Authors: Rick Shelley
Tags: #General, #Military, #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Romance
13th SPACEBORNE 03
There was nothing to distinguish this room from more than a dozen identical rooms on worlds scattered around the star systems of the Terran Cluster controlled by the Accord of Free Worlds. As always, even the name of the planet on which the room was located was classified.
The circular chamber and its furnishings were a uniform pearl-gray, giving the place a nebulous quality in soft lighting. The junctions of walls, ceiling, and floor were hard to distinguish. In the center of the room there was a large circular conference table, with each place having its own compsole and monitor. The space above the center of the table normally displayed a spherical starfield projection, three meters in diameter. Now, however, it displayed a planetary globe. The half-dozen men in the room were standing together on one side of the globe.
Only one of those men could have identified the world on display at a glance prior to the start of this briefing. There was nothing particularly remarkable about the world that could be seen on a projection of this scale. There were two continental landmasses, remarkably similar in outline (rather like a pair of lima beans) on opposite sides of the world. Each continent had one end extending just across the equator, one from the northern hemisphere, the other from the southern. The "convex" side of each "bean" was to the northwest. The other extremes of the continents were both near 80 degrees of latitude, north and south respectively. A "bridge" of islands seemed to connect the tropical ends of the two continents, a loose chain extending across the 2900 kilometers separating their nearest points—more than 1200 small islands in three main archipelagoes. The distances between islands varied from less than one kilometer to more than 300. The islands varied in size from less than a single square kilometer to areas slightly over 8000 square kilometers.
"The world is Tamkailo," Encho Mizatle, the Accord's minister for defense, started. He took a couple of steps away from the other men in the room, to the side and slightly closer to the globe. The projection was rotating so that Tamkailo went through a complete "day" in four minutes. Encho stared at the world for a moment, until a whisper behind him caught his attention. He half turned toward the others again.
"Yes," he said, "a Schlinal world." He paused long enough for two deliberate blinks. In between, his eyes ranged across the faces of the other five men. "An
Schlinal world." He took a deep breath and turned to stare at the image of Tamkailo again.
"A fair approximation of Hell, in human terms," he said. "To put it in terms some of you might be able to relate to, think of it as Venus about twelve hundred years into the terraforming project there." That would have been about two thousand years before this meeting. Mizatle had been an academic before gravitating toward politics. His field had been the history of mankind's expansion away from Earth, primarily the esoterica of the earliest period. It tickled his vanity to know things that perhaps no more than a hundred people in all the settled reaches of the galaxy might even guess... or care about. "The chain of islands between the two continents gives a misleading impression. The tropical zone is, to date, virtually impossible for humans. At least without extensive protective gear and support services that are beyond the reach of a field army on campaign." He stopped the globe's rotation so that the chain of islands was in the center of the side facing the group.
daily high temperature in the tropic zone is forty-seven degrees Celsius, with extremes of fifty-eight known. The actual record is almost certainly several degrees above that. Combined with Tamkailo's atmosphere, it makes the tropics off limits to humans without special gear except at night, when the temperatures do occasionally drop near normal human body temperature. Briefly."
"Too much carbon dioxide and too little oxygen, isn't it?" Major General Kleffer Dacik asked.
Mizatle nodded. "The nitrogen component of Tamkailo's atmosphere is almost identical with Earth's, but the percentage of oxygen is one point three percent less, and most of that is carbon dioxide. Additionally, the normal surface air pressure is moderately high in comparison to most settled worlds. In the more temperate zones of Tamkailo the atmospheric differences are... marginally acceptable. But not in what are, for humans, superheated conditions. Especially if those humans must be active. Even the Hegemony has, mostly, left the tropics and subtropics alone, doing no more than establishing minimal communications relay facilities there."
Mizatle's cough was affectation.
"Obviously, Tamkailo would not be a very inviting world for most settlers. The native life forms are of no use to humans, and the plants and animals we are accustomed to do not, as a rule, thrive on the world. Tamkailo does have an abundance of certain metal ores which lend themselves to industrial exploitation. The Hegemony has always used Tamkailo for that, and for some minor industrial purposes. A minimal population, drawn from penal exiles and their families, provides a continuing labor pool. Now, however, the Schlinal warlords have found another use for the habitable zones of the northern and southern extremities. They have turned the world into an arsenal. In fact, certain Schlinal communiques have taken to referring to the world as Arsenal, capital A. Intelligence has taken six months to confirm that Arsenal and Tamkailo are, indeed, the same world." He did not say anything about
military intelligence had managed to intercept and decode enough Schlinal communications to analyze, and none of the men in the room were incautious enough to ask.
"It has become a collection point for military materiel, munitions, and other equipment. There has always been a military garrison on the world, but that has been dramatically increased of late. We suspect that the new troops are staging on Tamkailo for another offensive against the Accord." Mizatle permitted himself a sour chuckle. "Even before the recent arrivals, the number of Hegemony troops outnumbered the, ah, civilian population by a factor of three to two."
"We're going after this world?" General Dacik asked when Mizatle did not continue immediately. It seemed a safe guess.
Mizatle nodded absentmindedly. "The buildup has been slow," he said. "We
that is because they are having difficulties putting together the men and materiel for a new push into Accord space. Fighting both us and the Dogel Worlds has proved trying for the Hegemony." None of the others saw Mizatle's thin smile. He was staring at the projection of Tamkailo again. "I think they have always made the mistake of dismissing our potential. And now the Schlinal industrial sector is having great difficulty avoiding shortages. If we can take Tamkailo, or at least destroy the bulk of the munitions there, we will buy the Accord a lot of time. It might even be enough to make the Hegemons seek peace with us, so that they can concentrate on what they see as the greater threat to their security; the Dogel Worlds. That would give us a chance to liberate the Accord worlds that the Doges have taken."
