Barghest – Chapter 14

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Knock, Knock

Hour 1130, Day 113, Year 2148

One hundred-sixth anniversary of the closure of European Union borders to war refugees.  During the 14 month restriction, an estimated 150,000 die of starvation and disease in temporary camps outside of military checkpoints.

Maker watched Rodriguez reprogram the basebot with a combination of surprise and respect. It was an older version, blocky and painted an unattractive shade of green that was supposed to distinguish it from competitors’ models, but it had earned a reputation for poor-quality 3-D printing that quickly ended the contract from the Sol Coalition for purchase of the units. A meter tall cube which housed the printer sat on top of tank treads. Four articulating appendages allowed it to gather materials and then manipulate final products.  Basebots were used by every SC outpost to build initial fortifications and temporary housing. Two specialized arms were designed with broad scoops to gather source material – sand, dirt, or gravel – and feed it into the central printing system. The material was filtered, heated, and then extruded in whatever shape was necessary. Building blocks, interlocking pavers for temporary roads, even simple equipment such as helmets could be made by the ugly robots.

Her team of six, including herself, had been followed through the grass forest by a clunky robot. After a tedious walk far around the battlefield to reach a relatively unprotected side of the crater, Rodriguez had requested a halt under the canopy of grass to prepare the basebot. He had pried open the back panel. Then he had spent the next forty-five minutes murmuring sweet nothings to its innards. By the time he was finished, the robot would be modified to dig into the solid rock wall of the crater. It would be less noticeable, by far, than explosives, but Maker hadn’t really believed it might work. In fact, when she had suggested that det cord might reduce their chances of remaining covert, she hadn’t expected Rodriguez – or anyone else – to come up with an alternative. But he had. One that was both crazy and simple. Simply crazy, Maker thought.

“Come on, baby,” Rodriguez crooned, not for the first time. “You know you want to.” Maker glanced to the side uncomfortably. Kerry was purposefully staring straight ahead, watching the narrow strip of exposed ground between them and the crater, and ignoring Rodriguez. Gonzales looked a little turned on. Or not, Maker tried to reassure herself, that could just be gas. “Gotcha!” The private’s whispered exclamation drew the attention of the other two soldiers that had been assigned to guard their flanks.

“Are we good?” Maker asked.

“Just one more little – there.” He returned a calibration tool to his pack and typed in a final command before closing the access panel on the robot. “She’s good to go. Just get her up to the wall, and we’ll be inside before you can offer me your gratitude.”

“You don’t get gratitude, Fuzz,” Maker said, in an attempt to garner some degree of professionalism from him. “You get a paycheck. Which you cannot spend if we get mowed down by Cullers while we are waiting for your little friend to do its job. So, how fast will it be?”

Rodriguez did not appear chastised in the slightest. “You’re welcome, Sarge.” His eyes became a little unfocused. Maker was familiar with the gaze. The display provided by their standard issue contacts was essential to interfacing with each other, their weapons, and their environment, but a large amount of much information was difficult to process while still really seeing beyond the lens. Like a store window that had too many sales ads drawn on the glass: it could be nearly impossible to see the fresh produce behind all the words. “Looks like maybe ten-fifteen minutes at full power, but I think we should go slower. She’ll be quieter at lower speeds. I recommend 50%.”

Maker did some quick calculations. “You can have 80%, no less. Gonzales,” the other female soldier was already at attention, helmet in hand and ready for orders. “Keep your partner on our rear, I don’t want any surprises. Peters, set up for long-range support. I don’t want anything coming over the top at us.” The sniper, easily the most experienced of her team, nodded calmly and began to set up his rifle. The location wasn’t ideal, with the crater ridge another twenty meters above them, but it had been selected for the small hill where they had stopped to work on the basebot. The rise would give them a running start to reach the crater wall, and was the only advantage she could offer Peters. “Kerry, you’re on point until we reach the target, then you take left. I have right.”

