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18 You Don't Have To Be Faster Than the Lion - Vorpal Blade John Ringo & Travis S. Taylor


You Don't Have To Be
Faster Than the Lion

"Stable orbit around Procyon established," the pilot said tiredly.

Six weeks after the surprising moon of E Eridani Beta, and three weeks after refilling their air tanks, Dr. Dean was looking more and more visionary in naming the planet after himself. In six weeks of star hopping the crew of the Vorpal Blade had seen a huge number of stars ranging from very pretty to very plain, gas giants by the scores, rings to make Saturn blush with shame, rocky planets by the dozens, moons, lots of moons, some of them with something resembling an atmosphere.

What it hadn't found was another planet with so much as a scrap of life or anything resembling breathable air. Most of the rocky planets resembled either Mars, Venus or Earth's moon.

"What's Runner say?" the CO asked.

"He's got one gas giant in the life zone," Bill replied. "But Procyon's a short lived star. I doubt life's had a chance to take hold."

"Got to check," the CO said brightly. "Vector?"

"One-three-seven, Mark Neg One Dot One Five. Four AU."

"Pilot," the CO said.

"Coming to One-three-seven," the pilot said, spinning the boat in place. "See it."

Runner didn't exclaim as the boat slowed to normal space speeds. He just smiled thinly, then tapped the controls to call Dr. Weaver.

"Multiple moons, Commander," Runner said. "Several big ones. Check out the take from Scope Two."
Bill brought up Scope Two on his main screen, then tapped in the codes to take control, zooming in in disbelief.

"Sergeant?" Weaver said over the communicator. "Is that what I think it is?"

"I'm looking at the spectral data, sir," Runner said. "Get this. O2, twenty-two percent. Nitrogen, seventy-seven percent. CO2 less than point zero one percent. High water content. Gravity about point nine two standard. Great world for Running, if you get my drift."

"And I see red," Bill said, grinning. "Class Four biology. Break out the red shirts!"
"I got movement," Hattelstad said before the security team had even gotten into position. "Ten o'clock. Thermal and heartbeat. Fast heartbeat. Looks about the size of an antelope."

The boat had set down near the ocean again, well east of the beach on a broad, gently shelving plain.

The plain was covered in wiry, thigh-high red grass-looking stuff that terminated in dunes. About five klicks to the east was the beginnings of forest of something like conifers. Beyond the forest, about two hundred kilometers away, mountains soared into a blue sky flecked with clouds.

Due to the surrounding coloration, mostly a crimson red, the armor had adjusted its surface and now was mottled in shades of crimson and pink.

"Take positions," Jaenisch said, scanning the area.

"Don't go into the long grass," Bergstresser said. Much of the area looked to have been cropped but a stand of taller "grass" was near the boat's port bow. "I've got multiple movement signs inside about ten meters. Big stuff."

"Command, Charlie Team," Jaenisch said after they'd completed their sensor sweep. "We've got multiple life forms." As he said it, the creature Hattelstad had reported suddenly bounded into view. He didn't get much of a look, but it looked something like a giant crab. But the legs moved . . . weird. And it was fast.

The crab-thing had darted towards the longer grass and as it entered there was a swirling and the external mike picked up shrill screams. The movement quickly settled down with a ring of heat forms gathered around where the crab thing had stopped.

"No signs of intelligent life but be aware that there may be predators in the area."
"Damn," Miller said. "When do we get to crack the Wyverns?"

It looked something like California before people screwed it up. It looked a lot like California except for everything being bright red. Miller had spent enough time in Diego to know that. Checking his external temperature readings and doing the math, he got an outside temperature of seventy-two degrees Fahrenheit.

"A while," Weaver said as the science teams spread out, still wearing their own armor. "This is a more dangerous environment than Titan because it looks so Earth-like. And just because we know we can't eat the local food, the predators don't. For that matter, while we haven't found a disease, even in Bio One environments, that can infect humans, there's always the first time. We don't want to be the guys to spread purple creeping fungus."
"Now this is more like it," Julia said as she stepped out of the elevator. "Did you see the report on megafauna?"

"Yes, ma'am," Bartlett said. "I also saw the report on possible predation. We need to take this very carefully, ma'am."

"We will," Julia replied. "We'll start with a ring toss and see where it takes us."
"I wish we'd landed in the mountains," Dr. Dean said, frowning.

"As you say, Doctor," Runner replied. He had the portable drill rig over one shoulder and was keeping a careful eye out for threats.

"We'll see if we can get through this soil with that," Dean continued. "No telling how deep it goes. And, of course, Dr. Robertson will appreciate the tillage sample."

"Yes, sir," Runner said.

"Here will do," Dean said, getting about seventy meters away from the boat to port.

Runner set the drill rig down carefully as staff sergeant Kristopher dumped the spare pipe somewhat less cautiously.

