Read me the story
Helset Morvaine woke, sweaty and breathless, from a nightmare of watching helplessly as her parents’ agonized faces disappeared into the raging vortexes that had engulfed their home. Silently, she cursed herself for a fool, fumbled for the light switch behind her head, and clicked it once, producing a dim glow that barely reached to the edge of the bunk. The untroubled breathing of her cabin mate indicated that at least she hadn’t cried out in her sleep.
How many people on the Time Ripper had she prescribed sleeping medication for? She hadn’t run a precise count, but she’d bet the total would be somewhere above seventy percent. She’d get a colleague to chart her an issue of medication next watch. Even the most combat-hardened men of the Second Legion were still dealing with the shock of losing homes, families—everything. What made her think she was any different? Wearily, she slid out of her bunk and donned a fatigue jumpsuit. Trying to get any more sleep now would be futile; she might as well get some work done. There was a senior medical staff meeting scheduled for her regular watch, so she’d get nothing done then.
The companionways that served residential compartments showed the three-quarter light of the deadwatch, but once she emerged into the working areas of the ship, it was brighter. That didn’t make it any less disorienting. Time Ripper was normally a First Legion heavy transport, a much larger class of ship than the Strike Forces of the Second Legion’s light carriers. Helset still got lost from time to time and had to call up the deck map on her handcom.
She went to her tiny cubicle office first to collect her mug, then to the J-deck galley. Sometimes if you brought your own mug, the galley crew would fill it for a single coffee chip, even if it was a little larger than the standard galley cups. She was well into a caffeine-bolstered productivity surge when her handcom chimed a reminder of the staff meeting.
The Chief Medical Officer of the Second Legion, the Fleet’s Chief Surgeon, and General-Hartman Ralin were sitting in a row at the work table that served as a focus for the meeting. Helset slid into a chair next to Senior Partiram Jesney, Surgeon of the Vengeance. There were about a dozen other senior medical staff in the briefing room, and as Helset sat down another three or four arrived.
General-Hartman Ralin checked his chrono and stood up. No preliminaries, no courtesies, but that was how the General was. He was not an attractive man—short for a Klarosian, barely 160 centimeters tall, and nearly as broad, but it was all bone and heavily-knotted muscle. His face had been reconstructed in a field unit after a close encounter with forcebolter backwash. He’d never bothered to have it prettied up afterwards. There were a whole range of speculative rumors about why; you paid your credits and took your choice, depending on how you felt about the General.
“Our strategy is pending operational confirmation at this point, as it’s based on limited intelligence. Nevertheless, the broad outline is unlikely to change much,” he rumbled, “and the Lord Commander wants the Medical Services both to be prepared, and to provide further planning input—more on that later. For now, the outline is simple.”
He activated a wall display with his handcom, showing an aerial view of the large continent that was G417.902c-D’s only substantial landmass. An extrapolated grid representing known intelligence was superimposed over the static image. He gestured to the dots scattered over the right-hand side of the picture.
“The eastern half of the continent is populated widely but very thinly. The only substantial concentration of population is here—a city of about half a million, with an adjacent low-traffic spaceport. There are orbital systems…” he made an adjustment, and the planet shrank and receded; the overlay changed to show conjectured orbital paths, “including proximity detection satellites and random probes, close-orbit drone platforms, and at least one manned orbital station with some insystem fighters. On the surface, the only substantial defenses are the spaceport security, which doubles as city defense, and a network of small permanent installations scattered over the inhabited portion of the continent.”
“Current analysis of known and postulated weapons systems has been downloaded to your handcoms, but I emphasize—this is preliminary. We’ll do more reconnaissance as we approach the system and revise final mission planning then. Based on what we know now, we don’t anticipate much effective resistance. We’ll take out the orbitals at the same time we knock out their comsats and deploy our own disruption probes to disable their communications. Small strike forces will be dropped to neutralize the dozen or so permanent installations, and the main thrust will be focused on taking the spaceport area and securing the city.”
“Specific strategic and tactical protocols are dictated by our mission objectives, which are unique to this mission, and unprecedented. All of our planning is based on the requirements of long-term colonial occupation.” Ralin shut off the display, and sat down. “Let me hear your understanding of those requirements, please.” He nodded to General-Kenterum Stavran Orlot, the Chief Medical Officer.
