Ft. Indiantown Gap, PA, United States of America, Sol III
0922 EDT September 5th, 2004 ad
The grader was a Marine né Mobile Infantry Major from Fourth Fleet Strike Division. The unit was currently deeply involved in the battles on Barwhon. He was a dark-skinned, blue-eyed Iron Man in the square-jawed movie-star Marine fashion, but his armor was commendably battered. Fighting the Posleen left gouges all over. The nannites that maintained it, that existed throughout the underlayer, could, with time, work out all the wounds on the surface. But the process left a faint discoloration, obvious to the trained eye. Repaired gouges and nicks were regarded much as scars were, badges that said that you had been there and done that. Unmarred armor, like Mike's, was a sign that either you had been through total hell, or were a rookie.
The grader had maintained a deadpan through the entire company FSTEP. Mike was not terribly worried about the results; he had more or less written the book and was careful to follow it to the letter at each stage of the exercise. He was wondering, however, what the major made of it all.
They completed the last exercise, a prepared company defense, just as the first of autumn's cold-front thunderstorms came across the ridges. The hurtling cumulus started to darken the air as Mike bounded up to the major on the ridgeline. Mike unsealed his helmet, the molecular seal bright in the afternoon sunlight, pulled it off his head with a sucking sound as the shock gel released, tucked it under his arm, then lifted one eyebrow in question.
"That scenario was designed as a no-win," stated the major, removing his own helmet with a characteristic slurp. His dark skin could only have come from tanning beds; most ACS personnel were as white as slugs. A wash of cold air suddenly displaced the muggy early fall heat as a swirling wind stirred the dust and leaves on the ridgeline.
"Yes, sir, I know," said Mike carefully. "I wrote it."
"You obviously also know how to beat it," commented the major. "Were you going to tell anyone else?" Mike could see the last of the nannites that had been left on the former Marine's scalp scampering down to the helmet. The silver trickle writhed in the afternoon sun like intelligent water. The elongated droplet reared out from the major's head, apparently sensed its objective below and jumped into the helmet.
"It's not something I am able to teach systematically, sir," O'Neal admitted with a wrinkled brow. "It is a matter of reading the movements of the Posleen and shuffling your subunits to react to them along with careful employment of artillery and positioning of observers. I only break it about one time in ten. This time it was relatively easy and I wonder if the controller didn't adjust it. The Posleen acted . . . uncharacteristically during the final assault phase. They were almost timorous." He spat into his helmet. The juice was a brief brown spot on the writhing gray surface. A moment later the juice disappeared, absorbed into the underlayer and beginning the long journey to becoming rations.
Another blast of wind whipped the yellowing beech trees around them in a frenzy as a distant branch cracked. A rumble of thunder rolled across the valley as lightning played on the ridges in the distance.
"Gust front," commented the major, looking up at the swirling cumulus. The sky was turning black overhead.
"Pardon, sir?" shouted Mike, not quite catching the words over the wind.
"Gust front," the major yelled back, redonning his helmet. When Mike hooked back up, he continued, "It's the term for that blast of wind you get just before a storm." As the heavens opened their sluice gates and water began to pour from the sky Mike shivered for a moment with a wave of cold chills; the shiver was unnoticeable in the armor. "It's often the strongest wind of a storm.
"The adjustment to Posleen actions is a random effect based upon their actions on Barwhon," the grader continued. "Every now and again they do seem to turn timorous, as you put it. Good exercise," concluded the major.
"Thank you, sir, we try."
"Not that I was going to be able to give you a fail, even if you deserved one." The mahogany face was covered with two inches of plasteel and another two inches of underlayer. But Mike could still see the angry grimace.
"I hope that is not the case."
"Don't worry, Captain, your company seems well prepared for the invasion," the major admitted. O'Neal's reputation as a tactical innovator and near-god of suit combat had only grown since Diess. There were plenty of people in Fleet who felt that O'Neal's reputation was so much bull. The major, at least, was starting to be a convert.
Mike watched his company assembling in the valley as visions of silver fire and swarming yellow centaurs swept across his memory. "I wish I could agree, sir. I wish I could agree."
"Captain O'Neal," the battalion commander's voice chirped in his earpiece.
"Report to battalion, on the double."
"Yes, sir." He saluted the major. "Sir, I have to go."
"Roger, Captain," said the major, returning the salute, "good luck."
"And to you, sir," said Mike. He dropped the salute and took off down the ridgeline, legs blurring into run mode.
* * *
The colonel was waiting outside the command vehicle, a converted Humvee since they had not yet received updated combat shuttles. The first generation of combat shuttles was determined to be deficient even before deployment when the humans discovered that one of the Galactic races, the Himmit, had incredibly effective stealth technology.
