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Printed from https://www.writing.com/main/view_item/item_id/1841242-Checkmate
by Milo
Rated: 18+ · Short Story · Sci-fi · #1841242
All that stands between humanity and extinction is one mission
From the World News newspaper, 21 April 2113
The Eurasian Space Agency shocked the world yesterday with a report detailing the sighting of a mysterious spacecraft on the edge of our solar system. Images included in the report show heavy damage to the vessel’s immense hull; large holes appear to have been blasted through it and flame is venting from cracks along the craft’s shell. The entire world is asking the question that novelists and filmmakers have been posing for centuries: Do they come in peace? One can hope, but for the moment that is all that can be done. The vessel is drifting on a direct course with Earth and will arrive in nineteen days. A spokesperson from the ESA declined to give further details, saying only that they are working as hard as they can to identify this spacecraft and prepare accordingly. People watch the sky in dread, for time is counting down.

Written transcript of the audio from an unknown news broadcasting station, dated 10 May 2113
“Reporting live from London. It’s chaos here. I’m sure you can all hear the gunfire in the background and if you look over my shoulder you’ll see soldiers fighting for their lives in the streets. Civilians are running everywhere and panicking. It’s- //static// - explosions everywhere, bullets flying. The enemy vessel has sent millions of smaller craft into our atmosphere. Troops have landed and they’re slaughtering everyone. We - //static// - //gunfire// - //static// - overwhelmed. The city - //explosions// - You can see buildings collapsing behind me and there, there are the aliens! Towering animal-like things, you can see how they’re at least a foot and a half above everyone else - //gunfire// - Look! Here come the North American Union’s tanks! We - //explosions// - Enemy tanks are returning fire - //gunfire// - //static// - //explosions// - //static// - No! Drop the camera! Go! It - //gunfire// - RUN! - //static// - tanks are being destroyed - //gunfire// - too many - //static// - overrun - //gunfire// - Get out of here! Go – AH! - //gunfire// - //static//

Mission Summary: Operation Vengeance: 17 January 2127
Forces: 300 000 infantry, 50 000 tanks, 6 000 aircraft
Objectives: Retake Britain
Status: FAILED
         Twenty flights of AR-12 “Dragon” fighter jets led the assault but were shot down by the enemy anti-air battery within the first four minutes. The experimental N15 “Thor” battle tanks proved highly successful at holding ground and eliminating enemy armour. Thirty divisions of infantry attacked with the tanks and successfully pushed into the London for several miles. Enemy numbers proved too great and our infantry were surrounded. No survivors of aircraft, tank or infantry were recovered.

Mission Summary: Operation Lion: 14 February 2128
Forces: 1 000 infantry, 400 tanks
Objectives: Eliminate enemy fortification in Tangier
Status: SUCCESS
         The N15 “Thor” battle tanks have been refitted with new railgun technology from Riemann Arms and are proving to be a major success in the field. Few casualties were sustained in this mission and all enemy opposition was destroyed.

Mission Summary: Operation Shield: 1 August 2130
Forces: 10 210 000 infantry, 1 700 000 tanks
Objectives: Defend Asia
Status: FAILED
         In an effort to contain the enemy within Europe, massive numbers of troops from both the North American Union and the Eurasian Remnant were deployed along the border. Although outnumbered, the enemy pushed through and established a foothold. Less than twenty percent of our forces were recovered. Furthermore, it appears that their intent was not to occupy Asia; it has been bombed and many major cities have been destroyed. Estimated civilian casualties at this time are unknown.

Mission Summary: Operation Checkmate: 13 May 2152
Forces: 6 infantry
Objectives: Destroy anti-air battery in enemy military capital in former London in preparation for the pending invasion
Status: IN PROGRESS



         The sewer didn’t smell at all. Considering that it was, after all, a sewer, that was surprising. But in fact nothing about the place resembled a sewer except the cylindrical tunnel that was the main pipe. There was no water on the ground or dripping from the ceiling and the pipe walls were rusted and dry like the sewer hadn’t been used for decades.
         In truth, it hadn’t. Not for thirty years; not since the city had been overrun and conquered. Once, the city had been called London. Now it was just another casualty of war, empty of human life, littered with the metal bones of old war machines.
         Private Michael Richards moved quickly through the sewer pipe, rifle resting in his arms. Ahead was the Sarge: Martin Hughes by name, but to the six-man squad just Sarge. He had a long white mustache that was so obviously beyond regulation length that no one knew how he had managed to keep it. Maybe it was because – according to Fi squad – Sergeant Hughes was the best. He knew how to lead men, how to keep them fighting long after they would rather have lain down and died.
         Or maybe the higher officers let him keep the mustache because at this point in the war, regulation was worth less than garbage. At least garbage you could salvage. Arguing with a man about facial hair regulations didn’t do anyone any good, not when you didn’t know if you’d still be alive this time next week.
         The other men of the squad followed alongside Michael. There was Derek Williams, a man who liked nothing better than to watch an enemy bunker explode, especially if he’d been the one to lay the charges. Andrew Hall was a genius, just as good with electronics as he was at sharpshooting. If you wanted someone by-the-books then Nathan Anderson was your man; he was reliable and followed orders to the letter. Alan Harris filled out the squad – literally, in fact, since he was the size of a bear and about as fierce as one too. His head nearly scraped the rusty ceiling with every step.
