Bauhaus Novella First Night
by Chris Reynolds
He stumbled again, nearly losing his footing. His vision swam as the pain threatened to take over. He tossed his helmet aside, needing to breathe. His rifle felt like an incredible weight in his right hand, but he pushed back the pain and refused to loosen his grip.
Walter was dimly aware that he was leaving a blood trail. He was also aware that there were other predators out there- the carnivorous fauna and the deadly feeding plants of Venus were not to be trifled with at the best of times.
Then came the unmistakable sound of snapping branches, and Walter froze. He tensed his arms and painfully drew his Panzerknacker into his shoulder. Adrenaline peaked in his system again, and he backed slowly into the undergrowth, trying to identify the source of the sound. He imagined it pacing itself, tracking, and hunting. Hunting him.
Nine pairs of booted feet snapped together. Unteroffizier Karl Gellert strode down the line, dribbling smoke from his nostrils as he drew on the cigarette. He was pleased to see the squad were all wearing their armour fastened correctly and their equipment was stowed in their belt pouches and packs.
He froze and stabbed one of his troopers in the breastplate with his finger. He locked his flinty gaze onto the green eyes of the young soldier, Reinhold Gollwitzer.
‘You’re caught in a trapper vine. What do you do?’
The young man swallowed.
‘Tuck into a ball and pull out my knife. Cut all vines from the feet first and prepare to drop and roll once they’re all cut.’
Karl stared a moment longer, just enough to make the young man shiver. Then he nodded.
‘You,’ he pointed to another soldier, who held his MG-40 tightly against his leg, ‘you hear a Devilcat howl. Where is it?’
This man returned the stare levelly. Josef Lindenblatt had seen his fair share of jungle.
‘Main branches, probably, at least ten metres up. Likely to be at least two hundred metres away.’
Karl grinned and stepped back.
‘First night patrol. I know some of you have not ventured out into the night since you have joined us. It is a thing to be feared, and to be respected. Venus goes dark for one thousand, four hundred hours; the jungle does not forgive easily.’
He paused and let the words hang in the air before he cracked a smile. He continued.
‘However, it has also failed to kill me over five nights in a row, so there is some hope you will survive.’
Nervous laughter was the response. Some of the more veteran soldiers grinned.
‘I will say this: remember your training. Remember the jungle is only your ally if you know her well. Listen to your orders. That is all.’
Gellert crushed the stub of his cigarette under his heel and pointed at the transport waiting behind them. The aircraft proudly displayed the gleaming cog of Bauhaus in bronze, with the roaring bear of House Bernheim picked out in black in the centre.
He ran his eye lovingly over the belly of the beast, taking in the carbon scoring around the engines, the small marks of ever-present rust on jungle craft, the oil leaks and scratches on the stubby landing gear. The body of the craft was a fat tube that his soldiers stepped into one at a time, with a long boom tail and a wide bulge at the cockpit end. Pilots appreciated the extra vision, but Karl felt too exposed whenever he had to visit the cockpit.
The last man to enter the aircraft paused. He had his face shield on already, but Karl didn’t have to read the subdued lettering of DANZER on his shoulder pad to know his old friend.
‘First night patrol.’ The words hung in the air.
‘I know, Walter.’
‘You know what they say.’
They shared a slow nod before boarding.
Walter gritted his teeth and levelled the Panzerknacker rifle, willing his hands to stop shaking. He strangled his breathing and listened to the teeming life of the jungle. He had been swallowed by spiny bracken, but any good hunter would still find him with enough time. He needed a chance to stop the bleeding, but he couldn’t let his guard down long enough to do so.
The bushes had gone quiet, and Walter nearly willed his heart to stop so that he could hear. He was convinced that the hunter was within metres of him.
There came a thud. The mists gradually revealed an indistinct form, and Walter carefully swung the weapon’s barrel around to point at the target. Something seemed …off about the creature’s shape. It swam through the foggy clearing, slowly resolving into long shoulder pads, a boxy weapon and… a spiked helm.
