Bruce Davis

Tales From the OR
Chain Story
The Quality of Mercy
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"In the face of battle, that which is human must stand aside so that the business of killing can commence unencumbered by remorse."

Joshua Chamberlin

Colonel, 20th Maine Vol.

July 3, 1863







Official Document-Not For Public Release

Briefing for New Officers, 4th Marine Orbital Attack Squadron, II Marine Expeditionary Force

1.a Current Status: The current front is centered around Epsilon Eridani with its eight jump points. UN forces currently control three jump points but have been unable to exploit this foothold due to heavy resistance from Rilz installations on the fourth planet (known as Kondrogor, its Rilz designation). Capture or neutralization of Kondrogor and consolidation of control over the Epsilon Eridani jump points will severely restrict Rilz lines of communication both within human space and also within the Rilz Imperium. Communicating jump points to the Epsilon Eridani system are currently under commercial restriction and all non-military transit is prohibited. This includes the Hibernia, K56 and Delta Pavonis systems.

1.b 4th MOAS is currently attached to the II Marine Expeditionary Force involved in police actions on Hibernia. An independent colony, Hibernia has attempted to negotiate a separate peace with the Rilz using its two jump points for leverage. The Hibernia System is considered strategically vital to the war effort as the only practical staging area for the eventual invasion of the Rilz Empire.

1.c Objectives: 1) Replace the current Hibernia Governing Council and neutralize further Hibernian armed resistance. 2) Minimize damage to infrastructure and defense installations. 3) Limit collateral civilian casualties.


                                                                 Part 1


                                              HIBERNIA: THE SHARP END



The A-20 Intruder hung in its launch bay tethered by intercom and power cables as fuel handlers completed the charging of its plasma bottles. In the no-weight hub of the Normandy, the deck crew in their colored jump suits flitted like mutant butterflies across the squat body and blunt nose of the orbital attack craft. From the cockpit, Lt. "Mac" McAllister watched the prelaunch preparations impassively.  The routine was comfortable, predictable. It helped him to focus and calm the excitement he still felt at the start of a mission. The missions might vary, but prelaunch never did.

He adjusted his helmet seals as he ran down the prelaunch checklist displayed on the datalink stuck to the thigh of his flight suit. The helmet was new and the inner padding still chaffed a bit around the scar behind his right ear where his radio link had been implanted. The scar was still sensitive despite being six years old. Scuttlebutt said that the radio implants were to be upgraded soon. He made a mental note to ask the medics if they could do something about the scar at the same time.

Mac completed the checklist and closed the datalink as he leaned back into the acceleration seat. He sighed deeply. The cockpit air was stale. The life support system had not completely purged itself after the last mission. It carried faint odors of hydraulic fluid, warm plastics and stale sweat; the familiar smells of prelaunch waiting. Mac opened the cockpit vents wider and felt cool air wash over his face.

The purple suited fuel handlers completed their work, disconnected the bulky magnetic collars from the plasma bottles and then locked down the access ports.  They were quickly replaced by red suited ordnance men who checked and armed the missiles and defensive systems slung under the Intruder's stubby wings. The wing control surfaces were fully retracted for reentry, the lift pods that allowed vertical takeoff and landing tucked into recesses in the upper part of the under slung hull. Ordnance hard points on the exposed portions of the wings carried armaments for a close air support mission.

The Intruder lacked the slim, elegant lines of a fighter. It was squat and blunt in the nose, like a club rather than an edged weapon. Designed to carry Marines and equipment into hostile territory and then remain on station for close air support, it was eighteen meters long from nose to forked tail. The main hull was a nine by three meter ovoid cylinder slung under a retractable wing unit. Its troop bay could hold a dozen Marines in fighting suits. Above the main hull, the twin booms of the tail extended back from the stubby wings to end in a bulging central nacelle that housed the main engine. The rear stabilizers formed a distinct V atop the engine housing. The space between the booms formed the carry bay for an Armored Personnel Carrier. Electromagnetic couplers held the heavily armored hovercraft snugly against the rear troop bay of the main hull during orbital and reentry maneuvers.    

