Dropped on a frozen planet under suspicious circumstances, a group of marines struggles to discover the true objective of their mission. "Cold War" is a Tor.com Original novelette, set in the same Spider War universe as Adam Christopher's novel The Burning Dark.
“Smart, intricate, and viscerally gripping… Christopher carves a place for himself among the stars of his genre.” —V.E. Schwab, author of Vicious
At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.
About the Author
Adam Christopher is a novelist and comic writer. In 2010, as an editor, Christopher won a Sir Julius Vogel award, New Zealand's highest science fiction honor. His debut novel, Empire State, was SciFiNow's Book of the Year and a Financial Times Book of the Year for 2012. In 2013, he was nominated for the Sir Julius Vogel award for Best New Talent, with Empire State shortlisted for Best Novel. His other novels include The Age Atomic and The Burning Dark.
Read an Excerpt
"This is bullshit."
First Sergeant Furusawa's voice came back over the comms. "I don't like your attitude, Marine."
"Sorry," said Anderson. "This is bullshit, Sergeant."
The sergeant laughed. "Better."
It was there again: the pulse, the tick; something echoing across the comms, weaving around in the empty space behind the voices. It sounded like interference, the rhythmic tap of something electrical shorting, but that was impossible.
Then the comms clicked off and Private Grec was left with nothing but the sound of the blood in her ears and the schtomp schtomp schtomp of seven pairs of boots wading through the snow.
Corporal Anderson was right, Grec thought. It was bullshit. Icy, covered-in-six-feet-of-snow, a hundred light years from anywhere bullshit.
What the Special Operations team had been doing here was a mystery — at least, a mystery to those who really needed to know, which at the current moment included Sergeant Furusawa and her two three-person fire-teams trudging onwards from the drop zone. The planet had a name, a real one, according to the brief — Hrostar — but to the Fleet it was just Warworld 3663. A lump of ice, big enough for Earth-type gravity, but slightly too far out of its sun's Goldilocks Zone to comfortably support much life worth writing home about. And since contact with the Spec Ops team had been lost five cycles ago, the Fleet war catalog had been updated, changing the planet's entry to Warworld 3663Ω — Omega for "danger unspecified." The Spec Ops team had apparently met that danger, and now Furusawa's search and rescue ground team was here to find them.
Of course, Grec and the others — Anderson and Alonso in her team, Bowen, Palladio and Khouri in the Psi-team — all knew what "unspecified danger" really meant.
The Spiders were here.
Relentless, implacable, totally alien; the Spiders were a machine gestalt swarming across the galaxy, consuming — literally — whole planets, even stars. The eight-legged war machines ranged in size from just a few meters across to the giant Mother Spiders, as big as a moon, with legs long enough, powerful enough to crack the crust of a planet.
But if Warworld 3663Ω really was a mostly lifeless lump of rock, then there was no reason for the Spiders to have paid it any heed. The machines seemed only to target inhabited planets, preferably those under the control of the Fleet. The Spiders were less an enemy, more a plague, a contagion. And after decades of conflict, the Fleet were becoming more and more desperate as the Spiders kept coming, and coming, and —
Grec snapped out of her thoughts, and smiled. As the SAR team walked on through the snow, Grec spun on her heel, keeping pace but walking backwards through the tracks of the marine in front. Psi-Marine Maryam Khouri was on rear point, Grec in the center of the line. Grec gave a thumbs-up and Khouri did the same, signaling that all was well, then Grec turned back around without missing a step. Behind the opaque visor of her helmet, she smiled to herself and focused with her mind, pushing the feeling out, hoping that Khouri, three places behind, would be able to sense it. Grec had no psi-ability, and the Psi-Marines weren't supposed to communicate with the regular forces like that, officially. But it was common. Sometimes the quickest way to get a message across without anyone else knowing — enemy included — was to use your mind. On the long tour aboard the Union Starship Hit and Run, the two of them had worked at it, Maryam insisting that everyone, even Kat, had the power buried up there somewhere in their cerebrum. With a little effort, you could make yourself heard.
