The first time that Brian from school called her a dyke and laughed, Tamora was in First Grade and didn't know what it meant. She hit him anyway, because that usually worked, and indeed he cried and held his nose and called for his Mommy.
He didn't dare tell, though. Everyone knew what Tamora did to snitches.
"What's a dyke?" she asked Brad later, when they were looking out at the stars from one of the observation decks. Brad was from the same ship arm and in the year above her at school and knew everything.
"Means you like girls," Brad replied. Tamora frowned at him. "Like, you like girls," he said, emphasising the word until she got the gist.
Tamora cocked her head to one side to consider the idea, then wrinkled her nose and leant back on her hands. She had her feet pressed right against the clear window, a sign of her boldness when the other kids at school still thought your hand froze off if you touched one. "Nah. Girls don't want to shoot xenos on the holodeck."
"D'you wanna go see my brother's spiders?"
That sounded like a good idea. Tamora nodded firmly, and only shouted at Brad for running off because she had to put her shoes back on before she could run after him.
By Fourth Grade, when Charlie from the year above called her a carpet muncher, she punched him in the balls so hard that he spoke in a high voice for the next three days and she was put in detention for it.
She knew by then that it was probably mostly because she could punch so hard. And run so fast, jump so high, fight so fiercely.
"I'm gonna join the Space Marines when I'm older," she told Brad. "I want to set records."
Brad didn't laugh at her so much as just grin. "I bet you will."
She started dating Brad when she was sixteen and he was seventeen, and oh but the girls were jealous of her for it. Of course, they were probably jealous as well that she had the figure of a model, legs that went on forever, and eyes that could stop boys in their tracks. She wore lipgloss like armour and high heels like weapons, and could still knock Charlie from grade school onto his ass when he tried to grope her at Brad's senior prom.
"So do you think that I'm straight or not?" she asked, looking at him with one arched brow while he tried to get to his feet with some dignity.
He didn't even manage to answer before Brad wandered over and slipped his arm around her waist. "Hey, babe. Is there a problem?"
Even Tamora wasn't above smirking at Charlie just for a moment. "Not at all."
When Brad went into the Marines, she teased him about stealing her ideas, but mostly itched for the extra year to pass so that she could follow him. He went into the research branch, fast-tracked to a Doctorate for the work that he put into Cy-Bug weaknesses, while she knew that she'd be infantry through-and-through, but she didn't let him off that easily. When he got his comms access, she was one of the people that he holocalled, and they hung on right to the last seconds of his allotted time.
She handled basic duty perhaps the best of any woman in the group. Not that it was easy, it wasn't supposed to be easy, but it feels natural and fluid and she enjoys the burn in her muscles that it brings out.
Okay, so the uniform wasn't flattering, but it was never meant to be. The weight of the armour was like a constant reminder of her strength, and her CO, Captain Buzz Lightyear, said that she could have been a sniper if she wanted.
The short hop from her home station to the training station didn't really count as interstellar travel, not compared to the hyperdrive skip that was needed to get to the base that she'd call her home for the five years of her tour. Some of the other men and women were blasé about it all, while others were terrified, and a third group clung to the windows and watched in wonder as the stars jerked by. Tamora sat back on one of the chairs, stretched her legs out in front of her, and watched the people as much as the stars with a faint smile on her face.
She hadn't expected to be allowed to go to the Cy-Bug front line sector, not when Brad (sorry, Doctor Brad Scott) was already out there. Conflict of interest, she expected to hear. But the friendships in her unit had developed thick and fast, and she supposed that a friend from before the Marines wasn't any more of a liability than a friend met during.
When she saw Brad again on the base, she played it cool, but couldn't tear her eyes away from his. It was a matter of hours before they snuck away to find some time and space alone.
"You are dynamite," he breathed between their kisses. She didn't bother to answer with anything more than a smirk.
Life on the base wasn't easy, but she hadn't exactly expected it to be. The terraforming of the planet was only half-completed, the atmosphere breathable but the ground in this area not ready for cultivation, and of course some idiot a few years back had gone and uncovered a nest of hibernating Cy-Bugs. The civilian population, the first settlers of the planet, had been all but wiped out -- those that remained were as tough and grim-eyed as any Marine, and as handy with a gun as well.
The worst part was the dark. The Cy-Bugs were attracted to light, so after the sun set there had to be a blackout on the base. Night-vision goggles only when outside. They made patrol a nightmare, cut off your peripheral vision and took away your depth perception. But it was better than the alternative.
Brad's team was working on a way to discover dormant nests without awakening them. In the first three years that Tamora was on the base, they found four nests, and only one of them was even partially disturbed before the Marines went in hard and fast with plasma guns and proton weapons.
It didn't stop them from learning some things the hard way.
The Cy-bugs evolved fast and reproduced faster, and within just months on the planet they were seeing strains that they had never come across before. Bugs with armoured shells that gave only the smallest of targets -- eyes, mouth, ass -- to aim for. Bugs with such terrible toxins that one bite would set a man's limb rotting off before their very eyes. Bugs with proboscis so sharp that they could punch through all but the heaviest armour, and every helmet that they tried to create.
Tamora rose through the ranks fast and hard, hitting Sergeant in just under four years. She was decorated for bravery, more than once, and probably saved Markowski's life when she cut off his lower left leg before the toxin of the bugs spread any higher. Not that Markowski wanted to see her again, and she understood, but she figured it was better to be alive than part-digested.
Brad proposed to her on one of the rare occasions when they managed to be off-duty at the same time. They were in his bed -- the scientists got better quarters than the corps, and bigger beds -- and she didn't hesitate for a moment before accepting and throwing her arms around his neck to kiss him again.
"I think I've found the best day of my life," she said, trying on the ring. It was a bit big, but they could get that fixed once their tours ended. Wasn't like she could wear jewellery until then anyway.
"The best?" Brad cocked an eyebrow.
"Until we get married," she answered with a sigh. "Dumbass."
"Oh, come on," he scoffed. "You're the grunt with the gun."
Tamora grinned. "You'd be the one to know something about grunting, wouldn't you?"
She stayed there the whole night and was exhausted by the time that she did patrol the next day. But it was always, always worth it.
Brad insisted that they do things right. Get married in the chapel on base, with their friends in attendance and family watching through holo-feeds. Find a suit and a dress (and though Tamora wouldn't admit it, she had really missed the swishing-soft feel of dresses and skirts) and someone who could make a cake without trashing the entirety of the kitchens.
There had been rumblings under the ground and possible Cy-bug sightings on the scanners lately, and they'd been running three patrols a day to keep up with them. As much as Tamora had tried to get the rota changed, she was down to do the midday patrol.
Just one hour before she was supposed to get married.
Sure, Brad would marry her anyway if she turned up to the church in armour and covered in dust and sweat, but for once she wanted to be allowed to be feminine. To be a bride. One more laugh at Mike and Charlie and all the other assholes across the years who'd called her a lesbian just because she wasn't interested in them. Yeah, right. It was just that they were idiots.
Unlike Brad. She smiled softly and looked from her combat gear, crumpled on the bed, to her wedding dress hanging on the wall in a clear plastic sheath.
One day, that was all.
It turned out, it only took one day. They weren't allowed to carry weapons in the chapel, that was the fucking worst of it, so when the Cy-bug crashed through the stained glass window and roared there was scrambling and rather un-Marine-like screaming.
Some of it might have been coming from Tamora, she realised. Because blood splattered on her wedding dress and that was Brad's blood, she couldn't even think, but for all her desire to look feminine it had felt wrong to not have a gun on her thigh. She tore the seam of her dress, pulled out the plasma pistol, and might have still been screaming as she shot the Cy-bug's eyes, over and over again, until the battery on her gun was empty and it was just an empty corpse with a smoking crater for its head, ribbons of flesh hanging from its pincers.
She didn't collapse. Captain Lightyear didn't so much lead her out as dragged her out, as through her red-misted vision she tried to get back to the Cy-bug to kill it again and again and again.
"You should talk to someone, Sergeant," said Captain Lightyear. She couldn't look round to face him.
"I fucked up, Captain. I should have run that patrol, and I didn't."
"A mistake, Sergeant. Not something that you should blame yourself for."
Tamora transferred further out, to the Arcadia region where the Cy-bug nests were thick and fast-evolving, and fought harder and fiercer than she ever had before. Struck back for everything that they had taken from her, made sure that no-one else would ever feel the same.
She wasn't sure whether or not it helped, but when she had the buzz of the adrenaline and the knowledge that she was better than those xeno freaks she could keep going. She wasn't dead yet.
The end of her five years came around, and her new captain Smollet gave her a long calculating look when she signed up for another tour.
"I'm not going back to a civilian life while those things are out there, Captain," she said.
"You might be fighting for a long time, Calhoun."
That wasn't the part that frightened her. "I know."
Eighteen months into her second tour, she was decorated again for bravery. It hadn't seemed brave at the time. They had been checking out a cave system on foot, because something in the rocks was preventing the radar from penetrating, when a rockfall had trapped them in and awoken a patch of Cy-bug eggs at one and the same time. Tamora had just been focused on staying alive, and on keeping her people alive with her, and when nine hellish hours and hundreds of bugs later they had stumbled out into the air again, she had almost collapsed for the first time in her life.
But her men had all survived. Kohut wounded, yes, and with salvie holding the wound together and his skin growing progressively more ashen, but the medics had said that they could expect him to make a full recovery.
That night, she got abysmally drunk on the frankly abysmal vodka that the mess had to offer, and didn't remember much of the rest of the night. She did, though, remember toasting the three moons of the planet and thanking Brad for everything, and then crying until her eyes were hot and red. Captain Smollet might have escorted her to bed, mortifyingly enough.
She woke up the next morning with the pillow over her head and a taste in her mouth like she'd been licking bedrock.
"Robinson's left bollock," she groaned into her bed. For all of his inventing genius and his creating the hyperdrive, it felt like Dr. Robinson had a lot to answer for.
"Sergeant," said one of the other Marines, even as Tamora gripped the pillow over her head tighter and swore never to drink again. "There's a summons from Command for you. You earned another medal?"
Somewhat ruefully, Tamora removed the pillow from her head and tried to smooth the spiky muss of her hair. She tried not to squint too much in Nova's direction. "Yeah. They said there wasn't going to be any big ceremony, though."
Private Mira Nova had only been on-base a few months, but she was a fast learner and a good hand with a gun. She had been one of the team that had responded to Tamora's unit the previous day. Despite the difference in ranks, Tamora considered her a friend. "Well, they sounded excited about something."
Tamora sat up, regretted it, then stood up and regretted it even more. The world was still lurching, and she realised that she'd gone to sleep in her dirty, gore-splattered uniform. Hell in hyperdrive.
Luckily, she was pretty good at looking good. One of those knacks that she'd never lost.
By the time that she reported to command at 0900 sharp -- the base used twenty-six hour time, even if it messed with everyone's heads -- Tamora was pretty sure that nobody would guess she had been roaring drunk just five or so hours previously. Her hair was knife-sharp, her dress uniform was immaculately crisp, and she was holding her head high.
Despite the fact that it was pounding.
"Captain." To her surprise, Captain Smollet was waiting at the door of the Command building, also in dress uniform, her brow furrowed slightly. For someone who so rarely let her thoughts slip, it was enough. "Sergeant Calhoun reporting."
"At ease, Sergeant," said Smollet. She gestured for Tamora to follow her into the building. "You've a good record, Calhoun. Possibly one of the best."
Possibly. Calhoun could feel the day that she had been supposed to be married, hanging over her like a knife. She didn't say anything.
"And you know that we've come across a far worse Cy-bug infestation in this sector than we could ever have expected. There's a new... specialist coming out from Earth. We want you on the team."
"At... short notice, Captain?" Tamora quirked an eyebrow.
A graceful shrug. "Perhaps. This operation is highly classified."
Tamora had been in Command before, of course, but she hadn't been to the third floor of the building where their steps now turned. Captain Smollet stepped smartly up to an unmarked door at the end of the corridor, rapped against it, then pushed it open and gestured sharply for Tamora to step in. She did so, trying not to be too relieved that the room was slightly dimmer than the corridor, and her eyes went wide as she saw the figure behind the desk.
"General Lockload, sir!" She snapped to attention and saluting. The General looked up mildly from where he sat and nodded.
