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[FH] Breaking News - Road to Habb al Tal

From: <Beth.Fulton@c...>
Date: Wed, 12 Jan 2005 01:33:27 +1100
Subject: [FH] Breaking News - Road to Habb al Tal

As has become the status quo in our latest clashes in the Xenowar,
direct coverage of the latest events has proven problematic. The
following are delayed reports from one of our special embedded
correspondents in the Margaritifer Sector.

Road to Habb al Tal

New Guardian Times, Margaritifer Sector, January 9th 2194

Most school projects are quickly forgotten once the marks are received,
but a few dwell on as cloudy memories that resurface at the oddest of
times. For me it was a project from grade school set by dear Miss
Forsythe. She had us each pick a spot on any of the well mapped human
worlds and then she said we had to imagine ourselves sitting their yogi
style through the years watching the world change, what wonders did we
see. Being a mad collector of football discs at the time, I chose
Vinogradov, boyhood home of the great Sa'd Abu Zayd. I imagined it
growing up from the surrounding plains, the early pelting rains, the
great lakes and seas stretching out along the chasma off in the
distance. I imagined the atmosphere slipping away, the chill rising and
the eventual desolation. I imagined the coming of man, the slow
introduction of colour and warmth to the flanks of this high ground. I
was caught up in the awe of how the place must have changed, the wonders
it must have witnessed. Miss Forsythe gave me an A for my imagination.
Neither she nor I could have conceived of what Vinogradov looks down
upon today. 

I was amongst a convoy of wounded being sent back from the Arda campaign
to the more secure NAC settlements around Nirgal. The immense number of
wounded generated by this grinding clash has overwhelmed the airborne
casevac and only the critically wounded are being flown out. The rest of
us are being loaded into bulky grav-barges, spare grav-sleds and even
multi-wheel mining lorries and are taking the slow, bumpy, truly
torturous land routes back to the southern dressing stations.

It was 5.45am MMT when we first realised the Kraks had pushed further
south than reported and that we were in trouble. It was a bewildering
moment for the poor Captain in charge. Having risen through the medical
corps during the third solar war Captain Mansbridge had seen the
sickening side of conflict, but had little real experience of command
and tactics. Now the Captain had a great bulky convoy to protect and was
in a defenceless position. I don't think I'd take any reward from
anywhere in the entire galaxy to bear that responsibility. It was
exceptionally unnerving, with shots sounding quicker and nothing in
sight except scrub and rocks.

Thankfully at this point Colonel Cowley rose from his stretcher and took
over from a rather relieved Mansbridge. Looking around coolly the
Colonel ordered further squadrons out to the left and right. The convoy
was inching on now raising a cloud of dust, which glowed like a rainbow
as the rising sun caught it. Then the Krak slugs began to come in a
hail. Many of the old vets, who've been through their share of combat,
described it as the hottest they'd seen.

There was no cover and everyone was under fire. There was nothing to be
done, but for the walking wounded to dismount and try and cover the
convoy; grabbing spare rifles and walking along beside the vehicles. As
a long time embed I've seen a lot of battles, but never before gone
armed. I'd been a decent shot in archery at school, but that was decades
ago. No choice now though; if we were to stand a chance, all that could
move under their own power would have to do what they could.

Every now and then among the clear high "phit" of the Gauss slugs would
come the hideous twisting whistle of a kinetic grenade launcher - or
spaghetti maker - a really horrible sound. There was a sense of panic,
the escort walking along bent almost double, taking what shelter they
could. Some of those with severe post traumatic stress, alarmed by the
hellish whistling in the air, began to moan and shake, adding to the
general tumult. I gave up wondering whether I'd be hit or not, but
merely started to wonder if it'd be a graze or a full "plug". There were
the usual number of miraculous escapes; the driver of the grav-sled
beside which I was walking tumbled forward in his seat like a half-full
potato sack, stone dead; a medic on a barge behind me flew forward,
twitched, and slide over the front of the cabin, hitting the ground with
a dull thud adn a screech of airbrakes; I jumped what felt like 10 feet
when a slug smote the sand by my heel; yet others walked on seemingly
without a slug within a dozen feet of them, as if they had personal
force fields. Young Lieutenant Baden-Powell, accompanying the lead
vehicle of the expedition, had his antique watch smashed to atoms, but
his skin was not even scratched. 

