As if to drive the captain’s point home, our Halberds and Hussars loosed a cannonade of bright, white-hot plasma overhead. The Spontoons lurched forward to meet the incoming threat. On the ground, the Kuvasz tanks raised their turrets and laser guns to the sky and loosed sprays of fiery bolts of light and supersonic slugs of searing metal. Our mechs holstered their HAWs and raised their arms skyward.
We grunts scrambled for cover.
“Squad 3 on me!” Corporal Yukio Shoji shouted and a pulse of light on my helmet’s interior faceplate directed my attention his way. The corporal led us to a man-tall, roughly mushroom-shaped outcropping of blue-black rock.
Just before ducking beneath the stone mushroom’s cap, I watched the Torquemada fire off a volley of rockets towards the approaching drones. She then moved forward with the Hussar and her sister Halberds, their laser and particle beams firing without ceasing.
We huddled around the stem while the exchange of fire above and around us made the surrounding terrain flash like it was under a giant strobe light. The muffled explosions of missiles, rockets and destroyed drones filled the air like a low, slow-rolling rumble of thunder.
The explosions quickly drew closer.
We tightened our huddle.
“Let’s concentrate shields up top, boys,” Corporal Shoji ordered and we all passed the command on to our individual armor computers.
Seconds later it began raining laser fire. The vapor around us ignited in orange-red flashes wherever the bolts passed. Explosions blasted the air and shook the ground beneath us as a shower of missiles followed the laser-strafing.
One rocket struck thirty meters from our position, landing in front of our platoon’s first squad. The explosion destroyed the half-dome tump of basalt they were hiding under and hurled them for several yards.
A nearby mech was hit by four rockets in rapid succession. The mech’s shields absorbed three hits, pushing it back a few steps with each blast, but the shields were spent when the fourth rocket struck. Its explosion sheared off the mech’s right leg and caused it to topple backwards.
The mech however, kept firing from its downed position.
Wrecked drones fell from the sky everywhere.
Just as suddenly as it started, laser bolts, drones and rockets ceased falling around us. Instead the air thrummed with the aether drives of our Spontoon escorts as they flew overhead, giving chase to the few retreating drones. We cheered every time the gunships’ streams of molten tungsten found their targets.
Captain Obey relayed the “all clear” and we began reporting in by squads. A Company suffered only a broken leg. B Company suffered three wounded and two deaths. C Company was fortunate to come out unscathed. Our 1st Squad was shaken up by the near miss but unhurt. D Company took a direct rocket hit and two other indirects. They reported seven wounded but, thanks be to God, no deaths. E Company suffered a death and six wouded from a direct hit.
The Squires reported two wounded among them. The Hospitallers and Knights of Saint James reported in hale and hearty. Only one mech was rendered inoperative. Casualties among Austros contingent added up to nine dead (the crew of yet another destroyed tank) and five wounded troopers.
Captain Obey called for the Santo Colombo to collect the dead and wounded. He ordered one squad of Squires to stay with the injured and fallen until they were loaded onto the Halberd. “Catch up as soon as you’re able,” he told them and then ordered the rest of us to continue forward.
Ten minutes later we were on our bellies, Imperial and Princedom troops gathered together, taking cover behind the tanks which hid behind the last of the dunes. Our mechs, too tall to stand near us without being spotted by the enemy’s guns, waited five hundred meters to our rear. We were all watching the feed from our frisbees and recon rovers as they advanced ahead of us.
To our north were the first foothills which rolled in rising waves towards the distant mountains. To our south, a shallow, smoking lake of methane stretched to the horizon. Ahead of us, immediately beyond the last dunes, the terrain flattened out for four kilometers before rising sharply to form a seventeen-kilometer-long and six-hundred-meter-tall cliff face. It was the eastern wall of the great crater spread beneath the mesa.
Shield arrays studded the length of the crater wall, generating formidable energy and kinetic force fields that had yet to collapse from the orbital bombardment. Across the top rim, several dozen pirates were interspersed among ten surface-to-orbit missile and plasma batteries. The missile batteries were quiet, seemingly out of ordnance to fire at our frigate. The five plasma batteries kept up a continuous pulse of fire. Ten other defensive positions, dug deep into rock wall two hundred meters below the crater’s rim, appeared like slits from our distance. In their shadowy recesses, coil guns waited patiently for our advance.
