Dirlwanger and his group waited grimly for what he was sure must come. He was surprised as his watch passed fifteen minutes since the first explosion and still no enemy had arrived. At twenty minutes he was beginning to think they might get away, when one of his lookouts shouted. "Six vehicles coming down the main road from the south. All armored GEVs!"
They waited in silence, tracking the relief force through their weapons sights as it rapidly approached the command-detonated mine. A few seconds before they passed, the building on one side of the street exploded in a tremendous roar and collapsed into the street. The first vehicle in the formation barely made it past the collapsing building, but the second was buried in the rubble. Thick dust and smoke obscured the street. They opened fire into the darkness. The one vehicle that had made it through stopped and spun with amazing agility. It fired into Dirlwanger's position and two men were killed instantly.
"Pull back! Pull back! Let's go!" The rest of the partisans scrambled from behind their positions and tore off at a run to their next assembly point. Dirlwanger was last. He was just too old to keep up with the youngest, plus he carried the detonator. In a last glance back, he saw Kra'Vak picking their way across the rubble and emerging out of the dust running towards his old position. The GEV had pulled right up to the building and was firing at point blank to cover the infantry's assault. Dirlwanger ran around the bend of an alley just as a explosion from a Kra'Vak rail gun chipped of a piece of wall above his head. He pressed button one on his little console and another tremendous explosion destroyed the building that had been their initial position. He hobbled down the alley, a few meters from the assembly point. The remainder of his men, kneeling or squatting behind cover. Behind him he could hear the whine of repulsor motors as a GEV tried to follow them down The alley. Over head he heard the roar of a skimmer. The chase was on.
It took twenty minutes to get to the outskirts of the city. As they moved away from the ambush site, the sounds of Dirlwanger's action receded, though punctuated by an occasional explosion. Miraculously, nothing had come their way yet.
The greatest risk came when they left the outskirts of the city. There was a two hundred meters of open rolling moss-infested terrain before they reached the foothills. They sent small groups of five or six across at a time, and were forced to hug the ground several times as flying craft were heard. But most were heading towards the fighting.
Their entry into the outback was through a deep ravine which, when entered provided a relatively covered route away from the city. In an hour they had covered an additional two kilometers. Here they stopped.
"We'll never get away with this huge a gaggle. We have to split up". Observed Lawrence.
"Agreed", said Matthais, breathing hard.
"I have a proposition", said Mills. "We split into three groups." The first group is the Special Forces personnel, the captives and enough of us to carry them. We head straight back to our patrol base. The second group will be the wounded with some people to carry them along. We'll be moving slower and begin making the long trip back to the resistance nest. The third group will be the rest of the freed workers. We can take them on yet a more circuitous route. This will thrown off any trackers and allow your men to make the fastest possible time."
"Sounds like a good plan", said Lawrence. "But who goes where?"
"You're whole team goes with the prisoners."
Frament and Molitoris were working on casualties within earshot of the conversation. "I can't leave these people", said Colin. "Some of them will die if I do".
"There's no choice. We have to make better time."
"No argument there, but someone has to treat these casualties. I'll stay with this group. Molitoris can go with you guys and monitor the prisoners."
"Yeah but who's gonna cover your ass?"
"I've got Rudi and Hans with me. I'll be alright. We'll link up back at the base".
Gerard and Lawrence were against splitting up their men but they had to think of the casualties and maintaining rapport with the partisans. "Ok, you go with them. Who leads the other group?
"I'll take them myself, said Matthais. We'll link up in a few days back at the base".
"Well alright then let's get moving." Said Gerard. They picked themselves up and sorted out into their groups. The first group, with 946, totaled 25 and included the two traitors and the still unconscious purple Kra'Vak. They moved out first. The second group with the wounded was made up of Colin, 18 partisans and unhurt ex prisoners, 15 ambulatory cases, eight of which had to be carried. The third group, led by Matthais, consisting of ten of his men and the remaining 25 freed prisoners, set off in a different direction.
