The flickering flames of several candles provided only dim light and no warmth to the men huddled around them. With their rucks packed and web gear on, they sat back and waited for darkness to fall. 946 were heading to an advanced patrol base to make final preparations for insertion into the enclave. Most sought to grab a few minutes rest, since fatigue was now a growing concern. They had been on the go for two straight weeks and Charlie had been forced to implement a sleep plan for everyone's safety. The mission was wearing them down, and each had lost between 15 and 20 pounds since first setting foot on the planet.
Now they lay back, quietly sleeping or staring at he ceiling. Only Donner stirred. He sat on his ruck, fiddling with one of the captured Kra'Vak rifles. The weapon was heavy and unwieldy for a human. He had already discerned how to load and fire the weapon. The trigger mechanism was buried deep within the rear of the bulky stock, inset in a small channel specially fitted for the three fingered hands of the Kra'Vak. He'd been able to break the weapon down and get it back together, but was unsure how to work the complex electronic sighting mechanism. Donner had fired the rifle in one of the deep chambers of the cave. It had quite a kick for a rail gun. But that was due to it's unique method of operation.
What a wild 24 hours they had been through. The biggest news had been the arrival of their two naval guests. The team had grilled for any information from back home. They related preparations of the fleet, though there was little information on the actual battle. All had observed with some satisfaction as one of the orbital platforms had made its fiery reentry into the atmosphere. That had been cause for some celebration. Gibbons and Handley didn't share in the enthusiasm. Both were visibly uncomfortable with their predicament on the planet. The troglodyte life, dangerous conditions, and feelings of isolation were unfamiliar experiences. The few goodies, which Mullen had sent along with the two officers, had been appreciated. Meds, candy, chewing tobacco for Donner, and a few other sundry items were received enthusiastically.
The ebullient mood of the team had been dashed with news from Mills' R&S teams at the spaceport. There had been an expectation that reprisals would occur in reaction to the ambush but the Kra'Vak reaction had shocked them all. They had slaughtered thousands. A ring of heads, stuck on poles surrounded the city boundaries. Vid shots had sickened the team, and the knowledge of their responsibility, regardless of how necessary it had been, weighed heavily on everyone. The R&S teams had also reported a new development. There was an increase of flights from the spaceport. Hundreds of humans were being taken off the planet with each lift, slaves for some unknown purpose. It underlined the sense of urgency in getting the job done. Many of the lighter craft had left the field also, to unknown points on the planet. The Kra'Vak were preparing for an attack.
Much work was going into the plan for breaking into the enclave. They had brainstormed for days, analyzing and rejecting courses of action. Finally they had come up with an outline for a plan that was at least plausible, though hazardous. One of the mining facilities was under close scrutiny by Mill's R&S teams. Daily, prisoners were brought out to the site for work, then bussed back to the enclave in the evening, leaving a small security force. Working with information from the freed prisoners, it was clear that the Kra'Vak handling and accounting of their slave work force was lax. Much information had been gleaned from the interrogation of the second handler. An anti-bug device was kept around his head at all times. It created a field, which kept all EM from interfering or transmitting to his implant. Mellor had led the prisoner to believe that only he alone kept his head from exploding like the last handler. His control of the on/off switch had freed the prisoner's tongue significantly and they were gathering much useful information about internal security at the enclave and the condition prisoners were kept, handled and accounted for. The captive had been one of the original inmates from the planetary correctional facility. These 300 souls had been the first implanted with the alien technology. With it, the "purple" Kra'Vaks (actually a special caste of elder Kra'Vak which were no longer warriors), could communicate with their charges, relaying orders and garnishing information in return. The purple Kra'Vak were able to receive the implant's signals through their own device. The prisoner had no knowledge of how it actually functioned. Thought waves were somehow transferred into actual radio waves and relayed via the implants.