         A low rumble resounded through the metal pipe and flakes of rust and dirt fluttered free of the ceiling as something heavy moved across the ground above. “Thunders,” said Sarge. He spoke with an intelligent, upper-class British accent that didn’t match his grizzled demeanor at all.
         “A lot, by the sound of it,” replied Michael.
         “They could have thousands for all it matters,” said Williams cheerfully. “They won’t even know what hit them.”
         That was why Michael and the rest of the squad were here. The Hyena – that was what humanity had named the alien monsters based on their appearance – had two major cities here in what had once been England. One was their capital, an utterly alien cityscape dominated by a magnificent ship that seemed to have been converted into a palace. The other, not far away, was built on the desolation of old London and was filled with mighty factories that continuously belched black smoke into the air and churned out the millions of machines of war that the Hyena used in their violent conquest.
         These were the two targets that had been suggested. Cripple the alien’s military or crush their leadership? It had been a long-thought-out decision, and not one made lightly, for forty years of bloody warfare had led to this moment. Humanity could not afford to fail.
         And so it was that Michael and his five squad-mates had been sent here, six against a million. Not exactly good odds, Michael thought ruefully. But then, their mission wasn’t to fight, it was to do what commandos did and pave the way for the rest of humanity’s army.
         “When we leave the sewer we’ll be ten minutes from the target,” said the Sarge. “We go in, destroy it, and get out. There’s a dropship waiting to come and get us once the job is done.”
         Williams grinned. “What color explosion do we want? I’ve got orange, blue, white…”
         “I don’t bloody care,” retorted Sergeant Hughes. “You can make the thing go off like the damn Fourth of July. Just make sure it’s destroyed for good.”
         “Don’t you worry, Sarge,” said Williams. He tossed a grenade in the air and caught it with a silly grin on his face. “That gun will be just a pile of scrap after I’m done.”
         Michael stifled a bitter laugh. Gun was an understatement. Their target was the biggest anti-air battery any human had ever seen. It was a good forty centimetres in diameter and probably fifteen metres long. It spewed anti-air rounds at speeds upwards of twenty-thousand rounds a minute.
         Or at least, that was what the scouting fighter jets had reported before the thing had blown the entire squadron out of the sky in about four seconds.
         Then it had taken out the satellites as well.
         It hadn’t taken long for humanity to begin giving the whole area a wide berth. After that the battles had moved elsewhere on the planet, fighting for resources instead of annihilation. Maybe that was why the war had slogged on for so long. The Hyena couldn’t reach human-kind’s fortified capital in the North American Union and neither could they halt the inexorable production of tanks and fighter jets that humanity churned out from across the globe. But the Hyena held on just as doggedly, and so after forty years of fighting, the world was where it was today.
         Not for long, thought Michael. This was it. Risking it all. Once Fi squad took out the battery, Earth’s entire army would roll in and turn this alien hive to shrapnel. No one could lie to themselves; the cost was going to be huge. But it was worth it. It would be such a crippling blow to the Hyena that they would never recover.
         Of course, if the humans lost…Well, on the bright side, no one would live very long to regret it.
         “I think a nice pattern of blue, green and white’ll be a nice goodbye to the Hyena before we all go home, don’t you think?” said Williams.
         “I can’t believe we actually are going home this time,” Anderson added. “Three weeks leave while the grunts bulldoze this place.”
         “How’s the wife?” asked Sarge.
         Anderson grinned. “She had the baby two weeks ago. Six months since I’ve seen her and now I have a son as well. I tell you, the next three weeks will be the best I’ve ever lived.”
         Sergeant Hughes snorted. “While you’re being all sappy with your wife, I’m going to hit the pubs, maybe find me a woman. Or three.”
         “ Yeah, ‘cause women love the white ‘stache, Grandpa,” laughed Anderson.
         Hughes glared at him from behind his massive white mustache. “You don’t think I could?”
         It was all jest, Michael knew. The Sarge just liked to poke fun at the squad and pretend to be a womanizer, but he never acted on it. His wife had been killed when the Hyena had bombed New York twenty years ago. Everybody coped in different ways.
         “I suppose the rest of you all have similarly romantic plans?” mocked the Sarge.
         "My girlfriend’s waiting for me in Seattle,” said Michael. “The minute we get back I’m hopping on a train there. Got the ticket already, I just hope I don’t miss it.”
         “Is that why you’re carrying that ridiculous pocket watch?” said the Sarge.
         Michael smiled and lifted the heavy golden watch from his pocket. “She gave it to me. Told me not to be late.”
         “Aw…” chorused the squad sarcastically.
         “Shut up.”
         A hundred years ago someone might have wondered how the squad could be so light-hearted when they were about to step into the deadliest place on Earth. But it was because they had to, Michael knew. These days you couldn’t think about danger, about what could happen. You had to find a way to laugh even when the bullets were flying past your head, otherwise you just gave up and died.
