THE SUNLESS SEA
Star Commander Lewis's worry that one of his warriors would end up in the dark, dark water around the artificial island proved unfounded. The Union-C had released them at eighty kilometers altitude, because the dropship was too buoyant in the thick hydrogen-methane-ammonia stew of an atmosphere, and because the dropship couldn't tolerate more than four atmospheres of external pressure. The drop had been so slow as to be surreal. Terminal velocity for the Undines was barely sixty kilometers per hour near the surface where the atmosphere thickened to over sixty bars. The Peregrines had fallen faster in a feet-first position, and had been dropped later from the hovering…floating…dropship. The scientists had gotten their calculations right for this exotic…this hellish…environment, so all the warriors in the star had arrived almost simultaneously. Sixty-four-atmospheres, one hundred twenty-five Celsius, and an atmosphere almost like a gas giant's. What happened to trials on open, sunny plains?
This place was blacker than Pit. The scientists said the air would be clear from the ocean's surface to the first haze layer forty kilometers above and out to the distant, very distant horizon, but Star Commander Lewis couldn't see anything beyond the patch of ocean illuminated by the station's arc lights. No, to be fair, during the drop he had seen the station as he plummeted (well, drifted) down through that haze layer. It had been a good forty-five kilometers away, and its lights stood out crystal clear against the inky blackness around it.
Star Commander Lewis nodded in his Peregrine's cockpit. The sluggish 3kph breeze near the surface might well have been an inexorable deep ocean current, so dense was the atmosphere, but the scientists had correctly allowed for the drift as well as the rate of drop. Good, those over-excited eggheads were worth something on this mission after all.
Not that the surface platform was small or a hard target. It was a square kilometer of steel, aluminum and composites floating in "the Sunless Sea," (as the local barbarians called it), and every square meter of the platform could bear the mass of an Undine. The broad feet of the Peregrine hardly scuffed the steel grill surface. Lewis had only endured a minor scrotal retraction until his jump jets brought his falling Peregrine over the platform. Landing in that 125C ocean was a Bad Thing.
The natives had put this floating island on the surface because the industrial machinery in its guts was too heavy for the aerial habitats that most of them lived in. According to the scientists, intakes on the underside strained the ammonia-water stew for metals and other chemicals, then converted the chemicals into more useful forms, and then turned the processed materials into critical goods needed by the very technologically dependent natives. Ball bearings, fusion reactor containment coils, ultra-pure materials for electronics, etc. Other stars were securing similarly important surface facilities. With just a cluster of troops, Clan Ghost Bear would have the Aethrans by their short 'n curlies, and there would be no further dispute over mining rights to Aethra's germanium-rich moon Nimbus.
While landing troops on the station was well and good, it accomplished little. The native civilians huddled inside thick steel walls. The industrial facilities were inside thick steel walls. The Clan warriors could either destroy the facility or blockade it…until their life support ran out, in about 12 hours in this taxing environment. No, they had to get inside. Since there was no immediate opposition, Star Commander Lewis ordered the star to gather near what had been identified as the main hatches. The Undines would storm in, secure the facility, and then open the large vehicle hatches to the Peregrines so the mechwarriors would debark.
Then opposition left the darkness around the station. Oddly streamlined patrol boats appeared within the small pool of light around the station. A corner of Lewis's mind supposed that in this thick air, the even boats would need both aerodynamic and hydrodynamic streamlining. The rest of his mind marshaled his mech and two other Peregrines to the edge of the platform, where they sent a hail of laser fighter at the vessels. Missiles flew in return. The Sunless Sea was lit with the flash of ablating steel from the patrol boats, and then Lewis felt the unique kick of high explosives detonating in a high-pressure environment. The explosions gave unusually sharp shocks. The scientists had said something about higher speeds of sound in this air, and sounds being an octave or two higher. All the hydrogen and helium or something. The patrol boats skimmed out of range and Lewis began to receive damage reports. Two - two - of his ten Undines suffered punctures, and there was no way their Hargel could seal the holes against the high pressure hell outside. One Peregrine also had an arm punctured into useless.
Lewis barked at the elementals to hurry up their penetration of the station. They had deployed to attack the boats (now a kilometer away, according to radar…Lewis could only see the odd glint on the dark sea). One elemental turned back to begin cutting the man-sized airlock door straight down the middle. Why not the hinges?
