The Kreta pulled silently alongside the hulking mass of the Kessel-class dry dock ship. Beside her hung a Waldberg/M class destroyer, which Wesriedau pointed out as the mysterious Kohl. EVA-suited workmen could be seen flitting around the flat black unmarked destroyer, welding and moving components about. There was a slight lurch as the Kreta finally docked.
946 unseated and gathered their gear. Miner and Freeman went aft to escort the pallet during the transfer. They passed through the gangway into the dry dock, escorted by Lt. Makowsky and several security guards. Per standard operating Procedure there were no ship's personnel from Kessel to meet them during the transfer.
They crossed the second Gangway to the Kohl. The hatch opened and standing on the other side were two crewmen. They wore grubby grease-stained overalls and had scraggly beards. The taller, thinner man wore an old white service cap, crushed in the middle with the NSL eagle emblem stained with grease and sweat. The shorter, female was bareheaded, with close cropped dirty-blond hair and wore a green sweater under her coveralls. Both had the hard eyes, which had seen much combat and undergone much stress. Both wore no expression.
Lt. Makowsky rendered a sharp salute. "Permission to come aboard?" The taller of the two crewmen, flicked his hand, "Come." His personal communicator blinked and he went over to one of the wall mounted communications consoles to answer his page.
The female spoke "Welcome aboard the Kohl. We don't stand much on formality here. The whole ship is crammed with all kinds of gear so be careful you don't screw up anything in your travels. We have a berth for you guys a few bulkheads in. Just follow me and don't touch anything! I've got crew loading your pallet now. Pick up your things and let's go."
Gerard and Lawrence looked at each other and shrugged then started struggling with their gear down the narrow hall. Makowsky wore a scowl.
"Where is the Captain? " He demanded.
The taller man turned from the console. He clicked his heels in a mock salute. "Korvetten-Kapitän Hauser at your service. This is my number one, Leutnant Hrabek. We're very busy here, and as number one said, we don't stand on formality. The crew has been on patrol for two months straight the last few weeks under the most hazardous of conditions, and we've been struggling for days to keep this verdammte mark nine mod working without killing any of us. So lets leave the chicken shit at the hatch, shall we gentlemen."
"Fine by me, Captain", grinned Lawrence. "If we could just get to our rooms and get to work, we'll be happy."
"Very well." Hauser grinned, his teeth barely visible through his scraggly brown and gray beard, flecked with gray. "Hrabek, see to their accommodations. I've got to get down to engineering. The Chief's got a problem with the FTL control interface." Hauser sighed, shook his head, touched his cap and left. 946 followed Hrabek through a number of bulkheads on the way to their quarters. A Waldberg-class destroyer is cramped to begin with. There were cases of supplies, new molding and components welded into bulkheads and crewmembers moving quickly back and forth. Their quarters were cramped, the nine men sharing one space. There were only six bunks.
"The W/C is through there," said Hrabek. "The rest of you will have to sleep on the floor. Through this door is an additional space that will serve as your workspace. It is attached to the storage closet where your pallet has been stored. Any questions?"
"Just two," asked Gerard. "What time are meals and when do we make our next jump?"
"You will find the dinner schedule and details posted on the wall display screen. Can any of you speak German?" Several nodded their heads. "Good, just use the access menu, it is self explanatory. The Kapitän will expect you and Sergeant Lawrence to join him for Dinner in the officer's mess at 1900. I'll send someone to get you."
"As far as the next jump, we have finalized the work on the pinnace mounts and are taking the pinnace aboard in an hour. We hope to be underway within three and making our first transit at 1700." Hrabek turned to go then spun around again. "I would ask that you confine your activities to your quarters and work spaces until further notice. There is a lot going on and we need your people to stay out of the way."
"We'll do that." Answered Gerard. Hrabek nodded and left. Charlie noticed that her overalls were pleasantly tight around her buttocks.
"Hmmm," said Brooks.
