2949-04-20 – Tales from the Service: The Last Straggler

Rumor has it that some time this week the Fifth Fleet is going to try to break through to Margaux one more time. The battle on the ground there has taken several turns for the worse, and we’ve got a flood of reports reaching us here that the Confederated garrison is being pushed further back into a shrinking pocket of the Causey Plana.

With our own ship Saint-Lô not quite ready for action since its last tangle with the Incarnation, Duncan and I are still stuck on the sidelines, waiting for news like everyone else. Even though he’s still very much ill, I have to respect the man’s work ethic – he spent hours these last few days combing the inbox, then helping prepare this story for publication. The ship’s doctor has told him to take it easy, but apparently that’s not likely.

Nyah Kamal, a F.D.A. private on Margaux, sent in our story this week. She was the only survivor of a forward outpost at a place called Small Comfort which came under attack by the Incarnation and was evacuated. Though most of the troops tried to filter through enemy lines in small groups, only Private Kamal made it back to friendly lines.

At this point, victory on the ground seems an impossibility unless the fleet can break through and open sustained supply lines to the Causey troops. Unless that happens, all their fighting does is delay the inevitable.

Nyah Kamal crouched under the meager shade of a whetleaf tree, prying open the plastic seal of her last field ration. She had left the aptly-named town of Small Comfort with fifteen of the canisters in her pack, the same number allotted to each member of her squad, but the path behind her was littered with the broken shells of both rations and soldiers expended along the way, and once she gulped down the last ration, she would be truly alone, beyond the dwindling resources of the shrinking Causey redoubt.

Scooping some of the gritty, cursorily-flavored nutrient paste inside the canister out with her fingers would be the quickest way to quiet her stomach, but Nyah knew better. With most of Margaux’s biomatter containing heavy metals and compounds toxic to human life, her gloved hands couldn’t be trusted anywhere near her mouth. Instead, she used the maneuver most of the planet’s F.D.A garrison had long since mastered – she poured just enough water from her canteen into the canister to loosen the paste, shook it together, then sucked the soupy mixture down as rapidly as possible.

As soon as the canister was dry, Nyah tossed it into the sun-baked rocks and turned to the figure slumped against the trunk of the tree behind her. “Ugh. Why did it have to be sarkey hash… The taste of that stuff makes starving sound pretty good.”

The figure didn’t answer, of course. Corporal Gregor Rose, Nyah’s last squad-mate, had been wounded the previous day when they’d been jumped by an Incarnation air-skiff, and though she’d bound up his wounds as best as their meager supplies would allow, Rose had died during the night.

Nyah had already collected the batteries and slug-magazines from the dead man’s rail carbine and checked his pack for ration canisters. His ident-tag, along with the tags of six others, was already in her pocket. She had no more reasons to linger, and as the late morning heat turned the canyons into rock ovens, she certainly didn’t want to be near Rose’s body as the local decomposing microbes began to work in his flesh.

Nyah had at least thirty kilometers still to go before she rejoined the shrinking Causey perimeter, and in the treacherous, winding canyons of the inner Causey, she knew she wouldn’t make the whole trip in a single day. More likely, it would be three or even four local days before she could next pull rations from a Confederated supply dump; the road ahead would be unpleasant, but as long as she found water, stayed out of trouble, and didn’t buy a plot like the others, she knew she could make it.

Extending her helmet’s tinted visor over her face, Nyah clambered out from under the whetleaf’s sprawling leaves, careful not to touch them. Her light scout armor wasn’t quite hermetically sealed anymore, but that at least she’d been prepared for, with a whole bottle of antidote tablets which could neutralize low doses of most of the toxins found in the planet’s environment. The visor’s heads-up display also gave her a compass and database of terrain maps to work with.

Unfortunately, without the suite of sensors fitted to the more advanced and expensive armor varieties used by the Confederated Marines, Nyah had one problem ahead of her which she couldn’t predict or plan around – the enemy. The terrain ahead of her was as lousy with Incarnation troops as the terrain behind, and the canyons and crags funneled both sides into a small number of narrow channels where clashes were inevitable and the terrain favored whoever was already dug in.

In the first few days out from Small Comfort, Nyah’s squad had been able to blast its way through the hastily-prepared Incarnation pickets blocking their path, but as their numbers and larger munitions had dwindled, they’d been forced to sneak through or even scale the precipitous canyon walls to bypass their foes, opening themselves up to being spotted and attacked by increasingly numerous enemy air-skiffs and ground-attack aircraft. Now that she was alone, Nyah could move either on the surface or in the canyons with only minimal threat of being spotted from the air, but if she was spotted by even a small group of Incarnation troops, she couldn’t possibly hope to shoot her way out.

Before Nyah had gotten very far from Corporal Rose’s final resting place, she heard the sounds of boots crunching on gravel behind her. Diving down onto a ledge overhanging into a nearby canyon, she carefully lifted her head to look in the direction of the sound. Three Incarnation conscripts, laser rifles leveled at the corpse, advanced cautiously into the shade of the whetleaf tree – no doubt this was a patrol whose sharp, implant-aided senses had spotted the pair’s trail. Had Nyah tarried much longer, she might have been set upon herself.

As the soldiers prodded the dead F.D.A. infantryman, Nyah’s eyes fell on their bulging packs. No doubt the trio had set off from their camp with less than fifteen days of rations. F.D.A. barracks scuttlebutt suggested that captured Incarnation rations were somewhat better-tasting than what the Frontier Defense Army supplied, but her main concern was not being slowed down by hunger. Slowly, she brought her carbine up and set it for accurate burst-fire.

With a rippling crack, Nyah’s carbine spat a half-dozen ferroceramic slugs, and one of the soldiers stumbled and fell. Before the sensor implants of the others could pinpoint her, she adjusted her aim and fired again, and the second man dropped. The third enemy soldier raised his rifle and fired once, but managed only to scorch the rock ledge near Nyah’s shoulder before her third burst cut him down as well.

Nyah counted ten seconds to make sure no other Nate soldiers appeared, then scrambled back to the whetstone tree. Corporal Rose’s corpse, undisturbed by the firefight, still sat slumped against the trunk, now with three enemy dead at his feet.

“Thanks for the assist, Corporal. Couldn’t have done it without you.” Nyah knew the sound might attract other enemy troops, so she simply cut each man’s pack open with her knife and spilled the contents into the gritty dirt.

 After determining that the triangular foil-coated blocks in their packs were rations, she stuffed several of these into her own pack. Most of the other equipment the enemy soldiers carried was unfamiliar – a folding frame-device with holographic display lenses was probably intended for servicing and calibrating Incarnation laser rifles, but she couldn’t begin to guess at the purpose of the rest.

Other than a half-empty water canteen from one dead man’s belt, she left the rest of their gear where it lay. “Help yourself to the rest, Rose.” Nyah stood, saluted the dead man, then checked her heads-up display and loped off toward friendly lines once more, feeling unreasonably optimistic. For all that she was probably going to die before she saw dawn again, at least she could be sure she would do it well fed.