2947-11-05 – Tales from the Service: A Mercenary’s Trade

This will be the final section of Jacob Borisov’s account of his activities groundside at Adimari Valis. Taking another contract from the planetary governor even after the last (Tales from the Service: A Mercenary’s Milk-Run) descended into mercenary fratricide, Jacob led the groundside contingent of the Taavi Bancroft mercenaries in a joint operation with Cassandra’s Hoplites, the sister unit which had been worsted in its mistaken attack on Jacob’s convoy previously.

Governor Yamaguchi’s ruse was part of a long-running attempt to convince the outlaw treasure-hunting community on Adimari Valis that his administration was preparing to move the fruits of the Xenarch digs off-planet to keep the valuable artifacts out of Incarnation hands. With all attention focused on the few roads between the main dig-site and the spaceport, the governor’s plan was to clear and hold a remote valley which, though supposedly empty, had apparently yielded up a few genuine finds to the planet’s thriving black market for Xenarch relics.

The site proved better defended than they expected – but the governor’s generous contract had plenty of margin for Jacob to anticipate such surprises.

Jacob could not include what his team found at the site in this message due to a nine-week confidentiality clause in the contract. He promised to send more after that expired. Even without that part of the conclusion, his account is an interesting look into the unglamorous work of ground-assault troopers. He was even able to include the tactical network replay, albeit with identifiable information scrubbed; for those of you with the means and interest to view this datastream, it will be available for retrieval on the Cosmic Background datasphere hub.

“Bancroft actual, we are in position.” The deceptively soft voice of Lori Cassandra startled Jacob out of the intense concentration with which he fixed the target area below his perch. “What’s your situation?”

“In position.” Jacob switched off his magnification meta-lens and called up his helmet’s tactical display. The blue pips marking the position of Cassandra’s Hoplites clustered on the far side of the narrow fissure barely worthy of the word “valley”, while his own somewhat more mobile troopers’ green pips glowed along a wide arc of ridgeline around him.

According to every sensor and visual sweep of the nameless little valley, the valley was empty save for the overgrown tangle of local tree-analogues which covered its floor. Unlike the rocky uplands, valleys and lowlands on Adimari Valis invariably teemed with native wildlife, with the deeper basins the most fertile. Though narrow, the target area was deep enough to host an impressive garden of blue-green and florid pink flora which could swallow an entire battalion of enemy combatants.

Of course, the local outlaw cooperatives which had wrested artifacts from the valley didn’t have a battallion of troops of any caliber, and hopefully Yamaguchi’s ruse had convinced them to move most of their fighting force closer to the city in hopes of easy pickings from a lightly-defended transport crawler. If things went according to plan, they wouldn’t expect the better part of two veteran mercenary companies to descend on their secret treasure digs so far from their logistics base in the spaceport.

A ninety-second timer appeared in Jacob’s helmet, and he knew it had appeared similarly in the visors of all his mercenaries. “Prepare for operation start.” This time, Lori’s voice was broadcast to every mercenary in the area. She was a ground-pounder by preference and experience, and Jacob, given his more generalist skills, had left her in overall command, even though her force was numerically smaller than his. Even after the shameful friendly-fire shootout two weeks prior, he trusted her to sell the lives of his toughs dearly, if she had to sell them at all. “You know the op, and you know your business. Let’s get this done without any mistakes.”

Jacob smiled in the glow of his helmet tactical map. Lori’s curt pre-battle pep talk struck him as a very military formality, far out of step with how he usually handled his force. Doubtless several of his troopers were grumbling into their helmet visors, comm receivers safely switched off.

“Boss, that’s a lot of biomass down there.” Felix’s voice found Jacob’s ears courtesy of a line-of-sight private circuit. “Bastard governor’s done us raw before. What do you think the chances are this is another double-deal?”

Jacob didn’t trust the governor either. The smug, superior Yamaguchi had more in mind than checking on the source of a few crusty Xenarch trinkets hauled in by grubby prospectors. Fortunately, so did the Bancroft mercenaries. “Do it by the numbers, Felix. Let Captain Cassandra worry about the big picture.”

“Got it, boss.”

The timer ticked down toward zero. “Five seconds.” Lori began the countdown, and Jacob tensed in his heavy suit. “Four. Three.” Jacob switched his armored combat suit out of low-power mode, and heard servos whine to life all around him. “Two. One.” Jacob stood from his low-profile crouch and disengaged the command weapons-lock on his troopers’ heavy armaments, then switched off the safety on his own suit’s weaponry. “Bancroft, go.”

Jacob jumped, the suit’s powered joints turning a very normal human motion into a titan’s thirty-meter leap. Halfway up, he switched on the suit’s gravitic thrusters to extend his arc. On the tactical map, he the whole line of green pips arc off the ridgeline almost simultaneously, each hurtling down toward a pre-selected landing point in the valley. This easy near-flight, one of the advantages of fielding comparably light trooper hardware, was something he knew the Hoplites on the opposite ridge would be watching with envy. Their heavier, better-armed suits were slower, and could barely clear treetops even with their gravitics.

