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Finding the Range

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When Earth was lost, Mars forged on, the colonists of the partly-terraformed planet struggling to survive without the support of their mother world. But quickly, the survivors became divided – wealthy Northern settlements sought absolute political control, rugged Southern settlements refused. The war began then; it has lasted now for decades. No end is in sight as North and South send their mighty treaded battleships to fight on the Seas of Sand… Anthology 1: A veteran Southern Admiral leads his Task Force on a dangerous mission behind enemy lines… Another attempt is made on the life of the heiress to the Presidency of the North… A trip to the grocery store ends in fire as a frontier settlement is targeted… And a ship full of trainees must learn what it takes to make war on the sand… Four novellas… Three authors… Two factions… One story… FINDING THE RANGE

Series The Seas of Sand - Anthology 1
ISBN 978-0-9865017-0-8

Published 2010-07-01 (print)

Excerpt

The map room was a small and stuffy metal box deep in the hull of Damocles, and it now contained the commanding officers of Richards’ seven-ship Task Force. Mingling and awaiting their Admiral were three Destroyer skippers: James Pollack, Andrei Brawn and Nathan Jensen, the latter being one of the few deaf Commanders in the Southern Navy. These three and their shipsCharger, Ardent and Daring were often put to good use by Richards. The Admiral liked to start trouble with the Northers whenever he could, and the mix of speed and firepower offered by Destroyers made them one of his most frequently-utilized resources.

Standing near the Destroyer officers were the two Corvette skippers, Commanders Daniel Parker and Sonya Rivers. Their shipsAvon and Bristol were Richards’ scouts of choice, but they were too lightly armed and armored to stand up in pounding matches with heavy Norther vessels.

Already sitting at the table was the Captain of the only Cruiser in the Task Force, Evan Towers of Diadem. Like his ship, Towers was heavily-built and steady – not as dashing or brash as a Destroyer officer, but absolutely dependable in a tough situation. He was usually quiet in meetings like the one that was about to begin.

Only Damocles’ Flag Captain would miss the meeting – Samuel Finnegan was up on the bridge taking care of the Great Dame and the rest of the Task Force while the skippers met with their Admiral.

Richards was still on his way, giving all of these officers a chance to chat before they got down to business. Some of them hadn’t been face-to-face for months.

“How’s the crew handling the new ship, Jim?” Captain James Pollack, the senior Destroyer skipper, was settling into his seat when Captain Andrei Brawn asked that question.

“They miss Valiant, but I suppose that’s because we were with her for, what, three years?” Pollack answered, musing about his former ship.

Valiant had been lost a few months back during an engagement with a pair of Norther Destroyers. Having fought them off, the ship lived up to her name, only succumbing to its wounds when she returned her crew safely to drydock. Since then Jim Pollack and his crew had been settling in aboard their new ship, SCNS Charger. A newer, faster, heavily-armored Destroyer, which according to rumor had been destined for the 22nd Destroyer Division – the fabled ‘Treaded Terrors’ – before Richards had called in a favor to get her assigned to Pollack.

“Admiral on the deck,” Commander Rivers interrupted Pollack’s reflection, and everyone came to their feet and saluted.

Richards gave a half-hearted wave, then joked, “Sit down, save it for the brass.”

The casual greeting was the kind they all expected from Richards, and with smiles the assembled skippers took seats around a square table that had a large map of Mars inlaid into its top. Richards sat at his place at the south pole of the map, while the skippers sat around him. No one filled the chairs near the north pole area.

“So,” Richards began, resting his hands on the table in front of him, “only two people here know what we’re getting into.”

Commander Parker of Avon nodded in a jittery fashion – he was the one who’d collected the information.

“Let’s fill the rest of you in,” Richards tossed a few twelve-by-twelve photos onto the table, and being nearest the Admiral, Pollack collected the pile and started passing them along.

“Northers are building a base. Big one by the looks of it too,” Charger’s skipper examined one of the photos, holding it close to his nose for a better look.

“How far away is this base?” Brawn frowned as he collected his own copies of the images.

Richards sighed, “A hundred miles from the border.”

The officers at the table all went still.

“My thoughts exactly,” Richards confirmed, sympathizing with the reaction. Having a Norther base that far forward could prove a disaster for their section of the frontier.

“The good news is we know its location.” The Admiral stood up and jabbed a finger a little ways across the ‘border’ on the Amazonis Planitia, “They carved the base out of an eroded crater wall. They’ve got a garrison squadron of seven ships.”

Richards pointed to the three photographs that showed the ships he was referring to, “Five Destroyers and two Cruisers. One of the Cruisers is an old design, though.”

A few of the captains looked up at that remark.

