2952-05-21 – Tales from the Service: The Listening Post on the Ridge 

Though the attack on Ortberg Ridge was far better supported than most of the participants realized even while it was ongoing, the heroism of the volunteer troops fighting far from home cannot be understated. Ayama has, at this point, fallen to Confederated forces, pushing the Incarnation one step further away from Sagittarius Gate. No doubt, there are many thousands of enemy holdouts still on that world, but it is no longer a resource depot for the enemy. 

[D.L.C. 05-23: Apologies for any delays in distributing this item to your feeds; the same day it was prepared for ingest, an Incarnation raid broke the Hypercast relay chain across the Gap. I have been informed that connectivity back to the Core Worlds has been restored; those of you on my side of the Gap should not have noticed any interruptions.] 

Sergeant Helen Keir sat with her back to a brown boulder and listened, barely daring to breathe. Reyer and Tuominen, a few meters down-slope, hugged the ground and clutched their weapons, trusting in what meager cover the uneven ground afforded them. 

After a long moment, Helen heard it again: the sound of metal scraping against stony soil. It was close, perhaps ten meters from her up the slope. 

Helen glanced at her comrades and pursed her lips. Exposing themselves to the multitude of electronic eyes on the ridgetop would be suicide. Still, Helen knew she needed to learn what the sound meant. Her squad, along with the rest of the company, was going to attack the hill the next day at dawn, and if victory were possible at all, it hinged on the attackers having all the surprises. 

Things didn’t seem quite so hopeless as they had a few hours earlier, at least. Tuominen had led the way from their bivouac to a dry gulley in the hillside, which had let them climb up a fair distance unobserved. At the upper end of the gulley, a stand of boulders had given them cover to advance a little further, but they hadn’t even gotten to the edge of this before the scraping noises had stopped them short. 

Helen was, as usual, carrying a pocket-full of micro-drones, but those would be slagged a soon as they rose into the air, and alert the enemy to the presence of Helen and her patrol. So near to Incarnation lines, even sending a tight-beam radio signal might raise the alarm. If they were going to do anything, it would need to be something low-tech – in other words, something dirty. 

Moving slowly, Helen lifted her carbine’s carry-strap over her head and set the weapon down on the ground. Motioning the others to stay still, she drew her side-arm, an antiquated VT-31 chemical-cartridge gun she’d bought secondhand before joining the FVDA, and dropped flat against the pebbly dirt. 

Were it not for the thick fibers of her laser-vest, Helen probably couldn’t have crawled any distance on her belly without being shredded by the sharp-edged rocks. As it was, her hands and knees, despite being protected by thick gloves and pants, screamed in pain every time she pushed herself a few inches forward.  

After what seemed like an hour, Helen poked her head around the side of a boulder, then ducked back a moment later. No laser drilled out her brains, and no near-misses charred the soil nearby, so she was still not exposing herself to the guns on the hilltop. Slowly, she pushed forward once more, and peered out toward the intermittent scraping noises. 

Not far uphill from where she was hiding, Helen saw a trio of Incarnation soldiers, their silver-grey fatigues stained brown with dirt, digging into the hillside. They had that absent, glazed-eyes look that Nate personnel usually did while performing manual labor; thanks to the implants interfacing with their brains, the mind of each of the laborers was elsewhere, tapped into an entertainment broadcast or interacting with his fellows on the implant network. Their position was invisible from Confederated positions at the hill’s feet, and they trusted in their comrades on the hilltop for protection against any patrol that might interrupt their work. 

Helen watched the digging for nearly a minute before creeping back to Reyer and Tuominen, as slowly and painfully as she had departed.  

Only when her back was resting against the big boulder where she had started again did she speak. “Three Nate soldiers digging on the hillside right in front of us.” She gestured back toward the sound. The trio wouldn’t hear her over the sounds of their labor, as long as she kept her voice low. “Setting up a sensor picket, probably.” 

Tuominen shook her head. “Doesn’t make any sense. That spot doesn’t have eyes on any of the approaches.” 

“It does block the top of our gulley.” Reyer gestured behind himself. “They must have noticed it was a weakness.” 

Helen nodded. She too had considered the laborers’ proximity to the defile unlikely to be a coincidence. “By dawn they could have a squad entrenched there with sensors and crew-served weapons.” She didn’t need to say what that would do to their chances of taking the ridge in a frontal attack; the others knew well enough. 

