The Story Begins Here With Chapter – 1
We could not help ourselves. To a man, I’m sure, we turned our gazes to the sky. The sudden lull in return fire attested to the fact that even our retreating enemy’s eyes were drawn away from the battlefield.
Our visors automatically polarized themselves to block out the harsh brightness. Even at full occluding, stinging light still seeped through. I couldn’t see anything at first but white light from horizon to horizon.
After the first heart stopping moments, the light attenuated by degrees, yellowing and dimming and then darkening in the center of the sky. The center widened steadily, creating an expanding and thinning ring of light within which the stars slowly reappeared.
“King Alfred, this is El Cid, are you there?” Colonel L’Amour tried to raise them over the commlink. “Dave, this is Llewelyn, can you hear me?”
Static was the loud reply.
So high in orbit, the Imperial Frigate wouldn’t have appeared any larger than a star in the sky, but our practiced eyes would have picked her out of the starscape readily enough. We knew, as well did the colonel, that he was calling out to his friend in vain.
The King Alfred was gone.
“Santo Cortez? Torquemada? Are you there?”
More static, followed by a faint voice behind the crackling white noise, “I’m afraid we’ve lost them, Colonel L’Amour.”
“Captain Tarr, is that you?”
“Yes, colonel,” the captain of the Austros Princedom carrier Czar Peter Magnus responded through the slowly thinning static. “We’re okay. The carrier sustained minor damage but the King Alfred and the Halberds… they are gone.”
“Let’s keep moving!” Captain Obey ordered and we all sprung forward.
The enemy began running and firing again.
My armor suddenly lost power. The HUD went down but for a small, blinking red light centered on the bottom of the screen. My shield had not regenerated enough to withstand the electromagnetic pulse produced by the nukes.
The armor computer shut down every suit function but one as soon as it determined that it would not otherwise be able to absorb the waves of gamma radiation bombarding the surface. All power was immediately diverted to force shield generation in an effort to spare the sensitive circuitry that wove my skinsuit, gambeson, chain and plate mail into an integrated whole.
My crysteel visor went clear, providing me with a severely truncated view of the world outside my helmet. It was a view blurred by my every exhalation against the clear faceplate of the pressurized gambeson.
I began to feel clammy with sweat beneath the smart skinsuit I wore beneath the gambeson. The outside cold was beginning to seep through the protective layers.
I stopped running, thinking it best to preserve my, now limited, oxygen supply. It was disorientating being cut off from the HUD feeds and all communication with the Company. I was alone in my armor, my breathing heavy and loud, wondering if this was how my ancient, steel-plated predecessors felt.
I didn’t like the feeling.
I turned around and spotted the Santo Colombo landing on the battlefield to attend to the wounded and dead. I should make my way to her, I thought, hating the idea.
I spat out a curse and followed it immediately and rather sheepishly with a prayer of thanks when the small HUD light began blinking in yellow.
Someone grabbed my shoulder just then and spun me around. It was First Sergeant Hayes. He put his helmet against mine. “Are you okay in there?”
The sergeant was yelling to be heard, but his voice came through muted by the two layers of plasteel.
“Yes sir,” I yelled back. “Rebooting.”
“Full reboot or you fall back to the Colombo,” Sergeant Hayes shouted. “Understood?”
“Yes sir, yes!”
The sergeant butted helmets with me and took off. I spotted Izzy’s large frame and, deciding to be an optimist, ran to catch up with my friend. To my great relief, life support came back online as I took my first few steps. My HUD screen lit up, sputtering back to life with the return of secondary and tertiary systems, one and two at a time.
Sensing my approach, Izzy turned back towards me and said, “I thought we’d lost you back there.”
“No such luck, brother,” I said and noticed that my commlink was not fully operational. My HUD informed me that I was limited to Line of Sight communication.
Further scrutiny of the screen revealed the armor’s environmental controls were online but unresponsive. The temperature inside my gambeson was frozen at 32 degrees Celsius. The latter didn’t worry me, because I didn’t foresee any immediate need to adjust the suit’s temperature. It was warmer than I would’ve liked, but the discomfort was not something I would complain about.
However, the former malfunction was a genuine cause for concern. Being limited to LoS communication could leave me out of squad or even company-wide orders.
Either problem should have been enough of a reason for me to turn around and head for the Santo Colombo as per my sergeant’s exact orders, but, God forgive me, I was angry at the loss of the King Alfred, the loss of the Halberds and the scores of brother marines and princedom troopers.
I stopped, frozen in indecision.
Izzy turned to say, “Try to keep up, bro.”
