The group gathered in the Tactical Operations Center of the Confederacy Naval Vessel (Battleship) Gorgon all looked young -- even Admiral Charteris, commander of the Confederacy Second Fleet (the First Fleet was the 'original' Confederacy Fleet -- which was a kind of honor guard for diplomatic functions, more than anything else -- and totally useless as a fighting force) -- who was over seventy if you went by his birth records. If you looked at their eyes, though, there was something in there that said they weren't kids -- and that something was very visible at this moment. "Are we ready?" the Admiral asked his Operations Officer.
"Aye, Sir," Commander Thompson nodded. "Since this was primarily a surface operation, General Ellis' staff will begin." The Commander nodded at the General, who was seated at the other end of the conference table. The General said nothing, merely nodded at his G2.
Colonel Riley, the Intelligence Officer, rose and fired up the holographic display. "As you're all aware, the Confederacy names stars differently than we do -- or at least they name the ones with occupied planets differently, anyway. Basically, they stick the letters 'at' behind the local name of the primary occupied planet of a system; as a result, the Sun is named 'Earthat' on Confederacy star charts. We went looking for a place where the Sa'arm were just settling in -- preferably on the far side of their incursion from Earth -- and discovered Tukakat, and its second planet, Tulak. Tulakat is a G2 star, a touch cooler that Sol, so their world capable of maintaining water and life as we know it, more or less, is somewhat closer in than the Earth is to the Sun..."
"I have astrogators, Colonel," the Admiral said mildly.
"Yes, Sir," Riley nodded and moved on. "The Tulaki are a little green-furred race of duck-billed critters -- the fur contains a chlorophyll- like substance -- a bit bluer, but still pretty green -- that makes them a lot more plant-like than we are. The xenological team says they kind of adapted from a moving Venus fly-trap-like thing... In any case, we picked the place as the site for gathering our first real intelligence on the Sa'arm's physical characteristics. The CNV Mercury, a light frigate with a company of Marines aboard, drifted in from the edge of the system slowly and was not molested by the Sa'arm -- even when they settled into geosynchronous orbit." Riley pressed a button and the holographic display and its associated sensory equipment displayed a time-lapse exteroceptive record of the approach (literally a record of data for 'all external sensory organs', including some that the humans present didn't have.) "The Sa'arm apparently didn't feel we were a threat -- at a guess, the assumption was that if we were that slow, there was nothing to be gained from us..."
"Are you certain of that, Colonel?" the Admiral prompted.
"At this point, Sir, we're still certain of absolutely nothing," Colonel Riley replied, grimacing. He gathered himself and continued, "In any case, the Mercury arrived in orbit around Tulak without incident and began gathering intelligence. I won't go into the catch from orbit -- that's the N2's bailiwick -- instead, I'll move on to the ground operations, with your permission."
The Admiral waved assent and the G2 continued, "We needed to be able to assess the physical capabilities of an individual Sa'arm unit directly, so a squad from Recon got into chameleon Battledress and used the existing transporter node network to transport to the surface at the fringe of the Sa'arm's operating area." Riley touched a control and the display tank created a gestalt collected from sensors on the bodies of the penetration team. "It was clear that approaching a Sa'arm unit directly was dangerous and tended to get you nothing but killed from the data we had already," he explained, waving at the display, which showed a couple of Sa'arm units advancing through a horde of frozen Tulaki, wielding some kind of force-field knives to hack a path through the little beings, whose instinctive answer to the 'fight or flight' dilemma was to freeze in place, "so the initial mission was to collect and extract a dead unit for dissection." He paused a moment, but no one had any comment regarding how inhumane the idea was -- most of them were irritated that no other race in the Confederacy had ever essayed this particular task, despite the fact that the Sa'arm had already killed billions of sentient beings on a couple of dozen planets. "That's where we got our first surprise. Watch this..."
Staff Sergeant Macon settled the silenced .50 caliber sniper rifle against his shoulder, put the crosshairs of his scope on the Sa'arm they'd chosen as a target, took up the slack in the trigger and squeezed gently. The weapon's stock punched him in the shoulder and the muzzle popped up a bit; when it settled back into place, the scope showed him that the target was missing a chunk of his head the size of a fist. As he watched, it settled on it's base (or it's ass, as Sergeant Macon thought of it), still braced by it's tripod of legs.
"Nobody fucking move!" the radio crackled. "We kicked over an anthill here, for DAMNED sure! Everybody record what's going on around you!" Gunny Griffin directed. Gunny was in charge of this mission -- well, Gunny called it a 'clusterfuck', but it had an OPORD -- so everybody did as they were told...
