Weapon lockers opened on the side of the walls in the 31st Platoon’s common room on the Ronald Reagan. Everyone systematically retrieved blasters and grenade belts and returned to formation in the middle of the room. Standard procedure was to leave safeties on and not touch the triggers. Egg grenades remained in their webbing. There would be no accidental discharges or explosions in space.
The men and women of the 31st Republican Marine Platoon stood in formation after retrieving their weapons, dressed in light olive-green armor. No one said a word. They remained at attention, holding their weapons pointed up.
The entire procedure took but a few minutes, they had practiced it several times. Sergeant Wilcox nodded, her eyes narrowed, watching her people go through all the proper motions. She slowly put the unlit stogie back in her mouth as the last of the Marines grabbed their weapons and assumed their place in formation.
The holoscreens in the room lit up, showing Juventas from orbit. Everyone could see the planet below, mostly blue waters and white clouds with streaks of brown and green marking land mass.
In the distance sunlight flared, and the screen flashed red. A casualty list scrolled by quickly, listing several names of ships. Wilcox’s cigar drooped as the she saw the Gerald Ford had been lost.
“A lot of Marines just died,” Gruman said beside her, quietly. “Sailors, too, by the looks of it. I wonder what happened.”
Wilcox sensed a stirring of uneasiness as everyone watched the holos. She felt it, too. That sense of powerlessness, helplessness. She felt useless up here in space, trapped on a troop transport.
She did not let the feelings affect her voice.
“Awright, you maggots. Hold it together. Let the flyboys do their thing and then they’ll send us down there to finish the job.”
Everyone bucked up under her calm tone. They continued watching the screens, waiting for the signal to go down to the surface.
An overhead shot of a city came next, showing a skyscraper from above. The words, “Yorkton Administration Building” floated beneath. It disappeared in a flash of light, the surrounding buildings reduced to rubble in a wide circle around it.
A few cheers went up. There would be no tears shed for League bureaucrats today.
The holo switched to various military installations around the planet, and the Marines watched them disappear in flashes of sunlight, one by one. They watched as military bases, seaports and other strategic installations were all hit.
“They’re taking out anything that StarCen could use against us,” Gruman said.
Wilcox nodded. She said, “They’ll take out her cores if they can find them, too. No cores, no StarCen. At least not on this planet.”
At last the destruction below came to an end. The overhead shot switched again, this time showing a large building from above. The words floating under it read, “Yorkton Spaceport.”
Lt. Colonel Peng’s voice came from the air. He said, “Thirty-first Platoon, your objective is to secure the spaceport along with the 32nd. Lt. Meyers will be in charge. Intelligence indicates most of your resistance will be guard bots. The second floor is deserted, so that’s where we’re sending you. Prepare to disembark.”
A thrill rippled through the group, and they braced themselves, mentally and physically.
PLAIR’s voice came from the ceiling next. She said, “Decontamination process activating. Wartime standards in effect.”
The common rooms served double duty as disembarkation zones for the troop transports, and everyone stayed still while rays zapped micro-organisms away, and scanners ensured no foreign biomatter hitched a ride to the surface. It would not be as thorough of a cleansing as normal, but it would probably be okay. Everything had been sterilized before they came onboard back at Diego.
And if a few stray micro-organisms made it down to the surface, well that was another sad result of the war. Right now, the Marines did not particularly care a lot about the environment of the planet they were invading.
At last the moment came for disembarkation. PLAIR expended considerable additional processing power, porting thousands of troops safely to the surface over the next several seconds. Wilcox watched as her people popped away. Then she blinked. When she opened her eyes, they all stood in formation inside a large building, standing in a long hallway.
Two black-haired, brown-eyed young men smiled at her, although they looked surprised to be standing nearest to the First Sergeant. She noted the names on their chests: Jamieson and Boggs. They were 18 or 19 years old, she knew. The oldest Marine in her platoon was 22, if you did not count the non-coms.
Wilcox herself was in her late 30s, and old enough to be their mother.
Before she could say anything, a command bell sounded in her inner ear, and a holosheet appeared in front of her face. She raised her voice so everyone could hear.
“Awright, listen up maggots! We have a final away order.”
Everyone turned and focused on her. She read the missive to herself then looked up.
“The general prohibition on curse words remains in effect.”
A loud groan went out from the group.
“Parliament’s making us a freaking social experiment,” Gruman said beside her. “And in war, no less.”
Wilcox ignored his comment and continued in her loud voice.
“PLAIR will be monitoring your speech during your time on duty, even on this foreign planet. You will be docked five credits per curse word.”
Grumbling swirled through the platoon.
“We’re the Republic,” Gruman said, grousing with the others. “We’re supposed to be the good guys. What the . . . furry heck are they thinking trying to control us like this for? I mean, we’re Marines, for crying out loud.”
Continuing, Wilcox said, “The same list of acceptable words will be exempted, including everyone’s favorite for yours truly, namely ‘bitch.’”
Jamieson said, “That is bitched up!”
Boggs said, “Those mother-bitchers!”
Wilcox said, “Quit yer bitchin’! Let’s go meet up with the 32nd.”
Jamieson looked at Boggs as they started to move out. He said, “How come it sounds better when she does it?”
Boggs said, “I think it’s the internal rhymes. It’s known as ‘assonance.’”
“You’re an assonance.”
They quickly met up with the 32nd, transported further down the hallway. An officer made his way toward Wilcox. She read the name on his chest: Meyers, and saluted him. He looked to be about 18, although she could not tell for sure.
He said, “Top floor’s deserted, Sergeant. Stairs are over there. What do you say we see how well guarded they are?”
“You heard the man! Boggs! Jamieson! Take five more and secure the stairs!”
“Yes, Sergeant! XO! We need XO over here!”
A woman ran up with a big “XO” holo floating on her chest. The two pointed at the stairwell, and she slapped sticky bombs on the door, activated neural switches, then she retreated several meters.
A gaping hole stood where the door to the stairwell had been. Jamieson and Boggs charged in, guns ready, and fanned out. The stairwell was deserted.
The contingent went down to the ground floor, and the XO Marine repeated her procedure on the door to the main hallway. This time, everyone retreated up a flight of stairs before she set off the explosives.
When this door blew open, it was met by blaster fire. Three bots outside shot blindly through the smoke.
Marines scrambled up the other flight of stairs back to the second floor as the League guard bots streamed into the stairwell and started climbing up.
Boggs stood on the top step, shooting down into them. The first one he hit in the head collapsed. The next two were newer models, though, with rectangular tops. They returned fire at him.
Thoop! Thoop! Thoopah!
A bolt grazed his shoulder, bouncing off the armor, before Jamieson pulled him back out of the way. They ran through the doorway back to the second floor corridor with the rest of the platoon.
Jamieson yelled, “Bogies coming through!”
Marines took cover if they could find it, surrounding the blown doorway in a semicircle. The bots advanced from the top of the stairs through the door, firing and taking fire. Nothing seemed to stop them. A hail of bolts sailed past them and into them.
Wilcox yelled, “Grenades! Light them sonsabitches up!”
In response, a dozen egg grenades flew through the air at the bots.
When the smoke cleared, the bots were disabled, although one still appeared to be operable. Its blaster was destroyed and its legs were blown off, but its torso slowly swiveled, looking at all of them.
Wilcox stood over it and shot it repeatedly in the head.
Thoop! Thoop! Thoop!
“Come on you filthy pile of bolts! Die!”
Thoop! Thoop! Thoop! Thoop! Thoop!
At last the lights behind its eyes flickered and dimmed, and it stopped moving.