The team hoped to take advantage of this information by sneaking into the shaft and swapping out a small party with some of the prisoners in the work detail. This would get them on the bus and into the enclave. From there, they would have to play it by ear. It was an extremely hazardous proposition, but really the only option they had. They had been given a time window for which to deactivate the nuclear demolitions, which Charlie assumed coincided with the invasion. They could not risk an open assault and they didn't have sufficient forces to conduct one anyway. The smallest possible party was chosen for insertion into the mining facility. Gentz, the freed prisoner who had worked on the initial detail to set the device, would be their guide once in the facility. He was extremely reluctant to go back into the enclave but was given little choice in the matter. The importance of his participation for the good of the colony was impressed upon him forcefully. He was the only one available with knowledge of the whereabouts of the device, as well as familiarity with the inside of the enclave. Gibbons and Handley were going along to do the work of disarming the device. It had decided that three team members would accompany them in. Captain Gerard had insisted on leading the mission himself. Miner, with his demolition skills would be going. Frament, with his cool head, medical expertise, and dead on shooting, was the third.
Charlie was secretly glad he wasn't going. In his mind, the whole mission was a one-way trip. They all knew it, but no one said it. Sure there was some hope of getting out, but there was no way to plan how until they got in. They would have to ride out the planetary assault and stay low. That would be difficult once the Kra'Vak realized that their demolitions happened been tampered with. That is, if they could disarm the devices. It was unknown technology, though Gentz had been there to install it. They could very well detonate the device as they attempted to disarm it.
Their chances were decreased by the fact that tree of the team had no special ops experience at all. The two naval officers rode desks back in the world. Donner had worked with them for a few hours with a little more shooting practice. They were as good as they could hope for given their limited training. Still, Charlie figured they were as likely to panic under fire as not. Gentz was downright against going in and trembled like a leaf at the prospect. Gerard, Frament and Miner would have to shepherd this circus into the enclave. All would be clad in the rags worn by the prisoners so equipment was limited to pistols, some extra ammo, and the barest of tools and demolitions which could be smuggled in.
Still, the actual planning and preparations for the mission was consuming so much of everyone's thought and energy, that it left them little time to contemplate the ramifications for those who would be going in. Charlie pulled a picture of Anne and Gregory from his pocket and stared at it intently. So far away. He wondered what they were doing and this instant. His heart sank and he realized that pulling out the picture had been a mistake. Angry with himself, he put it away quickly, looked at his watch and kicked the team awake. It was dark. Time to move out.
Doctor Maya Vilnit kept her eyes on the floor as she was escorted down the depressing dirty gray hallways. One of the handlers, Boscht, had come for her. He led her through the facility past numerous work details until they entered a restricted section under guard by two Kra'Vak sentries. She waited outside a room for several minutes. One of the purple Kra'Vak appeared with a second handler. The door slid open and the sight of a guard dragging out a body revolted her by the ankle.
"Do you recognize him, Doktor?"
Vilnit looked carefully. The head was bloody and had a hole in the temple. Still, the face was intact. It was Peter Blum, a pediatrician when she had worked with at the city Hospital. Tears welled up in her eyes.
"Yes. Yes I do."
"Good, Please enter the room, Doktor." She stepped inside. The room held a table with a woman laying on it. Along the wall was a counter with several medical readers and tool kits. Boscht, the other handler, and the Purple Kra'Vak followed her in.
"We have a patient for you, Doktor. This prisoner was damaged during interrogation several days ago and remains in a coma. Your are to revive her and restore her to sufficient health so as to survive the completion of interrogation with our mind reading device. She only needs to last through the interrogation. It is imperative that she be revived as soon as possible. Fail to do so and you will find yourself in the same condition as your former colleague. Do you understand?
"Good. Do you have any questions?"
"Very well. You should find everything you need on the counter. Magg, here will remain with you and assist. If you need further materials he will procure them for you. We had better see progress within a day. The information in this prisoner's head is of vital importance to us."
Boscht turned and left without another word, followed by the purple Kra'Vak and one guard. A second guard remained, leaning against the far wall. Magg waited quietly, his expression indecipherable behind his visor. Vilnit grabbed a med-analyser off the bench and went to work on her patent.
