She used hand motions to place her team at the right flank, then moved up the line to find Lieutenant Givens, her CO. She spotted his suit right at the center of the line, standing almost directly under Yojimbo. She ran up and placed her helmet against his.
“What the f**k is going on, El Tee?” she shouted.
He gave her an irritated look and yelled, “Your guess is as good as mine. We can’t tell them to back off because of the jamming, and visual warnings are being ignored. Before the radio cut out, I got authorization to fire if they come within half a klick of our position.”
Bobbie had a couple hundred more questions, but the UN troops would cross the five-hundred-meter mark in just a few more seconds, so she ran back to anchor the right flank with her squad. Along the way, she had her suit count the incoming forces and mark them all as hostiles. The suit reported seven targets. Less than a third of the UN troops at their outpost.
This makes no sense.
She had her suit draw a line on the HUD at the five-hundred-meter mark. She didn’t tell her boys that was the free-fire zone. She didn’t need to. They’d open fire when she did without needing to know why.
The UN soldiers had crossed the one-kilometer mark, still without firing a shot. They were coming in a scattered formation, with six out front in a ragged line and a seventh bringing up the rear about seventy meters behind. Her suit HUD selected the figure on the far left of the enemy line as her target, picking the one closest to her by default. Something itched at the back of her brain, and she overrode the suit and selected the target at the rear and told it to magnify.
The small figure suddenly enlarged in her targeting reticule. She felt a chill move down her back, and magnified again.
The figure chasing the six UN Marines wasn’t wearing an environment suit. Nor was it, properly speaking, human. Its skin was covered in chitinous plates, like large black scales. Its head was a massive horror, easily twice as large as it should have been and covered in strange protruding growths.
But most disturbing of all were its hands. Far too large for its body, and too long for their width, they were a childhood nightmare version of hands. The hands of the troll under the bed or the witch sneaking in through the window. They flexed and grasped at nothing with a constant manic energy.
The Earth forces weren’t attacking. They were retreating.
“Shoot the thing chasing them,” Bobbie yelled to no one.
Before the UN soldiers could cross the half-kilometer line that would cause the Martians to open fire, the thing caught them.
“Oh, holy shit,” Bobbie whispered. “Holy shit.”
It grabbed one UN Marine in its huge hands and tore him in half like paper. Titanium-and-ceramic armor ripped as easily as the flesh inside, spilling broken bits of technology and wet human viscera indiscriminately onto the ice. The remaining five soldiers ran even harder, but the monster chasing them barely slowed as it killed.
“Shoot it shoot it shoot it,” Bobbie yelled, and opened fire. Her training and the technology of her combat suit combined to make her an extremely efficient killing machine. As soon as her finger pulled the trigger on her suit’s gun, a stream of two-millimeter armor-piercing rounds streaked out at the creature at more than a thousand meters per second. In just under a second she’d fired fifty rounds at it. The creature was a relatively slow-moving human-sized target, running in a straight line. Her targeting computer could do ballistic corrections that would let her hit a softball-sized object moving at supersonic speeds. Every bullet she fired at the monster hit.
It didn’t matter.
The rounds went through it, probably not slowing appreciably before they exited. Each exit wound sprouted a spray of black filaments that fell onto the snow instead of blood. It was like shooting water. The wounds closed almost faster than they were created; the only sign the thing had even been hit was the trail of black fibers in its wake.
And then it caught a second UN Marine. Instead of tearing him to pieces like it had the last one, it spun and hurled the fully armored Earther—probably massing more than five hundred kilos total—toward Bobbie. Her HUD tracked the UN soldier on his upward arc and helpfully informed her that the monster had thrown him not toward her but at her. In a very flat trajectory. Which meant fast.
She dove to the side as quickly as her bulky suit would let her. The hapless UN Marine swiped Hillman, who’d been standing next to her, and then both of them were gone, bouncing down the ice at lethal speeds.
By the time she’d turned back to the monster, it had killed two more UN soldiers.
The entire Martian line opened fire on it, including Yojimbo’s big cannon. The two remaining Earth soldiers diverged and ran at angles away from the thing, trying to give their Martian counterparts an open firing lane. The creature was hit hundreds, thousands of times. It stitched itself back together while remaining at a full run, never more than slowing when one of Yojimbo’s cannon shots detonated nearby.
Bobbie, back on her feet, joined in the barrage of fire but it didn’t make any difference. The creature slammed into the Martian line, killing two marines faster than the eye could follow. Yojimbo slid to one side, far more nimble than a machine of its size should be. Bobbie thought Sa’id must be driving it. He bragged he could make the big mech dance the tango when he wanted to. That didn’t matter either. Even before Sa’id could bring the mech’s cannon around for a point-blank shot, the creature ran right up its side, gripped the pilot hatch, and tore the door off its hinges. Sa’id was snatched from his cockpit harness and hurled sixty meters straight up.
The other marines had begun to fall back, firing as they went. Without radio, there was no way to coordinate the retreat. Bobbie found herself running toward the dome with the rest. The small and distant part of her mind that wasn’t panicking knew that the dome’s glass and metal would offer no protection against something that could tear an armored man in half or rip a nine-ton mech to pieces. That part of her mind recognized the futility in attempting to override her terror.
By the time she found the external door into the dome, there was only one other marine left with her. Gourab. Up close, she could see his face through the armored glass of his helmet. He screamed something at her she couldn’t hear. She started to lean forward to touch helmets with him when he shoved her backward onto the ice. He was hammering on the door controls with one metal fist, trying to smash his way in, when the creature caught him and peeled the helmet off his suit with one casual swipe. Gourab stood for a moment, face in vacuum, eyes blinking and mouth open in a soundless scream; then the creature tore off his head as easily as it had his helmet.