Authors: David Sherman,Dan Cragg
A Del Rey
THE BALLANTINE PUBLISHING GROUP • NEW YORK
“Mark One” Gunnery Sergeant Charlie Bass asked. He gave the Terminal Dynamics techrep a hard look. “Are you sure we can catch the bandits we’re hunting with a Mark One?” He gestured toward the small black box on the table.
“The Mark One, as you call it, Sergeant, is the Universal Positionator Up-Downlink, Mark One,” Daryl George answered. He wore an expression of superiority. It was clear to Bass that the techrep was explaining his toy to the NCOs gathered around the table only because he thought the men were too dumb to understand without his explanation.
“Where was it field-tested?” Gunny Bass asked. Sergeant Major Tanglefoot gave him a dangerous look.
“I’m glad you asked that,’’ George said to the assembled first sergeants and company gunnery sergeants of 31st FIST. He smoothed his pencil-line mustache with a chubby forefinger before proceeding. “You have the right to know everything necessary about the testing of the equipment that your lives and the lives of your men might depend on. The final field-testing of the UPUD”—he pronounced it “you-pud”—“was at Aberdeen. It passed every phase with flying colors.” George smiled broadly, as if announcing they’d just won the lottery.
“Aberdeen—a testing range. What you’re telling us is that this Mark One hasn’t seen action yet.” Bass carefully avoided looking at the sergeant major.
, Sergeant,” George drew himself up to his full, soft, six feet of height and thrust his jaw aggressively toward his interrogator, “it passed every phase of its testing with flying colors.”
Bass’s jaw locked at constantly being called “Sergeant,” as if he were some damn army noncom. He wasn’t in the army, he was a gunnery sergeant in the Confederation Marine Corps.
“Are there any
questions?” Sergeant Major Tanglefoot broke in.
Bass spoke up again. “Sergeant Major, you know, I know, and so does every other NCO in this room, that there’s a world of difference between controlled tests and tests under fire. We’re on a combat operation here. This is no place to be testing unproven equipment.”
“Everything in the Corps’ inventory had a first time under fire,” Sergeant Major Tanglefoot replied. His voice said his patience was running out. “This is the first time for the UPUD.”
Bass winced. “Right, Sergeant Major.” He swallowed, knowing he was on thin ice arguing with Tanglefoot. “It’s just I think we shouldn’t use the Mark One without taking along the radios and locators that we know work. Just in case this thing doesn’t.”
In a voice that brooked no further discussion, the sergeant major said, “Headquarters has directed we turn in all platoon and company radios, geo position locators, and vector computers. Each company and platoon will be issued a UPUD to replace them. That’s
piece of equipment to take the place of
Company gunnery sergeants, you will turn in the old and be issued the new, personally. First sergeants, you will see to it that they do. That is all. Do it.”
The twenty senior noncommissioned officers of the 31st Fleet Initial Strike Team’s operational units rose and started filing out of the room.
Charlie Bass knew when to shut up. This was one of those times. But Daryl George didn’t know when to stop. He said to Bass, “Sarge, don’t worry. I personally guarantee you the you-pud, Mark One, will perform as advertised.”
Bass turned back and glared at George. “And
if we lose one man because this thing doesn’t work as advertised,
, personally, will pay for it.”
“As you were, Bass!”
Sergeant Major Tanglefoot snapped. “You
knock off this nonsense, Gunnery sergeant.”
“Aye aye, Sergeant Major. Sorry, sir.” He gave George a look that said he was anything but sorry. Then he followed his company first sergeant out of the room.
“Careful, Bass,” his first sergeant whispered.
The “bandits” the Marines were chasing on Fiesta de Santiago seemed to melt into the mountains even more easily than they had into the population in the lowland cities. By mid-afternoon of the third day, after the Marines dismounted from their Dragons to start negotiating terrain too rugged for the air-cushioned assault vehicles, they still hadn’t seen anything more of their quarry than an occasional footprint
“Where’s that Mark One say we are?” Bass asked PFC LeFarge, the communications man, when the Bravo unit stopped to plan its next step.