Lawrence spun and glared at his commo man. "Brooks, don't even go there..."
"Attention all hands, Jump minus ten minutes, jump minus ten minutes. All hands to jump positions. Internal gravity will be offline in five minutes." Charlie sat strapped into his shock frame, studying an Intel report. He was annoyed at the hassle of jump prep as it cramped the little prep time 946 had before insertion.
"Here ya go Sarge, take this." Molitoris leaned forward and held out a small gray pill to Lawrence. Domotril. It was a fast acting barbiturate that deadened certain motion senses and other selected neural receptors. It made FTL jumps possible without driving men insane as they were torn from the fabric of reality and hurled light years away in seconds. 946 were taking Domitril-B, which allowed them to remain conscious during the jump. This would get them back to work faster, but was much harder on the system. They had to suck it up. Charlie popped the pill past his lips, and cringed at the disgusting taste, which he quickly washed away with a swig of water. Molitoris finished passing out the pills and took his seat. An NSL rating checked everyone's shock frames, then left the compartment.
"Hey Charlie?" It was Ken Mellor, the Intel Sergeant.
"Have you gotten a look at this Kra'Vak OB yet?"
"No not yet, anything good?"
"Well, it's not written in stone, but based on everything they gathered about their ground forces, it definitely shows an interesting organization. According to this thing, they've got a "ritual and inflexible" order of battle. There's about 100 fighters in each clan ground maneuver unit. Weird-ass names for stuff too. Who comes up with this stuff? They're broken up into a number of "strike claws", which are your regular infantry-type squads, "fangs", which are the heavy weapons units, "eyes", which are recon and sniper teams, and "legs", which are support units. They all report to the "skull", which would be like the BC. All their infantry weapons are based on the same railgun technology that their ships use."
"Attention all hands. Jump minus one minute. All systems powered down. Life support nominal."
All chatter stopped as each man steeled himself for the unpleasant effect of warp transit. Charlie had been going through it for twenty years and he never found it any easier. In fact, he worked at not thinking about it, lest he go insane contemplating what they would go through. These thoughts struggled against the heavy daze form the Domotril. He listened to the bridge chatter, piped through the intercom, as was customary, during a jump.
"Jump minus thirty seconds. Jump vector oriented." The Kohl finished its precision maneuvering to align the orientation of the jump field axis with the planned destination.
"Jump minus twenty. Manual interlocks released. Main jump sequencer online. All pre-jump checks nominal. Initiating final countdown." The jump computers handled everything now. No human intervention. Even the main computer core, with its pseudo-sentient neural net, stood a chance at becoming disoriented by transit. So it shut itself down and would reboot once the Kohl reached the other side.
"Jump minus ten, nine, eight, seven..." Now the part Charlie hated the most, the unnerving blue haze that filled the ship about five seconds out. His hair stood on end, his sphincter tightened, his stomach twisted. Think of Anne...
"Two, one, zero..." Charlie felt as if his whole insides were being ripped from within, pouring out his mouth, rushing away. He saw himself flying passed his gaping mouth, stretched obscenely open in a silent scream. He clawed and grabbed out it as he rushed away, through the walls of the ship, watching it receded through space and time, thundering silence, sickening distortion of time and self. Then he saw the ship falling behind him, snapping towards him like a rubber band, colliding with him, himself plunging back into his screaming body, mixing inside his guts with the rest of his turmoil. Screaming...dreaming...imagined... or experienced?
"Zero. Jump completed, initiating reboot." Charlie lay in his shock frame, paralyzed. Would he ever move again? He hoped not. He needed an eternity to rest from the experience.
"Jump plus twenty. Staged shutdowns of drive unit completed. Main cortex reboot successful. . IP scan completed Jump accuracy 92.7%. Command returned to realspace systems. Projected recycle time for next jump: 6 hours, 18 minutes."
