Provost Lieutenant Jared Burkhalter unzipped his flight suit, removed it and hung it in his locker. He stretched, yawned and headed for the officers mess where coffee and sandwiches waited. It had been a long and uneventful patrol in the skies above New Berne and he was both hungry and tired.
He was passing the communications room of Precinct Fourteen when a Comm. Tech emerged, recognized him and said "Heard the latest Lieutenant? That expedition to find a crashed alien spaceship on the Barbarian Continent's run into trouble. Two Aeroplatforms, an Aerovan and an Aerotank escort were knocked from the sky and crashed. Two Aeroplatforms and an Aerotank were damaged, but were able to escape and spread the word.
The Planetary Marines are organizing a Search and Rescue mission, but are hampered by a lack of intelligence as to what they're facing down there. I'm sure we'll be mixed up in this too at some point..."
Jared no longer heard what the Tech was saying. Freya was on that escort mission. Was she in the downed Aerotank? He had to know.
"Would it be possible to find out what personnel are listed as missing, Sergeant?" he asked.
"Sure thing," was the reply. "Marine HQ's gonna issue one in half an hour. Where are you going to be, I'll let you know."
"Officers mess, thanks Sarge, I owe you one."
Freya opened first one eye, then the other, she was bound hand and foot, her head throbbed and her entire body ached. She appeared to be in some sort of cellar or a cave. Her flight suit was gone along with her sidearm and survival gear. The last thing she remembered was a terrific impact amidships on her Aerotank, losing control and crashing into a stand of trees as airbags inflated around her. Where was she?
A door opened and a blaze of light blinded her.
"The warrior woman is awake," said a figure in the doorway. "Bring her to the Boss immediately."
She was grabbed and lifted to her feet. The cords binding her ankles were severed and she was dragged, wobbly legged, into the sunshine where a hood was placed over her head and she was led away.
"The Marine's and the Sky Police are organizing a joint rescue mission and the Marines have requested you to lead our force. Interested?"
Colonel Nussbaum already knew the answer when he asked Jared and wasn't surprised when he answered in the affirmative.
"You'll be commanding three SWAP squads with full weaponry and lift fans; the Marines' will handle the transport. You'll report to a Major Voorhees who's in charge of the operation and take orders from him, any questions?"
"No sir, other than to say I won't allow my men to be used indiscriminately by the Marines even if they are in charge. They're my responsibility."
"That's why I chose you to lead our force, Lieutenant. Good luck."
"Thank you, sir." Jared saluted, turned on his heel and left, heading for the armory and assembly area. He'd have found a way on this mission no matter what now that he knew Freya's Aerotank was the one downed. He owed that Sergeant a few rounds of beer for seeking him out in the Officers mess and giving him the news.
"I'm getting damn tired of this crap," Freya thought when the hood was pulled off and she found herself looking at a bulky man dressed in a leather jerkin and pants with heavy boots on his feet. His brawny arms and hairy chest were bare, his face rugged and scarred, his hair a brown mop on a large head and he was looking at her over a once broken nose with piercing black eyes gleaming with anger.
"Look what fell from the sky, boys," He said in a gravelly voice to several similarly garbed men standing about his crude throne, his lip twisted cruelly in an unshaven face. "You're a damn pretty woman to be piloting an Aerotank."
Freya glared at him and said "Lieutenant Freya Sondergaard, Planetary Marines, serial number 23684590. Where are the people I was escorting?"
"Some were killed in the crashes, some escaped into the woods, and we'll find them, some we captured, like you. They're under guard in an empty grain shed. What are you doing here; are you scouts for an invasion fleet?"
"We were on an expedition to gather specimens of local plants and animals for the Scientific Continent's Zoo and Arboretum." Freya lied smoothly. "We had no intentions of invading anyone."
"You're a liar," screamed the man. "You city dwellers have learned of the mighty weapons we have and came to take them from us, but we have struck first. You are the first of many that will surrender or die before our might. We shall conquer all who oppose us."
