Mar 012013
 

Read me the story
convapodSomething was beeping somewhere. Too loud to ignore, but not loud enough to give a clear sense of pitch or rhythm. It came and went. It was… annoying.

Eventually it was annoying enough for Deran Chagarth to notice.

There wasn’t anything else to notice, in the formless iteration of consciousness provided by a convapod. But the sensation of noticing the annoying noise added enough stimulus to simple awareness to begin coalescing into a more complex awareness. Chagarth became aware of existence, first.

Some time later it occurred to him that existence implied identity. He rummaged around the available concepts to see if any of them would attach to “self.” But they hovered tantalizingly out of reach. And it was too much effort to go after them. Much easier not to try.

Time floated past him, spiraling slowly. It seemed to have qualities, but again nothing to which he could attach concepts. It occurred to him that it would be useful to have a way to differentiate and define… things. Ideas. Thoughts. Awareness. Thoughts…

That produced something definite. Defined. Thoughts. There. “Thoughts.” It was a… word.

The time that had been spiraling leisurely past him seemed to rush into a tightening vortex, and then he lost awareness of it in that form. But another word appeared. “Time.” “Time” was… “passing,” yes. A linear process. The spiral was gone, replaced by this unsatisfying linear progression.

Words. He had four, so far. “Thoughts.” “Word.” “Time.” “Passing.” It was a lot. It felt heavy. Consciousness receded.

In the control module of Medbay 2 aboard the Taskmaster, Ord-Colonel Helset Morvaine reviewed the neuroscans from convapod 9c and frowned. Very slow comeback from Trooper… she glanced at the chart readout, Trooper Chagarth. A further review of the chart enlightened. Chagarth had been on the very limits of the triage criteria for cryostasis and revival. If the surrender hadn’t come through just as they were dispatching Medcorps for pickup, he’d probably have been downchecked and left dead.

She glanced at Major Qualar, their cryo expert. “Options?”

He pursed his lips, eyes narrowing. “We can try neurostim, or give it more time. The neurostim… we’ve had good results with the cad-GABA nanites, but we’re almost out of those. We’d probably have to use the Adran-4 sequence, and that…” he trailed off.

Her grimace matched his. The Adran-4 nanite suite was a specific for neurological trauma repair, and Chagarth’s brain hadn’t sustained any. Oxygen deprivation and toxic saturation from the aspiration of chemical byproducts of suit environmental systems failure were a different type of problem altogether. In some similar cases the Adran nanites had been known to actually cause injury. “Well, we’re not in a hurry, for a change. Let’s leave it for now.”

Qualar scanned the chart and agreed.

They turned their attention to the next convapod just as the shipwide alert tone sounded.

“All personnel, prepare for loading and transit. All personnel, prepare for loading and transit. Transit will commence at 2300.”

“What in Kronnos…?”

Colonel Morvaine shook her head. “No idea. I thought we were on station.”

The Major sighed. “No one ever tells the Medcorps.”

The Colonel’s handunit signaled. “Hey, look! Someone’s going to tell the Medcorps something, apparently.” She scanned the instructions. All Divisional Staff chiefs and seconds required at a… “security briefing?” she murmured.

She exchanged eye-rolls with the Major, just as the Medcorps Division Chief, General Kenterum Orlot, pinged her unit.

“And it seems that I’ll need to take over for Scharnav, on the Steelflame, while he accompanies the boss to HQ. Great. Do the best you can, Javak. I think we had all the evac personnel accounted for, but there’s still that skiff on the supply run. Make sure the Loading Officer knows we’ll be using extra supply cubage.” The Major nodded and threw her a salute as she left the bay control module.

Back in convapod 9c, a random series of stimulations—sound, light, tactile—continued slowly, timed by the unit’s analytical processor based on its assessment of Chagarth’s brain activity. Now and again, consciousness surfaced. The battle between a subconscious that believed in his death, regarding the concept of consciousness too painful and demanding to endure, and the ongoing currents of life flowing through the brain’s physical architecture, continued.

