Thursday, November 10, 2011

Rock and a Hard Place, Part 4

The final installment of Rock and a Hard Place. I had a lot of fun exploring the other goings on in the universe, I hope you all enjoyed reading about them!

Sergeant Major Williams watched the Osprey come down, rotating slowly so that it’s aft cargo door would open up over the edge of the ridge. There wasn’t enough room here to land the Osprey, but the pilots had no problem hovering over it if the winds weren’t too high.

It was delivering a pair of navy boys to her this time. They brought several cases of equipment with them, hauling it all off quickly as the Osprey hovered over the valley.  It lifted off just as soon as they were clear of the jet wash. Williams took a quick look at the pile of gear, recognizing everything she had requested from the shape of the crates alone.

The two petty officers, Loman and Balyakov, were here to set up a sniper nest. They had plenty of personnel upstairs, no reason not to put some of them to work. The spot she had chosen overlooked the mouth of the valley. It would keep any bugs from wandering in unless they were massed, and even then they should be able inflict significant casualties.

They were kitted out with integrated comms and light duty packs, which she had requested and work uniforms that were the wrong color for the planet, which she had not. It was a combat zone, but up on the ridge they were well protected, no need for heavy armor. She greeted them with a nod, scanning their name tape to verify which was which. “Gentlemen.”

Loman nodded back. Balyakov bothered to answer, short as it was. “Ma’am.”

“You both read the manuals I sent? All the way through?” She looked to Loman first. His body language seemed... sloppy.

Considering that they would be manning a M129A3 “Longbow” Anti-materiel rifle and the requisite M188 "Delphi" linked spotting scope, sloppy was not something she particularly appreciated. It was a lot of specialized equipment that neither of them had been explicitly trained on, but both were marksman and the operation was ultimately simple.

Loman nodded again. “Yeah, got it down pat.”

“Uh huh.” Williams turned her gaze to Balyakov. “Did you read the manuals?”

“Yes ma'am, I don’t know the words to I’m a little teapot.”

She smiled, squinting in the morning sun. Didn’t matter if he knew the words or not, he had at least skimmed the operating manuals she had sent, including the extra instructions she had embedded in them. “You’re the trigger man, explain to Loman how the Delphi works while you two set up.”

“Yes ma’am.”

Loman looked pissed but kept his mouth shut. Everyone wanted to play with the big gun, they didn’t want to lay around in the dirt verifying targets. Balyakov demonstrated his ability to follow orders even if there wasn’t someone monitoring him, important when they would be firing over the top of friendly forces. She appreciated that, as she was going to be down there soon. “Do not let him touch the Longbow. You clear on that?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Good. Get to work.” She lifted a small box off the stack of gear and turned, heading back to their base camp.

It was a short walk, not even half a kilometer. She picked up the pace, easy in the boosted armor, and attached to the Ingraham’s b-net and keyed the comm system. “Bravo five two, this is Bravo two four.”

It took a few seconds for Thames to respond. “Go ahead.”

“What’s the ETA on that K6, Lieutenant? I’m starting to get bored down here.”

“They got the Valkyrie out of the tube, should have it secured on the Osprey in five, on the ground in thirty.”

“All right, I’ll be at the LZ. Bravo two four out.”

Short as that conversation was, she had covered the distance to what passed for a camp on this operation. A charred stack of wood and dozens of cases of equipment, several of the larger ones pushed together to make a workbench for her.

The package she’d kept was an R7 bayonet. Just because you had been issued the most expensive rifle in the armory didn’t mean you wouldn’t use it as a spear some day. Opened about any damn thing you could imagine, too.  

Williams spilled the contents out onto her improvised workbench, picked the parts she wouldn’t need out and tossed them back into the case. She slid the knife from it’s sheath. The matte, non-reflective blade was smooth and clean, the cutting edge carried a faint recurve. It almost looked graceful.

Modifying it was easy. She’d done it a dozen times before, just this year. Use the power grinder to take off the strap loops and smooth the scabbard, making sure to scuff the back thoroughly. Then grind the grip down to fit the user. She was eyeballing that and taking a lot of material off the handle. Should work.

That Tslao girl, Stana, had been left at the camp. Ostensibly to assist the Sergeant as needed, but there was nothing Williams actually needed help with that she would be qualified to do. She'd given her some busy work, but now had a real task in mind for her.

The loose dirt and gravel crunched underfoot as she walked over to the edge of the cliff. Private Zhensen sat there, legs dangling over the edge and watching the valley below. Smoke curled up from a few fires, a handful of work crews putting them out. Others were building new defenses, long trenches filled with unlit napalm - frenzied bugs would still avoid fire, even if it herded them into convenient kill zones. “How are you holding up?”

Her shoulders lifted. “I am fine.”  

