This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication / use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.
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Cover Artwork: Sviatoslav Gerasymchuk
Copyright © 2014 Jamie McFarlane
All rights reserved.
Our two squad transports slipped quietly across the besieged city. The pilots had been given orders to fly as low as possible. Lieutenant Irawan, the pilot of my squad’s ship, had taken the orders quite literally, flying no more than a dozen meters above the buildings, juking and jiving around the tallest structures. In the last month alone, Charlie Company had lost three transports to SAM (Surface to Air Missile) equipped patrols while out in the bush so I for one, wasn’t complaining.
Each transport was configured with drop rails that held a full squad firmly in place. In combat we could be, and had been, dropped from just about every height. Personally, I didn’t care for stealth insertions, where we were dropped from high altitude and not allowed to fire our arc-jets until the last minute. I was all about flying low.
Charlie 12 or the One-Two, as we referred to ourselves, was on the way back to base for some downtime. Four empty hangers on the drop rail were the only testament to the team members we’d lost over the last month. The entire platoon had been dropped into a shitstorm and our squad’s casualties weren’t as heavy as others. I guess we’d been lucky, although it hadn’t been lucky for Padre, Benny, Scratch and Giggles, who weren’t making the return trip.
“Aren’t you out in a month, Sarge?” Patch asked. I was one of the few members of the team without a nickname.
“Can it, dickhead,” Mulehog fired off before I could respond. Jason ‘Mulehog’ Mueller was the most intimidating member of our team, if not our whole damned company. At two meters tall and a hundred-thirty kilograms he was imposing without armor. Put him in a hundred fifty kilos of mechanized armor and he looked like a tank with long legs. It also didn’t hurt that his weapon of choice was a SAW (Squad Automatic Weapon) slug thrower which added fifty kilos to his normal load-out.
Patch had only been with the squad for the last month. He’d earned his nickname only a day after he’d arrived, by getting shot up while on patrol. The damage to his suit had been extensive enough that the field-techs applied several obvious patches. The armor had since been repaired, but the nickname stuck.
Mulehog was pissed because it was an unwritten rule that we didn’t discuss our end dates. Most of us believed it was bad karma, especially since we’d all known guys who had one day left and hadn’t made it out.
I wasn’t about to respond. It turned out that Mulehog was pretty easygoing as long as you didn’t get him too fired up. And in reality, the only guy on the team who was stupid, or brave enough to mess with him was his smaller buddy Mark ‘Methane’ Metzner. Where Mulehog was a spray and pray guy with his machine gun, Methane was a triple shot, precision shooter. As squad leader, I’d learned that together they complemented each other very well.
“I’m just wondering if he’s going to re-up,” Patch complained.
It was a question I hadn’t answered for myself yet. I didn’t really have anywhere to go to, but I’d been a Marine for five years and seen way more than my fair share of combat. I was a good Marine and a good team leader, but I’d recently started to question if I was really a career type of guy.
I didn’t have a chance to answer as my helmet’s clear visor snapped shut and the floor of the transport dropped away.
“Taking fire, prepare for drop,” the pilot’s steady voice said over my helmet’s audio. I’d gotten a look at her when she’d picked us up. Killer curves and a fresh, bite-your-ass attitude for a lieutenant. She’d flown us before and there’d been more than a little talk about her - but that’s about as close as a grunt would ever get. A little idle chatter was okay with me. Many of the men didn’t make it back and a little fantasy wouldn't hurt anyone. That is, as long as they didn’t cross the line.
She’d broken protocol by skipping a convo with me, so I knew we were in for trouble. Normally, it was my responsibility to communicate the drop. There could only be one explanation.
The first missile hit the back of the transport just as I felt the familiar release of the drop rail. The explosion tore through the transport and instantly vaporized several members of my squad. Worse yet, the transport was pitched to its side and the shattered hull caught us before we’d fallen clear.
I’d been in some pretty bad scrapes in the past but this rapidly jumped to the top. If we’d had more altitude, escaping from the badly damaged transport wouldn’t have been quite as critical, but we were fast losing altitude and if we couldn’t get clear of the transport we were done for.
In my experience, luck and situational awareness are the two most significant factors in surviving any engagement. You might argue that getting struck by a missile was bad luck, but you’d be looking at it wrong. It certainly was bad luck for my squad mates who’d been vaporized. For me, it was simply the beginning of the engagement.
I looked over at Methane and Mulehog, who were positioned directly across from me. Neither had successfully deployed from the transport either. More troubling, however, was that Methane had his grenade launching rifle aimed right at me.
One reason Methane was still alive in this war was that he completely rocked at situational awareness. A split second of eye contact and I knew he’d correctly assessed our predicament. The ship was slowly rolling over, and blowing out my side of the transport might be our only escape route.
