2950-09-06 – Tales from the Service: An Officer’s Exercise 

After Trond-Arud, it seems Fifth Fleet is a bit light on cruisers; more than a third of the units remaining in the fleet are undergoing repairs, and most of those are light cruisers designed for scouting. 

Fleet Headquarters has announced that several new units currently in the final phases of construction and fitting out will be arriving to replace the damaged and lost vessels, but they did not release any timetable. Unfortunately, everyone I'm talking to suggests that without a good cruiser force to scout for the fleet and pursue fleeing enemies after a battle, Fifth Fleet might be consigned to defensive duty for the remainder of the year. 

Fortunately, the news from Seventh Fleet over at Sagittarius Gate remains good; Seventh seems to be staging operations deeper and deeper into the Sagittarius Frontier, and reported the destruction of an Incarnation forward operating base only last week. Perhaps their successes have diverted Incarnation forces from this side of the Gap, as their offensive also seems to have stalled out after Håkøya. 

[N.T.B. - Nate’s supply lines are long, longer still since Sagittarius Gate sits on the easiest and most direct route across the Gap. My guess is, it’s taking them time to re-arm for the next push, but I don’t see any reason these quiet months will last much longer, especially if Fifth Fleet doesn’t have enough cruisers to harass their rear areas when their fleet is on the offensive.] 

When the dropship ramp fell with a tooth-rattling crash, Sergeant Hassan Russel was the first one out on the left side, alongside Sergeant Escarro on the right. Though the salt flats onto which they’d landed threw up billowing gray clouds of dust on the impact of both the ramp and their boots, their helmet heads-up displays sketched out the outlines of the nearby terrain hidden by the dust, courtesy of onboard radar. 

“Clear right. Squad, let’s move.” Escarro’s voice was, as usual during operations, a low, hoarse growl. Nobody knew whether he practiced this, or whether adrenaline did strange things to his vocal chords. 

Hassan toggled his onboard comms to broadcast only to his squad. “Clear Left. On me.” With that, he took several loping steps away from the dropship, dropped to one knee, and scanned the empty wasteland ahead, trusting Escarro to do the same on the right. Behind them, the turreted weapons of the dropship were positioned to engage surprises appearing in their flanks. 

“Dropzone is clear.” Lieutenant Coughlan’s sharp voice, in contrast to Escarro’s, was precisely the same as the one she used aboard ship. “Squads, proceed to point Beta.” 

According to the briefing, the exercise’s Opposition Force would be dug in along a defensive line interposed between Beta, the top of a rise at the edge of the salt flats, and the ultimate objective, Point Delta, a ramshackle burg ten kilometers beyond that point. In theory, friendly insurgents familiar with the terrain would meet the Marines just below the hilltop to point out the strong points in the defensive line. 

The last time Hassan had trusted pre-op briefings had been the drop to Meyerfeld more than two years before. There, it had turned out that most of the briefing material about enemy strength had been laughable fantasy cooked up somewhere in the rotten bowels of Naval Intelligence. Not only had the enemy force been nearly double what had been estimated, it had been equipped with a few heavy armored vehicles, something the briefing had insisted wouldn’t be present. Casualties had been high, but fortunately, the drop, three Marine regiments and one armored regiment, had still been enough to overwhelm Incarnation troops on the first day, before any chance of reinforcement.  

Hassan, the greenest Marine in the unit for that drop, had trusted that there would be no enemy armor, and had been among the wounded within an hour of coming into contact with the enemy. He’d been too aggressive in rooting out Incarnation infantry from a tenement complex and had left himself exposed to fire from a heavily armed and armored vehicle hidden just in front of the tenements.  

As Hassan’s squad-mates piled out of the dropship and darted past him in pairs to take up station ahead, he turned up the gain on the regiment-wide comms channel which none of them could hear. Colonel Glass was barking orders, but none of them were to Hassan or his compatriots, and from the tone, Hassan guessed that things were going according to plan. True, this was an exercise, not a real drop, but top Marine brass had just as little faith in intel as Hassan himself, and planned exercises accordingly. Hassan had never been on one, at least not since Camp Cactus, where things had gone according to plan. 

