RATING: NC17 for language (they say f**k a lot, again ;>)
My thanks to Mike Lee, Amelia Chidi-Ofong, Sheryl Clay and Amy Berg for reading this through and giving me invaluable advice.
Rachael J Walker
Attica sat in the ISSCV, resting against the bulkhead, eyes
closed. The attack on the Chig base on Ceresi had been a success,
but the fighting had been intense. Intelligence had badly underestimated their numbers.
They were bringing back two wounded, Stokes with a busted arm and Peterson with head
wounds. He lay up front. Thankfully it didn't look serious. She looked out of the window to see the Saratoga
looming into view, flanked by two smaller vessels. Transports were already docking ahead
of them. She'd lost contact with the 58th when the firing broke out, she could only hope
they were on board one of them. The 32nd were the last out so she knew that every Marine
down there that was still breathing had made it to the APC's, but they'd left a lot
behind. Even though it wasn't really her responsibility, she dreaded coming back one day
without them, and having to face McQueen. He'd never directly asked her to look out for
them, but when he didn't accompany them she could see a desperate look in his eyes. They
were good, bloody good, but they were still young.
Attica sat in the ISSCV, resting against the bulkhead, eyes closed.
The attack on the Chig base on Ceresi had been a success, but the fighting had been intense. Intelligence had badly underestimated their numbers. They were bringing back two wounded, Stokes with a busted arm and Peterson with head wounds. He lay up front. Thankfully it didn't look serious.
She looked out of the window to see the Saratoga looming into view, flanked by two smaller vessels. Transports were already docking ahead of them. She'd lost contact with the 58th when the firing broke out, she could only hope they were on board one of them. The 32nd were the last out so she knew that every Marine down there that was still breathing had made it to the APC's, but they'd left a lot behind. Even though it wasn't really her responsibility, she dreaded coming back one day without them, and having to face McQueen. He'd never directly asked her to look out for them, but when he didn't accompany them she could see a desperate look in his eyes. They were good, bloody good, but they were still young.
"You all get back?"
Attica nodded. "Peterson's still in surgery, but he'll be OK."
"I don't know why we bother with intel sometimes."
Attica gave him a wry smile.
"I've gotta go talk to Ross." And with that he stormed out.
Zygramski watched the swing doors come to rest, too tired to think straight. That was the longest conversation they'd had in a week. She turned and found herself a doctor to yell at.
A short while later Zygramski stood outside her quarters. She keyed the door lock, dragged herself inside, dog tired, and stopped dead.
"What the fuck?"
As she stared at the kit bag on her bunk the bathroom door opened and a head popped out.
"Oh, hi, I'm your new roomy. Give me a second." The head disappeared.
Attica stood staring at the closed door for a moment before putting the woman's belongings on the other bed and sitting down. She looked around the cramped quarters and sighed. Oh well, it had been nice for a while. She still missed the palatial quarters next to McQueen's, but she had known that that had been temporary, and had been moved out as soon as Commander Belkov had come on board. Here in XO-land she had a small room with no window, two bunks, one desk and a bathroom shared with the two Lieutenant Commanders next door. And now she had a 'roomy'.
In some ways that wasn't so bad. She had to admit that she never slept well in a room on her own, it was just too damned quiet. But now she had to deal with somebody new, and the outcome was always unpredictable. As she thought about all the possibilities the bathroom door opened and a young woman walked in, towelling her hair.
"Hi, I'm Carla Torres, XO of the 53rd." She smiled and offered her hand. Attica shook it.
"Yeah, I know."
Here it comes, Attica thought, as the woman fidgetted slightly.
"I mean.....er. I don't have anything against In Vitroes if that's what you're thinking."
"Well that's fortunate."
"Well, actually, I've never know any. "She smiled nervously. "But I'm sure....... er.......I'm sure you're all very nice."
Attica stared at her. "Well, that's more than I know."
"Sorry. That didn't come out right." She looked around the room, obviously not sure where to go from there. "Oh, was that your bunk. Sorry, I wasn't sure."
Attica looked at her side of the room. It was, indeed, bereft of any personal effects. She shrugged.
"I'll unpack." She took her bag to the lockers and paused. "Er.....which one is yours?"
"The one on the right."
She opened the left hand locker. "Um.....is this your flight helmet?"
"Oh, yes. Here, give it to me."
She crossed to Attica's bunk, looking at the helmet.
"You're with the 32nd? That's a great squadron."
"You should get this rip fixed." She smiled and went back to unpacking. Attica looked down at the rubber seal. It was cut away slightly at the back.
"I'm going to get a shower."
Attica slowly sipped the last vodka on her limit.....and it was ten days to payday, when her card would be recharged. Looks like I'll be hitting my private reserves again, she thought.
"Er......do you mind if I join you?"
Attica looked up to see Torres standing by her table. She motioned for her to take a seat.
"You found the bar alright, then?"
The woman smiled and nodded. She seemed to be thinking of something to say. Attica helped her out.
"Where's the rest of your squadron?"
"You know, I'm not sure. I was expecting to find them here. How about yours?"
"They're over there." Attica indicated a table by the far window.
"Oh. Er......" She trailed off.
Attica cleared her throat. "So, where d'you train? Loxley?"
"Yup. Back in '57. By the time I graduated the war was almost over. Saw some action in Mexico though. How about you?"