I grabbed Patch and fired my suit’s arc-jets so that we hurtled directly toward Mulehog. One second later, Methane fired a grenade at the position we’d just been occupying. Releasing Patch, I flipped over and planted my feet on the transport wall above Mulehog’s head. Counterintuitively and hoping my timing was right, I jumped out toward the explosion from Methane’s grenade. I could feel shrapnel pelting me from the blast and hoped my armor was heavy enough to withstand it.
Mid-jump I noticed that Patch hadn’t figured out what was happening yet, only I was too far away to do anything about it. Frak ...
“This way, maggot,” Mulehog’s gruff voice said over our team channel as he grabbed Patch, spun him around, and followed Methane out of the transport.
The wind pulled at me as I exited and just like that I was dropping like a rock.
. My AI (Artificial Intelligence) had finally figured out that we were in free fall.
Prepare for impact
. I’d checked my altitude and we were still a good eight hundred meters above the ground. I twisted around to see what I was about to collide with and before I could figure it out, I’d crashed through a glass window and was tumbling over desks and chairs. The AI contracted the artificial ligaments of the mech-suit and I took the shape of a large armored ball.
I punched through more than a few walls, but fortunately didn’t fly out the other side of the building. The AI relaxed the suit’s ligaments and I lay there, splayed on the floor. I slowly pulled myself into a seated position and scanned the immediate area. My HUD (Heads-Up Display) didn’t show any hostiles or civilians nearby. I was glad we’d dropped at night. Even with a war going on, these buildings were still occupied during the daytime.
I stood up and ran back through the holes I’d created in the walls and looked out through the side of the building. The wind was whipping through the opening, but it didn’t bother me much. Between me and the suit, I weighed in at over two hundred and twenty kilos. It’d take a lot of wind to move me.
I could have asked the AI to locate the transport ships, but it was clear where they’d gone down. Irawan had successfully cleared all of the largest buildings and her ship lay broken and burning, several kilometers from my current position. The other ship had run into a tall building and appeared to have exploded on contact. The fire lit up the night sky like a giant torch.
Open comm. Corporal Earnest
, I said to the AI.
Corporal Earnest is deceased
Frak. She’d been on the tail end of the transport where we’d taken the most damage.
Try Corporal Yeong.
Corporal Hwa Yeong is deceased
Open comm with remaining squad
. Finally, I heard the reassuring chirp of communication being established.
“Charlie One-Two report in,” I said.
“Mulehog, Methane and Patch on ground. Good to hear your voice, Sarge,” Mulehog responded.
I sighed in relief, knowing they were together. “What’s your sit-rep?”
“Patch is pretty busted up and I’m not going to be doing any dancing anytime soon. We got bogies on top of us. Any chance for an extraction?”
“Roger that. Hunker down. I’ll call it in.”
Establish comm with transport one-two pilot
Lieutenant Irawan is not available for communication
That was interesting. If there was one thing the AIs were good at, it was being precise. Irawan was alive but incommunicado, which could mean anything. She wasn’t in armor so she’d have been in a light vac-suit. Good enough for the vacuum of space, but crap for bullets.
Get me a location on Irawan
A translucent, blue, three-dimensional arrow popped up, superimposed onto the scene in front of me. It flew away from my current location to where I’d seen the transport ship go down, a contrail of blue smoke left in its wake.
I pulled up the controls in my HUD and sent a SITREP back to the Platoon Commander, complete with the combat data streams from each of our suits. We’d lost six, including my team leaders, Corporal Earnest and Corporal Yeong. I requested immediate danger close fire support for what remained of Bravo Fire Team.
Almost immediately, I received a response from a very unhappy Lieutenant Stick-In-The-Ass (this might not have been his name). Fire support was denied and we were to make our way to an exfiltration zone and were under strict orders to limit collateral damage. I wondered if Lt. Stick-In-The-Ass (SITA) had reviewed the part of the combat stream where I’d installed fresh air ventilation on the hundred fortieth floor of this office building.
I was still looking out at the crashed transport when I heard automatic fire and explosions a kilometer away. Frak!
Show tactical display from Mulehog
My HUD showed two dozen lightly armed enemy combatants trying to close in on my men. We always traveled with a full load-out, so unless some real armor showed up, it would be a stalemate and some of these locals were going to bleed. I needed to change the geometry of the fight, but I was a hundred forty stories and three city blocks away.
Establish squad comm
, “Take defensive positions, immediate fire support denied, I’m en route.”
“Copy that,” Mulehog responded.
If we were lucky, I figured we had less than twenty minutes before the Skampers, the bastards we were tussling with over this god-forsaken city, rolled out some armor. At that point, things were gonna get real ugly. A couple dozen squishies (non-armored combatants) were something we could deal with. A squad of armored Skamper grunts would open us up like so many cans of tuna.
