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George H. Lafferty
One hundred and forty six light years, that was the distance the exploration ship had traveled to finally settle into orbit around the only recently re-discovered planet circling a star that didnt even have a name, as yet, only a number in the astrological chart of stars.
Discovered at long range by a passing warship hunting Hageese marauders, the planet had been left undisturbed for a number of years. Now interest in it had finally resurfaced in light of the loss of some colony planets to the Hageese, as the population exploded and more and more people needed to find new planets and new homes among the distant stars.
The CTC had been fighting the Hageese for habitable planets for altogether too many years now, finding this one deep in CTC governed space was like discovering a gold mine in your back yard. Unfortunately, the Hageese had proved all too often of late, that they could and would sneak marauder ships into that very same back yard to attack existing colonies or discover new ones for themselves.
Now the CTC Survey Ship Wereshark had arrived to begin the long colonization process. Their party consisted of the Captain and his crew of twenty-six men and women and the fifty-two Space Marines assigned to them. All of these people, just to see to the care and feeding of the six multi-specialist scientists who were to determine if this planet was suitable to become a colony.
Only if the many special features mankind needed for sustained life in a new environment existed here, could this planet be opened to colonization, and that was what these scientists were here to discover and decide upon. The right combination of breathable chemicals in the atmosphere to sustain life, potable water, fertile ground, seasonable weather, no indigenous life forms, from the smallest microbe to large predators which might be fatal to mankind. A few of the other things they must have are an endurable gravity for humans to live and work in, no insurmountable toxic plants among many other things, and most important of all no indigenous intelligent life.
Finding intelligent life would immediately rule out any possibility of colonization. The CTC had long ago developed its laws of colonization and while relations could be established with a native society well enough established to open negotiations, most intelligent life discovered to date was either primitive or medieval in the extreme. The one truly advanced race of beings found, were both inimical to and very hostile to the CTC, namely the Hageese, with which the CTC has been at war ever since their discovery.
Eighty-five people an incomprehensible distance from their native planet, here to attempt to open a whole new world to be inhabited by mankind for the Confederation of Terran Colonies.
Many of these tests would be run from space, gravity, air analysis, mapping, terrain analysis, oxygen sampling, weather charting and geological surveying among others. All of this information must be correlated, studied and combined to tight specifications. The very lives of the entire expedition depended on the success of the landing or the failure of the entire mission to this remote star in an unsuccessful survey attempt.
The actual landing could not even be scheduled until the Brains gave the go ahead, if indeed they decided all was well. This period of time was utilized by the marine detachment for continued training and studying any updates on the planet below, while shipboard activity for the crew ground slowly on day after dreary day.
* * *
Eric Duval, Captain, CTCMC (Confederation of Terran Colonies Marine Corp) yelped a curse as he sat up suddenly from a sound sleep, aroused by the irritable buzz of the ships intercom/fone system, and bumped his head on the bulkhead.
Thumbing the voice only switch, in deference to his bedmate, a certain Lieutenant JG Alicia Schmidt, CTCMC, he muttered a somewhat cross Duval here.
Sorry to disturb you Major, (there is never but one Captain on a ship of space and naval custom always raised a Marine Captains title, rather than lowering it and only while assigned shipboard duty) answered Tim Sharpley, the XO, but the Captain requests youre presence in his day cabin, at your convenience, of course.
Right away, XO, ten minutes max, Duval answered.
Oh, and give my best to Alicia, the XO said, with a little laugh in his voice, before the metallic click of the fone being replaced on the receiver ended the conversation.
A low chuckle sounded from under the covers, but no other response was forthcoming, so being in a hurry, Duval climbed out of his warm and companionable bunk in search of a clean uniform.
At the single military knock upon the exterior of his hatch, Captain Aaron Van Schiemann said, Come in Major.
As Duval stepped over the hatch combing into the day room, coming to a military brace which would have made his Boot Camp Drill Instructor proud, the Captain added, and be at ease Major, this is a friendly summons.
Thanks, Van, Duval answered, I was wondering at you calling without advanced notice, my First Sergeant is usually more on the uptake than this.
My fault, I suppose, I told the XO to call you personally.
Oh, no problem sir, I was a little surprised, thats all.
Van will do nicely, if you please, we can dispense with military courtesy this once, coffee, or something a little stronger perhaps?
A beer, if you dont mind sir, its still late evening for me.
Beer it is then and pressing the call button asked his steward to bring two Old Soldiers to his day cabin.
Once they were settled comfortably, with their beers, the Captain said, Eric, the reports are finally in and they look good. We have apparently at last reached the point where the Brains feel very little more can be accomplished without landing this bucket of bolts, and going out sample and specimen collecting, so tell your troops to oil their popguns and be prepared to offer their all to protect our tender hides.
Finally Van, its going to feel good to walk the dirt again and breathe in the fresh air, at least I presume its fresh, if were going down.
Eric its sweet as a daisy, water too. Wide savannahs of native grasses, well over a thousand miles wide, broken only by the occasional river and some respectable mountains off in the far distance. Gravity is so near Earth normal its scary, weather seems to be pretty mild with only light breezes and a few rain squalls to worry about, at until winter, and that looks to be fairly mild compared to where we come from.