As the ordnance handlers loaded the long belts of depleted uranium slugs into the magazines of the nose and dorsal turret guns, Mac absently touched a small holocube picture attached to the command console with a small glob of hull repair cement. This was a prelaunch ritual as well. He and Linda had been together for only nine months in the four years of their marriage. The holocube was as close as they were likely to get until the war was over.                     

            Finally the red suits drifted off into the airlocks.  Left hovering over the Intruder's nose was the yellow suited launch inspector.  He swept a practiced eye over the Intruder seeking flaws in its heat ablative surface. The ceramic foam that protected the craft during reentry covered the hull to a thickness of several centimeters. It was flat gray, with no telltale gleam of copper reactive armor or silver hull metal. Applied as a spray just hours before launch, the foam hardened to a solid coat within minutes. Irregularities in the hull around ordnance hard points were sometimes incompletely covered and the launch inspector surveyed these areas carefully. Satisfied, the inspector snapped Mac a brisk salute. Mac returned the salute absently as he activated the intercom link to the launch captain perched in a command bubble high above the bay.

"Apache Mission, this is Normandy Control. Prepare for umbilical separation," the launch captain said as the inspector exited the bay.

            "Roger Normandy,” Mac answered. He looked down and to his left where Lt. Arkady “Ivan” Ivchenko sat hunched over his own prelaunch checklist. "Ivan, switch to internal power." Ivan nudged the Intruder's main engine to life and activated his launch and navigational systems.  As the Weapons and Electronics Officer, he was responsible for navigation and targeting.

             "Green Board," Ivan said.  "Clear for umbilical sep."

            "Normandy, this is Apache mission. Clear for umbilical sep. I am tactical at 1310 ship's time," Mac keyed the separation code into his command console and the Intruder freed itself from its last links to the launch bay.  Mac looked up through the cockpit canopy, gave a ‘thumbs up’ sign and saluted, the traditional ready to launch signal. The launch captain returned the salute and held both fists above his head, indicating the start of depressurization. The signals evolved on flight decks for over 100 years made launch procedures independent of computers or radio links. Even with heavy battle damage to her main systems, Normandy could still launch her strike force.  Mac adjusted the Intruder's trim with a touch of the attitude control thrusters whenever the craft drifted in the slight air currents created by out gassing.

The launch captain rotated his fists as depressurization was completed and the huge launch bay doors began to open. The doors folded slowly into the bulkheads to reveal the blue, green and brown of the planet surface far below.  The launch captain clasped both hands over his head as the doors locked open.  He dropped one hand to the launch console and held the other up with fingers spread.

            "Five seconds, Ivan," said Mac.

            The launch captain dropped his hand and punched the launch key. The Intruder slid rapidly through the open doors under the impulse of the Normandy's electromagnets.  Mac advanced the throttles adding thrust from the main engine. The Intruder shot into brilliant sunlight and began its long elliptical fall toward the planet's surface. Mac squinted but did not opaque his helmet visor as bright daylight flooded the cockpit. Ivan hunched over his console, slightly below and forward of Mac's command seat, fingers walking swiftly over the keyboard as he ran through the navigation and weapons systems checks.  Mac tapped gently on Ivan's helmet.

            "Terminator, Ivan," said Mac. Ivan grunted and continued working through his checklist.

            "IP coming up,” Mac continued. “Are you ready to take the plunge? I think there's an air sickness bag in the glove box."

            "If you don't shut up and tend to driving this bus, none of us will have to worry about puking," grumbled Ivan with a shrug of his narrow shoulders.  "Now let me finish."

            Mac laughed as the Intruder crossed the terminator into planetary night. Ivan was always grouchy before a drop. Mac knew how much the WEO hated the reentry and teased his friend about it unmercifully.

The inviting green and blue panorama disappeared with the sun as they crossed the terminator. The planet below was dark with no visible features here on the night side. The major city, Port Jefferson, was under blackout and none of the other settlements were large enough to be visible from orbit without light amplifiers.

            Mac opened the comm link to the APC slung in the Intruder's carry bay.  A grainy image appeared to the right of his heads-up cockpit display and solidified into a miniature Marine strapped into a command seat similar to his own.

            "Gunny, this is McAllister.  We just crossed the terminator. Deorbital burn in-- " Mac glanced at Ivan who held up three fingers "Three minutes."

