Back | Next
Contents


CHAPTER FIFTY-FOUR

"Captain, this is Lieutenant Jasco," the field commander said. He looked around at the bare platoon of soldiers and shook his head. "We're in place with the Marshad forces. The plasma gun is in place, with its line out. Denat and the package are in place. I would say we're a go."


"Roger," Pahner replied over the circuit. "Plasma team, you're the initiators. When the Pasule forces charge."


"Roger, Sir," Moseyev responded nervously. "We're ready."


"Pahner, out."


* * *


Moseyev looked over Gronningen's fire plan one last time.


"Wait for my call," he said.


"Got it," the Asgardian grunted. "We're locked and cocked."


"Corporal," Macek whispered. "We've got movement."


* * *


"Let's get ready to rock and roll, people," Sergeant Major Kosutic said as a leader of the Pasule contingent stalked to the fore. The two armies had stopped just beyond javelin range from each other, and the Pasulian now waved his sword overhead, clearly exhorting his smaller force to attack. His words, probably fortunately for the humans, couldn't be discerned, but whatever he said worked, for the mass started into a trot behind him.


"Showtime."


* * *


"Fire," Moseyev whispered, and Gronningen tapped the fire button.


The plasma cannon spat out three carefully calculated bursts. One into each flank of the Marshad contingent, and the third directly into the rearmost ranks of the Royal Guard.


* * *


Pahner drew, turned, and fired three carefully aimed beads. The only three guards between him and the king went down like string-cut marionettes, and he sprinted forward.


* * *


The anticipated explosions roared behind them, and Bravo Company, Bronze Battalion, The Empress' Own, executed a perfect about-face and opened fire into the forces at their back.


* * *


Eleanora O'Casey hit the ground and covered her head.


* * *


Sergeant Despreaux dropped her bead rifle to hip level and followed her HUD aiming point as the grenadiers to either side of her went to continuous fire.


* * *


Corporal Moseyev pressed the hand unit detonator button, simultaneously firing the semicircle of stake-mounted directional mines and detonating the kilo charge of C-20 catalyst under the bridge. The charge was half the company's total supply . . . and sufficient to take down a three-story office building.


* * *


Pahner's first kick took Radj Hoomas in the groin. Anecdotal evidence had suggested that the area was nearly as vulnerable for Mardukans as for humans, which proved to be the case as the monarch doubled over in agony. The captain followed up with a spinning sidekick that intercepted the descending head on the temple. Mardukans, unlike humans, had thick bone there, but the impact still spun the king off his feet and stunned him.


The ruler of Marshad hit the balcony's stone floor and bounced, and Pahner grabbed the heavy Mardukan by one horn, yanked his head up, and shoved the muzzle of his bead pistol against it. Then he looked up, prepared to threaten the king's life to control the guards.


But there were no guards to control.


Those who had lined the back wall of the balcony had been reduced to so much paste by the impact of hundreds of beads and a dozen grenades in the confined space. Stickles was down, with a javelin in the side, but he would live, and that was the only casualty the humans had taken.


All eight of the guards who'd been directly around the king were dead. Most of them appeared to have been caught flat-footed, watching the plasma cannon, but one, at least, had apparently reacted to the captain's attack. That one had his sword out . . . and a bloody hole in his stomach. All the others had been hit in the head, neck, and upper chest.


Roger holstered his pistol and rotated his shoulder.


"I really have to find the guy who wrote that program and thank him when we get back."


* * *


Gronningen pounded rounds into the two flanks. The company was too intermixed with the Royal Guard now for him to fire into the center, but the flanks were fair game. He winced as he saw another Marine go down, but there was nothing he could do from here. Nothing but give covering fire and keep the flanking mercenaries off their backs.


Moseyev picked up one of the shredded guards' javelins. The directional mines had stripped away a few centimeters of the end, but aside from that—and the dripping gore—it was intact, and he tied the first line to its haft and waited.


