The Mighty First
Minerva watched as a trio of old-school rotor-driven Hueys thumped overhead, making a wide, slow circuit over town. The Army still utilized the antiquated design, clinging to its traditional past. She marveled at how similar they were to the Huey-shuttle choppers that the Corps preferred, the major difference being that the shuttle models had no rotors, instead using the Anderson power plants that allowed for travel outside of atmosphere.
The Army divisions located in the Pennsylvania Free Zone had been moving in since morning to assist in the Hubbard offensive, taking up some of the slack in air support that the Space Navy was having so much difficulty in maintaining. Elements from the 6th Infantry Brigade occupied the reclaimed downtown, allowing the marines to prepare for yet another push, this time aimed at liberating the entire southern expanse of the township.
Sergeant Major Ford had set up a Forward Command Post in the very police station that Minerva had passed after her impromptu parachute landing, and was conferring with Colonels Lafferty and Strasburg, who had been driven in about an hour before.
The door to the CP was open, and she and her fiancée stood just outside of it, listening to the debate going on within.
“Aerial recon has confirmed that the remaining Storians from the wall have dug in along this section of small farms bordering the extreme south-west edge of town,” Lafferty was pointing out on a map that had been gleaned from the gas station on the corner.
“The recent fly-over spotted one heavy tank, and at least three half-tracks with 80-watt cannons,” he went on. “That was what was visible. There’s no telling how many more armored vehicles may be concealed along these clumps of trees interspersed among the properties.”
Ford was frowning at the map details, “Any guess as to how much infantry remains?”
Strasburg puffed air from his cheeks, “I’m guessing regimental strength, mostly the scattered remnants of what various units survived the beachhead.”
Lafferty shifted the map slightly, and indicated the highway that stretched from Hubbard and snaked on toward the next town of Campbell and beyond, “That Storian armor is still rolling
toward us from Youngstown. If they link up, which they likely will by tomorrow morning, we’re going to play hell taking them on.”
Strasburg slapped the table top angrily, “Then why the hell aren’t the air wings dropping a country ton of ordinance on that column?”
“General Towers is concerned with destroying too much civilian infrastructure,” Lafferty told him, rolling his eyes.
Strasburg gaped wide-eyed, “You mean to tell me that he’s worried more about a few hundred yards of interstate than he is us?”
Lafferty could only shrug. Ford chuckled, and lit one of his cigars.
“This is the deepest well of manure that I’ve ever stood in!” Strasburg complained. He turned to the communications tech that had set up the new command center, and stuck a finger at him that trembled with barely contained fury.
“You get on the horn with the Canadians, then, and you tell them we need an air strike on that goddamned column as soon as they can muster a Hellfire platform!”
As the tech nervously began to comply, the colonel sighed, and turned back to his pair of most trusted subordinates, “If the Corps, and the damned Navy won’t get off of their thumbs, I’ll go to the neighbors for help. I’ll be boiled in Satan’s pot before I sit by and watch my marines get chopped to vittles over some one-star’s qualms about collateral damage!”
“Oooh-Rah, Sir,” Ford said approvingly through a cloud of cigar smoke.
Strasburg snorted, and peered down at the map, “That leaves us with the situation at hand. We can’t bomb or strafe the Storians that have dug in here, because that entire area is filled to the gills with civilians. We can’t ignore them, either, for the same reasons. We’ve got no choice but to go in, and root them out.”
“How would you like us to go about it, then, Sir?”
The colonel fingered a highlighted area, “All that lies between us and the Storians is this last section of residential blocks, mostly middle-class homes. Sandusky Boulevard is major thoroughfare that cuts through it, and reconnects with the main highway where the enemy has dug in. We’ll bring in all three companies of the battalion, and back them with armored support.”
