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Old 06-13-2008
 
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Default Unforeseen Consequences (rewrite)

It's taken a while, but the first bit of the rewritten section of the story is here. Yay! Now to see if anyone actually comments...


Unforeseen Consequences

It is 2004, and the Cold War never ended. The world is a different place: the Soviet Union, vibrant and strong, is opposed by the cautious United States and the militaristic West European Union. The Iron Curtain still divides Europe: the Great Game continues unabated. Grievances and mistrust divide the great powers, the promise that open war inevitably means mutually assured destruction is easily forgotten, and so true peace remains elusive. Indeed, at the turn of the 21st century the rivalry between East and West is stronger than ever – and if history has taught humanity anything, it is that rivalry leads to tension, tension leads to conflict, and conflict escalates to war. The world is a keg of powder just waiting for a spark…

Dossier I: The Chad Situation

Chapter 0: Prologue

Earth orbit, approaching MAW-1

The burn had put her into the right orbit and she was slowly catching up with the station. She could already see it ahead and just below her, a pinprick of greyish white against the dark but quickly growing. Major Alexis Starr eased back in her flight seat and slowly flicked a switch on the communications panel. She still had to get reaccustomed to the odd way her limbs moved in a zero-G environment.

“Shuttle Tiderium to MAW-1. I have established visual contact. Requesting permission to land.”

The reply came almost immediately: “MAW-1 flight control to shuttle Tiderium. The deck is clear, you have permission to land. Hold present speed and commence eight feet per second descent rate. Your relative velocity is 20 feet per second, relative altitude 2,112 feet. Expect landing in 264 seconds.”

She confirmed and eased the stick forward. Retro rockets blew gently and now the orbiter was descending. The nimble vehicle had enough electronics aboard for a completely automated landing, but many pilots preferred to do it the old fashioned way. Alexis Starr was among those who did.

The station was so close now that she could discern details. It looked for all the world like someone had lifted half an aircraft carrier into space and merged it with a heap of old satellites. A series of square metal trusses sprouted a flight deck and control tower. Bits and modules littered everywhere, and solar panels stuck out at improbable angles. The whole thing looked like a large square of junk. A scrap heap, but an expensive one: MAW-1 had cost the United States over fourteen billion dollars and it wasn’t even finished yet.

Fifty seconds to landing. The station seemed to be perfectly stationary during her approach. It wasn’t of course, MAW-1 in fact moved through earth’s heavens at close to eight kilometres per second, but the only way the naked eye could tell that it was moving at all was if it also took notice of the spinning blue globe below.

The flight deck loomed in front of her now, slowly growing larger as the shuttle slid downward. Disregarding the absolute darkness around her it was oddly similar to landing on a carrier. Well, apart from the total absence of turbulence. Alexis grinned as she dropped the undercarriage and her hook. She was glad to finally be back in space. Nosewheel down, main wheels down, hook down, all down. The shuttle touched the deck so gently it seemed more like a kiss, then bounced up slightly before the tailhook caught the arrestor wire. The shuttle came to a calm stop that was incomparable to the terrifyingly brusque landings on seaborne carriers.

A small yellow robotically driven tractor was on its way across the deck and disappeared under the nose of the shuttle. Alexis felt the tugging as the tow cable was attached and the orbiter began to roll toward the elevator at the end of the deck. There were several of them, painted with yellow triangles saying things like ‘B101’, ‘F120’ or ‘S4D’. The tractor carefully positioned her over the last and the shuttle shuddered when the tractor disengaged.

The elevator dropped without warning and Alexis felt the shuttle float up against the clamps around her undercarriage. Then, the elevator stopped. Hatches in the deck closed and suddenly there were solid walls all around her. For a second the lift well was pitch dark, then an array of red lights flashed on. Alexis heard the shuttle creak and guessed she was in an airlock being filled. Sure enough, the red lights turned green and the console told her the atmosphere outside was breathable. Alexis slid out of the cockpit and opened the slide door in the side of the craft. It opened with a soft hiss of equalizing pressures. The inrushing air smelt dry and slightly stale.

A thick steel gate in the side of the hangar slid open with a hiss of hydraulics and a man in the USAF uniform and the rank insignia of a Command Sergeant Major emerged. They exchanged curt salutes. The sergeant couldn’t completely hide his curiosity as he looked at her. “Nice landing ma’am. On behalf of Colonel Devlin, welcome to the Death Star.”


***


Office of Jason Gerard, Kerrick-Fergusson Gold Corporation Mining Compound, southern Chad

The dusty window provided an excellent view of the dirt-brown scar of the mine. Heavy digging equipment trundled across the rings of the open pit carved into the surrounding jungle. Massive dump trucks rolled on and off, ceaselessly moving dirt out of the ever-growing crater. Even inside the office the racket of the mine was an ever present reality. 400 tonnes of topsoil were excavated from the pit per day, yielding on average two grams of gold per ton. That might seem like low revenue, but with gold prices at a staggering $29,785 per kilo that still meant the mine produced over $23,000 worth of gold per day. Gold mining was a profitable business, particularly here in Africa where wages were low and the labourers themselves weren’t unionized. A downside to operating in Africa was that it wasn’t very safe, but then the mercenaries provided by Executive Decisions solved that quite handily.

