Snippet – The Firelighters (A Learning Experience)

27 Mar


It was the height of ironies, Admiral Mongo Stuart reflected as he studied the holographic chart of the sector, that he was both one of the most powerful humans in the known universe and little better than a scavenger warlord, keeping his fleet together with spit and baling wire while crawling around the edge of civilised space, hoping and praying the Galactics didn’t decide to eradicate him.  The Solar Union was the most powerful human state in history, so independent from the planet it had left behind that it did not need to hold its nose and compromise its principles when dealing with tyrannical governments, and yet Mongo had no illusions about the outcome if the Galactics rediscovered Sol before the Solar Union was ready to meet them.  It was … galling.

He studied the chart without ever really seeing it, lost in his reminiscences.  It had been fifteen years since he and his friends had been kidnapped by maundering aliens, fifteen years since they’d fought back and captured the alien starship for themselves, fifteen years since they’d decided to take the ship and use it to found their own civilisation, rather than handing it – and the keys to absolute power – to a federal government none of them trusted and most of them hated.  It had been a gamble, all the more so when they’d realised their kidnappers were little more than pirates and scavengers, but they’d pulled it off.  The Solar Union was growing with every passing year, a new society taking shape outside the gravity well, beyond the reach of Earth’s failing governments.  It wasn’t perfect – Mongo was honest enough to admit the system had flaws – but it worked.  There were boundless opportunities for those prepared to work for them.  The human race was enjoying a renaissance in everything from science to popular entertainment.

But it could be lost very quickly, if the Galactics came calling.

Mongo considered himself a realist.  The Solar Union had more firepower, and more freedom of action, than any previous government, but the military he commanded was puny compared to the immense fleets the Galactics could dispatch to trouble spots, fleets so large they outmassed every wet-navy fleet that had ever existed.  The Solar Navy was tough – and the military had mined hundreds of mil-SF books for tactics that could be deployed against stodgy unimaginative enemies, yet the Galactics could soak up losses of a thousand-to-one and still come out ahead.  The key to humanity’s safety, in a universe full of predators, was a strong military, but there were limits to how fast the navy could expand.  And there were other problems.

His terminal bleeped.  “Sir,” his eAssistant said.  “Commander Singh has arrived.”

Mongo nodded, curtly.  “Show him in.”

The hatch opened, revealing a young-looking man in a simple spacer tunic.  Mongo pointed to a chair, studying the man thoughtfully.  Most spooks were prone to overestimating their own intelligence, and their ability to shape events on the other side of the world, but Singh was old enough to understand his own limitations.  He had also spent more time than most in alien company, although Mongo knew that didn’t always translate into understanding.  Aliens were very alien and yet their thought processes were just close enough to humanity’s that it was easy to be surprised, when one was blindsided by a piece of alien logic.  The xenospecialists insisted that any species that clambered out of the gravity well had to share a certain understanding of how the universe worked, perhaps even a certain level of intelligence.  Mongo wasn’t so sure.  He’d seen enough to know two different intelligent races could follow entirely different chains of reasoning to arrive at the same conclusion.

But of course everyone has to follow the Tokomak, he thought.  The unquestioned masters of the known galaxy had put their stamp on everything, from interstellar trade and communications to outright warfare.  They’d set the rules while carefully ensuring they had loopholes to act against their own rules, without openly breaking them.  Mongo suspected the other Galactics resented the hell out of it, although they didn’t seem inclined to open resistance and revolt.  We’re damn lucky the Tokomak are too stagnant to take advantage of their own system.

He met Singh’s eyes.  “I read your proposal,” he said.  “Do you think we have a reasonable chance of pulling it off?”

The spook looked back at him.  “Yes, sir,” he said, simply.  “We may never get a better chance.”

