Phew! If you thought chapter three was late, this trumps it. This story still lives, and here is the proof! The tables are turning now
Chapter FourHuman Expeditionary Force, Mars Orbit
December 7th, 1963
The tight formations broke up quickly, the huge vessels moving with a grace that would surprise a casual observer. The crews, professionals all, were naturally elated at the easy victories the campaign had handed them so far. The commanders did not share the exuberance of the ships companies; the intricacies of landing troops took over their minds. No joy showed on their faces, but worse, no doubts formed in their mind. No one wanted to believe the mission could fail, not even these grizzled "veterans." Of course, the last war had been fought before anyone in the fleet could even walk. Not a single sailor or soldier had any experience of actual warfare.
The national squadrons split up according to orders and functions. Each nation had built ships that reflected their preferred styles of war. The British, German and Russian ships were built as monitors; slow, but very powerful. They were the fleet’s big guns, built to annihilate anything the Martians sent against them. Their initial missions successful, they fell back to a higher orbit; taking the high ground so as to be able to respond much faster if the Marines needed a little extra firepower.
The Japanese built their ships as carriers; they had pioneered aviation and been instrumental in developing spaceflight. Their ships were flying carriers sheathed in armour with engines slapped on the sterns. No grace, no glamour, just a singular purpose. They stayed in place, opening their armoured doors and launching a veritable horde of small fighters. Nimble Zeroes darted about like schools of fish, forming a patrol around the carriers while the heavier gunboats launched. They too formed up in a loose formation, waiting for the call to battle.
The African nations, knowing they lacked any cultural experience of true naval warfare, did not build carriers or battleships like the others. They built fast, nimble cruisers and pickets, ready to rush in and swat cylinders from the skies to protect their larger brethren. They split away from each other, moving out to form their wall of steel. For centuries the world had looked down upon the African nations, deeming them subhuman, unworthy of anything more than exploitation. Today these men and women would stand as the fleet’s first line of defence, and they would make the other nations of the world rue the day they ever doubted Africa’s resolve.
The French and the Americans chose to forgo ship to ship warfare entirely. Their strength lay in their ground forces, the Marines and the Legions. So their built assault ships, packed with landing craft and transports to get the troops to the surface. The American forces fell down to only a few tens of kilometres above the surface, hurling waves of drop pods and attack transports as fast as the hanger crews could launch them. Once the first wave secured a beachhead these large ships would actually land on the surface to act as mobile firebases. The idea had seemed absurd to Admiral Tranter when the idea had been proposed. But the Sky Marshall had been most persuasive and the plans had gone ahead.
Back on the Thunder Child
, the small doubt in Tranter’s mind was becoming a screaming voice. Something is wrong here! It shouldn’t be THIS easy.
But Tranter knew he could not say as much even to his fellow commanders. Too much had been invested in this crusade for the Admiral in command to be seen having doubts. So James stood and stared and the hateful Red Planet, watching thousands of Marines ride their drop pods to the surface. Only a few more minutes till planetfall.
His aide, a reliable Commander called Edward Matheson, approached.
“Sir, High Command has received our transmissions. Her Majesty demands an update in person.”
James sighed. “She is aware of the time lag?” With the positions of Mars and Earth, even radio signals would take three minutes to reach Earth and three minutes to return. It made real-time conversations impossible; this had the result of making demands for a personal update both highly serious and ominous.
“Yes sir. She is awaiting your response on channel 1.”
“Very well Commander. Dismissed.” Commander Matheson left hurriedly to collect more status reports while James organised his thoughts for the conversation with the Sovereign. He activated the transmission.
“Your Majesty, I beg to report our status and progress so far.” A lengthy wait followed, enough time for James to receive and organise the most up to date reports. And a steaming cup of tea courtesy of his aide. Then, his screen changed and he received a reply.
Dressed far simpler than might be expected of the de facto ruler of the world, Queen Elizabeth the Second of Great Britain and Ireland, Empress of India, elected leader of the Earth Alliance and Sovereign of a quarter of the world’s population, appeared on his screen.