In a minute the rig was set up and started drilling.

"I think I see an outcrop over there," Dr. Dean said. "Sergeant Runner? You see it?"

"Yes, sir," Runner said, dialing up the zoom on the Wyvern. South of the boat there was a small rocky promontory.

"I'd like to get some samples," Dean said. "You and Kristopher can run the rig. We'll put in seismic monitors on the way."

"Sir, that's outside the security zone," Runner pointed out.

"I'll be fine, Sergeant," Dean said. "That's what the armor is for, right?"

"Sir, we don't know the nature of the threats in this area," Runner replied. "And if you leave the security zone without permission, the captain will ground you, Doctor. Let me get with Captain MacDonald and see what we can do, Doctor."

"Very well," Dean said, exasperated.
"He wants to what?" MacDonald said.

"It's the only rocks around here, sir," the master sergeant said patiently. "And it's also a good observation point. You want to kick it up to the boat CO?"

"Negative," MacDonald said. "Watch your ass, Master Sergeant. I want everyone back alive."

The captain switched frequencies and looked at his locator system.

"Tony, detach one team to screen the geo guys again," he said, punching in the point that Geo was heading for. "Make sure they take point this time. Tell them to watch their ass."
"Charlie team. Geo is moving to marked point. Screen on point. Platoon is redeploying in support."
"Okay, why do we always get grapping point?" Hattelstad asked. "First out of the grapping ship, always screening grapping Geo . . ."

"Luck of the draw," Jaen said. "Now shut up and keep your grapping eyes open. We're going into the long grass . . ."

* * *

"Where's Charlie going?" Weaver asked interestedly.

"Charlie, Miller, where you going?" Miller asked.

"Geo wants to go check out those rocks about a klick away, Chief Warrant Officer," the Marine team leader replied, pinging the location on Miller's map system. "Guess who gets to nursemaid."

"I'm in on that," Weaver said. "But does the CO know?"

"Not sure," Miller admitted.

"I'd better get permission," Weaver said disgustedly.

"Welcome to the chain of command."
Random botany sampling is one of the more tedious jobs in the universe.

The simplest method in an open grassy area such as the area the boat had landed in was to simply toss a one-meter diameter ring over the shoulder. Then the one-meter area was more or less scoured, all the plant and animal material inside being collected and sorted.

Do this ten or twelve times and you have a bio sampling of the area.

"Tell security that if they shoot anything I want it," Julia said, down on the knees of the suit pulling up grasses. "Tell them to try not to chew it up too much." She paused and held up the selection of grasses. "Hmmm. That's odd."
"Here we go . . ." Jaenisch said as they approached the long grass. This wasn't the area where they'd seen predators, but that didn't mean there weren't any.

"Charlie, hold up," Runner said. "Putting in a seismic monitor."

The seismic monitor was simply a long spike. The Wyvern drove it into the ground until the sensor pod was flush with the ground.

"Okay, Jaen," Runner said. "We're going to be doing that every few hundred meters."

"Got it," Jaenisch said. "You picking up anything?"

"On seismic?" Runner asked, humorously. "No. Nothing on any channel. Bio wants us to shoot anything that moves, by the way. And 'try not to chew it up too much.' "

"Right," Jaenisch said, setting his Gatling to single fire. "Hattelstad, point."

"Roger," Hattelstad said, cycling in a shot round to the shoulder mounted auto-cannon. "If it's small, though, there ain't gonna be much left."

The team slid into the grass smoothly, tracking for threats. The grass only came up to the "hips" of the suits but just about anything could be hidden in it.

"Got movement," Hattelstad said. "Two o'clock."

"Mine," Jaenisch said, tracking the heat form. He fired one round and the form tumbled. But he didn't see the expected hot flash from flying blood.

"Nice shot," Berg said just as the form got up and started scuttling away.

"What the hell?" Jaen said, firing two more rounds and heading towards the form.

The two rounds had managed to kill it. The thing, yeah, looked something like a crab. A bright red crab. But the legs instead of being exoskeletal were long tentacles with footpads. It had no visible eyes, but it was pretty smashed up. They might have been in the smashed area.

"That's grapping strange looking," Hattelstad said. "Looks like a cross between a crab and an octopus."

"Keep an eye on your sector," Jaenisch said, pulling out a sampling bag, a heavy-duty zipper-lock the size of a trash bag. He dropped the . . . crabpus in the bag and got back in position.

"Movement," Bergstresser said. "Multiple forms. Big. Nine o'clock."

"Back up," Jaenisch said, switching to full auto. "Geo, we are leaving."
"Maulk," Runner said, grabbing Dr. Dean's Wyvern. "We need to get out of here, Doctor."

"Nonsense," the scientist said, pulling away from the master sergeant. "We're in armor, you idiot."

