2947-12-17 – Tales from the Service: The Fell Rider of Meyerfeld
The successful storming of a forward Incarnation base at the abandoned Meyerfeld colony last week has given Naval Intelligence plenty of physical intelligence as well as a number of captured Nate personnel to interrogate. The Incarnation apparently abandoned the site as a lost cause; the Fifth Fleet was able to ship all the spoils of the raid, as well as the entirety of the 11th Mechanized, back to Maribel without enemy disruption.
Talking to the returning heroes of the raid, I found many of them repeating a curious story which made its rounds through the Marine ranks on the six-day return trip. I managed to track down the person who told it first, and while it may be a bit exaggerated, I think our hero is telling the truth about his “Fell Rider” as far as he knows it.
[D.L.C. - Battlefield legends exist from all periods of history; beautiful female warriors riding flying mounts dominated imaginations in the First Dark Age, ghostly bow-men were reported to stalk battlefields in the age of mechanized warfare, and emerald-winged seraphs with ancient muskets and fixed bayonets were reported standing over the bodies of slain Rattanai warriors on the scorched battlefields of the Terran-Rattanai War. The tendency to imagine fantastic warriors sharing the perils of war seems to be intrinsic to the human psyche; unlike Nojus, I think this story is largely the product of the teller’s imagination struggling to cope with the dangers of combat.
No recording of what is described below survives, because the recording devices were disposable units abandoned on site as the witnesses fell back. The suit telemetry of the one Marine who directly observed the scene does not contain any corroborating data, though he too swears he saw all of this take place.]
Gunnery Sergeant Wyn Dickson stood in the attic of a ruined house south of the ruins of Meyerfeld, listening to the wind whistle through the naked rafters over his head. He was glad of the sturdy fabcrete construction of the standard-issue rapid-fab houses which the colonization authority had set up for the failed colony; the structure, even abandoned for more than a decade, endured the considerable weight of his entire armor-suited combat team without so much as a creak. The walls, almost ten centimeters thick even on the topmost level, would probably stop light railshot.
The homestead, ruined as it was, made a perfect sentry post for the fire-team to keep watch over Route Hera. The blue-grey xeno-grass stretching to the horizon in two directions gave any Incarnation force caught outside the perimeter little cover for a counter-attack. With the supply base in the hands of the 11th, intelligence reports of dozens of heavily armed patrols ranging many kilometers out into the empty planet’s hinterlands seemed a ridiculous thing for the brass to be worried about; piecemeal attacks from company-strength elements wouldn’t pose the defensive perimeter set up by the 11th any serious trouble, with or without a few minutes’ warning.
Dangerous though forward sentry duty was, it represented the first opportunity since landfall for his fireteam to take a break. In the breathable but chilly atmosphere of the former colony, Wyn and Hasek, the two not currently watching the feeds of the all-round microcamera cluster stuck at the crumbling roof’s apex, quickly shed their helmets to wolf down cold rations. They had spent most of the battle running and leaping around the outskirts of the ruined city to cut off enemy retreat down Route Hera, only for Nate’s ground-staff to hold their ground until overrun. Wyn still had a full magazine of railgun slugs, and the other three members of the fireteam had fired only a few bursts between them at suspicious movement ahead of their line of advance.
Hasek and Chen had grumbled about the lack of opportunity to shoot at a defending force primarily composed of dragooned Nate logistics workers, but Wyn personally didn’t mind. Given that the greasy black smoke-columns of at least three Marine armored vehicles smudged the sky over the ruins, more than a few Marines of the 11th had bought a patch of peaceful, grassy field back in the Core Worlds.
“Dust cloud on Hera.”
Wyn dropped his ration and slammed his helmet back into place to check the feeds. Baines was right – a hazy cloud of grey dust colored the sky above Route Hera. The rangefinder estimated the vehicle or vehicles causing it were still at least five klicks away but closing fast; the flat terrain of the xeno-grass “sea” and the clear weather gave his team plenty of advance warning. “Anything on our tacnet?”
