Gun oil. He smelled gun oil, drifting from the barrel of his shock carbine and up his nostrils. A deep inhale drew the smell deep into his mind, soothing his nerves and helping him mentally prepare for the coming ordeal. The sound of the transport’s engine rumble distorted the light conversation from his squad members, resulting in a sort of droning, oddly rhythmical chatter. Although he struggled to keep his stomach from churning over, the bitter taste of his own vomit, occasionally threatened to spill out of his mouth, hinted ever-so-slightly on his tongue, distracting him slightly from his meditation. Another deep breath, and a realization that his hands had gotten clammy. He flexed his fingers on the barrel grip of his weapon. One of his knuckles popped.
The engine rumbling dropped slightly in pitch, prompting his eyelids to dart open. His vision was met by the dull red glow of the insertion shuttle’s cabin. In the gloom, he was able to make out several human forms, each dressed in light combat armor and gripping a weapon similar to his own. All soldiers, under his command. All nervous, he knew, even though a couple of them were capable of masking their apprehension.
“Two minutes,” a voice announced over the intercom. The copilot, announcing their imminent arrival to their destination.
He stood up, grabbing onto the stabilizer bars running along the ceiling of the cabin. His gaze passed over his group, and all eyes turned to him.
“You heard the copilot,” he said, his voice calm, low, and grating. His larynx didn’t exactly produce melodious sounds. “We’re almost to the LZ… say whatever last prayers you want and get ready to run.”
With a quick sliding of his forearm, he slung his shock carbine over his shoulder and turned towards the main hatchway. He used his free hand to steady himself against the wall and gently rapped the back of his head up against the low ceiling of the vessel, trying one last time to steady his nerves and prepare for his upcoming mission.
His badge insignia, hidden beneath his combat armor and infiltration garb, listed his name as Vector Jikag. An unpleasant sounding name – clumsy, and unusual for a person to be designated with such a moniker – although he felt rather beholden to it, in a way. As if such an odd name required him to live up to a different standard than most others.
Vector turned towards his squad. “All right, everyone, double-check your equipment.”
“Oops, it looks like I forgot my field gear,” he heard, a sarcastic female voice. “Think we can turn around and go get it, Commander?”
No matter how much he tried, he couldn’t keep a slight smirk off his face. He strained his facial muscles, and didn’t turn back to the speaker until he was sure his expression was as somber as an epitaph.
“Sorry, Lieutenant, I guess you’ll have to use a slingshot, and smoke signals for communications.”
The young woman grinned. His comm officer, Lieutenant Tanae Doujeldn. Her smile was, as always enticing and mesmerizing, and he found that the butterflies in his stomach had instantly quelled. She had always had that effect on him.
“Thirty seconds. Activating stealth dampers.”
Once again, the familiar engine tone dropped in pitch, becoming so low that is was felt through the hull of the shuttle more than it was heard. The sound-wave countermeasure system would keep the noise emitted by the engines from traveling too far, so as not to announce their arrival. The dozen members of the infiltration squad were being dropped off about two kilometers from their destination, a seemingly nondescript warehouse, part of a small, former agricultural complex, surrounded by vast and untended fields and woodlands, but even so, every precautionary measure was warranted.
Vector mentally reviewed his briefing, double- and triple-checking every step of the operation. Twenty minutes there, ten minutes inside, and twenty minutes back for dust-off. Mission accomplished.
“Here we go!” Vector growled, releasing the inner hatchway and sliding it inside, and unlocking the outer hatch. “Everyone latch in and get ready to jump!”
The squad all stood up in file, putting the equipment carriers – such as the comm officer and demolitions expert – ahead of the supportive fire units. They all hooked a clip, attached to the rappelling harnesses around their waists and groins, to the support pole running along the length of the cabin.
Vector tightened his grip on the hatchway’s handle. The shuttle began slowing, allowing the squad to feel a slight shift in momentum before the inertial dampers negated the effects.
With a strain of his bicep, he slid the hatch open. A burst of the night’s chill entered into the cabin with mild concussive force. He felt goose bumps rise up on his flesh as he leaned out of the opening and glanced downwards. It was dark, as the planet had no moon, but he was able to make out to large trees framing a small clearing directly below them.
Without hesitation, Vector jumped out of the cabin. He fell freely for a dozen meters, then tightened the rope sliding through the carabiner on his harness to slow his descent. Even so, he hit the ground hard, sending a jarring impact through his knees. Nevertheless, he rolled back up to his feet and quickly removed the rappelling gear and cleared the area, waiting for the rest of his squad to finish their drop. He leaned up against a nearby tree, holding his weapon at the ready, and reached up to slide his Enhanced-Vision goggles from his forehead and over his eyes.
Tanae followed immediately after, hitting the ground right with a bit more grace than her squad commander. She bounded off to the opposite side of the clearing, also brandishing her weapon, dragging her bag of comm equipment with her. Vector’s gaze followed her as she whirled around and blew him a kiss. He simply nodded in reply and tilted his head back up to the transport.
