Major General Stockton Dorsey watched his screen intently.
The bridge crew of the United Nations Space Command vessel Aphrodite were intent on their stations and the mission insofar as it concerned their individual duties.
The gee-forces quickly built as they made the turnaround, one or two less-fit crewmembers groaning in their seats. A stream of objects, ostensibly from the former Ajax, fell slowly towards the planet as the debris from the ship itself spun off in all directions, tumbling and burning and ejecting gasses that the enemy could hardly miss. They would be seen, but through a smoke-screen.
Ajax had been gutted of anything useful to the enemy. She was flying on program. Certain anonymous dead bodies, well preserved for just such a purpose, would add to the effectiveness of their deception plan.
“Break, break, break.” The bridge-talker’s voice was calm and unhurried.
All ships were following planned trajectories.
“We’re being painted.” The detection and countermeasures people were right there in his ears.
It was a strong signal.
“Very well.” His own calm always surprised Stock, as he was known by all and sundry. “Carry on.”
He turned to Clay Forrest, accredited correspondent, privileged to be there, and in Number Two’s seat, under some protest as Forrest well knew.
“It’s all right, we’ll be out of range before they clear atmosphere.”
Forrest’s face was in profile, the hack staring as the red triangles appeared onscreen in the large-scale display. From the window, on the approach, the planet itself was just a point of light, only less small than the background stars. His jaw hung limp, contemplating his own mortality no doubt.
His eyes came around and he nodded. Extensively briefed and already an acknowledged expert in the field, he understood the difference between simple detection systems, and the enemy actively tracking and ranging with much more power and bandwidth…
That human interest angle was everything.
“I can’t quite decide if this is a story of technology, or a people story. Probably a bit of both, if I can pull it off.”
Stock nodded. At first he had railed against any civilian presence. A reporter was almost worse, and yet he’d been favourably impressed with Forrest. There was some grit under the calm and professional exterior. The background file had made for some interesting reading between the lines, for what was not there was even more interesting. Long lines of classified operations and whole paragraphs redacted from various pages.
Before accepting the situation, (and he did have some say in the matter), Stock had hurriedly read a handful of stories by Clay Forrest. He was finding them reasonably accurate from the technical point of view, and there was that focus on character. He’d photographed and interviewed some big names. He was making a living in a tough business.
It wouldn’t pay to underestimate a man who was at the top of his game, in his own peculiar specialty. Whatever that may be.
“Not my job, Mister Forrest.”
Forrest watched as the missile defence vectors curved over in their direction and then accelerated. He understood that much. Numbers clocked past onscreen.
“I’ve only got three thousand words. Four thousand tops. The money’s insane—it makes me feel guilty sometimes, but, uh. That’s partly why I was willing to take the risk.” Clay was studying the faces of the young men and women around him, chewing his lip but not taking any notes that Stock could see. “Luckily, I’m too old to join up.”
He turned and grinned.
“Not that I ever would, but we all have our little fantasies…”
Stock nodded. There was no good reason to be out there if you didn’t have to be—the battle zone was no place for spectators, as Bull Run should have taught. Forrest wasn’t the usual sort of military groupie.
“Also, there’s the whole info-dump thing…” Judging by the tone, this was a no-no.
Their small contingent of support ships was already at one percent of light speed and there was just no way enemy missiles were going to catch up…journalists, like the military, had their own jargon. There were plenty of other hazards, of course.
The target wasn’t much more than a meso-planet, smaller than Mercury but larger than Ceres.
The mission was predicated upon a shallow gravity well and a thin atmosphere, otherwise it wouldn’t have worked and other methods would have to have been found.
The trouble with Kapteyn 456c was that the enemy had gotten there first. While Fleet needed to know what was going on down there, sensitive electronic snooping had revealed the enemy’s thorough radar coverage. It blanketed nearby space, although there were dimples and irregularities where the system remained incomplete. It was believed by Intelligence that the low-level detection system might be firmer. As for the why, Kapteyn 456c was an ocean planet—and warships ran on water these days. Fresh, clean, virgin water from an unpolluted planet.
Reaction mass was the key to victory.
If it was at all possible, Fleet would take it. If it was impossible, it might take a little longer.
Either way, the planet was on the short list.
