Outside the Wire: the Complete Novella

Sophia 'Alizabeth' S 2016-02-25

It was unusual to see the colonel in the enlisted berth, and from the look on his face, it was not for a good reason. He had the company sergeant tribunus with him.

“Got some word for you men,” he said, looking grim, once we were all at attention. “Yesterday the Privy Council declared a State of Emergency. The Fourth Fleet has retreated from Heimatar. We’ve lost control of the region.”

That got my attention for two reasons; firstly, my father was an officer in the Fourth Fleet. So, I was worried about my old man, but more to the point, Imperial forces do not retreat. In the entire seven millennia existence of the Holy Amarr Empire, no force had ever retreated. Imperial Military Law forbade it, and the penalty for violating that was steep.

“Lord Admiral Helican accepted responsibility to the Emperor in person and fell on his sword in penance. Heimatar is lost, and Metropolis is in open rebellion. The rebels detonated a nuclear device in Dam-Agrad on Hek V. The city was totally destroyed. Men, we’ve lost control of this.”

The colonel paused to let this sink in. “So, get everything ready to move in case command decides to put us closer to the front. Until that happens, we still have a job to do here. Sergeant tribunus, all yours.”

The sergeant tribunus told us to stand at ease. “First and second platoons get your gear on and head to the motor ramp. Briefing in ten minutes.”

They both left and pandemonium broke out. Every private asked his fireteam leader what the word passed by the colonel meant. Of course, I had as much clue as they did and my squad leader knew just as much as I. There was a lot of speculation though, and one of the men from second platoon pointed out the ugly fact that the Minmatar slaves outnumbered Amarr citizens. When he started talking about the downfall of the Empire, he was pointedly told by his sergeant to shut up.

There wasn’t a lot of time for random speculation, even of the kind that was not defeatist; we were on a time limit. It wasn’t really a limit. The berth was empty in five minutes and we were gathered around a small holoprojector set down on the ground outside the motor ramp within seven minutes.

I used to get nervous leaving the wire. Every time, I obsessed over the levels of the powerpacks on my chest and in the drop pouch on my left thigh. Five or ten times I would check the seating of the crystal in my V27 laser carbine, over and over to make sure it was properly in place. I used to get amped every time we went out, ready to take on all comers, itching for a fight. That was an eternity ago, at least three months.

Today though, I was too tired to be nervous or amped. A civilian might think that strange considering it was three in the afternoon, but I’d only been to sleep an hour and a half prior to the colonel waking us up. Sleep deprivation, however, was part of a Marine’s training. I’d stuck a packet of instant coffee—that horrible stuff might pass for real coffee, but only to a starving pig—in between my teeth and lip. Sure, it tasted horrible, but like nicotine in chewing tobacco, the caffeine in the instant coffee gets absorbed right through the gums. It’s the little tricks that make the difference between a boot and a Marine that knows what he’s about.

We were waiting for the company XO, also the first platoon leader, Lieutenant Sonderhale to show up and tell us what to do. He was Ni-Kunni with mocha skin and an icy blue stare. Most of the time he was pretty relaxed, but he had this uncanny ability to put a hard edge in his voice without raising it when it was time to get serious.

We’d already done our own checks; I had checked my fireteam before the corporal checked the squad. Each man had to have two rations in the buttpack, plus a full bladder of water on his back. Each man had to have a first aid kit on the left side of his torso armor and a tourniquet on the left shoulder strap. The power charge on the personal radio had to read ninety percent or better. We had the standard set of crystals, of course. As for powerpacks? Enough was how much each of us could carry; I usually carried power for six hundred shots.

By now, the pre-combat checks had mostly become pro forma. All of us were professionals; all of us knew what to do. The real point wasn’t to check the gear, but the sleepy looking guys in the ranks. Low-intensity operations takes its toll on the nerves. So the platoon sergeant, a Khanid named Nallerkh, but we all called Wrath, would make sure to look everyone in the eye to make sure we were not too frazzled to go out. It was not just a cursory check, given what happened last week and what the colonel had just told us.

Wrath stopped in front of me on his pass. “You awake, Dommac?” he asked me with a smirk. There were bags under his eyes, too. He probably hadn’t even caught the ninety minutes of rack time I had.

“I think so,” I said, with more enthusiasm than I felt.

“Well, look on the bright side. Sure, you’re not in your rack, but you might get the chance to shoot someone.”

“Just tell me who I have to kill to go back to sleep and point me in their direction, arch sergeant,” I responded. He nodded and moved on.

We weren’t joking about killing bad guys; the whole battalion was in a rage. Last week, two slaves had shot into a crowd coming out of church with homemade zip guns. The attack resulted in sixteen dead, including four children and almost double that number wounded. I had to hold a shaking mother back while the medic tried in vain to save her son. It was the worst day of my life up to that point. We’re supposed to protect civilians.

Finally, after the checks were done and fifteen minutes of kicking the dirt, Lieutenant Sonderhale showed up. Wrath and the squad leaders went over to him. Second platoon’s senior noncoms trotted over as well. Mere lance corporals like myself stayed back, so did the couple of corporals that were fireteam leaders. They conferenced for a little while, which led to more dirt kicking on my part. Finally they broke it up and Sonderhale called us over to the holoprojector.

“Listen up, men. Intel says that there’s a weapons cache in a village fifty-nine klicks north-northwest of the city, called, uh, Holt Town,” he said, looking at a folded bit of paper in his hand briefly while Wrath turned on the projector, and a three dimensional holo in gold tones flickered into existence to show us a cluster of about thirty buildings. Sonderhale looked at the holo to make sure it was right before continuing. “The colonel wants us to move on this quickly. Just a standard cordon and search, nothing fancy. We’ll approach from the south on this dirt road here.” He gestured to the road on the holo. “For transport we’re going to have six Bucklers. First platoon will dismount one hundred meters from this housing complex. Second platoon will move around the village with their vehicles and establish a perimeter. Once we’re dismounted, the transport vehicles for first platoon will join that perimeter.”

The holoprojector showed the blocky models for our Bucklers doing just that, with tactical icons for each fireteam dismounting and then moving up into the town.

“Lieutenant Granet,” Sonderhale said to the second platoon leader, an officer so new he practically squeaked when walking. “We’re going to be a little light on this; the rest of the company has to stay for back QRF. So, make good use of the tracks when you set up your perimeter.”

Lieutenant Granet nodded, looking unhappy. He wasn’t the only one. With the other three platoons of the company staying back to be the quick response force for the battalion, we were going to be operating on a tight budget. Oh well, improvise, adapt, and overcome, I suppose.

“From there, first platoon moves to the overseer’s office here. There’s a staff of about a dozen there: the town overseer, four constables, and the rest are administration. One constable will be assigned to each squad for the search and their corporal will be with me. After that, it’s simple; sweep south to north.”

“I know we’re all still angry about what happened, but we are not barbarians. The people in this town had nothing to do with what happened at Saint Lyydia. Do not take it out on them. We’re never going to reclaim the Minnies to God’s Light if we act like heathens. We’re Amarr, God’s Children.”

He raised his voice, put a growl in it. “That said, we are going to come home alive. If someone decides they want to die today, we’re going to oblige him. The real war might be a long way away, but you can wind up just as dead here. No risks. Engage your brain.” He looked over at Father Erajibanabas. “Okay, Chaps, all yours.”

We all knelt down while the company chaplain came over and said a nice prayer for us, the righteous paladins of Holy Amarr or something of the like. I’m just as religious and a believer as the next man, but the chaplain’s prayers seem to all blur together and wind up mostly the same. Besides, I had that rancid instant coffee taste in my mouth to distract me. I said amen just as loudly as the rest of the platoon, though.

When that was all over, we loaded up onto the Bucklers. By design, they were supposed to fit eighteen men, all with kit. Realistically, that was always pushing it. This time, we had two more than the minimum required, so it was one squad to a track. Our squad leader, Corporal Blue—a nickname that dated back to bootcamp—got the choice seat, with a hatch to look out of. The rest of us got to suck engine fumes in the dark.

Sometimes, we were lucky enough to get antigrav transports. That was always nice; the Aquilas were fast and comfortable to ride in. Bucklers though, were tracked, loud, and bumpy. Their saving grace was the thick tungsten carbide armor.

The lieutenant stopped me before I climbed in the back. “I asked command about Saint Ventrificus. It’s in one piece with Captain Dommac still in command.” I’m sure I looked relieved. “No slacking today, Lance Corporal Dommac. Keep making your old man proud.”

Once inside, with just the indicator lights illuminating the back, giving everything a green tinge, I said a quick prayer of my own, much more heartfelt and much less bloviated than Chaps’. If we got blown up on the way, there was nothing I could do about it; I was just a passenger. So, I let God worry about His part and the vehicle crew worry about theirs. I just put plugs in my ear, laid my head back and closed my eyes. I didn’t actually sleep, but stayed on the line between sleep and the waking world. Good enough for rest.

The track lurched to a stop with no finesse or gentleness whatsoever. Some drivers just don’t care about the guys in the back. I came to a passable state of awakeness and checked the crystal in my lascarbine again; only the third time today. I had in a standard crystal, visible spectrum, good for all around work. The ramp lowered and we all got out. I stretched, looking at the town, the low, squat buildings and more than a few Minmatar milling about. We were in Derelik, so it was likely not all of them were slaves; there were a good number of Imperial loyalist Minmatar here.

We spread out, my fireteam members fell into a wedge formation behind me, no use in getting sloppy. We were on Tanoo II, a mostly secure planet today, but tomorrow we could be shipping out for the war. A good quarter of our battalion were boots, just like Lieutenant Granet—not that we ever called an officer a boot to his face. These low-level security operations were supposed to give us time to shakedown and train as a unit.

Wrath’s voice sounded in the earphone for my radio, “Draki, Blue, get a team out on the flanks.”

They both rogered off and Corporal Blue keyed up the squad net, “Dommac. Take your team out around to the left of that housing complex.”

“On it,” I said, keying my radio and giving my fireteam a completely redundant hand signal to head to the left. They had heard just as well as I. One of my team, Private Hedron, was a boot and took a perverse pleasure in being the point man. He started running off; so I had to yank his leash a bit.

“Slow down, killer. This isn’t morning PT,” I said to him, gentle enough to not kill his mood. “And point your weapon to the deck, we’re not shooting anyone here.” Though, the unsaid ‘not yet’ hung in the air.

My fire team came around the corner of the long building. There were some of the locals milling about, a few outside smoking, kicking the dirt, chatting, the kind of stuff that people generally do outside their home. A few kids were out playing in the grassy courtyard, too, kicking a ball around. That last part made me feel just a little bit safer. When we were in Tash-Murkon, both times we got hit the kids had all up and vanished.

There was nothing to report, so I didn’t, and we made our way to the overseer’s office in the middle of the town and the lieutenant went in to conference. The rest of us kicked dirt outside, looking around. Technically, we were pulling security, but it was pretty lackadaisical; I even stuck some more instant coffee in my lip. It didn’t take long; Sonderhale came out, pointed to a housing building and told us we were going to search that one first. The constable attached to our squad mostly stuck by Blue, which was fine by me.

The rebels were using chemically powered projectile weapons, so the normal scanners wouldn’t work to find them due to a lack of energy signature. Since the energy scanners were out, we were issued handheld metal detectors—one per squad—that were prone to false positives when used inside a building. That didn’t matter too much as they were more to supplement the Mk. 1 eyeball—two per man—that were much more effective.

The constables kicked the slaves that lived there out into the hall and we split off to do our search. A fireteam from first squad stayed with the lieutenant while he talked to the slaves, mostly telling them that any confession would not be met with punishment; maybe it was true. My team wound up searching one apartment per floor and then two on the third. We didn’t wreck the place; it wasn’t our job to break things, but we did give it a thorough look. That did mean flipping over a couch or two and rolling up a rug. That sort of thing can get dull, so Sonderhale livened things up by promising his wine ration for the night to the first man to find contraband weapons, and the officers got the good stuff.