(Special thanks to TWYRAH for sound assistance. You know who you are.)

Sep 072012
 

A multi-barrel configured ship making insystem transit, showing blue & green energy trails against the background of a major space station.“Sir? I’ve never seen an init code like this before…” The communications technician was an Ensign on his first cruise, so Themat Jurnis wasn’t too surprised. He didn’t hurry as he strolled to the com station, moving only with his customary orderly dispatch. He looked at the codes on the screen and frowned. He’d never seen them either, but better safe than sorry. “You’re relieved of duty, Ensign,” he said formally, as he clicked the log tab.

“Relieved, Sir,” the Ensign left.

The string of initiation codes contained some Jurnis did know, however, including the one that signified that the contents of the message was a triple-encrypt, eyes-only message for the Lord Commander of the Second Expeditionary Legion, in person and with every security bell and whistle the brass could tack on. Too well-trained to even allow himself to imagine curiosity, Jurnis initiated a security trace for the Lord Commander: In the Orbital Command Platform, not unnaturally. He didn’t need to know why or where, merely relayed the message’s init codes to the Lord Commander’s Adjutant, Major Callet, with an “urgent” flag. Then he waited, sternly disciplining himself from even thinking about what could possibly rate such a stew of security.

Callet was inspecting inventory lists when the double tone of the com flag alerted him. What he saw on the scrambler sent him to the next room, in spite of the red “privacy” light on the doorlatch.

The Lord Commander was meeting with Alren Tydar, Hecht’s new Military Governor, and the Regional Command Staff. He looked up with no more sign of annoyance than a minute eyebrow movement, but when he saw Callet, he nodded. Wordlessly, the adjutant circled the meeting table, and handed over the scrambler.

“Excuse me, gentlemen,” the Lord Commander stood.

“Lord Commander, I must insist that we resolve this…” Tydar caught the Lord Commander’s eye and trailed off.

The OCP’s secure communications facility was adjacent to the main Situation Room. Karth Tallis placed his palm against the lock, then blinked into the retinal scanner, then spoke a series of nonsense syllables in a precise sequence for the voiceprint analyzer. Triply-encrypted, eyes-only messages were never sent with good news, he reflected, as the doorseal winked green. He prepared himself, he thought, for the worst.

An appreciable time interval later—less than half an hour, although it felt like a day, maybe a year—he sat back and frowned. Whatever he’d prepared himself for, it wasn’t this. Methodically, he re-checked the encryption. Then re-checked it again.

Again he sat back. That was it. Nothing more. Just that bald command. Could it be a trick? Frowning, he ran through the possibilities. None seemed likely, given the initiation codes and routing guide on the message heading. Outside his chain of command, yes, but it did carry the triple sealcode of the Three, the ruling Oligarchy of Klaros. And yet… why, if they bothered to put the sealcode on, would they not sign it? Surely, given the content of the message, they would want to forestall any conceivable doubts about its legitimacy.

He left the communications facility, punctiliously re-engaging the security seal. Callet was waiting in the Situation Room. The only other personnel were the security monitor and the Lieutenants standing watch at the various regional control consoles. Tallis gestured to his adjutant, and gave a few low-voiced orders.

Less than an hour later, the Situation Room was packed. The Expeditionary Legion Command Staff, the Fleet’s Flag Officer In Charge, and the Occupation Administration leadership were all gathered around the main table. Watch functions had temporarily been re-routed back to Combat Command, and the room was secured and sealed.

“We have a directive from the Three,” Tallis wasted no time on preliminaries. They all knew it was an extraordinary conference. Some brows rose. Tydar’s eyes narrowed, but his mouth folded in at the corners. Had he expected this? The Military Governor was not, in spite of his title, a military officer, but an appointee of the Civ, which had no secure communications facilities in the Hecht system yet. Tallis watched him as he continued.