Colonel Cowley had called for artillery support, but the intensity of
the latest fighting in the Arda meant it would be at least ten minutes
before the first shells arrived. They were the ten longest most hateful
minutes. Then we heard the roar of the first round. A sound that is only
welcoming when it's on your side. Immediately the Krak fire slackened
and within minutes it had almost ceased. It was another six or seven
minutes before the fire was stopped entirely. I hadn't realised how
tense I was until the crack of slugs striking rocks and polyclad had
stopped. Then it was like a vice had been lifted from my chest and I
took in big ragged breaths. 

There were bodies lying all round, and the ambulance staff was quickly
overwhelmed with new wounds. I was assigned to one of the clean up
crews; told to help a young sergeant with a bandaged cheek, and a
private nursing a shattered hand scout out and gather up those worse off
than ourselves. We made thirteen trips, carrying wounded from the
surrounding slopes back to the column.

Ten minutes of intense fighting, and eighty-six new casualties; fifteen
killed, seventy-one wounded, and another eleven missing. Having been
through those ten minutes, those ten infinitely long minutes, it was not
the men lying crumpled that were astonishing; it was the surreal sight
of people walking about, talking, securing boxes and checking tires that
made me wonder if I'd simply nodded off in my seat and been dreaming.
Then reality came crashing back. Brushing at a hovering insect, I slid
my hand down the underside of my forearm and it came away smeared with
blood. My own escape from those ten brutish minutes had been more
miraculous than I had supposed.

Relief of Habb al Tal

New Guardian Times, Margaritifer Sector, January 11th 2194

After the attack on the ambulance convoy the day before yesterday, it
has become critical to clear the corridor to Habb al Tal. Without
thisoverland route to Nirgal the major casevac route would be closed and
our wounded would face a miserable time penned into the combat zones
around Arda. Thus, after the convoy raised the alarm, probes were sent
into the hills around the Habb al Tal corridor to locate Krak positions.
The message returned was unanimous. There are swarms up there, for the
route to be secure Vinogradov plateau must be taken.

The task of clearing the corridor to Habb al Tal was given to General
Lyden, hero of Santa Maria. He deployed three brigades on the slopes
rising to the west above the corridor. The convoy and support troops
looking on from below. The speed of the advance was so quick it was easy
to lose track of the troops as their polyclads tried crypto-matching
with the landscape. Try as I might to catch each moment of the advance
the wind was rising and a gust threw sand in my eyes, making them water
and sting. When I'd wiped away the grit and tears I'd lost sight of a
great majority of the force. Were those rocks or troops up there on the
side of that rise? I had just decided they were rocks when they proved
my wrong by beginning to move, inching further up the face of the
plateau. Thankfullyformy sanity and the integrity of this report a
soldier nearby offered to share his hudcomm with me so I could see uor
green points moving up the rise. 

Horsham's Brigade was strongest and had been placed out ahead of the
others. One crest after another was cleared and put behind them as they
flowed up the steep incline. The odd sniper's shot indicated the Kraks
were up there, but they were invisible.

Even during the moments when I had to relinquish the hudcomm to my new
friend, jagged silhouettes against the sky showed where a few hundred of
our troops were. The rest had become part of the rocks and the shroud of
scrub and brown grass. So to my tired eyes, even our own infantry soon
became invisible. It was obvious that many others felt the same way,
though many of the hardened veterans gave an almost whispered
commentary. Quietly commenting on what our less experienced eyes failed
to see. 

To our extreme right a headland of bedrock ran out from the plateau
northwest into the plain. Devil's Bastion it had been suitably named.
With the slopes to our front in the control of Horsham's, Kolody's and
Suber's Brigades, attention shifted to the rocky spur. General Lyden
instructed Lord Keesing-Drake to "Recce the north-eastern flank. See
what sort of place it is and whether any Kraks are up there. If it's
strongly held, dig in, call for support; if not go on and secure it. I
don't need to tell you how to suck eggs KD, now get on... and may the
Lord have mercy." That was the sense of many orders given by General
Lyden. Bare minimum and a trust that he knew their mettle well enough to
know they needed no more. 