Freya looked around; the men in the chamber carried spears, swords, battle axes, clubs and shields. Not a pistol or a rifle in sight. What sort of weapons was this maniac talking about?
"Tell me what you were doing here," the man repeated, his voice rising. "What armies are poised to invade the homeland?"
"Lieutenant Freya Sondergaard, Planetary Marines, serial number 23684590," she repeated. "Take me to your prisoners."
"Stubborn, are you?" the man howled. "My men will soon get the truth from you and your friends. No one defies Boss Hampton, no one. Take her away and toss her in with the rest of them."
Jared took one look at Major Voorhees and knew there was going to be trouble. He'd dealt with enough superior officers to know a stiff-necked, insufferable prig when he saw one. The major was all this and more.
Voorhees kept him standing at attention after he had reported in while he shuffled papers on his desk, then finally said "At ease, Lieutenant." Jared went into parade rest stance and waited, refusing to relax around this martinet. This seemed to irritate the major which is what Jared intended.
"Are your men ready for combat, Lieutenant?" Voorhees said stiffly.
"I'm not in favor of this joint exercise, Lieutenant. Marines usually handle their own problems."
"Begging your pardon, sir, but civilians were part of that expedition and they're in the Sky Police's jurisdiction. Otherwise we wouldn't be involved."
Voorhees' neck and cheeks turned red and he barked "We leave at 0800 hours from Bays 12 through 15. You and your men are to be ready to board. The loadmaster will take it from there, you're dismissed Lieutenant."
"Yes sir." Jared saluted, turned on his heel and strode out the door, fuming inwardly. If there was ever a chance for a SNAFU, Voorhees was the man to cause it.
Freya counted nine men and five women in the makeshift jail when her hood was yanked off and she was shoved through the door which was slammed and locked behind her. They were all civilian scientists and specialists; certainly not the types to attempt an escape or a breakout.
She was mobbed in seconds, people clamoring to know when they would be rescued, could they negotiate with the barbarians for their freedom, if their scientific instruments were intact until Freya shouted "Be quiet all of you!"
"I'm sure a rescue party is on the way, but I'm not sure when and how they'll arrive. You can't negotiate with this bunch, their leader's a madman and paranoid to boot. I haven't seen anything except Boss Hamptons' throne room and the inside of a hood. That's the sum total of all I know."
The assemblage slumped dejectedly at her words and two women began to cry. A tall woman with iron gray hair and an aristocratic bearing approached Freya and offered her hand.
"My name is Anita Thomas, Lieutenant. What are our chances of getting out of here in one piece?"
"At this point, I have no idea and call me Freya, Anita."
The woman smiled. "I'm glad to see you here, Freya. I've had the devils' own time keeping these people from giving up altogether. They're soft and weak out of their academic element."
"I see you're not, Anita. I like that. If help doesn't come soon, we may have to figure a way out of here ourselves. Boss Hampton thinks he's Napoleon or Hitler and says he has some secret weapons to take over the planet. I'm concerned if the cavalry rides over the hill he'll use them on them. I have a hunch that's what knocked us out of the sky."
"There's no way to get through to them and warn them?"
"They took my flight suit, my sidearm and my comm. gear. Short of sending smoke signals, we're out of luck."
"There must be something we can do. Where do you think they have your flight suit?"
"I bet it's in the Boss' hangout, probably hanging on the wall as a trophy. When it gets dark, I could sneak out and see if I could find it."
"I'll come along and watch your back."
"No offense, Anita, but..."
"Listen here Freya; I've climbed more mountains than you have fingers and toes. I've lived outdoors under primitive conditions for weeks at a time. I can handle a knife and an axe. You'll need back-up and I'm it."
"I'm convinced. We'll move out when it gets dark and the others are asleep. I thought all you academics were softies."
"Goes with the territory, I'm a paleontologist and a geologist. We're in the field more than the classroom, besides I get restless if I'm cooped up too long."
