2948-10-06 – Tales from the Service: The Winnowing of Hawthorn Squadron 

In our first installment of Tales from the Service featuring the fighting at Margaux (Tales from the Service: The Bumpy Ride to Margaux), we had a limited view of the Marine Pumas of Hawthorn Squadron escorting dropships down to the planet’s surface. 

In ensuing weeks, Commander Rory Vargas, that squadron’s commanding officer, has reached out with his own account. He confirms that the drop to Margaux was his first as squadron leader – and reveals in his own contribution to this series that command of Hawthorn Squadron has not been all he hoped it would be. 

Of the twelve pilots and craft in the squadron when it departed Gerard Lovell at full strength that day, the unit was withdrawn from active service on Margaux in the last week of September with only five pilots remaining. Of those five, Vargas and one other have been put on psychological leave behind the lines (which is probably the only reason he had time to write an account for us). Twelve capable Marine flyers were ground down to just three in a bit more than four weeks of action.

As sad as these losses are, Vargas’s squadron is credited with a number of instances of meritorious conduct, and rumor is that he is being considered for a Centaur Cross for his tireless service on Margaux - in the month they were on the line, they performed nearly daily close ground support and interdiction missions over Incarnation lines.

[N.T.B. - Tireless, hells – the man is a wreck. Based on what he sent us, it looks to me like he’ll snap if they give him a medal and try to call him a hero. He seems to think the people deserving the medals – especially his late XO, one Lieutenant Radkov – are the ones who never made it back to base.] 

Commander Rory Vargas took off from the landing pad just like he was on a close air support run for the front-line Marines. The Incarnation’s eyes in the sky wouldn’t be able to tell his squadron was outfitted for orbital forays instead of ground-hugging support duty until it was too late.  

As he circled over the rendezvous position and watched the other four Pumas in Hawthorn Squadron rise from their pads and form up, Rory tried and failed to avoid thinking about the other seven Pumas which had rocketed from Gerard Lovell’s hangar alongside him four weeks before. All but Mizutani had made it down to Judicael safely on the first day, and with the enemy’s deadly-agile Coronachs being all but useless when subject to the friction and stresses imposed by an atmosphere, he’d dared to hope that ground support for Lovell’s Marines would be a cakewalk.  

He hadn’t been at Mereena, but he’d heard from the few Marine strike pilots who’d participated that the Incarnation seemed to care little about the deadly dance of the Pumas over their heads, even when that dance showered their troops with ordinance. The big Sirocco ground-attack gunships were tough enough and defensively armed against interceptors, but on Mereena pilots had reported taking almost no fire from the ground. 

Margaux had proved quite different. The Incarnation, between Margaux and Mereena, had found a way to solve the Puma problem. Autonomous, fast-tracking laser mounts had been mounted on any vehicle with a large enough roof to take one. When Rory’s squadron had appeared over the battlespace on the third day after arrival to wreck a column moving across one of the Causey’s rare open spaces, the sky above the enemy formation had almost literally burned with their interlocking beams. Klement and Sarkozy were gone before anyone knew what was happening. Rory had called a retreat, but Williamson’s craft had taken too much damage to make it back to Judicael. She had ejected before it came apart and her gravitic featherpack had registered its landing position behind enemy lines before falling silent. Rory prayed she had been killed, because the unpersoning horrors that might be in store for her if she was still alive did not bear contemplation. 

They had revised their tactics, roaring down canyons to hide from enemy sensors until the last second, but that too had its risks. On the eighth day on Margaux, Aarden had suffered a systems fault during a high-speed canyon run and plowed into a protruding rock formation. The flight techs at Judicael had sworn to Rory that Aarden’s Puma had been working perfectly when he dusted off, but Rory remained convinced that they had missed something. The deepening bags under their eyes even then told a tale of overwork, with too little expertise being spread thin across too many squadrons. Between servicing the Navy’s loaned Magpies, the Marines’ Pumas, the FDA’s fleet of overpriced Kosseler Wyverns and superannuated Jie Yu Yerens, and the half-dozen patchwork mercenary squadrons who had appeared from somewhere, the ground crews barely seemed to have time to sleep. 

