Handley's statement interrupted Charlie from his thoughts. He had been peering down the dark tunnel in hopes of spotting Colin and Eric. "You're hungry? Where's your ration pack?"
"I ate it."
"The whole thing? That was supposed to last you the whole time we're down here. I'd tell you that you have to learn to ration your food, but I suppose it's a little late for that."
"The pack said: Contains one meal. How was I supposed to know?"
"Did you get more than one ration?"
"Then you should have made it last until you received another." Charlie shook his head. "I suppose it was my fault. You are a REMF after all. What else should have I expected from you?"
"Here now, what's a REMF?" Asked Gibbons.
"Rear Echelon Mother Fuckers, which is what you two are."
"You really do hate officers, don't you Sergeant Lawrence?" Asked Gibbons.
"No, not really. You guys just don't understand the relationship between officers and NCOs in Special Forces as compared to the Royal Navy."
"You seem a bright enough chap. Why didn't you ever become an officer?"
"Hah!" Charlie laughed. "That's a good one. I can tell from your question that you assume officers are superior to enlisted men. That's why they're officers. " Gibbons went to speak, but Charlie held up a hand. "Don't bother. I've heard all the arguments before. The short answer to your question: I chose the worthier cause."
"The worthier cause? Get off."
"Look. Eighty percent of what you officers do is suck up to each other. There's a ridiculous amount of politics involved. Even the Os special ops community gets like that from time to time. As an NCO in Special Forces, I know that as long as I perform I won't have to leave the branch. I can concentrate on the team instead of career progressions and will be promoted or demoted on that basis. And to be honest with you, I really didn't feel like starting all over again at the bottom of the ladder. So I'm happy where I am, thank you very much."
"It's quite a pity they've abolished flogging." Remarked Gibbons dryly.
A shuffling noise in the dark passage outside the chamber brought all talking to a halt. The dim red light, which illuminated the room was extinguished. Charlie brought up his pistol and peered out into the tunnel. Behind him, Gibbons and Handley silently drew their weapons. Through his night vision he saw a lump moving slowly towards them. It was using a small red light. A Kra'Vak? If it was, they were screwed. One of the officers shuffled behind him and Charlie turned towards them and let out a very low, threatening: "Don't move."
The shape approached steadily until it resolved itself into a man carrying another. Still unsure if it was Miner, Charlie waited until they were less than ten meters away. Taking careful aim, he called out: "Halt."
The movement stopped.
"Seven," challenged Lawrence.
"Four," replied Miner.
"Come on, it's them." Lawrence
stepped out into the tunnel and ran to Miner. He helped Miner lower the body he
was carrying and felt a sudden pang of dread and sadness when he realized that
it wasn't Colin. They carried the man into the small room. Handley turned on the
Though he'd only been gone a few hours, Miner looked twenty years older. "Colin?" Asked Charlie.
"He's dead." Said Eric, catching his breath. A plaintive look in his eyes showed the agony he felt. Guilt at having left his best friend behind. "We got hit right after I planted the charges at the relay station. A big fuckin' Kra'Vak burst in on us. It was like a knife fight in a phone booth. Gentz was killed instantly. Colin died a few minutes later."
"Sure I'm sure. He died in my arms, man." Eric lowered his gaze. It hurt too much to look at his team sergeant.
"This here was one of the techies working at the power plant. Supposedly against his will. He pretty much had his hand blown off. The guy is delirious with painkillers. The good thing is that he knows the area."
"What's it like up there?"
"A mess. They've been hitting the enclave hard from orbit. We had to lay low and move during the lulls. Did you know that somebody popped off a nuke?"
"I suspected as much. We heard the rumble."
"Yeah. Outside of town to the west."
"Any sign of allied troops yet?"
"None at all."
"Shit. They should have been here by now."
"Did you get a look at your handiwork at the physical plant?"
"Yeah. One of the spots we holed up at had a good view. I'm pretty sure the Kra'Vak know something's up. They sent a few of them out to the plant and were rummaging around looking to get at the bomb when another bombardment came in and plastered the whole stinking' bunch. Then they sent another group and I've seen a lot of activity at a building a block down. Wouldn't surprise me if they're trying to reach it via underground to stay out of view. Sooner or later they're gonna get in there and get that thing operational again."
