The hum of electric coils from magnetic rail guns filled the air. A Lance Corporal poked his head up and sighted a line of four Terran Guard soldiers kneeling in a tight line as they swept his fire team with a steady stream of steel slugs cracking the air just inches above their heads. Pinned down, the Marines fired back blindly, desperately trying to establish fire superiority.
“God dammit, we’re supposed to be suppressing them,” he shouted. “Four left 100 meters watch for my marker.” He swung his plasma rifle towards the enemy troops and fired. The chamber of compressed thermite plasma hit one of the Terran Guards square in the chest and incinerated the man in a blinding blue flash. “Right there, right there!” the Lance Corporal screamed. The other three Marines in his fire team raised up on one knee and leveled their rifles at the targets. Unlike the Lance Corporal, they fought back with technology that had proven effective for centuries: gun powder, lead and brass. The fire team collectively took a breath and held it before squeezing off their rounds. The Terran Guards lurched back as bullets tore through their chests in a burst of bone and blood. The Lance Corporal quickly scanned the line. “There’s a gap. Move it -“
Before he could finish his command, a magnetic mortar round landed just behind his foot, ejecting its casing to unleash a flurry of shrapnel that cut down the riflemen just as they started to run. Twenty meters away, the squad sergeant waved his arm and yelled, “Close it up! Close up the line!” Marines shuffled into position where the mortar had landed, stretching out the distance between the squad’s two remaining fire teams. They reflexively hugged the ground behind the meager defilade offered by the Highlands as more steel slugs peppered the ground around them. They dug at the ground with their boots and ground their bodies into the dirt to try and dig even an inch deeper.
The squad sergeant tapped his headset and yelled, “Weapons!” After a brief pause, he continued, “Whiskey Fox, Bravo One Sierra, immediate suppression, phase line Victor plus one zero zero, left two zero, infantry danger close, fire for effect when ready.” After making his call for fire, all the sergeant could hear was a squeal in his headset as more calls poured in over the weapons net for fire support.
The squeal cut off. “Whiskey Six, all stations, keep this net clear. Fire plan is tango uniform. Ping your targets, we’ll get to you in proximity order. Out.”
The sergeant rolled onto his back, keeping his body flat against the ground. He gulped harder for each breath as an endless stream of slugs shredded the air inches from his face. Looking down the line at both fire teams, he saw his men covering their heads as they flattened themselves against the ground behind the soft rolls of defilade between them and the enemy. “Hang in there fellas!” he shouted between breaths. “Just give me a second.” He grunted and pulled open the flap to one of the bags slung over his shoulder and pulled out a plastic grip. He flipped up a small monitor on top which showed the ground at his feet. If he could point the thing over the lip of defilade, he could lay the crosshairs on the troops who had his Marines pinned to the ground. If he could do that, he could pull the trigger and fire a beacon dart that the weapons company could home in on with their mortars. The sergeant ran through the sequence in his head. Pop up. Point. Designate. In the time it would take to do all that, he saw himself getting shot at least twice. The rage of steel tearing at the space above him slowed down. Maybe they were reloading? He peeked over the defilade, swung the spotter gun up, pointed it in the general direction of where he thought the enemy was and squeezed the trigger. He didn’t take the time to lay the crosshairs and he sure as hell didn’t take the time to watch the dart arc out and hit the ground. He ducked back down just as more slugs chewed at the ground in front of him.
The sergeant watched his fire teams as they continued to squirm, trying to press themselves ever deeper into the ground as the enemy fire intensified. He knew that if they were pinned down much longer, some of his Marines would suddenly find that fatalistic place in their mind where danger no longer existed and compelled them to get up and run straight for the enemy. Others would do just the opposite, cowering as fear overwhelmed them and promised death around every corner. “Come on, come on,” he said through gritted teeth.
The ground 150 meters to his front exploded as friendly mortar rounds tracked in to his marker. “That’s it boys, return fire!”
His Marines poked their rifles over the defilade, straining to site targets through the dust and smoke left behind by the mortar round. Just as they leveled their weapons on the hazy outline of troops hidden behind the veil of smoke, more steel slugs cracked through the air. A Marine lurched back as a slug slammed into his face. Another dropped his weapon when a slug tore his arm away at the shoulder. He fell back, screaming, while the other two Marines in his fire team flopped to the ground behind their defilade. “Corpsman!” one of them yelled.