            "Roger, Mr. Mac," replied Gunnery Sgt. Wilson Turner.  "Hear the man, girls?" he bellowed to the Marines behind him in the APC’s troop bay. "Dirtside in three."

            Mac suppressed the image on his display but left the link open so that Gunny Turner could monitor the reentry.

            "Course correction," said Ivan, scanning the navigational plot. "Lateral burn, three seconds and roll 45 degrees port."

            Mac executed the maneuver smoothly.  As the Intruder rolled, a cluster of lights swam into view.  Mac could pick out one or two individual ships of the Second Marine Expeditionary Force. The Tarawa, Normandy’s sister ship, stood out, dwarfing her smaller consorts. Huge rotating cylinders over a kilometer in length, the Orbital Attack Carriers were the largest ships in the fleet. 

            "II MEF Barrage Squadron to port," noted Mac.

            "No shit," said Ivan. "Deorbital burn on my mark. 5-4-3-2-1, Mark!"

            The Intruder's main engine roared to life, slowing the craft's rapid fall around the planet and pitching its nose forward.  As the heat shields slammed shut across the canopy, Mac glimpsed a sheet of fire erupting from the cluster of lights to port. The barrage had begun.  To conceal the Intruder's fall thorough the atmosphere it would be covered by a barrage of missiles, all armed with high explosive warheads and all aimed in the Intruder's general direction. Ivan shuddered as he watched the targeting display. Hundreds of deadly pinpoints of light approached, then enveloped the Intruder. They rolled and pitched as the craft entered denser atmosphere. 

            Ivan closed his eyes and crossed himself from right to left in the Russian Orthodox fashion before gripping the edge of his seat.  Mac grinned in amusement, singing softly as he wrestled with the controls. Ivan forced his eyes open to check his console but did not relax his grip. Mac eased the control surfaces on the wings outward but quickly retracted them again as his airspeed dropped.  Too soon, he thought watching the altimeter.

For the time being, the Intruder was just one of hundreds of targets to any ground-based sensors.  Once Mac extended the wings and went "on stick", their non-ballistic flight path would make the Intruder stand out like a wolf among the sheep. His job this mission was to deliver the Marine Recon team in the APC without attracting attention. This was their third Recon-in-Force mission in the last two weeks and Mac hoped it would be the last for a while.                 

            The low altitude alarm sounded in his helmet earphones. Mac extended the wings. The Intruder shuddered and bucked. Mac hauled back sharply on the controls and slammed the throttles full open. G-forces pushed him deep into the seat as his vision blurred red.  Mac howled as the Intruder struggled to level off. Then suddenly the pressure released him. Ivan sighed loudly. The canopy shields retracted and Mac could see the ground rushing past them. The Intruder screamed across a grassy plain at less than 20 meters. Ivan hunched over his sensors.

            "Clear sweep," he reported. "No targets."

            Mac grunted and eased back on the throttles. He allowed the Intruder to rise to 50 meters as they cleared the edge of the grassland and the terrain became more broken and forested.

            "Heading?" he asked.

            "Bring her around to one two zero local," answered Ivan. "APC separation in five mikes."    

            "Hear that, Gunny?" Mac asked.

            "Five mikes, aye," replied Turner. He turned and addressed his squad. "Party starts in five minutes.  Check your secondaries. Lock and load!"

            Mac bled off more speed but held the Intruder as close to the treetops as possible.                         

            "APC sep on my mark," called Ivan.  "5-4-3-2-1, Mark!"

            The magnetic couplings of the carry harness reversed polarity and the APC fell away. The Intruder rose sharply, suddenly free of the extra weight. Mac rolled them into a banking turn and dropped again to treetop level. The APC hovered for a second then slipped smoothly beneath the forest canopy.       

            "Company?" asked Mac.

            "Clear sweep," answered Ivan.  "No targets."

            "What do you say to setting down for a while, then. Gunny Turner and his boys will be gone for a few hours. As long as we’re close enough for dustoff, orders are to use discretion and keep below sensor range.”

            "There's a clearing about two klicks southeast," said Ivan. "Give me a slow circle around it so I can scan before we set down."