After Aarden’s date with the Margaux terrain, Rory and his fellow pilots had started servicing their own craft on the pads to try to keep the ground crew from having complete breakdowns. They lost a little sleep, but it seemed to help reduce the rate of inexplicable systems failures. The pilots of the Yeren squadron assigned to share their hangar started doing the same, and soon half the entire base’s flight crew were pulling second shifts in blue coveralls. Rory’s squadron went a full nine days without losing any craft or pilots, and he began to think they had reached the mythical cakewalk phase, where their tactics brought something to Margaux the enemy could not properly counter. 

Sunden getting hit was bad luck, really. He had done everything right as he closed in for the kill on a wounded Sirocco limping back to its own home field, but the Sirocco’s rear-swiveling guns had pulled off a one-in-a-million shot, skewering Sunden’s Puma with a heavy particle beam. At least it had been instantaneous. The poor kid, Rory thought, had probably crossed the Sea of Glass still trying to pull the trigger for his forward guns. 

The final straw for Rory’s spirit, though, had been Radkov, who’d made the same one-way journey into eternity only three days ago. She had been his second in command, and everyone had considered her the best pilot in the squadron in terms of raw ability. Rory had quietly recommended her conduct for award consideration no less than five times since he’d first set foot on Margaux’s poisoned soil. At the controls of the agile Puma, she could dance through impossible storms of laser-fire without even getting her paint scorched. She was the closest thing to an Immortal pilot the Confederated defenders had – and since the Incarnation’s elite super-soldiers couldn’t use their reflexes flying a lumbering Sirocco and couldn’t bring Coronachs to an atmospheric fight, that had made her the queen of the Margaux skies. 

“Hawthorn Actual, Thunderbird reports ready-op.” 

Rory jumped in his restraints as the ground-side controller interrupted his morose thoughts. A quick scan of the board showed all his squadron’s Pumas at the ready altitude, their status indicators green. Today, they weren’t going for a ground-hugging, stomach-clenching ride over enemy lines. The life-line of wounded going up and supplies coming down needed to be maintained once more. For the time being, the Incarnation fleet couldn’t hold orbital station over the Causey redoubt without being served a hefty helping of surface-launched heavy missiles. “Hawthorn is ready-op." 

There was a brief pause, then the controller spoke again. “Begin your run, Commander.” 

Rory flicked his status indicator control to get his pilots’ attention, then set his Puma on a pre-arranged flight path. The other interceptors formed up in line behind him, just as discussed. For the first minutes of their run, it would appear that they were heading for the network of canyons that would shield them on their approach to enemy lines.  

Meanwhile, Thunderbird, a mercenary-operated pinnace filled to the gills with Marine wounded, was heaving itself off a pad at Outpost Abbott eighty klicks away and straining for the sky. It would, to anyone watching sensor plots on the enemy side of the line, look like the pinnace was un-escorted, since Hawthorn’s remaining Pumas were flying like they were equipped – for ground support, not orbital operations. 

The ruse would hopefully draw out any Coronachs left in stealthy geo-sync orbits over Causey. When they attacked, Rory and his fellow pilots would pull up suddenly, cut their gravitic drive units, and engage the old-fashioned disposable liquid-fuel boosters strapped to their interceptors’ bellies, rocketing up to low orbit in about thirty seconds. The Coronachs could stay and fight, or they could quit the area. In either case, there were almost thirty other small transports waiting on the ground for the way to be clear. Once they broke orbit and began their outward acceleration, it would quickly become impossible for enemy interceptors to catch up to them. 

As his squadron dipped low as if to make their canyon run, Rory remembered the enthusiastic laughter Agata Radkov had, perhaps inadvertently, broadcast on the squadron comms channel as she closed in for the kill on an enemy troop-ferry aircraft which had strayed into their area of operations. The kill had been her last. She had grown increasingly gleeful with the bloody work on Margaux as everyone else became exhausted and resigned, as if weariness could never touch her. She had never lost any of her finesse, and Rory had thought, watching her hurtle toward her victim, that she would be the last one of Hawthorn Squadron to survive. 

Five seconds after he had thought she was invincible, Radkov’s Puma exploded. Three days later, he still didn’t know what had taken her down – he had not seen any signs of ground fire and Incarnation air ferries were barely armed, surely not well enough to cause that kind of sudden loss. There was no ejection, no chance of surviving that inferno – she had been blotted out of the sky she had ruled for nearly a month. It was as if the universe had simply conspired to blot her out.

“Thunderbird reports cold-starts in low orbit. Hawthorn, you are go.” 

