|DISCLAIMER: The Characters and situations of the TV program "SPACE: Above and Beyond" are the creations of Glen Morgan and James Wong, Fox Broadcasting and Hard Eight Productions, and have been used without permission. No copyright infringement is intended.
Note: All characters found in this work, as well as the 513th Recon Team ("Ghostriders") are the property of the author, and may not be used without permission.|
A/N: This is a war story, exploring some of the values, themes, and situations of our favorite show, Space: Above and Beyond. You will not find any of the Wildcards here- not even a cameo. All the same, I hope you enjoy the story.
R rated for language
WE BAND OF BROTHERS
Michael B Lee
Planet Medea, system A0159
September 19, 2063
They dropped down out of the night sky like dark angels, silent and purposeful. Dieters struggled to breathe evenly through the oxygen mask and concentrate on his altitude. The close fit of the rubber mask against his face set his nerves on edge, threatening to smother him even as it fed him air. It reminded him of being in the tank, those first, terrible moments of awareness, trapped in amniotic fluid, struggling to be free.
A tiny digital counter showed his rate of descent on the red lens of his goggles. The Recon team was falling fast, thanks to Medea's slightly higher gravity, but they had been told to expect that. I don't want you to land on Medea, Gunny Marshall had said. I want you to collapse when you hit the ground. Relax and roll. Or you're probably going to break every bone but that thick head of yours. No one had ever attempted a HALO drop on a heavy-gravity world before; not even the jumpmasters knew whether the parafoils would be able to handle their descent speed. But with the Chigs watching the skies over the barren world, it was the only way to get in unseen.
The HALO-modified ISSCV had released the 513th in a tight pattern, all twelve men dropping in a roughly hexagonal grouping, officers arranged in the center. Dieters could just make out the black shapes of the Gunny to his right, Mendoza ahead and Walters behind him. He could feel their eyes seeking him out, checking to make sure the newbie didn't do anything stupid.
The altimeter readout flashed green- they were below 10,000 feet. Dieters reached up and tore the oxygen mask away. Medea's air tore at his cheeks and clawed down his throat with icy talons, searing his lungs. The pain sharpened his mind like it always did, like it had been designed to do. I'm going to get through this, he thought. Just like everything else. Take the worst they can throw at you and ask for more. And when they run out of things to put you through, maybe then they will leave you alone.
Just at the edge of the eastern horizon flashes of orange and white strobed across the sky. That would be the 77th, Dieters knew, probing the Chig defenses and making a distraction for the team to slip in. Someone died with each flare of light. Other squadrons from the Lexington would continue to probe the Medean skies for the next twelve hours, keeping the Chigs occupied while the 513th completed their mission. Scuttlebutt said that the Chigs had reached Terra and the Angry Angels had been wiped out trying to stop them. Yet here they were, 4.7 light-years away, dropping on a barren hellhole of a world to blow up a mine no one had used in years. He had been in the Marines for only eight months, and it was obvious to him that someone in high command had cracked up. How veterans like Gunny and the Captain were able to take the mission seriously was a mystery to him.
The altimeter began to flash yellow. They were at 3000 feet. Looking down, Dieters could just make out the topographical lines of the valley that was their DZ. Intelligence had chosen it because the valley walls offered some concealment, and its floor was flat as a table. It would give them the best possible landing area within fifteen klicks of the objective.
1500 feet. His training prompted him, Gunny's voice growling in his mind. Check your chute. Check your gear. Check your chute release. Don't count on the automatic to do the job for you. Check your weapon-
It seemed like the numbers went red in an instant. 1000 feet. READY, the display read, then RELEASE.
And nothing happened. The automatic chute release had failed.
All at once his heart turned to ice. He fumbled with gloved hands for the manual release ring. He only had one chance. If the chute did not deploy above 750 feet, there was no point trying to open it- he would hit the ground hard enough to rupture every organ in his body.
He couldn't feel the ring through the thick fingers of the glove. Suddenly it seemed as if he were picking up speed, falling faster and faster. The numbers on the altimeter seemed to blur-
His thumb snagged on something. Panicking, he tried to tear it free- and found himself holding the manual release ring. The shock of the parafoil deploying felt like he was hanging at the end of a cracking whip. The riser cables to either side of his head thrummed and sang from the strain, and a sudden spike of white pain exploded from the base of his skull as his neck whiplashed at the sudden, savage jerk of deceleration. Gritting his teeth, he looked up to see the parafoil trying to curl back at the edges, but otherwise intact. Relief left him light-headed and giddy.
Dieters checked his altimeter. The chute had deployed at 753 feet. Less than a second to spare, but he was still falling fast.
Suddenly he noticed the flashes along the eastern horizon had stopped. The diversionary strike was over, one way or another. Looking down, he could make out vague details of the DZ. The valley looked just as Intel had advertised, its walls high and nearly sheer and its floor broad and flat. Other than a few large boulders, there was no scrub, no vegetation- no cover. Medea's air smelled thin and musty, like an old, abandoned building.
As he drew closer, details began to stand out, and his practiced eyes began roving the crevices and cracks along the valley walls, looking for movement. Ever since the war began, the Chigs seemed to know every move the U.N. forces made. More than one Team had dropped onto an occupied world, and never returned.
At 50 feet, Dieters reached down and pulled his equipment release, letting the shock-cushioned weapons case fall away and dangle from a nylon tether. He took a deep breath as the ground rushed up to meet him- it looked smooth and rust-colored, with tiny ridges or ripples stretching over its surface. Relax, he commanded his body. Relax. Relax-
He hit, and his booted feet sank up to mid-calf in powdery red dust. The impact and the lack of footing pitched him forward onto his face, smashing his goggles against his eyes and filling nose and throat with metal-tasting dust. Then he was tumbling end-for-end, pain blooming from every joint and muscle.
Around him, the rest of the team hit Medea's treacherous surface with muffled thumps and sudden, whispered curses. There was a sudden, sharp cry, full of surprise and pain. And then Dieters was on his back, staring up at an alien sky full of unfamiliar stars.
