Barghest – Chapter 11

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Fire

Day 101, Year 2148

“Sir, we are in place here, sir. Ready to detonate on your order.”

“Hold…On my mark. Three. Two. One.”

“Move!” Rodriguez shouted.  She was on her feet a second behind him and just ahead of the horizontal rain of sharp rocks that erupted from the collapsing ridge. They were both panting, lungs and muscles screaming for more oxygen, as they dodged clumps of grass and flying debris. “Got any-” Rodriguez gasped, “more ideas?”  Maker didn’t answer, too busy watching her feet and trying not to run into the other soldier’s back. She did, in fact, have one other idea. Unfortunately, it was not as helpful to their situation.

If forty Cullers set up a defensive perimeter, how many more were hiding behind it? A rock smacked into the back of her helmet, and that thought was her last before she blacked out.

***

Hour 0330, Day 113, Year 2148

One hundred-fourteenth anniversary of the Holocene Extinction Event apex. A record number of known animal and plant extinctions is documented on Earth.

“You can’t just go and play your two right out of the gate!” Gonzales’ irritated voice was loud enough to be heard even over the staccato bursts of heavy weapons fire and the occasional whine of laser cannons.

“Why not?” asked Rodriguez. “It is my two, and they can’t take the point. Seems like a good play.”

“It’s a stupid play,” Gonzales argued. The two other soldiers playing cards with them snickered and sat back against the rough rock walls of the trench.  Maker tried to press her head deeper into her pack to drown out the sound. It wasn’t possible to get more than ten feet away from another person in the tight quarters of the ditches, but she had done her best. Duty shifts were long, frustrating, terrifying, and boring. What little off duty time she had she wanted to spend unconscious on the muddy, uncomfortable ground instead of awake, dreaming about regular rations and listening to Rodriguez piss off every human being that spoke with him for more than ten minutes. “-makes your partner want to kill you,” Gonzales continued. “That’s why it’s stupid!”

“But we are winning,” Rodriguez pointed out calmly, “so it’s not stupid. It’s an amazing play. Tell her, Sarge,” Rodriguez called out. More than almost anything in that moment, Maker did not want to be dragged into conversation.

“You’re an idiot, Fuzz,” she said with a sigh, finally giving up on sleep. “Play the way Gonzales wants you to, or find another partner.” She rolled onto her back and stared up at the sky. The atmosphere on the planet was breathable, but a little thicker than Earth’s. Maker tried to pick out Sol in the darkness, unsuccessfully. The little yellow star was too dim to see unaided at such a distance. She wondered how Kerry was faring. Her friend had also been deployed, to a different company, and his comm placed him at the far side of the trenches. She pulled up her tech and checked on him again – an abuse of her position as comm officer, but she was beyond caring. Kerry’s signal pulsed comfortingly, right next to the ping on her display from the Pershing. The ship was still in orbit, and active but it had been nearly two weeks, with no reinforcements and no comms – everyone was on edge.

“Mmm,” Rodriguez murmured suggestively to Gonzales, “how do you want me to play, partner?”

“With your tiny brain,” she hissed, “instead of your tiny-”

A company-wide communication cut off Gonzales’ reply. “Code Red. Incoming. Weapons hot.” It was indicative of how long she had been there, how long they had all been there, that Maker didn’t react to the order with more than a grunt and a quick, muddy glove across her hair to keep it out of her face before she pulled on her helmet. Less than two weeks ago, the same warning had been issued on the Pershing: Code Red, Enemy Engagement. Then, she had thrown up in a toilet before she could even get her armor on. After everything that had happened on the hellhole of a planet where the Cullers had hunkered down, it was situation normal.

“SNAFU,” Gonzales said aptly through the proximity comm.  Maker snorted along with several other soldiers, and then they were lined up on the edge of the trench, weapons out. The shrapnel grenades came first. They were thrown from a fair distance, so only half of the lobbed devices made it into the trench.

“Down,” shouted Maker. The soldiers closest to her all ducked below ground level as a grenade rolled across the ground. It stopped short of the trench, but the resulting explosion sent bits of metal flying out in 360 degrees of pain. A few rained down on helmets, but the trench protected them from direct impact.  Gas grenades were next, but they were ineffective as long as a soldier’s suit remained intact. Thankfully, no one near her had any issues – this time. It was agonizing to listen to the screams of a soldier suffocating in his own helmet. Then there was always the shine of floodlights on moist grey skin as the Cullers approached. After the first few days, the aliens had stopped charging in a straight line, and now loped, jumped, and crawled unevenly across the slippery mud between the trench and the enemy outpost. The planet had no moons, but the emergency floodlights that had been erected illuminated the bulkhead of a Culler ship that sat in front of the crater.

