In response to the daily prompt of Jump, I want to provide a chapter from my novel that is relevant. The protagonist, Sted Richardson, has just come out of a job interview where a question was raised about a mission in which he participated. The mission was classified, so he could not provide very much information to his potential employer, but the question brought back memories of what had happened. This chapter details his reliving of the incident. In the chapter, UAMC stands for United Asteroid Mining Company and USpN stands for the Unites Space Navy.
Chapter 20 – Remembering Northern Song
As Sted headed over to the Lockheed Lunar compound, his mind went back to the incident with the pirates hired by the Chinese to steal UAMC’s ore barges. Based upon the trajectory of the barges when they were discovered, Captain Landsted surmised that their destination was the L4 Lagrange point in Earth’s solar orbit. Since the Chinese had established a major colony at L4 to bleed off population pressure on Earth, it was a good bet that the mined ore was headed directly into Chinese hands.
Because the ore being hijacked was from the platinum group, it was obvious to everyone aboard the USpN Charger that the Chinese were back up to their old tricks of flaunting the C8 and building warships at a shipyard hidden amongst the many peaceful population platforms at L4. There was probably no better place to hide a shipyard and all the personnel required to operate it than right within a high-density space colony.
When Captain Landsted submitted his preliminary report to Space Navy headquarters on the C8 platform orbiting Earth, he was directed to continue the investigation at the L4 source. The Admiralty promised a backup force would be dispatched directly in support of this mission in case trouble arose with the Chinese colony. Meanwhile, naval intelligence was tasked with uncovering anomalies in the delivery of all materiel to the colony over the past twenty-four months. What they found was eye-opening. Their intelligence report back to the USpN Charger set the stage for the upcoming encounter.
Sted remembered the day of inspection like it was yesterday.
“Northern Song, this is USpN Charger inbound for an unscheduled inspection of your facilities. Please acknowledge and prepare for a shuttle inspection party to dock at cargo bay three in fifteen minutes,” Captain Mark Landsted said. “Lieutenant Adams, open a line to Shuttle I.”
“USpN Charger, this is Northern Song acknowledging receipt of your request for docking in cargo bay three. Please note that cargo bay three is not available. The bay doors are currently inoperable and under reconstruction after failing maintenance check. Please have your shuttle routed to passenger bay seven, where we will have a team waiting to assist you in your inspection.”
“Commander Richardson, that intelligence report was very specific that the last shipment of control components arrived at cargo bay three. How would you suggest we gain access to that area?” Landsted asked.
“Sir, we should send the shuttle to passenger bay seven but drop a squad of marines over cargo bay three as we transit the colony,” Sted replied. “Their full battle gear won’t show up on the Chinese radar, so the first indication we have arrived will be when we knock ever so gently on their door with a thermite breaching ring. We can have the squad into the bay and contain the breach in less than three minutes, according to Lieutenant Gomez.”
“Very good, Commander. Shuttle I, you are cleared for docking at passenger bay seven. Keep your squad of marines on board until the general alarm sounds aboard the colony. That will mean we have breached the cargo bay. At that point, deploy the marines to protect the inspection party and to keep the passenger bay clear for your departure.”
He pressed another button on his console. “Northern Song, this is Captain Mark Landsted. We acknowledge cargo bay three is unavailable. Our shuttle will be directed to passenger bay seven. Commander Kim Cho will be leading the six-man inspection team.”
He turned to Sted and motioned him over for a private conference. Sted pushed off from his station and caught hold of the back of the captain’s chair with practiced precision. He hooked his belt tie-down to the tie-down ring on the chair and looked at Captain Landsted in anticipation of further orders.
“Sted, I want you to suit up and follow Gomez’s squad down to the cargo bay. Coordinate with Gomez so you arrive just after the breach. I want you wearing a full recording package. I’m sure our surprise will catch them moving that equipment out of the cargo bay prior to our inspection, so everything will more than likely be out in the open. Once you record what they have on board, order Gomez to destroy every piece of equipment in the bay. Then open every storage room in the bay and drop a thermal charge in each. The lesson has to be very painful to the Chinese, and I don’t care if we destroy a few storage rooms of non-essential equipment or supplies. I only want you and that squad in the cargo bay for twenty minutes though. After that, get out and back to the ship. I don’t want a firefight with the Chinese while you’re on board if at all possible. Is that clear?”
“Yes, sir,” Sted replied. “No firefight while on board if it can be avoided.”
“Good. Keep open command channel two during the entire operation,” Captain Landsted continued. “I will have your video feeds live on my console as well. As you are entering the breach, remember to plant the laser relay beacon on the hull of the colony so we don’t lose communication.”