Colonel Lafferty chimed in, “You’ll advance down Sandusky, and spread out once you’ve penetrated beyond the edge of town. Engage the enemy at your discretion. I have a company of Attayan Elite Forces flying in from Quantico, Virginia to reinforce your position. They should be arriving before daybreak.”
The three of them looked up as someone entered the office, a bright-eyed civilian clad in a safari outfit. A vid-cam hung from a strap around his neck. Strasburg sighed again, and motioned for him to join them at the table.
“This is a GNN reporter sent down from Division. He’ll be accompanying you in order to transmit live feed, so warn your people to watch their language.”
Ford pointedly ignored him, returning his attention to the map instead of shaking the hand that was offered, “When do we move out?
“Soon as the tanks arrive from the beachhead, which could take another hour or so,” Strasburg answered. “Brief your unit commanders, and have your people grab a bite while they have time.”
Ford saluted, and excused himself to rejoin his two company commanders waiting outside.
“Did you guys hear all of that?
“Unfortunately,” Minerva quipped sourly.
Ford puffed on his cigar, and grinned sardonically, “Well, hell. Whadda ya gonna do?”
C-Company had been selected to take point, with Alpha behind, and Bravo taking up the rear. Their armored support consisted of a single tank for each company---not what anyone considered ideal, but better than nothing.
Minerva walked in the lead, with her platoons divided on either side of the road, their tank escort chugging along in the center. With a little better than 300 marines behind her, she did not feel as afraid as she’d expected to. A single gunship whupped overhead, making its usual wide circles, watching for enemy activity out ahead of the column.
As they transitioned from the business district of town, and began to pass through the residential neighborhood, it became evident that the Storians had been present. The once intact homes had been peppered with plasma fire, windows broken, some houses burned to their foundations. That was not the worst of it.
Bile rose in Minerva’s throat at the sight of them.
Men, women, and children had been murdered. The kids had been shot through the head, and piled unceremoniously. It was clear that many of the women had been raped before being killed. The men had suffered far worse. They had been stripped naked, and gutted like animals. The street and sidewalks were bathed in blood and gore.
Tears welled in Minerva’s eyes as guilt roiled in her innards. They had taken too long to come. These people had held out hope that the Marines would arrive and save them, and all the while the powers that be had wasted time debating stupid details. That indecision had cost these people their lives in the worst way. She couldn’t help but feel a measure of responsibility.
There were more than a few choked sobs, and noisy retches behind her. No one could be blamed. It was a nightmare. The wanton cruelty of it all made no sense to her. Why did the Storians hate them so badly? What was the slaughter supposed to prove?
Against her will, a deep, throbbing hatred began to rise to the fore. She was beyond any sense of anger. This was rage. If this act had been done with the intentions of frightening, or demoralizing the marines, it was a lost one. Instead, they had been incensed. Every one of the young troopers were all the more determined to beat the Storians back.
The hike spanned four blocks before opening to the wide expanse of small farms and patches of trees where the enemy was expected to be waiting. Minerva scanned the terrain as carefully as she was able, trying to take everything in. It was beautiful, so much greener than her desert hometown ever would be. Cottage-like houses, large red barns, sectioned pastures dotted with woods. That beauty concealed innumerable dangers.
The Huey-shuttle flew out ahead of them, gaining some altitude, and banking from one end to the other. It did not fire on anything, so as yet, the Storians had declined to make their presence known. Minerva slowed her pace slightly, and the platoons did likewise. The tension began to mount.
They walked perhaps another mile without so much as a hint of enemy activity. Minerva began to actually allow herself to feel some hope. Maybe the Storians had cleared out after all.
No, she thought, if that were the case, the gunship would have easily spotted them out on the highway further out.
The quiet was only testament to the fact that this was an ambush they were walking in to. Her nerves steeled themselves, expecting all hell to break loose at any moment. She stole a glance back to reassure herself that she was not alone. The lines of marines and tanks looked impressive. Her mind flashed back to high school, where in history class they had studied about the Roman legions on the march. She wondered how many times through history armies had been on the march in just such a fashion. Now, she was a part of one. How had her life changed so drastically?
