Chapter 50

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LAST STAND

As Captain Douglas watched the Terran line race through a wall of smoke and dust, the cracks and thumps of his latest mortar barrage finally reached him, lending a new reality to what they were, what they meant and what he needed them to do. Several seconds later, a new line of plumes from the second volley rose up from the desert floor. Half the rounds landed right in with the vehicles, knocking some of them on their side. The other half landed just in front, crushing the front ends of several carriers, forcing them to stop. One round made a direct hit and one of the carriers disappeared in an orange flash and black smoke boiled into the air.

How many people had just ceased to exist in that moment?  How many Marines would stay alive because of it?  Slow down. We’re just getting started. The truth he couldn’t yet face – because, if he did, he would be compelled to do nothing more useful than to walk out onto the field and throw up his arms, yelling ‘I’m here, right here, put it down my throat’ – was that the only thing he had done was purchase of a few scant seconds. Time was the thing. Slow them down. Tie them up. Delay their attack. Keep them away, keep them away, until there was enough time to let the inevitable finally break through. But that was a while away still. It had to be. There was the end and there was the end of all things. All of it boiled away in the black smoke that took with it the answer to the only question that mattered: how long?

His headset crackled with the voice of the next listening post. “Whiskey Six, Whiskey Six, Tripoli watch, the enemy line is 500 meters inbound Tripoli.”

“Spear point two and four, engage,” he said.

Marines loaded missiles half as tall as a man into the mounted launchers fifty meters to his front. Gunners perched on plastic seats mounted underneath the tubes peered through high powered binocular sights and jockeyed the aiming grips as they sifted through the array of targets bearing down on them. A flash of yellow flame shot out from the rear of one of the tubes and splashed against a steel blast guard ten meters behind it. The missile leapt from its tube with a ripping hiss and streaked across the ground  streaming a trail of white smoke.

As Douglas watched the missile string out he heard the rippling thumps of his most recent mortar barrage, turning the wall of dissipating dust and smoke into a reality that told him they still had a say in all of it; they still had a voice and it reached out with a roar and he knew that somebody out there was afraid of it.

The other three missile launchers loosed their charges, stringing out behind the first, tugging at their unwinding chains of white smoke. It took several seconds for them to reach out to their targets, as if they were unwinding from a winch and had to latch onto their targets before they could smack them down. Stay away, stay away. And if they couldn’t hold on, time would slip away, more seconds forever lost, any one of which would be the difference between the end and the end of all things.

He prepared his mortars for the next barrage. “Fire Mission mortars to follow. HE quick. Volley five rounds. Deflection two eight zero zero. Charge three. Elevation nine five eight. At my command.” He wanted to time the next volley himself to the precise moment the tension in his gut would tell him was the right one. It was tension that came from too many years of experience that would never be enough. He was supposed to know, somehow, but it was still the same as the first time he had sighted rounds on the training range – all he could do was guess. That those guesses had improved over the years now seemed nothing more then coincidence and he was afraid that this would be the one time that his luck would finally miss.

As the section leader yelled out his commands behind him, Douglas followed the missiles through his binoculars as they flew towards the vehicles of the Terran line, ready to latch on with steel teeth and pitch them over and yank their innards out with more fire and smoke. The first missile missed as its target vehicle swerved hard at the last moment. Two of the other three landed home and sent one vehicle flipping over on its back while the other exploded in a shower of steel and aluminum.

Behind him, mortar squad leaders shouted, “Hang it!”, and Marines held the rounds just inside the tubes, ready to drop them when Douglas felt his gut tell him the moment of the Great Guess had arrived.

“Ready,” the section sergeant said through his headset.

Douglas waited for a few more seconds and when the world grew quiet and his body chimed the moment with a sweeping charge of adrenalin, he said, “Fire.” The tubes cracked and rang out like bells brushed with a hammer as the next volley launched through the sky above him. The crews reached for more rounds – fangs to dig into the enemy and convince him to stop – and launched the remaining four rounds in less than ten seconds. Almost at the same time, the squad leaders shouted, “Rounds complete!”

Through his headset, the section sergeant confirmed they had finished firing their volley. “Shot, Over.”

“Shot, out.”

