They were going over the top at 0300 hours. Corporal Tennyson had exactly twenty minutes to check out his squad before the push.
As usual, some idiot higher up the food chain had decided that the middle of the night would somehow be more efficient for killing than the middle of the day. Well, it was not his job to question orders, “Ours is not to reason why…” and all that crap.
He moved down the line of the trench checking on his squad. They were a good group, fourteen men in all, counting himself, and seven of them had been in the trenches almost as long as he had. To the man they stood silent and ready. Only one, Howard, was new. This would be his first assault.
Tennyson found him at his assigned spot in the line. He had his helmet off, going over the visor with a soft charged cloth.
“One last buff, Private Howard?”
“Yes, Corporal, the lads told me my visor was dirty, I thought it would do with another polish…” His voice was shaky, but clear. Tennyson knew that the visor was as clean as it would get under field conditions, and that someone had given Howard “make work” to keep him occupied and calm. Good, he would have to find out whom, and issue a drug bonus.
“Well put it on, and don’t forget to latch it,” Tennyson soothed. He scanned the chronometer inside his own helmet. “We go over in fifteen.”
“Yes Corporal, will do.”
Tennyson started to move away when Howard called out.
“I heard they have gas….” a silent whisper, a question and a statement at once. A mirrored helmet turned to look at Tennyson and he noted from the ID scan on the visor that it was Private “Lancer” Blackwell. Tennyson stepped up to Howard and spoke softly.
“Of course they have gas Howard, we have gas don’t we?”
“But… we won’t use it, we wouldn’t use it sir, I mean, it’s against the conventions, no one has used it yet… have they?”
“Of course not Howard, no one is going to use gas, but that doesn’t stop anyone from deploying it. I wouldn’t worry about it; try to keep your mind on the assault, one step at a time.”
Blackwell slapped the side of his helm and the visor flew open. He spoke across the trench to Howard. “Bullets, gas, beams, knife, axe, mace, it doesn’t really matter Howard. You are just as dead… the important thing is surviving… Kill or be killed. Nothing’s really changed.” He slapped the helm and his visor clicked down again. He spoke once more over the com-link. “Just stick with me and you’ll be alright.” He reached down and picked up his shield.
Lancer was Howard’s shield mate. Tennyson had seen to that. With any luck, Howard would survive the push and gain enough experience to actually be of use in the next one.
Howard nodded gamely and lowered his own visor. Lancer checked the latch and gave thumbs up to Tennyson. Blackwell was the only North American in Tennyson’s squad and had refused promotion to corporal several times. Unlike Tennyson, who would gain the benefit of Imperial citizenship when his tour was over, Blackwell had his own reasons for enlisting in the guard. Whatever they were, he kept them to himself.
Tennyson checked his chronometer and moved back down the line to his flanking position to await the order.
Ten minutes to push. The com-link hissed silently. Tennyson looked right to inspect his squad. They were all leaning back against the trench, their armor softly reflecting the stars overhead. On his left crouched Kilgore’s squad; the end of their division’s flank. A hard corps of veteran men-at-arms, Tango squad was led by the friendly Irish Sergeant. Tennyson believed his own left flank to be safe in Kilgore’s hands, as Kilgore knew his right was safe in Tennyson’s.
Seven minutes, and Tennyson checked his pulse… seventy, not bad. Kilgore’s would be about sixty-five. He stepped to the forward edge of the trench to have a look.
A turtle team had dug the trench they were in just six hours earlier. The Teflon walls were only now showing signs of dirt. The regiment formed in place, armor bright, guns charged, hand weapons sharp. With a tentative step up, Tennyson peered over the edge. In front of him lay three hundred yards of starlit field, flat and deadly. The grass had been mowed short by the beam weapons, but was still about four inches high. It hadn’t rained in days, so they wouldn’t have to worry about mud clinging to the armor. No moon either, a perfect night.