The first building was a bust, but when we walked out the front door something had changed. All the people that were milling about before, smoking and the like, were all gone. More worrisome was the lack of kids playing ball. I wasn’t the only one that noticed that, either.

Wrath keyed up the company net, “Wake up, things have changed.” Then he switched to the platoon net. “Head on a swivel, get dispersion. Make sure you check the upper floor windows. For building two, tactical entry. Squad one—”

He was cut off by a staccato of weapon’s fire. Dirt flew up and windows shattered. A guy in second squad, Olando, got hit.

Someone yelled out, quite unnecessarily, “Cover!” And we all piled back into the building we’d just left, through the door or the now broken windows. The latter was the route I took, a nice little flip to put concrete construction between me and the enemy rounds. I pressed flat while bullets zinged over my head and chewed up the opposite side of the wall in front of me.

Another Marine was wounded dragging Olando into cover, so there were two men yelling in pain, until the medic got over to them and gave them some frentrix. Our armor would stop most of the Minnie’s rounds, but we were not armored everywhere. The rest of us got our weapons up and started to return fire, Hedron especially. I’d never seen someone go through a whole powerpack in so little a time, except maybe in training. So, I told him to mind his shots and slow down. Boots.

Private First Class Shamshruck, my pulsegunner, brought his weapon up and propped on the windowsill. The V27 was a fine weapon, but the V106 was what we used when we wanted to really express our displeasure. High energy lasers don’t just shine a light on something, they impart all that energy at once. Each pulse lasted a fraction of a second and hit with the force of two kilojoules. The pulse laser emitted a high pitched whine as Shamshruck held down the trigger, sending five laser pulses a second at the enemy. Our lasers blew chunks out of the wall and shattered windows just as well as the rebel’s bullets did.

Wrath wound up in the same room as my fireteam. He didn’t do much shooting, but radioed for a head count. It came back three wounded now, which was reported to Sonderhale.

The radio squelched in my ear. “Second platoon, moving to assist,” Lieutenant Ganet said, with much more excitement than the situation warranted.

“Negative. Hold position. I say again, hold your position,” growled Sonderhale. Boots are prone to getting into trouble and getting themselves killed unless someone watches them closely. Boot officers though, they can get whole platoons killed. Scary thought.

Sonderhale called out a cease fire. The rebels must have missed that radio call; they kept right on shooting at us. Hedron, didn’t stop shooting. I had to hit him in the back of the helmet to get his attention. I didn’t blame him too much. If someone shoots at me, I darn well want to shoot back.

“Get a camera drone out,” Sonderhale said.

“On it,” Wrath answered and reached into his thigh pouch and pulled out a small spherical drone that zipped right up into the air on countergrav. Then, he got the command display out and fiddled with it. After a few moments, he keyed the radio, “Looks like, ten, maybe eleven of them, third floor; left four windows.”

Draki offered the expedient solution. “If we can suppress them long enough to get someone with a rocket a shot, we can end this right quick.”

“We’re not going to blow up the building and God knows how many innocents with it,” the lieutenant said and then he was silent. That’s not the best thing to hear: silence over the radio and bullet impacts on the wall in front of me. I found out later that he was calling in Aquilas to pick up the wounded, but at the time I was irate.

I looked over to Wrath as the bullets zipped over my head. “Arch Sergeant, what are we doing? Why in God’s name aren’t we shooting back?”

Wrath tapped his headphone, letting me know that he was listening to the radio. As the platoon sergeant, he had more channels than me.

“Just keep your head down and your mouth shut,” he said, looking unhappy. I got the impression he’d rather be shooting too.

After one minute of eternity, Sonderhale gave the order, “Hammer left, second and third squads. Wrath, you take the assault force. The hatchway on the left leads right into a stairwell that goes to all three floors. Breach that building and kill those hostiles.”

A hammer left was a pretty standard battle drill, but not one usually given for urban fighting. Though, the meaning was clear. The assault element would be the strongest and we were to go to the left.

Several orders were passed at once, Wrath’s first. “Second and third squads, ready to move to the hall, stay low.”

“First squad, third floor of the far building, left four windows, sustained rate, pulse lasers talking, on my command,” Draki said. His squad was ready to give us covering fire while we moved to flank the target. The constables would stay behind and in cover. Without our augments or armor, they’d just wind up hindering us.

“Go,” commanded the lieutenant.

“Move.”

“Fire at will!”

First squad opened up. The sustained rate of fire for the V27s was thirty shots per minute. Assuming that every one of them carried as much power as I did—a safe assumption— they could keep that going for about twenty minutes. The larger pulse lasers would go through power faster than that, but Corporal Draki had ordered that only one of those were to shoot at a time: talking guns. The cracking of energy discharges filled the air while I low crawled out the door into the hallway. First squad’s suppression fire worked, none of us got hit. The cease fire made sense in hindsight. After our initial bursts, the rebels didn’t actually have a firm fix on where any of us were.

Wrath signaled for us to stand and we moved with a quickness to the door. A knife hand front to back told us to stack up while he checked outside. Sometimes signals can be faster than yelling or the radio. He checked the command display for the camera drone to see about crossing to the next building. The rebels had started shooting back, fortunately not at us, but where first squad was shooting from.

“Bound by twos,” said Wrath, holding the door open with his foot while he checked outside visually.

My fireteam was closest to the door. Hedron was in front of me and looked ecstatic at the prospect of going first.

“Go!”

We darted across and rounded the corner into the other housing building. I waited for my team to get there, and stacked up on the door.

“Wait,” I said to my overeager boot, grabbing the strap on the back of his armor until we were ready. None of us had any idea what was on the other side of the door and if there were unpleasant characters there, we wanted to be ready. Once I felt Shamshruck pressed against my back and tap my shoulder I said, “okay, go.”

It wasn’t the cleanest breach we’d ever done, but it worked. There was no one unpleasant on the other side, just some scared looking Minnies.

“Get low, get to the other side,” I said to the slaves. One kid was curled up in a ball on the hallway floor. So, I kicked open a far door and unceremoniously tossed her in, behind a nice metal stove. I would be damned to oblivion before I saw another dead kid, Minnie or not. Sure I killed people, but never indiscriminately.

“Clear so far,” I told Wrath as we kept moving down the hall, pieing off the corners. Behind us, the rest of the assault team kept bounding across the buildings. It was going well til Perelia got shot in the leg.

“Man down. Medic!” was radioed and Wrath tossed smoke out to cover the movement of the last men. Not that any of us thought it was going to be a surprise visit, but they knew we were coming now.

We stacked up on the far door. The geometry meant that in order to get good shots at us crossing this time, the hostiles would have to lean out of the windows. I almost hoped they would try; exposing themselves like that would mean someone in first squad would have a good day.

Wrath signaled for us to move and we did, by twos again, just in case, no use in being sloppy. Corporal Brekin’s team from second squad got to make the first breach this time. The door was locked, but that’s not much of a problem to a Marine with combat augments. Wrath just kicked the door in; it darn near came off its hinges.

Brekin’s fireteam poured in and we were treated to a chorus of “Clear.”

The other team followed, holding the second floor landing. Second squad’s third team was reduced to two men thanks to the wounded, so I got to be the one to breach the third floor, the place we knew was unfriendly.

After we stacked, I took a good grip of the strap on the back of Hedron’s armor. We were going in, no matter what. If the pointman got hit—a likely possibility—I would be right behind him, holding onto his armor to keep him in front of me as a bullet shield. Pretty horrible if you stop and think about it, but that’s the cost of doing business for a Marine.

“Check the front first, and then track left. The rest of the squad is going to come in right behind us. Anything behind that door that you think needs to be shot, you shoot,” I said to Hedron. The other two members of my team were old hands and didn’t need the speech. I nodded to Wrath, who was pressed flat on the other side of the door.

“Stand by to shift fire,” Wrath said on radio. First squad rogered up. It was good not to worry about being shot by our own guys. He pulled out a flashbag “Switch to IR.”

I hit a button and the lasing chamber of my V27 opened up. I took out the yellow crystal and placed it in its pouch and replaced it with the red colored infrared crystal. It took more power per shot and lost twenty percent of its energy, but it had its uses.

“It’ll shoot through the smoke,” I said to Hedron.

“I know, lance corporal,” he replied. I knew that he knew when I told him, but by letting him respond, I reminded him of his training and boosted his confidence. I hoped.

Wrath cracked the door and then tossed in a flashbang. There wasn’t much point in using something high explosive if we were going to send men in anyways. We could have rocketed the building from across the courtyard just as easily with a lot less fuss. The flashbang should put them off kilter for just long enough to make a breach.

“Shift fire, breaching,” said Wrath.

Then BLAM!

“Go, go go!” I said, pushing Hedron through the door. “Check front-fatal front!”

There was one man there, with a weapon in his hand. Hedron or I lased him down. Little flashes of flames flared up on his clothes from the heat of the laser hits.

“Keep going,” I yelled. Once inside, speed is the key, speed and violence of action. Shamshruck kept a cover on the doors across the hall while the rest of us stacked on the first door with a quickness.

No grenade this time, Hedron pushed in through the door. He took a hit on his armor, but that’s what it’s for. The blonde Sebiestor woman inside wound up getting checked into the ground by me. Once she was down, I put a couple of shots in her head, and she stopped moving.

Lance Corporal Boltsing, the assistant team leader called it out. “Left, overhead, clear!”

I went to check on Hedron. The plate on his chest had a dent in it; it would have to be replaced, which was much easier than replacing a man. He just had the wind knocked out of him.

“You’ll be fine. God’s watching out for you,” I told him, taking out the back plate and swapping it for the front. I put the dented plate in the back pouch, better to have poor protection than none. “Buck up; we’re not done yet. Good job taking out that first man, just keep it up.”

I heard a yell as one of the rebels fell out of the window and landed in the grass below. I looked out in time to see him try to sit up and get unloaded on by all of first squad’s eager trigger fingers. His hair wound up aflame from the thermal bloom of the laser hits. Turns out, Wrath had taken point on the final room breach and kicked the rebel five feet out the window after shooting two others with his sidearm.

“Get this building clear and secure. Restrain and search. Top to bottom,” Wrath radioed.

“First squad, move to assist,” Sonderhale said. “And Ganet, send a squad to pull security on the detainees.”

One of my squadmates, Careli, had taken a hit in the neck. His buddy had pulled out the clotting nanites from the first aid kit and poured it into the wound and there was a bandage pressed to it, but there was a lot of blood loss aforehand. The medic was still sprinting across the courtyard, exposing himself to any possible fire in an attempt to get to us quicker. Medics do that, though, and God watches out for them.

Careli wasn’t on my team, and we still had a job to do. I let Hedron drop back—nothing dampens silly enthusiasm better than getting shot—and took point myself. We were less gentle than our first building, doors got kicked in. Who could blame us, with adrenaline pumping and fury awoken?

There was no playing after that. We breached every room. Anyone inside, kids included, got frisked and then cuffed. Once we were sure they had nothing dangerous on them, they got sent down to the courtyard where the squad from second platoon kept lasers pointed at them. Then we tossed the place. Every apartment got a thorough look over.

I did try and keep the breaking things to a minimum, and not just because of what the lieutenant said. The people that attacked us were all dead, so we had settled the score there. The other slaves maybe knew about the planned ambush, maybe not. I did know that wrecking what little they had wasn’t going to change things for the better, no matter how angry or justified we might have felt doing it. Still, I know some things did get broken in spite.

My fireteam found what we were looking for in the second room we searched. It was a metal box with a rubber seal filled with ammunition for the weapons the rebels had been using, definitely of quality manufacture. A more complete search of the apartment, including breaking open some fake cabinetry, yielded more boxes and more bullets. This wasn’t a backroom job, but industrialized manufacture, and Amarrian designs for powerpack and crystal containers are different. I had gotten shot at by Gallente Federation bullets. I called lieutenant over to take a look.

“Thank God they were shooting it at us and not a crowd of civilians,” he said, looking the find over. I agreed. We took some casualties, but nothing like what might have happened if they’d shot at civilians coming out of church with Gallente made weapons and ammunition.

