This was originally written about a decade ago, with the hopes of seeing it in a LoS supplement someday.
Thanks to grendel and Demian for digging it up again for me.
By: Justin Crough. Some editing by Demian Rose
Master Corporal Wilkes had completed the work-up training involved with serving on a UNE rotation. Not that he had been poorly trained by Canada's national army, but the fact was that the Earth government forces got to use a lot more technical toys than the average RCR infantryman would ever set eyes on. Now that the six months were nearly up, the UNE career soldiers that had been his instructors began describing him and the other 200-odd candidates as “nearly” battle worthy.
They called this “the attitude” back at Petawawa; the disdain most UNE lifers developed for soldiers in the national armies; even their own. The attitude seemed contagious. Even former members of his own Regiment, now “UNE-side”, often began to display a denial that they were ever part of something else; a proud national tradition of strength and freedom. It used to burn him up.
Now it was different: he too was one of the converts. He became Corporal Wilkes in keeping with UNE standard rank structure, and had just been fitted for a personal suit of Powered Body Armor, to be delivered if he graduated.
The suits he had used at New Meaford training center were getting long in the tooth, well used and sometimes abused. They all had a big orange 'T' for training crudely spray painted on chest and back, the operator's name stenciled over the last trainee's. Constantly breaking down, enviroseals all but nonexistent, they were chipped and worn, and had the sour smell of old sweat that clung to the interior despite the industrial cleaners they had used to ready them for daily inspection.
He had seen what fully functional PBA could do. Each of the instructors used their own, most showed the scars of repeated repairs, which the owners bore with nonchalant pride. These repairs were due to battle damage, not environmental corrosion. Wilkes knew that once he put on his factory-new personal powered suit emblazoned with his own name, then he would truly be a defender of humanity. He'd leave Earth and go wherever he was needed, to serve his appointed role: ‘To Close With and Destroy the Enemy’.
When his tour was up however, he hoped he'd be just as eager to get back to his home Regiment, brimming with the wisdom and pride of his experience. Planetary Service was a like a badge of honor. He wanted that distinction. He finished touching up his uniform in the mirror, noticing the course banner hung up in the shacks behind him and grinned.
It had been crudely fashioned out of a bed sheet at the suggestion of one of the instructors, to build esprit de corps. It was carried on PT runs at the front by the course senior. The entire group had recently added their signatures below the inscription: "Earth Dogs Die Hard; 3 Platoon RCR Coy hold their own leashes."
"Hoo- AH," he said softly to himself.
Cpl Wilkes had thought that Rylek would have been exciting. The first alien world he had ever set foot on. So far he had been disappointed. Frigid and windswept, it was not unlike home on a January day. It was only supposed to have been for a few days, but the Battalion had been having difficulty securing sufficient transport into the Signi sector.
The word was that transports were being hooped by Machine counter shipping stealth craft. 'Sky subs' was the term he had heard among some Naval personnel. Rumor also had it that a couple of Kodin frigates were en route to Rylek, and that the rest of the trip was liable to be very crowded.
Regardless, it seemed to him that the vaunted League of Aliens that he had been so proud to be doing his part for was less a warriors brotherhood and more a whining bunch of politicians, trying to pass the cred to just about anyone else when it came down to getting things done. He guessed things really were the same the universe over.
Then the Infranites arrived.
Planetfall. A word that conjured up dread in the veterans and apprehensive excitement in the FNGs. Even in training they were considered dangerous. Wilkes recalled a couple of his buddies who had been a part of Canada's small national powered armor corps. They were the most elite of the CF and often compared the number of training planetfalls (“trans-atmospheric individual tactical insertions”) they had experienced, the number attained was a considerable mark of status in this clique. Wilkes had supposed that it must be, not ever experiencing one himself until his UNE work-up training
He remembered one Armistice Day, overhearing a group of these ‘jumpers’ talking to a veteran from the UK who had been in the UNE forces. He wore a Planetfall badge on the breast of his uniform. They had eagerly put forward their large number of “jumps” with a bravado that bordered on boasting; when it came to this stranger's turn he was quiet. “How many jumps have you done?” one of the eager young men finally asked.
"Two," he responded, "one training; one onto Cherkassy." That had abruptly ended the conversation. No number of training Planetfalls could rival that.
As it was, NOR 456, a.k.a. Cossar's Swamp, had a secured landing zone and the risky business of riding a capsule to the surface under machine counter-fire could be avoided. The Infranites, though not exactly disappointed, considered the idea of an easy landing a bad omen. He had gotten to know one of their Chain Gunners back on Rylek, mainly because she had a nice feminine shape to her. Had she been a human, he'd have called her well endowed, and might have considered trying a bit of inter-species relations. Earth Dogs had more than one connotation. But as it was, she always had a way of making him think in new ways.
“The kritch that walks into a draviss' den is seldom seen to walk much when the moons rise,” she'd said ominously when they learned there would be no Planetfall. Raushannah laughed at his blank look and assured him that the saying lost something in the translation. Bad omen or no, it was not wrong to hope for the best. Wilkes just gave her his winning smile and went to round up the section for the Sergeant's O group.
The nights were so black on Cossar's Swamp that Wilkes’s passive low light amps just seemed to hint at objects out in his arc of fire. He dare not switch to active night vision, at least not until the firefight started, and even then he was leery. If you could see the enemy, you better believe that he could see you. The Machines would just trace back the infrared emanations to his trench.
