Author's Note: The copyright stuff. Many of the characters, places, and events were either invented or inspired by Lucas and a few select authors (including some RPG supplements). I have taken liberties with these characters, places, and things. Any reference to actual events or people are probably there because I felt like making fun of something or someone.
Second, fans of the classic Robert A. Heinlein book Starship Troopers will recognize how I mirrored the style and format. This is an intentional choice and one I hope you will like. If your only exposure to Starship Troopers is the miserable movie with Casper van Diem (aka Melrose Space), then I strongly urge to get the book and read it.
Finally, the main character is someone I created for the Roleplaying Game some time ago. He was intended to be a supporting character for the heroes who simply grew beyond the supporting role.
I always get the shakes before a drop. My psych-eval tells me that I'm healthy, 100 operational, and that the shakes are just my subconscious' way of telling me that I'm about to do something extraordinarily stupid, but they show up, like clockwork, everytime we're about to make planetfall.
At D-minus-seventy, the platoon had mustered outside the Aegis combat shuttle that would take us down to the planet. I've never liked the Aegis; it looks too much like a flying coffin to me and that kind of imagery never bodes well. This particular shuttle has always had a bad rep, what with it crashing no less than four times in the last standard year. In every single case, the troopers in the back were the ones that bought the farm and the pilots walked away with minor cuts and bruises.
By the time my shakes started kicking in we had been standing around waiting for nearly an hour and tempers were starting to fray. A couple of the new kids were standing together, their eyes wide with fear and their faces white; they looked about twelve and the E-11s they were carrying made them only look smaller. Just looking at them made me feel old and tired and beaten down.
The Lieutenant and Platoon Sergeant had already checked us out twice, not because they didn't trust us or anything, but because they had nothing to do either until the call officially came through. I had been transferred out of Major Derlin's command and into Team 19 about six months ago. Nineteen had been attached the 14th Roving Line and the MonCal starcruiser Mantan Wanderer until she had been smeared all over Derra IV; that was long before I transferred in. Since then, it had been reattached to a Nebulon-B called the Far Orbit; although the Neb-B was technically a privateer vessel working with the Alliance, its captain had recently requested to be considered a ship-of-the-line; as stretched thin as our lines were, I doubt anyone in High Command even cared why Captain Vedij had a change of heart. Team-19 existed primarily to harass Imp outposts along the border between the Inner and Outer Rim, and we were really good at our job. Ell-tee Beski was an okay guy for a vachead, though he had a tendency to overthink things and sometimes didn't take well to being ribbed for not having a real gun. The platoon sergeant was this grizzled old Wook named Whumparrin; he had one good eye and a bad attitude that would make a Rancor think twice about messing with him, but he looked out for us like we were his kids. On paper, we had five squads, but attrition had taken us down to about two and a half to three. We had four sergeants in total, not including Whump, but I was the only Hoth vet which automatically made me senior. Whump leaned on me a lot more than I would have liked, but I didn't bitch too much about it; it had only recently occurred to me that he had been grooming me for command and I still wasn't sure what I thought about that.
I went over my squad for the sixth time, more out of a lack of things to do than anything else. Every one of them was a vet of at least two field ops, even the two FNGs I had in the back of the line; we in SpecForce don't accept anyone who hasn't already been shot at. Corporal Jop was the newest and the greenest, but he carried himself with the confidence of a professional soldier. That's good, I suppose, but I had yet to see him in action, so I had reserved judgement. Nobody said anything about the shakes; I'm pretty sure a couple of them had them too. Satisfied with their gear, I took my place back in the formation and adjusted the harness my RB-23 was attached to.
It's a work of art, the –23. An air-cooled medium repeating blaster, it can theoretically spit out 2,000 blast bolts per minute, which comes out to be around 32 to 34 bolts per second. Ammo varies from the 250-round attachment blast pack to a power generator hook-up which provides basically unlimited shots; I had a modified blast pack attached to my gear which gave me about 750 shots but Jop and the other newbie, a kid from Carida if you can believe it named Delevar, were carrying the two halves of my power generator. I had just replaced the barrel of my –23 and field tested it so its accuracy wasn't in question. It had taken a lot of persuading (and a few orders) for me to switch over my beloved RB-16, but having seen what the –23 can do to stormie armor made me glad for the switch.
