2948-10-20 – Tales from the Service: The Best Wreck Left in Judicael

While last week’s entry marked the end of Outpost Judicael and the defensive line it anchored on Margaux, stories of valor and adventure in the four-day retreat to the Ishkawa Line have multiplied on the datasphere since.  

Though I could easily provide a well-documented account of Marines or FDA exhibiting meritorious conduct in the operation, this week (and for a few weeks afterward) we will instead be featuring the account of Adana Beckett, commander of a group of mercenaries from Vardanian Security operating both assault troopers and old Jie Yu-built strike bombers from Judicael. 

While Ms. Beckett does not say specifically, it seems the evacuation of the outpost caught her outfit by surprise and left them holding a rather volatile bag. In the last hours of the evacuation, Ms. Beckett rounded up her company’s last nervous stragglers to figure out a way to extricate Vardanian from an unpleasant predicament. 

While this story has been corroborated to some extent, it is likely some embellishment took place. I have done some independent research and see ample evidence that Vardanian Security is far less professional than outfits like the one Jacob Borisov commanded at Adimari Valis. I do however hope that these mercenaries do not share Mr. Borisov's fate.

Adana Beckett ducked underneath the stubby wing of the boxy Yeren gunship on the landing pad and jammed a fiber link into the craft’s access panel. After a moment’s security handshake, the unlovely craft unloaded a flood of status and configuration data to her helmet heads-up display. Just like the other craft left behind at Outpost Judicael by the mixed Confederated force, the Hyadean gunship was considered not flightworthy, and as one of the oldest models of craft fighting on Margaux, and a mercenary rig at that, it hadbeenplacedlow on the priority list for the few available heavy-lift airfreighters which had ferried equipment rearwards until the last possible second. 

That last second had come and gone. A pall of oily smoke marked where Judicael’s main compound had been. The Marines, fighting a mobile retreat behind the grimly-marching FDA, were slowing down Nate’s advance just long enough for the techs to finish destroying the compound’s more useful outbuildings and slagging the strike-craft left on the pads and all the equipment still sitting in the maintenance hangars. 

Adana knew any minute, a tech with a thermite charge might trot up to the pad and interrupt her work. Her team – one of them in particular at least - could scare a lone tech off, but they were just mercenaries, and they lacked the authority to impede military personnel. Regulations were clear: the Yeren couldn’t be left behind for enemy intelligence, even if it was older than any person fit to fly it. If nothing else, the military would observe, its mercenary-registered transponder could be re-used to cover the activities of Incarnation scouts or espionage teams. 

“Hells, Beckett.” Geoff Shepherd’s gruff voice on the comms circuit interrupted Adana’s scan of the Yeren’s status readouts. “This isn’t going to work. Let’s just give it up and get moving.” 

“Can it, Shepherd.” Joining the semi-orderly flood of Confederated personnel back toward the Ishkawa Line didn’t appeal to her, or anyone else in the company, but it was the action most likely to result in survival. If Adana didn’t have to worry about a sensitive asset too bulky for their single remaining quadcrawler to move, she wouldn't be one of the last five security contractors hanging around at doomed Judicael. 

“He’s right.” Owen Hierro’s voice, thin and reedy even in calm situations, had become almost shrill. “The Brass will reimburse us for our lost assets, won’t they?” 

Adana sighed. “Not for the assets they don’t know we brought.” She didn’t know how much the few corporate grunts she had rounded up knew about Vardanian Security’s double-booked contract on Margaux, and she didn’t want to have to explain. Jumping into a high-paying planetary defense contract armed with new tech from fleet R&D had seemed like a safe bet, but months into the action the company hadn’t found a use for most of the secret prototypes it was supposed to test. Per the contract, they were not going to be paid for the items they never tested – and Vardanian was responsible for replacement costs on anything lost before testing. 

“Whatever you’re trying to save had better be worth a damned fortune, boss.” Shepherd’s irritation, though understandable, told Adana she didn’t have much time before her personnel mutinied. They were mercenaries, and it didn’t pay to be heroes in the war profiteering business. They couldn’t know, and she couldn’t tel them, that the prototype she was so interested in saving had a replacement cost nearly double the value of the company’s ersatz carrier – losing it would be the end of Vardanian, Navy contracts or no. 

