Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Thirty-Four

Sims had planned for a military sweep of the star system. He had not planned for a rescue of the wounded from ships on the planet and the ships in space that hadn’t attempted a landing. He had been forced to jettison weapons to make room for the injured.

Sims sat in his tiny office on the Saratoga with his medical officer. The Saratoga was a large ship and had a sophisticated hospital. Dr. Phil was one of the best medical officers in the fleet, and had staffed the base and ship to the highest standards of frontier medicine.

“Let me just spell it out for you,” Dr. Phil said, pointing at Sims with both hands. “Every bed is filled with the seriously injured.”

Sims scowled at him. Sims found that a moment of silence often brought out additional information. Dr. Phil had worked with Sims enough to know this and shut up.

“We have cargo bays. We can drop more weapons off to make room,” Sims said. Sims’ executive officer had prioritized the storage spaces for him.

Dr. Phil shook his head and began pointing with both hands again.

“That’s not the point. There’s a base on the planet for the ones who’ll last a few days. The ship is full of the ones that won’t last. Full. We need to get them to Lyman.”

Sims did not want to choose to save some and sacrifice others. He wasn’t qualified to distinguish between those who would survive and those who would be lost.

“We’ve got scouts out looking for other survivors,” Sims said.

Dr. Phil suddenly looked very angry. “Right. We don’t have any idea how many were ambushed and how many retreated. We don’t know how many we’re looking for, but we do know the ship is full.”

“The odds are still good that some poor bastard in a scout that can’t signal might be orbiting somewhere close by. A few more hours of searching might help him, too,” Sims said. He didn’t want to save only the ones who were lucky enough to have been injured in a prominent place.

Dr. Phil leaned over the desk. “That’s not it at all. It’s a question of numbers, not odds. How many went in to the battle, how many came out? We need to know that before we continue the search.”
Sims scowled at Dr. Phil, suddenly uncertain what his point was.

“You’re saying that while we’re searching, we may lose a survivor who needs to be moved to Lyman base, right?”

Dr. Phil rolled his eyes and sighed a vast, exaggerated sigh of exasperation as he sat back down. “Would you just listen for a moment?”

Sims knew Dr. Phil well enough. There was an answer to his question buried under many irrelevant points.

“It’s a yes-or-no question, Phil. Will I lose a survivor while searching?” Sims asked.

Dr. Phil sighed again. “Yes, but, that’s not the point. The point is you don’t know what you’re searching for.”

Sims could see that Dr. Phil’s passion for making his point had obscured the actual decision at issue. While passion made Phil the best medical officer in the cluster, perhaps one of the best in the entire Core Planetary Network, it also made him a bad leader from time to time. This was one of those times.

“We’ll go back,” Sims said. Phil nodded his agreement. “The odds are against finding any survivors at this point,” Sims added.

“I can’t agree,” Dr. Phil said.

Sims put his hands flat on his desk. “I thought you said we should go back?” Sims said, hoping he hadn’t missed something.

“We have to go back. That’s not the point. We agree on that,” Phil said, his hands waving in the air as he talked. “The reason is not the odds of finding any survivors, it’s the unknown number of survivors left to find. It’s a very different thing.”

Sims looked at Phil closely. “Fine,” Sims said; he saw no good result from explaining his rationale again.

“Do what you have to do,” Phil said. “I just can’t agree with you.” 

Sims scowled at him, waiting for Phil to finish making his point. Sims knew he was going to put in the last word.

“It’s the right decision for the wrong reason?” Sims asked; he needed Phil’s whole-hearted support for the plan.

“You just don’t know enough,” Phil said slowly, leaning over the desk to make his point.


Drover had been treated on the hovercraft. He had been moved to a lighter with several other critically wounded and evacuated to the Saratoga. After several cardiac arrest emergencies, his condition was stabilized on the Saratoga.

The hospital section of the Lyman base was crammed with the worst cases. Those that didn’t need special procedures or special equipment were left in docking bays and cargo storage areas in makeshift hospital wards.

The Lyman base had the kind of medical equipment that made life possible for Larry Drover. His condition required constant attention from skilled professionals to prevent deterioration. He was balanced at the critical point where any complication or difficulty would be fatal. If everything went well, he would remain in that condition for months. He might, given heroic measures, improve and survive for a few more years. He would never fly again. Without tremendous luck, he would never leave Lyman base again. Had he been brought in to Henry base in this condition, he would never have passed the triage station; he would have been set aside to be made comfortable while he died.

After surgeries and weeks of rehabilitation, Natalie resumed some duties. She gave up wearing the casual battle uniform and switched to wearing a full dress uniform everywhere. She bought several, and had them professionally cleaned and pressed. With her various service decorations across her chest, she looked spectacular. In the past, she had never worn the full, formal uniform except when mandated. However, she had given intelligence and orders that had put these people in harm’s way with her only justification being preservation of the Core Planets bases in this cluster. Since she was a representative of that government, she felt that she needed to act the part.

Her ribs and lung were healing slowly. She wore a brace to allow her to heal correctly. She spent hours each day in hyperbaric microgravity treatments to allow fluids to drain and tissue to grow.

She made several official tours of the injured in the infirmary, but also made unofficial, daily visits to Drover. Even though he was unconscious for most of the first week, on two occasions, he had stirred when she took his hand. During the second week, he made a tiny bit of progress. By degrees, they changed his medications; he was awake more, and more talkative. The nursing staff used this to benchmark his progress.

Natalie pulled up the visitor’s chair and sat down next to Larry’s bed. She felt better to see some life in his face. He was still puffy from fluid balance problems. Most of his bleeding was under control, but he still needed an array of plumbing to keep fluids and nutrients going in, and drain the various infections that were beginning to develop. All the plumbing was connected to a number of devices with displays and indicators, quiet chimes and irritating alerts.

She kissed his forehead and took his hand as she slowly eased herself down onto the chair. She was finding that a few quiet minutes sitting in the infirmary with him made the rest of her struggle with General Johnson bearable. When Johnson or any of his sycophants and supporters became intolerable, she focused on the sacrifices Larry had made, and it helped her separate basic civilian security in this cluster from General Johnson’s ambitious political plans.

She was not looking when Drover’s eyes flickered open.

“Light Colonel Whiting,” he said in a hoarse whisper.

Whiting looked at him. She tried to stifle any expression. He had only spoken to her briefly and incoherently before today. She found that the incoherent mumbling took her on a traumatic jump from joy to disappointment.

“Call me Natalie,” she said, tentatively.

“Natalie,” he said with satisfaction. He waited for the machine to breathe him again and said, “You’re looking good.”

She felt happy and relieved to see him awake and alert. Her harsh expression melted away as she realized that he was coherent, awake and on the mend.