At last, Harriman thumped Hassan’s suit back-plate with the closed mechanical fist of his own suit to indicate that everyone was off the transport. Standing, Hassan fell in beside the private, using his suit’s IFF system to locate everyone. The disembarkation had been swift and efficient. By the time Lieutenant Coughlan and her thirteen-Marine center squad put their boots into the dirt, his boys and Escarro’s would have the forward area cleared out more than a kilometer. 

The first Marines in Hassan’s squad reached the bottom of the hill just as Coughlan’s voice returned to their comms. “Escarro, Russel, I’m tracking movement to your front. Probable friendlies. Hold fire.” 

“Yessir.” Hassan didn’t like missions with friendly non-Marine involvement, but those were the norm now, and the exercises had to account for it. Forty Marines charging into battle in their big Rico suits could only be called a precision strike compared to a carpet-bombing, and only marginally so. “Beaumont, Kovacic, keep those comms open.” 

“They’re open. Nothing yet, Sarge.” Kovacic, whose suit was equipped with an electronic warfare system, sounded uneasy. “If they’re up there, they can see us. Why aren’t they hailing?” 

“Could be-” 

Whatever Private Beaumont, the other electronic warfare system carrier, was going to say, his speculation was cut off by a burst of static on the line. On Hassan’s heads-up display, Beaumont’s suit indicators blinked off, then most of them returned, blinking red. Only the center chest components stayed entirely off. According to the simulation system used in the exercise, Beaumont was dead. 

“Hellfire. Take cover! Kovacic, shut off your-” Hassan stopped short, Kovacic had already shut off his open comms system, no doubt recognizing that this was what had made Beaumont easy to target. Ahead of Hassan, the other Marines all charged for the nearest cover they could find. Despite Coughlan’s order, two or three began spraying the hillside above with their suit-linked heavy railguns. 

“Lieutenant, we’re taking fire from the hilltop and we’ve got one man down.” Hassan tried to sound matter-of-fact, but even though he knew this was an exercise, his heart was pounding. “Permission to engage?” 

Even as he spoke, Hassan noticed a series of flashes to his right. Glancing that way, he saw fourteen hulking armor suits riding columns of rocket exhaust up from a mad haze of salt dust. Escarro, it seemed, hadn’t waited for the Lieutenant’s permission. 

“Negative. Hold position but do not engage. Command says they’re in contact with friendlies on that hill.” 

Hassan peeked out from behind the boulder he’d picked for cover in time to see a beam of scintillating light jab out from the hillside and paint a black scorch-mark near one of his men. “Cease fire and stay behind cover!” He barked before switching back to Coughlan. “Not sure how that’s possible.” 

Escarro and his Marines reached the apex of their arcing flight. As they began to hurtle downwards toward the hillside, they began firing as well, lacerating the barren terrain with their railguns and scorching it with their plasma lances. The beam weapon which had “killed” Beaumont and had chased the rest of Hassan’s squad behind cover flashed once into the air, then fell silent. 

“Come on up here and help me mop this up, Russel.” Escarro grunted into the comms channel as his suit landed. Even with both mechanical and gravitic cushioning, landing a Rico suit after a high jump could knock the wind out of you. “Got a good look at them from the air. Light Incarnation infantry with a couple dug-in guns... Well, they had dug-in guns. Strnad got ’em.” 

“Coughlan told us to stay put.” Hassan peeked out from cover to watch the fighting uphill without the aid of his suit’s sensors and computers. It looked like a rout; if Escarro was right, this was probably some sort of early warning picket line for the main line of defense. True, the “enemy infantry” were computer-generated phantoms, but the simulation system would make them look and act real enough, at least as long as the Marines stayed in their suits. 

“Coughlan’s way the hell back by the dropship.” Escarro almost snarled the Lieutenant’s name. “It’s you and me up here.” 

Hassan, remembering the Lieutenant’s grave prediction about trouble, swallowed nervously. “Lieutenant, Sergeant Escarro is requesting support to my front. Permission to advance?” 

“He’s wha-” Coughlan seemed angry rather than surprised. “Permision granted, Sergeant. Both of you clear the top of that hill, then stay there.” 

Hassan winced and switched back to his squad’s channel. “Okay boys, we’re going forward. Escarro’s men know we’re coming up but stay out of their line of fire. Stay on the ground and keep an eye on your sensors... Something isn’t right here.”