This is a sample taken from a book I'm playing around with. I started writing it years ago and the quality shows in the earlier chapters. There are just the first 10 chapters here but I currently have more than 400 pages consisting of some 90 chapters. A few of the chapters may only take up a page or two and serve as postcards or as a way of maintaining a sense of comparison between two separate sequences taking place at the same time. It's military Sci-Fi so if military isn't your thing think o
Barney looked out over the tarmac surrounding the flight hangars of Number Two wing. He liked what he saw. As far as he could see, in any direction, everything was cloaked in a dense layer of mist, which obscured even the harsh actinic glare of the floodlights along the perimeter fence that encircled the base.
He smiled to himself and turned to the others waiting in line, awaiting his opinion. “We fly ladies!" was the opinion. A collective groan was the response, and pretty much what he expected. “Aw, c'mon now girls. You people are here to learn how to fly and become hot shot combat jocks - well you can't get better than this to learn how to do it! I want a full pre-flight from all of you on this jag in less than fifteen mikes and that includes you Daley so - JUMP!”
The recruits leapt to attention and then ran to their ships to get down to business. A movement out of the corner of Barney's eye turned into his fellow instructor Lieutenant Darryl ‘Dash’ Biggs.
"Hey Booze Hound, these kids ready yet?" Biggs asked nodding toward the crews busily readying ships and doing pre-flight checks.
"Shit", Barney snorted "Most of 'em ain't even ready to shave let alone become the mad dog killers that we're supposed to make out of 'em, that and the fact that they're fresh off the boat from Beta, Boot and their mothers. Still I guess we'd better do so, the way things are going out around the Sagittarius area.”
Barney was referring to the war.
It seemed it was all people talked about now - not just the war but the casualties that just kept piling up like they had nothing better to do.
War? What War?
The war had started almost ten years previously when the settlements on the Outer Fringe had decided that both the Central Government and High Council on Earth had become seriously out of touch with the realities of frontier life. Which when you thought about it was an easy enough thing to happen, what with Earth having no more frontiers itself, now that the whole planet had been declared an enormous park and natural reserve.
The closest thing to wilderness left on the planet was the Serengeti Adventure Park where people went to be scared shitless by animatronic lions while roughing it in a tent that on one of the true frontier worlds would be considered a hotel. With eight rooms, two toilets and automated domestic units - it fed, cleaned, pampered and coddled its inhabitants to such a degree that going outside was almost unthought of. These ‘tents’ were for losers with too much money and not enough brains - in the minds of most people from the outer worlds.
It wasn't just the sheer naivety of Earths inhabitants and those of nearby earlier colonies that upset the governments and citizens of many Outer Fringe planets but also the fact that Earth expected all of her needs to be met by the "Colonies", as one gentleman from some backwater called England referred to the Outer Fringe, shortly before his hover-limo was shot from the sky over Pluto by "separatist terrorists".
The Outer Fringe was, by chartered agreement, to supply all resources called for by Earth - No argument. For was it not the truth that if not for Earths funding and direction not one of these upstart republics would have been even considered let alone conceived and founded, so why shouldn't Old Mother have her due cut?
The colonists all agreed that Earth was responsible for all that, and yes She could have some of what was produced on each colonised planet, moon or station. But, and this was the big sore point, She didn't need to take the majority of produced goods at a set (by Earth) price, or demand that a personnel quota from each planet be sent to Her antiquated and heavily protected shores each year to perform as honour guards outside places of importance, such as a palace in some decrepit and run down country, so that tourists would know who had lived there or which monarch had choked on a fishbone during dinner one night a thousand years ago.
This and many other smaller and some not so small points added together until the Earth Commerce Defence Directorate (ECDD) notified all and sundry that Old Mother was going to put fleets of blockading ships throughout the systems to interdict and intercept "illicit" trade between the many and various colonies.
This caused an uproar heard from one end of the chain of worlds to the other. Free trade had been in full flow between the planets since the Martian Delegate to Neptune had suggested over kippers one morning that he could supply to Neptune as much iron and steel as Neptune could use if the plants on Neptune would give him in return an appropriate amount of Natural Gas and other elements that abounded on Neptune. So began three hundred years of nearly-free trade between the colonies that had something to offer. Basically if you could come up with an absolute excess of something you didn't need but someone else did, you simply loaded up a ship with it and sent it to someone who was willing to trade it for something they had a lot of and you needed - simple as that.
Earth didn't like it at all. To protect Her claim as the absolute power in the known sphere of space, a dozen fleets were organised to interdict the trade. The ECDD went so far as to stage an incredibly blatant attack on a convoy of supply ships headed Her way from Alpha Centauri IV.
People across the Sphere were suddenly assailed by news of the attack. News presenters on the Tri-D newscasts were able to look suitably shocked and horrified as pictures of detonating supply ships, flaring rockets, slashing lasers and whirling debris were shown to audiences who sat spellbound in bars, lounges and living rooms all over space.
A survivor who reported seeing ECDD logos and emblems on the attacking ships was found, conveniently for some; face down in a fountain in New Berlins Central Park. Autopsy results showed he had been drinking, taking drugs and then tried to hold his breath for a few hours.
All other survivors scrambled to tell everyone they could how it was a fleet of pirates working out of the Asteroid Belt who attacked them not, no definitely not, Earth ships who were responsible and that the poor misguided fool had seen the emblem of the ECDD on ships arriving to save them and beat off the terrible nasty pirate bogey-men.
No one bought it, least of all the Outer Fringe governments whose ships and crews had been destroyed in the cold noiseless wastes of space that day. It was considered amazing by many that the only ships destroyed or even badly damaged were those belonging to Outer Fringe planets while all the Earth registered or Inner Cluster ships received only superficial damage from small weapons fire. ‘Miracles still do happen’ ran the thoughts of humankind throughout space.
It was hard for anyone who didn't have a vested interest in the Inner Cluster to swallow. Then Earth announced Her plan to impose the blockades.
After centuries of population dumping Earth was now going to make it even harder for the rest of space to take control of their own affairs. It made for an incredible amount of friction, particularly among the more recently colonised worlds.
The major incident that lead to the outbreak of hostilities began when an Earth Commerce Officer boarded a freighter stopped by the blockade. The ship's name was Glow Worm and she was to make history. She and her two sister ships were carrying three thousand and forty‑two men, women and children from Beta Centauri II bound for Martian hospitals for treatment of a deadly disease that was ravaging the planet, when they were stopped for a routine check by the Battle Group centred on the Earth Defence Forces (EDF) Battleship Ulysses S. Grant.
Upon boarding Glow Worm, the officer sneeringly informed the Captain to shut off all electrical systems aboard the ship to prevent their running away from the blockading fleet.
Glow Worms Captain replied that if he did so, many people who were on life support would die.
The Earth officer shot him a look of pure venom. “I don't really care if a few rock rats snuff it.” The use of the term 'rock rats' was derogatory slang for colonists or pioneers from outlying planets.
An argument about the wisdom of such a phrase erupted, with the Earth officer taking, what was, to him at least, the moral "high ground".
The Captain then informed the ECDD officer that he had serious doubts about the chastity of the Earth officers’ mother when sailors were around. Things went downhill from there as guns were drawn and shots fired.
The ECDD officer returned to his ship as fast as his shuttle could burn fuel and informed Gunnery Control to open up as the transport went to full thrust, trying to escape from the inevitable violence that would follow.
The transport Captain, it must be stated, gave more than a good account of himself, his crew and his battered old ship. Upon ordering full thrust on the engines he told his weapons officer to release a batch of the new EK-2 missiles he had purchased from a black marketeer only five weeks earlier.
These deadly little toys went active the moment they poked their ugly snouts out of the pods and found lots of nice big, stationary targets that didn't have Centauran Regular Transponders aboard.
The EK-2 was thought by Earth Defence to be merely some nifty sounding; jargonistic model number the “rock rats” had come up with. Earths Fleet Technicians thought that EK-2 in the Outer Sphere stood for EDF Killer Type 2. It actually meant Elektronik Koman Series Two, after the company of manufacture, but that was neither here nor there.
At almost one third of the speed of light the missiles broke into hunting groups and carried their six ton warheads home to targets scrambling to evade. A Space Battleship, no matter how fearsome or deadly, cannot, in any sense, go from a dead stop to evasive manoeuvring speed in the two point nine seconds the Captain of Glow Worm gave them.
At almost one hundred thousand kilometres an hour, one hundred and seventy kilometres is not far at all.
The missiles seemed to scream their hatred as they tore through the intervening distance between the now rapidly departing Glow Worm and her, soon to be, victims.
Aboard the outlaying picket ship Sacrament the cry of "Vampire, Vampire, Vampire! " which stood for the 'v' shaped specks that represented an incoming missile on a lidar screen, came shrilling from the young crewman in charge of the lidar console and ripped through the silent wonder of the bridge crew watching the flare of Glow Worms engines and the mad dash of the returning shuttle.
The Captain, on her bridge tore into action.
"All ahead full. Right full rudder. Full dive. Wait three seconds then go to Full Evasion. Launch decoys, flares, chaff and start jamming.”
The bridge crew look at her blankly, as if she had just told them she was in love with a poodle named Beauregard.
"Do it now or we all die!"
The change was immense. Console operators started working furiously as the ship gained speed at an incredible rate.
