I said I’d return

Like many folks yesterday, I overdid. Not with food or drink but with too much heat and time on my feet. One of our annual fundraisers for the local library is parking cars for 4thFest. It is always fun because you get to spend the day with friends. I love seeing how kids dress up for the celebration and the anticipation they have for the fireworks is wonderful to behold. However, each year reminds me that I am getting older and working the full day isn’t something I will probably do in the future. The downside today is that my brain is still not functioning enough to formulate a coherent post. So, since one of the purposes of this blog is to promote our work, I’m going to do just that. This is the first section of my short story, Battle Bound. This is the second of three short stories I am writing in the Honor and Duty (3 Book Series) universe. It follows Taking Flight (Honor and Duty) and comes before the novels in the series.

War has been officially declared. The Devil Dogs, along with elements of the Fuerconese Navy are tasked with liberating a system that the Callusians have invaded.

As with Taking Flight (Honor and Duty), this is a rough draft and changes will be made prior to publication. It also means there may be some spelling and grammar errors that will be corrected prior to publication. The story will be posted in three or four parts. I will leave it up on the blog for a week or so before taking it down so I can post it on Amazon. This story is copyright © 2016 by Amanda S. Green, writing as Sam Schall. All rights reserved. This story or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

Battle Bound

battleboundAnother mission briefing with yet more plans that would not survive the first encounter with the enemy. Every Marine learned that lesson early in their career. Failure to do so, and to learn to adapt to new circumstances, meant death and not necessarily of just the Marine foolish enough to cling to battle plans drawn up in the sterile confines of a briefing room far from the fighting. Even so, pre-mission briefings did serve a purpose, at least if the mission commander understood how battles were won and lost. These briefings allowed those involved the chance to voice their concerns and offer alternatives should the proverbial shit hit the fan.

Something that happened more often than not when the Callusians were involved.

From where she stood near the far bulkhead in the Admiral’s ready room, Ashlyn Shaw, newly brevetted to the rank of major for the duration of the mission, studied those already gathered. The seven men and women gathered around the table wore the uniform of the Fuerconese Navy. Six of them represented Admiral Miranda Tremayne’s senior staff. The seventh, Captain Terrance Riordan, commanded the Frank Fletcher, flagship for the taskforce. The seven spoke softly amongst themselves, a few of them checking in with their stations as they waited for the Admiral’s arrival.

“Ten-hut!”

Shaw’s order rang out the moment the hatch slid open and Admiral Tremayne stepped inside. As those seated around the table stood and braced to attention, Ashlyn watched with the critical eye of a Devil Dog, the premier SpecOps unit of the Fuerconese Marine Corp, as Tremayne’s Marine escort took up positions on either side of the hatch. Their eyes swept the room, looking for any threat. They might not be Devil Dogs but they knew their duty – to protect the Admiral at any cost.

“At ease.”

Tremayne took her place at the head of the table. Once seated, she nodded and two stewards appeared to pour coffee and tea for those who wanted it. When one of them approached, Ashlyn shook her head. There would be time for coffee later. Besides, choosing to stand had its drawbacks, one of them being she had nowhere to put a mug should she have to move quickly. At least the Admiral had learned over the course of the last two months not to ask if she wanted to have a seat.

“As you know, we are on our final approach to the Bennington System,” Tremayne began as the holo display over the table came to life. For a brief moment, the taskforce’s icon filled the display. Then it disappeared, replaced by a 3-D representation of the system. “What you see displayed is the latest data received from the probes launched by the Asimov on its last pass along the system border. This data is less than forty-eight hours old.”

Ashlyn studied the display for a moment and then glanced at the Admiral. As she did, she frowned slightly. Tremayne’s expression betrayed nothing, unless you knew her as well as Ashlyn did. Not only was the Admiral one of her mother’s best friends, she was Ash’s god mother as well. Tremayne had been a part of her life as long as she could remember. Because of that, she noted the slight tightening around the Admiral’s mouth and the concern that darkened her eyes.

“As you can see, the data, for the most part, confirms what we have come to expect from the enemy.” Tremayne activated the virtual keyboard in front of her and typed in a series of commands.

