Chapter 3: Hell on X43
Jack Thorn found himself heading back to the front line and the reality of war on X43. In complete darkness he stood in an open-air carriage and reached out. His hand gripped the nearby cold metal rail as the vessel bounced over uneven ground. The grinding of brakes screeched and wheels below did their best to follow the rails. This fully populated ‘troop train’ banked to one side of a narrow tunnel it crawled through.
“They’re sayin’ Pluto pulled their funding. Something about lack of profits in fighting robots,” a growly soldier said from behind.
Jack tuned into the conversation to overcome the motion sickness sensation which started to overcome him.
“Probably something to do with approval ratings and crap like that,” growly added.
“Well I aint in this shit for free. Why else would any of us be here?” Another soldier said, presumably she stood next to growly.
“Business these days is no longer supply and demand. It’s all about fashionable causes. A company like Pluto only go where the popular opinion is. My brother in law’s funeral had a picket line outside the crem’. He died in battle and people are protesting. The people back home really don’t like this damn war,” the growly soldier added.
Up ahead Jack could see the dull light of outside. He listened to the woman behind talking some more.
“Either way you look at it. No matter how much you fight and how many stars they award you, you’ll either die on this soggy rock or go home to some serious heat. Makes you wonder if it’s worth sticking your neck out.”
The train rattled out into the grey skies of X43 and Jack turned to the pair.
“I’ve never cared about what the man thinks, but maybe it’s up to us to give this war a rep that’s worth having with the people back home,” he said.
“Sounds like you’re new here kid. Tell me how does it feel to still have an actual spirit about this war?” The growly soldier asked as Jack looked up to his dirty face. The woman beside him then chimed in,
“Spirit? I think they took that from everyone the minute they gave us this second-hand battle armour. You know somebody probably died in this right? Rip the name badge off and paste a new one on. If you want my advice, just point and shoot until payday. Things are pretty terrible on the front right about now. Ever since the robots changed tactics.”
“Tactics?” Jack asked looking to her equally dirt covered face.
“Yeah, the robots drew back their offensive and have dug in lines of trenches. They go all the way back to their base.” The woman braced and the whole train rattled. She continued whilst the distant sound of shell fire and explosions gradually carried towards them.
“The Mercenaries pulled out as soon as Pluto dropped their funding and left the Army of Earth to handle the war. It’s trench warfare from now on and right now we’re in standoff mode.”
“Regiments have been dropped making this whole deal a free for all. Rookies with more experienced soldiers mixing all in. Multiple deaths and casualties by the hour. Welcome to X43 kid,” the man said
Jack faced the landscape before him.
He could see plastic looking hut type buildings strewn either side of the track which ended abruptly. Mud seemed to be everywhere along with the puddles. Soldiers looked like scores of ants crawling everywhere, much of them nearby were walking wounded. Others huddled around barrels of fire to keep warm.
“End of the line cannon fodder,” a commanding voice shouted from the front. A partially armoured woman clambered up onto the open-air carriage and gave out a short brief,
“All you newbies, just follow the ones who should be dead by now. Make your way through the wounded city and over the ridge. You’ll see your home away from death right there. The big freeze is setting in so stay warm. Move out!”
She slid open the cattle sized door and Jack followed the soldiers out. They stepped straight onto the mud.
“Good thing about the freeze is there will be no mud,” another soldier said as Jack followed the two he just spoke with. He kept close to them and headed for the make shift town of plastic huts.
“What are these buildings for?” He asked.
A screaming solider was stretchered past and ushered into a hut.
“Mostly the wounded,” the woman said.
Like the others Jack did his best to dodge the deep puddles. Unfortunately he had to commit at least once. His boot stepped on something solid. Reaching down he realised it to be a discarded battle helmet.
“Hey, you wanna hand that this way?” A voice said from across the arrangement of puddles. This soldier stood with a hose next to a pile of armouring. Much of it was covered in brown mud, Jack also noticed some inked in red.
“Yeah. There you go,” Jack said and handed over the mud-soaked helmet.
“Told you about the second-hand armour,” the woman soldier added.
What happened to this place?
No longer did the war have this glorious edge. It no longer represented doing your planet a service. All around were the signs of suffering and death. Soldiers were coming off that train to never return home. Their families would never see them again. Futures shattered in an instant. Their armour stripped off a mangled bullet ridden body. Hosed down and given to the next poor soul.
There was no glory in this war, this was hell on X43.
The town of huts continued for a sizable distance until the horizon ahead turned from a plain brown ridge to clouds of smoke and clusters of explosions. Wounded were carried along the same path Jack walked, some would be dead before reaching help, others hobbled with a brother or sister in arms. One person even lay face down in the mud and that’s where this unknown soldier would stay.
An auto rifle got shoved Jack’s way at the very pinnacle of this ridge. Either side in equal distances were weapon hand out check points like the one he stood at. Then out front he saw it. The expansive front line lay ahead stretching the width of the horizon.
“Thorn?” Shouted a familiar voice. Jack continued to walk down the ridge and try to take in everything.
“Hey Jack,” Steve Franco shouted and headed towards him with Rob Connolly and another soldier, she hung back as they approached.
Both Franco’s and Connolly’s armour had been strewn with mud, and their rugged unshaven faces told the story of what this war had become.
“I’m actually smiling Thorn. First time this week. Good to see you bud,” Connolly said and gripped Jack’s hand.
He then looked to his best friend in the eyes, two eyes that had seen so much trauma of war and not much sleep.
“I can see why, this place is in the toilet,” he said
“This is the toilet. Good to see you man, so where have you been?” Franco asked.