Jacob passed through the treetops and landed among the Adimarian foliage with a heavy crash, the suit’s servos and gravitic thrusters turning a ground-shaking impact into a mere sharp jolt in his knees. Visibility in the forested valley was poor, but already he could see signs of human presence – a narrow but arrow-straight path had been carved through the underbrush wide enough for small vehicles to travel in complete concealment from the air. The tactical display updated to include this avenue and several other features identified by the other Bancroft troopers below the trees.

As soon as the map had collected everything it could from his location, Jacob picked a new location just out of sight along the line of the road, and jumped again, smashing up through the flabby growths which passed for leaves on Adimari Valis and arcing over the treetops. Several of his other troopers did the same in their sectors, while others decided to make progress on the ground. The skirmish line swept down the valley diagonally toward the Hoplites, hoping to either find and fix the enemy’s position or chase them right into the sights of Captain Cassandra’s heavy troopers.

“Contact.” Jahoda’s barking into the comm circuit accompanied an update on the map; Jacob noted a new arc of hashed red uncertainty in front of the trooper. “Looks like a patrol. Four, maybe five of them.”

In the distance to his left, Jacob heard the rattling buzz of automatic railgun fire, and the more sporadic bark of hunting rifles as the outlaws returned fire. He knew Jahoda wouldn’t get pinned down there; he would get the patrol fleeing in the right direction, then keep moving.

As Jacob crashed down again into the trees and found himself almost standing on the narrow road, markers appeared and disappeared all along his ragged skirmish line as his troopers encountered small knots of outlaws and sent them flying back down the valley. Perhaps they would concentrate at a strong-point, or perhaps they would keep retreating until they entered the Hoplites’ kill-zone. Things were going according to plan, and that made him suspicious.

Jacob decided to continue on the ground, following the treasure-hunters' road to see where it went. All around him, the alien forest echoed with the sounds of sporadic skirmishes between Bancroft toughs and lightly-armed patrols of scavengers.

In the heart of the valley, the road below Jacob’s feet ran into a heavy armor-alloy gate burrowed into the side of a blocky, tree-covered hummock. The gate was barely big enough for three troopers to walk through abreast, but the moment it came into view, the value of whatever lay beyond was proved by the rattle and clatter of automatic railshot from at least two hidden guns tearing through the foliage and glancing off his suit.

Jacob jumped up and used his gravitics to arc to one side. “I’ve got some sort of bunker.” The burrowed structure had already been highlighted on the map. Whatever its purpose, it was ingeniously concealed; the governor’s survey flights had seen no sign of such elaborate installations.

A bunker and several emplaced railguns wouldn’t be going anywhere, of course. He hurried to dress the skirmish line and proceeded forward, noting the growing number of harried scavengers driven ahead of the toughs. There were more of the enemy than intelligence had suggested, but they were fortunately lightly armed and disorganized. With any luck, they’d caught the enemy with their pants down enough that most of the force was outside their fortified hideout.

“Bancroft actual, be advised, unknown air assets inbound.”

As soon as Lori had finished her alert, Jacob began to hear the distant-thunder rumble of high velocity gravitic drives roaring through the atmosphere. “The governor failed to mention that.” Even one or two close-support attack ships could pin down the troopers with ease. Local outlaws weren’t supposed to have access to anything like that, according to Yamaguchi’s intelligence. So far from the spaceport, the two mercenary companies were at the mercy of whatever air power the treasure-hunting gangs had at their disposal.

Or rather, Jacob knew, they would be at the mercy of the local gangs, if he had stuck to the governor’s plan. The margins on the job were so ridiculously generous that he’d decided to send two of his strike squadron’s fastest interceptors down from orbit. They had been loitering into the shadow of a nearby mountain range since his troopers had started their overland march to the target area. “All Bancroft units, break contact and take cover.” Jacob switched his suit’s comm circuit to the long-range broadcast option afforded by the command operations module on his back, then opened the channel. “Quail, you are go for air sweep.”

“Copy, Bancroft Actual.” Sela “Quail” Huffman replied immediately, a touch of anticipation in her voice. “Sit tight, boss.”

Jacob watched a trio of fast-moving enemy aircraft roar over the valley. One of them plastered the locations of two of his troopers with a heavy autocannon while the other two launched salvos of impressive but less devastating rockets. The valley quaked and bits of trees and undergrowth hurtled through the air, falling back with a sound not much like that of rain. Jacob hugged the ground and grinned into his helmet, knowing that the enemy pilots would not have time for a second pass.

Sure enough, two bright-green streaks lanced across the tactical map seconds later, and the rumble of gravitic drives rose into the banshee-scream of craft pushed beyond their limits as the enemy ships tried to evade the pair of Bancroft interceptors. It was no use, of course; one of them exploded immediately, and the other two, weaving tangled patterns of contrails in the air, prolonged their lives for a few minutes longer against the pair of high-performance strike craft.

“Air assets handled.” Jacob sent on the command circuit, unable to keep the tone of triumph out of his voice.

“Aren’t you full of surprises today, Bancroft Actual.” Lori Cassandra’s grin was equally audible. “Proceed with the operation.”

Jacob stood and sent the all-clear, and his troopers moved forward once again.