Tales from the Inbox: The Jericho Gamble
2949-06-22 – Tales from the Inbox: The Jericho Gamble
Despite the risk of a power surge in the systems Varinia Villa pushed the battered gravitic drive unit of Diane Dragović almost a quarter-gee past the safe limit as soon as the little ship cleared the tangle of battlefield debris.
Hugh Apperlo looked up from the sensor plot on his own console when a single piece of wreckage thrown clear of the field glanced off the dorsal hull above the command deck. Since the collision didn’t cause any fresh warning lights to glow on his board, he tried not to pay it any mind. With only the crudest of shear-barrier screening unit, Dragović should not have risked acceleration so close to the debris, but he didn’t question the decision, when compared with all alternatives.
“Any sign of them yet?” Varinia didn’t look up from her console.
“Not yet.” Hugh trusted his companion to fly the borrowed ship, but he wished he could have helm control all the same. He figured another percentage point on the engines probably wouldn’t cause a power surge, and every meter per second counted when pirates might show up at any moment.
Though Varinia didn’t say anything, Hugh knew she had more reason to fear pirates than he did. After all, it had been pirates who had taken her off a struggling Silver Strand subsistence world at a young age and sold her into the creative hells of the chattel black-market, and pirates had been the buyers who had seen fit to modify her body until the average citizen of the Reach couldn’t look at her without wincing in disgust. True, the Strand’s brand of piracy had always been crueler than any other, but brigands capitalizing on the war-torn Coreward Frontier were probably not much better.
The sensor plot chirped, and Hugh glanced down to see a trip of red pips appearing at the edge of sensor range. “There they are. Three small hulls... Looks like survey runabouts.”
“Time to intercept?” Varinia didn’t need to ask if Dragović had built enough speed to beat the pirates to the edge of the system. Their ship could only accelerate past four gees by risking an electrical overload, and even the most worn-out surveyor would be able to double that, at least in short bursts.
Varinia didn’t reply right away. Hugh heard a quiet tinkling noise, like wind chimes in a gentle breeze, and glanced over to his partner to see her visibly trembling, the artificial spines sprouting from her skin scraping against one another. Despite knowing how terrified she was, Hugh couldn’t help but notice how pleasant the sound was.
“I’ll go check the star drive.” Hugh stood and turned toward the steep stairs leading back and down into the rest of the ship. Old Xiou-Edwards drives, unlike newer star drives with safer designs, could be activated within a star’s gravitational shadow, but they tended to explode spectacularly if they were, especially on a vessel with antique, corroded power distribution conduits.
“No.” Varinia locked eyes with Hugh. She too knew about the explosive properties of their outdated star drive, and she probably also knew that Hugh would chance a surrender, if he were aboard alone. “Not yet.”
“Do you have a better idea?”
“I’m pressurizing the bay.” Varinia flipped a few switches. “The Jericho is upside down on the deck with its nose facing mostly toward the doors. See if it’s any help.”
“Vari, that wreck isn’t going to help us.” Hugh a fool’s errand intended to get him off the command deck when he saw it. Whatever Varinia had planned, she didn’t want him to be there to tell her to stop, and he knew exactly what that meant about her plan. “There’s got to be something else.”
Varinia sighed, put the helm into autopilot mode, and stood to face Hugh. “Trust me, Hugh.”
Hugh sighed and nodded. Despite fearing he knew exactly what she was going to do, he trusted Varinia Villa with his life, and knew she trusted him with hers. If she thought she knew what the best move was, he’d learned to trust her judgement above his own. “Whatever gets us out of this.” He tried to put as much emphasis on the word “us” as humanly possible.
Varinia pushed Hugh toward the stairway and spun back to her console in one fluid motion, crystals scattering the flickering illumination from the overhead panels. “Go.”
Hugh raced down to the main cargo bay, reaching the bulkhead door just as its display went from orange to yellow, indicating acceptable pressure on the far side. Hugh quickly shut the pressure doors in the corridor behind him, then overrode the caution indicators to open the bay.
His ears popped as the hatch opened, and the air within smelled metallic and burnt as soon as he hurried inside and slid down the ladder to the main cargo deck. Given the twisted holes punched in the arrowhead shape occupying most of the space, the smell was only too understandable.