“Admiral, we have received your recordings and we congratulate you on your progress so far. You have the thanks and thoughts of all our peoples. Now, if you would kindly explain the next phase of your campaign and the disposition of your forces.”
“Certainly ma’am. With Operation Phobos successfully completed we are proceeding with Operation Deimos. The Marines under General Davis are landing now and securing a beachhead. Once that is secure the American assault ships under Sky Marshall Kennedy will land and begin coordination of ground campaigns. Sky Marshall Kennedy will have overall command of the operation. General de Gaulle and his forces are waiting in low orbit to provide fire support and rapid reinforcements for the second wave.” James shifted one report aside to pick up another.
“On the space front my own force, along with the German and Russian flotillas are holding station in high orbit for possible strategic bombardment, should that prove to be necessary. The Japanese carrier force is between us and the American and French fleets and is providing our combat air patrol and preparing their gunboats for close air support for the Marines. I am pleased to report that the United African force has resolved its technical problems and has been deployed in a blockade pattern to shield the rest of the fleet from interceptors or ground attack.”
“With the destruction of the large Heat Rays and the Great Gun, we believe Martian defences to be crippled on a strategic level. On a tactical level we have not seen any evidence of resistance to the Marine’s landing operation. This could mean they have no effective forces in place or they are massing for a weighted counterstrike. In such an eventuality I have given the Sky Marshall the authority to call in orbital fire support and, if he deems it necessary, the use of Bombardment Warheads against Martian positions.”
James managed to keep the distaste out of his voice as he said that. The idea of giving the Americans control of nuclear weapons had been abhorrent to the Admiral, but Jack had insisted and Donitz and Ramius agreed that it made sense to speed up the reaction time for such actions.
The Queen looked positively alarmed at that news. “Are you sure that is wise Admiral? After Madrid?”
“I agree it is a risky choice ma’am, but my squadron commanders were most persuasive in their arguments. This allows us to react much faster if such a situation occurs. If the Martins launch a heavy counterattack, we may not have time for the Sky Marshall to contact me and get authorisation. I have complete authority in this regard ma’am, and despite your misgivings I am going ahead with the idea. It may, however, be best to not publicise this fact.”
“Very well Admiral. I leave the campaign in your capable hands. Please keep us appraised of progress. Farewell Sir James.” And with that, the long-distance audience was ended.
James sighed, finished his tea and returned to the quarterdeck. Glancing at the tactical screen, he saw the US Marines had established their beachhead and the American assault ships were about to set down on the Red Planet.United States Flagship UES
Dream of Philadelphia, Borealis Basin, Mars
Jack Kennedy felt the dull thump in his boots as his great flagship finally set down on the Martian surface. Now, he could show all the world (worlds, he corrected himself) what the United States of America could do!
The landing bays opened, releasing hundreds of Panzers. These strange looking vehicles had been developed by the German military back in ’46, after military commanders realised they would need ground transportation for the invasion, and pack horses and mules would not be practical. There had been talk of building tripod walkers, but the idea was dismissed by the Earth Alliance. Instead, a German team had proposed a revolutionary design for a large wheeled vehicle that would have the best armour available while providing a pressurised haven for soldiers. Several different variants had been designed; the Battle Panzers mounting Heat Rays for blasting tripods, the Infantry Panzers for carrying troops to the objectives, and the Artillery Panzers, forgoing a turret or armour in favour of a large howitzer to suppress the Martian forces.
Kennedy shook his head, marvelling at the inventive mind of the devious Germans. He turned away from the sights below and back to his command centre. The map at the centre showed his forces laid out clearly. His five other assault ships had landed in a pentagon pattern around his flagship, and all were deploying the follow-up forces. They had expected this to be a matter of urgency; the need to relieve General Davis’ lightly-armed shock troops from Martian attacks. But there was no resistance at all, despite the presence of a major Martian city only fifty kilometres from the landing site.
