Home > Chains of Command(6)

Chains of Command(6)
Author: Marko Kloos

The new rifles have new ammunition, developed by the R&D section at Aberdeen Proving Grounds. With dozens of Lanky bodies at our disposal after the Battle of Earth last year, R&D has had no shortage of ballistic testing material. Lanky skins are thick and almost impossibly tough—even the old armor-piercing shells from our autocannons bounced off half the time—but they’re not impenetrable. It turns out that shooting grenades or fléchettes at a Lanky is mostly pointless. The new ammo is truly evil stuff, saboted subcaliber penetrators that work like hypodermic needles. They hit the Lanky, pierce the skin, release a hundred centiliters of explosive gas, and then ignite the mess. The Lanky on the field in front of the terraformer rolls to one side and lies still, its chest blown out from the inside by a few liters of aerosolized explosive. I’ve never seen what a round like that would do to a human being, and I really hope I never do, because this ammo can take a hundred-ton Lanky down with just a few well-placed hits.

In theory, I remind myself. We’ve tested the new rounds on Lanky corpses, but we haven’t had a chance to use them in combat yet. It’s all conjecture based on dead-meat terminal ballistics, but the gas rounds make an unholy mess out of a dead Lanky, and I have no reason to believe they won’t ruin the day of a live one.

The troops on the roof are still in the middle of their self-congratulatory cheer when I send in the next wave. The cheering ebbs when they hear the thundering footsteps in the fog and mist in the distance. Again, I am cheating a little. When I lived through this scenario in real life over six years ago, the second wave was made up of three more Lankies. We had just a squad then, with fléchette rifles, and no hope of stopping three of those things from tearing up the terraformer. Because these troops are a full platoon with much better rifles, I send in not three, but six more Lankies. Let them have a little challenge.

The squad leaders bellow orders again, and the platoon engages the newcomers. I study the camera feeds and the tactical display as they re-form their line and assign fire teams to individual Lankies, just like they should. Two fire teams per squad, three squads per platoon, four rifles per Lanky, five rounds in each rifle between reloads. I’m having the Lankies cross the distance as fast as we know they can move, a kilometer per minute. That doesn’t leave much room for errors on the part of the platoon. Alerted and ready for trouble, the Lankies advance with their cranial shields in front of them, and they bob and weave as if they are walking into a hailstorm as the platoon unloads on them. Their head shields are too tough for anything man-portable in our arsenal—even armor-piercing MARS rockets will just chip off bits—and most of the rifle rounds expend themselves harmlessly in small puffs of aerosolizing gas.

“Aim for the joints,” Sergeant Fisher yells into his squad channel. The recruits shift their fire, but many of the shots miss the relatively much smaller limb joints of the Lanky bodies.

Not as easy as a static target that doesn’t come charging for you, is it? I think and smile to myself. Every last one of these recruits can pot a target the size of a helmet at five hundred meters with those computerized rifles, but it’s much harder to aim true when you’re scared to death and out of breath.

The Lankies advance into the rifle fire, heads bowed, rounds shattering against their shields, fragments kicking up dust in the dirt beneath their three-toed feet. The closer they get to the terraformer, the more precise the rifle fire from the three squads becomes. At two hundred meters, one of the Lankies falls with a wail and doesn’t get back up, its leg joints destroyed by half a dozen exploding gas rounds. At one hundred meters, another goes down, flailing and screaming. A third one falls a mere fifty meters from the terraformer. The other three are at the building a second or two later. Two of them just crash into the wall, sending simulated debris flying everywhere. The third hooks its fingers into the edge of the roof and pulls itself up. The squads retreat away from the Lanky, still firing in good order, but they started their pullback just a second or two too late. Lankies can move much faster than their size and awkward physiology suggests. The Lanky lashes out with a spindly arm and almost casually wipes it across the front occupied by Second Squad. Six of their ten icons on my tactical display are snuffed out as the Lanky strikes a simulated killing blow that takes out over half the squad in a second or two. The Lanky exists only in the computer, of course, so the “dead” troopers didn’t get most of their bones broken by a million joules of impact energy. Instead, their suit computers just turn off their optical and audio feeds, lock their visors in the lowered position to render their owners blind and deaf, and freeze the power-assisted joints on their battle armor suits. The six “dead” recruits fall where they died a simulated death, and they’ll stay in that spot until I tell the computer to unfreeze them.

The rest of the platoon do a cover-and-retreat drill, rushing back across the expanse of the roof until they reach the single access door to the interior of the terraforming station. At this short range, the rifle fire from the M-90s is a devastating fusillade, and while most of the gas rounds hit the Lanky’s impenetrable cranial shield, some make their way past it and blow bits and pieces off the limbs. Three or four rounds hit the upper chest of the Lanky nearly simultaneously and explode, and the Lanky lets out an earsplitting wail and slides off the roof again, mortally wounded. Then the computer decides that the other two Lankies have done enough structural damage to the building to make the front of it collapse. Half the platoon is inside the building, in the hardened staircase, but the other half is still on the roof that suddenly acquires a seventy-degree downward pitch, and a dozen more icons blink out of existence on the tactical display as the computer declares their owners casualties.

The sim is almost perfect. The sensory details are dead-on—the Lanky wails and the thundering sounds of their footsteps, the leaden sky above, the rain squalls and thick mists of a Lanky-occupied world. I have no doubt that the recruits feel as if they really are on a colony world, fighting the good fight for humanity. But it’s only almost perfect. I’ve been in this scenario for real many times, and I know what’s missing from the sim. As real as the computer can make it for the recruits, turning the Utah desert into a far-off Lanky world without breaking a computational sweat, deep down they all know they’re not in real peril. They don’t look up at that ash-gray sky with the knowledge that home is thirty light-years away, and that they are the only humans in the entire star system, the nearest members of their own species a dozen light-years away. They don’t have the cold knowledge in the back of their heads that if the battle goes wrong, nobody will ever be around to collect dog tags, or even know about their deaths, for maybe decades, if at all.

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