As Unity Fleet Tac-team Captain Axel Fargo crawled up the sand dune, he couldn’t help but think ahead to the ordeal that awaited, following the assault on the terrorist outpost that day. In his five years on the tac-team, he had never faced a more challenging, more stressful situation. With a battle looming, it proved all the more distracting.
Damn! Should be focusing on the assault! he thought. Don’t need a vacation!
Since Celeste’s brutal death six years earlier, he’d seen no need to take one. Only recently had that fact been noticed by a gung ho technician in administration, his service record flagged, his superiors notified. So, despite his wishes, following his post-engagement assessment at Colnate Station, his tac-team’s home port, he would officially be on vacation.
Thirty days. I can survive, he told himself, not for the first time. So put the thought of it aside, dammit! Stick with the here and now! He joined his aide, Armsmaster Benker, at the dune’s crest and focused on the task at hand.
NR-7710, the hot, dry planet around him, was still so new in the Unity Sphere Registry, it lacked a proper name. Axel seethed that some bugs had presumed to call it home before any of the Sphere’s decent, law-abiding citizens.
Benker was studying the training outpost over five kilometers distant through his farscope. “It appears we have caught them in hibernation,” he said through the battlesuits’ comms.
Axel fished his own farscope from a hip pocket. The press of a button brought the scanning device to life. “If you mean we caught them napping, you’re right. Perakin reports their satellite net still hasn’t detected us.” He brought the farscope to his goggles. “These are the ones you savor, Armsmaster. Mark my words.”
Benker chirped, a sound Axel knew as a byveri laugh. “With as much experience as you have, I do not doubt you.”
With the farscope recording, Axel studied the bug nest. Later, when he plugged the device into his tac-team’s datanet, targets, such as the small perimeter pulse domes ringing the outpost, would be pre-assigned, giving his team an extra edge. Not, it seemed, that they would need one. “Can you scope a landing zone?”
“Not from here,” Benker replied. “Of course, with the wind kicking up so much scruff, we are lucky to see anything clearly. How soon before the storm arrives?”
Axel sighed. His only reason for not taking his time with the assault was the approaching tempest. It had already limited his air cover, though from the outpost’s defenses he felt confident he would not need any strafing or bombing runs. “Perakin gives us about three hours. Then it’ll be too rough for even the dropships.” He lowered his farscope and stared at the blot in the distant sand. Most of it lay beneath the dunes. The small perimeter pulse domes poking from the sand and the vertical windmills gave it definition. Of the outpost itself, only the thick energy-collection tower, pulse cannon and sensor dome were visible. All gleamed dully under the swollen sun’s glare.
Axel thought it ugly. The haze in the air reminded him too much of another planet, where another supposed surprise attack had gone horribly wrong. “What’s sitting out there, on the LZ?” he mumbled, lifting the farscope back to his goggles and maximizing the view.
“If the bugs are halfway smart, they have stowed their vehicles in shelters,” Benker said. “So there may be ten shuttles and none visible.”
“Or ten gunships.”
A gust of wind tore up the slope, throwing a cloud of orange sand against them. “Shike wind!” Benker shouted.
Biting back his laughter, Axel switched his farscope to standby mode. “Well, I’ve seen enough. Let’s get back to the team.”
“We attack, then?”
Axel glanced at his armsmaster, whose toothy smile was visible under his mask. “We attack. Slaughter will probably be more like it. You’ll find few assaults easier than this.” As he made his way down the dune, he linked with the tac-team’s secure commnet. “Highmajor Vanz, fire them up!”
Static bit into his executive officer’s reply. “Fire them up, aye, sir!”
“Nice of these bugs to give you an easy start to your vacation,” Benker said, following closely.
Though he knew the look was lost under his goggles, mask and helmet, Axel scowled at his armsmaster. “Very funny.”
“I didn’t ask to be down-timed, you know.”
“You guys are gonna fall apart without me.”
“Of course, sir.”
Axel led the way behind another, smaller dune to where his assault force lay waiting. Clouds of sand and dust rose from the rear of each hovertank as the mechanized predators woke to full life. He climbed to the cupola of his command tank, one of two in the group, while Benker entered through a hatch in its side.
Sealing the cupola dome above him, Axel settled into his seat, yanked his goggles and mask out of the way, and glanced into his scopes to check the status of his team. Sound dampers kept the increasing whine of the tank’s turbines to a minimum. Satisfied no one would be left behind, he snapped his farscope into a nearby dumpslot and downloaded the collected data into the team’s datanet. Then he dialed into the secure commlink with the warship in orbit above. “Tac One to Tac Base.” The signal crackled with static, reminding him of the approaching storm.
“Tac One, go ahead,” Perakin’s comm technician replied.
“Requesting a change in final photon cluster targeting,” Axel said.
“Copy, Tac One. Tactical station standing by for new drop coordinates.”
