As was promised and prepared for, here’s the third part of “Hot Snap”–the final, larger chunk will be posted a week from today!
There were more traps, but nobody else fell into a firepit or stepped on a mine with scanners clearing the way. The brown mass thinned throughout the sixth day, and finally gave way to barren hills adorned only by aquatic-color rocks and occasional metal veins exposed by tectonic burps in ages past.
Two hours after dawn on the seventh, they spotted the SolFed flag over F.O.B. Schriver. The F.OB., a hexagon of star-lifted prefabs, fixed the center of a trench grid pinned here and there by pillboxes and ballistic-shielded alloy walls with firing ports set for unarmored infantry. The grid ran in a narrow valley between two mountain peaks.
“Thank you, Logistics,” Darrows sighed, on seeing the walls, “for some shit we have to knock down. Otherwise they’ll be able to shoot into the base when they reach those damn things.” Michel nodded soundlessly.
One of the Navy’s star frigates, three hundred meters of angles, alloys and gun turrets, made its sluggish way past the northern peak. Michel’s readouts told him the dots atop rocky outcroppings were friendly artillery emplacements pre-registered to the space in front of the trenches. Within the F.O.B. proper were three platoon barracks per company here, fifteen in all with four other Companies. Seven hundred-sixty-some Marines. Odds were high they’d leave the F.O.B. without ever fighting.
Captain Marder stopped the company at the entrance and saluted the Corporal on guard. He pointed to a ten-foot wooden pole and the array of signs on it.
“At ease. What’s this fucking eyesore?” Marder asked.
The signs stabbed in every direction but straight. Michel took the opportunity to read them.
Welcome to H3-154! stated one, in neon green block text. That’s ‘Hothouse, Class Three’ and a number HQ pulled directly from their colons for all you civvie tourists! Some places of interest include:
Earth, the Solar System and Decent Beds, 11021 LY. This sign pointed directly down at the ground.
Vega, but who gives a fuck about Vega? 11003 LY, indicated a second. It was at a shallower angle. A tiny scrawl underneath it said something about astronomers.
“Old military tradition, Sir!” the Corporal told Marder. “Lieutenant Olivier set it up.”
“He knows these are only right one night a year?” Marder asked.
“He actually said they’re never accurate, Sir, which was the hard part, Sir!” The Corporal’s voice cracked and he stifled a snicker. Coping by protocol. That’s a new one. Marder nodded and led them into the F.O.B.
“Alright, Marines, gather ’round,” Marder barked from a pit dead-center in the F.O.B., and they did. An aluminum awning shaded a holographic projector. It showed a 3D map of the region.
“We and the rest of 38th Division are to hold position in these passes,” Marder said, gesturing at a staggered curve in the southeastern corner of the map. “Most of the surviving OpFor are subterranean to our northwest. Fleet can’t punch deep enough to touch them without causing unacceptable damage to the planet. Therefore, the 209th and the 452nd are going to push towards us from their landing sites. Force Recon’s already marked the nearest exits from the main warren, here.” Marder pointed at a group of yellow highlights perhaps a dozen miles from the Marines’ positions. “Once the other divisions flush the OpFor, OrCom’s going to keep fire on their heels ’til they run into us. As of this morning, I’ve received additional instructions. For pathogenic reasons, we’re taking no prisoners. They try to surrender… well, they’re not allowed to.”
Extra stillness settled on the Marines.
“Anyone have anything to say to that?” Marder asked.
The silence persisted until Private Phelps shouted, “No mercy for traitors!” Michel knew he wasn’t the only one rolling his eyes inside his helmet. It was just so damned unprofessional.
“Alright then. You’re dismissed to your barracks,” Marder said. He waited a moment. “Dismissed means dismissed, Marines!” Michel and Darrows peeled off, walking for the building marked C3-P1 in block letters.
They picked their way past the last few tent supports and came to the airlock door, where Private Jenner loomed over a stiff-backed engineer with a Second Lieutenant’s golden triangle on each shoulder.
“What do you mean we can’t take the armor off?” Jenner was saying.
“Look, Private, I understand we’re all under a lot of stress, but–”
“What do you mean we can’t take the armor off?”
“The airlocks arrived a few hours after the rest of the prefabs and the barracks were not sealed properly during this time,” the engineer said, obviously reciting from a readout inside his helmet. “We’ve put in requisition orders for decontamination pulsers, but they haven’t arrived yet. If you remove your armor, you will expose yourself to local pathogens.”
“YOU TINY RAT BASTARD!” Jenner tackled the engineer in a howling-servo cacophony and wrapped her hands around his helmet. Metal squealed; the engineer’s weaker helmet crumpled under Jenner’s grip.