"Lympstone, in '56. And, yes, I saw some action."
"I was in England once. My family's from near Manchester originally. Thought I'd check the place out. Do you know it?"
"Manchester? A bit."
There was a pause.
"So, where are you from?"
"Finlay Air Base."
Torres frowned for a moment before she evidently figured it out. "Oh..... I see."
Attica smiled slightly, another award-winning conversation for the journal.
"Me I'm from Rock Springs, Wyoming. You ever been to Wyoming?" Attica shook her head. "Some of it's beautiful. Yellowstone, The Bighorns......not Rock Springs though, that's the pits!" She smiled. "My folks own a ranch out there, but I wasn't cut out for that, so I joined up. How about you?"
Attica raised an eyebrow. "Why did I join up?"
Attica stifled a laugh. "You know, you don't have to keep apologising."
Mercifully, as the young woman struggled for something to say, Attica noticed McQueen coming into the bar and waved a hand. He went to get himself a drink.
"Colonel T. C. McQueen."
"McQueen?! The McQueen?"
"No, a McQueen. Haven't you heard, we come in six-packs."
Attica regretted that when she saw the look on the poor woman's face.
"Sorry. Couldn't resist.....'Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy'."
"Never mind." Attica downed her drink. "Yes, that's the McQueen. He's an old friend of mine."
"You're not going to start drooling are you?"
Before Torres could respond McQueen was at their table.
Attica smiled. "Colonel McQueen, this is Major Carla Torres. My new bunkmate."
"Lucky Major Torres."
Attica scowled at him. Torres smiled and shook his hand. "Pleased to meet you, sir." McQueen acknowledge her with a slight nod of the head.
"How's West doing?"
"He'll be up and about in a day or so. It was just a scrape."
McQueen nodded. "Peterson?"
"He'll be out of action for a while."
McQueen remained standing, seemingly trying to decide whether or not to join them.
"I need another drink." Attica broke the silence, looking down at the spent drink ticket infront of her. "Typical!"
"What do you want?" Torres got up.
"Er, vodka. Thanks."
"What about you, sir?"
McQueen looked down at his untouched beer.
"Oh." Torres headed for the bar
Once Torres was out of ear shot McQueen raised an eyebrow. "Have you found yourself a new friend?"
"Well, I've found a natural born with a guilt complex, does that count?"
McQueen smiled slightly, and went to sit at the bar.
Yanking off the headset it took his eyes a few moments to adjust to the lights in the Rec Room. West was standing by the pool tables talking to Chan and Hardy from the 32nd, his arm in a sling. Vansen was taking a shot into the corner pocket.
He put the pistol back in its rest and went to sit infront of the TV screen. As usual, the news was featuring hard won victories and the courageous battle on the home front to supply those fighting the good fight. Then the topic changed to the preparations for the one-year anniversary of the start of the war. All around the world, memorial services were to be held for the victims at Tellus and Vesta.
"How's it going, Cooper?"
He looked round to see Zygramski watching the broadcast from over his shoulder. She leaned forward, resting her elbows on the back of the seat next to him.
"Has it been a year already?" Attica took a sip of her coffee, still watching the screen. Behind her Hawkes watched Vansen taking money from an unfortunate Navy pilot and rack up, as another hapless soul stepped up to the table. Attica turned to see what he was looking at.
"You know she must double her pay every month." She leant back and watched. "I should get Chan to play her, she's pretty damned good."
"Not as good as Vansen."
Attica smiled to herself. "Talking of Chan, she's got her sim-modifier up and running."
"You remember, we were having a little argument about Hammerheads and Tiger Moths."
"Oh, yeah." Hawkes grinned.
"Well, I could set up the simulator so you could fly one."
"Really?" His eyes lit up.
She nodded as he broke into a broad grin. Turning she watched as a Navy Captain put up a good show against Vansen. Looking more closely she had a horrible feeling he was coming on to her. This could get ugly. She turned to get a better look.
"Excuse me, Major Zygramski."
She looked round to find a young Ensign standing at parade rest.
"Commodore Ross requests your presence in Briefing Room 4, ma'am."
"Thank you Ensign."
The young man came to attention before leaving. Getting up, Attica leant over Hawkes' chair.
"I'll let you know when the simulator's free." She turned and left the Rec Room leaving Hawkes in a suddenly improved mood.
"Major, please sit down." Ross motioned towards the seat next to Lieutenant Colonel Yashima, of the 142nd.
Zygramski sat and turned to Commodore Ross.
"The schematic infront of you shows an underground area that we believe houses a conventional fuel generator. " She looked down at the diagram showing a number of underground tunnels leading to a space about forty meters square. "The bedrock appears to be a type of granite and does not appear to have been modified. There are four entrances, highlighted in green, and we believe these objects here to be the generators. The tunnels lead off to four entrance ways, guarded by two Chigs each. The number of the enemy is thought to be small. What we need to know is what would you need to blow it up."
Attica looked up. "Just the room, sir, or the entire installation?"
"Just that room."
McQueen watched Zygramski go over the available facts in her head, her middle finger, characteristically, tapping the table top. The problem was, the available facts were scarce both because intelligence was patchy and because certain parts of the equation were classified. Still, if you wanted something blown up you called Zygramski. Her nickname, Boomer, was not only short for Boomerang.
"Do the entrances have blast proof doors, sir?"
