Back | Next
Contents


Chapter Twenty-One

"Prince Adrian, this is Hephaestus Central. Stand by for final departure clearance."


Captain Alistair McKeon nodded to his helmsman to stand ready and pressed the com stud on the arm of his command chair.


"Prince Adrian copies standby for final departure clearance, Hephaestus. Holding."


"Understood, Prince Adrian." There was a moment of silence while the controller double-checked his board. Then— "You are cleared, Prince Adrian."


"Prince Adrian copies clearance. Undocking," McKeon responded, and looked back at the helmsman. "Disengage mooring tractors."


"Disengage mooring tractors, aye, Sir." The helmsman depressed half a dozen buttons. "Tractors disengaged, Sir."


"Check our zone, Beth."


"Checking zone, aye, Sir." The tactical officer made a quick sensor sweep, and McKeon waited patiently. He'd once seen what happened when a battlecruiser failed to do that and a shuttle pilot had strayed into the departure zone. "Zone clear, Sir. Five small yard craft at two-one-eight zero-niner-five, range two-five kilometers. Apollo bears zero-three-niner, same plane. Range seven-point-five klicks."


"Confirmed on maneuvering plot, Sir," the helmsman reported.


"Very good. Forward thrusters."


"Engaging forward thrusters, aye, Sir." The heavy cruiser trembled as she eased out of her berth, and McKeon watched the cavernous docking bay move back and away on the visual display.


"Hold her on her present heading," he said. The helmsman acknowledged, and McKeon switched his visual display to starboard just as Apollo slid stern first out of her own berth. Their courses diverged sharply, pushing them apart to clear the safety perimeters of their impeller wedges, and McKeon depressed an intraship com stud.


"Colonel Ramirez," a deep voice answered.


"Departure on schedule, Colonel. Our ETA looks good."


"Thank you, Sir. We appreciate the assistance."


"Least we can do, Colonel," McKeon replied, and leaned back in his chair as he cut the circuit.


* * *


Colonel Tomas Ramirez and Major Susan Hibson had been shocked by their latest readiness tests. While no one could fault the willingness of HMS Nike's Marine detachment, the entire battalion was sadly out of training. The influx of replacements and corresponding transfer out of experienced personnel had only made bad worse, and Colonel Ramirez and his able exec had concluded that Something Had To Be Done, whether Nike was operational or not. After all, Royal Manticoran Marines shouldn't stand around and lose their edge just because the sissies who ran the Navy broke one of their ships!


A quick memo up the chain of command earned the endorsement of no less a personage than General Dame Erica Vonderhoff, Commanding Officer, Fleet Marine Force. Of course, COFMF couldn't issue orders to the Navy; the best she could do was authorize Ramirez to request troop lift support on an "as available" basis with her blessings.


The Navy had been sympathetic, but Colonel Ramirez's request to Training and Support Command had been greeted with regrets; the Fleet would need at least a week to free up the lift for a battalion-level training drop. Training and Support would be happy to schedule them ASAP, but in the meantime, why not carry out high orbit insertions from Hephaestus? After all, the space station orbited Manticore itself, and the Star Kingdom's capital planet offered suitable training areas in abundance. What about, say, Camp Justin in High Sligo? That was about hip-deep in snow just now, which ought to offer plenty of scope for toughening Nike's Marines back up. Or, if Colonel Ramirez would prefer desert, how about Camp Maastricht in the Duchy of West Wind?


But the colonel had his heart set on Gryphon. Troops as appallingly out of fighting trim as his were needed really challenging terrain, and few things in life were as challenging as Gryphon in winter. Not only did the planet's extreme axial tilt make for . . . interesting weather patterns, but half of it was still virgin wilderness.


Unfortunately, they couldn't get to Gryphon from Hephaestus. The components of the Manticore Binary System were just past periastron, but the G0 and G2 companion stars were still almost eleven light-hours apart. Nike's pinnaces would have required two and a half Manticoran days to make the trip, which was twice their maximum life-support endurance with full troop loads.


It had seemed Colonel Ramirez would have to settle for Camp Justin after all, but Fate works in mysterious ways. He mentioned his problem to Captain McKeon over a round of drinks one evening, and the captain saw an opportunity to help improve interservice relations. He and Commander Venizelos of HMS Apollo were due to participate in a defensive exercise in Manticore-B, and, with a little crowding, their ships could lift Nike's full Marine detachment plus its pinnaces to Gryphon with just a short hop through hyper.


