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Stark's Crusade - Excerpt

by John G. Hemry

Stark's Crusade cover"Why should I care what a mutinous mob has to say? Why should I care what you have to say?"

Sergeant Ethan Stark, acting commander of the rebellious American military forces on the Moon, held his temper with an effort.

"General, you command the enemy forces occupying part of the lunar surface outside our perimeter. I command the units defending the American Colony. We're not a mob. I am attempting to..."

"If you wish to surrender, I would entertain the possibility."

"We won't surrender. Not to you. Not to anybody. You've agreed to let the part of the Moon's surface under your direct control be used as a staging area for supplies and ammunition to be used against us. We can't permit that."

"You threaten me? You actually dare to threaten me?"

"I'm just telling you we won't allow preparations for an attack against us to proceed without taking action."

Stark's latest words seemed to amuse the enemy General. "I see. So you are just offering friendly advice? Why should I pay more attention to you than to the representatives of the U.S. government? They are paying us handsomely for the use of our facilities. What can you offer in exchange for my turning down such an opportunity?"

"I'm not offering you anything."

"Nothing? You bargain poorly. Perhaps you are, what is the American expression, out of your league?"

"My soldiers are the best combatants on the lunar surface. We're a helluva lot better at playing the game up here than your forces are, General, and we've proved that more than once." The smile vanished from his opponent's face. "Stirring up a hornet's nest isn't in your best interests. You'd be wise to listen to what I'm telling you."

"Listen to you. Or you will do…what? You think I am interested in your 'advice'? Advice from a mob with no offensive capability?"

"I repeat; we're not a mob. Maybe we're not taking orders from authorities on Earth right now, but we're still a fully functioning military organization, we're still dedicated to defending the American citizens in the Colony here, and I assure you that we have the ability to launch attacks anywhere, at any time, in support of that mission."

"Of course you can. Attack our defenses, your fighting spirit against our entrenched weapons and soldiers. Just as your friends did. What was it called? The Third Division? Before we ground them into the dust? Have you managed to recover all of their bodies yet?" Stark's vision hazed red with anger as the enemy commander mocked the deaths of thousands. Third Division had been effectively destroyed during the ill-planned and poorly-led offensive which had triggered the mutiny by Stark and the other non-commissioned officers on the Moon. The disaster had been the final straw after decades of poor leadership on Earth and years of seemingly endless war on the lunar surface, the final straw for soldiers who believed they could no longer trust in anyone but themselves. I risked everything to try to save some of the apes in Third Division, and I'm not gonna listen to some smug, pompous ass make fun of their sacrifice.

Stark raised one hand, as if pointing a weapon, then plunged it down to break the communications circuit. The enemy General's image vanished, leaving Stark's command center momentarily silent.

Sergeant Vic Reynolds, Stark's friend and Chief of Staff, kept her eyes on the screen for a moment after it went dark, then glanced over at Stark. "Let's kick his teeth in."

"Yeah. Let's do that."

. . .
Shapes moved against the endless night of space. Blunt objects carrying people and cargo, the convoy of shuttles hung in a ragged formation while a pair of escorting warships herded them toward the lunar landing field awaiting their arrival. There were wolves among the stars, hiding in the dark in wait for fat, easy targets like the supply shuttles.

Alarms sounded as sensor arrays on the warships tracked objects rising from the Moon's surface toward the convoy. The armed shuttles of Stark's tiny Navy lunged at the convoy, even as the warship escorts moved to intercept the threat. New stars winked into life against the blackness, as fire and counter-fire blazed between the combatants.

Around Stark, the watchstanders in the command center in the American headquarters complex on the lunar surface worked quietly and efficiently, organizing and feeding information to the huge displays dominating the room. Colored symbols crawled across those displays like geometric insects; red for enemy, blue for friendly. Threat symbology representing weapons darted around the larger shapes which marked warships and shuttles, the spacecraft seeming slow and cumbersome compared to the flight of their weapons. Stark had to remind himself that those spacecraft could move at speeds measured in miles per second, a concept almost too alien for a ground soldier to grasp.

"Commander Stark?" One of the watchstanders highlighted text scrolling in one corner of the big headquarters display. "We're picking up communications from the warships on the common merchant frequency."

Stark squinted to read the words. "Charlie Foxtrot Bravo Two? What's that mean?"

"It's from the Convoy Tactical Signals Code, sir. I guess they haven't changed it. The signal means 'All convoy units remain in formation.' The warships have repeated the message several times."

Stark looked back at the display, where vectors for the supply shuttles continued to shoot off in various directions. "It doesn't look like the convoy is paying much attention."

