Return to Kazbek

Part Four -- by Becky Ratliff

In his quarters a few hours later, McQueen checked his gear with meticulous care. They would have only the equipment that they could carry into the mine with them.

Someone knocked. "Who's at my hatch?"

"West, sir."


West stood at an unconscious parade rest until McQueen told him to have a seat. "Gonna be a rough one," he finally said.

"They all are," McQueen replied, not without sympathy. "Don't ask, West. I can't keep her off the mission."

"I know that, sir. That isn't why I'm here. May I ask a personal question?"

McQueen looked up. "You can ask, I might not answer."

West nodded, fair enough. "Sir, how do you do it? Shane goes out there every day and you have to just let her--"

McQueen replied, "It isn't a question of 'letting' her, son. She has her duty just as I do."

"I know that, sir ... that came out wrong."

"I have to just watch," McQueen said.

West nodded.

"Because we're both needed, in a cause that's more important than ourselves," McQueen replied. "For this mission, the same thing is true of you and Kylen."

"Yes, sir."

"There's more to it than that, Nathan. It's only natural to want to keep the people you care about safe from harm. That's impossible. If I tried to keep Shane safe, I'd sell her short, keep her from opportunities that she's worked all her life to attain. She's living the life she's wanted since she was a child. Because I love her, I have to respect that. Sometimes there are things she has to do even though there is a great deal of risk involved. It would be wrong of me to interfere even if I weren't her commanding officer. Keeping her from flying as high and as far as her ambitions can carry her wouldn't be an act of love. It would be selfishness."

"Sir, am I being selfish about Kylen?"

"Hell, no. But I'll tell you one thing, she's doing the hardest thing she'll ever do in her life, and possibly the most courageous. She needs you beside her right now, supporting her, not second-guessing her."

"Yes, sir."

"Well, what are you hanging around here for?"

"Good evening, sir."

They were a day and a half out of Kazbek. An ISSCV from the Sara had delivered them to the rendezvous point, where they had found the chig cargo ship waiting, guarded by a special-ops team off the Kennedy. That had been a few hours ago. The Marines had taken a short while to familiarize themselves with the ship, then they had started on their way.

The cargo plane smelled like chigs. That rotten-egg odor was not one which Kylen had ever expected to smell again. She said under her breath to Rosie, "Phew, it's ripe in here."

"Yeah, I know, and they think we stink. Jeez."

"We're really going in there."

"Yep. Are you okay?"

"I haven't started screaming and hid under anything yet, have I?"

"Is 'yet' the operative word in that sentence?" Rosie asked.

Kylen made a wry face. "I haven't decided."

They were lucky that, while the cargo plane was much bigger than the captured bomber they had flown to Kazbek before, its controls were very similar. Right now, Hawkes and Vansen were taking their turn flying the plane. They switched off frequently. The controls were designed for chigs, and humans had to do a lot of the work standing or leaning over consoles. It took a lot of concentration to fly it, also. Not unexpectedly, McQueen had picked up the trick better than anyone. The bioelectrical controls worked very similarly to his artificial leg, after all these months the interface was second nature to him.

For now, though, he and the rest of the 58th had made themselves comfortable in a corner of the cargo hold. McQueen looked around at the team. Kylen seemed to have pulled it together pretty well for the time being, and Rosie had made it her job to keep an eye on her. Up at the controls, Vansen and Hawkes were intent on flying the plane, and Vansen was telling Hawkes some kind of a story about her lifeguard days. She had a whole collection of stupid rescue stories, most of them started out "These tourists had a couple of six packs and...." Avery was, as usual, intent on the screen of his pocket computer. 'Phousse was checking on something at a console a few meters away, routine work. West, Baker, Yamauchi and Lucas had a penny-ante card game going, but the talk was more about the mission than the game.

Yamauchi slid two coins out to see West's latest bet. "Guys, do you think this is going to be as simple as Commander Gray made it out to be?"

Lucas said, "Why wouldn't it be, right? I mean, someone would've said something?" He studied the cards and the ante, and also saw the bet.

West saw it and raised, then looked over at Lucas. "Maybe. Maybe not."

