cold_bore_shot_triggerPing. Under the optics headgear, my earbud link-com came to life.

“Take your shot and get out,” Makabe warned. “The ring is going to be crawling with fish as soon as that thing goes off.”

I grumbled as I wiggled into a better position on the rooftop and sighted in. “Relax, Makabe. It’s not like I’m going to nuke the place. Point and click, and I’ll be home for dinner. ”

Makabe made a small grunt of frustration.

“Seriously, I got this.”

“That’s what worries me,” Makabe said.

I smirked, peering at the acoustic images of the two LMOs through the outpost walls. “Glad to know I have your vote of confidence. Perhaps now would be a good time for an inspirational Japanese proverb.”

Makabe was silent for a few moments. I shook my head, waiting for the inevitable.

He made a small noise of amusement. “Alright. How about Saru mo ki kara ochiru”.

“Uh huh. Great,” I said, edging the rifle forward onto a mound of packed snow.

“Even monkeys fall out of trees.”

“Yeah, I know the meaning,” I said. “Not exactly what I was looking for.”

The rifle shuddered in the gusty wind. I tried to keep it still by laying my free arm over the barrel and watched as one of the LMOs crossed the room and took a seat at a terminal near the far wall. For a first-time trial with this weapon, I thought that picking him off should be somewhat easy.

Ni usagi wo ou mono wa ichi usagi wo mo ezu?” Makabe interrupted. “One who chases after two hares won’t catch even one.”

“That’s even worse,” I said in a whisper.

I activated the power cell on the rifle and a dim red targeting reticle appeared in my field of view. At the bottom the readout flashed: Connecting… Connection established.

“Come on, this is good stuff, Maxim,” Makabe joked. “You should pay attention.”

“My attention is a little divided at this moment.”

A numbered meter on the right side of the optical display ticked off the height of the building, ran a few calculations on the construction of the outer surface, the mass of the objects in the room, and then conveyed the information to the rifle.

A message flashed in the optical display: Target area resolved.

“Well I don’t know what to tell you,” Makabe replied. “You’re not a very good listener.”

I narrowed the focus of the reticle and snapped the charging handle forward. Six knuckle-sized diaphragms along the side of barrel responded in kind, inflating to the appropriate volume necessary to discharge the acoustic pulse at the exact frequency required to pass through the brick wall, travel a short distance through the room, and deliver a wakeup call to the two fishheads inside.

“No? Okay, I’ve got one for you. How about… abura o uru.”

There was a pause on the line. “Heh? You want to sell oil? That’s not a Japanese proverb.”

“It’s from the Edo period. Perhaps you’re a little too young to remember,” I quipped. “Nevertheless, the idiom refers to oil salesmen who waste too much time chatting up the customers instead of focusing on the sale.”

“Ha!” Makabe replied. “Fine. I’ll leave you to your little game. See you at the morgue, Maxim.”

“Hilarious,” I said, and dropped the connection. I focused on the seated LMO at the terminal. The other LMO was busy pacing the room – a moving target. Apparently he was highly upset about something. His big fat lips were flapping wildly and he was flailing his arms about while his friend sat and stared at the screen in front of him, bored, or unconcerned. I tightened my grip on the rifle and lightly ran my index finger across the grooves on the trigger. “Just like shooting fish in a barrel.”

Suddenly the top left corner of my visual field brightened. I hastily disengaged the targeting display. A gleaming white Skua was rotating out of the sky, its bright landing lights shattering the darkness. I cursed and re-checked my target. The seated LMO was up.

“Dammit!” I said aloud, and quickly activated the targeting system once more. The dim red reticle snapped into view. I lined up the cross hairs on the room, centering them between the two LMOs, and took a quick breath. I let it out slowly, and halfway through, squeezed the trigger. The reticle flashed twice and the rifle made a brassy thrum. In the distance, a snow bank on the ground in front of the building burst noiselessly into a large cloud of ice vapor.

The display lit up: Target area impact failure.

“What? Impossible.” I leaned in and gripped the rifle as tightly as I could. A strong wind kicked up and I patiently waited for it to pass. When it did I squeezed off another shot. A nearby streetlight exploded into a shower of sparks.

Target area impact failure.