The EK-2s didn't need to relay orders from the bridge on down the line of command; they just sped up, broke into pairs and selected targets.
The pride of Earth broke into a disordered mob of fleeing ships running from some small tramp freighters, who were themselves fleeing from a power more destructive than anything else in known space.
The first Earth ship to return fire was an elderly Brussels Class Destroyer named the Van Damme, which opened up with a volley from her almost antique laser banks mounted on the forward decking.
The harsh flash of liquid blue ripped through space after Glow Worm and her sisters, tearing away Glow Worms port thrusters, causing her to spin crazily as the crew fought to regain control of the ship.
Glow Worm lurched as another barrage hit her amidships killing most of her passengers, while throwing her sideways into the temporary protection of a small asteroid field, effectively blocking much of the incoming fire.
The Captain took this piece of fate in both hands and intended to wring everything from it that he could. His ship was holed and would not take much more of this kind of life, so he made a decision. His decision was one that would send the entire Sphere of humanity plummeting towards blood and gunfire.
He called to his First Lieutenant and told her to set up an all frequency sub-space broadcast to all points of the Sphere. If he and his crew were to die, it would not go un-noticed.
Ships and satellites from one end of the Sphere to the other picked up a slightly distorted but clear enough transmission of a very dignified looking, middle‑aged gentleman in a neat white uniform splashed with blood, holding a field dressing to his bleeding head as he told all who would listen of his story, of the Glow Worm and her valiant effort against the might of Earth.
The following is a reconstructed transcript of that broadcast: -
"To everyone receiving this broadcast - This is Captain Matthew Arlon James of the Green Star Line transport Glow Worm out of Sheffley on Beta Centauri II, bound for the Martian Protectorates.” <static> “We were boarded by an Earth blockade crew seven and a half minutes ago, at which time we were fired upon by said boarding party.”
“We then returned fire as they fled and returned to their ship. We fired a salvo of missiles and began to run with our consorts, when we were hit by multiple laser rounds that killed almost one thousand sick and disabled refugees we were transporting to Martian hospitals.”
<The transmission becomes very hazy for a moment, most likely due to attempted jamming by the ECDD fleet.>
“Many of my crew are dead or severely wounded and we do not expect to survive long. I have ordered my companion ships to make the jump back to the Beta Centauri system. My crew and I shall attempt to hold the Earth fleet at bay, so that our consorts might get away.” <At this point in the transmission a number of explosions, sirens and screams can be heard.>
“I tell you these things so that this horror shall not be covered up to protect Earths already less than savoury reputation.”
“As I speak to you we are taking hits from cannon mounted aboard Earth warships.
I call upon all free thinking, able‑bodied men and women to heed this message and I plead with you. Do not let the deaths of these poor innocents and the valiant crew of this ship, be for nothing. The oppressor must be undone.”
“We are turning, as I tell you this, to commence a final run at our antagonists, to do and to die. Avenge us, I implore you. Avenge us.”
The broadcast stopped as Captain Matthew Arlon James and his remaining eight crew members readied their ship for her run into the history books.
The engineering officer crossed himself, whispered a prayer, took the safety circuits out of his tachyon drive reactors and fired them into overload.
Glow Worm lived up to her name as she streaked like a comet, burning white from the overloading engines, into the heart of the battleship Ulysses S. Grant and exploded in a nuclear flash the likes of which has not been seen before or since. A new star burned fiercely, if only briefly, within the system of Sol.
The EK-2s had slammed home into their targets, annihilating two Destroyers and crippling a Cruiser. Sixteen other ships received damage and had to be towed home to Phobos Naval Station in orbit around Mars, but the majority of the damage came from collisions among the Earth fleet.
Of the Ulysses S. Grant and the Glow Worm only incredibly radioactive debris that was extremely unstable due to the temporal and quantum charges it was exposed to, was ever found.
Four EK-2s failed to fulfil their existences immediately. Two were destroyed by defensive fire while the last two failed to explode when they hit their designated targets; both were recovered by repair teams from the Aerospace Carrier Raptors Nest.
As these terrible little missiles were brought aboard, they were, understandably, treated with great caution. The Chief Weapons Officer had disarmed the first missile and sent it to the forward examination labs when he turned to inspect the second.
The computer inside the missile had been knocked off-line by a near miss from the defensive laser fire. As the arming hatch was opened it re-booted and found itself inside the launch bay of an 'unfriendly' Carrier, so it selected the detonate command from its options menu.
The resulting explosion touched off the ammunition store and bomb magazine in the stern of the Raptors Nest, annihilating almost two hundred metres of the ship which was, before the explosion, almost twenty-four hundred metres long.
The Raptors Nest suffered nearly thirteen hundred casualties of which more than half were listed as missing.
The Raptors Nest was eventually rebuilt after declaration of war but was always mocked among Inner Cluster forces as the ship that was almost destroyed after a battle with some beat up old transports.
The declaration of war followed ten days later after six days of name calling and jeering over a conference table on one of Saturn’s moon colonies. It had taken almost two days to decide upon the shape of the table alone.
Humankind was about to embark on its favourite past time - WAR.
Earth set out to try and prove that she was still in charge.
Two minutes after the formal declaration of hostilities, fighting broke out in the Aldebaran system as an ECDD Blockade Fleet attacked settlements on Aldebaran IV, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians when the Main Targeting computer, upon asking the deck officer what it was looking at, was told to "think of it as looking at a rebel base rather than a city". As a rebel base matched a potential on the computers acceptable threat list the Main Targeting computer had then ordered the midships missile and assault batteries to open fire.
The entire Outer Fringe , some three hundred planets, planetoids, space stations and bio-domes, stood as one except for Arcturus VI, which had just been terra-formed six months earlier and had a population of one hundred and fourteen thousand and sixty‑three people, sixteen cybernetically enhanced dogs and fourteen thousand horse and cow hybrids called horows.
The war raged for two and a half years with neither side gaining significant advantage so everyone decided to dig in and wait.
Wait they did.
For two more years there was only sporadic fighting between Inner Cluster forces and Outer Fringe patriots.
In those four and a half years millions died and many times that were wounded or seriously effected by the ravages of warfare.
Modern warfare had reached a point where humanity had outdone itself with the fascination with nifty toys that killed, maimed and demoralised. Many battlefields were given over to the testing of newer and better ways of killing. Three whole planets had been rendered useless to human inhabitants due to infestation by automated weapons systems. Most of these technological marvels were thrown together in laboratories billions of kilometres away from where they were to be deployed and used; most of them were more of a danger to their users than the enemy.
One example of this was the Macrohard Research and Development Weapons Laboratories Robotic Canine Perimeter Security Droid (patent applied for) or the Robo-Mutt as most troops called them.
These little bundles of joy were meant to patrol a given perimeter once a company of troops had dug in for the evening.
After securing an area the troops would define a boundary and inform the robot to defend it. Quite often what happened was the robot freaked out and attacked anyone found within the area.
The result was that anyone in a company with a Robo-Mutt would usually deactivate the damned thing when it got dark, stand watch and then switch the electronic son of a bitch back on in the morning. Macrohard seemed to run on the premise that if “it doesn’t work properly, then at least make it look like it does.”
It all went well providing you weren't having damp weather in the morning, because if you do, then the computer in it usually glitches and then the stupid thing would run around in circles about twenty metres across reciting twelfth century French poetry until you put a few AP rounds into and blew it to bits, because of the fact that anyone it found within that circle it attacked and a two hundred pound rabid razor blade is nobodies idea of fun.
Many and varied were the attempts on both sides to make a reliable cybernetic, robotic or cloned soldier to replace valuable human troops on planets that were harshly inhospitable or just too damned far away to supply properly.
Both sides tried experiments with genetic engineering but most of these were dead ends with the results quietly and quickly destroyed before anyone in command could see these poor creatures made from human DNA off casts. Genetic manipulation had been tried on various levels for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Genetically engineered life forms or GELFs were old news. Cloning was old hat, but to completely redesign the efforts of millions upon millions of years of evolutionary trial and error, well that was something reasonably new.
The only 'tubies' to be actually field tested were a breed of soldier who stood almost ten feet tall, weighed five hundred pounds and could carry the same amount on their backs.
These super-soldiers, as they were expected to be, were bred to be unquestioning killers without emotion.
“A mind is a terrible thing to waste on a grunt” went the saying, so the idea was to have a body of troops totally unthinking and unswerving from their duty by such wasteful things as conscience, guilt, remorse and fear.
These soldiers would, in theory, fight all day, unflinching and uncaring of casualties and wouldn't, at the end of the day sit and weep for a lost comrade or friend. They would not be concerned with overwhelming opposition, they would merely fight on until out of ammunition and then start using anything they could find as a weapon and keep on going until the enemy was vanquished or their body had received a large calibre thrashing.
Reality is a harsh mistress and will give no quarter when she is pushed. Quite often she will push back. These behemoths of trench warfare were a rush job and in fact gigantic three year olds without even the slightest interest in battle.
When the first battalion of them landed on Eta Cassiopeia III they dug in, set up fortifications as specified in the Field Manual and then proceeded to play tag in and out of the firing lines.
This drove their officers, who were army regulars, absolutely nuts.
Three days later a small unit of Cassiopiean Rangers broke through the automated perimeter defences and charged the line of trenches only to be brought to a sliding halt by a giant asking if anyone had seen its dolly.