Five minutes later, a rating came into the compartment to check on the team. He unstrapped Colin Frament and Molitoris first, and together, the medics inspected everyone's vitals. Warp transit left everyone not knocked out by Domotril-A with an ugly hangover. Lawrence's head weighed a ton. His eyelids weighed twice as much. He pried one open and saw Molitoris, peering down at him with a stupid grin.
"Don't just stand there, get me some fuckin' coffee...."
Shortly after transit, 946 got down to business. The compartment quickly filled up with open boxes of equipment, laptop computers and maps. To an outsider it seemed like chaos, but to 946 it was a carefully orchestrated permission preparation ritual. Gerard and Lawrence sat at the only desk, two laptops, maps and other reference materials perched precariously on its small surface. Mellor worked with a few others and organized and checked all the parachutes and other gear they would need for their insertion.
Brooks and Miner stuck their heads into the cramped and smelly compartment. "Umm, Sarge, could we have a word with you for a minute?" Charlie looked up from his work, annoyed. "What is it?"
"Well, ya better come see," said Brooks.
Lawrence glanced over to Gerard, who shrugged and went back to his work. He wormed his way through the equipment spread over the room and stepped out into the hall. Brooks and Miner stood there, worried looks upon their faces.
"Well, what is it?"
"It's the KiK33," said Miner.
"What about it?" Said Lawrence.
It's busted." Said Brooks.
Busted? How the fuck did it get busted? It was in the case, no?"
"Well, umm, no it wasn't?" Said Miner
"Back on the other ship we did the sensitive items check. After that we restored everything in the pRötective team boxes. Except..."
"Except for the KiK33," interjected Brooks. "I fucked up and left it out, then had put it in my pocket after I realized we had secured the cases. Since we were getting ready to transit I threw it in my duffel bag."
"You did what? Don't you know that's a sensitive item? Shit more than sensitive that's crypto. When it's not secured it has to stay on your person"
"Yeah I know, but we were in a rush so I threw it in the bag and locked it in my locker. Anyway, during the last transit, the contents in the locker shifted and the battery charger shifted and fell on my dufflebag, and it snapped the cable feed ring off the KiK33."
"So you're the commo man slash electronics Guru. You can't fix that?"
"Well, if it was just that, yes, but internally the cable feed snapped off mid chip and it broke the resonator. That's OMS-level maintenance, above even me."
"Shit, so you're saying that the thing's deadlined." Charlie rubbed his chin. The KiK33 was a crypto device that received crypto fills and loaded them into the team's communications equipment. Without those fills, all communications would be unencoded and in the clear. Also the frequency hopping wouldn't work.
"Well can't we just do our fills here before we insert?"
"They're only good for a week. We'll be much longer. I'm going to have to refill the team from the can at some point once we're dirtside. And I can't do it without the KiK33. There's no guarantee that our satellite will survive or be around that long. If we go to the alternate plan and use the MBEs, then they'll be without fill. That means they won't work."
"Fuck. Well you guys know my policy. Don't come to me with problems unless you have a solution. Is there an alternative?" Miner leaned forward. "Well, sort of. The repair of this thing is above our level. But," Miner glanced around... "I've been chatting with one of the petty officers here. We actually hit it off pretty good. Turns out they have a shop here on the ship. Small but we think it could be fixed here. The only problem is, this guy is the only one with the skill level to do the repair."
"No fucking way. That items is classified SECRET NOFORN. You know it, I know it. We can't have one of them even see this thing."
"Look, you wanted a solution, this is the only one we have. Either that or we scrub the mission." Charlie sighed. "Jeez. This shitcans every reg on COMSEC that I know about."
"Hey if we ain't cheatin' we ain't tryin'" Smiled Brooks.
"You, I oughta punch in the head!"
Miner brought it back on topic. "Look Charlie. I'll be there with the guy the whole time, I'll make sure that no recording that goes on."
"And this guy is just going to do it out of the goodness of his heart?"
"I said we hit it off pretty good.
