his hands in infinitesimal movements toward his gun. “Not without hitting Talbot.”
“Talbot’s already dead,” Luthor reported.
Bobby’s gaze moved from the alien to Talbot’s lifeless form. While he had wanted to see Talbot punished for her actions with regard to the colony, he never would’ve wished this level of suffering on her.
Hendricksen’s voice cut through his thoughts. “Those with ordnances will fire on my mark.”
“We can’t, sergeant,” Ellen countered, then added before he could respond. “The acid.”
“Damn it! We might as well have our hands tied behind our backs.” Hendricksen looked like he wanted to rip something limb from limb. “Does anyone have the flamethrower?” Hendricken asked.
“I do,” said Daniels.
“All right. Singer, get the children to safety. The rest of you concentrate on the alien closest to you. Vamps, use the smart guns. If we have to deal with acid holes, then we will. Everyone else will fall back and get a thrower. There’s no way in hell we’re letting these aliens off the cargo deck so they can pick us off one by one. Let’s see if we can’t herd these fuckers to the space locks. Okay, on my mark. Three. Two. One. Mark!”
Each vampire targeted an alien, but as fast as they were, the aliens seemed to have anticipated their attack. The one at the front of the ship lifted Talbot as a shield then carelessly tossed her aside, while the one in back leapt nearly twenty feet in the air. A split second later, Bobby heard Ash screaming in pain.
The children scrambled to Dean’s side, who was looking frantically for a place to hide them.
Bobby pointed to the wall on the other side of the bay. “Take the children into the vents!”
Dean nodded, then herded the children toward the wall. Bobby noticed that the alien who killed Talbot tracked their progress. It turned its head and looked deliberately at Bobby, pushing its jaw out in a grotesque mimic of a smile before it dodged behind a stack of crates to escape Luthor’s barrage.
“Go deep, boy. I mean it. Don’t come out until I give you the all clear.”
Bobby backed slowly toward the middle of the cargo hold, never taking his eyes off the alien who had promised to be the bringer of death.
He practically tripped over the power loader before he saw it. Wasting no time, he climbed into its frame and hit the start up button while he strapped himself in, thanking God and the universe that the military loaders were light years more sophisticated than the piece-of-crap loaders he had been forced to use while working on the loading docks.
As soon as he got the green power light, he took a look at the situation around him. Ash and Walker were laying on the floor of the cargo bay; Walker was writhing in pain, screaming through clenched teeth, while Ash was as still as a corpse. Ellen was scanning Walker, trying to get him to calm down, while Hendricksen, Daniels, and Kate appeared to be successfully herding their alien toward one of the space locks.
The second alien was dodging behind boxes in an attempt to elude Luthor and Murphy. Despite the obvious cat and mouse game it was playing with the soldiers, Bobby realized the alien was slowly working its way across the bay, toward the wall the children had disappeared into. Moving as fast as he could, he placed himself directly between the vent and the alien.
He didn’t have long to wait.
The alien made a spectacular leap over the soldiers and landed a few feet in front of Bobby.
“You want them, you gotta come through me first, you bastard.”
The alien pulled its lips back to reveal a skeletal grin, then whipped its tail around, trying to pierce him, like it had Talbot. The first attempt barely missed his hip and he reacted too slowly to retaliate, but the second time the tail shot toward him he grabbed it with the loader’s right arm and crushed it as hard as he could, mindful not to break its exoskeleton and thus spill any of the creature’s blood.
The creature screamed and thrashed about, but Bobby refused to let go. In desperation, it threw its weight against him, trying to break his hold, knocking them both to the ground.
“Shoot it!” he shouted.
“We don’t have a clear shot!” Luthor yelled back.
The alien twisted toward him and shot its jaw toward his head. Bobby slammed himself to the side, feeling its hot breath on his face. The alien’s leg kicked forward, but the loader’s cage kept it from striking anything vital, although he could hear the metal dent under the force of the attack.
Seeing an opening, Bobby brought the left loader arm up and managed to get the servo grip around the creature’s throat. It screamed and tried to attack him with its extended jaw, but Bobby gripped it tighter and tighter, until it ceased to move.
“Stay back!” he yelled as the vampire drew closer.
Murphy stopped beside Luthor. “Are you alright?”
“Is it dead?”
Bobby shook his head. “The damn thing managed to survive while exposed to space; I don’t think it’s possible to choke it to death.”