A corpsman who had been huddling behind the main formation crawled up to the screaming Marine and pulled a recovery kit from the small pack slung on his back. The Marine looked at him with eyes wide and stopped screaming long enough to grab the corpsman’s arm and say, “No!”
The corpsman slapped the Marine’s arm aside and slammed the kit onto his chest. “Not up to you, Marine.” He unhooked a red handle with a squeeze trigger from the kit and strung out the attached wire. He scampered back a few feet and squeezed the trigger. A thin haze of orange light spread out from the kit and over the Marine’s body. It’s glow intensified and then flashed away. The Marine was gone.
The sergeant grabbed the boom of his headset mic and yelled, “One Six, Second Squad is pinned down by Gauss and mortars. We are displacing left. First team down. Enemy platoon strength, front 50.” He flailed his arm and yelled at the remaining men in his squad. “Move it down, move it down!” He grabbed the nearest Marine and shoved him down the line. “Move!”
As the remaining Marines in his squad scampered behind the low ridge of defilade, the chatter of a heavy machine gun filled the air behind him. He peeked over the defilade to see friendly rounds peppering the ground 50 meters to their front. The smoke from the mortar round had cleared enough that he could see there were no targets anywhere near where it had landed. The bullets dug into the ground and kicked up clumps of dirt and patches of dried grass, but did nothing to push back the enemy he could not find.
“Troops left!” somebody screamed. He turned to see a squad of twelve Terran Guards bearing down on their left flank. As the hum of their rail guns spooled up, he leveled his rifle on the nearest one and pulled the trigger. The enemy soldier lurched back as his chest imploded. The sergeant pulled the trigger again and heard nothing but a click. The Marines closest to the advancing squad reeled back as steel slugs ripped into them in a hail of enfilading fire.
“Ah hell,” he said. He ripped the magazine from his rifle and grabbed a fresh magazine from a pouch on his belt and shoved it into the action. The enemy squad riddled the last Marine in his squad with slugs as he shouldered his weapon and took aim. He pulled the trigger, sending one of them flying back. Aiming for the next target, he took a breath just as a steel slug slammed into his face.
Dekker’s gut tightened as Terran Guard troops spilled in behind his men and split his battalion’s line into two sections. The enemy was already forming skirmish lines to work the shoulders of the breach while his own men fell back, firing as they retreated back towards the line of departure. His Marines ran across the flat ground between the Highlands and the perimeter bunkers, with nothing to protect them against the troops kneeling in a firing line and angling their weapons at their backs. Dekker couldn’t tell when the Guard troops fired – their weapons only made a faint clacking noise when the electromagnetic rails slung their rounds through the barrel. It was only when his Marines started to pitch forward and fall to the ground with their faces in the dirt that he knew for sure they were firing. One group continued to push back the flanks of his troops still fighting to hold the Highlands, pitching their bodies aside with a grinding hail of enfilade fire. The other group mowed down those trying to flee across the flats. Some made it to the bunkers, but most were either lying still or clawing at the ground, dragging themselves through their own blood even as more slugs chewed at the ground around them.
Dekker unslung the plasma rifle from his shoulder and extended the bipod latched to the barrel. He flopped to the ground and shouldered the weapon. An enemy soldier was gunning down one of his fire teams struggling to reset its own skirmish line on the flat ground between Dekker and the Highlands. He pulled the trigger. The plasma bolt streaked through the air and consumed the soldier with a flash of blue flame. The enemy soldier next to him looked at Dekker and the ground spat up a chunk of dried clay next to Dekker’s boot. He pulled the slide bolt on the receiver to chamber another thermite plasma cartridge. He adjusted his aim and squeezed the trigger as another steel slug dug into the ground inches from his other boot. The second target burst into flame.
Just as he reached up to pull the bolt back again, a hand gripped his shoulder. He looked over his shoulder to see Captain Brandt glaring at him. “What the fuck are you doing, sir?”
“I’m engaging the enemy, what are you doing?” Dekker wrested his shoulder free and reached for the bolt. Captain Brandt put both hands on Dekker’s shoulders and pulled him to his feet. The next slug ricocheted off the ground next to the plasma rifle. Captain Brandt grabbed the weapon and pulled Dekker along as he ran back towards the bunkers of the assembly area. “We’re running the wrong way you know!” Dekker shouted.
