Jeff stood in a medium-sized green rectangular trailer loaded with radar screens and computers. The trailer was part of an assortment of other vehicles including Humvees and a large mobile radar that could be assembled and disassembled. This was the very useful Ground Theater Air Control System or GTACS. For the past two hours, Jeff and Captain Hicks had been going over the reports that were coming in through satellite communications or from word-of-mouth intelligence sources. As they did so, the pair of aviators anxiously awaited what would come to be called the Battle of Fort Chocktahatchee by those who would survive it. Jeff knew that if there was still anyone around to study human history in years to come, few would consider the coming fight to be of any great significance as battles go. It was going to be far less impressive than many of the battles already fought against the alien threat in any case.
This was certainly not the first ground battle between the invaders and the desperate defenders of Earth. That honor had gone to Australia's tough mechanized infantry, who had found themselves quickly outmatched and driven into the wilds of the outback.
Africa was quickly overrun by an overwhelming amount of force. It just seemed like overkill to Jeff, considering it had many of the least developed nations of the world. More reports indicated that thousands of refugees were trying to flee to the Middle East, and there were whisperings of limited guerrilla warfare in those areas. Strangest of all were reports of a huge, odd and mysterious facility appearing on the African landscape. Somehow, a brave Kenyan agent for the CIA had managed to collect grainy photos of it and beam them to a secret operating center in the United States. While he glanced at the photos again, Jeff wondered briefly just who was in charge of the CIA and exactly what exactly was left of it. The picture, possibly taken from the slopes of one of the Eastern Arc Mountains, displayed an elevated view of a strange dark spire structure rising out of the African plain. The spire looked like a tower for some dark, magical fortress from a world where elves and goblins warred. It was gnarled and twisted, and supported at the base in the same way a video recorder stand would be, by three extendable legs that pierced deep into the earth. The tower was so massive that it did not appear to need the support of these legs at all, and the earth beneath the base was crumbled, as if the tower were a giant stake driven into the ground. The whole monstrosity was framed in a cloverleaf pattern of interconnected tubes, which were bristling with what Jeff knew must be power centers and weaponry.
Jeff set the photos aside and reviewed his notes.
The Chinese had fared well enough, bogging down the alien advance with sheer numbers, but they were taking heavy casualties. Nearby in Japan, refugees were fleeing to mainland Asia in as many ships as could escape while the fledgling but brave defense force tried to buy the people time. Japanese and Koreans found themselves working together against a common foe, and so many past grievances between peoples seemed to instantly evaporate.
The island nations of the United Kingdom found themselves in a similar situation as Japan, yet the British evacuation went more easily, as the invaders had not yet located the tunnel that ran beneath the English Channel. Refugees fled in droves on foot through the tunnel, only to face the peril of trying to find a way past alien forces congregating in France. The British military was concentrated in a small area, making them proverbial fish in a barrel for the invaders. Yet a few pockets of resistance still dug in and stubbornly awaited the coming onslaught. Germany and a few of the northern European nations attempted dangerous reinforcement missions to Britain while nations of the former Soviet Union joined forces with the remainder of Europe in preparation for a massive counteroffensive.
The Russian military itself was still in very good shape at this point. The gravity weapons had indeed crippled their forces near the large cities, but the doctrine of the former Soviet Union had preserved much of Russia's fighting forces. The former Soviet Union had made it its priority to have the most deadly system of surface-to-air missiles in the world, supplemented by a strong defensive air force. Thus, even though the aliens outmatched Russia in the air as brutally as all the world's air forces, the Red Army's integrated air defense system was able to wreak some havoc with alien landing and support vehicles that proved to be unshielded. Russia restored limited communications faster than most militaries and coordinated a quick movement of forces in defense of the motherland.
Eventually, the fleeing remnants of the militaries of the Middle East, India, Japan, and Korea, plus whoever could escape the islands of the South Pacific all united in Russia to reorganize and strike back at the alien menace. Israeli and Arab, Chechen rebels, Christian and Muslim alike fought in a united game of cat and mouse when direct counteroffensives failed horribly. Humanity fought and survived well, but it was increasingly obvious that there was no chance of victory. Whole nations were being wiped out or forced into exile.
There must be a way, Jeff was thinking to himself. There simply must be something we can do to beat them. Jeff rubbed his temples, racking his brain. Something just wasn't right about the satellites. The bulk of the intelligence he had just read had come from satellite-empowered communications. It was the only form of high-tech communications still working. But why? It just didn't make any sense. These aliens could have easily blasted every satellite out of the sky.
