I told Jinx before we headed out on this mission that our combined bad luck was gonna get the whole crew fucked, but as usual, no one listened to me. As she runs by in a crouch, equipment weighing her lithe body down while she makes her way through the shrieking laser fire to the makeshift piece of cover Varr has dropped behind, I can’t help but wonder whether next time someone will pay attention.
I’m muzzle-down in the hot sand, switching out for a new magazine as she goes past me. She’s got her weapon in one paw and a can of ammo for Varr’s MG in the other, responding to the big bear’s call for additional rounds. He’s good for suppression, I’ll say that, but I’m glad I’m on the same team as Duggan. Even though the tortoise is certifiably whacko, he does tend to run a little conservative with his ammunition. That makes it much more likely that he will have more of it when the final wave comes. Varr, on the other paw, sometimes seems to pour his out there like he’s in a training bay and will always have more at the ready.
I hear the sharp whistling mixed with the disturbing screams of the zap guns.
“Incoming!” I shout, wriggling lower into the sandy depression. I’ll be scrubbing the yellow dirt from my hide for a week, but that’s a small price to pay if I can avoid pulling fragments of metal out of my ass.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see Jinxie dive the last three meters to the pile of rocks where Varr is based, sliding across the sand and stone and ending up slamming her head into the bear’s massive boot.
Then the first of the mortar rounds is impacting and I’m not watching her any more. Twenty meters out and on my one o’clock. A gout of yellow sand spews skyward, mixed with the filthy black smoke and chemical stench of their explosive. Another hit, five meters closer but more to my three, and I hear metal whicker overhead.
Candi is up now, Varr’s machinegun spewing streams of cover fire, and the MM8 in her paws is chuffing out round after round. Five, six, seven, I see before she drops back to the ground and hunkers her stripes down in the same abrasive yellow dirt as I am buried in.
Her grenades detonate as they strike, frags and incendiaries, and the mortars fall silent as a nightmare of fragmented wire and burning chemical sweeps across the area she had targeted. The rounds hit so closely to one another that their effects overlap, and any toothie caught in that mess isn’t going to be an issue for a while.
I socket the Victor back onto my shoulder plate and look through the rear sight. A flicker of movement beside a rock is enough and the weapon pushes back at me as I squeeze the trigger. Downrange, my round caromes off the stone and into the distance with a sharp whine. Two lasers open up in response, neither of them coming close to me, but both drawing return fire from others in the team. At three hundred meters plus, we’re none of us sure of a clean hit, but the bullets and pulses from either side are just as lethal as if we were on top of one another.
The rats are buried in behind a wide stone formation, and even with Candi bombing the left flank and Sergeant Sharn and Diem working their way to the right, there’s a lot of cover between the rats and my bullets, which, to be honest, pisses me off.
We haven’t even reached this supposed mine we’re headed for and already we’ve got toothies entrenched and waiting for us. How did they pick up our route? They set up the ambush where we would have the least available cover, and I gotta give them points for that, but again, no one was supposed to know our travel plans. I would have waited until our truck was right on top of the position, but no one ever said rats were smart. Well, I guess they did, but, yeah, whatever.
I pop three more rounds at the rocks covering the toothies. Best to keep their heads down. Even as I ride that recoil I know Diem and Sergeant Sharn are going to work their way around and flank the opposition. Diem is like a ghost when he does his thing, and if he can lead Sergeant Sharn into those stinking ranks, the two of them will cut through the fur like a bullet through a melon.
The sounds of the fight are all around, but in the middle of it I pick out the heavier, flatter sound of Lissa’s long rifle. She’s off somewhere to my right, next to Duggan, I’m sure. Her bullets are gonna be hitting their marks. At three hundred she’s just getting warmed up. Pike will be holed up with Nik, keeping a watch over the medic until he’s needed. The civilians are all cowering behind or under the crawler, and I’d just as soon that’s where they stay.
A sudden shift in the fire shows that one of the toothie bastards has noticed Diem and Sergeant Sharn moving in on them. Seems that all of a sudden they’re more interested in pouring their fire on the scouts.
I key the mic on my helmet as sand erupts into fragments of pink glass in front of me, the laser blast hitting far too close to home for my liking. “Charlie Three, Echo Five. Hit that rock formation. Cut us a hole!”
