Dekker waited for something – anything – to happen. “Did it fire?” He saw a flash from the corner of his eye and yanked up his field glasses to scan the area around the Pyramid. The three Cats were still walking back as the Terran Guard carriers lined up in front of the Pyramid to establish what looked like a hasty defense. Dekker furrowed his brow as he swept his gaze past the tanks that continued to roll towards the Paladin, pummeling the frame of his Cat with steel slugs. They were close enough to their target that the frame jolted back and forth, like somebody being riddled with bullets but refusing to bleed and fall down. 500 meters away, he saw Godfrey and Shoahn’Fal standing next to her command carrier. Another pulled up next to it, but nobody disembarked. Still sweeping around to his right, he saw it – a column of dust a kilometer wide boiling into the sky. Just below it, the ground sizzled with an orange haze that dipped down into a shallow crater whose edges looked like they had been etched into the ground by a blow torch. If the shot had come a half hour earlier, it would have caught the bulk of the Second Brigade when they first started their attack. Instead, it had trampled a swatch of brush, dirt and rocks into oblivion.
Dekker deflated and let down his field glasses. “Simmons, get out here.”
When he heard her footsteps shuffling up behind him, he reached out to hand his field glasses to her without looking. She took them from his hand and looked at the smoking ruins of the crater. Through clenched teeth, he asked, “What the hell happened?”
Simmons let the glasses drop to the ground. “Oh God.”
He turned and glared at her. “What?”
“Declination,” she said.
Dekker closed his eyes and let out every breath of air in his lungs through his nose as the realization slammed home. He pinched the brow of his nose and said, “The poles shifted two days ago.”
“That’s right. Preston used a magnetic bearing to align the inclination burn.”
“And nobody thought to update the system in the com center.”
“We wouldn’t have had time anyway,” she said. “It’s not his fault.”
“We’re not done yet, sir,” Simmons said, pointing at Godfrey’s carriers. Dekker opened his eyes to see Godfrey and Shoahn’Fal ducking into the command carrier and then head for the Paladin with the other one falling in on their flank.
Shahn’Dra stepped up next to them and said, “He yearns for the Scrolls.”
The ladder on Walker’s Cat extended itself and jammed into the ground. As he climbed out of the cockpit with the case in his hand and started down the ladder, Dekker snapped his fingers. “Alright, set up a firing line right here. Cover the Major’s retreat.”
The Marines looked at each other and then blinked at him. “Move!” he yelled. The Marines looked at each other again and then moved up to the crest of the ridge and lay down in a line with their R-51 rifles pointed at the Paladin’s Cat.
Simmons climbed on top of her carrier. She unlatched the machine gun mounted in the cupola and called over one of her Marines. “Corporal, set up the Ma Deuce right in the center there as our base of fire.” She grunted and pulled the weapon free. Cradling it in both arms, she lowered it to the corporal and then hopped off the carrier while he lugged the weapon to the crest of the ridge.
She unslung her rifle and lay prone next to Dekker.
“What do you make the range to be, Lieutenant?” one of them asked.
“She peered down the site of her barrel and twisted a windage knob to raise the rear site. “I’d say about 200 meters.”
“This is where you recon boys get to show the rest of us how it’s done,” Dekker said. “Jommy, go to the track and get my plasma rifle.”
Jommy waved a salute and said, “yessir”, then scrambled back to the carrier.
“And bring me the belt with the square black boxes in it.” Dekker picked up his field glasses and brushed off the dirt. He put the strap over his neck and let them hang as he watched Godfrey’s carriers rumble towards Walker’s wounded Cat.
Hearing the sound of something scraping along the ground behind him, Dekker turned around to see Jommy dragging the plasma rifle with both hands while the cartridge belt flopped around his neck like a dead animal.
Dekker took the weapon, extended its bipod and set it on the ground next to Simmons. He crouched down in front of Jommy and said, “Now, I want you to get inside the track and stay there until I tell you it’s alright to come out. Understand?”
“Yes sir.” Looking dejected, the boy turned around and traipsed back to the carrier. He opened the passenger door and clambered inside. After closing the door behind him, he turned his face to the window embedded in its thick steel frame and peered back at Dekker.
He didn’t want Jommy to see what was going to happen, but he knew he couldn’t make the boy look away. He nodded and smiled, then jutted his finger at the boy, reminding him to stay put. Jommy nodded: I’ll be a good boy.
Dekker turned around and felt the smile drain from his face as he watched the carriers continue their approach towards Walker. “They’re kind of moving slow, aren’t they?”
“That’s because they’re waiting to make sure the rest are in position to keep him cut off,” Simmons said. She pointed at the tanks streaking across the desert floor to join up with the carriers assembled in front of the Pyramid.
“Alright. Lieutenant, when I give the word, light up those two tracks with the Ma Deuce. The rest of you wait until they dismount and then pin those bastards to the ground.”
He tapped his headset. “Two Bravo Delta. Major, can you hear me?” Walker was at the bottom of the ladder and didn’t react as he turned to start running.
