Authors: Michael G. Thomas
“What the hell are they doing?” asked Tamara.
From the massive towers that studded the walls came massive enfilade fire. Volley after volley of fully automatic pulse gunfire shredded the attackers, sending the survivors running for cover or into retreat.
“This is a disaster!” snapped Cyrus to Meno.
He looked accusingly at the Terran, but he seemed more interested in watching the survivors retreating through their frontlines. He tapped the communications node in his helmet as though he was suffering some kind of malfunction.
“This is Dukas Meno. I am not asking for your advice. I am giving you an order!”
There was a short pause, and he turned and spoke to one of his waiting retainers. The soldier was dressed like all the Thessalian spatharii in his Black Legion uniform but had regional armour and equipment. The soldier nodded and went to speak with his comrades. Meno spotted Cyrus looking at him.
“The Mulacs, they are refusing to provide close support to the forward units.”
Cyrus brought his fist down on the upturned metal box being used to rest the mapping equipment on. He started to speak, but a serious of loud explosions behind their positions forced them to drop down to cover. It didn’t last long, and as they returned to their positions, Meno stepped to the computer and examined the aerial view. Trails from a dozen missile turrets rushed out and struck groups huddling behind whatever cover they could find. Each impact added more dead Medes to the list of casualties. Meno watched with a self-satisfied smug as his own men waited near the walls with their powerful mobile shield generators. At the same time, hundreds of automatons streamed past them, many of whom had thrown away their weapons and were running for their lives. The dull staccato crackle of pulse file from behind their own positions served as an apt reminder as to the dangers of retreat. Meno had seen firsthand how the Median officers had set up a series of command posts at fixed intervals. Each had a number of pulse-cannon positioned to repel a possible enemy counterattack or to discourage cowardice.
“I see your own men didn’t join the attack?” accused Ariaeus.
Meno looked at the debacle and tilted his head slightly. The sound of the Medes killing their own men for retreating reminded him of how little respect he had for them. Even more deplorable, these soldiers were poorly prepared for the ardours of siege warfare. Their armour was hopelessly weak, and they lacked anything more powerful than pulse cannons to bring down the walls. The look on his face was nothing but contemptuous for either of the Median commanders. To Ariaeus it could have been confusion, but Cyrus knew immediately he was being disrespectful towards his second-in-command.
“Meno, answer him!”
The Terran Dukas looked at Cyrus and considered his options.
This idle, pompous coward waits behind his own men.
The battle was not going well, and of those troops in position, he could count less than a thousand truly capable of bringing the first assault of the battle to a successful conclusion. Even more deplorable though, there was no clear leader on the ground. In theory, Cyrus was in charge, yet none of the Legion or the allied factions from the length and breadth of the Empire would take the noble seriously on his own. Clearchus was the only man in the Legion truly capable of keeping the disparate factions in order. Of them all, he was the strongest and the most experienced in the command of large land battles.
Clearchus, you are my enemy, but today we all need you to come down from your damned ship and do the job you were paid for!
Cyrus spotted his expression and for the briefest of moments, he felt nervous at the sight of a fully armoured Terran Dukas stood so close.
“Noble Ariaeus. My numbers are limited. Most of my heavy infantry are still making their way here. I will not waste them when you have warriors purely capable of this task,” he explained, lifting his hands towards the walls.
“This task? You mean the task of dying in great numbers in front and behind these walls?” sneered Ariaeus.
“Partially, though they do seem inherently capable of this role. No, there is more than this. They are fulfilling a vital role that only foot soldiers can achieve. I have learned their capabilities, numbers and strong points, all without losing any of my experienced infantry. When the time comes, you will be thankful for their armour and skills. Now I can place my armoured units into the safest and most tactically sound position along this wall. We will start the primary attack shortly.”
Ariaeus looked less than impressed at these words. He pointed to the walls. As the commander of Cyrus’ ground forces, he was responsible for the largest contingent of warriors, larger than the entire Black Legion.
“What about Xenias and his men? Now they are trapped inside the Citadel and without help. Will you let a fellow Dukas die for the sake of a few minutes?”
Meno snorted. “Xenias is no fool.”
He then stepped out from the cover and looked up to the walls. The Medes officers stayed safely in cover and watched as a dozen pulse rounds struck around him. Two struck his torso and simply bounced off, striking the debris around him. He pointed to a series of five towers off to the left, their tops just showing from behind the high walls.
“Have you not heard? The survivors of his unit have taken control of the third tower, up there!”
“But that’s inside the wall!” complained Ariaeus.
Cyrus took a step forward and pulled the pistol Clearchus had given him from his belt. His face was resolute, and it was clear that he intended to do something. Ariaeus spotted him moving closer to the Terran commander. He was still standing out and in plain sight of the enemy. But before he spoke, his commander stopped and listened to something, presumably on his intercom unit. He looked at Ariaeus, shook his head and spoke angrily. After he’d finished, he moved closer to Meno and Ariaeus.
“Then we had better hope Clearchus and the rest of the Legion gets here soon. I’ve just been sent the code signal from Valediction. They are in orbit and dropping gunships and dromons at this very moment. Herakles is doing the same, and a dozen heavy transports are bringing in the rest of the ground troops. It still may not be soon enough. We have to secure these walls and relieve Xenias’ troops. Quickly, because if we’re stuck out here, in less than an hour, we’ll be dead.”
Meno looked first to Ariaeus and then back to Cyrus.
