Nightwind Thursdays, ch 21-22

[Author’s Note: This is a novel I wrote about fifteen years ago. It was my first attempt at writing anything longer than a history paper or short story. I’ll be putting it on here on Wednesdays and probably posting my thoughts about it on Thursdays. Everything is tagged under Nightwind Wednesdays. As is my custom there will be a Thursday post discussing the lessons I have learned. For this week Thursday is Friday and we’ll all wear socks on our hands and hats on our feet. As an additional note, there is a whole lot to talk about in today’s chapters. Just so, so much.]

Chapter 21

Ah’Dag System
May 31st, 2356 Terran Standard Calendar
2225 Terran Standard Time

David watched the shuttle sweep over the forward section of the Nightwind and begin its journey down to the planet.  The craft looked tiny and vulnerable as its form rapidly receded, getting lost in the background of the planet below.

He turned away from the screen and looked over to the Ops station.  “Mr. Templeton,” he asked, “Any sign they’ve detected the shuttle?”

“Nothing yet, Sir,” he responded, “But they can’t do anything right now, anyway.”

“Good point,” David allowed.

He knew sending a team down to the planet was a great risk, but without contacting the people of the planet he could not get any information.  If they could tell him anything about the movements, tactics or even something about the location of the pirates, it would make his job that much easier.  And allow the Nightwind to return to Earth that much faster.

“They’ve entered the lower atmosphere, Sir,” Templeton called out.  “It looks like the shuttle has been detected.”

“Magnify,” David ordered.

The shuttle reappeared at the center of the screen as the powerful magnification equipment kicked in.  It sped across a blurry backdrop of mottled greens and browns, rapidly closing in on the target zone for the landing, a clearing at the entrance of what appeared to be a small military base.  They planned to land at a military facility because that would be the most likely way to make quick contact and get useful information on the pirates.

“Two aircraft moving to intercept the shuttle, Sir,” Templeton announced.  “Fixed wing, moving fast.”

“Switch to tactical.”

“Aye, Sir.”

The screen temporarily went blank, then relit with the tactical display.  At the center a blue arrowhead labelled “Shuttle 2” indicated the location and heading of the shuttle.  Two red arrowheads labelled “Alpha” and “Bravo” moved in from the bottom of the screen, coming in on the shuttle’s left.

Stubby and slow, the shuttle had no chance of outrunning the fast moving interceptors while encumbered by the problems of maneuvering in the atmosphere.

“Order Wing Commander Luchenko to launch.” David said without turning to the comm station, his eyes fixed on the tactical display.  “I want our fighters to shadow the bogeys.”

“Aye, Sir,” Ensign Thomas, the officer filling in at the communications array while Ensign Lindros was away, said.

“Tell him not to enter the atmosphere unless I give him the word,” David added.

“Aye.”  The Ensign keyed up the comm gear, relaying the captain’s orders.

A moment later a pair of fighters powered out of the launch bay and vectored in toward the planet.  Wing Commander Luchenko always kept a pair of his fighters in “Ready Launch”condition, capable of leaving the bay at a moment’s notice.  Another pair was set at “Ready Five” status, allowing Nightwind to have a full flight of four escorts within five minutes of engaging hostile forces.  A flight of four bombers was also held at “Ready Five” status.  The Longbow-class fighter-bombers were designed in such a way that they could quickly be loaded with the appropriate munitions for any mission, whether they were needed to attack a ground target or engage a capital ship in space.  The setup was a precaution the Wing Commander developed while the ship was still in the Tau Ceti system.

“Captain,” Templeton said, “I’m showing two new bogies.  Bigger, slower aircraft.  They appear to be from the base we had picked as our landing zone.”

“What are they doing?” David asked.

“Vectoring in on the shuttle.”

“Increase the range of the tactical display to include the new hostile forces.”

The view on the screen switched to a larger area.  The original pair of hostile forces now appeared to be much closer to the shuttle.  A new set of icons now appeared on the upper left side of the screen, labelled “Charlie” and “Delta.”  They were moving slower than the original bogies, but their combined closing speed with the shuttle meant they were closing much faster than the ones playing catch up.

