Aid and comfort was the mission. Now, it’s all about survival.
Arda was supposed to be a vacation in terms of missions. But when Capt Morris learns the Garnier will be out of system for five days, she loses that vacation feeling.
Morris wouldn’t normally pack rapid response vehicles, shoulder rockets, and a cargo hold full of ammo to rebuild a town on a peaceful planet.
But the mission no longer feels normal.
Aid and comfort turn to defense as the Hospitallers are attacked again and again by unknown forces. When one of them is captured, Morris learns her paranoid packing wasn’t enough.
Counter Offensive on Arda is the fourth book in the Stories of the Orphan Corps series. It is a stand-alone story like Rescue on Gimhae and the other Stories of the Orphan Corps. And like the other stories, you’ll find adventure, subterfuge, decisive battles, and lots of things going boom!
Captain Kari Morris, commanding officer of Tripoli company, Aragorn Langue, did not like how this mission was starting out. On paper, it was a text-book in-and-out aid-and-comfort operation. So the Garnier should have waited in system until Morris’s company returned from the surface of Arda.
“Hey, Capt Morris.”
Morris looked up from the deck of the drop-ship she was staring past. She pushed her attention to Staff Sergeant Alberta Gross. SSgt Gross had also looked up, but not from the deck, from her knitting.
The staff sergeant grinned and nodded in the direction of the drop-ship’s hull. “The ash from the volcano. Makes the ship’s engines cranky. Another thousand feet and we’ll be below it.”
“Why are you telling me this, Gross?”
SSgt Gross looked like she’d heard a joke but couldn’t deduce the punchline. “I thought you might be getting sick, Captain. Just wanted to reassure you it’ll all be good in a bit.”
The laugh from Capt Morris drew the attention of 1st squad, 1st platoon. Many of them were hidden by the supply-laden crawlers. “Is that what you thought, Staff Sergeant?”
Capt Morris chuckled and shook her head. Of course, no one on the drop-ship was aware of her concerns. She was the CO of a Hospitaller company. From the beginning of officer candidate school, she’d been admonished never to show doubt. Especially in the presence of the enlisted. She’d laid awake for most of the night, replaying memories of commanding officers she’d served under, looking for moments of doubt. Had she missed it? Had she assumed they were merely contemplating the mission, or about to vomit?
“I’m fine, Gross,” Morris finally said. She remembered to smile reassuringly at SSgt Gross. “Looks like you dropped a stitch.”
“What? Did I?” The loadmaster lifted her knitting and examined it. As long as Morris had known SSgt Gross, which was nearly as long as both their time in service, Gross knitted. She knitted two things, hats and mittens. When she had a box of them, she shipped them off to the orphanage where she’d grown up. They had cold winters there. Gross sighed when she saw it, saying, “I did. I’m going to have to tear this out now.”
“Sorry, Gross,” Morris said. She wasn’t sure if it was her fault. Perhaps Gross had been paying more attention to her than to the knitting.
“Aw, it’s okay, Captain. At least you caught it now and not when I was working the fingers. I dislike having to tear those out. Too much work.”
SSgt Gross continued to talk, but it had become a self-engrossed muttering as she removed the knitting needles and began to pull the yarn, unraveling the glove slowly.
It was one of the marvels of SSgt Gross’s personality that she could knit under any condition. Morris recalled one time when they’d been doing a HiHo onto a terraworld. There’d been strong winds that had spun the drop-ship like a cork as it passed through the ionic layer of atmosphere, the engines still, the emergency lights glowing.
Half the Hospitallers had lunch bags strapped to their faces, giving back the breakfast they’d enjoyed hours earlier. But Gross had knitted as if everything was smooth and normal. She looked up every now and then to make sure no one was foolish enough to up-chuck in her drop-ship.
The hat she’d been working on was almost done by the time the drop-ship had stopped spinning and the main parachutes had deployed.