Jeff was deep in thought when the alarm claxon's sounded. He shared a knowing look with Captain Hicks, and rushed to sit at a radar console, pulling on a headset in one motion as he sat. Hicks also donned a headset, but remained standing. Captain Hicks had assumed command of the small ground unit, which was severely understaffed. The AWACS crewmen added just two more to a light crew of only three young airmen technicians working the computers and communications equipment, plus one older master sergeant who already sat at a control station, listening for any sign of trouble on the guard frequencies.
Immediately, frantic orders filled Jeff's ears as the coordination between Special Forces ground commanders played out on the FM ground battle frequency.
"Here they come!" one voice began. "They're attacking three directions at once, got ugly red-suits close. . .reaching the east perimeter."
"Hold your fire," said a deeper voice, "Don't give away your positions yet. Stand by for artillery barrage."
"Roger," said the first voice.
Jeff heard the distant thumping as the transported destroyer guns opened fire, and louder thumps as the shells hit their mark.
"Effect?" asked the deep voice.
"Got a few—mother fu— some are getting back up!" yelled the first voice.
Jeff began to lose track of the voices as more joined the radio.
"All perimeters open fire! Ready the mines."
"Western perimeter breached."
"Three of those tanks advancing southwest."
"Fall back! Fall—"
"Northern perimeter brea—"
The explosions began to rock the trailer. The sound of gunfire crackled outside loudly.
"Blow the mines!" the deep voice commanded. "Fall back to position two."
A resounding boom echoed in Jeff's ears and it would be several minutes before he could hear properly again. By that time, what few aircraft they had were on the frequency and ready for his control.
The claymores blew all at once with tremendous force. Duke crouched down in the northern section of the outer trench covering his ears as dirt and ash rained down on him and the four others near him. One was painted and well equipped. The other two were civilian volunteers, their civilian clothes dirtied and blackened as best they could manage.
All at once, Duke and the others leapt to their feet, aiming their rifles into the settling haze of smoke and dust. Dark silhouettes were struggling to their feet. The dark-haired and lean female volunteer to Duke's left opened fire.
"Wait!" Duke warned.
But the effect was epidemic. Down the line, other rifles crackled to life. More silhouettes slowly stood among the hail of bullets. One fell again. The silhouettes advanced quickly, their red armor gleaming in the morning sun as they cleared the blast area. Others were following behind them.
Green energy sliced back through the air at the trench, melting charred holes in the ground and kicking up dirt into the faces of the defenders. A body slumped over onto Duke and he shrugged the man off. Duke absentmindedly noted a charred and still smoking hole through the man's head as the body fell away.
The blast of the mines had done some damage. A few of the alien soldiers' armor was cracked in places. One scaly alien was missing his helmet, and Duke dropped it with a single pop as it rushed forward. He licked his lips in satisfaction.
But there were three more charging in behind the helmetless warrior. Bullets ricocheted harmlessly off their armor. The aliens reached the trench. The woman panicked and turned to flee, only to choke and gape open-mouthed at a large charred hole in her chest and fall lifeless to the ground. Duke cracked his rifle butt on the head of the one who had shot the girl as he leaped into the trench, and ducked the extended arm blade of another attacker. The third alien fell at the lip of the trench with a reptilian hiss as a 50-caliber round from one of the snipers in the towers penetrated his cracked armor.
Duke fell back a step and fired a long burst into the softer segmented area of the knee joint of the bladed attacker. The alien hissed angrily and grasped at his wound as he fell. The alien that had killed the woman turned to fire, but the Navy SEAL shot it at close range in the back of the neck. At the same time, Duke kicked the alien's helmet free, and with an anguished cry, emptied an entire clip into its head.
Duke worked furiously to relieve one of the fallen attackers of his wrist gauntlet to see if he could use it. He was able to detach the gauntlet with one more furious tug, and he slid it on his arm. The cumbersome gauntlet would not secure itself around his wrist, and Duke could determine no firing mechanism. In frustration, Duke heaved the gauntlet at more attacking alien troops that had advanced to within 50 yards of the trench.
The black-clad professional soldier tossed a combination flash bomb and concussion grenade, scattering and knocking back another five aliens and buying some time for the defenders. More aliens in weakened armor fell to 50-caliber rounds. The position was holding, but Duke could see that the aliens would prevail in just a matter of time. Two of the strange spindly alien tanks were crossing the perimeter, and they opened fire with all their deadly energy.
"Sandcastle, Grizzly One, roger," said the A-10 flight lead over the radio. "Targets are in sight! Engaging."
Captain Hicks had given the ground station the call sign "Sandcastle," which Jeff found very amusing. It seemed appropriate for the situation.
The A-10 "Warthogs" had taken off from a barely functional reserve field near Hurlbert, and headed southeast to engage in the battle. The pilots and their planes had been away from their home base at Barksdale for live weapons training at Eglin. The defenders of Fort Chocktahatchee were very fortunate to have the aircraft on hand, but they had to be used wisely.
