He came to still annoyed, his XM-16E in his lap, a spent casing broken and stuck in the chamber. Frickin' poodleshooter! The light was wrong and he still felt seasick. They said you got used to it but he was starting to doubt that applied to everyone. He reached for his "advanced lightweight combat weapon" — the miserable malfing toy — and winced at sudden pain in his right arm, stabbing like lightning. He looked down and felt his irritation change to a stab of fear as he saw the huge dent in the joint protector at the right shoulder of his spacesuit. Lucky I'm not dead, he thought, pushing the fear away, then raised his head to stare at the empty, icy waste before him, a maze of pressure ridges and drifts of powdered ice and and rock dust, punctuated by the starker black and white chaos of a fresh crater perhaps a hundred feet away. It was hard to judge distances, until he realized a lumpy shape in the middle distance was a spacesuited form, awkwardly sprawled face down; on the edge of the crater, other shapes had to be a helmet, an arm, possibly a torso— He looked back down at his rifle. Yeah, some luck.
It was day three or maybe four of the battle. He was one of the specially-selected, specially-trained USSF ground troops, equipped with state-of-the art weaponry; as far as he had known — and not much cared — six months earlier, a mere handful of men had ever left the Earth and that was just for a few close orbits and a flaming, dangerous return.
The only thing he had known about space travel that had turned out to be true was the danger of re-entry and supposedly the science johnnies were working on that. He wasn't sure what the knowing talk of "gravitational anomalies" meant — there were too many new things to learn that weren't rumor: A decade earlier, the United States, in the person of one adventurously mutinous airman, had reached the Moon in secret. He had died in a crash landing on his return, destroying his vehicle and adding a new crater to the A-bomb range in Nevada. The "Outer Hebrides Agronomy Project" had jumped from raw physics to crude but workable hardware in three years and given rise to top-secret Project Hoplite, an effort by the United States and Western allies to establish a nuclear missile base on the Moon. The project had gone terribly wrong; the limited technology available included a nearly-miraculous faster than light Drive but control was so clumsy that the trip was effectively one-way. The "dedicated scientists" chosen to plan the venture had subverted it, packed the crew with fellow-conspirators and ultimately fled the Lunar base for an unknown destination, sending a single cryptic message when they departed: "We have saved you twice over."
What that could mean, no one was certain. The eventual follow-up trip had found the remains of what appeared to be a Luftwaffe Moonbase not far from the site Project Hoplite had selected and used to launch their unauthorized flight into the unknown, but the German base had obviously been abandoned years earlier. Just as obviously, the later conspirators, the self-described "Federation of Concerned Spacemen" had removed or destroyed anything that might have shed light on the Third Reich's 'Drive technology.
As time passed, reports of "flying saucers" had become more and more frequent; in NORAD-controlled airspace, the vehicles were increasingly elusive. Elsewhere in the world, men willing to deal in cash (or better, barter commodities) found new customers, secretive, close-mouthed foreigners who came and went in ways it was best to not inquire after too closely. NATO and Soviet intelligence services noticed, and drew their own conclusions.
Meanwhile, the remains of OHAP/Hoplite (under the new acronym JANETT) recovered from the Lunar mission's betrayal and grimly set about building what was to become the United States Space Force. As it grew, selected NATO allies -- supportive Brits, incredulous French, inventive Canadians -- were made privy to the secret. Of course the Russians had found out. The hue and cry from HUAC and Senator McCarthy did little to distract them or their spies.
He'd been told none of this when he was encouraged to volunteer for a "unique opportunity to serve;" during the rigorous (and frequently bizarre) training that followed, he and his peers quickly learned that excessive curiosity was one of the many ways to wash out. It wasn't until they were aboard the "experimental Navy transport" City of Philadelphia and well out to sea that they were assembled a squad at a time and given the first lecture of many to follow on the real situation, as the "Navy ship" brought its 'Drives online and squirt-boosted into Earth orbit. Freefall turned out to be a sorting process all its own; despite a lingering, floaty queasiness, he'd been among the first to adapt, rewarded by being put to work securing and cleaning up after the rest.
