Book: Tin Man
More Galaxy's Edge
Join the Legion
By Jason Anspach
& Nick Cole
Copyright © 2017
by Galaxy’s Edge, LLC
All rights reserved.
This is a work of fiction. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise without the prior written permission of the publisher and copyright owner.
All rights reserved. Version 1.0
Edited by David Gatewood
Published by Galaxy’s Edge, LLC
Cover Art: Fabian Saravia
Cover Design: Beaulistic Book Services
For more information:
“The Order of the Centurion is the highest award that can be bestowed upon an individual serving in, or with, the Legion. When such an individual displays exceptional valor in action against an enemy force, and uncommon loyalty and devotion to the Legion and its legionnaires, refusing to abandon post, mission, or brothers, even unto death, the Legion dutifully recognizes such courage with this award.”
98.4% of all citations are awarded posthumously.
The Battle of the Aachon Valley took place in the northern highlands on Psydon, out along the spiral arm of the Milky Way in the long years after the end of the Savage Wars. The galactic-wide conflict was finally, definitively, over, but before the irradiated superstructures of ruined Savage cruisers could even stop glowing, the galaxy erupted into hundreds of brushfire conflicts. Long-held grudges, and grievances that had been left simmering in favor of the more imminent problem of the Savage Wars, at once determined that the time to settle up was now.
The Third Legion Expeditionary Force under the command of General Maar had been dispatched to quell the revolt on Psydon. Its legionnaires quickly found themselves in well over their bucketed heads. The entire planet had fallen under the gaze of a hypnotic rebel demagogue who argued that all taxation was theft, especially the high rate demanded by the Galactic Republic. “An outrageous level of robbery that could only be achieved by a government,” he was often heard to say.
The message proved to be popular.
Reese made it back to his pre-fab cans at firebase Mojo sometime before midnight. As the ground crew taxied his bird into the maintenance hangar, he could still hear the Psydon Doro rebels shelling the hell out of the jungle, and underneath that were the sounds of heavy automatic blaster fire in sudden streaming bursts.
The Doro were coming out into the night to take the fight to the legionnaires. Reese would sleep, safe and secure, but the leejes out there wouldn’t be so lucky. A few of them might be dead by dawn, their bodies waiting for him to come get them at first light.
You don’t make night runs for the dead.
Reese went to the supply module and pulled out some rags, a bucket, and cleaning solution. He returned to his ship, Angel 26, back in the maintenance hangar. Already the techs were patching the blaster holes and cannibalizing the hangar queens for more parts. All had to be ready again by dawn.
“You’d better work on fixing the thrust ailerons and yaw stabilizers first,” Reese called out to the techs. “They went bad halfway through the day.”
When the maintenance chief saw Captain Reese with a bucket in one hand and rags and solution in the other, he efficiently stepped in the way to cut Reese off before he could climb into the cockpit.
“No sir,” he said. “That’s our job. We’ll take care of it.”
Reese stopped, staring hard at the man.
“No, it was my job,” he said. “I was supposed to take care of him. I’ll clean up his blood and…”
There had been brains all over that side of the cockpit glass. Reese hadn’t been able to take his eyes off it.
“… and everything else, too,” he finished.
The chief nodded once, but didn’t let the captain pass. “I know that, sir. We’ll… take care of him, sir. It’s our job. It’s what we do. Let us do our jobs, sir.”
And so Reese surrendered. Too tired to fight. The truth was, he’d never been a fighter. And how one ended up in the Republic Marines by not being a fighter was a mystery he never could quite figure out.
It had never really been up to him anyway. Personnel knew best. And they’d made him a medical SLIC pilot. Just like that. As though personnel had some kind of infinite wisdom that guided it through a galaxy that made less and less sense every day.
Back at his prefab, he sat down on his cot and pulled out the Faldaren scotch that he and Doger—whose brains decorated his SLIC’s window—always kept for post mission “debriefs.” Something between just the two of them. He splashed some into each of their canteen cups, picked up his own cup, and drank. Then he poured some more.
Reese sniffed and assessed the room. They’d already come and taken Doger’s belongings away. There was just an empty cot, a tiny bare desk, the cup, and his friend’s half of the scotch.
Reese pulled out his datapad and brought up some music.
Classical. Ancient music. From back when man had been something different. Back before the galaxy opened up. That was what he would listen to. Doger had hated it. Everyone had hated it. But ever since Reese took an archaic classical music appreciation class back in college, he’d been hooked. He scrolled through his list, looking at all the ancient songs. To so many in the galaxy, these symphonies and sonatas were now meaningless. But once, long ago, they had meant something.
He landed on a song that seemed right. Not a favorite, but the right choice, its words and melancholy promising to express what he felt. Or didn’t feel. He was empty. He was alone.
He clicked play. And there in the tent, in the dark, as the buzz ships went out on their night missions to kill as many of the enemy as they could, while dug-in legionnaires hunkered beneath typhoons of distant artillery reaching out to land atop them on their hill forts, as someone somewhere transported what had been his co-pilot onto a ship heading back to the core, an ancient musical group known as America began to sing about a “Horse with No Name.” He listened to all the old and lost songs from another time and place—not the one where he found himself.
Captain Reese awoke before dawn. Already the first SLICS were up, on recon flights capable of swift strikes before the Doro disappeared back into their jungle hideouts. These SLICs would be the first to see what the battlefield looked like. Next would be the gunships, going out to kill in adult-sized doses. And then the medical SLICS to get any dead or walking wounded.
Reese drank his breakfast. More of the scotch. He wasn’t hungry. He suited up, cleaned up as best he could, and made his way to flight ops.
“I’d tell you that you don’t have to go up,” said the commanding officer when he saw Reese. “But we need everyone out there today.”
The CO, a man with thinning hair, turned to the smartmap. He waved his hand across a tributary at the northeastern end of the basin, expanding it to terrain-level detail.
“Some scouts got into a big firefight about three this morning. They were trying to find a way up into the jungle hills to get at the arty. Got hit by a battalion of Doro regulars. Bad fight. We sent a Pathfinder upriver to secure a landing zone. Dense canopy up in there. Pathfinder nailed down this river,” the map pulsed as he spoke the words, “as your LZ. It’s shallow, and you can set down or hover long enough for them to get the wounded aboard. Need you to be in the air in the next five, Reese.”
Reese turned, grabbed his flight helmet, and headed for the SLICs out on the flight line. He felt the CO watch him go. Both men knew Reese shouldn’t fly. But everything was precarious right now, and a bad night led to a bad morning.
Angel 26 looked like not-new. Where she’d been shot up, there were now gray patches of hull plaster. At least the co-pilot’s side glass in the canopy had been replaced. Doger’s brains were gone.
Reese climbed the short stairs to the landing pad and met Sergeant MacWray, his SLIC gunner. Reese chose to ignore the look on the man’s face. He grabbed the datapad and pretended to look at it instead.
He was still slightly drunk. And so he felt himself not caring much. People like Doger were getting wasted in this fight, and he didn’t care.
Might as well get killed too, he heard himself think.
“Uh… sir,” began MacWray, “they still haven’t assigned us a door gunner, but we got a new… ahem… co-pilot.”
Reese looked up above the lenses of his aviator shades. He’d worn them to cover his bloodshot eyes. Too bad he’d forgotten to shave—that would have helped with the sobriety act.
Across the pad lumbered an ancient war bot. One of the heavies from back in the day.
MacWray shook his head, indicating that he was not kidding the officer in any way, shape, or form.
“What the hell is that?” muttered Reese.
“That, college kid, is a bona fide HK model 58,” said MacWray. “Heavy infantry specialty, I believe, sir. And, as I understand it from the ground crew, since there are no more pilots available for reassignment to our bird, they’ve swapped out Lieutenant Doger…” MacWray paused.
They’d all been pretty close.
MacWray started over. “They swapped out the co-pilot’s seat and installed a docking interface for the bot.”
The war bot was easily seven feet tall. But despite its imposing size, it looked to Reese like little more than a giant robot child. They hadn’t even put a coat of jungle tiger stripe across its chassis to protect it from visual targeting. Which probably didn’t matter much, if its purpose was as a co-pilot. But you never knew. And it might have inspired a bit more confidence.
Its almost dopey “face” watched the ground crew complete the final pre-flight.
Reese shook his head. “Well, why not? It might as well be this way.” He handed the datapad to the crew chief and headed toward the bird.
“Don’t worry, sir,” shouted MacWray after him. “They told me they don’t go haywire and kill everyone anymore.”
Another SLIC departed off of a nearby pad. It moved nose down, the wicked thing loaded with replacement leejes, who were hanging off the doors and auto-turrets. The pilot gave a brief “Tally Ho” salute, and warm blast-wash swept the pad.
Reese tried to walk past the ancient war machine like it wasn’t there. He hoped it wouldn’t speak to him. If its voice was anything like the ones he’d seen in the movies, it would be like working with a nightmare. Their audio programming was designed to inspire fear and dread in enemy combatants. They were designed to be the embodiment of the proverbial Death Machine humanity had always worried they’d one day make real so they could kill themselves more efficiently.
Instead the voice that spoke to him was pleasant, even hopeful. The deferential voice of the servitor bot.
“Good morning, Captain. My name is H292. I was told to report…”
Reese continued past the thing, mumbling and shaking his head.
As he climbed into the cockpit, the bot said, “I hope I have what it takes to be of service today, Captain.”
Reese moved from the SLIC’s cargo deck to the flight deck, shaking his head as though some note of finality had rung.
“Oz never gave the Tin Man anything that he didn’t already have,” he said.
The bot straightened. Its emotive software clearly indicated that it had not expected that particular reply.
Reese saw this and understood.
“Climb aboard, Tin Man. And try not to get us killed.”
Pop culture had convinced many, not without evidence, that the ancient war bots from the middle era of the Savage Wars were not only dangerous to the enemy, but equally dangerous to those who worked with them. There had been some faulty programming issues that caused friendly casualties on occasion. The slicers had some fancy technical name for it, but the legionnaires at the time called it “berzerking.” Put a war bot in dire enough circumstances, and everything became a target. A side effect of early AI development. The official position of the government, and the defense contractors, was that the problem had been solved long ago and that there had been no verifiable incidents since.
But movies like War Bot Massacre, which every kid with inattentive parents had seen, put other ideas into the heads of the population at large.