He got called away by a pair of Aquila transports landing on the outside of town, come to pickup our wounded and get them back to the hospital. If they got Careli back quick enough, he’d probably make it. An Avenger gunship circled around the town, ready to rain hate and discontent on anyone stupid enough to shoot at the medevac Aquilas, but any rebel with enough fight in them to try was already dead. So, they flew off with a quickness back to base. I checked my chrono, only fifteen minutes since contact. Felt like a lot longer.

Word was passed down that the rest of the company, the ones held back for QRF, were in the air to us. Since the situation was upgraded from a possible weapons cache to a confirmed weapons cache, complete with hostile rebels, the town was going to be overrun with Imperial Marines and every inch checked.

So, we kept up our search; no rest for the weary and all. The adrenaline had started to wear off and the heart pounding fight or flight faded away. It’s a funny thing after a firefight. It feels good, euphoric, even. I was alive, unhurt; the bad guys were dead. I started grinning, so did Hedron, as we tossed the apartment.

That’s the most dangerous time, though. We were still outside the wire and not safe; safe being relative for a Marine. Wrath came in and told us to tighten up, so we did as best we could. Still, it’s impossible to get rid of that happy feeling. I wasn’t tired anymore and Hedron even joked about getting shot.

“Thank God the Minnies had good aim,” he said.

“How do you know they weren’t aiming for your grape?” asked Boltsing.

“They’re Minnies,” I interjected. “They’re not smart enough for that.”

“Yup. Stupid enough to take us on,” Hedron said.

“Right on, brother. Good job today. You’re not a combat virgin anymore. Now, if we could just fix the other one just as easy,” I said, ducking as he threw a cup at me. We all laughed, even Hedron.

It took us two more hours to finish our search of the town. We found some propaganda: ‘brothers and sisters, rise up and be free’ leaflets and such, two more weapons that looked like they were a homemade job, and several more boxes of ammo. The rest of the company got tasked to search the mine, but we got to go home.

“First and second platoons, load up on the vehicles for retrograde. Amarr victor!” the lieutenant said over the radio.

“Amarr victor!” we all echoed back as one, even the guys from the rest of the company that were not there for the actual fight. Everyone needed a victory, even a small one, after the Saint Lyydia attack and the colonel’s bad news. Twelve rebels down; God knows how many left to go.

Only after we piled into the back of the Bucklers did I say a short prayer of thanks to God for keeping my team safe through all that ruckus. Then, I put plugs in my ears and passed right out.

 

Chapter Two

The war was turning into a rout, despite our tactical victory at Holt Town. With the Fourth Fleet out of Heimatar, Metropolis was an untenable position; it didn’t take Emperor Arrach to look at a map and see that. A new front had formed in the Bleak Lands and Derelik as every available ship and division poured into those regions to hold the line. If command had wanted to move our battalion to the front, they were either severely disappointed or pleased by the silver lining. We didn’t have to go to the front; the front came to us.

We were all happy about how the events at Holt Town had turned out. We’d acquitted ourselves well in a tactical situation that was definitely a step up from our few engagements in Tash-Murkon. Everyone lived—which was a huge plus—even Careli, but he talked with a hoarse voice from then on. If there was any cockiness however, it was dispelled pretty quickly.

In the three weeks since, we’d been engaged seven times. Sergeant Draki from first squad was killed by a direct hit from a rocket. A rebel killed Lance Corporal Hravid and Private Korinelampir, both in second squad, when they were clearing a building. The rebel woman had rigged it with explosives and blown herself up along with them. The rest of their fire team was still in hospital.

There were other casualties, too. Wrath had lost a hand and been fitted with a cybernetic replacement; he was still on desk detail while he got used to the new limb. I could tell he hated being stuck behind while his Marines went outside the wire, even though he put on a good enough public face. A few other guys had taken hits, but the medics and doctors had patched them up. Imperial medicine was good enough that if a Marine wasn’t killed outright and got to a hospital quickly, he would probably make it.

So far, no doubt thanks to my fervent prayers and God watching out for us, no one from my squad had been killed in action or been injured severely enough to get taken out of the fight.

Our battalion stayed in Dam-Sakenjah, though we were reinforced. We split the responsibilities for the security of the city with the House Sakenjah Guard, a battalion from the Imperial Army, and some citizen militias that had formed. Most of the house guard manned checkpoints and secured key districts, an area that had become known as the Gold Zone. Most of the city’s administration buildings, government offices, and the aeroport were in the Gold Zone, so I cannot say that I faulted their thinking. Of course, most of the nobility lived there, too.

The majority of the city districts were classified as Blue Zones. The Blue Zones were sometimes patrolled by the guard, mostly by the militias, and the Imperial military picked up the rest of the slack. Presence patrols were the big thing. The civilians were scared, not that I blamed them, and it was important to make them feel safe. This was not the easiest thing to do.

The rebels had focused their attacks on the military at first, but realized that it’s not good for their longevity to shoot at things that shoot back. So, the insurgents turned their focus to the civilians. The kind of thing that happened at Saint Lyydia started to be disgustingly common, which was why the citizen militias were formed. The militias were just informal bands armed with clubs or chains, not real weapons. It was a tolerated sort of situation.

The slave districts were designated Grey Zones. House guard manned the checkpoints around the districts, and we only went in the slave districts in platoon strength or better. We knew for a fact there were rebels in the Grey Zones, but there were three hundred thousand or so slaves and only two battalions of Imperial military. The plan was to contain any insurgent elements in the Grey Zones as best as possible until we had enough reinforcements to do a proper sweep. We probably could have done a proper sweep if Lord Sakenjah had released his house guard, but he refused. Or, so I heard.

I was playing cards with Corporal Blue, Shamshruck, and Hedron. Boltsing was half asleep in his bunk. The whole platoon was dressed and ready to go, sans torso armor and weapons, as my company was the quick-response force at present. We were all tense, since the lieutenant had told us there was a crowd outside of the cathedral—where Lord Sakenjah had ensconced himself for Saint Kuria’s Day—demanding that he do something about the security situation. Normally, civilians are like sheep: they make a lot of noise, but do nothing. We were tense because several of the militia groups were also there, and the militia had shown at least some fighting spirit. If they tried anything, they would die to our lasers just like any other civilian; so I offered a quiet prayer that things would stay peaceful there.

The crowd was demanding that Lord Sakenjah do something, since two days ago, a trio of insurgents had attacked the Hiriya Market, killing over a hundred people before the Army troops stopped them. It was the third major attack this week, though by far the worst. Our strategy of containment was not working all that well.

“Are you sure there are only four emperors in that deck?” I asked as I lost yet another hand.

“You want to check yourself?” Blue said with a grin. “Don’t blame the cards; you’re just bad at this.”

“Probably. Swords is more of my game,” I said.

“I don’t know how to play Swords,” Hedron said and all three of us looked at him.

No one said anything for a moment as Hedron shrank, no doubt trying to comprehend the depth of his sin.

Blue broke the silence. “How did you manage that?” he asked and started to shuffle. “Dommac, you have failed this Marine. How do you expect to make corporal if your fire team can’t even play Swords?”

“Fine. He can be your partner then,” I said.

“No worries. We’re still going to win. Okay, Hedron, the point of this is to get sets-”

Blue was interrupted by Lieutenant Sonderhale shoving the door open.

“Get your gear on. Head to the LZ; we’re on the move in five minutes,” he said.

That ended the card game, and we all started to throw on our gear. Once Blue was sure his squad was ready to go, we made our way to the landing zone on the double. The Aquilas were already warming their engines.

I am happy to say that our platoon was first to make it to the LZ; though in fairness to the rest of the company, they were not that far behind. Sergeant Ulhelihir, second squad leader and the acting platoon sergeant while Wrath was convalescing, gave the lieutenant the all-good signal once he was aboard.

Sonderhale keyed his radio while the Aquila crew closed the ramp and made ready to take off. “Here’s what we know. A short time ago, a house guard checkpoint at one of the Grey Zones radioed in a distress call. No contact since. The other house guard units in the area have reported a major disturbance, but that’s all the intel we have. Plan for the worst. If this is a general uprising men, it’s going to get messy.” He paused for a moment to let that sink in. “We’re not going to be alone. The Army is also in the air. And, the colonel promised the CO reinforcements, if needed.”

“Is the LZ going to be hot, sir?” someone asked.

“No,” Sonderhale replied. “We’re going to be landing in an open plaza about half a klick from the checkpoint. House guard has eyes on.”
There were no other questions. The lieutenant had told us everything he knew, and our ride wasn’t long enough for people to think up the beyond stupid questions.

“One minute! Make ready!” said Sergeant Ulhelihir. We all put powerpacks in our lascarbines. I did, of course, check again that the standard crystal was properly seated.

We were first platoon, so we were the second to land, right after headquarters platoon. The company commander, Arch Lieutenant Kor-Nivet, already had a holoprojector going in the corner of the plaza.

“Lieutenant Sonderhale, take your platoon over to the checkpoint and see if there are any survivors. This is our casualty collection point,” the CO said, once we had all run over. “So far, everything seems to be contained within Sakenjah-Lir. So, once you’ve checked for survivors, hold the checkpoint until weapons get set up. When overwatch is in place, we’ll see about going into the district.”

Half a klick isn’t all that far, but we were not confident in the accuracy of our intelligence, so it took us a bit to get there. Tactical movement in an urban area isn’t just walking down the street.

“Holy God,” someone said when we got to the checkpoint. There were several bodies about. I recognized a few of them in house guard uniforms, but some were in civilian attire. The improvised barriers were knocked down, too.

Our squad, plus the medic, got to do the search while the other two provided cover. The disturbance was happening a few blocks away, inside the district, so we were able to work unmolested. The medic checked every person laying in the street, but found no survivors, despite our prayers.

“Looks like they’ve been trampled,” said Doc. “Some of these are civilians, not slaves”

“Wrong place at the wrong time?” I offered. “My fire team: let’s at least move them out of the way.” This whole mess would be sorted later—by someone other than me—but if we wanted to get Bucklers through the checkpoint, it would be good for them not to have to run over the bodies.

“Weapons platoon is unloading now. They should be set up in ten. Grab some cover,” Sonderhale said.

I found a nice concrete traffic divider to kneel behind as we watched the riot unfold. That was fine. If the slaves wanted to fight amongst themselves, I was happy to let them. We watched, blissfully unaware of what was happening until one of the local constabulary ran up, exuberant to see us.

“Thank God you’re here. Someone needs to stop this before it gets out of control,” he said, panting for breath. He proceeded to tell the lieutenant what had actually happened: some of the citizen militias had decided to attack the district and rolled over the guard checkpoint in the happening.

Sonderhale cussed, and I agreed with the sentiment. He radioed up to the CO.

“Bronze Six Actual, this is Bronze One Actual.”

“Wait one,” came the reply. The CO had a radio operator to handle most of comm traffic that came his way. However, Sonderhale wanted to relay this development, which completely changed the mission parameters, to the arch lieutenant himself. “Go for Bronze Six Actual.” Sonderhale relayed the constable’s intelligence. “Alright, One. Second and third platoons are on their way to you; weapons are almost set up. Once that happens, go in there and break it up. I’m moving HQ and fourth to the checkpoint for reserve.”
Lieutanant Granet and second platoon arrived on the double quick and third platoon not long after. The officers did a quick conference. By now, the riot was about four blocks away, and there were a lot of people laying in the streets. I made a quick arc of God-Above-All and prayed they were not all dead.

“Alright, let’s go break this up. Keep alert,” Sonderhale said.

We moved into a tactical column formation, heading down the road. As we advanced, we checked the bodies; praise God, some were still alive. Of course, given that there were about a hundred people laying in the street, it chewed through the medic’s supplies pretty fast. The lieutenant eventually told Doc to do what he could without using any supplies. There would be medical support from both the military and the civilian emergency services later, but only once the area was secured.

