Delta Leonis IV
“Jax, I’m coming. Just hang on a few seconds more.” Cain was out of breath. It was a struggle to speak, to force the air into his burning lungs. His legs were on fire…he was running…he had been running a long time…it must have been twenty klicks, no…more. But Jax needed him. Jax, his friend, his brother in arms. Jax, who had saved his life countless times.
The sky was a haze of red, the smoke and dust of battle hanging thick in the air. Cain had led his corps to this place, this hateful place. They were all dead now…he knew that. All but Jax and him. He’d lost the corps; he couldn’t fail Jax too. He pushed harder, willing his leaden legs to more speed. The ground was hard, the climb steep. But he had to reach Jax.
Cain rounded the corner, and there he was. Jax…silhouetted against the deep orange of the setting sun. He had a mag rifle in each hand, and he was firing wildly. Then Cain saw them…battle robots, the soldiers of the First Imperium. There were thousands…tens of thousands. It was an army…and Jax was fighting them alone, tearing into them with his unceasing fire. He was killing hundreds, and the twisted metal bodies were piled all around him.
But there were too many…too many even for a warrior like Jax. Cain was running toward him, but it was taking too long. It was just a few meters, but he couldn’t cover the distance. He just kept running, and Jax was always a little farther, just out of reach.
Then it happened. The big Marine was hit…then again…and again. He fell to his knees, still firing. Another round tore into him, his blood spraying all over Cain. Jax turned toward his friend…his face a mask of agony.
“Erik…please…help me.” Jax’s voice was weak, and blood poured from his mouth as he spoke. “Erik, where are you? Why won’t you help me?” He stared at Cain, his watery eyes a plea for salvation…then another round hit him, and his head exploded in a cloud of red mist.
“JAX!” Cain screamed, his desperate voice savaging his raw throat as he fell to his knees in the reddish clay, hands covering his face, trying to shield his eyes from the mangled remains of his friend.
Cain could hear a voice…distant, calling to him. He was spinning, falling…then, suddenly, he was in bed, his bleary eyes struggling to focus. There was a golden haze above him, and something soft against his cheek. Slowly, his eyes focused, and his mind cleared. It wasn’t a golden haze…it was a riotous mass of reddish-blonde hair. And on his cheek…a hand, warm and soft. Sarah.
“Are you ok?” She reached her hand out to him, touching his forehead and gently stroking his cheek. He was cold and clammy, and she could see the sheet…soaked in sweat and plastered to his bare legs.
Cain was out of breath, his heart racing wildly. But he began to calm down…her touch always relaxed him, though little else did. “I’m sorry…it was just…” He hesitated, thinking again about the dream, already forgetting some of the details. But the essence remained, and it was clear to him. Jax was dead, and it was his fault.
“You were dreaming about Jax again, weren’t you?” Her voice was sad and sympathetic. She was frustrated too, but she made sure to suppress it. She had been broken-hearted as well when she heard of Jax’s death…they all were. Darius Jax was one of the most admired Marines in the Corps, and among his few close companions he had been deeply loved. But Erik seemed determined to blame himself.
I Corps had left almost ten thousand of its warriors on Farpoint, the bitter cost of mankind’s first serious attempt to hold off the invaders. The armies of the First Imperium – that name was unofficial, but it had begun to stick – had swarmed into the Rim, methodically attacking every occupied world and exterminating the inhabitants. Now humanity had been driven back almost to the Line, three connected systems that stood between the enemy-occupied frontier and the heart of occupied space. All the might of the Superpowers was massed to defend this position. If the enemy broke through here, millions would die, perhaps all of mankind.
Cain would have been able to handle Jax’s death better if there had been more combat immediately. Then he could have buried his feelings, even his guilt and self-doubt. The call of battle would have taken him, as it always did when the bugle called. But his fight on Farpoint had been too successful, too damaging to the attackers. The enemy was known to have logistical problems, and after I Corps’ grim defense, they’d had to pause and regroup. That was exactly what he’d set out to do, but now it yielded another result…it gave him time to think, too much time.
