Duty was eternal. Death was not.
Knowles awoke with a start. A medic eased him out of a tube and passed him a fresh set of greens. Blearily, Knowles clothed himself. He was still alive. The brainchips must have stayed intact long enough to transmit his consciousness back to the rear. Thank God.
He exited the chamber to discover he was in a middle of a small park. The late morning sun reflected off the windows of the high-rises surrounding him. The park had been turned into a temporary camp. Legionaries bustled back and forth, carting heavy crates, staring at holograms and holding intense discussions, handing out gear, or otherwise trying to look useful. Knowles spotted Lieutenant MacYoung in the crowd and ambled over.
“Back from the dead?” MacYoung remarked.
“Mostly,” Knowles said. “What did I miss?”
“Second wave of Horde dropships broke through. We took fifty percent casualties, ten percent KIA. There’s a heavy brigade rolling towards Calendon. That’s where we are now.
“The Legion sector headquarters reports that the Horde’s pressing us on all fronts in the sector. We’re drawing reinforcements from elsewhere, but it’s going to take time. We shouldn’t expect relief anytime soon.”
Knowles swore bitterly. “We’re on our own.”
“No kidding. The Horde brought heavy armor with them. We can’t take them in a straight-up fight. The Regulars will harass the enemy and draw them into the city. We’re going to dig in and hold against all comers.”
Urban warfare. Street to street, house to house, room to room. It was going to be ugly.
“Aren’t the civilians sheltered here too?”
MacYoung nodded grimly. “That’s right. If they get past us…”
Day turned to night turned to day without respite. The Horde crashed into and through the Legion’s lines. The legionaries peeled back and let the enemy commit themselves, then rolled back around and raided their flanks, seeking a decisive envelopment to cut off the advance.
Knowles ran up and down familiar streets, sometimes pushing forward, sometimes falling back. Recon became ambushes became room combat became counter-ambushes, with the occasional flight from starship lasers.
The suit pumped him full of stimulants, keeping him going long after baselines would have run themselves into the ground. The only time he allowed himself to rest was a brief ten-minute period when the loggies drove by in their supply truck and handed out a fresh load of ammo and supplies. His men followed him everywhere he went, executing his orders without complaint.
But despite their best efforts, the Legion was being pushed back.
Knowles forced those thoughts out of his mind and peered out the window. He was on the eighth floor of an office complex. Commanding view of the neighborhood. He could see the enemy coming from a block away.
Legion drones buzzed back and forth in the air, saturating the battlefield with sensors and seeking out their Horde counterparts. Red and blue dots moved and vanished and reappeared on the map. Red zones crawled across the map. But for now, the streets were quiet, and the only sounds of battle came from everywhere else.
Knowles’ team had an entire office all to themselves. The rest of the platoon was scattered around the neighborhood, waiting for the enemy to come. Stepping away from the window, Knowles stretched, keeping himself limber. Foster kept watch, while the other two re-checked their gear.
“Enemy armor over here,” Foster called. “Twelve o’clock, fifty meters.”
Knowles scrambled over, peeking out the glass. An armored vehicle rolled down the street, its turret bristling with guns and missile pods, topped with a small point defense laser. Infantry patrolled to either side, sticking close to the buildings, scanning for threats in all directions. They were almost invisible, their camouflage coatings nearly perfect. Only their movements gave them away. White flashes danced in the air above them, Legion and Horde microdrones dueling for supremacy with lasers and jammers.
Knowles checked his map and keyed the radio.
“Polaris Two-Six, Two-One Alpha. Eyes on enemy armor and a squad of infantry heading down Eleventh Avenue. Request fires. Danger close.”
“Acknowledged. Wait one.”
The enemy advanced cautiously towards his position. The legionaries stayed low, minimizing their target profiles.
“Polaris Two-One Alpha, Polaris Two-Six. Fires not available. You’ll have to take care of them yourself.”
Knowles sighed. This was going to suck.
“Acknowledged.” Addressing his men, he said, “This one’s on us. Wayne, prep the HV.”
As Knowles watched, Lake carefully slid the windows open. Wayne hauled his hypervelocity missile launcher into position. Foster braced his squad support weapon on a table.
“We’re good to go,” Wayne reported.
Raising his coilgun, Knowles prepared his grenade launcher.
“Foster, on your mark,” Knowles said.
Taking careful aim, the legionary ripped off a quick burst. The point defense laser exploded in a shower of sparks.
“HV!” Knowles shouted.
The hypervelocity missile launcher spoke. The HV missile slammed into the AFV’s main gun. The mass driver exploded, taking the missile pods with it, and with them a couple of Horde troopers.
As the launcher ripped off more missiles, the other three legionaries sent grenades downrange. The grenades exploded above the street, raining deadly shrapnel below. Two more HV blasts, and the AFV rolled to a halt. The husk burned with a blinding flame, producing a choking wall of thick smoke. As far as Knowles could tell, the Horde was retreating.