The howling wind blew stinging sand into Gerard's face. They were picking their way slowly across a broad rocky basin outside of the resistance nest. He and Freeman had stayed behind when the rest of 946 left for the advanced base, waiting for the arrival of Matthais. The partisan leader had gone to Röt Hafen to meet with his forces there. Gerard had wished to coordinate some details of their extraction from the enclave. They had arrived 12 hours later and worked out the coordination of the surveillance effort around Röt Hafen for when he deployed into the enclave. Once this was accomplished, they moved to the patrol base. Matthias left one of his officers behind to oversee the final evacuation for 43. It was time to move on. There was no decent water supply.
A sandstorm was in progress. Matthais had told him that huge storm, hundreds of kilometers across, were not uncommon for this time of the year. Gerard felt it would provide good cover for the movements, but worried about the effect on the landings when they came.
The small group moved hunched over in the face of stinging sand particles. All wrapped scarves around their faces. Two schwabs lead the group, followed by Matthais, Gerard, Freeman, and three others. The wind was howling so loudly that it was impossible hear. But Gerard was happy for the cover. There would be no overflights from Kra'Vak fighters in this weather.
There was a bright flash and Gerard was knocked to the ground, senseless. There was a louder roar, but in his condition he could not discern if it was real or imagined. He struggled to open his eyes. After a time, he succeeded. He was laying n his stomach his face half buried in the sand. He could not move a muscle. He focused on his legs, but something was odd about them. They seemed...too far from his body. Gerard struggled to focus looking at his boots, then his knees, his legs, and his lower torso... Still confused he couldn't understand how the lower half of his body could be so far away. Beyond his legs he saw Freeman laying on his size, a smoking hole clearly visible in his chest. His legs were twitching and his eyes open.
Beyond Freeman, Gerard saw the shapes of figures walking out of the swirling storm. His attention was drawn to their odd gait. They swayed from side to side as they walked. Kra'Vak. One was motioning with his arms and others scurried at its commands. A second Kra'Vak came into his field of vision. It scuttled up to Freeman, whose legs were still twitching. The Kra'Vak fired into his head, which disappeared in a red mist. The leader Kra'Vak roared and hurried forward, squatting beside Freeman's body. He grunted loudly, pointing at the carcass, then turned to the other Kra'Vak and slapped it on the head. The recipient of this reprimand bent over double in an odd position of supplication, emitting a screeching noise. Gerard though the whole scene absurd. Here he was dying or dead, half his body lying in front of him, and he was watching these two creatures argue over Freeman's remains. He saw the leader stand up and noticed that two human skulls, bleached bright white, hung from a chain around its waist. The second Kra'Vak ended its supplication and grabbed Freeman's arms and studied his hands. Gerard notice that the Kra'Vak had a necklace of small bones hanging from its neck. Fingers....
The leader Kra'Vak squatted down in front of Gerard. He could not move even his eyeballs so he stared at the creature's three toed boots. There was a metal on metal sound and then he felt his head being moved. He looked up into the sunken black eyes of the Kra'Vak leader, who was holding a long, flat blade in one hand.
Charlie, Ken and Miner stood waiting in a small rock chamber, pacing back and forth. "Where the fuck are those guys? They should have been here by now."
"Maybe the storm slowed them up," responded Mellor. "They might have holed up somewhere to wait it out."
"No, I don't buy that. Tom knows he has to move out within twenty-four hours if he's going to stay on schedule. He'd press on through the storm no matter what."
"Well we've got to finalize the insertion details. Eric, you'll just have to fill him in when he gets here.
"OK, team daddy."
Mills and a woman entered. "Sergeant Lawrence. I would like you to meet someone. This is Nena Karlsen. She ran the maintenance group at the Endura mining facility. She knows every nook and cranny of the place and has been working with the resistance since day one."
"It's a pleasure." They shook hands.
"Hello, Sergeant." Her wide face, chestnut hair and dark complexion belied strength and confidence. A well-worn pistol grip poked out of the thigh holster on her right leg. A long scabbard and knife was strapped to the left leg.
"Nena here is also one of Röt Hafen's most accomplished climbers. You'll be needed both of her talents to get into the enclave."
"OK what do you have for us?"
Karlsen opened up a paper map of the surrounding area of the mining facility. She withdrew a cigar out of her breast pocket and lit it up. The others looked on surprised.
"A habit I picked up from my mother. I hope you don't mind."
