By Ralph Benton
“With all due respect, sir, would you repeat the mission orders?”
Sergeant “Mindy” Mindanomous gazed past Lieutenant Powerman’s vac helmet with practiced determination. The Lieutenant didn’t like it when his underlings looked him in the eye. Mindy had no problem with that, particularly out here on the surface of Io. She preferred to look at Jupiter. The colossal orb filled the sky above Io, nearly blotting out space itself. The Great Red Spot was just edging into view, only faintly obscured by the volcanic dust that fell from the Ionian sky in an endless slow rain.
“Were my orders unclear, Sergeant? Alas, I left my speaking trumpet on Luna. Shall I request a Space Force microsling direct to Io to bring it for you? Wouldn’t cost more than, oh, your salary for the next seven hundred years, I should think.”
Powerman’s helmet tilted as he watched for any breach of protocol. The battalion had deployed to Io six days ago to fight the Space Force splinter sect known as the Heavenly Angels. In that time the lieutenant had written up three troopers for insubordination.
Mindy allowed herself a moment more to marvel at the plume of cinnamon-red gas and dust rising from the vents of Mount Pele behind her lieutenant. The plume crested several hundreds of klicks above the summit, which itself rose far above the plains of jagged rock and sulfur dioxide ice below.
So much more interesting than this officer. Mindy sighed, but not deeply enough for the throat mic to pick up.
“No sir, the mission is clear. We will bring renown to Alpha platoon by surprising the colonel”–Powerman raised a warning finger–“surprising the troops,” she carefully corrected, “with a special treat at the battalion Fourth of July cookout.”
“Correct. And?” His voice had a manic edge.
“And, we’ll supply the meat.” His admonishing finger trembled. “Magma-roasted soyalamb.”
“The glory!” exploded Powerman. “Think of it, Mindanomous! Those Company Starburst wretches are too busy training replacements, after the Angels wiped them out with that surprise plasmastic flare. Company Stargate doesn’t have our spirit! Only Company Starchild has the right stuff! Think of the glory!”
Powerman stomped his boot and raised a puff of Ionian snow.
Mindy watched the sparkling particles as they drifted back to repose. Luna training had prepped the Space Force for Io, a near-sister to Earth’s moon in size and gravity. But no sisters ever grew up more differently. Luna was cold and dead, while Io continuously remade herself with the frenzy of a NuSkin addict.
“The glory, yes sir, so noted, thank you sir.” Mindanomous scarcely knew what to say. “My mission is to take a vat of un-decanted soyalamb to Gatewood’s vent, roast said soyalamb over the vent, and return in time for you to carve the lamb for the battalion. Correct, sir?”
Powerman waved away such a bothersome detail. “I won’t be carving it myself, of course. No doubt we’ve got some hydrosoy plantation drudge who can handle a laseblade.”
Mindy knew what this was really about. Go on, she thought, tell me the rest.
“I will, of necessity, you understand, be supervising. I believe the colonel herself will be coming through the chow line at some point.”
And there it was. Mindy sighed again, and she didn’t care how loudly. She popped a quick salute and turned to gather the squad. She knew what they would say.
“Sergeant!” She turned back. “Don’t foul this up. I’ve, I mean, we’ve got a lot riding on this.”
“Oh, sir, yes sir! It sounds important!”
Mindanomous didn’t salute a second time.
“This isn’t funny, Mindy, not funny at all.”
“That’s Sergeant Mindy to you, Dungan. And I don’t think it’s funny either, but I do know it’s orders, so you and Koval bounce over to the QX and get that soyalamb the dingus reserved for us.”
Koval and Dungan set off in a loopy trot across Firebase Carver, to retrieve an alga-based simulacrum of an animal none of them had ever seen, let alone tasted.
“The rest of you, quit grab-assing and gear up. Those poor bastards in Starburst learned the hard way that Angels come in hot, so prep for any Soldier of Heaven bullshit. Their martyr missions can kick our ass. They get salvation, but all you get is dead.”
