(I’m doing two snippets today because the first appeared on Mad Genius Club several weeks ago. Later this morning, there will be a new tab at the top of the page for snippets. I’ll be adding each week’s snippets there after they appear here. They will appear oldest to newest. As always, the copyright rests in me and I ask that you not copy, distribute, etc., without first getting permission. Also, the snippets are from the first draft so there will be changes between now and when the book comes out in September.)
Smoke filled the air and the ground seemed to shake beneath her boots as another explosion sounded. It was close this time. Too close. Cursing, she ducked behind the makeshift barricade she and her team had erected outside the school and tried to catch her breath. As she did, the tell-tales from her battle armor warned that her heart was racing and her breathing was labored, not that she needed the onboard computer to confirm what she already knew. This was her worst nightmare come to life and, just like the last time, there had been no way to avoid it.
But she’d be damned if it ended the same way as before.
Not this time.
Carefully, she edged forward until she could see around the edge of the barricade. As she did, dirt and rock kicked up just inches from where she knelt as yet another round of enemy fire filled the air. Even as her team returned fire, she scanned the area, flipping through the various screens of her HUD. Then her lips pulled back into an almost feral smile.
Finally, she’d located the last of the areas where the enemy had dug in. Now it was her turn to show them just how foolish they’d been to think they could get the drop on her and her team.
“Boomer, two o’clock. The culvert near the edge of the first building.” Once again, she cycled through the various filters on her HUD, taking careful note of what each told her. “Scans show six there. Looks like one SAM and three unknown heavy weapons. We’ll give you cover fire so your team and move into position. Hold your fire until I give the order. We need to take those guns out before they decide to turn their attention to the school.”
“Roger that, Angel.”
“Hound, second target’s yours. Same building. Four stories up. Third window from the corner. I spotted at least one sniper.” Once again, she cycled through her filters, scanning the building. As much as she’d like to just level the building and be done with it, she couldn’t. Not if there were civilians inside. “I’m not picking up any other life signs in that area, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have mechs of some sort up there. So don’t worry about being too gentle with your shot. Just remember your target zone.” She waited for his response, knowing he was calculating the best way to carry out her orders.
“Got it, Angel. I’ll be ready on your order.”
Her heart beat a little slower. So far, so good. Her team still had a chance to get out of this alive and, with a little luck, they’d manage to save those civilians sheltering in the school as well.
Knowing their next move could mean victory or defeat, she called up the last data they’d received on the enemy’s movements. As she studied it, her mind did the one thing she’d been fighting to avoid since the battle began. It went back to that terrible day more than two years ago. She’d been in this exact location, fighting this same battle. Only then she’d been given compromised intelligence. As a result, she and her squad, a different one from this time, had walked straight into a trap. So many had died. She and the six who had managed to make it back to the shuttle for extraction had been lucky to get out of there alive. At least that’s what she’d told herself. Of course, that had been before they were arrested, brought up on bogus charges, court martialed and sent to the Tarsus military prison.
Damn it! She couldn’t think about that. She couldn’t let the past distract her from what was happening right now. Not if she wanted her team to survive.
“We’re almost in position, Angel,” a voice reported over her comm a few moments later. Master Sergeant Kevin “Loco” Talbot. Another asset, an invaluable one, and one she hadn’t had on that previous mission.
“Roger that, Loco. Let me know when you are.”
She paused, waiting to hear from the final team she’d sent out. As the seconds drew out into minutes that seemed like hours, her concern grew. She’d been forced to split her forces before with disastrous results. Was history repeating itself?
She licked her lips and fought the urge to message the last team. It was difficult, but she didn’t. Instead, she reminded herself that they needed to move slowly and carefully to avoid detection. At least she hadn’t heard anything from the direction they’d taken that might indicate they’d been discovered. Surely that had to be a good sign.
She closed her eyes and breathed deeply. Her emotions and doubts were running too high. She had to get them under control. This was her command, her mission. If she couldn’t hold it together, they would fail. But she couldn’t think about that. She couldn’t let herself be distracted by the dead, hers and the civilian lives that had been lost in that previous battle. This wasn’t the time to let distractions in.
Finally, just as she was about to give up and demand an update, her comm came to life.
