West of the Sentinel Forest
Gamma Pavonis III
“Get your people out of that pocket now!” Cain’s voice was loud and raw. The battle had been raging non-stop for three days. For those 72 hours his Marines had held their precarious positions, grimly defending against repeated overwhelming assaults from two sides. It was an astonishing display of will, of what raw courage and determination could achieve. Erik Cain had been everywhere, driving his people to the end of their endurance, leading them by example. But even Cain could only extract so much from human beings, even Marines…and now the relentless mathematics of war was asserting itself. The lines were collapsing, and Cain’s army was in mortal danger of being split in two. He’d pulled them back at an angle, shortening his line while still protecting the troops along the river. But he knew he couldn’t hold the new position for long. He just hoped it would be enough.
“I mean now, Eliot. Our lines over here are a wreck. You don’t have much time.” Cain’s tone was raw and intense, emphasizing the urgency of the situation. There was a deep fatigue too, one that showed just how close even he was to the end of his stamina. There were two Erik Cains – the man and the legend. He was well aware of the difference…for all his victories and medals, his ego had always remained firmly in check. Cain used the image of the relentless, unbeatable Marine for all it was worth, but he never believed the myth himself…and he knew very well that the man was mortal, fallible, beatable. And he knew how close he was to the end of his strength.
The second invasion force had rendered Cain’s resistance futile. He knew his Marines had no chance to win this fight. They were too tired, too few, too low on ordnance. They were massively outnumbered and facing an enemy that had just been resupplied. It was over already, save for the formalities. But it just wasn’t in him to give up. Surrender wasn’t a word he knew, and death was far preferable to surviving failure and defeat. He would fight to the bitter end, until the enemy finally managed to take him down. He knew he would never leave Armstrong.
He put those thoughts out of his head. None of it mattered…he had a battle to wage, and until some enemy soldier put him down he would fight like a demon dragged from the deepest pit of hell. His enemy might finally finish him off, but Cain vowed to himself that his life would come neither cheaply nor easily. The enemy may defeat him, but he would make them pay in blood.
The enemy reinforcements had come down north of the Graywater this time, exactly where he’d expected the first invasion force to land. They quickly compromised his defensive positions along the river and in the Sentinel. Cain and Cooper Brown had scraped up every Marine who could be spared…cadres from shattered units, mechanics, orderlies, logistics personnel. Everyone was a combat Marine now, and specialists who hadn’t fired their assault rifles in battle for 20 years were in the line. These ragged forces poured into the gap between Storm’s people in the Sentinel and the new enemy formations attacking from the west. Utterly overmatched, they desperately held against 30,000 fresh enemy troops. They made the enemy pay for every meter, and they held for far longer than anyone had a right to expect. But now they had reached their limit. Cain knew the end wasn’t far away.
To the southeast, Eliot Storm’s troops were still defending the riverline, holding back the original enemy force. They had better defensive terrain and were facing troops as exhausted as they were. They had turned every enemy move to cross the river into a bloody shambles. But now they were in grave danger. The withdrawal of Brown’s troops exposed their unprotected right and rear. If they didn’t get out fast, they’d be hit on the flank by fresh forces and overrun.
“We’re falling back now, sir.” Storm sounded exhausted. “I’ve got the remaining Obliterators covering the flank as we retreat.” The Obliterators had proven to be extremely effective against standard powered infantry. The four meter tall suits had been designed to counter the First Imperium’s giant Reaper robots, and the war on Armstrong was their first matchup against normal armored troops. The massively-armed behemoths had proven their worth, spearheading the assault that destroyed the bridges over the Graywater and cut the enemy force in two. It had been the turning point of the first phase of the battle, but the victory had been bittersweet. It cost the unit its first and only commander, General Erin McDaniels, mortally wounded as she led the final assault on the Graywater bridges and cut the enemy army in two. McDaniels had been one of the most popular officers in the entire Marine Corps. Erik Cain had considered her one of his few true friends, and the pain of her loss was hard to bear.
Now the survivors were moving into position, forming a rearguard to cover the retreat of their comrades. The Obliterators were lusting for revenge, straining to get at the enemy that had killed their beloved leader. Cain had whipped them into a frenzy earlier, invoking McDaniels’ memory in an emotional - but coldly mercenary - speech, one intended to turn her grieving Marines into relentless killing machines. They would fight better for his manipulation, and probably to the bitter end as well. Cain was repulsed at the idea of using his friend’s death as a tool to get her people to fight harder…but he did it anyway. One more reason to hate himself.
“Very well, Colonel.” Cain’s voice was hoarse, overuse and fatigue starting to take a serious toll. “But make sure your withdrawal is speedy. We’ll try to cover your retreat, but you don’t have much time. Cain out.” He flipped off the com channel and turned to look at the ragged line in front of him. It looked weak. It is weak, he thought grimly…that’s why it looks that way. But we’ve got to slow them down. We’ve got to hold for a while.
He moved forward slowly, glancing at his tactical display. The shimmering blue symbols projected inside his visor gave him an accurate flow of information on unit strengths and positions, but it couldn’t tell him what he most needed to know. It couldn’t show him the morale of his men and women…which units were faltering…which were most likely to break. It didn’t communicate the fear his people felt, the despair and hopelessness…the realization that their cause was already lost, that courage and determination weren’t going to be enough this time.
