Kruq’nov knew it was but a matter of time before the Apes learned about the replacements. This time, more than two days have passed. It was slow for them. Whomever was on watch must have fallen asleep on his feet. Too bad he did not know that two days ago; a good raid would have lifted the dreadful monotony that smothered the trenches. Warfare was suppose to be glorious, not days worth of boredom punctuated by a few moments of sheer excitement and terror. Kruq’nov sat up against the wall upon a cushion he took during one of his raids on the Terran lines. The Apes sure were soft if they used this for bedding. Now that did not mean it was not comfortable, especially compared to the stone wall his back leaned against.
While cleaning his rifle, he kept one eye on the replacements. As he predicted, they were thoroughly convinced of their own superiority and that the Apes are nothing more than prey beasts, to be cut down where they stood. Kruq’nov could only shake his head at such foolishness. They will learn that Repleetah is a great equalizer; it butchers all sides equally. They will learn, that is if they live long enough. Of the five replacements, the youngest, Nrsah, had the most potential. His mind was still young enough that Kruq’nov could mold into a respectable soldier. The other four– no, there was little point in thinking about them. They would be dead soon enough.
A slight stab in his left arm brought down his right hand upon it. His claws searched through his short and dense forearm fur to find the culprit. The tiny bug crawled deftly from hair to hair. The Second Claw quickly ended the creatures life with the slash of a claw. Kruq’nov looked up from his rifle and arm, and sought out the barrack’s engineer. Krenka stood against the wall, his chin resting on his chest. His hair and mane had a distinct reddish hue, giving him an alien look among the mostly golden haired warriors of this barracks.
“Krenka!” Kruq’nov roared loud enough to shake his own mane. “The curtain is on the blitz again. Fix it before it lets in something more annoying than fleas.”
His ears perked up at the sound of his name, and Krenka slowly raised his head, shooting Kruq’nov a look of supreme indifference. “Nonsense. You probably caught those things when you went outside.”
Kruq’nov glowered at him. “You spawn of a rodent! Nothing can live in the trenches.” Not any more. He remembered when the Terran vermin called rats use to infest the trenches. Now days, they have only a few enclaves within shielded barracks. Annoying little creatures, with their squeaking, but they were far better eating than the rations the army gave him.
Krenka bared his teeth. “Those Sivar-cursed parasites can! I think nothing short of a direct hit from a fusion bomb would exterminate them. The only thing worse are cockroaches, and they can survive nuclear warfare.”
Typical parasites, surviving anything that would easily kill the host. If these fleas did get in, perhaps they came in on the backs of rats. Rare were the days when any creature could be seen outside and not be seen choking. He decided to lift himself off his cushion and search for any potential snacks running around on four legs. He worried not about anyone taking his seat; the last soldier who tried lost half his ear in the fight. Kruq’nov has not seen that soldier in a while, and assumed he was one of the anonymous dead littering the planet’s surface.
He began his search, only to be interrupted by a commotion on the other side of the atmospheric curtain. All the replacements quickly leapt to the feet, grabbing rifle and slipping on breather, before rushing outside. Kruq’nov shook his head, grabbing his own weapon. Stupid cubs; it was probably the Apes trying to bait the inexperienced out into no-man’s land. He slipped on his own breather across his muzzle and followed them outside. He might not be able to smell his enemy while wearing the mask, but at least he could not smell the reek of his own kind. Nothing makes a Kilrathi male want to kill more than being locked up with several other males for days on end.
As with so many times before, three of his replacements, as well as those from other squadrons, have already gone over the top. Nrsah was about to join them, both hands and a foot on the ladder, before Kruq’nov could stop him. The Second Claw ran to the cub, grabbed him by the scruff of his neck, and threw him to the ground. The cub landed with a thud in the dry caked earthen floor. He looked up quizzically, as well as slightly menacing, at his squadron commander.
Kruq’nov decided to let the disrespect slide. The Terrans killed enough of his warriors for him to take out any martial reprisals. “It’s a trap,” he told Nrsah in a flat, as-matter-of-factly tone.
This time, Kruq’nov did laugh. It was a dark and sinister laugh, one that a cub of Nrsah’s age might only hear in a horror movie. Sivar damn those propagandist back home. They probably killed more cubs than the Terrans. “Answer me this, Nrsah; if the Apes are nothing but prey, then why were they not slaughtered before either of us were born? Or even before your own father was born?”
“But, they are prey,” Nrsah spoke back, as if that one sentence contained all the answers.