"No, sir. The warships sound kinda upset."

"According the Chief Wiseman, they shouldn't have expected anything else. It's exactly what she told us would happen."

Weapons burst, creating expanding clusters of heat and debris, while the dueling warships tossed out countermeasures designed to fool radar, infrared and any other means of targeting them. Stark's search systems lost contact with the fleeing supply shuttles, their vectors fading into estimated tracks as a sector of the forever-night over the Moon grew temporarily opaque to ground-based sensors.

Despite their overwhelming advantage in firepower, the escorting warships hung back, forming a defensive shield for the now-scattered convoy, content to hurl volleys whenever one of Stark's armed shuttles swung toward them.

"Chief Wiseman," Stark called his fleet commander. In response to his communication, a window automatically opened in one corner of Stark's display, showing the face of Chief Petty Officer Wiseman on the command deck of her armed shuttle. "What're those warships doing?"

"Exactly what I expected them to do. They're protecting those supply shuttles. The warships don't know exactly where all the convoy shuttles are any more, but they're trying to stay between me and them."

"Couldn't the warships defend the convoy better by coming at your shuttles and hitting them hard? You couldn't hold your ground against that. They'd drive you away for sure."

"Hey, Commander, leave the Navy stuff to experts. That's why I'm in charge of your fleet, right? Listen close, mud crawler. Those warships aren't charging after me because of something called physics. You ever study naval tactics?"

"I saw a lot of old vids when I was a kid. You know, slave galleys and sailing ships and stuff. I wouldn't expect that to have anything to do with what you're doing."

"Wrong. We're playing by the same rules up here as those oar-powered galleys did. It's all about limited propulsion resources and momentum. These ships, even my shuttles, are big. Lots of mass. We accelerate slow relative to things like our weapons, and once we get going in one direction we can't shift to a new course by turning on a dime. Mass don't like changing direction, and unlike ships back on the World we don't even have water to turn against."

Wiseman tapped some controls, bringing up a small 3D panel in one corner of the comm screen. "See? Here's the convoy, coming out of one of the Earth orbital facilities, making a standard approach to the moon. Standard because it requires the best combination of least fuel and least time." A broad arrow extended outward from the World, curving as it intercepted the moon's own orbit. "Physics tells those shuttles they need to follow this path to get to their objective on the moon. We know physics, too, so we know the path they're gonna take."

A short red arrow arced up from the moon, aiming to intercept the shuttles. "We've got what you'd call a window up here, an area above the moon guarded by our anti-orbital defenses. We pop out that window and make a move at the convoy. The warships try to keep us from getting close enough to nail any of the convoy shuttles, but the shuttles are scattering anyway because they're a bunch of civs hired to haul loads and none of them want to get shot at. Meanwhile, everybody and their friend throws out various junk designed to keep enemies from tracking a target, like the little Doppleganger decoys that pick up emissions from other ships in the area and mimic them. It'll all disperse or deactivate eventually, but for now we've confused the traffic control situation up here something awful. Anybody monitoring this location will be seeing some stuff that ain't there, and not be able to see some stuff that is there."

Stark confirmed Wiseman's statement by checking the confused tangle of symbols on the headquarters display, then studied the 3D panel again. "Great. But that still doesn't explain why those warships don't just charge at you. You'd have to run, then."

Wiseman grinned. "There's more than one direction to run. We could accelerate straight past them. Risky, but getting hits on us during a high-speed pass would be real hard. So, sure, those warships could come after us, but if even one of my shuttles gets past them those warships will have the devil's own time turning and accelerating back in the other direction to try to catch it. We'd be in among the convoy's supply shuttles for sure before the warships got back."

Vic Reynolds, standing near Stark, nodded. "So you're saying the warships have some probability of winning, but prefer the certainty of not losing."

"Well, that's their job, ain't it? Killing my shuttles would be fun, but those warships ain't on a hunter-killer sweep. So they're just gonna hold me off and make sure I don't get to the supply shuttles they're charged with protecting. In the process of doing that, though, they've lost track of those supply shuttles in the mess of combat and countermeasures we're generating up here."

"Just like you said they would." During the planning for the operation, Wiseman had been confident. You want to raid the enemy? Fine. You can't shoot your way in. The only way through their defenses is by confusing 'em and foolin' 'em. Give me an incoming convoy and I'll screw the situation around so bad the enemy won't know which end is up. "So you think this diversion is working?"