Mongo kept his face impassive through long practice.  Singh might have come up with the proposal, and convinced himself it could be done, but he wasn’t the one who would be carrying it out.  Mongo would have assigned him to the mission, if he hadn’t thought the spook would probably be a burden on his teammates.  And yet … he keyed his terminal, bringing up the proposal and running his eye down it to hit the high points.  There were too many question marks for his peace of mind, too many parts of the proposal that would have to be put together on the fly, too many points that might make the entire concept completely unworkable.  Singh, to his credit, hadn’t tried to hide the known unknowns when he’d submitted the proposal.  But it was the things they didn’t know that could bite them.

“No,” he said, finally.  “We might not.”

The risk was considerable.  There were humans, the descendents of alien abductees, living amongst the Galactics.  Soldiers, mercenaries … there was no reason to think his team, if it was caught in the act, would be traced back to Sol.  Force Recon teams were carefully outfitted to conceal their origins, with modified GalTech weapons and equipment rather than anything designed and built on Earth.  And yet … Mongo had been a sailor long enough to know that anything that could go wrong probably would, often at the worst possible time.  If their precautions proved insufficient, the entire galaxy would land on their heads.

No, he thought.  It’ll be little more than a punitive expedition.

“We need it, sir,” Singh said.  “A tech raid may be our only hope.”

Mongo nodded, irritated.  He already knew it.  There were limits to how far humanity could unlock the secrets of GalTech, limits to how much they could reverse-engineer and put into production for themselves.  They dared not let themselves become dependent on interstellar corporations, supplying weapons and starships the human race couldn’t duplicate for itself.  It would give them far too much influence over everything humanity did, if not an absolute veto.  Sure, the corporations might insist there were no hidden surprises – command codes – hidden within their products, but Mongo didn’t believe it.  And his staff didn’t have the expertise to be sure.

He snorted.  He’d always mocked senior officers – and the federal government – for spending days, weeks or months trying to come to a decision everyone involved had known was inevitable from the start.  It had been deeply frustrating as a young officer, watching priceless opportunities slip past because his political masters – uniformed or not – insisted on debating the issue, or consulting the lawyers, or pontificating on something that had nothing to do with the problem at hand.  And now he was doing the same thing, torn between hope for the future and fear of what could happen if the mission went spectacularly wrong.  The sheer scope for utter disaster was mesmerising.

But we need that tech raid, he thought.  Or we risk disaster anyway.

He didn’t need to look at the starchart to know the truth.  Sol was on the very edge of explored space, hundreds of light years from the nearest major alien settlement and thousands of light years from the heart of interstellar civilisation.  They’d been incredibly lucky that the waves of interstellar expansion had burnt out before they reached Earth, which hadn’t stopped a handful of aliens visiting the planet a few hundred years ago and kidnapping enough humans to form a breeding population, but it was just a matter of time before someone more dangerous than a scavenger race returned to Sol.  Mongo had seen the projections.  They might be based on incomplete data, but even the most optimistic estimates suggested they had less than a century before they were rediscovered.  And then …

If we’re lucky, we’ll wind up like the Indians under the British Raj, he thought.  And if we’re unlucky, we’ll be treated like the Native Americans instead.

His lips quirked.  Put that way, the decision was easy.

“We’ll take the risk,” he said.  “I take it you have the briefing notes already prepared?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good,” Mongo said.  “Dismissed.”

He watched the younger man leave, then keyed his terminal.  “Contact Force Recon Command,” he ordered.  “I want the Firelighters to report here as soon as possible.”

“Aye, sir.”

Chapter One

The city was devastated.

Captain Riley Richardson kept his eyes open as the team passed through the first checkpoint, their forged paperwork – and a small bribe – more than enough to get them through without the kind of checks that would reveal their identity.  The guards were jumpy, their eyes flickering from side to side as if they couldn’t decide if they were more scared of the rebel factions or their own leaders.  Iran had been convulsed by civil war for the last five years, the fighting surging back and forth in a manner that was reminiscent of the First World War, and any hope of a peaceful settlement had been lost long ago.  Riley was all too sure that when – if – the rebels broke through the network of trenches, antitank traps and fortified buildings, there would be a bloody slaughter.  The defenders would be lucky if they managed to escape the city in time.

