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Battle Luna: Chapter Two

       Last updated: Thursday, July 9, 2020 06:25 EDT

 


 

Under the Hill

Michael Z. Williamson

    Engineer Andre Crawford skipped down the corridor, using the best gait for fast travel on the Moon. He always felt like a kid back in South Chicago when he did. It was fast, though, in the low G.

    He reached Control, the pressure doors closed for security, not due to atmosphere worries.  The scanner recognized both him and his ID and opened the staggered doors in turn.

    Luna Central Operations sounded as if it should be an exotic place.  It was even jokingly referred to as “Main Mission,” which someone had dredged out of the depths of old sci-fi and had to be explained. More often, it was dubbed the “Ops Module” or just “Control.”

    It wasn’t nearly as roomy as a TV show would have it, though. The space was about as tight as a warship or TOC. People had room to walk, barely, and consoles with minimal spare space. Polarized screens and noise-canceling shrouds made it work, and expensive gear was cheaper than making more space.

    He knew why he had been called.  The UN landing at Hadley was only a precursor to the one that just landed here.

    The good news was the element trying for Hadley Dome had been stopped.

    Luna Village might not be so lucky. The UN force was throwing more of its troops and assets at the main habitat, probably hoping for both visibility and intimidation. Three ships had landed just over the ridge, giving them limited concealment and cover.  Satellite imagery caught a bare glimpse of the craft, one of them with an ArctiTrak debarking, before the satellite feed had gone dead. It wasn’t clear yet if the controls had been compromised or the satellite destroyed.

    ArctiTraks worked well on the lunar surface. From that landing site they could reach the main lock in an hour.

    As he stepped inside, he noticed Control was almost silent, which meant crew were furiously busy. Also, he realized all the uniforms were Lunar Operations only, no Kosmolock, Boeing, TRW contractors.

    Across the round facility, he spotted Colonel Zeiss next to Steve Coffman, the senior commo tech, and usually roving, not sitting a console as he was now. Zeiss was the only military person present. The entire staff present were very select, and many were on their alternate shifts.

    Andre made his way over and nodded a greeting.  Zeiss made a half salute, half wave.  Commo Tech Coffman just glanced and flicked his eyes.

    Andre took in the display.  It showed bandwidths, frequencies, strength and quality, as well as interference.

    The Lunar Village primary commo was still active, but there was very strong local jamming, presumably from the UN landers or the command craft in orbit.

    Coffman said, “I can probably burn a signal through if we have to. But who would we call?”

    At least Lunar Village had resources.  Whatever the Moon had as far as materials and power, this was the place for it. It was also very secure. The habitat was only partially domed, being built into a tunnel through the crater rim with structure protruding out each side.

    Still, the encroaching force had professionally built weapons which, while not ideal for the Moon, were purpose designed.

    On the Loony side, there were several hastily-constructed boobytraps and a bunch of improvised materials from the warehouse, under the command of Andre Crawford.  Crawford apparently had the mission because he was both one of the senior engineers, and a veteran of the US Army.

    He’d supervised construction of the traps the two days previous, as soon as it was known there were UN ships inbound. Now he’d have to put them to use.

    “You realize I never saw combat, only did support, right?” he said to Zeiss.

    Colonel Zeiss, Bundeswehr (Retired) said, “You understand military ops, military engineering, and our equipment. That makes you the right man.”

    He inhaled and tensed.  “Fair enough, and I agree.  I just want you to understand I was never actually faced with killing anyone. And no matter how peaceful we try to be, that’s a possibility here, when things get stressed and ugly.”

    Zeiss nodded. “You know that. That’s why you’re in charge of it.”

    “Roger.”

    Andre sighed.  Even on the Moon, human beings could find a reason and a way to go to war.

    He’d need some good support. He thought for a moment and spoke.      

    “I want Malakhar, Morton, Rojas and Godin.”

    Zeiss said, “They’re all here.  They’re yours.”

    “Thanks.  Patch me through, please, Mr Coffman?”

    Coffman nodded and said, “Sure thing.” He pinged their phones and had all four on a split screen he swiveled to Andre.

    “Hey, guys, it’s on. Meet me at the Ops Room off the main lock.”

    They all agreed, looking nervous or sober or both, and he gestured for Coffman to kill the channel.

    He turned and asked, “Colonel, can you clear the regular personnel out of there fast?”

    Zeiss replied, “We already did. We said it was a pending solar storm, everyone to move inside and forego regular duties. They’ll shortly realize that wasn’t true, but I hope a lot of them will enjoy the down time. It’s not as if everyone couldn’t use some.”

    “True that. What orders do you have? For me?”

    “Hold them as long as you can. Minimize casualties.  Deny knowledge of anything. Refer them to us, and we will not be responding. Shrug and sound without clue.  Stall for every second you can before acting, and between.  You’ll have to wear them down by attrition, though daylight may help.  Their timing is based on the find, not on the environment.  Use the minimum force necessary, but if you have to, do whatever you need to stop them entering.”

    Taking all that in, he replied, “I don’t want to provoke them into escalating.”

    Zeiss said, “Exactly.  Be as measured as possible. That’s why I chose you.”

    “Thanks.”  I guess, he thought.  “I better move fast.”

    He turned and left. The doors closed behind him, followed by a supplemental air curtain. The Moon was buttoning up.

    On the track outside, there was a Quad waiting for him.

    He climbed on, flipped the power, and rode the designated path toward the main lock.       

    He reflected that the complete dearth of anything lethal, even a few handguns the police could have used, was possibly a planned move on the part of the Ueys. Or, it may have just been media-inspired paranoia over explosive decompression, even though it would take a lot more than a pistol, or even a rifle, to puncture the outside hull, and holes in the regolith of the inner habitat were pointless, even if possible. Meteorites whacked the structure regularly, often no even scratching the metal.  Only twice had they made a pinhole.

    The police had stun batons, which were rarely needed, granted, but would be singularly ineffective against actual gunfire. Nor would they do anything through a vacuum suit.

    There were a handful of anti-armor rockets, intended for blowing protruding rock faces down.  Inside though, those were suicidally dangerous.

    Fighting here came down to either poking holes in people, hitting them hard, or, if they were in vacuum, damaging their breathing equipment or containment. That additional factor was something the Loonies worried about constantly, and the Ueys might not have thought about.

    Under the Hill, spaces maintained pressure protocol but the main passage did not. The air curtains were kept open, but could be dropped automatically, from any control station, or individually if needed. The Quad Track paralleled the walkway, which was empty due to Zeiss’s stand down order. Unusually empty.      Normally there were dozens of people moving through it with carts, dollies, walking to jobs, rolling Quads.  He had the only Quad and he counted eight people during the trip, three of them Security. That was definitely going to arouse suspicions and couldn’t be maintained long.

    It took only a couple of minutes to reach the main lock. It was uncommon to see the large screen noting LOCK SECTION CLOSED. Even more so to see it devoid of anyone working even if it was.  He parked the Quad, leapt off, and stepped into the Lock Operations Room, which everyone knew as the Hut.

    Possibly on Earth a gate control might still romantically be thought of as a hut.  Here it was just a hole bored in the regolith, with power conduits and lights, a bare sheet titanium floor with some imported static mats, and desks and chairs. As with everywhere up here, one brought their own fliptop computer, plugged in, and used software and access codes to build a work center.  The conduits ran to the main trunk, out to the airlocks, up to the surface antennas, and all had standard plug connectors spaced along them. There was a wire fence separating the Hut from the Support Cage that held tools, suits, parts and incoming supplies that would get sorted and dispensed.  Further back the passage was the main Supply Cage that took all the palletized resources.

 



 

    Really, the number of people who knew about the device made the pretense of secrecy silly.  It was almost certain that everyone in Echelon 1 knew the rough details. The labor, support, outside contractors and family members might not, but all those with pull almost certainly did. He’d picked his four crew because they definitely knew, but that was secondary to their usefulness. They were in because they were ace engineers even by Loonie standards, very trustworthy, and calm under hazard.

    Ravi Malakhar had done the materials sampling of the device’s case, or tried to. The case was impervious. There was speculation it wasn’t quite matter as humans understood it.  Scans reflected off or got absorbed, and there wasn’t any consistency as to which. He was very good with observation and data.  The more of that they had regarding the Ueys, the easier it would be. He was a slender Indian and looked older in the face than he was, but was quite fit.

    Stu Morton had figured out some of the small amount of coding they understood so far. The controls on the thing were very organic, taking hand motions and translating them into instructions. He could code equipment remotely, or secure it against intrusion. It was assumed the Ueys would try to hack into commo.  He’d coordinate counters. If only his Liverpool accent didn’t make him sound like a Beatles movie.

    Laura Rojas was a crack fabricator, and had been here eight years. There wasn’t a detail of the lunarscape she didn’t know, nor any of their equipment. She’d helped create, on the fly, some of the tooling that had failed to penetrate the device. That was more success than anyone else had. He’d watched her gain a little mass due to the low G, but she was fit, just tiny, barely 160 centimeters.

    Roderick Godin was in because he’d been the mission engineer when the “gadget” had been found. He’s been cool enough to secure the item in place, clear the area, call for observation and photos, approach slowly and then wait for further instruction. “Rod from God” as several women nicknamed him was also really good in crater or crevice, and understood structures.  Andre had a special project for him.

    Andre would rather none of them were involved in the defense, given the information they had. For them to get killed, or worse, captured, could screw the whole deal.  However, there was no one who could be relied upon to defend against an armed force without having the knowledge, which still needed to officially be held close. It made a certain amount of sense.      

    So here they were.

    He shook hands quickly. He mumbled and nodded because his brain was still thinking.

    Then he remembered to act as well as think.

    “Sorry, let’s move. We’ve got to secure resources before the Ueys arrive.  Lock down, lock up, clear out power and oxy, unsafe the traps, get back here and hunker down.”

    He didn’t bother with a vacuum suit yet. There was no time.

    There were a handful of others at their disposal, who only knew there was a dispute, not the cause.  He wasn’t going to involve them yet. He knew Ravi and Rod had observers who could support them.

    Not that it mattered. It wouldn’t take long for news of the UN landing to get out, and of the dock being secured. There were plenty of science and industrial projects outside that required access to vehicles. Those were all on hold. That hold, even justified as “solar activity,” wouldn’t last more than a few hours.

    As far as weapons, they had nothing ready made.  They had explosives in expedient production, and various chemicals, but the goal was to avoid violence as long and as much as possible, for both PR and out of humanitarian gestures.  Melee implements were plentiful– titanium geologist’s hammers with the rock chisel end sharpened to an edge, chisels ground down and mounted on tool handles as pikes, pry bars. Those would readily crack a face plate or split any hose connection.  Though he wasn’t sanguine about using them. The incoming troops probably had better and more recent hand to hand training than he or his people.

    They had an effectively limitless oxygen source, as far as the engagement went.  The intruders had only what they could bring on their ship and vehicles. Keeping them from acquiring resupply locally was first on the list.  If they ran out of oxy, or eventually water, the fight ended. They might also have issues with power.  Certainly the powerplants on the ships would have plenty, but changing that energy to usable form for vehicles and suits took time and equipment. A man charging his suit batteries and filling up on breathing mix wasn’t combat effective.

    The plan was to delay, stall, hinder, then if need be damage or injure, and if all else failed, kill, but after the Ueys had made the first aggressive move.

    The devices and events constructed over the last three days, since the UN launch, with either secrecy or careful cover stories and work orders ready to go.  They were still hidden, and nothing appeared out of line.  However, to maintain the pretense of normalcy, the lock itself had been left operational until now.

    Crawford and his men and woman were almost in a panic as they rolled into the Outer Bay. He felt very exposed this far from the main habitable area without a pressure suit even within reach.

    The Outer Bay had a light sheet floor over the regolith, framework pressure doors, and parking slots for four ready vehicles to recharge, reload, refit and get back out. There were racks for batteries, tanks and bottles.  It made it quick and efficient to supply and resupply outside functions without entering deeper into the maintenance and support area of Middle Bay. During a busy project, the four rollys would be nonstop ferries of people and sundries.

    He pointed around the bay and ordered.

    “Okay, load the oxy on that goat trailer, then pull power lines on the rollys. We’ll take those in.”

    Rojas said, “Those aren’t all gonna fit.”

    “Right. We’ll make more trips, and try to dismount charging ports as well.  If we have time, we’ll take the batteries. If we can’t do that, we’ll try to disable the vehicles some other way.”

    “If you say so.” She didn’t sound convinced.

    “Yeah. We’ll do what we can.  Let’s move, okay?”

    The bottles were easy enough, it was just tedious to move so many.  The ready racks held enough for an entire shift of three work crews to be outside, right about a hundred tanks. 

    “Stack them neatly. We can dump to unload, but the neater, the better for loading,” he said.

    Ravi had been just tossing them. He grumbled, but started aligning them for a geometric pile. And thank God for .16 G.

    Those all fit, with room to take all four power cables from the other rollys. 

    “Hurry,” Crawford urged.  Once everything was piled, he jumped on the saddle, powered up and rolled in to the Middle Bay, then past Lock 3A and 3B to Inner Bay and Maintenance off to the side. That was big enough to pull pressurized maintenance on a single rolly, and for two others to pass each other in turn.  There was just room to back the trailer carefully inside the main hab, Lock 4. The haulers used for palletized cargo were specialized for that lock and used in trains, not singly.

