By David O’Hanlon
The 1st Space Battalion’s Orbital Ranger Company, or ORCs, had two platoons aboard the Low Orbit Tactical Operations Center. Their powered exoskeletons were mounted to hard points on formfitting jumpsuits which served as an extra layer of protection against burns, cuts, and abrasions beyond the ballistic protection of the armor plates attached to the skeletons which allowed the ORCs to carry more than a regular soldier.
And they utilized that ability to its fullest. All together, an ORC platoon carried more firepower than an infantry company. And they needed it, as they were often on the ground hours, or even days, before reinforcements could arrive.
Captain Palmer Bagwell stood before the twelve soldiers of Charlie platoon, every one of them tooled up and ready to deploy. He walked the line and inspected their loadout as he addressed them.
“Twenty-eight minutes ago, an unidentified space-borne object approximately ninety to one hundred meters wide impacted in central Arkansas. We are to deploy and secure the impact site. Once on the ground, we will assess the environment for investigative assets. We will identify potential threats and secure a perimeter around the point of impact and then, only then, will we begin a sweep for survivors.
“Initial estimates based off of mushroom cloud height, speed, mass, and blast radius put the force at approximately one and a quarter megatons. That’s almost twice that of the Pyongyang detonation and some of you can attest to the damage that did, so hopes are not high inside the first three miles. The air burst alone will have produced wind speeds of well over two hundred kilometers per hour and enough overpressure to flatten most residentials. We’re looking at seismic activity in the neighborhood of a six on the Richter scale. No thermal damage is expected due to estimated impact velocity, but that doesn’t mean this thing didn’t bring plenty of nastiness from wherever the hell it came from, so bring your bucket and keep airtight.
“The dust cloud it kicked up is screwing with comms and SATINT, so we’re going in blind and won’t be able to talk to the LOTOC, or probably anyone else. We’re not expecting any problems, but we’re going heavy just to be sure. Again, this object was of unknown origin. While it was more than likely a natural occurrence, we cannot assume someone won’t take advantage of the gaping blind spot in our security or the ensuing chaos that’s more than likely already spread across the country. With annexation of NoMex last month, we’ve been seeing a lot of nut pumping from the Federation. This might be just what they’ve been waiting for. Hit the ship, we drop in five!”
The drop was rough, but it always was. Essentially, the LOTOC’s dropships did exactly what the name implied. They dropped from the base of the station and relied on gravity for their acceleration. Small jets fired to correct path and angle of descent, allowing the craft to either glide to its target or to flatten out and “take off” just inside the atmosphere. They could be anywhere in the world in a couple of hours or even mere minutes.
The dust cloud was considerable given the size of the object. The thirteen Rangers occupied the cargo area at the underside of the ship’s aft. It was really nothing more than a densely packed metal box with jump seats mounted to the walls. Below their seat, their pack was locked in place and beside them, their primary weapon allowing them to move as soon as they hit the ground. The ship’s turbulent drop from the upper atmosphere leveled out as the pilots brought them onto target.
Eighteen minutes after their initial departure from the LOTOC, the ORCs were landing in what was left of Little Rock. The ramp came down, and the Rangers charged out, weapons up and tried to maintain their composure at the sight before them. A massive crater spanned over three hundred meters across and at least five hundred deep. Around it, the buildings had been reduced to rubble by the impact. Fires blazed in the distance, and the acrid smoke of the burning structures was engulfing the midday sky. The sounds of wailing sirens and collapsing of buildings surrounded them. The roaring boom and pillar of fire from an exploding gas line drew the ORCs attention to the north.
Bravo team split up into two groups of three and began working around the perimeter of the crater. The exoskeletons were lined with sensors that assessed the air for contaminants. At the moment, they were reading off the charts. The pulverized buildings threw up particles of asbestos and fiberglass: wood burned, plastics melted, utility lines oozed natural gas and sewage. The team kept their masks on and brought out more sophisticated equipment for testing the air and soil for radiological or viral threats.
