THEMPing. Under the optics headgear, my earbud link-com came to life. “Maxim, can you hear me?”

It was Parker. Again. I heard him. I maintained my silence. The line on Parker’s end was open. I could hear him breathing.

Ping. Ping. Ping. Ping. Ping.

That’s annoying.

“He’s there. I know he’s there,” Parker said. “Freezing’ his face off, staring through those ridiculous goggles at what? At what? This op is bust.”

Parker was partially right. It was cold. Still, I held my tongue. In the blowing snow, high in the black sky above, the LMOs could be running any kind of aerial sensors. I wasn’t about to give them anything to lock in on while I was exposed. If I was under a blanket of snow and ice, all the better for camouflage. I stared though the optics at the target area. If my finger was still on the trigger, I didn’t know. I’d stopped shivering over an hour ago. Maybe two. I had become a thing of ice: patient, silent, waiting. I needed to see it again. To make sure.

Parker ran at the mouth over the link-com. “They’re gonna pick him up, you know. They’ll probably have to pry him up out of the ice on the rooftop, but you can bet they’ll have no trouble hauling his frozen shit back to wherever it is they want to interrogate him.”

Someone in the room with Parker said something. I couldn’t make it out.

“No,” Parker said. “This is not the same thing. This is bullshit. I don’t even know why we’re doing this. How many nights has he been out there looking at whatever? Five? Six?”

It was six. But it seemed like more.

As with everything in Bellingshausen, the rooftop of the building was frozen over. I lay flat behind the soundwave rifle that poked out through a drainage scupper in the wall at the edge of the roof. Like a murder hole in a castle wall that allowed defenders to shoot arrows at their attackers, the scupper hole was useful – I could shoot through the hole if I needed, yet I was completely protected from view. I returned to the same hole night after night. My vantage point was overlooking one of the few access gates that led from the Fifth Ring to the grounds outside the city. Around the gate, the landscape was hard-packed snow and wind-sculpted ridges of ice.

The earbuds crackled. I heard Parker’s voice again. “Maxim, are you there or not?” The signal degraded before I could reply, spitting and popping. A whistling sound began. It rose quickly into a high shriek, tearing into my eardrum. I shut my eyes, wincing, but I didn’t move. When I opened them, I’d lost the picture of the target area. The optics headgear that I’d been working on for days was a blur of visual noise. Again. I blinked at the green static and waited for the picture to clear.

It was six days ago when I first saw it. It was the beginning of my surveillance mission. I had the Fifth Ring gate in focus and two LMOs in my sights. They were standing near a patrol vehicle at their post. The gate was the way out – to the forbidden region outside the city. If we wanted a tactical advantage, we needed to access the secured facility that housed the wreckage of the SM5. It was out there beyond the walls.

Technology in Bellingshausen was limited. Against the LMOs, we were poorly equipped. Now we were faced with the prospect of a dangerous run at the facility holding the SM5. It wasn’t a bad idea. The ship had tech. Even in bits and pieces, it was something to begin with. I told the team that I could fashion advanced communications, power up our weapons, get us ahead of the game. It was true.

My plan was to steal all the tech we could salvage and get back in to the Fifth Ring without incident. We’d have to go through the LMOs to get through the gate. Back at the underground storeroom, where we’d set up our temporary base of operations, Dada was working on a bypass that would let us out of the gate and back in again without setting off every red light in the city. If it worked, we’d only have the two dead LMOs on our hands. Unfortunately, that meant a city-wide security scramble. The sky would be filled with patrols in Skuas. And everything in the streets would be trampled by boots. We needed something. A diversion. Anything.

During my first round of surveillance, I scanned the sky for patrol units in Skua hover crafts. I also watched the LMOs on patrol. I marked their every move. It was then that I saw it. It was slinking around behind a low ridge of serrated ice. The LMOs standing at the gate never saw the damned thing. But I did. And it made me curious.

A voice came through the earbuds again. “Hey, pendejo.”

It was Ghia.

“What the hell – ” The sound degraded to shrieking and popping. The optics headgear was still fuzzy. The cold had everything on the fritz. Garbled noise. Cluttered vision. I waited. After a minute or so, the signal flattened out once again and I could hear her voice once more.

“Goddammit, Maxim. Can you hear me?”

“Five by five,” I said. My voice was barely a whisper.

“This is bullshit, Maxim. You’ve been out there too long. What the hell?”

“No longer than I have to.”

“Really?” Ghia said.

The optics headgear came to life in a flurry of colors and readouts. Once again, I could see the gate and the patrol vehicle and the LMOs standing guard. I scanned the area around the ridge of serrated ice. And there it was.

“Hush,” I said.

I saw a movement, a shadow slipping from one ridge to the next. It hid itself well from the light. But, for an instant, I caught sight of a face – deformed and ugly, with a gaping mouth and black eyes.

“You did not just hush me,” Ghia said.

“Shut up,” I said. “I saw something.”

Ghia said nothing for a moment. I could picture her standing there with a furrow in her brow. She had a habit of clenching her jaw when she was pissed. And her eyes narrowed until they were little more than slits with black pupils peeking through.

“What did you see?” she said.

“I don’t know. Something – ”

Ghia let out a long huff. “Que aperidá.

I twisted to get a better view. “It was ugly,” I said.

“Everything in Bellingshausen is ugly,” she said. “So what?”

That wasn’t true, but I kept those thoughts to myself.

“What if I told you that it was whitish like a pale human, but creeping around in the ice like an animal?”

I heard nothing on her end of the link-com.

“What if I said it looked like it was stalking the LMO guards – like it was hungry?”

When Ghia spoke, her voice was soft, almost sad. “No,” she said. “Los Biembiens.”

I wasn’t sure what she had said. “What?”

“A body without soul.”

[Communication Relay: 25MAR2087 Alexander Island, Antarctica]

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