Authors: Jamie McFarlane
Some say that demolition is a science. Most of my squad would find this statement laughable. More accurately: precision demolition is a science. To that statement, we’d all nod our heads sagely and agree. I wish I’d had time to stand around and watch the fireworks, but the best time to go Charlie Mike (continue mission/get moving) is when big shiny objects are blowing up.
“Go! Go! Go!” Methane’s voice cut in over the squad communication channel. I’d provided a rendezvous location and was currently sprinting toward it. My route would take me next to the building into which we’d just fired a crap-ton of explosives. I was carefully watching for surviving squishies who might gain line of sight on us. Turns out, I didn’t have anything to be concerned about. Whoever was inside seemed to be busy dealing with the disintegration of the building. With a few horrific groans and screeches, the detritus-spewing structure slid over a few yards and sank into itself. I later learned that we’d overdone the explosives by a factor of two or three. Meh! Why have ‘em if you can’t use ‘em, was always my theory on that sort of thing.
Mulehog and Methane had gotten out of the courtyard where they’d previously been pinned down, dragging Patch with them. I was pleased by the lack of return fire, but we were in a hot-zone and needed to make sure we cleared the area quickly. At some point, the battlefield lines had changed. Up to this point the city had been a neutral zone but that had obviously changed recently. I suspected this was news to Cent-Comm (Central Command), otherwise we wouldn’t have been given the go-ahead to fly over. None of that crap meant anything at this point. Three of my men were alive and I had a ten-minute-old location on our missing pilot, Lieutenant Irawan. Everything else was noise.
Command, give me an update on Lieutenant Irawan
“Sergeant, you are ordered to make your way directly to the extraction zone. Lieutenant Irawan is down, and we can’t afford any more collateral damage.” The Lieutenant’s reedy voice grated on my last nerve. Man, I disliked this guy. I actually hadn’t met my new Lieutenant yet, as we’d just been reassigned. I couldn’t believe he’d just compared damage to a building and a Marine’s life, as if they had the same priority.
“I have no confirmation on Irawan’s status. Frak! She’s in a flight suit, her comm gear could just be busted. We need eyes on her.”
“You have your orders, Sergeant.”
“Sarge, I think Patch is going into shock.” Methane’s voice cut in on my conversation.
The pavement in front of us exploded, throwing us to the side. I adjusted easily since I wasn’t carrying anyone, but Methane and Mulehog couldn’t, with Patch between them. Frak! How many things could I deal with at a single time? Time to simplify.
. My AI immediately switched my comm to squad-only and pulled up an overlay view of the immediate area. We’d run into a nest of bogies. My HUD projected a contrail of the rocket’s path from a nearby building.
“Return fire!” I jammed my foot into the pavement and used the momentum to spin me around. I brought the A3 up to my shoulder in one fluid movement and switched to full auto. There is no better way to limit the effectiveness of someone who is firing at you than to send a bunch of rounds back their way.
“Frak! Outta frags,” Methane complained as he faced the target. It wasn’t completely necessary as I could see his ammo level, but I was busy and he wanted to give me a warning.
If you’ve ever heard the sound of a SAW machine gun firing, you won’t forget it. Mulehog’s load-out was different than ours in that he carried the much heavier X203, and the requisite additional ordinance load. Like a sewing machine from hell, he opened up on the side of the building which I’d marked as our primary. I had to mute his audio feed. The man really didn’t have the ability to limit his verbal stream of expletives and manic cackling. God help the dumbass who’d fired on us.
With Methane and Mulehog up, I worked on the situation. We were five kilometers from the extraction zone and could cover that distance in twenty minutes since I'd be carrying Patch. I needed Methane and Mulehog available to return fire. We’d been lucky only one grenade had been fired and that it hadn’t hit any closer.
I found Patch lying face down on the pavement, so I stowed my A3 and picked him up. The armor suit was actually designed so we could mount a soldier on our back. It’s quite a load, but for twenty minutes I could endure it. Lieutenant Irawan would have to wait. I had to focus on what I knew: Patch was going down if he didn’t get help.
I looked through Methane’s visor at the now-ruined building. There were no signs of the bogies who’d ambushed us. “Cease fire.” I only had to say it twice as Mulehog’s blood lust had fortunately abated. “On my six, we’re Charlie Mike.” With a younger group I might have worried someone in the squad could miss the command, but not these two guys. Either one could have run the squad just as well as or better than I. Hell, they’d already anticipated our next move.
Now, I might have overstated the ease with which you can run carrying another Marine on your back. It’s one of those things we train for, hoping it’ll never come up. My lungs were ready to explode by the time we were ten minutes out. We’d seen a few signs of squishies, but apparently these were new-and-improved squishies who were able to recognize an armor signature. They didn’t challenge us.
