The Ashes of Pyrrhus

The Shoahn’Tu sun fell in crystalline shards of heat and light that splashed against the ground and rippled across the land in shimmering waves that would only be quelled in the deep quiet of long night.

But night was a long time away and so much would change before the orange furnace of the Shoahn’ sun slipped over the horizon.

In every direction he looked, all Major Ben Dekker could see was the ocean of scrub weeds clinging relentlessly to brown hard-packed dirt as wind swirled through the waves of heat, sifting clouds of dust through the endless expanse.

It was the same everywhere, except for the green furrows dug along the gentle slopes of the Highlands. In a sea of dried rock and sand where a man needed but one day to walk into oblivion and never return, the Highlands was an oasis where greens and grains sprung from its furrows to feed the last remaining souls of the Exodus colony.

Here, 1500 men, women and children toiled in fields during the hot days and huddled around cordwood fires during the cold nights, waiting for the day when they could do more than just survive. Waiting for the day when they could sow and plow and harvest without wondering when the Terran Guard would again emerge from the folds of heat scurrying along the horizon to take the last arable land they would ever know.

Until then, they would whisper about the legions of the Terran Guard, who still saw the colonists as nothing more than invaders they had warned to stay away. Now, 100 years later, the Terran Guard still marched in their unwavering quest to defend the native Shoahn’ from the blight of humanity that had nowhere else to go. Even though more than a generation had passed since any human had seen a Shoahn’, the Guard still came. Some still asked why. But it was a question that drew little more than a tired gaze and another slug of root tea from clay cups as homesteaders gazed at the crackling flames of a cordwood fire and took refuge in a few hours respite of the root tea’s numbing effect. Then, they would sleep until dawn, when they could walk back into the fields to toil in the withering heat for another day, hoping somehow that it wouldn’t be their last.

That hope came from the twelve Cataphracts of the Special Armor Combat Team standing watch over the colonists as they tilled the fertile soil of the Highlands. The mechanical behemoths stood 50 feet tall on titanium legs plated with black composite armor. Rotary cannons mounted on swivels in their torsos stood ready to swing down and fill the air with molten streams of steel that could rip apart the heaviest tanks the Terran Guard had to offer in sacrifice at the altar of war. Nestled in the torsos next to the cannons, the slick ejection rails of plasma guns could burn a swath of ground 100 feet wide in a single salvo, incinerating any troops who dared approach.

They were simple machines, designed to do one thing: keep the enemy away, slow them down and decimate their columns to buy time for the ranks of the Exodus Fleet’s Marine Expeditionary Force to maneuver and close with the enemy before they could overrun the fields. If they couldn’t do that, they could at least buy time for farmers to abandon their hoes and spades and run across the fields, gasping for hot breath so they could huddle one more night around the cordwood fires, drink root tea and ask a question nobody wanted to answer: now what?

A glistening black cockpit was perched on top of each mech, with a sharply stenciled white lance adorning the right side just beneath its hardened polymer canopy. Strapped in behind those canopies, each mech’s pilot scanned the horizon, waiting for an enemy that did not fear the ranks of the MEF. An enemy that wouldn’t hesitate to gun down a farmer in the name of defending a race that no longer existed. An enemy that would never hear the appeals to their humanity because they had long abandoned any allegiance to their own kind. The pilots waited and watched for the columns of the Terran Guard that would roll across the land like locusts, a merciless juggernaut that would kill with superior efficiency anything that stood between them and a final victory whose only criterion was that every single descendant of those whom they had warned to stay away lay dead in the wind-swept deserts of Shoahn’Tu.

The one thing those columns did fear were the Cataphracts now standing along the edge of the Highlands, their lances glinting in the setting sun, reminding everyone that the Terran Guard still hadn’t won. For 100 years, they had endured battle with the seemingly endless legions of the Terran Guard. And all twelve were still standing. Still watching. Still waiting. Because of that fear, the oath of the MEF still survived in the raised voices of its withering ranks: That they shall not perish. Because of that fear, farmers still tilled the fields and pulled from its ground another day’s survival and another night whispering around the fires and drinking root tea into the waning hours of the scant cold of night.