Munitions had disabled it before Oscar and Juliette companies had ever arrived, and every three days a squad was sent in to repeat the process. So far, the ship hadn’t been able to take off or turn its powerful weaponry against the humans. The small victory came at a steep price. None of the squads had returned.

“Heads up,” Maker called out, focusing her sights on a target. Other Cullers were painted in her vision as the rest of the soldiers locked in their guns. A laser cannon cut a wide swath through the trench to her right; the screams of soldiers were loud over the proximity comm. “Ready!” The first of the Cullers came into range, and Maker’s tech notified her of their approach. “Fire at will!” Rifles were mostly quiet, compared to the noise of heavy guns and Culler weaponry, but the sound of projectiles hitting targets was grating. Shrieks, screams, and the wailing ice-dragging-against-ice sound of Culler language were like a fingernail trailing up Maker’s spine.

Waste!

Die!

Insects!

Humans!

She had heard it all many times since their landing, and would hear it again, and again, for eternity it seemed, until reinforcements arrived. The waves of Cullers seemed unending; no matter how many they cut down, more emerged from behind the stationary ship. Maker aimed carefully and fired again, tracking her incendiary round as it passed through the upper chest cavity – where she knew from personal experience the beak and gut were located – and then into the Culler behind her target. The first creature fell, screaming and writhing, to the ground. A beat later the second followed with less noise and more splatter as the round exploded. The enemy closed within fifteen meters, and Maker quickly slung her rifle over her shoulder and pulled her service weapon.

“Close range,” she yelled, but didn’t have time for anything else. The Cullers were faster than their awkward, bony limbs looked like they should be. She was aware of that, aware of how quickly they could cross a space so that they were breathing rotten air into her face and piercing her skin with serrated, bony claws. Not everyone was so fortunate.

Maker fired, once, twice, three times and the Culler in front of her dropped to one foreleg, ichor dripping out of its lower abdomen. She pulled her service knife and climbed over the edge of the trench, ready to cut anything that came too close. A bullet to the brain was the best way to ensure that a Culler stayed down. Their exoskeletons and redundant organ systems enabled them to continuing moving – and posing a threat – long after a human would have died. One foreclaw rose up, and she hacked reflexively with her blade. The move had been a feint, and the alien surged to its feet. Maker stumbled backward, tripping over undetonated ordnance and falling to her back. The clumsy action saved her life as another laser blast ripped through the Culler and one of his comrades, before gouging deep into the opposite trench wall.  They are killing their own, she noted, far more calmly than she should have. A small, introspective part of her wondered if she was in shock. Wondered if she had been in shock for weeks, and what would happen when the numbness wore off.

“Get it off!” Someone screamed.  Maker rolled onto her belly to see a Culler had avoided the laser by leaping into the trench. It had one soldier pinned to the dirt and was ripping away at the armor over his chest. Rodriguez stood off to the side, firing repeatedly. Most of his shots slid off the back carapace or lodged in non-vital areas. Gonzales drew her service knife and slashed at the Culler’s face. It reared back, shrieking, giving Rodriguez a chance to pull the injured soldier out of the way. Maker toggled the display on her weapon, and just as the Culler tensed to attack Gonzales, she fired.

Metal wires, thin but strong, swirled out from the projectile in midair. They wrapped around the Culler’s outstretched arms, locking them together and dragging it down to meet gravity. It screeched, thrashing and turning, but unable to defeat the magnetic lock on the wire. The thin sheen of mucus that always seemed to cover their skin mixed with the thick ropes of grey and pink blood that pumped out of damaged areas to soak into the cloth wrapped around its abdomen and upper legs. The material had more in common with rags than clothing.

Maker crawled to the edge of the trench, conscious of the notice over the comms that the barrage was over and the blinking indicator lights for the health of the soldiers nearby. She fell more than climbed down the embankment, coming to a muddy stop just out of reach of the Culler’s legs. Gonzales was still standing ready, her gun in one hand and a knife in the other. Rodriguez had started first aid on the man with the chest wound. Three other soldiers stood behind her, shifting their weight. The air felt heavy with adrenaline and fear.

