2950-10-04 – Tales from the Service: Excising the Scars 

Chief Logan shook Ruby Nichols awake, startling her into dropping her slate. As she dove to pick up the wayward device, she hurriedly glanced around the spartan wardroom assigned to her work team as a break room aboard the battleship Marseille to see if anyone else was around. The ship, its innards splayed out within the sheltering arc of the orbital dock, had been so badly battered at Håkøya that only the sheer stubbornness of its nearly eighty-year-old systems had brought it home in one piece.  

Perhaps a yard team at Vorkuta or among the sprawling service stations above Tranquility, the wounded battleship might have been back in service in a month. In Maribel, however, the biggest yard job ever attempted outside the Core Worlds was taking somewhat longer. 

“Break’s over, Nichols.” Logan hooked a thumb toward the hatchway on one side of the compartment which led to the officer’s cabin being used as a suit-up room, and to the collapsible airlock barrier beyond. “Let’s get back in there.” 

“Aye, Chief.” Securing her slate, Ruby stood, glad that only Logan had caught her dozing off. Their team of six had been working long hours for nearly a month, most of those hours in the confines of bulky hazardous-environment vacsuits, but showing the strain to the rest of the team, especially Vipond and Yuan, would result in a week of endless ridicule. 

After a quick cup of coffee from a recently-replaced food-fab machine in the wardroom, Ruby exchanged nods with Yuan and Maddison, returning bleary-eyed from another shift, then followed Chief Logan into the suit room, where she grabbed a fresh rad-meter from the crate before starting to assemble her suit. The meter beeped and showed a friendly green light before synching with her helmet computer and providing a more detailed data breakdown. 

“Yuan said he thinks he saw sparticks down near the conduit.” Chief Logan, suited except for his helmet, hooked a holstered coilgun into his suit’s webbing and held another out to Ruby. 

“Yuan is-” Ruby stopped short of calling the other technician an idiot in front of their mutual superior. “He’s wrong. Sparticks are air breathers.” The aggravating xenoinsects had hitched rides on ships fleeing the Sagittarius Frontier in the early phases of the war, and now seemed to have made colonies on most ships in Fifth Fleet as well. Small sparticks were a nuisance, but they grew nearly as quickly as they bred, and big ones, though skittish, could chew holes in a vacsuit.  

“Still.” Logan shook the gun. “We go in armed or not at all.” 

Sighing, Ruby took the gun and hooked it to the back of her toolbelt.  

Chief Logan pressed his helmet into its seals, then waited as the suit built up internal pressure to check for leaks. Ruby hurriedly finished assembling her suit, then did the same.  

Logan went into the translucent clamshell dome of the temporary airlock first. As it suddenly went slack in depressurization on the other side, he stepped out. Ruby waited for the indicator panel to go green before following, and soon they were clumping down a depressurized corridor.  

As they approached the heart of the damage, the sweeping, branching scars left by high-density phased-matter when it passed began to encircle them on all sides. Where other high-energy particles might scorch or discolor metal, phased matter left the material shimmering in all colors under the harsh glare of the work lights, as if splashed with an oil slick. Only one particle in ten million had collided directly with an atom of metal, but the energy dumped there was still sufficient to crystallize durable alloy into brittle, radioactive slag. 

When the pair reached the ovoid cavity carved around the damaged section of conduit, Ruby played her suit lights over the place where all these trails converged, on a blackened tube running through the heart of the olf battleship big enough to park an interceptor in. When the ship had been hit by Incarnation plasma cannons in the skies over Håkøya, one of the shots had damaged a magnetic phased-matter containment conduit between the main condenser near the bow and the main cluster of reactor cells amidships. Sprays of phased-matter particles had gushed out of the magnetic field, scything through flesh and metal and leaving both irrevocably contaminated. Officer’s Country, through which her team had been burrowing for several days, had been all but deserted during the battle, but huge swaths of the framing of the pressure-decks had to be cut away along the paths of the escaping phased matter. A follow-on team would cut away more and replace the damaged area once most of the damaged metal had been safely removed. 

“Where did Yuan say he saw bugs?” Ruby turned her lights on the jagged fringes of the cut-open space, where their work had carved at odd angles through the bulkheads of dozens of compartments and machinery interstices beyond the pressure decks. If Marseille did have an infestation of sparticks, the only ones that would be in their work area would be dead or dormant due to the cold and vaccuum that made their work easier. 