“Yeah. Do it faster!” Brandt yelled back. Slugs peppered the ground at their feet as they ran for the nearest bunker. More slugs snapped through the air above them as they hopped into the bunker and crouched down behind its concrete berm.
Dekker yanked the plasma rifle from Brandt and set it on the berm. He pulled back the bolt and fired at a group of Terran Guards gunning down another fire team that had fallen back to the flat ground. The round impacted just in front of the enemy, causing them to displace and reset their aim. Dekker pulled the bolt back to chamber the last plasma cartridge. He took a breath and held it. His last round flew across the ground and slammed into an enemy soldier’s leg. He heard a woman’s shriek as she spun and fell on her back with blue flames wrapping around her body. He squeezed his eyes shut and looked away.
Dekker tapped his headset and said, “Command Radio.” Even before the confirmation chimed in, he started talking. “Marine Six Enforcer Six Actual. Where are the other battalions?”
“As you were Colonel. First and Third are working into position. Resistance is stronger than expected. They’ll get there.”
“Marine Six, we’re losing the line. If they’re going to do something about it, they need to do it now.”
“You hold that line, Colonel. The rest are coming. Marine Six out.”
Dekker switched to his battalion net. “Whiskey Six, Enforcer Six, over.”
“Whiskey Six, go boss.”
“Captain, what’s the status on your fire mission?”
“Sir, we’re spread a little thin here. I’ve got a gun team for each company on the line, but everything’s tangled up over there.”
“What about your mortars?”
“Not unless we want to start killing our own, sir. We’re working what we can in the Terran back line, but most of them are up on top of our guys. We’re not doing much good.”
“Alright Captain. Tell your mortarmen to pick up a rifle and join up with your assault squad. I need you guys to plug that hole in the middle.”
Dekker reached into a large case strapped to his belt and pulled out his field glasses. He swept the entire line of battle from the far left of the First Battalion to the far right of the Third. He then fixed his gaze on his own battalion as the Marines from his weapons company moved up to join the fray. As he watched his men struggling to establish a line against the onslaught of the Terran Guard, his headset crackled with Lt. Simmons’s voice.
“All stations, flash! Enemy forces crossing phase line Mecca. Infantry and tangos.”
General Lane’s voice cut in. “How many, Lieutenant?”
“Sir, they’ve brought their entire Second Brigade on line.”
Static filled Dekker’s headset as they waited for General Lane to respond. Mortarmen from Dekker’s weapons platoon dropped to the ground and opened fire with their carbines against the advancing infantry pushing their comrades onto the flats. Smaller than the R-51 the infantry companies used, the carbines had a shorter barrel and fired a smaller caliber round. By comparison, they looked and sounded like toy guns. Dekker wanted to look away, but forced himself to watch as the mortarmen offered up a pathetic hail of small caliber fire that managed to slow some of the advancing Terran Guard troops. But the distance between the Highlands and the safety of the bunkers continued to be counted by the bodies of riflemen falling to enemy fire as they ran across the flats.
Dekker felt the hair on the back of his neck bristle and he gritted his teeth. “Come on old man.”
Finally, he heard General Lane’s voice. “Two Bravo Delta, take your heavies and set up a firing line to cover our withdrawal.”
“Marine Six, Two Bravo Delta, please confirm. Did you say withdrawal?”
“That’s Right, Major. I figure we have about five minutes before they get around us. So how about less chatter and more clatter.”
“On our way.”
The ground shook beneath Dekker’s feet as Major Walker’s Cataphracts started to move towards the line. Even at this distance, he could hear the electric sheen of their gyros, the dull whine of electric motors and servos and the the steady groan of hydraulics lifting tons of steel, all punctuated by the snap of compressed air valves as the machines walked forward. They all combined to create what was known as ‘the growl’, and it was an effective weapon against the morale of any enemy. There was nothing subtle about the Paladin’s Cataphracts – the enemy had fair warning.
The air reverberated with a heavy steel thump as their plasma cannons latched into place, followed by the crackling hiss of their plasma injectors heating their massive canisters. Dekker pulled his head further into his shoulders in anticipation. The barrels of the plasma guns flashed with a metallic screech as thermite plasma canisters leapt from each barrel and streaked across the sky. Travelling faster than the speed of sound, they created a sonic boom loud enough that it sounded like thunder as they flew over the heads of Dekker’s men.