Of course working with mercenaries brought its own share of thorny problems with it, as Jason Gerard was currently experiencing. “I’m sorry colonel, but what exactly do you mean by ‘halving security’?” Even after six months in Chad, a country whose population was perpetually straddling the line between malnourishment and outright starvation, Jason Gerard still managed to be overweight. His neatly trimmed goatee did a poor job hiding a second chin, and despite the air conditioning a thin film of sweat caked to Gerard’s forehead.

In stark contrast, ‘colonel’ David Farland was a lean and hyperfit man. Six years after his discharge from the Royal Marines Farland had carved out quite a name for himself. He’d protected oil pipelines in Nigeria, diamond fields in Sierra Leone, and now he was here, protecting a goldmine. Of course, that was only part of his duties, as he was about to tell Gerard.

“It means exactly what you think it means, Mr. Gerard. We’re cutting the security contingent for the mine in two. One half will stay here to protect your operation, the other will move to site two. The order’s effective immediately.”

“I’m not… But you can’t…” sputtered Gerard.

“Mr. Gerard, as you’re about to find out, I can. Really, it’s a contractual deal between our respective employers, so even if we wanted to there’s nothing you or I can do about it. Of course if you really have a problem with that you can take it up with your superior... I doubt that’ll be anything but a wasted effort though.”

“But the rebels… The Sudanese…”

“… Won’t be a problem for you. Mr. Gerard, don’t worry! Half my men will still be here, and they’ll be all you’ll ever need to keep those ragged bands of jungle-boys at a distance. And even if they do – by helo we’ll be here in no time. You know that site two is only ten miles south from here. There’s really nothing to worry about.”

But it wasn’t actually the rebels Jason Gerard was worried about. He was all too aware that Executive Decisions had agreed to provide security to Kerrick-Fergusson at what could only be called a bargain-basement price, with the contractual caveat that the mercenaries be allowed to establish their own digging operation at this so-called ‘site two’. And something about that didn’t sit right with Gerard. When last he’d flown out to Abuja in neighbouring Nigeria he’d asked his pilot to take a slight detour over ‘site two’, and he didn’t like what he’d seen. His bosses believed that the mercenaries were running a small-scale illicit mine out of the place, selling gold on the international black market for a few extra bucks. But Jason Gerard had been around goldmines since his early youth in Nevada, and the moment he’d laid eyes on the single deep-earth tunnel shaft Executive Decisions had dug he’d known that whatever it was the mercenaries were digging for, it wasn’t gold. Whenever he thought about that shaft his stomach seemed to knot. He couldn’t explain it, but Jason Gerard had a bad feeling about this deal.

Still, there wasn’t really anything he could do about it. He sighed, wiped the sweat off his forehead, and spread his hands in a gesture of defeat. “Well then can’t you at least tell me what you’re digging for down there?”

Farland grinned, an ugly grin that accentuated the nasty scar across his stubbled chin. “Mr. Gerard, if I told you that, I’d have to kill you.”

As the mercenary turned and left, Jason Gerard silently contemplated that the worst thing about this whole situation was that he was pretty sure the mercenary wasn’t lying.


***


Earth orbit, aboard Manned Artificial Weapons station 1

The office of Colonel Frank Devlin looked uncannily like the payload section of a C-5 Galaxy: mostly circular but with a flattened floor, the walls bare metal but for the protruding trusses that supported the station’s structure. The main difference between the office and the aircraft was that here gear was not just mounted on the floor and walls but, because of the zero-gravity state of the station, also on the ceiling. Another difference was the window, which granted a spectacular view of one of the station’s port missile cells and the blue-and-white sphere of the Earth below. Montana gyrated past below her, and Alexis Starr turned her attention to the station commander himself.

Colonel Devlin was a short man with the wiry build of an experienced astronaut. His black hair was millimetred, as was customary among long-haul spacecrew, and he didn’t seem very happy to see her.

“So major, you’re telling me this is just a routine flight?”

“Yes, colonel,” Starr replied neutrally.

Devlin threw a scathing glance her way. “With all due respect major, I find that hard to believe.”

“I don’t understand, colonel.” But she did, and she knew all too well what was coming.

“Major, I find it hard to believe that STRATCOM would just send you on a routine mission that any old flyboy could manage. You of all persons, the living, talking, breathing strategic weapon. What good are you up here?”

“Colonel, I’m not a B-70. I don’t spend my days sitting in a hangar on hot standby. Whatever classifications the bozos at the LeMay Building may have seen fit to slap into my personnel file, I’m still a pilot with astronaut licensing. Uncle Sam invested a big wad of cash into my training, and it would be a shame if all that went to waste by confining me dirtside. That’s all.”

Devlin seemed less than impressed. He had crossed his arms and returned her scowl. “Uncle Sam may have invested in your training, but he also invested in something else, if you catch my drift. Frankly, I think you’re here to spy on me, and I don’t like it one bit.”

“With all due respect colonel, I think you’re completely misinterpreting the reason for my being here,” Alexis Starr scowled. “I’m not here to spy on you, and frankly the idea that General Bradford would send a living WMD up top as a spy is absolutely preposterous and smacks of paranoia.”

