2948-08-18 – Tales from the Service: A Conference at Dawn

Azure Kulmala graced this feed last week in her thrilling account of flying a dropship down to Margaux following the Incarnation attack on the system (Tales from the Service: The Bumpy Ride to Margaux). This week, we pick up her account the following morning local-time. The Battle of Margaux is developing in the mean time, but this embed team is being forced to withhold all details for the moment.

It seems that Margaux’s garrison – a mix of Marines and FDA – has something to hide, and it honestly surprises me that Naval Intelligence has cleared this story for publication. Perhaps the vagueness of what Azure knows up to this point is sufficiently unhelpful to the enemy (it contains nothing they can’t learn from orbital imagery) that it is deemed harmless, or perhaps not.

[N.T.B. – Naval Intelligence is so tightfisted most of the time that I wonder if someone over there fell asleep with this one. Still, it’s their call. Maybe they are cleverly releasing this to overturn an overly information-restrictive local commander’s decision – but if so, this would be a unique situation: Naval Intelligence advocating more openness with the media than the on-scene officers, rather than less. Maybe they just don't care about this because it refers to ground-side skulduggery. I suppose we'll find out.]

Azure Kulmala woke to a thumping so loud she rolled out of her bunk and leapt up, sure it was a collision alarm or that Gerard Lovell was under attack.

In shipboard gravity, this reaction would have had her standing in an instant, but in the roughly point-nine gee Margaux gravity well, her legs failed her and she flopped down on her knees beside the bed. The dusty fabcrete under her hands and knees brought back into focus where she was, and why she was there. Gerard Lovell was somewhere in orbit, and she was still stuck on a poisonous rock for which a great many men and women were dying. A quick look out the window – a real window, though sealed airtight to minimize invasion by several species of poisonous seasonal pollen – revealed the dim gray of pre-dawn.

The thumping repeated, and Azure recognized that it was not a collision or weapons fire, but the pounding of a Marine’s meat-haunch-sized hand on the metal-cored synthplast door of the lodgings she had been given. “Just a minute.” Azure called groggily, shaking her head as she stood slowly. Point nine gees felt like a lot to a spacer used to point-five or point-six, but she was at least current enough on her exercise regimen that the difference would be no more than a nuisance.

Shedding the skivvies she’d slept in, the pilot quickly threw on the new set of smart-clothes left for her by the Outpost Judicael staff. The at first loose and baggy material quickly adjusted to Azure’s preferred fit, so that when she opened the door, she looked almost composed. “What is it?”

“The Colonel sent for you, Lieutenant Kulmala.” The towering Marine outside the door – a specimen very nearly two full meters tall and almost broad enough at the shoulders to completely block the door – pointed down the hall.

Azure glanced back at the pre-dawn gloom outside her window. Outpost Judicael was awash with light, and though the local primary had not yet peeked its way over the distant eastern horizon, she could hear the murmur of activity as Marines, FVA conscripts, and supporting personnel hurried to their morning duties. “What for?”

The big man shrugged. Reasons were, apparently, above his pay grade. “This way, when you are ready.”

Azure sighed and hurried back into the room to collect her wrist computer and boots. The rest of her possessions which she had unloaded from the damaged dropship would have to wait until she was ready to leave. The mechanics had assured her it would be at least two days before they finished prying all the pieces of Coronach out of her vessel’s dorsal hull and port-side engine cowling, and a full precautionary inspection and nanotech sweep would probably take longer.

Returning promptly to the Marine at the door, Azure nodded her readiness. The man tromped off down the hall, and she trotted behind him to keep up. There was no attempt at conversation during the brief walk – the Marines, for fear of infiltrators and informants, refused to hold even the most routine conversations in the corridors of Outpost Judicael. The Lovell Marines had picked up this habit from the unit already on garrison seamlessly.

Fortunately, this silent walk ended quickly. The big man gestured to a door – an outer door, near which a rack of air filtration masks sat waiting for poison-pollen season – and stood aside, indicating that Azure should continue alone. As she approached the door, it opened automatically, and a gust of air billowing out from the positive-pressure air filtration system swept her sleep-mussed hair over her face as she crossed the threshold.

