Barghest – Chapter 9

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Frying Pan

Hour 0900, Day 101, Year 2148

Ninety-second anniversary of the Yemen Mass Suicide. Gathered in an open field, 512 men, women, and children commit homicide/suicide as a reaction to the revelation that aliens exist. Similar, smaller movements by religious cults claim more than 5,000 lives across the globe in one year.

Maker did not shine at poker; she was even worse at the game than she had admitted to Kerry. It wasn’t until their fourth night at Bretavic’s game that she won again. “That’s it, I’m out,” she declared, pulling the pile of chips towards her. Quit while I’m ahead, she thought to herself.

“Come on, Sarge,” Useugi laughed, “you’re on a hot streak.”

“That win just used up all the luck I’ll get this decade,” Maker grinned, but the fine hairs on the back of her neck stood up. She told herself that the maintenance bay was climate controlled for storage, not leisure purposes. “This almost makes up for half of what I’ve already lost.” She pulled opened an inner pocket in her jacket and began dumping in chips. “I’ll collect tomorrow after my shift, but I’m headed to bed before someone asks for a loan.”

“Hey Maker,” called a soldier from the other table, “Give us a kiss first, I could use a little luck.”

“Not even with Kerry’s lips, Niamey.” She smiled and both tables laughed. A female enlisted, Gonzales stamped on her uniform coat, leaned over and locked lips with the man. There were chuckles, whistles, and some lewd suggestions. Then the emergency signal sounded.

“Code Red. Code Red.” The pre-recorded voice was calm in the empty room. “Report to your stations.” The poker players blinked at each other for a moment before training kicked in and they swiftly stood, leaving their bootlegged alcohol and cards behind. “Code Red. Code-”

Maker tuned out the alert, focusing instead on getting to her assigned post. She clipped shoulders with another crew member on the way out of the lift – if Kerry hadn’t been behind her she would have fallen. He stepped in front of her, acting like he might make her a path all the way to the Level 3 Communications Lab, but Maker pushed him away. “Go,” she felt like she shouted, but the corridor was busy and loud with bodies, called out orders, and alarms. “They’ll need you in munitions. I’ll be fine!” He squeezed her shoulder hard, and then he was gone.  It took her another five minutes to make it to her destination, but by the time she got there her tech was broadcasting new orders. The bracer on her arm flashed with the Master Sergeant’s identification code, and then a list of reassignments. Uesugi, Makato – deployment. Peters, Shannon – deployment. Maker stood on her tiptoes to see over the crowd that was swiftly changing directions as they all received the same information. The same Uesugi she had been playing cards with flashed her a grin as he jogged past her from his post in Level 3 Security toward the infantry deployment bays, his wrist control bracer flashing until he punched in the acceptance code.  It took almost a full minute for the roster to cycle through all of the reassignments before she found her own: Maker, Clara – deployment.

Maker tapped her wrist on autopilot, not quite believing what was happening. She was a second year recruit and her training outside of basic rotations through ship’s systems had all been in small team reconnaissance and communications. It had been sheer bad luck that had landed her on the mining station field mission which resulted in fatalities. Duty assignments during an engagement with an enemy, a Code Red, were ranked based on priority.  The Pershing carried three battalions of specialized infantry – a thousand soldiers each – in addition to ship’s crew and the fifteen hundred or so fresh recruits, like Kerry and herself, that were rotated through various positions to determine their strengths and supplement career soldiers. If she was being ordered to deploy, then the forces they were up against must have been enormous. She made her way back to a lift, and then jogged to the large bay where her gear was stored. The locker room was full, soldiers on every bench and cubicle getting ready to take fire. She caught the door of a toilet stall as it swung open, slipping inside before someone else could claim it.

Her skin was clammy, her chest tight. Maker stood facing the rear wall and breathing deeply, trying to get her thoughts under control. Her shoulder ached with the memory of a long, finely serrated claw drilling through the bone. The skin on the side of her thigh where her own weapon had dug a groove tingled unpleasantly.  Metal between her stall and the next, too thin to keep out sound, dented under sudden pressure as someone hit the wall. Retching and the smell of vomit overwhelmed Maker, and she too bent over the toilet.