"We're assuming the Chigs would want to contain an explosion, should there be an accident."
"But, if we set off our own explosion, will the doors hold?" Her right finger continued to tap. Attica was unaware that Colonel Cavoti, of the 21st, was glaring at it. " How thick's the roof? Ninety meters." She nodded to herself. "Should hold. We'd want to detonate remotely. Can't see a problem."
Colonel McQueen noted the bemused look on Ross' face. He was unused to the way Zygramski thought through problems almost as if she were talking to herself. Attica was staring at the ceiling now, an almost pained look on her face. She was probably calculating how much explosive they'd need, her lips were moving slightly.
She turned back to Commodore Ross. "Sir, is it certain that we're dealing with conventional fuel?"
"If you mean is there Sewell fuel down there, we don't think so. Nothing's shown up on the energy readings."
"Well, I hope you're right sir, or this'll take half the planet with it." She went on to explain how much of what she'd put where. McQueen wasn't familiar with the explosive she suggested, it must be fresh out of R&D, but she was confident that it'd do the job. "One more thing sir. I'm assuming there is something here that you specifically don't want blowing up. Can I ask, sir, if it's particularly fragile?"
McQueen repressed a smile.
Ross thought about that for a moment. "No, Major, it is not particularly fragile. It is two hundred meters northwest of the generator room and it must remain in place and functional."
Zygramski ran over the calculations once again. "I don't think that's a problem, sir."
"But are you certain this will work?" Colonel Cavoti leaned forward.
"Er, without knowing the precise strength of the blast doors I can t give you a hunder percent guarantee sir, but from the information I have, this should do the job."
He sat back seemingly unimpressed. There was an uncomfortable silence. McQueen watched Sanderson sitting impassively across the table from him and then switched his attention to Cavoti.
"Colonel, Major Zygramski has been blowing things up for fourteen years, I think she might know what she's doing."
"I suppose she might."
"Gentlemen" Ross cut in. "I believe we have other things to discuss. Thank you Major, that will be all"
Zygramski rose, briefly came to attention and turned to leave the room.
Later that evening Damphousse walked into the 58th's quarters to find Wang taking advantage of West's disabled state.
"Hey, what's going on?"
Paul looked up and released Nathan from a head lock. "Nate said there was almost a fight in the Rec Room, but he's not spilling the beans."
"It was just Paulus hittin' on Shane, tha's all." West swung himself up on to his bunk.
"How's the arm?" Vanessa asked.
"Docs say it'll be ready for Wang-bashing in a couple of days."
At that, Wang started shadow boxing the lockers. "Lay your bets! It's gonna be a doozy!.........Ow!!" He jumped up and down rubbing his hand. "I'm alright, I'm alright!" He continued jumping on his way to the showers.
Damphousse shook her head slowly, then noticed Hawkes lying on his bunk, grinning to himself. "What's up with you?"
"Zygramski said I could use her Tiger Moth programme in the simulator!"
Zygramski lay on her bunk reading over spec sheets, grateful that Carla was elsewhere for the moment. Attica had left the meeting an hour earlier and was in less than a joyful mood. She reached over, hit 'play' and the first act of 'Die Walkure' began. How appropriate, she thought, a gathering storm.
There was a knock at the door.
"Who is it?"
"It's open." She reached over and turned down the stereo.
McQueen stepped into the room and closed the door behind him. He leant back against it and squeezed his eyes shut.
"Are you finished?"
McQueen nodded. "There's a meeting tomorrow at 06:00, in the O Room." He looked over at her. "Looks like I'll be joining the show."
Attica raised her eyebrows, then smiled. "Good."
"West's still out of action though."
"So, you'll be leaving him with a stack of paperwork, huh?"
McQueen smiled back at her, he looked as tired as she felt. He also looked pissed off.
Neither of them wanted to discuss the meeting. Besides, it was nothing new, McQueen was just surprised at how he'd reacted. Over the past couple of weeks, since the 32nd had come on board, he'd seen very little of them. They'd spent most of their time off-ship on missions he knew nothing about, so he'd managed to avoid Sanderson. He'd forgotten how much he disliked the man. He'd also forgotten what it was like to have a CO who didn't back you up, and that angered him. It hadn't been so long ago that he'd been in the same situation. But somehow he could handle things better when it was him who was having to deal with it.
"Have you got the X342 specs?" McQueen changed the subject.
"On my desk. In the blue folder."
McQueen picked out the sheets he needed. "When will you need these back?"
"A couple of days'll be fine." Attica lay on her bunk leafing through a report. "You going to the bar tonight?"
"If I get through these."
There was one knock on the door and then it opened. When Torres saw McQueen she stopped.
"Oh. I, er, can come back later if you like."
"What?" McQueen glared at her.
"If you, er......"
"See you later, Zygramski." McQueen stared at Torres until she moved, and left, closing the door behind him.
Attica looked up from her bunk. "To repeat that immortal phrase... What?"
"I just thought.......you know, if you ever need some space.....er......I can always get lost you know."
Attica sighed slightly. "Look, despite what you have undoubtedly heard by now, McQueen and I are not going at it like rabbits."
Torres tensed. "I haven't heard anything."
"I just, er......I mean, I...." She stopped. "Sorry." She sat down at the desk and pulled out a drawer. After a few moments Attica threw the report down, got up and went to the door.
