Stepping back from the edge of the stage, General Mason punched the megaphone into the palm of his other hand as he watched the soldiers crowd closer. There were so many new recruits, fresh off the latest cycle of the progenation machines with clean faces and bright eyes, and most wouldn't survive the next two hours, much less the day. Jostling each other as they established their narrow positions in the crowd, the soldiers formed a mass of dirty olive bristling with rifle barrels. With incursions and offensives occurring less than two hours apart - and even sooner, as the cursed Hath seemed to be stepping up their attacks - there was little time to organise platoons or do anything more than assign names and ranks and send each captain a scrawled roster. Mason simply had to assume that the progenation machines had done their job and that the soldiers could fight on their own.
A seasoned veteran whose youthful good looks belied his experience, Mason recognised that this war was a huge waste of life, and yet every individual thrown away here was ensuring a peaceful life for future generations - someday. Each upturned face, eager for their next orders, shone with the determination to fight and die to rid this world of the Hath and forge a bright future for humanity. That was the ultimate goal, the thing that kept Mason and everyone else fighting, that they were doing this for the survival of the race.
At the general's call, Cobb had leapt up before anyone else, eager to demonstrate his preparation and responsiveness, and thus had secured a spot right at the commander's feet. Being in front did mean constant jostling as his comrades pressed in behind him, but he stood firm, jabbing an elbow into a soft gut or stomping on a boot each time he got shoved into the stage's edge. As he waited - and assembly is really taking too long; the Hath won’t wait for us to take our tea - he clutched his rifle to his chest, his hand caressing the trigger mechanism. Even here, deep in human territory, he was ready to fight at a moment's notice.
Stepping forward, the general planted his feet in a wide stance and cocked his free hand on his hips, and the army immediately hushed. "Fine response, men," he murmured into the megaphone. Mason knew it was important to let the soldiers know that their efforts were recognised and appreciated. "We've intelligence that the Hath plan an offensive to take back the southern cells. We've established a strong front there, so we will let them throw their men against that while we make our move on the seven-alpha-zero and seven-gamma-zero tunnels. Now, there's the possibility that our intelligence is wrong, so expect a heavy resistance there. Platoon 59, your defence of the southern cells has been exemplary, and that's where you'll stay. Platoons 12, 34, and 83, you will be leading the charge on the tunnels, with 98, 46 and 53 as backup. All others will be recuperating and waiting for the next progenation cycle to shore up their numbers. Report to your captains, who have their assignments, and be prepared to move out in twenty minutes. Dismissed!" The general snapped his hand up to his brow in salute.
With a determined smile, Cobb jerked to attention and returned the gesture. Newly assigned to Platoon 53 as he stepped out of the progenation machine only twenty minutes earlier, he was thrilled to get into action so quickly, and began pushing his way through the crowd toward the southeastern corner of the theatre, his platoon’s staging area. The going got easier as the soldiers dispersed.
Cobb had not yet had the chance to meet his platoon leader, Captain Murdoch, but she was easily recognisable from across the theatre. A petite young woman, she stood on a chair to stand above her troop and to provide a visual beacon to gather around. She stood straight with her hands clasped behind her back clutching a clipboard and surveyed not only her own soldiers but the entire army as it organised.
Cobb slipped between his comrades and stepped to Murdoch’s feet, snapping a smart salute. “Reporting for duty, captain!”
The captain gazed down her nose at him, and she frowned in recognition. She saluted back. “Cobb, isn’t it?”
Murdoch hopped down from her chair. "At ease, Cobb." As the soldier relaxed, the captain eyed him up and down, from his tousled silver hair, over his olive fatigues, still crisp and new, to the toes of his heavy black boots, pausing a moment to study his patchy gray beard. With piercing grey eyes, she studied the soldier's reaction as she spoke. "You've been reassigned. As of this moment, you're in Platoon 91, under Captain Thomas."
Cobb's face immediately fell, though he recovered quickly, setting his jaw as he swallowed his pride. "I beg your pardon, sir, but there must be a mistake. I can't be in the 91st."