    Barely. He scraped one side and almost jammed a wheel before he got it backed in.

    “Just toss the stuff off and we’ll go back for more.”

    Really, more labor would be useful.  On the one hand, it would only take one sympathizer to wreck the whole thing.

    He scraped back out, the vehicle thumping and rising, then back down in the low G, as one of the trailer wheels caught on the hatch frame.

    For the second trip, two of the large recharge tanks fit on the trailer, along with charging ports. There was still power in the battery banks, but the Ueys would have no way to charge or draw from them without bringing or making a Charging Interface Unit.  The batteries could be dismounted and used as is, but that would take time the Ueys probably couldn’t spare.

    His phone beeped.  He pressed the button on his collar and heard Coffman. “They’re rolling into view.”

    “Crap, guys, we go now.”

     He bounded across the garage in two leaps and slapped the button to close Lock 1. Then he turned to the remaining recharge tank, pulled the hammer off his belt, and cracked the safety disk. The tank began a slow hiss as it vented into the enclosed space.

    “At least we’re not losing that air,” he said. “Kick it.”

 



 

    Rojas shrugged and took the wheel, and rolled back through to Inner Bay. Morton followed, disabling the lock control on this side, then doing a bypass on the inner control.  He couldn’t smash it completely; it housed all the circuitry here. There was a manual override for emergencies. No one had foreseen needing to cut lock controls and run them remotely. It was cheaper, faster and safer to build one box for each hatch and simply run a control line in.  That was going to bite them in the ass now. They couldn’t cut it without surrendering control to the Ueys.  The Ueys could cut it and take that control, and probably would.

    The maintenance section in the Middle Bay was empty. That meant lots of room for Ueys to get in, but nothing for them to hide behind. When it came to boobytraps, this entrance was as good as could be hoped for.

    They needed to get on those boobytraps.

    “Rod, you know that divot right about the middle of the entryway floor? Reinforced with lattice?”

    Godin said, “Yes.”

    “Can you open that section and mine that lattice?”

    The man nodded, wrinkled his brow and said, “I need an hour.”

    “Faster if you can. We might have more than that. They may come straight in.”

    “Can I have Rojas with me?  And Ravi, can you get the charges?  I’ll need at least ten.  One hundred grams each.”

    Malakhar said, “I’ll get them now. Do I need authorization?”

    Crawford said, “You have it.” He pointed at his screen. He’d already pinged Control and gotten approval.

    The three skipped off.

    Then he said, “Stu, can you prep those transducers we talked about?  I want them up high out of reach.”

    Morton said, “On it, boss,” and skipped away.

    The transducers could generate enough sound pressure to be heard in 5% atmospheric pressure.  They were armored against impact, and Rojas had fabbed a second cover for them that should stop bullets. Properly place in one of the locks, they would hopefully be very effective stun and distraction devices.

    All that set, Andre took a few moments to peel out of his coverall, skin into a leotard, and pull his friction suit on.  He had his helmet and bottle right there in case he needed them.

    Back to the fliptop he had as a control console, he looked at the screens and written report.  Nothing was coming through on audio yet.

    “Can you hear me, Boss?” Godin came through his headset.

    “I have you.”

    “I’m wired into the channel here. Didn’t want to use radio.”

    “Good.” And that decision-making ability was why he’d grabbed these people.

    Godin said, “Ravi is prepping the charges for me.  Laura is helping me open the floor panels.  Worst case, we pull out and there’s a big hole in the floor they have to work around. What are they doing?”

    The video feed showed three ArctiTraks lumbering evenly around the ridge cut.

    Crawford gauged them and said, “Approaching by vehicle. At that speed, you still have ten minutes before arrival.  I’d say they’ll need ten to debark and arm for entry. Which also assumes they’re in a hurry.  They’re certainly visible and can’t expect to surprise us.”

    “Roger. I’ll update as we go.  I’m pulling the wire. Give me a channel squelch and a word ‘go’ if we have to run.”

    Crawford nodded to himself.  “Sounds good. Signal is squelch and go.”

    Right then, Coffman came on.  “Andre, we have two friends of Ravi’s who are going EVA for observations.”

    “Yeah, he mentioned them. What do you have on this element out there?”

    On screen, Coffman shrugged.  “The same camera you do, sir.  SELSAT has nothing. We don’t know if it’s dead or jammed.”

    That was bad.  “All three? Shouldn’t two be over the horizon at present?”

    “Yup, nada. The Colonel doesn’t want to put a skimmer up because that would be obvious and possibly provocative. We’re waiting for them to come to us.”

    “Got it. Whatever you do see, keep me informed.  I may not notice everything.”

    “I’m listening in. What you’ve been reporting so far is good.”

    “Glad to hear it.” But as much as he liked being in charge, this was a bit outside his comfort zone.

    The element was large. He looked over the imagery and tried to think. Three ArctiTraks, possibly sixty Ueys. Ground staff…space crew, if they were double trained, and probably were…

    Ravi came back through the door.

    He said, “Hey, boss, I’m in their way. What do you need?”

    Crawford replied, “Hang here until we have more info.”

    “That I can do.  Want me to look?”

    “Please.”

    Turning his head back to the screens, Andre tried to estimate against known landmarks.

    He said, “Estimate a hundred men?  Figure three Traks with twenty each plus support?”

    Malakhar agreed.  “That seems a fair appraisal.  Anything on sat?”

    “Coffman says they’re down.”

    Malakhar scowled, his lean face looking odd with the expression.  “That’s not good.  I may be able to get a powered drone up, or I have a man outside who can slingshot a camera overhead and try to retrieve it later. Both have advantages.”

    Crawford said, “Yeah, I do want to know. On the other hand, I don’t want to waste anything too soon, or give away our knowledge.”

    Rojas came in right then said, “Boss, they have to know we know. I wouldn’t worry about that part.” She sounded out of breath.

    “True,” he agreed. “Which leaves finding out now, or waiting. It’s not as if it’s going to change the troop numbers.”

    The talk was necessary, but agitating.  Andre prompted again, “Okay, get me whatever you have.”

    Malakhar said, “I’ve got an observer going up Peak Five from the outside. We painted his suit tan.  It’ll flake off, but should drop his profile a lot.  He has a laser signal he can beam to the tertiary receiver. Coffman’s the only one with access.”

    “Well done, thanks.”

    “No problem. I’ve got another guy behind the outcropping who’s going to launch the camera, then duck inside. We get one shot, so tell me when you want to do it.”

    Andre chewed his lip and thought.

    “Don’t let them get close enough to catch him. But when they’re a few hundred meters out, I say do it.”

    Malakhar said, “I count three vehicles, but it’s likely there’s two more out behind the ridge.”

    He nodded. “Right.  Do it when you see fit.”

    “Roger.”

    “And we need to get that emergency hatch moved into position and sealed.”

    Morton said, “I’ll do that now.  Laura, help?”

    “Yup,” she said, and bounded back to her feet.

    Godin leaned his head into the Hut and said, “I’ll help. I’m done in Outer Bay.”

    “Good.”

    The emergency lock mounted into position anywhere a pre-cut slot existed. Those were in the rock every twenty meters, and in the habitrails every fifteen. The idea was a leak could be isolated to the smallest volume possible, and then repaired or worked around.

    But an emergency lock was just that. It wouldn’t handle many sudden significant pressure shifts but it might handle one. It bought time in an emergency. This wasn’t the emergency it was built for, but it would still work.

    Out in the main passage, Morton and Rojas mounted the lock base, set the sides, and cranked the tension up.  Godin latched the mounts.  Andre watched through the door, while turning back to his screens every few seconds. Once they had all four sides in the pre-cut slots, Morton pulled, twisted and slapped the button that extruded sealing goop all the way around.  It was effectively air tight; leakage should be in grams per minute or less.  It wasn’t proof against an overpressure slam either way. They’d need to avoid that.

    Andre was back at the screens as the three returned. There was a video feed from up high. That man on the ridge had good imagery, though his field of view was limited. There were two more Traks.

    Malakhar took a look at the scan and said, “Yup, two more.  Now, that’s three plus two that we can see. We’re assuming a lander type Albatross C.  That doesn’t mean they didn’t strip down and squeeze another vehicle in, or that they didn’t land another craft further out.  I don’t see a reason they would, but it’s not impossible.”

    “Got it,” Crawford said with a nod.

    An overhead image at an oblique, ballistic angle showed the exact positions of the Uey craft and vehicles. They were well clear of any feasible weapon from here, out of view of the dome or the tunnels, but close enough to make their own support and recovery easy.

    Malakhar stared at his screen and replied.  “Yes, Albatross C, single, can carry five ArctiTraks and most of their gear would be inside those, or wedged between. We’re looking at everything they are likely to have. They may be able to lift if they abandon everything here, or if they get a fuel drop from an orbiter.”

 



 

    “Good.”

    Ravi continued, “Okay, my man outside is now inside. The man up on the peak can hold for four hours on his oxy supply if you need him to.”

    “If he’s comfy, it can’t hurt to do so.”

    Malakhar pointed.  “He even sent a pic.”

    The image showed a suited figure draped in a hollow, one leg hanging over a formerly sharp edge he’d hammered flat. From any angle, in that color, he’d be tough to see, and no one should be looking.  He was flashing a peace sign.

    Crawford had to grin.

    “Yeah, as long as he can last. More intel always helps.”

    He stood, stretched, and looked at the other three.

    “So let’s summarize: We have three airlocks, one of them twin.  We installed an emergency unit as a fifth.  Four sections, five hatches. We can secure controls from in here, but that could be bypassed eventually. We need to stop them from entering or causing infrastructure damage that would lead to personnel evacuation. We want to minimize casualties, and avoid first use of force if at all possible. We’ve improvised several non-lethal weapons and the three of you can hopefully fab gear as needed against incursions. It’s dawn here, and as the sun clears the peaks, it will get hot fast. That means they’ll need to force entry or build shelter. Ultimately, we win if they surrender or run out of oxy and retreat.  They win if they achieve entry and control the entrance.”

    Morton said, “Of course we never needed lethal or projectile weapons here, and they’d be dangerous in a habitat.  And whether that was intentional or circumstantial, they’re going to exploit it.”

    He nodded and scowled.  “Yeah. I said all along that pistols wouldn’t breach the sheathing, nor most light rifles, and that they’d be useful in case of a rebellion or even a criminal threat. Everyone ignored me. Then Gresham freaked out last year and stabbed five people before he got dogpiled.”

    Rojas said, “I’m not sure firearms would have changed that outcome.”

    Andre shrugged. He’d seen knife fights on the South Side.  “Probably not, but if it happens once, it can happen again. We can discuss it another time. I just wish we had them now.”

    The four sat down to wait.  That was the main thing in war. Boredom.  All parties would maneuver, sit around, maneuver some more, change positions.  Eventually someone would attack or, more likely, trip over the enemy. Then the fight started.

    “Make sure we keep the coffee full,” he ordered.  “Food regularly. We can talk, or move around, or plan.  I don’t want anyone playing cards or gaming. We need to notice motion on the screens and messages.  No outgoing messages. Everyone’s phone is off, right? And the suit comms are for official use only.”

    “Yup.”

    “Yes.”

    “Got it.”

    “Ravi, please confirm.”

    The man had been fiddling with his fliptop to get the screen at a good angle.

    “Yes, I understand. Sorry.” 

    He was usually taciturn and didn’t communicate much. He had to be reminded that for this, verbal confirmation was a must for record.

     


 

    From his raised position, Colonel Zeiss looked around Central Operations, then at the external view on the large screen. Often, that carried news or mission footage. Now it just showed the majestic scenery. It was almost high enough resolution to fool the human eye into seeing it as “real.” Almost.

    Even though the moon ran on Zulu time, lunar sunrise was relevant to several functions. It was also very pretty.  The main screen showed a polarized view of a bare glow peeking through a notch in the rim wall.  That tendril that might just be a prominence adding to the grandeur.

    Zeiss felt reasonably calm under the present circumstances.  He had some of the best people on the job, and it was unlikely the UN wanted violence. The wrapup at Hadley Dome indicated that.

    On the other hand, he also had some of the most stubborn and cantankerous people, and they were getting aggravating.

    Zeiss had only a moment to appreciate the canned view, as approval requests and advisories started chattering in.

    The hope was to stall any EXTAC–EXTernal ACtivity, until the dispute was resolved. Otherwise, a lockdown phrased in that way would guarantee rumors as to why. Those would be bad if true, potentially worse if wild speculation. Nor was it possible to bottle this many people up, even with hard vacuum outside.

    Zeiss asked, “What’s the word on the Uey landing?”

    Coffman said, “No movement yet, from any available source. We still have nothing from SELSAT.  Definitely compromised.”

    “Who else knows that?”

    Coffman replied, “Just my section. No one has any urgent commo queued.”

    Solar activity did sometimes interfere for minutes at a time. But that was minutes. He needed hours.

    Okay, so he felt a little stressed.  “I wish they’d get on with it.”

    Coffman agreed, “Yes, sir. Meantime, I’ve automated ‘in queue’ notifications to all senders, and a ‘possible interference’ advisory. Which is true.  We have interference.”

    That was clever, and just beyond Zeiss’ grasp of English. He was very fluent, but he German mindset didn’t let him play words with the foreign language like that.

    “Just not a natural cause. Yes,” he noted.

    Coffman warned, “But, sir, within a few minutes, there are going to be angry queries, and I don’t know what to say.”