"That's a problem."
"Does it look like we could make a break?"
"I believe so. Like I said the whole place is rubbled, as is a lot of the city. I guess the best way to save the planet is destroy it, eh? There's civilians crawling all over trying to flee the city. The Kra'Vak and their helpers are gunning down anyone caught out in the open without an escort. It's some nasty shit."
"I'm concerned about the plant."
"I know, me too. It won't do to have them reconnect the bomb, but what're we gone do about it. All we have are these." Eric held up his pistol.
"I have an idea but first we got get a hold of Kenny. Let's get ready to move."
"Get me Commander Wayne ASAP."
"Yes, Sir." The orderly saluted and left Bellamy's office. The admiral got up from his desk, coffee in hand and walked over to the mirror besides his bookshelf. Bellamy rubbed his chin. He was growing stubble. What was it they used to call it...five o'clock shadow? Well it's past five. It had been a day since he shaved. Bellamy had been up most of the night studying reports, following the progress of fleet repairs, and checking with this or that officer on the commlink. He needed to shave before he did anything else. He felt as if every responsibility in the universe was resting square upon his shoulders. He snickered. I guess that why they pay you. It just wouldn't do to have the crew see him in this condition.
Bellamy went into the small wardroom and took five minutes to shave. The warm water felt good against his face. Afterwards he combed his hair and brushed his teeth. He felt human again. The doorbell range.
"Commander Wayne, as requested, Admiral."
"Send him in."
A slim, short naval officer with gold wings upon his dress blues entered. Dick Wayne was the Chief of fighter operations on Mallory's staff. The Admiral knew the assignment chafed him. He'd much rather be out there flying. But with 15 years experience in operations, the man was indispensable where he was.
Wayne saluted. "You sent for me, Sir?"
"Dick. How are you doing?"
"Could be better. We're working hard to get the replacement fighters operational and get everything repaired and back into the rotation."
"Yes, well I can understand that. The problem is that I've just been on the line with Colonel Rölle. In fact he's just got done burning about three feet off my tail section. It seems that they're in quite a bind dirtside without fighter cover and the bloody Kra'Vak seem to have aviation assets crawling out of the woodwork. He says it's nigh well impossible to hold them off with the eight fighters he has and he's requested help. He says that you turned him down. That tweaked him good. "
"Admiral, we need every fight operational and up here in the event the Kra'Vak return. We can't risk our meager forces."
"Yes, well I can appreciate that Commander, but you see, the whole reason we're here is so that Rölle's people can get on with evicting the Kra'Vak from Röt Hafen is it not?"
"But Admiral, We don't even have 60 fighters operational in the whole fleet at this point. Even Captain Oslow adamant against giving them any extra fighters. We need to wait until I get up past 72. Then I can..."
Oslow. Well that helps explain things... "Listen Dick. We've got to get the ground pounders some help. Everyone is stretched to the limit here. The whole bloody operation was clapped together at a moment's notice. We've got to make due with what's available. Leaving Rölle in the lurch...well that's just not on."
"Admiral I must pro..."
"You're swinging after the bell, Dick. Get them some fighters on station, at least a pair up at all times."
"Sir, that will require pulling at least six birds off their normal scheduled duties."
"Nevertheless, it is to be done. Dismissed."
Wayne saluted and left, his face not betraying any emotion.
The door rang again.
Drake, his orderly, stepped in. "Admiral I'm afraid I have a bit of news for you."
"Now what is it?"
"The UNS Voyager has just entered the system. The Foreign Secretary is requesting an immediate audience with Commander, 1st CAF."
"You've got to be joking. What are those bloody fools doing here? Don't they know this system is far from secure?"
Drake cringed at the raised voice. "I'm just the messenger, Sir, not the policy maker."
Bellamy caught his anger. Drake had been with him for five years. They were fast friends at this point and Bellamy allowed him to speak his mind when they were alone. "Sorry James. You're quite right, of course. But the truth is, this visit could not have come at a worse time."
