by John Shatzer
*This is something different for me here at the website. I write short stories but I never share them. I'm not great at writing fiction so please be kind when reading this. If you do like it or have some constructive criticism please email me and let me know.
Sweat rolls down the trooper’s back as he squeezes the weapon in his hand tightly feeling some security in its presence. His finger poised above the trigger he scans the dense brush desperately trying to find the creatures stalking him. He knows they are out there hiding, waiting for him to make a mistake.
“This was supposed to be an easy assignment”, he whispers, not wanting to attract attention to himself. “Pacify the locals… keep things quiet until the project was completed. How could things go so wrong.”
It was just a few weeks earlier that the trooper stepped off the transport onto the roughly hewn tarmac cut into the ancient forest by the engineers. He and the others from an elite unit assigned to protect the critical base hidden in the middle of nowhere. Far from the action and the violence it was supposed to be a safe and secure location for the project, but they were found out somehow and the enemy found them anyway.
The sound of a branch breaking draws the trooper’s attention his weapon swinging up to follow his field of vision. Where those eyes staring at him from the dense undergrowth sprouting from the base of the enormous old growth trees? Fearful of drawing attention to himself the trooper hesitates before firing knowing doing so would give his position away. Squinting he tries to focus his eyes on the spot in question and after a few seconds he sighs quietly and dismisses the sound. He begins swiveling his head back and forth once again searching for danger.
Even before the enemy had arrived there were rumors about the inhabitants of the woods. At first glance they seemed harmless enough and fled at the sight of the well-armed troopers. But then a few men disappeared on patrol. Always it was the two-man patrols that came up missing, but the well-armed and highly trained troopers should have been able to handle anything they came across. Eventually command recognized the losses and issued orders that no less than four men should be on patrol at any given time.
At first the orders were resisted by the proud troopers. Young men convinced that they were damn near invincible and could take on all comers aren’t used to fear. But then the bones turned up. Stripped of flesh and snapped open to get at the marrow the troopers knew even before medical confirmed it that these were their missing comrades. After that the orders were followed without complaint.
A shadow darts to the left behind one of the enormous tree trunks. Training taking over the trooper steps forward to investigate and if necessary eliminate the threat. But he stops suddenly realizing that he is alone, and no one is there to cover his back. Changing his approach, he sprints towards the tree and throws himself back first against it. Assured that nothing can sneak up on him thru six feet of solid wood he begins sliding around towards the back. Cringing as the composite plates of his armor rub loudly against the bark.
When they first found the bodies, everyone assumed that the scouts had somehow missed a large apex predator when they were evaluating the location for the project. It wouldn’t have been the first time a mistake had been made like that. What else other than that could take down a pair of highly trained and armed troopers without even a radio transmission back to base? Soon the specially trained and equipped hunting patrols were sent out to find and destroy the creature or pack of creatures. They all returned to base empty handed. No matter how many resources were thrown at the problem nothing was found.
It was then that the rumors started. Were the locals really as harmless as they appeared? The gnawing on the bones did seem to be made by many smaller teeth rather than those of a large animal. But they had seemed so passive and honestly quite harmless. But with no other suspects it had to be them. The men were beginning to organize a purge to destroy the local villages when the enemy attacked.
The trooper had been sitting down for his midday rations when the alarms went off. Rushing off to the rally point they were informed that commandos had infiltrated nearby and that all available units were to hunt them down. Looking around at the assembled firepower the trooper was confident that he would be sleeping in his own bunk that night. His commanding officers were clearly of the same mind which might have led to the disaster that followed.
Reaching what should be the right spot where the movement was the trooper takes a deep breath and recklessly leaps out to see nothing hiding behind the tree. Breathing heavily his heart pounding away in his chest he begins thinking of his options. He never sees the fist sized rock come zipping out of the brush behind him. Bouncing off of his armor it does hit with enough force that his right arm is instantly numb. He manages to hold onto his gun with his left hand, but the right slips off the trigger. Grunting both in shock and pain the trooper dives forward again putting the tree between him and this new threat.
Panting from both the humidity of the forest and the pain coursing down his arm, he flexes the fingers on his right hand trying to force some feeling back and dexterity back into them. All the while scanning the undergrowth looking and waiting for the next attack. Hoping it will wait until he can again aim and fire with some hope of accuracy. He sees nothing but the moss-covered trees and think mat of plants entwined in the trunks.
Just a couple of hours ago the trooper had been sitting in the transport as it swayed back and forth on their way to being deployed. The men on his left were wagering if they would see any action, while those on the right were dozing off trying to get an extra moments rest before spending the afternoon crawling thru the woods below them. It was a large forest and a small commando team, so the chances were that wouldn’t find them. Still being able to maybe fight an enemy he could actually see would be a nice change from looking for the ghosts that had been plaguing their last few weeks. As it turned out they would see a lot of action, though not the kind they expected.
Within seconds of arriving in the designated area the troopers were disembarked and setting up a perimeter and base camp. Not long after that the officer in charge started sending patrols out to reconnoiter and report back. Assigned to a four-man team the trooper headed off to the assigned search grid. A half an hour later the radio went wild with chatter from the other patrols. All hell was breaking loose as one by one the patrols reported being attacked by something before their commlinks went dead. Then the transmission from the base camp cuts off with the last transmission seeming to sound as if they were under attack.
