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The red-orange dust of Hellspire blew into the barracks along with Sergeant "Slam" Ferris. Private Danny May cursed the sergeant and the dust under his breath.
Despite the permaplast "bubble" covering Firebase 12 and the double airlock providing entrance and exit, the dirt leaked in, seeped in, hell, infiltrated itself into every corner of every building within the underground facility.
It was harder to ignore than Ferris, but not nearly as instantly irritating as the noncom. Danny kept his attention on the three aces in his hand while trying to figure out the right bet--one small enough to sucker the slummer, Koslewski, and the other two players in and yet large enough to make it worth his while.
"May!" Ferris shouted in the absurdly high voice that inhabited the squat body of the platoon leader. The sergeant was a typical Confederation noncommissioned officer--a wide, low brute with no education and the manners of a starving hog.
Danny ignored the command and disregarded Ferris when the sergeant strode over between the bunks to hover over the poker game.
Although it's damned hard to ignore a man who smells of sweat, weapons grease and boiled cabbage, Danny swore silently.
"Private Rich Boy," Slam said.
Danny gave him a brief, dismissive glance and turned back to his winning cards, hoping the sergeant would get the hint and bugger off.
The next thing he knew, he was knocked off the bunk and onto the deck. For a moment, Danny thought Imperium troopers had attacked the base, but when he looked upward, he saw Ferris glaring down at him so hard that he was afraid the non-com's piggish eyes were going to pop out, hit the floor, and roll out the door looking for other troopers to harass.
"What the hell did you do that for, Slam?" Danny demanded, wiping blood from the spot where his teeth had cut into the lip. Entire galaxies of stars whirling around his eyes made it difficult to focus on Ferris.
"Because, you little puke, I've figured out that there are only two ways to get your attention. One is to let the enemy kill you. Despite my doubts, the Confederation tells me that this is not a good use of Recon resources which are here to protect the mineral and oxygen resources of Hellspire. So, the other way is to whack you up along side your brainless head which is what I just did. Now, get up and come to attention. Private."
Danny got up and looked for support from the other troopers. They'd all scattered out into the aisle between the rows of double bunks. Cursing their cowardice, Danny pointed out the obvious to the imbecile with the sergeant's stripes, "I didn't do anything."
"How right you are, May. I told you to clean that armor of yours."
Slam poked a scarred, hairy finger into Danny's nose. "No, you didn't. You paid a no-bucks trooper to clean it for you."
"So, what's the difference? It's clean, isn't it?"
"Rich Boy, it's your responsibility. You never know when that armor will save your worthless hide, so it's your job to keep it clean--absolutely spotless. Joints full of sand make you slow. The Imp kills you when you're slow. You think you're going to have somebody out there to service your armor when Imperium samurai start trying to carve you up with their pretty swords?"
Danny made an exasperated sound. "The service manual clearly states that standard issue power armor only needs to be serviced once a month, Sergeant. Which has been done. It doesn't need any extra cleaning."
"Wrong, May. Your Daddy's corporation says it needs to be serviced only once a month. Your Daddy's wrong--dead wrong. On Hellspire, power armor don't work worth dogsquat if it ain't maintained on a daily basis. That's something Daddy May forgot to tell you when he enlisted you in the ranks to make a man out of your worthless hide, ain't it?"
"You leave my father out of this," Danny said, rubbing at the sore spot on his nose.
Slam poked it again, harder this time. "I told you to brace, mister, not to scratch your dainty beak. You want to go down on the deck again?"
Danny came to attention since he didn't have much choice, but promised himself that it was only a temporary victory for the sergeant. A word to his father would make sure that the moronic non-com would get duty in some backwater fringe world. Danny smiled at the thought. Then he was on the deck again, trying to vomit from the strike to his stomach but he didn't have enough breath left to do anything but double up from the pain.
"See what that stupid smirk gets you, Rich Boy? I already know what you're thinking before you think it. You're planning to call up Daddy so I get busted. Well, tough titty, trooper. Your daddy doesn't want to talk to you. He put you here to make a man out of you, remember? He don't want to hear any of your pissing and whining and, just to make sure, I removed all your call privileges. You ain't talking to anybody but me. Now, get on your feet and stop acting like some Corpexec excuse for a real soldier
Danny struggled to his feet and did his best to brace.
Ferris did what Danny hated most--stuck his face close until their noses touched. The smell of boiled cabbage was delivered along with the sergeant's message. "Now, you got two choices, Rich Boy. One is a week in the brig at hard labor. The other is your first patrol on your own."