LeFarge said, “Position mine,” to the black box he carried. The UPUD was twelve inches high, eight wide, and two deep. One face lifted to expose a viewscreen. The screen flickered at LeFarge’s voice, then showed a string of coordinates and a schematic map with their position marked on it.
“Any word from the Skipper?” Bass asked as he plotted the UPUD’s coordinates on his paper map.
In the middle of the second day on foot, the company commander had divided his unit into two elements. He and the first sergeant took two platoons and half the assault platoon along one trail, while his executive officer and Bass followed a second trail with the remaining platoon and the other half of the assault platoon. Now communications were lost.
“Not since 0830 hours,” LeFarge responded. He looked up at the boulder-strewn, wooded slopes surrounding them and casually brushed a rivulet of perspiration away from his eyes. It was over a hundred degrees in the shade. “Must be the mountains are blocking the transmissions.”
Bass shook his head. This is a bad place, he thought. Real good place for an ambush. “It’s supposed to be string-of-pearls communications, not line-of-sight. There’s always a satellite up.” He used a compass to shoot azimuths from three landmarks around the narrow, steep-sided gorge they were in, then marked the position he calculated on the overlay and wrote down the coordinates. In a pinch, old-style compass-and-map, land-navigation technics still worked.
“Check with third platoon’s comm man, see if he’s getting the same readings you are.”
LeFarge started murmuring into his helmet mike, to the comm man with the third platoon command element a hundred meters to the rear.
Bass got to his feet to show the Bravo commander his map overlay. The positions and sets of coordinates given by both the UPUD and his compass were marked on it. According to the UPUD reading, they were in the next valley over from the position Bass had worked out.
“How sure are you?” Lieutenant Procescu asked.
Bass pointed out the landmarks he’d used to plot their positions. The valley the UPUD said they were in didn’t have similar features.
“Gunny,” LeFarge said, “third platoon gets almost exactly the same location I do.”
“Can we find our way home?” Procescu asked.
Bass nodded. “By using compass and map, if that’s all we’ve got that works.”
“Where are we supposed to be?”
Bass shrugged. “Chasing Pancho.” Maybe one of the bandits the Marines were following was named Pancho, and maybe not. It didn’t matter. Anytime the Marines went up against guerrillas who were called bandits, they labeled them all “Pancho.”
“Then if we’ve got no problem with finding our way home,” Procescu said, “let’s chase Pancho.” To LeFarge he added, “Keep trying to raise the Skipper.”
“If we need air support and the squadron tries to vector in on us using the Mark One, we may as well not even ask,” Bass said to Procescu as he shouldered his pack and checked his hand weapon. “Saddle up!” he called to the squad ahead of the Bravo command element. He held up his right arm, let his chameleon sleeve slide down so his arm would be visible, then gave the hand signal that meant “Get up and move out.” The resting, nearly invisible Marines of the lead squad briefly flickered into visibility as their chameleons adjusted to changing surroundings. They rose to their feet and resumed moving up the narrow gorge bottom. The men on the valley floor were easy enough to spot by anyone who knew what he was looking at—their chameleons never quite matched their surroundings; instead, they flickered through the color scale as they changed color to match the stones and earth they were closest to. The flankers in the shadows up on the slopes were impossible to see unless an observer happened to spot their faces, hands, or the uncovered V’s of their upper chests.
“We’re only chasing about twenty Panchos,” Procescu said to Bass, “and there’s forty-six of us. We won’t need air support when we catch them.”
A quarter hour after Bass made his location check, the reinforced platoon that was the Bravo unit reached an area where a recent temblor had tumbled many large boulders to the valley floor and uprooted most of the trees on the steep slopes. Birds from Earth and native fliers twittered and sang as they fed on the buzzers that hummed and flitted through the torpid air of the valley bottom. The barren slopes appeared empty, and it looked as if bad footing was the only problem the Marines would have until they reached the next wooded area, somewhere past the next bend more than half a klick ahead.