A heavy fist banged on the door, “If you’re scared, fuzz, go puke in your helmet. I need to take a dump before I suit up!” The only response from the next stall was another wet cough. The banging started again. With a shaking hand, Maker wiped her mouth. She relieved herself quickly before opening the door to find an angry soldier, his kit half on and half off. “About time,” he snarled as she slipped by. “Fucking fresh recruits.” His outburst drew attention, and Maker was very aware of the eyes on her back as she washed her hands and face. She bit the inside of her cheek and kept her spine straight as she found her locker. Her stomach was still trying to escape – through her mouth or any other orifice – but she refused to let it show on her face. Ship boots, pants, and her jacket were shoved into the narrow storage space assigned to her and her body armor and boots taken out. New combat contacts, still in the packaging, slipping onto her eyes easily and automatically synced with her bracer and the tech in her armor. She tugged the form-fitting charcoal suit over her underwear and shirt and fastened it up to the collar before sitting to put on her boots. A hand reached into her locker and pulled out her helmet; she looked up to see Useugi dressed and offering it to her.

“Come on, Sarge,” he said with a small smile. “Stick with me.”

“I’m fine,” she insisted quietly. Her cheeks were burning, sure that everyone around her could hear him offering her assistance.

“Yep, sure are,” he purposefully misinterpreted and grinned. “I got to keep an eye on all that fineness, or I won’t have a chance to win back my credits.”

Maker blew out a hard breath that tasted like vomit.  She stood, grabbing her helmet and reaching into her locker for gum. “Fat chance, old man,” she smiled shakily and shoved a minty tab in her mouth. “I’m on a hot streak. All aces from here on out.” He clapped her shoulder with a laugh and shoved her locker closed. She was grateful, in the moment, that Useugi decided to walk with her to the ground transport and was issued a pack right behind her. Grateful that he strapped in on the seat next to her and pointed out that the rude soldier that had needed in the toilet so badly had soaked the front of his armor. It was probably water, but Maker did not feel at all bad about suggesting it was something less sanitary. She was grateful that his laugh was the last thing she heard before she pulled on her helmet and snapped closed the ring that sealed it to her armor suit. The quiet voice over her comm, announcing the countdown to interstellar space exit, didn’t seem as ominous with Useugi beside her.

“…one. Disengaging ISG Drive.” The usual soft notice over the communications system was not accompanied by a shudder and the hum of sub-light engines warming up. The ship around her shuddered, as it always did, but then it began to shake. It rocked, hard, as if something had hit the hull. The rude soldier was thrown from his seat – his harness had not been fully fastened. The press of her own harness into her armor didn’t have enough force to activate the kinetic safety features, and Maker felt the sharp jab of her in-suit breathing tubes against her collarbones. “Secure personnel and all level 3-”

Pershing’s automated safety procedures were cut off by a live transmission, “This is Captain Yardley.” Maker didn’t recognize his voice, but she could picture the dark hair silvering at the temples and the tall, thin figure that she had once seen heading to the officers’ mess. “We are under heavy fire. Infantry units already in position – deploy. All others, prepare to be boarded.”

She didn’t have time to think about the implications of that statement. New information was pouring into her tech. Coordinates, maps, unit deployments and enemy troop movements. A series of comm codes that barely finished downloading before the ground transport rumbled to life. The ship-to-surface vessel was not equipped with windows, so she couldn’t see the doors on the floor of the bay slide open or the descent into open space. Twice before she had been launched planet-side in a similar fashion, and Maker had no desire to watch the ground drawing closer, faster than sound, as gravity performed the task of bringing them to the battle.

“Listen up, fodder!” The lieutenant commanding the company yelled through the comms. “When those doors open, I want your weapons hot. We have intense Culler activity on the ground and in the sky. Pershing doesn’t have time to help us out – they have a Ferox Class ship in need. Our job is to stop Culler deployment from the surface to give the Captain some breathing room. So keep your eyes open and stay with your maneuver team until you reach the regroup point.” Coordinates flashed on Maker’s display along with an overlay image of the planet surface. Their touchdown location was dotted in red, with a line leading to the regroup point. “Keep your gear tight and your-”

A blast rocked the transport and tremendous pressure pulled Maker’s arms and legs to her right.  “Fuck!” The comm cut out abruptly as the lieutenant must have switched channels to find out what was going on. In her periphery vision blackness grabbed her attention. The rest of the transport was gone.

The metal edges of the ship were exposed, liquid-smooth where a high-heat blast had cut through the hull. A third of the company, still strapped in on the other end of the transport, was falling away from them, spinning end over end. There was no sound in space, but there was plenty of light to see the carnage clearly. Between the two shells of the transport there was a field of debris, quickly thinning out as gravity took hold. It was mostly parts of bodies that had been caught on the edge of the blast. Maker tried to stay focused on the black space outside the damaged ship – on the surreal spray of blood that froze within seconds of contact with a vacuum, but she could not help herself. Her eyes turned of their own volition. Where Useugi had sat down, two legs and the left side of his torso remained. The rest had been vaporized by the heat of Culler weapons fire. Red droplets floated up from a few open edges of flesh that hadn’t been cauterized.