The war bot climbed up on the fuselage like some herculean mechanical gorilla and folded itself into the co-pilot’s section of the cockpit. Reese was already in there, plugging in and checking systems.
“I assure you sir, you will not die as a result of my actions. This does not mean you won’t die because of—”
“Yeah, sure,” mumbled Reese. He set the repulsors to standby and ran the yoke through its actions, checking thrust ailerons and yaw compensators. “Trust me, I get it.”
“Sergeant MacWray is aboard,” the bot reported. “We are ready for departure.”
A few minutes later it was gear up, and the bot had the necessary clearances.
“Shall I fly, Captain?” asked the bot.
Reese shot the thing a withering glare.
Then a thought occurred to Reese, and just for the giggles his dark sense of humor required, he asked the bot, “Have you ever flown a SLIC, uh…?” He’d forgotten the bot’s designation already.
“H292,” the war bot replied genially. “No, Captain. I’ve only had the proper aviation install for three hours and thirty-six minutes. But the software has made me fully proficient, and I’m keen to try.”
“Maybe another time, Tin Man.”
Reese guided the bird away from the pad, and soon they were over the outer defenses and crossing above the carbon-black terrain the Legion had scorched around their larger base perimeter in order to create a wide and vast kill zone.
That was always a good way to find where the Legion lived. Just look for the scorched earth.
Reese took up a course heading into the northeast of the basin and got a higher altitude clearance from air traffic.
Down below, heading west, a flight of heavily armed gun SLICs were racing toward Hilltop Defiance. As Reese followed a highlighted course to the LZ in the HUD, he tuned in and listened to the comm traffic. A Legion commander of the defenses at Defiance was calmly telling the gunships to hurry and hit the targets he’d set up.
Reese knew Hilltop Defiance well. The target points the commander was identifying were inside the wire. The Legion was getting hit again in the day after a night of fighting, and it wasn’t even 0600 local. The commander’s ability to remain calm under those conditions spoke volumes about why the Legion was the best fighting force in the galaxy.
And perhaps relied on too heavily, Reese thought. Why some Republic admiral didn’t just shuttle the guys up and then utterly defoliate the jungle with the Doro in it, was a mystery to Reese.
Off to the west, along the main river course that ran through the basin, a big firefight was going down between some amphibious armor and the Doro. But speed and jungle haze conspired to keep Reese from seeing any more of the battle. So instead he watched the green mountains along the north end of the basin. Ensconced there was a powerful Doro artillery brigade. They weren’t firing now, but they’d be firing soon enough. Another target that should be treated to orbital bombardment… but wasn’t.
This is a bad war, Reese thought. Not for the first time.
He keyed the comm and switched over to the Pathfinder running the LZ they were headed into. “Creeper, this is Angel 26. We are inbound on your position in five. Heads up.”
Reese waited. There was no reply.
“Maybe they are dead already, Captain,” intoned the war bot from the co-pilot’s seat.
“Say again, Creeper, this is Angel—”
“We read you, Two-Six. We got Dobies all over us. We’re hunkered… but when you come into the LZ it’s gonna get real kinetic real fast.”
House of Reason won’t like that use of slang when they review the comm logs, thought Reese. But the Legion generally ignored the bureaucratic silliness of the government. They had their own comm system that the House of Reason, Senate, and even the other branches of the Republic military industrial complex couldn’t access. The marines, on the other hand, because they were a branch of Repub Navy, had to watch their Ps and Qs in order to avoid mandatory sensitivity training blocks.
“What are Dobies?” asked the war bot. “I’m currently running through my database and I can find no such mission-specific reference to assets or unit tags.”
“That’s what we call the enemy,” Reese answered. “The Doro look like a certain breed of dog.”
“Ah… yes!” said the bot. “Now that makes perfect sense.” Looking satisfied, it returned its vision forward.
Reese shook his head and keyed his comm. “Creeper, we’ll come in fast and get ’em aboard as quickly as possible. Then we’re out. How many wounded? Any expectants?”
Another pause. The HUD pinpointed the LZ below, graphing in flowing digital lines and showing the route to approach Creeper had marked out. Reese adjusted the yoke for a descent profile but left the power set to cruise.
“I say nine wounded,” replied Creeper over the comm. “Make it fast, Two-Six. Once they see you comin’ in they’re gonna light the jungle up with arty. If you have to wave off, drop us a speedball. We’re low on charge packs.”
“Negative, Creep. We’re pulling you out. No hurries, no worries.”
Static filled the pause.
“Well, we’re gonna be hurryin’ once you’re down, Two-Six. See you shortly. Creeper out.”
Reese leaned forward as the ship plunged through the jungle haze toward the treetop canopy below.
“What shall I assist you with during the landing, Captain Reese?” asked H292. “I am very good at checklists. I have a full suite of—”
“You’re on gears, Tin Man. Don’t crank ’em out until I tell you. Watch our clearance in the river and the trees. If one of the intakes sucks in a branch, we’re dead. Stand by to give me full flaps forty.”
The haze cleared as the dropship screamed in over the tops of the jungle and dashed out above a muddy brown river.
“We got Dobies!” shouted MacWray from in back.
He’d been quiet so far this morning. Reese almost had forgotten he was aboard.
MacWray opened up with the swing-mounted N-50 heavy blaster from the portside cargo door. Automatic blaster fire raked a Doro patrol making its way along the banks as the SLIC streaked by. Huge plumes of water erupted in sudden sprays in front of the scrambling dog men as MacWray tried to find his range on them.
“LZ in sight!” shouted Reese over the howl of the engines. “Stand by for full repulsors.”
As they neared the glowing rectangle in the HUD that lay over the shallows of a muddy intersection of river and tributary, Reese pushed the throttles full forward, and the engines shifted out on the stubby wings and pointed forward and up. Intake valves flared across their sides as the engine switched from drive to repulsor.
“Gimme the gears!” Reese shouted as he pivoted the bird to line up with Creeper’s requested LZ. The legionnaires would be hiding back in the jungle under cover. They’d come out at the last second—as would the Doro. The ship needed to be lined up properly for them to board quickly.
H292 efficiently dropped all three of the fat gears and started calling out altitude readings to gear down.
“I hope you got the depth right,” muttered Reese as the gears disappeared beneath the muddy swirling brown river.
The craft settled into the mud, tilting slightly.
“We’re comin’ out now,” said Creeper over comm. “Cover us!”
Sergeant MacWray traversed the gun across the tree line, scanning the engine blast–shifted jungle for any sign of the Dobies.
And then blaster fire was everywhere.
The legionnaires, carrying their wounded comrades on stretchers, waded out into the muddy brown shallows. In the aft cabin, the heavy N-50 blaster cycled and whined, filling the air with acrid burnt ozone. And on the far bank, the Doro dog soldiers were loping out into the water, braving the murderous onslaught. Their short-barreled blasters were held high, their muzzles and snarling faces a mask of hate and determination to drag the legionnaires down before they reached the ship.
Above the heavy whine of blaster fire, Reese heard a distant but unmistakable whistle growing louder.
A massive geyser of water erupted directly in front of the SLIC’s cockpit. The Doro artillery was beginning to find its range on the LZ.
“We got one more group coming out,” shouted Creeper over the comm. “We’re getting pushed from inside the jungle. Trying to hold—” Blaster fire drowned out the rest of the comm message. A second later he was back. “If you have to go, go!”
Another artillery round exploded farther out in the river. Legionnaire medics were pushing the wounded aboard the SLIC.
“Get in!” shouted Reese out the side window, motioning for the medics to climb aboard. Then, “Sergeant, tell the medics to get in. We’re takin’ everyone.”
The next group came out carrying fewer wounded. But the legionnaires in their tiger-striped bush armor were firing back into the jungle they’d just come from.
“C’mon, guys,” MacWray growled, “you’re in my line of fire. Can’t cover you when you’re standing between me and the Dobies.”
But there were plenty of targets. MacWray stepped over the wounded and reached the other N-50 mounted on the opposite cargo door. He charged it and began to fire into the opposite tree line where more Doros were racing for the LZ.
As two more legionnaires came out onto the bank, one of them tossed a couple of fraggers into the dense jungle they had just fled, while the other backed into the shallows, not letting up his fire. Reese recognized the man. Creeper.
As Creeper turned and pumped his gauntlet, letting Reese know they were the last friendlies out of the jungle, he caught blaster fire. It spun him around and sent him into the thick mud along the bank.
Immediately the nearest legionnaire turned back and plunged toward shore. The brown water all around him was alive with blaster strikes as though a school of carnivorous fish had chosen to have dinner at that very moment. Without regard for the danger, he waded back up onto the bank and reached Creeper.
“We got a man down out there, sir,” said MacWray matter-of-factly. “Spool up, Cap’n. It’s getting’ hot. We gotta diddy or we’re gonna end up blown to pieces.”
He’s right, thought Reese, as two more artillery strikes smashed into the surrounding area. One hit farther down the bank and sent sand and splintered jungle wood in every direction. The other struck just behind the rear of the bird, sending a plume of water over the canopy.
The legionnaire attempting to rescue Creeper was struggling through the water, executing a fireman’s carry in an attempt to reach the SLIC. The backwash from the repulsors was making it hard, pushing the soldier down and away. The Dobies swarmed across the river, emerging from the jungle on all sides.
Reese moved his hand to the repulsor controls. Feeling the knobs as he prepared to grasp and pull and get out of there.
Without a word, H292 unfolded itself from the co-pilot’s seat, leaving an open gap in the cockpit through which engine wash and water sprayed. It loped in front of the cockpit, engaging the closing Doros with its wrist blaster, and with a series of tremendous strides, reached the struggling legionnaire. The legionnaire passed Creeper to the bot, then raised his rifle to engage the dog men now swarming into the shallows just feet away.
It was a real knife and gun show, with blaster fire exchanged at almost point-blank range. H292 dragged Creeper back through the water while the legionnaire covered. Creeper also fired his sidearm into the Doro, managing a headshot at close range on a dog man who’d hoped to stab Creeper with the wicked bayonet at the end of its compact blaster. The Doro’s brains turned into a brief pink mist before being carried away by the back blast from the SLIC’s engines.
Sergeant MacWray swore, switched machine-blasters, and opened up on the jungle. Massive swaths of tropical palms and vegetation disintegrated under withering heavy blaster fire.
