Voss has to move quickly to relieve her best friend. How long can Mako hold out?
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The building next to us was eighty stories tall. With the optics in my helmet’s visor, I could hopefully see enough to get a sense of what was going on. After all, that is what I was supposed to be doing, commanding the regiment. However, with all of First battalion’s senior officers dead, I was stuck acting as the battalion commander. So, at present I was both a regimental commander and a battalion commander, but doing neither particularly well. I needed to stop and get full measure of our tactical situation; I needed to see what was going on. The roof of the tallest building in the city was a very good place to see what was going on.
Master Sergeant Steiner and Gunnery Sergeant Unruh rushed in ahead, weapons shouldered, looking for targets. I drew my sidearm and followed.
“Clear!” Unruh yelled.
“Elevators are a bust,” Dur informed me.
“Stairs,” I said.
Five Marines bounding up a stairwell, using their armor and jumpjets to the fullest extent, bouncing off walls, leaving cracks and scorch marks, but we got up eighty flights of stairs in record time for that building.
The roof had partially collapsed and I saw why. A 35mm Alliance railgun had been set up on the roof. Sassaeler pilots had strafed the roof in an attempt to knock out the gun. However, from the looks of it, the gun was intact.
“Steiner, check out that weapon,” I said, bounding over to the edge to look to Nizumi.
An Alliance soldier in fatigues and unpowered armor was hiding behind a heater unit. He raised his hands and stood. He looked Lutean.
“Please,” he said.
Captain Dur shot the soldier in the head.
“Why was the Alliance Army here?” he asked me as we kept going to our perch.
“Tallest building in the city?” I wondered out loud. “Good place to set up an Air Defense battery, just in case, you know.”
“I guess,” he replied. “I’ll go make sure there’s not more of them left around.”
Dur left with his sidearm in his remaining hand, shouting out to Steiner and Unruh to make sure there weren’t Allies lurking somewhere.
The optics were enough for me to get a very far away look at the battle. Flashes of explosions and superheated plasma left in the tail of blaster fire criss-crossed the warehouses where Alpha company was stuck in fighting. One of the Alliance tanks moved to a building and opened up with all four blaster turrets, spewing bright blue plasma bolts. The building ceased to be. From the beacons that blinked out on my visor, some Marines also ceased to be. A moment later, explosions overwhelmed the tank’s shields and the power plant detonated. The shockwave kicked up enough dust and debris that I could see no more.
Nizumi had guided Hailstorm down on their first tank kill. I could make out the blown out wrecks of two more tanks between the warehouse buildings. My friend had been busy.
“Alpha Six, Winter six,” I said on the comm-net.
“Go,” she said.
“Outstanding job with that tank. Keep it up. Seven more minutes until we’re set up.”
“That’s great, but we’re out of rockets.”
“Tell your Marines to expect some air support. Get targets designated.”
“We’ll be waiting with bells on,” she said. I could hear the smile in her voice.
I turned to Beck. “Get on the comm with Dragon Six-One. Tell them kill box seven-charlie is open. Requesting danger close strikes against enemy tanks and armored infantry mixed in with friendly troops. Tell them to watch friendly beacons. Priority targets will be designated.”
“Aye, ma’am,” she said and switched to her comm. “Dragon Six-One, Dragon Six-One, this is Winter.”
Dur bounded over. “The gun works,” he said.
“Thank God,” I replied.
“We don’t have a lot of rounds,” he added.
“We’ll we’re going to shoot what we have.”
None of our rounds were compatible with the Alliance railgun. Once we shot all of the ones we captured with the gun, we were out.
I moved the power unit of the weapon while the rest of my team moved the gun mount, cradle and the gun itself. A 35mm railgun was a substantial piece of hardware.
Gunnery Sergeant Unruh wanted to shoot it, but Master Sergeant Steiner pulled rank. I told them I didn’t care who shot the gun, so long as there were rounds going downrange now.
The first shot went right into the Frish River, sending a splash in the air where the antimatter annihilated underwater, and I turned to look at Steiner.
“Looks like the targeting computer is all fouled. We’ll need to recalibrate it,” she said.
I left them to get it fixed.
The beacons on my overview were far more sparse than I could have wanted. Captain Nizumi’s beacon still showed, so she was still alright.
The growl of magnetoplasma thrusters echoed through the sky. Two Eagle fighters streaked in from the west, low to the deck. Tracers from the Alliance weapons started to fly in their direction, but the fighters juked. The tracers kept flying past as each of the fighters fired a pair of rockets that screamed down to the deck and impacted in a flash.
I couldn’t make out the effect; buildings were in the way.