This time the only things spinning were the wheels in Morris’s brain. She was too new at this to be left alone. She wasn’t even a major. No one had been sent in to replace Maj Crawford after the accident on the last mission. And, no one seemed to be interested in promoting her to major just yet.
Yes, she’d been a captain for two years. She’d gotten high marks in that time. If Maj Crawford was still alive, he could have vouched for her, would have done so gladly, based on their conversations. Instead, General Arthur Garcia had said her promotion was under consideration. He went on to tell her that the Garnier was needed elsewhere.
“It’s a forestry world, Morris,” the general had said. He’d waved away her concerns with the tablet on which her assignment had been displayed. “You’re going down to help a major town recover from a fire. A fire started by that volcano everyone could see from the portholes. I’m assuming you looked?”
Morris had looked. She hadn’t seen the volcano, but she’d seen the plume of ash, smeared across the sky like a dusty feather. Beneath it, the dark scar where the trees had been burned to black by the lava-igniting fires. The town, Abada had been rolled over by the fire. The reports said there were few buildings left. The survivors were those who’d been able to reach the canal and then not drown, waiting for the fire to finish its work.
“Well, then,” said the general as he sat forward and began moving things on his desk. It was his little way to let a person know they were about to be dismissed. “Except for the smoke, ash, and a lack of buildings, think of it as a holiday. We’ll be back for you in seven days.”
Morris hadn’t slept that night, either. Seven days without any resources except those she brought to the surface. Seven days without any help should she or her company need it. Seven days where she was the sole decision-maker, the single person responsible for everything that went wrong.
She could almost hear the sound of her promotion kissing her goodbye.
Fortunately, it was drowned out by the sounds of the drop-ship engines coming online. Morris looked up to see SSgt Gross putting her knitting away. Gross smiled and nodded in Morris’s direction. She echoed the actions.
With the engines on, it meant they were less than two kilometers above the surface of Arda. By twisting sideways, Morris could see out the small porthole. The planet’s horizon curved across her view. The volcano, still spewing a cloud of ash and smoke, was ahead. Morris couldn’t see it, but the plume was long enough she could see that. Beneath it, a canal, roughly straight, cut a line across the land, segmenting the forest. On both sides, the green had been overtaken by the black of burned tree trunks and undergrowth.
Somewhere under the plume, what remained of the town, Abada, waited for help. Despite her own personal misgivings and insecurities, Morris was first and foremost, a Hospitaller. She had been training since she could read, to be of service. Aid, Comfort, Defend. The motto was above every doorway in the orphanage that led to the outside world.
She had chosen to sign the first and every contract that followed. She had chosen to attend officer candidate training. Now, she chose to do what Hospitallers all across the 2nd radial arm of the galaxy were doing, provide aid and comfort. And, if she should be called upon to do so, she would defend them as well.
As SSgt Gross had predicted, the passage through the upper atmosphere, clogged with ash had been the worst of it. Once the atmospheric engines were on, the drop-ship had taken a long, curving path across the sky, coming in low under the incessant plume that continued to flow from the volcano.
The lower the drop-ships went, the more the damage to the forest made itself known. The planet had the slightest axial tilt. This kept the poles capped in ice, but the mid-band of Arda was temperate. The land and the soil were prime for growing trees. Lumber was a useful commodity, especially on planets where lumber-worthy trees were scarce.
Morris wasn’t sure what kind of economic damage the fire was going to have on the entire planet, but the Hospitallers would do their best to help.
“Landing in five minutes,” SSgt Gross had said into the mic. Her calm voice felt heavy handed through the speakers.
Morris nodded acknowledgment and turned again to the porthole. She could see the other nine drop ships spread out behind like misshapen beads on an invisible string. The original manifest had listed eight drop-ships. Morris had pestered General Garcia until he’d finally had enough and allowed her to bring two more.
In those two drop-ships, she’d loaded extra rations, extra gear for the company, extra ammo, and four RapReps in case she needed to move some of her people fast. Crawlers, the vehicles they would use to transport everything else, weren’t called crawlers as a joke. Morris’s old dorm mother back at the orphanage could move faster than a crawler. But, nothing could carry as much, through any condition, as a crawler.
