The alarm pinged in her ear, forcing her awake from a troubled sleep. She groaned as she rolled out of her cot, slipping her boots on and grabbing her rifle and some extra clips. Across the tent, Kennie, Piggy and Philippe all stirred from their cots and did the same.
“Movement, eastern flank in sector 1,” Anna whispered over the radio.
“Sector 1,” repeated Philippe. “Get to your stations,” he added as he strode out the tent.
“We bother waking them up,” Micheline asked.
“Leave them. We’ll see how hairy this gets and go from there. Erik sleeps in the pilot compartment, so if we have to, he can do a quick evac.”
Slapping her helmet on, Micheline slipped out of the tent and manoeuvred around a series of crates and barrels to her position, covering the southern flank. The night skies overhead were slowly starting to lighten, stars fading out of focus and getting swallowed by the sunlight as it crept in from the east. She scanned from her right to her left, looking down the edge of the forest and into the darkened recesses.
“Three days of this crap,” Piggy grumbled, forgetting his mike was on.
“Your missing out on your beauty sleep,” Anna teased back.
“We can’t all rely on a supercomputer to keep us running all day,” Phillipe interjected. “Piggy? Kennie?”
“In position,” Piggy yawned.
“ATV is primed and ready,” Kennie said. “Civvies get to sleep through this?”
“They were cranky enough when they got a solid six hours of sleep. You think I want to deal with ‘Red’ now,” Philippe exclaimed. “Leave them their beauty sleep.”
“You calling her a beauty, boss” Kennie laughed.
“Shut it and watch your arcs.”
For the third day, they experienced the sun rise while staring down the barrels of their rifles, scanning the forests for an unseen but suspected enemy. For three days they fought the rising anxiety and short tempers of sleep deprivation. They were on edge, something Six-Delta was not unfamiliar with. Frontier work and life as a mercenary was littered with long periods of doldrums highlighted by fits of violence and concern. A few sleepless nights was an accepted part of the arrangement. Dealing with Erik and Scarlett pivoted that dynamic, injecting a toxic hostility that undercut their interactions.
“Do we need the defence turrets,” Erik asked over the radio.
“Activate them and set to auto-scan outside the perimeter,” Philippe answered. “Once they’re set we’ll stand down.”
The Mountaineer’s energy rifle turrets on the cab twitched and scanned through their range of movements before turning in sync to face into the forest. “We’re set,” Erik stated. The doors to the Mountaineer pilot compartment swung open and he slid down the length of the ladder. His boots kicked up a splash of water, an energy rifle in his arms with fluid ease. “How long were you guys on station this time?” He looked warily at the nearby tree line, having the decency to appear ashamed to have slept through their watch.
“Three hours,” Anna replied from the roof of the Mountaineer. She walked off the edge, dropping the five meters and landing with catlike grace. She still kicked up a massive splash of mud and water, her feet sinking nearly to her ankles. She strode off to the Six-Delta tent as if nothing had occurred.
“Again,” exclaimed Scarlett from the lab compartment hatch. Her hair was tied into a loose ponytail, the skin around her eyes starting to show deep shadows. “Do the scanners show anything,” she asked as she clambered down. “Did anyone see anything?”
“Nobody saw anything other than trees and shadows,” Micheline replied, “but something is out there.”
“This thing can conceal itself better than anything we’ve ever studied,” Scarlett cursed, turning to face Erik. “Do you think it’s an innate ability? Something using psionics or magic?”
“If we can get a hold of this thing, start determining how it morphs to avoid detection,” Scarlett mused.
Micheline tuned out the couple. They began enthusiastically discussing the scientific merits of capturing something none of them had yet to lay eyes on.
‘Trust the detached perspective of science to get over the lack of sleep and the bodily harm this thing could pose.’
“I am really beginning to hate that woman,” Piggy muttered over the squad net. A titter from Anna and an outright belly laugh from Philippe interrupted the couple’s scientific debate. They looked over, questioning expressions.
“Duke farted,” Kennie provided, waving his hand in front of his face.