Murdoch was not surprised; she had expected the soldier to protest. "Why not, soldier?"
"The 91st is a reserve unit. I'm active duty," he huffed, straightening his shoulders with pride.
The captain spoke slowly and distinctly, like she was teaching a child. "The 91st is not a reserve unit. It's a guard unit, assigned to Corridor Epsilon."
"Sir.” Cobb calmed himself, refusing to rise to her bait. “The 91st is light duty for wounded soldiers who are too fit to be reprocessed. I'm strong and ready for action. I should be in the active army."
Murdoch’s voice was low and dangerous. "Are you refusing your orders, soldier?"
Cobb swallowed. "No, sir."
"Then report to Captain Thomas. Or you can report back to the progenation machine to volunteer for reprocessing.” She paused to let her words sink in. “It's your choice, soldier."
Cobb snapped to attention. "I’ll report to my platoon, sir."
"Good man. Dismissed." Without another thought for him, she looked down at the clipboard in her hand.
Cobb’s anger choked in his throat, but he forced a respectful expression as he turned away toward Corridor Epsilon. His stiff gait as he stalked off broadcast his frustration, but he didn’t care who saw; as long as he was obeying orders and fighting at top efficiency - and he would - no one would question his attitude. His fists clenched convulsively around the grip and barrel of his rifle.
Corridor Epsilon, the only external entrance to the cluster of rooms that were currently serving as the magazine, was distant enough to give him plenty of time to fume about his new assignment, and he growled out his complaints as he stomped. “Why? Why am I assigned to light duty? I’m healthy and strong and ready to fight. We need every able body to push back those Hath bastards and wipe them from the face of the planet once and for all. But here I am in the back corridors. I’m never going to see combat back here.”
He marched into the defenses set up at the near end of Corridor Epsilon, which were designed to welcome anyone who dared to sneak through the artificial bottleneck of the hallway with machine guns and grenade launchers. The heavy weapons were floor-mounted and powered by hydraulics, perfect for soldiers with limited mobility to operate easily, and indeed, the first soldier he saw was sitting in a machine gun turret, her bandaged leg perched against the frame. At his approach, she nodded at him and called over her shoulder. “Oi, captain! Messenger from HQ!”
“I’m not a messenger,” Cobb grunted, his frustration visible. “Transferred from 53.”
The machine gunner gave him a once-over. “Transferred? What’s wrong with you?”
“Nothing at all,” he snapped, bristling. “Where’s Captain Thomas? I’m to report in.”
“Right here.” Thomas, a tall bloke with boyish good looks who seemed barely out of adolescence, climbed out from behind a wall of sandbags, his gun slung over his shoulder. “You’re Cobb?”
“Yes, sir!” Cobb saluted.
“None of that here.” Like everyone else before him, he took visual inventory of the new soldier. “Came with your own weapon. Good. This is easy work. If we ever get attacked, you’ll be covering the entrenchment on this side. Move around a lot, since you can. Got it?”
“Good. I’ll be doing the same on the other side.” With a dismissing nod, he spun to stride back to his position.
“Yes?” Thomas stopped and looked back over his shoulder at Cobb.
“Why am I here? Why this troop, and not with the regular army?”
“No idea. I just take what I’m given.” His bitter words were laden with the frustration of being saddled with an ignominious command, and hawking a wad of spit into the dirt at the foot the machine gun nest, he strode off.
The gunner tugged on the handles of her gun, swinging the nest around as she tested the responsiveness of the mechanisms. “Don’t mind him. He’s been passed over twice now to join the main force. He’s itching for a real fight.”
“As am I.” Readying his gun, Cobb marched forward to the mouth of the corridor in front of them to peer down its length. It ran straight and true, its walls unbroken by doors or seams, and it lay empty except for a few large barrels placed against the walls about halfway down. The tunnel ended in a ramp leading upwards, out of sight. Well-lit by electric sconces spaced evenly down its fifty metres ensured that anything appearing in the corridor would be seen immediately. Defending against an attacking force that had to traverse its length would be like shooting fish in a barrel.