“Try getting in through the damaged section.” Varinia, watching his progress on the security system, suggested via Hugh’s earpiece. “The crew compartment would be roughly in the center.”
Hugh grabbed a wrist-light from a locker on one bulkhead and clambered up the angled side of the Jericho’s hull, glad of the hexagonal handholds generously scattered across the strike craft’s hull. A quartet of smoothy-fared openings near the bow were probably the business end of some sort of laser or plasma cannon, but he knew they would be of no use. Even if the Jericho’s power plant could be restarted, the control systems would be beyond his ability to understand in less than twenty minutes.
Instead, as Hugh edged his way between the scorched, razor-sharp edges of the craft’s composite armor paneling, he hoped to find his way into the primary munitions bay. If that space was still intact, and the Jericho hadn’t fired off its arsenal of guided weapons before being hit, perhaps he could trick something there into locking onto their attackers.
“How’s it going up there?” Hugh squeezed his broad shoulders into the scorched innards of the Incarnation ship. If she thinking of doing what he was afraid of, he wanted to keep her talking, and so dissuade her of the idea.
“They’re closing.” Varinia’s voice sounded shaky and higher-pitched than usual. “I’m going to try to hail and bluff them.”
“Don’t lie to me, Vari. You’re going to try to deal with them.”
“Hugh, I would never sell you out to-”
“Stars around, woman, you think I would believe that of you? I know what you think you have to do. Don’t.” Hugh pushed past a tangle of loose cabling suspending a series of broken crystalline components in the middle of his path and spied the shattered exterior of what had probably been the crew compartment.
After peering inside this and finding unrecognizable, charred, dessicated lumps dangling from the straps of a trio of recumbent chairs, he turned his attention to looking for a way into the munitions bay below their deck, which was now overhead. Surely there would be a means for the crew to escape a damaged craft, and through the bay would be the easiest method.
“It’s all my fault, Hugh.”
“Nothing’s your damned fault, Vari. We rolled the dice together. They weren’t in our favor. We'll deal with what comes next.” Hugh spied what he was looking for – an iris-like hatch in the center, between the three seats. Its electronic controls were dead, but Hugh quickly wheeled it open with a manual-crank handle provided for that purpose. “And we’ll deal with it together.”
“I’m in the munitions bay.” Hugh, with one shuddering glance at the unrecognizable corpses around him, grabbed the edges of the overhead opening and lifted himself into the space above. Playing his light through the compartment, he was gratified to see no less than six sinister oblongs hanging in a rotary rack forward. The second rack, behind the hatch, was empty.
Varinia seemed only too eager to latch onto this change of topic. “How’s it look?”
“Promising.” Hugh braced his knees on the hatch and pushed up on the munitions bay doors over his head. They didn’t budge. If the bay was to be used as an escape route for the crew, there was probably a manual release somewhere, but he saw no sign of it. “Whatever these are aren’t very big. I could probably haul them to the airlock by hand.”
Hugh played his light across the computer-readable code plates which passed for warning placards on Incarnation technology. “You don’t need to tell me twice.” Gingerly, he reached out to run his fingers behind one of the oblong shapes, looking for the release catch that would let an armorer remove unused ordinance when the strike-craft returned to its mothership.
This week we return to the account submitted by people claiming to be Hugh Apperlo and Varinia Villa. Despite many messages from readers claiming to be able to confirm or falsify this story, at this time I am no closer to validating or invalidating it than I was at this time last week.
I have however learned that the terms of the anonymous bounty offered for provision of Jericho wreckage I mentioned last week were particularly interesting – they read more like a corporate contract than such documents normally do. While this could have multiple explanations, it seems only too possible to me that one of the major strike-craft manufacturers is trying to get an edge over its competition by reverse-engineering Incarnation tech.
As things have been pretty quiet here since the last attempt to relieve Margaux, I have plenty of time to keep digging into this, and I plan to do so.
- Written by Duncan L. Chaudhri
Tales from the Inbox: The Jericho Heist
2949-06-15 – Tales from the Inbox: The Jericho Heist
I cannot verify this story, nor can I definitively tie it to the names its participants claim. Sent in by a pair of freelance spacers who claim to have been featured in this text feed once before, this account did not come with any corroborating evidence such as sensor feeds and the like which is quite common with our recent fare.
