The scout could already feel despair setting in as he cut along the path through the thick brush of the jungle. He stepped past the carefully positioned leaves, making sure to set them back into position once he had cleared them, and then hurried through the little concealed clearing.
“Carter! Carter!” he called out, as he slipped past the grunts as they sat on the wet ground and rechecked their weapons. The whole camp had been waiting on his return, hoping for good news.
The captain stepped out from where he had been bent over a particularly recalcitrant piece of mobile armor. “Henson,” he greeted the scout. Captain Carter had excellent control over his facial features, but Henson knew the man was anxious for good news, like the rest of his unit.
Henson hated to disappoint. But even before he spoke, Carter read his lack of a grin and knew what was about to come.
Carter had known from the beginning that the plan was FUBAR, even before that division of Reapers managed to slip through and gut half their artillery support before they were put down. In fact, it was only through their captain’s quick thinking that the unit managed to stay largely together, cutting their own path out of the push of the main enemy force. By tacking obliquely, Carter managed to use the minor ridgeline of the jungle as a shielding bank, and they hadn’t lost a single casualty even while they hewed down at least three squads of their opponents.
But even that quick thinking hadn’t been enough to account for what would happen to the rest of the army.
From the reports coming in, the rest of the troops had marched straight into a bloodbath. The generals hadn’t expected their enemies to also have air support, those yellow drones zinging in on the six vibrating wings to spew wide sprays of stingers down on the men below. Unable to move quickly in the dense jungle, most of the troop squads had been trapped and easy prey.
And then the orbital lances started falling – on their troops.
Carter didn’t know what had happened up above the clouds, how the enemy had managed to gain superiority. But he’d been trained in the academy to always consider the worst case scenario. Right now, that maxim was the main point keeping his team alive.
“Talk to me, Henson,” Carter commanded, sweeping his tools off of the hunched-over armor unit to clear a space.
Henson stretched out a leaf, clicking on his eye scanner to project down at the flat space. A relief map of the jungle flickered into view, marked here and there with dots to signify enemy encampments. “It’s not good, sir,” he said, trying and failing to keep the moroseness out of his voice. “The enemy squads have aggregated back into their platoons, and they’re combing through the jungle in blocks.”
The scout pointed at several squares projected on the leaf. “They’ve already sterilized these areas, it looks like,” he continued. “They know that their lance splintered up our forces, and now they’re systematically mopping up all of the surviving groups.”
Staring down at the map, Carter shook his head. “Damn,” he whispered, more to himself than to the scout. The squad lieutenants were also listening in, and their frowns showed that they didn’t have any ideas.
Carter’s hand suddenly jerked slightly, tracking over to point at another square, off to the edge of the map. “Here,” he said. “This is where our dropship landed. Any chance-“
“Casualty of the first orbital lance strike,” Henson cut in gloomily. “They knew enough to cut us off from retreating. They’re aiming to eliminate us here, not just inflict damage.”
One of the lieutenants sighed at this, but Carter just looked considering. “Wait a minute,” he interjected. “So they’re bringing everything to bear? What about the command ship?”
The scout pointed to large purple triangle, hovering near the most recently sterilized square. “That’s how they’re finishing off their grid sections,” he said. “If they find resistance, enough to hold off their platoons, they move that in for the gravity lance. Cut down our armor, mop up the rest. It’s their strongest weapon.”
But Carter was already shaking his head. “No, that’s their weakness!” he insisted, stabbing down at the triangle that represented the enemy’s command ship. “They’ve brought their head down into play. We kill that, and we turn their army from a focused force into cut-off little groups, just like ours. We might have a choice.”
The suggestion was utterly ridiculous, but none of the lieutenants spoke up against it. Carter’s ridiculous suggestions had paid off before, in huge ways. That was how they were still drawing breath. But one of the nearby troopers (Johnze, Henson thought?) coughed loudly.
“Cap, we can’t crack that thing’s armor,” he cut in. “Not to shit on your petunias, sir, but our pulse guns won’t even scratch that ship.”
“Oh, ours can’t,” Carter countered, a grin dancing around his lips as his plan took shape, “but our artillery ought to rattle it a bit.”
“They lanced our artillery,” Henson pointed out. “First strikes hit there.”
Carter shook his head. “Orbital lances would’ve scattered them, but some of the squad commanders would have had the good sense to shut down and go dark,” he insisted. “Terrance was over there. He’s got a good head on his shoulders.”
“So… what?” one of the lieutenants asked. “We’re going to single-handedly charge back in, rescue our own artillery, and then throw ourselves at the most powerful piece in their entire invasion force? That’s insanity!”
“No!” Carter shot back, turning on the man. The captain’s eyes were alight with fire. “Insanity is not adapting, simply rolling over and accepting that we’ve been beaten after the first hit! We can still win, but not through attrition. We need a killing blow, before they break us down further!”
The captain raised his voice, pulling in the other troopers in the clearing. “Come on, men!” he called out, his eyes blazing. “They got the first hit. Let’s make sure that our counterstroke doesn’t just knock a few teeth loose. Let’s give them a broken damn jaw!”
Most of the men were already nodding. They didn’t like sitting around, and Carter had earned his stripes in their eyes. He’d kept them alive, and now he seemed to be the only one with a plan, sticking to a strategy. But Johnze held up his hand.
“What if the artillery’s gone?” he asked.
“Then we patch the dropship weapons to fire!” Carter yelled back, slamming his gauntleted fist down on the armor unit in front of him. “Dammit, we kill that command ship, and we’ve got a chance. We don’t, and we’re just waiting for death. And if I’m up against death, I want to stare it in the eye! I intend to meet that skeleton only after he can climb the hill of my opponents’ corpses!”
Most of the other men were now on their feet, nodding and picking up their equipment. They had a leader, a man with a vision in his eyes and a fire burning in his heart. But next to Henson, that doubting lieutenant still hesitated.
“Sir, it just seems like such a long shot,” he said, clearly wavering on this decision.
Carter turned to stare down at the man. His voice dropped down, from burning fire to frigid ice. “These are my men, lieutenant,” he hissed, frost coming off of each word. “And I intend to save every last one of them.
“Right now, we are fucked. But there is always a way to seize victory – always. Either I will find that way, or I will make one.”
There was nothing the lieutenant could do but nod.
Carter reached down and flicked a switch inside the hunched-over armor unit, and the machine slowly rose up from the jungle floor. He reached down and scooped up his rifle, checking the safety and slinging it into the mount over his shoulder. “Let’s move,” he commanded, advancing forward. “Daylight’s burning, and your mothers are waiting for me to get back to base!”
And as the captain marched, the troopers fell in behind him, their faces set in grim determination.