“What’re you doing?” the woman called to him. “Don’t need a patrol. Five pairs of eyes on it at all times.”
“Just getting the lay of the land.” Cobb shrugged and, hooking his gun over his shoulder, sauntered back to her emplacement. He took up a position leaning against the front shield.
“The lay’s straight, long, and bright. Not much else to know.” She held a hand out to him. “I’m Heimer.”
He turned and grasped her hand. “Cobb.” He jerked his chin at her leg. “What happened to you?”
“Stupid luck. Coward Hath was hiding in some rubble after a battle, jumped out and tried to kill me. Got the bastard,” she smirked as she patted her knife, “but his breather broke when he fell, and the glass got my leg. The limp landed me here.”
“Damn shame.” Shaking his head in commiseration, Cobb perched himself on a wall of sandbags.
She shrugged. “Hey, I got him. That’s all that matters. This ain’t serious enough to get me reprocessed, and I can still fight.” She patted the machine gun. “Any of them Hath dare to show his stinking face here, I’ll have fifteen rounds in him before he can take a second breath.”
“Yeah!” Cobb brandished his fist, and the two executed a complex fistbump, ending with a rude mockery of a Hath gesture.
Heimer scanned down the tunnel before settling back in her chair. She rubbed at her bandaged leg. “Won’t be here for long. I’ll be sent to the 46th as soon as they take any casualties. They’ve a mobile gun I can ride, and I’m the best marksman of my generation.”
Though she said it without pride or arrogance, Cobb bit back his annoyance at the boast. Sending a wounded soldier to the front whilst a fully able one was wasted on guard duty? He stared back down the corridor to distract himself from his anger.
“So where does that lead? It goes up at the end.”
“The surface. One of the last doors out. Most have been blocked.”
“Why hasn’t this one?”
“No time. Not important. Bit of both.” She shrugged and picked at her boot laces. “It’s too far from Hath territory. Even those fish wouldn’t trek that far out. They’d die before they got halfway. We were gonna block it off. You can see the explosives strung about halfway down, but they abandoned that generations ago. They say they couldn’t spare the engineers from the army. Not for this. Not when they could be searching for the Source.”
“But they could spare us here.”
“Well, us, yeah. You, don’t know why you’re here. Rest of us, we’re not quite good enough. I’m lucky, I can shoot and there’s a mobile for me to ride. Harry over there,” she spat as she jerked her head in the direction of the other soldiers, “he’s an infantry specialist, but he can’t march. Not much he can do.”
Cobb scratched at his beard. “We could finish the explosives, bring down that tunnel.”
“Yeah, like I can move a barrel.”
“I could. Then we’d just have to hook them up.”
“You know how?”
“There you go.”
Cobb glanced around for something to throw to vent his frustration and, finding nothing nearby, jumped up and stomped off a few paces. “Wasted! I’m wasted here! I can march and shoot and fight as well as any other man! Why am I sitting on my arse with the wounded?”
Heimer wasn’t insulted; she knew all too well how he felt. “Beats me. But there’s nothing you can do about it.” She began the routine check on her gun emplacement that she ran every hour, making sure each part was clean and ready for action and the ammunition was loaded correctly. “Your time’ll come. They’ll call you back when the ranks have thinned and the machines are down. You just wait.”
“Yeah. I suppose.” Whirling, he returned and sat down again. “So we wait until something happens on the front and get called up.”
“Yup. ‘Cause it’ll happen. Even Harry’ll make it back to the front, mark my words.” She shook a finger at him. “He’ll be fodder at best, but that’ll be one less bullet heading for a strong soldier’s heart.”
A curly-haired head popped up over the wall behind them. “Cap says the offensive’s started.”
“Thanks, Bell,” Heimer replied, and the messenger retreated. “There. Only a matter of time now. Don’t get too comfortable there.”