The lead squad and one gun team were flickering through the open and the Bravo command group was at the edge of the denuded area when a flanker on the left slope shouted “Pancho!” His shout was almost drowned out by the ozone-crack of his weapon as it vaporized the partly exposed boot of a bandit. Instantly, the other two Marines on the left slope opened fire; the cracks of their weapons, the even louder cracks of the rocks that split when the bolts hit them, and the sizzle of vaporizing flesh, nearly masked the screams of wounded bandits or those burned by flying globules of molten rock.
“Take cover!” Bass bellowed as he dove behind a nearby boulder. All across the valleyside came a scattering of cracks as the bandits began to return fire. On the valley floor, the Marines tried to return fire from cover while the gun team set up, but the shields that protected them from the bandits’ energy weapons did nothing to protect them from the molten rock thrown when incoming fire melted stone. The Marines caught in the killing zone could only huddle behind the boulders, out of the way of the sizzling bolts and flying magma.
Procescu assayed the situation quickly and calmly gave orders into his communicator. “Three Actual, get the rest of second quad and the other gun on that slope to help your flankers. Send your platoon sergeant with two assault teams to the flankers on the opposite slope to lay down some suppressing fire. Remaining assault team and assault squad leader, to me.”
Bass opened the switch that allowed him to listen in on all of the communicator talk in the unit down to fire team leader. He heard the third platoon commander give his orders, the platoon sergeant pull together the rest of the assault squad, the squad leader, assault squad leader, and the fire, gun, and assault team leaders urging their men into motion. The fire and gun team leaders pinned down in the open reported that they had no casualties.
Bass flicked down his infra goggles to scan the slope where the fire was coming from. He picked up only a couple of dozen man-size heat signatures. What’s going on here? he asked himself. There’s got to be more bandits than that. They wouldn’t set up an ambush unless they knew they had us outnumbered.
Abruptly, heavier fire broke out on the left slope as Lieutenant Kruzhilov and his reinforcements reached the flank and added their power to that of the three Marines shooting at the bandits there. Over the command net Bass heard the platoon commander coolly issue orders to coordinate the fire of his ten Marines. In seconds, instead of firing at random targets, they were hosing out plasma bolts in line, slagging a broad swath of slope beginning twenty meters to their front.
The third assault team reached Procescu, and the Bravo commander added its fire to the advancing maelstrom.
Forty meters in front of the Marines on the flank, a screaming bandit leaped to his feet. One of his arms was missing, a cauterized hole was burned through his thigh, and a ball of half-melted rock had set his uniform ablaze. A Marine in the open rose up from cover and took him out with a clean head shot. The remaining bandits broke and ran.
At least they don’t have shields, Bass thought.
“Cease fire, cease fire!” Procescu ordered. “Three Actual, maneuver to check that slope, make sure it’s cleared. Check the bodies, see if there’s any we can keep alive to question.”
Bass frowned. He couldn’t believe such a small force would set an ambush for a reinforced Marine platoon. He twisted around to scan the opposite slope. He saw, through his goggles, that its entire length was blotched with red—that’s where the main effort of the ambush was! The bandits hadn’t known the Marines had flankers on the slopes, so the flankers were able to trip the ambush early. The bandits on the left must have been a blocking force that was supposed to stop the Marines from withdrawing after they were caught in the open by the larger force on the right flank.
To Bass’s right, through the trees, a line of red spots was approaching the bandit-held slop—the platoon sergeant with the other two assault teams. On the valley floor the Marines who had been pinned down were rising to their feet.
“Everybody down!” he shouted into the all-hands circuit. “They’re on the right slope. Three Bravo, stop in place. Use your goggles.” Bass’s pulse was racing wildly. A second later he heard Platoon Sergeant Chway murmur, “Jesus Muhammad,” then issue the commands to set up the assault guns to rake the right slope.
Several of the Marines in the open jumped up and zigzagged for the cover of the trees where the command unit was. The bandits’ main effort opened fire and plasma bolts engulfed two of the runners. When his shield was overwhelmed, one man simply vanished with a flash, then the other dropped, a charred husk. The rest of the Marines were forced to drop behind cover before reaching the tree line. The stench of seared flesh wafted up to where Bass lay.