Quiet. Even with a thin atmosphere, this desolate, glorified moon was deafeningly quiet. That was something the holovids never got right. Even explosions were never more than a whisper. FedNet scriptwriters should have known better. War in a pressure suit was a surreal experience of muted touch, augmented sight, and radio static. It was all the stranger in a Marauder, those lumbering simian machines the Mobile Infantry relied upon for squad support. You felt the servos whine beneath you, the ice and regolith crunching beneath your massive clawed feet. All vibrations and sensor readouts. Yet the ancient human eye still had its due, gazing out from behind the tinted polymer canopy at the ball of frost and rock that had been her world for seven grueling standard days. It was beautiful, in a strange, charnel way. This was Pluto, the last 'planet' of the Solar system, if it could be called that. Mankind's last native outpost on the edge of the frozen Kuiper Belt, the frontier on the outer dark.
Her position was good, or at least, as best as it could be. Plenty of boulders for obstacles, her elevation gave a good field of fire. The ridge that granted her a vista of that shadowy desolation also gave her command of it. She was a lone sentinel on that stony rise, time her only companion. The emptiness could gnaw in this place. Her training was her shield, her mind focused on her machine. The cockpit flashed a brief reflection in the poly-glass, of a painted name over armour: A. Vinh, of a pale face, Anglo-Asian features, a child of Viet and New England Yankee. Grey eyes played over readouts and system checks, a mind focused, ignorant of the sweat matted hair beneath her helmet, of the sensation of clinging grime that came with a week buttoned up. She was Mobile Infantry. It was not endurance, but acceptance.
The diagnostics told her nothing she had not known the twelfth time before. She turned her attention to her onboard sensors, listening and scanning on a dozen spectrums. Her vision was tugged back to the distant, morbid horizon. She watched, and admitted finally, could do nothing but wait. She took a sip from from the hydration tube in her helmet; the water was warm, tepid. She swallowed hard. It did nothing for her parched mouth, the tightness in her throat. Her mind replayed the events of the past twenty-four hours, words like Pest Control, mop-up, swift victory. She shook her head in her helmet. How wrong, how so very wrong, they had been.
The push had been a disaster. Intel dropped the ball. The patrol had turned into a holding action, and then from a defense into a route. Fleet managed one supply drop. The entire operation was going to hell. By the time it was obvious the squad needed dustoff, Fleet assets had already been thrown into chaos. From there it had been a running fight and desperate diversion; the canyon they'd blasted shut had bought them time. It hadn't been enough. Fleet finally came through; they could send one retrieval boat, the LZ was cold, distant, and non-negotiable. They needed another thirty minutes on the bugs, minutes they didn't have. The mathematics of defeat.
There had been cursing, pleading. Never leave an ape behind, that was the rule. She silenced their channels. LT had understood. He pushed them on. His was the only frequency she kept open. Few words were spoken. Little needed to be said. Semper Fi. Those were their last words. Old words, a motto in a dead tounge made famous in the last century, the Great Wars, the Century of Blood. Always Faithful, that's what it meant. One of those unnumbered phrases that crept into SICON, pieces of the human warrior ethos. 'Not One Step Back', 'Death or Glory', 'No Retreat, No Surrender'. Every unit had their own. Of course, they weren't retreating, only 'advancing to the rear', like the drill sergeant said. Well, everyone but her. She thought of another of those ancient phrases, spoken at a place called Verdun, 'On ne passe pas': they shall not pass. There was a half grin. While she stood, they would not.
Her gaze fell on a single console switch, shrouded in a swatch of red tape. Part of the manual power regulation; in truth, it had been rerouted to overload her on-board power cells. A field modification, highly illegal, popular with veteran Marauder jocks. Those who lived by their machines, died with their machines. She smiled again. Fusion. On Earth, it gave life. Here, in this cold vacuum, its warmth would sow wrath.
Alarms tripped on her sensor suite. A video feed spawned in the corner of her vision; a hazy thermal picture bleeding down from one of the many surveillance buoys Fleet seeded in orbit at the start of every operation. It showed her what they had been running from, and told her what she already knew. A sea of white hot signatures seethed over the dead, chalky surface of the planetoid. A rolling tide of maws and talons, and she was in its path. She shrugged and killed the feed. At least it would be impossible to miss.
She felt herself roll forward in her harness as she focused on the heads-up-display, red boxes and target data filling her vision. A stores list flashed for a moment, and she blessed those bastards in Fleet. Their single paltry drop had at least let her rearm before they ran. Eyes front again, she called up visual magnification. The horizon crawled. The rangefinder's distance dropped with the seconds. She pondered a tactical decision. They didn't know she was here, couldn't have her exact position; they were expecting a threat, that was all. Should she hold fire, rely on surprise to make the most of her ordnance? No, she decided. She would want them to know she was here. Let them throw all their attention on her. It would buy the squad more time.
A few motions, and her mortar system was brought to primary. High yield warheads clicked into place from the rotary magazine. She depressed the trigger. The machine lurched with the recoil. A six shell spread soared; she watch the magnified carnage as shrapnel and white hot fired blossomed among the distant hoard. No pressure wave, sadly. Atmosphere was too thin for that. The creatures darted and screamed. They were confused. Good, have another. She fired a second salvo. More bugs died. Crawling over their shattered brethren, their confusion evaporated. They'd seen the arcs of the second barrage; now they knew, and as one, they streamed toward her lonely ridge. Good little bugs, she chuckled, come to momma.