Given that the heist claimed is technically illegal, I can see why the participants chose to send only a written account. The Incarnation, as the damaged party, cannot attempt to enforce charges until after the war), but wars don’t last forever, and plundering a battlefield is hardly an honorable practice in the best of times.
Still, this pair seemed proud of their handiwork, and I can verify the existence, until about eleven days ago, of a dubious bounty offered for the collection of one wrecked Jericho bomber. The anonymous posting on the Maribel datasphere was taken down and listed as cancelled, but due to the legality of this sort of salvage I would expect the poster to do so even if they had received the desired item and paid out the promised bounty.
I suspect if there is anything to this story, Naval Intelligence is already looking into it.
“Vari, are you sure you know what you’re doing?”
Hugh Apperlo waited for an answer, but when none came, he turned away from the viewpanel to look at the woman at the little starship’s helm station to find her staring back at him, expression, as usual, wholly indecipherable.
Diane Dragović was barely big enough to call a light-duty hauler, and its main duty space was a weird hybrid of a smaller ship’s cockpit and a larger one’s command deck, with the twin side-by side helm stations of the former sitting in the middle of a relatively spacious compartment, with a few collapsible secondary stations set along the port and starboard bulkheads. Hugh heard an alert chime on his station, but made no move to see to it until he had an answer.
Varinia Villa eventually relented, shrugging her shoulders in her odd lopsided way. “Theoretically, yes.”
“I can’t say I’m reassured.”
Varinia’s hands ceased their movement over the controls. “Tell me the word, and we leave. There’s no contract on this run.”
Hugh briefly considered doing so, but his eyes moved from Varinia’s face to the crystalline spines protruding from holes in her specially-configured smart-fabric tunic. These, the reason for her distinctive shrug, were artificial structures anchored deep in her muscles each one the vertex of an erratically geometric pattern of ridges and protrusions that extended from her left shoulder down her arm and back.
Seeing the spines, he was reminded why she was so willing to take risks for a big payday. His shoulders sagged, and he gave in. “Just be careful. Ellison will want his ship back in one piece.”
Hugh took a seat and made a show of checking through the various engineering alerts on his board, refusing to look up at the viewpanel. The alert which had chimed a moment earlier was a minor one, nothing he could use to request a halt. What Varinia was about to do had originally been his idea, and he regretted having voiced it the moment he said it, seeing that curious gleam in the woman’s dark eyes that suggested furious activity behind them.
That had been three weeks ago, and Hugh had never regretted his idea more than he did now, piloting borrowed Dragović toward the tattered wreckage left behind by one of dozens of skirmishes that had taken place along the front in the last few months. Though capable of extremely precise maneuvers, the ship was otherwise in no shape to make a run for it if there was trouble - its Xiou-Edwards drive worked correctly about eight times out of ten, and its main gravitic drive could only provide about four gees of acceleration before half the circuit breaker switch-heads in the engine room decided to quit their jobs rather suddenly and retire to a quite life embedded in the opposite bulkhead.
“Entering the field.” Varinia reached over to pat Hugh on the shoulder in what she probably thought was a reassuring way. The effect was somewhat spoiled when a small piece of debris clanged against the ship’s forward hull.
Hugh took one deep breath, rolled his neck to ease the tension in his muscles, then loaded the sensor program they’d loaded before setting out. As the computer analyzed each piece of debris that tumbled past, Hugh called up the engineering diagnostics, watching the various jittering charts and fluctuating readouts for a pattern that might spell trouble. If he could spot a problem early, it might just save both their lives.
Ellison had offered to loan them a much newer ship for what they intended to do, but Varinia had insisted on Dragović. Hugh didn’t yet know why, but he had learned a long time ago to trust her instincts. Though most people tended to dismiss her as Hugh’s bedroom plaything because of her slight build, pretty face, and horrific fleshsculpt devised by Silver Strand chattel dealers, Varinia really was the brains of their two-spacer operation. If she thought the seemingly inferior ship gave them a better chance of collecting the remains of one of the Incarnation’s new Jericho attack craft, and then trading this wreckage for the sizable anonymous bounty posted on the Maribel grey market, she was probably right.
