“I don’t suppose you’d believe me if I said I didn’t see it?” SPC Ramsay, the APC driver, asked. The imprint of the boulder was perfectly outlined in the lower front armor of the vehicle.
“Uhhh. No.” Reno looked up at the silvery orb of the planet hanging almost directly overhead. Between 18 Scorpii Alpha’s high albedo and the warm, yellow light of the star that squatted low on the horizon, it was as bright as high noon anywhere on Earth. “Specialist Ramsay, have you just wrecked the taxpayers’ brand-new trak?”
“No, First Sergeant,” Ramsay replied. “It’s just a dent. A big dent, I’ll admit. But there’s a lot of dead space up there, to soak up HEAT rounds.”
“When we came down off the escarpment and I said ‘hit it, Ramsay,’” Reno said, “I meant ‘go fast,’ not ‘drive this fucking thing into the first big rock you find’.” The rolled ceramite armor had taken a pretty stout wallop, but everything appeared intact. Reno motioned for Ramsay to get back in the APC. “We’ve wasted enough time staring at your souvenir. Let’s get going.”
“Those new balloon tires get loose on the hard pack and I cornered too hard,” Ramsay said. “I got this, Top. It won’t happen again.”
Gamespeak: Turn 30 (The Space Infantry turn track runs backward from 30 to 0). A skill check (Pilot @ 2 successes needed) is required to enter the first map node. Only the APC driver has the Pilot skill (Pilot-3), and the skill can’t be influenced by the squad leader’s Command ability. The APC driver draws a random number (RN) of 6. Divide that by his skill level (3) and the squad gets two successes to advance onto the node. Ramsay floors it. The Event String for the node is “5+/Damage”. On an RN of 5 or higher, the APC takes an automatic 1 point of damage (it has a hefty 4 damage points). The RN drawn is another 6. Literally translating the First Sergeant’s exhortation, Ramsay indeed “hits it.” The APC takes 1 damage point. The node gets an Event marker, and play proceeds to the next turn.
Thirty minutes out from the hard shelf, the sand turned soft and sugary. Even with high-volume tires mounted on the APC, it was difficult to move with any speed. Reno ordered the first recon drone sent aloft to look for the best route to the first cave complex.
Like nearly every other team in the troop, the Intel guys were short-handed. The troop’s S2 missed the departure from High Point, as did the Intel team sergeant. Aside from the Specialist in charge, they had one other trained drone operator; he was landing at the science station with 2nd Squad to look for survivors. Troopers LaDue and Winslow “volunteered” to run the drones for 1st Squad.
The recon module took up half the space in the APC’s cargo bay. Rumor was that the thing was designed to accommodate two operators, although nobody had ever seen proof of the claim. The two troopers were practically sitting on top of each other. LaDue ran the electronics; before Audie Murphy’s hasty deployment, he’d been studying for admission to Intel School. Winslow was widely known as the squadron’s top rec-hall joystick jockey, and Reno figured Tri-D games weren’t that much different from flying drones.
Between them, they figured out how to get the drone’s G-Band Ladar working. G-Band had some ground-penetrating properties, so they could find areas of hard pack for Ramsay to follow toward the cave complex. Before long, the mountainous shelf that concealed what the Tac Readout designated “Cave Complex A” appeared on the horizon.
Gamespeak: Turn 29. The entry requirement for the next node is “Pilot 3,” which requires three success levels of Pilot skill checks. The APC pilot’s skill check is RN3, for one success level. Not wanting to spend two or three more turns entering the map’s second node, the squad leader expends an “I” — Intel — resource to gain 2 automatic success levels. Three total successes allow the squad to enter the node.
“First Sergeant!” LaDue called from the back of the APC, “Take a look at my ladar return on your TID.”
Reno switched his Tactical Information Display to the drone’s ladar transmission. He could see the light green reflection of the hard pack down one side. LaDue was focusing the ladar on a long, darker reflection off to the left. The readout said the drone was about 3 km ahead of them.
“Ramsay, slow it down,” Reno instructed. “Winslow, pylon turn on that big blob and quit jerking the drone around.”
“That blob is moving straight for us, Top,” Winslow pointed out. “Under the surface. Fast.”
Gamespeak: Turn 29 (continued). The Event String for the node is “3+/S”. The Event Check is RN3. Contact!
“Sand worm. Shit!” Reno stood and grabbed a hand rail. “Ramsay, halt! Coyle, guns out! First Squad, lock and load!”
The APC lurched to a stop as the gunner, Trooper Coyle, strapped into the flat turret’s cradle. As he punched up the gun power, his helmet’s TID lit up with data from the fire control system, augmented by the drone’s ladar feed.
“Sub-surface contact approaching at 1,500 meters,” he called out. “Speed is nearly 90 kliks.”
“Select sabot,” Reno instructed. “Punch holes in that thing as soon as you have a shot.” He turned to Ramsay. “Keep your trak on the hard pack. Maybe these things don’t like the crunchy bits.”
He turned and looked down the length of the troop compartment. Everybody was gunned-up and ready.
“First team, south 30 meters,” Reno instructed. “Second team, north 30 meters. Miller, you and Basinger stay right in the middle and make sure that big fucking blob doesn’t get close to my beautiful, customized APC. Do you read me, One-Seven?”
“Garryowen!” the squad replied in unison.
“First Squad…” Reno yanked on the yoke to pop both hatches open, “Go!”
