Operation Starfold 6

“Everybody okay?”

Captain Delgado looked around the bridge. His officers appeared shaken and he noted a few bruises but no serious injuries. The floor slanted at an awkward angle.

“We have some broken bones in the 31st’s common room, and the 32nd,” PLAIR said. “I’m sending doctor bots their way now.”

Delgado sighed. He said, “Thank you, PLAIR.”

“It’s almost like we don’t need officers,” Hogue said, flashing a grin at him. “The AI takes care of everything.”

Leave it to Hogue for levity, even in the most dire of circumstances, he thought.

Delgado looked at the main holo again. Now it displayed island scenery outside the crash site. Green grass stretched away for hundreds of meters. He could see a line of trees in the distance. Local versions of seagulls flew above them.

“I don’t think she can take care of all this, XO.”

PLAIR said, “Captain, I estimate an 80 percent chance this ship will be attacked by terrestrial explosives immediately. I recommend you evacuate your crew and place considerable distance between yourself and the Ronald Reagan. DNI reports a robust global missile defense system on Sporades, put in place before the war began. I see no reason that system would have degraded.”

“Okay. If that’s the case, we only have minutes. XO, prepare to abandon ship.”

“Aye, aye, Captain!”

-+-

“Abandon ship. Abandon ship. Abandon ship . . .”

First Sergeant Tine Gruman muttered a few choice expletives nobody else could hear above the sound of PLAIR’s voice in the common room.

He was promoted to the top spot after the 31st’s previous lead non-com had been spirited away on some secret mission or something. Nobody really knew what happened to Sergeant Wilcox. One day she was gone, and the brass were very close-mouthed about it.

“Wherever she is, I hope she’s having more fun than we are right now,” he muttered.

He raised his voice to bellow at the men and women of the 31st.

“Grab supply packs and weapons! If you are mobile, exit the ship! If you have broken bones or something that prevents walking, we will assist you!”

Jamieson and Boggs, the two young inseparable privates who looked like they might be brothers but were unrelated, paused in front of him. They had another Marine whose leg looked torn open, supporting her between them. Her head lolled to one side, probably the result of a sedative supplied by the doc bot, who had already moved on to even more seriously wounded Marines.

“Hey, Sarge!” Boggs said, “Normally we abandon a ship while it’s still in space. How are we gonna exit now that we’re on the ground?”

“Follow the yellow arrows, Private. The holograms will appear in the hallway. Now get out of here!”

Boggs and Jamieson dutifully filed out to the hallway, following other Marines from the common room along with the new Verberger X99 units supplementing their numbers.

In fact, Gruman thought, this last rotation before leaving for Sporades resulted in mostly X99s rather than human replacements. He was not entirely sure how he felt about that. On the one hand, he preferred seeing a machine get blown to bits rather than one of his boys or girls. But . . . there was something about using bots to fight that grated against his old school values.

He shrugged it off, and made sure everybody was safely out of the common room, even the bots, before leaving himself.

In answer to Boggs’s question, they exited primarily through the flight deck portal, which led to a three meter hillock of dirt and sand built up from the crash that had to be climbed over.

Once outside and clear of the ship, officers directed everyone to run for the trees half a klick away and regroup there to await further orders.

They did not say anything, but they did not have to . . . the Marines saw the looks in the eyes of their officers, and they knew. Something bad was coming.

The enlisted men and women broke into a run, moving quickly away from the ship, a stream of several hundred people going full tilt.

Hogue stood in the middle of the flight deck, which was pitched at an awkward angle, directing pedestrian traffic up the slope and out of the ship.

“Move! Move! Move! On the double!”

The first round of seriously wounded made their way onto the deck, mostly carried by others. She saw Boggs and Jamieson half dragging the female Marine with a busted leg, and Hogue realized they would never make it in time.

To her right she found Beazy, one of the pilots.

“Beazy! Take over the transport. We’re going to fly the wounded out!”

“I don’t know if the transport can make it out past that piled up dirt outside, ma’am. Looks like a tight fit.”

She reached out and pulled the back of his neck, jerking his face close to hers.

She spoke quietly, but intensely. “You are going to find a way, and you are going to rendezvous with everyone else in the woods, with all our wounded. Do you understand, Beazy?”

He gulped. “Yes, ma’am! I’ll get them out.”

She nodded, and turned toward the line of injured filing onto the flight deck.

“Wounded personnel! If you’re mobile, run for it. If you are unable to run, get into the transport!”

At last, seconds later, the able-bodied sailors and Marines were out of the ship and the remaining wounded were inside the transport.

Captain Delgado appeared, exiting the last elevator pod with a handful of other officers.

He nodded at Hogue and said, “PLAIR, is everyone out of the ship, except for those still on the flight deck?”

The AI’s voice came from the ceiling. She said, “Yes, Captain Delgado.”

One of the ensigns spoke up, a young man with light brown hair and skin.

“I’m surprised StarCen hasn’t ported over a bomb to take us out yet.”

“You should have read the DNI report, Cantu,” Hogue said. “This planet is lightly populated except for a few islands. StarCen doesn’t have sensors on all the islands. But, she has a robust smart missile system running on a subroutine. If it detects a large threat at a remote site, the missiles will take it out. And, we’re a large threat.”

Delgado nodded and said, “We’re a sitting duck.”

PLAIR said, “Incoming, Captain. Thirty seconds.”

Delgado locked eyes with Hogue for a split second, as if to say “Told you so.”

Out loud he said, “Everyone, into the transport!”

The remaining officers squeezed into the craft, about the size and capacity of a terrestrial bus. All the seats were occupied. Delgado hopped onboard just as the door began closing.

Hogue shouted, “Get us out of here, Beazy!”

The pilot nodded, and pulled the stick on his holopanel up. The craft levitated a meter above the deck and shot toward the opening.

He slowed as they neared the octagonal exit, now bereft of its hazy red force field.

Gently, he edged the nose outside. Everyone felt and heard the scrape of soil along the bottom, and the grind of metal on the roof.

PLAIR said, “Twenty seconds, Captain.”

Hogue shouted, “Beazy!”

Beazy added power and the scraping sounds increased, moving to the middle. For a moment it seemed the little craft would be stuck. Then Beazy pulled back all the way on the throttle hologram and with a final shriek of metal the little craft shot free, sailing out over the grass about 30 meters up.

Behind it, five red streaks rushed through the air like angry hornets. They dove and struck the Ronald Reagan simultaneously. Everyone heard and felt the blast as the shockwave overtook their transport, rocking it violently, knocking people off their feet if they were not strapped in.

A rumble and gale force wind swept over everyone running on the ground, too.

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