By now there were two Avengers circling overhead. Their sensors gave them a much clearer picture of what was going on than we had at ground level. A much worse picture. The brawl went on for several blocks with over five thousand people in the streets. Compare that with the one hundred and twenty Marines we had on site (not counting fourth platoon or weapons platoon), and you know why I had an unhappy look on my face. I wasn’t the only one. The lieutenant looked even more displeased than me.

We were Marines, not riot police. We were who the Emperor called when something absolutely had to be destroyed overnight. For mobs and riots, there was someone else. If command wanted the rioters killed, that would have been simple. We’d just set up the pulse lasers and drop some mortars into the crowd, and that would be it. Go back to base and drink beer.

Obviously, that was not an option.

We took some cover and pulled security while Sonderhale got on the radio to the CO, trying to figure out what to do. We could see the riot well enough from our vantage point, and the camera drones gave an even better overhead picture, not that it was immediately clear what was happening. There was no semblance of battle lines or order; the militia, identifiable by their red armbands, had come ready for a fight, some with swords, others clubs, chains, and the like. The slaves had some kitchen knives, broom handles, table legs, anything they could improvise, really. They were all killing each other, and we could only watch. It was a pretty crummy feeling.

The high pitched taps of distant gunfire spurred us to action. Finally, something we knew how to deal with.

“Get in the buildings,” Sonderhale said, looking at the camera drone feed. “Take overwatch. Anyone with a gun, I don’t care if it’s a slave or a civilian, they go; do you understand me. They go. There’s an Army company on the other end of the district, so make sure you don’t shoot friendlies. Also, a relief convoy is en route. Fifteen minutes. Just keep this from turning into a slaughter.”

My personal opinion was that it was too late for that, but I didn’t offer it. Blue took us up to the fourth floor of the apartment building our platoon was taking over.

I kicked in the door of apartment 417 and followed Hedron in. There was a redheaded Sebiestor woman huddled in a corner of one of the rooms. She had her daughter wrapped in a blanket and clutched in her arms. The slave woman screamed in terror at the men with guns who had just invaded her home.

“Secure them,” I told Hedron. “Sham, get set up at the window. You heard the LT. You know what to do.” Hedron searched the two slaves while I covered him.

“No, don’t take my baby,” the woman shrieked in protest as Hedron pulled the child away to search.

I felt a little bad about that. The child was about eight, just like her mother with pale skin and Sarum red hair. Thankfully, neither of them were anything other than scared.

“Cuff them. Watch the door and them,” I ordered, eager to get onto the business of actually fighting.

Shamshruck and Boltsing had pushed one of the beds over to the window, turning it into a better platform for the pulse laser. Both were scanning the crowd for targets; Boltsing had his monocular out.

“I got nothing,” Boltsing said.

“Wait one, let me check the drone feeds,” I replied, pulling out the display screen. There were five drones in the air at the moment and I started cycling through their feeds. All I saw were lots of people fighting and dying, but no one with any actual weapons.

“I got one, Lance Corporal,” Sham told me. “Building three left from across, second floor, second window from the right.”

“Okay, I see it. . . . That is a weapon. You’re good to fire, Sham,” I said. Shamshruck let loose with a burst at the target, a good six hundred meters away. The pulse laser was the only weapon that had the lensing to keep laser beams coherent at that range. “Good effect. Keep an eye open. That weapon is still there. Someone else might try and pick it up.”

Blue came into the apartment to check on us, and I left our window perch to go talk to him. He made the perfunctory checks on my fireteam before turning his gaze to the two slaves sitting and shaking against the wall.

“You didn’t kick them out?” Blue asked.

“They’re safer in here,” I replied with a shrug. “We did search them; we’re not being lax.”

“Alright then. Radio if you need anything. I’m going to go keep an eye on Lantri,” he said before leaving. Lantri was a freshly minted lance corporal and fire team leader, who could use the added supervision. I was the senior-most fireteam leader in the squad and didn’t need the corporal to babysit.

When Blue had left, I took a spot in a door frame where I could keep an eye on everyone, both my Marines and the slaves whose apartment we’d occupied.

“Go ahead and take off the restraints; we’re secure enough,” I told Hedron, and then addressed the woman, who was still holding her daughter close. “You understand the need for our precaution.” It was the closest I would ever come to an apology to a slave.

She nodded with a cautious slowness.

“Once everything gets back to normal,” I continued. “We’ll be on our way and you can go back to whatever it is you do.”

I went back to cycling through the drone feeds. To me, the conversation was over. Which is why I was caught off guard when she spoke a few minutes later.

“What is normal?” she asked.

“For today, when the riot is over,” I said after a moment’s consideration. “After that, I suppose in the grand scheme of things when the rebellion is over and order has been restored.” I turned to Boltsing and Shamschruck. “Double check your targets; there’s a convoy pulling into the district.”

She continued out, unperturbed by my orders to my Marines. “Why did you do this to us? Why did you come in here and kill us? Why?”

“Well, your people attacked first. Minmatar rebels have killed hundreds of Amarr. They’re scared, angry. That doesn’t make it right, though, what they did, and we’re here to stop them.”

“I never attacked anyone. I just want to live my life in peace, with my family.”

The camera drone feeds showed three companies of house guard forming ranks, shoulder to shoulder. I could make out the shockmauls in their hands.

“If all the Minmatar thought as you, then I wouldn’t have to be here and we wouldn’t be talking,” I said, maybe a bit glib. My focus was still on the feeds; I hadn’t even looked over at her. “The Minmatar would be free and I would be off Reclaiming the Gallente.”

“I used to dream of being free,” she said in a much softer tone than before. “Then, when Satja was born, I had hope for her, that she might be freed one day. Then this happened, the killings, the riots, the rebellion.” She raised her voice, her tone shaky. “I didn’t want a part of it, but I know why they do it. You tell us what to do, every day, every hour. We obey; we have no choice. If we do not, you beat us, whip us, even kill us. The overseers wait for us to make a mistake so they have an excuse to flog us. Your people are scared and angry? We’re scared all the time.”

I looked at her, away from the camera feeds. It was a new experience, having a slave talk to me like this. I admit, it was a bit frustrating. The woman pulled the child closer, cringing at the whine and crackle of the energy discharge from another burst from the pulse laser. I looked at the child and then at the mother.

“I don’t know about any of that. I’m just a Marine. I serve the Sacred Throne; I don’t get to make decisions. I do what I am told, the same as, well, the same as you,” I replied. Now, there was an interesting concept. Inwardly, I recoiled at the thought. I was True Amarr; she was Sebiestor. We were not alike. I had no idea why I said that.

I grimaced as I saw a group of civilians and slaves near the edge of the mob go down, raked by laser fire from the line of troops. About twenty people would not be getting back up. Still, the line continued to advance, using their shockmauls with abandon. The rioters and slaves were left bloody in restraints, covered by men and women—the house guard had female troops—with lascarbines.

“And if slaves had done the same thing to an Amarr district, would you be restrained? Or would you shoot all the slaves?”

“We would use whatever force was deemed necessary to protect the civilians,” I said. Not that there was any doubt we would start with deadly force. “Look, miss. I don’t want to be here. When I joined, I thought that I might be on a ship somewhere, maybe in a few border skirmishes, or if I was extremely lucky, at the forefront of a new Reclaiming. I never thought that I would fighting my own people.”

“We are not your people. We are Minmatar.”

“You’re servants of Holy Amarr; that makes you our people,” I said out of reflex. “If an enemy attacked you, I would stand in their path just as if they attacked a citizen.”

The slave woman looked at me with a curious expression, but any response was cut off by the lieutenant making his way into the apartment. The chaplain was with him.

“Sir. Father,” I said to them in way of greeting.

“Chaps just wanted to do a round, see how the troops were doing—” the lieutenant started.

Father Erajibanabas finished, “Maybe bag a few Minnies, too.” He hefted his lascarbine for emphasis. Some people might laugh, but Chaps was actually a better Marine than he was a preacher. I saw the slave woman wince.

“That seems to be all happening at street level, father. So far, Shram, uh, my pulsegunner has only fired on targets twice,” I said with an apologetic smile.

Sonderhale looked at the slaves sitting against the wall before turning his gaze to me.“Well, just keep tight. We’re going to be here until this mess is cleaned up, which might take a while. Someone from the holder’s office and a civic court magistrate are going to come down and judge everyone before we let them go.”

The woman almost stood up. Almost. It was good she didn’t, because I thought that the chaplain might have shot her. “You’re just going to let them go? After they came in here and murdered us!”

“No, miss,” the lieutenant responded, annoyed. “The ringleaders and anyone that we have evidence killed anyone will be remanded into custody pending a full trial.” He turned to me. “Make sure you keep at least seventy-five percent up—”

The crackle and whine of energy discharge from the pulse laser in the other room interrupted him.

“We got another!” Boltsing reported cheerfully.

“Good,” I told them. “Don’t slack. Complacency kills. Sorry, sir. You were saying.”

“Oh, just carry on Dommac, you know what you’re doing.”

“Aye sir,” I replied and then nodded to Chaps. “Father.”

They left, and I made sure that the pulse laser team knew if they needed to make head calls or take a break to stretch their legs, I could replace either of them. Keeping at seventy-five percent readiness meant that one person could take short breaks without a huge issue.
Hedron needed to make a head call, so I took a seat on one of the kitchen chairs to keep an eye on the slaves. The girl whispered something to her mother.

“Can Satja get some water, too, please?” the woman asked me.

“Hedron, get the girl a glass of water when you come back.” I turned to the woman. “What’s your name, miss?”

“Bjirna, sir.”

“Well, Bjirna, what do you do?”

“I’m a sacristan at the church.”

“No work for you today?” I asked.

“It’s Saint Kuria’s Day. Mother Adellya is at the cathedral with the rest of the priests. So I got to stay home.”

“Oh, right.”

I saw Bjirna for the first time, looking past the collar to see the person. I saw the mother clutching her daughter while a battle raged outside. I saw the woman whose apartment had been invaded by rough men with guns. I saw the scared little girl who had no idea why this catastrophe had been visited upon her.

Hedron came back with the water and I handed it to the girl. I reached into my buttpack and picked out a piece of chocolate candy while looking at Bjirna.

“If it’s okay?” I asked. She was a slave, but there was still mother’s prerogative; Mrs. Dommac didn’t raise her son to be a barbarian. Bjirna nodded, and I knelt down to hand the chocolate to the girl.

Once I had been relieved of my chocolate by smiling Satja, I went over to the window to look out for myself. I took a breath to calm the anger simmering inside me. Oh, I had been angry since Tash-Murkon when my friend Walgum had gotten killed. He and I had gone through boot camp together and been in the same units since. Some old Minnie had just walked right up to him while we were on patrol and blown them both up.

There’s nothing to do in that case but pick the pieces up and put them in a poncho; we didn’t have a body bag with us. There’s no one to kill. The Minmatar was just as dead. In my mind, though, someone had to pay for Walgum’s death, and I didn’t care to discriminate. An Imperial Marine was dead by a Minmatar. Any dead Minmatar was just as good in retribution.

Blue took me aside a couple of nights after and talked me through it. Well more accurately, he started a fight, and after we were worn out from that, held me while I cried.

“Revenge won’t bring him back, Dommac. You go shoot some poor sod that’s just trying to get through the day, all that’s going to happen is you’ll feel worse after. We’re Marines. Walgum is a Marine. Don’t go dirtying his memory; don’t sully his reputation. When the time comes to deliver some righteous judgement to these motherless dogs, then you do it for Walgum. But get your vengeance on people that deserve it.”

The lieutenant hadn’t even commented on my black eye the next day.

Since then, I’d taken Blue’s orders to heart. I followed the Rules of Engagement to the letter, not because I particularly agreed with them; I didn’t. I would have happily put a rocket in the building the rebels were using in Holt Town and killed everyone in there. I followed the ROE because I was a Marine, and Marines followed orders. Period.

I was angry at myself for how I had felt. My mother was a deaconess; Bjirna was a sacristan. The two were not quite the same, but close enough for me to see how blinded I had become. I was True Amarr, commissioned by God to be a shepherd in the darkness, to Reclaim the fallen to the Light. This rebellion was slowly turning me into a monster.