Sounds almost too good to be true Van, but I for one, could stand a little bit of paradise for a while.
I understand Eric, I am a little tired of being cooped up inside myself, though you hadnt better let anyone know I admitted that, Van said, with a stern look, though the twinkle in his eyes took the sting out of it.
On the more serious side Van, what about indigenous life, dangerous plants and/or beasties, among a thousand other worries I could dream up?
Its all in the brief, Van said, and youll have about five days to go over it and bring your troops up to speed.
There is still the problem with the armor sir,
No luck in restoring the power supplies, huh?
No sir, Im afraid it is hopeless.
I suppose we will have to do the best we can without armor but I swear, if we lose people because of this REMF screw up. I will personally make sure life from now on for them will be a constant living hell.
Yes sir and Ill have a security proposal ready for you in about three days Van and we can work out any additions, changes or modifications you might want before implementing it. Of course, Ill brief my officers and non-coms in advance, so they will know what to expect.
Sounds good Eric, Im sure you have a pretty good idea what we will need even without the brief. Only the existing local situation will dictate any variance from routine perimeter defense and we wont know about that until we get there.
Right Van and Ill know more about any special requirements after I read the brief, of course.
Alright Eric, I guess Ill let you go get some sleep now. You can pick up a copy of the brief from the XO on the bridge, good night, oh, and Eric, you better stop by sickbay and have that bump on your head seen to.
Good night sir and saluting crisply, Eric closed the hatch gently behind him, while muttering something about late night callers, on his way to the bridge.
* * *
While the landing was routine, that is as routine as landing on a new planet without benefit a space port, all its facilities and ground control approach systems can be, it was still ground fall. Still, after setting out a location beacon to orbit the planet, with which the ship would remain in contact, sending brief status reports as a precautionary measure, the landing was accomplished safely, with little more than a hard bump and two squads of marines hurried to set up a defensive perimeter, while a third squad began setting up the barriers and heavier defenses. The heavy weapons squad under command of Lt. JG A. Schmidt began setting up for directed heavy fire from a mound within the barrier but at a safe distance from the ship. Mortars, heavy machine guns and anti-tank weapons were set up to cover the perimeter, while the last squad split the duties of immediate observation and construction of more and better observation posts.
It was during the securing of the immediate area that a large animal somewhat resembling a rhinoceros, but much larger, came charging out of the grass less than fifty feet from one of the perimeter guards. The Marine opened fire with a full clip from his Standard Issue 4.8 Kilo, fully Auto-Electronic, blow back operated, caseless .10 Mil M-21-A MI (Marine Infantry) carbine, nearly blowing the creature into hamburger. For several days the trooper was labeled the cow killer when the animal was discovered to be a grazing herbivore trying to protect its young. Later this was shortened to just Butcher and became his common nickname.
Lighting the area was no problem with the ship on the ground and acting as a beacon with searchlights sweeping the entire encampment. Wiring harness was run out from the ships generator compartment to the barrier fences to create the strongest force field the ships generators could supply. Though it wasnt really up to military standards and was fast becoming a serious headache, when powered up and holding, it should be enough to stop a small herd of Terran elephants. The troops were alert as you might suspect because the first few days, especially, on a totally new and strange planet are enough to make even the oldest salt among them a tad nervous about the future of his hide and hair. Nerves really began to tighten up as the strange reddish sun began to sink over the horizon that first night.
* * *
They rode through the tall grass on their Unguas, a brute similar to a horse but much heavier in build, especially through the haunches. Big boned, with large chests, these pseudo horses were built for both speed and endurance. Close up one could see the scaly skin of the hind quarters and a look at the head, especially from in front of the beast, would show its greenish eyes, a fast flicking forked tongue and a set of razor sharp teeth no Terran horse ever had.
The riders were humanoid in form, the shortest among them an easy six foot four inches tall, with the tallest easily reaching seven feet and all riding easy in the saddle. Broad across the shoulders with slender hips and long muscular legs ending in four toed clawed feet. With muscles rippling across their chests and six fingered hands also with thick but abbreviated hardened and sharpened claws and with weapons bristling, these creatures were warriors making haste to reach the battle. They had squarish heads, covered with a coarse coal black hair, with a slightly protruding bony forehead and dark slightly slitted cavernous eyes and a long straight nose above a cruel mouth. Though they had the same basic characteristics as a man, they would never be mistaken for human, not even at a glance.
In this day and age one would expect to fight robots or tanks or soldiers with modern weapons but most of these warriors rode their Unguas and carried lances, with heavy long knives at their belts. The remainder of the band carried the heavy knives but instead of lances, carried bows with large quivers of razor sharp obsidian tipped arrows across their backs. That they also owned a weapon that would win for them in the end, they did not even know or understand. Because they were wearing clothing, even if was rather crude, because they made and used utensils, and the tools of war, because they conversed in a spoken language, because they lived in communal groups and obeyed the unwritten laws any people must conform to, to live together, because they planned their strategy, they had the one special weapon which could hold even the mighty Confederation of Terran Colonies at bay. They were an intelligent species, even if aboriginal.