Months of intensive training took over, willing his body to move even while his mind reeled. He rolled onto his knees , pulling the risers so that the parafoil lost its shape and collapsed, then he began drawing the chute towards him. In moments he had it rolled up and harness, gloves, helmet and mask resting on the ground. Then he staggered to his gun bag, fighting the urge to sneeze the rusty dust out of his nose. Swiped at it with his hand and the palm came away wet with blood.
Dieters swiftly unsealed the gunbag and opened the shock-resistant rifle case inside. He drew out the matte-finished Heckler & Koch assault rifle and checked its sniper scope. The calibrations appeared to be fine, but there was no way to be sure until he took the first shot. At 250 meters, even a millimeter of difference would ensure a miss. Reaching into the gunbag he picked up a floppy-brimmed bush hat and set it on his head.
Cradling the rifle, he took in his surroundings. The night air was still. Most of the team stood or crouched in a group about twelve meters away. Three of the Team made a rough perimeter around the group, scanning the tops of the valley walls.
Dieters quickly saw the reason for the sudden gathering. Two figures lay in the reddish dust, one being administered to by the Team's medic, Sergeant Perry. The other lay unmoving, still wearing helmet and oxygen mask. Gunny Marshall looked up as Dieters limped over.
"Looks like you had the sense to land on your head," Gunny growled softly. "How's the rest of you?"
"I'm okay," Dieters said, grimacing at the twinges of pain in his knees. "Just like jumping out of the rack at Lejeune." He studied the faces of the men around him. "Where's the Captain?"
"CO's dead," Gunny Marshall said flatly, nodding to the still-masked body. "Mendoza and Jakes have pretty bad sprains, and Walters here managed to break his leg."
The news left Dieters cold. They had just hit the surface and their commander was dead. One of the team shook his head, muttering darkly. "What a really fucking safe DZ we got here. Where did Intelligence get their info from? The Chigs?"
"Shit happens, Fuentes," Gunny Marshall growled. "It's a contact sport, so quit your whining. I want you and Fleisher to bury the CO's body and boobytrap it. The rest of you get your HALO gear buried. At least this dust will make it easy." The Gunny checked his watch. "We move out in five minutes."
Dieters frowned. "Is the Lexington going to be able to extract us this quickly?"
Eyes turned on the new recruit. Gunny Marshall gave him a blank stare. "Who said anything about getting extracted, Private?"
Now it was Dieters' turn to stare. "You don't mean we're going on with the mission? The CO's dead."
"You turning chickenshit already, tank?"
The hissed accusation came from Walters, pain drawing the skin tight along the planes and angles of his dark face. The medic shot the marine a warning glance, but Walters ignored him. "You tired of playin' Marine now that things got tough?"
"You stow that shit right now, Corporal," Gunny Marshall snapped. "We don't have time for bullshit." The grizzled sergeant turned to Dieters. "The last time I checked, we were in a war, Private, and we've got a mission to do. Am I going too fast for you?"
"But what's the point?" Dieters said, a little too hotly. Why should I give a shit about any of you people, for that matter? "The Chigs are hitting Earth right now. What do they care about blowing up an abandoned mine?"
"I don't know, Private. I'm not an officer- I work for a living. But we are going to get the mission done, and you are going to pull your weight and work with the Team or I will bury your dumb ass right beside the CO. Do you read me, Marine?"
All of their eyes were on him, like judges passing sentence. He wanted to tell them all what he thought about them, but he knew it would just prove to them that they were right about the chickenshit tank. "I hear you Sarge," he said stiffly.
"Then if you ladies are done with your bitching we'll get back to the war." The Gunny straightened. "Remember, we're gone in five, and we'll have to move fast to get to the target in time." The group began to break up when Gunny Marshall turned to Dieters. "And Private-"
Dieters looked up. "Yeah, Sarge."
"You've got Walters. Make sure he keeps up."
Planet Medea, system AO159
They were making enough noise to wake the dead. Dieters had wild visions of the Captain appearing beside them, chewing out his grunts for disturbing his final rest. If he'd had the breath to spare, it would have been enough to make him laugh.
Dieter's left arm had lost all feeling an hour ago. He and Walters had an arm over each other's shoulder and a hand clutching a fistful of the other's pack. They had covered ten kilometers that way, and Walters had managed a good pace, his right leg immobilized below the knee by the medic's field cast. But their lurching, three-legged stride managed to set every metal part on their gear clashing together- to Dieters, the sound was like shattering glass in the tight confines of Medea's canyons. Gunny put them at the rear of the line, with Fleisher covering their six a dozen meters back.
From moment to moment, he expected the world to erupt in fire, a bolt of Chig plasma tearing into his chest. Once again, he gritted his teeth and tried to push the image away. He replayed the conversation with Gunny back at the DZ for the fiftieth time. What did he say to piss off the Sarge like this?
"Gunny should've given our packs to someone else," Walters whispered tightly. The muscles in his jaw bunched, and a faint sheen of sweat gleamed on his forehead. "Then you could've carried me. Gotten some real use out of you."
Dieters was surprised to find his left fist could still clench. He stared straight ahead, focusing on the back of the man ten meters ahead of him.
"What did they get you for?"
The InVitro frowned. "I don't know what you're-"
"What did they get you on? Drugs? Stealin' cars? Were you a pretty boy somewhere-"
Dieters could feel the rage throw a switch in his mind. That was how it always felt, and his body moved without conscious volition, like a machine executing a program. He planted his left foot, rotated hip and shoulder, and Walters went flying forward, sprawling on his face in Medea's bloody-colored dust. He took three steps and knelt with his knee on top of Walters' pack and the butt of his rifle just underneath the base of the Marine's helmet. He knew, with scientific certainty, exactly how much pressure was necessary to break Walters' neck.
Walters gasped for breath, eyes white and round in his dark face, only now realizing what had happened to him. Frantically, Dieters focused on the Marine's face, trying to stop, summoning his anger back, or the pain in his left arm- anything but the deadly, efficient calm.
