I Chapter Thirteen: Exercise Again
February 23, 2525
(Military Calendar) \
Harvest, Epsilon Indi System
There were less of us here than last time.
The scenery had drastically changed as well.
The reactor complex used to be surrounded by wheat fields. The only topographical variation was the gradually sloping hill to the west.
Now that hill was gone, cleared away by Mack’s JOTUNs, revealing what had been buried underneath.
Harvest’s mass driver looked like a giant railgun. Harvest once used it to fire nuclear waste into the sun, but these days it just went BOOM every year for the Solstice Celebration.
We sat in the fields outside the reactor complex for about an hour before the mass driver suddenly blazed to life, firing two rounds north in quick succession.
I clamped my hands over my ears. A soft ringing oscillated underneath all other sound. It was a miracle my eardrums hadn’t exploded.
"How 'bout a fuckin’ warning next time!" Billings screamed to the sky.
A few minutes later, Staff Sergeant Byrne ordered us to pull back into the complex.
We obeyed his orders, puzzled.
The whole point of us being out in the surrounding wheat fields had been to give us as much cover as possible from the alien dropships.
On the other hand, none of us were about to question Byrne’s orders.
“Listen up, Second Platoon!” Byrne commanded our attention as we got squared away within the reactor complex. “Mack reports Captain Ponder was successful in luring the alien warship into the mass driver’s line of fire. The warship has been destroyed. The Captain did not survive. If we make it off this planet alive, it will be thanks to him.”
Captain Ponder was dead?
I followed Critchley up the series of ladders to the roof of the reactor tower, numbly scaling each rung.
The world felt like it was missing something.
When we reached the top of the tower, I grabbed my spotting scope and scanned the northern horizon.
If these alien land vehicles were careening towards us from Utgard, they would be approaching from the north.
Stisen’s squad positioned themselves atop the reactor complex’s lower roof, overlooking the entrance gate.
Bravo guarded the back of the roof, behind the reactor tower. Carrol was going to shield Alpha Squad from any assault to the rear of the complex.
Habel’s squad remained on the ground, entrenching themselves on either side of the facility’s entrance doors.
Staff Sergeant Byrne blocked the fence’s entrance gate by parking a warthog in it. He killed the engine and climbed out of the jeep.
The Staff Sergeant lit a quick cigarette before hopping into the back of the warthog, grabbing the handles of the mounted minigun.
For a while, no one moved. No one spoke.
Were we ready?
I spotted a dusty wisp on the northern horizon.
“Possible contact north,” I reported over COM, keeping an eye on the wisp through my scope.
It was getting closer.
“Confirm that, Critchley,” Byrne ordered.
“Confirmed,” responded Critchley. “Something’s definitely coming this way. Could be a JOTUN.”
I switched my scope to thermal imaging, which showed me three distinct heat signatures.
"Make that three confirmed contacts north," I updated, a sick feeling settling into my stomach. "They’re coming right at us. I don’t think they’re JOTUNs, sir."
"Acknowledged," Byrne responded. "Second Platoon, get ready to kill."
A minute later, three hellish vehicles burst from the wheat fields. They looked like mechanized antigravity plows with a shitload of giant razorblades attached to the front wheels.
Each hell-plow was driven by a member of the brutish, apelike species from the first contact.
“They’ve got ape drivers!” Critchley shouted over COM.
"OPEN FIRE!" Byrne bellowed, loud enough to be heard by everyone without the COM.
A storm of lead tore through the air as Second Platoon vented its collective anger on the lead vehicle, sending sparks dancing across its metal chassis.
Byrne spun up the warthog’s minigun, blazing away at the oncoming aliens.
“Get down!” Critchley snapped at me.
I dropped to my stomach, crawling up to the edge of the reactor tower roof.
The hell-plows roared onto the access road, their bladed wheels ripping up the pavement tore up the pavement of the access road as they made a beeline for the gate.
That lead vehicle would have been toast had the other two vehicles not intervened.
The second and third hell-plows both fired some kind of booster rocket, sending them hurtling past the lead vehicle. They swerved off the access road, and smashed right through the chain link fence.
This divided our fire and nearly scattered Charlie Squad, saving the life of the first alien.
Byrne managed to squeeze off a few seconds of sustained fire warthog's turret, but it wasn't enough.
The first hell-plow fired its boosters as it approached the gate, slamming into the warthog head-on, tearing through the military jeep like it was made of plywood.
Byrne dove from the warthog at the very last moment, barely avoiding getting shredded into kibble.
The second and third hell-plows, having neutralized the chain link fence, opened fire on the facility roof with more of those burning spikes, forcing Alpha and Bravo to hunker behind their sandbags.
