Heat shimmered across the ground of the Shoahn’ desert, smearing the image of the lone troop carrier into a smudge of silver and black as it appeared on the horizon. A billow of dust whirled up behind it, mixing with the shimmer to form an apparition that raced to catch up to the carrier streaking towards the two Marines manning the listening post at phase line Dog.
The image solidified as it came closer and the whining drone of its turbine reached them, barely more than a whisper that touched their awareness. The cloud grew thicker as a smear of gray rose up behind it, stretching across the horizon. Behind that, the dust rose up into a storm that rolled towards them, a wall of broken sky that carried a promise kept.
The Marine felt the air around him stop as his heartbeat filled his ears, muffling the hum of electric motors and the clatter of tracks lashing out from the rolling steel that crested the horizon. He tapped his headset.
“Whiskey Six, Whiskey Six, this is Dog Watch. Flash. Enemy contact. Badger is hauling ass 500 meters to our front. Enemy vehicles are right behind her deployed on line and moving fast.”
Captain Douglas tapped his headset. “Dog watch, Whiskey Six, roger. Stand by for incoming fire. Break. Badger Six, what’s your status? Over.”
“Whiskey Six, Badger. We’re hauling ass, like he said. We’re bringing the entire Third Battalion from the Terran Guard Second Brigade with us. Where do you want them?”
“Badger, bring them into the spear point.”
“You got it.”
“Enforcer Battalion, all nets, lock your party lines. Break. Fire Mission mortars to follow. HE quick. Volley five rounds. Deflection two eight zero zero. Charge four. Elevation eight zero zero. Fire.”
Captain Douglas knew the mortars were already set for the first phase line, which he had moved out to five kilometers, just at the edge of the maximum range of his 81 mm mortars. They wouldn’t have time for bracketing as the vehicles move through their first set of registered fires. Behind him, the mortar squad leaders repeated his commands. His ears started ringing and his forehead grew damp as he watched the line of enemy vehicles through his binoculars. Barely visible as more than an apparition through the heat waves, he couldn’t tell which side of the line they were on. All he could do was trust that his crews had sighted their aiming stakes, that the listening post had called the contact in time and that his crews would move fast enough to launch their shells in time.
He let out a quick breath when he heard the section leader yell “Fire,” followed by the crack of shells firing and the tubes ringing as they spat their ordinance into the sky. Several more cracks filled the air as each team fired the rest of their rounds at one second intervals. Another chorus of voices called out from behind him, “Rounds complete.”
Through his headset, he heard the section leader report, “Shot, Over.”
Now all he could do was wait while the shells took the better part of a full minute to arc through the sky and swoop down on their targets. He glanced behind him to see his mortar crews swabbing out their tubes and uncasing more rounds.
As much as he wanted to wait for the first volley to hit the ground, the enemy carriers were closing fast and he needed to put more rounds down range to take out as many as he could before they were close enough to fight back. He could wait and correct, improving the accuracy of his fire mission or he could walk his mortars blind, relying on his own judgment honed from years of operating the battalion’s Fire Support Team. Waiting meant letting them get closer. Firing blind meant guessing. But every dead vehicle at range was one more track that couldn’t hurt them.
“One, three, five and seven, up two turns. Two, four, six and eight, up three turns.” The section leader repeated his command and a few seconds later, another volley of five rounds rang out from each tube.
The section leader made his second report that the volley was complete. “Shot, over.”
Just as he finished speaking, the first volley of shells exploded on the horizon in a line of plumes leaping into the sky, creating a wall of dust and smoke that obscured the enemy line. His heart leapt into his throat when he saw black smoke boiling up from one of the impacts and then another, followed by a rolling orange ball of fire. The vehicles broke formation and started to weave across the ground. At first, it looked like they were breaking in confusion, but as they turned back in sequence, he realized they were performing a well-practiced maneuver. For a moment, he imagined General Kim’s face hovering in front of him, grinning.
