When he was young, he had thought the troop the world’s elite. After a lifetime in the service, he had substituted that thought for another: expendable.
Marshall was in free fall, on a trajectory that would allow him to aero brake safely before reaching splash down about fifteen clicks from the nearest coastline. The program controlling his pod’s descent showed the easy arc in his secondary vision, the computer interfaced with his wetwired cybernetics. It then promptly fired manoeuvring rockets to bring him into a near direct drop, his lateral speed plunging as the soft arc tightened into a straight line like a missile strike.
The pod he was in was filled with crash gel, the only vision that which was fed to his internal processors. No external cameras showed the ground rising up at suicidal speeds, and accelerating. Operational schematics, primary and secondary objectives flashing, symbols giving instant information on everything the sensors were picking up from the ground sweeps. He closed his eyes, but it didn’t stop the light from the HUD. The graphic was being served directly into his central nervous system by Operations in the ships that had dropped he and his fellows into the atmosphere.
“Bogeys 311 from my crater.”
Marshall focused again, saw icons of enemy units with lines showing trajectories on intercept with their landing point. “Copy, 311. Go to ground and move away from the pods on impact. Standard wing bearing nor-noreast.”
A chorus of affirmative noises came from the men who followed him. No one mentioned the likelihood of being shot down before they ever got to ground, nor how hard it would be to manoeuvre out of a hot landing. They were drop troops, the shock troopers that met front line combat with a devil’s laugh and a minigun grafted to each shoulder. So the young men were raised to believe. More likely it was the fatalism of those now trapped inside an egg dropped by its mother several hundred clicks above the surface, and now controlled entirely by faceless drones that no soldier here would ever meet. There was no abort, no pleading for course correction to a safe place outside the hot zone.
A roar permeated the liquid around Marshall as the landing rocket flared into life, and he gritted his teeth against the harsh deceleration, darkness edging into his vision as he fought unconsciousness. The program noted his discomfort with all the love of a heartless machine. Any deviation from the suicide burn would mean a crash landing hard enough to dash him against the ground hard enough that he may as well not be in a landing pod.
The roar increased, the wetwiring not enough to overcome the blood failure. The HUD vanished, he blacked out.
He came to on the ground, surrounded with debris. “Bastards,” he muttered, not caring that everything was recorded, would be played back later. “You cocked that up, didn’t you.” He struggled to his feet, noting the thunder rolling above him, despite the clear sky. Triple A. That might be the cause of the hard landing. An emergency shift or a faster than usual drop before a burn big enough to overcome the cybernetic boost.
He checked the timer, saw he couldn’t have been out for more than a few seconds. The internal programs were already rebooting, and he moved quickly to his rendezvous. If there was any pain from the landing, the systems were taking care of it, feeding downers and boosters when and where it was needed. Systems showed all green, but they didn’t tell him everything – only what the brass decided was necessary. Weapons online: check. Killing machine fully capable of tearing a hole in a company of regular infantry: check. Ability to take on a battle tank and come out on top: check. The soldier inside hurt or dying in its shell: system error, no one found that cares.
“Copy 044, hold.” A top down map of the area showed him men moving into formation, others still and reporting enemy contact by the flashing amber of their status icons. There were fewer than there should be. He didn’t need the explosion over his head to show him what had happened. The anti-air had chewed them up, and the enemy were hitting them during their few moments of confusion as they hit the ground.
“What idiot led us into this mess?”
“Radio discipline,” he called, wondering whether he had transmitted his earlier sentiments. He didn’t mind the brass and their drones knowing his opinions, but morale on the ground was important. He had to hold up the mask of certainty and unity else it lessen the drive of the other men. Hesitation got men killed. He looked up at the sky above, where the ship which had brought him in was in orbit, far out of sight. Poor command decisions killed more, but he couldn’t help that.
He pulled himself back to the schematics, his focus bringing them into existence in his vision. “Alpha-one-one-three though one-seven, reinforce the line. Everyone west of zero-six-nine, pivot with me. All others hold.”
“They have anti-armour, Sergeant, and a plasma burn keeping us down.”
“Don’t even think about sticking your head up. Dig in while we flank.”
“Can do. Making a tunnel.”
A missile sped up a hundred metres away, letting out a high whine like fireworks before exploding in an arc of munitions that sped groundward, tearing the soil to erupt like dozens of small volcanos around the beleaguered men of his command. Marshall knew it was a defensive shot while the soldiers dug a fox hole. The incoming fire was too heavy and accurate to follow up with an attack.
The ground was lightly forested, the soil hard beneath his boots. Sergeant Marshall moved in a broad flank as quickly as he dared, the thick armour light as the servos reacted to his movements, his vision showing close scans for mines and other traps. He soon came to a long line of dense brush where he paused to regroup. Within half a minute two other soldiers found him, nodding in greeting.
“This is a bit of fun, isn’t it Marshall?” The voice was strange, and not only because of the dripping sarcasm. It took him a moment to realise the other man was speaking to him directly rather than through the net.
He responded in kind. “This is what we signed up for, Croker.” The comment earned him a knowing smile. “Damn, we can’t wait. Let’s go carve this lot up.”
