Lord, grant my fight be not in vain
And help me honor comrades lain
On ground from which they shall not wake.
Make fast my heart, my will, and break
Thy clouds of war and bring the rain.
-Traditional Confederacy Battle Prayer
It took only a few minutes to make my radio rounds with Cal, Fish, Heddy, and the others. I dusted off my usual pep talk but no one seemed to be in the mood for much chit-chat. We had been over the plan several times already that day; they knew what to do. So I left them alone to deal with the pre-battle tension in their own ways.
That left me with time on my hands and the need to deal with my own case of jitters. I decided to take a dose of my own medicine and put myself to work as a second lookout. With my farsighters, I knew I’d be likely to spot the Zerg before Spider anyway, which I did.
It had taken a little while but eventually the distant dust plume dissolved into dark specs on the horizon. After that it became a somewhat nerve wracking matter of keeping what my jumpy imagination conjured separate from what I actually saw through the glasses, but gradually the dark figures grew into the recognizable shapes of Zerg units.
“I’ve got Zerg, sir!”
Spider’s voice came through my earpiece, sounding unusually high pitched, just as I expected. I cleared my throat before answering, to assure a low, steady, confidence inspiring tone in my response.
“Settle down, Spider. Tell me what you see.”
I knew already, of course; I had been watching the Zerg assemble a short distance outside of camp for a few minutes already, wondering when he would report.
“Shrimps and hydralisk - at least a dozen each. They’re grouping at a spot about 500 meters outside of camp.”
His estimate was a bit high. I put the count of hydralisk at six and shrimps at ten, although there were a few more specs on the horizon, but the number I was more concerned about was one, the number of ultralisk it would take to turn my plans upside down. For the moment, at least, that score was still at zero.
“Do you see anything else? Look past their current position -- anything on the horizon?”
“No… nothing, just the shrimps and hydras, gathering in a circle. They’re just sitting there. What’re they doing, Gort?”
Somewhere in the depths of my eternally juvenile wiseacre mind it occurred to me to tease Spider about his knowledge of Zerg tactics. Fortunately, layers of experiential sediment, the fossilized imprints of lessons learned the hard way, held those mischievous thoughts in their place; now was not the time.
“They’re massing for the assault. They’ll wait there until enough of their number arrives to attack. Now, listen up, Spider. You keep a good, close eye on them. The next time they move it will be the start of their assault. The moment they do I want you to sing out like a bride on her wedding night. And remember what I told you before: you fall back as soon as they come. And keep an eye out for anything other than shrimps and hydras.”
“This is it, Spider. Are you ready?”
“Then let me hear it soldier!”
“Heart and will, soldier!”
“Heart and will, sir!”
I checked in with the others again. They were ready. I was ready. Spider was ready. We were all ready, whatever exactly that means when you‘re facing an unknown composition of enemy with a very well known and limited composition of force.
But ready or not, within a minute they were coming. Spider did the blushing bride proud, and I lit up the pods for action.
The attack started in exactly the manner for which I had planned. The shrimps set out in a tight group with the hydralisk lagging behind. The shrimps were faster, and by the time they reached the gap there was about a ten second window between them and the hydras.
I kept my pods quiet as the dozen or so shrimps passed under their guns. I didn’t want to draw the attention of the Hydralisk just yet and I really didn’t think my firing line would have any trouble with that many. I gave the order to fire at will and in a moment I heard the sound of Goliath mini-cannon fire. Heddy and Patel had opened up first. Their guns had the longest range, as well as the strongest punch.
Almost immediately shrimps started to drop. A moment later the marines in the bunkers opened up with their automatic Gauss rifles, and then, as the few shrimps that survived the hail of gunfire leapt upon the bunkers, four plumes of liquid incineration licked out to wipe clean the deadly plate I had so carefully set.
It was really that quick. As long as it took the shrimps to run from the gap to the bunkers was as long as it took them to die. The bunkers had been barely nicked, and the pods were completely untouched.
Next, the hydralisk started through the gap. These beasts were considerably larger and tougher than shrimps. Snakelike, but upright in posture and with long scythe-like forearms, their most dangerous feature was a ranged attack that consisted of propelled jets of an incredibly corrosive organic liquid. It could eat through any material yet dreamed up by the army: marine armor, metal plating, bunker walls – the stuff was hell on all of it. If the hydras grouped and concentrated their fire, they could do a lot of damage before our guns took them down.
So here was where I applied my bait and switch strategy. I let them pass well into the camp, but just as the first of them came within range of the Gauss automatics, I opened up with both pod.
The strategy worked better than I could have hoped. Half of the hydras took the bait and turned away from the bunkers to attack my two pods. The rest all focused on one bunker, but with their combined fire power cut in half, it was more than enough to ensure our success.
The firing line was taking them down pretty quickly, and my pods were hurting them too. The bunker taking all of the fire started to smoke and sizzle as the Zerg acid ate away at it, but the damage looked mostly superficial so far. The pod nearest me was another story. It wouldn’t be long before it started to malfunction.