It had been a year since then, and life seemed almost normal. Sarah was even here, assigned to command the field hospitals. Cain was busy, certainly, but without the stress and demands of combat he had a harder time keeping the guilt and despair buried. He hated the First Imperium; they were his enemy, and he was dedicated to their defeat. But he needed them too, he needed the stress and demands of battle. He needed them to keep his demons at bay. He hated the constant war, the pointless death and destruction…but he’d become dependent on it too, like a drug. He wasn’t sure he could live without it.
He rolled over and propped his head on his hand. “I’m OK.” He forced a smile for her, small and fleeting. Whatever forces tore him apart, he was deeply grateful he’d found Sarah. He wondered sometimes…maybe she’d be better off without him…with someone less damaged by the horrors he’d lived. Few people had witnessed the volume of death and destruction that he had, and he was far from certain he’d ever get past it…that he could ever give her the normal peaceful life she deserved.
“Erik…you have to know that Jax would never want you to torture yourself like this.” She knew as she was speaking she should just leave it alone, but she couldn’t bear to see him in such pain. “It wasn’t your fault.”
Cain sighed loudly and sat up on the edge of the bed. “I don’t want to talk about it, Sarah.” His voice was edgy, annoyed. “I’ve got to grab a shower and get down to HQ.” He stood up and walked to the bathroom. He was already feeling bad for snapping at her. He knew she was just trying to help. He loved her, more than he could ever express, but she just didn’t understand. It had been his fault, no matter how many times those close to him tried to deny it. If he’d have listened to Jax, if he’d have sent in the Janissaries sooner…his friend would still be alive. There was no way around the logic, at least not to Cain. He’d just have to learn to live with it. Somehow.
But that was tomorrow’s problem. Now there was work to do. Cain knew the lull wouldn’t last, that Sandoval would become a battlefield…and, more than anyone else, he knew what was coming.
Cain stepped along the narrow catwalk, the loose metal grating on the floor rattling under his heavy boots. The observation tower was 100 meters high, mostly an open metal frame with a central lift and several viewing areas. Cain ordered it built so he could watch the exercises he’d been putting his troops through nonstop for the past year. He knew he could monitor everything from his HQ, but he preferred to see the maneuvers from close up. Things looked different when you saw them with your own eyes, or at least Erik Cain thought so.
“I put a lot of resources into these target drones, sir.” Cain glanced back over his shoulder at General Elias Holm, the Commandant of the Marine Corps. “But I think it’s crucial we see what these new suits can really do.”
Holm was on Sandoval inspecting Cain’s preparations…and checking on his protégé’s state of mind. Truth be told, it was more of the latter. Holm completely trusted Cain’s abilities as a commander, but he was very worried about his friend, about Erik Cain the man. Cain had always been intense and deeply affected by the troops he’d lost, but since General Jax had been killed on Farpoint he’d been different. The entire Corps had mourned Jax, but Cain took it harder; he blamed himself for his friend’s death. Jax had been the only true friend he’d ever had. He was close to Holm, of course, but that was more of a father-son type of relationship. And Sarah was his lover…however strong the bond between them, it was something different entirely. But Jax had been his brother.
“I agree, Erik.” Holm sighed softly. He’d been on Sandoval for a week now, and he hadn’t managed to get Cain to talk about anything but tactics and his preparations for the expected invasion. He was sure Cain would do whatever was necessary to hold Sandoval and defeat the enemy…if that was even possible. But he was worried that Erik placed his own survival on a much lower priority level. He’d seen it before, too many times. When Marines started thinking that way they usually died.
“I’ve set up passive killing zones all over the planet. Minefields, hidden strongpoints, targeted fire zones.” Cain’s intensity was thick in the air. “I’m going to keep all the Obliterators in reserve and unleash them after the enemy fights through the defenses. Like you held us back on Columbia.” He stared out over the open plain that stretched out beneath the tower. There were rows of the massive Obliterator suits, each manned by a veteran Marine who’d spent the last year training to master the new weapons. “These things were made to counter-attack.”
“Erik…” Holm hesitated, not sure he wanted to continue what he was going to say.
“What is it, sir?” Cain turned to face his commander.
“Erik, I’m worried about you.” He decided to stop dancing around and just say what was on his mind. “It’s not your fault Jax died on Farpoint. I know you’ve always had a hard time dealing with casualties…I have too. But we lose people…we lose friends. It’s part of what we do. It’s the life we’ve chosen.”
