SECOND IN THE HELIUM-3 SERIES
By HOMER HICKAM
Thomas Nelson Copyright © 2013Homer Hickam
All rights reserved.
A full tide of glittering stars and fluorescent galaxies washed across the darkness of eternity, the flood of heaven a welcome distraction to Crater Trueblood, who lay in a crumbling ditch waiting to kill or be killed. Actually, it wasn't a ditch at all but an ancient rille that had fallen inward between two faults in the moon's crust, but the Colonel had called it a ditch and Crater supposed it didn't matter much what it was called, considering it was just a place to hide before a battle began.
To his left and right, thirty heel-3 miners-turned-irregular-soldiers gripped their electric railgun rifles and lay in the gray, gritty dust, waiting for the signal to attack. Crater brought his helmet scanner down to the crater-pocked plain that fronted the dustway, the main heel-3 convoy road that crossed a thousand miles of the moon from Moontown to Armstrong City. To the west, snaking around a low hill, a convoy of heel-3 trucks was trundling along toward a feature on the dustway known as the Sinking Ship, a big, brown rock that looked like the prow of a ship sinking into the dust. The convoy was bait for the enemy. If all went according to the Colonel's plan, the convoy would be ambushed by the crow-hoppers, who would then be ambushed themselves. Crater saw the glint of something metallic on the other side of a low hill. The Colonel's plan was working. The crowhoppers were coming.
"Crater!" the Colonel snapped. "Have a look at the battleputer."
Crater didn't understand why the Colonel wanted him to look at the battleputer, but he slid back from the ragged lip of the rille and had a look over the shoulder of the battleputer operator, a fellow who went by the name of Cat Tramon. The view was a signal from a flying drone. In the light gravity of the moon, the drone, no bigger than a small Earthly bird, pulsed along using laser bursts to keep it aloft while it scanned the ragged surface below. Cat gave the hand signal for enemy approaching to the Colonel.
Colonel John High Eagle Medaris, in dust-covered coveralls and an old scarred helmet, nodded his approval. Infrared signatures showed the creatures moving across the plain, threading through a crater field. "I count twenty moving into position to ambush the convoy, Colonel," Cat said. "No evidence of spiderwalkers."
Crater was glad they weren't going to have to face the eight-legged war machines the crowhoppers sometimes rode into battle. In past battles, he'd fought these mechanical beasts with artificial intelligence and snapping pincers and thought himself lucky to have survived. The crowhoppers on foot were tough enough.
Crater studied the battleputer screen and saw the signature of a jumpcar parked a mile to the rear behind the rim of a large crater. Its landing two weeks ago had been reported by a Lunatic—one of those hardy moon pioneers who lived alone in the wayback—which caused the Colonel to send out the drone, then call up the Moontown Irregulars who, like Crater, were Helium-3 miners employed by the Colonel's company. The crowhoppers were part of an invading force mostly destroyed by Lunar Council forces over a three-year period. The genetically tweaked troops, sent by the Unified Countries of the World to take over the lunar Helium-3 supply, were reeling after a series of setbacks. This group, then, was a desperate remnant of a defeated army.
Crater saw the glowing figures on the battleputer begin to disperse. "They're fanning out," Cat warned. "Moving into ambush position."
"Tell me when they're set," Colonel Medaris answered. "Then we'll go at 'em."
Crater glanced back at the Colonel. The old man's expression was intent, even eager for the coming battle. The Colonel was undeniably a great man. He'd pioneered the Helium-3 scrapes on the moon, founded Moontown, and built many companies large and small. But he was also a man who did not seem to mind the blood and stink of war. General Robert E. Lee, the "Gray Fox" of the American Civil War, said, "It is well war is so horrible else we would become too fond of it." Crater wondered what General Lee would make of the Colonel. He was well fond of war and did not seem to mind its horrors, nor the body count of friend and foe, as long as he was victorious.
"All right, Crater," the Colonel barked. "You've seen enough. Get back in line."
"Here we go again," Asteroid Al said to Crater as he crawled back into the rille, then added, "I hope this is the last battle."
Crater gripped his old friend's shoulder. "There can't be many crowhoppers left, Al."
"We keep thinking that, then we're called up to fight some more. I've had it, Crater. I'm a heel-3 miner, not a soldier. I can't take much more of this."
"Today you're a soldier. You've got to think and act like a soldier to stay alive."
"Silence in the ranks!" the Colonel growled.
"Get scragged, you old reprobate," Asteroid Al muttered.
"What did you say, Al?" the Colonel barked. "Keep your focus, man."
Al shook his head, gritted his teeth, and clutched his rifle. Crater looked down the line and saw one of the Irregulars climb out of the rille and crawl back toward a small crater. Since he was in charge of that section of the line, Crater moved to stop the man.
"Crater!" the Colonel snapped. "Who told you to go anywhere?"
Crater ignored the Colonel and kept crawling. He stopped the retreating trooper by putting his gloved hand on his shoulder, but then Crater saw it wasn't a man at all but a boy. "Get back in line," Crater said.
The wild-eyed boy stared back at him.
"What's your name, soldier?" Crater demanded.
"F-Freddy Hook," the boy croaked.
"Hook? Are you Liu Sho Hook's boy?"
"Your mom's the best blue banger—I mean foreman—on the scrapes. What are you doing out here?"
"V-Volunteered. I came in by jumpcar just a few hours ago with the other new fellows. Mom didn't want me to go but I thought it was my duty."
Your duty, Crater thought, is to grow up and be a good man. But he didn't say that. The boy was here, he had a rifle, and he was needed to fill out the ranks. "You're going to get back in line now, Freddy."
"I'm scared," Freddy said.
Crater made the necessary eye movements toward the heads-up display screen on his helmet to turn his do4u to the private frequency of an experienced fighter named Doom. Before coming to the moon, Doom, once a citizen of the Republic of North India, had been a mercenary in several Earthly armies. "Doom, I need you," he said.
Doom crawled over and Crater pointed at the boy. "Someone needs to look after Freddy. I'd do it but I think the Colonel's got something planned for me. He's been on my case all day."
"With pleasure," Doom said and moved to lie beside Freddy. He patted him on the back, then pointed at the power setting on the boy's rifle. "Move that to the highest level. You must not wound a crowhopper. You must kill him or he will kill you."
The boy fumbled with the setting, then looked up for approval. Doom smiled at him. "We are going to get back in line now. You will be fine, Freddy. Just stay with me."
"Y-Yes, sir." Freddy gulped.
"Crater," the Colonel hissed. "Stop playing around and get back up here. I want you to take charge of the attack."
Crater clambered over to the Colonel and switched to his private channel. "Why me?"
"Why not you? My orders are simple. Kill them all. Remember it's only crowhoppers. It isn't as if they are real humans."
Crater couldn't argue with the Colonel's opinion. Crowhoppers were a foul bunch, fond of killing, and it
Excerpted from CRESCENT by HOMER HICKAM. Copyright © 2013 by Homer Hickam. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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