The activity on the ship was suddenly frantic. The Colonel had passed the battle orders to the subordinate commanders and wanted the various units ready to deploy in a matter of hours. Men and women were running everywhere. Gear was spilled on the decks as the soldiers sorted through it trying to determine what they would need to complete the mission and what would be nothing more than extra weight.
Over the PA system, the regimental operations officer announced, "Company Alpha, First Battalion, report to shuttle bay four in thirty minutes."
"Christ," said Susan Hyland, the company commander. "What they hell do they expect? No warning and then boom, we're to report to the shuttle bay."
Hyland was the youngest of the commany commanders, having been elevated to that post on the basis of a brilliant test score and a major mistake by the old company commander who had forgotten that the position was appointed at the whim of the Colonel and not by popular vote.
She was a stocky woman with short, dark hair, blue eyes and a rounded face. She had a pointed chin and heavy eyebrows that nearly met over her eyes. She was well muscled and had proven to the NCOs that she was their equal in hand to hand and with any of the small arms. In other words, she was quite competent.
"We're supposed to be ready always," said the first sergeant Robert Swain, an old man of nearly forty. His hair was salt and pepper but he was wirey and strong. No one disputed his authority. What some of the younger soldiers couldn't understand was his devotion to the company commander. Of course, he was devoted to position and not the person but they didn’t get that.
"They could have warned us. It's been a long time since they found that damned asteroid. You'd think there would have been some clue that they planned to invade. You'd think they wouldn't wait until the last minute."
"There were. You just missed them."
She whirled on him, glaring at him. "If you're so smart, why didn't you say something earlier?"
Swain said, "Because we're ready. All equipment has been inventoried and checked. That which needed maintenance was reported and repaired. The ammunition stocks were replaced. Laser weapons and powerpacks were checked. Stores of ready to eat meals, first aid kits, medical supplies were all inventoried. If it was damaged, expired, or spoiled, it was replaced. Vests, both ballistic and laser were inspected. Radio gear, batteries, and scramblers have been inspected and tested. Everything has been done, as it is on a regular basis. We're ready."
"Why wasn't I told?"
Swain grinned broadly. "All reports were logged into the main frame. Hard copy was supplied to the company office, reviewed and then recycled. Your initials were on each of those documents."
In her mind she could see the pile of paper that passed over her desk on a daily basis. She saw the computer screen filled with data. Coupled to the required reading, the orders that had to be issued, and the intelligence summaries, as well as correspondence that was on the electronic bulletin board and the E-mail, she knew that she must have glanced at the report, saw that it was routine and initialed it to get it out of her box and off her desk.
"Sorry, Sergeant. I should have known."
"Captain, the running of the company on a daily basis is my job. You make the decisions on the important matters and the tectical decisions in the field and you sit with the battalion commander. I take care of everything else."
"If you had spent any time as an NCO you would have known that."
"I was given no choice..."
Swain held up a hand. "I wasn't criticizing. I was merely commenting that those who rose through the ranks understand a little more quickly what the first sergeant does. The first sergeant and the executive officer."
Hyland couldn't help laughing. "Okay. You win. We're ready."
A lieutenant ran up and saluted. She started to speak, but Swain cut her off. "In the field, on the planet's surface, there will be no saluting."
She started to protest and then glanced at Hyland who said, "The sergeant is right."
"Sorry." She took a deep breath and then said, quickly, "I've just lost my RTO and medic."
"What in the hell happened?"
"They were moving a crate and dropped it. RTO has four broken toes and the medic strained his back. Locked up tight so that he could barely move."
"If I might," said Swain. "You have an assistant RTO, or should. Just move him or her up. Third platoon has a man cross- trained as a medic. Sergeant Davison, I think. Have him replace your medic."
The lieutenant hesitated and Hyland said, "Just what in the hell are you waiting for."
She came to attention, saluted, shot a glance at Swain and said, "Sorry." She whirled and disappeared.
"Fifteen minutes," said the operations officer on the intercom.
"We're never going to make it," said Hyland.
"Relax, we'll make it. Besides, once we get to the shuttle bay, it'll take an hour to load both the equipment and the people. That'll give us enough slack to correct any problems we find."
Hyland felt her feet itching. She wanted to run, to shout, to do something. The energy was burning through her. Her senses seemed to be enhanced. She could see better, hear better. Her mind was racing and she felt that she could lift the shuttle and throw it to the planet.
Swain said, "I'm going to see how the first platoon is making out."
"Platoon sergeant took sick last week and we have a replacement in there. I want to make sure that everything is going smoothly. He noticed the look on her face and added, "I don't expect there to be a problem. I just want to make sure there isn't one."
Hyland knew that she had to do something or she would slowly go insane. There was too much activity swirling around her. "I'll be in the company office."
"Certainly, Captain. I'll bring your weapon by in about ten minutes."
Hyland cursed herself silently. She should have thought about that herself. "That's all right. I'll pick it up now, before I get to the company office."
"Five minutes," said the operations officer.
Hyland suddenly laughed. That was typical. Stand around for days and suddenly everything had to be done immediately. No time to think or plan, just do it now because it has to be done right now.
"I'll see you at the company office," said Swain.
"In just a few minutes, Sergeant."
"And then we see if the training has taken."
Hyland stopped and turned back. "You know. That's sort of what frightens me."
"Me too," said Swain.