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Twelve

 

 

 

232

Twelve

The Battle for Hubbard

Omaha Forward Operating Base

May 3rd 06:00

D-Day Plus Two

She floated in a dreamless sleep that was somewhere between actual slumber and the beginings of wakefulness.

  A voice beckoned, but she did not wish to follow it.  If she did, Minerva knew that it would lead her back to the fear, and the exhaustion that came with the battlefield.  But, the voice would not let her alone, continuing to call her name until she was forced to secede to full consciousness.

  “Sergeant Carreno.”

  It was a man’s voice, coming from her helmet pick-up.  Her visor was shut, and she felt closed in.  Her body ached, muscles stiff, feeling as if the armor had shrunk against her swollen muscles.

  “This is headquarters, Sergeant Carreno.  Wake up.”

  Minerva thought-keyed her mic, eyes still closed against the coming day, “Go ahead, I read you.”

  Her own voice was cracked, throat sore from all of the shouting the previous day.  She swiped the visor open, yawning.  Morning had broken, bringing its light to a clear sky.  Other marines milled about listlessly, rousing from where they had lain down the night before.  She herself had hopped down from the truck, and bedded down on the first patch of open grass that she could find.

  Now, she sat up, rubbing at her face, trying to coax the sleep from her eyes.

  “The regimental commander requests your presence in the headquarters tent,” the voice persisted.

  “Can I at least pee first?”  She snapped, still groggy, and not fully comprehending the nature of the invitation.

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  There was a pause, then a reply with laughter in the background, “Colonel Strasburg says that attending to your morning needs are fully encouraged.  He’ll see you as soon as you’re done.”

  The glue in her brain finally gave way, and her eyes popped open with the realization that this was the top echelon officer summoning her for a meeting.  She jumped to her feet, berating herself for her stupidity.  The need for relief would not allow delay, though, so she sought out the latrines, and stumbled into a free stall.  She shivered with the pleasure that comes with the release of bodily demands after a hard sleep.

  Regretting that she’d failed to refill her canteens, thus without a way to wash her hands, Minerva emerged, and scanned the ever-growing base, looking for what would be the HQ tent.  There were so many marines milling about that it seemed as if all of Fort Dixon had arrived, then she remembered that in fact was very much the case.  The entire division had been deployed on this operation.  Somewhere in that sea of marines was her fiancée, at least she hoped.  It was frustrating.  Now that she had time to find him, there was this meeting that she was being paged for.

  She spotted what had to be what she was looking for on the far end of the FOB, and began walking toward it.  The route took her near what remained of the battered fortification that had been dubbed ‘the wall,’ and glanced through one of the gaping blast holes, pausing in her hike to have a better look.

  The eastern side of it was a wide, long expanse of churned soil pocked with craters.  A ruined farm saddled the far end, where a motor pool, and a flight line were being established.  There were still rows of covered bodies waiting for transport to the Graves Division.  Far too many rows.  To her surprise, there were scores of civilians clustered out on the highway, behind a roadblock set up at an old service station.  Among the throes of people were news vans with their camera poles extended up into the air.  What had been the site of a massive military engagement the day before was now a tourist attraction. 

  There were also flatbed trucks being loaded with crates of supplies being delivered by the helo-shuttles; a lot of supplies. 

  “Best not to keep the colonel waiting.”

  Minerva turned to the source of the familiar, basso voice.  Ford was standing behind her with his helmet in one hand, and a canteen cup of coffee in the other.  A cigar jutted from its proper place in one corner of his mouth.  An expression of mild amusement sat pleasantly on his usually hard face.

  “Top!” She beamed, happy enough to almost hug him.  It was so nice to see a familiar face.  She noticed the additional rockers on his rank insignia, “Sergeant major?  How long was I gone?”

  Ford laughed good naturedly, “Long enough for you to make a reputation for yourself.”

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“Huh?”

Ford casually sipped at his instant coffee.

Minerva shuffled her feet, “Um, do you know anything about Mark…I mean Sergeant Corbin?”

“If you’re referring to Master Sergeant Corbin,” Ford answered, puffing smoke, “he’s not only fine, but pretty well going apeshit with worry over you.”

With a mixture of relief, and additional surprise, she slowly shook her head, “I was gone only a day, wasn’t I?”

Ford held out an elbow, “C’mon.  You’ve got a date with the colonel.”

Minerva took his arm, and allowed him to lead the way.  It seemed that things were going remain a mystery for the moment.  She contented herself with knowing that at least she would soon be reunited with her friends.

Entering the headquarters tent was not unlike entering a cave, with its dim interior in comparison to the bright morning sunshine.  The vast canvas palace was lined with work stations powered by plasma-diesel generators on one side, a desk and planning table on the other, and the officer’s sleeping area in the back.  She took notice that within the confines of the tent, Ford stopped to offer a proper salute to the colonels, and she did likewise.

