20 December 2133 (D Minus Two Days)
Aboard USS Peleliu (LAS-16), approaching K'tok orbit, over one hundred light years from Earth
Captain J. C. Merderet, USMC, had never heard anything as flat-out suicidal nuts as she had in the last twenty minutes, and she wasn't sure if her thinking that it just might work was evidence of audacity or mental illness. Preoccupied with that thought, she nearly collided with Major Tony Colloredo, the cohort executive officer.
"So what do you say, J. C., quite a mission, eh?" he said. "Can your company handle its part?"
"Should go just like we drilled, sir."
Colloredo's eyes flicked to the taller Ed Ka'uhane following behind her. "You agree with that, First Sergeant?"
"Yes, sir," he answered. "Just like the drills."
He nodded and didn’t bother to ask Lieutenant Gunderson, her company executive officer. "J. C., I'd like to introduce you to Mr. Abisogun Boniface, a feed head from Pan-African Infonet, assigned to us from the Nigerian pool." Colloredo gestured to a man in a nonmilitary brown shipsuit standing behind him, who stepped forward. He looked at J.C. directly but not the way many civilian embeds did, not as a challenge.
Feed head: a reporter who filed video feed with the news networks. J. C. looked the Nigerian over—tall and slender, very dark, so dark his skin shone with blue highlights instead of bronze, gentle eyes but without fear. That could mean brave or foolish, and J. C.'s money was on foolish.
"Mr. Boniface will be embedded with your company, Captain. He has a bio-recorder implant, so everything he sees and hears gets recorded. I would be careful about telling any off-color jokes."
"Mr. Boniface," she said by way of greeting and shook his hand. Firm grip. "We're going to be a little busy down there on the ground at first, but as soon as we have a secure perimeter I'll let cohort HQ know and they can arrange your transportation down to the surface."
The journalist frowned and turned to Colloredo.
"Major, my distribution service had a clear commitment from—"
Nodding in agreement, Colloredo held up his had to stop him. "Yes, I know." He turned to J. C. with another grin. "Captain, I am afraid I was not clear on the arrangement. Mr. Boniface is dropping with your assault wave."
"In a personal reentry capsule? The hell you say, sir."
Colloredo's smile got bigger. "Mr. Boniface has completed the Nigerian Navy's Special Boat Service meteoric insertion course at . . . where was that again, sir?"
"Apapa," Boniface answered, his face now an emotionless mask. He probably knew when he was being made light of. In his line of work, it must come with the territory.
"This is an order, Major?" J. C. asked for the record, although she knew the answer.
"This is an order, Captain," Colloredo confirmed, "straight from Brigade." That must be his way of ducking responsibility for the decision, which wasn't as stand-up as he usually was, especially as he seemed to be enjoying it so much.
"Navy's not gonna like reworking their drop capsule dispersion pattern, no sir."
"The Navy has not finalized the pattern yet. Besides, since when do you care what squids like or do not like?" He turned to the journalist. "Mr. Boniface, I do not think the captain sees the value of a feed head along on the drop. As for me, I think if we are going to make history, it would be good to have vid records of it, but then Captain Merderet does not really appreciate many of the finer things in life."
"Big talk," J. C. said, "for someone come from South Mex—San Squalido or something like that, ain't it?"
Major Antonio Carlos Rivera Colloredo turned back to her and his smile softened, became friendly. "Most would prefer it to Bayou Bunghole, Louisiana."
"Well, that ain't setting the bar real high," she said. "Don't worry, chère, I'll try to keep your feed head alive long enough to take flattering pictures of y'all when you get there, make you look like the conquering hero."
"I will keep my good side to him," Colloredo said.
"You ain't got a good side." She held out her hand. "Tony, you watch that long first step, you.".
"You too, J. C.," Colloredo said as they shook hands.
Twenty minutes later, J. C. climbed up onto the impromptu stage made from pushed-together composite ammo cases. Her four lieutenants and four command NCOs stood behind her, and the one hundred twenty enlisted personnel of Delta Company, 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, Meteoric Insertion Capable (MEU-MIC), stood before her in six ranks of khaki shipsuits. Actually, there were more than that today: another dozen Marines from Headquarters Company who would be attached for the mission, and the eight Navy medtechs spread through the ranks in blue shipsuits, still called corpsmen because of who they served with. Because the assembly area was a broad section of Peleliu's large habitat wheel, whose spin provided the equivalent of one gravity, the ranks seemed to rise up slightly to either side. The company came to attention.
"'Morning, Delta Company," she called out.
"Good Morning Ma'am!" they thundered back.
