Sgt. Jakob Petrush dove for safety behind his kitchen counter as glass and ceramics began shattering everywhere. Unarmed, he had no choice but to wait out the barrage.
"Transferred! You've been transferred, again!" the counter did nothing to protect Sgt. Petrush from Anna's shrill voice. He winced as a plate smashed into the wall opposite him and shattered.
"Where have you been transferred to?" Anna asked hotly, another plate at the ready.
"Somewhere in the Badlands, a training center," Jakob replied, wishing he had been assigned to somewhere quiet and safe, like Basal.
"A training center, huh, motek?" Anna answered, using the Jerusalemite word for 'sweetie.' Jakob knew he was in for it now. He covered his face as another plate sailed overhead and smashed against the wall, shattering-and then: silence.
Sgt. Petrush took a moment to compose himself before going over the top. He breathed deeply. The kitchen had certainly looked better. Shards of ceramic and glass lay all over the floor. In the center of the carnage stood Anna, her thick dark curls hanging over her face and shoulders. Tears streamed down her face.
"You promised!" she bawled as he wrapped his thick arms around her gently, "you said you had the seniority, you said you had the pull. You weren't going to leave again!" she choked.
"I know," Jakob replied softly as his shoulders sagged, "but they need me to teach. I can't fight it, not with what's going on now. I have to go."
She looked up at him and forced herself to nod quietly.
* * *
"Yes, I know I only have 20% battery power left, thank you very much. Now shut up, we're almost there," I growled to my Hunter, "you'll be revving up soon enough."
So this was guerilla warfare. Well, I'll tell you now, all those old trids about smelly, bearded, Equatorial Hispanic-speaking gun nuts chomping on fat cigars had it all wrong. Well, they were right about the stench and the beards. I hadn't showered or shaved in three weeks. But that was the last thing on my long list of concerns. Right now, I was about to do something massively foolish. I, Danyel Benaari, was about to bungee-jump in a Hunter heavy gear. It all started about a week ago...
* * *
"Second platoon, assemble please," Sgt. Petrush ordered calmly. We had grown accustomed to his relaxed manner, so unlike our drill sergeants in basic training. In just twenty seconds all of Second Platoon had assembled amidst the rocky broken terrain high in the Pacifica Range where we had made our camp. Sgt. Petrush looked us over, smiling.
"That was quick," he looked around. We had stopped standing at attention weeks ago; Olin was quietly eating a ration bar as Norita scratched his jaw. Caird took a drag from a cigarette.
"It seems there's been a supply error," Sgt. Petrush continued, "while 3rd Platoon grows fat off a mountain of foodstuffs, Olin here eats what very well may be the last of our ration bars."
Olin paused mid-chew and swallowed audibly, "say it ain't so Sarge!" he whined, "doncha know how many of these I have to eat to maintain my figure?" Olin patted his belly and grinned toothily as a couple of people, myself included, chuckled.
"Indeed, we're nearly out of food. Notice, please, that 3rd Platoon has yet to offer us any of their bounty, even after I put in a diplomatically worded request to their commander," I smiled; we didn't know much about Sgt. Petrush, but after only a few days at the Orde Wingate Special Warfare School it became apparent that our commander and Sgt. Orford, 3rd Platoon's CO, did not play nicely together. I just grinned and imagined the wording of such a request.
"Sir, if you're suggesting we raid 3rd Platoon's food stores," Unger, our tall, strict, blonde Grizzly pilot from Swanscombe hesitated, "well, I'm all for it."
Thus began a week of endless scrounging, petty theft, grim secrecy and planning which ended in Phillips, Buriana and myself perched precariously atop a cliff in our gears, nearly drained of battery power, centimeters from a 100-meter drop. My stomach rumbled, reminding me why I was doing this, and had volunteered, no less. I hadn't eaten in a day, which had an upside: I wasn't going to vomit in my helmet during the upcoming maneuver.
"Right, we're at 20 seconds to strike," I muttered while putting my hands on the controls. I let out a deep breath as my HUD began counting down. To my left, Phillips' Jaguar was already crouched. To my right, Buriana's Cheetah gave a thumbs-up sign. I grew a little queasy; the counter ticked off the remaining seconds: 3...2...1...
We jumped simultaneously and plummeted headfirst to the ground below. Boy, it came up fast. I gritted my teeth, shouting anyways, while my safety harness dug into my shoulders. My HUD was registering all sorts of things like 'collision alert' and 'EGRESS.' I thought about closing my eyes, but then realized that would be rather unwise. The vibroblade was already in my gear's manipulator. This had to be timed perfectly. As the apex of the bungee's elasticity neared, for that brief instant when my gear would be hanging just ten meters from the bottom of the cliff, that was when I had to cut the cable attached to the back of my gear, and land this tin can on its feet. Admittedly, I had the whole macromove preprogrammed into the NNet last night, so I'd just have to press one button.
I felt the gut-churning deceleration begin, and then...
My gear lurched, as it flung its legs down violently. There was a loud thud as the huge dust clouds caused by our landing blinded my visuals. I gritted my teeth, not letting my queasiness get to me, and flicked the ignition. My Hunter's V-engine roared to life, as if it was itching to go, and I powered forward, crouched low using my SMS. Buriana's Cheetah zipped past me, and my passive sensors picked up Phillips' Jaguar behind me. We were itching for some action and I grinned, thinking just how much fun this was going to be.
* * *
"You know Shmuel, I never knew springers smelled so bad until I came to the Commune. Hell, I'd never even seen a springer until I showed up here," Anna leaned on her shovel, and mused aloud to the closest of her new found herding springer friends. She grinned, and got back to shoveling springer dung into a large wheelbarrow. While Jakob was away, she had to keep busy, and earn her keep on the Commune. Unfortunately, the Mishmar Ha-Yam Commune had no real need for biochemists on the payroll, so Anna was put into the work pool, which meant that by the end of next month, she would be well acquainted with all the springers, and their various odours.