    “Yes. I’ll see what I can devise.”

    He turned to his private console and wired connection.

    “Crawford, update when you can.”

     


 

    Andre heard Zeiss’ order and replied, “I will, sir. We’ve finished prepping infrastructure. Now we’re waiting for commencement.”

    “I understand, Zeiss out.”

    He and his people waited, with every screen on every device split to show command input and the outside cameras.

    Crawford asked, “What’s their roll time from there, about ten minutes?”

    Godin said, “Ten minutes for us. They should take about twenty to be cautious, plus whatever threat protocols they want to use.”

    He calculated.  “So, figure eight as a bare minimum if they go balls out, and we’re already five into that.  Nominal thirty.  Possibly an hour.”

    Godin agreed.  “That seems reasonable.”

    “Okay.  I could definitely use a sandwich.”

    Rojas put in with a grin, “The cooler has egg, chicken, cheese, mustard and peppers.  Make your own damned sandwich, boss.”

    He grinned.  “Don’t mind if I do.  Anyone else?”

    Morton said, “Yeah, sure thing.”

    “Go for it. Make your own damned sandwich,” Andre tossed back.

    He would like some roast beef, but that was very scarce up here, and usually from a tank. Tank-raised meat did not taste like real meat, no matter who claimed so. They weren’t likely to get any from Earth this month, either.  Chicken, turkey, tuna and salmon were their primary meat proteins, and lots of egg. The cheese also wasn’t great, being made from powdered milk fat solids.

    In the list of minor repercussions, the McDonald’s down the passage wasn’t going to have any burgers for as long as this lasted, only chicken.

    The mustard was okay. They made their own vinegar and grew their own mustard seed, among other spices. The bread was real, though with rice as well as wheat it was a bit crumbly. 

    Still, he had a fresh sandwich and coffee.

    The coffee was okay. They grew that under lights, and it didn’t have anything like the complexity of Earth coffee, because they didn’t have the soil.  It was hot and well made, though.

    Malakhar said, “Here they come.  Three ArctiTraks, probably with ten each, twenty if they stuff. But I have no idea how much volume they’re using for equipment.”

    “Right.”  He shoved the rest of the sandwich in his mouth, chewed, swallowed, guzzled the last quarter cup of coffee, and turned to his console.

    For now, he had plenty of imagery. He assumed that would stop eventually. But he could clearly see the vehicles rolling around the cut in the ridge. They were in line, about 500 meters separated.

    They stopped well back from Lock 1, and dispersed a few meters apart. Hatches dropped, and suited troops debarked, in tan pressure suits with rifles and small buttpacks under their oxy bottles.

    He said, “Remember, these are all space qual troops, so they’re elite. Don’t underestimate any of them.”

    The troops moved quickly, rolling out what appeared to be a genny cart, and an oxy bottle supply. They were ready for an extended stay.

    In a few moments, three of the troops almost casually detached from the group and started moving zigzag toward the lock. Two more followed a few seconds behind.

    Rodin said, “Looks like a recon team first. Smart.  They’re armed with G56 rifles and pry bars. I don’t see any other weapons or relevant tools.”

    Andre said “Well, we can’t do anything until they do something.”

    For now, the outer lock wasn’t secured.  There were advantages to having the troops inside where pressure and vacuum could be adjusted. He’d hoped for a larger element, but this would do.

 



 

    The outermost Lock 1 was designed as an outer pressure curtain against leaks, and slid like a hangar door. It was powered, but also had a rack and pinion for manual opening. The three-man element opened it manually and slowly, cautious in their entry. They cranked it about a meter, just enough for easy entrance.  They certainly expected explosives or similar. They stood clear as it slid, then lurked back while making careful scans with a drone ball, handheld sensors, and a sweep with an old fashioned stick.

    That’s it.  Come on in.

    Even inside a suit, that gesture from the leader was a shrug.  The three stepped forward and in, holding an arc against potential attackers. They were aiming at the walls and looking silly, but he had to admit it was a valid stance to assume a threat from any direction. They even scanned overhead.

    Good enough. This stage was a combination of delaying and disorienting. Here was the first obstacle.

    He clicked the safety, then pressed the trigger button. Lock 2’s latch clicked, twisted, there was a hissâ¦

    â¦then Lock 2 slammed against its stops as ten atmospheres of pressure found an escape.

    The blast of air was mostly oxygen, which they could refresh from Lunar regolith. Nitrogen was too valuable, and needed for the hydroponics farm. All that mattered was the pressure front, which roared, hissed and sighed into the open lock and out into vacuum. The gust blew the first troop straight through the hatch, his feet catching on the rim and causing him to flail and tumble. He slammed into the two Ueys outside, and they all sprawled across the powdery road.

     The other two were a moment behind, buffeted and battered against the lip as the pressure inexorably forced them through as it escaped. One cartwheeled dramatically before bouncing on his helmet and sprawling in a long slide, like the ultimate base-steal in baseball.

    Andre wasn’t sure if they were injured from being blown across the moonscape. One may have strained a thigh as he bounced. All three were well outside, though.

    There was a seconds-long pause, before others rushed to their aid, with screening troops in front and responders behind.  Very quickly, they all got back behind the cover of their vehicles.

    Andre could close the hatch and do this again, but then the Ueys might find another route, blow some seals, or otherwise cease engaging.  The goal was to keep them here as long as possible.

    The open lock invited them to try again, this time to close the hatch as soon as they entered and proceed to secure Lock 2, which was just big enough for a vehicle to move in, then into the Maintenance Bay. That had nothing of relevance. The batteries and oxygen were in here now. The tools in Maintenance weren’t anything their ship didn’t have. And the Ueys had to be wondering why Lock 2 was still open, inviting, taunting them.

    That Middle Bay would mean the Ueys could only admit a small contingent, and would have to secure it to proceed, then the next. Then, the fifth hatch hastily erected inside allowed more bottlenecking, and the entire habitat was able to use pressure doors and curtains as additional setbacks.

    The delay was palpable and irritating, no doubt by intention. That was to be expected. Nothing here needed to be accomplished in seconds or even minutes. Hours, however, would run out even the oxygen supply on those support vehicles. It wouldn’t be terribly long before the invaders did something.

    “Is the second stage ready?” he asked. He knew it was.

    “Got my finger on the button,” Godin said.

    “Good. Stand by.”

    With two locks wide open and daring them, a larger contingent approached, skipping from cover to cover–boulders, a lip of melted regolith, the lock frame itself.  This time, it was four armed in front, and two guys with gear, presumably technical specialists.

    Everyone knew the Loonies had no weapons. Still, having been once caught, this element moved up slowly, with impressively even spacing, given that they had no experience in low G.

    They darted into the Outer Bay, slid against the wall for the Middle Bay, then skipped one at a time through Lock 2.

    Once inside, one of the techs slapped the hatch release, and nothing happened.

    He turned to look, slapped it again, then hopped over to the lock to close it manually.

    Once there, he realized that he lacked leverage, and waved for another to assist.

    It was then that the monitor found their commo frequency.

    “–take two of us.  You brace me, I’ll push.”

    “Got it.”

    It wasn’t encrypted, but then, they hadn’t had much time.

    Nothing else useful was said, so Andre sat patiently while they closed and dogged Lock 2.

    The one said, “I think the Oh Two controls are bollixed, too. We have to get inside the next one and try to pressurize from there.”

    “They can’t blow us out again, can they?”

    “No, we’re in vacuum and closed. But, if they try to overpressure us, you’ll need to be ready to inflate your suit to counter it, or you’ll be squashed from pressure.”

    Very good, dammit. It sounded like their technical expert actually knew physics.

    Ah, well, squashing them wasn’t the plan. Yet.

    The intruders moved forward, and one of them shot a load of gunk at the monitor camera, which didn’t matter since that camera was no longer in use and just a decoy. The camera Andre was watching was miniaturized and hidden.

    The Ueys’ pace was cautious, but brisk as they moved down the walls of the Outer Bay, then against the frame of Lock 2.

    Using hand signals only, they gestured, then shuffled into position and stacked.

    “Ready?” Crawford asked again.

    Godin grinned and said, “I am.”

    Right then, the Ueys swarmed across the threshold, crossing through each other, rifles out and sweeping.

    The moment all of them were within the frame, he snapped, “Now!”

    Godin tapped the key, and the second trap sprung.

    Three strobes flashed at three different rates, at 10,000 lumens each. The flashes from two were short enough duration not to trigger faceplate polarizing. The other was just long enough. Between them, the troops should be disoriented with dazzling flash and dark fields of vision.

    As the light show faded, another burst of oxygen cleared out three tubes full of bouncy balls.  In fact, they were roughly shaped lumps of super silicone gasket goop, formed and let set.

    With that pressure behind them, and in low G, they impacted like fists, then bounced away. Some careened around like billiard balls in a 3D table and came back for a second thump. The dazzle, darkness and thumping had all six on the ground, struggling or unconscious.

    They were all clear of the frame, and Crawford punched for the hatch to close, locking them in.

    The door swung, then slowed and stopped.

    Crap. Yeah, the troops were inside, but a chunk of silicone was not. It was in the door track.

    Okay, the lock would have to stay 80% closed. It was just barely wide enough someone might squeeze back out.  If they tried, he was going to let them.  He had Lock 1 dogged now. That would take time to breach.

    And time was what the Loonies needed. Every minute here was a minute the Ueys weren’t inside, and were using oxygen. Their supply was much more limited.

    “Okay, do I leave the lock evacuated and force those troops to use their oxygen? Or pressurize it against another attempt at a breach?”

    Morton said, “We should have had someone ready to swarm them.” He didn’t sound accusatory, rather, embarrassed. None of them had thought of it.

    Andre replied, “Yeah, but no way to predict how effective that was going to be, and we can’t spare people for hand to hand against professional troops.”

    Godin suggested, “Leave it for now. We’ll watch outside for movement, and they’re consuming oxygen in there.”

    “Right.”

    The stunned troops recovered and rose slowly. Once up they looked around. One of them cautiously blocked the open lock hatch with his weapon, then turned around to see what the Middle Bay looked like.

    They chattered with helmets in contact, no radio. Smart.

    Then there was a transmission.  “Command, we were attacked. We appear to have been pummeled with elastic projectiles causing minor injury only, and we were stunned.  Sergeant Plexer has a damaged tank valve and will need extraction.”

    “We are unable to enter the outer lock. It has been sealed and barricaded from inside.”

    “What is your timeframe for entry, over?”

    “Unknown, over.”

    “Crap.  Lunar faction, if you are monitoring this frequency, we are in need of assistance. One of our party has a damaged oxygen supply and his helmet contains only a very short duration.  Will you accept temporary truce and let him exit?”

    That was a tough one. Certainly, prisoners were useful, and treating them well would avoid escalating the situation, might help defuse it. But, admitting to having hacked their commo already…on the other hand, it wasn’t encrypted.

 



 

    “Andre, they sent that in the clear.”

    “Yeah. Let’s hold on a moment, though.”

    The NCO in charge called again.  “Lunar faction, are you monitoring this frequency?”

    Crawford said, “Let’s give him one more.”

    Almost a full minute went by, before the call came again.

    “Lunar faction, please respond.”

    He activated then keyed the mic and said, “UN element, this is Lock Control.  We have your frequency. Please confirm, over.”

    “I hear you, Lunar.  Over.”

    “What do you need?”

    “This incident has damaged the oxygen supply for one of my troops.  Will you permit him to exit?”

    Andre waited several seconds, then said, “I think it would be better if we brought him in here. It’s faster, and we’ve got plenty of oxy in the habitat.”

    “Are you proposing to detain him as a prisoner of war?”

    Less of a delay on that.  Diplomacy.  “I’m not aware of any war.  But if you are asking do we intend to keep him from re-engaging, then the answer is yes. And will he be treated humanely, of course. We may eventually want to discuss damages and protocol violations, but that’s for Control to decide.  I’m just the gate keeper.”

    “Fair enough. How do we proceed?”

    He waited several more seconds. On the one hand, they might think he was either just a flunky or indecisive. On the other, it was all stall. A minute here, a minute there. Eventually it might add up to hours.

    “You will place your weapons in the next airlock for us to secure. You may then admit your troop and he will be allowed to remain, unharmed, until resolution.”

    The Uey sounded really suspicious as he asked, “Why do you need the weapons?”

    “We don’t intend to allow you to keep them. At this point you constitute a threat. You are asking for additional terms to that detention.  You can argue, but your man has what, another minute or so in his suit?”

    “We have your word on his safety?” That did sound like a genuine question.

    “We have used the minimum force possible so far and intend to continue to do so. You have my word.”

    “And may we have your name?”

    Why not?  “You first.”   

    “Lieutenant Kasanga of the African Federation, detached to Operation Clarity.”

    “I am engineer Andre Crawford.” And now he had the operation name, which sounded like one of the randomly generated ones that didn’t tell anything.

    Kasanga said, “We will comply.”

    He cut communication.  “Morton, Rojas, go get them.” He switched on to Central.  “Mr Coffman, I could use a medic.”

    “Doctor Nik is inbound your way.”

    “Thanks.”

    He worked the controls and opened the Lock 3A. The Ueys piled their weapons, though he assumed they retained a hidden pistol or knife somewhere. The video showed them taking a good look, for whatever intel they could get. The plenum between 3A and 3B was just a connector without much of anything. It just allowed locking through from habitat to an unpressurized bay.