"At ease, soldier."
Ease wasn't really an option, but Tamora did allow herself to breathe again. Behind them, Captain Smollet closed the door, and Tamora glanced round for a fraction of a second before settling her eyes forwards once again.
She had been so shocked at the sight of the General that she hadn't realised there was someone else in the room at all. A young woman, perhaps younger than Tamora herself, sat on the far side of the desk from the General. She had white-blonde hair and an unreadable expression, and was dressed all in black rather than any sort of fatigues or armour.
"Sergeant Calhoun," the General went on, his voice as smooth as ever, "I've received glowing reports over the years. The occasional lapse of judgement," he said the words crisply, but Tamora did not flinch, "but never deliberately putting the lives of your men in danger. Selfless, that was the word that I've heard."
He folded his hands on the desk in front of him.
"Sergeant, let me introduce to you Specialist Arendelle. Specialist, this is Sergeant Calhoun."
Specialists were always hard to gauge. Tamora saluted anyway, but the woman looked uncomfortable with it and she did not hold the gesture for long.
"Specialist Arendelle will be heading into one of the smaller nests tomorrow, once she has had time to adapt to our diurnal pattern. You will accompany her."
The General's dark eyes were absolutely unreadable, and years of training made sure that Tamora held back the question that came first to her tongue. The minimum size unit for entering even a small, dormant nest was twelve and a unit leader. The way that the General had phrased it, it had sounded as if it would be the two of them.
"Of course, General," she said. In fine military style, she turned over and rephrased her question. "Have the rest of the unit been chosen?"
"Private Nova will accompany you," said the General.
Tamora raised her eyebrows. Three soldiers, for a nest? Her hand clenched into a fist at her side, but Smollet must have seen the tension as she gave Tamora a warning glance.
"Yes, sir," said Tamora.
It got stranger. General Lockload gave a very brief, curt explanation of their mission, but for all the world it sounded as if Tamora and Nova were just going to escort Specialist Arendelle into the nest and she was going to wipe them all out. Tamora frowned and looked over the woman again. She didn't look like much, short and slender, with a fragile demeanour. Her gloved hands were twisted tightly together.
Tamora pressed her lips tightly together and did not question anything. That wasn't her job. She could ask the Specialist herself. She just said 'yes sir' and nodded at the correct places, until the General dismissed them.
Captain Smollet stood aside to let the specialist leave the room first. A deference that Tamora hadn't really expected, and which made her look more closely. Once they were outside, they stopped, and the Specialist looked around almost curiously at the base. It wasn't anything special for a military site, mostly two-storey buildings in heavy grey from the fast-build units that were bought out on the earliest ships. The world beyond the lec-walls was a bit more interesting, with heavy volcanic activity in the past having left peaks of black obsidian and long valleys of still water. The terraforming was still in the early stages here, the atmosphere about breathable and the water levels sustainable but plants not taking too well. Not surprising, when it seemed like a damn taproot could dislodge a Cy-bug egg.
"Specialist," said the Captain, turning smartly. "A room has been established for you in the officers' quarters. Bunks have been put in for Sergeant Calhoun and Private Nova."
A flicker of something passed through Arendelle's eyes. Was it concern? It was gone too quickly for Calhoun to get a grip on it. "I am to be sharing a room?"
Before she could stop herself, Tamora snorted. The military wasn't exactly known for its private accommodation.
"It was thought best for maintaining confidentiality," Smollet replied, and with pursed lips Arendelle nodded.
"Very well. If you would show me there, Captain."
Smollet nodded. “Of course. Sergeant, meet us there. Room 401.”
She and Nova were standing outside the room within ten minutes, packs on backs. It turned out that Nova had been given even less of a briefing than Calhoun, which just begged the damn question of who this Specialist was and what she could do that could let three soldiers wipe out a Cy-bug nest. Whatever it was, Calhoun hoped it worked, not just because it looked like it was going to be her ass on the line but because it could finally wipe out the damn xenos once and for all. Clear the sectors, push back towards the home planet that must be out there somewhere.
“Could be a new weapon,” Nova suggested.
Tamora eyed the door to the room. “Possibly. Be good to get another advance. Haven’t really had anything since the ad-radar.”
That had been Brad’s last contribution: the improved radar systems which had been able to pick up even dormant Cy-bug nests by picking up the distinctive shells of the eggs. Mentioning it put a twinge in her chest, but it wasn’t so bad now as it had once been.
Tossing back her red hair – longer than Calhoun’s, and needing to be netted when they were on duty – Nova seemed to be considering something else when footsteps on the stairs made them both stand to attention.
“Sergeant, Private.” Specialist Arendelle greeted them both with polite nods. “I thank you in advance for your assistance."
Her words were all too prim for the military. Tamora filed it away as another mystery, but with all things considered decided that she would rather wait until her head wasn’t pounding and her stomach not twisting. There would be time for questions once she had been through the mess hall and managed to get some food into her belly.
Tamora looked up to see Kohut heading over, using a crutch but grinning broadly. She leant back in her chair and acknowledged him with a nod. “Kohut. Good to see you upright.”
“And on some fan-fucking-tastic pain meds,” Kohut added. He had one of his friends with him from another unit, a man whose name Tamora could not place, who was carrying both trays of food. Kohut dropped into a chair with a pleased sigh. “I meant to say, Sarge, thanks for getting us out.”
“Yeah, like your boyfriend here wouldn’t’ve given me hell if you’d died,” she said, gesturing vaguely to his friend with half a bread roll. “The docs sewed you back together, then?”
“I won’t be doing my gymnastics routines any time soon, but I should be back in the field in a couple of weeks.” Kohut started eating. She wasn’t sure whether it was just him that ate so fast, or whether it was a military thing that you got food down your gullet as fast as possible before one of your friends stole it. Not an unheard-of pastime. “So, rumour is you’re on some top secret mission.”
She rolled her eyes. “Top secret my ass. I only got briefed this morning, and the whole damn base knows?”
He grinned. “Docs gossip as much as the rest of us. Heard some Specialist has come in from Earth of all goddamn places. Fucking sweet piece of ass, by all accounts.”
“Down, boy.” Tamora flicked a bit of crust at him, bouncing it squarely between his eyebrows. “That Cy-bug nearly had your cock off.”
“A few inches lower and it would have done,” he said with a nod, mouth still full. “I was worried it’d take a few inches off, you know, and I’d have less than a foot.”
Why they let men be engineers, Tamora would never know. They clearly couldn’t measure worth a damn.
“’Sides, from what I’ve heard you’re the one rooming with her.” He waggled his eyebrows suggestively, grinning. “Anything you wanna share? Or film?”
She decided not to comment that Private Nova was also in the room, considering that would probably just make Kohut’s mental image all the more colourful. “You should be glad I ain’t a lesbian, Kohut,” she said, stealing a couple of his fries with a deft stab of her fork. “I’d get so much pussy there wouldn’t be any left for you boys.”
Kohut and his friend both cracked up laughing, and Tamora gave an easy grin. They could be so easy to distract sometimes.
That afternoon, she got dragged off to help test some new souped-up gun that the R&D lab had tweaked, and spent at least an hour persuading them to let her take it on their little jaunt the following day. Thank fuck she had a good enough reputation to be able to swing it. It was a sweet piece.
So it was not until the afternoon that she actually saw Specialist Arendelle again, when she returned to what she honestly struggled to think of as ‘their’ quarters. Nova was stretched out on the top bunk, reading a magazine and with her earbuds in to listen to the new-tech music which she liked so much. Specialist Arendelle was sitting at the desk in the room, back very straight, writing an honest-to-god letter the likes of which Tamora had probably never written in her life. Hell, maybe not even seen. Nobody did longhand letters anymore.
“So,” she said, walking over to stand beside the Specialist. With the new gun waiting for her and Kohut back on his feet, she was feeling pretty confident about the world. “You want to give up any more details about what you can do that’s so damn special?”
To her surprise, the woman flinched slightly, then set down her pen with great delicacy before turning to face Tamora. Her hair was in a tight braid that dragged every strand back off her face. “Pardon me, Sergeant?”
The rank was not spoken with any sort of accusatory tone, but using it at all riled a bit. Yes, Specialists were treated as if they were pretty damn high in the ranks, and even Captain Smollet had deferred to Arendelle, but Tamora didn’t fancy putting her life on the line without knowing what it was that she was supposed to be damn well doing.
“Tomorrow. Normally it takes a dozen people to clear out a nest of those godforsaken creatures, and yet the General was talking like you can do it by yourself.”
The woman looked away, down at the desk. “That is the intention. Hopefully there will be no need for you or Private Nova to draw weapons.”
“You hiding some fancy hardware in your drawers?” She raised one eyebrow, looking Arendelle up and down for emphasis. Even the best of the compact guns couldn’t be hidden under that shirt and pants. “Or do you just shoot lasers from your eyes?”
Arendelle got to her feet so sharply that the chair scraped backwards against the floor, and Nova looked up in confusion. “Sergeant, it is none of your concern.” Her voice had gone cold and sharp, and Tamora actually felt as if she wanted to step back from it. When Arendelle looked round again, her eyes were unreadable. “You will accompany me tomorrow as per your orders, and I would ask that you do not question my authority.”
Only that tone of voice really didn’t make it a request.
Tamora paused for a moment. “Yes, Specialist,” she said, putting just the same emphasis on Arendelle’s rank as the woman had put on hers. She wasn’t sure whether or not she saw the smallest of winces. She turned away and walked over to the bunks, Nova watching the whole scene cautiously, and heard the chair replaced behind her.
Tomorrow had better be pretty damn impressive to make up for this.
The first thing that Tamora learnt the next day was that Private Mira Nova drove like a goddamn lunatic. They took one of the small vehicles, two seats in the cab and a bench on the back where Tamora became increasingly grateful for the harnesses as Nova got up to speed. They had been given PPS coordinates for the entrance to the nest, and though Tamora was a competent driver she had been more than willing to let Nova, the most junior member of the unit, take the wheel.
That might have been a mistake. The hard wheels of the vehicle dealt well with the rocky ground, but there was nowhere near enough damn suspension to stop Tamora’s ass from feeling black and blue by the time that they slammed to a halt outside the cave entrance. Nova was grinning broadly, her hair tousled by the wind before she tamed it under her helmet, but Tamora was at least vindicated to see that Specialist Arendelle looked a little green around the gills.
“You had much experience with Cy-bugs?” said Tamora, turning her gaze onto Arendelle. The young woman was wearing only light armour and had no helmet, with no weapons at her sides. The shooting lasers theory was looking better by the minute.
“I’ve dealt with some captured specimens, neutralised so that they could not lay,” Arendelle replied. She looked down at her still-gloved hands, clenching and unclenching them slowly, then turned to face the cave entrance. “I will be able to deal with this.”
Privately, Tamora hoped that her new beast of a gun would be enough to get them out alive when – not if – this all went tits-up. “All right, then. Private Nova, cock it and lock it.”
Nova had the standard-issue plasma gun, with a smalller back-up piece on her hip and two spare energy cores for ammunition. Tamora carried the same, plus the new toy from R&D. If she’d been in a better mood, she might have gone with the name she had given it the day before: the Big Fucking Gun.
But Specialist Arendelle, already a few strides ahead of them, stopped and raised one hand sharply. She looked back over her shoulder. “There should be no need for those. However, if any of the creatures do hatch and come to close, you are authorised to shoot them.”
“Hatching is too damn close,” said Tamora.
“Twenty yards will be enough,” Arendelle replied, her voice stern now and in-control. Her eyes were on them, not lowered to the ground or turned away. “Now follow me, Sergeant, Private, and maintain silence.”
Tamora put on her helmet, feeling the reassuring clicks as the seals came into place and the speakers beside her ears clicked into life. This was a goddamn suicide mission, and for all that General Lockload apparently thought she could piss wonders and shit miracles she was getting less and less sure that they were going to get out of this in one piece. Her eyes scanned the ceiling. Fairly loose rocks; if the worst happened, she could bring down a rockfall to keep in the Cy-bugs until backup could arrive. Even driving at a less breakneck pace than Nova, they should be able to get here before the bugs managed to get all the way out.
She turned on the lights on her helmet as they went deeper into the cave, and Nova did the same. For all that the light was a danger, they needed their peripheral vision here, and Arendelle was not carrying goggles anyway. Besides, if the nest was dormant then there shouldn’t be anything awake to see or hear them.