“Any idea of their intentions?” David turned from the screen to the tactical officer.  “Are we looking at interceptor craft, an escort or what?”

“No telling, Sir,” the Ops officer responded, shaking his head.  “They have made no attempt to communicate with the shuttle and are either ignoring or not receiving Chief Carter’s hails.  All I know is that they have not locked any weapons on to the shuttle.  But that could be because they simply aren’t in range.”

David turned back to the tactical display, helpless to affect the situation.  “I suppose we’ll know soon enough,” he said quietly.

“They’ve gone active,” Templeton said, almost as if the alien’s actions were summoned by the captain’s words.  “Locking on to the shuttle.”

“Comm, tell Carter to get out of there!” David ordered.

Before the Lieutenant had a chance to do anything the icon labelled “Bravo” flashed once.  A moment later the shuttle’s icon changed from blue to amber and suddenly veered almost ninety degrees off of its original course.

“Ops, go to visual,” David said, taking a step toward the screen.

The shuttle appeared a moment later, trailing a thick, bluish tail of smoke and quickly losing altitude.  From below the small craft a forest rose, the trees appearing to reach up toward it.  For a moment the treetops gave way as the shuttle plowed into the uppermost branches.

Then the shuttle simply disappeared, swallowed whole by the dense, green canopy.

A pair of slender, knife-edged aircraft entered the view from the bottom of the screen and turned into a lazy orbit of the site.

“Should we begin a recovery operation, Sir?” Templeton asked.

David thought about the logistics for a moment.  “Prepare two shuttles and get a flight of Longbows prepped for air-to-ground,” he said.  “And launch the rest of the fighter squadron.”

As Ensign Thomas began relaying the Captain’s orders the other two bogies entered the screen from the left side.  The stubby, wide bodied craft slowed to a stop directly over the area where the shuttle disappear and dropped straight down, disappearing into the trees moments later.

“Cancel those orders,” David said.  “Looks like they were prepared for this.”

“Aye Sir.”

“Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea,” David muttered.

The rest of the bridge crew remained silent.

*  *  *

It began as a dull throb and gradually increased in intensity.  Commander Walter Gregory embraced the pain.  The pain let him know he was alive.  He allowed it to pull him back to consciousness.

Lit by the dim glow of the emergency lighting the interior of the shuttle took on a strange, almost ominous appearance.  Dim, twisted shapes stuck up out of the gloom at odd angles, destroying the formerly clean, simple lines of the compartment.

Gradually the scene began to make sense to the executive officer.  The shuttle appeared to have come down right side up, sparing its crew from the almost certain serious injury or death that would have occurred had they been thrown against the roof or walls.  Most of the equipment compartments had opened during the crash, however, spilling their contents across the floor.  It appeared as though the right side of the shuttle had hit the ground first and crumpled, as most of the deck plating appeared to have been displaced and the bench in that side had ripped free of its moorings and now rested haphazardly against the wall.

Marine Private Nait had been sitting on that bench.  He now was leaning against the wall with his head at an awkward angle.  Commander Gregory reached over and checked the young man’s pulse.  Just as he suspected, the Marine was dead.

He next turned to the unconscious form of Ensign Lindros.  She appeared unhurt and her breathing seemed steady, so he turned to the other Marine, Private Lee.  He also appeared to have survived the crash.

A sudden noise from the front of shuttle caught his attention.  He reached reflexively for his sidearm.

“Don’t shoot me,” Chief Petty Officer Carter said, managing to find a way to make a joke even in such a terrible situation, “I didn’t mean to crash the ship.”

Walter relaxed,  taking his hand away from the weapon.  “You did as well as you could, Chief.  In fact, you might have done better than that.”

“Well,” Carter responded, stepping into the main compartment, “I kept us alive, I suppose,” he paused, “Didn’t I?”

“Private Nait didn’t make it,” the Executive Officer responded, gesturing to the crumpled form.  “But the rest of us are okay.”

Carter leaned over the dead Marine and searched in vain for the slightest hint of life.  Finally convinced of the Commander’s verdict he collapsed onto the bench next to Private Lee.  “I…I did the best I could…” he said quietly, cupping his hands over his face.  “I did…”

“I know, Chief,” Walter said, “No one will blame you for this.  But we have to see about getting a rescue down here from the Nightwind.”

