Authors: John G. Hemry
Tags: #Science Fiction
Stark's original intention had been to take a position on top of the ridge, giving him maximum visibility to help rally his panicked soldiers. But some instinct held him here, on the reverse slope, while he watched the symbols crawl his way from both directions. Off to his right, where the widest open gap lay, a field of jagged rocks littered the terrain. On his left, a smaller gap beckoned, but off the direct line-of-retreat of Stark's fleeing troops.
On Earth they'd run right or left, but here they'll go up the ridge. Easier in the low gravity. So we've got to hold the top of that ridge. Right? Wrong. That won't work. Not enough time to dig in and anyone on that ridge will be exposed to fire by every enemy soldier coming this way. Besides, I've got to stop all the apes running away, and my reserve battalion won't get here before some of them do. Just me and a lot of scared-witless soldiers. A whole lot of scared soldiers. Back here, I can handle them as they start coming over that ridge, one or two at a time. Yeah, much better odds. But how to stop them? A rousing speech?
Stark snorted in self-derision.
I wouldn't know how. So what do I know?
I know how to tell people what to do.
A figure came panting over the crest of the ridge, movements jerky with fatigue and panic. Stark tagged the soldier's symbol, coming up with an instant ID. "Corporal Watkins!" The figure spasmed in surprise, staring toward where Stark stood. "Take up position on the right." Stark pointed, armored finger designating the spot.
"Watkins, get your butt in position! Now!" The figure finally moved, instinctively obedient though still uncertain. Two more soldiers came scrambling into Stark's view. "Jurgen! Rodriguez! On the left! By that rock."
"There's an enemy army right behind us! We can't stop them!"
"You haven't tried! Get into position."
"Who the hell are—? Stark? You're Stark?"
"Yeah, I'm Stark. You gonna stand here with me or leave me to fight alone?"
The two privates began moving, descending the reverse slope to where Stark had pointed them. Another soldier came right behind them. "Steinberg! Get over there with Corporal Watkins!"
"Shut up and get over there!" The words had barely cleared Stark's throat when two more soldiers came into sight, but both of these paused on the top of the ridge, facing back toward the enemy. "Sergeant Ulithi, Sergeant Van Buskirk! Get down here!"
"We're going to stop them," Van Buskirk insisted, standing steady even though his voice shook with anger and frustration.
"Damn straight," Stark approved. "But do it down here. One soldier at a time." He felt something to his left, where Jurgen and Rodriguez waited by their rock, an unsteadiness, as if the soldiers were reeds wavering in a strong wind. "Sergeant Ulithi, get down on my left and hold those soldiers and any others I send you. Van Buskirk, same on the right with Corporal Watkins."
"Roger. They won't go nowhere, Stark." The Sergeants moved, and Stark's small line steadied a little more. More American soldiers now, coming in larger numbers. Too many to hail individually. Stark grabbed the ones he could, building up concentrations of troops who had stopped running. Gradually, they stiffened, out of sight of the enemy, surrounded by friends, with increasing numbers of Sergeants giving them alternate doses of encouragement and browbeating. Gradually, they became an armed force again instead of a beaten mob.
"Commander Stark?" Another voice, breathing heavily, from a symbol approaching from the rear. "Fourth Battalion. Sergeant Milheim commanding."
Stark broke his concentration on the situation to his front, switching scans and juggling responsibilities frantically. "Nice to see you. You got the positions in your Tacs?"
"Yeah, but I don't like them."
"What—?" Stark bit off the word, remembering Vic's anger at being ordered around like a new recruit.
He's not some brainless, green private. He's a smart, senior enlisted. I'm not perfect, and I don't have time to think everything through the way a guy with less responsibilities can. I damn well better remember all that.
"What's the problem?" he continued, his tone clipped but respectful.
Milheim pointed along the ridge. "You want my battalion deployed in thirds. One third here in the center, and the others to the left and right. I want to put most of my people right here in the middle and only a company on each flank."
Stark considered the idea, frowning at the ridge before him. "Why?"
