Good morning! Welcome to Snippet Saturday. If you are joining the blog for the first time or if you haven’t figured out what’s going on in my warped writer’s mind, I’m posting snippets from the Honor & Duty series as we lead up to the release of Victory from Ashes. Today’s offering is from Fire from Ashes, Book 4 in the series.
Dirt and debris filled the air as another mortar round exploded mere yards from where they huddled behind what might euphemistically be called cover. Lieutenant Colonel Lucinda Ortega ignored the inventive cursing of some of her Marines. Instead, she ordered them to sound off. That blast had been a bit too close for comfort. Not that the others had been much better.
“Someone get me a location for that mortar!” she ordered as she flipped through her visors various filters, studying the area around them.
Damn it, this mission had gone to Hell in the proverbial hand basket almost from the moment they landed. At least they’d managed to clear the shuttle before a mortar hit it. Not that it meant much in the grand scheme of things. Her Marines might have made it off, but most of their equipment had still been onboard. Worse, they weren’t going to get any support from topside until they managed to take down the controls for the defense platforms. Assuming they managed to find a way through the no-man’s-land they found themselves in.
“Sorceress, we can’t stay here much longer,” Master Sergeant M. J. Anderson said as she moved to her CO’s side.
Ortega nodded. “I know, Reaper.” She blew out a breath. “Answer me this. The enemy’s had us pinned down for more than two hours. Why haven’t they moved in?”
Even as she asked, she knew one possible answer. By holding their troops back, they prevented the Fuerconese Marines from picking them off. This area might be a no-man’s-land for the Marines, but it could quickly become one for the Callusian invaders as well. That might be why their commander continued to rely on his artillery. Still, it didn’t make any sense. By continuing this line of attack, it gave the rest of the Warlords time to get into position to flank them.
Not that it mattered much if the enemy managed to zero in on them before then. If they did, it would be over for Alpha Company. There wasn’t enough cover to hide behind. All it would take was a few good hits and there would be little for their fellow Warlords to find and return to the home system. Not that she had any intention of allowing that to happen.
“Wish I knew, Sorceress.” Anderson’s concern, as well as more than a little curiosity, about the enemy’s tactics was clear. “Orders?”
“Tell the heavies to be ready to move on my signal. If we have a drone left, I want it up. We need eyes on them yesterday.”
The master sergeant nodded and moved off, crouching low to the ground. As she did, Ortega closed her eyes, thinking hard.
Praying she wasn’t about to make a fatal mistake, Ortega carefully shifted positions. She dropped to her belly and inched toward the edge of the barricade. Barricade! What a laugh. For the last ten minutes, she had crouched behind a pile of rubble, part of what had once been a single-story building. As she did, she reached over her shoulder for her sniper rifle. For not the first time, she thanked whoever decided Marine armor should default to black unless its camo capabilities were activated. With the twin suns of the planet below the horizon, that meant the enemy would have to be checking with infrared to be able to see her.
Unfortunately, that also meant she couldn’t see anything without using her own filters. Even then, her field of vision was limited. Even so, a little was better than nothing.
For several long moments, she ignored Adamson’s demands that she get back under cover. Instead, she scanned the area. A slight smile touched her lips as she caught sight of an enemy foolish enough to show himself. With a precision that would have impressed her Academy instructors, she carefully squeezed the trigger and watched as he fell to the ground a few seconds later. Then she continued her scan, looking for something, anything that would help them break out of this trap they’d found themselves in.
“Sorceress, if you don’t get your ass behind cover, I’m going to drag you back,” Adamson growled over a private channel. “We can’t risk you, damn it.”
Ortega didn’t respond. Adamson was right. The Warlords lost their previous CO in an ambush a few months earlier. Even though Paul Pawlak hadn’t been with them for long, Ortega knew from personal experience that he’d been the kind of CO who quickly earned a division’s loyalty. His death, as well as the deaths of those with him, had rocked the battalion. When she and Adamson arrived to take command, they’d found Marines hurting and in need of a commanding officer who could not only lead them but who could gain their trust and respect. She’d worked hard to be that CO. She’d be damned if she did anything to set them back now.