Cain was silent for a moment. He felt a flush of annoyance, almost anger. He was tired of everyone harassing him about his feelings. He knew damned well it was his fault Jax was killed. If he’d listened, if he’d garrisoned the mountains…if he’d gotten over his stupid prejudices sooner…
“Erik, I talked with Sarah. She’s worried too.” Holm was uncomfortable pushing Cain, but he knew his friend was on some sort of precipice, and he wasn’t sure how to pull him back.
“Sarah should stop worrying. I know she means well, but she’s got to have better things to do.” His voice was thick with frustration. “I keep telling her I’m fine. I wish she’d just leave it alone.” He was still feeling bad about snapping at her that morning, but he wanted her to stop riding him about Jax. He had a job to do, and so did she.
“General Holm, I respectfully request that we focus our attentions on matters of military significance.” Cain had never interrupted Holm before. His voice was sharp, brittle.
“Very well, Erik.” Holm sighed again, though softly. Pushing him harder isn’t going to work, he thought…back off for now. “Let’s see these Obliterator squadrons of yours.” Holm deliberately lightened his tone. “Your reports have me curious.”
Cain turned and looked out over the simulated battlefield. “Hector, advise General Teller he may commence the operation when ready.” He wasn’t wearing armor, but the AI was downloaded into the tactical mainframe and connected to Cain through the comlink.
“Yes, General.” A brief pause, no more than twenty seconds. “General Cain, General Teller reports he will commence the exercise in two minutes.” Cain’s AI had detected his tension as well, and it had largely ceased the sarcastic sparring the two had engaged in for years.
“Very well, Hector.” Advise General Teller that will be acceptable.” He glanced back to Holm, taking a helmet from a small ledge and handing it to his companion. “You’d better wear this, sir.” As soon as Holm took it, Cain reached back and grabbed one for himself. “And put the visor down, sir. We’ll demo Colonel Sparks’ PBS system too, and that puts out some serious light.”
Cain saw the drones just before Holm did, but it wasn’t a fair contest. He knew where they were coming from, and Holm didn’t. “The drones are simulated First Imperium bots, sir.” They were barely visible shadows at the time, but they were advancing quickly. “Here they come, sir.” He was staring out across the field. “Now watch this.”
Major Erin McDaniels focused on her display. It had taken her quite some time to get used to not having a visor. The Obliterator suits were almost four meters tall, far larger than the occupant, and her face was roughly at chest level. Her view of the outside was via monitors displaying everything visible from her suit – in front, behind, and to the side.
Regular armor was approximately the size of the wearer, and it was worn like a suit. The Marine just walked, ran, jumped, and shot. After getting used to the servo-mechanicals and the power enhancements, it wasn’t very different from just walking around normally…at least not to a trained Marine. There were vision and audio enhancements and interior projection systems, but you could also just look out through your visor and glance around normally. But not in an Obliterator. The new suits felt like a cross between armor and a vehicle, and learning to operate one was almost like starting from scratch.
When Cain offered McDaniels command of the first Obliterator battalion, she jumped at the chance. She’d seen the Reapers up close, and she knew the Corps needed something to counter the enemy heavies. When she saw the Obliterator prototype, she realized they’d found it.
The training had been more difficult than she’d expected. Even now, she considered her people half-trained, but she didn’t set the timetable…the war did. Cain had given her as long a training period on Armstrong as he dared, but finally he’d ordered her people shipped to Sandoval, ready or not.
“Ok, people, we’ve done this before, so don’t lose your focus just because the Commandant’s watching.” She was staring at the screens. The primary display of the Obliterator was divided into four programmable screens. She had the forward and rear views as well as a schematic of the company she had deployed around her. The last screen displayed a scanner plot out twenty klicks. The Obliterators were networked with each other and all ground stations within range. Each suit automatically displayed a composite of data from all of these sources.
“Major, the enemy drones are approaching HVM range.” The voice of the AI was cold, generic…quite unlike the normal Marine suit AIs. The Obliterators required upgraded systems, far more sophisticated than the normal units. An existing AI could be improved to match the new specs, but there hadn’t been time to refit the old systems. She was surprised how much she missed Mystic. The new units hadn’t been programmed with the adaptable personality modules yet, and they seemed very cold compared to the old ones.
