By M S Lawson
ISBN 978-0-9954192-8-5 (e-book)
Copyright© 2021 by Mark Steven Lawson writing as M. S. Lawson
Published by Clearvadersname Pty Ltd
All rights reserved. The book contains material protected under international and national copyright laws and treaties. Any unauthorized reprint or use of this material is prohibited. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, without express permission from the publisher.
Other books by this author
The Musketeers of Haven – a science fiction story (ebook, 2020)
Claire Takes on The Galaxy (ebook, published on the web site Dreame, 2019)
Darth Vader – The good guy who lost (non-fiction ebook, 2018)
A Planet for Emily (ebook, 2017)
Disgraced in all of Koala Bay (ebook, 2016)
The Zen of Being Grumpy (non-fiction published by Connor Court, 2013)
Cover image: shutterstock
But he, that hath the steerage of my course, Direct my sail! On lusty gentlemen.
Romeo on his way to meet Juliet
William Shakespeare 1595
Private Gellibrand Bosworth Baines Plymouth Obsidian of three platoon B Company, Second Regiment of the Lighthold Sector Assault Infantry was sound asleep aboard the interstellar troop transporter Highreach, dreaming of women, when his platoon sergeant came to wake him. Gel, as he was to his friends, may have highly trained in cutting-edge weaponry and sensing systems resulting from centuries of technological advancements, but his sergeant’s approach to rousing the soldier would have been familiar to a Roman legionnaire or a Greek Hoplite.
“Get up Obsidian, you lazy sod,” said staff sergeant Sefton, flipping up the capsule’s cover and shaking Gel. Being old school, the sergeant would have tipped the private onto the floor and dumped his mattress on top of him, but Gel was in a sleep capsule on the second tier of the bunk room’s array of capsules. The sergeant had to make do with shaking.
“Wha.. Staff Sergeant?” Gel automatically looked at the display set on the bulkhead beside him. “Still half an hour to alarm.”
“Not for you, we’re making you a squad leader.”
“But I don’t wanna be a squad leader,” protested Gel. “I’ve told you that. I don’t wanna start worrying about what some other poor Salt should be doing.” The Assault Infantry called each other Salts.
“Major Tatcha has told me you either accept the job or we’re authorised to put you in the air lock and space you. Lieutenant Andris” (this was the platoon leader) “says he will personally work the override for the outer doors to open while you’re inside.”
“Isn’t it against military law to murder privates for refusing promotions?”
The sergeant pushed his face up close to Obsidian’s to glare at the private.
“The court of inquiry will find that there are extenuating circumstances, such as the private in question being aggravating.” Gel had refused promotion several times. “You’re squad leader, no argument, and senior squad leader too.” The sergeant withdrew his face and jerked his thumb to indicate that Gel should get up. The other members of the platoon, in sleep capsules with translucent covers closed, as regulations demanded, slept on.
“Say, what? What’s happened to Jim, Gus and Ella?” said Gel as he swung his legs over the side and grabbed his trousers.
“Squad Leaders James Guthrie and Gustav Graves had to be switched to other platoons to cover gaps,” said Staff Sergeant Sefton. “Guthrie has been made brevet sergeant in C company. His promotion is deserved as you know. Squad leader Ella Hutchinson is still finding her way, as she admits. That leaves you, heaven help us all. You are older than the others and sometime make more sense – which doesn’t say much for the others - and you’ve done the squad leader course.”
The sergeant could have also added that Gel was somewhat taller than the platoon average, powerfully built and had more than held his own on all levels in the give and take of barrack rooms without making enemies. The others would not mess with him lightly. He was a natural choice for the vacant junior leader slot.
“I only did the course because you threatened me with field punishment if I didn’t,” said Gel putting on his socks.
“Did I?” The sergeant affected surprise. “You shouldn’t have such a good memory, Obsidian. Finish getting dressed and get to the ready room. The last-minute shuffle has upset things. Assistant squad leader Finney is the other promotion in three platoon, and Obsidian.” the sergeant lent in again.
“Yes sergeant?” said Gel, leaning back.