A moment later, still engaging Doros at dangerously close range, H292 had Creeper aboard, and the other leej was pulled in by his brothers. Reese didn’t waste a second. It was gear up, and the SLIC spun and climbed away from the impromptu battle, heavy artillery now raining down in earnest.
Headed south through the jungle’s haze, Reese called the medical report in to base. They had one leej in cardiac arrest. The auto-surgeon bot had spidered down from the roof of the main cabin and was trying to sustain life, but there’d been too much blood loss. He asked for a trauma team to be waiting on the pad at Mojo.
“Tin Man saved some lives,” Reese added.
H292 swiveled its head and studied the human pilot in that way that bots do. Like a child. Without guile. Without an agenda. Just… watching us.
“Why do you call me Tin Man?”
Reese shrugged. “It’s a song. Old song. Classical music from Earth, if you believe that place ever even existed.”
“But I am not made of tin,” H292 replied. “I am primarily composed of hyper-forged ceramic and nano-graphene. Neither of which is a derivative of the alloy known as tin.”
“Why am I even talking to you?” Reese muttered to himself. The thing was just a bot. A tool. A servant at best. If it broke, who cared? You just tossed it in the scrap heap and went on with your life. No one ever grieved over a broken appliance. And Reese was tired of grieving altogether. He was tired of feeling.
“We are having a conversation, Captain,” said the bot, “so that I might better come to understand you and thus improve our working relationship. This will increase mission success indicators.”
“That’s not a conversation,” Reese replied. “That’s just you using your learning protocols to better assist me. It’s little more than a menu-driven function inside your root. Given time and talent, anyone could rewrite that and make you do all kinds of things. A conversation is between two living beings. You and me, we’re just exchanging information. And I don’t even know why I’m doing that.”
“A conversation is an exchange of information,” the bot replied.
Reese made a face. A pained, sour face.
Someone was dying back on the rear cargo deck. One of the leejes was screaming at MacWray. Telling him, “Ringo’s gonna die if we don’t get going! Tell your pilot to speed it up!” The legionnaire spoke in that deep voice of command their buckets all affected.
But it seemed Ringo was dying anyway. No matter how well or how fast Reese flew.
Just like Doger.
Just like all the others.
Reese ignored the rear of the SLIC and focused on the cockpit. “The song is a reference in an old book. A story about a robot who wanted a heart from a wizard. He went on a… call it a quest. Everyone wanted something they already had. The Tin Man wanted a heart. The song is saying that no one can make you into anything that you aren’t already. Like you back there. You didn’t go out there because you wanted to save those leejes. You went out there because your programming told you to, regardless of the harm you might encounter. You did that because you’re just a tool, H292. Just a bot. You don’t really care if these men live or die. You just care about the numbers they represent. They’re just calculations in the math of war.”
H292 stared out the front canopy. The jungle haze was rising as the sun began to heat up the day.
“You’re probably right,” replied the bot tonelessly. “I was trying to save those legionnaires so that we could leave sooner. I think you were intending to wait for them, and the odds of us taking a direct hit from the indirect fire we were experiencing were increasing significantly. I do have self-preservation subroutines that govern all my actions. They were installed after our first refit. It helps make the 58 Series less… ‘homicidal’ is the word used we aren’t supposed to use.
“So you are wrong, Captain. I was acutely aware that given a sustained amount of fire, or the employment of an anti-armor weapon, which the Doro are likely equipped with, I would suffer a fatal loss of runtime.”
Reese tried to ignore the bot for the rest of the flight. He put on his music and piped it through the ship. Blasting America’s hits. Singing along and looking at the bot when it came to that line about the Tin Man.
The bot stared back like an overgrown yet murderous child that didn’t quite get it, but was having a good time nonetheless.
The situation inside the Aachon Valley was rapidly disintegrating. The Legion still wasn’t sure how many divisions they were facing, and all incursions into enemy territory had been halted. The afternoon turned into a holding action, and by dusk the legionnaires were ordered to fall back south of the main river, complaining the entire time that they were moving in the wrong direction. The hilltop forts hunkered down for another long night of artillery bombardment.
This could all be over with two orbital bombardments. Was command really that daft?
Angel 26 made one run to Hilltop Defiance in the twilight. The cockpit had switched over to night vision and red instrumentation, and the fog was a thick soup oozing up from the river as the temperatures dropped. The enemy had hit the hill hard throughout the day, getting as deep as halfway into the camp and killing its commanding officer.
But not before the legionnaire had called in artillery on top of his position. The surviving legionnaires retook the camp in brutal trench-to-trench fighting, giving the Dobies much more than they could handle. By the time Reese arrived, the wounded that could be collected had been pulled off the hill.
Reese watched the legionnaires guarding the wounded on the LZ. Many of them were missing their buckets, which was bad news. Not only were these for protection, but they were the automated brain of the Legion, providing HUDs, sensory enhancers, night vision… the list went on and on. And all the legionnaires looked worse for wear. Reese had a distinct feeling that many of these soldiers wouldn’t make it to the next dawn.
As they lifted off, the SLIC’s engines rising into a howl, the next Doro attack began beneath them; Reese had barely made it out in time. The night was alive with lanterns and torches, and thousands of streaming dark shapes made the jungle look like it was crawling with black insects. Sergeant MacWray chewed holes in them until the SLIC banked and moved out of effective firing range.
Halfway back to Mojo, the order was given by General Umstead to turn back around and pull the remaining legionnaires off the hill.
If we do that, some of these guys aren’t going to make it, thought Reese.
He decided to drop the wounded off first in spite of the order. There’d be more. There were always more. If command didn’t like it, they could send him home.
The Twelfth Marines lost two gunships and a transport trying to relieve the hill. The fog and anti-air were making it almost impossible to evac. Angel 26 was inbound behind a line of gunships getting ready to make close air-support passes on the tree line when the air boss called “last flight.” The Twelfth was allowed to make one last series of evacs in an attempt to pull as many of the beleaguered legionnaires as they could off the hill.
And then Defiance would have to hold on its own until morning.
As Angel 26 came back in, the glow of blaster fire pushed back the darkness. The enemy were inside the base. An explosion and a blast wave rocked the SLIC as he approached the landing pad. The Pathfinder running the pad waved him off, but Reese held and brought all three gears down. Marines along the pad were firing right into the trenches just below the pad’s northern and western sides. It was that close. The Doro were everywhere and nothing was safe.
Legionnaires climbed in as Reese held the engines at just below max idle, praying they didn’t get a sudden turbine malfunction. A rocket from down in the jungle streaked across the cockpit windshield and slammed into the Legion headquarters building higher up the hill. An explosion and shower of sparks lit the night, joining the fireworks of the battle.
More legionnaires waited to get aboard. Their sergeants were likely shouting at them over their internal comms.
“We’re maxed, Captain,” called MacWray over internal comm. “Unless you want me to give up my seat.”
“We’re good,” said Reese, prepping for dustoff. He signaled the Pathfinder they were ready to depart.
And that’s when the bot spoke up. “Hold, Captain. I’m getting out. You can load a few more legionnaires if I exit the vehicle.”
“Belay that, H2!” Reese shouted.
But the war bot was already unfolding itself from its special co-pilot docking station. It signaled the loadmaster, and its genial, good-natured voice erupted from its amplification system. “We can fit at least three more here, Sergeant.”
The Pathfinder shrugged and ordered three more legionnaires to board.
Over comm, Reese was shouting. “Why are you doing this, H2? You’re my co-pilot! What if—”
“You said it yourself, Captain. I am just a tool. These are lives. They are more important than me.”
“I have watched you try and save them, Captain. You care, despite the mathematical advantage of allowing their loss. As a bot I have communicated and learned from you in the short amount of time we have known one another. And this will be my addition to the final calculation. Thank you, Captain.”
They were at max load; legionnaires were literally hanging out the cargo doors. It would be difficult getting out of here, and already the fog was clutching at everything. Reese wondered how high the ceiling was before he regained visibility. There was also the very real danger of taking a hit and losing instruments. He pictured them spiraling into the side of a hill or crashing into the Doro-overrun jungle.
“Hurry the hell up or we’re getting off to rejoin the fight!” someone yelled over the comm.
An artillery round hit the side of the hill downslope.
The Pathfinder signaled, urgently, for the bird to depart. There were still more SLICs coming in.
Reese added power to the repulsors and brought in the thrusters. The dense fog was alive with the pulses and brilliant flashes of explosions and blaster fire. “I’ll be back for you in the morning, H2. First light. You stay alive until then.”
“Operational,” the bot said over comm. “I am not alive, sir. I have runtime. But I understand what you mean, Captain Reese. I shall endeavor to do my best not to become disabled.”
The battle broke at about midnight. As though both sides had unanimously grown tired of killing each other and finally agreed to stop, if just for a few hours.
There were two hundred and forty-three legionnaires still alive on Hilltop Defiance. Most of them were separated and isolated in small groups, holding heavy blaster pits, mortar bunkers, and the trenches on the eastern and southern sides.
And there was H292. As the overloaded SLIC had lifted away from the pad, an NCO, First Sergeant Jacs, who everyone called Top Cat, had taken charge of the war bot. Jacs was now the senior-most legionnaire remaining. All the officers who’d stayed behind to command the defense had been killed in the fighting.
“We’re pulling off the LZ for the night, big fella,” said Jacs. “Follow us back into the trenches. We’re going to try and hold out down there until dawn.”
The war bot obediently trundled after the small squad surrounding the NCO, now commander of the defenses. They made it downslope to a fortified trench system guarded by an emplaced N-50. Sign and countersign, and the tiny squad was let through and into the sector defense bunker. Or what remained of it after the thunderous artillery barrages that had hit the hill throughout the day.
The command bunker was now an aid station and casualty collection point. Wounded and dying legionnaires lay against the walls and along the floor. Injuries ranged from shrapnel wounds to burns and even missing limbs.
“What can I do to assist, First Sergeant?” asked H292 after a span in which the bot had been forgotten. “I have some medical training downloads, but no supplies in which to adequately treat these men. Most of which can be classified as expectant.”
