The fighting had gone on for hours. The platoon had formed a cordon, had exhausted all their ammunition, and had ended up using the weapons of their fallen enemies — to good effect, thought Ian. He went into the fight with twenty-three troopers. He could count twelve relatively uninjured ones around him right now, sprawled on the surface of the planet — too exhausted to even pull security. Five more troopers under Corporal Stennerly were posted on the tunnel entrance — for it had indeed been a tunnel that the aliens attacked through. Ian paused at this use of “alien.” Technically, *I’m* the alien here.
There had been about two dozen of the enemy, and while most had been killed, several had made an orderly retreat. Stennerly had the sappers with her, and they’d mined the interior of the tunnel so that if they were attacked, they could simply blow it in place. Ian smiled, remembering the way Stennerly had fought: like an uncaged tiger, shooting and sometimes hacking her way through the enemy to get to her troops. His smile faded when he looked at the three bodies that had been set aside. One of them was Sergeant Estes. He’d been caught in the head with three direct shots almost as soon as the fight began. Didn’t have a chance. Ian would miss his calm determination. Mourning would have to come…someday. Someday when they weren’t on the verge of being hopelessly cut off.
Ian did a quick slant report in his head. Personnel: one officer, five NCOs, eleven enlisted. Three wounded NCOs who could go on, but were basically useless unless they could get to one of the fleet or squadron aid stations. Three killed in action: Sergeant Estes, Corporal Parker, Specialist Lin. And three missing in action — disappeared entirely. That bothered him greatly and he made a mental note that this would have to be a decision point to be addressed. Supplies: by cross-levelling food and water from the dead, they could eke out a few more days. Barely. And they’d have to drop to half rations, which meant reduced patrolling time.
He was black on ammo, but they had enough enemy energy weapons to be able to all be armed. Equipment: internal platoon comms still worked, but they couldn’t raise anyone else — although not for lack of trying. The mortar tube had been smashed, so indirect fire was a thing of the past. Although it didn’t matter, they had hung their last round an hour into the fight. The sappers had most of their demo kits still, and three rapidly deployable minefields. They had used their last repair kit for the exoskeletons, however, which meant that everything after this point would have to be repaired with their own ingenuity. They had already removed whatever spare parts they could get from the bodies of the dead.
Ian looked around. The suns still baked down on them. Above, he thought he could make out a few ships, but he couldn’t be certain. The action had seemingly all drifted away from them, and with no working comms, he couldn’t tell where exactly it had drifted to. He wasn’t sure at this point if he was glad of that or frustrated. He concluded that it was probably a little of both.
His eyes drifted back to the bodies. He missed Estes. Estes always made sure that everything was happening, that everything was okay. Even when it was all going to hell, Estes had it under control. Or at least presented the appearance of control. Now, Ian wasn’t sure what to do or where to go. He had five NCOs left, all of them corporals except for Sergeant Bilder — but Bilder was an incompetant jackass who had only survived the last fight because he’d managed to find a good spot in that pile of rocks and held fast there. No initiative, no urge to make things better. Just looking out for his own skin. Ian could see him now, walking around like he owned the place, giving out curt orders to do this or do that, all of which had already been done by the corporals.
So, here he was. A very, very light platoon. A platoon designed to make contact with something, report back, and then let something else deal with the problem. And yet now, everyone was dealing with the problem and he had no one who he could call upon for support. None of the heavy armor companies, or even the comforting clanking of a mech company. He cast his mind back to his Reconnaissance and Surveillance Course to see if he could glean any nuggets from those months spent at Fort Schwartzkopf in Wyoming – the home of the Scout Corps, begun once interplanetary travel had kicked off in earnest. The bases in the southern US had mostly long been closed – either underwater from the surging coastline or too hot be bearable. Only Fort Knox remained – the Army’s space cadet training center, in blistering 140 degree heat. Ian had done his time there, as well. But neither experience provided him with any arcane knowledge of what to do in this situation, beyond the aphorisms of “trust your NCOs,” “it’s all in doctrine,” and “a decent plan executed now is better than a perfect plan executed tomorrow.”
