Manxome foe votsb 3, p.4

Manxome Foe votsb-3, page 4

 part  #3 of  Voyage of the Space Bubble Series

 

Manxome Foe votsb-3
 



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  “Back to Earth,” Brooke said, her eyes widening. “You were going through the Looking Glasses? Were you going to Dreen planets? Is that why it was so—”

  “Look, I didn’t say that, okay?” Eric said. “Please please don’t repeat that. But, yeah, I was off-planet. And I’m going back. And it’s probably going to be bad. My unit’s job is to… poke. To poke to find out what’s there. And it’s generally hard and bad and nasty. And, yeah, a lot of it is interesting as hell and a lot of it is terrifying. And there’s a good chance I won’t come back. I’m not going to lay that on you. I’d love to say that I want to be with you, always. But I can’t put that on anybody. Not with my chances of coming back. That’s why I said I think this afternoon was a very bad idea. Had a great time; probably was a bad idea.”

  “I don’t think it’s a bad idea,” Brooke said. “You know why?”

  “Why?”

  “Because if you have somebody to come back to, there’s more reason to come back,” Brooke said. “Promise me you’ll come back. Promise.”

  “Can’t,” Eric said. “Because there were plenty of guys who had people to come back to that didn’t. I was at the memorial. There were crying widows all over the place.”

  “Then I’ll say this. I won’t promise I won’t date other guys or anything, because you’re never home and I’ve got to go to prom with somebody. But I really like you, too, Eric. A lot more than any guy I’ve ever known. So when you come back, there will be a Brooke to come back to. Okay?”

  Eric’s implant dinged urgently. He ignored it, though, and took Brooke’s hand. “Brooke, honey—”

  “Priority Call from Gunnery Sergeant Daniel Neely,” the military issue implant whispered. “Priority call for Sergeant Eric Bergstresser…”

  “Damnit,” Eric said, activating the implant. “Sergeant Bergstresser.”

  “Two-Gun,” his platoon sergeant said. “Recall. Right now. Get your ass back to Newport News even if you’ve got it half stuck in.”

  “Maulk, maulk…” Two-Gun muttered. “Tell me you’re joking, Gunny.”

  “Negative,” the gunnery sergeant said. “Get moving, Two-Gun. That’s an order.”

  “Aye, aye,” Eric said. “Two-Gun, out.”

  “Two-Gun?” Brooke asked. “What was that… ?”

  “I have to go,” Eric said. “I need to take you home, then get home and pack.”

  “You’ve got a mission,” Brooke said, her already pale skin whitening. “Don’t you?”

  “I… I don’t know how long it will be until I can contact you,” Eric said, starting the truck and putting it in gear. “Normally that’s bullshit when someone says that. But in my case it’s true. I’ll be really seriously out of contact. And I don’t know for how long. Figure three months.”

  “Eric,” Brooke said about halfway home.

  “Yes?”

  “I take it back. I won’t sit under the apple tree with anyone else. Not for five months. I’ll give you that long.”

  “I can’t say I’m sorry,” Eric replied. “But I also can’t say you won’t be.”

  “Can I just ask one teeny question about what you do?” Brooke asked.

  “Maybe.”

  “Why did you call yourself Two-Gun?”

  3

  Any casual observer would have noticed the sudden flurry of activity on a sleepy Sunday evening on a normally nearly deserted platform. The apparent street person muttering to himself on the platform’s single bench was anything but a casual observer. He had memorized a list of faces but in many cases he didn’t really need it. The one Marine in incongruous dress blues he’d seen in the news.

  Moscow Center was going to be very interested in this development. The entire crew of the Vorpal Blade seemed to be flooding back, quite unexpectedly. There could be only one reason for that and by tomorrow Akulas would be redeploying to watch for the American’s newest “submarine” as it set sail.

  However, although he was a trained observer, he hadn’t noticed that one platform up, the only route down to this platform, the Pakistani vendor of the sundries shop had apparently sold out to a new Chinese owner.

  More than Akulas would be watching.