That had the colonel fuming. He half-rose from his chair, an odd movement in microgravity to say the least, and slammed his fist into his desk. “That’s dangerously close to insubordination, major!”

Starr just glared at him. “Bite me, sir. You think anyone is going to court-martial me?” She hated pulling that trump-card, but little harm could come from using it against someone who had obviously already made up his mind about her. And besides, she was right. No-one was going to, and the colonel knew it. Still, going by the look on the reddish face of the colonel she hadn’t made any friends today. He floated back into his chair, a venomous expression on his face.

“Major, I don’t care what your orders are, but I don’t want you on my station any longer than strictly necessary. You’re off this station with the next outbound flight, you hear me?”

Alexis Starr shrugged. “Fine by me sir.”

“Dismissed!”

She had already floated out of the office when she remembered she’d forgotten to salute the colonel on the way out.


***


Kerrick-Fergusson Gold Corporation Mining Compound, southern Chad

The ground was shaking – hell, everything was shaking: the wooden walls, the rickety chart-table in the back, the cupboards, his desk, his chair. It seemed as if the once-solid ground had become a sea and he was trying to stand on rolling waves. Jason Gerard lay sprawled on the floor, trying to raise himself upright by the edge of his desk, cursing every time he lost his grip and fell back to the floor. Light from the jingling lamp on the ceiling flickered erratically through the office.

Then, less than a minute after it had started, the shaking suddenly stopped. An eerie silence settled over the mine. Feeling sore and bruised Gerard got up and hustled to the window. “Jesus crap,” he muttered. The mine was a mess: the quake had collapsed parts of the steep slopes, and many of the sloping roadways were either blocked by landslides or had themselves caved into the pit. Draglines, bulldozers, giant freight trucks and other heavy machinery lay scattered about, throw into the pit like they were dinky toys rather than the real deal. For a minute, Gerard counted himself lucky that the last shift of the day had finished work just over half an hour ago. This would’ve been even more of a disaster if there had been people working in the pit.

The door to his office flew open and Gerard’s aide, a young man named Alex Patrick, stormed into the room. “Sir!” he exclaimed.

“It’s alright Alex, I’m not hurt – much,” Gerard muttered, brushing a few imaginary specks of dust off his clothing. “Could’ve been worse, I’d say…”

Alex frowned. “Well, sir, that’s excellent, but, well...”

Gerard pulled his fallen chair upright and sat down. “That’s not why you’re here, is it? I’m certainly touched by your concern for my well-being. What is it then?”

“The mercenaries sir.”

“What about them?” Gerard urged exasperatedly. He had a mine to fix, damage assessments to write, unpleasant phone calls to superiors to make…

Alex shrugged uncomfortably. “I was at the radio station before the quake began, and just before all hell broke loose we received a transmission…”

“And..?”

“Well, sir, I don’t know what it means… They just repeated, ‘it’s opening, it’s opening’… over and over again. Then the line went dead... A few seconds later the ground started shaking.”

Gerard frowned. “Whatever does that even mean? Do you think they hit some kind of sinkhole or something that triggered a subterranean collapse?”

“Beats me sir…” Alex’ eyes suddenly focused on something behind Gerard’s shoulder. He frowned, and then he pointed at the window. “But that certainly doesn’t look like a normal quake-aftereffect...” His voice trailed off.

Gerard turned to the window. Somewhere in the south, the rapidly darkening sky was illuminated by a faint, unreal light. Colours that Jason Gerard had never seen before flickered against the backdrop of the jungle sky like the aurora borealis, in patterns and hues that made him queasy just looking at it. He’d never seen anything like it, but as he continued to look at that sickening glow thin tendrils of pure terror seemed to wrap around his consciousness, as if some primeval instinct that had lain dormant since primitive Man had begun walking upright suddenly awakened to fill him with fear of some nameless horror. Alex felt it too – Gerard could hear him muttering a catholic prayer under his breath. He tried to turn away from the window, in equal parts simply to get away from that terrible luminosity and to make a run for the nearest chopper, when suddenly a perfectly white trail of white streaked through the skies overhead.

Seconds later, a new star briefly sprang into existence ten miles to the south. A light brighter than the sun seared the jungle, followed immediately by the brutally destructive overpressure shockwave of a nuclear initiation. Gerard saw the onrushing wall of air by the way it flattened the tropical forest, watched it razed across the pit in a split-second, and then it reached the walls of his office and everything went black.
 

Last edited by SiegeTank; 06-13-2008 at 08:52 AM.
SiegeTank has 556 Posts

Haulin' Thermonuclears Down The Interstate

Sorry trucker but you can't go back / They just hit Chicago with a sneak attack
LA and Frisco's 're nothin' but great big holes
Don't know 'bout you, but I'm gonna make it / Got my rig wound up and we're gonna take it
To the truck stop at the end of the world


"You know what is reputation? Is people talking. Is gossip. I also have reputation. And not so pleasant I think you know." - Adelai Niska
 

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Old 06-16-2008
 
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Default

Chapter 1: A Can of Instant Sunrise

Earth orbit, NATO StarForce headquarters StarBase One

StarBase One was a miracle of modern engineering. Ten interlocking disc-shaped levels revolved slowly around a central spine, which in turn sprouted a variety of modules, antennas, missile cells and other weapons, hangars and solar panels. Centripetal acceleration provided the discs, housing the station's central sections, with 0.5g of artificial gravity - not quite Earth, but better than nothing. The spine contained the fusion reactor and a host of maintenance facilities, whilst the hangars allowed shuttles and other spaceships to come and go without having to adjust for the continuous revolutions of the central sections. The full three hundred meter length of the station was painted a bright anti-flash white, and held geostationary position over Hawaii at an incredible altitude of 30.000 kilometres, making it simultaneously the highest and largest manned object in earth's skies.