The Himmit were an inquisitive species of cowards. Although curiosity might have killed the cat, it never killed the Himmit because they were very, very good at hiding. They had reconned multiple Posleen worlds without ever getting caught. It was a success which humans did not even consider until the first human special operations team went to do the same thing and failed miserably. One small note in the resulting multihundred–page report caused more changes in the war effort than the entire rest of the mission.
The weapons that the Posleen God Kings mounted on their saucer jeeps had continental range and autotargeting ability. While they seemed to have a blind spot where ballistic weapons were concerned, they would sweep away any item under power that crested the horizon. Therefore, tactical operations involving aircraft were basically out the window.
The original teams that designed the Galactic equipment that humans would use, such as the combat suits and the space dreadnoughts, designed a combat shuttle that was heavily armored, incredibly fast and surprisingly maneuverable. But on Diess they discovered it was still vulnerable to the God King launchers; of nine combat shuttles sent to succor then-Lieutenant O'Neal's cut-off ACS platoon, only one survived.
The answer was stealth. Using a combination of human and Himmit stealth technologies a new generation of combat shuttles was being created that would be slightly less heavily armed and armored, but even faster and more maneuverable. Best of all it would be extremely stealthy.
The shuttles had a negative radar cross-section to human systems and only showed up as ephemeral ghosts on Galactic detectors; projectors even smoothed turbulence zones at subsonic speeds. The first prototypes had been fielded on Barwhon, where the humans were engaged in a desperate struggle in the swamps. While they continued to take losses, the rate was much more acceptable.
But until Terran Fleet Strike units received them, the battalions used a mixture of modern and futuristic equipment, such as the converted Humvee with a Galactic communications and battle planning center on the back deck. It affected their strategic mobility, but not local combat.
Colonel Hanson high-fived his Bravo Company commander with a resounding metallic clang! "Airborne, Captain! They're trying to find a fault to discuss!"
"Well, I think I should have salvoed the third fire mission just a little earlier," said Mike soberly. "The wave that made it through the fire on that one caused about three percent higher casualties than it should have. I have got to find somebody to delegate fire control to."
"Well, I'll just have to send you to bed without supper!" laughed the ecstatic battalion commander. All his other companies were performing well within expectations, but O'Neal's performance had definitely been the cherry on the sundae. He had exceeded every pretest estimate of the highest possible marks. "I don't think they're gonna notice that one, frankly, and neither did I. I don't think they can find a thing negative to say."
"I didn't think you could max an FSTEP, sir," Mike said.
"I think you might have set a new standard. But that wasn't what I called you back for." The battalion commander proffered a hardcopy of e-mailed orders. "Nightingale is going to have to deal with the ORS and IG on her own; you've been ordered to CONARC on temporary duty. Your master's voice, I guess."
Mike glanced at the bald prose of the orders. It had Jack Horner's touch all over it.
"Yes, sir, it sure looks that way. Well, the company's as squared away as it's gonna get. When do I leave?"
"There's an evening flight out of Harrisburg direct to D.C.; you're on it."
"Yes, sir. By your leave?" he asked, saluting.
"Get outta here, Captain," chuckled the colonel, returning the salute.
* * *
The flight into D.C. turned out to be a connecting flight full of uniforms. If there was a male of military age not in uniform, Mike thought he should be shot, stuffed and put in a museum as a rarity. The variety of uniforms was a surprise. Although most of the military on the flight seemed to come from Ground Force Guard and Line units—notable by their essentially unchanged United States Army greens—there were also "wet" navy officers and chiefs in black uniforms, Air Force in their blue, and Fleet officers in high-collar black uni-seals and beret. Mike was the only one on board in Fleet Strike blue and red, and felt conspicuous. He was glad that his seat companion, a forty-something female Fleet captain, either did not recognize him or did not care.
After the flight reached cruising altitude, the flight attendants came around with drinks. When the flight attendant passed him the requested Coke, she did a double take, but continued on, apparently dismissing the idea that Michael O'Neal would be on her plane. Afterwards, however, as the plane was just beginning its descent into Washington National, she came forward and did the approved stewardess squat by Mike's seat.
"Excuse, me, sir. I was wondering something . . ." she said, diffidently.
"And that was?" Mike had cycled into a foul mood. Although the company was in good shape for an ORS and IG he wanted to be there to smooth out any wrinkles that might come up. He wanted the company to do as well on the inspections as they did in their readiness test. Although he respected Nightingale's organizational abilities, he was worried about how she would manage the "problem children" in the company, even with Gunny Pappas riding herd. In that kind of mood, he didn't give anyone any slack, much less a stewardess who just wanted to rub elbows with notoriety.
