Everything hurt. Especially his head.
Pain then darkness.
Scout Harrin Beckles struggled to open his eyes but something held them shut. His right arm would not respond either. Fumbling with his off-hand he found a gooey crust over his face. Rubbing made the pain worse but he slowly dragged the substance away from his eyes. Struggling to focus he made out a camouflage pattern covered in streaks of mud. Then above it his boots. Why were his legs up there?
Patting with his left hand revealed he was lying upside down. His right arm was under his body. It felt like he was resting on gravel on the left but without turning his head he could not be sure. He was too vulnerable like this so the first priority was to get the right way up. Gritting his teeth he bent his legs and started to topple sideways.
Pain and darkness.
His vision slowly cleared. The throbbing in his head was drowned by a stabbing sensation in his gut. Above him towered a rock face and above that the stars glittered.
Last he remembered, it was still light so he had been here a while. So his attackers thought he was dead or did not care; either way he was safe enough here for a while. That made the second priority working out how rutted he was. Kicking feebly he confirmed his legs still worked, so hopefully no spinal injury. Three limbs working. His right arm still felt slack but he could feel tingling. If he was lucky it was only numb from him lying on it. Running his hand over his torso he felt for injuries. The ampoule of Numb on his tags seemed to be intact. His chest was fine. His hand jerked as it reached his stomach. The surge of pain stopped a proper check but if felt like he had a stomach wound. From the stickiness on his fingers it had reopened when he tipped himself over. If he took the Numb he would be able to move, maybe find his pack, leastways pack the wound without passing out; or he could try to sleep and save the painkiller for tomorrow when he could see what he was doing.
Unless things were going better for everyone else, this was still enemy territory so visibility worked against him too. Drugs now, deal with later if there was one. His right hand slipped off the ampoule cap. Try again. Maybe holding the ampoule in his right hand and twisting with the left. That just turned it in place. The problem was the conditions of use label. What sort of flakhead came up with a list of regulations to go on a drug that stopped you being unconscious in the middle of a war? Probably the same one who decided to write half the list in fancy words. I mean how do you report that you are experiencing paranda, paramia, whatever the rutted word was if you don’t know what it is. Sounded like parachute so probably something to do with airdrops. A dry rattle escaped at the thought of making it back only to get lashes for not reporting you used it while bailing out of a fragged bird.
Teeth were the answer. Eat ration bread long enough and even glued paper started to taste good. With the label chewed away his right hand could grip hard enough to let him twist off the cap. Bracing himself he stabbed the needle down into his stomach. Black suns burnt across the night sky before a liquid chill started to erode the pain.
* * *
“Looks like a Zilf, Sarge. Pretty battered and burnt. Two, maybe three people but they ain’t moving and there’s flies. Maybe they got caught in the blast when some flyboy took out the bridge.”
“Could be Beckles, could be. Probably nothing but better check it anyway.”
Harrin took point as the squad slipped over the ridge. Jogging past the wrecked car, he took up position on the far side of the road, and started scanning the terrain. Even before it got broken in two the bridge was too small for armour so the traitors would probably be headed south. But their plan might be a stupid as ours. So his squad got to drop into enemy territory to report back on whether the mudhumpers were trying to move troops across the rutting huge gash that split the mountain range in two.
“Rut that’s shiny.” The shout drew his attention. Sarge was standing next to the wreck holding up a cup. A golden cup covered in jewels. “Help me get this box out, lads.”
Straining, Sarge and Trevik manoeuvred a crate out of the back of the wreck, accompanied by a gush of slithers and clanks. Harrin’s jaw dropped; the crate was literally dripping with riches. Abandoning his post he jogged back to his squad.
“There’s another crate in there, Sarge,” marvelled Halvas. “How much d’you reckon there is?”
“Enough for a general to spent an hour telling us we ain’t pushing those mudhumpers back like his pencil says we should….” Sarge paused and looked from the wreck to the shattered bridge. “Or maybe a short carry to make up for all the generals we got to carry until this is over. That’s a lot of scrambled egg on those deaders. I reckon two big shots and a driver ain’t reinforcements. Likely these two seen we’re getting closer and weren’t going risk their fancy shoes getting any battle on them. Grabbed the stuff and made a break. We push the Zilf over the edge. Anyone finds it they think it went over when the bridge went. If the deaders had told someone they had this, which they probably ain’t, the drop and the river will make sure no one knows where anything is. We find some out-of-the-way place to stash it then we can all be rich when the mud dries.”