If MAW-1 had been expensive; StarBase One had been outrageously so. Each part of the massive station had been constructed in a lower and more manageable orbit, to be boosted up for the final assembly phase with the aid of Saturn VII rockets. It had been NATO's most costly undertaking ever, but it was widely considered to have been well worth it. StarBase One was practically unassailable: any potential threat coming up from earth's surface would be spotted long before it could actually reach the station. It was furthermore a fantastic stepping stone from which to launch expeditions to the moon and beyond, and its altitude meant it was a perfect base from which to coordinate the efforts of NATO's orbital branch, optimistically named StarForce when it was conceived in the early '70's.

The job of NATO StarForce was threefold: to act as an overarching orbital traffic control which ensures that space launches, airliners, and sub-orbital flights don't get in each others way; it managed NATO's spaceborne assets as a semi-autonomous extension of the SHAPE headquarters in Paris; and it coordinated the intelligence and surveillance efforts of member nations, providing a massive pool of information from a multitude of overflights, spy sorties and satellite sweeps. This last program is code-named WATCHTOWER, and was one of the world's biggest sources of intelligence on a bewildering variety of subjects: it pools data from geological survey satellites, monitors worldwide weather patterns, records spikes in GPS and Telco satellite usage, and screens for space debris. Of course it also provides more explicitly military services: WATCHTOWER looks for missile and spaceplane launches, provides realtime video data of some of the USSR's more prominent military facilities, facilitates up- and downlinks to agents worldwide, and packages and redistributes imagery collected by a multitude of espionage satellites.

But today it was not any of the military components that noticed something had gone decidedly pear-shaped. It was the Van Schalwyk Enhanced Thermal Mapper, a civilian satellite owned by a South African university. An unexpected flash of radiation blossoming up over southern Chad was dutifully recorded by the satellite's IR-camera and fed into the orbital information matrix, from where it was relayed to a variety of receivers: its South African owner, a number of meteorological institutes, a data backup provider in Switzerland, and NATO's satellite data analysis centre aboard StarBase One. Before any human analyst laid eyes upon it the footage was assessed by a series of interpretative algorithms which compared the raw data to known phenomena and generated a shortlist of likely origins. The results of that automatic assessment raised a series of red flags in the system, boosting the priority of data review to 'urgent' and immediately bringing it to the attention of human operators of the SDAC. Ten seconds and a muted "holy shit!" later, alarms started to ring through the space station.

When General Jochem Alders float-stepped into Control Room One ten minutes later he found it in a state of barely contained upheaval. A massive compartmentalized videowall dominated the far wall, displaying all objects in earth orbit that NATO StarForce had current knowledge of. Two more walls of the polyhedron-shaped room were dominated by only marginally less impressive sets of monitors, showing geographic representations of the African continent and, more ominously, a thermal view showing a thick red bloom at a point in southern Chad.

"Give me a SITREP," ordered Alders. "I want to know what's going on, and I want to know it five minutes ago!"

"Nuclear initiation sir," Major Lars Thorvald replied without taking his eyes off the glowing monitor he was watching. "Or so it would appear. Over southern Chad."

"Fucking Chad?" Alders sounded genuinely surprised. "Someone nuked fucking Chad? What's in Chad that's worth nuking?"

"That's what we're trying to find out sir," Thorvald replied neutrally. "I've taken the liberty of informing US STRATCOM, General Bradford has already agreed to cycle a Keyhole-13 over ground zero, we should be receiving imagery…" he looked at his watch. “Just about now. Putting the feed onto the main screen."

The imagery transmitted by the American spy satellite was so clear that the scene of nuclear destruction seemed rendered in hi-def. A mushroom cloud expanded slowly into the upper atmosphere, joined by thick plumes of smoke rising up from where the jungle was on fire. For miles the trees had been flattened by the overpressure wave. Alders whistled between his teeth. "We'd better wake up Paris and Brussels. They’ll want to see this."

"Already on it sir," nodded Thorvald. "Shall I schedule a teleconference with the usual suspects?"

"You bet."

It wasn't public knowledge, but the powers-that-be used nuclear weapons in covert special operations once every few years, and both sides of the Iron Curtain tacitly covered the other when they did. Rogue weapons testing facility? Wipe it off the face of earth. Science experiment running out of control? Feed it a tac-nuke. Internal coup? Hammer it down. Convenient, simple, relatively clean, and certainly the best way to make sure that every trace of whatever was being covered up was completely wiped away. And of course there were protocols to ensure that a sudden initiation didn't spark an atomic Armageddon, unofficial and deniable channels of diplomacy to let the other side of the Curtain know what was going to happen – but this time, NATO hadn't heard a word from General Ligachev and the Strategic Deterrent Forces. That worried Alders, because as far as he knew it certainly hadn't been his side that'd approved the strike. And if there was anything General Alders disliked it was nuclear weapons in the hands of unknown third parties. That, too, happened every once in a while, but it was always a bitch to sort out what had gone awry.

