by James Bright
In a distant future, Capt. Richard Hargrove and a computer technician, Erik Johansen, are on an interstellar scouting mission. Hargrove had commanded an expedition in which Erik’s older brother, Roger, was killed two years earlier. Hargrove blames himself for Roger’s death, but Erik sees it rather differently. In the end, loyalties must come to terms with justice.
“Cannon Sight One in place.” Richard Hargrove keyed off his mic to hear the three other modified scout ships confirm that they were settled safely in the asteroid belt. “Good job team.” His job was done for the few hours it would take for both the Stellar Conglomerate warships and the missiles fired by the Telaren Empire’s new secret weapon to collide in this star system.
Hargrove set his computer’s alarm to wake him in an hour and flipped on the ship’s intercom. He contacted the single passenger in the sensor egg that made up the majority of the modifications to the scout design.
He liked his hacker companion well enough, but talking to the man — calling him a boy would hardly suit a soldier — made him feel uncomfortable. “Well, we’re in position. Do you know what to do when we start seeing enemies?”
“Geez, Cap’, isn’t this what I’ve been training for my whole life? Of course I know what to do: hack the enemy flagship and mess them up from the inside.”
Richard sighed inwardly. He’s lucky I’ve been told to treat him “special.” Externally, he remarked, “You’re lucky I knew your brother, or I’d bust you right back to private and have you swabbing the hangar bays on a carrier for that attitude... with a toothbrush. We’ve got hours to kill, so you’d better sleep till we have to do final check. Don’t want boredom taking off your edge when we need you most.”
A sudden blare of synthetic orchestra erupted from the intercom amid the words, “You know me by now, Cap’. Boredom is something I fight, with pleasure.” With a laugh the intercom cut out and Hargrove shook his head. Whatever gets him through the mission. Richard reclined his chair, closed his eyes, and instantly fell into dreamland.
Two Years Ago
Hargrove slumped on the ground, his back to a rock wall, recovering from a terrifying run-in with a swarm of Crickets. He hated those bipedal four-armed insectoid monstrosities. That the Conglomerate armed them with spike-rifles and unleashed their barely organized hordes as front-line infantry just made his skin crawl. Their magnified chittering would probably haunt his nightmares for years to come and turn quiet summer nights into prime flashback fodder.
The other soldiers from his Armored Legion unit took similar positions around the small rocky valley they’d rushed into, catching their breath. Even with the augmented speed their fancy new armor afforded them, it took everything a soldier had to outrun the seven-foot tall bugs.
On a mountain several miles away Hargrove saw a short flash of light, and a few seconds later a whistling noise pierced the air. Instinctively Hargrove ducked and knocked the soldier beside him away, just before a meter-long spike of calcium embedded itself halfway into the wall where the other soldier’s head had been.
Hargrove tapped the inter-suit relay with his jaw, breathing out the word “sniper” in the same motion as his suit transmitted the recording of the flash to every soldier in the valley. Everyone moved out of sight of that one mountain as Hargrove opened a channel to Johansen, the unit’s communication specialist.
“Johansen, open a line to the fleet. We’re going to need sniper suppression.”
As his commander was talking, Johansen was already lying on his back, locating the ship with the suit’s internal telescopic sights to make the call. The Heretics had come in aboard a battleship as part of the fleet sent to strike this and other Conglomerate backwater strongholds. They hadn’t come in unnoticed, either, and a battle was raging in near-planetary space, making what now needed to be done a risk at best.
Once Johansen caught a signal lock on the correct battleship, he nodded to Hargrove. “We’re patched through, sir.”
“Heaven’s Hammer, this is Heretic One, over.”
“Heretic One, we read you. How can the Hammer help you today? Over.”
“Hammer, we’ve got one hell of a nail that needs pounding. Seems the Conglomerate now has snipers, and we’ve got a valley full of them sitting right in the middle of our way out. Sending coordinates now, over.”
Several long minutes passed before the answer, “Heretic One, we’re in a stand-up fight right now. Sit tight, and we’ll pound that nail below the ground just as soon as we can. Over.”
Hargrove smirked inside. Stand-up fight, huh? That means we’re kicking their asses, good. “Orders acknowledged. Out.”
Hargrove’s unit needed to make time if they were to complete this mission. There was no guarantee the Conglomerate would lose the space battle, either. This was their commander’s base; they would have the best leadership of the Conglomerate on their side. He sneaked a peek at his surroundings.
Their valley was only the anteroom to a massive depression in the ground, a caldera that spanned for miles, surrounded by walls riddled with spots more snipers could hide in. Fortunately the bottom of the caldera wasn’t smooth or open and held many spots the armored special forces unit could use for cover if they could only avoid triggering more snipers on the way in.