“Nothing on the sensors yet.” Hugh didn’t need to say anything, but he also hated to let the tense silence fester. “No candidates, no sentry buoys.” In theory, the Navy deposited sentry buoys at the sites of battlefields warning civilian craft to stay away, but with the Navy in most engagements ceding the field of battle to the Incarnation, they rarely had an opportunity. The Incarnation’s own salvage efforts seemed secretive and lackluster by comparison. Perhaps they wrote off every ship crippled in combat, seeing no point in recovering more than survivors and data.
“It’s here.” Varinia probably hadn’t intended Hugh to hear her whispering assertion. He snuck a glance at her, and saw her face set in dark determination, as if she could will a wrecked Jericho to appear before them. He knew what this score meant to her – it was the first time they had even a prayer of obtaining enough money for the first set of procedures to reverse the horrific modifications which had been forced upon her years before. Hugh would have preferred to invest it into buying their own ship – he’d long since stopped letting Varinia’s fleshsculpts bother him – but he didn’t dare tell her that. She had been trying to have them removed as long as he’d known her.
As if forced to do so by sheer force of will, the sensor routine suddenly chimed its discovery of a target object. “Matching contact.” Hugh flicked his finger over the alert to send the coordinates across to Varinia’s station. “Ninety-four percent certainty.”
Varinia adjusted course immediately, though it caused several pieces of wreckage to clatter against the ship’s already battered plating. “Get that scoop open.”
Hugh did as instructed, opening the forward cargo doors and extending the struts and meshwork of the haphazard scoop they’d installed there. The hold was just big enough to hold a single one of the arrowhead-shaped Incarnation strike launches, but they hadn’t expected to find one entirely intact. The anonymous bounty hadn’t specified how complete a wreck was needed.
Varinia, busy making a series of minute manual course changes to line up on the target object, nevertheless whistled as they drew close. “This is the jackpot, Hugh. Look at it.”
Hugh looked up at the forward viewpanel, and couldn’t help but agree. Tumbling slowly, the dead Jericho bomber dead ahead looked almost completely intact, though with its amidships badly torn up by what looked like railgun fire that had penetrated its starboard armor paneling, scythed through the machinery and crew within, and burst out the other side, taking most of the port-side hull structure with it. Despite the damage, the wrecked strike craft was essentially in one piece, and it looked like its ventral weapons bay might even be intact. If that bay contained live ship-killer torpedoes, Hugh knew they could get paid for the operation twice, provided he could extract them from the craft without blowing anything up.
As the distance ticked down, Hugh glanced back down to his console only occasionally. He wondered whether the crew of the Jericho had died instantly, or if one or two of them had lingered in the dead craft until their oxygen ran out. He wondered whether their bodies were still aboard, and how he could dispose of them hygienically and respectfully. Varinia wouldn’t care – she thought of the Incarnation as akin to the cruel underground which had turned her into a monster, and not without reason – but Hugh thought it important to be concerned with such things.
“Final approach.” Varinia made a last adjustment, reduced their relative velocity, then sat back as the Jericho vanished below Dragović’s bow. A moment later, the ship lurched and began to tumble as their target connected with the mesh scoop.
Hugh slapped his palm on the control to retract the scoop, watching on a secondary camera feed as the entangled wreck began to slide into the ship’s hold. “We got it.”
Varinia breathed a sigh of relief, probably already imagining how much more human she could make herself with her cut of the payout.
Hugh turned in his chair to congratulate Varinia on a perfect approach when several alarms on his console began to wail. “Aw, Hells. Looks like sentry buoys, and they’re not Navy.”
Varinia’s pale face became even paler. “The Incarnation doesn’t-” She interrupted herself, wheeling the little ship around and putting it on the fastest course to the system’s periphery. “Pirates, Hugh. God have mercy if they catch us.”
Before the war, there hadn’t been pirates on the Frontier for nearly two decades, but Hugh didn’t doubt she was right. Varinia, as a native of the Silver Strand and a firsthand witness of the cruel economy of the place’s outlaws, knew piratical activity when she saw it.
- Written by Duncan L. Chaudhri
Tales from the Service: The Cvetkov Maneuver
2949-06-08 – Tales from the Service: The Cvetkov Maneuver
Rajab Spano felt sweat dripping down the back of his neck. Even with the self-contained atmospheric system within his armor suit blasting cold air at him from all directions, he always sweated in the suit during combat operations. A D’Sousa Systems sales representative had assured him that the Model 48’s enhanced atmospherics over previous models would eliminate operator perspiration, but after having used the new suit for more than a year, Rajab had definitively concluded that either his body’s capacity for sweat was a power which no mere technology could overcome, or the representative had been a damned liar.
