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First Platoon, Bravo Company
Carson Gate/Cluster Space
0540 hrs, GMT
Gunnery Sergeant Aiden Garroway wiggled a bit deeper into the bottle's embrace as the armorer swung the dome canopy down over his head and sealed it in place. "Link check," he heard, the Navy chief's words forming in his mind.
The canopy was opaque, a nanosurfaced ceramic-iridium laminate impervious to almost anything up to a direct hit by a 100-gigawatt laser, but the bottle's electronics fed the external view directly into Garroway's brain, channeling the data through his cerebral implants. The armorer's face leered down at him, distorted by the feed's fisheye effect, and by the reflections from the fishbowl helmet of the man's vacwear utilities.
"Link is on-line," Garroway replied. "You're going to have to fix that, though, Chief. God, you're ugly."
The man laughed. "Not as ugly as the Xulies. Good luck, Marine."
"Ooh-rah." With a thoughtclick, Garroway switched the data link to an external view, fed from the Ishtar's outer hull.
The view here, high above the stargate, was stunning, spectacular. . . .
Carson was a nondescript double star near the fringe of Commonwealth space, a planetless pair of cool M-class dwarfs circling one another in a tight embrace. Two light hours out, so distant that the two suns themselves were merely bright ruby points of light against the background scattering of stars, the local stargate drifted in slow orbit, an immense, slender- rimmed hoop twenty kilometers across, gleaming silver and red in the somber light.
The Marine transportIshtar was drifting slowly toward the gate belly-first, some fifteen kilometers above the structure's center. Her ventral hatches were open, her forward dropdeck exposed to hard vacuum...hence the need for the armorer's helmet and sealed utilities.
He switched the feed back to his pod's external optics. Around him, caught in the glare of overhead lights,were the launch racks holding other bottles, and Navy and Marine personnel...armorers, deckhands, and technicians...were moving among them, prepping each for drop.
"Be sure to bring back some good suit vids, okay, Gunny?" the armorer told him. "I hear it's real pretty over there."
"I'll see what I can do, Chief. But I imaginewe're going to be too busy to get anything artistic."
"Shit, I didn't say artistic. I just hear the view's nice, is all. What I really want to see is some after-op combat footage of a bunch of dead Xulies!""You and me both, Chief."
"Bravo Company," another voice said, cutting in. The dry, staccato tones were those of the company commanding officer, Captain John "Blackjack" Black, though the actual speaker would be Smedley, the company AI. "Squad and section leaders, check your Marines and report status."
Garroway was the gunnery sergeant assigned to the company HQ, and, as such, was the senior NCO in charge of the seven other enlisted Marines in the unit, under Captain Black himself. He ran through the electronic links with the other HQ personnel...two riflemen, two comm officers, two Navy hospital corpsmen, and a tech specialist/observer. All feeds showed green and ready, systems charged and go, weapons safed and ready.
"Green Tower," he said over the company net, using the HQ section's code name to link through to Smedley. "This is Tower Two. All Tower platforms report ready for drop."
"Copy, Two," Smedley replied.
Garroway chuckled. The AI was named after Major General Smedley Butler, one of the Corps' heroes from the ancient, pre-spaceflight era of almost a thousand years ago. According to the histories, though, the original Smedley had been quite a character, often in trouble with his superiors because of his rough manner. Somehow, Garroway doubted that the guy had been quite as laconic as his artificial namesake.
There were historical simulations of the original Butler on file back on Mars, and in the library on board the Hermes. He decided he would link in some time, just to see how the two compared.
"First Platoon, ready to launch," 2nd Lieutenant Cooper, the platoon's commanding officer, announced over the Net.
"Second Platoon, ready to go." That was 2nd Lieutenant Hamblet.
"Third Platoon, ready," 2nd Lieutenant Costigan added.
"PryFly, Bravo Company," the captain's voice said. Garroway thought he heard some stress there. If so, it was the old man himself speaking, and not his electronic proxy. "We are ready for launch."
"Very well," another voice said, this one from Ishtar's primary flight control center, or PryFly. "Bravo Company release in five . . . four . . . three . . . two . . . one . . . release!"
Garroway felt the sharp jolt as magnetic grapples released his bottle, and then the Ishtar's ventral hull was receding against the stars. From his perspective, it appeared that the transport had suddenly begun accelerating away from him; in fact, Ishtar had just halted its gateward drift, allowing a cloud of M-CAPs to emerge from her belly and continue drifting toward the gate at a steady kilometer per second.
M-CAPs, Marine Combat Assault Pods, were only the most recent means of transporting individual Marines into battlespace, an upgrade to the Space Assault Pods, or SAPs in wide use until only a few years ago. Somewhere between a very large, bulky, and powerful unit of heavily armed space armor and a very tiny, lightly armed, underpowered one-man space craft, a CAP carried a single Marine within its claustrophobic core. A gravitic drive allowed the device to accelerate at forty gravities...about four hundred meters per second per second. It responded directly to a Marine's thoughts, through his cereblink, and provided him with constantly updated information on his surroundings and the tactical situation.
For self-evident reasons, Marines called them bottles, among other nastier, more vitriolic names.
"Okay, people," Blackjack's voice told them over the Net. "We're doing this by the book. We want to maintain the element of surprise for as long as possible, so do not engage your gravitics until I give the word. Power at ten percent only. Magnetic shielding engaged. Optical benders on. Everyone copy?"
A chorus of voices came back over the Net, mingled calls of "aye, aye, sir" and "copy that" and "ooh-rah." A display open to one side within Garroway's mind showed the telemetry from each pod, all green and go.Galactic Corps
. Copyright © by Ian Douglas. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.