The ship’s hull ran aground with a spine shivering scrape that Lang felt from the pit of his stomach up into the base of his skull. Priss and Harrigan slammed forward against the straps of their chairs, bracing their hands against the panel. Lang stood at the pilot’s controls with no restraints, no seat and nothing but the front windscreen to stop him if he pitched forward off of the bridge. He grabbed the throttle in a death grip and threw his weight back.
For about three seconds this gambit worked and he leaned back over the deck at a sixty degree angle. Then the ship came to a stop and he flopped back onto his ass. “We’ve made landfall!” He called down to the main deck. He wasn’t sure what the appropriate nautical phrase for landfall was but hopefully Yang wouldn’t hold it against him. As he scrambled back to his feet he added, “Harry, Priss, head to your ground units.”
Priss, a veteran of many of the same rough landings he was, instantly hit her quick release and vacated the bridge. Harrigan was a little slower and less certain on his feet but he was gone fast enough. Lang scrabbled to his feet and hit the emergency shutdown command on his screen. Then he followed up by grabbing the physical shutdown lever and pulling it and set the ship’s computer to standby.
It was pretty doubtful the Fleet would want to recover the good yacht Armstrong but energy conservation discipline was a habit one could lose in a single moment of negligence so Lang waited just long enough to confirm the ship’s systems were, in fact, dormant before he left the bridge. The decks below were a mess.
Hard impacts were a part of space warfare just like any other kind of warfare but they were a lot rarer on a ship the size of the Sea of Tranquility. The spacers who’d come down in Lang’s group were mostly off of that ship and even those who had seen combat still weren’t used to the kind of shock that came with running aground. They lay scattered around the deck, struggling to get back to their feet and into fighting trim. Except for Captain Yang. She strode across the deck, bracing her armored exoskeleton and hauling other spacers to their feet like a Valkyrie rallying troops for Ragnarok. It would’ve been inspiring if they weren’t on the deck of the most luxurious ship Lang had ever seen.
Still, his evaluation of the captain went up a notch.
“Go, go, get to ground,” she snapped, pushing spacers towards the side of the ship. Inflatable slides, which were apparently some kind of emergency measure, were expanding off the decks towards the ground and a few adventurous souls had already slid down them and were securing the landing area around the ship.
Lang walked up to the captain and saluted. “Ma’am. The Armstrong is secure, or as secure as we can make it. Once engineering has the reactor shut down we’re ready to abandon ship.”
“Any chance we can reuse her?” Yang asked, doing a visual sweep of one of the yacht’s interior cabins.
“I have no idea without knowing how bad the hull damage was when we ran aground or how hard it will be to get her back into the water. This isn’t my area of expertise.”
“Understood. Get in an exo and grab your gear, then. You can be my expert on UNIGOV. I’ll meet you at forward observation point theta once the boat’s empty.”
“Yes ma’am.” Another salute and Lang hopped down a slide and hustled over to the staging zone which was beneath the world’s most overgrown willow tree.
As expected, the decorative plants lining the river bank and grown wild for decades since their abandonment. Towering shrubs, thick stands of decorative grass and three disheveled willow trees hid the Los Angeles Nuclear Fusion reactor building from view. Most of the company’s gear was already there. His AI pinged the equipment that the quartermaster had earmarked for him and the lights on one of the self propelled cases there flashed blue.
Lang opened it and an exoskeleton driven armored suit immediately began unfolding out of it. Unlike the exo he’d used on his last trip to Earth, this was not a powered suit intended to boost his carrying capacity and ability to run without tiring. That suit had just been a collection of servos and load bearing metal bars. This suit included ablative ceramic plates covering his torso and upper limbs, heat dispersing plastic mesh gloves and heavy, rubberized magnetic boots. The heavier armor could withstand four direct hits from most plasma rifles in service through the Triad worlds. The boots and gloves were rated for two. There was also a small internal air tank and filtration system.
All in all, it was overkill for raiding a UNIGOV facility unless they had small scale versions of the disassembler field on hand. Then it was just inadequate.