Strasburg was seated at his desk, polishing off a tray of scrambled eggs and sausage.  He casually returned the salute with his fork, and indicated the chairs before his desk, “Sit, please.”   

It was a bit of a challenge to sit in the folding chairs with all of their field gear strapped to their armor.  Minerva figured out that it was easier if she balanced her butt plate near the outermost edge.

“Would you like a coffee and a sweet roll?” Strasburg asked.  “The navy cooks that helped to set up the chow line really know their stuff.  Highly recommended.”

Minerva was absorbed by the colonel’s barely contained energy.  His eyes danced with a mad glee, lighting a gaunt face that emoted the full gauntlet of emotions in the spans of mere seconds at a time.

Ford accepted the offer, so she did the same, following his lead.

Strasburg reached for a TV remote, and pointed it at a monitor next to his desk.  A recording began to play, one that Minerva watched with shocked fascination.  It was the newsfeed of her the previous evening, taken from an aerial viewpoint, showing every graphic detail as she single-handedly attacked the anti-aircraft battery.  The colonel paused it as she lifted the crew hatch, and dropped in a grenade.

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“Can you explain this to me, young lady?” Strasburg asked.  His voice was hovering somewhere between curious and threatening, it was difficult to ascertain which.

Minerva swallowed, and shifted uneasily in her chair.  She was at a loss for words, feeling cornered.  She wondered if she were somehow in trouble.  Not knowing what to say, she decided to simply voice the first thing that came to her mind.

“Sir, it was them, or us.  I chose them.”

Strasburg blinked, then ever so slowly, bloomed a toothy grin.  He shifted his gaze to Ford, his eyebrows going up.  Ford said nothing, merely accepting his refill from the aide, and taking a sip.

The colonel waggled a finger at Minerva as his grin broadened impossibly more, “You, Sergeant Carreno, sport what is referred to in the business as ‘brass balls.’”

Minerva’s jaw dropped of its own accord.

Strasburg waved the remote at the monitor, “Do you realize that this has been played on every newsfeed across the planet?  Shit, across the allied frontier!”  He shifted forward abruptly, folding his hands like a studious student, eyes bulging.

“You, Sergeant Carreno, have sent a message to not only the citizens of the Trade Alliance, but to the Storians as well.  You have said that we are one very pissed off society, and that we’re on the warpath.”

Minerva forced her mouth to close.  She inwardly questioned the sanity of her regimental commander, or whether his display was merely an impassioned one.

Strasburg’s gaze bored into her, “Well?  You sit there quiet as a church mouse.  Don’t you have anything to say about that?”

Choose your words carefully, she told herself.

“Sir, I’m a Marine.  I was just doing what needed to be done.”

Strasburg sat back, his tongue darting out to wet his lips, never allowing his gaze to waiver, “I see.”

Minerva returned the stare as neutrally as she was able, not wanting to appear disrespectful, but neither desiring to show weakness.  Either could be dangerous with this man.

To her relief, that strange grin reappeared, “I just needed to be certain.”

Confused, she allowed herself to ask, “Sir?”

Strasburg steepled his fingers, “That you weren’t some sort of gung-ho media whore, out to make a name for yourself.  That sort of mentality gets good marines killed, you see.”

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Minerva accepted the cup of coffee that appeared next to her, courtesy of the tireless aide.  In his free hand he held a plate of steaming cinnamon rolls.

Strasburg waggled that finger at her again.  She wanted to snap it off at the knuckle, and waggle it back.

Your mentality, however, dictates what I seek in my leadership,” the colonel went on. “I can see that you truly do not understand the magnitude of your actions yesterday.  You not only saved your platoon, and that gunship with your selfless actions.  You set a precedent. You displayed fast-thinking under duress.  The tone of this entire operation will ride on the coattails of one Minerva Carreno, the marine with gunpowder-filled testicles!”

The colonel shot to his feet with such speed that it startled both Minerva and Sergeant Major Ford.  They stood quickly as well, coming to attention.  Strasburg stepped from around his desk, and stood squarely before Minerva, near enough for her to smell his coffee-stained breath. 

“Not only am I putting you in for the Marine Corps Cross of Gallantry,” he whispered, “I’m field-promoting you to the rank of master sergeant.  I want you commanding Bravo Company, First Battalion.  Think you can handle that, Carreno?”

Minerva was once again shocked.  Things were happening so fast, and made all the more strange by her commander’s bipolar personality.  She figured the best way to interact with him would be to emulate his own quirky mannerisms.  She moved her face slightly forward, almost touching noses with him.

“Damn right, sir,” she whispered back.