Starbase One's main teleconferencing room was far from spacious – no room aboard the space station was roomy – but it was fitted with a high-tech videosystem that could manage no less than 128 simultaneous connections. Why anyone would ever want to talk with so many people at the same time was beyond Alders, but at least it meant that there was no shortage of room on the modular screens.

Already signed on were two people: NATO secretary-general Manuela Vilar de Maçada, who looked like she urgently needed a cup of coffee, and the always imperturbable General Michael D. Bradford of US Strategic Command.

"Jochem," the general nodded cordially. "How's life up there?"

"Hey Michael," Alders returned the greeting. "Same-old same-old, you know how it is. Everybody only calls when the music starts.”

Bradford grinned. “Ain’t that the truth.” Bradford had run the StarBase before he’d been promoted to commander of STRATCOM.

"If you two could skip the old-soldier routine,” injected De Maçada dryly. “Perhaps you can enlighten me as to what the hell is going on in Chad?”

“Nuclear initiation ma’am,” chimed both Alders and Bradford simultaneously. Then, after an awkward mutual glance, Alders continued. “Our best estimates currently put its destructive force at 100 kilotons. As far as atomics go that’s not a heavy-hitter, but…”

“… tell that to the people underneath it,” finished Bradford.

“Precisely,” Alders continued. “The footage indicates we’re looking at a low-altitude airburst, which implies a sophisticated means of delivery, probably a missile of some sort, against a moderately soft target.”

“Have we any idea whose damned weapon it was?” asked De Maçada.

Bradford spoke up. “One of our Auroras is already en route to the area right now. Soon as it arrives, it’ll slow to subsonic and drop a Global Hawk at high altitude. The Hawk will take air samples from the plume and return to the mothership, which’ll head back for CONUS here lickety-split. Soon as it lands we’ll analyze the samples. At that point it’s seven hours tops and we know who’s to blame.” Bradford looked slightly worried. “I just hope it’s not one of ours this time.”

“Even if it is, at least you’re not the one who’s going to have to admit it to the Soviets,” injected De Maçada. “I am.”

“Speaking of the Soviets,” added Alders. “Our guests are in the waiting room, so to speak – should I invite them in?”

“Please do,” said the secretary-general. “Let’s get it over with.”

Alders hit a series of buttons, and a new connection sprung up on the videowall. A hammer and sickle slowly revolved over a field of stars. One of the techies had once tried to explain to General Alders what trouble they had gone through to connect the StarBase’s systems to the Soviet Union’s SICKLE framework. He didn’t quite remember the details, but an impression remained of wildly incompatible communications protocols and dozens of security layers that the Soviets were particularly anal-retentive about. In the end, the orbital branches of NATO and the Soviet Union had agreed to talk to each other via a digital shell built by the UN so that neither could use the two-way connection to break into each other’s data systems.

The connection stabilized, the hammer and sickle being replaced by the grizzled visage of General Nikolai Ligachev of the Strategic Deterrent Forces and – and that was a surprise to Alders - Premier Nadya Kiralova herself, who just took a sip from a cup containing something hot and steamy. He noticed De Maçada gazed at the premier with a vague look of envy on her face.

Another series of buttons and another figure appeared, this time the sour-looking Fulvio Dante, director of the European Security Initiative, the ‘ministry of defence’ for the West European Union.

It was Manuela Vilar de Maçada who opened the impromptu conference. “Ladies, gentlemen… Thank you for joining us. As you know by now, we have a situation on our hands.”

“So I noticed,” added Kiralova dryly. “I take it this incident wasn’t an accident?”

“Atomic weapons never go off by accident,” injected Ligachev. As always, his grey beard looked slightly wild. “When they go, it’s because someone wanted them to go.”

“I’m sure you know all about that,” sneered Dante.

“In fact, I do,” Ligachev threw back, a slight frostiness in his voice. “Pray you never find out just how much I know about atomics, Mr. Dante.”

“Gentlemen,” warned De Maçada. “Please, less testosterone and more constructive thinking. I’ll have you know, General Ligachev, miss premier, that NATO certainly didn’t sanction the use of nuclear weapons. Insofar as we know it wasn’t one of ours.”

“Same here,” Kiralova responded. “The Soviet Union has not authorized the deployment of strategic assets in this particular theatre.”

Fulvio Dante shrugged. “And we are just supposed to take the word of a Soviet for this?”

“Shut up,” grumbled Alders. “Premier, if it wasn’t you and it wasn’t us, then our absolute priority should be to find out who nuked what and why. My analysts are still attempting to-”

“General, I can tell you what the target was,” interrupted Kiralova. “Or rather, my computer can. SICKLE?”

“Yes, comrade-premier?” answered a digitalized but vaguely female voice. Alders shivered slightly. It was the voice of the artificial intelligence entity that acted as the Soviet Union’s supreme battle manager. Hearing Kiralova casually refer to her – it – as ‘my computer’ made him feel distinctly uncomfortable. As did, for that matter, the thought that SICKLE controlled the USSR’s web of killer satellites.