At the foot of the cliff stood forty mechs. They were the Federation’s long-retired Cyclops II model. Their generators produced fairly strong shields but they had no arm-mounted lasers. Instead, the cyclops’ forearms each sported a pair of short-range rockets. Additionally, they could fire a particle beam from their single eye. They carried over-sized bead rifles with drums that held fifteen-thousand rounds.
Unless they had traded up, the power swords the cyclops wielded would be weaker than those carried by their Imperial counterparts. In short, the enemy mechs superior numbers were not necessarily a match for our eleven, present-day Crusader Vs.
Gathered around the cyclops, sixty gun-mounted land skimmers hovered in clusters of six. Our rovers identified the mounted guns as a mix of plasma and laser cannon, heavy bead guns and even a few ancient style, yet terribly lethal, 50 caliber guns.
Some twelve hundred troops were spread out behind the mechs and skimmers. About half of them wore armor comparable to ours, some with just a plasteel breastplate strapped on over their EVAs. The cut of the plates suggested they were mostly Federation and Union surplus armor, but here and there one spotted the spikes of an Orion carapace. The rest of the pirates wore no more than standard pressurized EVA suits. Only about a third of the total had personal energy shields.
Our objective was to fight our way across the four-kilometer-wide killing field. We were to make our way to its northwest corner where the hills and crater rim merged into a land bridge which rose to a third of the way up the plateau. The entrance to the base was at its far end. Once there, we were to breach the airlocks and enter the enemy base.
Colonel L’Amour, leading 1st Battalion and assisted by Lord Zoltan and his Austros troopers would soon begin their descent to the mesa. Lieutenant Breck Sheed was leading Force Iron Arm through a minefield while under fire in his assault against the northern airlocks. Together, we aimed to take the installation level by level, joining up at its central command deck.
Our rovers reported that the enemy’s energy shields were finally beginning to buckle and so torpedoes, courtesy of the King Alfred began hammering at the plateau along with plasma, laser and particle beam strikes.
Captain Dayo Obey called out across all comms, “That’s our signal, Hammerstrike. Let’s up and go!”
The tanks lurched into motion as we got to our feet. We followed them out as they wound their way through the last set of dunes. Halberds, Hussars and Spontoons rose from the surrounding dunes and formed a line of air cover a thousand meters above us as we spread out. With their long strides, our mechs closed the distance between us in short order.
Our tanks’ main guns fired as one. The explosive shells decimated the enemy’s front line. A second fusillade hit the pirates with even greater destructive force. By the third salvo, our tanks began taking fire from the coil guns embedded into the cliff face.
The Kusavs continued forward, spreading out as they did, their main guns now targeting the force-shielded cliff wall with a relentless barrage. One, then two and then three at a time, the tanks began erupting into flame and flying, red-hot metal, as the enemy guns found them. Our air cover rushed forward; their dorsal batteries fixed their own continuous fire on the cliff face while their ventral guns harassed the enemy’s ground forces.
Another two of Martell’s Marauders were destroyed before the cliff face guns turned their attention to our Spontoons and Halberds.
The enemy began its advance under fire. Their mechs and skimmers spread out and the troops behind them followed suit. Behind them all, the invisible shields which covered the crater and mesa in a protective bubble shimmered in chromatic bursts, straining under a continuous barrage of strikes.
The skimmers raked our lines with their varied weapons as three more tanks exploded. An Imperial marine and two Princedom troopers fell. We huddled tighter behind our armored lines as we double timed it forward. Behind us, the mechs loosed a barrage of rockets. They streaked across the open plain between us and the enemy and in a series of bright flashes, thinned the pack of skimmers by a dozen. The surviving skimmers took evasive actions, generally careening away from their aggressive advance.
Captain Obey’s voice filled my helmet, “Alright marines, ready grenade launchers. Set for maximum range. Firing angle, twenty-five degrees. Ready round one!”