The Sergeant leading the forward column looked in bewilderment at this individual who towered over him by three and a half feet and wondered what to do.
"Go on Sarge”, laughed one of his squad, "She wants her dolly - help her find it!"
The Sergeant invited him to do some peculiar things with various bits of his anatomy and turned back to the giantess.
"Where did you lose your dolly, love?" He asked as gently as his twenty one years as a professional life-taker would let him.
"Near our dugout mister green man sir" said the tiny voice.
"Christ - that means there's more of 'em" moaned a Corporal, holding his head in his hands.
"Stow it Jackson. Show me where your dugout is dear, and we'll see if we can find your dolly. Okay? "
The giantess jumped up and down, clapping her hands with glee at the prospect of a returned dolly AND new friends. She grabbed Sergeant Doug Town by his webbing and took off through the trenches, dragging him behind like a limp rag doll. The squad geared up and pelted along in hot pursuit, losing ground rapidly.
When they exited the complex of twisting, turning, mazelike trenches and dugouts, the squad were confronted with the sight of more than eight thousand similar beings with the collective intelligence of an Irish setter.
Shortly after finding “Dolly” and being proudly shown off to the neighbours as "My new green man friends" the squad heard gunfire from the direction of the officers’ quarters. The 'Super Warriors' hit the dirt as one, leaving Town and his men standing there stupefied as everyone else did their best impersonation of a gopher and found a hole to hide in.
Town and his men geared up again and bolted in the direction of the shooting. They skidded around a corner and slammed into an EDF officer who had been terribly busy trying to evacuate himself from the planet ASAP. The officer cried out in alarm when he saw the armed troops before him and promptly did the only thing he could think of - he fainted.
When the man came to, the giants had gathered around him and had started bandaging him up to a point where he looked like the Michelin Man.
"Stop it, that's enough, I'm better, I really am, please stop", he turned to Town and pleaded "Please tell them that I'm okay.”
Town smiled and said "Okay kids, that's enough. I think he'll live now.”
The bandaging stopped and Corporal Jackson helped the man to his feet.
"I'm Lieutenant Marcus Albert Symes the Third, First Division, First Genetic Infantry Corps, at your service and your prisoner sir."
Town waited for him to bow with a flourish and was almost surprised when he didn't. It was just the way the guy had said it.
Town asked him, "Who the hell are these people?"
The portly little officer looked about him and then realised Town was indicating the giants who stood around watching.
"Oh, I thought you knew. They're Tubies. Test tube soldiers. You know the spiel. 'Unstoppable, implacable, invincible'. In reality they're unstartable, uncontrollable, and to chase them off all you have to do is shake your fist at them.
Earth Command decided that genetics was the way to go, but they botched it and we ended up with nearly ten thousand of them like this. We lost about fifteen hundred during the first two weeks of training. They just kept doing silly things, like holding on to grenades so their friends could see, or looking down rifle barrels to watch the bullet come out, or going for a frolic in the minefield, things like that. They are very simple beings with no idea of jealousy or race or hatred. Completely uncluttered by the patriotism, zeal or fanaticism that scars the rest of us, I'm glad to say.
When given simple direct commands like 'Destroy that bunker' or 'Blow up that tank' they are quite effective, but it is a case of not confusing them with options or they just get all muddled up and stop where they are until an officer comes along and simplifies things for them.
Given the right officers, they would indeed be a deadly foe, but most of our officers are unable to do anything simply I guess.” The little officer stopped his rambling and looked up at Town.
"What was that shooting before?" Town asked, looking in the direction of the officers’ quarters.
"Oh, my compatriots decided that a shooting match with them and their pistols on one side and your people with their field lasers and assault rifles on the other was just the thing to do before a spot of lunch, the fools. So I radioed ahead and then came running this way telling the people to behave themselves until the nice green men came to look after them. I was going to jump in the escape pod and shoot off towards the nearest friendly system until I ran into you and your friends here.”
Town looked back at him and nodded. "Sounds sensible to me." Town murmured. “What do you want to do now?" he asked.
"Well I didn't really feel up to the trip in that tiny, cramped pod so I am happy to assist you in the care of our big friends here if you want." He positively beamed at the thought of not getting in the pod and leaving, Town thought.
"Let's go see the Major. He'll know what to do with this lot.”
The Battle of Eta Cassiopeia III was, for the Inner Cluster and EDF, a complete and utter waste of time and money, but for humankind as a whole, it was a victory worth chalking up. The tubies were emancipated and adopted out to families who could look after them properly. Many went to work on Arcturus VI helping to farm the local herds of horows, to which they took an immense and immediate liking. The recently drawn up Outer Fringe Bill of Rights was amended to state "...that all beings found to be possessed of human DNA are, if proven sentient and/or self aware, to be declared valid citizens and encouraged to take part in any and all electoral proceedings they wish to be included in.”.
The Tubies had got the vote.
The word 'Tubie' was outlawed two days later as a discriminatory label and severe punishments meted out to any who used it. The term GELF or, Genetically Engineered Life Form, was deemed acceptable.
The war raged on and another one hundred and twenty-six million souls were sent screaming into the void, much to the detriment of humanity as a whole.
Barney climbed aboard his ship and waved away the ground crew as he punched the heat up button. The ship roared into life as the engines fired and he started his checks on the instruments.
The ships of number two wing glistened dully in the sunlight as they flew in formation above the cloud cover that blanketed the region.
"Hammer Six, Hammer One. Get that bird of yours under control Hewlett or God help me I'll shoot you down myself.”
"Hammer One, Hammer Six. That's a rog, sir. I'm getting an irregular blip on my rear sensors every now and then and I was trying to get a better fix on it.”
"Hewlett, for the love of sweet baby Jesus, if you pick up something that you're not sure of, tell me. What is it, d'you reckon? "
"Sir it reads out like an EDF Franchise Class Destroyer, but that can't be right. Can it? "
"Never say it can't be - say it might be. No fighter pilot ever got old from ignoring his sensors or senses. Let’s go check it out. Hammer Flight, Hammer Lead, come to one nine seven on my mark. Hack! "
The flight of sixteen ships broke and turned to the new course as if they were joined by invisible threads. Damn these kids could be really good if I had an extra five or six weeks to put 'em through the hoops, too bad I only got 'em for sixteen weeks instead thought Barney.
The wing broke atmosphere and closed for the blip that was now firming up on their lidar as a medium sized ship.
"Hammer Flight from Hammer One, confirmed Inner Cluster Franchise Class Destroyer bearing oh one three dash oh five niner, range seven hundred thousand clicks and closing. Good work Hewlett. Hammer One to Hammer Flight, break into attack groups and stand-by. Hammer Lead to Big Eye, have visual on bogey and am deploying to attack. Over.”
"Roger Hammer One. Advise that you wait for Stinger Flight who are five seconds from you.”
"Ah, rog that Big Eye. I have visual contact now. Over.”
"Hey Booze, this is Dash at your nine o'clock. Let's see iff'n these kids are up to the job.”
"It's fine by me Dash." Barney switched to the command frequency and asked, "Hey, Big Eye. How in the name of all that's Holy, did an Inner Cluster Destroyer get this far into the system? Over.”
"High Command says that we're under a system wide attack by the EDF again and that this one is a scout for this sector. You and your people are the only friendlies in this sector at the moment. Command wants you to hold 'em until we can get somebody there to help you. Over.”
"Jesus Christ Big Eye. These kids are only newbie recruits, me and Dash are the only ones with any combat experience, fer Crissake. What do we do? Make the bad guys stand still until these kids learn how to shoot straight in a real combat? Over.”
"Uh, Hammer Lead, be advised that the Commandant is in the control centre. Over.”
"Shit. Uh, Sir? This is Booze Hound. What do we do sir? Over.”
"If I know you as well as I think I do Booze, you'll have these kids in top shape and they're as good as any regulars I could give you to help. Just try and hold the bastards. That's all I want you to do. We'll have help to you in less than seven minutes. Hold 'em Booze Hound. Hold 'em! Over.”
"Sir, iff'n we can hold 'em and you get us some help and I get these kids home, I'm personally gonna punch somebodies' face in. Over.”
"Ah, Rog your last Booze Hound," The Commandants voice held a smile, "Just try and get 'em home safe. Big Eye Out.”
As Barney switched back to the guard frequency his flight was using he knew that all the simulator experience in creation would not be enough.
"Hammer Lead to Hammer Flight. Form your groups just like we did in the sims and in practice. It's easy and you've all done it before, just this time it's the real thing.
Dash, you and your team go ninety degrees down range and we'll try and get 'em in some sort of a cross fire.
Daley, Hewlett, Chang, Svenson and Geller, get your asses up ten thousand and hit 'em from above. Smith, Michaelson, Lane, Blake and Strong, you're with me.
The rest of you split into two wings. One takes the fighters out and the other suppresses their fire as best you can with your jammers and missiles.
Dash and his flight are out here too, so keep an eye on what you're shooting at.
Okay people; let’s show the EDF why they shouldn't have messed with the Glow Worm.”
It was a cheap stunt, mentioning Glow Worm but it lifted the kids' spirits and made them think of the attack on the innocents aboard her rather than their own fears. Their focus now was on destroying this ship, their only physical piece of Earths threat to their collective person.
