As promised, Part One of the prequel for my novel, To Drown in Sand, to be released in November 2013.
Upon a Wake of Flame
A story of the 10th Lunen Regiment
Petty Officer Second Class Fiodek Berr – Callsign: ‘Bear’.
Master Seaman Owiqued – (Pipes): Callsign: ‘Howler’.
Master Seaman Thuigrae – (Manta): Callsign: ‘Stomps’.
Master Seaman Bonfodighen – (Flamer): Callsign: ‘Steambath’
Able Seaman Yuekijae – (Medic): Callsign: ‘Gauzer’.
Able Seaman Edroit – (Rifleman): Callsign: ‘Milk-crate’.
Able Seaman Clurrid – (Rifleman): Callsign: ‘Paperback’.
Able Seaman Kepeht – (Rifleman): Callsign: ‘Dogfood’.
Able Seaman Bavdemix – (Rifleman): Callsign: ‘Badmix’.
Able Seaman Rokemigveuse – (Rifleman): Callsign: ‘Migve’.
Lieutenant Bob Griare – Callsign: ‘Tailflip’.
~Orksen Isle, in the Derry Atrus Atoll, 30 kilometers Due South of the Alseiry Peninsula on the dwarf planet Shastre.
The shot cracked across the road from up high. Its echo bounced and barked across the cratered street from doorway to doorway, looking for a place to celebrate.
The heavy bullet punched him in the chest and threw him into the mud-brick wall on the wrong side of the alley, crackling the rough, hand-pressed plaster behind him. Scabs of gritty sand-plate tumbled over the rim of his helmet as he slid down into the dirt.
He watched the man who shot him nestle in behind his large black scope, high on the second floor, tucked in under a wooden kitchen table, the sides hung down to block the sun.
Black lightning-bolts of capillaries split his vision.
Shot in the chest.
And here it was his thirty-eighth Saints-damned birthday.
Petty Officer Second Class Fiodek Berr; Third Squad, Threadfin Boat, Second Company; Sturgeon Battalion, Tenth Lunen Regiment, dragged in a hissed breath that screamed against his sternum. He tried to roll over, to tip out of the sniper’s view.
“Frock!” Berr heard Clurrid, his stern-guard rifleman, holler over the rumble of his pulse in his temples. He watched as the sky stained with water-colour black. “P.O. Down! Gauzer! Bear is down!”
“Huh…Huh…Hold it!” Berr managed, and pointed his medic back to the safety of the alley wall.
“He’s waiting for you.”
Berr watched panic flash across their faces. Spearing pain rippled through his chest, hammering his ribs and breastbone with every jagged, shuddering breath.
Berr wobbled his head to check again at where the shooter was perched. He could make out a grin spread from behind the long, tubal optic.
Berr squinted at the sniper’s scope and smiled back.
The top floor of the shabby, smashed hut exploded in a roar of ripping splinters, blasting clouds of dust and clay, and wet chunks of the enemy sharpshooter.
Berr chuckled, then grimaced and let his helmet thump into the dirt.
“Oh, for frock’s sake! They got him. The bastards finally got him!”
Two sets of hands scrambled over his dented chest-plate, and grabbed the curved, heavy gorget of his vest. His boots bobbled and carved shallow trenches in the dirt as they dragged back up the alley.
Above him, the sunlight thinned and died to embers. Nine blots of shadow crowded into what was left of the sky, bumping for access.
“Nice shot, Stomps. Took dat roof right off of ‘er!”
“That’s irrelevant. Is he alright?”
“For frock’s sake! Get back! How the frock am I supposed to get at him? You know what to do! Form a frocking perimeter, cover us, and let me do my job!”
“I said is he alright?”
“And I said Steady Up!”
Mumbles of their barely-contained panic bubbled in his mind and started to swirl, lost in the reaching darkness.
Today of all days. Eight hours into thirty-eight years old, and millions of cables away from the only person who knew it.
Despite her fiery, naval language and raised voice, his wife had still, at least, wished him that much in her comm-send that had finally arrived last night. Her voice had been terse; loaded and cocked with warning.
That’s the problem with interplanetary arguments while you’re on deployment, he thought. One-way only, and weeks to send.
Takes too long to fire back.
His pulse calmed. He inhaled, and fresh pinpricks of pain riveted across his shoulders, gathering in the bones over his heart.
