The feeling was there again. Lt. Andrew Hook sat alone in the cramped forward berth of the dropship Stalingrad. He and his squad had been airborne for over an hour heading for a drop into the mountains west of New Tokyo. Before most missions he would feel it, that cold empty hole in the pit of his stomach. It was fear, the little taste of fear Andrew allowed himself. He treated it like a pet. Fear was a friend; it kept you sharp. It kept you alert. It had helped him through dozens of missions on many worlds, keeping him and his squad mates alive. But today was different. The cold emptiness spread up his neck and made the hairs on the nape of his neck stand on end. He had faced difficult assignments before, but todays mission was different.
Hooks Hellions were part of a seven-squad assault on a massive bug hive dug deep into the mountains surrounding New Tokyo. Previous air assaults and raids into the hive had failed completely. For this attack six squads armed with heavy mortars and plasma weapons were concealed on two lines of hills to either side of the east entrance of the hive. This formidable firepower was useless however, if the bugs stayed within their stone redoubt. Hooks assignment was to land his squad in plain sight of the hive and launch an assault on the east entrance, drawing the defenders out of the hive to face destruction by the hidden units. It was a good plan but one that would mean the destruction of his squad either at the hands of the bugs or by the friendly fire that would rain into the valley. Andrew took a long steadying breath; he appreciated the privacy of his berth at this moment for he feared his men would sense his unease.
Andrew called up the hologram of the battle area trying to piece together a plan that might improve his squads chances. That valley was a killing field surrounded by death -by arachnid or human- on every side. He located half a dozen possible escape routes on the glowing image before him, but his mission was not to escape. He was to engage the bugs and maintain contact even at the expense of all his troopers. They were the cheese in the mousetrap. But that didnt mean the cheese had to just sit there, Hook thought. He had a few assets on this mission. The first was firepower. All eight soldiers would be mounted in Ape Marauders, large armored powersuits bristling with weapons. With this armor support, the eight men could fight like eighty. Secondly he had the Hellions themselves, a unit he had led from its creation. He knew the squads strengths and weaknesses and how to exploit both to his advantage.
Finally, he had an ace up his sleeve, a little plan to buy his unit more time. He wasnt sure DeSoto, the commander of this op, or Davies, the theater commander would approve of his gambit, but he figured an official reprimand was the least of his worries. Maybe his little surprise would save the life of a trooper or two. Andrew turned away from the glowing map, checked the satellite communicator mounted on his light armor and stepped into the crew compartment. The squad was seated in the row of restraint couches along the left bulkhead. The banter and bravado that was a fixture of the Hellions in times past was absent. Hook had not told them this was a suicide mission. A squad with hope fights better. But his briefing had been thorough and the Hellions were not fools. They could see there was only one way to exit from the field.
Hellions, you all know the drill, Hook feigned a relaxed tone as he walked the line of seated troopers. After landing, team up with your partner and move quickly to your assigned positions. Dont bunch and keep moving. I dont want to lose anyone in a tunnel breakout. Remember to maintain a controlled retreat always drawing the bugs toward the center of the valley. We cant let them blunder into any of the units hidden in the hills. Well mount up in twos; Villetran and Kudrow, then Leung and NRairi, Mandel and Deveraux, and finally me. Any questions?
Sir, NRairi spoke with an unaccustomed softness to his voice, Is there any reason why were running this op short-handed?
NRairi was right. They were missing an ape. Cpl. TPhar, the squads only Skinnie and most experienced Marauder operator was not present.
Private, Andrew smiled, You surprise me. I always thought you could tackle the bugs single handed.
No one was laughing.
Doesnt make any sense, sir, Juaquim Villetran added, To run a Marauder op without our best pilot.
Cpl. TPhar is a full-participant in this mission, the L.T. answered cryptically, One final reminder: youve all been instructed on the use of the flares. No one is to fire a flare except by my command. Is that understood? The white flare would be the squads signal to the units in the surrounding hills to launch their attack. It would only be fired when the hive had emptied into the valley.