C-Company reached an area where to Minerva’s left was a flowered meadow backdropped by a thick patch of young trees and brush. To her right was a fair-sized family farm. A waist-high stone fence extended across a horse pasture from south to north, where a couple of skinny mares watched the procession with passive interest, their tails flapping at clouds of flies. About five acres out was an old house with a wrap-around porch, shadowed by a huge
red barn. The late afternoon sun cast long shadows laced with bright, golden light. Nearer to the shoulder of the highway was a long chicken coop with close to fifty fat hens clucking about, oblivious to the dangers that lurked.
She sensed rather than heard subtle activity from behind, and looked back again to see that Ford was moving A-Company out into the pasture, spreading the platoons out into a wide firing line behind the stone wall. This unnerved her somewhat. It meant that he expected trouble, and soon, if he was already setting up a defensive position.
Growing more ill-at-ease by the second, Minerva motioned for the tank to move up closer. As it lumbered slowly forward, she turned, happening to glance in the direction of that red barn. Its double doors were open, a dark, crooked maw filled with shadow. The setting sun threw golden rays of light through cracks in the aged boards of the western wall, silhouetting something large, and hulkish within. Could be a combine, or a big thrashing machine. She nearly dismissed it, but some small voice in the back of her mind began clamoring alarm bells.
Minerva paused in her stride, and held up a closed fist.
The tank lurched to a stop, and the entire column of marines halted, waiting. Their eyes fixed on her arm. Down the line, section leaders made the same gesture, passing on the signal that something might not be right.
The silence was broken only by the lazy chugging of the tank engines.
She splayed her fingers wide. Instantly, all 300 troopers squatted, rifles coming up to the ready. Minerva slowly eased down to one knee, mentally willing her visor to enhance the image, and zoom in for a better view.
Her eyes bulged. Unable to even draw a breath through the bulge in her throat, she forced herself to shout.
The Storian tank fired its main gun as her lips formed the word. There was a bright flash from the barn, followed a micro-instant later by the plasma shell smashing squarely into her escort unit, a mere forty feet away from her. The explosion was terrific; a hollow, metallic CLANG blew the turret completely off. The concussion slapped Minerva right off her feet, sending her skidding face-down across the blacktop.
Small-arms fire erupted from the copse of trees to her right, sending the marines diving for cover in the opposite ditch. Her head buzzing from the shock of the concussion, Minerva rolled over onto her back. Her view was of a sea of plasma bolts flying scant inches above her like a swarm of angry bees. The tank was spewing flame and thick, black smoke, the heat of it so intense that she could actually feel it through her armor.
Dazed, she returned to her stomach, and belly-crawled toward the ditch.
The Storians were beginning to rain mortars down across the highway and the opposite side of the pasture. The rounds were banging sharply, throwing great gouts of earth and asphalt into the air all around her. As Minerva reached the ditch, and was snaking down into it, one of the explosives struck the chicken coop, sending wood, fire, and feathers out in a huge fan. The concussion crashed into her, slamming her body back against the edge of the drainage ditch.
Growing increasingly dazed and confused, she curled up into a ball, holding her arms over head. The gunship added its engine noise to the din of the battle, coming in low and fast, its forward guns blazing. Spent plasma casings rained down over her, clattering and bouncing like hot hail. She reached down and picked one up, examining it in a stupor as if it were the most fascinating thing she’d ever seen. She also realized that she’d lost her rifle in the confusion.
Looking down the gulley, Minerva watched her fellow marines fighting desperately, risking rising far enough to shoot back over the highway. Many were falling as rounds punched into their upper bodies as they did so. Through the fog in her mind, Minerva knew that safety lie in that direction, back from the way they had come. She began to crawl on hands and knees while plasma buzzed above her shoulders.
