Combat drops suck.
So I've been told.
Ceremonial duties are worse.
Spit and polish and don't eat the daisies?
No thank you!
What's worse is when you're putting your head into a bear trap nobody told you about...
Titan space; Xanadu, Titan
“Awright, boys and girls, this is a simple drop. We’re supporting a diplomatic mission, which means you even so much as think about locking and loading and I’ll have your ass running laps on the hull without a vac suit, do you understand me?”
“Yes, Sergeant!” came the massed response.
“Good. By squad, Corporals, check in with me.”
Company Sergeant Marti Wulfow stepped off to the side to give himself a little separation from the company officers, who hadn’t particularly noticed.
“What do you think, Oren?” Lieutenant Scott Nordstrom was the commanding officer for Aleph Platoon, Omega Company, and had held the position for two years. He was a little less than two meters tall, with sandy blonde hair and a face that seemed to be perpetually on the edge of smiling. He had served six years in the Corps after his graduation from Scipio City, and his lack of promotion wasn’t due to any lack of competence on his part. Instead it reflected the static nature of the SUN Marine contingent. While the navy was continually expanding, there had been and continued to be only a single brigade, and thus only one Brigadier in command of the Corps. Promotion was based less on ability and more on retirements in the upper ranks, with a sizeable dose of family politics thrown in for good measure.
Luckily for him, Nordstrom liked his position, as he had no family connections. Without that extra help, the merely competent could only rise so far before hitting an almost-impenetrable ceiling.
His XO, Junior Lieutenant Oren Truitt, might have had more family connections, but he lacked Nordstrom’s competence. He was taller than his commander by several centimeters, and where Nordstrom was relaxed Truitt was tense. He was vaguely aware he was somehow lacking, yet he was unable to discern exactly how. His lacks were covered by Nordstrom and the Company Clerk, Randolph Agarn, and with Wulfow they made a surprisingly effective team.
“I think that Maggie’s going to kick McGee’s ass if he makes another pass at her,” opined Truitt.
“Not quite what I was asking about, but I agree. Are we ready for this mission?”
“Oh! Yes, sir.”
“They know not to spit on the ground in front of the politicos?”
“Um. I don’t think that was part of the brief. I can get Sergeant Wulfrow to add it?” Truitt made to move off, and Nordstrom gently restrained him.
“I’m sure the Sergeant will cover it.”
“Lieutenant, why aren’t the Major and Captain dropping with us?”
The company commander and XO were in one of the pinnaces with the political types. Rubbing elbows with high-ranking officials was one way to curry favor, and both Major Campbell and Captain Rocco were professionals at it. He could hardly say so to Truitt, though.
“They are providing close-in security,” he lied.
“That’s awfully brave of them.”
On a planet with maybe a million people, most of whom wouldn’t know which end of a gun to point at the enemy? Very brave.
Sergeant Wulfow stepped up before Nordstrom had to answer and saluted. His stocky build looked out of place next to the two officers, but he was also supremely competent and had been a Marine for nearly thirty years. The Corps had tried to retire him numerous times, but he had creatively remained enlisted every time. Nordstrom knew Wulfow had forgotten more about being a Marine than he’d ever know and was grateful for his assignment to the company.
“All squads checked in, sir.”
“He’s not going to ask Maggie again.”
Maggie Crampton was the corporal in charge of 4th squad and looked like every Marine’s ideal pin-up. She was also aggressively single and refused to date any of her fellow Marines, no matter where they stood in the chain of command, which probably explained her lack of promotion to a well-deserved sergeant’s slot.
“She won’t tell me what she did, but McGee’s white as a sheet.”
“Probably best not to ask.”
“Five minutes to ground,” the pilot reported.
“You heard her. Get ‘em ready.”
The landing pad was just large enough to accommodate the two pinnaces and the assault shuttle as it slowly descended through the carved tunnel. As soon as it had come to a stop, Nordstrom’s Marines were out of the shuttle and forming a secure perimeter before any of the pinnaces started unloading. Captain Rocco was the first to join the company.
“Captain.” Nordstrom snapped off a salute worthy of a parade ground.
“No activity, sir. Standard perimeter is secure.”
“No activity? That’s odd.”
“Sir?” Nordstrom thought no activity was a good thing.
“There’s supposed to be a full greeting delegation,” Rocco explained.
“Perhaps they’re awaiting us inside?” Nordstrom gestured to an official-looking building a few hundred meters away from the pad.
“Good thinking, Lieutenant. I’ll get the delegation gathered. Prepare your troops to move out in escort. SOP for ceremonial duty; light weapons only.”
Nordstrom turned to Truitt. “You heard the Captain. Standard ceremonial formation. By the book, Oren.”
Surprisingly enough it was only minutes before the delegation was assembled. Nordstrom was taken aback to see the pinnace crews joining what looked to be a fair-sized procession.
