"Halt! Identify yourself!" An untouched Rattlesnake Heavy Gear straddled the road ahead of her, perfectly painted in the colors of Emir Aryk Veddig, one of the lesser emirs of the ESE who was one of the crazed Patriarch's most fanatical supporters. The war machine stood out like a sore thumb in the middle of the dense jungle, vibrant purple and and blue colors totally ignoring the need for camouflage in the brutal battlefields of the Free Emirates.
"Sous-Adjudant Theora Montroyal, MILICIA 33rd Heavy Gear Regiment. I am here on orders to inspect the fortifications on bridge 347." She slowed the pace of her Sidewinder Gear, painted in mottled green jungle camouflage, something much more practical than the Emirate Gear. Sending the 33rd's duelist, as young as she was, to inspect positions held by the Patriarchal loyalists was supposed to be a morale building measure, and to keep the Emirate troops in line. As tensions between the North and South increased, the Patriarchal troops had been getting more and more desperate; they feared the outbreak of war would send Northern troops to the aid of Nigel Shirow and his rebels, something that would tip the balance in the current bloody stalemate.
"Your approval of our defenses is not necessary, sous-adjudant." The new voice was markedly different, speaking Universal French instead of Anglic. She frowned. Getting into a jurisdictional dispute with a local commander was certainly not what she had in mind. "However, if you wish to view them as an educational measure, we will certainly welcome the presence of an observer from our friends in the MILICIA." A Black Mamba walked out of the trees behind the Rattlesnake, even more elegantly painted than the first Gear. The advanced Gear was uncommon in the Emirates, especially in the hands of a lesser emir's forces.
"May I ask who I am speaking to?" she asked, slowly approaching the other Gears.
"This is Jorg Veddig, son of Emir Aryk Veddig. I am in command of this position. You may approach and stand down, sous-adjudant." The Black Mamba and Rattlesnake both retreated off the road into the trees. Behind them, she could see the bridge over the small river ahead, lined on each side by sandbag fortifications and pillboxes.
Great, just great. The son of the emir. It was quickly becoming obvious why her superiors had been so tight-lipped about the operation. "Understood. Montroyal out." Her Gear pounded down the road and then crashed through the brush, moving into the jungle to where Veddig and his men had carved out a clearing for their encampment. His troops consisted of a cadre of Heavy Gears, plus a platoon of infantry. She moved her Gear into the encampment and came to a stop near a sandbagged tent.
The Black Mamba strode over to her as she climbed out of the Sidewinder and she expected Veddig to dismount as well. She stood in front of her Gear, checking to make sure her sidearm was secure in its holster, but the emir's son stayed inside his Gear, only throttling down the engine of the vehicle.
"As you can see, we have a sufficient force here to repel any ragtag force the traitors can throw at us." Veddig's voice sounded clearly in her ears on the radio, even over the thrum of Gear engines. "These are some of my father's best troops, and we have an ample supply of heavy weapons. Your superiors' concerned are groundless."
She squared her shoulders and walked towards the bridge itself, passing a number of the Patriarchal soldiers who looked over at her with thinly disguised disdain. Her MILICIA uniform no doubt inspired little respect among these men; she wondered if it would have even mattered if they knew she was a regimental duelist, or a Republican native. None of them even bothered to snap to any sort of attention as she walked by.
"What defenses have you placed on the bridge itself?" she asked, the heavy footsteps of Veddig's war machine slowly pounding after her, towering over her head. She could see machine gun nests on either side of the road, manned by a pair of soldier each, hunkered behind the sandbags.
"In addition to the machine guns, we have mined the bridge sufficiently to stop any attempt to cross by the rebels. Even a tank would not survive a crossing here. We have several anti-armor rockets in each of the machine gun nests as well. As I said, we are well-armed." She walked up to the road near one of the machine gun nests, nodding to the gunners, and looked at the road. She could see where several mines had been placed on the road, close enough to the machine gun nests that they would be showered with shrapnel if they went off. The emir's son had placed heavy anti-armor mines on the bridge itself, so close together it looked like the bridge had been paved with the damn things.