Every Sa'arm 'unit' in sight had reoriented on the one who was down -- and there were eighteen in sight! They weren't looking at -- or for --Macon's silenced sniper rifle, either -- they were looking at their colleague with the hole in his head. Four of them -- the four closest -- moved to examine the dead one; another six dropped what they were doing to examine their surroundings.
"Shit, I hope they can't see in infrared or anything," Macon muttered.
"Move REAL fucking slow, but get out of sight, if you aren't already!" Gunny directed Macon. "I can't see you from here..." Gunny was on the other side of the ambush site.
"I'm good and so is the gun, Five," Macon assured him, using Gunny's call-sign. Macon was now eight feet from the firing point, and his sniper rifle was on the ground behind the boulder he'd used as a rest. Confederacy optics used force field lenses, so the scope he was using to slowly sweep the target area didn't reflect light. The four dickheads that had been dispatched to examine their comrade were done, apparently; now they were looking around in every direction, obviously confused...
Gunny Griffin was worried; the site and the victim had been deliberately selected such that he was out of sight of his comrades behind a brick wall when he was taken out, despite the fact that they seemed to have eyes in the back of their heads -- but he got a dozen dickheads responding to the kill, anyway. 'Dickhead' was quickly settling in as Griffin's referent for Sa'arm units, due to the bullet shape of Sa'arm heads -- even the slight flare at the neck suggested it... Now the ten dickheads detailed to eyeball the situation were milling around -- no, wait, the outer six were moving out a bit and starting a circular sweep... "Anybody in range of the ones out searching?" Gunny asked, triggering his communicator. Answers all came back negative. "Good. Sit tight and get this shit on record -- the heavy thinkers are gonna want it."
Over the next fifteen minutes, the six on the perimeter slowly spiraled out until they were about a hundred and ten meters from the victim, scanning for clues while the four in the inner ring re-examined the fallen unit and their immediate surroundings. They didn't appear to confer at all, but worked in concert examining his injury and the ground, the wall, and any other artifacts in the vicinity. The slug had gone right through and had been fired at a flat trajectory, so the chances of them finding it were poor; eventually, they seemed to give up...
The first indication of change was the movement of the outlying group, which re-formed and headed off in their earlier direction, moving rapidly to catch up with the other units conducting the sweep; the Sa'arm tended to send a collection of units out to sweep and secure a bit over a square kilometer of territory at odd intervals, usually before commencing construction of a structure of some type. The units involved didn't seem to change behavior in that, while they still would take out any Tulaki rooted directly in their path, they didn't seem to be intent on reprisals. The inner group moved out after this, leaving one unit to keep an eye on the victim.
"Shit!" Griffin grunted. The brain boys up in orbit would no doubt like to have a second specimen -- preferably, no doubt, with his skull intact -- but given the way the dickheads had reacted before, he didn't want to gut- shoot one and have it summon a horde with whatever they used for an air-raid siren... No doubt a forensics team was on the way, along with the meat wagon; they -- and their victim -- needed to be gone, leaving not a whole lot in the way of evidence... "Sweep, this is Ramrod," Griffin got on the horn to the carrier in orbit. "I need a display of local enemy unit locations..." The AI in orbit provided it; the Sa'arm sweep unit was re-forming, the diverted units rapidly closing on and settling into the main line. The nearest unit was now just under a half-kilometer away... "There are two vehicles approaching from the west," the AI added. "I anticipate that they are the recovery and investigation equipment carriers."
"When will they arrive?" Griffin asked.
"At their current rate, approximately nine minutes; however, observation indicates that they are capable of twice their current velocity..." the AI responded.
They couldn't sit tight, Griffin realized. If they did, the wheels would come off... Well, they'd planned to get out quickly... "Four, what are the chances you can remove the guard's head from his body? I'd like to take an intact head with us, but I can't have him doing whatever the other one did to attract attention..."
"Not a problem, Five -- he's not moving and I'm boresighted perfectly for the range," Macon replied.
"If you miss, put a second round in an eye socket," Griffin directed. "All elements, this is Five. The situation is deteriorating rapidly. We will be taking out the guard, tossing them both on grav stretchers, and making for the extraction point as rapidly as possible. We need to be gone before either their sweep element or their pickup team arrives. Pack it up and report readiness -- I want to be moving in thirty seconds." The other members of the patrol -- CPL Chapin, PFC Fox, and SGT Livesey -- reported their readiness in less than that, and Griffin passed control of the ambush to Macon, "We move on your mark, Four."