I get a click in the earbud. I suppose that’s Pike responding. No one else seems to be tying up unit air time.
I pour on the heat, keeping the rats in front of me down. Ejecting the spent magazine, I fish out a spare from my chest rig.
“Hotel, Charlie Three. Super-heavy on three,” I hear over the push.
Super-heavy? What does that even mean? The seconds are in motion and there’s no time to wonder.
One. I shove the mag into my Victor and seat the first round.
“Echo One and Two clear and evading,” Sergeant Sharn speaks into the net. I see them moving, dodging laser fire as the horrific shrieks of the zap guns cut through the air like saw blades. One of the brilliant crimson pulses tags Diem as he is twisting, ripping away a piece of the rucksack that bounces just above his tail but hopefully not injuring the big leopard.
Two. Candi stands again, fires another grenade toward the left flank. I put two quick rounds out. No real target yet, just more suppression. The stone ahead of us is thick and bluish-gray, and the chance that I’ll get a shot through one of the gaps is minimal, but anyone behind the feature is going to want to keep their heads down.
Three. From behind me I hear the roar of ignition followed by the hiss-crack of a rocket passing overhead. Spent fuel particles fall onto my exposed fur. Someday, someone is going to do a study on these chemicals, and they’ll find out that idiot dogs like me were exposed to more deadly crap than even the toothies could come up with. Then the corp will be all, “Oh, we’re sorry. We didn’t know rocket fuel was bad for you. Sorry about your lungs filling up with slag, and of course that pup you had with eleven eyes. Here. Have an extra check for your service. That will make up for it.”
The rocket slaps into the base of the stonework and detonates with a thunder that takes me by surprise. The flash is like staring through a telescope into a sun and I blink rapidly to clear my vision. Out of reflex I clench down, firing shot after shot in the direction I was last aiming, hoping to keep at bay anything that might approach until I can clear the brilliant blue afterimages from my vision. Beneath me the ground vibrates like a plucked guitar string. Fur ruffles and skin prickles as a shock wave passes over me. The sand around me feels alive for a moment, moving and crawling in response to the blast. It’s in my muzzle and I’m coughing and sneezing before I can even stop myself. The Victor locks open and I flick the magazine release without thinking. I don’t hear the box hit the ground. All I do hear is a whine. A wave of heat sweeps past next, so hot that my eyes tear and for a moment I’m that stupid cub again, opening the oven to get at the roast Mama was making. It makes the afternoon heat of the colony a pleasant thing by comparison. The air is nothing but the scents of chemical explosive and dust, and the sky darkens around us in response to the tons of sand blown skyward. The rain begins then. Not of water, but of small bits of stone facade and sand, mixed with random pieces of toothie attack squad and their equipment. Chunks of harder things bounce off the ground and ping off my helmet as I look back toward the rat barricade.
Rather, where it used to be.
The space before us is barren now, a scorched thing of shattered ground and smoking ruin.
All the shooting stops. The sudden lack of noise is a palpable thing. It feels creepy, like that moment in the vids where the cubs are looking for the killer in the woods and you just know it’s too quiet, so something is going to happen soon.
Time to take the chance. I stand up from the fighting position, turning slowly to take in the sight of our troops all looking in wonder at the devastation. Completing my scan, I see Pike beside the crawler. He’s got an oblong squared tube in his paws. Shorter than I expect to see, the tube is also as bright red as a zap gun pulse, as opposed to the dull gray of a Mark Six.
“What is that?” I call, but my voice is tinny and distant to my own ears. Pike doesn’t even seem to hear me. He’s still staring at the wasteland he has created, that lopsided grin of his twisting his muzzle. He sees me looking his way, points to the scorch mark and replies in words I can’t make out. I swear to Gann he looks like he’s trying not to dance.
It feels like forever before everyone is back to normal. By the time the ringing in my ears has quit, we’ve rooted out the pawful of remaining rats that were not behind the stone wall and put them down. Sergeant Sharn has one low-grade officer alive that he’s questioning with Jinx and Diem, and Jinx ordered me to – in her words – “take care of what needs to be done” until they were finished.
“Well, I just thought we needed something with a bit more punch,” Pike says when I question him. “Back in the camp, before we left, I talked to Brother Vincent from the Garan Temple. He took a StarBreach and modified it a bit for us. Little bit more boom-boom, yeah?”