    It took long seconds to balance pressure and open the inner hatch-Lock 3B.  Morton skipped in, grabbed the rifles, brought them back and started clearing the actions.

    Rojas manually slammed 3B, he started the evacuation process and stood ready to cycle again.

    Kasanga called, “Engineer Crawford, please hurry. His blood oxygen meter is reaching hypoxia.”

    “About five seconds…opening hatch.”

    The troop staggered in, and one other came with him for support. Reasonable. And why he’d disarmed them.

    He punched for pressure, hit the override and had the hatch motor work against the differential until it cracked seal. There was a whuff and a gust and there was breathing air from Bay 3.

    The second Uey twisted the helmet latch of the first, who gasped and started breathing hard.

    The door finished its swing, and Morton stepped through to greet them.

    “Welcome to the moon. Precede me that way and through the open door to your right.”

    Crawford watched on camera, and saw the shadows down the passage as they approached, then them enter the other side of the fence in the equipment cage.

    Morton said, “Please sit over there and do not make any sudden moves.”

    The escort realized all four rifles were now in the hands of Lunies. He nodded and assisted his buddy over.

    “He should lie down for now.”

    Crawford agreed, “Yes, do so. Also, you will need to remove your harness. I see tools and equipment we could find troublesome.”

    The man didn’t argue. He helped his buddy lie back, then unsnapped his harness including his oxy bottle.

    Doctor Nik stepped in, glanced for approval, which Crawford gave with a nod, and let himself into the cage.

    He checked the man’s suit monitor and said, “He should be fine.  Bring him some water.  Take it easy, sir.  You’ll need a few minutes to recover.”

    The second man said, “May I report in to assure them we are well?”

    Andre said, “Yes.  I’ve already assumed you’re going to try to pass intel.  As soon as you do, I cut the signal.” He handed over a wired mic.

    The man scowled, took the offered mic, and said, “Clarity, this is Sergeant Vinson.  Aigule and I are both well and unharmed.  They have our weapons.  I count five of them. The third lock is–“

    “I cut you off after ‘weapons.'”

    The man shrugged.  “Of course I was going to try.”

    “And of course you were going to lose. Please consider yourselves our guests, rather than prisoners. Either way, escape means entering hard vacuum without even a helmet. I recommend against it.  If you succeed, you suffocate instantly. If you fail, you will probably have been injured. There’s no benefit to either of you.”

    There was a message from Coffman.  “Paul will be at the Hut shortly.  We’ll transfer these two in.”

    “Roger.” He checked the corridor monitors. “I see him.”

    Security Officer Paul arrived with two others. The Ueys were bound with cable ties, hooded with pillow cases, and looked very wary as that happened. Then they were marched out with one of the rifles.

    Andre said, “They’ll each be put in a separate compartment. That should minimize risk.”

    Morton asked, “And if we capture enough to run out of compartments?”

    He smiled.  “We declare victory conditions.”

    ~~~

    Having transferred the two troops in, the Ueys in the Middle Bay sat to conserve oxygen.  One of them tried to pry the elastic goop out of the track, and the hatch closed more. He stuck a tool in the latch side to prevent it being closed by the Loonies and apparently decided not to keep messing with it without support.  The element outside waited.

    There were obviously lengthy discussions ongoing with the leadership, possibly all the way back to Earth.

    Shortly, the outside element trotted to one of the vehicles and pulled out a roll of material and some struts. Then they started assembling it.

    Rojas noted, “Mylar sun shield.”

    Malakhar said, “For note, the shadow is nowhere underneath it this time of day. Quite distant. We can knock it down with no risk of injury.”

    Andre smirked.  “Heck, a properly placed gas bottle will blow it across the landscape.”

    Rojas added, “Especially if we can find a way to cut it with debris then blow it to shreds.”

    The element outside were almost certainly trying to open Lock 1 intact. It existed for a reason, and even if they succeeded in entry, they’d need it, too. It was probably also sturdier than their gear could easily override. Blowing a hole in it would be easy. Actually opening it to admit entry was a different matter.

    It was obvious they were using tools, moving around, probing, trying to determine some way to force an almost featureless aluminum panel on a grooved track.

    Crawford asked, “What do your observers have, Ravi?”

    Malakhar said, “There are two small detachments patrolling slowly through the crags, and they will probably find the personnel hatches. I told Coffman who says Zeiss is aware.”

    “Good. But most of them are right here?”

    “Yes.”

    “I’d question their logic, but really, this is the best place to get a force in. The narrow passages are bottlenecks and could lead to a lot of casualties. Here they can get more force in, and maneuver.”

    During all this, the troops in Middle Bay were still sitting there patiently, not using more resources than they had to.

    “Does this matter?” Rojas asked. She looked tired.

    “How do you mean?” Andre asked.

    “Even if we win, do we win? What do we win?”

    Andre had to think about that. He stretched back in his chair.

    “I don’t know,” he said. “On the one hand, if the Ueys do keep it secret, there’s no benefit but no loss.  I can’t imagine it staying secret, though. Too many scientists would want it to be public, and too many people would benefit.”

    Morton said, “I rather think there’d be a lot of fighting over it, with serious physical assaults to secure it for one group or another. Probably national, but possibly corporate.”

    “Very possible,” Andre agreed.

 



 

    Godin said, “If it gets out, there’s guaranteed violence. If it stays secure, guaranteed violence, but you know, we have plenty of violence without it. I don’t see it having that much of an effect on things overall, as far as that goes.”

    Andre said, “Logistically it matters.  Military engineers are a force multiplier for an army. We let them move faster, be secure, pin the enemy in place.  That takes money–logistics. If I could have as many mines and traps as I wanted produced on site by shoveling crap–even literally crap–into one end, it would definitely make it easier.”

    Godin said, “And that would apply equally to everyone who had one, right? Even poorer, less equipped armies.”

    “It would.  There’d be no superpowers anymore.”

    “Not really a bad thing, then?”

    Andre thought. “I don’t know. I mean, at present the superpowers are basically the US and China with Brazil, India and Japan moving up fast.  I certainly don’t fear the Japanese with it. The Indians I’m not sure about.  Sorry, Ravi.”

    Malakhar looked up from his screens and shrugged. “I agree, given our internal issues and some of our fringe groups that the government is not able to control.”

    “But say some of the more rabid nations, like some of the Arab countries of thirty years ago get it, or some of the Stans. And then there’s any number of groups who could become national powers if they had it, and as long as they have enough people, this means they will have enough material.  The entire power dynamic of Earth is about to change.”

    Rojas asked, “So they’re not going to let us keep it, no matter what.”

    “I don’t know,” he admitted. “There are military, diplomatic, cultural and economic factors and I’m nowhere near an expert.”

    Godin said, “If someone thinks they can make a buck off it, they’re not going to destroy it.”

    Morton cocked his head and raised his brows.

    “There are groups opposed enough to capitalism that bombing it will be their first response. They’d rather have nothing than let anyone profit.”

    “Yup,” Andre agreed.  “All we can do is hold off for now and see what’s next. For now, everyone should take a bathroom break in turn and get more food. And we need some water bottles.”

    “I’ll go,” Morton said, standing.

    ~~~

    It was an hour later when Lieutenant Kasanga came over the radio.         

    “Lunar Element, Engineer Crawford, we are low on oxygen.”

    Theoretically, those were six hour tanks with good filters. But they’d been exerting since arrival, and their trip from the ship was probably an hour. So two and a half hours? Yeah. No one had thought to use fresh bottles for a short incursion into an airlock.

    Andre opened the mic.  “Are you asking to surrender?”

    After a long pause, the response was, “Yes.”

    “One at a time into the lock. Gear first, then the individual in a stripped suit.”

    He cycled them in one by one, and they were escorted off, hooded, to further detention.

    He examined one of the gas bottles left behind. It probably held twenty minutes of oxy. So they hadn’t been desperate, but were certainly thinking ahead to avoid being so.

    How big a reserve did they have in those vehicles? Replenishment tank or individual bottles? On the moon, spare bottles were the rule. Lose one, you went on. Lose an entire replenishment supply…

    He said, “We need to find a way to attack their support vehicles.”

    Godin said, “I’ve got a skimmer. We can shovel it full of dust at the pit out east.”

    “Is it out of view now?”

    Godin explained, “As in, it’s out at the hole where we found the thing. Remember they were doing geo surveys and mining outlines. They still are.”

    Crawford asked, “Okay. Who’s piloting?”

    “Seville.”

    He understood, he thought. “Aha.  She hops to the pit, loads up with dust, flies over and opens the bay.”

    Godin said, “It’ll be really messy to load it into the craft.  There will be sealing issues and then we’ll have to clean it all out afterward.”

    He understood. “Right.  Still, it’ll be a lot worse on their vehicle than the skimmer.”

    Godin said, “Yes. Want me to get her going?”

    “Have her load up and stand by. We want to stage our response.  Every time they think they’re making headway, we knock them back down.”

    Godin turned to his console.  “Got it.  I’ll code a message through.”

    Right then, the radio came through in clear.

    “Lunar Element, this is Colonel Arris, UN Forces.  I request response.”

    Crawford waited ten seconds, then keyed and spoke.  “Go ahead, Colonel.”

    “May I ask who I am speaking with?”

    “Sure, why not? As I told your lieutenant, I’m Andre Crawford, Systems Engineer.”

    There was dead air for about fifteen seconds, then Arris said, “Ah, here you are. You served with the US Army.”

    Crawford agreed, “I did. What about it?”

    Arris said, “I want to discuss our positions, and hope to resolve this peacefully.”

    Crawford counted five.  “I can talk. I can’t make any decisions. That has to go through Control.”

    “I understand. I am unable to get a response from your Central Operations.”

    Five more seconds.  “Okay.”

    Wait…Command wasn’t answering Arris. But, Command hadn’t told him not to talk to the Ueys. So the Ueys might think this was unsanctioned. That was interesting and potentially useful.

    He typed a quick query to Command.

    Zeiss responded, Correct. As I said, we decided to ignore them, force them to deal with you alone for now.  He tried to contact us on the official freq about 30 seconds ago. I was just sending that note. If it gets complicated you’re authorized to ask us for advice, ask us to step in, or ignore him.  Basically, keep him talking and unaware of anything else.

    He typed back, Roger, but we might want to split his attention shortly.  Distraction. I’ll see what I can arrange.

    And as long as they were talking, the clock was running.

    Arris said, “Ultimately, we have the upper hand.”

    He paused again. It was all delay. “You believe so?”

    The colonel said, “We do. We have weapons and position.”

    Crawford waited his standard five seconds and said, “We have weapons now. And your troops are our prisoners.”

    He could almost hear Arris smirk, “We have a lot more than six weapons.”

    Crawford had to smile. “We have oxygen recycling and food.  Do you propose a siege? We’ll win.”

    “Until we bring more forces from Earth.”

    Leaning back to feel casual so he’d sound casual, he replied, “That takes time. Something we have a lot of.”

    “Something you have a finite amount of. Eventually our positions reverse.”

    He really did sound casual as he said, “Eventually.”

    Arris said, “We need to talk about the device.”

    “What device?” He’d rehearsed sounding as casually ignorant as possible.

    “The device that is the reason we’re here.”

    Noncommittally, he said, “I’m listening.”

    “You understand what it is, yes?”

    “No. I don’t know of any ‘device.'” Actually, he knew a lot, but the longer they talked, the better, as long as his people kept an eye out for maneuvers.

    Malakhar smiled and winced, and looked impressed at the flat out lie. Andre had to stifle his own giggle.

    “It didn’t occur to you to ask why an armed force was landing with demands to enter, and orders for same?”

    He replied, “One of the things I learned in the Army was not to ask questions about things I didn’t want to need answers to. That’s also good policy here, with all the military, technical and research secrets floating around.”

    Arris said, “Interesting. But you were told not to admit us.” He didn’t sound convinced.

    “That is correct.”

    Arris said, “And have gone to lengthy measures to delay us.”

    Crawford leaned back in his chair and replied, “Those were my instructions.”

    “You understand my orders place me superior to your command authority.”

    That ploy.  “Well, I’m sure they do from your point of view, but I don’t recognize it.”

    “You don’t recognize UN authority?” Arris sounded surprised.

    “Not from outside, without a bona fide emergency.  Central Operations is fully functional, and there’s no reason for external control. They told me to hold out any incursion.  I wasn’t given a reason, but seeing as they’re functional and not under any kind of duress, I’m assuming their orders are legit.  Talk to them.”

    Arris sounded irritated as he replied, “As I said, they are not responding.”

    “Well, I’ll send them a query.  Right now, in fact. Stand by.”

    He did nothing for a measured thirty seconds. Really, this was eating up minutes.

    He keyed and spoke, “Okay, that’s done. You should hear from them as soon as they have comm time.  But you understand I can’t speak for them and have no control over their decisions.”

    Arris said, “I–”     

    Crawford cut him off and said, “So tell me about this device.”

 



 

    Arris replied, “It’s a fabricator. Raw material goes in, it processes out as product.”

    “So, a printer?” He tried for just a hint of scoff.

    “No, this is far more sophisticated. Much like a science fiction replicator.”

    That was a good rough approximation. Someone with firsthand knowledge had probably leaked. 

    He replied, “I see.  Or rather, I don’t. Why invade over that?”

    Arris sounded surprised at the question.  “The risks of it.  Any weapon one wants, instantly.”