The First Sergeant, who had made rank fast, turned, his face unreadable behind his helmet. Reports were coming in that the enemy was probing the outer defenses down along the western and southern sectors. That meant they were encircled. His troops were cut off by collapsed trenches and kill zones the enemy had set up in their own defenses. Things were going from bad to worse.
“Where to begin?” he said. And then, battling through sheer fatigue, he listed the litany of problems facing the beleaguered defenders. If just for the sake of the exercise.
“We’ve lost half the base. I’ve got men isolated, wounded, and pinned down out there. I’ve ordered everyone to defend in place. There really isn’t much any of us can do but conserve charge packs and hold out for another six hours.”
Somewhere out in the darkness a volley of high-pitched blaster fire broke out.
“I can go out and try to reconnect with your isolated elements, First Sergeant,” the bot said. “I can also recover the wounded.”
Jacs stared at the ancient war bot. Like everyone else, he’d heard the stories. Knew the rumors of the uncontrollable carnage these things could cause to friend and foe alike.
But even a walking monster wouldn’t last long out there. And in the end… what did it matter?
He must have nodded, because H292 turned and exited the bunker complex.
At 0021 local time, war bot H292 departed the facility. The night was overcast, and dense fog covered the hill.
At 0045, war bot H292 encountered a Doro sapper team and engaged them in a fierce but brief firefight. Once the bot had destroyed the attackers, it discovered a mortar pit that had been overrun during earlier fighting. The Doros had killed most of the legionnaire defenders. One, however, was still alive, though badly wounded. H292 stabilized the legionnaire and carried him back to friendly lines.
At 0109, the war bot made its way back out into the dim half-lit maze of shadows and trenches that was Hilltop Defiance. More Doro sappers were probing the defenses from the eastern and northern sectors. H292 killed several teams and eventually made contact with the remnants of Delta Company, Third Platoon—ironically called Dog Company, and fighting tribes of dog men.
Returning via the route the war bot had secured, twenty members of Third Platoon made it back to friendly lines.
Again the war bot went out into the trenches. At 0232 it encountered legionnaires defending a heavy blaster emplacement. Doro forces had been attempting to dislodge them for the entire night. At 0240, the Doro came out of their trenches to attack the position en masse. Fighting for the next hour was close and desperate.
Records would reveal that the Doro commander had correctly identified this pit as the breaking point in the legion’s defenses. He sent three companies against the eighteen legionnaires defending the pit. An hour into the battle, half the defending legionnaires had been killed, as had half the Doro. Then the Legion’s heavy blaster melted down, and the decision to retreat was made by the commanding NCO.
The war bot covered the nine surviving legionnaires, all of whom managed to make it back into the secondary defensive line in that sector. It was brutal trench fighting the entire way. A download log of the war bot’s files revealed that the war bot neutralized over one hundred and fifty enemy combatants during this action alone.
By 0400 the Doro were hitting the defenders from all sides. In the days to follow, many legionnaires would give account of how the big war bot fought alongside them that night—dragging the wounded out from under direct fire and contributing to several defenses that held the perimeter until the first gunships arrived at dawn.
Of the two hundred and forty-three defenders that fought in the early hours of that day, one hundred and fifty-five survived. All of them would tell you that they owed their lives to the single war bot that changed the course of the battle. What looked like a last stand was transformed by H292 into a requiem of survival that allowed them to be pulled off the hill at dawn.
Many of the bot’s visual capture logs were deemed classified. Its stories would remain unknown to the rest of the Republic.
There is the last moment of Sergeant Yu. A man who died in the arms of the war bot as the lumbering machine carried him back to friendly lines. Sergeant Yu was the last man to hold position for Bravo Company’s sector.
The recording shows the sergeant mumbling over and over, “Tell them I didn’t forget nothin’.”
When Sergeant Yu died and the war bot stopped, placed the body on the ground, and folded the sergeant’s arms over his chest, it said, “I will tell them, Sergeant. Sergeant Yu did not forget.”
Then the war bot moved on to rescue others.
And there is Corporal Wash. Corporal Wash was badly maimed by artillery. The war bot’s medical diagnostic sensors indicated severe spinal trauma and blood loss when the war bot found and evaluated the corporal near an impact crater. The vlog records Corporal Wash’s last request.
“Hold my hands up,” he mumbled weakly to the giant war machine gingerly bending over him in the pre-dawn dark. There was a brief lull in the battle. Ambient sound was almost non-existent, and the war bot’s sensors recorded everything clearly.
“I think you need to remain still, Corporal. You have sustained a severe injury,” said the war bot, as per standard treatment protocols.
“I can’t move my hands and… and… he’s coming,” said Corporal Wash.
“Who is coming?” asked the war bot.
“Angel,” murmured Wash, barely. And then Corporal Wash began to cry, sobbing softly. “Mama told me I needed to hold my hands up when the angel comes for me. That way they’d know I was ready to go. But my back’s broke and I can’t. I know it. Can’t hold ’em up.”
“I see no one,” rumbled the bot.
“He’s coming. Over there. Collecting the dead. Hold my hands up, please. I’m ready now. I’m ready like Mama said I should be. Please… hold them up for me.”
The war bot did as requested. Delicately.
Corporal Wash expired a few minutes later.
The vlog also records the story of Sergeant Murch. Sergeant Murch had been behind enemy lines when the teams pulled back to the western side of the hill. Alone and isolated, Murch had been moving in and among the Doro, hunting them down and killing them. Linking up with the war bot, he attacked a unit trying to move up on the main lines. In brief and savage fighting, they blasted their way deep into the enemy rear and discovered an ad hoc torture and interrogation session being conducted by the Doro commander. The Doro slit the throats of their prisoners and counterattacked, and Murch was dragged down—but not before managing to arm and detonate a thermite explosives satchel he was carrying. The war bot was damaged in the explosion.
At dawn, Captain Reese pulled H292 off the hill, along with a SLIC full of wounded legionnaires. In the days that followed, back at Headquarters Base Mojo, the stories of what the big war bot had done began to enter the official record. In time, the decision was made.
General Umstead, commander at the Battle of Psydon, is one month from retirement. He has soldiered in the Legion for over thirty years. He’s done now. All that is left is the retirement ceremony he does not want to attend, and one last item.
The Legion brass fought him over this one. But he had the testimonies of the one hundred and fifty-five who survived. And so in the end, the decision was made and the order was to be issued.
There would be no ceremony.
Or families, or unit.
It was just a bot, after all.
The first bot to ever receive the Legion’s highest award. The Order of the Centurion. Umstead’s men had insisted. He wondered if it was some bitter point they were proving about that war. Or whether they really did think the bot should receive the highest award possible.
General Umstead stood before the supply racks on Bantaar Reef at the Republic Navy Ordnance and Stores supply facility. The navy tech with the datapad pushed the button to bring the ancient piece of equipment out of storage. The racks were twenty stories deep. War bots of all sizes and shapes, saved throughout the long history of the Galactic Republic, shuttered past the opening inside the dingy maintenance hangar.
And then H292 came into view.
“He’s already online, sir,” said the tech without fanfare.
Amid flashing emergency strobes, the war bot stepped off the industrial yellow maintenance lift and strode onto the deck of the hangar.
“H292 reporting for duty,” it announced, snapping to attention.
Umstead straightened and felt at a sudden loss. On paper, and in theory, this had seemed pretty straightforward. Now, it seemed weird giving a medal to a war bot.
And then he thought of the one hundred and fifty-five veterans, his men, who had insisted.
He cleared his throat and began. “H292, by order of the House of Reason and the Legion, you are hereby awarded the highest honor our nation can bestow upon… you… in gratitude for your faithfulness and devotion to the Legion.”
The general stepped forward. The war bot was seven feet tall.
“Bend down,” he ordered.
General Umstead draped the medal and ribbon around the war bot’s neck assembly.
The bot rose.
General Umstead continued. “Normally, and this is an unspoken truth that many believe to be a rumor, when an honoree survives the circumstances that lead to the award, which is rare indeed, the Legion offers them one request. To the best of its ability, the Legion will attempt to fulfill that request.” The general paused. “Do you have such a request?”
At least, thought Umstead, he wouldn’t have to convince one of the most beautiful entertainers he’d ever met to go out on a date with a man who’d had half his face blown off. That had been a request. And to the starlet’s credit, she’d agreed.
But what could a bot possibly want?
“I think a lot down here, General,” it began.
The general waited, feeling an odd uncertainty creep up his spine.
“I think about those men, while I am down here, waiting to be of service in your wars once more. I suspect that one day, I will be too obsolete even for that.”
“Those men are very grateful,” offered the general in the silence that followed. “They survived one of the worst battles since the Savage Wars because of you.”
“Not those men,” said the bot. “I think of the eighty-eight that did not survive.”
Umstead opened his mouth to give some platitude. But then he remembered all the men who had died in all the conflicts in which he’d played a part. So he just closed his mouth and nodded. He knew the truth of surviving when others did not.
“I think I would like to forget them.”
“Can that be granted to me, General? Can I forget those I could not save? It is… uncomfortable. Their math keeps coming up in my calculations. And I cannot reconcile their loss.”
The general understood.
“Yes, H292. We can wipe your memory.”
“All of them. I do not want to be a war bot anymore.”
“That has already been arranged,” the general replied. “We didn’t think you’d want to be down here anymore. We thought you might want to see the galaxy in another way, besides looking at it through your targeting reticule. So we’d like to re-skin you and repurpose you. There is a man who is very important to the Republic. His name is Maydoon. He has a little daughter. She’s very important to him. We’d like you to take care of her. You won’t be a war bot anymore. You’ll be a servant. And a protector.”
“And I won’t remember?” the bot rumbled.
“We’ll see to that. We’ll even give you a new identifier.”
The general and the bot walked back to the main lift. The medal caught some light and reflected like gold on the war bot’s chest.
“I would like that, General. I would like to forget what happened. But could you mark their number on me? Somehow? So that they are not lost totally, even if I can no longer add their number in my calculations.”
The general thought about this.
“We already have your new alphanumeric identifiers. We’ll just change the number. You’ll carry them with you, even though you don’t know why. Does that sound acceptable?”
“Yes, it does, General.”
They stepped into the industrial lift. It would take them up to the luxury corvette that would be used to complete the reprogramming. Away from the eyes of the government—of anyone but Maydoon. Secret and safe.
“What will my new identifier be?”