Colonel Ramirez had accepted the offer with the Corps' thanks, and so it happened that HMS Prince Adrian, HMS Apollo, and just under six hundred additional Marines departed HMSS Hephaestus for Gryphon right on schedule.


* * *


"Now why would you want to come along, Scotty?" Susan Hibson asked.


Lieutenant Scotty Tremaine, HMS Prince Adrian's assistant tactical officer, who doubled as the heavy cruiser's boat bay control officer, watched her unwrap a fresh stick of gum. Tremaine considered gum-chewing one of humanity's more disgusting vices, but he made allowances for the major. He'd known her quite a while and seen her do some very good things during the Blackbird Raid. Besides, it wasn't her fault she spent so much of her time inside a suit of battle armor. That was probably enough to warp anyone a little, and there weren't a lot of other things a person could do for relaxation with the equivalent of a pre-space main battle tank wrapped around her. There were, after all, only so many targets one could blow up, shoot into very tiny pieces, or tear apart by brute strength.


Now she slid the gum into her mouth and chewed rhythmically, and he shrugged under the weight of her eyes.


"The Colonel needs a pilot, Ma'am."


"He's got a pilot," Hibson pointed out. "A reasonably competent fellow he brought all the way from Nike with him."


"Yes, Ma'am. But I'm worried about his nav systems." He met Hibson's gaze with total innocence. "Chief Harkness and I have run a complete diagnostic series without managing to isolate a fault, but I'm pretty sure there is one."


"Oh?" Hibson leaned back and popped her gum thoughtfully. Lieutenant Tremaine hadn't been briefed for the operation, but that didn't seem to have kept him from figuring things out. "Is it bad enough to downcheck the boat?"


"Oh, I wouldn't say that, Ma'am. It's just that the Chief and I would feel better if we were along to ride herd on the systems. And, of course, if something did happen to go wrong, he and I would be on the spot to make repairs . . . and verify the fault for the record."


Hibson raised an eyebrow. "Have you mentioned your concern to Captain McKeon?"


"Yes, Ma'am. The Skipper says the pinnaces are your and Colonel Ramirez's responsibility, but if you'd care to ask for a little Fleet technical support just in case, he's willing to detach the Chief and me for a few days."


"I see." Hibson popped her gum a couple of more times, then shrugged. "I'll take it up with the Colonel, then. If he says you can tag along, it's all right with me."


* * *


"Now hear this. Now hear this. Drop point in thirty minutes. Ninth Battalion, man drop stations. Ninth Battalion, man drop stations."


Men and women looked up as the announcement rattled from the speakers in HMS Prince Adrian's Marine Country. The two companies of Nike's Marines scheduled to make the drop in heavy assault configuration were already armored up; their more fortunate fellows put down coffee cups, playing cards, and book viewers and began climbing into their skinsuits while they invoked traditional and time-honored maledictions upon the designers of their equipment. Navy skinsuits were designed primarily for vacuum, with an eye to allowing their wearers to engage in delicate repair work and similarly intricate activities over what could be very lengthy periods indeed. Marine skinnies, on the other hand, while undeniably more comfortable than powered battle armor, were heavier, bulkier, and generally far more of a pain in the ass than Navy gear, because they incorporated light but highly effective body armor and were intended for hostile planetary environments as well as vacuum. As long as the wearer's efficiency wasn't impaired, comfort ran a poor second to toughness under the Marine design philosophy, but even the Corps' most accomplished bitchers had to admit that the worst a Gryphon—or even a Sphinx—winter could offer would do little more than inconvenience a skinsuited Marine. Which, given the mission brief's weather reports, was probably a very good thing.


Orders rapped out as Nike's Marines formed up in Prince Adrian's boat bays. Some of the heavy cruiser's own Marines ambled by to see them off, with looks that varied from commiseration to comfortable enjoyment of someone else's misfortune. Nike's Marines responded with pooh-pooh expressions and false enthusiasm, comforting themselves with the reflection that their hosts would find themselves in similar situations soon enough. What went around, came around; that was one of the Corps' imperishable truths. Besides, scuttlebutt said this particular operation was in a more worthy cause than most.


