Just not a dollar short. I hope. Now that our dear general is dead and his successor has uttered the one word no military commander ever wishes to say (retreat, of course), let’s dig back in and see how the survivors are going to manage.
A ragged assortment of tanks and battle-scored APCs idled in a tight wedge. Gladak was rather impressed that so much was still recoverable. Darkness was setting in, already covering half of the Gorge. Memories of a similar situation wormed to his thoughts, though then it was strictly offensive and not an endeavor to live. The hole was clogged with the enemy and more dangerous now than when they had come in, but Gladak knew it was their only chance.
“All vehicles, listen up. This is Colonel Gladak. I am hereby assuming command of the division.” He paused to let the words sink in to those who refused to believe. “It’s time we punched out of this hellhole. Form up in a tight wedge behind the tanks, and be prepared to engage as necessary. Troop carriers form a blocking shield around the jeeps and ambulances. Questions?”
Silence was the reply.
“Battle positions. Form up behind me.”
The tanks were the first to organize and deploy. It was a splendid sight on a normal day and an even greater one in the throes of desperation. Progress was unduly slow from the beginning. Wounded were shuffled into an available space, and Berserker lines needed to be ground through. The Imperium lost more and more of its numbers with each engagement.
Gladak watched with muted sorrow as pockets of resistance too far away for his wedge to reach were crushed under the Berserkers’ weight. Hundreds more were going to die, and there seemed little he could do about it. The struggle to break free went on. A young bald woman impaled on a spike made the tank commander vomit. Steam was still escaping her stomach cavity, and her empty eyes stared back at him. The simple pain in her eyes reflected the last brittle moments of Helscape’s unique brand of suffering. A mutilated Berserker corpse lay at her feet in testament to her glory.
A pair of racing shadows made Gladak look up just in time to avoid being decapitated. His reflexes weren’t enough to keep the monster from crashing into him, nearly driving him from the tank. He heard the crunch of teeth sinking into his armor and the scales below. Gladak roared his pain. Sensing victory, the Berserker bit deeper. The dragon reached down for his boot knife before the Berserker bit a vital artery. Neither of them were expecting the sizzle of a single ion round fired from the tank commander’s blaster. The Berserker stared down his murderer and fell from the tank, his throat blown out.
“Nice shooting,” Gladak told him between varying degrees of pain and trying to fix himself with a first aid kit. “You know,” he went on, “I don’t even know your name.”
“It’s Hernron, sir.”
Hernron. That was a name he would remember until his dying day. “There’s a medal in this when we make it out of here.”
Hernron gave an exhausted smile. “Colonel, you can thank me best by giving me a month’s free leave if we get that far. I just want to see my family again.”
Gladak nodded. He was of a warrior race more adapt at fighting than saving lives. The simplicity of family life was a mystery to him, though he often found himself wondering about a future with a mate and hatchlings. He may just have to give it a try when his next leave came up.
“You going to be all right, sir?”
Gladak watched the scenario play out. It was caught in a circle. Each time he made an effort to reply, he was interrupted by ruthless outbreaks of violence. The redundancy of it all was taking a heaving toll. The engagement was entering its sixth hour with no sign of letting up.
“Colonel!” the driver called out. “We’ve got friendly forces dead ahead!”
It took him a minute to pick out exactly what was in front of them, but there was no concealing his excitement when he did. Another large mechanized force was battling its way through the Berserker ranks. There was hope after all.
Nearly a kilometer away from the command structure, Klausky and his men leapt from the APC’s ramp before the vehicle had a chance to come to a complete halt and began loading a group of wounded soldiers. This was the last group of wounded they’d be able to pick up, and he wasn’t about to let them die alone. Snake Eyes continued to crank out steady streams of fire to push the monsters back. Judging the way things were starting to look, he seriously doubted there’d be any more survivors to pick up. More than half of his squad was gone and it was going to take all he had left to ensure the others escaped.
“Let’s move it people!” Snake barked.