The transport rotated gently, and the view of the Pershing above them was stunning. She was firing into the side of a Culler cruiser. The rail gun moved regularly, hammering away at the alien hull shields with projectiles while the fighter squads deployed. It looked like a ballet: sleek, flat SC ships, manned by two soldiers each, darted through a wall of spiny Culler vessels. Like jellyfish, the small grey craft floated around their cruiser, waiting to sting anything that came too close while the larger ship warmed up its laser cannon to fire again.

Rotation took the Pershing to the side of her helmet, and Useugi’s blood smeared across her faceplate. Maker heaved, but she had nothing left to lose. Zero gravity helmet vomit, she thought, in a strangely detached way, would be a real bitch to clean out. The Pershing disappeared, and another ship came into view. A Ferox class, it was listing slightly, but still firing away. It was smaller than the Pershing by design – a third of the crew and three times as much firepower. It had taken significant damage, but didn’t appear to have any hull breaches. Yet, Maker thought. It was realistically only a matter of time. Three more Culler cruisers were parked around the Ferox, and while she already had her squadrons of fighters at work, only one enemy cruiser had taken enough damage to cease firing. Maker’s transport continued turning.

“Listen up!” The lieutenant’s voice crackled over the comms, hard and serious without a hint of fear. “We are in for a hard landing. Struts are out, maneuvering is out, and shielding is gone. Seats twenty-five through thirty-four-” Maker glanced to her right again, Uesugi had been in seat thirty-four. “-unstrap, move up, and secure yourselves before we hit atmo. We are using controlled fuel releases to make certain we hit face first, but if you are too close to that breach, consider yourself bar-b-que. You have forty seconds” Her hands were shaking as she unclipped her harness. The other soldiers were moving carefully, quickly, walking hand-over-hand along the seats toward the front of the transport. Seat twenty-nine had trouble with their straps.

“Hold still,” she said through the proximity comm. If anything, the soldier’s struggles with their harness increased. Maker gripped the service knife that was strapped to her thigh and unclipped it from the holster. With as sharp of a movement as she could make without gravity, she rapped the hilt on the other person’s helmet. “Hold still, meathead!” The struggling stopped, and Maker looked away from the opaque face shield to the twisted straps. Carefully, she slipped her gloved fingers between chest armor and harness, then inserted her knife.

“Thirty seconds!”

Heavy breathing increased over the proximity comm. “Holy hell, private,” she said, trying to get the soldier’s attention off of their deadline. The first strap snapped and she moved on to the second. “My sheets don’t get this tangled up during sex, how the fuck did you manage it?”

“You’re-” a panicky-familiar voice gasped for air, “you’re doing it wrong then. I’d be happy to help.”

“Rodriguez?” She asked, surprised. The second strap broke and she nearly lost her grip as he began to float toward her.

“Twenty seconds!”

He reached out and grabbed onto her wrist with one hand, hauling her forward with him as he turned. His voice was gradually becoming stronger, “Yeah, just can’t get enough of me, I see. It must be kismet, us on the same transport.”

“Not likely,” she snorted, and suddenly realized that her nerves had calmed down as he did.

“Thanks,” he said quietly, pulling her in close and bracing his feet against a wall support. “I don’t like to be trapped.”

“Move your asses! Ten seconds!” Maker glanced up at the lieutenant, strapped into his seat at the front of the transport. All of the other soldiers from near the breach had moved forward and secured themselves by lacing arms and legs through the harnesses of those that were still in their seats.

“Hold on,” Rodriguez said, and then pushed off. The bumped into the last two available spots and he quickly released her to slip his toes into the clips on the floor and press his back against the chest of another soldier. They locked arms together. Maker turned and did the same, just as the transport began to rock with increased pressure.

“Here we go!”  Flame, first orange and then white hot, shot up and around the edges of the transport. Ceramic plates, designed to deflect the heat, broke off the hull and slapped against the open edge before disappearing in their wake. Maker’s teeth rattled, and she clenched her jaw closed to keep from biting her tongue. Whispered prayers, curses, and heavy breathing filled her proximity comm. Someone nearby threw up in their helmet. Should have gone before we left home, she thought. That was the last coherent thing in her mind for a long eighty-three seconds. There was heat, and pressure, and enough g-force that she might have blacked out for a moment. Then they hit. The sound was concussive, pounding against her helmet; it probably would have blown her eardrums if they were exposed. The transport surged up again, and Maker’s stomach went with it, before falling back down. The second time, liquid poured over the open edge of the transport, flooding the space.