Moments later the wall of scrub exploded in a fireball that ran a dozen metres out from either side of where Marshall triggered the clearance shell. The three soldiers followed, rushing outward and appearing on the other side from within the flame, their armour shrugging off the quickly dissipating heat. Eye targeting software marked a score of potential targets and suddenly the air turned white as they opened fire.
The stench of ozone permeated Marshall’s helmet as he rushed forward, looking for cover. In front, enemy troops were turning to meet them, holding obsolete hand held weapons. Shoulder mounts on the drop troops swivelled to meet the targets they designated through their wetwired display. Armoured vehicles began to reposition, but their turrets held on their previous targets. Marshall grinned at that, knowing his cybernetics were hiding him from the tanks’ automated firing systems. His forearm opened and a discreet missile flew skyward, seeking one of the bulky targets, but was quickly shot down by the anti-missile lasers mounted by the tank’s turret. “Damn you, just die,” he said, making sure the net didn’t pick up and transmit.
“One-three one-seven, we are on their flank, respond.”
“Copy alpha actual, we are moving to support.”
Marshall noted several hovering units releasing a constant spray of plasma. It was like a deadly shield allowing the enemy to advance on his stricken men. With a thought he marked the units for Croker while he tore into them with guns and a missile salvo before ducking into a depression as more and more guns were trained in his direction.
He landed with a crunch, looking down to see the remains of an enemy soldier mostly buried in the ground. The observation made him realise the pit had been formed by one of his men’s missile salvos.
He rolled away from the soldier, noting its old-fashioned helmet with obvious mounted display and retinal projector. Along with the bulky but brittle camouflaged armour it looked anachronistic against his own sleek photo-chromatics and wetwired components.
He didn’t spare it more than a glance, however. In his secondary vision he saw men of his squad flare red and then fade to low alpha transparency as they were knocked out of commission. Probably dead, but the system didn’t care about the meat inside the machine, only whether it was functional.
Marshall released a camera which hovered above him at around fifty paces. It showed the enemy continuing to reinforce a line not far from their position. He knew what that meant, and it was confirmed shortly thereafter by the whistle of artillery shells closing in.
He had to make a decision: push forward in order to get close enough for the enemy to be inside the danger zone of their own shelling, or bug out. Both options would leave them open to fire while they moved. Only one satisfied his warrior’s instinct.
“All units move and fire, close that gap before they bring their big guns to bear.”
What was left of his men chorused the affirmative. There was fear in many voices, resignation and bravado in others. But they all moved forward with him as he broke cover and saw the line of enemy units two hundred paces away, the ground almost cleared by the constant fire of the last few minutes.
Marshall rushed between what little cover he could find, keeping up a steady storm of bullets and missiles at the enemy. He watched his men fall into position, feeling satisfaction and perhaps a little pride at the way they moved despite being so heavily outgunned. Laser and plasma fire began to pinpoint his position, and he broke into a run for new cover, the hydraulics in his legs pushing further and faster than anything of mere flesh and blood.
The sergeant drew a line of attack on the map of his immediate area and ordered it sent out to his men. “We’ve got them by the belt. We can punch through-“ Static filled the frequency he was transmitting on, and EMP warnings flashed in his periphery. The internals were functioning, but comms shut down. No matter – his men had stared down death countless times before. They knew what had to be done.
Marshall leaped over a final depression, surprising the enemy no more than twenty paces away. His eye traced a line in the ground and milliseconds later the earth erupted as his shoulder mount fired along the path. Enemy soldiers flew backwards or were cut to pieces. Others ran. Only one fired on him. Marshall received an indicator that he was under attack, as if he might somehow not notice a laser trying to tear him apart, as the processors backtracked the path and presented the target. An affirmative thought released the weapons and the automated system put thirty needles into his attacker which detonated a fraction of a second after impact. What was left was not identifiable as human.
That left only the armoured vehicle that they were screening – or more likely cowering near, hoping Marshall and his men would not advance on a tank line. How wrong they were. The sergeant leapt onto a wheel track as the turret spun, then stepped onto the roof of the vehicle. He started hammering at the hatch with reinforced fists, finding a weak point which he put to the torch, the small plasma jet cutting quickly through the armour. He made a circle and punched through again, into the interior. He peered in, but there was no sign of life. The tank had been rigged to work by remote. That would make his victory somewhat less satisfying, but no less necessary.
A forearm opened and a charge shot out to stick to whatever it might hit inside. Marshall leapt off, returning to the hole he had jumped from to surprise the men who now lay still on the ground. He counted down the seconds, and moments later was rewarded by a fiery boom as the tank’s fuel and armament exploded from within.
“Alpha actual, respond. You are out of position.”
“Command? We encountered resistance and have engaged the enemy. Request reinforcement on this position.”
“Negative, Alpha actual, you are out of position. Move to rendezvous immediately.”
“Command, we are in the middle of a firefight. Cannot disengage.”
“Copy that, Alpha squad. Prepare for danger close orbital bombardment.”
“Orbital! Hold off, Command. I repeat, we cannot extract.”
“Understood. Munitions have already been released. You are approximately… zero metres from impact zone. Detonation in nine seconds.”
“Nine… you bastards.”
“Copy that, Alpha actual”