Mindy figured it was time to wrap up the pep talk.
“I don’t mind helping them to heaven, but let’s not lose anyone. McBride! You got the fullback ready? We gotta bounce.”
“Ready as she’ll ever be, Sergeant.”
Mindy watched McBride adjust her suit seals in that nervous way she had. Mindy spun away before McBride could say anyth-
Mindy stopped. She was suppressing a lot of sighs today.
“Sergeant, you know this is my last hop before I can decomm, and, and-”
“Spit it out, McBride.” Mindy couldn’t see Jupiter from where she stood, and that pissed her off.
“I got a bad feeling about this.”
“You want to live forever, McBride? Get your shit in the fullback!” The gauge on Mindy’s sympathy reservoir registered just about empty.
An hour later the fullback lumbered on fat beetle legs up Pele’s craggy slope. Red powder blanketed the scarred battlesteel. Mindy peered through clouded viewports.
“This dust makes for some excellent camouflage against Heavenly eyes, but if we drop into a fresh vent we’re all barbecued.” She pounded the viewport in a hopeless attempt to shake it clear. “Nichols! Can you see anything out there?”
“Hey, they didn’t give us the general’s staff chariot.” Nichols called back from the pilot’s hutch. “But I’ll get us there.” She could see the blue Lidar glow on his faceplate. Good kid, but kind of smug, always quoting Aurelius and Napoleon and Petraeus.
“I’m good.” The corporal sat astride the vat and gave it a slap. “My soyalamb baby.”
“Let’s get this bullshit over with as quick as we can. Go over it again!”
“Once Nichols gets us to the vent,” Koval said, “me and Dungan’ll haul the vat out of the fullback.”
Carlisle said, “Me, Matthews, and Galloway will rig a stringer across the vent. There’s plenty of solid rock on the far side we can punch into.”
“I’m up top on the tribarrel,” chimed in McBride. Mindy eyed her suspiciously, but she didn’t have anyone else certified on maglev weapons.
“Then I’ll get the vat out over the heat,” Dungan said. “We’ll get a little spin on her so she roasts nice and even. Shouldn’t take more than a few minutes.”
Mindy grunted her grudging approval, even though Dungan bugged her. Every man she’d ever met thought he was the only one who knew how to grill a steak.
“An excellent plan, Sergeant Mindanomous,” a familiar voice said over the wideband. “I’ll try to remember to mention your contribution to the colonel.”
Mindy grabbed a battery pack and beat it against the bulkhead, two, three, four times. Then she placed the pack back on the shelf and cleared her throat. “Lieutenant Powerman, is that you?”
“Yes it is, Mindanomous. I thought you might appreciate the help.”
The battery pack suffered again.
“So good of you to join us, sir. I believe we’re almost to the vent.”
“Excellent. I’ll assist Private Dungan with the grilling.”
Mindy shook her head and flopped back into her webbing. Fucking officers. Zeroes, every one of ‘em.
“Vent’s just ahead!” called Nichols. “Lemme get us parked.”
The fullback circled on a small shelf of crumbling black stone and backed up. They watched the rear hatch iris open to reveal a chasm of roiling liquid rock disgorging from a maw fully a hundred meters wide. Flickering light painted the fullback a furnace orange. The basaltic river flowed for a few klicks before it poured over a lip of Pele’s flank and disappeared down the slope.
“Carlisle, you’re up!” Mindy called, but he and his fire team already had the stringer booster half-assembled. Only a minute later the rocket sailed across the vent and embedded its barbed hook deep into solid rock.
“Move Koval,” but the corporal had wrestled the vat out of the fullback, and was rigging the grapnels onto the cable that spanned the hellmouth. Dungan mounted a lugger behind the vat and spun the cylinder out over the vent. The duraplast reflected the violent heat as it slowly rotated above the hellscape.
