Neutron projectors fire silently in space. Everything does, of course, except that you can hear the missiles deploying while they’re still in contact with your ship. But, once you get into atmosphere, it is a very different story. You still can’t see the pulses of the neutron beams but they have a powerful effect on the atmosphere as they pass through it. It sounds a lot like thunder.
I was firing back at the weapon fire greeting us as we came in on our target, but I wasn’t firing back enough to explain the five thousand meter no-fly-zone. It was all stuff that would give low-flying attack helicopters or light VTOL jets difficulties, but would be weak against a heavy or even a medium atmospheric bomber. Those might not have shields as heavy as a Luna Moth, but they do carry shields.
It was fine with me. I was thinking that the Enemy might be holding fire to avoid getting hit. A squadron of long range patrol fighters is a much bigger threat than a squadron of atmospheric craft. The weapons are much longer range and the missiles are built to damage interstellar ships.
“Target is coming up,” Martins noted.
I started reciting as I did a last double-check of the fire controls. “Two kilometers… mark. Missile armed, target position entered, firing set to semiautomatic.”
‘Semiautomatic’ meant it would launch at the optimal moment, as long as Martins was depressing the firing button when the moment came. It used to be ‘automatic’, but too many times pilots would see something wrong at the last moment, only for it to be too late to stop the missile from firing. So, they gave us ‘semiautomatic’ instead. Same thing, but it only fires at the optimal time provided the pilot doesn’t release the firing button before the time comes. So it’s the same thing as manual, except with manual the missile just fires the moment you press the button.
Ground fire began peppering our shields in the last seconds. I returned fire with the point defense while Martins stayed on target.
It appeared in the valley ahead of us, a squat group of hexagonal buildings and a variety of unfamiliar objects. As groundfire began from the target itself, a whooshing sound and a buzzer announced the missile deployment. Then Martins pulled away. On my scopes, I saw the Sesseem-built storage cell warhead detonate nicely dead-center, sending an enormous plume of soil and debris upward behind us as we rose. When it cleared, if I was reading the screen correctly, we would see that a crater of around 200m radius instead of the Enemy position I had just been looking at.
I’ve killed before. You can’t run up a score of twenty two in a Banshee and not leave a few corpses behind. I’ve become a little numb to the idea. But space-to-space combat is all at very long range. You rarely see the Enemy with your actual eyes, unless you are conducting an anti-shipping attack on one of the big ones. You see it on your scopes, you get data in your nerveware interface, but you don’t see death happen, up close and personal.
Even though I didn’t see the missile itself hit– we were already climbing by the actual instant– I had seen the buildings just the moment before. I felt a pang of something in my gut that I hadn’t felt since my first couple kills.
I blew out a breath of air and shook my head. Now was not the time for it.
“Solo-Three-One-Four-Four calling Foxtrot-Two-Three-Five.”
It was ‘Solo’ instead of ‘Sierra’ for ‘S’ because ‘Solo’ indicates a permanently assigned individual designation in the Surface Corps. They assign them only to special forces soldiers specifically trained for independent single person operations. No surprise, given her record, that Joss was one of those.
“Go ahead,” Martin answered her. It wasn’t flight-related so it should have been me answering, but I didn’t comment about it.
“Landing Zone is clear for approach,” the PTO announced.
Martin blinked, frowned, then said, “Repeat transmission, Three-One-Four-Four.”
“Repeat. Landing Zone is clear for approach.”
Martins looked over at me. “What kind of fire power is she carrying?”
I shook my head. “Just an H&K rifle and a couple ammo boxes. She has some flares and grenades too, but nothing heavier.”
Probably because Martins hadn’t acknowledged, Joss repeated, “Landing Zone is clear for approach. Be alert for lesser threats, but primary threat will hold fire for your squadron only.”
“A temporary cease fire has been negotiated for Foxtrot-Two-Three-Five only. Primary threat will hold fire.”
The incredulous look on Martins’ face would have been funny under some other circumstance.
“She negotiated a cease-fire?” she asked. It was rhetorical, but I shrugged and nodded.
“That’s how I heard it, commander,” I answered.
# # #
Martins took us down while Sharktooth flew cover for us. There was one attempt on us as we approached, but it was from a long ways out, while we were still pretty high. Sharktooth’s second seater and I both returned fire on the hostile while Martins descended fast to discourage any repeats.
It was still pitch-dark, when we landed on our belly jets on the side of the building screened from the nearby enemy positions. It was probably the spot that Farley had used previously for his landings, excluding the emergency one. Low intensity lights came on near a door dug out of the dirt mounded around the structure, and four unfamiliar Surface Corps members came out to meet us along with Sergeant Karimi.
Getting out of a Luna Moth on the ground is a lot easier than exiting either a Goblin or a Banshee. It isn’t much different than getting out of a business jet, actually. You open a hatch on the underside of the craft and a ladder descends. The landing gear are pretty tall, so you only have to bend a little to walk out from under the spacecraft.
The SCs gave us salutes as we emerged, which Martins returned. Right now, I was a passenger, not ‘the captain’, although they would still be addressing me that way. Until we were inside and officially delivered, it was still Martins’ show.
“The warrant officer will show you the gear that needs to be stowed,” she told the SCs, then we followed Karimi inside the building.
The structure was an ESDF prefab, something like an old Quonset hut except made out of composite material. It was a design that could literally be airlifted in a crate, and set up by a few soldiers with hand tools. It wasn’t meant as much to stand up against a bomb as to stand up to things like submunitions and mortars, as long as you could mound up dirt around it as they had done to harden it.
Inside, a line of bare fluorescent lamps revealed a dismal sight. A little over a dozen Surface Corps soldiers, badly wounded, were lined up on stretchers. They included one of ours, Armsman Garza.
Lying there, next to him, was Chief Farley.
An SC second lieutenant came up and flashed a salute that Martins returned with a concerned frown. He gave us a haggard smile.
“Humphries, 442nd Airborne.”
“Martin, 254th Long Range Patrol. This is Captain Resnick. We’re here to extract his men, but…” she looked past him at all the wounded.
He nodded. “We have troops in need of an extract, too.”
I heard the door open behind us and glanced back. It was Red, with the SCs lugging her gear for her. I suppressed the wry smirk that almost came to me when I saw the guys loaded with gear and Red empty-handed. She never has to carry anything herself when there are guys around.
She spotted Farley on his stretcher and grew a troubled frown. I expected to see her go to him, but to my surprise she came directly to me and saluted.
Let me repeat that. She saluted me. I returned it while forcing myself not to show my shock at what was probably the first salute I had received from her in almost two years.
“Captain, all gear is present and accounted for,” she stated.
“Come on,” I said, and nodded to the lieutenant as I walked past him to get to our guys.
Red again mystified me by not going ahead and stooping or sitting at his side. Instead, she held back and I was the one who squatted down and woke him with a nudge to his shoulder.
He roused and frowned up at me. “Cor, skipper, what’re you doing?”
I raised an eyebrow. “Visiting a wounded spacer, I guess.”
“You didn’t land the bleeding ship, didja?”
I laughed and shook my head. “I’m not that crazy. Martins flew us down.”
“‘Us’?” he quoted, then his eyes shifted to see Red behind me.
His eyebrows rose, then he smirked slightly and said, “Changed your mind, Red?”
“I didn’t change my mind,” she answered, sounding a little annoyed. “You’re still a jerk and I’m still over you. I’m just here for my job.”
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