Moving Right Along

Monday is here and so is my time to regal you with other worldly tales of galactic intrigue and the coming invasion. Remember friends, war is hell and no battle plan survives contact with the enemy….

TWENTY-EIGHT

Tense Meetings

General Joneth Pierce was the first to step out of the hover jeep, even before it stopped moving. Dressed in all his finery, Pierce stood out like a sore thumb compared to the abused armor and equipment of the Helscape garrison. Combat weary units lined the main road into the fort. They’d been beaten and berated for the past two years, but there was still that sense of pride shining through their eyes. Pierce watched them all, at least the ones he managed to make eye contact with. Some flinched away, though most met him with the cold, hard stares of front line combat troopers. At least the soldiers are ready, he thought.

“Sir, on behalf of my garrison and staff, I welcome you to Fort Evans,” Russell said, offering his sharpest salute.

Returning the salute, Pierce regarded his older subordinate with a disgruntled stare. If the man was as good at leading troops in combat as he was at saluting, then maybe I wouldn’t need to be here right now, Pierce laughed to himself.

“I don’t think I need to say that I have no desire to be here, Colonel. There is a bigger war being fought that has need of every available soldier,” Pierce replied with a snake-tongued smile. “Don’t let that get you down, though. It’s not your fault that we’re here anymore than it is mine.”

“If you say so, sir….”

Pierced squared on him. “I do say so. My division is here to end this debacle and turn Helscape into a forward staging base for the coming campaign against the Xemps. We’ll have this affair settled in a matter of weeks. Now, I trust everything has been arranged as far as billeting is concerned?”

Russell swallowed his rage the way his mother had taught him long ago. “Yes, sir. The base has been prepared. Additional supplies have been flown in ahead of your advance party.”

“Good. My reconnaissance elements will be deploying in the morning to the forward staging areas. I have no intention of letting my troopers get fat and lazy while sitting on their asses back here when they could be on the front defeating the enemy. Wars aren’t fought by waiting for them to come to you, and I damned sure didn’t get promoted by letting them get the better of me either. I trust you can understand that, Colonel.”

He could have, maybe about ten years ago. Russell’s time on Helscape had proved to have more challenges than any other assignment the Imperium deigned give him over the course of his career.

“Yes, sir. My adjutant will oversee your billeting while the general staff is being briefed. Regrettably, I have other matters to attend to,” Russell answered. It was taking everything he had to keep from going off.

Pierce was the kind of man Russell couldn’t stand. He was pompous and overbearing, and his soldiers loved him all the same. Russell got the feeling that he’d grown up more spoiled than disciplined, everything delivered to him on a silver platter. He was everything men like Russell weren’t and that made them too distant to be able to get along.

A tall colonel in more suitable attire stepped from the arriving hover jeep. He wore his uniform in desert fashion, complete with a full ration of ammunition. His scales were a deep purple that shimmered in a chameleon-like appearance with the shifting suns. He was a Drazian, one of the most fearsome fighters in Imperium-controlled space. Russell knew the species well and wished he’d been assigned several when they’d first made planet fall.

The dragonoid walked towards Pierce with the grace of a stalking warrior. His thick muscles rippled under his tunic’s light fabric. Twin rows of tiny, extremely sharp teeth lined both upper and lower jaws. Fingers and toes ended with long, wicked claws, and he had a short tail used for snapping attackers away.

Pierce returned his salute and told Russell, “This is Colonel Gladak, my adjutant. Anything you require from me you can go through him.”

“Colonel,” Russell acknowledged without showing much interest. He’d be damned if he let Pierce and his callous attitudes get the better of him. “Major Gregorson here will show you to where your units will begin setting up.”

Gladak let out a hissing sound from the base of his throat. “The sooner the better. We have a lot of tired troopers coming in.”

Gregorson and Gladak walked off so they could go about their business, leaving an old man and a disillusioned youth alone in a sea of soldiers.