Philly and her sister vessels were hastily welded-together adaptations from USN's mothball fleet fitted with Stardrives and reaction drives that managed nearly a eighth of Earth-gravity thrust on a good day, hardly enough to keep feet on decks, mess trays on tables and chow in a soldier's stomach, but enough it was, especially if you could keep from thinking about the source of that acceleration. The Raytheon Mk. IIa Stardrive itself was barely-controllable in the gravitational field of a planet; it could reliably hurl the ship away from the surface but that close-in, the possible vectors occupied about a 70-degree hemicone of probability. Unlike later designs, the Mk. IIa was unable to "skim the interface," reducing the ship's effective mass; it could take you up to a selected altitude, more-or-less, and it worked adequately covering vast interplanetary distances but the detail work of accurately getting from place to place took a reaction drive. A rocket. More of a teakettle, really; aiming for simplicity, Philly-class space vehicles used an atomic pile to boil water, the same pile that ran twin, contrarotating steam turbogenerators to power the 'Drive and the rest of the ship's systems. Shielding was...adequate. Personal dosimeters were mandatory.
On the Earth-Moon run and starting stealthily, the ships couldn't carry enough water to manage the constant-boost profile that would have made the trip a day's excursion. Instead, it was a five-day trip. Fifteen minutes at maximum boost five times a day made bright spots of relief from the microgravity provided by the bare minimum water flow needed to keep the pile "lively," at least as lively went, which wasn't much.
Every minute of of the journey not given to rest, meals, meals headed back up and struggling with inadequate, clumsy relief plumbing was taken up by training. Drilled and skilled in the soldier's fundamental arts, he and his fellow-selectees had already been taught the basics of scuba-diving, parachuting, gymnastics and advanced hand-to-hand: everything their superiors thought might be of use without giving away classified information. Now that the secret was revealed, the pace was redoubled. There was a reason for it: America — and her NATO allies — had an enemy in space. The traitors of Project Hoplite were making raids, abducting innocents, mutilating livestock, triggering anti-bomber/antimissile alerts; who knew what they might try next?
Landed — with a grinding, scary thump — and billeted like sardines at USSF's Fort Hiram Q. Snodgrass — "the first American on the Moon and for all that he was an Air Force noncom, the first USSF spacemen and don't you forget it!" — his days and those of his fellow-spacemen became even more crowded: Space-suits, Care, Operation and Field Repair of; The XM-16E, Battle-Rifle Of The Future (plus range time, starting in a huge, isolated, pressurized range and moving to vacuum); Tactics and Maneuver in Vacuum, Zero-G and Low-G (largely speculative). They learned a specialized language of gestures ("Your suit will not have a radio transmitter! Transmitters can be tracked! Transmitters will get you killed!") and practiced working in heavy spacesuit gloves. Specialists learned their shares of thousand-and-one jobs required to support troops fighting and working in the most hostile environment Man's armies had ever taken on. Eventually his cadre, the entire attack group, was ready; the United States Space Force had their ground troops.
The enemy was on Ganymede, possibly Europa as well, snuggled deeper in the strong electromagnetic and gravitational fields that made navigation and communication increasingly difficult the closer ships got to Jupiter. "Fortress Europa" was a grim joke among the planning officers, fretting the uncertain margins of spacecraft performance and human endurance. They reasoned if the rebels could do it, so could our troops, despite the enemy's superior spaceflight technology. NATO/USSF Operation Bounty Hunter was begun at the appointed day and hour, proceeding faultlessly up to landing their new spaceships on Ganymede with all the elan the Moon shuttles had lacked. It had become increasingly less-smooth afterward in a series of brief, bloody firefights, equipment failures and/or overt action.
And it had all come to this: alone in a strange place with a malfunctioning weapon and unknown injuries, the immediate past a thunderous blank. He started to shrug, winced, and set about clearing his rifle one-handed. Step One, remove cleaning kit from buttstock, tricky enough in spacesuit gloves.
"You do not know from 'Ow' until you have a, h'mm, comms package on your leg. Give it another push."
Hawkins grinned to himself. The Lieutenant was a decent guy and he must not be too badly hurt if he was still dotting every i and crossing every t.
"'Pressure Low.' Want your fishbowl, Lieutenant?"
"I am almost out from under. Have your ears popped? Mine have not. Two or three more tries and we can both work on the next...challenge."
The other man nodded, realized Griffon wasn't looking at him, shrugged and gave the leaning rack another shove, and another, and the officer was free. Griffon rolled on out from under the table and stood in one smooth motion, patted dust from his garment, then looked down.
"Torn!" Sure enough, the tough, stretchy material of his pressure suit had a vertical, two-inch rip on the side, at mid-calf.
"Stand still." Hawkins swept fallen items aside with his foot and knelt for a closer look. "Could be worse, you didn't get cut."
"Do you think it will hold if wrapped?"
"It should. There's rip-stop gunk in the suit lockers, too. No reason to chance it."
"Absolutely. We had better check on Hix, Feelie and Ferrill, first." The remainder of their team, a remote-sensing outpost for the landing field, had been off-shift in the living quarters module when the impact happened.
