Ryden sloshed through the toxic muck that sucked at his boots beneath the tangled thorn grass. It wasn’t grass, of course—that was terracentric thinking—but on strange planets the mind tries to force things into familiar shapes. His unit was twelve days into its march with no obvious end. Twelve days of orange fog and swatting at leech moths. Twelve days sealed up in the same tactical hazsuit that smelled like acetone and fit like he’d kicked the colonel’s dog before he was measured. The hulking tower of the Rangefinder mech leading his unit halted up ahead. Break time.

There was a hill a few meters to the east. It’d make a good spot to rest—less mud on the hilltops; made it easier to stand back up again.

Inigo was already stopped on the crest. Between the hazsuits and the fog, Ryden developed an acute sense for the particulars of his squadmates’ body postures. Inigo stood with his hip cocked back over his rear leg and rested his arms on the long barrel of the rail rifle slung around his neck; it was a useless stance for fire-readiness, but a comfortable one for hands that couldn’t find pockets.

Ryden called out on the comms as he approached. “Whad’ya see, Gogo? Anything…” He was going to ask anything good? but decided it was redundant. He’d be amused to see just about anything.

“Not really sure, Easy Ryden. I thought I saw movement down there but it’s so damn hard to tell.”

“Rog. It’s that smoke; plays tricks with your—”

Ryden was pushed facedown into the muck when the Rangefinder’s power plant exploded. He felt the concussion squirm through the ground. His headset filled with overlapping chatter—commands and cussing and cries for help—but the chaos told him what he needed to know.

They’d made contact.

Notes: I used an image as a writing prompt for this piece. You may be able to find the image on the artist’s ArtStation page. Image by Jakub Rozalski, used with permission.

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