Saturday, 3 November 2012

Part one: continued

Sully was starting to panic, his hard thought out plan was rapidly turning to shit. This run should have been easy. In, out, avoid shaking-it-all-about, and he'd be home free with good grades. Problem was, he'd spent too long working on his tender proposal and not enough researching possible scenario locations. Sergeant Gumelar was going to rip him to pieces over his lack of a backup plan. 

Ok, at least try to keep calm. He called up another tactical display, which looked no better then any of the others that were currently slowly orbiting in his eye line. 

The mistake had been to assume that they'd been headed for one of Jupiter's moons, most likely Europa. That had been where most of the previous scenario runs had been, and that had also been where a rough plot of the ship's breaking trajectory indicated they were heading for. But Sergeant Gumelar was, of course, a cunning bitch. A day and a half ago the ship had ramped up the breaking thrust to just over a g. How the Sergeant had convinced the AI to allow that, Sully did not know; the faster burn and greater fuel use increased wear on the ion drive and costs more. The AI hates shit like that. But the Sergeant managed it and so here Sully was now, sat half way up the side of a small crater on the asteroid Hebe with little idea on how to proceed. 

Gravity was really low, less than 0.1g. Just keeping his pack on the ground was going to be fun, he'd already had to scale back output power as the drone AI struggled with the conditions. Of course, part of the reason for that was that he'd brought the wrong pack. Idiot. The trainee marines had been given the choice of the ship's store of ground based drones. That was how it would work in a real operation, so that is how the Sergeant had it for these exercises. The trick was to build a suitable pack of drones for the task at hand while pleasing the AI by assuring VFM with the selection. That was the key to winning the tender versus the other marines on board. The key to getting paid. So Sully had concentrated on running relatively cheap drones as his main point of attack, with one heavier unit for back up. Keep total pack size down to three meant less weight in the drop ship so less entry burn, less fuel consumption. A good start in terms of the AI's VFM calculations. Unfortunately, a bad start in actually getting the job done. 

At the base of the crater was the slightly forlorn looking hunchbacked shape of his heavy backup, a xenon class mobile tactical missile silo, otherwise known as a "Thumper". At over four metres tall and coming in at over three tonnes, the Thumper was a staple of battlefields across Earth and interventions in space. It's ubiquity kept prices down, especially when the cheap-arse AI stocks the ship with a job lot from the lunar military surplus brokers. And effectively useless in its current location. 

Hebe was just a couple of hundred clicks in a diameter, more of an ovoid than a sphere. It's not unusual in operations to be dropped maybe a hundred clicks away from the target - in low g it's easy for a smaller drone to cover that ground in maybe an hour, while maintaining the element of surprise that a near target drop doesn't allow for. Problem is that being dropped off a hundred clicks away on a lump a rock just a couple of hundred in diameter is that it puts you on completely the opposite side to the target. That, coupled with the ultra low g, makes it next to impossible for the Thumper to get a missile vector on the target. Sully could move the big drone closer, but the amount of dust it would kick up in the low g would be only slightly less effective than a neon sign in terms of announcing their arrival to the target. He could have tried moving it up during darkness, but "night" on Hebe lasted a little under four hours, insufficient for a heavy drone not designed for rapid transition to the front line. 

Still, at least Sully still had his two rock-hoppers. He could at least try to make the best out of a bad job. The rock-hoppers in their traditional set-up looked fearsome, the psychological effect of facing something that looked like a metallic attack dog, but was the size of a small horse, made them ideal for crowd control back on Earth where they were, not affectionately, known as "hell-hounds". They were also able to hinge their limbs out to the sides, taking on a more lizard like appearance, making them ideal climbers. Footage of four of these hounds scaling a skyscraper before smashing their way into an upper floor during the American slum wars went super-viral in seconds and was subsequently claimed by some historians to have been a prime factor in breaking the spirit of the resistance. They weren't quite as fearsome looking in their rock-hopper guise; the lengthened claws, less pronounced front jaw and slightly squatter body knocked out their proportions somewhat. But Sully wasn't attempting to break anyone's psychological spirit here, there wasn't much VFM in that approach. He had instead directed the rock-hoppers to approach the target from opposite sides, where they now lurked, waiting for his next command. But as well as plain old indecision, technical issues were also making Sully's day get that bit worse. 

