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Hard Duty By Mark E. Cooper

Copyright©2000 by Mark E. Cooper


                                 Chapter 1       


Gunnery Sergeant Gina Fuentes slapped a hand to her cheek and brought it away to reveal a mosquito the size of a heavy cruiser splattered over her palm still oozing the blood it had just hijacked… if it was a mosquito. Insects were about the only things on this cursed planet she did recognise, but the size and shape of the thing was only vaguely familiar.

Earth was far away, and hence familiar sights such as insects and trees on this world gave only a skewed impression of a jungle on Earth. The sun was like, yet unlike Sol. It was almost but not quite the right size in the sky, and it was almost but not quite the right colour. The sickly orangey yellow of this sun was filtering through the thick canopy of the jungle heating the undergrowth and her marines almost beyond endurance. The operative word here was almost.

The Alliance Marines, of which she was a fifteen-year veteran, were the best at what they did. A little heat and sweat wouldn’t affect their performance one way or the other.

Gina glanced aside to check her people. All were well concealed and keeping low. Her squad had ten of the best people she had ever met and that included Major Stein back at base. They were her friends, her people, and the Corps was her home. She had no other home or family, but that didn’t matter as long as she had the Corps.

Gina lay in the same uncomfortable position for hours, but she didn’t even think of moving to another hiding place. She wiped the sweat off her face through her open visor then slapped it shut. Sweating was preferable to being bitten to death.

Gina activated her comm. “Eagle One to all Eagles, status check.”

“Eagle Two copies. No joy, repeat nothing in sight.”

“Eagle Three copies, no joy.”

“Eagle Four no joy.”

“Eagle Five—”

Gina acknowledged reports from all of her people. As had been the case previously they had seen nothing. Every half hour she repeated the routine until Eagle Three suddenly broke it.

“Eagle Three, Eagle One. I have movement directly ahead. I make it two-point-three klicks and moving fast.”

Gina didn’t even think of checking her own sensors. If one of her people said there was something coming, then there was.

“Eagle One, Eagle Three. Can you identify?”

“Negative, repeat negative visual.” Corporal Grace Wingate said. “It reads as Human in size,” she added helpfully.

“Eagle One copies, keep your eye on it.”

“Aye-aye, Eagle Three clear.”

Gina switched channels and contacted base. “Eagle One to Red One,” said and waited for a reply.

“Red One, Eagle One. Go.” The quiet voice of Lieutenant Strong came back instantly.

“Am observing movement two klicks east of my position—advise over.”

“Acknowledged Eagle One, he’s our boy. Take no chances—repeat no chances. Red One clear.”

“Aye-aye sir, Eagle One clear.”

So, this was it. They had been briefed to expect a recovery operation but had not been given a precise time, which in this case meant someone was working under cover and now needed extraction fast. Gina had no idea who this man was, but that didn’t matter. Her job was to see to it he reached base in one piece, and the bad guys didn’t.

She watched the man on her sensors. He was moving damn fast, totally ignoring the danger of detection, which said to her he had already been detected—more, it meant he was being pursued.

“Eagle One to all Eagles. This is our boy. Eagles Three, Four, and Five, hold position. I want the rest of you to pull in as he passes. Watch for pursuit and nail them.”

“Eagle Three copies.”

“—Four copies.”

“Five copies.”

Quiet acknowledgements came over the comm as Gina watched the man jump a fallen tree ahead of her. She blinked in astonishment as he flew through the air totally ignoring gravity. He landed hard and rolled to his feet, and that was when she saw the wound. One arm ended in a bloody and broken stump just below the elbow. To keep going with a wound like that, he had to be running on adrenalin alone. One last leap had him skidding to a halt and rolling into her dugout. He was wearing civilian clothing with no devices or sensors on his person. How the hell had he known where she was?

“The name’s Eric.” He said conversationally. “I suggest we get the hell out of here, Sergeant.”

Gina blinked. He wasn’t even breathing hard! “Your arm,” she said reaching for her medikit.