“You’re right, Commander, we -” Carter trailed off.

“What we -” Walter started, but was stopped by the Chief’s upraised hand.

“There,” Carter said after a moment, “You hear that?”

“Hear what?”

“That…that noise, kind of a high-pitched whine.  It’s getting closer.”

The pair sat in silence as the far-off sound gradually came closer, increasing in volume and intensity with every passing second.  It finally reached a crescendo, seemingly directly above the downed shuttle.

Then it stopped.  The silence was worse than the noise.

“I’m going to go have a look,” Walter said, standing up.  “Keep an eye on these two.”

“Be careful, Sir.”

Walter stepped over to the rear of the compartment and undid the emergency hatch.  After scanning the tiny area he could make out through the doorway he stepped outside.

He realized too late that he had not thought to bring his communicator with the language translator.  The bulky, bipedal form stepping around a tree trunk and into the clearing created by the shuttle’s landing confirmed his thought.
The sudden, barked command from his new companion did not need translation, however.      Walter raised his hands in what he hoped was the universal sign of surrender as the alien being pointed the barrel of its weapon menacingly at him.

Chapter 22

Geneva, Switzerland, Terra, United Commonwealth
June 1st, 2356
0936 Terran Standard Time

Brigadier General Hans Schroeder, senior living commander of the Earth Command military, jumped up on the roof of a low building to get a better view of the fight taking place just down the street.  The gutted remains of his command vehicle, an Elephant infantry carrier, sat in the middle of Unity Park, the victim of a hand-held rocket attack.

On the twenty-ninth of May  an irregular infantry force had attacked Geneva, political capitol of the United Commonwealth.  Schroeder had scraped together a force comprised of police, military and a few naval officers in an attempt to defend what was left of the United Commonwealth government.

The attempt was looking more and more like a failure with every passing moment.  His troops had initially held an advantage over the attacking force, as the Earth Command infantry was far better trained and equipped. Then the 4th Mechanized Battalion had arrived.

Shortly after the news of the so-called “Messenger Incident” leaked, the commander of the 4th had stopped responding to orders from command.  The 4th, along with the 8th Mechanized, another battalion, had been ordered to the old Cheyenne Mountain Complex to guard Earth Command’s Special Weapons Bunker.  Neither unit had arrived.  A few days later a nuclear bomb set off in the heart of Rome had nearly levelled the Eternal City.

Resurfacing later, the commander of the 4th Mechanized had declared himself as an opponent of the United Commonwealth government and revealed that he had ordered his unit to ambush and destroy the 8th Mechanized en route to Cheyenne Mountain.

Schroeder knew it wasn’t a coincidence.  Someone was out there, plotting the downfall of the Commonwealth.  Unfortunately he did not know who that person was, and until he could figure it out he was stuck reacting.  Hopefully there would still be something left to save when it was time for him to start acting.

Now the 4th Mechanized had found its way to Geneva.  The battalion’s three infantry companies and fifteen Striker heavy tanks heavily outgunned the capitol’s ad hoc defensive force.

Less than half a kilometer off the 4th Mechanized was about to break through his final line of defense.  When that happened, the remaining members of the United Commonwealth government would have no hope of survival.  Schroeder had seen no alternative but to call on the Navy to attempt to help evacuate the governmental officials.  He only hoped they could provide enough assistance in time.

The building shuddered as an olive drab Elephant pulled up to him, clipping the corner as it approached.  Schroeder somehow managed to keep on his feet despite fearing the imminent collapse of his vantage point.  Unsure of the allegiance of the vehicle below him, he reached for his sidearm, knowing full well it would not be enough to penetrate the thickly armored hide of the fighting vehicle.

A hatch on the top opened with a clang.  Colonel Jonathan Short, his second in command, poked his head out of the dark interior.  An oversize helmet dwarfed the officer’s thin, boyish face.

“General, we have to get out of here,” Short yelled over the loud engine.  “The Fourth is moving in, they’re about two blocks away and coming on fast.”