It was not long down the broad, downwards-sloping path that the first sickly green glow of the Cy-bug eggs came into view. Tamora felt the familiar crawl of revulsion prickle down the back of her neck, and her lip curled. Bioluminescence, the science guys said, but it was plain fucking creepy. Her hand crept into place on the stock, though she did not yet reach for the trigger.
They stopped perhaps thirty yards from the nearest eggs, at a hand signal from Arendelle. The glow of the eggs and the harsh suit torches gave her face an almost translucent effect, as if the bones underneath were alight.
All right, Specialist, Tamora thought. Show us what you’ve got that’s so damned special.
Arendelle took off her gloves – the first time Tamora had seen her do so in the last day, come to think of it. There was nothing odd about her hands, no tech implants, and Tamora frowned as Arendelle tucked her gloves into her hip pocket, flexed her hands once more, and then reached her hands forwards and gently rolled them up.
At first, nothing seemed to happen. Tamora frowned, glancing again at Arendelle’s fiercely focused expression, and then it hit her like an almost physical blow.
Ice was spreading out from Arendelle’s feet. Rough white, smoothing out behind the initial wave, spreading out in a cone into the cave. She heard Nova breathe, “What the...” and couldn’t help but agree with the sentiment.
The ice reached the first eggs within seconds. It crawled over them like a living thing, solidified into a white crust, and then with crunch after crunch the eggs popped and collapsed in on themselves as if they were being crushed by a great weight. Sickly green ooze flowed momentarily, then that too froze as the wave of ice continued on.
The sound of the crushed eggs grew louder and louder, until it seemed to echo back and forth in the cave and Tamora winced from it. Specialist Arendelle, sweat beading on her forehead and freezing solid even as Tamora looked, started to walk slowly forwards with her hands still outstretched. The right swept out, and the movement of the ice followed it, up into another cluster of eggs that lay on one of the slopes. Cautiously, Tamora followed her, treading carefully on the ice to make sure that there was enough grip before taking each step.
Ice spread up the walls, across the ceiling. The air in the cave grew colder and colder, until Arendelle’s breaths clouded in front of her and Tamora could see a warning appearing on her HUD not to remove her helmet. Damn it, too cold to be without armour. She had to get the Specialist out of here before the temperature dropped further. Putting her gun over her shoulder, she strode forwards to grab the woman’s attention.
Something crashed to their left. Tamora whipped round, raising her gun, to see that a huge chunk of stalactite had fallen down, knocking any number of the eggs beneath it.
“Safety off, Private,” she called to Nova, drawing her weapon again and letting the charge build up, Behind her, she heard Nova doing the same.
The first of the Cy-bugs took to the air just seconds later, wings a blur and wicked mouth already wide open. Tamora took aim, only for a blast of ice to hit the creature in mid-air, knocking it against the wall where it slumped dead on the ground. Before she could close her sights on another, the same thing happened, and she looked round with her mouth agape to see Specialist Arendelle, right arm still outspread towards the creeping ice, flicking blast after blast of ice right from her goddamn hands to pluck the Cy-bugs from the air like targets on a firing range
Who the hell was this woman? The tell-tale chittering sound of the insects was spreading, but Arendelle just responded with faster bolts of ice, some of them now spearing the Cy-bugs clean through.
“Three o’clock!” Nova shouted, and Tamora heard her start firing.
Tamora whipped round as well, finger calm on the trigger, picking her targets and shooting them down as easily as cans off a wall. The problem – the eternal problem – was that they just kept goddamn coming, wave after wave of Cy-bugs with their glowing eyes and whirling, grating, world-consuming mouths. She double-tapped each one, the first to knock it still and the second to blast off the head so that there was no chance it could mutate and keep going, but the numbers were still building.
Stone rumbled and grated, and a section of the wall fell away. Another cavern lay beyond, filled with the eerie green glow of the eggs.
“Hell! The nest’s bigger than we thought,” Tamora said – shouted, to make herself heard over the cracking sound of ice and the clicking of the Cy-bugs. “We need to fall back.”
Nova started to scan behind them automatically. ”Way is clear. Prepared to fall back.”
“No!” Specialist Arendelle called out. Her voice cracked, and her shoulders had started to hunch over, but if anything there was more strength in her stance than before. At a snap of her wrist, a wall of ice came up to seal off the new cavern, so clear that Tamora could see the Cy-bugs flying into it on the other side. The ice shimmered and seemed to turn blue, and it was only then that she realised it was becoming thicker, that the bugs she saw were being frozen solid and locked in place in the ice.
“What the hell...”
Tamora had to agree with Nova’s assessment. She saw the carapaces of the Cy-bugs crack and the lights of their eyes go out as ice must have crushed or crawled into them. And there was so much goddamn ice. The sensors on her HUD were indicating that the temperature was still dropping, and were now sub-zero.
“Specialist!” Tamora still had to shout to make herself heard over the crushing eggs, the shrieking Cy-bugs, and the glittering groan of the ice. “Temperature’s dropping fast. Our kit can only handle minus forty!”
Arendelle looked back over her shoulder for a moment. There was frost on her eyelashes, sparkling on her lips. “Get down!” she seemed to say, her voice barely audible over the noise of the cavern.
“What?” Nova turned back towards them.
“Get down!” It was every inch an order, and Tamora obeyed thoughtlessly, dropping to one knee and ducking her head, reaching for her smaller gun so that she could fire one-handed. Wind was starting to build somehow in the cave, and she could feel the force of it tugging at her even if the armour dulled her sense of touch. Nova dropped down as well.
Then the air exploded. Shards of ice, sharp as blades, flew in a full hemisphere from where Arendelle stood with her hands now raised straight into the air. Cy-bugs were speared out of the air, eggs cut in half, rock pillars cracked through and thrown to the floor in a blast that sounded like a small bomb had gone off.
Tamora got slowly to her feet, gun in her hand and safety off, but the cavern was quiet other than the faint sound of settling gravel. Dead Cy-bugs littered the floor of the cave, and the eggs were gone.
The nest was destroyed. All at the hands of Specialist Arendelle.
She looked round, trying not to let her shock show on her face. Arendelle had lowered her hands to her sides, still slightly spread and fingers spread as she looked around the cavern. There was ice on her shoulders and the tight braid of her hair looked to have frozen solid. But her breath was no longer a cloud, and when Tamora checked her HUD she saw that the cave had returned to an expected temperature once again. Somewhere in the distance, the drip-drip of water began.
“Private Nova,” said Tamora, finding her voice at last. “Wait here with Specialist Arendelle. I will check to make sure no eggs have survived.”
“Understood, Sergeant,” Nova replied. She sounded out of breath – more than Arendelle was.
With one last curt nod, she turned towards the eggs and started to survey them. They were all crushed, many beyond recognition, and however carefully she placed her feet she could not avoid the crack of shells or the meaty crush of flesh. It made her shudder, made the odd anger rise in her throat as she picked her way through them one by one. They had to be sure. One Cy-bug left alive could lead to a whole damn colony to deal with.
She couldn’t understand Arendelle. Couldn’t even begin to guess. Was that goddamn magic she was wielding? Tamora couldn’t make sense of it any other way, but magic was a matter of stories and fantasies. Not the sort of thing you wanted to rely on when you were trusting your gun to save your life against planet-destroying xenos.
The ice was really starting to melt, now, even in the natural cool of the cave. Water trickled down the walls and mixed in with the Cy-bug gunk, producing a slime that made the ground all the more treacherous. But every egg had been destroyed by the ice, and reluctantly lowered her pistol and put the safety back on.
“We’re clear,” she said.
A whole damn nest. And she and Nova might as well have not been there.
“Let’s get outside and contact base. Let them know we’re heading back.”
She didn’t wait to make sure that the others were following her before striding out of the cave. Against regulations, sure. But hell, this didn’t feel like a regulations sort of day.
You never noticed how stale suit air could get until you took your helmet off again. Tamora gulped down lungfuls of air as she waited for the others, wiping the sweat off her forehead. No. There were not words for this day.
As footsteps crunched behind her, she whirled around. Arendelle was putting her gloves back on as she walked out, Nova just behind her.
“What the hell was that?”
Tamora hadn’t even realised that her throat hurt enough to have gone hoarse. She slammed her helmet against the side of the truck, then down onto the bench. Hands starting to shake far worse than they had even when she had been inside, she strode right over to Arendelle.
“You held out on us.” She pointed her finger in Arendelle’s face. “You didn’t tell us what was going to happen in there and you damn well should have done.”
“Orders-” Arendelle began, but Tamora cut her off with a snarl and a sharp gesture, hand clenching into a fist. She didn’t want to punch anyone, let alone a superior officer, but damn if she didn’t feel like it right about now.
“Who are you, Specialist?” Her eyes narrowed. “What are you?”
She did not expect the flash of pain across the Specialist’s face, the way that she flinched from the words as if they really were a blow. Arendelle pressed her hands to her chest, one cupping the other, and took several shaking breaths before she replied.
“My name is Elsa Arendelle, from Sol Base. I am the United Humanity’s Armed Forces latest hope of an effective weapon against the Cy-bug forces.” Her eyes, were she met Tamora’s gaze, were deeply blue and shining. “As for what I am,” her words grew more clipped, with a deeply uncomfortable accusation about them that made Tamora regret having even used the words, “I have been waiting years for the answer. Now, Sergeant, I believe that you are required to contact the base. You may report that the first mission is a success.”
Head held high, she whirled away to walk over to the vehicle. Tamora’s chest seemed to ache with anger and bruised pride and humiliation at being so brushed aside, but she simply turned her back as well and reached for her radio. After all, the mission had been such a success.
It took effort to get Cy-bug guts off armour, no matter how well-made the damn stuff was. Tamora was leaning on the windowsill as she scrubbed at her boots, a firm-bristled brush the best way that she had yet found. Being alone in the room suited her plenty well.
Ice. This planet was still struggling to maintain water levels in the atmosphere, and the temperature was too regular for winters to get really cold. Ice didn’t happen here. Besides, there was no way that it could be some natural thing, or even some trick that the scientists had pulled out to lower temperatures and freeze an area. The ice had come from Arendelle, from those hands she usually kept so firmly gloved, and there was no goddamn word for it but magic.
This wasn’t exactly a fairy tale.
She was still mulling it over, scowling, and scrubbing at her boots when the door opened behind her. “Hey, Mira,” she called without looking round. “Mess planning something tonight?”
Often, when a nest of Cy-bugs was wiped out without any casualties or injuries, an impromptu celebration would take place in the mess and there would be a lot of hungover marines the next day to show for it. Blame the hooch.
“My apologies,” a prim voice answered her, and Tamora jumped round as she realised that it was Arendelle. “I did not realise that you were in here.”
“It’s your room,” Tamora replied. “Nova and I are the ones bunking. Look... what I said earlier. I shouldn’t have done, all right?”
Fuck, that had come out defensive. She could have kicked herself for the way that the words came out, but either Arendelle was used to bad apologies or she was even more gracious than she seemed, because she just nodded.
“I understand. You are far from the first to be... unsettled by what I can do. It is one of the greatest reasons that the Corps does not wish me to be well-known.”
Sending her to a dangerous base in one of the most highly-infested sectors on record would do that, Tamora figured. “How do you do it, anyway? The...” unable to quite use the word magic with a straight face, she waved her hands vaguely instead.
Apparently that was understandable enough as well. Arendelle looked down at her own hands, folded in front of her. “I don’t know, to tell the truth,” she replied. “It has happened for as long as I remember. But it still grows stronger, and my control of it is growing. General Lockload will be pleased to hear that I can tackle small nests now.”
It was more of an answer than Tamora expected. Now that she looked more closely, there was a pall of loneliness about Arendelle, an isolation that Tamora had not seen in anyone since she was a kid. The army wasn’t exactly a place where you could keep to yourself, after all. You lived in each other’s pockets and got in each other’s hair and didn’t do things like wear gloves in your private quarters.
“They reckon you can make a difference. Huh.”
The battle with the Cy-bugs had been going once since before Tamora was born, and showed no signs of really being won. For every planet that they cleared, they found two more that had infestations of some level or another. Chop off one head, two grew back.
But Arendelle had wiped out a nest in a day, with no loss of life, and she didn’t even look fatigued. Maybe she was something else.
