Chapter 24
A Cornered Rat...
Location: Villareyes Starport, Saturnian Sphere
Date: Sat 15 Jun 121
Time: UST 1753

The chief administrator of the Villareyes Starport would've puked if he had anything left in his stomach. He puked the first time when the pirates swarmed into the control room and one of them kicked him in the balls so hard that he didn't have to worry about having that third kid. He puked again when a technician got half his head blown off, smearing brains and blood on the console. Now he wanted puke because he knew he was going to die, too. His guts churned, but he couldn't even muster a dry heave.
He had to stand there in a puddle of his own piss, stinking to high heaven, his shirt stained with puke and sweat, his soaking wet pants clinging to his legs. Those sick bastards had to be getting a kick out of it, making him stand there like that, giving orders to the staff like he was still in charge.
Because he knew he was going to die anyway, he somehow found the shred of courage to face the pirate leader, a big, hulking man with a weird haircut and glassy, emotionless eyes, who looked like he could kill you with a stray glance.
"You're going to die, too," he said.
The pirate leader neither smiled nor frowned. He only said, "You let us worry about that. Just stay the course and it'll be quick."
That was about all the embattled administrator could hope for now. A quick death.

* * *

Location: ESS Ticonderoga, Saturnian Sphere
Date: Sat 15 Jun 121
Time: UST 1842

Miranda sat on the edge of her rack, wearing the pocketless khaki jumpsuit of a non-hostile detainee. Once the Marines returned safely on board the Ticondergoa, she was thrown into the brig on insubordination charges, among other things. If the brass pursued the charges and took it to a court-martial, it could be the end of her military career.
She had had a week to stew on this possibility.
The door to her cell slid open. Lieutenant Dixon walked in, flanked by an MA. She got up and stood at attention. The Lieutenant just stood there for a while, staring at her as she stood motionless, eyes straight ahead.
"At ease," he said. She complied and once she turned her head his way, he continued, "Gunny, I know I don't have any combat experience, but you were way out of line back there. You undermined my authority as platoon leader, willfully disobeyed orders, and possibly left a number of innocent civilians to die when that ship blew."
Miranda did not protest. It was not her place. They were no longer in a combat situation where seconds count and lives hang in the balance. She could afford to stick to protocol to the letter now.
The Lieutenant apparently did not understand this and asked her, "Don't you have anything to say?"
"Negative, sir," she replied curtly. "I did what I did with full knowledge of the consequences."
It was the truth. Even though she was not thinking about it at the time, she was nevertheless aware of what could happen to her for taking the actions she did. That was not enough to stop her. It never was, not when acting decisively could make the difference between a Marine living or dying.
Lieutenant Dixon appeared even more agitated. It was like he expected her response and by her playing exactly the way he expected, it frustrated him all the more.
"I don't want to admit it," he said with some hesitation, "but you made the best decision. As the Marine with the most combat experience, you judged the situation best and we managed to extract ourselves without losing a single man. On top of all that, you risked your life to save Fernandes. Colonel Grozny wants to give you a field promotion to lieutenant and have you take my place, but I hear you refused the offer."
"Yes, sir."
"Why?"
"Because, sir, I didn't do what I did to try to prove I'm a better leader than you or to take over First Platoon. My primary objective was to bring every Marine back home alive.
"No matter how realistic they try make those exercises and simulations, it's no replacement for real experience. You can't become a combat leader unless you experience combat and you can't expect someone with no experience to have all the answers. Hell, sir, even with experience, you're going to make mistakes.
"I have faith in you, sir, but I'm not going to sacrifice our Marines on account of that faith. You'll grow, you'll learn, but if I have to take charge every now and again, I will. I wasn't trying to disrespect you or your position, but I have my own duty to fulfill."
"Dammit, Gunny," the Lieutenant grumbled, kicking the deck with his toe. "I won't lie to you. I'm pissed, but I know you're right. I understand what you're telling me. And that's why I'm going to sign off on the Major's request to award you the Bronze Star for your actions, and it's why the charges against you are being dropped and your detention is being canceled so you can lead a new infiltration team."
A new infiltration team? Already?
"What's the situation, sir?" Miranda asked.
"When that destroyer blew, it gave most of the Seven Deadlies the cover they needed to give us the slip. Now they've seized a starport and put it on a collision course with the main traffic lanes. There's no telling the damage that could cause and if they activate the thrusters again, they could even hit one of the colonies. We launch in twenty minutes."
"Well then, sir, we better get moving."

