FAITH & EMPIRE – Chapter – 8

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The Saga Begins With  Chapter – 1

 

A Hellish Pit

The collapse of the defile forced the bulk of our assault group back down from the precarious remains of the land bridge. Several, less fortunate marines and troopers toppled backward and plunged to their deaths on the hills sprawled out nearly a kilometer below the defile. Others, like myself,  tumbled forward and rolled like boulders down the crater’s steep inside slope. 

Somewhere during my long fall I bounced off of something or someone. The jarring impact separated me from my HAW3K and tossed me in the air for a brief couple of seconds before I continued to roll down the escarpment. After a seeming eternity, the falling came to an abrupt end at the bottom of the crater.

I was fortunate enough to land upright, but I was buried thigh-deep in a mix of powdery dirt and glittering silt. My heart beat at a near frantic rate and my heavy breathing was quite loud within my helmet. I was so flooded with adrenaline that I was only vaguely aware of the dozen different aches I picked up on the way down. A quick scan of my heads-up display told me that the crack in my armor nearly doubled in length and width as well as shot out a fifteen-centimeter fork. 

Fortunately, the hauberk and pressurized gambeson beneath the plate mail were still unruptured. A twisted left ankle and a hairline fracture along my T-4 rib was the worst my bio-scan had to report. The smartskin suit beneath the gambeson released a moderate dose of pain suppressor which my bloodstream quickly absorbed. 

I cleared the HUD and wiped the caked silt and dirt off my visor’s exterior. 

“Everyone, report in!” Captain Obey’s voice in my helmet had acquired an uncharacteristic edge of frustration. “Report green if you’re above ground and mobile, red if you’re buried.”

Curious, I thought. My commlink was suddenly fully functional.

I decided that I could be mobile with a little effort and so reported in, “Zapatas, green!” and immediately began to make it so.

I rocked my body side to side, loosening the ground’s grip on me while I tried to free my right leg. It rose by centimeters. I looked around me as I struggled to get free. 

The majority of my brothers had landed on their backs or on their faces and they were struggling to get up as I was endeavoring to get out of the dirt. It was not easy. The ultra-fine regolith of the crater swallowed up limbs that pushed against it. Those few moving about to help their comrades were doing so sluggishly, as if through deep snow on a heavy gravity planet. 

They were the lucky ones. A couple of meters ahead of me, a marine had landed head first. His frantically kicking legs were the only parts of him visible above the crater’s surface. Beyond the kicking legs, a lone golden-plated forearm burst suddenly from the silt and waved in desperation. 

Some ten meters off my left shoulder, another Imperial Marine was upright but buried to his shoulders. He freed one arm as I watched and began to sweep the silt and dirt away from himself. Off to my right, one of our mechs was buried knee-deep and sinking!

My computer identified the kicking legs as belonging to Corporal Shoji and the marine to my left as Izzy. The waving arm was tagged as belonging to Captain Niko Gideon of the Austros Princedom.

I freed my right leg at last, replanted it in front of me and proceeded to pull my left leg out of the sand-like surface. It slid out easier than the right, but my right sank shin-deep into the silt for the effort. I continued forward in that slow, painstaking way for about ten steps until I reached Corporal Shoji. 

When I grabbed his first ankle, his leg twitched with a start of surprise but quickly stilled. I grabbed his second ankle and pulled on both. Walking backward was even more difficult than going forward but, with a few minutes of concentrated effort, I managed to pull him out.

“Much obliged, Zapatas,” he said, as I helped him to his feet.

I was going to tell him not to mention it, but the words died on my tongue when the ground beneath us shook suddenly and violently. It felt like an underground explosion followed by a short  series of tremors. We froze and stared at each other through our helmet visors.

“What was that?” I asked when the tremors stopped.

“I don’t think I want to know,” Corporal Shoji said. He then pointed past my shoulder. “Quick, let’s get your pal, Isaac out of the dirt.”

“I’ll get Izzy,” I said, pointing, in turn, past the corporal’s shoulder. “You might want to see to Captain Gideon.”

“Will do,” he said.

We parted and plodded our separate ways to our comrades as quickly as we could across the giant sand trap. As I trudged along, I listened in on Captain Obey conferring with Colonel L’Amour on the mesa and Lieutenant Sheed on the ground outside the northern airlocks. 

I pieced together that seventy-three of us had fallen into the sand pit, more than half of whom were buried to varying depths. Fourteen men, a mix of Imperial and Princedom Marines had fallen to their deaths. The rest were stranded uselessly at the cliff wall. 

“I’ve never been happier to see you, Zeph,” Izzy said as I approached him.

My friend had freed his second arm and was digging himself out slowly with wide sweeping breast strokes. “Take my arms, brother,” I said. “And let’s pray the fasting has shaved a couple of pounds off you.”