"Patrol?" Danny responded involuntarily. "Of course, I'll take the patrol--wait a minute. Patrol where?"
The sergeant grinned. "Shortlife Ridge on the edge of Kushma Valley."
"Are you crazy?" Danny asked. "That's the center of Imp activity! I'm not going there alone. I'll take the brig."
"Oh, you wouldn't go alone, Rich Boy. Koslewski would go with you."
Danny glanced over at Koz Koslewski. Koz was a poor, slight, dirty-haired trooper from the slums of some fringe world who didn't inspire confidence in anyone. His father had pushed him into the Army and told him to send back the money.
"No offense, Koz," Danny said, "but I'll still take the brig."
"Koslewski has already 'volunteered' to go on the patrol," Slam said. "What do you think of Koz going out there by himself, Trooper May?"
Sweat broke out on Danny's forehead. A week in the brig would be bad, but he'd still be alive. However, a basic tenet of trooper service had been drummed into him and the others since day one of Boot--you never, ever let a buddy down even if that buddy was some raggedy-ass slummer like Koz.
Danny stared at Ferris's appraising eyes, then quick-checked the attitude of the other troopers and knew immediately that he didn't have any choice. If he refused to accompany Koslewski and Koz got injured, Private Danny May would be a pariah for the rest of his service term. If the worst happened and Koz got himself killed, then Danny knew he would be cornered behind the barracks some dark night and that would be the end, period. Recon didn't tolerate anybody who tanked on their buddies. It would be an intolerable stain upon the reputation of the Army's elite force.
"I like that idea just fine," Danny finally managed.
Ferris raised an eyebrow. "You sure about that, candy ass?"
"All right, then. Suit up, you two, then report to me for briefing."
Two hours later outside of the firebase, Danny dug the toe of his boot hard into the pink dirt of Hellspire and watched the dust drift away on the wind and up into a sky as bloody as the sergeant's soul. He almost wished it were his own toe, except that exposed to the Hellspirian cold, it would have snapped off and blown away with the dust, and Slam would have been happy about that. Danny kicked again just to make himself feel better and to take his mind off a head aching from the sergeant's blow and the fact that the scrubbers in his suit were already struggling--and failing if the smell was any indication--to cope with the dusty sweat flowing from his body.
Making sure his link was open only to Koz because Sergeant Ferris had got himself assigned to commlink duty just to harass him, Danny spoke into the small receiver on the inside of his helmet. "This patrol didn't have a thing to do with sand in my armor. Not a dogsquat thing. He knows I'm Corp and doesn't like it, the envious old fool. I can't help it if my parents are rich."
"Don' matter right now, does it?" Koz replied. "We're out here, and he's in there. Let's just get this patrol done and get back."
"You wimp," Danny responded as they trudged across the sand to get clear of the base's outer defenses. Ringed by mines, constantly manned gun emplacements, and an attached tank company, all under the safety of an interlocked air defense system, Firebase 12 was the most lethal piece of real estate in this sector of Hellspire, and Danny was grateful for its deadliness. Situated at the narrow end of Kushma Valley, it guarded against the Imps using the canyon as a cover for their advances on other sectors closer to the main Confederation base.
"Why you call me a wimp?" Koz asked.
"Because you let that garbage-faced sergeant push around."
"Me? Danny-man, you're the one who got us stuck on this patrol."
"You didn't have to tell Slam that you cleaned my armor, did you?" "I din't tell him shit."
"Then how'd he find out?"
Koz laughed. "You don' really know?
"You told him, that's what I know."
The slummer laughed again.
Irritated by the amused tone, Danny demanded, "Okay, how did he know, then, if you didn't tell him?"
"The armor was too clean, Corp. Slam knew right away that you hadn't done it."
"Well, shit, you didn't have to do such a good job, did you? And stop calling me 'Corp'."
"'Get it spotless', that's what you told me," Koz said and snickered.
"Shut up. You're short, you're ugly, and you're going to be a Recon lifer."
"That's the longes' way I ever heard of saying, 'You're right'," the slummer responded. "Besides, he gigged me because I din't get my own armor clean enough after working all that time on yours. So I guess the laugh is on both of us."
Danny couldn't think of an answer to that and decided it would be a good time to check-in. Activating the company net, he spoke into the receiver again, this time to talking to the comcenter back at the fire base.
"Command this is Two-Niner."
"Two-Niner this is Command 12," the base responded in Slam Ferris's voice.
"Command, we are proceeding to Shortlife Ridge."