The colonel’s eyes widened even further with surprise and delight.  That toothy grin was so big, his own head looked ready to fall into it.  He began to chuckle, a wheezy laugh that came from deep down in his belly, making his face turn a beet-red.

The nano-baton came up, and tapped her sleeve plate, “Carreno, I love you.  If the Corps had a hundred more of you and Ford, the war would be over.  Damn fine work.”

The colonel then saluted her.

Minerva’s arm flew up to return it so quickly, that she inadvertently slapped the coffee mug out of Ford’s hand, flipping it over, and spilling its contents all over the front of his armor.

Strasburg regarded the sergeant major’s chest plate with an expression that bordered horror, “Oh, your lifer juice!”

Ford was nonchalant, “Armor needed cleaned anyway, sir.”

The colonel’s grin restored itself, and he returned to his seat, digging in to his sweet roll, “Dismissed.” He said around a mouthful.

259

  Back outside, Minerva stood beside the tent entrance, somewhat stunned at the events that had just taken place within.  Ford gave her a curious look as he enjoyed the fresh coffee that the aide had given him before leaving.  She thumbed toward the tent door.

  “What was that?” She asked.  “What just happened?”

  Ford chuckled, “That, young lady, was high praise.  Treasure it, because it doesn’t come around very often.”

  Minerva touched her new chevrons, never having imagined having that many so soon.  It had taken Ford the better part of sixteen years to earn his four rockers beneath the top three.

  “I’m glad that everyone seems so happy with how I did yesterday,” she said, “but, it doesn’t seem fair to guys like you that have spent your whole lives in the service to get where you are, and here I just got bumped three or four pay grades in one shot.  I’m only eighteen years old, Sergeant Major.”

  His grin remained steadfast, “First of all, I think that by now, you should be able to call me Dwayne away from formal situations.  Agreed?”

  Minerva smiled, and nodded yes.

  Ford began to stroll south, past the MASH units, “What just happened to you is due to what is called ‘attrition.’  In a hard combat push, oftentimes it’s the senior sergeants, and junior officers that suffer the heaviest casualty count, creating gaps in leadership.  It’s not uncommon at all to find people like yourself, who have what it takes to lead, being elevated through the ranks by leaps and bounds.”

  “Is that what happened with you and Mark yesterday?”

  It was Ford’s turn to nod, “We lost our entire command element for First Battalion during the landing.”

  Minerva took Ford’s canteen cup for a sip of his coffee, “Be honest with me, though, Sergeant Ma…I mean Dwayne.  Doesn’t it bother you in the least that a kid like me is already a senior NCO?”

  Ford paused in their walk, and placed a hand on her shoulder plate, “Believe me, Minerva.  After what I saw on that tape, and with the growth I’ve watched you make in the past year, I know damn well that I’d feel just fine having you watching my back in a combat zone.  I mean that.  Stop sweating the small stuff.”

  Their stroll resumed, now beyond the medical area, and approaching the chow line set up beside the mess tent, “Thanks, Dwayne.  That means a lot coming from you.”

  The sergeant major motioned toward the line of marines with trays receiving their  

breakfast, “Now, I believe that there are some people over there that would be very happy to see you.”

  She spotted the four most important faces in her immediate life right away.  Ecu and Amell were next to each other, chatting it up about something while the server slopped scrambled eggs onto their trays.  Lunk was trying to coax an extra serving out of the guy handing out sausages.  Tears welled at the sight of her fiancée.  Mark was drinking down a container of juice.  It felt so good, so reassuring to see them alive and well, and doing such a mundane thing as simply getting breakfast among a long line of fellow marines.

  “Go to him,” Ford said softly.

  Minerva finally found her legs, and began to run.  Mark happened to glance up, his attention attracted by her running toward him, and he dropped his tray in astonishment.  He met her halfway, scooping her up in his armored arms, planting a kiss on her mouth that drew many a second glance.  Her friends joined in the group hug, as glad to see her as she was of them.

  From a discreet distance, a GNN crew was filming the reunion.  The reporter spoke softly into her microphone, practically giving a play-by-play before breaking off into a brief recap of the day before.

  “There are still many such tearful reunions taking place along the newly secured beachhead that the First Global Marine Division took back from the Storians yesterday,” the reporter was saying. “While solid numbers of casualties are not yet available, it was clearly the heaviest for the First Battalion, Eighty-Third Combat Regiment.  They were responsible for landing behind enemy lines, and assisting in the capture of the infamous wall.

  “Despite losing all of their officers, and being scattered across miles in a poorly disbursed deployment, the young men and women of the First Battalion carried out their mission against odds that were stacked heavily against them.  It was the heroics as witnessed in the footage captured of one Sergeant Minerva Carreno that carried the initiative.  It’s no wonder that the First Battalion is being referred to as The Mighty First, and has been hailed across the allied systems as the spearhead of the counter-offensive to regain territory currently occupied by the Storian invasion.”

