For Arn Kestrich, what he was experiencing through all of his senses now was all-too familiar. The twisted metal, the curling black smoke, the smell of burning plastic and the heat of smoldering flames. Destruction, and all its trappings, were almost a comfort to him: a reminder of his past and his youth. A break from the monotony that’d become his existence ever since he went into “retirement.”
“Watchdog to Kennel,” Kestrich said into his com, “No survivors here.” He kicked out with his booted foot, jostling a lifeless human arm that was sprouting out from under a pile of wreckage. “Five casualties,” he said, as he modified his count.
“Copy that, Watchdog,” a voice crackled in from the other end of his comm.
“I’m moving on to the next quadrant. Will call in again with updates. Watchdog out.”
Oberleutnant Kestrich had been the security chief aboard the Reinhardt. He was tall and with a lean, lanky musculature, as one might come to expect from Forest Clanners. His brown fur was tinged with gray, showing his age in a way that the man himself never would. A few scars evidenced themselves through even the gray-tinged fur; physical mementos of the old wolf’s long record of service to the Grand Army. The most obvious of these scars was one that ran the length of the left side of his face, an old wound that had claimed one of his eyes. He wore a leather eyepatch over the now-vacant socket. Several times he’d been offered some treatment for this injury in particular: there were cybernetic options that were as old as the arrival of the Guardians in the Web of Worlds, and more recently there’d been the option to have a new biological eye grown in a lab.
But these things weren’t for Kestrich. The truth was, he’d quite gotten used to not having his left eye. The missing eye and the eyepatch that covered it were now as much a part of his identity as any of his other battle scars. He felt almost as if replacing the eye, at this point, would be more of a mutilation to him than the initial injury he’d suffered during the Hivan War, when a Hivan soldier’s chitinous claw nearly took his whole head off.
“Watchdog to Kennel,” Kestrich said, again, into his comm. “Coming up on the bridge.”
When the Reinhardt landed, it bounced. It’s hard to imagine a massive, miles-long battleship bouncing like a ball, but there it was. It slammed into the ground, then it bounced back up, gave a little spin, and came back down again. As it slid across the earth, tearing up trees and rocks and dirt, it was on its side, and the bridge tower had crumpled under the rest of the ship’s weight.
The survivors who’d initially clambered out of the wreck were banged up and bloodied, but Kestrich expected to find far worse in the ruin of the bridge tower. It’d been dragged well behind the aft section of the ship; it would be a miracle to pull anyone out of it alive. At the least, Kestrich assumed his sole duty here was to locate and identify any remains so that their tags could be recovered.
Kestrich sniffed the air. More burning plastic, heat-warped metal… and blood. The air was thick with the acrid, coppery scent of blood. He couldn’t narrow it down to a species, but in the Grand Army that would be like trying to pick a single trumpet out of the brass section of an orchestra. In the Grand Army, nations and races all bleed the same.
He found his way in through a gash cut into the hull by the impact. Exposed wires showered down sparks all around him; small fires burned pleasantly, providing the only source of light as he probed deeper into the ruined bridge. He activated his flash light and threw the beam about in the darkness, each time landing on a corpse that he’d located via scent. Mentally, he kept track of the numbers and their locations. The numbers he would broadcast back to Kennel when he had a final tally; the locations he would give to the med teams that’d make a sweep only after he’d finished scouting first.
He meant to do this quickly: get in, get out, get back to the main encampment. Based on the state of the bridge tower from the outside, he wasn’t expecting to find anyone alive… which was why he was genuinely startled when he saw some of the wreckage move.
His light beam went directly toward the sound, and his remaining eye widened in surprise. Out from under a fallen ceiling panel emerged two bloodied people: a male and a female. Kestrich, impossibly, had the entire personnel file of the Reinhardt memorized, so he knew these two by sight: Private Valentina Velasco, and Leutnant Ivan Zdravko.
“Watchdog to Kennel,” Kestrich said, “We’ve got wounded survivors in the bridge tower. Send med team 5 at once to my location.”
His comm buzzed with the static of an acknowledgement from the survivor camp, as Ketrich secured his flashlight to his belt and bent down to help dig out the survivors.