"Affirmative, Two-Niner. Continue to follow the vector as ordered. Immediately report any Snakes, but do not engage."
"Roger, Command, will comply. Two-Niner out."
"Command 12 out."
Danny squelched the link and went back to the suit-to-suit channel. "We've got 10 kilometers of pretty clear ground ahead of us before we get below the top of the ridge. I say we might as well enjoy the scenery on our way there."
"Not a chance," Koz answered. "Let's make speed."
"What for? We can see for a helluva ways. No Imp is going to sneak up on us in this crap. All there is, is dunes and more dunes of damnable sand and dirt and none of that is more than a meter or two high--the wind sees to that."
"Because I remember one of briefings, Corp, that's why."
"What was it about?"
An exasperated sigh came over the commlink. "It was about this sector. Don' you never listen to nothing important?"
Danny checked the ground ahead. It was nothing but red dirt, brown sand, orange dirt--sand and dirt in every dull, boring and incessantly tedious color in the universe. The only relief was some black outcroppings of basaltic rock frosted with carbon dioxide.
"And?" he prompted when Koz didn't offer an answer.
"The briefing said the most boring piece of real estate is often the most dangerous. You lose your focus. The Imp knows this and sets ambushes. So, let's just keep our eyes open, our sensors on passive, and make some speed, all right?"
Danny grunted his agreement, and they slipped their Power Armor into a steady, ground-eating speed, keeping their eyes on both the heads-up displays and on the terrain itself. Although the wind made no difference to the suits, it caught the dust kicked up by their passage and spread it high into the air in roils of chocolate and tan clouds. Danny cursed the planet for showing their position so clearly. He topped that complaint with silent profanities directed at Koz for making him nervous about Imp marines possibly laying a trap for them. Up until this patrol, Slam Ferris had restricted the newer troopers like himself and Koz to recon close to Firebase 12. The danger had been there, but under the combined gunnery of the base, it was slight. This was the real thing. He checked his MAR-10 Assault Rifle to make sure the safety was off. Its 7-mm rounds would be like firing marshmallows at an Imp armored unit, but it still gave him a feeling of security.
Then, a disconcerting thought wormed its way into his brain. Unless it malfunctions. Shit, I cleaned it this morning, but did I clean it well enough?
"Damn!" Danny swore, then jumped as he felt a rap on the suit of his shoulder. He looked over to see Koz holding a finger up to his helmet for silence.
"Oh, bird you, man," Danny said, still annoyed that his buddy had scared him so easily.
This time, Koz knocked him hard in the helmet and jabbed his finger ahead and to the right. Danny brought his weapon to the ready and searched the featureless horizon. All he could see was the waves of sand that scoured the planet in service of the ceaseless winds. Frustrated, he shrugged "What?" at Koz.
Koz's answer was to drop to one knee and hold up a finger to indicate one enemy located. Then he pointed at Danny and made a "circle to the left" motion. Repeating the gesture at himself, Koz indicated "circle to the right".
Danny mouthed, "Where?" Koz responded by flashing all of his fingers five times, saying that there were 15 meters of distance between them and their opponent.
Danny obeyed, but swore under his breath as he dropped to the ground and crawled to the left. He wasn't at all sure that Koz wasn't imagining things, but it was better to be safe than sorry. Staying low, he kept an eye on Koz to make sure they stayed even and could deliver maximum fire power on the target once it was in sight.
After several minutes of crawling, Danny still didn't see what had spooked his partner. His passive sensors showed the area to be clear, but his heart jumped when he saw Koz's sudden, upward jab of a thumb. It was the signal to charge.
Charge what? Danny swore again. He got to his feet and raced forward, firing bursts at the spot where Koz fired. The silent rounds of the magnetic accelerator rifles chewed up the sand, throwing gouts of it into the air. No return fire came. In a few seconds, the slummer stood atop a small basaltic ridge, peering down behind it, then gave Danny an all-clear sweep of his arm.
Joining his partner atop the ridge, Danny looked down to see a suit of Imp armor half-buried in the sand. Sand blew off armored fingers reaching upward and vibrating in the strong Hellspirian wind, and Danny realized that Koz must have spotted the motion of the hand
"You've got sharp eyesight," Danny said in admiration. "Is the suit empty?"
"I'm not getting any life sign readouts. Are you?" Koz responded.
Danny bent to pull the smashed visor away from the suit. It was a woman inside, not a man. Short, black hair topped a contorted face, its eyes staring up into the dirty sky of Hellspire. The blood of the woman's face had already crystallized in the harsh temperature.