The Berserker struck with alarming quickness out of the endless sea of dead. It dove underground and came up under Lal-owk before Klausky finished snatching the last wounded trooper. Bones breaking and organs rupturing echoed through the immediate area. Blood came out Lal-owk’s eyes and mouth. He was dead long before the Berserker doubled his corpse backwards and pulled him underground. Klausky threw his rifle down and leapt to save his friend. Dazed and in pain, Seli reached out, managing to grab hold of his arm. Blood pumped out from the hole in the ground.
“Forget him!” Seli cried, less Klausky share the same fate.
“Let go of me. I’ve got to save him!”
She slapped him across the cheek. “I said forget him. He’s gone. Now snap out of it, or we’re going to join him!”
He knew she was right. There was only one thing left to do. Klausky pulled the pin of his last grenade and tossed it down the hole his best friend was murdered in. Tears ran down his face as the explosion reverberated underground. Humming hydraulics raised the back ramp, and the APC sped off.
Seli’s one good arm slipped around him and cried with him. “It’s all right,” she soothed. “We all lost a lot of good friends today.”
The massacre was complete, the devastation beyond incredible. Most of the major commands were ghostly remnants. Splinter groups were breaking free of the enemy and retreating back out Lucifer’s Gap. Trailing elements who’d never been directly engaged made it out with relative ease. The living were well beyond the extent of physical limitations, but stopping now meant instant suicide.
Snake Eyes was dead tired. He led the last fifteen survivors of the Fort Evans contingent along with a few hundred others back through the nightmare. Targets continued popping up on his screen, and he mercilessly gunned them down. The machine gun’s recoil shook his weary frame. His muscles were taunt and failing, his nerves on edge, but he fought on.
“Sarge! Check it out!” Xill cried with sudden elation.
Sounds of metal thunder rumbled from the depths of the smoke-hidden Gorge. The first tank broke through the smoke wall at half speed and stopped alongside Snake’s APC. More and more vehicles poured through until his force was nearly tripled. Combined, they were almost a regiment’s strength. Snake was impressed with the size of this new force.
“We sure are glad to see you guys,” Snake Eyes announced to the young looking officer in the tank.
“How many troopers do you have with you?” Hernron asked him. There would be time enough for pleasantries when they were in the rear.
“Maybe four hundred, but I wouldn’t count on half of them being able to fight.”
Recognition of the dragon behind the machine gunner confirmed Pierce’s death. That didn’t surprise Snake Eyes much. Most everyone appeared to have died this day.
Snake Eyes continued, “Way I see it, we’ve got a good-sized force and about four more clicks to the Gap. Let’s put our heads together and get the Hells out of here.”
“I couldn’t agree with you more, Sergeant,” Gladak interrupted. “Would you do the honor of leading this division back to the Gap?”
Snake grinned. Now that honestly did come as a surprise. He gave the dragon a half-salute, and his APC moved forward. Forced into full retreat and crushing the enemy at every opportunity, the 76th Assault Division marched homeward. Snake Eyes never once thought about slowing down. The dead be damned.
Helscape’s twin suns were almost below the horizon, just enough to bathe the lands in ghoulish shades of red. Tens of thousands of bodies lay heaped for as far as the eye could see. Hosking rode through the carnage in awe. Ghosts of the dead lined his path, forcing him down roads of their choosing. He tried swatting them away. The nearest ones dissolved back into the mist and reformed meters away.
“Leave me alone!” Hosking screamed when the torture became too much to bear.
He squeezed his eyes shut, begging for mercy. The ghosts laughed harder. Distress plucked the strings of his soul. His jeep struck one of the misery teeth at the entrance of Lucifer’s Gap. Metal and rock ground together in horrific noise. The impact threw Hosking through the wind guard and off into the cooling sands. Both hover fans snapped under the pressure, twisting together and causing the jeep to flip. Hosking’s head came to rest against a rock, and there he lay. He might have noticed the thousand or so soldiers racing around him and whisking him away if he’d been conscious.