SSG Macon collected the sniper rifle and settled back into position, moving as carefully as possible. "Stand by..." The round left the weapon without his anticipating it -- usually the sign of a good shot -- and when it settled down, the Sa'arm was headless! "Execute! Execute! Execute!" he announced.
The team closed on the ambush site from the north and south at a dead run. "Sweep, Ramrod," Griffin panted. "Status!"
"The vehicles have increased speed and will arrive in just under two minutes," the AI reported. "The entire sweep patrol has reversed itself and is converging on your position at a rate that will bring the initial arrivals into contact in seventy-eight seconds."
"Move your asses, Ladies, or your dance cards are gonna be full!" Griffin roared to the patrol.
On closer examination, the second Sa'arm's head didn't QUITE come off -- but the elongating strip of skin it was hanging by certainly wasn't going to be carrying much in the way of nerve impulses, SSG Macon figured. Still, Gunny was probably gonna want a piece of his ass... Fox and Chapin were already unlimbering the grav stretchers and Gunny and SGT Livesey were grunting under the weight of the first victim, avoiding the second, whose neck was fountaining greenish-white blood... Macon bent to pick up some pieces of skull, shoving them into a plastic bag for the forensics guys to reassemble, then headed on to clear the extraction point.
The transport terminus was fifty feet away -- a deliberate criterion for the ambush site. Gunny Griffin thanked God he hadn't planned on humping the tree-trunk bodies of their prey any distance... Macon had the thing already lit up when they arrived with their catch; Griffin waved SGT Livesey and CPL Chapin forward and they moved into the beam, pushing their litters in front of them while Macon provided overwatch and PFC Fox left a little surprise for the quick-reaction force. "Are we visible?" Griffin asked the AI.
"Negative," Sweep reported. "You have twelve seconds. The first threat will be the vehicles."
"Move it or lose it, Fox!" Griffin roared.
"Done here!" Fox retorted and leaped through the beam, handing the remote for the trap to Griffin to activate. Macon stepped through next, and Griffin punched the button on the remote as he stepped back into the beam.
Griffin had calculated that the chances of the Sa'arm not smelling foul play were slim and none at the outset; now, there was apparently no way, so they left a calling card designed to obliterate as much of the evidence of their presence as possible. Round One was a set of back-to-back claymore mines set on either side of the main area, to be triggered by lasers rigged as tripwires -- something that, with practice, was amazingly quick to set up. Round Two was something they'd hidden upon their arrival and that the Sa'arm hadn't detected even in their sweeps of the area -- a bounding mine augmented with a Confederacy power cell of the type used in the new pulsed laser weapons. R &D had come up with a design that spun a laser emitter capable of cutting through flesh at 100 meters in a circle, then directing the back blast directly downward, creating a crater a foot deep and several feet across as it vaporized -- all in a package the size and weight of a conventional antitank mine. This they'd secreted in a location that covered both the transporter terminus and the kill zone; while it wasn't big enough to eradicate the kill zone, it WOULD take out the nexus, thus confounding the Sa'arm as to how they'd escaped. The thing was on a timer -- but there was also a set of laser tripwires rigged such that anyone approaching the terminus too closely would set it off also. Griffin had triggered those devices on the way out; now the laser tripwires were fully armed...
Griffin put SSG Macon in charge of the handoff of their trophies and dashed to the Mercury's Combat Information Center, arriving in CIC only seconds before the first pair of Sa'arm -- from the hearse/ambulance and forensics vehicle -- stumbled into a claymore tripwire. The rain of steel balls took out a half-dozen Sa'arm and provoked a secondary explosion from the forensics vehicle. Every Sa'arm unit within a two and a half kilometer radius froze in place -- and stayed that way for twelve minutes, at the end of which they started slowly combing the area, starting at the perimeter.
Fifteen minutes after that, a couple of squads of Sa'arm arrived in a pair of light armored vehicles. The response time was impressive; the dispatch of the vehicles had been from fifteen kilometers away and within seconds of the blast. "This is scary," LT Quinn observed. "You can't engage these guys with anything but terrorist tactics or on a massive scale -- they're too well coordinated."
Gunny Griffin agreed. "They were all over us on the ground, Sir. Our timing was TIGHT -- and that was to pick up one dead one! I don't want to be on the patrol that tries to extract a live one..."
"Well, you won't," LT Quinn grinned. "Your team is transporting to the Hermes in thirty minutes, and then being ferried to Tantalus for debriefing -- after which you get a week's leave to indulge yourselves with those poor, misguided cunts that allowed themselves to be sucked in by your dubious charms..."