Scotty Tremaine settled himself in the copilot's seat of Nike One, Colonel Ramirez's command pinnace. Major Hibson would ride in Nike Two, ready to take over if something happened to the colonel's com systems; Captain Tyler, operating from Apollo's boat bay in Nike Three, would be equally ready to back up the major. Coxswain Petty Officer First Class Hudson regarded the lieutenant with hooded eyes, then bent forward to bring his internal systems on-line. He'd just detached the pinnace umbilicals when a senior chief with a prize fighter's battered face poked his head into the cramped cockpit.


"Looking good so far, Mr. Tremaine," Horace Harkness announced, then winked. "Still got a tiny glitch in the nav systems, though. I've logged it."


"Good, Chief. I'll keep an eye on things from up here," Tremaine replied with no expression at all.


"Yes, Sir."


Harkness disappeared, and Tremaine's earbug crackled with Colonel Ramirez's voice.


"How's it looking, Hudson?"


"Hatches sealed . . . now, Sir," Hudson replied as a red telltale flicked to green on his panel. "Docking tube retracted. Ready to launch, Sir."


"Good. Inform the duty control officer and proceed on his release."


"Aye, aye, Sir," Hudson acknowledged, and switched from intercom to his intership link.


* * *


Seven pinnaces separated from the heavy cruiser and her light cruiser consort. Thrusters blazed at full power, but they left their impeller wedges down as they arrowed toward the blue and white marble so far below. This was a full dress rehearsal; they not only ran silent to avoid any betraying scrap of com chatter but killed every readily detectable system, even their internal grav plates, and scorched down on the huge, curdled weather system assaulting Gryphon's southern hemisphere at their maximum safe reentry speed.


Noses and leading edges of wings and stabilators began to glow as they hit atmosphere. Their passengers had been briefed on the flight conditions they could expect and clung grimly to their equipment as the pinnaces began to buffet. However rough the ride was now, it was going to get worse.


Howling winds and driving snow awaited them, and their pilots were in airfoil mode, without even counter-grav as they drove into the teeth of the winter storm. Pinnaces were made for such conditions, but no one had yet found a way to reengineer human stomachs. A few passengers grinned at their neighbors with the cheerful brutality of the immune; others fought grim battles to hang onto their lunches, and a handful of unfortunate souls lost them.


Turbines howled louder than the storm, slicing down to get below the worst of the weather and close on their designated LZs, and Captain Alistair McKeon smiled at his tracking reports. Six of the pinnaces were dead on course; the seventh had already vanished from his scanner area, veering off into some of the worst weather on the planet.


* * *


Senior Chief Petty Officer Harkness poked his head back into the cockpit with a toothy smile.


"Yes, Chief?" Tremaine never looked up from his instruments. PO Hudson was doing a dynamite job, but these weren't the weather conditions for anyone's attention to wander on the flight deck.


"Just thought you'd like to know, Sir. The nav systems must've just packed up completely, 'cause they say we're over thirty degrees off course."


"Scandalous, Chief. Just scandalous. I suppose you may as well shut the recorders down. No point logging an erroneous course, after all. PO Hudson and I'll just have to do the best we can."


* * *


Tomas Ramirez patted his equipment with an absent hand, checking his gear out of ingrained habit even as he watched his display. Nike One was further off course with every second—because of the storm, no doubt. The colonel smiled thinly, then looked up as someone appeared beside him.


"Why aren't you strapped in, Marine?" he began, then stopped, and his eyebrows knitted in an ominous frown before he shook his head with a sigh.


"Sar'major Babcock, would you mind telling me just what the hell you think you're doing here?" His tone was more resigned than his words might have suggested, and Iris Babcock snapped to attention.


"Sir! The Sergeant-Major respectfully reports that she seems to have become confused, Sir! I was under the impression this was one of Prince Adrian's pinnaces, Colonel."


Ramirez shook his head again. "Won't wash, Gunny. Prince Adrian doesn't even have the Mark Thirty yet."


"Sir, I—"


"Hold it right there." The colonel turned to glare at Francois Ivashko, his own battalion sergeant-major. "I don't suppose you happened to log Sar'major Babcock as an observer supernumerary, did you, Gunny?"


