2951-05-24 – Tales from the Service: The Rock of New Tortuga

Though it has yet to be formally named, a planet only a few dozen light-years from Sagittarius Gate is referred to by service personnel as New Tortuga. Rumor has it that the system was an outpost for fugitives fleeing Reach authorities before the war. Certainly humans from the Reach settled it at least once in the decades prior to this conflict; images of the ruins on New Tortuga are easy enough to retrieve from the Sagittarius Gate datasphere, and you can still see the manufacturer’s insignias on some of the pre-fab shelter components.

Whether the inhabitants of New Tortuga died out due to their settlement’s extreme isolation, or, being fugitives, they left shortly after Naval Survey ships arrived to formally chart the system just before the war, I can’t clearly determine. The planet seems comfortable enough, at any rate, and the relatively pleasant climate and unthreatening biosphere found on most of its surface made it a prime candidate for use in a ground forces training exercise that completed only a few days ago.

As has been seen in past entries on this feed (Tales from the Service: An Officer’s Exercise), the Confederated Marines rely heavily on live-fire exercises against simulated opponents to keep troopers sharp. It might surprise some of our readers to know that several Marine brigades are attached to Seventh Fleet since the Seventh is currently not defending any planets, but every time we’ve talked with Admiral Abarca he’s brought up future offensives.

Evidently, the recent exercise permitted two Marine units (the Seventeenth and the Twenty-Ninth) to practice a full planetary invasion, complete with orbital bombardment, contested landing zones, and live-fire close air support. The actual ruins were not affected in this operation; the citadel of this simulated colony was set up on a plateau half a world from these potentially valuable artifacts, at a place the Marines are calling the Rock. Apparently, the Seventeenth suffered simulated casualties in excess of fifty percent in taking the Rock, through a combination of terrain, well prepared defenses, and unimaginative assault tactics.

While I’ve received two accounts of Marines storming this bastion in the teeth of simulated enemy fire, I also received an account of a very different kind pertaining to the exercise. Captain Judd Marlow is a superannuated Marine who serves as the leader of an opposition force simulation team, and he claims that his people set up some of the defenses at the Rock.

Judd Marlow turned in a slow circle, cracking his knuckles one by one. In every direction from where he stood, the alien grass waved in long, slow undulations that didn’t quite seem to line up with the morning’s gentle breeze. The place was beautiful, but his eye barely saw the magnificent desolation of this world so far from any human home. Where he looked, he saw lines of fire and defilade, sight-lines and military crests. Imaginary brigades and divisions marched up and down the gently rolling slopes, or burrowed into their sides and threw up earthworks that shortly bristled with guns.

All those toy soldiers, though, marched up past Judd toward the plateau’s western rim. There, rising from the horizon, was the feature he’d spied on the terrain maps before his team had ever left Sagittarius Gate. The basalt dome towered nearly two hundred meters above the plateau’s higher side, its crevassed flanks nearly precipitous at all points save for one water-etched ravine that cut a sloping path up to the summit. Its far side projected out from the rim of the plateau and hung as a sheer stone wall four hundred meters high above a shallow lake far below. In some weather, the summit was concealed by a halo of clouds; in other weather, an observer up there could see everything moving for fifty kilometers around.

A place like that, Judd knew, was destined to host a great conflict, and now he was bringing the conflict. In his pack were a hundred programmable marker beacons, and with these seeds, he would grow that forlorn, alien acropolis into the fortress it longed to become.

True, the defenses of this fortress would be built of shabby rammed earth and polymer panels rather than ferrocrete and alloy, and its defenders would exist only in the datasphere, but that hardly mattered. The attackers would be real Marines, and the harder Judd and his fellows made the simulation, the more realistic their experience would be. For every casualty his simulations tallied on New Tortuga, perhaps one fewer would be tallied in a real assault.

Judd pulled out one of his beacons, programmed it to mark a picket outpost, then jabbed it into the spongy, root-suffused soil. He’d already tested the properties of the local dirt and the rock below it, and verified that the machines that would come behind him could dig blast-proof bunkers deep enough that nothing the Marines had would knock them out. The simulated defenders of such outposts would retreat to the deepest level when bombarded, then dig themselves out just in time to catch the advancing Marines with flanking fire as they passed by. Judd wouldn’t commit his best troops to such delaying tactics, of course; the rules of the exercise limited how many of the best his opposition force could use. The outposts would be given over to fanatical amateurs.

Judd trudged down the hillock toward his lighter. “Joanna, can you finish setting up this picket field? I’m going to go get started on the Rock.”

“The what, Captain?”

“That big outcrop west of us. Center of the defenses.” Judd climbed up into the lighter’s cockpit and closed the canopy. There were seven people on his team programming beacons; seven whose artifice would oppose whole brigades. It was a heady feeling, but Judd still missed the days when, as a company commander, he’d donned a Rico suit and led forty-odd Marines into battle, simulated and otherwise.

“I think Theodor is already up there setting up the drones.”

Theodor Janowski, the team’s automation tech, supervised the machines that turned the programmed markers into earthworks, bunkers, structures, and obstacles. True, most of the construction was flimsy, temporary work, but inside the Marines’ helmets, it would all look like the real thing, and the phantom defenders would be protected by polymer panels as perfectly as armor-plate.

Judd took his lighter up and over the gently sloping meadow toward the Rock. Sure enough, as he circled for landing, he saw Theodor’s lighter and the boxy drone mothership perched at its summit, with several aerial drones already circling.

Judd touched down near the westward rim of the outcrop and jumped down onto weathered stone barely colonized by scrubby, rubbery plant-life. He couldn’t help but stare out over that expanse of empty air for several seconds. There were a few wispy clouds forming over the lake – forming far below his feet, but still far above the ground. No, there would be no assault from that side. With a flourish, he jabbed two more beacons into the ground as near to the rim as he dared, programming one to be an air-search sensor station and the other to be a heavy anti-air laser battery.

With one last look at the view, Judd turned toward the other side of the outcrop and waved at Theodor, who barely looked up from his work on one of the drones. As he walked toward the ravine that was the only way up to the summit, he planted a few more beacons. In his mind’s eye, a fortress was taking shape, a fortress that would make even Marines tremble. This would be the site of the final assault, and if everything went well, the attackers would not soon forget it.