While Mizatle was talking, General Dacik had taken out a pocket compsole and entered a request for data on Tamkailo. He scanned the first screens quickly, with growing dismay. When he looked up from his compsole, he found that the defense minister had turned around again and was staring at him.
"A difficult objective, Minister," Dacik said.
Mizatle nodded again. "P and I have been working on this for several months, General." P and I: Planning and Intelligence. "They have come up with several possibilities. You will be commander in chief for this mission. The final selection will be left to you. We're not so much interested in capturing the world as we are in destroying munitions and military assets. Tamkailo is too far inside Schlinal space, and far too marginal a world, for us to covet the real estate."
"We have a military briefing set up for you, Kleffer," General Hobarth, the chief of Accord P&I, said. "My staff is at your disposal."
Dacik looked around. Everyone was staring at him now. "We'll give it our best," he said. He had very little choice.
"Hey, Sarge. We really gotta use these things?" Corporal Mort Jaiffer held up the antigrav belt as Joe Baerclau walked into the troop compartment. Even sitting on his bunk on the transport ship, Mort wore a soft cap. Of late, he had been doing everything he could to conceal the growing bald spot on his crown. Some of the other men in the platoon joked that the only time they saw Mort without a hat or helmet on was in the shower. Hair regeneration therapy was not a standard military treatment... unless the hair loss was the result of a wound suffered in the line of duty.
"Unless you've learned to flap your arms fast enough to fly on your own," the platoon sergeant replied.
"Damned things are dangerous," Mort said.
"That's our business, Professor," Baerclau reminded him.
"We did too good a job on Jordan, I guess," Mort said. "If we hadn't brought those scientists out of that place, we wouldn't be in this position."
This would be the first time that the new, improved antigrav belts would be used in an actual combat situation. And since the 13th Spaceborne Assault Team had been responsible for rescuing the researchers who had made the new belts possible, the 13th had the somewhat dubious honor of being the first Accord combat unit to be fully equipped with the new devices. Better batteries, built-in thermal rechargers (human body heat could give the batteries a full charge in four hours), and more reliable controls distinguished the new model from the old. The changes were so radical that the new system was identified as the Mark I Corey antigravity belt, rather than as the second iteration of the older Desperes belt.
"The alternatives weren't very appealing, as I recall," Joe said. He liked to egg "the Professor" on. Jaiffer wore the title with some legitimacy. He had been an associate professor before he joined the Accord Defense Force. He was an intellectual, but he was also an excellent soldier—a rare combination.
In a very quiet voice, so soft that Baerclau almost missed it, Mort said, "Sometimes, I think that the lucky ones were the guys who bought it early, first time out."
Joe pretended that he didn't hear. "You got your fire team squared away?" he asked.
"As squared away as we're going to get before we jump." Mort looked up from his bunk and met the sergeant's eyes. "Just philosophy," he said, lowering his voice again, "not foreboding."
"I hope so," Joe replied.
The entire twenty-nine-man second platoon of Echo Company was billeted in one compartment of the transport, stacked three high in the rows of bunks. There should have been thirty men, but the platoon still lacked an officer, a platoon leader. More than half of the platoons in the 13th's eight infantry companies were short platoon leaders.
Echo's 2nd platoon was much like any other. The line platoons were organized in four 7-man squads, with the platoon sergeant bringing the count to twenty-nine. Each squad was divided into two fire teams, the first with a sergeant and three privates, the second with a corporal (the assistant squad leader) and two privates.
Second platoon's first squad was also rather typical; the only difference between it and many of the other squads in the 13th was that, this time, it was going into combat with only one rookie, one man who had not seen combat before. The new man was Mal Underwood, from Bancroft. Mal was big and young—105 kilos big and 18 years young. The demand for replacements in the Accord's fifteen SATs had become such that Mal did not meet the SATs' original requirements. He was neither a combat veteran nor a veteran of at least a year in uniform before coming to the 13th. In the last nine months, since the Jordan campaign, most of the replacements coming into the SATs did not meet either of those criteria. But Mal Underwood had lived and worked with the squad for nearly seven months now, assigned to its second fire team. He had been one of the first replacements to reach the 13th after its return from the previous campaign.
Sergeant Ezra Frain was the squad leader, Mort Jaiffer his assistant. Al Bergon, squad medic; Phil "Tit" Tymphe, and Olly Wytten completed the first fire team. Wiz Mackey was the remaining man in the second fire team. Tymphe and Wytten had joined the unit before its last campaign, the liberation of Jordan. The rest had been together even longer, since before the liberation of Porter—part of the first Accord counteroffensive of the war.
Joe Baerclau walked on through the compartment, stopping occasionally to speak with various men. In another few hours, they would be going into combat. For most of them, it would be "again." The waiting never got easy. The rookies had fears of the unknown. The veterans had other fears. They knew what to expect. Knowledge could be worse than imagination.
Before he left the troop bay, Joe rapped on the bulkhead to get everyone's attention. In his "drill field" voice, he announced, "Breakfast is at oh-three-forty-five hours ship's time. Final briefing will be forty-five minutes later. You get to sleep in the next thirty seconds, you can still catch eight hours. Get it while you can."