“Makes you wonder,” Kilgore’s voice came over the com-link in Tennyson’s left ear, the private channel, “How many times this piece o’ land’s been run over by soldiers.” Kilgore was an avid historian. He and Tennyson sat up the night before; talking about all the battles fought in this part of what was once Old France. Hell, they had even had trench warfare in the First World War, not much different from this. In fact, a turtle team set off an un-exploded piece of ordinance from that war last week, scaring the hell out of everybody, though no one was hurt.
“Yeah, French and German soldiers… English and French Knights…”
“Hell boyo, Romans and Gauls are buried out there… nothing’s changed.”
Except for the weapons, thought Tennyson. And even then, things had gone full cycle. After the thermonuclear bans, duralinium was developed, replacing Kevlar. Then particle beams made most projectile weapons obsolete by cooking the ammo in the guns, and heat beams cut through the dull armor, so the harness acquired a mirror finish to reflect the beams. The arms race evolved right back to the swords and axes hanging by their sides, to use in the terrifying hand-to-hand combat that often resulted from a push.
“Stare a man in the face, and watch him die, before you call yourself a soldier,” his Master of Arms had told him. That was a lifetime ago, Tennyson thought. Too many life times.
“So, I guess I’ll be calling you `Citizen’ soon…” Kilgore needled him.
Tennyson flinched at the mention of his short term. It was generally bad form to speak of the end of a tour when it was down to days.
“Yeah… not long now.” Four days and sixteen hours in fact.
“Sure you won’t re-up for non-com? The twenty-four acres would make a nice start…” Kilgore was pushing him again. “Boy like you could use another tour. Polish you up, make you an officer even. Sure, two years in Gold Plate, and you retire with a franchise.”
“Not interested, I have other plans.”
“Sure you do, but an officer’s pay makes a nice wedding gift.”
“She will be happy enough to get me back with all my original parts.”
“You could get `selected’,” Kilgore teased. Tennyson snorted at the sergeant’s term for conscription.
“I’m no hero,” he replied.
“Sixty seconds, all units stand by.” The order came over the general com-link, loud and clear in both ears. If his visor had been up, Tennyson would have heard the slight clicking sound of three thousand armored men moving forward in the trench. He checked his Mark VII and felt for his sword. Everything was where it was supposed to be.
“Sierra squad, stand by.” He gave the command in the right channel with one more glance down the line. Shield mates stood with their hand weapons ready, guarding their riflemen.
“General command… All units forward.”
“Sierra squad, forward,” Tennyson echoed, and they took the first steps over the top.
Tennyson was counting again. It always happened and he could not explain why. Maybe counting the number of steps forward helped to maintain the momentum, or stave off the enemy fire. Maybe it was a reaction to the metronome in his ears, keeping cadence. It never lasted once the shooting started.
“Seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven…” Once, he had gotten to thirteen, they were almost all killed in that one. That should have cured him.
“Thirteen, fourteen…” and still no fire. A quick glance to his right showed his squad in perfect formation. Could the goonies be right this time? Are they actually going to catch the bastards asleep?
“Twenty three, twenty four…” The cadence cue sounded quick time and they all began to jog. The line was a little ragged but straightening out. “Sierra squad, dress left…” A gleaming row of mirrored heads snapped to the left, lined up off Tennyson, then forward again as one. “Good lads, watch your pace, close it up.”
They lacked only horses to complete the picture of a medieval charge. Since the magnetic pulse generators kept any vehicles from flying or driving over the battlefield, horses had been considered as an option early on in the wars. Their biggest drawback, aside from their armor, was the difficulty in training them.
“Thirty five, thirty six…” They were making good progress; Tennyson suppressed thoughts of Picket’s charge. A strobe light exploded in his helm, and Tennyson knew a beam had hit him. His visor darkened in defense. He was running blind; it would take a few seconds for his eyes to adjust. “Sierra squad, return fire, half bursts.” The half-second bursts from their guns would not do much but encourage the bastards to duck, though it might save a few lives.