“The coordinates please,” the premier continued decidedly, oblivious to the general’s discomfort.

“At the coordinates specified,” the digital voice replied, “is located a mine owned and operated by the Kerrick-Fergusson Gold Corporation.”

Was located,” muttered General Bradford under his breath. Despite himself, Alders grinned. Bradford had always had a very dry, very Texan, and very US Army sense of humour.

“I wonder how they can know that so quickly,” Dante commented sarcastically.

“Shut up,” ordered De Maçada brusquely. “Using a nuclear weapon to take out a goldmine makes no sense whatsoever.”

“Unless it wasn’t a goldmine,” suggested Ligachev.

“We haven’t got any useful data on the place,” shrugged Alders. “By all accounts it should’ve been a meaningless patch of dirt. Certainly not worth feeding atomics. We need more information.”

“And you shall have it soon enough,” said Ligachev. “Marshal Sechalin has just informed me that pending the outcome of General Bradford’s investigation he intends to put Orbital Insertion Troops on the ground in Chad to assess the situation.”

“He most certainly will not!” protested Dante furiously. “We in Brussels certainly haven’t forgotten the Khadaffi-fiasco yet, we won’t permit the Soviet Union to put men into Chad as well!”

“You know perfectly well how vital it was we intervened in Libya,” scowled the Soviet general. “This has nothing to do with the WEU or its vaunted sphere of influence. Besides, would you stop us?”

“Would you make me?” glared the head of ESI.

“Gentlemen!” complained De Maçada. “Please! Control yourselves! This is the time nor the place for macho bullshit!”

“I agree,” Kiralova raised her eyebrows. “But I also concur with Marshal Sechalin. It would be better to have people at the site in addition to all this satellite footage. If we want to keep this mess from getting worse we need to know what is happening right there, on the ground.”

“Alders?” asked De Maçada. “What do you think?”

Alders shrugged, turning his seat slightly from left to right and back again. “What the premier says makes sense, ma’am. I wouldn’t mind having a few additional eyes and ears on the ground to tell me what’s actually going on. Sat-footage can only tell us so much. Besides, it’s a radiological disaster zone – even if it’s far away from anything important it’s still be better to cordon it off and make sure that no locals accidentally irradiate themselves. Someone will have to send troops, NEST teams, the works. If we want to hush this up it has to be contained, and quickly too.”

“Since the WEU is so adamant the Soviet Union shouldn’t provide damage control, perhaps they would like to make the necessary troops available themselves?” Ligachev pointedly suggested.

“You know damned well that we don’t have that insertion capability yet,” Dante stared at the Soviet general angrily. “It’ll be at least a day before we can airlift any significant number of troops to the area.”

“A-hem,” General Bradford obnoxiously cleared his throat, then presented his most charming smile. “Generals, madams… if I may? I think I've got just the person.”
 
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Haulin' Thermonuclears Down The Interstate

Sorry trucker but you can't go back / They just hit Chicago with a sneak attack
LA and Frisco's 're nothin' but great big holes
Don't know 'bout you, but I'm gonna make it / Got my rig wound up and we're gonna take it
To the truck stop at the end of the world


"You know what is reputation? Is people talking. Is gossip. I also have reputation. And not so pleasant I think you know." - Adelai Niska
 

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Old 06-16-2008
 
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Hey!
Good work man. I'm still trying to adjust to all the changes, it's a little tough trying to read the story while forgetting the previous version lol, but it's no big deal really.
Looking forward to the next chapter, which will hopefully shed some light on what's going on
 

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Old 07-13-2008
 
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Small note in advance: the next chapter contains references to a story that chronologically came before this one. In case you're wondering, that story can be found here (details about the universe this is set in can be found there as well.)


Earth orbit, aboard MAW-1

First Lieutenant John Baylor gazed out the circular window at the cloudy planet far below. Lazily, because in zero-G, he lifted his photo camera and snapped another picture of a formation of cumulus clouds. These days he felt more like a living spy satellite than a United States Marine. Baylor had made thousands of photos already during his exile aboard the orbiting weapons station.

Of course no-one but him called it an exile. The brass had called it a promotion. And in a way it was, because the dream of thousands of US Marines was to join the Space Cavalry and be a Comet Dog, a Hot Eagle - a Space Marine. SPACECAV was an elite within an organization that prided itself for being elite. Elite his arse, Baylor knew why he was actually here. His so-called promotion was the modern-day equivalent of being redeployed to Alaska or some other out-of-the-way place. His superiors wanted to quietly forget about his existence. They wanted as much distance between them and him as possible. And you couldn't get much farther away from the Pentagon and good ol' America than this place. Out of sight, out of mind.

Still, a part of Baylor figured, he should consider himself lucky. After the ill-fated Avalon Wood mission, the demise of the Shadow Tempest prototype and the destruction of the Paragon facility, it would have probably better suited the massive DoD cover-up that ensued if he'd suffered an unfortunate but lethal accident. Baylor suspected he had Jack Ridley and the SIS to thank for his prolonged existence. And face it – he was in space, which was kind of neat. After nearly a year aboard MAW-1 though, the novelty had definitely worn off. He longed for the pull of gravity, the smell of unrecycled oxygen, and most of all he craved a beer. In the absence of Fosters, however, he had to fill his time with other, lesser pursuits.

