Martin M. Clark
No battle plan survives contact with the enemy
Helmuth von Moltke
We faced a whirlwind of powdered snow but my head-up display provided both topographical overlay and passive infrared. Ahead of us lay frozen lake, the snow-covered shoreline, and some bare trees. Sergeant Lovell was on point, receiving feedback from the frontrunner surveillance drones, checking the ice was thick enough to bear our weight. We were in full carapace rig plus tactical weapons load - weighing in at a spit under 2000 pounds apiece. Approaching the enemy position at Madras Point across the lake certainly fell under the heading of 'unexpected', but one false step and we'd end up as permanent residents.
The Sarge stopped and raised a fist. As one the other seven of us halted, lapsing into 'ready' stance 3. Of course he could have simply spoken to us over the tight-band, but Lovell was strictly old-school when it came to battlefield comms. Plus I knew he didn't buy the 'easy-in, easy-out' mission profile that Major Sondheim had been peddling.
The indentured workforce on Pendragon Minor had rioted, taking the MidasCorp management hostage. Nobody had been seriously hurt but the new 'Workers' Soviet' wanted a flat-rate wage increase and better living conditions, or things would turn nasty. Someone in the corporate hierarchy wanted to make a point, so now eight over-armed Marines were going to overwhelm a bunch of ordinary Joes in the name of labour relations. Man, the cost of our deployment alone would have paid for everything the peons were demanding and then some. Go figure.
Sargeant Lovell gestured and the squad echeloned left. I had my external mic on even though the shrill wind made the suit interior feel chilly. Call me optimistic, but I figured the sound of cracking ice would give me enough time to blow the rig apart and escape. I trusted the drone tech, but only so far.
We maintained a steady pace; that loping, stylised gait you get with powered armour. Even if someone had been looking in our direction the mimetic camo would turn us into a white-on-white blur amidst the snow swirls. Anyway we'd been told the opposition had zero tech; a few pistols and shotguns looted from the Police barracks, but that was all.
The Sarge stopped, frozen in place.
As Corporal I halted the squad. Suit malfunctions were extremely rare but not unknown. I half-smiled to myself; if the Sarge had to be evac'd by a recovery lifter then he'd tear someone in Maintenance a new one.
I spotted vapour condensing around the back of his helmet and upped my display magnification. There was a small hole there; smooth, not jagged. I'd never known a suit go bad like that. A bunch of command icons appeared in my peripheral vision. The ice ahead of me was now shown in shades of green.
New batter up.
I took a deep breath. "Squad, this is Cooper. The Sarge is down. I repeat, the Sarge is down. Looks like a sniper, single-shot, high-velocity. I'm in command. Alpha team, stand fast. I want suppressive fire on the shore, directly ahead, along the crest of the rise. Bravo team, with me. Weapons free, weapons free."
There was no back-chat, no queries. The Sarge was gone. You couldn't triage a man in carapace; if command and control had devolved to me it was because his suit biometrics had tanked. The built-in medical systems would do what they could, but for now it was all about dealing with the immediate threat.
The three remaining members of Alpha adopted the 'brace' stance, raised their weapons, and opened fire. We were all carrying miniguns - and not the usual squad support weapon but its 9mm big brother. Sustained fire turned fifty metres of shoreline into a maelstrom of earth, snow and shattered tree-trunks.
I led Bravo onward, aiming to reach the shore maybe a 100 metres left of the target zone. Not that I thought flanking fire would be required but, back then, I did things by the book. The temptation to up the pace was almost overwhelming but the drones could only move so fast.
The icon for McGuire - Alpha 2 - blinked red. My rig had defaulted to full squad monitoring rather than the 'eyes only' approach favoured by Sergeant Lovell. A glance behind showed coolant burbling from McGuire's breastplate and the spark of a ruptured power cell.
The ice ahead of me flared red.