  “Two-Gun,” Michael Gants said, sucking in through his teeth. “Now we all know it’s gonna get bad.”

  “Sub Dude,” Eric said, nodding at the machinist’s mate. “Scared any children lately?”

  “My kids scare me,” Gants replied. “And the other kids. And casual strangers. And Jehovah’s Witnesses, although I can’t complain about that one.”

  “Hey, Two-Gun,” Corporal Julian Nicholson said. “How they hanging?”

  “That’s Sergeant Bergstresser to you, Nugget,” Eric replied. “But for your information, at the moment they’re pulled up and blue. I was in the middle of a date.”

  “Sucks to be you, Sergeant,” the corporal said as the light over the entry turned green. “What’s up with the recall?”

  “If I knew, I certainly wouldn’t be telling you on an open platform, Corporal,” Eric replied, swiping his card and stepping through the Looking Glass.

  The guard on the far side had been augmented by three Navy NCOs, a Navy lieutenant Eric didn’t recognize and Gunnery Sergeant Neely.

  “At Ease!” the gunny shouted as the group gathered in front of the gate, chattering. “LT?”

  “Busses outside,” the lieutenant said into the quiet. “Front two are for Naval personnel, rear one for the Marines. Fall into your busses. You’re not going to get briefed until you’re all in a secure area, so don’t bother asking. Now get moving.”

  “Two-Gun,” Gunny Neely said as he headed for the exit. “As soon as you get your shit stored, get your team down to the quarterdeck. As soon as the company’s assembled, Top’s going to brief us.”

  “Aye, aye, Gunny,” Eric said. “Any clues?”

  “What you’ve got is what I’ve got.”

  “Get the grapp out of the rack, into uniform and down to the quarterdeck,” Eric said, sticking his head into the two-man room occupied by the rest of his team. Lance Corporals Mark Smith and Mark Himes, or as he half thought of them “Mark y Mark” were replacements as was most of the “company.” Normally, Force Recon companies were oversized with a full count of grunts, around a hundred and forty, and a mass of detachments. They were some of the largest “companies” in the military, with a TO E of over two hundred bodies.

  The Space Marine company was, by contrast, probably the smallest. It only had a total complement of forty-one, including its very limited number of “clerks and jerks.” Essentially, it was a platoon with some supports. But since the job of leading it required at least a captain, it got called a company.

  The replacements had mostly come from the two full-sized Force Recon companies. A few were direct from the new Force Recon qual course. In many cases, teams were made up of guys who had trained with each other for years. They knew each other, understood each other’s strengths and weaknesses, had team names they used, were a team.

  Berg had a hard time remembering most of their names. He sometimes forgot even the names of the platoon sergeants. To him, and the other two junior survivors of the last mission, they were all Nuggets. They might be Marines, they might even be Force Recon. They weren’t Space Marines.

  “Jesus, we just got in,” Himes said or at least Eric thought it was Himes. The two replacement lance corporals were similar in appearance, both being tall and stocky with brown hair and regular features. When they’d first started training, the only way that Eric could tell them apart was that Smith had a tattoo of a spider on the back of his neck. If he was looking at them face on he regularly got them confused until he looked at their name tags.

  “And we’re going out nearly as fast,” Berg said tightly.

  “What’s up, Sergeant?” Smith said, rolling out of his rack and pulling a set of digi-cam out of his wall-locker.

  “That’s what we’re here to find out,” Berg said. “Now get a move on, Marine
s.”

  The company had fallen out on the quarterdeck, a large indoor area on the side of the barracks that doubled as a PT room. It was, however, fairly secure with thick concrete walls lined by a Faraday cage to prevent electronic eavesdropping.

  Looking around, since they were at Rest, Eric could tell that some people were missing. But Corwin and Seeley were there, the only two junior enlisted members of the old company to have survived besides himself. The survivors had been distributed around, each in a different platoon. Berg was the team leader for Bravo Team, First Platoon, the Alpha Team position being reserved for a staff sergeant. Seeley was a “rifleman” in Alpha Second and Corwin was a cannoneer in Alpha Third.