In the technical readout, Adana spied a ray of hope. “Basic airframe is intact. Stabilizer is out.” The craft had been grounded due to damage to the sensors in its aerodynamic stabilizer system. There was other damage, too, but this was the factor holding the vehicle on the ground – if kicked out of a starship in hard vacuum, the Yeren would have no in-flight trouble beyond a brace of angry orange warning-lights in the cockpit. It wasn’t quite as simple as flying off the pad and ignoring the bumpy ride, however - unlike the sleek Pumas of the Marine close-support squadrons and their big, bulky gunships, Vardanian’s Hyadean-built hardware featured atmo-operations capability as a mere design afterthought. Flying the unstabilized strike rig in such a way as to avoid the ground would benear-suicide. “No wonder your crew decided to hitch a ride with someone else.” 

“There’s nobody here who can fly that pig without the stabilizers, Beckett.” Shepherd, a ground-pounder by trade like most of the other Vardanian staff Adana had rounded up, still had a bit of expertise in flight operations. Everyone in the company had to know the basics, since the mercenary outfit prided itself in infantry-strike cooperation, both on the ground and in microgravity. Flying even a wounded strike rig from point A to point B in hard vacuum was something even a child or an assault grunt could reliably do, and as long as the computer and attitude thrusters kept the vehicle basically stable, the same was true in-atmosphere. Without the stabilizers, only the best pilots could keep the craft in the air for more than a few minutes, and perhaps the top thirty percentile could bring it downforaminimally-destructive hard landing after a stabilizer failure. It was, she knew, no surprise that strike-jockeys in every mercenary outfit in the Reach grumbled at the prospect of fighting anywhere with air. 

“Hierro, go and get that jumper track over here.” Adana pointed to the boxy machine squatting on a nearby pad next to a cannibalized frame that had once been a Marine dropship. “Zdrakov, go find an arc-cutter and start taking off those weapon mounts.” The stability problem couldn’t be fixed, but she didn’t mean to try. With its twin gravitic thrusters working perfectly, the gunship had plenty of thrust to get aloft, even with the meager lift of its tiny wings – all it needed to do to save the company from bankruptcy was get them across the Ishkawa line, and all it needed to do to keep its occupants alive was crash-land without exploding. For that, she needed to remove the weapons and anything else even vaguely explosive. 

“It’s already broken and you’re going to cut it more?” 

“Shut up, Shepherd.” Adana ducked back out from under the wing. “This is going to work. I’m going to get the payload. If anyone tries to melt the damned thing before I get back, shoot them.” 

2948-10-13 – Tales from the Service: Here on the Rock in the Way

Several days ago, headquarters at Maribel received reports that the forces on Margaux had retreated from the line centered on Outpost Judicael to the so-called Ishkawa Line, named not for a fortification but for a triple-peaked mountain on its southern extremity. 

The retreat was planned and conducted in good order and few casualties – indeed, as many reports indicate, it was conducted weeks later than initially expected due to favorable tactical conditions, allowing the engineers behind the lines additional time to reinforce the Ishkawa line. 

This week, we have one final feed item sent in from the heart of Judicael itself, sent in about two days before the withdrawal began (Naval Intelligence wishes us not to divulge exactly when that was). Where many of our items have attempted to capture the front-line conditions on the planet, this week we instead have been given a window into another facet of the fighting – the condition on the propaganda front. Natia Granger is credited with the composition of the criminally catchy “The Rock in the Way.” In case you haven’t heard it, Ashton featured the Ori Martial Choir’s rendition in the closing segment of yesterday’s vidcast episode, and other renditions in dozens of styles have been popping up across the datasphere. Be prepared to find yourself whistling it for the next few days, however. The song quickly caught on among the fighting personnel on Margaux, then rapidly seeped out into the datasphere from there, as the planet’s infrastructure is still partially connected to the Hypercomm relay network. 

The name of the tune and its theme seem to be based on a (correct, as it turns out) supposition that the Rock in the Way mentioned in previous installments of this series as a prepared battlefield is in fact Margaux. Though the phrase and the song which it now describes is not the creation of anyone at Cosmic Background, it is our honor to have played some small part in the origin of a memetic weapon which has taken the datasphere by storm. Until this point, the Fifth Fleet and its infantry detachments in the FDA and Confederated Marines have seemed to be fighting a distant war, detached (but for a few saboteurs, Ladeonist risings, and terror incidents) from the goings-on in the Core Worlds and rarely brought to the cultural forefront. Perhaps Ms. Granger’s tune will help change that. 

