It took a major act of minor deity (namely Colonel Madine), for STRC-24 to finally get underway 19 hours after Lt Gray received the mission. Within another three hours, the squad was approaching Darlac 3 in the civilian freighter Dullaby, co mmissioned courtesy of "Norton Cruise Lines". Lt Norton had not explained how the Empire had procured the converted YT-1300; Gray didn't really want to know.
M'tus had uprated his cargo capacity by attacking huge cargo blisters to the top and bottom of his saucer-shaped ship. Since they had been added piecemeal whenever money was available, there was really no good way to get from one point to an other. Consequently, Gray faced an amazing series of obstacles in returning from his final coordination with the crew in the forward cockpit. When Gray finally made it to the aft cargo decks, he found Sgt Cross kneeling in a hatch between the two s eparate cargo bays housing his soldiers, giving the squad a final brief. Lt Gray hung short of the group to hear Cross finish.
"No screw-ups on this mission," the seasoned NCO demanded calmly, with an underlying sharpness. "Rat, what is our first rule?"
"Don't do nothin' stupid," the young medtech replied smugly, secure in the knowledge that he never did anything stupid. Unless you counted the little fiasco with that Alderaani cave lucat...
"A double negative, but close enough," Cross accepted. "And the second rule?"
"Don't get caught!" the squad chimed in as one with their favored battle cry.
"Exactly! Remind me to hide the crown jewels should we ever reach Coruscant. Now then, any last-minute concerns?" Cross finally asked the cargo bay at large. "Any gripes, speak up now."
"We should carry more delta-vee," Nichols asserted, despite the absurd bulk of computers and explosives straining the seams of his pack.
"Delta-vee is thrust, imbecile;" Terrance corrected, backhanding Nichols' helmet, "you mean explosive potential."
"Nichols, if you carry any more explosives, you will achieve critical mass and destroy us all," Lt Gray declared, choosing that moment to join the squad. He waved them to at-ease as Cross called the squad to attention, something Cross tended to do on special occasions as a knee- jerk reaction to an officer entering a room. "The pilots class us as lunatics, but appear ready enough to carry out their orders."
"Sure --just so long as they are still ready after we have made some noise," Cross intoned lightly, making a joke of the worst-case scenario. He relentlessly counseled the squad that if something could go wrong, it already had; but that it d id no good to good to sit around complaining about the predicament.
"All I know is they'd better have the nerf steaks hot when we get back on board," Schlamp mumbled, reminding everyone just how much he detested the concentrated rations they would be consuming throughout the mission. The plan called for the mission to last no more than 24 hours, but Schlamp was habitually ravenous. Even now he was chewing on something.
"Keep wishing Schlamp. Now then, final precombat check," Gray continued, consulting a wrist-mounted datapad and checking off each item as his squad visually inspected all they were carrying. Now was the time to discover forgotten gear, not later in the middle of a firefight.
The squad had critically planned its load to supply them with everything they should need, and little more. Their mission and lives depended on the packing list and serviceability of the equipment. The checklist included everything from bla sters to medical supplies and computers.
Upon completion of the comprehensive list, Lt Gray told them they had half an hour before they had to "suit up". The two team leaders took a moment to review the mission, ensuring everyone knew his primary and alternate jobs before releasing them to attend their own needs. Gray watched the soldiers break into their own precombat rituals.
Cross went from soldier to soldier, mumbling reassuring comments and issuing threats as he saw fit. The towering dark-skinned man exuded such confidence and authority that it seemed the Emperor himself would avert his eyes if they were to m eet on the street. Without actually saying much of anything, he strengthened the bond of complete trust with every squad member.
Cross also busily inspected the reentry shields one last time. Ever since a short conversation on the history of emergency reentry, Gray suspected Cross was nervous about the seals. During prototype testing, the original shields had exhibit ed a tendency to reenter too fast and burn out.
Hawkins and Ratcliffe fussed over their complex medical equipment and argued over things neither of them really understood.
"What do you mean, set it to three-quarters?" Ratcliffe demanded, double-checking the dates on his hypospray canisters. It wouldn't do at all to inject one of his comrades with something worse than whatever they already had. "That's just pl ain BS, Hawk; Sarge is just filling you up. If three-quarters is good, then I don't see why full isn't better."
