Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Chapter Forty-nine

The seven companies of the provisional assault battalion were now prepared to move on the Citadel. Hyland cocked her head to the right, as if it would help her hear the direct radio link to the other companies. The orders for the assault would be coordinated by the radio.

For a moment Hyland's company stood in the bright sunlight staring at the buildings in front of them. Over the tops they could see the Citadel, an imposing structure that dominated that area like a cathedral in a European city on the Earth.

When Hyland finally heard the coded sequence, she lifted one hand over her head and then dropped it. The first elements of the company moved forward, disappearing among the buildings. They were followed by the second wave, moving forward slowly as those in front covered the advance. As they fell into firing positions using the available cover, the last group was up and moving. Hyland, Price and Coolledge were with them, running across the sand and outcroppings of lava until they reached the shelter of the buildings about a hundred yards in front of them.

They worked their way through the town one street at a time, but they didn't worry about clearing the buildings. Now they were sure that the city was deserted. They made sure that there was no enemy soldiers falling in behind them to cut off their line of retreat, and then advanced until they reached the edge of the last ring of buildings. The only thing now between them and the Citadel was an expanse of black lava rock and fingers of tan colored sand.

They crossed an imaginary demarcation line and the air above them was split with the roar of aircraft engines. The drones, launched earlier by fighters from the fleet, dropped out of the cloudless sky, heading straight for the Citadel. The air defense system opened fire, at first throwing up a solid sheet of laser beams, as if they were shooting just to be shooting.

Far overhead the fighters began a bombing run, releasing their armaments at eighty thousand feet. The bombs, all guided, fell in to series of formations that would drop into a pattern that should open holes in the Citadel walls for the advancing troops.

Almost at the instant that the bombs began to fall, the main fleet fired a salvo of missiles that would add to the confusion in the air over the Citadel.

That was the plan developed over the last thirty hours by the Colonel in consultation with the officers of the fleet.

Ignoring the soldiers, the weapons along the top of the Citadel began to independently target the various weapons falling on it, blasting the closest bombs first. There were dozens of aerial explosions, the debris flaring brightly creating patterns of smoking trails against the deep blue of the alien sky. The conclusions of the explosions sounded like someone pounding on a bass drum somewhere in the distance.

The drones all vanished at nearly the same instant as the particle beams stabbed out, touching them. With that problem eliminated, the Citadel began searching the sky for the fighters that had dropped the bombs and fired the missiles. Most of them had climbed higher, out of effective range and the beams dancing around to keep them that way.

When the bombs had all been destroyed, the laser cannon switched to the missiles that were corkscrewing through the upper atmosphere, trying to out guess the enemy's defensive computers. At the extreme range, there may have been some hits, but the beams were too weak to punch through the protective covers of the missiles. The continued it, weaving a pattern of pure white condenstation trails behind them.

The only thing the early evasive maneuvers did was teach the enemy the system being used. When the missiles finally got into the range, the laser cannon opened fire in a predetermined squence that splattered one missile after another. Some of the remains of the weapons fell on the Citadel, but the pieces were so small that they did no damage. The larger pieces were independently targeted and hit again by the laser cannons. The enemy was taking no chances during this attack.

Of the three waves of the aerial assault, the bombs had gotten the closest, only because they were falling. With the other threats eliminated, the enemy point defense system began to target the bombs, destroying the last about three thousand yards above it, and then destroying the schrapnel that the explosions had produced.

Hyland, unaware that the air assault had been a dismal failure, was actually feeling good. She had heard the explosions near the top of the Citadel. She had seen the bursts of light and the clouds of smoke created by them. She didn't believe the enemy could withstand a coordinated aerial assault.

The company was now only about six thousand yards from the Citadel's walls and not a single shot had been directed at her or her company. She was concerned that there had been no explosions anywhere on the Citadel proper, but then she knew that she couldn't see everything that was happening. She dropped down into a depression in the lava and waited for the people behind her to pass by her.