After looking outside and seeing that things were quiet enough for the moment, I knelt down in the corner, took my helmet off and said a prayer, asking God for forgiveness and guidance. I wish I had prayed for God to always help me remember Blue’s advice.

We were still there well into the evening. Most of the house guard left well before, but at least they stayed until things had gotten under control. Everyone had eaten some chow, Bjirna and Satja included. I even shared some of the lieutenant’s spice packets with them. Sonderhale’s mom sent him regular packages of Ni-Kunni spices that he shared with the platoon. It made him quite popular with us, as our combat rations were quite bland.

By now, all the citizens were either packed into the back of a Buckler awaiting a full trial or ordered home. One platoon of house guard had stayed back to work with the House Sakenjah overseer to sort through the slaves. It was a House Sakenjah internal matter, not one for the courts or the Imperial military. I watched through my scope.

“They’re setting up for a firing squad,” I told my Marines. Bjirna overheard me.

“Better than being crucified,” she said sullenly. “Maybe they’re being lenient, since they were acting in self defense.”

“Are they going to shoot all of them, lance corporal?” Hedron asked me.

“They should,” growled Boltsing. “Just mow them all down. That will end this mess right quick.”

I ignored the tacky comment by my second; it was something to handle later, in private. Maybe I was a bit embarrassed, too; it was something I might have said yesterday.

“I doubt it,” I said to Hedron. “If they were going to do that, they would have already done it. Anything on your thermals, Boltsing?”

It was a not so subtle reminder that we were still outside the wire and to keep alert.

“Still nothing. Looks quiet,” Boltsing said.

Irony, of course, is the dominating force in the universe; so no sooner than Boltsing had reported the all quiet did a large caliber autogun’s thunderous staccato echo through the streets. The guard troops, who had obligingly formed nice, dressed right, dressed ranks, were scythed down. Satja got her introductory course in Amarrish cursing.

“Give me a target,” Shamshruck yelled.

“I got nothing,” Boltsing said back, frantically searching through his monocular. I was doing the same through the camera drone feeds.

Bjirna pulled Satja close to her. The voices coming through the radio were just as confused as we were.

It took just a few seconds for someone on the street level to start putting energy down range.

“Put suppressing fire on that window,” I told Sham, and he started firing. “Don’t waste too much energy until we have good targets.”

“Do you need me, lance corporal?” Hedron asked me, eager as a schoolboy.

“Relax, it’s eight hundred meters. The lensing on your carbine is only good to about five.”

“Still no target,” Boltsing reported. “Rocket!”

A rocket screamed into the ad-hoc command post from a completely different direction than we were all shooting at. It looked like a dozen or more soldiers had just gone down.

“Third squad, stand fast. We’re still on a support by fire mission.” said Blue over the radio, nice and calm. “If you see a target, relay it to the LT.”

The slaves, around a hundred that were in the holding section, started to run away. None of the soldiers or Marines at street level were interested in doing anything about it. Boltsing, on the other hand, was.

“Sham, targets. Minnies are making a break for it.”

“Save your energy for actual targets. They’re not shooting at you,” I said.

“This is obviously a jailbreak,” Boltsing said. He wasn’t arguing, but he did have a point.

“Blue, Blue. Dommac,” I said in my radio.

“Go,” came the response.

“Any instructions from higher on engaging the escaping slaves?”

“Wait one,” he said and then came a pause while he conferred with the lieutenant. “The ROE has not changed.”

“Solid copy.”

Under the ROE, we were allowed to engage targets with hostile intent or more without prior approval from an officer or a staff NCO. There was, however, considerable leeway in that, and an officer had even more discretion. By my reckoning, the ROE didn’t allow me to shoot unarmed slaves running away.

“Keep your focus on actual targets,” I said. “Still nothing?”

“Nothing!”

The camera drone feed showed one of them moving down to street level to get a better look. It cycled through the spectrums, infrared, visible light with amplification, and then ultraviolet. The drone controller, back at base, maneuvered the camera drone through the window. Only then did it get close enough to see through whatever stealth field the rebels were using. The drone was shot down after just a few seconds by a fusillade of fire from more weapons than I could easily count.

The Avenger gunship orbiting above wasted no time; twin beam lasers swept across the window, bright blue beams shearing out chunks from the wall. A spectacular sight, but beam lasers had a long recharge time. The pilot didn’t wait. A rocket streaked out from one of the side pods, and a brilliant white flash of high explosive lit up the street before a cloud of dust was kicked up into the air. Luckily, it wasn’t one of the 205 millimeter rockets, or the whole building might have come down.

“Righteous fury,” Shamshruck said. Heavy ordinance was always awe-inspiring.

“Yeah, it’s nice, but we’re still engaged,” I told him.

“Still nothing to shoot,” he complained

I watched as some of the Army troops formed up behind a Buckler and moved to a building next to us. The Buckler ran in through the wall, then backed up, and the soldiers ran in the hole. Even as far away as I was, I could hear the explosions from the grenades.

The rest of the night was pretty boring. There was a meager attempt to recover the escaped slaves, but nothing came of it. We got to watch from our window perch. Finally, the CO called for us to pull out.

I was the last one out of the apartment. Before we left, though, I made sure everything was back the way it was.

“Hopefully this will be as bad as it gets for you, miss,” I told her as I was leaving. I was young and stupid and hadn’t yet learned not to say things that would come back to bite me. “God be with you.”

“I’ll pray for you,” she replied.

The next day back at base, we were on a stand down. The company was still in a combat zone, but we were not on instant call. Half the platoon was asleep; some went out to a restaurant in the Gold Zone, things like that. My fireteam was in our berthing playing Swords, and I was enjoying thoroughly thrashing Corporal Blue.

“Officer on deck!” someone shouted and we put down our cards and came to.

Lieutenant Sonderhale strolled in with Wrath, who took a position of attention in the middle of the berth.

“First Platoon, fall in!”

There was just a moment’s worth of puzzlement. We hadn’t stood in formation since, well, it had been a while. We were all still trained Marines, though; standing in formation was instinct.

Wrath spun on his heel in a parade ground perfect about face and saluted Sonderhale.

“Sir! The platoon is formed,” Wrath said.

“Very good, arch sergeant. Post,” the lieutenant said, returning the salute. Wrath took his position behind the lieutenant. “Lance Corporal Dommac! Front and center!”

I wasn’t sure what this was all about, but I stepped out of formation and went up to stand in front of the lieutenant. I saluted and he returned it.

“Attention to orders!” Sonderhale bellowed and pulled out a scroll of paper. “In light of the fidelity and martial skill of Ramik Dommac, I hereby appoint him a corporal of the Imperial Navy Corps of Marines, signed Lord General Argeneth Sarum, Commanding Officer, Lightbringer Division.”

I blinked. That was a nice surprise. Sonderhale smiled.

“Congratulations, Corporal. Arch sergeant?”

Wrath stepped forward and said, “You are out of uniform, Marine.”

Then he took off the lance corporal rank pins and dropped them on the floor. In accordance with tradition, I stepped on them with my boot, bending them out of shape, making them worthless. It was a sign that I would never go back.

One that was done, Wrath produced corporal pins and put them on my collar, grinning wide before driving them into my uniform and the skin beneath. I admit I flinched.

“Corporal Dommac, about face!” commanded Sonderhale, and I did a less than perfect, but still pretty good, about face. “NCOs, fall out and congratulate the new corporal.”

I stood there while all four of the noncommissioned officers present each took a turn to beat the rank pins into my skin. I had to wash the blouse later; there were spots of blood on the collar. I am proud to say that I made no louder sound than a quiet grunt.

After the formation, the lieutenant left, and Wrath broke out the beer. Blue came over to congratulate me.

“You see, Dommac—you teach Hedron how to play Swords and then you make corporal!” He patted my shoulder. “You’ve done really well. I’m proud.”

“You’re a good Marine, corporal,” Wrath said, walking up and giving me another two beers. “A promotion well-earned.”

“I had good teachers and good examples,” I answered. “And good friends to help me along the way.”

I took one of the bottles from Wrath and put it on a table and wrote ‘LCPL Walgum’ on a piece of paper that I folded into a place card. Walgum and I made a wager, way back at boot camp, that the one that made corporal first would buy the celebration beers; I kept up my end.

The citizens from the riot were given a trial by Lord Sakenjah. Fifty-five people were executed by firing squad; I didn’t go. Rather, I took the opportunity to catch up on some much needed sleep. The citizen militias were disbanded by decree of the holder. In their place, the House Sakenjah Guard Auxiliary was formed. The people that were previously part of each militia were given—so help me God, I wish I was joking—lascarbines and put under the command of one of the house guard NCOs.

Rumor had it, the colonel went to the holder and advised him that this was a horrible idea, though much more tactfully, but Lord Sakenjah had rebuffed the colonel. Apparently, the thinking was that putting them under military control would keep any further incidents from happening. The colonel did convince Lord Sakenjah to order the weapons to be kept in the armory when not in use, so thank God for small favours. The last thing we needed were bands of laser-armed hooligans running about.

That night I said my prayers as usual, but when I finished the beads, I laid in bed worried. The Empire seemed to be falling apart in front of me. Slaves revolting was one thing; if we could trust them to be good citizens, they wouldn’t be slaves anymore. Imperial citizens, True Amarr even, rioting was a worrisome sight. I added in a few heartfelt lines of my own, asking God to please watch out for Holy Amarr and not to let my Empire fall. Then, I added in a quick prayer asking Him to watch over Bjirna and Satja.

Two out of three isn’t all that bad, I suppose.

 

Chapter Three

“La—Corporal Dommac,” I corrected, “reporting as ordered, sergeant tribunus.”

“At ease; have a seat,” the company sergeant tribunus said.

I sat in the proffered chair, standard-issue, uncomfortable. The sergeant tribunus was sitting in the same chair, produced by the millions for the Imperial military. Between us was a desk, metal, field-issue, wobbly.

“Congratulations on your promotion. Well earned. Now that you’re an NCO, expect more leadership opportunities. That’s what NCOs are in the Marines, leaders. We’re not holders; we’re not overseers. If you get a task from an officer, your first thought should not be ‘how do I make my men do this,’ but rather ‘how can we accomplish this mission together.’ A leader always includes himself in his team, and that’s what I expect from all my NCOs. The battalion sergeant primus expects the same, and you’d better believe that’s what Arch Sergeant Nallerkh expects as well.”

“Yes, sergeant tribunus,” I answered. Being told to report to the sergeant tribunus was not always the best thing in the world, and I was pleased to know it was for something good.

“Marine NCOs lead from the front. That’s why the casualties are higher among NCOs. If you wanted a safe and easy job, you should’ve joined the Navy.”

I bristled, stiffening in my chair. A small voice in the back of my head told me to just shut up, but I ignored it. My father was in the Navy right now fighting. Both of my grandfathers had been in the Navy—though one was the House Sarum fleet, not the Imperial Navy—and the line went back, all the way to the water navy on Amarr Prime.

“Sergeant tribunus, my father—” Luckily, he cut me off before I could get my foot all the way into my mouth.

“I don’t give a damn who your father is, what he does. The Navy’s hung too many Marines out to dry for me to listen to some boot NCO tell me about the noble and valiant Navy. You joined the Marines, Dommac, not the Navy and not the Army. Why’d you join the Marines?”

“Because we’re the best,” I said, now well back into my place.

“Exactly. We’re the finest paladins in all of Holy Amarr. Now, get with the program. Where was I? Right. Leading from the front. If there’s any sort of suicidal charges, I expect you to be in front of your men, leading them.

“Your lieutenant saw something in you. So did Arch Sergeant Nallerkh. I agree with them. So, we’re expecting more from you now. As a corporal, you’re going to get more leadership opportunities—wait, I already said that part, didn’t I? Well, what I mean by that—as a corporal, you’re going to get missions from your platoon leadership. It could be something simple like overseeing a guard detail to something complicated like leading a patrol. It could be something benign like filling sandbags. Even that’s important. If we can’t trust you to get sandbags filled, then we can’t trust you to lead a squad.”