"Well, that's just the way it is, man! I mean," Hawkins paused his intent discourse long enough to spit tobacco into an empty Mutant Zombie Cooler, "I saw him do it. That damned walker just wouldn't get up 'til he shut off the compensators . Then, he walked right through the kleptl junk without even tipping! The man is a prijg'n genius. I guess it's like resuscitation--you know, too much quinnothrazine is worse than not enough."
"Yeah, well, maybe I'll buy that..."
Much to his surprise, Ratcliffe did find an expired canister. He checked to make sure nobody was looking, then tossed it to the far side of the cargo bay.
Schlamp lovingly tucked his drone into its reentry skid and bolted it in. He was just about to seal the hatch when he decided to make one final check. Schlamp had replaced the wrist-mounted data pad that the squad normally carried with the drone's remote piloting controls. Terrance and Nichols had been planning on writing a program to interface the device with his helmet computer, but they had run short on both time and helmet memory capacity. Schlamp operated each control on his wri st, checking to make certain that the drone's aerodynamic surfaces operated correctly. He double-checked the fuses on the EMP grenades, making certain that they were mounted so that the pins would be yanked out when the spring-loaded release racks j ettisoned them. As a final check, he grabbed each control surface and tried to move it with brute force.
Schlamp emitted a panicked grunt of surprise when the left aileron moved almost effortlessly. Schlamp briskly unsealed the wing from the fuselage, visions of his beloved drone immediately entering an irrecoverable spin momentarily clouded his vision. A cursory inspection showed that somebody had forgotten to tighten the set screw which connected the aileron arm to its actuator. Schlamp whipped out the multitool normally holstered to his utility belt, used his calibrated eyeball to align the actuator, and torqued the errant screw. Having no thread-locking fluid, he made a short prayer to the tool gods that the screw would not loosen during flight. Schlamp hastily reassembled the wing, glancing over his shoulder to see if Snyder (or worse yet, one of the non-wrenching individuals) had spotted his error.
Schlamp had nothing to worry about. Snyder had plugged the assault shuttle technical holocube into his helmet and was waving his hands in the air, carefully tracing the circuit diagrams displayed on his visor. Interfacing a holocube reader to the helmet tactical computer system was one of the first after-market mods the squad had performed on their equipment. The belt-mounted reader turned the helmet into a portable virtual computer--when it worked. There were still a few bugs in the system...
Nichols and Terrance were scurrying about the deck, having linked their helmet computers for a battle simulation. Most people had trouble interfacing with the system without the benefit of artificial force and gravity fields, but the two sli cers managed to maneuver through the simulations without losing complete orientation or falling over any of the real clutter surrounding them. They constantly bickered that the other was cheating by performing feats impossible in real life.
Gray could tell that they were enacting their favorite competition- -both trying to demolish the same bridge. The two slicers put a twist on the standard simulation by competing against each other, trying to catch the other on the bridge when it went down. Usually they both finished "dead".
Lane was mumbling to himself, obviously chanting some Stormtrooper litany he had learned in early training to psyche himself for the mission. Gray wondered if common sense ever intruded into Lane's version of reality.
Lt Gray finally settled against a bulkhead, closing his eyes and reviewing the mission from start to finish in his mind. He could think of nothing they had missed. At least, nothing they had time to plan for--he felt badly enough about the amount of time they had already burned.
The one major hitch was the contact at the other end. Gray was concerned; Lt Norton had been less than enthusiastic about the contact, who had apparently been recruited within the last six months. But Gray supposed he might as well watch pe rmaform oxidize as to worry about the contact securing the landing zone. There was nothing further he could do about it until they arrived on the scene.
Sgt Lane wouldn't care to admit it, but he was nervous.
This plan was a disaster waiting to happen. Gray, some hotshot lieutenant from an Academy, thought he could just flout stormtrooper standard procedures without consequence. Lane was smart enough to know that he was no tactical genius himsel f, but he did know the old rules of engagement that stormtroopers had been following for a long time, and Gray paid heed to them only when it suited him. To just throw away such well- rehearsed responses was foolhardy. They were good responses. Sh oot first, ask questions later! Don't bother wasting time setting up a sniper's shot--you have an assault blaster with automatic fire at your disposal! Don't sweat the little stuff--it's already been planned for! Don't waste time trying to learn t he nuts-and-bolts of your equipment, just use it--you don't need all those high-tech devices, they'll just confuse you!