The second tank was motoring forward from Alpha Company’s position, its side guns roaring in both directions. It parked less than twenty feet from her right, looming over her. The turret spun and homed on the barn where the Storian unit was still taking shots at them. Its main gun went off, the muzzle wash smashing Minerva down in yet another concussion wave, this time so hard that her helmet visor spider-webbed against the ground beneath her.
Minerva’s terror was by then bordering hysteria. She was battered and half out of her mind, knowing only that she needed to get out of there. In her confusion, she actually stood and began to stagger like a drunken woman, the flood of plasma rounds somehow missing her as she stumbled on.
The Storians began firing shoulder-fired rockets, which managed to disable the tank. The series of hits were nothing compared to when its ordinace cooked off. Another earth-shattering blast hammered against Minerva’s back, throwing her through the air.
Tumbling, rolling, coming to a stop on something strangely giving. She pushed herself to a sitting position, seeing that she was mired in the gore that had once been a human being. It was all over her. She began to scream.
“Carreno!” A familiar voice was bellowing over her helmet pick-up. “Get the hell out of there! C-Company fall back!”
Her mind searched for the source of that voice, trying to put a name to it, but it so difficult with all of the noise around her. Shooting, yelling, explosions. Stuff was raining down from the air. Some of it was dirt. Too much of it blood.
Sergeant Major Ford. That was his voice.
She realized that he was shouting at her. She was the company commander, and these were her people getting butchered around her while she just sat there. Minerva shook her head, attempting to clear it. Risking a peek above the ridge of the ditch, she could see that the Storians were attempting to flank them on the left. Both of the tanks were burning heaps, and the one remaining unit was holding way back by A-Company, near the stone wall where the new defensive line had been established.
Rather than fall back to safety, she made another decision. She knew that if they were successfully out-flanked, the Storians would be able to possibly overrun that still-fragile line. Reinforcements had not arrived yet.
“Second Platoon, move to your left, and try to cross the highway!” She ordered. “First Platoon, covering fire!”
Their rifle fire merged in a better fan, punctuated by their 60-watt gunners. She was disillusioned by how little of her 1st platoon actually remained, but they were managing to lay down a fairly sufficient sheet of cover. To her relief, the third tank was inching up, adding the power of its side guns to theirs. Keeping low, 2nd Platoon began leap-frogging across the highway, creating another defensive line on the other side.
“Minerva! For Christ’s sake, get out of there!”
That was Mark. He was worried about her, but there was no time to think about that. Ford was already directing his mortar teams to walk rounds across the tree line ahead of her, providing yet another layer of support in holding the Storians back.
Amell came scrabbling toward her, carrying a rifle in one hand while lugging her own 60-watt in the other. Her visor was up, revealing dirt and blood smudged white fur.
“I noticed you needed one of these,” the Attayan joked, handing the AR-44 to her.
Minerva accepted it, not even noticing the blood smudged on it.
“We need to hold back this flanking maneuver until Bravo Company can reach us!”
Amell nodded her agreement, setting her 60-watt on the lip of the ditch, and chattering out rounds.
That was when an RPG struck behind them, throwing a wave of earth across their backs. Minerva turned to see where it had come from. The barn was a burning pile of debris, and there was no other area of cover between them and the farmhouse. To accentuate her suspicions, another rocket lanced out from a second-story window, streaking toward them to detonate yet closer. The sniper was zeroing in on them.
Minerva keyed her comm-link, “Ground One to Helo. Can we get some ordinance on that house to our nine-o-clock, over?”
The gun ship had made a wide arc just prior to her calling it, and banked around after a moment. It unleashed a burst of rockets, which plowed into the house, sending it up in a fury of flame. Minerva took an instant to hope that an innocent family hadn’t been trapped in there, but just as quickly doubted it. After seeing the carnage while passing through the residential district, she had a good idea that if anyone had been in there, they were dead long before.
