Finding Space – Chapter Three

There had been chattering voices over the intercom after the last transmission — suddenly higher headquarters was very much online, very much insistent that Ian provide SITREP after SITREP. Ian scowled in annoyance at the voices in his ear, wishing he could disappear into radio silence once more. He briefly considered ordering the platoon back into the draw where they’d been when they couldn’t get in contact with higher; but his conscience wouldn’t let him. That, and the body of the alien sprawled out in front of him.

The thing – being – lay halfway on top of the earth, half buried in what looked like some form of primitive fighting position. Although, to Ian’s eye, it wasn’t all that primitive since it had managed to keep the being safe from a surprisingly high number of hits from HE rounds. 

“Looks like it was the shrapnel rounds that did it in, sir,” said Corporal Stennerly, from beside him. Sergeant Estes, also with the small group that congregated around the corpses, nodded in agreement. Ian assessed that they were right. The high explosive mortar rounds left gaping holes in the shattered surface of the planet, man-made craters to match those left by all the space debris that had rained down on this planet. It wasn’t until the mortars had fired a few shrapnel rounds that they’d been able to actually get any effects on this particular target. He glanced around — there was the one he’d hit, with something coagulating around the wounds from his rifle. Doc Sellers, the platoon medic, was leaning over him. Ian resisted the urge to say, “What’s up, doc,” since not everyone was as historically minded in their cartoons as he was, and instead asked, “What’s the story, doc?”

Sellers poked at the coagulated substance with his knife, and then dropped a small glob into a test kit that he kept on him for things like this.

“Uh, sir, this is some weird-ass shit,” he said, rocking back on his knees so that his exoskeleton creaked in an unmilitary manner. “This is, like, 75% blood. Like, human blood, sir, or, earth-related blood, I dunno the term for it.”

“So…what you’re saying is that…it’s got some human DNA in it?” asked Ian with some hesitancy. 

“I really don’t know, sir, we’ve never seen anything like this and, hell, I’m just out here to patch up the lot of you after you got pinged by some pissed-off colonists. I sure ain’t a scientist.” Sellers glared, his sweaty, slightly pudgy face expressing his seeming irritation at even being here rather than in a bar back on one of the cruisers. 

“It’s okay, Doc,” said Ian, reassuringly. “HQ will make sure this thing gets back to some lab somewhere and they’ll find out everything there is to know about it.” Wish we knew about them now, though, to know if there are still some out here, watching us, he thought. He unconsciously reached out and touched one of the broken and twisted trees before he even knew what he was doing.

“Holy hell, sir,” said Estes, staring. “That’s a goddam tree.” He breathed it, as if it were a magical incantation that would suddenly see them all transported to a golden tropical island, drinks in hand, war but a memory. It was indeed a tree — or had been, at one point. With his knife, Ian carved away one small portion of the bark to analyze what was underneath. It was a dull gray, but he thought he saw a small glimpse of green before the two suns baked the exposed point back into a hard brown crust. He turned away in disgust. Of course this planet would try to kill you — that just sort of made sense at this point.

Ian turned away from the other troopers and scanned his perimeter. His three squads formed a security perimeter and the NCOs were doing an excellent job of keeping them faced out, rather than in, where everyone was drawn with an inexorable curiosity. The mortar section had the tube set up and were doing their ammo counts — calling out occasionally for one or two more rounds carried by the other troopers. So far, the platoon was doing what it was supposed to do: establish security and begin priorities of work. What he really needed, though, was his platoon sergeant, Sergeant First Class Eddie Li, who was ostensibly still back with the company. He’d taken the sniper section and gone to get resupply three days ago. But they hadn’t heard from him at all since then. Which was, of course, worrisome. 

All the more worrisome was how low the platoon was getting on supply. They always carried two weeks’ rations, but were about four days from going black altogether. Ian would’ve been more concerned about this, but he knew that company headquarters would be here soon anyways to check out the developing situation. And the company trains — the autonomous resupply vehicles which could make the jump back and forth to battalion’s orbiting ships — would be with them. Funny how we still call them trains thought Ian. Haven’t had wagon trains in centuries. 