“Permission to speak, sir?”
“Of course, Commander. What’s on your mind?”
“Sir, as you know, everything usually goes south in the middle of any combat operation. What are my rules of engagement? Is it more important to take out every piece of equipment in the bay or to protect the squad should the Chinese prove more recalcitrant than we are anticipating?”
“We must send a clear message to the Chinese,” Landsted replied. “You can destroy everything in sight if that’s what it takes. The team is important, but the intelligence you gather is primary. My feeling is that this colony is only a shell surrounding a shipyard in the making. Why else would they have so many passenger bays except to ferry workers from the other colonies here on a regular basis? Your live feeds are the critical part of this operation. It will give us the evidence we need to launch a full-scale attack on this colony to destroy that shipyard.”
“Thank you, sir,” Sted replied. “That clarifies the mission objective. You will have your intelligence regardless of the cost.”
While suiting up to join the assault team, Sted went over his objectives with Lieutenant Gomez so that there would be no confusion once the action started. Sted had specific instructions from the captain, and Gomez needed a full briefing in case something happened to Sted during the operation.
Gomez and his team deployed first, with Sted deploying just three minutes later. Sted had a bird’s eye view of the action as the team landed outside of the cargo bay, set up a defensive perimeter, and attached the breaching charges.
“Lieutenant, you are cleared to breach the hull,” Sted ordered from 1,000 meters out. “I will be at the breach in two minutes. Once you’re inside and have cleared any threats, let me know.”
“Yes sir,” Gomez relied as he activated the thermite switch.
Sted’s face shield went dark as the light from the thermite ring flared brighter than the sun for almost ten seconds. When his face shield cleared again, Sted saw the last of the marines entering the breach. That meant that the cargo bay was already in vacuum and not under pressure. Otherwise, they would have been waiting for the outward flow of air to subside before trying to enter.
As Sted’s battle gear absorbed the impact of landing next to the breach, he jammed the base of the laser relay beacon against the hull, releasing the Insta-weld arcing charge and bringing the relay online.
“Charger, this is Commander Richardson confirming beacon plant. Please confirm receipt of the beacon feed.”
“Confirmed,” came the immediate reply.
“Waiting for Gomez with the ‘all clear’ before entering the breach.”
Sted lowered his camera into the breach to get a sit-rep without exposing himself to enemy fire. As he looked at the camera display on his helmet video feed, he saw the occasional burst of laser fire from the far interior. In the vacuum of space, no sound accompanied the light, but every few seconds, Sted felt shudders through his magnetic boots.
“Charger, Gomez is running into more resistance than anticipated,” Sted reported. “The immediate area of breach appears to be clear. I’m going in without confirmation from Gomez. I’m leaving camera one at the breach to continue recording. Designating my shoulder camera as camera two. Once I’m secure inside the hull, I’ll activate my high-definition hand camera on feed number three.”
With that, Sted released his boots and activated his back and side thrusters. From three meters above the breach, he oriented himself for a headfirst dive and then squeezed the thruster in his left hand just enough to get his whole body through the breach with minimal exposure.
“Gomez report!” Sted ordered as soon as he was clear of the breach and had a good view of the entire cargo bay.
“This is Gomez. We have an internal security force pinned down behind the cargo shuttle in the bay, sir. Chandler and Singleton are not responding and assumed down. The remainder of the cargo bay has been cleared.”
“Keep their heads down, Gomez, while I start recording the cargo. If they get out of hand, blow up the damned shuttle as long as you give me a few seconds of warning to take cover.”
“Yes, sir. I’m sending Corporal Allen to assist you with opening those crates tied down to the interior bulkhead. I have two corpsmen sealing the hatches from the ship’s interior. We don’t want to be surprised by unexpected company.”
Sted accelerated over to the crates Gomez mentioned and considered which to open first. Their time would be limited, so his selection was critical. What he was looking for were control console-sized crates or anything that might hold military grade laser components. As he was considering his selection, Corporal Allen arrived. Sted directed him to open one of fourteen identical crates located halfway between the two hatches, which were now sealed.
The Corpsman dialed down his hand laser and directed it at the closest crates, peeling back the outer packing material. Then he reached in and pulled out exactly what their intelligence report had specified. The writing on the console was in Chinese, but the function was obvious. The battle screens surrounded by missile and laser deployment controls had a universal look. There was no mistaking what this was.
“Corporal Allen, set a charge in the center of these crates while I record as much detail as I can about the one you opened. Then we should move to the next set of crates. We only have five minutes left in our twenty-minute window, so be quick about it.