“I find that hard to believe.” The few times she had inquired before, Stana had been 'fine' despite how much time she spent looking out at the smoldering ruin of her home. Their psychology was supposed to be similar to humans, and while she was in the army, she was no soldier. Worse, she was a teenage girl.  Williams flipped the knife around and held it out. “Give this a try. How does it feel in your hand?”

Zhensen took it, the twenty centimeter long blade didn't appear to be unwieldy, though it looked more like a short sword than a knife. “It feels fine.”

"You keep saying that word." She had been a civilian and a teenage girl at one point, too, but that felt like a lifetime ago. She could see how this situation would be difficult. "Does the grip feel like it's going to slip out of your hand? Is the balance too blade heavy?"

"No. It feels fine." A little bit of force behind it this time. "The blade is heavy, but I can find no other problems with it."

"Good. I need to put some finishing touches on it." She held out her hand and the Tslao girl gave it back.

Stana handed it to her before pushing herself back up and dusting her armor off. She turned to look over the valley again and heaved a sigh. "You are correct, I am not fine."

Williams nodded as she slotted the blade back into it's scabbard and began wrapping grip tape around the handle. That was hardly a surprise.  "How are you really doing?"

Another shrug. "Angry, sad, confused... I do not know. At least this time there is more than a crater."

"Yeah, that's something. Going to rebuild?"  She tore the grip tape and swapped the small roll for a tube of glue from the utility pouch attached to her leg.

"Yes. I think we will."

"Good. Arms up."

She looked confused but complied, holding her arms up over her head and watching quietly. Williams looked over the armor and laid a bead of glue down on the back of the scabbard and stuck it to a nice empty spot under her armpit. That was standard practice for attaching things to rigid armor. Glue it down where it was easy to get to.  

"Reach for it with your right hand. Don't draw it yet. Is it comfortable?"

She complied, setting her hand on it without having to stretch. "Yes, it is fine- ah,  I can reach it without issue."

"Thank you. That will set up in a few minutes. Try not to bump it too much." The Major stowed the glue and turned to the trail down the valley wall, gesturing for Zenshen to follow her.

"I will mind it." Her shields came on with a pop as she caught up with Williams, walking quickly to stay abreast of her on the narrow path. "Do you think more of them will come?"

"Affirmative, they'll have another batch of warriors up in about six hours. Estimate about four hundred this time, but they're going to have a nasty surprise when they get here." Tkt would seek out anything that didn't smell or look like them when frenzied... and they were very tenacious.

She looked out over the rubble again and spoke quietly. "I want to kill them. All of them."

"Don't take this the wrong way, but you can't." Williams glanced over at her to double check that, glad to see that she appeared more worried than determined. "You are not trained for combat, let alone fighting bugs, and you certainly aren't equipped for it. But if it's revenge you want, it is on it's way."

Stana chewed that over for a minute and finally nodded in agreement. "I think I am glad... but I do not know if it is right. They are alive too."

"They're not alive like you or me.  All six of their hearts beat, sure. But warriors? If there's no overseer, there is nothing to their life but finding things sufficiently unlike them and destroying it."

"How can you be sure?"

"We've done research. Lots and lots of research. The warrior class of tkt has almost no higher brain function, their vocal system doesn't develop, their gastrointestinal tract doesn't develop. If nothing kills them first, they starve to death in about twenty days."

Her eyes widened, brow creased. "That is horrible."

"Oh no, there's more."

"I do not think I want to know."

The thought of stopping did cross Williams' mind, but she didn't. Stana would likely feel better knowing everything, ultimately. "The way the hive operates while a new overseer is gestating is very simple, they run defense at maximum. Everything else falls to the side."

She relaxed a little, relieved for the moment. "That is almost understandable."

"Almost. they pour all of their resources into hatching warriors to protect the overseer's egg. We popped a drone into their hive and they've got about three thousand warriors gestating right now. The size of the hive indicates they've only got resources for about two thousand, twenty five hundred of those.  After that, they're out. No more food, the hive starves."

"How..." She furrowed her brow and her mouth turned down in a grimace. "How have they survived so long?"

"There used to be more castes above the overseer, we think. It is possible they had enough influence to prevent that from happening. They do not show aggression to other hives from similar lineage, either. If there were other hives here, they would be mollified by the presence of 'safe' others. The other hives would likely assist in it's defense as well... and a controlled warrior is a very dangerous thing."  

"I did not know they had such complex interactions. They did not seem to care about our presence."

Williams shook her head. "They don't. We've tried to make contact and set up treaties without success. They will respond to aggressive actions, but that appears to be all they will respond to."

Stana blanched and worried her fingers together. "That does not seem to leave many options."

