I think I am going to pick up the pace a little. There are close to 80 chapters in both books. Might as well make it fun. Read on, my friends. Read on.
07:00 hours. Fort Evans, sole Imperium fortress on the Wasteland Frontier.
The klaxons started sounding just as Sergeant Kimel, affectionately known to his soldiers as Snake Eyes due to his penchant for gambling, finished dealing the cards. Already ahead in the game, he threw his hands up in exasperation as the others tried to snatch back their losses. A primate-like private sitting on his bunk placed his head in his hands, praying to the gods of his world. Men and women stopped what they were doing to grab their armor and weapons. This wasn’t a drill. It never was.
“Here we go again,” Private Klausky grumbled as he slid the silver armored shell over his head.
A blue-skinned female thumbed her combat knife and smiled. “Wouldn’t have it any other way. Let’s go. We got a war to fight.”
Snake Eyes was the last to leave the barracks, checking the bunks and piles of equipment to make sure no one left anything vital behind before heading for the door.
Snake took one last look at the ruined card game and cursed, “Squaffa!”
Infantrymen in full battle gear filed from their barracks to the ammunition supply point to draw their ammo. Motor pools came to life with the heavy sounds of engines turning over. Final pre-combat checks were already being made. For the soldiers stationed on this lonely desert outpost, this was an everyday occurrence.
A supersonic pop announced the deployment of a recon drone. It also told them that time was against them. Weapon specialists mounted their quad-barrel ion machine guns atop their armored personnel carriers while the crews climbed into the bellies. Quick prayers were mumbled in tune with magazines being slapped into rifles and knives being thumbed for sharpness. No one was looking forward to what they had to do, but it was their job. Some were here because they had volunteered, others because it was the only safe place for them. Bounty hunters tended to stay away from Imperium units, even with the prices on some of their heads.
Atop their track, the soldiers of Second Platoon watched the growing darkness on the horizon with great interest. Newer troopers shied away from the group, their eyes filled with a certain fear no instructor could ever train them to deal with. Veterans wore blank faces, wondering how many of their comrades weren’t going to be coming home this time or if this would their last mission.
“I got a bad feeling about this,” Klausky said to no one in particular.
Seli T’lain, her blue skin in contrast to the silver armor, slapped the back of his head. “Shut up, already. You got poor Timmons all shook up!”
Klausky turned to the diminutive trooper and shrugged. There was no point in fighting a feeling so strong.
“Listen up!” Snake Eyes shouted. “Looks like this one is for real. Put your party faces on, people. Intel says there’s a recon patrol pinned down in a nearby village by a force of unknown size. The Berserkers are waiting for us. Max out on ammo. This could be a long one.”
“Looks like recon needs to learn how to party right, Sarge,” T’lain laughed. Private Timmons rolled his eyes. He knew he was going to die.
Colonel Artur S. Russell sat waiting in his chair in the command tower. This was the part of the game he hated. He was old for his station, much older than many of his peers. Slightly balding and gaunt, he found the war added more wrinkles than he cared for. He was a thirty-year man who had seen more than his share of frontline combat. Helscape was supposed to be a quiet job to ride out the remaining time in his contract. That had been two years ago. Now, he wondered if he was going to make it home.
A young private looked up and said, “Sir, the drone is reaching the target area now.”
Blurred at first, the image quickly developed into a full-blown disaster. Homes were burning out of control. Scores of mangled bodies littered the ground. Russell sat with a look of disgust. It was no different from any other time. The Berserkers were running through and destroying everything they touched. Russell had seen enough. “Signs of life?”
“Minimal. They never knew what hit them, sir.”
Of course they didn’t. Berserkers never give much warning. “Order the howitzers to open fire. I want the reactionary force out those doors in one. Launch covering air support. We just might be able to catch these bastards in the open and save some lives.”
The ground shook from the force of the cannons firing even before he finished relaying the command. Russell couldn’t help but feel sorrow for anyone caught under the barrage of his twelve 210 mm cannons. An incoming message blinked in from the field, and the private’s mouth dropped open. The ground rumbled again under the weight of the cannon blast. He shifted focus to the security monitors. The green light atop the back gate blinked on. Reinforced titanium doors slide open, and the assault force rolled into the open desert. Twin choppers lifted off close behind, targeting the course laid down by the plumes of artillery smoke.
