by Lloyd Montgomery
I ran low and fast through head-high brush, trying to keep quiet. Flechettes buzzed at me through the foliage, leaving behind the scent of freshly mown grass. There were at least forty hostiles after me. The wind was from behind and I could smell their fear and excitement, even through the alien forest. I couldn’t possibly kill them all before they caught up. Fortunately, I wasn’t alone.
“Reen, cover me. I’m falling back through you,” I said over the platoon circuit.
“SAW’s dry, Khan. Rockets outgoing.” My support man’s Squad Automatic Weapon had run out of ammo, he was covering my retreat with the rockets in his Skorpion. My fur stood on end in the overly dry Minervan summer air as the six mini-rockets screamed past and prox blew about fifty meters behind me, in the midst of the enemy line. The rest of my team opened up, an impromptu ambush.
Crouching down, I turned to assess the damage. The mini-rocks from Reen’s sidearm had downed at least fourteen indigs. The rest of their company hit the ground as the sound of explosions filled the forest, forcing us to take them out the hard way. Blaster bolts, guided a-pers missiles, and hypervelocity shot tore through the trees and into the enemy line. More of those nasty little flechettes came back at us; they were deadly at close range but lost power over distance. I still had several stuck in my armor. Bringing my sniper rifle into line, I shot at the dappled-brown uniforms that my head-up-display indicated no one else had targeted.
Thirty seconds and it was over, my team had cut down better than twice their number.
“Great Shiva, someone tell me they stopped chasing us.” The enemy had been following for a day or more, since we hit their Command Post and took out most of their officers and communications gear.
“Can I eat any of them, Khan?” Reen rumbled. I ignored him, as I always did. I’m told he asked the same question to his last platoon leaders every time he hit dirt. To my knowledge he had never actually eaten a fallen enemy, Hs’Thai just have a perverse sense of humor.
I moved my team into some heavy brush, away from the last skirmish. The whole area for kilometers around was light to medium forest with scattered spots of thick brush. Perfect terrain for sneaky Explorer fighting—one of the remaining things we had going for us.
“Marty, give me an update,” I told my Commo/SigInt man, a thoroughly professional career human. He had been in the Explorers past ten and never cared that I was Ithri, female, and younger than him. Since the day I grew stripes on my uniform to match my fur he was one of the ones I could count on to back me up. The Long Range Explorer Corps was his religion and the CS Apache his church.
“Sat says there’s another bunch moving this way. Close to a hundred, max. Looks like light infantry.” He was reading data coming down from the Command satellite. “ETA fifteen minutes, spread out along this front, two to three hundred meters wide.”
“What’s word on our pickup?”
“Same as before: Quit dicking around and fall back to Alt 2. Lander is on the way.”
I switched to Command freq, “Command, Recon 3. Can we get Lightning yet?” They had turned us down once already, enemy atmospheric craft were giving them problems.
“Recon 3, Command here. Air Support is unavailable for one hour, we are re-tasking now. Recommend you fall back to Landing Zone Alt 2.”
That drew a muttered, “Thanks for the tip, Einstein,” from Lee, my surviving Corporal and fellow sniper. She had access to the Command line too.
“Status of Primary LZs and Alt 1?”
“Alt 2 is closest still open, Recon 3.” That meant the natives had already overrun the other four.
Intelligence had really blown it. Minerva was supposed to be a minor planet in the Rim Worlds, full of pre-spaceflight barbarians of all races, still recovering from the Fall of the Empire almost two hundred years earlier. Confederation government had found the place, sent in Contact teams to open relations, and—when the natives had slaughtered the diplomats—fell back on the Explorer Corps to straighten things out. We had been the first wave of the pacification force. Our job was to establish a perimeter for the rest of the Ground troops, gather intel, and harass enemy Command.
The whole op had gone wrong from the beginning. Solar flare activity made communications sporadic and forced the Task Force to move to a safer orbit. Then our lander hit heavy atmospheric ionization during its run, ruining its stealth capabilities. By the time my team was on the ground the natives had triple-A and interceptors airborne. We got out but the dropship took heavy fire while leaving. When the rest of the battalion was finally down and out a small war had started. The Minervans had been at war with each other for over a century, but they were more than happy to take a break and shoot at us for a change. What should have been a 36-hour battle had lasted over 72 hours. Half my platoon was injured or dead and the rest of us were running low.
I checked my group, everyone who could had reloaded and taken some water, “Time to move.” My platoon shouldered weapons and helped injured comrades to their feet.
“Where to?” Lee asked. She’d taken several hits, the only things keeping her going were the drugs in her armor. She smelled of weapons fire, blood, and fatigue.
