Commander Ian Williams glanced cautiously at the horizon as
he walked along the hard desert pavement. The dome of an enormous blue sky
arched overhead, meeting the russet colored mountains to the south in sharp
relief. It was absolutely quiet. He could not remember having visited a place
that was so naturally still. A hundred meters distant a large black raven was
flying away from them, he could clearly hear the gentle beat of its wings.
measured steps continued crunching loudly in the process the
commander kept his breathing in a steady rhythm. He occasionally gave a firm
twist with the tip of his foot to test the hardness of the dry ground
was like concrete, not very good if they needed water.
Commanders grey eyes glanced up suddenly from their dry reverie to review
the horizon for the hundredth time; still clear, still empty space and big sky.
After a long silence he became aware that his subordinate was fidgeting
slightly as he threaded his way amongst the brown clump grasses.
Lieutenant Atri, inquired Commander Williams in fluent Kitak, his
subordinates native language, who do you think will find us first:
Our people, the Selangor or the Californians?
At the first
sound of Williams voice, Lieutenant Mæsa Atri rotated his head
upward and listened intently to his commander. It seemed that everything the
Batur did was executed with rapt attention; it was something that Williams
particularly liked about them.
think, said the lieutenant; that the Californians will find us
first. They will certainly have seen us come down so close to their border and
already they probably track us.
the Selangor, they could have followed us down. Williams added quickly.
They were certainly waiting for us as we passed over Sumatra on our last
True. replied the lieutenant. But even if they are in the
vicinity which they apparently are not at the moment they would
probably detect the Californian forces nearby. Unless the Californians are
staying clean at a distance, which would not make sense.
Unless, Williams said. They prefer not to get involved.
doubt that, they have given the Selangor bloody noses before when they came too
close, why would they choose differently now, especially when we who are
not unfriendly with the Californians have just come to ground in an
Atri glanced up regularly at Williams whilst continuously scanning the horizon
in much the same manner as the Commander. Each was scanning differently in
order to improve coverage, but they were both aware that on their own like
this, Selangor units could get alarmingly close without being detected.
Williams quipped without distracting his lieutenant too
much. What if the Californians choose to let the Selangor get us first,
and then stop them? They could claim that they tried to save us, and at the
same time examine our lifeless carcasses for any intelligence we might
offer. Williams smiled down at the lieutenant in a mildly evil way.
What do you think of that little scenario?
Atri could not really see Williams evil expression not through
their uniforms but he still got the point. Even as Williams finished,
Lieutenant Atri spoke quickly; Did your assistants prompt you on that, or
is that your own idea?
minutes ago my team warned me not to rely entirely on the Californians. The
rest of the scenario is my own.
Well. commented Williams lieutenant, himself obviously in the
middle of his own ruminating; I think this is something to consider.
Should we prepare to destroy ourselves?
are nothing if not to-the-point, Williams smiled silently to himself.
now just make sure all your files are moved together, we certainly won't blow
ourselves up just yet. quipped the commander wryly.
talking about the sternum point, a common area on the body for storing
information because of its position away from the extremities. For those forced
to destroy themselves on short notice, the sternum point offered the best
chance at denying data to intruders, prodders and the generally curious. Of
course the idea was not to kill yourself until you knew with certainty that all
your data was destroyed. Once that was done, a lethal injection from your
uniform followed by a loud bang was wholly preferable to intrusion by enemy
MGVs that would try to map out your person. That process was best compared to
having the worst flu imaginable followed by the feeling of being turned inside
some countries avoided use of mapping weapons, many would do it when the
returns promised to be lucrative. Two Australian orbital forces officers dumped
unexpectedly onto the desert floor east of California would automatically be
worth the risk. In any case, there were groups in the world who wouldn't care
too much about their public image. Even worse, for some of them a few well
postured acts of brutality would improve their image in the eyes of certain
In reply to
his commanders question, Lieutenant Atri looked over and tapped his chest
with the slender tip of his index finger. Williams smiled again; Atri had
probably moved his data over before they landed.
commander glanced along the horizon. To the north he could see the tall face of
the glaciers, shining brightly in the sunlight. Even from a distance the
creeping mountains of ice were a wondrous and sublime sight. The great shining
walls slivered in a thousand places in a riot of white and translucent blue. If
you meditated on them long enough, you might be fortunate to witness a gigantic
slab as it slowly toed over into a white spray at the base of the sheer wall.
