Chapter Fourteen – Battle for Jalnuur
Orz stopped the vehicle. The cooling system for the transmission had broken down. Temo managed to contact the fleet and Levene reported the situation to Seth. “The mine is empty general. Manesh reckons if there were any survivors they will be in an old experimental complex, which when Orz gets the transmission fixed, we’ll reach in a couple of days or so, providing the weather stays stable.”
“Were showing nothing moving on the surface, colonel,” Seth replied. “The atmosphere of the planet tends to shield the surface. Therefore, we can’t rely on our sensors. Report when you get there – out.”
The lead Armin struggled to maintain traction over the solid ice that covered the narrow pass between the mountains. The sergeant leaned forward looking over the driver’s shoulder at the track ahead. After the quakes had destroyed practically all of their attack force, killing most of the division, he was now the senior non-commissioned officer, which placed him in charge. Major Ganash and the sergeant major were killed when their Armins plunged into a crevasse after the initial quake back at the entrance to the valley.
Pashtek found himself trapped with no way back to the surface. So he had searched for a way to escape his ice tomb, and eventually he squeezed his way into one of the new fissures and back underground, close to where Akhen and the survivors were. If nothing else, we Khaz are expert at survival. The trip back to the mining complex for the commandos without firing a shot in anger would not have pleased their superiors! It would have been far better for them if they had all perished in the quakes, than a humiliating bloodless return to the barracks on Dranaa.
Orz fired up the engine and checked the temperature of the coolant for the transmission. It seemed to be all right. With any luck, the patched coolant-lines would hold out for a while. Kapinski watched the valley ahead as the transporter hugged the rock wall of the track a thousand meters above the valley floor. Manesh stuck his head up beside Kapinski from time to time, checking on reference points to gage the distance travelled. The old transporter did not have a nav system like its successor, the Armin, which made life difficult.
“Hey, colonel, get up here and check this out,” shouted Kapinski, over the roar of the engine. Trading places with him, Levene looked at what had attracted Kapinski’s attention. Someone had been this way recently. The makeshift bridge across the gap in the track, fifteen hundred meters ahead on a slight bend, only had a light covering of snow.
“Back her up, Orz, around that corner behind us, while the master sergeant and I go check out the bridge,” Levene ordered.
“Roger that boss,” Orz said, glad to be able to take a break from fighting with the transporter’s steering system for a while.
“What is it, Manesh? What have you found?” asked Levene, as the Drana stooped down and brushed the snow away.
“See this plate? It’s a manufacturing specification,” Manesh pointed out.
“Yeah, so what,” Levene said, crouching down to look for himself.
“It’s a bridging strut, one of a pair, standard issue for a type 49 Armin transporter,” Manesh continued, as he looked about nervously.
“Alright, so a transporter used it to continue its journey along the track—so what?” Levene said, standing up once more.
“The type 49 is only used by commandos. We’ve got big trouble, colonel, if they’re still about! Looking at these tracks, I’d say at least fifty, maybe more, passed this way in the last week or so,” Manesh said, sprinting forward, heading for a left hand bend up ahead on the track.
Catching up with Manesh, Levene could see the tough master sergeant was clearly rattled by what he had found. “Hey, Manesh, slow down; what’s the rush,” Levene demanded, grabbing Manesh’s field-pack.
“You don’t understand, Max,” he said nervously. “They’re the most suicidal shock troops in the empire. Even the rest of the Drana armed forces fear them! Get in his way and a commando will kill you on the spot! He gives his allegiance to the corps and that’s all! If you’re not a fellow commando then you’re his enemy. Their barracks are kept well away from the rest of Drana civilization. Not for secrecy but to protect the population!”
Levene realised it had to be a bad situation for the master sergeant to drop formal rank in favour of personal names, when addressing a superior officer. “OK, Manesh, what do you suggest?” Levene asked, as they walked on toward the bend.
“For now we scout ahead in pairs, staying at least half a kilometre from the…”
“What is it?”
“Too late—look!” About three kilometres along the valley, three Armin were slowly heading their way.
“They’re running back,” said Mdjat, who was sitting on the front of the transporter.
“Gung-ho bastards—still think they’re in the army,” growled Orz.
“They are, and so are you—dumb-ass!” Kapinski shouted from inside the turret, spitting a dark wad of tobacco onto the floor of the transport.