The first vehicle circled around the back of the facility before making another pass at Byrne, who’d reached safety behind sandbags with Habel, Jepsen, and Vallen.
The alien driver fired the twin spike rifles mounted on its front wheels, strafing Charlie Squad’s sandbags.
When no one from Charlie Squad got hit by the barrage, the alien driver lost patience. It fired hell-plow’s booster rockets, accelerating towards Habel and Byrne’s shelter.
Byrne tackled Jepsen and Vallen, pushing them out of the way just as the vehicle tore through the barrier of sandbags.
The alien backed the vehicle up, revving for another go.
Critchley and I both managed to shoot the alien as the hell-plow’s boosters recharged, but its energy shields sparkled, nullifying our efforts.
The alien fired its booster rockets, careening forward.
Byrne hurried into the facility, followed by Habel and Jepsen.
Vallen was too slow. He vanished under the slicing wheels of the accelerating hell-plow, reappearing as a chunky red mist.
Several rounds struck the alien driver in the helmet, momentarily stunning it and causing its vehicle to swerve into the wall of the facility.
The alien abandoned its vehicle, roaring defiantly as it sprinted through Charlie Squad’s fire and barreled into the facility in pursuit of Byrne and the others.
“Should we help?” I asked Critchley.
“Absolutely not,” the SWAT veteran replied. “We need to kill the other two. Byrne’s on his own. He can handle himself.”
The remaining two hell-plows continued to circle the facility, showering our defenses with spikes. The sandbags were beginning to melt.
Critchley and I did our best to return more precise fire, but it was difficult to do very much when burning spikes suddenly speared into the polycrete next to me every time I popped up my head.
Those vehicles were moving at a breakneck speed. Managing to hit the drivers at all was an achievement unto itself, rendered moot immediately after by the aliens’ energy shields.
Alpha and Bravo huddled under cover far more often than they were able to effectively return fire, and the remaining Charlie Squad recruits weren't able to even poke their heads over their sandbags.
I peeked over the edge again and took aim with my carbine at the nearer of the two circling alien vehicles, squeezing off five rounds.
One round actually clipped the alien’s right arm, to my utter surprise and delight, causing its energy shields to shimmer.
The hell-plow swerved violently as the alien driver’s right arm was suddenly knocked away from the controls. I could hear the alien’s angry roar from all the way up here.
I swear it looked straight at me, teeth bared, completely ignoring Alpha and Bravo. As it made another pass behind the facility, the alien took something from its belt and threw it.
A small, spiky black object thucked into the polycrete just underneath me. The top of the object was sparking with orange light.
It took me a moment to realize the orange light was a fuse.
"Grenade!" I screamed, scrambling up to my knees. "Critchley-"
The damn thing detonated in front of me just as I was throwing myself back.
A fist of shrapnel and polycrete splinters punched me right in the gut, sending me flying across the roof. I smacked my head on the polycrete as I skidded to a stop, blinking away the dancing stars.
"Garris!" Critchley crouched next to me, tearing open the front of my fatigues. “Stay conscious. Whatever you do, stay conscious.”
I looked down at myself.
My entire abdomen was marred with puncture wounds and lacerations. Splinters of polycrete had lodged themselves inside me.
“I think… I need antiseptic…” I murmured.
“You’ll need a hell of a lot more than that when we get back to Utgard,” Critchley grunted, ripping the can of emergency biofoam from my belt.
“Thought it would hurt more…”
“Oh, just give it some time,” Critchley assured me. “You’re still in shock. Enjoy the numbness while it lasts.”
Unfortunately, Doc Healy was not here. He’d accompanied First Platoon to the Tiara, as the space op was projected to yield more casualties. Those of us still on the ground would have to hang in there until we got medical attention in Utgard.
“Can you still fire your weapon?” Critchley asked me.
“Yeah, I think so-”
“I’m not asking you what you think.”
“Help me up.”
Critchley threw my arm over his shoulders and hauled me up, supporting me as I put weight on my legs. I swayed with dizziness for a few moments after he let go of me, experiencing something like a head rush.
I took a deep breath and the dizziness subsided.
Critchley picked up my M6J, offering it to me.
I limped back to the edge of the tower roof just in time to see the first alien emerge from the facility’s entrance doors, holding Staff Sergeant Byrne as a human shield.
Byrne looked like he lost a fight with a bear. His helmet and assault vest were gone, revealing a blood-soaked face and four deep lacerations across his chest.
Charlie and Alpha Squads immediately took aim at the alien.
"Cease fire!" Stisen shouted. "Cease fire! You'll hit the Staff Sergeant!"