Eric slapped his good hand onto hers in a blur of speed, but his grip was exceedingly gentle as if he were afraid of breaking her.

“I’m fine. The bots have taken care of it.” He said. “Good, your people are moving back. Call the last three in and let’s go before…” He snarled a curse. “Too late.”

Gina’s eyes snapped to her sensors. There was a wall of light codes approaching. Just as she was about to give the order to open fire, Grace opened up with the AAR. The heavy railgun thudded repeatedly and was joined by the lesser stuttering of outgoing fire from Eagles Four and Five.

“Eagle One, to all Eagles. Fall back in pairs and give them covering fire!” Gina shouted over the noise.

She couldn’t see the enemy visually yet, but she added her weight to that of her people. A storm of pulsar fire went out shredding foliage and anything hidden within it. Her magazine ran dry and she slapped another in place with economical motions barely halting her fire. When she ran dry again, Gina slapped another in place but didn’t fire this time.

Dan and Bob pulled back leaving Grace to hold the line, then set up covering fire for her. Grace gave the jungle another burst and then ran and dove past Eagles Four and Five. Gina grinned as Grace again open up on the jungle allowing Eagles Four and Five to leapfrog back.

The manoeuvre was perfectly executed.

Grace was hosing the jungle on full auto now as the enemy came into sight. Trees were turned into toothpicks and Roman candles as a railgun designed to take out armoured vehicles literally wiped the jungle ahead of her clean. Suddenly a thunderous explosion shook the jungle and Grace vanished in an eye-searing ball of light.

Heavy grenade launcher!

Gina had no time to grieve for her oldest friend, nor for the AAR, which was her only heavy weapon. Her rifle snapped up and she opened fire again. Her people were still too far forward to concentrate their effort, but they were having an affect. The enemy was withering under the storm of pulsar bolts, but her rifle was heating dangerously.

Gina switched to semi automatic and picked her targets with care. They were wearing armour, but three round bursts from an M18A anti personnel pulsar took care of it. With relief, she saw the enemy go to ground. Outgoing fire slowed to a trickle as her people changed to single shot. She was proud of their discipline, but as their fire died away, the enemy opened up all at once.

Gina zoomed in with her optics trying to see where the grenade launcher was, but though these people were amateurs, they still knew to keep their ace well back. She couldn’t see the launcher, but she did see something else. Among the pulsars in enemy hands, there were old style slug throwers as well. She was glad to see these bastards had supply problems, but it did not help her situation, a well-handled slug thrower would kill you just as dead as a pulsar.

Gina ducked as the enemy turned their attention to her position and tried to pull Eric down with her. He snarled something at her and pulled a pistol from inside his clothing. On one knee, totally exposed to the enemy he fired his own slug thrower and killed his target, and then again and again. His fire was unerring, every shot found its target, and that target died.

“Eagle One, Red One!” Gina screamed over the din, whatever the gun was it was louder than her rifle!

“Red One, Eagle One. Go,” snapped the reply.

“We’re under heavy fire!” She shouted as the grenade launcher dropped one nearby and the ground erupted. “Completely on the defensive! I’m pulling back, request air support!”

“Negative Eagle One. Ground cover is too extensive.”

“Not anymore sir! Grace cleared a large section before she bought it! Drop it in the centre and you’ll nail most of them!”

“Red One copies, it’s on the way.”

“Eagle One clear!” Gina shouted and opened fire again.

“I’m hit!” A voice screamed from nearby.

“—God! Oh God…” bubbled another voice over the comm.

Gina closed her eyes as Corporal Dan Paglino sobbed into his mike and died. Dan was… had been a good man, all of her people were. She had fucked up! Recovery operation or no recovery operation, she should have brought the heavy stuff!

“Eagle Nine, Eagle One,” the calm voice of Geoff Frankowski came to her.

“What is it Geoff?”

“You saw Grace?”

“Yeah,” she shouted as the grenade launcher took out a tree nearby. Jesus! “We’re pulling back!”

“No shit!” Geoff shouted over the crash. “Dan’s dead, and Bob’s hurt bad. I’m bringing him in!”