Then a hand struck his chest like a metal bar, shoving him backward, and the rifle was wrenched from his hand. His feet slipped in the dust, dropping him on his backside.
Gunny Marshall was standing over Walters, holding the sniper rifle in one scarred hand. The other grabbed Walters' pack and jerked him upright without apparent effort. "What the fuck, Corporal?" he hissed.
Walters looked back at Dieters. This is it, the InVitro thought. The Gunny said he would bury him if he didn't pull his weight. He would believe the human over the tank, no matter what.
"I tripped, Sarge." Walters said, his eyes hot with anger. "Dieters was helping me up."
Gunny looked Walters over for a long moment. "That's what it looked like to me, too. Better watch where you put your feet from now on." The sergeant turned his gaze on Dieters and held up his rifle. "A Marine never relinquishes his weapon, Private. They must have forgotten to tell you that in Boot."
"Sorry," Dieters mumbled, scrambling to his feet. All of a sudden, life made even less sense.
"We're two klicks from the target, so take ten." the Gunny continued, as if nothing had happened. "Dawn is in about fifteen minutes, so go ahead and shut off your radios. So far, we haven't seen any signs of enemy activity. Dieters, you come with me. We're going to scout around for a sniper hole."
Dieters took back his rifle, automatically checking it over. "Okay, Sarge," he mumbled.
With that, Gunny Marshall turned and headed up the gully. Every ten meters they passed a member of the Team, back against the stone wall. Many had their heads down, catching a quick nap. Near the front of the column Fuentes held out the Gunny's rifle as they went past.
Past Fuentes the gully floor sloped sharply upwards. They climbed in silence for a few minutes, nearing the top of the narrow defile. The two Marines sank to their knees and crawled the final few meters.
The mining facility was set in the center of a bowl-shaped depression of tumbled, dusty stone some two kilometers across. An asteroidal impact a hundred million years before had shattered this part of the mountain range, burying rare metals deep in Medea's crust. Dieters could make out the tall, skeletal structure of the facility silhouetted against the night sky. There were no lights, no signs of life- just another castoff bit of debris from humanity's headlong retreat.
The Gunny drew a pair of rangefinder binoculars from his pack. "You'll set up about a klick from the target," the sergeant said. "The slope is going to be pretty slight at that point, so you'll probably have to get up on the biggest boulder you can find to get a good vantage." He began to sweep the tumbled rocks with the binoculars. "I figure we'll leave Walters with you and let him play with the new raygun."
The "raygun" was whatever new weapon R&D sent along with the Team to field-test. This time the it was a small, lightweight automortar that lobbed a high-explosive bomb up to four klicks away. It could supposedly fire an entire ten-round cassette of shells in five seconds.
"The place looks dead," Dieters muttered. On impulse, he looked over at the sergeant. "What am I missing, Gunny? What's so important about doing this?"
For a moment the Gunny turned a wrathful look on Dieters, then relented, simply rolling his eyes. "Did it ever occur to you that maybe the Chigs will think the same thing? Right now the bad guys know more about us than we know about them. Maybe someone high up has decided we need to spread a little confusion around. Even if this place is worthless, maybe Chiggie High Command will stop to wonder why we blew it up. Anything that throws them off-balance is worth it." Gunny returned his attention to surveying the target site. "If there was more to the mission than that, the Captain didn't see fit to tell me. Besides, can you look at that thing and tell me without a doubt that the Chigs aren't using it in some way?"
Dieters considered it a moment. "No."
"Okay then. We're going to find out for sure. That's why they call us a Recon unit."
Dieters opened his mouth to reply when the Chig ship passed overhead. The low-pitched hum of its drive sent shivers up his spine. It was long and rectangular, dark and faceted like a crystal- a troop transport. The Chig ship swooped down the slope, only a hundred meters or so above the deck, coming to a sudden, unnerving stop down by the mine. The ship hovered for a moment, then settled to the rocky floor.
Flipping up the lens covers on his rifle's telescopic sight, Dieters scanned the craft. No sooner had it touched the ground when a ramp lowered from the ship's side, and a line of Chig soldiers began to disembark, sweeping the area with their rifles.
Dieters looked over at the Gunny. "I think we just got our answer."
Planet Medea, System AO159
Dawn came five minutes later, an explosion of light bursting from the eastern horizon. Ionization from Medea's blue and blue-white binary started a low hum in Dieters' radio that in moments rose to an ear-splitting shriek before he could shut it off. The Team was counting on the interference to hamper the Chig's operations, making it harder for them to coordinate their efforts while the 513th headed for the extraction point. Providing that the aliens didn't have some means of filtering out the interference. Not even Intelligence wanted to make bet on that one.
The harsh blue-white light that seared the sky reminded him of the flares they used during night exercises at Boot. It filled every crevice, banishing shadows, making him feel naked and exposed as he and the Gunny made their way back to the Team. Speaking quietly and quickly, the sergeant outlined his plan. The Chig unit looked like a patrol, maybe out looking for the Team. If they showed no signs of leaving by the time the Team reached the target, then they would overrun the enemy and make their way inside the facility to set the charges. If the shooting started, Dieters would provide support. The "raygun" would only be used if absolutely necessary. Once the charges were set, they would head for the extraction point.
It was showtime. There were few words spoken as the Marines gathered together, making a final check of their gear. Gunny Marshall looked them over with a critical eye, then nodded his head.
"Who are we?" He asked softly.
"Life takers and heart breakers," Fleisher said. A hard, cruel cast had come over his boyish features.
"Where are we going?"
"All the way," Walters and Fuentes answered in unison.
"Who gets left behind?"
"The enemy dead," Dieters said. When the Team turned their eyes on him, he stared back, defying them.
"Semper Fi," the Gunny growled, completing the ritual. "Let's get it done." With that he turned and lead the way to the mouth of the gully.
It took over an hour to cover the first kilometer, moving at a crawl from boulder to boulder down the ruined slope. Dieters had already picked out a sniper spot- a group of huge rocks about 750 meters upslope from the target that would offer a reasonable vantage point and give good cover for himself and Walters. When they reached the spot, both Marines turned out of the line in silence, stopping to rest in the boulders' shadow. One of the other Team members, Morganstern, left behind the automortar and ammunition, then headed after his comrades.
Dieters worked the canteen off of his belt, drinking deep of the plastic-tasting water. It had grown steadily hotter with the dawn, and the ionization left the dry taste of ozone in the air. He stole a look at Walters. The injured Marine was resting his head against the rock, his eyes closed. Caught in an unguarded moment, pain and fatigue etched his hard features. The InVitro wondered again why Walters had covered for him with the Gunny. He nudged the Marine with his canteen, offering a drink.
Walters' eyes opened balefully. He glared at the proffered container for a moment, then sighed and took it from Dieters' hand. "You better get up on that rock," he said tiredly after taking a long drink.
Dieters nodded wordlessly, putting the canteen away. He had chosen this site both because of the rocks' size, and that their rough surfaces promised an easy climb. Slinging his rifle across his back, he was at the top in moments.
The top of the boulder was mostly flat, and angled slightly towards the slope, which hid his prone form from the anyone at the facility. With well-trained precision he unslung his rifle, checked settings and safety, unfolded its bipod, and set it in front of him. Putting his eye to the telescopic sight, he began to survey the target.
The first thing he saw was what looked like a Chig officer. At least, he guessed it was an officer. For one thing, he wasn't carrying a rifle, and for another he didn't seem to be doing anything. He stood halfway between the transport and the facility, apparently watching as the rest of the unit searched the site. Scanning the area, Dieters picked out the rest of the soldiers, moving like automatons amid the facility's steel girders. Some moved in pairs, others alone. If there was a pattern to what they were doing, Dieters couldn't see it. Looking over the ship, he could find no sign of pilots.
"What are they doin'?" he heard Walters say.
"Looking for us. Some Chiggie officer is having his grunts search the site." He replied.
"Damn. How could they know we're here?"
Dieters swept his sight along the slope, looking for the Team. He smiled when he couldn't pick out their movements amidst the rocks. "I think if they were sure somebody was here we'd be getting a whole lot more of a reception. Maybe Gunny was right about confusing them. Have you got that mortar set up?"
"I'm working on it, I'm working on it," Walters said. Dieters could hear him fumbling with the mortar components. "More Aerotech bullshit to try out. If I have to use this thing, you're gonna have to feed me coordinates, cause I can't see shit back here."
From there, the waiting began. Cut off from the rest of the Team, time seemed to slow. The Chigs continued their seemingly aimless search of the facility, going back over the same areas again and again. If they had any sense, they'd send a group to poke around up here, Dieters thought. Maybe set up an ambush, plant some mines or something. He shook his head. Aliens. Go figure.
More minutes passed. Dieters fought to keep from fidgeting. The waiting was always the hardest part. He scanned the slope again, but the Team remained invisible.
Dieters checked his watch. He had been on top of the rock for almost an hour. Suddenly Walters voice broke the stillness. "What were you gonna do to me back there on the trail, tank? Before the Gunny got in the way?"
The mocking edge to the Marine's voice was gone. Dieters frowned. "I was going to kill you," he replied. "At least, part of me wanted to. Why did you tell the Gunny you tripped? You could have told him the truth and gotten rid of me."
"Shit," Walters said scornfully. "You don't sell out a squad mate, tank. No matter how chickenshit he is. You got no more business bein' out here than the Chigs, but you're still part of the Team. If it had been your leg broken, I would have been the one carrying you around. I don't have to like it, but that's the way it is."
Dieters fought back his anger. "They didn't arrest me. Nobody forced me to do this. I volunteered."
That was when the shooting started. The faint pop, pop-pop brought Dieters head around, his eye automatically going to the rifle sight.
A quick scan showed the Team rising from the rocks like vengeful ghosts, firing on the move as they rushed the mining facility. Chigs collapsed as they were hit, falling bonelessly to the ground. The attack had caught them by surprise- the Chig officer lay dead, struck down where he stood. He had probably been the first one to go.
Bolts of red began to fly as the aliens recovered from the shock and started to return fire. Bright flashes erupted around the Marines as the charged plasma fused Medea's earth into glass. But the Team was moving too fast, rushing headlong at the enemy, and whenever a Chig broke cover to fire, a fusillade of shots struck him down.
A figure ran at the Chig transport. It was Fleisher. Dieters watched him toss a grenade into the ship's open hatch; moments later a gout of flame and smoke erupted from within. The blast barely had time to clear before the Marine ran inside, pointing his rifle ahead of him.
"What's happening?" Walters said. "What's happening?"
Dieters smiled. "Chiggie's having a really bad day."
In seconds, it was over. One moment, flashes of plasma and the sounds of rifle fire filled the air, then- nothing. The Marines were under cover in the facility, and Chig bodies were scattered over the ground. Wisps of smoke curled over the lip of the Chig transport's hatch. "Looks like Ghostriders ten, Chiggie zero," Dieters said. "We're in."
"Outstanding." Walters said.
A part of Dieters was itching to start packing things up and heading for the rendezvous. He knew he should be glad that the short fight was over, but there was also a little frustration inside at having been little more than an observer. "I wish I was down there," he said to himself.
"Yeah, I wish you were down there, too," Walters said. "I'd be the sniper if you hadn't shown up."
Dieters shook his head. "What are you bitching about now?"
"Hey, fuck you, tank. When they were forming the Team back before the fucking war the CO said I was going sniper. I even gave up a four-week liberty to go to sniper school, 'cause that was the job I wanted to do. Then you show up, dumb-ass nipple neck greenie, and the Gunny says you're the best man to be the sniper. Everybody has to give you people preferential treatment just because you had a hard time after the AI war-"
"Now wait a goddamned minute-" Dieters said, shifting so he could look back at Walters. That was when he caught the movement out of the corner of his eye.
He froze, a surge of adrenaline freezing his veins and making his nerves sing. Moving only his eyes, he tried to focus on what it was he saw.
Nothing. Only tumbled rocks for a thousand curving meters of the bowl to his left. He moved his head fractionally, widening his view.
"Well I'm waiting, motherfucker," Walters said hotly.
"Shut up!" Dieters hissed. "Shut the fuck up."
Then he saw the flat, dark plane of a Chig helmet rise over a rock not 500 meters away. Then another and another. They were working their way down the slope to the mining facility.
"Oh, shit," Dieters said. "There's more Chigs out here."
More and more of them appeared as he spoke. A dozen, then another- almost enough for a platoon. The alien soldiers picked their way carefully down the slope for another hundred meters, then fanned out left and right, taking up positions in a broken line facing the facility. It was eerie the way they arranged themselves in silence, without commands or gestures, as though they shared a single mind.
"What are they doing?" Walters whispered.
"They're setting up an ambush," Dieters said grimly. Looking at the situation, he could see how it would unfold. "The Chigs are going to wait for the Team to break cover, and then cut them to pieces." The switch closed in his mind, and the calm settled over him. This time, he welcomed it. "We've got to warn them."
"How? The radios are for shit with all the ionization."
Dieters winced. Possibilities went through his mind with swift precision, considered and discarded, until only one remained. They had to hit the Chigs. The cold equations of combat told him that he could kill five, maybe six before they figured out what was happening. He could shoot and switch positions, keeping the Chigs guessing and improving his chance of survival, but it would mean abandoning Walters.
Why not? Dieters thought. He'd leave me. But everyone in the Teams knew what the Chigs did to wounded Marines. If they caught Walters, they would butcher him. If I stay in one place, both of us are dead. What's the point in that? I could do the shoot-and-scoot, tell him to lie low, then double back and pick him up later.
"Hey Walters," he whispered.
"What?" The Marine's voice was leaden.
Who gets left behind? The Gunny's words echoed in Dieters' mind.
I'm not leaving anyone behind, he thought fiercely. As long as the Chigs don't find him, I can come back for him. He would goddamn well do it to me! But Dieters realized that he was wrong. You don't sell out a squad mate, Walters had said. And he hadn't, when it would have cost him nothing to do so. I don't have to like it, but that's the way it is.
"I hope you've been reading the manual on that raygun," the InVitro finally said. "Cause we're gonna need it."
It took Walters a moment to respond. "You got it," he said. "Just tell me where you want it."
Dieters moved slowly back around, flattening himself against the rock. He let the calmness fill him, focusing on the task at hand. "When I call for it, put your rounds down bearing ... make it two-nine-five degrees."
"What's the range?" Walters asked, his voice cool and professional.
Dieters put the rifle scope to his eye and centered in on the Chig at the center of the line. Gradation marks on the crosshair allowed him to determine the range. "Make it 600 meters."
"What kind of grouping do you want?"
"Are you kidding me?" Dieters said incredulously.
"This thing has its own ballistics computer. If it works, it'll be better than sex."
The InVitro shook his head. "Make it a cluster."
"Square, hexagonal, or octagonal?"
"Will it spell out 'fuck you Chiggie'?"
Walters answered, completely deadpan. "I don't think I've got enough rounds for that. How about just 'fuck you'?"
There was motion down at the site. Dieters shifted over and saw Fleisher emerge from the transport. The Marine moved warily, and his eyes were scanning the bowl. He knew something was wrong. Maybe the transport had more seats onboard than there were bodies accounted for. "Make it a square, and hurry," Dieters hissed.
"I'm ready. You call it."
Just then Gunny and the Team broke cover, running from the charges they had set.
Adrenaline surged within Dieters, and everything seemed to slow down. Fleisher was turning, raising his hand in warning. The Chigs raised their rifles. "Now!" Dieters said.
The automortar cut loose with a deep, stuttering cough- bumpbumpbumpbumpbumpbumpbumpbumpbumpbump- the overlapping concussions slapping at his ears and plucking at his clothes. Two seconds later the bombs hit, shaking the earth in a string of red explosions like a chain of rubies five meters behind the Chig position. At the facility, the Team scattered, running for the safety of the rocks.
"Hoo Yah!" Dieters cried. "Make it 605 meters and hit 'em again!" He hoped Walters could hear him- he couldn't hear himself- as he started scanning for targets.
The smoke cleared in moments. Two of the Chigs were down, their armor riddled with shrapnel. Unfazed, half of the unit began to fire down at the Team, but their aim was wild and sporadic. The rest, however, were looking back the way the mortar rounds had come, searching for their source. A small part of Dieters' mind marveled at how fast they recovered from the surprise bombardment. Either they've got ice water for blood, or they just don't care whether they live or die.
He picked one of the Chigs still shooting at the Team, centering the crosshairs on the center of the alien's back. The rifle became an extension of his body, the telescopic sight a focus for his concentration as he calculated the shot. He raised the rifle minutely, and his mind spoke with instinctual certainty that he was on target. His finger touched the trigger, almost a caress, and the rifle bucked against his shoulder. Six football fields away, the Chig soldier gave a little jerk, as though startled, and slid lifelessly to the barren earth.
Eight of the Chigs were working their way up the slope, firing as they advanced. Bolts of plasma slammed into the rocks surrounding Dieter's position, sending shards of stone humming through the air. It was suppression fire, saturating the area in hopes of driving him under cover. They still weren't sure where the attack on their rear was coming from. After the second mortar salvo, he figured, there would be no doubt. "Get that thing reloaded, Walters!" he shouted. "We're running out of time!"
Dieters set his cheek against the rifle stock and shifted his aim to another Chig soldier. Range, fall of shot, wind direction- separate strains of thought he wove together into a killing threnody. When they sang together in harmony, he caressed the trigger. The Chig soldier slid sideways, falling against one of his fellows. Moments later three bolts of plasma slammed into the boulder Dieters rested on. BamBamBam, one atop the other.
A flash of heat brushed his face and stone shrapnel buzzed in the air. The urge to get up and run was so sudden and sharp it made his legs jerk. The cold equations ran through his mind. If he didn't run, they were going to kill him. He clenched his teeth, sought out another target, and fired.
A flurry of bolts slammed into the boulder, a roll of thunder that seemed to go on forever. Hot claws tore at the left side of his face. He shrieked his pain and defiance into the alien whirlwind, and the automortar answered him.
The world went white. White noise, white light, swallowing everything. It returned in a hammerblow as his body struck the ground. He landed on his back, at the base of the boulder, a thin ringing the only sound in his ears. His calves tingled and burned at the same time.
For a moment he couldn't move, couldn't think. Cover, cover, COVER! yelled a voice in his head, like a drill instructor back at the Island, and he moved, rolling onto his knees and crawling back behind the boulder. His hand came down on a jagged piece of metal. Wisps of smoke curled from the rock, the ground, and the blackened husk of the automortar. Walters sat with his back to a neighboring rock, his legs stretched out in front of him. The Marine's eyes were wide, staring dumbly at the wreckage before him. The fatigues on his right arm and leg were shredded and soaked with red.
The sight of Walters brought the world back into focus. The raygun had exploded- maybe a jam in the tube, or a faulty fuse- it occurred to him that the pain in his legs was probably pieces of the mortar. Dimly he could hear the Chigs still firing, but for the moment it wasn't aimed at him. Probably think we're dead. He crawled over to Walters.
Dieters set his rifle down- only then realizing that he'd managed to hold onto it- and tried to check the Marine's injuries. Walters' lips were moving, but he still couldn't hear anything. "What?" He brought his ear up to the man's lips.
"...went off...the fuckin'...jammed..."
"I know, I know," Dieters said, pulling back the tattered edges of Walters' sleeve. Blood oozed from half-a-dozen shrapnel hits. The thigh looked worse. Again, the calm voice in Dieters' head spoke, and he knew what to do. "Walters, you're in shock, man. You're hurt pretty bad, and we've got to get out of here before the Chigs come, ok?"
Walters' eyes were glazed, uncomprehending. Dieters wondered if his ears hadn't burst. He took the Marines' cheeks in both hands and held him nose-to-nose. "I've got to drag you, Marine. Do you hear me? I've got to drag you, and you can't scream, or the Chigs will get us."
The injured Marine's expression changed minutely, and Dieters thought he understood. On impulse, the InVitro pulled a grenade from his harness, and boobytrapped the wreckage of the mortar. Then taking up his rifle, he twisted his left hand around the carry loop on the top of Walter's pack and began dragging the injured man back up the slope. At the base of the bowl the shooting had stopped. Either the Team had escaped the trap, or else they were dead.
He went from boulder to boulder, careful not to break cover, the pain in his legs driving him on. He had not gone far when the earth shook with the heavy drumbeats of the Team's demolition charges. Once, he stole a look behind him at the plume of smoke and fire rising into Medea's bleached sky. The facility was gone. He hoped it had been worth the trouble.
Dieters didn't stop until he reached the top of the bowl. The planet's thick dust caked the side of his face, long lines of fire pulsing along his cheek in time with his pounding heart. Walters had lost consciousness, from pain or loss of blood.
Back down in the narrow gully he collapsed, chest heaving. After a few moments, he fumbled for his canteen and took a few swallows. The tepid water tasted sweet after his ordeal. He checked to make sure Walters was still alive. The injured Marine was breathing shallowly, and blood still oozed from his arm and leg. Dieters wished for the field dressings that the Team's medic carried. Digging into his pack, he dredged up his first-aid kit and did what he could to bind up the worst of Walters wounds, smearing them with disinfectant and coag gel.
He went over his options while he worked. The extraction point was ten klicks away, to the north. Pickup was at 1500, and he doubted that the ISSCV would hang around for any stragglers. He had eight hours to get there. The mission planners had factored in plenty of time in case the Team had to move slowly and stealthily on the way out. Maybe they had also allowed for walking wounded. Dieters stared at Walters, trying to imagine the trip ahead. He had never felt so tired in his life. Every muscle ached, and as the adrenaline wore off, he began to notice every cut and scrape on his body.
Suddenly he heard a muffled thump echo up from the bowl. Someone had found his grenade, he realized. Doom on you, Chiggie, he thought with a wolfish grin, but then he considered the implications. There were still aliens in the area, and they were checking out the sniper hole. How long before they recovered their wits and saw the trail of blood Walters had left behind?
He had to move, and fast. Staggering to his feet, he rolled Walters over. The Marine seemed heavier, somehow. The InVitro's arms felt like lead. I've already carried this son-of-a-bitch for ten klicks, he thought bitterly. There's no way I can go ten more. No way in hell.
Shaking his head, Dieters began pulling off Walters' pack. He wasn't about to carry any more weight than the absolutely had to.
Planet Medea, System AO159
By 1200 hours, he knew they weren't going to make it.
In four hours, he had managed to cover little more than five kilometers, hampered by Walter's limp form and the rough terrain. His shoulders ached and his feet were cold and numb as he staggered through the mountain range's winding gullies. He had not paused to rest since he began, because the longer he went, the more he feared that once he stopped, he would never start again.
And the Chigs were behind him, somewhere. Now and then he thought he heard falling rock back the way he had come. He couldn't make it to the extraction point in time, and sooner or later the enemy was going to catch up to him.
But still Dieters held on. He ran through every cadence he had ever heard in Boot, even conjured up images of his Drill Instructor, Sergeant McEwan, shouting out in his leathery voice. Move it move it MOVE IT you godforsaken maggot- I wouldn't let your miserable ass into the Air Force, much less my beloved Corps! You will either complete this march or die trying, because otherwise you will belong to ME.
There was a voice inside his head begging him to let Walters fall to the ground. It had started out as a cold, quiet voice, but now it raged in his head, rising in time with the dull, crippling ache in his shoulders and arms. Without Walters, he could get away.
But that, he reminded himself, wasn't the point. Now that he knew all was lost, he was starting to understand what the point really was.