“Do you think it’s playing opossum?” Luthor asked.
“Damned right I do. How are the others doing?”
Luthor looked at the far end of the bay. “Katie says they got it into the airlock.”
“Tell her to space it, but make sure it doesn’t get anywhere near the hull. Use the thrusters to fry its ass, if necessary.”
“What about this one?” Preacher asked.
“I can’t risk letting it go,” Bobby said. “It was going after the children.”
“What?” Luthor growled.
“You two are going to have to figure a way to get me on my feet.”
Preacher nodded as he lowered his weapon. “I’ll go get the other loader.” He turned and jogged toward the far wall.
“I could always shoot it in the head.” Luthor volunteered.
“And catch the acid with what?”
The vampire shook his head ruefully. “You know, sometimes I miss the good ol’ days where I could pound things and not worry about the consequences.”
“I bet you weren’t in space during the good old days,” Bobby said conversationally.
“You’d be right.”
“When were you born anyway?”
“Probably a few centuries before you were.”
Bobby snorted. “Nice to know I’m not the oldest one on the ship.”
“Yeah, but I wouldn’t mention that to Katie.”
“Sensitive about her age?”
Footsteps reverberated around the deck as Preacher, strapped into the other loader, slowly made his way toward them, finally coming to a stop by Bobby’s head. “How do you want to do this?”
“If you and Luthor can get me upright, I can take it from there.”
It took them three tries to get him on his feet and if the situation hadn’t been so serious, he would have laughed over their inability to coordinate their efforts. However, he was also aware that they were all teetering on the edge of exhaustion.
As soon as he was on his feet, he moved slowly toward the space lock, frustrated by the fact that the dent in his leg panel was keeping him from taking full steps. The need to slam dunk the alien into space was practically choking him.
Ellen was kneeling by Ash, running a sensor over him.
“Is he alive?”
Her eyes briefly darted toward him then back to the sensor. “Yes, they both are. For the moment. The sooner we get them to Medbay the better.”
The relief he felt was palpable.
“What’s the plan?” he asked the sergeant as he neared the door.
“You really think it’s still alive?” Hendricksen countered.
“Yes. It’d be foolish to think otherwise.”
Hendricksen nodded. “I agree.” The sergeant rubbed his hands over his tired face. “Okay, we’re going to open the inner door just enough for you to toss it in. We’ll shut it as quick as we can and then space it, just like we did the other. Kate is manning the thruster, so we can fry it the second it’s out.”
Bobby watched the alien carefully as the door to the lock slowly slid a quarter of the way open. It didn’t so much as twitch, but still Bobby didn’t trust it.
He tossed it to the ground, but it remained motionless. He took a step backward, allowing the door to start closing, though using the loader to block the exit.
He felt a powerful hatred roll over him as he remembered the cruel way it had killed Talbot. It was obvious, to him at least, that since they had escaped the atmosphere, the aliens’ mission had changed from capture for implantation to annihilation. While it didn’t so much as twitch, he could practically feel it waiting for its moment to spring into action. But it wasn’t going to…
A scared, pitiful whimper echoed through his head. “Dean? Dean, where are you? Master Sergeant?”
Bobby turned his head momentarily, trying to figure out where Hendricksen had hidden the little girl, but the moment he did he realized his mistake.
The alien whipped its tail toward his face and he barely managed to move his head in time. He could feel the ridges of the tail scrape against his cheek as it quickly pulled its tail back for another strike. Bobby pounded the cutting torch console with his fist and ignited the torch as the creature’s jaw snapped forward. It screeched in pain, but managed to grab the steel frame around him and jerk it forward, wedging him in the closing door. The door throbbed around the loader, trying to fulfill its order to close, damaging the loader’s frame with each renewed pulse.
“Push me in and open the outer door!” he shouted.
“NO!” Dean screamed in his mind.
“Open the outer door!” Hendricksen bellowed. “Preacher, hold him!”
Bobby ducked his head as the tail came swinging by his face. He grunted as the tip came back around and grazed his shoulder, ripping through his jacket and shirt in the process.
The outer door slowly started to open and Bobby felt the pull of space, trying to suck him outward. He leaned as far back as he could within the loader and swung his arms blindly, feeling some satisfaction when he connected with the alien.
He could hear the soldiers behind him yelling as they desperately sought to find a handhold.
“Luthor, can you get a shot?” Hendricksen yelled.