I pumped a grenade into the chamber and thumbed the detonation distance lever all the way up to maximum. I then raised the barrel of my HAW3K. My visor flashed green when I hit the ideal angle.
I pulled the trigger, launching a grenade into a high arc and then immediately pumped a second one into the chamber.
Two of the Martell’s Marauders’ Kuvasz tanks exploded eight rows ahead of me, allowing me no time to assess what damage our barrage of grenades inflicted on the advancing enemy. I ducked instead, down to my haunches and dropped my head beneath crossed arms as several blast-butchered marines and troopers flew amidst the tank debris.
I rose to my feet, lifted the weapon, pulled the trigger and pumped a new grenade into its chamber.
Two rows ahead of me, another pair of tanks exploded. The blast knocked me on my back as more debris and body parts went flying. A chunk of tank, the size of a chest of drawers, beheaded a nearby mech. It toppled backward, falling on one of our knights. Two of the knight’s power-armored brothers leaped to his aid and began to drag him out from under the mech’s shoulder.
I scrambled to my feet and loosed my grenade seconds after everyone else. I pumped a new one into its chamber immediately.
“Let’s reform two lines on either side of the Marauders,” Captain Obey ordered. “Austros 3rd Battalion, you’ve got the left flank. Imperial 5th Battalion, we’re taking the right flank. Let’s move it, soldiers!”
We ran out from behind the tanks as three more of them were destroyed.
A score of skimmers were waiting for us. All their various guns blazed for a moment. A half dozen marines, hit by jets of plasma fell around me. I was hit with three laser bolts, each taking a small bite out of my shield strength. I thumbed off my distance setter and fired my grenade at the offending skimmer. It exploded on contact.
The same moment, ten other skimmers erupted into shrapnel as the rest of 5th Battalion struck back. The survivors turned and fled. They didn’t get more than fifty meters before a batch of mech rockets dispatched them.
Captain Benzinger’s voice suddenly sounded in our helmets. “I hope no one down there missed us too much.”
A flight of Angels, regrouped after having destroyed their pirate counterparts, streaked over our heads and toward the crater wall. Cheers erupted from the ground forces as the first flight loosed a volley of missiles at the advancing enemy. Even as the clouds of dust and shrapnel kicked up by the missile strikes settled, a second flight of Angels flew over the enemy, lower and slower and rained laser bolts down on them.
Three enemy mechs and a half-dozen skimmers were destroyed along with scores of pirate troopers. Each flight of Angels then fired their plasma cannons at the crater wall before their formations were forced to break up, splaying in dozens of directions as they came under return fire.
The cliff-face coil guns took out three Angels as they banked into wide turns. I said a prayer for them and took a small measure of consolation from watching their wreckage fall on the pirate’s ground forces, toppling one of their mechs and crushing a handful of their troopers.
All the while, Imperials and pirates on the ground continued to advance on each other, trading fire all the while. My HUD display picked out targets for me. Considering the distance, I fired pulse bolts at them. Most times my shots were deflected by their shields. They would then scatter and I’d lose them in the throng. Occasionally, the pirate was not so well provided, and they went down from a single hit.
A new voice from the King Alfred command crew filled our helms. “Captain, we’ve got incoming! Probe echo-1 has detected the launch of ten warheads on Muvuru-3’s moon… no, twenty warheads… And… They’re nukes, captain! Thirty warheads, all hot and inbound… Forty warheads…”
Captain Devereaux’s voice was remarkably measured and calm. “Let’s return the favor and nuke that launch site. All Angels to the moon. If there’s anything left after our nuke hits, take it down.”
“Fifty warheads incoming…”
“Tier three crew will abandon ship immediately,” Captain Devereaux continued. “Czar Peter Magnus, you are advised to break orbit and withdraw forthwith.”
“We’ll stay with you King Alfred,” was the response from the Pricedom’s carrier.
“There’s no need for that, Captain Tarr,” Captain Devereaux insisted. “We’ll still have use of your batteries as you break orbit. Get your ship out of here.”
“Very well, Captain Devereaux. God be with you.”