  The eyes of billions were riveted to the daily newsfeeds.  People laughed, cheered, and cried with the young service members in their efforts.  Their triumphs, their hardships, all were transmitted constantly, especially so with Minerva, whose name was becoming a household item.  Already, heads were turning in high places, attracted to her youthful face, and captivating smile.

  In Hollywood, posters were going into print for patriotic purposes, with her face above the newly adopted catchphrase of the Mighty First.  The rate for volunteer enlistments skyrocketed where those posters were hung.

261

Noon

Within the command tent, Colonels Strasburg and Lafferty stood next to one another before a particular monitor, scrutinizing the images being delivered from an AWACS fly-over of Hubbard.  To one side of them, the communications techs were busy sorting through dozens of situation reports pouring in from the field.

  His arms crossed to keep from fidgeting, Strasburg frowned and cocked his head as he studied the layout of the streets in the smallish town, paying particular attention to the approach his units would be following on the way in.  Entering the eastern edge would require using the highway, which would place his troops in a precarious position, being exposed without adequate cover.

  “I hate having to send them in without artillery cover,” he complained.  “What more pisses me off, is that the air wing is only willing to give up a single gunship for air support.  My kids are going to be advancing on a held position, with the collateral damage limit tying one hand behind their backs.”

  Lafferty touched a spot on the screen, enhancing the image, “Judging by these signatures, it’s apparent that the Storians are regrouping primarily along the far western side of town, among this cluster of farms.”

  Strasburg nodded, “You can bet your ass there will be snipers, and pockets of sappers waiting at all of the choke-points.  Urban combat is going to whittle us down something terrible. It does not reassure me knowing that GNN will be filming our every move.  With civilians being caught in the cross-fire, it could get ugly real fast.”

  His counterpart seemed more concerned with the highway beyond Hubbard, where it stretched down toward Campbell, and beyond to Youngstown.

  “Storian armor is rolling in with reinforcements,” Lafferty pointed out. “We’ll be facing them by morning if the air wing holds off for too long.”

  The regimental commander sighed, and began slowly pacing the length of his desk, “We need to get moving.  The longer we sit, the more the Storians can fortify their defenses.”

  “Who’s going in on this push?” Lafferty asked, still gazing at the monitor.

  “First Battalion, without a doubt.  There’s none better to maintain the initiative.”

  Lafferty pointed at the screen, “A-Company is comprised of your strongest troopers.  I would have them spearhead straight in, while skirting Charlie around to the right flank.  That would present a two-pronged attack downtown, and Bravo could be held in reserve if things get too dicey.”

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  Strasburg considered that, then ceased his pacing with an abrupt expression of resolve, “Call it out to Sergeant Major Ford, then. Precious minutes are wasting.”

Hubbard Town Limit

14:00 hours

The afternoon hovered between the comfortable heat of an early summer’s day, and the outer edges of sticky with humidity.  The air was still and quiet, without so much as a breeze to break it.  Smoke still rose into the cloudless sky from numerous points of the horizon where fires continued to burn from the previous day, casting the day in an eerie, orange-tinted hue that tickled the nose with its smoldering aroma.

  The grassy fields cut by thick stands of woods that wove lazily toward the edge of town were divided in their center by the two-lane highway, which itself emitted a wavering aura of heat above its surface, distorting the broken white lines that had faded over time.

  Four bulky armored personnel carriers rolled slowly down the centerline, their top-mounted Bushmaster machine guns at the ready as they advanced, the sound of their heavy plasma-diesel engines loud in the silence of the day.  They were the only things moving on that blacktop, testament to how far things had fallen apart.  Civilian traffic was a thing of the past.

  At a respectable distance from the outskirts of Hubbard, the APC’s braked to a halt, spaced several yards apart from one another, and began to cycle down their rear deployment ramps.  The moment the steel-plated hatches thumped onto the road, marines poured out, dispersing onto both sides of the highway.

  Mark led 1st Platoon as they scrambled along the right shoulder, spacing themselves out and crouching down in the tall, unmown grass.  Ford took 2nd to the left side, a little further out to allow enough room for the APC’s to turn around after closing their hatches.  A single tank would be their armored escort through town, and it waited patiently fifty yards back, its engine chugging.  The crewmen manning the side-mounted gatlings kept a weary eye of their surroundings.

  On one knee near the right highway shoulder, Mark first glanced back to ensure his platoon had spaced themselves properly, then looked toward the west, where a trio Huey-shuttles were descending off toward the outer fringe of the center row of buildings.  Dust chuffed out from its engines as it thumped down, delivering its load of marines.  He knew that Minerva was over there, leading C-Company in their disbursement.  He thought a quick prayer for her safety, then focused on his own tasks at hand.

