Well, here we go again, kids. The next "episode" in this series. Enjoy!
Brush crunched underfoot as the figure zigzagged through the plants, ducking behind the towering gray forms of looming trees all around her. The air was filled with the distant rumble and buzz of organized conflict, the rattle of automatic weapons and roar of explosions rippling through the trees on all sides. Punctuating the blasts and gunfire were shouts, screams, and the rumble of engines as aircraft whipped above the treeline.
The air cracked behind the figure, and she dove for cover behind a large trunk. Chunks of bark splintered and flew as rounds impacted into the wood, and she dropped to her knees behind the tree. Her rifle rose as she pivoted, and a burst rattled off. Somewhere in the distance, a man cried out in agony and dropped to the mud. She fired off another couple of shots, and then ducked back behind cover, pressing a hand to her ear.
"Steel condor!" she shouted. "Repeat, steel condor!" More wood splintered and shattered as she spoke, and she spotted movement behind a tree to her south. Her rifle spun and fired, and another of the black and green-clad enemy troopers went down. The scent of burning wood tickled her nose, standing out for an instant in the chaos.
She considered rising and moving to more cover, but the bullets tearing into the wood were doing a fine job of dissuading her. Her last smoke grenade had been used up getting out of the last pincher she had been caught in, and now . . . .
"Is there anyone on this channel?" she hissed into the radio. "Seven Bravo is steel condor, repeat, steel condor!"
The enemy was moving up, pumping suppression fire into her. Someone had a machinegun and was hosing her position, rounds eating into the tree at a brutal pace. Soldiers advanced, flanking her position, firing as they moved. She shot back at the first one to expose himself, blasting two holes in his upper arm.
There was more movement, this time to her north. She turned, about to fire, wondering how they'd managed to sneak all the way around to her backside without being spotted, and then the forest lit up.
Brown and green-clad men stormed through the trees, the muzzles of their rifles blazing while light machineguns laid down withering suppressive fire. The troops were barely pausing to fire their weapons as they charged, yelling and shouting and filling the air with hot steel. The radio became alive with yells and whoops, and all other noise was drowned out by the roar of wild gunfire. Smaller trees shattered under the fury of the assault, and clouds of smoke filled the air as the storm crashed down on the enemy.
The pursuing troops came to a dead halt and immediately broke into a retreat. They fell back quickly but orderly, covering each other as they withdrew in the face of what could only be a massed infantry charge through the woods, something they didn't have the numbers to deal with.
As the enemy withdrew under the blaze of gunfire, the brown-coated men slowed and took up positions around the woman's battered tree. One of the soldiers, his rank pins identifying him a sergeant, slid into the moist soil beside her.
"Heard someone made a steel condor call," he said with a smile, and she nodded, a single tight grin of her own.
"Wasn't sure if you were coming, sir," Corporal Zoë Allyne replied, and he shrugged.
"Wasn't going to be that much of a surprise if they knew we were coming," Sergeant Malcolm Reynolds replied, laughing. "Shock and awe, and did you see the looks on those purple-bellies' faces? They thought half the Independent Army were coming down that hill!"
"They probably still are," Zoë replied, peering back down the slope. "And that means they may be calling up reinforcements."
"Did you find anything down there?" Mal asked, to which she nodded.
"If what I saw was right, they've got three battalion-sized infantry forces at the base of the hill, with at least one battery of artillery, two companies of rollers, and light armor of all colors." Mal grunted.
"Air support?" he asked, and she nodded.
"Gunships, and I saw some fueling pads for skiffs, too. They're gettin' ready to take the hill."
"We've got maybe six hours, tops, before they start advancing," she finished. Mal nodded and turned to their radio operator.
"Get that all back to the colonel, then we-"
"Seekers!" came a scream from down the line, and immediately Mal snapped a hand to his vest. A flare emerged and popped off, releasing an intense IR decoy, and he flung it down the hill. An instant later it was joined by a half-dozen more flares, and then there was a flurry of detonations down the hill as the missiles hit the decoys, followed by one much closer. The crash of collapsing trees sounded several seconds afterward.
Screams and blood filled the air, and Mal and Zoë rose, running down the staggered line of troop positions, toward a pair of trees that had been ripped apart at the base by a volley of shrapnel. Blood soaked the ragged tree trunks and stumps, and bits of cloth and ruined weapons lay all about, the men holding the position torn to ribbons by the close explosion. A pair of browncoats were still alive, one missing an arm and the other with both his legs beneath the knees shredded.
"Medic, medic!" Mal screamed as he pulled out his own medkit.
The medics arrived a minute later, too late for the man missing his legs. As they got to work, Mal heard gunfire down the defense line. A quick check of his radio showed that the Alliance troops were moving up following the seeker barrage, and in numbers far too great for his platoon to hold off.
"Pull back to the top of the hill," he ordered as one of the medics started hoisting the survivor onto his shoulders. "Pull back!"