As the exo stood up to full height Lang grabbed two grips on the inside of the breastplate and pushed them up. The suit unfolded even further and slipped the plate over his head. Then he pulled down and the whole mechanism began the process of automatically folding itself around his body. Other spacers, part of the Tranquility‘s boarding and security divisions, were doing the same around him. Lang saw they were moving slightly so that the exo’s mechanisms locked around them faster but he didn’t understand the process well enough to duplicate it so he just stood perfectly still and let the machine do it’s job.
Thirty seconds later he slipped his hands into the gloves and patted himself down. Everything felt like it was in place. The extra bulk from the armor was distracting but the suit’s servos were stronger to compensate for the weight so it didn’t feel any harder to move in than what he was used to. The biggest difference was the helmet, which included a heads up display that projected information from his AI when necessary. Lang found it distracting so he muted the function.
He’d just slung a plasma rifle over one shoulder when Priss and Harry turned up. He frowned, pretty sure they’d been assigned to a different ground unit and they were already in their suits. “What are you guys doing here?”
“The bridge over the secondary bypass sluice is out,” Harry said. “South group is now moving with center group and the major until we clear the building we think holds the seawater pumps.”
Lang had been so busy with the yacht and the landing that he hadn’t paid much attention to their plans for once they reached shore. He wasn’t entirely sure what buildings Harry was referring to so he just nodded. “What was wrong with the bridge?”
“Looked like they tried to drive something heavy over it recently,” Priss said. “The intact portion of the bridge was pretty overgrown but the place where it was broken looked fresh so we think it happened when UNIGOV tried to reactivate the plant.”
“Lovely.” Lang slotted his rifle’s spare power cells into his belt and closed up the equipment locker. “Guess their little accident buys them some time, at least.”
Harry was looking down at Lang’s feet. “Aren’t you going to wear your boots?”
“No point. UNIGOV facilities are, at base level, usually concrete walls and floors. There’s nothing metallic there for the magboots to grab onto so they’re not very useful for trick maneuvers and we’re planet side so there’s no chance the artificial gravity will go out.” Lang tapped the toes of his regular boots on the ground. “These babies are lighter and more comfortable than the magboots and the exo’s heels fit either one just fine.”
Harry nodded, his expression suggesting he understood Lang’s logic but didn’t approve of it. “Suit yourself, Sergeant.”
The use of the rank was a subtle acknowledgment that there wasn’t anything Harry could do about it and simultaneously a pushing of responsibility for anything bad that happened to Lang off of the poor, put upon enlisted man. It was the kind of thing Lang had done plenty of times himself. He also didn’t really care if Harry liked his approach or not. He didn’t plan to change it even if the Captain herself thought it was a bad idea.
“I’ll do just that, Private.” Lang gestured through the brush ahead of them. “I’m under orders to meet the Captain at point theta which is right along your new route. Get the rest of your detatchmet together and we’ll head that way.”
“You got it, Sergeant.”
Harry scampered off to do as instructed but Priss hung back to shuck her mag boots and put her normal footwear back on. Sitting on one of the equipment crates she asked, “You’re an S6 now, that means you rate an EMG scanner in your load out, right?”
“I… dunno.” He tapped his helmet and brought his HUD back then opened the crate’s inventory to look it over. “I guess so. That’s surprising. I didn’t think they’d issue that kind of equipment to grunts like us, especially since I’m supposed to fly landing craft not slog around in gravity.”
“Lucky for us. Bring it with you in case the Earthlings decide to boot up another disassembler field, that way you can pick it up ahead of time.” Priss wiggled her dainty feet back into her standard issue boots. “Something like that will get you half way towards another promotion and we can start calling you Master Sergeant.”
Lang grinned. “Not if I properly credit the forward thinking initiative of people like Corporal Hu. Maybe you can look forward to a promotion to Lance Corporal.”
Priss had her helmet on already but from the set of her shoulders she was cringing in distaste. “Okay, I earned that one. I yield, I yield.”
“It might be better if I recommended you to OTC,” Lang continued, assuming an exaggerated thinking pose. “Then you could earn your butter bars and-”
“No, no, no!” Priss threw her hands up over her face. “Please, anything but officer training! I want to stay an honest girl and work for my living!”
“Yeah, Sergeant,” Harry said, threading his way through the supplies with four other men in tow. “Don’t do your girl dirty like that!”
