Sometime back ImChiquita wrote a stirring story in her "Reflections" series, showing Lt. Hook escorting his fallen squadmates home to be buried. I was so taken with the story I wrote this 'prequel' to her story. You don't need to read "Reflections: Chapter 2" to read this story, but I recommend it!
Andrew Hook stared at the pale, haggard face in the mirror and could barely recognize it as his own. It wasnt the sallow complexion or the tired eyes that seemed unfamiliar; it was the look of uncertainty. For possibly the first time in his life, Lt. Hook didnt know what to do.
Certainty had always been his strength, his hallmark. It wasnt arrogance; Hook was one of the least pretentious souls you could meet. He simply had the ability to make a decision and act on that decision without reservation. When the young man joined the federal service, SICON correctly identified this quality as leadership and directed him into OCS and the officers track. There he thrived in an environment where decisions matter; where those that can make decisions wisely survive. He became one of the youngest lieutenants in infantry history and was given command of a new squad that was soon to be known as Hooks Hellions.
The self-assurance of the LT was of more than academic interest to his squad. They came to depend on it, in battles from Carvok to Klendathu. Despite his youth, Hook was an anchor his squad could count on when things got ugly. And in the Bug War, things often got ugly. With the confident lieutenant at their head, the Hellions quickly built a reputation for success that was the envy of the service.
Now, however, Andrews much lauded confidence was nowhere to be found. Earlier in the morning, he had attended a mission briefing along with the Lt.s of six other squads. Vice-Marshall Davies, commander of Eastern Theater operations reported that a large warrior hive had been discovered in the mountains southwest of New Tokyo. The hive had been dug deep into the hard volcanic rock of the mountains surrounding the Japanese capital and was safe from conventional airstrike. It was too close to major population centers for even a small tactical nuke. Efforts to assault the fortress with ground forces had only caused the bugs to retreat deep into their burrows and any unit attempting to follow them did not return. Operation Beartrap was the brasss solution to the problem. Six squads supported with heavy weapons and cluster munitions would be positioned secretly in the wooded hills surrounding the eastern face of the hive. Once they were in position, a single squad reinforced with six Marauders would drop into the valley at the base of the hive in full view of the hives defenders. They were the bait; the armor-reinforced squad would attack the enemy drawing them out of the hive. Neither advancing nor retreating, they would continuously engage the enemy, forcing it to empty the hive in its defense. Once the majority of the hives defenders were in the open the jaws of the trap would spring. The concealed squads on the bugs left and right flanks would pour fire on the enemy in the valley, obliterating it. Hook had to admit it was a strategically sound plan; the armor-reinforced squad would be formidable enough to draw out a counterattack, but not so intimidating as to frighten the hives defenders back into their holes. Unfortunately, the bait squad would almost certainly be annihilated; if not by the bugs, then by the rain of friendly fire from the hills when the ambush was sprung. Hook saw only one hitch in the plan; the Hellions were the bait.
Andrew had sat through the briefing stunned, uncomprehending. He listened as the death of his men was discussed dispassionately, coolly, like the outcome of a football game. For a moment he thought this assignment was punishment for some transgression, but he knew better. In a strange sense, it was a complement; Command figured his small unit would fight harder and longer than most other squads. The Hellions would survive long enough to pull the bugs from their holes. The reward for their service was to be fed to those same bugs. After the briefing, a couple of the other lieutenants approached him, patting him on the back, telling him to give the bugs hell. Their good humor was hollow. Hook knew they were telling him goodbye. In his head he understood the reason for such a sacrifice. Rule one in OCS was that in combat men die; squads, even whole armies, will be spent to achieve strategic objectives. It was the ugly, inescapable arithmetic of war. But he also knew that he cared about these men. They werent empty statistics, names on a ledger. He knew them. They had passed through hell together, faced death dozens of times over on countless bug-infested worlds. He owed them his life many times over. They, in turn, depended on him not just to complete the mission, but to get them home as well. More than friends, more than family, they shared a closeness, an interdependence unknown in the civilian world.