If I am incapacitated, Andrew continued, The decision to launch will be made by the surviving senior officer. All right, apes. Bands playing. Its time to hit the dance floor.
* * * * * * * *
When his Marauder had decelerated to 230 kph, the reentry flare around his visor cleared and Hook could see the landing zone. At this altitude the entire operations area was clearly visible. Below and slightly ahead was the Hakone region, Kanagawa prefecture, once one of the most beautiful regions of Japan. A country of tree-covered mountains near the legendary Mt. Fuji, this region was once a get-away for Japanese vacationers eager to sample its serene beauty and medicinal hot springs. Much had changed since the Bug War. Though patches of verdant green remained, large black gouges had been opened in the terrain by the digging of bugs and the bombs men used to destroy them. The shallow valley they were aiming for had been repeatedly scorched by bombing runs during SICONs unsuccessful attempts to destroy the hive. Though a few trees remained, the valley was almost free of cover. The hills flanking the barren bowl were still covered in dark cryptomeria and juniper, perfect cover for the forces ready to pour fire into the bowl one last time.
At 1000 meters, Hook ran a systems check to prepare his Marauder for landing. On his suit viewport HUD he could see outlined in green the predicted landing spots of his squad mates. At 100 meters he banked his landing rockets to allow his suit to gain speed and land heavy. A boomer, or hard landing, would have earned him a chewing out from his old drop master in basic, but the concussion would wake the bugs up nicely. His bulky Ape Marauder landed with a bone-jarring jolt that doubled him over. Before he could fully right himself, he felt the faint vibrations of other distant impacts.
Well done, Andrew smiled as he felt his teammates land. Weve knocked on the door.
The Hellions plunged to thunderous landings in their heavily armored suits and began jet-assist hops toward the dark mountain before them. Satisfied that everyone had landed safely, Hook made a 100 foot arcing leap in his machine. He figured jumping would keep the squad mobile so diggers couldnt come up beneath them. The bugs might even mistake the jumps for more suits landing, fooling them into thinking his troopers were a larger force. The squad had only made landfall for a few moments when the first waves of warriors poured from the hive.
* * * * * * * *
Ademonde NRairi was screaming at the top of his lungs. His Marauder lumbered forward both arms extended, the 20mm machine guns roaring into the bugs before him. He savored the taste of sweat in his mouth and thanked God this battle was on Earth where he could smell his enemies burning. The sea of warriors broke across his machine. He backed slowly away from the hive extending the enemy, drawing them out.
Lieutenant, we have close to four hundred warriors in the valley, with another fifteen hundred in the hive perimeter close to the east exit.
It was Pvt. Leung, the squads psychic on his left flank. The LT had wanted them in pairs to cover for one another when the Marauders failed. Leung was a good fighter but NRairi was always uneasy around her. Could she look into his mind now and feel his wild joy? Let her talk to the lieutenant and leave his mind alone.
Ade, youre too far ahead, Leungs voice crackled, I cant cover you.
In his eagerness he had moved 20 meters ahead of his partner; bugs were starting to pour around him, between him and Leung. Then it happened. A sudden jerk. Felt like something had grabbed the leg of his suit. Then over the roar of mortar and machine guns, a new feminine voice.
Servo failure left leg. It was the computer voice of the Marauder itself. A warrior must have gotten behind him and torn into the back of his armored leg. As the warning was issued the leg failed and NRairi stumbled down to one knee. His huge clawed arms swung down for only a moment but it was enough for the warriors to wash over him. He was inside the living mass of creatures, a writhing blanket of gnashing jaws and skittering limbs. He felt rather than heard the concussion of plasma grenades around him. Leung was trying to blow the bugs away but it was to no avail. There were too many. His cockpit screen cracked and gave way. The bugs were clambering to get at him in the suit, their scrabbling legs scraping and banging on his protective cockpit cage. There was no way he could get out and retreat as planned. The Masai smiled darkly and spat at his shattered viewport.
