The sky looked ominous. As ironic as that was, Lieutenant Devin Leach was in no mood for puns. Every puddle he trudged through threatened to soak through his boots. Of all the people in the detail, it was Leach who knew better than most the dangers of wet socks. Not only were they a morale drain, in this kind of climate they were more likely than not to set off a wide variety of annoying medical hazards. Normally, the lieutenant and his team would be wearing gear appropriate for the climate. But this situation was about as far from normal as any officer could imagine. Even in the best of circumstances, they were going to have to keep every piece of current technology they had hidden and replace their normal routine with something more contemporary.
According to their maps, the village was only a quarter mile away. It seemed strange they could see no cattle or people in any direction, even on the road. One would think that someone would at least be hauling wares to or from the settlement, or simply getting water, but there wasn’t a soul to be found. A breeze caught the tall grass and caused the posts of the nearby fence to creak.
The lieutenant’s second was a promising young Able Crewman First Class on his first surface mission. High-ranking fleet enlisted were in short supply given the sudden need for specialists of all stripes, so it fell to the up-and-coming crew members to take up the slack. The lieutenant’s four-person squad was as green as a spring pond, but like all officers Leach was a believer in the old adage of combat experience: “Nothing grows until it’s buried in fertilizer.”
Leach wasn’t a big fan of leading men in a line up an unfamiliar road. Fleet or not, all Skywatch officers were trained for surface warfare. All officer candidates were regaled at one point or another by stories of the redcoats marching into combat in formation, dozens abreast. It was surely a proper and disciplined and an altogether British way of waging war, but the English, and as it turned out the Japanese, French, Germans, Chinese and Spanish as well were disabused of its effectiveness by the passage of time and the inexorable march of military technology.
None could fail to recognize the excellence of her Majesty’s navies, and their dominance of a world’s seas for nearly three centuries. Her armies, on the other hand, at least in the lieutenant’s opinion, didn’t have quite the same reputation. Leach, still more centuries removed from musket and formation, performed the same calculus as the officers of the ancient crown when evaluating risks. He didn’t like leading men in a line up a road with wide open fields of fire in every direction in a potentially dangerous place. Granted, ACFC Tooley was a capable SRS tech. His equipment was in fine working order, and he had been advised personally by the Chief Signals Officer of a battleship. It still didn’t change the lieutenant’s attitude.
Somewhere a few hundred miles overhead, the starship Sai Kee was on station, coordinating heavily disguised landing parties at various points across central England. The lieutenant was quite sure Skywatch Command was going to be very interested to hear Commander Jayce Hunter’s explanation for her ship’s current position, to say nothing of the fact Sai Kee technically wasn’t even her ship. Up to now the admiralty hadn’t demonstrated much of a grasp of what the Perseus crews had been up against. It was pretty unlikely they were going to understand why the commander had ordered her frigate to pursue one man into humanity’s ancient past. Admiral Powers would get it. The others would probably be a little slow.
What both the lieutenant and the commander did know was that if Sai Kee failed in her current mission, the early days of the Second Praetorian War were likely to be rather unfavorable, and that was the optimistic analysis. In fact, if Hunter didn’t catch the maniac she had now chased across five hundred years of history, whatever remained of the human race would be unlikely to survive at all. If they did, the next thousand years were going to make the Dark Ages look like a Saturday Evening Post cover.
“Feels like we’ve walked into a history book, sir,” Tooley offered.
Leach sighed. “I suppose that’s one way to look at it. I hope we can find what we’re looking for and get out of here quick.”
“What are we looking for, sir?”
“Like Commander Tixia says, we’ll know it when we see it. I just hope these people don’t mistake us for shamans or something and burn us at the stake.”
“Are they that superstitious, sir?” Tooley didn’t sound like he wanted to hear the answer.
“If there’s any sanity in the parish, it will be domiciled at Saint Andrew’s. At least that’s what the library computer thinks. Three quarters of a click bearing two zero six.”
“I’ve got intermittent life signs, sir, but nothing I can lock in,” Tooley said. He looked frustrated, as if his tools weren’t quite showing the readings he expected.
“Lieutenant?” One of the squad riflemen indicated a sign along the edge of the road. It read “Ombersley – Population 308.” Although they were called “riflemen” by regulation, on this mission, the heaviest weapon they had was a TK-12. Concussion rifles were tougher to hide, and the last thing Leach needed was a disruptor wave taking out half of someone’s barn.
The sound of a crow’s call floated over the road.
“Well, at least the birds are home,” Leach said. “Remember your cover names and make sure all your rank insignia is hidden or removed. Weapons at 20% power. Watch your targets. Everyone here is a civilian.”
“Except one,” Tooley added.
“Except one.” Leach led the squad towards the nearest of the shadowy structures standing against the late day light.
Destroy All Starships is the companion series to Inversion Factor Zero!