"I agree, but nevertheless, Mister Pimms, along with Herr Baumgartner, Frau Mostik, and Mister Tesfane will be here to see you within forty minutes. I suspect they'll want a briefing. Shall I summon the staff?"
"No. Just get me the graphics, I'll receive them here by myself. I'll not pull anyone else off their tasks for this rubbish. Thank you James."
"Sergeant Donner, wake up. There's a call."
Donner opened his eyes at the partisan's insistent shaking. "Yo?" For a moment he was disoriented with the odd light. Smoke from fires throughout Röt Hafen, cast a purplish pall over the land. Binder was holding out Donner's helmet to him. He sat up grabbed the helmet and put it on.
"Hey where the fuck have you been? I've been calling for a few minutes now." It was Mellor.
"Been checking my eyelids for holes. Now what do you want, cuz I ain't done."
"Charlie made contact."
Donner perked up. "He did? When do we pull ‘em out?"
"We don't. They're concerned about Kra'Vak attempts to get at the bomb. Seems like they're working hard to get down there and rerig the thing. He wants to stop them. That's where we come in."
"You mean he wants us to go into the enclave?"
"Yeah. Since the main attack is just starting we need to buy a little more time. Look I don't want to go over all this on the line. I'll be there in about twenty minutes and I've got the PA guys from offworld. Plus Weasel is here too."
"So get your Gs together and meet us at the rendezvous point. Leave one or two up there to keep an eye on things."
"One last thing."
There was silence for a moment. "Shit."
"See ya in a few minutes. Mellor out."
There was ring.
Drake entered and announced the visiting
delegation. Bellamy stood up and walked around his desk to greet them with
a smile. Pimms was the first in, very much wearing the airs of a distinguished,
Churchillian diplomat. Beside him was the equally rotund NSL Defense
Minister Baumgartner, wearing a more somber expression. Both men stepped
aside for Prime Minister Mostik. The tall graying lady looked focused and in
control despite her advanced years. She had always been respected, even by the
FSE/ESU delegation, as an astute and honest statesperson. Beside her the thin
and smiling Tesfane looked positively frail. His white hair contrasted with his
dark black skin. There was a tremendous amount of power tied up within these
Bellamy was surprised by the absence of the usual doting aides and sub-ministers, which usually accompanied a party of this magnitude. "Welcome aboard." He stepped up to each one and shook hands. "I'd like to apologize for not meeting you at the docking bay. Things are rather hectic at the moment and we're a little short on fanfare."
"That's quite all right Admiral," said Pimms. Since Bellamy was a NAC officer, he'd do the most of the talking this time. "We understand that this is a ship at war. Our apologies for the sudden intrusion. We are, of course, very sorry to hear about the death of Admiral von Bulow."
"As were we, Minister. Let me just say that the Admiral's sacrifice was not in vain. He played a key role in the victory over the Kra'Vak forces here on the 13th. He is a great hero."
"And so he shall be honored," said Mostik.
"However, forgive me please, but I find it hard to believe you came all the way out here into a combat zone to deliver your condolences." Bellamy was trying to be diplomatic. "The Röt Hafen system is far from secure. You're putting yourselves in significant danger by coming out here."
"Please Admiral. You underrate your achievements." Said Pimms. "You've run off the Kra'Vak fleet and secured the system. Victory on the ground is merely a question of time."
Bellamy fought to control a flash of annoyance. "That's not quite true. There still exists a significant danger. But perhaps you would like to take seats and I can give you a situation update.
"Your intelligence chief has been sending me daily intelligence summaries, but I suppose we can take a few minutes before we discuss the business at hand." Said Baumgartner. They took seats. Drake made sure everyone had tea, coffee or whatever else they needed before leaving the small group.
"As you are aware, the warp into system on the 13th, Adler Tag, went more or less according to plan. Which doesn't mean it was easy. The Kra'Vak committed the bulk of their forces to engage Task Force Gold, as we hoped. They received a significant defeat with very few ships escaping. In fact we managed to capture a damaged model as well as several live, though injured, Kra'Vak. We're still analyzing the data"
"Yes we are very interested to hear some more details on that."
"A little later perhaps," said Pimms.