The 21st from New Hope went first. Jumping down from their transports
with minimal fuss and fanning into their line of advance with practiced
ease. One man in particular, Wilkes, looked like he was born for this
work - he sprang at the hill as though he were a sailor in the rigging
of some ancient ship of the line. The ascent was like the side of the
dhow shaped mega-hotels in Dubayy, yet up he went hand over hand, making
it look easy until my smarting eyes couldn't track him any longer.
Nothing like trying to follow fast moving troops in cam-coated polyclad
to turn your stomach. Everyone watching this scene held their breath in
case someone should fall - not from the steepness, but from a Krak slug.
It was a good twenty five minutes before we got word the unit had
reached the top. A greener man would have stood and waved to say "No
Krak here", but the bulk of these troops had seen more than one campaign
and knew better. Within minutes Devil's Bastion was declared ours. When
I spoke to Lord Keesing-Drake later he said, "It was splendid to watch,
they threw themselves at that hill in a V.C. act of courage and yet they
won't get a medal for it and would never expect one. There have been
many actions like that one already in this war."

The good cheer didn't last long though, for even as the New Hopities
secured Devil's Bastion, beginning work on one of the strongholds that
will now guard the corridor to Habb al Tal, an intense firefight broke
out close to the top of the rise to our front. It fast became clear that
we were going to have little success pushing a frontal attack. It was at
this time that Sir Peter Barton pointed to the east side of Vinogradov
proper as likely to be very useful to our cause. He suggested that if we
could get on to the eastern ridge we could probably push round on to the
plateau and then sweep down the northern promontories, with flanking
fire on the Krak lines sitting up there. In Sir Peter's opinion,
Pruzhany Ridge, properly used, was the key to taking the position - the
key to opening the door to Habb al Tal.

I don't know General Lyden's exact thoughts on the matter were, but he
must have thought Sir Peter's position had some merit, because patrols
were quickly despatched to the ridge. Within an hour they began
returning, reporting that there appeared to be only a few Kraks that far
east. With such favourable intelligence, Sir Peter's scheme was even
more readily accepted; and just on dusk a large party set out to make an
assault up the ridge. Dawn and dusk attacks are becoming favourite
amongst human commanders as it seems this is when Krak senses are at
their weakest. Many with an opinion on the matter claim the Krak are
naturally nocturnal, and it is true that all their major assaults have
started at night; though it is equally true that even in daylight they
can see straight through all but the best quality cam. Either way dawn
or dusk presents our troops with the best chances.

The party was a substantial one, drawn from most of those able bodied
troops still left in the corridor. There were Skerrat's Mechanised
Infantry, the Lancashire Fusiliers, the Fomalhaut 3rd Regiment, two
companies of the South Essex Regiment, and three companies of Royal
Saskatchewan Engineers. As Sir Peter was laid up with a leg wound,
actually being with the convoy as a patient not as escort or protector,
Colonel Woodbridge was given command. 

This time a few of us were lucky enough to score spare hudcomms of our
own and were able to watch in the half dark. The green outlines of our
troops scrambling up the ridge. We had judged the assault on Devil's
Bastion as a steep ascent, but were quickly forced to rethink our
definitions. This attack was proving to be a hand-and-knee march up the
face of the ridge - a climb over alternating patches of sheer, smooth
rock, crumbling regolith and dry grass. Such an advance is necessarily
slow, but it an immense credit to all involved that it was steady. When
the force was only three-quarters of the way up they were detected, or
at least acknowledged, a quick exchange of fire marking the event. It
took another hour of sometimes quite fierce fighting to clear the rest
of the way to the crest of the ridge.

Once on the ridge's high ground, the Fusiliers advanced at a deliberate,
conventional combat trot. Skerrat's volunteers followed close behind,
their relative inexperience painfully apparent. This unit is a local
Martian unit that was raised less than six weeks ago. What they lack in
training they almost make up for with colossal, and one must say
admirable, enthusiasm. 

There was no one single point of substantial resistance on the ridge,
rather it was a continuous slog under fire, pushing the Krak back step
by agonising step. By dawn the Fusiliers, or what remained of them,
reached the Vinogradov plateau. Amongst the small group of stalwart
spectators I sat with through the night, I think we believed to a man
that if the brave souls on that ridge survived until dawn it would all
be ok, somehow the rising of the sun would make it all so much easier.
We couldn't have been more wrong.