Ade, Im coming! The voice of the young psychic seemed a million miles away.
Clear out, the fallen soldiers voice was clear, Thirty second count. He had activated the packet charge his powersuit carried.
No Ade, I can reach you.
You now have twenty-five seconds.
There were no more words. NRairi was alone with the enemy he loved. He closed his eyes and quietly muttered the chants he remembered from his youth on the Ngorogoro rim. It was a good way to go. His father would have been proud. A final voice came to him, but not over the comlink. It seemed to arise from within his own mind like a memory.
Live forever, Ade
A parting word from a friend. Ademonde NRairi smiled one last time and thanked his gods for a good death.
* * * * * * * *
Hook watched what was left of his squad straggle back from the hive face. Leung was on foot, having abandoned her Marauder when its power failed. Villetran was gone. He had fallen into a pit opened by diggers near one of the hive entrances. The lieutenant had nearly burned out his heavy suit trying to reach him, to no avail. Hook heard him die. The lieutenants suit had also failed on the retreat and been left behind. Sgt. Deveraux lumbered up in his machine, herding Kudrow and Mandel on foot before him like a mother watching her errant children. Five had survived the first wave. Better than Andrew had expected. On the LTs command, the sergeants limping Marauder turned and launched a salvo of plasma rockets toward the wall of enemy racing toward them. Immediately a shimmering wall of blue plasma flame formed between the Hellions and the bugs. A few warriors blundered into the blue fire and were instantly incinerated. Most however, waited patiently behind the barrier for the wall to fade and collapse.
Now for my first surprise, Hook muttered to himself. He keyed a series of codes into his gauntlet comlink. From some distance away, toward the hive, a series of deafening blasts echoed down the valley and geysers of flame leaped into the sky. The Marauders had been left behind on purpose, as booby traps to be detonated when the arachnid hoards had washed over them. Hook could imagine great holes being cut in the solid mass of warriors by the dying suits. The bugs along the plasma barrier were seized by panic and dashed howling into the flames to escape the exploding terror behind.
Sergeant, leave your Marauder here. Hook had to coordinate their retreat quickly. The plasma wall would restrain the enemy for only about ten minutes. Well proceed on foot to coordinates Bravo 6-29.
Just as well, the sergeant answered as his suit popped open, My Apes running on fumes.
The sergeant hopped down from the open maw of his machine. Lieutenant, are you sure about those coordinates? I read that area as wide open. Well have no cover there. Three kliks to our left at 4-48 is a rocky area with a lot more. .
No, Mike, Hook interrupted. 6-29 is our spot. Leung where are our friends?
The bulk of the warriors, roughly fifteen hundred are in the valley behind the plasma wall. Another thousand are still at the hive perimeter and roughly four hundred are passing under us in a series of three tunnels.
Theyd better move before the diggers got them, Hook thought. The five troopers ran as quickly as their weary legs would take them the two kilometers to a vast shallow clearing in the charred valley. Hook halted briefly and seemed momentarily preoccupied as though he were speaking to someone, though none of the Hellions heard anything. Then he turned toward them.
Find cover around the perimeter of the clearing. Keep you eyes open and be ready to move. Leung, youre with me.
The Hellions stared at each other with perplexed expressions but knew better than to question the LTs orders. They fanned out and scavenged for whatever cover they could find.
Sir, Deveraux radioed in, What exactly are we looking for?
Be patient, Andrew replied, Your answer is coming. He and Leung crouched behind a small pier of rock about ten meters from the clearing. The young psychic was craning her head around trying to survey the area when she froze abruptly. Her eyes assumed that distant look they always got when she was seeing with her psychic eye.
Lieutenant, the privates voice was suddenly urgent, Im sensing four large metallic objects descending at a high rate of speed directly onto our position.
Since when did the bugs start dropping bombs? piped Kudrow, looking upward, scanning the sky.