            "Right," said Mac as a heading appeared on his heads-up display. The clearing was about 300 meters across and almost circular with a few scrubby trees around the edges. The pine and aspen hybrids that had been imported early in the colonial settlement days had nearly replaced the more primitive native species throughout this part of the northern continent. The setting reminded Mac of the mountain meadows he had seen in the high country above Denver where Linda’s parents had a summer cabin.  Mac hovered at 20 meters, slowly circling as Ivan scanned the forest. Ivan signaled all clear. Mac set them down near the center of the clearing.

            Mac popped the canopy a few centimeters and removed his helmet. He clenched his teeth to activate the remote radio receiver implanted in his right mastoid, setting the helmet on the console in front of him.  He unbuckled his harness and stretched in his seat.

            Cold moist air washed over his face, carrying the thick scent of vegetation. The stars were hard and bright above him. Hibernia had no moon, but the starlight was surprisingly bright. Ivan sighed deeply and slumped in his seat. Mac looked at his WEO's face, the profile sharply outlined in the starlight.

            Ivan inhaled deeply. “This is good country,” he said, more to himself than to Mac. “I can see why people would want to settle here. It might be worth a look when this is over, getting a small place here.”

            Mac snorted derisively, “You? The Mad Russian, a potato farmer? That’ll be the day.”

            Ivan said nothing, not even rising to Mac’s teasing. After a few seconds he said, “I’ve just been thinking about settling down, that’s all. I got a letter from my mother in the last message buoy. She’s moving to Petrograd to live with my sister. Irena is marrying some curator at the Hermitage and they have more room than the apartment in Moscow. The wedding is next month.”

            “Is that what’s been eating you lately? Hell, the next mail buoy goes out in a couple of days. Pick out a nice gift and have it delivered from the Navy Exchange in Vilnius. Your sister will understand why you can’t be there.”

            “Already done,” said Ivan.

            "Well, you have to admit, you've been awfully quiet lately, partner," he said. "What's got you all in a funk?"

            Ivan didn't answer for a while. Finally, he opened his eyes and looked up at the pilot. "I had planned to wait until after this mission, but I guess I should tell you," he said. "This is my last drop. I've resigned my commission. As soon as II MEF can clear me, I'm gone."

            "Right," said Mac sarcastically. "And I'm the next squadron commander." He laughed, then noticed the WEO's expression. Ivan’s thin features looked more drawn and solemn than usual.

             "You're serious," Mac said quietly.

             "Damn straight," said Ivan, turning away to look out of his side of the canopy.

            "Why?" said Mac.

            "I'm just tired," said Ivan. "Tired of the drops, tired of worrying about eating dirt at Mach 3, tired of you hot-sticking it around with my ass in your pocket," Ivan stopped, then muttered bitterly, "Tired of killing my own kind."

            "Oh, here we go again," groaned Mac.

            "Just shut up," said Ivan. "I signed up to fight the Rilz, not humans!"

            "Well, if the good people of Hibernia hadn't tried to break with the UN and cut their own deal with the Lizards, then we wouldn't be here."

            "They only did that after the Security Council denied their request for more development zones and slapped them with sanctions for the ones they'd already opened." answered Ivan.

            "They violated a Council order! Look around you!”

"It's their planet!"

            They stared angrily at each other for a few seconds, then Ivan looked away. "Look, Mac," he said. "It's nothing personal, OK. I just can't do this anymore."

            "If you're burned out, fine," said Mac. "Get some R&R and I'll get me a WEO who can take the heat.  Just don't hand me this chicken shit political crap. You want out? Go! I'll find somebody else to fly with."

            Ivan said nothing, staring out into the night. Mac slumped angrily in his seat.

            The silence stretched for minutes, then an hour. Mac fingered the controls; Ivan leaned against the canopy, eyes closed. Just as Mac opened his mouth to break the silence, to make it up somehow, the receiver in his mastoid crackled.    "Dustoff, this is Apache. Require immediate firemission and dustoff.  We are under heavy small arms fire. APC is down."

            "Apache, this is Dustoff," said Mac, the implant picking up his voice and activating the Intruders transmitter. "On our way. Transmit coordinates and recognition code."                     

            Mac closed the canopy and picked up his helmet. He looked at Ivan. "You OK?" he asked.