"Well, there was some bartering."
Bartering with what?
"A bottle of JD."
"Jack Daniel's? Where the hell did you get that?"
"Molitoris? That fuckin' alky smuggled on some hooch? Doesn't surprise me. How the hell are you gonna pry it from his hands?"
"Trade what? "
"My Ruger P73. Molitoris may be an alky, but he's an even bigger gun freak."
"The Ruger? You're gonna part with that thing?"
"Yep, it's his when I get back."
"He oughta give it to you for nothing."
"Don't worry Charlie, there's other negotiations on going."
"I don't wanna know. Make it happen."
Charlie slipped back into the compartment shaking his head and grinning.
"What's up?" Asked the Captain.
"You don't wanna know, Sir."
A pasty faced rating appeared at the hatch. "Major Gerard, Sergeant Lawrence, the Kapitän has sent me to escort you to dinner."
"Charlie looked at his watch. Damn it's already 1900. They got up and straightened them selves out a bit. What about the rest of the my men."
"Someone will be along to get them in a few minutes."
"Hey he's a Captain, not a major," corrected Donner.
"Don't you know anything? You can only have one captain on a ship, so the Gerard gets a temporary promotion to major. Standard naval tradition."
"Ohh, never mind."
"All right guys start securing the place for chow. Go ahead, lead on."
They followed the rating up the hall. Before reaching the first bulkhead, they came across Molitoris talking to a few crewmembers. He was showing them his sidearm. They stood around him listening intently.
"Yeah so, the Browning 227 fires 10mm caseless, but I press my own rounds. The standard load out is 157 grain but I squeeze in 172 grains. Gives me another twelve percent stopping power and I pick up two minutes of angle at twenty meters."
"Hey Doctor Doolittle. Put that thing away and get ready for chow. Five minutes."
Molitoris tucked the weapon behind the small of his back and turned to leave. "Ahh yeah Sarge, I'm on it."
"Lawrence and Gerard smirked at each other. Damn weapons man wanna be."
They reached the officer's mess. A single long table occupied the room and the accommodations were cramped. At the head of the table sat Kapitän Hauser. This time he grinned as he stood up.
"Major Gerard, Sergeant Lawrence, greetings. Allow me to introduce my command staff. I believe you have already met my number one, Commander Hrabek." She nodded. "This is Leutnant Bester, my navigational officer." The thin hawkish looking man also tipped a two-finger salute their way. "This is Leutnant Boch, tactical systems." They received a slight nod from the dark haired, block-jawed officer. "Chief Braun, engineering." Another thin scraggly bearded man that looked like he smoked too much and worried about everything. His grin showed a number of yellow unaligned teeth. "Leutnant Krosovic, medical." The balding, pudgy-faced officer smiled warmly at the two men. "And this is Leutnant Waldek. She joined us just after you did. She will be piloting your insertion shuttle." A young woman with close- cropped blond hair barely looked up at them. "Welcome to our mess."
"Thank you Kapitän," replied Gerard. "Allow me to introduce ourselves. I am major Gerard, Commander of Operational Detachment 946, 5th Special Air Service Regiment. This is Sergeant First Class Charles Lawrence, my operations sergeant."
"Major my apologies before for our terse greeting. However as you are aware we are all,...how do you say?... under the gun, to get things going here. Please sit and enjoy dinner."
"That's not a problem, Sir, we completely understand. We're pretty frazzled ourselves." Dinner consisted of potatoes and knockwurst, with boiled cabbage. It was filling if not entirely appetizing. Afterwards they had coffee.
"5th Special Air Service Regiment? I've not heard of that unit before." Mentioned Lt. Boch, who was smoking a cigarette.
"Well, you will forgive the NAC if they are not in the habit of advertising details on their special Operations Forces." Answered Charlie.
