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Stark's War - Excerpt

by John G. Hemry


Stark's War coverThe assault boat shuddered and jumped, a random pattern designed to foil fire-control systems but also annoying as all hell to the soldiers seated in their Armored Personnel Carrier. Regular motion could be expected and countered, but the wild jogs of the boat's course were always unanticipated.

Sergeant Ethan Stark swore as a particularly violent jerk slammed him against the restraining harness. You never knew what waited at the end of a drop, but the drop itself always guaranteed bruises.

"Stand by for drop." The Lieutenant's voice rang through the comm circuit, piercing an otherwise oppressive silence. The dimly-lit box-like interior of an Armored Personnel Carrier was never a cheerful place to begin with, but going in for the initial assault ratcheted the tension a little higher. Stark closed his eyes, focusing inward.

"Drop!" Lieutenant Porter sang out, followed almost immediately by the ascending whine of the APC's lift units. They'd run drop simulations in lunar gravity conditions, and it was immediately obvious the real thing wasn't going right. The driver gunned the lift as the drop extended for tens of seconds too long, both of which meant problems.

Stark's eyes shot open, locking onto the Lieutenant where he sat rigid and silent with uncertainty. "Brace for impact!" Stark ordered his Squad, barely getting the words out before the APC grounded with a teeth-jarring slam that wrested a volley of curses out of the waiting soldiers. With a sideways lurch, the APC shuddered back up and into motion.

The average grunt didn't rate an outside view, but Stark wasn't average. As a squad leader, he rated his own view, which was less a compliment than a recognition that Lieutenants could die or be disabled very quickly in combat, after which Sergeants had to be available for the brass to pass orders through. Not that I'm going to let them keep me in the dark until then. Stark toggled a communications switch, bypassing security thresholds to access the officers-only command circuit. Between the official view and his strictly unofficial pirate backdoor into the command circuit, Stark now knew as much as the Lieutenant - which, as usual, granted him no peace-of-mind whatsoever.

"Where the hell are we?" the Lieutenant complained. "My Tac can't get a fix."

"We're off your Tactical map preload." The laconic voice of the APC driver seemed deliberately modulated to enrage hyped-up ground soldiers. "Here's a dump."

The Lieutenant's gear took a few seconds to download the extra maps, seconds slightly elongated by Stark covertly tapping into the download to copy the maps into his own Tac, then Porter erupted in anger. "Damn! They dropped us twenty klicks off target!"

"Yeah," the APC driver came back agreeably. "And they dropped us way too high. Didn't seem to do any damage, though. I'm making best speed toward your drop-off point."

"Twenty klicks off and too high. And God only knows where the rest of my platoon is. Would it do any good to file a complaint?"

"Does it ever? I'd tell my own commander, but it looks like they dropped her so hard her vehicle lost comms." With that minimal comfort from the APC driver, silence settled over the circuit. Stark relaxed against his harness, studying the new maps, gut tense with anticipation. Sometimes you just waited. Twenty klicks would take a few minutes, even at best speed.

"Lieutenant?" The APC driver called again, considerably earlier than he should have to announce their arrival.

"Here," Porter responded, voice surly. "What's up?"

"Going to have to ground it. The power cells are overheating. They need a rest or they'll blow."

"I thought you said the APC didn't take any damage when we grounded."

"It didn't." The driver sounded aggrieved. "It's a design flaw. The cells overheat sometimes, and the only fix is to power down and let them rest."

"How far are we from the drop-off point?" The Lieutenant seemed torn between resigning himself to a totally screwed-up day or flying off the handle.

"Four klicks. Grounding now," the driver announced anxiously, maybe worried about the Lieutenant's reaction, or maybe just about his power cells.

"That's too far. What happens if you push the cells?"

"They blow."

"Can we ride that out if it happens? We have to stick to the Tactical plan," Porter insisted, "and the plan says we ride this vehicle to our assault positions."

Stark tensed, searching for the words necessary to convince the Lieutenant to follow the APC driver's advice, but the driver did the job for him.

"I wouldn't advise it, Lieutenant. You're sitting on the power cells, and if they blow they'll vent the blast into the troop compartment before the side relief panels pop. It's not supposed to happen that way, but it does. I've seen it, and it ain't pretty."

Lieutenant Porter paused, then replied in barely controlled tones. "I suppose that's another design flaw?"

