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A short story by

James M. Waugh

They had split up into parties of two, with one marine, Hendrix, a recon specialist, going at it alone. The cave was damp, and even in their pressurized CMCs the air was thick with the smell of kladdical moss, a pungent plant that grew on the moon and choked its caverns’ walls.

They’d been searching for what seemed like an hour, each carefully following the digital map that guided him through his assigned quadrant. All were about to come to the conclusion that the cave was empty.

“Bandai-Seven to the Rooster… all clear down here, Sarge,” Wynne said as his lights cut into the dark ahead to reveal little more than an unused SCV. “Except for that smell. Remind me to never go into a cave full of this junk again.”

“I’ll be sure to do that, cupcake,” Brody said, smacking Wynne’s shoulder. “But I just assumed it was you…. Now come on. We’re clear.”

“Roger that,” Hendrix said over the comm. “All clear here too.”

Walden and Jenkins pressed forward on a different side of the cave. Walden always had a pretty great poker face, one that Jenkins knew better than to throw in against, but at that moment Jenkins could see right through it. Walden’s thick black eyebrows were scrunched up as if they were trying to grab hold of each other. Confusion! Yeah, that’s what that look was, thought Jenkins. Sarge is just as confused as the rest of us about why we’re out here.

Walden clenched his jaw, noticing that Jenkins was trying to read him. “Don’t give me that look. Just be happy you got yourself an all-expenses-paid vacation to the moon of?” But he was interrupted suddenly by the sound of rocks sliding down the dirt. “Hold it, boys. We might have a live one here.”

“Heat signature!” Jenkins shouted as he aimed his gauss rifle in the direction of the noise. “Twelve o’clock, down that hole. Maybe we do have ourselves a KM after all. Come on out, boy, because trust me, you don’t want me coming in after ya.”

Whatever was scattering the rocks ahead was moving quickly. The two marines stalked forward. “Zeta, rendezvous to this location on my mark.”

“Yes, sir,” Brody said, his breath heavy over the comm.

Walden’s heart rate was through the roof. He’d heard that Kel-Morian spies often armed themselves with nuclear detonators and were known to blow themselves up upon capture, taking everyone with them. Savages.

The marines were silent with anticipation: just the sound of their hearts throbbed in their ears. Walden took a deep breath and stepped forward.

And there it was: a shadow curved over the dirt. Without warning Jenkins fired a barrage of hypersonic spikes. “Die, you mother of….” The rest was drowned in the heavy chugging sound of gunfire.

“Hold fire…. Hold fire!” Walden interrupted. Jenkins released the trigger.

“Cancel alarm.” Walden shined his light on what Jenkins was shooting at: a zick slug, big, slimy, and indigenous to the caves of Roxara’s moons. It was nothing but shredded meat now.

“Nice shooting, Jenkins,” Walden said. Then to his comm he said, “Nothing but one of them z-slugs. Thought they cleared out all the life-forms before they started mining…. Nothing to worry about.”

“Hell. Poor thing crossed the wrong marines,” Jenkins said, trying to cover his embarrassment.

“Idiot,” Wynne snickered over the comm.

“All right, men, regroup at Alpha Nine-Tango. Looks like we get to go home early and dine on some fine Dominion rats. Binion’s officially clean.” Rats was the affectionate slang for rations, the pre-packaged meals anyone in the Marine Corps was forced to accept as “food.”

“Why don’t we fry up some of that z-slug instead… damn thing’s got to taste better,” Wynne added. His chuckle, this time, was infectious.

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