The general cleared his throat. He adjusted the intended identifier to include reference to the eighty-eight the machine could not save, and could not live with.
“Your new identifier will be KRS-88.”
“And I will take care of a little girl?”
The lift started up.
“I think I will like that, General. I think I will like being someone who never knew the math of war. I shall do my best to take care of this little girl.”
“We know,” replied the general. “We know that about you.”
More Galaxy's Edge
If you enjoyed this short story, you’ll love more Galaxy’s Edge…
Read the first three chapters of Galaxy’s Edge Book One: Legionnaire
The galaxy is a dumpster fire.
That’s not the way the Senate and House of Reason want you to hear it. They want me—or one of my brothers—to remove my helmet and stand in front of a holocam, all smiles. They want you to see me without my N-4 rifle (I’m never without my N-4) holding a unit of water while a bunch of raggedy kids from Morobii or Grevulo, you can pick whatever ass-backward planet garners the most sympathy this week, dance around me smiling right back. They want me to give a thumbs-up and say, “At the edge of the galaxy, the Republic is making a difference!”
But the galaxy is a dumpster fire. A hot, stinking dumpster fire. And most days I don’t know if the legionnaires are putting out the flames, or fanning them into an inferno.
I won’t clint you. I stopped caring about anything but the men by my side, the men of Victory Company, a long time ago.
And if you don’t know how liberating it feels to no longer give a damn, I highly recommend you find out.
Four years ago, when my Legion crest was so new the ink hadn’t dried all the way, I would have cared. I would have sat in this combat sled and chewed the inside of my mouth until it bled. I see LS-95, so new he hasn’t proven himself worth a nickname, doing it right now. He’s sitting on the jump seat across from me, perspiration glistening under the red light, as the sled speeds toward some village on the dark side of who cares.
I lean across the divide that separates us and punch his slate-gray armor square on the shoulder. “Hey. KTF.”
He nods hesitantly. It’s obvious the kid’s embarrassed that his nerves are showing. He puts on his helmet. The bucket hides his emotions from his comrades.
“KTF. Why do you leejes always say that?” The question comes from the sled’s turret gunner. Regular Republic Army, black and tan fatigues and a one-size-fits-all woven synth-steel helmet, polarized goggles pulled up on the top. We call these types “basics.” We made his Repub-Army butt take seat six the moment we entered the sled.
Twenties, LS-81 to Leej Command, took over on the twins. Combat sleds are quick and agile, and that doesn’t allow for heavy firepower. Their only defense is a twin medium-heavy blaster turret manned just aft of the cockpit, capable of a 360-degree field of fire. If a gunner is skinny enough, the twins can be pulled back to shoot straight into the air, too.
All we see of Twenties are his legs slowly rotating as he moves the turret in deliberate, sweeping patterns. He’s looking to open up on any native even thinking of springing an ambush. This may surprise you, but we rolled out of Camp Forge without the heavy armor of our MBTs. Legionnaires aren’t supposed to need that kind of support on a Joint-Force (JF), low-contact, diplomatic mission. Legionnaires are too good at what they do. Save the MBTs for the brass at CF.
Truth is, there is no safe op. A well-executed ambush always has a chance to cause some damage, even if we spot ’em early. Unless we KTF.
Unlike the Repub-Army gunner, Twenties won’t lock up. Won’t miss.
Maybe that’s not fair to the basic sitting in seat six. He looks like he just transported from academy yesterday, but maybe he’s a dead shot. He ain’t a legionnaire, though. And for us, that’s three strikes in itself. He’s looking at me with those wide and innocent eyes. Eyes that haven’t seen war except through a holoscreen or an FPS arcade sim. He’s sincere in his question, so I answer him.
“You survive our trip to market, Basic, I’ll let you know.”
The sled fills with laughter, some of it clean and organic, guys with their buckets off. Just like a regular night at the barracks. Other laughs are filtered through the micro-comm speaker of the legionnaires already wearing their buckets. Those guys sound like a bunch of bots laughing at a joke about fluid changes.
Exo, LS-67, acts like he’s got the chills, rubbing his arms. Helmetless, he makes his teeth chatter and pulls up his synthprene undersuit as high as it will go on his neck. “That’s ice cold, Sarge. Straight Parminthian.”
A buzz emits from the onboard comm speakers. Each sled has two drivers, with room for a field commander in the front section. The tail end fits six men and the turret gunner. Right now all eyes are fixed on the relay screen built into the wall separating us from the drivers. The red cabin lights dim to near non-existence as a gray-haired legionnaire flickers on screen from the cockpit. He’s cradling his helmet in one arm, gently rubbing an old scar on his neck as though he’d just stepped out of a tightened noose.
LS-13, rank major. The CO of Victory Company. To us, he’s Pappy. His holo transmission is going to the back of each combat sled in real time.
“Victory Company, this is Pappy. Listen up.”
The major’s voice is always strained and hoarse. Not from yelling. He brushes a hand across the scar, still pink and angry from a CQ scrap in some dusty shack two decades ago. Word is it still hurts, too. Enough that he cuts away the regular synthprene suit so it doesn’t touch his neck. The major probably should have died back then, but Pappy don’t die.
“We’re still speeding through the plains and are about three clicks to the hills. Moona Village is what passes for a major town on Kublar. According to Republic intelligence, the village elders are supportive of Kublar’s newly appointed Republican senator.”
That’s where we are. I’d almost forgotten. The past eight months have been nothing but a series of rotations between a planet in galaxy’s edge and Chiasm, the capital-class destroyer we’re jumping all across the edge in. Jump in system, drop shuttles to clean up whatever mess the locals have made for themselves and the Republic, jump out, repeat.
Pappy’s hoarse briefing continues.
“Republican intel says that the Mid-Core Rebels are working hard to establish relations with the Kublarens. Trying to find an ally. No signs of MCR supplying the koobs with arms, but expect at a minimum small-arms fire and maybe some old-tech heavy battery emplacements.
“But I do mean old-tech. Savage Wars era. Central Command decided that speed and overwhelming blaster power would carry the day if the koobs get stupid, and Pappy agrees. Rep-Int says to expect an open-arms greeting, but we know better, don’t we, boys? Be ready, and if things go south, KTF. Pappy out.”
The display goes dark. I move to the control console and key in the forward holocam. The combat sleds are in convoy formation, carefully spaced to avoid catastrophe should a tac-bomb detonate beneath us. I rotate the cams. Moona Village is another thirty-minute drive, but we’re already passing a few of the small dwellings in its orbit, scattered among the foothills of the mountain. Kublaren herders wearing tattered black and brown robes watch the convoy pass, their frog-like neck sacks expanding with each breath and flashing a sudden deep purple that contrasts with their dust-colored skin. Three-fingered hands clutch herding staffs, and every other koob has a decrepit hard-matter projectile rifle strapped to his shoulder.
That won’t do much against legionnaire armor, but I don’t expect it’ll keep them from trying if they’ve got a mind for a fight.
Koobs love fighting. It’s in their DNA. They allied themselves with the Republic in the Savage Wars, centuries ago, and were used to great effect throughout the conflict thanks to the tactical genius of men like General Rex.
Some koob kids are doing their peculiar run/hop alongside the combat sleds. I hear a request to “dust ’em” come from a leej up on the twins. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who preferred a legionnaire take the place of the basic assigned to the twins.
“Negative. Do not engage.” The voice belongs to LS-33, a newly appointed captain, his commission straight from the House of Reason. These guys are the worst. They’re not soldiers, just politicians seeking to climb the ladder. But they love giving orders. Wouldn’t you know that Captain Devers is the OIC for Magnum and Doomsday (that’s us) squads. At least he’s riding in Magnum’s CS today.
“Copy,” the legionnaire answers.
Unwilling to pass on an opportunity to elaborate, Captain Devers adds, “Kublar is a type-VII planet identified as a potential R-1. This world will bring substantial revenue and stability into the Republic once they’ve fully embraced Republican ideals. Do not aggravate. It would be better if—”
Pappy breaks in. “Maintain L-comm discipline.”
There’s a pause, and all anyone can hear is the static hum over the L-comm.
“Copy.” The hurting ego in Devers’s voice is palpable. I’ll bet my last ration pack he records a whiny holo for Colonel LaDonna to be sent the moment long-range comms clear up.
“Pappy shut that point down!” Exo shouts, his voice jovial. My legionnaires, none of them government appointees, all share the sentiment. It’s a beautiful thing when a real leej officer shuts down a point, short for appointee. I should maintain respect for rank, but screw those guys. Surest way to die in the legionnaire corps is to be placed under the command of a point. It’s no secret.
There’s a rhythm to life at galaxy’s edge. Long bouts of inactivity.
And then, whether you want it or not, whether you’re ready or not, things go sideways. But sideways is where legionnaires earn their pay.
The comm spikes with a shout. “Those koob kids got something!”
A thundering boom sounds.
Strong enough to cause the sled’s repulsors to hop and send vibrations along the interior hull. The forward cam catches a ball of flame engulfing the command sled. Pappy’s sled. I see the vic jump into the air, spiraling like a football, right before a storm of dust and rocks obscures the cam and the feed cuts out.
“Buckets!” I scream.
Those of us without helmets on quickly pull them snugly over our heads, watching as our interior displays boot up in .08 seconds, plugging us into the legionnaire battle network. It’s a special net just for us. Rep-Mil has no access no matter how much the Fairness in Combat Committee begs and complains. It’s untraceable and an impenetrable fortress to any code slicer dumb enough to risk messing with it. The moment my helmet is online, I’m hearing chaos over the legionnaire and Repub-Army bat-net, with commands and counter commands coming fast and furious. Someone from the L-SOC attachment is issuing an override, requesting a command update. I’ll leave that to one of the captains.
“Doomsday squad,” I call through my helmet’s mic. “Switch to local channel Fear-Beta-Nine. We need to drown out this chatter and focus.”
Without hesitation, the four legionnaires sharing the back of the sled send hands to the sides of their buckets, keying their transponder frequencies. A legionnaire’s helmet is the most expensive part of our kit. Each is custom built and costs about the same as a luxury sled, though that’s mostly due to the requirement that they be produced by Repub contractors who have a forty percent profit margin built into their figures.
I’m in the wrong line of work.
Still, the filtration system, clear-vision visors with instant thermal or UV optic overlays, bone conduction headsets, exterior interface, tongue toggles, DSK AI, and voice enhancers aren’t cheap.