Before the controller back at Judicael had even finished his report, Rory had already pulled up on his control column. “Liquid fuel boosters online. We’re going to space the old-fashioned way today, boys and girls.” 

Two seconds later, the Puma’s main drive cut out, and with it the inertial isolation unit. After an instant of sickening weightlessness, Rory was crushed back into his chair by multiple gees of acceleration as he rode a column of roaring primeval fire toward the Coronachs who had revealed their positions overhead. A quick glance at the plot showed the others right behind him. Five Pumas against what looked like six Coronachs – nearly even odds, but Rory knew his squadron had the advantage. Sitting in orbit to raid supply ships wouldn’t be a duty saved for Nate’s best pilots, and Hawthorn, even now, was still among the best. 

The ghost of a familiar whooping cheer played across Rory’s imagination, and his craft’s shuddering ascent freed a single tear from his right eye. He had sent his letter of condolence to Agata Radkov’s family on Maribel only a few hours before dustoff – they likely already had the news that she was gone. “Agata, you would have loved this ride.” 

2948-09-29 – Tales from the Service: In Action with The Twelfth

Usha Tilki threw herself to the ground as a blast outside filled the cave mouth with a swarm of rock splinters. The buzzing rattle of Marine combat-suit railguns still filled the air when her ears stopped ringing, so she judged the bombardment ineffective and got back to her knees to keep working. 

“Bit closer to the action than you wanted to be, Tilki?” The moon-faced Marine in the suit she was working on chuckled as Usha opened the access panel below one of the big machine’s knee joints. Private Segale seemed unfazed by his immobility even despite the near miss, probably because he was wearing hundreds of pounds of powered suit whose armor shrugged off most shrapnel and rock splinters. The sand-blasted appearance of his originally bright green-and-gold Twelfth Marines insignia suggested he’d deflected more than his fair share of flying debris already. 

“A bit.” Usha peered into the limb’s inner workings, looking for signs of the damage that had incapacitated Segale. The man within the full-scale ground assault suit hadn’t been hurt - the Marine’s own tree-trunk legs ended somewhere in the machine’s hips – but given Margaux’s inclement biosphere and the heavy weaponry needed to hold the line, he was just as out of action as if he’d had his face melted by a heavy Incarnation laser unless Usha could fix the fault. “It’s not always this bad up here, is it?” 

The roar of engines overhead deafened her to any reply from the private. Usha guessed from the sound that this was a Marine dropship, ferrying in reinforcements or evacuating the grievously wounded. Nate forces generally reserved their passenger-carrying aircraft for offensive lifts, as Marine Pumas and loaned Navy Magpies still prowled the air above Causey from more than a hundred service outposts studding the rocky plateau.  

Seeing that the tech hadn’t heard him, Private Segale leaned forward as soon as the thunder of engines moved off, repeating what he’d said in a louder voice. “You should have been here yesterday during the big push. Right now it’s just harassing fire here. The real action’s about two klicks west.” 

“This isn’t a big push?” Usha had arrived less than three hours before with two other techs, and neither the buzz of Marine railgun fire or the snap-hiss of Incarnation beam rifles had ceased in that time. The immediate vicinity had been bombed from the air twice, strafed by a Sirroco at least three times, fired on several times by some sort of distant heavy artillery she couldn’t guess the nature of, cooked by a sustained microwave beam that had reduced the local plants to a boiled-spinach goo that clung wetly to the rocks, and finally bombarded by some sort of short-ranged cluster-warhead rocket from the enemy line. She’d assumed she’d arrived at the hottest possible moment. 

“Hells, they’ve got a lot more in their bag of tricks when they want it.” Segale chuckled. “Looks like they’re pushing up and down the line looking for weak spots, places we aren’t dug in. No luck here, so most of them moved on down.” 

Usha turned on her helmet light and twisted her neck to shine it down into the mechanism below the access panel. She thought she saw the jagged glint of a snapped titanium rod, probably one of the actuators for the suit’s balance control system. “I think I see the problem, Private.” She stuck a computer probe into the suit’s access jacks and cut power to the damaged leg. “I’ve got spares for what you broke. Should take about twenty minutes to swap it out.” 

Segale nodded, rolling his thick neck inside his helmet. Most Marines knew how to fall asleep in an instant, and sure enough, the big man appeared to doze off even before Usha got to her feet and headed for the crate the Marines had dragged farther back into the grotto. 