She stepped away from the machine gun nest, not wanting the gunners to overhear her criticizing their commander, realizing it was probably an element of protocol the emir's son would not have extended to her if their positions had been reversed. "You do realize, your lordship, that if a tank tried to cross that bridge in the first place, that it would collapse under its weight. All you have done is ensure that the bridge will be destroyed utterly if they attempt to cross."
"If they are that close, sous-adjudant, it will already be too late anyway. Better to deny it to the enemy than to let it survive. Do you think I am stupid?" She glanced behind herself to see the Black Mamba's omnicamera glaring down at her. "The rebels will not have this bridge."
Of course, she thought, if the bridge was gone, enemy Gears could probably still ford the river here, and their engineers could rebuild it in less than a day if they had to. If there was a battle here, at least the rebels would probably be surprised by the amount of effort that had been expended to keep them from capturing a relatively low priority bridge. No doubt Veddig had been told by his father's sirdar that it was indispensible to the war effort, merely to keep the whelp from being upset that he was not closer to the main lines of battle, deprived of his rightful "glory."
"No, I am sure they will not, your lordship. I think I have seen enough." She turned around to face the Black Mamba, looking up at it with her shoulders squared and her arms behind her back. "I will report that the MILICIA has no need to worry about this position falling into enemy hands." Not until the rebels attacked, anyway.
"Good. You may return to your Gear and leave --" The roar of a rocket cut off Veddig as it streaked into the camp and exploded, sending wood chips, dirt clods, and human body parts all in a shower around the camp. She glanced down the road, where a cadre of rebel Gears and several trucks had emerged on the road and were now opening fire on the loyalist position.
She wondered how they had gotten close enough to begin firing without being spotted; they had to be less than 700 meters away, well within range of most Gear weapons. She broke into a sprint towards her Gear as more enemy fire streaked in and Veddig's Gears began to scramble to cover where they could return fire. She could barely hear the young emir's son barking orders to his troops over the din of battle, but she could see his men running between the trees, grabbing their weapons and clambering through the jungle to take cover from the rebel fire. Shouts and cries filled the air along with the sound of machine guns and autocannons.
In seconds, she was in the comforting shell of her Sidewinder, the Gear's engine roaring to life behind her. The joysticks felt cool in her hands, even as she could feel sweat slickening her palms, adrenaline pumping through her body. She could hear more explosions outside as her HUD came to life, showing her the raging battle. The two Gear cadres were engaged in a long range slugging match, with the bridge nests blazing away ineffectively at the oncoming Gears. She could see one of Veddig's Rattlesnakes already down, its chest cracked open with a rocket, the pilot hanging out from the hole limply. Smoke drifted from the Gear's turret-like head.
"Montroyal online." She heard shells hitting the armored hide of her Gear as a rebel Jäger burst through the trees towards the camp. It must have seen her immobile Gear and hoped to knock her out before she could get moving. No such luck. Despite the fact that the camp was in a shambles and most of the Emir's troops were scattering in disarray, the Jäger was taking enough gunfire from them to distract it as she began to move, weaving her way towards the lighter Gear, her own autocannon blazing away. Shells cut away at the Jäger's right leg, turning the armor into so much tissue paper and exposing the hydraulics.
"No, you fools, what are you doing? Get back here!" Veddig was shouting over the comm channel frantically, and Theora glanced to her left, where two of his Gears were charging the four enemy Gears at the head of the road. She guess that they were not having much luck at the ranges Veddig was insisting they fight at, especially since they lacked the Black Mamba's sophisticated fire control system. Unfortunately, they were likely going to get chewed up if they didn't pull back. She growled at their incompetence, but she was busy herself.
The Jäger stumbled towards her, favoring its damaged leg. She ducked a rocket shot that flew to the right of her Gear as she closed in, pulling her vibroblade. She would make this quick. Careening towards the Jäger at top speed, she bent her legs and drove the Sidewinder's shoulder right into the smaller Gear's omnicamera, probably knocking the pilot inside senseless as seven tons of plastic and metal crashed into him. Without missing a beat, her vibroblade lashed out, slicing through the exposed hydraulics and control systems of the Jäger. Pressure juice and shrapnel sprayed out as she pulled the blade away, then plunged it into the Gear's right shoulder joint. With its leg and gun arm disabled, the Gear was helpless as the Emir's troops began to move in on the two Gears. Theora backed away from the crippled Jäger and looked to her left to see how the other Gears were faring.
