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.