"Definitely not empty," Danny said. "Either she got up-and-offed by one of us, or she lost suit integrity. No sign of damage from weapons, so I'd say it was the suit. Hellspire's atmosphere is definitely not good for the complexion."
Koz snorted. "Funny as hell."
"Not much else to say, is there?"
"I suppose," Koz answered as he stared at Danny. A puzzled expression was visible to Danny through the slummer's visor.
"What are you looking at?" Danny demanded.
"Nothing. This your first deader?"
"It don' seem to be bothering you any. I seen plenty dead in the slums, but I thought Rich Boys would, well…"
"Puke, run screaming the other way, whatever it is that people with money do."
Danny did his best to shrug inside his suit. "It's not like it's one of us. She was a Snake, remember?"
Koz shook his helmeted head back and forth. "That's cold-blooded, Corp. Ain't no way for anyone to die. You the one who got lifer-makings, not me, you know that?"
"Don't you ever say that, slummer! Don't you ever say that again."
Sergeant Ferris's sarcastic voice broke in suddenly, drowning out whatever response Koz had tried to make. "Girls, we're glad you're stopping to fix your makeup, but we'd appreciate a Situation Report when you have time."
"Sorry," Danny said. "Sit Rep is this: we have one dead female Snake. No other bad guys in sight."
"She been there long?" Slam Ferris asked.
"How the hell do you tell?"
"Never mind. You got a rank on the Imp?" Ferris asked.
Koz stooped to check the suit, then said, "Negative. My guess is a scout--what do you call them in Imp?"
"A Sek--Sekkoutai," Ferris answered. "Weapons?"
Danny and Koz dug around in the sand. "Nope," Danny answered. "Not that we can find. Of course, the damned sand covers everything up fast."
"Not likely it's there, anyway," Ferris said, then paused a second before saying, "The Imps are pretty fast and thorough about weapons and armor recovery. My guess is that there's Imp activity close, and they haven't had time to clean things up, so you'd better tighten your alertness up a notch or two."
"Understood," Danny said. "You want us to do something with her first?"
"No. Leave it for an Intel team. Beep the Snake with a position indicator so they can come out and get her."
As he removed an indicator from his suit and bent to place it on the woman's armor, Danny asked, "What are our orders? Return?"
A low and nasty chuckle answered his question. "You wish, Two-Niner. Continue the patrol. Keep your eyes out for squad-size recon units. When you get over Shortlife Ridge, check the canyon closely"
"Affirmative," Danny answered, then switched to suit-to-suit communication. "If that ain't a pile of shit, I don't know what is. I thought they'd send a dust-off and get us back to base."
"No such luck for us," Koz said. "And it gets worse."
"What do you mean?" Danny asked as they set off again through the blowing sand.
"The Kush', Trooper May. "When we get to Shortlife, it's just beyond the ridge."
"They say it's bigger than 20 of that Grand Canyon back on Earth."
Danny put a shrug into his voice. "That's good as far as I'm concerned. We're not going to find anything. You could put an entire Imp army in there and get them lost."
Koz laughed. "What you really mean is that you hope we don't find anything in there. You won't admit it, Corp, but that dead Imp spooked you."
"I'm not spooked by anything," Danny answered with heat. "My rule is: You go looking for trouble, it finds you. Who wants to die on this pile of rubble called a planet?"
"Like I said, Danny, you got brain shakes."
"Bird you, Koz."
"You goin' to stand there all day and jaw at me? Or are we going to continue this patrol?"
"All right, all right," Danny said
By silent agreement, they moved at a cautious pace, swinging their rifles back and forth ready to spray any Imps who popped their heads above the dunes.
An hour later, they stopped at top of Shortlife Ridge and swore in amazement at what they saw spreading out below their feet.
"Damn!" Danny said.
Koz echoed this sentiment with, "Double damn!"
"I saw it from the air when we flew in, Koz, but the view from the transport really didn't do it any justice."
"Not even close," Koz agreed. "It's big, isn't it?"
The Kushma Valley stretched off toward the dusty blue-pink horizon. To Danny, it looked like a beautiful wound in the skin of Hellspire, a gash that had never healed and never knitted itself back together. Embarrassed by a thought that seemed suspiciously poetic, he kept the description to himself, and instead tried to get his mind around the size of the canyon.
It was impossible, he soon decided. The place was way too big for his eyesight to comprehend. He settled for studying the icy browns, black, and reds that defined striations in the cliff walls which ran in sheer drops down into a dark canyon floor dotted with dirty, swirling clouds of dust and sand.