Harrin watched the faces. Sarge was suggesting looting. If Command could requisition enemy supplies then he thought it was only fair the men as did the fighting could but if someone decided to stick by the book, this could turn messy. Trevik was pure muscle; just did what he was ordered. But Halvas was new to the squad so might go either way.
“You four get these crates off the road and get that spill back on the crate. I’ll see if there’s anything in the front.” Sarge’s bark broke the tension.
* * *
The Numb-rush abated and Harrin managed to push himself into a sitting position. Without the pain to muddle him up he could see that the rock face was actually the side of a gully and was only a few feet high. Even better, there was a dark mass lying several yards further along. Carefully twisting around he started crawling toward it.
Recovering his knapsack he pulled out a bandage. Now he could pull the tunic away without blacking out he could see that he had a gunshot wound just below his ceramic insert. By rights should have done a lot of damage but the bullet must have clipped the plate so it went in slow. He thought he could even feel it just below the surface, but even with Numb it wasn’t cunning to go poking around too much.
Bandage in place he slowly eased himself into a kneeling position. With his laser rifle nowhere to be seen he had a knife and one grenade to protect himself, and with a gut wound knife combat was even more stupid than usual. That at meant one chance at killing the first mudhumper squad who found him. Holding onto the rock he carefully straightened until he could peer over the rim. He was in a small gully running across the bottom of a steep slope. Behind him the ground dropped off before plunging over the edge of the mountain. It would be rutting hard to get out of here, but at least he knew where he was now.
* * *
Two loud bangs startled Harrin. Shock froze him for a second leaving him bent forward as Trevik dropped the other end of the crate and ran for the cave mouth. Solid projectile fire meant the mudhumpers had found them. Gathering his wits he dived for his rifle as the pleasing scorch of fire being returned echoed out.
Another loud bang and Trevik’s silhouette disappeared. Harrin decided radio silence was less help than knowing what was out there and tapped his comm-bead. Time stretched alarmingly before a channel opened.
“Harrin? I’m pinned down to the left of the mouth,” whispered Sarge. “It’s just us standing now. They’ve got the path covered but I reckon you could get out the right side and drop over the top of the slope if I give you cover. Break on my mark.”
Thinking back to his initial recon of the site, Harrin tried to predict where the enemy might be.
* * *
At some point during his crawl up the slope the wound had torn open again and it was damp enough that he wasn’t going to make it home. However, thanks to the Numb he didn’t feel much, and he figured he knew what had happened. He had been diving for cover when the bullet hit and instead of stopping at the top he rolled all the way down. If they looked over the edge later the mudhumpers would have assumed he went off the bottom. Just bad luck they got a shot off despite the covering fire.
Or was it?
Three shots to take down three men. That was accurate shooting, but somehow they missed Sarge. Sarge had been in the Zilf alone while they moved the crates. He was sure he remembered seeing one of the deaders was missing a pistol when they started the Zilf rolling. Maybe it fell out of the holster when the car got hit or maybe Sarge took it while he was there. Two close shots from behind would be easy, and Trevik wouldn’t be expecting Sarge to shoot him. Maybe Sarge didn’t want to take the risk of someone ratting or he just figured there was a bigger payout if he didn’t have to share.
Calling on every tatter of stealth that remained he slid up to the lip. He could see Sarge sitting propped up on a rock looking the other way. Harrin drew himself into a crouch and crept forward.
“Sarge. Bet you weren’t expecting to see me again.”
“Beckles! Where the rut…? I saw you roll down that slope.”
“You’re looking well though”
“Yeah. I managed to get the mudhumper when he popped up to shoot you. Turns out he was the only one. A scout or maybe a deserter.” Sarge seemed relieved to see him but Harrin noticed a film of sweat on his brow. “I slung the mudhumper over the edge. Then buried the squad in the cave next to the crates. Seemed fitting. Lucky you made it back now. I was about to leave.”
How convenient, thought Harrin, he disposed of the body. It made sure no one would ask why there was no attacker.
There was no sign of the pistol but Sarge still had his rifle so the knife was useless. Reaching into his webbing he was struck by the justice of this ending. His legs splaying beneath him, Harrin flicked his hand forward. “I kept most of it because I had to carry it up the hill but I figured you deserved a share.”
Sarge instinctively caught the small piece of metal before looking down with furrowed brow.