He instinctively applied his safety catch. The other man appeared to be another Hussar. It had to be from his squad- nobody else was due to come out here. The fate of their radio left him in no doubt about the possibility of any rescue force.
The Hussar stepped cautiously, nervously across the clearing. Walter could practically read his inexperience from the movement. He didn’t dip his toe through the grass and roll his foot to deaden the noise. He didn’t tuck his elbows in to avoid scratching against the leaves. He walked through the clear space instead of staying close to the bushes- it was almost as though he thought being able to see further would protect him.
For a long moment Walter considered letting the young man walk past to act as bait for the hunter. He quashed it- another gun and pair of eyes were better than nothing, and at least it would allow him a chance for medical treatment.
He stepped forward smoothly, his weapon levelled, and waited until the young Hussar froze. The young man looked at him and slowly took his hand off the trigger grip of his own weapon, raising both arms into the air. Walter shook his head and waved the young man over to him.
‘Gollwitzer. Of course you’d live. The luck of the young, Ja?’
The young man swallowed. His eyes were near bursting through the visor and his hands shook. He looked at Walter but didn’t speak. Walter directed him.
‘Crouch down. Keep your weapon trained in that direction. I’ve got something I need to do.’
As he removed his right shoulder pad and pulled out a bandage, Walter began to hope again.
Karl preferred to sit in the back and study his map than watch from the cockpit. His thin finger traced their patrol area – east of Bernheim, past the productive farmland in the valleys of the Ring of Fire. The deep ravines and thick jungle made the area inhospitable, and several people had gone missing from explorer expeditions over the last few weeks. The transport would drop them off in what cleared area it could find, and leave them for a period of fifty hours before returning to collect them. Everything that happened in between the drop-off and pick-up was up to the Unteroffizier in charge.
Of course, Bauhaus was not the sort of corporation to leave its soldier citizens in the dark jungle to die alone. They had a long-range radio pack, signal lights and flares, plenty of provisions to last the patrol and training to survive the jungle. They also knew the way to the nearest farming settlements, and those settlements knew they were out there.
Still, Karl felt conflicting dread and thrill to be left to his own devices. He revelled in the chance to earn glory for his house and corporation. It was not unheard of for the actions of small patrols to earn their commanders the notice of the nobility, which could enhance his career considerably.
«Unteroffizier Gellert to the cockpit.»
Karl looked up from the map and quietly unbuckled his harness. Walter held his gaze for a long moment before he stumbled his way up the narrow passage between the seats.
He slid open the narrow door and looked into the cockpit. The lights on the various dials were muted to allow the pilots to see. Outside, there was a smattering of stars across the velvet sky. Civilisation was unable to penetrate this far into the jungle, and the craft had its running lights off to preserve their security.
The cockpit was shaped like a stretched bubble, bulging on both sides and narrow in the middle where the door was. The two pilots sat in swivelling chairs, one in the centre of each bulge. One of them turned to face him- a tall but slim woman wearing a light blue-grey flight suit, washed with a soft red glow from the instrument panels. Her head was shrouded in a helmet, the dark visor stowed away.
Karl eyed the shape of her chin appreciatively, the only visible skin he could find. She spoke with a soft, Franco-accented voice.
‘We are now leaving the civilised areas. It will be another two minutes before we touch down. Do you ‘ave a preferred landing point?’
Gellert leaned in close to the pilot as they bent over the map. She smelled …clean, delicate. Not like Karl. Not like his Hussars.
‘Primary point here. The rivers should be low, so we may find an exposed gravel bed to drop onto. Secondary point,’ he moved his finger slightly, ‘here. We can drop onto the cliff tops and abseil to the valley floor, and then walk out.’ She nodded.
‘We ‘ave flown this area in daytime. The primary point will work for us.’ She motioned to her co-pilot and Karl felt the floor underneath him get heavy- the craft was banking towards their destination.
‘You will be on the ground in two minutes.’
Karl turned to go. He was about to step through the door when he felt a tug on his arm. He glanced at the pilot again.
‘Good luck.’ She said, purposefully. It sounded like a prayer. He nodded, tight-lipped, and headed rearward.
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