“Not possible,” Cobb grunted.
They sat in silence, watching the empty corridor. There wasn’t much to do to while away the time; they couldn’t even play a simple game, as Heimer was duty-bound to keep up surveillance. Conversation seemed pointless, as the only thing they could talk about - the only thing they knew about - was the war, and what more could they say about it? Cobb could whinge about the unfairness of the situation, Heimer could anticipate rejoining the army, or they could think up new insults for the Hath, but none of it was much use. Thus, they sat and listened to the other guards’ conversations that floated to them over the walls, discussions that were just as useless as what they could say to each other.
“Did you hear that?” Heimer spat out after about ten minutes, bolting upright in her chair. She grasped the grips of her gun as she peered down the tunnel.
“Can’t say I did.” Cobb had been lost in imagining the combat that was taking place in the distant tunnels. He certainly hadn’t seen anything. “What was it?”
“Dunno.” She cocked her head to capture any faint noises coming from the corridor. “It was like scraping, maybe. Metal on metal.”
He shrugged. “Could’ve been any one of them over there.” He jabbed a thumb over his shoulders toward their comrades on the other side of the wall.
“No. It came from the corridor, I’m sure of -”
With an audible click that echoed, the lamps in the hallway cut out all at once. The nearer half of the corridor was illuminated by the lights of the guard station, but the back half was shrouded in shadow. The station burst into activity, as some soldiers hopped up in alarm to ready their weapons and others swore loudly.
“For the love of...!” Captain Thomas’ voice sounded clear over the others. “Who turned out the lights? Bell, get them back on!”
“How?” came the reply. “We don’t control those.”
“Why the hell not?”
“Switches for these here are in the magazine. Don’t know where the switches for those are.”
“Captain!” Cobb shouted as he readied his gun and ducked behind the wall of Heimer’s emplacement. “Incoming!”
As the soldier’s voices stilled, the unmistakable sound of boots thumping on stone emanated from the corridor in front of them. “Shit! Engage! Engage!” came Thomas’ answering shout.
Amidst the scrapes of soldiers scrambling into position as the first shots rang out, Cobb heard a few bewildered replies of “Engage? Engage what?” and “Can’t see anything to shoot!” A strangled cry off to his right was followed by the dull thud of a body hitting the floor.
Heimer’s gun swung into action and she sprayed bullets blindly down the tunnel. “I can’t see if I’m even pointed at anything!”
“Just keep at it. You’re bound to hit something.” Following suit, Cobb fired down the tunnel as he jumped up to dash around the wall, diving to take cover beside the captain, who was firing his machine gun into the shadows. A rocket whizzed out of the darkness and impacted the back wall of the station, sending chunks of stone raining down on them. “We’re sitting ducks here! We can’t see them, but they can sure see us.”
“Keep firing!” Thomas shouted to the platoon, his eyes wide with panic. “Blanket the entire corridor!”
“That’s not going to work, Captain!” Cobb hissed. “They just need to pull back up the ramp a bit until we’re out of ammo and need to resupply, and that’s going to be real soon.”
“You’re able!” screamed Thomas. “Bring out more ammo from the magazine! Shift!” he added when he saw that Cobb had no intention of moving. “That’s an order!”
“Not good enough!” Cobb spat back. “We’ve got to bring that tunnel down.”
“The barrels are in place. Just gotta hook them up.”
“You don’t know how.”
“But it’s our only chance. Where’s the detonator?”
“In the magazine.” Jerking his chin in the direction of the supply, Thomas turned to yell over his shoulder. “Bell!”
“Lieutenant’s down!” came the reply from one of the infantry, her voice strained as she concentrated on defending the station.
“I’ll go.” Keeping as low as possible, Cobb scrambled up and ducked behind the higher wall. He ran doubled over to keep himself hidden and pushed his way into the ammunition storage. It wasn’t hard to find what he was looking for, as the engineering boxes were marked clearly and looked nothing like the crates of bullets, grenades, and rockets stored on the shelves that ranged across the room. He grabbed a metal box with a big red button on it and cables trailing from its top and ran back out into the melee, diving out from the wall and tumbling back in to the captain’s position.
