2948-09-29 – Tales from the Service: In Action with The Twelfth

Usha Tilki threw herself to the ground as a blast outside filled the cave mouth with a swarm of rock splinters. The buzzing rattle of Marine combat-suit railguns still filled the air when her ears stopped ringing, so she judged the bombardment ineffective and got back to her knees to keep working. 

“Bit closer to the action than you wanted to be, Tilki?” The moon-faced Marine in the suit she was working on chuckled as Usha opened the access panel below one of the big machine’s knee joints. Private Segale seemed unfazed by his immobility even despite the near miss, probably because he was wearing hundreds of pounds of powered suit whose armor shrugged off most shrapnel and rock splinters. The sand-blasted appearance of his originally bright green-and-gold Twelfth Marines insignia suggested he’d deflected more than his fair share of flying debris already. 

“A bit.” Usha peered into the limb’s inner workings, looking for signs of the damage that had incapacitated Segale. The man within the full-scale ground assault suit hadn’t been hurt - the Marine’s own tree-trunk legs ended somewhere in the machine’s hips – but given Margaux’s inclement biosphere and the heavy weaponry needed to hold the line, he was just as out of action as if he’d had his face melted by a heavy Incarnation laser unless Usha could fix the fault. “It’s not always this bad up here, is it?” 

The roar of engines overhead deafened her to any reply from the private. Usha guessed from the sound that this was a Marine dropship, ferrying in reinforcements or evacuating the grievously wounded. Nate forces generally reserved their passenger-carrying aircraft for offensive lifts, as Marine Pumas and loaned Navy Magpies still prowled the air above Causey from more than a hundred service outposts studding the rocky plateau.  

Seeing that the tech hadn’t heard him, Private Segale leaned forward as soon as the thunder of engines moved off, repeating what he’d said in a louder voice. “You should have been here yesterday during the big push. Right now it’s just harassing fire here. The real action’s about two klicks west.” 

“This isn’t a big push?” Usha had arrived less than three hours before with two other techs, and neither the buzz of Marine railgun fire or the snap-hiss of Incarnation beam rifles had ceased in that time. The immediate vicinity had been bombed from the air twice, strafed by a Sirroco at least three times, fired on several times by some sort of distant heavy artillery she couldn’t guess the nature of, cooked by a sustained microwave beam that had reduced the local plants to a boiled-spinach goo that clung wetly to the rocks, and finally bombarded by some sort of short-ranged cluster-warhead rocket from the enemy line. She’d assumed she’d arrived at the hottest possible moment. 

“Hells, they’ve got a lot more in their bag of tricks when they want it.” Segale chuckled. “Looks like they’re pushing up and down the line looking for weak spots, places we aren’t dug in. No luck here, so most of them moved on down.” 

Usha turned on her helmet light and twisted her neck to shine it down into the mechanism below the access panel. She thought she saw the jagged glint of a snapped titanium rod, probably one of the actuators for the suit’s balance control system. “I think I see the problem, Private.” She stuck a computer probe into the suit’s access jacks and cut power to the damaged leg. “I’ve got spares for what you broke. Should take about twenty minutes to swap it out.” 

Segale nodded, rolling his thick neck inside his helmet. Most Marines knew how to fall asleep in an instant, and sure enough, the big man appeared to doze off even before Usha got to her feet and headed for the crate the Marines had dragged farther back into the grotto. 

It took several minutes for Usha to find the right type of actuator rod in the heavy crate of spare parts the dropship had left her. The big polymer container had clearly been packed in haste back at Judicael, and she cursed whichever logistics techs had done it – they seemingly assembled a list of Marine-kit spare parts, then hurled them all into the crate at random until it filled up, with an occasional spacer of padding foam added more as a sedimentary layer boundary than a divider of organized categories. Armed with the rod and removing a pair of smart-metal multitools from hip pouches, she mentally rehearsed the procedure – remove the exterior leg plating and cage-mesh inner guard, disconnect and remove the foot assembly, twist off the calf assembly frame to expose the mechanism, then swap out the broken rod and reverse the process. 

Segale seemed to sleep soundly as Usha disassembled his suit leg, despite the racket outside and the not-inconsiderable sounds of armor plate being pried free of its metal frame. She quietly envied his slumber – even back at Judicael, she struggled to sleep with the fitful rumble of explosions and aero-engines in the distance reminding her that Margaux was under siege. If it were not for sleeping pills, she knew she would be a hopeless psych-case already. 