The insertion suits, originally adapted from Fleet emergency survival suits, were meant to exploit gaps in such coverage. They were more usually deployed from ground-based or orbital vessels.
Approaching what was clearly a strategic outpost from hard, clean space, without making the long, slow approach that would give them away and leave them at a tactical disadvantage, was key.
Forrest sat up, shaken from his reverie as the man at his side spoke.
Those pale grey eyes, very white around the edges and crystal clear, engaged—there was no other word for it, Clay’s own.
“Want a coffee or something?”
They unstrapped and left the Combat Information Center, pulling hard on the rungs, pulling their mass upwards against the unusual gravity towards the canteen and the more civilized living areas of the ship.
Clay Forrest watched as his host poured black coffee, putting in sugar and then a splash of screech, Navy rum at about ninety-proof
“What are the odds of getting them out again?”
Forrest watched as the Major-General sipped carefully.
“You have a plan to get them out, I presume?”
“Yes, and a very good one. Hell, it might even work.”
Forrest was apparently not privy to the information, not unless it was successful would be his guess.
They were all hand-picked men and women. Cocooned in radar absorbent materials, equipped with the finest in modern weapons technology, they might well survive until relieved.
It all depended on remaining undetected…getting in and then down on the ground.
The insertion suits were stealthy to the nth degree. Once on the ground, with sufficient resources, they were habitable indefinitely. Under normal combat conditions, this might be for days or weeks. In a survival situation, in the harshest environments, people had survived for months, to be rescued, and the beginning of a fresh ordeal. The smell would have to be something, once the doctors started peeling a person out of there. Treating blisters and fungal diseases, pulling embedded and reluctant relief tubes, practically glued in, rectal and urethra, tubes that had never been meant for anything other than temporary use, having the skin pull away from the bottom of the feet, were only some of the problem areas reported. There were deep psychological ramifications for someone who had relied on the suit’s thick skin for their very lives, for more time than had originally been envisaged. To say combat-exposed troops who had spent weeks in the suit felt naked on getting out, was a bit of an understatement.
They weren’t exactly invulnerable in their armoured suits, but they clearly depended on them for survival. They came to feel a certain affinity for them as well as their weapons.
The real problem with a high-speed, maximum-range insertion was duration. As usually configured, troops only had some much time in the suit. Gas, water and other resource bottles were integral to the suit. Add-ons increased bulk, and aerodynamic drag, which affected controllability on descent. They also spoiled the stealthy signature, the whole point of the suits in the first place.
In order to make the insertion, at the longest range ever attempted, the small bottles, remaining in place, had been augmented by larger stores units. These would be jettisoned shortly before atmospheric entry. All new systems had been tested in lab and field, no guarantee that they would work on the day. Getting to the point of landing undetected was the real battle. Soldier, supplies and weapons, had hard shiny surfaces, solid surfaces, and with modern technology, they would be easily spotted on scope. The enemy had a lot riding on this planet.
The key to this mission was the rubber torpedo—which was anything but a joke. Made of radar-absorbent materials, having a toughened skin of synthetic spider-silk reinforced by the latest ferromagnetic resins, the dielectric foam made a balanced shape that could still be maneuvered, within reason, by team members. Small, auxiliary motors taken from conventional, in-close missile defence systems ensured that. A clamshell assembly of two pieces, the clamshells would crack open on command-prompt and the troopers would make their normal X-HALO descent to the planet’s surface. With a diameter of little better than five thousand kilometers, the planet was in the habitable zone of the star. The atmosphere was thin, barely four pounds per square-inch pressure at the surface, but rich in oxygen and water vapour. It would suffice. There was even plant life of a kind, going by spectroscopic analysis of available light, and this would provide cover and organic matter to be fed into the food-generators.
The clamshells had been equipped with a radar-reflector, a corner-type reflector which seemed counter-intuitive, but might well turn out to be a stroke of genius. How could anything that showed up like a flare onscreen be a stealthy approach? And when it broke up, and bits fell away, it was only natural. The shells, light as they were, would orbit the planet for weeks after their scouts had successfully (or unsuccessfully) made it down.