The flights broke into their attacking groups and formed up. Ready. Waiting for the signal that would send them hurtling toward death or victory.
Barney gave them that signal. “Hammer, Hammer, Hammer."
The ships streaked towards their targets, jinking and twisting to dodge the curtain of laser fire that had erupted from the decks of the Destroyer, trying to stave off death and His cold implacable grip.
Barney and his group flew through a withering hail of fire as they flipped over in the top of a turn, pivoted on a wingtip and then dived as the Destroyers targeting computers went into overdrive trying to get a good firing solution on the tiny fighters that were now centring on it.
A problem that Earth Defence had always had with the targeting and guidance systems on the Franchise Class was an upsetting tendency for the computers to have data conflicts when faced with too many fast moving targets. It seemed that when the computer received too much information from its sensors when under attack, it couldn't decide which target to kill and they would simply shut down until the data loop cleared, at which point they came back on line and took another look at the situation. No amount of attempting manual resets or pleading, cajoling or threatening would make the computers come back on-line until they were ready to do so themselves.
When the Franchise Class were first made active Earth was in the middle of a period of expansion in which She was never truly threatened or molested in any way. This meant that the Franchise Class were relatively untried in battle even though the vast majority of them were quite old. That doesn't mean that they were no good. As gunnery platforms and for training recruits they were excellent, good, little all rounders which were quite dependable. However if it came to a stand up fire fight they weren't terribly effective unless in force and only then at range against fixed or large targets.
The class were named after old obscure companies that were mostly absorbed by larger companies or wiped out in the Corporate Wars of the twenty‑second century. The names were to Earth residents, old but familiar if not understood. Names such as the EDS Donald MacRonald, Peptic Cola, and Burger Queen, Wild Bills Rib Barn, Unlucky Fried Kitten and others made up the class of almost thirty ships.
The Franchise Class had lost two of their siblings, Burrito Bell and Dairy King during the 'Glow Worm Incident' without firing a shot. It was believed by Earth Defence that this was due to the close range at which Glow Worm had launched her salvoes of EK-2s. They were wrong. The reason was that the ships computers were old, tired and epileptic.
Barney took his flight in along under the Destroyer looking for weak spots that they could exploit and he found one.
The vast majority of Earth Defences older ships had engines that harnessed the free floating hydrogen found drifting through space in molecular form. To gather this, the ships had large funnel shaped rams on the front or belly of the ship. As the ship moved through space it collected hydrogen based matter and turned it into fuel for the engines to burn. It also provided a good point of aim for small fighters to fire their missiles into, providing they could get them in there.
Barney decided it was time to try. “Smith, you and Michaelson get busy trying to pop some shots into that ram. Me and Lane will hold here to see if you do any good. Blake and Strong, keep an eye out for enemy fighters. They should've scrambled 'em by now.” They went into a flat sliding turn that afforded them a good view of the attacking ships as well as any enemies who might try to sneak up on them.
The first two fighters streaked towards the ram with the first ship firing off a missile toward it while the second suppressed the fire coming from gun turrets mounted on the belly of the Destroyer.
The missile ran true and hard as it streaked toward the mouth of the ram hissing like a demonically possessed thing. As the missile was about to enter the ram a flash of red leapt out and struck it directly in the nose cone, detonating it.
"They've set up laser defence fields to stop the missiles. We'll have to try and dodge the field to get the missiles through. Smith, this time you send in two but stagger your release so they go in slightly apart and Michaelson you send one in at the same time. That should get the lasers off guard and get 'em past.”
Smith rippled off the two shots as Michaelson fired hers and the missiles tore through the intervening gap toward the Destroyer.
Time seemed to stand still as the red fingers of the defence field reached out and probed toward the missiles. Barney held his breath as the first missile blew up and the second flew through the fireball it left, straight at the ram. A red flash and the second missile followed its mate into oblivion as the third rushed past into the mouth of the ram and on inside to detonate.
The result was immediate and very noticeable. The ram was designed to pick up hydrogen molecules not wayward explosives. It opened outward in an interesting impersonation of a blossoming rose in fast forward as the missiles explosive packed warhead wreaked its terrible vengeance in the name of its siblings.
If Barney had been in a position to see it, he would have noticed as the light flickered and died in the engine nacelles of the Destroyer as the fuel was violently and abruptly cut off, leaving the Destroyer drifting through space as it lost power.
Aboard the Destroyer panic replaced ordered combat. Sparks spat from shattered consoles as the aftershocks of the explosions shook the ships length and plunged the ship into darkness as the main generators died with the engines. Power dropped out for the split second it took the backups to realise they were needed. The lights flashed and the sirens wailed at anyone who would listen as people yelled and screamed their shock and dismay to one another.
Damage reports started to filter in to the bridge as section after section checked and double checked their systems ship wide. Many of the crew were, until then, unaware of the fact they were in any kind of fight, having heard that all they faced were some fighters who were a long way from reinforcements and friends.
Earths forces and those of much of the Inner Cluster were woefully unready for a war. This was, in the main, directly attributed to the fact that for the last four or five hundred years the closest Earth forces had come to open warfare were isolated skirmishes with pirates and smugglers operating out of bases in the Asteroid Belt of Sols system or maverick traders who thought Customs was for woosies and losers. Even after almost ten years of bloody and savage warfare Earths Defence Forces were only now becoming accustomed to the harsh realities they had to face.
Much of the Inner Clusters armed forces had become stagnated and institutionalised, as ranks more often than not were bought by ones Mater and Pater or a well meaning and affluent sponsor who wished to see young Johnny or Jenny Wannabe get off to a good start in the services, rather than have the young lad or lass go through the usual rigmarole of having to climb the ladder of command based on their own merits, such as they might be.
So as a result of this, many of Earths officers were rather ineffectual and only there because it was a job that paid well and was a leaping off point to a good job in government once you retired from the services.
In the Outer Fringe whenever someone said "You should be an EDF Officer" it was a joke or an insult. Most people took it as the latter rather than the former. This usually meant something along the lines of "You are completely useless and should be at home with Mummy and Daddy, Diddums."
Few and far between were the trained, committed commanders and junior officers it took to make a competent and effective combat crew aboard a warship in hostile space.
In all fairness it must be said that the crews aboard ships from outlying planets of the Inner Cluster were more experienced in dealing with bad guys due to their proximity to the Asteroid Belt and its pirate bases and the vast expanse between Pluto and the nearer inhabited systems which was just chock full of wandering planetoids and other places for smugglers and blockade runners to hide in and operate from. That did not, however, make them as canny or experienced as the Outer Fringe crews who, on an almost daily basis, dealt with pirates, privateers and the like.
Barney gave the order to pull back and regroup as the Destroyers crew ran around like the proverbial chicken.
"Okay people, let's see who made it this far. Call in gang.”
"Hammer Two here, Sir."
"Hammer Three ready to go, Sir."
"Hammer Nine caught it sir. I saw her burn in on the forward laser bank.”
"Hammer Five present, Sir."
"Hammer Ten, Seven and Eight coming in, Sir. Will be in formation in two seconds.”
"Right. Who else is missing? "
"Hammer Four, Six, Eleven and Twelve are heading home damaged as we speak, Sir."
"Right, one down and four damaged isn't too bad I guess, for a bunch of newbies. Dash, you there buddy? "
"That's a rog Booze Hound. How is it with your guys? "
"Go to four." Barney and Dash both changed frequencies for a more private conversation. “I lost one and four more are RTB with damage. How about you? "
"Not good pal. I lost six to the forward lasers and two to fighter cover. I think we might need more help.”
"We got four more minutes till the cavalry gets here so we hang tight until then. Okay? "
"You're the man. Too bad about them kids, huh? Well I guess you gotta go sometime.”
"Hey, you're the one who has to write the letters man. Don't go getting all philosophical on me in the middle of a shit fight. Who have you got out holding off the fighters? "
"Markwell, Jones and Blair are out there keeping them back. They don't seem too keen to get back into us now that the Destroyer's dead in the water so to speak. What did your guys do to it?"
"We cut her throat. I got Michaelson and Smith to stagger their deliveries into the ram and Michaelson’s went through the laser net good and true. Things went bang and we left. Now she's dead and we can get to work on the fighter cover before they get reinforced from out of system.”
"Good plan, man. Let's do it.”
"Right. Go back to one.” Barney and Dash switched back to their earlier frequency. “Michaelson, you go with Dash and his people. Dash, go oh-nine-oh for twenty thousand and then turn and engage the fighters from that direction. Get Blair to handle ECM and AWACS. Me and my team will take this side. We'll meet you in the middle.”
Barney began reminding the young Marines of some of the problems they could expect out here. “Keep an eye on each other and look out for our friends as we go through. Also try and stay clear of the weapons fire from the Destroyer. She's stopped but she ain't completely dead so look out for that.
The EDF fighters will try and get you to chase 'em back towards her for added fire support, so when they do, break off and regroup. Daley - you can handle ECM and AWACS for our lot. Okay people. Let's make 'em sorry for coming out to play with us.”
With two ships handling Electronic Counter Measures and Airborne Warning And Control Systems they stood a better chance of detecting and evading enemy fire.
The flights broke and turned, with Dashes' group streaking off under full thrust toward their designated turning point.