As the various metal components surrounding the damaged mechanism fell away, Usha saw glittering splinters of shattered titanium drifting to the rocky floor. For a titanium rod to simply shatter like that, she knew the strain must have been unbelievable – far beyond the suit’s designed limits. Sighing at the metallic carnage, she wrenched the two ends of the smashed actuator free and tossed them aside. She knew Marines – they were hard on their equipment, often without knowing it. If she asked him what had happened, he would say it just failed suddenly, or something equally vague. 

A stone splinter skittered across the floor behind Usha, and she turned, expecting to see one of the other two mechanics who’d arrived with her heading for the crate of parts. Instead, to her horror, she saw three men in form-fitting gray attire clutching slender laser carbines slinking into the cave. Before they spotted her, Usha darted back into the shadows behind Private Segale’s huge suit. How had Incarnation infiltrators gotten past so many Marines? 

The leader of the little band waved his fellows deeper into the cave, and Usha saw them eyeing Segale cautiously. Perhaps they thought him dead – their gazes fell on the disassembled leg and then moved on, as if that satisfied them that he was not capable of harming them. The leader gestured, and they started to creep past him. 

This dismissal proved a fatal error. Though Segale had set aside his heavy railgun, no Marine, in a suit or out of it, was ever truly disarmed. With a ring of metal scraping on metal and a snick of latches clicking into place, the suit’s long right arm shot outward in a blur. All three Incarnation infiltrators crumpled to the ground, two with a boneless finality that suggested they’d been dead before they started to fall. 

“All the best sensor kit watching the perimeter and these chipheads can still just walk on over here.” Segale grumbled, sitting up straight despite missing most of his suit’s leg below the knee. He held up his right hand in front of his helmet, and Usha saw glistening red blood on the meter-long blade which had appeared as if by magic from the middle of its metal palm. “Lieutenant is on his way. Grab the third one. He’ll probably live long enough to answer some questions.” 

The third infiltrator moaned in pain and tried to drag himself away, leaving a smear of dark blood on the rocks. Usha shuddered at the tone in Segale’s voice, then moved out of the Marine’s shadow to stop the grievously wounded enemy from crawling too far. 

As she approached, she saw that Segale’s blade had bit deeply into his abdomen, and wet streamers of shredded flesh and viscera trailed from the yawning wound. Given decent medical attention, he would probably have lived even with such a wound – not that the Marines would send him to the rear to receive such care unless he gave them good reasons for such leniency. 

The man cried out and struggled feebly as Usha put a dusty boot on his back, pressing him down against the cave floor. “Hold it.” She suspected it would be kinder to put her sidearm to the back of the man’s head and put him out of his misery, but she didn’t have the nerve to do it. “My friends here want to have a talk with you.” 

Tech Tilki sent in this account after reading the last two entries in this series. While the FDA holds most of the Judicael perimeter, the Marines have emplaced themselves in the most likely avenues of attack and along the open areas where infantry struggle to dig in. She wished to communicate the intensity of the fighting in Marine-held sectors – it seems that local commanders are sending Marine units wherever the Incarnation puts a determined push into motion and leaving FDA largely alone in quieter or more remote areas. Her experience was with a sector one day after the worst of the fighting there, and still it seems to indicate far more action than Ralf Fairburn’s squad is seeing. 

The Marine unit Tilki was sent to support seems to be Colonel Pokorni's Twelfth Marines, veterans of Mereena. This unit is probably the most experienced on Margaux, at least in terms of fighting the Incarnation.

This account does not attempt to diminish the rather harsh prisoner handling practices of the Marines – rest assured that for all their grim disregard for enemy lives, I am assured they are not permitted to extend or expand the suffering of enemy wounded.  Indeed, they are far more well-mannered captors of enemy soldiers than the Incarnation is of Confederated defenders. 

Admiral Zahariev seems to be preparing another excursion into Margaux. I cannot say more at this time; unfortunately with our own vessel damaged in the last engagement, I doubt we will be present at the next battle in that system. 

[N.T.B - With the rocky terrain of the area, it doesn’t surprise me that small infiltrator teams traveling light can cross the lines. I’d bet FDA units are doing the same thing – sending soldiers on scouting patrols behind the enemy line to see what they can spot, confuse, or slag without getting noticed. Hopefully ours are causing more trouble than theirs, but with those damned interconnected implants the Nate soldiers have, I can’t imagine our side getting any big advantages that way.]