Because of this, the Paladin and his Cataphracts were a priority target in every battle. For 100 years, the Terran Guard had sent their fiercely trained Special Assault Team, hungry for vengeance and sworn to lay down their lives to deprive the MEF of the one thing that kept their people alive. For 100 years, they had charged the Paladin’s Cataphracts with their black EMP spikes, hoping to latch on to the towering frames and flood them with enough voltage to make them glow. Injecting the Paladin’s Cataphracts with the screaming vengeance of electric death snaking along their frames, they would cripple the last guardians of a dream that refused to die. They would watch the looming behemoths shudder, gripped by a gyrating spasm that would leave them paralyzed and broken. Then, they would fill the air with a ravenous cry of victory as the Paladin’s Cataphracts toppled over and shook the ground with their dead titanium carcasses, never again to ravage the Terran Guard with their molten steel and blue-fired plasma.

Major Ben Dekker commanded the contingent that had trained just as hard to keep that from ever happening. Comprised of the most elite Marines who had survived a five-year training regimen so grueling that one in ten did not survive, the Special Operations Defense Company was tasked with the most perilous and critical mission in the MEF: Keep the Paladin and his Cataphracts safe from the equally battle-hardened ranks of the Terran Guard’s Special Assault Team. For a century, they had created a legacy of parry and thrust, vicious battles consuming the best of the best, all for the sake of the one thing that kept the colony alive: the Paladin and his twelve Cataphracts.

Nobody ever called them by their official designation. They simply went by the embroidered unit designation stitched into badges woven with real cotton from Earth. Dull and frayed from too many years in the Shoahn’ sun, they simply read: Paladin’s Foot Guard. No Marine who earned the honor of wearing the insignia would ever again have to prove anything to anybody. They would never go hungry. They would never want for the best recovery chambers. They would never pass through the colony without an offer of a drink or a loaf of bread or a mate.

Because every man woman and child in the colony knew that Major Dekker and his Foot Guard had trained their entire lives to keep the unthinkable from happening. If the Paladin fell, they all fell.

The only Marines held in higher esteem were the Paladin himself, and his Cataphract pilots. Gods among men, they alone held the status of idols whom the colonists adored to the point of worship. Just to speak to a Cat pilot was to be touched by the breath of divinity. The first word any boy or girl learned, even before they called for their mothers and fathers, was “Paladin.” When they played in the camps at night, they pretended to die in one of two ways: hoeing the ground to their last breath or dying in battle to defend the Paladin and their fellow colonists. As an adult, their were no other honorable ways to die.

Dressed in lightweight two-tone beige battle utility dress and a flop-brimmed cloth cover soaking the sweat from his forehead, Dekker stood next to the Cataphracts with the 60 Marines of his Foot Guard. Every Marine in each of the company’s three platoons carried an R-51 long barrel semi-automatic rifle. Firing conventional gunpowder rounds, the R-51 was more accurate and had a greater range than the Terran Guard’s electromagnetic rail guns. In the hands of a Foot Guard, every one of them the best marksman in the MEF, the R-51 rarely missed.

The only other weapons the company carried were three light machine guns distributed among the three platoons and Dekker’s plasma rifle, a bipod-mounted sniper weapon that consumed anybody foolish enough to appear in his scope with a curling flash of blue fire. It wasn’t any more effective than an R-51, but it was devastating to the enemy’s morale, who had to endure the agonizing screams of its victims as they burned to death. Demoralization was the official justification for the horror dealt by a plasma rifle. Dekker had his own reasons for watching his victims flop on the ground, screaming as they were consumed by thermite plasma. A Marine wasn’t supposed to think that way. He was supposed to be a hardened professional, carrying out his oath with efficiency and blood chilled by the temperance of discipline. But nobody dared explain that sort of thing to the commanding officer of the Paladin’s Foot Guard. He could do it his way, as long as the Paladin and his Cataphracts remained standing.

Peering through his field glasses, Dekker methodically scanned the horizon for the tell-tale swirls of dust that signaled the approach of the Terran Guard’s lead echelons. It was a skill that took years to hone – to be able to tell the difference between a dust devil or a gust sweeping across the ground and the roiling spirals that came from wheels and treads tracking across the desert.

Holding the binoculars steady with one hand, he quietly slipped his other hand to his earpiece and gently tapped it. His movements were slow, deliberate and minimal, holding every part of his body still except his hand. The enemy was nowhere near and it wasn’t necessary, but hard-won discipline had become unconscious habit. So he moved as little as possible, giving the enemy nothing to see and little to hear.

“Tripwire Tokyo, Fox One Actual.”