Williams watched with some impatience well short of meditation
and realized that he was not likely to be rewarded with any further sublime
visions today. One had been enough for him anyway.
time, Williams and Atri reached the line of cliffs which had looked so small
from their drop point. Now the huge boulders and uneven piles of jointed stone
towered around them. Here and there were small rivulets of water that ran in
narrow courses from the heights above. Dense, brightly green mosses grew in the
cracks around the miniature rivers. The lieutenant stood looking directly at a
rock face in the shade nearby, and slowly raised his arm to point at the uneven
ledge. There on the rocks a line of squarish humanoid figures primitively drawn
in subdued white and brown stared back at them, the large circular eyes seeing
nothing on their ancient march to nowhere. Exchanging silent glances, the two
officers resumed their march, hopping from boulder to boulder. After a while
the commander turned to look back down the valley and out onto the desert.
Well. Williams said. It has been over two hours since we were
knocked out of orbit and nothing. Looking over, he could see his
lieutenant gazing back at him from a boulder-top, steadying himself in a silent
reverie. There must have been more fighting up there and both sides are
so heavily engaged that there are insufficient resources, either to rescue us
or attack us.
in recognition of the Commanders theory. Both of them knew the options;
they could remain completely off the network, which assured maximum security.
Or they could try to collect some passive observations at a slight risk of
giving away their position. The latter option assumed there was still fighting
in orbit, indeed it assumed that the fighting that had destroyed their ship was
part of a general Selangor offensive which would not allow for the tracking of
two de-orbiting controllers. If this was a big push, the enemy units would be
satisfied with getting them and their orbital division out of the way.
this was part of a local intelligence gathering attack, then Williams and his
lieutenant were still in a state of high danger. Every minute that passed
without some dreadful alarm from their ES assistants was a sign that the
lightning fast battle they had just lived through was part of a bigger story
for the day.
Lieutenant, said Williams; go to that little cave over there
and I'll climb up to the top of these rocks
see what sort of fellows are
in the neighborhood. Atri replied with a crisp Yes sir. and
moved with his customary agility toward a small opening in the rocks further to
the east of their position.
With a surge
the commander thrust smoothly up the face of the rock face, working along a
rock ledge that was his target hold. Moving on from there, he climbed further
up, palms and soles gripping the rock unfailingly. A brief stop at a rest point
and he was on the way up again. Gaining the line of the closest ridge he pulled
himself onto a flat and instantly felt the blast of wind push against his
uniform. He steadied himself and looked off to the west; marching into the
distance between valleys of bright yellow sand were lines of dark volcanic
mountains, mingled with other grey and tan ridgelines.
aside his momentary appreciation of the broad desert vista, he quickly and
silently began browsing through his passive search options. Once he was
finished, he conducted a final check of his own systems to make sure nothing on
board his uniform would try to access the orbital network once he opened-up. He
gave the command and held his breath.
flood of data began pouring in to his on-board network. A predictably sparse
set of command intercepts from the Pitcairn station his base and
some noise obviously coming from damaged ships in orbit confirmed that a large
battle was still in process high overhead. He even instinctively looked up at
the sky toward the point in space from which they had just fallen a short while
before. As would be expected, precious little else about events in orbit could
be gleaned from Williams vantage point.
alarming were events close at hand. Whipping around to face east, Williams saw
his subordinate Atri who had frozen near the mouth of the cave. Williams knew
why, he stood helplessly watching his vulnerable lieutenant. A quick zoom
confirmed his sensor sweep; there was some kind of combat unit hugging the wall
of the cave. It was nearly invisible and only gave away its position because
Lieutenant Atri had now gotten within two meters of it. Atri, who could see the
combat unit on the wall of the cave with his plain daylight vision, had frozen
with the palms of his hands held outward the sign to all combat units of
passive intent, surrender if necessary. The unidentified crawler remained
attached to the wall, facing Atri with its sensor suites active.
watched, two more combat units appeared nearby. They didn't actually
appear in the sense that most civilians might think, they announced
their presence by sensor sweeping the area and spotting Williams, certainly
pinpointing his location and forwarding his profile to other concealed units in
whose units? Being an orbital controller, Williams was no expert on
tactical ground formations even though he had studied them. All he could see
here were a few emission signatures and a very nice image coming in from
Lieutenant Atri of a lethal looking reconnaissance crawler the exact same color
as the rocks around it. Atri whose position was now hopelessly
compromised anyway had opened his medium range uniform link to Williams
in order to stream the image.
cautiously around, Williams decided these crawlers must be Californian. Had
they been Selangor the fighting would already be over, with jagged pieces of
Williams, his subordinate and their uniforms decorating the boulders. Standing
absolutely still in unthreatening postures, the two Australian officers
listened carefully as a nearby unit crawled into view and opened a link with
remain where you are. It commanded in a pleasant and friendly voice
inside Williams uniform. A Cal-Army rescue team is en route to
secure you and your crewmember. You will be debriefed shortly. Thank you and
welcome to the high desert.
the Californian army unit clung back onto the rocks and nearly disappeared,
moving away to a new position as it regained cover.