A canister hit the ground, ejecting its outer casings to spray the surrounding ground with a mixture of thermite and ignition fluid which came together to create a super heated plasma that lit off in a brilliant blue haze. Every Terran Guard soldier within 50 meters of a canister was incinerated. Six more canisters thundered over their heads, slamming into the ground and bursting open to create a 700 meter plasma barrier putting up a wall in front of Dekker’s battalion. His squad leaders immediately took advantage of the cover and ran their man back across the flats to the MEF perimeter bunkers. A few of them fell to sporadic arms fire from Terran Guard troops recovering behind the line of plasma fire as it dissipated. Marines stopped to pick them up and help them the rest of the way.
“Two Bravo Delta, Enforcer Six Actual. That’s some pretty good shooting for a bunch of ass drivers. Fire for effect.”
“You bet, Enforcer Six. They’re falling back Colonel. I think they just needed a touch more of encouragement.”
Dekker started to smile, but stopped short when he heard the next transmission from one of the pilots. “One Charlie Four, eight enemy tangos moving fast on the line.” The tanks that were escorting the flanks of the Terran Guard infantry barreled through the line of plasma fire, which was now nothing more than a thin veil of white smoke.
The ground stopped shaking as the Cats halted their advance. Another chorus of steel thumps rang out as they swung down their rotary cannons. For a full minute, all Dekker could hear was the clatter of mechanisms preparing the guns to fire on the advancing tanks as they tracked down the slope of the Highlands. Nothing stood between them and Dekker’s men except thin air. He had to force himself to breathe as he counted off the seconds while the Cats reset their systems to engage the tanks.
One of the tanks wheeled its gun to point straight at Major Walker’s Cat. Dekker gritted his teeth when the barrel recoiled. The tank round slammed into the Cat’s left leg. The Cat started to step forward and Dekker heard the screeching wail of grinding metal.
The tanks raced towards them. A second volley from their gun rails pounded the ground around Dekker’s Marines running across the flats. Marines who weren’t cut down by steel shrapnel from the tank rounds flopped to the ground and started crawling the rest of the way to the bunkers. Without slowing down, the tanks let off another volley, peppering the ground with shrapnel that sent up plumes of dirt around Dekker’s men. Through gritted teeth, Dekker said, “Come on, come on.”
Behind him, rotary guns stuttered and jerked as their tracking computers zeroed in on their targets. The Cats creaked and swayed back as their rotary guns thumped out three rounds from each side. The steel bolts cut through the sky, cracking the air with a snap of thunder above Dekker and his men. The tanks chasing down his men stopped as the bolts ripped into their hulls and turned them into shimmering smears of molten metal.
Dekker let out a sigh when he heard Lt. Simmons say, “All stations, Second Brigade is falling back to their compound. First Brigade is setting up defensive positions just behind the crest.”
General Lane cut in next. “Marine Six, all stations, consolidate your lines and report.”
Dekker closed his eyes and let his face pull into a long grimace, stoking an aching ember of anger that welled up inside him. Marines stopped running and surveyed the ground, looking for wounded comrades and picking up men who were still crawling across the ground. Dekker watched as one of them crouched down next to a body that wasn’t moving. The Marine laid his hand on a dead man’s chest, shook his head and stood back up.
As Marines dragged their comrades to the bunkers, corpsmen scurried among the bodies, checking wounds and slapping recovery kits on those that could be saved.
Dekker stepped out of the bunker and crouched down next to a Marine with a wound in his belly oozing dark red. The man’s face was pale and encased in a glean of sweat. The Marine looked in Dekker’s eyes.
Looking over his shoulder, Dekker asked, “What’s the story here, Doc?”
The corpsman attending to an injured Marine laying next to him glanced at Dekker’s Marine and said, “He’ll have to wait.” He slapped a pain kit on the man’s arm and peered into Dekker’s eyes, not wanting to say anything more than that, not wanting to tell him that his Marine was a low priority casualty because he probably couldn’t be saved and would have to wait until they recovered those that could.
“Send him now,” Dekker said. “My authority.”
“Aye aye sir,” the corpsman said. He fished a recovery kit from his pack and slapped it on the man’s chest. He smacked the top of it and stepped back as an orange haze flowed out over the Marine and transported him to the medical recovery chambers deep below the MEF compound.
©2016 Michael J Lawrence