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.
.... There is more of this story ...