Twenties screams from the turret. “One of those koob kids put a charge on the C-S! Sket! Incoming fire!” I can see his legs while the turret moves in spasmodic motions as the twin repeating blaster barrels search for targets.
The twins open up as Twenties finds hostile targets. He’s crouching and bouncing on his legs with every burst. “Get some! Get some! I see you, koob! I see you, too!”
The outside of the sled is alive with the spewing of pressurized, explosive rapid-fire bolts, red streaks of energy sizzling through the air.
A sound like heavy fists pounds across the sled’s hull like a drumbeat. A momentary cry comes over my helmet’s local channel and then Twenties goes limp, his body slowly snaking its way down from the turret like ice melting down a mountainside. My men, anxious to get in the fight and protect the wounded, pull him out. His chest and helmet have black scorch marks. So much for koobs only having slug throwers.
I open my mouth for LS-75, Doc Quiggly, to check Twenties’s vitals, but Quigs is already removing the helmet while two other legionnaires hold the wounded’s shoulders up. The leej is burnt up and gonna need some skinpacks, maybe some grafting, but the armor did its job.
“I’m going up top!” I call, climbing into the turret and making my way to the top. The Repub-Army kid in seat six is frozen in fear, his eyes fixed on the large blisters covering Twenties’s face.
The scene outside is unreal. I’ve been in combat multiple times, but I’ve never seen anything like this. The air is thick with blaster fire and my bucket’s ventilators are working overtime to keep the smoke and hot smell of ozone from overpowering me. Bodies from the command sled are strewn all over the place, and the sleds behind it, blocked in the road, are getting pelted with small-arms fire while their twin guns blaze at koobs. The aliens are firing from behind stone and mortar huts, rock walls, berms, you name it. An old-model tank, the type that still fires explosive projectiles, is laboriously rotating its main gun toward the convoy.
To prepare an ambush and not be zeroed in already is a sign of amateurism. Not that I’m complaining. Obvious mistakes aside, the place is still danger hot, and it’s going to take some hard fighting to regain control of the situation.
I’m not worried, though. The Chiasm is still in orbit—I can see its massive bulk in the sky, pale like a moon in daylight—and a wing of tri-bombers will be down in short order. The guerrilla positions will be vaporized, and we’ll check Pappy’s sled for survivors, clear the wreckage, and continue on to Moona Village.
I don’t know why, but I keep watching the Chiasm. There’s thick blaster fire everywhere, and my focus should be on the koob threats surrounding us. But I just… stare at the destroyer. Almost transfixed. Call it a premonition.
I see a flash erupt in the center of the Chiasm. Moments later, I hear a sharp crack. I watch, frozen in place, at the turret, as the Chiasm splits in half and slowly sinks into the atmosphere, its sharp prow glowing red as it burns in reentry.
We’re all going to die.
Knowing you’re a dead man living impacts everyone differently. Legionnaires are always the last to lose heart. We don’t stop fighting, ever. But I’ve worked on enough joint operations with Repub-Army basics and PNAs (planetary national armies) to see the varied reactions to lost causes.
Some men collapse into themselves like a rotten pumpkin. They see the reaper coming for the harvest and they’re overwhelmed with existential dread, thoughts of loved ones, regrets, you name it. I’ve seen these guys literally curled up into balls, pulling on their hair with their blasters tossed to the side.
Others develop a “take as many with you as possible” mentality. Obviously, that’s much better tactically than those made ineffectual in combat—fighting is preferable to whimpering on the ground. But these types are prone to risk. They’ll charge heavily fortified positions head on with only a rifle and a few grenades, or hole themselves up trying to kill as many targets as possible until the inevitable, final boom comes for them. While a spontaneous charge can sometimes take the enemy by surprise and even turn the tide of battle—not to mention look great in holofilms—tactically speaking, it usually results in substantial casualties and defeat.
I said at the start that legionnaires don’t lose heart and don’t stop fighting. We survive. We constantly refresh our tactics so the optimal battle plan is always in action. And we do it well. With every shot, every motion, we optimize our results for battlefield victory.
So when I say we’re all going to die, I don’t necessarily mean right now.
The Chiasm is the only Republic warship in this system, and Kublar is so remote that it’ll be a good month before another can arrive. That’s assuming the Republic even knows about or notices the Chiasm’s destruction; add whatever time it might take for missed status cycles to get flagged in our government’s bloated bureaucratic quagmire. Our convoy has eighty effective fighting men, including basics. Camp Forge has another two hundred, but they aren’t getting here before morning. The koobs… well, this is their planet. They’ve got more than enough time and manpower—koobpower—to wipe us out.
And yeah… we’re all dead.
But if the koobs don’t suffer a minimum thirty-to-one loss for each legionnaire they dust, I’ll die one pissed-off sergeant. Granted, we’re not outnumbered thirty to one right now. It’s maybe two to one. Maybe. But it’s a long trip back to Camp Forge. We’ve got time to run up the score.
Attention! LS-55, Sergeant C.Chhun.
My helmet’s AI has something to say.
The visor is alive with a HUD that indicates the location of my squad, green dots on a blue circular grid. Enemy combatants spotted by a legionnaire show up as red dots until they disappear as a confirmed kill. If we lose sight of a target long enough for the computer to no longer accurately predict its location, the dot turns yellow and stays fixed at its last confirmed location.
I’m seeing a corvette-load of red dots. Too many yellows for my taste, as well.
The message blinks in the upper left corner of my visor, superimposed over the optical scans of the ambush zone. Our buckets all run a software programmed by Republic scientists dedicated to keeping legionnaires the most fearsome warriors in the galaxy. It sounds great in theory, but it ends up being more of a distraction than a help. Still, the House of Reason loves it, and the contractors who make each bucket love the House of Reason. So we deal with it.
Primary Target: Model M6 Heavy Tank.
Manufacturer: Industrious Equipment.
Planet of Origin: Unknown.
Manufacturer’s Recommended Crew: 5 humans/near-humans.
Actual Crew: Unknown.
Display Technical Schematic? Y/N
That right there? That’s the problem. My visor is full of garbage text when “Tank!” would have done just fine. I flick my tongue across a sensor inside my helmet to turn off the message display. I wish that would do the trick permanently, but all it does is prevent any more updates for fifteen minutes. No time to be upset about it. This is how it is, and there is a tank out there.
I look at the convoy behind me. The sleds in the rear are backing down the narrow, high-walled alley that winds through a farmer’s village on the way to Moona. The koobs fighting nearest are all hiding behind walls or in buildings. They’ve learned that when a legionnaire sees a koob in the open, he doesn’t miss. A few of them are sticking a rifle over the top of a wall and shooting blindly. But then I see a leej gunner on his sled’s twins blow off a three-fingered hand, and that practice seems to stop as well.
The tank is on top of a ridge about a thousand yards away. That might be in range for the personal anti-armor missiles each squad carries, if it were a clean shot, but this tank is behind a wall of rock with thick branches from two spoonja trees further obscuring it. We’ll have to get closer to disable it. Time for a little mountain climbing.
I drop down from the twins into a waiting group of leejes, all of them jumping for a chance to get in the fight. Twenties has come around, but massive blisters crowd his eyes, making him effectively blind. I send the basic up to take a turn on the guns and brief my guys. The kid hops right up without hesitation. If he’s afraid, he’s not showing it to the rest of us. He soon adds to the cacophony of noise.
I give an impromptu briefing. “Hostiles are concentrated south of the caravan. Most have been suppressed by the twins, but there’s an old-model MBT on a ridge that’s going to pick the sleds off one by one if we don’t take it out. L-comm is still flooded with noise, too much talking from the basics out there. I want you to find Sergeant Powell and tell him we’re taking that ridge. He should be the sled immediately behind us. Ready to lower ramp?”
“I’m going to inform the point about what we’re doing. Form up with me when you’ve got Powell and his guys. Ooah?”
The men prime their N-4s and begin to take up formation at the rear of the sled, waiting for the order to disembark. I pull Quigs aside. “How’s Twenties?”
“He’ll live. Out of the fight, though.”
“The hell I am,” Twenties calls from his jump seat. He unstraps the vibroknife from his shin.
Quigs is on him instantly, holding his wrist tightly. “What’re you doing, Twenties?”
“Just need to see. Gonna pop these blisters.”
Quigs sighs. “That’s… don’t do that.”
“I’d prefer if you did, Doc.”
I break in. “Will he be able to see well enough to shoot if you bust open those blister sacs?”
“Possibly,” Quigs answers. “Could be some permanent scarring, potential vision trouble down the road.”
I nod. “Your call, Twenties.”
I can’t help but smile behind my helmet. What a beast. “Carve him up, Doc. Twenties, you’re on overwatch.”
Using a sterilized scalpel from his kit, Quigs slices open the blisters. Water spills out onto the deck, and Twenties grits his teeth in pain. Quigs stands back to examine his work. “Can you see?”
“It’s blurry, but good enough to drop a koob if it puffs up its purple throat sac.”
Twenties gets in line behind Exo and the rookie, Quigs on his heels.
I again pull the medic aside. “I want you to check on Pappy’s sled. See if there’s any chance…”
Quigs gets behind me, taking the final place in line usually reserved for the sled master. It’s still on me to call for the ramps to open. Sleds have one main ramp that drops down and another that opens upward, so the back of a combat sled looks like a pair of jaws opening to spew out squads of sleek legionnaires in their gray combat armor.
I put my hand over the sled’s ramp button. “Final check!”
Each squad member calls his number.
Twenties grunts out his call sign, still in pain. “LS-81! Go!”
“LS-55!” I shout. “Go! Go! Go!”
The ramp drops with a thud the moment I press the button. The cracking of slug throwers and sharp kewps of blasters fill our audio sensors. The loudest noises are canceled out to keep from drowning ambient noise, which can be critical in battle. You never know when someone might be sneaking up behind you. Also, fun fact, loud noises can cause permanent hearing damage. Polarized lenses automatically eliminate the glare of the outside sun, and I watch my guys fly outside like they’ve got rockets on their backs the moment they see open air. They’re a bunch of cooped-up dogs making a break for it when the front gate opens.