“First off, when did we get a StarBreach and why?” I ask. The rockets are made for shattering the internal bulkheads of starships in boarding actions. I can’t even remember the last time I saw one. I’m damned sure there wasn’t one on our equipment lists.
Pike grins even wider. “On the trip over here, I spent some time playing Faraway with the Marine reaction team on the ship.”
“Let me guess: you never bothered to tell them that you aren’t new to the game?”
“Well, I’m not exactly a professional! I mean, any more.”
“So when you played, someone gambled away a rocket?” I ask, returning to the original question. I gesture toward the empty red tube that is now propped against the trailer.
“Sort of? What’s that mean, Pike?”
“Well, we brought six planetside,” he says.
“And your dumb ass wonders why I don’t play tiles with you.”
In the crater left behind by Pike’s rigged StarBreach, Duggan is kicking around bits of rubble. He says it’s a search for intel, but I’m figuring he’s looking for anything still usable. We’ve all scavenged here and there, and considering the toothies seem to be here in larger numbers than ArCorp had estimated when they sent us, we might well need everything we can find. Then again, detonating some massively upgraded rocket on that spot keeps the chance of finding things low. Given that it’s Duggan, of course, it might also be that he’s looking for ears or paws to tie to the front of the crawler.
“So what kind of modifications did the Garan make?”
“Increased yield mostly. He reduced the shaped charge effect in exchange for more coverage. It will still cut armor but not as well as it was designed to. He also said it’s got a lot more range.”
I nod and turn back to the scene, taking a moment to spit sandy saliva from my mouth before ensuring that everyone is taking the time to replace the ammunition and equipment they expended. Having a truck with our supplies on it is pretty convenient, and I, for one, plan on making the most of it. Boxes hold spent magazines and empty casings recovered from the dirt. When we shut down for the night, we’ll work on cleaning and reloading the mags. The casings we’ll take back to the colony for Rust to reload.
I look around and take stock of the Folk on the team. Most of us are just running a simple ruck with enough to hold us over for a short span. There are pros and cons to that attitude, and it’s important to look at both sides of that particular coin. If we get isolated away from the crawler for an extended period we’re operating on limited supply, and if we lose the vehicle altogether we’re dead out here. Still, we’ve been enjoying the luxury for as long as we can. Given the nature of this hit, I’m thinking it’s time to leave that behind.
I see Nik working his way in our direction and flick a paw his way. The rangy wolf jogs over, his helmet strap flapping under his chin.
“Hey, Mag,” he says. “You hurt?”
“Not me. We got anything?”
“Mostly overpressure issues from Pike’s rocket thing. Diem’s having some hearing problems but they should fade within a day or two. Candi took a round in the chest. Armor stopped it, and she’s good. Didn’t even knock her down.”
A lack of casualties is great news, and he chuckles when I tell him so. We slap gloved paws and he is off again, checking up on the rest of the crew.
“You all right, there?” Pike asks as I scribble notes on a pad. The page is dirt-smeared and my pencil skips a couple times. I can still read it, though, so I don’t really care. It’s just there to keep the information clear for the brass.
“Never better. Do me a favor, though?”
“What ya need?”
“Don’t waste those big bitches, if you brought more than one. Stick to the Sixes. Save the monsters for the moment it all goes to shit. Good call breaching the stronghold there, though,” I add, waving a paw toward the smoking wreck.
I don’t want him thinking he did something wrong. It’s difficult to think of these things. I have to make sure he gets what I’m saying but I don’t want to come across the wrong way. I try to remember the times someone in charge told me things and did it without making me feel stupid or put upon. It’s way past time I stop being in charge of anything.
“I brought two. I didn’t know there would be a reason for them, but I figured we couldn’t go wrong if we needed a hammer. Besides, I kinda wanted to see what it could do.”
I give him a good-natured shoulder check and leave him to keep track of the resupply.
The civilians have emerged from beneath the crawler and are holding their own little conference. It’s easy to tell that they don’t know what to make of the events of the ambush. None of them is injured when I check, though, and they’re quick to tell me Nik already took a look at them. I take a moment to assure them that everything is all right. It can’t be pleasant for someone not used to what we do to be caught up in it so blatantly. For us, the ambush is business as usual. For the mining specialists and sci-techs, it’s a glimpse of their own mortality they didn’t want. A couple of assurances go a long way toward keeping them from completely losing it.