Before they left Charlie pulled Colin aside. He put a hand on his shoulder.
"Listen up, brother. We can't afford to lose you."
"I'll be alright."
"I wouldn't trade all of these guys for you."
"I know that, but I have a job to do here. Man, quit worrying. Rudi and Hans will cover my butt."
"Well, be careful. We'll see you in a few days."
After Charlie walked away, Miner walked up. "Hey Colin."
Colin was already walking back to his patients. He spun. "Yo?"
"Here. This'll help keep you going."
Colin walked to his friend and accepted the bag of Gorp. (A trail mix made of nuts, chocolate bits and dried fruits.) "Thanks man. Now I know I'm doomed if you're giving me your chow."
"Yeah well. Don't eat it all at once." They shook hands and parted.
The Köhl drifted silently through the vast emptiness of space. Even in a solar system with as many ships as Röt Hafen, she was nearly impossible to spot. Her most vulnerable moment had been the warp transit. As soon as the ships main cortex has rebooted it had activated the cloaking device. Sensors had detected no enemy in the area.
The run in to the planet had been uneventful, if tense for the crew. Only the sensor specialists were busy, cataloging everything they could with their passive recording devices. Already they had catalogued 48 different sensor contacts, which could be classified as ships. With only passive measures available it was difficult to determine the exact nature of each contact but these would be passed on to fleet intelligence for a more detailed analysis.
There was little radio traffic coming from Röt Hafen considering its size. That did not bode well for the population. They noticed that there were a few more satellites in orbit, no doubt planted by the Kra'Vak. As they approached the planet, they could receive more detailed information on the space station. There were many Kra'Vak ships in the station's vicinity It was reasonable to assume that they had taken it over for their own purposes.
Hauser's hopes sank as they got within sufficient range to confirm that their satellite was no longer in orbit. They were well within the time window for transmission. The BzKh11 was to have released a single transmission canister into a higher orbit for a burst but that never came. A detailed studied of the orbit it was supposed to be occupying came up with no traces of the clandestine satellite of anything for that matter.
As the Köhl slipped away from Röt Hafen, hopes for making contact sagged. Still there was the narrow possibility that the emergency contact would be made. That seemed unlikely. Hauser believed that the mission had been compromised on insertion and the shuttle as well as the Special Forces team either were killed or captured. Still, they were getting some good intel off the sensors. That would be something.
Brooks finished his pre-operational checks on the data cone of the MBE (Message Beacon, Emergency). He took the message disk and loaded it into the MBE's message memory. He checked, then double-checked that it had been loaded correctly then packed the cone away into the carrying case with the rest of the MBE. It was early enough that he could still catch three hours of sleep before they had to leave for their third, and probably futile attempt to make commo.
He was depressed by the whole situation. Every special operations commo man had it drummed into him that no matter how successful the operation on the ground may be, if you didn't make commo, then the mission was a failure. Even if the problem lay beyond his control, he still was responsible. Well there was no use worrying about it now. There was plenty of time for that tomorrow after he sent up the MBE. Oh but wait, he thought, by then I'll be worrying about the fact that I just let everyone on the planet know more or less where I am.
946 rested in a small cave. Mellor, Mills and Molitoris were gathered around one of the traitors peering at him with a flashlight. Two others guarded the prisoner and the Kra'Vak while a third guarded the opening. The rest slept. The man was finally regaining consciousness after several stim shots given by Eric. Attention was drawn to the odd metal circular disk that seemed to be implanted in the side of his head. Mills and Molitoris were kneeling beside him while Kenny stood.
"What do you make of that?" Asked Mellor.
Eric studied the device and the work that went into implanting it. "Hmm. I'm not sure what it does but they did a crude job of sticking it in him. Check out around the sides of the disk. Then skin is red and irritated. At two spots, here and here, you can see where it is suppurating. Looks like whoever put this in either did a rush job, doesn't give a shit about the patient, or isn't that familiar with human physiology. Or all three."
"I think this device is how they are controlling all their handlers."
