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    The Ghosts of Piscium Valley, Part Six: Survivors...

    There are some writer notes below pertinent to this section. Spoilery for this chapter/part, so they are at the end.

    After about 45 minutes of trudging through the thickening underbrush of the forest floor they began to smell smoke.

    “Sergeant, do you smell that? It doesn’t smell like that burning fuel… there doesn’t seem to be much wind here either, not under these trees anyway.”

    “Yes I do,” he replied.

    “It smells like… a camp fire but there’s more than that. I don’t know. I don’t like it.”

    As they continued, the smell grew and they began to see wafts of the smoke itself, like fog in the night.

    “Um… Sergeant?”

    “I know, keep going.”

    They soon broke out into a small clearing, revealing the source of the smoke. The ground was charred to a crisp, as well as the faces of the trees facing the clearing. In it they found what he had feared but needed to confirm since they were so close.

    The charred remains of one of their company’s dropships lay on its side, crumpled nearly beyond recognition. It was nearly whole, but twisted badly. He shivered looking at it… it would have been a bad wreck, even without the fire.

    “I don’t want to know Sergeant, but we have to find out, don’t we? Who was it?”

    “Soldier, look at me,” he said taking Henthorn by the shoulders, “there is nothing we can do for them now. Anyone that survived is gone… and I’m really sorry, but we can’t do anything for the dead. The Consortium will know we were here if we do.”

    “Are you sure Sergeant?” Henthorn asked him as he wiped tears from his eyes, “Our brothers and sisters might be in there… they deserve better.”

    “I know they do. I want them to have better. Will it make it easier if I make it an order?”

    “No. It won’t. I understand, but it won’t make it easy,” Henthorn replied, his voice quavering.

    “Listen, the fire destroyed anything useful, but I’m still going to go up there and check it out. I want you to stay here.”

    “Ok,” he replied flatly.

    Henthorn dropped the straps of the stretcher, un-slung his weapon and turned his attention to the tree line, putting his back to the wreck. After checking the magazine, Sergeant Huygens shouldered the carbine and approached the wreck slowly, his foot falls raising small clouds of ash as he walked. He saw a few embers and even a small lick of flame here and there, the last dying light of what was surely an inferno. The fuselage still radiated a great deal of heat, still cooling from the fire, the pops and ticks of cooling metal still audible. Getting as close as he thought he could bear, he noted that the smell also changed. When the stench caused him to gag and his abdomen to involuntarily heave, he stopped. He was careful to keep his retching quiet; he didn’t want to alert Henthorn to his tragic discovery.

    He saw that the ramp on the rear of the craft had been torn off in the crash. Straining his eyes, he tried to look into the interior. He dared not use a flashlight but what he could see was not encouraging. He desperately hoped that he was wrong, that he was instead seeing melted insulation, dangling wire, hydraulic lines and the broken and twisted sub-frame. From the looks of things, even by the outline of vague silhouettes, he knew better. It looked like the seats were all occupied when it burned.

    He closed his eyes, bowed his head and said a prayer to no deity in particular, hoping that if they were to die, that they were dead before the fire burned them.

    He backed away and turned his attention to the tail that was largely broken free of the main fuselage, only attached by the connecting wires and hydraulic lines. One side had the fortune to have turned away from fuselage, shielding it from the intense heat of the fire. He was able to still make out the Unit crest and the tail number. It was Echo Two-Four. Fourth Squad of Second Platoon, the Hell Cats. He didn’t remember hearing their call sign during the engagement report. To him this seemed to confirm he fears that it was as bad as it looked after he bailed out.

    He backed away from the wreckage and pulled out his computer. Checking the reference marker he had entered previously, he corrected its position and entered a few notes. When he finished, he returned to Henthorn who was keeping a vigilant watch on the forest.

    “Well… who was it Sergeant?”

    “Echo Two-Four, the Hell Cats fourth squad.”

    “Were they, I mean are they…”

    “I couldn’t tell,” he said finding it easier to lie now, “The thing is still hot. We’d have to wait for quite a while if we were going to do something for them.”

