Against Peregrine’s protests, in violation of Raptor protocol, and despite Washi’s best efforts to bribe the Pads’ Stratoskipper jocks, the pair were given exactly enough time for a hot meal and lukewarm shower. They had markedly less time than needed to parse the three bulging folders of intel Desham threw down as they ate, and no time at all to actually rest. “Of course they’re only fixing the fucking water heater for the exact shower we pick,” Washi said. Once excavated from their winter bundles and properly armed, they returned to the Pads to find Ludmilla leaning against her Stratoskipper.
“Captain,” she acknowledged Peregrine. She ignored Washi entirely.
“Leftenant,” Peregrine said.
“Leftwhat?” Ludmilla half-echoed.
“Ah, sorry, verbal tic of mine,” Peregrine chuckled.
“You look pale, boss,” Washi said. “You coming down with something?”
“Neg, I’m fine,” Peregrine said. “Come on.” They boarded the Stratoskipper by its armored rear ramp and took their places in the last two seats as it whined shut and locked in place with a pressurized hiss. Peregrine secured his antimaterial rifle carefully against the wall behind him with three of the clamps staggered through the interior.
“Wouldn’t it be easier to hold it?” The freckle-tenor Private asked. Ah, Peregrine thought. Desham sent our assigned team to grab our stuff when we landed. Impress on them how important we are. How nice of him.
“If we hit turbulence, any loose gear–in your hands is loose, Private–is liable to go flying ’round the interior. This is a good rifle, and I’m almost certain she’d not go off without a finger on her trigger. Almost certain isn’t worth lives or shooting circuitry that keeps us airborne, hm?”
“And the airframe, sir? That’d still have a hole in it.” Peregrine gestured to a row of compartments overhead.
“We keep sealant pods in those along with the gear. We take a hit, whoever’s closest grabs one. Little red-yellow striped thing marked “M6 AED” in lime green letters.” Peregrine raised an eyebrow. “Ugly as hell, but if you have trouble seeing it you’re a dead man the minute we touch down.”
“Not that that’s likely to be a problem,” another older Raptor chimed in. “This bitch is built to take turbulence.” She smacked the ‘Skipper’s interior with her fist, catching her Sergeant’s raven insignia on the back of the seat in the process. “It’s railflak we need to worry about.”
“What’s that?” Freckle-tenor asked. Lot of questions, this one, Peregrine thought. He and the other old hands were stopped from further traumatizing the private by Ludmilla.
“Pre-flight checks are complete. I see three undone buckles, you idiots. Strap up or we’ll leave you behind along with the atmosphere.” The accused hurriedly secured themselves and drew their faces into masks of adamant poise. “That’s better. I’m looking at my instruments, so I’m trusting you children not to start fondling each other in the next thirty seconds. Someone’s dick could get torn off and I won’t be responsible.”
“Why’s it have to be a dick?” The older Sergeant demanded.
“Because, Sergeant, you’re a hermaphrodite if ever I saw one!” Ludmilla snapped. “Now be quiet!” The silence lasted a third of a second before all twenty people in the hull burst into laughter. It was no coincidence that Ludmilla kicked on the Stratoskipper’s thrusters and angled it on the vertical with no warning at all. Washi lost a candy bar he’d been munching on and glared at its crumbled ruin against the ‘Skipper’s ramp.
“That was an authentic Milky Way,” he grumbled. “Cost me 15 cred.” Peregrine snorted, and then the ‘Skipper’s main engines blasted awake. Those Raptors who hadn’t already donned their oxygen masks hurriedly did so. Peregrine stared out a window narrow as a bunker slit while Savar dropped away behind them.
“Uh, sir, I think we’re already out of the Stratosphere,” Freckle-Tenor said. “Or, uh we’re about to be.”
“Stratoskippers actually operate in the exosphere, son,” Peregrine said.
“Then why are they called Stratoskippers?” The Private asked.
“Because it sounds cooler,” Washi said. A low nod rolled through the ranks at this flawless reasoning.