         Sarge stopped at a place where a ladder climbed up through a vertical tunnel in the rounded ceiling. He turned to face the squad. “We’ve had our laughs, so shut it. We go up this ladder and it’s not a game anymore. Understand?”
         Fi squad saluted. “Yes, Sir!”
         “Well, then,” said Sergeant Hughes, “let’s give these bastards a fireworks show they’ll never forget.” He slung his rifle over his shoulder and began to climb the ladder. There was a moment’s silence where no one moved, and then daylight sheared through the dark sewer as the Sarge slid the man-hole cover aside. His fist signaled the all-clear and he hoisted himself out of the tunnel. The rest of the squad scrambled out behind him.
         You would never know that this place had once been home to more than ten million people, Michael thought bitterly. Buildings – little more than burned-out shells of concrete and rubble – stared over the broken ground through lifeless windows. Many leaned at strange angles or were missing entire chunks of wall, chunks that now littered the street below. On top of the piles of concrete, buried beneath and entangled with them were twisted sheets of metal that had once been tanks and helicopters, but were now so blackened and mangled that there was little resemblance. The air was filled with dust kicked up by the shrieking wind.
         There were bones here, too. Michael couldn’t see them, but he knew. How many millions of civilians hadn’t escaped? How many thousands of soldiers lay entombed beneath the rubble?
         Well, there would be six more if the squad didn’t complete this mission fast. Michael dove into the shelter of a crashed helicopter along with the others. The sewer had brought them out between great piles of rubble, hidden for the moment, but he didn’t think for a second that there weren’t thousands of the enemy just behind the hills of debris.
         He was right. Within seconds there came the sound of heavy clanking, like great metal hinges shifting and locking over and over again. The squad wormed their way as far into the shelter of the chopper as they could. Through a space in the destroyed metal Michael looked, heart pounding, for the source of the noise.
         Two vehicles crested the pile of wreckage, multi-legged things like metal spiders. The knees of the legs rose high over the low-slung cockpits, cockpits which each had a quad-barrelled machine gun mounted over the blue-green glass window. Michael swallowed hard. Everyone had seen the footage of those spider-tanks shredding civilians in a hail of gunfire. They looked flimsy – and humanity’s massive Thor tanks could tear them apart – but against six commandos even one would slaughter them in the blink of an eye.
         Accompanying the Spiders were a dozen Hyena. Two metres tall, rippling with muscle and snarling like feral dogs, the fanged aliens cut a terrifying sight. The one leading had a high mane of bristly hair which only added more to his already impressive height. He paused briefly, scenting the air and glancing around. Michael swore inwardly; why had they done this during the day? Even within the rubble he felt so exposed in the bright sunlight; at any moment the Hyena would see them-
         The aliens moved on, disappearing over the opposite mound of rubble. Michael breathed a sigh of relief and he remembered why they hadn’t come at night. In the dark the squad would have stood out like bonfires to the Hyena’s heat-sensitive vision. Too many soldiers had learned that the hard way.
         Sergeant Hughes signaled the squad to move and the six commandos sprinted through the shadows and into a collapsed building on the side of the road. Half of the front wall had been blown to nothingness and the inside resembled little of the general store it had once been; the only evidence was a handful of shelves containing crushed or bullet-marked cans of soup.
         As they ducked down at the back of the store, Hughes picked up a can and examined it. His face was emotionless.
         “Sarge?” said Michael quietly.
         Sergeant Hughes put the can down again. “I knew this store.” He crept away towards a gap in the store’s back wall.
         The street into which they stepped was totally blocked at one end by a collapsed skyscraper. Along the road, more buildings had fallen, leaning precariously over the road and forming a tunnel of steel and concrete. Dust stirred by the wind floated downwards from cracks in the walls and it looked like at any minute the buildings would complete their fall and crush the squad.
         On the other hand, the unstable roof of broken office towers and apartments provided perfect camouflage. The Sarge waved them forwards and they began to move quickly down the street, ducking and sprinting from cover to cover. Huge chunks of concrete, scorched tanks with holes burned through them, helicopters so bent and twisted they looked like scrap, it was all just camouflage to the squad. Even if the Hyena had been able to see past the overhang of the broken city, Michael doubted the aliens would have noticed anything amiss within the tangled piles of wreckage.
         They followed the road for fifteen minutes, ever watchful for any sign of movement in the surrounding buildings. Distantly they could hear the snarls and yowls of the Hyena and the grinding noise of their machinery, but here on this abandoned and ruined street it seemed they were quite alone.
         Ahead, another building had fallen across the road, though it was less a building now and more a pile of shattered concrete and steel girders. “The target should be half a klick ahead,” whispered the Sarge, “on the main road.”
         “Do you see a good way out?” replied Hall, checking his sniper rifle’s scope for dust.
         Hughes nodded and pointed to a place where an alleyway was concealed by rubble but open enough for them to sneak through. The squad was about to move but Hughes hissed in a breath and raised his hand. He gestured almost imperceptibly to an apartment building whose glass windows were nothing but jagged teeth. Michael looked and saw a pair of Hyena lounging against the wall just inside, gnawing on huge chunks of raw meat.