Humans! Die! The Culler clicked. The grating wail of its voice continued, Trash in the universe! Enemy to them! Gonzales swore and raised her gun.

“Don’t,” Maker warned. She got to her feet, and circled around, as best she could in the narrow trench, to approach the Culler from near its head. Priority with a captured live Culler was information. That was a standard command which, more often than not, was ignored in the field. Few soldiers were willing to risk further injury or escape by the enemy when shooting it would be simpler. They could always claim later that it looked like the Culler was about to break free.

“Ma’am-” Gonzales started, but Maker ignored her. There was something that had been bothering her about the Culler installation on that planet. It was unnatural, their entire operation, behaviors, the sheer numbers of them on a planet nowhere near any human colonies, stations, or trading routes was beyond strange. It was unlikely. It was suspicious. It is downright fucking irritating, is what it is, Maker thought sourly. She holstered her gun and drew her service knife. Her voice was raw from lack of sleep and shouting commands, but she managed to form the language that every soldier was forced to study, but few understood much less could speak.

Human, Maker repeated. The Culler’s black eyes dilated, its frantic movements stilling. Human finds you. Human kills you. You stay. You like to die by human talon. She didn’t have a wide vocabulary, and she was sure her grammar was terrible, but the alien understood her. That much was obvious when it suddenly fought against the restraints, legs digging into the mud and sending muck and blood flying.

You came to us, it said. The furious pace of its clicking was difficult for Maker to understand. We were not ready yet, but the human trash will die, as you always die. Their enemy will be crushed beneath our numbers. Maker felt almost hypnotized by the pools of darkness; pinpricks of silver dotted the very center of its eyes, drawing her in. Cold sweat ran down Maker’s back, and her scalp shivered inside her helmet. The skin over her forehead and temples felt tight and dry, like at any moment it would split and expose the bone underneath. The alien’s carapace parted on the chest, forming a vee that had its widest part near the head. Grey flesh, wrinkled and oddly tender looking compared to the hard outer shell of the Culler’s body, shone wetly in the ambient glow of the floodlights.  It folded back to reveal the hard beak inside. You will die, it promised, grinding the hard, sharp parts of its mouth together. You will die, and we will ravage this galaxy.

If there had been anything in her stomach, Maker would have thrown up. If she had not been stretched taut with fear, she would have collapsed to the ground. If she had never before felt the strange, terrifying sensation of her brain trying to crawl out of her eye sockets to escape the dragging, scratching sensation at the top of her spine, she would have screamed. The familiarity of it, from her experience on the mining station, did not make it less horrifying. Less disgustingly invasive.

Maker pressed her knife to the place where the skin split, just below the beak. Weak, she said, her cheeks and tongue forming the hard clicks while her vocal cords tightened to make the high screeches. Her nerves were crying out for relief, for her to look away, to run away from the cold cutting along her central nervous system. Maker put her weight behind the blade and the Culler jackknifed, making a sound that was not a word – but meant pain. Weak, she repeated, and dead. She leaned hard and felt the sudden release of pressure as her knife cut through the sinewy sheath around the nerve bundle that lay behind the beak. It functioned like a brain stem, and the silver light in the Culler’s eyes winked out as the point of her blade pierced through to the carapace on the other side. The pressure on her head let up so quickly she almost fell. Instead, Maker overcompensated, windmilling backward to crash into the opposite trench wall. She slid to the ground, dropping her knife and clawing at her helmet.

Thoughts raced through her mind. Can’t breathe, can’t breathe, can’t look, oh hell, killed it. Cut it, stabbed it. Murdered. My head! Can’t breathe! She was hyperventilating, her brain was on fire as though she had no oxygen, despite her display telling her everything was normal. Her vision darkened, tunneling into a bright white light surrounded by darkness. It reminded her of the Culler’s eyes. Hands pressed against her shoulders and neck, and for a moment Maker struggled, slapping at the arms gently holding her down.

“Sarge,” a voice said quietly, and then, with more authority, “Clara.”