Stay away. Stay away. Stay out there where I can bite you and your claws can’t find me. Stay away.

The listening post chimed in. “Whiskey Six, Whiskey Six, tripwire Tripoli.”

“Spear points two and four, fire at will.”

As the missile crews prepared to load another round of missiles, the sound of an incoming round rushed through the sky above Douglas. A screech wailed over his headset and then it went dead. He tapped it, but didn’t hear anything, not even static. He ripped off his helmet, flung the headset aside and jumped into the trench in front of him.

He looked over his shoulder and yelled to the mortar section leader, “Sergeant Phillips, haul your ass up here.”

He groped around in the trench until he found the headphones connected to the sound-powered communications line the S-6 had strung to each of the company command posts. He put them on and grasped the horn of the mouthpiece. “Company Commanders, phone check.”

A voice that sounded like it came from the inside of a tin can answered. “Alpha Six up.”

Sergeant Phillips thumped the ground behind the trench as he ran up. “Here, sir.”

Douglas hopped out of the trench. “I think we got hit by an EMP canister there.”

“Yes sir.”

“I need you to take over as FDC. I can’t run the battalion and the mortars at the same time with just sound-powered phones.”

“Aye aye, sir. Anything else?”

“Focus on the center until they dismount, then work whatever’s closest.”

“Yes sir.” Phillips ran back to the mortars to prepare for the next volley.

Captain Douglas grabbed the horn of his mouthpiece. “Bravo, where the hell are you?”

“Bravo Six here.”

“Charlie Six is up.”

“All company commanders, since we can’t serve calls for fire, be advised that Weapons will continue to work the center front. You guys take care of your respective facings and flanks using your own mortars and AV.”

Captain Douglas raised his field glasses, scanning the horizon in search of the next listening post. The vehicles of the Terran Guard looked like they were close to crossing phase line Exodus at the three kilometer mark. He imagined the isolated Marines staring at the approaching Terran Vehicles and frantically keying their microphones, wondering why he wasn’t answering them.

The launchers in front of him let off another salvo of missiles that sizzled the air with a stream of white smoke trails. As Douglas tracked them through his binoculars, he heard a loud clang and felt the air push into him as one of the missile launchers blew apart, sending the tube spinning through the air and tearing its crew apart.

“Whiskey Six, all stations, be advised, enemy tangos now in range of our position.”

Something tugged at his gut as the enemy line continued towards them. They had not slowed down – not that he expected them to. He had only destroyed a handful and already they were taking his positions under fire. But something still wasn’t right about the picture he was watching through his binoculars. Another curtain of smoke and dust leapt up in front of the vehicles, the smaller plumes from the company mortars adding to the barrage from his heavy mortars. He took a quick count of the vehicles as they emerged from behind the curtain and realized that he didn’t see any tanks. The tripod sitting on the ground in front of him and the blank air where the launcher had been mounted just seconds before told him that those tanks were in range and firing on his position. But they weren’t there.

He lowered his field glasses. Another missile launcher exploded in front of him. A moment later, his command track crumpled and flipped over as a steel bolt from a Terran Guard tank slammed into it.

Marines popped up from the trenches on the line to either side of him and propped long-range anti-vehicle missile launchers on their shoulders. Loaders slid missiles into the tubes and ducked to the side as the missilemen scanned the horizon to choose their targets. First one, then two missiles streaked out from their tubes, snaking across the ground as their seekers homed in on their targets. Moments later, the rest joined in, creating a swath of wriggling smoke trails that stretched out from the entire width of the battalion’s frontage and swept towards the vehicles still charging towards them. The enemy had taken away half his heavy mounts, but he could still reach out to the charging line, sink teeth into their scurrying formation and shake the life out of them. The shoulder missiles didn’t have the range of a mounted missile launcher, but any one of them could take a troop carrier and turn it into a pile of curled metal belching smoke and fire. Eight missiles surged away from him, hunting for targets, ready to stop them in their tracks while they were still far enough away to do no harm. As they closed in, he waited for the line to burst wide open with a wall of smoke and fire. Just before they reached their targets, all eight missile detonated, just far enough away from the vehicles that their blast did little more than put on an impressive show of pyrotechnics. There was a bark, but there was no bite.