"Damned wind," Danny said. "It doesn't even stop blowing at the bottom of the Kush. We'll never find anybody in that crap. Sensors can't make head or tail of it."
"Let's get down to the edge of the canyon," Koz suggested. "We make good targets up here."
In a few minutes, they stood close to the lip of the canyon. Danny fought vertigo as he peered down into the immense hole.
A dull light flashed through the dust below, then disappeared. Fear cut through Danny's body.
"Down," he ordered Koz. "We've got contact."
The two men dropped to the ground.
"Where?" Koz asked.
Danny pointed. "Inside that dust cloud against that outthrust close to the bottom and just to our right."
"My eyesight may not be as good as yours, Koz, but I know a non-natural source of light when I see it."
"All right, all right. Contact Command."
Danny activated the commlink. "Command, Two-Niner. We're 10 klicks from you on the south end of the Kush'. Bad guy sighting."
"Two-Niner," Ferris acknowledged. "You got a count?"
"Negative. They're at the bottom of the valley using dust as cover. The wind is really kicking up down there."
"You sure you got Snakes?"
"No, I'm making a report because I sighted naked dancing girls down there and wanted to let you know that they think you're a real hunk of a trooper, Ferris."
"Can the mouth-crap," Ferris warned. "Just stay calm and report what you see."
"I am calm!" Danny said, cursing his voice for breaking and contradicting what he was saying.
"Then report," Ferris insisted.
Danny studied the spot where the light had appeared, but saw nothing this time.
"Koz?" he asked. "Do you see anything?"
"Wait one…there! Command, I confirm enemy sighting."
"What's the count?" Ferris asked.
"Hard to tell through the crap in the air," Koz answered. "I see at least three--I'd guess it's squad level. That's an Imp Go, isn't it?"
"Affirmative. Well, let's make sure they know we're aware of their presence. Artillery is on its way once you sight your weapons."
"Sighting," Danny confirmed. Simultaneously, he and Koz aimed their rifles down into the canyon and thumb-activated the targeting lasers that provided guidance for specially equipped shells. The response was impressively quick.
First, Slam Ferris's voice said, "Splash" over the commlink, then there was the evil blossoming of HE far below their position, kicking dust, dirt and pieces of earth high up into the canyon. A faint, convulsive tremor ran through the ground under their armor. Danny and Koz waited until the wind cleared away from the impact site, then saw several armored bodies spread across the canyon floor.
"I guess we stopped that Go," Danny shouted, pleased with his humor.
Ferris responded in a dry tone, "Two-Niner?"
"Yeah, yeah?" Danny answered.
"Has it occurred to you that the Snakes are going to start wondering how those rounds were so accurate?"
"Hell, it's only a squad!"
"No, you only think it's a squad, Two-Niner. Besides, you and your buddy don't exactly make up a squad either, now, do you, and you managed to pull heavy stuff out of the heavens."
"Oh, damn, "Danny answered in a quiet voice as the truth of what Ferris said struck him. "What should we do, Command?"
"Move your asses, that's what you should do! If you're in sight of the enemy, get out of sight and find another position to observe arty's effect on the Imps. Just don't stay in one spot too long. Report in at each stop."
"Affirmative, Command," Danny replied and looked over at Koz. For a moment, Danny laughed because his partner's eyes were so big with fright and excitement there didn't seem to be any room left in the helmet for his face.
"What's so birdin' funny?" Koz demanded.
"Your eyes, man. They're bigger than two moons."
"Yeah, well, you don't look so calm yourself, either. Let's move."
"Which way?" Danny asked.
"Shit, I don't know. Any way!"
"Left, then," Danny said and used his rifle to lever himself up into a crouch. He spun to his left and scrambled low along the lip of the canyon to eliminate line-of-sight targeting by the Imps. The ground shook again beneath his Power Armor.
"Command is calling in the heavy shit," he said to Koz. "I'm sure glad of that."
"Save the glad, Danny. That's not our heavies."
Danny glanced away from the canyon and saw that Koz was right. The Imp artillerymen walked shells in a fence of blasts along the bottom of Shortlife Ridge, preventing the two men from escaping toward the base. At the same time, the gunners squeezed the distance by walking the projectiles inward toward the Kush.
"Let's find some cover, "Danny shouted. "These guys are too damned good."
"It's like they know exactly where we are," Koz agreed as they ran toward a jumble of rocks and boulders. "I mean--oh, damn!"
