Thursday, October 17, 2013

Gehenna Dawn (Portal Wars I)

I'm going to start posting some previews of upcoming books.  I've got a lot in the works...stuff that will be released between now and the middle of next year.  Crimson Worlds VII will be out in mid-December.  But before that, I am introducing a new series...Portal Wars.

The first book is called Gehenna Dawn, and it will be out in early November.  I'll be posting more about it, but I thought I'd started by previewing the first few chapters, starting today with chapter one.

I'm excited about the new series, and I hope you will all enjoy it as much as Crimson Worlds.



Chapter One


From the Journal of Jake Taylor:

There are two suns here, and no night.  The brightness is constant; it wears you down until you can feel the madness building inside you…a craving, a painful longing, willing in vain for it to be dark.  Then the wave of frustration, of anger and bitterness when there is nothing but the light, the unending light.  Even when you close your eyes you can still see the hazy orange glow, constant, unceasing.

But it's not the light that's hardest to take; it’s the heat.  Erastus is a hot world, hotter than the most sunbaked desert back home.  When you first get here you can't breathe, and when you do force air into your lungs it feels like fire exploding in your chest.  Your instincts conflict…first trying to stop you from taking another searing, agonizing breath, then succumbing to the irresistible need for air.  You think you are going to die then and there, to yield to natural forces you were never supposed to survive.  But you don't.  A world like Erastus teaches you just how adaptable man really is.

On Earth I loved the night, the quiet darkness, the cool stillness, a field of twinkling stars the only light in an inky sky.  Now I can hardly remember what it felt like, sitting on the porch breathing the crisp air.  I always loved autumn, the first chill of the year that sent me to the closet to fetch another blanket.  Now all I know is a hellish perversion of eternal summer.  Cold?  A memory almost faded now.  The concept remains, a lingering vestige, but the recollection of how it felt?  Gone.



The FNGs were dying…they were dying like flies.  The 213th Strike Force was pinned down on Blackrock Ridge, and they were catching hell.  The Machines were attacking from three sides, trying to cut off the only line of retreat.  The strategy was predictable - most of their operations were - but that didn’t mean it wouldn’t work.  If they closed the circle, no one from the 213th would make it back to base.

“Sergeant Taylor, get your section into that gap.  Keep it open, whatever it takes.  The ground’s too rugged here for evac.”  Lieutenant Cadogan’s voice was raw.  He was trying, without much success, to hide his fatigue.  Both suns were in the sky, and the strike force had been fighting on the open ridge for over an hour.  Half the troops were almost incoherent with heat exhaustion, and the rest weren’t far behind.  The Machines felt the heat too, as much as they did anything, but they were less vulnerable to its effects.  Which made fighting during midday a big advantage for them.

“Yes, sir.”  Jake Taylor’s voice was gravelly, somber.  He hated to see the new guys getting themselves massacred.  His people had been in reserve, so he couldn’t see everything happening up on the forward line.  But he bet himself over a dozen of the rookies were down already, and probably more.

Taylor spent a lot of time lecturing the new recruits when they first arrived, but not many of them listened…and that meant not many of them survived.  Not on Erastus.  Not against an enemy like the Machines.

“Let’s go, 2nd Section.”  Taylor took a deep, searing breath.  He’d been on Erastus a long time, long enough for his body to adjust to the harsh environment.  His was muscular, but lean and wiry, his physique adapted to the constant dehydration.  It didn’t matter how long you stayed on Erastus, how used to it you became…the air was still goddamned hot.  “Follow me…into the gap.  We’ve got to hold the door open.”

Taylor’s troops snapped into position, following him down the jagged rocks of the ridgeline into the small gully behind.  The narrow depression led back toward a small plateau…flat ground where the evac ships could land.  The strike force could withdraw that way under cover…as long as the Machines didn’t break through and block the route.

Taylor’s troops were veterans mostly, though none had been on Erastus as long as he had.  Jake had been onplanet five years, a tenure that made him part of an elite group.  Men didn’t survive that long in the battle lines.  The Machines killed them…or Erastus did.  Or they went mad from the heat, the thirst, the fear.  Not many men could survive that long on the front lines in hell.