“Unstrap and move! Check your tech, shore is to your starboard.” There was a flurry of activity, and Maker managed to get her boots unhooked before the soldier behind her roughly shoved her forward.

“Get the fuck off, before we both drown,” the woman snarled through the comm. With liquid crashing into the transport and soldiers scrambling over the seats to reach the surface, it took a moment for Maker to realize her shoulder was dislocated.

“Let’s go,” Rodriguez said from behind her. There was no other choice, she needed both arms to swim. Both arms to fight. Maker gritted her teeth and threw her body against the hard surface of the floor. The joint clicked back into place and she screamed into her helmet. Rodriguez cursed, but followed her when she used her good arm to yank on his pack and pull him toward the opening. The transport, which had landed on the nose, was tipping back to the surface of the large lake they had landed in. Maker’s tech brought up a map, showing her where they had landed and the thankfully short distance she would have to swim to shore. She hoped there wasn’t anything living in the water.

That thought made her pause, perched at the lip of the sinking transport and watching soldiers dive into the lake and make their way towards shore. The brownish liquid steamed a little when wet armor suits and helmets made contact with the air. Maker frowned, pulling up the scant information downloaded into her tech about the planet. It’s too cold for water to-

A scream ripped through the comm and one soldier flailed and fell under the water. Suddenly, it clicked in Maker’s mind and she stuck her hand into the water to allow her tech to analyze it. “Bromine!” She yelled over the comm. “It’s mostly bromine, not water! If your suit is ruptured, it can paralyze you!”

“Help him!” the lieutenant’s command was loud and clear. Soldiers snapped to attention and two grabbed the flailing man under his arms and began dragging him to shore. Maker glanced worriedly at Rodriguez before they both dove in. After one hundred slow, agonizing meters her feet could touch the bottom and she stood to assess the rest of the company. Out of one hundred, only twenty-eight had made it to shore, of those, two were suffering effects from bromine getting into their armor. She glanced back at the lake. The transport had completely disappeared, leaving only a few bubbles of air and ripples on the surface. “Maker,” the lieutenant snapped out through her transmitter.

“Yes, sir.” Her tech provided his location further from the shoreline. She jogged to his side, Rodriguez following her.

“You’re the senior comm officer now, so get me a clear line. And you,” he pointed at Rodriguez. There was a brief pause while he seemed to be searching through his files. “You’re not listed in for my transport, Private Rodriguez.”

Maker stepped between the two men as she removed her pack. “His first drop, sir. There was a mixup, and another rookie got on his transport. It left before we did.”

“Huh, well, it won’t matter until the debriefing, so until then – what the hell is your specialty, private?”

“Mechanics, sir,” Rodriguez answered.

“Fine, stick with comms and see if she needs help. When I need you, get your ass where I want it before I even ask. Got it?”

“Yes, sir.” The lieutenant was moving away before Rodriguez could finish his salute. “What now,” he asked, dropping to the ground beside Maker.

“Now we find out if my equipment survived with less damage than I did, then we bring comms online.” She unsealed her pack and found the emergency communications unit intact inside its protective casing. Maker pulled it out and hooked it into the holster on her belt before syncing it with her tech.

“How’s your shoulder?” Maker glanced up at the question, and frowned when she found Rodriguez’s hands empty. He was greener than her, and had seen more action in the last six weeks than most recruits saw in their mandatory two years.

“Weapon out, fuzz. We’re in hostile territory.” In truth, her shoulder was throbbing, but with most of her company dead, it seemed inconsequential. The comms came online, and Maker noted that there was some interference in the atmosphere that was shortening radio range. Luckily, she found another unit’s signal close enough to be in range. “Company India, Company India, Company India. This is Company Juliett -Niner. Over.” There was a pause, and then a request for security clearance. Maker tapped her code into the system and waited for acceptance. The lieutenant was barking out orders and pulling together a movement formation, injured soldiers in the center.

“Juliett this is India-Niner, come in.”

“This is Juliett, we have taken heavy casualties on a bad dismount. Desire assistance on the move. Over.”

“This is India. Roger. Stand-by.” The lieutenant had the group ready to go and gestured to her to hurry up. Maker nodded, but remained crouched down in case they came under fire. The company began to move, and Maker readied her pack while she waited for a response. “This is India. Rendezvous at coordinates, over.” Her map automatically maximized to overlay on her vision, the location where her group could meet up with another company slowly flashing.

“This is Juliett. Roger, Inda. Wil-co. You make the coffee, I’ll bring the biscuits. Over.”

“This is India. I can taste them already. Out.”