In the early hours of the morning, probably 45 minutes shy of first
light the ubiquitous Vinogradov nor'westerly began to grow and before
dawn had become a sandy squall, much like those colourfully dubbed
Chocolatero by the inhabitants of Old Mexico. I doubt anything was
visible to the naked eye beyond a hundred metres or so up on the
plateau. The order to dig-in was given and construction of reinforced
strong points began in some spots, with simple hand-made earthworks dug
between them. Between the Krak jamming the nav-sats and the raging
rubble storm preventing by-eye location, it must have been a frightful
task to determine the right place for them. The Krak were invisible,
even our own troops to north and east were invisible up there. For the
next four hours, what had seemed such a great vantage point must have
seemed anything but to the trooper on the ground up there. During that
time the party was alone in a howling, grit-blasted island in the air.
At last the storm blew itself out and the air cleared; the curtain
rising upon the latest performance of the on-going Martian tragedy.

The Krak, on the lip of the northern rock promontories began to fire
heavily as soon as the conditions cleared. Even with hours of
preparation and the best disruptive cam to hand, our troops seemed to
have insufficient protection in their lofty position. They'd chosen to
secure the small neck where the spur that eventually ended as Devil's
Bastion split off from the plateau. Unfortunately, in the confusion of
the storm they'd deployed too far down the neck and were now stuck all
crowded together. No soldier up there has been up to recounting their
experiences as yet, so I will try to do justice to the scene using the
meagre scraps I could see from my perch in the convoy far below. I shall
have it forever in my memory - those few acres of bloody massacre, the
complete shambles. Trying hard to pick out our dust covered polyclad
troops, it seemed that our force was all in a single small patch;
pinched off behind by scree and to the front by what turned out to be
well protected Krak positions. There were red-brown soldiers and redder
and browner trenches cut into the dirt. As I watched the fray, soon
after the grit-storm died and before the fire storm started, I saw three
shells strike the foremost trench, all within seconds. Each shell struck
the trench and its contents full in the face, kicking up yet more dust
and starting a few small fires. 

The trench was saw-toothed against the sky and I supposed that the
troops must have all but exhausted themselves shifting those sharp rocks
in to place; forming the ramparts in such a relatively short time. The
shells were falling thick now, creating small rock slides and generally
shaking the area violently. Another shell struck the front trench full
on, and there was an audible gasp from our part of the convoy. We were
all thrown into a state of shock, as what we had taken to be the body of
the front trench rose up and rushed forward. It wasn't rock and dirt as
we had thought. It had all been our brave troops; the rampart's teeth
against the sky had all been our troops. And now they ran forward,
bending their bodies into the low crouching curve of a soldier under
heavy fire. They weaved, dropping and rising every few steps. Roughly
eighty metres in front of their original position the majority dropped
into a dark brown outcropping of solid rock; a pre-agreed firing
position. As bullets, plasma, slugs and grenades flew this way and that
up on the peak, spout after spout of dust and rubble bounced up from the
brown patch, raining down the slope.

After perhaps an hour, the whole patch bristled again and there was
another wave, every position pushing one outcrop further forward. Each
group flickered up, fleeted rapidly and silently across the sky, firing
as they went and flickered down into the rocks again. The sight had much
the same elusive appearance as a shadow puppet show.

The Krak artillery did not really relent during this entire time. By
counting rounds and watching the fall of shot, I guessed they had three
of their large alien guns playing like hoses on our front line. A mortar
section had accompanied our party up the ridge, but we had no
substantial artillery in the area to match the Krak guns and all our
urgent support requests were going unheeded. When for pity sake would
the artillery arrive? We started to fret over whether enough of our
force could live through the shelling to hold the ridge until our fire
came. All up there must have felt that they had lived a long life under
that fire by the end of the day, and still our artillery did not come.
We were not to know that the nearest battery had been overrun and
slaughtered to a man. The batteries still further a field being sucked
into one of the biggest armour battles history has ever borne sad
witness to.

By the end of that sorry day, watching our side assault forward again
and again, always under heavy fire; you might have been forgiven for
saying that the role of our heroic soldiers in this Xenowar is to be
killed by an invisible seemingly untouchable enemy.