Schroeder jumped off the building on to the top of the fighting vehicle.  “Thanks for the ride, Colonel,” he said, undogging the other roof hatch.  He barely managed to swing his legs over the opening before the vehicle jolted and began moving.

“Just got a call from the Naval base on Oahu,” the Colonel said as soon as Schroeder was safely inside.  “They’ve got a half a dozen shuttles on the way.  Should be here in about five minutes.”

“That’s the first good news I’ve had all day, Colonel,” Schroeder smiled.  “I assume the landing platform will be clear.”

Short nodded.  “I’ve got an infantry platoon deployed at the only entrance to the governmental building.  Elephants are backing it up and antitank teams are stationed in several surrounding buildings.”

“Triangulated fire,” the General asked, “And a good old fashioned kill zone?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Good work, Colonel.”

The Elephant pulled up inside the final defensive line.  Schroeder slapped the release button on the rear hatch and stepped out on to the street.  Colonel Short followed, carrying a pair of MK assault rifles.

“You might want some extra firepower, Sir,” Short said, handing the General one of the rifles.  “I’m guessing you’ll need it.”

Schroeder took the offered weapon.  “Thank you, Colonel,” he said, turning away to scan the avenue.  “Where are the fire teams?”

“Second floor of the building across the street,” Short pointed at a row of blank windows, “Parking garage down block…and,” he turned around, “I put a heavy weapons squad on the third floor of the government building.”  The Colonel turned back to Schroeder, his expression apologetic, almost sheepish.  “That’s the best I could do, General.”

Schroeder slowly scanned the hasty line of troops.  Less than two dozen men, backed by two infantry carriers and three concealed fire teams, all to hold back an entire mechanized battalion.  “All we need to do is buy time for the flyboys to get here and evacuate the government officials, Colonel,” he turned back to his second.  “They are the planet’s last hope, and they must be protected. Nothing else matters now.”

“The troops will do their -” Short’s response was cut off by a shell impacting on the capitol building behind them.

A pair of Strikers bearing the emblem of the 4th Mechanized were now moving down the wide boulevard and had Schroeder’s men in their sights.  Behind them marched a column of soldiers, approximately a company strong.

“Hold your fire, men,” Schroeder yelled, knowing the young soldiers under his command would want to start shooting too early.  “Wait until you have a good target, then take it down.”

A powerful, hot wind nearly knocked him off his feet as the Elephant directly behind him fired off an anti-tank missile.  It streaked down range, homing in on the tank to the right.

The Striker heavy main battle tank was, almost without a doubt, the finest armored ground combat vehicle ever built during Mankind’s quest to wipe itself from the face of the Earth.  Originally designed in 2056 off of the American M1A4/British Challenger III chassis, the Striker’s purpose was to replace all of the main battle tanks in the world, thereby unifying all militaries into a single equipment standard and helping ease the tension between armies that was then still very real and threatening to tear the United Commonwealth apart at the seams.

It was a smashing success.  In a field test against the dominant tanks of the world, the M1A4, Challenger III, the Chinese S16 and the Australian MA-2 the Striker won convincingly, defeating all four tanks in single combat so one-sided that there was no question as to which vehicle was superior.  Generals the world over requested the Striker, ushering in a new era of unity and cooperation between different militaries.  By the time the Rhino Infantry Carrier, precursor to the Elephant, was introduced the following decade, the process of military integration was irreversible.

Over the following three centuries the Striker was updated three times, with a fourth scheduled to come off the line in a month, just in time for the three hundredth anniversary of the original.

The current update, or the Striker 4, as it was commonly known, introduced the one and only weakness the design had ever known, a fatal flaw that was never recognized due to the lack of actual combat experience.  Unfortunately for the crew of one of the 4th Mechanized Battalion’s Strikers, that flaw would not go undiscovered any longer.

Redesign number three upgraded the turret rotor, the mechanism which spins the turret, forcing the designers to use a new type of armor alloy in order to give the same amount of protection to the newer, larger part.  The new alloy tested to all specifications, and appeared to be the quality required.  But in reality it was far too brittle.