Russell swore under his breath. “Tell the batteries to continue firing, and have the patrol break contact. Get them out of there.”
The private jumped back, clutching his ear. “We can’t, sir. I just lost contact.”
“How close are the reinforcements?”
“Five minutes. Enemy casualties are minimal. Shall I have them engage?”
A dozen howitzers fired again.
Russell closed his eyes. He was tired of seeing good lives lost for nothing in this damned war. Everything in the command tower seemed to stop, waiting for the word from their leader. What is he waiting for they wondered? The reactionary force was almost there.
Clearing his throat, Russell growled, “Get my people the Hells out of there.”
“Red leader, you are cleared for attack. I say again, deploy at will. Good luck. Command out.”
The lead track pulled to a stop just beyond the outer edge of the village. Snake Eyes searched for survivors through his helmet sensors. He watched the images from the recon drone as they flashed across the visor of his helmet. He’d been on world for almost a year now and was tired beyond imagining. What body armor he wore was stained from long months of combat and the need to lead by example. His troops loved him, and his foes despised him. For Snake, there was no better way of life.
The stench of death was overpowering, even through the helmet air filters. Despite what he was told upon planet fall, you never got used to it. Snake felt his stomach churn as the air support flew overhead. Rockets and bullets ripped mercilessly into the ruins. Fire, smoke and debris ballooned into the air. They’d all seen the same events a hundred times over and the results were never far from the same.
He caught a garbled transmission patching through his helmet. The words were hard to catch and mostly broken, but he knew enough to hear the desperation in their voices. The patrol knew death was stalking them. They had been out in the field for the last thirteen days and were on their way back to the base when they stumbled into the Berserker assault. Most had been killed right at the outset, but the survivors were holding their ground in the remains of the town hall. Tired and bloody, they were down to their last. If reactionary force didn’t reach them soon, there was no way they were going to make it out.
“This is…trol Delta…have encountered formidable resis…casualties are heavy…need help….”
Snake switched his visor to thermal and aimed in the patrol’s general direction. He could make out the three remaining troopers as they fought hard for their lives. It was a desperate scene, and they had to know they were about to die. Above, the air support had halted their firing, content with circling overhead in the hopes of catching the enemy in a mistake. Then, the ground erupted around them.
The men of the patrol did their best to ignore the rain of dirt and debris as they opened fire. The commotion was great enough to keep them from spying the Berserkers, but they could damn sure hear them. The corporal left in charge begged for a check fire so they could find what they were firing at. The scared privates watched the burning town through frightened eyes yet somehow remained calm enough to reload their rifles. As if sensing the futility in their actions, the corporal tried to raise anyone on the radio. A look of disgust crossed his face, and he threw the broken equipment aside. The monsters were on them even before it hit the ground.
Snake watched in horror as his fellow soldiers were pulled under the ground and murdered. A sickness struck him. All three heat signatures were slowly cooling and fading away by the time the assault choppers resumed their barrage. Missiles and ion fire shredded the ruins, killing one Berserker and wounding another. The command to attack barked through the intercom.
The operations sergeant’s voice filled with excitement. “We’ve got them in the open! Bearing seven-oh-four, seventy meters. Hit them hard!”
Each of the quad-barrel machine guns simultaneously opened fire, spitting long streams of death into the burning ruins. Clouds of fresh debris flew up into the sky, and the echo of the guns rumbled like thunder across the open dunes. What was left of the village was efficiently reduced to mere rubble in the span of a minute. Snake was more than certain that, with the village destroyed, the Berserkers would already be on their way back to their hive. He almost let himself relax when one of the pilots broke in announcing that there was one human survivor, a small girl, in the mess, and the Berserkers were circling in to finish her off. Saving just one life from this debacle was a major victory, and the reactionary force wasted no time in forming a new plan.
The command came swiftly. There was no way the soldiers of the Imperium were going to leave a child alone for the Berserkers to murder. “Platoons on line, and hit the center of the town. I want that little girl alive.”
The APCs raced to the village’s edge and spun around, their back ramps dropping before they came to a halt. Streams of sweat-drenched combat troops emerged into the chaos. Squad leaders took a quick assessment for themselves and began forming their ranks. This was the worst situation they could face, but every man, woman and alien knew what was expected. All of them feared for their lives, but it was the fear of their combined deaths that forged them closer and gave them the will to fight. The ground beneath them trembled, mostly from the weight of the tracks and their rumbling engines, the rest from fear of the Berserkers.