* * *


Denat sprinted to the water's edge, then skipped aside as the javelin came scything through the air. The last rocks were still raining down from the demolished bridge when he picked the weapon up and threw it over the chosen tree limb. He motioned for slack and quickly tied a bowline slipknot in the rope and signaled complete. The rope twitched upward, and he smiled. Company was coming.


* * *


Roger heaved on his end, and the Mardukan he'd been sharing with Kyrou thumped soddenly into the pile against the door. He skipped aside and shook his head as Pahner and Surono came out with another.


"I've heard the expression before," he said, "but I never thought I'd do it."


"You see anything else to barricade the door with, Your Highness?" Pahner asked with a frown. "This is what war is all about: doing things you don't like to people you don't like even more."


* * *


"Sergeant Major," Julian said, jumping over a small mountain of Mardukans, "remind me never, ever to make that joke again."


"What's that?" Kosutic asked. She was simultaneously trying to walk sideways over the mounded bodies of the Royal Guard, tie a bandage on Pohm's neck, and make sure nobody was being left behind.


"Join the Marines . . ." Julian said.


"Travel to fascinating planets," Georgiadas chorused as he fired at one of the flankers who'd stopped to throw a javelin at them. The Marshad contingent's instinctive retreat to the city had come to a screeching halt when the bridge disintegrated in its face. Unable to fall back, it was beginning to reform south of the original battlefield, and even after the terrible pounding it had taken, the Marshadans were almost as numerous as the Pasulians.


"Meet exotic natives," Bernstein yelled, dropping a line of grenades across the line between the humans and the Marshadans.


"And kill them," Julian finished somberly as he shouldered the rolled up bag of ashes that was all that was left of Lieutenant Jasco. "Somehow, it's just not funny anymore."


"It never was, Julian." Kosutic finished the bandage and clapped the "repaired" private on the back. She looked around the battlefield and pointed to the marked assembly area. "Assemble at the O-P!" she yelled, then looked at the NCO who was jogging alongside her.


"So I should just shut up and soldier?"


"No. But you might wait until we're done with the mission," the sergeant major said, "and that will be a long time. Or at least wait to have your moral dilemma until the battle's over. In case you hadn't noticed, it isn't. And afterwards, you can drown your sorrows in wine, like the rest of us.


"I'm not saying that you have to be one of those guys who drinks from the skulls of dead enemies," she said as the company started to gather and tally off the dead and wounded. "But we have a few to pile yet. So wait until we're done to start the bitching."


* * *


"So you're just gonna leave me here, huh?"


Gronningen triggered another shot at the distant Marshadans. There were at least a thousand warriors in the mass, but it was nearly three thousand meters away. Maximum effective range for the cannon was only four thousand meters in atmosphere, due to energy bleed, so shots at this range were relatively ineffectual, but they still served to keep the Marshadan force off the backs of the rest of the Marines as they trotted steadily back towards his hilltop position. And, of course, the cannon would become increasingly effective if any of the Marshadans were stupid enough to come into shorter range.


"Bitch, bitch, bitch," Macek said nervously. Dozens of Mardukan soldiers had appeared at Marshad's gate, and more were coming from around the backside of the hill. If the main contingent didn't arrive soon, the bridgehead Denat had established across the river from them would be lost.


"Think of the poor bastards back in the barracks," Moseyev said. The word had come down that the first assault on the "guests' quarters" had been repulsed, but the group of walking wounded, mahouts, and tribesmen had been hard pressed.


"I'll think about them when I can quit thinking about myself," Mutabi said, hooking a clip onto the overhead rope. "I hate heights."


* * *


"Let's move out, people!" Kosutic snarled as she reached the foot of the hill and the plasma cannon atop it began firing across the river at Marshad. She glanced back at the stretcher teams toiling to keep up with her and shook her head. "Hooker!"


"Yes, Sergeant Major?" the corporal, who'd been promoted to team leader to replace Bilali after Voitan, responded.


"Your team stays with the stretcher bearers." There were three stretcher cases and four walking wounded, one of them in Hooker's team. "And St. John (J.), Kraft, and Willis," she added, naming off the other three walking wounded. "The rest, follow me," she finished, and went from the dog trot that they'd been maintaining to a loping run.