Miner laughed. "Not at all. Got another?"
Karlsen broke the cigar in half and tossed a piece to Miner. "My last one. Go ahead."
"Thanks." Lawrence looked at Mills, bemused. The intelligence chief grinned and shrugged his shoulders.
Karlsen began. "This is a plan for the Endura Mining complex. As you can see, it can only be accessed from this road. There is a landing pad here, but the Kra'Vak seldom bring in skimmers. The workers are transported along this road to and from the enclave every morning and evening."
"Security at the site is tight. The Kra'Vak leave a grav Tank and about twenty soldiers on guard around the entrance to the mining shaft and another tank and squad at the ore processor. They change shifts occasionally but that's about it. Grav haulers take the processed ore to the space station under armed escort."
"There is another spot up the mountain, here. This small building contains the atmosphere circulation and physical plan for the facility. There are another 8 to 10 Kra'Vak up here at all times. "
"Seems locked down pretty tight." Observed Miner.
"Ja, that is true. Except for one thing."
"Which is this here." She pointed to another building a kilometer away on the far side of the hill. This small building holds the atmosphere scrubber for section four east. The problem is that there was a collapse of section four east ten years ago. It was considered too unstable and the entire section was shut down. Since then there's been a lot of new digging, but in more stable areas of the mountain. Apparently, this has been dropped off the blueprints because I don't think the Kra'Vak know about it. There is no guard stationed up there."
"But I thought you said the tunnel collapsed."
"I did. What I didn't mention is after it collapsed an attempt was made to reopen it, until it was determined that the instability of the region made operations there unfeasible. SO the tunnel was sealed. The feeder shaft is secured with a locked metal hatch. I've been in there. It's a little tight at spots, and certainly not for the weak hearted. But there is a route from this building down the shaft through four east to the main dig."
"And once we get in?"
"Most of the machinery of the actual mining operation is automated. The stupid Kra'Vak, instead of looking for trained workers from the facility, rounded up anyone with a pulse to meet the quota of workers. Less than ten percent of those actually out there are from the original Endura work force. So it's been a mess, which is slowly getting sorted out. But you should be able to get into the work holding area and make your swap there."
"How do you know this?" Asked Charlie.
"Because I've been in there." Nena grinned devilishly. The day before yesterday I made the climb myself, got down the shaft, up four east, and conducted a little reconnaissance."
"No shit." Said Miner
"Excuse me?" She asked.
"He means he's impressed with you dazzling reconnaissance skills," said Mills.
"So that's your way in," she said, grinning.
"Here's what we propose." Said Mills. "A small team inserts you into the shaft. It will consist of Nena, your group, two of my men, plus myself. We have ropes, ascenders, carbiners and pitots. We get you to this building. Nena takes you down and gets you into the main facility. She knows inch of the mine. What to avoid, security cameras, etc. Your team makes contact with the workers, and makes the switch. She takes out the prisoners you are replacing. Then by evening you are on your way to the enclave."
"How do we ensure that they don't notice the missing prisoners? Asked Mellor. Karlsen flicked the ashes from her cigar. "They won't. I watched them load up and leave the day I was there. No roll calls. There's one purple in there with a half dozen collaborators. They can't observe everything that goes on. That's why the mine is only operating at about 20% capacity. They don't know what they're doing."
"It's like they've bit off more than they could chew on this planet," said Mellor.
"So what do you think?" Asked Mills.
"Well." said Miner. "It's a plan. Let's make it work."
There was some talking and commotion down the hallway. "You guys stay
here and work out the details. I'm gonna see If that's the Captain."
"You know what's weird about this'n here rail gun?" Donner was holding it across his lap and explaining its workings to Frament, Molitoris, Gibbons, Handley, and the convalescing Brooks. "It's the way it propels the Armatures." Donner tossed a single round in the air and Brooks caught it.
"Goddamn this fucker's sharp. What the hell you trying to do, cut off my hand. I already lost a fuckin' foot."