Tuominen unslung her rifle. “Dead bodies don’t dig.” 

Reyer held up a hand. “If they know we’ve been up this far they’ll be on alert in the morning.” 

Helen sighed. “Reyer’s right. We need to make it look like an accident. Tuominen, get a position fix on that dig.” 

Tuoiminen nodded and started to crawl away toward the edge of the boulder field. 

“Reyer, get back down to the bivouac and tell Barden what we’ve got up here.” Helen pointed back the way they’d come. “Tuominen and I will be staying until nightfall.” 

“Sarge, Nate patrols will come out when the sun goes down.” Reyer shook his head. “We’ve run into them way down-slope.” 

“I know.” Helen shook her head. “Tell the Lieutenant that we’ll want a bombardment on our target some time after nightfall, but to send a bunch of rounds long, to make it look like a ranging walk up the ridge.” 

“Ah.” Reyer flashed a lop-sided smile. “I get it, Sarge. Ranging walk after dark is bound to catch a few people outside the lines.” 

“Get moving. If the Lieutenant has any better ideas, he might send you back up.” Helen angled her head up and back to indicate the ridge-top. “Remember, no radio up here.” 

Reyer nodded and began creeping backwards toward the gulley. As soon as he was gone, Helen dropped her shoulders and sighed. Maybe Lieutenant Barden would have a better idea; even if they did get the whole company up this far undetected, and past the listening post site without raising the alarm, the morning’s attack still seemed hopeless. 

2952-05-15 – Tales from the Service: The Ridge on Ayam

Helen Keir crossed her arms and shook her head. “That can’t be done, sir.” She pointed to the frowning brow of Ortberg Ridge, named for the poor sod who’d been the first to die in an attempt to take it. “They’ve hauled at least a couple heavy AFVs up there overnight. If we tried what HQ is asking, they’d shred us before we got fifty paces.” 

Lieutenant Barden nodded. “I understand, sergeant.” He turned as if to retreat into the half-buried tent that was serving as the company command post. “They’ll just order it anyway, unless we come up with an alternative.” His shoulders drooped; Barden had been in command in close combat for more than two weeks, and the burden was beginning to show on his lean frame. “I’ve been looking at the maps. There isn’t one. Or if there is, it’s one we can’t see unless we’re halfway up the ridge already.” 

Helen sighed. “Last patrol before dawn made it up almost that far before taking fire, but going up in daylight would be suicide. They can’t spare us a survey swarm?” 

“I asked. Command says the drones would be blown out of the sky before they could gather any data.” Barden looked over his shoulder, staring up at the ridge. “They’re probably right. If there are AFVs up there, that means at least a dozen sky sweepers.” 

As if in answer to this guess, a high-pitched screeching noise rose from the ridgeline, and soon it was joined by several more screeches. Helen knew this to signify invisible lasers stabbing out across the afternoon sky, chasing an unseen target high above, probably a reconnaissance Puma flying above the optimal range of the Incarnation weapons below. After building to an almost ear-splitting crescendo, the whining of those rapidly-cycling capacitors began to tail off, as one by one the lasers gave up their attempts to hit the departing craft. 

Helen shuddered; sky sweepers were best at targeting low-flying aircraft, but they could be leveled against ground troops just as easily, though without pinpoint accuracy. She’d seen a squad cut to ribbons in an instant those weapons. Unless Barden found a way to bypass the ridge, that might be the fate of her own squad and others at dawn, slaughtered in pushing home an attack against the strongest point on the whole line. 

“I still might find something.” Barden turned once again toward his tent headquarters. “Or you might.” 

“A patrol up the ridge in broad daylight?” Helen shook her head. “We’d be-” 

“No more slaughtered than you will be if we carry out the attack.” Barden coughed. “But I won’t order it, and neither should you.” 

Helen saluted. “Yes, sir. I’ll look for some volunteers.” 

Hurrying through the scraggly trees around the company command post, Helen reached her own squad’s part of the front line, just after the terrain began to rise toward the knees of the ridge. There, behind a stand of boulders, lay the camp-site that was temporary home to Helen and her fifteen subordinates. Two days ago, there had been seventeen of them, but Helen preferred not to dwell on the names and faces of those who’d fallen. 

“What’s the word, Sarge?” Reyer looked up from field-stripping his rail carbine.  