"You stop at the lockers, I'll step on through. Deal?"
Griffon favored the soldier with a thin grin. "That's 'Deal, Sir?' And it is."
The suit lockers were next the airlock hatch at one end of the long, narrow enclosure, and opened into both the equipment room and the bunkroom at right angles to it by means of interlocked, pressure-tight hatches. The two sections connected via the main airlock; the suit locker, tucked into the angle between them, could serve as a crude back-up airlock.
The suit locker was only in mild disarray and the main airlock appeared to be intact. Hawkins grabbed his helmet and breather pack from their stowage, stepped into the airlock and secured the hatch. Across the small area, telltales next to the hatch into the living quarters glowed warnings for pressure and temperature, confirmed by direct-reading instruments beside them. "Should've shown up on the alarm board," Hawkins muttered to himself. He tried the hatch anyway. Undogged, it still wouldn't budge. He settled his helmet into place, shrugged into the breather pack, set the valves and then began to cycle the airlock, one careful step at a time.
When the pressure was low enough — surface-normal, a good enough vacuum for most purposes, he opened the hatch into the living quarters.
Into what had been living quarters; he stepped back as debris slid gently into the lock: a battered telltale panel, a ripped girlie calender from a hot-rod shop, unrecognizable lumps of ice and rock falling in slow motion to reveal...an elbow? Possibly. He stood for a moment as the mess came to a stop, puffs of dust still floating, and shook his head. There weren't any pressure-tight bulkheads past the hatch and all the pressure-suit helmets and breathers had been in the locker. No one could be alive in there. Clearing the blockage away, he gently closed and secured the hatch and set to repressurizing the lock. When it had finished cycling, he returned to the equipment room, where Lt. Griffon was winding a stretchy strip of fabric around his pressure-suited calf, covering the tear. Griffon started to speak, caught sight of the other man's face and stopped. His expression grew more somber.
"They're gone, sir." The two traded a look; both of them knew of men who had died in this conflict but never so close. "Looks like that side took a direct hit." The officer nodded. "Has there been any traffic on comms?"
"I haven't heard a peep, but I haven't checked the transceiver yet, either."
The FCS was using a wired-wireless system, low-power FM transceivers obtained surreptitiously on Earth or copied in their own shops, interconnected by coaxial cable. It was inefficient and not completely secure, but cut through the terrific radiofrequency interference around Jupiter better than any other system they'd tried.
Hawkins looked at the fallen rack. Cables exiting the top had parted raggedly. Tubes were still lit in the equipment. "Power's on, those cables were down low and there's plenty of slack, but the coax is broken. I can patch it up well enough."
"Well enough to keep us from being a shining beacon to our foes?"
"Dirtsiders, I'm not too impressed with their SigInt; I think so, sir."
"I would not be too hasty to underrate their abilities, Tech. Hook it up and we shall hope you are right or they are too busy to notice."
Expedient repairs notwithstanding — as long as there's duct tape available, you don't need a mating connector to hook RG-8 cable to an SO-239 jack, though it helps — Hawkin's calls produced no reply.
Griffon checked his watch. "Should be a time pip shortly." But the time came and went; either the officer's watch was a lot worse off than it looked or the radio circuit was dead.
Hawkins was the first to speak. "Nothing. Looks like we walk."
On the surface, the soldier was still struggling with his rifle and the cleaning rod while muttering a steady stream of imprecations directed at the Army, USSF and someone apparently named "Damn Ted Armalite." It wasn't helping.
[DELETED SCENE: twenty minutes earlier, under the ice/dust surface, sparse lights flickered on, dimly illuminating drifting haze. A man coughed, retched, then asked, "Oh, holy snakes, what was that?"
From under a table, a fussily-precise voice muttered, "What do you _think?_ They shelled us."
"Um, right. Lieutenant Griffon?"
"None other. And you would still be Hawkins, correct? I don't suppose you're in a position to help me out from under here; my leg appears to be trapped."
The room had been small to begin with; shaken and jumbled, it appeared even smaller. Equipment cabinets were leaning at crazy angles, kept from falling over only by the lack of space to fall into. Hawkins was still strapped in position in front of the imaging display rack, which had rocked but settled back into its original position. He gingerly tried to move, his skintight pressure suit incongruous on his skinny, potbellied body. He poked at a tender spot on his left arm. "Ow!"
"You do not know from 'Ow' until you have a, h'mm, comms package on your leg. Get over here."
Hawkins grinned to himself. The Lieutenant was a decent guy and he must not be too badly hurt if he was still dotting every i and crossing every t. END DELETED SCENE]