Fort Banning lies in a strategic pass between two
glacier-capped mountain ranges far to the northeast of Californias
capital of San Diego. It is the namesake of an old city that once bustled
nearby and gave its name to the area, or so it is said. The fortress and its
associated military reservation serve many purposes; it directly guards the
land approaches to communities scattered among the inland valleys between the
pass and the capital; it serves as a jumping off point for operations in the
East and it is a valuable training and development center due to its remote
location. North of Banning lay cold desert wastes, the glacier covered interior
and the storm-swept Pacific coast. Somewhere up there a few decades previous,
an erupting volcano had spewed ash 20 miles into the sky. Nobody was there to
Ortiz walked along the broad passages leading away from Fort Bannings
underground landing ports, she carried on several conversations with her State
Department staff down in San Diego and La Paz. The later was the southernmost
major city within California borders, and also one of strategic importance.
News from all over indicated that a major Selangor offensive was underway, and
that it was being supported by orbital operations. So far no Californian space
installations had been damaged, but orbital debris around Earth had tripled in
the last 30 minutes. After this briefing Ortiz was going to contact the
Selangor state department with a neutrals complaint, maybe hit them with a
compensation request for orbital clean-up charges. The Selangor would refuse to
pay of course, but it placed California on firmer ground for extracting
concessions on other issues.
along, admiring the finely detailed artwork engraved on the tan granite walls
of the hallway. Lighted alcoves formed graceful T-shapes, each containing a
rare or unusual piece of archeological history. Turning right she passed
through a set of blast doors which opened noiselessly into an even wider
central passageway. Standing in the center of the hall was a smartly dressed
army officer. He greeted her and introduced himself; Good evening Miss
Ortiz, I am General Edward Johns. he said crisply but with an articulate
sense of familiarity. We have been expecting you.
Pleased to meet you general, I understand events already brought us some
guests? Do we know how many and their condition?
were two, Australians, picked up in the desert a few hours ago." he commented.
"They were unhurt and fairly lucky to be alive. Their ship was badly damaged in
the first attacks and the two of them had to deorbit under fire not
something you want to do every day if staying healthy is a priority.
Interesting. she replied. And the Selangor didn't get them on
the way down?
and failed, he replied, they had some dual-purpose aviation in
ambush, but they started too far away. That and the fact that we were flying
dedicated air-breathers made them easy to scare off. I presume not wanting to
get into a shooting war with us also had something to do with it . he
added with a wry tone. Had the Australians come down farther to the east
it might have been an issue. The Selangor obviously saved their best units for
both for the result and knowing that the Selangor have not changed much." Ortiz
commented. "How is their offensive going?
Miss Ortiz, very costly. said the general, with a scowling smirk. A scar
on one cheek revealed a hit from an ice wall ricochet. The service bar on his
austere uniform showed two combat awards and seven ice wall duels. Ortiz was
not armed forces, but she knew that just the seven duels were impressive, far
above what was necessary for his position. Looking at Johns however, revealed
someone with a keen eye for tactical and operational planning; she could
understand why he was head of Northern Command.
walked down the hallway to meet with the Australians, she mulled over her
career of the last 30 years and could only recall seeing two people with scars.
They weren't something normally seen, but certainly served as a reminder
of what she didn't feel like articulating.
pulled out of her reverie as the general striding along next to her opened
several conversations with his staff. They walked briskly up a second set of
hallways while he continued with several conversations, issuing orders and
searching status reports. The current events in orbit seemed to dominate the
conversation. Shortly, another officer joined them from an intersecting
passage. Ah. he said You were close weren't you? he added as an aside with a large
smile on his broad face.
Lieutenant Payson. said the general, returning the
Lieutenants salute. This is our State Department visitor, Sonya
Ortiz. She came all the way from San Diego just to see us.
sir. responded the young lieutenant, looking directly at Ortiz. He
introduced himself in standard military syntax, Lieutenant Bernard
Pleased to meet you Lieutenant Payson, although actually I came all the
way from San Diego to see the Australians. she quipped with an expansive
Excellent. commented the General with a stony expression belying
his words, he allowed a wisp of a smile to cross his face and it was gone.
The Australians are down this way. I understand they are waiting for us
in one of the open rooms.
walking as the Lieutenant brought their attention to the latest intelligence
streams coming in from Mars. While Ortiz and the general browsed through them,
Johns gave a brief exclamation; Well Miss Ortiz. he commented.