“You’re looking better,” she said. Her ribs were still in bad shape; she would be wearing a brace for weeks, and had to take pain medication to sleep. He didn’t need to know that.

“You’re a bad liar,” he said.

She nodded and looked at him, happy to see he still had some fight.

“What have I missed?” he asked as the machine breathed him.

The question struck her as odd and out of place, until she realized that he’d been unconscious for weeks. She started to chuckle, but bit it back; his coma had been punctuated by several near-death emergencies.

“That official military propaganda,” he began, but had to pause while the machine breathed him.

Natalie started to say something, but Larry held up a hand to stop her.

When the machine cycled his breathing, he continued, “is more brain dead than I am.” He grinned and coughed feebly at the end of the breath.

“Funny,” Natalie said. “That’s the best you could do?” She held up her hand to keep him quiet.

“The final body count was huge on both sides. Williams was killed, we were the only survivors from the Horicon. Dieskau’s fleet was destroyed, but he survived; he’s in the Saratoga infirmary, right now, as a POW. Johnson had his nuts and part of his left leg blown off.”

Larry patted her hand. He waved his finger in a “go on” circle.

“The squids were the big winners, you know,” she said, looking down. “We’re rethinking our strategy on the frontier. Johnson’s going back to the Home Worlds with a new plan for pacification of the frontier.”

She risked at glance at Larry. It wrenched her to think that he had been right about the frontier from the beginning. But it took his sacrifice and so many other Marines had made to prove that the frontier didn’t need military force, it only needed administration and bookkeeping.

He looked away for a moment, blinked a few times and turned back. He waited for the machine to breathe him. “I’ve asked them to unplug me.”

She rocked back against her brace for a moment, digesting this news. He seemed alert and improving, she couldn’t see why he would ask to be unplugged. He’d die in hours. She wanted to tell him that he would get better; he would get out of here; they would travel somewhere together again. At the same time, she knew that his prognosis was very bad; he was unlikely to survive. She wore her conflict on her face as a scowl.

“I can’t fly,” he whispered. “I can’t eat. I can’t even breathe.” He had to pause, waiting for the breathing cycle. “I won’t ever again. I’ve got a raging infection that the drip can’t even control.” He waited. “The painkillers aren’t working anymore.”

There wasn’t really anything else she could say. He was right. Medical heroism could give him a shallow life connected to a machine, living on a base. He was a frontier pilot, but the frontier was closed to him, now. She could see why he would be despondent.

“When?” she asked, quietly.

Drover looked at her. She’d seem him afraid, cocky, bored and angry. She wasn’t sure what he was feeling now.

“Today. Tomorrow. It’s all the same,” he said.

To her, he sounded sad. She found the grief welling up inside her. She’d been prepared for his cocky defiance, or his carefully hidden fear. She could imagine his angry outbursts. She wasn’t ready for sorrow. Her eyes filled with tears, her throat closed, her nose started running.

“Guess you were right,” he said, coughing quietly.

“About what?” she said. She reached under the supply cart and took out a disposable towel to wipe her eyes and nose.

“Going back. We should have kept going forward.” She nodded. She wanted to say something comforting, but the words “we were out of options” stuck in her throat. All she could do was squeeze his hand.

“Did they find Mo?” he asked.

She couldn’t answer. She didn’t dare speak. If she opened her mouth, she would begin crying in earnest. If she started crying, she might never stop. She had so many injuries, so many losses to regret.

Drover stirred and coughed. One of the attending machines chimed. A pump began a quiet chug-chug. Some of the plumbing moved slightly. She saw a display change status, and a colored line begin to shift across a screen.

“You know,” she said, forcing her throat to open and talk, “I found your song.” He looked at her blankly. “In the archives.”

Drover grinned a tiny grin. “The Erie Canal,” he said. It was his favorite song of the collection of ancient songs he’d been listening to. He’d put the recordings on his computer back in Hudson base. It no longer seemed like something he’d done; it seemed like a story he’d heard about a pilot. He’d listened to them working routes between Hudson and Orange and then to Lyman. He’d been listening to them right up until she’d climbed into his ship with a gun.

“Low bridge everybody down,” he tried to sing. He had to wait for the machine to cycle. “Low bridge ‘cause we’re coming to a town.”

She was happy to see him doing his best to act like a cocky pilot. It was good to see some of his old life back. He sighed and closed his eyes for a moment.

“I can name a ship after—,” she started, but couldn’t finish. He throat had closed up, and tears were burning in her eyes.

“Sal?” Drover asked. With his next breath, he went on, “You’ll have a Mule Three?” She shook her head for moment. She took a big breath. She’d practiced saying this many times, but never expected to have so much trouble saying it to him. When she’d practiced, she’d been filled with pride and optimism. She was proud of him, but his sadness filled her with sorrow.

“No, I can’t do that,” she said. “Frigates commemorate someone who died in the service. You.”

Drover coughed and lay still for a moment.

“I’m not in the service,” he whispered.

“You were — you are,” she said. “Johnson ordered it. You’re a hero, you know. The real thing. Look at this.”

She reached down and picked up her brief case. She flipped open the catches and poured the contents out onto his hospital bed. It made a glittering pile of honors, ribbons and medals.

“Hold ‘em up,” Larry said. He couldn’t move himself. He could operate the control to tip the bed, but moving was too painful.

Whiting pawed through the pile of medals. She held up a silver pin. “Your comet. You’re a marine pilot. A Lieutenant.”

Drover nodded.

“Your battle ribbons, she said, lifting up a number of smaller decorations. “You have kills, you got shot down, you were in the fleet action, you were captured,” she said, holding them up one at a time. “Your medal for saving the retreat,” she said, holding up a clear box with a large medallion. “Wounded in action,” she said, spying another smaller medal lying on the bed. She held up a large box with a small medal and a card. “A commendation from General Johnson for saving Henry Base.”

Drover’s eyes were closed. She put the medals back down on his crushed chest.

“Marine funeral?” he asked.

She had to swallow several times before she could speak. “Six hand-picked soldiers,” she said. She’d tracked down New Mark and JJ to head up the honor guard.

“White gloves?” he asked.

She grabbed another disposable towel from one of the supply shelves next to his bed and blew her nose. She realized that she was too personally involved. She’d completely lost her Marine Corps edge. She was just a blubbering girl.

“All of it,” she said. “For you.”

Drover smiled. His cocky attitude started to show through the plumbing, the medication and his injuries.

“We kicked some ass, didn’t we, hon?” he asked.

“We kicked it good,” she answered.

“You and me.”

“You and me.”

Drover lay quietly for a long time. She was afraid he’d fallen asleep. She looked at the pile of medals and awards. He’d have made a good officer. He’d been a good friend.

“Give us another kiss,” he said.