"Back to work, Marine."
Grec glanced up. The Sergeant's voice was loud and clear in her helmet — the private two-way channel — unlike the message Khouri had planted in Grec's mind.
"Always at work, Sergeant."
Grec dragged her legs through the snow. The others remained silent, as quiet as the frozen wasteland across which they marched, a peace disturbed only by the soft sound of the team pulling themselves forward.
How much farther they had to go was mystery number two. According to the briefing back on the U-Star, now orbiting somewhere far above them, the search area itself was small: a patch of ground not five klicks square, at the northern edge of which was a range of low hills. The drop zone, for some reason, was ten klicks further south, which meant they had to walk the rest of the way. Anderson had questioned this, but before the ship's Commander had even opened his mouth to reply, Sergeant Furusawa had butted in, casting doubt on Anderson's masculinity. The two fireteams had laughed and were dismissed, but Grec knew she wasn't the only one who noticed the question had never gotten an answer.
And another thing. SAR was usually done in little one-man hotseats, small and agile U-Stars that could skim through a planet's atmosphere, allowing a close ground scan with both the craft's instruments and the pilot's own senses. SAR on foot was a rare occurrence. And hell, if it was a Spec Ops team that had gone missing, why not send another damn Spec Ops team down after them? Sending a bunch of regular grunts and their Psi-Marine babysitters was surely the wrong decision and —
The line of marines stopped. "Here" was a featureless patch of snow, indistinguishable from the terrain they'd spent the last two hours slogging through. The marines fell out of line, each looking around, as if expecting to find a giant X emblazoned on the white ground. Grec turned slowly, eyes to the horizon. The sky was just a shade darker than the ground, but the heads-up display of her visor enhanced the view, throwing up a reference grid and picking out the difference with ease. Without the HUD, Grec thought, they'd be nearly blind.
She turned one-eighty and raised her hand, thumb skyward, signaling everything was A-OK and hunky-dory.
Then she took a step forward, her raised hand falling back to the plasma rifle clipped across her front.
"Where's Khouri?" she asked.
The other marines all turned to face back the way they'd come. Sergeant Furusawa walked to the front, then turned, looking the group over, counting them up. Grec did the same.
Anderson, Alonso and herself. Palladio, Bowen, and Sergeant Furusawa.
Furusawa turned away and Grec moved to her side. Looking out, she could see nothing but a nearly featureless white expanse, the ground broken only by the half-meter deep trench the marines had carved in the snow as they walked.
The Sergeant took a step forward. "Psi-Corporal Khouri, what's your twenty?"
There was no response. Khouri was gone.
They moved on after an hour. The two remaining Psi-Marines, Bowen and Palladio, had spent all of the intervening time trying to contact the missing third member of their fireteam, but without luck. Neither of them could reach out to her with their minds, unable to make contact or even sense her presence.
And there was another problem.
"See?" said Anderson. "Bullshit. Bull. Shit."
The comms — the regular communication channel between the marines, and between the marines and their starship in orbit — wasn't working.
"Shut up and keep trying, Marine," was all Furusawa said over the crackling emergency radio channel as she paced back and forth, scanning the surrounds, her HUD on maximum magnification and enhancement. Grec and the others watched the sergeant's view displayed on their own HUDs, each studying the image, just in case someone missed something. Anderson — the communication specialist — worked on the failed comms link. They'd only discovered the fault when Furusawa had tried to contact the Hit and Run to report their situation and realized that nobody — not even the marines standing next to her — could hear her.
They'd been planetside three hours and were one marine down with basic systems failure. The operation had been screwy from the very start, and now Grec knew they were in even worse trouble.
She swallowed, focusing on the situation, pushing the fear over her partner's fate out of her mind.