It looks like our friends the Selangor are learning some new tricks after
all. This should remind us not to underestimate anyone.
the conversation faltered while they all watched the latest reports on their
watched, Ortiz followed the general and his subordinate as they continued
through several more sections and up twelve levels in one of the countless
elevators that connected Banning's deep and shining underground halls. Upon
exiting the elevator on the upper level, Ortiz chimed in again, snapping off
her own viewer in the process; By the way general. she noted with a
query in her voice. "The Selangor flight that followed our two Australians, you
said they were dual-purpose. Were we able to confirm whether they came out of
at her cautiously, the general commented. Yes Miss Ortiz.
test at hand, she persisted. And?
the silence to accumulate for some seconds, it was her way of letting General
Johns know of her expectation. Without looking back at her, he started again
with a tight smile Excellent consideration Miss Ortiz, I do think that
most people would not have considered that until well afterward. And no, they
did not come from low orbit, or any orbit for that matter.
and looked at her. And yes, in anticipation of her next question,
it appears that they came from somewhere to the east, so it looks like we
will need to query the settlements. If other countries have begun base
squatting out there, we will need to remind them whose backyard they are
looking at his upraised eyebrow, which silently asked her if she had any other
questions. With a light smirk and tilt of her head, she gave half a nod and
turned to resume their passage to the open room.
main entry on the right will be the open room Miss Ortiz. said Lieutenant
Payson; he and the general quickly traded glances and continued on to the room.
have one or more transparent walls, which typically look onto a large atrium or
scenic area, commonly with a view of the sky. Some of them have climbing walls,
swim centers or work areas, others are for meetings or have restaurants. For
people who spend so much time underground, the open rooms are a pleasant way to
take in some real sky and natural scenery without having to be violently
exposed to the elements.
continued for a while along the smooth, beautifully patterned floor of the
upper hall until Ortiz noticed a pair of heavy bulkhead doors signifying the
entry way of an open room. The gracefully designed beryllium doors were deeply
set into the walls; laid into the stonework were fine rays of black crystal
that stabbed outward and upward from the pinnacle of the doorway. Within the
entry marched a line of columns set flawlessly into the architecture. They lit
to a deep turquoise blue as the party entered and afterward faded like seawater
disappearing onto a sand covered shore.
the room and looking out at the early evening sky were the two Australians. As
noted in the brief, one of them was batur. Both of them were wearing full
coverage service uniforms with their hoods pulled back behind their shoulders
to allow for face-to-face conversation. This also allowed the base sensors to
read them, a polite gesture. Smiling as he strode toward them, the general
introduced himself and his companions. The senior Australian replied,
introducing himself as Commander Ian Williams, and his companion as Lieutenant
Mæsa Atri. Upon completion of the introductions, Ortiz looked directly at
Lieutenant Atri and smiled, saying Oiya, tuhjo belem mela Atri. At
the sound of his native Kitak, the lieutenant smiled and bowed slightly.
Commander. started the general. If you have a little more room for
something to eat, we can join in a light meal while we talk.
Certainly. replied Williams. Were always interested in
tasting something new and interesting.
motion from the general, they walked over and relaxed into a set of nearby
chairs arrayed around a low, pentagonal table. As they sat and allowed the
chairs to conform to their postures, the tables edges telescoped
seamlessly into position. The general shot a glance at Lieutenant Payson as he
briefly distracted himself with something happening in his field of view, so
the lieutenant opened the conversation; I have to congratulate you on
your escape from orbit today. he said, I understand now if
you did not already know that your unit was the first to be hit by a
general Selangor offensive.
Ortiz added That information comes from your consulate.
Yes. responded Williams, I understand. As you may know
already, we were anticipating this offensive, which was part of the reason we
were in our particular positions.
noticed. mentioned Payson. Apparently the Selangor noticed too,
which I imagine was your intent.
observation, the Australian commander remained silent. He merely adjusted
himself in his chair and returned a polite glance.
understand, added Ortiz, kindly moving the conversation on to the next
point, that during your rescue you were in a position to note some of our
newer aviation assets. Her demeanor dropped down one or two points, but
her friendly tone remained even and sincere. We do hope that you will be
kind enough to avoid observing too closely any of the particularly sensitive
features you might have noticed one way or another.