“We’re in position, Angel. We have four bogies ready and we’re ready to paint them,” Captain Lucinda Ortega reported.
“Hold position, Sorceress. I say again, hold position until we confirm air support.”
“Roger that, Angel.”
“Eagle, are you ready to paint your target?”
“Eagle is ready, Angel,” the squad’s sniper replied.
“Alpha Team, prepare to lay down cover fire. Boomer, the moment we do, you and your team haul ass and take out those heavy guns and that SAM.”
“Roger that, Angel. Beta Team is ready.”
She nodded, not that the demolitions expert could see her, and drew a deep, steadying breath. A quick check of her battle rifle and she was ready. It was now or never. With a glance at the four Marines crouching behind the barricade with her, she snugged the butt of the rifle against her shoulder.
She leaned around the corner of the barricade and opened fire. Instantly, the sounds of weapons – battle rifles, railguns and more – filled the air. Three of the four teams laid down heavy fire to cover the fourth team as it moved into position. On her HUD, three small green lights moved quickly toward the target zone. So far, so good.
“Almost there,” Boomer’s voice said in her ear.
“Keep it up, Devil Dogs. Don’t give those bastards time to breathe, much less regroup.”
“Fire in the hole!”
Boomer’s shout was the only warning they’d get. Instantly, she set her visor to block the flash from the explosion even as she kept firing. At least this time when the ground shook, it would be working for them instead of against them.
“Keep firing!” she ordered. “Eagle, Sorceress, stand ready. I repeat, stand ready. Paint the targets on my signal. Once the air strike begins, we move in.”
Without waiting for the teams to respond, she activated her ‘link once again. “Angel to Kali, we are a go for the airstrike. I repeat, we are a go for the airstrike.”
She waited, scanning the battlefield in front of her for any movement. Smoke and dust from the explosion filled the air. From the distance, she could hear the enemy. Some called for help. Some, those caught in the blast and not lucky enough to be granted a quick death, cried out for their mothers. A small part of her felt sorry for them. But another part, the soldier in her, knew it was either them or her and she much preferred living.
As she knelt there, ready to swing her rifle toward anyone who came her way, she imagined each member of her team wanting to look skyward, but keeping their eyes on the enemy locations, as they waited for the air support to come.
Air support that hadn’t come that first time. Would it now?
“Angel, this is Kali. We are on approach. Paint the target. I say again, paint the target.”
The voice coming over the battle-net was like an answer to her prayers. She relayed the message to the rest of her squad. As she did, she inched further around the edge of the barricade. Once in position, she raised one gloved fist, knowing the others were watching for her signal. Then she waited, knowing any number of things could still go horribly wrong and praying that they didn’t.
Moments later, the sounds of the fighter wing racing in their direction filled the air. The target, six heavy ground transports that had been moving closer and closer to the Devil Dogs exploded into a wall of flames as the fighters dropped their payloads. Instinct and training had the Marines diving for cover, any cover, as shrapnel from the transports flew through the air. Screams from the enemy soldiers unlucky enough to be caught in the open followed. Then, before the screams died out, she gave the order to move in.
“Take out those snipers!” she yelled as she sprinted across the clearing in the direction of the school.
Damn it, this time she would save those huddling inside.
Hound, moving at a speed no human could without the assistance of powered battle armor, leapt from where he’d been taking cover. The moment he landed, he turned and leveled the grenade launcher that was currently his armor’s primary weapon at the target. The building she’d identified for him a few minutes earlier was soon missing part of its far side. Smoke billowed from the area where the sniper had been holed up. Someone would need a new office or apartment when this was all over. But, hopefully, they’d survived the fight and would be able to return home soon. Even as the thought came, she knew the truth could be far different. War was never clean, no matter what the politicians wanted. There was always the possibility of collateral damage, especially when the enemy had no compunctions about hiding behind a shield of innocents.
Ahead and to her left, a head popped up from the culvert. A split second later, it exploded. She smiled slightly as Eagle gave a war cry that almost split her skull. She’d remind him later about how that sort of thing sounded through the battle-net. Not that she blamed him. They’d spent too much time hunkered down behind makeshift barricades and hiding in the shadows. It felt good to finally be on the move again. Now it was time to make the enemy pay for all they’d done.