         “We have to take them out, Sarge,” said Hall. “There’s no way we can go on without being seen.”
         “Do it.”
         Hall raised his rifle, sighted through the scope, and exhaled slowly. The silenced gun coughed twice and both Hyena dropped. One fell out the window.
         “Let’s hope they’re not expected back anytime soon,” said Hughes. “Move.”
         The squad sprinted from cover to the sheltered alleyway. The noise of the Hyena grew louder as they crept along the narrow path. Sarge signalled, Wait here, and began to edge forwards. The alley bent to the left and Hughes pressed himself against the wall before peering around the corner. After a second he crouched down beside the rest of them. “Well, gentlemen, here’s a right pickle we’re in,” he whispered. “There’s near a thousand of the damn things sitting between us and the target.”
         Williams opened the lid of his backpack and glanced inside. “Nope,” he said at last. “Don’t have anything with enough boom to take them all out. Not unless they all want to get on each other’s shoulders.”
         “Maybe you could ask them nicely,” snorted Hall.
         “Permission to look, sir?” said Michael.
         The Sarge nodded and Michael slipped away. Once at the corner, he took a deep breath and glanced around it.
         A thousand Hyena might not have sounded like a lot when you considered that many of the battles against them had had tens of thousands on each side, often even more than that. But it certainly looked like a whole damn lot to Michael right then. Everywhere he looked there was a sea of brown fur and grey body armour. Spiders clanked through the crowd, treading carefully to avoid spearing any of their own on those huge mechanical legs, and on most of the clear roadways sat several of the aptly-named Thunders. Un-elegant, looking more like boxes on caterpillar tracks than actual tanks, the Thunders were nothing more than an armoured housing for those twenty-centimetre cannons that swivelled dangerously around, searching for something to shoot. Much like the Spiders, on an open field the Thunders couldn’t match the sheer firepower of Humanity’s railgun Thor tanks, but they didn’t have to since the nearly metre-thick armour plates could shrug off anything but concentrated fire.
         At the far end of the horde of canine aliens rose a high skyscraper, which despite the clearly alien structural reinforcements given to it, still looked distinctly human in origin. At its top was a massive cannon pointed at sixty degrees into the sky, rotating slowly.
         And if the thousand Hyena and dozens of Spiders and Thunders weren’t bad enough, the anti-air gun’s building was surrounded by a three metre, barbed-wire-topped, armour-plated wall.
         Michael ducked back into cover with his squad. “Wow.”
         One by one each member of the squad glanced around the corner, and each came back with the same expression. “That’s a problem,” said Harris.
         “Wait, wait!” interrupted Williams. “I remember a math problem like this in school! If there are one thousand enemies and only six of you, how many must each of you kill to survive? I think I got that question wrong. You can read into that what you want.” He grinned.
         “I don’t think we’d have enough bullets, let alone enough time,” Harris said.
         Michael stuck his head around the corner again. “Hang on, a truck’s just stopped, only about ten metres from the alley. Looks like they’re loading some crates…Oh, it’s gone. No, wait, there’s another. Same thing, crates.” He paused. “They’re heading towards the target, stopping right next to the building. There’s still more coming.”
         “There’s our way in,” said the Sarge. “Do we have a clear way into the truck?”
         “Uh…Yes, we do,” answered Michael. “There’s enough wreckage piled up on either side to give us cover, and there’s only a few Hyena doing the loading. We can easily get in while their backs are turned.”
         Hughes didn’t hesitate. He dove around the corner, ducked behind a broken wall, and the second the aliens weren’t looking he gestured madly for the squad to run. Michael ran as hard as he could, heart thundering; he saw the Hyena stoop to lift a crate as he dashed past, and then he was hurling himself into the dark cargo bay of the truck.
         He landed on something soft, something that grunted loudly in pain in a distinctly human voice. But it wasn’t a voice he knew. As his eyes adjusted, he realized that the crates the Hyena were loading were only stacked in the rear-most corner of the truck.
         The rest of the space was packed with humans.
         “S-soldiers?” one gasped. She was an elderly woman, thin and frail, and like the rest of them she was chained to the wall with a metal collar. “Are you here to save us?”
         Before Michael could speak, Sergeant Hughes had stepped beside her. “No.”
         “But you have to! Please!”
         “I’m sorry.”
         The other humans began to join in. “That’s why you’re here!” said one.
         “You have to help us!” exclaimed another.
         “We’ll all die!”
         “At least take the children!”
         “You can’t leave us!”
         “That’s enough,” hissed Hughes. “Let me think.” The truck began to move and Hughes lurched forwards to stand beside the squad.
         “They’re right,” murmured Michael. “We can’t leave them.”
         Hughes drew in a long, slow breath. “We must. If we let them out, our cover’s blown, and they’ll all die anyway.”
         “Our cover will be blown soon enough,” replied Michael. “And you know what’ll happen to them. Hell, there are children here.” They all knew what happened to Hyena captives. The Hyena ate meat. A lot of meat. Usually raw. Often alive. They’d all heard the stories; you were lucky if they tore your head off first.
