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Dagger Team Seven

An excerpt from the novella by R.M.MELUCH
1.


It wasn't the first strike into enemy space. It was meant to be the last one.

The Dagger team of six fast assault craft dropped out of the final warp into the staging zone for the advance into Rutog space. The ships' navigation systems automatically turned them to face the Intersection.

Pilot Zack Cade couldn't see the anomaly yet.

There was no telling how long the Intersection had really been here. From any angle other than absolutely face on, not only was the Intersection undetectable, but the thing truly wasn't there. You couldn't see it from the rear. It didn't have a rear.

Zack Cade's Dagger ship moved into attack formation with the other five members of his team at the specified coordinates and attitude.

And instantly the Intersection was there before them.

At least two voices shouted over the com - sounded like Umber and Gretch. "Look at that!"

The Assault Force Controller called for com discipline. That never worked on a Dagger Team. Dagger pilots were notorious cowboys.

"No, really. Where's the Intersection?" Pilot Gort Neuman said, like refusing bait. And Zack couldn't blame him. The Intersection looked like a very bad special effect? like a misplaced lake, or a titanic dark purple-blue looking glass with a molten gold-white line drawn around it badly.

As things in space went it was small, no more than four by six miles by nothing.

It didn't belong in three-dimensional space. It was a cartoon hole. Any object sent toward it ceased to register upon reaching the coordinates where the Intersection appeared to exist.

Zack squinted at the Intersection through his clearscreen, then felt stupid for squinting. Common sense said he should be able to see through it. There wasn't anything common or sensible about the Intersection.

Zack angled his Dagger ship a half a degree off perfect square. The Intersection vanished and the voice of Control was sounding in his helmet.

"Dagger Six, you are out of position."

Yep. Noticed that.

"True us up, John Henry," Zack told his ship.

The Dagger ship obeyed. The Intersection returned, big, blue-black, and weird.

Zack Cade and the other five Daggers were about pass through it into somewhere else.

It was a cosmic magician's trick, but Zack couldn't see the wires.

The big white main star of the system shone at their backs. Sirius A was twice the size of Sol.

Zack could see the companion star, Sirius B, a bright dot in the distance. Sirius B was a white dwarf not a whole lot bigger than planet Earth.

Space inside the Sirius system was cluttered with sunlit debris from countless skirmishes between humans and the Rutogs. The husks of twisted human-built space stations tumbled in their orbits.

The Assault Force was already assembled when the six Daggers arrived.

The force was almost entirely mechanized. There was a consequence to human soldiers passing through the Intersection. The Dagger pilots were aware of it going in. They accepted it. This was their job.

The rest of the attack craft were mobile battle forts, heavy shepherds, and smart turrets.

The Intersection stood quiet for the moment. That could be a good sign. It could be fatally not good. Something dire could be building up on the other side. And there was no way to take a quick peek to know. Not in this universe.

The Earth-built defensive stations stood ready here on the friendly side, their guns fixed on the anomaly. The international space towers were collectively called the Citadel. Their defensive guns were programmed to fire at anything that came through the Intersection not carrying a tracer.

Do not lose your tracer! That point really got hammered home during the briefing. Zack wondered why so they were so insistent. Zack's tracer was surgically implanted in the roof of his mouth. He wasn't going to accidentally drop it somewhere.

Space mines peppered the zone between the Intersection and the Assault Force. A plot of the mines was programmed into all the attack crafts' avoidance systems. The Dagger pilots didn't need to think about the mines. The ships could blitz through the zone balls to the wall. You just concentrate what comes into your sights on the far side.

Zack had been warned: you cross through the Intersection you are instantly not in Kansas, Kuala Lumpur, Rio, or your mama's front porch anymore.

The space beyond the Intersection had been named Rutog, for a remote mountain pass on Earth.

Zack had seen the videos from past recon flights. The vids don't really prepare you. And they couldn't tell him what was waiting for him over there right now.

And what comes out of the Intersection from Rutog space was never friendly.

