Second Claw Kruq’nov fitted his breather over his toothy muzzle before stepping out of the underground barracks. Exposure to Repleetah’s already marginal atmosphere, after orbits of war upon this world, was detrimental to one’s health. Given that there were an octave ways to die on this gods-forsaken planet, Kruq’nov was not about to go and kill himself through stupidity. The recruits landing this morning would have ample opportunities to do that.
His own squad was short three warriors, two of which died after their bloodlust got the better of them, and a third was tagged by a Terran sniper. They might be smaller and weaker than a Kilrathi, but those Apes sure could shoot. He request five replacements, expecting at least two of them to go charging into no-man’s land and into one of the Ape’s infernal ambushes. The Apes were clever too, sneaky little creatures. Certainly not the prey that the Imperial Pride’s propagandists keeps dumping on the airwaves. Any cub old enough to stand knew that prey was suppose to die when you attacked it, not fight back for over seven shr’ik.
At the force field that partitioned his barracks from the external atmosphere, Kruq’nov ran into Second Claw Tshruk, a male who has been on this planet a couple of kahr’ik longer than himself. “Fresh meat lands today,” he said dryly. Like Kruq’nov, he had little hope for these young cubs that the Empire keeps sending to Repleetah. After a shr’ik of fighting on Repleetah II, the big manes back on the homeworld should know better.
The Battle of Repleetah thus far lasted long than any complete war in the Empire’s history. It was by far the longest battle during the Ape War. The battle raged for so long, that Sivar has given it a life of its own. Kruq’nov was not even sure why they were all fighting for this rock. It was no longer useful, its atmosphere and soil being poisoned by constant bombardment of chemical agents. He doubted that even the Emperor knew the value of this world. It probably has some strategic value in this sector ages ago, but no longer. Even the fleets of both combatants have moved on to bigger and better things.
“Care to place a wager on how long these cubs asked?” his comrade offered.
Kruq’nov growled, bearing his teeth. “Gambling’s for the hopeful.” Unlike most veterans, he first arrived on this rock skeptical, and not as eager as the rest of the veterans, back when they were cubs. He arrived skeptical, was now cynical, and would probably leave the planet in spirit only. His body certainly would never see the light of a different, perhaps less bright, sun. He would not venture to guess how many millions of his race already lay dead, fleshless skeletons, scattered across the fronts of this world.
Both Kilrathi warrior stepped through the curtain and out into the world. Even with breathers filtering the air of deadly toxins, he swore that he could still smell the stench of death permeating the air. It was one of countless trenches that scared the dying planet, deeper than a Kilrathi was tall. The Apes had the advantage in trenches, being smaller. Kruq’nov has seen the inside of more than one Terran trench, and had to move forward at a crouch in some places just to prevent his head from getting blown off. More than a few warriors forgot to duck, and their headless corpses litter many eighties of abandoned trenches.
Even while heading back towards the local landing pad, some four octomaks away from the front, he still carried his rifle. It was a standard pulse rifle, shooting bolts of plasma super-heated half way to fusion, and was tipped with four long spikes. When too close to fire, he could easily impale his enemy with those spears. It was doubly useful on Repleetah, a planet were even exposed claws could absorb poison. During the past eight-and-three raids into Terran trenches, and last two big pushes, all warriors were decked out in full environmental combat suits. He could not even smell the fear of his enemy in those things.
The last eighty of days were relatively quiet. In that time, he need not suit up once. The previous time was during a chemical bombardment, followed by an attempted Terran push, and that was nearly a whole kahr’ik ago. Walking towards the landing pad, he passed many fellow veterans in the trench. All were grizzled, and more than a few sported nasty scars. One even had a prosthetic eye, one that, instead of seeing with natural night vision, could actually detect infrared radiation emitted by all warm-blooded animals. He leaned against the dirt wall of the trench, his own rifle leaning within easy arm reach. The company commander assigned him, with his heat-seeking eye, as a sniper. Tralkar had more than four-eights of marks scratched into the butt of his rifle, one for each Ape killed by his rifle.