“Winter Six, Alpha Six. Air strike effect: two enemy tanks destroyed. Some number of enemy infantry also killed.”
“Copy. Keep it up. Four minutes.”
“Hailstorm reports rounds complete,” Nizumi told me.
“Understood. Be advised, we have captured an enemy gun and are working to employ it in your defense.”
“You’re full of surprises, Winter. Alpha Six, out.”
The fighters pulled away, heading north, away from the enemy lines, their rockets spent. The enemy fired off some parting shots, but nothing impacted.
I was full of surprises, but I was running out of them. With no more mortar rounds left to fire and our air support running low on ordnance, it was going to come down to our captured gun and grit. We only had twelve rounds for the captured gun, so it was going to be grit.
Speaking of the gun. “I am sure Captain Nizumi doesn’t mind if you take all day to finally get to shooting,” I told my two noncoms working on the targeting computer.
“Whoever programmed this thing was a moron, or deliberately obtuse,” Unruh said.
“Then use the boresight. Just get it firing,” I replied. We could spend all day with a computer specialist trying to get it working, or we could get it firing, though not as accurately, right now. “Master Sergeant Steiner. Direct front. Enemy tank in the open. Range is five-two-zero-zero meters. One round antimatter. Fire.”
She scrambled into the gunner’s position and put her helmet to the sight. “Acquired. On the way.”
The big gun let out lightning’s crack as the round was accelerated to hypersonic velocities in the length of two meters. There was the bright flash of an antimatter annihilation near the tank, but not on the tank.
“Short. Ten meters. Adjust and fire.” I said.
Steiner ripped off her helmet and pushed her short-cropped, blonde hair out of her way as she put her face back into the sight.
“On the way.”
The gun cracked again and sent another round downrange. The round impacted near the tank, the explosion turning the shield opaque.
“Repeat,” I told her.
“On the way.”
The round impacted the shield, but the explosion kept right on going. The shield had failed and there were pockmarks in the armor.
“On the way.”
The gun sent another nine nanograms of antimatter at the tank. With the shield gone and the armor damaged, the antimatter annihilation flashed through into the fighting compartment and detonated the ammunition. Every turret and access hatch of the vehicle was sent flying.
“Target destroyed. Find another one,” I said. I had other things to do than direct a gun crew.
We had used up four of our precious captured rounds to take out one tank, and there were twelve of the enemy tanks left in action.
“Ma’am. Blizzard One reports that she’s set up at Phase Line Nocturne and ready to cover Alpha company’s withdraw,” Beck said as I stepped away to ask her just that.
“Outstanding.” My heart lifted at the news. “Alpha Six Actual, this is Winter Six Actual. Blizzard is set, I say again, Blizzard is set. Fall back to Phase Line Nocturne, Nizumi. We’ve got you.”
“Winter, that’s going to be a little hard to do. There are many hostiles between us and friendly lines.”
I checked the beacons. Then I looked down at the battle. Enemy infantry and armor had moved around Nizumi’s position, putting her back to the river. Even more worrying was the small number of friendly Marines she had left. Both Alpha and weapons companies had been savaged to the point where there were forty Marines left fighting between the both of them—almost ninety percent casualties.
“Okay, here’s what we’re going to do. Dragon flight doesn’t have any rockets left, but they have railguns. I’m going to get a strafing run and try to punch a hole at grid CG814 344. After the strafing run, push a counter attack there and break for friendly lines. Over.”
“Winter Out,” I said to her and turned to Beck. “Beck, get back on the comm with Dragon Six-One. Kill box seven-charlie is still open, but I want a strafing attack focusing on enemy tanks around grid CG814 344.”
“Aye, ma’am,” she said and got to it.
“Charlie Six, Winter Six,” I said back on First battalion comms.
“This is Charlie, send your traffic Winter Six,” Captain Schumann’s comm operator said.
“Put Six Actual on.”
“This is Charlie Six Actual,” Captain Schumann said.
“Charlie, I need you to shift to the west and be ready to participate in a counterattack at CG814 344. How copy?”
“Winter Six, be advised we have zero rockets left.”
“God provides, Charlie. Sometimes, Sassaelers rely on grit and determination, too. Make it happen. Out.”
I was religious; there’s an old saying that there are no atheists in fighting holes. I maybe made it to church regularly if not every Sunday, but if God had shown up right then and there with an armful of rockets, I’d have quit the Marines to go be a nun.
By a quick count of the beacons on my overview, Charlie company was not doing so well either. Captain Schumann’s company looked to be at three quarters strength. I wished every one of them were like Lieutenant Kreiger.
