A magenta zone appeared on Knowles’ tactical display, indicating the enemy’s probable LZ. As the zone contracted, he knew where they were going to go: their original landing zone, the one place in the area of operations the Horde knew that was far away from the legion’s guns and free of obstacles.
A green diamond materialized on the map.
“Polaris Two callsigns, Two-Six,” MacYoung said. “Move to the indicated position on the display at top speed. Don’t stop for anything.”
Gathering his men around him, Knowles dashed through the forest. No enemies to the front, legionaries to his sides, map at thirty percent transparency. Twigs and dry leaves snapped underfoot. Branches broke against his helmet and suit.
His suit would only bear the weight of his kit. Half a minute in and his body betrayed him. His lungs burned, his chest tightened, his knees ached. He missed his legionary sleeve; in it he could sprint all day without panting.
The map became a splotch of red.
“Skyflash, skyflash, skyflash.”
The world behind him erupted in dazzling blasts of light. He leapt away, pressing himself against a tree trunk.
“All callsigns, Hunter Six. High Guard reports clusters of enemy ships overhead our position on an eccentric orbit with steep inclination. We’ll be in their sights for the next eight minutes. We can’t wait them out.”
Brilliant green light seared through his visor. Knowles grimaced, turning away from the sight. When exposed and on the move, there was only one defense against orbital fires.
“Spread out!” Knowles yelled. “Spread out and keep moving!”
His lungs closed off. Blood pounded in his temples. His breath came and went in ragged spurts. His strength ebbed. But every time he faltered, a volley of green lasers blasted somewhere behind him.
And they were getting closer.
He could see the enemy dropships now, a constellation of shooting stars streaking towards him. At least two dozen of them, burning for the landing zone.
Finally, he reached the edge of the clearing. Gasping, he knelt by a blackened stump. Blood rushed to his head, leaving him dizzy. He pressed himself against the dead wood and keyed the mic.
“Polaris... Two-One... Bravo. On... me,” he wheezed.
One by one his men checked in. They sounded fresh and hearty. Good. He could count on them to get this job done.
“Polaris Two Six... to Polaris Two callsigns. Enemy dropships making... final approach. When you have... eyes on—”
A slash of green light cut off the transmission.
Knowles waited a second for the platoon sergeant to take over. Nothing happened. He waited another five seconds. No response. He keyed the mic.
“Polaris Two... this is... Two-One Bravo. Fire at will.”
The forest came alive with the sound of war. Hypervelocity missiles screamed and coilguns sang. Leading the nearest target, he fired a long, long burst. A heartbeat later, the dropship sharply veered away and vanished in a ball of light.
Lasers blasted into the forest, igniting a wall of flame. The HV missiles went silent. Then the squad support weapons. Bright green diamonds flashed from the surviving dropships as they discharged their own lasers. Pop-up windows appeared at the bottom of his visor.
All this Knowles noted, and ignored. His coilgun found another target. He led the target. Emptied his magazine. Wayne, KIA. He reloaded, saw the target go down in flames. Saw a third target. Lake, KIA. He fired, a bright green flash—
The stump exploded, flinging him to the ground. For a moment, he lay stunned. There was a pinprick against his neck, then cool liquid flooded his veins. Painkillers.
He couldn’t feel his left arm. Gulping, he looked.
It was a blackened, bleeding ruin. His left leg was no better. The suit’s smart fabrics compressed and sealed the wounds. Grunting, he dragged himself to a natural depression in the floor. Right arm, right leg, right arm, right leg, inch by bloody inch.
Propping himself up, he searched for more targets. Three more dropships. The gunfire around him had petered out. But he still had a weapon, still had a hand to shoot it with. He aimed at the nearest dropship, flicked to semi-auto and snapped off a few quick rounds. Aimed at the other, shot it a few more times. Green lights flashed. He was still alive, so he shot up the third one. Scanned, saw two more dropships active. He fired at one, shot the other, went back and forth, firing and firing, ignoring the incoming lasers, the explosions around and behind him, he shot and shot and shot and the lasers and the dropships were approaching and he fired and—
There were no more targets.
He blinked. Lowered his weapon. Looked.
The dropships were crashing and burning.
The last of his strength fled him. Heaving a massive sigh, he lay against the welcoming earth. He wasn’t giving up, no, just taking a quick break, that’s all, just long enough so he could get back into the fight and...
“All callsigns, Hunter Six. Cease fire, cease fire. The enemy is surrendering. We’ve won.”
The Horde cut their losses. A couple of hours after the Horde infantry surrendered, the warships fled the sector. It wasn’t as complete a victory as Knowles would have preferred, but he’d take it.
Reinforcements finally arrived the following morning. Too little, too late, but at least they took the prisoners off their hands. With more Regulars on station, the Reservists—the survivors—were finally demobilized.
The doctors couldn’t fix Knowles’ arm and leg. Too much damage. They’d replaced the damaged limbs with prostheses and placed him on the priority list for a resleeve into a civilian-grade body. He’d be back in the prime of his life, they’d assured him, and the treatment would be free of charge.
That was good news. Even better, the rest of his team had been resurrected in their old bodies. But MacYoung and so many more had died forever. Colonel Fox would arrange the funerals. Knowles would attend, of course, but that could wait. For now, he had one last duty to discharge.
Backpack shouldered, duffel bag in hand, he stepped off the taxi and examined his home. The fighting had been fierce here, and the house bore its battle scars. Busted windows, taped over. Loopholes in the walls, filled with putty. Broken roof tiles, scarred door, scorch marks. No matter. He could rebuild.
He rang the doorbell. Waited.
The door opened, revealing Laura, Julie, Alex and Joan.
“Dad!” Laura shrieked.
The children flung themselves at him. Dropping his bag, he scooped them up in his arms. Joan joined the huddle, tears flowing from her eyes.
“Dad,” Alex said, “are... are you...?”
“I’m home,” Sam Knowles said.
For more military science fiction mixed with a heavy dose of fantasy, check out my latest novel HAMMER OF THE WITCHES