Chapter 41

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PALADIN’S BRIEFING

Major Walker pulled back on both control handles to bring his Cat to a stop. His Cat swayed forward as the stabilizer servos surged to bring the Cat back to a stable stance. The Cat to his left took a few steps forward and did the same. The next Cat took a few more steps and stopped as the last Cat in the platoon of four took its final steps and halted, finishing the echelon formation with Walker at the base.

“Line pivot right,” Walker said into his microphone. He pulled up the elevation handle and the turbine lifter fired to bring the Cat a few feet off the ground. He eased the pedal under his right foot forward to rotate the Cat 45 degrees before easing the elevation handle back down. The frame rattled as the Cat thumped to the ground. His cockpit shuddered again as the rest of the Cats landed in near unison. He checked the alignment of the four Cats, which were all within a few feet of making a perfectly straight line, ready to advance as a single firing line on the smoke marker representing their target. “Good line,” he said. “That’s good for now. We’ll pick up with bounders this afternoon.”

He powered down his Cat and released the canopy hatch. The heat of mid day rushed in as the ladder extended itself to the ground. As he swung out of the cockpit and climbed down, puffs of wind rippled his uniform and scattered grit against the Cat’s metal skin.

He stepped off the bottom rung when his headset chimed. “Two Bravo Delta, Badger Six.”

“Go Badger.”

“Operation AF is a go,” Simmons said.

He stood at the bottom of the ladder as the wind started kicking up boiling billows of dust and scooted them past the pyramid. “What’s the schedule?” he asked.

“We don’t have numbers on time yet. We have some prep to do here. Contingent is to reinforce if you come under attack before we can finish over here.”

“Our last estimate on Second Brigade was for 34 hours. Tell Dekker to get his ass in gear.”

“Will do. There’s something else you need to know. We lost the compound.”

For the first time since he could remember, Walker felt a flash of fear run through him. “Understood,” he said. “Two Bravo Delta out.” He surveyed the terrain around the Pyramid, reviewing – again – the likely avenues of approach, elevation changes, defilade and the best locations for setting up his defense. The problem with his Cats was they were too big to hide. They were stand-off weapons systems, and on their own were not good for taking or holding ground. Now, he had to figure out how to do both.

As the wind began whipping grit across his boots, he pulled his collar up to shelter his face and trotted to his command tent. The pilots he had been drilling with were right behind him as he ducked into the tent. One of them coughed as somebody pulled the zipper down to close the flaps. They huddled around the plastic tables covered with charts and tablets as the wind howled around the light poles outside and sand scraped along the outside of the tent.

“Well, since we’re all here, I might as well brief you,” Walker said. He picked up a remote connected to a monitor mounted on a portable tripod. As he punched buttons on the remote, the screen filled with a topological map and zoomed out to show the area between MEF headquarters and the Pyramid.

“As you all know, the Terran Guard Second Brigade is on the march from their compound, heading straight for us. Our estimates put them somewhere in the Delta Five sector here.” He pressed a button to display an infantry brigade marker showing the Second Brigade’s position east of the Pyramid. “According to Colonel Harris of the MEF S-2, and confirmed by communications with Badger, attached to the Enforcer Battalion, Colonel Dekker has a single operations STI shot with a track somewhere in this region.” Surveying the room, he saw most of his officers staring back at him wide-eyed. A few let their mouths fall open. The lone exception was Captain Holt, who knitted his brow, but otherwise didn’t react.

“Where’s the track?” Holt asked.

Fixing his gaze on Holt, Walker said, “We don’t know yet.” He let go of Holt’s gaze and resumed his briefing. “Colonel Dekker, with his Enforcer battalion, will establish an uplink and provide us with the track at that time.”

“Where is Dekker now?” Holt asked.

“We don’t know,” Walker said, zooming the map back out. “He was dispatched from MEF two days ago.” He zoomed in on the MEF compound and overlaid a red X. “Since then, the Terran Guard’s First Brigade launched a deliberate attack on MEF headquarters and wiped out both First and Third Battalions.”

A murmur scuttled through the tent. “Then we need to go back,” somebody said

“What about the colony?” somebody else asked.

“What are we doing out here?” another asked.

Walker put up his hand, signaling for them to all quiet down. “That’s enough,” he said. “There’s nothing we can do about MEF or Dirt Hill right now. What we can do something about is the Second Brigade. They are heading this way and we will be waiting for them. Our mission is to lure them into the track so Dekker can take them out with his STI shot. After that, we’ll link up and deal with the First Brigade.” He zoomed the map in on the Pyramid. “This is our one shot, gentlemen. Right here. If we miss, Second Brigade will finish us off along with the Enforcer Battalion. After that, none of your questions will matter.”

He caught Holt’s eyes again as his XO studied the map. “Any thoughts on this, Captain Holt?”

Keeping his eyes on the map, Holt said, “I’m just wondering how we’re supposed to know how to deploy if we don’t know where the track is going to run.”

“I’m sure we’ll hear from Dekker as soon as he’s ready. In the meantime, we wait.”

“Maybe I could go over there and keep an eye on things for you, sir.”

Walker stepped away from the table and walked up to Captain Holt. “We don’t know where he is.”

“Seems we ought to find him since he was sent to find us.”

Major Holt blinked and cocked his head. “I don’t remember saying anything about Dekker’s mission. What makes you think he’s after us?”

Holt’s eyes darted to look at the floor and then back to Walker. “I guess that seems like the best reason for him to be here considering everything that’s happened.”

Walker smiled and strode back to the table. He picked up the remote and turned off the monitor. Setting the monitor back down, he said, “Yes, I suppose so.”

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©2016 Michael J Lawrence