The nav/targeting computer superimposed everything Lt Gray needed to know on his visor. A compass line ran horizontally along the top of the visor, always sliding to show the exactly direction he was facing. A fixed arrow below the compass line indicated the heading to his next waypoint.
On the right edge of his visor a bar displayed his current altitude and sink rate. Opposite his visor was a similar vertical bar indicating both air and ground speed. Below the airspeed indicator was his current coordinate set. A small blu e circle with a narrow blue curve running toward the ground showed his predicted flight path as he descended; it changed every time he turned or slowed. When he drew his blaster, the visor would show where the weapon pointed, the current setting, an d how much charge remained.
Terrance's data added red cones to show the danger areas and a small box to show the drone's location. Another addition, cramped in the top left corner of his visor, showed a bird's-eye view of the danger area they were about to enter.
The amount of data the computer generated was enough to drive a soldier to distraction. However, the squad had found that with long practice they were able to process the information without consciously thinking of it. As Lt Gray considered the best path through the observable maze, something occurred to him.
"Terrance, are those radars radiating and closing down at regular intervals to save power?" Lt Gray queried.
"Appears to be so, LT..."
"Okay, can you throw a time-hack on each danger area counting down the time to the next shut-down and start-up?"
"Certainly," the slicer replied with confidence, tapping away furiously. "There you are, sir. Acceptable?"
"Perfect. Cross, you still bringing up the rear?"
"Affirmative," Cross replied quickly. "I am approximately one hundred meters behind you."
"Roger. Keep watch that nobody drifts into the detection ranges."
"LT, the drone's hittin' a pretty heavy zone up ahead," Schlamp casually informed. "I have it circling, waiting for a hole. Looks like we'll be better off bearing right rather than left."
"Very well. Ensure your EMP grenades are ready," Gray responded, immediately updating his flight path. "Has anyone found any local entertainment stations?"
"Roger that, LT," Hawkins immediately answered. "Music at 104.565 megahertz. Want to listen?"
"Until we get into the thick of it anyway," Gray decided. "Relay it to us over intersquad."
The music suggested feuding vornskers to Lt Gray, although he had to admit it did possess a certain charm. Glancing over his shoulder, he noticed Snyder banging away furiously on a set of air drums.
By then Terrance had updated the computers to display time hacks on the danger areas. Gray hummed to the music to distract his mind as he continuously analyzed the changing barriers of the AS-17 detection zones, compared them to his predict ed flight path, and then adjusted his path to thread through the danger areas. Considering that the plan had gone to the nerfs for this phase of the operation, Gray was pleased with the squad's adaptation.
The flight was advancing perfectly well until they approached the area Terrance had warned of. Gray could find no gaps whatsoever, at least none high enough for them to use. The flatness of the land provided no cover between the descending squad and nearby AS-17s, and the radars in the vicinity were active continuously.
"Schlamp, I must know what exists on the other side of that area," Gray notified. "How likely are the radars to discover your drone?"
"The targeting computer filters shouldn't pick it up, what with hardly any metal in it. But if the operator's awake he'll probably notice something, maybe switch to acquisition mode. Then he might start taking potshots at us," Schlamp answer ed. "I can maybe dive for the deck, try to fly under the effective horizon."
"Wilco. I'll have to concentrate on flying for a while. Hawk, can you shepherd me?"
"Can do, just get us through that trap."
Schlamp switched his visor display to show a pilot's view from the drone. His visor presented a scene reasonably similar to what a TIE pilot would see from his own cockpit. Schlamp rubbed his hands in anticipation; he had always rationalize d that all the time he spent playing with RPV's would eventually be useful to somebody.
Hawkins descended, increasing speed to catch up with Schlamp and establishing a descent parallel to the drone pilot. As the squad followed Gray's course corrections, Hawkins bumped Schlamp's canopy to keep him on course. The practice was qu estionable at best; Imperial parachuting instructors would have had fits to see it happen--and work.
Hawkins approached Schlamp's 'chute just slightly too fast and plowed into the soft fabric. Schlamp flailed momentarily against thin air as his 'chute bounced him around.