Captain Marcus, the force’s commanding officer, was watching his men from the hatch atop the command vehicle. He had hoped the Berserkers would be gone before they got there, but things never went right when you came under the gun. The battlefield fell eerily silent. Why aren’t they attacking? Marcus asked himself. His answer came from the lonely sounds of cackling fires. Somewhere in that mess waited the Berserker hunter party. Sensations only combat soldiers often had were creeping back into him. He knew it was about to hit the fan any second. Fifty-two nervous soldiers crouched down and began scoping the rubble with their rifles, desperately trying to get a positive on the little girl. The sand and dust blowing around was making it near impossible for them to see past the reach of their arms, much less fifty meters. Sergeants barked for their people to group together in tight circles and protect each other’s backs until they could call off the choppers. The Berserkers instantly recognized the opportunity. They gathered in one mass and swelled into the hapless force, nearly breaking them.
A flamethrower operator spun around at the sound of something heavy approaching and was surprised when a set of claws ripped into the tank on his back. The explosion reduced both of them, as well as the woman standing closest to them, to ashes. They were the lucky ones. A trooper stepped towards them to see if there was anything he could do and had his head crushed by a massive fist. Ion fire lit up the darkening sky.
Men and women screamed out in death, and explosions began rocking the ground again in earnest. Marcus watched in dismay as his command was starting to be decimated. He knew there was only one thing to do to save even a fraction of them. As much as it pained him to do so, he ordered his vehicles into the fray. Gunners were already locked on target and firing away. A pair of monsters running along the burnt wall of a chapel was blown apart. The Berserker leader saw this new threat and howled in challenge.
The ground pounders, using this to their advantage, kept up their rate of fire and ran back to form a tight wedge. Moans from the wounded and dying tore at them, but all knew they’d suffer the same fate if they attempted a rescue. Sergeants contemplated a bold counter attack the tighter their defense became. Driven by anxiety, a fresh faced private made that decision for them. He lurched up and threw his last thermal grenade and laid down a suppressing fire. Moving as one, the rest of the platoon did the same. Ion cannons reduced the remaining superstructures to ashes.
A mass of Berserkers rose up from the ground right when the majority of troopers had to stop to reload. The closest troopers began falling as the monsters tore into them. Pain and fury raged on, and the body count rose quickly. It didn’t take long before the line collapsed and the Berserkers drove inward.
“Squaffa!” Marcus cursed. “All squad leaders get me a bead on that civie, and get her out of there. I want every last one of you onboard these tracks in five.”
He raised his own rifle and laid down a stream of fire into the head of a monster who had ducked low to remove both legs from an unsuspecting trooper. The Berserker’s head was ripping apart as he rammed a spear through the trooper’s chest. Marcus smiled to himself only to cry out when friendly fire accidentally fragged two of his own. Another fell, her body going one way and her head the other. Marcus had never felt so helpless in his entire life. He closed his eyes when a bearish Berserker leapt up and came crashing down next to one of his sergeants. This battle was hopeless.
Snake Eyes saw what was happening and knew that it was now or never if they were going to have any chance of winning through. He caught parts of Marcus’s message and snarled. “Piss on the civilian; we’ve got enough problems of our own.” His people were going down everywhere he looked. Having had enough, Snake Eyes stumbled to his feet and began barking orders. This also made him a prime target. Instincts told him to duck just before the Berserker behind him swung at his head. Snake’s combat reactions took control, and he spun in the blink of an eye, shoving a thermal grenade down the monster’s throat. He followed up by dropping down and kicking the beast in the chest. The Berserker stumbled back and exploded. A cheer went up from the surrounding troopers. Not only did it remind them that the enemy was not invincible, it also restored a measure of hope. The surviving troopers rallied around Snake, because he represented a way out, a chance to survive. He acted out of pure instinct.
Snake Eyes dropped his helmet once the optics went out and saw what was going on for the first time with his own eyes. He was surrounded by only fifteen troopers, and he was the only sergeant. Command by default, he scowled.
“Form up on me. I want a tight wedge. We’re going to punch our way through to that civie and get the Hells out of here,” he shouted above the roar of the fires.
“Looks like your party is over, Seli,” Klausky shouted.
Blood trickled down the left side of her face. Her eyes gleamed with rage. “It wasn’t my kind of party anyway.”