It took several minutes for Usha to find the right type of actuator rod in the heavy crate of spare parts the dropship had left her. The big polymer container had clearly been packed in haste back at Judicael, and she cursed whichever logistics techs had done it – they seemingly assembled a list of Marine-kit spare parts, then hurled them all into the crate at random until it filled up, with an occasional spacer of padding foam added more as a sedimentary layer boundary than a divider of organized categories. Armed with the rod and removing a pair of smart-metal multitools from hip pouches, she mentally rehearsed the procedure – remove the exterior leg plating and cage-mesh inner guard, disconnect and remove the foot assembly, twist off the calf assembly frame to expose the mechanism, then swap out the broken rod and reverse the process. 

Segale seemed to sleep soundly as Usha disassembled his suit leg, despite the racket outside and the not-inconsiderable sounds of armor plate being pried free of its metal frame. She quietly envied his slumber – even back at Judicael, she struggled to sleep with the fitful rumble of explosions and aero-engines in the distance reminding her that Margaux was under siege. If it were not for sleeping pills, she knew she would be a hopeless psych-case already. 

As the various metal components surrounding the damaged mechanism fell away, Usha saw glittering splinters of shattered titanium drifting to the rocky floor. For a titanium rod to simply shatter like that, she knew the strain must have been unbelievable – far beyond the suit’s designed limits. Sighing at the metallic carnage, she wrenched the two ends of the smashed actuator free and tossed them aside. She knew Marines – they were hard on their equipment, often without knowing it. If she asked him what had happened, he would say it just failed suddenly, or something equally vague. 

A stone splinter skittered across the floor behind Usha, and she turned, expecting to see one of the other two mechanics who’d arrived with her heading for the crate of parts. Instead, to her horror, she saw three men in form-fitting gray attire clutching slender laser carbines slinking into the cave. Before they spotted her, Usha darted back into the shadows behind Private Segale’s huge suit. How had Incarnation infiltrators gotten past so many Marines? 

The leader of the little band waved his fellows deeper into the cave, and Usha saw them eyeing Segale cautiously. Perhaps they thought him dead – their gazes fell on the disassembled leg and then moved on, as if that satisfied them that he was not capable of harming them. The leader gestured, and they started to creep past him. 

This dismissal proved a fatal error. Though Segale had set aside his heavy railgun, no Marine, in a suit or out of it, was ever truly disarmed. With a ring of metal scraping on metal and a snick of latches clicking into place, the suit’s long right arm shot outward in a blur. All three Incarnation infiltrators crumpled to the ground, two with a boneless finality that suggested they’d been dead before they started to fall. 

“All the best sensor kit watching the perimeter and these chipheads can still just walk on over here.” Segale grumbled, sitting up straight despite missing most of his suit’s leg below the knee. He held up his right hand in front of his helmet, and Usha saw glistening red blood on the meter-long blade which had appeared as if by magic from the middle of its metal palm. “Lieutenant is on his way. Grab the third one. He’ll probably live long enough to answer some questions.” 

The third infiltrator moaned in pain and tried to drag himself away, leaving a smear of dark blood on the rocks. Usha shuddered at the tone in Segale’s voice, then moved out of the Marine’s shadow to stop the grievously wounded enemy from crawling too far. 

As she approached, she saw that Segale’s blade had bit deeply into his abdomen, and wet streamers of shredded flesh and viscera trailed from the yawning wound. Given decent medical attention, he would probably have lived even with such a wound – not that the Marines would send him to the rear to receive such care unless he gave them good reasons for such leniency. 

The man cried out and struggled feebly as Usha put a dusty boot on his back, pressing him down against the cave floor. “Hold it.” She suspected it would be kinder to put her sidearm to the back of the man’s head and put him out of his misery, but she didn’t have the nerve to do it. “My friends here want to have a talk with you.” 

Tech Tilki sent in this account after reading the last two entries in this series. While the FDA holds most of the Judicael perimeter, the Marines have emplaced themselves in the most likely avenues of attack and along the open areas where infantry struggle to dig in. She wished to communicate the intensity of the fighting in Marine-held sectors – it seems that local commanders are sending Marine units wherever the Incarnation puts a determined push into motion and leaving FDA largely alone in quieter or more remote areas. Her experience was with a sector one day after the worst of the fighting there, and still it seems to indicate far more action than Ralf Fairburn’s squad is seeing. 