            Ivan nodded as the Intruder's engine powered up. The craft lifted above the trees and Mac fed power to the main engine. 

            "Heading to LZ is three two zero, local bearing," said Ivan. "Green board, weapons free and hot."

Mac grunted and advanced the throttles. The Intruder roared across the treetops, blackening the uppermost branches.

            "Dustoff, this is Apache," Gunny Turner's voice was tight but controlled. "We're taking heavy small arms fire from buildings to the north and east of our position. LZ will be hot. We'll pop green smoke as soon as you make your first pass. Say again, Apache will be green smoke."

            Mac keyed his transmitter twice but said nothing. The two clicks would tell Turner that his message had been understood. The forest gave way to cultivated fields and occasional farm buildings. Ahead, a line of low rocky hills rose from the flat countryside. A column of black smoke rising from behind the hills was visible as a blot on the starry sky.  Mac eased the Intruder's nose up to follow the contour of the hills.  The rocky slope swept under them, just meters below the landing skids.  Then suddenly they were over the top, angling down into the valley beyond.

            Mac could see a cluster of low buildings ranged around a circular concrete pad. The APC lay on its side near the center of the pad, burning. Tracer fire arched from the buildings toward a cluster of rocks south of the pad. A plume of green smoke appeared from the rocks. Then they were past the buildings and into the night. Mac swung around in a gut-wrenching turn.

            "What have you got, Ivan?" he asked. "I figure the bad guys are in the buildings and Turner and his boys are in the rocks."

            "The buildings are shielded," said Ivan. "Why put shielded buildings way out here?"

             "Never mind," said Mac. "Give me a heading."

            "Give me a slow pass behind the buildings at twenty meters," said Ivan, crouching over his weapons console and activating his helmet fire control system. Targeting information was fed directly to an eyepiece in the helmet. Ivan could select, aim and fire the Intruder’s weapons by simply moving his head and eyes.

            The Intruder started its pass at parade ground pace. Mac flew by instinct, the stick and controls extensions of his hands as fire erupted around them. The Intruder bucked and heaved as exploding ordnance bracketed the wings. Reactive armor countered the hits, adding to the din and confusion.

            Ivan fired back, launching cluster grenades at the buildings and manipulating the nose and turret guns.  Mac couldn't tell if he was firing at targets or at random, but the insistent rattle of the reactive armor slackened as Ivan's rate of fire increased. Smoke billowed out of one of the buildings and across Mac's canopy, obscuring his view.  Then suddenly they were beyond the building and the night sky was clear above.

            "Another pass?" Mac asked, checking the status board to the left of his seat. Several of the starboard hull integrity indicators were showing a yellow tinge where repeated hits had thinned the armor.

            "Negative," said Ivan. "I've got two targets on long range scan - 500 klicks out and closing fast. Fighters, I'll bet. Time to beat feet."

            "Right.  Crack the rear deck and get ready for dustoff.  I'll try to bring us in behind the APC. Maybe the smoke will help some."

            "Rear bay is open," said Ivan.  "I'll drop the ramp when we're on the LZ.  Try to keep nose on to the buildings.  I'm going to try to take out the shield with a couple of Raptors."

            "At 50 meters?" Mac shook his head as he swung the Intruder's nose around and added thrust to the main engine.

            "Targeting sensors," shouted Ivan.  "We're being scanned.  I'm jamming." A warbling tone sounded in Mac's ear. A steady tone would mean that someone had them in a weapons lock. Ivan increased the jam and the tone faded.

            "We've got maybe a minute and a half and then we've got trouble," said Ivan.

            Mac swept across the concrete pad, the landing skids less than a meter above the surface. The Intruder pivoted like a wild animal seeking its prey. Sheets of tracer fire exploded from the nearest building. The Intruder staggered as a cluster grenade detonated under the port wing.  Hull integrity lights flashed red on Mac's status board. He pivoted slightly to present more of the starboard side and protect the wing.  He was rewarded with more yellow lights from the starboard indicators. Ivan cursed as his fingers flew over the weapons board. A steady ratcheting sound filled the cockpit as grenade after grenade launched from the starboard tubes. Tracers from the nose gun formed a solid line that swept back and forth across the building.