Automatic weapons fire added to the ever-growing symphony of Imperium determination. Main battle tanks were joining at random, firing rounds as fast as they could be loaded. Vibrations jarred great slabs of rock from the canyon walls loose. They came crashing down as if offering a makeshift grave for the fallen.
Nathan was trying his best to put all of that out of his mind. The woman’s weight was more than enough to occupy his thoughts for the time being. His muscles were being pushed to their limits. His only relief came from the fact that the battle was beyond them now. There was no way of knowing how many were still alive to fight. Numb from the shock and severity of the battle, Nathan tried suppressing his emotions. There’d be time enough to grieve when they were safe back in Black Tide. His worries were enough to drown a normal man, but this was not a normal situation.
The high canyon walls suddenly gave way to the open desert. Nathan never would have thought that a place so utterly devoid of life could be so heartening. Courage and fresh praise washed his senses clean. His mind wanted to run the last leg home, but his body screamed otherwise. Black Tide was still six kilometers away.
The Berserker came from behind one of the huge rock teeth and stopped. All of the hope that had been building in Nathan died. There was no way he was going to be able to set her down and bring his rifle up before the monster struck. Saffron fires burned in the monster’s eyes. The sword it held was bloody and warped from overuse but still sharp enough for one more. Without any indication, the Berserker stepped to the side with lazy gesture. “Go,” whispered the monster.
Nathan weighed his options. The Berserker had him dead to rights, so they were dead either way. He also knew there wasn’t going to be a second chance. Nathan adjusted his load and walked on, not believing what was happening. The Berserker was gone by the time Nathan turned his head around.
The woman finally stirred a few hundred meters later. “Where are we?” she asked in a voice laden with pain.
“Almost at the gates of paradise.”
“Who are you?”
The combination of her inquiry and the mysterious Berserker forced him to laugh.
“Nathan. And you are?”
“Emerald.” She paused at the sound of his continued laughing. “What’s going on? What happened to me? I don’t remember anything after my vehicle blew.’
“You broke your leg, and I’m trying to save you. Both of us, actually. I’m not a medic, so try not to complain about the pain. We’ll have to wait until we get into town to get it looked at.”
“Unless we get killed in the process,” she offered.
Those weren’t the words Nathan wanted to hear from her.
Any good-natured feelings Snake Eyes had quickly fled. The tiny Imperium force of roughly three thousand men and women stood only a short hundred meters from a Berserker line of nearly ten thousand. It stretched across the Gap and presented an almost insurmountable challenge. Bravery wasn’t going to save them here.
Snake Eyes had joined the army for a couple of reasons. One was to get off of his own world and go places. The second and more prominent was to escape the law. They weren’t overly fond of hustlers and card sharks in his home town. Nothing in his past could have prepared him for what he did next. His cannon started firing into the enemy lines with a hail of blue streaks. Xill didn’t wait for the order to move out. He hit the acceleration and plunged into the Berserkers.
The smell of acrid smoke and burnt bodies concealed them from the remaining force in the Gorge. A wide path of death opened up to allow them just enough room to break into the open desert.
Snake Eyes looked behind him in time to witness dozens of other vehicles winning free. He finally allowed his smile to win over.
“Ha ha! We did it!” he bellowed to anyone willing to listen. His joy was short lived. The division was a tattered ruin, but at least the enemy hadn’t advanced on any of the major cities.
Helscape remained free, but the future was anything but certain. Now that the immediate threat was passed he was able to calm down slightly. It would take hours yet before the adrenalin rush faded and the bitter realization of what they’d just endured hit him. He couldn’t say why, but a stray thought entered his mind. Snake Eyes thought about the portal under Rook Mountain, and a shiver ran through him. What was to say it led to just one other world? If the Berserkers got off world, the universe might be in jeopardy. High-pitched screams announced air support called in by Hernron. Imperium bombs kept the Berserker hordes from advancing into the open desert, not that it mattered. This day belonged to the enemy.