He waved a sunbaked arm, worn assault rifle gripped firmly in his hand.  “I want two lines.  First team left, second team right.”  His voice was hoarse and scratchy…everyone got that way on Erastus sooner or later.  Yelling felt like broken glass on his parched throat, but it was the only way his people could hear him, even with the com implants.  “I want 3rd and 4th teams in reserve, ready to move to either flank.”

“Blackie, get your HHV set up between those two rock outcroppings to your south.  That should give your guys good cover and a nice field of fire.”  Taylor tended to micromanage his teams.  He couldn’t help himself.  His grasp of the field was extraordinary – as it had been from the day he stepped out of the Portal into the blazing sunlight of Erastus.  He was a raw cherry with no military training other than what he’d gotten in Basic…but there was something in him, some hidden talent that suddenly emerged.  His eye immediately focused on key positions, and his mind rapidly assessed the strengths and weaknesses of the tactical situation.  There weren’t many things more important in small unit tactics than a good feel for the ground, and Taylor was one of the best.  It was one of the things - one of many things - that made him such a good natural soldier…and leader.

“Got it, Sarge.”  Tony Black’s voice was deep, with a heavy urban accent.  “Deploying now.”  Black was the senior corporal in the section and the longest-serving veteran after Taylor.  He was Jake’s best friend…and his go-to man for anything difficult or vital.

“I’m counting on you, Blackie.”  Taylor trusted Black…as much as he did anyone.  The corporal was a little shit, maybe 170 centimeters in his boots, but he was tough as nails.  Taylor had seen him cornered in a ravine by three Machines and live to tell about it.  Black had grown up in the streets of the Philly Metrozone, just about the worst of the urban freezones in the US sector, and his survival instincts were well developed long before he ended up in UN Forces:  Erastus.  “They’re going to come through right below that position.  I can feel it.  You should be able to wipe the field clean.”  As long as there aren’t too many, he thought, keeping that part to himself.

“I’m on it, Sarge.”  Black’s voice was confident, definitive.  He’d served with Jake a long time.  If “Mad Dog” Taylor said the enemy was coming through that ravine, it was as good as a guarantee to him.  “If they come this way, we’ll put ‘em down.”

“Fuck, it’s hot,” Taylor muttered to himself, running his hand along the back of his neck, wiping away the sweat.  He grabbed his bottle, and put it to his lips.  He was disciplined, only allowing himself a small sip…barely enough to wet his parched lips.  Water was precious.  In this desert, it was life itself. 

He turned and trotted up over a small rise, crouching low as he did.  He wasn’t sure he was exposed to the enemy’s line of sight, but there was no point sticking his head out and taking chances.  Carelessness got soldiers killed; that was something he constantly reminded the cherries…and his veterans too.  It only took an instant of distraction to end up on the KIA list, and he’d seen experienced soldiers, men who should have known better, make the same mistakes as newbies straight out of the Portal.

He scrambled down into the gully and up the other side, coming out just behind the hulking figure of a man.  “OK, Bear, get your boys over to the east.  Spread out and grab some cover.”  Taylor paused for an instant before he added, “My gut says they’re going to hit us from the west, over by Blackie’s position.  But keep your eyes open, just in case they come in from both directions.”

The big man turned and looked back, nodding.  The commander of Taylor’s 2nd team, Chuck “Bear” Samuels was a giant of a man, well over 2 meters tall, with huge shoulders and powerful, muscled arms.  Erastus usually finished off the big ones quickly…they just couldn’t take the heat.  But Samuels handled everything the planet and the Machines threw at him and kept right on going.  Another two-striper, he was the best natured guy in the unit, cheerful and boisterous…when he wasn’t fighting the Machines, that is.

“On the way, Boss.”  Taylor was never sure why Bear called him boss, but he always let it go.  He got a kick out of the way it sounded in the gentle giant’s slow southern drawl.  “We got some good cover over there.  I’ll get the boys situated real good.  Just in case.”  Like Black, Samuels considered Taylor’s instincts a sure thing.  If the sergeant said the enemy was going to hit the other flank, then that’s what they were going to do.  But he was a veteran too, and he didn’t like taking chances any more than Taylor did.  So he wouldn’t let his guard drop, not for an instant.  Not after all the times Jake had pounded that into his head.