Just like these damn shields. Lane understood the order "shoot anything that moves". But these reentry skids were another thing entirely. They were horribly complex, requiring that everything be done exactly right or you would be dead befo re even finding anyone to shoot at. When Lane glanced across the cargo bay at the reentry shields line along the bulkhead, he noticed that Gray had fallen asleep.
"Well that's just fantastic!" he mumbled to himself. Here they were about to break every rule in the book, using equipment that they had modified out of all reasonable usefulness, and the man responsible for putting them in this unimaginable predicament was sleeping. The LT just had no concept of what they were getting into.
And what was this business of a squad making it's own orders? There was security in trusting that somebody above had worked every last detail out for them. Lane had no problem with dying as a stormtrooper; but he felt a strong compulsion to follow the rules he had been taught. It was the right thing to do.
Lane considered Cross a sincere stormtrooper, if not an especially good one. At least Cross had some experience in the field! Gray had been a stormtrooper for, what--3 years? Lane had nearly convinced himself to approach Cross again with h is reservations, but Cross chose that time to wake Lt Gray.
It was time to go.
"Move out," Lt Gray said simply, looking each soldier in the eye before turning to the reentry skids carefully positioned about the cargo hold.
"You know, Sarge," Ratcliffe commented quietly to his team leader, "I sure feel better about this mission, considering the LT feels comfortable enough to fall asleep."
Lane mumbled something incoherently and trudged toward his skid.
The reentry skids were two-meter-long shields, designed long ago to allow a single person to leave a damaged ship and descend safely to a planetary surface.
The idea was that the shield would protect the intrepid traveler during reentry until he was low enough to finish descent by parachute. Even before the advent of modern escape pods, most sane people considered it safer to stay with a cripple d ship than to attempt reentry on one of the simple shields. The shields were ideal for this mission, though, because they were too small and had too little metal content for Darlac III's less-than-modern sensors to detect. Theoretically.
Before strapping into his skid, Lt Gray fastened his distinctive STRC helmet, very much unlike the standard-issue Stormtrooper helmet. The regular helmet was designed to seal out the outside world, whereas the small STRC helmet was there for two purposes only: protect the head and mount various audio and visual aids. With its built-in comlink, stowable night/infrared lenses, nav/targeting computer, strapless mounting, and solid-state cooling system, Gray considered it the perfect brain bucket for a light force that was unlikely to engage in chemical warfare. During their free time, the squad was combining its software, mechanical, and medical ingenuity to design an over-pressurization system that would protect the wearer from fum es in an emergency.
Lt Gray laid flat on the skid couch and sealed the hatch. After performing a functions check on his systems, he opened the comlink net and had each soldier check in. When he was satisfied with the squad's readiness, he switched channels and contacted the cockpit. The captain informed him that they would be delayed an hour due to construction site problems at the City Carislo spaceport. Lt Gray swore to himself and informed the rest of the squad.
Nearly two hours later, Lt Gray was about to call off the mission due to the nearing of daylight in the Carislo hemisphere. But before he could call out the abort, the aft cargo bay suddenly exploded, spewing machine tools and what might hav e looked suspiciously like reentry shields to anybody who knew their aerospace history.
"They're off," Sniffles M'tus announced after checking a display. "I don't believe it--none of 'em blew up. Good luck boys, people as crazy as you are going to need it. Hey, did you get their landing zone coordinates for Karrde?"
"The idiot-looking one, Lawn or Lone or whatever, gave it to me. I told him we had to know the LZ to hit the IP just right," Kilos replied, his large lips quivering in humor. "Okay, we're through the radiation belts. Now looks as good a ti me as ever. We've spread three kilometers of junk."
"Close enough for government work, eh? Go ahead and call approach, give them our story," M'tus agreed, sealing the superficial damage to the old YT-1300 and preparing to complete the Dullaby's approach. "I just hope we don't meet these guys again. Anyone crazy enough to get blown out of a cargo bay in orbit has got to be about one quark short of a photon."