“He was working over there.” Chief Logan gestured with his hand and suit light toward a maintenance access tunnel that lay open along nearly ten meters of its length. “Maddison was with him, but she didn’t see it.” 

Ruby checked her rad-meter, then pulled a material probe and arc cutter from her toolbelt. Most likely, Yuan had claimed his sighting only for a reason to stop working and talk for a few minutes. The man was intelligent, but his work ethic and attitude were somewhat less than inspiring. “I’ll start there, then.” 

This account, though posted now, is at least two months old, and probably more like four; Marseille has left the service dock and has returned to limited duty with Fifth Fleet with some work on her remaining issues still ongoing. The limitations remaining to the ship’s capabilities are, however, not to be revealed. Naval Intelligence was most clear in this matter. 

I have verified the identity of our submitter in this case and exchanged messages with her to ask questions and clarify this account. I even tried to look into the science of phased matter emissions and their interaction with null-phase matter (that is, with ordinary matter) to try to check her brief explanation, and found nothing but a tangle of strident scientific bickering on the mechanism of interaction. The effect on structural alloys which she describes is well known to many spacers, of course. 

2950-09-27 – Tales from the Service: An Officer’s Confidance 

Sergeant Hassan Russel rolled his shoulders as the can-opener rig finished disassembling the outer plates of his armored Rico suit. He waited until the inner framing split along carefully fitted seams, then hopped down nearly a meter to the deck plating below. After nearly a full twenty-four hours of operating almost continuously in the suit, he knew he reeked, with his smart-fabric bodysuit’s evaporative wicking never quite able to keep up with the perspiration of combat, even simulated combat. 

Fortunately, the cycle of post-op debriefings was usually not held for a few hours after the Marines re-embarked, allowing everyone the opportunity to wash themselves, grab a bite to eat, and even catch a nap. Hassan doubted he would be able to do more than one of those things, however; as one of his unit’s two sergeants, he knew a vast array of administrative and logistical forms would be waiting on his slate when he returned to his bunk in the onboard barracks. 

As soon as he took headcount and made sure that all twenty of his men – Beaumont and Szarvas, downed by simulated enemy fire, had been re-embarked separately – had been successfully extracted from their Rico suits, Hassan dismissed them to whatever recuperative activities they thought best. Most headed for the lift that would take them up to the mess deck, as that was where they knew to find the simulated-killed members of the unit. 

Hassan headed instead for the bank of acoustic scrubber stalls next to the arsenal and can-opener compartment. Normally, Sergeant Escarro and Lieutenant Yeung would have done the same, but Escarro had been downed in the exercise, and Lieutenant Yeung’s temporary replacement was nowhere to be seen. That was just as well; at the moment, Hassan wanted to see neither of them. 

Finding none of the eight stalls occupied, Hassan set one to its maximum settings, then stripped off his sweat-soiled bodysuit and tossed it into the chute. Since there was no need to wait for an acoustic scrubber to warm up, he stepped in, wincing as the emitters bombarded his skin with high-intensity ultrasonic waves, inexorably stripping off the dust and grime. 

“I told you he’d try something.” 

Hassan turned around and found Lieutenant Coughlan standing in the doorway, her arms folded. Though she was also dressed only in her own bodysuit, she looked far less grimy and bedraggled than he would have expected. Hassan felt self-conscious for not having pulled the privacy screen for his stall into place, even though he usually didn’t bother. Even so, he saluted as smartly as was possible stark naked. 

Coughlan rolled her eyes and waved her hand, seeming not to notice his nakedness. Probably, she didn’t; after all, she had to be a graduate of Camp Cactus, just like every other Marine. The few women who volunteered for service as Marines were given no special considerations save a slightly altered diet and one or two extra issues of sanitary products. 

Hassan relaxed and returned to his shower, turning around to let the acoustics scrape grime off his chest. As he did, he heard the adjacent stall activate. Though she had as much a right to shower in the grunt section as Lieutenant Yeung, it struck him as deliberately out of place. 

“Acoustics are just as good as privacy jammers.” Coughlan was barely audible over the humming of the scrubber machines. “So let’s talk off the record.” 