"We're gonna find out for sure any time now. One thing's for certain, we've generated so much 'noise' up here that anything being quiet is gonna be a lot harder to spot until it clears this area. Keep your fingers crossed."

Out of the confused tangle of dueling counter-measures and battle debris, four supply shuttles fell toward the lunar surface, broadcasting urgent pleas for sanctuary on the enemy landing field nearest their trajectories. One of Wiseman's armed shuttles made an abortive lunge in their direction, quickly shying off as enemy surface defenses locked on and prepared to engage once the armed shuttle came within range. The supply shuttles dropped swiftly, tracked by surface defenses which remained silent as the unarmed supply craft braked hard to make emergency landings on the field.

Lunar dust drifted in fine, slowly falling clouds across the spaceport. Landing fields were regularly swept for dust, but the fine particles always reappeared, drifting down from space or dislodged by the actions of humans nearby. Against the solid black shadows and glaring white of sunlight on the lunar surface, the gray shades of dust hung like a thin, pallid fog.

Now, as always, it hindered the vision of the multispectrum sensors trying to identify the supply shuttles. "Unidentified shuttles," someone called. "Provide your ship identification codes and landing field authorization."

"What?" The supply shuttle pilot responding had a ragged, frightened edge to his voice, speaking too rapidly as he continued. "Didn't copy. Say again. Who is this?"

"This is the landing field controller. I need your ship identification codes. Provide them immediately. Where was your scheduled landing destination?"

"Uh, uh…I think, uh, right here. Yeah. This field. We were supposed to land here."

"Negative, shuttle. We have no deliveries scheduled today. Identify yourself and your authorized destination immediately."

"Right here, I tell you! Hey, we almost got blown to pieces and just barely made it down and you're giving us a hard time! Give us a break! Just let us off-load our cargo so we can get the hell out of this war zone and back to near-Earth orbit where it's safe!"

"Shuttle, do not off-load cargo onto this field without authorization. We have no heavy transport available to receive your loads."

"Don't need it, pal. Our cargo can move on its own. Beginning off-load now." Moments later, cargo bays gapped open on the shuttles and began disgorging armored figures.

"What's going on? Who are those people?"

"Our cargo, buddy! Like I told you."

"We have no…are those soldiers? Are you off-loading soldiers?"

"Yeah. That's our cargo. Deliver here. That's what my flight plan says." As the pilot and landing field controller debated, the soldiers swiftly formed into parade ranks and started marching across the field, their formations appearing almost tiny against the dead, gray expanse of the landing field. Almost unnoticed behind them, four huge black shapes began being disgorged by the shuttles.

"I don't have any delivery notification for soldiers! Get them back on those shuttles!"

"Uh uh. No way. I almost got killed delivering them and you want me to take them back? Look, my orders say to drop these military goons off for, uh, security duties here. You got something special worth guarding?"

"We have a considerable quantity of supplies the Americans are staging here for their offensive against their rebellious colony. But no one notified us they were sending…what is that?" The first of the black shapes swung majestically out from beneath the shuttle which had delivered it. Non-reflective surfaces only hinted at the massive armored shape as it surged forward across the field in the wake of the soldiers. "Is that a tank?"

"Uh, yeah, that's what the delivery order says."

Send some of my armor along, Sergeant Lamont had urged.

That's crazy, Sergeant Reynolds had rebutted him. You don't send heavy armor on raids.

Yeah. Everybody knows that. So nobody'll expect it, right? How much anti-armor weaponry is on ready-alert in a rear area? Most likely none. And if you're dropping big cargo shuttles on the field they can each carry one of my hogs in their heavy lift slings. Total surprise. Bet ya I can raise a lot of hell before anybody can react.

It might work, Stark admitted. But you're still crazy.

Nah. I'm a tanker.

"Stop them! Stop the tanks and the soldiers. Everybody cease movement. I need to clear this."

"Hey." Sergeant Lamont, in the lead tank, joined the conversation. "I can't leave my gear just sitting out in the open." Stark, tracking the vehicle's progress through the command and control link, shifted his perspective to view the world through the tank commander's display, watching as the armored vehicle's sensors automatically located and tagged defenses and communications points around the landing field. Though Stark had never been inside a tank, he'd viewed the outside world many times from the inside of an Armored Personnel Carrier, and the smooth scrolling past of the barren landscape was just like that from an outside viewer on an APC. "My orders say to deploy my tanks around this field," Lamont continued.

"I've never seen such orders!"

"Well, then, you oughta check with the landing field controller."

"This is the landing field controller!"

"Then you must have a copy of our orders."

"There are no such orders on file. Who issued them?"