continued; I only say this because you were followed by the Selangor and
we were obliged to discourage them with a small show of force. The desire to
avoid even the slightest appearance of carelessness in the rescue of downed
personnel in our zone of influence caused us to use immediately available
forces to assure your safe rescue, in case the Selangor were after you and not
second more pronounced pause, she continued; Unfortunately some of these
units were not the type we would normally use in areas so easily swept for
data. At least not in peacetime, when such vehicles are best left
understand. replied Williams. His barely detectable point of distraction
during his reply meant to the watching Californians that he was sending a brief
comment to his lieutenant, confirmed by their base sensors which easily picked
up the encrypted transmissions between the two Australians. After a short
second of delay, the Australian commander continued. Any information
routinely collected by us has been omitted from our records, and I will
personally certify that no information was forwarded to any Australian
At that last
point, all three Californians looked at the batur lieutenant. Knowing that many
batur do work against an occasional background of prejudice, they understood
the motivation behind what was probably Lieutenant Atris quiet seizure of
an intelligence bonanza. The lieutenant showed no sign of awkwardness or
embarrassment as he finished gazing into space in front of him, virtually
sorting through several items as he deleted the precious information he had
collected during his dash across the rocks earlier in the day. He looked up and
nodded his head slightly at his superior a gesture conducted for the
consumption of the watching Californians.
Californian general, Edward Johns, looked long and thoughtfully at the batur
lieutenant. He did not get to his position by being naive or careless, and
everything indicated the Australians were telling the truth. At that, he raised
his eyebrows at Commander Williams, looked back at Lieutenant Atri one more
time and said Well gentlemen, how about something to eat?
the mood lightened again and Ortiz sealed that part of the conversation with a
short Thank you.
completed her thanks, a series of interesting snacks arrived in the form of a
regional specialty. They looked strangely familiar to the two Australians, or
at least the ingredients were familiar. These look good, what are
they? asked the Australian commander. They are surprisingly
simple. replied Lieutenant Payson. Finely ground almond butter
spread on a small square of freshly toasted bread and topped with olive oil and
crushed garlic. It should be eaten whilst still warm, so feel free to enjoy
them off of their black ceramic plates, the Australians each took a curious
bite of the slightly dripping bread squares. The lieutenant was the first to
react, the batur love spicy food and garlic. He allowed himself a grin as he
nodded his head in silent but delighted affirmation. Commander Williams gave a
long Mmmmm and eyed another piece. He looked across the table and
saw that the general had set down his utensil and picked up a square with his
hands, feeding it whole into his mouth. He looked up at Williams and gave a
satisfied tilt of his head as he swiped the excess olive oil from his hands.
Yes, Ortiz said, eating them with your hands is somewhat
party sat enjoying the light meal, washing it down with generous drafts of the
cold spring water supplied by the deep wells beneath Banning, Williams and Atri
both began to feel both more relaxed and yet more in shock from the days
events. The general and Ortiz both with access to the base sensors
had a sense of their guests condition.
gave Ortiz a brief glance and then looked at Williams; Its quite a
fall isn't it your return to the surface. Glancing at Johns,
Williams saw a sympathetic return; Yes. he said.
goes on forever. Johns continued with a wave of his hand as he looked at
the sheer power and violence of it, its as if a blast furnace is wrapped
around you like a heavy wet blanket. Either way, there isn't much else like it
in the solar system. Of course your problem today was being shot at in the
process that complicated things. You know, back a hundred years they
occasionally found people who had landed safely, but were dead from stress,
probably heart failure. The sheer terror of the fall to Earth from orbit was
just too much. Now uniforms keep an eye out and intervene if necessary.
Looking at the two Australians though, Johns was sure that neither of them had
needed help from their uniforms.
through a few more threads, Ortiz cleared her throat and reopened the more
official portion of the debriefing. Well Commander Williams, she
said, and also Lieutenant Atri. she added with a friendly nod and
smile. We have been in communication with your consulate, and in
conjunction with our own people in San Diego we have put together a situation
report for you, some of it using information only a few minutes old.
returned a look of pleasant surprise. He had really expected nothing from the
Californians, who historically had been carefully neutral.
well know. she continued. This is not standard policy for our
government, and we will mostly be forwarding information that is already
public. However, we are also including information that has come through
internal channels because we believe it may be of personal concern.