The sergeant tribunus leaned back, and the chair squeaked. “Your promotion hasn’t miraculously changed you or imparted some martial knowledge you didn’t already have. Don’t get a big head. Listen. Learn. If you screw up, it’s likely that someone else will die to your mistake.”

The sergeant tribunus went on for a good while about the troop leading procedures and mission planning. It was all very technical and available in any manual; so I’m going to skip it.

“Second bit of news: Saint Ventrificus has arrived in system. Captain Dommac has extended his compliments to the colonel and asked if his son—that’s you, by the way—might be given a short pass for a visit. We have a stand down in four days, so you can visit then, assuming no major changes in the tactical situation.”

I smiled. What were the odds that I would get a chance to see my father out in the middle a rebellion?

“I’d be happy to see my old man, too. Even if he is Navy,” the sergeant tribunus continued. “Just keep your shoulder to the wheel. Don’t get sloppy and get yourself or anyone else killed.”

“Aye, sergeant tribunus.”

“Alright. Dismissed.”

I stood and came to.

“Dismissed, aye, sergeant tribunus.”

“Incoming!”

The explosion broke the windows, and dust fell from the ceiling. I dived under a table, grabbing my helmet on the way. I barely had time to slam it onto my head before—

Another mortar round hit, the blast quaking the building. Parts of the exterior wall caved in. More dust filled the air. I looked at Hedron in front of me, who was also laying flat on the floor under the table.

“Oh, God,” he said.

An explosion, as much felt as heard, from above shoved the air down on me. The roof caved in. Sunlight filtered in through the dust. Someone yelled in pain. High explosives do not have a thundering bass roar, but a violent tenor blast as all the energy is expended at once. Artillery was best viewed from a long way away; I did not like my front row seat.

“Kilizh Six this is Gladius One. MORTREP, MORTREP, MORTREP.” Lieutenant Sonderhale yelled into his radio. “Gladius One at Outpost Hunter is under attack from unknown number of mortars—”

Another deafening blast interrupted the lieutenant, a slightly different sound. This one was further away in the street, must have fallen short.

Hedron was praying in a whisper, trembling, “God, protect us. God, please protect your paladins. God Above, don’t let us die.” I realized I was praying right along with him. In just two days I was supposed to see my dad; I didn’t want to die.

Sonderhale continued. “Firing from an unknown location. Shell type is sub one hundred millimeters. Time is now: 0543, over.”

This was the first time that I had been under attack from indirect fire. Let me tell you something: it sucks. Hiding under a table and praying was the full extent of my range of actions. I prayed hard. I prayed that God wouldn’t let one of them drop on me, because He’s the only one that can do anything about it. I don’t know if He nudged any of the shells in the air, or if none of them were going to hit me in the first place, but I’m telling you about it so it obviously turned out okay for me.

The helplessness is the worst. If someone shoots at me, I get to shoot back. I like shooting back. Marines return fire with relish, but the rebels firing those mortars might be five klicks away, too far for me to shoot or even see. At least the lieutenant got to call HQ and report.

Another mortar round hit, and the north wall completely collapsed. Two men from Lantri’s fire team had been too close, and were thrown halfway across the room. They were not moving, though we would have to wait until the shelling stopped before going over to check on them.

Another blast shook the building. This one had dropped further away, then there were no more, thank God.

“Battalion reports counter-battery fire splash,” the lieutenant said. “Squad leaders, sound off and report!”

This was the first time that I had been under attack from indirect fire, but this was not the first time rebels had shot mortars at Marines, or the Army. There was a drone flying above the Gold Zone with a special radar that scanned the horizon a thousand times a second for any ballistic objects and mapped both the launch and impact point. Once the lieutenant called in that we were under fire it was a simple job for the battalion’s counter-battery section to map where the enemy mortars were, and then send a fire mission to any artillery unit in range. In this case, it was a section of one hundred and twenty millimeter mortars from my company’s weapons platoon who silenced our attackers.

Blue’s voice sounded in my ear, over the radio. “Fire team leaders, report”

I had already checked my men to make sure they were all in one piece. I didn’t just look at them and ask; I also ran my hand over them to check for blood since sometimes a man can get hit and not realize it.

“Dommac’s team is up,” I said.

“Sahrazed’s team is up,” said Lance Corporal Sahrazed.

“Lantri’s team: Shedrim is KIA. Igvar is hurt pretty bad,” Lance Corporal Lantri reported.

By now I had made my way to Igvar to find his left leg was mangled and twisted. Lantri had already tourniqueted the leg. Doc was busy with almost everyone else; there were six reported wounded and two dead. Fortunately, I was a combat lifesaver: a cheap medic.

“Let’s get him bandaged,” I told Lantri. “Protect the wound.”

“There’s so many,” Lantri said.

“Yeah. One at a time. Give me his first aid kit.”

Lantri was right. The mortar blast had shredded Igvar’s leg, leaving the skin in tatters with pieces of shrapnel stuck into the bare muscle. It wasn’t my place to pick those out, so I tied two large bandages over Igvar’s thigh, shrapnel and all. Thank God the man was unconscious, or he would have been screaming in agony.

I went to check on Shedrim. Lantri had already reported Shedrim dead, but it never hurt to have a second opinion. My second opinion was that Shedrim’s neck was broken, and he was dead with nothing to do about it.

“Angel, this is Gladius One. Stand by for CASEVAC,” Sonderhale said into the radio. Angel was the callsign for the Casualty Evacuation Aquila squadron. Then he turned to Corporal Blue. “Blue. Get over here. Ulhelihir’s hit. Get this CASEVAC called in. Six wounded, two KIA.”

Sergeant Ulhelihir was laying on his back, cussing up a storm. I was impressed by the inventiveness and breadth of his language. That was a good sign, though. He’d probably make it.

Blue grabbed the radio from the lieutenant and called in the CASEVAC. Once that was underway, Sonderhale turned to me.

“Dommac,” he said and called me over. I went. “I need someone to go check the counter-battery impact point. Take your squad and check it out. If we have not for sure neutralized those mortars, we are in for a world of hurt; it’s going to take us time to get the wounded stabilized and moved. Arja and Krai from second squad will round out Lantri’s fire team.”

Sonderhale rolled out a map sheet of e-plastic. He centered it and zoomed in to get a better view of the part of the city we needed to be worried about.

“Yes, this is pretty crummy,” Sonderhale continued, while I looked at the map. “If you get into trouble, there’s not going to be backup for a bit. Second platoon is on the move, but their ETA is not for another ten minutes. And I need to know the status of those enemy mortars now.”

“Understood sir. It will get done,” I said.

“I know. So, make your way down here and through the checkpoint into Lir—God, I am starting to hate that place—and then up this road here.” He pointed to a red overlaid circle. “This is the impact point; it’s about a klick away. There’s likely to be a lot of collateral damage. Just assess the impact point for effect on the enemy mortars and get out.” The Marines have fancy ways of saying ‘make sure we killed them all.’ He folded up the map. “If there’s a mortar team still there, engage and destroy. And get Ulhelihir’s radio from him.”

“Aye, aye, sir.”

Sergeant Ulhelihir gave me the CC-17E7 tacnet radio, which I plugged into the auxiliary feeds for my ZS-917R personal radio. Unlike my personal radio, which only had two frequencies to broadcast on, the CC-17E7 could broadcast on five frequencies and listen to seven. It also had an optimal broadcast range of twenty klicks. That was important. I was going to be at least a klick away from the outpost, and while my personal radio was rated for two klicks, it seldom had that range in urban areas.

“Third squad on me,” I said, and we gathered by the door. “Lantri, get Arja and Krai set up on third squad’s freq. While you’re doing that, I’m going to double check the settings on this.”

The tacnet radio had a nice full-color, touch screen display and was pretty easy to run through with settings for the company net and, battalion, and Angel CASEVAC—I said a quick prayer hoping that I wouldn’t have to use that one. The rest were blank for the moment. It was just a matter of me remembering which frequencies were mapped to which buttons on the side as there were five transmit keys to keep track of.

“Alright,” I continued, once everyone’s comms were straight. “The skipper wants us to go on a recon and make sure that the mortars were neutralized. Order of march: my fire team will take point, then Lanti’s followed by Sahrazed’s.” I pulled out my datapad and brought up the map application. The fireteam leaders pressed in close to see the screen better. “Leave Outpost Hunter and then head to checkpoint two into Lir district. From there, we go up this road straight to the impact site. This road is . . . Thirty-Second Street. West is into the district, east is out. If things go awry, retreat east. Make sure you bring my body with you on the way out, okay?” I forced a small smile at the joke, as did everyone else.

“Dommac, as soon as second platoon gets here, we’re going to send them to you,” the lieutenant said. “Get going. They’ll catch up.”

I acknowledged and led my (gulp) squad out of the much damaged building. I don’t know whose brilliant idea it was to put Marines in static locations, but someone was going to have to rethink it. The rebels were getting heavier weapons on the planet, and if we kept staying still, it would be too easy for us to get taken out. Looking at the debris and craters, I was amazed we got off as lightly as we did.

We moved out at a brisk pace. Outpost Hunter was in a Blue Zone, but we had just been attacked, so I made sure we still moved tactically, checking corners and crossings. Though given the urgency of the mission, we moved far more quickly than we normally would have.

Moving through the city just after having been shot at by mortars was surreal. Just a minute ago, I had been in a war, hiding under a table. Now, just a block away from the outpost, things almost seemed normal again. The streets were empty, but that was normal for the morning, with one exception: an old man outside, sitting in a chair, smoking a pipe. He waved to us as we went past.

“Sir, we have a situation at the moment. Can you please go inside? It’s safer there,” I said to him. He just leaned back and puffed on the pipe, the sweet smoke filling the air.

“Son, every morning I smoke my pipe and watch the sun come up, and I’m not going to stop just ‘cause some heathens decide to go light off some fireworks ‘for dawn. You just go on and take care of business and let me worry about mine,” he replied and took another puff.

I didn’t argue; I knew a losing argument when I saw one.

The checkpoint had been repaired since the day of the riot. Razor wire had been strung around the road, and house guardsmen with pulse lasers watched everything from behind armor plates.

“Corporal Dommac with twelve Marines to enter the district,” I told the sentry.

“God, are you all okay?” the sergeant in charge of the checkpoint asked.

“We are. Some of the others didn’t make it.”

The sergeant made the arc of God-Above-All. “We called command as soon as we heard the explosions. There’s at least one platoon heading here, plus some auxiliaries. They have to draw weapons, though. Might take them a while.”

“There’s a platoon of Marines on the way, too. Send them after us”

“I will. God, what a way to start the day.”

We made it through the checkpoint, and I turned to my Marines:

“Men, consider yourself in enemy territory. If you see a hostile, kill them, but don’t go shooting someone that’s not a threat. If they are armed, they go. If they are unarmed, watch them closely, but don’t engage unless you see hostile intent. The last thing you want to is to kill some innocent woman.” Like Bjirna, I didn’t add.

We moved out, slower and more cautiously than before. The last time I had been in Lir District, things had gone awry indeed. As a fire team leader, I only worried about my three men, but now with my ad hoc squad leader’s position, I had eleven other guys to worry about. I let Boltsing mostly manage my fireteam while I worried about the rest. This is not to say that I had to spend my a lot of my time worrying, since each one of us knew our jobs. Besides, there was something else that demanded a lot of my attention.

“Gladius One-Three, this is Kilizh Three Actual.”

I keyed the button on my tacnet for the battalion frequency. “This is Gladius One-Three, send your traffic, over.”

“One-Three, an Avenger has been dispatched to you. Their comm freq is now setting four on your radio. Their callsign is Hammer Two-Three. Break.

“A camera drone is overhead, the controller will communicate with you on setting five. Their callsign is Oculus Seven. How copy, over?”

“Solid copy all, over.”

“Kilizh Three, out.”