He remained wary as they drove down the street.  The first bloody uprising had shattered the city.  The rebel bombings – and terrorist raids – had only made it worse, inflicting horrendous misery on the population for little or no tactical purpose.  The city’s masters were the worst of all, conscripting every able-bodied man into the defence forces and forcing them to work hard, keeping them from thinking about overthrowing their masters and trying to surrender to the advancing rebels.  A handful of corpses dangled from ropes, left to rot, as a grim reminder of just what would happen to anyone fool enough to raise a hand to the government’s officials.  Riley had seen some horrible sights in his time – he’d been a soldier for nearly fifty years – and yet, there was something about the city that chilled him to the bone.  It felt dead.

“No women on the streets,” Sarah Wilde subvocalised.  She was dressed as a local man, like the rest of the team.  No one had bothered to check closely and even if they had, they wouldn’t notice anything odd about the team unless they had access to GalTech scanners.  “No children either.”

Riley nodded.  No women on the streets was almost always a bad sign.  Civil wars – and war of religion – were always harder on the women, who were left to try to feed their children and pray for their menfolk to return safety from the front.  The local government wasn’t even trying to help them, as far as he could tell, although there was little they could practically do.  The rebel lines had isolated the city, making it impossible to bring in food from the countryside.  It was only a matter of time until the city starved to death – or was forced to surrender.  He shuddered to think about how many people would die in the next few months. 

“They’re still jamming us,” Charles Isabel put in.  “They know we’re coming.”

“They know we’d do something,” Riley agreed.  “Do they want a fight?”

He felt his expression darken as they made their way towards the centre of the city.  The Solar Union had made it very clear, time and time again, that anyone who wanted to immigrate was welcome – and any terrestrial government that tried to stop them would be severely punished.  It was astonishing how reasonable some governments had become when they’d realised their most productive citizens would leave, if they weren’t well-treated; it was astonishing, too, that other governments thought they could get away with keeping their people from emigrating.  Riley couldn’t blame anyone in the city for wanting out, even if it meant leaving the old world behind and flying into outer space.  Hell, the local government should have been delighted.  There would have been fewer mouths to feed.

“Maybe they want a heroic death,” Charles suggested.  “Or they think the jamming will keep us from intervening.”

Riley shrugged.  The jamming would prevent the Solar Union from teleporting the emigrants out of the city, along with the assholes keeping them prisoner, but it hardly kept his fellows from dropping a team of armoured soldiers into the city from orbit or simply sneaking through the trenches and into the city itself.  Perhaps they thought they could use the would-be emigrants as human shields, although that would be foolish.  If there was one thing Riley and his peers had learnt, in their careers, it was that allowing human shields to deter them would merely ensure all their enemies took and used human shields.  He was quite happy to take risks to capture the terrorists, just to make sure they were hanged for breaking the rules of war.  They couldn’t break the rules openly, then try to claim their protection.

“Deploy the drones,” he ordered.

“On it,” Sally said.  “Interlinking relay systems coming online … now.”

“Good,” Riley said.  The enemy jamming was alarmingly good, for something that had been patched together from pre-Contact tech, but the microscopic drones were designed to serve as tiny relay stations as well as sensor platforms.  Their images were patchy, and some parts of the city were worryingly opaque, yet it was far better than nothing.  Combined with the drones orbiting high overhead, it was unlikely anything could sneak up on them.  “Let me know the moment you find the hostages.”

He took a breath and checked the live feed from the drones as they rounded a corner and headed towards the government complex.  The enemy hadn’t realised it – he assumed – but their jamming was so powerful it was easy to pick out the source.  It would be easy, too, to drop a KEW on it from orbit, although that would take out the entire complex and most of its inhabitants.  He’d considered using a smart missile, but even that would put the hostages lives at risk.  Besides, it would be a great deal more satisfying to breeze through the front gate and lay waste to the complex.