She didn’t know if she angry at him or not. If he knew she’d been kissing his forehead, then he had been awake, waiting for her. Asking for a kiss made this a very different kind of relationship. She didn’t know if she could let herself have even that tiny romantic moment. What would that do to her as an officer and a Marine? Was she in love with him, or was this only pity for someone who’d given everything for her? How could she love again when love was tied to tragedy?

“It’s okay,” Larry croaked. “We’re both officers.” She couldn’t lean. She had to stand up and bend over awkwardly in her brace to give him another kiss.


❖❖❖

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Thirty-Three

Larry had gone through the first part of the landing procedure successfully. The ship had not responded well; even though they scrambled, they had passed through each step, in order. Larry had put the unfamiliar ship through the sequence of evolutions to a high-altitude course. Natalie watched in awe as he did what frontier pilots do best.

The last part involved braking that would drop them straight into the landing zone. On the Mule II, Mo had a space in engineering that afforded protection against the shocks and jolts. On this ship, there wasn’t any place for Mo. They cleared out a heavy-duty equipment drawer, and Mo oozed in, filling the space with tentacles, eyes and a broad expense of head.

Larry and Natalie strapped in as the clock ran down the last minutes. The ship groaned and clanged as it continued to change shape. The grinding noises continued, but the high-pitched whistling of leaking atmosphere had gone down in pitch and volume.

“You set, Mo?” Larry asked. He glanced down at Mo’s eyes peering from the drawer.

“Was this built for a Cephalopod?” Mo’s synthesizer squeaked. Mo was no longer connected to the ship’s intercom, and the synthesizer was packed into the drawer under Mo somewhere. “Can we be optimistic?”

Larry grinned at Mo and gave the pilot’s thumb’s up.

“You sure can, Mo babes,” Larry said. “Optimistic is all we got.” The clock moved to the last minute. Larry made the final check on the braking airfoils. Since some sensors were destroyed, he was confident that the structure was weakened, and there was a chance that some or all of the airfoils might be damaged. He could use some of the gravity foils as a fallback, but they would be destroyed in the attempt, also. After that, he had thruster braking to fall back on.

“Hold on to what gifts God gave you,” Larry said. “This is going to hurt.” For a moment, he wondered if going back to this worthless rock had been the right decision. If he had tried to make Henry base, there would have been a rescue instead of a ditch. There also would have been a long, risky flight. He realized that he had traded the risk of a long flight for the risk of a difficult landing.

The clock ticked through to the last seconds. He reached up to the switches that would deploy the airfoils for braking. He counted along with the clock so that he would hit the switches at zero, as close to the center of the landing zone as he could predict. He preferred to automate these tasks, but there wasn’t time to configure the ship’s clock to execute the maneuver.

Right at zero, some of the airfoils came out smoothly. The ship immediately lurched and twisted. It shimmied along, writhing through the air as energy was transformed to heat. The noises immediately changed as the ship changed position. The intermittent clanging became a slow, steady wrenching groan punctuated by regular thumps. The background hiss of atmosphere leak dropped to a low whine.

The destroyed sensors made some of the status displays useless. However, the braking effect should have been more immediate. Larry brought up the power in the engines to start additional braking force. Something in the engine system began a loud, steady banging.

“What the hell is that noise?” Natalie shouted over the clamor.

Larry checked the display; he wasn’t sure how to correlate torque settings with atmosphere density, and had probably configured the engine improperly for the thin atmosphere of the desolate rock.

“It’s all good,” he shouted. “If it stops before we hit the ground, we’re done for.” She nodded. He was glad she had confidence in him, it made the job easier. If it stopped up high, they were doomed. The closer they got to the surface, the less it mattered.

Some part of the airfoil system deployed with a sudden bang. Almost instantly, the ship stopped its forward motion and began falling. The sudden change in direction threw everything loose up into the air.

The marines learned how to cope with this as part of planetary assault. Whiting grunted to keep her blood pressure up and the contents of her stomach down.

Holding onto his seat, Larry repeated “I hate this crap!” instead of grunting.

The ship rocked and lurched. Something outside broke away, banged once against the side of the ship and with a groan was gone. It was probably part of the airfoils. The indicators showed a steady, controlled descent. It was uncomfortably fast and noisy, but they ship was holding together.

Larry saw the weapons lock indicator. He knew that somewhere in the racket, the cockpit annunciator was saying “Weapons lock.”

“Now is not a good time,” Larry shouted. He watched the maneuvering clock and the altimeter.

The explosion from anti-aircraft artillery rocked the ship. The bang was clear and menacing, louder than the noise of the ship. The Cephalopods were shooting at them as they plummeted. The explosions were close, but didn’t seem to be damaging the ship any more than the descent through the atmosphere.

“Friggin’ Squids!” Larry shouted.

Whiting hoped that her marines would trace the shots and take out the Cephalopod weapons. She knew that the ship was breaking up. She had put up a status display for the landing, and could see the sudden change in the positions of the airfoils to compensate for one being ripped away. She knew that they were down to the critical minimal surface area for safe maneuvering. If anything else tore away, they’d have to compensate somehow. She wasn’t a pilot, but she was sure that they could use the main engines to prevent a crash.

“Nyah-Nyah,” Larry shouted, “Missed me!”

The clock was running to zero. She wished that he would focus more closely on the landing tasks. She was too busy grunting and straining to ask about the air foils. Larry was waiting for the altimeter to read the correct height to make the next change and deploy landing gear. Larry glanced at Natalie. He saw her gripping the seat, frozen in terror.

“Sweetie, can you find the intake cutoff, just over your head?” She stirred slowly, staring around the cockpit. Her eyes were wide, showing a complete state of panic. He couldn’t see if her breathing was shallow, but her mouth was open as she gasped for air.

“Intake cutoff,” Larry said. “Wait for my—look out!” He jinked the ship slightly to avoid a Cephalopod anti-aircraft rocket. “Wait for my countdown.”

She looked up at the switches without comprehension. She put her hands on them, wondering if this was the right thing to do. Had he missed something? Cutting off the intakes would cut the engines, forcing them to land under airfoils alone. Should she ignore him and leave the intakes open?

“Three...two...one. Power Slide!” Larry shouted. He hit several switches; Natalie hesitated, but couldn’t think clearly, so she closed the intakes as ordered.

The ship snapped sideways. Everything loose flew up against the wall. Larry and Natalie were flung against the webbing in their seats hard enough to break ribs and strain vertebra.


Gunnery Sergeant Mark Newman, called Gunney New Mark, had to keep the squids back from one of the Whitehall lighters long enough to transfer supplies to their makeshift base. The location had become hot since the squids had found a way down from the ridge. Gunney New Mark had been staring through his telescope, looking for some sign of squid activity on the northern rim. There were three deep arroyos that might cover movement, but he hadn’t seen any squids. He hated to waste time or equipment on something that was not a real target. Since fire from the south seemed to be more of a noisy distraction, New Mark looked north for the real assault. It was still possible that the squids were sneaking up the river valley from the east.