“If you didn’t want promotion you should have stayed away from the assault infantry.”
The ball was a swanky, formal dinner with a retro theme including a live 1940s style big band. This band launched into the swing time classic, A string of pearls.
“Swing,” exclaimed Gellibrand Bosworth Baines Plymouth Obsidian. In keeping with the theme of the night, he wore a white coat with wide lapels, black bow tie and black pants. “Alison, let’s dance?”
“Not now, dear,” said Alison. “I want to work the room.”
“But this is a ball,” protested Gel. “People dance at balls not network. I want to dance with my fiancée. I’ve even been taking swing dancing lessons.”
“That’s nice dear,” said Alison, scanning the room. “But you’ll never get into the senate if I don’t get out there and make contacts.”
“Senate?” Gel was momentarily taken aback, then shrugged, “if you’re that interested in politics mother will buy you a senate seat after we’re married, and you can sit in that dreadful Senate building and have meetings.”
“I’m not talking about the planetary senate, Gel,” said Alison rounding on him. “I’m talking about the Imperial Senate on Earth.”
Gel’s blood ran cold. His mother had mentioned that he might go into politics, but he thought she had heeded his strong protests and dropped the idea. The vast family fortune could be used to back some other poor devil who actually liked being in meetings, giving speeches, having his picture taken and being interviewed. Gel detested the publicity that came with being heir to a vast fortune and actively avoided it. But if Alison was talking about aiming for the Imperial Senate Gel knew that his mother must be behind the idea. He also knew that what his mother wanted, she got.
“Why in all of Imperium would I want to get into that senate?” he said. “I don’t want to be in politics – I don’t want to start worrying about what some other poor citizen is doing.”
The newly promoted senior squad leader assembled with the other B Company leaders in the ready room for Major Tatcha’s briefing, which included changes to the company hierarchy.
“Staff sergeant Sefton tells me you’ve graciously accepted promotion,” said Tatcha to Gel, smiling.
“He made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, sir, involving an airlock.”
“It’s sad what we’re reduced to in the assault infantry,” said Tatcha, still smiling. “Very sad is it not, staff sergeant?”
“Yes sir, very sad sir. Privates should want to murder their mothers for a chance to become squad leader. Instead, they have to be forced to take it.”
“Sad, very sad.”
The major called them to order and went over the leadership changes which included a new lieutenant for the Heavy Weapons and Support (HWAS) platoon, a bewildered looking Lieutenant Hasten. Then he moved onto the mission bringing up a map of the region they were to be transported to from orbit.
“It’s our turn to go down the surface, the last formation of the expeditionary force to go, Ladies and Gentlemen, and we have a straight forward mission,” he said. “A good chance to shake down the changes just made. We’re going down in a trident formation of four transports, the three platoon transports spread out with HWAS at the rear to land just outside this town,” Tatcha pointed to a square on the map, “called Walter’s Find. Someone called Walter found whatever is being mined there, it seems, and that’s about as complicated as place names get on this planet. The town is nothing more than a mining settlement of a few buildings but its right on top of a mother lode of smart crystals used for the new AI systems.”
As the Major did not bother to explain but his audience knew Smart Crystals were a rare form of the very common tectosilicate crystals. When right impurities were added and the deposit left under pressure for a geological age, these crystals were transformed into material that delivered processing and neutral net power two generations above those of the old, clunky silicon chips, while being far easier to use than Quantum systems. As smart crystals were very difficult to fabricate in a reasonable time, the deposits were highly sought after. The lift crystals which supplied lift when an electric current was passed through them and were widely used in transport vehicles, were a form of cyclosilicates but also required unusual geological conditions to form.
“The sector government wants to show off to the Imperial administration,” the major continued, “bless all their pointy heads, with a fresh supply of these crystals and we are to secure that supply for him. There is a set of ruins behind the town and to the North which isn’t human, as far as we know, and, no I don’t know what that means either. The miners found it by accident and cleared away some of the jungle, but they were told not to do anything more until archaeologists have taken a look. That means we go down, occupy the town and secure the area, including this ruin whatever it is. We have also been told to leave it alone, although we will take a peek. Make sure it’s secure.