Hassan froze for several seconds. After he’d thrown Escarro into the path of simulated enemy fire, he’d had plenty of time to consider the possibility that Coughlan had entrapped both of them; they could both be busted down for brawling during a combat operation. “I have nothing to say off the record or on it.” 

“Commendable. So maybe I’ll talk first, then maybe you’ll have something to say.” Coughlan paused for several seconds, perhaps focusing on the task of cleaning herself. “Escarro has nothing to say either. He said you and him miscalculated a quick peek over the hill and only you got back to cover in time. Unless you have a different story, my plan is to mock you both in the debrief for trying to get yourselves killed in the stupidest way possible and leave it at that.” 

Hassan frowned, but said nothing. He’d started the operation thinking Coughlan was just trying not to have her boat rocked in an overly cautious way, and he’d spent most of it wondering whether she’d bring the hammer down on him for doing what she’d suggested but never ordered. Now, he suspected he’d misjudged her on both accounts. 

“Since on the record, I’m going to have to call you an idiot, I’m going to expect you and Escarro to act appropriately humiliated. Make it good, Russel.” 

“I think I can do that... on the record.” Hassan winced. He thought he knew what the Lieutenant was getting at. 

“Good man.” Coughlan chuckled. “Off the record, Escarro and I both owe you a drink, but something tells me I’ll be paying for both of them.” 

A moment later, she shut off her stall’s acoustics. Hassan couldn’t help himself; he turned around and snuck a look at her as she walked out past him to the dispenser filled with fresh, auto-fitting shipboard fatigues. He immediately wished he hadn’t; Marine training taught every cadet to de-sexualize nudity as much as possible, and he knew he was looking at Lieutenant Coughlan in a way he had never seen another Marine. He quickly turned away, knowing that opening the door to biological pressures would only cause him trouble, and that he had plenty of that already. 

“Don’t worry.” Hassan almost jumped from the sound of Coughlan’s voice, and turned to find her standing right in front of his stall, matter-of-factly pulling on fresh fatigues. A day and a night of suit operations followed by the scrubbers had stripped off her characteristic makeup, and the only thing its absence revealed was the deep bags under her lively eyes. “If I’ve judged him right, Escarro will think better next time.” 

Despite himself, Hassan chuckled. “God, I hope he thinks at all next time, Lieutenant. He’s a good Marine mostly.”  

“One of the best, by all reports. Off the record, he’s right, in a way.” Coughlan shrugged, fitting her tunic over her shoulders. A moment later, twin holographic rank insignias appeared over her shoulders. “I’m a piss-poor replacement for someone like Yeung.” 

Hassan suppressed an instinct to disagree; even in the context of an informal, off-the-record chat, he knew it unwise to contradict his superior. As far as he’d seen, Coughlan had done all right on the ground, but her opinion was law, and his was meaningless. He grunted noncommittally and focused on playing the scrubbers over his lower back, which always seemed to become a lake of sweat during extended suit ops. 

Coughlan stood there and said nothing for several seconds before finally turning and marching away. Hassan counted the paces of her bare feet on the deck. Just as she reached the doorway, she stopped once more. “Better wrap up, Russel. Briefing in one-ten.” 

“Aye, Lieutenant.” Hassan replied, turning to snap another salute. By the time he did, however, Lieutenant Coughlan was gone. 


This concludes the account sent in by Lieutenant Coughlan and Sergeant Russell,

t least, the parts we deemed interesting to this audience. There are elements of it which seem strange for an account presented jointly by these two people, but I will not pry into the meaning of the inclusion of these details here, as it does not impact my impression of the truth of the story. 

Naval Intelligence has vetted this story and signed off on it, and I can confirm that a Marine exercise was conducted within the date range covered in their supporting paperwork. Obviously, the story demonizes one Sergeant Escarro, but I can find no record of this person existing, and the public service records of the two submitters do not allow an easy identification of this person. Most likely the account has been anonymized sufficiently to protect a man they consider to be a “good Marine” despite obvious flaws in his character. 

[N.T.B. - I hope they cleared this with the real person who Escarro is based on before sending it to us; given what we are told of Lieutenant Coughlan, I suspect this would be something she would have thought of, if this story did prove to be mostly true.] 

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.” 

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.”