Jeff had accounted for all ten of the incoming A-10 aircraft, and was now keeping his silence as the pilots prepared to swoop down on the advancing alien ground forces. While Jeff took over the task of talking to the strike aircraft, the middle-aged and mustached master sergeant listened attentively to the ground forces, taking furious notes and staying prepared to direct air cover where needed. The three technicians worked diligently together to keep symbology and battlefield data loaded into the computer system.
Jeff and Captain Hicks kept a close watch out for any threats approaching from the air. Jeff wondered briefly why they had not seen any alien aircraft on the attack yet, then realized he should probably be grateful for it. If any threats were spotted, the plan was to have the Air Force aircraft flee the area. Then if the reports from the Russian front were accurate, the handful of shoulder-launched Stinger II missiles the defenders of the small firebase had would be at least partially effective.
The attacking aircraft broke formation. One flight of four continued to the southeast. Another flight of four headed due south while the last element of two aircraft headed directly east before turning south to engage targets along the eastern perimeter.
The lead "Hog Driver" was a calm voice of an aged, experienced pilot. His voice prepared his wingman for a long-range maverick air-to-surface missile attack.
"Grizzly One, enemy armor marked. Count four very ugly vehicles, column crossing the northern perimeter. Grizzly flight, rifle! Grizzly one, pickle!"
The other three wingmen with the Grizzly lead each "pickled" off a Maverick. Captain Hicks steadied himself by gripping the back of Jeff's chair as the trailer shook and rattled as cluster bombs from the flight of four making a pass on the western side of the fort exploded over advancing alien troops still outside the perimeter.
The element of two attack planes in the east disappeared from the radar screen. Captain Hicks and Jeff knew not to be concerned. Moments later, they heard the pilots of the two aircraft calling their actions.
"Grizzly Zero Nine, assorted troops and vehicles marked, pop!"
"Grizzly Ten, pop!"
Suddenly the aircraft in the east reappeared on the radar screen and Jeff imagined the Warthogs executing a perfect "Pop" maneuver. The pilots would have hugged the terrain or perhaps even stayed below the tree line, staying out of sight from the enemy as best they could, until at a specific calculated distance. Then they would gun the engines of the homely attack aircraft for all they were worth and the aircraft would shoot up in a spiraling loop just long enough to take several quick shots at the enemy, before returning to low levels and speeding away in the direction they had come from.
Meanwhile Grizzly lead chimed in with an update.
"Sandcastle, Grizzly One. Four direct hits! Wait a moment, no way, that's just not—"
There was a slight pause in the transmission, and Jeff had to credit this pilot for keeping his professionalism.
"One target immobilized," the flight lead continued, "three continuing, damage minimal. Grizzly flight, switching to guns."
Jeff was a huge fan of the A-10's 30mm cannon. The fuselage of the A-10 was built completely around this gun, which fired 11.5-inch armor piercing rounds weighing a little over a pound and a half at an astounding rate of 10 rounds a second. This should have been enough to turn most modern tanks into a smoking husk, but if the AGM-65 Maverick missiles with 57kg warheads had not done the job on these alien "tanks".
Jeff spoke aloud for all in the room to hear, but meant the message for Captain Hicks.
"I'm going to suggest they concentrate their fire on one at a time."
"Do it!" Captain Hicks agreed immediately.
"Grizzly One, have flight concentrate all fire nearest target," Jeff commanded.
Jeff knew such control over a ground attack by a controller was unprecedented, but these were unprecedented times. Grizzly one simply acknowledged the order by saying his own call sign, not giving any clue as to whether he resented the order or not.
The radio frequency filled with chatter once more.
"Enemy tank destroyed!"
"Grizzly Three, taking fire!"
"Sandcastle, Grizzly five through eight reporting moderate damage to ground troops on the west, moving to attack support troops due north of firebase"
"Grizzly four defensive, Three, watch the cross—no!"
"Damn it! Grizzly Three is down! I repeat—"
"Sandcastle, Grizzly Ten! Hit bad, declaring emergency. . .Left engine gone. . .trailing smoke."
"Ten, this is One, get home if you can. Nine, form up with us. We'll give him cover."
"Grizzly One flight Rifle, two nearest targets east perimeter."
Captain Hicks took over a radio to direct the wounded plane back to its base. Jeff was still thinking what a wonderful plane the Warthog was to be able to take a beating like this and still be flyable, when the master sergeant to his left grabbed his arm and pointed. The man's face had paled.
"Sir, we've got incoming threats," he said, jabbing a finger to the northeast on Jeff's screen.
Jeff spoke with urgency on the radio to get the attention of all the pilots. "All aircraft, threats inbound bull's eye, zero-four-five for fifty, closing fast!"
"Copy Sandcastle," said the Grizzly lead. "Grizzly flight, scram west!"