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  He waited to see what Ford was going to order.  On the opposite shoulder, the sergeant major stood in an almost casual manner, his visor up as he scanned the approach into the eastern edge of town.  The man chewed on the stub of a cigar, a pensive expression on his face.  Mark followed his gaze.  Ahead of them lie a string of dilapidated-looking houses with overgrown lawns, and an abandoned convenience store with blown-out windows.  Beyond stood the antiquated historic downtown, lined with rusty automobiles with flat tires and shattered glass.  Weeds poked up from cracks in the sidewalks.  It was an abundance of hiding places for the enemy that surely awaited them.  Smattered among it all were countless civilians cowering unseen.

  Ford made a hand motion for his people to stay put, and crossed the blacktop to where Mark was kneeling.  He squatted next to the young man, and gave him a look that a teacher might cast upon a student.

  “So, whadda ya think?”

  Mark’s eyebrows rose as he surveyed the terrain, “Looks deserted.”

  Ford nodded, “Yup. Does at that.  You reckon it’s alright to go in?”

  “Seems a bit too quiet.  Smells like an ambush.”

  The sergeant major cracked a pleased grin, “Damn right it does. I just wanted to see if you were picking up on it.”

  Mark felt inwardly relieved that he had given the correct answer, but was just as quickly filled with concern, “What do we do, then?”

  Ford rose to his feet, watching the Hueys circling up and away, having delivered their payloads of marines.  As they whupped away in the distance, a single gunship passed, drawing in nearer.  It remained up fairly high, making wide, lazy circles over Hubbard.  Their air support had arrived.

  “C-Company is already deploying,” he noted.  “We have no choice but to keep moving in.  Just keep your head on a swivel.  How we react when the party starts will determine whether or not we live to talk about it later.”

  Ford gave him a friendly slap on the shoulder plate, and crossed back to his own platoon.  He signaled for visors-down, then to begin advancing.  Everyone stood, and began slowly walking forward, weapons held at the ready.

  Nerves were jangling in the heavy silence as the progressed.  Every clump of bushes, every empty window was a potential threat where an enemy might be hidden.  The houses looked as if they’d been empty for years at first-glance, but there were telltale signs that suggested otherwise.  One home had a large pile of freshly chopped firewood.  Another sported a line of laundry drying in a side yard, strung between a pair of trees.

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  Beyond the small residential area waited the beginning of town.  Mark’s pulse was racing, and a cold sweat began to break out on his back.  It required conscious effort to keep a slow, measured stride that matched Ford’s across the street.  He reminded himself that the marines behind him would pick up on any insecurities from those leading them.  The gunship thumping overhead offered some reassurance, though.  If anything did break out, there would be some hefty firepower to cover them.

  He took Ford’s cue to pause at the main intersection where downtown connected with the rural highway.  Mark signaled for his platoon to halt, and he crouched behind a retainer wall that bordered the sidewalk.  A stray dog wandered from a nearby alley between a brick theater with boarded-up windows, and the stone façade of an ice cream parlor.  It took no notice of the marines as it sniffed for scraps from an overturned trash can.  The mutt hoisted a leg, and pissed on it before meandering back the way it had come.  It added a moment of levity that he appreciated.  It helped to calm his nerves a little.

  Again, he glanced at Ford, whose attention was focused down the main drag.  Mark looked, spotting right away what he thought so captivated the man.  The second block down, there stood an old, stone church with a tall bell tower near the corner, dominating the buildings around it with its height.

  Ford’s voice keyed over the suit-to-suit in Mark’s ear, “That belfry would be a great place for a sniper.”

  As if waiting for those words to be spoken, a 60-watt machine gun opened up from that very spot, its muzzle flash bright in the shadows of the Italian arches.  Plasma rounds chopped straight down the center of the street, throwing chunks of asphalt.  Split in half, the company’s platoons huddled back against the walls of storefronts on whichever side they happened to be on.  The tense silence of the afternoon was split with rifle fire.

  Both platoons began shooting back, filling the air with bright bolts all trained on the church.  They were too far away to get a solid bead on the tower, though.  All the while, the 60-watt swept back and forth, keeping them pinned in place.  Reassigned to A-Company from the tattered remains of his old unit, Manny crawled up next to Mark, hugging his own 60MG.  The sergeant popped the tripod, and skittered sideways to a weathered car body, propping the machine gun on its hood.  He began loosing rounds toward the belfry, the higher caliber plasma sailing truer towards the intended target.  While it hindered the sniper’s aim, it was still not enough to eliminate the threat.

  From across the way, Ecu set up her 60-watt next to Ford, and began doing the same.  While she was chattering harassing fire with impressive aim, the sergeant major pondered the possibility of taking the guy out with an AT-round, but judged correctly that it was too far away.