The Specialist shrugged. “I will do what I can.”
There was a party in the mess that night, and most of those involved – not even members of Tamora’s unit, just anyone on the base who was not on duty – were apocalyptically drunk before it was even midnight. The dirty songs started not long after.
“--his bride, my Valkyrie,
His son shall be my lieutenant
And his private shall be me!”
‘Devil be my General’ was one of the cleaner among their number. Mira was sat among the guys, her voice carrying over theirs as if she was a soloist. Tamora laughed at the sight, then wove through the tables to take a seat next to Kohut.
“So,” Kohut said, loud enough to be heard over the music. “You gonna tell how you three wiped out a nest?”
Tamora shrugged. “We’re that fucking awesome.”
“Gotta be a new weapon, right?” said Kohut’s friend, leaning round. Somewhere in the evening she thought she had picked up his name as Sanjeet. “Some sort of bio-bomb, gets them and not us.”
“So that’s what you’re hiding in your breastplate,” Kohut added. He went in for a playful grope of Tamora’s chest, and she slapped his thigh to dissuade him. “Bomb tits!”
“There’s no such thing as bomb tits,” said Tamora.
“They’d be fucking-A,” Kohut continued. He mimed squeezing a pair of breasts in front of him, strangely far apart or possibly just belonging to two different women. “Pow, pow, pow!”
She clapped him on the shoulder. “That hooch goes well with those pain meds, huh?”
“Oh yeah,” said Sanjeet. “Definitely a good mix.”
By the end of the evening, Kohut tried to lift up Tamora and Mira one on each shoulder. They ended up falling into the table in an ungainly sprawl, to gales of laughter from the watching crowd.
Mira took a bow. Tamora cursed every squaddie on the base.
Three days later, they were sent in against another nest. This one really was small, and Tamora and Nova did not even have to raise their guns as Arendelle walked through freezing the eggs where they stood. There was a detachment to her actions – Tamora did not want to think the word coldness, but it was undeniably there. She wasn’t doing this out of the anger that burned through Tamora, wanted to make every Cy-bug in the galaxy pay for what they had taken from her. For some of the marines, it was an adventure; for most, it was a sense of doing something good for humans.
For Specialist Elsa Arendelle... it looked like it was just a job.
It took only minutes to wipe out the nest; less time, in fact, than it had taken them to get there in the first place. Once the ice began to melt again, and Arendelle was putting her gloves back on, did they call for the clean-up squad to come and deal with the last traces of Cy-bugs. Apparently the DNA had seemed worryingly resilient in the labs, or something of that sort.
“That does not stop being amazing,” said Mira, as the three of them stood outside, Mira and Tamora leaning on the vehicle while Arendelle stood slightly to the side. “Wish you’d started this a few years ago. We’d be half-way to the home planet by now.”
Arendelle’s lips twitched, almost into a smile, but it vanished just as quickly. “I am glad to hear it. It... would be nice to see something good come of them.”
That was an odd way to put it. Tamora frowned, but could guess better than to ask about something that obviously had pain wound into it.
”Team Yotta,” buzzed the radio from the front seat. ”Team Yotta please report.”
“Ah, hell.” Tamora and Mira turned at the same time, although Mira was quicker on her lunge into the vehicle itself to grab the radio.
The message was relayed in seconds. There was another nest, not far from where they were currently standing. And the Cy-bugs were waking up.
They reached the entrance to the nest just as the first Cy-bugs came crawling to the surface. The crawlers were always the first ones to wake up, the first ones to walk while the fliers were still drying their wings. “Fuck,” said Tamora emphatically, braking so hard that they were all flung forward in their seats. All right, maybe part of Mira’s driving was the adrenaline. “This is gonna get ugly.”
“You have permission to fire at will,” said Arendelle.
“I was intending to,” Tamora replied. She swung out of the vehicle with her gun already in hand, turned up to full power, and scythed the head off the first Cy-bug with a plasma blast. It slumped with eggs still spilling from its body.
Behind her, Mira’s gun rattled to action in the same moment, catching the first flying Cy-bugs just as they appeared in the mouth of the cave. But there were still too many, and for a moment Tamora felt the rush of fear that came with being outnumbered and out-gunned by the goddamn bugs.
Then ice shot out towards the cave, so fast that it cracked in the air like a whip, rising up in spikes three or four feet tall. It stabbed through the bellies of the great crawling insects, ripping them open and sending their glowing green blood splashing across the ground. The blood itself froze seconds later, like shining stalagmites.
“Get inside,” Specialist Arendelle shouted. She was running, the ice vanishing again at her feet to leave a clear path for Tamora and Mira to follow. “I can seal the cave.”
Seal them in with the Cy-bugs. There was no way that could go wrong. Then again, it would mean that the Cy-bugs would not be able to get out either, and perhaps that would be needed in the end.
Tamora concentrated on shooting the flying Cy-bugs out of the air, long used to the screeches that they made as they fell. She was nearing the caves before she even realised that she was not wearing her helmet. Another impressive idea. It was too late to go back though, while Specialist Arendelle was marching steadily forward while Tamora and Mira flanked her, picking off any Cy-bugs who broke away from the main group.
Ice framed the mouth of the cave, at first in scraps and crystals until they smoothed out into an arch that began to slowly close up. The steam of Cy-bugs tightened, one of the large crawlers almost filling the space that Arendelle left before Tamora’s gun blasted it open.
The Cy-bugs’ corpses littered the ground by the time that they reached the entrance to the cave, crunching and squelching under their feet. Tamora felt waves of disgust hit her with the sound and the smell; there was nothing so bad as the smell of dead Cy-bug to turn her stomach. She blasted another flier out of the air and slipped closer.
Cool air wrapped around them as soon as they reached the cave. Tamora and Mira were practically on Arendelle’s heels by then, close enough that Tamora could see her breathing heavily, her hands moving in bold sweeps to seal the walls of the cave around them. She thrust out one hand in front of her, and a wall of ice grew up, blocking perhaps half of the tunnel. With a push of her hand, it started to move along and make the path clearer, and she looked over her shoulder for a moment to seal the cave behind them again.
The glow of the Cy-bugs and the lights on Mira’s helmet were hardly enough to illuminate the tunnel, and the ice turned a ghostly blue around them. Tamora felt the prickle of the cold on her face, above the airtight seal of her suit, and saw her breath begin to mist as she shot down a couple of Cy-bugs who had been so unlucky or so stupid that they had gotten frozen to the ceiling.
“Keep your formation,” said Arendelle. Her voice might have shaken slightly, but it was hard to tell when the ice around them made the echoes so strange. “Eyes forward. Sweep the caves clear.”
With that, she let the partial wall of ice in front of them melt away, and the Cy-bug wave thrust forwards again. Tamora raised her gun, gritted her teeth, and let the instinct to fight wash over her.
They did not make fast progress through the tunnels, but they were thorough. Tamora had to admire that about Arendelle’s work. The ice that shot ahead of them to coat the walls and ceiling made it impossible for the Cy-bugs to get enough grip, and with flicks of her wrists the Specialist could send shards of ice flying through the air as fast and sharp as knives. Wind picked up from behind them – how, Tamora was not even sure, with the entrance sealed – and whipped around the fliers, slamming them into the walls or spearing them on spines of ice that shot out to meet them.
Tamora and Mira still had to fire hard to keep up. The flow of Cy-bugs was relentless, their bodies falling so thick that they made a carpet in the ground. After the first few minutes, Arendelle took to freezing it in place so that they could walk over it, rather than wade through bug guts up to their shins.
“Reloading!” Mira called, and Tamora had to speed up her shots to cover it. She could feel sweat running down her face and see it freezing as it dripped down onto the collar of her armour.
The ice to their right shattered. A howling beast of a Cy-bug, so large that it seemed to bulge through the corridor, lunged into them and shrieked so loudly that it seemed to fill the world. Tamora turned with a roar of defiance, raising her gun, but one of the creature’s huge legs slammed into her and knocked her to the ground. Her head cracked against the frozen bulk of a dead Cy-bug, but she was already rolling to the side and getting to her feet again as the world lurched and she tasted bile in her mouth.
What the hell was that thing? She had never seen a Cy-bug of that size before. The light that spewed from its mouth was reddish, not even green, and it stretched its maw so wide that it seemed like it could devour Arendelle whole.
“Specialist!” Tamora shouted, but it came too late.
The creature lunged for Arendelle. Ice was still leaving her hands as she turned to face it, and with a sweep of her arm a great piercing spike of ice shot out of the ground, going through the underside of the Cy-bug like it was nothing and cracking out through its back just moments later. Glowing red liquid spilled out and the Cy-bug squealed, thrashing and screaming until, with another slash of her arm, Arendelle bought ice to cover and consume it entirely.
Tamora bent to scoop up her gun again, gritting her teeth against the black dots that flashed in her vision, and pressed on. With Arendelle’s attention turned sideways, the Cy-bugs had rolled closer, and Mira was screaming in frustration as she fired into one after another, not even needing to aim without how thick with bodies the tunnel was.
Arendelle turned again, and with a sweep of her hand sent a wall of ice thundering down the hall. It shattered as it hit the Cy-bugs, but the pieces cut further in, slashing lines through them and cutting them to the ground. Tamora pressed up to stand beside her, shoulder-to-shoulder not.
“This is one big fucking nest, Specialist!”
Arendelle’s eyes seemed to flash. “That it is.”
But the path behind them held only dead Cy-bugs, and they had intentionally carried enough ammo to hold off a nest of this size if need be. Tamora reloaded, cocked her weapon, and unleashed a barrage on the Cy-bugs.
The waves of them were getting thicker, but there was something almost... frantic about their movements now. Tamora recognised the behaviour, the rushing. They had to be getting close to the centre of the nest, to a Queen who had laid the largest of these eggs in the first place. Queens were rare, usually one to a planet at the most, and destroying them was a sign that the planet could be retaken. She hoped that Arendelle knew that as well.
They fought their way along the tunnel for long enough that it seemed like an eternity, Tamora and Mira taking turns to reload, Arendelle just fighting on with the calm expression on her face never marred. Then they came to the central cave.
Even Arendelle was bought up short for a moment by the sheer size of it. The ice she thrust ahead of her seemed to skitter into nowhere, not even reaching the whirling mass of Cy-bugs that made up the centre of the cave. It was big enough to dock a spaceship, bigger, so huge that the light from all of the flying creatures in the middle of the room and the innumerable eggs that covered the floor seemed still incapable of filling it.
“Oh fuck,” said Mira eloquently.
Arendelle’s face hardened, and with a flick of her hands she threw up another wall of ice across the entrance through which they had just come. “You might want to hold on to something,” she said.
There was a darkness in her voice, just in that moment, which made Tamora almost stop in her tracks. Had it not been for the flying Cy-bug which she was blasting out of the sky, she might have done. Instead, she exchanged a glance with Mira, and pulled out the small grapple round her waist, lashing it around one of the nearby stalagmites and wrapping it twice around her forearm.
Arendelle walked out, ice spreading from her feet as fast as flowing water, and then slowly began to raise her arms out to her sides.
The wind howled. It slammed into Tamora so hard that she was knocked against the stalagmite, the gun almost ripped from her hands by the force of it. Snowflakes formed in the air, small and stinging at first but quickly growing larger, until they felt as if they would cut at Tamora’s face. She heard the screams of flying Cy-bugs dashed against the rocky roof of the cave, and saw the whole pillar of them swaying as the wind built.
On the ground, the eggs popped like nothing more than a sheet of bubblewrap, and as their contents froze and whipped to join the snow the whole air started to glow like rushing stars in hyperdrive. Tamora squinted to see through the snow, but Arendelle still simply stood there, her arms a little above shoulder height now and still rising, the wind whirling around her ever faster.
The air grew colder. Tamora felt the bite of it on her face, then as she blinked realised that frost was forming on her eyelashes. The air stung on her face and lips, burned through her nose and down the back of her throat. Even when she raised her arm to shelter her face a little, it barely helped, and when she dragged in air through her mouth instead it felt like her spit was going to freeze on her tongue.
Shrieking and groaning filled the air, and a crash of rock made her look out again only for the world to be completely white, whirling and vicious and like sand against her skin where it struck her. She clung to the grapple as the wind tried to tear her away from her hold, closed her eyes as they too started to sting, and waited for the howling to stop.
