Chapter 55

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PALADIN’S CHARGE

“Two Bravo Delta, Red Watch, flash. Enemy mounted three zero plus, tangos one five in trail, one kilometer phase line Red and moving fast. Over.”

Major Walker leaned back in his pilot’s seat and reached up to brush his fingertips over the the Old Scrolls, now fastened to the bulkhead of his cockpit. The report from his Red Watch listening post put the enemy three kilometers from his position and closing. As he traced the outline of the triangle embossed on the case, he whispered, “Come and get it.”

The mystery behind the Old Scrolls was still beyond him – something he knew even now he would never learn about. What wasn’t a mystery was the Second Brigade committing the remainder of their forces to get it. Colonel Dekker hadn’t said anything about his battalion, but the fact that his infantry carriers weren’t entering the line with his Cats told him all he needed to know. With the remnants of the MEF regiment guarding  Dirt Hill gone, he was on his own. Given General Lane’s defection, he half expected to see any MEF vehicles he had left rolling in with the Second Brigade. The idea of a Marine officer betraying his own still made his stomach turn as he absently massaged his left leg. That he had seen it twice just added to the imperative of what he had to do.

More than anything else, though, it was the terror in Shahn’Dra’s eyes. He could still see her trembling as she told him he must not come here. She had shown him what it meant. She had shown it to him so clearly that he could still feel the heat of the fires that erupted around him from when she put the reality in his mind. He had stood there, watching the end. It was as real to him as his aching leg and the Second Brigade now rolling towards him.

He didn’t know that the Old Scrolls had to be destroyed. He believed it. It was something he felt in his bones. Did the man who once commanded his Foot Guard understand that?

Walker set his hand on the frequency dial on the coms panel next to his seat. The red LEDs displayed the frequency of his company net. It was only a matter of turning the dial. The image flashed through his mind – the farmers from the Highlands running away from the rail guns of the Terran Guard, then pitching forward and tumbling to the ground. Dekker had done the right thing and maybe they were the only two men in the universe who understood that. But there was a debt that they both owed to those they were sworn to protect because of it. He pulled his hand away from the dial. Dekker understood. Talking about it wouldn’t make it any easier. The inevitable was at hand.

He pulled the lever in his right hand and felt the world shudder as his C-2B Cataphract strangled the air with the electric drone of massive actuators that picked up its right leg to take a step backwards. He shoved the lever forward and the leg rose up and swung forward to stomp the ground in front of him. Fifty feet below, the ground leapt into the air in a cloud of dust and debris. The machine shuddered from its own weight as it shook the ground. Walker reached up and flipped a switch on the panel slanted above his head to engage the stabilization system that would send a flurry of commands to the actuators, hydraulic pistons and gyros to keep the Cat on solid footing as he moved.

“Two Bravo Delta, all elements, give me a board.”

The display on the console next to his left leg showed a status light for each of his twelve Cats. His was already showing green. Almost immediately, the board flickered with the other eleven lights as they turned green.

He pressed a button on the thin strip running across the top of the main console deck mounted in front of him. The Cat rumbled forward in a steady walk, the automation system sending all the necessary control commands to synchronize the movements required to make the robotic chassis walk. He checked the others on either side of him as they fell into formation with each platoon of four setting up a wedge as they moved forward. The formation put either of the other platoons slightly behind him while his own platoon took the lead, with himself at the very front.

Specks of black and gray raced in from the horizon, a wall of dust swirling up behind them as the Second Brigade swept down on the Pyramid. He switched on the tactical display HUD and slewed the aiming reticle to the closest vehicle. His canopy lit up with a myriad of green lines and numbers showing its range, speed and location as a camera embedded in the frame of his Cat swiveled and zeroed in on the target.

“First platoon, move out for the left flank, Second head right,” he said.

“Major, they’re moving awfully fast here.”

“Slow up the troops first, then hit the tangos. We can’t let those guys get on foot.”

He reached up to the overhead panel and flipped open the red cover on the master switch for his anti-armor cannons, then pulled the switch up. The entire frame vibrated as electric motors strained to lower the two Gatling guns down next to his cockpit. The barrels clunked into place and the center screen on his console flashed with a banner that read LOADING while the system fed a belt of 120 mm kinetic steel bolts into the breaches. A graphic of each gun with a green outline lit up and a large banner flashed in yellow letters at the bottom of the monitor: LOADED, then switched to green and displayed READY FOR ARM.

Walker flipped the arm switch on the weapons control grip and slewed the reticle until it centered on the nearest troop carrier. He punched a button on the main display. Small lettering next to the gun display read: TRACKING 1. He punched another button and a new reticle appeared on the canopy while the first tracked its assigned target. He slewed the second reticle to another carrier and designated it as TRACKING 2.

“Come on, come on,” Walker said to himself through gritted teeth as he slewed a third reticle. The main display flashed another entry next to the gun graphic: TRACKING 3. “Good enough,” he said to himself. He squeezed the trigger. His guns stuttered and jerked as the tracking computer zeroed them in on the first vehicle. The frame creaked and swayed back as the gun opened fire. Steel bolts shrieked through the air and turned the carrier it into a glowing sprawl of shredded molten metal.

Compressed air hissed through lines on the back of both legs and pistons inside surged with fluid to stabilize the Cat’s stance after the shot. Even as the first vehicle burned, his guns zeroed in on the second and another volley of steel spears flashed from the second cannon. After the second carrier was turned into a pool of burning metal, the others began to change course, turning and weaving in an attempt to throw of the Cat’s aim. His third salvo fired and dug into the ground just behind the third target.