    “Ok Sergeant. I think that makes it easier. We really don’t have that kind of time, do we?”

    “No, we do not. We need to get a move on. I’m starting to think that we might want to start moving at night and resting during the day.”

    “Sounds like a good plan to me,” he said as he slung his weapon and reached for the stretcher straps, “let’s get out of here.”

    “Keep your eyes out for any of the ordinance that thing was carrying. If the pilot was still conscious and they went down on fire, he would have ditched it before crashing. The fuselage was intact so obviously, there was none onboard.”

    “Got it. Do you think we’ll find any?” Henthorn asked, hopefulness returning to his voice.

    “Not really. The ordinance should have fallen well behind us actually… but you never know.”

    They continued their trek in relative silence until almost dawn. Sergeant Huygens was about to call a halt to look for shelter when he heard something.

    “Henthorn, stop,” he whispered.

    Before Henthorn could ask, he held his finger to his lips, then pointed at his ear and then in the direction he thought he had heard something. Henthorn nodded and pointed at his eyes with an expectant look, to this Sergeant Huygens shook his head.

    There it was again. A metallic click that sounded like the safety of a rifle disengaging. Looking over to Henthorn, caught his eye and mimed pulling a trigger and pointed in the direction he had heard the click. He slowly started reaching for his carbine when he heard them.

    “Halt, who goes there?” The voice said urgently in what seemed to be a Colonial Republic accent.

    Not seeing the speaker, he hesitated.

    “I’ll say again who is there? Answer or be fired upon.”

    Definitely Colonial Republic he decided.

    “Sergeant Huygens. First Squad, Third Platoon, Echo Company.”

    “No shit?” The voice exclaimed, “Advance to be recognized.”

    The voice called them to halt again after a few more steps as a soldier appeared from the brush with his rifle raised.

    “So, Sergeant. How can I tell you are legit? What’s your platoon’s name?”

    “War Dogs. I recognize you Corporal Miller. You’re with Fourth, the Spartans.”

    “I don’t know… seems good. What do you think McCray?” Corporal Miller asked his fellow soldier who was also now coming out of the brush.

    “Sergeant Huygens? I thought you were a Corporal,” McCray asked.

    “Promoted right before the drop,” he replied.

    “Alright, cool. Congratulations and all that. Who’s that with you?”

    “Private Henthorn,” he replied identifying himself.

    “Oh yeah, I know you. One of the last times we had a company mass formation, I remember seeing you at the end of your squad giving the guys in fourth the stink eye. What was up with that?”

    “Um, I didn’t like the way some of you were looking at the females in our platoon,” Henthorn said sheepishly as he scratched his head.

    “Alright, alright, fair play,” the Corporal nodded with a smirk, “Gutsy, ballsy… I think I like you, Henthorn.”

    “Um, thanks?”

    “All right you two, this way,” the Corporal said with a tilt of his head, “we’re holed up over here.”

    They started to march of in a different direction than Sergeant Huygens had intended to go. If they hadn’t called out, he would have missed them entirely.

    “Corporal, you said we… how many of you are there?”

    “Well, counting the LT, we’ve got five.”

    “Lieutenant Harris made it?”

    “Yeah, but I’m not sure if you could count him really. Sergeant, I don’t want to speak ill of an officer, but this guy… He ain’t right in the head. I think he’s cracked to be honest. He keeps sayin’ we’re going to wait at this crash site for pick up. I think we should move out to one of the rally points, but he says that he will shoot deserters. Already pulled his pistol on one of us just for asking a question for clarification. Despite that though, he has us going out periodically on short foot patrols. Not a bad idea, but weird given his fear of so called deserters. I’m thinking that maybe you can talk some sense into him, being a real noncom and all.”

    “What do you mean by ‘real noncom’?”

    “He seems to think that Corporal isn’t a real noncom. I mean, the LT has always been a hard ass ball buster but this is different. I’d refer to him as an asshole, but like I said, I think he’s cracked.”

    “You said ‘this’ crash site. I take it it’s not your own?”