Pursuits such as photography. It wasn't much of a hobby, but then again there were preciously few ways to relax aboard the station. It wasn't exactly possible to step outside for some fresh air. Neither were any of the usual ways Marines liked to unwind open to them here. Many of his fellow leathernecks stationed aboard the Death Star, as they affectionately called the station, had taken up forms of meditation in order to not go totally bonkers during their six-month tours aboard MAW-1. Meditation wasn't for John Baylor though, even if he was now nearing the end of an extremely unusual double-tour. Snapping photos was his way to calm down. And it was sometimes profitable too: he'd sold more than a few photographs to National Geographic and other magazines. After more a year of nothing else to do, he'd gotten quite the eye for camera work.

"I stand above you all!" Baylor mumbled under his breath. A bemused half-grin played across his face as he snapped a picture of the Chinese coast. "Billions of lives... All so insignificant!"

He guessed that yeah, in a sense you could say that he was losing it, ever so slowly perhaps, but still. If the powers-that-be left him up here to rot any longer the USMC would have to bring him back down in a straightjacket. Which was probably exactly what some of the folks in the Pentagon wanted.

Oh well. All good things come to those who wait. Baylor raised his camera, and took a picture of Japan as it came around the curvature of the Earth.

With an unexpected whoop the base alarm came to life, flaring once, twice, and then the intercom crackled with the voice of Sergeant Major Bonasera.
"Rifle Platoon Alpha report to briefing room, I repeat: Rifle Platoon Alpha report to briefing room. This is not a drill."

Baylor raised his eyebrows and lowered his photocamera. The good things certainly came sooner than he'd expected.



Chapter 2: The Devil Dogs Descend

I’ve been to some pretty vague briefings, but when it comes to indistinctness this one took take the cake.

Word from sergeant-major Bonasera is that someone’s popped a nuke off in southern Chad. Why, I ask. He doesn’t know. What yield, I ask. He doesn’t know. Whose nuke was it? Probably not ours or the Soviets, but he’s not sure, he doesn’t know. He does know that word from the top is speed is critical. And that is where someone has decided Uncle Sam’s misguided children come in.

Well that’s alright with me. I haven’t set foot on solid ground in twelve months. By now I think I’d still get aboard that Hot Eagle if he said I’d be landing in the Red Square. So when the sarge-major says ‘move out and be ready to get dirtside in three hours’ I’m among the first out of that briefing room.

Sergeant Emilio Orejuela, a towering Mexican-American with a handlebar moustache, is floating alongside me. "What's going on LT?" he asks.

"Damned if I know sarge," I shrug. "No-one ever tells me anything."

Three hours later my command rifle squad is kitted out in full battle-rattle aboard the S-4d Roger Young orbital insertion gunship. It’s hot, it’s unpleasant, and it’s not altogether unlike waiting for a roller coaster ride to start. Except for that little detail where theme park rides don’t burn up in the atmosphere when something goes wrong, of course.

The cabin just behind the cockpit is cramped and illuminated by red emergency lighting. Waiting for the call from flight control is perhaps the worst part of any launch. Our pilot isn’t Lieutenant LaHowe like usual, but – surprise! – none less than Major Alexis Starr herself.

“So, you’re Alexis Starr?” I ask her, trying to make some idle conversation with our pilot from the commander’s seat just behind the cockpit.

“I am,” she replies flatly, throwing me a glance as if she’s trying to gauge my intention.

“You’re as good looking in real life as in the pictures,” I say. “John Baylor, USMC. Pleased to meet your acquaintance.”

She tries not to look confused. I’ve noticed that I get that reaction a lot. “John Baylor, huh?” she replies after two uncomfortable seconds. “I think I’ve heard that name before. Weren’t you involved in some clusterfuck down by Costa Rica two years ago?”

“You might say that again,” I try to sound nonchalant, but the loss of almost an entire platoon worth of marines – my marines - brings out a lot of bad memories. “Things went a bit pear-shaped.”

“I bet they did,” she says and looks as if she wants to say more, but the blue light comes on and flight control crackles that we’re ready for launch.

Here we go.

Starr keys a series of commands and the gunship’s main engines fire up a mixture of LOX and liquid hydrogen. My back is brutally shoved into the chair. My g-suit automatically inflates, keeping my blood circulation going. The gunship rockets forward, rapidly gaining speed relative to the station. The other two gunships presumably follow after us, launching MITO style with only twelve seconds between us and the second gunship, and twelve again between them and the third Hot Eagle. In those twelve seconds however we’ve accelerated at a continuous velocity of 9 g/second to a speed of 117.6 m/sec relative to the Death Star. In the agonizing minutes that follow we keep accelerating. My body goes numb. The sheer force of the g-pressure prevents me from moving my limbs. I grit my teeth and not for the first time I wonder what my brother in the air force finds so damn exhilarating about suborbital flight. To me it feels like I’m being hydraulically compacted. My guts are trying to strangle my spine. Every nerve in my body is panicking. My veins are filled with useless adrenalin. Only the g-suit is keeping me alive at this point. As it is it only makes you want to have died.