“Captain? A question?”
Nordstrom pointed to the crews.
“It’s not SOP to leave landing craft unattended.”
“Thank you for reminding me. Get your pilots.”
“The Minister wants as much a show of force as possible, so she’s ordered all military personnel to participate. I nearly forgot about your pilots.”
“But SOP, sir?”
“We’re on an allied world, Lieutenant. I’m sure the landing craft will be perfectly safe for a few minutes.”
Rocco decided to show some mercy on his obviously uncomfortable junior officer. “As soon as the official greeting is over, they can return to the shuttle.”
Nordstrom sketched a salute and trotted back to the shuttle to retrieve the pilots. They were just as confused, but an order was an order, and in under two minutes they had joined the procession, looking out of place in their flight suits.
If Wulfow hadn’t been a stickler for proper procedure, nobody would have noticed the pad starting to rise back to the surface. As it was it had risen nearly twenty meters before the lookout’s shout got Wulfow’s attention.
“Lieutenant!” Wulfow at least had the presence of mind to use his radio. “The ships!”
One of the privates, directed by Wulfow, took off at a sprint for the pad with the evident intent of jumping up to the still-rising pad. Fortunately for him, he saw the gap, knew his limitations, and skidded to a stop before he launched himself futilely into the air.
“Captain, orders?” Nordstrom was proud of the unconcern he managed to put into his voice. Never mind the only way they had to get off the planet was now fifty meters above ground and still ascending.
“I’m sure it’s a security measure,” Rocco said, sounding less sure than he probably wanted. “Look, they’ve stopped.”
“Security from what?” asked Nordstrom, though not over the circuit. “Yes, sir. Shall I dispatch a squad? Just in case?”
“No, Lieutenant. Continue as ordered.”
Nordstrom gestured for Wulfow.
“As soon as you can, peel first squad off and send them back to the edge of the pad. See if they can improvise a way to get up to the shuttle. I don’t like having our ride home out of reach,” he said quietly.
“Yes, sir,” answered Wulfow equally quietly.
“Commander!” Gibson never shouted.
“You have to hear this!” Gibson flipped a switch and a woman’s voice filled the bridge.
“…immediately. I repeat, SUN Kepler, this is Captain Jennifer Martinez of the TFS Enterprise. You are in orbit above a member of the Terran Federation. By order of Kyra Smith, President of Titan Colony, you are directed to depart orbit. Failure to do so will be met with all necessary force. Departure is ordered immediately. I repeat, SUN…”
Gibson turned off the voice.
“It’s been repeating for a couple minutes, tight beam, across every frequency we can monitor.”
“Tight beam? How do you know?”
“We had to do a minor course correction, the signal lost us for a few seconds, and then it reacquired.”
Porter nodded. He knew what the Kepler could do, and what the Enterprise was rumored to be capable of.
“Contact the landing party and get them back. We can’t face one of their ships, not alone.”
“I can’t, sir.”
“I’ve been trying, but our systems aren’t designed to interface with their communicators, and nobody is responding in the pinnaces or the shuttle.”
“What about the other shuttles? The ones still airborne?”
“They can hear us, sir, but they can’t reach the landing party. Their signals aren’t strong enough to penetrate underground.”
“Shit.” Porter forced himself to think, not just react. If they were on a tight beam, that meant they were line of sight. Line of sight meant they might be within weapons range. How far away was the question, but he could find that out.
“Gibby, open a channel to them. I want a measure on the signal delay.”
“Aye, sir. Channel open.”
“Captain Martinez, this is Commander Porter, First Officer. We cannot depart orbit. We have people on the ground.”
There was a pause of several seconds, and the voice, presumably Captain Martinez, replied.
“We are aware of your people on the ground and will be dealing with them later.”
There was definitely an edge of menace in that statement, and Porter was glad it wasn’t directed at his ship. “They will be treated appropriately. You have my word as an officer.”
“They are my responsibility, Captain.”
“Not any longer, Commander. You have been given a lawful directive by the legal representative of the Titan government. Will you comply?”
“I need to consider your request.”
Porter motioned for Gibson to close the circuit.
“Were you able to measure the delay?”
“Best our equipment can determine is they’re somewhere between six and eight light-seconds distant.”
“Around two megaklicks? That gives us some time.”
“Commander, do you want me to prepare the missiles?” asked his Weapons officer, Lieutenant John Benjamin, and Porter was tempted. They carried 40 missiles and had four tubes, three forward and one aft. At maximum fire, they could empty their magazine in less than five minutes and have them all seeking the Enterprise at over 100g acceleration. He did a little math; flight time would be nearly a half hour, but they’d be under power the entire way and would scream into Enterprise at over 2200 KPS.
“Mix up the warheads,” he ordered. “Half of ‘em should have penetration aids, the other half warheads.”