To Leungs surprise, the lieutenant was smiling.
That would be the cavalry coming, Andrew responded. Leung, can you estimate the landing points of the projectiles? At their present course, will any of them hit us?
The psychic paused again before replying. No sir, at their present trajectory they will all fall about thirty meters behind us.
To the squads amazement Hook laughed. All eyes were skyward. Deveraux was the first to spot them.
Well Ill be damned, the sergeant exclaimed, Those are Marauders or Ive never seen one.
Sure enough, the four tiny spots in the sky drew closer, sprouting arms and legs. They began to decelerate and wavered slightly as they came to ground. Two of the bulky powersuits lighted softly on the dusty ground of the clearing, one hit hard but upright while the fourth slammed harder still, its legs buckling before the machine toppled forward. The squad burst from their hiding places and ran toward the reinforcements. Before they had covered half the distance to the new arrivals, one of the new Marauders launched a pair of flaming streamers directly over their heads. All ducked or hit the dirt except for Andrew, who remained upright and relaxed. He strolled between the members of his squad, who were all looking up from the ground to see what had happened.
What the hell? Deveraux swore as he sat up and brushed the dust off his armor.
Dont worry, Mike, the LT said, He wasnt shooting at you.
He helped his sergeant to his feet and both approached the machines. The firing Marauder hissed and popped open. A familiar lanky silhouette jumped from the cockpit.
Some pretty fancy flying, TPhar, Hook yelled as he approached the Skinnie corporal. I would have bet a months pay you couldnt land two of them.
Im afraid I dropped one, the alien gestured to the wrecked Marauder lying face down in the dirt. I suppose SICON will expect me to pay for it.
If Davies wants you to pay, the lieutenant replied with a chuckle, He can come down here to collect.
The squad wandered around the new machines, discovering to their amazement that they were empty. Command had told Hook how many men to use, but not how many suits. With the help of a couple connections in Fleet, he had secretly arranged for TPhal to follow them in a second drop ship. At the LTs signal, the corporal dropped solo, and remotely-controlled the descent of the empty suits from his Marauder. The alien had mentioned practicing such a maneuver in simulation, and Hook knew he was the only Marauder specialist in Fleet skilled enough to pull it off.
The plasma wall TPhar just placed has bought us a few minutes. Corporal, take your Marauder and support Leung, and me here. Mike, take Kudrow, Mandel and the other two suits and establish a position on our left flank. Watch each others backs people. On his command, the troopers scattered. Hook moved alongside the Skinnie and pointed to the wrecked Marauder.
TPhar before you suit up, lets see if theres anything we can salvage from our mechanical casualty.
* * * * * * * *
Hook could never remember much about the next hour. The last plasma wall fell and the waves of warriors came. TPhar was lethally effective in the Marauder, mowing down row after row of the advancing monsters with short precise bursts from his weapons. Deveraux and the two privates to his left were faring just as well with their two healthy Marauders. Twitching mounds of dead and dying bugs collected around them but there were always more warriors to replace them. Hook was doing some damage with the chain gun hed salvaged from the wrecked machine. Hed balanced the heavy weapon on a small rock enabling him to swivel it effortlessly across the line of battle. Pvt. Leung at his side provided not just another rifle, but more importantly a continuous picture of the battlefield.
Lieutenant, we have over two thousand warriors in the valley...
Kudrow watch your spacing! Youre too close!
Lieutenant, I estimate ten minutes of Marauder time remains...
Sergeant, I could use a hand over here.
Sir, we have over 2500 warriors in the valley...
The lieutenant had just silenced the chain gun to let the barrel cool when he was startled by a touch on his arm. Leung was next to him her eyes wide with alarm.
What is it private? the LT shouted over the roar of the nearby Marauders guns.
Warriors, the private yelled, her face drained of color, Hundreds of them behind us!