"No, it does not."
The M129A3 up on the ridge cracked, a clap of thunder on a clear day. Stana jumped and looked up at the sound, Williams turning to the entrance of the valley. There were a few tall silhouettes there, too far away to make out in any detail. The longbow fired two more times, one of the tkt seemed to disintegrate with each report. The full size M129 was much more powerful than the carbine version she carried.
They walked in silence the rest of the way, reaching the LZ moments after the Osprey touched down. The crewman drove a Jackal unmanned ground vehicle out with a remote, it’s rubbery treads biting into the dirt and pulling it off of the ramp. The equipment cradle had been removed, a few loose wires and a can of quick weld taped to the frame in it’s place.
The crewman handed her the remote and retreated into the Osprey for a moment, hauling a meter long dark grey cylinder out and setting it carefully next to the Jackal. He leaned in and shouted over the engines. “Need anything else while we’re here, Major?”

She looked over at Stana and considered that. “You got a bucket on board?”
He nodded. “Collapsible. That OK?”
It was canvas and metal rings, extremely low tech but still functional. The Osprey was gone moments after the crewman handed it to her. She handed it off to Zenshen, scanning the local area for something. “There we are. Let’s get you started.”
She hustled along behind Williams, who was moving towards a pile of rubble. “What am I doing?”
“Harvesting scent glands.” She bent down and shoved a large piece of concrete out of the way, a tkt corpse riddled with bullets lodged beneath it. Williams rolled it over onto it’s front and pointed to leathery, pockmarked membrane on the back. “They have them in their lung sacs, up at the top of the cavern. Just cut the skin and reach in, it’s a hard ball, about the size of a... Let me show you.”
She dug her own knife into the skin, cutting a large chunk out of it before plunging an armored hand into the spongy tissue. It was right where she expected it to be, just a twist and it came right out. Stana recoiled when she held the glistening, greenish gland out to her.
“They look like this.”
“These are-” Zenshen held the bucket out as she gagged on her words. Her ears lowered further, lips pale. “These are absolutely necessary?”
“If we want to drive the warhead into their house, yes.” She dropped the rank chunk of flesh into the bucket and stood. “Need twenty of those.”
Williams left her there, staring at the carcass. It was a grisly task, one of those that separated the men from the boys, as it were. More importantly, it gave her an idea of who she was dealing with. She never cared for people who took delight in desecrating the dead, no matter who’s dead they were.
The Jackal was right were she left it, K6 warhead still laying in the sandy dirt. She checked it over and began the task of attaching the warhead to the Jackal.
Williams had done this before, too. It was going to be a one-way trip for the low slung drone, the variable yield warhead quickwelded to the top where the equipment cradle usually goes. The on-board weapons system attached to the K6 without issue, going through diagnostics while she built little cups out of quickweld on the frame to hold the scent glands.
Another Osprey landed behind her as she worked, the engines spinning down. Heavy footsteps approached, the Lieutenant's location marker appearing behind her.  “Status, Major?”
“Putting the finishing touches on the Jackal, sir. My assistant is collecting masking agents as we speak. Probably.”
Thames didn’t laugh, but she could hear the humor in his voice. “I’m sure she’s having a good time with that.”
“Doubt it.” She looked up and checked where she had left the Tslao girl. At least she had moved... somewhere. “We will see, though.”
“Yeah. We’re going one kiloton yield on this?”
“If you can get it into the core of the hive.” She stood up, as finished as she could be for the time being. “If you can’t, dial it up to two kilotons, that should be enough to collapse the entry level. Keep ‘em locked up for...”
Stana had returned, standing next to Williams with the bucket held out to her. She looked overwhelmed and sick, covered in gore up to her elbows. “Here.”
Williams took it and sure enough, there were all the glands they needed. “Good job.”
She swallowed and looked at Thames, then back to Williams. “Thank you?”
“I’ll take it from here, Sergeant. Anything else I should know about?”
She handed him the bucket and the Jackal’s remote, going over a list of items in her head to make sure she wasn’t forgetting anything important. “Loman up at the sniper nest is not cleared to use the Longbow.”
“Noted. Get on out of here.”
“All right.” Williams nodded and headed for the Osprey. She looked over her shoulder. “One other thing, LT.”
“Don’t high-center the Jackal this time.”
“Yeah... Never going to let me forget that, huh?”
“Nope.” She laughed and climbed into the Osprey. When she turned around, Zhensen was just standing there next to the Jackal and looking lost. “Private!”
Her head snapped up. “Yes?”
Williams gestured her over to the Osprey. “When was the last time you ate?”
She stopped at the foot of the ramp, looking up more than she normally had to when talking to the Sergeant. “I had some tea-”
“You don’t eat tea.”
“It was sometime yesterday.”
“How about sleep?”
“Before that.”
“You need to start taking care of yourself.” She jerked her head into the hold of the Osprey. “Come on, we’ll get you some food and you can have some downtime.”


  1. Also very interesting to read Gathering before this last part. Stana has certainly developed into a confidant woman, and I willing to wager a competent soldier. Definitely a good read.

  2. I like the idea that Stana did develop into someone who is confident, skilled and precise, even if it only took a few years. It feels appropriate for her.