“Angel, to your right!”
Loco’s warning came at almost the same moment that her armor’s sensors warned her of someone or something suddenly appearing and moving in her direction. She turned, bringing her combat rifle to bear. Her finger slipped behind the trigger guard and she felt her combat implants coming to life as she focused on the figure running hell bent for leather in her direction.
“Hold your fire!”
Without waiting for confirmation, she broke into a sprint, racing toward the small figure. The child couldn’t be more than five or six. Where he had been hiding during the fighting she didn’t know and, just then, she didn’t care. Not when her armor’s onboard computer was telling her that several of the enemy were bearing down on them.
She had to get to t child before he was hurt – or worse.
Without conscious thought, she switched out her battle rifle for her sidearm. Using the targeting system of her HUD, she laid down fire in the direction of the nearest enemy soldier. A scream of pain followed. Good. One down but who knew how many more to come.
Three more steps and she scooped the child up in her arms. He cried out as an enemy trooper appeared to the right and opened fire. Reacting on instinct, Angel shifted the child so he was shielded by her armor before returning fire. Then she pivoted, running in the direction of Loco and the rest of his team. They were laying down cover fire, forcing the enemy troopers to duck back down into the trench. At the same time, Sorceress was calling in air support. But that was all in the background. Angel was focused on the child in her arms and getting him to safety.
Loco’s tone of voice was all the warning she needed. She dropped, sliding feet first toward the barricade. At the same time, Loco stepped forward, Tank and Hound on either side of him, and all hell seemed to break loose. As they opened fire with everything they had, so did the rest of the squad. If that wasn’t enough, three Sabres, the newest and most deadly fighters the Fuerconese Navy had in operation, screamed overhead and opened fire on the culvert.
The ground shook again and another explosion – no, a series of explosions – deafened them. Then there was silence, the kind of silence that really wasn’t. Her pulse pounded and her breathing was ragged. The crackling of fire mixed with the heavy smoke that filled the air. She heard someone, one of her people, offering up a quick prayer of thanks. Someone else uttered a curse. For once, she agreed with both sentiments. Then she heard the boy whimper. Much as she wanted to reassure him, she couldn’t. Not yet. She had to make sure the area was secure first.
Still cradling the child in her arms, Angel twisted around so she could look in the direction of the culvert. Nothing moved except for the smoke rising from it. Without warning, the silence was broken by a single shot to her left. Instantly, half a dozen battle rifles responded. Then nothing.
Barely daring to hope that it was over, she went to active scans. For several long moments, she studied the readouts on her HUD. The locations they had tagged as being held by the enemy were either showing red, indicating they were too hot for anyone – even armored – to survive or there were the tell tales of the dead and dying. Could it finally be over?
“Sound off!” she ordered as she carefully climbed to her feet.
As she did, the medic assigned to her squad hurried forward to take the child from her. Except the child had other ideas. He wrapped his arms and legs more firmly around her and burrowed in. with a jerk of her head, she motioned the medic off. She could spare the child a moment as she caught her breath and her people reported in.
One by one, each member of her team sounded off. A few sounded the worse for wear but she’d lost no one that day. Thank God. The nightmare hadn’t replayed in all its horror. It had come close, though, and she wanted to know why.
Relieved, she looked down into the child’s face and the world came to a crashing halt. No! He couldn’t be there. Damn it, he couldn’t be there. As bad as that time had been, that would have made it worse, so much worse.
“End sim!” she ordered, ripping off her combat helmet. “I said to end the damned sim!”
* * *
Everything went dark for a moment. Then the lights came up and, with it, the return to reality. Gone was the battle torn landscape. Gone was the school building with the barricades before it. The smells of smoke and death lingered only in her memory. Instead of standing in the middle of a warzone, she stood in the center of a large room the size of a warehouse. Battle armor had been replaced by BDUs. Battle rifles and other arms had been replaced with training weapons. It hadn’t been real.
Her team looked around for a moment, reorienting themselves, before moving in her direction. Despite the return to so-called normal conditions, nothing could hide the aftermath of what they’d been through. Each member of the squad looked as if they’d been through hell. Panting, sweating, exhausted from four hours of almost non-stop battle, it had been real for them.