The rumbling of another aerial bombardment shook several forgotten mugs of synthetic off Natia Granger’s desk, but she spared them only a moment’s glance as she paced back and forth in the closet that passed for her office in the depths of Outpost Judicael’s central citadel. Even with her anomalously diminutive stature, she had just enough room for three steps in one direction from one wall to the other – and that only if she pushed both chairs in the tiny space into opposite corners. Judicael had already held out for weeks longer than even optimistic FDA plans had suggested it would without Navy support, but now she had to do the impossible. She had to turn its abandonment – which would be soon, General Bell said – into a positive. 

Judicael was never meant to anchor the main line of defense on the Causey, only the first. With hundreds of small roads from the population centers into the perimeter, and thousands of canyons and gorges wide enough for a civilian lighter to fly stealthily into friendly territory it needed only hold out long enough for the bulk of the planet’s noncombatant population to retreat behind the lines. With the civilian flood turning into a trickle two weeks before, and massed Incarnation ground troops pushing the line on a two-hundred-kilometer arc from the foothills of Mount Novac to Michaelson Falls on the south side of the plateau, it was past time to pull back to the stronger second line. 

Tactically, the late withdrawal was a success all its own, but the volunteer soldiers of the FDA whose blood was every day darkening the rocks and soil of Causey would not see it that way. They didn’t want to surrender a square meter of toxic dirt unless they absolutely had to – after all, the general had ensured that almost every company had at least one Margaux native in their ranks, and even the non-natives had been on the planet for many months preparing defenses.  Ceding the outer line to Nate chipheads would be a blow to morale no matter how the broadcasts spun it.  

Natia’s job was to minimize the damage. If the broadcast programming she scripted hurt morale on the other side of the line, that was a bonus, but so far Incarnation morale seemed unbreakable as long as their damned implants could network en masse. 

Two rather attractive propaganda plaques from her opposite numbers in Incarnation headquarters sat on Natia’s desk, these too heavy for the vibrations of the bombardment to dislodge. Enemy literature and broadcasts had been wrongheaded to the point of comedy on Adimari Valis and Mereena, but their newest material, created by dropping cheap canisters of rock-shaping nanotech liberally and letting the nanites build thin slab-like plaques out of gravel and stone, was widely considered highly collectible by the front-line troops. Natia had paid dearly for the two she had and could only manage high-resolution imagery of other variants. 

The basic Incarnation propaganda plaque grabbed attention with a stunningly-rendered image taking up a quarter of its surface – some showed sleek, idealized starships or vehicles, others showed sleek, idealized human bodies in pin-up poses. Females and men in these images appeared at a precise inverse of the ratio of the sexes found in Confederated armed forces. The purpose of the artwork etched into the artificially agglomerated rock was to show off the super-human technology of the Incarnate – the curvaceous, well-proportioned bodies were studded with implanted technology, and the graceful vehicles were advanced Incarnation designs that wouldn't look out of place in an artist’s rendering of the Xenarchs in their prime. 

The rest of each tablet contained text in block Anglo-Terran letters, almost insultingly easy to read. No two had the same text, but the themes were limited – they claimed the Confederated defenders of Margaux were cut off and abandoned by the fleet, that the Confederated Worlds government was hopelessly weak and the admiralty feckless cowards. Each one indicated that anyone who crossed the ranks would be heroes working to save humanity from extinction, but they were always vague as to how these “heroes” would be treated. 

Natia picked up one of the tablets, and debated hurling it against the wall, despite its value on the garrison’s unauthorized souvenir market. The Incarnation’s messaging didn’t seem to affect most of the defenders, but they had figured out how to ensure their work was extensively read. The average FDA private could recall four-point-three Incarnation memetic vectors, but only one-point-two Confederated vectors. Perhaps, she thought with a sigh, that was because three out of every fifty pieces of enemy literature was pornographic, and another eighteen were strongly erotic. 