These Nantannas rode with an eager haste and a lust for the blood of the puny aliens who had landed upon their planet in a fiery silver arrow from the sky. Even though their scouts had watched them use seemingly magic rods to shoot fire that killed even the Mantock, the largest creatures of their planet, they rode without fear. That is not to say they rode without caution, for they weaved in and out in the seemingly never ending plain of grass, easily towering over their heads as they leaned low in their saddles, to leave no discernable track toward the alien encampment. Nor did they make noise, they were quiet enough to let the dead sleep peacefully, as the hooves of their Unguas were padded with rags of furs and silence among the Nantannas was universal, though they could speak, they were using only signs to convey their thoughts.
They rode spread wide apart, covering a large area of territory, so as not to trample the grass, for they rode four hundred strong, two hundred and fifty lancers and a hundred and fifty archers.
To the Nantannas, they were but a small party of skirmishers, for they were deep within their own lands and never even considered assembling more of the many thousands of warriors and their families which lived in the great savannah around them.
For hundreds of years they had ridden the Great Plains, since driving out their hated enemies the Hoctawas, a race very similar to the Nantannas. The Hoctawas though smaller in size and build were nearly as numerous as the Nantannas and equally as fierce, though you really wouldnt want to say that where a Nantanna might overhear, if there were any chance he might be able to understand what you were saying.
Over a great period of time the Nantannas had been able to force the Hoctawas farther and farther west, finally driving them into the western mountains, called the Hemets, by the Nantannas, and into the great plains of grass on the other side. Unfortunately for the Hoctawas these lands were already occupied by another nomadic tribe just as big and fierce as the Nantannas, and these Kawabies didnt look favorably upon sharing their land with the Hoctawas or anyone else, including the Nantannas.
For hundreds of years now the balance had more or less held firm. The Nantannas living on one side of the Hemets Mountain Range and the Kawabies lining on the other side; with the Hoctawas holding the mountains, valleys and upper meadows between the two broad savannahs.
The Hoctawas had long since herded a number of Mantock, the huge grazing beasts which somewhat resembled the old Earth rhinoceros, up into the valleys and upper meadows where they seemed to thrive and multiply. The Mantock supplied the main diet of the three tribes, meat and fat, and the hides from which they made their clothes and built their huts. The wooden poles for the huts were a much prized possession, for they had to be transported from the lower slopes of the mountains where they grew straight and tall, much like Lodge Pole Pine of old Earth but were now hard won from the Hoctawas.
The rest of the three tribes diet was made up of various grasses, a wild rice, other edible plants and fish and shellfish from the rivers.
* * *
Eric, Could you break free of what youre doing for a few minutes, I need to talk to you, Captain Schiemann yelled over the uproar around the marine perimeter post.
Aye, Aye, sir, Major Eric Duvall, CTCMC replied normally in the sudden hush. Then in an even quieter tone of voice, See to the repairs, Lieutenant Schmidt, giving her an almost pleading look for help, returned the lieutenants crisp salute and headed for the obviously irate captain of the CTC 3189, commonly known as the Wereshark.
Before Eric even came to a halt before him, the captain said, Belay the formalities Major, just try to explain to me why the perimeter barrier is down again for the third time in the last forty-eight hours.
Aye, Aye, Sir, Eric replied, Its the same old song sir, CTC Govt issue Barrier wiring harness # L25EV240B8 one each. That means twenty-five foot long sections of 240 electrical voltage, eight wire Barrier wiring harness. What they dont specify is the JPJ rating.
JPJ rating? asked the captain.
Yes sir which means how bad is this just Plain Junk. It is packed in plastic pipe to keep it straight and without kinks and comes in three grades, A, B, and C. A- means it is new, just plain junk, straight from the factory. B- means it is used but checked out by the electricians and supposed to be in good working order for just plain junk. And C- means it was found to be defective and has been re-engineered by those same electricians and re-certified, checked out and inspected by quality control and reissued to us as, and the captain even joined in on cue with, just plain junk.
Exactly sir, and that means we keep trying until we work out all the bugs and it holds up, at least for awhile, sir, and then it will be Marine Corps engineered, just plain junk.
Okay, okay, I get the dreary picture, just carry on and do the best you can, said the captain with a faint hint of a smile.
Aye, aye, sir, will do sir.
Each time they thought they had the wiring harness repaired, the marines would throw the power switch and the barrier would light up briefly. A rock thrown through the barrier would light up like a small sun and then explode into dust. But then every time the power would start to fluctuate and when tested it by throwing a rock through it again, the rock would fly right on through the barrier without a hint of trouble, as the power whine ground slowly to a stop. Each time this occurred, the marines would start walking the length of the harness, slowly feeling along the harness for possible breaks in the wiring. Unfortunately, many keen and hostile eyes were watching this from deep in the grass.
