Redeliners: a novel of hope and, possibly, redemption, a novel in which salvation is a two way street.
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By David Drake
Baen BooksCopyright © 1996 David Drake
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMajor Arthur Farrell's bones vibrated to the howls of the generators braking the captured Kalendru starship to a soft landing in the main military port of the world Unity planners had labeled Maxus 377. The engineers hadn't bothered to jury-rig displays after they gutted the ship's hold for the assault force. If the strikers of Company C41 wanted, they could tap visuals from the flight deck onto their helmet visors and look at the warped-looking Spook structures they would attack in the next few seconds.
Farrell didn't bother to watch. Instead he rechecked his stinger. He wore crossed bandoliers of ammo packs and dangling blast rockets; a medical kit; two supplementary communication units; two knives-one of them powered, the other with a shorter fixed blade that could double as a climbing spike; and a packet of emergency rations. The integral canteen of Farrell's back-and-breast armor held two quarts of water, but he carried an additional three gallons in a backpack. The weight slowed him and made his armor sag brutally against his shoulders, but the cost was worth it to him.
When you're pinned down in the hot sun, thirst is the worst torture. Worse than the ripping pain of your wound, worse even than the stench of your friend's half-burned corpse on the ground beside you. Art Farrell knew.
The starship quivered, still twenty feet above the ground though she was nearly in equilibrium with the field her generators had induced in the magnetic mass on which she was landing. "Wait for it!" ordered Captain Broz, C41's executive officer, over the command channel.
Nadia Broz was following standard operating procedure, but on this mission there wasn't any risk that a striker would unass early. Normally C41 inserted aboard a purpose-built landing vessel. The hatches opened minutes before contact. For Active Cloak camouflage rather than speed was the requirement. At touchdown the flight crew would blow explosive bolts to separate the outer bulkheads from the skeleton of support members, but until then the freighter's hold was sealed like a prison cell.
"Hey, I think I changed my mind," a striker called over the ship noises. There was brittle laughter.
Kurt Leinsdorf stood stolidly at Farrell's shoulder as he always did during an insertion. On C41's table of organization, Leinsdorf was a communications specialist. In reality he was Farrell's bodyguard, a huge, strong man who carried a single-shot plasma cannon in addition to his other weapons and equipment.
"I wanna be a Strike Force ranger..." sang Horgen, a Third Platoon striker. "I wanna live a life of danger..."
The starship sank the last few feet like a leaking bladder. Wait for it, Farrell mouthed, but no sound passed his dry lips.
A locator chart overlaid the upper left quadrant of Farrell's visor: seventy-eight green dots, each one a striker. They were crammed too closely together at the moment for him to count them individually. Every one was a veteran: not only of combat, but veterans of C41 itself.
Strike Force companies were prefixed B, C, or D depending on their size. C-class units had a nominal strength of one hundred personnel. C41 had received eight replacements since the last operation, but Farrell decided not to bring them along on a mission as rough as Active Cloak looked like being. The replacements were good people or they wouldn't have passed Strike Force screening after they volunteered, but they hadn't worked with C41 before. There was no margin here for somebody who misunderstood an order or reacted in an unexpected way.
The Spooks had a civilian colony of five hundred thousand on Maxus 377 in addition to the logistics bases that served their military on fourteen worlds. There was no margin at all when C41 seized the planet's main port ahead of the full-scale Unity invasion.
The tripod landing legs touched the ground in sequence. The freighter rang in three descending notes. "Go!" Farrell shouted, unheard over the clangs of the bolts shearing. He and a dozen other strikers shoved at the toppling bulkhead.
They'd landed just before local noon. Sunlight quivered through heat waves from the port's white concrete surface. Anti-emitter missiles launched in snarling cacophony from the freighter's upper cargo deck, homing on every operating radio-frequency antenna within their ten-mile range.
Major Arthur Farrell hit the ground running, headed for the port administration building with his headquarters group and two squads of Third Platoon. C41 had begun the invasion.
The rest of the Unity armed forces better follow soon.
The pair of Spooks in the cab of the maintenance vehicle goggled to see the recently-landed freighter fall apart as they drove past. Sergeant Guilio Abbado killed them both with a single burst from his stinger before he jumped to the ground.
