The house was unoccupied. Private Fritz and Private Altamin had cleared it in the usual way, breaking through the sliding door at the rear, securing the mostly open downstairs including the tricky closet in the half-bath, and then getting through the choke point made by the staircase to check the loft and two bedrooms upstairs. All of these townhomes had the same floorplan, the same corners and doorways and furniture arrangements, and the same crap left behind when the occupants hastily fled in the darkness last night.
It was a large settlement and they’d been clearing empty homes all morning. Long enough to settle into a routine, which was dangerous.
After clearing the upstairs of unit 193 they descended the U-shaped staircase with the half landing and passed back through the kitchen to exit out the back door, but Altamin stopped and dropped his pulse rifle on the quartz-topped island.
“What are you doing?” asked Fritz, already halfway out the hole where the back door used to be.
“Aren’t you hungry?” he asked. He popped his head into the refrigerator before quickly shutting it with a grunt—they’d cut power to the area four days ago—and began to inventory the contents of the cabinets.
“Well sure,” said Fritz, stepping back into the home, “but I’m always hungry. C’mon, let’s get this over with.” But Altamin wasn’t listening. He was pawing at canned goods like a racoon. Why did she always get paired up with this idiot? Of course, she knew why, but it didn’t make him any less irksome.
“Ahhh, peaches,” he said, looking over his shoulder with a moronic grin and holding up his trophy.
It wasn’t worth the energy to argue with him. It would be faster to let him take a break, so she picked a spot on the couch across the living room connected to the kitchen and plopped herself down with a thud. The sound had a hollow quality and reverberated through the walls.
She locked eyes with Altamin for a breath, and then they were both dragging furniture out of the room. The cold tile floor was covered in overlapping area rugs with swirling patterns of violet and ivory and shamrock green—the colors of the nebula. Rebellion colors. They peeled away the rugs like wrapping paper to reveal a hidden door in the floor.
None of these units had basements. This was something else.
Before she could stop him, Altamin kneeled in front of the latch and lifted the panel in the floor with both hands.
His eyes found hers for the briefest of moments before a barrage of hot plasma rounds erupted through his skull, sending teeth and chunks of seared flesh flying. The room took on an overwhelming odor like someone burnt hamburgers to a crisp over a tire fire. It made her eyes sting. Altamin’s body collapsed forward, not quite falling into the hidden room, but enough to keep the door from falling shut.
Fritz crab-walked backwards while pulling a SToRM grenade from her vest—she could never remember what that acronym meant, but it was colloquially known as lightning in a bottle—and rolled it down into the hole. She backed up into a wall and curled herself into a ball, pressing one palm over her ear while she held her helmet down with her other hand.
Bright white lights strobed rapidly from the open door panel, painful even through her tightly shut eyelids, and the floor flexed in time with the sound of a thousand whip cracks over the span of what felt like an extremely long second and a half. A silence must have followed, but all she could hear was the distant reverberation of a brass bell. All the moisture in the air was gone and the hairs on her arm stood at attention.
She didn’t need to check the space beneath the floor; she knew there’d be nothing left but melted provisions, and melted weapons, melted electronics, and bright spots on the floor that marked where people had sublimated into mist. Already there were probably a half-dozen fireteams closing in on her position; they could do the confirmations. She’d just sit still, clutching her helmet and breathing cautiously until they arrived.
And then maybe she’d have that can of peaches. Fuck this day.