Then suddenly our speed tops out and I’m briefly weightless again. But not for long: retro-rockets fire and the craft begins to tilt planetward. The main engines fire again and we start speeding up once more. The Hot Eagle begins to shake and twist as we enter the atmosphere at speeds approaching Mach 30.

“Goodness, gracious, big balls of fire,” I hear Orejuela shout. Fucker actually seems to be enjoying himself. I wonder where the Corps digs up people like him. What a nutbar.

But he’s right, we’re big balls of fire alright. Our passage ignites the air around us, the gunship is wreathed in flame. If something goes wrong now, we’re dead before our nervous systems can even register the problem. Well, at least I am. I’m not sure about Starr.

The sound of the gunship engines changes as shutters close and the thing transforms from a rocket engine into a scramjet. They should’ve called it a screamjet instead – the noise is deafening. At least we should be a pretty picture from the ground.

We rocket through the stratosphere high over Brazil at speeds measured in kilometres per second, trailing hypersonic shockwaves. The two Hot Eagles behind us bank and fan out, dispersing the flight in a phalanx formation until each vehicle is at least eighty klicks from the others. This, I’ve been told, is done to ensure maximum survivability in case some jackass down there decides to try and intercept us in the only way it’s possible to intercept a Hot Eagle at this altitude – with a tactical nuclear SAM. If we get blown out of the sky, at least the other two gunships will get through, and the offending party will probably get fed a KKV courtesy of Uncle Sam’s killer satellites.

Reassuring, isn’t it? No, I don’t think so either.

But we’re not vaporized, and so we continue our descent, slowly bleeding off speed as we penetrate the deeper atmosphere. As we arch across the southern Atlantic the shaking and bucking increases exponentially.

The African coastline appears across the curvature of the Earth and Starr radios to “prepare for evasive action!” It’s more of a courtesy call though, since there isn’t much of a way to prepare except mentally. We’re strapped tight into our drop-harnesses and can barely even move our heads. Good thing too, because otherwise we’d have probably broken some bones by now.

We enter airspace over the African continental shelf and the gunship engages in its pre-programmed set of non-predictable manoeuvres. The roller coaster analogy becomes just a little more true as we suddenly accelerate, dive, veer back up, roll and weave in the seemingly arbitrary manner intended to throw off radar and any SAM coming up to intercept us. Since the same kind of manoeuvring is used by the strategic hellbirds of SAC it’s a fair bet that there’s a few radar operators down there right now shitting themselves wondering what’s going to hit them. That’s a small consolation, I say.

Then we’re over land again, treating the people of Cameroon to a rolling torrent of sonic booms as we pass overhead in a trail of flame and black smoke. We’re only twenty-five kilometres up now and descending rapidly. Our speed has dropped down to a mere Mach 7. Starr says to prepare for landing.

I know that now comes the worst part of the whole ride.

The WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! of the retro-rockets shakes the Hot Eagle so badly the world blurs before my eyes. The gunship seems to drop from the sky like a bucket. I feel weightless for the last time. With a shudder the landing gear unfolds and crashes into the runway, leaping up and bouncing back again with another smash. The retro-rockets fire full-force for the last time. I’m violently pressed forward into the drop harness. My spine feels like it’s trying to force its way out of my nose. We slowly roll to a stop.

The ship is silent. My head is ringing like a carillon. I feel sore where the harness has cut into my skin. But I also feel gravity tugging at my feet, and the sensation of that is exhilarating – overwhelming even. The drop harness automatically disengages and with a hiss of escaping overpressure the cabin door slides open. The smells and the sounds of the jungle suddenly permeate the drop compartment. All around me, my marines are trying to shake off the dizziness of the drop.

I’m the first to get up from my seat and jump down the ground. Yes! After twelve long months, there is finally terra firma beneath my boots again. For the first time in months I don’t feel like a weird zero-g puppet. I’m a real human again, with real weight. I savour the feeling of kicking up dirt with my boots, the contrast of the warm sun versus the cold steel of the gun in my hands, the sheer openness of Earth after all that time spent in a damned tin can. I look around. Only a few dozen meters behind us are the two other Hot Eagles of my platoon, burned and blackened by the descent, the air around their engines still simmering with excess heat. The hot sun beats down on the sweltering runway. After a year of nothing but sweat and stale air the aroma of the jungle air plays merry hell on my scent receptors. It’s intoxicating. A mad grin slides across my face.

I can’t help myself. "Greetings, Earthlings!" I bark into the squad TacNet as more marines jump down through the gunship door. "Feast your eyes upon my magnificence! And take me to your women!"

Fuck yeah. The Eagle has landed.
 

Last edited by SiegeTank; 07-13-2008 at 10:01 AM.
SiegeTank has 556 Posts

Haulin' Thermonuclears Down The Interstate

Sorry trucker but you can't go back / They just hit Chicago with a sneak attack
LA and Frisco's 're nothin' but great big holes
Don't know 'bout you, but I'm gonna make it / Got my rig wound up and we're gonna take it
To the truck stop at the end of the world


"You know what is reputation? Is people talking. Is gossip. I also have reputation. And not so pleasant I think you know." - Adelai Niska
 

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