“Private Jenner, stand down!” Darrows shouted, in the second before Michel tackled the Private in turn. He used his armor’s command override to lock her down.
“Restrain yourself, Private!” he barked.
“I want out of this stupid fucking suit,” Jenner sobbed. “Let me up. Let me up, I’m going to kill him! You hear me, you bastard?! I’m going to kill you! I’m going to wrap my hands around your scrawny egghead skull and pulp your–” Michel shut her comms off.
He turned to the Lieutenant. “Sir, I–”
“No need, Sergeant,” the Lieutenant said. “I get it. Is my helmet solid? The Mark 3’s integrity sensors have never been precise.” Michel helped the officer to his feet, peering down. The faceplate had two heavy thumb-indents, and finger-craters on each side to match. It was crumpled and scratched, but had no cracks or holes. Michel said as much.
“Good,” the Lieutenant said. “You realize I have to report this?”
“Agreed, Sir,” Michel said, standing straight.
“This is Private Jenner’s first offense?” the Lieutenant asked.
“Yes, Sir. This is her second tour,” Michel answered.
“Keep her out of trouble, and I’ll make sure to highlight the strain the unit’s been under,” the Lieutenant said, resignedly. “Sergeant, I don’t blame her. Mostly, anyway. OrCom tells us where and which way to bend, but we all get fucked the same.” He saluted and marched away.
Michel and Darrows hauled Jenner through the airlock into the barracks. It was packed with beds and V.R. sets, and had its own kitchen. A lot of creature comforts they wouldn’t be able to touch until the Decon crews arrived. If they arrived; Michel doubted this was the only foul-up.
Missing sunlight because we can’t ever take off the armor? asked a note tucked underneath the food synthesizer. Consult your battalion medical team for Vitamin D supplements! Combat your depression without firing a shot! Michel plucked it free and dropped it into a wastebin nearby.
” ‘May you live in interesting times,’ ” Irene said, staring at Michel.
“Thanks,” he said.
“Ancient Chinese threat,” she told him.
The next day, the journalist arrived by shuttle from orbit. He wore an unarmored black envirosuit barely sturdy enough to ward off spores, and flinched from a few of the things wafting into the camp.
“Sergeant Michel,” he said, on entering the barracks, “I’m Hamara. I’ve been given permission to embed with your squad. I’d like to learn what I can.”
“Go troll for your Stargazer somewhere else, civvie,” Jenner snapped.
“Ignore her,” Michel said. “I’ve been waiting to meet one of you types. Hey, Irene,” he called, “You wanna be in the news again?”
“Just talk for me, Gavin,” she jibed, “You know it as well as I do by now.”
“Alright, Ham,” Michel said, “I’ve got time now. Let’s talk.”
“Oh, alright then,” the journalist said. They wandered to a table made for definitively unarmored humans. The journalist sat, suit creasing. Michel stayed standing, but decloaked his armor. On reflection, that might make him more threatening. He elected not to shift back. Then things would be awkward, and this kid was awkward enough already. “Sergeant, I do want to preface this by saying that I’ve made arrangements,” subtle, Michel smirked, “with the proper authorities. I can promise you no sedition charges will be brought against you or any members of your command for anything you say.”
“Ham,” Michel said, “You know all citizens of the Sol Federation have full, unrestricted free speech.”
“Do they?” Ham said. “Of course.” He’d probably winked inside the suit. Is he smarter or dumber than he lets on? Guess we’ll find out.
“True or not,” Michel said, “There won’t be any sedition charges. As long as there are no charges, there’s no sedition.”
“–are going to read too much like Seshie propaganda to do anything, unless high command is stupid enough to try and tamp you down,” Michel said gently. ‘Seshie’ was the official slang for the Secessionists. The unofficial ones weren’t so nice. “You’re not a threat unless they treat you like one.” Michel cocked his head. “So, let’s talk.”
“Alright, uh,” Ham shrugged. “What do you think about the war?”
“Trying to understand it through the people fighting it?” Michel asked.
“I suppose so, yes,” Hamara answered.
“Wrong approach,” Michel said. “All the brimstone and butchery is a distraction, Ham. You want to understand a war, look at the people declaring it.”
“Surely you have some perspective,” the kid pressed.
“I do,” Michel agreed. “We marines, we’re like a sword. A sword’s a good tool to have when you need to cut a man down, and there are definitely some men you have to cut down. Following me so far?”
“Of course,” Ham said.
“Sometimes, though, there’s a mountain to move, and you need a bunch of people with shovels and pickaxes. Except the people with shovels and pickaxes don’t have to move the mountain, it’s not their mountain to deal with.” Michel said, and waited.
“Ah,” Ham said. “I see. I should go present my authorization to your commanding officer. We’ll speak more later, Sergeant Michel.”
(Final Part Forthcoming)
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