I could feel it. With my mind controlling the two pods, their shells and armaments felt almost like my own body, like it was my own arms emitting the hail of shells at the hydras, my chest and head that was being splashed with their acid. I could feel it burn, and though I knew it wasn’t hurting me, the sensation of pain let me gauge the amount of damage being done to the pod’s armor. At the same time I sensed an elevated level of static feeding into my slot, and an increasing volume of buzzing in my ears.
The combined effect of it all was fast approaching a point of discomfort that would have been difficult to bear for long, but fortunately the hydralisk were starting to fall. And as each went down there was one fewer for the guns to target, and so the next one fell quicker, and so on. It started to look like this would be over in a matter of minutes. We’d taken some damage, but suffered no significant loss of equipment. More importantly, no one had been hurt.
It was about this time that I heard Spider’s voice again. With every gun in camp firing it was pretty damn loud, so I couldn’t hear him clearly, but even if it had been as quiet as a church on Monday it would have been hard for me to comprehend anything but the simplest message. Controlling two goliath pods through a cybernetic link took practically all of my mental concentration.
But through the fog of noise and pain and static my mind recognized and fixed on one solitary word: ultralisk!
When the last hydralisk went down I pulled my mind out of the pods and gazed out toward the Zerg rally point. There it was, loping toward us with its unmistakably ponderous, gargantuan strides. No matter how many times I see it, the sight of a bug roughly the size of a small command post coming at me never fails to bring me to the point of doing something distinctly non-regulation in my regulation army shorts.
The things are just huge – really huge. It’s hard to comprehend their size without actually seeing one. The biggest creature I ever saw on Earth was an African bull elephant in a Confederacy zoo. At the time, I thought it was huge, but next to an ultralisk, it would look like a month-old puppy dog standing at its mother’s side.
I heard cheers and yells from the bunkers. They didn’t yet know the battle wasn’t over.
“Everyone, stay in your positions! We’ve got a jumbo coming in.”
As it approached the gap I could see that its head was almost at the level of the rise I was on. It would tower over the firing line. With its enormous mandibles, the so-called Kaiser blades, it would make short work of the bunkers and the flanking Goliath pods.
I took control of my two forward pods and opened up with everything I had. There was no point in trying to bait it. I knew it would ignore my guns and head straight into camp. The only chance was to hit it with everything we had and hope to take it down before it opened the pods and bunkers like so many cans of soup for its lunch.
I didn’t like the odds, but it was the only play I had.
As my virtual body shook and my arms roared with blazing fury, I heard Spider’s voice on the comm again. It sounded like another warning, but this time I couldn’t make out any of it. I was pretty sure I hadn’t heard the word ultralisk again, but even if I had, I was out options. I kept firing at the one in front of me as it passed through the gap and into range of the firing line.
It bored right through the hail of fire and went for the already damaged bunker on its right. The dome cracked with its very first strike. I didn’t think it would last a minute. I shouted, “Keep firing,” through my comm, even though I didn’t need to. Flames licked out around its legs, eight goliath mini-cannons and four Gauss automatics pounded it from every side, but it hardly seemed to notice. I knew we had to be hurting it some, but the question was how long could it hold out?
My virtual point of was a combination of what pilots sitting in the two forward pods would see. From their locations on the arms of the ring very near the gap, my pods were swiveled almost directly backward into camp. I saw the ultra from behind, with its body between me and firing line. For a moment I paused at the thought of my fire missing it and hitting the bunkers, but given the desperate situation it was worth the risk, although I was still watching my aim pretty closely.
All of a sudden I saw a lone figure about 20 meters to the side of the firing line pop up and advance straight toward the center of the camp. I knew it had to be Spider. He was bent low over what appeared to be a fuel barrel, pushing it in front of him as he moved slowly forward. I shouted through my comm pad.
“Spider! What the hell are you doing! Get back in the rocks!”
He ignored my order and kept rolling the barrel straight on a line for Calloway’s barbeque pit, which was almost directly in my line of fire. If he got much closer I’d have to cease fire to keep from killing him, and we could not afford to lose those guns.
“SPIDER! GET THE HELL BACK TO THE ROCKS! THAT IS AN ORDER! IF YOU MAKE ME CUT MY GUNS, SO HELP ME I …”
He didn’t listen. When he reached the point where I had to stop firing I pulled back into my own body ready to spew a series of curses that would fry the eyebrows off a retired admiral. But I didn’t have time to be furious. At that very moment the first bunker crumbled under the ultra’s assault.
“Bunker one, get out! Fall back and regroup behind the second bunker!”
I watched them scramble out of the ruined bunker and run to a safe distance behind the other one, counting frantically until I saw that all four had gotten to safety. It was Fish’s bunker that was destroyed.
“Fish, Kovey, Switch to Gauss and keep firing!”
Next the ultra turned on the pod closest to him. I knew it wouldn’t take more than a few hits from those Kaiser blades to shred that pod, and a Goliath pilot was be packed in much tighter than a marine in a bunker. He couldn’t just slip out the back when things got bad; he needed to get out now.
“Patel! Abandon ship! Get out and regroup with Fish behind the other bunker.”
“I’m alright Gort. This can’ll hold up for a little while and I’ma givin’ this thing hell as long as it does.”
“Negative, Patel, you need to get out right now...”
continued in next post...