"THAT's good news!" Griffin grinned. "Why squids get to haul pussy with them and we don't is a fucking mystery..."
"Squids live on these tubs -- that's why," Quinn retorted. "Besides, they only get to haul one apiece -- and even then, they get sent home if they come up with a bun in the oven -- and in return, they get to play 'steward' and do all the scut work! Aren't you glad you don't have to polish decks?"
"There IS that..." Griffin agreed. In order to maximize the combat effectiveness of naval crews (and keep them contributing to colony populations) it had been decided that crewmen could ship with a single concubine on longer cruises (ninety days or more away from port). Those concubines were pooled under the Chief Steward and did menial tasks -- food delivery, cleaning, uniform maintenance and whatnot -- freeing crewmen to do more combat-effective work. And, of course, they warmed their sponsor's bunks... Marines seldom deployed for over ninety days, so they didn't get this benefit -- but to keep sexual incidents down, a platoon drew a couple of camp-followers from the Civil Service pool to keep the edge off... The old traditions regarding hauling women into combat had been trampled upon over time by female crewmen, anyway, and concubines (or slaves, sluts, drones, stewards -- whatever you call them) were disposable if they weren't pregnant, anyway. Certain carry-overs DID occur -- it was considered bad form to feel up a 'steward' in public settings while on duty, for instance -- public displays of affection were frowned upon. But stewards wore the standard-issue shift issued every concubine, so they were quickly accessible... Efficiency was up and naval personnel could concentrate on combat-effective activity...
Control of the situation was handed off to the armored troops in general and various other Sa'arm went back to whatever their primary mission was -- but several continued to sweep the outlying areas. It took one squad very little time to find a laser emitter -- but the devices were designed to render themselves into a fused hunk of plastic upon receipt of the feedback pulse from the explosion of the mines, so the Sa'arm unit gingerly handling it probably didn't have time to draw much in the way of conclusions as to whether it was a part of the explosive device or just something that had gotten in the way...
Those limitations on examination came from the efforts of one of his companions; the orderly sweep through the close-in area took one of the Sa'arm troops a little too close to the mine. There was a quick, quiet whine while the emitter spun up, then the pop of the charge that bounded the mine into the air, followed by what amounted to an instant, laser-generated circular saw cutting everything and everybody in half within a hundred meter radius -- and then the mine vaporized, removing itself, the transport terminus, and a couple of hundred kilos of the local soil while displacing a good deal more than that.
Gunny Griffin and his team didn't get to see it, but he would have been gratified to see the response -- what amounted to an armored battalion taking over the area and VERY slowly sweeping it for threats...
The Mercury made no visible moves during the aftermath -- nothing that might connect it with events on the surface. Amazingly, the Sa'arm -- or the local hive, anyway -- hadn't stumbled onto the transporter system yet -- probably largely due to the way the Tulaki made like scared rabbits when faced with a threat. Griffin's team was transported a half million kilometers to the Hermes, that was supplying overwatch in orbit of Tulak's smaller moon, and then shuttled out to the light cruiser Apollo which hovered in the dark matter beyond the edge of the system. Since the Sa'arm largely ignored electromagnetic emissions (even though they made some -- not for communications, apparently, but they did have radar and other sensors), encrypted data streams of the dissections flowed behind them, along with data captures of the Sa'arm response for strategic analysis. The Mercury led a charmed life in orbit, ignored by the hive as irrelevant to the odd events on the ground...
That would end...
The next challenge was snatching a live specimen -- something that, without the data provided by the dissections, would obviously have stood a very low chance of success. Given the reaction to taking a Sa'arm out, one had to assume that removing a living one from circulation was going to cause a similar uproar.
An anesthetic was developed that it was hoped would at least disorient the target during the extraction. The plan was simple -- a team would lie in wait for a Sa'arm to come along at the ambush site, then overpower and attempt to render the target unconscious and escape with it via the transporter network. It had worked for dead Sa'arm, so it was expected that it would work on a live one... Just in case, they intended to bag the thing so it couldn't transmit too much information about what was being done with it...
The ambush site was selected carefully -- a location that got light but regular Sa'arm traffic within two meters of a transport terminus. The extraction team set up and waited...
"Execute! Execute! Execute!" SSG Murphy yelled -- and the Sa'arm kept coming -- proof positive that they couldn't hear. But it could see the pair of soldiers that leapt from cover to grab his outside arms -- and it could see the pair that waded in from the front to collect his weaker center arm and wrap tape around his torso at the elbow level, pinning all three arms. He saw the anesthetic-soaked pad that they put against his mouth, too, but after that the bag that dropped over his head to waist level pretty much terminated THAT input.