A short text
from Atri regained Williams attention, the lieutenant was now standing
casually, watching the Californian reconnaissance crawler move back into the
cave before disappearing completely. Atri motioned that he would come back into
verbal range; he nimbly jumped onto the nearest boulder and climbed up jointed
rock faces on the way to the ridgeline that led to Williams perch. He was
rarely in need of the gripping powers offered by his uniform, and as he moved
gracefully across the rocks it constantly shifted color, tone and heat
signature as it sought to camouflage his outline.
brought himself back to the more important issue of their vulnerability and
pending meeting with the Californians. Before he was able to think further on
the matter, a group of sleek air interceptors tore through the dry desert air,
streaking up the valley below and climbing in a broad arc as they kept the
ridge to their left. More tearing noises to the north meant that several more
flights of Californian aircraft were sweeping the area to establish superiority
just in case. Behind them came several flights of larger heavy attack
jets, also unmanned like their smaller air superiority brethren but slower and
loaded with armor and ordnance. A Californian heavy attack jet was nearly
impossible to shoot down, the best thing you could do was stay out of its way.
Williams had only once seen one from a distance. Now, five of these monsters
approached his perch on the ridgeline, leading escorts for the manned command
jet sweeping up from the valley floor.
Atri reached Williams rock in time to watch the Californian command craft
slow its ground hugging ascent of the ridgeline and peel into open view in a
sweeping hover less than a meter from the opposite edge of the flat-topped
boulder where the two Australians lay. Above the gentle roar of the command
jets power plant, the metallic slipping sound of its door echoed as the
cloistered interior opened to the crisp desert air.
immediately inside was the enclosed outline of a uniformed California Army
officer motioning for the two Australians to move into the tandem seats forward
and aft of his station. Without hesitation Commander Williams and his
lieutenant galloped to the other side of the boulder and into the vitals of the
waiting jet. No sooner had they climbed in than the door snapped shut and their
stomachs climbed the wall as the jet tumbled to port and sped back toward the
valley floor. Through the newly opened network connections they could hear the
dull rumble of their heavy escort as the entire task force gained speed and
bore back toward the coast. As the commander looked forward, he could see that
the cockpit crewman for this jet was batur, tucked into a small flight couch
that a human could not hope to fit.
you please identify yourselves?came a friendly but commanding tone from
the figure who sat between Commander Williams and his subordinate.
immediately responded; Commander Ian Williams, Australian Orbital
Forces. moments later his subordinate followed suit; Lieutenant
Mæsa Atri, Australian Orbital Forces.
Mmmm. muttered the Californian in confirmation, obviously
distracted by other things. I am Captain James Sweeney, Cal-Army. I've
been tasked with making sure you and your crew make it back to California safe
and sound Commander. Am I to understand that it is only the two of you?
is correct Captain. responded the Australian commander. And a
hearty thank you for picking us up. Our ship was disabled by Selangor orbital
fire. But by now you probably know more about that than I do.
really. lied the captain, We were pulled off station and headed
straight out here. I only assumed something was up based on your own sudden
Sweeney knew all about events in orbit and even now he was following station
reports arriving from Fort Banning and Earth orbit. It wasn't his decision as
to what these two Australians did or didn't get told. His mission was to bring
them in, preferably in one piece or two pieces as the case turned out.
Acknowledging the lie with approval, the Australian commander continued,
In any case, thank you. We will cooperate in any way possible with the
investigation into our arrival and its particulars.
worry about that for the moment, current plans are for a quick visit to a
medical unit and then a stop to pick up some hot chow or cold chow if
that suits you. After that you will have a quick debrief with some officers and
a California State Department official. Your embassy has been informed and may
send someone, although they appear to be rather distracted at the moment.
item was a small gift from Captain Sweeney and both men knew it. Thank
you Captain. Williams replied. We couldn't ask for more.
Certainly not. thought Williams. Had Sweeney landed in Australia,
Williams would have given him half as much information just as a matter of
course. Looking out at the passing mountains he wondered absentmindedly what
the weather would be like on the coast.
miles to the north, an unmarked reconnaissance jet came to a hover near the
self-destructed remnants of the two Australians jettisoned escape modules
and gathered them up, incinerating the ground where they had landed and
clearing the area of major traces of human contamination. Under the watchful
patrol of the circling air supremacy flights, the small unmanned jet sped back
to the southwest.