Veddig and one of his other Gears, a Python, were blazing away into a melee down the road, where his other Rattlesnake and a Jäger were in a desperate struggle at close range with four rebel Gears. The Python fired off a volley of rockets that fell around the rebel Gears, cloaking them briefly in a curtain of smoke and fire. If Veddig himself had closed with the enemy, his advanced Gear might have been able to turn the tide of battle. Unfortunately, without close support, the other two Gears were being quickly overwhelmed. More rebel rockets had decimated the machine gun nests at the bridge, and looked to have detonated much of the minefield, leaving the bridge in a precarious state.
"Montroyal! You will go assist my other two Gears while I and my bodyguard hold the bridge and provide covering fire!" She could not tell if Veddig was angry, panicked, or simply loud as he shouted over the radio. His men had been stupid to close so fast without any support, but he had been just as foolish to leave them there to die, not to mention cowardly. It seemed as if the MILICIA was always expected to clean up the Patriarch's mess, and it didn't look like there was going to be any change today.
"Yes, your lordship." She ran through the trees, pushing aside heavy trunks with her Gear's massive hand, trying to get closer to the fray without exposing herself furious enemy fire. She nearly slid down the steep bank of the river, her Gear's two heavy feet splashing into the water. Gunfire sprayed over the mouth of the gorge above her.
As she pulled herself up the muddy incline of the opposite shore, she could make out a few of the rebel Gears; one of them, a Black Adder, towered over the others, and she saw it bring up its snub cannon to fire at the loyalist Rattlesnake. If it hit, the cannon would tear through the weak armor of the Gear like a hot knife through butter.
"Hit the dirt!" she shouted, sighting her rockets even as she closed the distance, and the two loyalist Gears reeled back as she fired, smoke plumes streaking past the backpedaling Rattlesnake. The rebel Gear saw her just before she launched her rockets, and spun out of the way as it fired, the heavy cannon shell flying wildly away into the jungle. The rockets missed, exploding in the trees behind the enemy position. She crouched at the edge of the road in a ditch, lining up her autocannon and firing away at a retreating rebel Basilisk. She could see the rest of the rebel convoy now; it looked like several trucks full of enemy troops, most of them trying to scramble out of the melee or hug the floor of the truck bed. The Gears were using them for cover though, placing the soldiers in a very bad position and pinning them down.
She heard a cry on the radio and glanced to her left, where the Rattlesnake had been cut down by autocannon fire, its knee disintegrating under a withering barrage. The friendly Jäger had pulled back to the treeline for cover, firing its autocannon sporadically to keep the enemy Gears down. She began moving back deeper into the trees, firing with her autocannon, as she saw the Rattlesnake trying to pull itself into the woods, out of the line of fire between Veddig and the rebels. More heavy rockets from the Python streaked overhead, slamming into the ground only a few dozen meters from her position. "Check your fire, check your fire! There are friendlies here!" she shouted, muttering. What the hell was Veddig doing back there now?
Suddenly, her display went red with heat signatures as a volley of rockets streaked from the crouched Jäger at the side of the road, flying towards the cluster of trucks. She swallowed in horror as she realized the Jäger was emptying its rocket pod at the nearly unarmored trucks, tossing two of them into the air as they hit. Bodies and pieces of truck fell everywhere, a cacophony of screams penetrating even her armored cockpit. She saw the enemy Gears scuttling for better cover, wondering why they had taken shelter behind the vehicles like they had, almost certainly dooming the troops inside.
