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chapter four
" DAM "
Part Three

Yancy was the first below to get the word.   He turned in his chair and looked at Tremblay who was still asleep, lightly snoring.

Not wanting to disturb the Captain, Yancy looked back, down into the largest part of the Lander where the Astrals were.   He was searching for Senior Leftenant Algiers, the quiet second-in-command of the field team.   Algiers was over by a group of Astral noncoms going over some minor protocol issue from the last mission.   It took a moment to get his attention but as the two caught each other's gaze, and on Yancy's nod, Algiers excused himself and approached the cockpit.

"We're being recalled," he said it as silently as he could.   Bad news like this didn't make friends, and he hoped to make sure that was not his problem.

Algiers glanced around.   The crew wasn't going to like this.   Whatever command was thinking he hoped they wouldn't be too upset if a mutiny happened.   He looked over at Tremblay who was lightly snoozing.

"Where to?"   He said it without taking his eyes off his Captain.

"Buffalo Commons.   Rapid City, South Dakota"

Algiers looked at Yancy as though his head had just sprouted butterfly wings.   "Buffalo Commons?   What for?"

Yancy glanced back at the display.   "Hostage rescue."

OK, that was just weird.   Hostage taking required at least two people, a hostage and the host.   Did Buffalo Commons even have two people in it, or were the Buffalo now pushing for independence?

Algiers reached forward tapping Tremblay on the shoulder with a start.   Tremblay looked disoriented as he turned in his seat toward the disruption.   He squinted trying to focus on Algiers, "Is my bed ready?"

"Check the Action Board, sir."   Tremblay shrugged it off and then sat back in his seat, re-closing his eyes.   He wouldn't find out about his bed on the Action Board.   The Action Board only listed missions they were going on, and now that they were back in their Bay there was little chance of that.

Tremblay's eyes shot open and he lurched forward placing both hands, palm down, on either side of the display.   He looked at the Action Board and then, the exact same utterance Major Ackers made a moment earlier, a deck higher, flew from his mouth, only this time with more volume.

The rest of Task Force Cimarron, quite familiar with the way of things, stopped gathering their gear, stopped slinging packs over their shoulder, stopped doing everything as they looked at their Leader.

It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what had just happened.   In fact, the scientists who were present were shocked by how quickly the mood had changed in the room.

* * *

Any other ship in the military would have been guaranteed a few hours in port, maybe even a day, simply because they couldn't be resupplied quickly enough, but not Cimarron.   Like every task force vehicle, she was designed for rapid response, launching in minutes, not hours, or days.

Each time she pulled out of her assigned bay, special cargo containers attached to mooring clamps on either side were refilled and resupplied by automated logistics systems so that on her return they could be swapped for the containers on the craft.

Refueling was equally fast with a series of shielded ports retracting as she parked, and auto-systems replenishing precious supplies with a speed any pit crew would envy.

Even the laundry for the crew was replenished with Quartermaster packed stand-by containers, ready to click into place as soon as the worn garment containers were withdrawn.   Cimarron would've backed out of the hanger in three minutes flat had they not needed to off-load the Scientists, who, having never practiced this drill, were less than prepared to depart this quickly.

Thankfully for the Quartermaster service they'd been on the ball and diverted everything Cimarron needed to it's temporary home at Military Bay 3.   The only thing the Military Bay couldn't do was refresh the personnel on board, that's what training was for, that's why the selection process for members of a Task Force was so intense.   That's why these people were best of the best in the Astral Corps.

* * *

As Cimarron glided past the New Soviet Shipyards, anchored in HEO space, two-thirds of the way between Earth and Luna, Major Ackers climbed down the stepladder from the upper to lower deck.   It was a misnomer.   The lower deck was actually the lander, a detachable craft that in flight was nested with the mother ship, but could, in mere minutes, break free and either ferry the highly skilled squad of Astrals to a mission, or unleash death and destruction against an opponent.