* * *

Location: Villareyes Starport, Saturnian Sphere
Date: Sat 15 Jun 121
Time: UST 1913

Jassa kicked the nearest bulkhead. She hated the waiting. Sin One wouldn't even let them torture a few civvies for fun. They had a whole goddamn battle group on their asses and she was in need of some serious stress relief.
"Dom, gel, kewl yer jets," Cassmac said lazily as he chomped on a ration packet.
"Don't tell me ta cool my damn jets, fatass," Jassa snarled.
Cassmac was her wingmate and he'd gotten her out of a tight spot more than once, but he still had a way of getting on her nerves. Right now it wasn't too hard to do.
Grig was pacing back and forth nervously. He was always fairly high-strung and now he was about to go out of his damn mind, mumbling to himself ninety to nothing.
"Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck," he mumbled. "We're so fucked. We're so fucked. We're so fucked."
Jassa couldn't stand it anymore. She grabbed him by the shirt and slammed him into the bulkhead.
"Shut the fuck up, Grig!" she snapped. "We don't need ya remindin' us how fucked we are!"
"Break it up, you two."
It was Karst. Jassa let go of Grig and backed up right away. For some reason, he didn't look rattled at all. Him and Sin One were about the only people who could keep their cool under the circumstances.
He did his little finger twirl thing and said, "Doggies, let's roll."
Jassa couldn't believe what she was hearing. "Roll? Roll where?"
Karst shot her a glare and she shut up. She should've known better. She had to be out of it if she was talking back to Karst.
"Our friends have opted to fuck us over," Karst said. "Good thing Sin One never trusted 'em, but we're not outta the woods yet. He has a plan, but it'll be balls ta the walls for us."
"What's the plan?" Grig asked.
"We empty the hangars, cargo holds, waste compartments, everythin' that isn't bolted down. Then we launch our birds an' use the cover ta get out. They don't know it, but we'll be sacrificin' the grunts, startin' over again from zero."
Jassa and the other Deadlies just stood there for a moment. Start over? From nothing?
As if he read her mind, Karst said, "Beats gettin' caught. Or gettin' dead."
He was right. Just about anything was better than getting caught, even getting dusted, if it came right down to it.
While the Deadlies headed to their Wasps, they heard a voice on the PA system.
"Attention. Attention. This is Security Chief Grichko. The Orbital Guard has warned us of a pirate crew heading toward this starport. They are armed and extremely dangerous. They have military equipment and may pose as government troops. Lock and barricade all compartments. The administrator is prepared to offer a reward to any volunteers willing to assist port security. We appreciate your cooperation. Thank you and be safe."
Jassa looked to Karst, who only grinned.
"I told ya Sin One has a plan."
Oh, this was rich. The boarders were in for a nasty surprise. And they'd be gone. It looked like the devil's luck was still with them.