"What? What?" Danny demanded.
"Did you thumb off?"
"Your sighting activator--did you thumb it off?"
Danny checked his rifle as they scrambled over the rocks. His heart sank. The indicator glowed green. He thumbed frantically at it. Finally, the indicator flashed into the brown stand-by mode.
"Of all the damned, dumb things I could have done," Danny cursed as he rolled behind a boulder and was joined by Koz.
"I did it too," Koz said between gasps of air. "Our stupid is going to get us killed, Danny. Their active sensors detected our targeting lasers, and they've got us zeroed."
The Imp blasts grew closer, seemingly confirming Koslewski's thought. Dust and pebbles rattled against their Power Armor.
"I hate this, "Danny swore. "I hate it. I hate it because there's nobody to shoot at. All we can do is sit here and take it."
At the same time as he said this, an irrational part of his brain said in a taunting voice, The real reason you hate it, Danny-boy, is that you just messed your pants and ain't that several kinds of embarrassing
To shut off that voice, he said to Koz, "Let's go into the canyon. Maybe there's a ledge or something beyond that pile of rocks."
"Anything," Koz responded.
Danny stood, pivoted and ran toward the Kush. He hadn't gone ten steps when a giant picked him up, then slammed him back down against a boulder. Blood spattered the inside of his visor, making it difficult to see.
Not that there is anything to see, Danny thought as he blinked away the blood and stared out into the agitated dust that swirled in a constant slow-motion pattern that he found amusing. It was almost as funny as his voice. It had retreated a thousand clicks away as if it didn't want to have anything to do with him.
Well, bird you! Danny cursed, then giggled because he was telling his own voice to shut up. He stared awhile at the dust while some idiot kept yelling "Two-Niner! Two-Niner. Report!" He wished the moron would stop shouting in his ear because he knew he was supposed to be doing something and he couldn't remember what it was because of all the shouting.
The confusion ended when a three-toed dragon's foot crushed the sand next to his helmet.
Then a beaked head and spiny back showed in the swirling dust high in the air. An armored head and soulless eyes swiveled down as a scorpion's tail flicked back and forth in a constant motion, ready to strike on command.
Danny shuddered, and his bowels emptied again.
A four-meter high Imp M.A.R.S. unit stared down at him. A Draco model, it was a deadly robotic package of metal and wiring designed to destroy anything its artificial intelligence identified as a threat.
And, at the moment, I am that threat! Danny thought in panic. It can crush me like a bug. It can cut me in half. It can knock me a klick-
Stop it! It can kill you any damned way it wants. Just stay still.
Stupid advice! It can read life signs! Danny cussed at himself, but he couldn't think of anything else to do but remain motionless.
The M.A.R.S. unit studied him for a few eternal seconds.
Obviously trying to decide which way to kill me, Danny thought.
The machine contradicted that thought by turning its head away and stepping forward and away.
That was too easy! Danny knew. Instinct drove him to roll away from the boulder. A moment later, the robot's tail flicked into sight and smashed the rock into shards. The shrapnel struck and whined off his Power Armor.
Adrenaline gushed through Danny's body. I'm alive! I'm goddamned alive!
Then, fear shouldered its way back into his brain, and his voice started speaking without his command.
"Help!" he shouted into the stinking interior of his helmet. Danny hated the pleading, childish sound of his voice, but couldn't stop. "Oh, damn, help me! Help me!"
When his pleas got no response, he switched to cursing everything he could think of. That got no answer, either, and it pissed Danny off enough to make him stop and think rationally.
"Command?" he asked and got silence.
"Command, you squatty bastards! Where are you? Don't leave me out here!"
Through the blood crusted on his face, Danny saw the dust beginning to clear. He fought down panic when he realized that the Imps--if there were more of them than the M.A.R.S. unit--would have visual on him.
"Command?" he asked in a strained, but calmer tone. "Answer, damn you!"
The silence made Danny check his commlink. He swore again.
He'd forgotten to open a channel. He'd been yelling to himself.
Activating the link, he said, "Command, this is Two-Niner."
"Two-Niner, this is Command," came Ferris's immediate response. "I told you to keep giving us reports, Trooper. Now, what is--"
"Shut up!" Danny said. "Enemy robotic activity. The place is crawling with Snakes. A M.A.R.S unit just tried to kill me."
"A few Imp shells and you're seeing things. You got first patrol heebie-jeebs, Trooper"
"Damn your safe hide, Ferris. It damned near stepped on my head, then tried to take it off with its tail!"