“Joooooooo!” Ellen screamed as if the word were being ripped from her soul.
“Luthor, grab the children!” he heard Kate scream.
Bobby desperately wanted to turn around to see what was happening, but knew he couldn’t divide his attention again. He tried punching forward, but this time, he didn’t connect with anything.
“We have to see it,” Dean shouted through his mind.
“What?” Luthor shouted out loud.
“No!” Kate added as well.
“We have to!”
The suction of space was growing stronger, the further the door widened. The alien changed tactics and started yanking on the loader’s frame. Bobby knew it was only a matter of time before he found himself floating in space. He longed to say goodbye to Dean, but after what happened to Sarah, he didn’t dare. He mentally started closing all of his doors in his head.
“No!” Dean screamed. “Max now!”
Bobby couldn’t hear the younger boy, but was aware of the alien’s fingers being pulled off the loader’s frame digit by digit. One moment, the alien was screaming its hatred at him, the next it was simply gone.
The outer door started to close, but the frame of the loader finally slipped free of the inner door’s grasp. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes, preparing himself to meet his fate; however, there was a loud clang behind him and he heard Murphy’s strained bellow of anger.
An eternity passed before the outer door shut, but when it did, gravity returned in a big way and his loader slammed to the ground. For several moments, he stared blankly at the red light flashing above him, trying to remember what it signified. He was just starting to comprehend the fact that he was alive when he was yanked backwards.
The view above him changed and he realized he was in the main cargo hold because the ceiling was further away. He swallowed hard, not quite believing that he’d somehow managed to cheat death once again. Before he could orient himself, a small body wormed its way through the frame and latched onto him. He looked down and found Dean sobbing against his shoulder. “Don’t leave me, daddy,” he whispered in Bobby’s ear. “Please don’t ever leave me.”
A lump grew in Bobby’s throat, threatening to choke him, as he embraced the boy as hard as he could, though mindful of his broken arm. “I won’t. I swear.”
“Let me in,” Dean demanded. “Let me in.”
Bobby opened the door in his head and felt the full brunt of the love the boy had for him. “I’m sorry, Dean. I didn’t mean to scare you. I’m so sorry.”
The boy nodded, but said nothing.
A moment later, Murphy’s grinning face appeared in his frame of vision. “What do you think about getting out of this contraption?”
“I think it’s the best idea I’ve heard in a long time!”
Several hours later found Bobby sitting in the Medbay beside Dean’s bed. The boy was sleeping, his arm in a cast, but Bobby couldn’t bring himself to move from his side.
Ash was under sedation; Ellen’s diagnosis wasn’t good. The alien had managed to severe his spinal column. While the chances of his surviving were pretty good, the odds of his ever being able to walk again were pretty minimal.
Walker would live, although he’d be in a fair amount of pain during his recovery.
Everyone else managed to escape with nothing more than major scrapes and bruises.
Sarah wasn’t talking to anyone, except Dean and Hendricksen. Her silence distressed the other children, but Dean had explained that she’d eventually be okay. They just needed to give her some time, like they’d given Max after Gus had been taken.
Bobby looked around the room. All the other children were sleeping as well. Sammy was lying beside Dean, with Preacher sitting watch on the other side of the bed. Andy and Max were sharing a bed as well, with the vampires on either side of the bed, apparently comforting themselves by letting their hands rise and fall with each breath the boys took.
Hendricksen was sitting upright in a bed, holding Sarah, studying her sleeping face, while Ellen was doing the same thing with Jo.
Daniels was standing in the doorway, looking lost.
“So what’s the plan?” Bobby asked softly, looking specifically at Hendricksen.
The master sergeant reluctantly tore his eyes away from the child in his arms. “We’re going to have to radio in for instructions.”
“I can’t see the Company allowing us to nuke the various sites,” Murphy said quietly.
“I can’t either,” Hendricksen agreed.
“Would it be better to ask for forgiveness later rather than asking for permission up front?” Ellen asked seriously.
“The problem with nuking the sites is there’s no guarantee that we’ll get them all.” Hendricksen shook his head. “Dean said the colonists were taken to what? Sub-level Six?”
“Which is only about half-way down, according to the schematics.” Hendricksen sighed. “I doubt a nuke would be effective in wiping them out if they’re down that deep.”
“So what are we going to do?” Kate asked, joining the conversation.