The Marine unit Tilki was sent to support seems to be Colonel Pokorni's Twelfth Marines, veterans of Mereena. This unit is probably the most experienced on Margaux, at least in terms of fighting the Incarnation.

This account does not attempt to diminish the rather harsh prisoner handling practices of the Marines – rest assured that for all their grim disregard for enemy lives, I am assured they are not permitted to extend or expand the suffering of enemy wounded.  Indeed, they are far more well-mannered captors of enemy soldiers than the Incarnation is of Confederated defenders. 

Admiral Zahariev seems to be preparing another excursion into Margaux. I cannot say more at this time; unfortunately with our own vessel damaged in the last engagement, I doubt we will be present at the next battle in that system. 

[N.T.B - With the rocky terrain of the area, it doesn’t surprise me that small infiltrator teams traveling light can cross the lines. I’d bet FDA units are doing the same thing – sending soldiers on scouting patrols behind the enemy line to see what they can spot, confuse, or slag without getting noticed. Hopefully ours are causing more trouble than theirs, but with those damned interconnected implants the Nate soldiers have, I can’t imagine our side getting any big advantages that way.] 

2948-09-22 – Tales from the Service: The Burial Detail 

The battle around Outpost Judicael on Margaux continues, and is likely to do so for some time. Though the Marines and FDA claim to have extensive pre-constructed fortifications in the area, it seems the terrain being fought over is actually  still outside these works, which suggests to Nojus and I that the number of defenders rushed into the system actually exceed the numbers expected in the planet’s defense plans. This bodes well for the planet’s long-term status – the Navy should have plenty of time to relieve the defenders before the planet falls. 

I have seen many accounts and many more recordings of the action on Margaux, and one thing which the audiovisual media of the battle can’t seem to convey, but which is reported in all eyewitness accounts, is the chaotic acoustic conditions of the battlefield. The canyon-laced terrain of Causey Plana seems to carry sound long distances along these features, but to dampen it entirely when it comes from the craggy heights or from another ravine. 

One of the eyewitnesses reporting this phenomenon is Ralf Fairburn, from whose account last week’s tale (Tales from the Service: Canyon Warfare on Causey Plana) was derived. Evidently, his small squad spent no less than eleven days defending a nameless wilderness canyon from increasingly determined enemy incursions before being relieved by five times their number. Later in his account, he told the story of how the acoustic strangeness of the Margaux battlespace could be useful as well as disruptive. 

[N.T.B. - My sponsorship contract with Reed-Soares is on hold for the moment, but I do know that they the multi-tools used by the Frontier Defense Army. After this mess is all over, we can probably expect the lowly volunteer private clambering toward enemy lines armed only with one of these to feature heavily in their advertisement. It’s a financial hit, but I have no illusions about who deserves the publicity more.] 

Lieutenant Kocsis glared at Ralf Fairburn across their shallow entrenchments for several seconds, and Ralf decided that this was so he could realize on his own why the suggestion he’d just made over the radio was not feasible. Unfortunately, it seemed that officer logic and enlisted logic had once again diverged, because he had thought about the suggestion for hours before bringing it up and hadn’t thought of any way of avoiding the necessity. 

“Private Fairburn, there are eight of us with at least seventy Nate soldiers fifty meters to our front, and you want to risk your hide burying the dead?” 

Ralf glanced back in the direction of the enemy. The pair of Incarnation soldiers ripening in the midday heat halfway between the squad’s defensive line and the boulder-pile which sheltered the enemy “Lieutenant, if we’re going to be here more than another couple of days, we really don’t want to leave them there. They’re upwind of us.” 

The pair of enemy soldiers had perished similarly to how Nisi had bought his plot – apparently unaware of the skirmish in the ravine the day before, their group of about twenty had ambled cautiously into the open, where Ralf’s phasebeam rifle and the automatic fire from several infantry carbines set up in static hopper-fed mode had scythed through their ranks. The unhurt had dragged away all the fallen save those two – probably because their ubiquitous implants had already flagged them as killed instantly. The Incarnation didn’t seem to have any instinct to recover the bodies of the dead, so the pair lay where they fell, their light hand-held lasers and other equipment glinting in the sun, and their pallid skin beginning to take on the green mottling of Margaux decay. 

