“What’s our status, here, Sergeant?” Dekker asked.
Preston sat hunched over a gray plastic box where he had mounted a circuit board. He tapped at a keyboard tethered to the box by a coil of black wire. “Encoding oscillators, sir.”
“About 10 minutes, sir.”
Dekker arched a brow at Simmons.
“Then we’ll be ready to go?”
“No sir, then we’ll be ready to establish the uplink.”
Dekker let out a slow breath, fighting back the tension that surged clear to his fingertips as Preston picked up a soldering iron to attach more wiring from the circuit board to one of the boards inside the panel. A monitor on the main console started scrolling with lines of cryptic code that flashed by for several seconds before stopping with a blinking cursor. Preston tapped a flurry of letters and numbers on the keyboard mounted in the panel below the monitor. Another scroll flashed by. Preston nodded. “That’s the first one,” he said. He picked up another chip from a pile scattered across the bench in front of him and snapped it into the circuit board.
“Can you tell us what you’re doing here?” Dekker asked. “And remember, I’m a combat officer.”
“It’s actually pretty simple, sir. I just encoded the S-band oscillators. I’m working on Ka-band now. Ku-band after that. Once we have them encoded, then we just need to try -” The words faded away, but Preston seemed to work faster as he explained it, so Dekker let him drone on.
He leaned over to Lt. Simmons and whispered, “Do you understand any of this?”
“A little bit, sir. But the important part will be when we try to establish the uplink.”
Dekker let the words float past him, trying to latch onto them to distract himself from what he knew was happening outside, but the images of trenches filled with Marines buying the minutes Preston needed with their lives pushed the words aside. Something in the back of his mind realized that he hadn’t heard the crack of the heavy mortar tubes firing for some time now. The sound had been loud enough to make it through the building’s walls as a muffled thumping, but it was gone now. Then, something the Sergeant was saying broke through.
“We’re ready to try uplink.” The monitor finished another blurring scroll and stared at them with its blinking cursor. All three stumbled as an explosion rocked the compound. They eyed the hatch as screams bled through the bulkhead.
“Let’s go, let’s go,” Dekker said, trying to ignore the sounds. He knew what they meant. If it had been any other time, they would have been barreling out of the building and diving into trenches.
Preston typed more commands into the keyboard. “First, we’ll try an uplink on S-band.” Machine gun fire opened up from the compound just beyond the hatch, a chattering beast clawing at the eyes of its tormentor. The battalion – or what was left of it, was taking up final defensive fire from the mortar positions. They had fallen back as far as they could. The indignant crack of rifle fire from R-51 long barrels joined in, telling Dekker the fight was down to its last breath.
More arcane lines scrolled up the monitor. The scroll stopped and Preston let out a sigh as the cursor once again blinked at them, as if to say, “Satellite? What satellite? Where?”
“Ka next,” he said, tapping in another series of commands.
The sound outside changed. Dekker cocked his ear and he could almost feel the hum from the electromagnetic coils of rail guns as the Terran Guard made contact with the Marines standing the last bit of ground between him and the end of all things. He forced himself to let go of the voices straining to be heard – calls for shifting fire, contact reports on the flanks and Douglas bellowing orders as he tried to maintain a cohesive defense.
The monitor stopped scrolling again. The cursor blinked away seconds they didn’t have. “Man, I hope this works,” Preston said as he tapped in the final set of commands. The monitor scrolled again and then stopped. Dekker’s heart sank as he stared at the blinking cursor. His Marines were dying for no reason other than chips and wires that could not compel their last bastion of hope to hear them.
Then it stopped.
Dekker jerked his head when he heard the grating hinges of the hatch being opened, followed by the scuffle of a Marine being dragged inside. Breathing hard and holding his hand over a wound in his chest, the Marine lay on the deck with his head propped up against the bulkhead while the corpsman who had dragged him inside whipped out a roll of white bandaging. The wounded Marine caught Dekker’s eye and he thought of the young warrior lying on the gurney just days before, now a lifetime ago. The Marine smiled at him. The Marine knew they were beaten and that he was probably dead. He knew that the battle had been a fool’s errand to begin with. He knew, most of all, that nobody had bothered to tell him why he had to die today. But the smile told Dekker that the Marine accepted all of that on faith. The implied order that came back to Dekker was never spoken and one that he could not refuse: make that faith mean something.