“Spano, three o’clock low.”
Rajab turned toward the callout just in time for his suit to register several hits from a handheld laser. Fortunately, they struck the thick armor-alloy plating of the suit’s torso front and shoulder guards, doing little but discolor the fresh coat of heat-resistant intumescent paint the company armorers had just finished applying for just this purpose. Though he couldn’t see it, he knew the paint at the sites of impact had bubbled into a thick, black foam, protecting the metal underneath.
Before Rajab could switch to thermal vision to spot his attacker among the thick vegetation, a spotter drone launched by one of his compatriots marked the location from above. He raised his right arm to bring his suit’s thirty-milimeter smart-cannon to bear on the unseen enemy soldier, knowing a single fragmentation round from the weapon would shred the Incarnation straggler and everything in a two-meter radius.
“Hold it, Spano. Ramires wants prisoners.”
“Overwatch, Colonel Ramires can come out here and get his own damned prisoners.” Rajab snarled as several more laser strikes registered on his armor. Adjusting his aim to match the updated telemetry from the drone, he squeezed his right control gauntlet.
Though the D’Sousa Systems Model 48 weighed four hundred fifty kilos even before Rajab’s considerable bulk was factored in, but it still rocked back noticeably when the smart-cannon fired. At such a short range, the thunderclap of the projectile’s supersonic exit from the barrel and the dull boom of its explosion barely fifty meters away merged into one glorious sound which perfectly drowned out any protest the overwatch coordinator might have made.
“Adams, Graves, let’s pick up the pace. Too many stragglers here for my tastes. Leave the mess for the F.D.A.” Rajab stomped over to the tangle of broken kindling and shredded vegetation where his attacker had been hiding in a stand of local plants. Though he couldn’t see a body, he marked himself down a probable kill and turned toward the ridgeline.
As he turned away from his handiwork, the balance point of Rajab’s armor-suit changed suddenly. It wasn’t enough to slow him down or throw him off-balance, but it was enough to start alarm indicators blinking in his heads-up display. Something from the vegetation had snagged on the upper part of his suit, probably the comms antenna projecting just behind the armored dome which served as the suit’s helmet.
Setting the suit’s servos into a bouncing double-time jog and letting the motion pull his legs along, he switched his attention to the external microcameras which gave him an all-around view just in time to see the obstruction. A young man in a tattered set of Incarnation combat fatigues clung desperately with one hand to the root of his suit’s comms antenna while the other hand struggled with a round object which was almost certainly explosive.
“Aw, hellfire.” Snarling, Rajab skidded to a halt, his suit’s boots plowing deep furrows in Berkant’s fertile soil. Reaching up with his left arm, he swatted at the area behind his domed helmet, the big suit effortlessly flexing to allow the massive hand at the end of his robotically-extended arm to swipe at the plucky enemy soldier.
The suit, designed with safety stops to prevent him from damaging most of his own systems, stopped him from crushing his unwanted passenger into fine paste, but he did see the explosive device fall to the ground as he flailed to gain a killing grip on the Incarnation soldier. Just to be on the safe side, he stomped forward several paces as he struggled, in case the weapon was armed.
Unfortunately, the young soldier on Rajab’s back was too agile to be caught in one of the places where Rajab could crush him against the suit’s armor plating. Hanging on for dear life and swinging his body to avoid Rajab’s flailing arms, the man refused to be dislodged.
“All right.” Rajab dropped his arms and extended the stabilizing fins for his suit’s jump rockets. He’d never tried the Cvetkov maneuver in a live suit, but he’d been playing with it in the simulator for months, and it would certainly dislodge his passenger.
After an abridged startup sequence, he lit the rockets, propelling hundreds of kilos of metal and polymer into the air and crushing Rajab down into his control harness with at least three gees of acceleration. The acceleration lasted only a moment, though – Rajab had just cleared the treetops when he cut the rockets, rolled the suit over backwards with a quick burst of the attitude thrusters, then engaged them again at full force while still rotating.
