You know, it’s strange that things ended up this way. I’d pretty much always known that I wasn’t meant to die in a bed. Here I am, though. The doc says it’s a miracle I’ve lasted this long. He sounded more annoyed than impressed. I’m more work than a corpse, I guess.
He can eat me. He may have to if the Fleet can’t break the blockade soon. We’ve got warp drives and lasers and gravity fields and whatnot, but you can still take a base with tactics from the First Dark Age. Crazy.
Command has always said the Echoes struck first. I used to believe them. Then I doubted. Now I don’t care. The war’s been around longer than I have, and it’ll last long after I’m gone. If I don’t kill Echoes, they kill me. That’s enough.
Echo just means enemy, in case you never figured that out. It’s E in the military alphabet. We don’t even have an ethnic slur for them, just an abbreviation. Brilliant.
I made it to the front during Operation Certain Judgment II. Command ran out of cool operation names the year before I enlisted. The first time I saw a man die, it was friendly fire, which isn’t, as the saying goes. I probably should’ve realized this was all bullshit then.
My unit was part of Eighth Army. The mission was simple. Echo had a planet. We wanted the planet. Echo had to die.
An orbital combat drop is way more boring than you’d think. Thanks to the null inertia thingadigger, you’d never know we were hurtling out of the sky faster than a sniper round. The dropship was presumably weaving wildly, dodging missiles, triple alpha, and whatever flying wildlife this planet had. Tucked into the troop bay, we may as well have been standing in ranks on the parade ground.
Of course, if the thingadigger stopped working for whatever reason, we’d be splattered all over the walls, ceiling, and/or floor, kickass power armor notwithstanding. I don’t think most of the platoon appreciated this risk. I might have been the only one who knew about the thingadigger.
Everyone was familiar with the Mark IX Advanced Cybernetic Infantry Combat Exoskeleton. There’s nothing quite like having a two-ton engine of death tied directly into your nervous system. The Mark IX had the latest Spinal Tap Control Matrix, finally supporting tactile feedback. They said it was the greatest advance in mind-machine interfaces since the Mark III solved the problem where connecting the STCM overloaded your nervous system and killed you 17% of the time.
I’d mostly convinced myself I wasn’t nervous. That weird tension in my guts was simply excitement. We were finally going to waste some Echoes after almost a year in boot. We were still inexperienced enough to feel inspired. Endurance, marksmanship, escape and evasion, tactics, interrogation resistance, STCM terminal implantation, full spectrum body enhancement, we’d been through it all. Now it was clobbering time.
That’s what Sarge kept shouting, anyway. “I see in front of me a lean, mean, badass killing machine!” There were a few answering whoops. Sarge stood facing the ranks, still as a statue. “We are here to do two things. Find the enemy! Kill the enemy! And don’t think for one second you need to do it in that order!”
Anyway, there I was, trying to let Sarge’s tirade get my adrenaline flowing, but it just made me feel stiff and cramped. With my armor powered down for the drop (you never want to run out of fusion at a bad time in this business), I couldn’t move my body, let alone pound a fist in the air or otherwise demonstrate pumpedness.
Sarge built to a crescendo. “Who are we?” The armor’s short-range communications worked in standby mode, fortunately for Sarge’s speech.
“Bravo Company!” answered a hundred voices, including mine.
“What are we?”
“Dogs!” Short for Wardogs, which sounded cooler but had too many syllables.
“Who are we?”
“What are we?”
“What do we do?”
“Kill! Kill! Kill!”
Sarge threw back his head in ecstasy. “What! Do! We! Do?”
“Kill! Kill! Kill!”
“Damn fucking straight!” Sarge growled in what I took to be bloodlust. Looking back, I think he might have thrown out his back trying to move in his armor at that point.
We were five minutes from the drop zone. My foot was trying to set up a little jiggling dance inside several hundred pounds of armored boot. I knew it was just frustration at being trapped in a flying box while there were enemies to kill. I tried to focus on keeping my foot still. I didn’t need a cramp.
I turned my head as far as I could to the left and was just able to see Private Baumgartner in the rank behind me. I smiled and felt my toes stop tapping. Baumgartner was the pride of the company. Nothing about the job was hard for him. He was the best shot, the best athlete, the best damn soldier. Just minutes from our first action, and he looked vaguely bored. He looked the same whether he was fighting, marching, working, or undergoing an insanely painful surgical procedure without anesthetic. (How much fun did you think implanting a Spinal Tap Control Matrix was?)
Everyone had expected Baumgartner to become a platoon corporal, but he’d refused the promotion. Obviously, this was back when you could still do that. “Just a grunt eh?” Sarge had said, hiding his surprise, “Well, I can respect that. You’re damn good at the dirty work, that’s for damn sure.” Everyone accepted that explanation, especially Richards, who ended up making corporal.
My gaze was suddenly ripped downward by a sharp metallic clank. A particularly close flak burst had penetrated the outer hull and raised a rough patch of bumps in the floor. My heart started to pound just a bit. I was pretty sure the thingadigger wouldn’t work right if the troop bay was punctured. I looked back up. Baumgartner was still bored. I managed a soft chuckle.
We were two minutes out. The whirring growl of a fusor cell spinning up filled the troop bay. “This is it boys and girls!” shouted Sarge, slowly raising his armored fist as he powered up, “Light ’em up! Lock and load!” The noise quickly became deafening as a hundred sets of power armor came online.
My helmet snapped down over my head and sealed, plunging me into total darkness for a few seconds until the viewer powered up. My hands gave a sharp jolt as the servos in the gauntlets activated. I slowly flexed my fingers as the diagnostics scrolled across my vision. I stomped my feet a couple times and shrugged my shoulders. The armor was alive.