“And with you, Captain Tarr.”
“King Alfred,” It was Colonel L’Amour breaking in. “You are also advised to break orbit immediately. Get some distance between you and those warheads, Dave.”
“No can do, Colonel,” Captain Devereaux responded. “We’ve got to take down the mesa defenses if your men on the ground are going to have any chance of taking the base.”
“Then we’re staying with you and slaving our point defence systems to the King Alfred’s,” Colonel L’Amour said. “Torquemada and Cortes, climb to orbit and join us in point defense.”
“Negative El Cid,” Captain Devereaux said emphatically. “You have marines to deliver to the mesa top. You are advised to stay on mission, Colonel. Torquemada and Cortes, we would not, however, disdain your company up here. Sorry Llew.”
“I want all remaining torpedoes targeting those warheads. Let’ take out as many as we can while they’re still on the farside of the planet.”
“Llew! Why are you still in orbit? Get the hell out of here!”
“Very well, Dave,” Colonel L’Amour agreed through a sigh. “God be with you, Captain.”
“And with you, Colonel.”
“Initiate point defense as soon as those nukes enter line of sight,” Captain Devereaux’s voice began to fade in our helms. “Cannoneers, you will continue bombardment of the mesa…”
“One hundred and twenty nukes incoming…”
The feed from the King Alfred was cut suddenly. It was just as well. There was nothing we could do for them from the ground but pray.
The enemy ground troops had closed to just under a kilometer.
My attention was wrenched skyward when another horde of drones rose out from behind the crater wall and sped our way. Our air escort of Hussar and Spontoons began firing on the drones immediately. Lacking anything resembling cover, we kept moving.
As the Kuvasz’s turrets continued to spit molten slugs at the shielded cliff face, their laser guns tilted to spray the sky above us. The fusillade toppled drone after drone from the air. Our mechs took out scores of others. The few remaining drones strafed our lines once as they passed. I was one of the many hit. I shot a quick glance at my shield strength readout. The green bar hovered right beneath eighty percent.
When I looked out again, rockets began exploding around us. A couple hit the line squarely, sending myself and half-a-dozen marines flying backward. I landed hard and loosed a string of expletives I had not uttered since the first week of bootcamp.
I scrambled to my feet and checked my vitals. Except for a ten point drop in shield strength, I was fine. A quick look around showed me that two of my comrades were still sprawled out, motionless on the regolith. Before I could check their condition, several particle beams swept back and forth across our lines.
The searing shafts of energy took serious bites out of our shield strength when they struck. The attack was coming from ten of the enemy mechs who had fixed their sights on us.
We returned the attention.
Each squad leader tagged a cyclops and his men fixed their aim upon it. We hit them with full charges of our pulse weapons. Each cyclops was struck by several pulse beams which, collectively, drained their shields in seconds. Our burners meanwhile delivered the headshots. The jets of continuous plasma immediately cut off the particle beams and then quickly melted the heads once the shields were dropped.
A coil gun in the cliff face turned on us even as the headless enemy mechs flailed their limbs and fired off their few remaining rockets without benefit of proper targeting. Tungsten slugs exploded in sprays of regolith and molten metal as they slammed into the ground about us.
The continuous barrage from orbiting and our ground forces was, no doubt, playing havoc with the enemy’s targeting systems, but even eye-balling it, the coil guns proved to be frightfully deadly.
Our shields and plate armor and even the power armor our knights wore were worthless against a hit from a supersonic slug of molten tungsten. Those among us so struck exploded into clouds of blood, bone and plasteel dust. A half-dozen of my comrades, two knights among them, came to that immediate and grisly end in one volley. A second volley took out ten Austros troopers, three of their tanks and one of our mechs.
“Bring those cyclops down and take cover behind them!” Lieutenant Flynn ordered over the comms.
Still running forward, we aimed at the knee joints of the cyclops. The mechs toppled in short order and we quickly ducked behind the fallen hulks. As soon as I had taken a knee behind a cyclops, Lieutenant Flynn ordered, “Break cover, spread out and charge the enemy!”