“Get to it, Be…”  Taylor’s head snapped around.  It was fire…HHV fire.  The heavy hyper-velocity weapon was a tripod-mounted, rapid fire, infantry support gun firing depleted uranium projectiles at 3,200 mps.  In a good position, a skilled HHV crew could sweep whole sections of a battlefield clean, tearing apart anything foolish enough to show itself.  It was particularly effective against the Machines.  The alien soldiers were far less sensitive to casualties, and they frequently attacked in the open, their dense formations attempting to overrun the human forces with massive waves.  Against a few well-placed HHVs, that strategy was the rough equivalent of suicide.

“Get to it, Bear.”  Taylor turned and jogged down the hillside without waiting for an acknowledgement.  He had his other two teams and the support personnel stacked up in the ravine.  He slid down the rocky slope and ran along the bottom to where he’d posted the reserves.

“Longbow, grab yourself a vantage point off to the west.”  Tom Warner was standing closest to Taylor, watching the sergeant scramble toward the position.  He was the section’s sniper, the deadliest shot Taylor had ever seen.  Warner constantly insisted he was even better with a bow than a rifle, and he had a seemingly limitless collection of stories to back the claim.  No one was sure what to believe or not, but eventually the name stuck.

“Yes, Sarge.”  Warner strapped his weapon on his back and trotted off past Taylor.  The MZ-750 computer-assisted sniper rifle was a long weapon, and the muzzle extended more than half a meter over Warner’s head.  In the hands of a well-trained shot, the MZ-750 could hit a man-sized target in partial cover at 4 klicks.  Warner was an expert.

Jake stared at the rest of his reserve, 2 eight man teams plus the other 4 section specialists.  “The rest of you stay down and wait.  If they come in heavy, we’ll probably have to extend the line so we don’t get flanked.”  Taylor turned and took two steps before stopping and looking back.  “Check your weapons and ammo.  I want everybody ready on a second’s notice.”  His 3rd and 4th teams were mostly new guys.  Even most of the NCOs had less than a year onplanet.  You couldn’t remind the FNGs enough, he thought.  You could say it ten times, and some fool will still end up in the line with an unloaded rifle.

He turned again and headed back toward Blackie’s position.  He wanted to scout things out for himself over there, but he glanced back for one last check to make sure his reserves were staying low.  The walls of the ravine provided cover against line of sight, but that didn’t mean the Machines wouldn’t start dropping shells there.  Taylor nursemaided the newbs – it was the only way to try and keep them alive.  He hated seeing them gunned down like sheep, and he hammered away at his rookies, trying to beat some sense into their heads.  It didn’t always work, but Taylor had the lowest cherry casualty rate in the brigade.  He intended to keep it that way.

He could hear the enemy fire coming in, getting thicker as he came back up to Black’s position.  The HHV was in place and firing full.  “Blackie, how’s it look up here?”  He was still low in the gully, about 3 meters below the ledge where Black’s team was deployed.

“It’s hot, Sarge.”  Black’s accent was thicker than usual; he really sounded like an inner city tough.  That told Taylor all he needed to know.  Black’s accent was the best way to read his stress level…and it only took a quick listen to tell that the veteran corporal was definitely tense.

“Alright, brother…hang on.  I’m gonna get some eyes up.”  Taylor didn’t want to commit reserves yet, not unless he was sure the enemy was coming in hard.  He put his hand to his helmet, switching the com frequency.  The speaker was in his head, an implant inside the ear canal, but the primary controls were external…a small pad on the side of his helmet.  “Frantic, I need you to get two birds up ASAP.  West flank, north and south trajectories.”  He paused then added, “Get me one to the east too.”  Might as well confirm if anything was heading Bear’s way.  Taylor didn’t think so, but intuition was no substitute for solid intel.

