Caine’s Mutiny – Snippet 16

Karam nodded. “So what’s the play, skipper? Hovering on fans isn’t something we can do all day.”

Riordan started forward. “No, it isn’t, and not just because of fuel consumption. Look.”

As the larger blue delta signifying Puller settled to the south of the fleeing human icons, and Wedge One began paralleling them on the north, their activity became frenetic.

“What the hell –?” began Solsohn.

“They’ve heard us. They’re getting spooked.”

Duncan nodded. “And they think we’re the Hkh’Rkh, just like they did back at their camp.”

Riordan glanced at the diminishing distance to the scouts and light vehicles approaching from the south. One of the quadrotors gave him a brief glimpse of what looked like an armored car with a large, shielded machine gun. If its crew had seen the human sensor platform, it gave no sign of it.

“Caine…” began Karam. It was one of the few times Riordan could remember the pilot sounding worried.

“Okay. Here’s the bad plan — which is the one we’re following because all the alternatives are worse plans. We’re going to land and redeploy the Fanny’s team to take out those vehicles. We’re going to cover their rear from those” — he flicked his laser pointer at the converging mass of vehicles to the west — “which have just pushed through the old clearing without stopping. Otherwise, they’re going to be on us within a few minutes.

“Dr. Sleeman, orders for Wedge One. They are to get within two klicks of the northernmost humans and land a squad. The squad is to attempt to make contact directly and secure the cooperation of the humans.”

There was silence on the bridge. Duncan cleared his throat. “Those are pretty ambitious orders, sir.”

“They are. On the other hand, our other two alternatives are to eliminate all the pursuing Hkh’Rkh, which I’m pretty sure that they — or any other self-aware species — will interpret as an act of outright and unrestrained war. Or we can stand back and let a bunch of humans who do not seem to be here of their own volition get slaughtered. I’m open to alternatives.”

There were two seconds of silence.

Right. “Major Solsohn, see to the deployment of Sergeant Fanny’s squad in that rocky high ground just a klick north of their oncoming scout line. We have a MULTI system onboard, correct?”

“One, sir. But in those rocks, a MULTI is going to have line-of-sight problems.”

“That’s not a problem at all; Fanny’s team is going to use it in the indirect launch mode. Have them pull at least a dozen of the overhead-attack armor piercing rockets to add to their standard load. Also, all line personnel are to be given double loads of flechette RAPs.

“Fanny’s mission is to halt the Hkh’Rkh, not to inflict maximum casualties. So his first job is to take out the vehicles with the MULTI. After that, the Co Bros have significant range and lethality advantages over the Hkh’Rkh shoulder arms, and should be able to keep the enemy infantry at a distance. The plan is to extract Fanny’s team five minutes after they engage, if not sooner.”

Duncan was already talking to Fanny. “I’m on it, sir.”

As Puller began decelerating and angling toward the cluster of rocks that Fanny’s squad was going to use as their defensive position, Sleeman looked up. “Commodore, Major Rulaine on command channel. Private and scrambled.”

Riordan nodded, toggled the circuit open. “Puller actual.”

“Caine, we’re landing Wedge One now. I’m just not sure how we’re going to make contact with our targets. These guys are rabbiting out in every direction. And they don’t know that we’re friendlies — if, in fact, we are.”

“Understood, Bannor.” Puller tugged to a halt, settled quickly; Duncan was talking Fanny toward the battery position for the MULTI. “Tell your ground team that self-protection is first priority, making contact is second. Shadow them and be ready to extract.”

“Already there. But there’s a deployment issue.”

“Which is?”

“Caine, experience and doctrine both say that I shouldn’t drop any element smaller than a 3-sib team into a hot LZ. But that’s going to give us a maximum of four search elements.”

As Puller lurched aloft again, Riordan spent two precious seconds considering the alternatives. “Send them out in teams of two. Maximum separation of one-hundred meters between teams.”

Rulaine punctuated his answer with an affirming grunt. “I can live with that. Wedge One out.”

Melissa Sleeman cleared her throat. “Commodore, to the west –”

Riordan glanced, nodded. “I see them.” The lighter vehicles had, if anything accelerated their approach. Almost half of the heavy ones had stopped in a fairly open formation.

“Targets, sir?” asked Duncan.

“As soon as I know what we have to shoot at,” Caine answered. He circled one of the stationary vehicles with his pointer. “Doctor, can you angle one of our quadrotors to give me a visual of that?”

“I’ll try, sir.”

Karam’s voice was almost bored once again. “Look like full-sized APCs.”

“Yes, that’s their chassis. But these stopped and they don’t seem to be dismounting troops.”

“So you’re thinking –?”

“I’m thinking they’re — that.” Riordan leaned forward as the image from the quadrotor cut into the overhead. The vehicle was indeed a wheeled APC chassis, but the passenger compartment had been converted into a spacious bay, protected by top-folding doors that were opening as they watched. Once fully out of the way, they could see what was in the bay: a single muzzle, angled toward the sky.

“Mortar,” Karam breathed.

“Or a rocket launcher,” Riordan added. “But I’m thinking you’re right, Flight Officer: I see no vents for launch exhaust to get out of that bay.”

“It’s a mortar,” Duncan averred. “Look: there’s a gun crew climbing around back there. No signs of remote operation systems, so the bay has to be safe for the Warriors tending the weapon.”

Melissa Sleeman glanced back at Fanny’s team: the small blue triangles marking his personnel were less active now. They had evidently settled into their positions. “Sir, once Sergeant Fanny starts firing his MULTI –”

“Yes, Doctor. We’ve got to assume that the Hkh’Rkh will range him and start counter-battery fire.” Which means I have to take another escalatory step, damn it. “Major Solsohn, get firing solutions for all six of those halted vehicles.”

“Already calculated, sir. Awaiting fire orders.”

Riordan would have liked to close his eyes. Or take a stiff drink. Or vomit. “Engage all targets, starting with the northernmost. Walk your fire down the length of their formation.”

“Engaging targets, sir.”

On the one hand, Riordan was simply grateful and relieved for the immense superiority of technology and firepower resident in Puller. On the other, there was a sickening frustration that, despite possessing such an immense advantage, he had no way to convert it into a bloodless solution, a stalemate. But there was no way to communicate his actual intents, and the Hkh’Rkh would have probably disbelieved him, anyway.