Though they had no idea of the technology involved, the Natannas knew some sort of magic fence; after all they built very unmagic corral fences for their unguas, was being built to hold them out. Obviously these sky people were having some kind of problem with their magic and it did not take the Nantanna leaders long to decide to attack before this magic fence was finished.
A scream of pain was the first warning the camp was under attack as a marine died with an arrow driven through his right eye, deep into his skull. Then more marines began to die as a hundred and fifty arrows flew from deep in the thick grass directly into the unprotected camp. These were not wildly inaccurate flights of arrows but well directed highly accurate fire by superbly trained archers with very well built and powerful bows and carefully handcrafted arrows. Very special handcrafted arrows, war arrows, with their tips dipped in a local vipers venom. This was a venom which quickly proved to be as fatal to humans as to the native population of this distant planet.
Due to the totality of the surprise attack, the quiet ferocity of the alien warriors and the superb skill of the archers, very little return fire was managed by the marines. Especially from the heavy weapons mound which seemed to draw exceptionally heavy fire from the archers.
The aliens were fast, very fast, at drawing fresh arrows from their quivers and notching to fire again at their human foe. Over and over again they fired with astounding accuracy. It seemed that, although they had no idea of the capability of the weapons on the hill, they realized they were placed to be supportive fire and they had no desire to find out what those weapons would do if the humans lived to fire them.
The humans stood nearly no chance at all as the larger main body of archers fired at them again and again with that same incredible speed and accuracy.
Nearly, it seemed to the few living marines, as soon as the arrows stopped coming in, the much larger body of lancers were all over the compound, coming in from every direction of the compass. With their heavy lances, also dipped in the deadly pit viper venom and the those wicked long razor sharp knives they literally stabbed and hacked their victims to pieces.
The sheer murderous speed of their lightning fast charge right down the throats of the few remaining marines rendered them incapable of mounting much, if any, resistance and the slaughter was soon over.
Within less than two minutes nearly everyone outside the ships hull, including those on the mound where the heavy weapons were, was dead or dying and then two hundred and fifty lancers charged the compound. There was no yelling, screaming or celebration of victorious warriors, only the pitiful screams and whimpers of the wounded who had not as yet been hacked to pieces by the Nantannas.
Between twenty-five and thirty of these lancers dismounted at the foot of the ramp and dropping their lances, quickly drew the long knives from their belts, swarmed up the ramp and into the ship itself. The horrified screams from the ship slowly died away as the ensuing slaughter took less than ten minutes and none of the Nantannas were the least bit sheepish about decapitating, dismembering or disemboweling their enemies. The ship became a charnel house as the Nantannas showed neither mercy nor pity.
Spurning all they did not understand, the Nantannas then gathered everything left of their enemies into a large pile, all their equipment, supplies, weapons and the pieces of their bodies, all except the heads. Then began a frenzy of digging, as the Nantannas dug under one side of the ship, deep enough to cause the ship to begin to lean dangerously to one side. Then with long ropes made of woven grass, they applied more and more pull until eventually the ship was far enough off level to continue its list and slowly at first, topple over on its side, very near to the pile of bodies and equipment the Nantannas had built. Once the dust and debris had settled, the Nantannas once more surrounded the fallen ship and began to stuff dried grass all around, under and inside it. Before lighting their funeral pyre, the Nantannas rode a wide circle around the ruins of the encampment, deliberately trampling the grasses to dust,. They made their circle wide enough to preclude sparks reaching the rest of the grass so no large grassfire would sweep across the wide savannah.
The smoke, once the fire was lit became even darker until lighted by the huge explosion when the fuel tanks ignited. The fire burned for days and the smoke stretched far across the seeming endless savannah of empty grass, as the Nantannas had at last departed, carrying their three dead and eleven wounded with them, leaving only a cluster of eighty-five lances embedded firmly in the ground, each bearing the grisly trophy of a human head, placed in a flattened out clearing near the circle of fire.
* * *
After twenty-four hours without a recognition signal, the beacon placed in orbit by the CTC Wereshark, activated and began sending out a distress signal that would take months to reach the nearest cruising CTC ship.
It was nearly six months later that orders went out to the CTC Heavy Cruiser Strongarm, to seek out the source of the distress signal and determine the fate of the CTC Wereshark.
Capt. John J. Whittenour, Commanding CTC Heavy Crusier Strongarm, leaned back in his bridge command chair and said, ETA Mister Spielson?
One hour twenty-two minutes sir, approximately, replied Lt. Commander Charles Spielson, Navigation Command.
Approximately Mr. Spielson, youre slipping.
No doubt sir, but the beacon appears unsteady, as if passing through some kind of storm field sir.
A storm in space, intriguing, Mr. Spielson.
Sorry sir, I should have said some kind of space distortion, possibly caused by a magnetic type disturbance.
A magnetic storm Mr. Spielson?
Yes sir, they do occur in space now and then, sir.
I am quite aware of that, Mr. Spielson, but somehow it is much more interesting to picture the beacon being buffeted about in a thunderstorm, lightning flashing, and rain falling with strong storm winds doing the buffeting.
As you say sir, and quite poetic but highly improbable for an orbiting beacon, if I may say so sir.