Watching the corpsman bandage the Marine’s wound, Dekker asked, “How is he, Doc?”
Without looking back, the corpsman said, “Just fine, sir. Soon as I get this splinter out of his pinkie, he’ll be back on the trigger.” A sweat broke out on the Marine’s forehead as the corpsman worked the bandage.
The Marine grimaced and then nodded. Grunting it out between breaths, he said, “Semper fi.”
Preston let out a whoop and Dekker turned to see the monitor spewing an endless stream of lines that scrolled up the screen.
“What’s that?” Dekker asked.
“That, sir, is an uplink,” Preston said. “Ku-band. Guess I should have tried that first.”
Dekker turned back to look at the wounded Marine, but both he and the corpsman were gone.
“What now?” he asked.
Preston held up the circuit card Lt. Simmons had given him earlier. “Now this,” he said, snapping it into a slot in his gray box. He punched more buttons on the box and typed more commands into the keyboard underneath the monitor. “We send up the override key and we should have control.” He tapped the ENTER key. Dekker held his breath.
Outside, the ring of the few remaining smaller company mortar tubes stopped. The sporadic cracks from R-51 rifles sounded as if they were inside the room as Marines took up a final defensive firing line just outside the hatch. Unable to resist any longer, he tapped his headset.
“Whiskey Six, Whiskey Six, Enforcer Actual, over.” He heard the chatter of Marines, but not the voice of his weapons company commander. “Whiskey Six, Whiskey Six, Enforcer Actual, over,” he said again. The chatter subsided and he heard a voice respond, yelling to be heard over the blaze of rifle fire and the hum of electromagnetic coils.
“Enforcer Actual, sir, this is Bravo Sierra One. Whiskey Six is down. We’re Alamo, Colonel.”
“How long can you hold?”
“Minutes -” The transmission cut out. Dekker thought to call back, but it didn’t matter. He had to leave him behind. He had to leave them all behind.
Dekker studied the monitor, which now displayed a series of lines with block letters and numbers changing next to them. Strange words like RETRO, PRO, INC, APo and PERi told him that they were talking to something important, and that was all he needed.
“This is raw data,” Preston said. “It’s the best I can do. I don’t have encoders to translate it all into pretty pictures.”
“Do you understand it?” Dekker asked
“Most of of it, sir. We still have some things to sort out.”
A bullet snapped against the bulkhead. Dekker turned to see four Marines now hunkered down inside the room. “Secure that hatch,” he yelled. Turning back to Preston, he said, “We’re out of time.”
“First, the bird has some deltaV left. That means we can move it. A little.”
“Can we lower the orbit to save us some time?” Simmons asked.
“No. The altitude is set according to a bunch of stuff we don’t want to mess with. All we can change is inclination.”
“Inclination?” Dekker asked.
“That means we can change its track,” Preston said.
“Where is it now?” Dekker asked.
All three stared at the words and numbers on the monitor, none of which told them where the track would go in any way meaningful.
“Wait,” Simmons said. “Sir, do you have the STI grip?”
“Right here,” Dekker said, pulling it out of the bag slung over his shoulder. She grabbed the device and handed it to Preston. “You should be able to – ” she started to say.
“Of course,” Preston said, smacking his forehead. He grabbed the device and felt around the edge of the screen on top until he found two small holes. He strung out two wires from his gray box and jammed them into the STI grip. He punched a few more buttons on the gray box and the tracking display flashed out and then shifted. “This,” he said, pointing at the screen on the STI, “should be its current track.”
“So I can watch the track from here?” Dekker asked.
“No sir,” Simmons said. “We can see it now, but once it’s disconnected, you’ll lose it.”
“More to it than that,” Preston said. “We can see the track while the panel is hooked into the com systems here. Once we move it, all we’ll have is fire control.”
“Dammit,” Dekker said. “Just give me the procedure.”