From her place about sixty meters out, Lissa smiles around her sharp little teeth and flashes me a paw sign to check my welfare. I reply with the twin claws and she does the same. She jerks her head toward where Duggan is stumping toward her from the rubble and gives me the same sign. Sweet. At least I won’t have to check on him.
Varr is as problematic as I expect. Angry and frothing, stomping his giant feet back and forth. I already see a circle cut into the sand where he’s pacing.
“Fucking Pike stole -” he begins as I walk up. I stiff-arm a paw into his chest and cut him off.
“My call, not his.” I let my lips peel back. “This isn’t about who gets credit for what. It’s about saving our collective asses. You want to play one-up games, start walking. It’s a long trip back to the camp, but if you take it slow you’ll make it.”
“Fuck you, Mag,” the big grizzly snarls, spitting down at me. The gobbet sails past onto the ground with a thick slapping noise. “You ain’t in charge.”
“He kinda is, honey,” Candi says. She’s on her knees, collecting spent casings from Varr’s machinegun for the reloaders. “Jinxie told him to -”
“I heard,” he says, eyes still fixed on mine. He’s looking for a weakness, but I’m past the point of caring. He’s the stereotyped grizzly, full of raw fury and that bluster that leads to a roaring charge. I learned a long time ago that things generally go better for you if you don’t let the anger get that big a lead. Up this close, I can smell his frustration as clearly as the reek of his breath. He’s near to going off, and if I don’t reset him, he’ll be on Pike’s ass and he’ll stay there. We can’t afford internal feuds.
“Calm down,” I tell him. “Think. Use that big head for something besides a helmet rest. Somehow the toothies knew we were coming. They had us pegged to location and travel directions. Placed a reinforced ambush right in our way. You think we ain’t gonna see more of them? Like they’re gonna magically show up here and nowhere else?”
“They knew?” His voice is low now, and he looks around with a sudden suspicion.
“Yeah. Ambushes don’t just happen.”
Candi does a really good job of looking uninterested, her claws scraping empties into a mesh bag. Sand runs from the little holes like it’s measuring the time we have left until something else goes wrong. Of course, having me and Jinx both on this trip pretty much guarantees it won’t be long.
“You think we’ve got a symp on board?” she asks, never even glancing up. I don’t need to look to know that her lips never twitched as she spoke. We’ve all held conversations like this in the past: low volume, no movement to give away our words, and a disinterested manner that will make an onlooker shift their view elsewhere.
“Could be. Here, maybe. My coin says back on site.”
The thought sickens me. How could anyone side with the stinking rats over our own kind? Setting us up to get greased on the way to this stupid fucking mine? Everybody’s in this for the profit. Doesn’t take much to understand that there’s profit to be made by betraying the mission as well, but anyone stupid enough to think the toothies will pay off is in for a rude awakening.
“Who do you think it is?”
“No clue. Each one of us can only be sure of one set of intentions. Anything past yourself, well, that’s just assumption.”
I’d like to think I can trust everyone on the team. For that matter, I’d like to trust the civilian complement as well. It’s just not that easy. I know I’m not the one who gave us up. My heart tells me to trust Lissa as well. Duggan and Sergeant Sharn are so full of hate I figure they’re good to go, but even those decisions I base on assumptions about their character and motives. This could get ugly real quick.
Varr hefts his MG and pats at the receiver with one enormous paw. “I’ve got something for when we figure it out.”
“We all do,” I tell him. “For now, restock your ammo. Start carrying an extra belt, ‘cause I’m thinking we’ll have more ears to count than you can carry soon enough. Candi, I want you with a full complement of grenades. We’re all gonna have to go back to a full loadout.”
It’ll be hot and uncomfortable, and everyone will gripe about it, me included. But at the end of the day, when the toothies come knocking again — and it’s obvious that they will — we need to be be gunned up sufficiently to make them regret it.
I take the bag of empties from Candi so she’ll have both paws free. The sling bag full of grenades the tigress wears on her hip hangs loose for now. She’ll go back to a full vest of them after this. The thought of her vest draws my eye to her armor, where a streak of discoloration marks an impact point.
“How’s the hit?” I ask, gesturing with my chin. She looks down to the blackened mark on her chest plate, sneers around long teeth in response.
