Where the Stars Can’t See

The high and textureles clouds made for a night devoid of starlight. The soldiers’ headlamps along the plateau swirled like a galaxy though. An inversion of the absent sky.

They were supposed to maintain line-of-sight with the Congaree, but Private Ramsey had other plans. He had to do some recon on a fresh stream. No one wins a battle against nature’s call, not even the Service.

He dropped his pack to the ground and left his helmet on his pack. The trackers were in the helmet, everyone knew it. His CO wouldn’t mind him walking off to take a leak so long as he didn’t advertise it.

Ramsey picked his way down the steep side of the plateau. He couldn’t tell his own black-clad hands from the black trees or the black sky. Better to sit and scoot. The topsoil was rocky and shifted easily, making for a slow descent. He had to go real bad, but he needed at least the illusion of privacy. The whole battalion was up there—the Psychopomps, a thousand strong, companies Angel through Ether—and Ramsey could still hear them.

Not much to do on these dead-world pitstops but stretch your legs and start fights. Doubly so after their most recent action. Everyone was a little spooked.

At last the din was far enough away that he leaned his pulse rifle against a tree, swung open the piss panel on his armored suit, and forcefully emptied his bladder. He sighed. Nothing but the sound of splatter on pebbles.

A faint glow made him look up. It grew brighter, revealing shadows in the clouds. Then all at once it felt like the whole world blew apart.

His face was wet. He was on the ground, lying in a puddle of his own making. The loose stones bit into his exposed face. He wasn’t sure if he’d lost consciousness, or for how long. He pushed himself over and reached for his rifle, but it was gone, along with the tree it’d been leaning against. The world was still wrapped in black.

Ramsey got to his knees and made his way carefully towards the plateau. There was a lot more debris on the way back up. He crawled on his belly and looked over the ridgeline.

There were two dropships there—the Biscayne and the Saguaro, neither of which he’d ever heard of before. But they were friendlies. The Congaree was a heap of charred carbon and dim embers. Like the rest of the battalion. It smelled tangy and foul like rotten peppers. He shuddered to think about the debris he’d clambered over on his way up. He could be sick about it later.

A couple squads exited the dropships. They wore combat armor like Ramsey’s, but without any markings. They started combing the plateau, searching for survivors. But when they found them, buried under piles of smoking bodies, they weren’t calling for evacs. They were finishing the job. There wouldn’t be any survivors.

He couldn’t comprehend what he was seeing, but he knew he’d seen too much. He slipped back down the slope. He had to get away. Had to hide. A dead-world was no place to die.

When he thought he was out of earshot he started to run and didn’t stop for more than four hours. At last, Ramsey collapsed, exhausted and alone in the endless darkness. He finally took the opportunity to be sick. Now, how in the hell to get off this rock alive?

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