A grenade exploded nearby, throwing Timmons off his feet. Blood and dirt flew up from him. Klausky went to his side and fought to keep from vomiting. Timmons’ ruined body lay twisted in a small crater. His spine was broken in three places, and there was a hole in his stomach the size of a large rock. Seli helped remove his helmet, avoiding the blood. “Momma,” he gurgled, choking on the blood. “Momma, it hurts so bad. It hurts so….”
Seli T’lain looked up and yelled, “Medic!” She and Klausky went back to the fight. They’d done all they could. The rest of the squad spotted the little girl, a mess of tangled hair and torn clothes, hiding beneath a pile of rubble. Snake Eyes and Xill raced under cover and pulled the crying girl out. That’s when he noticed that the Berserkers weren’t attacking. Snake Eyes looked around in confusion. What were they doing? He and his troops were out in the open and about to rescue another, and still they didn’t move. He followed the path of their hungry looks and frowned. It was almost as if they were…
“Sergeant, here comes the Captain! We‘re saved!” a wounded private called.
The first track hit the edge of the village and opened fire. The bellow of the heavy cannon inspired fear in the Berserkers, and some danced to safety. It didn’t sit right with Snake. Berserkers never retreated from a fight. Primal instinct keep them engaged until the battle was over. The Berserkers weren’t running away at all. They were circling around to hit the track from the blind side. This reversed the role of the ground troops from rescued to rescuer. The only problem Snake Eyes could see in his plan was that it was probably going to get them all killed.
Pulling them all as close as he could, he said, “Listen up. Drop your packs, and start collecting ammo from the dead. We strike back when they engage the armor. Nobody stops until they reach the vehicles. Got it?”
They nodded, scared and nearly broken. He gave Xill a sharp look and whispered, “Don’t you dare let go of her.”
The Crendaphidian blinked his middle eye and nodded. “On my honor.”
Snake didn’t need to see their faces to know that they were all scared to death. Even after a decade of service, he was still the same way. Smoke was getting thick now that the fires were starting to die away. Snake’s throat was going dry, raw from the acrid smoke and fumes riding the air, and his palms began to sweat. This is it, he thought, the one defining moment in a soldier’s career that moved him into hero status.
The APC fired again, rocking back from the recoil. Residue and powder choked those close by.
“Ready!” Snake Eyes warned. “Grenades!”
A score of thermal explosives landed at the Berserker’s feet and melted everything for ten meters. Stunned, the monsters grasped their wounds and turned to face this forgotten threat.
“Attack!” Snake Eyes roared.
The remaining soldiers and one numbed and frightened little girl charged into the wall of doom.
The six men Marcus deployed to guard the command vehicle weren’t given the time to react to the brutal Berserker assault. The main gunner was all but useless, incapable of firing without hitting his own men. Marcus drew his sidearm and got off one quick shot before a flying monster took his head at the neck. Arterial blood erupted and stained his armor as the body dropped down into the hatch. A spear killed his gunner almost simultaneously. Only one of the six soldiers made it to another track.
Berserkers swarmed over the vehicle, killing the rest of the crew and taking control. The command track was lifted off of one side by a sharp explosion from two more entering the fight. It slammed back down with the Berserker leader training the main gun on the closest vehicle. Both choppers hovered low and emptied their rocket pods into the track and the surrounding area. The wolfish leader raised the quad barrels and left off one long burst before being shredded. The chopper and APC were hit at the same time, and the shock waves tossed everyone to the ground. The burning chopper howled a dying groan as it crashed into the APC.
Snake Eyes and Xill with the frightened girl clinging to him stared in disbelief at the level of the Berserkers’ ability to adapt. They were fast running out of time.
“Everyone to the tracks!”
Ten of them remained to hear him.
An anxious crew chief pleaded for the surviving ground forces to hurry. Snake Eyes had them gathered close, and they were battling their way closer to the APC’s lowered ramp. Air support tripled with the arrival of the reinforcements, sending a fresh round of missiles into the ground around them. Xill went first, whispering soothing words to the girl. She was safe now, and that was all that mattered. Snake watched them go by and idly wondered if the Berserkers had already left, for the wounded ones were the only ones left to fight them. He waited to until Klausky and another trooper dragged Timmons’ body up the ramp to board. The last thing he saw was the artillery striking the center of the village. Then the back ramp closed, and he was able to take a deep breath for the first time since the firefight began.