Kruq’nov shook his head. “Have you ever hunted a Terran creature called a boar? No? I didn’t think so. They are prey too. But they have razor sharp tusks, and when cornered, they can eviscerate a predator. The Apes are the same, but they are cunning. They are sneaky. And their weapons are superb. Stick your head out of the trench at the wrong time, and one of their snipers will remove it. Never sell short your enemy. It could be the last mistake you ever make.” Kruq’nov glanced up at the rim of the trench. With an ambush in the works, the Terran snipers were probably watching it as well. Not to shoot, but for its entertainment value.
“It should be safe for now,” he said, poking his own head above the trench. When he was still breathing a few seconds later, he decided he was right. “I told you to look and learn!”
Nrsah slowly climbed the ladder high enough to see the rest of the world. The land that lay between opposing trenches could have been scooped off an airless moonlet and dropped on Repleetah. Octaves of craters, many as big as a Kilrathi, lay scattered in completely random patterns. A whole campaign’s worth of artillery bombardment destroyed the planet’s already fragile soil. Nothing would grow here again, not without intensive reclamation, or millions of orbits of natural healing.
As with so many times before, a pair of Terrans moved back towards their own lines, slowly and deliberately limping. Kruq’nov knew it was a ruse. They tried this shortly after he landed. Most on his replacement shuttle took the bait, and were killed. He did not. Even at the time, when he was just skeptical and not cynical, he knew something did not smell right about the situation. Why would Apes be out in the open like that?
The current batch of replacements— cannon fodder, did not think this. They had so little regard and respect for the Apes, that they have strapped their rifles to their back and were running them down. Not on two feet, like warriors would face off, but on all four, the way a Kilrathi would run down fleeing prey. It gave them greatly more speed, but took away their unnatural weapons. This was not an announced push, so the cubs were not wearing full E-suits, not like the Terrans. They had sense enough to do so.
Even if they had, they would still be dead. Kruq’nov has seen even veteran warriors reflexively extend their claws and tear their suits. That was why he fought hand-to-hand with the blades on his rifle. Keeping the enemy distant helped him control his own blood-lust. Terrans took full advantage of that as well. Any offense a Kilrathi warrior could throw at them, the clever Apes had a defense.
Both he and Nrsah watched as one Terran stumbled and fell, only to be picked up by his comrade. Kruq’nov knew it a ploy, one they have used often enough. Other veterans watched the spectacle, a few even laughed at the foolishness of the cubs. Yes, really fun watching all those sought after replacements throw their lives away. The three from his squad that leapt after them, Kruq’nov had not even learned their names. He gave up trying to match faces to names until after the recruits survived their first battle.
Halfway between the trenches, both Terrans went down a second time, this time into a crater. The recruits continued their pursuit, not even noticing the two-eights of Terrans popping up, eight on each of their sides, and opened up on them with their assault rifles. Plasma pulses at point-blank range seared the flesh of bones, and vaporized large portions of the replacements. All the cubs were dead in seconds.
With the Apes exposing themselves, Kruq’nov brought his rifle to shoulder level and decided to take a few shots at them. He squeezed off a burst of ionized gas, missing the Terrans, but catching their attention. Nrsah mimicked his Second Claw, taking his own careful aim at the Terrans. A beam rifle would be a more precise weapon at this range, or even an auto cannon. Nothing like hypersonic projectiles to turn flesh from living to dead. Within seconds, his whole section of the trench opened up on the Apes in no-man’s land. The section’s auto cannon went to work, chewing up the land around the Apes.
About an octomak away, the Terran trenches began to return their own ranged fire, attempting to cover their own people’s retreat. Kruq’nov watched with some satisfaction as three Terran ambushers went down, one in several pieces. He only hoped it was not the Ape Second Claw, or whatever they called the rank, Mac’Fearson. He was a sly one, an excellent leader of raids. If anybody in this trench would kill that Ape, it would be Kruq’nov. He only hoped they went hand-to-hand. It would be a great honor to kill such a warrior in single combat.
Almost as suddenly as it started, the firefight ended. Kilrathi climbed down from the rim of the trench and went back to their daily business. Nrsah looked up at Kruq’nov, disbelief on his face. He had just survived his first firefight. “I never imagines the Apes fight so fiercely. They fought like–“
”Warriors?” Kruq’nov offered. Nrsah bobbed his head in agreement. “You don’t need to imagine, you simply need to accept it. What they lack in brute force, they make up in cunning. Stop thinking of the Apes as prey, and start thinking of them as enemies. You do that, and you might even survive this place.” Kruq’nov would not tell a replacement that there was no hope for victory on Repleetah. Only survival.