"Yes", said Mills. "How else could they get so many to help them? And it makes sense. Through this device the Kra'Vak can probably pass messages to the handlers that they pass onto their slave workers."
Eric studied the wound and the device a bit further. "That could very well be. Makes sense."
"Hey, he's coming to."
The traitor was a heavy-set man in his mid forties, his close-cropped gray hair and a thin moustache. An ugly scar ran along his left cheek. Apparently a souvenir from some long past knife fight. He opened his eyes and squinted in pain at the bright light of Eric's flashlight. He looked around then looked at the three around him. His situation was immediately clear. Wild fear gripped the man. He was in the hands of the partisans. He started hyperventilating.
"Nicht Shiessen, nicht Shiessen!" He proclaimed
squirming in an attempt to crawl backwards.
Mellor stepped forward and placed a boot on the man's chest and pushed him flat to the ground and shoved his rifle in the man's face. "Shut the fuck up! What's this fucker saying Don?"
"He asking us not to shoot him." In German. Mills replied, "We won't shoot you if you cooperate fully. Anything less than full cooperation and I'll turn you over to the rest of the partisans. You can imagine what they want to do to you, no?"
"No problem, no problem, I cooperate. It's not my fault. It's not my fault. They made me do all these things. You see?"
"No I don't see", answered Mills, after translating.
"They've put this thing in our heads", he touched a finger to it and winced, "Aye, it hurts! They tell us what to do. I can hear them speak and they can understand what I hear. I don't know how this device works but it does. I had no part in all this. I was merely being used. Please, you must make the others understand. Please!"
"What are they doing here? Why are they here?"
"I don't know, I don't know. I've been working with a construction detail at the spaceport. They can understand what I think, but I can't understand what they think. Only what the want me to. Please, you have to remove this thing from me. They'll come for me."
That perked up Mills. "Can they track you with that thing in your head?"
"I don't know!"
"What kind of construction were you doing?"
"I'm not sure. We were building alien structures to their specifications. They were passing the directions through me. I'm not an engineer. I never even finished Gymnasium. But I talked to others at night when we were off duty. I think they are building a repair facility or some sort of supply base here. Some have been forced into orbit to work with slave crews transported up there. They never come back. But I think there is a big facility up there too. I've seen many ships land and take off at the space port."
"Have you been staying at their base downtown in the evenings?"
"Yes I have."
"How many of you are there?"
"I don't know. More than a hundred. There was over eighty in our living area alone, but there are other areas."
"How many Kra'Vak are there that you know of?"
"A lot. Hundreds, maybe more. I've never seen them all. But I have seen…ughhh ughhaahhaaahhh!" He grabbed his head in pain, then his temple ruptured out, splattering brains and blood all over Mellor's legs.
"Son of a…!"
"Get down!" In a flash, Molitoris had his pistol out of his holster and fired two rounds into the Purple Kra'Vak head from across the room. As soon as the man's head exploded he looked up and saw the Kra'Vak, trussed up as he was, had regained consciousness and was holding something in his hand pointing it at their prisoner. Both guards had dozed off.
Everyone was awake and hugging the ground. Molitoris walked over to the Kra'Vak, pistol trained on it. A quick inspection showed that it was dead.
Mills ran over and kicked both guards. "Idioten! We've lost a valuable prisoner because eof your incompetence!" He was so angry that he fumbled with his holster trying to remove his pistol. Mellor restrained him until he calmed down. Both guards stared guiltily at the ground.
Gerard stepped up. "Well that does it. We have to leave here now. That shot could be heard for a long way. If they're out looking for us, they might have heard it."
"Shit". Said Mellor "We were getting some good information out of this one until his head exploded."
"Check it out". Eric had been examining the body. "I guess they missed this when they frisked this thing. He held up one of the Kra'Vak's hands. It had a wide ring on one finger. Molitors had seen the creature pointing it at their prisoner when his head exploded.
Mellor tore off a piece of the dead man's coveralls with his knife and started wiping away, blood, bone and brains from his pants. "Jesus. This sucks."