On an abandoned planet, that could only mean the incoming force belonged to Nate. “Set up to engage.” On his suit controls, he sent off the perimeter alarm signal, then started feeding his team’s tactical data to the main operational network.
Baines and Hasek set aside their rail-rifles and unlimbered the heavy plasma cannons attached to the backs of their armor-suits, while Wyn and Franjic removed the face-plates from their shoulder-mounted rocket pods. Route Hera approached to within two hundred meters of the ruined homestead, but the ideal engagement range for their weapons was nearly twice that. If they did their jobs, the Nate force would discover the fireteam’s presence only when their lead vehicle, struck by a pair of heavy plasma lances, exploded spectacularly. As soon as it had, the fireteam would jump out of their ambush position and fall back toward the defense perimeter under the cover of two full spreads of infantry rockets.
“Got something else on the road, Sergeant.” Baines announced as Wyn was running a start-up diagnostic on his shoulder pod.
Hasek was quicker to look at the feed than Wyn, and quicker to react. “What the hell?”
Wyn dismissed the diagnostic and checked the video feeds. Near the point where the abandoned road made its closest approach, something had appeared, motionless as a statue, which had not been there before. After staring at it a moment in confusion, he recognized what it was – a four-legged beast with the spindly legs and long head of a Terran horse, but with a fluted carapace of gleaming obsidian.
The apparition was more than the equine, though. On its back, with a barbed lance resting butt-first on the ground at his feet, sat a motionless rider, erect in his saddle, armored in the same black substance as his mount.
What Wyn couldn’t help but notice, however, was the helmet. The rest of the armored figure was fluted and sculpted like the shell of a Centauran cathedral conch, but the helmet was a smooth, glassy spheroid, with no visor or any allowance for breath or vision. Though the rider faced down the road toward the onrushing Nate force, Wyn felt deathly certain it was looking right back at him at the same time.
Though clearly unsettled, Baines hefted his plasma cannon. “I’ll target the bogie and blast it if it moves. Hasek, you go for the lead vehicle.”
“No.” Wyn countermanded the suggestion. “Nate will stop and try to figure out what that is. Hold and let them deal with it. Did anyone see where it came from?”
“Wasn't there when I was looking, Sarge.”
Wyn turend to pin Baines with a withering glare that he was certain could be felt even through two helmet visors, but said nothing. Baines was a good Marine – he couldn’t possibly have missed the approach of the black rider. It had appeared only when the entire fire-team had diverted its attention to prepping their weapons.
“Nate vehicles at three klicks.” Franjic switched his ready-indicator to green. His shoulder-pod full of missiles was ready to go.
“When will they see that thing?” Wyn finished his own diagnostic and went green shortly before Baines and Hasek finished their somewhat more involved preparation.
“At the top of that rise, there. Maybe eighty seconds.”
Wyn didn’t see a rise, but that was the optical illusion of the xeno-grass ocean. The terrain rolled so slightly that the even tops of the plant-carpet appeared to smooth it out completely. “Let’s see what they make of it.”
The mount and rider remained statue-still until the dust cloud in the distance resolved into a convoy of three boxy vehicles trundling up the crumbling road. They slowed, but did not stop, when they caught sight of the object in their path. Wyn and his fire-team kept their heads down, watching through their all-around surveillance rig.
The three vehicles approached the rider slowly, and the lead rig, a huge wheeled personnel carrier with a pair of remote laser-turrets on its roof, finally ground to a halt barely two hundred meters beyond it. The system told Wyn that they were within plasma cannon range, but he held Baines and Hasek down. He wanted to see what they did, and whether they recognized the figure. Perhaps Nate, having occupied Meyerfeld for several months, had encountererd this strange creature – he couldn’t bring himself to think it was a human underneath that armor. There was something unnatural about it.
One of the two laser mounts on the big vehicle swung around and opened fire, setting the air between its barrel and the black rider ablaze. There was a flash as coherent light bounced off the rider’s fluted chestpiece, but when the video rig’s exposure chips recovered, horse and rider were still there.
“That stuff’s at least as good as our armor, Sarge.” Hasek, seeming near hysteria, pointed out. “What if-”
“Shut up!” Wyn quietly marked the lead vehicle. “Get ready to take out that troop carrier.”
