Immolation, Excerpt One

An excerpt from the concluding novel of the Valley trilogy, Immolation.

Fall 2345, H-476, invasion plus three to four days

Paul slurped at ration paste, which tasted like cherries this morning. He studied the fallen tower before him. His battalion was still holding the northern side of the cordon around City A, and Second Battalion was continuing to “clear” the city. Occasionally, Paul would hear gunfire as soldiers found Harpy civilians. The story never ended happily for those unfortunates.

He had been more or less camped out on this spot for the past forty hours or so. His mission was to stay in place and catch “squirters” as Second Battalion rummaged around in the necropolis before him. This city had not been hit with an orbital strike, obviously, but it had suffered some damage from the very high winds that had circled the globe after the battlewagons had dumped their rocks on the planet.

More damaging still, though, was the ash that had spread like a cancer through the atmosphere. The heaviest particles had fallen out by now, but the days were still dark. Paul would only periodically catch a pale glimpse of this world’s sun. It was dark and dreary, and Paul wondered about the big question: when would the Harpies be able to fly again?

Looking at the sky, he figured it would be any time now. The day was noticeably brighter than when Third Battalion had dropped, and he didn’t have to run his defrost constantly to keep the ash off his helmet’s visor. He flicked it on only from time to time.

He was confident the flyers would come soon. But when? Only God knew, as far as he was concerned. The lack of action was making him nervous. He wasn’t used to sitting and waiting for days.

He heard the distinctive roar of an M-372 from afar. He queried his halo where it was coming from. In an instant, he had the answer: to his south, in the ruined city, over a kilometer away. A private in Second Battalion had fired at a flying Harpy. A search team had flushed it out of a tower.

Paul placed a call to Major Sergeant Woodrow, who was visiting Echo Company. “You hear that, Woody?”

“Yeah. I guess some of them are starting to risk a flight.”

“Yeah, that’s what I figured, too. I’d tell everyone to stay sharp, but they already fuckin’ know that.”

“Uh-huh. No reason to joggle anyone’s elbow; people know what’s up.”

“Sky’s clearer today. I bet we start seeing more of ’em soon.”

Woodrow grunted. “I won’t take that bet.”

“Yeah. Hate this cordon shit.” Paul decided to brave the stink and have his second smoke of the day. He thought his visor up, and the reek of dead Harpy immediately pounded him. With haste, he got a smoke and lit up.

Woodrow answered. “I dunno. Beats watching everyone fuckin’ die around you.”

Paul nodded and drew on his cig. “Damn right. This shit grates on my nerves is all.”

“Yeah. Seriously, though, it gets on the guys’ and gals’ nerves too. This shit needs to wrap up soon. Any word on that?” Woodrow was fishing for info.

“Nope. I can tell you what I see on my regimental schematic, though. Dunlevy’s saying that three-quarters of the city is clear.” Paul checked the schematic again. Sure enough, there was the “pie chart” of the city, with a statistic next to it in bold green: 76.2 percent.

Woodrow laughed. “That city is three-quarters clear like my ass isn’t hairy. Even though these new suits can climb like bats, there is no way seven hundred or so soldiers have checked every nook and cranny of that place.” He paused to laugh again. “I’ll bet most of them go into those buildings and sit around and play vids for a while.”

“No way for them to sham with a halo, Woody. But I get your point. We’re going to declare the city clear, and then the Harpies are going to fly right back in.”

An M-372 went off to Paul’s right. He threw away his butt and slammed down his visor. Another one fired, and then his fired too. It was set on auto, so his systems had seen the Harpies flying way before his weak human eyes could.

He shifted positions immediately, a reflex granted to him by the fighting on Brasilia. A soldier who stood still while fighting Harpies didn’t live to be a veteran. He sprang behind a structure filled with glass-like tubes and waited. While he waited, his M-372 fired again. He pulled up the targeting screen and looked at what he had shot. Dozens of Harpies were pouring out of a tower to his front, flying north toward perceived safety. Unfortunately for them, that was the function of a cordon.

Paul and his troops were part of a noose around the city. There would be no escape.

As he watched, the fleeing Harpies died. And then he heard it: the zing of a rail gun and the crack of an impact. One of those bastards was armed. More Harpies poured from the half-ruined tower; their flight was doomed by Third Battalion’s fire. One Harpy almost made it past them. She was shot in midair as Paul watched. Her body landed a hundred meters away with a wet thud.

Finally, the flight became a trickle, and then it stopped. The Harpies that flew toward Paul’s position were dead to a being. His incoming-rounds counter told him that the rail gun had fired three times, and its wielder was dead. None of his soldiers had been hit, whereas 121 Harpies died.

It was the type of trade that he liked—that is, plenty of them and none of his.

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