* * *

Date: Sat 15 Jun 121
Time: UST 1927

"Move, move, move!" Miranda barked as her platoon unloaded from the Combat Sparrow.
Because of the civilian population, MediSuits were deemed to be too much of a liability, so the Marine boarders were outfitted in LightSuits and G22s. Miranda hated LightSuits. If they were at least the S variant, they would have the strength enhancements, but the platoon was stuck with the basic version. They were no better off than a bunch of greenbacks, at least as far as equipment was concerned.
There was no helping it. They had to move quick and it would be over. Secure the control center, reactor room, and thruster controls. Neutralize the pirate threat. Sounded easy enough, but unlike the standardized layout of the captured destroyer, Villareyes was a twisted maze of shit packed with civvies. Calling the situation 'dicey' was an understatement.
The schematics they were provided with were not much help. The local population had changed too much. Stopgap maintenance also altered the landscape a lot. The key sectors should be in the same location, but the path to get to them was another story.
"What's the situation, Echo One-Oh-Two?" Lieutenant Dixon asked over the radio.
For this mission the Lieutenant was assigned to handle C2 from the Combat Sparrow. He was busy taking in the video feeds from all their cameras and trying to make heads or tails of the starport's schematics. All Miranda could do was confirm what his own two eyes were telling him.
"Echo One-Oh-One, this Echo One-Oh-Two. We've got no clear route of ingress to objectives. We could spend hours wandering around trying to find our way or we could start cutting bulkheads. Either way is going to take more time than we have."
"Can you procure on-site guidance? Any locals?"
"We can look, Echo One-Oh-One, but it's a fair bet the Deadlies got to any personnel with privileged knowledge."
"Do what you can."
That was a rather open-ended order, but Miranda would indeed do what she could. She started be pointing to Corporal Hoek and then went on to the other squad leaders.
"Third Squad, start cutting a direct path to the reactor room. Second Squad, open up the overheads until you get us on the same deck as the control room. First Squad, hold position here and support Second and Third Squad. Fourth Squad, see if you can't find us a path port. Fifth Squad, come with me and we'll check starboard. Targets are likely to be mixed in with the civilian population, so exercise extreme caution. Remember the rules of engagement. Standard procedure for civvie areas. Now let's move out."
While everyone went to their assigned tasks, Miranda took Fifth Squad and headed down the passageway to find a path, hopefully in less time than it would take for Third Squad to cut through all the bulkheads between them and the reactor room.
As soon as she turned the corner, she saw the small arms fire in just enough time to pull back and keep the rest of the squad out of the line of fire. While blaster pulses splashed against the opposite bulkhead, Miranda held out her rifle, using the camera mounted in the scope to see what they were up against.
There were five men behind a crude barrier that blocked the passageway. She zoomed in to see that their weapons were either civilian issue or cheap homemade junk, not the military grade weapons the pirates were suspected to have. It could mean these were common civilians, or it could be a trap. Regardless, they were hostile and needed to be pacified.
She figured it was a wasted effort, but first she would go for the easiest route. She turned on her helmet's voice amplification so they would be sure to hear her. As a former drill instructor, she could certainly shout loud enough, but she did not want them to have any excuse.
"Surrender at once! Throw down your weapons, put your hands on your heads and lie face-down on the deck! I repeat, throw down your weapons, put your hands on your hands and lie face-down on the deck! If you do not comply, we will resort to deadly force!"
"Like hell we're fallin' for that!" one of the hostiles snapped back.
Another chimed in, "We got yo' asses, you pirate bastards!"
Miranda weighed her options again. It could be genuine and it could be a feint. The Deadlies were no ordinary pirates and this sort of ploy was just what she would expect from them.
While she was figuring out what to do, Corporal Wang of Fourth Squad shouted over the radio, "This is Echo One-Four-One! We're under fire!"
He was immediately followed by Corporal Hoek.
"This is Echo One-Three-One! We've come in contact with hostiles!"
Hearing the reports from the other squads, Miranda realized her momentary pause was entirely unnecessary. The answer was right there in front of her the whole time.
"All units, this is Echo One-Oh-Two. Stick to the rules of engagement."
That was all she needed to say. They would take the hostiles alive if possible, but not at the risk of their own lives. Whether the hostiles were pirates putting on a show or misguided civilians, it was the best way to deal with them.
That settled that. The rest of the platoon could take care of themselves. She could focus on the hostiles on her end.
She turned to Fifth Squad and told them, "Masks."
Once they all equipped their gas masks, Miranda inserted a riot control round in the underslung grenade launcher of her G22. Using the rifle's camera again, she aimed her rifle without exposing herself to the hostiles' fire and sent the round down the passageway. It did not take long for the gas to take effect. Their strong reaction indicated that they were the common civilians she expected them to be.
Not giving them any chance to recover, she rushed forward, leaping over the barricade and tackling the nearest hostile to the deck. Fifth Squad was right behind her, taking down the rest of them. Confiscating their weapons and zip-tying their wrists was about all the Marines could do for now.
Hoping to get some information out of the hostiles, she took hold of one and the members of Fifth Squad took the rest of them. The Marines dragged the hostiles further out where the gas was not so thick in the air, where they could actually answer questions instead of just hacking away. It took a few moments for their coughing to die down. Tears and snot were streaming down their faces, but they could answer questions.
"Talk!" Miranda barked. "Who's giving the orders around here?"
"Fuck you," one of them moaned, still coughing from the gas.