Rifleman JJ lounged against a stack of crates. He had been on duty for time out of mind. His world had narrowed down to hunger, blisters from his armor, and catnaps interrupted by squid attacks. He had reached the point where cost of staying alive was too much to bear; he had found a resolute acceptance of death that transcended fear and pain and doubt.

Less than a hundred meters west of their position, a spout of orange flame stabbed at the sky. New Mark recognized it as an anti-aircraft weapon, akin to a rocket, that the squids used. He was surprised that it was so close to their position. It meant that the squids had moved some heavy weapons in very close to the base.

“How’d the squids get over there?” New Mark wondered aloud.

JJ roused himself and stood up. He walked out from the shelter of the crates and stared in the direction of the weapons launch. JJ shrugged around in his armor to settle it more comfortably.

“That’s too close,” JJ said.

New Mark looked at JJ’s back, exposed to enemy fire, uncaring. New Mark had heard about the changes that happened to men who were in combat too long. He had never seen anyone so numbed that they were reduced to an empty husk filled only with combat skills.

“It’s more or less our sector,” New Mark said.

JJ picked up his rifle and checked the status. He rooted around in his storage bays for a moment.

“Whadda you got left?” JJ asked.

Overhead they heard the whoosh of a low-flying aircraft rapidly grow to a roar with a background thumping clang of broken parts being beaten into junk. They both leaned back in their stiff, cumbersome armor to look up and see what was passing overhead.

“What the hell is that?” New Mark asked.

It was an Outer Rim scout ship with parts of a Core Planets scout ship still attached. The Core Planets scout had a neatly stenciled “Horicon” clearly visible across the side.

The scout ship spun completely around, using the last of its energy as a braking force, neatly stopping just over the spot picked out for landing. It was the traditional rounding up maneuver, executed at a speed well outside the design envelope for that class of ship.

“One of our and one of their humping,” New Mark said.

“Look out they don’t land on us,” JJ said, looking back at the squid position, ignoring the ship hovering almost overhead.

New Mark tried to gauge the landing zone for the ship. An Outer Rim scout would be a complete idiot to land in the middle of a reasonably well-secured Core Planets base. New Mark could only imagine that they were utterly desperate for help and planning to surrender rather than die slowly in space.

“Whadda you got left?” JJ asked.

New Mark looked at JJ for a moment. JJ was still staring at the squid position. New Mark realized that they had an advantage for a fleeting moment if the squids were also staring up at the ship.

“Two clips and some grenades,” New Mark said.

“Gimme the grenades,” JJ replied.

New Mark opened his cargo bay and took out three of his last four grenades. JJ loaded his gun with an incongruous absent-minded focus. Every motion was precise and methodical, even though he looked up at the ship about to land nearby. The ship’s failing engines clanked at a furious pitch, clearly the pilot was trying to squeeze all of the remaining thrust out of them. The ship was falling fast, the racket increasing in volume as it neared the ground. In a heroic last-ditch effort the stabilizing jets were thrown on to attempt to generate enough thrust to prevent a crash.

The engine system failed suddenly and catastrophically. There was a final ringing clang. The engines spewed bits of metallic crap down onto the planet; parts were sprayed in every direction. In the sudden silence, the ship dropped the remaining hundred meters onto the ground with a towering bang. The remains of the Core Planets scout peeled away to form a mountain of wreckage. The structure of the Outer Rim scout crumpled and then slowly tipped over to lay on the one working landing strut.

New Mark peeled his eyes away from the wreckage. They needed to get the jump on the squids.

“You set?” he asked. The intercom was too loud in his ears now that the ship had crashed and become as silent as a tomb.

“Hoo-yah,” JJ replied.

They had done this before, but never together. It was the standard assault that every Core Planets marine practiced in endless drills. They shouldered their weapons, putting them in a position that made the weapon’s sights their only view of the world. The simple principle was to reduce the delay between perception and action by seeing everything through the weapon. It narrowed their world into the simple task of neutralizing threats.

They ran down the short slope toward the remains of a cargo lighter that the squids were using for cover. The rule of thumb was that it took four seconds for someone to see, understand, form an intention, and then act. So the marine assault cadence was up, run for two and down.

After two seconds of sprinting, New Mark said, “Hit the deck.” He threw himself onto the ground. JJ paused long enough to fire a grenade into the lighter wreckage. New Mark waited for the earth-shaking explosion and then fired two rounds into the cloud of dust and smoke to destroy whatever else was behind the hole JJ had made.

They used their rifles to lever the heavy armor off the ground on the count of one. They ran for two more seconds to the fallen scout ship. They threw themselves up against a towering pile of debris that had once been a space ship. To their left, a hundred meters north of the crashed lighter, a pod of squids rose up to take aim at the two marines. New Mark and JJ had no idea that they were squid prey. They hadn’t seen the movement, and weren’t looking in the right direction to see it. The Cephalopods had Core Planets rifles, fully charged: New Mark and JJ didn’t have a chance against such overwhelming force.

The same rocket launch that had alerted New Mark to the Cephalopod penetration to the very edge of the secured area, had alerted others at the base. The area had been under close scrutiny for the past few minutes. New Mark had missed the Cephalopods, but a cannon operator on one of the grounded frigates had not missed them. The cannon crew was grateful that New Mark and JJ had risked their lives to flush the squid into the open. The cannon tore the Cephalopods into flaming masses of burned flesh. The weapons that the squids carried detonated with a number of residual explosions, assuring the complete destruction of everything near their position. It was a small victory, but very satisfying to the struggling Mammals.

The unexpected explosion knocked JJ and New Mark from their feet. The hull of the grounded spaceship was no use as cover. Dirt and debris continued to rain down on them as the weapons detonated.


Whiting opened her eyes to see the weapons control panel bent double only a hand’s breadth from her face. Before she had an actual thought, she knew she had to get out of the ship and get help. The higher-order parts of her brain noticed that the displays and indicators were all blank and lifeless; she was surprised to see one weapon safety indicator still glowing green. The ship didn’t know it was dead, yet. Controlled from somewhere in a deeper part of the brain, her hands undid her safety harness, shaking from the adrenaline. The silence was overwhelming. The last few minutes of flight had been a hellish racket as the ship fell apart around them during the landing. Now she could smell ozone and lubricants and the gritty dust of the planet.

She needed to get out of the seat and get help. She didn’t want to look around the cockpit, afraid of what she would see. Tentatively, she rolled her head to the side. Her neck and back seemed to work. Turning her head, she saw that Larry’s space in the cockpit was gone. It had been replaced by the surface of the planet a pile of rocks and dirty pushed up through the body of the ship where Larry’s console had been. He was completely gone; she looked around at the rest of the cockpit for blood or remains. Her half of the cockpit was crumpled but intact. The other half of the cockpit had been replaced by the planet. She reached out and touched the unfamiliar sand, scooping some up and dropping it onto the shattered deck of the bridge.

