Hot Snap: A Future-Fantasy War Story, Part 2/4

A bit belated because yours truly was unexpectedly caught up in errands today! Without further pause, I present to you the next 1440-odd words of “Hot Snap!”

(Previous Part Here)

There were abandoned gun-nests here and there, some magnetic artillery pieces in stony casemates char-hammered during the first landings, but no OpFor. After six hours, the company straggled into another base’s husk. A gutted olive-drab command tower overlooked burned-out concrete barracks. Exposed circuitry for three obliterated counter-orbital turrets sparked and arced; that and drifting ash were the only movement.
And the spores. Always the fucking spores, everywhere.
“Why won’t they stand up and fight?” Jenner demanded.
“Yeah, why not?” Darrows said, passing by. “Worked perfectly here.”
Quiet down, spread out!” Marder ordered. “Sergeant Michel, Sergeant Darrows, take your squads and clear the base. The rest of you, in cover, we don’t know if they’re packing anti-material weapons.” Michel grimaced; if the Seshies had proper rail-rifles, a concrete slab would be the difference between life and death. Marked for death, he thought. What’s new?

Michel switched his helmet to thermals. Everything was yellow white, orange or red. Hothouse, right. No wonder they’ve gone to ground here. He switched back to visual spectrum with motion highlighting. With all the spores and debris in the air it was finicky, but if it wasn’t better than naked sight, it wasn’t worse.
He picked out slumped masses in the broken command tower right when his suit outlined them.
Contact, command tower!” he bellowed.
“Drop ’em!” Marder ordered.
The rifle barked twice against Michel’s chest; one mass jerked and dropped. On full power, air friction turned the slugs tailed and semi-molten, tiny mortal comets burning to the end. Other rail-rifles joined in, and tore the other second mass apart before it escaped deeper into the tower.
Cover!” Michel said.

His marines were only halfway broken off to cover when tracers whipped out from rubble-piles, craters and slit trenches across the base, hundreds of shooters pouring it on. Black-brown dust and spores exploded all around them, and chipping concrete clacked against their armor.
A burst walked up Michel’s armor, stippling grey tears in the EM-paint. It threw off his cloaking in a sparking shower. A rocket-propelled grenade threw Darrows back with a fist-sized crumple, half-molten, glowing low and left on her belly. Michel laid his sights on a ragged figure peering from a sparking-circuited crater and blew its head off, moved on to the next. He stopped noticing where he shot, precisely, just bullets into rag-huddles while he moved in behind a displaced concrete chunk.
All told, it was a short firefight despite the enemy numbers. The RPGs they used just didn’t have the power to pierce marine armor even when they landed. The marines had computer targeting assistance, rail-rifles firing .67 caliber slugs, and in this company’s case, long years’ experience.
“Clear!”
“Second Squad, Third Squad, clear the buildings!” Marder ordered, and they did. They found tattered clothing and splintered footlockers, some extra armament. There were beds and mattresses that belched crawlers when prodded, hand-sewn blankets hosting colonies of four-legged tan critters.
And there was death dwarfing their own work: mound on mound of OpFor dead piled in two broken barracks, absolutely crawling with parasites. A fungal growth in the second barracks had spread to almost half the bodies.
“Marking for R & D,” Michel said, and did so. “Alright, Second Squad, let’s move on. And keep your eyes open. This is the only time they’ll hit us in a stand-up fight, at least ’til the planet makes ’em desperate.” Which might not be that long, he thought, glancing at the dead.
“How do you figure, Sarge?”
“Any insurgency, there’s always one bunch of die-hards who decide to go head to head with professionals. After they’re shot to pieces, the others get smarter.”
The final tally for the base was 196 enemy KIA (not counting the parasitized), with 48 wounded and taken prisoner. Captain Marder found a clear space to call down a dropship–it’d have to be decontaminated later–and a squad of Marines from up in the fleet carted the prisoners skyward.
“War always has a funny way of rewarding the victor,” Michel said, watching the engines fade upward. Darrows, bruises making her the closest thing the unit had to a casualty, nodded.
“Son-of-a-bitch melted my tulips, probably the rosebush too,” she said when the shuttle was gone. She tapped the defaced spot on her armor, a dark grey blot of realness on her see-through silhouette. Michel could just make out the remains of hand-engraved floral designs. Darrows briefly got famous in propaganda reels for those, six years ago.
“You were never happy with the way the rosebush turned out,” Michel offered.
“Yeah,” Darrows said. “I’ll look around. Might try to work some of the local wildlife in.”