"Three-three to the truck!" Abbado shouted. Most of his squad was already running toward the eight-wheeled vehicle. It slowed but still coasted forward after the driver died in a spray of coppery blood. Horgen and Glasebrook leaped aboard, flinging the dead Spooks out of the way. Horgen managed to turn the vehicle before it plunged into an open sump, but she couldn't seem to find the brakes.
One of the Spooks hung out the open door. Abbado kicked the body the rest of the way to the ground as he climbed into the cab beside Flea Glasebrook. The other five strikers of Third Squad, Third Platoon clambered onto the back of the vehicle, shooting at any visible Spook to keep the enemy's panic boiling.
Horgen goosed the throttle. She steered east and accelerated without needing orders.
The truck was a godsend if you believed in God, which Abbado more or less did. The navy flight crew had landed the captured freighter on the magnetic mass nearest the port's northwest corner according to plan. Abbado could see the sense of that, since the port garrison's compound and the administration building were immediately north of the site and the transient military barracks were adjacent on the west.
The trouble was 3-3's objective, the huge maintenance hangar along the east edge of the field, was almost four hundred yards from the ship. That was a hell of a long way to run across bare concrete with a combat load. By the time the exhausted strikers got to the hangar, the Spooks would have had time to wake up.
They were waking up already. A hundred-foot-wide segment of hangar door had been open when C41 appeared. It was closing now, rolling down from the building roof. "Don't stop!" Abbado said, not that there was any likelihood Horgen had planned to.
Abbado hooked his left arm around the frame of the shattered windshield and sprayed a crackling burst from his stinger across the shadowed figures moving within the hangar. Two of them flopped to the ground; one sprang up again and limped out of sight behind his fellows.
The stinger's coils accelerated 15-grain projectiles to 10,000 feet per second. The pellet wasn't effective beyond 500 yards, but the strikers carried rockets to handle the occasional distant target. Stingers had the impact of a grenade on a target at short range. With thousand-round ammo packs containing both pellets and a fresh power supply, they were the weapon of choice for the sudden assaults in which C41 specialized.
The truck had a three-man cab, but the three weren't supposed to be humans in battle gear. The Kalendru were long-limbed, gray-skinned humanoids. From a distance they appeared hairless, but if you looked closely you saw that their skin was covered with fine down.
Kalendru were on average taller, slimmer and significantly quicker than Terrans. Because Spooks weren't as strong, their troops carried lighter, less-powerful weapon loads. A striker learned fast, though, that if you missed your first shot the Spook was going to get in the second one.
Horgen had the truck up to forty miles an hour. Immediately ahead the hangar door closed with a rattle that Abbado hoped meant it was fairly flimsy. "Hang on, boys!" he said as he pulled himself into the cab and crossed his arms over his faceshield. "The party's about to start!"
They hit the quivering door with a crash louder than the battle going on all over the spaceport.
Each of the two 16-round cannisters of plasma cartridges weighed a hair over forty pounds, and there was the weight of the air-cushion dolly besides. Striker Esther Meyer liked to tell herself she was as tough as any man in C41, but right at the moment she was glad Sergeant-Gunner Bloch and Santini, the other loader, had paused to lift her dolly from the hold instead of leaving her to struggle with it alone. Meyer could keep moving despite the heat and constriction of her hard suit as long as anybody, sure; but hefting a full ammo dolly was largely a matter of mass and peak strength.
Stingers and the 4-pound rockets most strikers slung from their belts already raked the port area. Fourth Platoon (Heavy Weapons) was the last out of the ship. With their full armor and bulky loads they'd have needlessly slowed less heavily equipped strikers.
There was no return fire as yet but it'd come soon enough. When it did, the maneuver platoons would be damned glad of 50-pound missile launchers and the plasma cannon.
Sergeant Bloch was a big man who looked gigantic in his polished white armor. His dolly supported the cannon itself and a three-round belt of ready cartridges. Twenty yards to the northeast was a pit holding a transformer beneath surface level where it didn't interfere with starships being hauled across the port in giant cradles. Bloch hunched toward it at a dead run. The pit was the best cover in his sector.