  Above, the gunship was already swooping around, letting loose with its forward gatlings. 

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Even at that height, the electric roar was galvanizing.  Spent plasma casings rained down, bouncing from the road.  The church tower was bathed with blue fire.  Ford was certain that nothing could have survived such a barrage.  The Huey paused in its assault, and hovered closer, the pilot apparently wanting a better look. 

  To the astonishment of all, a figure popped back into view, and fired an RPG.  At such close range, there was no missing.  The rocket punched through the cockpit, and exploded.  The gunship shuddered, and dropped straight down, trailing flame and smoke.  It slammed down in the center of the second intersection, burning and popping as its ordinance began cooking off.

  “So much for air cover,” Ford grumbled.  He twisted around, peering back at the tank, whose driver was lollygagging behind.  It was still several hundred yards away, and around the bend in the road too far to do any good.  He motioned frantically for them to hurry.

  On the north side of downtown, on the same block as the church, Minerva was just then leading her company into position when the sniper first began shooting at A-Company to her left flank.  While the gunner was occupied with them, she was able to fan her people out on both sides of the adjoining street, warning them to hold their fire so that they could utilize their element of surprise.

  Tracers blazed back and forth down the main avenue while C-Company closed in, dashing from one storefront entrance to another.  That was when the gunship swooped in, enveloping the tower with plasma.  When it was shot down, Minerva signaled for her mortar teams to set up.  The three-person squads quickly fished their gear out, and assembled their weapons.

  She cued the suit-to-suit for Amell, remembering how she had been such a crack shot during maneuvers back at Fort Dixon.

  “Do you think you can drop one right on top of that bell?”

  Amell’s visor was up, allowing Minerva to see her good-natured smirk.  The Attayan gave a thumbs-up, and casually dropped a round into the mortar tube, which had already been range-set.  It fired with a whump, and they watched the brightly glowing round as it sailed up and out in a graceful arc.  That arc came to its end in the precise arch of the church tower.  A significant blast blew the top of the belfry off, and sent the bell sailing toward the ground, ringing all the way down with one final resounding clang in a rain of stone and mortar.  The Storian gunner would be harassing them no more.

  “Show off,” Minerva joked.

 

266

The banter was short-lived.  A squad of Storians had been setting up a machine gun position south of them, beyond the next block.  Their attention had been attracted by the activity of Minerva’s platoon, and began firing on them.  The throaty chatter of the 60-watt MG’s echoed between the storefronts as plasma began snapping all around.  Her marines began returning fire as the mortar teams rushed to correct their aim.

Minerva hugged the shallow doorway for its meager cover, free-firing without bothering to aim.  Bolts zipped and slapped the brick wall near her face, sending chunks ticking from her visor and shoulder plate.  The rush of fear and adrenaline made her head buzz.  It wasn’t quite as bad as the AA gun had been back in the forest, but the noise was unnerving just the same.

To Ford’s delight, the church tower flew in all directions, spurting its bell like an old piece of candy.  It rang all the way to the ground among a shower of debris.  Dust rolled out from under it, and filled the street.  Seeing MG fire flashing across the intersection, he surmised that C-Company had been zeroed in on.  He decided to use the murky haze to his advantage.

“Platoons, move up.”

Jogging forward at a crouch, the sergeant major’s platoon was slightly ahead of Mark’s on the opposite side of the street, training their weapons at every window and doorway against any potential threats.  They had the storefronts between themselves and the Storian unit, and were able to advance all the way to the intersection undetected.

Or, so he thought.

As Ford reached the corner building, he motioned for his people to stop, and peered around the edge of the wall.  As he suspected, there were about a dozen or so Storians fanned out across the adjoining street, with a 60-watt protected behind a sturdy delivery truck.  As luck would have it, one of them just happened to be looking right in his direction as he poked his head out, and was spotted.  The Storian patted the MG operator atop the helmet, and pointed.  The gunner swung his weapon to the side, and redirected his fire.

Ford pulled back as rounds pounded brick from the corner.  He waggled one hand at the marine behind him to come forward.

“You shoot low, and I’ll shoot high,” he told the kid.

The corporal nodded his understanding, and got down on one knee, ready to jut from the corner when told.  Ford steeled himself, breathing evenly, waiting for a lull in the plasma.  It came a few moments later, and he bent back around the edge, the corporal doing the same down by his knees.

267

Before they could even fire, Ford registered the fact that one of the Storians was leveling a rocket tube over one shoulder while the machine gunner was reloading.

“Shit!” Was all he had time to say as he whipped himself backward, hoping that the kid was doing likewise.