“Eagle One to all Eagles, we’re pulling back! Marines, we are leaving!” Gina shouted into her mike as she scrambled on her belly out of her hollow. “Let’s go!”

Eric nodded and threw his empty pistol away.

Gina handed Eric her sidearm and they crawled over the edge of the riverbank. She looked back over the ledge and saw some of the enemy moving carefully into the clearing. She picked off those she could and with relief saw Geoff drag Bob over the edge to safety.

“Save your ammo!” She shouted. “Single shot only!”

Gina ignored Eric fumbling one handed at her waist. He was going after the ammo for her pistol. She didn’t have much, and in a quiet moment ordered the others to dump theirs for him to use. Eric thanked her calmly and began taking out the bad guys with unerring accuracy, even when they were under cover. She still didn’t know how he could keep going with only one arm. He said his bots were taking care of it, but still! Nano bots were a fact of life for everyone, even more so in the military, but although they should keep him alive, with that kind of injury fighting should be beyond him.

“Falcon Leader to Eagle One.”

“Eagle One, Falcon Leader. What’ve you got for me?” Gina replied still firing.

“Three birds fully loaded, where do you want it?”

Gina grinned. “Dump it all on the clearing!” She shouted as the enemy opened up on her people again.

“Roger Eagle One. Keep your heads down!”

“Eagle One clear!”

Gina looked around and found seven marines and one civilian hiding behind the bluff. If Eric was a civilian she’d eat her rifle, but he looked like one.

“Everyone down!” She shouted as the jungle erupted in death and fire.

The three AG160 fighter-bombers screamed in low and deployed their munitions. Three bombs weighing thirty kilograms each disengaged from each fighter and fell. Nine fragmentation bombs detonated as one at a preselected height above the clearing. The compression wave killed everyone in the clearing, and shrapnel minced the remains finishing the job. The bombers however, weren’t ready to leave just yet.

“Falcon Leader to all chicks. Second pass on my mark… mark!”

The AG160’s banked sharply and climbed. At three thousand metres, the pilots pushed over into a dive and fired their Hornet AG missiles… a full spread. The jungle erupted again as eighteen warheads ploughed into the ground then detonated.

“Jesus Christ!” Geoff shouted as he tried to bury himself into the ledge. “Are they nuts?

Gina could only cover her head as the world went mad. Flyboys were all crazy, but this was pushing it! Talk about overkill!

“Falcon Leader, Eagle One.”

The explosions died away to be replaced by the crashing of falling trees and the crackle of burning undergrowth. Gina wiped leaves and mud from her visor and blinked at her surroundings. She could hardly believe what she saw. For almost a klick ahead of her, nothing stood above ground level. Fires were burning all over, and where huge majestic trees once stood; now all that remained were piles of broken kindling surrounding a deep crater.

The fighters roared overhead. “Falcon Leader, Eagle One.” The call came again.

“Eagle One, Falcon Leader. You sure know how to trash a party!” Gina said crawling to the edge of the huge smoking crater.

“Navy training, Eagle One,” the voice said with a chuckle before hardening again. “Falcon Leader clear.”

“Always knew the flyboys didn’t like conservation, but this is ridiculous!” PFC Pete Westfield said in awe.

Gina nodded in agreement. “Sensors up!” She said and rebooted her own software.

“No hostiles,” Geoff reported first and the others concurred.

“I have one,” Eric said pointing to his right.

Gina didn’t know how Eric knew that. He was a civy, more than that; he didn’t have marine armour with its sensor package.

“Geoff, Pete, go check it out. The rest of you cover them.”

“Aye-aye,” her people chorused and moved out.

Eric stood to follow.

“Not you!” Gina ordered before he took more than two steps.

Eric looked down at her and shrugged. “As you wish.”

As she wished? Damn right it was! “Who are you? What are you?”

Eric smiled. “I think you already know Sergeant, or perhaps you’re only now beginning to guess.”

Gina looked at Eric’s stump. Now she had time, she noticed something odd. It excited her at the same time as it appalled her. The bone wasn’t shattered or even split; instead, it was bent and twisted at the end like metal. She knew why that was.