    Crawford replied, “Or food. Medicine. Shelter.  Apparently, though, you and your bosses went immediately to the bad potential.”

    Morton whispered, “Andre, they’re charging Lock One now.”

    “Case in point,” he said. “You have no desire for a peaceful outcome.”  He slapped the channel closed.

    “Let’s do Round Two,” he said.  “They’re actually going to try to blow their way in.” He punched an alarm to Control.

    “Explosion possibly imminent. Stand by for decompression protocols, and probably seismic as well.”

    Coffman replied, “Understood.”

    Was he justified in using lethal force yet? They hadn’t so far, but this could be considered an imminent threat, except of course, the Ueys would argue with the known status of the locks that it wasn’t.

    “Go with the dust,” he ordered.  Though eventually, someone was going to become a casualty.

    Far back alongside the ridge, six emplaced fougasse detonated, their initiation felt as a rumble through the regolith. In vacuum, the tons of dust they launched prescribed near perfect parabola, arcing up and back down to land in a huge, coordinated pile on and in front of Lock 1, utterly burying several Ueys.

    “Run the vid, count them,” he ordered. “And go with shot two.”

    Outside and right of the entrance was a boulder that had been moved when the track was cleared. Several others had been stacked around it, then over time, arranged into a loose sculpture. It had been there for a decade and no one questioned it.

    Last week a large bladder had been erected among the rocks, and shoveled full of dust. A centrifugal pump spooled up, throwing the dust in its scroll out across the moonscape, followed by the dust above it, as it trickled in, like a massive hourglass. The blower would jam soon enough, or abrasion would cause failure.  Until then, though, they were using electricity but wasting no oxygen.

    That blew a huge stream of dust across the way, blocking pretty much any frequency of sensor, and almost certainly clogging equipment.

    “Hopefully, that will take them a while to dig out,” he said in satisfaction. Clicking open the general channel, he asked, “Colonel, are you still there?”

    “Well done, Mr Crawford.”

    “Thank you, sir, though I think we can do better.  Would you like to give us another chance?”

    “You can hold the mock derision.  I am impressed.  On another level, not at all. We know how this ends.”

    “Not my department, Colonel, as we’ve discussed.”

    He cut the channel. Let Arris stew for a while.

    The video feed from the observer was fascinating.  The dust had settled instantly in vacuum, and the pile was impressive. It wouldn’t be hard to dig through in this G, but it would take time.

    However, Arris knew there were no serious weapons in play, and simply had a hundred troops descend on the pile and dig like dogs, tossing the dust into a wider dispersion. It didn’t take long for them to turn it from a mound to dig through into a pile they could merely wade through.

    Though the sunlight had to be sweltering and draining their suit power, and the dust clung to everything from static, made worse by solar ionization. The troops were constantly wiping their visors with gloves, then someone brought towels. It didn’t help. That dust was flour, worse than Arabian Desert sand. It was probably contaminating a lot of their gear, too. Potentially even some weapons, though only a handful of troops were armed for this detail.  Most of their gear was still in the vehicles.

    Twenty minutes later, the pile was a broad pan rather than a sloping mound.

    “That was an impressive and quick workaround,” he muttered.  “I think we have to consider the outer hatch permanently compromised.”

    Rojas said, “They’re not in yet.”

    A flash, crack and rumble indicated the Ueys had blown the latches on Lock 1.  Approaching again, they started cranking the manual. That not working, someone brought up a Johnson Bar and started prying. In moments it was big enough for passage.

    Andre said, “Well, bring them on.  They’ve lost some O2. They’ve lost lots of time. They probably are fine for food but water in those suits can’t last long.”

    Rojas said, “I’m trying to calculate their power use for cooling, based on that suit model and probable power pack.  It looks like they’ll need a recharge every couple of hours.”

    “Yep, some of them are already rotating back to the trucks.”

    “The question is how many spares they have.”

    Godin said, “Well, they’re rolling up a fourth vehicle.”

    Crawford looked at the scene.  “Interesting.  I expect they’re tapped out now.”

    Godin had data on his screen. “Given the size of the lander, I don’t see how they could have more, unless they ripped out safety equipment or fuel or gas margin to make room.  I don’t think they had any expectation of having to do more than secure the corridors.”

    “I agree.  What’s here has to be it.”

    Godin said, “But it looks like the outside troops did a complete change of power, and possibly refilled their water. I think they have eighty to eighty-six effectives, assuming four crew and command in each vehicle, minus the six we have.”

    Crawford wiggled his fingers as he counted, and said, “If we can detain another twenty or so, I think they’ll stop. Of course, that’s temporary, not permanent.”

    Godin said, “We can dust that support truck in about thirty minutes.”

    “Good.  We can’t really pick a time, either. Once she’s committed, it’s all or nothing.”

    Godin said, “They’re stacking.”

    “Yeah, I see.”

    They were professional.  They formed up as if they expected an armed reception, then spilled in through the open hatch.

    They shuffled around and forward, feet in good contact with the ground, weapons and eyes panning all sides, above and below.

    “I guess we can drop that support now,” Rojas said.

    “Yes,” Andre agreed.

    Several of the troops were right atop the classic pitfall they’d hurriedly excavated under the deck.  The bolts for the plates had been removed, and pull pins inserted in their place. The hole underneath had been filled with a binary cement that would set quickly once the seal was broken. It hadn’t been used on the first round both to save it for the second round, and because there’d only been three soldiers. There were at least twenty now.

    “Do it,” he said.

    She tapped her controls, the deck plating opened up under several of them, and they went down in a tangle. The others formed a circle facing in and another facing out, protecting their mates and looking for a threat.

    The Uey radio chatter was encoded, and the Loonie systems hadn’t cracked it yet. There was lots of traffic, though.

    He couldn’t see well from the monitors available, but at a guess, six of them were in the hole.

    Some of those above reached down and tried to pull their friends out.  One of them got his hand stuck and started kicking in agitation. He wasn’t going anywhere either.

    “I wish we had popcorn,” Godin said.

    Crawford grinned. “It is amusing.  We know it’s not lethal, and it’s just going to stick worse for a bit. They’re definitely tied up.”

    He isolated still images and counted.

    “Looks like seven in the hole and twelve more on top trying to help them, plus four sentries.”

    The troops’ approach was still professional. The perimeter guards turned to watching the bay.  One of them walked around, pointing his weapon, and one by one the cameras went dead. Shot.

    One sensor remained functional. There was a device mounted behind the lock control that looked in, ostensibly to check the outside of incoming vehicles. It was a thermal imager. That worked, and Andre even had a frequency shifter to put it into something easier to parse.

    The Ueys worked feverishly, pulling, trying to cut, prying with tools, lowering cords.  More and more stuff, more limbs of those in the hole, and occasional rescuers got bound in. The volatiles were almost evaporated by this point, so it wasn’t going to get worse. It wasn’t going to get better, either.

    Two troops came in unspooling something.

    Godin said, “Support conduit. Oxygen line and a power cable. They’re trying to establish a beachhead with outside support. Just like we do in a crater study.”

    “Right. I wonder if they brought a solar array or are just working off onboard power?”

    Morton said, “If they did, it lengthens their engagement time, but not significantly. I’m estimating they started with twelve hours of duration, assuming they brought full capability.  They’ve used four.”

 



 

    Just to split Arris’ attention, Crawford called him.

    “It’s like this, Colonel: you can get in there and we can’t really stop you. You can eventually find a way to cut your men free. In the meantime, you’ll be running oxygen to them and your rescue element, exposed to anything we would choose to do, and hindering your own advance. My suggestion is to let us release them, since we have the solvent right here. Then of course, we keep them until we resolve this.”

    Arris sounded frustrated but very formal as he said, “That is not within my operational limits at this time.”

    “Fair enough.  Well, good luck.” He closed the channel.

    It was fascinating to watch. The outer sentries never wavered, even though nothing was coming from either direction. The troops in the hole realized struggles only made it worse, and remained still, though suit motion suggested they were still breathing at an accelerated rate.

    Shortly, a repair bot of some kind trundled in on silicone tracks.  Its operator followed along, and brought it right to the perfect edge of the hole.

    He fastened it down with anchors, and it deployed arms that extended out holding tools for the men below to use.  The machine then put out a boom that ran across the gap, so they could use it for leverage.

    Another small device ran out along that beam and lowered itself down.

    The robot wasn’t sufficient. It lacked both traction and reach. Shortly, four more troops came in, with a toolbox and portable power pack.

    To no one in particular Andre said, “This should be interesting. Patience.”

    The Uey techs brought in some spare oxy bottles. They spent long minutes trying to figure out how to change bottles in the hole, then gave up.  Crawford watched in fascination as one built a manifold from spare fittings, then ran hoses to each suit via the On Board Supply Valve.

    Well, good. They’d be able to breathe as long as someone kept bringing them bottles.  The workers above had a terminal from the conduit they could use for recharging themselves and the bottles for the victims.

    They worked furiously, taking a sample, pulling, twisting, spraying solvent, using a radiant heater, waiting for an analysis of the sample, yanking with sheer brute force.  It was all to no avail.

    The one with his hand stuck came up suddenly, his right forearm and hand bare. They must have cut the fabric to free him.  As his skin got puffy and blotchy, one of the rescuers rolled a taut mesh glove up his arm, then taped it in place with a contact tape.  That should let him evacuate, at least.

    Godin almost giggled as he swiped a switch and a pack hidden in the roof bracing popped open.

    SPLASH. A loogie dropped from a hidden tube. More cement spattered across the freed guy and three others. It didn’t accomplish much immediately, but then two made the mistake of touching each other. They became instant conjoined twins.  One other skipped back and tumbled. He remained supine on the deck.

    The original casualty tried instinctively to wipe himself off and immobilized his arms.

    “When did you do that?” Andre asked.

    Godin said, “After I was done with the hole. I climbed up with some excess balloons.”

    “Well done.  It’s highly entertaining. I just hope we don’t come to regret it.”

    Godin shrugged.  “Yeah, they have to be getting pissed about now. Still, ten immobilized.”

    But at this point, the Ueys had an entire element moving in and out of the Outer Bay, power conduits, O2 lines, etc. They were also getting lots of imagery of the second hatch.

    The ground rocked, the walls boomed, dust erupted from every surface, and gear tumbled.

    “Blasting charge,” he said.

    “Cutting charge,” Malakhar corrected.  “They were able to get a cutting charge in place. Vacuum made it safe.  It’s not as if an airlock is a vault.”

    “Right.”

    The video playback showed very little effect on the Ueys, and that was good discipline, he had to admit.  Or else they hadn’t been told to expect it. No, they had twitched, but not much. They just kept working, and only tensed momentarily. In the high vacuum, all they’d suffered was a little debris and dust.  Inside, though…

    Yes, Lock 2 was dismounted enough it wasn’t going to close or seal.  There was a huge distortion along the frame. It had already been open, too. This was just sabotage to ensure access.

    Two locks down, four to go, because Lock 3 was a double. The Ueys thought there were only three, so any surprises would have to wait. After that, the inner defense would take over, and that could get ugly.  It involved the weapons acquired so far, more goo, overpressure, and melee weapons. That meant there’d be actual casualties.

    For now, though, they were in the Outer and Middle Bays of the port.

    The inner locks were smaller and easier to crack, though. Especially the emergency lock.

    “We knew they couldn’t be kept out forever,” Rojas said.  “They’ve been minimal so far. A larger charge could have done additional damage to the structure, or they could have just bombed us.”

    Godin nodded.  “Yeah, but they’re trying to minimize collateral casualties. Once they reach us, don’t expect them to show any kind of restraint of we resist.”

    “We’re not speculating because we don’t know,” Crawford said with some force.

    “Sorry.” Godin looked embarrassed.

    In reminder, he said, “Speculate on known factors. They’ve been very restrained, so have we. We hope that continues.”

    Morton said, “They are pissed, though.”

    He had to smile again. “Yeah, but they’ve freed two, plus the three who got stuck up top. Another element of eight came in. They’re in the Middle Bay, trying to drill Lock Three A, and the rockwall next to it.” He pointed at the imagery they had, as the Middle Bay’s cameras went dead.      

    Godin agreed, “I see.”

    “I’m glad for that double personnel lock, though. I guess they were right that the personnel section should have double sealing from the work section. Has it ever been used?”

    Godin said, “I remember testing it, but we always leave B open, don’t we?”

    “Yup,” Andre said. “Until now.”

    He switched to the backup, a tiny little self-contained device that had a fisheye lens and low resolution.  It sent an image every 60 seconds, scrambled.  It was low enough power the Ueys might not notice it.

    Godin continued, “I’m guessing once they punch through, they’ll either try to equalize the pressure, or shove a charge through from the inside.”

    Studying the image, Andre said, “I think you’re correct. They have what could be a charge sealed into one, and are pumping pressure into the other.  Specifically, they’re pumping oxygen in.  Want to bet that’ll be followed with something reactive?”

    Malakhar said, “It’ll stratify.”

    Crawford said, “Twin charge. The first agitates, the second ignites. Thermobaric charge and massive overpressure.”

    Malakhar squinted and nodded.  “Plausible.  I can’t say how effective it will be without seeing more of their equipment.”

    “We’ll just have to monitor.”

    Rojas asked, “How are they doing on unsticking those guys?”

    Godin pointed at his screen and said, “They hauled out the one they had, managed to slice between the other two by UV cutting the bond.  They’re slowly getting another loose.”

