“Hot Snap” is a short story almost completely rewritten from a story of the same name that I first wrote while at Grand Valley State University. Aside from a few of the later details and its core themes, I retooled it from the ground up to submit for publication. Unfortunately, it met only rejections in the brief window I had available to ship it around. After I seized up The Necromancer and the Revenant again, I forgot about it until quite recently. I can no longer spare the effort of trying to get a short story published alongside everything else, so I’m posting it here on Northborn Swordsman for all of you to enjoy.
Be warned that like all my war-related writings, this does contain unflinching violence, gore, and heavy psychological themes–but also some visuals I genuinely adore. It’s also the second of my published–no, seriously, stories posted on a blog are considered published!–stories set in the futuristic side of the Twin Spirals Universe, and the first available completely for free. I’ll be posting it in four parts, with the last a sort of “finale” length at 2500+ words, one each Tuesday at 11AM until the last. Without further ado, I hope you’ll enjoy it!
“Should we play it?” The question echoed from the cockpit.
“It’s a hothouse planet, Todd. Probably the best we’re going to get.”
SolFed Sergeant Gavin Michel slapped his helmet and settled his rail-rifle between his legs. The dropship’s magnetized seating sucked him down. White lights running the compartment’s length shifted to blue drop lighting; a neural cue from Michel started his power armor’s diagnostics. The suit almost doubled his size, added a foot to his height, and most importantly came temperature-controlled.
Its plates were sleek convex faces set at sharp angles around his body’s contours, even the joints carefully armored. Servos appeared only through millimeter-thick gaps in overlapping alloys. The helmet was thickest, a three-inch Hibarium wedge with an oval-dome top, pocked by dot-sized sensors that used isolated quantum links to beam data inside the suit. As Michel turned his head, a holographic display followed his vision; the helmet itself was integrated with the suit’s chassis, static. Without needing to pivot, they could make ’em thicker, and marines didn’t get broken necks from blows to the helmet anymore.
They called it the Brain Jar. It kept you safe from whiplash and blunt force as well as bullets, but feeling so cut off from the outside, from your own body, drove some marines insane.
The whole company wore the armor, fifty-one on this dropship and one-hundred-two on two others. They were painted SolFed green, sky-blue and gold, but with cloaking on they were all glassy outlines anyway.
He considered noise canceling against the music. Nah. Grin and bear it. The drums came in first, then those twanging chords.
“Okay, joke’s over, turn the song off!” Captain Marder barked before the lyrics came in. The pilots complied and the dropship’s engines thrummed it forward out of the hangar. Shifting starlight strobed through from the cockpit.
“ETA to surface, forty-five seconds. Check your weapons, people! And Captain Marder, while I outrank you, I’ve elected to humor your request in order to enhance your in-flight experience.”
“Get fucked, Major!” Sergeant Irene Darrows called.
“‘The M101 railrifle is the finest infantry-grade magnetic accelerator ever devised,'” Private Jenner recited, holding the five-foot weapon before her with two plated, color-shifting hands. She carefully avoided its safety or trigger, so no one called her on it. “‘It excels equally against unarmored and armored infantry, light ground and aerospace vehicles–‘”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, aerospace?!” someone cut in. “That’s not the term Griggs used.” Michel tuned out the argument and settled back. Seconds later the dropship buffeted, piercing H3-154’s atmosphere and beginning its deceleration burn. A gentle lurch passed through the hull.
The ramp dropped and Marder was first into the warm orange light. Michel lead his squad after the Captain, then Irene brought hers, with only the slightest shifts in the rhythm of half-ton feet on alloy flooring.
“Eyyyy, it’s the cold drop crew!” crowed a voice from a tattered cluster of sandbags atop an overgrown stone pinnacle abutting the slate-grey landing platforms. Further south past the landing zone, the local flora came in vibrant shades of blue jutting from pale, tortured rock. Not bad terrain; unfortunately the Marines were headed the opposite direction. Black-rock pinnacles like the ones around the landing platforms dominated the horizon, draped by sickly brown strands. Lower down or close between pinnacles the strands tangled together, making caves and tunnels.
“Oh, god damn it, look at this place,” Darrows sighed. “Can you think of a worse planet to fight on?”
“Could be on fire,” Michel supplied.
“It’s about to be,” she answered. “Acid rain? Like, scientifically improbable, carve-through-our-armor-type acid rain?”
“Let’s not give Orbital Command any ideas,” Captain Marder cut in. “Form up by squads, keep it moving, Marines!”