“I got it,” he panted. “Where are the leads?”
“Out beyond Heimer’s nest.”
“Gotcha.” Cobb scrambled back around the wall and slipped into Heimer’s nest. “I’m going to blow the corridor. Cover me.”
“Cover you?” she asked over her shoulder as she kept her eyes trained on the shadows, trying to make out anything in them. “How?”
“I don’t know.” Without another word wasted, he dove to the floor and shimmied out of the nest, staying as flat as possible as he snaked his way toward the corridor. Bullets streaked over his head as he crawled. He was sure he’d been seen, and he hoped that he provided a small enough target, inching his way across the ground, that they wouldn’t be able to hit him.
After the longest half-minute ever, Cobb reached the leads of the explosives’ cable. Every moment he took to try to figure out the correct way to hook up the detonator meant a higher chance of a death of a comrade or himself, so he twisted the wires together as best as he could, then mashed the button with the palm of his hand.
A chain of massive booms sounded through the corridor, and Cobb flattened himself against the stone floor, arms shielding his head as debris rained down. For a moment, he thought that the entire tunnel would collapse, possibly taking out the defense station with it and burying him and his entire platoon alive, but he knew he’d killed far more Hath and destroyed their sneaky attempt to breach the base from the flank, and thus, their sacrifices would be worth it. In another few seconds, however, it was obvious that the ceiling was still intact, and the silence from the corridor informed them all that his desperate plan had succeeded.
There were no cheers of victory, and Cobb hadn’t expected any: his platoon was still in shock. Cautious that there might still be enemies alive in the darkness, Cobb crawled back behind the emplacement wall. There, he found Heimer lying dazed behind her destroyed gun, her left arm mangled by the shrapnel from the magazine cylinder when it blew. She gazed up at him, her jaw tight as she resolved to endure the pain. “Cobb,” she stated. “Do it. Here in battle. I don’t want to be awake for...” The steel in her eyes finished the sentence for her.
“Quite right.” He dispatched her with a single shot from his pistol, then ducked around the back wall. There, he found his comrades who were unharmed by this battle starting to tend to the ones who had been newly wounded. Captain Thomas lay dead in the spot where Cobb had left him, the victim of a lucky grenade that had found its way between the walls. Stepping over his body, Cobb grasped the shoulder of the soldier who was laying him out. “Heimer’s down. Go,” he urged as he jerked his head in her direction, “take guard on that side.”
“Why should I?” the soldier retorted. “The battle’s over.”
“We don’t know if all the Hath are dead, or if the tunnel’s completely blocked off. Someone’s got to be watching. Get out there.”
“You’re not the captain,” he spat.
“We don’t have one, so it might as well be me. Move!” The soldier jerked back in surprise, then hurried off to claim the gun.
More and more confident every moment that there were no more Hath to shoot at them from the shadows, Cobb climbed over the station to assess the platoon. Of the twelve soldiers, half were dead and two were wounded enough for reprocessing, though neither chose Heimer’s route. He also found the station’s radio, slung over Bell’s body, and, giving it to a soldier who named herself as Macy, instructed her to call in the attack and ask for orders and reinforcements.
“Now what, sir?” a soldier named Turk asked.
Cobb suppressed a smile at the honorific. They were naturally turning to him for leadership now. “We wait until the regular army returns from the incursion into seven-alpha-zero and seven-gamma-zero.” He paced a few steps, staring down the corridor. “But in the meantime, we need to make sure this is closed off. We can’t chance another back strike. Are there lamps in the magazine?”
“A few small ones, yes.”
“Better than nothing. None of you will be able to carry them, at least not efficiently, so it’s up to me. Keep an eye out for hostiles and I’ll get those lamps set up.” Unslinging his gun from his shoulder, he thrust it into the young man’s hands and strode off toward the magazine.