A piece of twisted metal dropped with the dust. She flinched away, flinging dust everywhere. She realized that Larry’s or Mo’s remains could be anywhere she looked.

She heard a faint explosion from somewhere nearby, muffled by the ship. She twisted around in her seat, trying to climb out. As she bent, she felt something stabbing her. Deep within her, below the level of thought, this was already known, and was not a surprise. The feeling condensed into the thought that she was seriously injured; the stabbing was a bad thing and she should minimize it. Hesitantly, she felt around the seat; she didn’t find any shards of metal stabbing her, but felt the warm wetness of blood pooling underneath her. This recognition became fear. She had to get out of the ship and find help.


JJ and New Mark carefully worked their way around the crashed pair of scout ships, and located an exit hatch. A pile of metal parts formed a wall just behind the hatch. New Mark snapped a look around the corner and back, taking just a quick glance at the next part of the ship. He caught the flash of a weapon and felt the explosion after he had ducked back around the piece of wall.

New Mark brought up his weapon, stepped around the corner and dropped to a knee. He fired near where he thought he’d seen the flash. The explosions threw the dirt around. There was no return fire.

“Gotcha!” New Mark said, then ducked back to join JJ. “Clear. Open her up.” JJ pried open the access panel, reached in and pulled the emergency release lever. He stepped back as the panel dropped onto the ground, kicking up a cloud of dust. New Mark turned on his gun lights and helmet lamp. He leaned inside, staring through his sights and the ship’s interior while JJ made sure that they weren’t attacked.

The inside of the ship was spattered with blood, rapidly clotting into sticky masses. It was bright, red human blood, not pale Cephalopod blood. New Mark recognized it as the crumpled remains of the bridge. Deep within the bridge, the gore moved slightly. New Mark put the gun on it and realized that he was looking at an injured Mammal, trying to breathe.

“Civilian,” New Mark said, more to himself than JJ. “How you doing?” he asked.

The civilian rolled around in his seat a bit, squinting into New Mark’s lights and the bright sky behind him.

“I’ve been better,” the pilot said.

JJ leaned in the door and said, “Hey, if your attitude’s intact, you’re good to go.” The civilian lay back in his own blood, closing his eyes and sighing an impossibly long breath. He struggled a bit, trying to get comfortable.

“Not me,” he said quietly. “I think this is it. We shouldn’t have turned back.” New Mark had to agree. The Sacroon had tried to run back to Henry base, but hadn’t gone far before it was disabled by Dieskau in the Champlain. It had barely managed to ditch men and equipment onto the rock before breaking up. Many of the marines felt that they should have attacked instead of running. There was rarely any opportunity to go back to safety.

“You did better than your crew,” New Mark said, shining his light around the blood-spattered cockpit.
Larry tried to lift his head and look around. He was tired and feeble; barely able to move. While the sticky blood taste filled his mouth and throat, he couldn’t quite catch his breath. There was so much that he needed to know; he could envision a number of outcomes of the crash, none of them good. He focused all of his concern down to a single word, something the marine would be able to understand and act on.

“Natalie?” Larry asked.

New Mark looked around again at the blood and broken equipment. There wasn’t even another seat in the remains of the cockpit.

“Sorry, sir, not me,” New Mark said.

New Mark flipped open the visor on his armor. He knew that the injured and dying didn’t like the anonymous face-plate. He knew that the men who were dying in service to the Core Planets deserved a final moment of human contact. The stink of blood and dust was powerful. He turned off his pressure regulator so he wouldn’t bleed away all of his oxygen into the thin atmosphere of the rock.
“Where’s Lieutenant Colonel Whiting?” Larry croaked.

New Mark shook his head There didn’t seem to be anyone above the rank of captain on the whole planet.

“No brass on this bloody rock,” JJ said from the doorway.

Larry sagged back into his seat. They distinctly heard the popping of distant small arms fire. It was followed by three explosions somewhere nearby on the hull of the ship. Larry saw JJ saunter out, rifle on his shoulder, at the ready. New Mark ducked and slammed his visor shut.


JJ was looking east, starring at a small crater. New Mark looked around the bend in the wreckage. A few hundred meters away, he saw something move. It was small, and provided a random glint, reflected from the blood-red sun. But it was not a dust-covered piece of the planet.

With the telescope, New Mark could clearly see the sensor, nestled between two rocks. The squid had to be nearby. Mark searched around carefully until he saw another movement a few meters away. The squid was probably sighting in on JJ. For an instant, deep within New Mark, he had the urge to tell JJ to get under cover. Before he could even articulate the words, JJ’s complete disregard for his own safety stopped him from saying anything.

Ammunition was precious. If there was a supply ship nearby, he would have put half a clip into their position. As it was, he put two rounds into the squid’s position; hoping to leave the sensor as bait for other squids.

The droning wind shifted for a moment, changing the swirl of dust. Then the wind began whipping in every direction at once. New Mark looked up to see an intact hovercraft. He wondered which ship had a hovercraft, and how it had survived an ambush and a crash landing. “Whitehall” was clearly visible down the side of the craft, but the origin and meaning of this didn’t penetrate into New Mark’s understanding. He was narrowly focused on survival and not ready to form the idea of a rescue.

New Mark caught a motion at the edge of his vision. He turned and saw JJ waving the hovercraft off. JJ showed an “X” with his arms. He made a big “4” with his fingers and pointed over to the squid position. Before New Mark could turn to confirm that this was the right position, the hovercraft did its vast, slow pirouette and then rained down cluster bombs and flaming chemicals onto the squid position. The rolling explosion blasted dust and rocks into the air and shook the ground. Sand rained down on his armor and cascaded in streams off the ship.

Slowly, New Mark stepped out from the protecting wall of smashed ship to survey they entire area around them. A column of smoke rose from a squid position a kilometer or more away. New Mark felt a wave of relief wash over him: the smoke meant they were holding their own against the squids. With a little more hard work, they might secure the valley again.

A few meters down the side of the ship something clanged; it sounded like the explosions were making the wreck settle. New Mark stepped away from the structure a bit. He would need to get a crew of corpsmen to extricate the poor civilian from the wreck so he could die in comfort. The ship clanged again. Only a meter from where New Mark stood, an access panel dropped into the dust. New Mark spun and pointed his rifle at the opening in the ship.

JJ saw the movement, and brought his rifle up to the ready to back up New Mark. JJ stalked after him, prepared to kill anything that threatened a fellow marine.

Larry had felt the explosions jarring the ship. He heard New Mark and JJ moving away, but he was too tired to turn his head and look. He wondered if Natalie and Mo had died instantly in the drop, or were they trapped somewhere in the wreckage, dying slowly like he was.