With a holo-projector highlighting the narrative with graphics, Bellamy continued. "The second phase of the operation, conducted by Task Force Silver, seized near orbit after a short sharp fight against the orbital defenses. We were able to secure the Dortmund complex, though there was a close call when several cloaked Kra'Vak ships attempted to attack. They were detected and destroyed by the very able crew of the UNS Provider." Bellamy looked to Tesfane, who nodded and smiled. "Again, the Kra'Vak suffered sever losses before the surviving ships fled."
"With orbit and near space secure the fleet conducted a
drastic reorganization and reconsolidation program as the assault forces made
their landings on the planet. Severe weather conditions threw off the landing
timetable somewhat, but nevertheless our forces established a spacehead, and in
nearly 24 hours of straight fighting, have managed to push themselves to the
outskirts of Röt Hafen itself. The fighting has been heavy, but TF Hannibal has
persevered. They are now preparing for the final assault onto the planet's
"This morning, the Kra'Vak attempted to interdict the forward progress of TF Hannibal using nuclear weapons at this point here. Fortunately, our area defense network intercepted the attacks before the reached lethal radius. Though we suffered some damage, we were able to continue operations. That's a general outline of where things stand up to now. Shortly Colonel Rölle will commence his assault on Röt Hafen proper."
"What about the alleged nuclear demolitions placed by the Kra'Vak within the city?" Asked Baumgartner.
"Disabled by our Special Forces. Temporarily at least. Hopefully long enough for us to gain control of the city and remove them permanently."
"Hopefully?" Asked Buamgartner.
"Yes Minister, Hopefully. There are no sure bets in this operation. We're fighting a new race here and learning as we go along, as are they."
"Can you give us some overall impressions on Kra'Vak operations?" Asked Tesfane.
"Space or land?"
"Very well. As far as fleet operations go, the Kra'Vak have some tough ships. Their lighter classes or more powerful than ours. They can deal out significant damage to even our heavy fleet units. I'm sure you are aware that the Kra'Vak rely almost exclusively on railgun technology, which they've raised to an art form. Shields , of course, are completely useless against them. The ranges which they are engaging us are phenomenal. One of their most disconcerting weapons, we've dubbed the "scatter-gun". It is a close-in defense weapon, which is very lethal against incoming fighters and missiles, and can do damage to even capital ships at close range. It's sort of like an autocannon that hurls garbage can-sized canister rounds into the path of incoming targets. The rounds then explode out in a shotgun-like spread with thousands of smaller hyper-velocity penetrators. In fact we've noticed this same defense technology being used in their fighters for countermeasures as well as their ground vehicles. They haven't employed shield technology yet, but they've got tough armor. Kilo for kilo it's superior to ours."
"They don't seem to be a space fighter-oriented force. They do have them, though maybe not as sophisticated or maneuverable as ours. However, they are tougher than ours are and the crews have shown a willingness to press home attacks regardless of casualties. Their ground based fighters are another story though. Tough to spot visually or detect on sensors. They're quite maneuverable and skillfully handled."
"Sensor wise, they obviously have fairly effective targeting if they can hit us out to 30,000 kilometers with their railguns. We have caught them with our ECM and countermeasures but as the battle has gone on, they've shown themselves able to adapt and make adjustments, which degrade our performance. Much of their targeting is based on the UV-spectrum lasers, which took us by surprise at first but the fleet has undertaken rapid modifications. They have some technology, which defeats our IR targeting, and scanning. It's accomplished electronically. Other than that, we have not been very impressed with their countermeasures program. They seem to rely on their armor and bull straight ahead into us."
"And operationally? Asked Pimms. "How are they?"
"Well they've displayed an ability to modify tactics after each engagement. But overall, I'd have to say this has been their weak point. Maneuver wise, they coordinate their formations and movements much more tightly than we do. Particularly in the 13 August engagements they were obsessed with concentrating their attacks on the dreadnoughts, in hopes that destroying them one at a time would demoralize the fleet. They completely ignored the smaller ships, that us to say, our missile ships. These combined with the fighter attacks really tore them up. My guess is that next time they won't let off our missile destroyers so easily. We did have the advantage of numbers over them, though. They also knew when to knock off the engagement when things started looking bad, though in my opinion they were a little late in making that decision on 13 August. Again I think they were seeing red and fixated on destroying the dreadnoughts. They were able to ID Admiral von Bulow's flagship fairly early in the engagement and went after it in an almost single-minded fury."