"They came from your boss."

"My -?" The controller hesitated as Lamont's tanks and the infantry moved closer to the edges of the landing field. "What's the Landing Authority Authorization Order Code?"

"The Landing Authority Authorization Order Code?"

"Yes. The LAAOC."

"Uh, lemme see. Where is that?"

"In the order header! If you military people don't stop moving immediately I'll…I'll tell our security forces to stop you!"

"Hey, hey, calm down."

Stark looked over at Reynolds, who was smiling in admiration despite the tension in her eyes. "Lamont can stall like nobody's business," Stark noted. "But he's pushing it, Vic. We need to shoot first or that infantry might get chewed up by the landing field defenses."

"You're right, especially with our troops marching in close order so nobody'll think they're attacking until it's too late. Do we tell Lamont to open fire?"

"I don't want to do that, Vic. The guy on the scene should have the discretion to decide. That's what we always said should happen, right?"

"It's hard to argue with that. We all got micro-managed too many times by people sitting a hundred klicks from the front. It's awfully tempting to try to run everything from here." She waved one hand around the headquarters command center, filled with displays and communications terminals from which officers had once tried to do just that. "This gear makes it real easy to think you're right there on the scene."

"Yeah. Only you're not, so you don't really know what's going down like the people who are there. We don't want to give dumb orders which kill people and loose battles. Which is what the officers we replaced used to do. But Lamont's too cocky. He's having too much fun playing with that enemy controller."

"I agree. He's too caught up in the deception game. Someone watching the bigger picture has to reign him in, Ethan."

"Okay. I get it. That someone would be me, right? I guess that's the right job for someone back here. Lamont, this is Stark."

"Hey, boss. We're doing great."

"Lamont, stop trying to string this guy. Open fire as soon as you're ready."

"You mean like now?"

"I mean like real soon. It's still your call. But don't let him get off the first shot or I'll rip your head off when you get back here."

"Uh, roger that. Stand by for fireworks."

After several more verbal exchanges with Lamont the increasingly frustrated and angry controller had apparently reached the end of his rope. "Stop all movement or I will activate our security forces!"

"Hold on. Did you say you needed our LAAOC?"

"Yes, you idiot!"

"Well, I got your LAAOC right here, pal." On Stark's display, he watched threat symbology detach itself from the tank as its main cannon swung and fired in one motion. An instant of shocked silence reigned, then the shell impacted on the main surface communications relay, hurling fragments of rock and metal in all directions. Lamont's other tanks opened fire, raking the landing field defenses even as those defenders frantically tried to bring to bear weapons designed to engage overhead targets, not forces deployed on the field itself.

The neat infantry formations dissolved, armored soldiers scattering into combat dispersal and engaging targets with deliberate skill. Stark switched displays to the camera mounted in an individual soldier's helmet, watching through the eyes of a squad leader as she led her troops into a defensive fortification. Symbology on the battle armor Heads-Up Displays painted lightning-quick detections of armored foes, HUD targeting systems highlighting kill-points as the squad swept forward, pausing only to fire their rifles as they picked off each target. Wish I was doing that, instead of sitting here. Wish the other non-comms had chosen someone else to lead them so I could still be a squad leader. But I got another job to do now.

The squad Stark was directly observing overran the fortification, the remnants of the enemy weapon's crew hastily surrendering. On the Squad Leader's HUD, points for attaching demolition charges were now illuminated on the heavy surface defenses. The squad broke into fire-teams, some guarding the prisoners while others placed the demolitions to ensure the weapons' destruction. All happening perfect without me calling the shots. This is the way it ought to be. I know from lots of experience that the best thing leaders can usually do is keep their mouths shut and let their people do their jobs. As long as they ain't screwing up, anyway. But man, it's frustrating.

Something was missing, something that nagged at Stark, so that he automatically glanced toward one corner of the Squad Leader's HUD, looking for something that wasn't there. The timeline. It had become so routine, a readout linked to the operational plan which informed every individual soldier the second they began to fall behind the rigid schedules devised by planners who had usually never seen the battlefield. A happy green when the soldier was on timeline, most soldiers were used to seeing it in increasingly accusing shades of yellow, orange and red. Being off timeline was a major distraction for a combat soldier, so Stark and his improvised staff had decided to see what would happen without one. So far, the world hadn't come to an end.

"I read all primary defenses eliminated," Lamont reported. "Whatdayya think, Milheim?"

Sergeant Milheim, commanding the ground soldiers from Fourth Battalion on the landing field, took a moment to respond. "Yeah. We're not taking any fire, anyway."