Mindy figured she could just sit back and watch.
“Well done, men.” Powerman announced himself over the wideband as if he were awarding a medal of valor. He clambered awkwardly over the jagged boulders, trailed by two SF MPs.
He probably took them off perimeter patrol, thought Mindy. Powerman had parked the MP flivver on a knoll above the fullback. She shook her head. The flivver was unarmed, poorly armored, and lacked adaptive camo. It would look shine like a beacon to any Angels in the area.
“I’ll take it from here, Private,” Powerman said. He snatched the lugger remote from Dungan’s grip and held it up to his faceplate. “Let’s see now, which button makes it spin faster-”
Pure panic flooded the wideband. “Angels inbound!” McBride screamed. “Two Halos high and fast!” The warning came too late.
A streak of silver fire ripped into Powerman’s flivver. The explosion splashed fat drops of molten metal all over the rocky shelf. One of the MPs took an incandescent blob right in the faceplate. His comm circuits burned out just as his screams began.
“McBride, where’s my counterfire?”
The tribarrel railgun engaged the second Halo as it skimmed over the vent, but missed. The Angel’s golden disc waggled a mocking salute as it flew by.
“Accept salvation! Come with us to heaven! The end is near!”
She hated those weird, high-pitched voices. “Goddammit Nichols, get those fucking Angels off the wideband!”
“Trying, Sergeant, but they’ve hacked the freqs.”
In a sky of perfect ultra-black the Halos formed up for another pass. The sleek ring-shaped disks arced high above her, bearing long tails of exhaust that glimmered with golden sparks. Behind the ships loomed the unfathomable bulk of Jupiter, banded with churning stripes of white and orange, blue and black. And always, always, the red dust drifted down.
It was the most beautiful thing Mindy had ever seen.
“Get down!” she ordered. “Cover in place! McBride, they’re too fast, load with grape!”
The Halos came low in an oblique crossing attack. Rippling beams of searing purple lanced the little plateau. Inside her helmet two green SquadTracker ovals blinked to red.
Koval and Galloway.
Mindy wanted to scream. Those fucking Angels. That fucking Powerman. And that fucking soyalamb!
The tribarrel opened up on the retreating Halos. Thirty thousand flechettes accelerated to a significant percentage of lightspeed and flashed into space. One Halo escaped behind the mountain, but the second shredded into strips of foil. Mindy heard, “Is that you, Lor-” before the wreckage vanished into the river of lava.
She was breathing slowly, trying to contain her anger and frustration. “Count off!” Maybe, she hoped, the SquadTracker was buggy.
Half the squad had reported when Powerman cut in.
“I’m all right! I’m all right, you can relax. And I saved the soyalamb!”
“Sir, are you talking about soyalamb while I’m counting dead troopers?”
“War is hell, Sergeant. They taught us that at the Academy.”
Mindy gripped her sidearm and took a step forward when the second Halo popped over the vent’s splatter cone. Angel fire ripped across the plateau as McBride let loose with the tribarrel. The Halo cartwheeled into a blackened crag and vanished in a cloud of plasma and pulverized metal.
Mindy heard childish sounds of confusion. She saw Powerman silhouetted against the pulsing light of the liquid rock. An Angel glowbolt had severed his right arm above the elbow, and he seemed to be looking for it. He wobbled closer to the vent.
Mindy started to call out, then didn’t.
Lieutenant Powerman tripped over a rock, uttered a surprised peep, and disappeared into the maelstrom.
The wideband was silent for a full minute.
“I guess you’re in charge now, Sergeant,” the remaining MP said.
“Yeah,” Dungan said. “What are your orders?”
Mindy didn’t hesitate. “Get the bodies to the fullback. Make sure we’ve got a clear path back to the firebase. And get that goddamn soyalamb into storage!”
Despite a few fatalities, the colonel agreed that Mindy’s soyalamb surprise was a smashing success.
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