"Stand at ease. Good news, Delta," she said and then paused, grinning, enjoying the anticipation. "We drop in thirty-nine hours."
"OO-RAH!" they barked.
"Soon as we're done here, XO gonna data dump the cohort OPORD into y'all's data pads. This operation is code named Argent Lightning. Study it, get in squad and fireteam groups and talk it through. Make sure you understand your part of it, and then everyone else's, too. Combat drops been known to get . . . well, confused," she said, grinning again, and she got a good ripple of laughter at the understatement. "So wherever you come down, first priority is secure the objective where you land. Second priority is rejoin your unit. Look for a leader and follow their orders. If you can’t find a leader, you become one, you!
"All the details are in the OPORD, but I want to give you the big picture. We talked about bunch of possible missions, but task force commander went with the absolute pick of the litter: we are conducting a full-brigade meteoric assault on T'tokl-Heem Downstation. Ladies and gentlemen, for the first time in history, someone is bat-shit-crazy enough to assault a needle downstation from orbit, and that someone is us!"
"OO-RAH!" they shouted, even louder than before.
"Look in every manual ever written on meteoric combat insertions and you will never find a 'Lessons Learned' section on seizure of the downstation of an elevator to orbit, 'cause it never been done. But in six months, every one of them manuals gonna have to be re-writ, and folks reading 'em, when get to that 'Lesson Learned' section, they gonna see y'all's ugly faces grinning right back at 'em."
More laughter and nods.
"Okay, so much for the fun stuff. The drop itself ain't gonna be much fun at all. To minimize exposure to ground fire, we are going in with a straight ballistic descent, dropped from three hundred fifty kilometers, with an EDL duration of thirty-seven minutes and a max deceleration load of nine gees."
That prompted a chorus of groans and curses.
"Yeah, I know. I about swooned dead away myself when I heard. Fortunately, First Sergeant Ka'uhane had my smelling salts with him." That got them laughing again.
"Brigade mission is to seize the K'tok Needle intact. I will repeat that for the benefit of Private Thibodaux: in-tact."
Standing in the front row, Private Andre Thibodaux grinned and colored slightly, and the Marines to either side jostled him. Thibodaux was a really big man, full two meters tall and over one ten kilos, big enough to break most things, but never by accident. J. C. had never known a more graceful, coordinated man in her life.
"I am in deadly earnest," she continued. "Anyone flies their para-wing into that needle and dings it, they can walk home. That elevator to orbit will be our lifeline, only way we get back off that rock.
"Okay. Brigade mission: the two MIC cohorts will drop and secure the ground station and perimeter. The lateral east-west access road marked in your TACDAT as Tungsten is the boundary between the two cohorts, with the road inclusive to the southern zone. That's ours. Our cohort will secure the southern perimeter and the entire downstation complex. The other MIC cohort, Indian Army's Two-Four Gorkha, will secure the zone to our north.
"A cautionary word about our neighbors: do not call them Gurkhas. Only the Brits call them that, and I guess they got permission or something. But it's Gorkha in their language, and I am informed they'll like you more if you respect that.
"The brigade's third cohort, Forty-Second Royal Marine Commando—"
She was interrupted by another spontaneous "OO-RAH!" She laughed and then continued.
"As I was saying, Forty-Two ROMAC will conduct a zero-gee powered assault through vacuum and secure the needle's orbital highstation. They will then transit down the needle in serials to reinforce the ground troops. Any questions about the brigade assault plan?
"Our cohort assault plan is to drop all four line companies. Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie, in platoon strength in the first wave, will secure the perimeter on the east, south, and west sides respectively. Their main bodies will follow in the second wave. Delta gets the main complex in the center, and we will all be in the first wave. Once that station is secured and operational, we'll become the cohort reserve.
"Our company assault plan is a miniature version of the cohort assault. Three platoons drop: First, Second, and Third on the east, south, and west sides respectively. First and Third will enter through the main vehicle loading and discharge bays. Second will enter the south side through a VIP entrance, so naturally I'll drop with them." More laughter.
"We have one demolition squad chopped from Headquarters Company under Staff Sergeant Rodriguez to assist in entry to the complex and any secured areas inside. If you need to, y'all know how to blow a door. Rodriguez and his people know which ones not to blow. Remember, the needle is our supply line, so we want it operational as soon as we can manage. Clear and secure, that's Delta's job. Just like we've drilled, over and over.
"Well then, laissez les bon temps rouler!"