"Well, then, let's start blowing things up!"

"Concur. Fourth Battalion, plant your charges on the targets specified in your Tacs. Keep an eye out for hostile visitors while you're at it." The soldiers of Fourth Battalion scattered even more, heading for locations where their Tactical Computer Systems indicated communications, weapons, and supply equipment should be.

Stark pulled his view back again, scanning the display for indications of an enemy response. Every soldier's suit, every tank, every shuttle contained sensors, and the inputs from those sources were all fed to places like this to be fused together into a single picture. Blue symbols marking Stark's troops swarmed over the field like ants at a picnic. Several small clusters of red enemy symbology sat motionless, tagged with extra symbols indicating their status as prisoners. At a few sites along the edge of the field, green symbols indicated probable civilian employees of the landing field fleeing for their lives. Stark shook his head. "I don't see nothing."

Reynolds studied the display. "And that bothers you." It was a statement rather than a question.

"Damn right. There oughta be something else in place defending that field. Lamont! Milheim!"

"Yo."

"Roger."

"Listen up. There's something else out there. Keep your guard up."

"I don't see anything," Milheim offered.

"Neither do I. So where would a quick reaction defensive force be that we wouldn't see it?"

"Cargo warehouses," Lamont announced. "Nice, warm and hidden until they're needed. You think?"

Vic Reynolds nodded and keyed her own response. "I think so. You're right. They'd be under cover and protected from immediate detection and attack."

"Sure they would. I'll swing a couple of my hogs that way. Milheim, I'd appreciate some of your boys and girls coming along."

"Roger," Milheim acknowledged. "I'm sending the two nearest platoons to link up with your armor."

Stark leaned back, nodding in approval as he watched the commands fly across the tactical display and units on the landing field begin the move in response. He hesitated, then glanced at Reynolds. "So did I just do something stupid? Get all nervous and jerk around the troops on the field for nothing?"

"No. Ethan, you may or may not be right about a reaction force being hidden there, but it makes sense. And thinking about that is exactly what you should be doing from back here. You know what it's like in combat. Too much going on too fast. I think the troops out there appreciate your thinking about things they don't have time to focus on."

"Maybe -" Stark began, whatever else he might have said choked off as alarms pulsed on the display.

Two armored cars shot onto the landing field, erupting from a depression near the known warehouse locations, spitting light-caliber shells as they came. Behind the armored cars, a couple of platoons of infantry came dashing out, firing rapidly. Instead of surprising a widely dispersed force, though, they ran head-on into the scratch force Lamont and Milheim had just assembled.

The light rounds from one of the armored cars glanced uselessly off the carapace of one of Lamont's tanks, which swung its turret and spat a single round at the attacking vehicle. The heavy shell decapitated the armored car, striking just beneath its weapon mount and blowing the entire top of the vehicle into a long, high parabola extended by the low lunar gravity.

The first armored car's gun mount was still tumbling in languid flight against the bright stars above when the nearest squad of Milheim's infantry targeted its companion. At close range, the infantry weapons punched through the light armor of the enemy vehicle, riddling it with penetrations. The armored car staggered under the barrage, then ceased firing, its gun mount locked in place, before grounding and sliding to a prolonged halt, atmosphere venting from a dozen holes. A single surviving crew-member spilled out, arms upraised in surrender.

The surprised enemy ground troops targeted Lamont's tanks. Not a great choice, Stark thought, but the only chance they've got is to take out that armor fast. Not that they'll be able to do that with Milheim's infantry hitting them. A single enemy anti-armor round detonated just short of its target as the tank's point defenses scored a just-in-time hit. Then the enemy anti-armor teams started dropping as Milheim's soldiers hit them with a blizzard of fire. Belatedly, the enemy infantry tried to shift targets to hit the other ground fighters, but then the tanks began flaying them with their own secondary armament. A brief scattering of fire from the enemy forces tapered off into nothing, then the enemy began broadcasting surrender messages as individual soldiers stood, dropping their weapons and raising their hands.

"Commander Stark, we got a problem," Milheim reported.

"What's that?"

"I got a coupla platoons of enemy soldiers surrendering here."

"So what's the problem?"

"Do we want 'em?"

"Hell, no." The cargo shuttles had been fully loaded, and wouldn't need any extra bodies weighing them down on the way back.

"I didn't think so. What do I do with 'em?"

Stark glanced at Vic, who triggered her own circuit. "Milheim, this is Reynolds. Tell the enemy to leave their weapons and run. Anybody who's slow in doing either gets shot."

"Roger. Oh, man."

