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Another Taste of MERGE AND ENGAGE, Book 2 of The Han Wars


I'm loving writing this story so much that I have to share a little bit more of it! MERGE AND ENGAGE has passed the 50K word mark, well on the way to my minimum 80K goal. It's release date is 7 April 2020, so I'm right on track.


Now, before you read the excerpt below, be warned...there be spoilers ahead! If you haven't read the prequel novella THE INFANTRY yet, or FLEET OPPOSED, don't look. Close your eyes. Or, you can read it and spoil your dinner. Your call.


Ready?


Okay.


In this excerpt, if you've read THE INFANTRY (spoilers spoilers spoilers), you'll recognize Fleet Infantry assault troopers CPT Ricardo "Rico" Estrada and 1SG Barb Roca, back in the suck after their less than enjoyable experience on Icarus IV.


This is your last chance to look away. Okay, here goes...




Tomahawk Landing Craft “Slingshot Four Zero”

Combat Descent to Sasha VII, Second Fleet AOR


You rush shit, and this is what happens.


CPT Ricardo “Rico” Estrada listened to the reports coming in over the command net, and it wasn’t good. Of the forty Tomahawks dropped from the belly of RSS Kiowa, LHS-760, eight had already taken heavy laser fire and were classified as mission kills. And they weren’t even through the fucking atmosphere yet.


That would be 160 troopers dead, along with 24 pilots and loadmasters, blown to bits in the thin outer atmosphere of some damn rock in the middle of nowhere.


If this were real.


Slingshot two-three, mission kill, breaking off, heading toward alternate.”


“And there goes another one,” Estrada grumbled to himself. All the simulated-destroyed Tomahawks would proceed to a secondary landing area—which the flight crews had nicknamed the penalty box—where they would offload their simulated-dead troopers. Didn’t make any sense to waste an opportunity to let the troopers practice their rapid egress and initial assault, even though if this were real they’d be scattered all over the upper atmosphere or enjoying a fiery ride to a sudden stop on the surface.


Considering they’d lost nearly the entire landing force the first time they’d done this—and this was the third time—the Tomahawk crews were getting better, but better wasn’t good enough. When they had to do this for real—when the laser blasts coming from the surface were at full power, along with real missiles and guns—losing so many landers, and the troops in their holds, meant one thing. A bloodbath. And, failure.


The Third Combined Infantry Division—3 CID—the assault division chopped to Second Fleet, had received orders a month ago to load up the entire division, along with the surviving elements of 1 CID, push away from Fort Ewing on Genora II, and proceed to the Sasha system, specifically Sasha VII, where they would practice a division-size combat insertion.


Estrada was one of the survivors of 1 CID, the majority of whom had perished on the surface of Ractus III, slaughtered from orbit by the Han bastards. He’d been away on Icarus IV, a planet with a “Resistance problem,” and it was there, in the first days of this new war, that Estrada saw his first combat. His platoon-sized force had been decimated, killed by the very Republic citizens he had sworn to protect and serve. Only a handful of his force made it out alive, saved by a fleet fast attack captain who had bigger balls than anyone he’d ever met. Commander Claire Fontaine was her name, skipper of RSS Tang.


Estrada had been wounded on Icarus IV—almost fatally because of a sniper’s pulse round to the chest—but he’d survived. Even got a new bionic right hand out of the deal. Along with his company first sergeant, 1SG Barb Roca, who lost a leg in the battle and also was learning to live with a new bionic limb, Estrada was reassigned to 3 CID and reported to Genora II after a quick trip back to Earth. He was given another company—Charlie Company, 3/6 Infantry—and prepared his new crop of troopers to get in the fight. He and 1SG Roca were the only two who had seen combat, so his new troopers hung on their every word. As they damn well should.


When Estrada first caught wind of the orders to load up the division and head to Sasha VII, he knew something big was coming down the pike, and he knew the move wouldn’t go smoothly.

He was right. It didn’t.


First of all, the call to move had come out of the blue—no warning order, no time for preparation. Second, the fleet hadn’t practiced a division-level combat movement for decades, so from the division staff on down to the LHS crews and even the Tomahawk pilots, the effort quickly became a swirling shit-storm of confusion compounded by conflicting orders from different division staff officers who thought they knew what they were doing. The loggies—the division G4—tried to run the whole thing, while the G1 wanted to make everyone stand in straight lines and play nice, and the G3 wanted everyone to grab their kit and load up and screw everyone else. The whole thing rapidly became a comedy of errors, at least until the 3 CID Commanding General, MGEN Kyle Shanahan, let it be known that he would personally shoot the next person who fucked-up and caused a delay.