    And damn did the man look uncomfortable as they peeled the adhesive. He was bent forward in a very awkward position, almost but not quite leaning against a support someone else had reached into place for him. As Crawford watched he reached it, and his relaxation was visibly obvious.

    He said, “The longer they’re tied up here, though, the shorter they are on oxy, and the longer they’re not actually inside.”

    He was repeating that, but it was to reassure himself they might pull this off.  It was all a waiting game.

    Rojas asked, “Do you think there’s going to be some sort of deal?”

    He shrugged.  “Dunno. We’ll delay them until we’re told otherwise.”

    “Yah.”

    Godin asked, “Can we get another emergency lock in place?”

    He shook his head.  “Not in time, and not in a relevant location.”

    “Can we barricade?”

    He’d already thought about that.  “We can drive some equipment in, but it won’t stop them wiggling through.”

    “No, but it does stop them bringing heavier stuff through, and means they have to acquire oxygen from us, or run yet another supply route.”

    “True.  Well, I guess I can spare the two of you for five minutes.”

    “Got it.”

    “Stack a couple of the rolly loaders about a meter from Lock Four. They’ll be able to crack the seal, but not open it.”

    “Okay. Laura, let’s move.”

    The two jogged away.

    While that happened, he was going to try to distract Arris some more.

    He keyed the radio mic.  “Colonel, I see you making progress.”

    “Indeed we are, Mr Crawford. Once we disable the fourth lock it’s all over.”

 



 

    “Oh, I wouldn’t say that, sir. The entire base is compartmentalized. We know where you are after all.”

    Arris almost sighed.  “Andre, the rule during the Middle Ages was that once the bastion walls of a castle were breached, the defenders surrendered.  Any additional resistance only prolonged the inevitable and needlessly increased casualties.”

    He was actually aware of that.  “Well, since this isn’t the Middle Ages, and as far as I know, no one has taken casualties yet, I think we can change the tradition.”

    “Possibly. Your resistance shows ill intent for the device.”

    “How do you figure?  By not turning whatever it might be over to a hostile force, we’re the bad guys?”

    Arris replied, “You are, in effect, hiding stolen property from the police.”

    “Sorry, what stolen property?  I’m assuming this thing you’re talking about is alien in nature.  Or are you claiming this is something you created, transported here and carelessly get hold of, and now you want it back? And how do you figure you’re the cops? You’re an invading army.” He didn’t want to risk further discussion of the artifact, so he switched to, “By the way, I see you finally figured out which mix we used for the glue.”

    And that meant no one in his section had leaked any intel to them. It wasn’t that proprietary. The manufacturers listed solvents in the documentation. The mix was slightly esoteric, but a quick doc search would have found it.  Presumably they had to ask Earth, with circumlocutions to avoid blurting out info for anyone with a radio receiver in the scatter path of the tight beam.

    Arris said, “It wasn’t that hard.”

    “No, but it took you a while.  We’re monitoring how much oxy you’re using, and comparing that to the capacity of your…transport.”  He actually wasn’t sure how many ships they’d brought.  But he could estimate the mass of equipment so far.  They really were serious.

    He also needed to avoid trying to be clever. That’s how slips happened.

    Arris said, almost casually, “There are always more ships.”

    That was a really, really good opening. He pinged a warning, entered a code, and another fougasse detonated. This one was obliquely aimed toward the Lock 1entrance, and blew a hurricane of dust and gravel against the troops working there. Several were buried in the settling pile. On the monitors, a huge stream arced, bounced, rattled and settled quickly in the Outer Bay, with some reaching as far as Lock 2. At that angle it didn’t enter, but the floor and the hole were a mess.

    “True,” he said. “And as we’ve learned here the hard way, there’s always more dust.”

    Every troop there had to have a static-charged sheen of dust, obscuring their vision, and refreshing itself with each footstep. It all added up. Eventually they’d quit.

    He hoped.

    The exposed cement was neutralized now, crusted over with debris. All the Ueys had dust adhering to their mask lenses, and certainly some was clogging joints and connectors. Those would have to be cleaned before further oxy transfer.

    The oxy lines run from outside were still intact, but the manifold end they’d been using to supply their crew inside was now buried. An element was frantically digging dirt away around that, using a couple of shovels, some available pieces of board, and gloved hands.

    That also showed a lack of forethought. Loony vehicles, like vehicles for Earth wilderness, all carried shovels, picks and winches.  They didn’t bother with axes here. They had long prybars instead.

    Godin and Rojas arrived back, panting.

    Rod said, “We put two rollys right in front of it, wheels touching. They’ll have to crawl under. So we ran a pipe section under there. It’s going to mean they have to weave through one at a time. If need be, we can crack them or sack them or shoot them as they do, with good odds.”

    “Excellent. But I really hope we don’t have to, because I assume these guys do know how to fight, and that means people die.”

    “We also set a sensor pack. It’s on your feed.”

    He gave thumbs up, held up a hand, turned back and keyed the mic to outside.

    “So I’ll offer a deal,” he said.  “You stop drilling through the current lock, I’ll pressurize the outer one so your troops can breathe. There are patches to seal the hole you made.  I’ll leave a vac gap between us.”

    Arris replied, “Do you really think I’m going to surrender?”

    “Surrender? Not at all. You can leave any time you wish.  Then if you want to call off the truce and resume, you can.  But the only condition under which I can offer a temporary cease fire, and breathing air, is if I can be assured the hostilities stop in the interim.”

    There was a short delay, that felt as if it contained a frantic consult.

    Arris sounded as if he’d been given orders.  “When you relinquish the artifact, all this ends and there’s no harm to anyone.”

    “If the artifact exists, I have no information or control or ability to negotiate for it. You need to talk to Control.  But if it is real, and you’re going to this much effort over it, I can’t see you leaving people around to talk about it.”

    Arris replied, “Why not?  Once it’s secure, it doesn’t matter.”

    “Am I supposed to assume our scientists here haven’t already analyzed this thing and how it works?  If you apparently know what the process is, so do they, and if they’ve had hands on, they may even know how to duplicate it. In any case, this is about you, me, our personnel, and breathing air. Would you like some?”

    “We’ll be fine.”

    The channel went dead.

    “Blast,” he muttered.

    “Sir?” Rojas asked.

    “I was hoping they were actually low enough to take that deal. It would slow them a bit.”

    She said, “They seem pretty sure of themselves.”

    “They may be.  And that may be because they have more than we think they do, or miscalculate their resources, or are just putting up a false front.  Which is also relevant for us.”

    “Act cool?”

    “The important thing,” he advised, “Is to not admit that we’re running out of options.  If they realize we’re out of tricks, they’ll come straight in.”

    Malakhar said, “They wouldn’t if they thought they’d die in the process. We do have a bit more explosive.”

    “I understand the logic. Control doesn’t want to do it.”  Nor, truthfully, did he.  A peaceful solution was much to be preferred.

    It was near an hour later that the Colonel called back.

    “Mr Crawford, I would consider a temporary truce if the offer is still open.”

    Sure. “Maybe.”

    “I have six troops whose respiration gear was damaged by the dust. I would like to transfer them inside.”

    He left a usual pause, then replied, “Certainly. Should I deduce you don’t have that many spare parts handy?”

    Arris almost sounded condescending. “You may deduce as you wish. Do we have a deal?”

    “Send them to Lock Three.  Send your crew there out. I’ll let them in.”

    “You understand I may have to use additional force to re-enter that space,” Arris advised.

    “You do what you gotta do. We’ll do the same.”

    He realized he’d admitted they still had video. Well, almost.

    “Colonel, since you saw fit to take out our cameras, I’m going to trust that six and only six troops will enter.”

    “That is what I said.”

    He opened Lock 3A, and six troops stepped through. He closed it fast.  If it wasn’t for the extra lock beyond it, he’d have declined. You could fit a hundred troops inside the Inner Bay. Once he had it closed, he opened 3B.

    In they came, visible on the next camera.  Six of them.  No weapons, no gear at all.  Just suits with two-minute emergency bottles protruding from the necks. They unmasked. Five men, one woman, looking very sweaty, disheveled and exhausted.

    At Lock Four, there was a lot of shuffling while they figured out to crawl between the wheels of the rollys, up over the pipe between them, back down and between the other side’s wheels, and out. Then they realized there was yet another lock.  Their expressions suggested they were not sanguine about their side’s chances. Good.

    He nodded and signaled.

    Morton and Godin met them and directed them into pressure.

    And now he knew where their penetrations were.

    While the transfer took place, Godin had bounced an IR illuminator through. The image was very fuzzy, being reconstructed from shadows and reflections, but the computer was able to clarify most of it. Godin pointed at two spots, and Andre asked, “Yes?”

    “That is probably a rock-melting drill, that other is an abrasive bit through the metal bulkhead.”

    A tiny rolling drone added a minute amount of enhancement.  Its aperture was small and its range short, and when 3A closed again, it died. The Ueys must have scramble protocols in place.

 



 

    Counting, he said, “So, that gives us twelve of their hundred or so as prisoners.”

    Godin said, “And we know how to stop the incursion.”

    “What’s your plan?”

    “Now we fill that space with O2. Specifically, right over where they’re drilling.  When they cut through, the flash runs back into their space.”

    Andre liked the concept, but…”It might kill them.”

    “This is a war.”

    He thought furiously.  “Yeah. It’s not a weapon per se, and it’s defensive in nature, and we might talk our way around it, and goddammit, we have to do something. You’re right.  Okay, fab it.”

    It wasn’t an unpredictable outcome, was it?  But the Ueys drilled and ground. The power cables he’d seen on the scan were heavy and armored. They were running power from the crawler outside.

    Was it possible to interfere with that?

    He asked.

    Morton said, “Well, there are three options.  I can trundle down there in a Rolly, and try to jam a shearing blade into the conduit. They will probably shoot at us. I doubt we’d die inside the vehicle, but good chance of being captured if we were close when they stopped us.  I don’t see how they couldn’t stop us, as obvious as that would be.  We could toss some rocks and hope to damage the cable, but that armor is designed to protect against rockfalls, and we’ve only got one sixth gee in our favor. Rifles might work, but it would depend on range. It would take solid shots to break armor, insulation and conductor.”

    Godin said, “It’s a titanium braid inside a fiberglass extrusion, with more fiberglass and double insulation.  I don’t think a small caliber round is going to reliably penetrate. Likely get bound in the mesh. Also, that means LOS.”

    Andre said, “Yeah. Indirect fire is preferred.  We need some sort of rocket or solvent.”

    Godin mumbled, “Solvent…or incendiary.”

    Rojas said, “Both. Red fuming nitric acid in a butyl balloon, and a binary of that with pure octane. But we don’t have much of the latter.”

    That got Andre’s attention.  “Can it be ready in time?”

    She looked serious and cheerful.  “I can damned sure try.”

    That left one thing. “How do we deliver?”

    “Torsion catapult,” she said.  “We’ll have to drag it out of the old emergency escape hatch. Assuming that’s not guarded.”

    Godin said, “It might be reasonable to take weapons out that way for self defense.”

    Andre conceded, “Fair enough, but if that’s necessary, you’re coming right back in, not trying to fight through them.”

    “Yes,” Godin agreed. 

    Andre turned back to Rojas.  “By the way, how long to make the catapult?”

    She grinned.  “It’s done. One of the school classes did it as a project and were throwing rocks.”

    “Ah.  Historical lesson?”

    “That, and also physics. They did the math on projectiles and came up with both a table and an algorithm.”

    “Well, that would have been useful earlier…though possibly not. It would already be taken out. Go to it.”

    “On my way,” she agreed.  “Rod, Stu, you’re with me.” She started skipping.

    Momentarily she came on the suit freq.

    “I’m wired in for now,” she said. “I’ve got scramble on radio, but going to assume they can crack that. So listen for me to talk around things if I have to.”

    “Good,” Andre agreed.

    “We’re going out the E-hatch, there’s a flat area out there we can launch from that gives us a nice beaten zone diagonally along the conduit.  I’m going to throw as much as we have until we get it or the spotter says we’re getting rushed.  I’ll be leaving the ‘pult outside.”

    “That sounds correct and is approved,” he said for record.

    She said, “Rod couldn’t find any octane in the chem storage here.  I have three of the RFNA and one hydrogen and fluorine binary with RFNA to help boost it.”

    “One.  Well, make them count.”

    “That’s the plan.  We’re exiting now. Any lasts?”

    “Good luck,” he said.    

    The old emergency lock had been built during construction, as a personnel hatch. It was barely big enough for a suited man. Then it became an emergency exit in case of damage to Lock 1, after some rockfalls. All that having been fixed, it was officially abandoned and not on the blueprints.  They’d have to force it open, then because the Ueys would certainly find it, barricade it afterward, possibly with a rockfall. He recalled the Egyptian pyramids and their complicated shafts.

    He turned to the images from that observer on the ridge, and saw faint movement of them getting into position.  The natural depression outside the hatch had been carved, beaten and concrete-debrised into a rough level. It was okay for moon bikes or trailers with balloon tires. It didn’t work for a catapult on polymer casters. The three of them dragged and pulled their catapult.

    Beyond them, he saw Ueys trudging back and forth, for tools and probably for rest breaks, to their vehicle park. It was amazing how close everyone was, without being within sight, and of course, there was no hearing.