    “No. We bailed out like most everyone else seemed to... we lost two thirds of the damned squad in the process. After we landed, if you can even call it that… most of us needed to cut ourselves out of the trees, we just started marching. We passed a few wrecks before we found this one. It’s Four Three and it seems to have been landed mostly intact. I mean don’t get me wrong, it came down hard, but this one looks like she could be flown again. No signs of life or um, bodies. Pilot’s survival kits are gone, along with two of the PDW’s.”

    “Hmm, what makes him think that you should wait at this crash site for pickup?”

    “I don’t know Sarge. He says that he used the radio up in the cockpit and called HQ… but here’s the thing, I checked my radio and the readout was saying ‘no signal’ when he did. I don’t know if that matters being different types of radios and all."

    "It shouldn't actually. You might not be able to use it if it isn't coded right, but you'll still be able to pick it up though."

    “Yeah, that's what I thought. He hangs out up there in the pilot’s chair all day, sleeps up there too. He only comes out to use a cathole and eat. He just sits up there all day, I think he plays with the buttons and talks to himself.”

    “Thanks Corporal, I appreciate your candor. Don’t worry about speaking ill of an officer if you think their actions are presenting a hazard. This certainly seems to be the case.”

    “Thanks Sarge, we’re almost there,” he said as he cupped his hands to his mouth and mimicked a dove cry. A moment later he heard a squawk that as far as he could tell was an agitated squirrel.

    “That was my idea. I said to hell with the challenge and password nonsense figured we’d use animal noises instead.”

    They passed through another tree line and into a partial clearing where Echo Four Three had crashed. The Corporal had been right, this ship was indeed in remarkable condition, it was in one piece and upright. He found this encouraging; especially when he considered the ordinance racks and the use he might be able to put them to. It looked like the pilot had crashed down through the canopy barely under control; he could see scuffs of paint and missing bark on several of the trees around the edge of the opening. Before it had come to its final rest, it had been flown under the overhang of the trees helping to conceal it from above.

    Upon their arrival at the crash landing site, these soldiers had gotten out the camouflage netting and further concealed it and their presence here. They had dug out a fighting position for a medium machine gun to the rear of the open dropship, facing down into the valley.

    As they approached, a soldier sitting on the edge of the foxhole jumped up from her breakfast and scrambled for her weapon.

    “Corporal, what the…?” She exclaimed.

    “Santiago, chill. It’s cool. Survivors from Three One. This is Sergeant Huygens and Private Henthorn. LT up there?” Corporal Miller said pointing up the ramp of the dropship.

    “Yeah, where else,” she said derisively.

    “And Ellie?”

    “Uh, treeline… I think,”

    “C’mon Santiago, you know better than that. McCray, take the point and Santiago... go check on Ellie,” the corporal said tiredly.

    “Alright,” she said with a sigh as she made her way to the tree line.

    “Who’s Ellie?” Sergeant Huygens asked.

    “That would be PFC Lewis and if I catch you checking her out Henthorn, I just might have to give you the stink eye too.”

    “What? I… but…” Henthorn stammered.

    “Ahh, forget about it Henthorn, I’m just yanking your chain.”

    “Henthorn, take a point on the perimeter with McCray if you would,” Sergeant Huygens said.

    “Sure thing Sarge, I’m on it,” he replied.

    “Santiago is my senior spec four, she’s helping me keep this thing together,” Corporal Miller said, turning back to Sergeant Huygens.

    “I mean, there’s only four of us… but with the LT in his current state, it’s kinda falling on me. Gives me a whole new level of respect for you full noncoms, y’know? I’ve got Santiago to rely on as my second, leaving McCray and Ellie to lead, if you can even call it that…”

    Corporal Miller trailed off and turned to face Sergeant Huygens fully.

    “It was McCray he pulled his pistol on, but it scared the shit out of Ellie. She’s Aerospace Assault and battle hardened like the rest of us, maybe not as much, but she’s good soldier. A bad ass even at times, but at the risk of sounding like I’m belittling her… she’s good kid too. She kinda has a bit of timidness to her though… at times it’s almost seems like she’s out of place… like, what’s a sweetheart like her doing out here, you know? Kinda makes you want to look out for her like a little sister, but chances are with her, she just might be the one fishing your ass out of the fire.