More likely, she knew, the enemy propaganda agents simply had a better grasp of memetic warfare than anyone on the Confederated side. Nate propaganda had improved from pathetic to average since the war had started, and Confederated propaganda, largely ignored by Confederated personnel, had learned almost nothing about how to seed enemy formations with their own viral ideas. To them, her broadcasts, placards, and datacasts probably looked just as hapless as those first Incarnation attempts had to her. 

The rumbling of the bombardment moved on, and Natia finally bent to pick up the forgotten mugs and clean up their spilled contents. She had asked for permission to stimulate her datacasts with subtly erotic messages, but had been denied, so she could not fight sex with sex. Neither could she buck up flagging spirits with depictions of the far stronger Ishkawa line behind the Judicael line – this would work, but it would also undoubtedly result in information leaked to the enemy. Nate knew about the Ishkawa line by now, but so much was buried that they couldn’t possibly see exactly how formidable it was from the air. 

Casualty ratios, the memetic vector family her team had worked with since the first clashes on the outer line, had met with some success, but it was already losing its luster. It didn’t matter much anymore that approximately six-point-one enemy personnel were casualties for each Confederated soldier wounded or killed – it was plain to anyone on the line that for every FDA or Marine in Causey, the enemy had at least fifteen conscripts, and that enemy wounded were being put back into action more often and more quickly. Until she could plausibly report ten to one or more, that line was of little further use. 

Similarly, the memetic vectors impugning Incarnation ground-troops as mindless zombies and their officers as craven, puritanical busybodies had run their course. If those allegations were ever true, they certainly were not in the fighting on Causey. Few Incarnation officers cared for the lives of their soldiers or engaged in creative problem-solving, but when they could bring fifteen-to-one odds in almost every local offensive, stubborn mediocrity got results. 

The only so-far-evergreen memetic family available was the horror of unpersoning. Of the one-point-two vectors the average FDA or Marine could parrot, this was invariably the one. Confederated personnel fought to the death and didn’t surrender if they had a choice because they knew they would have their humanity stripped if they were taken alive – their identity would be lost amid the mad neural tinkering of Incarnation science. It had happened to many already – some of the models for Nate’s propaganda pin-ups were recognizable former comrades, and it was suspected that after being fitted for brain-altering implants, they had been so warped as to volunteered for this shameless duty. The desire to rescue these unfortunates burned hot, but Natia knew better than to fan it – as it was, the troops rarely took prisoners, and Naval Intelligence was always asking for more. 

As soon as she had cleaned up the spilled coffee, Natia returned to her pacing, staring constantly at the blank still-display propaganda template on her desk display. What could her memetic vectors do without anger, sexual desire, or scorn for the ability of the enemy? 

In a rush, she knew. The first rule of memetic warfare was that no good vector was ever new, and that no new vector was ever good – fortunately, there was an ancient thematic pedigree for what she was about to create. She didn’t need to make the situation seem better – she needed to make it seem somewhat worse. 

Dismissing the still-display creation system, Natia called up the musical composition system, searching for upbeat, lighthearted tunes. 

Wish you were here at Margaux, dear friends 
We hope you aren’t late 
Nate came all the way here, just to be waylaid 
It will be messy down here 
But you can be sure that we’ll stay 
Here on the Rock in the Way! 

--"The Rock in the Way", Natia Granger

2948-10-06 – Tales from the Service: The Winnowing of Hawthorn Squadron 

In our first installment of Tales from the Service featuring the fighting at Margaux (Tales from the Service: The Bumpy Ride to Margaux), we had a limited view of the Marine Pumas of Hawthorn Squadron escorting dropships down to the planet’s surface. 

In ensuing weeks, Commander Rory Vargas, that squadron’s commanding officer, has reached out with his own account. He confirms that the drop to Margaux was his first as squadron leader – and reveals in his own contribution to this series that command of Hawthorn Squadron has not been all he hoped it would be. 

Of the twelve pilots and craft in the squadron when it departed Gerard Lovell at full strength that day, the unit was withdrawn from active service on Margaux in the last week of September with only five pilots remaining. Of those five, Vargas and one other have been put on psychological leave behind the lines (which is probably the only reason he had time to write an account for us). Twelve capable Marine flyers were ground down to just three in a bit more than four weeks of action.

As sad as these losses are, Vargas’s squadron is credited with a number of instances of meritorious conduct, and rumor is that he is being considered for a Centaur Cross for his tireless service on Margaux - in the month they were on the line, they performed nearly daily close ground support and interdiction missions over Incarnation lines.