"Prijg, Hawk--don't go and steal all my air."
"Aw, just shut up and fly," Hawkins returned sheepishly, desperately hoping that nobody else had noticed his error in the dark.
"You tryin' to mate with that canopy, Hawk?"
Hawkins reddened--somebody had noticed. Sounded like Cross. "Naw, I'm just wiping my feet, Sarge."
While the squad took turns giving Hawkins a hard time, Gray noticed the box denoting the drone dive for the horizon, plummeting to mere meters from the ground. At such low altitude, trees and other ground clutter would theoretically mask the drone from any AS-17 monitors. Gray estimated the time left before he had to commit to a course of action or risk detection. The approximation was less than optimistic. He was about to order Hawkins to shut off the music when the drone's "box" too k a sharp dive and bank, accompanied by Schlamp's exclamations of surprise over the comlink.
"Sorry about that," Schlamp apologized after the drone's flight path stabilized. "New radar turned on, almost ran through some power lines avoiding it. Good news is the AS-17 coverage is thinning out. Downloading to your computer now, LT."
Just as Gray suspected, the upcoming solid wall of AS-17 radar coverage was the final curtain of defense along the edge of the partial shield. Once past that screen, they could probably cruise around the remaining AS-17s easily enough. Alre ady they had deviated from their intended path enough that Gray was concerned about the altitude remaining to cover the next forty kilometers.
"Excellent, Schlamp...now then, decommission that site 15 degrees starboard," Gray decided, striving to imagine how everything would fit together. "We will skirt left of that one in front of us, fall through the gap on the far side of that ri dge. Then I want the drone in position to eliminate the radar bearing 8 degrees port, ten kilometers out, if necessary."
"Not askin' for much, are you?" Schlamp replied ironically.
"Never," Gray answered magnanimously. "One other thing: hold off on the first EMP grenade until the last possible moment. It would be just our fortune for some enterprising joker to have built another AS-17 waiting to start up at the same si te."
"Okay, here we go, Betsy's back up with us--"
"Betsy? Who the prijg is Betsy?" Ratcliffe demanded, hooting away in laughter. Snyder began caterwauling a bawdy story about a woman named Betsy in time to the current song still wailing in the background of the intersquad frequency.
"--in the clear...setting up an approach to the AS-17...You know, this is just like the interplanetary competition I flew in high school," Schlamp commented as he guided the craft. "Betsy'll have massive electronic hemorrhaging spilling over that site in...forty seconds."
"Cutting it close," Gray returned. "We'll be there in forty-five."
"Thirty-nine," Nichols corrected.
Cross and Terrance told him to shut up.
Gray approached the radar cone close enough that it filled nearly his entire visor before Schlamp released the EMP grenade. The grenade tumbled, tumbled, and continued to tumble.
"Rancor's spit!" Terrance moaned. "Schlamp, we neglected to interface the EMP fuses with the altimeter!"
"You're right; I can't believe it, can't believe it," Schlamp moaned even as he banked the drone around for a second pass. "I'll climb and drop it from higher so it'll have time to arm before it hits."
Gray swore to himself and yanked hard on his right riser, sending him into a spiral descent to keep from entering the detection zone. He noticed that Hawkins and Schlamp were drifting into the vulnerable zone even as Schlamp called off EMP r elease.
The grenade exploded barely five meters over the radar site, this time wrecking havoc with the site's electronics. The squad saw the flash behind a slight ridge nearly five kilometers ahead. Immediately the threat cone disappeared from thei r visors and Gray was able to drive on, now almost 500 meters lower than he should have been. He ordered the rest of the squad to maintain their altitude and hoped the AS-17 controllers had not noticed Schlamp on their scopes and notified another si te.
After they covered another kilometer without a radar switching to track-while-scan mode, Gray assumed that they had gotten away with their misstep for the time present. They even managed to slip by the last radar without using a grenade, alt hough it was a close call for Cross when an energetic crew activated their radar two minutes before expected.
Ten kilometers from the landing zone, Schlamp piped up with more trouble.