    ~~~

    Laura Rojas was surprised how fast the catapult was ready. The kids had done a good job of making it sectional.  She and the men hauled the arm out, then the base and uprights.  They got it pointed in the right direction, then tapped and pushed and thumped it into better alignment until she was satisfied. She had her tablet, a level, a protractor and some string. In a couple of minutes she had what should be the right torsion tension, based on the known test. The device had T&E screws she adjusted slightly. That should be it. Thumbs up.

    The two men cranked the arm down, she set a heavy balloon in the bucket, then adjusted the thing some more with a couple of kicks and a nudge. It had shifted during cranking.  And goddam, it was hot out here.  She could feel the suit cooling unit running at max, and power was only going to last an hour, tops.

    Godin hopped up in the low G, found a foothold on the ledge, and put his tablet just barely over a rock lip so he could record.

    She stepped back and made sure the lanyard and pull release were straight. She took up slack and snapped her wrist down.

    The arm swung, slapped into the detent, and rocked the whole assembly forward.  The balloon sloshed and wobbled as it arced up, then seemed to just drop straight down.  An optical illusion caused by parallax and distance.  But there it was.

    Godin hopped down, drifted to the ground, and skipped over.

    In review, the balloon splashed down about a meter past the cable, throwing dust and splatters. 

    “Crap.”

    She gave a thumbs up acknowledgment, not an OK sign of “We’re good.” She rolled her forefingers “again” and went for another balloon from the box. It was interesting how hand signs and even ISL had come into use here. Lots of sites didn’t allow radio commo because it interfered with instruments. So they had a pidgin when needed.

    It was a good bet that some of the fluid from the shot had splashed on the cable and was eating into it. It wasn’t a good bet there was enough, though. And no bet on adjusting the throw. A minimal variation in mass would affect the next shot more than any change of position.

    Morton hopped down from his perch, and held up his tablet. He ran the vid.

    One of the Ueys apparently saw the impact and ran roughly toward it, then stopped. Probably his helmet camera was forwarding the imagery to their command.

    In a few moments, four of them had gathered, seemed to realize that was dangerous, pulled back, and tried to back-azimuth from the streaks left from the impact. The liquid had already started boiling off.

    Again she signed, “Understood. Again.” It was all they could do.

    They reset the catapult and she checked angle and inclination.

    Morton went back up while she made fine adjustments.  The unit had moved four centimeters, which didn’t seem like a lot, but would be at that end. The only way to do that much lateral was a kick.  Then switch the tablet back to Nav and fine adjust.  No one ever went outside without a tablet as backup commo, navigation, data recording. These units were built tough and accurate. You could die without them.

    That reminded her how goddamned hot it was, and how she was panting even with this little exertion. Hopefully that meant the Ueys were struggling too.

    Morton came down and held up his tablet. She watched.

    Already, the Ueys had a team of six organized, who started outward, keeping within clear sight of each other, but eyeballing for the Loonies. Then, one had some sort of sensor. Probably thermal or other spectra.  That wouldn’t do them any good, hopefully. The catapult had no signature.

    Sonar didn’t work in vacuum and it seemed unlikely they had any kind of radar setup with them. They’d expected direct fire and would be looking for thermal flashes.  This was cold. They’d have to eyeball it.

 



 

    They gazed all over, with no particular focal point, so they hadn’t estimated the trajectory yet.

    She shrugged and signed, “Watch between shots.” That last sign was normally used to mean explosive shots or “blasts,” but its meaning was clear.

    She stepped back and pulled the release.  The second bomb arced up, contents slopping about. It flew tumbling, slowed, then started down out of sight.

    Morton pointed and signed for Godin to move up and take over vid, while he hopped down to show the ongoing report to Laura.

    Troops had shot at the balloon.

    They stopped almost at once and stared at one individual, who was gesticulating wildly and apparently chewing them out for the folly.

    The balloon splashed down a meter short, but almost in a perfect line with the first one.

    That was better. There was definitely a splash pattern across the cable now. It wasn’t as good as an impact, but there were shimmers and vapor off the casing.

    Thumbs up, okay, more, clenched hand for “correct.”

    Godin came down fast with his tablet.

    It showed troops turning around and started bounding in the general direction of the team.

    He touched helmets.  “Shoot now, make it count,” he said.

    She nodded and went for a balloon.

    The Ueys would need a couple of minutes to get here, and up through the rock. They’d probably want to leapfrog to avoid exposure. Really, there was time for a shot.

    Part of her kept feeling exposed, that someone might pop up any second.

    So far, no one had done any shooting. They’d still be able to run or dodge and knew this terrain, and worst case, capture left them on the moon in an atmosphere controlled environment.

    No one had done any shooting yet.

    No one except Laura Rojas and her team with acid and hypergolic liquid.

    Godin and Morton levered the arm back, she placed the balloon. This one sloshed a lot.  She checked position, then checked it again, forcing herself to be methodical.

    From his lookout, Morton kept a thumb up. Safe so far.

    She shuffled back and behind. She found her lanyard checked alignment, then tugged.

    The bag broke.

    She hopped away and avoided being splashed.

    As the fluid fumed across the arm, the catapult flung the residue in a long, pretty spray around the axis. The remaining dregs flew, probably far too far.

    One round, totally wasted, and a good marker for the Ueys.        

    Behind the catapult, the rock fumed momentarily.

    Laura fumed in a different context.

    Godin signed, “What do next?”

    She replied, “Shoot more, hurry, load,” and gestured to indicate the splashes that were damaging the catapult.

    They levered fast, she loaded the HF container very quickly and very delicately. If it burst…

    And fire.

    No, she wanted to shoot. “Fire” was what would happen at the other end.

    She pulled the lanyard.

    The container arced spaceward, peaked, then started back down.

    She was already scrambling up to watch, and for reassurance on the approaching troops.

    In mid trajectory, the HF ignited. The acid spill had done enough damage to pierce the balloons.

    The flash started as a jet, where the two components met. It spread rapidly in a bright ring, turning into a glare all over.

    “Dammit,” she muttered.

    That first jet of fire had shifted the trajectory slightly. The fireball was already lit and probably at full effect…

    …As it crashed directly onto the cable, about a half meter right of the existing damage from the acid spills.

    The fire was a glorious, roiling ball, as heated corrosives and oxidizers consumed each other and the cable housing, then the insulation.

    It suddenly burned white.

    Rod touched helmets and gloated, “Their oh two line just failed.”

    The glare was blinding for a few moments, as pure oxygen supplemented the nitric acid. Even the metal cabling burned.

    The automatic pressure switches cut the oxygen flow, but by then, a meter of conduit was slagged.

    Then there were sputtering electrical sparks from a dead short, followed by a decreasing glow from the starving fire.

    She slapped their shoulders and signed, “Back inside. Quickly.”

    Morton pointed at the catapult.

    “Leave. Run.”

    There were already dust puffs from bullet impacts erupting from the rocks around them. Luckily, motion, low G, and bad angle made the Uey’s aim pointless.

    Rojas was panting as she staggered back in.

    ~~

    Andre whooped.  “Hell, yes it worked! And they don’t seem to have a spare conduit.  Probably a mass transport issue. They’re busy trying to sheer as close and clean as they can to splice it.  Meanwhile, they lost the oxygen in the pipe, and a bit more before the pressure safety kicked in.”

    Still panting, Rojas asked, “How long can they do this?”

    Morton said, “I don’t have any info on a support ship inbound, but I don’t know how many landed.  They could ferry stuff by Trak, but that’s going to take time.”

    Andre took a bite of the stale sandwich on his console.

    For that matter…

    He pinged the channel.  “Colonel, how are your troops doing on food, water and relief facilities?”

    “We ate before this started. A few hours hunger is a minor inconvenience, and there are rations in our transport. Water we have, and as for the waste water…well, it mostly evaporated straight out when they drained it in your tunnel.” The man sounded almost amused.

    “Fair enough.  I just wondered because I have a really good sandwich here.”

    “Mr Crawford, would you like–“

    “More guests?  Certainly.”

    “–would you like to retreat inside your habitat now?  I have been authorized for weapon release.”

    Cold adrenalin ripples ran through him.

    “Meaning?”

    “Meaning with three missiles, or emplaced charges, I can simply blow the doors off, and leave your main passage, per my blueprints, open to space. I have clearance to shoot any adult in the open as a hostile threat, now that you’ve used incendiaries and caustics. The latter which qualify as chemical weapons.”

    What the hell?

    “Huh? You’re inside pressure suits.”

    “They release toxic gases, which would be lethal if we were not wearing protective gear. Per the letter of the law, that constitutes chemical weapons.”

    That was…”Ridiculous.  You’re in vacuum. You’re separated by vacuum, and a suit you can’t remove.”

    Arris sounded smug. “I assure you our legal staff have made the determination, and are prepared to defend it at the World Court in the Hague.”

    Shit.

    “I guess it depends on how many people you’re willing to kill in the name of peace. Including your troops, who are dispersed within the habitat. A fact we’ve already logged for release, including with the Red Cross.”

    Arris said, “That’s your side of the story.”

    Andre said, “Of course. You can write whatever story you want. At the end of the day, you’ll have murdered even the innocent people in here, who have no way to evacuate or choose sides about a device you claim exists and they’ve never heard of. And your own troops. I guess that’s a decision you’ll have to live with.”

    Arris was unwavering.  “I have orders, and weapons.”

    Andre tried really hard to sound condescending rather than pleading.

    “For that matter, you have a bunch of troops who are short of oxy and power, and I doubt you can last long with what’s aboard your vehicles.”

    “There are other elements inbound.”

    “Did they tell you that? Because my seismic gear doesn’t show it.” He was lying, because the seismometers were not on his screen.  He swiped furiously and brought them up.

    Local tremors only, within shape and amplitude he saw all the time. Which didn’t mean there wasn’t a soft vehicle out there, but anything putting ground pressure on rubble should be pressing that into the surface and generating fractional effects.

    Arris’ tone suggested a shrug.  “That is as it may be.  I have control of the first two locks, I am going to destroy the third one now.”

    Think.  Think.

    “Colonel, have you considered what a trained engineer and crew could have done in the last twenty-four hours with more corrosives, more flammables, explosives, pressure vessels and electrical power?  You got that one taste so far.  Want to try for the seven course banquet?”

    Arris sounded very relaxed.  “War is not without casualties. We’ve both been lucky so far.”

    Andre realized he was talking too much again.  “Logistically we have the upper hand here.”

    “Then this should be to your advantage.”

    It was time to log off before he said something he’d regret. “Fine.  You’ve been warned. I’m going to enjoy ice cream now.”

    He closed the connection.

    He sighed deeply.

    “Well, let’s see if he’s bluffing, threatening, or going balls out.”

    Andre noted ironically he was bluffing about the ice cream. Nor did he want any.  A beer wouldn’t be out of line, though. Except he needed his wits. More coffee. He poured another cup, watching it splash lazily in the low gravity. That was always fascinating. The cups were shaped to roll splashes back in, and looked oversized, until you tried to pour.

 



 

    Malakhar said, “They’re still drilling, according to sensors.”

    “Good…on the sensors working, I mean. Any guess on cut through?”

    “The door could be any time. Acoustics suggest there’s only a centimeter left.  It wasn’t armored, just thick enough to support itself.”

    “Yeah, it wasn’t a hard one.”

    He looked at the screen, which displayed Malakhar’s feed. The image was animated from acoustic and sonic inputs and representative only. Personnel locations were fuzzy approximations.

    Right then, the drill did break through, and a rush of pure oxy enveloped the mechanism.  Somewhere in the motor, a tiny electrostatic spark flared, and what must be a nimbus of flame engulfed it.

    Both drills stopped, and troops scrambled to aid the operators who’d just taken a flash burn. 

    About a minute later, the rock drill started back up.

    Malakhar said, “Figures. It was a good flash, but without an atmosphere in there, it’s not significant, likely just scorched a suit and faceplate.”

    Morton said, “I’m worried about that rock drill.”

    “Oh, why?”

    “The rock cut is near the lock controls.”

    Andre checked his feed.  “I’ve got it switched to central.”

    Morton said, “Yes…but the outer ones stop here physically.  That one’s not airwalled from the network. Nor are you.”

    “Shit.”

    Morton said, “Yeah, if they have a good tech, and get into that, they can do a lot of havoc.”

    Andre said slowly, “We…I should have caught that when we were setting up.  Alright, someone go disconnect the box and see about plugging that hole at the same time?”

    Morton said, “I will. How do want it isolated?”

    “Just unplug the control line from the terminal inside Lock Four. Don’t damage it. We may need it later. Then get into Inner Bay and see if you can hinder them more. They still only have pinholes. “

    “Got it.”

    Morton closed his faceplate and bounded off.

    Andre asked, “Ravi, can you keep an eye on my feed and give me any notice of entry?”

    Malakhar said, “Probably. I don’t think they’ll have a pre-built hack, and we’ve got excellent compartmentalized security. But anything on your system could be compromised, and they might manage to open Lock Four.”

    “You have spare system cable?”

    “In the store room, yes.”

    “Okay.” He grabbed a pair of sidecutters from the tool box, and put them around the cable next to the terminal.  “You shout, I cut.”

    “Got it.”

    Morton was back in a hurry, panting.

    “I was able to disconnect it,” he said between gasps.  “No one can operate it now. I pulled the wires and the commo cable.”

    “Good.”

    Morton continued, still breathing hard, “They’re working on that hole in the door.  Explosives, I think.  Stuff squeezing through the hole.”

