Washi eyed the rain with something between suspicion and hatred. They’d finally cleared the fungal heaths yesterday and emerged directly into a mess of caverns, gorges and bizarre rock formations. There were few plants in sight, no virus-ridden corpses, and no bodies of water worth the name. The dozens of gabbling streamlets soaking their boots didn’t count; rainwater was just a desert’s cheat day. The thirty now passed beneath a series of jagged archways, a few bearing impact craters from some distant battle. One even looked as if it’d been cut: a long thin opening ran diagonally up its base from near Washi’s right hip to about his brow’s height. That seemed out of place. Damage on Savar wasn’t supposed to be a surgical thing, and the gash in the rock was so even he swore he could see a blade’s profile at the end of it. The rain in this region was dark brown, almost opaque. It mixed with iron deposits in the rocks to create some decidedly fecal streams. “Hope that Tarsite bastard’s getting wet too,” he muttered. He mutilated an unfortunate bush with a dagger swipe. Served it right for being so straight and all dry in its tiny niche.
“Tarsian,” Peregrine corrected. “Only said the bloody adjective twenty times during the briefings.”
“Does that matter?” Private Sawyer drawled.
“Are you a man or a mushroom, Private?” Peregrine asked. He waited a moment. “Men speak. Mushrooms do not. But if you set that bar low enough, it stops being meaningful.”
“Boss, can the philosophy for once, will ya?” Washi said.
“Request denied,” Peregrine said. He shrugged his rifle higher on his shoulders, then pressed its lens cover back on when it popped loose. “Now, let’s discuss the original intention behind the philosophy of nihilism, and its ultimate misinterpretation and appropriation by teenagers of the 21st Century on Earth, as mentioned in-” Washi tuned him out. Duman, on the other hand, joined in with gusto. They trudged out from the archways and into a small gully. Even though it was about fifty feet deep, the gully’s sides were so broad it barely offered concealment. The handful of rocks and the few crevices amidst the mud and dirt offered no real protection if they were attacked. Washi hated it instantly.
“Great terrain for an ambush,” someone said.
“Affirmative. Everyone, triple your spacing,” Peregrine ordered. Everyone except Sawyer (who’d volunteered for the dubious honor of point man) slowed down until they’d gone from staggered at five foot to fifteen foot intervals.
“Doesn’t help Donvan much,” one of the Wealthies quipped.
“Nothing does,” a Raptor observed. No retorts were forthcoming. Washi was probably the only one who really saw it when it came. A silver-bellied fighter with green, blue and gold stripes blinked by and kept going. The whole unit slammed belly-first to the gully floor. Someone yelped and started cursing about a rock’s unwanted touch.
“Cover ears!” Peregrine snapped.
A hypersonic crack drowned out the complaints, rattled the gully and stunned everyone. A tiny gust of pebbles and mud showered Washi’s section of the unit. The raptors had headsets on already; the Commonwealth troops weren’t so lucky. Two rolled on the ground with bleeding ears. Their gasping seemed almost as loud as the sonic boom when it passed, like the incredibly loud quiet in a kitchen after someone drops a plate. From Peregrine’s furious paleness, it was probably his favorite teapot.
“They’re not supposed to be here,” he snarled. “The hell is this? Desham assured me- hell with it. Everyone pick a number between one and thirty!” After a chorus, Peregrine chose 17. “That’s our interval. Next cover we reach, we stick there until 17 minutes from now. Mark time: 17:24. Check-in’s at 17:41. Now, about that cover, let’s pick it up.” The troops pelted off with new speed. A plateau loomed up about a mile ahead on the right. “Sawyer, Washi, I want you two by the rocks there, and there,” Peregrine jabbed his finger at two reasonable boulders at either side of the gully lip. “Watch for that damn fighter. Keep pace with us between sweeps. And make sure we’re not running into an ambush, eh?” He yanked the bolt on his rifle back, plucked out the magazine and replaced it with a hazard-striped one from his bandoleer.
They’d about made it to the plateau when the fighter returned. “Incoming left!” Donvan yowled.