"LT, we got a problem," he began without preamble. "Our handy scout is showing considerable activity at the LZ. RF scanner's going off the scale."
"You know, with all that junk you've packed in there, it's a wonder that drone still flies," Snyder commented jovially.
"Inconvenience seems the rule for the night. We are diverting to the alternate LZ," Gray decided. "Schlamp, provide our friends ahead a diversion. Buzz the primary LZ with the drone and drop a grenade just within earshot of the south side."
"LT, perhaps I was sleeping," Cross began, "but I don't recall an alternate LZ."
"Just follow and pretend," Gray replied, banking due north, heading toward City Carislo. "I decided I do not want to walk quite so far."
Gray had written off their contact, although he supposed he actually should make an attempt to link with the agent. Worst case scenario was that the contact had been a spy or had been turned, in which case all preplanned coordination went ou t the window. Gray always assumed the worst case scenario, and was rarely disappointed. Consequently, he had already formulated a basic plan for such a predicament, though the squad's lower altitude due to the longer path they were forced to take limited his options.
In the distance, two EMP grenades flashed.
Switching to enhanced night vision, Gray strained to find a good area they could land upon and secure. In the far distance, he spied a hilltop that promised good cover and concealment as well as acceptable observation of main avenues of appr oach. The hill was also situated several terrain features away from the original LZ. The intervening land mass would keep the squad out of sight and sound of anyone at the original LZ. Gray indicated the hill to the rest of the squad and directed S chlamp to have the drone overfly the area. Moments later the drone zoomed past and banked over the hill.
Gray was just under 1000 meters high, which meant he had to commit to a landing site soon or gravity would choose one for him. For once, Schlamp had good news.
"Looks like a small refuel or maintenance point along that narrow highway. There's only a couple lights. Hey, there's an open field behind it."
"Very well then everybody, we have an LZ," Gray decided quickly.
With any luck, the station would have a computer they could interrogate.
Gray checked his lines and gear once more before switching to the overhead control lines for better control authority. He turned the squad into the slight wind indicated by the waving grass in the light of double moons. When he had his appr oach rate established, with the flight path indicator on his visor terminating near the opposite edge of the clearing, Gray dropped his gear. Everything not attached to his vest or holster fell to the end of a line attached to his parachute harness. The heavy pack would hit the ground first, making Gray much lighter when he followed seconds later. Each commando behind Gray followed suit, selecting a point ten meters behind the man in front of him and dropping his gear. They had practiced it so often that the maneuver required minimal communication.
Schlamp programmed the drone to circle their site at half a kilometer out, checking for intruders. He then switched back to a standard visor mode, thanking Hawkins for keeping him on course.
Gray manipulated the risers individually to keep himself lined up with the target, and pulled both simultaneously to slow and descend. When he was nearly over his target about two meters high, he pulled all the way down on the risers to fill the canopy with air, halting him in midair. As the air slipped back out of the canopy, he dropped gently to the ground. Gray scolded himself; he missed his mark by more than a meter. He obviously had not been paying enough attention.
Sgt Lane followed just behind the lieutenant, inestimably relieved that they had actually made it. Despite the computer simulations and whiz- bang calculations by the computer geeks, Lane had been certain that they would never be able to glid e this far. He was even further surprised that they had not been shot down. And after that incident during atmospheric entry when he thought for certain that his entire 'chute was going to burst into flames, Lane swore that, order or no order, he w ould not leap from any spaceworthy vessel into a gravity well.
Just before he touched down, Lane was suddenly faced with the distinct impression that he had forgotten something. Let's see, what was I supposed to--
Lane slammed into the ground so hard that he momentarily lost his breath. As he assessed his aching bones, he remembered that he was supposed to drop his pack and pull on the risers before landing. Why did they have to make things so compli cated?
As the other commandos landed, each hit the quick-release connectors on his parachute harness and hit the ground, rolling away from his landing spot and bringing his weapon to the ready position. They lay in the landing zone, each commando c overing a different sector of the surrounding area so that together they provided security for the entire group. Nothing could approach them without one of them noticing.