The troopers knew their business. CPL Buergel and Trooper March, armed with heavy automatics and underslung grenade launchers, sprinted out the port hatch, followed by the squad’s close combat specialist, CPL Miller, in his heavy battlesuit. CPL Phillips and Trooper Oppenheimer dropped out the starboard hatch. They each carried a small-caliber VRF (Very Rapid Fire) automatic — a “room sweeper” — coupled with an underslung flamer. They were followed closely by Trooper Basinger with his 4-gauge, belt-fed shotgun.
The troop Pathfinder, SPC Bernardo, armed only with a handgun, stayed behind in the trak with his search-and-rescue gear.
Reno’s command battlesuit was loaded with comms and surveillance gear. He carried a RDP (Rapid Discharge Pulse) laser that could do double-duty as a laser designator for the gunships — when they were available — and for squad-carried laser-guided weapons. His suit also mounted a bit of gear all the troopers called “Sergeant’s Time,” the ABG-12 ordnance rack, which could fire a lethal pattern of a half-dozen 2 kg grenades in half a second.
“Ready to git some, Tex?” Reno knelt down next to Miller, about 20 meters off to the left front of the APC. Nobody could really crouch or kneel in a heavy battlesuit, so Miller just stood there like a big gorilla with a chainsaw on his right arm and a room sweeper on his left.
“Ramsay is probably hoping that thing is dead long before it gets to me,” Miller replied. “Me?” He revved up the chainsaw. “Bring it on, Top.”
“500 meters,” Coyle called out from the APC turret.
“Hey, First Sergeant,” that was Trooper Basinger, crouching down about 20 meters off to Reno’s right. “What do we do if that thing doesn’t surface until it’s right under us?”
“It’s shallowing!” Coyle announced. “Depth 20 meters. 15… 10…”
The worm exploded from beneath the desert’s surface in a massive spray of sand, all gray and brown scales, with a yawning maw ringed by dagger-like, black teeth. How big were these things supposed to be? Reno had read the tactical database, but the science reports were still slim. This one was at least 5 meters across, and maybe 40 or 50 meters long.
The 30mm chain gun on the APC coughed to life the instant the worm broke the surface. Nobody waited for Reno to tell them what to do; the skirmish line of Cav troopers erupted in a cacaphony of automatic weapons fire. That was one big target.
While it was slightly slower now on the surface, the worm still moved at a pretty good clip. It was avoiding the hard pack, circling slightly to the south of the troopers and still about 350 meters away. Reno motioned for the assault team and Basinger to swing around toward the front, to keep their weapons bearing.
A series of projectiles — or something — cracked over Miller’s head and clanged loudly against the armor down the side of the APC.
“Did that thing just blow snot on me?” Ramsay asked from inside the APC.
“Worm jizz!” Winslow shouted.
“Looked like a discharge of some kind from a blow hole, I think,” LaDue said. “Everybody stay low. That shit dented the trak!”
Chunks of scales flew and gouts of wet, blue-green mist exploded from the worm’s top as the chain gun’s rounds finally hit home. Fire from Phillips’ and Oppenheimer’s VRF guns cut a jagged slice through the heavy scales.
The worm paused for a moment, still 200 meters distant, and reared up.
“Hey! We’re pissing it off!” Basinger moved around beside Reno. “Switching to PTF!” He pulled the selector switch on his ammo feed to change from standard slugs to penetrating tungsten flechette rounds. It was all he could do to keep his feet when the big gun started spitting blasts of hyper-velocity needles.
The worm dropped down again. Staggered by the squad’s fire, it blew out another stream of projectiles which sailed wide of the APC. A volley of 30mm rounds from the APC ripped into the creature’s open jaw and chewed up one side. Half of its “head” suddenly vaporized in a shower of sand and goo. 150 meters short of the squad, the worm slumped to a stop.
“Do you think they’re better deep-fried, or baked?” Winslow asked.
Gamespeak: Turn 29. Combat Round 1. The first step is a Command Skill check. The RN is 3, but our squad leader gets +1 for his “Aide-de-Camp” Talent. The total of 4 gives him 1 Command Point. He uses his 1 CP to order the squad to disembark the APC. Note that the Specialist Explorer (Bernardo) “stays behind.” Specialists don’t participate in combat unless there are fewer than three combat units remaining in the squad. For Range Determination, I draw RN0, so the range is “Fire”. I draw RNs for each of the squad’s four combat teams, but only the Assault Team (Phillips and Oppenheimer) score a hit. The APC gunner (Coyle) also scores a hit. The squad’s single wound checks against the worm’s armor, but the critter blows his save. The APC hit is armor-piercing, with no save allowed, so the worm takes two wounds (it has four wounds). The worm scores a hit with its fire attack, which I assign to the APC. The APC makes its armor save, so no wound is recorded.
Turn 29. Combat Round 2. Again, the squad leader draws a Command check and gets 1 CP. He gives the order “Deploy,” which subtracts 1 from the Range Table RN draw. The squad will be happier if they keep the thing at arm’s length. Range Determination RN is 4. The Deploy order reduces this to 3, and the Fire Team’s “Tactician” Talent subtracts 1 more for a total of 2. “Fire” range again. The squad draws three Fire successes (Assault Team again, Miller, Basinger) this time, and the APC gunner also gets a hit. The worm misses. The APC’s hit is armor-piercing, so that’s the third wound. The worm makes both armor saves, but it doesn’t matter. The third hit converts to a wound, and the worm is toast.
The node gets an Event marker, and play proceeds to Turn 28.