The helo was turning its attention back to the Storians across the highway when another RPG shot upward from the tree line, slamming into its underbelly. Flame blew from the gunship’s side doors, and it began to spiral downward---right toward Minerva’s position.
“Oh, crap!” Amell shouted, immediately bolting into a run, leaving her 60-watt behind. Minerva was on her heels, running at a crouch, bracing herself for the explosion that was sure to come.
The helo hit the asphalt and began to roll, slowing off pieces of metal as it came, crashing into the ditch and exploding. Debris peppered Minerva’s back plate as the shock wave tried to knock her down, but she somehow managed to keep running.
Storian rounds came at them in a withering storm, chopping into marines left and right as they picked up and began to retreat. A Storian armored vehicle emerged from the brush, a Bushmaster machine gun mounted to its top. The horrific rounds began thundering through the remnants of C-Company’s platoons. Mortars zeroed in on them, blowing huge gaps in the line, creating a bank of choking dust that blinded all as they tried to flee.
Minerva became separated from Amell, but occasionally encountered a fellow marine in the cloud that was illuminated by the furious blue flashes of plasma. Troopers were falling, staggering, receiving indescribable wounds. Blood erupted in a fountain from a kid’s neck ahead of her as a round knocked him sideways. She paused long enough to slip a hand under his arm to help him up, and a mortar went off near enough to blow her onto her butt, not even feeling the shrapnel that had penetrated her leg plates. Staggering back to her feet, she again tried to help the kid up, but he was dead-weight. Taking the time to actually look down, she recoiled in horror. All that remained of him was his chest, head, and one arm.
Panicking again, she resumed her flight for the relative safety of the fallback point, not even aware that she was shrieking. An eternity later, Minerva emerged from the clouds of dust and smoke, seeing that she was nearer to the stone wall than she had realized. A-Company was pouring covering fire for the tattered remainder of her own company, who was trickling out of the haze a few at a time, many assisting others who had been wounded.
Fortunately, the Storians were not giving chase, instead content to hang back where their own defensive line was the strongest. The incoming fire began to slacken, then petered out
altogether, leaving a numbing quiet that was just as disturbing as the noise of battle had been. Black smoke billowed overhead.
Bravo Company had been able to better move into position by then, and their tank was providing hellacious cover fire over the heads of retreating C-Company. Minerva stumbled the last few yards, at last achieving the stone wall, and collapsed behind it onto her knees. She could scarcely draw a breath, and her legs felt like rubber. She had wet herself, and only then realized that blood was making her legs feel greasy. Hot pain began to throb from her thighs where the shrapnel had shot through the armored plating. She shoved away a Corpsman when he tried to help her, preferring to be left alone.
Minerva pulled her helmet off, gasping for air. Trembling. Unable to form a cohesive thought. The war had become too close. Too real. She wanted nothing more at that moment than to be home again, back in Winslow, with her parents. She buried her face in her hands, and wept, uncaring that the damned GNN cameraman was filming her.
She just wanted to be little again.
Night had fallen, and all remained silent, though it was a tense and tentative peace.
The fragile forward line remained at the stone wall of the horse pasture, with only two company’s worth of marines present to hold it. The single remaining tank sat idle on the highway, its crew ever on the alert. Most of Company C had been evacuated to the beachhead for medical treatment, and replacements were being culled together, but had yet to arrive.
A sliver of moon hung low in the early evening sky, bedded among a field of familiar stars. A few thin wisps of clouds crept across the horizon, their tops laced in Luna’s silvery light. Crickets and tree frogs peeped. Hushed talk and occasional laughter drifted from the darkness that hugged the field. Some were dining on their ration packs, other who could napped. Mostly, it was just gazing off into the night, watching for hints of enemy activity.