He had heard the dit that there was that delay in all the soldier’s sends, too. At first all the troopers had mumbled about the usual scanning for intelligence material. Tactically Sensitive information. Later, that had begun to change.
Overhead, clouds crawled by, a convoy of fist-shaped, relentless frigates shrouded in billowing white in a blue sea, stained black by the shock of the shot.
Weeks of delay. Berr thought.
The comms-monitors were scanning the infantry’s correspondence home more carefully than usual. Crawling over their words like ants on a corpse. Scouring and seeking.
And he suspected it had a lot to do with the secessionists that they were fighting here on the Derry Atrus island chain.
He was a veteran. Fifteen years with the Tenth Lunen Regiment. He had seen blood, rebellion, and his slice of the pie of war had been monstrous.
But the enemy they faced here on this small planet called Shastre were different. And the data-crawlers knew it. They weren’t protecting themselves by trying to catch leaks.
Berr knew they were protecting the innocents. Those at home. From learning the truth.
That there were monsters here.
The sound in the alley swallowed him. Third Squad’s boots ground into the grit. They mumbled curses that betrayed their panic, their fear that he was dying. The shuffle of Gauzer’s hands, digging and prodding into his chest, searching for an entry wound. The wet squish as he found the laceration of the shoulder-strap that had cut into his deltoid.
The ping of a syringe-cap tapping into the clay.
After a moment, all sounds became one, rushing through his mind like water, on a platform of another haunting, echoing noise that lingered around the walls of his skull and forced his eyes shut.
The echo of that sniper-round.
“I got him.” Gauzer, his medic, said. “He just needs a minute.” Gauzer slipped closer now, a whisper next to his ear. “You had the air punched out of you. Your armour held. I don’t know how. But it stopped the round.” His voice was shaken, but solid enough.
Berr thanked the Saints. He blinked quickly, blinded by the sky that now flooded back to blue. Gauzer reached out a hand, and he grabbed it.
Sitting up felt like having his chest ripped open.
“Third Squad. Get back in the stack.” Berr’s voice was wet gravel. “Jonah’s down.”
Berr gingerly pulled in a deep breath, shook his head, then staggered over and leaned into the scarred alley wall. He sighed, and carefully peeked out around the corner. His skin submerged into a tide of Gauzer’s warm spread of pain-narcs.
He peered down the debris-littered road, rough with tossed stones and scattered shell casings; toppled, kicked-out doors and collapsed walls that spilled out onto the hard clay road like guts. Behind him the rest of Third Squad stacked in a crouched line against the wall, pressed tight against each other.
At the end of the road squatted a fat, mud-scabbed hill, its top punched flat by aerial bombardments. Third squad’s first objective of the day. Beyond that, a field that Int had said would be spotted with more ruined huts. A small village that had been smashed open by the retreating enemy soldiers, but held intact enough to offer cover for Berr’s squad to advance.
Berr winced as he swung out and sighted down at the end of the road. The side of the hill that faced them was covered in the rough scabs of boot-prints left from the enemy’s retreat.
Hundreds of boot-prints.
The intelligence operator who briefed them had been a tall, strong-shouldered black sergeant named Omram, from Cixca, the Triumvirate’s headquarters planet. Omram hadn’t been able to accurately assess how many of the secessionists would be left in the ruins of this town, or how many had retreated over that hill to wait in the field beyond. All he had been able to tell Berr and his lieutenant, Griare, was that whoever was left of the secessionists here on Orksen Isle had nowhere left to run. The Tenth Lunen had pushed the enemy militia back all the way across the island, and now they were trapped. Their last and only option was to try to swim to the mainland from here. Or surrender.
Which these maniacs never did.
“Good luck, Bear.” Lieutenant Griare had said, with a slap on his Petty Officer’s shoulder-pad. “Don’t let anything happen to you until I catch up to you. I won’t be able to find my arse or my elbows without you.”
“Aye to that, Sir.” Berr had said. “But that’s fishguts. And we both know it.”
Griare had become one of the best officers he had ever worked with. Organized, thorough, and knew when to get out of the way. And when to listen. He was a random rarity, in Berr’s experience. They respected each other, and better yet, they seemed to be becoming friends.
“Fiodek?” Griare’s grip had lingered on Berr’s shoulder. The Lieutenant’s glare made Berr pause as he fussed with his gear.
“I mean it.” Griare had said.