They started making their way back up the wooded hill, and they made the climb without trouble save for a few seekers the Alliance fired after them. Mal detailed several men to carry flares ready to throw in such a case, and they kept the hunting missiles from taking anymore of the platoon. Within fifteen minutes they had passed through the defensive perimeter around the top of the wide hill and were moving inside the large town that sat atop the rise.
Mal ordered his platoon to rearm and tend to their wounds before dropping off the injured on a medical crawler, which rolled them off to the aid stations et up in the center of town. Palatial two-story buildings rose up all across the relatively well-off community, though many of the buildings were marked with bullet holes and a few artillery craters. Spinning wind power generators loomed up overhead, turning mildly in the swift breezes, and enormous glassteel domes filled with hydroponics facilities were scattered across the town.
That was what made this little valley on this piece of crap backwater planet so important. Thirteen percent of the food grown on this planet came from this one fertile little valley, which made it the prime place for the Browncoats to hold out. The Alliance didn't like the idea of razing important infrastructure that they'd need to support the planet once it had been taken, and that meant weeding out the Independent troops the old-fashioned way: with infantry and armor.
With the immediate crisis dealt with, Mal had stopped on the porch of one of the vacated houses to start fishing something edible from one of his food tins. Zoë sat beside him, cleaning her rifle, and they managed to catch a few minutes' worth of quiet time between them. Mal listened to the whumph of mortars blasting off from nearby firing pits and sporadic small arms fire. The occasional burst of anti-air fire and rumble of anti-armor cannons spread across the valley, and he could hear the humming of sensor arrays somewhere close.
They didn't say anything, taking the respite for what it was, and Mal and Zoë found a relative moment of peace watching the hellstorm begin to unfold below.
"Gonna get a whole lot hairier, reckon," Mal remarked, and Zoë nodded, sliding the barrel of her rifle back in place.
"Alliance knows we're directing artillery fire from this hill," she murmured. "Going to rush us, judging by what I saw. Infantry with armor cover, at least up until the edge of town. Then close-quarters."
"Then the fun begins," Mal said with a grin, relishing the prospect of getting back in. As he was speaking, a young corporal came running up, a bandage wrapped around his head an one arm marked by bloodstains from a hastily-patched shoulder wound.
"Sergeant!" he called as he approached. "The Colonel wants to see both of you, on the double!" Mal sighed, resealing his tin, and Zoë finished assembling her rifle.
"Can't ever get a real bit of peace around here," he muttered, and she shrugged, shouldering her weapon. They hurried through the streets, following the young corporal, who was nearly twenty years Mal's junior. They passed a platoon of damaged tanks being worked over by a team of engineers, and a mortar emplacement that shook every few seconds as the firing team laid down shots directed by the spotters atop the hydroponics domes. The stink of engine oil, lubricants, and hot smoke filled the air as they hurried through the streets.
There was a large house in the center of village, what passed for a town hall in this little burg, and was marked by an assortment of glimmering lights and other decorated frippery that indicated it was being used in a military fashion - and therefore making it a bright, glowing sign that shouted "Command center, please bomb me!" Mal and Zoë bypassed the bright, shining decoy, moved through a few small one-story houses, and then passed into what had once been a hardware store.
The shelves had been cleared away, and instead a number of folding tables had been set up, with various computers and comms equipment scattered about. Independent soldiers bustled around the command center as a knot of higher-ranking officers gathered around a large paper map set up on the wall. Mal and Zoë cut across the center, passing soldiers speaking in muted tones into their radios as they relayed orders, and waited near the group of officers. After a few moments, the highest-ranking man present, a Colonel, finished and dismissed his men, before turning toward the recon troops.
"Sergeant, Corporal," Colonel Lee Obrin said with a nod. He frowned, the beginnings of a thick black mustache shifting as he did so. "I heard you have news for me."
"We do, sir," Mal replied with a nod of his own, and gestured to Zoë. "Corporal?"
"Sir," she said, stepping past Mal and toward the map. She looked over it for a second, and took out some pins.
"Alliance troops assembling at these points in Grid Two Nine," she explained, setting the pins on the map, highlighting points near the base of the hill. "Just out of range of most of our light mortars."
"Size, composition, readiness?" Obrin asked, crossing his arms, his thick Titan Colony accent cutting through the background hum.
"Three battalions infantry, two companies of armor and one of artillery," Zoë continued, putting more pins on the map to indicate their relative positions. "Skiff pads here and here, gunship pads here. I estimate five and half hours before they begin advancing up the hill."
Colonel Obrin considered her report, looked over the positioning of the Alliance troops, and nodded, more to himself than to anyone else.
"Well, that settles it," he said with a sigh. He nodded toward the map, and pointed at the opposite side of the hill. "We've got a second Alliance force approaching from the opposite side. Estimate two battalion sized elements, with some armor and other vehicles."
"How's our reinforcements?" Mal asked, cursing inwardly at the news.