A figured it for a sub-surface thermal detonation, the result being a band of paper-thin ice stretching in either direction as far as the drones could detect. I swore. "Jorgovic, Peters, suppressive fire, increase target zone thirty meters left. Ingersoll, thickening fire-"
Ingersoll's right arm drooped; vapour venting from a neat hole in the shoulder plate. My remaining guys opened up, full auto, but we were pissing in the wind. The sniper had indirect eyes on us and was probably firing from behind - and through - the snowbank directly ahead. We were targets in a shooting gallery, nothing more.
I knew when I was beat. "Lazy Gun Actual this is Lazy Gun Two, request immediate fire support. Over."
Lieutenant Hawks came back straight at me. "Lazy Gun Two this is Actual. Cooper? What the hell is happening out there?"
"The Sarge is down, L-T, same for McGuire and Ingersoll. Sniper fire. Hyper-kinetic rounds that can punch clean through our rig. We have no eyes, I repeat, no eyes on the shooter. The ice ahead has been compromised and we cannot close on his likely position." Falling back didn't occur to me.
"Jesus, Coop, thanks for spoiling my day. OK, what do you want?"
"I figure the bad guy is on the far-side of the ridge." I shouldered my weapon and engaged the laser designator. "I need an area fire mission centred twenty, two-zero, metres from the transmitted co-ordinates, bearing one-three-zero."
"Negative on the fire mission, Corporal, you know we've nothing in orbit."
The icon for Edwards - Alpha 3 - blinked red. My first command was turning to shit. I didn't feel afraid, or frustrated or even disappointed - I didn't feel anything at all. "Just lost Edwards. Gimme something, L-T, or none of us are getting off the ice."
"Lazy Gun Two, wait one."
I felt like a spare wheel, standing there while the guys blazed away. A 100-metre stretch of shoreline was now shrouded in our man-made blizzard but it was obvious we were facing advanced tech, and then some.
"Bastard!" Peters stopped firing; the ammo feed to his weapon had been severed. Exposed rounds dropped to the ice, covered in a tracery of blue static discharge.
"Lazy Gun Two this is Actual. Cooper, take cover. Midas-" the rest was lost in a scree of electronic gibberish. All my long-range icons went dark.
Take cover? There wasn't so much as a fucking reed sticking out of the ice. "Squad! Squad, cease fire and hunker down. Whatever they got coming, it's coming now."
We dropped to one knee; 'at rest' stance 2. I doubted it would make much difference.
My display flared out then slowly adjusted. Heavy polarisation turned the world monochrome. We were just inside a huge circle of radiant brilliance. It was shrinking rapidly; concentrating, increasing in intensity.
"Sweet Jesus." The beam narrowed to a searing column centred on a point just beyond the ridge. I screwed my eyes shut even before visual shut down due to overload. I heard cries and curses from the other men.
The orbital ion cannon fired.
There was a moment of utter silence.
Then the shock wave roared over us; a banshee of pulverised snow and earth. Ice rippled and cracked beneath my feet. I felt my boots slide despite the crampons. Visually I reached for the 'Eject' icon and if the Sarge had still been in command I might have considered it. As it was I couldn't just bail and dump this shit on someone else.
The blizzard died, visual systems rebooted. We were all still there.
I stood up. The cannon was used to smash rock formations, part of the open-cast mining operation they had going here. We were just damn lucky the impact crater hadn't extended as far as the shoreline or we'd be surfing on ice floes. My long-range comms returned as upper-atmosphere ionisation faded away.
"Lazy Gun Two this is Actual. You boys still in one piece, Cooper?"
"Actual this is Lazy Gun Two. I got three viable, two walking-wounded and three unknown. You want us to push on, L-T? Not sure how long it'll take to find a way off the ice though."
"Negative, negative, the mission is scrubbed. Looks like the cannon had the desired effect and the opposition are now talking about talks, or some shit like that. Stand-fast and await evac." He sighed, "Bad day all round, Cooper."