"We have to go back, Sergeant," she said. She watched Furusawa continue her slow pace as she scanned the way they had come. Then the sergeant turned around, the opaque visor of her elliptical helmet reflecting Grec's own.
"Our primary objective is to locate the missing Spec Ops team, Marine. We have our orders."
Grec paused, then said "Sergeant," her training kicking in even as every instinct screamed to her that something wasn't right.
Palladio shouldered his rifle and came to attention in front of the sergeant. "Permission to track back to the drop zone to locate Khouri."
"That's a negative, Marine."
Palladio nodded at Alonso, standing nearby. As Marine Gunner, his heavy-duty weapon was considerably larger than the rifles carried by the rest. "Alonso and I can go," said Palladio. "Sweep the area, pick up Khouri and head back to the target zone."
"Negative, Marine," Furusawa repeated. "I've lost one Psi-Marine already, and I don't want to lose another."
"But, Khouri —"
"That's enough." The emergency radio buzzed as Furusawa's voice punched across the channel. The back-up system was low quality and the interference was still there, even worse. A repeated pattern, almost electronic in nature. As the sergeant spoke even Anderson looked up from his position on the ground, where he was working on the computer interface built into the forearm of his combat armor, trying to get the regular comms back online.
Sergeant Furusawa looked over her remaining marines, then nodded. "We continue the SAR. If Khouri got lost in the snow we'll pick her up on the way back. Grec, start the geophys scan. We'll head north-north-east."
Grec blinked as an orange icon appeared in her HUD: an open triangle, hard against the left of her vision. As she turned her head, the icon slid around until it was at the top. North-north-east, the direction marker shared from Furusawa's HUD over the psi-fi net that linked each of the marines' armor together.
"Move out," said Furusawa, taking point, not waiting for the rest of them to fall into line. As they walked off, Grec turned again, wanting to signal with a raised thumb to Khouri, but it was Palladio at the rear now.
Grec dropped her arm, turned back to the front, and listened to the stiff crunch of snow underfoot.
They marched on.
Grec swept the wand of the geophys scanner over the snow in front of her as she walked. To operate the device she'd shifted up to take point, but with the directional marker in her HUD, she knew where she was supposed to be leading the group. She squeezed the wand a little harder and increased the radius of her sweep. The readings from the scanner, relayed to the display on the inside of her visor, were a little weird, but she hadn't really had a chance to calibrate everything to zero. Not after Khouri had —
Grec frowned, her eyes flicking over the geophys readout. It was an important job and the Sergeant would be asking for a report very soon. Having Palladio send her messages with his mind — messages he knew she couldn't respond to — was a distraction. She didn't really know him that well, either. Not like Maryam. But at least Palladio wasn't using the emergency radio. The back-up system didn't have private channels. What one marine said, all would hear.
I was her friend, too.
Grec screwed her eyes tight and filled her mind with just one single thought.
She knew she couldn't "talk" to the Psi-Marine, but maybe her annoyance would be enough for him to sense. At any rate, they marched on and Palladio's voice didn't enter her head again. Grec relaxed a little and returned her focus to the geophys scan, but after a while her mind wandered. Wandered to Maryam.
They'd been close, back on the Hit and Run. Tight friendships between regular marines and their psychic counterparts were common. Often, what started as friendship became something much more. Relationships like that were against regulations, but sometimes in deep, deep space, in the middle of the war, blind eyes were turned. Morale was low enough as it was and the Fleet commanders were unlikely to actively discourage anything that improved it, no matter which statute they broke.
The radio clicked on in Grec's ear. The tapping sound of the interference was loud. As Grec watched, she saw the noise matched the pulse of the geophys readouts running along the bottom of her HUD.
Grec cleared her throat and dragged her attention back to her task. As the team walked forward, Grec swept the wand back and forth again. The readings didn't change. Nor did they make much sense.
"I'm not sure," she said, trying to parse the data. She came to a stop. Furusawa appeared at her shoulder.