A moment later, a number red dots appeared in what, at first glance, looked like a random patter than overlaid the original display. Ash studied the latest addition for a moment before pulling her datapad from the pocket at her left thigh. Her fingers flew as she typed in a command. She looked at the information on her screen and then back at the holo display. As she did, she had a feeling the new data was about to throw one very large wrench in their battle plans.

“As you can see, there have been some changes.” Tremayne highlighted the red dots. “Sometime between the previous data dump and this one, the enemy laid mines along the main approach lanes ot Pioneer’s Landing.” She typed in another command and a dozen or so green lights, some circular and others triangular, appeared. “They have also put additional defense platforms in place. The circles represent the new platforms, most likely mobile platforms that can be towed form one position to another as needed. These platforms represent a challenge we much address before entering the system. Tactical as well as CIC confirm that the platforms are not aimed outward but inward. They are targeting major assets dirtside on each of the system’s inhabited planets.”

“And the others, Ma’am?” Captain Riordan asked.

“Those are the original system defense platforms. It appears that the Callusians have repaired them after the invasion and have them armed and ready to use against anyone who might attempt to liberate the system.”

As the others discussed the new data and what it could mean to their current plan of battle, Ashlyn remained silent. She stepped away from the bulkhead and walked around the table, taking in the holo-display from all sides. As she did, she felt Tremayne watching her, no doubt wondering what she was thinking.

“Permission to speak, Ma’am?” Ash asked as she once again took up her position near the far bulkhead.

“Granted.”

Tremayne’s lips twitched in approval and Ashlyn fought back a smile. She had carefully phrased her request so it would remind the Naval officers not only of their breach in etiquette by speaking without permission but also that they needed to work together to figure out a plan of action. When several almost audibly snapped their jaws shut, Ash knew she had made her point. Good. It was time to get to work.

“Do we have a reading the locations of the enemy ships?”

Tremayne typed in another command sequence and white icons appeared. Ash frowned slightly as she studied them and their relative locations with regard to the targets her Marines were there to retake. The feeling of something being wrong she’d had since entering the ready room grew. Everything she saw on the holo display was wrong. Either their data was in error or the enemy had changed tactics and neither explanation bode well for their mission.

“Several things bother me about this latest data, Admiral. The first are these new platforms. I can’t allow my Marines to make planetfall until those platforms are taken off-line. The attack shuttles would make easy targets. Then, even if they made it dirtside, the platforms could still take out our target areas. We would be sacrificing the Marines for nothing.”

“Agreed. But you said several things bother you, Major.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” She quickly gathered her thoughts. It should be clear to anyone studying the data that something was wrong. She might not know the what or the why but her gut told her they needed to proceed with caution. Long ago, she had learned to trust her instincts. They had kept her and those under her command alive more than once. Now she hoped the Naval-types understood her concern.

“Assuming the data is correct, where did the rest of the Callusian ships go?” She indicated the white icons. “This latest reading seems to indicate there is, at best, a squadron still on-station. Our previous readings showed at least a taskforce. So where did they go and when?”

“Agreed, Major, and those are questions I’ve been asking since first seeing the data.” Tremayne nodded to Riordan. He typed in a series of commands and a moment later the holo display split into two images: the one they had been studying and one showing the previous data sent by their long-range probes. The difference was startling. “Major Shaw hit on my main concern,” Tremayne said. “Tactical and our sensor techs have checked and double-checked the latest information. The probes are functioning properly and each of those released by the Asimov responded when test signals were sent. That means something has happened in the last seventy-two hours to more than two-thirds of the Callusian force in-system. The question is what.

“While that is a question we have to address, one thing must be kept in mind. Sensor readings from the planets has remained unchanged for the most part. Groundside defense systems are active and the chatter is definitely Callusian. That means our mission is still in place. We are tasked with liberating the system no matter how the circumstances have changed.”

Having said her piece, for the moment at least, Ashlyn considered the data and her own mission parameters. Somehow, they had to deal with the new defense platforms so her Marines could drop dirtside. She also had to leave enough of her people onboard the flagship to help repel enemy forces should they manage to breach the taskforce’s defenses. Then there were the missing Callusian ships. Too many variables and even more possibilities and none of them eased her mind.

“I wish I could say we got lucky and something triggered a self-destruct sequence on the missing ships,” Tremayne was saying as Ashlyn once again turned her attention to the others. “If that were the case, sensors would have picked up both the explosions from the ships’ power plants going critical as well as debris. No such readings were made. Nor does this appear to be a case where the Callusians moved in, stripped the planets of resources and personnel and then destroyed the infrastructure.”

