"Just like we planned."
We crouch behind the rocks as the ship comes screaming over the horizon like an angel falling from heaven, shedding metal wings and burning fuel into the forest around us as it slices through bark and foliage. I cover my ears with my arms as the earth under us rumbles and shifts as the Esthar craft crashes to earth with a head-splitting roar of smoke and fire. I shield my eyes away from the glare and hear a gasp from one of the others as they do the same. I count seconds under my breath and after ten seconds the chaos and flying rubble are gone, and it's time.
I'm already scrambling down the rock-face before the glow fades and I just hope the others are keeping up with me. Response time from the town is getting better now that they're expecting something, and I want to be gone before they get here.
I dodge burning rubber and white-hot steel as I jump across the churned ground to the broken ship, already looking at the hatch as it falls out, booted open from the inside by someone who was lucky but not lucky enough. He either wasn't told about the previous attacks or he was too careless to gear up before liftoff, because he swings down from the hull to the ground without a weapon or armour. I leap the final few steps from the uneven ridges the ship has scored into the earth and onto solid ground. There's a half-second where he notices me and smiles – help has come – and he doesn't have time for anything else, two bullets into his chest before he can raise a hand to say a word. I keep my aim on him as he falls to the ground, but he doesn't come up again. We crouch there outside the steel, all five of us for a second pointing our guns into the belly of the craft, but nobody else comes out.
I speak. "Alright, to work."
There's nobody else alive inside. The inside of the craft was designed for cheapness and hardiness, not comfort. Hard angles and sharp edges took care of the crew and there's blood and bits of meat everywhere, like an angry child throwing buckets of paint onto the walls. For all the gruesome redecorating though it's exactly like the plans we have, and I weave my way across the carnage to the bulkhead, at the back. Five soldiers should have been protecting this small secured chamber, but the four bodies outside it aren't capable. The fifth must have been the luckless man we took care of outside. The door slides open, still in perfect working order, and the other man is sitting inside, all on his own, barely stirring from unconsciousness. I take a deep breath, deep as I can, and hold it as I go up and hold the knife to his throat.
I ignore it and the job is done in half a second. I make sure my bare palm is against his face as it happens, make sure we have a direct physical connection. It's then that I feel it, like a half-ghost whispering across my arm and up through my eyeballs into my brain. For a second it feels like my skull's being pushed out of my head and then…nothing. Like nothing happened at all. I feel my skin crawl anyway, if everyone I've been told is correct it's back in there now, making itself at home after such a close escape from the dying host.
"Was that it?" someone breathes behind me. It sounds like one of the younger ones, all wide-eyed and innocent. As innocent as they could be for this job at any rate.
"Yes. Let's go." I turn and leave, skin still crawling, and then I hear it. A short noise sounds from the forest outside, a dull pop almost lost in the creaking of the cooling metal we're surrounded by.
I tap her in the chest to shut her up before she can say anything else and she falls quiet. I'm hyperaware, every sense awake and pointed to the direction we came in from. I'm stood inside an iron coffin with no other way out but the hatch we got in by and there's somebody out there firing a weapon. There's nothing I can do. Judgement call. I tap the rookie on the shoulder and swing my finger outside; go see. She just nods and heads out, boots tapping quietly on the floor as she goes out. I can see a shadow moving in the dim light beyond as she leaves the ship, and keeps moving. For a second I dare to breathe again – maybe one of the others saw a hare and got an itchy trigger-finger – but then I know that can't be right.
"There's nobody out here. I- ah!"
She squeaks a half-breath out before something rolls over here like a gag and she falls silent. I don't dare ask what happened. I don't need to, as a voice I don't recognise calls out from beyond the hatchway. A long slow drawl.
"I know you're still in there. Just come out now before you make me come in there."
The nightmare. I was told every time I went out and again when I came back. Can't be captured. Can't be used. Don't let it happen. My gun feels heavy in my hand and I know I can't do it like that. There has to be-
"Your kid here's fine. Just come out with no dumb shit and this can end easy for at least two of you."
Those dumb bastards, of course they'd have fought. Didn't hear the gunfire. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Caught up in the moment, didn't check the mystery-man for a flak-jacket and now here I am trapped with no way-
Of course. Why didn't I think of it before? I drop the lockbox and run back into the room. It's ghoulish but I have no other choice, and before I'm done with the bodies my hands are coated in blood. Blood and two round objects that will see me home. I push the box to the edge of the hatch and wait a second. To make sure he's still out there.
"I don't know what you think you're doing but-"
The grenades are away before he's finished speaking. His voice cuts off with a squawk every bit as surprised as the rookie whose name I hadn't bothered to learn, and now never would have to. I crouch down, hands covering my eras as there's an earth-shaking pair of booms from outside that ring the metal ship like a gong. Before it's faded the lockbox is in my hands and my feet are falling towards the forest floor. I land hard and almost topple, feet in something red and messy – sorry kid – but I ignore it. I spare a glance and double-check everything I see. The man's thrown himself away and he's already getting back up. I don't trust myself to try and take him down, not with my balance wrecked from having a giant metal bucket rang like a bell over my head. I can see two sprawled bodies in the grass and I can feel the third underfoot, and that's all I could hope for.
I turn and our eyes meet for a second, a second too long. I know the face, I can only pray to Hyne and all His angels that the man doesn't recognise me back, although there's small chance of that. I run as fast as I can away from the crash-site, clambering back up the rocks I'd leapt down minutes ago, towards the buggy that will get me out. I hear a single word-
-and then a moment later the whistles of bullets close to my head. Another second and I'm down to the other side of the massive stones that had shielded us from the crash-landing. Another second and the engine is revving and I'm gone, leaving nothing behind but corpses and burning rubble. Whether the man was just a lucky survivor or a plant expecting trouble I don't care. He can wrangle answers out of whatever he has back there.
Bodies and burning metal.