"Lieutenant, I just drive them, I don't design the damn things. Are you gonna walk, or wait an hour for the cells to cool?"

"I don't know! Why the hell don't I have comms with anyone else right now?"

"I don't know, Lieutenant," the APC driver noted desperately. "Look, you either wait here or you walk. It's up to you."

"I need orders!"

Time to get this show on the road. Stark loosened his harness slightly, leaning forward to tap the Lieutenant's armored knee while he tried to project innocent concern. "Lieutenant, we've stopped moving. Won't we get off timeline?"

"Off timeline?" Porter questioned, horrified. "Oh, God. Damn. We'll walk," he informed the APC driver brusquely.

Stark began preparing for action unobtrusively so the Lieutenant wouldn't notice he'd been listening in even as Porter shifted to command broadcast. "Okay, listen up, everybody. The APC's broke and we're still four klicks from our proper initial drop point. We'll have to leg it. Get them going, Sergeant."

"Yessir." Stark ignored the chorus of groans that rose over the squad circuit in the wake of the Lieutenant's announcement. "You heard the Lieutenant. Move it! By the numbers and looking good, or you'll drill 'til you drop next time we're in garrison."

The access gaped and the soldiers went through, falling with eerie slowness to hit the dust and scattered rocks below, diving into an unnecessary but instinctive roll, then rising to scatter into the widely dispersed formation veterans always adopted in hostile territory. Stark stood by the hatch, using one foot to add downward velocity to bodies which had jumped out assuming gravity would do all the work. The last soldier went through, flailing comically as if trying to pull himself down to the surface by grabbing nonexistent atmosphere, then Stark followed, feet first, pushing on the access rim to gain speed toward to surface.

Dust, puffing up in small clouds where armored military boots had landed, hanging in slow-falling fields of fine particles. Stark scanned the horizon, eyes switching restlessly between the enhanced visual of the rock-littered plain before him and the eerie glow of symbology on his Heads-Up-Display. Friendly troop positions, solid green markers against the map projected on the HUD, stood out alone, no threat markers visible near them--which didn't mean there weren't any threats hidden out there. "Chen! Billings! Get the hell away from each other. You're not on a damn date." The symbols of those two individuals jerked obediently as the soldiers scrambled to put distance between them. "Squad deployed, Lieutenant."

"Good job," Porter replied absently. "I still can't raise anyone outside the Squad!" he added with rising worry apparent in his voice.

Stark switched his own display to remote, finding nothing there. Even on his authorized scan he should have been able to see the movements of the rest of their Platoon. His unofficial back door into the officer's command circuit should have allowed him to view any part of the battlefield. "I haven't got anyone else either, Lieutenant."

"We've got to abort. There's something wrong with our communications gear. There's got to be."

"Lieutenant, if the comm gear's screwed up, how come we've got full displays for the Squad?"

"I don't know! The enemy must be jamming the higher-level comm relays. How can we operate like this? There might be major attacks going down against the rest of the Brigade right now!"

Stark swiveled to view the horizon in all directions. "Wouldn't we pick up something like that on our own sensors, Lieutenant? There'd be stuff getting tossed high enough to see, ground tremors from explosions-"

"I know that!"

"And the Tactical timeline is still active." On Stark's HUD, the numbers counting down that time-line glowed yellow instead of the pleasant green that would have meant they were on the schedule laid out by the planners. Porter still hesitated. Stark used his back door to check the Lieutenant's actions, finding he was frantically scrolling through comm circuits in search of a link to his chain of command. "I think my timeline is shading orange, Lieutenant."

"Orange?" Porter took a deep breath, torn between the need to meet plan requirements and the need to be linked to higher authority.

"Yessir," Stark prompted. "I'm sure there's some red there. We're way behind timeline."

"Stop pushing me, Sergeant!"

"Yessir." At least, I'm not going to push hard enough for you to know I'm doing it. Stark spoke with a carefully modulated mix of professional stiffness and apology. "I'm merely trying to keep the Lieutenant properly supported and informed."

"Sergeant, I…" Porter's voice trailed off, then sounded again with obvious concern. "The timeline is orange. What'll we do?"

"Operate independently, Lieutenant. We have the plan in our Tacs."

"Okay. Good idea, Sergeant. Follow the plan. Just let me input orders for the Squad...Bloody hell," the Lieutenant cursed a moment later. "I can't update Tactical."

Stark called up his own planning sequence, frowning as it refused to accept ground plots for his unit. "Me, neither, Lieutenant."