For a few blessed minutes the ‘Skipper coasted on the lip of the vacuum. The wiser members of its human cargo gazed from its slit-ports at the stars around them, filing away the glimpse of clean stars and cool darkness while they could. Peregrine looked for the galaxy of Andromeda and found it where he often did, hovering above the Skipper’s right-hand gunpods. Wonder if they’ve sorted things better over there than we have here, he thought. Then Ludmilla dipped the ‘Skipper’s nose for reentry and he lost sight of the far clusters behind a curtain of fire.
“ETA forty seconds,” he barked. “Once we touch down, grab your gear and get off this barge. We’ll be in the open, and I don’t want to be in the open a fucking twitch longer than we have to be. Understood?”
“Yessir!” came the chorus.
“You’ll note we don’t have a plan going in,” Peregrine said. “Simple reason, we don’t have a goddamn clue what we’re looking at. Just maintain intervals, follow my lead until such time as I’m shot, and don’t pick fights where I don’t clear you to.” Before he could say anything else, the ‘Skipper’s braking thrusters cracked on. As fast as they’d left it, Savar reached up to consume them. In the final split second before they touched down, stands of enormous fungi filled their view. Then a dull crunch sounded around them. Peregrine unhooked his rifle and took his place at the head of the ramp as it slammed to the ground and the whole team crowded out. Ludmilla’s ‘Skipper lanced skyward without so much as a “Good luck.”
“I’ll be on station in orbit for the next five hours if you need extraction,” she squawked in Peregrine’s ear. “After that, only by Desham’s orders. Don’t make us look bad, Captain.” He led the way into a tangle of vines and barbed, oily stalks. A faint orange haze of pollen, microbes and the various gases of decay made a diseased lantern of the sun’s vibrant red.
“Don’t touch anything with your bare hands,” he reminded them. “These mushroom jungles are swarming with parasites, bacteria, viruses-” He held up a fist and approached a wet bundle of cloth and putrefying flesh on the ground. A pair of limbs and half a hysterical face (sans lower jaw and parts of the upper) were all the remains of another human. The sagging, bloated skin, burbling fluids and horrid pastel-pink fluids pooling in the “corpse” provoked a marvelous chain of gagging mercs and one retching fit. “Don’t touch this poor bastard either.”
“Some kind of predator?” Someone asked.
“Possibly. Wait…” Another tooth pried itself loose with a barely-audible squelch, followed by a trickle of pus and black-speckled blood. The hole left in the gum collapsed on itself seconds later. “Virus, actually,” Peregrine said. “If it’s the one I think, it’s not airborne and you’re all immunized against small amounts.” He pointed at the corpse. “That’s not bloody small amounts. C’mon.” Oddly, no one seemed tempted to take the dead host’s rifle.
After several minutes of tiptoeing past orange mushrooms and evading suspiciously touchy vines, the Raptors heard a distant pop, followed quickly by a crack and pair of booms. Peregrine stopped at the edge of a red-brown stream and lifted his rifle.
“Firefight?” Washi asked. In answer, several staccato bursts kicked off a writhing storm of gunshots, explosions and shouts terrified, pained or suddenly cut off.
“Yup,” the other Sergeant said. Peregrine led his squads under a dripping arch of magenta-blue growth (dodging drops) and came to the edge of a break in the alien forest. In front of them about a hundred troops in the uniform of the Defederated Association (I.E., no uniform at all) hurled grenades, bullets and occasional bursts of plasma or energy pulses uphill at a trio of dugouts. The return fire could charitably be described as an occasional ballistic hiccup. Even so, the Defeds pressed themselves deeper into the damp moss and rocks littering the slope.
“Commonwealth delaying action,” Peregrine said. “Right, Washi, take Squad One left to that copse.” He swatted down the question as to whether a bunch of mushrooms with more of the oily stalks were really a copse. “Should keep you hidden from the Commonwealth troops so they don’t get the wrong idea. Wait for my go, then hose their flank. Sergeant Duman,” he said, “Take Squad Two right. Don’t get directly behind them, we want them to have room to run.”