Most of the occupants of the first two targets were incinerated with their vehicles, but a few charred bodies lay where they were thrown to the ground. He tapped another button which showed a thermal display of the bodies lying on the ground slowly cooling. His only thought was whether or not they were still a threat. Determining that they weren’t going to get up, he looked through his canopy to watch more carriers disintegrating from the volley of fire from the rest of his Cats.

As his center display monitor flashed the READY banner, the remaining vehicles split evenly into two separate groups and veered off to either side of his formation while the tanks raced directly towards his Cats.

“Tail end charlies, start your turns now,” he called over his headset. He watched the Cats at either end of his line start the painfully slow process of clomping around to reorient themselves to face out towards the flanks. He punched the button on his center display to reset his reticles and slewed the first one over one of the carriers scampering to get on their flanks. Already, the others had drifted out of the firing arc of his weapons as they raced along a course perpendicular to his line. He pulled the trigger and the gun hesitated almost long enough to lose the lock before it fired, then sheared the rear of the vehicle off and sent it spinning across the ground. Bodies spilled out, but this time some of them stood back up.

“Heaters!” he yelled, switching off the arm switch on the weapons control stick. His hands flew over the display bezel, punching the sequence of buttons to command the anti-armor guns to release the weapons control system and unhook from the power system. It would take a full minute for the systems to switch the guns – the carriers closing the distance with every second that ticked by.

His cockpit shuddered when a tank round crashed into the left leg of his Cat and shattered. It scorched the armor plating of the leg, but the repair patch held and the Cat kept moving forward under the guidance of its stabilizers.

The systems timer on his monitor continued to wind down the seconds before he could switch to his plasma guns when another round pounded the right leg. He winced at the squeal of metal burrowing into the frame. He eased the right control lever forward and heard the screeching wail of grinding metal. Half a dozen warning lights on the top of the console deck clicked on as the effects of the damage cascaded through hydraulic and control systems for the leg. Trying to ignore the squeal from the wounded leg as he forced the Cat to keep moving forward, Walker punched another button along the bottom of the monitor and the display showed a label next to a graphic for each plasma gun: PRIME. Another clock next to each gun graphic wound down as the rounds were heated to mix thermite and plasma ignition fluid.

The Cat took another stomp forward and beads of sweat popped out on his forehead as the tanks closed in on his formation. They would have to take whatever the tanks dished out while they worked the troops with their plasma guns. Already, he felt the battle slipping away from him as the enemy moved according to its own will instead of following him into the trap.

Finally, the clocks ran down and the banner flashed: READY FOR ARM. Walker jammed the arm switch forward and slewed the reticle onto the line of troops from the carrier lying broken on the ground. He pulled the trigger once to designate the area inside the reticle as the target. The indicator beneath reticle read ACQUIRED and he pulled the trigger again. He waited while the ballistics computer worked out the solution, taking into account range, wind speed and temperature as it made final minute adjustments to the guns. Both barrels flashed and filled the air with the screech of thermite plasma canisters streaking across the ground.

The canisters hit the ground, ignited their plasma and ejected the outer casing, lighting off a wall of bright blue haze. Every Terran Guard soldier within 50 meters was incinerated into nothing more than a wisp of vapor.

The Cats at the end of the line pawed at the ground, struggling to turn and face the incoming troops. The whine of servos and hydraulics filled the air as they stomped back in a wide circle while troops dismounted from the carriers and swarmed in around their feet. Walker stared at the Cat on his left flank, transfixed as a Terran Guard underneath crouched and pointed a black tube at its frame. A cylinder with clamps protruding from one end shot out from the tube with thick cables trailing behind it and latched onto the frame. The Cat stopped mid-step and started shaking. Its servos whined and clunked as they strained against the surge of electric current pumped through its frame and then stopped. The Cat froze in place. The troops scattered and flung themselves to the ground. A moment later, a tank angled its gun and loosed a steel slug from its magnetic rail launcher. The Cat’s frame buckled just below the cockpit and the Cat, unable to move its legs to compensate for the impact, leaned over and toppled to the ground.

Even as the dust billowed out from the impact, the troops got to their feet and swarmed over the Cat’s frame. Another puff of smoke burst out of the cockpit as they blew the canopy open and hauled out the pilot. His legs flailing as they dragged him down off the frame, the pilot yanked his sidearm free from its holster and shot one of his captors point blank, splattering blood and bone over his own face. Before he could get off a second shot, one of the other troops smashed his face with the butt of his weapon. The pilot’s body went limp and the pistol fell from his hand as they dragged him away.

Walker felt another bolt slam into the frame of his own Cat, but he couldn’t look away as they dragged the pilot’s body to the carriers forming a skirmish line on his flank. More troops ran towards the next Cat in line. Its plasma guns swung as far left as they could and fired, blanketing the ground next to the troops charging for its undercarriage. The fringes of the plasma blast caught some of the troops, but most of the blue flame torched a swath of scrub and dirt, missing most of the troops as they charged in.

“All units, back up. Now!” Walker slammed the control levers back and his Cat reeled forward in mid-step, gyros whining as they strained to keep it from toppling over. The frame swayed hard and then the left leg stepped back, shaking the cockpit as clouds of dust billowed out from the foot. The cockpit tilted hard as the wounded right leg slid back across the ground. Every air line on his Cat snapped and hissed and hydraulic pistons slammed to their limit as they struggled to compensate for the wounded leg.

He slewed the reticle on another gaggle of troops swarming towards one of his Cats. He pulled the trigger and waited. Too many seconds ticked by while the ballistics computer struggled to compensate for the staggering limp of the wounded right leg. The plasma cannons reeled and another pair of canisters screamed through the air, landing wide of the troops. Another black tube flew up and clawed at the Cat’s undercarriage. Gripped by a seizure from the electric shock, it shuddered and froze in place as another tank loosed its bolt and knocked it down.NEXT.png


©2016 Michael J Lawrence