"No lie, L-T, no lie. Cooper out."
We checked on each other. Ingersoll was a through-and-through flesh wound, Edwards and Peters just systems failures. But Sargeant Lovell and McGuire, man, they were gone.
It took ten minutes or so for the anti-grav masslifter to reach our location. Civilian, as a combat helo couldn't lift carapace and a dropship would have shattered the ice with its down-blast. We attached lifting cables to the dead so their kit could be salvaged back at base. Plus it looked better bringing them home as warriors than in the crappy environmental bodysuits we wore under full rig.
I was last aboard, port side, and we'd started rising, taking up the cable slack, when I remembered the goddam drones. They'd probably dock my pay if I left them out on the ice so I started hunting through the command interface for 'auto return' or similar.
The surface-to-air struck us starboard side, exploded.
I fell, the rig registering multiple frontal hits. External vison failed. Systems started flickering between 'Standby' and 'Wait' - obviously falling through the air wasn't something the designers had anticipated.
"Warning, proximity alert. Warning-"
Then it was later.
I'm not sure how much later as the mission timer, comms - shit, just about everything - was off-line. What I had left was pretty much in solid back-up territory but suit integrity was OK and I could still move, still fight. Visual looked damn weird until I realised I was seeing the world via the surviving drones. Apparently my rig was smart enough to come up with its own workaround. But outside was all bad news.
The masslifter had come down on a rocky outcrop some distance offshore. The whole forward section was submerged and what wasn't was burning. As I watched an armoured figure emerged from the inferno and got as far from the flames as he could without quitting solid ground. The surrounding ice was obviously compromised and unable to take his weight. I saw warning lights blink and then the carapace sections fell away. Vaughn stepped out of the remains and started picking his way over the fractured lake, heading for the treeline. I guess he felt freezing to death was preferable to slowly roasting, and a snow hole might keep him alive until rescue arrived.
His head exploded.
It's the vacuum trail of a hyper-velocity round that does the damage; it punches clean through and sucks out brain, blood and bone in its wake. The torso toppled over and disappeared through a hole in the ice.
I sat up then stood. My head was still way below the top of the snow bank I'd landed it, so it had kept me alive in more ways than one. The sniper out there was obviously a pro, and pros have patience. However he had to be firing from a spot much further back than I'd originally estimated, meaning he'd be completely dependent on remote feed. The good news; he'd never spot me outside his augmented field of vision. The bad news; I still didn't know where the bastard was holed up.
Still, I figured he'd crossed me off his list as by rights I should have been at the bottom of the lake. Gambling his attention was still focused on the wreck and the immediate surroundings I started snow-ploughing my way inland. Eventually the ground sloped up and I emerged into a belt of evergreens, with the impact crater way off to my right. I paused for a moment and gave myself a visual once-over. Blast damage and shrapnel had scoured the front of my rig, meaning the mimetic camo was a no-go. From behind I looked like blurry pine branches but unless I snuck-up on the sniper ass-first it was now down to old-school fieldcraft.
Study the terrain, shift position from concealment to concealment, keep low, move fast.
Well, keeping low was out and the best I could manage through waist-deep snow was a laborious surge, but nobody shot me when I moved and that's a success in my book. It took maybe fifteen minutes to work my way around the edge of the crater so that I was coming at Madras Point from the inland side. I figured that with us dropping off the grid Lieutenant Hawks would want to scare up some eyes-on before making his next move. Not that he had much left to work with apart from a few flight crew and support techs.
I pressed on, needing a break - and the gods of Karma smiled on me.
Tracks in the snow; two individuals moving one behind the other, heading towards the mining facility. I started trailing them while keeping to whatever cover was on offer. Of course I was depending on the enemy surveillance - probably drones or landworms - remaining focused on the lake approach. Powered armour is designed to be big, bulky and intimidating, so a stealthy ninja I was not.