Cain had led thousands of Marines in every manner of desperate stand, but in the end he knew only one way to draw the last scraps of resolve they kept buried deep inside. His men and women followed him for different reasons. Some thought he was invincible, that no enemy could defeat him. Others were driven by the force of his iron will, more afraid of failing him then facing any foe. But one thing they all shared – they knew at the last stand, when all was crumbling to dust and defeat and destruction surrounded them on every side, Erik Cain would be there, rifle in hand, shoulder to shoulder when death came for them. For all his rank and the legends that preceded him, no Marine doubted that when Erik Cain finally fell it would be in the front lines, standing with his Marines.
He pulled his assault rifle off the harness and checked the cartridge, walking forward toward the line as he did. His people would stand here…they would hold long enough for Storm’s Marines to escape from the pocket that threatened to become a death trap. And Erik Cain would stand in the front line with them and make sure they did and, if necessary, die there with them.
Alex Linden crouched down behind the giant tree. She’d never seen a forest like this. The Sentinel was one of Armstrong’s great natural treasures, its gargantuan trees reaching hundreds of meters into the open sky. It was not the kind of thing she would have noticed in the past, but she was different now. She didn’t completely understand the changes of the last few years but perhaps, given time, she would. But for now, despite the stress, the fear, the uncertainty gnawing at her insides, some part of her mind noted the magnificence of the towering trees. Vast sections of the amazing wood now bore the scars of war, for it was another of the battlefields where man had come to wage one of his many wars. Still, the Sentinel was enormous, and there were thousands of hectares that remained untouched. Alex had taken a wide route around the battlefield, traveling mostly through virgin forest. She’d been stalking Erik Cain, but wandering too close to the fighting and getting blown to bits wasn’t going to help her complete the job. Neither was getting picked up by a Marine patrol and sent back to the refugee camp.
She’d resolved to carry out the assassination. She hated the idea. She wanted to stop and drop to her knees, emptying the contents of her stomach on the cold ground. But she didn’t have a choice. It would buy her time with Gavin Stark…maybe enough for her to get close to him. Killing Stark was her only chance to survive; she was sure of that. He’d shown uncharacteristic weakness in letting her come back to Armstrong, but she knew she couldn’t count on that a second time. Even if she completed her mission, he’d never forget that she’d failed him before. His momentary weakness would pass, and she’d never see it coming. She knew enough from years as one of Alliance Intelligence’s deadliest assassins…you couldn’t stay vigilant all the time. Offense and defense were not equal forces. With enough persistence, you could get to any target. And no one had more raw stubbornness than Gavin Stark. No…killing the bastard was the only way. And taking out Erik Cain was a necessary step to reaching Stark.
She wasn’t sure exactly where she was, but she knew she was getting close to Cain’s headquarters. It didn’t look like the battle was going very well. She’d ducked into cover half a dozen times as worn looking groups of Marines passed by, heading north, away from the front lines. Most of them were bringing wounded comrades back with them, some staggering along with minimal assistance, others being carried. Their fighting suits were blackened and pitted with the scars of battle.
Maybe the invaders will do the job for me, she thought. She couldn’t imagine the legendary Erik Cain surviving a battle where his army was destroyed. If he was killed in the fighting, it would be the same, wouldn’t it?
She shook her head slowly. No, that won’t work, she thought, feeling the fleeting hopefulness drain away as quickly as it had appeared. She was going to need Cain’s rank insignia, ID badge, video of the body, DNA sample…something. If she was going to get close enough to Stark to kill the bastard, she need to be able to prove she had carried out his orders. If he thought she was still defying him, she’d never get in the same room. Gavin Stark had never taken anyone’s word for something important in his life. No, I have to get to Cain myself…and I have to do it before the enemy does.
She crept around the tree, moving steadily west toward her objective. She was hungry and tired, but she had a tremendous inner toughness, and she pushed aside her doubts. She’d seen far worse depravation wandering the slums and badlands as a child. She’d survived those hardships to become one of the most powerful operatives in Alliance Intelligence. After the horrors she’d endured, the repulsive things she’d done to climb from the gutter…she wasn’t about to let anything stop her now.
She knew she was getting closer. The bands of retreating troops were getting larger and more frequent. They moved slowly, with leaden footsteps. There was a pall over them, a plodding look she hadn’t seen before. She watched from cover as each group passed. My God, she thought, they look beaten. They are losing. Erik Cain’s legendary Marines are losing the battle.
That could be a complication. How would she get off of Armstrong if the enemy won? What kind of controls would they establish? Could she blend in with the civilians? Should she? Or would the victorious invaders fall upon the helpless population in an orgy of rape and pillage?
She watched the last group move out of sight to the north and then continued on her way. She’d gone 100 meters, perhaps 150, when she saw. It was a Marine, dead, lying behind one of the large trees ahead. There was a smooth, round hole through his helmet. She almost ignored it, but something didn’t seem right, and it caught her attention. She’d seen plenty of wounded passing by, and a few bodies too…Marines who’d obviously died of their wounds on the way back from the front. But this wound had been immediately fatal…there was no questioning that. As far as she’d been able to tell, there had been no fighting back this far. Not yet at least. So who had killed this Marine?
She knelt down and examined the body. There was something about the look of the wound that made her edgy. She reached around, trying to pop open the armor. He was lying on his side. He weighed well over a ton in his suit, and she couldn’t budge him at all. After a few minutes she gave up and just stared at the entry hole in his helmet. The look was familiar, characteristic…no other weapon left a mark quite like that one. It wasn’t military issue; it was highly specialized, developed in great secrecy and used by only one organization. A weapon she’d fired dozens of times…to assassinate well-protected targets.
She looked all around her, scanning the trees carefully…even more so than she had. She felt a wave of cold sweep through her body. Her situation had just changed. There was another Alliance Intelligence assassin on Armstrong.