When Barney saw Dash and his group turn and start their run in he gave the order and the remnants of the flight flew with him and his wingman towards the waiting enemy fighters who were doing lazy spirals over and around the crippled Destroyer.
"Let's go get 'em people." Dash Biggs roared over the radio.
The wings of attack ships tore toward the waiting Earth forces ready to do or die as they knew that if this ship escaped she would bring back her friends who would not be quite so friendly. Barney definitely thought he heard someone whooping like an Indian, sorry, Non-Invasive Semi-Nomadic Hunter Gatherer Original Settler of Greater America (damn political correctness), from an old cowboy movie.
Missiles flew in all directions as the converging groups of ships fired at each other. Engines roared, guns flashed death and lasers blurred madly by as the well‑ordered wings broke into the pack of fighters covering the Destroyer. A wild melee followed as friend quickly became nearly indistinguishable from foe.
Barney suddenly found himself alone with his wingman and outside the main body of whirling, spinning, turning; fighting ships as the dogfight gradually clawed itself away from the slowly drifting Destroyer.
For a brief moment he saw an enemy fighter flash by, hotly pursued by Michaelson in her distinctively painted ship. Shit, that girl is going to make a damn fine attack pilot when this is all over. He thought to himself, admiring her style as she deftly used her forward laser cannon to slice pieces off the fleeing Earthman’s fighter. Michaelson fired a rapid series of shots that cut the engines off the rear of the fighter and sent it spinning planetwards, helpless. She then reefed her ship into a sharp turn as one of the Earthman’s less helpless companions dived behind her and fired his auto cannon in a short stabbing burst that narrowly missed her cockpit. Michaelson snapped her ship into a backbreaking roll and twisted into a series of gyrating manoeuvres that would have given a snake back pains.
The Earthman found himself suddenly without a target and broke off to rejoin the dogfight when he turned directly into the line of laser fire Michaelson had sent his way in exact anticipation of his turn. The fighter blossomed into a fire ball and Michaelson’s ship came roaring through it like some sort of sea monster drinking the blood of its victim and exploding through the surface as it leapt clear of the water in a kind of barbaric victory dance.
"Hey Booze Hound. Whatcha doing' bud?” Barney was startled from his admiration of Michaelson’s ship handling skills as Dash Biggs' ship came alongside his own.
"I was watching that kid fly. Man, she's good and I'm not just saying that. You should've seen the way she was slicing' 'em up. Like it was just a simulator or something'.”
"Well, at least she's gonna make it. Can't say the same for most of my flight. I just lost Jones and Markwell to the fighter cover but I still got Blair with me.”
"Let's see who I got left. Okay people. Call in. Let me know what's going on.”
"Sir, this is Daley. We lost Chang to the fighters and Lawson is RTB with damage.”
"Rog that Daley. Okay people. Let's do something to upset these S.O.B's. Who's got any missiles left? "
A quick inventory came up with thirteen missiles shared between three of the attack variant ships, ready to go.
"Okay people let's send 'em to someone who can appreciate 'em. Everyone with missiles turn on my mark and fire for the bridge and superstructure of the Destroyer. Let's hurt 'em. Ready? Hack! "
As one the three attack ships turned and fired their payloads.
The missiles all jetted off toward the Destroyer at top speed and went to automatic guidance.
The lidar officer aboard the Destroyer didn't, as a rule, believe most of the things that his staff of young ratings told him. This wasn't one of those times.
When the ship was first attacked, most of the officers aboard refused to believe that a ragtag bunch of ships, such as they faced, would dare to fire upon a warship bearing the dove and olive branch crest of Mother Earth, but attack they did and with a kind of violence unseen in the collective memory of the officers aboard her.
The Captain was one of the few officers aboard who had seen any kind of action and that was only in fire support as a part of the main fleet and not in clashes such as he was involved in now. He had, as a matter of form, read all the books he felt he needed to, in order to give him some sort of idea of the nature of Captaining a combat vessel, but "Horatio Hornblower" and "Mutiny on the Bounty" were hardly anything like this. He suddenly found himself wishing that Mother hadn't decided that the family needed another naval officer to fill out the family tree a bit more. Damn it all! He didn't even like space that much, but Mother had made it very plain that if he didn't take the commission she had bought him, she would cut off his allowance and he wouldn't be able to afford all those weekends spent in the pleasure palaces found on Earths moon.
"Captain Sir?" asked the First Lieutenant.
"What is it now, Nelson? Can't you see I need a rest and my hair is a terrible mess? God, I could murder some Veal Parmigiana right now.”
The First Lieutenant cleared her throat, screwed up her courage and broke the Captains' reverie to give him some more bad news.
"Captain, I must inform you that the rebels have fired more missiles at us, Sir."
"The absolute buggers. I say, these chaps are terribly upsetting. Just move the ship out of the way Number One, would you? There's a good lass.” The Captains tone indicated that he couldn’t be bothered with trivial details.
"I'm afraid, sir that the ship is not able to be moved due to the fact that the engines are without power, Sir. We also have only three percent of the shields left intact about the bridge."
"Well they were working perfectly before. I mean, you're not suggesting that I had something to do with it are you? Get them all working again and we can leave this ghastly place and go home."
The First Lieutenant looked about her and sighed. It would take at least five or six minutes to make enough repairs to get the engines running on stored fuel.
"Yes sir." She then did the only sane thing she could think of. She walked calmly to the Gunnery console and ordered the officer there to open fire with the remaining lasers, and then she turned and calmly walked to the escape pods, got in one and deserted.
Barney saw the laser bank below the bridge of the Destroyer open fire and the flash and flare of the rocket motors on the escape pod as it rushed away from the doomed ship.
The missiles bored in relentlessly on the Destroyer, heading for their target as faithfully as any computer guided instrument of death could.
Two of the pack were picked of by defensive fire from what was left of the laser bank, but the rest struck the Destroyer directly about the bridge and superstructure, tearing open gaping holes that spewed forth bodies and pieces of shattered equipment into the vacuum, which grabbed at them greedily.
The last thought to go through the mind of the Captain sitting in his command chair was, "I can't die like this. Mother will be so cross with me.”
Then he died as his body swelled like a balloon and then burst like one when the vacuum of space reached the now unprotected bridge.
Barney called up Michaelson over the radio and sent her to examine the pod he had seen jetting away from the Destroyer shortly before the missiles had struck.
"We got us a prisoner Lieutenant. Looks like an EDF officer who abandoned ship.”
"Okay Michaelson. Hook up to the pod with your belly clamp and we'll take it back with us to the base when we go. Big Eye this is Hammer Lead. We have cleared the area of enemy fighters and have disabled the Destroyer. We also have a prisoner in custody and are awaiting further instructions. Over.”
There was a silence as Big Eye digested the information.
"Ah, um, Rog your last Hammer Lead. Be advised that you have friendlies inbound. War Dog Flight will be in visual in about ten seconds. When they arrive you are ordered to RTB and deliver your prisoner to your CO and wait for debrief in the hanger." This last part of the message was made by a different voice and Barney knew it to be the Commandant.
"Thank you, Sir. These kids gave a hell of a lot better than they got sir. We have the War Dogs in sight and are RTB now. See you in ten mikes. Hammer Lead out. Okay people. Let's get 'em on the ground. Lieutenant Biggs will take the lead and I want you people to follow him in. Michaelson, be careful as hell with that pod, Okay? Let's go home.”
Hammer Flight, along with the survivors of Stinger Flight landed and were shown to their hangars by military police.
When Barney got out of his ship an MP rushed over and said to him, "Your people are to stay in the hangar until further notice, Lieutenant."
Barney looked at the man and nodded. “Not a problem Corporal." He turned and looked at his charges. “We are to wait here until we're debriefed and the CO says we can leave. I'd like you people to know that you handled yourselves in a damned fine manner and I'm glad to have seen you in action. I think now that you newbies may actually pass this course.”
There were a few yelps of surprise at this due to the fact that most of the recruits had assumed that today’s action had meant that they would be moved into operational squadrons immediately. They then realised that Barney would approve no such thing until HE thought they were ready. Barney went to say a few more things but the Commandant arrived with some official looking gentlemen who bustled around the escape pod that they had captured.
"Bloody good work. You people are on a forty‑eight as soon as you finish your debriefs.”
A ripple of excitement ran through the hangar at this piece of news. A forty‑eight hour pass was enough of a rarity for regular troops, let alone recruits, that the Commandants announcement was good news and very welcome indeed.
He turned to Barney and smiled, "Your people did good Barney. I'm happy with their results today.”
Barney looked him in the eye and nodded. “Yeah they did good. Too bad about the losses though. Eight from a class of thirty-six. Chang was turning into a damn fine ground attack pilot. I was going to get you to transfer him to atmospherics to give him a go in jets. Ah well. No use in bitchin’ I guess.” The Commandant noticed the look that passed over Barneys face at the thought of the lost recruits.
These two men had known each other for almost fifteen years since the Commandant had joined the training squadron as a green young officer straight out of the Academy and raring to go hard at it, until he realised that he had no practical experience whatsoever at running a section of attack pilots, their support crews and all the equipment that came with them. A burly Gunnery Master Sergeant had walked up to him on the parade ground in front of the junior officers’ barracks and looked him up and down, cracked a smile and said "You look lost pal."