The Sa'arm managed to kick PVT Sheridan in the thigh and break it before they got it's legs under control, but they were within easy reach of the transport terminus -- medical care was moments away. "Collection complete," Murphy reported.
"Transport immediately," LT Quinn directed. "It's a madhouse down there!" Sa'arm were converging on the site from all directions at the run.
"Aye aye!" Murphy replied, and they hustled their catch into the transporter.
Sheridan went next, and the other three privates followed, leaving SSG Murphy to bait the trap before beaming out himself.
On board the Mercury, a team continued to attempt to subdue the Sa'arm; "The anaesthetic isn't working," observed one of the doctors present, "Did you place it over it's mouth?"
"Yeah, but maybe he's not breathing through there," PFC Pickering shot back. "Do they have a nose?" Two medics had Sheridan on a stretcher and were pushing him off to sickbay. The doctor shrugged.
Meanwhile, six spacecraft launched from the surface, and another fourteen shifted orbits toward the Mercury -- facts that went unnoticed for several minutes, while the intelligence team watched the chaos on the surface. The mine did its job superbly, but after it went off, no one on the ground evinced any continued interest in the extraction site -- an oddity that confused the analysis team no end...
Fortunately, the sensor watch was on the ball. "Commander, we've got several Sa'arm ships on an intercept course!" the crewman announced.
"Awww, SHIT!" the watch officer cursed, stabbing the intercom, "CIC! They know he's here!"
"Well, that explains THAT!" the N2 grunted. "Break orbit!"
"Too late!" the deck officer replied, looking at the tactical plot, "We're cut off! General Quarters! Action stations!"
The Sa'arm deployed a tactic they'd seen before -- one of surrounding the target vessel and limiting its options until they could board it -- but the Mercury's skipper had standing orders for this. After a hurried conference with the Task Force commander on the Apollo regarding weapons utilization, it was decided it was better to keep some future surprises, and the Captain hit the intercom, "Abandon ship! Move it people, you do NOT want to be here when they try to open this tin can!" People started dashing all over the ship for the nearest transport terminus and thence to the main Transporter Room and on to the Hermes.
In the CIC, the N2 yelled, "Get that thing out to the Hermes, FIRST!" -- but the XO said "No fucking way! If they can find the bastard in orbit, who knows what their range is! He goes out fucking LAST! LT Quinn, you and Murphy own the bastard! You're the last three on the pad -- and if we have to leave somebody else behind to make sure you make it, that's how it goes, understood?"
"Aye, Sir!" Quinn headed for the Transporter Room at the double.
"Kee--rist!" SSG Murphy complained, after responding to his comm. implant, "I own the fucking thing again! We have to get it to Transporter Three, FAST!" He gathered what was left of his team and two medics and got the Sa'arm, still struggling, back on its litter and moving up the companionway.
"Shit, shit, shit," Captain Keegan mumbled under his breath, "I'm gonna be the first skipper in the Navy of the Confederacy to go down with his fucking ship -- what a way to get famous..." The Nav Officer glanced up, but said nothing. "How much time do we have before they get serious?" he asked the sensor watch.
"Dunno, Sir -- things are getting tight -- how about jinking around some?"
"Good idea! Helm, evasive action, Pattern Three!" the Captain ordered. That bought them almost fifteen minutes...
"Grapnels!" the Sensor Watch yelled.
"Clear the Bridge!" Keegan yelled. "Transport Room -- status!"
"I'm pushin' the last pussy through the pipe!" the Transporter Chief yelled back. "It's you guys and this dickhead and his babysitters!"
"Let me know when it's down to just you, them, and me!" Keegan responded.
"Ten seconds!" was the reply. The Nav and Sensor watches had already transported from the bridge and were crossing the room to the outbound pad.
Keegan set the self-destruct for forty-five seconds, set his watch to it, and dashed for the emergency transport pad. Once in the Transporter Room, he yelled, "Chief! You're relieved!"
"Sir!" The Chief saluted and dashed into the beam.
"We've got thirty," Keegan announced. "Murphy -- GIT!"
Murphy saluted and backed into the beam.
"Twenty. We toss him at ten..." Keegan and Quinn counted the seconds, "Go!" They toppled the Sa'arm into the transporter, then jumped through behind him, Keegan backing out last.
Five seconds later, the Mercury was a collection of ions in the center of a ten megaton cloud.