In the forward compartment below, Benker and Gaylin, the tank’s pilot, talked their way through their final checklists. “Fuel cells at maximum,” Gaylin reported. “Hover altitude is ten centimeters. Topographical overlay on standby. Course to outpost entered and locked.” The tank rocked slightly as its hover units found their balance.
“All units, prepare to receive final sentry data,” Benker said, snapping his own farscope into a dumpslot on one of his consoles, then releasing the data to the rest of the team.
“Tac Base, new cluster targeting is as follows.” Using data gathered by his farscope, Axel entered the coordinates for a spot northeast of the sensor dome, which he suspected contained a landing zone.
Save for a distant hiss of static, the link was momentarily quiet. Then, “Coordinates received, Tac One. Tactical reports decrease in accuracy due to atmospheric ionization caused by the storm. They’re not promising anything.”
Axel grunted. Typical, he thought. “Understood, Tac Base. A near miss should be good enough. Cluster drop in twenty seconds on my mark.” He fully removed and stowed his helmet and goggles, then lowered his primary virtual reality scope to his eyes. Designed to reduce the clutter of numerous monitors, the VRS displayed all the data he needed on one clear screen. He studied it and found everything to his liking. “Highmajor Vanz?”
“All units reporting in,” his executive officer answered. “Standing by.”
Axel typed a command on a nearby console’s keypad. A preset timer began a thirty-second countdown. “Let’s roll. Take point, Highmajor. Approach Pattern Sadar. Tac One to Tac Base.”
“Initiating maneuvers,” Gaylin said. The tank rocked slightly as it accelerated.
“Go ahead, Tac One.”
“Cluster drop in five, four, three, two, one. Drop.”
After a pause, the technician reported, “Tactical reports cluster drop successful. Cluster impact in thirty seconds. Happy hunting, Tac One.”
Axel kept his eyes on his scope as his tank followed the others toward the terrorist outpost. As previously decided, Highmajor Vanz led the charge. Expecting to meet only minimal resistance given the stealth with which he had moved his team into position, Axel thought the assault would provide an opportunity for his young executive officer to gain valuable experience. Someone capable needs to watch over my team while I’m… vacationing.
Downtime. He shuddered at the thought. A part of him had died that night his wife and two best friends were murdered. That part had not recovered from the trauma as the rest of him had, instead withering away instead to leave a small emptiness he knew would never be filled. It hurt, that deep loneliness.
Memories of that night suddenly threatened to surface. No. No! He struggled to turn them away, keep them buried, but a blue bar on one of the scope’s tiny screens defeated his efforts. A fragment of the memory smashed to prominence in his thoughts.
Blue. It was blue.
He saw the terrorist leader standing by the table, the seven cavaxian executives sprawled out where they had fallen. Orange blood spread across the carpet, the smell of slinger fire hung in the air. The assassination team turned to go—save for the one who spotted Axel and Raymond’s uniforms, the dress of Unity Fleet ensigns. The man, the byverii and the terrorist leader smiled as they raised their weapons, the leader’s an elegant blue Krakker 303. A shiny blue the shade of diamond ice as cold as the leader’s smile.
Then the blue flashed to orange as the shots—
“Photon cluster impact in five seconds.” Benker’s voice broke the memory’s hold.
Blinking, Axel gathered his wits. Damn! Should’ve been my call, he thought. Not the first slip recently, either. Maybe… No, don’t think about it. He followed the final moments of the clusters’ descent. Another lapse and I’ll be vacationing in Medical…
Through the VRS, he watched the four photon clusters slam onto and around the terrorist outpost. The top third of the energy tower disintegrated under the fury of one cluster. The pulse cannon—the only legitimate threat to the assault—disappeared in another. The dome also suffered a direct hit. Cracks spread across its surface as a large section caved in. Debris from the explosions filled the air. The remaining cluster slammed onto the desert, throwing rocks and scrub and remnants of the small pulse domes marking the outpost’s northeastern perimeter into the air, where the wind took hold and carried them away.
Hell! Too far north! Axel thought, frowning. Still no way of knowing if the LZ represents a threat. Damn!
“Outer perimeter in ten seconds,” Gaylin reported.
“Watch for falling debris,” Axel warned. “Benker, once we’re through, slave Fourth Squad to our tank. Have tanks five and six move ahead to clear perimeter. Alert Vanz to the change in plans.”
His armsmaster turned. “Trouble, sir?”
“I want to clear that northeast corner before Vanz starts the troop insertion,” Axel replied. “Make sure nothing nasty’s waiting for us. Gaylin, once we’re clear to maneuver, I want full thrust around to the northeast corner.”
“Full thrust to the northeast corner, aye,” the pilot answered.
“Highmajor notified. Link with Fourth Squad established,” Benker reported. “We will be free to maneuver as soon as we enter the perimeter.”
“What’s the power status?” Axel asked, studying the damage to the energy-collection tower.