The bond between the two was immediate and as the Commandant had climbed through the ranks he had always had Barney transferred to his commands as soon as possible just for the simple fact that the man was the best instructor he had ever had the privilege to meet.
Eden No More
With the darkness came the dreams. Well, they started out as dreams of his wife and children in happier times before the war - God it seemed that everything that was good and kind had happened before the war and then one day it had all ceased when an elderly freighter Captain had made his broadcast to all of space on an amped-up wide band emergency transmitter.
War had followed almost instantly and plunged his world into a living Hell.
He could still see that day when the far off war had come to his home planet. His wife and kids had finally talked him into arranging for some leave on a weekend to be spent in travelling the still pristine countryside of Alpha Centauri’s third planet, known to its inhabitants as Eden.
Eden had been inhabited for three hundred and seven years when the Earth Defence Advance Force had sent its attack fighters hurtling low across the countryside on search and destroy missions, to try and terrorise the local populace into minimal resistance.
As the atmospheric attack jets spewed forth from the belly of the drop ship he had looked up and begun to call to his children, yelling for them to “get back to the hov-pod now”. Kids being kids they stopped and turned to look up at whatever had scared Daddy. They saw the vast bulk of the slowly descending drop ship as the tiny black darts that were spat in every direction resolved into fighters that zipped this way and that looking for targets.
Every night it was the same. The slow, incredibly slow, advance of the fighter. The winking flash of the gun ports under the nose, the approaching wave of turf ripped from the ground as bullets tore into it, the horrible inability to move fast enough to avoid what was doubtless coming towards them.
He always knew what was going to happen, no matter what he did to try and avoid it.
Always the same, always, he watched as his six year old daughter and her eight year old twin brothers, disappeared in what looked like a puff of deep crimson powder that wafted gently on the breeze for a moment before drifting to the ground, to settle over what could no longer be termed human bodies. Four thousand high-explosive cannon rounds a minute did that to people.
His wife was screaming but he never heard her, never heard anything in these dreams, nor had he on the day as his senses had overloaded as all his years of training and combat experience deserted him and he had just stood there as his family had died around him.
The first jet whipped past kicking up whirlwinds of dust and debris. He almost fell to the ground as it flew by. The second jet flew in and fired its own burst and the hov-pod exploded in a mushroom of flame, as the fuel tanks were ignited, and the air was filled with whirling pieces of metal and plastic. He turned to see his wife take three running steps towards him just as a piece of the engine block tore her now, unrecognisable head from her shoulders in a bloody spray that splashed him with red.
He screamed as always and as always he heard nothing.
He never remembered the long walk to the nearest town. He never recalled the way people had been running about him, calling to one another, looking for loved ones amongst the burning buildings and vehicles that littered the once beautiful and tidy streets.
He didn't even recall the paramedics who had found him walking around in the now deserted shopping complex, calling his wife’s name as if she were merely lost in a non-existent crowd of shoppers.
He woke up in a military hospital near his base. The ward was filled with people of all races, creeds, colours and ages, all of whom were bandaged in one place or another.
He looked to his left and there was a doctor looking at a chart. The doctor leaned over and said something but he made no sound as his lips moved.
He looked right and saw a priest approaching his bed, a look of condolence on his face.
The priest walked to his side and it was only then that any sound came into his dreams. “I'm sorry my son. Your wife and children were found and hour ago. They are in the Lords care now my son. Do you wish to talk and share your grief and perhaps share in the word of the Good Book to ease your pain? "
He woke up with a strangling scream in his throat, as he sat bolt upright in his bed. He looked around him as his memory returned. He remembered where he was. He was in his bunk on the base. His wife and children had perished ten years ago on that warm summer day on Eden.
He went to the mess after deciding that he could not sleep any more tonight and that something to eat or drink might help settle his nerves. Barney was there as always. Didn't the man ever sleep?
"Hey Dash, bad night?” Barney said in his unusually gentle voice.
"Yeah. It was the dream again.” Barney knew what he was talking about. Barney always did. He was like that. It always amazed people that a man so accomplished at taking lives in any way, shape or form could be so solicitous to those around him. It was sometimes quite unnerving to people who didn't know him very well.
"It was the same again, man. Every damn night. It's tearing me up and it hurts, man.”
Barney had known Dash since before they had gone through Boot Camp together. A pair of rough kids fresh off the streets and into the Corps due to a brush too many with the Law. It had been enlist or do time.
They had chosen to enlist rather than spend a minimum of six months in the Penal System, which on Alpha Centauri Four, was among the toughest in known space due to the fact that for some reason, the scum and detritus of society always ended up on the frontier looking for a quick fortune or just for the simple fact that the frontier planets were hard, wild and almost lawless places where a man, or woman could make their mark in a big way.
The truth was that most of these people became disenchanted with the hard life and poor conditions of pioneer life and either returned whence they came or turned to crime because it was easier to take something that someone else had worked hard for than to work for it yourself.
When the Sons and Daughters of Humankind had started to spread through the Cosmos like an unstoppable tide of Humanity, the outer planets had gained an unsavoury reputation as places where the Law didn't exist or didn't care once paid the right amount.
Bribery had been rife and lucrative, if you just mentioned in passing to the right people that, for a price - reasonable of course, you could do your bit by looking the other way when it came to various goings on that might fall within your jurisdiction.
True to form, it was, for some inexplicable reason, only well connected Earth families who were represented in places of high power on the frontiers. Some bribes could be ludicrously enormous. This led to more than one Earth official rotating home to retire at the age of forty or less. When you had put out your offers of help, if you were, say, a Planetary Governor, you merely sat back, did the minimum of work involved in keeping the planetary economy just in the black and waited for the gratuities to roll in. Business was good and people knew that to get something done you just had to have enough money to cover the bribes.
When Barney's family had arrived from Earth, as part of a “Relocation Plan” (better known as population dumping), they had thought that all their prayers had been answered. The harsh reality of it all was that it was worse here than the corruption on Earth, if that were at all possible.
Antonio And On
Barney's great, great, great, times about a dozen, Grandfather had tried to fit into the system and it had very nearly eaten him and his small family alive. So they had moved to an outlying settlement and established themselves as stalwarts in the local community. Barney's ancestor had taken up his old craft as a gunsmith.
On Earth there had been little call for his trade as just about all trade in weapons had been heavily controlled by large conglomerates operating under the protection of Earths ruling families, who detested competition from anyone, even a small time operator who merely practised his trade as an art and actually cared about the quality of work turned out in his workshops.
As word spread Barney's ancestor, Antonio Michael Rasputin Davidson, had gained a reputation for first class quality fire arms that were very well made and highly trustworthy to the man in the bush. Orders had begun as mere enquiries as to price and services and tips on maintaining the weapons owned by the local farmers and hunters. Of such grains of sand are pearls made.
Antonio's family had started out doing repair and maintenance work with production of a few hand crafted guns being turned out each year. The guns were of such a quality and of prices so affordable, that after the end of his fourth year, business took a noticeable turn for the better.
Antonio had attracted the attention of the planets Governor, who was looking for another sporting piece for his collection. He had been told of Antonio while on a shoot with one of his colleagues, who during the hunt, had produced from under an oilskin, a rifle of such beauty and obvious craftsmanship that the Governor had immediately demanded where the man had obtained the weapon.
The man had looked a bit sick, to tell the truth, when suddenly confronted with an irate Governor, who had powers plenipotentiate, demanding where he had gotten the gun. The man, a clerk of some influence, had immediately informed the Governor that he'd had the gun made for him in a small town in the farming belt. The Governor had test fired the weapon, which, although custom made for the other shooter, had immediately impressed him with the incredible smoothness of its movement and firing. Two days later, obsessed by the fact a subordinate had a better fire arm than he did, the Governor had appeared before the inhabitants of Antonio's little gun shop, who had all been suitably terrified. Antonio came into the front of the shop to be confronted by a little man of about five feet four, who was screaming that he be taken straight to the “master gunsmith”. Every one turned to look at Antonio. Antonio asked quietly if the gentleman would care to come through to the workshop and continue the conversation.
The little man turned to him and snapped "If I want the help of the cleaner I'll ask for it. Now take me to the owner of this place.”
Antonio walked up to him and tried not to tower over him, which, with his almost seven foot frame was a bit hard, and said "I am the owner of this establishment good sir. Now, what is it I may help you with? "
The Governor eventually got his gun. It was a piece of work that most people would instantly have put in a glass case in museum; such was the quality of the weapon. After that Antonio's fate was sealed. Anyone the Governor ever met after that was informed of the marvellous gun crafter who worked so cheap and did such exquisite work. So many orders were placed by members of the more affluent families that Antonio had to put on twice as many staff to meet the demand on his time.
It soon became a status symbol to drop into polite conversation that you owned or were having made, a gun from the private workshop of Antonio Davidson, even if you had never fired a gun in your life.
A few years later Antonio bid for and won the contract to supply the weapons used by the planets fledgling military and police services.
He died more than fifty years after setting up shop. His funeral was attended by more than two thousand people beside his family and the planets current Governor, for Antonio had been a kind and giving man who had helped many new arrivals by setting up their affairs with a local banking and law firm, who he himself had helped set up and used, and by helping with labour for building their homes or hospitals, churches, schools and shops.