         Emotion in Hughes’ face vanished. “You listen to me right now, all of you. Humanity doesn’t get another chance here. We must succeed. If we try to help these people, we will be found out, killed, and then more people just like these will die. Understand me? Yes, these people will die. But we have no choice. Am I understood?”
         Michael had heard that tone before. “Yes, sir,” he said stiffly.
         “Good,” said Hughes.
         The truck ground to a halt. Growls and snarls could be heard from outside, then the three Hyena began to unload the crates again. Michael lifted his head as high as he dared and tried to spot a way into the building. It was only five metres away, but with the three Hyena in the way it might as well have been a hundred.
         His eyes fell on a trench ploughed into the ground by artillery. The trench seemed to have punched straight into one of the basement levels of the building with a hole large enough to squeeze through. And it wasn’t far. They could jump from the truck straight into it and be inside the building before anyone could see.
         There was just the small matter of the three Hyena in the way.
         “You’re going to have to shoot them,” said a man beside them. He was leaning as far forwards as his chains permitted as though he was trying to shield the woman and two children beside him. “Give me a gun. I’ll make it look like I did it so you don’t blow your cover.”
         “They’ll kill you,” said Hughes.
         The man laughed bitterly. “Look at us. We’re all dead anyway. You can’t help us. But I can help you get out of here and blow this place to hell.”
         Hughes swallowed hard. “Alright.” He drew his pistol and handed it to the man. “Form up,” he growled to the squad.
         When the Hyena returned, they found themselves facing six rifles. “Hello, you bastards,” snarled Hughes. He fired his rifle point-blank into the nearest one’s face. The other two met the same fate from the barrels of Anderson’s and Michael’s rifles.
         “Go,” said the prisoner.
         As Fi squad dove into the trench, the familiar cracks of gunfire came from the back of the truck as bullets tore into the dead Hyena’s corpses. Surprised yowls broke out around the building and aliens surged forwards to investigate.
         By that time, Fi squad was inside the building.
         The space they found themselves in seemed to be an old parking lot, though the amount of battle-damage hid that pretty well. Large chunks of the ceiling had fallen and taken with them pieces of the wall of the level above. Cracks a metre wide and sometimes twice that deep ran this way and that along the blackened floor. The concrete pillars supporting the ceiling were pocked with bullet-holes and many had been destroyed completely. The few cars still in their stalls were nothing more than frames; anything mechanical seemed to have been carried off.
         Sergeant Hughes pointed to the staircase away on their left and the squad ran towards it. It seemed to be more or less intact, at least compared to the rest of the building. In some places the steps had been destroyed, but there was enough rubble that they would still have no trouble climbing up.
         “Gonna be a long way up,” remarked Williams. “We-”
         Screams ripped through the dusty air, shrieks of terror and pain, human screams mixed in with the ravenous snarls of the Hyena.
         The beasts had started their feast early.
         Michael leaned against the wall, struggling to shut out the screams and sounds of tearing and fighting against nausea. He slammed his hands against the concrete wall. “Dammit.” He laid his forehead on the wall and took a deep breath. The noise was dying away.
         “Move, soldier,” growled Hughes, and he pointed up the stairs. Michael followed the others as quickly as the damaged staircase would allow. He checked his magazines and experimentally sighted down his rifle. The Hyena would pay.
         They wound their way up the back-and-forth staircase for several levels, seeing no Hyena but hearing them snarling and howling outside like a million wild dogs. Most of the doorways had either collapsed or been boarded shut, which meant that the squad was nearly invisible as they climbed ever upwards towards their target.
         “Why couldn’t they have put in an elevator?” murmured Williams. “Or at least fixed the old one.”
         “You want to be trapped in a metal box when the Hyena learn we’re here?” said Hall. “One they could probably stop remotely and then unload a thousand bullets into?”
         “You’d just have to keep it going,” replied Williams. “That’s your job, isn’t it, Circuit-Man?”
         “Shut it, both of you,” Hughes hissed.
         At the tenth storey, with still no sign of the Hyena, Anderson said, “Where are they all?”
         Williams shot him a strange look. “Outside, dumbass. Or did you not notice them in the sea of thousands more of them?
         Anderson glared at him. “No, I meant how have we not bumped into any on our way in today? Not in the city, ‘cept the ones Hall shot, and not in the building.”
         “Don’t ruin our luck,” said Harris.
         “If you ladies are done,” growled Hughes, “keep moving.”
         “It was never the getting-in part that was going to be hard,” said Hall. “It’s the getting out again.”
         Williams grinned. “It’ll be hard for them not to notice us once I set this stuff off.” He pointed at his backpack.
         “I said, keep moving.” Hughes gave them a look that they all knew very well. It meant, Shut the hell up.
         “Yes, sir,” they replied in unison.
         The twentieth storey went by, then the thirtieth and fortieth. At the fiftieth level, Hughes stopped. “Six more floors, then we’re on the roof. Check your bullets, gentlemen. Things are about to get hot.”
         “You bet they are,” said Williams. “Should I take the building down too?”
         “Not while we’re standing on it,” Hall retorted.
         “Don’t have enough ordnance anyway.”