“I don’t think he can hear us. Let’s help him out.” He flopped down next to his plasma rifle, unsnapped the flap to one of the cartridge pouches and smacked a cartridge into the action of his rifle. He shouldered the weapon and trained the sites on the carriers. “Alright, Lieutenant, light ’em up.”
Simmons smacked the feed tray cover of her M2, making sure it was latched over the ammunition belt and thumbed the paddle trigger. The clanking burst of three rounds filled the air as smoke blasted from the barrel and its volley of bullets slammed against the lead carrier. Satisfied she had the range; she pummeled the carrier with a five-round burst, paused for a moment, and hit it again.
Sparks chipped off the side of the carrier as it started to swerve in reaction to the bullets raking along its side. The vehicle sped up and then slowed down, turning one direction and then the next. Simmons tracked the vehicle, adjusted her aim and fired again.
A patchwork of shredded metal formed along the side of the vehicle as the bullets ripped into it and compelled its occupants to do something besides sit inside in what was quickly becoming a moving coffin.
The vehicle slid to a stop and the rear hatch flopped open. Terran Guards scampered out and formed a circle around the vehicle with the barrels of their rail guns pointing out as they searched for their tormentors.
The rest of the Marines in Dekker’s firing line opened up with the piercing blast of their R-51 long barrel rifles. Two Terran Guards floundered and then pitched over as his Marines found the range and homed in on their targets. The ground just in front of the crest of the ridge erupted with puffs of dirt and debris as the Terran Guard returned fire.
Crouching underneath his Cat, Walker yanked his head around to look at Dekker and then started to run up the slope towards their position. The second carrier turned hard, digging its wheels into the ground as it veered towards him and lunged forward to chase him down.
Simmons swung her weapon to track the second carrier and opened fire with a long burst. Sparks splattered the front of the vehicle as she walked the line of bullets into the windshield. The .50 caliber rounds from her M2 ripped ragged holes in the transparent plastic that could stop most bullets. Blood splashed against the plastic from the inside and the driver slammed back against his seat. The wheels yanked hard and the carrier skidded across the ground and flopped over on its side.
Troops emerged from the rear and knelt down in a loose formation, pointing their rifles at Dekker’s line. One of them pointed at the Paladin and then yelled something. Dekker couldn’t hear the voice, but he knew what it was saying.
“Focus your fire on the second group,” he called out over the blaring clatter of rifle and machine gun fire. “I want fire superiority, people.”
The ground erupted around Walker’s feet as he ran up the slope. Dekker’s Marines reset their aim and opened up on the troops from the second group. More rounds kicked into the ground at Walker’s feet as he zigzagged his way up the hill. Dekker’s firing line zeroed in on the new targets and one of the Terran Guard troops flung his weapon into the air as a round landed squarely in his chest.
Dekker pulled the bolt back on his plasma rifle and laid his cheek against the stock, peering down the site. He squeezed the trigger and jerked back as the weapon kicked out a plasma canister. The round landed at the feet of one of the troops and threw up a flash of blue flame. The soldier raised his hands to protect himself as the flame rose up and seared his face. The flame vanished and the soldier, now smoking from the plasma burn, fell face forward into the dirt.
“That’s it, Marines. Keep it up.”
As Walker clambered up the slope and Dekker lashed out with another plasma round, none of them noticed the two troops from the first group when they hauled out a black tube from the rear of their vehicle. They set it on the ground and unfolded support struts with base plates.
Rounds from the second group stitched their way up the slope, chasing after Walker as he dodged back and forth, the case still in his hand.
Then, he tripped and fell as one of the rounds found his boot. Dekker heard the grunt a moment later and yelled, “Stay down! We have you covered. Just hang on.”
Walker flopped the case in front of him and crawled after it, dragging his injured foot through the dirt as he clawed his way towards Dekker.
Through his sites, Dekker saw the effect of his Marines and the superior accuracy of their weapons as more troops from the second group went down. What he hadn’t seen was the soldier from the first group dropping a round into his mortar tube. Dekker pulled back the bolt of his plasma rifle, set his aim and squeezed the trigger.
Just as the canister left the barrel, he heard a thump next to him, then the snapping ring of the mortar round ejecting its casing. A buzz gnawed at his ear just before he felt the bite of shrapnel ripple along the side of his body.
His vision blurred and he tried to breathe, but he couldn’t get air into his lungs. His gut tightened in a burning ache as he looked towards Major Walker. The Paladin was up on one knee and about to stand up when his body started to thrash and he dropped the case. Blood and bone erupted from his chest as the rounds shot through him from behind. His arms dropped to his side and he toppled over on his face one last time as more rounds peppered the ground around him. The Old Scrolls rested on the ground just beyond his fingertips.
A surge of pain rippled through Dekker’s body as he strained to hold on to consciousness long enough to realize that the Paladin was not moving. He closed his eyes and heard himself whimper.
Then the world went dark.
©2016 Michael J Lawrence