"Uh, no, Sir," Ivashko said. "But—"


"Well, in that case, get her logged now. I'm surprised at you, Gunny! You know how important the proper paperwork is. Now I'm going to have to clear this retroactively with Major Yestachenko and Captain McKeon!"


"Yes, Sir. Sorry, Sir. I guess I just dropped the ball, Sir," Ivashko said with a sudden, huge grin.


"Don't let it happen again," Ramirez growled, then shook a finger under Babcock's nose. "As for you, Sar'major, get back in your seat. And stay where I can keep an eye on you to make sure you behave dirt-side. Understood?"


"Aye, aye, Sir!"


* * *


"Nike Flight, this is Nike Two," Susan Hibson said into her com, her voice clear and composed. "Nike Two has lost track on Nike One and is assuming command until Nike One reestablishes contact. Two clear."


She leaned back in her seat and smiled down at her panel with a trace of regret. Life's a bitch, she told herself, but someone has to mind the store . . . and the Colonel outranks me.


* * *


"Snowfall" was too passive a word for what was happening around the isolated hunting chalet. A sixty kilometer-per-hour wind drove the flakes before it like a solid wall, screaming around the chalet's eaves so violently no one could have said where the ground ended and the white hurricane began, so one might reasonably have expected any sane person to be safely indoors.


One would have been wrong. Five men and women huddled in the lees of walls and exterior stairways, cursing their employer and themselves for ever taking this job while they peered halfheartedly out into the night. Their cold weather gear was excellent, but the wind was hitting gust speeds of up to a hundred KPH; even at max, the heating systems were losing ground to that sort of cutting bite. All of which only went to prove they were out here on a fool's errand. Exterior security might have made sense under most conditions, but only a lunatic would be out in weather like this!


None of them saw the huge, swept-wing shape come slicing in from downwind, turbine scream lost in the gale. PO Hudson threw it into vertical hover at three meters while his landing legs deployed, and it bucked and staggered in the gusting wind. Then it dropped like a rock, and massive shock absorbers soaked up the impact as it touched down on the flat sheet of rock Hudson's belly radar had mapped for him. The pinnace rocked drunkenly for a moment, but he brought up the ventral tractors, killing the oscillation and locking the craft immovably in place, then began powering down his flight systems, and Scotty Tremaine patted him on the shoulder.


"That, PO Hudson, was good. It was better than good—it was outstanding!"


"Thanks, Sir." Hudson grinned, and Harkness stuck his head back into the cockpit.


"All them grunts are getting ready to jump ship, Sir," he said to Tremaine. "Reckon we better go keep an eye on them?"


"In this weather?" Tremaine hit the button to slide his seat back from the controls. "Chief, it's the Navy's job to look after the helpless. We couldn't possibly trust a bunch of Marines to find their way home without us on a night like this!"


" 'S what I thought, too, Sir," Harkness agreed, and extended a stun rifle to his lieutenant. "Hope you wore your warm undies, Sir."


* * *


The first warning any of the shivering exterior guards had was a brief glimpse of something materializing out of the snow. They didn't get a chance to identify it. Colonel Ramirez's official ops plan had called for his HQ platoon to play the role of a local quick-reaction defensive force against the rest of his Marines, and, just to make things interesting for the "raiders," he'd armed all the HQ types with stunners instead of the laser-tag rifles and sidearms their fellows carried.


The entire outside security force was down and unconscious before it even realized it was under attack.


"What do we do with 'em, Sir?" Sergeant-Major Ivashko asked over his suit com, prodding one limp body with a toe.


"I'd like to let them freeze, but that wouldn't be neighborly." Ramirez looked around through the howling snow, orienting himself against the map Prince Adrian had plotted from orbit before the weather closed in. "There's a storage shed over there, Gunny. Stack them in there."


"Aye, Sir." Ivashko checked the small tactical display inside his helmet and picked two nearby beacons. "Coulter, you and Malthus have babysitter duty. Get these sleeping beauties tucked away."


* * *


Senior Chief Petty Officer Harkness didn't like Marines. It was an instinct he'd never questioned, but he was willing to make exceptions tonight. He padded along at Lieutenant Tremaine's heels, watching over his lieutenant with one eye while the other watched Colonel Ramirez's people in action.