“All stations, Whiskey six. Set missiles with crush fuzes. They’re jamming our proximity fuzes.” As he waited for his crews to reset their ordnance, something clunked over in his mind like the hand of a giant clock. There were different grades of time and the enemy had just found its way through a sector of it packed with those last seconds between the time they were too far away and the time they were just close enough. There had been a band of seconds during which he could reach out to them one last time and push them away before they could bite back. They were the most precious seconds of all and now they were gone. For a moment, he had been able to swat at them with impunity, and now that moment was locked away behind him forever. Time had been free.  Now it would be purchased with the only currency he had left: the lives of his Marines.

Another barrage rang out from behind him as he waited for the missile launchers to re-arm. The two remaining fixed launchers in front of him launched another pair of heavy missiles. He counted the seconds as they flew out towards the vehicles, just in case he might have enough for one free round from the shoulder launchers. Two carriers erupted in a ball of fire as he reached the seven second mark. That put the Terran line within two kilometers of his own. Free time was over.

With their tubes now loaded with missiles fuzed for impact, the missilemen stood back up and loosed a full salvo at the Terran vehicles still charging towards them. Just as they streaked forward, a swarm of figures blurred by the heat waves poured from the Terran vehicles. Their troops were dismounting and every vehicle was empty by the time his missiles reached their targets. Six vechicles, now empty, disappeared in a burst of flame and smoke.

He watched the Terran troops deploy as his heavy machine guns opened fire, clawing at the Terran line. He only had four of the heavy smokers on the main battalion line and they were the only machine guns firing. The twelve medium machine guns from the company weapons platoons and the fifty or so light machine guns from the rifle squads remained silent.

Captatin Douglas scanned each limit stake they had set up to mark the maximum effective range of the lighter weapons and the Terran Guard had stopped just beyond them before dismounting. While he pondered the notion of letting them open fire anyway, the last two mounted missile launchers in front of him were blown apart by another salvo of steel spears from enemy tanks. Through his binoculars, he could see the troops of the Terran Guard lying prone, but they were not moving forward. A few were kneeling as they erected small mortar tubes.

“All stations, Whiskey Six. Does anybody have eyes on those tanks?”

The clang of metal striking metal rang out to his left. He swung around as the mounted missile launcher on his left flank blew apart.

“Whiskey Six, Bravo Six, those enemy tanks are on our left flank.”

“How many?”

The ground kicked up geysers of dirt as he heard the thump of tank rounds hitting the ground where the missile launcher had stood.

“All of them.”

“Incoming!” somebody shouted. Captain Douglas heard the rush of air from incoming mortar rounds slicing through the sky. He ducked down behind the berm of his trench as he heard the pop of canisters bursting open above their heads and then the rippling thump of shrapnel hitting the ground. Then he heard the screams as shrapnel ripped into his Marines huddled in their trenches.

He popped back up and leveled his field glasses on the line of troops facing him. They still had not moved. They were just beyond the effective range of all but his heavy machine guns, but they weren’t beyond the maximum range of the medium guns. And he knew that the Terran rail guns had no chance of reaching him from that far away. The only thing they could do was rain mortar fire down on him. Why were they waiting?

Behind him, another wail of screams rose up from the mortar pits. He leapt out of his trench and ran to the center of the compound to find Marines dragging each other out of the holes they had dug for themselves and their weapons. Most of the tubes, still smoking from their near continuous firing, were riddled with holes from the flak canisters the Terran Guard had rained down on them.

“All stations, Whiskey Six, I want every machine gun on the line to open fire now!”

The chatter of machine gun fire rose up in a deafening chorus as every automatic weapon on the line opened up. He didn’t hear the next salvo of incoming mortar rounds. His only clue that they had arrived was the bits of dirt that hopped up as more shrapnel peppered the trenches and more screams announced the growing number of wounded and dead Marines.

Another barrage of steel pellets ripped through the trenches of Bravo company and the chorus of screams intensified. Behind the heat waves, Captain Douglas saw the guns of Terran tanks moving on the flank recoil. Moments later, the trenches of Bravo company were swept with another hail of flak ejected from magnetic canisters fired by the tanks.

