“Charlie eleven-three, two minutes to touchdown.”
Isaac licked his lips and queued the mic with his jaw. “Roger that. Touchdown in one one zero seconds.”
The chronometer on his helmet's HUD was perfectly synchronized with the drop ship, his own vehicle, and the fleet commanding the orbit of Tau Ceti. Ch'yrrade interference occasionally caused some D-Sync but the humans had learned long ago to overcome that.
“LT, looks like the first wave is in trouble.” Dish was clicking through displays on her own console and forwarding them over to him. Her job on the ride down was to keep him informed to any changes. Isaac had been listening in on the command nets but her information confirmed his own. Two Marine assault battalions and several Mechanized regiments had hit in the first wave. A foothold had been gained in three areas but none of them were linked up yet as had been planned. Isaac saw that the marines on the left flank were up against it and calculated they were only three kilometers from his primary drop zone.
“Charlie eleven-three, this is Champion,” Isaac smiled; he knew Larson was seeing the same thing, “those Marines are taking a beating. We have a priority request for support.”
As Larson spoke across the kilometers of atmosphere that separated them, Isaac was already feeding data to the drop ship on a course change.
“Copy that. Correcting course to new zone. We'll handle it, Champion.” For the millionth time Isaac thanked whoever had invented the idea of using shorthand on the comm lines. Having to do yes sirs and say names would have driven him mad, as well as being bad security.
“Charlie eleven-three, this is Cherub. I'll support on the right. Eleven-one and Eleven-two, stay with Champion.”
Isaac grimaced. Didn't the XO trust him? Maybe they needed five vehicles or maybe they didn't but having her looking over his shoulder was going to make him nervous. Much more nervous than being that close to the enemy would.
“Copy that, Cherub. Thanks for the assist.” Isaac knew he couldn't say no, but this assault was already tasting sour.
“Charlie eleven-three, thirty seconds.”
“Roger that, touch down in two five seconds.” Isaac lived for the missions that let him act more independently. Getting to move away from the rest of the troop didn't bother him in the least even though it meant less mutual support. He much preferred fighting his own war than the one everyone was involved in.
The trouble was, Isaac was also a good soldier and proud of it. The troop XO was probably right to bring her vehicle up in support. Isaac hated feeling so paranoid about people who were his friends but this invasion was too important to him. He had to get away, get his platoon away so he could accomplish his own objectives.
Isaac shook off the random thoughts as he heard the roar of air and engines that meant an iminent combat landing. The dropships could slow down to less than sixty kilometers an hour, allowing the M-714 to drive off while everyone was still in motion. This was the most vulnerable time however, as a random shot could destroy both vehicles or uneven ground might cause Fokker to flip.
Price was as hunched in his couch as he could be, tense for the moment when he would drive the vehicle away at over 60 kph.
Isaac saw a green light on his HUD and queued his mic. “Disengage umbilical, get up to speed!”
Garcia, the assistant driver, disengaged the electrical umbilical and the straps holding the Fokker in. Price kept one foot firmly on his clutch while he got the engine up to speed, his right hand engaging the throttle and then joining his left on the steering bar.
A second green light appeared on Isaac's HUD.
Price released the clutch and the M-714 roared forward as the dropship rose and peeled away. Everyone bounced when the Fokker hit the soft ground but the vehicle stabilizers and Price's experienced hand kept them going in a straight line, veering slightly to avoid one of the Tau Ceti orange tree bushes. Although they appeared delicate the plants had six meter roots and the tensile strength of steel. Early explorers had learned the hard way you couldn't run over a tree bush with a vehicle.
“Clear!” Isaac yelled into his comm, a little too loudly. He saw Garcia and Dish wince a little. In his own ear Isaac heard the other vehicles respond as clear. The XO sounded a little shaky when she reported in but the telemetry from her vehicle looked fine.
“Seventeen, clear.” The dropship reported in, but Isaac had barely noticed. He was checking his map and thinking of how many Ch'yrrade their first barrage would kill. All the vehicles were moving now, slowing slightly to move into positions Isaac had marked for them.
Annoyed Isaac pressed his jaw to trigger his comm. “Roger Seven...”
The vehicle rocked from a shock wave as the mic squawked and released a wall of feedback. It took Isaac a moment to realize the feedback was screaming. He cut the comm and swiveled in his command chair to look out his periscope. A fireball was trailing away from the vehicle twice the size of the dropship. Isaac could see that the cockpit was still intact but the rest of the ship was an inferno. It spun around a half dozen times before crashing behind a hill. The explosion was impressive.
“Seventeen is gone.” Isaac swiveled and caught up to what was happening with his own crew. He spared only a moment to think about the crew of the downed vehicle. Isaac knew they were all dead; no one could have survived that crash. He pushed all thought of Lieutenant Jordan and her crew out of his head so he could focus on the battle in front of him, but a nagging voice persisted and the sound of their screams still reverberated in his ears.