Jeff held his breath. This was going to get messy.
A sniper took a reckless leap from the crude wooden guard tower an instant before an emerald green flash lanced through the air, vaporizing it instantly. More green flashes rained down on the lead trench. They sent dust debris and burning bodies soaring through the air wherever they fell. The order was given to fall back to the second line, and Duke leapt out of the lead trench and rolled over five times before flopping down into the second trench line.
Far behind Duke towards the center of the firebase, one of the two operational tractors that had helped to build these trenches exploded in yet another flash of green energy, taking two soldiers with it in the blaze. The alien tanks advanced at a steady pace, continuing their dreadful fire from their main conical gun. The gun made a whining buzz like the sound of a guitar string breaking each time it fired. The smaller side spines on the vehicle's sides made the same noise at a higher pitch as they rotated to pick off any unwary soldier not keeping his head down. The armored alien troopers held their position and waited for the advance of the vehicles.
Occasionally, a low rumbling whistling noise would fill the air as another shell from the destroyer's guns thumped into the enemy ranks. Duke knew the guns could not afford to deliver rounds at their full rate as none of the defenders could afford for the ammunition to run out too quickly. Duke risked a look around as another salvo screamed overhead.
Four of the monstrous vehicles lumbered towards him, with two more emerging from the swamp woods along with countless more armored soldiers. Down the line to his right, Duke had a clear view of still more of the alien armored vehicles making their way over and around the rubble of the former Air Force base. A thick gray smoke blew in a strong southern wind, making each breath taste chalky and bitter.
Suddenly a fireball and cloud of black smoke erupted around each of the four tanks driving directly toward Duke's position; a rolling fountain of fire and smoke to his left caused the earth to shake and made his ears ring. Fountains of fire erupted to his right. Cheers rang out around him as the low drone of aircraft engines increased in volume over the crackle of gunfire and the whine of the alien energy weapons.
Duke's eyes widened as three of the lumbering vehicles continued toward his position, and the fourth continued to fire. Moments later, black smoke erupted from the tank farthest to his left in four distinct puffs before the vehicle finally exploded and dropped to the ground burning and black. When the smoke cleared, he could see that it was riddled with more than a few holes that had punched through the stubborn armor. Two figures emerged from the rear of the vehicle. They did not have the full armor of the usual alien ground soldier, and fire from the trenches gunned down one of them as the pair made for the safety of the alien troop line.
The other two tanks rumbled closer, but one of them was suddenly pelted with four shoulder launched anti-tank TOW missiles that screeched through the air from somewhere behind Duke leaving a trail of white smoke. Duke cursed under his breath. Those were supposed to be a last resort. Now there were only eight shots left for the whole base, and they were all supplied to the northern perimeter. The tank listed to one side and dropped to the ground, but it still continued to fire.
Around Duke, professional soldiers and conscripts alike fired almost uselessly at the remaining tank and the troops marching in behind it. From above and behind Duke came a flaming fireball with jet engines attached. The A-10 spiraled into the enemy lines and exploded. To his right Duke caught sight of more A-10s raining fire and missiles. They made one more pass then climbed steeply and disappeared into the sky. The final tank held its position as it reached the first trench line, and unleashed a green firestorm deep into the second and third trenches, effectively pinning all the defenders down as alien troops began to cross the first trench and into the second. Behind these troops, two more tanks were crossing the perimeter.
The same Navy SEAL who had been fighting beside Duke when the battle began appeared, his black combat suit torn, and handed Duke a smoke grenade and a flash/ concussion grenade from a pack slung over his shoulder.
"Toss these and get ready to move!" the man commanded before moving on down the trench with his head held low, handing out more smoke bombs as he went.
Duke was palming a grenade, considering, as others threw theirs. Duke felt lost, hollow, and retreat no longer appealed to him. In his mind, the violence around him slowed and quieted, and he began to feel somehow detached from it.
Duke looked up as he became aware of a low droning sound growing louder above him, and through the haze of gray and black battle smoke four flying pill-shaped aircraft appeared. These craft each deployed two smaller spherical aircraft like the club end of a mace, too small for the large aliens to occupy. Duke realized they must be some kind of remote weapon controlled from the ships that deployed them. The small and nimble spheres zipped over the battlefield, raining green fire down from the sky while at the same time armored alien troops were starting to spill into the trenches from both in front of and behind Duke. He watched as green energy lanced through the smoke to hit fleeing soldiers square in the head. They fell dead in awkward heaps. There was no escape. The end seemed inevitable.
Duke took a deep breath, and set his jaw. He tossed the useless smoke grenade aside and gripped the flash/ bang grenade and the M4.
"I'll see you soon, Ashley," he whispered and leapt out of the trench back to the first trench line, and back towards the menacing alien tank.