Gray waited ten minutes in what he called a listening halt, allowing each commando to grow accustomed to the change in surroundings. He felt that a moment to adapt was crucial, especially now that they had just touched down on a completely n ew planet. In the silence of the night, punctuated by the phantom sounds of night creatures conducting the business of life, he thought he heard Lane mumbling something about hair- brained schemes. Clicking up his directional audio enhancers, he cou ld barely discern the background noise of some major exercise emanating from the vicinity of their original LZ.
While he knew that Nichols was aching to blow something up, he was glad to be distanced from the activity. After all, their method of insertion had severely limited the amount of ordnance they could carry. And the fact that they lacked the exact location of their quarry dictated that they remain unnoticed for as long as possible.
Which was exactly what bothered Gray most about not being able to link with the contact. At the very least, the agent should have been able to provide them with inconspicuous transportation. At best, the agent would at least have an idea wh ere the locals might be holding Zorlman. Gray was much too skeptical to expect someone to lead him to the scientist, but he would not turn down any free help. Or any bought help, for that matter.
Gray had also hoped that the agent would be able to provide first- hand intelligence on the planet's constabulary and actual sentiment toward Empire and Rebellion; but even that had been wishful thinking. Although many in the Empire could not believe that anybody would willingly side with the Rebellion, the Rebels obviously thrived in the face of intense oppression. In a way, Gray admired them as worthy adversaries, despite their misguided notions.
Gray turned his attention to the cluster of buildings, not much more than shacks, on the hill above. Light, somewhat redundant in the gleam of double moons, spilled into the darkness from a few open windows, but Gray could discern no activit y. Once he felt synchronized with his new habitat, Gray signaled his squad by comlink to secure 'chutes for dumping in the station. As they had practiced innumerable times before, half the commandos folded 'chutes while their neighbors provided sec urity for the group.
When Gray saw they were done, he signaled Nichols to take the point. Nichols nodded, moving forward in a crouch, weapon at the ready. His steps seemed comical, except that he made virtually no noise treading through the underbrush. The res t of the squad automatically fell into place in a long file behind him. Each person knew his place in line and his primary sector of fire. The squad moved very much like a Star Destroyer--nothing could approach without being tracked and challenged.
When Nichols reached the edge of light spilling from the station, he stopped and knelt within the treeline. The rest of the squad automatically halted and fanned outward into an oval defensive perimeter. Gray went forward to Nichols. The b ack of the station was littered with various equipment, ranging from items needing repair to just plain junk. Nichols wiped his left hand across his visor to signal that his scan detected no people, no cameras, and no laser or aural detection system s. The squad often used hand signals whenever practical, since comlinks were known to fail on occasion. Their visors' night vision mode made hand signals easy to interpret.
Gray clicked his tongue over the comlink to get everyone's attention. Pointing at Lane, the far end of the station, and then stabbing two fingers toward his visor, Gray signaled Lane to establish far security with Bezel. They would guard th e station entrance and prevent anyone from escaping out the front.
Lane had always had trouble grasping the concept of stopping to perform recon and provide security on an assault, but this time he paused only momentarily before moving out to the north, his team following.
Snyder looked to Cross, who frowned--Lane should have sent someone from Bezel to cover the south end of the highway as well, since less than 100 meters away there was a bend in the road that would hide approaching traffic until the last momen t. Cross nodded at Snyder to move out south. Cross glanced moodily at Gray, hoping the lieutenant would receive the subliminal message to get rid of Lane.
With a nod from Gray, Cross deployed Aleph Team to storm the building. Cross and Hawkins lined up on the left side of the door by the hinges. Hawkins faced outward, providing security for the squad in case anyone should chance upon them. N ichols kneeled at the door lock, studying it for the best method of silent entry. Nichols snorted in derision at the simplicity of the design. He knew Terrance would have picked the lock open, but Nichols figured this lock wasn't worth the bother. He decided to breach it with a laser on low power. He motioned Schlamp to ditch the battering ram he had scrounged from the surrounding junk. Schlamp looked discourage as he quietly dropped the heavy mechanism.
