December 2345 Earth Standard, planet H-476, 49.4 days after landfall
Sons of the mothers who gave you
Honor and gift of birth
Strike with the knife till blood and life
Run out upon the earth.
—Robert Leckie, “The Battle of the Tenaru, August 21, 1942”
Lt. Col. Paul Thompson was making a dying world die faster. His soldiers, Third Battalion of the 405th Infantry Regiment, were assaulting the Harpies’ last holdout on the world the human forces had labeled H-476. The unlovely, devastated planet lay deep in the Harpies’ sector of settled worlds. Humanity was making good its threat to destroy the aliens’ civilization; millions of soldiers were fighting on dozens of worlds to tear out the Harpies, root and branch.
It was an ugly, squalid, deadly affair, and Paul had been recalled from retirement to participate. And here he was, driving his soldiers forward into the bowels of Aerie 325. His Bravo Company was currently the “main effort,” and as Paul watched his stats on his helmet’s visual display, the people assigned to his unit were dropping like flies.
Paul was doing his best to save his soldiers. But when a soldier’s unit was picked to be in the vanguard of an attack on a heavily defended structure, there is only so much one soldier can do. And Paul had done everything in his power for his people. He had trained his soldiers, he led from the front during forty-nine days of combat, and he had used up his assigned Punishment Battalion.
The partial body at his feet attested to that fact. Paul glanced downward and noted the corpse was shrouded in a prewar M-15 armored suit. Only the damned in the Punishment formations used those things these days. Paul and his troops were in the new M-42s.
A few of the original six hundred or so convicts were still alive; they had done their one task well. They had been driven pell-mell at the aerie with area-denial bots at their backs and shaped charges in their hands. When they opened a breach in the aerie’s walls with their sacrifice, Paul’s battalion had been right behind them.
And now here he stood, in the basement of the aerie with bat-like mounds of Harpy dead and fragments of his people. His newly promoted staff surrounded him, and they all were laboring to bring this slaughter about. His line companies were pushing upward, clambering up walls, fighting along arches and ramps, and killing everything that moved. Progress was slow, but it was steady and grim.
Paul knew that once his battalion reached Command’s chosen figure of 50 percent casualties that they would be withdrawn, and First Battalion of the 405th would take his place. But that was no comfort to him at all. It meant that precisely 325 of his people had to die before this nightmare would be over.
That meant 325 families who would have to be notified that their dear one had suffered a “hero’s death” near a star not even visible from Earth.
Having been through the process before, Paul almost wished he would die here before having to do that again.
A flying Harpy crashed to ruin by Paul’s feet. Without a thought, Paul shot the creature with his pistol. Just to make sure, he shot it again. The sounds of battle, muffled by his helmet, droned in his ears. The rattle of an auto, the grating zing of a rail gun, the explosion of a round hitting rock, the clang of a suit blasted to ruin—these sounds were his intimate companions, and they were burned into his soul like a brand.
His wearable connectivity device, his halo, crackled. John Stevenson, his Bravo Six, was about to speak. “Dragon Six, this is Bravo Six,” Stevenson said.
Paul was Dragon Six, the commander of a battalion nicknamed the “Dragons.” How original, Paul thought for the umpteenth time. He replied to Stevenson.
“Send it, Bravo Six.”
“Uh, roger, sir. Be advised, my company has hit heavy resistance at the top of the ramp, requesting reinforcements.”
Paul glanced at his battle schematic. The ramp was a structure along his battalion’s main axis of attack; it probably led up toward this aerie’s command structure. It had to be taken; it was a bottleneck for further progress. Paul’s readout showed that Bravo had taken 41 percent casualties. In his mind’s eye, Paul saw the tracers and corpses and heard the confused staccato chatter on the squad and platoon nets. If he would have wanted to, he could have pulled up the battle from any of his troopers’ halos, alive or dead, and watched for himself. But he didn’t need to. He knew what combat looked like oh so well.
Bravo was going to have to suck it up.
“Request denied, Six. Rotate your people as we discussed earlier, and take that fucking ramp. Once you have done that, Alpha will do a passage of lines, and you guys go into the reserve. Any questions?”
Paul imagined Stevenson hated his guts right about now.
A pause. “No, sir, no questions. Bravo Six, out.” Stevenson’s voice sounded hollow and drained.
Paul sent out a prompt to his battle staff. He wanted to get closer to the main effort—that is, the ramp and Bravo Company. Of course, in his suit, he couldn’t see the expressions on his staff’s faces, but he knew they despised his idea. It wasn’t safe where they were now, let alone closer to the ramp. Without a word, he and his staff moved up a wall and passed in single file over an arch to get closer to the scene.