It was obvious to everyone how Corporal Karl Young had gotten the name Frantic.  The guy was twitchy sitting back at base playing cards.  In a close in fight he was batshit crazy.  Normally, Jake wouldn’t want a loose cannon in his command, but Young was the best fighter he’d ever seen…and the crazy bastard wasn’t scared of anything.  Plus he’d done one thing no one else on Erastus had.  He’d saved Jake Taylor’s life.

“On it, Sarge.  I’ll have ‘em up in half a minute.”  Young commanded Taylor’s 3rd team.  He was the only real veteran in either 3rd or 4th.

Jake climbed up the embankment and slid into place next to Black.  “I’ve got drones launching.  Once they’re up we’ll have better targeting intel.”  Taylor and Black had the same com implants, just like every soldier on Erastus, but Jake always preferred to hear with his own ears whenever possible.

Black nodded.  “Good.”  He was prone behind a large rock outcropping, firing his assault rifle through a slit in the granite slab.  “’Cause I think we got another phalanx of these motherfuckers just behind that crest.”

There was no way Black could have known what was hidden by the elevation, not until the drones got up and over there, at least.  But Taylor had learned to respect his number two’s gut almost as much as his own.  He hadn’t believed in intuition or anything like it before he came to Erastus, but he’d seen it work too many times not to pay attention.  And Black’s was one of the best.

Taylor’s didn’t rely entirely on guts, though, his or anyone else’s.  He’d learned to survive, but he’d done it with his head mostly, analyzing each situation and exercising caution.  Most screw-ups happened because of poor planning or recklessness.  Taylor was methodical, maintaining his calm deliberation even in the middle of combat.

He pulled his own rifle off his shoulder and slid into position a few meters south of Black.  He was extraneous now, at least until he had more intel…and one more rifle in the line could make the difference.  He could see out 1,000, maybe 1,200 meters.  Beyond that, the ground sunk behind a small ridgeline, cutting line of sight.  Black thought there were heavy enemy reserves back there, but they wouldn’t know for sure until one of the drones was in place.

“Taylor, I’ve got evac inbound, but we’re looking at maybe 20 before they’re here.”  It was the lieutenant, sounding even worse than he had a few minutes earlier.  “As soon as the birds are close, I’m gonna pull the rest of the sections back, through the gully between your two lines.  Copy?”

“Copy, sir.  Understood.”  Fuck, Taylor thought, twenty minutes was a long time.  A long Goddamned time.  If there was another phalanx of Machines hidden behind that ridge, things were going to get real hot in a lot less than 20 minutes.  He turned toward Black.  “Twenty minutes until evac.  We must not be the only disaster today.”

The UN forces on Erastus didn’t have a lot of air support, and what was available was always needed in three places at once.  It took enough energy to transport men and supplies.  Larger ordnance was sent sent on an “urgent needs” basis only.  And antigrav transports and gunships were way too big to fit through a Portal.  They had to be sent through in sections and assembled onsite.  The whole process was time-consuming and prohibitively expensive.  On UN Central’s spreadsheet, it was a better deal to go through a few more men than spend too much on logistical support.

“I don’t know, Dog.  If they’re stacked up behind that ridge out there, we’re gonna be fucked up the ass in way less than 20 minutes.”  The use of handles was widespread in the UN forces, but rarely with a superior.  Taylor tended to be casual with his non-coms in base, and Black sometimes reverted when it was just the two of them talking in the field.  Taylor didn’t really care.  He wouldn’t let it spread and affect overall discipline, but Black was like his brother.

“No shit, Blackie.”  He let a tiny smile cross his lips.  He and Black were thinking the same thing.  Not that it would do them much good.  If they were right, they were going to be neck deep in Machines in a few minutes.  He tapped the com pad on his helmet.  “Frantic, where the hell are those drones?”

“They’re up, Sarge.”  Young sounded half-crazed, as usual, but nothing out of the ordinary.  “There’s a lot of interdictive fire.  I’m trying to bring them around the perimeter…avoid the heaviest spots.” 

“Understood, Corporal, but I need some intel now.”  Taylor sighed, but he didn’t push any harder.  Getting the drones shot down wasn’t going to help.  Karl Young was one of the best operators in the whole brigade.  Taylor knew he’d get the drones around as quickly as he could without getting them blown away.  “Do the best you can.  I need to know what the enemy has behind that ridge.”