When Snyder gave two clicks on the comlink to let everyone know far security was set, Nichols melted the door lock, immediately rolling out of the way as Schlamp shoved his free hand against the door, which easily sighed open.
Before the door was fully open, Cross dove through the entrance with weapon ready to slag anyone on the right side of the room. Nichols simultaneously pushed the door out of the way, clearing the left side of the room. Schlamp went crashing in behind them, taking position at the inner door. Hawkins and Gray followed, crashing in the new door for Schlamp to charge in. Hawkins followed Schlamp to secure the opposite side of the room. Cross and Nichols followed, rotating to crash throu gh the next door. In this room, they found a shocked attendant. Nichols blasted him in the chest before calling his area secure. The rest of the assault team chimed in with their areas secure.
All told, it took ten seconds to sweep through the building's three rooms. Gray was pleased; once committed, speed and violence were usually the best way to safely take charge of an area. However, he decided that they probably didn't really have to tear those doors down like they had-- none of them were even locked.
"Good work. Secure these lights and find a way to siphon data. I want whatever passes for the holonet within five minutes. Terrance, join us here to help Nichols," Gray ordered, taking a moment to review their tactical situation.
With any luck, the slicers would discern Zorlman's location quickly and painlessly. Once they did, the team would need a way to get there. Gray had just called up a map of the area on his visor when Snyder reported in on the comlink.
"Vehicle approaching, northbound your location. Looks like maybe a civilian line hauler."
"Can you get me visual with the remote?" Gray asked Schlamp, who was hooking back into his patiently waiting drone.
"Roger, but I've gotta be low on power by now, LT."
Within moments, Schlamp shunted a view of the vehicle to Gray's visor. Neither of them could detect anything suspicious about the old hovercraft.
"Let it pass," Gray quickly decided. They had neither time nor reason to establish a proper ambush.
Nichols triumphantly announced that he had logged into DarNet using the attendant's password, which he had found conveniently annotated on a nearby wall.
Rask Montel was tired. He never regretted having gone to transportation school to become a point-to-point hauler, but this particular run had begun wearing on his nerves four hours ago. It wasn't bad enough that he had to make the sixteen-h our run virtually nonstop to get that bonus he needed. Oh, no....
The late hour SHOULD have assured a clear drive on the super highway between Gleeke and Okefry. But four hours ago he had encountered a military road block.
He almost panicked, thinking that the barricade was meant to catch him. But although the soldiers detained him for three hours, brandishing weapons nervously and inspecting every inch of his hoverbarge, they never found his smuggling compart ment. Anxious officers ran about, issuing conflicting orders. Montel was finally able to convince one of them that a load of fresh cranuchi sauce, while important enough for a midnight run, posed no threat to national security. With a box of sauce thrown in, the officer let Montel proceed with strict warnings to stay off the super highway.
Nearly four hours behind his schedule, he was still navigating back roads, searching for a way back to the super highway, where no confining speed limit existed. The modern comlink gear he had been contracted to smuggle was still safe in its concealed niche within the engine compartment.
To compound his frustration, he had planned to refuel on the super highway. He was now considerably low on fossil fuel and was profusely cursing the fact that Darlac insisted on banning modern technology. Then he decided that it did not mat ter; he could not have afforded anything better anyway. He also had a burning desire to relieve his bladder of the last bottle of carbonated jump juice he had consumed trying to keep awake.
Montel spotted a fuel station at the last moment and had to apply full reverse thrust to pull in before passing. With any luck, he would be able to refuel and get directions to the super highway. Above all, he could use their plumbing facil ities.
He was in such a hurry that he did not ground the hovercraft or notice that the lights inside the station were off.
For an annoying moment, Gray thought they had been found out. But when nothing more intimidating that an unarmed portly driver piled out of the cab, he discerned the situation closely enough for government use.
"Wait until he gets inside," Gray ordered over the comlink before the driver cleared his vehicle.
Lane apparently failed to comprehend that message, jumping into the open to get a clear shot and using a long burst of blaster fire to take the man down. Gray cursed to himself as Snyder jumped out of the treeline to yank Lane back into conc ealment.