“It’s almost as if they want us to think they came and left without being forced out of the system,” Lieutenant Angelica Zamorano commented.

“Which is totally against the order of battle we’ve come to expect from them,” Tremayne said. “The question remains: what happened to those ships?”

For the next ten minutes, the Naval officers discussed various different ways to respond to the latest data. Ashlyn listened as several supported continuing with the current mission timeframe. After all, they argued, the lower number of enemy ships meant they should move in now, before reinforcements arrived. Even with the new defense platforms in place, Taskforce Liberator would have no problem securing the system and, in all likelihood, with little damage to their own ships.

Captain Riordan and several others urged caution. While it might be tempting to believe the Callusians had finally made a mistake that would work to Fuercon’s, not to mention the system’s, advantage, they hesitated. The Callusians had proven to be many things but cowards they weren’t. Even if they had discovered the probes the Asimov had launched in-system, they wouldn’t have run. History showed that. Instead of fleeing the system ahead of an anticipated attack by Fuercon or its allies, the Callusians would have destroyed the probes and increased system defenses.

“Major Shaw, I’ve heard from everyone but you,” Tremayne said.

Ashlyn fought the urge to hang her head and scuff her toe against the decksole as the Admiral looked at her, waiting for her response. When she had joined the taskforce, along with her company of Devil Dogs, she had done so as a newly promoted captain. Almost as soon as she was onboard, she had been breveted to the rank of major to avoid any possible confusion with Captain Riordan. Now she felt the rank and the responsibility that came with it weighing heavily on her.

“Ma’am, before I make any recommendations, I’d like to see each of the sensor reports side-by-side.” Hopefully they would give her an idea of how to respond to Tremayne.

Tremayne brought up the reports herself. Once she had, Ashlyn again moved closer to the holo display to compare them. As she did, she nodded to herself. Each reading until this last had been almost identical. Oh, the Callusian ships had been in different positions from reading to reading, which was to be expected. Different patrol patterns would explain that easily enough. Nothing about the earlier sensor reports explained how the ships could have left the system without being picked up by the probes. So where were they?

“Admiral, I’m a Marine and the first to admit I don’t understand nearly all there is to know about naval tactics, much less engineering. Could the ships have jumped out of the system without our probes having picked it up?”

“Negative, Major. Even our passive probes would have picked up such a maneuver, especially one involving so many ships.”

Ashlyn studied the holo display for another moment before continuing. “Ma’am, if this was a ground operation and we were wondering where the troops had disappeared to, my first assumption would be that they hadn’t, that they were simply hiding from our sensors in order to lure my Marines into a trap. Is it possible that’s what the Callusians are doing with their ships?”

“That would be my guess.” Another series of commands and the holo screen returned to the current data display, this time with the orbital pattern of the probes displayed. “As you can see, the probes have not had full coverage of the system. If the Callusians realized we were keeping an eye on their activities, they could have used the gaps in coverage to move their ships. Unfortunately, because of those gaps, we don’t know where those ships are now. That means we don’t know which approach in-system is safest.” Tremayne leaned forward and rested her chin on one upraised fist. “How would you handle this situation on the ground, Major?”

“I would send a diversionary force in first, Ma’am, and try to draw the enemy out. It would have to be a large enough force for them to believe it was a real assault but the bulk of my people would be held back, far enough away they wouldn’t detect us but close enough to respond before the diversionary force was overrun.”

“Captain Riordan?”

“It could work.”

For a moment, Ashlyn said nothing. But there were problems with such a plan, namely the defense platforms. What guarantees did they have that the Callusians wouldn’t fire on the assets planetside the moment they picked up the Fuerconese presence in-system? When she voiced her concern, Tremayne nodded once. As she did, Ashlyn thought she caught a quick look of approval from the Admiral. That was enough for her to speak up once again.

“Ma’am, I may have an idea but I’d like to run it by my LAC commander first.”

“Agreed,” Tremayne said. “The rest of you are dismissed. We’ll meet again in an half an hour. Be prepared to discuss any action you and your departments believe we should take, considering the latest set of data. Dismissed.”

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