With the exterior guards down, the Marines threw a perimeter about the chalet, located and disabled the emergency land-line, and took out the building's satellite up-link with their jammers, all in less than four minutes. While most of them dealt with that, the HQ section formed up around Colonel Ramirez while he parceled out the doors each of them should make for.


Lieutenant Tremaine attached himself directly to the colonel, and Harkness hadn't even realized Sergeant-Major Babcock had joined the show until he saw her padding along behind Ramirez. He shook his head. The Skipper had to be up to his neck in this whole thing, which meant there wasn't a lot he could do to the gunny—officially. But Harkness suspected he was going to tear a long, bloody strip off her in private.


The colonel led the way to the chalet's front entrance and tried the latch gently. It was locked, but that didn't stop Ramirez. He shifted his stun rifle to his right hand, holding the heavy weapon like a pocket pistol, and drew a small, flat box from his equipment harness. He pressed it to the door and touched a button, and the latch sprang.


Ramirez toed the door open, and someone said something sharp and indignant as cold wind blasted through it. The massive officer didn't even blink. He just squeezed the stunner trigger and stepped through the door before whoever had complained hit the floor.


"One down," he murmured over the com as Babcock followed him.


"Make that two," someone else said over the same circuit.


"Three," a second voice said, followed a moment later by yet a third. "Four," it said quietly.


Tremaine followed Babcock into the paneled interior, with Harkness bringing up the rear. The others were inside now, as well, advancing with quick, efficient stealth and taking out the chalet's inhabitants as they went. Things were going well, Harkness reflected, when he heard someone behind him.


"What the he—?!"


Harkness spun. A beefy, over-muscled type gawked at him, one hand reaching for a shoulder-holstered pulser in bemused reflex, and the chief swore under his breath. The bastard was too close for Harkness to get the muzzle of his stun rifle around, so he brought the butt up in a crisp, flashing arc that landed neatly on the other man's jaw and sent him crashing to the floor.


"Aw, shit!" someone muttered as the impact shook the hall. Harkness flushed, but there was no time to feel properly embarrassed, for other doors were opening as "guests" in the bedrooms off the hall roused.


The chief dropped one with a quick shot, then whipped back around to the front just as Lieutenant Tremaine stunned a third man. A single pulser shot whined, and Ramirez took three—two men and the woman who'd fired—with a wide-angled shot, less efficient but just as effective at this range.


But Sergeant-Major Babcock had been directly in front of a door when it jerked open, and the man and woman inside it had clearly been engaged in something besides sleep. They were minimally clothed but wide awake, and the woman grabbed Babcock's stunner before she could even begin to react.


Harkness cursed and tried to get his own weapon up, but the sergeant-major was too close to them. He couldn't get a clear shot—and a moment later, he didn't need one. Babcock let the woman tighten her grip on her stunner, and then both the Marine's feet left the floor at once. She pivoted on the firmly held weapon like a gymnast, and the other woman flew back with a gurgling grunt as two size-eight Combat Boots, Marine skinsuit, Mark Seven, hit her in the belly. The impact flung her into her fellow, who opened his mouth to shout—just as Babcock touched the floor once more and her left elbow struck his skull like a hammer. He went down without a sound, and the Marine stepped back, still holding her stunner, and calmly shot the woman before she stopped whooping for breath.


It was all over in a heartbeat, and Harkness gawked at Babcock's swift, silent efficiency. The sergeant-major glanced into the room her victims had come from and gave the man an insurance stun bolt of his own, then looked over her shoulder at the chief.


"Next time, bring a goddamned drum and bugle band along!" she snarled over the com.


"Can it, Gunny!" Ramirez snapped. The colonel stood stock-still, running his skinsuit's external sound pickups up to max, then relaxed. "No damage done, I think." He did a quick count of the unconscious bodies littering the hallway. "Twelve, repeat, total twelve down," he said over the com, and turned to dart his own look at Harkness. The chief expected something severe, but the colonel only shook a finger at him and turned back to his front.


Maybe, Harkness reflected, Marines weren't all that bad after all.