Williams and Atri exchanged curious glances.
at each of them carefully, giving them a slight feeling of unease.
Im forwarding several presentations to you which supply details of
the outline. As you can see, this morning the Selangor opened a massive
offensive across the Solar System. It was apparently long in preparation and
meticulously timed. It was supported by extensive covering operations,
including a false threat of internal rebellion over the previous several
months. It was only in the final seven hours as you well know
that Australian command became suspicious.
To this last
note, both Australian officers nodded their heads. It was in response to that
alert that their orbital division was deployed.
first strike of the offensive was actually on Mars. She continued,
ignoring the looks of mild surprise from the two Australians. At dusk
Mars time at the Australian commercial settlements of Marina Pels and Dewin
Paran, Selangor ground forces were landed via orbital assault ships and made
substantial ground assaults against the Australian military bases guarding
those respective areas. Both assaults were held off with some degree of effort.
It was noted at the time that the Selangor were only after the military bases,
and took pains to avoid damage to any nearby commercial zones.
may know, she continued on an aside. many of the commercial
operations on Mars and in the outer solar system are socially mixed. The
difficult nature of operations out there even tends to make many of these
civilian operators more loyal to each other than to their governments. This
means that anyone geopolitically responsible for some of these regions must
operate with a thought to local reaction. This was again followed by more
was with predictable results that the Selangor, not wanting to upset the locals
too much, were repulsed with a firm defense of the bases. About thirty minutes
after the first two attacks, a third attack was launched against the Australian
base guarding the more lucrative Tars Peliti development zone. This ground
attack was somewhat larger, but in the same general vein as the previous two
attacks. One key difference was that the Australian orbital forces available to
divert this attack were slightly less than for the other two attacks, as
numerous formations were rearming at the time.
looked over at Williams before proceeding. Less than 40 minutes into the
Tars Peliti assault, a second wave of larger Selangor ships were spotted
decelerating into orbit over Mars. They arrived on an unusual approach
indicative of a very long, low delta-V route from deep in the solar system. The
very rapid deceleration and arrival precluded any human controller presence on
the second wave. At this last point, Williams and Atri exchanged looks.
This was unusually aggressive and risky behavior for the Selangor.
Approximately 90 minutes into the offensive, as the Selangor ground
assault reached its peak, the second wave of ships dropped several squadrons of
ground attack aircraft, dedicated for Mars operations and inserted using fairly
standard entry pods. It was seen at the time that these aircraft only accounted
for 10% of the cargo capacity of the Selangor ships. Nevertheless, an alert was
issued based on a renewed ground attack directly against the Tars Peliti base,
possibly including an attempt to capture the base.
after the aviation drop, the second Selangor task force began dropping a series
of SCRAM ground penetrators, probably their new Type 57 units. At this
both Australians reacted, Williams eyes grew large and Atri stiffened. They
were incredulous that the Selangor could or would have transported such large
and expensive weapons so far to such a remote location.
Tars Peliti base spotted the penetrators, they appraised their situation with
great speed and immediately attacked the Selangor with everything in the base
arsenal. They apparently did not have anything in their armory capable of
deflecting the penetrators, and bravely ignored them in favor of targeting
valuable orbital vessels."
Destroyed? asked Williams, to which Ortiz nodded her head.
over at his subordinate, who was staring out the windows, his head slightly
averted, "Tars Peliti." Atri said with some hesitation. That would have
been Colonel Tarka. he said, looking over at Williams.
looked down at his plate, the food that was so delicious moments before felt
like dry ash in his mouth.
the two Australians with a dour expression, General Johns asked People
you knew? to which both officers nodded.
Im sorry to hear that Commander. he added, sitting as if made
We. started Williams, Will need to confirm this later in more
detail. After we return to station. he added; Please proceed with
Certainly. she said.
combined fire of the Tars Peliti base and available Australian orbital forces
were enough to destroy many of the Selangor ships. Their remaining orbital
forces moved to a different plane and are for now remaining unengaged. The Tars
Peliti region has been captured by the Selangor, and their combined ground
forces and aviation assets are holding their positions.
This, stated Ortiz with some emphasis, and not Java may
actually have been the main target of the days assault, but its
difficult to tell as the fighting on Java has not yet resolved itself.
Shortly after the opening of the first two Mars attacks, an offensive
over Earth was initiated against the Australian orbital forces, combined with a
massive indirect fire preparation against the entire Australian front on Java.
