LAST EDITED ON Feb-12-11 AT 05:23 PM (EST)
[EDIT A Jan-28-09 AT 02:54 PM (EST): The usual next-day typo patrol. Also, it belatedly occurs to me that I gave it entirely the wrong title last night. --G.]
[EDIT B Correcting a mistake I just became aware of. These guys are Martians themselves; therefore this is not the Martian Foreign Legion, since a foreign legion is comprised of people who are not citizens of whatever nation the legion belongs to (cf. the French Foreign Legion, the members of which are not French). --G.]
Friday, August 12, 2174
Crown Colony of New Woking
Rigel sector, United Galactica
New Woking was one of the first non-Salusian worlds to have the misfortune of finding itself squarely in the path of the oncoming Covenant invasion, and of all those caught up in the initial surge of the alien attack, it was the most ill-equipped to cope. Unlike Salusian colonies, which retained ties of commonwealth to the homeworld and enjoyed the protection of the Royal Navy, the Crown Colonies had cut their colonial ties to Earth long ago, and so could only expect the aid of the United Galactica Navy, which did not maintain a significant presence in the area. Up until now, why would it have needed to? The Rigel sector was a safe, stable part of the galaxy, not the sort of place where defenseless planets found themselves subject to invasion. The chances of anything hostile coming to New Woking were confidently estimated at a million to one.
But still they came, and the United Galactica's forces were far away. As it happened, there were two military presences in the system at the time, apart from New Woking's own, woefully outmatched defense force. One was a Royal Salusian Navy cruiser that happened to be passing by on her way back to the homeworld for repair and refit. Though under no official obligation to answer the Earth colony's cries for help, the officers and crew of HMS Thunder Child responded anyway, knowing that a single Termagant-class cruiser could, at best, only slow down the Covenant onslaught for a time.
The other was a mercenary army which had no space assets at all, and which only happened to be on New Woking at the time of the attack owing to an unfortunate series of coincidences rooted in the massive disruption to hired transport timetables in the beleaguered sector. Lacking spacecraft of any description, they could do nothing at all about the Covenant assault itself, not even escape it... but, their leaders decided, they could surely make the Covenant regret choosing this world as a target.
That was the conclusion Colonel Vand Halvas reached as he stood at the top of a water tower outside the all-but-abandoned spaceport city of Torsbridge and observed the Covenant beachhead outside New Woking City, ten miles away, through electrobinoculars.
"No way out for us this time, eh, Vand?" asked his towering lieutenant, Krath Kalvor. Grim-faced as always, Kalvor folded one pair of his arms across his massive chest. The others were occupied with drawing and fingering the edge of a fighting saber.
"Doesn't look that way, Krath," Halvas replied. "If the reports of the invaders' technology I've seen are accurate, we may have the edge on them, but only just, and they outnumber us enormously. The prospects aren't good. Still, we can't just let them take the whole planet unopposed, now can we?"
Krath's lip curled above one of his gleaming tusks. "Indeed not," he said. "We must make them pay in blood for every one of us they kill. A ten-to-one ratio, I should say, will ensure that the honor of Mars is satisfied."
Halvas smiled grimly. "I fear your estimate is too ambitious, my friend, but we shall see." He raised the electrobinoculars again. "They're heading this way. Tanks first, infantry behind, with air cover. They don't seem to have anything like Destroids."
Krath grunted. "Small favors." He left off fingering his saber and drew his atomic pistol with his right lower hand, simultaneously making ready his portable deflectors on both upper forearms. "I'm off to take charge of the ground troops, then. Try not to get killed until the end, eh? I won't save you a seat on my boat down the Iss forever."
The thin-faced Red Martian officer chuckled. "I've no intention of going quietly either, I assure you," he said, touching his holstered pistol. Then, keying his wristcomm, he said, "Captain Hroth. Report."
"All destroyers in position," Hroth replied in a thin, reedy whisper. "The enemy doesn't seem to have noticed us yet."
"We'll remedy that soon enough," said Halvas. "Xesk, report."
"Air unit reporting," another voice, almost indistinguishable from Hroth's, responded. "We are hull down 1.27 vars from Captain Hroth's position. Main energy systems dormant. No signs of our discovery either."
"Good. Await instructions."
For five minutes, Halvas observed the Covenant army's approach, noting their strange combination of discipline and sloppiness. Their ranks were perfectly organized, their battle order superb, but they plowed straight ahead without paying any heed at all to their flanks, as if the entire army suffered from target fixation. They were bearing down inexorably on Torsbridge, giving no thought to anything but their goal. Chances were good that they had no idea Halvas's force was there.