    “I don’t get it. She’s gone into battle and faced down the Consortium like the rest of us. I’ve seen her shoot Consorts practically in the face at close range without hesitation or much afterthought… but this was different. The LT scared her bad. The way she’s been acting, I’m a little worried about her. I guess it’s one thing to go into battle and face the enemy, it’s entirely another thing when it is one of your own, someone you know and are supposed to trust that’s pulling the gun at close range.”

    Corporal Miller sighed, lowered his head and kicked at the dirt. He got the feeling that Corporal Miller felt to be in a position where he didn’t have someone to confide in. Santiago was helping run the show but it looked like he was trying to put himself between the troops and the LT. As much as this was a brief of their current situation, it was also Corporal Miller venting because he has no one else until now to talk to about it.

    “To be honest Sergeant,” he said, lowering his voice, “Santiago and I have been trying to make preparations while the LT is sleeping. We were planning on bailing on this place in another day or two. I don’t trust him and we need to get out of here before another outburst ends with a body bag. We were going to wait until a couple hours after nightfall, take those two and just vanish.”

    “It’s ok Corporal, I think given the situation your describing, I might do the same.”

    “Well maybe we won’t need to now,” Corporal Miller said brightening as he turned toward the dropship.

    He mounted the ramp, stopped at the top and banged on a storage compartment door with his fist as though he was knocking on a door.

    “Sir. Lieutenant Harris?” He called out.

    “What is it Miller?” A voice called out from the front.

    Sergeant Huygens noted that the Lieutenant failed to address him by his rank, a sign of disrespect and judging by the tone of the LT’s voice, one of contempt. With what Corporal Miller had already told him, this told him volumes more.

    “Our patrol found survivors. Sergeant Huygens and Private Henthorn from Three One.”

    There was a creak of a chair heard from the front and then the sound of approaching footfalls on the deck plates. Reaching the sunlight, Sergeant Huygens recognized him immediately and now knew who he was dealing with. He was Echo Company’s newest officer, having only arrived at the unit some three months ago. He was good enough to have lasted this long, but there were hushed murmurs circulating the company concerning his leadership competency.

    “So, third herd, huh?” the Lieutenant asked.

    The rhyming nickname third herd was meant to be a playful tease of a nickname, but hearing the platoon leader of Fourth Platoon say it now and like this grated on his nerves. He considered saying something but bit his tongue.

    “Yes sir. Third Platoon,” he said, subtly correcting him instead.

    “When’s the last time you slept Sergeant? You look like crap.”

    He realized it actually was a good question when he realized that he had to think about the answer.

    “Two nights ago sir, first night of planet fall.”

    “Well, we have a secure enough area. Take a nap and get some sleep, both of you. I’ll talk to you after you have had some rest and not before then,” the Lieutenant said and then returned to the front of the ship.

    “Well, wasn’t expecting that. I was expecting him to give you an immediate grilling, a dressing down even,” the Corporal said with surprise.

    “That nap sounds like a good idea actually,” Sergeant Huygens said.

    “Sure thing,” the Corporal replied, “You want to bunk up in here or would you rather sleep outside?”

    “In here will be fine I think. Just do me two favors.”

    “Sure thing Sarge, what?”

    Sergeant Huygens detached the silencer from the PDW carbine and handed it to him.

    “Hide this on our stretcher and then hide the stretcher. Using that silencer on this carbine is supposed to be unauthorized. Luckily, he didn’t see it on my back.”

    “You got it Sarge,” he said with a wink, “How about you Henthorn?”

    “I think I’ll say in here too. I’ll help you with the stretcher and I’ll get my ruck first though.”

    “Oh, hey Sarge,” Corporal Miller called to him as he went down the ramp, “You want a wake up?”

    “Sure. Local noon if I’m not already up.”

    “Sure thing,” he said as he and Henthorn departed.