'Phousse folded and sat back to watch the next round ... Lisa ended up with the handful of pennies when she fanned out a full house, jacks high. "Anyone want a chance to win some of this back?"

Everyone was getting tired of the game, it was just a way to pass the time and keep nerves in check anyhow.

McQueen asked, "Have any of you heard of Operation: Market Garden?"

The squadron gathered around, they knew McQueen didn't just tell stories to hear himself talk. Kylen and Rosie joined them, Nathan made room for Kylen to sit beside him. The surface she was sitting on gave, Kylen realized it was a tough rubbery hide over something soft and alive. A spaceship was supposed to be a machine. This was a living thing.

Typically, Avery came up with the answer to McQueen's question. "Wasn't that an operation during World War Two, in the European theater? Allied, I think, sir?"

McQueen nodded. "That's right. It's a good historical parallel to this mission, in a way. Market Garden was one of General Montgomery's 'brilliant plans' to make a lightning strike behind German lines to capture the main bridge across the Neder Rhine at Arnhem. Now, Arnhem is a town in the Netherlands near the German border. If this operation was a success, it would open a corridor right into the central part of Germany. The war in Europe would be over with several months sooner. The idea was, the British 1st Parachute Division, along with the 1st Polish Parachute Brigade, was to land around the city on either side of the river, and seize both ends of the bridge at the same time."

Kenny had yet to realize what all this had to do with Kazbek. "They might have taken it, sir, but how long could they have held it?"

"Exactly, Kenny. The British 1st Paras were way behind the lines, and they'd only have enough supplies to hold out for a couple of days ... so you can see, speed was critical. That's why the British 2nd Army, spearheaded by General Horrock's 30th Corps, was to simultaneously break through the German lines and advance northwards to relieve the British at Arnhem. The Corps' advance was along one highway, crossing two major cities along the way. To make sure the 2nd Army didn't get delayed, the American 101st and 82nd Airborne divisions were sent in to take two vital stretches of this highway. The 101st was assigned to capture the city of Eindhoven, and about a sixty kilometer stretch of highway. North of them the 82nd was to seize the town of Nijmegen. There was a bridge there, too, over the Maas river. From there, it was only about sixty or eighty klicks to Arnhem. So you've basically got an entire airborne army dropping along a stretch of highway almost two hundred kilometers long."

Lisa asked, "Didn't the Germans capture the Netherlands -- pretty much everything to the Atlantic?"

McQueen replied, "That's right, Lisa, but this took place in September of 1944. At that time, the German Army was already retreating from France and heading back to make a last stand in Germany. The Allied planners expected this retreat to continue on through Holland -- so they weren't expecting the 30th Corps to face a lot of resistance."

Lisa nodded.

McQueen looked around at the 58th. "That's when things started to go wrong, beginning with the Intell end of it. You see, the German Army had picked Holland as the place to stop their retreat and generally get their act together. Two elite SS Panzer Divisions, the 9th and the 10th, were sent into the Arnhem area to rest and refit before to returning to Germany. In other places, German units were stopping in their tracks and setting up defensive positions. American intelligence believed the 9th and the 10th were in Arnhem, but the British disregarded their warnings.

As if that weren't bad enough, the British 1st Division had their DZ's too far from the city, and by the time they got themselves sorted out, the Germans were putting up very determined resistance south of the bridge. On the north side, the paras were more successful. They took
that side of the bridge and established a rough perimeter, but everything was still a mess. To begin with, most of their radios weren't working."

Lucas wisecracked, "You'd think they would've checked the batteries before they left home."

McQueen said, "Evidently, the sets didn't take being dropped from planes very well. But that isn't the worst of it yet -- some American officer took an entire set of the Market Garden plans with him on the drop! He was killed in the landing, and the plans ended up on the German commander's desk by the end of the first day."

Nathan whistled softly. McQueen could see that, even though West didn't know the rest of the story, he could figure out where it was going. He nodded slightly in acknowledgment before going on with the narrative.