Freeman couldn't help laughing. "Gee man, I like the camouflage pattern. Maybe you should leave it."
"Alright. Knock it off. Let's get out of here". Said Lawrence.
"Goddammit Chuck. That guy was full of information. He couldn't spill his guts fast enough."
"Did ya get it on tape?"
"Of course", he grinned as he continued to wipe.
"Well we still got another one, if he ever wakes up. He's had the shit beat out of him."
"Man we had some good info. These guys live right in the enclave. Assuming fleet launches a counter offensive. They could probably figure out a way in. Or at least fill us in on what's in there."
"Excuse me. Did you say you vere going to try a get in ze base?" A short thin ragged man stood before them. He was one of the workers they had freed. He had helped carry up the prisoners with four other workers.
Mellor looked at him suspiciously. "What's it to you?"
"I spent time verking inside der base when it vas first being constructed. You must not go in zere."
It occurred to Kenny that these workers would be another valuable source of intelligence. "Why?"
"Vun of our first tasks was to excavate a tunnel that led under ze facility. At first I had no idea what it was for. Then I found out later from anozer friend on a different detail. They planted a large bomb under ze base. Nuclear. He felt it vas big enough to destroy ze city. Ze Kra'Vak have placed similar bombs at uhzer sites. My friend worked with a party installing the arming console in one of zeir control rooms."
"This friend. Is he here?"
"He is the ze only survivor of zat party. Ze others have died. He was very sick. He was injured in your attack. He left mit anozer party."
"Shit we have to find him! Chuck you hearing this. Captain?"
"I heard it."
"Did you know what kind of bomb? Did your friend see it?"
"He did, but I don't know vat kind."
In Mellor's mind, this changed a lot of things. He looked at his watch. "OK. First, we have to get this information to Brooks ASAP so he can get it off world. Second. If the fleet attacks and conducts a ground attack which threatens the Kra'Vak hold on this planet, then they may be planning to nuke the whole place.
"Scorched Earth", said Mills.
"Right. So we have to come up wit a way to disarm those weapons. This guy says they installed systems to detonate The device from a central console. Well we gotta figure out a way in there and eliminate that console or disarm the bomb. Hey Miner?"
Miner was bent over the dead Kra'Vak, with Molitioris, studying the body. "Yeah?"
"How good are you or Freeman at disarming nuclear weapons?"
"Seriously. How good are you or Freeman at disarming nuclear weapons? Potentially Alien design.
"I can spell nuclear."
"Come on. Seriously?"
"What do you think I am, a quantum physicist? I can blow shit up. I can wreck shit. I can build a house. I can disarm a mine. A few booby traps. I can scratch my right ass cheek with my left hand, but I can't disarm a nuclear detonator! And ass face over here doesn't know either."
"Hey umm, Eric, you know I can speak for myself.," Said Freeman.
"What about you Bill?" Mellor was growing impatient.
"Umm, nope I can't disarm a nuclear bomb."
Mellor turned back to the diminutive worker. "How about your friend?"
"I vould not think so. He is an advanced skill electrician.
Not a bomb experten."
Mellor turned to Lawrence, Mills and Gerard. "Are you guys following me on this?"
"I am", said Charlie.
"Me also", said Mills.
"Maybe I'm a little slow, Sergeant Mellor. What are you getting at?" Asked Gerard.
"What I'm getting at is this. If what this guy says is true. We have to infiltrate that base or through some other means find a way to disarm those weapons or prevent their detonation. If not, this planet goes up, potentially when the first soldier sets foot dirtside."
"Or as soon as the Kra'Vak feel they can't hold on any longer", added Charlie.
"Whatever. Some thing."
"You want to plan a mission to get into that base? Forget it. That's not part of our mission profile."
"Oh for chrissakes Tom, quit being such an officer!"
"At ease Sergeant Mellor!" Gerard was angry at this overt challenge to his authority in front of the men.
"Whoa, whoa everybody calm down," said Charlie.