"Sorry Brother. That's what this thing shoots. 7mm armatures. Don't know what they're made out of but they're hard as fuck. Something non-ferrous. Note the ribbed veins, razor fuckin' sharp. They're held in this cassette here. You see this middle depression halfway up the shaft. If ya got long fingers like mine, then you can barely reach the cassette release." Donner squinted and hit the release mechanism. "The railgun's cassette magazine dropped free. Pops out and slides back in like this." He reattached it. "Fairly basic. The cassette has an integral power supply and three different rotary magazines. The armatures are different colors. One is standard, one explosive I haven't figured what the other ones are yet. You fire it from back here. The trigger is recessed into this well here. It's made for Kra'Vak hands do it's hard to get at.
"What do ya do it you got little hands and a little dick like Colin here?"
"Fuck you, Dave."
"Be nice, I'm convalescing."
"I'd recommend sticking your utility tool down the hole and just
pressing it in with the heel of your palm. A heck of a lot easier that way."
"How do ya aim it? Asked Molitoris.
Apart from just pointing it at a target, I haven't figured that out yet. There's a bunch of controls up here on top but I haven't figured those out. Nor have I determined out how and in what combination you manipulate them to switch ammo types. Still in a pinch you can use it."
"How heavy is it?"
Donner handed it over to Molitoris. "Yikes, this thing ways more than the SAW."
"Fuck yeah it does. It's a solid piece or work. And it's got a kick like a mule."
"Why's that? I thought it was a railgun."
"It is. But the actual magnetic firing mechanism is weird. Instead of passing the magnetic current up two rails and tossing the armature out the muzzle, this one has a ring that mounts to the rails. The ring itself generates the magnetic current that holds the projectile in place. Another magnetic coil pulls and pushed the ring up and down these two rails giving it the velocity it needs to fire. When the ring reached the end of the muzzle it momentarily cuts off it's magnetic field and lets fly the armature. The ring then gets pulled back down the rail and smacks against a buffer assemble where it mates up with a chamber and picks up the next round. That causes the kick. Odd but effective."
"I bet you Weasel would like it," said Brooks.
"What about Weasel," asked Donner.
"You mean you haven't heard?"
Brooks sat up on his elbows. "You know, we got a lot of real assholes on this team. How many times have I told you guys that everyone on the team is responsible for reading all the incoming message traffic?"
"Hey you little runt, I read the message traffic." Said Donner.
"All of it?"
"Well, there was a lot there, I just skimmed through it."
"Oh well there you go. Then you don't know that the Weaselboy is coming down with the first wave. The Sergeant major added 'Tell Donner that the Weasel will be coming!' to the message"
"Well ain't that some shit. Heck I wonder how they're gonna use him?"
"They ought to just cut him loose," said Frament.
Molitoris stopped playing with the Kra'Vak weapon for a moment. "Who's Weasel?"
"Oh that's right, I forgot you're still a cherry," said Frament. "He used to be in our company. What's he know a warrant-two?"
"Yeah," said Donner.
"Warrant Officer-Two Kurt Waterman. The deadliest sniper in Special Forces. Currently master instructor at SOTIC back on Earth." The Special Operations Target Interdiction Course was one of the most sought after courses in the Regiment.
"Well if he's still cadre at Hereford, then what's he doing heading here?" Asked Eric.
"Hell if I know." Said Frament.
"I'll be glad to see that boy," said Donner. He still owes me some money from a poker game a few years back."
Lawrence walked into the room. He looked ashen.
"What's up Sarge? Asked Donner.
"It's the Captain. And Bill. They're dead."
"Dead? What the fuck happened?" Jaws dropped around the room.
"The Kra'Vak hit 42. Apparently they caught Gerard, Matthais, Bill and the others after they had come out the rear entrance. They never had a chance. Simultaneously the Kra'Vak hit the main entrance at the same time. They got in and wiped out the whole place. Only three people escaped. They used the sandstorm as cover."
"You mean they wiped out everyone there?"
"That's right. Apart from the isolated patrols that are about, plus whoever is in Röt Hafen. Everyone here is all that's left of the resistance."
Mellor had joined them. He slammed the rock wall with his fist. "I knew Tom shouldn't have stayed. What was so important that he couldn't have met Matthais here? Goddamn."
Charlie felt pretty bad about the whole situation. "I tried to tell him that myself." He looked around at the men and saw all were dejected by the news.
