2950-09-20 – Tales from the Service: A Sergeant’s Decision 

Though some of you might complain about the lack of war-front news in recent weeks, I for one appreciate the quiet. The yard techs have almost restored Saint-Lô to operational status, and other damaged fleet units have been seen on initial post-repair shakedown cruises throughout the Maribel system. 

[N.T.B. We should not forget however that this period of quiet is letting the enemy build up their strength as well. Hopefully they’re having more trouble getting their damaged ships back into service than we are, but I wouldn’t count on it. Their fleet has the advantage of highly standardized equipment over Fifth Fleet, even if their supply lines are longer.] 

Sergeant Hassan Russel found Sergeant Escarro standing in the remains of a dirt-and-stone breastwork near the top of the hill, the bodies of two enemy soldiers sprawled nearby over the broken remains of a crew-served laser emplacement. Hassan had never been terribly concerned by bodies, and the knowledge that these were phantoms fabricated by the exercise simulation system made it easy to pick out the artificial way in which their limbs hung in simulated death.  

“Was wondering when your boys would make it up here, Russel.” Escarro put one heavy boot on top of the breastwork and raised himself up to peer over the opposite side of the hill. Even in his bravado, he was careful not to leave his silhouette exposed on the skyline for long; he stepped back a moment later. “No matter. This rabble was no trouble.” 

“Pre-op intel said we’d have friendlies up here. Did you find any prisoners?” Hassan looked around. The remains of Incarnation equipment and men littered the fortification, but there was no sign of anyone or anything else. 

“Picket line. Expendable.” Escarro gestured to the bodies. “If we had friends up here, they’re in lockup somewhere that way.” He gestured over the hill, where both men knew a large enemy force was simulated, assuming intelligence had gotten that much right. 

“We tripped their early warning system.” Hassan glanced up at the high, wispy clouds scudding across a lavender sky. “Probably Siroccos inbound.” Hassan had been strafed by these swept-wing Incarnation ground-attack aircraft in real action before, and he had no interest of being caught on an exposed hillside when they appeared. 

Escarro laughed. “Probably.” 

Hassan switched comms channels. “Squad, find cover. We have probable enemy air inbound.” 

“If we lie low on this side of the crest until they go over, they’ll spot the drop site before they spot us.” Escarro eased his huge Rico suit down against the breastwork, waving one arm for Hassan to do the same. “Coughlan’s got most of our anti-air, let her deal with them if she can while we go on and win this thing.” 

Hassan dropped down opposite Escarro, commanding his suit antenna to extend high enough to remain in contact with the Lieutenant and his other men, scattered about behind him. “Order are we stay here.” 

Escarro switched from radios to using his suit’s speakers, turning the volume down to its lowest setting. “Orders from the Colonel’s painted mascot." His voice dripped with scorn. “I wonder what sorts of favors she does for him to keep her job... It’s probably the only thing she’s good at.” 

Hassan, glad that his helmet hid his horror, did not reply. Insubordinate remarks could relegate a Marine private to scrubbing deck plating shipboard for weeks, and could get a sergeant busted down to private and then sent to scrub the deck plating. 

The vibration sensors in Hassan’s suit picked up the distant rumble of air-breathing turbine engines and estimated that they were coming directly from the simulated enemy base. “Signal silence, everyone. Enemy air incoming. Let them pass.” 

“As soon as the Old Man sees her fail in the field, he’ll drag her back to being his bedwarmer.” Escarro chuckled. “So let’s make her fail. Better it happens on exercise instead of when people are dying for real.” 

Hassan shifted to lower his profile even further as his helmet speakers played the slowly-increasing thunder of Sirocco engines. “That's a bad idea, Escarro. Even if you ruin Coughlan’s day, you’ll be busted harder than her.” 

“Not if we’re together on it, Russel.” Escarro picked up a chunk of local rock and slowly crushed it to powder between his servo-articulated suit fingers. “They won’t bust our company right out of sergeants just to protect her.” 

Hassan glanced up at the heads-up display above his helmet visor. His men and Escarro’s had all taken cover in the fortifications they’d just stormed. If the hill were to be strafed, they’d be well protected against the sweeping curtain of laser fire a Sirocco could drag across a battlefield. He could tell from the tone in the other sergeant’s voice that it would be unwise to refuse his request, and he couldn’t bring the matter to an officer’s attention without costing Escarro any potential for a future in the Marines. 

“Come on. What about it?” Escarro hefted his huge suit-linked railgun. “Trust me, I’ve got it all figured.” 

Hassan knew only one way to solve a thorny problem: the Marine way. In an instant, his suit legs extended and he sprang up towards Escarro, grabbing the handgrips built into the other’s suit shoulders and locking his gauntlets. Before Escarro could even bark an interrogative, Hassan engaged his suit’s jump rockets at full power. The rockets weren’t designed to lift two suits at once, but like most Marine equipment, they were heavily overengineered, and hauled both into the air easily.  

“What are you doing?” Escarro, still barking through his suit’s speakers, swatted at Hassan’s grip, but nothing short of breaking the suit’s robotic hands off at the wrists could free him. 

Hassan released his grip only about ten meters into the short flight, then cut his jets and told his suit to land as close to its start position as possible. Escarro, acquiring a slight tumble as Hassan pushed free, continued upward for a moment, then arced down the opposite side of the hill. 

As he started to descend at a far more controlled pace, Hassan saw the Siroccos. Five of them skimmed the lowland beyond the hill, flying in a tight V formation at an altitude of barely twenty meters. The course would have been impossibly dangerous for anyone but stunt flyers and the cybernetically network-linked. 

“Russel, you bas-” 

Escarro never finished his invective; he struck the rocky soil and even the suit’s adaptive padding couldn’t save him from being winded by the impact. Hassan heard him bounce at least once, then roll and skid some distance as the roar of aero-engines grew into a steady thunder. Knowing how little time he had, Hassan dove back into the breastwork and hunkered down in the strange duck-and-cover posture of a suited Marine, kneeling down and facing his heavy chest armor upward and toward the possible threat. 

The Siroccos swept over an instant after Hassan returned to position, their myriad lasers scything the ground below. Hassan’s suit flashed warnings as energy beams struck his armor, but it was over in an instant. Only a few of the indicators stayed yellow, and none of them went red. 

A moment later, the number of suit status indicators in his heads-up display nearly doubled, as the Marines’ tactical operations network switched Escarro’s squad to Hassan’s command. 

Hassan breathed a sigh of relief. Somewhere on the other side of the hill, Sergeant Escarro was locked in a simulation-deactivated suit. Hopefully, he would have a few hours to think about the consequences of his plan to bring down Lieutenant Coughlan before anyone came to get him. 

“Lieutenant, Escarro is down. I’m going to give his squad to Corporal Kovacic.” Hassan reported. The details could wait until later. 

“Acknowledged. Reconfiguring the squad-net. Hold position until enemy air is sorted.” Something in Coughlan’s voice suggested she suspected something, but that, like the details, could wait until later. 

Hassan switched back to his newly overcrowded squad channel. “Kovacic, you’re taking Escarro’s boys. Everyone else, on me. If those Siroccos come back this way, let’s make them pay for it.”