"Look, Sir. Ken's right and you know it."
Gerard took a deep breath and waited for his anger to subside. "Even if he is, we have no one with the skills to disarm that weapon.. We'd be wasting our time. I wouldn't even know what I'm looking at. We might even prematurely precipitate detonation."
"Sir that's why we got to get a message off planet to the fleet. Maybe request they insert someone that knows this shit. We can spend the rest of the time figuring out how to get in."
"I agree that we have to get that message in. Problem is that Brooks has his shot at 0900. Knowing him, he has at least a two-hour walk planned first. Maybe longer since it's the MBE. We may be too late."
"Not if we hurry. Sir, help me word and encrypt
the message. Charlie. Figure out where we can go around here to hit the
relay site. Come on you guys. Let's get all this latest info in the message
and out the door ASAP!"
Brooks finished the last of his "omelet with ham ration and washed it down with the dregs of his coffee. "You guys ready?" He asked his patrol
"Ready, Sergeant". Their rucks were packed and at their feet. They were leaving to make the commo shot.
Brooks lifted the heavy ruck slowly and swung it onto his back. Fuckin' pack mule, he thought. Once he had it on, he grabbed his L7, which was leaning against a wall. The other four were waiting for him. "Ok let's go."
They made their way down the corridor and had gotten to the first sentry when one of the partisans manning the relay site came in from the outside. "Sergeant Brooks, Sergeant Brooks! Another message has just arrived for you. It's marked urgent."
"You gotta be kidding me. We're half way out the fuckin' door."
The young man didn't know what to say.
"Gimme the thing."
Brooks popped a quick release and lowed his ruck to the ground. "Have a seat guys. This'll take a minute." Brooks ran the disk through his pocket reader. The header was encrypted with an internal team key. He could not read the main body of the message as it was already encrypted for off world.
GRUMP DE GRIFF 010600XAUG93 BT
FOLLOWING MESSGAGE MUST BE INCLUDED WITH YOUR CYRIL BT
INFORMATION CONTAINED HERIN IS MARKED MOST URGENT BT
SUCCESS OF OPERATION DEPENDS UPON IT REACHING GIZMO BT
INCLUDE WITH YOUR 010900XAUG93 CYRIL
Brooks looked at his watch. Breaking out the data cone, clearing the message memory, recombining this message with other one and reloading it into message memory was going to take at least twenty minutes. He was starting to feel under a time crunch.
Brooks pulled out the MBE data cone and his fill device and went to work. There were many steps to the process and they all had to be done in order if the MBE was to work right and non-garbled data was to be sent. Completing all the steps took him 18 minutes. He set the signal strength of the transmitter to full power. By the time they were out of the base entrance, they were 30 minutes behind schedule.
They moved out carefully, now in daylight. He studied his map as they moved and decided to pick an alternate site. It was a little closer and to the east. They could follow the direction of a deep ravine. He lead off at a brisk pace. Occasionally breaking into a run. The others struggled to keep up.
Ninety minutes and six kilometers later they had reached the approximate are where he wanted to empalce the MBE. He found a flat piece of ground and set up the device. The MBE was essentially a rocket flare. But instead of emitting light it sent out an omindirectional data transmission. To be used in case of emergency. The rocket was programmed to reach an altitude of 120 kilometers. Brooks hoped that would be high enough to get a message to whatever hidden listener was out there to receive it.
Having prepared the device for launch, he set the
timer for thirty minutes, then signaled his men to follow along. They moved
quickly, scrambling up the steep slope of a ridge. Once on top they ran
just below the crest on the far side to a flat peak. From here. Brooks
would watch the launch and monitor the transmission.
When he reached his observation point he was breathing hard. He gulped down half a canteen or water. The others did the same. Brooks looked at his watch. "Here it comes." Below there was a flash and a small whoosh. The one and a half-meter long rocket lifted into the air and quickly disappeared from sight. "And there it goes! Alright let's get the fuck out of here. We just let everyone know that someone is here."
