“Any KIA?” Desham asked.
“Neg, sir,” Peregrine said. He hunched inside the split column of a vast mushroom, trying to ignore the sweet stink of the exposed yellow fibers. It reminded him of a terrible chowder, all sugary powder-taste and nothing savory. “The Wealthies we picked up are workable. Futile last stands agree with them, that’s always a good sign.” He risked a glance through a shell-hole in the stalk. His twenty-nine troops lay low outside the column, at least three guns for each point of the compass.
“Understood. Keep us posted. Your next move?”
“Check interference,” Peregrine said. There was a beat, then two while the Redoubt’s comms staff checked for the strange spikes or dips in their quantum signal that’d indicate interception.
“We’re clear,” Desham said.
“Right. We’re headed for this shite little village called Carrwey. Sits in a dry river bed about ten clicks north,” Peregrine said. “Last we heard, it was holding.”
“It’s fallen as of three hours ago,” Desham said. “Recon indicates it should be clear, though. Not much fighting out thataway, company-size units at best.”
“We’ve ruined one DeFed company, we can do another,” Peregrine said, not at all convinced of that. “I’m starting to think Ludmilla should’ve funneled us straight to the VIP.”
“Neg,” Desham said. “Tarsian flyovers would’ve pegged you on the way in.”
“Right, well, we’re on the move,” Peregrine said. “Will update you once we reach Carrwey, ETA 4 hours,”
“Roger,” Desham said, and cut the comms.
“Alright, you buggers,” Peregrine whispered, “Fall in. Duman, your squad takes point. Washi, you bring up the rear. Wealthies take the flanks.”
“Why are we always the fucking flank?” Donvan griped.
“Hey, you’re a moving target this time, kid,” Peregrine said. He collected his rifle and drew his revolver, lifted from yesterday’s cowboy fashion criminal. “Don’t complain.”
This latest stage of their trek happened under too-total quiet. Every new “copse” of oily stalks and fungal bulges hid a few Wealthy or Defederated corpses. They passed burned out tanks and personnel carriers in the colors of both sides. An hour in, they found their first war atrocity.
“I’m gonna GUT THOSE MOTHERFUCKERS!” Donvan screamed. “YOU HEAR ME, YOU BAS-” A headlock seemed like the best solution, at which point Peregrine’s ample bicep made further screaming impossible. Donvan’s muffled screams sank quickly into sobbing as the Raptor dragged him groundwards.
“Sick pricks,” Peregrine said. Corpses and pieces of uniforms in upchuck camo hung from stakes and pieces of debris throughout a ruined armored column. The insignia of a red fist strangling a crow was just visible next to the gaping hole in the turret of a former command tank. “The Throttlin’ oh Third,” Peregrine read.
“203rd Battalion. We lost contact with this flank a week ago. This was my cousin’s unit,” Donvan said. “I need to-”
“You need to do just the opposite,” Peregrine said. “Trust me. If your cousin’s still alive, you’ll feel like a complete ass for worrying.”
“And if she’s not?”
Peregrine looked around. Any corpse that wasn’t lying in pieces was openly defiled. Wherever there were holes, genitals were stuffed in them. A tit here, a cock there. Raw muscle and fat and nervs open where things had been cut away. Organs everywhere but where they should be, and always headless torsos and groins hacked and soaked in things he didn’t want to think about or heads stuck to other heads in a thousand ways too awful to look on. He’d seen it before, and any shock he saved himself from that way he made up for by hating himself for being slightly used to this.
“Son, if she’s here, the last thing she’d want is you to find her. Keep walking and you might be able to die a sane man one day.”
“You’re seriously gonna tell me keep walking and I’ll be happy?” Donvan said.
“I didn’t say a fucking thing about happy,” Peregrine said. “Keep walking, Corporal. For God’s Sake, keep walking.” Yet again, he wished desperately for a clean death when it came. Not retirement, just a clean, honorable death with a grave.
The suppurating massacre behind them had two benefits. Everyone present was determined to give the DeFeds scalding hell, and everyone understood that if they were going to die it was better to die damn fast on their own terms. Peregrine took point from then on, using his sniper’s eyes and something like an old soldier’s instinct (though he wasn’t superstitious in that way) to steer them around any other graveyards. After two and a half hours, they loped into Carrwey.
More accurately, they loped into what was left of Carrwey. Most of the houses were made from scraps of metal and wood held together by more scraps propped at off angles; swiss-cheese patterns said all that needed be said for their bullet resistance. Craters next to chaotic piles testified to their flimsiness. Some shacks were insulated with fungus, a feeble gesture against hot air which almost broke Peregrine’s spore-aware brain. The riverbed was solid rock, and so dry they couldn’t find a single fungus. Discarded uniforms and combat armor lay all around, some torn, some burning, but none bloodied and none wrapping flesh. Peregrine picked his way through the houses.
“Not a single corpse here. Anyone even see a bloodstain?” He asked over comms. A chorus of “negatives” echoed back. Peregrine noted a machine pistol lying on a crumpled greatcoat with a trio of entry holes in the left breast; five fingernails clustered around it and a perfectly intact mop of copper hair billowed from an officer’s cap.