"And on the ground, Herr Admiral?" Asked Mostik.
"Yes, well on the ground, it's been a tough fight. TF Hannibal established a blocking position here at Loki pass with elements of RSL-3 very early on the morning of the 14th. This route leads out to the main landing areas. The Kra'Vak deployment was, let me say, less than optimal in this matter. Once we landed they quickly realized their mistake and launched a heavy counter attack against these blocking positions. The defense was handled very well, in my opinion. The Kra'Vak vehicles were able to move at very high speeds and many of their vehicles got through the blocking positions only to be destroyed by air and ortillery. I think they learned a big lesson that day, the effectiveness of allied airpower and ortillery. After that initial engagement they've remained on the defensive. Due to a number of factors, weather, planetary magnetic field anomalies, the construction of their vehicles and defenses, as well as their operational techniques, it's not very easy to spot them on the satellite surveillance network. They have to be found and assaulted on the ground.
TF Hannibal pushed through this pass last night and, as you can see, is preparing for their next attack into Röt Hafen. One serious problem dirtside is the enemy ground-based fighters. They dispersed most of their forces prior to our landing. The ground units have experienced a number of attacks throughout the day. We're critically short on fighters right now. One OUDF fighter squadron is operating dirtside with only eight aircraft. We've got some spaced-based fighter assets in support, but these are in critical demand after 13 August. However, coordination between our air assets and the area defense net is working quite well. We are also putting top priority into finding the Kra'Vak dispersal strips and hitting them with ortillery when we do. "
"It sounds like you have things wrapped up quite well, Admiral."
"Hardly, Sir. The ground forces have already suffered heavy casualties to get where they are now. We need more reinforcements. I'm hoping that you can help us with that. And we still don't know exactly how many Kra'Vak we're dealing with. We may have already engaged and destroyed the bulk of their forces, or less than ten percent. I need more ground power. Spacewise it's the same thing. The Kra'Vak could return at any time. Some on my staff believe that our fight went just a little too easily. Which is why I'm quite concerned with your presence here. They could return at any moment. We‘re still awaiting further reinforcements. I'm afraid this just isn't the place for a delegation of your importance."
"Nonsense, Admiral. Every other system within jump distance reports all clear at this point."
"With all due respect, Prime Minister, that means nothing. FTL transits are not limited from system to system. There could be a Kra'Vak fleet sitting out there in deep space even two light years out and we wouldn't know it. That's why we're working so hard to get reinforcements in here as well as complete emergency repairs. Then, once the planet is secure, we can begin evacuation of non-essential personnel."
"There will be no evacuations, Admiral." Said Mostik. "It is imperative that you wrap up this operation as soon as possible. We need a victory."
"I cannot declare a victory prematurely. This system is not secure."
"Admiral Bellamy, perhaps you don't realize
what's at stake here." Said Pimms.
Bellamy looked confused, they weren't telling him something.. "Perhaps one of you could enlighten me."
Mostik spoke. "Right now there are a number of Kra'Vak incursions into Human space. I believe we touched on these during our last visit. These have been on the rise and there have been calls in both the Security Council and General Assembly for concerted coordinated action. There have been calls that the UN on behalf of all Human powers declare a State or War exists between Humanity and the Kra'Vak."
"There are many initiatives being debated. Of course the ESU would like to turn this to their advantage, and there is much posturing underway even now to see who will be driving the war effort. Which brings us back to Röt Hafen. We need a quick victory here. This is the first major action of the war. It also represents a major example of cooperation between two superpowers. It is vital that as many lessor powers as possible join in under this alliance. As a matter of fact I've brought news that the Romanov Hegemony is putting two of their light carriers at the disposal of 1st CAF."
"Well that is a spot of good news."
"Indeed, Admiral, but that is not all. As you are aware, the NAC and NSL have been cooperating closely for many years on both security issues and economic issues. There are those of us that have been working towards a "new partnership" if you will. Sort of a loose confederation that would bind both the Nue Schwabian League in the New Anglian Confederation together in a more permanent fashion. The Kra'Vak attacks and the campaign you are engaged in could be what provides the final push to make that dream a reality. We believe a number of smaller states would also join in."
