With my throat gone instantly dry, I asked, “Do you have any way to confirm the situation, Major?”
“There’s heavy fighting in that area, Captain. We’ve been taking fire orders for less than a kilometer of that location. They seem to have halted the advance, but the old line has been overrun.”
The enemy was less than a kilometer from them. I could see that news hit Red’s gut at the same time as my own.
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McNeil continued, “It’s night here now. As soon as it’s light enough, we’re sending up a drone to recon.”
“You can’t get in there on the ground?”
“They’re cut off, Captain. They’re in a pocket.”
I asked for an update as soon as he had one, then signed off so I could pass the info to the Road Kings.
“Should we withdraw, Mo?” Ivan asked when I finished.
My gut still felt like it had a knife in it, but I wasn’t ready to give up on Farley’s team. “Pull away and go Meta, but stay within rapid response range. We’re waiting for intel.”
“Roger,” came the reply. It was Martins’ voice this time.
I looked over at Red. Her brows were bunched up in a worried arch.
My voice felt like lead as I told her, “We’re setting up in the galley. We need to tell the rest.”
# # #
Not all of the SCs had gone on the lander. Both of the soldiers with rank of ‘Gunner’ were all-around spacecraft technicians with amazingly wide expertise, but no training for combat. PTO Joss was on the mission because of regs, because neither Farley nor I were certified to command ground troops. Her presence served no purpose on the actual lander, although she had ridden along on the first trip anyway, probably for morale reasons. Karimi was the leader of the tiny ‘squad’ of three special forces soldiers while on the ground. And ESDF medicine is good, but not good enough to have Gereben ready to go. He had a fractured collarbone and five cracked ribs, and he suffered serious bruising in that crushing acceleration without benefit of a gee couch.
So all four were inseparable from the laptop that Red velcro-ed to a galley table with the comm feed running on it. I considered ordering them to go do maintenance on the cargo pod, since we were getting no news, but I decided that maintaining a module which might not have a lander returning to it wouldn’t necessarily help their morale.
My own morale was in question too. I was beset with second guesses. Top on my list was whether I should have let Farley go in the first place. I had let the Sky Boss’s rank intimidate me. The whole ‘a captain is a captain regardless of his actual rank’ thing isn’t just a weird custom. Once he refused to approve my mission– his approval had been required because my ship belongs to Aviation Corps and he’s the senior AC officer in theatre– I could have refused to let Farley’s craft fly off my ship. I could have looked him in the eye and said, ‘it’s too dangerous this way, I won’t let him fly.’
I’ll be honest. I had thought about doing so, and clammed up. I folded in the face of the worry that Farley would embarrass me with some disrespectful jeer in front of Senior Commander Dalca, commanding officer, 18th Carrier Wing, Aviation Corps. In that moment, I couldn’t see the four stripes on my sleeve compared to Dalca’s three. I could only see my Senior Aviator’s two purple bars versus his four gold ones and let it overrule my judgment.
I could also have said ‘enough is enough’ after either of the trips, but I had talked myself into believing it was okay, based upon Farley’s success so far. It’s called ‘complacency’.
Red hadn’t said a word to me since setting up the laptop. She also hadn’t appeared in the galley or the control room. I had no idea what was happening in her mind, but I wasn’t buying the ‘he’s not my boyfriend’ thing. She was a smart girl, and she knew the rules. Which means she could figure out that I could have stopped him. And if she figured that out, she had every right to blame me.
# # #
Dawn came at last to the LZ and we waited for what seemed like another eight hours but was probably less than one for news. I was on my third foil pack of bug juice when the call symbol from Battle Group Eighteen finally appeared. Joss took the call on the laptop, while I moved closer.
“Relay from ground operations for your captain.”
“Captain Resnik is listening,” she answered.
“Go ahead, ground.”
Another voice from outdoors came on. “Captain, this is Senior Armsman Bertrand, two-one-three-seven mobile. Sorry about the delay, sir. Sky wasn’t secure for the high altitude. We had to move farther forward to use a forward spotting drone.”
I was only somewhat confident I understood all of it, but Joss scowled, which confirmed that it was troublesome.
“Quite alright, Armsman,” I answered. “Were you able to find to the target?”
“Operator has just about reached it sir. We’re having to weave around enemy positions We’re sending the video feed to company HQ. Are you receiving the relay?”
“No such luck, Armsman. You’ll have to describe.”
“Yes, Sir. Stand by, Sir.”
We waited for about another minute, then the soldier spoke again. “It’s coming up. LZ is past the next hill. Cresting the rise now. Looks like the area’s been shelled real good. The fire base structures still have an active shield, no shelling in the proximity… there’s the lander, sir. It looks like it’s in one piece… no, I see damage now. Took some hits on the side. I don’t see any sign of crew. It’s about a hundred meters away from the base. Damn!”
There was an odd squeal that sounded like feedback, which then cut off. The soldier came back on. “Sorry, sir. The drone was hit. Total loss. I didn’t see what fired at it.”
“Thank you, soldier. Stay safe until you get back to your unit.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir. Signing off.”
Joss stared at me for a moment. I realized I was clenching my jaw hard enough that it was shaking. I forced myself to relax.
“It is a good sign, Captain. The senior armsman mentioned no signs of impact on the ground. The lander was in the air, so it made it down safely.”
I nodded. “But it isn’t taking off again.”
“The channel is being held open… ” Joss noted. Before I could wonder why, another voice came across. It was McNeil. It sounded like he was indoors this time, and there were a lot of background voices that sounded like they were on communicators with various places. He was probably inside his command center.
“Captain Resnik? This is McNeil. We just got the high res pictures, I understand they didn’t get that video patched through. I’ll have the imagery uploaded.”
“Thanks,” I answered, then asked, “Major, would the armsman have described impact if our lander hit the ground instead of landing?”
“Have you ever seen an aircraft that dropped from two hundred meters?”
“I have. It happens, in combat. I’ll just say, he would have noted it.”
“Understood. Thanks for your help.”
“You guys are supporting a vital resource for us. Damn straight we’re gonna help.”
“Even so, thanks. Higgins out.”
Joss shut off the feed. Then she studied me for a moment. She then stated, “Captain, if the crew is lost, there is a question of responsibility.”
“I’m well-aware of my responsibility, PTO. I should have refused to let him fly.”
She looked confused, then shook her head. “No, sir. The responsibility belongs to the soldier before you. The brass warned that the LZ was exposed to artillery fire in their communications. This soldier… this… I… should have cancelled the mission.”
According to the history books, all living Zindavoor are descendants of individuals rescued from Enemy captivity. Their culture bears deep scars from the social and genetic engineering the Enemy did on them, trying to turn them into a Slave race, before giving up and sterilizing their home world.
If a Zindavoor uses the first person pronoun, they are fighting to make absolutely certain their meaning is clear. They have difficulty with placing any emphasis on themselves or their own opinions.
I scowled. “PTO, if you file the report that way, I will refuse to sign off on it. I considered stopping the mission and chose to let it go forward.”
We stared stubbornly at each other in a sort of stand off, like a couple of weird kids arguing over who gets to take the blame.
“Would you two stop killing them off, Sir and Ma’am?” one of the gunners asked. “We don’t know anything yet.”
I considered his annoyed expression, then grew a wry smile and gave him a nod. “You’re right.”
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