Deckard tagged the comm again as they broke atmo, “Command this is 47449. Over.”
The comms screeched and roared back at him in a cacophony of white noise and meaningless nonsense; then went silent. Bell pushed her sagging head upward in dismay and confusion, catching sight of Deckard. For the first time this trip he looked deeply concerned, maybe even scared. His eyes darted briefly and he arched his back to try and get a look behind the ship through the overhead window.
“Command. This is dropship 47449, code Egret. Come in Command. Over.”
The comms hissed and boiled back at him with no response then dropped silent again. Bell looked at Deckard her own face tightening under the duress of their situation. She knew something serious was going on if the ‘Topher Allen’ was not responding. It had been a rough day, dropping in only six hours earlier, watching so many women and men dying so quickly on a field of blood.
Her mind drifted….
Six hours earlier…
LeSele had not done a half-bad job getting them to the front, for a first timer. He was as green as any soldier there, fresh out of the Academy. It was fortunate for them that Sergeant Downs was there. His experience on the line was noted and revered among the marines of the 27th. LeSele had taken to asking him his opinion before making a move; he was proving to be a smart boy for an Acad brat.
They had pushed up the 32nd parallel, the hottest spot on the field. It wasn’t bravado that had brought them there. It was the reputation of the 27th and General Mitchel knew it well. He had called for them specifically when he heard they had landed. He sent them straight in, there was no real briefing to speak of; he just said it was hill of dead flesh and he wanted control of it.
No one had died getting there. It was a good omen the Sarge said. They pushed to the hill and the smell nearly caused her to gag. She had thought it was a euphemism: hill of dead flesh. But no, it was a giant hill of dead and rotting bodies, some were probably months old. It was as gruesome a vision as anyone could conceive. It had to have been 80 meters high at the peak. Soldiers rolled back down the hill; both alive and dead. Explosions rocked the area, and with each shell that hit the mound the soldiers were splattered with gore and blood, entrails hung from their helmets and packs. All along the base of the hill soldiers, men and women indistinguishable from each other, scavenged for ammo clips and rations. Their once olive green uniforms now brown and thick with caked blood and feces.
“Over the hill maggots! Maggots got no fear of dead bodies; they love ‘em! Over that hill now!”, the Sarge screamed over the blasts of missiles leveling parts of the flesh mound. And up they went, no complaints, no time to vomit, no thinking any more of what it was they were climbing. They just headed up the hill. Scrambling and slipping, every one of them pushed up the hill like the damned heading to a feast of fresh souls. Bell slipped and slid three meters down the hill on her face. She rose with rot in her nose and mouth, spat out a chuck of rotted flesh and pushed back up. She kept her footing from that point on; not wanting to cannibalize another soldier.
As the 27th crested the hill they stared down into a valley of carcasses and bodies 10 kilometers across and reaching to each horizon on their right and left. Nothing living moved in that valley and no one tried to cross it. Those wounded who had rolled down the wrong slope could be heard screaming below them.
Bell was knocked off her feet as the blast of an explosion hit some distance to her right. She looked up to see she was no longer in the middle of the line on the hill crest, but rather she was now the right side of the unit. The dozen other soldiers that had been there before were gone. She looked frantically around her checking both slopes but saw nothing moving. Twelve soldiers gone in an instant. She sat frozen, unable to cope with the nightmare situation any longer. Somewhere nearby she heard screaming and yelling. Soldiers prodding those around them to get up and move or they would die. Another blast, not as close, rocked her backward and she slid a meter or so down the embankment. Her head began to clear and she felt a sharp tug on her ammo belt. She heard a voice, it was Sarge. She couldn’t make out what he was saying or where he was.
Her vision cleared and the muffled voice became more vibrant, “MOVE!”
Sarge lifted her roughly to her feet and she stood wobbling. Then he struck her hard across the face with his open palm and she sparked back to life. He drug her back down the hill toward the base camp, but only about 12 meters or so then began running what was left of the unit parallel to the ridge. They ran for what seemed an hour before stopping to catch their breath for a brief moment.
“Ok marines! We are over this rise and crossing that valley! This is what we are getting paid the big bucks for! We get to the other side and we dig in!“
Somewhere behind her a voice shouted over the din of explosions, “Where’s the Lieutenant?”
Sarge looked back past her, “He was right flank at the last cap, Murphy. Now get up and move it you maggots! Move!”
The Sarge pushed Bell up the hill until her feet took hold and she moved on her own. They ran hard. No one looked up and there was no time to stop and breathe the stench. There was only getting to cover on the other side. And it was a long run over slick dead bodies and bloody husks of what were once men and women, but now was just rotted sludge.
They plowed into the hillside and buried their backs in it until they could regroup and figure out what to do next. Somehow the Vand had placed a landmine in the rot and Murphy had stepped right on it, he was dead before anyone realized he was gone. It was only now, when they did a head count, that the Sarge noted his passing. They numbered 32 now, 16 had already bought it and no one had fired a single shot yet.
“Ain’t no way to dig in here Sarge. This whole thing could roll down on top of us if we do.” Chen stated numbly.
He was right of course, and they all knew it. But that had never been Sarge’s plan anyway. It was a convenient half-truth to get them across the valley. No one needed him to say a word. Everyone already knew what had to be done; they rose up as one and began the push up the hill.
Deckard toggled the comms again, this time with a more frantic look on his face, “Command! This is 47449, code named Egret. Command come in! Over!”
The comms hissed to life and voice broke through, “47449, this is Command. Knyghte what is your position? Over.”
Deckard breathws a deep sigh of relief, “Command I am 17 clicks out moving toward sector 715-93-558. What is your status? Over.” His face was covered in sweat and his eyes blazed with an inner fire. Bell sat unbuckled in the second seat with her mouth agape and her hands hanging at her sides, staring at Knyghte and wondering what the next move was. All she wanted was to be far from Tiber II.
“Knyghte, we are down seven main thrusters and six maneuvers. Power plants are secure and holding strong, all weapons are online. But we are preparing for a hard burn and jump. You are to get the Egret clear and deliver your package home. Over.” The comms rasped like a like fifty year smoker with on his deathbed.
Deckard keyed back in, “Command I can return and provide cover fire if needed. Over” Even as he said the words his shook his head in denial and the left side of his mouth ticked. He knew he had to get the marines home and that Command would never agree. He would have said the same thing if someone had asked him.
“Negative, Knyghte! Deliver that package home!”
Deckard, continued shaking his head and his face wove a pattern of disgust, “affirmative, Command. Out.”
Four hours earlier…
The remains of the 27th, all 32 of them, broke over the ridge. The scene on the enemy side was nearly identical to what they had already seen. There were no enemy soldiers visible, but in the distance they could make out the missile batteries and laser cannons.
They receded down the front side of the hill out of the enemies view and Sarge called in the situation, “Base One, this is Iron Butterfly. The rolling waves are clear, no fish in sight. Over.”
The handset buzzed and a voice could be heard but not made out by anyone but Sarge as he held the comm unit to his ear. He voiced an, ‘Affirmative, Base One. Out” and handed the comm back Chen.
“We hold for the reinforcements. Catch yer breath, but keep yer eyes open.” Sarge blared at them over the roar of a set of heavy GTGs arching above them from their home camp.
Bell laid back on the soft husks and stared up into the sky. Above them were far distant flares of yellow, orange, red, and green. Somewhere out there was the orbital battle they had flown past to get down here. Up there men and women and aliens died just like they died down here. Up there, there were no mountains of bodies of clamber over; just fire and cold and death leaving one to drift in the black and vanish.