            "Nose on!  Nose on!" shouted Ivan.

            Mac held his breath and pivoted to starboard. More red lights flashed from the port wing sensors, then smoke and flame engulfed the Intruder as Ivan launched Raptors from both wing pods. The large missiles homed in on the discontinuity between the building's sensor shield and the adjacent solid ground. Mac's visor went opaque a millisecond after a blinding flash exploded in front of them. When it recycled to transparent a second later, the building was gone. Mac looked left and right, momentarily stunned by the concussion. Rather absently, he noted the smoking remains of a reinforced concrete wall where the building had stood.  Beyond it, the glowing vapor trail of an unexploded Raptor coursed back and forth as the missile sought a target.

            "Set us down, Mac!" shouted Ivan.

            Mac shook his head and eased the Intruder to the ground.

            "Ramp down," said Ivan. "High speed targets at 220 kilometers and still closing. I'm still jamming."

            Mac reached out and activated the rear gun camera. Dark figures approached the Intruder, leapfrogging past one another to provide covering fire. The last two walked back-to-back, turning in slow circles.  As the first Marine reached the ramp, there was a dull thump over the Intruder's tail section. Secondary explosions rippled around the Marines as the submunitions of the cluster grenade struck the ground.

            Ivan cursed again. He swung the nose gun in long sweeping arcs across the remaining buildings.  Tracers poured in from all sides. The rattle of the reactive armor deafened them. Red overload lights flashed on Mac's status board. Hull integrity alarms squealed as holes appeared in the port wing. Half of the Marines were down, being dragged toward the ramp by the others. Mac darkened his visor to keep from being blinded by the brilliant tracers and explosions around the Intruder.

Ivan swung the guns back and forth, picking targets when he could, trying to avoid hitting the Marines. Mac watched the loading ramp by traversing the gun camera around. The last two Marines stood back to back at the base of the ramp, firing steadily into the darkness as one of their wounded comrades was dragged up. Then, they too dashed up and the ramp began to close. Mac poured power to the lifters and the Intruder rose from the concrete surface. The intercom from the troop bay chimed and Mac slapped it off.

            "Not now, Gunny!" he shouted.  "We gotta fly."

            "There are Marines back there!" Turner shouted back.  "Four wounded, in the rocks." 

            "Shit!" cursed Mac.  "Ivan, where are those fighters?"

            "Fifty klicks and closing. They're burning through the jam."

            Mac cursed again as the warbling tone returned in his ear. He pivoted to present the Intruder's marginally less damaged starboard side to the withering fire coming from the buildings. A part of his mind wondered why one of the buildings was changing shape and opening toward them like some strange mechanical flower.

            Then the warbling in his ear became a steady high-pitched squeal. "Weapons lock," shouted Ivan. Mac looked away from the strange building seeking a flat spot in the jumbled hillside where he could set down, or at least hover.  Suddenly, a red light bathed the interior of the cockpit.  Ivan screamed and clawed at his eyes, jerking the eyepiece away from his face. Mac reacted without thought. He slammed the cockpit heat shield shut and poured plasma to both the lifters and the main engine. Hull breach alarms screamed at him. He overrode them as the Intruder struggled skyward. Mac fought to bring the nose up to vertical but the Intruder began to corkscrew as he lost all control in the port wing. Desperately he cut power to the lifters and pulled the jettison ring. Explosive bolts fired, separating the wings from the fuselage. The Intruder shot upward, a ballistic missile controlled only by the tail fins and attitude control thrusters.

            Over the intercom, Mac could hear Gunny Turner screaming at him. The words refused to register but the fury behind them was unmistakable. Mac ignored him as he tried to keep the Intruder together. His status board was a solid wall of red lights.  He continued slapping off overload alarms, making Turner's stream of curses seem all the louder. A depressurization alarm sounded.

"Suit up!" shouted Mac. "Depressurization emergency." He sealed his helmet, then turned to Ivan. Ivan had managed to seal his own helmet, but was otherwise unresponsive. His eyelids were blistered and swollen shut. Thin trickles of bloody fluid trailed down his cheeks.  Sounds from the intercom faded as the troop bay depressurized. Mac hoped they had heard the alarm and had been able to get into survival bubbles.