“An aide will be here shortly to escort you where you need to go. Now, General, I have a meeting with the city council concerning last week’s events.”

Pierce dismissed the man with a casual wave of his hand. Russell felt his hand curl into a fist despite himself and stalked off. The division commander stood and watched as the first of his artillery battalions rolled by under a blanket of dust and the heavy roar of their engines. It did him good to see the eagerness on their faces, the new troopers most of all. The seasoned soldiers wore that rugged determination to balance the crews out. They were the ones Pierce was depending on. From where Russell stood, he could only see future ghosts and grieving widows.

 

As usual with things of great importance, the general officers took entirely too much time to get organized and arrive for Russell’s liking. Glancing down at his watch only managed to cause a frown. Twenty minutes since the first man entered, a rather robust major with a good sense of humor, men were still trickling into the conference room. Armed guards flanked the walls in the odd event of attack.

The back wall had been devoted to a battle board. The majority of it had been turned into a detailed map of everything west of the Angril River. Captain Menzel stood behind a podium just off to the side of the map, patiently waiting to begin the briefing. He watched with a casual disinterest, wondering if they knew they were mere puppets in a greater play. An earlier transmission from General Gulluette kept playing over in his mind, despite the briefing he was about to give.

The mission is proceeding ahead of schedule. Eliminate Fint,” the message had said. Menzel was a capable man, certainly possessing the skills required for such treachery, but he doubted a man like Leggis Fint would be easily taken. His mind turned over with how he was going to accomplish his task.

A nod from Russell, and the lights dimmed. Taking the hint, the remaining commanders took their seats, and Menzel stepped on stage.

“Good morning, gentlemen. My name is Captain Menzel, post intel officer. This,” he paused until the Wastelands were lit up, “is the most inhospitable piece of land the Imperium has ever had the privilege of fighting for. However, due to its strategic location in the Disputed Territories, it is also the perfect place for a staging ground in our war against the Xempsarillian’s. The regional government has already said that, if we plan on using Trusgar, we have to help them deal with their Berserker problem. The Wastelands are just shy of six hundred million square miles and all of it desert. As you can see, there are various mountainous regions scattered throughout, but the majority is all sand. In effect, there is no high ground to seize and definitely no place to conceal troop movements, which is going to be the biggest problem you will face. That and the fact that there’s an estimated third of a million Berserkers out there.”

“Love the odds,” a robust major remarked with a scowl.

Menzel offered a curt smile and continued, “They tend to fight in small squad-sized elements and have a deep intelligence. We believe they’re controlled much the same as conventional forces in modern combat. They strike quickly with little or no warning and leave once the job is finished. The death toll has been staggering, but recent events lead us to believe that they are drawing back in response to something to come. They could quite possibly be preparing for an attack on their Hive by your forces.”

Russell let out a distinguished sigh and quietly excused himself from the room without being seen. The briefings went on long into the evening hours. Pierce’s men were intent on absorbing as much information as possible on their foe, so at least they had that going for him.

As for himself, Russell had no desire to go up against hundreds of thousands of Berserkers. There was an eerie feeling over the whole thing. The pinkish haze cast off by the twin gas giants was dull compared to the violent crimson from this morning. Could it be that the very planet knew of the impending disaster?

Soldiers greeted him with smiles and small talk on his rounds through the compound, making Russell feel like he was a youthful commander again. He wondered how many of them he’d never see again. Russell had been fighting to keep his troops out of the battle since its inception, but command was intent on taking them along to show the locals how good they’d been for Helscape. It was a foolish ploy at best, but he was just a colonel. One reinforced company of heavy infantry was being ordered to deploy with the division, making Russell’s fight a partial success. It was the best he could do under such heavy odds. The skies swirled over in a rapture of blue, black and red. The night wind blew a fresh scent across the dunes, and, for the first time, Russell noticed how the desert had such a brilliant emptiness to it. It was almost like the fingers of the Gods had come to this place.

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