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By the Horns (Chapter Cover Art)

Chapter 56 - By the Horns[]

3rd Platoon, E Troop, Cavalry-Scout Recon Battalion, Sixth Syrtis Fusiliers RCT
Tabernas Wastelands, New Vallis
Taurian Concordat
November 22nd, 3025

“I want to just lay down and let that water run all over me,” muttered Joachim Alvarez as he stared at the still pool of water in the shade of the cliff faces and trees.

“Alvarez,” snapped Sergeant Gordon, “you foul my drinking water with your grungy body and I’ll ride you from now ‘til the last light goes out in this universe. Dietrich, you and Kowalski join Alvarez in walking the perimeter—keep your eyes peeled for Taurians and local predators alike.”

“Ah, Sarge,” Ann Dietrich began to protest, but the Fusilier non-com cut her off short.

“Save your whining, solider, and get your ass moving. The rest of you—break out the jerry cans and the patches . . . we have work to do before we get a drink.”

As the rest of the platoon began to spot weld patches in place on the cans, the three—Alvarez, Dietrich, and Kowalski—began to circle the shallow pool towards the far end of the ravine.

“Too quiet,” mumbled Corporal Morgan Kowalski, his auto-rifle held at the ready. “Shouldn’t there be some of those local lizards here drinking the water?”

“Maybe they only come out at night,” Dietrich suggested. “The full heat of day has to be something that reptiles can’t handle all that well.”

“Not that hot down here in the shade,” Kowalski answered. Then he frowned. “What is that stuff having from the branches—moss?

“Looks like it,” the lady scout said after a moment. “It’s on the vines and the cliff too.”

“Hello,” Alvarez said softly. “I call dibs,” he said in a more excited voice. The other two stopped and they looked where the private was pointing—and protruding from the mass of moss was the blue alloy barrel of a Taurian service revolver.

“Leave it alone, dipshit,” growled Kowalski. “We’re not here to collect souvenirs.”

“Sod off, man. Damn if I’m going to invade a Taurian world and not come home with a genuine Taurian magnum revolver—their officers carry those, you know.”

“So you can ooh and aah the girls back on New Syrtis, Joachim?” Ann asked. “You going to tell them you picked up an abandoned piece—or you going to weave a story about prying it from the hands of a Taurian officer that you personally killed in hand-to-hand combat?”

“Whatever works, Dee,” Alvarez replied as he made his way towards the cluster of trees and began to crawl over their gnarled roots to get to the weapon. “This shit is sticky,” he said in a puzzled voice, and then he brushed his face. “There are more strands of it hanging from the trees.”

“Leave it, Alvarez,” Kowalski warned. “Get your ass back here.”

“I’ve almost got it,” the private grunted as he stretched out, his fingers scrapping over the muzzle. “Come here, you piece of shit,” he grunted as he reached for the weapon—then he managed to get it in his hand. And snarled. “Damn thing is stuck,” he said as he pulled and the vines parted to reveal a large mass of the moss—four feet across—with the pistol tangled up inside of it.

“This isn’t a good idea, Private,” Kowalski snapped. “Leave the damn pistol alone!”

“I’ve got it, dude; quit your bitching already!” Alvarez barked back and he gave the revolver another yank—and it came free, along with the skeletal hand of the long-dead Taurian soldier still gripping it. Kowalski and Dietrich both inhaled sharply as the mass parted—because in that instant they realized it wasn’t moss. It was webbing that encased an egg sack.

“What the hell?” Alvarez blurted as he backed up, thousands of tiny diaphanous eggs spilling out—and bursting open as the immature insects inside suddenly awoke.

Furious at being disturbed before their normal hatching—and starving with hunger—the tiny creatures swarmed over the private, biting and stinging . . . and Alvarez howled in pain as they covered him from head to toe, the insects crawling up his nose and down his throat—across his eyes and into his ear canals.

“SHIT!” yelled Kowalski, but the Corporal didn’t move . . . his rifle was no use against such tiny targets and every instinct in his body screamed for him to run.

“CORP!” Dietrich yelled as faint strands of fresh webbing descended from the trees . . . and dozens of much larger insects slid down to begin cocooning the shrieking writhing private. They were almost spiders, a corner of Kowalski’s brain noted—six-legs, a body clad in dark chitin, two more limbs ending in claws like those of a mantis, clicking mandibles, and a sharp stinger protruding from the just above the snipperets. But these spider-things were the size of a terrier.

Dietrich fired—her rifle spitting a stream of bullets that tore into the crawling insects . . . and past them into the caves camouflaged by the vines. The vines quivered . . . and then hundreds of the adult spider-things emerged.

“Fuck me,” Kowalski whispered as he raised his rifle and began to service targets . . . while backing away as fast as he could on the uneven ground. “Dietrich! We are LEAVING!” he shouted.

But before the woman could begin to back away, several of the creatures crouched down and then jumped—they soared across the fifteen meters separating them from the soldier and she screamed as they began to tear into her flesh with their mandibles—and plunged those stingers dripping with venom into her body.

Kowalski blanched as tens of thousands of the hungry juveniles emerged, their legs a blur as they poured out of the caverns and moved towards him in a living carpet with no other purpose than to suck away his blood and bodily fluids—he turned and began to run . . . but the adults were atop of him before he took three steps and the veteran soldier screamed in agony as four-centimeter long stingers punched through his combat utilities and into his back.

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