Maker disconnected and ignored Rodriguez while she jogged over to her commanding officer.  The lieutenant was pleased with the news, but he quickly sent her to the rear to monitor communications so he could focus on the terrain. Maker spent the next hour quietly explaining radio code to Rodriguez while she scanned the horizon for Cullers and listened to the airwaves for transmissions. It was a long march. They spent an hour in double-time, until the terrain became rough, and then another three making their way through sharp rocks the color of a week-old bruise and thick, dark grasses that shot ten or fifteen meters into the air before arching back towards the ground. Pink, feathery seed heads the size of a toddler weighted down the vegetation until they touched the found in some places.  The distant sun was small and red in the sky.  Lights and vapor trails occasionally streaked the atmosphere as the battle between the Culler ships and the Sol Coalition continued.

As they closed on the rendezvous point, Maker left Rodriguez to catch up with the lieutenant. “Sir,” she spoke crisply, doing her best not to irritate a commanding officer who was having a worse day than she was. “Shall I radio India Company to let them know we are inbound?”

He nodded sharply, his eyes scanning the ridge line that had risen on their right an hour previous and continued to rise until it was several stories above them. “Next time, Sargent, do what you know needs to be done instead of pissing in my ear. I don’t have time to babysit your every move.”

“Sir, yes, sir,” she responded, stepping out of line and pressing her back against the ridge wall to allow the line of soldiers to pass. Yeah right, she thought sarcastically, staring at the lieutenant’s back, you want me to take initiative right up until I don’t read your mind – or I do, and it ends up getting someone injured. Jackass. That wasn’t entirely fair, she knew. Maker had been in command, it was difficult and frightening and the worst experience of her life. She wasn’t envious of the lieutenant – given their current situation or any other.

“What’s up?” Rodriguez asked as he reached her. Maker fell into step beside him and tapped in the codes to activate her comm signal. There hadn’t been any traffic since her conversation with India Company, but she assumed that all of the units that had been sent to the surface were, like hers, having to hoof it from less than ideal drop points to their intended coordinates.

“FYI – I think the lieutenant is immune to your charm, so you’ve been warned.”

“No one is immune to this,” he pointed at his face shield. Maker could only assume he was waggling his eyebrows or doing something equally stupid.

She rolled her eyes, knowing her couldn’t see it. “I need to make a call.” Her display notified her it was ready to transmit. “Company India, Company India, Company India. This is Company Juliett-Niner, over.” She waited, but no response came back to her. Maker frowned and double-checked her comm system. It was set to the correct frequency, and it showed that India had an open comm – so they should have received her message. “Company India, Company India, Company India. This is Company Juliett-Niner. Come in.”  As she repeated the call, the two soldiers in front of her glanced backward. Maker slowed her steps so that the proximity comm wouldn’t transmit her voice to them.

She radioed India again, but when they did not respond, her stomach began to twist. “Fuzz,” she said softly, “run up to the Lieutenant and let him know I am having trouble reaching India. I am trying other channels, but we may be walking into something.” Before the private could take off, she grabbed his elbow. “Rodriguez, keep it quiet, okay?”  He nodded. Maker switched channels, hoping that the comm officer for India was an idiot and had accidentally tapped one channel higher or lower than he had been assigned. There was no answer.

She knew Rodriguez must have reached the head of the column, but she was too short to see over the soldiers. Maker switched to the emergency channel, “Break-Break. Company India, Company India, Company India. This is Company Juliett. Over.” Regulations determined that she should repeat the call three times before moving on to the next level of urgency. Maker’s stomach was in knots and the hairs on the back of her neck were so stiff they hurt. She changed to a wide-band. Any comm officer would be able to hear her, if his equipment was turned on. “Charlie, Charlie. This is Company Juliette. Any receiving, please respond.”  She waited a full minute, mouth dry, before speaking again, “Charlie, Charlie, This is Company Juliette. Any-”

“Maker.” Her lieutenant’s voice came over a dedicated comm, interrupting her transmission. She glanced up to see that the line of soldiers had stopped, each turning in a standard formation to take turns resting and watching for movement.  “Status.”

“India is non-responsive, Sir. I-”

“Company Juliette. This is Company Oscar.” The man directed Maker to move to another channel.

“Lieutenant, sir,” she quickly spoke into the direct comm, “I have a contact, shall I – I’ll patch you in.”  Rodriguez was nearly back to her position by the time she had the Lieutenant and Oscar on the line together. “Company Oscar, you have Juliette-actual, go ahead.”