Hebe was small, but she was also incredibly dense. While this tends to get mining companies excited given the greater likelihood of big deposits of nickel-iron and other profitable elements, it was badly screwing with Sully's bio link to the drones. Readouts from the rock-hoppers were either dropping out, or making no sense. It had proved impossible to get a visual feed. Shit, at this rate he might have been better commanding the pack from back on the ship. But that wasn't how the marines rolled. Also, it was rare that pack command from the ship was feasible. While that prick Si might be able to fly his drones easily enough through the crisp vacuum of space from the comfort of the ship, the dust and radiation from the sort of asteroids and moons the marines normally worked played hell with the bio link.    
He was going to have to get closer. Carefully he stood up from the squat he'd taken while assessing his meagre options. The tac-suit he was wearing was vaguely humanoid in that it had arms and thickset legs. Just no head. The trunk section resembled the egg a chicken might lay, if that poor chicken had lived its short life in a high radiation environment. It was fatter at the top than the bottom, with a large blister where the right shoulder of the occupant would roughly be. 

But it wasn't supposed to be pretty. 
Sully clambered over the lip of the crater, movements slow, precisely considered. He could have just jumped over in the low g, but the potential to get it slightly wrong and break the escape velocity of this hunk of rock was just too embarrassing to consider. Having to be picked up while slowing drifting through space away from the operation would not have gone down well with the AI grading him, or, more to the point, Sergeant Gumelar. 
Just getting out of the crater and onto the surface of the asteroid proper improved his connection with at least one of the rock-hoppers. A hazy visual image from the drone was pinned to the upper right of his visual field. The rock-hopper was looking down onto a small mine-head from approximately 100 metres away. It appeared deserted, the two prefabricated buildings unlit and the main lift shaft into the asteroid interior reading as powered down. 

Sully had covered a little more ground to try and improve the link, but the second rock-hopper was still registering high interference. It was a seismic sensor in the first rock-hopper that detected the movement, from behind one of the buildings. Sully instructed his drone to move a little higher up the slag heap his sensors were now able to tell him it had clawed itself onto, above the mine-head. 
He would have gasped, except that wasn't possible inside the tac-suit, filled as it was with a thick, oxygenated, gloop designed to booth boost radiation shielding and absorb higher g movement. One of Sully's most unpleasant experiences in life was the first time he had been instructed to breath the gloop, it oozing inside his lungs, senses crying out that he was going to drown. Still, it was a vital part of training if he wanted to avoid turning his lungs inside out during evasive manoeuvres. 

Unpleasant memories were put aside as he made sense of what the rock-hopper was looking at. It was a mining drone, one of the large machines used to chomp its way through the rocky asteroid interior. Thick caterpillar tracks ran down its sides, it's front end dominated by a giant drill rig, itself surrounded by manipulator arms and multi-directional rock melting lasers. 
Then there were all the bodies impaled on crudely welded spikes that ran along the top of the machine. 
Sergeant Gumelar had excelled herself. Now the long nights she spent behind the locked hatch to the machine shop started to make sense, her final scenario for the recruits to run was going to be a good one. The scenario briefing had been deliberately vague. LH owned mine gone off line, garbled messages from the dig lead, demand for higher pay, psyche-AI suspected mental instability driven by long off world placement. The usual.
A LH negotiation team had been re-routed over, only to disappear, then more garbled messages, threats to nuke the mine and associated equipment. That's when company AI would really start to worry; a direct threat to company property was taken very seriously. And so nearby (admittedly a relative term in space terms) intervention ships were invited to tender for the clear up operation. Secure the mine with as little disruption as possible. 
Sully was a few clicks closer now, and readings from the second rock-hopper were starting to come in. It wasn't just the asteroid causing the problem, it seemed, but a thick fog of electro static being pumped out by the mining drone. Apparently the deranged dig-lead in this scenario had expected company and was ready for it. 
The static was crude, and Sully could easily enough disable it with the electronic warfare suite housed in that blister on the right shoulder of his tac-suit. However, he did that, then the dig-lead would know he was there. The nut case would also probably be able to figure out that he was outmatched electronically and who knew how he'd react. Maybe he'd start tearing things up with the corrupted mining drone. Maybe he'd send the jury rigged central reactor critical. Sully didn't want to be around for that particular firework.   