Erik and Scarlett gave her a startled and perplexed look. “Bastard liar,” Micheline cried out in dismay. The remainder of Six-Delta erupted into laughter.
“We still have a few of the towers remaining to collect,” Scarlett announced. “Under these conditions I’d say we leave them, but there are two control nodes with all the data for sectors six and eight. We need to physically collect them. Tap into the core and download the data at least.”
“So, two towers,” Philippe suggested as he approached. “Grab something to download with, ‘Red.’ Kennie and I will escort you out and back.”
Micheline joined Piggy and Anna in Six-Delta’s tent. The stove had water boiling, Piggy managing five cups laid out with a scoop of instant coffee in each. “You are a genius, Piggy,” she said patting him on his armoured shoulder. He grunted in agreement as she fetched her cleaning kit and sat at the table.
Piggy’s weapon and cleaning kit were already laid out. She grabbed the remaining space and started disassembling her Wilk’s 457. Serving Philippe and Kennie first, Piggy fetched a cup for Anna, sliding another between them as he sat down and started disassembling the plasma rifle. The delicious simulated flavour wafted throughout the tent, the steam rising in coiling plumes from their cups.
“Outstanding,” Micheline commented as she took a sip. “I swear I will get your recipe one day,” she chided.
“It’s an old field campaigner’s recipe. No dice,” he grunted in return, pulling a swab through his rifle’s ejection tube.
Micheline fished out a cleaning tool, sharing a smile with Anna further back in the tent, who quietly sipped her coffee.
“If you’re looking to scrub the emitter plate housing, you’re better off not using the twelve millimeter scrub brush. Use this,” he suggested, holding out a softer tool. “The twelve millimeter will eventually scratch the plate, screwing with the rifle’s output.”
“How did you,” she began. He hadn’t even looked up from his job to see what stage she was at, or where the new tool was.
“I read a technical article on it back at base,” he said, reassembling a portion he had finished wiping down.
“He’s so cute when he gets talking guns,” Anna offered from right behind them. Micheline had to force herself from reflexively engaging her cybernetic hearing, her hand nearly sloshing some coffee on the table. It remained an astounding feat how silent Anna could be when she chose. The Juicer took a languid slurp to finish her cup and head back out on sentry.
“Not that I recommend it, but you ever think of swapping out the 457 for something else?”
“Never,” Micheline replied emphatically. “This is just too well put together to ever swap out. They’d have to go a long ways to improve on this model.” They continued for several minutes in mutual silence.
“You ever think of swapping out that old model for something more current,” she asked.
Piggy grunted a non-committal answer. After a pause, he replied. “A couple of newly announced models caught my attention. Might give them a go,” he added.
‘And so ends another riveting conversation,’ Micheline laughed to herself, smiling as she continued cleaning.
A garbled message crackled over the radio, completely unintelligible save for the pitch of the speaker. Piggy and Micheline froze in place, straining to hear some sort of confirmation. Distant thuds were enough. Not a word spoken, they rapidly reassemble their weapons, movements quick, crisp and well practised. They wordlessly reached into the tent for their gear. She tossed him a sling of grenades as he handed her the extra clips he stood closer to.
“Anna,” Erik called out from across the camp.
“Get in the Mountaineer,” Micheline heard Anna scream from a distance. Turning the corner from their tent, the only sign of the Juicer was a series of branches snapping back into position, Erik waving in the direction she had run into the forest.
“Fuck that girl is quick,” she commented.
“Not when it counts,” Piggy murmured. Micheline stopped in her tracks. Piggy had the sense to blush. “You mention this, she’ll kill both of us. Well, first me, but both dead.”
Micheline smirked. “Don’t I know it,” she added as they sprinted into the woods. Her eyes darted to the ground, keeping an eye out for Anna’s heavier footprints. She was pushing herself, her prints several times more distant than any normal human would leave.
It wasn’t the sounds of battle that signalled their approach. The thin clouds of smoke curiously wafted down the slopes, the smell of burning wood rife throughout the forest. The occasional staccato laser fire was interspersed with controlled yelling as Philippe directed Kennie and Anna, and the occasional yelp from Scarlett. Another series of sounds forced Micheline to slow her approach. She engaged her cybernetic ear, a stabbing pain shooting through her head before the muzzling program could decipher and filter the frequency. A sheen of sweat covered her features as she recovered.