"You're all right, Anita. Let's go find that flight suit."
The shed might have been suitable for storing grain, but was a poor jail for two determined women. Night had fallen as they worked enough boards loose to slip out and Anita led the way to Boss Hampton's 'throne room' and meeting hall.
The compound was dark and there was no moon. Lights glowed in many of the windows and voices were heard, but no one was about. Amazingly the door was not locked, so the women crept in, and then froze as a burst of shouts and raucous laughter came from the adjacent meeting hall.
No one emerged from behind the wooden doors, so they continued to prowl about, eyes straining in the gloom, being careful not to bump into anything that might reveal their presence.
"Freya," Anita hissed, "I found it."
She was by her side in an instant. Her flight suit was carelessly thrown into a corner like dirty laundry. Freya removed it's comm. set, survival kit and knife. Her sidearm's holster was empty.
The whooping and hollering was still going on as they left as quietly as they came and moved stealthily across the compound. They had barely enough time to flatten themselves around a corner against a building when a sentry appeared.
Freya gripped the knife as the man neared where they were hiding then stopped a few feet from them. She was ready to lunge for his throat if he came closer when they heard the sound of a zipper being pulled down followed by a splashing noise and a sigh; he was urinating in the street. He finished, zipped up, picked up his spear and walked on never realizing that death had brushed his elbow.
Back in the shed, the women examined their booty with the aid of a penlight in the survival kit. The comm. set's battery was fully charged and now they had it, the knife and the survival kit's contents including iron rations, a compass, maps, a first aid packet and other useful things.
"This set has a limited range," Freya whispered to Anita. "I think I'll wait until morning to risk making contact with our people. I'll show you how to operate it in case I'm not available."
Anita nodded her face grim.
Precisely at 0800 hours Jared and his men were loaded aboard armored transport platforms along with an equal contingent of Marines. The two services joked with one another and issued playful taunts as to who would bag the most enemy.
Jared had been ordered to join Voorhees and his second in command Captain Brinkley in the control cabin of the lead platform where he went with reluctance. Brinkley was as friendly as the major was hostile and Jared relaxed around him.
"Chet's not a bad sort," Brinkley said. "He hasn't been wearing those oak leaves very long and feels he needs to be extra gung-ho to maintain his image. He's a skilled tactician. This run will be a breeze."
Jared nodded, but had his doubts. Voorhees had a stubborn air about him and that could get a man killed in combat if the situation changed and you couldn't adapt. If push came to shove, he and his men would go it alone, finish the job and to Hell with Voorhees.
The platforms were nearing the Barbarian Continent, zeroing in on the coordinates where the aircraft were downed when the platforms comm. set crackled and a female voice said "Calling anybody, Lieutenant Freya Sondergaard calling anybody. Do you copy, over?"
"Assault platform D-14 calling Lieutenant Sondergaard, we copy, over?"
"Roger D-14, there are fourteen civilians imprisoned with me in a barbarian leader's compound. Lock on my coordinates and I'll talk you in; number of hostiles, unknown; defensive weapons, unknown. Boss of this group speaks of secret weapons at his disposal, but haven't seen them, over?"
"Roger, Lieutenant. We copy. We have a fix on your location. ETA in fifteen minutes, over?"
"Roger, D-14, fifteen minutes. I'll try and keep these people out of harm's way, over?"
"Roger, Lieutenant. See you soon, D-14 out."
"Freya," Anita called excitedly, "Come look at this."
She joined her at a gap they'd made between the boards and saw the barbarians pulling three wooden wheeled wagons into the center of the compound upon which were mounted shiny weapons that resembled howitzers. These were no howitzers she'd ever seen as their stubby barrels ended in a cluster of thin rods arranged in concentric circles.
The gun crews swiveled and elevated their weapons and began manipulating the controls as Boss Hampton stood by, flanked by his underlings and smiling in satisfaction.