And so I lunged ahead. I caught up with Izzy in a few long strides. As I passed my friend, coil guns popped up from the hills on our left and spat death at us.
Hypersonic slugs raked our lines. I froze. It was only for a moment. In that moment, four rovers were blown into shrapnel and a half-dozen of my comrades were blasted into bloody clouds.
Izzy tackled me from behind.
We hit the soft ground hard. A stream of deadly fire crossed over our heads as we fell. Another tore up the ground mere meters in front of us.
With my face in the regolith, I quickly read the description of the new threat which our surviving recon rover transmitted to our HUDs. It identified the coil guns as Salamander 5000s. Their centuries old design was produced cheaply throughout the galaxy.
Their ubiquity didn’t make them any less fearsome. Salamander 5000s fired their tungsten slugs at 120 rounds per minute. The rover spotted twenty of these coil guns, mounted two per hill and spaced wide enough to make a killing field of the last kilometer of the plain between us and the defile.
For a moment I was struck by the absurdity of still having a link to my computer’s library of arms through the ages and yet being limited to LoS communication.
The guns seemed to turn their attention elsewhere. I looked up and saw our Spontoons exchanging fire with them as they weaved and bobbed between fiery streams of searing fire. The Spontoons engaged the guns from the hill-side of the line, turning the turrets away from us.
This bought our ground troops some breathing room, but I worried about the gunships. Nimble as the five Imperial Spontoons were, they wouldn’t be able to dodge twenty guns for long.
Correction, sixteen guns.
El Cid and Charlemagne suddenly appeared over the mesa and joined the fight. The Halberds blasted two of the guns with their plasma cannons even as they hit the turrets of two other guns with their particle weapons. The second set of turrets melted under the sustained fire.
Six neighboring coil guns immediately turned on El Cid and Charlemagne. The Halberds loosed a stream of laser fire, instantly shredding two more enemy guns into molten chunks. In turn, the Halberds came under heavy fire from the four remaining coil guns. Their ravening fire produced bright, silver flashes as they broke against the ship’s shields.
The El Cid fired off two torpedoes as she lurched to her stern and nosed upward. She was trying to get away from the continuous streams of fire and retreat behind the mesa’s rim. The Halberd wasn’t fast enough. El Cid’s torpedoes took out one of the guns, but the remaining stream of molten metal fixed upon it quickly depleted the Halberd’s shield strength.
When the shields finally failed under the onslaught, the shredding fire chewed deep into her starboard. The engine within the wing exploded, sending the El Cid reeling, wing over half-wing. We lost sight of her behind the mesa’s edge.
The Charlemagne was slammed against the mesa wall by the twin streams of fire that found it. The Halberd was pinned against the mesa until her shield failed and she exploded.
Ahead of us, two gun emplacements exploded from missile strikes. A moment later, the two Lances that fired them streaked overhead like lightning bolts. Four guns stupidly turned to fire after them, but the Lances were beyond their range before the maneuver was completed.
Captain Obey turned to us and ordered, “Fifth Battalion, we’re charging those guns! Companies A and B, follow us knights to the first hill. Lieutenant Flynn, you take Companies C, D and E to the second hill.”
“Captain Gideon, your Troopers, will hang back and fill whatever holes the enemy might punch in our line. ”
“Listen up boys!” It was the more excitable Lieutenant Flynn who I then heard barking through my helm comm. A soft pulse of light on the faceplate would normally have directed me towards his position. My armor didn’t provide me with the electronic prod. I kept an eye on Izzy’s bulky form, prepared to take my lead from him.
Lieutenant Flynn continued. “Burners to the rear until we get in range for you to torch the guns.”
“Alright, my brothers in Christ,” Captain Obey turned to address us again. I thanked God for it, otherwise I wouldn’t have heard a thing. “Let’s go! Go! Go! Faith and Empire!”
Captain Obey turned to face the hills and bolted forward. I was a beat behind my comrades when we lurched into a run behind him, bellowing the Imperial Marines’ war cry, “Faith and Empire!”
We spread out as much as was possible while we ran. Our hill was nineteen hundred meters away. We needed to get within three hundred meters of the coil guns for our burners’ plasma rifles to be effective.
We had closed half the distance to our target when ten rectangular holes suddenly opened up on the ground ahead of us, one between each gun-mounted hill. Quadroid battlebots began popping out of the holes in pairs, as if launched off a ramp. The three-meter tall, spherical battlebots each had four limbs and a snub-nosed turret protruding out of the top. They flew through the atmosphere for a few meters before landing on their twin sets of wide treads.
They charged us, firing from every appendage.
