2948-09-22 – Tales from the Service: The Burial Detail 

The battle around Outpost Judicael on Margaux continues, and is likely to do so for some time. Though the Marines and FDA claim to have extensive pre-constructed fortifications in the area, it seems the terrain being fought over is actually  still outside these works, which suggests to Nojus and I that the number of defenders rushed into the system actually exceed the numbers expected in the planet’s defense plans. This bodes well for the planet’s long-term status – the Navy should have plenty of time to relieve the defenders before the planet falls. 

I have seen many accounts and many more recordings of the action on Margaux, and one thing which the audiovisual media of the battle can’t seem to convey, but which is reported in all eyewitness accounts, is the chaotic acoustic conditions of the battlefield. The canyon-laced terrain of Causey Plana seems to carry sound long distances along these features, but to dampen it entirely when it comes from the craggy heights or from another ravine. 

One of the eyewitnesses reporting this phenomenon is Ralf Fairburn, from whose account last week’s tale (Tales from the Service: Canyon Warfare on Causey Plana) was derived. Evidently, his small squad spent no less than eleven days defending a nameless wilderness canyon from increasingly determined enemy incursions before being relieved by five times their number. Later in his account, he told the story of how the acoustic strangeness of the Margaux battlespace could be useful as well as disruptive. 

[N.T.B. - My sponsorship contract with Reed-Soares is on hold for the moment, but I do know that they the multi-tools used by the Frontier Defense Army. After this mess is all over, we can probably expect the lowly volunteer private clambering toward enemy lines armed only with one of these to feature heavily in their advertisement. It’s a financial hit, but I have no illusions about who deserves the publicity more.] 

Lieutenant Kocsis glared at Ralf Fairburn across their shallow entrenchments for several seconds, and Ralf decided that this was so he could realize on his own why the suggestion he’d just made over the radio was not feasible. Unfortunately, it seemed that officer logic and enlisted logic had once again diverged, because he had thought about the suggestion for hours before bringing it up and hadn’t thought of any way of avoiding the necessity. 

“Private Fairburn, there are eight of us with at least seventy Nate soldiers fifty meters to our front, and you want to risk your hide burying the dead?” 

Ralf glanced back in the direction of the enemy. The pair of Incarnation soldiers ripening in the midday heat halfway between the squad’s defensive line and the boulder-pile which sheltered the enemy “Lieutenant, if we’re going to be here more than another couple of days, we really don’t want to leave them there. They’re upwind of us.” 

The pair of enemy soldiers had perished similarly to how Nisi had bought his plot – apparently unaware of the skirmish in the ravine the day before, their group of about twenty had ambled cautiously into the open, where Ralf’s phasebeam rifle and the automatic fire from several infantry carbines set up in static hopper-fed mode had scythed through their ranks. The unhurt had dragged away all the fallen save those two – probably because their ubiquitous implants had already flagged them as killed instantly. The Incarnation didn’t seem to have any instinct to recover the bodies of the dead, so the pair lay where they fell, their light hand-held lasers and other equipment glinting in the sun, and their pallid skin beginning to take on the green mottling of Margaux decay. 

Ralf, in his position on the left side of the weak fortification where it angled forward before intersecting the canyon wall, was closest to the bodies, could already smell the strangely acrid scent of human flesh surrendering to alien decomposition. He knew the scent would only get worse, degrading the squad’s ability to hold the canyon. 

Somewhere overhead, Confederated Navy Magpie gunships roared past, probably flying outward from Judicael. The thunder of their gravitic engines pushing the heavy, snub-nosed craft beyond the speed of sound drowned out the lieutenant’s reply and sent showers of pebbles and dusts cascading down the canyon walls all around them. Ralf didn’t look up to try to spot them – he had long since learned that the canyon’s bare rock walls channeled sound well enough that they would seem to be right over his head even if they crossed it kilometers away. 

As soon as the echoes faded, Lieutenant Kocsis keyed the channel again. “You’ll live with the smell, private.” 

“Lieutenant, with whatever does decay around here, the smell could be poison gas.” Ralf had already put in a few datasphere queries, which had taken longer than usual to return – either the enemy fleet was taking out datasphere satellites, or the network was overloaded by all the fancy hardware brought to Margaux by the Confederated Marines – and toxic outgassing was definitely a possibility. “Even if it’s just stink, you ever try shooting straight with your eyes watering?” He left out the impact on morale of breathing a miasmatic soup – Kocsis would be able to figure that one out on his own, officer logic or no. 

Kocsis was still glaring across the ten meters between them, but he shifted his posture, and Ralf knew the inescapable logic of his suggestion had penetrated his superior’s natural stubbornness. “We’ll try it after dark, then.” 

Ralf shook his head vigorously, so the motion was visible at a distance. “Won’t do. They’ll hear us.” 

As if to punctuate his point, a thunderous roar of rockets – liquid-fueled chemical boosters, not gravitic thrusters – battered the defenders’ eardrums. They all knew the only rockets fielded on Margaux were those built into the legs and backs of heavy Marine armor-suits, which were not big enough to power gravitic thrusters and not light enough to use mere turbofans. A series of explosions and the tearing rattle of super-heavy suit-mounted railguns might have suggested to the outnumbered FDA soldiers that help was on the way, but they’d been on station a week and learned long before that on Margaux, help always sounded seconds away but never came. The brass at Judicael had told them to hold the canyon, and they would hold it until they couldn’t. 

“Can you get to the bodies without being exposed?” 

Ralf looked out at the route for the dozenth time since dawn. “I think so. The bodies aren’t in their field of view. See that stand of plants with the curly leaves?” 

Lieutenant Kocsis bent to examine the screen of his wrist computer, too smart to poke his head into view. The squad had hidden no less than thirty remote camera pods in the canyon walls, so he had little need to risk his head. If the enemy had similar devices, they had shown no sign of it. “You might be right, Fairburn. How long do you need?” 

“Five minutes to get there, five back. Hell if I know how long it will take to bury them, if I can only dig under sound cover.” 

The only reply was a noncommittal grunt, which Ralf took as permission to start whenever he thought reasonable. His elevated sharpshooter’s perch didn’t have a direct line of fire to the enemy position, so the first few meters were the easy part. He just needed some other part of the gradually intensifying battle for the highlands to make enough noise to cover the sound of his movement. 

He didn’t have long to wait. This time, the source of the noise actually was overhead – the boomerang shape of a Sirocco gunship sliced through the air, its guns swiveled rearwards to duel with the nose guns of a pursuing Marine Puma interceptor. Though he would have preferred to watch in hopes of seeing the big attack craft blown out of the sky, Ralf safed his phasebeam and rolled out of position, sliding down the four-meter rock slope to the canyon floor. 

When the aerial battle finally meandered away, Ralf had made half the distance to the bodies. Clutching his portable survival utility, he pressed flat into the ground and did his best impression of a boulder, waiting patiently either for an Incarnation marksman’s killing shot from an unseen roost, or for another opportunity to move. 

“No motion across the fence.” Lieutenant Kocsis sent on the radio channel, as if to encourage Ralf. “Looks like you were right.” 

Ralf was halfway through typing out an acrid rejoinder when the ground he was pressed into trembled. The battle’s distant roar began to grow closer once more. He tensed, looking ahead to plan his next dash.