New Mark dropped his weapon and made a rough salute. JJ saw this and accepted it without understanding it. New Mark stepped back a little further from the ship. A Lieutenant Colonel struggled out from the pile of metal debris, bleeding heavily, and sat down on the opened access hatch.

“You don’t look good, ma’am,” JJ said. She looked like she’d been stabbed in the ribs or back with a piece of shrapnel. She was pale and shaking and really needed to stop the bleeding and lie down. He’d seen many marines walking around as she was, with fatal injuries, driven by adrenaline and instincts that didn’t have names.

“It’s just broken ribs,” she wheezed. In this thin atmosphere, she was gasping. Her injuries made it impossible to breathe deeply. Even though the atmosphere was oxygen-rich, they needed regulators.

“Ribs don’t bleed, ma’am,” JJ said. “If you can hang on, the hovercraft will be back for us.”

JJ looked over at New Mark. New Mark had switched over to his long-range radio. He was gesturing, pacing in a small circle as he talked with the base, trying to negotiate an evacuation for the injured.

“I want to,” Whiting began. “I need to,” she couldn’t catch her breath but stood up and started to wander away.

JJ could see that she needed to find something, something she couldn’t name, something so fundamental, so deeply seated that it wasn’t described by words or rational thoughts. It was something that existed in her as an urge to take action, not as a name or a title. JJ had lived in this world from time to time; a world where intention and action merged together, but couldn’t be explained or rationalized as orders or instructions; a world where things just were. She was driven to action, but she might kill herself rather than accomplish her intentions.

“Ma’am, I suggest you wait for evac,” JJ said.

Whiting leaned against the ship and eased herself back down to sit on the access panel. She leaned back against the side of the ship and closed her eyes. JJ thought the pain was making her weep. He had to admire her for gutting out a compound fracture of the ribs, possibly a collapsed lung, or worse.
New Mark relaxed and walked back to the civilian in the cockpit. He leaned in the dark doorway. The bloody wreck of the civilian pilot stirred as the light swept around the cockpit.

“You still with us, Ace?” New Mark asked.

His eyes flickered around, lost, blank. “It hurts to breathe,” he croaked.

“I think I found your light colonel,” New Mark said.

The pilot said something small and inarticulate. He was weak, and having trouble with the thin atmosphere. New Mark looked around the cockpit for any emergency breathing apparatus. He opened the access panel under the seat, but it was empty.

New Mark saw the cloud of dust swirling through the blood-soaked cockpit before heard the roaring of the hovercraft. He backed out of the access hatch and surveyed the landing zone they were using. He took a few steps away from the protecting bulk of the downed scout and looked at JJ. JJ had his weapon up and was scanning the horizon to the north. New Mark started scanning the other horizon. They were particularly visible and vulnerable at this moment.

Once the hovercraft settled, a pair of corpsmen came running over toward JJ. The weapons turret popped up on the craft, and the sensors started scanning. New Mark had seen nothing; that meant the squids were probably waiting until all of them piled into the hovercraft to attack. They would need a smart evac plan to avoid giving the squids a high-value target.

Corpsman Mary Beth was the only corpsman with pediatrics experience on Lyman base. She had moved to the frontier to help children in bases filled with soldiers, explorers and frontier merchants. She knew a little about battlefield triage, but had not been prepared for the carnage she found on the desolate, bloody rock on which the fleet had been grounded.

New Mark’s second scan showed nothing. He glanced over at JJ. The corpsmen were leading the Lieutenant Colonel down to the hovercraft. New Mark gave a shout and pointed at the access door to the cockpit.

Leaving one corpsmen supported the light colonel, Corpsman Mary Beth slogged back through the dust to the marine. Both were clearly healthy and intact. This one had some armor damage, but he was the Core Planets’ icon of doom: a fully armored and armed marine, standing in front of a ship on a desolate planet, protecting the occupants. His attitude of readiness projected a menacing determination that Corpsman Mary Beth found intimidating.

Then she saw the open hatchway into the ship. This probably meant there were more survivors of the crash. She took out her hand lamp and ventured into the wrecked ship. The cockpit was splattered with too much blood and gore. She had to clamp down hard, wear her calmest face and catch her breath. She was not squeamish, her surgery rotations cured her of that; but she was still reluctant to see the monstrous, horrifying injuries that the various combatants inflicted on each other. Some of the Outer Rim weapons were particularly cruel, and she didn’t want to consider how this poor marine might have suffered in his dying moments.

She searched the cockpit, braced for the horrors that were brought out by the awful and senseless need to fight and kill. She found a dead pilot, sprawled in a seat. He had been battered by the fall; he had suffered blunt trauma from some part of the ship falling on him and crushing him near the pelvis; he had been lacerated by shards of metal probably from a smashed equipment bay. The cause of death was the crash.

The corpsman backed out of the access hatch into the bright light pouring down onto the lifeless sand. Sergeant New Mark looked over at her. She shrugged, the pilot was dead.

“I was just talking with him,” New Mark said, incredulous.

“I don’t see how,” Mary Beth said.

She looked back at the black hole into the ship. Drover coughed, gurgling up some blood.

“I told you,” New Mark said, triumphant.

Mary Beth threw down her first response pack, dragged out a syringe and dove back into the ship. She stabbed Drover in the heart with the stimulants. He gasped and began to cough feebly. She crawled out, got a suction tube, scissors and a roll of bandages.

New Mark watched her root through her bag; he could see that the pilot had saved his crew, and earned his own chance at survival, slim as it was. If nothing else, the pilot deserved a moment of optimism that he might survive. New Mark had cradled more than one dying marine whose last moments were eased by the idea that they might survive.


Mary Beth looked at up New Mark. “Poor bastard,” she said. There was little she could do put prepare him for evacuation and hope that the Whitehall or one of the other large ships had doctors who could help him.

Thirty-Two

Red Stripe paused as he looked out of the hold of the wrecked ship at the canon sitting amid a pile of boulders. The planet was a dusty piece of crap worthless rockpile junk ball that a squid wouldn’t waste a sucker pad on. But, half of Williams’ fleet was making a stand on this rock, and his men were manning some of the cannon on the perimeter of their base.

Red Stripe had been in the marines for a decade. He was a master sergeant, and found that the work agreed with him. He identified well with his men and had a knack for making a mission sound like the lynch-pin on which the entire Core Planets Governmental Network hung. Since Red Stripe had carefully transferred the ancient Red Stripe Beer logo to his armor, he could be seen clearly in a confused situation. Like all good nicknames, it had been earned through 500 weekends of heavy Marine Corps drinking.

Knowing that you can’t lead if you’re cowering, Red Stripe forced himself to be casual in the face of enemy fire. He had only been in combat a few times in his decade of service, and had been very lucky.