Byrne seemed to protest, but he couldn't speak coherently – his jaw appeared to be dislocated.
The alien let out a guttural bark and forced Byrne down to his knees. It lay the curved blades of its spiker rifle onto Byrne’s shoulder and sliced gently.
The Staff Sergeant screamed garbled obscenities at the alien as the crescent-shaped blades grated across his collarbone.
The alien held the spiker blades against Byrne's throat, growling threateningly.
I don’t speak alien, but there was no misinterpreting its message.
“Contacts east!” Carrol reported over COM. “Contacts east! I’ve never seen so many in one place, before!”
I looked east, away from the activity below.
An army of JOTUNs was rolling crested the eastern ridge.
Army is the best way I can describe it. There were at least ten of the massive Series-Five combines, and several dozen of the Series-Fours. Hundreds of obsolete Series-Twos and Threes rumbled alongside the larger behemoths. Cropdusters swarmed overhead.
It had to be Mack. Only an AI was capable of performing so many simultaneous tasks.
The alien holding Byrne hostage unknowingly lowered its weapon a bit as it caught sight of the oncoming stampede of JOTUNs.
That was the last mistake it would ever make.
Critchley fired a three-round burst, striking the alien’s helmet while it was momentarily distracted.
The dazed alien lost its grip on Staff Sergeant Byrne.
We opened fire immediately, drowning the alien’s energy shields with concentrated firepower. The shields flickered and failed, exposing the armor underneath.
The alien was quickly cut down, falling onto its back, gushing dark red blood from dozens of bullet wounds.
The remaining two aliens turned their vehicles around and retreated, eager to leave before the mass of JOTUNs arrived.
We managed to shoot one of the aliens from its vehicles, but the third fired its booster rockets and sped out of range, making for the open wheat fields.
It didn't get very far.
Two JOTUN cropdusters from the advancing army of machines streaked out of the sky and slammed kamikaze-style into the alien vehicle with the accuracy of guided missiles, erupting in a massive fireball.
Cheers broke out among our ranks.
An agonized roar of pain disrupted the celebration. The alien we’d shot off the second hell-plow was still alive. With its one remaining arm, it tried to crawl off the access road and into the grass.
"Waste the fucker!" I heard Billings scream.
Billings, Dempsey, and half a dozen more recruits from Alpha and Bravo jumped down from the first story roof and sprinted across the wreckage of the chain link fence to the wounded alien, kicking and clubbing it with their rifle butts until it stopped moving.
Carrol and Worthington, meanwhile, emerged from the facility carrying the bodies of Habel and Jepsen.
There was nothing left of Vallen to recover.
As Billings and company finished off the final alien, a Series-Four gondola broke off from the formation of machines and approached the reactor complex, deploying its ramp while backing up to the entrance gate.
Several of the small, spidery JOTUN all-in-ones skittered down the ramp, heading towards the reactor complex.
Critchley had to help me down three different ladders back to the ground, but somehow we made it without falling.
The JOTUN all-in-ones passed me as I hobbled toward the waiting gondola. Critchley helped me up the loading ramp, getting me to an open spot where I could lean back against one of the gondola’s walls.
Burdick and Stisen came up the ramp next, carrying Staff Sergeant Byrne.
"Where are they going?" Burdick asked, gesturing with his head towards the all-in-ones, which by now were entering the facility.
"Who cares?" Stisen replied. "We're getting the hell back into town."
They set Byrne down next to me. He looked even worse up close – that alien beat the fuck out of him.
“You look like seven different kinds of shit, sir,” I said to him.
The Staff Sergeant tried to say something in response, but his jaw would not cooperate.
“Glad you’re still alive,” I added. “Thank you for preparing us.”
Billings, Dempsey, and the others who’d finished off the alien on the ground piled into the gondola last.
The Series-Four’s loading ramp folded up. It turned away from the mass driver and began to rumble northwest towards the Gladsheim Highway.
When we reached the highway, we clipped along at no less than ninety miles per hour, speeding our way north to Utgard.
Byrne made eye contact with me and tried again to speak, but all he could manage were garbled grunts.
Until Doc Healy reset his jaw, the Staff Sergeant wouldn't be saying anything more complex than, “Mmmrghrg!”. Instead of trying to speak again, Byrne extended a handto me. His intent was clear.
I grasped his hand and shook it firmly.
Byrne shook the hands of every single recruit aboard the JOTUN before giving up on his battle to stay awake.
I watched the wispy cirrus clouds crawl by as we sped north along the highway, watched flocks of birds making their way to their nests for the evening.
The sun sank towards the western horizon.
When it rose again in the east, there would be no more humans left on Harvest.