It was the very reason his tunic, against regulation, was totally unadorned with ribbons. He was wearing a Combat Infantryman's Badge, with one star, indicating that he had been in two major conflicts, and a pin that was still so unusual as to be nearly unrecognizable: a half starburst. The pin had been developed by Fleet to recognize persons who had been in the path of a nuclear blast. Despite the fact that it was authorized to both Fleet and Terran personnel, there were not many people vertical who wore them.
"Are you the Michael O'Neal that was on Diess, the one who got the Medal of Honor?" she asked quietly.
"Yes," Mike snapped. "Next question."
"No question," she said with an honest smile. "I just wanted to thank you. My brother is in the Seventh Cavalry. He made it back to the Dantren Perimeter, but he never would have made it out without your platoon arriving when it did. Thank you."
Well, that was an entirely different matter. "Damn, I'm glad to hear that! You know, the armored forces hardly ever get any mention in all the fuss. They stacked the damn Posleen up like cordwood even before we got there and nobody ever gives them any credit. How's he doing? I admit I haven't kept up with the units on Diess."
"They returned his division to the States. He's down with the Texas Guard units, getting ready for The Day."
"Well, when you talk to him, wish him well from me," Mike said with a smile.
"Okay, I'll do that. He'll be happy I stopped."
"Good luck yourself."
"Well, we're from Missouri. From what they're saying on the news, we should be hit lightly. I hope so, but I'm sorry for all the people on the coasts."
"Yeah, most of my people are in the coastal plains. But no place is going to be completely safe, so get yourself a weapon. If they're swarming, you might not even be able to take one with you," he said bluntly. "But if they've been whittled down, it might save your life. I recommend a twelve-gauge riot gun. They've got a kick like a mule, but it's hard to miss with a shotgun at close range and double-ought will take down a Posleen just fine. You may be in the safest spot there is and have the bad luck of a globe landing on you. So get a weapon."
"Okay, I will. Thanks again."
As the stewardess walked away, the Fleet captain looked up from her papers.
"I thought it was you, but I wasn't going to be impolite and ask," she said with a strong English accent. Mike, who had a fair ear for accents and had spent time with the British while developing the ACS program, placed it as Midlands.
"Yeah, well, I'm me, ma'am. I've never been anything else."
"You're going to Washington?"
"Yes, ma'am, apparently General Taylor wants some advice on how to run the war."
"Well, I can't think of a better source for Combat Suit advice. Might I ask you what is causing you to be so caustic, young man?"
Mike let out a sigh, much of his formless anger blowing out with it. The problems he was dealing with weren't the captain's fault. Nor was his own lack of confidence. "Well, Captain, my company is going through an Operational Readiness Inspection and an inspection by the Inspector General's office at the moment and I would much rather be there than giving dog and pony shows in D.C. I gave a bunch of them last year and nobody gave a shit, pardon my French, so I don't know that it'll be any different this time."
"So you're really going to be telling General Taylor how to run the war?" she said with a chuckle.
"I suspect I might be, ma'am, at least from an ACS standpoint. The CONARC commander and I have a long-term acquaintance. The orders came from CONARC at Fort Myer, but I'm supposed to report directly to the Pentagon. Go figure."
"I think you should be happy about a chance for input," she said, puzzled.
"Well, ma'am, the other problem is the difference between tactical and strategic. Although I will admit to being one of the experts at tactical employment of ACS, I won't bet dollars to donuts about strategic employment."
"Just remember," she said, " 'an Army travels on its stomach.' Strategic and operational art are better than eighty percent logistics. Approach it from a logistical standpoint and you'll have them eating out of your hands."
"Okay, thanks, ma'am," he said with a smile.
"Don't mention it." She laughed.
"Captain Michael O'Neal," said Mike holding out his hand, "Fleet Strike."
"Captain April Weston," said the gray-haired battleaxe, "Fleet Line. Command." The period was easy to hear.
"Oh, you have a ship?" asked Mike, interested. Very few of the ships being built for the defense were on-line or would be before the first few waves of the invasion. It was what would make the coming years such a difficult prospect.
"If you can call it that," she said, with a sour grimace. "It's a converted Galactic frigate."
"Ouch," said Mike, with a grimace of his own. "I saw the specs when I was at GalTech. No armor . . ."
"Light weapons . . ."
"No redundant systems . . ."
"Limited targeting ability . . ."
"Well," said Mike, with another grimace, "at least you'll have Combat Environment space suits."
"Great," she said with a snort. "I spend a career fighting my way up through bloody-mindedness and knowledge of the sea, and now I have to learn to breathe vacuum."
"You're a regular?" Mike said, surprised.
"Actually, I was Royal Navy reserve until I made captain when they finally succumbed to the bloody inevitable and switched me to regular. My last command was the Sea Sprite, which, for your general fund of knowledge, is a cruiser. Now I'm off to the boundless depths of space and classes in astrogation. At my age," she concluded, throwing up her hands.