Antonio's will had read like a bible story. He left almost half a billion credits in cash to charity. His family had expected no less, for he had always been bringing home drunks or the homeless or people he had just found out were having a rough time setting themselves up on a world so far from home and friends. Antonio's business stayed in the family and maintained its humble heritage by not simply expanding but by setting up small, high quality and low cost gun smithies in frontier towns the planet over before sending highly trained and skilled craftsmen and their families to neighbouring planets and systems.
Barney liked to keep quiet the fact that he was in line to inherit a military and sporting empire worth more than nine hundred and forty trillion credits. It seemed to him that Antonio would have done the same in his position.
Dash knew, of course. So did the Commandant, but neither of them had cut him any slack for it, nor for that matter, made things any harder for him because of it. To them he was just a damn fine Marine Instructor and combat veteran. They also knew that he was just like Antonio - a true craftsman and a fine, if modest person.
"What sort of name is that anyway?" Barney's question jolted Dash out of his reverie.
"Humph, what?" Dash snapped back to the real world.
"I said 'What kind of name is that anyway?' "
Dash wondered and then caught up. “Oh, you mean that Destroyer? Yeah, weird names the ED’s give their ships. I mean what do you call a ship Pizza Shack for? They must be mad. What’s a Pizza Shack anyway? "
Barney looked over at his friend. “It used to be the name of some sort of restaurant chain that was eaten up, hah hah, during the Corporate Wars. The company was destroyed by Donald MacRonald loyalist factions. They were popular at the time apparently.”
Dash snorted "Yeah well they ain't to popular now are they? How many of the crew did we get off? "
Barney consulted a data pad that lay on the table. “Forty‑two crew and six droids plus the officer in the pod. She carried a complement of some three hundred ninety-seven ratings, eighteen droids and sixty‑four officers. Apparently the Captain panicked and the fire control computer overloaded, then all hell broke loose aboard and the First Officer deserted. Then the shield around the bridge was breached and most of her officers were sucked out.
We got some rescue ships alongside to take off the survivors but they went mad and started to open up with small arms fire. They thought they were fine and were waiting for help to arrive. Our boys and girls got forty some of them out, mostly wounded, before the ship went into a degrading orbit, so they were recalled and the ship was pushed into a solar orbit and she is due to fall into the local sun in about an hour.”
"Talk about a hard day at the office. I'm beat but I can't sleep another wink.” Barney nodded his agreement while Dash looked about him. The morning shift was coming into the mess and the late shift was finishing up and heading out. “Want some coffee?”
Coffee was something that had survived down through the ages but like so many things, in a modified form. The caffeine it had contained had been bred out of the bean and replaced with a non addictive, light weight stimulant that didn't leave you with a craving or jitters that could drive you mad.
Dash returned with two tin mugs and placed them on the table. Barney looked up at his long time friend and couldn't help but notice the haunted look that had been impossible to shift for the last ten years. It pained Barney to see this. Dash was his closest and oldest friend, he had been the best man at Dash's wedding, had been Godfather to his kids, had secretly smoothed the way with the banks when Dash had bought a home and was, more than likely, the reason why Dash still lived from day to day.
Barney and Dash were as inseparable as Siamese, sorry, conjoined twins. They knew each others moods and trains of thought like they were their own. The two had served together in the field or in space, side by side for more than twenty years and were probably the best battlefield team in the Outer Fringe.
Dash and Barney had an amazing understanding of each other that was truly incredible to behold in action.
Twelve years previously they had been involved in an operation out beyond Arcturus that had involved a landing by a small strike force of ten Marines and an officer on a large asteroid that was being used as base by smugglers. The smugglers had been expecting them and were dug in hard.
The Marines had been dropped less than two clicks from the smugglers base and had almost immediately come under determined fire from three heavy laser posts. Barney and Dash had instantly started to move in opposite directions to try and outflank the guns while the fresh Lieutenant in charge had gagged on his own blood which pumped from his throat via a hole the size of his fist. Automated defences were a solid steel bitch.
Barney and Dash made grenade attacks on the outer two bunkers simultaneously, while the remaining Marines returned fire to provide some cover for them. The bunkers were blown out and Barney entered one as Dash went into the other firing as they moved in. The support ship had by this time fired upon the middle bunker and knocked it out, leaving the way into the base open.
After that the smugglers were rounded up quickly or killed where they gave resistance. The Marines had lost only four people in exchange for more than twenty dead, heavily armed smugglers and about thirty captives.
People had always said they were psychic or just knew each other really well. The only people who didn't care about psychic bonding or symbiosis, or any of that crap, were Dash and Barney. They just did their job and did it well.
Barney had never felt the driving need most men felt, to marry and have a million kids but this had in no way detracted from the keen loss he had felt when Joanne, little Lisa and the twins Matt and Barney had been gunned down by marauding EDF forces on Eden. It was almost as if he had been there in person.
It hadn't helped that he had only just missed out on marrying Joanne by the simple fact that Dash had asked her only two hours before he had got up the courage. He had turned up at her parents’ home, mentally going over his little speech, when Joanne had come crashing out of the house in a mad stampede and leapt from the low porch and into his arms. Then he knew that Dash had asked her. He was so happy for them that he too started to cry. That was the kind of friends that they were.
On With Socks.
Barney looked at his watch. It was time. “C'mon man. Let's wake up the kids.”
Dash looked up at him and asked, "How we gonna do it today Booze?”
The Instructors never used the same sequence of starts to the day. One day they might let the recruits sleep in for an extra few minutes or go in an hour early banging large saucepan lids together. Today Barney wanted to use his favourite.
"Skunk boy.” Barney flashed a quick grin at Dash as he strolled toward the barracks of his recruits.
"You're an evil son of a bitch Barney. You know that?” Dash laughed as they moved to the door.
Barney and Dash crept into the dormitory packed to the roof with snoring, farting, moaning Marine recruits. As they donned their gas masks Barney quietly pulled the pins from half a dozen S.A.D grenades. S.A.D stood for “Stench And Dye” (or Die).
The stench produced by the grenades was matched only by the mind assaulting colours that were sprayed out of them in every conceivable direction.
Barney and Dash retired to the entryway as the grenades went of with harsh, flat, cracking noises accompanied by bright flashes of light and dye. Dash and Barney then ran into the dorm and proceeded to scream orders at the recruits, all the while firing their side arms into the air to add to the confusion.
"Move it, move it, move it, Marines! Get your scrawny asses out of there and onto the field now, you bunch of maggots. Hewlett, if you throw up on my floor, boy, you are gonna eat it again and then do thirty for me, so move your nasty little face out of my sight. Michaelson, get dressed faster fer Crissake. Don't you know how to get dressed by yourself? Do I have to get your Mother over here and give you a hand?” Someone laughed.
Bad move, VERY bad move. In fact you could probably say that it was not one of Lane’s best moves ever.
"What the hell are you laughing at, Turd? You had best unfuck yourself Marine, before I take a giant God-damned shit on you. Get your third rate ass outside and on the parade ground before I make you help Hewlett with his breakfast.” Lane left in a big hurry.
Barney turned to see if anyone was left inside the barracks and upon seeing no-one he left and moved onto the parade ground.
"Alright people. Welcome to today. Lane. You and Hewlett can do me an extra twenty right now.”
Lane and Hewlett dropped to the ground and started to grind out twenty push ups. The technique was you had to do them with your full pack on and while standing on your hands, with your feet resting against something, usually a tree or wall. A popular variation was at the top of each push up you had to pop yourself off the ground and clap your hands while counting them out loud.
Some instructors made you do it with one hand and instead of clapping your hands you had to slap the top of your head with your free hand. A broken or badly sprained wrist or a skull fracture wasn't unusual in such cases.
Barney didn't see the point in unnecessarily busting up a recruit who was needed at the front. A broken or badly sprained body part took time to heal properly even with modern medical technology and these kids didn't have that kind of time.
Barney looked at the brightly coloured rookies. He held back a smile as he watched them gagging on the smell that still clung to them and would do for a while.
"You people look terrible. Before we go for our walkies you should go to the showers and get that crap off you. Fall out.” The recruits started toward the showers. “Michaelson. Front and centre.” Michaelson stopped and came back toward him. “How are you doing? If you need anybody to talk to about Chang, you know I'm always available or there's the Chaplain and Psych Unit. Okay? "
Michaelson and Chang had been close friends since they were kids and had joined the Corps together. Michaelson had gone on an immediate drinking binge upon going on leave after the action against the Destroyer.
"No, it's alright Sir. We both knew that this might happen to one or both of us. It's just that neither thought it would come this soon. It just threw me for a loop, that's all.”
"Okay, but any problems at all, you come and see me and we'll do what we can, alright?” Michaelson nodded and double timed off to the showers just as the sun came up over the training field to herald a new day.
Barney watched the sunrise and turned to Dash with an almost serene smile on his face.
"I love the smell of rookies in the morning. It just makes my whole day.”
Dash laughed and started off toward the shower block.
The Commandant turned to look at his visitors who sat in his guest chairs smoking. He didn't like what they had just told him. The Commandant walked to his desk and switched on the intercom.
"Corporal Arnold. Could you get a hold of Lieutenant Davidson and have him and Lieutenant Biggs report here ASAP? Thank you.” He switched off the intercom and turned back to his guests. “I don't like this, gentlemen. Not one little bit. These kids have only been here for a couple of weeks. It's less than safe to think that they're ready for deployment to a safe zone let alone being moved up to full combat status. I don't like it at all.”