The Demolitions Expert, Major Roald Collins, rappelled down the rope next, followed by their scout, Tony Quinegra. One-by-one, they dropped down from the transport, until all twelve members of the squad were on the ground and preparing to move out.
Vector stepped forward to the center of the group. “Everyone all set?” he mumbled.
He got back several affirmative answers. With a nod, he gestured his hands forward, pointing with his fingers to indicate what formation for the group to use as they advanced. They spread out into a spread-diamond formation, Vector himself taking point. Tony Quinegra rushed ahead to scout out their path.
The squad jogged along at a brisk pace. Luckily, the landscape was relatively even, so they didn’t have to worry about obstructions. Within only a few minutes, they came to the edge of the wooded area, beyond which lay a long hill which started out steep, but gradually shallowed out and then flattened into a kilometer of overgrown and weedy field. Vector leaned up against a large boulder, and he waved to his group, prompting Lieutenant Doujeldn and the group’s sniper, Corporal Hiker Conra, to come forward.
Vector tapped Conra’s shoulder, then gestured towards a small, rocky ridge poking up from the hill for a little over a hundred meters. “Take up a position on the edge of that cliff,” Vector muttered. “Keep us covered. Route all communications through Lieutenant Doujeldn.”
Conra muttered his assent, and took off in the direction of the ridge. He unslung his sniper rifle as he ran, anticipating its use.
Vector turned to Tanae, and gestured down the hill at a small, rocky outcropping, approximately a kilometer away from the warehouse. “We’ll make a beeline for that cluster of boulders, where you’ll stay to mediate the operation. Scan all incoming and outgoing signals, monitor enemy transmissions…”
“Commander, I’m not a first-year cadet,” Tanae mumbled, raising her eyebrows in annoyance. “I have it covered.”
Vector nodded. With a grunt, he rose to his feet and waved for his squad forward. Tanae followed after him with a sigh.
The hillside was relatively bare, with only meager amounts of plants and trees to provide cover. Vector led his group forward in fifty-meter advances, aiming straight for one piece of cover and hoping that his squad mates did the same. If they had been charging an enemy fortification, without the advantage of surprise on their side, they wouldn’t have stood a chance. However, they were relying on the hope that the enemy hadn’t been tipped to their arrival.
Eventually, the group was clustered behind the low cover of the rocks. Vector paused only long enough to increase the telescopic range of his EV goggles, making a quick scan of the last stretch of land between them and the warehouse facility. His gaze drifted across the rolling fields, the meter-high weeds and strands of grassy plants. He ruefully acknowledged that the foliage would provide the team with excellent cover on their approach… as well as mask any outer defenses that may be in place. Rather than dwell on the possibilities, he forced himself to trust the Intell reports that guided this mission’s planning.
A glance to Tanae instructed her to set up her station behind the craggy wall, deploying a small, short-range sensor suite and access equipment. With that taken care of, Vector gestured with his hands for his squad to take a new formation through the fields, a “moving wall” advance that had all of them on a single line, parallel to the facility ahead. He waved his arm forward, and the squad began moving out.
Having no major cover between the small pile of boulders and the thick weeds, Vector threw caution into the wind and began sprinting the remaining hundred meters. He regulated his breathing, as he had always been trained to do, preventing himself from wearing out. The wind drew a chill off of the exposed parts of his face, and the rhythmic thumping of his running footsteps, along with his nearby squadmates, created a sort of hypnotic droning.
Even so, he managed to keep his wits about him, which is why he saw the attack coming.
It started with half a dozen stun grenades, appearing out of the thick brush of the fields, which were lobbed through the air towards the approaching squad. The grenades bounced on the ground once, almost in unison, then detonated, dousing the area with a painfully bright flash and a resounding, deafening boom. Vector had managed to stop in his tracks, whirl around and cover his eyes and ears, and even so the stun grenades disoriented him for a second. Then the gunfire started, and he was instantly snapped back to the here and now.
He straightened back up and pulled off several quick, random shots with his shock carbine, hoping to cause the enemy to think twice. “Pull back!” he shouted to his troops. “Pull back!”
Still facing the fields, where he could see several muzzle flashes emitting from the weeds, he began retreating up the hill. His fellow soldiers turned and ran, still maintaining formation, as their commander made his stand. Vector took careful aim at the sources of gunfire before him, squeezing off bullets until his clip ran out. Only then did he face away from the ambush, and he began sprinting back towards the small cluster of rocks farther up the hill.
A low roar became audible as he ran, the sound of propulsion engines, and he hoped that their drop shuttle had been alerted to the attack and was coming back to help. But his heart sank when he saw two Light Anti-personnel Vehicles clear the treeline at the top of the hill. They skimmed just a dozen meters above the ground and headed straight for the squad… a classic pincer attack. Vector slammed another ammo clip into his shock carbine and began firing uselessly at the LAV’s.
He watched in horror as the LAV’s released several small bombs from it’s belly-mounted munitions launcher. The cylindrical weapons plummeted into the ground, sending up a massive fireball in the midst of the retreating formation.