“Yes, Commander.” Benjamin busied himself with his orders.
Porter stretched the interval as long as he dared, hoping that he wouldn’t force her hand early. Finally, when he couldn’t stand it any longer, he said, “Open up the channel, Gibby.”
The comm officer indicated he’d done so.
“Captain Martinez, I simply have to retrieve my crews and officers. At least allow me that!”
After the delay, Martinez said, “I’m sorry, Commander. As I said, they will be treated with all due respect.”
Well, he’d tried. Time for the next card.
Sorry, Captain Prick.
“We’ll need time to prepare for departure. We have to run through our main engine start-up procedures.”
“Very well. How long will that take?”
“Thirty minutes if we cut corners.” That was the truth; he didn’t see any sense in lying. “But the book calls for forty-five to fifty.”
“Very well, Commander. You depart orbit in exactly forty-five minutes.”
“And my shuttles still in flight?”
“You can retrieve them, of course, but if they fail to return to your ship it will be considered a hostile act. That includes staying on station, Commander.”
“I understand. Thank you, Captain.”
There was no reply.
“Benjamin, how are we coming on the missiles?”
“First eleven are converted.”
“Start launching. Keep replacing warheads, but don’t slow the launch.”
Four at a time, every 29 seconds, the Huygens missiles leapt from the tubes of the Kepler.
Cass handed a fifty-credit note to Alley.
“Course, Mr. Kay?”
“More or less in our direction. I don’t have a great lock on them; they seem to have mounted some countermeasures to futz with our standard scanners.”
“Can we avoid them?”
“Easily,” Kay answered with confidence. “Their sensors are rubbish, only good for short range. They’re on a programmed course right now, and once they hit the ten-minute mark they won’t be able to turn around and catch us before their drives went dead, even if they saw us.”
“Good. That gives us ten minutes to play stupid. Kendra, are you and the rest of your suicide squad ready?”
Alley had lost the argument, though not easily and not gracefully. Kendra had only succeeded in assembling her team by pulling rank, even while acknowledging that Alley’s points were valid. However, if they were going to prevent a bloodbath on the surface, they needed every body who was willing to drop. That included the six OutLook agents, Lt. Orloff, both Garcia sisters, the Astrogator, Chris Greenstein, LJ, as well as Cass and herself.
At least there were maybe enough, if they could take out the assault shuttles still in the air. That was up to Red Squadron.
“Ready, Alley. Except Cass.” She gestured to her wife.
“And their shuttles?”
“Still holding station, Captain.”
“Get me that Commander again.”
As they waited, Cass said, “Bet he doesn’t mention the missiles. Double or nothing?”
“I’m not going to take your money.”
“Fine. Any kind of mention, though. He doesn’t have to say ‘missiles’.”
“Captain, Commander Porter.”
“Commander, your shuttles are still in orbit,” snapped Alley immediately, not waiting for whatever he’d say.
“How can I help you, Captain? We’re making every –” He stopped speaking as her words reached him, then replied. “Yes, Captain, they are. Is there a problem?”
“They shouldn’t still be in orbit. But you have no intention of retrieving them, do you?”
After the delay, he smiled. A genuine smile, maybe the first one she’d seen from him. There wasn’t any more pretense.
“No, Captain. I’m sorry, but we’re not going to withdraw. In fact, I’m going to take this opportunity to ask you if you’d like to surrender.”
“Surrender?” scoffed Alley.
“Surrender. I promise you will be treated with, what did you say? All due respect.”
Alley actually laughed. “And why should I surrender? Especially to, well, a tin can?”
If the laughter got to him, he concealed it well.
“Please reconsider. Your time is running out.”
“Yes. Very soon, you won’t have any choice at all, and that will be a pity.”
“We’ll see about that.” Alley shut down the connection.
“You really shouldn’t bet against a military mentality, Cass. He thinks that we won’t be able to pick up his missiles yet.”
Grumbling, Cass fished out two more notes.
“Thank you. Minerva, get me Shooting Star.”
“Connected, Captain,” the AI replied almost instantly.
Red Squadron had launched as planned, arcing away from Enterprise and looping towards Titan on a ballistic path. They could have covered the ground in far less time under power, but their Direwolves were built for speed, not stealth, and would have been spotted. As it was, they were still closing at over 1000 KPS.
“Red Leader, go Enterprise.”
“Take them down, Ashlyn.”
“Aye, Captain.” She switched the comms. “Time to feed, kids!”
Only Division One had come along on the mission, the Enterprise having a smaller shuttlebay than Endeavour. They should still be more than enough for this task.
“Attention, Union shuttles,” Ashlyn radioed on their frequency. “Return to your ship or be destroyed. This is your only warning.”