“Lieutenant Kulmala.” The smooth baritone of Colonel Monoghan greeted her. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the dim outside light enough to pick out the gray-haired Marine officer leaning against the thick fabcrete guardrail around a wide balcony. Beyond him, the eastern horizon was beginning to pale with the beginnings of dawn. “How are you feeling?”

“Well as can be expected, Colonel.” Azure walked out onto the balcony toward him. At both extreme corners of the balcony, rapid-tracking turrets for close air defense had been bolted to the artificial stone, though the rotary-barreled autocannons pointed blankly off into the horizon with nothing to shoot at. Outpost Judicael was not large, but she had seen enough weapons to prevent anything short of an orbital bombardment from overthrowing it. Perhaps they had anti-orbital weapons too, but if they did, those wouldn’t be left anywhere a stranded Navy pilot could see them. “Did you need something?”

Monoghan turned around to face her, and though the usual mask of confidence affected by the commander of Lovell’s Nineteenth Marine Regiment remained solidly in place, she thought it seemed more strained than usual. “Answers, mainly. I think you can help me get them.” The colonel held up his left hand, revealing a surveillance scrambler swallowed up by his huge palm. “Colonel Keo still hasn’t given me a briefing of the situation. He isn’t patrolling the perimeter, and he’s got no local air assets. A site like this one should have at least one full squadron.”

Azure frowned. “I noticed that. A landing field, full staff of flight mechanics, and underground hangars, but no assets?” The sophistication of the base’s landing pad had surprised Azure and the other pilots, most of whom had disgorged their Marines and thundered back into the sky as quickly as they could get clearance. Only Azure herself had remained to puzzle over the question of why the FDA had deployed enough ground crew for three squadrons of space-capable strike launches or four squadrons of combat aircraft such as the Siroccos Colonel Monoghan was expecting.

“It’s more than that. There are at least five incomplete structures on this outpost, but no staff was working on any of them when we landed. The construction crew is preparing to pour a new foundation southeast of the second perimeter this morning.”

Azure was no expert in groundside logistics, but the idea of building new structures outside the main and secondary lines of defense during an ongoing invasion of the planet seemed so foolish as to border on the farcical. “What’s to the southeast?”

The colonel shrugged. “Nothing, as far as anyone knows. That way goes into the most rugged part of the whole Causey. The local datasphere says nobody but a few hermits live out there.”

Azure had seen enough of the Causey Plana on her way down to want nothing of a hypothetical more rugged portion of it. The plateau, cut through as it was with jagged, zigzag canyons, each of which harbored a panoply of toxic and/or predatory life-forms, was as forbidding as any terrain she had ever seen. “You want me to go have a look.”

Colonel Monoghan nodded. “I served with Keo in the Fifth when we were both lieutenants. If he’s not telling me something, it’s because he’s under orders not to.”

Azure approached the railing, resting her elbows on it. Her gaze wandered over to the shadowed southeast horizon, and she picked out the blue-white radiance of work-lights reflecting off a steep crag. That, she decided, must be Keo’s new construction project. Beyond this, the increasingly pale horizon had taken on a slight orange color. “I suppose I can ask for a test flight…”

“And if you should happen to take your test flight in that direction at random…”

Technically, she mused, Monoghan was not her commanding officer. Lovell was a Marine ship, not a proper Navy warship, but its flyers and spacers still answered to its skipper, a Navy officer. She could technically even waive some of the diagnostics and boost for orbit as soon as they’d repaired the critical plating. Blundering into a clandestine project seemed like a good way to take unnecessary fire – hopefully metaphorical, but possibly literal as well.

“Sounds like fun, Colonel.” Azure didn’t turn back to look at the old Marine; she kept her eyes on the work-lights on the horizon, increasingly lost against the light of imminent dawn. “Is there anything else?”

There was no immediate answer. The limb of Margaux’s yellow-white primary crept over the craggy horizon, casting rivers of light down the valleys and creeping down canyon walls toward the toxic abundance below. Forbidding as the world was, Azure grudgingly admitted it knew how to be pretty when it wanted to.

Only after watching the sunrise for a minute did Azure realize that Monoghan still hadn’t replied. She turned, only to find him gone as if he had never been, vanished back into the compound.