The wind stopped so suddenly it was like being punched in the chest again. Tamora staggered against the rock, trying to wipe frost from her face and gulping in air that was at least breathable, even if it stung on the way down. The frost flaked away from her eyes as she blinked and looked around the cavern, through the cloud of her breath.
“Fuck me up...”
Dead Cy-bugs were everywhere. Impaled on stalagmites, on shards of ice, lying in piles and drifts that were only partially covered in snow. In the very centre of the cavern lay the queen, her bloated egg-sac ripped open by the ice and spilling into a glossy green-white slick, her body withered and crumpled at the front of it.
“What the hell was that?” said Mira. She was still wearing her helmet. Tamora wished that she’d grabbed hers as well.
She was going to say that it was a good damn question, when her eyes fell on Arendelle. “Shit.” Unwrapping her arm from the grapple, she made her way down the slope of the cavern floor, slipping on the ice and guts that covered it.
Arendelle was collapsed against one of the shards of ice that she had summoned from the ground, her forehead resting against its surface as she panted for breath, arms flung around it for support. Easing her away, Tamora pulled one of Arendelle’s arms over her shoulder and took her weight. “Easy there. I gotcha.”
“They’re dead,” said - panted - Arendelle. Sweat was forming on her skin and breaking off immediately as beads of ice, and her once-immaculate braid had been pulled and tugged by the wind. It was hard to say whether she was pale or not, but when her hand brushed against Tamora’s neck she realised that the woman was cold. Like handling a corpse all over again.
“Oh yeah,” said Tamora. ”They’re dead all right. Private Nova! Get to base, request clean-up and evac.”
And a good stiff drink, she wanted to add, but just about held her tongue on that point.
The clean-up crew that arrived looked at them as if they were going to explode at any moment. It was probably the shredded Cy-bugs that was giving them that impression. Tamora settled for water when the evac team turned up, and had never in her life been so grateful that it was lukewarm.
She sat on the ground, dust and Cy-bug guts caking her boots, and tried not to rub at the sore patches on her nose and cheekbones. Frostnip. Fantastic. She had no damn idea how she was going to try to explain that to the guys.
“Well, I think we can say that was successful.” Mira walked over, helmet off and running one hand through her hair.
Tamora grinned. “I’d say so. Where’s the lady of the hour?”
Swiping the flask from Tamora’s hands, Mira nodded to the jeep the evac team had bought over. The team themselves had thought at first that there was some medical emergency, but ended up staying to marvel at the piles of Cy-bug corpses and try to wheedle an explanation out of one of the three who was responsible for it.
After all, who would think that magic was to blame?
Tamora levered herself upright with a groan. Fighting Cy-bugs wasn’t the problem; sitting down afterwards and letting herself get cold was the dumb part. Her muscles ached under her armour. Swinging her arms to get the blood flowing again, Tamora sauntered over to the jeep and leant on the open door. Arendelle was sitting inside, a blanket wrapped around her shoulders managing to sit like a cloak, her eyes fixed on the horizon.
“Looks like you’re the toast of the hour,” Tamora said. “Biggest nest we’ve taken out in two years.”
Arendelle gave another one of those very faint smiles. “It is my job.”
“Hell.” Tamora shook her head and chuckled. “Job’s one thing. That’s another. If I can ask, ma’am... how’d you end up here?”
Finally, she looked up, smile fading again. Tamora wasn’t sure whether she saw total strength or a strange fragility about the woman, even as she tried not to linger too much on thoughts like that.
“In this sector?” Arendelle asked. When Tamora raised an eyebrow pointedly, she lowered her eyes again and sighed. Her hands twisted together again, left covering the right and squeezing tightly. “The military have trained me for... some years now. It was decided that once I passed my most recent birthday, I was ready to be deployed.”
She didn’t look old enough, unless... and a chill ran down Tamora’s spine at the thought. Unless she had been a child when the military had started training her, or in her teens at the most. Tamora had signed up at eighteen, willingly and gladly, knowing even better than most what she was going into from knowing Brad. It still hadn’t gone quite to plan.
“Well... you did great,” she said, forgetting for a moment that she was addressing a superior officer. Of course, that forgetting was even easier when Arendelle’s smile turned almost shy, almost hopeful.
There wasn’t enough hooch for another huge party, and some of the marines were probably still nursing the tail ends of their hangovers anyway, so the party for the second and third destroyed nests was more muted. The clean-up crew gossiped, of course, but nobody quite believed them when they talked about the sheer number of Cy-bugs that had been destroyed by three marines, one of whom didn’t even look to be carrying weapons when she was seen.
“C’mon,” Kohut was saying, still trying to wheedle the truth out of Tamora as they sat on the roof of one of the buildings nursing some truly terrible punch and looking at the unfamiliar constellations. “You gotta give us a clue. What’s the new weapon?”
She rolled her eyes. “Specialist Arendelle just scares ‘em to death. Makes ‘em drop out of the sky.”
Sanjeet laughed, but Kohut was still looking annoyed. “Sarge, seriously. You guys are taking out more bugs than the rest of the base combined. You’re either gonna put us out of jobs or save everyone’s asses. What the fuck is the new weapon?”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
“I heard they were trying to do something with microwaves,” Sanjeet said. “Explode them. That sounds kinda like what the clean-up crew were saying.”
“Never heard of Cy-bugs being in a flooded cave before, though,” said Kohut. Huh, so that was what the clean-up crew must have thought was going on. “Apparently there was water everywhere. Reckon they’re starting to adapt to wetter environments?”
“Fucking hope not,” said Tamora, and took another drink of the punch. “That’d be all that we need.”
Tamora and Mira were returning from a perimeter check a few days later when they found Arendelle packing. She had only one case, open on the bed and mostly containing black clothing on black clothing.
“What the hell?” said Tamora, looking over the room. Arendelle hadn’t bought much with her in the first place, but now the box of stationery was gone from the desk, the hairbrush vanished from the bedside table. “Are you being transferred?”
“General Lockload has returned to the Sector Base,” replied Arendelle, not even looking up as she meticulously folded a shirt to put away. “After the unexpected successes of the mission, he wishes for me to report there for a new deployment.”
“You’re just leaving? The planet isn’t clear yet.”
Even as she said it, it sounded like a really dumb thing to say, but she felt almost betrayed that Arendelle was leaving barely a week after she had first arrived. The time felt as if it had been longer, so much having happened that Tamora was not sure she had even felt the effects of it all yet. There were still so many questions.
“I do not question General Lockload’s orders. If he feels that I would be better deployed elsewhere, then I shall go.”
Tamora paused for a moment, pursing her lips, then figured that if she was going to spend this week doing dumb things then she might as well do as many dumb things as possible. “Well, I hope the General doesn’t think that he’s splitting up the team. Better be enough room for me and Nova on that ship as well.”
“Me?” Before Arendelle could even say anything, Mira turned on Tamora will a look of shock. “You really... look,” she lowered her voice slightly. “I’m not sure I’m... cut out for this. In the long run.”
Strangely enough, Tamora could understand. Fighting Cy-bugs with guns and bombs was one thing. Supporting a woman who could shoot ice out of her hand and produce blizzards inside caves was another. It managed to feel more dangerous to be around Arendelle, even if she probably made fighting safer.
“Well, I’m pretty sure I am.” Tamora put her hands on her hips, and gave Arendelle an almost challenging look. “There a second seat on that shuttle?”
She tried to tell herself that it didn’t really matter what the answer was. If Specialist Arendelle said that no, Tamora would not be able to accompany her, the worst that could happen was that Tamora had to go back to how things were before. Kicking ass, taking names, teasing Kohut and Sanjeet, and tackling the Cy-bug problem one nest at a time. As if this mad goddamn week of magic and laying waste to queen Cy-bugs had never even happened.
But if she was honest, she didn’t really want to go back to the time before this madness. She would rather keep finding out what Arendelle could do, see if things really were about to change for the first time in a generation.
So it was a relief when Arendelle almost smiled. “I think there might be.”
“I hope you fly better than Private Nova drives,” said Arendelle wryly, as they made to board the shuttle the next day. It was a small thing, barely even large enough to squeeze two seats into the cockpit, but had the sort of sleek compact look which made Tamora suspect that it was one of the newer models. It would be interesting to see how fast it could fly.
“Not exactly a challenge.” Tamora smirked, and gave her pack a shove to fit it into the single small locker so that Arendelle could store hers above. “Fewer rocks in the way, anyway.”
It would take about an hour to get enough altitude to safely kick into hyperdrive, and maybe half an hour in hyperdrive to get into orbit around Corona, where the Sector Base currently stood. It had been a badly infested planet that had taken years to clear, and was considered an achievement worth remembering.
“How did you come to join the marines, Sergeant?” said Arendelle, as they slid into the seats. Tamora buckled up and started running the systems to get the shuttle flight-worthy. Arendelle seemed to struggle a little with the straps, fussing with them to change their lengths.
“Enlisted after high school,” Tamora replied, hitting the last few switches and feeling the slight buck of the shuttle as the engines powered up. “Can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to join, really. All right,” she hit the radio, “this is shuttle juliet-niner-four, requesting permission to take off.”
“You have free airspace, juliet-niner-four,” came the reply. “Take off at will.”
“Roger that.” She cut the connection again and let the shuttle delicately lift off. It was a little hard to miss the way that Arendelle’s hands gripped the arms of her chair so tightly that Tamora was surprised her knuckles didn’t split the fabric. “I... get the feeling that you didn’t enlist.”
She tried to make it sound delicate, but delicacy wasn’t really her style and it mostly came out awkward. Cursing, Tamora started to pull up, slowly increasing the speed of the shuttle as she went so the G-force didn’t get unbearable.
“Not quite,” said Arendelle. “But perhaps it is safer this way.” She looked down at her hands again, and Tamora realised that there was ice on the outside of the gloves.
“All you’ve done in your time here is teach those Cy-bugs a damn lesson,” Tamora replied. The atmosphere around them was thinning now, the ground curving away. They needed to be securely clear of the planet before they jumped, though. “You’ve probably saved lives.”
“Thank you, Sergeant.”
They were sitting practically elbow-to-elbow in the cockpit. Tamora couldn’t help a snort of laughter. “In the circumstances, I think Tamora might be more appropriate.”
“Elsa,” came the quiet reply. She’d said that was her name before, a few days ago, but Tamora hadn’t really been able to make it stick while they were still on the ground. Perhaps by the end of this flight she would actually be able to think of her that way.
The hard part was taking off. After that, you just had to keep all of the instruments pointing the same way and make sure you didn’t crash into a stray meteor. “I always hung out with the boys when I was at school. Grav-ball, the holodeck, anything like that. Prepared me pretty well for coming out here.”
“It was just my sister and me when we were growing up,” said Ar- Elsa. Huh, a sister. Tamora realised that she still didn’t know how old the woman was, let alone anything else about her. “After...” another glance at her hands; “a while, things happened. Then the army intervened.”
“Are you doing a five-year tour?” It was difficult to keep the doubt out of her voice, but Tamora just about managed to hold it steady. The words that Elsa used – intervened, decided – didn’t make it sound like this was a normal job.
Elsa frowned. “Tour?”
“Yeah, tour, you know...” It hit Tamora hard. She didn’t know. Didn’t even know what a standard military tour was, let alone signed up for one. Tamora turned almost viciously, eyes widening. “What the hell? What sort of contract did they make you sign?”
Elsa flinched and damn it, it hadn’t even been her that Tamora had been angry at. “There was no contract. I am the army’s.”
Part of her – the part which had screamed as Brad had died, which had seen so many of her friends hurt or maimed or killed over the years – understood, so help her. Tamora had seen what Elsa could do in just a week, and it was more than the average squad could do in a month. One soldier like that could actually change the Cy-bug war.
But the rest of her recoiled. At the very least, Elsa should have been given the choice.
“That’s bullshit,” said Tamora through gritted teeth. She tightened her grip on the controls.
Elsa sighed, and lowered her head. She tugged up the cuff of one glove for a moment, far enough to expose her wrist, then slid it quickly back down again. “You mean well, I am sure. But it is not your place to say.”
Not your place, Sergeant was the undertone, and it rankled. Tamora scowled out into the stars. “Do you even like this job?”
“I appreciate it.”