Lang gave Harry a blank look, wondering what he meant. With a helmet in the way it was lost on its intended recipient because Harry just came to a stop and introduced the rest of his team. “Sarge, these are the rest of my boys – Barton, Keys, Yancey and Ramone.”
Ramone was a corporal, like Priss, but the rest were Privates or PFCs. “Pleased to meet you gentlemen. Today we’re going on a quick stroll from here to point theta, where we’ll go on our separate ways. Corporal Ramone, I take it you’re in charge of south group?”
“You got it, Sergeant,” Ramone said. He was a hair shorter than Lang but incredibly stocky, like a brick wall got up to go for a walk. “You going center?”
“I’m going with the Captain wherever she chooses to wind up.”
Ramone nodded sagely. “OBS duty.”
“After the month I’ve had, officer babysitting will be a dream come true,” Lang said. Although he wasn’t sure that was true, given that the officer in question was Captain Yang and she didn’t seem the type to take things easy. He fished his EMG scanner out of his equipment crate and held it up. “Anyone here familiar with how to run one of these? I’m afraid I only use the kind built into landers.”
Yancey raised his hand. “EMG was my secondary specialty in advanced training, Sarge. We had to run a standard orienteering course with one of those as part of our final qualifications.”
Lang slapped the bulky sensor package into the PFC’s hands and said, “Congratulations, Yancey. You’re now in charge of watching out for the enemy’s primary weapon’s system.”
“Aye, sir,” Yancey said, securing the EMG scanner to his armor’s forward hard points across his chest. “I’ll let you know the moment I pick up any sign of an anomalous magnetic field. Just be aware that we may need to go slow. The fusion plant itself puts out a monstrous mag field. It’ll take a couple of seconds for the sensor to pick through that kind of background noise as we advance.”
“Speed is worth more than safety in this situation,” Lang said, “although I’ll take all I can of both. Just tell me if you see anything out of the ordinary. Let’s go boys.”
As it turned out they got around the brush patch and halfway to point theta before Yancey found anything. They were cresting a low hill that formed an artificial bowl around the reactor, probably intended to channel any major leaks from the reactor buildings out to sea and away from the city, when the private announced, “Magnetic spike, Sarge. Six and a half Teslas of force, originating from the direction of the reactor building.”
“It’s growing?” Lang asked.
“Not right now,” Yancey said, tapping on the EMG rig to make some kind of adjustment. “But it wasn’t there before. The signal just popped up out of nowhere, it’s not something the sensor sorted out of the background noise.”
“Maybe the hill was blocking it?” Keys suggested.
“No, if the hill was made out of something that could block a magnetic field the reactor’s signature would’ve lost strength as we got closer to it. This field wasn’t there a minute ago, so somebody just turned it on.”
“Got it.” Lang tapped Harry and Barton on their shoulders. “Head up and peak over the hill, bring me a report.”
Two minutes later Harry was back, leaving Barton to watch the reactor building as he withdrew. “Definitely a disassembler field, Sarge. We could pick up the glittery effect plain as day. It might have been different if the sun got up higher but since we hit them so early in the morning the sunlight is still at an angle to really refract off the nanotech.”
“So they’ve got some kind of defense for the reactor facilities,” Lang mused.
“But not comprehensive,” Harry said. “We only saw signs of the field around the freight entrance on the southern building. We can probably advance to point theta safely.”
“Unless they can expand the field,” Lang said.
“Yes. Unless that.”
Point theta was a large road structure which the AI identified as a ’roundabout,’ a circular patch of road with another ornamental garden bed in it, according to the map. If it held to pattern there would be another large patch of shrubs they could use for cover there. However cover was only meaningful if it kept them from view; if UNIGOV already knew they were present it wouldn’t mean anything in the face of an expanding disassembler field. Point theta wasn’t a good place for them to rally anymore. They’d be safer in among the buildings of the complex itself than they would along the roads connecting them.
“Priss. Call up the Captain and inform her that point theta is compromised and suggest a new meeting place.”
She started working her comms unit before Lang even finished working. “What should I suggest as our new rallying point?”
“That depends. Did Lieutenant Fresh Face pull the deck guns off the Armstrong yet?”