22 December 2133 (D Minus Three Hours)
Aboard USS Peleliu (LAS-16), in K'tok orbit
J. C. floated in zero gee in the long, broad drop bay of USS Peleliu, watching two dozen Marines and the twenty or so blue-uniformed bosun's mates swarm around the honeycomb pattern of drop tubes, six rows of five tubes each, each tube two meters in diameter and each one with a "black betty" suspended over it, a dull black drop capsule, lozenge-shaped, two meters in diameter and three times as long. Conveyors running to the sides and then up into the prep room held more capsules, and today the conveyors snaked out into the docking bay as well. Five hundred drop capsules took a lot of space. All of the capsules had their "plugs pulled," the bottom third removed to allow a single Marine to mount, once they were in their armor. It was a lot easier in zero gee than it would have been on the ground.
The Nigerian journalist Boniface glided through the air and grabbed the stanchion on the bulkhead beside her.
"Your Marines?" he asked. "I do not recognize any of them."
"Not mine. The first serial is one squad each from Alpha and Bravo, and some decoy clusters. Once they're gone, conveyors bring in thirty more, load and drop, fire one capsule every second for eight or nine minutes, fill the sky with death, Mr. Boniface. Fill the sky with death. Our lead squad goes in the second serial, two more in the third, but they're staggered out after that, make landing easier."
"Captain Merderet, I have interviewed over a third of the men and women in your company but none of the ones I've spoken with have ever done a combat drop from orbit. Can you tell me which ones have? I would like to get their perspective as well."
"Well, you might see if you can talk to Staff Sergeant Wataski in Bravo Company," J. C. answered. "She not only did a combat drop, did it right here on K'tok, two years ago. Little late to be talking to her now, though. She'll be getting squared away for her drop. You might give that some thought as well."
Boniface looked at her and she saw the surprise on his face. "Nobody in Delta Company has done a combat drop before? Not even you?"
"Shit, fils, how many combat drops from orbit you think there been? Aside from all those Hong Kong adventure holo-vids, I mean? The Varoki have only done a half-dozen or so cohort-strength drops, and we ain't done that many. Command Sergeant Major Orsini up at brigade dropped on Nishtaka, over a dozen years ago, and he's looking at getting his second combat jump star today."
"But I've read about special insertions, many of them."
"Sure, a squad here or there, special operators. We ain't spooks, Mr. Boniface, we're honest grunts. Not a lot of call for dropping people in our occupation, so when something like this comes along, we're just happy for the work. Now I'm serious about getting ready. They show you how to pre-drop-check your capsule in that SBS school you went to?"
He nodded but he seemed distracted, looking at the swarms of Marines busy in Peleliu's drop bay, some going over the drop capsules before they were lowered into the discharge tubes, others already getting into their powered armor rigs.
"How abbreviated a course they run you through?" she asked.
"It was not abbreviated," he said, his attention still on the Marines. "I went the full course with SBS-MIC Class Two Seventeen. It helped that I am an excellent swimmer. I would not have made it through otherwise." He turned to her. "Very good for endurance, you know. The other four journalists in the course did not complete it. Two of them could have, I think, but they simply gave up."
"And you never give up, I suppose?"
"Well, not so far," he said with a smile, the first she had seen from him. He nodded toward the Marines. "They act as if they've done this many times."
"They have. It's just like the drills, Mr. Boniface. Just like the drills."
Boniface left to suit up but J. C. remained for a few minutes, watching the activity of these other Marines, not wanting to face her own troopers just yet. There was still time, and if she spent too much time with them before the drop, they might see her fear. Boniface was right to wonder about all these Marines who had never done a combat drop before, but wondering wouldn’t answer anyone's questions. To find out the answer you had to go through a two-meter tube and fall three hundred and fifty kilometers under fire, and keep your shit together enough to carry out a difficult clearing operation without fucking up anything important. Then they'd find out what they were really made of.
Just like the drills, she thought. Sure.
22 December 2133 (D Minus Two Minutes)
Aboard USS Peleliu (LAS-16), in K'tok orbit
It began with a simple movement to the left, no more than a few meters. The optics in her faceplate told her the drop had started, first serial was away, and her capsule had moved on the conveyor toward now-empty drop tubes. It wasn't exactly like the drills, was it? The drills placed you in a simulated version of the drop capsule that duplicated most of the sensations of the drop itself, but not the lead-up to it, not the pauses and then short moves along the conveyor toward those gaping holes with nothing under them for three hundred and fifty kilometers except increasingly dense atmosphere and then hard, hard ground. J. C. felt herself start to sweat and turned down the temperature in her suit.