Hendricksen quieted for a moment as Sarah shifted in her sleep. When she finally settled, he looked back at the group. “We have to warn the Company. If we don’t, they’ll just send more colonists to the slaughter.”
“There’s no guarantee they won’t do that anyway,” Ellen said cynically.
“I’m not defending Talbot in any way, shape or form,” Bobby said, “but I don’t think she was acting under company orders. I truly believe she was hoping to become some sort of hero in their eyes by presenting them with a sample that would keep the bio-warfare scientists happy for decades.”
Luthor frowned. “As soon as the Company realizes what’s down there, they’re going to try to get a sample anyway. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about humanity over the centuries it’s that they’re guaranteed to make the wrong decision each and every time.”
“What about the children?” Ellen finally asked.
“Did Talbot get a message back to the Company about them?” Bobby asked to the room in general.
Kate shook her head. “No. Ash searched every transmission after he found the order to check the original site’s coordinates. He then put a dampening blanket over the colony as an extra precaution to make sure she couldn’t.”
“Good boy.” Ellen smiled affectionately at the sleeping com-tech.
“We can’t let the Company know about the children, otherwise, they’ll spend the rest of their lives as lab rats,” Preacher said in a tight voice.
“But what of their families?” Daniels asked from the doorway.
“We’re their family now,” Luthor said in a tone that brooked no argument.
“As I see it, we have a couple of options here.” Preacher said softly. “We can call in a report, then go rogue. The only problem is there really isn’t a colony out here that isn’t under the influence of the Company to some extent or another. Also, I don’t relish the idea of living with a bounty on my head. We could try to sneak Bobby and the children off the ship before we return to Gateway and as our enlistments come up, we can join them. The problem there is that it might take a year or two for some of us to get out. Ellen, you’re short, aren’t you?”
Ellen nodded. “This was supposed to be my last mission. Bill wanted out so we could plan a family.” She cleared her throat and looked away.
“I’m the shortest after that and my rotation doesn’t end for another out-of-stasis six months, but that leaves Ellen and Bobby on their own for longer than I’d like.”
Hendricksen looked down into Sarah’s sleeping face. “I agree.”
“What other option do we have?” Daniels asked.
“We keep them on the ship. We take Ash back to base and see if we can get him fixed, then keep going on like business as usual.”
Bobby shook his head. “Can you do that?”
Hendricksen nodded. “Most Marines are lifers. The Company would rather house families aboard mother ships than have to retrain grunts every time someone cycles out.”
“How will you explain the children?” Bobby asked.
“We won’t,” Luthor said. “As far as the company knows, they’ve been with us the whole time.”
“What? No one goes through your logs or does maintenance on your cryo-chambers?”
Kate frowned at her husband. “You’re making this too complicated as usual, love. All the Company has to know is that we kept some orphans. Hell, the Orion is well known for being a third generation orphan ship. Their crew keeps survivors all the time, then trains them to look after the ship while they go planet-side. As long as no relative within two generations puts a claim in for them--which I seriously doubt they have, otherwise their parents probably wouldn’t have been on a shake and bake to begin with--or as long as they don’t use their powers in front of strangers, the Company couldn’t give a rat’s ass about them. As far as they’re concerned, if they don’t have to pay out on any insurance policy, we can keep them.”
“And you can screen who comes on the ship?” Bobby asked in amazement.
“We do now,” Daniels said matter-of-factly.
Bobby cleared his throat before he looked up again. “What about me?”
“Civilian consultant.” Preacher grinned at him. “Perfectly legit.”
“I know Bill’s death has hit you hard,” Kate said kindly to Ellen. “But are you willing to re-up?”
Ellen bit her lip as she looked down at the tiny girl in her arms. A tear ran down her nose, but she raised her head before it could drip onto the child. “To keep her safe and out of the Company’s hands, I’ll re-up until she reaches majority. Hell, if she wants to join us after that, I’ll re-up for as long as she’ll have me.”
“So, are we all in?” Preacher asked.
“We’re in,” Luthor said for his group.
Ellen nodded again.
Hendricksen looked down into Sarah’s face, then up at the group and smiled. “She chose me. What else can I do?”
“This is the only family I’ve ever had,” Daniels said quietly. “I have no right to speak for him, but I know Gordon feels the same way. We aren’t going anywhere.”
Bobby looked over at Dean and was surprised to find the boy’s eyes opened ever-so-slightly. He leaned forward and kissed his forehead. “We’re family now, boy. Just try and get rid of me.”