You may, said the Captain, but I think you are just being a spoil sport.
Once again, as you say, sir, grinned Spielson, as the rest of the bridge watch chuckled out loud.
Well, let me know as soon as you lock it down and also as soon as we match orbit for manual retrieval. Damn pesky this having to send someone out EVA to physically download the information we need. Wouldnt a transmitted code do just as well?
Naval Intelligence thinks not sir. And until we know more about the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of Wereshark, we really cant take any chances.
If it were a Hageese Marauder, Mr. Spielson, dont you think they would simply lie doggo without any emissions and wait to blow us into the same far neighborhood as Wereshark?
While I agree with you personally, sir, Naval Intelligence appears to feel differently.
Naval Intelligence is sometimes an oxymoron, dont you think, Mr. Spielson?
No comment, Sir.
Chicken, replied the captain.
Absolutely, sir, Spielson quipped right back at him and both of them laughed out loud among the smiles of the rest of the bridge watch.
When the laughter died down a bit, the captain said, very well XO, speaking to his Executive Officer, Commander Janice Rice, just to keep Naval Intelligence happy, perhaps we better go Battle Stations until after retrieval.
Aye, Aye, sir, the XO replied, pushing the Emergency Battle Stations Button after answering the captain, to avoid being drowned out by the Klaxon and the following all hands announcement to report to Battle Stations.
Well done, XO, said the captain, I believe that was record time so far for this trip, wouldnt you say?
Not quite sir, but close, the XO replied.
Ah well, maybe next time XO.
It had better be, sir, or Ill have them drilling until it is.
I see you believe in the old saying about idle hands, XO.
Absolutely, sir, she grinned.
Very well, XO, Ill be in my cabin, let me know when we have information retrieval.
Will do, sir, XO has the con.
It was a lot closer to two hours later when the Strongarm matched velocities with the wayward beacon and a Communications Tech, going EVA, finally retrieved the information from the beacon set out by Wereshark. Things tended to speed up after that and within ten more minutes the deciphered text was delivered to the XO on the bridge.
Pressing the send switch on the intercom/fone system the XO buzzed the captain in his quarters and advised him the information from Wereshark was on hand.
Very well, XO, he replied, I will be on the bridge in five minutes.
Well within the given time period the captain entered the hatch on the bridge and Captain on the bridge sang out the XO.
As you were people, and I have the con, XO
Aye, aye, sir, captain has the con, piped the XO.
Now Janice, lets see just what we have here.
Aye, aye sir, she replied, handing the message board to the captain, then stood trying to read the captains expressions as he read the material, pure curiosity written all over her face.
Hmmm! murmured the captain, not much here to go on. Then more silence as he continued to read the board and a look of concentration covered his face as he tried to figure out what he could out of the sparse information before him.
I would say we have a minor mystery on our hands here, XO. It seems the Wereshark landed, co-ordinates listed, began normal operations to establish a base camp, and then without further signal to the beacon ceased all transmissions, which state of affairs remains constant up to the present.
Thats all there is sir? asked the XO.
Im afraid so, XO, replied the captain, and you say there is no sign of the ship groundside?
No sir, nothing big enough to be a survey ship, or any other type of ship for that matter, shows up on the scanners, just a small blip from some sort of metal, looks like a small amount of some sort of debris.
Im beginning to get a very bad feeling about this XO, lets keep up Battle Stations until further notice.
Aye, aye, sir. Janice said and reactivated the all hands alarm once more.
Also go active on the sensors, as well. If there is anyone out there, they know we are here, so I want to know if they are out there hiding in the woods, so to speak.
Aye, aye sir, She replied, and passed the order to activate all sensors to maximum range, to the Tactical Section.
Lets go people, I want it all, Communications, tracking, Radar, Sonar, Lidar and Laser Sweeps all sectors. Lets do it people, lets lightem up. If someone blinks out there, I want to hear their eyelids flap.
Tracking all clear, sir.
Radar all clear, sir.
Sonar all clear, sir.
Laser Sweeps all clear, sir.
Lidar all clear, sir.
Communications all clear, sir.
Very good people, now keep up the good work, lets not let any party crashers get too close. Then to the captain, apparently there are no hostiles out there sir, or anything else for that matter.
Very well, XO, now please inform Battle Staff of my compliments and to meet in my day cabin in twenty minutes, you too XO and make sure Col. Kinkaid is cordially invited to attend and Ill be in my cabin until then.
Aye, aye, sir, XO has the con. And then to the bridge watch as the hatch clicked shut behind the captain. There goes the neighborhood, Jarheads will be at the party folks. Lock up your spouses and your valuables, let your hair down and come as you are, oh, and you better hurry, if I know my marines, all the good beer will be gone in about thirty seconds.
After all the laughter died down, the XO said, Commander Spielson you have the con, Ive errands to run.
Aye, aye, sir, Navigation has the con.
* * *
At ease ladies and gentlemen, please take your seats and lets get this show on the road. Ill tell you what type of situation I feel we are facing and then well open this thing up for discussion and hopefully some good ideas on what to do about it, said Captain Whittenour.