Besides, she’d seen what she needed to. Safely back behind her barricade of rubble, she sat up. One part of her brain listened as her company commanders reported in. Some called for medics. Others called for fresh battery packs or ammo. Others reported on enemy troop movement. Not that there was much along that line to report. It seemed each of the companies faced a situation similar to her own.
And it made no sense.
Somehow, she had to figure out a way to break her company free and quickly, before it was too late.
“Wraith, Sorceress,” she commed. “Report.”
“Sorceress, Wraith. Enemy dug in at two. No change in status.”
She produced her datapad and pulled up the drop zone map. For several long moments, she studied it. Nothing about the map matched what they’d dropped into except the geography. Troop placements weren’t where they were supposed to be. Defenses the enemy shouldn’t have had time to build were in place. Someone had fucked up and badly. If she lived through this, she’d make it her personal mission to find out who and make them pay. Every Marine she lost, every one of her Marines injured, would be avenged.
Risking not only her master sergeant’s ire but an enemy projectile, she once again looked around the edge of her cover. Filters flipped from one to another as she scanned the area. Instinct and training. That’s what she had to rely on. Her own and as well as that of the rest of the battalion. They might not be the Devil Dogs but, by God, they were almost as good. They would not let the enemy win. Not here and not now.
“Reaper, I want Tusker and Bird here on the double. Falcon and Eagle are to get ready to soar,” she ordered as she ducked back behind the pile of rubble.
“Roger that,” the master sergeant replied before relaying her orders. A moment later, Ortega heard the soft beep that signaled Anderson had once again switched to a private channel. “Sorceress, would you mind telling me what you have going on in that warped mind of yours?”
Despite the seriousness of their situation, Ortega chuckled softly. “I might enlighten you if you get over here ASAP.” She ended the comm and closed her eyes, hoping she wasn’t about to make the biggest mistake of her career.
Less than five minutes later, the heavy weapons specialist and comms specialist she had sent for slid to a halt in front of her. Adamson came next, followed closely by several others. Ortega nodded once, not at all surprised the master sergeant had added Captain Ross Halverson, her exec, or Sergeant Tariq Benton, the next senior non-com in the company. Without speaking, Ortega motioned for them to gather round. As they did, she active her data pad once again. A 3-D map of the area appeared above it. She entered a few corrections and waited as the image adapted to the changes. As it did, she sat back on her heels.
“We’ll have time later to discuss what went wrong.” She shook her head before any of the others could say anything. “For now, our ships are getting pounded. They don’t have a chance if we can’t get the defense platforms off-line.”
“You have a plan?” Adamson asked, her tone indicating she knew the answer and also knew she wasn’t going to like it.
“I do.” She tapped in a command and the map focused in on their position. “The enemy has held here.” She highlighted the area. “For the last half hour. They’re showing no indication of moving. It might be the dark. It might be they are waiting for reinforcements. Whatever it is, we aren’t going to sit here waiting for them to make a move.”
“What do you have in mind?” Halverson asked.
She tapped in a command and the map image adjusted to show a wider area. “A fire team is going to move out and take the high ground here.” A red dot indicated the target zone. “That will give Tusker a clear shot at the enemy location. Bird will paint the targets for him. Once the team opens fire, I want the rest of the company pressing forward. We have to break out of this mess now.”
For a moment, no one said anything. Then Anderson glanced up, her expression hard. “Sorceress, you aren’t planning on taking this little walk with Bird and Tusker, are you?”
“Can you name a better sniper in the company to go along?”
She knew the answer and knew Anderson wouldn’t like it. But they had both served under not only Pawlak but Ashlyn Shaw. That taught them a CO did whatever she had to in order to get her people home safely while still fulfilling her mission. Not that it would prevent Anderson from giving her an earful later.
“Tag and Zen will go as well,” Anderson said, her expression warning Ortega not to object. “Your plan?”