"Now what?"

"Got word from one of my squads. There's some American techs here. Private contractors, I think. Do we bring 'em back?"

"Link me to that squad." Stark switched controls swiftly, bringing up vid of the view from another soldier's battle armor. Visible before him were two figures in surface suits, armored only enough to protect them from the lunar environment. Some sort of corporate logo made bright splashes on the left breasts of their suits, looking weirdly out-of-place against the black-white-and-gray of the lunar surface. "They look like civs," he remarked to Reynolds. "What do you think? They might know some stuff we could use."

"They might. But, Ethan, there's a chance we'll lose a shuttle on the way back. We don't want these guys to be on that shuttle, because if they are we get blamed for causing the deaths of other Americans. American civs, no less. So far, our hands are clean. Let's keep it that way."

"Yeah. Good call, Vic. Milheim? Let 'em go. And tell 'em to run like hell. I don't want them around when we blow away everything on that field."

"You're the boss."

"Hey!" another soldier called over the command circuit. "This is Corporal Yuin. I'm at that big pile of junk to lunar southeast of the landing field. Everybody stop throwing bullets this way!"

Stark tagged Yuin's symbol. "What's the problem, Corporal?"

"The problem is this junk ain't beans and blankets! Sir. It's ordnance. Live ammo. Tons of it. And it ain't covered by anything but some sort of metallic tarp."

"It's on the surface? Almost unprotected? Geez. Thanks, Corporal." Stark pulled back, glaring around the command center. "Have I got a combat engineer in here anywhere?"

Sergeant Tran, responsible for running the command center since the death of his predecessor, Sergeant Tanaka, pivoted and pointed to where one watchstander was raising her hand. Solid and squarish in her build, she almost resembled a bulldozer herself. "Right here, sir."

"We got a big pile of munitions on the surface. You heard that?"

"Yessir."

"Is that as stupid as I think it is? Won't the stuff blow if one those micro-meteorites hits the pile?"

"Not likely, sir. The explosives they use these days are really stable. They'll only blow if the detonator goes off. So maybe if the little rock hit a detonator dead on, maybe then something would blow. That reinforced tarp they're using would stop the small stuff, or at least slow it enough to reduce the chance of an explosion. I wouldn't do it, but you could get away with storing stuff on the surface for a while like that if you didn't have enough covered storage on hand."

Vic leaned forward. "How do we blow it if the explosives are stable?"

"Oh, that's easy. Just plant the explosive charges. They'll make the right kid of bang to set off the detonators and then everything else." The combat engineer paused. "I wouldn't want to be anywhere near that spot when the charges go off. That's gonna be a helluva blast."

"I bet," Stark acknowledged. "Thanks, Corporal. Milheim, tell your people to plant their charges anywhere on that pile and get the hell out of there. Lamont!"

"Yo." The tanker sounded like he was having the time of his life.

"We got munitions lying around in the area I'm highlighting. Got it? Anything big might set them off, so make sure your people don't throw any heavy stuff in there. We don't need anybody blowing the place halfway back to Earth before we leave."

"That stuff's all ammo? Roger. I got an interdict for that area on all my tanks' fire control systems now. If anybody tries to over-ride it, I'll fire them out of my main cannon."

Stark looked over at Reynolds. "They left tons of ammo just lying on the surface? Are they nuts?"

"More likely they filled the local magazines with other munitions and haven't found a place for this stuff, yet, like the Corporal said."

"So what if a big rock fell on it?"

"I assume they were planning on hitting any big rocks with the landing field defenses. That would deflect them, anyway."

"Yeah, right. Probably onto the heads of some poor foot soldiers. Where the hell have our former bosses been keeping all this ordnance? We always ran into shortages before." Before, when they'd been obeying their officers' orders through the apparently endless lunar war. Before they'd mutinied and cut themselves off from a system which never seemed to have enough money for bullets or spare parts, but could always afford to send them somewhere where they needed every bullet and part they could get and then some.

Vic shrugged. "Some of it's probably from the strategic reserve stockpiles. It's been long enough since we mutinied for the powers-that-be to have ramped up ammunition production, though."

"I guess. But they always claimed they couldn't afford lots of ammo. So how're those powers-that-be paying for the stuff?"

"Ethan? What's the rule about questions?"

Stark smiled despite his tension. "'Never ask a question you don't wanna know the answer to,'" he quoted. "You'd think I was a new recruit." He focused back on the battle scene. "Okay. See anything else to worry about?"

She shook her head. "You've been doing a good job of spotting problems so far."