Almost too real, at least for Major Ashlyn Shaw.
“What the hell was that, Major?” Tank demanded as he turned to face her. “That wasn’t what we were briefed on.”
The others grumbled in response. At least they hadn’t appreciated the change in mission parameters any more than had she.
“Quiet!” Ortega snapped, her eyes on their commanding officer, her expression worried.
Ashlyn didn’t say anything. Instead, she closed her eyes and breathed deeply. She had to get control of her emotions before she said anything, even to her squad.
“Very good, Devil Dogs,” a male voice said over a speaker hidden somewhere in the shadows. “You are dismissed. Debriefing for officers and senior NCOs in two hours. As a reminder, your squad is to report back here at 0800 hours tomorrow for your next training mission.”
As if from a distance, Ashlyn heard her people grumbling in ill-temper. She knew it was a combination of frustration over the just completed mission as well as having to do it all over again come morning. Not that she blamed them, especially about the change in their mission. They had been given the parameters and had prepped accordingly. As their CO, she’d made sure of it, for all the good it had done them. Not a one of them, least of all her, had expected to find themselves suddenly on Arteres and in the middle of that thrice-damned mission. The members of this particular squad might not have been on the original mission with her, but they had studied it. She’d insisted they be given access to her reports on what happened. But this, having them actually go through the scenario without at least giving her a heads up was too much. It was too close to being set up again and she wasn’t going to stand for it.
And that didn’t even begin to take into account her anger with whoever had the audacity to write her son into the sim. Someone had better have a damned good explanation for it or she wouldn’t be responsible for what happened next.
“Major, did you know about this?” Sergeant Major MJ Adamson asked softly as she moved to Ashlyn’s side.
“I did not.” She forced herself not to turn and hit the wall – or the nearest person. “I have just one question for the rest of you. Did any of you know about this change in the mission parameters?” She waited, watching as they processed what she’d asked and knowing the answer before it came.
“Ma’am, no, ma’am!” each member of her team answered in unison.
She nodded, trying to rein in her anger. “Go hit the showers and then get some chow. Forget about the debriefing as well as the morning’s mission until you hear from me.” she held up a hand to ward of any argument. “And don’t discuss what happened here with anyone, not even the other Devil Dogs. Not until you get the go ahead from me.”
With that, she turned on her heel and moved toward the only entrance to the room. Her boot heels hitting the floor sounded loudly, a sure indication of just how angry she was. She didn’t care. She wanted answers and they’d sure as hell better be good ones. Otherwise, she must just find herself back in the Tarsus military prison. At least if she did, she’d have earned the trip this time.
As she reached the door, she realized three of the others had joined her. For a moment, she considered telling them to do as she’d ordered. Instead, she simply punched in the code to end the lockdown and stepped through the door as soon as it slid open, the three following close behind.
Without a word, she moved through the corridor leading between the different simulation rooms toward the control room at the far end of the building. The few people they passed quickly made room for them. Whether they read the anger on her expression or it was just the sight of four members of the Fuerconese Marine Corps’ best SpecOps battalion moving with undeniable purpose, she didn’t know nor did she care.
The door to the control room slid open and she stepped inside. The moment she did, she looked around. The junior officers monitoring the computers controlling the other sims currently taking place suddenly appeared to be busier than they had just a moment before. That was fine. They weren’t important. Their only part in the sims was to monitor and record how the different groups reacted to the scenarios thrown at them. They had nothing to do with setting up the sims. That person was in the office beyond the control room.
“Major Shaw.” A lieutenant with more guts than common sense hurried around his desk to intercept her before she could barge through the next door.
She stopped, the toes of her boots almost touching his, her hands fisting at her sides. “Lieutenant Young.” She made a point of glancing down at his name tape since he hadn’t paused to identify himself. “Step aside.”
“Ma’am, you know I can’t do that.” Sweat pricked out on his forehead as she simply stared at him, her expression closed.
“What I know is that I outrank you by some magnitude, Lieutenant, as well as everyone else in this room.” She paused as a hand gently touched her arm. She turned, ready to tear into whoever had been foolish enough to interrupt her. Then, seeing her XO standing there, she nodded slightly. There was something in Ortega’s expression that told her to let the other woman handle things, for the moment at least.