The rock-hoppers could probably deal with the mining drone, big as it was, but that wasn't really going to get him anywhere if the dig-lead was controlling it from somewhere else. Sully sent the second hound on an arcing course around the two prefab buildings; the control centre and crew quarters. It's dog like appearance was sort of apt given the kit Sully had loaded it with. High level sensors were effectively trying to smell possible human occupation in the prefabs. If he could pinpoint where the dig-lead was, then take him out, he'd be sorted. Mind you, knowing Sergeant Gumelar they'd be some kind of dead man's switch that would set off the explosion if the target was attacked. Still, any possible attack was a moot point at the moment as the rock-hopper was detecting no life forms in the prefabs. This tallied with the passive scans the other hound was running from its vantage point on the slag pile. The life support on both prefabs was shut down, any human inside had to be vac-suited. But then the second rock-hopper would have picked something up, as vac-suits tend to give off a distinctive set of heat and gas readings. 

The mine
The dig-lead had to be inside the mine. But not too far down as the dense asteroid rock would mess up his connection to the mining drone. Sully sent the first rock-hopper higher up the slag heap, try and get a better angle on the mine-head. Meanwhile he moved the other in between the prefabs, careful for any pressure sensors the dig-lead may have set, and keeping one of the prefabs between it and the mining drone. From this position the second rock-hopper was just 30 metres from the mine-head. Ready to pounce. 
Now, how to tempt the dig-lead out? Maybe broadcast a warning? Come out with your hands up! But the report on him said mental instability. Ok, so how about something more subtle? Sully directed two more passive scans of the mining drone. The dig lead had done a decent job of setting up some neat anti-incursion scripts, but nothing Sully was too worried about. He could add his own gremlin script in there, maybe send some spurious readings back to the dig lead's control interface. Or maybe report that a sensor probe in the drone has got blocked - happens all the time. The guy comes out to fix the glitch, rock-hoppers pounce, Sully close-blankets the area in electronic sludge to prevent any kill switches activating. Simple. Sorta. 
The plan assumed that the dig-lead would come out, that he didn't just get twitchy and blow the place. But it was the best Sully could come up with, short of sending the rock-hoppers into the mine. And that brought him back to the issue with the bio-link through the asteroid. Nope, that wouldn't work. Plan A it was, or was it plan B or C by now? Sully gave a sort of shrug, the gloop that packed him firmly within the tac-suit shifting slightly. 

The sensor readings from the rock-hopper on the slag heap jumped, its power usage briefly spiking as internal motors and gyroscopes flared into life. The visual feed wobbled. It took Sully half a second to figure it out, but the rock-hound had simply slipped on a loose rock. The second rock-hopper watched as a few small stones rolled down the slag heap towards the mine kicking up dust as they rolled. Sully held his breath, or he would have if the oxygenated gloop that filled his lungs wasn't already in effect breathing for him. 30 seconds, a minute passed with no other movement. The mining drone seemed oblivious, presumably focussing its crude sensor array outside of the mining camp for intruders, unaware of the enemy within. 
The first bit of luck Sully had got today. It also triggered a new chain of thought, a new plan. Sully smiled for the first time that day. Seismic scans were run, the smile widened. The second rock-hopper looped around to join its compatriot on the slag heap. They both climbed further up the heap, carefully selecting claw holds as they progressed. About two thirds of the way up, and now a good 200 metres about the mine-head, they stopped next to a larger piece of rock. They slowly dug out some of the stones from underneath it, then moved round behind. 

And pushed. 
It didn't take too much force in the low g, and when dislodged the large rock took a little time to build momentum, but the incline of the slag heap and the distance to the mine head were enough for a satisfyingly large rock slide to be unleashed. The mine-head was buried. Sully was quick to follow up with his active incursion into the central reactor and mine drone's systems, lock them down, but he was confident that there was now enough rock between the dig-lead and the outside world to prevent any nastiness. 
Sully punched the vacuum in celebration, a movement that threatened to send him tumbling into orbit and required a hasty vector correction. A small but bright flare in the sky told him that a drop ship was coming in to pick him up. Sully couldn't wait to see the Sergeant's face when she got the readings for this. Mission complete without a weapon fired. More than that, the mine would be back up and running in no time. No damage to external systems, while it would take the reconstituted mining drone all of 20 seconds to chomp through the slag blocking the mine head. 

And the AI could take VFM like that and stick it up its electronic arse.

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