“Good shot, whoever they were, but they’ve got those light carbines. The plates stopped it cold. If it had been a zap, it might have even hurt.”
I grin at her bravado. “Keep an eye on it? Tell Nik if it -”
“Yeah. I got it.”
“All Hotel elements, Echo Three.” Lissa’s voice on the unit push. I swivel my head her way to see her down on her ass, rifle propped against one upthrust knee, facing out to the east-northeast as she sights through the optics attached to the weapon. Duggan has finally cleared the rubble pile and is standing beside her. His machinegun hangs loose on its sling, so whatever she’s got can’t be too bad.
“All Hotel elements,” she repeats. “Shrieker herd inbound. Looks like they will pass without incident.”
I hate those things and that stupid sound they make when they’re fighting or playing or whatever else they do. I don’t know who decided to call them Shriekers. It’s not the best description of the barking/hooting/squealing noise that comes out of them. Still, when someone says Shrieker, we all know what they mean. Half a meter of angry bird-lizard with sharp claws and too much appetite. Singles, they’re some scary stealthy little things. Two or three at a time, and you’d better not be alone. Put them in a group, though, running and making noise, and they’ve got all the subtlety of a shotgun to the groin.
I key up. “Echo Three, Echo Five. Divert them if you gotta.”
“Echo Three clear.”
She knows her job and everyone knows she knows her job, but if I put my name on the order it falls on me if anything goes wrong. At some damn point Jinx needs to come out and take over again. I’m not meant to lead. I’m just a dog with a rifle.
Sweeping up most of my empties takes only a minute or so. One of these days, I need to put a bag on the side of the rifle to catch them and save myself some labor. The box full of casings on the truck is nearly overflowing, and this is the first interaction we’ve had. I scratch down a note for the brass that we might need to watch our ammunition use a little more closely. Special note to discuss it with Varr. I crack open a case of Victor magazines and fill the carriers on my vest. I drop a couple of spares into a pocket as well. A little extra weight, sure, but worth it should it all come to a head.
It hits me that I will need to remember to remind our interrogation team to resupply as well. With that, the thought comes again that Jinx really needs to come take her op back. She and Sergeant Sharn are the ones that should be doing this. Not having a Lieutenant along to lead is weird, and it’s taking some getting used to.
“Echo Three firing.”
The flat crack of Lissa’s rifle. Downrange, one of the feathered reptilian things stumbles and falls. I can’t see the detail, but knowing Lissa I’ll wager she took it in the head. The others scatter for a second before merging back into a herd. They’re angling a few degrees away from us now, their path avoiding the twitching corpse. If they’ll avoid trampling it, we can add the thing to the pot tonight.
Candi and Varr are working their way back to the crawler, both of them looking at the rest of the crew with suspicion obvious even from a distance. Maybe I shouldn’t have told him. He’s still got that glaring angry I-want-to-smash-something look in his eyes. Hopefully I redirected him from his anger at Pike.
By the rubble, I see Sergeant Sharn stand up from where they are working to interrogate the last rat. His head swivels until he fixes on me. He looks about as happy as I expect, which is to say not at all.
I spit again into the yellow sand and take off at a jog before he even has to raise a paw. I reach the badger’s side as he’s taking a long drink from his canteen. He looks disgusted, which I completely understand. He lowers the polymer jug from his mouth and extends it to me. A mouthful of warm water feels good going down and helps to cut the sensation of dust wiggling around in my mouth. I forgot to make sure everyone was drinking enough. Was I supposed to check that? There’s a reason I shouldn’t be in charge.
“What’s the word?” I ask, trying to focus on something other than my own shortcomings. His reply is a bitter growl from behind rows of sharp teeth.
“We got fucked. Someone passed on our info.”
A glance past him shows Diem and Jinx rifling through the pockets of the rat. It doesn’t seem to be offering any resistance. When I get a glimpse of its sightless eyes the reason for that is clear.
“Toothie say who?”
“Negative. Just that they knew we were coming, and they know where we’re headed.”
“We gotta reroute.”
He nods, tilting his helmet back far enough to show the stripes in his fur. One claw worries at an ear and then he’s wiping a palm across his face. When he speaks, he uses his paws to draw lines in the air, illustrating his words.
