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Authors: Rick Shelley

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—|—

It was not the largest invasion fleet that the Accord of Free Worlds had assembled in this its first war. In the two years since the Accord had started its attempts to liberate the worlds captured by the Schlinal Hegemony, there had been too many fleets assembled, too many ships—and men—lost. There were also other missions in progress at present, scattered across a million cubic light-years of space. Men and materiel had been brought together from wherever they could be found. Some of the units were significantly short in manpower. Critical supplies—primarily munitions and food—were deemed adequate, but there were no abundances, not enough of anything to make any commander or quartermaster content.

But the Hegemons had taken severe losses as well, and they had been fighting for more than a generation, first only against the Dogel Worlds, but more recently also against the Accord. The Schlinal warlords were having increasing difficulty meeting the demands of carrying on simultaneous wars—separate wars, because the Accord and the Doges were not allies. The Doges had also taken Accord planets. The day of reckoning for that had not yet come.

The fleet dispatched to take the Schlinal arsenal world of Tamkailo was still not insignificant. The ships carried three of the Accord's fifteen spaceborne assault teams, elite troops. The 5th, 8th, and 13th SATs had all seen hard combat before. If only the 13th was near full strength now, the other two were still significant units. Each of the SATs had combat engineering units assigned to them for this mission—one battalion split three ways. An entire Wasp air wing was also part of this invasion force, in addition to the Wasp squadrons assigned to each of the SATs. Two light infantry regiments and a half dozen Special Intelligence teams rounded out the strike force.

Ten thousand three hundred men to capture a world.

—|—

Drop Day had already begun for Colonel Van Stossen and his senior staff officers. Although each would make a pretense of retiring for a few hours before the jump, none would succeed in sleeping.

Van Stossen had commanded the 13th since its inception, the first man slotted in its table of organization. It was, however, unlikely that he would remain in command much longer. One of the most senior colonels in the ADF, he was due for promotion to brigadier... if he survived this campaign. If and when that promotion came, he would be bumped up, out of the 13th, unless the TO was changed to make the top slot a flag command.

Lieutenant Colonel Dezo Parks was the executive officer. His promotion to light colonel had come several months before, but he had been the 13th's exec since Porter, when his predecessor was crushed under the treads of a Schlinal Nova tank. That loss had also catapulted Major Teu Ingels from command of Echo Company into the slot Parks had vacated, as operations officer.

Major Bal Kenneck, intelligence; Major Goz (Goose) Tarkel, air wing commander; and Major Henry (Hank) Norwich, Havoc self-propelled artillery commander, completed the colonel's staff. As most of the 13th prepared to get what sleep it could during their last "night" aboard ship, Stossen and his staff went over battle plans for what might have been the hundredth time since embarking above Albion, the 13th's garrison world.

A 3-D display above the conference table in the room adjoining Colonel Stossen's cabin stepped through the plans. The war-gaming computers had run hundreds of thousands of simulations, using every conceivable variation of possibilities. Even under "ideal" (for the Accord) conditions, the battle plan worked only one time in seven. None of the men sitting around this table expected anything near the ideal once they finally reached Tamkailo.

"I'd bet that no army in history has ever pulled off a plan one-tenth as harebrained as this one," Bal Kenneck said.

"The other options were worse," Stossen said. General Dacik had explained the main variants of those other options to his commanders before hitting them with the plan that he had finally chosen.

"Within an hour after we hit air, the whole thing's going to be wrecked," Teu Ingels said. "We'll be playing it by ear from then on."

"And deaf," Kenneck mumbled. Louder, he said, "The first small deviation will throw everything off schedule. There's simply no way to run a campaign this size on split-second timing."

"Making one unit do the work of three," Dezo Parks said. "It's not the first time we've had to do more than our share of the work."

"The 13th isn't what it was a year ago," Kenneck shot back. "And it's not just us. It's all of the units. We're trying to take Tamkailo with far too few assets. We've got no business staging this invasion without sufficient forces to do the job."