“Shit!” I pounded my fist into the snow, and glanced back at the rooftop. The oblong, smooth, egg-like Skua had landed on top of the outpost building. Eight pools of yellow light drifted up and out from the craft, illuminating a wide sphere around the transport. Seconds later, the hatch opened and two LMOs stepped out. They were talking casually, which meant they hadn’t noticed my little fireworks display.

“Fine,” I whispered to myself. “Easier shot up on top anyway.” I pivoted the rifle on the mound of snow and the computer sighted in on the rooftop targets. When its new calculations were complete the display flashed: Target area resolved.

I pulled the trigger. The rifle sent forth another shot with the same brassy thrum. In the distance a little patch of air over the rooftop swirled innocuously.

Target area impact failure.

I closed my eyes and dropped my head in disbelief.

A childish giggle came from directly behind me.

“What the…?” I jerked my head around to find the young girl from the hallway, Marianne, standing upright and perfectly still in the eighty-kilometer-per-hour wind. Unbelievably, she stood in the blistering cold, dressed in her faded blue jumper and over-sized workman’s cap. Her hair wasn’t even blowing.

I rolled over and trained the rifle on the girl. The genuine impossibility of what I was seeing before me stunned me silent.

She stared at me as if I were an idiot and gave me a wide smile. “Old man, have you ever fired a rifle before tonight?”

I couldn’t comprehend what I was seeing. “What are you doing up here?” I shouted. “How do you—”

Marianne interrupted. “Why are you so angry at the snow bank over there?”

I raised my eyebrows under the optics headgear. “What?”

“You keep shooting at the snow,” she said with a giggle. “What did it ever do to you?”

So, Marianne was both creepy and sarcastic. “Gosh you’re funny,” I said. “But, seriously, little girl, you better start talking. I am the one with rifle, you know.”

“And you clearly know how to use it,” Marianne quipped, stepping forward.

“Stop!” I barked, throwing out a hand. “I’m not such a bad shot at two meters.”

“Prove it!” the girl chuckled, and moved closer.

“I’m not kidding!”

“Oooooooooooooh! I’m scared,” she said, refusing to stop.

“Alright, then.” I switched the rifle to a short-range burst mode. It wouldn’t harm her, but she’d certainly learn to listen. “I warned you,” I added, and lowered the barrel to her feet.

“This will be fun.”

I pulled the trigger and a dull thrum issued from the end. Marianne didn’t flinch. I gasped as a sphere of charged plasma sprang to life, emitted a soft blue light that bubbled completely around her body and vanished.

Marianne giggled. She put her left hand out and rotated it slowly, showing me the shimmering silver and blue band around her left wrist.

“You like my bracelet?” she asked with a smile.

The band around her wrist flickered with energy. “Never seen one before,” I said. “Looks like it throws out a decent particle barrier.”

“Yes, it’s very handy,” Marianne replied.

“That’s a lot of tech for a little girl. Where did you get that?”

“Probably the same place you got that fancy muddler,” Marianne replied, gesturing toward my rifle. “Hey, I got an idea! Why don’t you let me show you how to actually use that!” she added, reaching out and deftly yanking the rifle out of my hands.

“Hey! What do you think you’re doing?”

Marianne smirked, unplugged the optics link from the rifle, and dropped it at my feet. I stared in amazement. She shouldered the rifle, eyeballed the outpost, and twisted a number of dials underneath the barrel.

“Everybody knows that the headgear targeting optics are crap,” she said, sliding open a hidden chamber on the rifle’s stock. She removed a small pump from the hole and gave it a few squeezes. The diaphragms on the barrel inflated just as they had when the computer downloaded the targeting data.

“Hey, I didn’t know that was there.”

“That’s not surprising,” Marianne replied with a grin, and lifted the rifle to her eye.  ”Were you aiming for the fishheads in the outpost or the two on the roof?”

I turned and squinted at the building. “Well, I started with the two inside, but I think there’s something wrong with—”

Marianne pulled the trigger. BOOM.

The outpost exploded into a hail of brick and mortar, as if an invisible giant had punched a hole through the building, from the inside out. No fire, no smoke, just devastation. My jaw dropped open.

Smiling, Marianne lowered the rifle and cocked an eye at me. “You were saying?”

“Uh, nothing.”

“Thought so.” She brushed a strand of curled brown hair from in front of her eyes and raised the weapon again. “Probably don’t want to leave those two on the roof, do we?”