As the day aged and we watched transfixed with horror at the unfolding
scene, reinforcements were ordered up the slope; the troops on top
crying out for relief. I could see people running to and fro up amongst
the rocks, continually hunted to new ground, fresh shelter. Some Krak
grunts must have crept forward under cover of a sand cloud kicked up by
their latest bombardment, and for a few minutes well over fifty Krak and
NAC wrestled and heaved and swayed in hand to hand. The shelling never
rested, not even as they drew apart, the surviving Krak falling back, to
our universal amazement and joyous relief. The screeching somewhat
hollow rapping of the Krak artillery a truly horrid sound, one that gets
in and eats at the nerves. I can't think of a situation I now dread more
than to be sitting up there amongst the rocks with the kinetic shells
slamming down and smashing along the ground in a long straight line. 

By this time the reinforcements were pushing on, a thin line
corkscrewing up the treacherous south-eastern slope. These had arrived
at the convoy's location during the night and were largely drawn from
the recently landed Royal NAC South American Army; the Comodoros,
Brasilians, Salados and Imperial Venezuelan Light Infantry - all
volunteers, some already battle hardened, some destined to receive a
scalding baptism. Dust quickly began settling on their armour, dulling
the cam, the odd sun beam reflected off their weapons as they climbed.

Across the entire high ground, from extreme left to right of the field,
infantry now moved. Almost as if from no where Botwright's Brigade and
the Somersets emerged from the far side of Devil's Bastion, having
circled there during the previous night and the morning hours. They made
a solid assault on the northern flank of the Krak position on the ridge.
The Kraks sniping them all the while. 

A man from the reinforcements on the convoy's side of the rise was down,
his legs twitching like a shot rabbit in the grass. A hush fell over the
entire convoy when the large and powerful form of General Appleyard
pitched over near the summit, caught by a round to the head.
Miraculously, he rose again, shaking himself and continuing fearlessly
as if he was untouched. And so it was with that magnitude of courage and
raw determination that the reinforcements poured up the steep path on to
the plateau. It was ten steps from shelter to death as they cleared that
crest; I counted them as the first troops cleared the edge and tried to
make for cover. The bodies piled up, reducing the exposure of those
behind, but their blood also made the ground slicker, harder to cross.

With the Krak bent to the task of slaughtering those already on the
ridge they were unsually slow to notice two more forces pushing up from
the ground east of Devil's Bastion. The thump of the shells grew ever
closer, now less than a heart beat apart. Bodies now lay so thick on the
ground up on top that they began to spill over the edge, adding to the
general cascade of bloody rubble already rolling to the floor of the
approach. Just as I wondered at how intelligent beings could walk
knowingly to their deaths in such a slaughter I heard a chuckle beside
me. I turned to stare at the old Sergeant propped up against the back of
the flat-top, his thigh encased in flexiplast. He was of Indian descent,
his hair already grey and his dark deeply lined face marked with a
filigree of scars, most likely from a shattered comm set in some battle
years into his past. At first I thought that he had taken leave of his
senses; that the carnage had proven too much even for him. He must have
seen the look on my face, because he smiled the most glorious smile at
me and said "no look, really look". I turned back to the charnel-house
scene and then it struck me; starting deep in my gut a constricting ache
rising higher up my abdomen in to my chest as the adrenaline kicked in.
Could it be true? Yes, Yes! There was more and more of "them" rolling
down that hill and less and less of "us". The tide had turned; the
corridor to Habb al Tal would be ours.

Later that evening after the convoy was safely on the plateau and
engineers were building real strongholds, real fortified ramparts that
were not just bodies against the sky, I was again assigned to a medic
detail; again the ambulances needed every hand they could get. I can not
describe the scene that greeted me as I moved among the bloody rocks and
scrapes. Suffice it to say that I vomited and retched my way through the
gore, slipping more than stepping, there being more insides out than in
amongst those lying up there. I know many sitting safe in their lounge
rooms will wonder why so many had to die just to open a single road. Why
not go round? Why no wait until the airborne or artillery were free to
clear the Kraks out? But to ask that is to show a fundamental
misunderstanding of the Martian terrain, at once beautiful but extreme;
and to show an ignorance of the savage implications of this Xenowar,
where some times you can't wait for what is safest because safety may
never come. The corridor to Habb al Tal is the main remaining land route
between the besieged Arda and Osuga Valles and the large NAC bases
around Nirgal. Without this crucial resupply and casevac route the
counter offensive would be stunted and almost undoubtedly doomed. It is
not overly melodramatic to say that it may well be vital for the
continuation of the entire human race for that route to be opened and
kept opened. That is why our regiments never let up, pushing hard into a
land where only angels tread.

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