Don’t get cocky, he reminded himself, firmly.  Just because their tech is primitive doesn’t mean they’re dumb.

“We won’t get through the gate,” Charles said, curtly.  “The guards are being too careful.”

Riley watched the guards for a long moment, then nodded in agreement.  The guards looked like irregulars, or terrorists, but they were checking papers and searching everyone who wanted to enter the complex with a professionalism he would have admired if they hadn’t been on the wrong side.  He wouldn’t have been surprised to discover they had a list of authorised visitors too, like high security sites in the west.  Anyone not on the list would be – at best – detained.  Here, with the city bracing itself for rebel attack, it was likely that anyone they caught would be hanged without trial.  They didn’t have the time for interrogation.

“You know the plan,” he said, his implants updating as more and more data flowed in from the drones.  “When I give the word, click your forcefields on and charge.”

Charles snickered.  “Perhaps we shouldn’t bother with the jamming,” he said.  “We can do the mission ourselves.”

Riley smiled, then shook his head.  “They’ll bring in reinforcements the moment they realise they’re under attack,” he said dryly, although he knew perfectly well the team already knew it.  They hadn’t had much time to plan the operation, but they were experienced professionals.  “We’ll need reinforcements ourselves.”

He braced himself as they drove up to the gatehouse.  It was admirably secure.  The compound walls had been enhanced with Hesco bastions, protecting the defenders from IEDs and VBIEDs; the bunkers, set further into the complex, covered the gatehouse with enough firepower to deter any local attacker.  The complex itself was studded with murder holes – he couldn’t help thinking that whoever had cut them had done it entirely at random – and the roof covered with antiaircraft weapons, including one he was sure dated back to the Second World War.  It wasn’t as laughable as it looked.  The guns had been surprisingly good at killing tanks, back in their day, and rebel technicals had even less armour than early tanks and armoured cars.  They might just be more useful than anyone thought. 

“Five seconds,” he subvocalised.  Microbursts flickered between the team, designating targets.  The defenders wouldn’t have a chance to realise they were under attack before it was too late.  He smiled, tightly, as the guards approached them.  “Go!”

He drew his pistol, his enhanced arm moving inhumanly fast, and started to fire, cutting down the guards before they could react.  The rest of the team fired at the same moment, Charles and Sally pouring superhot plasma into the bunkers while Terry and Josh opened fire on the rooftop defences.  Something exploded, pieces of debris crashing down … Riley smirked as he jumped out of the jeep, activated his force shield and ran towards the jamming equipment, Sally right behind him.  A defender appeared out of nowhere, pointed his AK-47 in Riley’s direction and opened fire.  The bullets hit the force shield and harmlessly bounced off, ricocheting in all directions.  Riley shot the man and kept going, even as the defenders rushed to the murder holes and opened fire.  It felt as if they were panicking.

Long may they stay that way, Riley thought, darkly.  He kept a wary eye on the live feed from the drones as they closed on the walls.  The force shields were good, but an enemy that refused to panic could slow the team, even hit them hard enough to break the shields – directly or indirectly – and kill them.  We have to move fast, without being slowed down.

The ground heaved.  He glanced back, just in time to see a pair of fireballs rising in the distance.  The orbiting drones, watching for enemy movements, had hit targets … hopefully, that would slow the enemy reaction long enough for the team to complete its mission and withdraw.  He turned back to the wall, shoved a molecular disintegrator against it, and hit the switch.  The wall disintegrated.  The men inside spun around, too late.  He switched his weapon to stun and opened fire, the defenders twitching painfully as they fell.  They’d have headaches later, but at least they’d be alive.