Ackers' foot took hold of the lower deck and he walked out of the closet that stood in for the gangway, turned left and crossed through the inner hatch threshold that emptied into the operations area of the lander, where the Astral noncoms spent most of their time, and their Astral Field leaders were waiting for orders.

The Major moved to his traditional position, directly aft of the elevated cockpit, underneath the overhead video controls, facing the deactivated medical bunks subbing as seats between the two rows of bench seats where everyone sat, waiting.

Twenty-four sets of eyes stared back at him, seventeen enlisted personnel and seven officers.   He looked around and wondered again if he'd ever actually been young, and fit enough, to have done their jobs.

Having put in nineteen of his twenty-years qualifying service he could retire next year to a comfortable pension, but he couldn't imagine what he would do then.   This life was all he had ever known.   He knew that he'd stay until they forced him out.

Ackers reached up and flipped the toggle on the Briefing Switch.   The overhead unit running up the middle of the pit came to life and on each display appeared information relating to their mission.   Every brow furrowed when they realized it was Buffalo Commons.

With the system keyed for a well-practiced hand gesture Ackers was able to control the flow of information as he recapped the mission.   He could see each of the noncoms taking in the big picture, they still saw each of these as adventures.

But the officers were doing something else, mostly focused gazes at various monitors taking in hard facts and specifics.   Largely concentrating on the hurdles that faced them and the terrain they'd be operating on.

Ackers smiled at this.   Between the two approaches his team was going in well prepared.

It only took four minutes to finish the brief, another seventy-two seconds to answer any specific questions and then Ackers was climbing back up the ladder.

The Lander pilot, a pretty decent Fleet Lieutenant named Kelso Yancy, ran through the departure list in good time.   Coordinating with the Orbiter pilots, Cassidy and Newton, before the smaller craft was cleared to break free and proceed on final approach toward Rapid City.

The plan this time included extra fun though.   Fixed to the aft half of the upper deck were the six nested Hornets.   Small thin craft reminiscent of old style attack helicopters, only without the blades.

Normally the Hornets stayed nested, many of Cimarron's missions were too covert to risk multiple in-bounds, but for this mission on-site aerial support would be welcome.

There was no indication their opposition had Surface-to-Air weaponry and the Hornets were equipped with O-T-H capabilities.   But launching the Hornets Earthward meant the Orbiter had to plunge deeper into the atmosphere than normal, down to the upper levels of the Thermosphere.

This part of the ride had to be done gently in order to keep the outer hull temperature down, but that did nothing for the Grav-Plates which would be working over-time to control the drop.

At one hundred kilometres altitude, very near the mesospheric layer, the Hornets launched.   Their grav-plates would handle the rest of the drop as they scattered and began their approach toward the Target Zone from six different points.

They would stay just beyond range, ready to engage if needed, in many cases staying just behind trees or hills so that only their projected tower, extended to its full height, would be visible.

This Over-The-Horizon capability would allow these craft to close the distance as much as possible, keeping close watch on the drop zone without alerting their opponent; but the approach would take time, as the pilots eased through the tree tops while ensured they didn't blunder upon a forward scout.

Hornet pilotry was an often dismissed art in Fleet circles.   Why would anyone want to ride a slow moving hunk of metal in support of ground troops, when they could get behind the stick of a high-speed interceptor and run flat-out in the open spaces past Saturn's orbit?

Yet for the pilots who sat in these seats, it was a different story.   This wasn't about speed, it wasn't about guiding a series of automatics that didn't really even need you.   This was real flying.

Hovering five tonnes of metal, a hundred and six metres over the ground below, guiding it between the branches of towering Spruce trees without disrupting bee-hives and bird's nests required true skill, precision and nerves of steel.   Hornet drivers had those in spades.

They took their positions, closed the distance as best they could and once they were set, just beyond range of the target, each of them chirped to the Ground Leader they were "in socket".

* * *