"Mr. Murphy was just as busy to the south. The 101st captured Eindhoven, but some unexpected resistance between the German lines and Eindhoven delayed the 30th Corps by over 30 hours before they even got there. And then at Nijmegen, the 82nd took the high ground overlooking the bridge. Nobody knows why, but they didn't even try to take the bridge itself.

By this point, things began getting desperate in Arnhem. The Germans got their act together when they figured out what was going on. What should have been a few hours turned into days. The Allies tried to fly in supplies to the paras ... but with the radios out, the 1st Division had no way of warning their resupply planes that their designated drop zones were in the hands of the Germans.

Now, Jimmy, I know you've seen the things they flew back then -- remember that ancient IC-engine cargo plane at that air show when you were about fourteen? That thing dated from the Korean war, about ten years later. Does anyone else know what I'm talking about? This wasn't even a jet, it was prop driven."

Kenny shot Jimmy a look at the nickname, and Jimmy glared back at him. His dad was Jim Avery, and he'd always been Jimmy -- now, he'd be damned if he'd call himself something else just because Kenny and Lisa thought it was funny! Nathan nodded in answer to McQueen's question, and Lisa had a "those-people-must-have-been-crazy" look on her face.

McQueen went on. "The British and American supply planes would come in straight and level no more than thirty or forty meters off the deck, through flak barrages and everything, and the crews basically just pushed the supply crates out the cargo doors. Paratrooper squads risked enemy fire to grab the few panniers that drifted close to their positions, but then they'd find out as often as not, that they contained things like berets."

Nathan laughed and asked, "Anyone ever tell you about the foot powder, sir?"

"Foot powder?"

"We can sympathize with those old-time paratroopers, right, 'Phousse?"

"Right, Nathan."

Nathan explained. "This was on Demios, sir. We saw a supply crate come in and went after it, some chigs who were as stupid as we were put up one hell of a fight trying to secure it. We captured it, but it was full of foot powder." He and 'Phousse were laughing about it now. It hadn't been funny at the time.

McQueen nodded. "That's exactly the same thing ... but those were REMF mistakes, had nothing to do with the kids out there in the thick. The commander of the 1st Airborne told some incredible stories about the resupply. One account mentioned seeing a low-flying Dakota, on fire, still trying to make the drop zone. The crew chief was standing in the cargo door trying to ensure that the cargo hit the mark, knowing that he wouldn't be able to get out in time.

Remember, the 1st Airborne was only supposed to hold out for a couple of days. Three days and four nights after their landing, they had to give up the bridge and fight for their lives. After five days, the 30th Corps still hadn't reached Nijmegen. Ammunition ran out and they gave what food and water they had to the wounded. They still held out, sometimes driving the Germans back with bayonets."

Nathan and Phousse nodded, they'd been through that same thing on Demios. Lucas and Yamauchi looked solemn as all that soaked in. Lucas said, "Sounds like the Germans might have just as well let them have the damn bridge."

McQueen nodded. "The accounts General Urquhart gives of the courage of the paras is incredible. Four of the paras and one transport pilot won Victoria Crosses for their actions -- the Victoria Cross is comparable to our Congressional Medal of Honor. Nearly all of them were posthumous.

After seven days, the 30th Corps finally reached Nijmegen, but by that point it was too late. The paras were at the end of their rope. Finally, nine days after their initial drop, orders reached Arnhem for the 1st Division to try to withdraw and link up with the 30th at Nijmegen.
Out of 9000 troops that landed at Arnhem, only 2100 made it out. The losses were so severe that for a while the 1st Parachute Division was going to be permanently disbanded."

Lisa cried, "Oh, no! That wouldn't have been right!"

McQueen nodded. "Enough other people thought so too that the unit was reformed. The Red Devils have still got one hell of a reputation among all the UN forces."

He looked around. He had their full attention now. "Commando raids have very little margin for error. Something, somewhere, inevitably gets screwed up. I said Market Garden had a lot in common with this operation. Well, we're looking at the same kind of situation here on Kazbek -- we're going to be way, way out on the same kind of a limb here that the 1st Paras were at Arnhem. We have to land on a Chig-held world with nothing more than we're carrying on our backs, to seize and hold a vital objective before it gets blown up in our faces, and then pray that our reinforcements arrive in time -- or we are all dead.