Damn tunnels, Andrew swore quietly. He knew the pattern. Bugs had been moving through tunnels beneath them throughout the battle. Now they had surfaced and would ambush them from behind.
How far away? Hooked shouted at the private gripping her arm firmly.
Hundreds of them she answered, too frightened to heed his question.
Mike the LT keyed the sergeants link, Weve been flanked! Couple hundred warriors to our rear. Rotate behind us and cover our back!
You three cant hold this line! the sergeants voice crackled back.
There wont BE a line if you dont move! It was the last words he would have with his sergeant. Hook vaguely saw the two Marauders on his left moving like shadows
through the smoke of battle as they disappeared to his rear. The end wouldnt be long now.
It was a very bad dream, only there would be no waking. The mass of warriors closed on Hook and his tiny party. There were garbled transmissions from his rear...shouting...screaming. Then a blast. One of the Marauders going up. Deveraux, God bless him.
The Marauder on his right slowly ran out of juice and slumped into immobility. TPhar popped the hatch and began firing his Morita from the elevated vantage point of the machines cockpit. Leung went next. Her rifle overheated and in seconds she was overrun. The Skinnie spun from his perch and shot the eyes out of the warriors atop her, but it was already over. At least she died quickly.
Hook looked at his immanent death with perverse pride. With some sleight of hand, the Hellions had survived for over two hours in a valley swarming with thousands of warriors. His chain gun was seriously overheating and when it failed, he and TPhar would be overrun. Andrew hoped the Hellions would be remembered. Without looking down he reached for the small flare pistol at his side.
Corporal! Find cover!
Out of the corner of his eye Hook saw the Skinnie climb back into his Marauder and pull the cockpit hatch down. What the hell was he doing? The lieutenant continued firing
the heavy chain gun with his left hand and grasped the flare pistol in his right.
TPhar, Andrew never finished the command. A powerful blow knocked him to the ground. He looked up to see TPhars Marauder moving under its own power. The huge machine spun in an awkward circle launching three blue streamers around them. Walls of plasma flame formed a tiny circle around them. Hook was completely bewildered. That machine had been used for over an hour. It was dead. He had seen its power fail. Before he could rise the Marauder strode forward and carefully placed a huge clawed foot on the fallen lieutenants chest, pinning him to the ground.
TPhar, you Skinnie bastard! What the hell are you doing?!
Wordlessly the machine raised one of its long armored arms to the sky. From a launch port in the arms gauntlet a slender white flare shot skyward: the signal flare. Then before Andrew could protest, the machine lurched forward and crouched over him, covering the LT completely with its armored bulk. Hook was trapped by three metric tons of machine. His face was only inches from TPhars in the powersuits cockpit.
Corporal, get the hell off me NOW! Hook screamed, spittle spotting the visor of the machine facing him.
The covering fire from the hills will commence soon, the Skinnie spoke with disarming quiet. My environment suits power was enough to run the Ape for a few seconds, but Im afraid this Marauder will move no more. The alien paused. He took a couple short sharp breaths.
The lieutenant struggled in vain to free himself from the weight of the heavy powersuit atop him.
*Tnollai. Dnall hundlo kii." (*Dont move. Youre safe). The corporals words had a sad familiarity. They had been Hooks words at the passing of a friend.
Andrew looked back at the corporal ready to scream at him, but stopped short. Through the Marauders visor and the visor of the Skinnies helmet, he could see the corporals face darkening, his mouth opening rhythmically like the gasps of a beached fish. Hook understood. The Skinnie had exhausted the power in his environment suit, the suit that kept him alive, to make this final gesture.
TPhar, Andrew spoke, his voice breaking, Why are you doing this?
The corporal managed a wan TPhetti smile. I am keeping a promise to a mutual friend. His gaze dropped his last words barely a whisper.
Hooks mind returned to that day months ago when he had watched another Skinnie die. MRil had been TPhars friend too. Andrew Hook cried in helpless protest, but his voice was lost in the rain of fire.