"Because the enemy ain't gonna come through that rough terrain on the left," Milheim argued. "It'd slow them too much, even in low-G. And the opening on the right is too far off their line of advance. No, they're gonna come charging right up the middle here, and I want enough force on hand to knock them back on their butts."
"Kinda risky if you're wrong," Stark observed. "But it makes sense." And it felt right on that level where his instincts operated. "Okay. Do it, Milheim. Update your battalion's Tacs and get them deployed like you want. Do it fast. We ain't got much time."
"You got it." Milheim's fierce smile somehow came through the comm circuit, then he switched circuits to start ordering his soldiers into position.
"What the hell is Milheim doing?"
"Sorry. You weren't in on that conversation." Small wonder, with the entire rest of the battle to worry about. "We decided to deploy his battalion different than you'd told them."
"I see. You've gotten rid of the officers so now you have to disobey
"You think your original plan was better?"
"I don't know. But I do know I can't run a battle if you keep improvising and don't keep me informed!"
"I'll keep you cut in from now on."
"Thanks." Vic sounded only slightly mollified. He'd have a lot of fences to mend when this battle was over, assuming they both survived the experience. "Don't get me wrong, though. I'm not used to handling this many troops. I want input."
"Understood. Me, too."
"You sure you want that battalion deployed along the back of the ridge? The best place to hit the enemy is when they're trying to climb up at you."
"Yeah, and the best place for them to hit us is on top of that ridge. These guys are still shaky, Vic. I need them under cover."
"You're on-scene. It's your call."
The simple statement startled Stark, used to officers in the rear using the sophisticated command and control gear to literally try to call every shot he fired.
If we get through this, I bet I can make these apes ten times as dangerous as they were when they were micromanaged. Just give me a chance.
A moment's respite, the line around him solidifying, Milheim's Battalion giving a spine to those soldiers who had fled the enemy. Stark switched circuits again. "Anita. How's it going?"
Her breathing came heavy, health indicators displaying stress markers across the board. "They're all over us,
This bunker ain't gonna last much longer. They've got its position, and there's a lot a heavy stuff being thrown at us."
Scan simply confirmed Corporal Gomez's report. The enemy had figured out that Mango Hill formed the hinge for the American line now. Break it, and the rest of line would probably fall apart. Stark bared his teeth as he viewed the forces assaulting the hill held by his old Squad.
Too much going on at once, but I'm not gonna forget them. Okay. Think it through. Try to find an option, maybe not a by-the-book option, but one that fits the problem.
"Anita. Put the bunker's chain guns and grenade launchers on continuous full auto, minimum target criteria."
"Sarge, that'll burn all their ammo in a coupla minutes, at the most."
"The bunker won't last much longer than that, anyway, and that heavy fire will roll back the troops closest to you. Hang in there a little longer. We've almost got this mess fixed up."
Got 'em on full auto. Uraaahhh!"
"Bail out of there, Gomez, before they take the bunker down. You and the weapon station sentries."
See you on the surface, Sarge."
Back to where he stood, focusing on the situation around him, adrenaline making Stark shiver with reaction even as Vic Reynolds called in. "Got a problem with Fifth Batt, Ethan."
"What?" Stark scanned Fifth Battalion's symbology hastily, scowling as he did so. "Nobody's hitting them. Why aren't they moving?"
"Because Kalnick doesn't like his orders."
Kalnick. Sergeant Harry Kalnick. Not someone Stark had ever had much contact with. A vague impression of someone who didn't quite rub right, though. "Kalnick, this is Stark."
"Yeah." The response was surly, with a dash of annoyance thrown in for good measure.
Stark counted to three before speaking again, fighting off the pressure-driven urge to scream Kalnick into a primal state.
Give him a chance to explain.
"Why isn't your battalion moving into position on the flank of the penetration?"
"I'm not going to let my battalion get beat up because you and Reynolds lost the bubble. I think it's a lousy idea and lousy tactics."
"Okay, what's your idea? How do you think we should deploy Fifth Batt to stop and roll back this attack?" Silence. "Kalnick. Tell me what's wrong with the positions you've been ordered into."
"They're lousy orders! They won't help anybody!"