Spread out in front of her, lying in the holes in the lava beds, behind the large lava boulders, or behind the debris that had been created as the Citadel had been constructed, Hyland could see about a third of her company. It was difficult to pick some of them out because the camouflage of the uniforms the wore, and the blinding light from the sun overhead made it almost impossible to see anything without the helmet filters. She was sure that the defenders in the Citadel were having an equally difficult time.

Hyland crawled across a stretch of sun hot lava, scraping her hands and knees on the sharp surfaces. She didn't know why she suddenly felt the urge to stay down, but knew that it seemed like the thing to do.

She approached Monier who was kneeling behind a large black rock, peeking over the top of it. Hyland asked, "You getting anything from inside the Citadel? We do any damage to them?"

"No. I'm not reading anything from the interior. I don't understand it. I should be able to read something."

Hyland watched as the last third of the company leap-frogged into the lead position, spreading out and then taking cover behind the rocks and debris. "Here we go again," said Hyland.

Together they got to their feet and sprinted across the hard surface of the lava, keeping as low as possible. Hyland could feel the stone flaying at the soft rubber of her boots. They ran between the people who had been on the front line, and then fanned out, searching for places to hide.

Monier rolled to her back in a deep depression that was filled with soft but hot sand. Without waiting for the question, she told Hyland, "Still nothing. They must be well shielded in there."

Hyland stood up to motion the next wave forward, but they were already up and running, dodging across the broken surface of the lava bed. They seemed to loom out of the shimmering heat as if they were ghosts from a phantom army.

As they ran by her, Hyland twisted around to watch them weave and shift as they searched for cover. In the instant before they were to drop from sight the Citadel came to life. Laser cannon that had been aimed upward to deal with the aerial threat, swiveled around and lowered the barrels so that it could fire. The beams shot out, touched the advancing soldiers briefly in a crisscrossing pattern that left no one an escape, and then vanished completely. In less than a second, a third of the attacking force was dead on the lava.

Hyland came up to her knees, forgetting about the need for cover. She stared at the bodies. Smoke curled upward from the clothing, skin and hair. Not one of them moved, or tried to get off that lava. There was a single quiet moan as one of the soldiers, apparently only wounded, tried to roll to his stomach and then stand. A single bright beam stabbed out and the soldier collapsed, dead. It was the only motion she saw after the Citadel had fired.

From the right one trooper leaped from his cover and ran toward a fallen friend. As the trooper crouched, to grab the wounded soldier, another, single beam fired and the trooper dropped to the lava in such a way that it was clear that he had been killed. No one else, nothing else, moved.
"All companies withdraw," crackled the radio. "All companies withdraw."

Hyland hesitated, unsure what to do. She glanced at Monier. "Anything?"

"Nothing. Maybe it's heavily shielded. Or maybe their minds are so different that I don't understand what I'm getting. I don't know."

Swain, using the little cover available, crawled toward Hyland. He dropped to the lava next to her. "We have been ordered to withdraw."

"I heard the order, Sergeant."

"Yes, ma'am."

Hyland was staring at the long line of scattered bodies that ringed the Citadel. She turned and sat down, her back against the rough stone of a lava boulder, eyes fixed on the ground. There was something that Monier had said that had raised a red flag but she didn't have time to worry about it now. She had other problems facing her.

"Captain?" said Swain

Far off to her left she could see the company there on their feet fleeing. It was an orderly withdrawal. They had learned the advantage of getting out of anything they had gotten themselves into long ago. Unplanned flight did nothing but expose the survivors to the danger.

Hyland stood without a word, running to the rear. She didn't bother to look back because she knew that the rest of the company would follow her lead. And she knew that the Citadel wouldn't fire at them now. They were not moving toward it, but away from it.

She didn't stop until she reached the company area. Then she dropped to the lava and wiped the sweat from her face. She watched the remainder of the company straggle in and sit down around her. There was no talking among them. They were too stunned, too shaken, to talk. It was the first time that many of them had gone into battle even one as short as this. They hadn't fired a shot and lost about a third of their number. Everyone had friends lying under the hot sun, the fluids baking from their bodies. They just didn't want to talk about it.

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