Chapter 18
Dropping In
ESS Ticonderoga, Martian Sphere
Date: Sun 02 Nov 122
Time: UST 0524

Colonel Vasquez was woken up by the ringing of his PersCom. It would figure that he would be woken up six minutes ahead of his alarm. The caller ID indicated it was the CQ desk. They would not be calling him if it were not important.
Answering the PersCom, the Colonel said, "This is Colonel Vasquez."
"Sir, I have General Jacobi of Eleventh Army on the line for you."
"Put it through."
"Yes, sir."
There was a beep and then a voice--presumably that of General Jacobi--said, "Colonel Vasquez."
"Let me get right down to business, Colonel. I trust you're aware of the situation at Argyre."
"I've read the INTSUMs, sir."
"Well, the situation is worse than the INTSUMs are saying. Local C2's a wreck and casualties have broken into the five-digit range. I can't divert any troops to reinforce Argyre and that's where your people come in. Now, I know your unit is under a thousand men, but I need whatever I can get. We're calling it Operation Southern Cross and I want you in charge, Colonel."
"That's a lot of authority to give to an O-6, sir," Colonel Vasquez replied.
"Secretary Singh has granted my request to have you breveted to the rank of major general so you can assume command for the duration of this mission. There's an MI captain, Kalinin, who we breveted to colonel. He'll be your adjutant and liaison with the survivors at Camp Chisholm. You'll also be coordinating with the Martian Militia. They'll be sending a Major Buenaventura to act as your liaison.
"The governor has declared martial law, so as acting commander of ARGCOM, the civilian authorities will be answering to you as well. We haven't been able to make contact with the colonial magistrate's office, so I don't know if they're in any state to be much help.
"I know I'm asking a lot of you and your men, Colonel, but are you up the task?"
Colonel Vasquez had always been the type to take the bull by the horns. Paying no heed to the enormity of the responsibility or the incredible risk to his men, he immediately replied, "Yes, sir."
The General was silent for a moment and then said gravely, "Hold out as long as you can. Kill those Shelly bastards and protect the civvies until I can get you reinforcements."
"We'll make it cost 'em, sir."
"Mobilize your people and get your asses planetside pronto."
"Yes, sir."
"Godspeed to you, General. Jacobi, out."