Berr coughed now, spat white chips of stone dust from his teeth, and wiped flakes from the corners of his eyes. Orksen Island was covered in chalky fragments that crept everywhere, coating their hair and skin in a skin of crusty, dry white slivers. He coughed again, dry and pointless.
The Shastre cough. He was still adjusting to the change in pH on this planet, where the air was like breathing deck-cleanser. At least at first. The three weeks of injections aboard their battlecarrier had helped his lung’s surfactant adjust, but the cough lingered, stabbing fingers of irritation and pressure into the inner edges of his ribs.
Now, with the round he had taken, his chest flared into fissures of pain, angry at every cough.
Berr grunted and pivoted behind him, signaling to the male and female trooper next in the stack who squatted there, waiting on his word. They stared like tigers watching Berr decide on his orders.
“Badmix. Migve.” Berr whispered. “Cut across this street.” He knifed his hand at a blown-out, two-storey wreck across from him. “Grab cover on that corner. Sight down the starboard angle, on my two o’clock, and see if we’re clear for that side.”
“Aye, Bear.” They said.
“On my signal.” Berr said, pivoted back, and sighted down the street.
So, so quiet. Like a hunter waiting in a hide.
Just like it was a second before that bastard shot me.
A dry, crisped leaf tumbled across the two ruts in the clay road, pirouetted in a breeze, and tumbled against a shattered curb.
He held up a finger.
“Go.” He grunted, and pointed across the road. He squinted through the twin alloy pins at the end of his muzzle, and waited to kill anything that twitched.
Badmix outpaced Migve as she sprinted into the alley opposite Berr, followed fast by her larger counterpart. They slammed the backs of their dirt-scuffed, blue armoured vests into the clay-brick wall of the building and looked to the clouds overhead as they caught their breath. Badmix swung into a low crouch and leaned out over a pock-marked set of mortar steps, scanning down Berr’s side of the street. Migve’s rifle muzzle panned just above her head. The solid azure line and arrowhead, that designated her rank of able seaman, crested to the brow-rim of her black helmet and pointed down the road of roofless homes and smashed-out stores.
Berr remembered painting the arrow’s wings on her helmet just four weeks ago to celebrate her promotion. He had never seen Badmix cry before. That night, around a blazing beach-fire, he had seen tears rise in her eyes in a tidal creep of pride.
But she had managed to keep them contained.
They perched on the corner for three minutes, waiting. Badmix peeked over at Berr, and then nodded at him.
Berr turned and pointed at the next two in the stack.
“Gauzer. Dogfood.” Berr said, thumbing at the medic and his best friend. The two were inseparable; their matching tattoos read Not for glory; For my brother in scrolling script on their right shoulders. “Haul taut up into the starboard line. On the lee of the staircase and doorway. Clear it and stack it. Then lie to until you hear otherwise. On my signal.”
“Aye, Bear.” they said in unison.
“And knock that bilge off.” Berr muttered. “It’s creepy as frock.”
The two men grinned and bounced on their heels.
Berr glanced back over to his two prone shooters across the road, and signalled them that he was sending more forward. Migve nodded. Berr saw that his shoulders were anxious and tight, his hand wrapping and re-wrapping around his rifle-grip.
“Go.” Berr said, and they loped around him and sprinted off, their shoulders scraping against the cracker-dry bricks as they picked their way to safety, sighting into the shadows and blown-out windows ahead and across from them.
Just five more to tuck in to safe slots along this road. That’s all he had to do. Three more positions, including himself, just one more time, all safe, all fine, all ‘Lunen Blue’.
Then repeat it a hundred times until he got them all home. Or at least back to the battlecarrier. Then he could finish his argument with Lois.
It would take forever to be able to send back to his wife now. He’d have to wait until he could breathe without her noticing the pain, or any hesitation when he spoke.
Better not to bother, he thought, and not try to hide the hit I just took.
She’d only see it anyway. Somewhere.
We’ve been married so long, we’re probably psychic.
He nodded behind him at the next two.
“Paperback. Milk-Crate.” He pointed laterally across the street, to a doorway that arched open like bowed legs. “Doorway, Port side. My eleven o’clock. Go.”
He listened at the scuffy, reassuring slaps of his men’s boots as they dashed for safety across the killing zone, then thump into the solid haven of cover in the doorway.
Berr counted them all again. Even though he didn’t need to, even though he knew he only had three left to send, and that they were accounted for. He counted them again.
