Ah, shit. We found the villagers. Our mask filters can’t keep the smell out.

Bettuzzi, jumpy and still horrified at what he’d done to that dog, takes one look in the pit and blanches, stumbling back, eyes wide. Hands shaking, his rifle clatters as he leans it against a rock. Pawing at his face, he yanks and pulls until his rebreather comes loose. He doubles over and vomit spews noisily into the sand. He shuffles back from the pit, abandoning his rifle, rubbing his eyes over and over, pacing back and forth. His frantic steps kick up dust and ash.

At a nod from Sarge, Doc quickly comes up behind Bettuzzi, injecting him in the neck with a hit of stims, grabbing his arm and checking his pulse. Doc’s trying to keep him from running, keep him combat effective, we’re too alone out here for weakness. Bettuzzi crumples to his knees as the rush from the shot takes hold.

Sarge breaks mission protocol and squats down, glaring into Bettuzzi’s face:
“Where'd you think you'er runnin' to, soldier? Nothin' 'round for hundreds of kilos, just us, the sand, and,” he nods in the direction of the pit, “whoever visited horror on those poor souls.”
Sarge’s tone is harsh as he barks at Bettuzzi, but beneath is a tempered understanding. The rest of the squad perk up their ears, and slowly drift closer, still watchful, but listening to what Sarge has to say:
“Orders says: first we investigate and make friends with the locals. Well, judging by that grave o'er there, mission a-ccomplished.”
He looks around, the confidence in his voice steadying us, nods to Doc before continuing:
“Second: is hike three hundred kilos east, to the source of the signal,” his lips form a grim line of determination, “and fucking-by-god gentleman, that's what we'er gonna do.”

At Sarge’s words a tingling wave washes over my body, too cold on this hot day. A grave-walker, my mother used to call it. I can’t shake my unease. Despite Sarge’s confidence I don’t see this ending well, and judging by the bodies in the pit, whoever is broadcasting the signal, is extremely averse to discovery.

Bart and Rhodes hike just outside the town-site, to what overlooks they can get and hunker down, with rifles ready. With the town search sweep over and site declared “clean”, and with our twins watching over us, the rest of the squad patrol the town, but it’s mostly aimless wandering, waiting while Sarge and Schmidt relay our report. The beacon in Schmidt's pack uploads the intel from the village back to HQ, but this far on the edge of expansion, there are no quick-relay satellites. Schmidt is prepared with a farbeam, but that will take fifteen minutes to pulse transmit, and just as long for the response to reach us. We’re not used to operating quite so cut off, our squad is way outside the operations theatre, far into the colony no-assist-zone. The governor of this backwater shit-hole must’ve pulled strings far up the food chain to get us deployed.

Thinking about the distance between us and the rest of civilization, I feel weirdly claustrophobic. I gasp and wheeze through the rebreather, fighting back the sour taste of fear in my mouth. I punch my mask release and it falls away, dangling from the neck straps. Leaning forward I grip my knees until the bones creak. Deep heaving breaths, trying to calm down. Bad idea. I cough and spit granules of sand spitefully back onto the ground, adding my precious water to replenish the torched oasis, can’t wash the horror away. Who would murder a whole village? And then torch it? What cruel sadistic bastard made them dig their own grave? As I think about it, rage pushes at the edges of the fear. Blood rises, hot in my ears, bubbling up. I hated whoever did this. I wasn't the only one, I could see it in Sarge too, as his eyes met mine, fire glinting behind the steel of his glare. Humans could be so cruel.

We wait, horrified and angry and bored, watching the desert scavengers continue their feast.