“Polaris Two-Six, Two-One Alpha. Enemy armor eliminated, enemy infantry broke contact. Preparing to displace.”
“Belay displace,” MacYoung ordered. “Two-Three ran into enemy armor about two hundred meters northeast. The enemy’s headed your way. Hold your ground.”
Knowles sighed. “Copy.”
Wayne slid in a fresh missile pack into his launcher. “That’s our last HV pack. Gotta make it count.”
The legionaries took their positions, watching the roads again. The roar of engines filled the air. Knowles reminded himself to relax, to use his peripheral vision, to watch for movement.
Thick gray smoke billowed across 18th Avenue, mingling with the smoke from the burning wreck.
“Eyes on smoke,” Knowles reported.
Was the smoke grenade concealing movement? Was it a distraction? Or both? The Horde was tricky that way. On the other hand, there were two more fire teams embedded in this building, watching all angles. If this were a trick…
“Polaris Two-Six, Two-One Bravo. Eyes on enemy armor coming down Fontaine Street. Engaging.”
Knowles watched. Waited. Explosions filled the air. Long, long bursts of coilgun fire.
“Two-Six, Two-One Bravo. Threats eliminated.”
“Two-Two Alpha here. Enemy armor down on Swift Street. I’m outta Hotel Vics. Can anyone spare some?”
“Two-Two Alpha, Two-One Alpha,” Knowles said. “I’ve got one last load.”
“Wayne,” Knowles began.
“On it,” Wayne said.
As Wayne carried his HV launcher over to another window, Foster kept watch. Maybe it was nothing. Maybe it was…
An AFV nudged past the broken wreck, emerging through the smoke screen.
“Two-Six, Two-One Alpha. Enemy armor on Eighteenth Avenue. Engaging.” Looking up, he said, “Foster, need you over here.”
The legionary jogged over, squad support weapon in hand. “Yo.”
“Need you to take out the AFV over there. Fire as soon as you have the angle on its roof.”
“Firing!” Wayne warned.
The HV launcher shouted. Something exploded downrange.
“Hit!” Wayne crowed.
The AFV on 18th Avenue elevated its guns.
“Foster!” Knowles shouted, raising his coilgun.
Knowles fired at the port-side missile pod. A fireball rocked the AFV. Then the starboard side pod blew up. As Foster’s heavy flechettes chewed into the main gun, Knowles shot up the point defense laser. The delicate device erupted and the AFV’s secondary autocannon spoke.
A barrage of shells slammed into the building, rocking the ceiling, the walls, the floor. But they missed. Thank God. Foster danced his weapon across the turret and the autocannon went silent.
The AFV backed off. Foster blasted one of the tracks. Knowles aimed for another and—
Fire filled the room. The blast threw him down and knocked the wind out of his lungs. He lay there, stunned, until Wayne helped him back up.
“You okay?” Wayne shouted.
Foster was a bloody mess on the floor, next to a massive hole in the wall. Knowles cursed, then cursed again as a fresh volley of heavy fire rocked the building.
“Polaris Two-One, Two-One Alpha! Enemy has us zeroed! We have to move!”
“Negative, Two-One Alpha. You must hold.”
“Hold?! We are taking casualties and we are black on anti-armor munitions. We have to fall back.”
“Negative. There are civilian defense shelters at the end of the street. The last probe delayed their evacuation. There are still people inside. Until we can pull them out, you must hold.”
“Are you calling for Dipper?”
Knowles sighed. “Acknowledged.”
“What do we do?” Lake called.
“Die in place,” Knowles said.
The surviving legionaries glanced at each other. Lake sighed, and nodded.
“Let’s do this,” Lake said.
The enemy boiled across the street. Lake and Wayne dashed to the windows, spending flechettes and grenades like no tomorrow. Knowles worked the radio, coordinating with the other two teams below, and joined in where he could.
His conscious brain shut down, floating somewhere outside his body. He felt his mouth open and spill streams of jargon, he observed his coilgun snapping from window to road to building to alley, he felt his fingers working triggers and fire selectors, his hands aiming and reloading. It was almost like a dream, then a sniper blasted Wayne in the face.
Knowles ducked behind cover. Peered out and saw only moving blurs dashing from windows to doors and back. He launched a grenade, fired a long burst, more to keep the enemy down than in the hopes of hitting anything. He checked for effects and—
An enormous blast lifted him up and slammed him down.
When he came to, he saw large bulky shapes standing above him. He was seeing double, but he recognized the guns they pointed at him.
“Surrender,” one of them demanded.
He opened his mouth. Tried to speak. Nothing came out.
“Surrender!” the Horde trooper said again.
His tongue finally deigned to work.
“The Legion dies. It does not surrender,” he said.
And detonated his suit.
For more pulse-pounding military science fiction with a heavy dose of fantasy, check out my latest novel HAMMER OF THE WITCHES.