“Not as old as the Great Dame is it, sir?” Captain Pollack managed to find some humor as he asked the question.

“Hell no,” Richards spoke with pride. At over thirty years old, Damocles had been through many campaigns, and was renowned for being one of the oldest Battleships in the service. Everyone knew her as the Great Dame.

“This Norther is probably a ten-year-old design. That may mean she’s more effective than their new stuff, though. In my experience, these Northers are getting more and more dumber each year sticking bigger and bigger guns on their hulls…”

“Sir, please, your grammar,” Pollack interceded, and a few of the skippers chuckled.

“Shut up,” Richards grinned before continuing. “I’m not worried about some Norther tin cans scuffing up our paint jobs.”

He held up a copy of a photo showing a close-up of the base, then pointed to a round tube jutting out of a bunker at the corner.

“Artillery position?” Brawn asked.

“A 28-inch howitzer shore battery,” Richards spat the words out. “They have three of them.”

Any good humor in the room died again.

No one spoke for the next few minutes; each of the skippers looked over the photos and tried to think through the ramifications of this information. Richards’ ships had options – they had the potential to get the drop on their enemy, perhaps hit the base before the Northers realized it had been spotted. However their advantage was hindered by the fact that with the shore battery, the Northers had them outgunned…

And, more importantly, to hit this base would take them off their patrol station, and behind enemy lines. Plenty of problems to work through.

“Five Destroyers, two Cruisers and enough shore batteries to be a Battleship,” James Pollack brushed a hand over his stubble, focusing on the tactical concern first. “Even with Damocles’ firepower we’re outgunned.”

Richards wasn’t surprised by his senior Destroyer Captain’s tactical focus – it was something he appreciated about the man. Better to have officers who wanted to fight, and who needed to be reined in, than to have skippers afraid to take risks when the war demanded it. As long as he was there to do that reining in…

“And I won’t risk exposing Damocles to that kind of fire,” the Admiral spoke heavily. Damocles might be a battle-hardened Great Dame, but being thirty years old, she wasn’t fully up to date on the current equipment. A battery of 28-inch howitzers would bust her wide open, which was exactly why the Northers had put the damned things there.

The room fell silent again with Richards’ words. If the fighting Admiral didn’t want to roll in with guns blazing, the base really did have to be in a strong position.

Another minute passed before Daring’s skipper, Commander Jensen, leaned over the table. Quiet as always, he jabbed the index finger of his right hand at the new Norther installation and another finger of his left hand at the nearest Norther base, far away.

He looked up and let his eyes move from face to face, and though no words were spoken, everyone got the message. The Norther base might be well protected, but like the Task Force, it was still out in the middle of the isolated frontier.

“They must rely on convoys,” Pollack vocalized the realization. “Find the convoys and we can bleed them dry.”

Richards sat forward and rested his chin in the palm of his propped-up hand, then spoke thoughtfully, “Starve the bastards? Could take a while. But convoys… that could be our way in under their guns.”

Yes. If the Northers were expecting a convoy, and got a Southern Task Force down their throats instead…

Richards gave Commander Jensen a thumbs up.

For another moment, the Admiral pondered the possibilities. As things came clear in his veteran mind, he spoke again, “We’ll have to figure out when their next convoy is due to arrive. Get ourselves in position to hit it a day or more away from the base.”

Nods of approval came from around the table, so Richards went on, “Either we capture them or knock them out… one way or another, we can try to get in close to the base by masquerading as the convoy. If we show up on schedule, they might not bother with checking up on us. We pull in close and let them have it.”

More nods of approval greeted that prospect, and Richards frowned. It still wasn’t a perfect plan – even getting in close wouldn’t eliminate the threat of those howitzers. So they’d have to be creative.

“As for the battery, I’ll have a chat with Sergeant Kane about that.”

The veterans at the table grinned. Richards’ go-to marine, Sergeant Kane, had a knack for getting rid of problems with little fuss and large explosions. So there were options for taking the base… did that mean Richards was going to pull the Task Force off station, and make the attack?

“What the brass doesn’t know won’t hurt them,” Richards finally decided out loud. “We’re going after this base now, before it’s ready, or we’re going to regret it later. You all know the risk: we’ll be leaving our sector open. Any problems with my plan?”

He paused and surveyed the faces at the table. Jim Pollack and the other Destroyer and Corvette skippers, except for reserved Jensen, seemed eager. They liked being led by the last of the fighting Admirals. Evan Towers then nodded in a steady fashion.

“Great, let’s talk about how to find us a convoy,” Richards slammed his open hand into the tabletop, and the skippers grinned and joined their Admiral in speculating about the Northers’ plans.