“Alt 2.” I surveyed the terrain, mostly light woods and heavy undergrowth ahead of us. Brush fires burned randomly behind us, highlighting the path we had cut through enemy territory. Any dangerous animals had already pulled out in the face of superior firepower.
I was unhappy, all the fun had gone out of this fight hours ago. We were no longer the hunters, the prey had turned on us.
“Sarge, there’s a couple hundred indigs and what looks like a light armored company spread out between us and there,” Marty stated, looking up from his gear. “Just thought I’d bring it up.”
“Only available, we go low and slow. Ch’Chura, take point.” Usually I get an Ithri to go first, we felines are natural hunters, but the other two in my group had gotten themselves killed. They had both been males, smelling that I was close to mating season, and had likely been trying to impress me.
Ch’Chura nodded, checked his 4mm railgun and said, “One hundred meters.” The Ch’ are small primates, more prey than predator, but they can move fast and quiet. I lost him in the brush two meters away.
The rest of us spread out behind him, Reen brought up the rear. He was another veteran that had been in a lot longer than I, twenty-four years at last count. Hs’Thai live for centuries, it’s that reptilian blood. They usually become mercenaries, but every so often one of the more honorable ones joins the Explorers or the Marines. Confed has learned to love them—they are a heavy ton better than most soldiers, even us Ithri. Reen had earned more decorations than the rest of the platoon combined. More important than that, no matter what we ran into we knew he had been there before. To him it was always just another op, another chance to make bad jokes.
While we were moving, I switched my visor over to Inventory; I needed to see if anyone still had heavy ordinance, anything capable of taking out armored vehicles. We had used most of our stuff pasting the enemy CP. The best I found were two high-explosive/anti-armor grenades on one of my regs.
“DeeVee, confirm two HEDP rounds,” I asked the one Sari in our platoon.
DeVarrosinsharra came back, “Confirm, Khan. I still have two live.” I could hear his breath rasping over the radio, he’d taken a hit in one of his four lungs. His blue skin would be mottled but he could keep going on one lung if he had to. “Sadly, those and the blaster on my Skorp are it.”
“Load them. We hit armor, use them first.” Everyone in my platoon carried a multi-purpose Skorpion for backup, except me and Ch’Chura. Confed issued them as pistols; they’re basically a multi-function blaster with four other weapons tacked on. We were both too small to use it as a sidearm and too proud to call it a longarm. I carried an LREC-issue sniper rifle and he carried that nasty Ch’ bullet-hose.
“Roger that, Khan,” DeeVee replied.
“Anyone carrying that doesn’t show up on Inventory?” Our offensive resources were badly depleted.
The response wasn’t encouraging. Marty and a couple of others carried hold-out pistols and two had picked up Minervan flechette guns as souvenirs; none of which would make a difference against tanks. I tried to make plans as we pushed through the forest.
Marty and Ch’Chura both informed me about the same time: We were getting close to the enemy armor. My tiny point-man was closer, I would defer to him on data.
“CeeCee, how’s it look?” I asked as the rest of my platoon took cover in the trees.
“Light tracks, Khan. They look more like Infantry Support than APCs or Main-Battle. Not much room for troops. Not unless all the infantry are my size.” Armored Personnel Carriers would have been a problem.
“O/D?” Meaning Offensive/Defensive capabilities.
“Armor looks like light steel or layered aluminum alloy, maybe forty mill on the glacis. Guns are two twenty-to-thirty mill cannon with a co-ax MG. Turret mounted with three-sixty FOF. Tracks are exposed and she’s buttoned up.”
“Any support troops?”
“None close. Scan says three, four hundred meters past.” Idiots, only a fool brings up armor without infantry to guard their flanks, I thought.
“How many tracks can you see?”
“Three in LOS, the trees cut down vision. About fifty meters between them.” The enemy’s technology was based on line-of-sight.
“I’m looking through you, slow sweep left to right.” I closed my helmet and switched to his POV, looking through his eyes. He was right. The armor was just sitting there—shimmering in the heat—without infantry cover close, their guns pointed away from us.
“They look like they’re trying to hide from whatever’s on the other side of them,” he added.
I got it then, “They’re hull-down, waiting to hit our Marines as they come this way. No one told them we were here.” Most of the fighting was taking place past them, where the Drop Zones were. We were behind their line of battle.
