The men were shaken. They were no strangers to combat. But they had lost none of their own in a long time and they had known each other for years.
And even if this wasn’t the first death of a comrade they had experienced, it certainly was the most senseless.
Rowen retrieved the remaining meat tag from Ferrell’s boot and put it in his pocket so he could turn it into his command to verify his death in combat.
“There’s no time for a memorial. We can do it later if we retrieve his body. Get moving.” Sir Reg commanded in the squad channel.
They started moving out. Everyone tried not to look at the remains of their medic. Their friend. Rowen tried to wrap his head around the situation. As conscripts, they were used to the poor treatment from blues and even the regular military people, and they were barely a step above conscripts.
They were serfs. They were born of serfs, and the vast majority die as serfs. It was their lot in life.
Rowen took a few calming breaths then toggled a private channel with his platoon. “Sir. I’d like a word if I may.” He said, taking care to keep the anger out of his voice.
Redfield sighed heavily into the mic. “Fine. If you must.”
He took another deep breath. “Sir, I humbly request that you stop interfering with my command—”
“Interfering.” He snapped. “Listen closely, corporal. I am well within my noble right to command you and the squad as I see fit.”
“It’s just rather unusual, Sir. Master Sergeant Wolfe usually—”
“I am not your platoon sergeant. I am your platoon leader, corporal. He exhaled loudly again. “You know, corporal. Sergeant Wolfe has been badgering me to forward your promotion paperwork, but since you are inclined to question authority, I think those orders will continue to go unsigned.”
Rowen felt heat creeping up his neck and into his cheeks. He was raised to respect his betters no matter what. His composure was slipping. “Sir…”
“This conversation is over, corporal.”
Rowen stifled a growl when the comm clicked off. He was fairly certain they still listened even when the dim green light turned off.
The night grew colder. The sooty snow fell leaving a grey carpet over the frozen mud and slush. A junction in the trench blinked red on Rowen’s HUD. They approached with caution. A black armored boot lay in the middle of the trench. The recent snowfall diffused the bright red puddle next to it to a dull pink.
The constant thump from mortars had almost completely tuned out when a shriek and ear-splitting boom erupted fifty meters behind them. The squad broke into a run as dirt and plasti-crete chunks rained down.
They burst through the tee junction, guns up. And skidded to a halt. It was pure carnage. They ran eight Death Dealers through on spikes. The guys were facing head down, impaled from ass to mouth. Thick piles of entrails and thickening pools of blood spattered the ground.
“Doors,” Owens announced. The pair of blast rated doors were pockmarked from explosives and projectiles. Someone had written Do not OpeN across the doors in human blood.
Dorn stepped up and shook his head. “The N is backward.” He looked to Owens who brought his weapon up to bear and he reached for the handle to pull the doors open.
“Wait!” Owens commanded.
The conscripts complied. Dorn looked puzzled.
“Something’s wrong. I don’t think—”
The comm crackled. “That’s right, corporal. You don’t think. You execute. Dorn… enter that bunker and report.”
Rowen growled. “Sir!”
“We already discussed this, corporal. You are one more comment away from being relieved for cause.”
Dorn put his hand over his mic boom. “It’s fine. I’ve got this. Don’t get in trouble.”
Owens took a step back to cover the doors with the muzzle of his heavy slugger. Harris and Horn took up positions against the backside of the trench, their rifle trained on the door.
The rifleman, Dorn pulled the handles and the double doors swung open. A dull metallic cylinder dropped to the ground in the middle of the doorway. It flashed, then exploded with a fizzing noise into a mass of translucent gel.
“Sticky!” Harris yelled. Everyone jumped back.
Owens and Dorn’s upper bodies were engulfed in the acidic goo. Their screams cut off as their flesh melted, leaving only skeletal remains suspended in the fizzing green gel.
The smell of burnt flesh and acid made everyone gag. Rowen motioned the others to move out. He held his breath and stopped only long enough the rip the meat tags off his comrade’s boots.
They stopped ten meters down the trench and gulped for air. “Anyone take a full breath of that?” A chorus of no’s followed.
Rowen wrapped his hand around his mic boom. The remaining squaddies did likewise. “We will not deviate off-mission again. If that ponce gives any more orders, just act like you have a bad connection.” He made eye contact with each man. “Agreed?”
“Agreed.” They said, then moved out at a double time.
The trench grew treacherous. The mortars hit the mark here. They had to jump over craters filled with muddy water and blood.
“Two hundred meters from the objective,” Rowen announced. “Right turn at the next junction then twenty-five meters. That’s it.”