Minerva sat with her knees drawn up, bundled in the arms of her beloved, allowing herself to be cuddled like a child. Her battered nerves were still coming down from their forced limits. The tears and trembling had finally stopped. One of the corpsmen had tended to her leg wounds, and now she took comfort in the strange dullness that followed, where her emotions felt dulled as if by Novocain. She wished that she could hear Mark’s heartbeat, as she had when lying next to him so long ago while in transit from the Attayan System, but his armor robbed her of that. When he occasionally stroked her hair, or kissed her forehead, it made up for it, though. At least for the moment, she felt safe in his embrace.
A familiar, massively-built figure approached in the dim light, the red tip of a cigar glowing from the person’s mouth. Sergeant Major Ford paused before them, and squatted down near enough that she could see his face. He removed the stub from his mouth, and fixed her with a stare that was both concerned, and serious. His eyes were soft, though, and filled with genuine worry.
“How you holdin’ up?”
Minerva sighed, and nodded, “Better.”
He did not break eye contact. His specialty was the ability to see all the way inside to one’s soul, seeing the true self in there. He did it this time without being judgemental.
“You did good today.”
She let out a sound of disbelief, “The hell I did. I fell apart out there.”
“Of course you did,” he told her, tapping the ash from the tip of his cigar. “Look at yourself. You’re barely eighteen, first time away from home, and doing the best you can in a goddamned combat zone. There are men and women twice your age having nervous breakdowns of their own right now.”
Minerva was not so easily convinced, “Difference is, I’m a company commander. People died out there because I couldn’t keep my cool.”
“A lot more didn’t die, because of that flanking maneuver you caught,” Ford insisted firmly. “You did the best you could with what you had, Carreno. You held that line until the wounded could be pulled out. You did exactly the one thing you were supposed to do.”
Her tears began to fall again, and she hitched back a sob.
“What is it?” Ford asked.
“After I got back,” she replied thickly, “I was glad that I hadn’t been among those that were killed. I was glad that I made it. I feel so damned guilty for that!”
Ford nodded, nonplussed. He took a leisurely drag from his smoke, and let it roil lazily from his nostrils, “How does that make you any different from the rest of us?”
Minerva blinked, confused, “Huh?”
“Don’t you think that myself, or anyone else still out here tonight doesn’t share those same emotions?”
She remained silent, unsure of how to respond to that.
Ford leaned nearer, until his nose was nearly touching her own. It brought memories of that same gesture back on Attaya, while she had been standing in the base graveyard.
“Your people depend on you to lead them,” he told her. “To make the difficult decisions. Sometimes, those decisions will get them killed, and they know that. If they still follow you into combat, and follow your orders the way they did today, that speaks volumes of how much faith they have in you.”
Stunned into silence, Minerva could only listen, her breath caught in her chest.
“Don’t be so damn hard on yourself, Carreno,” Ford said gravely. “I’d follow you into battle any day of the week.”
He stood, and walked away after that, not giving her an opportunity to reply or debate his words. They sank in, and they had meaning.
Minerva wept again in her lover’s arms, her body wracked by her sobs, but this time the tears were cleansing. Her heart was light from the guilt that had been weighing it down. For that kind of man to say such things to her, she knew without a doubt that she was doing what was expected, no matter how much it may hurt.
While she and Mark hugged, the GNN reporter was discreetly transmitting.
The entire Allied frontier shared her pain.
Ford was leaning back against the base of an elm tree, lightly dozing with a belly full of field rations, and the burned-out stub of a cigar jutting from the corner of his mouth. His eyes opened at the approach of soft footfalls, and one hand instinctively slid over to the grip of the rifle that rested in his lap.
He relaxed, seeing that it was one of the sentries. The marine knelt down, squinting in the darkness to see if Ford were awake.
“Sergeant Major?” The kid whispered.
“You’re wanted at the CP. The colonel sent a Jeep for you.”