It’s hard to describe the joy that fills a soldier’s heart when they first catch sight of a transport in hostile territory. When we reached the open doors, Mulehog and Methane pulled the unconscious Patch off my back. It was an incredible relief. We quickly boarded the ship, dragging Patch through the door as the transport lifted off.
The transport was a small drop ship with armor rails inside. We pushed Patch up into position on the rail and locked him in. The ship’s AI immediately started diagnostic and supportive care.
“Snap in, men,” I ordered.
“What about the pilot?” Methane asked.
“Cent-Comm says she’s down,” I answered. I had to be careful. Methane could sniff out a lie at a hundred meters. I helped push him up on the rail as he was a little shorter than Mulehog, who only had to raise up on his toes to get snapped in.
“You aren’t buying that shit, are you?” Methane asked.
I pulled up the jump-master on my HUD and activated the lock, ensuring my men couldn’t self-release without my command or through pilot override.
“Nope.” I moved over to Patch and removed his ordinance load-out and snapped it on top of my own, transferring the contents. It brought me back to about half a load. It would have to do, as I didn’t want anyone getting wise to my plan. The transport was already lifting off, but the doors were still open.
“Sergeant, you’re going to need to get strapped in there,” the corporal who was manning the door gun instructed.
“Frak you, Pete!” Methane knew what was coming.
I walked up next to the perplexed gunner and looked down. It was only two hundred meters. “Sorry corporal, nothing you could have done about it. We don’t leave people behind.” I jumped from the transport and plummeted toward the ground.
The way I figured it, I’d followed orders and gotten my wounded to the extraction zone. The remains of my squad were safe, Patch would no-doubt get fixed up. I couldn’t give a rat’s ass what my CO thought about weighing damage to the city vs. the unknown status of Irawan. I wouldn’t be able to live with it if I found out she’d been alive and I’d bugged out.
The great thing about the transport ship taking off, was that anyone tracking us would think we were gone. I’d directed my suit to make the jump with a minimal signature. I’d land hard, but well within the range of my skeleton’s capacity to survive without broken bones. I still dreaded contact with the ground, as I well knew what that was going to feel like.
Give me a direct route to Irawan’s last known location
I took off at an easy jog, choosing stealth over speed. I’d move at about half speed but with about a tenth of the noise signature. It was refreshing to not have Patch on my back and my legs settled into the comfortable rhythm.
The transport had gone down in an industrial part of the city, just a couple of kilometers out of the downtown district. I bounded up on top of a low, one-story building and crept up to the edge of the roof, surprised to see no Skampers near the downed craft.
The transport was completely wrecked and lay crumpled next to a building half a click from my position. The cockpit was completely intact and my heart rate quickened. It was very possible that the Lieutenant had survived the crash. I couldn’t imagine what it must have taken to get the ruined vehicle onto the ground.
I was suspicious about the lack of Skamper activity, but there was nothing that I could do about it. Irawan’s last location perfectly lined up with that cockpit. I had to get a look at it. If it was a trap, I’d be given a clear path to the transport and they’d spring the trap when I was inside. If it wasn’t a trap then I needed to get in and out as quickly as possible. I couldn’t see any scenario where trying to sneak into the area made any sense. Then again, I’m an armored Marine and the idea of stealth is a little fuzzy to me.
I jumped from the roof down to ground level and spun the intensity of my sensors up to full power. The transport was rolled onto its side. The bottom was extremely well armored and I wasn’t going to get through it, so I jumped up onto the closed cockpit door and snapped off an articulated pry bar that is built into my calf armor. It would give me a meter of nearly impervious nano-crystalized steel that I could use to work the door open. One end had a wide flat surface, the other a point. I jammed the point into the locking mechanism and pulled with all the strength the suit provided.
The door peeled back like the skin of a banana and I jumped down into the narrow hallway behind the chairs. The transport’s cockpit had room for two pilots, although HQ could rarely afford to send two anymore.
Both chairs were empty and I saw what I hadn’t seen from the outside. The lower, armored-glass panel, had been popped outward and lay on the ground. She was alive. I knew it.
Proximity warnings blared in my ears. Frak.
My HUD showed several dozen red blips surrounding the transport ship.
Trap it is
, I thought.
Incoming communication from enemy command
. My AI would normally have screened the message, but it had changed protocol based on my predicament.
“Release your armor and step free of the craft. Will you comply?” a heavily accented woman’s voice insisted. It was a standard requirement when capturing an armored Marine. I’d captured a few Marines in my time and understood the desire to limit additional casualties. I had to make a decision. Go out in a blaze of glory or get captured. I’m sure Lieutenant SITA would prefer the former, but I was only twenty-five years old and had no desire to punch that final ticket.