Price slowed and then brought the Fokker to a halt. Isaac brought up the battle on his board and mapped out targets. So far the drones they had deployed had not been spotted by the Ch'urrade and the platoon was getting good intel. He made sure the XO was kept in the loop so she could offer suggestions if needed. Since this was his fire mission, Isaac would command the barrage even though his XO was right here. She would only step in if she thought she saw something that Isaac didn't. At least officially. Unofficially he was still not sure her motives were purely tactical.
“Okay this is eleven-three. Cruze and Sing, load up incendiaries. Hold for my order. Schmidt I want your first shot on that hill behind where those anti-tank guns are placed.”
“Waas round, eleven-three?”
“Roger that.” Schmidt's formal response sounded ever so slightly sour.
Isaac smiled to himself. The Anti-Personnel Mass Exploder was one of the Terrans' meanest weapons. They had first been used in fact on Soterran radicals who had taken up residence on Mars. The shell created a zone of gravity that lasted only an fraction of a second, but it threw off a person's internal balance, causing nausea and often vomiting. It could disorient a human for over a minute and worked even better on the Ch'yrrade. Schmidt of course preferred that everyone use proper names; he had gone to a private military school in Old German and Isaac had heard they were still a very strict institution. His Norterran comrade hated short hand and colloquialisms.
“Okay three-three, fire!”
Isaac had chosen a target for his own vehicle as well and his 130mm smoothbore railgun fired a vomit round towards a Ch'yrrade bunker. The APME did not have to be accurate; it could spread its effect over fifty meters in any direction even down. Even with the drone data and computers so advanced they could predict wind shift down to microns, there was nothing that could substitute for seeing how an actual show would fly. The railguns could fire over a hundred miles, but accuracy at that range was poor. An M-714 was at its best under thirty kilometers and these targets were less than five, but Isaac still wanted test shots to adjust the platoon's aim. The APME were perfect for that.
Schmidt's round had hit about fifteen meters higher on the hill than had been intended and Isaac had missed by about the same amount. Both shots hit close enough howerver, and Isaac smiled as he wished he could see for himself the fucking nagas writhing on the ground puking up their purple bile. He was tempted to push one drone closer in to the fighting so he could see it or get a video copy for use later, but none of the platoon drones had yet been spotted and it was too early to risk them so foolishly. Isaac knew he had plenty of time to see dead aliens.
“Okay gravity is having less of an effect. Adjust point zero three percent and open fire. Five volleys and then we move to point bravo.”
His platoon did as it commanded and even the XO lobbed a few armor piercing rounds at the Ch'yrrade bunkers. Soon an area of the enemy line two kilometers in diameter was a flaming, puking mess and the Marines were moving forward. All five vehicles relocated and adjusted their drones to try and stay undetected but Isaac could see emission sweeps looking for them.
“I say we have about two minutes, sir.” Ngo was at her station, watching for enemy detectors and monitoring communications across the board, both enemy and friendly. “Also, Marine Two-Two-Seven reported a mass of enemy infantry fleeing our way.”
“Those emissions are getting stronger.” Isaac was plotting a salvo to stay ahead of the advancing Marines. He could see a company of armored troops and vehicles moving down a “road” behind the main Ch'urrade line. “How long do we have until detection?”
Ngo flipped screens and squinted. Isaac was surprised she had passed the latest eye test without some kind of correction. He needed to remind to get her vision fixed when this was all over. Ngo would hate being out of vehicle for a few days but she wouldn't have to squint in the odd lighting.
“Looks like two minutes.”
Isaac bit his lip. He did not see any artillery or air units close enough to be an issue. All the enemy armor was heading away from their position. Right now the only immediate threat seemed to be infantry, but the Ch'yrrade infantry had their share of nasty tricks.
“Okay let's drop two salvos ahead of Marine Two-One-Nine. Then move to point charlie.” That would put his platoon closer to the rest of the troop for mutual support.
Isaac felt the main gun fire and listened to the whine of the loading system putting another round in the pipe, this one an incendiary. It would cover a hundred square meters with an air burning mixture of gels and mundane human spices that burned Ch'yrrade skin and eyes. He was waiting for the second round to fire when he felt something hit the Fokker.
“Infantry on our left!” It was Cherub screaming over the comm and Isaac saw the blip that was her vehicle pull back twenty meters to be closer to the platoon. Suddenly the drones were picking up a mass of Ch'yrrade coming out of a ravine fifty meters away. They had been hidden by foliage thick enough to block even infrared and from their disorganized formation they must have been fleeing.
