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By the Horns (Chapter Cover Art)

Chapter 59 - By the Horns[]

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

Henry sat down (he all but fell) on the ramp of the scorched Packrat—after his troopers, the three who had survived at least, had passed out the water cans. Soot and ash covered his body from head to toe; his hands and arms were red from the heat of the flames with which he had burnt away the infestation of those spider-things. He sat down and closed his eyes—and his hands shook. He shivered in the cold night air; for the sun had already descended . . . and the only light was the reflected the flickering remains of the pyre he had lit in the ravine to hold the creatures at bay.

“Shit’s gotta be filtered first, people!” Joshua snapped as several of scouts opened one of the cans and started to refill their canteens and camelbaks. “Unless you like drinking pieces of burnt bugs and trees and the residue of inferno gel.”

With a groan, the recon troopers hauled out the filters and began to process the water—the priceless water that had cost them so very much. They bitched about it, but Joshua didn’t care; as long as the troopers did their job, it didn’t matter if they bitched and whined. And frankly, he wouldn’t have trusted soldiers very much who didn’t moan and groan. Then he knelt down next to the ramp and handed the young officer a canteen.

“You need some burn gel on your arms and hands and face, LT,” he said softly.

“I’ll live, Gunny,” Henry answered as he took the canteen and sipped the tepid water within. Although it tasted metallic from the chemicals used to purify it, in that moment the bitter water was almost the nectar of the ancient Greek gods. “We got twenty-five cans patched and filled before the pool became too shallow to drain more,” he added. “Not as much as I hoped.”

“That is more than I expected, LT. It’ll hold us for a day or two—but we have another problem,” the non-com said with a sigh.

Henry gave Joshua a tired smile. “My instructors at NAMS always said there’s no such thing as problems . . . only challenges.”

“Typical REMF bull-shit—life ain’t a Zen koan, LT. And we have problems,” Joshua snarled as he spotted a tiny spider-thing crawling on the ramp and squashed it with his boot.

Henry sighed. “And those are?”

“The invasion is FUBAR, LT,” the Gunny said in a flat voice. “You know Colonel Russert?”

“Duke Michael’s Operations Officer? I know of him—I haven’t ever met him.”

“He made a broadcast—apparently, he’s really part of the Department of Military Intelligence. And the First Prince is pissed that Michael has invaded the Concordat,” Joshua paused. “New Avalon has declared the entire Sixth to be in a state of mutiny—they threw us under the bus and there are AFFS forces here on New Vallis working with the Taurians to stop our assault.”

“Shit,” whispered Henry.

“Yeah—it gets worse. The Taurians have taken our JumpShips and consider us all pirates and renegades. We can surrender and get sentenced to a penal colony for five years . . . or we can fight and die.” The Gunny shook his head. “And if we do that and get captured, we get hung afterwards.”

“This is just getting better and better,” Henry muttered. “So no reinforcements? No incoming supplies? No way off this rock?”

“That’s about the size of it—and that moron Michael low-balled the defenses here by a factor of four,” Joshua added. “We don’t outnumber the Taurians—they have more ‘Mechs, more tanks, more infantry, and they are dug in deep to stop us from getting to Port Sheridan and fresh water supplies.”

“Wonderful.” There was several minutes of silence and then Henry pressed his swollen hands into his itching eyes. “We get any instructions from Central Command?”

“Oh, yeah. Command says that the Taurians are lying—about their troop strength and accepting our surrender. But scuttlebutt says they aren’t lying about taking our jumpers—so we’re stuck here in the desert fun, LT.”

“We can avoid the Taurians—until we run out of water and die,” Henry said in a bleak voice. “Or we can go back to the DropShips, which the Taurians probably have targeted, run out of water and die. Or we can try to break through their lines and die trying. Or we can surrender and get killed by our own forces—and if we are lucky enough to avoid that fate, probably be killed by the Taurians anyway. They hate us, you know.”

“That’s about the size of it, LT. Major Potter wants us on the move by 0300—he wants the approaches to that river scouted out and we pulled the short straw.”

Packrat (Driving on desert road - Oswald)

Packrat Scout Car

“You have a . . .,” Henry began, but the Gunny just smiled grimly and unfolded a map and turned on a red-light. “Thanks,” he finished as he considered the map and frowned. “Tight terrain—and I’m not really happy about taking Packrats into the teeth of the Taurians.”

“You got that right,” muttered the non-com. “Aerial recon wasn’t able to get pictures—half of them got shot down by flak approaching the sector that Potter wants us to recon.”

“Flak. We don’t need to scout it—the Taurians are already there if they have flak emplaced.”

“Command believes that it is a small Taurian blocking force and that we can push through to the river and resupply.”

“Based on what?” snorted Henry. “Getting everything else perfectly right to date?” He shrugged and then sighed. “What do you suggest, Gunny?”

Gunnery Sergeant Franks paused and he looked around to make sure no one was eavesdropping. “Three Packrats and less than a platoon of infantry aren’t going to make a difference, LT,” he said very quietly. “The Taurians might shoot us—or hang us—but they might not. And Russert said that we might get ransomed out early from that five-year sentence. If not, doing five is better than buying the farm or dancing Danny Deever.”

“Command will consider that desertion in the face of the enemy, Gunny,” Henry cautioned.

“Yeah—the Sixth will consider that desertion. But, we have orders from Hanse freaking Davion himself to stop this madness.” Joshua snorted. “Thank your lucky stars you are in CSR Battalion, LT. We get the folks who aren’t fanatical followers of the Haseks—unlike the ‘Mech and armor battalions.”

“Praise God for small miracles,” the Leftenant whispered. “If we broadcast our surrender, those fanatics will be on us in less than an hour, Gunny. They are only fifteen klicks back, after all.”

Joshua nodded again. “Russert broadcast coordinates—way the hell up here in the north,” he said pointing to the map. “Get there and throw down arms and we are golden, according to the Taurian prince.”

“The Taurians have a prince?”

“Yeah. Edward Calderon is running the show here apparently—something else we didn’t know going in.”

Henry considered for a moment and then he sighed. “We don’t have the water supplies to make it two hundred kilometers, do we? And . . . what about fuel?”

“If we ration the water hard—maybe, LT. Fuel, we’ve got enough with a bit to spare.”

“How hard on the water rations?”

“Seven liters a day per trooper; maybe less.” Henry winced, but Joshua just shrugged. “Better half rations than none, Sir.”

“You have a point, Gunny,” Henry acknowledged and then he sighed. “There’s really no other choice is there?”

“Not a good many of them, Leftenant.”

Henry looked out over the nineteen enlisted soldiers and lower-ranking NCOs that remained—in addition to himself and the gunny . . . and he sighed. “Start setting up way-points to the surrender coordinates, Gunny Franks,” he ordered. “We leave at 0300; I’m going to get a bit of shut-eye until then . . . that is, if you have things under control?”

“Can do, LT,” the Gunnery Sergeant breathed with a sigh of relief. “Just as soon as I have the Doc slather on some burn gel on your roasted skin—no arguments. I don’t want to lose you to infection if those arms blister up on the move.”

“Whatever you say,” Henry mumbled as he leaned back against a ruck sack—in seconds he was fast asleep.

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