One thing at a time. Right now, I needed to get over there without attracting any new attention. I ran over to the elevator bank and saw what I was hoping for. The building’s elevators were an anti-grav design which meant there were no cables. I looked into the shaft which was painted bright white with large black numerals. The closest set read one-thirty-six.
I pulled the grenade tube off my leg armor and snapped it in place beneath my slug-thrower’s stock. The reassuring clunk of my suit’s auto feed assured me an explosive round had just been advanced into the tube. I stood back as far as I could, but I wasn’t messing around. I needed to get going right now.
A grenade flies slowly enough that if you’re expecting it, your eye can trace its path. The transparent doors to this elevator were made of a steel lattice that was not only strong, but stayed almost perfectly clear at all times. It was expensive material, someone obviously had money to burn. Well, if it was burn they had in mind, I’d be happy to oblige. My helmet blanked on impact and I instinctively raised my left arm to shield my face. It was a stupid move, but mostly involuntary.
Debris from the doors and surrounding walls pelted me, ricocheting off every surface. I’d chosen a smaller load than Methane had when he’d blown out the armored wall of the transport and I was confident my suit could handle it.
I lumbered forward and jumped into the shaft, hoping the anti-grav car wasn’t directly below me as it would slow me down. My AI had already predicted my maneuver and adjusted my attitude in the shaft as I fell by firing off small arc-jets burst from my boots and other strategic locations on my suit. I’d come to trust the AI’s competency, so I didn’t even think about it. Everyone had their job to do and keeping me from being a pancake was definitely not my problem.
I saw the elevator car beneath me, somewhere around the fiftieth floor. That was pretty good luck since I had time to fire off two more grenades. By the time I got down there, the car would be long gone. This was definitely the fastest way down without attracting attention. I wasn’t sure how I was doing on the collateral damage front, but frak him, I’d count it as a personal achievement if I lived long enough to get chewed out by that pencil pushing, chicken-neck Lieutenant.
When you’re falling at forty meters per second, even with AI assist, shooting an exit hole in an elevator shaft at a precise location is something of an art. Turns out, I’m not actually much of an artist, so I wasn’t overly surprised when the AI informed me that I’d exited on the third floor instead of ground level. The mind of a Marine is a flexible thing and we don’t get overly hung up on details. So much for an easy exit.
Show me the nearest hallway terminating northeast side
. My AI had already downloaded the building’s floor plan and instantly popped up a map, highlighting a path. I fired a minimally charged grenade into a door, charged through the rubble and ran down the hall. One final grenade into the wall at the end of the hallway and I had open air.
Hold on men, I’m on my way
The unenhanced human in incredible physical shape can run at a top speed of ten meters per second for a hundred meters, at which point their body is done. A Marine in full combat armor can sustain twenty meters per second over rugged terrain for hours if it’s called for. Unfortunately, I was close to top speed when I burst through the hole and angled toward the ground. I immediately regretted not paying greater attention to the exterior details of the map. The tall steel fence seemingly came from nowhere and captured me pretty neatly. I tumbled with it wrapped around me and I would have been in trouble had there been any baddies watching. As it turned out, I just looked like a jackass for the instant replay.
I disentangled myself, ripping the fence away from my body.
Display combat HUD
. My position showed up as a blue dot, as did Methane's, Mulehog’s and Patch’s. I was glad they were still up. The main concentration of enemy forces were located on the second floor of a building between our two positions. I charged down the desolate street, a plan forming in my mind.
Between the four of us, we had a terrifying load-out. The armored suit actually manufactured rounds on-the-fly for both the slug thrower and grenade, allowing an armored Marine a nearly infinite variety of detonation choices.
“Snap on your bang-sticks men, and dial it up to a hundred. I’ll give you the spread in ten beats,” I said over the squad comm. I could see their ammo loads and we could afford two salvos at a hundred percent. It’d be enough. I quickly marked off tactical locations on the building where the Skampers were holed up. The plan was simple. If we couldn’t hit them, we’d blow the frakking building.
A positive chime sounded for each team member and their icons pulsed green, indicating they’d successfully changed their load-outs and received the coordinates for their targets.
Fortunas audentas juvat
, or luck favors the bold. Words to live by in combat, especially if the baddies are about to roll up on you with armor.
“Methane, count it off and then fire,” I directed. “I’ll provide a distraction.”
Even with all the sophisticated views of the combat space that I had, I still preferred to let whoever was sitting in the shithole make the decision on when to pull the trigger.
I fired three - one hundred percent rounds into the backside of the thirty-story building. I’d targeted three exterior supports. I didn’t have any reason to expect that I’d bring the building down, but I’d get a good portion of the fascia to slide off on my side. If that wasn’t enough to distract the squishies, I didn’t know what would.
“Three… Two… One…” Methane’s voice came over squad communication.
Did I mention that a Marine in full armor is a terrifying beast? I should have.