Okay, here goes and this just a theory but it is what makes the most sense to me. As you all already know, we dont really have a dearth of information to work with but a few things we do know. No contact with the beacon since landing, no debris, at least not up here in orbit, no sign of any hostile outside presence and that leads me to believe that whatever happened, happened dirtside.
Look, this an unexplored planet almost one hundred and fifty light years from any other civilized planet. That means there could be almost anything down there, anything at all and whatever is down there appears to be inimical to and fatal to human life.
Then you believe there will be no survivors down there to find?
I dont intend to assume anything of the sort, or anything at all for that matter but I am very much afraid that this is what will turn out to be the case this time around.
Well, the what exactly do you have in mind sir?
First let me hypothesize a little, lets say the Wereshark completed their investigation in orbit, completed all their testing to the point that further progress depended upon soil samples, specimens, etcetera, in other words a landing. This would explain their going dirtside, as we know they did from the beacon and it would also be SOP (standard operating procedure) for a colony survey ship.
That seems fair enough, sir but then what, all that does is leave us right back at square one. In other words we still know nothing, Said Lt. Commander Sterns, Intelligence or G2 aboard the Strongarm.
Well, we know something got them, dont we, quipped the XO.
At ease and let me finish rambling, said the captain, and it does give us a starting point because I believe this means that whatever happened it was dirtside that it occurred.
Makes sense, said Sterns.
Im glad you think so, said the captain, and it also gives us a frame to begin working out the solution, all we need do is fill in the frame.
The XO grinned and said, Am I to assume we are going down to find out what happened and if so, are we going in fast, hard and dirty or slow and with caution?
In this case, I think what I want is a little of both, XO. Col. Kincaid, I want your marines, the full company and support, in full powered battle armor for the skirmishers, unpowered armor but with full life support for the rest of your personnel. You know better than I what weapons and equipment your people will need and how to go about a hostile landing and establishing a foothold in enemy territory. Ill want a plan of operations on the XOs desk in thirty-six hours.
Aye, aye sir, answered Colonel Ralph Kincaid CTCMC, commander of the full, augmented, company of CTC Marines aboard Strongarm, (augmented by a full platoon of heavy weapons specialists and all their equipment) and if I may be excused to carry out my orders, thirty-six hours requires no wasted minutes.
One moment, if you please Col., I also want two armed pinances flying in armed support with a third assigned to make any ground contact with the skirmishers or medical personnel, also armed, to the teeth I might add. Now, you can go.
XO, Ill also want two flights of two Viper Sting Ships flying cover for the pinances and troops with two more flights of two ready for immediate launch from orbit from Strongarm. And yes XO, Im afraid that means alert pilots in the cockpits.
Commander Halston, I will want your combat doctors and their medical personnel in full contamination suits, fully equipped and ready to go in behind the marine skirmishers. Full operations plan on the XOs desk with the same time requirement.
Commander Sterns, I will expect you to gather any and all information you can as to terrain, weather and anything else you can find for the assault party, operations plan on the XOs desk, time requirements the same.
Aye, aye, sir.
XO, as well as seeing to the obvious usual minutiae, such as a hot meal and coffee for everyone aboard before launch, this will be your party once dirtside. I do insist, however, that any personnel debarking onto this deathtrap of a planet be wearing full life support, so think in terms of a minimum of unpowered armor or decontamination suits. Also, you will of course have a plan of operations which embraces all the other department plans of operation, on my desk in forty-eight hours, understood?
Aye, aye sir.
Lieutenant Caradine, as Supply Officer, you and your people are going to be busy taking care of the needs of the rest of the assault party. I will expect a full account of all arms, ammunition, equipment and supplies issued.
Aye, aye, sir, replied Lieutenant Robert Caradine Materiel Manager for the Strongarm.
Oh, and XO, I want you to find out all you can about what happened down there, what that suspicious debris is and whatever else you can find in the least amount of time possible. I have no desire to allow whatever or whoever is down there time to work up and execute any detailed plan of attack. Then I want extraction back to the ship of all ships personnel, to include everyone who left my ship in the first place, alive and well, if at all possible, understood?
Aye, aye sir, any specific rules of engagement?
The rest of you are dismissed to attend your duties, XO, you stick around, we will work out the ROE and you can pass it along to the others post haste.
Aye, aye, sir.
The rules of engagement for this op have to be defensive only in nature. Mind you, I want our people protected, if necessary, but I want no indiscriminate fire, no aggressive action and no action at all if at all possible. In other words, and Im sorry as hell to have to stick our people with this, fire only if fired upon and only long enough to extract our people out of there.
These ROE are intended for a hostile element you can defend against but keep in mind the villain in this situation may well be a microbe or something of that nature, hence the full life support for everyone.
I suppose that is a possibility, sir, but with the caliber of specialists they had aboard Wereshark, I can hardly believe they wouldnt have discovered something like that in time to protect themselves long enough to extract or at least get off a signal to the beacon.
The point is XO, we just dont know do we? So lets try to keep an open mind until we do and try to be prepared for anything.