“Preliminary scans show a steady loss of power,” Benker said after a moment. “Perimeter pulse domes will have one shot, maybe two, before shutting down.”
Axel grunted his acknowledgment. Though the assault was still young, he knew he would not be able to stretch it out the full three hours available to them. Hell, he thought, intel will be inspecting the base longer than it’ll take to secure it. Provided it all keeps going as they figured in the first place.
On his scope, he watched the three squads under Vanz’s command open fire on the surviving pulse domes. In perfect Sadar formation, the hovertanks flew in a wedge, with the troop carriers safe in the phalanx center. As Axel himself would have done had he been leading the assault, Vanz had positioned his command hovertank at point. His squad followed the formation through the neutralized outer perimeter.
“Coming about, course oh-nine-oh mark four-five,” Gaylin said, banking the tank to the right. On his VRS, Axel watched as four of fourth squad’s six hovertanks, now under the guidance of his tank’s computer, formed up on his left and accelerated. The two remaining tanks, Four-5 and Four-6, cut behind the formation and accelerated to positions on the command tank’s forward right flank. Free to maneuver, they blasted pulse domes as they came into range.
A few domes managed to return fire, but their pulses exploded harmlessly in the sand around the swiftly moving hovertanks. Axel shook his head. Too easy. Four-5 and Four-6 edged further ahead of the formation, taking turns blasting the pulse domes. Like they’re on a practice range, he thought, watching. Too damn easy. Then why’s my stomach in knots?
“Coming around to eastern perimeter,” Gaylin reported. “Estimate—whoa!”
Axel gripped the sides of his scope as the hovertank ascended into a sharp right turn. A glance at his forward viewscreen revealed the half-buried chunk of smoldering debris that had fallen into their path. The four tanks in formation behind him slowed accordingly.
Gaylin completed the maneuver and accelerated. “Close,” he mumbled.
“Good work,” Axel said as the outpost’s northeastern perimeter slid into view.
There. He tensed. Ships! Two with their rears toward his formation, the third across from the first two and facing them. Only shuttles, he thought. Then he noticed movement between the shuttles. “Benker, focus the scans. Are people moving around out there?”
“Uncertain. Focusing scans now—AAASH!”
“SHIT!” Both Axel and Benker wrenched their eyes from their scopes as pulses from Four-5 and Four-6 punched into the two nearest shuttles. The resulting explosions blinded the focused, unprepared scanners before the computer could compensate. Axel blinked furiously, trying to clear the bright spots blurring his vision. Fortunately, Gaylin, his VRS independent, remained unaffected.
“Five and Six, hold your fire!” Axel shouted into the commlink.
“Scanners clearing, sir,” Benker announced.
Axel rubbed his eyes one last time before returning his gaze to the scope. Tinting comfortably subdued the intense flames now engulfing the two shuttles.
“Sir! The remaining shuttle is powering up,” Benker reported.
“I see it!” Axel assessed the situation. Though the fires were dying quickly in the thin air, the wreckage of the two shuttles denied him a clear shot. Five and Six had returned their attention to the pulse domes. By the time they brought their sights back around, the third shuttle would be airborne.
“The pilot is really gunning it,” Benker said. “Lift-off imminent if his turbines hold.”
Up to me, then, Axel thought. Without lifting his eyes from the VRS, he placed his hands on the tank’s cannon controls and thumbed the automated targeting system to manual. With a pulse loaded at the start of the attack, all he had to do was point and fire. “Hold steady!” he barked. He focused the targeting scope on the gap between the two burning shuttles, where the third shuttle was exposed just enough. A distant beep indicated all was ready.
He fired as the third shuttle blasted skyward.
A shower of sparks rained into the gap as the pulse clipped the right shuttle before slamming against the belly of the ascending craft. The shuttle shook hard— several hatch covers and its right rear landing claw flying in all directions— then righted itself, wounded but still airborne. Accelerating out of its awkward climb, it roared over the approaching squad of hovertanks, beyond their line of fire.
“Shit!” Axel said. “Tac One to Tac Base!”
The static eating at the link sounded noticeably worse. “Go ahead, Tac One.”
“Bug headed your way.”
“Copy that, Tac One. We see him. Tac Base out.”
Axel sat back in his seat. Half-second too late, he thought. Dammit all! Wouldn’t’ve happened if I’d kept a better eye on Five and Six. Shit! “Benker,” he said, “send Vanz the all-clear to proceed, then have the squad secure the landing zone.”
Axel took a deep breath. Least it wasn’t a gunship, he thought, remembering that assault on the planet whose red haze was so similar. He’d been lucky to survive that fiasco. He returned his gaze to his scope to follow the rest of the assault.
And now very little stands between me and my vacation. Great. Just great.
TERRORCRUISE – a science-fiction action-adventure novel by Charles Brass
Published March, 2011 by ClearView Press, Inc.
Available in soft cover ($12.99) and Kindle ($3.99)
Contact Charles Brass by email at: email@example.com