“This way,” Sally said.  The jamming was so strong it was interfering with the microscope drones.  “I think …”

She kicked a door with enhanced strength.  It shattered, revealing a hodgepodge of outdated computer and communications technology and a young man who gaped at them in horror, then threw up his hands.  Riley stunned him anyway, just to be sure.  The young man – he was barely out of his teens – looked like a tech nerd, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t be dangerous.  Too many terrorists had taken to modern social media like ducks to water, openly broadcasting their vile deeds to the world while sneakily passing messages from cell to cell in codes that defied the algorithms.  Riley designated the young man for pick-up – if he had been conscripted, he would be grateful – and stepped back to watch the door as Sally went to work.  She was an expert at dealing with hybrid tech.

“Someone’s been telling tales,” Sally commented, curtly.  “Lots of layered shit here …”

Riley nodded.  Governments the world over had been working, desperately, to come up with ways to block teleport signals and, to be fair, they’d largely succeeded.  He wondered, idly, who’d shared the tech with the locals, although the basic concept was simple enough anyone could put it into practice.  Teleport signals were incredibly complex and there were limits to how far teleport systems could compensate before the signal was too badly corrupted to be reconstituted.  Teleporting was normally perfectly safe, but using teleporters in a combat zone was asking for trouble.

“Too primitive to infiltrate,” Sally added, after a moment.  “Lucky, we can just cut the wires.”

Riley grinned.  “Do it.”

He checked in with the rest of the team as the jamming faded away.  The enemy was trying to get organised, local forces storming the walls with the clear intention of trapping the team inside the complex.  They didn’t seem to care about the fact they’d also be trapping their leadership, unless someone on the outside was hoping to take advantage of the chaos to launch a coup.  It would be a poisoned chalice, if they succeeded, but the lure of absolute power – even over a besieged city – was hard to resist.  The ground heaved as the drones rained death on the surrounding streets, clearing the way for the reinforcements.  New icons flashed up in front of his eyes as the first marines started to teleport into the city.

“They won’t be able to get the jammers up again in a hurry,” Sally said.  She’d done more than just pull the plug.  Once the power was off, she’d activated her lancers and melted half the outdated junk.  “Let’s go.”

Riley nodded and led the way out of the room at a brisk clip.  The live feed from the drones was updating rapidly, now the jamming was gone, turning the fog of war into a distant memory.  The surviving defenders were scattered, a handful running for their lives … straight into the armoured marines taking position outside the complex.  The remainder were heading for the prisoner barracks.  Riley gritted his teeth as he picked up speed, barely noticing an armed man coming at him.  He stunned the man on automatic and darted past him before the unconscious body hit the ground.  The stairs would have made a pretty good chokepoint, if the defenders had been thinking clearly, but they hadn’t even tried to make a stand.  He threw a stun grenade down the stairs anyway, just to be sure, and followed, gritting his teeth as blue light flared below him.  His hair threatened to stand on end.  He’d felt the edge of the detonation even through the shield.

“In there,” Sally said, as the ground heaved again.  Dust fell from the roof.  “Quickly.”

Riley crashed through the door, ready for anything.  The prisoners stared at him in numb shock.  Women, children … he hoped the grown men had been conscripted, rather than simply hanged, but he feared the worst.  The oldest boy he could see looked to be about twelve, if that.  His teeth clenched.  It wasn’t the first time someone had conscripted child soldiers, but it never failed to shock him.  It was an atrocity if ever there was one.

“Hold still,” he snapped.  “Don’t move!”

He triggered the teleport scanner.  The system ran a series of checks, making sure the local jamming remained down, then linked into the drones and activated the orbiting teleporter.  The prisoners froze, their eyes wide with horror as their bodies dissolved into white light.  They’d be reconstituted on the orbital platform, where medics would tend to their wounds and provide what reassurance they could.  He felt a flicker of sympathy.  Religious authorities all over the world were still trying to decide if teleporting was no better than suicide, killing the original person and then creating a duplicate that thought it was the original.  The Galactics had proof the teleporter didn’t do anything of the sort – and apparently teleport duplicates were the stuff of science-fantasy – but the explanation was too complex for anyone who didn’t have a degree in quantum physics.  Privately, there were times Riley wondered if the Galactics hadn’t simply cooked up a tissue of lies to keep the younger races from thinking about it.