Isaac took a deep breath before making a decision. Already the assistant drivers in each vehicle were n their fifty caliber machine guns, a three hundred year old design that was still very effective in modern warfare. Schmidt was closest to the enemy and he was on his commander's gun, a 30mm canon that shot small explosive rounds filled with slivers of metal and more of the pepper mix the Ch'yrrade hated so much. Isaac reached for his canon to prime it, but his eyes were focused on the terrain. To one side was a hill and the other a low ridge. The hill put them closer to the other platoons but the ridge was a better defense.
“We're losing drones! We lost one and so did vehicle two!”
“Price, get us to the ridge.” Isaac switched channels as the vehicle began to move. He smoothly aimed his canon and began to fire, joining Garcia who had already cut down a number of Ch'yrrade. “New point delta! Form an echelon on my left up the ridge. Cherub, tell Champion we're open to an LGB if they can support!” The laser guided bombardment was designed to prevent friendly fire.
“Roger, eleven-three. Sit tight.”
“Ngo, get Marine Two-Two on the line.”
Ngo smiled and gave him a thumbs up. “Two-Two on line.”
“Marine Two-Two, this is Charlie eleven-three.”
A deep gravely bass emerged from the comm. “Go ahead, Charlie eleven-three.”
“We're hip deep in snakes over here! Anything you can do.”
“Wait one.” Isaac bit his lip and aimed his canon at a cluster of Ch'yrrade soldiers setting up their own canon. Another round bounced off his armor and he saw a red light on Sing's vehicle. The assistant driver's gun was out.
“Everyone ready for direct fire, directional rounds only.” The weakness of the M-714 was that its big rail gun was far less effective in close combat. Directional rounds shot the force of their explosions away from the firing vehicle instead of in an area like other rounds, but his vehicles did not carry many and they weren't that effective.
“Charlie eleven-three, this is Marine Two-Two/ I have a platoon of jumpers on its way plus a few tanks. Two minutes out.”
“Thanks Two-Two, out.” Isaac was grateful for the help but the Ch'yrrade stragglers had reverted to their training and were organizing in the woods. His computer estimated a hundred casulties but that many more might be waiting out of sight. Three drones were down now. Isaac couldn't afford to lose them.
“Have the drones fall back. Have them drop back three hundred meters.”
“Eleven-three, this is Cherub. Friendly fire incoming. Light 'em up!”
Isaac pressed down the button for his laser and illuminated part of the woods. Each vehicle did the same. Isaac looked out his periscope; her wanted to watch this first hand.
A hundred meters away the air seemed to turn on itself, convulse, and spew a cloud of dark objects. The rest of the troop had fired their own directional munitions and they landed amid the hiding enemy. Although the trees easily withstood the blast, their leaves and some of their branches did not. Suddenly Isaac could see into the wooded area and for a moment he felt a little sick. Ch'yrrade bodies had been blow into the trees and some of them were alive, impaled on the sharp branches. They writhed there and he was both elated and horrified by the sight. So much so he almost forgot to order his own troop to fire.
“Okay, direct fire! Fire!” The vehicle lurched and another salvo of death cleared the woods. Isaac sat back from the periscope not needing to see any more dead aliens.
“Charlie eleven-three, friendlies in bound on your right.”
“Champion is ceasing fire, waiting for our sitrep.” That was Cherub. Isaac had almost forgotten about her. She had gone into echelon with the rest and managed to bring in supporting fire. It was a text book support mission and Isaac felt a little less like he was being babysat. She had actually let him run the engagement.
Isaac got back on his periscope and watched the Marine jump troops land on this right and begin to engage the enemy. Two Marines went down immediately, one by direct fire and the other by the accursed Ch'yrrade flamers. In return though the Marines cleared a portion of the woods untouched by the bombardments in less than two minutes. Isaac used his platoon's smaller weapons to support the Marines who soon had support of their own. In ten minutes time a Marine company was in position pushing the Ch'yrrade survivors back the way they had come.
“Champion, this is eleven-three. Situation is in hand. Looks like we can move on.”
“Roger that. You and Cherub head for the rendevous. We want to start working on the primary objective in less than hour.”
“Roger, eleven-three out.” Isaac switched channels.
“Sing, how is your vehicle?”
“Fine boss. The gun jammed. No damage.”
Isaac smiled. Smiling felt good and more importantly it felt genuine. The first engagement was out of the way and the most damage they had suffered was the loss of four drones. Drones could be replaced.
“Okay people, Champion wants on Point Saracen yesterday. Move out. Cruze you take the point. Sing you take the rear and watch out for Cherub, her driver is a Norterran taxi driver.” Over the comm Isaac heard both Sing and the XO laugh while in the background Russian curses flew fast and furious.
So far Tau Ceti was everything he was hoping it would be.