The incoming suppressing fire stopped. They skidded to a halt at the junction. Horn looked up and smiled. “Right. We have that going for us at least.”
Cort shook his head. “No. not good. It probably means—”
The War Dog jumped into trench right in front of Cort and between them and their objective. It stood over two meters tall at the shoulders. Its shiny black and brown fur was dirty and matted with mud and ice crystals. It roared and lunged forward.
Rowen dropped back, pulling the seeker from his cargo pocket. He activated it and hurled it towards the coordinates with a powerful side arm throw. It bounced once, then sped off on the pre-programmed mission.
Cort must have thought he didn’t have enough time to go to his heavy slugger. He pulled the massive auto-pistol from his chest holster and got off two rounds before the beast sank it’s teeth into his throat.
The War Dog shook its head violently and released Cort’s limp body. It seemed to absorb the rifle rounds being methodically pumped into it by the squad as they stepped back, trying to put some distance between them and the GMO killing machine.
It pounced on Horn. He screamed and emptied his magazine into the dog’s midsection. It stumbled. Rowen moved up for the close kill. It swiped a huge paw and his helmet went flying off, enormous claws left two bloody gashes. His hands went to his face, and he went to the ground hard.
Harris fired his rifle rhythmically into the animal until it went dry. He dropped it and positioned himself between the beast and Rowen. He pulled a long Jagdkommando Tri-dagger from a boot sheath. “C’mon, pup. Come and get some.”
Blood dripped from the War Dog’s pelt where rounds pierced the dermal armor. It bared its bloody fangs while slowly circling the last rifleman.
Harris brought his spiral bladed knife up and looked for a suitable place to stick. He moved with the gigantic dog, trying to decide where the beast’s carotid artery was located. He decided. “Righty-O, pup. Time to die.”
They both lunged nearly simultaneously. The spiral blade sunk deep into the War Dog’s neck, causing massive trauma. Black red blood gushed out. The War Dog sunk its fangs into Harris’ neck and shoulder. He grunted but did not scream. He twisted his blade one last time.
Rowen sat up, groaning. His senses reeled. His blurry vision subsided. Harris and the beast came into view. He jumped up, charging hard, he put his shoulder into the dying animal. Pulling it off Harris, but the War Dog jerked its muzzle towards Rowen’s head with its dying breath. They both collapsed to the frozen mud.
Harris dumped his helmet to the ground. He used one hand to stop the blood that was squirting from his neck. He searched a cargo pocket for a pressure dressing or a packet of Hemo-Stop.
It trapped Rowen, only his head and one arm was free. He looked at Harris. “You gotta stop that bleeding.” He struggled to pull free from the giant mass of dead weight. He gasped for air. His vision dimmed as the crushing weight slowly took his life.
Harris found a plastic package. He tore it open with his teeth and poured the white granules on his neck and shoulder. Most of it missed the target, but some of them hit his bloody wound and started expanding into a pink foam. His blood stopped squirting out in time with his rapid heartbeat. His face was ghostly white. He took a deep breath and looked at his squad leader. He pointed above Rowen. “Take that… It might help.”
Rowen craned his neck and just barely made out the hilt of Harris’ dagger with his peripheral vision. He reached up blindly, feeling for it. He found it. With a twist and a pull, it came free. A torrent of blood poured from the animal, covering Rowen’s head and arm. He gagged.
Harris sat with his back to the wall, taking shallow breaths. His eyes widened and red plasma bolts ripped through his chest. A Spider Mech was perched on the edge of the other side of the trench. It poured gunfire into everything. Bodies, equipment, even the War Dog were shot to ribbons.
Rowen pulled his arm and head in as close to the beast’s corpse as he could. He hoped the Mech wouldn’t see him and could not tell his vital signs from the giant bag of hot meat and gristle laying on top of him.
He felt a burning pain in his side. A plasma bolt finally worked its way through the large mass of the War Dog. He struggled to stay silent and not move.
The Spider Mech stopped firing. It ran an active scan beam over the area. A few seconds stretched into an exceptionally long moment. Time seemed to creep to a halt. He held his breath. It felt like hot needles in his lungs.
The Mech turned and stomped off. Rowen gasped and filled his lungs with putrid air. The mech shredded the War Dog and weighed less now. He slowly extricated himself from the tattered carcass. Harris’ dagger was useful for cutting loose chunks of meat and for scrapping the hard mud under himself. He was finally free of the dead animal.
He pulled out his own packet of Hemo-Stop and poured it on his various wounds. It stung and hissed. “I’m just gonna close my eyes for a minute.”