Compounding this problem was the fact that the Striker’s turret size had decreased over the years, from the original which was nearly the size of the tank’s main body itself, creating a large overhang of armor and a very small gap, making it nearly impossible for enemy fire to reach the fragile turret ring, to the current design, with a turret just over half that size and a design which left large gaps in the armor overhang.

The missile fired from Colonel Short’s Elephant found one of those gaps and made direct contact with the brittle armor over the turret rotor.  The High Explosive, Anti-Tank, or HEAT, projectile punctured outer shell of the tank, exploding inside, right next to the tank commander’s station.  She was vaporized instantly.  Bits of white-hot metal shrapnel, both from the missile and the commander’s station scythed through the delicate instruments inside the turret, knocking out the targeting systems and the loading mechanism.  They also touched off the round in the feeder, creating a chain reaction that went back into the magazine itself, destroying the rest of the tank’s ammunition in a massive fireball that engulfed the entire tank.

The armor around the turret ring had collapsed inward as soon as its structural integrity was broken, weakening the turret’s connection to the rest of the tank.  That connection was then completely broken as the exploding magazine, located underneath the main turret in the rotator sleeve, turned into a rocket booster, propelling the turret straight up and free of the turret body.

Such a flight was destined to be very short, and this one was no different.  The turret cut a short arch through the air and landed roughly twenty meters behind the now obliterated tank body, directly in the middle of the second infantry platoon of the third company of the 4th Mechanized Battalion.  Five soldiers died instantly, three crushed by the weight of the turret and two in the explosion of shrapnel that followed.  Twenty-three more were injured, fifteen severely enough that they would have to be rushed to a hospital in order to have a chance at survival.

Still, the 4th Mechanized pressed forward.  Emerging from the fog of smoke created by the destruction of its companion, the other Striker fired a round at Schroeder’s second Elephant.  The HEAT round easily pierced the Elephant’s side, exploding in the infantry compartment and expanding through the open door to the driver’s station, killing him and ruining the drive controls.  The gunner survived, however, protected by his position in the vehicle relative to the location of the tank round’s entry.  Coaxing the last bit of power out of the vehicle’s dying systems, he fired a missile back at the tank before popping the hatch and bailing out.

This missile hit the Striker directly on the front armor, a nearly impervious protective slab, and exploded harmlessly, doing nothing more than creating a slight dent and scorching some paint.  Continuing inexorably forward, the Striker aimed at Short’s Elephant.

As the massive tank moved forward it drew even with a parking garage down the street from the small line of loyal troops and a hidden threat.  The gunner for the Adolphus Heavy Recoilless Anti-Armor Rifle Short had placed in that concealed firing position had watched the destruction of the first tank and believed he knew exactly where to place his shot.  He fired a sabot round at the gap where the armor was too weak to stop the shot.

A sabot round carried no explosive warhead.  It was simply a solid steel tube with a sharp point at one end and a rocket motor and stabilizing fins at the other.  It was designed to puncture armor and then destroy by kinetic force, rattling around inside an enclosed turret, passing through computers and flesh as it went.

This sabot round did not do that.  It pierced the turret ring armor and continued straight through the floor into the reserve magazine underneath, trailing sparks the entire way.  Three rounds cooked off as the sabot passed, destroying the rest of the magazine in the process.

The small, fast moving sabot round did not shatter the brittle armor plating as the larger, slower missile had in the first tank, so this time the turret stayed on.  Momentarily contained, the fireball from the magazine spread to every corner of the tank, killing the entire crew in seconds before finally blowing all of the hatches open and escaping to vent the last of its energy.

Shocked by the sudden loss of both Strikers, the infantry company began to withdraw.  The recoilless rifle gunner added to their misery by firing a High Explosive, Anti Personnel round into their midst, taking a few more soldiers out of the fight.

Schroeder pulled out a small Vision Enhancement Device and held it up to his eyes.  The VED served the same purpose as a pair of binoculars, but did so with a piece of equipment no larger than a wallet.  It also had a laser range finder and infrared capabilities, making it a favorite of field commanders.  The VED now revealed to Schroeder a line of Elephants, escorted by a new pair of Strikers, moving up to renew the new attack on his line.  He checked his watch.  The last attack had taken less than five minutes and the shuttles had not yet arrived.  He would have to hold the line, again, against even higher odds.  Calculating the amount of time it would take to load the government officials on to the shuttles, he decided the line would have to hold for a minimum of ten minutes.

