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A short story by

Danny McAleese

"You hear that? They're inside the wall."

The metallic booming sounds were barely audible over the swirling wind, but there was no mistaking them. The four men seated around the table huddled just a little bit closer, not so much for fear but for warmth.

"Do you think so?" asked Prescott, not even trying to hide the nervousness in his voice. "I mean those walls, they're so thick. I didn't think..."

"Shaddup," Garrick grunted, turning over his next card. "He's screwing with you." Then he shot a knowing glance across the table at his companion, a smirk creeping over his face. "Or is he?"

They enjoyed scaring him, Charn realized. They were getting off on it. Watching the blood drain from Prescott's face was infinitely more entertaining than anything else they'd done for the past six days; especially better than playing cards.

"If they're inside the walls, it's all over," Kort said matter-of-factly, feigning an overly resigned sigh. "They'll chew out the power cables and we'll freeze to death down in this rathole."

Garrick picked up another card. "Nah, they'll get to us way before we freeze. We're the warmest thing within 20 klicks. The bugs'll chew their way in here before they go anywhere else, and that'll be that."

If there was one thing the old marine was right about, it was the bitter cold. Six hours ago the furnace had finally burnt out, and although they'd found many things in the old bunker, fuel wasn't one of them. The geothermal conduits running through the floor offered the only heat they had left, but it was abysmally inadequate.

"They can't be here yet," Prescott reasoned. "The ghost would've seen. He'd have called it in, and we'd be on our way out of here."

The second part of the hand was dealt. Kort raked in the pot: six large washers, ten small ones, and a couple of chipped dominoes. Yesterday they were playing for meals and sonic showers, but their futures had become way too intangible at this point. Too bad there weren't enough dominoes to play an actual game, Charn thought. It would be a welcome change.

"Maybe that sound we heard was him," Prescott offered hopefully. "Maybe he's getting ready to call it in."

"Maybe he's dead," Kort countered, shutting the younger marine right up. An uncomfortable silence followed. The veteran's words echoed what everyone had been thinking but no one wanted to say.

"I... I think..."

"No one cares what you think," Garrick cut him off. "The evac's not coming. If special ops took off, we're on our own. No one else knows we're here."

That was probably true, Charn thought. Orders had been pretty straightforward: they were to stay on the shell of the abandoned compound until the zerg were sighted. At that point the ghost assigned to their unit would call in a precision tactical strike and then radio for the evac.

Put as simply as possible, they were bait.

Charn didn't like it any more than the rest, but it was his first assignment. His first drop. He wasn't looking to break ranks or disobey orders unless they had no other choice.

The only problem was the ghost. They'd lost contact with him 26 hours ago. Hell, none of them had even seen him during the entire mission. He was nothing more than a choppy voice on the other end of a beat-up comm, and that voice had gone eerily silent.

To make things worse, the ghost was also the only one with the evac transmission codes.

"Try calling again," Charn told Garrick. "Raise him on every frequency."

"You think I haven't tried that?" the marine disdainfully snapped back at him. "Nothing but static."

"Then we have to go to him," Charn stated simply. "We have to check."

Kort looked at Garrick, and wordlessly they shared a thought. Charn knew the two marines had seen long action, and he respected that. Together they'd been places and done things Charn hoped to one day experience for himself. It was why he'd enlisted.

For a long moment, no one spoke.

"One of us goes," Kort said firmly, breaking the silence as if he were in command. He wasn't. As a matter of fact, none of them were, not since the corporal had disappeared.

Prescott looked confused. "One of us?"

Garrick nodded slowly in agreement. "Cherry's right. It's time to make a move."


"We play for it," Garrick said, gathering up the cards.

The compound wasn't huge, but it was big enough. The ghost had been holed up in the south tower, watching the horizon. There was no direct way of getting there without crossing the courtyard, and everyone knew the courtyard would be dark, immense, and freezing cold.

Charn watched as the big marine shuffled the dog-eared deck of playing cards that had kept them occupied for the better part of the last week. His broad hands swept nimbly over the table as he dealt, the backs of his fingers covered in scars.

"Low hand goes," the old marine confirmed. "No backing out, no 'two out of three.' You go out, you come back, and we figure out what to do from there. Agreed?"

Everyone nodded. Prescott was the last. Nothing else really needed to be said. Charn watched the others pick up their hands before touching his own cards.

Two queens. Big. Huge.

"Three," Charn said, pushing the rest of his cards face down across the table. Everyone else discarded three cards as well, with the exception of Prescott. After some hesitation, the young marine turned over a single card.

"You only need one?" Garrick asked him. Prescott nodded almost apologetically. Garrick shrugged and dealt out the remainder of the hand. Everyone picked up their cards.

"You first," said Kort, looking directly at Charn. He turned his head and spat on the floor.

Wordlessly, Charn laid down his three queens. Garrick let out a low whistle.

"Damn. You're lucky, cherry. Guess you ain't goin'."

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