* * *


Five minutes later, the Marines had accounted for what should be every guard in the place, assuming their information was correct. Tomas Ramirez wasn't especially fond of assumptions, however. He positioned his people to cover the access routes to the central staircase, then led Babcock, Ivashko, and Tremaine up the stairs. Harkness wasn't invited, but he wasn't about to stay behind, either, and found himself bringing up the rear beside Babcock.


The door at the head of the stairs was closed and locked. The colonel tried his magic box again, but whoever was on the other side of that door didn't trust powered locks. He'd used an old-fashioned mechanical key, as well, and the colonel shrugged.


He handed his stunner to Ivashko. They couldn't afford to put this one to sleep for a couple of hours, and that meant he had to do things the hard way. Which didn't exactly disappoint him.


He stepped back to the edge of the landing, balanced on the balls of his feet, and then launched himself at the door. He had room only for three running strides, but the chalet door that could stop Tomas Ramirez had never been built, and he went through the rain of splinters like a boulder.


The man sleeping on the other side had the reflexes of a cat. He jerked upright in bed, one hand sliding under his pillow before his eyes had fully opened, yet he was still far too slow. Ramirez reached his bedside just as his fingers closed on the pulser's butt, and a hand like a power scoop gripped the front of his expensive pajamas.


Denver Summervale flew out of bed like a missile, and his gun hand hit a bedpost as he passed. He cried out in pain as the pulser was torn from his grip, and Ramirez released him as he reached the top of his arc.


Summervale sailed across the bedroom and barely managed to get an arm up to protect his head before he hit the opposite wall like a cannon ball. He bounced back, and even taken totally unawares in a sound sleep, he managed to land on his feet. He fell into an automatic defensive stance, shaking his head to clear it, and Ramirez let him. The colonel simply stood there, giving him time to recover, and waited for his charge.


It came. Summervale disliked physical combat. He was a specialist, a surgeon who removed unwanted problems with a gun, but he'd killed more than once with his bare hands. Unfortunately, he was nowhere near as fast—or as strong—as Tomas Ramirez, and he was in pajamas, not a Marine skinsuit.


Ramirez brushed aside a killing blow with his left hand and drove his right like a wrecking ball into Summervale's belly. The smaller man folded over it with a wailing grunt, and the colonel brought his left up in a vicious slap. The assassin flew backward, but he didn't hit the wall again. Ramirez caught him in midair, spun him like a toy, slammed him belly-down over the edge of his own bed, jerked one wrist up behind him, and locked an arm of iron across his throat.


Summervale fought to writhe free, only to scream in pain as Ramirez, his face totally without expression, rammed a skin-suited knee into his spine.


"Now, now, Mr. Summervale," the colonel said softly. "None of that."


The killer whimpered—a sound of involuntary anguish poisoned by his humiliation as it was forced from him—and Ramirez glanced over his shoulder at Ivashko, who laid a small recorder on the bed.


"Do you recognize my voice, Mr. Summervale?" Ramirez asked. Summervale gritted his teeth and refused to answer—then screamed again as stone-crusher fingers twisted his wrist. "I asked a question, Mr. Summervale," the colonel chided. "It's not nice to ignore questions."


Summervale screamed a third time, writhing in agony, then threw his head back as far as he could.


"Yes! Yes!" His aristocratic voice was ugly with pain and hate.


"Good. Can you guess why I'm here?"


"F-Fuck you!" Summervale panted past the arm about his throat.


"Such language!" Ramirez said almost genially. "Especially when I'm just here to ask you a question." His voice lost its pretense of humor, cold and hard. "Who paid you to kill Captain Tankersley, Summervale?"


"Go to—hell, you—son-of-a-bitch!" Summervale gasped.


"That's not nice," Ramirez chided again. "I'm going to have to insist you tell me."


"Why—the fuck—should I?" Summervale actually managed a strangled laugh. "You'll just—kill me—when I do—so fuck you!"


"Mr. Summervale, Mr. Summervale!" Ramirez sighed. "The Captain would have my ass if I killed you, so just answer the question."


"Like hell!" Summervale panted.


"I think you should reconsider," Ramirez said softly, and Scotty Tremaine turned away, his face white, at the sound of his voice. "I only said I wouldn't kill you, Mr. Summervale," the colonel whispered almost lovingly. "I never said I wouldn't hurt you."


 



Back | Next
Framed