For the next ten minutes, Ortega laid it out, listening to their comments and amending the plan on the fly. She knew this was their best chance of success. If they failed, she would have no choice but to contact the taskforce commander and tell him to withdraw from the system, stranding the Marines dirtside. That was one call she had no intention of making. This had to work. If it did, not only would they finally be able to move against the groundside controls for the defense platforms, but they could call in air support once the platforms were down.
“Sorceress, you need to stay here,” Halverson said once she finished the briefing. “I’ll go in your place.”
For a moment, Ortega said nothing. She saw the worry in the captain’s eyes and understood. He’d been with Pawlak on that last mission. Pawlak had chosen to lead the charge against an enemy encampment, not realizing they had reinforcements hidden nearby. Pawlak and every Marine with him had perished. When she rendezvoused with the taskforce to take command of the battalion, Admiral Wu, Fourth Fleet’s commanding officer, warned that her XO blamed himself for not stopping Pawlak. That guilt shone through once again and she had to put a stop to it.
“Snapper, I have to go and you know it. I’m sorry, but you’re not a sniper and that’s what we need on the fire team.” She laid her hand on his shoulder, hoping she found the right words to not only reassure him but get through his guilt. If she couldn’t trust him to take command if she fell, she might as well signal their surrender now. “You know our Marines. More importantly, they know you. If something does happen to me, I need you to take command and make sure those platforms come down. But I promise, nothing’s going to happen. That’s why we’re going up high. I want to rain our vengeance down on these bastards. I want to make them pay for Hammer and the others. That means I need you and the rest of the company to give us cover until we’re in position. You can and will do this, Marine.”
“Ooh-rah, Snapper.” She pounded her fist lightly against his chest and gave a jerk of her head to dismiss him. “Stick close to him, Reaper,” she added over the private channel.
“I will.” Adamson paused and motioned the others to give them some space. “I swear to God, Luce, if anything happens to you, I’ll kill you. Then I’ll contact Angel, tell her what happened and watch as she figures out a way to resurrect you just so she can then beat you senseless.” Her eyes flashed, and Ortega chuckled softly.
“You just take care of the company for me, MJ.” She glanced around and then gave her friend’s hand a quick squeeze. “If I don’t make it back, find out what the hell happened. Our intel shouldn’t have been this wrong. It couldn’t have been. Not without someone purposefully feeding us wrong information.”
Anderson said nothing. Instead, she nodded once. That was enough to let Ortega know the master sergeant agreed with her, at least when it came to the reasons behind their current situation. More than that, she could trust Anderson to do as she asked.
“Just remember, you have one duty right now, ma’am. That is to come back to the battalion. It can’t take losing a second CO so soon and I sure as hell don’t want to be the one to tell Angel something happened to you.” With that, Anderson promised to make sure everything would be ready by the time she moved out.
Alone, Ortega closed her eyes and offered up a quick prayer. She didn’t like her plan any more than Adamson did. But what choice did she have? She had a duty to save as many of her Marines as possible. More importantly, she had a duty to take down the defense platform controls. That would help save the taskforce ships and that, in turn, would help drive the enemy off-planet. Honor and duty demanded she do whatever it took to fulfill her orders and complete her mission.
She glanced around, watching as her orders were quickly relayed to the rest of the company. Soon those orders would go out over the battlenet to the rest of the division. Hopefully, the diversion she and the rest of the fire time caused would be enough to help the others break free as well. There was one thing left for her to do.
Three minutes later, she ended the recording and input the order to send it should anything happen to her. Before making the drop dirtside, she’d dictated a message for her family. In some ways, this one was more difficult. But she wanted to make sure someone she trusted to look into the breakdown in their intel knew what happened. She had no doubt Ashlyn Shaw would do everything possible to get answers—just as she had almost five years before when Shaw and others had been brought up on charges following a mission that now looked too much like her own current mission.
“Ready?” she asked the four who would accompany her?
They now crouched behind a makeshift barricade of rubble, shuttle debris and other things best left unnamed. Each of them carried more weapons than the regs required. She had no doubt they, like her, had added to their usual loads. Good. They couldn’t risk running out of ammo or losing comms to the rest of the company. Now all they had to worry about was getting to the target safely.