            "Normandy Control, this is Apache Mission," Mac said into his suit microphone. "I am declaring an emergency.  Request clear deck and grapple for immediate recovery. I have wounded aboard."

            "Apache Mission, this is Normandy.  You have clear deck.  What is your damage?  Can you make a powered recovery?"

            "Negative Normandy.  I have extensive hull damage.  Wing unit has been jettisoned and my port plasma bottle is becoming unstable."

            "Roger, Apache.  Clear deck and grapple."

            The Intruder rolled sharply as the plasma bottle destabilized and was automatically jettisoned. Mac fought the spin and brought it under control. Ivan's limp hand drifted upward and Mac realized that they were in free fall. Two minutes later the proximity alarm sounded. Mac saw the grapple tug rising from low orbit to meet them.

            The tug matched orbits smoothly. Grapples along its port side opened, embracing the Intruder’s battered starboard hull. Mac felt a gentle thump as the magnetic couplers latched on to the hard points on the forward and aft staging collars.

            "Apache Mission, this is Grapple 3. We have you locked and ready to roll. Shut down your guidance computer and leave the driving to us."

            "Roger, Grapple 3. This is an emergency. Let's cut the chatter and dock this ship ASAP"

            "Hey, easy buddy. We've got you. You’re home now. Lock down and prepare for maneuver."

            Thirty minutes later, they cleared the main lock and were berthed in the forward hangar deck. Mac hovered over Ivan as the medics bound him to a spine board and eased him out of the cockpit. The medics shooed Mac away, then guided Ivan on to a stretcher and pushed off toward the drop shaft. They guided the stretcher smoothly into the open shaft. The hatch closed, leaving Mac clinging to a stanchion.

Mac hung there for a moment watching the rest of the Marines disembark and glide across the no-weight hangar toward the drop shafts. The deck crew moved forward with cleaning servos and a pallet of dark plastic body bags. Mac counted only two full bags as they were pushed out of the troop bay and collected by Casualty Registration clerks. The cleaning servos began to hum loudly, scrubbing down the Intruder’s interior.

He began to shake, first his hands, then his arms, then his whole body. He cursed himself for being weak, but the shakes continued. He closed his eyes but could still see Ivan's blistered face streaked with bloody tears as he was lifted from the cockpit. Mac had been in combat before, had watched impassively as dead and wounded men had been tended by the medics in this same hangar. This was different. Ivan wasn't supposed to get hurt. Ivan was supposed to be there watching Mac's back, keeping him sane when he got too wild, doing the thinking while Mac did the flying. The war had suddenly gotten very personal. He clung to the stanchion gasping for breath. The tremors passed after a while leaving him drained and slightly nauseated. He swallowed hard and pushed off toward the ‘down’ ladder. As he caught it and hauled himself to a stop, he caught sight of the armorer’s window on the far side of the hangar. The Marines from Apache Mission were turning in their weapons. Word was obviously spreading. The armorer’s stare was hard as hullmetal and just as cold.

            Mac swung his legs toward the outer decks and pushed himself ‘down’ the ladder. The spin induced sensation of weight increased as he pushed himself along toward the next deck. By the time he reached the berthing level, two decks away from the hangar, he could hook his feet around the outer edges of the ladder and slide ‘down’ the last meter to the deck. He started aft down the antispin passageway toward his quarters. The passageways ran fore and aft and were designated spin or antispin based on their position relative to the quarterdeck. The half of the ship counterclockwise relative to the quarterdeck was the antispin side and its passageways were odd numbered. The even numbered passages were along the opposite half of the ship. More arbitrary was the division of the berthing spaces along service lines- Navy to the antispin side, Marines to spinward. The separation was informal, but the tradition was strong. Marines were rarely seen in Navy country except on official business and vice versa. Mac slid into the flow of traffic in the narrow passage, comfortable in the mob of Navy uniforms and away from the hard looks of the Marines.           



            Two hours later, Mac stood outside the door marked "Commander C.G. Wlodowski, Commander, Air Group". The passageway here near the quarterdeck was empty and quiet. Mac leaned against the bulkhead and struggled to control his fatigue. He had requested to see the CAG as soon as he had reached his quarters. The CAG had given him two hours to clean up, change uniforms and report to the command level for debriefing.                 