“That’s not an answer,” said Tamora.
“Do you like killing for a living?” Elsa’s words turned sharp, and Tamora felt the temperature in the shuttle drop a degree or two. “Do you like spending your days with a gun in your hands?”
“I like knowing that I’m helping keep people alive,” she retorted. “Until about five years ago, reports said that Cy-bugs were spreading. Nowadays we’re about keeping level.”
Elsa flexed one fist, sending flakes of ice shearing off. “That’s not an answer either.”
There wasn’t really anything that Tamora could say to that. Not without baring parts of herself that she really didn’t want to, anyway. She liked the feeling of the recoil of her gun, knowing that another Cy-bug was dead. She hated that Brad had died fighting Cy-bugs (worse, that it had been her lack of perimeter check), and that for all the years of fighting humans were only just drawing level with the xeno freaks.
“We’ve all got our demons,” was all she said aloud.
She didn’t get an answer.
It took almost the rest of the hour for the silence to get just plain unbearable. Tamora started prepping the shuttle to jump to hyperdrive, but she was becoming increasingly aware of Elsa’s eyes on her. “You know,” she said finally, “it’s going to be an uncomfortable two and a half hours if you keep looking at me like that.”
Out of the corner of her eye, she was astonished to see Elsa blush. She hadn’t been entirely sure that she was capable of something like that. Elsa reached up to brush back some of her hair, coming loose around her cheeks, and looked as if she was carefully putting together a reply. “I was wondering what you must think of me.”
That wasn’t what she was expecting to hear. Tamora eased the ship into hyperdrive, and the windows of the shuttle faded to the bluish-black of travel. “Huh.”
“You chose to fight Cy-bugs, and I...” another glance at her hands. “I almost resent it. What I can do, more than what I have to do.”
“You can level a nest in minutes,” said Tamora. Fear, maybe, she could understand, to have that much power bound up in your hands to be unleashed at any moment. But surely it could not be that different to carrying a gun – and Tamora had always found that guns sat well in her hands. It was just a matter of dedication. “You’d give that up?”
Elsa swallowed, and took a deep breath before replying. “If it would bring my sister back, yes.”
Oh. Oh. Tamora’s grip slackened on the steering column as she realised what Elsa meant, and as the woman turned away to look out the side of the cockpit. The realisation hit her right in the sternum, and for a moment she saw Brad die and then was standing over a girl with ice on her hands. Demons, right. Maybe she’d been more right than she’d thought.
She could have said nothing. She could have muttered some sort of apology. But neither of those were really in her nature, and instead she said the only thing that she thought might mean anything.
“I got my fiancé killed.”
It was enough to make Elsa look round again, so Tamora supposed it might be worth the knife that she felt between her ribs.
“I was supposed to do a perimeter check and I didn’t, and it got him killed. Because when you fuck up, that’s a risk. And I wasn’t even a kid at the time.”
Elsa hadn’t said it, not aloud, but the way that she told the story had.
“So there,” said Tamora. “You fuck up, you learn. You pay the price and fight like hell so that you’ll never have to pay that price again. And nor will anyone else.”
“I’m sorry about your fiancé,” said Elsa quietly, and for a painful moment Tamora almost laughed. Sitting here swapping horror stories, and Elsa was the one to offer condolences.
“I’ve paid my price. And now every goddamn Cy-bug’s got a target on its side, because I am not going to let other people die because of them.” She tweaked a lever slightly, more just for something to do than because she actually expected to coax any more speed out of the hyperdrive. “’Cos that’s all you can do, in the end. Not fuck up again.”
“Conceal, don’t feel,” muttered Elsa.
Tamora snorted. “Conceal? Now that’s just asking for trouble when it all comes out. Wear it like a badge. I’d rather have people react to me, with all the shit I’ve done, than watch them react to some imagined person who’s perfect. Otherwise it’s never you, is it?”
For a moment, she thought that she had pushed too far, in the way that Elsa hunched back into her chair and held her hands to her chest, one wrapping tightly around the other. But then Elsa nodded, slowly. “If it were to matter... no, it’s not. But I would still rather see the safety of others than be surrounded by fear.”
“You think I’m afraid of you?”
“You were. When you first saw it.” Elsa looked round with no room in her gaze for argument, and Tamora remembered the shock and horror that had flooded through her. “You don’t mind, because it kills the Cy-bugs. But outside of the army, what would you have thought?”
“Who’s to know?” said Tamora sharply. “That wasn’t how it happened. So what, you’re going to belong to the army and be shipped around like some weapon? They going to use you for the rest of your life?”
“I don’t know.”
The words fell from Elsa’s lips with a terrible, tangible finality. Tamora shifted uncomfortably in her seat and wondered how the hell she was going to respond to that one.
It wasn’t all that long before she realised that she couldn’t.
They dropped out of hyperspace as smoothly as they had slid into it, with Tamora’s hands steady on the controls even as her stomach churned. It was not Elsa that horrified her, lord no; it was the horror she had spoken and what it had stirred in Tamora’s memories. She missed Brad, achingly, and where it was fading she felt almost guilty for letting him go. It felt like a lifetime, and no time at all, perhaps because she was still in the Marines and fighting those goddamn Cy-bugs.
“Estimate fifty minutes to landing,” she said. It was trained into them to always announce times aloud, even if they were the only ones in the shuttle. There was still the black box that would record everything said, just in case the worst happened.
Elsa glanced round. Her expression was still haunted; probably she had said more than she meant to as well. Apparently Tamora had ripped open a lot of old wounds today.
“Establishing primary contact.” She connected to the Sector Base landing link. “Sector Base, this is shuttle juliet-niner-”
”May-day. May-day,” came the automated reply. They both looked at it in sharp shock. ”All contacts to emergency channel gamma-four. All contacts to emergency channel gamme-four. May-day. May-day.”
“Hell in a latrine,” snarled Tamora. She switched channels. “Sector Base, this is shuttle juliet-niner-four en route from Base Arcadia Echo. We are hearing may-day requests on your landing channel. Over.”
”Sergeant Calhoun?” She almost jumped out of her chair when General Lockload’s voice replied. “What in God’s name are you doing here?”
To Tamora’s surprise, Elsa leaned closer to the comms panel in the centre of the ship. “General Lockload, sir, this is Specialist Arendelle. Sergeant Tamora is accompanying me from Base Arcadia Echo. What is your emergency, sir?”
”A nest got broken open. Shit!” Firing was audible from the other end of the connection. ”We’re arse-deep in Cy-bugs here, Specialist. They’ve taken down our long-range comms. Call for back-up, and do not land. Repeat, do not land.”
“Acknowledged, sir,” said Elsa, then sat upright in her chair and pressed the mute button for a moment and looked to Tamora. “You did not hear that, Sergeant. Get me to the surface, then travel to the nearest planet for back-up.”
“Like hell,” Tamora replied, and for a moment Elsa’s jaw set and her eyes darkened. “I’m not missing this fight.”
It took a moment for Elsa to realise what she meant, then she gasped and drew back slightly. Tamora turned on the long-range communication and pulled the mic right down to her lips. “This is a general may-day signal from Sector Base Arcadia. We have a large Cy-bug outbreak. All vessels within range to report to Sector Base Arcadia with heavy firepower. Repeat.”
A touch of a button, and the message was set to repeat, spreading out like ripples in water. It would still take at least three quarters of an hour for even the closest bases to receive the message, scramble a response team, and get to the Base. And it hadn’t sounded like General Lockload and his men had all that long.
They were not supposed to use the high-power thrusters this close to a planet’s surface, because within atmospheres the responses of the craft were severely dulled, and the power of the thrusters unpredictable. But they were a hell of a lot faster. “Let’s burn some air,” Tamora said.
Elsa released the mute button. “Back-up is on its way, General.”
There was no answer.
They landed in hell.
It looked as if the surface of the world had been shattered in a hundred places, great holes in the earth spewing out streams of Cy-bugs. They looked like clouds in the sky, the green lights of their mouths like flickers of lightning.
“Fu-u-ucking hell,” said Tamora, as they stood at the door to the shuttle. She primed the gun in her hands. “You sure about this?”
With calm, precise motions, Elsa removed her gloves and tucked them into her belt. She flexed her fingers, and ice cracked over her knuckles. “Yes. You don’t have to follow me.”
Tamora flicked off the safety. “Us screw-ups gotta stick together. Looks like they’ve retreated to the Tower,” she nodded in the direction of the huge building, a few lights still visible in the upper levels. “It’s ninety-nine floors, but the top’s the command centre. Reinforced walls, the comms gear. It’ll be the last place to fall.”
“The top floor of the tower, then,” said Elsa.
Tamora hit the button to open the doors of the shuttle, and they stepped out. For a moment, it seemed that the Cy-bugs did not notice them, but then a pair of glowing eyes turned in their direction and the flier let out a screech – right before a shard of ice pierced straight through its head.
They were maybe two hundred yards from the base of the tower. It suddenly seemed a lot further. Tamora opened fire, bringing down Cy-bug after Cy-bug with barely a pause between them. She heard the crunch of ice and glanced over her shoulder to see Elsa creating a giant wave that crashed down to their right, leaving a trail of crushed xeno body parts in its wake.
“Let’s go!” shouted Tamora. “Move move move!”
All around them, hail started to come down, as large as golf balls, thundering against the ground. Tamora felt the ground grow slick with ice beneath her feet as she moved, a fast walk that covered the ground whilst letting her fire steadily, but she gritted her teeth and kept her grip. Falling was deadly around Cy-bugs – you never knew what could come from beneath the surface.
The smaller Cy-bugs were knocked right out of the sky by the hail, and even the larger fliers were battered by its onslaught. The hail cracked open the eggs on the ground, destroying some of them, but awakening the creatures in others to send them skittering out.
A second time, Elsa raised a wave of ice with an upwards sweep of her arms; in front of them this time, and shaped like an arrow with the point towards the tower. Tamora picked off the Cy-bugs that tried to fly over the top of it, and as the waves formed a jagged crest the ground behind them split open with a thunderous roar.
She risked a look back. The shuttle was gone, replaced by a particularly large crawling Cy-bug dragging its bulk out of the hole left behind.
“Shit!” Tamora closed the distance to Elsa at a run. “Time to haul ass. Go!”
Elsa slammed her palm into the air in front of them, and the wave moved. Thirty fucking feet of ice rolling forwards with a sound like ripping stone, shifting and grinding against itself. Tamora kept firing, as best she could while running over the uneven ground, some of her shots missing now. Beside her, Elsa stumbled, and without thinking Tamora grabbed her arm with one hand to keep her upright again. Ice spread over her gauntlet, and when Elsa drew away the fabric of her shirt broke off to reveal a patch of pale skin.
Then ground in front of them cracked open. Elsa started to pour ice down onto it, but it made the waves around them quiver and fall away slightly at the top. She bared her teeth and threw the waves up to their full height again, and one of the flying Cy-bugs, wings still shining wet and easily ten feet tall, climbed up from out of the ground barely five yards from, opened its whirling, glowing mouth, and screamed with hunger.
Tamora raised her gun, but Elsa jumped across and pushed it aside. “No!”
With her other hand she sent snow and fragments of ice whirling down the mouth of the Cy-bug, until the green was plugged with blue-white. The Cy-bug shuddered violently, eyes closed, frost forming and cracking on its carapace, then its eyes snapped open again with a blue glow in them. It screamed again, but this time its mandibles were ice-blue, and when Elsa raised her hand it took to the sky and turned away.
“What the hell did you do?” Tamora shouted, shooting the head off a crawling Cy-bug that had somehow reached the top of the icy wave.
“Made it mine,” Elsa called back.
She snapped her wrist, and the Cy-bug dove into its own army, mandibles and spined legs ripping apart anything that was fool enough to come close. Perhaps it was impossible for the Cy-bugs to understand – perhaps they just didn’t have that much intelligence – because they didn’t try to avoid or to fight it, and it began to cut a swathe among their ranks.
Tamora looked again at Elsa. The Specialist was breathing hard, sweat freezing on her forehead and forming rime in her hair. But then she turned her attention back to the hole in the ground, plugging it with ice until the earth groaned, and ran onwards as her ice split the Cy-bug army in two once again.