Two minutes later she felt the capsule move "up" into the drop tube, heard the tube close behind her, and almost immediately she was slammed back into her acceleration rig. All system lights on her faceplate showed green—a clean separation—and she checked the chronometer: 0512. She felt a moment of dizziness as the capsule rotated through 180 degrees to enter the atmosphere "bottom" first. Within minutes she could feel the capsule slow, feel the gee force pushing her into the acceleration rig. She watched the monitors show the mounting exterior temperature, record the successive melting and flaking away of the ablative lower two thirds of the capsule. She watched until the deceleration crossed eight gees, forcing the oxygen from her lungs, pushing the blood into the back of her skull, starving the optic nerves in front, temporarily blinding her. She stopped thinking as well, the frontal lobes of her brain as starved of oxygen as were her eyes.
Her drogue chute and then main chute must have deployed because her vision returned and her thoughts began again, although sluggishly at first, and her first sensation was pain, the ache of being slammed against her acceleration rig at 90 meters per second. Then the stimulants and pain killers, the ones designed to overcome the deceleration shock, kicked in and her attention returned. A green light flashed in the center of her field of vision three times and then a burst of sunlight replaced the black of the capsule interior.
She fell away from the slowly descending capsule and parachute for two or three seconds and then her para-wing deployed above her, a canopy of pale gray making it almost invisible from the ground, and she saw the exterior of her combat armor's chameleon surface mimic the color. She oriented herself, saw the red, white, blue, and green top panels of the wings below her, the colors of the four companies of the cohort, and she saw the towering, impossibly endless golden cable of the needle to her left. The sun seemed to slip back below the horizon as she descended, because it was not yet dawn below. She looked down at the city sprawling away from the base of the needle, a mix of gray streets and sand-colored buildings. The faint greenish tint showed her optics had begun using thermal augmentation, and her helmet outlined her landing zone in green brackets. All of the green Delta Company para-wings she could see seemed lined up with their landing zones around the needle's base.
The wind velocity indicator on her faceplate flickered from yellow to red. Too much headwind would keep her aloft too long. At the same time, she saw a missile track rise from the outskirts of the city and head in her direction. She applied brake and accelerator at the same time and dropped down a fast hundred meters, then eased back and went into a circular dive, flattening out before she got too close to the canopies of the wings below her.
She lined up with the street she was due to land on, flared at two meters, came down in a slow trot and hit the release that sent her wing up and to the side before it collapsed in a heap of composite fabric. Her RAG-19 assault rifle was already in her hand and she continued her trot to get into a doorway and out of the way of whoever was coming next. Her muscles felt sluggish and weak, but the powered suit took up the slack. She turned and saw another armored Marine touch down and run out of his harness as it flopped to the side, run as lightly as a dancer, and she knew that was Andre Thibodaux.
She checked the chronometer in her faceplate: 0549. Had it really been that long? Thirty-seven minutes? From her right side, she heard the soft snapping of Marine RAGs—gauss rifles throwing smart-head flechettes—and she began her tactical breathing routine to lower her heart rate.
22 December 2133 (D Plus Forty Minutes)
T'tokl-Heem Downstation, on K'tok
J. C. ran the two blocks to the downstation, dashing from cover to cover—mostly recessed doorways—pausing in between to assess the situation, but at this point she figured surprise was still on her side. Any hostiles were trying to figure out what was going on and waiting for orders. That would change in a half hour or less, but for now she ended up having a clear run.
She paused at the corner of the building at the end of her street and looked across the broad boulevard between her and the open door to the downstation, saw a Marine helmet behind a gap in a low retaining wall. That should be second platoon's first squad. The door to the VIP entrance hung open crookedly from one hinge, a neat ten-centimeter hole blown where the lock mechanism had been. Above and behind it, the impossibly tall and thin golden needle rose in the pre-dawn gloom for several hundred meters, and then it caught the still-rising sun and shimmered in glaring brilliance, climbing on up until it disappeared into the clouds. She pulled up her helmet tac-tracker and saw IDs from two of her Marines near the doorway: Barenberg and Littlewood, the First Squad HAR gun team. She had a good line of sight to them so she commed them on tightbeam.
"Corporal Barenberg, I am across the street from your position. Is the street clear?"
She saw a head appear at the doorway and disappear quickly.
I see you, Cap'n, she heard inside her head from her surgically embedded commlink. There's a sniper about two hundred meters up the street to the west, your left, or there was five minutes ago. But he can’t shoot for shit, ma'am. If you haul ass you should be okay.
"Littlewood, can you give me some covering fire?"
Uh . . . not from here, ma'am. He's on the north side of the street, same as us, and I don't have a line of sight.