This had been brought home hard to Andrew just a couple months ago. The Hellions had been part of a contingent left on Klendathu to mop up after the queens escape. Only a small force remained and it was preparing to depart for the next theater of operations, Earth. Three days before they were scheduled to be evacd, the Hellions were on routine perimeter patrol when they were ambushed by a pair of tanker worms. The huge rachnids had burst from underground directly beneath his squad and three of his troopers tumbled down their burrows before Hook could respond. The bugs were quickly dispatched and a rescue launched for his troopers. Sgt. Deveraux and Pvt. Kudrow were recovered safe and sound. Corporal MRil, one of the two Skinnies in the squad, was found but she had suffered a critical suit breech in the fall. Her atmosphere and life-sustaining heat bled explosively into the noxious Klendathu air. Hook ordered TPhar, the squads second Skinnie to attend the fallen trooper. He successfully used a portable air filter to connect the troopers broken suit to a spare methane canister he kept as a reserve. MRil could breath again, but the rapid replacement of methane combined with the continuous suit leak kept purging the heat from her suit. Hook watched helplessly as the injured Skinnie, fully conscious, slowly froze to death. Andrew had seen men and women die before, sometimes in horrible ways, but somehow this was different. There was something in the quiet way the trooper faced death, chanting a name Hook did not know. He looked into the strange face and watched as the dark eyes dulled and the skin blackened. He spoke softly to her, but she did not seem to hear. She was one of the original Hellions; a Founding Mother as Hook liked to call her. She had three children. As the radio message from the retrieval ship rang in his ears, Hook watched her fire dim and then go out. It had been so pointless, such a complete waste; an intelligent, experienced soldier lost on a routine patrol on a wretched world hundreds of light-years from the real war. But it was more than that, and Andrew knew it. That night alone in his quarters, he wept for her, for her children. She meant more to him at that moment than his own family; she was his family. Writing the obligatory regret to inform letter to her family had nearly broken him.
Now it would happen again, not just to one of his men, but to them all. He would order them into the maw of hell and keep them there as they died one after another. Hook performed the grim calculation: Pt.s Kudrow, Mandel, and NRairi would be the first casualties. Kudrow and Mandel because they were new and combat had a way of culling the inexperienced first. NRairi, a Masai from the Rift Valley, Tanzania province, was a hell-bent-for-leather warrior from a nation of warriors. Heedless of danger, he longed for death in battle. Such men generally get their wish. Sgt. Devereaux and Pvt. Villetran would be next; that would be a hardest blow. Both men had a third eye, always looking out for their squad mates and quick to support a trooper in trouble. They would spend their lives coming to the rescue of their less-experienced squad mates. Cpl. TPhar and Pvt. Leung would last the longest. TPhar, his senior Marauder operator, could work the machines better than anyone in the squad. He also possessed the Skinnie trait of cool headedness even in the tightest jams. Cool thinking keeps you alive longer. Leung was their resident spook, a psychic mapper able to divine both enemy and friendly positions and numbers with frightening accuracy. She had failed to anticipate the tankers on Klendathu and was paying the price in self-recrimination and guilt. Even in her troubled state, her knowledge of the field would give her a decided survival edge.
Hook turned from his mirror and moving to his bunk, dropped heavily on the thin mattress. He checked his watch. Just twenty minutes till he would brief his squad. How would he do this? How would he sign seven death warrants. Then a thought came to him; how had he missed it before? He had accounted for seven Hellions in his mind, calculated their chances, sealed their fate. But there was an eighth Hellion: Lt. Andrew Hook. Where did he fit in the casualty roster? Strange how he hadnt accounted for his own fate. The supreme self-confidence had not let him entertain the possibility of his own death. He recognized at last the source of his dilemma. In this mission, his unshakable confidence in his ability to protect himself and his squad would not serve. His job today would be far simpler. He sat up abruptly on the bunk and laughed; for the first time since the briefing his mind was clear.
Basic principles, Andrew thought to himself, The first job of a leader it to lead, to go before.
Their mission was clear, its objective unambiguous. Its end was not retrieval. The Hellions would be taking a more difficult road, the road all take sooner or later. Andrew would lead his men even in death. He would not leave the field without them. He was comforted by the thought that this time there would be no parting, no regret to inform. He would go before them that last time into the dark valley.