“Lieutenant Young, you were the senior officer on duty when the Major and the rest of us entered the room, isn’t that right?” Ortega’s voice was deceptively gentle but her eyes flashed dangerously. Recognizing it, Ashlyn closed her mouth and waited, wondering what her XO was up to.
“And, as an officer, I assume you actually went to the Academy and passed your course work. Would that be a correct assumption?”
“Y-yes, ma’am.” Sweat now beaded on his forehead and upper lip.
“And part of your time at the Academy was spent learning proper protocol when senior officers enter a room. Isn’t that correct?”
A slight smile touched Ash’s lips. Her XO – and her best friend – was about to teach the poor lieutenant a lesson he wouldn’t soon forget.
Young swallowed hard and nodded.
“I’m sorry, Lieutenant, I didn’t hear you.” Ortega’s voice turned cold.
“And were you taught proper uniform appearance for both officers and enlisted personnel?”
“Master Sergeant Adamson, please inform the good lieutenant and of the number of uniform violations you spot on him with just a cursory inspection.”
“Yes, ma’am.” The blonde stepped forward and glanced almost casually at the young lieutenant who was starting to look more than a little green. “Without doing a proper inspection, Captain Ortega, I see at least eight violations of the uniform regulations.”
“I see.” She shook her head, her expression grim. “And the rest of the personnel in this room?”
“Ma’am, there are far too many.” Now Adamson’s voice was as cold as Ortega’s had been. “There is more than simple carelessness being shown in here.”
“Master Guns, how many violations of protocol did you note as we entered the room?”
“Is the captain asking about what I saw as we immediately entered or since our arrival?” Talbot asked in return.
Ashlyn almost laughed as Young flinched and paled.
“Let’s limit it to our immediate arrival.”
“Then there were three actual violations of protocol and another two violations of common military courtesy,” Talbot responded.
“And what would you do if someone assigned to the Devil Dogs failed to follow established protocol?”
“Well, Captain, I’d have them out on the O Course until they were ready to drop and then standing watch, greeting every officer and NCO by rank and name for the next week.”
Young swallowed again and Ashlyn considered telling her people that they had made their point. It wouldn’t surprise her if, at any moment, the lieutenant fainted or pissed his pants. No one wanted to be dressed down the way he’d just been. If they were smart, they certainly didn’t want it happening by two of the most well-respected NCOs in the Corps.
She held her tongue, however. Ortega was right to make an example out of him. He had violated protocol and his uniform, as well as most of the others in the room, did not come up to standard. If his CO wouldn’t teach him the error of his ways, she’d let her XO and senior non-coms try.
“Master Sergeant, what would you do after seeing the sorry state of the uniforms in this room?”
“Well, ma’am, they’d be making sure every uniform in their company was properly cleaned and ready for wear. Then they would be polishing boots until not only you but the Major here were satisfied,” Adamson answered, a slight smile touching her lips.
“Now, Lieutenant, I believe Major Shaw suggested you step aside so she can speak with your CO.”
Ortega’s voice was now deceptively calm, not that it would fool anyone with an ounce of sense in their head. Of course, Ashlyn wasn’t sure Young possessed that much sense just then. She had a feeling he was too shell-shocked by the way he’d just been handed his head to do anything but just stand there, trying to look very small.
Young’s green eyes flicked right and then left, as if he were looking for help or a quick exit, but neither came. Instead, silence filled the room as everyone waited for him to make his mind up about what he was going to do. As he did, Ashlyn fought the urge to smirk. The lieutenant had probably received the most thorough dressing down of his short Marine Corps career. What he eventually got out of it was up to him. Hopefully, it would make him a better officer. If not, he might just wind up getting people under his command killed should he ever see actual battle.
Before Young could decide what he was going to do, the door to the inner office slid open. A tall, grey haired man appeared. He took one look at the scene before him and shook his head. Then, with a curt nod to Ashlyn, he motioned for her to enter. When the others made to follow, he took a step to his right, barring their path.
“You really don’t want to do that, sir.”