As he spoke, he saw a hatch on the vehicle’s side hiss open, and a lone figure jumped out. Tall, broad-shouldered, and dressed in a red uniform Wyn hadn’t seen in any of the pre-drop identification images, the figure strode slowly out ahead of his column. A side-arm gleamed at his hip, untouched.
“What is he doing?”
“Quiet.” Wyn saw the rider stir for the first time as the lone Nate officer approached – that featureless helmet gave the barest hint of a nod.
Without warning, horse and rider were in motion. The lance, resting previously butt-first on the ground, swung into position to charge, and the figure’s black-armored legs kicked the flanks of his mount to encourage it into motion. Bearing down along the arrow-straight road, the black rider aimed his lance at the lone man striding out to meet him on foot.
The incarnation man continued to walk forward at the same pace, as if to allow the apparition to impale him. Enemy though he was, Wyn marveled at the man’s steady nerves. Something about the idea of being killed by the black rider unsettled him, as if he would somehow be more dead with that wicked lance spearing his heart than he would be cooked by a Nate personnel laser or riddled with railshot.
“Get out of the way, you idiot.” Baines, seeming to sense the same peril as Wyn, muttered on the open comms line.
Just before the lance buried itself in his chest, the red-clad officer moved. He was so fast that Wyn’s eyes couldn’t follow his movement – one moment he was walking serenely forward and the next he was five meters to one side, arm extended in the follow-through motion of an expert throw. Whatever it was he hurled at the back of the rider flashed darkly in the cold sunlight before sticking deeply into the rider’s back. Only after this had been done did Wyn see that the long, wicked lance was now missing its barbed head.
“That’s got to be an Immortal, and he’s showing off. He doesn’t know we’re here, boss. I say we blast him.”
“Not yet.” Baines was right, but Wyn didn’t want to take on an Immortal alone. The Incarnation’s elite soldiers, nanotechnological cyborgs who flaunted their counterhumanity with profane abandon, were individually quite capable of taking on a fire-team of heavily armor-suited Marines in the right circumstances.
The rider, unperturbed by his own lance-head buried halfway into his back, slowed and turned his mount around right in front of the personnel carrier’s armored nose, as if unaware it was there. As he did, the remains of the lance dissolved into black dust.
The Immortal, now wearing a cocksure grin, held out a beckoning hand to the grim figure, urging it to try again. Though both the laser-mounts fixed on the horror’s back, neither fired; the gunners inside likely did not want to attract attention.
The rider spurred into a charge again. Though now deprived of his lance, a long, curved blade appeared in his hand, gleaming like a shard of glass. Once more, the Incarnation officer strolled casually forward as it charged.
Wyn saw his opportunity. His team didn’t need to tangle with the Immortal – they just needed to distract him at a critical moment. "Hasek, the troop carrier. Now!”
The Marine jumped up to rest his huge weapon on the edge of the crumbling wall, suit servos screaming. He’d already plotted the angle, and the suit systems locked his joints at the precise positions necessary for the shot. As the rider bore down once more, he fired, and a white-hot blast of plasma leapt across the intervening distance and plowed into the side of the big vehicle.
A second later, the vehicle exploded spectacularly, flaming pieces of its structure scattering across the xeno-grass fields on either side. The explosion washed out all the video feeds, and for a Wyn’s view of the Immortal and the rider vanished into over-exposed glare at the exact instant the rider reached its Incarnation challenger.
When the feeds returned a half-second later, the mount and rider were gone. The Immortal stood where he had been for a moment longer, then slowly crumpled limply to the ground.
Wyn didn’t have time to verify what he knew – the man was dead. “Franjic. Fire away.”
As he and his subordinate loosed a salvo of tiny homing missiles in the direction of the remaining two vehicles, Baines and Hasek jumped high into the air, heading back toward the main perimeter.
As soon as his shoulder-pod was empty, Wyn cut it loose and followed them, already counting down the days until the 11th could leave Meyerfeld and the dark rider behind for good.