First Lieutenant Famson Heiser did not like coming into Commander Vernor's office. For one thing, there were too many trophies from various second-rate tournaments. How can an ex-duelist with a 63-15 record get assigned to a backwater base like Merchant's Point was a thought beyond the lieutenant.
The second problem was the lack of respect the commander had for his subordinates. He expected everyone to be worked to the bone before turning in at night. He wanted every report in quadruplicate, every floor scrubbed clean with a cotton swab, and all stock accounted for at the end of the week every week. Not one detail was to be overlooked.
So here was Heiser, taking a seat in front of Commander Vernor, surrounded by the figurines and plaques, trying to think of what he had done to deserve a special trip to this god-forsaken office.
"Lieutenant," Vernor started, "region headquarters has been receiving intell on a few Rover bands gathering at a point south by southwest of our position at about two hundred kilos. Usually, Rovers don't concern us, even at this distance. This time, though, command wants them eliminated."
"That's it?" Heiser asked. "Captain Yrrin could have given this mission to anyone. Why do you want me to do it?"
"Because HQ wants you to lead the assault," Vernor said with an accusatory finger pointed at Heiser. The pilot gave a puzzled look back to the commander. "Instead of a quiet and non-disruptive mission, you are to lead two squads into battle, guns blazing and rockets pounding. You are to kill every Rover from their Gear pilots to their youngest soldiers to their pet Dawgs, with brutal efficiency. All of them except two. Leave two surviving soldiers to run into the wastes and report the carnage to everyone else. This will send a message to other Rover gangs to avoid Merchant's Point."
"And they want me to lead this assault?"
"Yes. They wanted a duelist with some fame to lead and squash these vermin. Since you're the duelist for the 29th Merchant's Point Gear Regiment, they thought it would be fitting. Not only will we send out a message to every rover band out there, but your fame will increase. You'll be famous at your next tournament."
"That's great praise, sir, but I have some misgivings. You're sending in two squads, so we're talking ten Gears in all. What kind of resistance can a gang of rovers give? They probably have, at best, relics from the War of the Alliance. Two at most for this one rover band."
"That is where the problem in this mission lies, Lieutenant. There isn't just one band out there. There are four. And if we stick with that two-Gear-per-gang ratio you just gave me, then we're talking 'bout eight or nine Gears you'd have to face. All of them will have blades or some hand-to-hand weapons, and a few will likely be armed with ranged weaponry."
"But you're a seasoned Gear pilot," Vernor added as he leaned back into his padded captain's chair. "I'm sure eight rover Gears with only a few guns and blades are no match for the Fighting Badgers of Merchant's Point."
Heiser slowly stood up, saluted the commander, and said, "Thank you, sir, for the vote of confidence. We won't let you down."
"May the Great Prophet help you if you do," the commander replied.
"So what's the deal, boss?" First Corporal Brendan Kelso asked Heiser as he left the office.
"Not here, Kelso. Come with me."
As they traveled the base hallways, saluting here and there, Heiser filled Kelso in on the details. "...And then he said, 'May the Great Prophet help you if you do.' That's not something I wanted to hear."
"It's depressing," Kelso said. "That big weenie of a pep talk he gives you first and then drops the Great Prophet on you. I'd as soon give the mission to another squad."
"We can't. Well, I can't. The clincher in this is that it's a high profile mission. We want to be seen and talked about. I'm guessing the Commander is setting-up HQ for more money. And he's taking the quick route to that."
"I think it's something else, Lieutenant. No offense, but there's got to be something a little bit more than money involved here." Kelso started counting his fingers. "One, you're our regimental duelist and a good one. Two, only two squads are going in, so there is no chance of back-up coming in. Three, we are going to be two hundred kilos from home, so if we do call base, they'll only find remains."
"Do you have to be so morbid? We're the Fighting Badgers."
"I'm just pointing out the facts. Especially since Yrrin didn't give us all the details for that homestead strike back east. In fact, he didn't tell us about that badlander's home being so close to the Mongoose Regiment."
"Yeah," Heiser said with a smirk.
"I'm just saying that maybe we should be careful about this one."
"You say that about all the missions," Heiser replied in jest.
"Yeah, but -- oh, here's the mess. You coming in?"
Heiser paused. "I've got something to do first. You go ahead. I'm sure the rest of the regiment is in there right now making bets."
"Yeah. Mallor is trying to get the nerve to ask Dortmeyer out."
"Fifteen says he does it right in there," Heiser said with a pointed finger.
"Against my one week's latrine duty if he doesn't," Kelso countered. They shook on it.
Heiser stood there while he watched Kelso make a grand entrance into the mess hall. Then Heiser continued on his way, heading for the Gear bays.
Eight hours later Heiser sat in his Gear, waiting for the transport to stop rumbling. The assault on the Rover encampment was originally an airdrop, but Heiser decided on a ground assault, with two transports bringing the squads to within ten kilometers. If intelligence was correct, then this would be the quickest and easiest walk-in-the-park mission Heiser has ever had.
"Lieutenant," Second Corporal Yancy Dortmeyer called over the comms, "why do we need two squads to do this? We can handle it on our on."
"Because they heard of your reputation, 'Dorkmeyer'," Second Corporal Mallor from the second squad answered back. He had not asked her yet.
"Leave her alone, Mallor," Heiser barked. "That was a very good question. If the Gears these rovers have are lightly outfitted, then one squad should be enough. However, Dortmeyer, the second squad is there if we underestimated our enemy."
"I think they'll underestimate us and not fight so well," Mallor said.
"Naw," Kelso said to his wingman. "They'll fight to the death, even if it means running into our center and detonating a large explosive in our midst."
"Thank you for the damning premonition," Mallor replied.
"Cut it out, Kelso. We're here to do a job, people. And we're going to do it right. The order is waste everything in sight. You all have twelve packs on your shoulder points, so use 'em. Avoid melee combat as much as possible. I will pick the survivors to let go. Any questions before we roll?"
"Yeah. Dortmeyer, will you go out with me?" Mallor asked.
"What! You scum! You Hopper fodder! You don't even qualify as Barnaby dung!"
"Whoa, that got her blood pumping!" Kelso replied.
"Mallor, remind me to give you latrine duty when we get back to base," Heiser said.
The warning lights turned on as the transport approached the launch coordinates. Heiser ran the mission through his mind twice, remembering where the rover Gears should be when they arrive at the site. He recalculated each salvo to be used to saturate the area and to destroy their weapon caches. He also imagined the cries and wails that always accompany a clean sweep.
Heiser's stomach churned at the thoughts, just before the yellow lights in the bay lit. He repositioned himself in his cockpit, whispered a short prayer, and said into his mic, "Okay everyone, this is it. Twenty seconds to rolling launch. Able Squad, get into delta formation and we ride into battle. We take them by surprise."
To be continued...
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