With a sigh, Ford reached out for his helmet, grasped his weapon, and stood on aching feet. Every muscle was stiff and sore, it seemed. The walk to the Jeep took forever, but it at least allowed time for his legs and back to limber up some. The night was pleasantly cool after the heat of the day, and the stench from the burning tanks and bodies within had been drifting the other direction, over the Storian side of the field.
Reaching the Jeep, he sat heavily in the passenger seat, and the driver cranked it up, using the night-vision of his helmet visor to drive without headlights. Passing back through the residential district, Ford noticed that the Army had been busy collecting the slain civilians, and giving them proper burials in a nearby park. It was pleasing to see that there was a cohesion between the different branches of service, without the historic bullshit of tension between them. Each branch seemed to be operating as best as they were able, cooperating with one another where needed. It was only the politics that ran among the Brass that was bogging things down.
Arriving at the police station in town, Ford entered the Command Post area that was manned by at least thirty guards, with four 60-watt MG’s spaced along the sandbag fortress that had been constructed around the building. A black drape hung over the front doors to hide the light within, cast by dozens of plasma lamps in lieu of the absent electricity.
The main office was filled to the seams with armor-clad Attayans, all standing idly by against the far wall while a gaggle of officers huddled around a central table, muttering over the maps there. Correctly assuming that was where he was wanted, Ford approached them.
Attayan Colonel Lafferty noticed his arrival, and stepped over to meet him partway, bringing another with him.
“Sergeant Major Ford, this is Captain Sunwa, of the Attayan Elite Forces, Second Light Infantry Brigade.”
Before Ford could complete his salute, Sunwa extended a hand for him to shake, “Your reputation precedes you, Sergeant Major.”
“Thank you, Captain,” Ford replied, somewhat at a loss, wondering just what reputation the man was referring to.
“This special operations group has flown in to assist your battalion,” Lafferty explained in his heavy accent that so sounded like an Irishman’s. “They’ll be taking out this pesky unit of Storians that have dug in outside of town. We just need your companies to maintain security on the line while they do their work.”
“I expect to be finished before dawn,” Sunwa stated with more than a hint of pride. “It’s imperative to mop this thing up before the Canadians arrive.”
Ford frowned, looking back to Lafferty, “Canadians?”
Lafferty grinned, exposing his sharp fangs, “Colonel Strasburg has gone around the red tape, and requested an air strike on the armored column that’s rolling in from Youngstown. It’s been covertly scheduled for oh-five-hundred.”
“How’s he plan to explain that to General Towers?”
Lafferty shrugged, grinning slyly, “The European forces operate under their own charter. They seem to have spotted a juicy enemy target, and have chosen to eliminate it.”
It was Ford’s turn to grin, “I like how you stink, Colonel.”
The Attayans laughed heartily, an act that Ford could not remember doing himself for what seemed a long time.
“Inform your unit,” Lafferty told him, “and sit back to enjoy the show.”
Ford saluted, knowing a cue to leave when he heard one. As he stepped back outside to the waiting Jeep, he wondered just what kind of show to expect.
The Attayans arrived in a pair of deuce-and-a-halfs, and dismounted with a unique flare that none of the marines had seen among their own. The elite group carried themselves with an air of discipline, and confidence that was unrivaled, forming up in total silence without their NCO’s ever having to voice an order.
As they marched quietly toward the line, Ford stood nearby, watching with acute interest. He had noticed that not one of them carried a weapon. He reached out and stopped Captain Sunwa as he was passing by.
“Where are your rifles?”
Sunwa smiled, drawing a wicked combat knife, and showing Ford it’s coated, non-reflective blade, “We prefer weapons that produce much less of a bang.”
Ford gawked, “You mean to tell me that every one of you are going out there with the intention of knifing them all?”
Sunwa’s smile faded, “You truly do not wish to know what we plan to do out there.”
The sergeant major let out a breath, “Ooo-Rah, Captain.”