I know that Commander Gray made this thing sound easy. Intelligence has a real talent for that. It's going to be anything but easy. I want everyone to do an equipment check, then go over your objectives until you know your job inside out, because there are no secondary objectives on this mission. Everyone's survival depends on each one of you getting your job done, and you're going to have to expect situations to come up that will force you to improvise." He looked around. "Questions."

(Kazbek, January 2065)

On the visual display in front of McQueen, Kazbek was a globe not unlike Earth seen from space. It was one of two inhabitable planets in the Kappa Reticuli system, along with chig colony world Cerrus. Kazbek was an arid place, much less of its surface was covered by ocean and there were fewer clouds ... so marbled with the blue and white were large expanses of golden-brown desert. Even from here, there was a stark, forbidding beauty to the place.

He remembered the last time they'd been on this planet, over a year ago now ... when his kids had volunteered for the suicide bombing run on the Cerrus colony that had been his idea. They hadn't known then -- he hadn't known -- that he was going to be able to talk Ross into permission to go with them. They'd ended up crash landing on Kazbek. By whatever luck, Kazbek had turned out to be the site of the penal colony where Kylen and the other survivors of the Aerotech colonies had been held. All of the squadron except for Hawkes and himself had ended up captured by the AIs who ran it. Knowing what he knew now, though, McQueen was nearly sure that Aerotech had been aware at the time that the POWs were being held there. He glanced over at Kylen. If Aerotech had been forthcoming with that information, those people might have been rescued months sooner. He suspected that was one of the things they would never be able to prove.

Kylen wasn't the only one who had found that this rockball in the middle of nowhere was a place to come to terms with things. After they'd crashed the escape pod here, he'd sent Hawkes off to rescue the others. At the time it had made sense and it was still the right call -- he HAD been slowing Cooper down, their chances had been better apart than together. But it was also true that he'd been trying to avoid taking on the AIs in their lair. It had been easy to tell himself he'd just get in the way, get people killed. For a while there, he'd been nothing other than the crippled former pilot that everyone had considered him at that point.

But then ... Hawkes had come back for him, saying he'd found the road and lost the 58th's trail there. McQueen remembered how hopeless the kid had looked, they were running out of time and Hawkes hadn't known how to find the rest of the squadron. McQueen had stopped thinking of himself as a cripple right then and there. He wasn't a pilot any more ... but that was when he'd decided that was all he had lost.

Then, to get his kids out, he'd gone down in that mine. If he hadn't found the nerve to do that, in spite of the things he'd gone through at the hands of the AIs in a similar place ... he doubted that later that year he would have got off Marged alive ... and Shane might have died there as well. This godforsaken place had very likely ended up saving both their lives.

This was no time to be worrying about that. "Status, Major?"

Shane replied, "All systems nominal. We're in the traffic pattern."

"No challenge yet from the sentries?"

Avery replied, "In a couple of mikes, sir. I've analyzed the communications between the sentry satellite and the barges ahead of us in the queue. It's a simple recognition code followed by the barge's ident data block. Looks routine, sir."

Everyone was on edge as they approached the sentry. Vansen and West held the barge on a steady course in the traffic pattern. If that sentry made them, McQueen didn't give a rat's ass for their chances to get past the other barges in the queue, much less the patrol squadrons in orbit around the planet. When the challenge sounded, Avery sent the reply confidently. The rest of them waited with a bit more anxiety, until the sentry moved on to the next barge in line.

They held in the traffic pattern for twenty mikes before they got clearance to land. Avery translated the landing coordinates for Vansen.

McQueen asked, "Lieutenant, how much of that do you recognize off the top of your head?"

"I'm verifying everything, sir!"

"I never said you weren't, that wasn't what I asked you."

"Sorry, sir. About half of it, I guess. It isn't that hard a language to learn, it's all a trinary mathematical system. Fairly elegant structure, really. Makes me wonder about them, though ... what kind of culture develops a language based on mathematics but uses the same term for 'fiction', 'dream', and 'lie'?" Avery didn't take his eyes off the display. He called off to Vansen, "Change course two degrees to starboard."