“I’d rather the Wealthies don’t think we’re trying to reinforce ’em either,” Duman said.
“Just so. When I start firing, wait for them to focus on me, then open fire. Washi, soon as that happens, your people open up.” Peregrine selected a stunted bulge of three feuding fungi species and set up his rifle on its right side. He settled in place as his squads crept away. A couple of awkward flops positioned him so only his right eye and shoulder were visible around the fungi, themselves shrouded by the scope and barrel of the rifle. He tried not to think of all the parasites, creepers and other nasties saturating the stinking mud underneath him. He flicked the safety off and adjusted for range.
126 meters. Might as well shove the barrel down their throats. There was no wind or other atmospheric interference to speak of. Just straight shooting.
“We’re locked in, boss,” Washi whispered over comms. Sergeant Duman echoed him a few seconds later. Peregrine scanned the Defeds. He passed over a shivering, parchment skinned gunman in a blazer, along with two women obviously strung out on drugs. He laid the crosshairs on a clear-eyed brunette man with a steady grip on his rifle and weathered tan skin. Peregrine paced his breathing, squeezed the trigger, and felt the jolt of the shock through his arm. Before it ceased, clear-eyes’ head exploded. He worked the rifle’s bolt without looking away from the scope. His next target was a dark-skinned woman, probably African descent, with a garish platinum crew-cut. He took her right arm off at the shoulder, then plugged the spine of a man running to help her. Somewhere behind the scope his gut was twisting and hopping with adrenaline, but he felt it the same way he’d have felt someone else’s arm brush him in the mess hall. Another shot took down one of the addicts, and he heard the distant shout:
“Over there! Shred that fucker!” The idiot giving the orders kept shouting, which gave Peregrine ample time to find his ridiculous tiger-stripe cowboy hat, drop his aim slightly and explode the man’s throat. Peregrine made a note to check the gleaming revolver dropped by this latest kill. A good sidearm was hard to find. Bullets threw up dirt around him, “the footstep of war” as his father used to say. Peregrine kept shooting.
Washi leaned his battle rifle over a toadstool and waited. As a group of twenty DeFeds broke cover and made a charge towards Peregrine, Sergeant Duman’s group opened fire. The whole stupid jumble dropped in puffs of red vapor and torn fabric. Washi fired his first burst, joined instantly by the remaining Raptor’s guns. Each bark of his rifle threw up a satisfying spurt of fungus near the enemy, but the uneven terrain and fidgety targets made hitting anything human a pain in the ass.
“Earbuster!” Washi called. One Raptor dropped behind cover and slotted a rocket into the mouth of her rifle, then popped up and aimed it at the DeFeds. The “thunk-fwoosh” of the launch and ignition were drowned out instantly by a deep bass thud. A number of the Defeds shook themselves and made the mistake of sitting up still trying to clear their ears, which netted a few more kills for the Raptors.
“Smoke out,” Peregrine ordered. “Thermals up. Time to cheat, lads and ladies.” Washi pulled a canister from his belt while the other Raptors pressed a key on their scopes.
“Cover me, assholes!” he ordered, and broke cover. He picked out a mossy rock as his first stopping point. A few bullets pinged off its surface as he slid in behind it. He waited for another fusillade from his troops, then ran again. The dip in the ground he’d been making for turned out to be much shallower than he’d thought and he found himself going serpentine past it. A dead-out sprint got him close enough and he tossed the smoke. A black fog on the other side of the DeFeds told him Duman’s team already had theirs out. Washi keyed his right eye’s vision to thermal and half his world went black-white. The smoke disappeared from view and he was left with the glowing white outlines of other humans. His gun’s front sight showed up as a black needle to be laid on center mass or a head. The bullets found their own way after that. He dropped another eight DeFeds before the panicked shrieks began.
“Let’s get the fuck out of here!”
“Fuck you, I’m getting out of here!”
“Shit, shit, shit!”