J. C. heard the thump-thump-thump of running feet behind her, the heavy footfalls of Marines in composite powered armor. Her helmet display showed the four Marines from the platoon's second squad, white fire team: Zahala, Liu, Thibodaux, and DeYoung.
"Two-Two-White, on me," she commed them, and waved her hand to show her position, make her stand out from the building background color which her armor now duplicated. Their helmet optics would have shown her position as well, but redundancy never hurt. She stepped back from the corner of the building, turned to them, and lifted her faceplate.
"There's a sniper supposed to be two hundred meters up the street to the west, left as you face the complex, far side, probably second story. Reportedly a bad shot. I am crossing. I want two shooters on this corner, one high and one low. Sergeant Zahala, your call. If he shoots, try to take him out but at least get eyes on him. He's actually in Charlie Company's AO, so if we can’t put him down we'll hand him off to them."
Zahala turned to his fireteam. "Thibodaux high, DeYoung low, Liu, you're with me. We'll cross with the captain and if we take fire we'll return it from the center of the street, cover the captain's crossing, and take the sniper's attention off our two concealed shooters." He turned back to J. C. "With the Captain's permission."
"Sounds like a plan to me, Sergeant, but don't hang around out there very long. We got a job to do and it ain't getting that one sniper. Now get your shooters in place and let's go."
22 December 2133 (D Plus One Hour)
T'tokl-Heem Downstation, on K'tok
They took fire, they returned fire, and if anyone was hurt, it was the sniper, but no one thought they hit him. Fighting the Varoki, it was always a him, never a her. J. C. passed the contact off to Charlie Company, left Zahala's fire team at the door to alert the next group, and went to find the rest of Second Platoon's first squad, taking Barenberg and Littlewood with her. The path was easy to follow from the trail of explosively breached doors. She saw only three bodies of the vaguely lizardlike Varoki along the way, all uniformed security guards. They had carried only pistols, the dismantled parts of which were spread across the floor along with their blood.
She found Staff Sergeant Hank Schleef about thirty meters into the complex, hunkered down in a room off the access corridor but opening into a much larger receiving area. His face brightened when he saw her and his squaddies.
"Captain. Good to see you. We've cleared up to this open area. No casualties. I held up to assess our crossing plan. Having the HAR team for covering fire helps."
She scanned the group of armored figures. All eight members of Schleef's squad, other than his HAR team, were present, so he'd had a good drop. Two demolition engineers and one Navy medtech were with him as well. Only one person was missing.
"Where's Lieutenant Stillbower?" Stillbower was the platoon leader for Second Platoon and had dropped with the first serial to lead the early breach-and-clear actions.
Schleef shook his head. "Don't know ma'am. Hope she just landed in the wrong spot, but we got some missile fire down close to the LZ. Couple green chutes got hit and went down hard, but those might have been from one of the other platoons."
J. C. nodded and checked the floor plan of the open area—about ten meters of open ground, with chest-high counters and workstations along two walls, the ones to either side from their position. Two doors on each of those walls with the workstations, a broad corridor exiting from the far wall.
"What's your plan, Schleef?"
"Door's ajar so we don’t have to breach it. breach the wall low right here," he pointed to the wall three meters to the right of the door, "and use it as the loophole for Littlewood's HAR. That's our base of fire. Blow the wall and the squad assaults in two stacks through the door, red team right, white team left. It there's no resistance in the main room, they clear those side rooms and join up at the corridor."
J. C. nodded and turned to Littlewood. His HAR was the squad's support weapon, an HAR-7 15mm cassette-fed heavy magnetic accelerator rifle firing explosive rounds, capable of low-velocity rapid fire or very high velocity single shots, making it a powerful squad automatic, an excellent sniper rifle, and an anti-armor weapon in a pinch.
"Lance Corporal Littlewood, we got the needle down-range from us, when and if you start firing, so you set your weapon on low velocity rapid fire, HE warheads to explode on contact. I don’t want no high velocity AP rounds fucking up my elevator." That was in the OPORD as well, the stated SOP for the clearing squads, but redundancy never hurt. If they dinged the elevator, the whole trip might end up being for nothing.
They cleared the open area without resistance but heard the distant sound of small arms fire from farther in the complex. J. C.'s tac-tracker couldn't make sense of it: too much metal and electronics between her and her other platoons and too much overhead crap to get a good satellite signal. There might be some jamming going on, too. She got some partial data packets—grainy and heavily pixilated—that looked as if Third Platoon was running into some resistance.
