Wasn’t last week exhilarating? Imagine the sheer terror those poor soldiers must have faced. Trapped, cut off, alone. Makes me glad I wasn’t there! But enough about me. You want to know what happens with our survivors.
Klausky and Lal-owk finished dumping the last of the bodies and baggage from their newly acquired APC when the green star bursts went off. As disheartening as it seemed, they were already one step ahead of the division. Snake Eyes had no intentions of staying in the death trap any longer than they had to. They had already loaded the last of the wounded when Snake and Xill left the other vehicle. Explosions continued to rock the surrounding area to the point where the distortion almost sounded like music.
The metallic sounds of Klausky locking and loading the quad machine gun atop the track went unheard by the trio of Berserkers advancing. Ion fire shredded their bodies into fine powder as he opened the lane for Snake. The suns were beginning to set, and they still had eight clicks left before the artillery would be able to save them.
Xill slid into the driver’s seat and gunned the engine to life. The back ramp stayed open to make it easier to pick survivors up along the way, and the weapons were fully charged and ready for action.
“Ready down there?” Snake Eyes asked over the intercom.
“I don’t really have much of a choice.”
“Spin this thing around, and try to raise the rest of the division. Instruct all units to rally on the far end of the battlefield and get ready to break out. We need to be in the open before those suns go down or its goodnight for all of us.”
He unplugged his helmet and turned to Klausky. “I’ll take over the machine gun. Get down below with four men, and stand by to pick up stragglers. Two men provide cover fire while the other two run out and grab them. Forget the dead, and save the wounded. Make it happen.”
It took less than a minute for him to accomplish the task. Four soldiers stood by the exit and waited while the APC rumbled across the bloodstained ground. Lal-owk was there as well with a rifle in his hands. Medics weren’t traditionally supposed to carry weapons, but he had no intention of dying without a fight, Imperium rules be damned.
Klausky hit the intercom and announced, “Everything’s ready down here, Sergeant. We’ve got enough room for about thirty troops, maybe more.”
“Copy. Stay frosty, we’re about to pick up our first customers.”
Broken but not yet defeated, the battered APC trudged on.
A platoon of tanks passing by stopped long enough to pick up Gladak and his group. The bleeding commander offered a hushed greeting and let Gladak assume his dead machine gunner’s position to his right. Crisp ion rounds sped into passing clusters of Berserkers.
“Commander, swing these turrets around and hit those bastards right there,” Gladak snarled and pointed to where Pierce had fallen.
Berserkers screamed, and some died silently when the anti-personnel rounds slammed into them. It was a small price for redemption, but it was as close to revenge as he was going to get this day. Surely, it was the greatest honor a warrior like Pierce deserved. He lay there with the ruined bodies of his foes. Joneth Pierce deserved no less. Satisfied to a degree, Gladak gave his leader a final nod before resuming the war.
“We need to gather as many vehicles as we can and scrape our way back to the Gap, Commander. Are you up to the challenge?”
“Hells, sir. I’m ready to run on through to the morning if it means living. Don’t know if my baby here will make it, though,” he said patting the tank’s hull. “But we’ll give it our best. One way or the other.”
“That’s all I can ask. Let’s move.”
The tanks lurched forward, picking off random targets and blowing a hole down the center of the Gorge. Other vehicles — hover jeeps and APCs — speared towards them until they started resembling a fighting force again. Gladak found himself tripping the foot triggers in rage.
“How could we have been so blind?” he asked himself.
Bodies and burned-out vehicles made the going slow and laborious, not to mention the Berserkers along the way.
“There was no way we could have been ready for this,” the commander answered.
Gladak looked to him in surprise. He hadn’t realized he’d spoken aloud. “Keep your head in the game, young man. There’s still a long road before we reach home.”
The tank rocked under the main gun’s recoil. Gladak watched the round hit the side of a captured tank. There was a momentary peace before the round exploded. Gouts of fire poured from the wounds, burning everything within. The rounds were designed to penetrate up to twelve inches of armor. Once inside, they detonated. Chemicals sucked the oxygen from the vehicles before the gases in the round ignited. It was a terrific weapon but not one he’d expected to see used on their own equipment.
“Nice shooting, Commander.”
“Thank my gunner, sir. He does the hard part. I just tell him what to shoot.”
An incoming message burned their ears until it became audible. Both the Gladak and the tank supervisor looked at each other with surprise.
“Hey, did you hear that squaffa?” the gunner called out. “Some sergeant’s ordering everything operable to get the Hells out of here. He’s picking up the wounded as they fight free.”
It was the first time since the battle began that Gladak had reason to hope. Now if they could only link up with the other element…
“Indeed, we did hear it,” Gladak smiled. “And it’s the best news I’ve heard today. Commander, shall we try and salvage some of our dignity?”