Static crackled softly in his ear as he waited for the response. He watched another dust devil sprout along the avenue of approach the forward observation post was supposed to be watching. It swirled across the ground and then dissipated, the shimmering clear heat waves sizzling along the ground it had left behind.

He waited a full ten seconds before calling again.

“Tripwire Tokyo, Fox One Actual.” He furrowed his brow and pressed his cracked lips into a thin line as he listened to more static.

Still scanning the horizon, he reached down to unsnap the canvas canteen carrier strapped to his body harness – another honor of tradition that only the Foot Guard carried. Unlike the thin polymer bags of water snugged in the pockets of regular Marines, the canvas carrier had a thick and durable feel to it. The aluminum canteen was heavy and almost cold. Only the Foot Guard carried canteens. It was a museum piece, and a legacy dating back to the days when Marines stormed beaches on old Earth. Each of them had been given their canteen on the first day of training. If they survived, they could keep it. Over the five long years of training, their canteens would save their lives more times than they could count. Carrying one thus became an honor greater than the highest commendation the MEF could offer. If you weren’t a Foot Guard, just touching one could get you a broken arm.

Dekker carefully unscrewed the black plastic cap fastened to the canteen’s inside by a stainless steel chain, held the cap between two fingers and took a single sip of water. He eased the canteen back into the carrier and slowly screwed the cap back down. He let out a slow measured breath, shifted his scan to another part of the horizon and gently tapped his earpiece.

“Tripwire Mecca, Fox One Actual.”

Again, the crackle of static filled his earpiece. Dekker closed his eyes, and counted off five seconds as he licked cracked lips.

He counted off another ten seconds and then let out a sigh. “Battle net.”

A soft chime sounded in his earpiece as his radio switched to the main command channel.

“Marine One, Fox One Actual.” He heard a click. Then, the gruff voice of General Grayson.

“Go Guard.”

“Sir, no contact tripwires Tango and Mike.”

“Understood. Bravo One Nine is running the fenceline now. Deploy your perimeter. Marine One out.”

There were only two rules for the Foot Guard. First, they could never be more than 100 meters away from the Paladin. Even for the commanding officer, this was non-negotiable and the tracking beacons sewn in to their unit patches allowed no room for error. The only exception was if the Paladin executed a tactical jump, in which case the Paladin had proximity discretion. But jumps didn’t happen often and when they did, it usually meant the Foot Guard had let the enemy get too close in the first place. A tactical jump usually led to a formal investigation and whispers in the passageways that didn’t die down for months. A Foot Guard that let the Paladin jump would never again walk quite as proudly as before.

The second rule was they could only engage an enemy that presented a clear and present threat to the Paladin and his Cataphracts. Officially, this meant troopers from the Terran Guard’s Special Assault Team carrying EMP spikes. Unofficially, Dekker had some discretion on targeting. But not much.

Dekker tapped his earpiece. “Command Net.” After the chime, he said, “Fox elements, Fox One Actual, listen up. Three points at 75 on axis.”

Just as he finished his command, each of his platoon leaders signaled their squads to head out on predefined vectors from the Paladin’s footpad. Without saying a word, the second platoon’s three squads ran to their position directly between the Paladin and the enemy’s expected avenue of approach. Each squad hunkered down, utilizing what meager defilade they could find. Within 60 seconds, every Marine in Fox Company Second Platoon had deployed in line with their weapons shouldered and eyes peering down the iron sites of their R-51 long-barrels. The lone machine gunner unfolded the bipod of his weapon, laid a thin resin belt of ammunition into the feed tray and clapped the lid closed. After that, no man could even hear the other breathe.

First platoon did the same thing, angling out at a 45 degree angle on the Paladin’s left flank, masking the left-most Cataphract at the end of the echelon formation the Cataphracts had set up facing the expected avenue of approach. 45 degrees to the right, third platoon took up positions on the edge of the Highlands, close enough that they could have reached out and plucked young stalks of oats and barley from the soil.

Dekker studied each formation now lying prone, weapons ready. The Marines were so still that even to him their camouflage blended into the terrain so that they were half Marine, half ghost, waiting to unleash a maelstrom of death on any who dared trip the perimeter and then fade back into the land, unseen, unheard, unknown.

“One one, left ten, pad cover south.” The left most squad of the first platoon crawled left even further, aligning their bodies between the footpad of the closest Cataphract and a line due south of the Highlands. Grayson’s fenceline wasn’t extended far enough to recce the far left flank, something he intended to discuss with the old man later.