“Unit, we’re going deeper in. The mission must be completed, and this valley stands in our way. Set your sensors to record, and keep an eye out for flashes on the mountainsides; we don’t want snipers catching us off guard. There are plenty of natural foxholes and trenches for us to use as cover; keep your eyes open for surprises hiding in them.”
Hargrove’s ears filled with sounds of his twenty soldiers’ affirmatives as he rang out one last order. “Squads of four in a two-pronged formation, my squad in the center as reserve. Let’s leap-frog this valley and find that damn Amoeba so we can go home.”
The Amoebas were the commanders and Master species of the Conglomerate. They were the ones hell-bent on destroying the human race for some reason known only to themselves. There was a seeming hierarchy to the Amoebas, and Hargrove’s Heretics had been sent to this apparent backwater to hunt for what intelligence sources claimed to be the King of them all.
“Johansen, when we reach serious cover, update the flagship on our position so we don’t get hit with anything.”
In quick succession the first two squads leapt out of cover and ran across what little open ground there was between the valley entrance and the first places of cover. Hargrove tapped into the sensor feed from the point men, watching for any tell-tale flashes of light. These eight, at least, made it to cover without incident, and the second two squads started their run soon after, with only enough time for Hargrove to switch his feed to their systems before the first bursts were seen: razor-sharp spikes barely missing two of the eight soldiers running for cover.
Hargrove traced the shots back to their probable sources and tagged them for everyone to see, hoping they could avoid drawing any more fire. Without missing a beat, the second squads passed ahead of the first and took position at the far end of the trenches the squads had picked for cover. The leadership squad, Hargrove’s group, zigzagged from the valley entrance to the right trench and dove for cover just as more spikes passed overhead.
“So far, so good.” Hargrove clicked his jaw, bringing up the suit’s computer commands. “Computer, extrapolate the enemy’s probable line of sight and display it in red for us.” After a few seconds of silence the air where enemy shots were likely to happen blared red for everyone, looking eerily like broad security alarm lasers hovering in the air. “Computer, track enemy fire and update the lines of sight as needed.” To his soldiers: “Let’s see if we can make it out of here in one piece.”
It had taken Hargrove months to get adjusted to the new suits. Standard infantry barely got augmented strength and speed out of theirs. The upgraded sensor systems and tactical computers of the special forces, Armored Legion, were the start of a new generation all their own.
Once the squads got used to the new information displayed on their screens, Hargrove hissed, “First squads, move out,” and the squads leapfrogged out again. The first squads ducked below the enemy’s line of sight and made their way quickly to the next trench. More flashes became visible from the other side of the valley as more enemy snipers noticed and fired at the elite soldiers rushing through the valley.
More near misses, but no casualties yet. The first squads took cover in the next trenches, second squads holding position until the computer mapped out the new lines of sight. Everyone grew cold as a red beam laid itself unavoidably on the path ahead, but the second squads braced themselves and charged ahead, dodging around unpredictably to make the enemy’s job harder.
That nearly succeeded. As they almost made it into cover, an enemy spike pierced a soldier’s ankle, sending him rolling into a sprawl just outside the trench, barely out of view of the unknown snipers on the mountainside.
As one of the soldiers started back to drag his friend into cover, several spikes lodged themselves into the rocks near the fallen soldier, driving the would-be savior back into cover. The suit radios echoed with the still determined savior’s words, “Burrow in right there, we’ll get you out later!”
The fallen warrior grunted, “We’ll be followed. You all just go on ahead, I’ll buy you all some time.” Seemingly at the thought of his own death, the soldier let a backwoods accent creep into his voice, “Y’all just get those bastards for me, get ‘em real good.”
Hargrove listened to the exchange, before clicking on his own mic and growling out low the words, “We will. We’ll let them see what these suits can really do.” Every soldier in the team nodded at that second and added their own words to the chorus of growls.
The remaining seven soldiers of the second squads ran to the edges of their trenches, and waited for the command squad to reach them. The command squad wasted no time in running, dodging several more spikes flung their way before hitting the left trench this time.
“No more chatter. From here on in we go silent and we go quick, now that we know what we’re dealing with. Follow ‘Ordered Chaos Drill’ until we’re clear of these snipers.” Ordered Chaos — spread out for dodging room but stay close enough together to keep track of one another.
The next cover wasn’t trenches, there was a series of rocks that barely hid the soldiers. Following orders, the first squads made a headlong charge to the rocks and stopped, the second squads leaving the trenches at a dead run and completely skipping through the rocks, taking cover behind them but not stopping at all until they ducked into another trench, still drawing fire from yet more hitherto unseen snipers.