“Yes, Sarge.”  Young was practically screaming.  “I’ll get you what you need.”

There was a long silence, maybe a minute and a half.  The line was still open, and Taylor could hear Young breathing hard on the other end.  Jake was looking out over the field, his eyes straining, panning across the ridge.  He thought he got a quick glimpse of one of the drones, flying low across the field in front of the ridge before it vanished from view.  The small aircraft was zigging and zagging wildly, avoiding the heaviest pockets of enemy fire.  He knew Young was good, but he hadn’t seen much precision flying that could match what he was watching.

“Sarge, I got a drone over the ridge.  Feeding you the scans.”  He paused, sucking in a deep breath, trying to control his edginess.  “You better get what you need fast, Sarge…cause this thing ain’t gonna last long.”

“Thanks, Frantic.  Great job.”  Taylor was slamming down his visor as he spoke, hitting the small button on his helmet that activated the projection system.  The inside of his visor flickered with a soft blue light, and then the feed from the drone’s camera started.

“Fuck…”  Taylor stared as the drone transmitted a panoramic view of the backside of the ridge.  A few seconds later there was a flash, then nothing.

“Sarge…did you get what you needed?”  Young again, shouting into the com.  “We lost the drone.  I tried to keep it in a random pattern, but they picked it off anyway.”

“Yeah, Frantic.”  Taylor’s voice was grim.  “I got what I needed.”  Now, he thought…what the fuck am I going to do with it?

He tapped his helmet controls, cutting the link with Young and calling up the lieutenant.  “Sir…Taylor here.”

“Go ahead, Jake.”  Cadogan sounded exhausted.  He was up on the forward ridge with the other three sections.  Taylor’s people were getting some partial shade at least, but the rest of the strike force had been in direct sunlight for almost 90 minutes.  Taylor didn’t know for sure, but he suspected they’d already had fatalities from heatstroke.

“We got a drone up over that western ridge.  They’re massing back there.  Looks like battalion strength, at least.”  The Machines didn’t use human organizational structures, but UNFE forces tended to refer to enemy formations by their own force equivalents.

The line was silent for a few seconds.  “Alright, Jake.  You know you need to keep the escape route open.  I’m gonna start sending the worst hit sections back toward the target LZ.  You and your boys…hold firm.”  It was a pointless order, but it was all Cadogan had to give.

“Yes, sir.”  Taylor took a deep breath, wincing a little as a sharp pain lanced up his side.  “Fuck,” he grunted.  He’d cracked a couple ribs on patrol a few days before, and they were bothering him more than he thought they would.  Doc hadn’t wanted to clear him for duty, but there was no way he was letting his people go out on a strikeforce level search and destroy mission without him.  Especially this one…so far from base.  And right after he got six new cherries transferred in.

“Blackie…”  He turned to face his number two, shouting across the ten meters or so rather than using the com.  “I’m going slip Jackson’s team in on your flank.  The way we’re set now, if these guys attack, they’ll just swing right around your boys.”  He paused, thinking for a few seconds.  The whole situation was bad news.  He was sending his least experienced unit commander to hold the exposed flank.  But he was only going to have one team left in reserve, and he needed a veteran in command of it…and the only really seasoned guy back there was Young.  Barret Jackson was a good soldier, but this was his first mission commanding a team.

“I’m gonna go with Jackson’s team.”  He started sliding his way down the embankment as he spoke.  “Frantic’s people are in reserve.  Be cool, Blackie…we can’t burn through them too quickly.  But pull them up a pair at a time if you really need them to plug your holes.”

“Got it, Jake.”  Black was still firing through the split in the rock, turning his head back as he shouted after Taylor.  “You take care of the south flank.  I’ve got things handled here.”  It was bravado, but that was Blackie’s style.

Taylor scrambled down into the gully and started moving south.  He tapped the com controls on his helmet.  “Jackson, get your boys up and moving.  I want you on the line south of Black’s team.”  He glanced back.  He could hear the incoming fire on Black’s position, and it was getting heavier.  “Immediately, Corporal.”