"Two degrees," she replied.

McQueen replied, "A very literal one, maybe -- I wouldn't start jumping to any conclusions yet. Not until you understand the other half of the language anyhow."

"No, sir."

They landed on the edge of a fleet of empty barges. Using recon photos from the Saratoga's rescue of the 58th the year before, they had come up with a plan to get into the mine through a tunnel that carried water out of the mine. Most of the way up there, the tunnel was really a concrete ditch covered by a grating, until it went into the hillside. Further downstream, it opened into the stream that West had run through when he had escaped from the POW camp.

One by one, Hawkes first, they slipped off the barge and stayed in its shadow as far as they could to the edge of the landing field. Then they crawled across to the ditch and dropped inside. Rosie and Kylen went next to last, ahead of McQueen and Yamauchi.

Kylen swung from the grating and dropped into the ditch, Nathan caught her. A few minutes later first McQueen and finally Yamauchi got there. Lisa worked her way inside, then hanging from the grating as agile as any little monkey, she worked the section of grating that Hawkes had opened back into place. She dropped to the ditch and landed with a splash in the shallow stream. Sunlight through the grating dappled her uniform.

McQueen ordered them to move out, if anyone walked over head they could well be spotted down here. Kylen was surprised at how quietly the squadron could move with all the gear they were carrying. It took them about ten minutes to reach the hillside, where the stream flowed out of a hexagonal tunnel, and that was where they ran into their first obstacle. A few meters inside the hole, their path was blocked off by a sturdy metal gate, which was chained shut and padlocked.

Baker wrapped some kind of plastic strip around the lock and pulled off the end. Chemicals inside mixed, creating a caustic substance that quickly ate through the lock. She was careful not to get any of it on her as she dislodged the remains of the lock from the chain and opened the gate. She, Hawkes and West went through first to secure the area.

The heavy barred gate was outlined against a sickeningly familiar faint, pulsing red glow. A steady stream of cold air flowed out of the mine through the bars, it smelled of ore dust and faintly of chigs. Kylen felt frozen in place. She had a mad urge to turn around and run back out into the ditch. She swallowed hard and took the first step ... her legs were trembling so much she thought she would fall. The second was marginally easier. And then the fear just let go of her, as if she had broken the iron shackles that were holding her back. That feeling was freedom, and it was something deep inside her that no one could ever take away from her again. She ran the last few steps to catch up with Rosie.

They got out of the stream when the tunnel branched off. McQueen asked Kylen and Rosie, "Does this look familiar?"

They shook their heads. Rosie said, "It's got to be below the cellblocks, but your guess is as good as mine where the tunnels go. We'll have to go up a level."

"Let's go. As soon as we get into an area you recognize, speak up -- we don't need to be wandering around in here blind any longer than necessary."

A few minutes further on, a hole had been dug out of the wall. Kylen darted over there and looked in, McQueen pulled her back. "Don't ever do that again! You're likely to get your head blown off!"

Kylen said, "Sorry-- but that goes up!"

Rifle ahead of him, he poked into the hole and looked up. She was right, there was a metal ladder up the side of a narrow shaft. "Where does this go?"

"How would I know, but at least we'll be lost on the right level!" She replied. "These little rabbit holes usually do go to ladders. There are ramps, too, but these things are everywhere. The AIs use them."

Damphousse went up first to check it out, then waved the rest of them up. They lost no time in climbing up. At that, they were in an area that Kylen and Rosie knew, near where mining tools had been stored. The squadron began to split up to get to their various objectives. Nathan gave Kylen a hurried kiss and a last-minute reminder to stay with the Colonel, she had time to tell him one last time to be careful before he disappeared with Cooper into the shadows of a side tunnel. Baker, Yamauchi and Avery split off next.

A little way up the tunnel, they ran into their first opposition, a handful of chig miners on their way down the corridor. They were armed and wearing battle suits, Kylen thought they were soldiers of some kind though apparently not as high on the totem pole as the ones who had been guarding the POWs. The Marines landed in the middle of them, with the obvious intention to kill them all before they could sound an alarm. Lucas knifed the first one right off, it went down in a cloud of noxious gas.