What followed was a nightmare for Maker, whose duty it was to stand, silently, monitoring the channels and listening to the conversation without reacting. Oscar had also lost soldiers on their descent, due to a minor hull breach that changed their trajectory and destroyed one of their landing airbags. Eighty-six of the one hundred assigned to their transport were in fighting condition. Oscar had contacted the nearest company, India, to rendezvous before heading to the target – much as Maker had done for Juliette – but his commanding officer had ordered regular radio checks every half-hour. Maker winced. It wasn’t standard procedure, but if she had thought to do the same, they would have known there was trouble long before they were within firing range of India’s position. She didn’t have long to berate herself, as Oscar continued,

“Last transmission cut out. Comm is active but unresponsive. Scouts detected weapons fire in India’s approximate position. Over.”

“Oscar, this is Juliette-actual. Stand-by.” The lieutenant switched over to a private channel. “Maker, get your ass up here.” She moved, Rodriguez right behind her, as the entire company was given orders. “Another company may be in distress. We are moving now, weapons hot. Try not to shoot any friendlies.” Comms switched again, including Maker, Rodriguez, and the one soldier equipped with a heavy gun that had survived. “Gunner, set point on comms. Rodriguez, you’re reassigned to gun support. I want you so intimate with that weapon it’d make your mother blush.”  Their ‘sir’s’ were cut off as he took Oscar off of hold. “Oscar, this is Juliette-actual. We are moving to verify situation. Wait – twenty for Juliette-niner. Over.”

“Juliette, this is Oscar-niner. Wil-co. Out.”

Maker didn’t need the order, she readied comms for herself to Oscar and the Lieutenant, as well as the newly designated gunnery team. They reformed into an open vee, moving slowly through the grasses that grew closer and closer together as they approached India’s position. India had made good time from their drop site, helped considerably by the terrain. They had landed in a shallow river valley. The water itself was only a slow-moving stream a few meters wide, but the shore was another twenty meters on either side. Steep banks rose up three or four meters in places, and then the dense grasses took over. Maker found herself crouched between two huge dark clumps, pink seed heads brushing against her shoulders, as she looked down on the valley. There were bodies everywhere. India must have landed near another company, because there was too much blood, too many scattered limbs, for only one hundred people.

She had never been so happy that she couldn’t smell anything through the air filtration system in her helmet. Steam was still rising in the air where high-heat energy weapons had seared flesh. A splintered bone, charred and dry, protruded into the air like a barren flag pole. One soldier, his helmet cracked and broken, had died with his fingers thrust into the soil of the embankment. His legs were missing.

It had been a massacre.

“Jesus,” someone whispered over the proximity comm. Maker had to keep her eyes off of the bodies, or risk vomiting again. Instead she focused on the weaponry. Several heavy guns were in a state of partial set-up. Tripods had been erected, and one gun was mounted in place, but none had their control panels lit up. No shots had been fired from those weapons. Standard-issue rifles littered the grey-green mud near the stream. She counted sixty-two. Assuming that each of the two companies had been short a few soldiers, that still only accounted for less than half of them managing to get out their primary weapons. That indicated a quick attack.

“Maker,” the lieutenant’s voice startled her out of her assessment, “find me the comm box.” Each communications unit, once activated, also became a passive field recorder. Although the tech for each individual soldier recorded their movements, it was difficult to access that information in enemy territory. A comm box could be manually plugged into to any other like it and the information downloaded. It provided easy sharing of knowledge between units and a quick way to make certain that no important tactical data was left behind. She minimized all of the tasks she was managing and pulled up a electronic scan of the area. Several comm boxes responded to her ping, but only one was active. She painted it in her vision and copied the location to the lieutenant.

Moments later, a two-man maneuver team slid down the embankment and began slowly moving toward the box. They were half-way across the beach when Maker lost signal strength – for just a moment. She took a deep breath, frowning. What could have- Heat and light lanced across the valley, and the man who had been facing them was cut in two. Maker’s eyes widened and chatter exploded on her proximity comm.

“What the fuck!”

“Christ!”

“Where is that coming from?”

“Get down!”

Someone let out a choked sob.

“Can it!” The lieutenant roared over the comm. The soldiers fell deathly silent, but Maker could see on her display the active line between the commanding officer and the one soldier still alive in the mud. She had been bending down to shift aside a body, and she fell when the laser cannon fired. She lay, motionless, her left arm pinned under the smoking corpse of the other half of her maneuver team. “Maker,” the officer finally cut through to her channel. “Tell Oscar what is up, and that we will need fire support from the opposite bank if we are going to retrieve wounded and get that comm box. And see if they can get eyes on that ridge behind us.”