All Fourth Platoon personnel wore hard suits. The crews handling the triple launchers had to worry about the backblast of their own heavy missiles, and a mist of ions as hot as a sun's corona bathed the cannoneers as soon as they began to fire their belt-fed weapons. The armor's protection from enemy counterfire was a secondary concern.
Meyer heard the high-pitched scream of Spook lasers in addition to the snarl of stingers and the crack WHAM! of the strikers' rockets. The port's surface flared white at the corner of her eye as a beam burned concrete to glass and quicklime. The Spooks were awake, though for the moment they seemed to be spraying the landscape in panic.
Bloch stepped into the waist-high transformer pit and wrestled the gun onto its bipod in firing position. Santini simply pushed the ammo dolly in ahead of himself. The cannisters were padded against shock, but a direct hit from a laser might penetrate. The best result the crew could hope for then was a low-order explosion that might not kill them. If the bead of deuterium at the heart of each cartridge detonated, hard suits weren't going to make any difference to the resulting thermonuclear explosion.
The captured freighter erupted smoke and another sheaf of anti-emitter missiles. Those were launched automatically when the unit's artificial intelligence sensed Kalendru-type radio frequency emissions. The streak of light that ended in a lightning-sharp explosion in the transient barracks was a missile from one of 4th Platoon's triple launchers. That was fast work, but the team had set up beside the ship because there wasn't any cover in their direction anyway.
Meyer jumped her dolly into the transformer pit and followed it. Bloch fired his ready ammunition in three ravening pulses as fast as the gun would cycle. The ringing air glowed like the heart of a rainbow.
"Feed me!" the sergeant screamed as Santini dragged a 16-round belt from one of his cannisters. "Feed me!"
As she opened a cannister one-handed, Meyer looked over the rim of the pit. She dialed up her visor's magnification. The gun was placed to cover the main highway entering the starport from the north. Seven miles up that road was the planet's largest military base, code-named Active Grid for this operation. That was probably where the tank at which Bloch was hammering had come from.
The plasma bolts had grounded the huge vehicle in an iridescent fireball, but they hadn't destroyed it. Air shimmered in a corona discharge as the tank's generators rebuilt its magnetic shielding.
The Spooks were awake, all right.
The front door of the guard barracks started to open while Striker Caius Blohm was still twenty yards from the building. He fired one of his penetrator grenades through the panel. An instant later the warhead's atomized fuel mixed with the air and detonated, blowing splinters of the door in one direction and the charred fragments of the Spook in the other.
Blohm liked to be on point. In this war the choice was to be quick or dead, and the Spooks were plenty damn quick. Your best chance of survival was the Spook's hesitation, and if you hesitated you were handing him your head as well as maybe the heads of the strikers behind you. Technically the building's ground floor wasn't Blohm's responsibility, but this wasn't a time to stand on ceremony.
Blohm trusted himself not to hesitate. Never. Not so much as a heartbeat.
First Platoon's objective was to clear the garrison's three-story barracks. The planners had nixed putting a heavy rocket into the structure because the port command center might be either in the barracks or in the administration building.
The command center would be hardened. Burying it in the rubble of the upper floors wouldn't keep the Spooks in the center from using their outlying gun and missile positions to blow the hell out of first C41, then any Unity vessel that appeared on this hemisphere of the planet.
Blohm and Sergeant Gabrilovitch were C41's scouts. They'd been assigned to lead the four survivors of the platoon's understrength First Squad through the top floor of the barracks while the remainder of the platoon took care of the lower stories. If there was a control room in the basement, Lieutenant Kuznetsov wanted to be able to open it without worrying about Spooks coming down the stairs behind her.
At the base of the wall Blohm armed his jump belt. He paused and bent over when he heard the roaring ignition of one of Heavy Weapons' 50-pound rockets. An instant later the transient compound to Blohm's left disintegrated in a green flash and a thunderclap.
The rocket warheads pulsed electricity through an osmium wire whose resistance blew it apart with enormous force. Batteries stored energy more efficiently than chemical high explosives. The bursting wire propagated shockwaves at several times the rate of HE, giving the warheads great shattering force.
Excerpted from Redliners by David Drake Copyright © 1996 by David Drake. Excerpted by permission.
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