She kept Schleef's squad moving forward and before long they were joined by Gunnery Sergeant Klaus Helzberg, the platoon sergeant for Second. He brought along Staff Sergeant Ann Pohlod's Second Squad, missing one trooper from her own Red Fire Team but otherwise intact. She had another demolition specialist with her who turned his breaching charges over to the two with J. C. and then filled the empty slot in Red Team. Boniface, the Nigerian journalist was with them as well.
J. C. turned the platoon over to Helzberg and watched him take it through its paces, just like the drills, alternating squads, breaching and clearing, closing in on the core of the complex. After fifteen minutes, J. C. began to get nervous. This was taking too much time. Lord knew what the Varoki security people had available to stop them, but whatever surprise the Marines had had was gone by now. About then Major Colloredo showed up.
"What's the situation, Captain?"
"South complex is cleared except this big cargo holding area and then a last suite of offices right up against the needle retaining wall. Five hostiles dispatched, two prisoners taken and sent back for Third Squad to hold at the complex entrance, no casualties."
"Yeah, saw the prisoners. Pretty sorry-looking leatherheads, and they pretended not to speak aBakaa."
"Might not be pretending, sir. This part of the colony was all uZmataanki before the uBakai took over. I think most of the ones we've seen are Sammies. not Oo-Baks. Intel fucked up only loading aBakaa autotrans in our commlinks."
Colloredo shrugged, which was especially eloquent in powered armor. "A leatherhead by any other name, J. C. One's as lethal as another. What we need to do is fucking ándale and get this area secured."
J. C. had been thinking the same thing. She commed Gunnery Sergeant Helzberg and Staff Sergeants Schleef and Pohlod on the tacnet. "Gunny, you stay here with Schleef's squad and clear this cargo area. I'm taking Pohlod's squad forward with the two demo guys to breach and clear that last office suite. Back us up when you're done here."
Aye, aye, ma'am.
J. C. and the twelve Marines set off across the cargo bay at the trot, Major Colloredo and the embed Boniface following them, although the major did not assert command. This was still J. C.'s show. A fair-sized electric cargo mover was parked about four meters from the door and to its right, and a large structural support pillar stood to the left of it. J. C. waved Pohlod to the pillar while she moved to the cover of the cargo mover, with Colloredo, Boniface, and the demo specialists in tow.
"Pohlod, one fire team assaults, one in reserve. Send your HAR team over here. It can shoot through this wall if we need to. Demo, set up your breaching charge on the door. Go."
The demo specialist set his charge and returned to cover as Corporal Jones and Lance Corporal Chaubanse, the HAR gunner, took their place beside her. Chaubanse set up his HAR-7 to fire over the engine housing of the parked vehicle as Jones pulled another ammunition cassette out of his bandolier.
"Rapid fire HE, explode on contact," J. C. said to Chaubanse, who nodded and double-checked the settings. The actual needle cable was about ten meters past the wall they faced, with a sturdy protective barrier wall surrounding it, but not so sturdy it would stop a 15mm AP round at peak velocity. "Remember, Chaubanse, no armor piercing."
"Roger that, ma'am. No AP."
How stupid would it be to get this close to securing the needle and then break it by accident?
Pohlod's Red Team stacked up with her in the lead, behind the pillar and out of the direct line of fire of the door, ready to charge, Zahala's White Team crouched to their left and rear in reserve. Pohlod signaled the demo specialist with three quick nods. The specialist blew the door, the stack stepped out from behind the pillar, moved quickly toward the now-open doorway, and suddenly there was a loud CRACK! and a softer thud—no, several thuds almost simultaneously. The four Marines in the stack jerked backwards against each other and then collapsed in a tangled heap, and a calm part of J. C.'s brain recognized the soft thuds as the sound of a single heavy, high velocity slug passing through the armor and torsos of all four of them.
"Fire!" Jones shouted to Chaubanse, and the first three-round burst of 15mm HE blew masonry fragments back toward them but did not open the wall to the room beyond.
"CORPSMAN!" J. C. heard from behind her, Sergeant Zahala's voice a study in anguish. As if in slow motion, J. C. turned and saw Zahala kneeling, reaching out to pull back the still-twitching body of the fourth member of Red Team. There was a lot of blood. Thibodaux stood by the pillar, leaned around it, fired two three-flechette bursts from his assault rifle through the open door, then a 3cm grenade from his under-barrel launcher. He leaned back and away, rifle up, just before a second loud crack sounded and took a wedge of masonry from the column. J. C. looked at him and he at her, and his eyes were calm and detached.
"We're not getting penetration!" Major Colloredo shouted, his voice rising in desperation. "Gunner, AP, peak velocity. Take that fucker out!"
"No!" J. C. shouted.