    Andre said, “That makes sense.  They’ll try to crack it and break it loose, which will also damage the seals and render it unusable. But we can get some sensors in there. Ravi?”    

    “Yes, this box,” the man replied.  He held up a tray with several varieties of drones. It looked as if some would roll, others bounce or fly, and give several views. As long as they lasted, they’d provide useful intel.     

    Morton said, “Okay, I’ll take those now.”

    Malakhar handed him the box and said, “Just slide it in smoothly on the floor. The modules know what to do. Let them go.”

    Morton grinned. “Got it.”

    He turned and bounded back, and Andre closed the door behind him.

    Godin said, “We should button up now.  If they blow one and decide to use a rocket for a one-two, we’re boned.”

    “Yeah.”

    Crawford kept a close eye on the monitors while donning his helmet, clicking the seal and checking oxygen flow.  He had four hours in the bottle, and they had several spares on a cart they could drag with them in a hurry.

    Several feeds popped up on Malakhar’s monitors as the drones went active. Morton could be seen closing 3B, from multiple angles. Godin’s screen showed others.

    BANG!

    The floor shook as the Lock 3A was breached. Some of the feeds went dead.

    Andre looked at Malakhar, realized his expression was hard to read through the plate, and started to ask as the man replied, “Three A is dismounted.”

    “So they’re in the connector between Middle and Inner.”

    Another explosion rattled everything.

    “That was 3B,” Godin said needlessly. “They didn’t waste any time. Probably slapped a charge and got behind the wall in Middle.”

    Andre felt a cold chill.

    “Crap. Is Morton alive?”

    Godin said, “I can’t see, but probably not.  Pressure trauma from decompression to vacuum, and from the blast.  Probably stunned, down, and not sealed.  I’m sorry.”

    “Hopefully they have him prisoner. If they reached him fast…”

    Malakhar was trying to look positive and not succeeding. “Maybe.”

    Rojas sighed.  Godin cursed and punched the wall.

    Andre shook his head.  “Can’t worry now.”

    Malakhar said, “We no longer have control of our own locks. They can hardwire Lock Four from their side.  All we have is the emergency curtain.”

    Andre pulled the cable that connected his system to Lock Control, since it was no longer needed.

    “”Right, but they can’t get into the rest of the network yet,” he said.  “Any way around their hack?”

    Malakhar shook his head.  “Not fast. I guess we figure out how to hack in ourselves.  I’ll get working on that.”

    He scanned and dragged images.

    Morton was dead.  That was a tough one. Was this all worth it? If resistance didn’t change the outcome and did leave some dead and others subject to legal penalty?

    Malakhar said, “I think I have it. Laura, can you go cut Line L-4-0-X?” He pointed to his screen.

    She squinted.  “Down the main passage? Yes. With what?”

    “An axe. Cutters. Whatever it takes. Sever and separate.”

    “Will do.”

    The Indian worked feverishly, using two styli to tap keys until he could widen the touchscreen enough for gloved fingers. Then they fairly flew across the surface.

    “Okay, I’m disengaging everything from inside. We’ll be the only control point, but we can’t risk them accessing other files.”

    “Right,” Andre agreed.

    Rojas came back at a skip.

    “Got it,” she said.

    Malakhar cocked his head.  “Just in time. They were plugging into the terminal. That won’t do them any good, but now they have to breach the emergency lock.”

    Andre said, “Good.”

    “We still have camera lines there, though.”

    “Can we–“

    Malakhar said, “Morton cut them with wire cutters.”

    “On this side?”

    “Both.  This side as he went in, there once he was…inside.”

    Blast.  “Okay.  We know they’re past the vehicles, though, just not efficiently. They’re having to hand carry oxy and use batteries only until they finish that splice.  How is that coming?”

    Malakhar said, “My observer reports they’ll be done soon. Also that he’s running short on cooling power, even with a field battery with him.”

    Had it been that long? “Noted. He can leave whenever he has to, and should come back if he can.”

    Malakhar nodded.  “He was told. He says he’ll hold out to the end.”

    Andre raised his eyebrows.  “Good man. What else can we do to slow them, then?”

    Godin cleared his throat and said, “I do have the skimmer and that dust bin. She’s loitering and can arrive in five.”

    “Right. Well, if you can get it into the rear of that support vehicle, that would do wonders.”

    “I’ll tell her.”

    Andre cautioned, “I don’t know that they can’t shoot it down.”

    The man nodded soberly.  “Yeah, she knows.  It’s Seville. She’ll fly fast, low and through the Fangs,” he said, referencing two tall peaks of the crater rim. “They shouldn’t see her.”

    “Good. Go.”

    Godin listened to his headset, and reported, “In fact, this says she’s two minutes out.”

    “I hope that’s soon enough.”

    “She says there’s a rock inside the load.  One big one, enough to damage the vehicle.”

    Andre said, “Or anyone it hits.  But we’re past that point now.”

    “‘Fraid so. You’ll see it right in that saddle, any moment.”

    The skimmer came over the ridge unseen by the Ueys. It was several seconds before they reacted. Likely, it had to be sensed, interpreted, IDed as a Loony craft, and then reported.

    They didn’t appear to have any anti-aircraft assets. It was further confirmation that they hadn’t expected any outside resistance, only busting a lock and holding everyone at gunpoint.

    Several of them stared up at the craft, others took cover behind rocks, assuming a bombing run. Anywhere out of line of sight would be safe, with no atmosphere for overpressure.

    The pilot angled in, likely using autopilot with a pre-programmed trajectory.

    Too late, the Ueys figured out the intended target and ran for the ArctiTrak’s hatch. They probably assumed a bomb or mass impact weapon. In the low G, two of them bounced up above the ground.  With better self control, one managed to slap the close button as the skimmer above opened the bay.

    The dust dropped out like a brick, one solid mass with no atmosphere. It dropped slowly and got a little fuzzy as internal friction started it separating.  It was powdered pumice, not as dense as water, and in this G, negligible in impact.

    The rock inside the dust, however, was big enough to wreak some havoc.  Not much, perhaps. It would bounce inside, break something, and maybe it would matter.

 



 

    The ramp had barely closed to knee height when the pile sloshed into the back of the vehicle, filling it.

    “Well done!” Andre shouted.

    The vehicle rocked, indicating the boulder had in fact entered and rattled around. Something in there was damaged. Something critical?

    Possibly crew.

    The hatch jammed with a pile of dust. That was a huge load, spilling out, around and over. The vehicle was buried forward to the front wheels.

    Rojas almost gloated.  “They’ll have to shovel that out, and it’s going to be everywhere inside–under, behind and in equipment. Any gas connections will need wiped clean. And as soon as they turn on any inside environment, it’s going to blow into a cloud.  It may not have stopped them, but it’s certainly hindered them.”

    Andre said, “I expect all their support equipment, and main commo, is in there. The individual vehicles have short range transmitters, and of course they can relay through a remote to their lander.  But that one probably can burn to Earth directly. That may no longer be possible.  They pulled their power tools out of there. They won’t be doing that now. We probably slowed them significantly.”

    “Hopefully. It looks like we’re wearing them down.”

    He said, “We are. I hope it’s fast enough to matter.”

    ~~~

    The Ueys went to dig the dust out, scooping and pulling. As before, it static-clung to their face shields and suits.  They had to take frequent breaks.

    Andre said, “I wish we had another load right now, for them, or one of their personnel vehicles.”

    Godin pointed.  “Yeah. See the guy heading to the truck?”

    “I expect he’s getting an oxy bottle. I wonder how many spares they have, and how many they can reach.”

    Godin said, “We can try another, but there’s risk of them shooting one down, or trying to rush us and wreck things. That’s not slow.”

    Andre agreed. “Yes, that’s good for now.  We stage our responses.”

    The troops dug, heedless of the solar influx beating down on them with its long shadows. They managed to clear enough to lower the ramp partially, though it stopped well above plane. More spilled from inside, and they kept throwing that.

    Eventually they worked inside, but it was only a partial fix.  They’d have shade, they might reach spare bottles, but any equipment back there was still endangered.

    Godin said, “Oh, here’s the pic the pilot got as she passed overhead.”

    Andre turned around to take a look.

    The image was difficult to discern due to sharp shadows.  The area in shadow were near black, with just the barest hint of illumination from inside.

    Rojas said, “I’ve got this.” She gestured and Godin stood up.

    She sat down and got to work.

    First she cloned the image and left the raw.  That second one, she blew up to examine.

    “That looks like one of their boots there. That angle suggests it’s being worn.”

    Andre looked at it.  He’d not have caught it, but he had to agree with her.  That was good. “I concur.”

    She kept itemizing.  “Three oxy bottles there, and I’m guessing from the spacing they’re in a rack, probably connected to a manifold. In fact, what’s the scale here?” she glanced down, wrinkled her brow, and said, “Probably an old Dash Eight. When were these vehicles made?”

    Godin said, “Eight years ago. That makes sense.”

    “Okay, so that gives them at least two full charges per person.”

    “Is that another bottle there?” Andre pointed.

    “On the floor.  Empty or discarded.”

    She reduced the image, shifted, chopped off everything in sunlight and brought up the brightness on the rest.

    “God, that looks like crap,” she said. Even chopping off the area in direct light left saturation from the reflected rays.  That and the internal illumination created a lot of irregular outlines. “I’m going to say that ghost is the tech whose boot we saw in sunlight.”

    Andre followed the outline and said, “He’s bent over a bench.”

    “Yeah, likely prepping components for something.”

    “What about back there?” he pointed.

    Rojas said, “That is just barely another person.  I think that’s the arm.  That might be the helmet shadow on the forward airwall.”

    Godin asked, “Is there a driver as well?”

    Andre said, “Typically, the driver is part of the element, and especially here with them having limited support.”

    He looked over the array of images and considered.

    “Okay. Two crew.  They apparently weren’t injured. No one evacced them or looked overly concerned.  That’s definitely long range commo gear. Figure they have enough oxygen for sixteen hours nominal, which means under ten the way they’re exerting.”

    Rojas said, “They could detach someone back for more supplies.  Is it wrong of me to hope they were injured?”

    She was icy calm, but there was hot anger under that.  

    Andre tried to sound neutral.  “No, though it won’t really help.”

    “It would certainly be fair, though.”

    Then his brain caught up with the comment about going back for more supplies.

    “They could, but I suspect they figured to resupply off us as soon as they secured entry. There’s still nothing to suggest a large logistics footprint.”

    Malakhar commented, “That means in another six hours or less they have to either be back at their craft, or cry uncle here. They need at least a half hour, call it an hour with safety. Five hours.”

    Andre said, “Hopefully before that. I can’t risk cycling them in that fast. And we need to watch out for a sympathy ploy.”

    Rojas was wide-eyed.  “You think they’d violate Geneva like that?”

    “We aren’t at war. They’re police as they see it. Don’t count on them abiding by anything. Especially after claiming residual vapors in vacuum constitute a chemical weapon.”

    “Good point.” She was looking pissed, but still acted calm. She trembled slightly, though.

    He said, “But, in the four hours they’ve had, they’ve done some damage.  I don’t think we can hold them another six.  Or even four.”

    Godin noted, “They’re now using the lock and passage as their sun shade.  But outside is brutal if they’re going back and forth.”

    Rojas looked at the outside of the image, full screen.  “We damaged their solar package.  That means they’ve got onboard power for everything, and the conversion cell aboard each vehicle.”

    Godin said, “That will still last well over the remaining time they need.”

    “I have another aerial picture and report,” Malakhar said, “Their numbers are down.  I think they detached some for the Old Lock.”

    Andre felt another adrenaline burn and said, “Crap. The only defensive measure possible there is a rockfall.” He looked around. I guess that’s up to me, since I’ve done them.”

    Godin said, “I’ve done one here. Want me to do it?”

    His tone suggested he’d enjoy it.

    “Yes.  You need to pop the lock, shoot the protrusions outside, drop the debris. Keep the backblast outside, and remember arming distance.”

    “I’ll let you know if it’s clear,” Rojas said.

    Good point.  “Yeah, no reason to open it if they’re right there.”

    Malakhar added, “And I’ve got imagery from the skimmer, and our man on the mountain. There actually was an element heading for the Old Lock, but it looks like they couldn’t get over the ridge even in low G, and are now heading back.”

    “Good.” That was less of a concern, then.

    Looking at the view, Godin said, “Well, they picked the low saddle, which isn’t the easiest route, just least altitude.”

    “Right,” Malakhar agreed.

    Andre asked, “Are there enough in that element to account for the balance of their force?”

    “No!” Rojas replied.  “But I do see several on a dolly crawler. It looks like they’re heading back to their ship.”

    “Interesting.”

    “Two with probable suit damage, including the one who got stuck. One other who may be an exertion or heat casualty, or has a suit malfunction. There’s one driver and one other I think is escort.”

    “So, five out of commission for now, and the twelve we have detained.”

    Malakhar said, “A notable amount of the element.  Given their support numbers, and the count on those moving around, we’ve probably cut their effectives by a quarter.”

    “And run out half their time,” Andre said. “They have to be exhausted.”

    “It’s working, Boss,” Malakhar said. “Also, my observer is going down for oxy and power. He’ll be back in a half hour.”

    “I’d ask for quicker, but I know how much of a struggle even that is. I’m glad of the support.”

    The man leaned back and mused, “I wonder how much support we actually have among the other Loonies.”

    Andre said, “Probably a very mixed bag.”


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