“The directive is unequivocal. We are to withdraw all Klarosian personnel from the Hecht system, evacuating entirely, within four hundred hours. We are to commandeer every functional interstellar vessel in the system, and to load the maximum quantity of transuranics that can be transported by our own Fleet vessels plus all commandeered vessels. We are to return to Orbital One by the shortest possible route, without calling at Bejan Base, with the ker-equipped Fleet vessels preceding the standard-drive vessels, which are to be convoyed by adequate Fleet vessels to ensure they make a safe journey. We are not to discuss these orders with any personnel below Command Staff ranks.”

He touched the tab that relayed the segment of the decrypted message cleared for Command Staff ranks to the wraparound view projector at the center of the table, so that they could all see the sealcode of the Three, and waited. His own Command Staff, and Admiral Destane, the Flag, read the message carefully, but refrained from comment. The Civies, on the other hand, were agog. Amazing that a mere half-dozen individuals could generate such a babble. And, by the expression on Military Governor Tydar’s face as he re-read the message for the third time, whatever he might have been expecting, it wasn’t this.

Sep 052012
 

Flattened circular construction are with buildings and other structures in foreground, green lighting contrasting with the dome of red-violet light above.A double line of ornamental pine trees stretched into the distance for perhaps five kilometers, bisecting the broad avenue leading to our last battle target.

We’d all but won our objective for Hecht; this battle would destroy the last command-and-control resources for the old colonial government and their Vetzkarran mercenary contractors. Two of the three Hecht planets had already declared a functional autonomy and were ready to legalize Protectorate agreements with our government; this, the third, was the seat of colonial control. Most of the colonial forces and their mercenary defenders had concentrated here.

The avenue linked the subcolony’s major mercantile and governmental facilities with its principal spaceport. There wasn’t much call for passenger transport yet—Hecht is a long way from the major commercial travel circuits—so the spaceport was designed mainly for industrial and military use. The port and its facilities occupied about a fifth of the planet’s largest habitat dome. Wresting control of the port from the Orban colonial masters would decide the balance in our favor.

This planet was close enough to Hecht’s primary that it could use a natural sunlight cycle. Filtered by the habitat’s tavis field, the angle of the light was almost perpendicular, minimizing shadow and throwing reflections upwards. That would be a factor for the gun platforms and the heavy-armor troops of the Vetzkarrans, using standard-issue visual-ranging technology.

Klarosian technology gave us an edge; Klarosian fighting experience and will expanded it. And the blessing of the Creator upon His Chosen, and the spirit of the Divine Warrior that would sustain us in battle (according to the pious,) assured the ultimate outcome.

The Intel drones supplying my vantage point on the battle were behind and just above the centermost gun platform on our forward right-wing battle group. When you wear a drone headset you feel like you’re there, physically. The impulse to duck incoming fire is almost irresistible, at first. Your body responds to the situation the way it would as if it were there, not eighty kilometers up in a low-orbit observation corvette.

It’s safer than being on a gun platform, even a shielded one, or bouncing around in heavy armor in the thick of the fire zone, but it doesn’t feel safer. Not by much. Not if you’re not used to it.

I’m not usually assigned to Combat Observation, but my Intel unit was substituting for the CO team normally attached to this battlegroup. Brass confidence in a decisive victory dictated having my chain of command on hand right away, to negotiate the most advantageous transfer-of-control terms. My boss’s boss, General Praukent, was to be in charge of the prep for those negotiations, and he wanted our people on the spot. We’d have to move fast to salvage information that the Orban government was probably trying to destroy even now.

The gun platforms ahead of me dipped sharply and the crawl alongside the drones’ analog reconstruction suddenly blossomed with data. We were on the move. Level-sounding voices gave brief, precise orders.

The avenue ahead was utterly deserted. We had warned the population to evacuate the area around the spaceport. There was no element of surprise to be sacrificed; they knew that was the critical target and they’d been preparing defenses there. One section of the readout area surrounding my headset was a feed from the team working on telemetric intercept and signal analysis that would give us realtime information on what they had where, where and when they were moving it, and so forth. Their jammers were good; we’d wasted a number of expensive skit-class nanoparasite rounds on dud targets.