They managed to get everyone off-planet and onboard the LHSs, which by itself was somewhat of a miracle. And to Estrada’s disappointment, Shanahan didn’t have to kill anyone after all. He would’ve liked to have seen something like that.


Then they got to Sasha VII, and things really went downhill.


The actual execution of a division combat drop—a large-scale forcible entry operation requiring several hundred different pieces to move and operate as one, while under fire—something last done during the First Han War by everyone’s great and great-great grandfathers—almost proved to be a bridge too far. The first practice drop, which didn’t include any heavy simulated hostile fire, had been a joke. Almost all of the descending Tomahawks had been simulated-destroyed…along with two Tomahawks that had collided while in the descent, killing almost forty troopers and six highly trained flight crew members. Their deaths weren’t simulated.


Dropping a division-sized force was a lost art, a skill that no one realized had atrophied and died until that first try.


The concept was simple enough to understand—assuming the fleet could make it to the target planet, the big battlewagons and cruisers would pound the ground defenses from orbit, soften them up, try to take out as many of the anti-ship defenses as possible. Then, the LHSs would move into low orbit and puke out their Tomahawks, full of canned squishies—troopers in armor—and get them to the surface.

Once they were on the ground, Estrada could do what he was really trained to do—lead his company in ground combat against the enemy. Kill them. Break their shit. Make them regret ever being born.

But it was the getting to the surface part that was proving to be more difficult than they’d imagined.

After the first drop, the Tomahawk pilots immediately went to work devising new tactics to counter the ground fire, such as using different descent formations, and evasive maneuvering before and after they entered the hot zone of the atmospheric descent, where they couldn’t maneuver at all and were just along for the ride. They’d gotten better at it, and their initial tactics were paying off, but if the real enemy fire was as heavy as what they were experiencing during this practice run, then they were going to lose a lot of people.


It was what it was, though. All Estrada needed was for those two fleet aviators up front to get his people on the ground. He’d take it from there.


His stomach lurched as the Tomahawk pilot maneuvered hard to port, then to starboard. “Be advised, five mikes until doors open,” one of the pilots said over the intercom.


Then another call over the command net. “Slingshot one-nine, mission kill, diverting to alternate. Shit.


And another one bites the dust, Estrada thought, smiling at the pilot’s last word. At least they’re taking it personal. He switched over to his own company command net, where he could communicate with 1SG Roca and his three platoon leaders, who were spread among different Tomahawks to ensure at least some of the company leadership would make it to the ground if the others didn’t. Charlie Company’s call sign for this drop was Granite. “This is Granite Actual, five mikes until we’re on the ground. Remember your training. Move quickly, move deliberately, set the perimeter, and engage all hostiles. Squad leaders confirm all safeties.”


Granite One copies.” A pause. “Squad leaders report safeties set.”


Granite Two, copy all. Safeties set.”


Granite Three is ready to rock and roll, boss. Confirmed safeties.”


Unlike the previous two practice drops, there would be an OPFOR on the ground waiting for them this time. Like the lasers shooting at the descending Tomahawks, the OPFOR’s pulse rifles would be set to a non-lethal setting, putting out just enough power to let a person know they’d been hit…and if they were, and the sim system embedded in the suit decided it was fatal, a buzzing sound in the helmets of their battle armor—officially known as the Pleiades Mk IV Battle Ensemble—would be the signal to drop and stay put. Play dead. This time they would all get a taste of how to operate when troopers to your left and right suddenly weren’t there anymore. And no one—to include the officers—were excluded. If you died, you died, and if you lost your leader, you stepped up and led.


Their own M557 pulse carbines were locked on the same safety settings. The last thing they needed was to shoot back at the OPFOR and take someone’s head off with a pulse round because some kid forgot to lock his rifle to its non-lethal setting.


The interior of the Tomahawk was sweltering because of the heat from the orbital insertion, and Estrada could feel it through his armor. He was sweating, and it wasn’t all because of the heat. His initial taste of combat had been brutal, bloody, but had been, for the most part, against a raging mob of insurgents who had decided to throw away their allegiance to the Republic and follow the Resistance. He’d killed more of them than he wished to remember, and watched them kill almost all of his platoon-sized force.


They’d only encountered a few Han ground troops after the invasion landings had begun, and they’d been tougher to kill. Their rifles were slightly bigger than the M577s issued to Fleet Infantry assault troopers, but they wore combat armor, and had the same internal comms and situation displays as they did. The armor wasn’t quite as effective as the Mark IV’s armor—it could be defeated with a lesser number of shots than what it took for an enemy rifleman to punch through his own suit—but it worked. Very little chance of one shot, one kill.