"Charlie is pulling back," Runner said. "My orders are to keep you inside the security perimeter. I cannot force you to leave, but I strongly recommend it. I am pulling back. You can stay here on your own or you can leave. Up to you."

With that Runner turned towards the boat and started trotting.

"Hey!" Dean shouted. "You can't just leave me here!" The planetologist started running after him.

"As they say in Africa, Doctor, you don't have to be faster than the lion, just faster than your companions," Runner replied, still trotting. "Why don't you try to be faster than me."
"Charlie's headed back," Miller said, stopping as the team started pulling back and the two Geo members turned to run to the rear.

"Then I think we should stop, don't you?" Weaver said, taking a knee and bringing up his .338 caliber machine gun. The gun fired hypervelocity scramjet rounds with an accurate range of over a mile. Given that they were essentially mini rocket engines, though, they had a theoretical range of anywhere in atmosphere.

"Charlie, Miller," Miller said in reply. "We will screen your retreat."

"Roger, Master Chief," the team leader said. "We have multiple—"
"Grapp," Hatt said, firing a 30mm shot round as the heat forms closed. The first form shuddered to the side, then came back up as its fellows ran past. "Switching to exploding shot."

"Go," Jaen said, opening fire. The minigun scythed down the grass between him and the target, giving them their first clear view of the animals.

Like the first one, they were crabpus but much larger. And whereas the mouth and "face" portion of the one Jaenisch shot had been mangled, these were clear. The things had huge mandibles, clearly designed to crunch through the crabpus armor. And they were less than ten meters away.

"Ugly things," Two-Gun said, firing a burst from his minigun. Several of the rounds seemed to bounce off the armor, but the rounds that went under it cut the thing's legs out and it tumbled to the side.

"Now is when I wish you had your pistols, Two-Gun," Jaen panted.

"Cannon . . . on-line," Hatt said in a deep voice, then opened fire.

The 30mm rounds landed in the midst of the pack of predators in flashes of purple fire and dust, flinging them through the air. A direct hit on one shattered the armor and splashed violet blood across the red grass.

The pack continued through the fire, spreading out and closing in in a pincer movement. The threesome went back to back, firing at the darting forms. Unfortunately, much of their fire was missing or bouncing off and the crabpus finally closed.

"Grapp," Two-Gun shouted as one of the things grabbed the leg of the Wyvern in its mandibles. He couldn't look down very well in the armor and felt himself swaying. "I'm going down!"

As one of the things leapt on his back, Jaenisch knelt and drove the armored fist of his suit into the top of the crabpus that had Berg by the leg. The thing had wrapped its tentacles around the suit and was chewing at the refractory armor which, incredibly enough, was smoking. Then he saw that the thing was "foaming" at the mouth. The foam was, apparently, some sort of acid.

The punch bounced.

"Mothergrapper," he said, extending a sampling drill. The security Wyverns had some of the same equipment as the scientists', just not as extensive. But the sampling drill was designed to cut through rock or metal. He laid it just behind the thing's mandibles and turned on the drill as he heard a crunching sound over his shoulder.

"Grappers!" Hatt shouted, laying down point-blank cannon fire. The crabs were thrown through the air but most of them got back up. It was only when he hit one dead center that the cannon rounds would kill. Some of them were thrown fifteen or twenty meters and still got up and came back. "How do you kill these grappers?"

"Drill works," Jaenisch said, reversing the drill as the crab's tentacles spasmed into its body and then went limp.

"Jaen," Hattelstad said, "hold still. One of those things is eating into your back."

"Get it off!" Jaenisch said. "Get it off me!"

"Like I said, hold still," Hattelstad replied.

Jaen was suddenly slammed to the ground by a massive explosion.

"You could have used the drill, behanchod!" Jaenisch shouted, his ears ringing.

"It wasn't an armor penetrator," Hattelstad pointed out reasonably.

The pack was now scattered in bits in the artificial clearing made by the small skirmish. A few were still waving tentacles, but most were in too many bits.

"I guess we got one sample for bio," Jaenisch said, holding up the crabpus that had been eating Berg's leg. "Maybe we should pick up a couple more."

"Uh, boss," Bergstresser said as Hattelstad poured water on the foam. His leg armor was partially eaten away and very bent. "I've got movement popping up all over the place. Most of it's going away but a bunch of it is headed this way."

"So much for samples," Jaenisch said. "In the words of King Arthur—"

"Run away! Run away!" Hattelstad crowed.

"We are so out of here."
"All teams report to the boat for decon," the CO said as Charlie Second cleared the long grass. From the conn he had an eagle-eye view of all the activity around the boat and had monitored the small battle carefully. He also noted that Weaver and Miller let Charlie retreat behind them before backing up. "Security commander, pull all science teams in first, then security."

"Roger, Command," Captain MacDonald said.

"Commander Weaver," the CO continued. "I want you in first."

2014-07-19 18:44
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