The strafing run arrived long before the craft itself, a column of pure-white bursts immediately enveloped in dust. Several hundred tiny stars blossomed all around the unit. Somehow no one took a direct hit, but Peregrine felt the skin of his left hand sear. A few sudden fires on clothing and one ruined gun barrel gave him his clue. The fighter whipped by high overhead, already pulling up. The beast made a sharp turn around the plateau ahead and disappeared behind it. They wouldn’t know which way he was coming from until he hit them again.
“Clever bastard, but bad aim,” Peregrine muttered. “Deliberately bad, I suspect.”
“What’s he hitting us with?” Duman asked. She tried to dig herself a foxhole by crawling back and forth in the mud; it didn’t work.
“Did you just assume that pilot’s gender?” another Raptor quipped.
“That’s about how good you shoot if you aim with your dick, yeah,” she countered.
“Stow it,” Peregrine said. “Fusion bursts. Same system as a standard rail-gun, but the charge goes live a few seconds before impact. All plasma by the time it hits. He’s firing on low power.”
“How you figure?” Duman asked.
“High power we’d have been vaporized,” Peregrine said. “Only two reasons he wouldn’t use it. Either he’s concerned about blinding himself when flying in uneven terrain, or he’s trying to rattle us instead of kill us.”
“Why would he not want to kill us?” Washi cut in.
“Because he knows who we are,” Peregrine said flatly. He let everyone consider the implications for themselves.
“Fucking Tarse,” Duman spat moments later. The fighter jock didn’t return for another pass. It was official now.
Tarse knew about the mission. Peregrine quietly removed the hazard-stripe magazine and replaced it on his chest.
“I can confirm that Tarsian fighters should not be in that airspace,” Desham said. “Their operational plans show a relief of the Kadetsk Pocket and nothing else. You’re sure it was a Tarsian craft?”
“Is the Commonwealth running fusion burst guns?” Peregrine said. Desham was silent. “Thought not.”
“Satellite scans show he peeled off towards the Wavelands. He reengaged his cloak about ten miles out, but his course would’ve taken him right past the Redoubt,” Desham said.
“Think you’d have heard the bastard.”
“Even if he went subsonic, we’d have got his exhaust on thermals,” Desham agreed. “But no contact. That doesn’t mean he didn’t come here. Tarse knows where we are. If, like you say, they’re fucking with us-”
“They are,” Peregrine insisted.
“Then he probably adjusted his course slightly. Can’t imagine why. Our only resource out here is ourselves.”
“Either way, you need to tell the Board that Tarse has violated the agreement,” Peregrine said. “Don’t try to sell me some shite that you need me here for proof or this might just be a test. They fired on a Raptor unit mid-op. Let ’em know someone’s head is coming off.”
“Don’t say that name,” Peregrine interrupted. “If the next words out of your mouth aren’t ‘yes, old chap,’-”
“I can’t just declare war on Tarse, Captain,” Desham said. “That’s not a decision the Raptors can make by ourselves.”
“I’m not suggesting you do,” Peregrine said, pretending he hadn’t suggested just that. “But they’re testing us, Sir. They haven’t tried to renegotiate terms for fifty goddamn years, now they’re endangering the whole deal. Doesn’t seem even a little off to you?”
“It seems a lot off, Sheffield,” Desham agreed. “But we can’t act on it yet. We need time to figure this out.”
Peregrine sighed. “Right, right. We’ll keep moving north. We expect to make contact with the DeFed’s westernmost units in about three days. Plan is to raise general havoc, get ’em to devote as much as possible to hunting us down in the rear, then we slip through the front lines when they’re not looking.”
“Very well. Keep us updated,” Desham said. “Oh, Captain. Anything else like that, er, misbehaving corpse in Carrwey?”
“Neg. Washi’s been trying to convince me there was something to this cut in a rock arch we passed.”
“It was a really clean cut,” Peregrine said. “Absurdly so. Doesn’t mean anything, though. Rocks come out a bit odd sometimes.”
“Right. Good luck, Sheffield.” Peregrine sighed as the comms closed. He roused his troops from their positions throughout a deep crevice in the plateau.
“Hope you enjoyed the rest, people,” he said. “Three days and we’re back to it. If you’ve got any prayers to say or jerking off to do, now’s the time. Once we make contact we’re in it good ’til we get into the Pocket. Let’s hope it hasn’t collapsed before then.”