[N.T.B. - Tireless, hells – the man is a wreck. Based on what he sent us, it looks to me like he’ll snap if they give him a medal and try to call him a hero. He seems to think the people deserving the medals – especially his late XO, one Lieutenant Radkov – are the ones who never made it back to base.] 

Commander Rory Vargas took off from the landing pad just like he was on a close air support run for the front-line Marines. The Incarnation’s eyes in the sky wouldn’t be able to tell his squadron was outfitted for orbital forays instead of ground-hugging support duty until it was too late.  

As he circled over the rendezvous position and watched the other four Pumas in Hawthorn Squadron rise from their pads and form up, Rory tried and failed to avoid thinking about the other seven Pumas which had rocketed from Gerard Lovell’s hangar alongside him four weeks before. All but Mizutani had made it down to Judicael safely on the first day, and with the enemy’s deadly-agile Coronachs being all but useless when subject to the friction and stresses imposed by an atmosphere, he’d dared to hope that ground support for Lovell’s Marines would be a cakewalk.  

He hadn’t been at Mereena, but he’d heard from the few Marine strike pilots who’d participated that the Incarnation seemed to care little about the deadly dance of the Pumas over their heads, even when that dance showered their troops with ordinance. The big Sirocco ground-attack gunships were tough enough and defensively armed against interceptors, but on Mereena pilots had reported taking almost no fire from the ground. 

Margaux had proved quite different. The Incarnation, between Margaux and Mereena, had found a way to solve the Puma problem. Autonomous, fast-tracking laser mounts had been mounted on any vehicle with a large enough roof to take one. When Rory’s squadron had appeared over the battlespace on the third day after arrival to wreck a column moving across one of the Causey’s rare open spaces, the sky above the enemy formation had almost literally burned with their interlocking beams. Klement and Sarkozy were gone before anyone knew what was happening. Rory had called a retreat, but Williamson’s craft had taken too much damage to make it back to Judicael. She had ejected before it came apart and her gravitic featherpack had registered its landing position behind enemy lines before falling silent. Rory prayed she had been killed, because the unpersoning horrors that might be in store for her if she was still alive did not bear contemplation. 

They had revised their tactics, roaring down canyons to hide from enemy sensors until the last second, but that too had its risks. On the eighth day on Margaux, Aarden had suffered a systems fault during a high-speed canyon run and plowed into a protruding rock formation. The flight techs at Judicael had sworn to Rory that Aarden’s Puma had been working perfectly when he dusted off, but Rory remained convinced that they had missed something. The deepening bags under their eyes even then told a tale of overwork, with too little expertise being spread thin across too many squadrons. Between servicing the Navy’s loaned Magpies, the Marines’ Pumas, the FDA’s fleet of overpriced Kosseler Wyverns and superannuated Jie Yu Yerens, and the half-dozen patchwork mercenary squadrons who had appeared from somewhere, the ground crews barely seemed to have time to sleep. 

After Aarden’s date with the Margaux terrain, Rory and his fellow pilots had started servicing their own craft on the pads to try to keep the ground crew from having complete breakdowns. They lost a little sleep, but it seemed to help reduce the rate of inexplicable systems failures. The pilots of the Yeren squadron assigned to share their hangar started doing the same, and soon half the entire base’s flight crew were pulling second shifts in blue coveralls. Rory’s squadron went a full nine days without losing any craft or pilots, and he began to think they had reached the mythical cakewalk phase, where their tactics brought something to Margaux the enemy could not properly counter. 

Sunden getting hit was bad luck, really. He had done everything right as he closed in for the kill on a wounded Sirocco limping back to its own home field, but the Sirocco’s rear-swiveling guns had pulled off a one-in-a-million shot, skewering Sunden’s Puma with a heavy particle beam. At least it had been instantaneous. The poor kid, Rory thought, had probably crossed the Sea of Glass still trying to pull the trigger for his forward guns. 