He stumbled on some rough ground… recovered, and glanced right, but nothing was visible. He cleared his visor and got a quick line, and then a star shell burst high overhead.
The magnesium flare gave a washed out light to the field, turning night into a black and white version of day. Tennyson lowered his visor, his vision adjusted, and he scanned the lines. Men were falling now. The beams from the Eastern Alliance trenches were firing in full, one-second bursts, picking out targets and frying through the dull spots in the amour. Those shield mates with experience redirected the beams, those without experience, merely deflected them. Some beams ricochet between the soldiers, diminishing in strength but finding chinks in their armor. These would generate second-degree burns. A man could endure them and continue to fight. That’s what the drugs were for.
“Sierra squad, full bursts…” Their rifles would be good for about a dozen full bursts at this point, Tennyson’s own handgun good for five. He would save those for the trenches. The big guns in the trenches continued to sweep the field, and occasional screams came through the com-link from undisciplined soldiers. There was no supporting fire from their own trenches of course; their only hope now was forward. The only way out was through.
Twenty yards to go, Tennyson felt for his sword. It was in his hand in a flash. Stray beams danced off the polished edge. “SIERRA!” He cried, leaping over the brink and into the enemy trench. His squad followed as a wave.
The Eastern Alliance wore a mixture of body armors. Some wore complete mirror, some were in old rough duralinium. A few had only simple Kevlar. All had mirrored helms for peering over the edge though. The first one on Tennyson fired with a hand-beam. The bolt hit Tennyson in the breastplate, bounced back and caught the bastard under his own chin. He went down gurgling and spewing blood from his neck. Tennyson saved his shots for the next one.
This one was in full mirror, an officer no doubt. He had a hand-beam in his left hand and a battle-axe in his right. He and Tennyson stood facing each other for a heartbeat. They both fired at once and the beams went wild, their second shots were more accurate, but ineffective. Tennyson could see Kilgore’s squad still on the brink, fighting to get over. There was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. Tennyson slapped his gun back to his side and stepped forward with his blade.
The E.A. officer took another shot at Tennyson, catching the blade. It bounced off and hit the wall of the trench, searing a groove in the Teflon. The enemy officer took a pace back and slapped his gun against its lock to put both hands on the battle-axe. It was a light weapon, with an eight-inch blade on one side and a six-inch armor-piercing spike on the other. The officer chose the spike.
Without a lot of room in the trench, it was really going to come down to a few moves. Tennyson feinted a straight thrust to the gorget at the neck, then shifted for a shot to the visor. The officer picked it up with the axe handle, and went for an overhead shot to the Corporal.
Tennyson closed the distance, parrying the axe and locking his right heel behind the officer. A hard crash and they were down in the trench. Tennyson was on top for the moment, but their armor plates locked together. He struggled to get his arm free for a killing thrust, when a stray beam caught him under the back pauldron, searing his shoulder. With a scream, he rolled free, and tried to scramble up.
The trench was full of men, stray beams bounced around, searing friend and foe alike. Most of the combat was hand-to-hand, as they clashed in a brutal assault of muscle and steel. The Eastern officer was on his feet, his axe held high ready to bring the spike down on Tennyson’s breastplate. Tennyson held his breath, the figure jerked, dropped to its knees, and slumped forward. The butt of an estoc protruded from his back and Lancer Blackwell kicked the officer over. He held out his hand and helped Tennyson to his feet.
“Howard?” Tennyson asked in the left ear.
“Lost him…” was the solemn reply. Tennyson retrieved his sword and looked about. There were almost no beams flashing and the combat had dropped to a few isolated pockets of hand-to-hand. All and all, not as much resistance as they had expected. He called out.
“Sierra Report.” The numbers cascaded in Tennyson’s ear as he checked roll. Blackwell knelt to cut the throat of a struggling E.A. soldier. “Maybe it’s just as well he’s not promoted,” thought Tennyson. He found a side branch to the main trench and followed it back. The roll call finished off with two missing and two wounded, not counting Tennyson’s shoulder. The drugs could wait.