Red Stripe sprinted through the wind-driven dusty grit to JJ’s gun. JJ was new to their unit; he’d been a good soldier; Red Stripe was going to tell the Lieutenant to promote him to corporal as soon as possible. Red Stripe had found out that JJ was also an avid reader, and knew a great deal about historical wars. Red Stripe also knew that soldiers with too much education were likely to second guess their officers; but both Red Stripe and JJ kept their opinions down. Red Stripe’s theory was that books only covered that biggest strategic picture, and soldiers were the tiniest tactical element. The war from their point of view was not the war described by an arm-chair writer with a long-distance view of history.

“How we doing?” Red Stripe asked as he skidded to a stop behind the gun shield.

JJ looked up from the weapon’s sensor displays. It was hard to see much of his face through the visor. Red Stripe thought that JJ might be smiling.

“Out of ammo; out of water; out of cigarettes; three hours till dark.” JJ said. “Temperature falling; just another crappy day on the frontier.”

Red Stripe laughed along with JJ. It was the Marine Corps mantra. JJ clearly understood that his personal complaints were just background noise in the pervasive misery of war. Red Stripe found it refreshing to hear someone who didn’t take themselves seriously in a serious situation. He was afraid that he might grow to like JJ; that could become a liability in a professional were sacrifice of self and others was a requirement.

They heard the faint POP-POP-POP of a small weapon. They both turned toward the source. There was a rolling explosion that rocked the gun shield and sent a plume of detritus over the top of the shield. Dust and pebbles rained down on them as the ablative armor was blasted away.

JJ turned to the console on the gun. His large gloved fingers worked the oversized switches and controls. The sensor antenna array started to swivel. After two circuits it stopped spinning and nodded back and forth around a single spot. JJ hit another switch, and the gun itself traversed slightly to align with the antenna.

“That’ll shut ‘em up for a while. I’m dying for a cigarette.” Red Stripe looked up at the gun, centered in the small arc covered by the antenna. The gun looked like it would continue to work, if they only had enough ammunition. They knew that the Squids were intimidated by active sensors, and would lay low as long as the gun was fully powered up. To save energy and keep the squids guessing, they put the gun sensors on a random schedule. Someone in the command center drew cards for the on-off times.

Red Stripe opened up the cargo compartment on his armor. He had stashed a few treats in there for his men, including some scrounged cigarettes for JJ. Red Stripe fumbled around for a moment, trying to separate the cigarettes and candy with his bulky gloved fingers. The cigarettes dropped into the dust at his feet. Red Stripe stuffed the candy back in and slammed the cargo bay shut. He leaned over to pick up the cigarettes and a Cephalopod sniper blew his head off, leaving a blood-spraying hole between his shoulders. The body fell forward, creating a puddle of bloody mud.

“You stupid Squids!” JJ shouted at the ridge in the distance. “Those were the last smokes on this rock.”

JJ jumped up to stand on the seat of the gun’s console, hoping that the squid that shot Red Stripe would still be visible. He vented his frustration by firing most of his remaining clip at the ridge line, hoping he’d killed or injured the assassin.


Sims had assigned himself to the largest ship at Lyman base, the Saratoga. He had all of available ship commanders recall every scout. He had them load every weapon and every medical corpsman that could be mustered from Lyman base. During the hours that the preparations took, Daddy-O kept him posted with intelligence gathered from stragglers who fled to Lyman base from the ambush. The picture was not complete; there were barely enough details to make informed decisions. Sims was inclined to label everyone who showed up at Lyman base as a deserter for leaving their unit, even after Daddy-O had started to turn up evidence that Williams was killed in the first shots fired. Sims relented in the end because he simply didn’t have the time or staff to process them as criminals.

Sims’ fleet made a cautious approach to the dust and debris cloud, deploying two waves of scouts in advance of the three battle ships and six freighters that comprised their tiny rescue fleet. Sims figured that caution would reduce the probability of blundering onto armed Outer Rim ships.

Daddy-O and Sims met on the bridge of the Saratoga. The bridge crew didn’t even pretend to man their stations. Daddy-O had taken one of the scouts, made a sweep into the planetary system. Sims had waited with the fleet, drifting slowly toward the star.

“Well?” Sims asked, sitting at the situation console, looking even more sad than usual.

Daddy-O looked around for a moment. “It’s pretty gruesome out there,” he said.

Sims nodded, that was what he was expecting. “What’s out there?” he asked.

“The usual frontier crap. Scattered fighting, Cephalopod looting,” Daddy-O answered.

Daddy-O would have added that, to his mind, the phrase “Cephalopod looting” was a redundancy, and didn’t need to be repeated. The bridge of the Saratoga was not a place for flippancy; Sims had a dour attitude that stifled jokes.

“The planet system?” Sims asked.

Daddy-O had some recordings from the impromptu force on the planet in the dust cloud. They were struggling against the Cephalopods and not doing well. They had no intelligence network, but Daddy-O’s perspective from an orbiting scout showed him that the Cephalopods were going to win by attrition. Daddy-O knew that without evidence, it was just a private conjecture.

“Signals from ships on the hard,” Daddy-O said. “I’d say there were as many ships landed as flying.”

Sims nodded. He was starting to see that Williams had set out with a fleet; the Outer Rim had ambushed them, leaving the injured and destroyed for the Cephalopods. Sims could see that the emerging picture of Cephalopod politics meant that the Core Planets would have to change their strategic approach: the frontier was not simply another part of the conflict with the Outer Rim. The Cephalopods were an independent power, making use of the mammal conflict to further their own objectives.

“Open a channel,” Sims said to the communications officer. The bridge crew swiveled around in their seats and began to work again. They’d heard the status report first hand; they could all guess what the future held for them.

The communications officer nodded at Sims.

Sims and the commanders had worked out several alternatives. “All ships. First battle group rescue our Core Planets Marines from that rock.” Sims thought that it was a little presumptuous to call a brig, a few scouts and freighters a battle group. “Second group secure this sector. I don’t want to find anything bigger than an ashtray that’s not ours.”

Sims nodded. The communications officer turned off the channel.

Daddy-O was part of the first battle group. He would be debriefing every officer on the planet. He waited for Sims to dismiss him.

Sims looked over at the situation display. Two isolated battles continued between Core Planets ships and Cephalopods. A few ships had held out heroically for days; a remarkable achievement against overwhelming odds. Sims looked back at Daddy-O, rocking on his feet, waiting to get to work with the first battle group.

“Friggin’ Squids,” Sims said.

Daddy-O grinned; he’d always seen Sims looking sad or exasperated. Daddy-O had never seen anything but a perfectly crisp career officer.

“Just another crappy day on the frontier,” Daddy-O replied.


