Deran Chagarth had always assumed roses would sprout from his ears before he’d admit that his father was right about anything. As he remembered that, he caught himself fingering his ear and suppressed a rueful grin, even as he picked up his helmet and looked around the ready room.
Chagarths—at least this Chagarth—didn’t belong in the military. He’d gut it out for another two years, but the chance that he’d re-up was rapidly reaching the zero level. As the light bar around the ready room ceiling went from green to amber, he mechanically lifted the helmet and settled it over his head, replacing ambient sound with the soft ping of the electromagnetic seal engaging in auto mode.
A purple digital readout flared into existence in the upper right-hand corner of his field of vision: -00:03.20
The only things left on the armor rack were the massive glove/gauntlet combinations, positioned so that he could slide his hands into them as he stood before the rack labeled “Chagarth, D: T-4” with his unit designation below. Another ping and he was fully accoutered in the massive suit of a Heavy Infantry Trooper. There was no hiss of pneumatic seals engaging yet, they’d remain on ambient air until the cruiser spat them at their target, the last remaining underground base that contested Klarosian dominance of Hecht II.
Mechanically, he initiated the test sequence that would tell his platoon RS that he was fully suited, all systems functioning. In the corner of the ghostly headsup display that floated inside the faceplate of his helmet, he saw the ready indicators of the platoon light, one by one. Ahead of him, Trooper Prant went through the ATV’s bay door and webbed himself to the drop rack.
Chagarth bite-clicked his mobility circuit to “basic,” and followed Prant. In the ATV’s drop bay, the light bar over the bay doors gleamed a steady amber. He webbed himself next to Prant, and behind him, Trooper Madchek checked the security of the FE cannon’s targeting assembly on his special-function chest bracket before webbing himself to the drop rack.
“First platoon, on standby for weapons activation,” Rankserj Jorvak’s voice growled over the squad circuit as the last light came up, and the ATV bay door closed. A moment later, Lieutenant Brant’s voice came over the platoon circuit, “First platoon requesting weapons activation,” and the weapons officer, Kenterum Rorkav, responded, “You’re hot, first.”
Chagarth’s glance flicked quickly over the telltales to confirm that the suit’s built-in weapons were slaved to his control and all the ammo packs fully charged, even though he’d run the checks on the charge packs himself before he’d racked the suit after the last drill.
He could feel his adrenaline starting to ramp up, the flutter somewhere between his throat and the top of his stomach, and the sweat starting to break on his palms, absorbed by the glove liners. The suit’s airflow adjusted a degree cooler in compensation as, simultaneously, the light bars above the bay doors winked from amber to scarlet, his pneumatic seals hissed, and his faceplate polarized so that the ATV’s drop bay was no longer visible except as a tactical representation on his heads-up.
“First squad, prepare for deployment.” Corporal Arnix’s voice, sounding calm, maybe even a little bored, came over the squad circuit. Arny always sounded like he was half-asleep before an action, but Deran had never gotten up the nerve to ask him if it was some special way the Corporal had of dealing with pre-drop nerves.
You couldn’t actually feel the drop, not really. Suit gyro compensators kept you feeling an “up and down” orientation. And the drop from a high-atmo cruiser orbit didn’t require any more kinetic thrust than it took to boot the ATV clear of the cruiser’s drop doors. But Deran always knew when they were falling. They all did.
This part of Hecht II didn’t have any atmosphere to speak of. The jathrin domes that held most of the planet’s population were in the equatorial belt. So there wasn’t even any need to engage the Atmospheric Transit Vehicle’s field grappler. A slight jerk was the only sign that they were on the grav-mag cushion, riding down to the final landing.
“First squad, clear rack.” The red bars above the doors began to wink, and the catches on the webbing that secured suits to the drop rack opened. Each trooper pulled his retract tab. There was a slight but noticeable sway to the vehicle now as the grav-mag cushion bucked a little on the set-down Might be a grav-mag fault, might be the pilot’s jitters. Or it might be field disturbance from enemy fire. No way of knowing.
“Platoon deploy,” the ATV pilot’s voice crackled onto the platoon circuit.
Deran pivoted to face away from the drop rack, to the sliding blast door that would drop in three… two… one seconds.
He was already moving when it dropped.
His digital timetick display read: 00:00.00.
The tactical representation showed the rippled edges of the huge hole that the Klarosian plasma mortar had ripped in the massive, triply-armored wall of the entry bunker. Moving with ponderous speed, Chagarth went through the opening and flattened himself against the right-hand wall between Dannek and Prant. Following him, the three-man team that operated their FE cannon made it to the other side. Second squad was moving in the controlled-bounce of heavy armor mobility down the side of the bunker to another hole.
To their left, the massive blast door that protected the entry bunker from the planet’s nitrogen-heavy atmosphere hung askew in its frame, dislodged by the mortar impact, and to their right, an airlock blinked red, showing the seal inoperative, the next compartment breached. As the FE crew flattened themselves, Corporal Arnix bounced past them, a forearm lifted to enable the auxiliary scanner array to assess the airlock door and what could be sensed of the area beyond.
“Alright, Prant, let’s get that airlock open. Chagarth, Dannek, flank and cover.”
Behind them, a brilliant flash momentarily blanked whole segments of their TR displays, and their suits transmitted a vast rumble. As the displays cleared, what was left of the ATV could be seen, bouncing away from the bunker in three large pieces, still coruscating flares from the FE blast that had hit it.
“A little late, aren’t you, boys?” Prant’s voice on the squad circuit was followed by a couple of snorts from other troopers.