“As for opposition, there have been reports of militia from the Sylvan Republic to the East – again a tin pot place named after someone or other – in the area, but as Walter’s Find is some distance from the border our diplomats have agreed with those guys, the Sylvan militia will be staying away, we hope. If we come across any militia, we ask them nicely to leave. If they won’t leave voluntarily then we will insist, as only assault infantry can, that they must leave scaling up to lethal force if necessary. Questions?”
“Any fire support on offer, sir?” asked Lieutenant Andris.
“Good point,” said Tatcha. “Just our transports, I’m afraid, and no weapons heavier than the ones we already have in HWAS. Our forces are spread thin occupying the key points of Outpost 3” (this was the name of the planet) “and like I said the brass has assured us there’s no opposition in the area. We land just outside the town, check it out and then do a sweep. Our main problem will be the terrain – we’re landing in jungle – and the weather. Its pouring down, ladies and gentlemen, take your waterproofs.”
Gel watched Alison make her way around the tables smiling, chatting and occasionally touching hands. As a tall, radiant beauty in a sky blue gown she drew eyes, both men and women, wherever she went. Powerful men were only too happy to network with her; powerful women wanted to meet her. As Gel watched an old goat whose wife happened to be away from their table grabbed Alison’s hand and kiss it. Alison laughed, withdrew her hand then touched the man on the shoulder saying something to him before moving on. He was a member of the planet’s senate.
Normally Gel would have just asked someone else to dance but his conversation with Alison had been so alarming that he decided to confront his mother instead. As it was a charity ball all the generations where there. He found his mother on a table at the other end of the room with a temporarily empty seat on one side of her which he occupied.
“Mother, what is this I hear about you plotting with Alison to get me into the Imperial Senate?”
“She told you did she,” said his mother. She had been a spectacular beauty with a will of steel whose bid to catch Gel’s father and the Obsidian fortune had succeeded. The beauty had faded - what was left still brought men around in droves - but the steel was as hard as ever. “I wondered when she would. Alison will do wonders in moulding you, in giving you a purpose in life.”
“I have a purpose in life, mother,” snapped Gel. “I’m a patent attorney. I like being a patent attorney, and I don’t want to be in politics at all or be moulded.”
His mother snorted. “You’re an intern with that pokey little firm and you can do so much more with your life, Gel. As your father use to say, you’re far too easy going. I’ve tolerated the patent attorney thing as it looks well on political pamphlets, along with science and law degrees.”
“I didn’t do any of it to look good in politics, mother. I did it because I wanted to.”
“And that’s what you should say to any interviewer,” said Mrs Obsidian leaning towards him. “The family fortune has to be protected at the political level, and beyond that in our sector of space we have to start thinking of our future,” she lowered her voice, “outside of the Imperium”.
“Outside of the Empire?” spluttered Gel also lowering his voice. “Mother, what are you planning?”
Gel’s platoon assembled in the ready room, shrugging on their combat outfits including bullet proofs and the all-important digital tac helmet, with visor, then checked equipment and communications for the mission. Despite his change in rank Gel still had the Dart-Gun, his squad’s heavy weapon. This looked something like an over-sized assault rifle with even larger sized magazine on top filled with explosive darts. It was fired while resting on the operator’s shoulder like that of the World War II bazooka or their descendants such as the M72 Light Anti-Tank Weapon and Swedish AT4. Unlike those last two one-shot weapons, however, the Dart-Gun could keep firing both armour piercing and anti-personnel darts, interchangeable at the touch of a button. This all made the gun much heavier than the standard assault rifle, but Gel had the physique to cope with the weight and liked the weapon. He thought he could win a lot of arguments on the battlefield with it.
Private Milo Gilbert was making the usual nuisance of himself.
“We just land and walk around?” sneered Gilbert, a tall, pale man who seemed to have joined the Salts because no one else wanted him. “Why do we need the whole company? Why go at all?”
“What’s the matter Milo?” said Gel. “You worried you won’t have the chance to lead a death or glory charge against the local militia? You may still win that medal, awarded posthumously, and then staff sergeant Sefton can lead us to victory.”