I didn’t understand, but I obeyed. I sprung into a leap that propelled me over the mechs’ twisted legs and hit the ground running. Seconds later, the cyclops, whose cover we had just abandoned, exploded as they were struck by friendly coil gun fire.
I smiled, suddenly realizing that Flynn had just spared us from a deadly volley of the cliff-face guns. By the time coil gunners could re-aim the weapons, the opposing lines would be mixed and any coil fire would be as likely to take out their men as ours.
I continued running forward and targeted a skimmer raking our lines with ballistic fire from a rear and pintle mounted 50 caliber gun. My HAW3K loosed a bolt of lightning that hit the skimmer square in the center. The skimmer split into two pieces. The front end spun away, bowling over three pirates before coming to a crashing stop. The rear end didn’t get too far before it exploded.
Ahead of our lines, two sets of mechs closed in on each other. The cyclops managed to disable one of ours on their approach. They blew the Imperial mech’s legs out from under it with a concentration of their rocket strikes. Our Crusader Vs responded with a salvo of their own, back-mounted rockets. One cyclops was knocked on its back and three others were shattered into chunks of smoldering metal.
They exchanged more rocket fire as they rushed at each other. We lost another mech to several direct hits. The enemy rockets tore a hole in the Crusader Vs’ torso, killing the pilot in his cockpit. Even as our mech fell back with a great crash, another three cyclops exploded into fireballs.
And then power swords were drawn and buckler force shields ignited into life around their free gauntlets and the two groups of mechs came together in a clash of blades and shields.
A short spray of bead fire pinging off my breast plate pried my attention away from the battle of titans. My heads-up display highlighted the source of the fire, it was a pirate huddled behind the smoking wreckage of a fallen cyclops some twenty meters away. I fired two grenades at the pirate, blasting him and his cover to pieces.
“The enemy shields are down!” Colonel L’Amour announced excitedly over our helm comms. “You fellows might want to double-time it, unless you want A Company snatching up all the prisoners.”
I looked up and saw, Praise God, that it was true!
The King Alfred’s bombardment continued, instantly collapsing the pirates’ defensive dugouts and quickly melting the rimtop weapons to slag.
We let out a cheer and charged forward. The Hospitallers and Knights of Saint James took the lead, rushing through a hail of bead fire and other projectiles before crashing into the line of advancing pirates with wide, fiery and lethal swings of their power blades.
They barreled through the ranks of rogues, spinning one way and then the other, swinging and thrusting and hacking and slashing; cutting a bloody, limb-strewn swath through the enemy throng.
I noticed a skimmer careening to the knights’ rear flank. The gunner was lining up his rig-mounted plasma rifle as the skimmer stabilized itself out of the sharp turn. I fired before he could pull the trigger. The back of the skimmer exploded, the gunner was set on fire and hurled into the air. The front end nosed into the ground and flipped over three times before coming to a stop five meters from me.
One of the two figures in the cockpit was hanging lifelessly in his harness. The other was raising a long gun in my direction. I switched my weapon to bead fire and thoroughly aerated the pirate.
He dropped his rifle and slumped in his harness.
My attention then fixed itself on a pair of Hospitallers who had gotten separated from the main group of knights and warrior monks. They were fighting back to back, pressed on every side. Their armor and buckler shields flickered dimly.
I feared the mob would soon overtake them.
I fired three grenades at the cluster of pirates, spacing them to drop just inside their circle. It worked. The ring of rogues collapsed on one side in an explosion of bodies. The Hospitallers leaped through the opening, if not to relative safety, then at least to a battle space with a little more elbow room.
Another short stream of bead fire pinged off my breast plate. I turned to where my HUD directed to see three pirates charging at me, their weapons blazing. They were lightly armored, breastplates over pressure suits but no energy shields. I dropped to one knee and fired low, sweeping their line with automatic bead fire.
They all went down.
Two of them scrambled to patch up their suits which were venting oxygen and blood. The third plucked a grenade from his belt. I fired at his helmet. It only took a short burst to puncture through to the skull within. The pirate died. The grenade exploded in his hand, killing his comrades.