Ferris's tone got serious. "You sure about that?"
"What do I have to do to convince you--come back and shove that damned robot up your rear?"
"All right, all right, May. Just calm down. What else do you see?"
"Wait one," Danny answered. "The shelling kicked up the dust. It's clearing, but I'm trying to get to the edge of the canyon for some cover and to check out Snake strength."
"Hell, I don't know, Ferris. The shelling separated us," Danny said as he crawled over the rocks.
"I'm not getting any suit signs," Ferris said. "But that doesn't mean anything with all the activity you got going out there. You to the edge yet?"
"Hold your goddamn horses, will you?" Danny shouted.
"Sorry," Ferris said.
Danny kept low and worked his way forward. He knew he was near the lip of the Kush when sudden updrafts kicked the dirt skyward. He pulled himself under the cover of another boulder, then peeked over the edge.
Below, in and out of the wind-kicked dust, Imperium soldiers marched upward in strength.
"Command," Danny said, "I've got a large Snake force out here."
"Damnit, be specific, Trooper! Remember your training and keep cool."
"You want to get your ass out here and count them yourself?"
"Steady, May. Just give me the best count you've got."
"I'd say at least a battalion," Danny answered. "The dust keeps covering them up so it's hard to tell. Maybe two or three hundred power suits supported by a dozen tanks."
"Any more M.A.R.S. units?"
"Not that I can see, Command." Danny studied the configuration of the armored troops and added, "Looks like regular infantry to me."
After a pause to speak to someone in the background, Ferris said, "Good job, Two-Niner. Sounds like you stumbled onto a major assault. That Imp you found earlier was probably an advance scout. Now, May, I want you to get ready to sight your weapon in the artillery again."
"Weapon?" Danny asked.
"Your rifle, you idiot! Use it."
Danny looked down at his empty armored hands and realized for the first time that he was defenseless.
"Command, I don't have a weapon."
"When the shell landed and then the Draco showed up, I didn't have time to do a bloody weapons check."
"You're in deep trouble now, May," came the automatic response from Ferris. For a Recon trooper, there was no greater sin than losing your rifle.
Danny laughed in spite of himself. "Just how much deeper do you think it could get, Command?"
A second later, Ferris laughed too.
"Never mind, May. You got problems enough already. We're scrambling now and will have a nice welcome for the Snakes."
"What should I do?" Danny asked.
"If I were you, I'd do my best to hide my butt until the cavalry arrives," Ferris advised. "Out."
It sounded like a good plan to Danny. He pulled himself around until the length of his armor was hidden behind the rock and at a 90 degree angle from the Imp troops reaching the top of the canyon and fanning out over the ground. As Sergeant Ferris had taught them, he shifted his suit into standby mode to reduce his signature to the enemy. He watched as the Imp regular troops armed with power swords, lances, and rifles marched forward in their samurai-like Power Armor, preceded by the Imp recon Seks who ranged back and forth like hounds on a hunt.
Good discipline, Danny thought with reluctant admiration. Maintain a good distance between each other to reduce casualties from artillery. Helmets swiveling constantly on alert for any enemy--
"Like me," Danny swore as two the Imps broke in his direction. Panic subsided for a moment as he realized from their search pattern that they had no idea he was there. They were just checking out the terrain. Then the panic returned. Sooner or later, they're were going to spot him if they continued in the same direction.
What the hell are you going to do now? his brain asked.
Then it asked the question again
It asked five times before Danny knew for sure that he was either going to be dead in a couple of seconds or headed for an Imp interrogation unit--which was a good as dead only at a later date. He tensed as the two Imp soldiers came closer. Then, the decision was made. He didn't stand a chance unarmed against the two coming toward him. The Kush might be an ally, however--if he could survive the impact from leaping into the canyon.
Danny was ready to get up and run when one Imp soldier jerked at the impact of a round, spun around and dropped to the ground. The other swiveled about, raised his weapon and fired.
"Koslewski! You dumb slummer bastard!" Danny swore.
Koz darted among the rocks and boulders of Shortlife Ridge, firing as he went.
His discipline is as good as the Imps, Danny thought with the detached combat part of his mind, then frowned at his fellow trooper's motion. There was something wrong with Koslewski's armor. The speed simply wasn't there. The slummer looked like he was running through mud.
The artillery barrage must have damaged it, Danny guessed. Then, a thought entered his mind that he didn't even want to consider. Or, he didn't get it clean enough like he said after cleaning my armor. Oh, man, I hope that's not true .