"I need a report, Private."
Grec shook her head. "I need to recalibrate, Sarge. The scanner's bugged."
"What's the reading?"
Grec clenched her jaw and focused on sharing the HUD data with her team leader. The psi-fi indicator in her visor flickered briefly as her combat suit made contact with the sergeant's, and began streaming the data to its computer.
Sergeant Furusawa shifted her grip on her rifle as she waited. "When you're ready, Private."
"Data streaming, Sergeant."
Furusawa's helmet tilted to one side. Grec waited.
"Negative," said the Sergeant. "Try relinking."
Grec closed her eyes this time. Each of the combat suits could be paired together in a low-level, short-range psychic field — psi-fi, a technology-based by-product of the research conducted by the Fleet's Psi-Marine Corps. The psi-fi net of each suit did everything, from linking the computer buried in the armor backplate to the helmet's HUD, connecting various tools like the geophys scanner to the suit's systems and HUD, to sharing data streams between suits. All Grec had to do was concentrate just a little with her own mind. The suit's computer did the rest, pairing its psi-fi router with the intended partner unit.
"Nothing," said the sergeant. Grec opened her eyes and exhaled, and her whole HUD flickered. When it was stable again, the psi-fi indicator was flashing red.
"I have a computer issue," she said. "Psi-fi just disconnected on me."
"Me too." Anderson came over the radio, his voice crushed by the interference.
Grec turned to her sergeant, who nodded, then turned to face the other marines.
"Everyone check their psi-fi net and reboot if necessary. Check in when you're done."
Grec let the geophys scanner drop on the tether connecting it to her belt, and flipped the long panel on her armor's right forearm open. Inside the access panel was a small keyboard and set of sliding switches below a row of LEDs. Grec selected the correct switch for the psi-fi router, flicked it up and down quickly, then waited as the indicator in her HUD went dark, then came back on orange, then a second later changed to green. The others, already rebooted, began checking in.
Anderson. Alonso. Bowen. Palladio. Grec. Khouri. Furusawa.
Grec felt her heart thud in her chest. She spun around in the snow, as did the other five remaining members of the team. They were still one down.
"I heard her," said Bowen, his helmet swiveling as he looked from the sergeant to the empty white expanse around them and back.
"So did I," said Alonso. He slid his heavy rifle from his shoulder.
Anderson raised his rifle to the side of his helmet and tilted his head to look along the barrel, aiming back the way they had come. "The fuck is going on?" he asked no one in particular.
Palladio stepped up to Grec. She couldn't see his face behind his opaque visor, and she knew that her face was likewise hidden, but she recognized his concern, not just for Khouri but for her. She gave a tiny nod. Palladio seemed to pause, then returned the gesture and turned to the sergeant.
"Sergeant, we need to go back," he said. "Maryam got separated and lost, is all. Horizon blindness. Everything on this iceball is white on white. Won't take any time to pick her up. She'll have dug in, back along —"
Furusawa ignored him, and pointed at Anderson. "Shoulder your weapon, Marine. We move to the target."
Palladio turned to Grec, then back to the sergeant. When his voice returned to the emergency radio he sounded breathless. The popping background sound seemed to swell with his temper.
"We have to go back for her —"
"That's a negative."
Furusawa turned to the Psi-Marine. "If she's lost she'll have dug in, like you said. We'll pick her up on the way back. March on, Marine. The primary objective takes priority."
Anderson hissed over the radio and stomped through the snow, coming to a halt in front of Furusawa, his helmet just a few centimeters away from hers.
"What the hell's the damn hurry?"
Furusawa actually took a step forward, until her visor knocked against Anderson's.
"We've got our orders, Marine. March on."
As Grec watched, she could see Anderson adjust his grip on his rifle, his finger inching around the trigger. He held it diagonally across his body, pressed close between him and the sergeant.
Excerpted from "Cold War"
Copyright © 2014 Seven Wonders Limited.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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