Rodriguez. Maker’s hands fell away, and he was able to find the catch that released her helmet. She gasped for air, and as soon as it was removed the private was pushing her head down so that she faced her knees. “Breathe,” he said softly. She realized he had removed his helmet as well and was practically whispering so that the other soldiers could not hear him. “Calm down, it’s okay. Just-” he stopped himself, seemingly at a loss for words. Maker found her gulps softening into deep breaths while she wondered what he had wanted to say. “Just think of the celebration when we get off this rock.” She could hear the arrogant swagger returning to his voice as his volume increased. “Me, the brave, incomparable hero, beautiful women and men fawning over me. And my commanding officer – no more will you have to lie alone and unsatisfied. Admiring enlisted and officers alike will line up to taste your-”

She shoved him roughly. “Finish that sentence,” she rasped, eyes narrow, “and you won’t have anything to celebrate with, private.”  Rodriguez grinned, and Maker found it easier to breathe while she was looking at his stupidly handsome face, dirty and bruised like the rest of them, instead of at the gore and remains that she had so recently been speaking with. Gonzales let out a relieved, snorting laugh. The other soldiers relaxed as well, organizing amongst themselves to toss the Culler body over the back of the trench – where other alien corpses had been left to rot.

“Maker, Rodriguez,” the snapped command that came over her tech was easily identified as their lieutenant. “HQ, ten minutes.” They shared looks of sympathy with the other soldiers as they got to their feet and began the winding trek to the bunker that had served as headquarters for the last week. Basebots – Rodriguez had found a use for them after they had done the majority of the trench digging – had built the structure with blocks 3-D printed from crushed rock and sand. It was ugly, and dark, and dirty, but it was solid and the walls thick enough to withstand a laser cannon. At least once. Maker’s stomach rumbled as they approached. She glanced at Rodriguez, only to receive a wink. They were all hungry, after days of half-rations, but he was the only soldier she knew who seemed to get randier when he was slowly starving to death.

The lieutenant was waiting for them at the makeshift conference table in the center of the single, large room of the bunker. “Maker, we’re down a comm officer after that attack. You’re up.”

“I just got off duty,” she said without thinking, then winced. “Er, yes, sir.” The lieutenant frowned at her, but only nodded her back to the narrow table covered in equipment in various stages of repair. Maker scowled as she approached; she had last been sitting in the same spot only two hours previous. She synced the more powerful base comm station with her tech and began monitoring communications and troop positions, as well as sending the regular ping to the ships orbiting the planet. Pershing responded, as always, with the automated signal that it was manned and active – but did not reply. The Ferox class bounced back her signal without a reply ping. The ship could be running silent, or it could be dead in space. Maker had weeks of practice, but she still had to force herself not to think about why the Pershing had not contacted them. Why the Ferox was nonresponsive. Why no other ships had arrived.

The Major leading the ground forces arrived with a string of curses and a spatter of blood. A medic followed behind her, trying to check the field bandage covering a wound on her forearm. A snarled threat to send the would-be nurse to the front line had the man scampering out of the bunker. “This the one?” She asked, looking Rodriguez over as she cut apart an emergency blanket to create a makeshift sling. The woman had aged ten years in the last four days – since the Colonel that had been deployed with them had been killed during a barrage. Maker was empathetic, but immensely grateful she was not in the major’s shoes.

“Yes, ma’am,” the lieutenant responded.

“I understand you have some skill with controlled detonations.” Major Ben-Zvi raised her eyebrows when Rodriguez didn’t immediately respond. “That wasn’t rhetorical, private.”

“Ah, yes, ma’am. Some, but I haven’t yet gone through my munitions rotation.”

Maker kept one ear on the comms, and the other on Rodriguez. He face was faintly smiling with a sort of boyish charm, but his voice was too faint to maintain the fiction that he was unaffected by his situation. A private being called before the commanding officer of a battalion was never good news. Although she was sure he was worried he was going to be disciplined, Maker was more concerned that he might be about to receive a reward for his service in blowing up the ridge. What would they even need a demolitions expert for? There isn’t anything around to explode except – oh, no, Maker’s eyes widened.

“Good. As you are aware, we have a bit of a problem with a Culler ship on our doorstep, blocking line of sight into the crater. We can’t get a good look at the size of the enemy, and if they get that cruiser working, we might as well-”

“No,” Maker blurted out. All eyes turned to her. Rodriguez looked afraid and confused and trying to hide both emotions. The lieutenant looked pissed. The Major had leaned back into her hips, as if she couldn’t quite believe she had been interrupted. Maker couldn’t believe it either. It was insubordination to deny an order, but if Rodriguez did what she was sure the Major was planning, he would die. Just like the squads before him, if he closed position on the Culler ship, he would not come back.

“Did say something, Sergeant?” Her voice was cold enough to freeze blood in the vein, and Maker was struggling with the desire to shake her head and drop straight through the ground to hell, which conflicted with the undeniable impulse to save Rodriguez’s life.