The two officers were quiet. The senior officer looked up at him and said, "I and the evaluation teams at Headquarters believe that these people are more than ready. Just look at how they conducted themselves against that Destroyer last week.”
"The only reason that they stood any chance at all out there was due to the fact that they had two very experienced instructors with them on that run. If they had to do it themselves we would have lost at least seventy percent of them and you know that to be Gods own truth.”
The Lieutenant General looked back at him and matched his level gaze. “Then I guess that we'll have to deploy the two instructors with them, won't we?"
The Commandant stopped cold. “You fuckin' what? If we lose those two instructors to the field then the troops we turn out from now on stand a good chance of being less able to cope under combat conditions.”
A hand was waved dismissively by the General. “They'll be field promoted and surely your other Instructors are capable men and women? We are only sending two of your Instructors, not all of them and the matter is not open for further debate. I shall overlook your outburst." A cold wind whistled across the prairie (so to speak).
There was a knock on the door as the Commandants secretary opened the office door and led Barney and Dash into the room.
The two Instructors had known something was up when they had seen the Generals hov-pod and driver out front. They now saw the look on the Commandants face and knew that it must be big whatever it was.
"Sir, Instructors Biggs and Davidson reporting as ordered, Sir.” Barney and Dash snapped to attention.
"At ease men. The General and Major Bailey here have some news for us. For you and your troops in particular. General? "
The General looked at the Commandant seeming slightly annoyed, and then back to Dash and Barney.
"Your people are to be made field ready within forty‑eight hours for deployment to Aldebaran IV. There you are to take up patrol duties until further informed. Is that clear Lieutenant?"
"Sir Yes, Sir. However I seriously doubt that these people are ready for deployment, Sir.” "Your Commandant has made much the same objection but he was also over ruled by me and by High Command, so there will be no further argument. You are to tell nobody of your orders. You will merely tell your troops that they are to be taking a field exercise. Further orders will be awaiting you at your destination. That is all gentlemen. You may go.”
Barney and Dash saluted, turned and left the office. Once they got outside Barney let fly.
"This seriously frigging sucks, man. What the hell do they expect us to do? We're supposed to keep this God Damn quiet while we gear 'em up for field deployment. Jesus, Look at Me - I'm on a Stick, Christ. What the Hell are we supposed to tell 'em? If we tell 'em we're going on a field exercise they'll know something's up for sure. There aren't any scheduled for the remainder of the month and they know it. Six weeks early for the love of God! This is God damned ludicrous.”
Dash was surprised because this was as upset as he'd seen Barney for a while.
He always gets so attached to these kids. I can't imagine what he'd be like if he had kids of his own. Dash thought to himself as Barney worked off the excess steam he was carrying.
"C'mon man. Let's go get 'em started saddling up. The sooner we're done the sooner we're out of here. Don't forget, we've got thirty newbie Marines to get prepped and ready for a full deployment under battlefield conditions, so we're not gonna get much sleep for the forty-eight at least.”
Barney sighed and stretched his shoulders. “Yeah, you're right Dash. Well, I guess that standing here bitching about it doesn't make things any better. Let's go and stir up some newbies." With that he and Dash moved off toward the simulator rooms where their charges had spent the morning drilling on different scenarios to hone their combat skills.
As Dash and Barney entered the Sims room most of the recruits turned to see the look on Barney's face. Thunderclouds had obscured the landscape. Not good.
"Alright people this room is now sealed and you are all under orders not to reveal what you are about to be told. We are to gear up for an extended field exercise. We move out at twelve hundred hours Wednesday so you will not get much sleep between now and then. You are to tell no one of our departure, time, date, mode of transport or anything else. Is that understood? "
There was a chorus of "Sir, Yes Sir "'s and Barney clapped his hands together and said
"Then let's move like we've got a purpose people. Michaelson, you and Lane can take care of weapons. Have them ready by sixteen hundred tonight. Smith and Lawson, you can do the provisioning. Two weeks field rations for each person. That's to be ready by seventeen hundred hours tonight. The rest of you can split into teams and see to the rest of the equipment. Let's do it people." The recruits burst into action talking among themselves, placing bets on where their exercise was to be.
Michaelson, Blair, Lane and Hewlett walked up to Barney and Dash. “What are we really getting ready for, Sir? Are we being deployed early or what?" Michaelson asked with a clearly sceptical look plastered over her usually attractive features.
"I told you these kids weren't nearly as stupid as they looked Dash. Yes Michaelson we're being deployed early, out near Aldebaran. You are not to tell this to any of the others and if I find out they know about it, you will be on punishment duties for the rest of your natural. Do I make myself clear recruits? "
Lane, Blair, Hewlett and Michaelson nodded and went back to their tasks.
"We're gonna have to watch those four Dash. They're too smart for their own good.”
"And ours?” Barney turned back to Dash who had raised an eyebrow and was smiling.
"Yeah, I guess so.” Barney sighed as he rubbed his face with his open hands.
"Hewlett’s a bright kid but he's a bit too erratic for my liking, but Michaelson on the other hand looks to be one of the best recruits I've seen in almost twenty years. She's shit hot at the stick of an attack ship, she can take immediate stock of situation and take the appropriate action as well as she's a fine sharp shooter too. To bad she acts like she's got something to prove to the rest of us.”
"I know what you mean Booze. I've seen her centre punch a target with a snap shot at three hundred metres, and that's with the GCP off line but when she's in hand to hand training she goes all feral. It weirds me out sometimes.” Dash scratched the back of his head slowly.
A "GCP" is the standard Guidance Computer Package attached to most field weapons issued to modern combatants. It virtually corrects for fall of shot through a type of laser designator mounted under the front of the gun barrel. The computer, once it has acquired a target, calculates distance, elevation, etcetera for distances from ten metres out to two thousand metres, making for a formidable combination when used by an even semi-competent operator.
Hewlett awoke with a start and looked about him. The other recruits, sorry - they were Marines now, were either waking each other up or looking out of the viewing ports mounted on the port bulkhead of their less than luxurious cabin, aboard the transport they had been herded onto more than twenty‑eight hours before.
Hewlett grabbed Lanes arm as he moved past his seat. “What's up Scott? We under attack or something?" Lane looked at Hewlett who was draped over the acceleration couch more than sitting in it.
"Have you been asleep for the whole trip? We were told during the briefing after we left that we'd be stopping here. You know. Feldebon? Aldebaran IV's major moon? Replenishment and resupply? Man you can be ignorant sometimes Hewlett." Lane shook his head in wonder that Hewlett had slept through the evasive manoeuvring that the ships pilot had gone into, when the wormhole they had used for the long jump to just outside the Aldebaran System had spat them out in time to run into a meteor swarm. The ship had spun like a dervish for half an hour and rung like a huge gong from the strikes on the hull. Hewlett had slept through the lot.
Hewlett looked out of the window. Hmmm. Not much to look at out there, so there can't be much to do. It looked pretty dirty too. Hewlett liked to stay neat and nice and clean, rather than get all dirty for no good reason.
"What do they do for kicks on this rock? How long are we here for anyway? Isn't there a war on?" Hewlett didn't like going places where it was boring. Especially if it was a dirty place.
"The main complex is mostly under the surface inside a dome to shield against meteors. Yes Michael, the war is still on, we're here for about another twenty standard hours and the complex has a rather comprehensive leisure sector that caters to just about anything the lonely spacer might crave. Some of the finest and most expensive clubs in space are on Feldebon.”
Lane raised an eyebrow at Hewlett. The two of them had been known to get into trouble together before while on leave and it would probably happen again. Soon from the look on Hewlett’s' face. Hmmm. Lane stood there expectantly as a slow smile broke out on Hewlett’s face. Just in time, Barney came into the cabin.
"Okay people. As we are about to leave the ship for some recreation and relaxation here on scenic Feldebon, I guess I should show you this film, sent to us by the lovely people at the Health Department. Everyone grab a seat and be interested, and that's an order.”
As the Marines moved to their seats to watch the film, Barney slid the chip with the film on it into the viewer and returned to the back of the cabin. The lights went off and a rather grainy and antique looking film company logo appeared on the screen and was immediately replaced by a view of a very smart looking gent with a comb over, wearing what looked to be a doctors smock and stethoscope.
The man looked into the camera and said in a friendly and earnest voice "Hi gang. Welcome to the Friendly Clinic for Sexually Transmitted Diseases. What you're about to learn today could save your life, and as every Marine knows - that's the most important thing of all." The groans of the young Marines was as music to the ears of Dash and Barney. Ah - it was going to be a good day after all.
The film rolled on, discussing the various sexual nasties that had been around when the film was made, more than forty years previously. As the film ended the lights came up and the Marines all looked around them with a bit of a dazed expression on their faces and glazed eyes.
Dash moved to the front of the cabin and retrieved the chip from the viewer. Barney’s voice cut through the subdued chatter in the cabin.
"Well people, I hope you all got something out of that. Aren't you glad I showed it to you so that all you lovely young people won't make any mistakes? Even though I didn't have to? "
As the reality of what he had just said sunk in Barney burst into laughter with Dash a heartbeat behind him. The Marines caught on and started to call good natured obscenities at them as they all moved toward the shuttle that was waiting at the airlock.