He rolled back against the wall. Next to him, his comms operator perked his eyebrows.
“De Big Dogs, eh?” Howler said, in the clipped, twisty accent of the Chireesh. It had taken Berr four months of their eight-month voyage aboard the Tenth Regiment’s dropship-battlecarrier, the Whaleshark, to master the accent and decipher Howler’s subtexts.
But, as difficult as it had been for Berr to learn the Chireesh’s accent, Howler’s keen intelligence had made the struggle worth it. He’d been thrilled to discover his Pipes was a genius with languages. Howler had already pieced together the basics of the enemy’s tumbling, guttural dialect through his careful monitoring of their sparse comm-sends.
The black shark-fin antennae of Howler’s Tactical Information Management Array System, the Timas, bumped the back of his helmet as he nodded at Berr and waited.
“Big dogs.” Berr said.
Behind the comms-op, the massive, brooding black shroud of the Manta mech-pack cloaked Stomps, his heavy gunner. The turbine housed in the rear of the mech whispered and whined, and the servos in the mech-arm hissed a thin hydraulic thread of noise as it helped the muscular woman hoist her Narwhal heavy-gun. The gun clunked as she thumbed the barrel selector, and threaded a round into its receiver. The three barrels of the weapon yawned, waiting to smash her enemies apart with torrential rapid-rounds, large-bore shots, and grenades. Hungry for more devastation like she had wrought on Berr’s sniper.
She had originally balked at Berr using himself to flush out the shooter and leaving his safety up to her. But as always, she had proven herself.
The mech’s legs unfolded silently as Stomps stood up from where she crouched, silently hoisting the massive turbine that powered and cooled the gun. Fingers of her brown hair spilled down from her helmet and curled around her determined face, framed by the Manta’s cowl. Behind her, Third Squad’s flame-man, Steambath, squeezed out around the Manta and leaned forward.
“We’re ready as that wind now, my son.” The Torcher muttered to Berr. “Today ain’t getting any younger squatting here on our arses. Let’s get at her.”
Berr couldn’t suppress his grin. He bore a genuine reverence for the older flamer operator. Steambath was a genuine shellback. He had burned his way across every island in the atoll, always at the front of the flanks and immune to fatigue, like most of his people from his rocky, barren island back on Lunen. His eyebrows and close-trimmed hair, shingled with thin grey patches, were permanently singed and curled from the charring burn of his weapon. The flamer in Steambath’s hands seethed and drooled droplets of fire from its charred muzzle, sizzling into a puddle of black sludge next to his dirty, chipped boot.
“Aye.” Berr said. “You two have the farthest. Get up to the bow. I need you in the nose when the rattle starts. Up the deep starboard, ahead of Gauzer and Dogfood.”
“Right where I should be.” Stomps said, and thumbed her gun onto large-bore. The weapon thunked as it primed a fist-sized sabot round, and the turbine’s high whine lowered to a growl.
“On my signal.”
“Aye to that, Bear.” Stomps said. She turned back to the Torcher. “You ready?”
“Stomps, by’s, don’t be wasting my time with fishguts interrogatives.” Steambath chuckled and waggled the long cylinder of flame-fuel screwed into his weapon’s belly. “I was ready when your father’s seed was swimmin’. Let’s get on with it, now, my sons.”
Berr levelled his rifle out. The tether-cable that attached his gun to the hub in the center of his chest-armour squeaked as it spooled out. He sighted down the street.
Potentially hundreds of them.
Saints-damn this place.
“Go.” Berr said.
He watched Stomps and Steambath jog around him, then hug the cover of each building’s buckled walls as they bolted to where Gauzer and Milk-Crate hunched into balls of aiming tension in the recesses of their crumpled stairway. The Manta-mech and Torcher swept past their two squadmates, and crunched into cover ahead of them all.
Howler stiffened next to him. “Movement.” He said, his voice twisted by the butt of his rifle.
“Where?” Berr said, and cursed. Howler had eyes like a Heron-gunner. But Berr should have seen it.
“Down d’air. Deep Port. End of dat road.” The Pipes-man whispered. “Two ‘eads. Peekin’ out around deh corner. I think d’air gonna do deh run for deh ‘ill. Stragglers, maybe.”
“Let everybody know, Howler.” Berr muttered.
The rest of Upon a Wake of Flame will be released on Amazon for Kindle and on Kobo in August 2013.
© 2013 B.C. Laybolt