“Yes, sir!” he said with enthusiasm as sharp as when the division had left Minion. The tank fired again.
Nathan was amazed that he’d made it to the fallen woman without so much as another scratch. He didn’t know who she was, only that she was an ally and clearly in need of medical attention. He was even more surprised to find her unmolested for the most part. She was isolated from open view, and that may have been what saved her from the same fate as the troopers on her APC. Nothing ever went Nathan’s way, and now that there was a chance that it may, he knew the devil was lurking over his shoulder. He paused, entertained by the thought of a violent death, which led him to question his motives for attempting to save this woman.
Was it fair to save her now just so she could die a few minutes from now? It was an interesting question, but his honor wasn’t going to back down. Search and rescue was not one of Nathan’s strong points, and he was realizing why. First aid, although necessary in his line of work, was a virtually forgotten task. The last time he had honestly applied himself was back in the military.
“Pulse, breathing, bleeding,” he whispered over and over.
Her chest still rose and fell at regular intervals, and there was no sign of blood. That was a good thing, but it also left too many possibilities. She groaned when his hands moved over her right leg.
“That’s better than nothing.”
Her leg was broken, that much was obvious by the way the bone was threatening to break through the skin. It was a fixable wound provided there were things around to make a splint. His biggest concerns were in how he was going to get her out of here. Nathan rolled her onto her back so he had a better angle to work with and was perplexed and amazed by the beauty hiding under the grime and blood. He pulled back in mild shock. This was the same woman he’d seen talking to Kane back in Minion.
“Small world,” he said, more to himself since she was still unconscious.
The battle had done little to conceal her natural beauty, and it reminded him how bad he must look. God knew how bad he felt. She groaned again and dragged a hand up to her temple. Getting better, he mused, but not enough to get us out of here.
A captured tank sped past at a comfortable enough distance that Nathan wasn’t overly concerned. Three others came out of nowhere and pummeled it into slag metal. The explosions shattered his fantasy and let him know that this was still Hell. Soldiers streamed past by the dozens, leaving Nathan to conclude that the order to retreat had finally been given. Thank God someone had a little sense.
“Come on, lady,” he urged, struggling to get them both on their feet. Semi-conscious and seething in pain, she hollered from the pressure and passed out again. “Damn it,” he cursed. “Okay,” he said with a flavor of misery. “We do this the hard way.”
Nathan laid her back down and cracked his back a good time before hefting her over his shoulders. She wasn’t as light as her smallish frame suggested, but he had no real complaints. The volume of screams and burning bounced across the canyon walls as if they were trying to help him forget his burden. He could barely breathe through the haze and smoke, but he was determined to make it back to safety.
“This may not be fast, and it damned sure ain’t going to be easy, but we don’t have much of a choice, do we?” he asked.
Nathan took his first burdened step towards freedom.
The APC exploded in brilliant clouds of orange, yellow and red before being consumed under a roiling cloud of black smoke. Hosking watched it and found depression. The maniacal rage was seeping from him even faster than it had absorbed him. Perhaps it was the sight of his first command melting before him. It was the first time he’d ever been placed in charge of something in his life, and now he was all that remained. Countless souls he had once called his own were buried in the slag. It was all he could do to keep the flood of tears from devouring him while he watched the fingers of flame reach into the growing shadows.
Yonash squirmed from the last of his armor and began rummaging for ammo in the dead’s pockets. His arsenal quickly grew. There was no shortage of extra weapons and ammunition. All the while, his mind soothed him, telling him how things were going to be okay very soon. The only way to beat the Berserkers was to become like them, his mind warned. Yes, I must become like death. Here, among the sea of fires and the stench of decay, Yonash was shown existence’s true path. He was no longer a pawn of man, no longer a tool to amuse his superiors. Yonash was shown the light and whispered the secrets of life. He was the plaything of extermination.
His arsenal completed, the madman stalked off in search of redemption. The first body he came across was impaled with a crude spear. The sight of this led his mind to inklings of inspiration. Hosking snatched a bloody Imperium standard from nearby and jerked the spear free. The flesh was already hardening and only reluctantly released the spear with a sucking noise. Hosking grinned to himself and tied the standard to the spear. The madman walked to the center of the canyon and planted it as a reminder of human frailties. Winds blew the standard proud. Smoke seemed to avoid it, and Hosking stood and saluted it a final time.
Satisfied with himself, Hosking went on. An abandoned hover jeep was still running not far away. Hosking casually dumped the dead driver over the side and put the vehicle in gear. His fingers danced over the control panel, each time bringing a new weapon on line. Hosking was unstoppable. Every so often, a Berserker mistakenly took him for an easy kill, and it was his delight to prove them wrong. The madness drove him on. Desperation warped a whistle into a gruesome song.