He wondered vaguely whether the Covenant would even know who they were. Few armies, even with a numerical advantage and a superior strategic position, would march blithely into a bare-faced frontal conflict with the force that Colonel Vath Halvas commanded - but it was entirely likely that the Covenant intelligence network had never learned the legend of the Martian Legion.
Halvas put away these ruminations as the Covenant forces slowed for the bottleneck that the empty village of Torsbridge presented to their advance on the spaceport. They were all in the space Halvas had decided would be their battlefield now, all within the limits of the town - the attack perimeter of Hroth and Xesk's units.
"Captain Hroth, Captain Xesk, commence your attack." The briefest of pauses. "Good luck, my friends."
Xesk, busy powering up his craft, did not reply. Hroth acknowledged only with the stock phrase that was the only recognizable vestige of what had once been the religion of his species, the oldest of Mars's many sentient races.
"To life immortal, Colonel," he said, and then, in the higher-pitched, much louder, ululating tones of his own language, he commanded his troops, <Lancers of Mars, raise your machines!>
The Covenant forces' surprise was total. From grassy hillocks and hidden pits all around the perimeter of the village, and from behind buildings within the village itself, metal shapes reared where none had been a moment before, shapes as unfamiliar to the Covenant attackers as those of their own alien war machines had been to the first humans and Salusians to watch them swoop down on their worlds. Some of them - Captain Hroth's forces - stood atop three stiltlike legs ending in three-toed feet, their gleaming alloy main bodies equipped with articulated tentacles, a centrally mounted arm tipped with a lensed box like a giant camera, and a coppery hood that surmounted the whole thing like the head on a Destroid's body. The others - Xesk's squadron - were levitating above the ground with no legs at all. These flying-machines were sleeker, almost bird-like, in shape, their lighter alloy a gleaming copper color, with sinister "heads" on articulated necks and glowing green crystalline structures at the tips of their wings.
Before the Covenant troops had even figured out what they were confronted with, the camera-like boxes on the tripod fighting-machines and the gooseneck "heads" of the flying ones both began to glow with a portentous orange light, then poured forth streams of brilliant sparks with an earsplitting shriek. Where these streams touched anything - the ground, Covenant soldiers, the hulls of their tanks - they left only flame behind.
The Covenant forces were momentarily staggered by the onslaught, but they soon regained their poise. Under the fierce direction of their officers, the reptilian creatures flagged "Elite" by the Salusian forces that first encountered them, their infantry rallied and sought cover while their tanks turned to face the enemy and their air cover swooped down to back them up.
The latter found themselves intercepted by the Martian fliers, which soon showed themselves the Covenant fighters' equal in agility and, arguably, firepower as well. This left Hroth's fighting-machines to deal with the Covenant ground forces.
Halvas stood at the peak of his command post and watched the battle impassively through his electrobinoculars. The fight was a mismatch, but not decisively so. The Covenant initially made the common mistake of thinking the Martians' machines clumsy because of their stiltlike legs and awkward-looking tripedal gait. It seemed their deflector shields were not as strong as the Martians' either. Their infantry soon lost cohesion, the smaller troops scattering in terror as the Martians' sparking beams scythed through their ranks and left flame and ash and devastation in their wake. As to weapons, the Covenant plasma cannons were powerful, but their gunners hadn't taken the fighting-machines' measure yet.
The Covenant had numbers, but the Martians had the Heat-Ray, and in three hundred years, no enemy of Mars had ever had a definitive answer for that legendary weapon. Even the fungoid invaders from beyond the Oort cloud, with their terrible disintegrator beams, had fallen or fled before the savage intensity of the Heat-Ray.
Halvas watched for many minutes as the two armies clashed, the Martians with all the fury and tenacity for which they were rightly famed, the Covenant with their trademark implacable, mechanistic brutality. No quarter was asked nor given. Here the Heat-Ray swept a whole rank of the Covenant's panic-prone cannon fodder from existence, taking only a few seconds' more bombardment to overwhelm the shields of their towering officer and vaporize him with his men. There a Covenant tank gunner got his eye in and blasted one of the legs from a fighting-machine, causing it to fall with a pealing cry from its emergency siren (its plaintive Ulla! Ulla! sending an involuntary chill up even Halvas's rigidly professional spine). Here one of Xesk's fliers unleashed its mighty secondary weapons, the disintegrators Martian scientists had derived from the fungoid invaders' beams, and swatted a Covenant aircraft from the sky. There a pair of Covenant pilots teamed up, using their craft's powerful fusion torpedoes to overcome even a Martian flier's stout shields and send the machine down in flames.