The weapon from the far side cracked again and J. C. heard the clang of the AP round as it cut through the engine housing of the cargo shifter, deflecting up and to the side in a streak of sparks as it passed by her head. More rounds, smaller caliber, exploded through the wall and she hit the deck and pulled Chaubanse down with her.
Gunfire. Plaster dust. Small arms rounds slamming against the metal body of the vehicle like a deafening anvil chorus. Confused and angry shouts. And then Major Colloredo was down, screaming in agony and holding his leg. The bone was clearly broken and the leg bled a steady, dark stream.
"Corpsman!" she commed. "Major's down. Helzberg, get the hell up here!"
She put her hand on Colloredo's shoulder and already had the autoinjector from her medkit in her other hand. "You'll be okay, Tony. We'll get you out of this." She pulled open the drug port on the neck of his suit and hit him with the anti-shock drug. Then she turned to Chaubanse. Small arms fire was coming through the wall from the other side, so the wall might be thick but it wasn't armored.
"Set your HE for delayed detonation, staggered from one to five meters, and give me rapid continuous fire. Traverse right to left and then left to right." She switched to the platoon comm tacnet. "Thibodaux, keep up the suppressing fire. Zahala, once Chaubanse lays two long bursts of HE into the room interior, assault with your team. We’ll be right behind you. Helzberg, on me, back us up."
23 December 2133 (D Plus One Day)
T'tokl-Heem Downstation, on K'tok
It was winter here, just like back home, and although winter on K'tok's equator was hot, the sky still looked like a winter sky to J. C.—a uniform blue-gray that reminded her of polished steel. An unforgiving sky. She heard distant thunder, but there were no clouds in sight. Orbital bombardment munitions, pounding the hostile heavy lift cavalry units the uBakai would probably try to shift back from the frontier. The Navy called the bombardment munitions Thuds. Good name.
The cohort's heavy weapons platoons were coming down the needle now, the whirring, clanking four-meter walkers mounted with gun and missile packs negotiating the streets out from downstation to reinforce the perimeter posts. There hadn’t been a serious counterattack yet, but whatever the uBakai could scratch together here in the city would probably hit them after dark. Those lift cavalry gunsleds would come at them later, would be hard to stop unless the Thuds could keep them away.
J. C. walked to the aid station, feeling the deep ache in her muscles from the insertion and gee shock, but also feeling the strength returning to her limbs. The too-tall door and too-low-ceilinged interior of the requisitioned building reminding her she was the invader on this world. Her eyes took a moment to adjust to the dim interior light.
She soon found Tony Colloredo's cot. His right leg was in a pressure cast and elevated. He looked depressed, but hid it as soon as he saw her. They exchanged greetings and she brought him up to date on the operation: mission accomplished, and the needle was bringing down their heavy stuff and the first contingents from Forty-Two ROMAC. Her company had taken seven fatal casualties, three coming down and four on the ground—Pohlod's fire team. Seventeen wounded, most of them light wounds. Five of them had gone back on the line as soon as their wounds had been dressed. He listened thoughtfully, nodding as she talked.
"Alice Stillbower died coming down? Who's running your second platoon?"
"Gunny Helzberg still is. Skipper goes down, the gunny takes over. Not the first time, sir."
"Not the first time," he repeated, and he looked out the window.
"You okay, sir?" she asked.
"Yes, I'm fine. Had a little pain but got a happy drip. I've been wondering, though, did you do an ammo count after the fight? Rounds expended?"
"Yes, sir, every weapon. Already restocked from cohort and they sent the report up the needle to get resupplied from brigade. All squared away."
"How many rounds did you fire?"
"No, you, J. C. What did your shot counter read? How many flechettes did you put through your assault rifle? I can look it up if I have to."
She looked at him, looked him in the eyes.
"One round, sir."
Colloredo nodded, looked out the window at the building across the alley, its sandstone wall turning blood red in the setting sun.
"I lost it in there, J. C. I could have broken the goddamned needle, put an AP round right through it. I don’t know what happened, but I lost it. It wasn't fear, at least I don't believe it was, but I stopped thinking. Never figured that would happen, but you never know until you know. Now I know."
"Bullshit," she said. "When things get crazy, the training takes over. You know that, and all them drills we did was never with a big, fragile needle in our fire lanes. Hey, you got a million-dollar wound, you're going up-needle this evening to Peleliu's sickbay and then home a hero, and you got nothing to be ashamed of. I mean that, chère. Don't let five seconds of confusion eat on you. Nobody died but Pohlod's fireteam, and that weren't on you. Got nothing to be ashamed of, you."
