Planetfall in an Undisclosed Location
None of the watchers on top of the shore cliffs paid any particular attention to the meteorite that briefly flashed down through the sky before it plunged below the horizon.
The AstroGhost stealth shuttle dropped far enough out to sea that the diffused flares of its braking engines, fired at five thousand meters altitude, weren’t visible from land. A ship at sea, seeing the diffused flares, might be excused for thinking a meteorite was breaking up in the atmosphere. As soon as the juddering of the firing brakes began to smooth out, the AstroGhost popped a drogue chute. The chute tore off after only a few moments, but it was enough to cut the descent velocity; then the AstroGhost turned its descent from straight down to a velocity-eating spiral, which further slowed its fall. At five hundred meters, it gained a stable orbit and lowered its loading ramp. A Mark 8 Skimmer, a specialized version of the standard hopper troop tactical air carrier used by the Confederation Marine Corps, slid out of the AstroGhost’s bay and fell a hundred meters before firing its engines. In another moment it demonstrated how it got its name by staying barely high enough above the waves to avoid raising a rooster tail. The Skimmer was fully loaded with the Marines of first and third squads, second platoon, Fourth Force Recon Company, and their gear. Staff Sergeant Fryman, second platoon’s first section leader, commanded. The nine Marines were wearing chameleon uniforms but the screens of their helmets were up, allowing their faces to be seen.
Fifty kilometers offshore, well out of sight of any watchers on the shore cliffs, the Skimmer stopped, hovered, and lowered itself closer to the top of the ocean swells. Staff Sergeant Fryman didn’t bother checking his men to make sure they had all their gear; it wouldn’t have been possible in the cramped quarters of the Skimmer; besides, he and the squad leaders had done that before they’d boarded the Skimmer. Instead, he stood out of the way and closely observed through his infrared screen as first squad, then third squad, acting by feel, each lowered a chameleoned Sea Squirt out of the Skimmer’s hatch, then followed the Sea Squirts into the water. Each squad leader mounted his Sea Squirt and operated its controls to extend transparent, bullet-shaped tubes, one on the top, and four more along its sides. The squad leaders slithered into the open ends of the top tubes, their men into three of the side tubes. The gear the Marines weren’t carrying on their persons was secured in the fourth tube on third squad’s Sea Squirt.
When the last of his Marines was wet, Fryman gave an ungloved thumbs-up to the Skimmer’s crew chief, closed his own chameleoning, and followed his men into the water. The Skimmer gently backed off as Fryman paddled to the farther Sea Squirt, first squad’s. He slipped into his tube, plugged into the rebreather, took firm hold of the grips, and said into the all-hands circuit, “Squad leaders, report.”
“First squad’s ready,” Sergeant Bingh replied.
“Third squad is go,” Sergeant Kindy said.
“Let’s do this thing.”
Sergeants Kindy and Bingh, the two squad leaders, had already assured themselves that their men were secured inside their tubes, their rebreathers hooked up. The squad leaders took the controls and sent the Sea Squirts on a shallow dive path to five meters’ depth, where they leveled off, and, using inertial guidance, directed the Sea Squirts toward the distant cliffs. In minutes, they were moving at twenty-five knots; third squad’s Sea Squirt was at wing position, a hundred meters to the left and fifty meters behind first squad. Everybody settled in for the long ride.
A standard hour later, Fryman signaled Bingh and Kindy, and the squad leaders began slowly edging their Sea Squirts toward the surface. When Kindy looked over the side of his Sea Squirt through the light-gatherer screen of his helmet, he could see the sea bottom slowly rising toward them. At another signal from Fryman, the squad leaders brought the Sea Squirts to a stop on the bottom with the tops of their upper tubes a meter below the surface of the ebbing tide.
The Marines slid backward out of their tubes and gathered their gear, then paddled to where they could kneel on the bottom with only their heads above water and observed the shore—half with their infra screens, half with light gatherers. The squad leaders took a moment before exiting to key the “wait” instructions into the Sea Squirts, which headed for a designated hiding area in deeper water as soon as the Marines were all clear.