“Let the rest go,” Peregrine said coolly. “There’s ten million more where they came from and we don’t have ten million bullets. Let them build a reputation for us, and we won’t need ten.” The smoke cleared soon enough and the Raptors were treated to the sight of about forty hostiles leaving the field. Someone in the dugouts uphill took a potshot, clipping one in the ankle. Peregrine and the others aimed at the DeFeds in case this needling put some fight back in them, but they kept running.
“Right, who’s got a white sock?”
“Got a white bra,” Duman quipped.
“Negative,” Peregrine said. “Bra’s too hard to stick to a rifle barrel.” After some fumbling, one Raptor produced a non-regulation (and thus inevitable) white lace sock. Peregrine stretched it over the end of his rifle. “Right, here’s our white flag.”
“Boss, that looks like a metaphor for betrayal. I mean, c’mon,” Washi said. “That is tortured symbolism.”
“Symbolism, sure, not seeing the torture,” Peregrine said, holding the rifle overhead in both hands with the barrel pointed to one side.
“That sock doesn’t look too happy,” Washi said. Adrenaline made that funny enough that the other Raptors fell over themselves with laughter before Duman snapped, “Form a perimeter, asswipes!”
The Raptors proceeded uphill about fifty meters before Peregrine stopped dead and clamped a hand on Washi’s shoulder. “Tripwire,” he said. He estimated they were about 75 meters from the dugouts, which was not yet comfortable shouting range. Fortunately, they were able to spot the mines by places where the fungus was torn up or uneven or just entirely too flat. Fifty anxious seconds got them to within twenty meters, a much better shouting range. Peregrine could see a slowly-cooling machine gun barrel trained on him from the center dugout, and was reminded that this was also a much better being-shot-range.
“Hello the Commonwealth troops,” he called. “Anyone alive in there?” After a pause and what sounded like a hissed argument, he got his reply.
“Yeah, what’s it to you, pal? You sure look like a DeFed to me!” Peregrine and Washi exchanged eye-corner glances.
“Well, we’re not. Captain Peregrine, Raptors Regiment East, 3rd Recon Company,” Peregrine announced. “Who do I have the honor of speaking with?”
“Corporal Donvan Sawyer, 203rd Battalion, 2nd Brigade, 9th Armored Division,” the dugout voice called. “My orders are to hold this ground against all comers, sir. With respect, you’ll have to turn back.” Peregrine eyed the machine gun again.
“No I won’t,” he said confidently, and walked forward. A shot rang out and nipped through the heel of his right boot.
“That’s your only warning, merc,” the Corporal said.
“Oh?” Peregrine asked. “So, we’re here to bail you out and you’re going to waste a bullet from your last mag on me?” Silence. “I thought not.” He walked forward up to the center dugout. Sawyer turned out to be a shrunken pale man drenched in sweat, grime and the grim irritation of a man expecting to die over High Command’s foul-ups. The bayonet and rifle Sawyer presented were impeccably clean, at odds with the ruined “Upchuck camo” the Wealthies used for the fungal heaths.
“You’re not relieving shit,” Sawyer said.
“I said bail out. Whether you’re relieved or not is beside the point.” Peregrine raised an eyebrow. “You think you’re at the tip of a salient?” The Corporal nodded.
“Well, as of yesterday that salient has collapsed. You are now cut off behind enemy lines. My troops have plenty of ammo, and I’m sure the DeFeds down the hill will contribute enough for all of us,” Peregrine said. “You can stay here and hold this ground until one of the units outflanking you can be assed to turn around and give you the business, or you can come with us.”
The Corporal shrugged. “Yeah, fine.” The rifle returned to its place of rest around Donvan’s shoulder. “You guys some kind of rescue team?”
“The way this campaign’s going, probably more a glorified search party,” Washi said.
Those words stayed with Peregrine long after they finished stripping the DeFed corpses, “buried” nine fallen Commonwealth soldiers unceremoniously in an acid pool, and the now-thirty troops trudged off on a mission that might already have failed. The night sky ahead glowed and popped; the distant fires made every shadow-bump a pillbox and cast ghastly vermilion light. It was a plague’s parody of the rotten day just finished. War ahead, war behind. “If you’re struggling, you’re not dead,” he muttered when no one could hear.