I rose and turned back towards the knights looking for another target when I was suddenly hit in the chest with a shockingly explosive force.
The air was knocked out of me, sparing me the indignity of screaming in terror as I imagined, for an instant, that I was hit by a coil gun slug. I wasn’t of course. I wouldn’t have lived long enough for the fear to take thought if I had.
Whatever it was that struck me was powerful enough to lift me off the ground and propel me back a couple of meters. I landed on my heels and staggered back a few more meters, nearly toppling over. My HUD warned that my shield was reduced to thirty-one percent by the blast. The HUD also identified the threat. It was another pirate, armored in spiked Orion carapace and wielding a wide-barreled long gun.
He pumped, what I realized with sudden alarm, was another shield-bursting shell into firing position. I swung my weapon around as he pulled the trigger. The second blow knocked me off my feet again and down onto my back.
My HUD alerted me to the dire facts that my shield was completely drained and my breast plate had developed a fourteen centimeter crack over the sternum. One more hit would split the plate and likely kill me by bludgeoning the organs beneath it.
I used my panic’s energy to roll to the right the instant I hit the ground. A third shell slammed into the regolith where my head had just been. The shells were designed to explode forward so the ground absorbed the bulk of the blast. The residual energy kicked up a spray of silt and chunks of frozen mud.
Still on my back, my thumb switched my HAW3K from grenade to pulse fire. I raised it and fired even as the pirate pumped another shell into firing position. My particle beam hit the pirate’s weapon, super heating it instantly. His shell exploded in the barrel, taking both of the pirate’s hands and half his forearms with it. I could see him scream behind his faceplate. He crumbled to his knees and tried to stem the flow of blood and oxygen by burying his stumps in the ground.
I aerated his helmet and his head within it. He fell forward over his arms and was still.
I sprung to my feet and, to my surprise, found the enemy in retreat.
Half their number lay scattered, dead and dying, across the field. The survivors were showing us their backs and fleeing to the land bridge. About a hundred meters to my right I watched Izzy use his torch to steer one land skimmer into another and then burn them and their crews down until there was nothing left but the charred chassis of the skimmers and a bubbling puddle of fiberglass and flesh.
To my left, a pair of squires were helping a knight out of a fallen and headless mech while the rest of the Crusader Vs cut down the few remaining cyclops with great swings of their power swords. Martel’s Marauders, the half of them that were still left, chased after the retreating enemy. The last few land skimmers plowed over some of their own troops in their race to the land bridge. Coil gun fire from the lead tanks dispatched them before they reached the defile.
Captain Obey called out. “Let’s stay on them.”
We joined the Kuvasz tanks in their chase.
I looked around as I ran. There were many of our men, Imperial and Princedom marines scattered among the enemy dead and the detritus of battle. Squires ministered to many of them.
First Sergeant Hayes noticed the swiveling of my head. “Eyes front, Zapatas and keep moving.”
“Yes sir,” I said.
“Seventy-six dead between the Austros troopers and ours,” Hayes said in response to my unasked question as we jogged along shoulder to shoulder. “One hundred and twenty-one wounded. Our platoon lost three men. Ibli lost an arm. The squires are stabilizing him now. But say a quick prayer for the souls of Palahniuk, Dunning and Doyle.”
“Yes sir,” I said and did so.
I ran a quick status check on myself. My shield was at three percent and regenerating. My breastplate was cracked but still functional. The crysteel hauberk and pressure suit beneath it were still intact. I had no wounds, save one to my pride for having been knocked flat on my back.
I thanked God and concentrated on bringing my breathing and heart rate under control as I fell in with my squad. We were in the lead alongside the knights and two platoons of Austros troopers, closing in on the retreating pirates and the land bridge that would lead us to the air locks.
Two thirds of the way across the plain our lines began to tighten as the rise to the crater’s rim on our right and the foothills on our left squeezed us into a more concentrated formation. I was wondering just how much cozier we were going to get when a pair of bright bursts of light in the sky blended nearly immediately into a blinding pall. The newly fallen night and every shadow on the planet’s surface was instantly banished.
The King Alfred!
The Excitement Continues With Chapter 7.