They finished checking out the corpses of the enemy — four in all. No friendly casualties minus some minor injuries that Doc had already fixed up. All were of similar height — about five foot four, but of powerful build. Ian was reminded of stocky bulldogs, all that raw power in their bodies. No visible clothing beyond some crude body armor designed — Ian supposed — to protect vital organs. No visual sexual organs, either, and the troopers had done a thorough check. Private Hernandez had looked assiduously but, in his words, “Couldn’t find nothin’ of the naughty bits.” Ian was somehow relieved that they were not so similar as to be humanoid; that might get too existential.

As it was, he was still not processing what he was looking at. Weapons there were, energy weapons, primarily. This was nothing new, they’d all seen them before, but these were…different. The craftsmanship was exquisite: there was no wasted space, nothing was out of place. Each individual part designed to maximize the rate of fire and accuracy of the weapon. Which would explain how they pinned us down so nicely, thought Ian. Each enemy fighter — are they enemies? — carried multiple personal weapons: blades, pistols, clubs, some lasso-like objects. Ian told Sergeant Toll to stop rifling through their gear, that HQ was going to want everything just as they found it. Toll stood up and backed away, grumbling about damn officers and damn rules and this whole damn planet. Ian could see his point, but hey, he was just here doing what he needed to do. 

The suns continued to bake down. It was useless to say, “We’ll wait here until dark,” because they hadn’t seen dark since they’d been here. Ian contorted his face until his mouth found the drinking tube on his suit and drew on it, pensively. Water was going to become a problem very soon, even with the advanced recycling systems that were built into all their suits. When they worked, everything was rosy. But when a round hit them, or you fell on a rock, or there was a basic system malfunction, well, you were basically drinking your own unfiltered urine. And no one liked that. So they’d cross-level as best they could, hoping it wouldn’t get to the “drinking your own unfiltered piss” stage of things. But if Ian’s assessment was correct, he had about ten troopers who were within twenty-four hours of that dismal moment. He sighed and his eyes voluntarily skewed to the southeast, where the rest of C Troop should be coming in from. Now that he thought of it, he hadn’t heard anything from them in a good minute. 

“Private Looper, anything from troop?” he asked.

“Nothing since last transmission, sir,” said Looper, squinting to read the transmission on his HUD, “which was fifteen minutes ago and wanted our ammo status.”

“Did we give it?” asked Ian, aware that sometimes his RTO didn’t quite get the “implied” in “implied task.”

“Yes, sir,” said Looper. “Nada since then.” Ian locked his exoskeleton into the standing position, allowing him to go limp inside it and take off some of the weight. He reached to his chest and dropped the first armor plate down, revealing a tablet, which he flipped up to read. There, he should have been able to see the entire squadron’s location, activity, and messages. Should have. What he saw now were his own friendly icons and a few scattered squad icons across the map. He gave the tablet an irritated tap to get it to update. Grumbling about connectivity, he unlocked his exoskeleton and stepped away from the trees. The entire map lit up, enemy icons suddenly flaring into sight as messages flashed across the screen.

“Oh, f*ck,” he said aloud, flatly. The entire squadron was in contact, everyone requesting fire support. Estes was at his side in a moment and his eyes grew wide inside his helmet.

“Everyone’s getting hit…” he said. Both men looked up to where the fleet forces were thought to be, and now they could see the flashes through the haze of the heat: air to ground fire was massing in a way that they had not seen since Leto 9 — or before. The entire skyline pulsed with emissions. The rest of the platoon followed their gaze and now the situation was clear to everyone: they hadn’t just stumbled on some lost patrol. They’d awakened an entire planet.

“Guess we’re not getting that resupply today, sir,” sighed Estes, who smiled ruefully and then stumped back to his position in the center. Corporal Stennerly glanced at him, looked up, and said, in a quiet tone, “Batten down the hatches, sir, there’s gonna be a squall.” Ian looked at her for a second, hardly taking in her meaning, but she was gone and away, sprinting in long, even strides back to her squad. She was barely halfway there when Ian lost sight of here, the earth between them rising like a wave of crushed and beaten rocks, and out of it, dark and shifting shapes — writhing and contorting like dogs coming out from under water, driving for the daylight, but all carrying the same types of weapons that Ian had piled at his feet. The attack had begun in earnest. 

Welcome to an experimental story I’ve been working on of what war in the future might look like. It will be serialized until it is complete.

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