“What is it,” Piggy asked as they stopped.
“No idea,” she said shaking her head. “Just some really bizarre screams,” she added as she followed Piggy, bearing down on the battle.
She crested a rise and saw the remainder of Six-Delta conducting a withdrawal through the trees. Fires had erupted throughout the landscape, missed shots erupting into clouds of white smoke that blanketed the region in a sheen of grey. Others erupted into full-fledged blazes, flames licking at damp wood and catching on damp leaves yet to fall, others tickling the branches of evergreens, pine needles warping into bright orange curls before they faded to grey and fell to the ground.
What shook her to the core was the source of the horrendous screams. A string of animated trees, both hardwood and softwood, seemed to have come to life and charged Six-Delta. As laser fire impacted the trunks, lurid high pitched screams erupted, the demonic plants falling over and erupting into a raging inferno, columns of smoke failing to reach the canopy fell back to earth, following the terrain downhill like a noxious gas.
Piggy and Philippe made short work of anything that approached, their plasma rifles causing eruptions of smoke and flame with each shot. Kennie’s energy rifle did its part dropping trees, but he was more interested in leading Scarlett through the winding gaps they followed to one of the devices she was looking for.
A birch suddenly erupted from its position and started approaching the pair. Micheline sighted her rifle and sent a trio of energy bolts into the base of the trunk. It collapsed to the ground only a few meters away. Scarlett’s scream overlaid the birch tree’s screech. To her credit, she swept over to the beast and hacked at it a few times with a vibro-knife before she turned to manipulate the computer she now connected to the tower. Micheline returned Kennie’s thumbs up.
“Duke, get down here,” Philippe called out. The forest quickly began to fill with a choking smoke that defied physics. It rose up off the tree corpses before rolling back on itself, staying close to the ground and roiling around into pockets of dense clouds. Anna emerged from around copse of pine trees, wading through the smoke, a heavy trail of it following her. She carried her laser rifle in one hand, vibro-saber in the other.
“What the hell are these things,” Micheline asked as they converged around Scarlett, weapons trained in all directions.
“Who cares,” Kennie coughed. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
“Thirty seconds,” Scarlett proposed, her hands tapping commands into the terminal.
She paused, as they all did. There was a distinct lack of sound, except for the crackling of nearby burning trees and underbrush. A whispering moan floated through the trees, the source unseen, sound reverberating off the multitude of tree trunks and rock outcrops.
“Keep tight on your arcs,” Philippe ordered.
Micheline scanned the forest while they waited. Despite the eerie silence, it was impossible to determine which direction the moaning came from.
“Almost there,” Scarlett called out.
“Three o’clock, coming in fast” Piggy called. He fired off a few blasts, followed by the telltale screeches of another pair of dead tree-demons, another eruption of flames.
“We’re gonna’ peel, Piggy leading off. We get back to the camp, secure the vehicles and bug out.”
“What the hell is a peel,” Scarlett demanded as they gave their affirmatives, lining up behind Piggy. He continued laying down plasma fire and did a quick reload of the energy capsule.
“Kennie, you have ‘Red’. Peel!”
Kennie grabbed Scarlett as she objected, dragging her through the woods, connector cables still trailing from the computer terminal. Behind them, Piggy laid down a scouring hail of plasma fire at any target he could find as the rest of Six-Delta moved back in single file. Magazine expended, Piggy ran back down the line and passed by Philippe. Philippe now laid down a torrent of fire himself, followed then by Anna, her vibro-blade hacking branch and tree limb to slivers, Micheline’s laser fire then destroying the very trees of the forests she held so dear.
As they took turns firing off their clips in covering fire as the remainder retreated, the wilderness erupted into a mosaic of laser and plasma fire, an ever-brightening radiance of fire and smoke. The screeches became a wailing cacophony of dying demons crashing to the ground. The forest burned.
Continue to Chapter 10 (forthcoming)
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