Estrada knew that their next battle would be against hundreds if not thousands of trained Han ground forces, not amped-up armed civilians. The enemy would be using modern equipment, armor, sophisticated fire control and comm equipment. They would be facing an enemy equipped to fight a force similar to their own. It would be fast. Brutal. And full of unknowns. Republic intelligence had very little information on Han ground force capabilities…but they would, as soon as the 3 CID stepped foot on whatever planet they were tasked to hit and took enemy fire.


Estrada still didn’t know what their target was, but hoped it would be somewhat similar to this planet, Sasha VII, a desolate, rocky world with a non-breathable atmosphere, because that’s what they were practicing for now.


He felt the rumble as the Tomahawk’s four engine pods increased power for landing, and he sensed the lander begin to decelerate.


They were getting close.


He re-checked his helmet visor settings one last time to ensure it was displaying all the information he needed, then looked up at the loadmaster standing at the front of the lander’s troop compartment. “Get ready!” the loadmaster shouted over the intercom, and every single trooper stood up, turned toward the back ramp, and bent their knees. Estrada was at the very rear of the ship, closest to the back ramp. He would be the first off the ship. It wasn’t normal practice for the company commander to be the first to egress, but he wanted to show his new troopers that he was going to lead, no matter what.

The loadmaster held up five fingers, then four, then two…


Estrada gave a quick thumbs up to the twenty troopers facing him, then turned around and faced the ramp.


The first time they’d done this, there was quite a bit of over-enthusiastic banter on the company net from the troopers, but now, they were quiet, focused. That was a good thing. They’d gotten a taste of the fact that combat wasn’t some sort of entertainment vid where the good guys storm the LZ and wipe-out an enemy that couldn’t shoot straight. During their second run a few days past, their Tomahawk was one of the ones that had to go the penalty box, and Estrada had made it a point to stress to each and every one of them that they were now dead. He told them the stories of the people he’d lost on Icarus IV, how they’d been there one second, and gone the next. He told them how death didn’t care what your name was, where you’d come from, or what you planned to do later in life. Death didn’t give a shit who you were.


Apparently it had the desired effect.


Estrada felt the lander touch down with a jolt, and almost immediately the back ramp slammed to the ground, filling the interior of the ship with a dim amber light from the system’s weak sun. Three steps later he was on the ground and moving quickly toward the right side of the lander to allow his troopers to file out. “Move move move,” he yelled into his mic, encouraging them forward, almost missing the buzzing noise in his helmet.


He hadn’t felt the first pulse round that hit him, but he felt the second one. Dead center of his visor. His displays went wonky for a second as the system recovered from the burst of energy.

“You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me,” Estrada grumbled as he dropped his rifle and lay on the ground. Taken out in the first seconds. And he wasn’t the only one. Five others, then six. Seven. All tossing their rifles and dropping to the rocky soil.


The Tomahawk’s engines spooled up and everything disappeared in a cloud of dust as the lander began to rocket back into the sky, taking a short hop to the re-assembly area a few kilometers away where the mission would be debriefed.


Estrada was pissed. Be the first one out, he said, show them you’re not afraid, he said. Nice call, Rico. He was started by a swift kick to the left side of his armor—clang! “What the hell?” He looked up and saw a trooper standing over him, pulse rounds zipping around the person’s helmet. The name ROCA was printed on the suit’s breastplate.


I’m checking to see if you’re dead,” 1SG Roca said on a suit-to-suit channel.


“Yes, First Sergeant, I’m fucking dead.”


Are you sure?” she said, kicking him again. This time, it was hard enough to feel through the armor. Clang!


“What are you doing?”


Making double sure,” she replied. “And trying out my new leg, too.”


“It works, First Sergeant.”


Over the company net, Roca said, “This is Granite Top, Granite Actual is down. I say again, Granite Actual is down.”


This is Granite One,” a voice replied quickly, one of Estrada’s platoon leaders, and the next highest-ranking officer. “I have command.” He quickly began to issue orders to the other platoon leaders, just like he was trained to do. At least that was good to see.


Estrada watched as Roca knelt next to him. He could see his own reflection in her visor, laying on his back in the dirt. On the suit-to-suit channel again, she said, “How about you don’t do this again, okay? I’d rather not have to answer to some green first lieutenant.”


“I’ll try my hardest, First Sergeant.”


Good. Sir.”


She rose to a crouch, and for a moment Estrada thought she was going to kick him again, but instead she moved off toward the source of the enemy gunfire, and Estrada knew, toward her new boss for the next couple of hours.


‘You rush shit, and this is what happens.’ I should listen to my own goddamned advice.


Estrada wouldn’t have to spend his time in the dirt all alone, though. There were eleven other troopers from the Tomahawk there with him, all staring up into the dim, brownish sky, suddenly aware of how quickly the reaper could reach out and swat you down. All of them, simulated-dead.


***

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