"Great. Wonderful," Porter added in a voice that suggested that neither word held sincerity. "There's an inhibit on our systems. They'll only take updates from Brigade level."

Stark checked for himself, stifling an angry comment. "They said they didn't want anyone screwing with the Tactical plan, remember, Lieutenant?"

"They should have told that to the idiots who dropped us twenty klicks off objective, the idiots who designed that APC, and the idiots who are probably going to start shooting at us before long, since our chance of surprise has gone totally to hell!" Porter subsided for a moment, his battle-armored figure facing toward Lunar northwest. "Okay, Sergeant. Our original drop site is somewhere that way. Let's just hoof it until we get close enough for Tactical to give us guidance."

"Yessir."

"Fast, Sergeant! We're already way behind schedule."

"Yessir. Follow me," Stark ordered his Squad, taking the lead, his HUD projecting a slim arrow toward where his suit's gyrocompass thought Lunar northwest lay. He briefly hoped it hadn't been scrambled by the impact when the APC grounded, then concentrated on trying to move fast and spot threats at the same time. Every push from his feet seemed to launch him in a small trajectory, dreamily floating over the surface, a perfect target sweating desperately for contact with the lunar dust and rock again. Slowly, he picked up the rhythm, transferring the force of his steps into forward thrusts, fighting off the Earth-gravity-inbred tendency to put strong effort into upward motion. Experience from a thousand marches over a hundred types of terrain gradually came into play, turning forward motion into an automatic process, leaving his brain to concentrate on the higher issues of scanning for threats and keeping an eye on his twelve Squad members.

Something felt wrong. Stark scanned his HUD, looking for whatever had aroused his instincts. Everyone and everything looked fine, but something about his Corporal's movements bothered him. "Desoto, what's the problem?"

Desoto's voice responded, a little too strained with fatigue for the distance they'd covered so far. "Nothing, Sarge. My suit's just got a minor problem. No big deal."

"Minor problem?" Stark didn't try to hide his skepticism, calling up the remote readout for Desoto's systems. "Dammit, Pablo, I read your environmental system degraded thirty percent and dropping."

"Yeah. Yeah. It's stabilizing. I can handle it."

"No, it ain't and no, you can't."

"Sarge, I'm okay."

"You negotiating with me, Desoto? Get back to the APC, on the double. I don't need you dying of heat stroke."

"Sarge, I can handle it," Desoto repeated in a beseeching voice.

"The hell. I gave you an order. Get going." Stark reviewed his Squad, mentally running through the rest of his troops. Corporals maybe didn't carry huge responsibilities compared to some General calling the shots in the rear, but as long as a Corporal was helping watch Stark's back he wanted to make sure he could trust the guy. "Gomez."

"Yeah, Sarge."

"Take over for Corporal Desoto." Gomez could be better positioned within the Squad's current formation for the job, but she was sharp. Very sharp.

"Sarge? I'm not senior. Somebody else ought to take it."

Stark grunted in exasperation. "Is there something in the air up here that makes you apes want to discuss orders instead of carrying them out? Gomez, you're acting Corporal. Period. Do the job."

"Yes, Sergeant."

"One more thing, Gomez."

"Yes, Sergeant?"

"Don't screw up."

He had barely finished speaking when Lieutenant Porter called in. "Sergeant! Where's Corporal Desoto going?"

"Back to the APC, Lieutenant. Suit casualty. Private Gomez is acting Corporal." He said it cool and firm, reporting a decision rather than asking for approval.

"Why wasn't I told?"

"Squad-level decision, Lieutenant. My responsibility."

"I'm in charge, Sergeant! Make sure I'm informed of your planned actions in the future before I have to ask, and get my approval before acting."

Sure. Just because you don't know your own job is no reason you can't try to do mine as well. "Yes, Lieutenant." Keep it professional, keep it calm, and keep it ambiguous enough to ensure he could still claim enough freedom of action the next time he had to act.

Stark covered more distance, only slowly realizing the Squad was traversing something that looked like the Mother of All Shell Craters. It reminded him of one of the holes he'd fought across in the Middle East years ago, holes gouged by substrategic nukes, but much bigger. These craters, though, had been blasted out not by puny human explosives but by Heaven's own artillery. The Moon would be full of them, Stark realized, mentally tallying the advantages of defending in such broken terrain, marked by countless natural fortifications. Unfortunately, at the moment his Squad wasn't defending, but attacking. The shadows, so dark as to seem solid, suddenly seemed perfect hiding places for dug-in troops. Stark felt a growing pressure between his shoulder-blades as muscles tensed. He fingered his rifle. The charges had been adjusted to fire at lower velocities than back on Earth, but he'd still have to aim lower than instinct directed to avoid overshooting his target in a low-gravity/no atmosphere environment.