Like the Salamander 5000s, the quadroids were of centuries-old design but still used on lesser developed worlds. Their arms ended in bead rifles fed by two internal 50 K drums. The turrets fired lasers.
Their opening fusillade hit many of us with either bead or laser fire. Our armor withstood those strikes well enough. A half-dozen marines were felled when the attack-bots ran them over. They immediately got back on their feet and turned their attention to the new quadroids bearing down on them. The marines blasted them into blazing chunks with bolts of pulse fire.
Those of us in the rear, hit the ground and let loose a barrage of grenade fire that instantly destroyed the first line of more than two-score quadroids. The second line, twice as numerous, rolled over and around the debris of fellow battlebots, all limbs and turrets firing.
The Austros troopers took it upon themselves to double time it forward and buttress our ranks. With their aid, we reduced the second line of quadroids to mechanical rubble in short order. A third line of more than two hundred battlebots advanced towards us even as more quadroids popped out of their holes.
We were fixing our sights on them when a Spontoon exploded in a fireball above the hills. Another victim of the coil guns.
The mechs and tanks arrived just then and fired over the lines of advancing quadroids, targeting the holes out of which the battlebots were springing. The multiple hits on each doorway stopped the outpouring of robots.
Our combined force of troopers and marines concentrated on the mechanical monsters with a combination of pulse and plasma fire. Together, we made a scrap heap of the remaining quadroids quickly and without suffering any further casualties.
We rose to our feet and resumed our charge on the guns even as they opened up on us.
The mechs and tanks were in the lead, concentrating their fire on the lead coil guns. Tank fire drained the shield bubbles around each gun emplacement. The mechs’ pulse fire undermined the ground beneath the first emplacement, causing it to crumble. The weapon collapsed and rolled down the hill. They repeated the tactic on the next three guns. We followed, massed loosely behind them, taking advantage of their heavy armor and powerful shields.
The fiery arc of another coil gun sprayed our formation. The blistering fire blasted the head off of one mech, sliced a second one in half across its waist, caused three tanks to erupt into flames and splattered the shredded remains of several marines and troopers across the regolith.
A second Spontoon exploded above the hills.
Another three guns were destroyed by a fusillade of combined mech and Kuvasz tank fire. Our line was hit again, costing us another mech and two tanks. Three more enemy guns exploded under fire from our remaining trio of Spontoons.
Suddenly the troops around me pivoted as one towards our right. Not hearing the order for the change in direction, I was caught flat-footed. A Princedom of Austros trooper nearly bowled me over as he pushed passed me. I looked up and quickly figured that we were targeting a new hill. Our initial target was neutralized by the tanks and mechs.
The new gun emplacement was presently trading fire with a Spontoon.
I joined the rush at the new hill even as the Spontoon exploded and the turret began to turn and lower towards us.
At seven hundred meters we began firing our grenades, trying to replicate the mech’s success. We didn’t have the angle or maybe our grenades weren’t powerful enough to sap the emplacement. All we managed to do was kick up a whole lot of dirt.
At five hundred meters, the coil guns returned fire.
Luckily, the first arc of molten metal was a little high. We were able to duck beneath it and continue forward. We advanced another hundred meters or so before we had to dive beneath a second arc. Two of our numbers were not quick enough. They were both beheaded.
We could not count on being as fortunate on the gun’s next pass, so we sprang to our feet and once again surged forward. The turret found us as we reached three hundred meters. Two of our marines, burners both and another half-dozen troopers were instantly blasted into bloody bits and motes of plasteel and bone.
Four other burners, Izzy among them, managed to fire their plasma rifles, loosening jets of white flames, two at each emplacement, immediately burning through what shielding they had left and melting the guns behind them.
Again I was a beat behind my comrades when we made a mad dash across the valley to the next hill. The burners fell to the back while the rest of us bunched up to make a living wall for them. Once across, we threw ourselves flat against the foot of the hill. Shimmying up the slopes on our bellies, we crawled under the line of fire until we got burners in striking range to take out the guns.
Once the emplacement was reduced to slag, we repeated the attack across two more death valleys, losing four more brothers-in-arms along the way.
The last guns were silenced by the coordinated efforts of mechs, Kuvasz and Spontoons.
Winning ourselves a brief respite, we reorganized the ranks for our charge up the land bridge. The last of the fleeing pirates were slipping through the airlock doors when we started our charge. I offered up a silent prayer for our fallen as we ran up the steep incline. We started out six-abreast and narrowed our column to four abreast halfway up the steep kilometer and a half long defile.
It was then that we felt the explosions under our boots. In seconds, the narrow, top-end of the land bridge crumbled into a cascade of dirt which swept our feet out from under us.