"I'll see you later, OK."
Torres nodded as the door slammed.
"Oh fucking terrific! Waydago Carla!" She sat back in her chair and squeezed her eyes shut. What the hell was wrong with her. Attica seemed like an OK person. She was pretty friendly. For an In Vitro. "Stop it! Stop fucking thinking like that!!" She threw her pencil at the wall. I have got to stop treading on egg shells, it's driving her nuts, I can tell.
Problem was, that was exactly what Carla had heard. Not the exact wording, but a couple of people had asked her about Attica and McQueen and, as they had put it, it was only natural they'd be at it. And she'd agreed. Despite everything she told herself, she was just as bad as the rest. She'd fucking agreed.
Why was this so difficult? She's just like everybody else. But then a small voice in the back of head told her that wasn't entirely true, she was different. "Shut up, shut up, shut up!!" Clara leaned her elbows on the desk dispondantly. She was just going to have to put that thought aside, but most importantly, she was going to have to find something she could talk to her about.
Paul looked over and went to join Hawkes and Damphousse standing in a corner of the O Room. Vansen was already taking a seat, along with pilots from the 21st, 32nd, 53rd and 142nd.
"Did Nate get the green light?"
Hawkes shook his head.
Commodore Ross walked into the room followed by the squadrons' CO's.
"As you were."
As the Marines sat Commodore Ross turned to two maps on the wall behind him. One showed a Chig compound between two small plateaux. There were several buildings, a road leading north, and four doorways marked at the bottom of stairways cut into the bedrock. The other showed a plain in a wide river valley, flanked by thick forest.
"Marines, for the past month our efforts to control the Priam Sector have been hampered by enemy attacks launched from the Chig air base on Harrim V. The Eisenhower has lost two squadrons of bombers and four fighter squadrons in attempts to destroy the area. Therefore you are being sent in, on the ground, to knock out their power generator, in order to allow our planes to attack. To cover your insertion ISSCV s and fighters will launch a diversionary attack twenty miles north of the base, pulling away before they engage. You will make a HALO jump, landing ten miles southwest of the compound, the nearest suitable DZ. "
Somewhere behind him Hawkes heard a groan.
"Having landed you will proceed towards the Chig base. Here," Ross turned and indicated a point about three miles from the objective, "the 21st will head northwest through this valley taking them to the foot of the southern plateau. The other squadrons will continue northeast until you reach the base. The 142nd will then head towards the northern plateau and take up a position to cover both the area inside the compound here, and northwards along this road. Reinforcements, should they arrive, will be coming from that direction. The 32nd, 53rd and 58th will take up positions in cover here, to the south."
Wang sat listening as Ross went over the details of the attack, thinking all the while about plummeting towards the earth at terminal velocity. He could already feel his stomach knotting up. The drop zone looked so damned small. Hell, he thought, I'm gonna end up in the freaking river, I just know it.
"Colonel Sanderson is commanding the mission. Once the 32nd and 58th are inside, Colonel Cavoti will co-ordinate the squadrons up top. Any questions?"
There were none.
"Wheels up at 07:00. The time is now 06:43. Ready, ready, hack. Dismissed." The pilots got up and headed for the door.
"Major Zygramski, as you were."
HARRIM V 08:15 6/6/64
Paul tried to resist the urge to squeeze his eyes shut. Instead he kept them glued to his helmet's HUD: 2,000 meters and falling. Below him he could just make out forms disappearing into the darkness, as the last of the sunlight disappeared behind the western horizon. Near him another body fell, he couldn't tell who it was. 1000 meters. He gritted his teeth, resisting the urge to check the 'chute release. 500 meters. Here goes. 400 meters. A green light flashed at the corner of the display.
"Shit, it's caught, oh fuck!" And then as Wang started to reach for the manual release he felt his harness cut into his shoulders and the roar of the wind dropped. "Damn it!" He looked up, checking the parachute, his heart hammering as he guiding himself towards the riverplain below.
A minute later Wang was still breathing hard as he picked up his 'chute bag and headed over to the protection of the trees. There, the others were already checking their gear. He noticed several of them were soaking wet from being dragged through the shallow bogs covering the area. Well, it could have been worse then. It was almost pitch black now and the sun wouldn't be up for another twenty one hours. Apparently it was winter on Harrim V, but the heat was still stifling.
"Major, how's your equipment? Sanderson walked over to where Zygramski sat with Chan, surrounded by explosives and detonators.
"It all checks out, sir. I'll be ready to go in one minute." She started carefully repacking Chan's back pack.
"How come I get all the heavy stuff?" The Captain mumbled under her breath.
"Because I'm the brains of the operation." Zygramski smiled through the camo-paint as Chan eyed her sceptically. "Besides, you're always falling on your arse, I wouldn't want you doing yourself a mischief." She packed up the last of her gear and swung her bag on to her shoulders. With that, they headed out.
The 58th had the first shift up front. Hawkes had point. Using his ka-bar to break through, he entered the broad-leaved undergrowth. The going was hard, but at least that meant that the Chig's wouldn't be in this area. In fact it didn't look like anything bigger than a dormouse had been through here recently. As he continued to hack his way through, Hawkes absent-mindedly wondered what a dormouse looked like. Behind him he could hear the rest of the Marines following his path. Even with night goggles he couldn't see much, there was so little light for them to amplify.