Even so, over the last few critical minutes we’d managed to establish a fairly reliable outline of what waited for us, and the final victory wouldn’t be cheap. The Vetzkarran forces knew what kind of firepower we had in the system and they knew they didn’t have a chance of running past our pickets with heavy materiel transports. They’d have to expend it or abandon it to us and take the loss either way.

A big amber wash blanked out one section of my readout: They’d concentrated massive FE beamfire on the left wing command platform. A bright line of data in one of the upper corners showed three squadrons of our ATO fighters converging on the firepoint. The roofs of two large buildings nearby suddenly slid apart and fell a hundred meters to the street, flattening smaller structures and raising huge clouds of debris. Thirty or so Vetzkarran atmo fighters rose from inside the now-roofless buildings, where they’d been concealed, to engage our squadrons while the beamfire began to rake outwards to vaporize the warehouse and commercial structures behind which our Heavy Infantry Troops were massed.

I tore my attention away from that part of the readout; it wasn’t my responsibility. A quick adjustment grayed that section a little so that the activity wouldn’t distract me from my assignment: teasing apart the confusing tangle of data streams to identify personnel tracks that might locate critical command and control installations. It’s tricky work, you not only have to follow the precise degree and type of readout, but pick the right traces to collate and analyze for patterns that will reveal what’s going on. Physio, communications, weapons, and enviro power signatures all have their unique variations based on function and it all comes together in the realtime chaos of a battle situation.

Intel programs could give you an edge, if they were fine-tuned to a hair more effective than your opponent, but only if your firepower and human and strategic assets gave you time to use them. It looked as though the Vetzkarrans were trying to rush us into committing resources and overwhelm our computing power, while the Orban government forces—what were left of them—and the militia they’d recruited from among the subcolony population took chunks out of our strike forces.

I picked three promising data clusters and activated analysis subroutines that were designed to identify the relationship between their transmissions and the meta-synthesis of the battle events. If any of them showed a time lag profile match, we might be looking at command nodes.

My readout juddered and sputtered for a moment, and the headset filled with a dull roar. Then it stabilized, as the datafeed was shunted around the damaged probes, and self-repair subroutines kicked in. But the momentary disruption had fried my analysis tracks and two of the promising nodes had dissipated and were lost in the flood of information. The third was now clearly tagged as ordinary mobile assault unit command, and it was already being routed into my boss’s infeed stream. I started looking for something else to chew on.

Another part of the readout flared blue, suddenly, stabilized, and minimized, with other sectors enlarging to occupy its area. We’d taken the habitat control facility, one of our key objectives.

I glanced at the realtime track and realized that we’d been engaged for nearly an hour already, though it felt like minutes.

Suddenly the entire readout flashed, purposefully, three quick pulses. My brain, still tracking the datastreams, froze for a moment. But my fingers were already on the controls, minimizing the readout area and switching from full-combat mode to ready mode, allowing sensory input from the actual environment where I was sitting.

I could hear the “secure for maneuvers” siren around me, and the other members of the Intel team were already retracting headset feeds—our corvette was under attack by Vetzkarran Atmosphere-To-Orbit fighters, breaching the jathrin dome fields and boosting for our low-orbit assets.

The projection film at one end of the compartment showed the corvette’s combat plot: A Vetzkarran Destroyer was maneuvering to engage us from above, and the ATO squad was already strung out in attack pattern five kilometers below. This really did not look good.

Colonel Gratev’s voice growled in my headset. “Relax, gentlemen. The Saintly Sword is on the job, and we have Glerik Squadron on their tails. There’s still a battle to conn.” The projection film went dark, which would have made me pee myself with fright if I hadn’t been suited up and fully catheterized, but I realized a moment later, as existence continued, that the film had just been deactivated to keep it from being a distraction.