In the second and a half of near-blackout as he held down the rocket burn control, Rajab saw the lavender Berkant sky whip out of view to be replaced by the canopies of trees close at hand. When the sky reappeared once more in his narrowing tunnel of vision, he fired attitude thrusters to correct his spin, just as his suit’s legs crashed back through the trees and toward the ground below.
The Cvetkov Maneuver, a crazy trick developed by a crazier Marine, was not something the D’Sousa armor-suit had ever been designed to handle, but when the Model 48’s boots bit into the heavy soil, sliding only a few meters before arresting his backward motion, Rajab was glad for its durable construction. He’d caused a few new warning lights to blink, but the one he cared about – the one which indicated an intruder clinging to his back – had gone.
Oddly enough, the tickling of sweat running down Rajab’s neck and back had vanished as well – the gee forces had whipped the moisture, at least temporarily, into the far crevices of his suit, providing a moment’s relief.
That moment ended when the Incarnation soldier’s body, which had none of the tree-branch-breaking mass of the suit and had thus had a far less direct return path to the ground, tumbled out of the canopy of a nearby tree into the leaf litter below. Rajab didn’t hesitate – he loaded another thirty-milimeter fragmentation round and fired, obliterating leaf litter, body, and tree which had arrested its fall.
“Ramires wants prisoners.” Rajab mocked the overwatch coordinator’s tone within the privacy of his suit before dashing forward to rejoin his two compatriots.
The Raid on Berkant a few days ago marks an interesting change in strategy for the Incarnation. Perhaps they are attempting to mimic the Confederated Navy’s successful use of ground-force raids on worlds like Meraud and Meyerfeld while massing their main fleet for another offensive.
All we can say for certain is that the Berkant raid does not seem to have gone according to our enemies’ plans. Though they were able to severely damage the spaceport and overrun an outlying military garrison facility there with a few thousand troops deployed from a pair of Tyrant cruisers, the response from F.D.A. and mercenary forces (which had, by a stroke of luck, been engaged in a field exercise on the planet in large numbers) was quick and forceful enough to cause the Incarnation’s raiding troops to withdraw in disarray to their landing craft. Many hundreds were left stranded in the garrison facility and its surrounding terrain, and the responding forces fought a bloody two-day battle to clear the area. Among the mercenaries engaged in this fighting was Rajab Spano, a heavy armor-suit trooper with the mercenary Crisp Company.
The Tyrant cruisers used an approach similar to that used by Confederated warships to reinforce and resupply Margaux during the last few months – they jumped into the system farther out than is normal and coasted in on a ballistic course with engines cold, being spotted only hours before they were in position to deploy their troop-carrying launches.
Though the long-term impact of the raid on Berkant infrastructure is minimal, many have forecast that this raid indicates the system to be the next invasion target, but this isn’t the first time an invasion of Berkant has been predicted. You may recall that the first proper fleet engagement of the war was fought in the Berkant system, but the Incarnation fleet had no troop-ships to exploit their success in this engagement.
- Written by Duncan L. Chaudhri
Tales from the Service: The Landsman Bulwark
2949-06-01 – Tales from the Service: The Landsman Bulwark
Private Yudai Boyd saw the blinking indicators in his heads-up display only moments before touching down at the end of his final pre-calculated jump toward the Incarnaton fortress. Acting reflexively, without making any conscious decision, he engaged his suit rockets one more time, jetting laterally fifty meters just before a heavy pulse-beam cut into the icy vegetation of his initial landing point.
Though his short evasive rocket-jump had evaded the targeting optics of the slow-tracking fortress guns, it nearly planted all five hundred kilos of his armor-suit rig on the shoulders of a light F.D.A. fireteam trading fire with an Incarnation infantry patrol. He barely heard the chorus of cursing his suit’s microphones picked up; he was focused on the emplaced weapon which had very nearly boiled him inside his armored shell.
Leaving the infantry to their duel, he stomped forward under the cover of a dense copse of trees toward the ridgeline, hoping the fortress guns didn’t choose to simply scythe blindly across the hilltop. Most of the Marines had come down in defilade positions on the reverse slope, but he’d landed behind a cut in the ridge which gave some of the heavy guns a clear shot. The cut didn’t appear on the relied map in Yudai’s HUD, but even the greenest Marine knew better than to trust pre-battle intelligence data, and Yudai was far from green.