Miranda loaded another riot gas round.
"You must really like this shit," she said. She then took off her mask for effect and told the hostile, "It doesn't bother me any. Hell, there needs to be a club for people like us. You ready for another hit?"
She pointed her launcher at the deck, when the hostile hoarsely screamed, "Stop, you giant crazy bitch! We'll talk!"
"Then get to talking," Miranda said.
"Security made an announcement. OG warned us about you pirates showing up and the administrator offered a reward to anyone who'd assist."
Miranda rolled her eyes.
"You dumb sons-a-bitches, it was the damn pirates who made that announcement. They played you boys like a fiddle."
"Why should we believe you?" the hostile snapped back. "Security said the pirates would look like troops."
"If we were pirates," Miranda countered, "we would've killed your asses for shooting at us instead of zip-tying you."
One of the other hostiles blurted out, "Don't believe 'em, Digger! They're tryin' ta trick ya!"
"Digger?" Miranda asked. "What the hell kinda handle is Digger?"
"I'm a miner," Digger replied bluntly. "It makes sense."
The hostiles seemed to have settled down. Miranda was about to ask one to guide them to the reactor room when she heard Staff Sergeant Comanescu shouting over the radio.
"This is Echo One-One-One! We're under attack! Hostiles on the upper level!"
This meant the platoon was taking fire from yet another direction. They could not afford to have the squads pinned down like this. If only they had their MediSuits, they could blow through the resistance like it was nothing.
The civvies. The damned civvies.
That reminded her. She needed to spread the intel she had just acquired.
"All units, this is Echo One-Oh-Two. Be advised: Hostiles are likely local population. Rules of engagement still apply."
"What!?" a voice exclaimed. "These are the fucking civvies!?"
It was Maliki, ignoring protocol as always. Prior warnings had yet to sink in. Miranda would give him one more, and remember to smoke him good once they got back to the Tico.
"Follow protocol, Echo One-Three-Four!" she snapped.
Maliki's lapse sparked a general breakdown among the lower enlisted.
"They've got us from all sides!"
Solano this time. Before she could shout him down, another one followed in short order.
"A fucking Molotov cocktail!"
Then another.
"What the fuck are they thinking!?"
Miranda was losing her patience with them. They were better than this. They were Marines. They were supposed to keep it together in a firefight, especially in one with a bunch of ragtag Orbital civvies.
"Pull it together, First Platoon!" she shouted.
She was about to chew out the squad leaders for not keeping their people in line, but a cluster of new hostiles appeared in the passageway, hurling Molotov cocktails at them. Fire burst out all around them. While the Marines were not completely protected from the flames, they were much better off that the captive hostiles, who were screaming in pain and panic.
With the round already in her launcher, she fired it off into new group of hostiles, grabbed the hostile called Digger by the collar and started to pull him out of the flames.
"Take the civvies and fall back!" she shouted to the rest of the squad. As she was clearing the barricade, she called up Comanescu. "Echo One-One-One, secure me a perimeter! We'll regroup and make another push."
"Roger that, Echo One-Oh-Two."
Miranda and Fifth Squad met up with the rest of the platoon in passageway they came in from. Nothing was coming from port, but Third Squad was laying down some suppressive fire into the compartment past the bulkhead they breached. There was still some fire burning from where the Molotov cocktail had been dropped from the hole in the overhead. Whoever was up there was not dumb enough to stick their heads down for a peek.
There was no cover from anything coming at them head-on, but the position would have to do for now. Miranda did not intend to have them sitting still for long.
Herschel must have been on point when First and Second Squad started to move to the upper level because he had gotten himself burned by that Molotov cocktail. Other than that, no one seemed to have been wounded in the exchange thus far.
A couple of the hostiles Miranda had picked up were burned, too, so she handed them over to Doc. Lang and Subra were assisting him.
"Cut those zip ties," Doc told Subra.
The moment Subra cut the ties on the injured hostile, he brandished a shiv and plunged it into Doc's neck.
"Die!"
"Doc!" Subra cried.
Hoek had just fallen back to swap out mags when he saw it happen.
"Bastard!" he howled, smashing the hostile's face in with the butt of his rifle.
He continued to pound away at the hostile's skull, screaming like a maniac. A couple others joined in, but Comanescu and a couple other squad leaders pulled them away.
"Stand down, Echo One-Three-One!" Comanescu barked.
"All y'all, stand down!" Miranda boomed over all the struggling.
That got them to stop. Lang and Subra were trying to save Doc, but one of them made the mistake of pulling out the shiv, which made him bleed out all the faster. Miranda had seen this sort of thing enough times to know it was too late. Doc did not say anything, did not moan or cry out. He just looked up, his face frozen in confused surprised as his muscles made some last spasms before he went still.
Everyone gathered around Doc simply stared in silence. None of them expected him to be the platoon's first fatality.
Breaking free of Comanescu, Hoek was the first to speak up, pointing his rifle at the hostiles.
"I say we smoke these fuckers."
Miranda promptly snatched the rifle right out of Hoek's hands.
"That'll be enough of that shit," she said. "These poor bastards think we're the pirates."
"Gunny, don't tell me you're gonna stand for this," Hoek protested. "They killed Doc!"
"You're damn right I ain't gonna stand for it," Miranda replied, "but I ain't getting y'all dragged into some tribunal either. Think like a Marine, dammit."
That was enough to make Hoek realize how far out of line he was. Now that his head was straight, Miranda gave him back his rifle.
They needed a new game plan before anything else like this happened. Before that, she needed to run it by the man in charge.
"I'm gonna get LT on the horn," she told the others. "Echo-Oh-One, this Echo One-Oh-Two. Come in, Echo-One-Oh-One."
No answer. She was wondering why she had not heard from him. What was going over there?