"Thank God." Lieutenant Porter's delighted exhalation broke through Stark's growing disquiet. "We've got comms again."

"Oh, goody," Stark muttered. He called up the Platoon picture, shaking his head as he saw Sergeant Reynolds' Squad scattered some distance away. They'd obviously been dropped off-target as well. Nonetheless, Stark grinned in automatic relief. Sergeant Victoria Reynolds, an old friend and one of the best soldiers Stark had ever served with, had made it down safely. "Hey, Vic," he called on the circuit Sergeants had long ago secretly jumpwired-in to allow private conversations. "Nice to see you. I feel safer already."

"Hi, Ethan. Likewise."

"Looks like you got dropped in the wrong place, too."

"Yeah." Vic didn't try to hide her disgust. "Everybody's used to the automated location systems on Earth doing all the thinking for them. Heaven forbid they actually have to navigate manually."

"What happened to the comms? How come we couldn't see you earlier? The enemy screw with our systems somehow?"

"Don't know. All the officers were running around in a panic without somebody to tell them what to do."

"Sergeant Reynolds?" Porter cut in, oblivious to the conversation he'd interrupted. "How are you doing?"

"Fine, Lieutenant. We were out of position but we're making it up and should be on our Tactical timeline soon."

"Good. Good. What was the problem earlier? Why couldn't we talk or exchange Tactical feeds?"

Reynolds spoke soothingly, trying to calm Porter's agitation. "Something scrambled comms in this sector, Lieutenant. Some sort of software failure in the relays. They just got it straightened out."

"Comms were scrambled?" Porter sounded horrified. "How did you command your Squad?"

"Just like Julius Caesar, Lieutenant. I used hand signals."

"Oh. Um, good. Where's Sanchez?"

"I don't know. His Squad may not have made it down."

Stark winced involuntarily. Sergeant Sanchez wore a poker face like other soldiers wore uniforms, giving few clues to his thoughts, likes and dislikes, but he knew his job and he had twelve other soldiers with him.

Porter obviously reached the same conclusion Stark had. "Oh, Christ. His APC crashed?"

"I don't think so. We should have seen and felt that. I'd guess it never dropped. During the run-in, Sergeant Sanchez told me his driver was complaining about some system failures."

"Why did he tell you and not me?"

"Lieutenant, I'm sure Sergeant Sanchez had a good reason, but I can only speculate as to-"

"Never mind. Stark?"

"Yes, Lieutenant."

"Are your comms okay? Did you receive the update to Tactical from Brigade?"

"Yessir." Stark scanned the new plot. "No threats?"

"None encountered so far," Porter confirmed. "We've got a long way to the objective. Keep moving. I'm going to head toward First Squad to link up with Sergeant Reynolds."

"Yes, Lieutenant." Stark switched to the private circuit again. "Hey, Vic, you got company coming."

"So I heard. You acting insubordinate again?"

"Just doing my job and trying to keep my people alive."

"Like I said."

"Vic, it ain't my fault the junior officers can't think without senior officers putting every thought in their heads."

"It's not really their fault, either, Ethan. Junior officers aren't allowed to think. Every action they take is dictated by senior officers monitoring their every move."

"Maybe if they held an assignment for more than six months at a stretch they'd learn how to think despite that, just like we do," Stark suggested. "Of course, if they thought independently and really took time to learn their jobs they wouldn't get promoted to be senior officers who think micromanagement is the only way to operate. What kind of system is that?"

"A self-sustaining one. You could still be more diplomatic, Ethan."

"Vic, I'm a soldier. I don't talk nice to hostile people. I kill them."

She laughed, the sound over his comm circuit oddly out-of-place amid the bleak emptiness of Stark's surroundings. "Okay. I'll calm the Lieutenant down, Ethan."

"Thanks. That's why the Lieutenant likes you best."

"Knock it off."