“Sir,” Charles said.  “We have the leaders.”

“Teleport them into custody,” Riley ordered.  The city’s masters would stand trial for their crimes.  If they were found guilty, and he couldn’t imagine any other outcome, they’d either be sent to a detention asteroid or executed.  They probably weren’t the sort of criminals who could pay their debt to society through indentured labour or military service.  “Josh?”

“We swept the lower levels,” Josh reported.  “Got a handful of prisoners and a shitload of records.”

“Take them all,” Riley said.  The records might be useful.  Who knew?  If nothing else, they’d be informative when historians came to write the history of the civil war.  He put the thought aside as another explosion shook the ground.  The live feed from the drones revealed the rebel forces, advancing against the trenches as they scented weakness.  “I think we’ve outstayed our welcome.”

“Looks like it,” Charles agreed.  “I don’t want to say we’re surrounded, but we’re being fired on from all sides.”

Riley nodded.  “We’re done here,” he said, keying his communicator.  “Bring us home.”

He closed his eyes, his skin itching as the teleporter took hold of him.  The techs swore blind he was imagining it, but his imagination had always been very powerful.  His body staggered, slightly, his eyes snapping open as the teleporter let go.  It had been fifteen years since he’d joined the Solar Navy, fifteen years since he’d first used a teleporter, yet he’d never got used to it.  The sensation was too disorientating, even for him.

“Sir,” Captain Yu said.  “The remainder of the team and reinforcements are being pulled out now.”

“Very good.”  Riley sighed inwardly as the adrenaline started to wear off.  There would be paperwork.  Lots and lots of paperwork.  The Solar Union had less than the United States Navy, but … he shook his head.  There had to be at least some organisation or the results would be absolute chaos.  “We came, we saw, we kicked ass.”

And it was a walkover because they weren’t prepared for us, he reminded himself, sharply.  The locals hadn’t understood the full potential of GalTech.  The Galactics did.  Everyone knew it was just a matter of time before the Solar Union and the Galactics came to blows and then …  The next engagement will be harder.

“Yes, sir,” Yu agreed.  “You have a message from Command.  You have one day’s planetside leave, if you wish it, then you are ordered to return to base.  I think they have something in mind for you.”

“No shit, Sherlock,” Riley said.  He hadn’t expected any leave.  The fact they were being given a day off, with full access to the teleporters, was worrying.  It suggested they were being tapped for something very dangerous … he snorted at himself.  If he’d wanted a nice risk-free life, he would have become an accountant or a doctor or something – anything – other than a soldier.  “I’ll pass the word to the team, then go planetside.”

Yu made a face.  “I wouldn’t go down there on a bet,” he said.  “It isn’t the world we grew up in.  Not anymore.”

“No,” Riley agreed.  The younger generation had broken all ties to their homeworld.  He was too old to cut the links completely.  “But I have family down there.”

4 Responses to “Snippet – The Firelighters (A Learning Experience)”

  1. Rod March 27, 2023 at 8:44 pm #

    “kidnapped by maundering aliens”
    Shouldn’t that be “kidnapped by marauding aliens”?

  2. Joe McCay April 22, 2023 at 11:11 pm #

    I hope that this will be a new book in this series. I have been eagerly waiting for more books. I loved the first book–especially when they teleported the aliens into space. I thought more could have been done with the crab like aliens that settled on Mars.

  3. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard April 23, 2023 at 12:03 am #

    Chris is working on it.

    (And I’m back-logged on getting him comments on it.) 😉

    Oh, what happened with the former Horde-peoples would be interesting.

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