Vector froze in his tracks. His arms dropped limply to his sides, his mouth gaped open, at the site of the massive flash of destruction engulfing his comrades. He almost cried out his despair, but reality intervened once again. One of the shooters behind him scored a grazing hit along his waist, causing him to bend over in pain. He fell to his knees, instinctively grabbing at his wound, but a second later his training caught up with him. He spun around 180º, leveled his shock carbine and again returned fire. Assuming that he was clear for a few seconds while the enemy ducked for cover, he again resumed sprinting back up the hill.
His path brought him through the wreckage where the LAV’s had released their explosives, a row of shallow craters and a large area of scorched soil. Several small flames continued to lick at the sparse vegetation… and the bodies of his fallen troops. He held his breath against the stench of burnt flesh.
Weapon shots again hailed down around him even as he leapt over the meager protection of the rock cluster. He dropped down almost to a prone position, holding his gun out in front of himself. Off in the distance, he was able to make out several of the enemy soldiers leaving the safety of the field cover and make a charge up the hill. Vector took careful aim and squeezed off several shots, and to his satisfaction he saw one of the enemy fall to the ground, clutching his thigh.
He sat up, leaning up against a larger boulder beside Tanae, who was frantically calling for help over her transmission equipment. After several seconds, she tossed the mic aside.
“They’re jamming us,” she said grimly. “I think there’re probably ten, twelve men, on all sides. I picked up some transmission signals coming from our flanks.” She glanced up to the starry sky. “And those LAV’s can come around for another pass any moment.”
“If not, it’s because they want prisoners,” Vector replied quickly, peeking out over the edge of the boulders.
“Can’t let that happen,” Tanae responded. She tucked her comm equipment back into her pouch, and pulled out her own shock carbine.
“Two are approaching,” Vector said. “We take them, on my mark…”
He paused for a beat, tensing his leg muscles.
The two of them rose to a high crouching position, just above the rock line, and began firing at the two attackers. Taken by surprise, the two armored troops were unable to react quickly enough, and they both fell without firing a single shot.
Tanae whooped in victory, raising her gun into the air and taking her attention away from the battlefield. Vector, however, noticed something in his peripheral vision… he turned to see more attacking men approaching, aiming their guns.
“Get down!” Vector shouted, jumping forward to tackle her. “It was a feint-!”
Before Tanae could whirl around and bring her gun to bear, several weapon shots rang out. One shot pierced her shoulder, emitting a spray of blood and twisting her body halfway around. Subsequent shots pounded into her legs, her gut, her chest.
Even as she fell, Vector crashed into her body. He hunched his body over hers, shielding her from any further harm, but it was already too late. Her eyes were still open, but she was dead.
Just as a wave of despair washed over him, Vector felt a sharp pain in his hip. No, two sharp pains. He stumbled forward, bashing his head against the rocks and then rolling over onto his back, just as several more shots slammed into his torso. His armor helped ablate the piercing blasts, but he knew from the shock rolling through his system that the blows were severe. His heart sank as he began to realize how hopeless his situation was.
Despite his dizziness, he was able to make out the form of a man aiming a gun. He tried to bring his own weapon up, intending to fight to the death, but his wounds had temporarily ruined his hand-eye coordination. All he could do was sit back and wait to die.
The enemy soldier was saying something, but Vector couldn’t make it out. A call for surrender? One final taunt? Ignore it, in either case, Vector thought groggily. He practically called out for the soldier to shoot him and end the game. But his wish wouldn’t be carried out… before the soldier could fire, his own body jerked forward onto his knees. Another hidden blow pounded his helmet, and a spray of blood became visible inside his faceplate. The soldier’s body slumped forward, dead.
Confusion. Vector took a deep breath and pulled himself up, glancing around. He saw one last soldier, who, upon noticing his companion’s death, began searching the area for the shooter. Our sniper! Vector’s gaze turned towards the ridge, where Corporal Hiker Conra was still stationed. A grin crossed over Vector’s face as he struggled to bring his weapon to bear. He pointed it at the panicking trooper, and, whispering a silent curse, pulled the trigger. Seconds later, another corpse littered the battlefield.
Feeling an odd sense of satisfaction, Vector allowed himself to slump back against the rock wall behind him. He felt himself grow weaker as blood continued to leak from his body. For a second, he considered trying to patch his wounds. Why bother? he thought, turning his head to Tanae’s still body, a look of pain and loss permanently etched into her expression… and Vector’s mind. He reached out, feebly, and caressed her cheek, ran his fingers over her lips. With his last few ounces of willpower, he reached up and drew his fingers over her eyes, closing them forever.
Only then did his body go completely limp. His own breathing, sounding like a mighty roar in his own ears, became ragged. His eyes began darting back and forth, eventually locking onto the image of Corporal Conra rushing down the ridge as fast as he could. How funny! He’s coming to help the dead! Vector’s mind said, becoming less and less coherent. A sudden urge to sleep came over him, and he indulged himself, closing his eyes. He felt light-headed and began to drift away.
A few seconds later, he felt something shake him. He opened his eyes. Corporal Conra was there, shouting something to him. Vector stared at the Corporal for a few seconds, but finally, his mind succumbed to oblivion, and reality winked out of existence.
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