Now stranded on the rooftop, the two LMOs from the Skua ran from edge to edge looking down at the damage to the building. The shouted at each other and appeared to be trying to raise assistance over their link-coms. I grinned to myself.

I looked back at Marianne who was already readying another shot. “Uh, no. I don’t think—”

She pulled the trigger again. BOOM.

The Skua on the rooftop burst into a shower of lethal fragments, many of which sliced right through the two LMOs who had been attempting to run for cover. Marianne lowered the rifle, eyeballed the area, and raised the weapon again. “Ooh… We got a straggler.”

I jerked my head around, searching. “What? Where?”

Marianne plucked the trigger. On the street below, there was a quiet little splat that turned the surrounding snow blood red.

“Wow,” I gasped.

Marianne yawned. “Anything else you want dead?”

I was about to reply when the city’s ear-splitting alarms suddenly screamed to life.

“Uh, maybe later. We should probably get out of here.”

The girl grinned and pointed my rifle at the horizon. “Here come the guppies.”

I spun around. Throughout the ring dozens of Skua were launching from rooftops, their red and yellow emergency strobes flashing through the snow clogged streets. Near the center of the ring a harsh, thin column of white light shot upward into the sky. An instant later, something deep in the atmosphere caught the beam and reflected it back into the city. And as if day had just broken, Bellingshausen surged to life.

“That’s disturbing,” I said fighting the wind to get into a crouch. “I’ve never seen anything like that.”

“No? That’s the so-called ‘Eye of Spegg’,” Marianne said, grimacing.

“The Eye of Spegg?” I groaned. “That’s the stupidest thing I have ever heard.”

“Tell me about it,” Marianne replied. “But whatever it’s called, it’s not good.” Marianne leveled the rifle at an oncoming Skua and fingered the trigger. The windows exploded outward in a hail of glass and body parts, and the craft instantly dropped out of view.

I shook my head in disbelief. “How in the world did you learn to shoot like that?”

“Weapons were really the only toys I had when I was growing up,” Marianne said, stroking the barrel of the rifle.

When you were growing up?”

Marianne grabbed me by the wrist and pulled. “Yeah. Let’s go. This barrier won’t protect the both of us very long.” When her hand touched mine, the force of the wind and the blistering cold abruptly vanished, and a haze of dim blue light briefly clouded my vision. When it cleared, everything was awash in bright, flickering yellow and red light, as a half dozen Skua swarmed over the rooftop.

“Stop or die, scum!” came a voice from a loudspeaker.

“Ha, right!” Marianne said under her breath.

We ran for the door as the distinct blat blat of the Skua’s pulse weapon pierced the air. The blasts slammed into our shield and shoved us down into the snow. The shield sparkled and bubbled in hazy blue hues, absorbing the blast that would have easily vaporized the both of us. Marianne growled, turned, and fired the rifle over her shoulder, but the shot strayed wide and dissipated into the artificially bright sky.

Mierda!” Marianne fumed, looking down at the bracelet on her wrist. The blue light fluttered. “My aunt is going to kill me if I fry her bracelet.” She sneered and fired again, shearing off the engine of another Skua vying for a shot. The burning aircraft veered left, caught the edge of the building and burst into flames as its energy core tore open. Marianne grinned wide.

In response, another Skua sent a blast of energy that slammed us both violently into the door. A sharp pain tore through my back. “Son of a bitch!” I screamed.

Marianne howled in pain, staggered backward and dropped the rifle to the rooftop.

“Alight, I’ve had it,” I shouted. I grabbed the weapon and turned, firing a shot at the bastard who had knocked us down. The acoustic bullet penetrated the cockpit cleanly and instantly liquefied the pilot, spraying a shower of blood all over the glass. The air car pitched violently upward, and dropped like a rock onto the rooftop with an anti-climactic thud.

“Nice kill.” Marianne groaned.

“Told you I wasn’t a bad shot at two meters,” I said with a haughty smirk.

“More like lucky.”

“Whatever.” I slid door open and the two of us bolted down the stairs. Another blast ripped through the entryway above and rained debris on our heads. Marianne outpaced me down the stairs, taking two and three steps at a time, and vaulting around the corners on the handrails.

We busted out of the stairwell onto the ground floor. The bright light from the artificial sun raged through the lobby’s massive windows. Outside, small crowds of LMOs were closing in from every direction.

“Here they come!” I shouted. “Which way are we going now?”