She remained motionless, a statue of steel along the ridgeline. Time passed as the bugs covered the distance on the plain below. The seconds moved like sludge as her eyes remained tied to the rangefinder, waiting for the optimum engagement distance for her guns. The last zero clicked over. Finally. The mortar swung to bear again, the fuses were set on last of her shells. The Marauder rocked, and eight plasma warheads arced to their targets below. A sea of blue flame blossomed among dusty craters as the first line of bugs reached the pre-sighted engagement zone. They screamed and died, though she could not hear them. Their brothers behind them screamed and charged, and they could not see her. They plowed through the flame, the searing starstuff clinging to their chitin. Some crumpled and fell, others shook off their pain. For them, Vinh's cannons opened up.
They could have flanked her, drowned her in bodies from all sides. Her guns could only cover her front arc; but they were blind. They saw only the fire, and their stupid, primal will drove them through it, and into the waiting arms of her machineguns. The flame killed more than she expected. Short controlled bursts dealt with breakthroughs. She kept the rotary gun on her left shoulder in reserve; the fire had begun to die. She used what seconds she had. The Marauder displaced, sprinting further up the ridge to put more killing space between her and the foe. Her sensors warned her as the firewall finally flickered away. She whirled, and planted herself in the earth. This was a good as spot as any, thick with megalithic rocks. It would channel them, slow them down. They would be crawling over their own dead to reach her. Come into my parlour, thought the spider to the flies. Her guests were not tardy.
In a burst of seconds her mind lept back to her squad. Had they made it? She checked the mission clock. She had bought them their time. They must have made it. She wanted it to be true, and that was enough. Had she turned about she might have seen them, a pinprick of azure fire climbing into the night. All that was left was in front of her. Her eyes locked on the onrushing warriors, pools of steel. She pressed the trigger, and her port Gatling churned to life. As jacketed lead tore through empty space, a flicker of memory interrupted her thoughts. It was from Rhetoric class, almost another life: 'For hate's sake, I spit my last breath at thee'. Her resigned features blossomed into a white, predatory grin. Time to die, you bastards.
Arachnid forms staggered, crumpled, and fell. She held the trigger flush, tracking back and forth along the line of onrushing bugs. She was lucky, between the cold of space and her onboard software, the gun would not overheat. Dud rounds would be thrown clear by the electric motor that drove it. She need only pick her targets and watch the ammunition counter drop.
Time and bugs bled. Walls of shattered corpses filled the gaps between the stones. The soil was stained a glowing green, steaming entrails melting the ice. They struggled over the rocks, over the dead, and spilled by handfulls into the arena. The arm-mounted Moritas returned to the fight, their meagre magazines spraying and killing, and then running silent. Still they came. The Gatling thundered. She watched the readout, saw the numbers counting toward oblivion. Three, two, one hundred...she could just barely feel the staccato whine and click, joining a flashing alert in lethal announcement: her ammunition was dry.
Onward they crept then, they sensed their triumph. One by one down among the rocks they skittered. They took their time, a primeval sadism oozing in their motions. How many surrounded her now? She could not count them all. Lance Corporal Vinh steeled herself, flexing her artificial muscles. A Marauder without munitions was not a Marauder vanquished. Mobile Infantry do not accept defeat. A warrior lunged at her. She turned aside, the blow scraping her armour. With a clawed pincer she laid hold of a foreleg, and held its thrashing maw at bay with the other. They wrenched and struggled against one another, seething with primal anger. She shifted her weight, pistons flexed their might, an armoured knee was the fulcrum. The spear-like limb buckled, the joint burst, ripping free amid a torrent of luminescent blood. The creature howled silent in the vacuum. Now its sword was hers. With a burst of mechanical might she drove the creature's limb through its boulbous head, then it twitched, and died. She wrenched her weapon clear as its brothers poured over corpse and rock. No one heard the roars. The bugs spread their maws in challenge, and the human spread her steel arms to answer. Then they charged.
She was among them then as they rushed upon her. The best of General Dynamics and Rheinmetall danced doom among bio-mechanical killing machines, the fiendish children of a distant star. One after another, they fell. Smashed, shattered, splintered, she crushed and rent. The cockpit display was awash with sweat and spit and curses. The arachnids poured into the rocky defile until the green, battered machine was awash. She rolled on a see of alien hate, rising upon a swell for but a moment bloody fist raised to the heavens, and then disappeared.
She was sinking in a sea of blades. She could feel that great skittering mass pouring over her, pressing her into the regolith, organic lances tearing at her hull. Vibrations and sensor readouts. A head filled her vision, a great rending wedge. It saw her, the horrid fleshy thing beneath the endoskeleton, its foe, its prey. Eyes locked for a fraction of a moment, grey and beady black; instant volumes in an unspoken conversation between races, each heralding the extinction of the other. With spiteful madness it threw itself against the poly-glass. Cracks spidered. Alarms began to scream. She reached for red switch, a finger ripping the tape free. She closed her eyes, thought of the squad, of the LT, of home. Semper Fi. She smiled. The switch fell, and there was only the light of the stars.
Acting on the adamant recommendations of her superior officer, and on behalf of the grateful people of the human race, it is with great pride that I authorise the posthumous award of the Golden Lion First Class be made to Lance Corporal Abigail Vinh for conspicuous gallantry above and beyond that expected of a SICON servicemember in the face of the enemy. To her squad and to the finest traditions of the Mobile Infantry, she was always faithful.
- Sky Marshal R.L. Sanchez
Commander In Chief
Strategically Integrated Coalition of Nations