Calling a halt to the team the squad leader tries to radio in for instruction. When he gets no answer, he turns to his men. “I’m unable to contact base. I think we should continue our search patterns and wait for them to come back online to report.”
“Shouldn’t we return to base?” The trooper asks, realizing even doing so breaks a cardinal rule of military discipline. You never question the chain of command! Still he continues. “It sounds as if they were under attack in the last transmission. Under the circumstances regrouping at the rally point seems to be the best course of action.”
“Stand down trooper.” The squad leader responds quickly seeking to keep control of his small group. “We will continue as ordered.” Turing to continue down the path the small spear comes flying out of the bush. Expertly thrown its stone head slipping between the helmet and chest plate of the squad leaders armor dropping him before he can take another step. His body drops and a stream of blood stains the ground beneath him as the other three troopers turn and fire in the direction of the attack.
“Did anyone see where that came from?” One of the others asks after the firing stops a few seconds later. Their attention is focused on the scorched spot searching for the body of whatever killed the squad leader but seeing none. Eventually the trooper responds.
“I saw nothing.” Turning to ask the third survivor when he doesn’t respond the trooper is stunned to see him lying face first on the ground the back of his helmet dented in by the large stone that sits next to his body. The body armor designed to stop modern weapons it seems all but useless against the brute force of these sticks and stones.
“We have another trooper down!” he calls, and the two survivors immediately step towards each other going back to back. “Do you see anything?”
“No. This is bad… really bad.” The trooper notices panic beginning to build in the voice of his only remaining companion. “We are going to end up like the others. On someone or something’s menu!”
Trying to keep an eye out for their attacker the trooper also attempts to force the other man back onto mission, not so much out of bravery but the feeling he needs him to survive. Snapping at the panicking man he tries to shock him into following their training. “Cut that chatter trooper. We need to keep our heads on and we can get out of this together. Do you copy that?”
After a few seconds the trooper hears, “Yeah sure.” Followed by a loud whistling sound and a weight slamming against the back of his helmet. Stunned for a second, he stumbles forward, a weight following him and knocking him to the ground. Slipping out from under it he turns to see the other trooper. Lying next to him on the ground his head at a strange angle a thin leather cord attached to a pair of smallish rocks wrapped around his neck. From the second he sees the body he knows that the man is dead and that he is alone against whatever is out there. Fear pushes away his training and he runs blindly away from the bodies of the fellow members of the patrol.
His arm still numb but painfully so as the feeling starts to return. His hand and finger find themselves back on the proper place on the pistol grip and trigger the trooper stands up trying to keep himself as small of a target as possible while bracing himself for a shot should the enemy make the mistake of presenting itself. Well not the enemy he was expecting, but whatever horror hunting him with their primitive weapons. He was most certainly not trained for this. Leaning heavily on the tree he tries to think over what to do.
Not sure how long or in what direction he ran before finding himself at the here he looks up briefly to attempt to get his bearings. But it is useless as the canopy of the forest blocks out any landmarks he might be able to see on the horizon. In his fear and blatant cowardice, he managed to get himself good and lost. Now he was trapped in this nightmare being hunted by something that wanted nothing more than to kill and probably eat him. This is not at all what he had expected when he signed up for the academy.
Lost in thought he almost misses the flash of brownish grey as something darts out of the undergrowth. Before it can disappear again he pulls the trigger and a flash of light fills his vision as the beam arches out and finds contact with his target. There is a large squeal of pain as the creature stumbles and falls to the ground a few feet away. Tensing and ready to fire another shot should it move again the trooper waits a few seconds. Seeing the stillness of the figure he steps forward and flips the body over.
The small creature is no more than three feet tall but surprisingly heavy and sturdy. There is an overwhelming smell of burnt hair as the hair around the wound is still smoldering from where the blaster beam hit it. The large black dead eyes stare up at him its mouth hanging open. A mouth filled with small sharp teeth that are perfect for tearing flesh and breaking bone. This is certainly what had been hunting and killing them for weeks.
‘Not anymore you won’t’, the trooper thinks stumbling backwards until he hits the tree trunk. Slipping down he hangs his head between his knees in exhaustion. “It’s over”, he mutters smiling under the faceplate of his helmet.
There is another crack of a branch breaking and the trooper snaps his head up. He is surrounded by dozens of the creatures. Before he can bring his blaster up a stone axe smashes into his hand breaking bone and sending his weapon flying from his grasp. Instinctively pulling his injured hand to his chest the trooper cries out.
“What the hell do you want with me?”
The large black eyes and mouths full of sharp pointy teeth are the answer to his question as the creatures either can’t or won’t respond. They move towards him menacingly various stone spears and knives in their pudgy little furry hands. Hunger in their faces the trooper closes his eyes. The last thing that goes thru his mind before the sharp instruments find the seams of his armor.
‘I’m going to die for the Empire on this lousy backwater moon…’
© Copyright 2021 John Shatzer
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