Maker looked around at the faces of her team. Peters was just finishing his second tour. More than twenty years of experience in the Coalition had given him a hard expression, an iron backbone, and a wicked scar that deformed his nose and pulled the corner of his mouth down in a perpetual frown. Gonzales looked determined. Whatever trauma she had experienced from being trapped under her dead partner for eight hours had been shoved down so that she could do her job. The SC shrinks are going to have a field day with her when we get back, Maker thought with sympathy. The woman’s new partner was even greener than Rodriguez and the pallor of his face gave the impression that he might puke at any moment. Maker wouldn’t have held it against him, as long as he did it before they were under fire.

When she caught Kerry’s eye, he nodded. “Okay,” Maker said. She took a deep breath. “We get in, we look around, if we find something we can take advantage of, I’ll consider it. Priority one is to get whatever information we can on a weak spot back to the Major. Secondary is to cripple the enemy, if possible. Got it?” There were no questions – not that she had much of anything else to add – so Maker put on her helmet. The others did the same and she opened a comm to the team. “Everyone comes out of this.” She stared at their black, opaque face plates. It was supposed to be encouraging, but she could hear her own voice. She sounded too serious. Too low. Too real. She tried again, “Everyone goes home.” Maker was still certain that her words were more ominous than comforting, but there were nods of agreement around her, so she gave up trying.

“Hotel-Quebec, Hotel-Quebec, Hotel-Quebec,” she punched in her authorization code as she spoke, leaving her line open for the rest of her team to hear, “This is Zulu-actual, over.”

“This is Hotel-Quebec-niner, over.”

“This is Zulu, we are in position. Over.”

There was a slight delay, then, “This is HQ-actual.” Maker recognized the authority in the Major Ben Zvi’s voice. “Proceed as you will. Over.”

Her palms felt clammy in her gloves. “This is Zulu. Tango minus twenty-five. Over.”

“This is HQ-actual. Good Luck. Out.”

Maker’s heart shuddered under the weight of responsibility. There was a great deal left unspoken in that statement.

If you fail, another, even less experienced, team will be sent to sabotage the Culler ship. They will not come back.

If you fail, there is no one to pull you out.

If you fail, we will all die.

The countdown timer on her visual display turned red, indicating there were only ten seconds left. “Everyone goes home,” she repeated through the team channel. She didn’t have time to think about if she sounded encouraging or not. Commanding or not. Afraid or not. The timer hit zero. “Go, go, go!” Maker and her team rushed down the hill, the base bot following behind them. In the distance, the loud echo of heavy weapon fire reverberated along the crater wall, signaling that the rest of the Coalition forces had begun an assault to help conceal Maker’s approach. She was conscious of Peters on the hill, waiting for a Culler target to appear. Of Kerry, running just ahead of her, his weapon scanning with his eyes for danger. The sound of combined breaths over the comm was a quiet background for the percussive beat of her boots against the ground.

It was over in seconds, the mad sprint to the crater wall, but it was a full five minutes before Maker’s heart stopped racing. She dropped to one knee, rifle braced against her shoulder, watching for any approach. She did not turn to look at the others, hoping they were following orders. If they weren’t there was nothing she could do about it while still protecting their flank. Her proximity comm alerted her to Rodriguez’s progress. The wet, slicing sound of the basebot cutting into rock seemed loud in her ears.  She checked the decibel level. Acceptable. Not ideal, but acceptable.

After ten minutes, she spoke into the team channel, “Check in.”

“Left, clear,” Kerry said calmly.

“Rear One, clear,” said the rookie. His voice was still shaking. Whether from the run or nerves, Maker couldn’t tell.

“Rear Two, clear,” said Gonzales.

“Rear,” repeated Rodriguez with a chuckle, “I’ll bet you-”

“Mechanics,” Maker snapped. She had to work to keep from letting her smile into her voice. She was sure Gonzales was barely holding back from smacking Rodriguez.