“Hold on a sec,” Marianne said, reaching into one of the pockets of her cargo pants. Finding nothing, she tried another. “Where in the world did I put that thing?”

I glanced at the door. Dozens of transgenics were sprinting toward the building. I stuck my thumb out, indicating the oncoming mob. ”Hey you know the bad guys are almost here, right?”

“Yeah, yeah, I know, just a sec.” Marianne twisted her mouth pensively as she patted down her pockets. “I thought I had…. Oh! Right.” She bent over and pulled up her pant leg. There in her sock was a glass vile, capped with a scrap of paper and a rubber band. She held it up to the light. Scores of tiny metallic pellets rattled around inside the container.

For a moment, I stared in disbelief. “What is that?”

Marianne looked at me flatly and said, “The welcome wagon.”

Marianne placed her thumb over the top and shook the vial vigorously. As she did, the little pellets inside began to glow bright red.

A chill shot up my spine. “Pretty,” I remarked.

“Yeah, well, I was planning to use these on you.”

“Oh?” I felt my fingers squeeze my rifle a little tighter.

“That is, until I saw you trying to take down that outpost. Though, it was kind of cute.”

“Thanks. And I’m all for hanging around and reminiscing about the good ol’ days, but,” and I stabbed my finger toward the front doors where the mob of LMOs were just about to bust in, “we’re about to become fish bait.”

Marianne nodded, almost annoyed. She drew back her arm, and heaved the vial toward the front door. The glass smashed on impact, scattering the glowing red pellets across the floor. Excited, I waited for an explosion, maybe a bolt of lightning, or even wormhole to pop open…but nothing happened. Nothing.

“What? That’s it?”

Marianne rolled her eyes. “Wait for it.”

I tapped my finger on the rifle as a crowd of fish soldiers crashed through the door. And suddenly, as if exploding from a projectile weapon, the bright crimson pellets shot up from the floor, and perforated the first wave of LMOs with a high pitched zip-zip-zip, like a swarm of angry wasps buzzing your ear. Every single one of them was dead before they hit floor.

“Interesting,” I said, and gave Marianne a sidelong glance.

“Motion sensitive. Pretty simple to make, actually. I’ll show you sometime.”

I opened my mouth to speak, but the girl was already off and running.

“Come on!” she yelled, halfway down the hall.

I followed her down into the basement of the old building, and though several well hidden hatches that led to floor after floor of rat infested filth. We were much, much deeper underground than I had ever imagined Bellingshausen could possibly go. We entered a maze of tunnels carved out of the ancient ice itself. I shivered as we walked for what seemed like the better part of a dozen city blocks, until we finally reached what appeared to be a dead end in front of a solid wall of ice.

Marianne waved her hand past the wall of ice, and instantly the illusion vanished, revealing a thick, metallic door behind. A dull crimson light, barely visible, illuminated a small access pad. Marianne whispered her name and the light switched to green. The door swung open noiselessly and warm air blew out into the hallway with a gush.

“Come in already,” she said, waving me in after her.

I tightened my grip on the rifle and tapped the trigger. Cautiously, I stepped inside, into a narrow and dimly-lit hallway.

Marianne disappeared around a corner, calling out “Auntie! I’m home!”

A woman’s shout split the silence. “Sweetie?” The voice called from around the corner and deep in the structure. I stopped moving, lowered the rifle and stood in the dim hallway, quietly waiting.

Quick, oncoming footsteps clomped against the floor. The sound was heavy. Boots.

Marianne appeared again from around the corner, backing into the hallway. She was staring at whoever was rushing toward her. Without a glance in my direction, she raised an arm and pointed toward me. A nervous twitch started in my stomach.

The boots hit the entrance to the hallway and stopped. A loud voice rang out. “You’re in big trouble, young lady. Where have you… ”

The girl’s aunt appeared in the hallway. Tall, thin, toned, and dressed to kill. She had pointy fingers and a swath of short black hair. Her eyes, dark and deeply impatient, moved from her niece to me, and her face instantly flushed with rage.

My heart jumped when I caught her gaze. I took an instinctive step backward.

Her mouth grew ugly and twisted as she shouted. “Marianne, where the fuck did you find this pendejo prick!”

Oh shit. Ghia.

[Communication Relay:  14JUNE2086 Alexander Island, Antarctica]