    He dropped his rucksack on the row of seats lining the interior of the ship. He propped it up to use it as a pillow and lay down, stretching across several seats. He wasn’t presently worried about what he was told about the Lieutenant, but knowing that he had already demonstrated a willingness to draw his sidearm on a subordinate, he unbuckled the retaining strap on his holster just the same. He closed his eyes and was asleep nearly instantly.

    Sergeant Huygens woke with a start and found himself in nearly the same position he was in when he fell asleep, his hand still resting on his sidearm. After he refastened the retainer on the holster, he stiffly swung himself off the bench seat and rose to stretch. He could hear several voices outside in conversation. He glanced over at the bench on the other side of the ship and saw that Henthorn must have already joined them outside.

    He stumbled slightly and went down the ramp to join them. Outside, he found them at the foxhole, a freshly opened case of rations between them. Hearing him on the ramp, Corporal Miller turned.

    “Oh hey, there you are Sergeant; I was just about to come get you. Come join us for lunch,” he said patting the rations box.

    Reaching them, he dropped down and sat on the edge of the hole, dangling his legs down into it.

    “So, you’ve met McCray and Santiago… this is PFC Lewis,” Corporal Miller said as he sat.

    “So you’re the one they call Ellie?” Sergeant Huygens asked.

    “Yes, Sergeant. Nice to meet you.”

    “Before I use your nickname, I must ask. How did you get it?”

    “My initials, ‘LL’ for Lindsey Lewis.”

    “And you don’t mind it?”

    “No, Not at all… and Sergeant? Thanks for asking,” she said with a smile, pleased that she was asked about the origin of her nickname.

    “So, Sergeant. Henthorn here was telling us about some of your exploits. He told us about the fuel tankers, but wouldn’t tell us about the bridge because he wasn’t there. Care to fill us in on that one? It sounds like a good one and we could use a good story,” Corporal Miller said as he was tearing open his ration pouch.

    “Sure,” he said as he dug through the rations box. Finding one he liked, he took it and started his story as he prepared and began to eat his lunch, answering questions as they arose.

    “So, that was only six. Imagine what we might be able to pull off with a full load out,” he said, hitching his thumb over his shoulder at the dropship, “we might not be able to stop them, but we sure as hell will slow them down.”

    He looked around at the faces of the soldiers sitting before him. When he first encountered them, they were bleak looking and tired. Now they seemed revitalized, seemingly eager to join him in harassing the advancing Consortium.

    “You know, that’s a fine story and all, but I don’t want you getting all worked up over a fool’s errand,” a voice said behind them.

    As Sergeant Huygens turned, the other soldiers turned away or lowered their heads. Behind him, he saw the Lieutenant standing at the top of the ramp. The Corporal’s soldiers sense of enthusiasm deflated by the mere appearance of the Lieutenant.

    “Miller, McCray. I want you on patrol. Sergeant, a word,” the LT said sternly, his voice tinged with what seemed like tired frustration.

    “Yes sir,” he said as he stood to join him in the dropship.

    I realized two things while I was writing and editing this. Corporal Miller started to sound like Corporal Puck in my head and I started to feel like I was writing him like that too. I shifted a bit and I hope that it shows. I think there is still a little bit in there in some future dialog though. The other thing is the name Miller. That was an accident actually.

    I think this is one of the prime reasons that I stopped writing after I found We're Alive, I might have even mentioned it to Kc himself. The last thing I want to do is allow myself to be excessively influenced by another writer inadvertently/subconsciously. If you catch me on something, tell me.

    There are a few intentional Easter egg call outs to WA though... some are already out there, some are to come.

    Another good thing that has come to pass is that owing to the rather large size that this work has grown too, I have a significant amount of material "banked." I honestly could probably post parts seven, eight... even nine right away or very soon. They need more editing for this "draft" presentation, but I'm pleased nonetheless.
    Last edited by Red Shirt; Jul 1st, 2014 at 12:59 AM.
    "I've got tons of great ideas. Trouble is, most of 'em suck." George Carlin
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    Hey, get a load of this. Guess who started writing again and has a spot in the fan fiction subforum?



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