"Colonel!" cried a familiar voice, and Halvas turned to see his adjutant, Els Thaven, running toward him, brandishing a fieldcomm printout. "The evacuation flotilla is away in hyperspace. Surface-to-sky sensors show that Thunder Child has been destroyed covering their escape."
"Transmit my condolences to Salusian High Command if you can get a clear frequency," Halvas said. "Assure them that the Legion will do its utmost to see that their brave sailors are avenged."
"As you command, Colonel," said Thaven, saluting smartly. She turned and ran back toward the makeshift communication post.
Halvas turned his attention back to the battlefield - and saw to his horror that a ship, not a Covenant vessel but a human-built freighter, was rising from the ruins of New Woking City's spaceport off to the southwest. What delayed its crew during the initial evacuation, and what possessed them to try to raise ship and run for it now, Halvas couldn't say. All that he knew was that the ship and everyone aboard it were doomed if the Covenant spotted them - which of course they did.
"Let them go, they can't do you any harm," Halvas muttered, watching as the ungainly vessel strained for altitude, the scream of its thrusters audible even from thirty miles away or more. For a few seconds, it seemed as if the Covenant had heard him and decided to ignore the unarmed civilian ship...
... but then bright plasma beams lanced upward from their main beachhead in the capital city proper and sliced the vessel in two, sparking a fireball that briefly cast the broken towers of New Woking City in silhouette.
Halvas clenched a fist at his side. A coward's act, he thought, deserved a coward's death.
"Captain Hroth!" he snapped into his wristcomm.
"Here," Hroth whispered.
Halvas stood for a moment, the muscles at the corners of his jaw working beneath his bright ruddy skin. Then, still staring at the embattled Covenant army with eyes like chips of stone, he barked,
"Let them have the Black Smoke!"
The Black Smoke: most terrifying of all the weapons in the Martian arsenal, a poison gas so inimical to organic life, so near to universally lethal, and an agent of such agonizing extinction that its use was banned by every convention of civilized war in known space. Just the fact that the Legion kept it in its arsenal was looked at askance by most of the galaxy, but tradition was tradition, and though no Martian force had used it in anger since the abortive Earth invasion of 1904, no Martian commander would strike it from his manifest either... because you never knew.
Hroth made no response to this order, though he must have been at least slightly shocked that his commander had reached such a pitch of fury against the invaders. The passions of the Barsoomites and the Tharks were often quite beyond the comprehension of the Sarmaks' coolly logical minds.
They were not entirely emotionless, though, those least humanoid of the many peoples of Mars, and it could not be said that, having witnessed the Covenant's craven murder of a shipload of refugees, Captain Hroth did not feel a certain sense of satisfaction as he touched the controls that would unleash his squadron's most potent weapon.
The Covenant didn't initially know what to make of the shells that came from the fighting-machines' firing tubes, which landed among them without exploding. The smaller troops scattered, fearing they were unexploded bombs, but the Elites ignored them... until they began to burst, and the oily clouds of the Black Smoke spread through the ruined streets of Torsbridge, and the Covenant soldiers began to die.
The little ones were wearing environment masks, designed to shield them from a Standard environment that was already toxic to their systems, but it didn't matter. Such was the Black Smoke's pernicity that it ignored such obstacles almost entirely, destroying seals, penetrating respirators, and wreaking its havoc upon the metabolism of every creature it touched. Only the tank crews, sealed within their armored shells, and the aviators, flying above the Smoke's stubbornly ground-hugging vapors, were safe.
The fighting-machines pressed the attack, cracking the tanks' hulls with their Heat-Rays and letting the lingering Smoke do the rest of their work for them, and soon the battlefield was littered with the wreckage of what had once been an entire Covenant ground army.
What happened in the wake of the first attack force's rout reminded Colonel Halvas of a human saying he had once heard: The nail that sticks up furthest gets hammered hardest. By crushing the first force sent against them, the Martians had drawn the Covenant commanders' attention, and before long three further attack waves were converging on Torsbridge from multiple directions. Hroth and Xesk redistributed their surviving machines to cover as many angles as possible, but it was a futile effort, and they knew it. Even the Black Smoke couldn't kill that many Covenant quickly enough, and the supply eventually ran out.
By sunset, only Hroth's own fighting-machine and one other were left, pushed back almost to the doorstep of Halvas's command post. Even with their backs literally to the wall, the dispassionate Sarmaks' defense of their commander's final strongpoint was not easiy overcome. They fought until their Heat-Ray projectors glowed white, until the green steam pouring from their fighting-machines' cooling systems roiled almost as thick on the ground as the Black Smoke had done, until the Covenant managed to mass enough armor to combine fire and bring first one, then the other down.