He snarled a greeting as Kruq’nov passed, and told him not to bother checking on replacements. They would a be dead in less than eighty days. Kruq’nov agreed wholeheartedly; he did not expect any of them to survive the next eighty of days. Nonetheless, his unit was short three warriors, and he wanted to be at full body count when the storm clouds return to his trench. If the Apes figured out replacements arrived, they would set up one of their insidious traps again. The last ambush killed half the replacements, including all that were allocated to his own squad. Damn Apes and their trickery. He could not blame them; being half the size of a Kilrathi warrior, one had to result to underhanded means to survive.
Survive– once upon a time, Kilrathi warriors on this rock thought of victory. After so many millions dead, and so little gained, warriors dreamed only of surviving Repleetah. He had little time to dwell on his own prospects, as he made good time to the rear area. Amazing how fast one could walk during the dry season. When the rains fall, not only are they now toxic, but they turn the floors of the trenches into a soup of morass and glue. Boots sink to the ankles, and sap a warrior’s strength as they tried to pull them free. Two things were certain after a good rain; one’s feet would get stuck, and the Apes would attack. They apparently had little trouble moving through the quagmire.
The local landing pad was built on solid concrete. Engineers built this thing, basing it on designs off Kilrah. One thing the homeworld seldom had to deal with was rain. The concrete was cracked in many places, and dead weeds sprouted from those cracks. Given enough time, they could have grown into trees, and broken the landing pad further. The shuttle upon the pad was a small one, nothing like the monestrous invasion craft that put down on this planet ages ago. The two shuttles sat on the pad, their angles looking fierce. The cockpit windows looked like demonic eyes staring him down. The razor sharp hatch was already down, and a stream of lost looking recruits took their first steps upon Sivar’s dungeon.
These replacements at least had sense enough to wear breathers. More than once, a recruit would tumble to the ground after taking in an unprotected breath of the atmosphere. All were squeaky clean, a condition Kruq’nov had began to believe was but a fable. Their packs were clean and in one piece, and their rifles looked as if they have never seen action off a shooting range. Unlike bladed weapons, all Kilrathi warriors required days worth of target practice to shoot straight. It was a field of ground combat the Apes would always be ahead of the Empire. When a Terran behind a pulse rifle wanted you dead, you were.
All of those who debarked looked little more than cubs. Kruq’nov thought back to his own first day on Repleetah, and decided that he was never so young. One caught his attention. One of the last to debark the shuttle, and looked around as if he sought out his Pride. Not the one he conquered, but the one he was born into. He was so young that his mane had no even fully developed. That was hardly a distinguishing mark, since most replacements were still youths, with a few kahr’ik to go before they have a mane as magnificent as Kruq’nov.
The cub must be straight out of the house and into the army. He held his rifle shouldered, just as they teach recruits in basic. Kruq’nov snorted. The way they teach, he wondered if the instructors ever seen combat with the Apes. It would be a good four seconds before the cub could aim his weapon, which would give the Apes three seconds to kill him. No matter; he needed replacements, and he might be able to make something out of this one– assuming he has not been brainwashed by periodical doses of propaganda that the Imperial Pride called news.
Kruq’nov approached. “What’s your name, soldier?” he asked in a fierce growl. It was the sort of growl that all Second Claws developed before they were promoted to the rank. His own squadron commander on Repleetah was the same way, though his face carried far more scars. He was either more veteran than Kruq’nov is now, or just not as careful. Seeing how he has been dead for over a kahr’ik, he decided on the later.
The cub halted and came to rigid attention. Kruq’nov’s voice left no doubt who was in charge. He shot off a perfect parade-ground salute, which Kruq’nov casually replied. “I am called Warrior Nrsah nar Ch– er– Warrior Nrsah, lord commander.”
“Second Claw,” Corrected Kruq’nov almost laughing. Lord commander? His blood was not thick enough, or inbred enough, to be a lord. Nor was he head of any Pride. He was correct in his earlier assessment; Nrsah was fresh out of the house, so fresh he still wished to use his birth name. “I need replacements, and you’re one of them. Gather four of your comrades and report to me. I’ll be your new squadron commander. Follow me back to the barracks and I’ll get you all orientated and settled in. Maybe even wash off some of that propaganda newscasters excrete.”
Kruq’nov smiled. It was not a friendly smile, but a bitter and predatory one. “Yes; Welcome to the underworld.”