         Hughes gave them that look again before beginning to move up the stairs. Michael followed just behind, sighting down his rifle at every corner. But they were still very much alone. Or at least it looked like they were alone, but Michael could still hear the thousands of Hyena down below. And above, too, another sound was becoming audible. More Hyena, growling and snapping at one another in their hated voices, and the whir of pistons and gears as the anti-air battery turned around and around.
         Five floors to go.
         Four floors.
         Three.
         Two.
         One.
         Ten steps.
         Zero.
         The noise of the Hyena outside was loud now, so loud that Michael estimated there had to be at least forty out there. Sergeant Hughes positioned himself in front of the steel door. “Williams, if you would.”
         Williams reached into his pack and pulled out a rectangular breaching charge. He pressed it to the door, hit a button on it and the thing held firm.
         “Stun grenades,” Hughes instructed. Everyone grabbed two from their belts and held them in one hand. Brutal even for the humans who threw them, but to the Hyena’s hyper-acute sight and hearing the grenades could cause serious damage.
         “Ready?” said Hughes. The squad nodded.
         “Breach in three, two, one-”
         The door blew open in a flash of white smoke that the squad didn’t see because their eyes were closed. Twelve stun grenades rolled onto the roof and went off with a noise that none of the squad heard the full length of because they were deafened immediately. Hughes was gesturing madly to go and Michael sprinted through the door and opened fire.
         There was complete silence. No sound came from his rifle even as the muzzle flashed with every shot. There were no snarls of pain from the Hyena as his bullets tore into them. The massive anti-air battery which had been grinding and creaking a moment before now rotated in dead quiet. It was as if the entire world had just switched off its volume.
         With a rush like the wind everything came back. The aliens lay dead or dying on the ground; those who weren’t yet dead were hastened on their way by perfectly aimed shots from the commandos. Williams was already at the base of the anti-air battery, emptying his pack onto the ground and affixing everything he could onto the gun’s base. Harris and Anderson had their guns pointed back through the doorway in case anyone came up that way. Then Williams was sprinting away from the anti-air gun, waving and shouting at everyone to get inside the building, and everyone obeyed in a second.
         The entire building shook as the gun exploded like a volcano of white and green and orange. Huge pieces of metal were hurled over the edge of the roof. There was a deafening crash and the remainder of the gun dropped straight down through the concrete to the floor below.
         Hughes was already screaming on his radio. “IT’S DONE! EVAC! WE NEED EVAC NOW!”
         Then Harris yelled, “GUNSHIP!”
         Bullets – not rifle bullets but twenty-centimetre chaingun rounds – ripped into the concrete of the roof. Pieces of stone flew like shrapnel; a chunk of the doorframe disintegrated and huge holes were punched straight through the walls. Hughes literally shoved his squad down the stairs and tumbled after them. Chunks of building were being turned to dust and thrown into the air above them; twice Michael had to raise his arms to fend off pieces of concrete broken free by the barrage. Hughes was screaming at them but no one could hear. All they could do was keep sprinting downwards. To their left a door to the building was blown open but Harris and Williams had gunned down the three Hyena inside before the aliens could fire a shot. The squad didn’t stop – couldn’t stop – they kept running as fast as they could.
         Then everything went white.
         Michael staggered. Or at least he thought he was staggering until he realized he was face down in a pile of rubble. The room was swimming; his ears were ringing and flashes of white light were blooming and fading in his vision. The ringing faded into a dull roar and then someone seized the back of his armoured vest.
         “UP!” Hughes was screaming. “UP! GO!”
         Michael was yanked to his feet but he didn’t make it more than two steps before the ground seemed to swing upwards to meet him again. “GET UP!” bellowed Hughes. Michael dragged himself to his feet and staggered forwards, fighting to make sense of the blurred images around him.
         His vision cleared and he realized that somehow they were on the ground, outside, no longer racing down the stairs. He glanced back over his shoulder and opened fire without thought, knocking a Hyena backwards off a shattered tank. Above he could see the building with a hole blown out of the staircase just above ground level, still smoking. Bullets were whipping past him, ripping through metal and shattering concrete. He hardly knew what was happening; he was running madly alongside his squad; Hughes pointed wildly at a huge stone church only ten metres away and the squad raced into it.
         “EVAC!” Hughes screamed into his radio. “WHERE THE HELL IS MY EVAC!?”
         Michael and Harris dropped into kneeling positions and returned fire at the oncoming aliens. There were dozens of them, howling and spraying bullets through the cracked doorframe. The stone around Michael was being thrown like shrapnel and something sharp slashed across his cheek. He fired in bursts; four bullets took a Hyena in the head and four more hit another in the chest. Then he was on his feet again, sprinting after the squad as Hughes led them up a stone staircase along the church’s wall. They hurled themselves into the square room at the top. Williams and Michael crouched beside the door’s damaged frame, sighting down the stairs, across the church’s massive sanctuary and towards the main door through which the Hyena were coming.
         Sergeant Hughes glanced out the only window, a tall, thirty-centimetre wide slit in the stone wall, and ducked back just in time as a sniper round blew a piece of the surrounding stone apart. Hall popped up and fired his sniper rifle in return but he never got a chance to see the result as three more shots tore through the window and forced him to take cover.