Up until now, the fullest extent of my contact with the battalion’s operations officer, Major Odali, had been the greeting of the day and a salute. The fact that he was calling me on the radio personally to tell me that I had air support left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I was happy to have air cover. On the other, the major had called me personally to let me know. I managed to both worry and be happy at the same time.

There were more than a few slaves outside. Every one of the slaves got a weapon pointed at them by a Marine trying to figure out if they were hostile as we moved past them up the road to the impact site. Though all of us were jumpy from almost getting blown up earlier, so far no one had fired.

“Gladius One-Three, One Actual, over.”

“This is One-Three, go ahead.”

“Gladius Two has had vehicle trouble enroute. Their ETA is revised upwards another ten to fifteen, that is one five minutes. Continue with mission, over.”

“Roger.”

“One Actual, out.”

I looked to my Marines. “The lieutenant says second platoon is going to be late. Job stays the same. Let’s get this done.”

I was the only link between my squad and the wider picture, since I was the one with the radio. When the time came for shooting, I would pick up my rifle just as much as the next man, but for now, the radio was my weapon. It was an odd feeling.

“Hammer Two-Three, this is Gladius One-Three,” I said, radioing up to the Avenger circling above us.

“Good morning, ground,” she said. This was my first lesson that pilots were extremely lax in radio protocol.

“I have eyes on you. We’re about three hundred meters from the impact site, advancing up the road, over.”

“Yup. I got you. Be advised, there’s about twenty people at the impact site. One of the buildings has partially collapsed; looks like a rescue effort going on.”

“Copy that,” I said. “Any sign of weapons?”

“Nothing that I can see. I’ll let you boys know if anything changes.”

“Roger. Gladius One-Three, out.”

When we were close enough to the impact site to get a clear look at what was going on, my heart slowly sunk into my stomach as I recognized the building: Bjirna’s apartment building. Feelings of worry made me stutter step, but I recovered and pushed them away, down. I was in command of this patrol, and I had a job to do. Marines were counting on me.

“Spread out by fire teams. You’re looking for mortar tubes or dead or injured hostiles,” I said.. Then, I radioed to the lieutenant that we were at the impact site and starting our search. I was talking on the radio an awful lot.

We rounded the corner and got a good look at the damage. The Avenger pilot was right, half the building looked like it had collapsed into the street. There were about thirty men and women moving rubble, trying to get the people that were caught in the collapse. The ones they had found were laid out in rows on the street.

“Oh God,” Hedron said. “Corporal look.”

“I see it,” I said grimly, gripping my lascarbine tightly. “We have a job to do; so focus.”

I wasn’t sure if I was talking to Hedron or myself. Probably both, as Bjirna was one of the bodies laid out in the street unmoving. Satja was sitting next to her mother crying. The girl also looked hurt, but at least she was alive, thank God. I couldn’t let myself think about this right now, so I didn’t.

“We did this,” Hedron replied. “This was Marine arty.”

“Shut up. We’re not the ones that decided to start the morning by lobbing mortar shells at us. Shut your damn mouth and do your job,” I told him and walked up to the slave that looked like he was in charge. Most of the people there seemed to be deferring to his judgement, so it was a solid bet.

“Slave,” I said to him. “There were mortars fired from here at Imperial Marines. Where were they, exactly?”

He was an old Vherokior with grey hair. I could see the resignation in his brown eyes as I got closer.

“I never saw anyone shooting,” he said. “All I know is that you’ve killed us. All these people.” He swept his arm in an arc, gesturing to the bodies in the street. “Please let me get back to work and save what little I can.”

I was not in the mood, and grabbed the man by the collar of his shirt and glared at him. “Slave, you have exactly five seconds to tell me what I want to know.”

“Please sir. I will show you,” an old Vherokior woman said. “We will help His Majesty’s Marines. My husband is just tired.”

I nodded to her and let the man go. “Show me.”

She led us past the collapsed part of the building. The slave woman strolled along upright like it was a normal morning; the Marines following her were walking on bent knees with weapons shouldered, scanning all around. The slave stopped just around another corner, looking scared.

“They were in the courtyard just around that corner. I don’t know if they are dead or not.”

“How many?” I asked.

“Seven,” she said. “I think. I am not sure; please don’t shoot me.”

I nodded and keyed my radio for the squad. “Third squad, listen up. We have a local that has given us the pos of the mortar team. She’s directed us to the courtyard of the collapsed building. My fire team is going to check it out. Be ready to support.”

I switched radio channels. I didn’t want to go into this blind. “Hammer Two-Three, Gladius One-Three, over.”

“What do you have for me, ground?”

“Hammer, there’s a local woman that has given us intel that the enemy mortar team was in the courtyard of the collapsed building. Can you give me some eyes?”

“Sure thing,” Hammer said, and the thrusters of the Avenger roared as it tore across the sky. “Okay, ground, here’s what you got. There’s four, maybe five heat sigs in the courtyard. There’s something that may be mortar tubes, or pieces of debris. There are a lot of debris. Do you want me to light them up?”

“Negative, Hammer. If we drop any more heavy ordinance by this building, it might just totally collapse,” I said. Besides, I wanted to kill these rebels myself. “Can you give me a description of the terrain? Over.”

“Uh, sure, ground. There’s a courtyard and a passageway from the outside that goes into it.”

That was not helpful; thankfully someone else had been listening.

“Gladius One-Three, this is Oculus Seven. The alleyway into the courtyard is roughly twenty meters in front of you. It is roughly five meters across and continues on for ten meters, opening into a fifteen by fifteen meter courtyard. Break. There looks to be some metal playground equipment in one corner that may be used as cover. There are subsurface window wells that may be used as firing positions. Break. Once inside the courtyard, there will be elevated firing positions in the form of the building’s windows three six zero degrees around you, able to engage. How copy, over?”

“Copy all, Oculus Seven.”

Thank God the drone controller was a Marine and a trained infantryman who could tell me exactly what I was walking into, unlike the pilot with the cute voice. This place was a potential death trap. I called for my other fire team leaders to get here, but we were not going to wait. Our key assets were speed and violence of action, and every moment I tarried, gave the enemy more time to set up a defense. I thought for one second about having Hammer just level the place, but decided Bjirna was enough collateral damage for one day.

“Alright, Hedron. You’re on point. Remember, once we’re in the courtyard, check the vertical, all of you,” I said. Then I checked the seating of the crystal in my lascarbine.

Hedron placed his cheek to the buttstock of the lascarbine and advanced forward, just off the wall. I followed behind him and the rest of my team in a file. We got to the corner, the corner that the woman had said the rebels were behind.

Hedron held his carbine lengthways across his chest, taking the buttstock off his shoulder. The objective was to put as little of his body around the corner as possible. I did the same. Hedron knelt and I straddled him; he would pop the corner low, and I would pop it high, with Sham behind us holding our armor to pull us back if things went awry.

After a three count, both Hedron and I leaned forward. There was a man sitting in the courtyard with a weapon in his lap. Our lasers whined as we sent energy down range, and the rebel fell to the side from the impacts.

“Rush! Bound by twos,” I commanded. We had to become decisively engaged before the enemy had time to know what was happening and had time to mount a proper defense.

While Hedron and I covered as best we could from behind the corner, Shamshruck and Boltsing bounded forward with all the swiftness of an augmented Marine, ten meters down the alleyway passage that lead to the courtyard. They both dived to the ground in a prone position sighting in their weapons. I kicked Hedron’s rear. He sprang up and darted past them, myself not far behind. We stopped just at the corner where the alleyway opened into the courtyard, and I dived for the deck, my knee and elbow pads taking the brunt of my fall.

“Contact front,” Hedon yelled and he lascarbine whined. I didn’t look; I was covering my sector. “Target down. Set.”

Behind me, Sham and Boltsing got to their feet and moved up. Once they reached Hedron and I and called out set, we stood as well.

“Assault through; confirm kills. Intel says seven,” I said.

We moved forward. The rest of the squad had radioed me to tell me they were on their way, but I was busy, so I just gave them a one word “roger” and kept moving.

There were four bodies in the courtyard. Two looked like they were dead from our counter-battery fire; two we had shot. All four got shot again, this time with aimed fire, close range, to the head.

“That’s four. There’s supposed to be more,” I said, scanning for targets.

“They could have gone inside the building,” Boltsing said.

“We’re not going inside. Not alone. When second platoon gets here, maybe.”

“Ground, I have a heat sig to the west of the courtyard, by the wall,” the Avenger pilot said in my radio. It was so strange to have a feminine voice in my ear.

“Hedron, with me,” I said. “The Avenger has something.”

We moved to the west, weapons sighted.

“Maybe in a window well,” Hedron said.

And now I saw what Oculus Seven had meant. Some of the windows were below ground level, so to get light to them, a semicircle of corrugated metal had been placed around them. There were about a dozen or so such wells around the courtyard, and each one of them was as good as a prepared fighting position.

“Yeah. No idea which. Head on a swivel.” I switched to the radio. “Hammer, can you designate where the heat sig is? Over.”

“I can do that with my beams, ground,” she said cheerfully.

“An IR will do, Hammer,” I replied.

“You’re no fun, ground. Designated.”

In my scope, I saw the dot of the low powered infrared targeting laser bounce and jerk across a wall, just above one of the subsurface windows. We got to within three meters and a man popped up from behind one of the metal lips, a rifle in his hands, firing, the crack of rifle fire echoing off the walls, making it seem like I was getting shot at from every direction. I shot him in the head and the echoes stopped.

“Target down,” I said.

“Corporal,” Hedron said, his voice tinged with pain. “I think I’ve been shot.”

“Just hold on a sec, man. You’ll be okay.”

I moved forward to check the window dugout. It was just one man in there. I shot him again, three times, just to be sure.

“Friendlies on your six!” Lantri yelled as he arrived with his team.

“Get this place secure,” I told him and went over to Hedron, who was laying on the ground. “Keep checking the vertical.” There was blood pouring out of his lower left leg. I grabbed his first aid kit. “You’re going to be fine, killer. I promise.”

“Hurts,” he growled through clenched teeth.

“I’ve been told it does.”

I cut open the bottom of his trousers so I could see the wound better. The bullet had gone straight through but missed most of the bone, so thank God for that, although there were still two holes in his leg. Normally, the field expedient solution is to just put a tourniquet on the leg and then quick clotting nanites in the wound. I grabbed the pouch with the nanites and ripped it open.

“This is going to burn,” I said and poured them in.

Hedron screamed and clenched his hands into tight fists. I decided not to tourniquet the leg, placing a pressure bandage on it instead. Once I had it properly placed, I pressed the button, and it self tied. Then, I grabbed my lascarbine and started to scan the windows, way too many windows.

“Corporal, we got a live one,” Lantri said.

Two other Marines destroyed the mortar tubes with bursts of pulse laser fire.

“Search him and cuff him. Boltsing, get over here and follow up on Hedron.” We were still in a very dangerous place and there were other tasks for me besides first aid to one of my men, especially when there were others around that could do that. “Hammer, do you have any more heat sigs nearby? Over.”

“Not at this time, ground. Looks like a clean sweep. Amarr Victor,” she replied, taking my line.

“Thanks, Hammer. Gladius One-Three, out.” I turned to my Marines. “Keep alert; I need to call this in,” I said. Then I switched to the radio. “Gladius One, this is One-Three.”

“This is Gladius One. Send your traffic, One-Three.”

“We’ve located the mortar site. It has been neutralized. Amarr Victor. Break. There is one Marine wounded and needing CASEVAC, urgent, litter. Over.”

“Outstanding job, One-Three. Be advised, Gladius Two is two minutes from your pos. Consolidate your squad for extraction on Gladius Two’s vehicles. Break. CASEVAC will depart from Outpost Hunter, over.”

“Solid copy. Gladius One-Three out.”

I looked to my squad. “Second platoon is on the way,” I told them. “We’re going to move back to the main road and set up security there until extraction. Boltsing, you help Hedron.” I looked to Hedron. “Just lean on Boltsing and do the one legged hop. Lantri, your team is responsible for securing that prisoner. Sahrazed, your team is on point. Let’s move out.”