"And there are those of us in the United Nations actively supporting this initiative." Said Tesfane. "It is the first step in our dream of having one people, one government. Yes I know that's still a ways off, but surely you see the significance of this."
"In a way, this war, these Kra'Vak, could be the very thing that leads to the ultimate unification of the Human race." Said Mostik. "And the Kra'Vak are just the first. Where there is one there are others. I believe our survival will ultimately depend on this."
"I don't suppose the ESU would be too hot on this. A joining of the NAC and the NSL won't sit well with them at all." Said Bellamy.
"Admiral, there are believers working in every camp." Said Tesfane. "But you are right, there are problems. The ESU would most definitely resist this undertaking. As would, we believe the Islamic Federation. However the Pan African Union would side with us. They need the economic support."
"That would probably lead to an instant war with the Islamic Federation, no?"
"They've been sinking their hooks into PAU planets for decades. That would probably push the IF into the ESU court."
"What about the Romanovs. Noi Romanis, and New Israel? The FSE?"
"All but the Noi Romanis have active members in our planning circle. However, they are deadly enemies of the IF, as is New Israel. That would most likely work in our favor."
"And the time frame of all this?" Asked Bellamy.
"We've been working in terms of the "long haul" as you say in the NAC." Said Tesfane. "But the emergence of the Kra'Vak threat has forced us to alter our timetable somewhat. A lot depends on what they do. If the severity of their threat is as great as we believe, then this uniting of the human powers becomes an imperative."
"Which is why we need this victory, Admiral. And fast." Said Pimms. "We need to get the press onto Röt Hafen as quickly as possible. Humanity needs to see first hand, the devastation wrought by the invaders and the threat we face. The UN Office for Xeno Affairs, working with the press office, will be leading the media campaign in this matter. NAC and NSL press offices will be putting their resources at the disposal of the UN. When they arrive you are to offer full cooperation."
"It goes without saying Admiral," said Baumgartner, "that this new mega-confederation will be in need of a Joint Forces Commander. What better choice than the victor of Röt Hafen, no? Think of the opportunities."
"I'm sorry but right now I have to think of the fight we're in. Which, I will remind this astute body one more time, is far from over. I'd be lying if I said that what you've told me doesn't peak my interest somewhat. In fact I wish you well. Perhaps after this fight is over we can talk on it further. But for now you must leave me to fight this battle without interference."
"We offer you a great opportunity."
"I'll tell you what. Let's make a deal. Before you leave the ship you will carry with you a list a resources I must have at once to successfully conclude this campaign in the most expeditious manner. Between the four of you, you control a vast array of power within your respective organizations. Get me what I need ASAP and I'll not only give you that victory but I also promise to work for you at the conclusion of the campaign. Deal?"
The four looked at each other briefly. Pimms spoke. "I believe we can agree to that proposal, assuming your requests are within reason."
"They will be. And if it is all right with the Ministers, I should like to conclude this meeting so I can get you that information quickly. I urge you to leave this system at once for your own safety. Just send me the tools I request and I'll get the job done for you."
"Very well, Admiral Bellamy. We will be leaving within
the hour. Thank you for your time."
"Thank you, Sir."
The delegation left the room. Bellamy sat back down at the table and rested his chin on his folded hands, deep in thought. The feint hum of the ships drive was the only sound which accompanied him. All he'd heard left him feeling...uncomfortable. The entire political ramification, however noble, left him feeling somewhat tainted. He needed to avoid being caught in a situation where political influence affected military operations. He snickered to himself. That had been an overriding concern with commanders since the beginning of time, why should he be immune?
Drake entered the room carrying
a tray with breakfast. They had been together long enough to tell one something
was bothering one of them.
Bellamy had not even noticed his batman's entrance. he stared intently at him for a moment.
"You know something James? Nothing is ever simple."
"Yes, I suppose you're right, Sir."
Go to Charlie's Cat (Part 2), chapter 9, of Röt Hafen
Return to Bri's Science Fiction Collection