The AT-round slammed into the corner, the blast all-encompassing.  The force of it blew Ford off of his heels.  Within the wash of flame and shattered brick, he caught a glimpse of the corporal sailing up and away to the right, toward the middle of the intersection.  Landing hard on his back, the sidewalk met the back of his helmet hard enough for him to see stars.  As he rolled to one side, he could see the marine lying in a heap, unmoving beneath the renewed barrage of gunfire.  It was amazing to him just how quickly things had turned sour.

On the north side of the street, across from 2nd Platoon, Mark stopped his people just short of actually having a full view across Ford’s end of the intersection.  Going any further would have put them right in the line of fire without cover.  He watched as Ford and the corporal prepared to take on the machine gun crew that was out of his line of sight, then witnessed the sergeant major trying to back-peddle an instant before an explosion took off a great chunk of the building corner.  The blast obscured everything, and Mark ducked instinctively as shrapnel sprayed at them.

Acting on pure adrenaline alone, he kicked in the door of the nearest shop, and led his platoon inside as the MG fire began to chatter again. 

“Who’s got an AT-round?” He demanded.

Manny leaned his 60-watt against the cashier counter, and unstrapped the rocket tube he had attached to his combat harness in response.

There was a plaster wall between themselves, and the next store, which was the corner building on their own side of the street.  Having access to it would give them an open line of fire, and offer some protection.

“Make us a hole through this wall.”

Manny primed the tube, and his fellow marines spread away from him.  He leveled it, and pulled the trigger.  The wall blew inward, and the sounds of things breaking and flying around in the next room accompanied the sharp concussion of the round going off.

Now with access to not only the southern-facing windows that had long-since been broken out, but the east exit, the marines were able to start lying down a sizable amount of return

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fire.  To their dismay, a second 60-watt crew joined the first, and began sweeping the store in which they were hunkered down in.  Plasma streamed through the open windows, peppering the walls, and clanging off of objects in the back.  The marines were reduced to huddling beneath the window ledge, and shooting blindly.

  Mark knew immediately that they were in a bad situation.  He spied the corporal from 2nd Platoon lying motionless among the debris in the center of the intersection.  Ford was picking himself up, obviously stunned by the proximity of the AT round, while his platoon waited in confusion.  Meanwhile, suppression fire was pouring at an ever increasing rate into the meager shelter there was in the knick-knacks store that his own people were cowering in.

  Crawling like a dog, the master sergeant made his way over to where Manny was crouched, trying to find a safe angle to set up his 60-watt in the eastern entrance.  Outside on that side of the intersection, he was able to see C-Company, just as pinned down as everyone else.  He felt a thrill of terror, knowing that one of those troopers was Minerva, but unable to tell who was who.  With the helmet visors down, one suit of armor looked like any other.

  “We already have a man down!” Manny shouted involuntarily, intending to be heard over the din of the battle, and forgetting that his helmet mic was transmitting.

  Mark mentally cranked his receiver volume down, and took a moment to gain a better feel for the interior of the store.  Toward the back was an open stockroom door, through which he could see a staircase.  Getting a higher firing defilade would be a great advantage given the situation.  He slapped Manny on the arm plate.

  “Follow me!”

  Keeping low to the floor, the two of them scrambled their way into the back, and hurried up the stairs.  The second story opened to a grungy bathroom on the left, a mop closet before them, and a closed door to the right.  Mark eased it open, finding a carpeted hall with four more sets of doors evenly spaced apart.  Creeping on, it was evident that they must be apartments, as they were numbered with people’s names on brass plates.  Ideally, they faced Main Street.

  “I’ll take this first one, you shoot from the next,” Mark said as he tested the door knob, which was locked.

  Manny moved to the neighboring door, and found it locked as well.  They braced themselves, and each gave a solid kick at the same time.  Mark’s door gave easily, flying open to reveal a dim interior that was furnished only with a ratty couch, and a small dining table tucked into the corner.  Before he could react, a terrified Asian man came storming from the kitchen, screaming a war cry, and bearing a sawed-off double-barreled shotgun.  The tenant let-fly with both triggers at once, the shotgun kicking back so hard that it threw him off-balance and sent him stumbling back against the frame of the kitchen door.

 

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The blast caught Mark dead-center in the chest plate at point-blank, and literally threw him back off his feet, out of the apartment and against the hallway wall, where he slid down on his butt.  While he sat there trying to draw a breath, he thought how wonderful nano-armor really was.  The shot had hurt like hell, and knocked the wind out of him, but for all that he was otherwise unscathed.  Luckily, the plasma grenades attached to the front of his harness had not been set off by the pellets.

The tenant was immediately at his side, apologizing profusely, his hands patting futilely atop Mark’s breastplate, checking for bleeding.

“I so sorry! I think you one of them!”

Manny emerged from the room that he had forced his way into, visor up and looking perplexed, “What the hell?”