“We’ll move out one by one. I know I don’t have to say it but make yourselves small, stick to the shadows and use what cover you can.”
“Tag, you have the lead,” Adamson said from where she knelt next to Ortega. “Zen, you are on Sorceress. Stick to her and make sure she makes it to the target. Tusker, you bring up the rear.”
“Roger that, Reaper,” the heavy weapons specialist replied.
“Then let’s do this.” Ortega reached over her left shoulder and pulled her battle rifle. She checked its load and watched as the others followed suit. Then she turned her attention back to Adamson. “If there is any change in the enemy’s status, comm me. Otherwise, you have my orders.”
“Understood, Sorceress.” Adamson nodded to each member of the fire team. “First round once we’ve got liberty is on me. Good hunting.”
Slowly, carefully, they moved out. Keeping low, Ortega waited until Tag signaled the all-clear. The moment he did, she raced across a clearing that suddenly seemed much larger than it had moments before. As she did, she swept the area, her rifle at the ready. Then she slid to a stop in the shadows of the narrow alley running between two of the very few buildings still standing. She gave a quick nod to Zen as the private slid to a halt at her side.
A tap on her shoulder came at the same time Tag’s voice over the fireteam’s ‘net. “Movement,” he said softly before reading off the coordinates.
Ortega switched her battle rifle for her sniper rifle. As she did, she dropped to one knee. With Zen at her shoulder, she focused on the coordinates Tag called out. Her implants kicked in, slowing her pulse and respirations. Eyesight sharpened, and the sights of the rifle synced with her ocular implant.
One corner of her mouth twisted up in a parody of a smile. She waited, wanting to be sure of her target. The battle-hardened veteran in her knew she should take the shot before they were spotted. But she had to be sure. There was a chance, small though it might be, that the figure wasn’t one of the enemy. All she needed was for it to step into the light.
Come on, take another step this way. Give me a better look at you.
“Now, Sorceress!” Zen said softly.
Sniper rifle snugged against her shoulder, Ortega gently squeezed the trigger. She watched through the scope as the projectile severed the soldier’s spine at the base of his neck. He dropped where he stood. Ortega waited, scanning the area for any indication the Callusian foot soldier hadn’t been alone.
“Tag, Bird, you’ve got retrieval. We’ll cover.”
Zen and Tusker moved to take up positions that left Ortega between and slightly behind them. As they did, Tag and Bird slowly picked their way across what might once have been a small park or greenway. Ortega watched through her rifle’s scope, scanning the area. The last thing she wanted was for more of the enemy to come upon them and catch them unaware.
“Sorceress, Bird. We’re in place.”
“Roger that, Bird. Strip out his weapons and anything else you can carry. Leave ID if he has any but make note of it. Then hide the body. Let’s not get sloppy now.”
The comms specialist acknowledged the order. As she watched him doing as she said, Tusker on look-out, Ortega listened to reports coming in over the battlenet. Rear Admiral Kieran O’Malley, commanding officer of Taskforce Liberator, wanted a status update. Unfortunately, she didn’t have one for him. Even if she did, she couldn’t risk the enemy intercepting their comms. At least Halverson, possibly with input from Adamson, knew how to respond. All she had to do was make sure the fireteam got into position before the enemy discovered what they were up to.
Five minutes later, they were on the move again. Tag and Bird returned to their positions in the formation. Zen now carried what they had confiscated from the dead Callusian. Later, assuming there was a later, Ortega would examine what they found. For now, however, it had to wait. They still had a great deal of territory to cover and she wanted it done before the sun came up. Once that happened, they’d be caught in the middle of a no-man’s-land. That had to be avoided at all costs. So much depended on them getting to their destination before the enemy knew what they planned.