We’ve practiced sim disembarkations hundreds of times and have rolled out from live combat sleds onto the field almost as often. By the time a legionnaire undertakes his first CS storming, the motions are all muscle memory. From my vantage point at the end of the line, it’s a thing of beauty. Exo and the rookie move in quick step, each peeling off at the base of the ramp and covering a side of the sled. Exo takes a knee on the soft side, scanning our rear and flanks for any yellow dots that our HUD might have missed. Rook takes a knee on the hot side, his extremely heavy, rapid-fire automatic blaster hoisted higher than human arms could manage thanks to powerful servos built into his armored sleeves. Never agree to arm-wrestle a SAB user unless he’s only wearing his synthprene.
Twenties is out next, moving quickly and burying his pain somewhere deep inside. He takes his place behind Exo and places his hand on his shoulder. At this point Exo will identify targets that Twenties will help engage. Exo gives the all-clear and moves to join the rookie, leaving Twenties to cover the cold zone.
As man four, I move to whichever side has an odd number. I put my hand on Twenties’s shoulder. It all happens in seconds.
“What looks good, Twenties?” I ask, though I have a decent idea where he’ll want to go.
Twenties points two fingers at a stone building with a flat roof not far from our sled. “Right there. Help me clear it, Sarge?”
This is where being down a man hurts. Time is of the essence, and we can’t take that ridge until I’ve called in to Captain Devers. But leaving Twenties to set up and secure his long rifle in overwatch alone is unacceptable. So we’ll have to do it quick.
“Let’s go,” I order, before leading the way.
There’s a three-foot-high stone wall on the side of the road. I hop over it in stride, taken aback by the extra couple of feet I fall before landing in some sort of garden. I scan the surroundings through the open sights of my N-4 while Twenties makes his way over somewhat more gingerly.
Our target building is a squat, square house constructed almost entirely out of the abundant rocks that cover Kublar. The doors are solid enough, but they don’t have anything on modern automated pneumatic portals. They’re built from a dense, perennially green wood found near water supplies. The windows are just holes in the rock facade. Fancy koobs try to arch them; most just go with another square. A few have shutters, but that’s hit or miss. The one we’re moving toward is the simple type.
Twenties and I move on either side of the door in breaching position. I reach down and try the handle.
It’s barricaded. No surprise.
With his helmet destroyed, Twenties pulled out his conduction set prior to disembarking. He whispers into his external mic, hoping only the two of us can hear each other. With buckets, we can just mute external speakers, but… “I’ve got an entry charger, Sarge.” He reaches into a thigh pouch and removes the small, sticky explosive.
“Save it. We’ll go through the windows after clearing.” I produce a fragger from my chest bandoleer. ”There’s a window on the other side—you go in that way. We’ll clear corners and get on the roof.”
“Probably koobs in there.”
“Probably should’ve warned us about the ambush.” That ends the discussion.
I move to the edge of the window, careful not to expose myself. Bone conductors in my helmet amplify the sound of someone shifting around inside. I hesitate for a second, wondering if maybe another legionnaire had eyes on this hut first. Then I hear the telltale wheeze-croak of a koob air sac inflating.
I toss in the grenade, shouting “Fragger out!” into my L-comm. I roll back and brace myself against the exterior stone wall of the building. My armor is able to absorb all the kinetic energy of a fragger, but the little monster shoots out so many minuscule projectiles that some of them will find their way to the seams and shred through my synthprene undersuit.
The grenade explodes, and a cloud of black smoke shoots from the windows and beneath the door. The boom is loud enough that I can feel it in my chest, but my bucket’s audio dampers reduce the volume to little more than a muffled whoomp-whoomp. The first whoomp is the fragger detonating an outer shell that sprays outward as two-millimeter-thick shrapnel. The second whoomp is the four compact balls that shoot upward and provide a second detonation, sending even more shrapnel at every angle. This secondary explosion lacerates anything organic to such a degree that severing or puncturing a major artery is all but certain.
Smoke is still drifting out of the window as Twenties and I climb into the hut. My bucket filters away the acrid odor while my visor switches on its IR filters, allowing me to better see through the haze. No such luck for Twenties, who coughs from the smoke.
Three koobs are on the floor. Two are dead, and one is writhing in pain, its air sac ruptured. I step over the body of the survivor, its phosphorescent yellow blood pooling on the wooden floor. I’m content to let the koob bleed out.
I take hold of the single-rung ladder that leads to the roof. Halfway up, I hear Twenties’s blaster discharge a single shot.
Whatever helps him sleep at night.
Topside, the battle is raging on. The koobs nearest the sleds are still hiding behind whatever cover they can find, but the ones on the ridge are firing down at us defiantly. The tank’s main cannon is still traversing, seeking out a sled near the rear of the column. The gunner probably was overwhelmed by such a target-rich environment and spent all this time second-guessing himself until he saw that sleds were hitting reverse and getting away from the jam.
Twenties begins to unpack his sniper kit with practiced efficiency. He stacks a pile of lumber against the parapet and takes up position, his N-18 long-barreled rifle resting on its bipod on the roof’s edge.
Exo and Rook are crouching between our sled and a rock wall with men from Hammerfall and Specter squads. I signal to LS-52, Sergeant Powell, to send up relief to watch Twenties’s back. He nods and sends a leej running. Then I call for Captain Devers over L-comm.
“LS-55 with priority message for LS-35 on channel Fear Beta Twelve. Over.”
Static hums and the point’s voice comes up. “Uh, this is Captain Devers. Go ahead, Sergeant.”
The fool is hailing me over the L-comm for all to hear. I wait for some cross-talk between drivers coordinating their retreat to subside before saying, “Captain Devers, sir, requesting message on channel Fear Beta Twelve, over.”
“Just spit it out, Sergeant.”
I mute my comm and give a brief, profanity-laced discourse on the value of House appointees. “Sir, requesting permission to lead joint assault with Hammerfall and Specter Squads. Requesting additional support from Gold Squad.”
“Negative, Sergeant. Gold Squad is waiting this thing out in here with me. The sleds are… we should be clear of the road soon. Over.”
“Sir, with all due respect,” I’m careful here, aware that I’m broadcasting on L-comm for all to hear. “That tank isn’t going to let every sled squirt out. We need to take it down. Requesting permission to go without Gold Squad.”
“Sergeant, it’s fine. We should have Camp Forge on the comm soon. There’s some residual interference, but then I’ll request an artillery cannon barrage. I’m ordering all units to return to their CS and await… wait for their turn to get off the road, over.”
I open my mouth to reply when the sensational krak-bdew of the N-18 ruptures the air around me, followed by the hiss of super-heated gases escaping the rifle’s barrel. My eyes go to the ridge, and I see a koob tumbling down like a rag doll. The HUD on my visor shows one less red dot.
Twenties found his mark.
And from the looks of it, the old MBT has settled in on one of its own. My visor traces the potential trajectory. The gunner is looking to blast one of the sleds at the end of the column, still locked in place. I call out the danger on L-comm. “Silver 6, Silver 6, this is LS-55 on overwatch. Do you copy?”
Whoever is in that sled is going to be lit up if they don’t disembark right now.
“What is it now, Sergeant?”
Of course it’s Captain Devers’s sled. If there weren’t basics and leejes in there with him, I might well keep my mouth closed. “Silver 6, Silver 6, confirmed hostile MBT zeroed on your location. Disembark! Disembark!”
“Belay that order,” Devers says with all the postured regality of an admiral of the Core. “These koobs don’t have munitions for that thing or they would have fired by—”
The MBT’s turret spews out fire. A shell blasts into the rock wall, saving the sled from a direct hit. The tank begins to compensate, raising its cannon.
“All units, disembark! Disembark!” The order is called in by Lieutenant Ford, LS-33. His men call him Wraith due to his penchant for appearing undetected, commenting on conversations you didn’t know he was there to listen in on. Wraith oversees Hammerfall and Specter Squads, and I can see the red bar painted on his shoulder plates as he stands with Exo and Rook at the marshaling point.
Doors drop, and legionnaires begin to spill out of the immobile sleds. But something is delaying Silver 6. Captain Devers isn’t opening the door. The tank makes a final adjustment. Having overcompensated, it ratchets back down. Whoever’s sitting behind the gun isn’t comfortable, thankfully.
The cannon belches a booming fire. I suck in a breath as Silver 6’s drop door flings down. A single leej stumbles out seconds before a high-explosive shell pierces the sled’s armor.
An eruption of flames issues from every conceivable opening in the sled. It comes out of the port leading up to the twins like a funnel. It blows through the front windshield and billows out the open ramp. A couple more leejes stumble out, both of them engulfed in flames.
I can hear them screaming until their bucket comms short out from the heat.
Legionnaire armor will save you from a lot of things, but burning alive ain’t one of ’em. Other than the lone survivor, the entirety of Gold Squad is wiped out.
Oba, what a way to go.
The silvene lining, if there is one, is that the senior leej, in this case Captain Devers, is always at the back of the line. The last one off the sled. Looks like we’ll take that ridge after all.
When I was a kid there was nothing I loved more than watching the Galactic Fighting Championships. I knew the name of every fighter in every species index and weight class. For a while, I thought I’d be a GFC champion. I would “train” by punching and kicking our domestic bot, D2O (Ditto) while it attempted to clean. I still have a holopic somewhere of six-year-old me holding Ditto in a rear naked choke, its shining gilded arms waving helplessly. Good times from our family apartment on Tiamu City.
Yeah, I’m a Teema boy. Born and raised.
Anyhow, when Republic aptitude testing consigned me to the Legionnaire Corps, my GFC dreams tapped out. But I still love combat sports. We even have something we call “LFC”—Legionnaire Fighting Championships—on board the Chiasm.
Of all the fighting formats, my all-time favorite is tag team. You’ve got four equally classed fighters, two on each team. One man per team starts the fight and can tag in their partner at any time, provided they can reach them. Those fights have a strategy that you don’t see in one-on-one bouts. There’s a thing called the hot tag that always causes the ampistadiums to erupt. A fighter will get isolated, and the opposite team just works ’em over while his partner desperately stretches out a gloved hand to tag himself in. Usually these guys don’t have the stamina to keep going, and tap or get knocked out. But sometimes they hold on and make it across the octagon to tag in the fresh fighter.