I switched the viewer to tactical and started the targeting calibration. The toys were always my favorite part of the job. I had a standard infantry loadout: DFX-119 Vladimir gauss cannon mounted on the right arm, F-5 Perdition flamethrower on the left. A SkyLance EVR rocket cluster on either shoulder. Wrist-mounted snap-out laser chainsaws for the close-in work. Built in bottle opener.
Over the course of my career, I’ve found that the infantry is primarily a lot of yelling and a lot of strangers trying to kill you. It’s important not to lose sight of the fact that you can always get your beer open and you have a huge cannon.
“Weapons check!” yelled Sarge. I smiled at being ahead of the game. Sarge paced up and down the front rank, “We’re gonna make sure the second wave ain’t got nothin’ to do but clean up our mess! You’ll be useless or dead with a jammed loader!”
I traversed my huge cannon from right to left. The targeting system was dead on. I had rotated almost all the way around when I noticed Baumgartner. He hadn’t powered up. He was rooted in place, power armor nothing but dead weight. He still looked bored.
“Baumgartner, you spaced out?” I asked, thumping over to him. “Get your fire started.”
“Shut the hell up!” bellowed Sarge. Too late, I realized that my transmitter had activated when my helmet engaged. I was broadcasting to the entire company while Sarge was trying to give orders. On the tactical map, the dot representing Sarge moved toward my position. I turned to see him closing in. “I talk, you listen! It’s a simple rule! How would you like to . . .” Sarge trailed off as he noticed Baumgartner, still powered down.
“What’s the goddamn holdup here?” he demanded, leaning in towards Baumgartner’s exposed face as I backed away as softly as my massive death armor allowed. I’m gonna assume you just didn’t hear me the first time, Baumgartner!” continued Sarge, “Get your gear powered up! We got two minutes, boy! Clobberin’ time!” Baumgartner didn’t even glance at Sarge. If anything, he looked a little more bored than usual.
“Look at me when I’m talkin’ to you, soldier!” shouted Sarge, going into his best parade-ground mode. “No time for napping! There’s Echoes that need killing out there! You better not be losin’ your nerve on me! Sack up!”
Finally, Baumgartner looked up at Sarge, “Don’t see why I should,” he said. I’m sure he shrugged under this inert armor.
Muttering filled the comm channel. The general sentiment seemed to be, “What the hell?”
Sarge’s bellow cut everyone off, almost blowing out my speakers, “Shut the hell up Wardogs!” With a snap and a hiss, Sarge’s helmet unsealed and retracted. He went face to face with Baumgartner. “I beg your pardon? You should because it’s your job! You should because it’s our mission! You should because I told you to!”
Baumgartner had evidently explained the situation to his satisfaction and said nothing. Corporal Richards’ voice crackled over comm, “Sir, one minute to target.”
Sarge ignored him. The veins in his neck looked like they were straining to contain the pressure. “There’s a goddamn war out there! You power up and get ready to kick some ass or I will have you court martialed and shot for cowardice and desertion. Are you reading me?
The chatter on comm had picked up. No one knew what we were supposed to do. The dropship would touch down any second. Everyone went silent as Sarge stood straight and raised his cannon arm, pointing the weapon directly at Baumgartner’s head. “I’m done with you Baumgartner! No court-martial. You obey my orders or so help me God I will blast your brains out right fucking here!”
Someone gasped. I wanted to shout at Baumgartner to power up. My mouth opened, but I couldn’t get any words out. He probably wouldn’t have heard me anyway. For his part, Baumgartner didn’t react at all to staring down the barrel of a huge cannon.
There was an loud clang as Sarge’s cannon chambered a round. “This is your last chance, you fucking coward! POWER UP NOW!”
We all knew this had to be a mistake. Some glitch, a technical fault. Baumgartner would power up his armor any second. He was the best of us. With him on our team we’d stomp the planet flat.
Instead, he yawned. “Don’t see why I sh . . .”
The crack-hiss of the shot was deafening in close quarters, even through my helmet. Sarge had set the cannon to low-velocity so as not to blast a hole in the hull. The white-hot spike had apparently cauterized everything on its way into the aft bulkhead. There wasn’t a drop of blood. Baumgartner’s power armor just stood there ludicrously, a toy soldier without a head.
I heard someone retching on comm. All I could think to do was read and reread the status flash on my tactical display: “Baumgartner, R. 547-88-9746. NULL COMBAT FUNCTION.” I found out later that NULL COMBAT FUNCTION only referred to the armor. Someone could be slowly bleeding to death inside a disabled suit and the tactical display would never tell us. I wonder how many wounded men we left behind before we realized that. I know how many it was afterwards. Lots.
Sarge seemed frozen, ready to fire but now lacking a target. “Anyone else got a problem—” His voice croaked.
The red light came on as the bay doors flew open. The pilot’s voice echoed over the comm, “Go! Go! Go!”
“Fuck!” shouted Sarge. “Form up!” His helmet sealed as he pushed his way to the front of the company. His growling bluster seemed restored, “Into the fire Wardogs! Let’s do this!”
We were four seconds late making it out of the drop ship and landed in the middle of a goddamn minefield instead of our landing zone. Sarge went NULL COMBAT FUNCTION immediately. He must’ve landed on one. We started taking fire as soon as the last man hit the deck.
Being trapped in the open in the middle of a minefield while taking fire from multiple elevated positions doesn’t help much with unit discipline. We took something like 60% casualties in the two minutes it took for an evac drop ship to get to us. The whole thing was a disaster.
As it happened, the only KIA we brought back with us was Baumgartner.