“We need a landmark,” Simmons said. “We can give it a burn and we can tell how long it will take to get to a specific point. All we need is a place.”
She and Dekker looked at each other. In unison, they said, “The Pyramid.”
“Right,” Preston said. “Give me a minute.” As he typed more commands into the keyboard, the space filled with the sound of bullets smacking the bulkhead.
“We have to go, Sergeant,” Dekker said.
“I’m uploading the burn data now. I need to confirm the clock once it’s accepted.”
Dekker’s headset crackled. A voice he did not recognize yelled, “Broken arrow, broken arrow. Marines, fall back to the com building now.” An explosion rocked the building and Dekker had to duck as a cable snapped from the ceiling and swung towards his face.
“Burn T plus six zero, Intersect T plus nine eight. You have that, Lieutenant?” Preston asked.
“Six zero nine eight, got it,” Simmons said. “Let’s go!”
Preston yanked the leads from the STI grip and thrust it back at Dekker as the display on the device reverted to a large red X superimposed on the orbit track – lines Dekker vaguely understood would have little meaning when the time came to fire the weapon. Preston grabbed a pair of wire cutters from the console bench and cut the cables holding the panel to the console and tucked it under his arm.
“What are you doing?” Dekker asked as another explosion thumped against the wall.
“We still need this to relay the fire command.”
Dekker’s eyes widened.
“We can use the Lieutenant’s track. It’ll be fine,” he said, raising his voice as more bullets slammed against the wall.
Simmons flung open the hatch to the rear of the building and the room filled with the sound of small arms fire. The Marines from her squad laid down a steady stream of fire against the Terran Guard troops trying to circle around to the rear of the building and her carrier. The gunner in the cupola swung the .50 caliber machine gun and strafed troops at the far end of the building. He then swung it around the other way and fired at troops on the other end, sending them flying back as if he had reached out and punched them in the chest with a sledge hammer.
“You’ve got about two minutes before they start taking the hubcaps off your track,” the gunner yelled.
Ducking down as bullets snapped through the air around them, Dekker raised the carrier’s rear hatch and clambered inside.
Preston flipped over the panel and pointed at the wires. “Lieutenant,” he said, directing Simmons’s attention to the back of the panel. “Big one here,” he said in a voice that wanted to savor its last moments. “That’s power,” he said. “28 volts.” Simmons looked at him, her mouth agape. “And this red one here, that’s for receive. And this blue one over here, that’s for transmit. Run it through your air traffic coms system and get on the highest ground you can find. Remember, no telemetry, no guidance, just fire control.” He handed her the panel and smiled.
“What are you doing, Marine?” Dekker asked.
“Like I said, sir. I’m an expert marksman.” Before Dekker could grab his arm, Preston bounded away from the carrier and picked up a weapon lying next to a fallen Marine.
Simmons climbed into the carrier and strapped the panel to the bulkhead. She poked her head out and yelled, “Bravo One Nine, it’s time to mount up!” The Marines from her squad kept firing as Terran Guard troops bounded closer along the rear of the building. “Sergeant d’Vane!” she yelled. “Let’s go!”
He grinned and hunkered down as he ran to the carrier. He grabbed the hatch and said, “Don’t miss,” then slammed it shut and pounded it twice. Bullets plinked against the skin of the carrier as she and Dekker stared at the closed hatch.
“Let’s go,” he said. He clutched her arm and pulled her to the front of the carrier. As they strapped in, he could see Terran Guard soldiers less than fifty meters away on either side of the carrier as they worked their way towards the last stand of Marines at the rear of the communications center.
Lt. Simmons jammed the throttle forward. The turbine screamed to life and the tires kicked an arcing shower of sand into the air behind them as the carrier crawled up the slope of a dune. They leaned forward against their harnesses as the carrier crested the top and pitched over the steep backside. She grappled with the control grip as the carrier swayed, practically swimming through the sand and away from the Marines of Bravo One Nine, First Squad.
Her lip quivered and tears streaked down her face as she sucked in a sharp breath before letting out a profane whimper. “Fuck.”
©2016 Michael J Lawrence