This was fucking ridiculous. One Sergeant with a souped-up, technically stolen new gun; one Specialist pouring ice from her hands and calling hail from the sky; and one commandeered Cy-bug ripping its brothers to shreds and sending guts raining down on them in a frankly disgusting manner. Not exactly the conquering army that Tamora would have expected.
But somehow, it was working.
Elsa’s spear of ice reached the tower and parted around it, reaching higher so that it was a vault over their heads, and then closing altogether into a dome. It was filled with the dull, solid thuds of Cy-bugs slamming against the outside wall.
“It won’t last long,” said Elsa. She was breathless, but whether that was from the running or the magic Tamora did not care to guess. She stopped at the doors and turned to examine the dome, lifting her hands towards an area and making it grow in depth with a creak.
Tamora ran up to the doors, then frowned as they did not open. These doors should have opened for a Sergeant, let alone for a Specialist. “Damn bugs have chewed through the wiring,” she called to Elsa. “I’m going for Plan B.”
“What’s Plan B?” said Elsa. There was concern in her voice, but there wasn’t much time for it as the ground near to the edge of the dome started to shake and crumble. Cy-bug tunnellers. She laid down a layer of ice on top, but within minutes they would be everywhere. Once one had found a weak point, the others would follow.
Tamora just racked the gun up to full power and took a few steps back from the door. “This.”
The gun barked in her hands. Even prepared for the recoil, it was astonishing, the gun almost slamming in her hold as the full force of it let rip. It chewed through the doors as if they were paper, blasting into the foyer of the building only to reveal more goddamn bugs.
At the sound, Elsa spun, hands rising to throw spines of ice into the turning faces of the Cy-bugs. She moved to stand next to Tamora, who was racking down the power on her gun again before she did structural damage and bought the whole building down or something equally fucked up.
“Don’t think the elevator’s going to be working,” said Elsa. There was a crash and a crack behind them as the Cy-bugs continued to smash their way through the ice dome.
Tamora shot one of the Cy-bugs in the side, ripping it open. It squealed in offence, and she fired again and again until it stopped and slumped to the floor, oozing. “Probably not.”
“But the shaft is there.” Elsa cut across in front of her and Tamora swore, turning her gun swiftly upwards so that there was no risk of hitting the other woman. “Come on!”
Fighting Cy-bugs out in the field was one thing. Even caves, she could handle. But there was something claustrophobic about fighting them inside the building, the corridors to the side so tight that killing one of the larger bugs could block them completely, shattered glass littering the floor, the carpets sticky with Cy-bug guts. Elsa took the lead, flashes of ice taking out any bug that appeared in front of them, while Tamora checked the corridors to the side and shot down anything that came up behind them.
They reached the elevator shaft. Tamora was ready to fire her gun again, but Elsa put her palm against the junction of the doors. Ice spread from her touch, crystal blue, at first just a line in the gap but then forcing the doors outwards with a shriek of metal. Bugs were still coming at them from left and right, drawn by the sound of gunfire and the smell of their own dying kind, and Tamora had to whirl back and forth to keep them both clear.
“Come on!” Elsa shouted. Tamora backed into the lift shaft, onto a shelf of ice. Elsa filled up the doorway again, and almost immediately the shadows of Cy-bugs appeared on the other side, their eyes ghostly glows, clawing and gnawing at the ice.
Tamora looked up. “The elevator’s above us.”
“Can your gun take it out?”
It could probably take out the goddamn building given enough time, but Tamora did not voice that aloud. Instead she nodded, and cranked the power up again. “Cover your ears and open your mouth,” she said. “This is gonna be loud.”
She pulled the trigger. If the gun had been bad enough outside, but inside it was deafening. Tamora felt stabs of pain in both of her ears as the gun bucked in her hands, and the shadow of the elevator above them shattered into large chunks. She tried to shout to Elsa, but her ears still rang so loudly that she could not hear her own words.
Still, Elsa threw up her hands, and ice guided the metal and wires to the edges of the lift shaft, until they slipped around the edge of the shelf and clattered down into the darkness. With a sweep of her hand, she drew the ice away again, then turned and said something to Tamora.
Beneath the ringing in her ears, Tamora could not hear a word. Fuck, this just got harder. “Let’s get going!” she shouted; from the way that Elsa winced, it might have been too loud.
Elsa turned, throwing another layer of ice across the door just before a Cy-bug slammed into it hard enough for fine cracks to form. Then she paused for a moment, panting, before looking down to the floor. Again, she spoke, but this time Tamora could barely even see that her lips were moving.
The ice lurched beneath them.
Tamora went to grab at the wall, only to realise that it was sliding down past them. Or, to be more precise, they were going up. Instead she stumbled as close as she could to the centre of the patch of ice, where Elsa was staring intently downwards with ice pouring from her hands. They were moving so fast now that the air rushed, and she could feel the weight of movement pressing down on her.
She dialled back the gun again, keeping her eyes peeled as she peered up into the shaft above them. The top of the shaft was lost in the darkness, and she sincerely hoped that Elsa knew where it was and they did not slam into it at that speed.
From somewhere above, the glow of a Cy-bug appeared. A small flier wormed its way through some hole in the shaft wall, and Tamora picked it off with a sharp shot before it was even fully clear. Elsa looked round at the shot, then up, with a troubled expression, but kept her hands pointed downwards and the ice below them building.
At least, Tamora hoped it was a pillar of ice, rather than some sort of floating platform.
She had long since lost count of the number of floors that they had passed. Her ears still rang as if she were humming loudly, pain throbbing from them; she felt a trickle just beneath one and brushed it away, thinking it was sweat but feeling her breath catch in her throat when she realised that it was blood. Hell, this was a stupid thing to be doing.
“Fuck it,” she muttered beneath her breath. The air rushing past her seemed to be less fierce, and a glance at the walls confirmed that they were indeed slowing down. They passed the body of the Cy-bug still half-contained within the wall, the ice wrapping around it as if it were not even there. Elsa looked upwards, searching, then the ice slowed further.
Elsa turned to say something to Tamora, but she still couldn’t hear it. She shook her head, pressing her lips together, even as Elsa frowned. Reluctantly, she gestured to her ears. “The gun,” she said aloud, careful with the sounds.
Elsa’s lips moved in something that might just have been profanity. The ice stopped, level with another doorway. A plaque beside the door read 98; apparently the elevator didn’t go all the way to the top floor. Beneath it was the emergency call; Tamora pointed to it, and saw the realisation light up in Elsa’s eyes.
She watched Elsa’s lips as she pressed the contact button, and if she concentrated she thought that she might be able to catch words here and there.
“General Lockload... Calhoun... floor ninety-eight... best place for entry?”
The General’s response, however, was inaudible. Elsa said: “Yes, sir,” and stepped away again.
She turned to Tamora and took a deep breath. The throbbing seemed to be concentrated in Tamora’s left ear now, where the blood had been, and she stepped so that Elsa was on her right. Elsa went to speak, then bit her lip. “Try,” said Tamora.
“We go out,” said Elsa, gesturing with her hand towards the lift doors, “then right. The Cy-bugs are thick around the door, but the comms has visual. When they are clear, I will make ice walls and they will let us in.”
At least, Tamora was fairly confident that was what Elsa said. She nodded, and hefted her gun to make a point. The power gauge indicated that it was still nearly half-full. The science boys should get promoted for this one. “Understood.”
Elsa nodded, then turned to the doors. Once again, she placed her palm to the joint, and let the ice spread out and force it apart. It had only spread a foot, however, when a Cy-bug slammed head-on into the ice and Elsa flinched back. Tamora readied her gun as the Cy-bug screeched, but Elsa punched her hand forwards instead and a spike of ice shot out, spearing the bug through. Well deserved.
She swept her hands apart, faster this time, and the ice formed so quickly that the metal doors of the lift crumpled at its touch like a crushed can. It cracked at the centre, and a small flying Cy-bug slammed into the ice so hard that its head thrust through, jaws snapping wildly. Tamora shot it through the eyes.
Out the door and to the right. Something told her that it wasn’t going to be that easy. Tamora stepped up and kicked the centre of the pane of ice, sending it crashing outwards, then snarled: “Fuck!” as she saw the mass of Cy-bugs outside.
It was almost a solid wall, a river of Cy-bugs trying to reach the blast doors.
Elsa didn’t seem to disagree. Tamora thought she heard the woman grunt as she sent spikes of ice into the corridor, piercing the creatures through and creating a gap. With a flick of her hands, she sent ice running along the corridor, covering the walls, forming crunching spines on the floor and ceiling. It spread up the legs of the crawling Cy-bugs, so fast that they snapped when the creatures tried to take another step, wrapped around their bodies and crushed, turning them to unrecognisable shapes.
“We can’t get through this!” Tamora shouted to Elsa. Elsa glanced round in acknowledgement, but her expression was still unreadable. For good measure, Tamora shot a handful more of the squirming, flapping, writhing Cy-bugs that were trying to make their way into the lift.
Elsa’s hand reached out, lashing with fragments of ice, then wrapped into a fist. Again, the ice flowed into the mouth of one of the Cy-bugs, and Tamora watched as its body was wracked by shivers and its glow turned blue. It turned around and started to slash its way through the other bugs, and behind it Elsa sealed the lift doorway once again.
“That will buy time,” she said – shouting, perhaps, for Tamora’s benefit. Then she turned to look up at the ceiling, clearly considering.
Tamora had a feeling that something was about to go either very wrong, or very right.
Elsa reached up, and ice wrapped around and wound into the machinery at the top of the elevator shaft. Her brow furrowed in concentration, lips parting as she panted for breath. The temperature of the air dropped again, faster and harder this time, so that all of a sudden Tamora was drawing in breath that hurt her lungs with cold. Frost formed on the walls, tried to freeze Tamora’s feet to the floor.
With cracks and groans, pieces of the machinery started to fall away, clanging to the floor around them. Cursing, Tamora stepped as close to Elsa as she could. More and more of the metal fell away, revealing the concrete beneath; then that cracked away as well, the reinforcing iron bars carrying the cold through it. And suddenly, beyond the concrete, the sky appeared once again.
“Hell!” There were Cy-bugs in the air – not as many, but still enough to be a threat – and Tamora opened fire to take them down. Beside her, Elsa picked some of them off, but the wall around them was crumbling until it was as if they stood on an icy balcony, open to the sky.
Elsa said something, but Tamora did not catch what it was. They had been turned around, and Elsa was on her bad side now. She jumped, swearing, as a hand landed on her shoulder, then turned to find Elsa almost face-to-face with her. Her hair was strung with ice, frost on her eyelashes and eyebrows, but there was something almost exultant in her expression.
“Your gun,” she said, pointing at. “Full power.”
The soldier took over. Tamora obeyed the orders, turning her gun up to full power and pointing it upwards when Elsa gestured. Around the, Cy-bugs surged closer, but Elsa threw out waves of icy spines whenever they came too close. Their bodies dropped from the sky like rain.
Elsa’s hand slid over Tamora’s on the trigger of the gun. Her skin was so cold, like touching old, raw ice, but as soft as any other touch. She leant close, almost at Tamora’s ear, and though her words were spoken only quietly Tamora managed to hear them.
She pulled the trigger and let her magic flow in the same moment. It blasted upwards, a gold-blue-white stream of magic and energy that shot into the sky like liquid fire. Tamora flinched away from how bright it was, but for a moment she saw Elsa’s face, triumphant and beautiful.
The air seemed to boil around them. Wind rushed in and up, so fast that Tamora could feel her hair drawn up, the gun trying to lift out of her grip. She kept tightly hold of the gun with one hand, the other reaching to take hold of Elsa’s forearm and hold them together. She tried to drag in breaths, but the air was thin and tight and she could not even tell whether it was cold or hot, it burnt so fiercely.
Above her, the screams of Cy-bugs filled the air. Cracking, bubbling, boiling sounds were wound into them, the sounds of a thousand aliens being destroyed. Something splashed down onto Tamora’s arm, still spitting and hissing, but she did not dare look round to see what it was. It felt as if she could barely keep her feet on the ground.
Then the burning stopped. The upward pull ceased, and before Tamora could even look around she felt Elsa slump into her arms.
“Whoa!” Tamora caught the woman, thought she felt like she was hardly a weight at all. The gun slammed to the ice between them. “Elsa. Elsa!”