* * *

Date: Sun 02 Nov 122
Time: UST 0600

With the deployment of pretty much all the Ticonderoga's Marine complement to Phobos, Deck 6 was all but empty except for Second Platoon. There wasn't a Devil Dog in sight as Jack and the rest of the platoon headed down to Deck 7 for formation with the rest of Charlie Company.
When they got to the assembly area, the other platoons were already there and formed up.
Sergeant Rahim--who had been named platoon sergeant after Sergeant Mendez was killed in the Hades incident last year--clapped his hands and shouted, "Come on, people, fall in!"
As they were forming up, Sergeant Rahim continued to shout at them.
"Get your asses in gear, Second Platoon! Move it, move it, move it!"
Getting bumped up to platoon sergeant hadn't done a thing for Sergeant Rahim's sterling personality. If anything, it only made him even more of a hardass.
When the platoon was formed up, Captain Robles said, "Nice of you to show up, Second." He then told the company, "At ease, Charlie. Three days ago, the Shellies began a bombing campaign of the Argyre colony. Yesterday, they started landing ground troops. Our boys planetside have been hit hard and it's going to get worse for them. They need reinforcements and we're it.
"As of this moment, all personnel in the 78th Combined Arms Detachment will be participating in Operation Southern Cross. We'll be coordinating with the local garrison at Camp Chisholm along with elements of the Martian Militia to launch a counter-offensive and to protect the civilian areas.
"I'm not going to lie to you about the threat we face, Charlie Company. We've seen the Shellies completely raze colonies before and now they're raising hell here on Mars. Millions of civilian lives are at stake. Failure is not an option."
The Captain drew in a long breath before continuing.
"When I dismiss you, report to the armory and then to the hangar. We deploy in an hour. Set your ACUs to Mars Pattern 3. Do it now."
Sewn into the cuff of the ACU blouse sleeve and pantleg were dials to adjust the camouflage pattern. There were 47 different patterns to choose from to cover a variety of environments both on Earth and in the Colonies as well as a few branch-specific variations. The sea of OD green was soon washed over by what looked much like a standard desert digicam pattern, albeit with a subtle ruddiness to the browns to match the Martian soil.
There was, however, one spot that conspicuously remained OD green. Captain Robles was quick to notice it.
"O'Connor, is there a problem?"
Jack glanced over to Ally, who was just standing there at ease.
"What're ya doin', Ally?" Jack whispered. "Switch over."
Even though she was drawing a lot of attention to herself, something she usually went out of her way to avoid, Ally didn't move. What was going on?
Sergeant Rahim looked back at her over her shoulder and barked, "Dammit, O'Connor! What the hell's your malfunction!? Do I gotta come over there and hold your hand!?"
"N-no, Sergeant!" Ally stammered.
"Then switch over, goddammit!"
"Ye, yes, Sergeant!"
Ally pulled her arm out from behind her back and began to turn the dial in her cuff. The face she was making made it look like it was hurting her to do it. Again, Jack wondered what was going on, but he wouldn't have a chance to talk to her in private about it anytime soon.
If they weren't going to be in a rush to deploy, Sergeant Rahim would probably have taken the time to smoke them both for a good hour. Captain Robles, for his part, pretty well let it slide, but not without comment.
"You all need to get your shit together, people. Look to your left and to your right. Make sure they're shit's straight too. This is the real deal and fuck-ups are going to get people killed. We tracking?"
"Tracking, sir!" the company shouted in unison, all except for Ally, who was just staring straight ahead looking like she'd come down with a case of lockjaw. Fortunately, no one but Jack seemed to notice.
"Fall out and get geared up," the Captain continued. "Full battle rattle. In the hangar by zero-seven. Company!"
The platoon leaders shouted, "Platoon!"
The company snapped to attention with their rather uninspired warcry.
"Fall out by squads!" First's platoon leader shouted. "Single file, to the armory! Let's get the lead out, ladies!"
First Platoon filed out and then Second followed. Jack really wished he could ask Ally what was the matter. It wasn't just nerves about the mission. He'd seen her pre-mission jitters before and this wasn't it. For the time being, he could only hope that whatever it was wouldn't get them killed out in the field. He'd have to do his job of watching out for her now more than ever.
He was so concerned about Ally that he never stopped to think about the fact that their tiny unit was going up against a full-scale Shelly ground invasion or the implications of the Shellies even being able to land ground troops on Mars. Perhaps it was for the best that way.

* * *

Location: Near Camp Chisholm, Argyre Planitia, Mars, Martian Sphere
Date: Sun 02 Nov 122
Time: UST 0936

