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By the Horns (Chapter Cover Art)

Chapter 57 - By the Horns[]

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

“Sweet Jesus,” Henry whispered as the three scouts were engulfed by the swarm of creatures emerging from the hidden caverns behind the vines. But then he shook his head. “Get to the ‘Rats!” he yelled. “MOVE, PEOPLE!”

The troops needed no encouragement—many were already running, leaving empty water cans in their wake. The swarm turned, alerted perhaps by the heavy thuds of the combat boots on the baked soil of the ravine’s floor . . . and it was fast enough that not all of Henry’s people managed to reach safety in time.

Terrified screams echoed throughout the cleft in the rocks as the adults pounced on soldiers ahead of the arrival of the swarm, their powerful limbs sending them on fifteen and twenty meter leaps. Henry pulled out his pistol and he took a step forward—but a hand clamped down on his bicep like a vise and hauled him back.

“YOU TOO, LT!” snarled Gunny Franks as he pulled the officer away from the men and women being submerged under the tsunami of oncoming insects. The young officer tried to pull away—his face twisted with anguish over his men—his men—screaming in agony in front of him. “THEY ARE ALREADY DEAD, SIR!” The gunny bellowed again, yanking Henry towards the nearest vehicle.

The two men stumbled up the rear ramp of the closest Packrat—a ramp that the other troops had already begun to raise; and then the engine roared, the vehicle shook as the driver put it into gear, and the eight wheels spun like mad before they caught traction and the twenty-ton recon vehicle accelerated away.

Packrat (Driving on desert road - Oswald)

Packrat Scout Car

The stutter of the pintle-mounted auto-rifle echoed in the stagnant and blistering heat of the troop bay. Henry half-stood and he looked out of the small armored periscope . . . , “Sweet jesus,” he repeated himself as one of the four scout cars suddenly began to weave and then flipped over on its side—the spider-things had already managed to get inside. For just a second, Henry could see the face of the driver as he swatted at the juveniles . . . and then a far larger adult closed those hideous claws around the driver’s head and squeezed. Blood splashed across the wind-screen . . . and then Henry’s ‘Rat rounded the bend and started up slope.

“Not your fault, LT,” the gunny whispered as he sat down next to Henry. “Not your fault, sir.”

“I’m in charge, Gunny—they were my responsibility.”

“LT, I’m going to tell you a secret that everyone who has been in combat knows—but no one really shares,” Joshua said after a moment’s pause. “Shit happens. People die. And sometimes, LT, sometimes it isn’t the fault of any of the survivors. Just like this SNAFU today.”

“How many?” Henry asked. “How many of our boys and girls are gone?”

“Too many, LT,” the non-com sighed. “We still need that water.”

Henry looked up and he nodded. “One ‘Rat—volunteers only. And I want Infernos loaded in the missile launcher. I’ll take it down there.”

“Not your job, sir—that’s mine.”

“Today, Gunnery Sergeant Franks, today it is my job,” Henry whispered—and the experienced NCO began to nod his head.

“Get in, get the cans, patch them, get the water, and get the hell out, Sir,” Joshua said. “They are bugs—you can’t avenge the troops by killing them. Set up a perimeter with fire and grab that water and get the hell out of there, LT.”

“I won’t be sight-seeing, Gunny,” Henry said as the ‘Rat came to a halt at the top of the slope . . . the blazing sun already nearing the horizon and the winds beginning to howl. The ramp dropped and Henry walked over to the edge of the ravine and looked down—but the swarm had not bothered to chase the speeding vehicles. No, those spider-things were hauling his boys and girls—all wrapped up in silk strands—back towards the caves. “I need a driver and four volunteers . . . can you talk them into it?”

“You’ll have them, LT.”

“Volunteers, Gunny—don’t strong-arm them if they don’t want to go,” Henry warned.

“You do your job, Sir; I’ll do mine. You’ll get your volunteers . . . Parsons, Hondo, Bowen, Chin, and Early—you just volunteered to ride with the LT. RIGHT?”

The five soldiers paused, but then one of them—Janice Early—sighed. “Might as well . . . if we don’t get that water, the desert will kill us as sure as those bugs.”

Henry frowned, but one by one, the other four nodded their agreement . . . and the very junior officer decided not to push it. “Break out the flamers and incendiary grenades,” he ordered. “Saddle up when you’re ready—Gunny, the platoon,” what’s left of it, Henry thought, “is yours.”

“We’ll be waiting, Sir,” Joshua said. “Good hunting.”

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