Some tracer rounds flashed past, and his supply officer’s suit automatically dodged a Harpy round. A crater flashed in his wake. Paul’s M-372 cannon barked. The distant, distinctive clank from a dead soldier’s suit being impacted sounded across the guano-filled void. Paul’s staff started to pass through Alpha Company’s area, his battalion reserve. They were getting closer to Bravo Company; the din of battle grew acute.
Alpha Company’s commander appeared in Paul’s visual.
“Dragon Six, this is Alpha Six. What’s up?” Subordinate commanders always wanted to know the scoop when the BC, the battalion commander, showed up in the area of operations.
Paul spoke to Lieutenant Tsongas’s image. “Headed toward Bravo. Sounds hot up there.”
He watched Tsongas nod. “Rog, sir,” Tsongas said.
Paul silently wished him luck.
Paul and his staff threaded past waiting troopers. He imagined he knew what they felt—namely, that they were next and that their deaths might be upon them. Paul had been one of them once; he had stood in their ranks what seemed like an eternity ago. And now, through the tricks of a cruel God, he was in command. And he had to crack this nut.
His own mortality didn’t weigh heavily on him; he had resigned himself to death long ago. What he worried about was the deaths of those in his command, even though they thought he was cold and cruel. When his people looked at him, they saw a prewar survivor, a veteran of Brasilia, and a hard-bitten, slightly crazed leader.
When he looked at himself, he saw a mess.
And now he was getting close to Bravo. He and his group were on the leading edge of Alpha’s area. Paul knew that if he looked around the corner he was behind, he would see the ramp.
The din of combat was a roar. Purple Harpy blood was splashed about with alien mortal remains, and every other square foot of the area contained a chunk of trooper. They were Paul’s troops—his responsibility.
He placed a call.
“Bravo Six, this is Dragon Six. Am approaching your AO. What is your situation?”
Stevenson answered, his voice a low, panting monotone. “We’ve taken the ramp. Come take a look.” He dispensed with the “sir.”
“Rog, Stevenson. Good work.” Paul took a second to push orders to Alpha, and then he continued. “Coming up.” He started to move, wondering if he was more likely to catch a round from the Harpies or from Stevenson. Paul pinged his staff and directed them to stay in place, but his major sergeant, Joanna Matherson, followed him.
As Paul cleared the corner, his eyes fell on the battlefield within a battlefield. It was a collage of stuff he didn’t want to see: a Harpy intertwined with a half suit; a trooper’s head; a large streak of Harpy blood on a wall, with the dead alien beneath it; a trooper cowering behind a chunk of something, holding her helmet with both hands; craters; smoke; and blood.
As fast as hell, Paul and Matherson beelined toward Stevenson’s position, clearing a path in alternating bounds. As Paul moved, he checked Bravo’s battle schematic and statistics. A squad from Bravo had gained the top of the ramp, and they were holding. Another squad was moving forward to consolidate the foothold. The rest of the company was waiting. When Paul looked at their stats, he realized that a lot of them would be waiting forever. Fifty-four percent of Bravo Company was dead. Sixty-seven of his soldiers were gone.
Stevenson awaited him by the ramp itself, behind some fallen arcane machine with holes blasted in it. Paul kicked a Harpy out of the way and moved by Stevenson. Matherson linked up with the new sergeant first of the company.
After a minute, Paul broke the silence. He looked at his schematic and saw Alpha was passing through Bravo’s position.
“Captain Stevenson, you are relieved,” Paul said.
“Roger, sir. I’m a lieutenant, though.”
Paul imagined Stevenson followed with a mental “dumb ass.”
“No, Captain, you aren’t,” Paul said. “Gather up your troops, and go into reserve once Alpha comes through. You’ve done enough for now.”
Stevenson didn’t say anything; he just rocked his suit in a manner that signaled “yeah.” Nothing more passed between them.
The first soldiers from Alpha Company passed the two men. They were moving fast and erratically across the ramp. Paul’s experienced eye judged them to be veterans. Paul heard the zing of the rail gun at exactly the same moment as he watched one of the troops die in a photo-strobe flash; the clang reached his ears a split second later. A trooper who was waiting by the ramp to cross over paused. The squad leader or platoon sergeant kicked him or her into motion.
That soldier died, too.
Paul knew that this was bad. No one else from Alpha was moving to cross the ramp, and the toehold on the opposite side had to be reinforced, now. He also knew that he hated chickenshits. He had hated them his whole career. One type of commander would order his men to die while chewing on a peanut butter sandwich, whereas another type would share the dangers and lead. Paul had known for a long time which type of commander he was.
He placed an all-call.
“Come on, fuckers.”
And he started to bound across the ramp.