Shansur steadied the imagers and stared in disbelief at what he had just seen. The two figures at the bridge briefly turned and looked up, giving him time to make out the unmistakable features of Manesh! The other was some kind of Nephile in Drana uniform unknown to him. Akhen took the imagers from Shansur and watched as the two men walk along the track, while the transporter backed around the corner out of site. Handing the imagers to Khan, he went to check on Tosar’s progress below. “Better tell him to hurry,” Khan said. “The Armins are getting closer and the men below have just seen them!”
Tosar reassembled the firing mechanism and closed the panel just as Akhen arrived. “It’s ready to be tested. I’ve re-calibrated the lenses, narrowing the cutting beam down to barely half a millimetre. It should at least reach the bridge. “ he replied with a degree of uncertainty in his voice.
“But will it cut through the bridge Tosar?” Akhen asked, impatiently.
“I don’t know—I really don’t,” he said, sighing.
“Well it’s too late for any more alterations. Let’s get it set up!” The machine was passed up the ladder to waiting hands above, where Tosar quickly assembled it at the entrance to the hanger. The targeting lasers were turned on. As the machine began to warm up Khan saw the tell-tale spots from the lasers on the bridge. Tosar secured the clamps holding the plasma-meridium torch in place. Everything was ready. Only time would tell if the readjustments and tinkering with the ancient drilling tool had worked.
“What are they doing down there?” Akhen asked, as he saw four Drana troopers working on the bridge.
“Looks like they’re laying charges under it,” replied Shansur, shifting the focus of the imagers.
Mdjat and Levene followed Manesh and Orz back to the relative safety of the transporter, hidden from view by the corner in the track. “See any movement yet?” Temo’s voice inquired, inside Kapinski’s helmet.
From his precarious vantage point above the transporter, on a narrow ledge, Kapinski watched the turn in the track beyond the bridge. “Nope nothing yet,” he said, shifting his weight against the rock.
Manesh and Levene checked and rechecked their arms and ammunition. Chances were they would have to fight on foot even if the bridge was blown. The commandos would soon find a way of crossing the gap, and from what Manesh had told him and the rest of the raiders, they could forget any thoughts of escape. The damned commandos will hunt us down, one by one. They never give up—never! “Colonel, I hear engines,” Kapinski said. Within thirty seconds, the nose of the leading Armin was visible at the corner of the track.
The tiny circles of light from the targeting lasers shifted slightly as Tosar adjusted the aim of the plasma-meridium torch onto one of the explosive charges under the bridge. The three tiny circles gradually came together to form one clear intense blue circle of light. “Ready,” he said.
“Wait till the last Armin’s tracks are clear of the bridge,” Shansur spoke quietly. The lead Armin stopped a hundred meters short of the bridge with its twin disrupter cannon tracking from side to side like the antenna on an ant searching for prey. The rear hatch opened and a lone commando jumped down onto the track. He walked past the Armin toward the bridge, checking the track and the sheer walls of the valley. He stood for a moment at the edge of the bridge looking over the side, down to the valley floor below. Tosar’s heart pounded so much he thought the commando, thousands of meters below on the bridge, would hear it. “Steady now,” Shansur said. “Be calm; be patient; breathe gently.”
The commando moved on across the bridge then bent down. “Sergeant, trooper tracks—four sets heading back the way we’re going,” the commando reported. “Very well, track them—we’ll follow on behind.” Then to the driver he said, “Maintain one hundred meters behind him.” The skin on the back of the sergeant’s neck started to itch; a sure sign trouble was close by. If it was renegade troopers there was no problem. If it was something bigger… still he hadn’t gained his stripes by being overcautious.
“The bastards are about to round the bend!” Kapinski said, lowering himself down from the ledge. Orz steadied himself, pressing his body hard into the small crevice in the track wall, with his assault knife at the ready.
As the lone commando disappeared from view around the bend into oblivion, the bridge disintegrated in a shower of sparkling confetti, which gently floated down the side of the valley. The track boiled and erupted twenty meters in front of the lead Armin, leaving the three transporters stranded on a two hundred-meter long ledge, precariously suspended on the valley wall. Their disrupter cannon turrets scoured the valley looking for a target.
Levene, hidden by the corner, and the side of the transporter, searched the mountains high above the valley through his imagers. “Well I’ll be…,” he readjusted the focus. “We’ve found the survivors, ladies,” his voice said over his raiders’ headsets. Tosar scribed an arc across the valley wall below the Armin transporters and watched with satisfaction as the ledge released its precarious hold on the wall, before sliding down in a headlong rush to destruction on the valley floor far below. The battle was won – but not the war.
Pashtek would find himself trapped on Jalnuur after the survivors had moved on, since the Alliance had little time for my kind.
Next time – Chapter Fifteen