Eagle fighters roared in again, but they had to stay lower, closer to the deck. They got off several rounds from their railguns, but they were close. Too close. One of the tanks tracked a fighter and clipped it with a blaster round, sending the fighter tumbling out of control and into the river. The second fighter pulled a hard turn north, gaining altitude.
Their attack had not been futile. One of the enemy tanks looked visibly damaged. Black smoke poured out of the drive exhaust. There was one other intact tank between Nizumi and friendly lines. If we could punch it out, they might break though.
“Steiner, target the hostile tank to the left of the brown building with the red roof,” I said.
Steiner’s first round was long, impacting over the tank. She didn’t get a chance to fire again, as the tank zipped behind a building and out of our line of sight.
It would be up to Captain Nizumi’s Marines to take it out with grit and determination. A squad of her Marines bounded forward. If they could get past the shield, they could rip open hatches and toss in grenades. It zipped back out into the open, but we couldn’t shoot now. Our Marines were too close. Other Marines laid down fire, turning the shield opaque as their comrades dashed for the tank.
The tank spun and the blaster turrets opened up, obliterating a whole squad in a mere couple of seconds. Thirteen Marines died in barely more than an eyeblink. It pressed forward, to the Marines that had been trying to give their dead fellows cover.
“Fire!” I yelled at Steiner.
The brown building with the red roof collapsed under a barrage of blaster fire. Steiner’s 35mm antimatter round slapped right into the shield, but the shield held. The tank spun and drove out of our line of sight again.
Friendly beacons belonging to Alpha company were disappearing faster than I could keep track. I checked to see that Nizumi was still alive; she was. There were only about twenty other friendly beacons with her.
“Alpha Six, is that the only tank between you and us?”
“Affirm, Winter. There’s some enemy infantry, too, though,” she said.
“We can take it out with our gun, we just don’t have a line of sight on it. If you can somehow bait it into an open road or something, we’ll kill it for you.”
“Roger. Let me come up with a plan.”
“Out,” I told her and turned to Dur. “What about moving Weapons battalion forward to support her withdrawal?”
“They’re already engaged along Phase Line Nocturne,” he said.
I looked to the Grozeuzig Loop and saw that he was right. Weapons fire was being traded back and forth from opposite sides of the road. I was so focused on Nizumi, I’d lost track of what a whole battalion was doing.
“That’s not a lot of fire. It has to just be forward scouting elements. If we regroup with Bravo and Charlie company, take a company of heavy railguns, we can punch through, meet up with Alpha company and fall back to friendly lines. That still leaves the Air Defense battery and a heavy railgun company to hold Nocturne.”
“Ma’am, right now, those three companies are all that is holding Nocturne. And against that force, there’s no telling if they can even hold for enough time to get the rest of the regiment here,” Dur replied.
“Beck,” I said. “What about Charlie company?”
“Captain Schumann reports meeting heavy resistance and is unable to advance further,” she said.
“Of course he did.”
“We have three rounds left for the gun,” Unruh said. When it snows, it blizzards.
“Then we’ll have to make them count. Don’t miss, Steiner,” I said and keyed my comm. “Nizumi, we’re ready when you are.”
“Okay, Winter. Hope this works,” she replied.
Four Marines leapt out of cover, bounding north. The ducked into a half-collapsed building, firing as they went. Four more followed shortly there after, dodging blaster rounds as they sprinted. The tank moved forward and raked the buildings the Marines had entered with blaster fire from all turrets. Right into our line of sight.
“On the way!” yelled Steiner.
The round missed, impacting to the left of the tank, sending up a cloud of concrete dust and debris. The tank backed off some and turned to put its thick frontal armor to us. More Marines broke from cover, three of them dashing to the tank. They didn’t make it. Marine armor is good, but not against heavy blasters.
“On the way!”
The antimatter round impacted directly on the shield in a brilliant flash. The shield went opaque and flickered, the collapsed.
“Shield’s down,” I told her. “Kill it.”
“On the way!”
The gun cracked and the hypersonic antimatter round flew at its target. The round connected, hitting the tank dead on. Antiprotons and protons annihilated each other on the armor, obscuring the tank from view in a white flash.
The round had failed to penetrate. The tank spun and backed out of our line of site.
“No more rounds, ma’am,” Unruh said.
“Find some,” I said. “Look around. There might be some we missed.”
I started to dart around the roof, looking to places where a crate of ammo might be hiding. Unruh even followed suit. He was a good Marine with instant, willing obedience to all orders, however desperate they might be.
“There isn’t any, ma’am,” Dur said. “We checked. We didn’t miss any. We’re just out of rounds.”
“Its shield is down. Beck, get Charlie company moving. They can still attack it,” I said, thinking of another solution to the problem.