“Second Squad, you heard the man!” Michel ordered over comms. “On my six, people.” Early-steeping adrenaline made him wonder where that phrase came from.
Servos whined, moist soil squished under-boot, and the company moved out through the base. Marines from the hot-drop teams clapped, cheered and jeered.
“Nice of you to show up, guys!” one woman yelled, helmet off and leaning on a slagged point-defense weapon. She shifted easily in unpowered combat armor, stuff light enough for evac by shuttle if the first wave failed. “We cleared out all the hard stuff for you!”
With full orbital fire support and a dozen waves of fighter-gunships to grease your landing, Michel thought. He stayed silent.
“Once we clear the main gate, we’re live,” Marder said over comms. “Seal helmets. LZ‘s under atmospheric containment. Up ahead, not. Chenover, you’ve got aug’d scanners, you’re on point! This undergrowth looks like mine central.” A Marine jogged to the column’s front. The sensors made a hefty polygonal hump on her armor.
They filtered between stacked rubble and prefab alloy pillboxes, and peered into crevices dug out of the pinnacles and rocky ridges. They passed scattered heaps of enemy KIA inside transparent, airlocked enclosures. Michel stopped at the last enclosure, just before the faint waviness marking the containment field.
“Sir, with your permission, I’d like to address something with my squad,” Michel said. “Permission granted, Sergeant. Now’s the time.”
“Second Squad, hold on me,” he ordered. Seven clomping figures gathered ’round. The corpses were all human–rare–and badly equipped. They wore a mess of shirts, pants and other dayclothes swaddled in rags to cover their flesh and hung with the brown tendrils. Every wound sprouted plant feelers or moss-like growths; a hundred species of parasite burrowed and boiled up. One man’s ventilated skull was filled by slow-flexing fungus almost like a mushroom; roots pierced rotting brains and one of his eyes. His blood was congealed to something like black licorice.
“That’s why the containment field,” Michel nodded. “Get a feel for their uniforms.”
“Uh, Sarge,” Jenner began.
“Get a bunch of people in a group, they start dressing similar, that’s a uniform of sorts,” Michel said. “Doesn’t matter if they’re regular military or not. When we get out there, you want to have the feel of this down in your head. You hesitate too long figuring if you’re looking at moss or man, they get the first shot off, you die, SolFed’s just wasted a lot of money. You shoot at moss and not man, you die. One chance to get it right. Understood?”
“Yes, Sergeant!” came the chorus.
After a few seconds, he led the squad out through the field and into the undergrowth.
The company passed through clouds of spores mottled pink-red-yellow, coursing the air on translucent blackish flagella. The spores clustered against their armor, sparking on shielding and burning to oblivion again and again until an ember-column flowed behind each Marine. Death-brown tendrils splayed everywhere, scraped against shielding, flared from existence. They pressed so tightly the company marched single file to give everyone evasive room if they were engaged, and the “walls” they formed were never more than a foot from Michel’s face. Snags underfoot sometimes sent a Marine tumbling through thin spots in the growth.
“We look like ghosts of war,” Darrows observed.
Heavy-handed symbolism, Michel thought. He upped his suit’s audio feed sensitivity. Nothing. Not a whisper except the breeze and power armor’s stern thuds upon terrain. He drew deep breaths. Objectively, the quiet made detecting ambushes easier, especially with suit-enhanced senses. But damned if he didn’t want noise! He’d never realized how awful total quiet was ’til today. He felt each sweat-bead pooling on his back, and itches he couldn’t scratch. But opening the armor invited death–by parasites or bullets, still death.
They walked on for a long time in musty silence. The scanner found a few pits lined by thermal charges that they detonated before jumping past. Each time blue-white fire gouted skyward, hot enough to melt right through their armor if they’d fallen in. Otherwise there were occasional mines and some piddly spike-traps that they just stomped through. Their armor kept them fed with condensed nutrients from its stores and cycled their waste through to fall out the back, just more brown on a brown world. The spores flocked to each new shit-pile.
Michel missed fresh air on his skin by the start of the second day. The armor locked in place when they slept and inflated cushioning, but that hardly made up for beds.
“I’m starting to feel like I’ve never seen a human face… just… dreamed them, you know?” Jenner said once, while they picked their way through a few jagged boulders on the rim of a glass-bottomed crater. The brown mass seemed unwilling to reclaim it; the blast must’ve burned out whatever the stuff fed on.
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