Mark pushed the Asian man away, and rose to his feet, staggering back into the apartment.  The tenant looked at Manny and shrugged his shoulders.  Manny shrugged back, and returned to his own room.

From the Asian’s apartment, Mark pulled the window open, and began sniping at the Storians, lobbing a rifle grenade every so often.  From the window next door, Manny’s 60-watt chattered, raining plasma down on the enemy gunners.  It created enough of a lull for Ford to direct a marine to run out and retrieve the fallen corporal.

Ford was finished messing around.  Their gunship had been shot down, and he was already taking casualties from this machine gun crew.  He stood and motioned back where their tank escort was sitting idle, waiting for just that sort of signal.  The behemoth’s engine roared, and it lurched forward, motoring toward the intersection as Amell hooked her hands under the corporal’s arms, and dragged him back to the safety of the sidewalk.

As the tank passed by, and lumbered into the intersection, rounds clanged off of its thick hull.  The Storians focused their fire on it despite it being immune to anything less than a well-aimed rocket.  Its only vulnerable point was the thin flange where the turret was mounted to the main body.  The side gunner on the left spun his gatling, and unleashed a hellacious storm of plasma on the Storian detachment, forcing them to dive for cover.  He had to adjust his fire as the turret came around with dramatic slowness.  The tank commander was clearly intentionally putting fear into the enemy soldiers.  The barrel dropped down slightly as the turret made a final jerk.

“Fire in the hole!” Ford warned over the general frequency.

The muzzle wash of the main gun flashed to each side, the sound of it enormous.  An instant later, a second profound explosion a mere hundred feet away sent the south end of the street rushing outward in a gigantic eruption of pulverized asphalt and fire.  The intersection was now so choked with dust and smoke that it was impossible to see beyond a few feet.

A numbed silence followed.  The Storians were either all dead, or those that remained had turned-tail, because no further gun fire came from that flank.  The cloud rolled down each adjoining avenue, bringing with it utter stillness.  Gradually, the marines from both companies began to emerge, taking stock of themselves.

Ford hurried to make rounds to each platoon, checking for any wounded.  Miraculously, there were only five suffering from either bullet or shrapnel wounds.  The sixth was an ankle that was likely broken.  That was, with the exception of his corporal.  He walked over to where Amell knelt on the sidewalk, holding the kid in her arms.  The young man was conscious, but barely.  Muttering that he wanted to get up, insisting that he was fine.  The kid had no idea just how grave his injuries really were.

“Just take it easy,” Amell was saying softly.  “We’ll medevac you out of here.  You’ll be fine.”

The corporal was struggling weakly to push from her grasp, but did not have the strength to do so, “I’m okay.  Let me up.”

Ford gulped, opening his visor, “Relax Corporal. That’s an order.”

Behind them, Mark and Manny were coming out from the corner store on the opposite side of the street, followed by 1st Platoon.  The master sergeant told them to fan out and form a perimeter before joining Ford, who had moved away, looking decidedly green.

“What’s wrong?” Mark asked him quietly, so as not to be overheard.

Ford thumbed over his shoulder, “My squad leader had the top of his freaking head cleaved off, and he doesn’t even know it.  His brains are out in full view.”

Mark glanced over, seeing the medical corpsman arriving, kneeling next to Amell.  The boy that the Attayan held then began to hitch his breath, his eyes fluttering.  Oddly enough, there was not much blood loss, but the damage was evidently severe enough nonetheless.  The kid leaned into Amell’s grasp, hitched again, and was still.  His eyes were open, but they weren’t seeing anything.  He was gone.  The corpsman gently laid him down, and closed his eyes with a finger.  To the unpleasant surprise of all who happened to be looking, a spurt of blood and fluid released from the gaping wound, and the kid’s brain partly came loose, slipping out onto the concrete.  Amell scooched backward, turned, and retched.

Looking decidedly unhappy, Ford keyed the comm-net, and spoke into his helmet mic, “Ground One to Command, over.”

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After a brief pause, his headset crackled to life, “This is Command, go ahead, over.”

“Requesting a medevac, over.”

“Do you have a casualty estimate, over?”

Ford gazed at Amell, who had retreated to one side, sipping from her canteen, and wiping tears from her furry cheeks, “Six injured, one fatality, over.”

Minerva had secured her end of the intersection, and wandered over.  She took her friend in arms, and hugged her tight.  Mark and Manny stood by awkwardly, unsure of what to say or do to comfort her.  Sergeant Major Ford came to join the girls, and looked down at the Attayan sympathetically.

“Would you like to rotate to the rear?” He asked her.

Amell sniffled, and squared her shoulders as she fixed him with an expression that was both angry, and determined.

“No thank you, Sergeant Major,” she replied firmly.  “We have to take this fucking town.”

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