Grayson was a good leader and a brilliant tactician who understood the value of a candid debriefing. Not only did he listen, but he stayed true to his creed of Kaisan, straining to improve his plans and command tempo with every deployment. In return, the Marines of the MEF gave him everything they had and trained hard to find even more. In its entire history, no commandant had been more beloved by the ranks than General Grayson. Dekker smiled faintly, knowing that it mattered now, more than ever before, when the outnumbered ranks of the MEF had to hold the only ground left to lose.

Phase line Alamo was supposed to be the last line of defense. Six months ago, they had fallen behind it and now phase line Alamo lay a kilometer away, directly between them and the maniacal vengeance of Godfrey’s Terran Guard. There were no more phase lines to hold. There was only the Highlands and the farmers who stooped and trudged and dug and weeded, ignoring the fact that 50-foot mechs stood close enough to walk over and touch. Even after all the lost battles and the throngs of colonists left behind in the wake of the Terran Guard’s century-long advance, they still believed.

Dekker wanted to think that it was because there was some new and better reason to believe now that there was nowhere left to retreat. But he knew it was only because they had no other choice except to give up. The shackles of the Terran Guard, their eugenics and their cruel homage to the religion of the lost Shoahn’ precluded anybody giving up. Every colonist understood the true meaning of the oath – that they shall not perish. One could breathe and walk and eat and still be dead.

Legends superceded the truth behind them, but Dekker knew the legends of the terrors bestowed by the Terran Guard were not far from the actual truth. He could still see a night long ago when the MEF had pushed the fringes of a Terran Guard battalion back far enough for them to see the dull blue glow of halogen torches lighting the attrition bins at a lone Terran outpost. Through the smear of night, he had watched through the same field glasses he now used to scan the horizon. There, he had seen Terran Guard soldiers carry the limp bodies of colonists along the gangway between the screening bunker and the metal walls of the attrition chamber. He never knew if they were already dead or just unconscious. What he did know was they were either too old, or too weak or didn’t have the genetic composition to qualify for the grueling training of becoming a Terran Guard. Soldiers carried bodies into the chamber and came back empty handed. He never heard a scream. And he never saw anybody come back out. It was when he thought he recognized the face of one of the colonists being carried along the gangway that he had to look away. He would never know for sure, because he never looked again. Now, in his mind’s eye, he studied the face of that one colonist, trying to see who it was, and he felt a familiar rage, a dagger of anger plunged into his own heart because he had looked away. He wanted to shout back to himself, to that young coward who didn’t have the courage to see. Look, damn you. Look! But the face never came into focus. He had lowered his field glasses to see a whisper of something glowing in the cord trees just outside the compound. As if something were looking back at him. And then it was gone. He had always wondered if he had seen a Shoahn’, its yellow glowing eyes looking back at him, pleading for something he would never understand. But he would never know.

As he remembered, he unconsciously wrapped his hand around the pistol grip of the plasma rifle slung over his shoulder. It was only when he looked down to see his knuckles turning white that he realized he was thinking about it again. Focus. Not today. Later. He uncurled his fingers and gently shook his hand, now aching from the strain of gripping the weapon so hard.

The air grew still and Dekker almost smelled the lone glint of dust curling out of pattern in the distance. A thick curl wafted up from the ground over a kilometer away and he knew. Just as he realized it, his earpiece crackled.

The voice was more distant than Grayson’s, fading slightly in waves as the single side band swooped through the transmission in a somber rising tone. “Bravo One Nine all elements, contact one five, one seven and two zero phase line Alamo right.” What kind? Dekker thought. How many? The recce commander in his fast moving troop carrier was still green and prone to forgetting how to relay tactical information when he was faced with enemy forces he knew he couldn’t engage and survive. It took a special breed to run the fenceline and Lt. Morrison wasn’t it.

“Specifics!” Grayson snapped over the battle net. Every Marine heard that one. But there wasn’t time to spare the reputation of a green commander falling down on the job before the battle was even joined.

Squinting at the rising columns of dust that told him the advancing force was at least a full brigade, Dekker clenched his teeth and growled, “Come on, come on!”