“S.A.G?” She whispered reverently.

Eric smiled again. “I think it’s time you called in; don’t you?”

“What rank?”

“Does it matter?”

“It does to me.”

“I am Captain Eric Penleigh, Special Assault Group 501st infantry.” He laughed at her dumbfounded expression. “Don’t bother to salute,” he added.

Gina nodded. Of course he was 501st, all S.A.G were. There were only a hundred left from two thousand originally constructed to fight the Merki. To meet one was rare, especially when you remembered the Alliance consisted of more than a hundred member worlds, a total that didn’t include those in the border zone like Thurston. Who knew how many Human settled worlds there were altogether? She certainly didn’t! Those one hundred men and women had a great many worlds to cover.

“Don’t make a fuss, Sergeant, and that is an order. I’m supposed to be Eric the terrorist while on this God forsaken planet, but if you wish to tell your people something, tell them I’m a police informer who needs protection.”

“Aye-aye sir,” she said and almost saluted but managed to restrain herself.

“And watch the sirs,” Eric added before walking away.

“Is there likely to be more of this?” Gina called to his back and waved a hand at the devastation.

Eric stopped and looked back over his shoulder. “Probably,” he said and went to join her people.

Gina turned and made her way to where Bob lay. She sat beside him and contacted her Lieutenant. “Eagle One, Red One,” she said.

“It’s about damn time!” Major Stein snarled. “Report Eagle One.”

“Sorry for the delay, Gold One, something came up.” She grinned and wondered what happened to the Lt. “I have two dead and one seriously wounded,” she said patting Bob on the knee. He smiled weakly back at her. “We have the package and—” she broke off as she heard a warning beep in her headset. “Wait one.” Gina changed channels. “Yes Geoff?”

“We’ve got a live one. Our civy wants to take him in. I say we cap him for what he did to Gracey.”

“Copy Geoff.” She wanted the bastard dead, but Eric was no civy. “Bring him in alive, Eagle Nine. I want to ask him where his bastard friends are.”

“Aye-aye. Eagle Nine clear.” Geoff said resigned.

“Eagle One, Gold One.”

“Gold One, Eagle One. Go.” Came Gina’s reply.

“We have the package and one prisoner, sir. Request extraction co-ordinates.”

“Gold One copies. Co-ordinates follow—”

Gina tapped the figures into her wrist comp and pressed save. “Eagle One clear.”

Gina glanced at her marines then at the prisoner, she pointed her rifle casually at him and asked her question. She badly wanted to pull the trigger, but one look at Eric told her he wouldn’t allow it.

“I ain’t talking to you bastids!” The prisoner spat before she could say another word.

Gina grinned. Geoff raised the muzzle of his pulsar and pressed it against the man’s right knee. The terrorist closed his eyes and sweated. She was impressed. He hadn’t uttered a single word of protest.

“Gunny?” Geoff said asking permission.

Gina looked at Eric who was watching her intently. “Not yet… maybe later.”

Geoff nodded and lowered his weapon.

Gina knew that there was nothing left of Grace to recover, but perhaps Dan? “Any sign of Dan?”

“He was near me,” panted Bob.

She looked at the crater. Bob had been near the centre when Dan was hit. Nothing had survived. Gina said a silent prayer for her two friends then turned back to business; she had other friends that needed her.

Gina downloaded the evac co-ordinates to their wrist comps, and then detailed off her people. “Geoff, you and Pete look after our friend here. Luaren you take point. Mark and Dave, you two carry Bob in the centre. Liz you’re rear guard, keep your eyes open for anymore of this guy’s friends.”

“And me?” Eric said.

Gina looked at him for a long moment considering. Vipers were lethal to anything that moved, but her people didn’t know what he was and he wanted it kept that way.

“In the centre with Bob, you’re wounded.”

Eric nodded.

“Let’s move marines!” Gina ordered and Luaren set a fast pace into the jungle.


*    *    *


Copyright©2000 by Mark E. Cooper

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