PAGES 7        WORDS 1020






Three kilometers out from their battle with the stalkers, Sergeant Maseru stared at the vast expanse of land that lay before both men.  “Anything, on the forward scan, Colonel?”


Tasca, kneeling on one knee, leaned forward and checked his scanner.  “No, nothing.  Just dirt, sand and rock, Sergeant, and I hope it stays this way, but out here, in this desert, who the Hell knows.”


“I hear you, sir.  Do you think they’ll send the remaining pod after us?  Without waiting for a reply he continued.  “I don’t know if we would survive another attack.”


Tasca could hear the concern, the fatigue in his sergeant’s voice.  “To answer your first question, for now, no, I don’t think so.  Since our escape we’ve put over nineteen kilometers between us and the complex.  My guess is it’ll be awhile before they realize we’ve killed thirteen of their pets.  After that I can’t guarantee anything,” he said as he pushed himself up.  “There’s no telling what they’ll send.  We’ll just have to deal with what comes our way…even if it’s more HK’s.”


“It can’t be HK’s, sir.”  Maseru said as he turned to face the colonel.  “We destroyed what the complex had.”


“True, but I can’t imagine the Kingdom not having the resources to bring more in.”  Not wishing to continue this line of thought, Tasca changed the subject: “How are your ribs, Sergeant?  Still hurting?”


“Better, sir, but I feel so damned tired.  Permission to use a stim, sir?”


The colonel sucked in his lips and looked at the sand between his feet. “I didn’t want to use them so early in the mission, but with what has happened plus his ribs still on the mend, maybe it’s best to err on the side of caution. “All right, but be quick about it.”


A worn smile formed on Maseru’s haggard face.  “Maybe you should do the same, Colonel.  What do you have to lose?”


“I appreciate your concern, Sergeant, but I’ll pass for now.  We’ll hold here until the stim kicks in, then haul ass.  The quicker we get to the next DBS and complete our mission, the faster us cradle-to-gravers can leave all this splendor.”


“Colonel,” Maseru said, propping himself up against a rock ledge, “we’ve been together for what, twenty-one years and. . .”


“Closer to twenty-two, my friend,” Tasca interrupted.  “Why do you ask the same question when you already know the answer?”


“No particular reason, sir.  It just feels like each mission seems more dangerous than the one before.”


“Yeah, it does seem that way, doesn’t it,” Tasca said as he looked at the sun. “Face it Rambika, we’re both getting a little long in the tooth for missions like this.  Add this damned heat and the exhaustion once the adrenaline rush fades and it’s easy to see why sometimes we don’t recover as fast as we would like too.”


“Possibly, sir, but if we don’t get some sleep soon the way we feel now will seem like a picnic compared to the way we’ll feel later on.”


“Point, taken, Sergeant,” Tasca said.  Since you asked how long we’ve been together, let me ask you my favorite question.”


“Let me guess, Colonel, it’s one you’ve asked me more times than I care to remember, isn’t it?”


“Ah, perceptive as always.  Since you know the question, then why, with all you’ve been through, why have you turned down every recommendation for promotion?  And don’t give me a line of crap that you didn’t want the added responsibility, or if you did accept you would eventually be assigned to one of the Domes.  Well?”


Head cocked to one side, the sergeant rubbed his beard with deliberate slowness before looking into the colonel’s deep brown eyes.  “I don’t want to leave the unit, sir.  If I had taken any of the earlier promotions, I know in time they’d give me my own command.  Our unit moves and thinks as one.  Besides, and with no disrespect intended, who the Hell would cover your sorry ass like I do?”


Tasca laughed silently, smiled.  “That’ll be the day, Rambika, but it’s good to have a few healthy delusional mo . . .”


Both scanners blinked furiously, each showing large multiple unknowns approaching from all directions.  “Sergeant look to our rear while I look forward.  Let me know what you see.”


With a professional calmness honed by decades of experience, both men studied the readouts.


In a voice that gave no hint of panic, Maseru spoke: “Yes, sir.  I don’t see a damned thing, Colonel.”


“All right, look left then right.  Do you have anything, Sergeant?”


“Negative, sir.  I still don’t see anything.  What the Hell can it be?”


“I’ll be damned,” Tasca said with relief as he gazed back at Rambika and smiled.  “Sergeant, look up and tell me what you see.”


Puzzled by the colonel’s tone, he looked up.  “I’ll be damned, Colonel, they’re birds.  Christ they’re huge.”


“That they are Sergeant.  They’re giant condors.  The Scavs call them bone crackers.  The scent from the dead stalkers is bringing them in from all directions.  The history rings said that before the great changes, they were approaching extinction, but with all the death and destruction, especially with the carrion to feed upon, they’re here in great numbers.  We must move, now.  It’s only a matter of time before the complex sends a search unit and those feathered markers will lead them right to us.  Stim working or not, we must leave.  Take point, Sergeant, five meter spread, scanner on forward with at one hundred and eighty degree arc.  “I’ll scan behind with the same degree, retiring arc.  Recheck your neural rig, then…Hell, you know the drill as well as I do.  When you’ve completed the checklist, do it again, Sergeant.”


Maseru gave a quick salute.  With his rucksack leaning against the rock ledge, he went through the checklist.  As he checked his gunny cap and helmets connections with his neural rig, he could not help but look out over the seemingly endless vastness before him until glare of the sun off the sand forced him to wince.  Idiot, pull down your visor before you go blind.  Satisfied, he carefully opened the stim container in his rucksack and counted the number of stims.  Damn, only three red!  I hope there’s more at the next DBS.  Disappointed, he swung the rucksack about until his left arm caught the strap.  Finished, he spoke to Tasca, his voice still showing fatigue.  “Geared to go, Colonel.  Stim’s kicking in, sir.  Are there further orders?”


“No, just the usual, Sergeant . . . keep your ass wired tight and follow the designated coordinates and don’t forget to stay hydrated.  Now let’s get as far away from these feathered beacons as we can.  I want an alternate walk-run at four hundred meter intervals.  Five meter spread, laser rifle armed.  Now move out, Sergeant.”


Author Notes


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *