2948-09-15 – Tales from the Service: Canyon Warfare on Causey Plana
While the Fifth Fleet regroups for another crack at the Incarnation fleet in orbit around Margaux, that world is not lost. A massive FDI and Marine garrison, entrenched heavily in a series of positions prepared in the craggy Causey Plana over the last few months. Outpost Judicael is one of these installations – one of the most important, as it sits astride the main surface road from the spaceport into the fortified area. The terrain ensures that few roads of any kind have been built; most local traffic in the inner Causey Plana is via aircraft and light all-terrain vehicles.
The dangers of the Causey Plana, a massive biologically and economically valuable plateau on Margaux, have featured in this series before (Tales From the Inbox: Reckoning of the Reckless), and the toxic biosphere of the region is covered extensively in other media productions, so I will spare you all an unnecessary summary. Many have learned to live and even prosper in these conditions with no ill effects, but now, many tens of thousands of men and women are learning it in a hurry, while being shot at by Incarnation air-attack Siroccos and ground forces. While the Marines go into battle in their environmentally-sealed armor-suits, the majority of the personnel defending Margaux are Frontier Defense Army volunteer soldiers who are far more lightly equipped.
As this week's entry demonstrates, infantry warfare in the canyons poses a number of challenges - fortunately for the FDA, the enemy force is apparently not much better equipped to handle them than our own light infantry.
Private Ralf Fairburn dove for the pebbly dirt before the word had even finished echoing off the rocks. He didn’t see who shouted the warning, nor did he know how they had known the Sirocco ground-attack craft was coming. The whispering drives of the flying-wing aircraft made almost no sound, and before the instant it flashed over the canyon, it had been hidden by the towering rock-spires all around.
That instant had been enough for the Sirocco to shower the canyon floor with dozens of pellet bombs. One silent second after it vanished once more behind the opposite lip of the defile, the bombs pattered into the dirt and vegetation, and one half-second after they touched down, the tiny bombs exploded. Shrapnel and rock fragments tore the air over Ralf’s head, and he felt clods of dirt and bits of shredded vegetation fall on his back.
It was the displaced vegetation which Ralf jumped up to quickly scatter, before any of the plants’ toxic juices could seep into the smart-fabric lining of his uniform. The Sirocco might be back, but it would be almost a minute before it could wing over and come around for another pass.
Ahead of Ralf, Lieutenant Kocsis rolled over and shook off a hillock of displaced dirt. “Everyone okay?”
The squad got to their feet one by one. Garbo was bleeding from a minor shrapnel cut to the forearm, but everyone else had avoided injury. As Chvatal tossed the scratched man a small bandage, the lieutenant checked his wrist-unit, probably surveying the tactical map. “We’re almost there.”
Garbo spat to clear his mouth of dust. “After that, they sure as all hells know we’re here, Lieutenant.”
Ralf became conscious of the metallic-tasting dust in his own mouth and nostrils. They had been given many injections before leaving Outpost Judicael to minimize the danger of exposure to local toxins, but he didn’t want to take any chances. Extending the drinking-nozzle from his pack, he sipped water, washed out his mouth, and spat out the gritty dust. The medical nanites from the injections would neutralize any arsenic or heavy metals he’d already absorbed – at least, that was what he’d been told.
“Half these canyons have people sneaking through them.” Lieutenant Kocsis gestured along the canyon. “Besides, that’s why they gave us guns. Come on.”
Ralf fell into line behind Iolana Chvatal, craning his neck up into the air every few steps to see if the Sirocco would return. Either it had bigger game to hunt than a single light infantry squad, or more likely, it had lost them as quickly as it had found them in the maze of canyons. From above, the massive plateau’s rocky outcrops and shadowed canyons presented a uniform appearance, and short of using a signal beacon to track the location, even flight computers struggled to re-locate a place briefly overflown.
Around a sudden bend, the canyon narrowed to less than two meters across, and the trickling brook which ran down the middle vanished into a hedge of shiny, spade-shaped leaves. Ralf had snoozed, as he had later learned unwisely, through most of the groundside biological conditions briefings, but the gist of their material was that most every plant and nearly every animal in the Causey contained enough toxins to kill a human who tried to clamber through them by hand.
Fortunately, the squad had been outfitted for such obstacles. Lieutenant Kocsis waved Caito forward. The big man’s wide shoulders carried a double load – his usual light infantry battle-pack, and the toroidal energy bank for a portable plasma lance. Fastening the leads from the energy bank to the emitter slung under his rifle, Caito waved everyone back, then unleashed a ten-meter-long stream of crackling plasma into the thicket. The plants burned instantly, and Caito retreated to avoid inhaling the acrid black smoke.
“Helmets.” The Lieutenant barked, and as one everyone engaged the bubble-helmets and deployable gloves installed into their uniforms to ward off the toxic fumes. These devices, identical to those fitted to the collars of spacers’ jumpsuits, were flimsy and would burst if punctured, and the atmo canisters in each person’s pack were small, but more durable equipment was in short supply at Judicael and too heavy for the trek they had been assigned in any case.
As soon as the fire had died down somewhat, Kocsis led the way into the scorched area, the blackened remains of the verdant plants crackling underfoot. Despite the helmet, Ralf held his breath as he passed through, not breathing until he made it through to the other side, where the canyon widened once more. The smart-fabric on his uniform was caked with ashen particulate which was probably lethally toxic, but he had enough atmosphere left in his pack’s canister to keep the helmet up until most of the ash shook off.
With a hissing noise, rising in pitch over its quarter-second duration, Nisi crumpled to the ground just as he stepped out of the scorched choke-point. A thin curl of smoke rose from the freshly burnt hole in his chest. Nobody needed to shout a warning – they all dove for the meager cover afforded in the canyon. The briefing hadn’t suggested Nate ground forces had approached so close to Judicael, and so they had incautiously blundered into a sniper’s killing field.
Lieutenant Kocsis gestured to Chvatal, then popped up from behind his boulder and sent a full magazine of railgun slugs rattling down the canyon. As his carbine chattered, the medic darted out and dragged Nisi into the cover of a sturdy pillar of rock.
Kocsis ducked back down as soon as his weapon clicked empty. Another rising hiss and a glowing red spot appearing on a rock behind his chosen cover suggested he’d ducked none too soon. “Anyone see him?”
Ralf, huddling behind a mound of dirt and rocks, risked a quick peek. The winding canyon was full of places for a marksman to lie in wait, watching the choke point. The squad had been sent to set up just such a roadblock farther down, just ahead of a wider area where the canyon broadened enough to permit small aircraft to land. He was the squad’s marksman, and in addition to the carbine in his hands, the FDA had issued him a collapsible phasebeam rifle. If he were the enemy marksman, where would he be? Where would he position his spotter?
“He’s got to be up high.” Garbo suggested, reflexively pointing up toward the precipice. “If-”
Another hiss of the enemy marksman’s laser interrupted Garbo by slicing through his forearm just above the wrist. He stared at his gloved hand, still pointing, when it fell into the gravel beside his knees, and only belatedly began screaming.
Chvatal looked up from her furious attempts to save Nisi’s life, but only for a moment. The Incarnation laser weapon had cauterized Garbo’s stump, and there was no saving the hand – there was nothing she could do for him except give him a painkiller. Joossens, who had taken cover behind the same rock formation as Garbo, grabbed the screaming infantryman and held him down as he thrashed and cried, to prevent any more limbs from protruding into the sniper’s view.
Ralf glanced out again, and this time he thought he spied a glint as if from a laser’s focusing lens. It wasn’t high, as Garbo had suggested – it was low, only a few meters over the canyon floor. That would be a wise place to set up, if a position was available – high enough to have higher ground than the target area, low enough to be at minimal risk from the air. Flipping open his wrist unit, he checked the high-resolution terrian maps of the area which they’d been given. Even these were too grainy for anything definitive, but something that might have been a steeply-canted rock spur projected out of the canyon wall about two hundred meters ahead. “Who's got missiles?”
“I do.” Chvatal replied, still furiously working on Nisi. “Two of mine, plus Nisi’s four.”
Lieutenant Kocsis glanced to the medic, then dove to her position. The hissing laser lashed out, but only painted a glowing spot on the rock nearby as he scrambled to Chvatal’s side and pulled one of the cigar-sized missles from her bandolier. “What’s your plan, Fairburn?”
“Slave it to my guidance, then get ready to throw.”
The Lieutenant overrode the device’s ownership settings and configured it as suggested. He didn’t need to throw it toward the enemy – he just needed to get it airborne for a second so it could safely engage its small warhead and rocket, then it would navigate to the target on its own. “Ready. Everyone mark cover ahead, and run forward when you see the flash.”
Ralf hoped he was right about where the enemy marksman was. It was an educated guess, nothing more – but it was the best option they had. “Ready, Lieutenant.”
Kocsis hurled the missile vertically, the only direction he could send it without exposing himself as Garbo had. The shiny metal tube glittered in the air for a moment before its tiny motor lit, driving it into an arcing trajectory over the canyon lip and back down to the marked position. As the explosion rattled the canyon, Ralf leapt over his rubble-pile cover and dove behind a protruding shelf a few meters ahead. The others did the same, and none of them fell with a fresh laser-blasted hole in their vitals. Only Chvatal, still ministering to Nisi, and whimpering Garbo, clutching his burnt stump of an arm, stayed back.
Only when they had all leapfrogged a second time without return fire did Ralf allow himself to hope he had guessed right. He didn’t need to necessarily hit the enemy marksman to force the Nate soldiers back. If the enemy’s tactics were anything like the FDA’s, they would have retreated in the face of infantry missiles if they lacked the firepower to respond in kind. The Incarnation didn’t entrust self-guiding missiles, even small ones, to most of its infantry – they kept their equivalent equipment in the hands of specialized weaponeers.
Lieutenant Kocsis peeked over his new cover for a long second before warily standing up. Since no laser shots felled him, it became obvious the enemy had left only a light picket in the canyon, and that force had retreated.
“Chvatal, pull Garbo and Nisi back through the choke. I’ll call in an evac.” Kocsis gestured to the others, pointing forward to the scorched area where the missile had detonated. "Everyone else, start digging in there. It’s as far forward as we’re going to get.”