“All units, fire HVMs as targets come into range.” The hyper-velocity missiles had been redesigned and the number of fragments per round increased. The enemy robots were tough – strong enough to withstand most explosions, but hyper-velocity impacts were fairly effective at taking them down. The changes essentially turned the units into long-ranged, high-velocity shotguns.
Her readouts began showing sporadic fire – a few of her people were jumping the gun. The HVMs needed direct line of sight, and she doubted many of the drones were close enough yet.
“Careful with that fire. Wait until you have targets.” The HVMs were large rounds, and even an Obliterator could only carry a few reloads. They had to make them count. She waited a few more seconds, focusing on her own displays. Here they come, she thought…now!
She opened up, firing from both her shoulder-mounted launchers. If General Holm wanted to see what these suits could do, her people were going to show him.
Holm glanced back and forth from the bank of monitors to the field in front of him. Cain was right, he thought…it was a different perspective watching it from the tower. The monitors gave a closer view, but he still found himself spending most of his time looking out across the plain.
The drones were large, about the size of the enemy Reapers. They were unarmed and, on the whole, fairly stupid. This was a firepower demonstration, and the drones were basically moving targets. And McDaniels’ crew was mowing them down.
The HVMs lanced out, leaving a fiery trail of ionized atmosphere behind them. Each missile broke into 30 individual segments, traveling at 16,000 kps. The projectiles delivered massive kinetic energy on contact. Single hits tore off sections, while multiple impacts virtually vaporized the target. The barrage tore the first rank of drones to shreds, littering the area with mangled debris.
Cain flipped on his comlink. “That’s very nice, major, but these things aren’t as tough as the Reapers.” He glanced at Holm and then back over the field. “Cease HVM fire and let a few of them get closer. I want the general to see the new autocannons in action.”
“Yes, sir.” McDaniels’ response was sharp and quick. “Estimate 30 seconds to effective range.” Cain had never met McDaniels, not until she returned from Cornwall leading a regiment of Teller’s survivors. But he immediately liked what he saw, and she quickly found her way onto his short list for rapid advancement. The Corps was in desperate need of senior officers, and Cain was going to need some colonels and brigadiers, especially if the loss rates on Sandoval turned out to match his expectations.
“She’s a very good officer, isn’t she?” Holm had been quietly listening. It was amazing sometimes what you could tell from someone’s voice under pressure. Of course, Holm had more than her tone to go on. Her service record was outstanding, and James Teller couldn’t rave enough about her.
“Yes…one of the best I’ve ever seen. I’ve already moved her along quickly, and I don’t think it will be long before I do it again. I need good people, especially in the command ranks. And I trust her.” Cain was no stranger himself to rapid advancement…or to the added strain it could place on a Marine. “There’s something about her…the way she is with her people. Totally in command, but casual with them too. Everyone who serves under her loves her. She reminds me a little of…” Cain stopped abruptly.
Holm turned and looked right at Cain. “She reminds you of Jax. That’s what you were going to say, wasn’t it?” Holm put his hand on the younger man’s shoulder. “It’s ok, Erik. She reminds me of Jax too. That same connection with the troops. It’s a very special gift for an officer.”
Cain let out a deep breath, but he didn’t say anything. He was hoping Holm would let it drop. He’d never known a better Marine than Darius Jax, but he wasn’t ready to talk about it. Maybe someday, but not yet.
Holm turned and looked out over the field. He wasn’t going to push Cain. He understood, better than anyone except Sarah, how pointless that would be. He wanted to help his friend, but he knew Erik Cain was the kind of man who had to find his own way.
“Here we go, sir.” Cain was glad to change the subject. “Wait until you see Colonel Sparks’ new autocannons in action.
Holm stared out over the field as McDaniels’ people opened up. Each Obliterator mounted two heavy autocannons, and Sparks had upgraded them to fire heavier rounds. The larger projectiles were specifically designed to deliver enough impact energy to damage the enemy bots. The dark matter infused armor of the Reapers was very tough, and the Marines needed weapons with a massive punch.The drones advanced right into the fire…and they were blown to bits. The massive rounds tore them to shreds almost immediately. The enemy battle robots would be tougher, but when they came to Sandoval they would find an adversary far more capable than the one they faced on Farpoint.