Jack pulled them both in closer and tried to half whisper,
“The S.E.S offered me a job after the war. Looks like it could be good paying work, for all of us.”
“That sounds great and all but were taking it one hour at a time right now.” Connolly pulled away and looked to the front.
“Yeah come on man, we better move down to the front or they’ll just shoot us out,” Franco said and pointed up to the weapon check point.
“Even loitering is a cause of death on this front,” said the woman who had approached with the other two.
Jack saw two symbols printed on her upper arm; one of a spanner and the other a medical cross. Her tanned face was also covered in dirt and specs of what looked like dried blood. She carried a rucksack and hooked to her armouring hung a range of engineering tools and items.
“Thorn meet Nicks, Nicks meet Thorn,” Connolly said, and Jack nodded to the her.
“A medic and an engineer?” Jack asked.
“Yeah we’ve been hiding behind her talents since you were gone man. I’ve figured that’s what we do, just hide behind the real heroes,” Franco said.
“They’ve told me all about your apparent talents Thorn. With you being gone it was like you had died or something. Guess that’s kinda morbid but take a look around. Any medic around here who isn’t warped is probably more insane,” Nicks said.
“Insanity is just a state of mind here, so what’s the deal?” Jack asked. The group moved down and into a larger flock of soldiers.
“We drop into the trench and wait for the next incoming. If the commanding officer is feeling real brave, he may send us in first. There hasn’t been a robot wave for hours so something’s up,” Connolly explained.
Jack could see the upcoming deep trench lined with what appeared to be muddy plastic supports and footings. Cabling ran along the wall with lights and a speaker system. Every so often wide ladders were placed to allow entrance and exits.
“Come on fella’s there’s an empty spot up here,” Nicks said and led the group out of the flock. They lowered themselves down into the trench.
“Is trench warfare even in the Army of Earth’s battle plans?” Jack asked while being unable to avoid the mud.
“Nope but it all boils down to my gun being bigger than their gun. Don’t matter how you deliver that theory, the trench is just the vessel,” Connolly said.
“Or in this case our budget is bigger than your budget,” Jack added and put his foot onto the first ladder rung. He looked out into the battlefield, it seemed pretty quiet all around. Every so often there came a distant blast or patter of gun fire.
“You can’t see it from here but that’s craterville out here man. Good for hiding and covering, especially when an air strike is called. That’s what the speakers are for. Even out there you should hear the warning,” Franco said and joined Thorn on the ladder.
“So tell me man, what happened with the S.E.S? They take your shoes, right?” He asked.
“Turns out they do, and I met a guy called Sarge. He has some connections with the past and my parents. He offered me a job back home after the war. It’s for something called the World Force, could be a good gig,” Jack said.
“I’m all for good gigs man…”
As they stood looking out onto the desolate battlefield the speaker beside them crackled to life.
“Enemy airstrike inbound. Take cover!”
Franco jumped off the ladder and lowered like everyone else around him.
“I repeat, enemy airstrike inbound. Take cover!”
“Jack come on man, get down.”
“The battlefield is empty why would they send in an airstrike.” Jack asked and looked up into the dense grey clouds.
“What is that?” He asked seeing a brightness emerge, there were two fireball type shapes descending.
“That aint no airstrike,” Nicks said and jumped up onto the ladder.
“Then what is it?” Franco asked.
The two shapes burst from the clouds, both of them encased in smoke and burning. A piercing whine came from what sounded like jet engines. They disappeared below the horizon and the ground rumbled violently with a cloud of mud and dust rising up.
“Shit that sounded close,” Connolly said and tried to get a better view.
“Can you see anything?” Jack asked. The dust began to settle and from the explosive cloud came a single neon red strip that stood high above the ground. Thumping resonated along the ground towards the trench.
“What is that?” Franco peered over the trench and squinted out.
“Shit. That isn’t what I think it is right?” Connolly asked.
At that moment all of them realised this wasn’t a bomb, it was huge, and it trudged their way.
“Shiftmasters inbound! All soldiers over the top and attack!” The speaker very near to Jack said.
“Wait what? Shiftmasters?” He asked.
Soldiers either side of the group clambered out of the trenches. They charged with auto rifles primed and battle cries which would instantly turn to screams of pain and death.
After what seemed like a hydraulic whine there came the bright firing of bullets.
THUD. THUD. THUD.
Chunks of mud flew up from the floor. Jack tried to look past the mist and then he saw it. A pair of red neon stripes side by side moving into clearer air.
“Oh shit. We aint got a holy chance in hell against them,” Connolly cried and ducked just before more heavy fire coursed towards them.
Mud rained down into the trench which showed signs of collapse.
“What do we do? Bullets alone aint gonna work,” Franco said.
He was right. The auto rifles barely took down robots, and that was when they didn’t jam or get caked in mud shorting the internal electronics.
“Running would be a sensible choice,” the medic engineer Nicks said.
Jack watched two huge legs steadily trudge forward. He followed the yellow and black safety striped metal struts as they formed into an axel and then into a large extrusive metal body. Two long fork lift style arms moved around in all directions and lashed to them were huge guns. This walking forklift had been modified for battle including a caged head where presumably the remote controls were housed. The sinister neon red bar stared Thorn out whilst he tried to think of a plan….
End of Part 8
Tune in Next week for another edition of Jack Thorn. Same Jack time, same Jack place… Remember if you enjoyed reading, tell a friend, leave a comment and share it around on social media…
Copyright 2004 – 2019 ‘Jack Thorn’ and ‘The Thorn Legacy’ Written By Lee Hall 2019 All rights reserved.