Chapter 18

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The battle in the forest was one of sheer madness as humans battled Kreelans, with both desperately fighting against the upwelling of carnivorous amphibians that threatened to devour them all.
Stalin's craggy face wore a broad smile as the chaos and the carnage rang like music in his ears. He would have liked to have been able to see more clearly, but the darkness and pouring rain put paid to that. He heard Ortiz order the column forward as she and the others with her made to fight the Kreelans. He felt a momentary pang of loss that she would die here, but that was as God willed. They would all die someday, and today was as good a day as any.
Then he saw Walker's LTV get hit with a grenade that sailed from the darkness like a glowing jewel. The vehicle spun out and rolled over just before the weapon detonated, sending tendrils of artificial lightning over the metal body, into the surrounding trees, and lancing into the ground. Too bad, he thought. Of all those around him, Walker had understood him best, but he would shed no tears for her death. Here time, then, had come, as well.
But it was not to be his day to die. He would stay with the convoy, not to care for the civilians for whom he had not the least sympathy. No, he would stay because his true nemesis was here.
His breath caught as he saw a shadow detach itself from the flat bed ahead of the one he was riding, an alien figure momentarily caught in his own vehicle's headlights, sailing into the dark Hell around them.
"No!" Stalin hissed, tightening his grip on his rifle. Without hesitation, he leaped from the flatbed, hurling himself after Reza.
Walker was suspended in a nightmare of darkness and rain, of screaming and thunder. It reminded her of home, of when she was young. Her mother screaming at her father. Her father hitting her mother. The earsplitting crack of the gun held in Walker's hands as she shot her father in the back. The horror of seeing the red stain over her mother's heart as her father collapsed to the floor, the bullet having speared through him to kill her as well. The look in her mother's eyes as the life went out of her and her body collapsed. The sirens and shouts as the militia came. The cries of anguish from her own lips, the cries that filled her soul every day since. And the pain. Always, the pain, like fire, burning her flesh. Burning her soul.
With a gasp, Walker snapped awake. She hung suspended, upside down, in the LTV, which had rolled onto its back. It was pointed up at an angle, the rear having sunk deep into the mud. The cabin was filled with smoke and steam, and she had no doubt she would have suffocated had not the plastisteel windows blown out. Or, as she saw in a flash of natural lightning, had been melted. It took her a moment to realize that the only reason she hadn't cooked was because the LTV had flooded with water when it flipped over after the grenade had detonated and the water had carried the worst of the electrical charge and heat away.
That wasn't to say she had escaped completely unscathed. Her legs, arms, chest and face felt raw, and in some spots far worse. Running her hands carefully over her body, she found that she now was the proud wearer of molten metal and plastic, now cooled to merely burning hot, that had spattered over her.
A small river flowed across the ceiling below her, running between the windows, which were half submerged in the muck, and she could tell the vehicle was continuing to slowly sink. If she didn't escape soon, she never would. It would be impossible to force open the doors, assumed they weren't fused shut, against the mud, and the LTV didn't have a belly hatch.
That realization sent a jolt of adrenaline through her. She had to get out of her metal sarcophagus. Reaching for her harness release, she found that it had been fused closed by a blob of metal.
"Shit," she hissed. Curling herself forward, she reached out for her combat knife, which was strapped to her right calf. After a few fumbling attempts, as her right hand was badly burned, she managed to pull it free and was about to start hacking through the restraints when she caught a subtle movement out of the corner of her eye.
A Kreelan warrior, crouching down, was staring down at her through the melted window.
Dropping her knife, Walker reached for her sidearm, but she knew she'd never get a chance to draw it. She saw the flicker of the Kreelan's sword as the warrior cocked her arm back to stab Walker with it.
Then there was a boom and accompanying flash, and the Kreelan, a look of surprise on her face that echoed what Walker felt, fell forward into the muck, so close that her long braided hair whipped out and actually brushed Walker's nose.
"Hello?" Walker called, finally wrestling free her sidearm.
She closed her eyes in relief. "Davis! Is that you?"
"Yeah," he said, as if surprised. "Yeah, it's me!"
"Well don't just stand there, you moron! Get me out of here — this pig is sinking!"
"Right. Hold onto your horses."
Davis pulled the Kreelan's body back through the mud. "Okay, come on."
"Dammit, Davis, I'm stuck! I can't release the harness and I dropped my knife."
After a moment, she heard him mutter, "Oh." Then he was on his back, wriggling through the window toward her. The LTV was still sinking, and there was barely enough room for even his skinny body.
"Hurry." Walker reached out and took the knife he offered, and was relieved to see that he had a second one. "I'll do the waist, you work on the shoulder straps."
The two put their blades to work, and Walker was gratified to see that Davis kept his weapons at least as sharp as she did. In a few strokes, the tough shoulder straps parted. Walker cut most of the way through the waist strap, then put out her free hand to try and break her fall as she cut it through the rest of the way. With a yelp, she fell unceremoniously into the water in the top of the cabin. "Help me," she told Davis as she tossed the knife past him. She wasn't sure what she feared more, being trapped in the LTV or being torn apart by the damn amphibians. It couldn't be long before they started to come out of the ground here, too. "Get me out!"
Grabbing her arms, Davis braced his feet against the side of the sinking vehicle and hauled her out. She was terrified for a moment as her body armor caught on the edge of the window frame, but with a powerful yank that seemed beyond the ability of Davis's scrawny body, she was free. Quickly getting to their feet, they staggered to where a tree as big around as Walker stood tall had fallen and clambered on top of it to get away from the things that must be lurking underground. Behind them, the LTV groaned and sank further, the window disappearing into the water and mud.
"Thanks, Davis," Walker gasped
She turned to him. She couldn't see shit in the murk, but he sounded strange. "You okay?"
"Not sure. I think...I think I got hit." He made what sounded like a sob. "I lost the lieutenant. I got turned around and wound up here."
"And it was a damn good thing, too." She gripped his arm. "Listen, Ortiz can take care of herself. Now let me take a look at you." She quickly ran her hands over the front of his armor, not daring to risk a light, then had him lean forward so she could check his back. A Kreelan throwing weapon protruded from his back plate, one of the blades having penetrated between his ribs just below the heart. She knew that normally she shouldn't remove a blade without a corpsman ready to seal the wound, but it had to be tearing him up inside with every step. She was amazed he was still alive. "Yeah, you caught a little something. Hand me your sealer."
He extracted a tube from his emergency pouch and handed it to her, and as he did so, she undid the lower latches on his armor.
"Okay, hang on. This is gonna hurt." Without giving him a chance to think about it, she grabbed the weapon, careful not to cut off her fingers on the other blades, and yanked it out. Davis grunted with pain and arched backward. Walker pushed her hand under the armor and felt around until she found the wound. Pressing the tube into it, she squeezed hard, squirting every drop of the liquid bandage into the opening in his flesh.
Davis didn't make a sound, but she could feel him quivering in pain.
"Okay," she told him, pulling her hand away and refastening the catches on the armor, pulling the adjustments tight. "That's it."
"That was enough," he gasped. "That hurt."
"Hey, you should feel what it's like to get spattered by molten LTV."
She could see his teeth as he parted his lips in a grin. "Yeah, that must hurt, too."
"Enough screwing off, Marine," Walker said as she forced herself to return to the ground, then helped Davis down. The sounds of battle still carried through the rain. Having lost her rifle, she picked up the dead Kreelan's sword. "Time to earn our pay.

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