She was skirting close to the edge of insubordination but she didn’t care. Not after what happened during the sim. Having Ortega and the others present accomplished two things: it provided witnesses for whatever was said and it would keep her from doing something foolish. Hopefully.
“Major Shaw.” Lt. Colonel Kieran Brodsky’s voice was cold, his expression hard. No doubt about it, he was almost as angry as was she.
But at least he moved out of the way and let the others enter his office. After closing the door behind them, he moved to sit behind his desk. Elbows on the desktop, fingers steepled before him, he pointedly did not invite Ashlyn to sit.
“You are skirting very close to finding yourself brought up on charges, Major,” he said.
“Respectfully, sir, you are more than welcome to level charges against me. Frankly, I’d like to see you try to make the stick. Just remember that the ensuing investigation will force you to answer, on the record, why the parameters of the sim were changed without warning and why the new sim was nothing more than a replay of the mission that led to the false charges being brought against me and the surviving members of my team.” The words were bitter in her mouth. “Then you’ll be asked to explain why my son – my son, damn you! – into the sim.”
“What?” Ortega’s shock was mirrored by the stunned gasps from Talbot and Adamson.
“The boy at the end of the sim. I didn’t realize it until it was almost over, but it was Jake.” The fury and fear she’d felt in that moment returned and she fought the urge to take a swing at Brodsky.
“Lt. Colonel?” Ortega turned a baleful glare on the man. Not wanting her XO getting into trouble on her account, Ashlyn simply shook her head before indicating the woman should take a step back.
“Frankly, Major, I don’t have to explain anything to you,” Brodsky said. “You know as well as I do that we don’t have to inform teams of a change in mission parameters. Part of the reason why we run these sims is to see how well our people can adapt and react, no matter what the situation they might be presented with. Sorry if you didn’t like what we threw at you but you’re a Marine. You know how to adapt.” Venom dripped from his voice.
“What I know is that these training sims, when set up by the battalion CO – which I happen to be – are not to be changed without first informing said CO.” Ashlyn ground out the words. “So, Lt. Colonel, who gave you the order to change the sim and to include my son in it?”
Brodsky didn’t respond. Anger flaring, Ash took a step forward. Then she stopped. Something wasn’t right. It didn’t feel right. Not the way the sim had been changed on them and not the way Brodsky was dealing with her. It felt like another test, one to see just how far they could push her before she broke. She could be wrong, and she knew there were several other possible explanations for what had been done. All she knew for sure was she didn’t like the implications.
“Very well, Lt. Colonel.” She drawled out his rank, her disgust and lack of respect obvious. “As battalion CO, I am entitled to a complete copy of the records of the sim for evaluation by my team. Master Sergeant Adamson will remain here until you have it ready.”
As she spoke, Adamson nodded and moved to take up a position next to the door. Ashlyn felt sure none of them, Brodsky included, had any doubts about what she was doing. Adamson would remain there, and she’d make sure Brodsky did as well, until he turned the records over to her.
“Master Guns, go let the rest of the team know that we will be discussing the sim as soon as Captain Ortega and I return.”
“Lt. Colonel Brodsky, you are lucky that I happen to respect your rank since I don’t particularly respect you right now,” she continued. “Never play this sort of game with me or my people again.”
With that, she turned and left the office, Talbot and Ortega on her heels. No one said anything until they were in the elevator, safely away from prying eyes and ears.
“What the hell was that all about?” Ortega demanded, her eyes flashing with anger.
“I wish to hell I knew.” Ash drew a deep breath, held it for a count of five and then released it. “And I plan to find out. Loco, go make sure our teams knows that I want to see all of them as soon as I get back. We’ll do our own debrief on the sim as well as discuss what happened and, hopefully, why.”
“There’d better be a damned good reason for what happened, ma’am, or you’re going to have a bunch of angry Devil Dogs on your hands and I don’t mean just our team.”
Ashlyn nodded. Talbot was right. Marines stood together. Devil Dogs did that and more. Unless she missed her guess, she had a feeling Talbot – and Ortega – would be leading the Devil Dogs if she didn’t get answers for them all.
“And us?” Ortega asked.
“We’re going to see what our Division CO has to say about this.”