His earpiece whined and crackled again. Morrison’s voice was clearly strained and he was struggling to keep his mind in the game as he careened across the enemy’s front. Dekker saw the snub nose of Morrison’s troop carrier bobbing behind the heat waves, just under a kilometer away now. “Tangos, carriers, no foot. Ummm… uh, say at least a brigade. Stand by, pinging.”

Dekker wanted to reach out and choke the guy. He was not cut out for Bravo One Nine and he wondered sometimes if the man was even cut out to be a Marine. Like everyone else, he had to remind himself that Morrison was a brilliant tactician, better than the old man even. And while he had trouble talking about what he knew, he could read a battlefield faster than any of them. Whatever he said, Dekker knew it was solid gold. If the man could just get a goddamn grip and spit it out already.

Morrison’s voice nearly cracked this time and Dekker could hear the whine of the carrier’s turbine at full throttle in the background. “Bravo One Nine. Contact report. First brigade carriers on axis 1.5 phase line Alamo right. I say again, right. Tango box. Second brigade foot battalion on axis, carrier box.”

Dekker stopped breathing and yanked his field glasses to his face. Scanning the horizon, he saw two continuous plumes of dust with a gap in the middle. Then he saw them – a full battalion of Terran Guard Infantry doing something he had never seen in his entire life. They were marching on foot, with the troop carriers screening their flanks.

He shifted his gaze right half a mile to see a full company of twelve tanks racing ahead from the right flank of the Terran Guard’s First Brigade. Before Morrison spoke next, Dekker had already sorted it out.

“Marine One, be advised, First Brigade is pushing their right flank to cut off MEF main. Second brigade is heading straight for the Highlands. You need to move right. Now!”

Dekker could imagine Grayson just then, knitting his bushy brows in a gruff scowl and muttering every profanity in the book under his breath.

As Dekker watched the battalion from the Terran Guard Second Brigade march on the Highlands, he knew they had already been outmaneuvered. Grayson would have to choose to either protect the Highlands and let the First Brigade box in his main force or reposition away from the Highlands to stall their flanking attack. The Terran Guard were drawing their forces away from the Highlands and Grayson would have to follow. Dekker knew the old man would have no choice but to preserve the remaining reinforced brigade that comprised the entire MEF. Five battalions of tanks and infantry against twice as many marching on their position, taking away the last minute he had to make a decision.

Worse yet, the Paladin would have to move off point to protect them. Then, the only thing left standing between the Terran Guard Second Brigade and the Highlands would be the wind.

His first instinct was to lay up a hasty defense right on the Highlands, but he needed more than the 25 meters he had left to work with. And even though the Paladin was in perfect position for an enfilading fire mission, they wouldn’t be able to stay long enough to finish it. The young General Godfrey, third generation commander of the Terran Guard, knew them well. Dekker grunted, conceding a squeamish admiration for her strategic thinking. It felt like a poisoned lump in his throat and he had to spit on the ground as a shudder ran through his body. He pulled his field glasses back up to study the formation marching towards him. He seethed through clenched teeth because he knew they could stop them cold. They could. If Grayson would let them stay. But then they wouldn’t have anything left to fight with because by the end of the day, the MEF’s main force would lay scattered and smoking in the desert.

The ground rumbled as the heavy rotary cannons on each Cataphract swung down and hammered into place with the ringing thunder of heavy steel latching them in place. Servos whined and compressed air snapped silvery metal hoses taught against their frames. Looking over his shoulder, he could see the flickering outline of the HUD displays lighting up their canopies with targeting sequences.

Major Walker, the Paladin himself, sat behind the nearest canopy. Dekker caught Major Walker’s eyes as he prepared to lead his Cataphract team into a close fight they would not be able to sustain for more than a few minutes without the MEF main force screening them. Walker held Dekker’s eyes with a somber gaze as he flipped switches and activated his weapons and maneuvering systems. Dekker could see he had already figured it out, too. The Paladin nodded once: he would stay as long as he could, but the order to move was coming, and they both knew it.

Dekker turned back to watch the formations of the Terran Guard Second approaching the Highlands. A steel vice closed in around his chest and he had to gasp for air, forcing himself to start breathing.

Then he turned to watch the farmers who had stopped working when they heard the Paladin’s guns fall into place. Shielding their eyes from the sun arcing down behind the enemy, they gaped at the roiling dust clouds rising into the sky.

Dekker sucked in a breath and bellowed a single command he knew they were too far away to hear.

“Run!”

To be continued…


©2018 Michael J Lawrence

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