“Ma’am,” she started hesitantly. Her mind was whirling, trying to find any excuse to keep the private that had so recently talked her out of a panic attack from marching to his death. “Ma’am,” she began again, then paused. They did need to see what was behind the Culler ship. Without any knowledge of how many enemies they were facing, the SC forces had to assume that the Cullers could keep chipping away at their numbers until there were no humans left to stand against them. Then it would only be a matter of time before they repaired their ship and met the Pershing and Ferox class vessels – which had already taken heavy damage and had not support forthcoming. Forty-five hundred soldiers would be dead on a planet so unimportant it only had a number, no name, and two Sol ships would be charred space junk. Thousands dead, and still no one would know what the Cullers had been doing, or why they were acting so strangely. “Ma’am,” she said, more confidently, as a stupid, crazy, suicidal idea began to form.

“If you say that one more time,” the Major interrupted with flared nostrils, “you will spend the rest of your time on this backwater swamp on cremation duty.”

“Ma-” Maker swallowed the reflexive title. “If you just want to know what’s behind that ship, there’s a better way.”

“Are you suggesting you know better than me how to carry out our objectives, Sergeant Maker?” Retribution, fueled by days without sleep or enough food, days of blood and dirt and death, lit an unholy light in Major Ben-Zvi’s eyes. Maker wasn’t too proud to admit to herself that she was ready to retract everything she had said under that angry glare.

“Hear her out, Pilar,” the lieutenant said gruffly. He collapsed back onto the hard bench that had been carved out of the floor. “The kid isn’t a complete idiot, despite indications otherwise.” Rodriguez was shaking his head, silently gesturing for her to shut her running mouth, but the Major was waiting impatiently.

“The crater sits on a tunnel system,” she began quickly, before she could talk herself out of saying anything.  She minimized the comms into the background of her display, and used her bracer controls to flick through the image files stored in her tech. When she found what she was looking for, she sent it to the tablet lying on the briefing table. “Here,” she painted the dark spots at the bottom of the crater rim interior with red, “you can see the entrances.”

“Those could just be caves,” the lieutenant pointed out.

“Could be, sir,” Maker agreed. “But here is some footage taken by Delta company.” She sent another file out. “They passed by the ridge we detonated about an hour after us, cleaned up a few Culler strays. You can just make out, in the rubble, the edges of a collapsed tunnel system. I think that these run throughout the crater’s rim and underneath of it. If-”

“You think? When you interrupt me, you better be damn sure, Maker.” The Major sounded angry, but her expression was losing its feral edge.

“The openings are symmetrical,” Maker quickly pointed out. She used one finger to highlight the round shape of the tunnels. “That isn’t natural. The Cullers obviously have some reason to defend this ground – more so than anything else we have ever seen.” A shared look, full of meaning, passed between the two senior officers. “It stands to reason that whatever the Cullers are using this planet for, they made some adjustments to make their activities easier. These tunnels could be why intelligence didn’t detect any large numbers, tech, or heavy equipment on this planet. We weren’t prepared, because they went to great lengths to prevent us from suspecting anything.”

“Let’s say, for a moment, that I might – maybe – buy into your theory, Sergeant. How does that help me get rid of that ship?”

“It doesn’t,” Maker shook her head, and then realized how her response sounded. “I mean,” she said quickly, “we can use that information to get around the ship. If we figure out what the Cullers are protecting, get a look at their setup from the other side, we can come up with a plan that doesn’t-” Kill anyone, she had been about to say, but that wasn’t true. There was no way, no plan, which would get them off of the planet without more loss of life. Suck, might have been a more accurate way to finish her thought, but just as likely to end with her on cremation duty.

“Modified explosives,” Rodriguez murmured, saving Maker from trying to complete her sentence.

“You have something to add, private?”

Rodriguez, all traces of his hesitancy and confusion wiped away by sudden understanding, nodded. “Modified explosives,” he said more clearly. He reached one hand over his shoulder and into his pack, pulling out an undetonated Culler frag grenade. Maker had a brief moment of vindication – only the fuzz would casually carry around dud ordnance. “My observations only account for a small portion of the trench, of course, but I’ve seen one in every three of these things fail to trigger. The casing in heavily modified – I thought maybe they were trying to add something more deadly to the shrapnel mix, but I think these might actually be mining explosives that were modified to be weapons. The chemical makeup is right for it.”