Her fingers hesitated on the firing trigger as the few survivors of the explosion ran for cover. The rebel Gears, most now visibly damaged, were retreating back to the trees for shelter. The Basilisk was crouched in some trees, firing at her, autocannon shells cutting through the jungle and ricocheting off her armor. Alarms went off in her cockpit as the gunfire hit home, rupturing hydraulics in her left arm; the klaxons shook her out of her reverie and she returned fire, sending a rocket tearing towards the lighter Gear. It tried to get out of the way, but the rocket exploded as it crashed through the vegetation around the Gear. The Basilisk toppled backwards, knocked off balance by the blast, and Theora slowly closed in, her autocannon at the ready. On her HUD, she could see Veddig and his bodyguard were finally slowly making their way to the main battle. Tracer rounds from their autocannons blazed through the air, apparently firing blindly into the burning wreckage of the trucks.
The Basilisk was lying on the ground, nearly immobile, its arms flailing about slowly, trying to pick itself up as she closed in; in the corner of her eye she could see the other rebel Gears trying to pull back as Veddig moved in. "Rebel Basilisk pilot, stand down immediately. Your compatriots are in retreat and you are surrounded. You have no chance of escape." She stood back from the fallen Gear about ten meters away, keeping her autocannon pointed squarely at the Gear's center of mass. "Repeat, dismount and surrender immediately." The Basilisk did not seem to respond, its arms still scraping at the ground in a pathetic attempt to regain its footing. Jagged cracks were evident in the armor of the Gear and she could see that the rocket explosion and subsequent fall had cracked several of the Gear's joints, causing at least minor leaks in the vehicle's hydraulics. The damage to her own Gear seemed to have been locked down, although her left arm was sluggish and would not be too useful until she could get it seen to by a tech. She didn't understand why the Basilisk pilot was not dismounting, with the damage as bad as it looked. "This is your last chance," she said, unwilling to simply execute a helpless pilot.
The Basilisk ceased its struggling, laying its arms at its side, but the pilot did not leave the cockpit. That was good enough for now; its autocannon was at least six or seven meters away, well out of reach. "Infantry to my position, I have a prisoner in a Gear and need him extracted." She continued holding her autocannon on the downed Gear as she looked over the rest of the battlefield.
Not far from her, the blasted hulks of the trucks still burned, a few badly burned and dying survivors of the blaze trying to pull themselves away from the wrecks and into the jungle. One or two of the trucks had avoided the intial rocket strike, allowing the infantrymen inside to scramble out and run for cover; they were scattered throughout the treeline, most of them creeping back into the jungle, hoping the loyalist Gears would be too preoccupied with the remaining rebel Gears. She briefly pondered taking off after them, but it seemed hardly worth it; they would be dead wandering around in the jungle with no supplies soon anyway, and she had no doubt that Veddig would probably order a search for them when he was finished with the other rebels. Right now, the emir's son was blazing away at the retreating rebel Gears down the road with the Python at his side. The Jäger that had unleashed the torrent of destruction on the trucks was now limping towards them, autocannon wavering slightly as the pilot struggled to keep it in an upright, confident stance. Behind her, at the side of the road, the battered Rattlesnake was sprawled out on the ground, its pilot climbing out of the vehicle.
"The bridge is secure, Emir. You may want to return and consolidate your forces before the rebels can attempt another attack, sir." The chances that the rebels would try another attack so soon seemed slim, but letting Veddig wander off chasing down three old Gears with little in the way of backup seemed like a bad idea in principle. The Jäger by the trucks was prodding dead bodies and crumpled metal with its autocannon, turning them over like a rock under which churned a mass of strange creepy-crawlies. She looked away as a legless torso flopped out of one of the smashed trucks, turning back to the unmoving Basilisk.
"Your suggestion is noted, sous-adjudant." It did not sound like he was going to take her advice, as she saw smoke rising from the trees in the distance where he had disappeared. She muttered under her breath; if he ended up getting killed she had little doubt that the elder Emir Veddig would blame her and the MILICIA for his stupidity. Behind her, five infantrymen emerged from the foilage and made their way toward the downed Basilisk. Under the cover of her Gear, they climbed on top of the disabled rebel and began to pry open the cockpit.