We got back to the main road with no fuss. After checking on Hedron again, I went to look at our prisoner.

He was a Brutor, with tribal tattoos over his face. It was a disgusting display of barbarism, of a rejection of Imperial Civilization and Faith, and return to spirit worship, human sacrifice and God only knows what else. I glared at him. He and his fellows had gotten a lot of people killed today, both Marines and slaves. Including Bjirna. My eyes flicked over to her laying in the street, and Satja crying next to her mother. I looked back to the prisoner.

He just grinned back at me, saying nothing. In a rage, I buttstroked the rebel in his God damned tattooed face. I know I broke his nose, since blood started pouring from it. He screamed and hit the ground hard, unable to break his fall as he was cuffed behind his back.

“Smile now!” I yelled, with a few choice curses added on. No one else on my squad said anything. Maybe they would have if I had gone further, but I stopped there and walked away, still shaking.

Satja was still sitting by her mother. Most of the little girl’s face was covered in dust and grime, save for two tracks on her cheeks where tears had cleaned them. There was a cut on the side of her head and dried blood had caked her red hair. Satja’s arm also looked broken.

“Mommy won’t wake up,” Satja told me. I nodded slowly.

“Where’s your father?” I asked. She pointed to the man lying next to Bjirna, equally dead. Oh. “Do you remember me?”

“Yes,” she sniffled.

“I’m going to see about getting you help, okay?” She nodded and I went to my radio. “Gladius One, this is One-Three, over”

“Go.”

“There are significant slave casualties from the counter-battery fire. Break.” I did a quick count. “Looks to be fifteen dead so far and fifteen wounded. One five. Any status on medical support? Over.”

“Wait one.” I forced a smile to Satja while I waited for the lieutenant to check with higher. “One-Three, currently the district is on lockdown. When the lockdown is lifted, there is a medical center just outside they can bring the wounded to, over.”

“Interrogative: how long will it be on lockdown?”

“Unknown at this time, over.”

“Roger. One-Three, out.” I looked down to Satja. “Alright, Satja, come with me.”

She stood feebly, and I reached down and scooped her up with one arm, realizing she might not be in the best condition to walk.

“What are you doing?” the old Vherokior woman asked me, coming over.

“Mizhir,” her husband cautioned her. He was probably still wary from when I manhandled him earlier.

“I’m taking her to get medical treatment,” I responded. She gestured to all the other injured people, and I shrugged apologetically. “I’m sorry. There will be help when the lockdown is lifted. Right now, I am doing all I can.”

“You did this. Now you’re going to leave us to die,” Mizhir said.

“No. Rebels did this. They started firing at Marines. Next time, you should stop them so we won’t have to respond.”

“Stop them with what?” the old man said. “We have no weapons; they do. You do. We’re just caught in the middle.”

“I don’t know, alright,” I said. I didn’t know what to say. I told Bjirna that Marines would protect her from the enemy, just as we would protect any Amarr. Well, we didn’t.

I walked away; the Bucklers had arrived and dropped the ramp, marines pouring out of them, weapons at the ready. Even with a two minute ETA, they were still late. Lieutenant Granet made his way to me.

“You ready to go, corporal?” he asked.

“Yes sir. Plus one civilian casualty. A local woman said there were seven rebels, however we can only account for six.”

Lieutenant Granet looked at the girl for a long moment and nodded. “Alright. Load up. We’re not going to wait around and search for a seventh rebel that may or may not exist.”

It was only when the ramp of the Buckler closed and darkness covered me that I allowed a few tears to fall for Bjirna. A few was all I could spare. I reminded myself that Bjirna’s death was neither mine nor the Marines’ fault; it was not anyone’s fault but the rebels that lobbed mortars at us. I was alive because counter-battery shot. A lot of other Marines were alive because counter-battery shot. Out of a range of bad options, we made the right call, but an echo of Bjirna’s words came to me: would we have fired counter-battery in a Blue Zone? I was not sure the answer was yes.

When we got back to the outpost, Lieutenant Sonderhale took a look at Satja and then motioned me aside.

“Just what were you thinking?” he asked.

“That she was hurt and needed help, sir. Her name’s Satja and she’s not a rebel. Our arty blew up her home and killed her parents. The least we can do is get her to a doctor.”

“That’s not . . . Dommac, you cannot get bogged down in this. She belongs to Lord Sakenjah. She’s his problem, not yours.”

“I’m not stealing her, sir. Just making sure she gets some medical treatment.”

“Fine. But next time, you ask me first. Do you understand? If you want my backing for anything, I had better know about it in advance.” Sonderhale sighed and grabbed a hold of his torso armor, the Marine equivalent of someone putting their hands in their pockets. “Tell Hedron to watch out for her on the CASEVAC and then at medical. Once she’s treated, we’re going to have to give her back to her holder.”

“Understood, sir.”

“She’s the girl from before, the day of the riot, right?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I thought so. Focus on your mission, Dommac. You’re not here to save injured slave girls; you’re here to kill rebels. If you get diverted from that mission, I will bust you back down to private myself.”

“Yes, sir. Here to kill rebels, sir.”

“Which, by the way, you did?”

“Yes, sir. The mortar team was neutralized. Two were killed by counter-battery, three by us and we took one prisoner. Local intel had indicated seven rebels, however only six were found. Neither Hammer Two-Three nor Oculus Seven could find the purported seventh rebel, and Lieutenant Granet did not wish to stay and search.”

“That prisoner. He looks like he put up quite a fight.”

“Uh, not quite, sir. He was dazed when they captured him.” Sonderhale just looked at me expectantly. “I buttstroked him afterwards.”

The lieutenant shrugged. “I’m sure he earned it. Anyways, your side track with the slave girl notwithstanding, you did an outstanding job. If they’d gotten back up and firing while we were trying to get the casualties evacuated, there would have been a lot more dead Marines. It was a bad situation I sent you into, I know, but you did well.”

“Thank you, sir.”

I personally made sure that Satja got on the CASEVAC Aquila. The lieutenant was right; my job as a Marine was to locate, close with, and destroy the enemy, not to be some knight errant saving slave girls. However, in this case, I decided Satja was the exception that proved the rule.

They moved us out of Outpost Hunter and closer to the Gold Zone. The platoon had taken almost twenty-five percent casualties and needed time for our men to get fixed. Igvar never regained consciousness; everyone else made it. Hedron was back with the platoon later that day. Satja had an internal bleed and concussion, so the doctors kept her in the med center for observation. They told Hedron in no uncertain terms that if they needed a bed, she would be the first one to get kicked out; no military doctor would ever set a slave ahead in precedence over a Marine.

The outposts started to be outfitted with mobile shield generators. They were not powerful enough to withstand a concentrated mortar attack for very long, but hopefully long enough for counter-battery to destroy the threat. The Gold Zone got shield generators as well, with the strongest array around Lord Sakenjah’s manor. I would come to find the clean smell of ozone—caused by the interaction of the shield generators with the atmosphere—comforting.

The sentry standing outside the captain’s cabin scrutinized my ID card. Never mind that I had already been checked and vetted at least twice by the time I got here: once at the boat bay and then again at the hatch to officer’s country. Never mind the fact that I was wearing Marine combat dress, identical to the uniform of the sentry. Well, not exactly. My uniform was clean, but it had been through combat and had some signs of wear. Her uniform, by contrast, looked like it was fresh issue, starched and pressed. My armor was completely different, though. Mine was dirty, dusty, with patches of abrasion on the outer covering where I had dived to the deck, or climbed through windows, or low crawled across concrete. My armor was adorned with pouches for energy packs, grenades, a first aid kit, and my personal radio. I also had the leg and waist pieces on; she just had the chest piece and her helmet.

Looking at the sentry—a wasp waisted, blonde woman whose name tape read Suka—I felt both envy and disdain. One the one hand, Marines were supposed to be on ships, not stuck on some backwater planet doing foot patrols around a city. However, I was down there killing bad guys, while she was up here pressing her uniform, and I didn’t join the Marines just for a parade detail.

She handed my ID card back to me, and I put it back in my shoulder pocket.

“The captain is expecting you, corporal,” she said, laying her palm on the scanner to open the hatch before grabbing hold of her weapon. “Go right on in.”

I unslung my lascarbine as I walked through the hatch. Unlike the sentry’s, mine was unloaded. I’d even left my grenades back on the surface; spaceships and high explosives were a poor mix.

My father laughed as he hugged me. “It’s good to see you, son.”

I admit that I laughed right along with him, hugging him back tightly. The dust from my armor got all over his undress tans, but as I’d seen, the ship’s laundry was working fine.

“Sit down. Take a load off,” he said, pointing to one of the chairs in his day cabin. Comfortable leather chairs. I took off my torso armor to keep the black leather from getting scratched up too badly, and it was awful heavy and uncomfortable.

I was all smiles as I sank into the cushions. “It’s good to see you, too, dad. When the sergeant tribunus told me you were here, I almost couldn’t believe it. What are the odds?”

“I know. Sometimes, things just work out, Divine Providence and all. You want something to drink?”

“I’ll have a beer.”

“Done. Will you be able to stay for dinner? How long do you have before you have to report back?” Captain Dommac asked.

I checked my chrono. “Our company is on a stand down today, but things are getting pretty hairy down there. So I don’t want to be gone for too long, but I can stay for dinner. Uh, one of my Marines came with me; I assume we can arrange for chow for him, too?”

“I’ll have someone show him to the officer’s mess. Would hardly be fair for you to eat steak and him cold cuts.”

“You’re going to make him die of shock. Still, he should remember his manners, unlike that one Marine at boot camp. Graduation day at the restaurant, remember? The one that froze when the colonel came by.”

Dad chuckled. “Poor kid. Sat there real still trying to be invisible. Oh well. How have you been? Got promoted, I see? Outstanding.”

“Yeah, I made corporal not even a week ago.” I beamed. “And I’ve been good. Managed to avoid getting hurt so far, so He must be looking out for me. Some of the guys in my platoon, not so lucky. Mortar attack a few days ago killed three Marines.”

“Sorry to hear that.”

I just nodded in response. The steward came in with two glasses of beer. Rank hath its privileges, which for a Navy captain meant his own steward to bring him beer.

“What about you?” I asked. “Been blowing rebel ships out of the sky?”

“We’ve been in a few scraps. Got credit for half of a rebel cruiser and then full credit for a frigate. There’s a lot of Minmatar ships though, and most of the fleet is still deployed against the Jove and then along the Khanid border.”

“Is it true that we’re sending someone to the Jove with peace terms?”

“I’ve heard that rumor,” my dad replied. “I can’t comment on the accuracy.”

I knew not to press and changed subjects. “So, what now?”

“We hold here. We took some damage on the way out of Heimatar, so we want to get that repaired as much as possible. That and . . . “ My father leaned forward. “We think that there’s going to be an attack on this region. That does not leave this room. We’re not sure which systems the rebels have in mind, but we’re reforming the fleet and drawing the line. Once we have enough force, we’ll go back and reassert Imperial control.”

“Maybe I’ll get an honest to God planetary assault mission, not policing a city.”

“How did that happen anyway?”

“Well, I was Low-Gravity Warfare School in Pimebeka in the Tash-Murkon region, up on the moon. And then, you know, it all went awry. By the time we got organized and down to the planet—orbital drop, very cool—two days later, everything had mostly calmed down. They wound up building a battalion around the LGW school, adding in Marines from all over. We spent about two weeks there getting put together and worked up before coming here. They were going to send us into Heimatar, but. . .” I shrugged my shoulders.

“I know,” my dad said. “It all went sideways. Almost every single Amarr on Matar died in the first day. By the time we got there, Minmatar ships were in control of the orbitals and there was no one on the ground to save. I have no idea where they got so many ships, but they have them. They have to have been planning this for a while.”

I took a breath before I asked my next question. “Are we winning?”

Captain Dommac looked at his beer and took a big sip before responding. “No . . . but we’re not losing, either.”

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