We had liberated a couple crates worth of them from a cargo ship leaving Ralltiir about a month ago. It had originally been a smash-and-grab op, with a squadron of rocket jockeys disabling the transport before we shuttled over. Once we got in, though, it had turned into a bloodbath with the Imps making us pay for every square centimeter we captured. In the end, half of the platoon was down but we had captured a fortune in equipment, weapons, and even Imperial creds. High Command had started making noises about shifting the –23s we had secured to other "front-line" troops so we had an accident and they were all listed as "combat loss." I'm pretty sure that General Madine knew what had really happened but nothing else came of it. That's SpecForce solidarity for you.
Ell-tee Beski finally noticed that were getting anxious and gestured for silence. It didn't take long – we were supposed to be elite after all – and he took to pacing back and forth in front of us.
"This is a simple smash-and-grab, people. The LZ is not expected to be hot, but we have a squad of wraiths on-station to monitor it and give us warning." A couple of mutters were heard from the rear of the formation; SpecForce Infiltrators are always a good thing to have on the ground before sending in the gunners but the inter-service rivalry never ceases to amaze me. Whump cast one his trademarked sinister glances at the formation and the mutters simply went away; amazing what a one-eyed, bad-tempered Wook can do for the morale of a platoon. Beski kept talking. "You know the drill and I expect you to follow it to the letter. First squad will exit the shuttle on the port side, Second squad on the starboard. In the event that we have a welcoming committee, both squads are to lay down as much suppressive fire as you can to cover Third and Fourth. Kill as many stormies as you can but don't do anything stupid. We're here to make noise, not get medals. Any questions?"
Someone in my squad raised a hand and I nearly groaned; Corporal Jey'lia was one of those rare Bothans who could care less about political manipulation and he had a wicked sense of humor. Only the fact that he could put two hundred rounds into a circle the size of your thumb in under a minute made him tolerable. Well, that and the fact he had a line on black market alcohol. I knew what was coming and, come to think of it, Beski probably did too.
"Are you going to get a real weapon for this op, sir?" It was a running joke that Beski used a "pop-gun" instead of a repeater like most of us. He had been assigned to Team 19 a short time before I was but had carried an old BlasTech E-11 from day one. The ell-tee raised an eyebrow at the chuckles that ran through the formation, then smiled.
"Why do I need one when I surrounded by monsters like you and Vallon?" he asked gesturing toward me; my accuracy with the –16 and now the –23 was something near legendary, a fact I was extremely proud of. Another round of laughs echoed through the hangar and we shifted our gear once again.
It was then that the intercomm crackled. "Team 19, this is X-Ray." The hangar went deathly silent; X-Ray was what the C.O. of the Nebulon-B we were assigned to called himself. "Deployment in six minutes." Beski nodded to Whump even as he was responding to a comlink on his wrist. The Wook said nothing, merely pointed and we started loading up.
Being squad leader for First Squad meant I had to enter the shuttle last and exit first. I've never been really fond of being the first guy on the ground but it was the luck of the draw. Once in, I checked my people, made sure they were secured into the grav-couches, and then got into mine. For the twentieth or thirtieth time, I checked the digital readout on my –23 before lowering my plexishield faceplate down. Almost instantly, a HUD popped into existence. I glanced over the pertinent displays, double-checked my comm unit, then gave Whump the thumbs up sign to indicate my squad was squared-away and ready for action. The landing ramp slid up, sealing us in the flying coffin, and I closed my eyes so I wouldn't have to stare at the wall. Behind us, the engines of the shuttle lit up and I hoped this pilot was better than the last one. My hands began to shake and I focused on the op.