We clasped arms right above our wrists. I pulled, accomplishing little more than sinking to my shins.

“Let’s try this from behind,” I said while pulling my legs from the sucking sand.

A new series of tremors shook the ground beneath us. They were gentler than the first set but no less disconcerting.

“Hurry, Zeph,” Izzy said. “I’ve got a no-good feeling about all this shaking.”

I shared his foreboding, but I was afraid to name my fear. More perhaps for myself than for his sake, I decided instead to keep it light. “What’s the matter, Izzy, afraid you won’t make it back for your double rib-eyes?”

“I’m suddenly afraid of ending up on the menu, my brother.”

Quick as I could, I positioned myself behind Izzy, bent at the waist and hooked my elbows under his armpits. I heaved upward with a groan against the sucking silt. My first effort lifted Izzy’s torso out of the dirt, but I sank to the top of my greaves. I pulled my legs out and positioned myself for a second pull.

As I heaved again, the first ore wyrm breached the surface of the pit in an eruption of rock and silt. The accompanying quake knocked me onto my back. Seconds later, a second, a third and then a fourth wyrm burst out of the crater floor. 

I let out a rare curse as I watched a fifth wyrm swallow two comrades even as it broke through the surface. A sixth and a seventh wyrm erupted from the regolith, both of them less than fifty meters from Izzy and I. Fortunately, their maws were not aimed in our immediate direction.

“Zeph quick!” Izzy cried out. “Help me dig out my torch!”

I rolled from my back down onto all fours and hurried over to Izzy’s side. The coiled cable which attached the plasma rifle to the aether generator strapped to his back disappeared into the silt in two places.

“The cable’s come loose,” I said and began pulling the coil out. It came free easy enough and I was relieved to see the coupling rings were intact. I quickly reattached the coil to the portable generator and joined Izzy’s digging for the rifle. 

We picked a wide circle around the spot where we found the cable and began shoveling dirt like a pair of dogs racing to unearth a favored bone. All the while we offered up feverish prayers to Saint Anthony, begging him to lead us quickly to the lost rifle.

The ground continued to shake as more ore wyrms burst through to the surface.

Our two surviving Spontoons bobbed and weaved in the atmosphere above us searching for angles of fire that would not endanger the marines stuck in the crater. It became quickly obvious that laser fire did little but anger the wyrms. The Spontons switched to Gauss guns which they fired in spurts, unfortunately, mostly missing their writhing targets. 

When they did score a strike, the slugs bit deep into the monster’s squamous hides, chipping off chunks of scales and the sponge-like flesh beneath them. Sustained fire managed to cut one wyrm in half. It’s two ends thrashed violently in their death throes. 

The crater’s floor became a hell’s pit of tracers, writhing, ravenous monsters and flying bolts of blue pulse fire from the few upright troopers.

The nearest wyrm had popped out of the crater floor in front of the sinking mech and I kept an eye on it as I dug desperately for the weapon. The ore wyrm charged the knight, slithering quickly across the surface of the crater, its hideous maw opened wide. The mech raised his HAW 12K and loosed a long burst of blue-white lightning down the monster’s gullet. The wyrm whipped about violently and then reared itself until it was nearly vertical. As quickly as it rose, the wyrm fell, crashing down on the mech.

The mechanized knight collapsed onto his back under the blow. The wyrm reared up again and slammed the knight once more. The impact shattered the HAW 12K against the mech’s breastplate. 

The monster reared up a third time. The knight’s knees straightened and he unsheathed his power sword as he rose to meet the wyrm. An arc of electricity trailed the plasma-wreathed blade as it ionized the atmosphere in its upward sweep. 

The sword sliced deeply across several of the monster’s rough and flinty scales. The deep cut evoked a squeal-laced roar of anguish from the beast. The knight answered by pulling his arm back and then plunging his blade into the wound. The wyrm lurched itself upright with another roar, raising the knight out of the dirt by his sword. 

The wyrm flailed about like a suddenly flushed, untended hose. The creature was trying to dislodge the blade but it only succeeded in hurtling the mech through the air. I watched in horror as two marines were crushed under the mechanized knight when it landed with a crash.

Beyond them, the Spontoons killed another ore wyrm.

The mech twisted in the regolith in an effort to get off his back but only succeeded in nearly burying itself. 

I suddenly heard the thrum of electromagnetic refractors. Glancing up, I saw the shadowy outline of a Hussar lowering itself from the mesa top. It was the Czar Nicholas. The Hussar fired its ventral plasma cannon, carefully targeting a wyrm that wasn’t dangerously close to troopers. The monster exploded into fiery and meaty chunks. 

The Czar Nicholas then turned its particle beam on another.