Orlot returned the nod. “We’ll be greatly outnumbered by the indigenous population, for a start. Twenty-six million or so. We’ll have less than a million colonists to protect.” He looked dubious. “There’s sure to be heavy casualties among the natives if they try to fight, but they can’t hold out long with primitive weapons, so it probably won’t reduce the population too much. We’ve got nearly 28,000 effective combat personnel with us to hold the planet until the rest of our people arrive, with another 90,000 or so coming with them. That’s not a good ratio.”
“Why are we worrying about the native population at all?” Chief Surgeon Scharnav asked coldly. “If they give trouble, selective large-scale depopulation would both make the ratio more favorable, and the remaining population more docile.”
Ralin nodded. “That’s the most logical solution. But the Lord Commander wants to avoid large-scale depopulation for a number of reasons. So does the Church. The Archprelate places a high priority on, ah…” the General’s gaze fell on Helset, and he hesitated perceptibly before continuing. “On redressing our current gender imbalance.”
“In other words,” Orlot drawled, “we need their women.”
Helset felt her shoulders tightening, but as the only female officer in the Medical Corps, she’d long since learned to hide any emotional reactions.
Senior Partiram Jesney glanced at her, then addressed the General. “It’s an anachronist colony, so they’ll have very little in the way of technical resources or materials to support our population, except what we can capture from those Guardians. We’ll have to look at building everything we need from scratch, so we’ll need native labor, as well.”
Ralin nodded. “The city isn’t even domed. We’ll have to construct at least one habitat to be ready for our colonists when they arrive.”
“Why?” A voice asked mildly.
Helset turned to look, although she thought she knew that voice. Sure enough, it was Colonel Ridder. His head was tilted, and there was an odd sparkle in his eyes. Ralin frowned at him, and Scharnav narrowed his eyes. Orlot suppressed a grin.
“What do you mean, ‘why’?” Ralin asked.
“Why will we need to build a habitat? The native Veran colonists seem to have occupied the planet successfully for a good many centuries without domes. Surely habitat construction will use resources and energy we can ill afford, especially if our control of the population depends on our ability to present a credible military threat for a very long time?”
“The natives,” Scharnav said, with the suggestion of a snort, “fight with spears and swords. They eat unprocessed foodstuffs, and timps, they probably wear furs and skins, too. Are you suggesting we join them?”
Ridder was unabashed. “We can hardly expect to recreate a type-4 terraformed colony on a type-2 planet. Particularly since we can’t exactly hire any of the big Hub planet-engineering firms to condition the place.”
Orlot interjected himself smoothly between his staff contrarian and the Fleet Surgeon. “That cuts both ways, Ridder. Our population isn’t prepared to meet the challenges of a type-2 environment. We’ll need time to adapt. It’s clear from the little we do know that the original Veran colonists did not eradicate all of the planet’s xenic bioforms. We’re looking at potential threats from disease and other organisms, for which our people will have little preparation and no resistances. Which brings us back to the subject at hand,” he turned to General Ralin. “Is the Lord Commander including such potential threats in his operational planning?”
The General’s eyebrows—or what was left of them—rose. “The Lord Commander is certainly aware of the potential biological threats, General. But I think he expects his Medical Corps to provide the analysis and operational planning expertise that will be required. We have two teams working on operational planning: A General Staff team working on the assault, and a team of military and civilian specialists working on the occupation and colony preparation phase. Both teams need technical advice from the Medical Corps.”
Helset felt her spine lengthening a bit. An operational planning assignment would suit her perfectly—use her background in Infection Pathology research, and, just possibly, give her a chance to get noticed at higher levels and restart her stalled career track. She’d reached her present rank of Ord-Colonel nearly seven years ago. Becoming the first female full Colonel in the Second Legion would be a considerable achievement.
Orlot’s eyes traveled over the staff assembled. Scharnav shook his head. “My people are too damn busy, General. We’re pulling double watches as it is, and our techs are hot-bunking.”
Orlot’s eyes rested for a moment on Ridder, then on Colonel Lest Bardrep, then moved on. He glanced at Helset, at Hartman Stavross, then gave a quick nod. “Colonel Bardrep, you can report to the General Staff Secretary, and…” he glanced at Ralin. “Who’s coordinating the other team?”
“Senior Lieutenant Rynart Joklan, First Corps, HQ Intel Brigade.”
“Good. Colonel Morvaine, you can report to Lieutenant Joklan.”
It wasn’t working with the General Staff, and Helset had her doubts about the importance of any planning group that included civilians—especially if it was coordinated by a mere Senior Lieutenant—but it did promise to be interesting.
Not to mention a welcome distraction from the discomfort of thinking about the past. Or what they were doing heading for Veran at all.