The sudden lurch of motion kicked my adrenalin into high gear and I forced myself to ease my grip on the trigger housing of the –23. We had ten long minutes of airtime before arriving at the LZ. The rocket jockeys were supposed to drawing all of the attention by doing strafing runs on the planet's main starport but knowing the pilots as I do, I figured they were probably taking their sweet time. We hit the outer atmosphere right on time and the shuttle starting slipping and sliding with a fury. I had bitched about the ride once to a dropship pilot and he had carefully explained that they were doing more than just driving in. The rolling and sudden drops were designed to make the shuttle a harder target to hit from any ground fire. For once, I was glad that motion sickness was threatening to hit me when I started to hear the sounds of near misses and explosions outside.
We touched down about forty-five seconds ahead of schedule, always a good thing. I was out before the ramp had fully dropped and moving with a purpose; my TacOps display was already high-lighting possible threats and ranges. Whump was roaring at us to keep moving over the comm unit and I heard the shuttle's engine kick back into high gear as it lifted off. Jop and Delevar had already fallen in behind me when the shooting started.
The first indication that we were in trouble was when the streak of light I instantly recognized as a missile contrail flashed by me. I dropped without hesitation behind a parked speeder, the –23s bipod automatically locking into place. An explosion from behind washed heat over me and I heard screams over the comm-channel that were anything but pretty. A glance to my six confirmed my worst fears; the missile had smacked into the combat shuttle, forcing it down into Second and Third Squads. Back in front of us, two chicken-walkers appeared around a corner, flanked by one of those intimidating Floating Fortresses. What seemed like a legion of stormtroopers came pouring out of the buildings. I lined up my shot and opened fire.
The –23 stitched a gruesome line across the Imp formation, blowing through the armor and ravaging limbs. It was the signal for the rest of the squad to do the same and the air around us was suddenly filled with blaster fire. Jey'lia concentrated his fire on the fortress, firing with almost uncanny precision at the vehicle driver from his vantage point. Under normal circumstances, this would have been a waste of firepower, but his wicked accuracy proved to be more than effective. Fortress 'ports are designed to hold up to small arms fire but if you concentrate enough fire on the same spot for long enough, you can burn right through it. Apparently, the Imps weren't aware of this since it kept coming up until Jey'lia punched through the 'port and killed the driver.
The Imps had the advantage with numbers and positioning but we had firepower over them. Fourth Squad moved up to our flank and opened up with their grenade launchers and flechette rifles. In a matter of seconds, the Imp lines had broken and they were scrambling for cover. Imperial discipline is great but when forty percent of your unit goes down in under a minute, survival instinct kicks in and you start seeking someplace to hide.
I was running low on ammo at about this point and glanced down to find Delevar waiting with the generator plug. While he secured it to my weapon, I tried to contact Whump or the ell-tee, then cursed at the flat-lines I received on my display. Both had bought the farm and that left me in command; thinking quickly, I shot a rapid request for air support and extraction to the Far Orbit. Delevar slapped me on the shoulder, then hefted his E-11; I grinned as he charged the AGL-6C attached to his rifle. An automatic grenade launcher, the –6C is an under-the-barrel attachment that fires 40mm grenades. Delevar popped up from behind the speeder and fired at the nearest walker; it was a beauty of a shot. The grenade entered one of the walker's ports and exploded with a fine red mist. A Flechette grenade; not the way I'd want to go.
I think it was about this time that the Imps realized they were in serious trouble. The Fourth Squad leader, an immense Barabel named 'Ulak had finished setting up his E-Web and he targeted the stormies without mercy. Large knots of them were exploding under his concentrated fire and he was even taking out those that sought cover, punching through the plasticrete like it was paper. He was laughing like a madman as he mowed them down and even to an ally like me it was a chilling site. Jop was still on the ground and I realized his left leg had been shredded like so much hamburger. To my surprise, he was still conscious and was busy trying to get a tourniquet around the leg.
"Delevar!" I shouted to make myself heard. He fired another grenade, then dropped back behind the now mostly ruined speeder. I pointed once to Jop and he nodded, moving to aid the downed trooper. I popped back over the speeder and started scanning for real threats.
And found one immediately. The Imps were setting up a mortar buried within one of the buildings and I felt my blood run cold. Shifting my aim, I triggered a burst of fire and cursed under my breath when the bolts splattered against a shimmering force screen. Shield generated, the mortar was virtually impervious to our fire. Dropping down behind the speeder, I checked the status of my people through the HUD and then restrained another curse at the ETA for air support. Six minutes. Without thinking, I activated the command channel so I could communicate with everyone in the Team.