After about thirty minutes the vegetation started to thin out a bit and their progresses quickened until they hit another area of dense foliage. Vansen came to take over and Hawkes let the others pass, feeling a growing weariness in his arms. Thankfully it was beginning to cool off a bit. He fell in behind Wang.
"Ten miles of this is going to be so much fun." Paul turned and grimaced at Cooper before ducking under a thick branch.
Two hours later all the 58th had taken their turn at point and Sanderson ordered a break. Further back along the path Zygramski checked the packs again.
"You know, some people might call this obsessive behaviour." Chan commented as she felt straps being pulled tight.
"Yeah? Well some people might not know shit."
Chan smirked into the darkness. Maybe all these little explosives were like kids to her XO? Who knew? She was certainly one protective motherfucker. For the last three hours she had felt Zygramski's eyes boring into her back, watching her every step. What she thought could happen she didn't know. This stuff was totally safe without a detonator. Chan sat back against a tree trunk and watched the major checking her own bag.
"Well, at least carrying all this shit means we don't have to take point."
Zygramski nodded, not looking up. "How long we got?"
"Another couple of minutes."
Attica closed up her bag and sat back, stretching out tired back muscles. "I hate the heat."
"Yeah? Well, it's better than the cold."
"I hate the cold too."
Zygramski closed her eyes, thinking about what everybody said on the subject of In Vitroes' tolerance of extremes. As far as she was concerned it was crap.
"You ever been skiing?"
"Skiing, you know."
"Li, why the hell would I want to go skiing?"
Before Chan could answer that Colonel Sanderson came up the path. "Alright people, let's move out."
The 53rd had point now, and they had the good fortune to find a narrow stream path. Here, they had to be on the look out for Chig surveillance equipment, but the going was significantly easier.
Torres felt in control now. When she thought about it, she was never more at ease than when she was in the field. Sure, she was nervous, scared even, but when she was on a mission everything seemed so simple. As she scanned the area ahead for surveillance cameras her mind focussed on only one thing, the job in hand. It was at times like this when she was reminded that she was fast tracked to Major because she was good, and for no other reason. Ten minutes later she came to another river. Torres called a halt to check their location as her CO joined her.
"This looks like the place, sir." Torres was pointing up the river snaking through the trees to their right, holding her GPS monitor in her hand. Colonel Matzkin peered into the darkness, and then back to the display. About the only thing the Eisenhower had managed to achieve during their attacks on Harrim V, was to drop enough satellites into orbit for this system to work. Evidently the Chigs hadn't found them. They were small and essentially invisible to sensors unless activated by code.
Matzkin signalled Sanderson and waited. After a couple of minutes he and Colonel Cavoti appeared, followed by the rest of the 21st. They paused to check communication frequencies, passwords and to synchronise watches, then disappeared into the night.
From there the 32nd took over the lead. As she passed by, Attica grinned at Torres crouched by the rivers edge, before wading to the other side. Up front, Salam hacked through the undergrowth aware that, as they neared the base, stealth was the priority. Unfortunately it was hard to hack stealthily and with every sound he expected to hear the sound of gunfire. After twenty minutes though, the forest started to thin dramatically. He stopped and waited as Sanderson came up from the rear.
"Do you see something?"
"No, sir. But we're going to have to be careful. The Chigs must have defenses round here."
Sanderson nodded. The place was likely mined and booby-trapped. Besides that, there were patrols and sensors to worry about. "OK, drop back, take Hardy's position, and get him up here." Salam moved back as the colonel signalled the other squadrons.
Twenty meters back Zygramski squatted, covering the area to their right. She heard Salam coming a while before he appeared and came to kneel between her and Hardy. She saw Hardy acknowledge whatever was said and move up to the front of the line. Sanderson must need a good pointman. He was the second best in the unit. Sadly, though, in the personality department, he was a jerk. He'd come to the 32nd just after the start of the war, a freshly minted captain. It was about the same time that Attica had been promoted to Major and made XO, and that Sanderson had joined the unit. Hardy hadn't been impressed, until Sanderson came down on him like a ton of bricks. Now he was grudgingly impressed.
In some ways she was glad it had happened. She'd been worried about her squadmates' reaction to her new position and, on the whole, it hadn't been that great. But more importantly, she was worried about Sanderson. He'd never made any attempt to hide his dislike for her when they'd served together in the 73rd, Attica's first squadron, even though he always acknowledged her skill as a soldier. But this was different, she was his XO now, since their commander had died at the Battle of the Line. Fortunately Sanderson was too good of a soldier to let his personal feelings interfere with the unity of the squadron. He'd never once let one of them get away with comments he used frequently in private. Respect for the chain of command was important to Sanderson, as it should be, she just wondered how anybody could be that hypocritical.
From her right she could hear someone else. Out of the gloom she could make out Hawkes clambering over a felled tree. He passed by them, throwing her a grin, and disappeared into the darkness.
Up ahead Hawkes had point again, Hardy slightly behind him. They'd managed, so far, to avoid the surveillance equipment they'd encountered and the area didn't seem to have been mined. Up ahead he could hear something moving. He signalled the others to get out of sight. The vegetation was slightly thicker here and they didn't see the Chig's until they were almost on top of them. There was a rough path fifteen meters to their left which they'd been avoiding. As the Chig's walked along it Hawkes could hear them 'talking' to one another. A couple of them walked off the path to within a few meters of where Hardy lay. Hawkes quietly unsheathed his ka-bar and waited. But the Chig seemed to be scanning the trees ahead for something. Moments later it moved off and disappeared. As the sounds of the Chig patrol faded Hawkes listened for more on the path, but they'd gone. Sanderson crawled up to him.