  A third face, though, caught his eye. Corporal Joshua Lyle was standing in position just down from Seeley in Third Platoon. The very tall and skinny corporal with a shock of short-cut nearly white hair was cocked slightly to the side, the result of a nearly fatal Humvee accident. He’d been in rehab for damned near a year before being returned to duty as an armorer. But the spot he was standing in was for one of the line platoons.

  “Lurch?” Berg said, twisting to look at the armorer. “Aren’t you sort of out of position?”

  “Not anymore,” the corporal replied in a deep baritone. “While you guys was on vacation, I was going through re-qual. I’m cleared for line duty,” he finished with a grin.

  “Congratulations,” Eric said honestly. He liked the quirky armorer and was glad he was back on the line, which had always been his preference. “But who’s going to come up with weird, wacky and vitally necessary weapons on the spur of the moment? I depend on you, Lurch!”

  “I trained in the new guy,” Lurch said, grinning. “I think he might do.”

  “You di’n’t train me for nottink, Corporal!” an accented voice said from the rear of the formation. “I pocking train you!”

  Berg couldn’t for the life of him see who was speaking so he lifted up on tiptoes. Beside the new operations sergeant, he could see a shock of black hair and that was about it. Whoever had spoken was apparently just barely regulation height.

  “Okay, I admit it,” Lurch said, still grinning. “Sergeant Portana was one of my instructors in Armorer’s School.”

  “Dat right,” the apparently Sergeant Portana said loudly. “And I t’ought you neber pocking pass…”

  “Ten-hut!” First Sergeant Powell bellowed, striding towards the front of the formation. “And for those of you who cannot recall your basic military etiquette that means stand straight with your mouth shut.”

  Top looked around the formation and nodded.

  “Report!”

  “First Platoon, one missing!”

  “Second Platoon, three missing or not present!”

  “Third Platoon, two Marines missing or not present!”

  “Not bad,” Top said. “At Ease. First an administrative item. Captain Zanella, having noted the cost of a roll of space tape and its impact on the budget, has ordered all personal rolls turned in and use of the material in the future to be by platoon leaders and platoon sergeants and above only and only in fully official capacities.”

  “First Sergeant?” Corwin said, raising his hand. “Did you… discuss this with the Old Man?”

  “No, I didn’t, Corwin,” Top replied. “He’s responsible for the budget. It’s his call.”

  “Aye, aye, First Sergeant,” Corwin replied, frowning.

  “What’s the deal?” Himes whispered.

  “Space tape is…” Berg said, his eyes wide. “Space tape is how everything works! Without space tape we’re…”

  “At ease,” the first sergeant said, quieting the murmurs. “Now for the mission. A research group on one of the gate worlds was apparently attacked. The gate has been closed for safety purposes. We are ordered to investigate, see if there are any survivors of the attack and our response, determine who the attackers were and report back. The world is going to be about a month’s cruise away. We will be doing pre-mission physicals en route. We lift no later than midnight on Tuesday. The ship is done refitting except for some minor details but none of our shit is on-board. We have two days to get everything loaded in my order of importance. Since that includes the Wyverns, and the ship will be loading all her other maulk at the same time, we’re going to be pressed for time. So I need you to stay focused on the mission and not grapping off. Are there any questions?”

  “First Sergeant?” Seeley said, raising his hand.

  “Go, Chuckie.”

  “So our mission, as Space Marines, is to go to a planet where a colony has been attacked and contact is cut off, find out who attacked them and deal with it?” Seeley asked.

  “Correct,” the first sergeant replied. “And, no, Chuckie, you can not ask ‘How do I get out of this chickenmaulk outfit.’ ”

  “How’s it going, Astro?” the CO asked, looking over Weaver’s shoulder as sailors toted bundles through the crowded conn.

