Before the Storm

Octavia had wasted enough time and was now thundering down the main thoroughfare, the cobblestone causeway trembling under her weight with each crashing footfall.

Brundisium was like so many of those provinces that bordered the barren interior of the continent, the buildings were short and squat by eastern standards with very few rising above the height of the defensive wall.  The limits on height above ground were imposed by the forces of nature and war.  Sand storms frequently arose in this part of the country during the summer months, the so-called “haboobs.”  They were like sandblasting machines and could strip nearly one to three inches of stone or concrete from the outside of any building without metaled protection in time.  To compensate for the loss in height, most inland cities had grown  underground, up to four levels below the surface.  These underground levels were connected by networks of tunnels that served the same purpose as the roadways above.  The other reason half the city lay below the surface was a result of the threat of nuclear attack which had loomed in everyone’s minds for as long as anyone could remember.

The main causeway Octavia was using was like all other roadways within the city, intentionally built in a back-and-forth, zig-zag pattern to prevent the enemy from commanding entire thoroughfares with a straight line-of-sight, to dissipate the effect of a nuclear blast and limit the carnage the detonation created.  

Palm trees lined the main street and added a little color to the otherwise disjointed, cubist collage of bland, sand-red buildings.  Brundisium was built of local building materials, largely sandstone hued from local quarries.  Openings would be cut into the thick, block walls and thick glass windows and entranceways were worked into place.  All openings were protected by quarter-inch, metal shutters that were lowered into place during the sand storms, or occasions of nuclear threat.  Every shutter was now lowered in place.  The air raid sirens were whining with their characteristic oscillating, high-pitched wail throughout the city.  Not a person could be seen above ground.

Centuries of war had changed the face of this nation and its people.  The populace had become adapt at living subterranean lives, rivers had been diverted into underground estuaries which powered hydroelectric power stations.  Cities were spread out geographically so as to minimize the threat of a direct hit wiping out all of the inhabitants.  Sections of the underground city were cordoned off from one another, separated by miles of bedrock and connected to one another by tunnels with blast doors at either end.  Destruction of one part of an underground city would not effect the other sections, disaster was compartmentalized.  For four centuries, the people of Brundisium had been spared a direct attack, but that all seemed behind them now.  The inhabitants huddled among themselves, watching through the lenses of cameras arrayed above ground, watching for the telltale signs of the approaching Muslim hordes.

As Octavia made her way along the thoroughfare she was taking note of the choke points that lay along the route, potential killing zones she and her unit would use against the Schwerpunkt, focal point of attack, of the enemy armor.

The legionnaire spoke to the her machines artificial intelligence stating, “Dorothy, make note of these coordinates,” as she made her way through the intersection of Main Street and 63rd.  “Reference as a possible ambush site.”

The heads up display at the far left of her viewport momentarily sprung to life with the words ‘Main,’ ‘63rd’ and ‘CP’ popping up in green indicating the location had been added to the combat computer.

Thud, thud, thud, the sound of each footstep thundered as Octavia continued making her way toward the city center and rendezvous point.

She was forced to step into one of the side streets on several occasions as armored personnel carriers, APCs, speeded from the train station to the city gate carrying their cargo of lightly, armored Terrans.  They were part of the “regular army” that had been called in to assist in the defense of Brundisium.

Terrans of light armored units wore protective skins of ceramic plating from head to toe which made them near impervious to the standard, weapon carried by soft-skin Muslim units, the SS15.  The light armor added roughly fifty-pounds to a man or woman’s total weight, but put them at a distinct advantage over their counterparts who wore nothing but helmets and torso vests.

The ceramic suits carried field, replaceable battery packs to power a limited electronics package that included heads-up-display for the helmet, intercommunications and connection into the Command Center Network, CCN.  The last item was critical in battles where enemy numbers often exceeded friendlies by a factor of twenty-to-one, the CCN provided the Terran soldier with realtime information on the course of a battle.

What prevented the enemy from gaining access to CCN when Terran suits inevitably fell into their hands?  An implant inside every soldier’s brain, calibrated to a unique, electronics signature that matched up to a unique identifier wirelessly dispatched to each, individual suit before each battle.  The implant would function only as long as the Terran carrying it was alive.  Once a man or woman’s brainwaves nulled out, the device would self destruct. 

CCN had nearly eliminated the tactical “fog of war” for the Terrans and was another example of the qualitative advances they had over the enemies of the state.  Most things flying did not last long over the modern battlefield, either they were shredded by kinetic energy rounds, had their circuitry fry under a barrage of electromagnetic pulse waves, or fell prey to the multipurpose ground-to-ground, ground-to-air missiles each Terran carried.  Things like enemy surveillance drones would make a quick appearance in the coming battle, but would very quickly disappear as they came within range of miscellany of defense hardware.

Octavia had started out in light-armor, she was fifteen when she and had one of those CNN chips surgically implanted in the left side of her head.  What the legionnaire saw, what any Terran soldier saw, their conversations, their vital signs, all were transmitted back to Command in real time.  At Command, the field commanders were able to assess the total picture through what the soldiers were unconsciously reporting.  Likewise, vital communications got back to the individual soldier on both the micro and macro levels, improving their odds of survival, maximizing their odds of hitting the enemy where they least expected it.  Just the same, the legionnaire did not envy her lightweight brethren in this upcoming battle.  She knew what they would be up against, she had worn that light kit before she wore her heavy combat suit, after proving herself in the Battle of the Philippines.