Several others glanced up from their own busywork. Helen could feel the tension in the air; they had heard, somehow, about the attack. The rank and file always somehow managed to catch wind of bad news before the normal channels could catch up. 

“Command wants an all-out attack at sunrise.” Helen gestured up at Ortberg Ridge. “We’re going up.” 

Strangely, this pronouncement seemed to relieve the tension in the air. It was almost as if it was a relief to the squad that the bad news had been confirmed. Helen knew this to be a sign of their weariness as much as anything; certain death was, at least, certain. 

“We won’t make it fifty paces.” Danielsen shrugged. “Unless there’s enough air support to reshape the damned ridge, anyway.” 

“Or we find a route up that’s under cover until almost the very top.” Helen held out her hands. “I’m going up there to have a look. It would be best if I had two or three volunteers with me, in case...” She shrugged. “In case the likely thing were to happen. If we do find a way to get within small arms range of the top without being seen, the attack has a chance.” 

“Still not much of one." Reyer spat into the dust and cleared his throat. “I’ll go, Sarge. No harm buying the plot twelve hours sooner.” 

“I will also." Tuominen, the slight, almost elfin Hyadean sharpshooter, reached for her rifle. “If we do get close, someone will need to stay to mark the path for everyone else.” 

“Thank you both.” She pointed to another. “Corporal Hartley, you are in charge until I get back.” 

Hartley saluted. “Got it, Sarge. I’ll make sure nobody plugs you on your way back down, eh?” 

Helen smiled. “Please do.” She rummaged through her pack for anything that might prove useful on such a perilous patrol, then stood, stuffing a few things into her pockets. “Let’s get this over with.” 

This week’s account also comes to us from the in-progress fighting on Ayama, which is proceeding slower than it seems Seventh Fleet had planned. Evidently the enemy garrison on the world was better equipped with heavy weaponry and armored vehicles than initially expected, and these armaments have slowed the liberation of the world. 

Fortunately, it seems that casualties on Ayama remain comparably light, despite the dour outlook of those on the ground, as evidenced here by Sergent Keir’s pronouncements of disaster and concerns about her under-strength unit. Most likely, one or both of the F.V.D.A. troopers her squad has lost were wounded, not killed, and the attack on such a strong point was (apparently without any prior notice to her or her commander) heavily supported by Confederated Marines, including a squad equipped with super-heavy Kodiak suits. 

2952-05-08 – Tales from the Service: The Survivors’ Refuge 

Obviously, because we have the account, Daniel Kuhn and his gunner were eventually rescued, but the two badly-injured Navy spacers were not so lucky that this rescue was quick. They did indeed crash behind enemy lines, and it would not be until more than twenty-four hours after the crash that a recovery team picked them up. 

It’s something of a miracle that the pair survived for twenty-four hours in a strange wilderness as badly injured as they were. Ayama does not have any large wildlife capable of threatening a human, but exposure to the elements is equally fatal on any world. 

[N.T.B. - As you will see in the continuation of the account below, they were lucky to find shelter from those elements quickly after leaving their wrecked craft. Without that, I fear they may have perished; night-time temperatures in the region apparently drop below zero degrees Celsius and the wind can be cruel. Out in the open, they might have lost their thermal blankets to a fickle gust and frozen to death.]  

The cave was barely worthy of the name, being little more than a hollow in an overhanging bank of crumbly conglomerate, but Daniel Kuhn didn’t know if he or Val Isakov could go much farther in search of something better, and at least it kept them out of sight and out of the wind. After sweeping the inside with his jumpsuit’s wrist-light, Daniel helped his compatriot to a seated position inside, then unwrapped a silvery thermal blanket and spread it over her lap. 

Val looked up blankly, but her eyes were unfocused, looking past her companion. Shock from her recently-severed lower leg was quickly setting in, and there was nothing Daniel could do about it with only the contents of their Magpie’s emergency first-aid kit except make sure the torniquet and bandage protecting the stump didn’t come loose and try to get them rescued as soon as possible. 

Rescue, however, would have to wait; he didn’t have any fix on their position, and it seemed only too likely that they were on the wrong side of enemy lines. Trying to attract a rescue before friendly forces were close would only ensure their capture by the Incarnation, which would make Val’s case of shock the least of either of their problems. 