The one Damphousse jumped threw her, she rolled hard to get out of the way of the chig's battle ax. It hit the rocks with a loud clang that made them all cringe, sparks flew as the metal hit stone. The miss threw the chig off balance, leaving Vansen an opening to duck in under its guard and put her knife between two plates of its armor. She had learned to use her small size to that kind of advantage against the much taller chigs.

Chig soldiers normally took well to that kind of a fight, no quarter asked or given. It was to be expected that even when they were cornered they fought to the death rather than surrender, and did their level best to take as many red stinks with them as they could. The last three of this lot, however, took a lot more sensible course -- they split up and ran like hell in two different directions. Vansen and Damphousse took off after two of them, leaving McQueen, Lucas and the two civilians to chase down the last one.

It got into a warren of narrow, twisting tunnels that went every direction, and led them down a ladder into a dark, half-dug tunnel leading deeper yet into the mountain. Their boots sank into half an inch of mud, to Kylen it smelled of Sewell ore but she saw only a few of the glowing nodules that produced so much energy. This was a young deposit, she didn't know how long it took to reach maturity but it wasn't ready to be mined. Lucas bit back a curse as his foot slipped in slimy mud, nearly throwing him down. A yell could carry a long ways underground. Rosie pointed at a side opening. "The chig went through there!"

The little hole was the end of a carelessly dug tunnel, nothing more than a foot path going from the tunnels they were in to the end of a mining gallery. The chig was heading down that way, McQueen brought it down with one silenced shot from his sidearm. He knew better than assume a downed chig was a dead one, until he got close enough to see the spooge around its battlesuit.

The rest caught up. He asked, "What's the quickest way back to where we were before?"

Kylen and Rosie looked at each other. "We've never been in this section of the mine before."

He turned around to look at them. "What the hell do you mean, you've never been here before."

Kylen replied, "You didn't ask. I thought we had to kill that chig no matter what."

"Damn straight about that," McQueen replied.

She elaborated, "This is all new. They've mined this vein up this far, and stopped -- there's not enough good in the ore along here to be worth the bother."

They retraced their steps as far as they could, up onto the same level as they others anyway. But then they got lost in the maze of narrow, rough-hewn back corridors. A thin vein of Sewell ore ran along the walls at about eye level, enough to dimly light the passage. But the area didn't look familiar. She asked, "Rosie, have you ever seen this before?"

The In Vitro shook her head. "I don't think I've ever been here, Kylen, but I could be wrong. It looks the same as all the others to me."

Kylen nodded. "We can't be too far though. We know we're on the cellblock side of the pit, because of the stream."

Rosie said, "Yeah, and you could always hear the water running from that end cell, too. So all the cells were on that side of the creek."

"I remember ... but are we past it?"

"No, we can't be. We never went through the water again. It has to be left."

"Okay... yeah. If this is one of those back tunnels we ought to be behind the cells."

That made perfect sense when they were reasoning it out, but what they didn't realize at the time was the extent of the narrow little passages back in there. McQueen was at a loss what they were for, there was no reason to design a mine that way. What he'd seen of the mine before made sense with what he already knew, taking into account the chigs' penchant for building hexagonal structures instead of square corners. But then they started coming across little unfinished chambers that had been dug off the sides of the passages.

Kylen looked back into one of the chambers, the curving walls and ceiling looked almost organic. Then she recalled where she had seen something like that before. "It looks like an anthill. You don't think they were going to live down here?"

McQueen replied, "It seems like they would rather be underground. Any time they build something above ground, it's just something temporary. If they're going to stay a while, they dig in."

"We must be too far out. We need to go right at the next corridor and try to get closer to the pit," she said.

Rosie nodded. "And then right again -- we had to have passed the cellblock by now." Suddenly she stopped and listened. "What was that?"

McQueen said, "Sounded like AIs, and this isn't a good place to get acquainted. Let's move."

<end part four>

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