“They’re enfilading us!” he shouted. “Whiskey Six all stations, I want every missile flying left against those tangos.” He waited for the smoke trails to start snaking their way towards the tanks, but nothing happened. He waited a moment more, gritting his teeth. Still, none of the missile launchers fired.

“What’s the hold up on those missiles?”

“This is Bravo Six, we don’t have any mounted launchers left and they’re standing off just outside the range of our heavy portables.”

Captain Douglas ran to the building on the west side of the compound and bounded up the stairs to the roof where a squad of Marines lay prone with their rifles pointed defiantly at tanks they could not harm. The mounted missile launcher next to Alpha Company’s flank position loosed its charge, unwinding its solitary trail of smoke as it reached out against two full platoons of enemy armor.

Two Marines hoisted the two heavy portable missile tubes to their shoulders while two more shoved in the rounds. Two more smoke trails snaked across the ground.

The tanks tracked across the horizon and then turned towards them, angling their guns at the trenches guarding the left flank. Two Terran tanks stopped cold as the missiles found their mark, popping the turrets off like frying pans. Fire licked at the sky from inside their shells, roasting them like dead animals. But they still had six tanks. His stomach churned as he watched their guns recoil. The mounted missile launcher blew apart and flak pushed Marines down into their trenches. He cringed at the sound of ball bearings thumping into their bodies, breaking their backs, crushing their skulls and tearing through their guts. This was no longer a fight.

What had he done wrong?  The tanks rolled in towards them now, enfilading the main line. The companies still had their short range light anti-vehicle missiles, but would any of them survive the storm of steel rain that pounded the trenches?  Marines poured out of the trenches, some of them falling before they could run a single step, as the company commanders gave the order to move to their alternate positions.

The tanks stopped. Captain Douglas stared at them through his binoculars, studying the tick marks and how they lay against the sight picture. The tanks were about a kilometer away now. The light missile launchers his Marines had left could only reach out to 500 meters. The tanks fired again and there was nothing he could do to stop them.

Swinging his binoculars to the north, he saw the main line of Terran Guard infantry moving towards his positions. Strung out in a line as wide as his own frontage, they walked through the shimmering heat waves, closing the distance between them and his Marines one step at a time.

The sound of weapons fire from his own positions was too thin. The machine gunners did their best to maintain fire against the advancing line, but it was interrupted at clockwork intervals by the screams marking another incoming barrage of steel pellets that were whittling his Marines away. The machine guns kept at it, but their sound was growing ever thinner.

On the right side of his main line, Charlie company was faring better, but by the time the Terran infantry arrived, Douglas knew they were going to be outnumbered. Through his binoculars, he could see the smudged outline of Terran soldiers flicking away as fire from his machine guns found a mark here and there, but the gaps were quickly filled back up and they weren’t making those gaps nearly fast enough.

They were one and a half kilometers away and closing. At one kilometer, they would be in the range of his riflemen. Until then, they had to wait. Another wave of screams wafted over him. The hand on the giant clock struck the end of his hour. Every second now belonged to the Terran Guard; they were theirs to give, and they were keeping them all.

He ran back to the trenches in the center of the line and hunkered down, trying to think of a next move, but there was nothing left to do except shoot back at an enemy that had already won.

The tanks started raking his lines with their coaxial rail guns, their slugs digging into the dirt along the berms of the trenches, with some finding their way to fly down the trenches and rip through three and four Marines at a time. What Douglas hated most was he couldn’t hear the damn things. Their electromagnetic hum and clacking pistons didn’t reach him at this range. The only sound was that of men dying.

Captain Douglas unshouldered his own rifle and braced it on the berm of his trench. “Runner!” he yelled.

The private that had stood tall, waving in the carriers for Lt. Simmons just hours before, crawled up to Douglas, his face smeared with blood and a bandage wrapped over his left eye.

“Sir.”

Captain Douglas blinked, unable to speak as he realized the battalion was looking at him through the eyes of this one Marine, now reduced to a crawling bloodied shadow of himself.

“Go tell the Colonel we’re out of time here. Tell him -” He looked away, settling in behind the sites of his own rifle. “Tell him I’m sorry.”

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©2016 Michael J Lawrence