For more than an hour, the fireteam crept further and further away from the rest of the company. Not that it stopped the reports from coming in or muted the sounds of battle. The battlenet saw to that. Ortega listened in, occasionally clarifying an order or making a suggestion on a private channel to Halverson and Adamson. Even as she did, she reminded herself she needed to focus on the task at hand. Halverson and Adamson were more than capable of keeping the rest of the company safe, at least as long as the enemy didn’t try to overrun their position. The best thing she, and the rest of the fireteam, could do was reach their goal. Fortunately, they were almost there.
Tag dropped to one knee and lifted his left fist, signaling everyone to stop. Ortega repeated the signal. She waited until the others dropped to a knee. They turned outward, weapons ready, watching all approaches. Trusting them to warn her if anyone—or anything—approached, Ortega silently moved to where Tag knelt, his attention focused on the area directly in front of them.
“There’s your target, Sorceress.” He nodded to several buildings approximately one hundred yards from where they knelt. “Optimum position is the first building.”
She studied the buildings, doing her best not to let her emotions show. They waited at the edge of what had once been a thriving commercial center. Most of it was now a smoldering pile of rubble. In the time since the Callusians invaded the system, they had followed their normal order of battle. After either destroying or taking over military installations, they moved on to planetary infrastructure. Because the system had done its best to hold out, the invaders had taken to bombarding the capital in an attempt to force a surrender. The government had gone underground. Most of the survivors in the capital had fled. Those who hadn’t had been killed or captured by the invaders. But the survivors had continued the fight, keeping the enemy focused on the capital instead of the rest of the planet.
Not that it helped them just then. The building Ortega targeted as the best location to begin their part of the op looked as if it might not remain standing if it took another artillery hit. Hell, she wasn’t sure it would remain standing once they started making their way to the rooftop. Unfortunately, the other building looked to be in even worse condition and none of the remaining buildings in the area would give the vantage point she wanted or needed.
“Bird, let Snapper know we are about to move into position. We’re going dark until we have.”
Trusting the comms specialist to do as instructed, she scanned the area between them and the building. There was too much open space and too little cover. Their best bet in case the enemy had eyes on the area was to make a run for it and cross the open area as quickly as possible.
“Tag, you have point again. Same order of advancement as before,” she said as Bird ended the transmission to Halverson. “Keep an eye out but hit the building without stopping. That’s an order. Once inside, find us a way to the roof. We move, and we move quickly. Questions?”
“You keep between us, Sorceress,” Bird told her. The others nodded in agreement.
“Let’s move out.”
Tag took another moment to scan the area in front of them. He gave a quick thumbs up. Then he shouldered his rifle and rose to a crouch. Ortega watched as he took off, moving quickly in a zigzag across the open area. She waited, knowing at any moment a shot could ring out. The fact they hadn’t spotted the enemy nearby didn’t mean there wasn’t a sniper in position keeping watch. Or a drone. Until they were all inside, she couldn’t relax.
One by one, they raced across the clearing. By the time Tusker slid to a halt inside the building, Ortega had the others looking for the quickest route to the roof. Now they were in for the long slog. With the power out, they had no choice but to climb. The only question was whether they could use the stairs all the way or if they would have to improvise. Either way, it was going to take time and, as tempting as it was to simply race upstairs, they had to go carefully. They had to make sure they weren’t walking into an ambush along the way.
“Zen, you have point. Bird, you get the rear. If we run into trouble, let Snapper know and extract. Zen, give Bird the goods.” She watched as Zen handed over the items taken from the fallen Callusian soldier. “Let’s get it done.”
After what seemed like hours, Ortega watched as Zen and Tag forced open the door leading to the roof. While the rest of them waited, weapons aimed either at the doorway or down the stairs, Tag cleared the roof. When he signaled the all-clear, Ortega was the first out the door. Instantly, she dropped to her stomach. As she did, she cursed softly. The damage up here was worse than what they’d encountered on the slow climb up. The roof was pitted from mortar fire. The parapet around the roof, the architectural feature she hoped would make it harder for the enemy to spot them, was missing. In fact, much of the roof and wall on that side of the building was gone.
“Bird, Tusker, you’re with me. Zen, Tag, hang back.”