“Bravo team,” Palmer’s voice sounded inside the soldiers’ helmets. “The area will have to be monitored until all this shit settles. I want you all to stay here while I take Alpha to look for survivors. We’ll radio back in two hour increments. VLF transmissions should remain functional. We’re going to move northwest toward the river. As soon as you regain contact with LOTOC, I want to hear about it. Alpha, let’s move out.”
Lost among the burning ejecta and chunks of asphalt, beneath the settling dust, the team didn’t see the claw marks at the edge of the crater.
The satellites showed nothing but smoke and dust over a ten-mile radius around the unknown object’s impact. Feeds from the rest of the country showed the situation was far from better elsewhere. The nation was in an absolute panic. Radio chatter was non-stop as the military and law enforcement tried to coordinate their efforts. The civilian channels were full of claims that a nuclear attack had finally happened. Millions were in the streets preaching that it was the End Times. Freeways were packed. Looting and riots choked major cities. And Colonel Alexander Jameson was there to watch it all, helplessly, a hundred miles above the Earth he was sworn to protect.
“Activate all ORCs. I want them ready for deployment in fifteen! Guard units are being overrun in Chicago, so we’ll start there. Get Lieutenant Chandler up here. His PJs need to be ready to move in case Palmer and his team need evac.” Jameson watched as the control room swarmed with junior officers trying to process the data and relay it to the correct locations. “We’re initializing Prometheus protocol, start system checks now.”
“Prometheus, sir? We haven’t received the order,” a warrant officer said.
“Well when we do, I want us ready to act, not blowing dust off the damn thing. This isn’t going to end well, and every second is going to be crucial. Start system diagnosis, now.” Jameson turned back to the monitors and watched his country turn into a warzone.
He didn’t have to look at the feeds to know that the rest of the world was falling apart as well. Years of combat had given him a sixth sense about how just how bad a situation could get and at that moment, he knew that this was just the beginning of something much worse.
They’d been walking for almost ten minutes when the point man, Cromartie, picked up multiple heartbeats on his Personal Display Unit. He slowed his march and watched the unit carefully and then looked out in the direction that it indicated. The blips on his screen were in a tight cluster, thirty meters in front of him. A large fissure in the road led to a massive hole in the middle of the street. Cromartie moved forward cautiously, sliding between abandoned cars and looking over the edge of the hole. He pulled up a shoulder-mounted searchlight and illuminated the abyss below.
The road had collapsed into the subway tunnels, taking several cars and a city bus down with it. Cromartie stepped off of the edge and landed on the roof of one of the cars. The bus had come down on its nose before flipping over and now sat upside and at an angle. Cromartie saw the faces of the survivors pressed against the glass as they called for help. He grabbed the bent bus door and pulled with the extra strength afforded him by his exoskeleton, ripping it free from the frame. He stepped inside the bus and took a headcount.
Two of the ORCs, Sandow and Peterson, lowered themselves into the hole to help with the eleven survivors. Bagwell tried to radio the LOTOC, but there was still too much interference to get a clear transmission. Corporals Del Carmen and Wexler pulled the healthier survivors out first before trying to retrieve the wounded. Oluwo, the team’s sniper, had mounted the roof of a truck and used his digital scope to scan the perimeter.
One of the survivors, a black woman in a blood soaked-pantsuit, stepped toward Bagwell. “Are you in charge?”
“Yes ma’am. I’m Captain Palmer Bagwell, UM 1st Space Battalion. We’re going to get you some place safe.”
“Maxine Glover.” She extended a hand as she introduced herself. “You’re not extracting us?”
“No ma’am, not yet. We’re having difficulties establishing contact with our superiors. We’re going to find a safe place to hole up until then.”
“I’d recommend the fire station then. It’s only about seven blocks from here, and they’ll have food and medical supplies. You can coordinate your search and rescue efforts from there.”
Bagwell eyed her suspiciously. “What exactly do you do, Ms. Glover?”
“Nowadays, I’m a lawyer.” She grinned.
Click below for next page…