“We need to make a hole, kids. DeeVee, hit those two as we go.” I painted the two nearest vehicles and assigned two more of my best armed regs to harass the remaining track we could see. “After that we advance fast-fast, up through their infantry. Use scare stuff—rockets and flamers. Spook them and pass by. Reen, cover our rear.” We didn’t need to break this line, just get through. Once Command had our data they could task the Marines or Ground Attack to wipe out what was left. I sent a Priority Message upstairs just in case, dumping all of my intel. On my thigh datapad I quickly sketched out our line of advance and sent that also, Marty did the same.
“Command, Recon Three. Do you see this?” I had to make sure they knew what was happening.
“Recon Three, Command. We confirm. Ground Two and Five will cover your flanks from the other side of your advance. Can you break through?”
“Ree-See, Command.” That Remained to be Seen. “Is Lightning available yet?” Ground Attack ships would make things a whole lot easier.
“GA is fifteen away, Recon Three. We paint enemy activity behind you. They are closing fast, regiment or better.” Air Support would take too long and we couldn’t stick around, the enemy at our backs would reach us first. “Delta Four is incoming to make your pick-up. ETA is five.”
“We go now, Command. Tell Ground Two and Five to cover us in two.” I switched circuits. “Recon Three, advance. DeeVee hit them now.” His first grenade went out and nailed one track in the side. Typical Sari caution, aim for center-of-mass rather than risk a miss. It didn’t matter, though. His target cooked off, burning debris landing all around. His second shot had equal results. Two down. All we had to worry about was the third monster on our right.
Despite the a-pers rockets and blaster beams hitting her, the third track’s guns opened up. Her gunner was aiming low, looking for infantry. High-explosive shells and flechettes shrieked past or exploded around us. Another of my team went down, Relldren moved to pick him up. This was taking too long, seconds too long. If we stayed to fight, the track’s friends would close in and kill us.
“She’s staggering fire on her cannons, Khan.” Every couple of seconds one cannon would go silent as the loader switched to a fresh magazine. Staggering fire meant she could keep a constant stream outgoing. It also meant we would have a hell of a time taking the track out. Nearly two hundred years fighting each other had trained these people well.
“Recon Three right, throw smoke and leave her. Advance with the rest of us.” We had to take the chance. Smoke would blind the gunner for a few seconds. After that we’d be into her infantry, they couldn’t shoot without hitting their own troops.
We pushed forward, through the billowing smoke, into the enemy line. Even though we were shot up and down to sidearms, their groundpounders were still no match for us one-on-one. They had no armor and their weapons were strictly line-of-sight, with no HUD/IFF capability at all. Lee and I painted targets for the rest of the platoon and maintained field-of-fire, all on the run. Anyone they missed, we took down with our sniper gear. Despite our superior equipment, it was a mess; the line they held had a better than three-to-one superiority in numbers. Blowing up their tanks had eliminated any surprise that we were coming. Fortunately, the Marines in Ground Two and Five, more heavily armed than my team, kept their flanks too busy to send much support. Another hundred meters—we were through the worst and closing in on our Drop Zone.
“Recon Three, fall back to Alt Two by Evac drill.” I didn’t want to give the order but we were losing cohesion, enemy flechettes and HE from the armor were cutting us down. We needed to get out and take our wounded with us.
“Lander, Recon Three. My beacon is red-red-white.” Trying to remain calm, I tossed the flare onto the only empty field within four kilometers and dropped flat in the rough grass, covering what was left of my platoon.
“Recon Three, this is Delta Four, I have your beacon.” I recognized that voice—Flight Commander Richard Fandrill, Task Force 4/2’s resident nonconformist, comedian, and the love of my life, depending on who you ask.
“Soonest Delta Four, we are hot-hot-hot.” Enemy armor was within a kilometer of us and advancing. “Infantry and armor firing close.”
The voice brightened, “Khan, my love! Is that you down there?” Rick’s perverse sense of humor surfaced at the worst of times.
“Roger Delta Four, it’s me.”
“I’ll be in your arms in five, lady.” Then, just to further irritate Command and me, he asked, “What’s a nice girl like you doing in this shithole?”
I didn’t answer, bantering with him would knock me out of my combat mindset.
“Well, Sarge, looks like he couldn’t bear to leave his girlfriend on the ground.” My relationship with that crazy human was a source of endless amusement for my platoon.
Near me, Marty shook his head, “That dumbass flyboy’s gonna get another rocket from Command for talking trash on a tactical line.” Ship communications were closely monitored from orbit.
“Like that has stopped him the last twenty times.” Reen responded, still out in the woods. Our platoon freq wasn’t powerful enough to be heard upstairs.
“I hear the Navy rates in Commo have a pool going every op to see if he does it again,” Relldren, one of my support shooters, chimed in.