Lt Gray listened to the crew of the smoking Dullaby frantically calling the spaceport about an emergency while his reentry shield tumbled through the upper atmosphere. After he had fallen a full kilometer from the ship, he fired small thrust ers that established down as down and initiated a good sink rate. One by one, the squad checked in with only minor problems. Colonel Madine would have been impressed with the fact that they hadn't lost anyone yet. But then Colonel Madine didn't kn ow that a few squad members had performed this same maneuver for recreation not long ago.
The squad's support maintenance shop on main base had painted the shields with an ablative ferrous magnesium composite that burned ferociously as they sliced through the atmosphere; the outer surfaces of the shields glowed bright red. The sq uad's intent was to blend in with the rest of the junk burning in orbit. As the temperature inside the skid rose steadily, Lt Gray began to wonder just how much abuse the solid state cooling circuits could withstand before failing.
Shortly after the "paint" began burning, they entered a three- minute communications blackout, which even comlinks had trouble punching through. Lt Gray concentrated on the altimeter as it rapidly unwound at thousands of meters per minute. A t 30,000 meters with hull integrity severely degraded, Lt Gray braced himself with feet and knees together, arms folded at his chest, and hit the ejection sequence.
With a thunderous bang that overpowered the roar of descent, the top shield blasted away. The low pressure region over the shield caused by its descent sucked Lt Gray out moments before flames overtook the entire reentry shield. Lt Gray fli pped end over end several times before stabilizing enough to deploy his parachute. The drogue canopy immediately filled, pulling the main parachute into deployment and jerking Lt Gray like an overwrought puppet. He immediately checked his lines to ensure that they weren't tangled. His canopy had spread perfectly, its airfoil shape eclipsing the stars above. He undid the snaps on his auxiliary control lines. The auxiliary lines extended down to waist level, allowing him to maintain control w ithout keeping his hands on the risers above his head. He checked to make sure all his gear was still with him, then contacted the rest of the team on the comlink.
Lane's parachute had caught fire on the way out because he deployed it too near the falling upper shield; but he had successfully cut away and deployed his reserve. While he was about 400 meters below everyone else, he had plenty of altitude to reach the landing zone.
All squad members consulted their nav computers and turned toward the rendezvous point. Schlamp had programmed the drone to fly directly to the RP, and it was circling contentedly there when they drifted past. Schlamp radioed a verbal comma nd over his second frequency, sending the drone ahead of them to scout the terrain.
Once everyone was within sight, Lt Gray switched his nav computer to the next waypoint. The computer displayed a blue triangle on the holographic compass of his visor. Gray settled onto his heading and sat back to enjoy the ride, the squad trailing single-file behind him.
"LT we have a slight problem," Terrance announced over the scrambled tight-beam comlink, breaking Lt Gray's reverie. "According to Schlamp's telemetry, the AS-17's have moved."
Lt Gray cursed to himself.
"Our route is shot to Kessel, sir."
"Can you replot enroute?"
"I believe so; however, the radar plots appear to be in flux yet," Terrance replied quietly. "The best I can do is use the drone's telemetry to plot the detection ranges as we approach them. We will be required to thread our way through as w e reach them."
"And hope we don't get caught in a corner," Gray anticipated. "Do it. Everyone else, close in on me. No more than ten meters separation."
Terrance and Schlamp discussed the situation cryptically. Schlamp took over manual control of the drone and sent it ahead of the squad.
With his backpack-mounted computer shunting its output to his helmet display and accepting input from the extended keypad he had stowed in a leg pocket, Terrance hurriedly drafted a program to process the drone's data.
Looking aft, Lt Gray could just make out Terrance's face in the increased glow of his display. Following Terrance's guidance, Gray configured his own visor to display graphics the slicer was sending him. In the upper left corner of his viso r the computer displayed a bird's-eye view of the radar sites within the drone's five kilometer detection range. The rest of his visor was filled with a translucent vertical display showing the detection areas in red; this display was a virtual wall of red as radars activated and swept the skies. The only thing the team had going for them was that the radars appeared to be searching and then shutting down to conserve power on an alternating basis. They just might be able to slip through when nearby sites were shut down. Gray immediately steered toward the gap nearest their planned course.