“Mechanics, on target,” Rodriguez replied. “The volume is louder than-”

“Leave it,” Maker interrupted. She would have preferred that they work quieter as well, but speed was equally important. The longer they were exposed against the wall of the crater, the more likely it was they would be discovered. And shot. Or stabbed. Or slowly eviscerated and then quartered. Ground between beak and bone like hamburger. Another ten minutes had almost passed, and Maker was getting ready for a check-in, when Peters’ voice came through.

“Movement, on the ridge. Three unfriendlies. Twenty meters, left. Closing fast.”

Maker could feel the immediate tension in the team as easily as she could feel a twitch building in her neck. There were few things that unsettled a soldier quite like knowing the enemy was at their back.  “Hold positions. Mechanics, cut power.” The low whine of the basebot died off and the sound of cutting rock faded.

“Ten meters,” Peters said. “Slowing.” Maker held her breath and carefully put her finger on the trigger.  “Full stop,” Peters announced quietly. “Shooting solution for only two.” Maker knew there was no way that Peters would be able to hit all three. She trusted him if he said he could get two before they climbed down the crater wall, but even that would be a miracle of precision aiming and speed. If they were lucky, only one Culler would land on their position and kill two or three soldiers before they could take it down.  If they were unlucky, it would go for backup.

“Hold,” Maker ordered. There was still a chance that they hadn’t been spotted. She had chosen the location carefully, and the base bot was digging just under an odd rock outcropping. Unless the Cullers leaned far out over the side the ridge – purposefully looking – they might not notice there were five humans right underneath of them.  She toggled her ammunition for a gravity net. It could take a half dozen shots to bring down a Culler, and she doubted she would have time for more than two. The better play was to immobilize, rather than terminate.

“Recount,” Peters announced. Maker wanted to swear as the sniper kept adding worse news to bad. “Five unfriendlies. They’re…” his voice died out, then he swore creatively. “They’re moving a laser cannon. To your right, five meters and increasing. Ten…Twenty.”

The rookie let out a sigh of relief, but Maker felt sick. Although it had just become significantly easier for them to breach the crater, there was only one reason that the defensive weapon from the ridge above them would be moved. The Cullers were going to step up the assault on the base trenches. “Mechanics, resume. One hundred percent.” The Coalition forces had been barely holding on – if managing losses without any reinforcements and maintaining position could be called ‘holding on’. If the Cullers abandoned their defense plans and turned all of their firepower on the Coalition, it would be a bloodbath. They’ll be lucky to survive the day, thought Maker. The rasp of blades on rock and the whir of the water mister picked up pace and volume. There was no further talk on the comms, and Rodriguez quietly announced he was nearly finished only eight minutes later.

The robot backed out of the cut. Kerry stepped into the tunnel first. He had to turn almost sideways to fit through the narrow space, but after four meters he announced that it opened up into a wider passage. Lucky day, Maker thought with relief. She had explained to Rodriguez that the tunnels were a good guess, not a sure thing, and the fear that they had spent so much time and resources on a potential boondoggle had been weighing heavily on her. The others followed Kerry in, leaving Maker to bring up the rear.  She punched in the shutdown code on the basebot, then opened a direct channel to Peters.

“Four hours,” she said, to be certain he remembered the agreed upon wait time. “Keep this exit clear, if you can. But if you haven’t heard from us by then, blow the bot and get the hell out of here.”

“I thought ‘everyone goes home’,” Peters said, an impressively small amount of sarcasm in his voice.

“That includes you, veteran,” she answered. “I’ll take care of these yayhoos, you just keep yourself alive, and don’t let anyone airbomb my tunnels before time is up.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He had turned on the camouflage feature in his armor suit, and she could barely make out the flicker of movement as he saluted. Pink, feathery seeds and thick dark grasses swayed in a slight breeze around him.

“Damn straight,” she responded. She was gratified, as she entered the tunnel, to hear his snort of laughter before the rock of the crater prevented communications.

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