Kennedy was about to make a comment to his deputies about it being too easy when the northern assault ship exploded.Martian Operations Control, Martian Surface
The senior Martian’s mind-voice conveyed amusement and a trace of sadness at the human’s actions. He had to admit to being surprised at the larger cattle-ships landing on the surface. That was not expected, but it made his countermove all the better.Begin counterstrike. Target the outermost of the landed cattle-ships first. Leave their commanders for last so they might wallow in their hubris.
The military Martian reached a tentacle behind him and tapped a control, subtly changing the parameters of the strike to accommodate the herd-beast’s strange actions.Orbital fortresses arming now. Weapons charged. Cattle ships targeted. Firing now.
Two large regions of space rippled and changed. Two large and powerful fortresses built centuries ago by the Martians removed their camouflage screens and revealed their heat rays. They had a perfect shot at the powerful ships in orbit, but orders were clear; target the ships on the ground. Kill as many troops as possible.
The heat rays warmed and fired, blasting down at the assault ship Spirit of Los Angeles
. Even from space, the heat produced by her nuclear power plants was clearly detectable and the ship was plainly visible to telescopes. The assault ships had been carefully, if discretely, scanned as they made their approach, and the Martian gunners aimed for her huge armoured magazines, holding thousands of tonnes of shells and missiles.
To the troops on the ground there was no sign of trouble. No warning. Those lucky enough to be facing the Spirit of Los Angeles
saw the centre of the ship balloon outwards in a cataclysmic explosion, shattering her armoured hull and sending out a lethal hail of debris. The stern section dropped, no longer balanced on its landing gear, and slammed into the Martian soil. Despite being under only 0.37g, the stern section still weighed twenty thousand tonnes and that much mass could not be stopped. The engine bays broke open upon the ground and fuel tanks ruptured, spilling millions of gallons of salt water onto the Martian soil. The forward section lurched upwards briefly before arcing back down in a manner that might be called graceful if it didn’t herald a thousand deaths. Again, bulkheads splintered under the strain and bodies fell into the thin Martian atmosphere, being spared the horrors of asphyxiation only because they were crushed under the wreckage.
Sky Marshall Kennedy blinked; shocked that one sixth of his squadron had been lost in moment’s right before his eyes and without any warning. He heard his officers asking about an accident, a malfunction, but a cold lump in Jack’s gut told him instantly it was the Martians. He turned, realising that there were things he had to do, orders he had to give.
“Get the remaining troops out of the bays NOW. Any vehicles in the area scatter immediately. Order all remaining ships to prepare for liftoff at once. We have to get off the surface and get room to manoeuvre…” he paused when he saw another of his ships being hit. This time, he could see a flare on the dorsal hull as the Heat Rays (it has to be Heat Rays he thought) burnt through armour plate. Then the Ghost of Boston
erupted into a million tiny pieces as her magazines detonated under the terrible gaze of Martian weapons. Two ships gone. Probably twelve thousand dead already. We have to get out of here!
“MOVE damnit! We’re sitting ducks!” The battle staff jolted to action at his words, putting aside the horror of real combat to carry out their orders. Kennedy grabbed the direct line to the flagship.
“James! We’re getting burned down here! Two ships lost with all hands. For God’s sake help us out!”
“Sky Marshall, we’re aware of your situation. For your information two space stations just appeared in orbit. They are heavily armed and armoured, but they are turning their attention to us now it seems. You’ve got a breather, now get your arse back into the black.” Tranter’s voice revealed only a trace of the feelings coursing through his heart. “We’re engaging now. We’ll keep you advised. Out.”Author's Note: My apologies to everyone for this update coming after such a long wait. It's been on the back burner for a while but finally burst back into my brain a few days ago, and here it is.
A note on the Panzers. In my timeline, with the Martian invasion in the late 1890's there was no WW1 or 2, and hence no natural development of "tanks." Until someone realised they'd need something on Mars. I decided calling them tanks wouldn't make sense in-universe so I went with Panzer instead. For those who are interested, my mental picture of the vehicles is largely based on this FWD MM-1 Teracruzer, except armored and pressurized.