Larry Drover knew that any landing you walk away from is a good landing, but he was not sure he could meet even this minimal standard of quality. On a more familiar ship, he might have been better able to cope with the terrible battering this ship had taken. He found the shooting, and the possibility of being shot at again, to be unnerving; decision-making was difficult because he was so focused on looking for the Outer Rim and Cephalopods.

The ship was not responding well as gravitational pressure increased. They had taken enough damage that the ship’s structure was being wrenched apart as they closed with the planet. There was a persistent clanging sound coming from some part of the Outer Rim scout. The hull was changing shape, emitting irregular pops and pings.

Larry had worked out the landing procedure with some care. He’d found all of the necessary controls, and cycled through the procedure while they were still in the vacuum of space. The planet itself, however, was a different problem.

Larry found three crash sites. One was the primary landing zone, well defended by the Core Planets marines. One of the sites was on another continent, and appeared to be a landing that went terribly wrong, stranding the ship and crew far from any support. The third site had a transmission that was a sequence of strange non-sequiturs. It sounded like it was Cephalopod trap that was running a loop of prerecorded Core Planets messages.

The primary landing zone was manned by marines that responded to communications crisply and precisely. Larry got coordinates and parameters for a low-risk drop that included rotational spin and Coriolis force of the planet. He found it convenient having a third hand on the bridge. He could talk through the landing order with Whiting; she wrote it down and posted it on all of their computers. This saved him some time and got them closer to the ground sooner.

Planetary approach was a process that started slowly, but the level of intensity rose exponentially as ship and surface approached. Once Larry had bled away all of the faster-than-light propagation energy, there would be no return from the planet: the ship had taken too much damage to enter interstellar space again. After this, there were two more points of no return that Larry had to pass. The point of no orbital return happened when they had reached deeply enough into the atmosphere that the ship could no longer accelerate to orbital velocity without finishing the landing. The point of no recovery was when they were close enough to the surface that Larry could no longer recover from a mistake before they actually hit the ground. Because the ship was two damaged scouts clamped together, as soon as they left orbit, there was no return.

“Red Rock One just saw us pass,” Whiting said.

That was the confirmation that Larry needed. The planet was big and empty, a mistake of even ten kilometers at this point could doom them to freezing or starving just out of range of surface vehicles. Transport was measured in light years, but landing was measured in meters.

“Last orbit,” Larry said. “Counting down.”

Mo would start the final orbit clock counting down, and Larry would confirm that the clock was counting. Larry waited for the answer.

Mo’s synthesizer chimed, “Are we a target? Can we land before we’re shot?” It was not the right answer.

“If it’s not one thing, it’s the other,” Larry shouted in helpless frustration. “Maybe we should have gone on to Henry base. Where are they Mo? What can we do?” Larry replied. Larry realized that whoever was targeting them knew that this was not a good time; a ship was most vulnerable during planetary maneuvering.

There was no response from Mo. The final orbit clock was running; Larry still had a few minutes before he started the final approach. He hoped they would fly out of the weapon’s targeting zone.

“Can we coast in high?” Mo asked. “Brake and drop quickly? Will a scout take the stress?”

Brake and drop was a well-known approach for a ship that was empty. While Larry had done several brake and drops in the Mule I, this ship had a long list of injuries. As much as Larry might be concerned about the unknown condition of the scouts, Mo was concerned about a very real threat on the planet. Larry wasn’t sure where the weapons lock indicator was, or if it worked. Given the choice between a vague concern about the ship’s integrity and a very real threat from armed enemy forces, Larry chose to follow Mo’s advice.

“Okay, we’ll go in high. It’s trick flyin’ time. You ready for this, hon?” Larry looked over his shoulder at Natalie. He could see that she doubted their ability to make such a risky landing. She had lost her cool Marine Corps calm. Larry was afraid that he looked just as scared. Mo was also concerned. They needed calm and confidence. Larry decided that he had to stop radiating fear and treat this like any other high drop landing.

He stretched as best he could in the pilot’s console seat. He brought up their landing checklist. He took a deep breath. It was just another landing; it would be number 302 in his log.


Lieutenant Colonel Edward Cole had been to every cargo bay on Henry base to visit injured marines. The medical facilities were not sized for this kind of assault; injured where everywhere. The infirmary itself was reserved for complex procedures, and lab space for tests and diagnostics. The beds adjacent to the infirmary were reserved for officers. Cole found Major General Johnson in the infirmary, looking pale and drained. Cole had heard rumor’s about Johnson’s condition, but was too embarrassed to ask anyone for details.

Cole put on his “you’re looking better” face as he approached Johnson. Johnson was alert; he didn’t appear too heavily medicated.

“How’s the leg?” Cole asked.

Johnson looked around the room for a moment.

“How are we doing?” Johnson asked.

Cole took that as a good sign. He had seen wild emotional swings in the injured. Many marines were depressed at having done something to get themselves hurt. Some who had narrowly escaped death were almost irrational from their own survivor’s guilt. Others coped by making their injury the punchline of a joke. Cole knew that recovery was progressing well when they looked at the future instead of themselves.

“Bill, they’re in retreat,” Cole said.

Johnson closed his eyes thankfully and lay back. His features relaxed. “My base is safe,” he whispered.

Cole would have been happier if Johnson was more concerned about his men. He and some of the other officers were hoping for Johnson to retire from active leadership of the troops. Johnson’s ability to negotiate and manage complex operational details were outstanding. His tactical judgment was flawed by his urge to construct ever-larger frontier bases.

“I’m going to take half of what’s still flying and pursue,” Cole said.

Johnson’s eyes opened. He squirmed around, as if he was going to sit up. A monitor started bleeping. Johnson lay back down. A machine made a quiet sigh as a valve opened. Johnson sagged back down.

“No, don’t, Ed,” Johnson sighed. “Wait for me. Give me a week.” Cole looked at Johnson. There was a massive bandaged area on his leg. He had very elaborate plumbing, including a drain and a drip fed from several sources supplying pain killers, antibiotics and plasma. Johnson might be out of this bed in a week, but he wasn’t going anywhere for several weeks.

“We’ll get all the officers together,” Johnson continued. “Eyre, Phineas, Williams. I just took some shrapnel in my,” Johnson’s voice cracked as he said “thigh.”

Cole suddenly felt very sorry for Johnson. Rumors had flown around the base that Johnson’s genitalia had been torn up by flying metal. Cole was surprised that Johnson had escaped having a femoral artery severed.

“Williams is dead,” Cole said, trying to stay focused on the task at hand. The base needed to be defended, and waiting for Johnson to heal would not be an effective defense.

Johnson appeared to doze off. Cole looked at the machines. One of them looked like it was dispensing narcotics to help him rest.

“Ships are coming up from Lyman,” Cole said. “I’m going to pursue. You’re out of this fight.”

Johnson nodded, but didn’t open his eyes.