One of the Strikers fired.  The round streaked over Schroeder’s line and hit the capitol building, shaking the ground.

Ten minutes began to look like an eternity.

The enemy infantry reformed, emboldened by the new line of armor.  They again advanced, harassed by fire from the rapid fire 30mm cannon mounted on the top of Short’s Elephant and a steady barrage of HEAP rounds from the Adolphus in the parking garage.  Still, the 4th Mechanized Battalion swept forward.

They soon drew even with the heavy machine gun nest hidden concealed on the second floor of the office building a block in front of Short’s line.  Surprised by this new threat, the troops again fell back, leaving a pair of wounded comrades on the ground.

One of the Strikers swung out of the line of infantry carriers and picked up speed, training its main gun on the parking garage.  It fired, scoring a direct hit on the second level.  From his vantage point, Schroeder could not tell if the gun or its crew had survived.  He doubted they could have and mentally recalculated the odds of completing his mission without the Adolphus.  They weren’t good.

A shadow swept over his position, then another, followed by a third.  The Navy shuttles had arrived.  The General looked up, shielding his eyes from the late morning sun.  Six aircraft now circled the Capitol building.  As he watched, one pulled out of formation, moving in toward the roof and disappearing from view.

“Just ten more minutes,” he muttered.  “We only need ten more minutes.”

Out on the boulevard the Striker opened fire the heavy machine gun nest, destroying it and taking out a large chunk of the facade of the office building in the process.  It then inexplicably stopped and let the infantry again take point.
That was small consolation, as Schroeder’s small force was still outnumbered by a margin of three- or four-to-one.  The enemy infantry advanced rapidly, reaching accurate small-arms range and opening fire far more quickly than he had calculated.  His line returned fire.  Shooting from behind cover and remaining stationary, they made much more accurate shots, taking down several of the charging troops almost immediately.

Still, they advanced.  The fight soon moved down to near point-blank range.  Punishing fire from Shroeder’s loyalists and the Elephants finally slowed, then stopped the charge just before the lead soldiers could get inside the line.

The Striker again opened fire, sweeping over the defenders with a long burst from its machine guns.  It then brought its main gun to bear on Short’s Elephant and fired a HEAT round at the carrier’s thin side armor.

It barely missed the General as it passed.  Schroeder dove for cover, hitting the ground as the Elephant exploded, slamming his face into the concrete road surface.  He rose, face covered in blood from a large gash on his forehead and a broken nose, in time to see the 4th Mechanized charge again.

This time they hit the line at a run.  The defenders rose to meet them and the fighting quickly degenerated into a bloody hand-to-hand melee.

Colonel Short ran up to his Commanding Officer and said something which Schroeder could not hear over the sounds of battle and the ringing in his ears.

“What?”

“I said,” the Colonel shouted directly in his ear, “That we need to get you on one of those shuttles and out of here.”

“I’m not moving, Colonel.  I will not run from this fight.”

“But Earth Command needs you alive.”

“I don’t have time to get to a shuttle, anyway.  And bringing one down here would be suicide for the pilot.”

As if seeking to confirm the General’s position, Short’s radio crackled to life.  “Last shuttle is landing now,” a voice informed the officers.  “We’ll be out shortly.”

“Good luck and Godspeed,” the Colonel responded.

“Thank you, Sir.”

The two officers turned back to the fight and brandished their rifles, looking for good targets.  Once again the enemy was withdrawing, but this time for good.  The Striker had reversed and was now training its main gun down range.  It fired on a target Schroeder could not see or explain.

Short’s radio again came to life.  “This is Major Willis Stevens of the 5th Armored, calling for General Schroeder,” a new voice said.  “Please respond.”

Schroeder grabbed the Colonel’s microphone.  “I’m here, Major, go ahead.”

“We heard you needed some help cleaning up the streets of the capitol, Sir.”

“Sounds about right, Major,” the General responded, smiling as wide as his injuries would allow without searing pain.

“We came as fast as we could, Sir.”

“Well, you’re just in time.”

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