The first wave of the Selangor orbital assault was extensive as you well
know and resulted in an initial setback for the Australians. However
this was followed by Australian reinforcing launches and after hours of
fighting, some level of equilibrium has been restored.
would like to point out, commented Ortiz, that as of this moment,
the Java ground front appears to be under continuing indirect fire interdiction
and that the Selangor have achieved complete tactical supremacy over the front,
even though there is an impasse in orbit. It is likely that orbital parity is
all they were trying for given their past disadvantage in that area.
wrapped up her outline with that final observation an observation that
the Australians would have made anyway, she looked over at Williams and Atri:
Im sorry again for your loss. she said.
Johns spoke up again. As you well know, your people trained hard for
their positions. he said, noting that both of the Australians had combat
awards and duel tabs.
you will know what to do. he said with confidence to the two officers.
The general then stood and looked at his state department counterpart. His
termination of the debriefing being the key driver of the moment, Ortiz went
along with him and thanked the two Australians for their time; You will
travel with me back to San Diego, there you will be taken to your consulate.
They are already arranging your return to Australia, or to orbit Im not
you. replied Williams. Please forward our thanks to everyone who
made our recovery possible, and thank you again for your kind reception.
With that he made a gentle bow to Miss Ortiz before they exited the open room
and strolled back into the main passage. Back toward the underground hangars
they walked, the group breaking up slightly as they went. General Johns briefly
interposed on the continuing light conversation by excusing himself.
Commander Williams, Lieutenant Atri, pleased to have met you. Our
condolences again, and I hope we meet in the future. he said as he
saluted them both. With a thoughtful pause after their return salute, he turned
and walked back up the wide passage into a waiting elevator and was gone.
purposefully allowed the other officers to walk ahead toward the hangar and the
return to San Diego. She finally stopped completely and lowered her voice,
speaking in an aside to the Australian commander:
Commander Williams. she said, I would like to mention
something to you in private.
may I be of service Miss Ortiz? replied Williams with a degree of polite
caution, You understand I am not authorized for negotiations.
Commander, we understand, and no, an exchange is not our goal. she
replied with a look of mild assertion. Williams felt his skin crawl as he
thought about the contact debriefing this supposed advice was going to add to
his already lengthy reports.
continued. It is just that the Japanese are becoming impatient with the
state of affairs here on Earth, and on Mars especially Mars. We have a
good sense for these things.
Australian Commander eyed her with a slightly raised brow Is this a
least not directly from them, nor at their request.
Certainly not. Williams thought to himself. The Japanese
dont threaten, they just show up and beat your head in.
this is not a back channel warning from California? asked Williams.
exactly. she replied with unnerving vagueness. But we do have our
ear to the ground on many issues, and the general agreement amongst our people
here is unmistakable. I can assure you the Japanese are not going to like this,
it is just a matter of how much they dont like it and what they do about
it. Our concern is that the leadership in Singapore was thinking only how
Australia would react, and not what Japan would do. People here on Earth have
become too ignorant of how the Japanese have been developing out there at L5.
They are really quite ahead of us, and they are very sensitive about their raw
material supply. They may decide to do whatever they need in order to progress
with their own plans whatever they need. she repeated emphatically.
just something that would be best for your government to remember whilst
formulating their response. Call it a favor. She looked at Williams long
and hard at that last point. She was not being unfriendly, and even though she
said it was not a warning, it was a warning nonetheless.
remain to be seen what this all meant. The Australian commander could see now
that events were racing over his head, but at least he was secure enough to
acknowledge it with grace and a smile. Well Miss Ortiz, he said.
I will certainly bring this information to those who would best benefit
from its content.
so, it is a thing that should be soberly appraised. she replied tersely.
Finally, as if reaching a point at which she was satisfied of her
messages delivery, her voice became lighter and more friendly;
Congratulations again on your own successful descent Commander, Im
sure you know that many others in the same situation have not been so
fortunate. The Australian gave a slight, tilting bow of his head in
feel free to visit us in the future Commander, maybe we will meet again.
With that, she gave a cryptic smile worthy of the Sphinx, turned and walked
after her and slightly lost in thought as he tried to decode the last five
minutes of his life, he turned back toward the hangar. He suddenly felt an
urgent need to return to Australia, it now seemed that the biggest surprise of
his day might not be merely having survived it.