"OK people, that's that. It is time to prepare us for the jump sequence. Number One, keep all the sensor recording until the last possible moment."
"Jawohl, Herr Kapitän."
"Mister Bester, how is your navigational fix for the jump?"
"Excellent. Herr Kapitän. We can start the sequence at any time. I can pick it up at the ten minute countdown."
No one on the bridge crew sounded happy to leave. Despite the excellent data they had recorded on this last pass through the system, despite having remained hidden, they were dejected. The lack of communication meant that the team, which had been inserted on the planet, was most likely lost. Everything they had experienced up to this time pointed in that direction. The missing Satellite. The missing shuttle. Having been tracked and attacked after insertion. The crew felt the heavy burden of failure. They shared a collective guilt. No amount of spin could put a happy face on the situation.
Hrabek was standing by Hauser's command chair. He looked over to her. Alright, Number One, we might as well start transit preparations now. No use waiting around any longer.
"Jawohl, Herr Kapitän. Leutnant Bester, begin the sequence."
"Attention all hands, Jump minus ten minutes, jump minus ten minutes. All hands to jump positions. Internal gravity will be offline in five minutes."
"Herr Kapitän, picking something up on the EM band sensor." Said a communications technician.
"What is it?" Hauser sat up in his seat.
Hrabek moved over at the sensor console. She was replaying the last few minutes. "Very feint, Herr Kapitän, but I have a launch signature in low orbit. Very, very small vehicle, I can't even read its mass. But it is transmitting on the guard net!"
"Is it for us?"
"Running the message header through decryption now". The communications tech manipulated her gain controls. "We lost part of the first transmission but it keeps repeating itself. Herr Kapitän, the transmission has abruptly ended!"
"I see it". Said Number one. "It's been destroyed. The flash was clearly seen."
"Do we have the whole transmission?" Every head of the bridge crew was turned towards the nervous communications tech as she verified the message.
"Jawohl Herr Kapitän. We have the whole transmission!" The entire bridge crew erupted in cheering and backslapping. Only Hauser and Hrabek maintained her composure. He gave a slight grin. She winked.
"Mister Bester, if you can find the time to pull yourself together, you can take us out of here."
After ensuring launch of the MBE, brooks and his party of four were trying to pt as much distance between them and the launch site was possible. The going was difficult, with loose rock and a steep gradient. They had moved for not more then ten minutes was a brilliant flash lit the valley behind them.
"Down!" Shouted Brooks.
The detonation had gone of in the next valley over from the patrol. The ground heaved and shook tremendously and everyone was thrown about like popcorn. Brooks was flung down hill and landed thirty meters below amidst some rock out cropping. Above him entire chunks of the hill sloughed off and came crashing down around him. Someone was screaming. He was barely conscious of a large boulder passing by his head when everything went black.
946 was threading their way through a narrow wadi-like depression. It gave them good concealment from observation from the air, since the opening in the desert floor was narrower up top then down where they were moving. Gerard, an amateur geologist, had speculated that the crevice had opened up in the ground long ago during some cataclysmic seismic event. The ground down in the depression was covered with the greenish brown moss and even the occasional fern-like tree. It was as close to an oasis as one would find on Röt Hafen.
A bright flash lit the sky above them. Everyone
instinctively took a knee. Down where they were there was no way to tell
what direction the explosion came from, but fifteen seconds later
there was a tremendous roar and they could feel the ground shaking slightly.
No sooner had that subsided then another flash, followed only a few seconds
later by an overpoweringly loud roar shook them more violently. Behind
them a piece of the rock wall gave away and collapses where the patrol
had just passed. Individual rocks cascaded down amongst them, but miraculously
no one was hurt.
They rained down even after both explosions subsided. Would there be more? Gerard glanced back at Lawrence.
"Nukes." Said Charlie.
Mellor warily observed the sliver of sky above him waiting for the telltale mushroom cloud to appear. "Looks like the Kra'Vak are getting serious."
Go to Operation Harbinger chapter 5 of Röt Hafen
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