That part was added as the sergeant had come to check on preparations.
“No,” said the sergeant. “The lieutenant will lead the platoon to victory. I’ll make sure you achieve victory smartly and in accordance with proper military procedures.”
“After Private Gilbert dies gloriously?” asked Gel, hopefully.
“Private Gilbert can choose to make the ultimate sacrifice if he wishes,” said Sefton.
Gilbert sneered but stopped questioning the mission.
For the sergeant the byplay confirmed his opinion that his pick for senior squad leader would do very well. Gel had silenced Gilbert, a pain in the rear end, without screaming or unpleasantness. Screaming and barking orders had their place but not in such matters.
“Maybe we’ll take militia women prisoners?” said Private Theodore Turgenev.
“You can only hope,” said Alyssa Sampson, rolling her eyes. A medic, the only female in Gel’s squad and a favourite of his. “Maye they’ll be so grateful you won’t have to pay for it.”
“I’m a guy,” said Turgenev. “I’m just looking to get what I can wherever.”
“We still going to try for the 14th level, senior squad leader?” said Private Carver to Gel. Barely out of school, Carver had his squad’s storm cannon, a distant descendent of the machine-guns used in Earth’s wars. He was also Gel’s wing man in a violent fantasy game.
“Nothing’s going to stop us taking the 14th level,” said Gel. “Just those demons and us after we get back from taking territory.”
“Yeah!” said Carver bumping fists with Gel.
The two transport pilots came in. One was a square-jawed heroic, male type and the other a red-haired sub-lieutenant female barely out of flight school who nodded at Alyssa.
“Time for the infantry to occupy a bunch of dirt,” said the male. “Follow us.”
“Red flight is so hot,” moaned Turgenev. He had the sense to moan quietly.
They filed through the access passage and down the ladder through their transport’s top hatch. Gel was near the back with the lifting android whose job was akin that of the pack mules of older conflicts on Earth. Called a Mule-Droid, although it was a blocky humanoid shape, the droid followed the platoon around carrying heavy stuff.
“Okay guys,” said the pilot, over the intercom. “Get ready for the best ride in the park. Full combat entry through atmos onto the planet surface. Lots of heat from re-entry; lots of shaking. Plenty of speed. You’ll love it.”
The transport ship’s bay doors swung open below them. Another of the company’s four platoon shuttles was almost touching Gel’s craft but, peering out of the porthole, he could see a sliver of the planet’s surface below them. What he could see was mostly cloud with blue ocean gleaming through tiny breaks.
The transports dropped.
The band started another swing number, the ever popular Sing Sing Sing which echoed through Gel’s mind as they fell towards the planet’s surface.
Sing, sing, sing, sing everybody start to sing..
“You spend a few more years or so at that dreary little firm,” said Mrs Obsidian, “make senior associate, that shouldn’t be too difficult, maybe even partner then run for the Imperial senate. With the Obsidian name and money and Alison by your side ensuring you’ll get into news feeds everywhere it should be a shoo-in. We’ll hire a campaign manager from earth – several if you want, and a stylist.”
“I don’t want several, I don’t want any.” Arguing with his mother, Gel often thought, was like arguing with a brick wall. “And the stylist can get lost in space somewhere. Why don’t you put Alison in the Senate? She’s really into that stuff.”
“You’re just not seeing the bigger picture,” said his mother impatiently. “It’s not going to stop at the Senate. There’s the governorship here of course and then, when this sector of space is sufficiently developed, it will need someone with an instantly recognisable name, political clout and a track record in public service to guide it out of the Imperial shadow.”
“I’m to become a tin pot regional emperor?” Appalled, Gel had trouble keeping his voice down. “I’ll pass mother. The empire has rule of law, free trade, a big fleet and the Imperial Marines. Look what’s been happening in the Dimarch system. They threw away rule of law to bring in torture centres and very nasty prison camps, and they want to expand at our expense. A regiment of Imperial Marines will stop that.”
“We now have our own marines..”
“Assault infantry, mother.”