He found himself bringing up the virtual display quite often. A computer generated terrain overlay, so that he could compare what he was seeing -or thought he was seeing- to the way the terrain actually looked in daylight. It helped to dispel the illusion that the dark masses were moving under his concentrated stare. On the display, each landmark was given a designation for quick reference and acquisition, so that if he did sight the enemy, he could quickly send the data to the Section Commander.
The entire defensive position had been on Stand-To for almost an hour. The recce screen had reported a Machine Infiltrator Horde moving through the marsh about 8 km out. The thought of them getting through the lines was horrific. He found that he had developed an almost unreasonable fear of Machine Runaways, ever since the incident of the previous week.
Hewitt had lost his life that night, necessarily gunned down by his own comrades, and the catlike thing had just disconnected itself from his fallen squad mate and darted right towards Wilkes. In his panic he had fired at it with little regard to the computer aided sighting displays, the shots kicking up dirt as the six legged beast barreled toward him.
When it grappled him, Wilkes could only think how incredibly strong it was, as he tried to fight it off. It was with horror that he had realized he was not fighting IT. He was now in a losing war with his own trusted Powered Armor. He had felt himself spin about, and could only watch helplessly as his raised RAM rifle took up a sight on private Barta.
He hadn't even registered what was going on next until his armor convulsed painfully against his joints and he slammed into the wet mud and moss. Scrambling up in the muck, he caught sight of Raushannah's Blue/Aqua tiger striped Diamond PBA, clutching her chaingun in one hand, pinning the machine to the ground with a bladed forearm, and her shin. He felt an incredible numbing relief as he saw the light in its inhuman optic sensors die out. She truly was a war spirit of wrathful vengeance, as the runes on her armor proclaimed.
Now he was acutely aware that she was not around. The Infranites had gone to raid a Machine mining facility, and the UNE were tasked with holding the base camp. He panned his rifle across his arc of fire, looking for the horrid little contraptions. He could use a hot coffee right now.
The armor's aural dampers shielded him from the most damaging sounds, but still the battlefield was a bewildering cacophony of blasts and high pitched whines. The JEF were on the advance, tasked with the elimination of a Machine ore refinery. The worst part was that his platoon was no where in sight of such a facility. His company’s particular objective was the demolition of an above ground uplink tower that the Machines were using to rebroadcast their transmissions.
It wouldn't do much to downgrade their performance, as their comms systems were always triple redundant at least, but it was a target none the less. In reality, it was a diversion, but since the troops equated the term ‘diversion’ with ‘cannon fodder’, it was never related in that way. The results were much the same regardless.
The lead platoon had been engaged by enemy defenses 900 meters short of the objective. They were attempting to hold as a fire base, while the rest of the joint company tried to maneuver around them into a flanking position.
The Infranite recce troops were dispatched to seek the most favorable route through the dense swampy foliage and terrain, while the remainder of the UNE company and their Infranite support made best possible speed along their marked trails. The sounds of battle seemed close, and yet the vegetation and rocks concealed it all from view. Even the tactical readouts were full of static, a combinatorial effect of the proximity of the rebroadcast tower and the dense terrain. The humans were trying to find a balance between stealth and speed. The Infranites seemed to have been born with that sense, though the vegetation tripped them up just as much.
The sickening whine of rockets coming through the canopy caused the troops to instinctively pause, as disruptor fields began to blossom all around them. The pause lasted only a split second before all stealth was abandoned. Dropping for cover would just do the enemy’s job for them. The order wasn’t needed, training took over. Get out of the kill zone.
The infantry poured out of the tree line into the sucking swamp. The battle was in plain view now and Cpl. Wilkes had a front row seat. Fire control orders for the section were downloaded instantaneously, and his Heads-Up Display lit with priority targets as designated to his fire team.
He didn't even need to tell the flechette gunner to open up, she just knew what she had to do. With her covering fire, the other assault group charged forward, then laid down cover fire while his group surged forward in the swirling brackish water.
The characteristic thump-shrack of a Carl G HEAP round was heard from somewhere to his left rear. He saw a flash ahead of him that marked the destruction of a vicious looking MK1A1 Assault Fiend perched on the high ground. It took another step forward, then toppled off the rock outcropping to splash into the muddy water below. It's minions filled the gap.
It came as a shock when Wilkes realized he was suddenly in command of the Section. The Sergeant had been disabled somehow, possibly killed. The little red icon on his HUD was blinking for him to initiate active control of the Section Designation Net. He did so without delay, and ordered that the Section advance at a run to get out of the molasses they were caught up in. The hail of collapsed steel caused the water to erupt into curtains all about him and his troops.
The rest of the battle, even the rest of his own Platoon, seemed far away. It was just the five men and women left in his section closing with the enemy. He was dimly aware that an Infranite Chain Gunner and two warriors had taken up the advance alongside, in a spontaneous alliance amid the chaos of the firefight. The Infranites were usually very silent over the radio net, but he was not so surprised to hear Raushannah call to him.
“What's that they say about Earth Kritches?” Her voice was determined and yet she seemed to be light hearted, enjoying the interaction under fire. “Hard to kill?” she prompted.
“Die Hard,” Wilkes responded. Deeds speak louder than words. He was glad to have her, and the others with them, good allies. Together they emerged from the muck to storm the low ridge.