* * *

Lieutenant Dixon pounded on the monitors in frustration. The garbled video feeds left him with no idea how the platoon was doing, and what little he could make out was far from reassuring.
"Echo One-Oh-Two! Echo One-Oh-Two! Come in, Echo One-Oh-Two!"
He had been trying to hail Gunny all this time, but he got no response. For a brief moment, he entertained the thought that she had deliberately sabotaged commo to do things her way without his interference. Then he reminded himself of what she had told him earlier. She was not out to take First Platoon from him and he believed her when she said it.
Still, an accidental disruption in commo has the same effect as a deliberate one. He went up to the cockpit to see if the pilot had any idea. When he got to the cockpit, both the pilot and co-pilot were busy fighting with their instruments.
"What's going on here?" he asked.
"We've got some interference," the pilot replied.
"I need to know what's going on with my platoon."
"I'd love to help you, but--"
"Skeev, look," the co-pilot interrupted.
Dixon saw the radar screen light up with dozens of contacts. Before he could wonder what it was, the Combat Sparrow rumbled and the shields flashed around them.
"What was that!?"
"If I didn't know better," the pilot said, "I'd say someone just strafed us."
Who would be strafing them? How? He did not get to wonder long when he heard a loud beeping on the console. A little red light flashed.
"Oh, shit," the pilot muttered. Grabbing his sidearm in the seat, he got up and started to push Dixon out of the cockpit. "We gotta get out." He motioned to his co-pilot. "Come on, Trike." He pushed Dixon more urgently, shouting, "Move, move!"
"Where are we going?" Dixon asked, clearly not moving fast enough for the pilot.
"Out!" the pilot snapped. "That was a missile lock!"
A missile lock? Holy...
He did not even have the chance to finish the thought. The pilot practically carried Dixon to get him through the breaching tube. On the way out, he hit the panel to seal it behind them. Dixon wondered if that would be enough.
He got his answer when the concussion wave hit them. The missile apparently was not that powerful, or it would have torn through the Combat Sparrow and taken a bite out of the spaceport's hull, spacing them before they would know what happened, if they were not incinerated in the explosion first.
They had to count their blessings while they lasted and get deeper inside before their luck proved to be short-lived. Hopefully they could meet up with the platoon before anything else happened.

* * *

Miranda was still trying to get ahold of Lieutenant Dixon. She did not want to move forward without reporting in, but they could not afford to wait much longer.
"Echo One-Oh-One, this is Echo One-Oh-Two. Echo One-Oh-One, do you copy? Come in, Echo One-Oh-One."
"We need to move, Gunny," Comanescu said.
"I know," she replied. "Let me give it one more go. Echo One-Oh-One, this is Echo One-Oh-Two. Come in, Echo One-Oh-One."
"Come in, Echo One-Oh-Two."
It was the Lieutenant. It sounded like he had not received her last transmission.
"Echo One-Oh-One, this is Echo One-Oh-Two. Do you read me?"
"Oh, thank God," the Lieutenant sighed. "I didn't think I was ever going to get ahold of you."
"What's your status, Echo One-Oh-One?"
"I'm right here."
That was not the radio. Lieutenant Dixon was standing less than twenty meters away, flanked by the pilot and co-pilot of the Combat Sparrow.
"What happened to you, sir?" Miranda asked.
"Missile took out the Sparrow," he replied. "We were having radio interference. Then the radar lit up and the pilot pushed us out, saying we had a missile lock."
Miranda slammed her fist on the bulkhead.
"Dammit!"
"What?" Lieutenant Dixon asked cluelessly.
"Those damn pirates played us again," she said. "They take this starport to lure us in, keep us occupied while they launch everything to cover their escape. They sic half the civvie populace on our asses to keep us bogged down to buy them extra time. We lost Doc, Herschel's hurt, we got no way out, and if we're not careful, it's going to get a lot worse than that."
"What do we do?"
"Our mission hasn't changed, sir. We have to get this starport under control, but we're probably going to need some help."
She walked over to the hostile called Digger, stepping down on him to keep him from squirming away. Looming over him, she cracked a savage grin.
"You'd be more than happy to give us a hand, wouldn't ya, Digger?"