No threats. The once-ominous shadows held no enemy troops, fingers poised over hidden weapons, but now gaped empty on every side. Monotony replaced tension. Combat assaults weren't supposed to be monotonous, but this one lacked an enemy, lacked major obstacles, and lacked scenery unless you counted endless kilometers of gray rocks and fine gray dust. The stars probably looked nice, but any attempt to look up at them virtually guaranteed hooking an armored foot over one of the omnipresent rocks and sprawling in that dust.

Too monotonous and too damn quiet. Stark activated his pirate tap on the command circuit to see what the Lieutenant and the rest of his superior officers were up to.

"-dull! We're losing audience points by the second!" That sounded, Stark thought, like the Brigade's Commanding General. What the hell is he talking about? Audience points?

"There's nobody to fight, General," someone else complained.

"That's because you're moving too slow! Take that unit. Who is that? Who's the commander?"

"That's part of Lieutenant Porter's Platoon," another officer reported. Stark felt a chill run down his back at the words.

"Porter! You're way off your timeline!"

"Yes, General," Porter responded immediately. "We were dropped twenty kil-"

"Why isn't your unit moving faster?"

"Uh, General, doctrine-"

"To hell with doctrine! I need some action here. Get those troops moving!"

"Yes, General. Right away." Stark braced himself as Porter called him over the official command link. "Sergeant Stark, advance at double time."

"Lieutenant," Stark stated with careful precision, "at double time we'll be moving too fast to react so we can evade any incoming fire."

"There's nothing to evade, Sergeant! Get them going, now!"

It all runs downhill, and I'm pretty damn near the bottom of the hill. Stark checked his scan once more, biting his lower lip, finding nothing there but friendly symbology. No threat visible, and if I can't spot enemy positions at this speed we might as well go faster just in case surprise hasn't gone to hell. "Third Squad, advance at double time." Groans and curses rippled up the circuit. "Stop complaining and move! Gomez, keep your end of the Squad up with my end. Don't let anybody lag."

"Yes, Sergeant."

Disorientation threatened as the pace increased. Dust and rocks skimmed by below, their height and distance distorted by the lack of atmosphere. Something that clear should be close by, but up here you couldn't count on that. Look down and you got dizzy from the dead-black and dazzling-white contrasts zipping past. Look up and the trillion stars seemed to be sucking you into space, so legs and arms started flailing as the mind convinced itself you were falling up. Looming over everything hung a white-spangled blue marble where humans by all rights belonged and where anyone with common sense knew they were supposed to fight their wars.

"Son-of-a-" Acting Corporal Gomez started to yell, the curse broken by a heavy grunt.

"You okay, Gomez?" Stark demanded, checking her suit's status.

"Yeah, Sarge. I just tripped and did a nose-dive."

"Your suit looks fine."

"It's fine. How come that damn horizon is so close but we don't get anywhere no matter how fast we go?" Gomez demanded sourly.

"That's easy, Anita," Chen chimed in cheerfully. "It's like a nightmare, because you actually bought it and went straight to hell when our APC crashed."

"Sure. I'm in hell. The fact that you're here with me supports that."

"Kill the chatter, you clowns," Stark ordered. There shouldn't be any problem with the troops working off a little tension by bantering, given that someone had decided the threat was so low they could just run toward their objective. But he'd long ago learned not to trust any assessments from higher than company level, most especially those emanating from any place behind the lines. "We're on a combat op, not a walk in the park. Maintain comm discipline."

"Yes, Sergeant." Gomez sounded uncharacteristically abashed. "Sorry."

"Sorry?" Stark questioned sharply.

"I'm acting corporal. You shouldn't have to tell me that stuff."

"Right." Sometimes a little extra responsibility brought out a little extra in a soldier. Sometimes not. Gomez obviously felt the burden. "But don't apologize. Just do the job."

Stark cut into the command circuit again, worried about threats that might be developing elsewhere and half-hoping to hear Porter being chewed-out by his own superiors again, but instead heard a clutter of commands as officers continually passed detailed orders to units and individuals without regard to intervening levels of command. Business as usual. What did officers do before they could use command and control gear to sit on our shoulders every second? He switched over again, calling Sergeant Reynolds. "Vic? You busy?"

"Nothing special for a combat assault," she noted dryly. "What's up?"

"What's this talk about audience points?"

"What about it?"

"I don't know what it means, and I don't like something happening during a combat op that I don't understand."

Vic hesitated before replying. "This attack is being broadcast back home on vid with less than a half-hour delay."

"What?"