         Anderson and Harris dropped into crouches beside Michael and opened fire. Hyena were piling up in the church doorway as the growing number of bodies slowed them down and made them easy targets. Michael and his three squad-mates were forced to duck behind the doorframe as the Hyena paused trying to gain entrance and shot back, filling the room with bullets that shattered chunks out of the ceiling.
         “I’m sick of this,” snarled Williams. He ripped a grenade off his belt and loaded it into the under-mounted launcher on his rifle. “Try this, you bastards.” He leaned out and fired. A whoosh of flame and smoke erupted in the doorway of the church and several Hyena fell howling and burning to the ground.
         “Got anything bigger?” Michael yelled over the unending stream of gunfire.
         Williams gritted his teeth and pulled another grenade from his belt. “Been saving this one.” He leaned out again, aimed, and squeezed the trigger.
         But it missed. It slammed into the stone archway of the church door instead.
         That was when Michael realized that it was exactly what Williams had meant to do. The archway cracked and huge pieces of stone collapsed into the entrance. The oncoming fire halted and there was a sudden, eerie silence.
         Michael shot the face of the first Hyena to poke its head over the rubble. The next was taken out by Harris, then Williams and Anderson fired simultaneously at the third and blew its head nearly clean off.
         Hughes looked out the window again and a sniper shot burrowed into the opposite wall. “Status?” he said.
         Michael put two bullets in the next alien to show its wolf-like face. “Unhurt.”
         Williams glanced at him. “No, you’re not.”
         “What?” Michael looked down. Blood was oozing from a deep graze in his side. He hadn’t even noticed. “Unhurt enough,” he corrected.
         Anderson grunted painfully. “Injured but still fighting.” Michael glanced at him. The shoulder of his body armour was damp and his brown-black uniform was darkening.
         Harris said, “Injured but good to go.” His voice was tight with pain. He had a hand clutched to his abdomen.
         “Unhurt,” said Williams.
         “Wounded,” Hall growled as he tied a tourniquet around his lower leg.
         “Wounded and fighting,” Hughes finished. Blood was matting his hair and running down his face.
         Williams, Harris and Michael opened fire again as six Hyena tried to scale the collapsed entrance. Two managed to duck in time but the other four were thrown backwards off the pile and out of sight. The two survivors fired blindly, forcing the commandos to duck back inside their room.
         “We’re lucky we fell out of the building on the side away from all the Hyena,” Williams remarked casually.
         “’Cause we’re way better off now,” snapped Hall.
         “We’re not dead,” retorted Williams.
         “Not yet.”
         “It doesn’t matter now,” interrupted Hughes. “We did it. Mission bloody accomplished.” Michael felt a sudden hope surge within him. It made no difference now if they made it out alive. The anti-air battery was destroyed. Humanity could roll in with its army and turn this place to dust.
         His hand found the heavy gold pocket watch attached to his belt without meaning to. Yeah, the mission was accomplished, but that didn’t mean he’d resigned himself to die just yet. No, he was going to get out of this. He’d be on that train on time and he would see Emily again.
         Sarge was back on his radio. “-pinned down,” he was saying. “Need immediate evac. Is anyone there? Someone answer me!”
         “Let’s hope they get to us before we run out of bullets,” said Williams, checking his remaining clips. “We can sit up here all day and pick them off, but we’re not going anywhere.”
         “At least the gunship’s cleared off,” replied Harris. “I don’t think it can get us here.”
         The Hyena seemed to have given up trying to get in the front door. Hall came to the door and glanced out once, then he dropped into a crouch and sighted down his scope. Two shots cracked through the dusty air and the two Hyena hiding in the rubble rolled over dead. He returned to the window in silence. Hughes looked out the window for a brief second and ducked immediately, but it wasn’t quite fast enough. A bullet skimmed his cheek and drew a line of blood. He dropped and swore and clapped a hand to his cheek. “Not bloody good enough,” he snarled. He raised his wrist-mounted radio to his mouth and started talking into it again. “Can anyone hear me? Immediate evac! Mission accomplished! Now get us the hell out of here!”
         His eyes widened with triumph. Michael’s heart leaped. Someone was replying on Hughes’ earpiece.
         “Yes, listen to me!” Hughes yelled. “Need immediate evac! The gun is down! We-” He went silent, listening, then he started yelling, “What the hell are you talking about? We are pinned down! Get-”
         Hall glanced out the window. “Uh, Sarge? I think the rest of their army just arrived.”
         Hughes ignored the radio for a moment and peered around the window frame. “Dammit.” He returned to his radio. “If you don’t get us out in the next ten bloody minutes, we are all dead. Do you understand me!? We- No, don’t you- WHAT THE HELL DO YOU MEAN? MY MEN RISKED THEIR DAMN LIVES FOR THIS! YOU LISTEN TO ME! YOU-”
         He let his wrist radio fall to his side and went completely quiet. “They’re not coming,” he said at last.
         “What are you talking about?” Anderson demanded.
         Hughes shook his head as though he couldn’t believe what he was saying. “They’re not coming.”