You can’t work as effectively in “ready” mode, but there’s a lot you can do and the boss wanted us doing it, not worrying about whether we were about to be meet the Divine Warrior face-to-face.

It was some comfort to know that Glerik Squadron was in our vicinity. I knew the squadron leader, Matt Donley—we’d been classmates at the Academy and Matt was one crazy-dangerous son-of-a-falut who could outmaneuver anything in flight, atmo or insystem. He had more than thirty kills notched on his helmet and the Glerik Squadron’s pennon was loaded with enough battle honors to weigh it down in a gale-force fanbreeze. I got back to work.

Three hours later the Orban government signaled our command ship, asking for terms. I’d feel good about it, after the migraine wore off.

Sep 032012
 

Two long, curving tubes next to a metal walkway and handrail. Reflections from overhead lights highlight the long depth and distant vanishing point.On the fifth day before the world ended, Jamed Ursek, retired General-Hartman of Legion Intelligence, departed the surface of Reveille C for a family vacation at Birval Pleasurdome, adjacent to the Moonstation habitat complex on the planet’s larger satellite. This involved catching a gravprop tube at the central station in Port Andall, part of a habitat complex in the planet’s northern ring of settlements.

“Alright, Fa,” his son Kalven assured him, with only a touch of anxiety. “Demis and Francet will be at the station when you get to Centrum Bek, and Hostin and Orshel will be minding the kids at the shuttleport. Assuming they all coordinate on time, anyway. Silly idea, all meeting at Centrum Bek—why didn’t Hostin and Orshel just go direct to Pykalt from Mag Alpha, instead of traveling all the way north with three little kids?”

Kalven had always been a bit of a fusser, but it made him a formidably competent logistics officer. Jamed grinned at his son. “Sure you don’t want to ask for a little leave, and join us?”

Kal snorted. “What, to help you ride patrol on seven noisy kids at Pleasuredome? As you’re always reminding us, Fa, you didn’t raise any fools.” He glanced up at the departure board. “Capsule incoming.”

“Five minutes out. Plenty of time. And yes, I agree your brother-in-law is a stiff, but it wouldn’t hurt you to come along and congratulate him on his promotion.” Kalven had never cared much for Demis, and considered that his sister had married beneath her when she became the bride of a Home Legion Senior Lieutenant. It was a common prejudice among the First Legion officer class. And, if the truth be told, Jamed thought his son-in-law rather a dull dog, too. But he made Francet happy.

“It’s not just that, Fa. I’ve got duty this afternoon, and we’re… busy.” Kalven carefully said no more. His father was a General-Hartman, true, but he was a retired General-Hartman, and that didn’t give him the security clearance to know anything about his son’s current assignment.

Jamed glanced sideways at his son, and debated whether to discomfit him by a reference to the First Legion units being readied for deployment to Hecht. He still tracked plenty of Klaros’ many current military operations. But it wouldn’t do. More than thirty years in military intelligence made him constitutionally disinclined to reveal any information at all to anyone who didn’t already know, even to remind Kalven that “retired” did not equate to “vegetative.”

The tube capsule indicator changed from “approaching” to “arriving,” and Jamed picked up his small bag—the rest of the luggage had been sent on by freight carrier to the Treasuredome resort hotel—and gave his son a light tap on the upper arm. “All right, Ord-Colonel Ursek. Duty first, as always. Warrior inspire you, Bride protect you. See you in three weeks.”

Kalven smiled. “You too, Fa. My best to the girls. And Hostin. And Demis, and congratulations on his promotion.” He stepped back from the rush of air that signaled the capsule’s impending arrival.

Jamed gave him a wave, as he boarded. The capsule door slid closed, and a honeyed mechanical voice announced, “Please be seated, and strap in. Next stop, Centrum Bek Shuttle Port.”

Sep 022012
 

Weapons discharge at left, with trailing light effects, smoke, and an armored vehicle at right, against a dark background.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.

-00:02.44

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.

-00:01.52

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.

-00:00:39

“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.

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