He turned away and moved to the tactical mapping units balanced precariously on the metal crates and containers. The aerial view showed the Citadel, as well as the ruined city around it. To the right were a dozen landing zones; each marked in green. He then moved his hand to the top of the map.
“Here. It isn’t just Clearchus and the Legion that have arrived. I’ve just received word from our scouts to the North that a secondary force has been detected three kilometres out from the city limits. They are advancing at speed and making for this point.”
Ariaeus spoke quickly, but Cyrus lifted his hand and simply said. “Terran.”
The Median noble looked unimpressed at being forced to resume speaking in the Dukas’ native tongue, but he had no choice.
“Whose secondary force? Are they with us or against us?”
Cyrus shrugged and stabbed his hand directly between the Citadel and the landing zones.
“The scouts’ last message was that the vehicles were carrying the battle standards of Tissaphernes. Their estimates were eight thousand or more infantry and upwards of a hundred armoured vehicles. There is more though. Before they were attacked, the scouts said they’d also identified massive machines from the robotic domains. I suggest that he means to cut us off from our reserves. If he succeeds, then we’ll be the ones trapped here, and I promise you, my brother will want his revenge!”
Cyrus rubbed his chin as he considered his options.
“Machines from the robotic domains, is he insane?” muttered Ariaeus.
Meno watched the display but only for a moment. He contacted his own forces. He did not so much look concerned, more suspicious of having his forces facing unexpected enemies. As he spoke, a group of automatons rushed past them, running as fast as their bruised and bloodied legs would carry them. A second group also ran past but slowed and finally stopped upon seeing their leader out on the frontline. They seemed surprised and also a little relived to see Cyrus out reviewing the enemy battle line rather than running back as quickly as possible.
Cyrus noticed them stop but paid them no attention. A small group of automatons was useful but nothing compared to the battle he needed to manage. He looked to Meno, but he was still busy coordinating his newly arrived ground forces. He spotted Cyrus and stopped speaking for a moment. Cyrus turned his head and look up to the wall.
“Where is the nearest breach?”
Meno looked to the wall and quickly identified the position of his own forces and heavy equipment. The tactical display showed where impacts had occurred, as well as estimates to the damage so far inflicted on the old and surprisingly tough set of fortifications. One area in particular caught his eye. He raised his hand and pointed to a section two hundred metres further along the wall.
“That is the weakest. A few more shots, and we’ll have a gap big enough to get an APC through. Why?”
“Good. Bring it down and bring your forces forward. On my command, we are taking that wall and pushing through to Xenias. If we delay any longer, the reinforcements of Tissaphernes could be our undoing. Understood?”
Meno considered his options for a moment. He would much rather wait for Clearchus. The Laconian commander and his vast numbers of heavy infantry and specialised equipment were their greatest chance of victory, but there were benefits to winning this battle without his help. If he was smart and managed to play the significant part in the battle, he might be rewarded to a degree even greater than that of his rivals, the Laconians. The possibility of coming out on top of his hated rival was the perfect motivation.
“My Lord,” he said grandly and with a hint of a bow, “in five minutes, I will have a thousand spatharii and over a thousand stratiotes ready for the attack. That is more than enough when combined with your own warriors to finish this battle. We will swarm through the breach like water through a broken dam.”
Cyrus allowed himself a slight smile at his change of heart. He was all too familiar with the rivalries and disagreements between the different Terran factions. He’d explained this to many of his compatriots in the past, and in his opinion, it was the source of both their strength and their weakness. The idea, that one day the Terrans might work together sent shivers through his body, even to this day. He looked back at his frontline and the hundreds, no, thousands of warriors, each waiting for his fateful order to commence another advance to the walls.
Perhaps we might turn this around, after all.
“Start the bombardment. I want that wall brought down!”
Meno nodded and connected directly with the commander of the assault guns. He’d brought four with him, and they were already moving into position closer to the wall. Though classed as assault guns, this was not entirely accurate. They were actually fitted with quadruple howitzer barrels and designed to fire rocket propelled siege bombs. It was a peculiar technology, almost primitive, but perfect for destroying buildings, structures and thick masonry. But even better, he’d just received information that his air support had arrived. A fusillade of small arms fire pattered about the vehicles as they pushed inch-by-inch over the rubble and closer to the walls. The defenders must have realised the inherent danger presented by this specialist equipment, and as each second passed by, so did the increase in gunfire.
Back inside the ruins of the city street, the small group of Terrans and the soldiers of Xenias watched the columns of smoke rising from the Citadel. Although only recently arrived, no one seemed particularly keen to rush out from their rather basic cover and directly into the line of fire of the walls.
“This is insanity,” said one of the stratiotes. Xenophon looked at the young man but didn’t recognise him from his previous time in the unit. His tunic and armour were surprisingly clean, and his weapon looked like it was fresh out of its case.
“You’re not wrong, kid,” laughed Glaucon.
Xenophon’s friend lay down in the rubble and rested his pulse cannon on a mount of shattered bricks. The weapon was a powerful piece of equipment and generally only used in fixed positions. Glaucon seemed to be almost one with it and had made use of the oversized weapon in multiple engagements. He took careful aim to the top of the wall and fired a two second long burst. The noise at this distance was painful to hear, and the muzzle flash was bright and vivid. Two soldiers were cut apart from the wall and part of the masonry clipped off and dropped down to the ground outside the wall.