"Alliance units cut off our relief column while you were out reconnoitering," Obrin explained, tapping his arms with his crossed hands. "Both groups damn near wiped each other out. Command's mobilizing the Forty-First to back us up, but we'll be sipping tea with the baldricks by the time they get here. Or with the Alliance, which might be worse. Estimate a week, two, before they get here."
"Well, we're only outnumbered ten to one," Mal added with a shrug. "No worse than our usual odds." Obrin glanced back toward the Sergeant, and managed a grunt.
"With the sorry sack of muppets I've got to work with, it'll be more like twenty to one," he replied, shaking his head. A ghost of a smile appeared underneath the mustache. "But at least I've got a few competent people I can trust." He gestured toward the map.
"Sergeant, take Second and Third Platoons from your company and set up here, at the sewage pipelines on the southern approach. Take Lieutenant Summers' heavy weapons boys with you, and his anti-tank gear. They'll be moving armor up this slope, and you should have adequate cover to pick them off."
"Both platoons?" Mal asked, and Obrin nodded.
"Lieutenant Summers took a seeker to the sternum an hour ago, and Sergeant Falken's head went missing - we think a sniper took off with it," he replied. "Congratulations, Sergeant, you're the ranking officer in your company."
"Thanks, uh, sir," Mal replied, eyes widening with the sudden and unpleasant responsibility saddled on his shoulders. Obrin reached over and grabbed Mal's shoulder.
"Reynolds, believe me," he said, his voice dead serious. "Even if you were a private, I'd give you this job. Kill that armor. I know you can handle it; you've got the makings of a good commander in you, and the men follow you without question."
He gestured out the door of the command center.
"Get going, Sergeant. Next time I see you, I want good news!"
Seven Years Later
He settled back into the chair, eyes flicking over the light paper before him. Text flowed across the leaf of synthetic, displaying figures and numbers and data he was all too familiar with. Supplies, manpower, equipment, transit times, transit routes, expected losses, waste, projected income versus projected costs . . . .
He hated logistics, but it came with who he was. His eyes flicked across the room, to the display case set on the table. His one true indulgence in his life of constant movement, a throwback to the memories of times when he still fought on the front and didn't have to worry with the necessities of command, which, more often than not, dealt with getting the right equipment to the right people. Being an officer meant being a manager, not a soldier, and he hated being a manager.
So, he sat there, looking over information he hated, holding the light paper in one hand and idly thumbing the thick black handlebar mustache that spread from his lips to his cheeks, and read the data, analyzing and quantifying and organizing.
There was a light knock on the door into his office, and he looked up. One of his men, a trusted lieutenant who'd served with him through the war and all the years afterward, was standing in the doorway.
"Excuse me, sir," he said, waiting. The man behind the desk nodded and gestured for him to step inside.
"What do you have for me?" he asked as the younger man walked inside.
"Intel report," came the reply, and he set the case he was carrying on the desk. The older man reached across and took it, flipping it open. He took out the report, his eyes flicking over the information. After a few minutes, he set it down and looked up at his subordinate.
"Reliable?" he asked, his words filled with barely-contained energy, and the other man nodded.
"Direct from our man inside the group they're meeting," he replied. The commander rubbed a hand over his face and through his handlebar mustache.
"Make contact," he ordered after a few moments' consideration. His words came out quick and urgent. "I want to arrange a meet, while they're still here. Go through our man inside, if you need to."
"Yes sir," the subordinate replied, and turned, cutting out of the office as fast as he could to carry out the orders. He hadn't seen his commander this interested and excited in a long time.
Back in the office, the commander looked over the intelligence report, and a smile spread across his features.
"Been a long time, Captain," he mused. "Wonder if you're still the man I knew, or if you ever filled out those leader's shoes."
Colonel Lee Obrin stood and walked across the room, toward the display case showing off his old weapons. He peered over them for a while, and the wistful smile grew.
"You're the perfect man for this job," he said to the emptiness, and was convinced he was right. If only he could be convinced . . . .
Captain Malcolm Reynolds was the perfect man, and had the perfect cargo, to set the entire system on fire, topple the Alliance, and end the war the Independents still fought.
Well, time for another little adventure in the 'Verse. I'm trying to write these "episodes" as if they were actual episodes, complete with an intro sequence before the metaphorical credit/title sequence. I hope I did it right.
"Condor" will be focusing on Mal and Zoe, but though the intro doesn't show it, a big chunk of it will be about Book (some of the foreshadowing in "Unfinished Business" will be played out here). River is also going to play a big role in it as well, and I've got plans for the rest of our crew. There's a few members of the recurring supporting cast also going to pop up in this story. I do have a general idea of how the plot of the entire series is going to run, and there will be clues and hints and foreshadowing in this story regarding future episodes.
Core themes for this episode are going to be loyalty and trust, as well as memories of the past - along with a hefty bit of standard issue violence. There's also going to be some exploration into the effects of Miranda.
Note that while this story does have some parallels with Better Days, it won't involve the Dust Devils, at least not directly. However, I can say with some certainty that a certain sword-wielding preacher may get to show off his skills . . . .
Until next chapter . . . .