The Ajax had been sacrificed. It was true the Fleet was over-stretched and that even aging dreadnoughts were invaluable. The enemy knew this as well. It was a considerable sacrifice to make for results that might be nebulous. The question was, would they buy into the con. It was hoped that with a sufficient number of bodies, and strong evidence of reactor melt-down and subsequent weapon detonation aboard Ajax, any enemy salvage attempts would convince them that the ship had blown itself to Kingdom come. It might be believed that a reconnaissance in force, seven ships suddenly becoming six, had been terminated once the element of surprise had been lost.
A raid gone bad, and the enemy’s forces would be on high-alert, another counter-intuitive part of the deception plan. They would be watching nearby space like crazy, and then, they must inevitably lose interest over time.
With the ship’s original trajectory designed for a close fly-by, it was only natural that some of the debris would be captured into planetary orbit. From there it would or could break up, burn on re-entry, and some of the denser bits would probably, eventually, make it down to the dirt.
It was all about manipulating the enemy’s perceptions.
The great thing about the enemy was that they were relatively humanoid. There had been diplomatic exchanges, and much was known about them. Their psychology was remarkably similar to human beings and could be read to some degree.
As for the men and women in those suits, Forrest could still see their faces, young, tough, grim and strangely touching in the way they cared for each other, checking each other’s rigs and equipment. Their asses were on the line. They worked in teams of two, three teams for the typical mission. Each of them was a billion dollars on the hoof of training, equipment and support. They were the tip of the spear, at the end of a very long and expensive tooth-to-tail ratio.
They would be the first, hopefully not the last, boots on the ground.
He’d met them, introduced by the skipper, and he’d stood there and watched as they checked over their equipment and weapons for what was probably the twentieth time. Their voices, which he would have expected to be low and hushed, were anything but. They might not be cheerful, but they knew their jobs and they knew who they were—a serious advantage in any aspect of life, and sobering in its intensity for a man who’d been having some doubts lately.
The worst one for him, was little better than a girl—her dossier claimed twenty-four years of age and some impressive scholastic achievements, but he rather doubted the age. She was just too sweet to be a steely-eyed killer. She was kind of young to have a Ph.D.
That was when he’d really bought into the mission…his own daughter wasn’t much older.
The unit motto was we deliver.
With her glossy brown hair and the dark eyes, the slightly-cleft chin and upturned nose, she was a dead ringer for a girl he had known in high school.
The thought that she might have a mole on the inside of her left thigh was disturbing, and he tried not to think too much about it.
The reconnaissance mission couldn’t be picked up for approximately three weeks. Sequestered aboard, Forrest had all kinds of access and a long list of story ideas. The personal loyalties were intense, for despite the size of the ship the crew was small. They’d been together for a long time and had seen some hellish things. He wrote about the men and women on the weapons-systems, he wrote about the ship, he wrote about the food and the laundry and the rawest recruit, (oddly cheerful, this one), as he cleaned the heads.
He still didn’t know how the team was to be retrieved, and then one day the Major-General called for him. Making his way to the lower parts of the ship, he found himself in an equipment and dispersal bay. Six had gone out, and only four had returned…
She was there, scowling at nothing in particular when he entered the room, and the look got darker after that. Team leader, someone was holding her hand and speaking in a low tone as her medical handler inserted a needle into the blue vein at the elbow.
Stock was there, coming in a moment after Forrest. Forrest held up the camera and he nodded.
“Just show a little respect, okay.”
“Ah, yes, sir.” Their faces were absolutely grey with fatigue.
Just as people said, the smell was really something. Technicians and medical staff were clustered around the heavy figures, their armour coming apart one segment at a time as screwdrivers whirred quietly and the troopers groaned and cussed as a bit of body hair or skin came away.
“Ah, fuck.” It was Kowalski.
“Sorry.” The young female technical sergeant gave a final yank and the boot came off as Edward
Kowalski uttered a stream of foul oaths.
“It’s what you get for being a volunteer, Ed.” Blowing hair out of her eyes, she gave Clay a slightly-humorous look and then started on the other foot as that smell, that putrid miasma, wafted up and out into the room.
It was shit and piss and sweat and blood and everything—imagine the halitosis after weeks in the suit.
Their nostrils would be absolutely clogged, and no technology had ever been found to deal with the issue reliably.
The air was blue with something already, not just the language either…they were just soaking in there.
The skipper made a brief nod and the young tech abandoned her seat. Stockton took over, sitting there and holding Rowan’s hand.