Braun smirked. Charlie instantly disliked him. "Yes, of course Sergeant. It is just that one always hears about the 22d and 23rd SAS regiment. They have such a distinguished reputation"
"Well, if you must know, 5th SAS is a direct descendent of the original U.S. 5th Special Forces Group. During the amalgamation we converted to SAS TOE, but retained our numerical designation due to the distinguished heritage of the unit."
"I see you have had to make extensive modifications to take us aboard," said Gerard, changing the subject.
"Yes we have," answered Hauser, "and frankly, these modifications have not all been to the liking of our crew. In order to carry the shuttle that will insert you, we have been forced to remove our main armament, the external missile launchers and internal salve capacity. This leaves us with only one class-one 37mm beam system. However we believe the integrity and effectiveness of our cloaking system has been preserved. Since we are on an intelligence gathering operation, I believe that is of paramount importance. The Kapitän eyed his tactical officer, who seemed annoyed by the whole turn of events.
"Excuse me Kapitän but this seems to be as good a time as any to let you know something." The Chief engineer cleared his throat.
"I'll tell him", said Hrabek. "Well, Sir, giving up all our missile armament didn't sit well with anyone, you especially. However orders were orders. We made all the modifications required and as you know took on the shuttle. However, we have also retained two of the missiles."
"Two of the missiles? And what do you plan on doing with them?"
"The Chief has devised a way to mount them under the sensor array energy transfer cowlings. The shop devised a quick mounting scheme. We've got an interface right into the targeting computer. Unfortunately, they can be launched in the standard fashion. We'll have to drop them off before they execute launch burn. But we're positive they will function normally after that."
"And you authorized this Hrabek?"
"It was my idea, Sir. I take full responsibility for this."
"Fleet would go berserk if they found out."
"And they will, Sir, as soon as they notice the two K-22 missiles missing from the salvo packs."
The Kapitän pondered this for a moment. It was impossible to gauge his reaction. They staff prepared for the worst.
"Very well, excellent work, Leutnant, Chief. Well Leutnant Boch. It looks like we haven't been so neutered as we'd expected. no?
"No Herr Kapitän, it doesn't." Braun appeared somewhat relieved. There is one problem however. The K-22 is designed to be fired in Salvoes. Now I've got two lone missiles, nominal yield 2 kilotons. There is no internal ECM built into the K-22. We'll need to get very close to ensure effectiveness."
"That's your job to figure out Braun. Look on the bright side. You're better off than you were ten minutes ago, nicht wahr?"
"Yes, Herr Kapitän!"
The Kapitän noticed Gerard's interest in the conversation. "You must understand, Major. No one on this ship is at all pleased at the turn of events which have led us here." His face grew solemn. Several weeks ago we stood by helpless as all our komrades were butchered by the invaders. We hid cloaked again as further devastation was wrought on Röt Hafen by these same aliens. The entire crew has been waiting for its time to exact vengeance for these atrocities. Now, instead of taking part in the impending fleet action against the Kra'Vak, we find ourselves with yet another mission of hide and seek. It's frustrating for all of us, regardless of how vital this mission is. We want to fight."
"I understand completely, Sir."
"Leutnant Waldek. Does the cat have your tongue? You have been quiet. Is there something wrong with the dinner our steward has provided?" Waldek shot to attention in her seat. "Nein, Herr Kapitän. Dinner was most excellent. It's just that...I have been reviewing the proposed mission profile for the insertion and I find it most... well I feel that its been hastily put together and frankly we'll be pushing the operational envelop of my craft."
"That's your concern Leutnant. I expect you to make any adjustments you can within the mission parameters, to be able to accomplish the insertion."
"Yes Kapitän, I'm working on that," she frowned.
"Very well... ladies and gentlemen, I believe we need to get back to work. Hrabek how long until our next jump?"
"We are making another jump at 0215, Herr Kapitän."
"Well then, there is a lot to accomplish before then. Off to work."