The six fighters were still coasting in ballistically, pretending to be holes in space. This was to avoid the attention of the Kepler, since she mounted a broadside more than capable of destroying a Direwolf, especially at the knife-fight range they’d be at. Once they lit off their engines, though, they’d show up to everyone’s sensors.
They’d be passing only a few hundred kilometers from the Kepler, and lasers were light speed weapons, controlled by computers which measured time in femtoseconds. If they were still in unpowered flight no amount of sheer speed would protect them. After all, Direwolves were eggshells armed with sledgehammers.
“Red Squadron, evasive plan Charlie. Execute.” Ashlyn waited just long enough to confirm that her five pilots had followed her order before speaking again.
“Starbuck, evasive plan Charlie.”
Ashlyn was good, maybe the best Direwolf pilot in the fleet, but nobody could beat the electronic reactions of the integrated AI. That’s why they were in charge of the evasive maneuvers, jerking and weaving the fighter in an elaborate set of sequences designed to throw off the predictive abilities of the computers tracking them. Those targeting computers were generally not AI’s, which gave the small ships a distinct advantage. An AI could emulate human-like decision-making processes.
“You got it, sweetheart.”
Ignoring the movements of the ship, Ashlyn opened the comm again.
“Max decel in three, two, one, now!” The overpowered engines of the Direwolves slammed into action, dropping their speed from over 1000 KPS to under 100 before they were shut down.
“Red Leader to Enterprise, confirm engagement.”
“Red Leader, your engagement is confirmed.”
“Red Squadron, give them one pass. I want a good scan on these bastards.” She got confirmations.
The approach to the three shuttles and past them was over in a heartbeat. Ashlyn was only able to catch the quickest glimpse of a blockish grey form.
“Starbuck, what did we get?”
“These clunkers are slow and heavy. I’ll bet they can’t even manage 10 g accel. Heavy armor, though, mostly on the lower surfaces. Think of a bathtub.”
“So aim high.”
“I also picked up roughly fifty life signs on each.”
“What? Red Squadron. Did anyone get life sign readings on those ships?” As she waited, she altered her course to put Titan between her ships and the Kepler.
“I did,” said Red Four, Kirk Frye, nicknamed ‘Jimmy’.
“But my numbers must be off. Chekhov keeps telling me there are fifty in each, plus or minus.”
“That’s what I got too,” confirmed his sister Roberta, nicknamed Beaver.
All five pilots corroborated the count.
“That’s not what I signed on for,” said Ashlyn.
“Enterprise, Red Leader. We have a problem.” In a few words she explained the issue. “Please advise.”
“Hold on, Red Leader. Are you secure?”
“Yes; Kepler is on the other side of Titan, and we can keep it there.”
“Good. Do that. We’ll be back to you.”
Cass turned to Alley. “Captain?”
“Ground troops. Why they left them stooging around, I don’t know, but that’s got to be it.”
“Great. Do I confirm the kill order?”
Alley didn’t even glance at Kendra. “No. It would be like killing goldfish.”
“Red Leader, Enterprise. Abort mission. Stay out of range of the Kepler. Acknowledge.”
“Mission abort, aye. Don’t play with the nasty cruiser, aye,” answered Ashlyn.
“Now we go for plan B. Mr. Kay, have the missiles passed the no-go point?”
“Shields to full and charge the laser, Mr. Kay. Ms. Chastain. Execute intercept, full sublight.”
“Aye, Ma’am,” Chastain answered, and in what seemed to be an eyeblink they were fifty kilometers above the stern of the Kepler.
“Mr. Kay, give them a little love tap. Say, five percent power, and pick something they won’t miss. The aft missile tube.”
“Yes, Ma’am!” he answered with a hint of glee. There was no visible shot, but the damage to the Kepler was testimony to his accuracy as the hull plating around the missile tube shattered and fragments flew into space.
“Direct hit,” he announced, unnecessarily.
“Nicely done. Get me the Commander again.”
“What right have to you to fire on us?” Porter demanded without any preamble.
“Commander Porter, shut up. You fired forty missiles at us first. Forty missiles, I might add, which are going to be a deep space navigational hazard. You’re lucky we didn’t decide to hull you. We still can if you insist.”
She could hear him deflate.
“What are your terms, Captain?”
“Power down your weapons and engine, strike your colors, and surrender. Completely. I’m including those three targets in lower orbit, stuffed with what I’m guessing are Marines.”
“I agree. As for the shuttles, I will try to retrieve them, but they’re not in my chain of command. They might not follow my orders.”
“Then I suggest you persuade them. We don’t want to kill them, but if they’re not en route to your orbit in two minutes we will do just that. Am I clear?”
“Yes, Captain. One question. Where did you come from?”
“Commander, consider this an object lesson in the new rules of space warfare. Never bring a knife to a gunfight. Martinez, out.”
Alley turned to Cass. “What does the Federation have to say about the distribution of prize money?”