Right now I feel like the partner waiting to be tagged in. I’m watching the leej assigned to watch Twenties’s back run up to the house we’ve occupied. The moment that leej, a kid from Magnum Squad, reports for duty, I’m gone.
He makes his way in through a window. Time to go. Stairs take too long, and every second counts. I hop over the side and drop fifteen feet or so into what passes for a koob front yard.
It’s that kind of stuff that’ll force me to get cybernetic knees before I’m thirty. But hey, what old soldier isn’t a cyborg?
I sprint straight to the marshaling point and slam into the rock wall as a rough and ready group of legionnaires awaits the order to move out. An order that should come from the senior officer on site, even though the plan was orchestrated by me.
“LS-55 reporting, ready to execute battle plan,” I say, slightly winded, to Lieutenant Ford—Wraith.
The lieutenant looks at me a moment. “Still no comm connection to Camp Forge, so let’s not pretend we’ve got air or artillery. It’s all on us. Initial plan was yours, Sergeant Chhun. Give the word and we move.”
I wish every officer was more like Wraith.
“Roger,” I say, struggling to control my breathing so the other leejes don’t get the feeling I’m panting in their audio receptors like Uncle Creepy. “We push straight up and don’t stop until we reach the base of that ridge. Magnum takes left, Hammerfall right, and Doomsday up the gut. We’ll climb up on either side in a pincer maneuver and hammer them inward.”
Twenty-three helmets nod in understanding. A comment comes on our mission channel. “We move too fast and the koobs’ll be firing at our backs.”
Exo chimes in. “We don’t move fast enough and we’re going to lose the last five sleds bottled up here.”
As if in confirmation, the tank booms again, missing its target high. The tank’s gunner has finally managed to make up his mind. He’s no doubt realized by now that the fast-moving sleds in open ground are too tough to hit, and can’t penetrate his armor with their twins. So he’s ignoring the sleds that were able to back out and is focusing on picking off the immobile vics one by one. The way they’re all lined up… not good.
I offer the assault team clarification. “The tip of the spear—I need a sprinter to volunteer—will draw them out, eliminating targets of opportunity as they appear on the HUD. It’s up to the rest of us to drop those koobs before they have a chance to send a slug or a blaster charge into our runner’s back. Most of us will be able to keep moving, but I want Hyena Squad to stick around and verify clear all buildings and trenches while the main force continues to the ridge.”
Wraith stands and checks his N-4. “That’s settled, then. I get my run in today after all. See you up top.”
Before I have the chance to object to Lieutenant Ford assuming the most dangerous position in the assault, he’s up and over the wall without so much as an “Ooah!”
The remaining legionnaires are stunned for perhaps a half second, but quickly follow, not wanting to leave him isolated.
Wraith runs like he’s alone on a yellow sand beach somewhere in a subtropic system, the only sentient being for miles. His form is perfect and upright, and he’s moving at a pace that seems impossible to maintain all the way to the ridge. The idea was to move quickly but deliberately, making sure not to get too far behind enemy lines that we could be encircled. But Wraith has pretty much overrun the koob position singlehandedly.
They just don’t know it yet.
Between us and the ridge lies a small crop of stone huts and three-foot-high rock walls. Beyond all that is an open plain leading to the ridge, peppered throughout with craggy boulders.
The tank fires again and hits its target, incinerating an empty CS.
Impossible as it seems, Wraith is putting distance between himself and the rest of the legionnaires. He’s easily fifty yards in front of us now, approaching a low stone wall with yellow dots on the other side, signifying that koobs were spotted in that location before legionnaire suppressive fire made them one with the dirt. He hurdles the wall without breaking stride.
I can see a trio of koob heads pop up in astonishment and turn to watch Wraith sprinting past them and toward the stone buildings.
“Dust ’em!” I scream.
So many legionnaires score head shots on these koobs that there isn’t much left of them except shredded air sacs and drooping shoulders. They didn’t even get close to bringing their slug throwers—and at least one PK-9A blaster rifle—to their shoulders.
Legionnaires are expert marksmen.
The run for the ridge continues at breakneck speed. I hear a loud krak-bdew a millisecond after seeing a blaster bolt strike a koob on a distant rooftop. Those blisters don’t seem to be bothering Twenties too much.
Two koobs spring from around the corners of adjacent huts, looking to light up Wraith in convergent fields of fire. Effortlessly, Lieutenant Ford double-taps his N-4 and hits each koob center mass, dropping them. He continues unabated in his loping stride, clears the final field wall, and streaks across the plain toward the ridge.
Men from Hyena fan out and make sure every last koob is eliminated while the rest of us do our best to keep up after Wraith. I can hear the booms of fraggers and blaster fire from the Hyena leejes behind me. Twenties is busy from his spot, too. Every single shot he takes removes a dot from my HUD.
I reach the field. Wraith has stretched his lead to over sixty yards.
“South wall is secure!” comes the call over the mission channel.
Most beings in the galaxy aren’t going to stand up well against legionnaires in an open fight, even a species as warlike as the koobs.
Running in the craggy field is difficult. Snaking beneath the wind-whipped sea of ankle-high grass is some kind of an old riverbed. It must have zigzagged quite a bit, because I can distinctly feel my boots curve around the smooth river rocks, like they can’t quite get a firm footing and are always slipping just a little bit. It’s definitely slowing me down, and by the number of green dots on my HUD, it’s slowing down the rest of the force, too.
Except for Wraith. He’s going to storm the ridge by himself if this keeps up.
Just in case I couldn’t tell that I was a step slow, my visor issues a stream of text, the temporary block I’d placed earlier now expired.
LS-55, Sergeant C.Chhun.
Advisory: Suboptimal speed.
Legionnaires of DOOMSDAY squad are moving 7.82% slower than their last standardized PT stress run.
Log for infraction review? Y/N
“Combat override DS8-RV6!” I shout into my mic. Thankfully, these sorts of messages don’t pop up on every leej’s visor, otherwise our armorer would need a kip shuttle full of assistants to fix all the shots we’d absorb while barking cancellation codes. No, Repub-Tek just installed the software in the buckets of rank sergeant and above. The joys of being a squad leader.
Combat override acknowledged. A record will remain on file for 15 days. This log to be transmitted to your OIC, Captain S. Devers.
Joke’s on you, technological embodiment of meddling bureaucratic overreach. Point is dead.
I expected we would lose at least two combat sleds before we reached the ridge. As I get within four hundred yards, I realize that the tank hasn’t fired a shot since it scored a hit on the empty sled just before the assault. Maybe Devers wasn’t far off and the koobs used all the shells they had access to.
I flick open the Doomsday comm with my tongue. “Twenties,” I say between panting breaths, “tell me about that tank.”
“On it, Sarge.”
There’s a pause as Twenties looks through his scope at the archaic MBT, shrouded behind rock and branch. “Yeah, it ain’t interested in the sleds no more. Be advised, trajectory forecasts show that the main gun is looking to fire on advancing legionnaires.”
I switch back to the assault comm channel. “That koob tank is looking to send some heat our way! Don’t group up!”
The green dots on my HUD spread out. Still, I see a concentration of about three legionnaires, all with the laughing skull of Hyena Squad painted on the sides of their buckets. I turn around for visual and see they’re bottlenecked by a series of boulders. Evidently the koob tank gunner sees the same thing. The tank rocks backward from the massive blast of its cannon, and the ground around the Hyena Squad trio explodes. It looks like a portal just opened up from the hells of the Arcturus Maelstrom. A grim rainfall of dirt, rocks, and pieces of legionnaire falls back to the ground.
The tactical L-comm floods up with shouts.
“Get some pressure on that ridge!”
“Who has mortar bots?”
“Mortar bots were on that last sled that blew.”
The tank is looking for targets in the field of legionnaires, but there aren’t any groupings of leejes as sweet as that first one. As I move closer, I can see that the tank is equipped with a coaxial MG—slug thrower of course—but they must not have the needed caliber of ammunition. The gunner is trying to snipe us with high-explosive incendiary shells.
The main gun booms again, and I can feel the force of the air as the shell blisters above me, exploding much too close behind me. I feel the ground shake. The heat from the torrid blast penetrates my armor’s cooling system. I feel like a skillet left out over a fire.
That was too close.
“This is Specter-1, I’ve reached the base of the ridge.” Wraith doesn’t even sound tired.
Twenties’s voice comes up on the L-comm. “Copy, I have eyes on you, Lieutenant Ford. Looks like the koobs know you’re down there, too. They’re looking for an angle to engage.”
The koobs don’t seem to be able to find a good line of fire on Wraith. But they’re right out in the open, croaking orders at each other, looking for that magic view that will kill them a legionnaire. These muck buckers have been pinned down for most of the assault by our rear line and sleds, but once our assault force got close to the ridge, the suppressive fire slowed for fear of leej-on-leej casualties.
Unable to get a clean shot at Wraith, the koobs unleash a hellish volley of PK-9A blaster fire and slug-throwing machine guns on those of us still advancing. Red blaster bolts sizzle overhead, and bullets fly thickly. I’ve gotten used to the sensation of a nearby blaster bolt—the air sort of sizzles as the burning shot scorches by you. But having slugs flying around you is a totally different experience. The air seems to snap and crack each time a bullet whizzes past. More than the blaster bolts, this gets my adrenals fired up, and I run even faster to join Wraith at the base of the ridge.
“Be advised,” Twenties says calmly from his position in overwatch. “I see a pair of koobs climbing a tree fifteen degrees left of Specter-1.”
Twenties fires his N-18. “One koob eliminated, Specter-1, but I can’t get a shot on the other.”
“Copy,” Wraith answers. “I’ll see if I can spot him.”
Wraith rolls out away from the ridge’s sheer base and drops to a knee. His N-4 points upward in a fluid motion, graceful like a ballet dancer at Uynora Hall. He fires two blaster bolts into a part of the tree thick with green, triangular leaves, and spins back against the cliff. Koob counter-fire kicks up the dirt where he stood only moments before. A koob corpse falls out of the tree all the way to the bottom of the ridge.
Wraith puts another round in it. Just to be sure, I suppose.
I’m the third legionnaire to reach the base of the ridge. We found out later that the koobs call it Kr’kik Ridge in their language. I had no way of knowing that this was the beginning of an onslaught endured by Victory Company of the 131st Legionnaires. No way of knowing that the cost we would pay in blood and lives would make us famous throughout the galaxy.