The Imp troops immediately fanned out into a semi-circle and flanked Koslewski.
What should I do? Danny thought, then slumped as he realized there was nothing he could do. He had no weapon to provide covering fire. Calling in artillery might kill Koslewski right along with the enemy
You bastard, Koslewski! Danny shouted in his mind as if he could will the thought into the slummer's mind. Don't you die for me. Don't you dare die for me! I don't want to owe you a thing.
His wish seemed to have the opposite effect. As the Imp troopers rushed toward Koslewski's position, Koz rose up in a suit stiff as an arthritic old man, and fired his weapon on full automatic.
Except that there were no flashes from the muzzle of the rifle.
Koz was out of ammunition.
Imp rounds drove the slummer back against a rock, then down into the ground. Danny saw an officer signal to cease firing. From a sheath on his belt, the officer drew out a PowerBlade and activated it. The friction from the grid powering up turned the Katana blade a bright bluish color. The officer then strode forward until he reached Kozlewski. He bent over, obviously checking Koz's condition, then turned around and drew a finger across his throat to indicate that the Recon trooper was dead. Danny sucked his breath in as the officer tilted Koz's helmet back to expose the vulnerable neck area, then raised his blade and sliced downward. The trooper's head jumped from the impact and rolled a few meters down the slope. The officer followed it down and kicked it high like a football. Danny couldn't hear anything, but he knew the bastards were laughing. A second later, the officer waved his troops forward, and they disappeared over a hill into the dust.
Danny had no idea of how long he'd lain there. He stayed motionless even when base artillery unleashed a vicious barrage that drove the Imps back past his position and down into the canyon. He still hadn't moved when Sergeant Ferris nudged his suit with an armored foot.
"May? You still in one piece in there?"
"Yeah," Danny finally managed to answer.
"Dead, Sergeant. He ran out of ammunition, and an Imp officer chopped his head off."
"Yeah, well, they do that kind of thing, May. How'd you survive this mess?"
"Koslewski," Danny explained. "I lost my weapon. He drew their fire."
A long silence came over the commlink, then the sergeant said, "Saved your life, huh."
"You know that for sure, May?"
"Yeah…I mean, I think so. The Imps were coming toward me, and he stood up and just started blazing away."
"I see. Let me ask you something, May."
"Were there a lot of Imps here?"
"Damn, yeah, sergeant."
"So, Koslewski just might have been in deep trouble with nowhere to go?"
"Yes…No…I don't know, Sergeant."
"That's exactly right, May. You don't know. Actually, I don't give a rip whether Koslewski tried to save your Rich Boy ass or not. You want to know what's important to me?"
"He went out like a Recon trooper--on the attack. That's what's important to me."
Danny sagged under the impact of Ferris's words, and he confessed, "I couldn't do a thing, Sergeant. I lost my weapon. I couldn't help Koz."
"Did you want to help him?" Ferris asked.
"Damned straight. They were killing my buddy."
The sergeant's response surprised Danny. " That's the important thing. Now, let me tell you what else is important."
"What's that?" Danny asked in confusion.
"You're alive. That's all that counts in combat. War is an indifferent whore. It kills Koslewski. It doesn't kill you. There isn't a thing you can do about it except go on fighting until you're dead or someone tells you that the fighting's over. There's only one thing you can control--you take care of your fellow troopers."
Danny thought this over for a moment, then said, "Sergeant, when we get back to base, I'd like to talk to my father."
Danny swore he could feel the disgust and contempt radiate over the commlink. "You want out, Rich Boy?"
"I'd like to talk to him about the Power Armor he produces."
"And what are you going to tell him about that armor?"
Danny worked his way to his feet. "I'm going to tell him that his armor got one good man killed today, and that his only son could be next. He'll understand that."
"I'll bet, Rich Boy, but you haven't answered my question. You still want out of this man's army?"
Danny stuck his helmet close to the sergeant's so the non-com could see what was in his eyes. "No, Sergeant Ferris. I do not want out of this man's army."
The sergeant grunted approval, and Danny realized that simple sound meant more to him than all the words of advice his father had ever given him.
"Fall in with the rest, Private May," Sergeant Ferris ordered. "When we get back to base, have a medic check you out."
Danny obeyed. He joined the large force that had come out from Base and set his Power Armor in a steady march toward home. The column kicked Hellspire's red soil off into the air, obscuring Danny's vision and making him stumble over an invisible rock.
"Damn this dirt," Danny swore as he marched. "Damn this dust. Damn this entire planet."
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