Now, looking out over a landscape so bereft of life and color as to be near blinding, Ian found his mind drifting back to the stories of fiction that he’d read as a kid. They came back in a crashing blaze of color, as he’d hidden under the curve of the great space transport’s eaves, in the small area designated for his family. Hiding, because his father would be livid that he was reading rather than training. So he hid under the colorful folds of cloth that his grandmother had hung in her small cubby, to “make things feel warm again,” as she’d said, caressing his cheek with her gentle hand and passing a novel to him with a surreptitious wink. It had been their little secret and he’d loved it dearly. He’d worked his way through mysteries, science fiction, fantasy, you name it. And his mind teemed with multiple universes, all vying for space and time in his attention span. That ended when she’d died, of course. He was sixteen. And the world had lost a lot of color that day. He’d been on the lookout for it since then. He sighed. The release of air brought him sweeping back into the present, his eyes taking in the broad sweep of the ridgeline, the cracked shards of rock, the cutting lines of the trees, and the marks of past battle all around.
Appearing out of the glare of the sun off the ridge, Corporal Stennerly gave him an appraising look.
“Sergeant Bilder wanted me to move my squad three klicks to the northwest,” she said, “but I thought I should check with you before I killed us all.” Ian’s face went red – blushing at being undermined by his sergeant and having to trust in his subordinates to countermand the idiot – and then white – with anger.
“He said what?” he demanded. Stennerly grinned, in spite of everything.
“Yeah, I’m supposed to go out there and set up an LP/OP to check for…well, he never really said. Sir,” she added, as if trying to be helpful. Ian shook his head.
“Hold your position in the line. I’ll talk to Bilder. As if I needed another ass-pain to deal with.” He thought he’d said the last part to himself. He had not, and Stennerly was grinning from ear to ear. Everyone knew the other NCOs hated Bilder.
Ian trudged over to where Sergeant Bilder was sitting on a boulder, back to a small rock face, busily checking his pack.
“Where’s your rifle,” asked Ian, immediately, for the sergeant was unarmed. Bilder, a squat and handsome man, jabbed a finger towards a trooper sitting nearby, who was clearly cleaning the sergeant’s weapon. He paid little attention to Ian.
“Here in Third Platoon, everyone cleans their own weapons,” Ian said, standing directly in front of the sergeant. Bilder looked up at him, and Ian could barely see his close-set eyes through his tinted face shield, but he got the feeling that the sergeant very much wanted to spit right now to express his feelings and was put out that he could not. Bilder compensated by deliberately putting his pack down and rising to his feet. This did not have the effect he desired, as Ian had a foot on him and so still stared down at the disgruntled NCO. The troopers nearby quickly realized that the post-fight tension was about to erupt, and quietly shifted their security positions so as to get a better glance. They were professionals, but only human after all.
Ian was beginning to formulate a blistering remonstrance on the role of the NCO corps just as Bilder was about to tell off this young officer who’d got them into this mess, when Looper poked his helmeted head around the corner of the rock face and said, “Hey sir, I’ve got troop on the net. And SFC Li says hi. They’re two klicks out but in running contact.” Ian swerved away, his feud with the sergeant placed momentarily on hold. He cued his comms and gave a quick order for each squad to move out in fire team wedge towards troop’s position. Third Squad would carry the casualties in the middle, First on point, Second in trail. Actions on contact were to gain a base of fire and flank, if possible. Sappers would lay in a hasty minefield behind them to give pursuers a bad day. Each squad leader checked in, acknowledging the orders. Bilder gave him a look, but Ian cut off any further conflict by telling him to oversee the movement of casualties. Bilder seemed to be fine with this, as it put him out of the possibility of fighting.
And so, Third Platoon set out, their long shadows arcing out over the landscape like so many walking trees. No such thing as cover or concealment on this march thought Ian. Speed will have to be security. He hefted his weapon and stepped off.