After the mess broke up, Charlie returned to the team room. Gerard stayed and pulled Waldek aside and held out his hand. "Leutnant, I'm sorry I didn't get to meet you earlier. Tom Gerard."
"Sandra Waldek. Tell me major, are you the one that came up with this insertion plan?"
"No, we were handed that just before we came on board. Is it a problem?
Yes it's a big problem. For one thing, the plan takes into account that we're using a Junkers 22 mod C shuttle. However I have mod B. It is rated for 15% less power output, using the older mod engines. Whoever wRöte the insertion plan left very little power tolerance in the event of a change. This put s me in a bind."
"Yes, that seems indicative of the way this entire operation has been cobbled together at the last minute. However, it is something we're accustomed to."
"Well maybe you are used to it by I am not." Gerard saw her face flushed with anger, which only made her more attractive in his eyes. Not that he let on. He needed to keep this strictly business.
"Whoa whoa," he held up his hand. "Leutnant, let me suggest that you get with our Sergeant Mellor. He's the primary jumpmaster on this operation and he's got a lot of experience in these matters. Between the two of you, I'm sure you can modify the plan to make it work. I have every confidence in the two of you. One way or another we've got to make this drop."
"I'll see what I can do."
"Fine come with me and we'll get to work."
Charlie sat alone in one of the storage bays cleaning his L7A4 assault rifle. He was alone in the room save for containers of equipment and supplies. Life on a ship was naturally cramped, and adding 946 to the Kohl's compliment didn't help the matter. Charlie had been on the go since that call to is house way back when. Running a team takes a lot out of a person. He had to be den mother, cheerleader, diplomat, professor, and a dozen other roles all rolled into one. His people-tolerance meter was pegged, and he needed to be alone for a while.
Not that things weren't going well. The mission prep had come along just fine. Miner had gotten the KiK33 fixed, all equipment was up, the team was ready and in good spirits, and the insertion plan was almost done. The odd thing was that for the first time what worried him was not the mission prep or who was fucking up on the team, or what officer would screw up their mission. No. What worried him for the first time was the thought of dying. Of not coming back. It was pretty clear that having a newborn son changed hi perspective drastically. He knew this would happen, which is why he had waited until the end of his career to be a father. Dammit! He was one month out from retirement, and he had allowed his thoughts to turn to those family and easy living. Then the Army had come by and fucked him. Charlie knew his feeling of melancholy would dissipate as soon as he stepped into the interface shuttle. Once they went to work he would be all business. But damn how he felt now! One of the constant hardships of soldiering was separation from loved ones, and now it came to roost on Charlie's shoulders like a ten-ton weight, adding to his other worries.
"Hey Chuck." Charlie jumped at the voice, and he found Ken Mellor standing in the hatchway, hands in his pockets.
"Ahh, just had to get some solitude for a while. It's the usual "I'm sick of you fucks" part of the mission."
"I hear ya. Missin' the family?"
"You know it."
"Me too. You know yesterday was Joey's birthday."
Charlie looked up from his weapon. "No shit? Too bad you couldn't be there."
Ken changed the subject. "So how do you think the guys are doing?"
"They're doing well, maybe a little abnormal stress, but they'll be ready. Gerard's doing ok also."
"Yeah I like him, he lets the NCOs run their own business.:
"We've definitely worse officers."
"Yeah, remember Chen?"
Charlie laughed. Gawd what a fuck up. Typical Sandhurst dickhead.
"I'd say the only weird thing is the idea of fighting real aliens. I think that has the guys a little freaked out. I mean, it's one thing fighting other humans..."
"But there is something elementally frightening about an unknown species.:
"Well we'll just have to kill one of these Kra'Vak as quickly as possible to show that they're not invincible."
"Hey, look what time it is." Charlie looked at his watch. "Almost time for he final transit." He started putting together his weapon, which had been clean before he even started. "Go get the guys policed up and ready. After transit we'll start gearing up. I'll be along in a second."
"OK, see ya in a few."
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