"Regardless," Stossen said. "If we let the Hegemons make whatever invasion they're staging for, it'll be worse. That's the important thing this time, to inflict maximum damage on the enemy, no matter what the cost to us. We don't have to capture and
hold
Tamkailo. We only have to wreck their offensive capability to give the Accord time to get back to full strength. And if we do pull this off, it might be enough to end the fighting with Schline."

The playback of the battle plan ended and cycled back to start over, showing the initial deployment.

"So we improvise," Stossen said as the computer representations of landing craft started to descend into the atmosphere of the planet. "That's why we've been over all of this so many times, so we'll recognize where the trouble is and have a leg up on meeting whatever happens."

Whatever happens.
Stossen closed his eyes for a moment. He held few illusions. It wouldn't be pretty. Twice in the past eighteen months he had led his men back from the brink of total destruction. He couldn't help thinking that it was too much to hope for to be able to do it a third time.

—|—

The dawn line was approaching the eastern shore of Tamkailo's southern continent when the invasion fleet disgorged the first landers and the Wasp fighters of the three SATs. The separate Wasp wing (the 17th Independent Air Wing) was held back for the moment. The SAT Wasps would have a vulnerable period. They might have to ground before their support vans could land to provide them with fresh batteries and replenish their munitions. During that critical phase, the rest of the Wasps would have to provide all of the air cover, over two continents.

On the far side of Tamkailo, the simultaneous landings on the other continent would take place as night was falling. Roughly a third of the invasion force would fight for a foothold there while the rest attempted to quickly overpower the defenses of the main Schlinal base on the southern continent.

Navy chaplains stood by in the passageways leading to the shuttle hangars. There had been services just minutes before, during breakfast, but there were always last-minute words of comfort to give. Once inside the landers, the men had only their own thoughts, and few found comfort there.

The shuttles carrying the 13th's infantry companies were the first to leave the transports. The 13th's mudders would be first down. Their immediate job would be to secure landing zones for the rest of the initial drop team at Site Alpha—the 8th SAT, the 97th Light Infantry Regiment, the 17th Independent Air Wing, the Wasp support vans, and the Havoc artillery and their support units. The 5th SAT and the 34th LIR would be attacking on the other side of the world.

"Remember who you're supposed to key on," Joe Baerclau said over his platoon channel. Once in the shuttles, the men had all pulled down the visors of their combat helmets. The helmets' radio links were more dependable than any other sort of communication, even with the squads all bunched together on the lander's benches.

It wasn't just because of the crowded conditions that no one moved much. Weighted down with forty kilograms of gear, no one
wanted
to move. Any movement took energy while the shuttles were attached to the transport—still within its artificial gravity field. Once the shuttles separated and the men were treated to near-zero gravity, they still wouldn't move around much. Each man had private thoughts to think.

Joe took several deep breaths and closed his eyes as the lander moved away from the ship. The seat belt pulled at his middle as the shuttle accelerated toward Tamkailo and the drop zone. Joe could feel his nerves tightening up. His stomach cramped. He had to struggle to keep from clenching his teeth. Nerves, not fear: it never got easy. His arms rested on his knees; he clutched his Armanoc wire carbine—too tightly—in both hands.

Just like a drill,
he told himself. Sometimes that worked. This wasn't one of those times. Joe and his men had made three practice drops using the new antigrav belts. They had attended classes and watched demonstrations first. Proper use of the controls had been drilled into everyone as fully as everything else was. The belts were just another piece of equipment. Joe was still nervous about them. As was Mort and, probably, every other man about to drop into combat on nothing but a web belt, leg straps, shoulder straps, two small AG motors, and two equally small batteries. If the motors, batteries, or gyroscopic stabilizers failed... No one had been
killed
on any of the practice jumps, but there had been plenty of minor injuries, ankles or knees strained or sprained, a couple of broken bones.

And there had been no enemy fire to complicate the practice jumps.

Joe opened his eyes and looked around. Most of the men were looking at the deck between their feet. Joe wasn't monitoring any of the squad channels, but he could imagine squad leaders talking to their men. He had given enough of those talks himself in the past. Pep talks.