Unlike the Philippines where lightweight equipment and mobility in the swamps and jungles of the region had offered a significant advantage against the overwhelming numbers, in this conflict the light infantry would be up against heavy armor.  She understood the light infantry’s limitations: unpowered, comparatively slow, forced to use traditional weapons that relied upon chemical energy to defeat tanks.  Just the same, light-armor units would still come out way ahead against the red-and-black, uniformed soft-skins.  That did not eliminate the fact that the Terrans would have real difficulty defeating the treaded tanks and now the Walkers. 

She spotted the tender as she took a righthand turn onto the appropriate, intersecting boulevard.  The tanker was painted in the standard desert camouflage pattern, “the Bull” stenciled in black on the side of the driver-side door.  She slowed from a trot to a walk while noticing one of two weapons engineers was already seated in the cockpit of the crane with a fuel cell tethered to his wench and ready to be lifted and put in place.

The second engineer began directing her with his hands, come closer, turn, stop.  It would take less than a minute to exchange fuel cells and load the principle weapon, the EPC-30, with a combination of high-explosive tipped, or armor-piercing slugs.  The fuel pack would be enough to run on for up to two days depending on her demands for power.    

Octavia shut down the powerplant then had the rear, armored door on the lower half of the torso unlock and open by issuing the appropriate voice commands.  Everything was controlled by verbal command save for the movement of the suit which responded to the pressure she exerted on the form-fitting, internal lining with her body movements.  She barely noticed the slight tug on the rear of her suit as the near empty fuel-cell was pulled from its cradle.  The internal electronics immediately registered a warning that she was now running on battery power.  Once the batteries were gone, the machine was as good as an iron coffin, immovable as stone, a sitting target.  Battery reserves would provide just enough time for the Mark III to power a one-half a kilometer distance at a full trot on a level surface.

“Confirmed, you’ve got a full weapons load,” came the voice of the weapons engineer over the internal audio.

“Roger that,” responded Octavia.  After centuries of combat, the whole process was second nature.

Through her visor Octavia now saw armored suits approaching at a trot from the direction of the main causeway.  They had just arrived by train, they carried their EPC canons cradled in their arms ready to go hot if the need arose.  Her suit moved forward slightly as the new fuel cell was pushed in place.

The voice of the weapons engineer came through the audio circuitry again.  “You’re good to go, Octavia.”

She issued the command to close up once the green light on the heads-up-display showed fuel and armament at one-hundred percent.  Octavia then engaged the powerplant and the turbine began spinning to life with the characteristic humming sound. Octavia stepped forward several meters and turned away from the fueling trawler before juicing the power to full with the whine of the turbine blades rapidly escalating into a screaming banshee.  Everything tested okay for battle conditions, the EPC registered as fully charged she cut the power to normal levels.

The X Legion used the Mark III combat suits with five-inches of ceramic-alloy as frontal armor, more than capable of fending off everything except for direct hits by main tank rounds.  The EPC-30’s the legionnaires carried, were likewise, the best electromagnetic pulse canons in the Terran arsenal and thus the world.  The projectiles travelled at over one-kilometer per second under a full charge and were more than enough to defeat a foot of the frontal armor of the Muslim tanks.

There was a sudden blinding flash as a fireball filled the sky to the west followed.  Almost instantly the ground beneath her shaking as the concussive shock wave of the nuclear detonation travelled through the bedrock.  The blast was so brilliant it would have temporarily blinded Octavia had she not had her visor lowered.

Octavia looked up to see a vapor trail overhead created by the friction of a projectile that had punched its way through the atmosphere almost instantaneously.   

One of our rail guns, she thought.  The main force must be closing fast.

The detonation had come from a nuclear slug fired from one of the big Terran ‘space cannons,‘ so called because that’s what they did, dealt with threats up in orbit.  Octavia knew to expect more of those searing fireballs in the late afternoon sky.

Space had long ago disappeared as any serious part of the Terran’s military strategy, it was a virtual ‘No Mans Land’ void of anything manmade, even for fractions of a second.  There was simply no place to hide out there, no respite from discovery by the ground surveillance stations whose high-energy radars burned through the best of stealth technologies, but it was the rail guns that made space untenable.  Some of those cannons packed one-terajoules of energy behind a projectile weighing up to one-hundred, fifty-pounds, putting them on target near instantaneously.  In fact, the rail guns looked more like energy-beam weapons when fired largely because of the friction generated at such speeds.

The fireball Octavia just saw would have decimated any and everything in the portion of the skies.  Long ago space had disappeared as any kind of real battlefield.   All of those fleets of satellites, the space stations, the offensive launch platforms, they were all gone because of the kind of destruction Octavia just witnessed.  It was even worse for any craft flying just above the folds of the terrain, sitting ducks.  This had not stopped Terra’s enemies from attempting to gain a temporary tactical advantage, it was the same kind of ignorance and reason those belligerent nations were still using outdated intercontinental ballistic missiles; they were counting on shear numbers in the hope of overcoming Terran defenses.

There was another brilliant flash, this time off to the northwest, again followed by the concussive shock wave of another massive arial detonation.  Octavia knew this meant the Muslims were getting closer, they were starting to throw everything they had at their disposal to sway the outcome of this upcoming battle.

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