With the situation apparently well in hand, she lowered her weapon and moved towards the smoldering trucks to join the Jäger already there. "Any sign of survivors?" she asked, trying to look over the wreckage while keeping herself distanced from the blood and dead bodies that littered the ground. Something looked off about the scene, but she was unable to put her finger on exactly what it was.
"It does not look like it, sous-adjudant," replied the Jäger pilot. "An infantry team will be here shortly to make sure there are none we can take as prisoners." Theora's stomach gave a mild growl of protest as she thought of the infantrymen having to go through the tangle of metal and human wreckage, looking for anything that might still be alive.
"Very well. I am going to assist the Emir. Stand guard here until we return." She turned to move down the road as the Jäger gave her a short salute with its left hand, explosions thudding nearby as Veddig continued his pursuit of the rebel Gears. It did not take long for her to find the two loyalist Gears. They stood at the side of the road, just past the treeline, slowly making their way through the jungle, as the rebels backpedaled through the jungle on the other side of the road, crouched over as they tried to evade Veddig's fire.
"Montroyal here. Do you require assistance, Emir?" She moved into the trees on the other side of the road from the emir's son, taking poorly aimed fire from the rebels ahead of her. The wide leaves of the jungle ferns trembled as autocannon shells whipped through them, but her Gear was not hit.
"We have them pinned, sous-adjudant. Perhaps you and I should attempt to close further to prevent escape while my bodyguard provides cover fire?" His Black Mamba pushed further through the trees as his bodyguard's Python fired a burst from its autocannon towards the fleeing enemy Gears. She fired her autocannon towards them as well, keeping them pinned, as she deftly maneuvered her Gear through the trees.
"Very well, I'm moving in." She moved behind a dense clump of vegetation, trying to get into cover as the enemy Gears emerged from their hiding places to try and return fire. Two rockets hit the ground not more than 15 meters from her position, throwing dirt and jungle foilage into the air and leaving behind shallow craters. On her tactical display, she could see Veddig inching his way up the road, making slow but steady progress. He probably figured the rebels were panicking and would be easy pickings for his Gear. She moved the Sidewinder further from the road, moving from cover to cover, in an attempt to outflank the rebels. Scattered autocannon fire occasionally spat at her from the rebel position, missing her by a safe margin to her rear.
She managed to close the distance to less than 100 meters, virtually nose to nose with the rebels. She could tell that Veddig was just as close and getting even closer, without bothering to keep her informed of his plans. She shook her head and sighed, hardly surprised by the behavior, and braced herself for a mad dash on the enemy position. Rockets from the Python arced through the forest and exploded nearby, missing the rebel Gears.
She moved out of the cover, her autocannon ready, and fired on the enemy position, trapping them between her and the rapidly approaching emir's son. They turned to face her and she gritted her teeth for the barrage of enemy fire sure to come her way. There wasn't time for her to dive into cover now.
She heard the roar of rockets leaving their racks and felt the ground shake as they exploded. Smoke and fire filled her vision but her Gear's alarms remained silent except for a single red warning about the dropping hydraulic pressure in her arm. Out of the trees emerged Veddig's Black Mamba, smoke drifting from the rocket pod on his shoulder. Where the two enemy Gears had been was a mass of broken metal and plastic burning in a field of blast craters that had tossed the jungle foliage around like a raging tornado. Veddig had shown the rebels no mercy; there was no way either of the pilots had survived the attack, and she suspected that was the entire point.
"They will oppose us no more," spat Veddig over the radio. She cocked her jaw to keep herself from saying something she would regret. "I will have my men inspect the wreckage to see if there is anything we can use." His Black Mamba turned away to walk back to the rest of his troops and she took one last look around to make sure that was the last of the rebel forces in the area. The sweep yielded nothing.
As they returned to the smoldering wreckage of the rebel convoy, the emir's infantrymen were dragging an uncooperative person into the middle of the road from the forest. They shoved him to the ground and she looked a bit harder at the prisoner. He struggled back to his feet and she got a better look at his face. It did not take her long to realize that the prisoner was only a boy, no older than 15 or 16 cycles.
She felt a chill down her spine and a tightening in her stomach, and hoped that one day she would be able to forget all the things she had seen and done here.
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