Platoon sergeants weren't supposed to need pep talks, but Joe wouldn't have minded one at the moment, anything to keep him from thinking about what the next minutes and hours might bring. He had seen more than his share of combat, he thought. So far, he had been lucky. He had never been seriously injured—nothing that couldn't be repaired quickly, in the field, without a long stint in a trauma tube.

But he had seen too many comrades killed.

"Five minutes until drop," Joe announced over his platoon channel, relaying the information that First Sergeant Izzy Walker had just given him. "Check the gauges on your drop belts." Joe looked around, mostly to the squad leaders, making certain that they were checking themselves as well as their men. Then he checked his own gear.

"Three minutes. Check weapons." For most of the platoon, that meant an Armanoc wire carbine that fired small lengths of collapsed uranium wire from a twenty-meter spool. A spool of wire was good for twenty seconds of continuous fire—a meter per second in centimeter-long snips. The rifle's power pack would last for two hours of use. Against body armor, the zipper was reliably lethal only at ranges up to about 80 meters, sufficient for most combat requirements. At ranges greater than that, up to about 150 meters, wire could only be effective if it hit the places where soldiers weren't armored, or where the net armor had become weakened by use. Beyond 150 meters, the Armanoc was no more useful than an office stapler. One man each in second and fourth squads had sniper rifles, Dupuy rocket-assisted slug throwers. The Dupuy was known as the cough gun from the sound it made. The RA rifle had a flat trajectory and an accurate range of seven kilometers—for what little use
that
was in any practical circumstances.

Joe glanced around the troop bay again. In every previous combat landing, the shuttles had grounded. This time they wouldn't. The assault plan called for the landers to go no lower than three hundred meters. At that height, the four doors would be opened and the men would jump. The 13th's infantry was jumping in on antigrav belts. The rest of the invasion force would ride their shuttles all of the way in.

"On your feet!" the jumpmaster called. "Stand in the doors."

Each squad knew which door it would jump from. Joe moved with first squad. He would be the first man out the rear left exit of the shuttle.

"Forty-five seconds," the jumpmaster warned. The shuttle was braking rapidly. The men braced against one another and hung on to rails placed head-high along the aisles.

"Thirty seconds." To men carrying forty kilos of gear the extra gee-load of braking was almost intolerable. Joe's legs felt as if they had suddenly swollen to the size of elephant legs, and as if the muscles had turned to slack rubber bands. He blinked as his vision started to dim.

Then the load was gone. The shuttle eased off and the gee-load dropped to no more than 1.5. Joe took a deep breath.

"Ten seconds... nine..."

Joe's attention shifted to the hatch in front of him, the droning countdown fading from his hearing. For those few seconds, Joe forgot all about the other men in the shuttle with him. He felt encapsulated in a pocket universe that consisted only of himself and that gray door no more than twenty centimeters in front of his eyes.

As the hatch sprang open and the wind passing by created a partial vacuum, Joe leapt outward before the jumpmaster's final word—"Jump!"—was fully spoken. The wind caught Joe and pulled him away from the shuttle and the other men hurtling through the hatch.

Tamkailo lay below.

CHAPTER TWO

Captain Zel Paitcher was more than a little nervous about this combat mission as commander of the 13th's Blue Flight. It was his third campaign, but he was going in with nothing but rookies behind him, seven pilots who had never seen combat, none with more than thirteen months in uniform or two hundred hours in the cockpit of a Wasp. The other three pilots of Blue Flight who had survived the liberation of Jordan had all been transferred to serve as part of the cadre for a new fighter wing—still in training.

Gerry Easton was Zel's wingman, Blue two. Ewell "Pitcher" Marmon and Tod Corbel were Blue three and four. Frank Verannen and "Halfmoon" Sawyer were five and six. The flight's final pairing consisted of Ilsen Kwillen and Will Tarkel—Kwill and Will to the rest of the squadron. Tarkel was the nephew of the 13th's air wing commander, Goz Tarkel. The Goose made no demands, showed no undue preference for his brother's son. Will had to get by on his own talents. There was no real alternative for a fighter pilot. The enemy would give no latitude to nepotism.

BOOK: Jump Pay
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