The Rutogs never even tried to act friendly. Zack supposed it was a tough act to pull off when you were a ciliate bag of gas or a macroscopic rotifer. You could trust Rutogs absolutely. They had no concept of stealth. It's like they assumed you already knew what they're thinking, and they had to beat you to it. They showed no mercy to their own injured. No one had ever seen a Rutog try to signal cease fire - not by any signal that a human being could recognize as a signal. The Rutogs were honest about their intent to annihilate you.

The moment that Dagger Team Nine arrived in the mustering zone, the countdown had started. It was down to invasion minus nine seconds and the first mechanized unit started to glow.

Four. Three.

The first mobile forts' distortion fields went live.

Two.

Mama can't help you now.

The forts were committed.

The first line units - known as linebackers - hurtled at the flat impossibility. The linebackers were unmanned smart ordnance programmed to find their own targets. Their objective was to destroy everything within twelve astronomical units of the far side of the Intersection. That meant everything: Living and inanimate, machines, mines, green cheese. Leave nothing intact. Priority to objects propelled by powerplants.

The linebackers hit the Intersection and vanished.

"Ho!" Zack heard himself shout.

Right after the linebackers the Colossus forts charged through.

There was no way of know if they were having effect.

"Hope they leave some trade for us," Gort Neuman sent over the team com.

The Dagger ships moved into position.

Like thoroughbreds loaded in a gate, Daggers weren't made to stand around and wait. As soon as they formed up, their ten second countdown began.

Zack glanced aside in the last moments. With cockpits illuminated he saw Paul Rittenhouse on his starboard and Ix Chel Parras off his port wing.

"See you on the other side," Zack said into the team com.

The voice of Control sounded: "Three. Two. God Speed from a grateful nation and all of humanity."

Zack heard only half of that benediction as he shot toward the flat blue-black nothingness. He went though yelling. Honestly, how do you not yell? He expected the lights to go out for a split instant. They didn't. He was just suddenly over there. There was no simulation for this. He didn't know what he expected - to lose contact with his own ass or something.

He burst out of the intersection hot, firing blind. Just assume there is a target. He couldn't hear Control's blessing anymore. But he heard Gort Neuman screeching some kind of battle cry and saw his tactical display instantly altered. His ship was already spewing chemical bullets and his canopy was surrounded by boiling light.

This was what they called recon by fire. You don't see the battlefield until you were in it.

Don't worry overmuch about hitting anything friendly, he'd been told. Your squadron's avoidance systems were programmed against hitting your own. Even if you did happen to hit one of your own allies, none of the friendlies on this side were living beings. The other five Dagger pilots were the only humans here.

Paul Rittenhouse was speaking. "The enemy will see us by our gunfire. They will know us by their dying."

Target-rich was not the situation they'd been led to expect from the briefing.

Up to date advance recon wasn't to be had. Ever.

Really you only needed to assume the worst, that the Rutogs had been building up something lethal on their side and were going to bury you or fry you as soon as you stuck your nose in their space.

Well, they were trying. The Rutogs were here in their glassy gassy thousands, reeling from the linebackers' assault, and spilling their vaporous innards under Zack's guns.

The Rutogs still hadn't developed hard body spacecraft. They were using cloud ships - transparent-skinned, luminescent, their insides swirling all the colors of fire. The Rutogs were, all of them, gaseous beings inside clear membranes with ciliate appendages, which were hollow. The damned things were very dexterous for not having hands.

The soft ones could stretch themselves out into tendrils and reform again. The cylindrical ones were rigid and had whip tails on one end. Rutogs could exist for several seconds in the vacuum while their cloud ships moved in to absorb them back to safety.

Zack carried Old Glory into battle, posted on his ship's stern. The Stars and Strips remained stiff in the vacuum, lit up by the rockets' red glare. Underneath the national flag, the Dagger ships also flew black flags to declare no prisoners.

Rutogs winked out under their guns like dying skyrockets.

Lieutenant Rittenhouse announced on the team com: "Enemies of my country, you are dying today."

***continued***


Read the rest of Dagger Team Seven in the anthology Five by Five 2: No Surrender
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