“Mining,” the lieutenant repeated it slowly, as if he had never heard the word before. “Cullers, mining. For what?” His bafflement was a stark contrast to the sudden, hard resolve of the Major.

“You can get in there?” She asked Rodriguez. “Without drawing too much attention?”

“Yes, ma’am, I think so.” He straightened his shoulders and stood tall. His reflexive swallow was the only indication of nervousness.

“We’ll need to go with a smaller team,” the lieutenant said to the Major, pulling a tablet to the center of the table.

“Who’s the most experienced with covert?” She responded. Maker felt a little dizzy. The two officers were moving on her idea as though it was completely normal for a second-year Sergeant to plan an intelligence gathering mission. She did not fail to notice that despite her interference, Rodriguez was only in a slightly less dangerous position than he had been before she interjected.

“An hour ago it was a tie with these two,” the lieutenant was gesturing to the tablet, “but an entire section of the trench caved in during the last attack. If they are still alive, they won’t be in great condition once they are dug out.”

“Going into their base, it would be better if we had a translator.”

Maker was still trying to decide if she should say anything else, perhaps mention that there had to be someone else, anyone else, with more experience than Rodriguez when the idiot opened his mouth, “Sergeant Maker speaks Culler.” Three pairs of eyes turned her way, and Maker was uncomfortably aware that the fairly rare ability to learn the alien language was not viewed by most soldiers in a warm light. Of the derogatory names she had been called because of her dubious linguistics skill, ‘lobster mouth’ was perhaps the least offensive.

“Do you, Maker?” Her lieutenant was looking at her with a fascinated sort of disgust.

She straightened her shoulders and lifted her chin, in for a penny, she thought, “I understand more than I can speak, sir, but I know the basics.”

“Basics are the best we have,” the Major stated. “You’ll go in with Rodriguez, here,” she pointed to the map still displayed on the tablet. “Lieutenant, get her the short list from the scrapped op. Maker,” a hard gaze pinned the younger woman down, reminding her of how much was riding on her success. As if I needed another reminder, she thought. “Pick four others and help Rodriguez find whatever equipment he needs. I want you out of here in one hour.”

Maker snapped a salute a beat behind Rodriguez and stumbled out the door behind him. An incoming transmission from the lieutenant containing a list of names tried and failed to grab her attention. She was a communications officer, a glorified radio technician and operator rolled into one, not a special forces soldier. Two close encounters with Cullers – a phantom shiver traced up her back at the memory – was enough for a lifetime. She had no desire to sneak into their base. No burning patriotism was pushing her to carry out orders. No love of the adrenaline rush urged her to run towards danger. And yet, that is what she found herself doing. Again. Not for her culture or species, not for the glory. For the soldiers that risked their lives beside her.  Rodriguez was going on about needing some parts, and she could still hear the major talking inside the bunker.

“-and get me another comm officer, even if you have to draft someone.”

The list of potential soldiers finally caught her eye. Two names stood out sharply – Gonzales and Kerry. Gonzales had the experience to make the roster; Kerry had no doubt ended up on it the same way he got most of the dangerous and unappealing assignments – by way of being genetically different. If she had to go into enemy territory, there was no one she would rather have watching her back than Kerry. She didn’t want to ask, because she knew he would say yes.  Frustration at their situation, and being forced to fight and die without any choice nearly overwhelmed her.

“-requisition anything we need,” Rodriguez was saying as he moved away from her. She stepped up to follow, trying to compartmentalize and shove away everything but the series of tasks before her. Step 1, pick a team. “You know what that means, right?” The teenager, more handsome than he had a right to be and too aware of it to let his looks be attractive, waggled his eyebrows.

“You can finally get that economy container of lubricant you have been dreaming off?” She replied offhandedly. Step 2, load up on ammo.

“Ha – no, although,” Rodriguez grinned manically, “I am very interested as to why that came to your mind.”

“Because you’re a perv, Fuzz,” Maker answered. Step 3, map a course that will take us undetected to the crater wall.

“No – well, yes, but more importantly,” he leaned forward, the lascivious anticipation on his face setting off warning bells for her. “We can hit up the ration distribution. All the MRE’s we can eat!”

“That’s greedy,” she replied automatically, thinking that the rations were determined to maximize nutrients for everyone. “And kind of gross.” There weren’t many things that she could think of that would be less appealing to gorge herself on. Radishes, maybe.  Her stomach rumbled, painfully hollow. “We’ll stop there first.”

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