When he heard the thump-crack of the explosions as the sound finally reached him, he said, “Not this time, you sonofabitch.”
He pointed to one of the Marines he had assigned as a runner. “Private, get up there and wave the Lieutenant in. Direct her to the rear of the complex.”
“Yessir.” The runner scurried into position between two of the machine gun nests. The rumble of tires from both of Simmons’s carriers floated towards the line as she ran the vehicles towards them at full speed. The runner extended his left hand into the air and folded out his right arm. When she was within fifty meters of their position, he started waving his left hand in an arcing motion with the rhythm of a turn signal. The whine of the turbines from the carriers running at full throttle pierced the air as the carriers veered sharply to the right, swaying hard against suspension springs creaking in protest. The dust boiled over the runner and the machine gun nests next to him. A flurry of slivered rock pelted him from head to toe as he turned to face the rear of the carriers racing away. He extended his arms again and gave the same signal as the carriers streaked past the line of trenches where Charlie company had dug in. When the carriers reached the anti-vehicle missile teams posted at the end of the line, they careened around the corner and barreled towards the back of the complex.
Through his headset, Dekker heard the voice of the Marine at phase line Dog scream over the thunder of the Terran Guard’s vehicles as they crossed his position. “Whiskey Six Whiskey Six, tripwire Dog, tripwire Dog, tripwire Dog.”
A flash followed by a white trail of smoke reaching out across the ground caught his eye. The anti-tank missile team on the left flank was already engaging the lead vehicles of the Terran line. He could still only see their dust trail at this distance. The white smoke trail disappeared near the horizon and then he saw a plume of black shoot up into the sky, followed by a rolling yellow haze and what he thought was a glint of sunlight from the tumbling remains of a vehicle swirling in the fireball.
His right hand twitched as he reached for the case on his belt and snapped it open to retrieve his own field glasses. As he brought them to his eyes and focused on the horizon, he saw the vehicles of the Third Battalion adjusting to fill the gap in their line. Behind him, another volley of mortars rang out from their tubes. The Terran line did not slow down or waiver; it just kept coming and he felt the urge to run to the side to keep from being run over. “Disciplined sons of bitches,” he said to Captain Douglas.
“They’re trying to close the range,” Douglas said. “Just like you said they would.”
“Make believers out of them, Captain.” Dekker lowered his field glasses and snapped them back into their case. “I’ll be in the communications center.”
Still looking through his own glasses, Douglas said, “Aye aye sir.” He tapped his headset as another streak of smoke reached out and detonated a Terran troop carrier. “Missile teams, get off the carriers. Focus on the tangos or we’re going to be in a world of hurt.”
“Whiskey Six, Spear Master, negative contact tangos.”
“Well keep looking. They’re out there somewhere.”
Dekker paced to his command carrier and swung open the hatch. Shahn’Dra sat on the floor with her knees folded against her chest. Jommy was still kneeling next to her with his hand on one shoulder. They peered out at Dekker like animals hiding in a cave.
“Come with me,” he said. He reached out and took Shahn’Dra’s hand, helping her out of the carrier. She stood wavering for a moment, then rolled her shoulders back and shook her head. “Are you alright?” he asked.
“I am tired, but not hurt. In time, my strength will return.”
Dekker smiled. “Good. Can you walk?”
Jommy scrambled out of the carrier and fell in behind Dekker as he led them across the compound, mortar tubes ringing out with more rounds as they walked past them. He led them around the side of the communications building to Simmons’s carriers standing guard behind it.
Swinging open the hatch to her command carrier, he said, “Stay in here. Don’t come out unless somebody tells you. You’re going to hear things that you really shouldn’t have to. Don’t panic.” He looked at each one, making sure they understood. “No matter what, stay right here. Do you understand?”
They both nodded.
“Good.” He swung the hatch closed and stepped back.
As the mortars continued to fire, a chill ran through him as a question plunged into his consciousness like a knife: Is this all we have left?
©2016 Michael J Lawrence