He rounded a corner, half-staggering as he stumbled against some loose stones, and lurched ahead into yet another narrow, rust-colored gully.
The Chigs let him get halfway across before they opened fire.
The left wall of the gully wasn't as sharply vertical as others had been, sloping up at just over thirty degrees. The Chigs had settled themselves on the military crest of the wall, some twenty meters up, and now sent a steady volley of fire down at the two Marines.
Dieters screamed and drove himself forward as bolts of plasma seared the earth all around him. Terror gave his muscles new life, but in his headlong dash his boot came down on a loose rock and twisted. He pitched to the side, a Chig bolt passing so close he felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickle. Walters fell from his shoulder, hitting the ground in a boneless heap.
His instincts drove him ruthlessly, forcing him to seek cover. He sighted a boulder and started to run, zigzagging and firing one-handed up the slope. His ankle felt like it was on fire.
The InVitro was almost to the boulder when he realized that he'd left Walters behind. More bolts came down around him. Without hesitation he spun on his good heel and started back for his brother Marine.
Walters lay in a tangle, surrounded by smoking spots of fused earth. To Dieters, it was the longest three meters he had ever run.
Time seemed to slow. Scarlet plasma fell in lazy arcs. His field of vision narrowed until all he could see was Walters' outstretched arm. Switching his rifle to his left hand, he grabbed Walters' hand with his right and hauled back for all he was worth.
And the world erupted in bloody light, filling his ears with thunder.
Planet Medea, System AO159
Awareness came back to him slowly, dim feelings seeping into his brain as through a thick, dark shroud.
His back felt like a broken bottle, jagged and splintered. After a while, he could tell he was lying on his stomach, cheek pressed to the earth. Some time after that, he realized that he could still feel his legs. He had been hit, but he didn't know how bad.
Slowly, carefully, he set his palms against the ground and tried to roll over. The pain came sudden and sharp, stabbing him in places from his shoulders to his waist. He cried out in agony, and damned himself for being weak. But he did not stop. Eventually, he rested on his side.
Walters was still with him, lying where he had fallen. Scanning the slope, the InVitro couldn't see any Chigs. Where had they gone? More importantly, why had they gone? Dieters decided that it didn't matter. He was still alive, somehow, and he still had a job to do.
Gritting his teeth, he forced himself to crawl to Walters. Grabbing hold of the unconscious man's collar, he turned and started for the cover of the near boulder. Dieters passed out three times along the way. Just short of his goal he heard a deep rumble shiver the sky to the north. It lasted for only a few seconds, then was silent. By the time he reached the rock the thunder rose again as the ISSAPC wrestled with Medea's gravity, gathering speed as it rose from the alien world, heading back home.
Not knowing what else to do, the InVitro rested his back against the rock. Again the pain stabbed into his shoulders, unwanted tears streaking the caked dust on his cheeks.
With a convulsive heave, he dragged Walters to him, resting the injured man's head in his lap. It took four tries, but at last he found a pulse, weak and thready.
"Don't give up on me, man," Dieters' whispered. "We're gonna get out of here, you and me. They're not going to leave us behind. They don't have to like it, but that's the way it is, right?"
The pain, played jagged notes across his back. After a while, he stopped trying to hold back the tears.
Planet Medea, System AO159
The darkness was cool, the air musty, like an old building. Dieters rested his head against the rough side of the boulder. Beneath his finger, Walters' pulse was getting weaker. The Marine was slipping away.
"Don't die on me man," he whispered, his voice hoarse from hours of talking. "How are you gonna be sniper if you're dead? Tell you what, you get back to the Lexington alive and you and me will go down to the range and see who the best shot is. If you win, you'll be the sniper. I'll make the Gunny give it to you. Okay? Just stay with me man."
A sound of rocks falling made him freeze, his ears straining to identify its source. He'd been hearing sounds for a long time. At first, he had prayed that it was the Team, coming to find them. Eventually, he even hoped it would be the Chigs. Anything, just so long as the ordeal would be over. He was so tired, more tired than he had ever been in his life. His mind reeled, trying to think of something else to talk about.
"I never told you why I joined up. Remember that? You acted like you couldn't believe I volunteered." His throat was hurting. He'd emptied the canteen long ago, sharing out the precious fluid between him and Walters.
"I was one of the last batch they decanted to be soldiers. The government was already disbanding the InVitro units, but the company went ahead and trained us anyway. I guess they were hoping the UN was going to change it's mind. They never told us why."
More rocks fell. This time he was certain of it. Around the bend of the gully, somewhere to the north. His rifle lay several meters away, where he had dropped it during the ambush.
He took a deep breath. "Anyway. The AI's were gone before we completed the training cycle. We got done, and ... the company sold us off to a mining operation." The InVitro shook his head wearily. "They had taken us and trained us to fight and to kill, and then it was like, 'oh, sorry, the war's over and we don't need you anymore'."
He heard something, like a faint click-clicking sound, back where the rocks fell. Dieters' hand strayed to the Marine-issue K-bar utility knife hanging from the shoulder of his web gear.
"So they sent me to the mines. The asteroid fields at Delta Pavonis. I spent five years there, crawling over airless rocks and working a pressure drill. But the whole time I was restless. I had all these ideas running around in my head, all this stuff the Monitors had taught us. I'd get pissed at the foreman sometimes, and sit there thinking about all the ways I could kill the bastard while he was yelling at me. I would look at a piece of machinery, and start wondering how I could blow it up, or make it into a weapon.
"And I wasn't the only one. There were other tanks there like me, and you could look in their eyes and see that they were thinking like killers. It drove some of them crazy. One guy, his name was Sandersen, actually killed one of the foremen, and then ran off into one of the pressurized mines. They had to get a platoon of Colonial Sentries to go in and get him out."