“Gomez, get ready to blow the shuttle as we withdraw. We don’t need any live fire at our backs. Have the remainder of your squad prepare charges to take out whatever remains in the cargo bay as we head back to the breach. Every charge should be set on a ten-minute timer and then launched as we exit. I want the squad well clear of the colony when they blow.”
With his orders clearly spelled out, Sted headed over to Allen, who was dismantling another crate. This time what he pulled out was completely foreign to Sted. All he could do was record everything and hope the intelligence team could identify its purpose.
“Take cover. We’re blowing the shuttle in five, four, three, two, one, Now!”
Three bright flashes bathed the cargo bay interior, and then pieces of the shuttle began flying everywhere. Sted and Allen just had time to hunker down behind the crate they were inspecting. That’s when the shuttle’s fuel tanks blew in a huge secondary explosion.
As the lights died down, Sted gave the withdrawal orders, and everyone jetted for the breech, raining down explosive charges to every corner of the bay as they retreated.
Gomez had one of the downed marines over his shoulder, and his sergeant had the other. They were the first out of the breach, with the remainder of the squad spraying cover fire around the bay just in case someone popped their head up to fire at the retreating marines. Sted was second to last out, followed by Allen, who was covering his back.
“Commander Richardson, we have Shuttle II inbound to your location. ETA forty seconds,” Captain Landsted said over the command circuit. “We got every second of your recordings through the relay. Based on your ten-minute timer orders, you have four minutes to get the squad into the shuttle and away from the cargo bay before it blows.”
“Gomez,” Sted called, “Shuttle II is at your nine o’clock approaching with the shuttle bay doors open. Get everyone aboard ASAP. We have less than four minutes until those charges blow.”
Sted moved alongside of Gomez to add his suit’s thrust to that of Gomez to make up for the extra mass of Chandler’s body and armor. Even with the extra push, they were the last to make it into the shuttle bay. As the shuttle doors closed, the outer hull of the colony erupted with a series of explosions. When Sted moved to the cockpit to get a better view of the damage, he saw that the interior of cargo bay three must have given way. Atmosphere was pouring out of the breach, along with melted and twisted pieces of cargo. He also saw suited and unsuited bodies floating listlessly among the detritus of what looked like a pitched battle.
“Charger, this is Commander Richardson. The squad is back aboard the shuttle. We have two casualties. The entire area around cargo bay three on the colony has been destroyed with multiple casualties. I recommend you coordinate a rescue mission with the colony. There may be a few suited survivors outside of the cargo bay.”
“Charger copies,” Captain Landsted replied. “Make your best time back. I don’t want you exposed to any retaliatory strikes. We have five destroyers inbound to either finish off this hidden shipyard or board and secure the facility if they surrender. We won’t be dealing with survivors from those explosions until the action is over.”
Commander Kim Cho’s voice sounded over Shuttle II’s speakers, “Shuttle I is clear of passenger bay seven.” Sted and the shuttle pilot could see the other shuttle pulling away from the Northern Song colony as it accelerated in a wide arc back toward the USpN Charger.
“Northern Song, this is Captain Landsted aboard USpN Charger. You are ordered to stand down all forces aboard. We will give you one hour to accept full surrender of your facility to the United Space Navy. If you do not acknowledge surrender, your facility will be destroyed. No ships will be allowed to depart from your colony. Please observe the five additional destroyers inbound from Earth. Their ETA coincides with your one-hour window. Acknowledge receipt of these orders.”
“Charger, this is Northern Song acknowledging receipt of your orders.”
With that settled for the moment, Sted returned to the shuttle bay from the cockpit to check on the status of Chandler and Singleton. When he got there, both had been stripped of their battle armor and were strapped to medical gurneys with IVs running into their arms. That meant both men were still alive.
Sted turned to Gomez. “What’s their status?”
“Singleton took a hit to the back of his helmet that knocked him unconscious. We’ve stabilized him for now, but the docs on board will have to check him out, because he hasn’t regained consciousness. Chandler lost his left arm below the elbow. The suit saved his life, but he’s still in shock. We’re keeping him warm and hydrated for now. There’s nothing else we can do until we get him back to the Charger.”
“Thanks, Lieutenant,” Sted replied. “We should be back aboard in the next ten minutes. I’ll go forward again and report their condition to the doc so he can be ready in the shuttle bay.”
With that, Sted turned back to the cockpit to make his report, hoping the doctor would be able to patch up the two marines. He didn’t want to lose anyone under his command. He thought of little Jimmy Barns being carried away in the ambulance, never to be seen again.