The mech made a second failed attempt at rolling off his back. 

The Andrea Doria dropped beside the Czar Nicholas a moment later and, together, the Halberd and Hussar began dispatching the wyrms two at a time.

I was up to my elbows when my fingers finally closed on the butt of the plasma rifle.

“Thank you, Saint Anthony!”

Izzy crossed himself for the both of us. 

I pulled on the weapon as the mech finally rolled off his back and on to his knees. The rifle came out and I quickly attached the cable to it. With a quick twist of the settings flange to wide beam, I fired at the giant monster as it rammed the knight. 

The loud-crackling jet of glowing, blue-white plasma found its mark. The wyrm fell into wild convulsions as the searing energy instantly bored through its armored hide and burned the more tender flesh beneath it. It took all my concentration to keep the flame on the target but I managed it, eventually slicing the creature in two. I hit each of the thrashing rough halves of the wyrm with a pair of blasts. They fell still and lay smoldering, their blood boiling the silt around and beneath them.

“Behind you, Zeph!”

I spun around at Izzy’s warning. 

Some two hundred meters out an ore wyrm plowed its way through a cluster of fellow marines, swallowing one of them whole and running over another three. I dialed the settings flange to narrow beam and fired. I hit the wyrm a few feet behind its maw and continued firing. The high energy beam sliced a deep gash along the monster’s length before it turned away, severely narrowing its profile with a violent flailing of its length. 

I continued firing as the creature began to bore its way back into the crater. It was more than halfway beneath the surface when it suddenly stopped its drilling spin and went limp. I continued firing, burning away most of its tail end.

“I think it’s dead, Zeph,” Izzy said, putting a hand on my arm. “Looks like they’re all dead.”

I lowered the plasma rifle and took a look around. The battle against the ore wyrms was indeed over. One of the monsters lay cut into several segments at the foot of a second fallen mech. Another nine or ten lifeless hulks were scattered across the crater floor amidst clusters of marines. Three of the ore wyrms were being sliced open with narrow-beamed plasma fire as I watched. 

Once opened, the men about them raced to pull out their brothers who had been swallowed by the creatures. Four were still alive, Chaplain Prata among them, though their armor had nearly melted away under the corrosive effect of the digestive enzymes. Unfortunately, another four had been fatally chewed up on their way into the wyrms’ innards.

Izzy called out to me. “Give me a lift, will ya?”

I dropped the rifle and resumed my effort to pull him out of the silt.

The Czar Nicholas and Andrea Doria dropped to the crater interior even as Izzy came free. Their electromagnetic refractors suspended the vessels a couple of meters over the surface. The Hussar spun slowly in place, on guard against any more wyrms. The Andrea Doria dropped her rear ramp and two squads of squires disembarked and went about collecting the wounded and the remains of our fallen. 

The rest of us busied ourselves with digging out those still buried in the crater. I picked up a HAW-3K from one of my fallen brothers in the process. During that interval, Colonel L’Amour re-established contact with the entirety of the fleet. 

We learned that El Cid was too badly damaged to fly but his men had fought their way to the airlock suffering two dozen deaths and three times that many wounded. Lieutenant Sheed and his contingent of Austros troopers lost thirty-seven men between them and suffered eighty-five wounded.

The worst losses were suffered by the King Alfred. “Captain Devereaux managed to evacuate twelve hundred and thirty of his men before the King was nuked,” L’Amour informed us. “They’re safe. Czar Peter Magnus is retrieving the lifeboats.

“The others… they gave their lives for all of us down here.” 

The others, I thought with a sad shake of my head. Twenty-five hundred men lost with one fell blow. Another thirty souls each from the Halberds’ skeleton crews. I lowered my head and said a prayer, thanking them for their sacrifice.

“We lost the Raymond Du Puy as well as the Lionheart,” Commodore Alba interjected after a pause. “The Cerami and the Emperor Karl are pretty beat up, both lost scores of men to hull breaches and ship fires. The King Sobieski, Misilmeri and the Lepanto sustained minor damage by comparison but each one has reported in a handful of deaths. Repairs are underway on all ships. 

“Presently we’re conducting boarding operations on the thirty-two enemy ships which surrendered. When we have their crews in the brig, we’ll take up position in orbit. Until then, you’re on your own planetside, Colonel L’Amour.”

“Understood, Commodore Alba. We’ll be breaching the last of the base defenses very soon.” 

“I’m pleased to report that the Montgisard and the Roncevalle have secured their respective objectives,” the commodore added. “They have found sixty-three hostages between them. The pirates they’ve taken prisoner have told them there are over three hundred more hostages held at the mesa base. Proceed accordingly.”

“Will do, commodore.”

“God go with you.”

“And with you.” 


The Story Continues With  Chapter – 9

 

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