The final straw for Rory’s spirit, though, had been Radkov, who’d made the same one-way journey into eternity only three days ago. She had been his second in command, and everyone had considered her the best pilot in the squadron in terms of raw ability. Rory had quietly recommended her conduct for award consideration no less than five times since he’d first set foot on Margaux’s poisoned soil. At the controls of the agile Puma, she could dance through impossible storms of laser-fire without even getting her paint scorched. She was the closest thing to an Immortal pilot the Confederated defenders had – and since the Incarnation’s elite super-soldiers couldn’t use their reflexes flying a lumbering Sirocco and couldn’t bring Coronachs to an atmospheric fight, that had made her the queen of the Margaux skies. 

“Hawthorn Actual, Thunderbird reports ready-op.” 

Rory jumped in his restraints as the ground-side controller interrupted his morose thoughts. A quick scan of the board showed all his squadron’s Pumas at the ready altitude, their status indicators green. Today, they weren’t going for a ground-hugging, stomach-clenching ride over enemy lines. The life-line of wounded going up and supplies coming down needed to be maintained once more. For the time being, the Incarnation fleet couldn’t hold orbital station over the Causey redoubt without being served a hefty helping of surface-launched heavy missiles. “Hawthorn is ready-op." 

There was a brief pause, then the controller spoke again. “Begin your run, Commander.” 

Rory flicked his status indicator control to get his pilots’ attention, then set his Puma on a pre-arranged flight path. The other interceptors formed up in line behind him, just as discussed. For the first minutes of their run, it would appear that they were heading for the network of canyons that would shield them on their approach to enemy lines.  

Meanwhile, Thunderbird, a mercenary-operated pinnace filled to the gills with Marine wounded, was heaving itself off a pad at Outpost Abbott eighty klicks away and straining for the sky. It would, to anyone watching sensor plots on the enemy side of the line, look like the pinnace was un-escorted, since Hawthorn’s remaining Pumas were flying like they were equipped – for ground support, not orbital operations. 

The ruse would hopefully draw out any Coronachs left in stealthy geo-sync orbits over Causey. When they attacked, Rory and his fellow pilots would pull up suddenly, cut their gravitic drive units, and engage the old-fashioned disposable liquid-fuel boosters strapped to their interceptors’ bellies, rocketing up to low orbit in about thirty seconds. The Coronachs could stay and fight, or they could quit the area. In either case, there were almost thirty other small transports waiting on the ground for the way to be clear. Once they broke orbit and began their outward acceleration, it would quickly become impossible for enemy interceptors to catch up to them. 

As his squadron dipped low as if to make their canyon run, Rory remembered the enthusiastic laughter Agata Radkov had, perhaps inadvertently, broadcast on the squadron comms channel as she closed in for the kill on an enemy troop-ferry aircraft which had strayed into their area of operations. The kill had been her last. She had grown increasingly gleeful with the bloody work on Margaux as everyone else became exhausted and resigned, as if weariness could never touch her. She had never lost any of her finesse, and Rory had thought, watching her hurtle toward her victim, that she would be the last one of Hawthorn Squadron to survive. 

Five seconds after he had thought she was invincible, Radkov’s Puma exploded. Three days later, he still didn’t know what had taken her down – he had not seen any signs of ground fire and Incarnation air ferries were barely armed, surely not well enough to cause that kind of sudden loss. There was no ejection, no chance of surviving that inferno – she had been blotted out of the sky she had ruled for nearly a month. It was as if the universe had simply conspired to blot her out.

“Thunderbird reports cold-starts in low orbit. Hawthorn, you are go.” 

Before the controller back at Judicael had even finished his report, Rory had already pulled up on his control column. “Liquid fuel boosters online. We’re going to space the old-fashioned way today, boys and girls.” 

Two seconds later, the Puma’s main drive cut out, and with it the inertial isolation unit. After an instant of sickening weightlessness, Rory was crushed back into his chair by multiple gees of acceleration as he rode a column of roaring primeval fire toward the Coronachs who had revealed their positions overhead. A quick glance at the plot showed the others right behind him. Five Pumas against what looked like six Coronachs – nearly even odds, but Rory knew his squadron had the advantage. Sitting in orbit to raid supply ships wouldn’t be a duty saved for Nate’s best pilots, and Hawthorn, even now, was still among the best. 

The ghost of a familiar whooping cheer played across Rory’s imagination, and his craft’s shuddering ascent freed a single tear from his right eye. He had sent his letter of condolence to Agata Radkov’s family on Maribel only a few hours before dustoff – they likely already had the news that she was gone. “Agata, you would have loved this ride.” 

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.]