A serene calm came over Anna. It was truly beautiful here near Lake Clearwater. Her work was hard, but somehow fulfilling, and she felt better doing this than any other type of work she had done before. Though, the smell was something else. She grinned, sighed and dug her shovel into the pile of springer manure that had accumulated during her musings. She worked until she could smell the food being cooked at the dining hall.
"Sorry Yanav, but I just won't eat anything I worked with today," Anna grinned, and passed the plate of roasted springer down the table. The dining hall was the largest building on the commune, and doubled as theatre, sound stage, dance hall and meeting room. Anna felt the energy in the room. There were exotic works of art on the walls, some, she was told, were from Earth, and had been Jerusalemite artifacts for millennia. It felt good here, even if the food was a little uninspired. Anna looked back down at the table, and loaded her plate with roasted hopper and rice. It was then that she realized how hungry she was and how hard she had worked all day.
"So, Anna," Yanav's Jerusalemite Indo-Arabic accent was thickened by the food in his mouth, "how long until Jakob comes back?" he grinned. Everyone on the commune knew about Anna and Jakob's last fiery argument. Jakob had to order an entire new set of dishes.
"Oh, not too long," Anna glanced at her wristwatch, "just another eight weeks, three days, seventeen hours, eight minutes and," she paused, "thirty seconds. Why do you ask?" She missed Jakob terribly.
"No reason," replied Yanav, with a grin, and was about to stuff more roast springer into his mouth when a window shattered, and a wine bottle landed in the dining hall. This wine bottle was filled with liquid; a rag was stuffed down its neck. The rag was lit. Then another window shattered. And another. And another.
* * *
"Colonel Moore, I demand that a court-martial try Sgt. Petrush!" shouted Sgt. Orford. Colonel Moore's office resonated with the Sergeant's heavy voice. Seated behind her desk, Colonel Moore remained passive and unmoved. Sgt. Zashok scowled as he stood at the doorway. Beside Sgt. Orford, Sgt. Petrush seemed amused.
"Sgt. Orford, please, lower your voice, or I will ask you to leave," Moore leaned forward, looking up at her two sergeants, "now, I have heard all the reports about why 2nd Platoon raided 3rd Platoon's stores, and how it was accomplished, as well as the list detailing the injuries some of 3rd Platoon's members received," she looked Orford over. His face was bruised, and he winced as he walked into her office. She almost felt sorry for him, "however, since no serious injuries were sustained, and all damage was easily repaired, I cannot consider 2nd Platoon's actions to be such grievous infractions as to necessitate a court martial," she paused and glanced at Sgt. Petrush, "furthermore, Sgt. Orford, I find it odd that 2nd Platoon's food supplies ran out so quickly, and that you were unwilling to donate any of your surplus to them. Could you please explain?"
"Well ma'am, seeing as how the food was sent to us, I didn't see any reason why 2nd Platoon needed any of ours. My men need it just as badly," Orford said. At this, Sgt. Petrush nearly started, but discretion got the better of him.
"I see," Moore intoned in disapproval, "fine. That will be all, Sgt. Orford."
Sgt. Orford gaped for an instant, and then set his jaw squarely. With a quick "Yes Ma'am!" he turned and rapidly exited Colonel Moore's office.
Colonel Moore's steady, stern gaze fell on Sgt. Petrush.
"Sergeant, if you ever pull a stunt like that again, I will have you peeling potatoes in Pioneer for the next forty cycles," she growled. A shiver went down Petrush's spine at the thought of freezing in the winter wonderland of the CNCS. It was then that he noticed Colonel Moore's expression had softened and saddened.
"Jakob, we just received word. Religious extremists have attacked Mishmar Ha-Yam. Fourteen people have been killed," she said evenly. She had had plenty of practice delivering this sort of news after the Battle of Baja.
Sgt. Jakob Petrush felt his stomach turn, but he did not falter, "was Anna...?"
Colonel Moore nodded slowly, "I'm sorry Jakob."
* * *
Phillips and I were standing watch when it happened. The whole camp was well lit in the darkness by the stars, shining brightly in the clear sky. I was standing on the ridge overlooking 2nd Platoon's camp, expecting 3rd Platoon's reprisal raid. We had all the approaches covered, and everyone was fully expecting something. Just not what happened. No, I don't think any of us could have called that one.
The distinctive growl that accompanies a Hunter's start-up broke the calm night.
"Oh shit! They're coming!" I muttered, and then nodded at Phillips, who pointed his flare gun to the sky and fired. Only, they weren't coming. The flare arced high and then I realized that the engine noise I was hearing was coming from within our camp. My eyes only confirmed what I heard. A lone Hunter was powered up and already running amok in our camp. In the dust and darkness, I could make out the crouched run, the MR-25 cannon, and the twin heavy panzerfausts strapped onto the rear armour skirt. Sgt. Petrush was up to something. I watched with amazement as the Hunter ran straight for a parked Jaguar, and toppled it.
"What the fuck does he think he's doing?" Phillips yelped as he watched his Jaguar fall over.
But Sergeant Petrush wasn't done. He ran his Hunter to another gear, and another, toppling them with quick shoves. I winced as he approached my Hunter, and waited...but instead, Petrush turned around to face me. The glowing omnicamera of his Hunter looked right at me, and its right arm bent in salute. I grinned, and returned the compliment.
"Leave it to Sgt. Petrush to make a grand exit," I said. Phillips nodded without a word.
To be continued...
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