***

True to Michel’s guess, they never pulled the OpFor into a direct firefight after that. Every so often shots erupted from crevices hidden under the brown mass, or a grenade landed amidst the column. After the second day out from the base, Captain Marder wrangled fighter-gunships from OrCom to fly above along the flanks. Those were taken away after a concealed railflak battery shredded two with a well-timed volley before the marines neutralized it.
Michel missed body odor and touching things with his real hands, not the haptic surrogate of the suit’s sensors. The direct neural feed from the suit felt like having a monitor infesting his brain, not a second set of eyes. He kept worrying he’d take the suit off one day to find he’d gone blind. And sound! God fucking damn it, there was no sound on this worthless dead planet. Even a bombardment would’ve been better than this unending stillness!
At twilight that day, a sniper with a real anti-material rail-rifle blew the leg off Private Denessy in Fourth Squad when he paused on a ridge above the brown mass. His armor helped clot the wound; the leg drew a wriggling vermin-swarm and had to be left.
“Mark it for R & D,” Captain Marder said, and they did. “Don’t worry, Private. Once you’re evac’d, you’re going straight to H-Aug.”
One of Denessy’s squadmates hauled him until they found a clearing next to a rocky stream of yellow liquid lined by pink foam. OrCom wouldn’t send a dropship down after the railflak incident, and told them Denessy would have to hold out until they reached F.O.B. Schriver. SolFed could fix him if he survived to reach a hospital ship. Cybernetics, body reconstruction; he’d come out better than before.
Denessy started screaming two hours before sunrise on day three: the spores had found the open spot in his armor, and two of them were latched on. The chemicals his suit flushed into his system slowed them, but didn’t stop their tendrils working deeper. Michel and Jenner volunteered to hold him down while Darrows–her engraving, she reasoned, being similarly precise to surgery–used her combat knife, suit readouts, and sensors in Denessy’s armor to cut out the growths.
When she slit the first spore, Denessy squealed and started shaking.
The seal on his leg-stump broke open. Blood, pus and black chunky fluid sloughed free, pooling underneath him.
“Hey, stay with me, Den!” Darrows ordered. “Keep your eyes open!”
Michel looked at her.
“Son of a bitch,” Darrows snapped, surging upright and unlimbering her railrifle. She swung the muzzle in line with Denessy’s head. Michel’s helmet-cam dimmed against the flash, there was a thick plink, and Denessy’s shaking stopped.
“Why the–” Jenner began.
“Toxins. Fucking things release toxins when you hurt their core,” Darrows said. “His suit couldn’t synthesize an antidote in time, pain was off the scale. I saw the readings. Okay?”
“It’s alright, Irene,” Michel said, marking Denessy’s location for R&D later.
The sniper hit the unit five times more on the march through the highlands, always wounding, never killing outright and never firing more than three shots before disappearing. They were forced to mercy-kill eleven more Marines before the planet finished them. The fifth time, the sniper got cocky and took a fourth shot. Corporal Thompson in First Squad, Second Platoon spotted the bastard on a hillock far out west in the brown mass and marked it for orbital. Captain Marder called it in.
High above, the frigate Overture received and angled its knife-fighting weapons at the planet: 87mm magnetic autocannons, just “light” stuff.
Fiery streaks jabbed down at the distant hillock for ten full seconds, splitting a thousand feet before impact into showers of fragmentary submunitions. Dust and shrapnel frothed up faster than boiling-over water for one second, two, three. A final wallop from a single 203mm railgun obliterated the hilltop in a debris-geyser two hundred feet high.
That was the last they heard from the OpFor sniper.

(Part Three Here)

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