"We must be within a mile of the base. Hold your position here." The colonel pulled out his hand-held communicator and signalled Yashima.
Hawkes lay still, alert to any movement up ahead. After a while he heard the 142nd to his left, heading north towards the road. Then Sanderson signalled him to move on.
As he broke through the tangled branches he'd been using for cover, he froze. Two meters in front of him a camera was turning to face him. As it swung in his direction all he could do was put his head down and hope for the best. He could hear the mechanism working as it came full circle and dove back the way he'd come as soon as he was out of its line of sight.
"Camera. Don't know if it clocked me."
"Damn. Better stay dug in. That patrol'll be back, pronto, if it did."
They waited in silence, but nobody came.
"OK, let's give this a wide berth."
They moved on. For the next hour they crawled slowly through the brush. >From the information intel had given them, they knew the location of most of the cameras. With some luck and good strategy they managed to stay undetected. Finally Hawkes came to the edge of a small ridge and he looked down to see the enemy base three hundred meters away, flanked on two sides by high cliffs rising into darkness. The lights at the base were a sharp contrast to the last six hours. He removed his night goggles, blinking away the spots infront of his eyes, and signalled Colonel Sanderson who appeared, moments later, at his right shoulder.
"Alright, Lieutenant. Get dug in."
Sanderson moved back, giving the same message to his own squadron, before crawling to where McQueen and Matzkin lay. From her position, Attica could see them quietly discussing the situation. Then she saw the signal to take cover and wait, and looked around to find cover.
She and Chan found a fallen tree and covered up with dead branches. After a couple of minutes all that could be seen were a couple of helmets poking out from the dead leaves. Without moving her head, Attica searched for any sight of the Marines who had, until recently, been in clear sight. She could make out two piles of leaves that had been Salam and Metcalf, and Johnston's helmet was just visible under a tree trunk. She relaxed, ever so slightly, and settled in for the duration.
Two miles to the east of where the 32nd, 53rd and 58th lay, Lieutenant Colonel Cavoti crouched low, talking with his XO, Major Tellef. Polanski, a few meters back, could see them consulting the GPS monitor and surveying the area up ahead. He figured they were about a mile from the Chig compound, though they hadn't seen any evidence of the enemy, the vegetation was still too dense for their bulky armour. A minute later Tellef turned and signalled him, Patel, Hart and Muncie to move out. They stood up and joined the Major, before wading back across the river and up the valley side.
As they headed south, steadily moving uphill, Polanski could feel the water in his boots squelching between his toes. He was thankful it was still warm. He'd dropped straight into a patch of bog at the DZ, much to the amusement of his squadmates. His uniform clung to his back and his packed weighed a ton. After a hour struggling through the dense foliage Tellef stopped up ahead to check their position and moved out again, this time moving along the valley side, before heading upwards again. They were going increasingly slowly now, as they neared their target. There was still no sign of the enemy, which seemed strange to Polanski, but then, lots of things the Chigs did were strange. Maybe the ground was too steep for them?
Above him Tellef stopped again and signalled the rest of them to move up to his position. He was below the lip of the valley side, half way to the top of the plateau. When Polanski got there he poked his head above a low granite slab and saw a small area of flat land cut back into the sharp cliff. The far wall looked like a fault line, where they lay, the collapsed remnants of a huge slumped block. He'd studied geology as an undergraduate, and the odd thing was that from then on, he couldn't look at a rock without trying to figure out what is was and how it got there. His squadmates called him 'Mountain Man', which he actually rather liked.
Getting his mind back on the job he surveyed the building on the small plateau. There were a couple of Chigs standing outside a doorway that led inside to what they'd been told was a communications centre. His unit's job was to wait for the signal, then move in and stop the Chigs calling for help. He ducked back below the boulder as Major Tellef signalled Cavoti that they were in position.
Colonel Cavoti read the message from his XO as he lay in cover four hundred meters from the Chig base. On either side of him, the rest of the squadron waited as he signalled to Sanderson. When the go ahead was given Cavoti signalled Tellef and moved through the trees to the edge of the compound, just out of sight of a camera and the two Chigs patrolling the base. There was a narrow strip where the lights didn't illuminate the ground, leading almost to the door of a small building. After checking the area for any sign of the enemy, the 21st moved towards the building, keeping low, until the crouched against the wall. Captain Heffner slowly reached for the opening mechanism, and turned.
From his vantage point Hawkes had seen the 21st move in. They were out of sight now. There was a light coming from the window of the small building they had disappeared behind, he could just make out the shadows of the Chigs inside. After a few seconds it went out. Two minutes later it came on again, and then he saw one of the Marines poke a head round the corner of what had been the Chig's communication room. Another soldier appeared and made for the larger building further into the compound, followed by two more.