“Right behind you …” Lancer’s voice was in his left ear.
“And I’m behind him…” Kilgore’s Irish lilt comforted Tennyson while he followed the zig zagging trench. It ended in a cul-de-sac, and a sight that stopped the veterans in their tracks.
Private Howard faced an Eastern officer dressed in full mirror plate. The officer had sword and shield, Howard wielded a two handed axe he must have retrieved in the trench. For some odd reason, both had their helms off, and Tennyson raised his own visor for a better look.
“Sweet mother O’ Jesus…” Kilgore breathed aloud.
“The kid’s got rhythm,” Blackwell appraised, and they watched the intricate dance.
There was something familiar about the scene. The sound of the steel, the labored breathing, even the distant sounds of dying men. “Nothing’s changed,” Tennyson thought, and focused his attention back on Howard.
There was no reason to allow the fight to continue. Howard had proven his courage and strength to himself and his shield mate. Tennyson reached for his gun to finish off the officer.
“Wait,” Kilgore’s hand stopped him. “Give the lad a chance at his kill.” The officer had dropped his shield, and was swinging his sword with both hands. The men slowed, fighting their armor as well as each other. Finally, the officer parried a sweeping blow to his shoulder, and body slammed Howard. They went down grunting, rolling toward a blockhouse.
Tennyson, Blackwell and Kilgore followed them down a series of steps, the two men locked in a hand-to-hand embrace. At the base of the steps, Howard was on top, throttling the officer in a chokehold. He had the reach on his enemy, and the eastern soldier clawed and struck at Howard’s face.
“That’s it, you got him, finish him!” urged Blackwell, and Tennyson was once again struck by the feeling of deja-vu. The officer’s face turned red, then blue as Howard strained to tighten his grip. Finally, the flailing arms went limp and Howard tumbled forward in exhaustion.
“Easy boy, well done, well done,” Kilgore assisted Howard to his feet, and Tennyson scanned the bunker for other troops. The bunker was a shielded control house, its communications gear smashed, computer terminals busted or fried, paperwork shredded. Nothing of any importance could be salvaged. “Squad reports…” sounded in both ears, and Tennyson called in “Sierra squad, one missing… re group!”
Lancer retrieved Howard’s helm and offered it to the soldier. “You alright?”
The boy nodded.
“You done good, let’s go.” Lancer and the boy made their way towards the alley, with Kilgore behind them and Tennyson bringing up the rear.
Tennyson was about to close his own visor when a noise from behind caught his attention. He turned to see the eastern officer lying just inside the bunker door, his hand still on a lever there. A fine cloud of yellow gas was pouring from a recessed nozzle.
“GAS!” yelled Tennyson, and slapped his visor shut.
“Gas Alert!” He shouted over both channels, but the call was already coming back from other sources. They ran through the trenches now, and Tennyson noticed the gas escaping from hidden nozzles in different parts of the Teflon walls. It was heavy, and moved slowly, forming pockets that whirled and eddied. The running troops only served to stir up the air and disperse the toxin. He had no idea what its effects might be.
“Sierra Squad, Hold Position!” He called out on the squad link. Then he switched to main-com. “Every one freeze, we’re stirring it up, watch for clear pockets!” It was an impossible order to expect to be obeyed, but these were men trained to climb over a wall into the face of certain death. After a moment, there was calm in the trenches, as everyone slowed their movements and started backing away from the gas clouds.
Everywhere you looked, men were backing into tight pockets avoiding the cloud. Injured men unable to move were overcome by the cloud, and their bodies jerked grotesquely before lying still.
“Nerve gas…” Kilgore spoke in his ear. “We can’t stay.”