“Alright, alright, let’s get this done, they might correct their aim any time,” Arnix reminded them calmly although he was working fast, attaching the microseal around the edge of the airlock doorframe. Prant followed with the fine spray of chemical activator and as the two men stepped back, the door, frame and all, fell with a “whump” transmitted faintly by their ambient sensors, revealing a scorched and burned pile of heavy, twisted armor shards barring their passage.
“Cute,” muttered one of the FE crew.
The ambient sensor array was transmitting faint echoes of firing, now, and the ambient temp display was rising, but only Arnix’ display would provide more information than the short-range displays the troopers could see.
“I don’t think they want us to go this way,” Dannek observed mildly, as he fell back to allow the FE crew to pass him. While they were dropping the cradle for the cannon, Chagarth again stepped back, and flipped up the enhancement on his visual scanners, checking the room for… There!
“Corp, got automatics two and ten, two and a half meters,” he reported, and sure enough, as his voice sounded over the squad circuit the improvised panels faired into the walls beyond the airlock slid back and the deadly emission bells of needle sprayers emerged. Without conscious thought, Chagarth was already shooting one of his forearm-mounted heatbeam sprayers at the right-hand opening.
The left-hand bell managed to get off a truncated volley before fire from Arnix’s heater fused it, but needler bolts weren’t something Heavy Armor troops needed to worry about unduly, although there was a sound between a yelp and a curse as one of the FE crew took a direct hit on a sensor array.
“Madchek, was that your ranger?”
“No, Corp, just an enviro.”
The FE cannon was mounted and the cradle locked down. “Give it the business,” Arnix instructed, and the others turned away, quickly. Suit sensors could compensate for FE emission leakage, but the first shot was likely to stress them until they calibrated for it.
Chagarth could feel his suit’s airconditioner ratchet up, and the resolution on his display faltered briefly, then stabilized. A slight turn enabled forward visuals again, and he saw the residual glow and the melting pile of slagged heavy metals. His suit’s atmospheric sensors chattered briefly and the readout turned amber. “Not healthy to stay here,” Arnix observed, “And they seem to have ranged behind us. Looks like the only way out is through, hmmm? OK, troops, full defcon.”
The digital timetick read: 00:02.04
The FE team was already disassembling and stowing the cannon. Chagarth bite-clicked his suit control, scrolled it to “Defcon:full.” Suit power shifted from weapons and mobility systems to shielding. The suit’s movement “feel” reflected the shift, becoming heavy and a little sluggish. Weapons indicators blinked amber.
Arnix advanced a step or so, slowly, taking readings from his suit’s more advanced sensor array. “Alright, go, go, go…” he waved them forward and, moving at the max speed their suits allowed, they filed past him, bouncing over the worst piles of bubbling slag.
“Corp, I got personnel blips!” Prant, who’d gone first, reported.
“I see ‘em. Didn’t think they’d ignore us when we knocked so hard.”
Now Chagarth could see the blips on his own TR, showing people at the far range of his suit sensors, crouching behind an improvised gauntlet of barriers and weapons emplacements.
“Chagarth. Find a cover.”
Chagarth was the squad’s sharpshooter. His mouth was dry, he turned his head slightly and took a mouthful from the water nipple as he maneuvered, suit still sluggish, forward and to the left. No line-of-sight yet… yet…
“Got ‘em, Corp,” he said softly, even though their helmet circuits transmitted no ambient sound and his own ambient sensors indicated a lot of noise out there. The cross-hairs of his targeting display came up, and he blinked rapidly three times, slaving it to his eye movements, and confirming it with a bite-click. The targeting display showed his field of fire, laid out over the cluttered representation of multiple layers of barriers. Within, four bright white blips showed what his sensors thought were personnel, covered by multiple layers of wall, barrier, and debris, and five amber blips that might be personnel.
“Aright, Dannek, Silz, point.”
In Chagarth’s display, the blue blips that were his squadmates approached his peripheral sensors, slid past. One of them launched a jinker, a projectile with electronic emissions intended to confuse enemy sensors into reading it as a personnel blip.
Sure enough, it drew fire, revealing the position of a gun emplacement. Deliberately, Chagarth centered his targeting crosshairs over it, and fired.
The wall he’d aimed at melted, but as it did, his display suddenly went bright, then vanished, his faceplate automatically depolarizing as his suit took damage. Through the screened faceplate he could see the blazing glare that engulfed the corridor ahead, and the prone, stationary suit of one of his squadmates. His own suit’s emergency display lit, around the edges of the faceplate, coded lights indicating damage, indicating that his suit was yammering for help to the platoon command circuit, but he could hear nothing, only the faint vibrations of ambient noise.
He saw two other suits—Prant and Arnix, he thought, move in the far periphery of his faceplate. Something sailed past him. Ahead, the prone suit suddenly half-vaporized as an actinic glare blinded him even through the heavily-shielded faceplate.
His suit got hot. A sighing sound, and two of the lights around his faceplate turned red. One was blinking. Which one was that, again? Deran racked his brain, frantic. Damn. He was on residual air, the suit’s conditioner was out. He had a choice, now: activate the injection that would put him into a coma, reducing his air use so that residual suit air might keep him alive until he was picked up, or let ambient air into the suit’s emergency mechanical exchanger.
He tried to recall the last reading he’d seen on the atmo sensor, as the emergency com circuit crackled to life in his ears. “Chagarth, hibernate. We’ll get pickup in five.”
The worst thing about being a legionary trooper, sometimes, was not knowing. Were the other squads doing better than theirs? Would there even be pickup? Sure, Arnix had radioed, but if they were all getting pounded like First Squad, Third Platoon, would there even be anyone to do pickup?
The digital timetick, powered by the suit’s emergency battery, read: 00:03:43
As unconsciousness took him, he wondered briefly who had been in that half-vaporized suit ahead of him.