"What's your alternative?" Stark repeated with forced patience. "Kalnick? We haven't got all damn day. The tactical situation is critical, and every other soldier is counting on you."
"This situation isn't my fault, Stark."
"I'm not debating with you, Kalnick. Get your Battalion moving."
Another voice, one Stark recognized, broke in as other Fifth Battalion Sergeants joined the debate. "Hey, Kalnick. What's wrong with these orders?" Sergeant Stacey Yurivan questioned.
"Stark's trying to use us to bail himself out," Kalnick argued.
"The hell he is. Stark's planted right in front of the enemy advance along with Fourth Batt."
More Sergeants chimed in. "I got friends in Fourth Batt. I ain't leaving them hanging."
"Why are we just sitting here?"
"Kalnick, what's your plan?"
Another brief stretch of silence, finally broken by Stacey Yurivan's voice again. "Hey, Kalnick. Either lead, follow, or get out of the way."
On Stark's scan, units in Fifth Battalion began moving, breaking out of their neat alignment to head for the positions Reynolds had designated on the flank of the penetration. "Kalnick," he called, "I'm giving you one more chance. Get your Battalion in position. If you've got a problem, we'll settle it after this is over. Understand?"
Kalnick didn't reply directly, but as Stark watched, the rest of Fifth Battalion surged into motion.
Okay. Got that fire put out. Now look at the big picture. Got a battalion taking up position to hit the flank of the penetration.
Stark pulled up the command scan, chewing his lip as he watched the so-far victorious enemy swarm toward his improvised defensive line.
Got another battalion here behind the ridge.
Switch views again.
The Castle's still holding. Mango Hill's still holding. God, look at all the crap getting thrown at them.
"Corporal Gomez." Static answered, fuzzed with the staccato beat of enemy jamming. Stark swore in frustration.
"Use your command overpower setting to punch through the jamming," Vic suggested.
"I can do that? Sure I can. I got official access to it now. But what are you doing sitting on my shoulder?"
"Just lucky timing," Vic assured him. "Gotta go and make sure our reserve company is ready to punch out from the Castle. See ya."
"Likewise." Stark checked the options available on his commander's scan, calling up the overpower and linking it to Corporal Gomez's call sign.
Chaos sprang to life around him. Stark twitched as another dose of adrenaline surged into his system, urging action against violence being played out far away. "Gomez. What the hell's happening there?"
The view from Gomez's remote swung dizzyingly as she pivoted to pump a round into an enemy soldier who reared up not a meter away. "Hand-to-hand," she added unnecessarily.
"Can you hold 'em?"
"I dunno. Real target-rich environment out here." Lunar terrain jumped wildly again as Stark watched a ripple of red warning lights spring to life on Gomez's remote. Grenade, maybe, exploding not far from her. The view jerked several times as she fired rapidly. "Damn. Too close,
and too many, I think. Bunker's been breached."
"Hang on," Stark repeated helplessly.
Hell. Murphy's down."
Murphy. How long's he been in my Squad? Forever.
Stark stared at the situation projected before him on the command scan, trying to block out emotion.
"Ethan, Murphy's just one soldier," Vic advised quietly. She'd been listening in again, of course.
"Every grunt out there is just one soldier. How many one's add up to too many?"
"I don't know."
"Me, neither." Stark gazed up at the endless black sky overhead, the symbology on his HUD superimposed on the heavens as if a complicated and intricate new zodiac had sprung to life. "I can't let that position fall, Vic. That's not sentiment. It's got nothing to do with them being my Squad. The whole line will unravel on that flank if that hill goes."
"You can't weaken any other point. They've got to be watching for that."
"Maybe they are, but maybe they're already throwing everything they've got at Mango Hill and into the hole that's in our line right now. If they win at either place, they take us down. It must look like a sure thing." He toggled a circuit. "Sanch." Sergeant Sanchez, formerly one of the three squad leaders in their platoon along with Stark and Reynolds, now commanding that platoon.
"Yes, Stark." Very calm, as if he were discussing the nonexistent lunar weather.
"You see what's happening to Gomez's position?"
"Of course. They are taking a great deal of punishment. We are providing as much supporting fire as we can."