"The audio and video feed from our command and control gear is being relayed straight to the Public Affairs office," Vic elaborated patiently, "who're shunting it to the networks. Congratulations. You're a vid star."

"I don't want to be a vid star. Why the hell are they doing that?" Stark demanded, outraged. "I don't want the enemy seeing vid of what I'm doing on our civ networks."

"There's supposed to be a long enough lag time to keep us safe. As long as we're on timeline."

"Which we're not. The damn planners are always too optimistic when they lay out those timelines."

"I know, Ethan. It's not my idea." Vic's tone changed, growing crisp and clipped. "Gotta go. We're closing on our objective."

"Roger. We are, too." Stark stared ahead, looking for visual on the objective his Tactical claimed would be nearby now. Concentrate on the job at hand. Something suddenly came into view as he crested a small crater rim, a large object set into the lunar surface that glowed like a neon sign on Stark's infrared sight. Waste heat. A lot of it. Looks like they didn't expect trouble enough to worry about camouflaging their site. That was good.

"I've got target on visual," Murphy reported.

"Me, too," Stark advised. "That should be the main entry hatch for our objective. Mendoza, check the door for traps or alarms. Gomez, hold back with Billings and Carter to cover the rest of us until we get the hatch open. Everybody else converge on it."

Smooth and easy, going through the motions they'd executed a thousand times before in a hundred different places, though none so different as this. Stark approached the hatch cautiously, crouched, weapon at ready, then covered Mendoza as the Private unlimbered his gear and scanned the access for any defenses or warning devices.

"There is nothing there but a standard arrival enunciator," Mendoza reported. "No sign they are expecting problems, Sergeant."

"Good. Now-"

Another voice cut in on the circuit abruptly. "What is that? What are you looking at, Sergeant?"

Stark checked the ID on the transmission before replying. Brigade Staff had apparently decided to devote their attention to his small part of the operation, at least for the time being. "It's a door, Colonel."

"A door? On the Moon?"

"Hatch, sir. The main airlock into our objective."

"Which is a laboratory, right, Sergeant? A research laboratory investigating, uh, new synthetic material fabrication techniques in low G."

Whatever that means. "That's what my Tactical says, too, Colonel."

"Good. Good. Well, gather your troops and prepare for entry."

Stark spoke with exaggerated patience. "They're already gathered and prepared, sir."

"Then get in there, man!"

Stark gestured roughly toward the lab airlock. "Alright, you apes-"

"Wait a minute!" another voice interrupted. "Has that hatch been checked for booby-traps?"

Stark bit his lip before answering this time. "Yes, General."

"It's clear?"

"Yes, General."

"I don't want unnecessary damage to that installation, Sergeant! Tell that Private-no, wait, what's the Private's name?"

"Mendoza, General, he's-"

"Private Mendoza," the General ordered, "run another check on that hatch for booby-traps."

"Y-yessir," Mendoza stuttered. Seconds dragged by while he ran another scan. "It looks clean, General."

"It looks clean or it is clean?"

"It is clean, sir," Mendoza amended rapidly.

"Then get going," the General ordered.

"Thank. You. Sir," Stark stated carefully.

"And make sure you look good! Remember we're on top of this!"

I remember when there was a chain-of-command, Stark thought darkly. "Yessir."

The hatch cycled open without protest, innocent of defenses just as Mendoza had predicted. The Squad crowded in, weapons ready, while atmosphere built up. Just before the inner hatch popped, a small vid screen inside the airlock came to life, displaying an owlish visage blinking in surprise. "Who's there? We weren't expecting visitors today, or this early."

"That's the point, Civ," Gomez said with a grin as the inner hatch swung open. "It's called surprise."

"Surprise?" The foreign civilian scientist blinked some more. "I don't understand. Who's the surprise for? Should I come escort you in?"

"You just wait where you are," Stark advised. "We'll come and get you." He faced his Squad, swinging an arm toward the inner hatch. "Move it! Round the civs up before they figure out what's going on."

His soldiers scattered into fire teams, heading down individual routes through the roughly hewn rock corridors of the laboratory in accordance with the plans in their Tacticals. Stark took two privates with him down the longest hall until he reached a ninety-degree bend at the end. He paused, weapon at ready, preparing to leap and then fire immediately if needed.

"Sergeant!" Stark jumped nervously, cursing as another transmission broke his concentration. "Be careful going around that corner!"