“I’ll comply,” I replied. SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) was to brick the ship and then the suit. I didn’t think that was necessary with the transport ship, it had flown its last mission. My armor, however, was another thing. It wouldn’t do to have some Skamper killing men with my suit. I set the self-destruct, which would fry all of the components and effectively turn it into a brick.
I directed the armor suit to release and wriggled up and out of it. I was wearing a suit-liner in bad need of a cleaning and it wasn’t completely lost on me how bad I smelled. Without HUD, AI or communications, I pulled myself up and out of the side of the transport ship. I stood figuratively naked in front of an enemy host.
“You guys sure know how to throw a party,” I said with humor I didn’t feel.
“Secure the prisoner,” the squishy Lieutenant directed. She was wearing the gray and maroon officer’s uniform of the Skampers. I suppose it wasn’t fair for me to think of her as squishy anymore. I was just as squishy, something they were about to prove to me.
I didn’t take it personally when the soldiers fell on me more heavily than was required. My team had taken quite a toll on their forces tonight. I felt grateful that at some point one of them was magnanimous enough to knock me unconscious. After that they had a simple decision to make: kill me or keep me alive. It wasn’t that I didn’t care, it was just beyond my ability to control and the adrenaline of combat had long since faded.
When I woke up in a cell with a handful of med-patches covering my body, I took it as a good sign. I estimated I’d been down for no more than an hour. My body was plenty sore and the patches hadn’t had much time to do their work. An inventory of my limbs revealed no broken bones, save for a few cracked ribs. My head hurt like the dickens, which wasn’t surprising after having been knocked unconscious. All in all, I’d made the transition from enemy combatant to prisoner quite successfully.
My cot was in a temporary cell which led me to believe they hadn’t been expecting visitors. I was probably in a temporary command center, which meant someone wanted to talk to me. As if I knew anything. Surprisingly, I was only bound by my wrists.
When the door opened, the same squishy Lieutenant who’d captured me walked through the door. It was a bold move since I could have easily jumped her. It was probably some elaborate ruse to put me off balance. I grunted a laugh. It was working.
“Sergeant Hoffen, you’ve had an interesting evening, I’m Lieutenant Peralta,” the woman was older than me, but not by much. Her black hair was cut short, like most female officers I knew, and her skin tone was the light brown of most of the Skampers.
“Yeah. It’s been lovely,” I said.
“The damage you and your team did to the city of Manaus is considerable. What was your mission?”
“Just trying to get home, ma’am,” I replied.
“You knocked down a thirty story building and took out a company of the army of Soledad de Charus. Explain to me how you were trying to get home? What was your mission, soldier?”
“Seriously? You Skampers knock down a transport ship full of armored Marines and then complain about damage to your city? We had no mission. We were headed back to the FOB to pick up some maggots and take a couple of days of R&R, hopefully not in that order.”
She stepped up and slapped me with an open hand. “You’ll keep a civil tongue while addressing an officer,” she reprimanded. I’d forgotten that Skamper was a derogatory term that loosely implied these guys were still tribesmen from the jungle.
“Yeah. My bad,” I replied.
“What was on the ship that you wanted to recover?”
It was a common interrogation technique. She’d ask me a bunch of different questions and cover a lot of bases. I could expect to hear these questions a few hundred times over the next several hours, most likely with little to no sleep. She’d keep moving the questions around, chipping away at me until I gave up something useful. The fact was, I didn’t know anything useful. War hadn’t changed a lot over the last dozen centuries. We poked each other with pointy sticks until someone went home.
The city of Manaus was at the center of a long running war over mineral resources in the Amazonian basin. My team and I were ultimately just the pointy end of the stick. Someone else had all of the brilliant ideas and it’s not like any of that brilliance ever trickled down to me. My guess was she already knew that - otherwise a more sophisticated interview team would be handling me.
“Nothing on the ship that I could see,” I said.
“Where’s the pilot?” she asked.
I tried to hide my interest in her question but it took me off guard. She picked up on it. We were both crappy at this game. She’d told me something valuable and I’d turned right around and told her something even more valuable. Now she knew that we hadn’t recovered Lieutenant Irawan. I was more than a little pleased that they hadn’t either.
The Lieutenant suppressed a smile and stood to leave. No doubt she was going to send out a search team for Irawan. Peralta fired off a series of orders in a language I didn’t understand. It sounded like Spanish, but in this region it could be any number of different dialects. My AI would have translated, but I wasn’t wearing any intelligent clothing. Just before the door closed, I caught a glance of the connecting room. It wasn't a normal military base. I was being held in an office building.