Up ahead I saw a branch bend and snap back into position, all on its own. A voice laughed out of nowhere. I had nothing, not even passive infrared. I'd be firing blind and it took my minigun 3.2 seconds to spin-up - which is a fucking eternity when the bad guy has a weapon that could stop a tank. Even assuming it was a heavyweight piece usually fired from a tripod we'd be in a wintry version of High Noon; a slow-mo gunfight with no prize for second place. As I was getting nothing from enhanced vision I shut down the feed and opened my visor. Jesus it was cold, like the slap you get from a walk-in freezer. I felt the internal neck seal tighten, keeping the rest of my body within an environmental cocoon.
I latched my primary weapon into carry mode and reached for the breaching tool both NCO's carried on this mission. It was a stubby shotgun firing shaped charges - designed to blow entry points in walls. Hardly the most subtle weapon but I'll take 'indiscriminate' over 'aimed' any day. I brought it to my shoulder and marched on, no longer trying to hide, intent on closing the range as quickly as possible. The only sounds were the rhythmic crunch of snow and my shallow breathing. Ice crystals began to form along the rim of my faceplate.
A blur on the ridgeline against a backdrop of low cloud. Maybe interference between two stealth fields in close proximity. Adjusted my aim, fired, zero recoil. Dropped the shotgun.
Up ahead an explosion, scream. A man-shape covered in St. Elmo's Fire. A man falling, bloody.
The minigun winding up. Time to take a breath. Shots impacting on my breastplate; small-calibre shit, no worries. Green light, fire.
The dragon roars, spews a torrent of tracer.
Helmet hit, ricochet, sparks around my head.
"Warning, systems fail-"
Burning, but cold. It was dark. Not a place I wanted to be. Someone whispering…
"Stim him again, I want this man walking the line."
"Sorry, L-T, but the rig won't play ball. Needs Medical Officer authorisation to exceed the max safe dose."
"Dammit, do it manually. Christ, stop pussyfooting about, just give it here."
A hand brushed my face. The pulse-and-numb of a single-shot gas injector. Hammer-blow to the heart. Drowning; you either rise to the surface or sink without trace.
I threw up, coughed. "Get the fuck away from me!"
"That's 'Get the fuck away from me, Sir'!" Lieutenant Hawks laughed, "Less of your malingering, Cooper, you ain't dead yet."
I blinked, looked about. The rig had defaulted to 'at ease' and my helmet had been removed. The L-T and two Marines were around me, another two on guard. All pretty much anonymous in cold-weather gear but I recognised Henderson from his shades - real fly-boy cool.
Servos whined as I stood upright. I tried to salute but couldn't move my right arm, couldn't see from my right eye. "Corporal Gary Cooper reporting for duty, Sir."
"Stand down, Marine, we won. You wasted that pair in full view of the workforce and they caved in, double-time. The hostages have been released and both sides are trying to act like nothing happened."
"Nothing happened? Jesus, L-T, we lost seven men out on the ice, plus the flight crew. That's gotta count for something."
He shook his head. "I hear ya, Marine, I surely do. This whole thing has been an exercise in inter-corporate shit-stirring but, officially, the mission is a success. That means our casualties are acceptable, Corporal. Do we understand each other?"
He nodded to the two techs dicking with my rig, "Get him operational. He's walking out of here as a Marine ready for combat, not just some survivor in his skivvies."
Lieutenant Hawks moved away, being replaced in my field of vision by Specialist Brannigan. The tech grinned. "Command are already riding the L-T's ass over this, Coop. They want a goddam hero, front-and-centre. So remember to smile nice while chowing down on all the public relations bullshit. Damn, they might even promote you."
I groaned. "Aw hell, why me?"
"Last man standing, bro, last man standing."
Ain't that the truth.
© Martin M. Clark 2016 All Rights Reserved
Date and time of last update 11:13 Sun 28 Aug 2016
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