Elsa didn’t even stir. Tamora stole a glance down at the ice beneath them, relieved to see that although it was slightly slick beneath her feet.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck.” It wasn’t exactly eloquent, but Tamora could at least hear herself speaking as she staggered to the edge of the ice and sat down on the concrete. Elsa was all but slumped across her, the ice on her skin melting and running off in rivulets.
Tamora looked around. The sky was empty and eerily silent, not a bug to be seen. The ground was coated with them, black and glowing green, but nothing moved. Piles of corpses surrounded the base of the tower, thinning the further out it got. Even the roof around them was covered in Cy-bug bodies.
Dead. All of them were dead. Whatever Elsa had done, with her magic and the gun, it had worked. Tamora tried to pull the woman up into a more upright position on her lap. This was ridiculous. Like something out of a stupid romance film.
“Elsa, now would be a really good time to wake up,” she said. She pushed hair back off Elsa’s face. “Specialist.”
Elsa’s brow furrowed slightly, her lashes fluttered, and slowly she opened her eyes. She looked up at the sky, smoke and clouds still hanging above them. “Did it work?” she muttered.
“The beacon.” Elsa tried to sit up and winced. “It was experimental... the Cy-bugs are always attracted to light.” Finally, she managed to sit up entirely, thought Tamora kept a hand on her shoulder just in case. She put a hand to her forehead. “It was all I could think of.”
Tamora glanced down at the corpse-laden ground. “Then yeah. I’d say it worked.”
She felt as if the whole fight was catching up to her at once. Gritting her teeth, she rose to her feet, and scooped the gun up off the floor. The air felt overly warm on her face, and pretty much all of her body hurt.
“Come on.” She held out a hand to Elsa. “We need to get to that Control Room.”
General Lockload was waiting for them. So were a handful of other high-ranking soldiers, from a Captain to a Lieutenant-General, as well as a couple of Corporals. They all had guns in their hands, Cy-bug gore on their slacks, human blood on their shoes. The human corpses must have been buried beneath the Cy-bug ones.
“General Lockload.” Elsa stood before him, drawing herself to attention but looking him in the eye. Tamora saluted. “The Cy-bug threat has been eliminated.”
“You disobeyed a direct order not to land,” said General Lockload. He paused for a long moment, and Tamora felt a knot of trepidation build in her stomach, but then his stern face cracked into a smile. “And it seems that we owe you our lives for it. Did you call for back-up anyway?”
“Yes, sir,” said Elsa. “Just in case.”
Tamora couldn’t help it. “It’s gonna be one hell of a clean-up duty.”
The first ship from another base made it into firing range exactly forty-one minutes after Tamora had sent out the original call for assistance. Tamora mostly realised this because they actually fired into the mass of Cy-bugs covering the ground before stopping abruptly when General Lockload marched over to the comms system and barked at them that they had been beaten to the punch.
Elsa was sitting by one of the thick, plate-glass observation windows that looked down over what could only be called the battlefield. She was leaning forward in her chair, hands wrapped around her waist. Her own gloves had lost somewhere in the fight, and she now wore a pair of General Lockload’s, hopelessly large on her hands.
“Specialist,” said Tamora, walking over to stand next to the chair. Probably better not to be using first names in front of the officers in the room. “I’m honoured to have served with you today.”
Elsa smiled. It was wan, true, but it was there, and somehow that gave her as much hope as the quiet outside the window, the sign of all of the Cy-bugs destroyed. “Thank you... Sergeant. Though I must say,” she said as she turned, looking up and uncurling slightly. “You were remarkable today. Really,” she added at Tamora’s snort. “What I do is... what I have to do. You do this by choice.”
“Do you want to bat the compliments back and forth some more, or shall we both take some credit?” Tamora leant on the back of Elsa’s chair with an easy smile, and was rewarded with an actual chuckle.
“I think I can handle sharing.” Her expression softened. “T- Sergeant. What you said on the shuttle...”
Hell. Maybe this day would have been less difficult if the beacon hadn’t worked, and they were crispy-fried Cy-bug chow. “I figured that you needed to hear something like that,” said Tamora. “That you aren’t the only fuck-up around.”
“I wish I could change things, sometimes.”
“Don’t we all?” She cocked her hip as she leant a little more of her weight on the chair. Her right shoulder still throbbed from the recoil of the gun, and her hearing on the left side was still nothing more than muffled thuds. She knew about the crap that loud noises could do her hearing, though; it should come back some enough. “Sadly, we can’t. We just gotta do what’s in front of us instead.”
“When I was eight years old, I hit my sister with my magic,” said Elsa. Tamora held her tongue, guessing that this story had been bottled up for too long, that it was just aching to be told. “She was in a coma for a week. After that, the army took me away from my family, because I was too dangerous. They said our parents died when I was eighteen.”
“And your sister?”
“I don’t know.” It was barely more than a whisper, and Elsa’s shoulders slumped. “She’d been eighteen now.”
So the sister wasn’t dead. It didn’t change the pain that Tamora could see in Elsa, didn’t change the connection that she felt. But perhaps it changed the chances. “You could try to find her, you know. You know her name, her age, where she was when you were kids. Not impossible.”
Elsa’s eyes were intensely blue, and utterly fixed on her. “You really think so?”
“Of course,” said Tamora with a shrug, more flippant than she felt while her heart pounded in her chest again. “You and me just took out a planet’s worth of Cy-bugs. I think we can find one younger sister.”
She might have expected the smile, was not surprised by the relieved breath of laughter that left Elsa’s lips. What did catch Tamora utterly unprepared was that Elsa reached out to clasp her hand tightly, her fingers cold through the leather gloves. “Thank you,” she breathed. One of her hands slid to twine her fingers with Tamora’s, and the other cradled her wrist. It was bizarrely intimate, somehow more so than being slumped on the roof together.
Tamora patted her on the arm, a little awkwardly. “Elsa,” she muttered, out of hearing of the bemused-looking officers. “People are staring.”
Elsa jumped to her feet as if she had received a static shock, then took a more dignified step away. The glowing look on her face, though, the one which made her look beautiful again, did not leave. “Thank you, Sergeant. You’ve given me hope more than once today.”
“I think you might be helping me find it,” Tamora replied, without really waiting to think about what she was saying. Because it had been nice to feel Elsa’s hand wrapped around hers, and the way that their conversations could slip from playful to serious hit a chord in her which she hadn’t felt in a long time.
Elsa folded her hands – in front of her, but not at chest-height as she usually did. “The gun might have helped.”
“It’s a pretty good gun,” said Tamora. “I probably owe the science guys a drink. Hopefully they aren’t too mad that I stole it.”
“You stole it?” Elsa looked honestly astonished.
Tamora shrugged, grinning. “Well, they never said aloud that I had to give it back. So maybe I didn’t.”
“Tell them that Specialist Arendelle commandeered you. If a few thousand dead Cy-bugs doesn’t get you out of trouble by itself.”
Any answer that Tamora might have been about to give was cut off by Captain Smollet on the radio, with a particularly imaginative, and profane, description of the state of the ground outside. Some of the curses Tamora hadn’t even heard before, and after this many years that took some doing.
Even General Lockload’s stern demeanour broke, and he started laughing. Elsa smiled gently, and on the far end of the comms link Captain Smollet cursed all over again that she hadn’t realised the radio was on.
It took three days for the planet to be officially declared clear of Cy-bugs. One of the Lieutenants confessed that they had known there was a dormant nest in the area, but it had been deemed safe to continue use of the sector base. It wasn’t until an earthquake had disrupted the nest that there had even been a problem.
“They think it might be possible to clear multiple nests a day,” said Elsa. “The beacon idea was originally going to be laser-based, but they could never get a hundred per cent kill rate. Combining a plasma gun with my ice, however, proved promising.”
The science boys let Tamora keep the gun, and even promised to let her be the first person to use the next model that they developed.
“So, where are they sending you next?”
Elsa shrugged. Even just that gesture made Tamora smile; it was so much more expressive than the woman had been just a few weeks ago. So much warmer. “I don’t know. Do you want to find out with me?”
Tamora wasn’t quite sure when she realised that she was falling in love with Elsa. It wasn’t that first day at the Sector Base, even if perhaps she should have started to suspect something then. It wasn’t even the following days, when they talked about everything and nothing and Tamora started persuading her connections to start searching for an Anna Arendelle.
It might have been the day that Elsa was told she was to be sent to the Weselton Sector, the most recently breached and most densely blighted sector. The newest sector always had the highest death rates, and Tamora’s heart jumped into her mouth at the thought of Elsa being sent there.
She stepped next to the Specialist defiantly, chin held high, and said that they were a team now. Elsa looked round and smiled, this one just for her and tender, and Tamora had a fleeting, intense urge to take her hand.
She might have had the first inklings of realisation then.
It wasn’t until they were a couple of planets down the line, though, as Cy-bugs swarmed so thickly that they blackened the sky and she and Elsa stood, both with one hand on the trigger of the gun while Elsa blasted her magic skywards and Tamora held them tightly together, that she looked at Elsa and thought, I never want to lose you.
Everything had been locked up since Brad. Barred with guilt and tied up with the sense that she never dared have feelings for anyone again, because look what happened last time. And then Elsa had dropped into her life and everything had... changed.
Next time she was alone in front of a mirror, she looked at herself and said “Lezzer” almost experimentally. It didn’t really fit. “Kiki?” Oh hell, no. “Dyke?” Eh, at least that had a bit of punch to it. With a sigh, Tamora pinched the bridge of her nose. There had still been Brad. The only reason that she really recognised that she was falling in love with Elsa was that she had been in love before.
Brad and Elsa were so different to each other. He had been confident and smooth and charming, where Elsa was aloof and fragile and didn’t seem to harden until she was on the battlefield with ice on her hands. But there was that strength in both of them; in Elsa’s case, it was just hidden. Perhaps in the same place as the darkness that wound through her.
Darkness, Tamora could handle. Hell, she had plenty of her own. But she’d rather be fighting Cy-bugs than wrestling with the idea that she was falling for another woman, after a lifetime of being comfortably straight. She looked at her reflection critically.
Oh, screw that. She’d rather just go with dyke.
Fighting Cy-bugs really was easier. Tamora was used to the straight-talking atmosphere of the army, not Elsa’s privacy and content to not say things aloud. When she did speak, it was often still with that sense of relief, as if she had been bottling things up for far too long. Tamora suspected she just wasn’t comfortable starting the conversations yet.
“Something tells me you don’t have much outside of the army,” she said, sitting down on the bed beside Elsa. Elsa looked up quickly from the book she was reading, closing it as if she was worried Tamora would judge her for it. Then her fear faded, more quickly now than it used to.
“Not really,” she replied.
Tamora reached over to take her hand, even if it was only over the glove still. “Do you want to change that?”
For a long moment, Elsa did not answer, her gaze deep and impossible to read, and Tamora almost feared that she had gotten this entirely wrong. Then her hand shifted, to take Tamora’s instead. “Very much so.”
When Tamora first went to kiss her, Elsa pulled away. Tamora touched her cheek gently. “Is that not wanting to, or thinking that you can’t?”
“My powers,” said Elsa, as if that explained everything that she could not do in her life. A wall around her, coming from her own skin.
“There’s only one way to find out.”
Maybe Elsa’s magic didn’t extend to her lips, or maybe it knew that Tamora was not a threat. “Maybe you melted it,” Elsa suggested, somewhere around the fifth or sixth kiss. Tamora was starting to lose track by then.
But at the words, she chuckled. “Now there’s an idea to test.”
“So what?” said Kohut, over actual beer that they had managed to get for once. Tamora almost missed the gasoline taste of the usual base hooch until she remembered how terrible the hangovers were. “You a dyke now?”
Tamora rolled her eyes. “Yeah, I magically lost all memories of ever liking cock.”
“But you and Arendelle...” he made a vague gesture with his fingers which might have been meant to be obscene, but was just unintelligible.
“Told you I’d get more pussy than you,” she said.
Sanjeet snorted into his beer, and reached over to slap Kohut’s ass. “She’s got you right there.”
“Shurrup,” Kohut muttered furiously.
Tamora looked from one to the other and back again. Looked like they had finally caught on. “’Bout fucking time,” she told them, and when Kohut blushed she laughed until she thought that her ribs would ache. Some things didn’t change.
But then again, some things did. And at the end of the evening with the boys she would go back to Elsa, and that had changed, and that was a damn good thing.