Maker began her communication with Oscar while the lieutenant issued orders to the rest of the company. Rodriguez helped the gunner set up his equipment, although there was little to aim at aside from the thick canopy of grasses that sheltered their position from the ridge line. Maker was extremely conscious of her suit, and the cooling and heating circulation system. If the exterior temperature of their helmets and armor hadn’t been the same as the ambient air around them, it would have been a simple thing for the Cullers to target their thermal signatures and fire away.

Fish in a barrel, she thought. “Roger,” she said aloud to Oscar. “Awaiting your arrival. We’ll keep the light on for you. Over.”

“This is Oscar. I expect a mint on my pillow. Over.”

She snorted. Both she and the other comm officer could see the writing on the wall. They were engaged in what would either be the shortest deployment in SC history, or a long standoff with Cullers who were far better designed than humans to wait through a night that would get down to -40 degrees Celsius. “This is Juliette. Turndown service is extra. Out.” Maker cut the line and rechecked her equipment and transmission status, making sure she was still receiving the wide-band ping from the Pershing, signifying that the ship was still operating. The soldiers around her were settling in, forming up watch positions further back into the grass and rest locations nearer to the embankment. There was no discernible movement from the valley, as the downed soldier was overshadowed by the bodies around her. Those corpses had saved her life.

 

Maker couldn’t imagine how horrifying it would be to have to lay out in the open, surrounded by dead – one a close comrade. She checked her tech and opened a line with the woman, Gonzales. “This is Comm,” she said quietly, so as not to startle her. “How are you doing, private?”

There was a long pause, “A little too much sun for my taste.”

Maker let out a startled laugh, “Enlisted ask for leave and they ask for leave – finally get a chance to lie out and relax, and all they do is complain.”

“Didn’t mean to sound ungrateful, ma’am,” Gonzales responded. Her voice sounded tight, but not like she was panicking.

“I’ll let it slide, this time,” Maker said. The smile felt stiff on her face. There was no getting around the fact that they were in a pinch point, and Gonzales was exposed. “You know,” she flicked through her comm lines again, checking for activity, “the way you are all belly-flat out there reminds me of a dog I had once.”

“What?”

Maker ignored Gonzales’ confusion. If she was listening, then she wasn’t thinking about her situation. It was the least Maker could do. “Yeah, a dog. Laziest damn animal…” Eight hours later, Maker’s throat was raw. She had told Gonzales about her lazy dog, the second graders that had toured her dad’s farm and accidentally flattened an entire cornfield, the first horse that had been allowed into private ownership in decades – for educational purposes – and how she had ‘misplaced’ it for three days, and why mincemeat pie didn’t have any meat. Gonzales told her about the apartment on Titan where she lived with her younger brother and her aunt and uncle, the ice floe races that were held every year on the surface, how her parents had met at basic training, and the woman she had loved and lost more than a year ago.

Maker hadn’t bothered with a direct line, so other soldiers had chimed in on the proximity comm. Rodriguez had told a very strange story about his older sister and brother getting him drunk on 19th century wine at the tender age of eight. The gunner talked about his dad’s roasted okra, with just a hint of sweet pepper, and the cool feeling of a shady pond on a humid summer day. Another soldier talked about his younger brother, recently transferred to Opik Station in the Oort Cloud and head-over-heels in lust with his superior officer. Sunrise was still a long way off when Maker’s raspy retelling of an old family joke was interrupted.

“-pickle slicer. She was fired too.” The laughter of the soldier closest to her faded when a priority communication came in.

“Company Juliette, this is Oscar-niner. Over.”

“This is Juliette-niner. Go ahead.”

“This is Oscar. We have eyes on your shooters. Seven laser cannons in a defensive alignment. Over.” He sent a coded file, and when Maker opened it her map maximized and an image file overlaid it. The ridge behind her was slightly concave, the top leaned out over the grass forest between it and the valley. It explained why her company had not been fired on as they moved toward the river. As soon as they had cleared the shadow of the tall vegetation, the two soldiers on the maneuver team had been visible to the Culler position. Weird, Maker thought. There really wasn’t another word for it. Cullers used planets as resupply and repair stations, not permanent bases. Maker had never heard of them setting up perimeter defenses. She scrolled out on her map. Behind the ridge was a massive crater.  The images were flecked with several small, dark dots. Maker zoomed in, but could only make out what appeared to be openings in the ground. Whether they were deep pits or shallow tunnels, she could not be certain. Of greater interest were the shiny, hunched forms along the edge of the ridge. Scouts had caught at least forty Cullers in a single image. Maker’s shoulder twitched.