“Everyone fucking freeze!” He barked. Thirty soldiers became statues. A succession of strangled cries ran through the group as each saw the slivers and strands of hair around them. “Seen this a few times before. Usually it’s only out in the Wavelands. We’d hear reports of firefights in our AO, go to check it out, just find a bunch of fingernails and haircuts without heads. No bones either.”
“This is some freaky kinda bacteria, isn’t it?” The freckle-tenor squeaked.
“We don’t know what does it,” Peregrine said. “Not bacteria or I’d just be a pile of fingernails myself. Whatever it is, it’s not contagious.”
“So why are we freezing?” Someone demanded.
“Because we don’t know what does it,” Peregrine said. “I always wait fifteen seconds. Worked the first time. Maybe that’s nothing to do with it, maybe it’s everything.” After a few anxious breaths, he gave the all-clear. “Anybody finds anything out of the ordinary, call it in on the spot. We clear this place of any supplies we can carry, then we leave. Unless someone feels like calling Carrwey home?” No takers. Peregrine prodded the greatcoat a couple of times and peered into its pockets. He found a diary, its pages strangely wet and the ink smeared but lacking any blood. It gave a full account of the Commonwealth’s arrival and preparations to defend Carrwey. The last entry mentioned a battalion-sized force of DeFeds had surrounded the town and were likely to storm at any time. It closed without offering any explanation for the disappeared corpses or their keratin mementos. Peregrine made up his mind to investigate the fingernails themselves this time when Donvan said, “Boss, we’ve got something.” Peregrine thought it odd the Wealthy didn’t call him Captain.
He found Donvan, Washi and a few others clustered around an untouched corpse. The small brown-skinned woman wore a blissful smile. A wide pool of blood lay beneath her, but the woman herself was absolutely untouched. When Peregrine carefully rolled her over, he found that the back of her uniform was dry.
“The hell?” Washi asked. Peregrine deliberately lifted the woman’s hand and rubbed it in the blood. Not only did the hand stay completely dry, the blood didn’t move in the slightest. He then dipped his own right hand in the blood. It was still warm, and it was all he could do to press his palm on the woman’s forehead. When he drew his hand away it was spotless where it had touched her, but there was no handprint on the dark brow. He bolted upright.
“This is new. This is new and I don’t like it,” Peregrine said. All his discipline and officer’s elan could only hold his expression; they couldn’t stop the blood rushing from his face. He prodded his right hand behind back to make sure he could still feel it, then snatched his left from it as if impossible physics were a contagion in themselves. The reflexive quip that on Savar everything was contagion until proven otherwise allowed him to chuckle, and the spell broke. “Well, HQ’s going to love this. Find anything on her?”
Washi jerked and all but hurled an a necklace at Peregrine, having clearly forgotten he had it.
“Afraid of ghosts, Washi?” Peregrine asked.
“Fuck you, Peregrine, you just did an impression of one. Don’t pull that grizzled Wavelander shit, I was there grizzling right along with you and we never saw this!” Peregrine conceded the point with silence. The necklace was made from small segments of sandstone marbled with reds, pinks and soft blues. It was beautiful, and Peregrine had seen it once before. He was saved from explaining his renewed pallor by a sudden argument between his subordinates.
“Savar doesn’t have rocks like that,” Donvan said.
“Maybe it’s from Tarse?” Washi suggested.
“You think Tarse is making amulets out of fucking rocks?”
“Well, I dunno, what’s a Tarsian amulet look like? Apparently you’re the expert, Wealthy boy-”
“First off, I hate that fucking nickname. I mean, goddamn you people and your ironic elitism. You’re better than us because you live in a total shithole? How’s that-”
“That will be quite enough,” Peregrine said evenly. He handed the amulet to Washi. “Keep this. That’s an order. Wear it ’round your neck.” Washi looked like he was about to throw up, but complied.
“Good find,” Peregrine said. “Now, let’s clear this scrapheap and move.”
It took the platoon the better part of an hour to gather all the weapons, ammo and armor, select the best pieces of kit and leg it from Carrwey. They atomized village and spoils of war alike with a fusion grenade. The hot flash behind them removed Carrwey from the map, but did nothing for the ghosts now following them. Donvan approached Peregrine during a rest stop an hour on. The sun was setting again, and it cast blood-light on the soldier’s face. Wordless, he held up a pair of dogtags. Peregrine would’ve known even if he hadn’t; some omens were too heavy-handed to miss.
“Washed ’em with water from my canteen,” he said. “These were Tina’s. I doubled back about ten minutes after we left.”
“That bad?” Peregrine said. Silence. “I told you not to go back, Corporal.”
“If I sign with you guys, will you let me kill DeFeds?” Donvan asked. “I don’t care if you pay me, I don’t care if you give me gear or any of the other perks. Get me where they are and I’ll-”
Peregrine held up a hand, and Donvan quieted. “You kill them only when I say, are we clear? I like a psychopath ready to hand. There are all sorts of problems you can solve with a man who just wants to kill and doesn’t care if he is killed. But you need to hold until I have one of those problems for you to throw yourself away on. Understood?” Donvan nodded. “Good.” Donvan shouldered his rifle and left.
“You were right, Captain,” he said without stopping. “I shouldn’t have gone back.”