            Turner had wasted no time in reporting to II MEF that Marines had been abandoned dirtside.  Mac had been bumped and jostled in the Normandy's narrow passageways more in the last hour than in the last year. No one spoke to him, which was worse than Turner's shouting. Marines did not abandon their wounded. Mac felt a sharp stab of guilt in the pit of his stomach. Guilt at having left the Marines and the more secret guilt at his own relief that he was not the one lying on a stretcher with burned out eyes.

            Mac reached out, knocked, then entered the CAG's stateroom. "Lt.  McAllister, sir," he said, saluting.

            "At ease, Mac," said Cdr. Wlodowski, known to the squadron simply as CAG. He was a large man for an Intruder pilot, nearly two meters tall and heavily built. It was said that he didn’t fly an Intruder, he wore it. His thinning blond hair was cropped close to the scalp making him appear almost bald. He clasped his hands behind his neck and leaned back it the leather chair behind his small desk. Even relaxed, he dominated the small compartment.

            "I'll get the details from your after action report,” he said. “But just for the record, that was a Redeye that was hidden in that building. Gun camera analysis shows that the targeting laser acquired you just before you lifted. Another half second and the main laser would have smoked you. You did good, son."

            Mac grimaced, then stared at the bulkhead over CAG's right shoulder.  "Sir, I want to request a transfer to a non-flying billet," he said stiffly.  "I thought about it on the way up and...  I...well, I just think it would be best, sir."

            Wlodowski sighed and pushed back in his chair.  "So you've thought about this, have you?"

            "Yes sir. I don’t think I can work effectively with the Corps any longer."

            "Bullshit!" exploded Wlodowski, sitting upright in his chair. "You're the hottest stick in this whole damned squadron, second to me.  You're effective until I say you're not!  Now, try again.  Why should I ship you out?"

            "I no longer have confidence in the orders issued by my superiors, sir," said Mac through gritted teeth.

             "Again - bullshit! You’re not going to stand there and tell me you have no confidence in my orders, are you? Be careful. You’re one mouthful away from an insubordination charge.”

            "What do you want me to say?" shouted Mac. "Ivan's blind, I left four Marines dirtside and saw two more smeared all over the troop bay by explosive decompression and for what?  The Redeye is still there, the Lizards are light-years away and we're shooting up our own people over some petty dispute about where to plant potatoes!  And what idiot in Command ordered an unsupported Recon team and a single Intruder to assault a Redeye? I agree. It’s all bullshit!"

            Wlodowski sighed and answered quietly, "You didn't blind Ivan. The targeting laser of a Redeye planetary defense laser did that. Do you figure you owe him something? Well, you don't.  Ivan resigned for his own reasons and what happened had nothing to with that or with you." Wlodowski held up his hand as Mac opened his mouth to interrupt.  "Shut up.  Do you think you're the first shit-hot pilot to stand there and bitch about Command incompetence because he lost a friend or got the pants scared off him? ‘For what’ you ask.  Well, I'll let you in on a little secret, Mac. II MEF didn't care if you got smoked.  Apache was bait to flush out the Redeye so the targeting pukes could pinpoint it for some future mission.  So you see, it didn't mean shit!" Wlodowski sighed, "Don't look for meaning in this, Mac.  War isn't about meaning. It’s about nasty little fights where men get killed and nothing much matters except who survives."                         

            CAG stood and walked over to Mac, forcing him to make eye contact.  "Go talk to Ivan.  Then get ten hours of sleep and a hot meal.  Then come see me again. If you still want out, I'll transmit your request.  Because if you can't take the loss, if you can't take the sharp end of the job like a professional, then I don't want you. Anger doesn’t belong dirtside. It gets men killed."

Mac said nothing.

            "All right," said Wlodowski.  "Get out of here." Mac turned to leave.

            "Mac," Wlodowski stopped him.  "Don't worry about the Marines.  You had no choice.  You got your ship and most of the squad back and that counts for a lot.  Now, get some sleep and see me on the first watch."

            Mac left the stateroom, squared his shoulders and walked down the passageway toward the berthing area.


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