* * *


Macek ducked behind the tree as another flight of javelins rained down. There were only a few dozen Marshadans in the sewage ditch, but their last charge had nearly made it to the riverbank where the team crouched.


"This sucks!" he yelled.


"Oh, I don't know," Mutabi opined. "It could be worse."


"How?" Macek shouted back. "We're pinned down, the Company's not gonna get here in time, and there are more of them coming. How could it be worse?"


"Well," the grenadier said, pulling out his last belt of grenades. "We could be completely out of ammo."


* * *


"I can't get the angle into the ditch, Sergeant Major!" Gronningen reported furiously.


The senior NCO sucked in deep, cleansing breaths as she stepped to the edge of the hilltop to look the situation over.


"Grenadiers," she snapped, "flush those bastards. Gunny Lai!"


"Yes, Sergeant Major!"


"Your team first—go! Everybody else, lay down covering fire!"


Lai pulled the loop of rope out of her cargo pocket and hooked to the clip on the overhead line. She slung her bead rifle across her back and smiled.


"I always wondered why we did this in training." She laughed, and jumped off the cliff.


The company began to pour fire down on the scummy positions surrounding the sewage ditch bridgehead as the gunnery sergeant slid down the rope. The Marine gained speed rapidly as she felt another body hit the rope behind her, but there was an uplift at the bottom that slowed her. She let go near the top of the swing, and landed lightly a few meters from the riverbank.


"Ta-Da!" she said with a grin, and pulled the rifle off her back.


"Gunny," Macek told her, "you're a sight for sore eyes." He had a red-stained pressure bandage clamped on the side of Mutabi's neck, and there was a bloody javelin head next to the unconscious grenadier.


"Where's Moseyev and the scummy?" she asked as Pentzikis came off the rope, followed by St. John (M.). The latter had a rope trailing out of his rucksack and trotted off to the north, flipping it up and out of the river's current as he went.


"They're somewhere over there," Macek said, pointing south. "They're not responding anymore."


"Okay." The NCO looked around as more and more of the remnants of her platoon came down the rope. "Dokkum, Kileti, Gravdal—go find Moseyev and Denat." She waved to the south. "The rest of you, follow me!"


* * *


Roger's sword lopped the head off the spear as it thrust at him and opened up the scummy's chest on the backstroke. He spun in place to take the one grappling with Despreaux in the back, and then took the arm off of one fleeing towards the smashed-in door.


The wounded Mardukan slipped on the pool of blood which covered most of the floor and slid into the pile of bodies barricading the door. He started to scramble up again, but before he could, Captain Pahner took off his head with a single powerful blow of the broad, cleaverlike short sword he carried.


Roger straightened up, panting, and looked out over the city. The sounds of fighting carried clearly up to the balcony.


"We should have figured out how to smuggle in ropes. We could have gotten them in with the camping gear."


"No way." Despreaux disagreed, jerking hard to retrieve her own sword from the Mardukan in whose ribs it had wedged. "They were looking for stuff like that." She looked over at the remnants of the squad in one corner of the balcony. "How you doin'?"


"Oh, just fine, Sergeant," Kyrou said. He gestured at the securely trussed up king. "His Majesty's a bit put out, but we're fine."


"Right," Pahner said. "We may be low on ammunition, but that was too close. Next time we use the rifles and pistols as our primary weapons." He waved the remaining team to the door. "Your turn to cover."


Roger wiped at his face with a sleeve, trying to get some of the blood off, but his sleeve was even more sodden than his face.


"Anybody got a hankie?" he asked. "Yuck."


"Captain," Damdin shouted. "We've got movement!"


"Check-fire," the sergeant major called from the landing. She peeked around the corner until she had the corporal in sight, then stumped wearily up to the top of the stairs. "Check-fire, Damdin. The cavalry has arrived."


"Great," Roger said, looking at the sergeant major. She was just as blood-covered as he was. "So what took you so long?"


 


Back | Next
Framed