The second-place story by Kevin Stotts and Laura Marinchek in the 2020 Antares Action Fiction Competition.
Bright bursts of plasma streaked over the lip of the crater, exploding into the nearby hillside and showering bits of scorched earth across the strike troopers huddled within.
We’re all going to die.
The realization of their impending doom set in as new information played across Commander Argo’s visor screen. The IMTel was attempting to coordinate a rapid retreat of all forces. Their spearhead into the Ghar’s position had failed.
The NuHu would not be getting the prize they had committed so many lives to obtain.
Concord warships were now maneuvering to position themselves over the battlefield. They were to engage the Ghar with an orbital bombardment intended to screen the withdraw.
The Commander looked around at his surviving troopers; only three remained from his own squad, two had made it back from Kyron’s, and one member of Gael’s Hantale survived, though their damaged interface and closed visor prevented him from knowing their identity.
More plasma struck the lip of the crater causing the troopers to press further into the thick mud.
The Ghar’s counterattack will reach our position within moments.
A shell went off dangerously close to the troopers, shorting out their spotter drone and causing it to fall lens first into the mire below. The last images it relayed were of two battlesuits trudging determinately towards them.
We’re all going to die.
Argo looked up into the driving rain, past the clouds, and knew they were currently pinned down within the zone of the coming bombardment. He could feel his trooper’s panic and dread through their combat shard and struggled to hide his own.
“We need evac immediately!” he shouted to the IMTel.
“Evacuation from your current position is unlikely to succeed and will more likely cause further casualties.” The voice of the answering IMTel was flat, no emotion, just pure statistical reality behind each cold word.
The IMTel is never wrong… thought Argo. “Then what is our advised course of action?” he demanded.
“Engaging the enemy will certainly result in 100% casualties. Retreat on foot from your current position is unlikely to succeed and will more likely cause further casualties.”
“Is there any support available!?” Argo pleaded, knowing full well if there was an option the IMTel would have already executed.
“All C3 elements are in full retreat to extraction zone theta and extraction zone lambda. The redirection of any forces would unlikely aid in your retreat and will more likely cause further casualties”.
Another shell exploded violently next to the crater, casting its distorting energies over them. In an instant their connection the rest of the combat shard was ripped away.
Argo snapped his dead visor back up into his helmet, exposing a solemn expression. Each trooper followed suit, retracting their visors. He could see the panic and dread he had sensed on each of their faces. He felt his spirit lift when the Hantale trooper lifted her visor and he met her gaze: Gael had survived to this point. She squinted hard in the rain as she searched his eyes with all three of her own, then hoarsely shouted, “What the gorram hell are we going to do?” She never minced words.
Panic lodged in his throat as he desperately searched for an answer that could save his troopers from annihilation. Turning away, Argo pulled himself up the lip of the crater and peered over. The two battlesuits were now only a few yan away.
I can save them.
Argo slid back down and turned to face his terrified troopers. “There’s only one chance…” he said half to himself, “Your grenades – give them to me!”
The troopers followed his command as more plasma cut through the air above them.
“When I say move you all need to get over that hill as fast as you can! Zone Lambda is just beyond the next ridge! Don’t stop pushing or you’re dead!” Argo ordered, as he struggled to affix the grenades to his belt.
“I don’t understand!?” protested Gael as she shielded her face from the heavy rain.
Argo reached out, grabbed Gael by the collar of her armour, and shouted in her face “That’s an order trooper! Now get ready to move!”
“What the hell are you doing!?” Gael demanded.
“Beating the odds!” cried Argo, then sprang forward and clambered out of the crater. “Now, move!” He charged forward, carbine blazing.
Bursts of plasma erupted from the lead battlesuit’s gun arm striking the ground beneath Argo, severing his right leg at the knee, and hurling him forward. The air was knocked free of his lungs when he hit the ground and the momentum sent him careening across the slick mud coming to rest just beneath the lead battlesuit.
The uncaring Ghar continued their advance and Argo had to roll to escape being crushed by the battlesuit’s mechanical back leg.
I can save them!
He forced himself to sit up and removed his utility belt.
Focus on me gorramit!
He quickly primed each of the grenades.
I can save them!
With a desperate roar he whipped the belt forward with an overhead swing. Several of the grenades affixed themselves with a sharp metal twang upon contact with the heavy metal plating. A moment later the grenades detonated, punching holes through the thick armour and causing the unstable reactor within to explode. Both battlesuits were caught in the deadly blast and instantly torn asunder.
Watching the plasma fires burn, Argo accepted his fate and slumped back into the mud. He lay there a moment looking up into the storm wracked sky before closing his eyes. He became lost in his own thoughts for a moment only to be brought back to reality by the sudden feeling of being hoisted from the mire. He opened hisd eyes. “Gael!” he exclaimed in confusion. “Leave me!”
“No time to argue,” she cried back, slinging his arm over her shoulders. “You’re quite the hero, but I can’t let you hog all the glory!”
If you enjoyed this story, the overview page with links to all the winners can be found here.