To Hawkes' right lay Sanderson, McQueen and Matzkin, all three viewing the area through their binoculars, following the 21st's progress in the base lying slightly below them. Once they were in position around the Chigs' main barracks Sanderson signalled the rest of his people to break cover and move up to the ridge. Behind him Hawkes heard the Marines assuming their position before Sanderson ordered them to move out, towards the base. Just before the edge of the tree line they stopped once again as the 53rd left snipers to cover their retreat. Krupp, Zupin and Enrico lay, concealed at the edge of the compound, able to target the ground between them and the large metal door one hundred and fifty meters ahead of them. Far to their left Yashima and the rest of the 142nd covered the road and the northern half of the compound.
Sanderson sent word to Cavoti and waited to see his people move in on the barracks before signalling the snipers. Hawkes held his breath, ready to make a run for the entrance, his eyes glued to two Chigs standing guard. They checked the area for more patrols and headed out, keeping low and out of the line of the brightest search lights. They were half way there before one of the Chigs looked their way. It started to raise its rifle but suddenly slumped forward, followed by his comrade. When they reached the door Hawkes and Wang dragged them out of sight as Chan examined the door lock, the rest of the Marines covering the area behind them.
It seemed to take forever, but finally Chan broke the lock code and waited for the order to open the door. Intelligence had no idea what they'd find inside. A whole freaking battalion of Chigs as far as she knew. To her right she saw the dark windows of the barracks, unable to make out what was going on inside. Sanderson turned and nodded to Chan. As the Marines behind him braced themselves she gritted her teeth and punched the opening mechanism.
Captain Heffner was moving silently down the dark corridor towards the next bunk room when the alarm went up. Suddenly the air was filled with a loud keening noise and up ahead doors opened. As Chigs streamed out they were taken by surprise for a moment by a hail of silent bullets. Those that could, took cover and returned fire at the Marines, diving behind anything they could find. There was confusion as Cavoti ordered the squadron back around a corner of the corridor. On her way Murgson went down, hit in the back of the leg. Heffner managed to drag her to safety as Cavoti covered her.
From this position they had the Chigs pinned down at that end of the barracks, but even as they fired Cavoti could hear them breaking windows. Pretty soon they'd be out in the compound, and the 21st would be trapped, the rest of the squadrons uncovered. Ordering Heffner and Murgson to hold their ground, he led the rest of his people to the barrack's outer door.
As Wang stepped over the bodies of three more Chigs he heard firing behind him. As the 32nd and 58th moved into the underground passageway, the 142nd took up positions at the entrance. Paul turned to see one of them firing off to the left before falling forward on to his rifle. The rest were finding it hard to get into cover. Torres and Donovan crouched just inside the doorway, the others made for a stack of crates nearby.
"Let's move people, this way"
Paul looked round to see McQueen motioning them up a second corridor leading off to the left. The 32nd went on down the main passage, leaving Salam and Hardy to cover their backs. As they disappeared into the red glow of emergency lights, he followed his CO.
A hundred meters further in Hawkes was up front, with Vansen covering him as he moved towards the door up ahead. He couldn't hear anything from the other side, but there had to be Chigs in there and they could hear the alarm still ringing, painfully loud in the enclosed space. The problem was they were under orders to take the room without damaging anything inside. All they had were stun grenades which would cause no structural damage but also have no effect on an armoured Chig, or smart grenades that would kill a Chig while blowing the room apart. He could only hope there weren't many of them in there as he took up his position by the door.
Vansen crouched low covering Damphousse as she moved up to the Hawkes. She watched as Vanessa pulled a small box from her pack and wired it up to the lock mechanism. Seconds later she turned and signalled McQueen. Hawkes lifted his rifle and waited. When McQueen gave the order Damphousse opened the door just long enough for Hawkes to get off a quick round, hopefully sending the Chigs inside diving for cover. Before the defenders could recover, the 58th moved forward, opened the door and dove inside.
Two hundred hundred meters down the main passageway the 32nd met resistance. From behind a heavy doorway Chigs were firing up the corridor as they took cover. Most of the Marines crouched in two recesses in the rock face, the only cover they could find. Zygramski and Chan were further back, leaning against the wall where the corridor turned slightly, out of sight.
The doorway the Chigs were firing from led to the generator room. It was impossible to tell how many Chigs there were inside and only sharp shooting would get rid of them. Sanderson took out a smoke grenade and signalled Johnston and Metcalf to do the same. As soon as they had let them go they headed for the doorway. Firing down the corridor, keeping the shots low so as not to hit the generators, he ran into the room and made for a bank of computers to his left. Emerging from behind it he covered the rest of his people as they took cover.
Once the smoke began to clear Sanderson could make out three Chigs on the floor. He shot them just to make sure, and then peered through the room trying to see where the rest were. A sudden ricochet told him there was at least one behind the tall cylindrical generator closest to him. It was firing at the other Marines so, when Sanderson moved along the computer bank further into the room, it came into clear view. One bullet was all it took, but it produced a volley of shots from his left causing him to leap back into cover. Further towards the door, behind the computers, he could see Metcalf crawling towards him. He ordered the Lieutenant to signal the others to move further into the room.
Turning back he tried to see the Chig who had him pinned down. As his head came round the side of the computer panel shots rang out, bouncing off the metal, forcing him back. When Metcalf got to his position the Colonel whispered a command and they both came up, three meters apart, firing at the Chig. Although they didn't score a hit they heard it shuffling further into the room, then fired again as it moved behind the central generator. As it edged backwards it stopped suddenly, then fell, as Johnston fired from the other side. Sanderson winced as the bullets skimmed off the generator. Jesus, that was close.