“.. we have our own army, and that army will have its own, strong ruler,” said Mrs Obsidian. “Someone who understands the issues, who can keep Dimarch out.”
“I’m hardly a strong ruler type, mother.”
“There’s no need to concern yourself over that. Alison and I will make sure there are people around you who can do the strong ruler thing.”
“You want me to be a strong ruler puppet. That doesn’t make sense, mother. Include me out of this. Get someone else.”
“Ungrateful boy,” chided his mother, “you don’t know what I’ve had to do to groom you for this role, in spite of your resistance.”
“What have you had to do that justifies me being grateful for the role of sub-Emperor?”
“Who do you think fixed the drink-driving charge?”
“Ancient history mother, and I would have just done the suspended-licence sentence.”
“Who do you think bought off that slut you were seeing before Alison?”
That stopped Gel. He felt himself go cold.
The transport shook violently.
“I don’t feel so well,” said Private Carver.
“Hang in there, not long,” said Gel.
The front of the craft was glowing red.
Then Gel noticed that Alyssa was watching a screen in front of her, listening to the onscreen action through earphones. This was a breach of regulations, not that Gel cared but it was an excuse to tease his friend. He was close enough to tap her on the shoulder.
“You’re not watching one of your dramas are you, Alyssa?” he said, after she had taken out one of the earphones. “We’re supposed to be on a do or die mission here.”
Private Sampson sniffed. “We go down, grab some dirt and impress a hamlet by running around. If anyone gets hurt falling over themselves, call me, senior squad leader.” She said the last words with particular emphasis then put her earphone back in. Gel smiled.
“How come we’re not marines,” he heard someone say. “We’re dropping out of spaceships to land on planets. Isn’t that a marine role?”
“The Empire had a lock on that brand name,” said Private Carver. “We’re sector infantry. They couldn’t use mobile infantry, as that only goes with power suits, it seems. Storm troopers was suggested but that had some old movie association, so we got assault infantry.”
Then the transport was in thick, grey mist.
“Cloud cover, people,” said the pilot over comms. “Bad weather out there. We get to stay in the craft where its dry. Few more minutes.”
The band had started another chorus.
“Sing sing sing sing…”
“You mean Lucy?” said Gel. “You bought off Lucy? I was in love with Lucy.”
“You thought you were in love with Lucy,” retorted Mrs Obsidian. “She was playing you from the moment she met you. When I contacted her, she started negotiating without turning a hair. And it cost a lot to get rid of her.”
For a moment Gel was at a loss for words. When he spoke it was in a low and quiet voice and with an intensity that his mother had not seen before. “How dare you interfere, mother.”
“It isn’t interference when you’re just playing your part,” protested Mrs Obsidian, taken aback by her son’s reaction. “She was expecting my call, and my money. She dumped you happily.”
Gel thought about this glaring at his mother who gestured at Alison, visible across the ballroom.
“I see Alison is doing the networking thing, as we agreed,” she said.
“Tell me, mother,” said Gel, eventually, an edge to his voice. “What is the worse thing I could do in your eyes. What would make you disinherit me, as you’ve been threatening to do since I can remember, and drop me out of these mad schemes entirely?”
His mother thought about this somewhat concerned about her son’s sudden intensity and shrugged. Gel had been rebellious before but the problem had been dealt with by minor concessions.
“I suppose you could enlist with those army people.”
“You mean the sector army, the assault infantry?”
“That’s right,” she said, with a wry, knowing smile, “you could enlist in the assault infantry.”
The assault infantry platoon put on their combat helmets, pulled the visors down, donned their waterproof ponchos and checked weapons.
“You all know the deployment,” said the sergeant, “let’s do it right.”
“All craft,” said Major Tatcha over the command link. Gel’s new senior squad leader status meant that he was allowed to listen on the command link, provided he did not say anything. “I want to set down early. The town was told to expect us but no-one’s responding. Probably nothing but better safe..”
Suddenly they were through the cloud and very low over a green carpet of jungle stretching as far as Gel could see, in pouring rain.
“I have to see Alison,” said Gel, standing up.
“Of course, dear,” said his mother, thinking that the storm ha