The objective was to land as quickly as possible before the Sheolites could shoot them out of the sky. It did not allow Colonel Vasquez much time to survey the damage of the past 72 hours from the air. The designated LZ was several kilometers removed from both Camp Chisholm and the main settlement cluster. The largely flat terrain meant there was one less hazard to worry about, but a peppering of particle cannon fire was enough to make a person nervous.
The Colonel's Albatross landed roughly, a consequence of their haste to get to the ground. He promptly unstrapped himself and headed over to the Super Monitor that would be his home until the operation ended. The mobile command post was essentially an oversized APC with all the electronics necessary to oversee a battalion-sized element. Of course, he was charged with commanding more than just a single battalion, but adaptation was the nature of the beast.
Although the custom of the most senior disembarking first was a bit of a dicey prospect in a hot LZ, the Super Monitor was nevertheless the first to roll out of the Albatross' cargo bay. They did not have far to drive to meet up with the liaisons General Jacobi had mentioned.
Flanked by Sergeant Major Bellamy and a couple riflemen for security, the Colonel exited the Super Monitor. It was somewhat odd seeing regular Army soldiers mixed with the men of the Martian Militia. The Militia was a sanctioned paramilitary organization, but most servicemembers did not hold them in high regard. A native Martian himself, Colonel Vasquez appreciated what the Martian Militia did and was particularly thankful for their help now.
As he approached, an Army officer asked, "General Vasquez?"
The Colonel had not yet gotten used to his new brevet rank. He still wore his colonel's insignia, but he might have to make a point to change that lest it create problems when it came to establishing his command authority.
"You must be Kalinin," Colonel Vasquez said, noting that the former captain was already wearing his three bars.
"Yes, sir," Kalinin replied.
Colonel Vasquez looked over to the lead Militiaman. Were he not a fellow Martian, the Colonel may not have recognized the insignia of a Militia major.
"And you must be Buenaventura," he said.
"Yes, sir," Major Buenaventura replied. "And let me just say that it's both and honor and a pleasure to be serving with such a distinguished native son as yourself, sir."
While Colonel Vasquez had been awarded the Silver Star, he was not especially distinguished in the public eye. Even most Heroes of the Union and Medal of Honor recipients would have a hard time being recognized, but the Militia was keen to follow the careers of native Martians in the hope of adding distinguished servicemembers to their ranks. It would seem that Colonel Vasquez was on the list of people the Militia was watching closely.
However, the Colonel was interested in rewarding flattery with any acknowledgment and instead went straight to business.
"What are your numbers and equipment like. Major Buenaventura?" he asked.
"We've got about twelve thousand ready to go, sir." Major Buenaventura replied. "But all we've got are just small arms and some light armored vehicles. The government doesn't allow us to have anything more than that."
"Not that you need anything more than that," Kalinin interjected.
Major Buenaventura glared at Kalinin and said, "I bet you wish we had more right about now, pendejo."
It was rather clear to Colonel Vasquez that Kalinin was a native Earther and that was a dimension he did not want to engage.
"Enough!" he barked, cutting off the dispute before it could go any farther. "We don't have time for a damn Earth-Mars pissin' match. Kalinin, what's left here at Chisholm?"
Kalinin eyed Buenaventura briefly before replying, "We have two mechanized battalions, one para battalion, about half of my MI battalion, an artillery battery, a transport company, an MP company, a signal battalion that's only got about a platoon's worth of personnel, and what's left of our aviation detachment. Not even five thousand all told, sir."
"And your equipment?"
"Most of our ground vehicles are still intact, but they took out the airfield and everything but a couple Warhorses and a Yak."
Three hoverships would not be nearly enough to move the base's men and materiel by air. Risky though it was, the speed of hoverships would prove a major advantage over the Shellies, which lacked any comparable aircraft.
"We have some dropships and hoverships of our own," the Colonel said. "It'll help us move troops around, but we need more airpower. Have you been in contact with Ninth AF?"
"Long-range comms have been shot, sir," Kalinin replied. "We're trying to restore the satellite uplink, but there's a lot of interference."
"Restoring comms needs to be a top priority," the Colonel said. "Hopefully they can send us air support from MARPAC South. In the meantime, we'll see if the Tico can spare us her strike fighters. We need to draw the Shelly ground forces away from the civvy areas, though."
"Do we even have the manpower for that, sir?" Kalinin asked.
"We have to make do with what we have. We don't stand and fight. Stick and move. Kill as many as we can while conserving our numbers. We can't count on any backup anytime soon. The 18,000 of us is all that stands between the Shellies and the 22 million citizens of Argyre. We gotta make it cost 'em, every single sench of ground. Is that understood?"
"Yes, sir," Kalinin and Buenaventura both replied.
"Good. We need to dispatch recon units and draw up a plan of attack. I want those long-range comms ASAP. We could use some eyes in the sky right about now."
"Understood, sir," Kalinin said.
The Colonel clapped his hands and said, "Alright, let's do this, people! Move 'em out!"
The garrison troops and the Militiamen split to go to their respective vehicles while Colonel Vasquez returned to his Super Monitor. The situation was dire, but if they could work together, Operation Southern Cross might just be a success. Millions of lives were depending on it.