Joel held his breath as he watched Sergeant Gumble put one cautious foot onto the grass-patch and ease his weight down with great care. Once the noncom reassured himself that he had a foothold clear of any lurking dingballs, he knelt and ran his scanner over the entire plot, pinpointing the minute bits of instant death and pointing them out to the Tech carrying the Extractor.
"Gumboil's getting slower every day," one of the newer replacements grumbled.
The Tech corporal turned and glared. "You better be glad of it," he said, his voice grim. "I know men that've been in their graves for years, because their sergeant wasn't a stickler like Gumboil--Gumble," he corrected himself hastily.
"You might get by with a slacker back at HQ or with the desk-pushers on the third moon, but here you're dealing with the Knackers, and that is no game. Now shut your mouths and be glad of a chance to rest."
Joel said nothing. He had seen some of those men blown to bloody bits. More than once, he'd narrowly missed being one of those scattered to the winds of this hostile world. Now he just hunkered onto a patch of solid rock, obviously clear of antipersonnel devices, and waited, hoping hard that this was going to be one of the easy times. One of the good times...but he knew that was too much to wish for.
Around him, the craggy landscape rose, mostly rock, the cliff at the left scored with small runnels. Some of those had worn the stone from the heights into soil that lined their lower, flatter reaches.
If all had been solid granite, it would have been a snap. Unfortunately, the Knackers used those frequent grassy stretches, which led from the sheer cliffs to the Rift away to the east, for setting their nasty little traps.
He shifted his weight to the other heel and pulled out a twist of hard rations to chew while he waited. Stopping for a meal was something unknown in this particular war. Anyone who developed regular habits and thought he had to stick to them found himself dead before his first week was out. He'd seen a lot of those come and go.
The Forces had learned that, even before he had been conscripted from his shocked and frightened home world. They'd counted their losses from their first Knacker raid, panicked, and sent a hundred thousand young men and women to die for the glory of saving humankind from the Enemy.
He'd been skeptical, for a while, after he arrived on-planet. Then old "Gumboil" over there had led him into his first attack on a Knacker installation, and he had seen what was inside one of their processing plants. It still made him gag.
Knackers weren't human. Didn't even look human. Technically, they weren't cannibals, for that meant eating your own kind. But he had staggered after Gumble through a processing factory filled with men and women and children, in various stages of being skinned, butchered, cooked, and canned. He'd thought, for a while afterward, that he would never be able to eat anything out of a can again, especially pink meat.
That made you forget such nit-picking quibbles. As far as he was concerned, he was helping to make the Cosmos safe from cannibalism, and that was good enough for him.
Even as he thought that, there was a swift hissing. He flung himself flat behind the rock on which he had perched and covered his head with his arms. A muted explosion shook the ground, and he hugged it even more firmly.
Bits of reddish debris came spattering down among the platoon members, raining onto his back and neck. Joel wiped a red-stained hand against the big rock beside him, feeling his gorge rise in horror and disgust. No matter how many times you got a friend's guts blown all over you, it never got to be easy to handle.
He squinted through the dust and dead grass now drifting downward. It wasn't Gumboil who had been killed, he was grateful to find. But it was Greeley, and he had been a companion for a long time, as such things went on 3G 789. Six weeks was a lifetime friendship here.
He had an evil feeling that...yes, here it came.
"Karsh! Come up here and bring a spare Extractor. There must have been something wrong with that one. Sent Greeley all over the map."
Gumboil was covered with a dreadful sort of camouflage, done in shades of brown and red and mucus-gray. From his expression--what you could see of it--he might have been discussing the weather. Joel had been with the sergeant long enough to know that he would be sick for two days after the platoon managed to get back to the drop-point and up to Base, but for as long as the job took, Gumble would seem to be completely unaffected.
Joel swallowed bile and turned to Cleery, the supply corporal, who pulled the last spare Extractor out of its notch in the pack and handed it over with a sympathetic shrug. They had lost four Techs so far, and they had only been on patrol for two days.
When this Extractor went, they would be left with nothing to use to pull out the dingballs. That would mean either returning to base or risking their skins every time they tried crossing grass.