“He gets us out of here, I will take the hit for him and kiss his feet.” That was from Sesellra-Farra, a Sharai. They come from swamps and the thought of touching someone else’s feet disgusts them.
Rick’s lander came in low and fast, drawing fire from every heavy weapon within a kilometer. Its shields flared white as shots exploded off them. With all his skills he brought it down, killing the shields as he hit ground. The doors slid open.
“Get ’em onboard, Khan. We’ve got Angels incoming!” Our air support was finally on the way.
“Recon Three, even-odd fall back!” My platoon started moving, losing the cover of the forest by the numbers. I ran to a position by Delta Four’s bulk and kept an eye out for problems, shooting them as I saw them. Lee had gone down, I was the only sniper left.
I counted the members of my platoon as they went through the lock. Not good, we’d been decimated. Almost a quarter of my team was dead, half the rest were wounded.
Marty ran onboard, carrying Ch’Chura and helping Lee.
“Marty, where’s Reen?” That oversized lizard was the tail-end of my team.
“Didn’t see him,” he gasped. “Should be ten back, unless he stopped for a snack.” I checked my visor. Reen had popped his beacon; he was down in the treeline, fifty meters away.
“Pilot, hold two. I’ve got a man down.” I dropped my rifle, drew my pistol, and ran back the way I came.
“Make it fast, Kitten. The natives are getting restless.” Light artillery from the tracks was pounding the area. “I can’t raise screens until we’re airborne,” he mentioned, in case I had forgotten. “And the armor on this boat sucks.”
As I ran back, I pulled the tab on my chestplate, releasing stimulants into my bloodstream. I’d regret it later—the Ithri metabolism doesn’t deal well with drugs—but Reen was almost twice my size, I needed the boost. Looking through a forest full of blooming explosions I found him in the fog; he’d caught the edge of an artillery burst and couldn’t get back up. The smell of explosives and propellant was overpowering. I skidded to a halt, threw his three-meter tall body across my shoulders, and started back to the ship as fast as I could move. Gods Above and Below, I could see enemy soldiers shooting at us as I ran for it. Those horrible flechettes buzzed around us, punching into our armor like evil demons, seeking our blood.
I heard the Drop Coordinator admonish Rick over the Command line, “Delta Four, Command. You are past your launch window. Dust off.”
“DC, we are working on it. Tell Ground Attack to hold fire for one.” Rick wasn’t leaving until his pickup was onboard.
“Delta Four, GA is into their run. You have to go now.” I tried to speed up. The enemy had found the range, explosive shells were hitting the ship and our Angels were about to plaster the area as well.
“Roger DC, we are away.” I was almost worried, despite his long-ago oath.
Rick lifted his boat a meter off the ground and sideslipped it towards me with the doors still open, slamming into trees. The madman. Muscles screaming, I jumped and flew through the drop hatch as the lander and I met in midair. Reen and I crashed into the hold and were caught by the rest of my team.
“Pilot, we are in. Go-go-go!”
Snort, “Like I’d leave without you.” He closed the doors, raised screens, and maxed the engines and afterburners all at once just as Ground Attack strafed Alt 2. Shockwaves slapped our craft around like a leaf in a hurricane. Our Angels used GC plasma bombs and heavy auto-blasters to carpet the DZ. Anything left on the ground was burning wreckage.
While he was pulling us out of harm’s way, with the lander still halfway upside-down, Rick cut in on our platoon line, “Drinks are on Pathfinder Team Three.
This drew a swarm of comebacks from beings scattered throughout the hold:
“Try and find us.”
“As much as you can drink, airedale.”
“Get me onto the Apache and I will kiss your ass.”
“My feet are yours, truck-driver.”
“Every drink to your ancestors.”
I was curled up on the cold uncaring deck, shaking from the after-effects of the stims and trying to pretend the whole recovery had never happened. I hate getting picked up under fire. I can’t shoot back, I can’t even see my enemy. Situations like that fray my nerves raw.
Quietly, I keyed my comm to the pilot’s frequency, “Richard, when we get back. After I check my team. When you get through being yelled at for using the tacc line to try and get laid. When the Drop Commander gets through with you, gives you a commendation, and tells you never to do something like that again. When the Angels get through calling you a magnificent bastard for pulling out in the middle of their run. When Pathfinder Team Three is finished buying you drinks in the Enlisted and NCO Clubs on the Apache. When all that is done, I’m going to find a way to go into season, find your drunk ass, and make you realize why you gave up on human women.” I was at the point where I could decide when it was going to happen, within a month or so.
Just to try and get in the last word he said, “Deal.”
Just to make sure I got the last word, I agreed, “Deal.”
We flew back to the Apache.