“This is Juliette. Roger. We have an access point, at least two hours to reach shooters. Stand-by for Juliette-actual.” She radioed the information to the lieutenant. “Oscar will be pinned down, sir, unable to cross the valley to get to the checkpoint until those shooters are taken out.”

“I am aware, Sargent,” he snapped back. He was quiet for a moment, but when he answered, he surprised her. “I’ll take a strike team to the ridge with the heavy gun. That should keep the Cullers off of Oscar long enough for them to cross the valley, pick up Gonzales, and meet up with you here. You’ll take command of the remainder of Juliette and head with Oscar to the rendezvous.”

“Me, sir?” Maker winced at the squeak in her own voice.

“You are an officer, aren’t you?” His irritated words reverberated inside her helmet.

“Yes, sir, I mean-” Her apology was interrupted by Rodriguez tapping on her shoulder and whispering through the proximity comm.

“I finished the inventory. Two more emergency comm units, 40 MRE bars, a spare water recycler, parts for the heavy gun, sixteen ordinance packages, eighteen det cord rolls, and two basebots.”

The lieutenant was still dressing her down on one channel, and Rodriguez was complaining about the uselessness of a basebot when they didn’t actually have a base to maintain. Maker ignored them both, her brain itching with the image of the emergency exit Rodriguez had blown through the floor on the mining station. “Fuzz,” she broke into his litany, “how many meters of rock can one ordinance package go through?”  He blinked and then answered, going on about how detonation mechanisms and rock composition could affect dispersal. She interrupted again, “Great, I’m going to patch you in to the lieutenant. Sir,” she said as soon as the lines were connected, “I have Private Rodriguez here, and he may be able to take care of your shooters without climbing the ridge.”

“I’m listening.”

Maker rushed into an explanation, “The ridge isn’t too thick, maybe 250 meters at the base, according to our maps. We can get right up under the shooters, using the grass here as cover, and place ordinance on the wall. Blow the wall – the Cullers will all come down. Any that survive should be a lot easier to pick off.”

At the other end of the loose grouping of soldiers, down the embankment to the south, the lieutenant stood. His head nearly touched the curving roof of grass that protected them from enemy fire. “Rodriguez, you have munitions experience?”

“Some, sir.” He swallowed audibly, “It is more of a personal interest, sir.” He rushed on before that comment could be questioned. “I can do it though. We have enough cord to link the explosives and set off a controlled detonation. I should only need about two-thirds of our supply.”

“Maker, go with Rodriguez. I’ll monitor comms here. You have forty minutes to get to this point,” he sent her map coordinates, directly below the shooters, “and get those charges in place. If this doesn’t work, I’ll take a team up the ridge.” Maker’s mouth fell open a bit, and she was grateful for the opacity of her helmet so no one could see the mixture of fear and surprise that was churning in her gut and no doubt plastered on her face. “What are you waiting for, Sargent? A carriage? Move it!”

“Sir, yes, sir!” It took less than ten minutes to transfer comm control, notifying Oscar that Juliette-actual would have the line, and gather up the supplies they would need. Despite Rodriguez’s reminder that she had carried det cord a lot closer to her than the bag suspended between them, Maker was not comfortable. She kept her rifle out in front of her, scanning the narrow spaces between clumps of grass as they moved. At a slow jog, it took another twenty minutes to reach the path they had been walking the day before and follow it under the ridge to the detonation point.

The back of her neck was prickling and her eyes felt hot and dry. Her stomach was knotted and her fingers were shaking as she followed the younger soldier’s instructions to set up the explosives. Although the Cullers had been on the ridge when she walked under it the first time, it was different to know that they were directly above her. They ran a line of cord back into the grass, about a hundred meters from the rock.

“Sir,” Maker called the lieutenant over a shared link with Rodriguez, “we are in place here, sir. Ready to detonate on your order.”

“Hold,” he responded. Sweat was dripping down her spine, making her shirt and underwear stick to her skin. Her suit regulated temperature, so she knew it was nerves. Scared sweaty, she thought without any humor. “On my mark. Three. Two.”

Maker glanced over at Rodriguez. His helmet was pressed into the dirt, his body laid out like hers along the ground. The hand that held the detonator was steady, but she could see his stats on her display. His heartrate was almost as fast as hers.

“One.”

Light burst in little pinpricks through the vegetation, the controlled blast forcing most of the energy into the rock. In the next second a boom washed over the grass forest, a strong wind following behind and nearly flattening the pink seed heads to the ground. Far in the distance, Maker swore she could hear the shriek of a Culler. Dust clouded the air and a rumble, low and deep and reaching up through her feet to flip her heart upside down, shook the ground.

“Move!” Rodriguez shouted.  She was up a beat 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.

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