Daniel wasn’t in much better shape than his surviving gunner, either. Without a maximum dose of painkillers and a lot of nano-bandages, the burns on his thigh and side would be too painful for him to stand, let alone walk – and those painkillers would be wearing off in a couple of hours. He didn’t look forward to the agony awaiting him beyond the drugs. 

With trembling hands, Daniel pulled the pack off his shoulder and rooted around inside for one of the emergency ration bars within. He wasn’t hungry, but it seemed like a good idea to get some calories into his system now. Later, he might not be in any presence of mind to eat. 

“Lieutenant?” Val suddenly looked up, her eyes wide. “Where’s Haak?” 

“Relax, Isakov.” Daniel held up his hands. “Don’t you remember?” 

“He was just... He was...” Val’s hands scrabbled against the stone, as if she were trying to stand. “He’s probably still...” Her voice grew weak and faint again. “Still waiting for...” 

The thought seemed to dissolve in front of Val’s eyes, and she put her hands into her lap, staring down at them. Daniel winced and returned to chewing the unappetizing ration bar. 

A sound like a footstep above their hide-out made Daniel freeze. Val didn’t seem to have heard it, so after a few seconds, he began to relax; perhaps it was just a figment of his imagination. 

A moment later, he heard the sound again, this time louder, closer. Daniel slowly reached down to the side-arm hanging from his belt and slid it free of its holster. He knew only too well what Incarnation troops did with prisoners. He and Val weren’t going to be taken without a fight. Barely breathing, he trained the muzzle of the weapon on the center of the cave-mouth, waiting for targets to present themselves. 

Seconds ticked by, and the only sound was the mournful whistle of the wind through the rugged boulders and scraggly trees outside. Daniel knew he hadn’t imagined the sound. Someone was out there. The only question was whether they’d been discovered. 

“Lieutenant...” Val whispered. 

Daniel held up his hand and shot her a warning glance. If there were Incarnation soldiers out there, even the slightest sound would make their discovery certain. Hopefully she would recognize the need to be quiet, even in her current state. 

“I was thinking.” Val whispered hoarsely. “Do you think anyone in the squadron saw where we went down?” 

Daniel frowned; he hadn’t thought of that. He hadn’t sent any distress call either before or after their hard landing, but there had been at least five other Magpies in the sky when they’d been hit. Now, of course, the question seemed academic. Whoever was out there now would get to them first – and if it was friendlies, there would be familiar voices calling his name, and Val’s. 

Val shivered and hugged the thermal blanket to herself. Daniel gritted his teeth and rested the grip of his gun on his knee, still waiting for a figure in a silver Incarnation uniform to appear between him and the sky beyond. 

Despite his certainty that he’d heard footsteps, though, no figure appeared. The shadows began to grow longer, and the distant, itchy feeling of heavily suppressed pain began to blossom once more. 

2952-05-01 – Tales from the Service: The Magpie’s Last Landing 

Three days ago, Seventh Fleet announced that an invasion of the world of Ayama here on the Sagittarious Frontier had been ongoing for nearly a month, and was expected to be in its final stages. 

Ayama, one of several worlds slated for the first phase of colonial settlement of the region before the war, seems to have been used by the Incarnation mainly as a staging point for ground troops being prepared for operations elsewhere. One hopes that the invasion was timed for a moment when enemy numbers there were at a minimum, but no information about this has been made available. 

This account reached us about five days ago, but it seems to describe events that happened within the first few days of the invasion of Ayama. Naval Intelligence initially requested we hold it for a later time, but following the announcement by headquarters, they released their hold and let it be released immediately. 

Lieutenant Daniel Kuhn clambered out of the belly hatch of his Magpie gunship and paused for only a few breaths before tossing aside the bag dangling from his arm and reaching a hand back in to assist Val Isakov. 

The burns on his leg and side hurt despite the maximum dose of painkillers he’d administered to himself, and half his ribs felt broken, but he held his breath and pulled as soon as Val grasped his wrist, ignoring the pain until he had hauled her up to lay on the hull next to him. 

Val whimpered and clutched the bandaged stump of her right leg, which ended just above the ankle. Her foot had been so badly crushed and trapped in the ruin of her gunnery station that amputation was the only hope of getting her free. Her leg was probably broken above the stump, too, but they couldn’t do anything about that. 