"Yes, Colonel," Stark grated out between clenched teeth.

"There may be armed opposition around that corner," the Colonel continued. "Make sure your other soldiers are posted to cover you."

"They are, Colonel," Stark assured his distant commander. "Now just go the hell away and let me do my damn job," he added under his breath.

"What was that, Sergeant? I couldn't understand the last thing you said."

"I didn't say anything, Colonel," Stark hastily assured him.

"I heard something. Major, didn't you hear something?"

"Yes, Colonel," another voice chimed in. "There was something there."

"There may be something wrong with your suit's comm system," the Colonel decided. "Run a diagnostic, Sergeant."

"Colonel, I'm in the middle of an operation-"

"Never mind. I'll order the diagnostic from here. We can't risk you losing comms with headquarters."

Stark opened his mouth to issue another frantic protest, then stopped as a blinking red symbol on his HUD announced that his comm suite had dropped off-line to run the diagnostic. He slammed one fist repeatedly into the nearest wall, glaring threateningly at the two Privates, both of whom pretended not to be aware of his situation. Unable to advance while he couldn't talk to anyone else in the Squad, Stark waited and fumed while precious moments crawled by as the suit checked the entire hardware and software of his built-in communications system. "Please, sweet Jesus," he prayed, "when my comms come back on let the worthless Brigade Staff have found another little part of this big battlefield to micromanage to death."

Green lights popped up to announce the completion of the diagnostic. Stark held his breath, waiting for further back-seat driving from headquarters, but silence reigned. Guess they got bored waiting for the diagnostic to run and went off to tell some other poor grunt how to tie his shoes. Stark eased toward the corner, motioning his two Privates along, then paused. All the training simulators insisted at this point you should stick a finger around the corner to scope out the scenery with the fiber-optic sensors in the suit's fingertip. That helped ensure you wouldn't be surprised, but unfortunately worked both ways in that it also told any enemies lying in wait that there'd be a soldier following that finger around the corner in the immediate future.

"Let's go," Stark grunted, leaping across the gap to plant his back against the wall, rifle aimed down the new corridor. Two civs were walking slowly toward him, apparently deeply engrossed in conversation. First one, then another, became aware of the armored figure menacing them and came to a gap-jawed halt. Stark waved his Privates forward, triggering his external mike. "Attention. This installation has been occupied by armed forces of the United States," he recited. "All personnel will be taken into protective custody. Any resistance will be met with appropriate force."

The Privates reached the two civs, both apparently too stunned by events to resist, and prodded them against the nearest wall with their weapons. "Billings," Stark ordered, "bring them along. Murphy and I will head for the lab." On his Tactical, the laboratory loomed as the largest room in the complex and as his final objective.

Deciding that speed was necessary to exploit the surprise they'd apparently achieved, Stark sprinted forward, following the map on his Tactical display, down another corridor, through a right turn, and then tried to turn right again, only to face a solid wall of stone. "Oh, hell."

"Sarge?" Murphy asked anxiously. "Isn't there supposed to be another passageway here?"

"Yeah, but there ain't. Guess they never finished building according to the plans Intelligence got their hands on."

"What do we do, Sarge?"

Doctrine was explicit on that point. No deviation from actions ordered by Tactical were allowed, which meant Stark was now supposed to call up the chain of command until whichever Colonel was calling the shots for his sector could confirm that Stark indeed faced a wall of rock, then download a new set of actions for Stark to follow. Can't have grunts thinking for themselves. On a hunch, he checked his suit's comm system for update delay times, then grinned. As he hoped, the blizzard of communications during the assault had grown so heavy that the Brigade comm system couldn't keep up. Delay times had grown from seconds to minutes, giving him precious moments to do something before anybody in charge realized he had deviated from Tactical.

"Follow me," Stark barked at Murphy, heading at a run for the next closest entry to the lab shown on his map. Stark's HUD revealed his other fireteams had already covered this ground, so he didn't bother with caution, simply trying to cover ground in the few minutes available before some officer noticed he was off the track dictated by his Tactical.

Sometimes that was a good idea. This time, it wasn't. They came around a corner to find a man in what seemed to be a law enforcement uniform, complete with a holstered side-arm, staring at them. A moment of mutual surprise ended as the man grabbed for his pistol. Stark, off-balance in the middle of a long, low-gravity step, watched as Murphy lined his rifle up, then hesitated. "Shoot him, dammit!"

 

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