Oh, wait a minute, are you thinking there may be intelligent life down there?
I think it may be a distinct possibility, XO. As I see it there are only four possible explanations; one; some sort of microbe, virus, bacterium, or something they didnt detect. Something that proved extremely and rapidly fatal to both the personnel and their ship. Personally, I dont put much faith in that one either. Two; Although there are no Hageese present as far as we can tell, at least not in space, that does not preclude them having dropped a contingent dirtside to hold the planet for their own future colonization. Three; Some kind of animal life form we have never run across before that attacks and destroys anything that moves and is large enough to destroy an entire ship and do all this in one quick hurry. I dont put a lot of faith in this one either because I cant see this happening, much less happening so fast a full squad of marines cant slow them down long enough to extract or, as you said, at least get off a message to the beacon. And fourth; an intelligent, though it must be pretty primitive to not have villages, towns or cities visible from space, i.e. lights at night, much less any kind of communications that could be monitored from space. But intelligent just the same and with the skills, cunning, massive forces, and implacable hatred for anything new or different, enough hatred to kill and destroy. Judging by some of the representatives of our own race, and past Hageese activity, I would have to go with scenario two or scenario four but I have no idea, which is the situation down below.
Understood sir, and with these thoughts and the ROE in mind, how soon should we plan the landing?
I think within forty-eight to fifty-six hours, XO, and I will give you thirty-six of that to get everyone together and work out all the fine details. Then, within forty-eight hours, I want a copy of the ops plan on my desk to include all the expenditures of launch, equipment, timing, personnel, fuel and ammo, you know the drill, and I want you at my desk far enough prior to launch time to give me a chance to go over it with you.
Aye, aye, sir.
Fine, carry on XO and get the job done for me, safely and with all my people still alive and kicking, Okay?
Aye, aye, sir, and amen to that.
Good XO, then youd best be about it, times a wasting.
* * *
Pinances to be prepped, fueled and armed, Vipers also to be prepped, fueled and armed, powered armor and non-powered armor to be warmed, inspected and assigned, heavy weapons and issue weapons to be cleaned, oiled, and inspected, there were a thousand and one details to see to and both the crew and the marines turned to with a will.
The officers and non-coms were even busier yet drawing up tentative planning for the landing, troop disbursement, safe zones to be established for those who must investigate the site, keeping track of all supplies and ammo issued, and generally harrying the troops to keep busy and get their kit in order. Shifts had to be established to keep the people from running all over each other and to keep the effort going around the clock while still allowing everyone time to get fed and rested, as well, for alertness and fitness were bound to play an important role in the upcoming mission.
Everything must be planned to last a minimum three days, though the mission was to be scheduled as a fast in and out of no more than three hours duration.
No survey ship this but a large Man Of War, a heavy cruiser of the line, capable of spreading enough death and destruction to completely annihilate the planet below if that was to become necessary, and with a full company of veteran marines aboard, able to land forces on it, take it and if need be hold it against all comers, at least for a short period of time, which would hopefully be long enough for reinforcements to arrive.
All this plus six Pinances and twenty-four Viper sting ships in the ships hanger bays, for air cover and ground support or with the aid of the Strongarm herself, with her missile, torpedo, laser and graser banks, to obtain and maintain air superiority.
Her sheer size precluded her own landing of course, built in space, she was never designed to make landfall anywhere and could have easily taken the Wereshark into one of her hanger bays.
Captain Whittenour himself conducted the first part of the briefing to the troops about to descend into the unknown situation on the planet floating below them.
Alright ladies and gentlemen, I know you are all hyped up and full of piss and vinegar, ready to go take names and kick ass but I want you to think before you make any moves at all down there. I want caution exercised at all times and I dont want any of you to place yourselves or any of the rest of the party in jeopardy by doing anything foolish.
While we have no idea what the true situation is, I want you to act as if the problem is an intelligent species just too damn dumb and murderous to know who theyre messing around with. So dumb, in fact that they wouldnt hesitate to kill you because they have no idea of the retribution in store for them, if they do. BE CAREFUL people. I want this operation to run by the book all the way down the line. I have no use for heroes and I have no intention of issuing any medals or recommending any higher up the chain of command. Only one thing will impress me and that is if all of you come back in one piece.
We are going to land on what we can only consider a hostile planet, take over a small patch of it and hold it until we have completed what we went there for in the first place and that ladies and gentlemen is because we lost one of our own down there and we want to know what happened and why, and if any of them are still alive and we are going to go find out, come hell or high water.
Good luck and God bless you, one and all. Now, your unit and section commanders will brief you on all the minutiae.
The captain only half listened to the drone of voices as each step of the operation and the specific duties and assignments were laid out for each person in the party. Missions for the Pinances and Vipers and theyre call signs were laid out once again, and orders for the skirmishers were emphasized, until finally the XO finished up with the age old military, okay people, listen up, you know the drill, I want this on the bounce and by the numbers, now lets move this op out, go, go ,go.