From just outside the room Zygramski could hear the fighting. The rest of the squadron were halfway in now. Pretty soon they'd have any remaining Chigs backed up against the far wall, or forced to leave through the two doors at that end. She looked over to where Chan crouched, staring through the clearing smoke. It was hard staying out of the action, Attica never liked trusting others to do the job, it was one of her major flaws as a soldier, one she fought hard against.
But the fact was, they couldn't risk her getting a bullet through the brain before she had chance to set the explosives. Sure, she'd briefed Chan and Sanderson on what to do should the need arise, but if there were any complications, if the intelligence report had been wrong in anyway, they didn't have enough experience to see it. Zygramski knew she could adjust her plans if she had to, but they would just do as they'd been told and possibly take the entire installation with them.
And then she noticed that the firing had stopped. Sanderson was walking back through the room, motioning them to get in there and start doing their job. She and Chan got up, took their bags to the centre of the room and started to unpack.
Looking across the compound, Torres could just make out some of the 21st pinned down behind three Chig transports. The rest were presumably still in the barracks, she could hear sporadic firing inside. There was a group of Chigs to her left, behind the building keeping her and Donovan inside the entranceway.
Suddenly her attention was caught by another group of Chigs moving in from the other direction. If they got any further the rest of the 53rd would be in their sights. From where he lay Matzkin signalled to her that they were going to try to get above the doorway. It would be a better position to fire at both groups. She nodded an acknowledgement and got in position to give them cover. When she saw them get ready to move she fired at the corner of the building, forcing the enemy back, as Donovan targetted the others group, sending them diving for cover.
As the rest of her squadron scrambled up the side of the hill she saw someone go down. Two others grabbed him by the arms and dragged him the rest of the way. She couldn't tell who it was. Moments later shots came from over head driving the second group of Chigs back. But they had nowhere to hide. As the last one went down Torres stopped to reload.
Behind the building she could see movement. Bringing her rifle up again, she aimed further up the hill this time, trying to pick it out. Suddenly a hail of bullets came from infront of the barracks. Just before she dove for cover she thought she saw a group of Chigs run up the hill and disappear behind a low wall.
As Hawkes fired from behind a fallen instrument panel he could hear McQueen yelling at him to avoid the large machine behind his target. How the fuck was he supposed to do that? The damned Chig was hiding in front of it, behind a table, firing at Vansen. Behind him he could hear McQueen moving to his left, trying to out flank the Chig. Hawkes covered him as he tried to reach a low storage cabinet. He just made it before another Chig spotted him and came up, peppering the area with shots.
From her position by the door Damphousse could see it now and fired. It fell forward, scattering a pile of spec sheets. That left three. The one behind the table, the one at the back of the room behind a computer and another. She'd lost sight of that one when it had stopped firing and moved to her right. She suspected it was behind the large machine in the centre of the room, probably pulling out its wiring. From her right she saw Wang edging forward, trying to get a clear shot on one of them. She fired, covering him, until he made it behind a large crate. A moment later he came up, fired a round, and ducked back down.
From that, Damphousse guessed it was down. She looked over at Vansen and the two of them moved further into the room as Wang went to take up the position vacated by the Chig. He squatted there a while, waiting for the others to cover him, and then dove low, around the machine behind him. The Chig dropped to the floor before it could reach for its gun.
Near the back of the room Hawkes and McQueen were closing in on the last one. It was firing back at them alternately from both sides of a computer panel, forcing them to keep low. There was was no cover that would allow either one of them to flank it, and none of the others had a clear shot.
McQueen signalled Hawkes to give him cover, waited for him to start shooting, and made a run for the computer panel. Slamming into it he came to a halt and lay, firing continuously, only his rifle visible round the back of the computer. The Chig fired while moving back, finally forced to break cover. Before it could take a step the force of Hawkes' bullets threw it into the wall. It slid to the floor, where it lay still.
"Not today, Chiggieman!" Hawkes stood up grinning. McQueen shot him a look before going back to the door. He ordered Wang and Vansen to cover the entrance while he checked out the damage they'd done.
Damphousse was standing behind the machine in the centre of he room, holding a panel and inspecting the torn wiring.
"How bad does it look?" McQueen asked her, frowning at the mangled systems.
"Dunno, sir, without knowing what it does." She looked upwards towards the ceiling. The machine stretched up to almost meet it, and then wiring disappeared into the rock above them. On the monitors infront of her she could see a schematic of what must be above ground, large dishes projected in four directions. "Looks like it might be a transmitter, and look at this, the frequency's the same we use for..........."
"Lieutenant." McQueen fixed her with one of his patented stares. "If you're having difficulty with the definition of 'classified and compartmentalised', I could explain it to you."
Vanessa looked away from the readings. "Sorry, sir."
"Now take a position behind Wang and Vansen, we have to hold this room until further orders."
Damphousse scuttled away leaving McQueen to think about what she'd said. She was right of course. If this was a transmitter, and he was reading the sceens correctly, it would certainly explain why the Eisenhower had lost all its planes. It would also explain why intelligence wanted it. Before they started Operation Roundhammer they'd better be sure that every Chig planet didn't have one of these. Or if they did, that the R&D department could come up with some way to counteract the disastrous effects this would have on all LIDAR systems.