“One minute, people.”
The energy inside the drop-ship was rising. Even though there wasn’t any other enemy than the volcano’s ash and fire, there was still the heightened excitement as they prepared for the final moment of contact. Unlike other drops, though, they wouldn’t be unfolding the ballistic shields, preparing to receive enemy fire.
No, this time it was going to be as General Garcia had said. It was a vacation. Not that Morris had ever taken a vacation.
So why couldn’t Morris stop worrying? Maybe it was because she’d never forgotten the old saying. If everything is going to plan, something’s going wrong.
“Touching dirt in three, two, one.”
The drop-ship rocked as it landed. The cargo in the middle of the drop-ship’s bay swayed several centimeters and then steadied. SSgt Gross was already moving past Morris. At the back of the bay, Gross flipped open a hatch. Inside it, she punched what looked like a yarn ball but was actually one of the first knitted caps Gross had made covering the hatch’s hydraulic button.
Mechanisms within the ship clicked and clanked. Then, the wide door on the back end began to whine as its hydraulics lowered safely to the ground where it would become the ramp.
When the ramp touched dirt, and the whining of the hydraulics stopped, SSgt Gross held her arms up and shouted cheerfully, “Welcome to Arda, Hospitallers. Don’t break it.”
Hospitallers began to unbuckle their restraints. They made sure to laugh appreciatively at Gross’s joke. It never hurt to be on the good side of a loadmaster. Especially if a person was fond of souvenirs of significant weight.
“Sun’s out, Captain,” SSgt Gross said.
“Thank you, SSgt Gross,” said Morris. She’d held back to let the rest of 1st squad, 1st platoon exit the ship.
Once Morris was off the bottom of the ramp, Gross would begin unlocking cargo restraints, and the Hospitallers of Tripoli company would start unloading. When the bay was clear, they’d open the lower deck and pull the crawlers out from below. Three crawlers each on eight drop-ships. Two rapid response vehicles in drop-ships nine and ten.
Thirty vehicles of supplies to help the citizens of Abada. That, and enough munitions to nearly pop the eyebrows off the Armorer back on the Garnier.
It had taken some searching prior to launch to find a place to land near Abada. Too close and the ash would have blown across the town, exacerbating the breathing problems the surviving citizens were already suffering through. Arda was known for its forests, not for open spaces. They’d finally chosen a place where the trees were sparse and not too far from the canal.
Several hours after they had landed, Tripoli company had all the cargo out and loaded onto the crawlers. The RapReps carried the medical supplies, some of which were in portable coolers. The medical team, led by Capt Norman Thomas walked alongside the crawlers along with the rest of the Hospitallers. The only people riding were the drivers of the RapReps. The Crawlers were collectively being control by a remote in the hands of the XO, Capt Clayton, and daisy-chained come-along controls. Where the first crawler went, the rest would follow.
Capt Soon, lead pilot of the drop-ships waited until the crawlers and RapReps were lined up for departure.
“Capt Morris,” Soon said. “Looks like you’ve got it all under control.”
Morris tried to shutter her concerns behind a smile. “Thank you, Capt Soon.”
“We’ll wait until you’re about a kilometer out before we take off. Don’t want to blow anything over. Crawlers are near impossible to right once they’re on their side.”
It was Soon’s idea of a joke as it was near impossible to knock a crawler over.
“Well, I appreciate that, Soon.”
They both had a companionable laugh before shaking hands. Capt Soon went up the ramp of his Drop-ship. SSgt Gross was waiting, saluting the captain before punching the button that signaled the ramp to rise. As it did, Gross caught Morris’s eye and gave her a salute as well.
“Just don’t breath the ash, Capt Morris!”
“Thank you, Gross.” It was unlikely that SSgt Gross had heard Morris. She’d muttered her response and was in the process of turning to examine her charges and all the equipment they would be moving.
It was going to be a long day. But at least the worst of it was over.