* * *
The first Pinance landed just outside a large fire blackened circle with only the first small shoots of green starting to reappear in the burned off area. The other two Pinances flew high cover while the two flights of two Viper Sting Ships made crossing patterns in close in ground support. The skirmishers debarked in their powered battle armor suits and immediately moved out to establish an outer circular perimeter of defense. As soon as the last of the skirmishers had cleared the safety zone the Pinance made a high speed dust off and screamed up to altitude. Once the first Pinance reached altitude the second Pinance landed to disgorge its load of inner circle perimeter troops wearing the tough but unpowered armor and the medical troops in their full decon suits, where they immediately began setting up s mash unit for field emergency care for any possible wounded.
As the second Pinance accomplished dust off and made rendezvous with the first Pinance, the third made its landing. Only half the people aboard this ship disembarked as this was the XO and his body of investigators with a small section of marines for immediate protection also in full powered battle armor. The rest stayed aboard as the third and last Pinance dusted off and screamed up for altitude, these were a full squad of marines, also in powered battle armor, who were to serve as a rapid response team to be dropped as reinforcements for any hot spots that might develop.
With the air and land cover in place the XO and his party headed into the burned out area, towards the obvious wreckage near the center of the blackened area.
I guess this was a ship, XO, though it is really hard to be sure, there sure isnt much left, said Lt. Commander Sterns.
Oh, it was a ship alright, answered the XO, but whether it was Wereshark is still debatable, though one would have to assume it is, as Wereshark is the only ship missing that we know of.
Lieutenant Barkley, said the XO to the young officer from astrogation, who had been assigned to his investigative party, take a couple of men and scout around but dont stray too far and keep your marines between you and the tall grass.
Aye, aye, sir, answered Ensign Tibetts, of engineering, gathering a couple of the ensigns and three of the marines with his eyes and heading towards a strange looking cluster of growths not far from the burned out area and in a seeming clearing of their own.
Meanwhile, Stearns, lets you and I see what we can discover about this metallic mess we have here. See if you can find anything at all that will ID this thing. You start to the left and Ill move to the right and well meet on the other side of this heap of junk.
Aye, aye, sir, said Stearns, already poking and prodding as he moved off to the left.
Col. Kincaid, hollered the XO.
Aye, aye, sir, answered the Marine Colonel, moving rapidly over to where the XO was poking at the ruble.
As the Col. Arrived, the XO said, Col. get the lab crew over here and have them start checking for remains, I swear I can smell burned flesh in this mess. Oh, and you might have some of the metal workers from engineering start working on some of the larger chunks of metal, maybe they can recognize something.
After only a few minutes of poking and prodding the XO was interrupted by a young marine who was slightly green in the face and seemed to be struggling mightily not to regurgitate right on the spot.
Excuse me sir, the marine said, I think you better come look at this sir.
Come look at what son, easy now, calm down and concentrate on me, said the XO.
Aye, aye, sir. Ill try, sir, but its hard sir. Its heads sir, human heads, lots of them, choked out the young marine, all stuck up on poles.
* * *
So thats about the size of it sir, said the XO, I had the Med Staff bring back the heads for DNA comparison with the DNA files on record for the people from Wereshark, but I feel there can be very little doubt, one wrecked ship, samples in engineering for analyses and eighty-five human heads can only be whats left of Wereshark.
I agree, XO, have engineering get started on a dozen buoys with transmitters to send out a constantly repeating message warning all ships away from the planet. Something to the effect of, Warning, this planet is off limits to all ships and persons for any reason. Intelligent life on this planet in a primitive state. No interference with this race of people will be tolerated by the Government of the CTC. Warning, indignant life on this planet is primitive and extremely hostile. This planet has been sanctioned as a quarantine planet. Have it repeat this in English and then in Hageesh upon proximity alert of any approaching ship. Do so on my authority until we reach base with the results of the mission. Well leave these buoys in orbit, scattered around the planet, until some sort of picket duty ships are assigned to protect this hell hole.
Aye, aye, sir, will do.
You did a fine job XO, you have my gratitude for bringing all my people home safe.
Thank you sir.
Navigator, aye, sir
Plot us a course for Sector Base Three, were going home with a full report.
Aye, aye, sir.
And as Strongarm broke orbit and began to accelerate towards the hyper limit the XO said, Somehow I just dont like it sir.
Whats that, XO,
Well sir, I expect even the greediest CTC ships will obey the beacons, maybe, but somehow it sounds like an open invitation to the Hageese. They arent going to care what the CTC thinks of their policies and somehow I doubt if theyll have any qualms about taking over an inhabited planet, especially one where the inhabitants are so primitive.
You are probably right, XO, but the only Hageese ships likely to be this deep in CTC space are a few marauders and those travel alone or in pairs, at best, and they are small ships, not a lot larger than Wereshark.
Yes sir, I know that, but they still do carry theyre share of marines, if only a small detachment.
True, XO, but if they try to drop a contingent of marines to hold the planet like we were originally afraid they might have, it will by nature be a small force and somehow I feel the locals will handle any Hageese who are silly enough to stick theyre heads in where they dont belong.
©March, 2006 George H. Lafferty