“I don’t... suppose we can...” Val’s labored voice brought Daniel back from a loathsome memory of blood and the feeling of bone under the edge of a med-kit vibro-scalpel which was never meant for such radical incisions. “Can get Haak out?” 

Daniel shook his head glumly. “We’re in... no shape to try.” The Magpie had rolled over to starboard after striking the ground, and crushed that side of the crew compartment on that side like a tin can. Ismail Haak, the starboard gunner, had nearly been sliced in two by pincers of crumpled metal; when Daniel and Val had regained consciousness in the wreck, their compatriot was already dead. 

“How long until... someone picks us up?” Val shuddered, eyeing the local star already heading for the horizon. “It’s going to get cold.” 

Daniel looked around at the rugged hills into which they’d crashed. Ayama was theoretically a pleasant, Earthlike planet, but the scraggly, gnarled tree-analogues which populated this region had a cruelly hostile appearance that agreed with Val’s assessment. 

“We should get clear of the ship.” There was no guarantee that the first people to investigate the wreck would be friendly. True, the Incarnation defenders had been hard-pressed and on the retreat when they’d been hit, but Daniel had no idea which side of the lines they’d come down on. “And scuttle it. Find cover.” 

Val nodded. “Aye, Lieutenant.” With a deep breath, she rolled over on her stomach and began half-crawling, half-sliding toward the mound of rocky turf that covered the strike gunship’s smashed bow. 

Daniel took a moment to locate the bag he’d tossed aside, then turned and pulled himself to the half-open doors of the Magpie’s munitions bay. The easiest way to set the scuttling charge was normally to do it from inside, but he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to climb out a second time. After pushing one of the doors open all the way, he reached in past the sleek noses of a pair of air-kill missiles and scrabbled around for the scuttling charge’s manual override. 

The roar of an aero-engine echoed forlornly off the hills in the distance, and Daniel looked up, half expecting an Incarnation Sirocco to rise above the ridge-line, its laser arrays blazing. Nothing of the sort happened, but the sound confirmed that enemy forces were in the area; the Confederated invasion force, supported in the air mainly by Magpies and Pumas from the carriers in orbit, wasn’t using anything with air-breathing engines. 

“Is that...” Val hissed in pain. “The trouble I think it is, sir?” 

“Yeah.” Daniel reached in again, and this time the knob he was looking for. Fortunately, it was undamaged; he shuddered to think of what he’d have to do if it had been otherwise. “Fifteen minutes?” 

“Plenty.” From the bow, Daniel heard the sound of pebbles rattling against the Magpie’s hull. “As long as you help me walk.” 

Daniel turned the knob until it clicked fifteen times, then pushed the recessed center and turned it fifteen clicks in the opposite direction and withdrew his hand. The mechanism of the scuttling charge, entirely mechanical, emitted a bright chime, then began to tick ominously. 

“Set.” Daniel extracted his arm and slid down the side of the Magpie toward the bag. When his feet hit the churned dirt, pain flared, but he gritted his teeth, scooped up the bag, and followed the bent and torn hull around to where Val was. 

Unsteadily, Val sat up and let Daniel help her up into a standing position, her amputated leg between them. Though each time she leaned on him was new agony, he helped her stagger away from the wreck, following the terrain downhill merely because the going was easier. Neither of them had any idea where they were or where they were going. 

After thirty or forty paces, Val stopped and turned to look over her shoulder. “It was a good rig, sir.” She shook her head. “Hate to leave it now.” Though she was doing her best not to show it, Daniel could see in her slightly glazed eyes and waxen skin the early stages of shock. “And Haak...” 

“Come on, Isakov.” Daniel pulled her into motion again. 

They’d just gone around a protruding rock formation down the slope when Daniel’s fifteen minutes expired. The explosion of the scuttling charge was almost soundless, but the pressure wave made Daniel and Val stagger. The bomb worked by filling the passenger compartment with two aerosolized explosive components and then igniting them, turning the whole craft into a fuel-air bomb without the need to carry a bulky, vulnerable explosive payload. 

Looking up, Daniel saw twisted pieces of metal glittering in the afternoon sunlight as they tumbled groundward. Some of this shrapnel rain landed around them, but it was all small pieces, too small to do them any harm. 

“Good rig.” Val’s voice was growing increasingly dreamy. “Always a smooth ride.” 

“It was.” Daniel agreed, looking around for likely places to find shelter. “Right up until that final landing, anyway.”