The command squad followed on the heels of the second wave, moving in among the rocks to avoid snipers before picking out a blind spot to run through, avoiding as much red air as possible.
As more snipers exposed their positions, the valley looked like a massive butterfly net to the soldiers, and every run became a mad rush to dodge through the red network, the soldiers intuitively picking out every hole in the net between the trenches and rocks.
Halfway through the valley was an extensive system of interconnected trenches where the Heretics rested. Two more soldiers had taken spike damage, one was merely scratched while the other had taken a projectile through the arm.
Within the trenches, two others held the wounded soldier still while another pulled the spike out. The wounded suit’s medical suite dispatched coagulants to stem the blood flow as the suit patched itself up to protect the soldier’s arm from outside contaminants. That taken care of, the soldiers pressed on, taking defensive positions in the center of the trench system with the three man squad acting as rearguard and the command squad in the center.
During the nightmare run, two red lines had originated on a mountain that stood directly in the Heretics’ path. Hargrove clicked his mic on and called to his communications specialist, Johansen. “Johansen, patch me through to the ship. We need that mountain moved, so tell the flagship to concentrate its fire there.”
Without missing a beat Richard Hargrove switched to his team’s comlink and told them, “Stay alert. If we hear gunshots, we’ll need to prepare to repel Crickets.”
After making sure his warriors were in position and alert, Hargrove switched back to Johansen’s frequency. “Johansen, tap me into your telescope, I’ll watch the space battle while we wait for that hammer from the sky, or at least until we get company down here.” Hargrove settled in a spot in the center of the trenches, splitting his internal viewer between the battle above and the valley surrounding him, following the ships’ movements in their cataclysmic ballet until the moment the entire unit heard the gunshots.
For ten minutes the Heretics could hear the efforts of the fallen comrade, who was left behind, shooting into the charging horde of Crickets. Johansen automatically disengaged the telescope and switched to binocular vision. He and Hargrove watched their brother-in-arms fight. He’d crawled from his resting place into the trench he’d originally failed to make it to, and shored himself up there to better protect his brothers.
The two officers watched with grim pride as the stack of Cricket bodies grew, about four out of every five bullets from the soldier’s gun injuring or killing a Cricket. For all that, the horde continued gaining ground, barely stopping after the shock of the first bullets had passed.
As the horde surrounded the cut-off soldier, a blazing explosion erupted from the trench, incinerating dozens of enemy warriors and sending a cloud of dust up to cover an area of a few hundred feet, rocks raining down on the Crickets and injuring more.
With the explosion, the binoculars focused on the horde instead of the trench, and followed the Crickets as they began charging down the same path the Heretics had used. Disorderly and rampant, the Crickets didn’t bother with the dodging game the soldiers had played only an hour before, and made it to the front of the trench network in half the time. The three soldiers tucked away to cover the rear entrance opened fire, bullets tearing through Crickets as two under-barrel grenade launchers hurled incendiary masses at the horde, burning through individuals and setting fires on the ground to impede the warriors trying to take the trenches.
Then fire opened up from the sides as Crickets scaled the walls and attempted to flank the beleaguered Heretics. More fires raged on the walls and on the open paths around the central trench. Attempts were made to channel the highly flammable insects into one clump easy to attack. The Crickets massed themselves at the front of the trench system, blocking the path toward the mission’s goal. Two from each squad went to reinforce the front force, as the others watched the flanks and rear. Hargrove and Johansen took rearguard positions to reinforce the single man still watching everyone’s backs.
The battle raged on for half an hour before Johansen patched through to Heaven’s Hammer, alerting everyone that the mountain was about to disappear. “Heretic One, the Hammer’s swing is on its way, Out..”
An arc of blue light, almost invisible against the day sky, tore down to the ground and with just a touch annihilated the entire mountain, sending ionized rock hurling through the air and shockwaves through the ground.
Unprepared, the Crickets were stunned. The Heretics, well aware of what was going to happen and protected from the brunt of the explosion by their armor, tore through the broken swarm like tissue paper, starting another speed run that took them halfway to the exit of the valley before the first spikes rang off the stones around them.
The shots were ill-aimed. A cloud of gaseous rock, looking like nothing less than a volcanic eruption, rained boulders out of the sky around the Heretics, turning their already chaotic run into a dance of luck, quick reflexes the only thing saving the soldiers from being crushed. Most of the spikes shot their way ended up bouncing off of falling rock instead of embedding themselves in the armor suits.
As they left the valley, Hargrove turned around to look at the handiwork the Hammer had caused and...
Copyright © 2013 by James Bright