"Lane, get back under cover!" Gray yelled over the comlink. "You've made enough noise to wake the entire continent!"
Cross sent Hawkins and Schlamp out to recover the body and power down the hovercraft. Gray considered the squad fortunate that the hovercraft was almost noisy enough to completely cover the blaster fire. He went back to his map, deciding th at he would chew out Lane later.
That brought the tally of dead individuals on this excursion to two. In hindsight, it occurred to Gray that the dead people could have provided some of the information they lacked. Next time they stormed a nonmilitary complex, they'd set we apons to stun. Terrance chose that moment to rush in, already unpacking his computer gear.
"Terrance, can you rig a blaster set on automatic to fire the first shot stun, then kill, then recycle to stun if it isn't refired within two seconds?" Gray queried, not hoping for much.
"Of course," Terrance replied easily as he hurried by. "However, they would never meet Imperial spec again."
Before Gray could consider it further, Hawkins dragged the driver in.
"Nothing I could do for him. Sorry, LT, I know you wanted this one alive."
"Forget it. Check him for useful documents," Gray replied out of habit. "Where's Schlamp?"
"Gettin' the drone," Hawkins replied as he riffled through the dead man's pockets. "You know, we still use aerodynamic hovercraft back where I'm from."
Gray went outside to inspect the craft. He found Schlamp in a rather excited state.
"LT, you're not gonna believe this. That guy was smuggling comlink gear--found it stowed in the engine compartment."
"Good work. Can you drive this contraption?"
"Of course," Schlamp replied confidently, although Gray detected less than total confidence. "You know, Hawkins says he's seen these things before."
"So he claims. What about the drone?"
Schlamp cursed at his inattention and immediately set his attention to the drone.
"Great. The power cell is dead--I'll have to glide it in," Schlamp declared anxiously. "Don't worry, I've done this before."
Gray went back in to get out of the way. Nichols and Terrance were busy at two separate terminals with Cross examining their work. Hawkins was off snooping through the station.
"Hawk found a couple of IDs on the driver. These guys managed to slice into some adhoc smuggling network with them."
"Gotcha!" Nichols and Terrance called out simultaneously, slapping hands together in triumph.
Gray was flabbergasted. The two had managed to crack a paranoid computer network in less than ten minutes.
Nichols noticed his consternation.
"It was simple," Nichols explained, "since our gear works at such a higher level than theirs. Terry held the system open while I worked on the pass codes and encryption. Very quaint security measures. Police around here must still be usin g punch cards for criminals like us to get away with this."
"Quaint for you, Nichols; you're not the one who had to keep the host computer from becoming suspicious. The dead gentleman's paperwork saved considerable time," Terrance moderated Nichols' bragging. "It was a matter of--"
"Space the tech-chat," Cross interrupted. "Where's Zorlman?"
"Well, there seems to be some reference here to him. Looks like he's still on-planet," Nichols answered. "Apparently, the group holding him can't communicate off-planet to notify the Rebellion he's here. There's discreet inquiries out for comlinks and off-world transportation-- all by the same person. Bad news is, he's been moved to Okefry--over three hundred kilometers from here."
"A bit far for a tactical march," Cross pointed out, staring meaningfully at the hovercraft outside.
"Of course; we will appropriate the hovercraft. I doubt the owner will object," Gray decided. "Do you gentlemen have coordinates for Zorlman yet?"
"No," Terrance replied sheepishly, apparently ashamed for being slow, "but we have the DarNet address of the site trying to coordinate with the Rebels. He's gone through a few dummy terminals around the country, but I found him. If I can ta p into the Darlac communications base files, we can back-trace the site coordinates. That will take some time, LT."
"I just gained access to military relay comms," Terrance announced. "We can search the rest of the data enroute."
"Speaking of which, since we now have the Rebel's out-system comm gear, does that mean we're not in such an all-fired hurry now?" Hawkins ventured aloud.
"No, they may have a backup plan," Cross answered, looking to LT Gray for consensus. "Or maybe this gear WAS the backup plan."
"Agreed. All right, let's wrap it up here," Gray directed over the comlink. "Cross, pull in security. We're moving out."