“So. Where’s Angela? And Bridger?”
She took a sip of water with her free hand, blinking at the unaccustomed clean taste of it, free of overtones of plastic and other flavours real and imaginary.
She heaved a deep breath.
“They stayed behind.”
Lieutenant Rowan nodded.
“There’s just a whole shit-load of enemy activity down there, Skip.”
“Two, maybe three divisions. Plus auxiliaries and maybe even some heavy weapons.”
She nodded again, her cold eyes finding Clay’s again.
“It’s all right, Mister Forrest is cleared for this.”
“Yeah—” Her tired blue eyes stabbed into the captain’s and then found Clay’s again. “Ah, yes, sir—real fucking heavy.”
Stockton’s eyes went all vague and then he inclined his head, giving Clay a look of his own.
“Thank you—I hope you don’t mind if I take your picture.” Since she seemed to be ignoring him again, he popped off a few flash shots and then went back to natural light video.
“So they stayed behind?”
“Ah, yes, sir.”
With a cold shoulder turned on him from that quarter, Forrest found another trooper, this one a bit more cheerful looking, his body pale, and marked here and there by purple lines, bruised where the articulations of the suit had worked against a knee, elbow or pelvic area.
“How’s it going?”
“Ah, pretty good. So, ah…Sumar, What’s the terrain like down there?”
“Yeah, it is—I know that’s kind of nuts. There’s not much gravity, so it’s all wispy, tall, thin stuff that seems to go on forever. Near as we could make out, there are distinct similarities to terrestrial species. Some of it looked like fungus, some of it was definitely plantlike. We saw purple, yellow, white flowers. Some other colours too. The temperature was pretty constant, between maybe fourteen and twenty-two or so all the time, night or day. She likes you, incidentally.”
Sumar leaned over conspiratorially, as his tech patiently dripped fluids into his arm and observed him professionally.
“I mean she likes you. Women are a bit different, Bud, and she’s in command. It’s a very lonely position…understand?”
“Ah…not really. What are you getting at?”
“What I’m saying, Mister Writer-Man, if she buys you a drink in the canteen, you’re going to be a good boy. And if she takes you back to her cubby, and—”
“Sumar—” The tech’s voice was low but firm.
The trooper, halfway up out of his recliner, face red and angry, glared at Forrest, veins standing out in neck and temples.
“Shut up.” The tech again—still calm, still cool, and firm enough for Clay Forrest’s liking.
He couldn’t afford to take it too personal. With a quick nod at a subsiding Trooper Sumar, (what a look of hate that was), Clay found himself a quiet corner on the far side from the door and concentrated on his medium and three-quarter video shots for a while.
Three weeks in one of those suits—cut off from all support, on an alien planet that none of them had ever seen before, with the enemy all around. They had a lot riding on it—and two of their friends left behind for reasons he didn’t completely understand.
The enemy, possibly aware of their presence, and actively hunting them—all the while dependent upon that armour, armour that must, inevitably, be stripped from them just when they were at their lowest physical and psychological ebb.
He wondered just exactly what that did to a person. Some of these people had two, three dozen successful missions, what that meant was that they had survived above all else.
And two of them, acting on their own initiative, had decided to remain behind.
He wondered if he ever would know just what happened there.
If he knew anything about the Fleet, they wouldn’t just be abandoned there—
They’d be going back in to get them. For some reason that one really shook him up inside, that and the knowledge that it would be these kids or someone very much like them.
This story was rejected in a few pro/pay markets. That’s just the nature of the game, and it has never been easy. It's actually based on the Leap of Faith concept and that particular, imaginary world of the future. The lower pictures are based on that cover.
I could give this story away with a bit of persistence, for token pay or even just exposure. That provides the sort of validation that comes from some other editor liking and publishing a story.
Which is a kind of vanity, isn’t it?
Why not build up my own audience, on my own blog/website…???
The space marines wallpaper is a free download and readers can get it here.
Louis Shalako books and stories are available from Amazon. His works include science-fiction, fantasy, horror, mystery, military memoir/parody, and just plain satire. Even better, some of them are always free. You can tell which ones are free by looking at the rankings, which will say, for example, ‘#120,000 in free > genre > sub-genre (etc.)’
Thank you for reading.