         Anderson was on his feet in an instant. He slammed Hughes against the wall and started screaming in his face, “WHAT THE HELL DO YOU MEAN, ‘THEY’RE NOT COMING!?’ WHAT ABOUT MY FAMILY!? I HAVE A WIFE! A KID! WHAT-”
         “GET DOWN!” Hall roared.
         But Anderson’s outburst had put him directly in line with the window. There was a crack from a sniper outside and Anderson was hurled sideways into the opposite wall. He slid to the floor.
         “Bastards!” snarled Hall. He popped up and fired three times but a returning shot caught him in the shoulder and whipped him to the ground. He grunted in agony and clenched a hand over the wound.
         Hughes was still shaking his head in disbelief when a distant roar began to grow louder, coming from outside. It rose and rose in volume until it was like unending thunder, and as Michael looked out the window thousands of fighter jets screamed over the city.
         Dragons. Human forces.
         “Well,” he murmured. “I guess this is it. They’re starting the bombing.”
         But the jets just roared overhead and disappeared.
         Hughes’ face was still a picture of disbelief. “They never meant to come here,” he said as realization dawned.
         “What?” exclaimed Williams.
         “The entire Hyena army is outside. That was the plan. We destroyed the anti-air battery so they would think we were going to attack here. But we’re invading the Hyena capital.”
         “We were a distraction,” Williams said quietly. Hughes nodded.
         “They never meant to get us out,” said Hall. “They knew they never could if the plan worked.”
         “They didn’t even tell us,” snarled Michael. He slammed a fist against the stone wall. “They sent us to our deaths and didn’t have the decency to tell us.”
         “What difference would it have made?” Hughes said sadly.
         “I could have said goodbye,” Michael whispered. “Dammit.
         “They killed us for a diversion,” Harris said. “They killed us for a fucking diversion.
         Hughes checked the ammo on his rifle. “I have no intention of dying here today,” he growled. “With or without evac, I’m getting out of here alive. And you four are coming too.”
         “How?” demanded Williams. “We don’t exactly have an escape route.”
         “How many missions have we been on where we’ve been trapped?” Hughes said. “And on how many of those have we gotten out alive?”
         “All of them,” replied Williams.
         Hughes slammed a fresh ammo clip into his gun. “And we’re gonna bloody well keep that statistic. On your feet, soldier. I hope you all don’t mind getting filthy, ‘cause we’re gonna find a way back into the sewer.” He sprinted out of the room and down the stairs. The squad leaped to their feet and ran after him. Half a dozen Hyena vaulted the topmost boulders in the doorway and were met with a hail of gunfire. More started climbing after and Williams fired a grenade that turned an alien into bits and filled the air with fire and smoke.
         “An exit, Williams!” ordered Hughes. Williams loaded another grenade and launched it at the rear wall of the church. It hit an already-cracked part of the stonework and blew a metre-wide hole. The squad dove through it, snapping their rifles up as soon as they were clear. The road ahead was clear except for twenty or thirty Hyena. Without hesitating Williams fired off another grenade. The Hyena scattered and began to shoot back. Bullets were flying past Michael’s head; he was returning fire in a wild attempt to keep the aliens’ heads down.
         Behind him, Hall gasped. Michael half-turned, still trying to shoot, and he saw Hall lying face-down in a spreading pool of blood. He already knew the man was dead and he couldn’t stop. No one stopped. Bullets started zipping in from behind as well. Something heavy struck Michael in the side and he stumbled. He didn’t notice pain, only a throbbing ache like he’d been punched. He touched a hand to the place to still the feeling and his hand came away covered with blood. His left leg seemed to be moving slower than his right leg all of a sudden and he tripped. Harris dragged him to his feet.
         The momentary pause cost Harris his life. A stream of bullets tore through his chest armour and he dropped.
         Ahead Michael could see the distinctive metal covering of an entrance to the sewer. He didn’t know what they’d do when they got inside, but it didn’t matter. The Sarge had a plan. All they had to do was get there. And they were nearly there; only ten or fifteen Hyena were still in the way.
         A clanking noise that Michael knew only too well suddenly came from behind a pile of rubble. He knew what it was before he saw it.
         Or rather, saw them. Two of the Spider-tanks appeared just behind the man-hole cover, their massive chainguns swinging back and forth as the drivers looked for the escaping commandos.
         With a whirr, the Spiders opened fire.
         Fifteen-centimetre rounds tore across the roadway, spitting up huge chunks of concrete and metal. Williams caught a round straight through the chest and Michael dove towards the carcass of a tank-
         Something slammed into him and hurled him backwards to the ground. Pain unlike anything he’d ever felt exploded across his body; he had no idea if he couldn’t feel his legs or if they were the source of the agony. He tried to roll over, tried to claw forwards through the rubble, but he didn’t have the strength. He raised his right hand and examined it, trying to understand why it wouldn’t pull him, and he found the gold pocket watch entangled in his fingers. Half the watch was missing.
         The pain spread and Michael felt his vision beginning to tunnel. He wasn’t breathing but he hardly noticed. Somehow all he could think about was the watch, how with it destroyed he’d never make it to the train on time.
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