While the nine Marines were assembling, Fryman gave the beach and cliffs close behind it a scan with his motion detector. No one there. “Hit the beach,” he ordered.
Keeping only their heads above water, the Marines advanced on a line, propelling themselves with their fingertips and toes against the sandy bottom. When the water was shallow enough that they were almost on their bellies, they rose to their feet and surged forward, past the waterline and across the shallow, boulder-studded beach, to the foot of the cliff. Water streamed off their water-repellent chameleons.
Fryman took a minnie from his waist pack, turned it on, and placed it against the cliff face. The minnie felt about for tiny irregularities in the rock that would give it purchase, then began scampering upward. The miniature reconnaissance device was disguised as a type of rodent common to the cliffs in this area and would easily fool any casual observer. As dark as the night was, a casual observer wouldn’t even notice the unnatural assemblage hanging off the rodent’s hindquarters. Two more, similarly disguised, minnies followed the first.
The cliff at that point was a little more than thirty meters high. It took the minnies only a few minutes to reach its top, where they skittered about in a most rodentlike manner, looking at their surroundings and into the middle distance in visible light, infrared, and amplified visible. They raised their noses and sniffed at the air, seeking airborne chemicals that would telltale hidden watchers. Then waited for instructions.
At the foot of the cliff, Fryman studied the data his controller comp received from the minnies. Satisfied there wasn’t anybody directly above the Marines, he transmitted new orders to the minnies. Still rodentlike, the minnies skittered about until the assemblages on their hindquarters hung at the edge of the cliff. A faint whirring was the only indication they were doing something unrodentlike; the thin lines the minnies lowered down the cliff were almost invisible in daylight, completely so in the dark. Except for the weights on the ends of the lines, which had markers visible in ultraviolet.
Fryman and the squad leaders watched through UV lenses for the lines and caught them when they reached the bottom of the cliffs. Working rapidly but carefully, they attached lightweight grasping cables to the ends of the lines. On a signal from Fryman, the minnies skittered away from the edge of the cliff to small boulders they could anchor themselves to and towed up the lines. Fryman and the squad leaders let the cables trail through their fingers. When the tops of the cables went over the cliff top, they tightened their grips and the minnies stopped reeling them in. The three Marine leaders twisted the cables just so, and the top ends frayed and splayed out, to grip the rocky ground as firmly as a clinging vine.
The Marines attached a climbing grip to the cables and headed up, half climbing, half towed by the grips. When the first three reached the top, they rolled away from the cables into defensive positions and let the climbing grips drop back down for the next three Marines.
In moments, all nine were atop the cliff. Their objective was right where they expected it to be, spreading out two hundred meters to their left and fifty meters from the cliff edge. They’d studied the latest images of the objective right before boarding the AstroGhost to make planetfall; nothing they could detect from the cliff top indicated anything in it had changed. They’d rehearsed the mission several times before leaving for it and had studied it constantly during transit. Each of them knew exactly what he had to do and how to do it. Staff Sergeant Fryman said, “Let’s do it,” into his helmet comm, and the nine Marines rose up and headed toward their objective.
Half an hour later, eight of them returned. They gathered the minnies, then rapelled down the cliff. The last Marines down twisted the cables just so; the tops of the cables released their grips on the rocky cliff top and fell over the edge. While the cables were being gathered, the squad leaders signaled the Sea Squirts to come out of hiding and pick them up. In a few more minutes, the eight Marines were back in the Sea Squirts, heading for the rendezvous point with the Skimmer that would transport them to the AstroGhost, which would return them to the starship that had brought them.
As for the ninth Marine in the party . . .
Staff Sergeant Fryman quietly drew the camp chair from under the camp table and comfortably settled himself in it before he took off his helmet. He sat quietly for a moment, gazing on the man sleeping on a cot so close Fryman’s knees almost touched its side. He checked the time, watched the seconds tick off, then gently reached out and shook the man’s shoulder.
“Hmmpf? Wha—” the man began. He began to sit up before he realized someone was next to his cot, in a position to block him.
“Sir, I’m Staff Ser...