She slid her battle rifle into place across her back. Then she slowly, carefully crawled across the roof. Her breath caught and her pulse pounded as the surface seemed to groan under her weight. Instantly, she signaled the others back. If the rooftop was going to give way, better it be under just one of them. At least that’s what she told herself.
Inch by inch, she crossed what was left of the roof. Over some debris and then down, sliding feet first, to the next level where the roof collapsed. She might have her doubts about the stability of the building, but she approved of this location. Unlike the partial roof above, this floor offered at least a modicum of cover from anyone who might look her way from ground level.
Crouched next to what had once been a window, Ortega scanned the area below. Then she lifted her sniper rifle. Once again, she scanned the area. She felt a moment’s relief to see the enemy had yet to change position. She didn’t understand why, but she wasn’t going to complain. At least this way she didn’t have to recalculate for their strike or change locations. Hopefully, their luck would hold a little bit longer.
As the others took up positions, Ortega continued to watch the enemy. Between the building where they perched, readying to signal the rest of the company to move, and the enemy’s location was a dead zone. How different it looked now than it had a mere month ago. Then it had been alive and prosperous. Even this late at night, people would have been coming and going from the entertainment sectors. Others would have been working the night shift or preparing to head in for the morning. Then the Callusians invaded. Now much of the city lay in ruins. How many had died in the last month? Ortega didn’t know and knew she couldn’t focus on that. Not yet. Just as she couldn’t think about all those who had died throughout the system as the Callusians ran through it. All she could do was make sure they recaptured the remaining defense systems, taking them off-line so the taskforce could finally close in on the enemy ships and deal with them.
“How long, Tusker?” she asked as she lined up her shot.
She nodded. She marked her first shot, then her second and third. By the time she managed those, she knew the enemy camp would be alive and moving. Everything after that would have to be done on the fly. But it would be enough. It had to be.
“Go for Reaper.”
That was it. She didn’t dare say more in case the enemy somehow managed to intercept the signal. But it would be enough. She and Anderson had been through too many battles not to understand one another. Anderson would relay the message to Halverston, and then she’d get the company ready. Now it was up to her and the rest of the fire team.
“On my second shot, Tusker. Bird, light his target.”
Ortega said a silent prayer. Then she opened her eyes and once again focused on her first target. Inhale. Exhale. Let the heart slow. As she did, she felt more than saw the others preparing to take their own shots. She flicked through her HUD’s filters, verifying her data. Then, just before squeezing the trigger, she sent confirmation to Anderson. The battle was about to turn — she hoped.
A split-second later, her target’s chest exploded. Even before his knees buckled, she shifted her sites to the second target and then the third. By the time she zeroed in on a fourth, Tusker began his assault. A grim smile touched Ortega’s lips as she watched the enemy camp turn into a mass of turmoil.
“Reaper, move in! I say again, move in!”
Immediately, hell rained down on the enemy position as heavy weapons from the rest of the company came to life. She continued to carefully select her targets, picking them off one by one. At the same time, reports came in over the battlenet as not only Alpha Company, but the rest of the battalion as well, began a fresh push against the enemy.
“Movement at two o’clock,” Bird reported. At the same time, he painted the new target for Tusker, ready in case Ortega gave the order to open fire.
Ortega glanced to her right. She fired off three quick shots, hitting two targets. Three others broke for cover. She cursed and began scanning for them. They couldn’t be allowed to break out.
“Tag, Zen, new positions. Don’t let anyone get past us.”
“Go, Reaper.” She sighted another target and fired.
“Moving to forward position. Sending you reinforcements once in place.” The sounds of weapon fire almost drowned out Adamson’s words.
“Secure the target first. I repeat. Secure all targets.”
For a moment, Adamson said nothing. “Watch yourself, Sorceress.”
“Always,” she replied and switched channels to let Admiral O’Malley know their status.
Fire from Ashes is available from all major e-book retailers. A print version of the book is also available. The latest entry in the series, Victory from Ashes, is now available for pre-order and will be released September 7, 2021.