The InVitro looked down at Walters. "You natural-borns don't know what it's like, to know what it is you are born to do, but not to be able to do it. When my time in the mines was up, they had to make me get on the transport for Earth. I mean, what was I supposed to do when I got there? All I knew was how to get ore out of asteroids, and how to kill people. I figured I was going to end up like Sandersen. By the time I got to Earth, the Chigs had hit Vesta. There was talk that the military wanted InVitros again. So I got off the ship and ran to the recruiting office."
Someone was coming. He could hear it clearly now, coming down the gully from the north. It could be the Team, looking for him, but somehow, he didn't think so.
"And you know what, Walters?" Dieters whispered. "Now that I'm doing the job I was born to do, none of it makes any damn sense at all. But I'll tell you one thing. War isn't about staying alive. It's about making sure your buddies stay alive. Because you can't do it alone. One person, by himself, hasn't got a chance of surviving. So you help your squadmates, and they help you, like it or not. The brass gives the orders, and we trust that they know what they're doing, just like they have to trust that we'll get the job done. It's all about faith. I see that now."
Dieters' drew his knife. The sounds were closer. Whoever it was, they weren't afraid to make noise. They moved like they owned the place. A sense of cold certainty settled over him.
"The Team is out there, somewhere, man. They have to be. If I can drag your beaten-up, bigoted ass for fifteen clicks, then I believe that they won't leave us behind. So you stick with me, man. It's going to be all right."
Dieters leaned his head back against the rock, hiding the knife behind his back as the Chigs came around the corner. Six of them, a regular patrol. He held his breath and watched them though slitted eyes.
The aliens saw him at once. Two of the soldiers leveled their rifles, and Dieters fought with all his will to lie still. For long moments, the Chigs watched the two Marines, then the patrol came forward. Two other Chigs put down their rifles and drew long, curved blades from behind their backs.
Dieters sought out the calmness that the Monitors had given him. A quiet voice whispered that he was going to die, that there was no way to escape, and he was content with that. Just let me take as many of them with me as I can.
The knife-wielding Chigs came forward, casual as butchers. One bent, taking Walters' body by the collar and dragging him off Dieters.
"Hoo Yah!" the InVitro screamed, grabbing the Chig's wrist. Unbalanced, the alien fell forward onto both Marines. Dieters stabbed the Chig at the point where the sloping helmet met its chest. The alien began to thrash and twitch, and a stink like methane burned the InVitro's nostrils, but already Dieters was pushing away from his victim and trying to take on the second alien soldier.
The second Chig had darted backwards at the Marine's sudden attack, but now it stepped forward and brought its knife down in a hissing arc. It bit into Dieters' shoulder mere centimeters from his neck, numbing his left arm even through his combat armor. Putting all his strength into a desperate swing, Dieters drove his knife to the hilt into the alien's forearm. The InVitro thought he heard a muffled shriek of agony as the Chig lurched backwards, inadvertently tearing the knife from Dieters' hands.
He could see the other Chigs fanning out, trying to get a clear shot at him. As the wounded Chig lurched out of the way, they raised their rifles. "Semper Fi!" Dieters yelled.
A volley of gunshots rang out in answer. Three of the Chigs fell at once; the last whirled to look up the slope, and a second volley struck him down. The wounded alien drew the K-bar from its arm, the black blade stained with green. Whether it intended to surrender or to fight became moot when a final shot rang out, and the enemy fell.
Four figures rose from the dark slope so recently held by the Chig ambushers. Dieters watched them slide like shadows into the gully, weapons ready. Gunny and Sergeant Perry, Morganstern and Fleisher; Gunny Marshall and the Team's medic rushed over to where he lay.
Perry rolled the Chig off of Walters with a curse. Gunny Marshall helped Dieters sit up. "You lost your weapon again Marine," he said softly. "I don't know what my beloved Corps is coming to, these days."
"Sir, this Marine apologizes for failing to kill five armed Chigs with his K-bar, sir," Dieters replied. "But he's glad you were here to see it." He bit back a scream as the Gunny checked the back of his armor.
"Shit, Dieters," Gunny Marshall hissed. "I didn't give you permission to go and get yourself shot. Perry, get over here-"
"No," Dieters said. "Walters. He's worse off. The raygun exploded-"
Then Perry was beside him, checking his wounds. "Looks like the pack took most of it," he said tersely. "But he's got shrapnel in his back, probably part of the trauma plate-"
"What about Walters," the InVitro insisted. "He's in bad shape. I had to carry him-"
"He'll be okay if he lives long enough to get back to Lady Lex," Perry said. "Now shut the fuck up and let me work."
The Gunny held Dieters' shoulders while the medic worked on his back. The injured Marine looked over the faces of his comrades, stained with dust and blood. "Where's the rest of the Team, Gunny?"
"We're it, " Gunny Marshall said. There was pain and anger in the Sergeant's eyes. "We put Jakes on the ISSAPC earlier today, but I don't know if he survived the trip back. Mendoza and Horner died at the plant, and Fuentes stepped on a buzz bomb about a klick from the extraction point."
Dimly, Dieters felt a prick on his left arm. "Okay, Gunny, that's about the best I can do for them down here," Perry said. "We've got to haul ass to the pickup, or we might lose both of them."
Gunny Marshall nodded. "If we don't haul ass period, we're gonna have to walk home. I don't think the Commodore is going to grant another pickup after this one." The Gunny stood and called over to Morganstern, who ran over to pick up Walters.
Perry helped Dieters to his feet. It was hard to focus. They had kilometers yet to travel, but now that someone else was shouldering the load, he just wanted to sleep. " ... knew you guys wouldn't leave us ... " he mumbled, half to himself.
"Don't sweat it," the medic said, twisting his hand around the carry strap on Dieters' pack. "You'd do the same for me."
The Marines gathered together, shouldering their wounded brothers under cold starlight, a long, long way from home. An angry enemy prowled the darkness, hungry for revenge, but Dieters was unafraid. The Chigs would have to go through the Ghostriders if they wanted a piece of him.
"Semper Fi," he said softly, and they started the long march back.
The second book of the Ghostriders series: Sins Of The Father is available on site
Next : Sin Of The Father
Michael B. Lee