Ford stood there, watching them disappear into the night, melting within the darkness like specters of death. For the first time in his life, he actually sort of felt sorry for those Storians. Then, remembering the way they had massacred the civilians of Hubbard, decided that those bastards probably deserved what was coming to them.
Refreshed after a few hours of fitful slumber, Minerva was back among her company, manning the stone wall that marked the new front line. She stared out into the darkness that was only faintly beginning to take on the subtle hint of dawn. They had all been gazing out into that darkness for hours, and even with night-vision, had seen not a single movement, nor heard a sound.
Finally, shapes began to coalesce from the void. Skulking, armored shapes that were fellow troopers. The Attayans were returning as silently as they had gone, and regrouping wordlessly on the friendly side of the wall. There was not an injury among them. The spec-ops teams formed up, and began marching back toward town.
Ford waited next to the tent that was the forward-most garrison, and nodded a greeting to Captain Sunwa as he approached.
“It is done,” Sunwa stated matter-of-factly.
“You killed them all? Without so much as a sound? How’d you do it?”
Sunwa shrugged noncommittally, “You’ll find the area secured when you move forward after the air strike.”
“I’m glad you’re on our side,” Ford told him, only half joking.
The captain chuckled, and rejoined his unit, walking away. Ford wondered if they would be crossing paths again, and just as quickly knew that would likely be the case. The campaign was merely getting started.
A sergeant came jogging up right then, somewhat breathless, “Sergeant Major! Our patrols report Storian armor rolling up the interstate, about ten miles out!”
Ford nodded casually. He was privy to the intel regarding the Canadians, and had chosen not to voice it to anyone, including his closest cadre. Best to keep that sort of business to one’s self in case the Brass ever came sniffing around.
“I know. Return to the line, Sergeant.”
Openly astounded at Ford’s aloofness, the marine did as he was told, glancing back as if to make sure he had been heard correctly.
Ford wandered back to the stone wall, stepped over it, and stood there watching dawn break over the horizon. It was really quite beautiful, the way the colors slowly meshed together from shades of blue and violet to oranges and reds. The distinct sound of heavy engines wafted
in and out of hearing as the tank column drew ever nearer. While his battalion stiffened, and braced themselves for an attack, he took out a fresh cigar and lit it.
“What the hell?” Minerva whispered to Amell, who was squatted next to her, machine gun at the ready.
“It’s like he doesn’t even care!” Amell whispered back.
The tanks were just coming into view as the sky melted from red to a soft yellow, the sun nearly ready to break over the horizon. It was a lumbering vision of dread miles long, enough tanks to drive the entire division back to the beachhead.
Then, ever so faintly, another sound drew to the fore. It was the drone of a plane, way up high. The girls, along with many other marines, shifted their gaze skyward. There it was, the form of a Hellfire platform. A C-130 Galaxy gunship that had enough firepower to bring an advancing army to its knees.
It banked slightly, then released an incredible stream of plasma bolts, the huge, fat 200-watt variety that only cannons could fire. These came in an endless barrage that thundered across the plain as they pounded the column, throwing great gouts of fire and secondary explosions. Flame and smoke began to swirl outward, igniting a large portion of the countryside around the highway.
The C-130 passed, disappearing into the glare of the sun that was blooming over the edge of the world. Next came the roar of jets, coming in low, and fast. Two fighter-shuttles streaked overhead, their after-burners shaking the ground as they strafed the Storian armored column moments before dropping a path of napalm.
None of the young marines had yet to see a napalm burst, and all were shocked beyond words at how the clapping explosions of liquid fire seemed to consume the very air, setting everything ablaze.
The GNN cameramen happened to be filming from such an angle as to catch Sergeant Major Ford standing there, upright and silhouetted against the hellstorm. They also caught the same images of Minerva, then Amell, and one marine after another standing up the same way.
That image was transmitted to receivers throughout the world, the Allied system, to both friend and foe. The image of hope. That no matter how desperate, or tragic the war may become…
…The Mighty First was coming….
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