"Uh huh. But you're still a better tactical thinker than me." Stark nodded at the display and the scattered symbology on it. "What do you think?"

"I think that if we get hit right now we'd be toast. Our forces are too spread out."

"They gotta be spread out to reach all the targets we want to destroy."

"I know, but -. Ethan." Vic pointed a single finger toward her display, the digit jumping across several threat readings. "We're starting to take more fire from the warehouse area. Aimed fire."

"Aimed." Somebody who wasn't panicking, somebody who was keeping under cover. "Some more of that reaction force?"

"No. Reinforcements."

"How can you be sure of that? If we bug out early we might not destroy every target we want to nail."

Reynolds eyed him narrowly, her finger stabbing at the display once more. "The way that reaction force came out you could tell they were risking everything on a quick hit. And nobody provided covering fire for them when we hit back. These are new. And there could be a company, or a battalion, right behind these guys. Those ridges over that way screen the approach from our sensors so we can't view this area to be sure."

"We knew that. But -."

"But nothing, Ethan. If you were going to hit our forces on that field, how would plan your approach?"

Stark stared at the display, his face growing grim. "Yeah. Behind the screening terrain. Lamont's tanks and that company of infantry are still there. Could they handle anything that comes for a few minutes?"

"Hell, Ethan, you know as well as I do that it'd depend on what comes! If a bunch of armor and mech infantry comes over that ridge behind an artillery barrage…"

"Okay. You're right." Stark blinked, then took another look at his display, deliberately pulling back the scale so he could see beyond the landing field. I'm getting too caught up in this. Lots of fun, breaking stuff and watching the enemy run. "Thanks, Vic. Milheim, Lamont, it's getting hot out there."

"Roger," Milheim agreed. " I don't like what's going down by those warehouses. We've achieved most of our objectives. I suggest we get the hell out of Dodge."

"There's still time to hit the remaining objectives," Lamont argued. "We can handle things for a few more minutes."

Stark hesitated, weighing what he saw, what he felt, with what his commanders on the scene were saying. My guts tell me what the right answer is. Maybe I'm just over-cautious, but… "No. The remaining objectives aren't worth the risk. Get your people back to the shuttles. It's time to leave."

"My tanks can finish the job then bring up the rear -," Lamont began.

"Negative. Begin withdrawal now. Expedite." Stark started to call out more detailed instructions, then caught himself. I told 'em what to do. Now, just watch. Tell 'em if there's a problem.

"Yessir, yessir, three bags full."

The scattered blue symbols paused in their motion as commands flew to every soldier and vehicle, then began rapidly falling back toward the shuttles. They left behind myriad symbols blinking with threat warnings, explosive charges planted on almost every piece of equipment around the landing field. As the Americans retreated the fire from the warehouse area grew in intensity, lashing at soldiers trying to hasten back to their shuttles. Heavy shells began falling around them as well, as the enemy finally shifted batteries normally aimed beyond the front to target the field to their rear. "Milheim," Vic commanded. "Put some fire down on those warehouses. Make those shooters keep their heads down. Lamont, can your tanks take out any of that incoming artillery?"

"If the firing angle's right," Lamont responded. "But I'm starting to run low on ammo."

Stark brought up the ammunition status of the tanks, grimacing as he noted how much the armor had already fired off. He briefly wondered about the chances of scrounging more ammo from the massive stockpile to one side of the landing field, and just as quickly discarded the idea. The way it always works is the stuff we wanted would be on the bottom of the pile. And I don't want my people messing around that mountain of explosives while the enemy drops shells on them. "Understand. But if you apes don't leave now all the ammo in the world won't do you any good."

"Okay, we'll keep shooting until we're jacked back into the shuttles. Hope that doesn't make them sailors nervous."

Stark grinned. Those sailors are probably already plenty nervous because of the artillery dropping around them. "Who's monitoring the shuttles?" he called to the watchstanders. "How are they?"

"Ready to boost," a Private reported. "No damage except some surface scratches from shrapnel."

Stark switched scans again restlessly. The fire from the warehouse area kept growing heavier. So far, no direct cannon fire had advertised the presence of enemy armor, but that had to be close. Blue symbology clustered around the shuttles as the ground troops returned to their transports. Stark fought down an instinctive impulse to order the soldiers to disperse, knowing a concentration of targets was impossible to avoid if Milheim's infantry wanted to board the ships rapidly. The clusters of symbology shrank quickly as the soldiers raced aboard, replaced by tick marks alongside the shuttle symbols indicating numbers onboard. Go! Go! Go! Get the hell out of there!