“Get with the driver. Let’s swing about ten, maybe fifteen, degrees west of our expected pattern. Make a wide loop. Tell him to plan on passing the mine and coming back to it southbound. I want to be far enough from the mine that if they’ve already got there they won’t even hear us passing by. First chance they get to see us should be when we drop in to frag them.”
“We could drop a couple Folk to recon it as we pass,” I suggest. “Diem for sure, maybe Lissa and Duggan?”
His expression is hard when he looks up. “Might just do that. Get some idea of what’s there, and be able to put a spike in a toothie neck if we need it.”
I suck at a tooth and hit the canteen again before passing it back. He looks up at me, dark eyes glittering.
“How are you holding up?”
I chuckle a little. “I’m okay, Sarge. Really wish you and Sergeant Fell would pick someone else to hold it together while you’re busy, but I’m okay.”
“Yeah? Well, tough. We picked you ‘cause you’re the right dog for the job.”
“I keep forgetting things, though.”
“And next time you won’t. Give me a sitrep on what’s going on.”
I spend the next couple minutes updating him as he watches me from under the rim of his helmet. I know he’s taking in my words but he’s also evaluating my performance. Behind him, Diem and Jinx abandon the corpse and confer briefly between themselves.
“Good job,” Sergeant Sharn says when I finish. “You’re taking care of your troops. Don’t beat yourself up over minutiae. Now I want you to tell me one thing you think we could be doing better right this minute.”
“Physically, I’ll go with cover,” I say without hesitation. “I see the need for interrogating the prisoner, but that little voice in my head is shouting that we should be doing it in the back of a moving vehicle. We’ve been exposed here for too long. We need to be moving or in an established position of cover. If they drop in a sniper on us, we’re done for.”
“What made you say ‘physically’?” Jinx asks, pivoting in place to fix me with her gaze.
“Cover is a physical thing.”
“Yeah, but why did you emphasize that? You could have just said ‘cover’ and be done, but you didn’t.”
Why did I? I wrack my brain for a second.
“Folk have other needs beyond physical,” I catch myself saying all of a sudden. The words come out in a rush, and I try not to attribute them to anything or anyone in particular.
“Troops sometimes need someone to keep their spirits up and keep them focused in the right direction. It’s easy to get caught up in petty shit and miss the mission.”
“So you’re saying we should examine their emotional needs as well?” she asks, practically spitting to clear the word ‘emotional’ from her muzzle. The face she makes is not pleasant.
“If you want to call it that, Sergeant. We’ve got a varied crew here, including a group of civs, and they’re already hyped ‘cause the toothies hit us like this. Emotionally, they’re gonna be on edge. They’re gonna want to lash out, and if you don’t address it, that lashing out will be internal. I’ve been there and seen that more than a few times, and it’s never pretty.”
“Maybe we should get them milk and cookies with their chow?”
I’ve never seen Jinx like this. She’s confrontational and harsh, and that’s not like her, unless you’ve pissed her off. Images scroll through my head as I try to figure out what I might have done wrong. To buy myself time, I shrug and point toward the dead Shrieker.
“I was thinking more along the lines of fresh meat.”
The serval’s head quirks to the side, letting me see the religious symbols she has painted along the rim of her helmet to ward off bad luck. She lets out a quiet giggling sound. Not what I expect to hear, but it beats a dressing-down.
“You think that will help?”
“Can’t hurt. Better than field rations.”
Sergeant Sharn looks up at her. “He’s getting a handle on it.”
She nods and looks back at me. Her eyes are still hard, as if she’s troubled by something, but she doesn’t look angry any more.
“So you’re learning,” she tells me. “Leading these Folk isn’t easy.”
“That’s a fact. I can’t even remember to tell them to drink more water.”
“But you made sure everyone was all right, made a blanket decision to increase the armament to patrol level so we wouldn’t be caught with our asses hanging out, and took the time to evaluate our tactical position. Folk can remember their own water.”
I look at her and all I can do is stare. I didn’t think of it that way. I guess that’s why they’re the ones in charge.
“Well, he’s yours,” she says. Sergeant Sharn lets out an exaggerated sigh.
“Yeah. I guess you’re right.”
I look back down at the badger and he has a paw extended. I see the pin before his words even register.
“We talked with the Captain before we left.”
Two angled black stripes of metal lay in his paw.