Tennyson knew biological armor existed. Armored space suits really, they had proved in the past to be too bulky and impossible to wear under combat conditions. Just as in the past, no one really expected to use biological weapons, because you could never tell which way the wind would blow.
“Nothing’s changed…,” thought Tennyson.
“Corporal Tennyson, we’re closing in here…” The voices began over the com link.
Kilgore spoke over all, “Stand by to evacuate, Lieutenant Neil…?” No answer.
“He’s dead…were all going to die!” a panicked voice rang in both ears. Tennyson waited only a heartbeat for general orders, and then with a look at Kilgore, who nodded his head, he shouted into the Squad Link.
“Sierra, over the top… fall back!”
“Tango over the top, FALL BACK!” Kilgore’s squad followed.
Squad orders surged through the lines until the general order was repeated in the link. Men scrambled up out of the trenches, trying to drag the injured with them. The gas acted on contact with any part of the skin, as those who were overcome at the ankles began to fall.
Tennyson was out and facing the trench, counting heads and helping to pull men out, when the beams hit them from the Eastern Alliance’s second line of trenches. Trapped between the gas below and the beams above, the Western squads started dropping as whole units. The armor on their backs was weaker and afforded less protection to heavier particle beams. Those beams cut through tarnished duralinium, covered now in blood and dirt from the previous assault.
“Sierra, return fire, RETREAT!” What was left of his squad formed up next to Tennyson as they began backpedaling toward their trenches. The screams of men filled the channels, panic pierced the night. Arms and legs began falling off men like doll parts. Some men were cut down at the knees, but continued to crawl backward. Some men turned and fled, they died within yards of their decision.
It was a nightmare, the kind where you never stop falling, or you can’t quite reach the door knob… and it would go on forever. Shield mates died protecting each other.
Tennyson never saw the trench, and barely remembered falling backwards. Stunned by the landing, he had to catch his breath before calling out.
“Sierra,report!” he croaked.
Just when he thought his com -link was broken, Howard’s voice came over the right ear.
“Private Howard, here.”
“Blackwell here, and that’s it, Corporal.”
Kilgore? He called out, “Tango company, Sergeant Kilgore?”
“On the field lad, me legs are gone, don’t waste your time.”
Blackwell appeared over Tennyson, extended his hand and hauled him up. Together they peered over the edge.
In the distance, a lone figure raised a hand feebly, “I expect a glorious wake, no one sober. Make it grand…”
Blue and white beams played across the field, in both directions, a clear indication that whatever was left on the field would be dead within seconds.
An armored mannequin appeared at Tennyson’s elbow. It had the gold sheen of a staff officer, and the visor slid up to reveal Major Stafford.
“Well done… Tennyson, isn’t it? Well done lad! You and your boys did a fine job! Remarkable really. Commendations all around I should think. You’re a sergeant now boy, four squads to handle, I’m sure you’ll commit yourself well. Proper `Selection Ceremony’ later of course. Promote from within, at your discretion, full report at O600. We want to know the exact details on the gas. It is contained in their own trenches of course. Still, I would give anything to know how they are going to neutralize it. Our medicos hoped we would find some documentation. Oh well, Carry on,” he turned and marched smartly off down the trench.
Tennyson pulled his sword from its scabbard. Blackwell laid a hand on his shoulder.
“It’s not worth it… Sergeant.”
“You’re right of course; I’d just have to clean the blade. Thank’s,… Corporal.” Blackwell groaned in response to his promotion.
“Sergeant… we’re all that’s left of Sierra squad…” Howard seemed dazed, but somehow older, as Tennyson looked into the eyes of the fifteen-year old warrior.
“Well then, Private Howard, that would make you a Veteran, wouldn’t it?”
The armored figure stood a little straighter before answering, “I guess so … Sergeant.”
“C’mon boy, lets get this armor cleaned.” Blackwell led the trooper off, leaving Tennyson to contemplate his unwanted advancement.
“I’ll be damned, some things do change”, he thought, and closed his eyes for a quick nap.