"I regret that I have failed," said Hroth over the static-soaked comm. Then, in a virtuoso display of piloting ability, he forced his fighting-machine to its feet despite its missing leg and, even more astonishingly, set it moving, lurching toward the Covenant vanguard in a hideous, terrifying gait that was half run, half a series of barely-arrested falls. The Covenant gunners, their expectations entirely thwarted, fired wildly, but accomplished nothing as Hroth's fighting-machine plunged into the very heart of their formation.
<To life immortal!> Hroth wailed, his keening deathsong amplified to deafening volume by his fighting-machine's PA system, and then he actuated the self-destruct, obliterating the entire forward element of the Covenant army in a green-tinted fusion fireball.
"I think Hroth had the right idea," said Krath Kalvor with a Thark's fatalistic laugh. "Better to go out spitting in their faces than make them come in here and drag us out from under our bunks!"
"I quite agree," said Vand Halvas, nodding with a faint, dry smile. He drew his atomic pistol and turned to address the Legion's infantry.
"My friends, there is no escape for us. Our resistance has only stoked the Covenant's fury, as we thought it would. They take few prisoners under the best of circumstances, from all accounts, and we have made them pay so dearly for this world that they would never take any of us alive, even if we were willing to be taken. But are we?"
"NO!" came the unanimous response.
"No," Halvas agreed, "because we are Martians. We surrender only to Death herself. This is not our world, but we have made the Covenant pay for its taking, not because we have any stake in what becomes of New Woking, but because any injury visited on the Covenant serves the greater good of all the galaxy. We have made the Covenant regret that they ever chose to cross swords with the peoples of Mars!"
Turning, he faced the regrouping Covenant, now stripped of most of their armor by Hroth's final charge, and raised his saber, crying,
"Barsoom!" the rest of the Legion bellowed as one, and they charged.
Half an hour later, it was all over. The Martian Legion was no more, wiped out to the last. The last to fall were Vand Halvas and Krath Kalvor, who fought back-to-back at the end and took more than a hundred Covenant with them to eternity.
As he entered the tumbledown spaceport building for which his forces had paid such a hideous price over the course of this incomprehensible day, Field Master Vetro 'Kavanree wondered what in all the universe could have been so valuable to these creatures that they would stand for so long in defense of it.
As it happened, there was one still alive for him to ask. If the red-skinned infidels among this force were analogous to humans, and it appeared that they were, this one was a female, and fairly young. She lay slumped against a large metal canister in the central room of the structure, one of her legs gone from just above the knee, a makeshift tourniquet around her thigh preventing her from bleeding to death - or at least from doing so quickly. Her weapon lay near her, smashed by the explosion of a plasma grenade, and when she looked up at Vetro, only one of her eyes focused. By any estimation, she didn't have long to live.
Vetro hunkered down before her and, wondering whether she spoke the infidels' standard language, asked her simply,
Els Thaven did her best to smirk at him with the half of her face that still worked.
And then she pressed the manual release on the canister against which she rested... the last of the Legion's Black Smoke rounds.
As the Smoke flooded the building and Vetro 'Kavanree fell to his knees before her, clutching at his throat and staring at her with bulging eyes, she told him with her last breath,
"For the honor of Mars."
The Martian Legion's unexpected resistance to the Covenant assault on New Woking disrupted the Covenant's invasion plan for the entirety of the Crown Colony region of the Rigel sector. Between their near-annihilation of Field Master Vetro 'Kavanree's Twelfth Army and HMS Thunder Child's successful ramming of Fleet Master Atav 'Temwanee's flagship, the Shadow of Righteousness, the Covenant forces lost more (and more significant) personnel in their ultimately successful assault on the New Woking system than in any other single engagement of the war to that date. The losses blunted their offensive in that area irreparably, causing the Covenant to turn their attention back almost exclusively to the Salusian Empire. They never again posed a significant threat to the Crown Colonies.
The heroic stand of the Legion was not fully understood until after the war, when the battle recorders of several of the Martian fighting-machines and the fieldcomm observation logs of the command post were recovered from the wreckage of Torsbridge. A replica of Captain Hroth's fighting-machine stands in the rebuilt city center of Torsbridge today, and beneath it stand statues depicting Colonel Vand Halvas, Krath Kalvor, and Els Thaven. Nearby is a model of Captain Xesk's flying-machine, along with a plaque commemorating the Legion's last stand and noting that Torsbridge is twinned with Helium, the Legion's home city on Mars.
The Martian Legion has never been reconstituted.
"The Honor of Mars" - a mini-story of the First Covenant War by Benjamin D. Hutchins
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