Handley seemed panicky. "Well does that mean we are in danger here? What if the Kra'Vak hit us at this place."
"I don't think so. We've got our security posted. The storm would have erased any sign of our tracks. And we won't be here for that long anyway. My guess is that the Kra'Vak tracked them back from Röt Hafen. They've got some clever bastards."
"Still, it seems all rather precarious."
Charlie left the others to be by himself for a moment. He was upset about the deaths of Freeman and Gerard. However his real dilemma was now someone would have to lead the infiltration into the enclave. It would obviously have to be him. He felt in his bones that it was a one way mission. Walking to the end of a tunnel, he pulled out a picture of his family. God damnit. I was so fucking' short! For a moment he felt he was going to lose emotional control, but he fought to reassert himself. This is what he was. A soldier. His wife and son would be well taken care of. She could probably move in with mom and dad. He laughed bitterly at the irony. Twenty years. So many times he had come close to death. Then right when there was light at the end of the tunnel, right when he was about to start a new life free of death and violence, this had happened. But there was little choice. Everything seemed so pre-ordained. Huge forces were at work here, all of which were beyond their control. An unfathomable enemy, fleets of ships, armies, civilians. Events were moving so fast. They had no control but all the responsibility of their actions. The atrocities. And now the deaths of Tom and Bill. They were not the first friends Charlie had lost by any means, but they were still his men. Allowing the Gerard to stay behind like that had been a mistake. Yet one of many he would have to live with. At least Tom was separated. Bill had a wife and young son. What was he going to say to them? The boys were looking up to him. Charlie put the picture back into his pocket and headed back to the team. He could control only one thing. The job they did. He could put his head down and press on. It was damn little, but it was all he had.
When he arrived there was a heated argument in discussion. Donner and Gibbons were staring each other down. "What the heck is going on?"
"He thinks he's in charge now", said Donner. He stepped up to Charlie and spoke in a lower voice: "You better do something about this, Sarge. I'm about to break this fucker down like a shotgun."
Gibbons straightened out his jacket and puffed out his chest. "The death of Captain Gerard changes everything. Surely you still don't expect to try and infiltrate the alien base. If they were able to find out where the resistance is, then I'd say your plan could very well be compromised."
"What fuckin' plan?" Said Donner. "Nobody knows the plan except for us. And it ain't even been finalized yet."
"It's ill advised. And as the senior ranking officer now present on Röt Hafen, I forbid it."
Charlie's eyes bulged with anger. He dismissed all non-NAC personnel from the room. He waited as they scurried off sensing an impending clash, which they wanted no part of. Lawrence stepped over to the officer until they were inches apart. Gibbons was taller, but Charlie's look betrayed a violent burst of anger simmering just beneath the surface of his calm demeanor.
"Let's get a few things straight, Sir." Lawrence spat out the last word like it was poison. "When you're up there in your ship, tweaking circuits and playing with algorithms, then you're in charge. But down here you're in my world. What I say goes. We are going forward with the mission because we have to. That's why they dropped you here. When it comes to matters technical concerning the bomb, then we listen to you. Other than that you keep your mouth shut and do what your told.
"Look here, Sergeant, I'll not be talked to like some ranker. I'll have you on report as soon as the fleet arrives. We'll not be any part of some irresponsible action that will just get us all killed."
"I'll say this one more time. You two are going on that mission. If I hear one more complaint out of you, so help me God, I'll kill you right where you stand." His voice was low and even. Charlie cast his gaze over to Handley, who stood there wide-eyed. "That goes for you too Lieutenant." Gibbons saw in Lawrence's eyes that he was serious. He looked around at the other men, who also wore the stone-cold expression of killers . He realized he was in real danger and tried to mouth a response but couldn't find the words. "I...I'm sorry Sergeant. Of course, you are in charge. I was merely trying to..."
"I know what you were doing, Sir. Just forget it. Let's concentrate on this mission. I'll be taking the Captain's place. We need to get the final planning done. I want to have this wrapped up before we rest tonight. Then we can spend the remainder of the time before move out preparing. Now let's get back to work."
Go to War in a Minor Key, part 2
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