"I might have had, if I had not caught that stray bullet. Medtech says it looks like a forty-five thirty smart-head flechette. Friendly fire. Well, there was a lot of stuff flying around in there. Hey, you better get back to your company. I appreciate the visit and . . . everything. Vaya con Dios, Gunny."
"You too, Skipper. Be good to yourself, you."
She offered her hand and he only hesitated a moment before shaking it.
She walked out of the aid station into the hard, bronze metallic light of the late afternoon and found herself facing the Nigerian journalist Boniface, his body armor glowing golden-orange in the setting sun, but because of the chameleon feature it glowed on the side which should have been in shadow, making the moment surreal and other-worldly. She nodded a greeting.
"Visiting Major Colloredo?" he asked and she nodded again, although it wasn't really his business. "Will he be all right?"
"Mr. Boniface, as a young brown-bar second lieutenant, Tony Colloredo led a rifle platoon on the Spratly Islands when everything went to hell, come away with a silver star and a purple heart. He's a tough, brave, big-hearted Marine, him. He'll be fine. Just needs to mend some."
Boniface nodded and looked down the street at a light combat walker moving from the downstation toward the perimeter, the whine of its turbines clearly audible. J. C. followed his gaze and the dust raised by the walker's foot pads seemed to sparkle like flakes of gold floating above the gathering shadows.
"I am a diligent researcher, Captain. I am aware of your previous service with then-Lieutenant Colloredo." Boniface shifted his weight and his eyes lost focus. "I went back to review my visual and audio captures during the firefight, the one where your four Marines were killed and Major Colloredo was wounded. I must have done something wrong in the confusion. There is no recording. Perhaps I recorded over it by mistake. These things happen."
He turned and walked slowly back toward the downstation. J. C. watched the sun until it touched the horizon and then she followed him.
29 December 2133 (D Plus Seven Days)
T'tokl-Heem Downstation, on K'tok
Six days later J. C. stood in the blackness of the broad street code-named Tungsten and she looked up at the night sky, watching the occasional streaks of light. As a child she'd been told to make a wish on a falling star, but these falling stars were bits of wreckage from their own task force, still entering atmosphere and burning up five days after they had taken a terrible beating from the uBakai Star Navy. Lieutenant Colonel Mazanadarani, the cohort commander, walked over to her and she nodded to him. Too many snipers still at large for saluting.
"Evening, J. C." He looked up as two streaks of light crossed the sky, one brighter and longer than the other. "They took a hell of a shellacking up there."
"Do we know the real numbers, sir? Been hearing rumors sound pretty bad."
"Bad enough. Over two thousand dead. Nine ships totally destroyed—half the cruiser force. Peleliu and that Indian transport are okay but the Brit transport, HMS Furious, is gone, Forty-Two ROMAC's whole support and supply echelon with it. It's a real mess. Say, how's Lieutenant Gunderson working out?"
J. C. squinted at him, taken off-guard by the subject change. "My company XO? He's fine, sir. He'll appreciate you asking."
"He ready to run Delta? I want to move Major Banerjee over from Ops Boss to the cohort XO slot, but I need someone with a good tactical head to fill in behind him. You want the job?"
J. C. felt her face flush followed by a wave of gratitude it wouldn’t show in the darkness. It was a good step up, especially for a mustang officer like herself, who'd risen from the ranks. A lot of senior officers didn’t think of mustangs when it came to filling staff slots. But the opportunity would never have been there if Tony Colloredo hadn't been wounded, and that complicated things. It surely did. Overhead she saw another shooting star.
"Let me put it another way, Captain," Mazanadarani said. "You are the new S-3 Ops Boss, so let me hear an aye, aye, sir."
"Aye, aye, sir."
"We've had it pretty easy so far, but it's going to get bad, J. C., real bad. The Navy's pulling out, most of it is anyway, leaving us here to hold this planethead: our brigade down here and five destroyers in orbit."
"Five destroyers? That's all?"
"That's all," Mazanadarani said. "We've got to hunker down and hold, hold until the brass figures out how to get us out of this tiger pit. Here's where we find out what we're made of."
J. C. looked up again, as if she could see into orbit. "Shoot, sir, already know that. Now we find out what them tin can sailors is made of, them."
Copyright © 2017 Frank Chadwick
Frank Chadwick is the New York Times number one best-selling nonfiction author of over two hundred books, articles, and columns on military history and military affairs, as well as over one hundred military and science fiction board and role-playing games. Chadwick’s SF novels include Come the Revolution, How Dark the World Becomes and steampunk thriller The Forever Engine. “What We’re Made Of” takes place in the same world as his upcoming novel Chain of Command.