"This is Vallon. The Imps are deploying a shield-generated mortar inside the buildings. Shift fire immediately."
No one had to be told where to fire or what I meant. The Imps huddled inside the force screen visibly jumped when every one of us began targeting them. It was probably a futile gesture but we hoped to pour enough firepower into the shield to blow through it. Jey'lia waited until Sergeant 'Ulak began firing, then zeroed in on where the Barabel was targeting. I grinned and followed suit. Beside me, Delevar popped back up, his AGL charged. He fired another round into the other walker's viewport, then quickly reloaded, ignoring the explosion that destroyed the AT-ST. Jop groaned heavily, then began crawling to the edge of the speeder. Mentally I saluted him when he began firing his own weapon into the screen.
The Imps realized immediately what we were doing and starting returning fire. 'Ulak went down, both of his legs blown apart by some wickedly accurate fire but one of his troops took his place immediately. More and more fire began to be concentrated around Jey'lia until he had to abandon his own shooting and seek cover. Snarling something I didn't recognize, he remained huddled behind the plasticrete wall he was concealed behind while large chunks of masonry were systematically blown out. Delevar took careful aim at the screen and fired his last grenaded; as it turned out, he saved our asses.
Instead of a flechette grenade, he had loaded an HE one and it exploded at the exact spot we needed it to, overloading the shield just long enough for our fire to get through. Six Imps were cut apart by our fire before the shield snapped back into place. I tapped the zoom function on the side of my helmet, then grinned as the macrobinoc function showed me how badly we had damaged the mortar. Then I saw the walker.
It wasn't a chicken walker this time, but instead a full-blown AT-AT, lumbering toward us with that slow, intimidating walk. It was still some distance out – my rangefinder said 2 klicks – but began firing at once. Huge gouts of sand were kicked up by the immense blaster cannons and I saw Jey'lia disappear with an explosion of masonry. Delevar, crouching behind the speeder, flinched when another explosion tore apart 'Ulak's gun and sent the troops manning it straight to hell. I signaled the kid to grab Jop and opened my mouth to give the retreat order when the rocket jockey swooped in.
Spitting fire from its quad-cannons, the X-Wing roared overhead followed immediately by two more. From their markings, they weren't ours but I didn't give a damn. I heard an explosion but by then the descending drop ship had appeared, its hull bright red from the heat of re-entry.
"Delevar! Get Jop aboard!" I shouted, then popped up to provide cover fire. A voice I didn't recognize echoed throughout the command circuit.
"Team 19, this is Evac One. Abort mission. All survivors fall back to dropship. Abandon the dead."
"Disregard that order!" I snarled. Shuttling our dead was the only way to honor them and I'd be damned if I'd be the first to leave them to the Imps. "Fall back in twos, secure the wounded and dead! Team leaders to provide suppressive fire!" The voice I didn't know – probably the pilot – came back instantly, thick with anger.
"Who the hell is this!" I triggered another burst at a group of stormies that had been massing for an assault; four of them spun around and fell and the rest rethought their attack.
"Sergeant Larr Vallon," I snapped. "Acting-commander of Team-19. Delevar!"
"Twenty percent, sir." I grinned as I sprayed another wide burst. The guns on the dropship opened up – finally – and blew apart an immense chunk of plasticrete. Debris rained down on the huddled Imps.
"Good." According to my HUD, Delevar had already made it aboard the dropship. "If the pilot decides to bug out before I give the command, waste him."
I heard a sputter of indignation and anger, probably from the pilot, then the distinct sound of an E-11 being charged. Good kid.
We eventually got everyone aboard, even the shattered remains of Jey'lia. The ell-tee had been killed by a huge chunk of metal into the back of his skull, undoubtedly from the crashed Aegis. Whump had been killed by that piece of junk too, cut almost in two by another slab of seared metal. We had seven people still mobile, though Delevar and I were the only ones not seriously wounded. Fifteen others were still alive but only barely.
Jop died before we got into orbit.