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chapter nine
Part Four

In the short time they'd been together there wasn't much Sherona Jones had been able to learn about her Commander, nothing of consequence had happened yet and he wasn't the sort to engage in small talk. In fact the only order he'd given so far was a standing order that the entire Squad clear out of the Troop Carrier each morning during the ANSE. Nothing endeared her to Senior Lieutenant Finnegan more than this.

No matter how rotten the weather, and these parts seemed to get some pretty lousy days, each one of them brightened in the morning at the prospects of gearing up and heading out on a brisk sojourn, enough to work out the kinks of the night, clear the lungs of whatever recycled crud they'd inhaled, and let the Anti-Septic systems fog up the entire rear cabin without risk or discomfort.

That system cost the military nearly a whole percent each year, one - one hundredth of its entire operating budget that was spent to keep their vehicles disease free. Why?

Because if a major situation occurred, one that forced crews to remain in tight quarters for extended periods of time - pretty much what was happening with each team in Buffalo Commons right now - without the ability to scrub down their environment the concern was that the mightiest military force in history might be defeated by a simple strain of influenza.

But getting the full effect of the Anti-Septic, or ANSE Unit, meant enduring a half hour of exposure to a mist that was disturbingly claustraphobic at best and held potential long-term health effects.

In combat they wouldn't have an option, save for a Face Filter that would need separate treatment, but they weren't in combat and thankfully Finnegan hated the mist more than any of them; so each morning, as soon as the Squad could be readied, an external perimeter exercise was begun that would take the group of them out of the Troop Carrier while the ANSE did it's thing.

By the time Finnegan left his command alcove, every element of his Ground Tunic perfectly in place, as though they were heading for Parade inspection, the rest of the Squad was suited up in their external gear, padding set and weapons on stand-by.

Looking at no one in particular Finn stated the mission objective, "We're going to do a two-by-two, cross-cover approach to the south ridge."

Jones immediately went to work, quickly hand-signaling the pairs. Doing it with hand signals was an unnecessary requirement outside of combat but keeping everyone up on the signals was something both the Sergeant and Lieutenant felt was beneficial; practical training in anticipation of the real thing, or as the Basics Instructors used to bellow, "better sweat than blood!"

Finn turned to Cummings and Hreha, the two picked this morning to stay in the front Cab and monitor while the exercise went on, "Standard Op, Corporal."

He got a sharp nod back, Standard Op meant to remain communications silent, unless immediate threat appeared, just as though it were a real combat situation. It also meant Finn wanted the patrol tracked by the Carrier's systems for later review.

With a tap the doors closed between the cab and the rest of the Carrier and Finn turned as the rear hatch opened and the Squad began to peel from it, just like they practiced.

* * *

The Village folk crouched down trying not to be seen as the back end of the beast opened up and green clad insect people climbed out of the odd dwelling.

There was some concern at first because the occupants were erupting with a sense of urgency, as though they knew they were being watched, as though they knew there was a nearby threat. Anderson almost blew their cover by standing to return fire, but Majors jerked his knee bent and took him down without a noise being made.

Horst watched as the entire Squad emptied into the field, moving in an undulating fashion, two-by-two, from the safety of the vehicle and then south across the field toward a rise at the other end. What were they going after? Was another village doing the same thing they were?

Then his expression shifted, rapidly changing from confusion to alarm. He glanced at Majors, the only one of the party who didn't look panicked by the sudden action of their prey. "Do you think they've spotted Indies?"

Jessica Majors cautiously peered over the ridge. She replied quietly, "I'm still not convinced they're not Indies themselves."

"But," Anderson interjected, "if they're Indies then why aren't they heading for us? We're the enemy."

It was a good point. But the question remained. What was so interesting about that south ridge?

* * *

Cummings had a cramp and he couldn't do anything about it. The rear of the Carrier was fogged up with the ANSE and there wasn't enough room ahead of the doors to stand. He looked at Private Hreha, intently monitoring the displays while the rest of the Squad went through their exercise.

His leg was knotting and any second now he worried he'd have a Charlie Horse, which he couldn't stretch out in this confined space no matter how he tried.

Cummings looked to his right, the side passenger door wouldn't be in view of the Squad. He could open it, stretch out, maybe even work out the cramp and he wouldn't even need to take his eyes off the displays. Corporal Cummings wondered if the Lieutenant would have a problem with that.

* * *

Trinity was the first to spot it. "They're coming back!" She whispered as loudly as she dared.

Everyone squatted down lower, now wouldn't be a good time to be seen but none of them wanted to lose sight of the group wearing the bulky green outfits as they crested the south ridge and then turned, repeating the same rhythmic pattern on their return journey.

"It's a deek." Majors said, her tone trying to warn the rest. But what she got were looks of confusion. "They're trying to catch us off-guard! That whole trip out was to make us think they don't know we're here."

Horst peered over the ridge again, even as he clutched his long-rifle tighter, absent-mindedly reaching to the safety and activator. Subconsciously preparing it for firing. "It's a pretty elaborate ruse if it is."

"They're coming right for us and they'll have that house for cover once they're in place!" Majors' gun was already set to fire; in fact she had it half up, half aimed and all ready to shoot.

Tactically she could be right. Certainly these strangers were moving into place, a place that would give them cover from his people. He motioned to Trinity, Schmarchuk and Tilley to spread out. Quickly, carefully they did and after a glance he motioned them further still as he skulked down the line, past Caleb and near another rise.

* * *

Cummings could feel the knot in his leg tightening. Any second now it was going to jerk him upright and probably produce a yelp that would alarm half the squad. Carefully, quietly he reached for the latch on the side door and pulled it until the hinge released. He started to swing the door open while slipping his knotting leg down to the grass below.

Hreha looked at him with alarm, "Are you sure that's a good idea?"

He looked back at her with a grimace, the sort of expression that said it all. Hreha flashed a disapproving frown as she returned to the display.

* * *

Horst hugged the grass as he made his way gingerly up the rise and then, finding a good base, he peered over the crest coming upon a scene that made his heart pound. One of the occupants of that beast/house was sneaking out of it by another portal, in plain view of them all.

This newcomer touched the ground with one foot as though stepping on an alien world and for a moment Horst wondered if this were a captive affecting some sort of escape.

He thrust that idea out of his mind because this new person was in pretty much the same gear as the others. Then again, it was possible their captors would clothe a captive, particularly if what they were captured in rags. He glanced at his own clothes and then up again. Those people didn't wear rags, that was for certain.

And it seemed pretty odd that this person, if not a captive, would be climbing out of the house so quietly, so intently trying not to be noticed. Horst was mesmerized by it all and found himself straining to follow the newcomer, particularly when he fell to the ground clutching their leg.

It took a fast-flying stone striking his left arm to break him from his reverie and see Majors, twenty feet down the line, motioning them to advance. He glanced again at the Squad approaching across the glen and wondered what she thought they could do against these people. They were well trained, possibly shielded, and certainly better armed. There was also nearly half as many more of them as he had.

Horst looked at Majors and shook his head violently in the negative.

Jessica Majors simply wasn't going to accept that. She'd long since come to the conclusion that Yoaquin Horst was the worst sort of leader, a weak one. She primed her weapon and then took a step up the incline, ready to crest it and if need be defend her people alone.

* * *

Private Mel Wallace had his scanners set to high. A sensitivity setting that had caused enough false-positives over the weeks that most of the Squad ignored her frequent squeaks and utterances of alarm but this time, as the Private dove to the ground bringing her Rifle up and firing at the opposition the rest of the Squad didn't hesitate to dive with her.

Unfortunately her first shot wasn't the first one fired..

* * *