The azure light of blaster cover fire lit up the square as two more tanks appeared where the previous one had been. My heart sank even as Nizumi raised me on the comm.
“Winter, we’re not going to make it. We’re surrounded. I have fourteen Marines left from both companies,” she said.
“We’ll figure out a way. Just hold tight. It’s not over yet,” I answered.
“I count nine enemy tanks. They’re all right here, clustered around me. If you order a tactical antimatter strike, you’ll kill the tanks and a lot of the bad guys.”
“I can’t do that,” I said. “We’ll figure out something else.”
“Kara, order the strike!”
There’s a saying in the Corps that a Marine on duty has no friends. It might not make a lot of sense to the young lance corporals that stand a post once a month, but right here was the reason why. My obligation as the regimental commander (acting) was to complete the mission. So far, I had managed to do that. I had even, in keeping with our doctrine, attempted to make a rescue of Marines cut off from friendly lines. But now, the onsite commander had called off our attempts. I couldn’t send in more Marines to get killed trying to save my friend.
Mako would have to die, like Lieutenant Kreiger. Sometimes, being in charge really sucked. I made my decision, but I would rather have gone back to Captain Beck for a couple of years. Mako had rescued me, but I could not do the same for her.
“Strike inbound,” I replied, my voice soft.
“Roger that, Winter.” Nizumi paused. “Tell my family I love them.”
“May God forgive me,” I said before turning to Master Sergeant Steiner. “Get me an initial point, heading, and distance for Nizumi’s position.”
Steiner and Unruh lit up the holomap and started plotting the first part of the strike package. I needed to get the Marines that I could save back to a safe distance.
I selected the regimental comm-net. “This is Winter Six to all Winter elements. All Winter elements are to fall back to Phase Line Nocturne. I say again, no friendly unit is to be south of Phase Line Nocturne.” Then, I selected the comm-net for our air support. “Dragon Six-Six, this is Winter Three.”
“This is Dragon Six-Six, go,” the pilot responded.
I said to Beck, “Tell Alpha to turn off their beacons.” Then, I keyed up the comm again. “Dragon Six-Six, request for tactical antimatter strike, over.”
“Winter Three, I copy a request for tactical antimatter. Awaiting strike package, over.”
Steiner handed me a note with the heading data.
“Line one: initial point is grid CG86390 29137. Line two: heading nine-five degrees, grid north. Line three: distance to target two-zero-zero-zero meters. Line four: target elevation one-two-two meters. Burst altitude two-one-five meters. Line five: enemy tanks and armored infantry. Line six: target location is at grid square CG88382 28963. Line seven: target is not marked. Line eight . . . “ I had to stop and take a breath. “Line eight: all friendly units are north of Phase Line Nocturne. Line nine: egress north to avoid ground fire. Over.”
“Dragon Six-Six copies strike package as follows: Line one: initial point at grid CG86390 29137. Line two: heading nine-five degrees, grid north. Line three: distance to target two-zero-zero-zero meters. Line four: target elevation one-two-two meters; burst altitude two-one-five meters. Line five: enemy tanks and armored infantry. Line six: target location is at grid square CG88382 28963. Line seven: target is not marked. Line eight: all friendly units are north of Phase Line Nocturne. Line nine: exfil north to avoid ground fire. Confirm, over.”
“Strike confirmed,” I said. Those coordinates would put the hypocenter of the blast directly over Nizumi’s last known location before she killed her beacon.
“Winter Three, authenticate: Juliette, Mike, Victor.”
This is why I used my Winter Three callsign. To deploy tactical antimatter, there was another level of control, and I only knew the authentication codes for Winter Three, not Winter Six.
“Winter Three authenticates: Tango, India, Bravo.”
“Strike confirmed. Dragon flight inbound. Deployment in two minutes.”
“Winter copies all. Out.”
I sat down with my back to a heating unit. My armor was very heavy all of a sudden.
“Bravo and Charlie companies are falling back, ma’am,” Beck told me. I nodded once.
Dur waited a moment and keyed his comm. “All Winter callsigns this is a tactical antimatter STRIKEWARN. Detonation at CG883 289 in six-zero seconds. Winter callsigns to ground and cover.”
Beck dropped down into the prone position. Steiner put on her helmet.
“We’re over five kilometers away,” the more experienced Marine told her junior. “Way outside the effective range.”
There was nothing for me to do but look up at the high-flying fighter overhead.
“I’m sorry, Mako,” I said over the comm. She didn’t respond. She never responded.
I pictured her face: dark brown eyes, almond shaped; black hair that she kept long with bangs; and a cute, crooked smile. She chewed on the inside of her cheek when she was nervous.
The white flash from the matter-antimatter annihilation was brighter than the Apina Minor star.