Ralf, in his position on the left side of the weak fortification where it angled forward before intersecting the canyon wall, was closest to the bodies, could already smell the strangely acrid scent of human flesh surrendering to alien decomposition. He knew the scent would only get worse, degrading the squad’s ability to hold the canyon. 

Somewhere overhead, Confederated Navy Magpie gunships roared past, probably flying outward from Judicael. The thunder of their gravitic engines pushing the heavy, snub-nosed craft beyond the speed of sound drowned out the lieutenant’s reply and sent showers of pebbles and dusts cascading down the canyon walls all around them. Ralf didn’t look up to try to spot them – he had long since learned that the canyon’s bare rock walls channeled sound well enough that they would seem to be right over his head even if they crossed it kilometers away. 

As soon as the echoes faded, Lieutenant Kocsis keyed the channel again. “You’ll live with the smell, private.” 

“Lieutenant, with whatever does decay around here, the smell could be poison gas.” Ralf had already put in a few datasphere queries, which had taken longer than usual to return – either the enemy fleet was taking out datasphere satellites, or the network was overloaded by all the fancy hardware brought to Margaux by the Confederated Marines – and toxic outgassing was definitely a possibility. “Even if it’s just stink, you ever try shooting straight with your eyes watering?” He left out the impact on morale of breathing a miasmatic soup – Kocsis would be able to figure that one out on his own, officer logic or no. 

Kocsis was still glaring across the ten meters between them, but he shifted his posture, and Ralf knew the inescapable logic of his suggestion had penetrated his superior’s natural stubbornness. “We’ll try it after dark, then.” 

Ralf shook his head vigorously, so the motion was visible at a distance. “Won’t do. They’ll hear us.” 

As if to punctuate his point, a thunderous roar of rockets – liquid-fueled chemical boosters, not gravitic thrusters – battered the defenders’ eardrums. They all knew the only rockets fielded on Margaux were those built into the legs and backs of heavy Marine armor-suits, which were not big enough to power gravitic thrusters and not light enough to use mere turbofans. A series of explosions and the tearing rattle of super-heavy suit-mounted railguns might have suggested to the outnumbered FDA soldiers that help was on the way, but they’d been on station a week and learned long before that on Margaux, help always sounded seconds away but never came. The brass at Judicael had told them to hold the canyon, and they would hold it until they couldn’t. 

“Can you get to the bodies without being exposed?” 

Ralf looked out at the route for the dozenth time since dawn. “I think so. The bodies aren’t in their field of view. See that stand of plants with the curly leaves?” 

Lieutenant Kocsis bent to examine the screen of his wrist computer, too smart to poke his head into view. The squad had hidden no less than thirty remote camera pods in the canyon walls, so he had little need to risk his head. If the enemy had similar devices, they had shown no sign of it. “You might be right, Fairburn. How long do you need?” 

“Five minutes to get there, five back. Hell if I know how long it will take to bury them, if I can only dig under sound cover.” 

The only reply was a noncommittal grunt, which Ralf took as permission to start whenever he thought reasonable. His elevated sharpshooter’s perch didn’t have a direct line of fire to the enemy position, so the first few meters were the easy part. He just needed some other part of the gradually intensifying battle for the highlands to make enough noise to cover the sound of his movement. 

He didn’t have long to wait. This time, the source of the noise actually was overhead – the boomerang shape of a Sirocco gunship sliced through the air, its guns swiveled rearwards to duel with the nose guns of a pursuing Marine Puma interceptor. Though he would have preferred to watch in hopes of seeing the big attack craft blown out of the sky, Ralf safed his phasebeam and rolled out of position, sliding down the four-meter rock slope to the canyon floor. 

When the aerial battle finally meandered away, Ralf had made half the distance to the bodies. Clutching his portable survival utility, he pressed flat into the ground and did his best impression of a boulder, waiting patiently either for an Incarnation marksman’s killing shot from an unseen roost, or for another opportunity to move. 

“No motion across the fence.” Lieutenant Kocsis sent on the radio channel, as if to encourage Ralf. “Looks like you were right.” 

Ralf was halfway through typing out an acrid rejoinder when the ground he was pressed into trembled. The battle’s distant roar began to grow closer once more. He tensed, looking ahead to plan his next dash. 

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.”