Crashing through the copse, Yudai deployed the pair of spotter drones attached to the back of his suit, watching their cameras as they flitted up through the frigid canopy into the open air. Even from the ridge several klicks away, the massive installation loomed large, its gleaming walls possessing an ageless, cyclopean quality that did its best to dispel the reality that the fortress hadn’t existed fourteen months earlier. Equal parts prison and garrison, the structure housed a massive population of transplanted Confederated civilians, their innumerable, pitiless guards, and a sizable military force.
The spotter automatons picked out the emplaced pulse-beam which had almost killed Yudai within seconds; its barrel of magnetic metalenses glowed fiercely for the drones’ infrared sensors. As he watched, another gun of the same type bloomed into fierce heat as it spat an invisible burst of coherent light toward another point on the ridge where another F.D.A. squad or Marine trooper tarried in the open long enough for the targeting systems to lock on.
“Boyd, Prentis, those beam turrets are yours.” Corporal Ori “Ice” Berg marked the two weapons on the tactical net, and indicators bracketed each. “Get them before the F.D.A. armor comes around the ridge.”
Yudai winced, remembering how lightly armored the “armor” assets assigned to the skirmisher force were. They were really little more than fast carryall trucks with one-centimeter armor-alloy plates bolted to their noses and sides – agile and easily capable of navigating the ad-hoc road network of Meraud’s ice-rivers, but not really prepared to withstand anything but small arms fire. He focused his spotter drones on the turret mount assigned to him, which he couldn’t help but notice was the same one which had nearly killed him. At four klicks away, the weapon was outside the range of most of his weapons, but he didn’t need to destroy his mark right away – all he needed to do was get its attention.
Yudai switched his suit’s integral rail-cannon to its highest muzzle velocity, lowest rate of fire setting. Attached to his right arm, the weapon probably didn’t have enough power to penetrate the armored gun-shield of the fortress turret, but it would make enough noise to tell the gunners where he was. Crashing through the last line of trees, he raised his arm, locked the suit joints, and opened fire, each projectile tearing through Meraud’s chill atmosphere with a thundering crack.
The targeting optics in Yudai’s helmet registered a few hits, but the turret was already swinging toward him, so he cut in his rockets to rush into the cover of a huge boulder covered in vine-like vegetation. The plants coiled and reached for the warmth of his suit, but he swatted them away idly, watching the turret come to rest pointing directly at him with his drones. The weapon couldn’t reach him behind cover, and it couldn’t turn to face a new threat without giving him a chance to move and attack once more.
“Ice, I’ve got mine tied down.” Yudai itched to destroy the weapon, but he knew better than to approach before the fortresses revealed its other weapons.
“Copy. Keep it that way.”
As Corporal Berg acknowledged Yudai’s update, he saw a group of new heat signatures rise from within the fortress’s outer wall, climbing quickly into the air. Yudai cursed; if he was pinned down by the turret, enemy close air support could pick him off only too easily.
Fortunately, the planners of Operation Landsman had accounted for this probability. With a rumbling sound, three sleek arrowheads sped overhead, cresting the ridge barely ten meters above the treetops. Marine Puma interceptors, as agile in atmosphere as in the vacuum of space, sliced through the cluster of climbing air-support craft, sending two tumbling back to the ground and scattering the rest.
Knowing he owed the pilots a drink, Yudai repositioned his spotters to keep an eye on the remaining aircraft as well as the turret. He still hoped to slag the offending pulsebeam, but to do it, he needed to get a good deal closer.
Operation Landsman resulted in the rescue of nearly two thousand civilians from the frozen hell of Meraud’s Incarnation labor camps. Confederated casualties were light – about thirty killed across all services and another fifty or so wounded. Most of the casualties were suffered by the Frontier Defense Army, but this service contributed most of the ground troops, so this should come as no surprise.
The fortress prison-camp itself was not penetrated during Operation Landsman – its static defenses are reported to be far too formidable for a light raiding force to threaten. As Private Boyd’s account indicates, the fast-moving Marines struggled to engage the defenses effectively, but the fortress in turn generally lacked the ability to threaten Marine troopers at range.
No doubt both the Confederated and Incarnation armed forces will learn much from this raid. For the thousands of civilians rescued and the many more still in bondage behind the fortress walls, Operation Landsman gives some hope that the horrors brought on by this conflict will soon be at an end.
- Written by Duncan L. Chaudhri
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