"Got something going on over here," Vic noted. "Shuttle Bravo, what's the hold-up?"

"Got a jam in the cargo loading hoist," the shuttle pilot reported. "Trying to clear."

"How long? How long to clear the jam?"

"Dunno. Could be five seconds, could be five minutes. Or longer. This gear is a real bitch sometimes."

Vic looked over at Stark, who shook his head wordlessly. "Shuttle Bravo, forget the armor. Get the tank crew on board with the infantry."

"Roger. Understand I leave the tank and get all personnel on board." It was hard to tell whether the pilot felt relieved or frustrated at having to dump the armored vehicle.

Sergeant Lamont's voice didn't leave any doubt, however. "Stark! You can't leave one of my hogs behind!"

"We don't have any choice," Stark answered. "We can't afford the delay." As if to emphasize his words, enemy soldiers finally began spilling onto the field, evading forward in a last-ditch attempt to disable one or more of the shuttles. "Can't you put that tank on auto or somethin' to help hold those guys off?"

"Yeah." Lamont sounded as if he'd lost a friend. "Okay, I'm putting it on an auto-defend/destruct sequence. It'll raise hell until we take off and then self-detonate its fuel, air, and ammo supplies. Sorry, man." The last words seemed addressed to the forlorn tank as it shot away from the shuttle and began throwing rounds into the advancing enemy ranks.

The last of Stark's infantry tumbled into their shuttles, firing until their weapons were blocked by closing hatches. "All tanks secured!" Moments later, the shuttles blasted upward in a ragged volley, chased by futile shots from the ground. Lamont's abandoned tank ripped off a blistering barrage, staggering as a couple of anti-tank rounds impacted in the empty crew compartment, then blew apart in a series of blasts that sent shrapnel flying across the landing field and high overhead. Stark, trying not to think about how important every piece of armor was to his forces, watched the projected paths of some of the debris as it flew upward, then snorted a brief, tense laugh. "Looks like Lamont put one of his tanks into low lunar orbit."

"A few pieces of it, anyway." Vic checked the time on her display. "They set the charges for minimum delay to make sure those enemy troops wouldn't be able to deactivate them. Any second now and we should see a lot more stuff heading for orbit."

"Those shuttles are still too damn close. Wish we coulda command-detonated the charges."

"That kind of signal is too easy to jam," Reynolds reminded him. "And fiber-optic cable doesn't unreel well from a shuttle heading off at max acceleration. Hold on."

She'd barely finished speaking when the charges left by Milheim's troops began detonating. Watching the view from a backward looking camera on one of the fleeing shuttles, Stark saw a section of lunar terrain lift skyward as the huge ammunition stockpile went off in a rapid series of blasts that quickly merged into one massive explosion. Luminosity and infra-red scales backed down in swift shifts to avoid being overwhelmed by the glare. "Holy cow," Vic breathed. "How much ammo did they have in that pile?"

"I dunno, but I'm sure glad I'm not on that landing field. I guess we could've saved the other charges. There ain't gonna be nothing left of that field but one mother of a crater."

"Maybe they ought to name that crater after you."

"Thanks. Are the shuttles clear of the blast effects and debris?"

"It's going to be close," Sergeant Tran reported. "There's too much junk flying to track every piece."

"The shuttles are still boosting out at max acceleration," the Private who had reported earlier announced. "But they're heading into threat envelopes from enemy anti-orbital systems."

"I've got enemy and American warships converging toward the shuttles' projected orbital track," another watchstander reported.

Stark took a second to rub his forehead, trying to fight down the sick feeling in his gut. Now comes the hard part. Getting away. "Where's Wiseman and her armed shuttles?"

"Moving to intercept the warships."

"Is she nuts?"

"No," Vic advised. "She's pushing the other deception, Ethan. Making the warships and the enemy think those shuttles are going to follow a sub-orbital path back here."

"Sure. Right. So when do our shuttles change -." Stark bit off the sentence as acceleration vectors on the cargo shuttles swung around. Attitude jets pushed the spacecraft tails toward the black heavens and pointed their noses back toward the dead moon below. "Okay. Standby on the artillery." He checked the armed shuttles, watching as they canted wildly as well, arcing their courses around so they were also pointed at the moon's surface. The displays updated the spacecrafts' courses continuously, the projected paths of the two groups of shuttles now pointing toward each other. Wiseman's armed shuttles were curving in from over the American enclave toward the enemy front lines as the fleeing cargo shuttles headed toward the same location from the opposite direction.

"I sure as hell hope this works," Vic whispered.

 

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