  The ASS Vorpal Blade had undergone several changes that were not directly inherent to her mission. One example was moving a small navigational section into the conn. The already crowded compartment did not need to become more crowded and navigation could, technically, be done from anywhere on the ship. However, it was recognized that the nature of the astrogator was such that he doubled as, effectively, the ship’s science officer. Anything “scientifically weird” about what they were doing — defined as astronomical, astrophysical or gravitational anomalies — meant that the conning officer was going to ask the astrogator: “Okay, what’s going on?” It just made sense to, somehow, shoehorn the astro into the same compartment as the guy doing the asking.

  Doing so, however, had been difficult. Despite the massive size of a ballistic nuclear missile submarine, the interior was cramped. The conn was the size of a small living room, only ten feet wide and barely twelve long. It contained the diving board, the planesmen, the conning officer, etc. Six people, their chairs in several cases, readouts, input systems, screens and the equipment they handled had to fit in an area most people would consider comfortable for two.

  The designers had managed to fit a station designed for underwater navigation and deep space astrogation in. They had done so by making everything very small.

  “There are times that I’d kill for one decent screen, sir,” Weaver answered, peering at the six-inch plasma screen, one of three stacked vertically, that currently showed a moving star field. “Not to mention a decent sized keyboard.” The one that he hit a command on was about the size of a laptop’s.

  “Want to use the main viewers?” the CO asked, pointing forward.

  While there was not a huge amount of lateral space in the conn, there was a bit more vertically. Oh, it wasn’t a high compartment, but there was some free space.

  The Blade, during its repairs, had been upgraded with a set of adjustable screens for viewing in the conn. Made by the Adari, they were not only thin, they were flexible. They could be rolled down from the overhead and while fairly rigid were flexible enough that if someone hit them with his head they would bend rather than cause a concussion.

  They also were selectively sizeable. Although they were normally rolled down so that they were only a meter or so in height they could be lowered all the way to the deck. With all six deployed and an exterior view on, it was a bit like being on the hull. The capability had forced the refitters to, reluctantly, remove the “window” in conn from the Blade.

  “Not with what I’m working on, sir,” Bill said, grinning. “I don’t want the crew getting any more nervous about this mission than they already are. And having the astrogator obviously unsure where he’s going wouldn’t be good.”

  “Just tell me we’re not going to hit any stars,” the CO said.

  “Can’t, sir,” Bill replied. “Basically, we’re going far enough out that the star charts start getting iffy. I take that back. We shouldn’t hit any stars. Just the new visuals would prevent that.”

  The viewscreens wouldn’t be of mu
ch use without something to see. Another upgrade had been to install a series of powerful telescopes on the sail and in “bubbles” about the circumference of the hull. With the new main telescope, which was good enough to resolve a twenty-meter diameter boulder on the Moon, the ship had powerful “eyes” pointed in every direction. In space, visual detection was still one of the better ways to find things. But the retrofit of such a large aperture telescope was a problem.

  Initially the plans were to put a three-meter diameter mirror Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope on the sail. The problem with that was the fact that the three-meter honeycombed optic and housing and the tracking and pointing hardware would take up an area on the boat the size of a one-car garage. They might have gotten the various countries interested in this new “submarine” to think it was a helo hangar… or not. And the drag underwater would be God-awful. So a single large telescope idea was scrapped.

  Weaver had figured out a better solution. He set up five smaller half-meter diameter telescopes in the right locations about the ship’s circumference so that they would look like they were pieces of a much larger mirror when they were pointed together. The mirrors were placed in a circle about the submarine’s hull and when acting together they acted like one mirror the diameter of the ship plus some — about twelve meters. In technical optics terms this was called a sparse array telescope. The actual configuration was known as a “circle five” primary optic.

  The problem with the sparse array was that all the mirrors had to be precisely positioned and controlled to within a few millionths of a meter and this required two things: 1) Adar jitter control hardware and software and 2) the ship had to be pointed in the direction of the celestial object being observed. The design also limited the main scope to a degree or so of steering about the ship’s travel axis. On the other hand, there were five half-meter telescopes that could be used as separate systems giving full spherical view of the space around the ship. Each would have less resolving power but until someone came up with “long-range viewers” that not only could identify an individual face from a hundred light-years away but could do so faster than light… they’d have to put up with reality.

 
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