Thermographic said why. The hinges had already been cut, but the door had not fallen off. Lewis saw scars around the perimeter of the circular, dome-like door where Undine claws had tried to pull it off. Star Commander Lewis had led boarding actions before against Spheroid dropships. Once the hinges were cut, the doors usually popped-
Pop the hatch did, but inward, not outward as the Clan warriors expected - the Clan scientists on the mission had said the outer chambers of these surface stations were at or above ambient pressure. The elemental had been cutting the hatch right down the center. But when most of its reinforcing fibers were cut, the composite hatch stove in under the relentless grind of over two thousand tons of force. Methane-hydrogen atmosphere hammered past the collapsing door halves into the sparse, one-atmosphere oxygen-nitrogen mix inside. The oxy-nitro heated under the compression to the point adjacent hydrogen and methane ignited. When pressure in the tunnel significantly exceeded the external pressure - about a tenth of a second after the doors caved in - a concussion and 2-meter diameter jet of blue flame blasted back out. The unfortunate Undine was kicked forty meters away from the hatch and into the Sunless Sea. This wouldn't have been a problem for the thruster-equipped Undine (though skipping twice across its back was a bit humiliating), but the overpressure from the explosion had ruptured joint seals. Where scalding air didn't rush in, scalding water did.
Lewis looked around the station. Where had the elemental gone? Had that blast of flame evaporated it? The Star Commander had seen elementals survive worse, even inferno bombs. But that was no matter. The outer hatch was open and now-
Another hatch opened a hundred meters away and a crowd of infantry stormed out. Lewis's eyes widened as even as he brought his weapons to bear on the crowd. During the diplomatic exchanges before this assault, there had been tours to surface stations. The external workers the Ghost Bear officers had seen had worn 150-kilogram, unpowered hardsuits. (The hard suit workers had looked like half-height, full-width elementals.) These infantry did all have some kind of facemask, but only the lead ranks had anything that looked like protective clothing. The rest were wreathed in steam, like sweaty athletes on a chill morning. Their flesh must've been boiling. Lewis had to admit these Spheroids had courage. To endure such suffering…Then he saw the thermograph. Their heavy clothing was cold, just about freezing. It was heating up, of course, but most of it was at or below 0 Celsius. That would certainly protect them long enough to fire those expendable-looking rocket launchers on their shoulders.
Most of those infantry must've been civilians pressed into duty. The natives were desperate then. Lewis sneered. He and his star were much swifter to react. While the mob was still shaking itself out, the Undines and Peregrines were starting to sweep them with laser fire. A little more of this and-
Large, meter-square panels on the platform's surface popped up to a forty-five degree angle. They weren't grilled panels like so much of the surface, but solid. Actually, they looked like giant clamps. Lewis wondered what sort of trick the barbarians were up to now. First exploding hatches, now…clamps?
To say the station was modularized and compartmentalized was an understatement. The environment was just so damn aggressive that massive damage had to be expected, and survivable. Even the cylindrical pontoons that held up the simple surface grating were redundant. When a hurricane - locally defined as a cyclonic storm with surface windspeeds of over 24kph - came grinding along the surface, such compartmentalization was necessary. Sometimes it was also necessary to cut loose flooding sections, or sometimes it was necessary to counter-flood sections. In this case, the station engineers were abusing those abilities. They had begun flooding several pontoons as soon as the Clan warriors were sighted on radar. Now, they released retaining clamps to let an unbalanced, top-heavy pontoon roll free and sink.
There were two Peregrines and three Undines on top of that particular pontoon. The thruster-equipped, neutrally buoyant Undines would be able to surface and clamber back onto the rest of the platform. The Peregrines, though, designed as they were for underwater operations, were creatures of the bottom. They were expected to operate on the bottom of a body of water, and thus were not buoyant at all. That was more than a minor problem in Aethra's Sunless Sea.
Aethra had once been a medium-small gas giant like Sol's Neptune or Uranus. One super nova later and its sheath of hydrogen was mostly gone, half the planet's mass turned into an epic comet-like tail, exposing the ocean-mantle of water-ammonia-methane. A new, much shallower atmosphere had reformed in the wake of the cosmic catastrophe, but "shallower" was a relative term. And with or without the original hydrogen atmosphere, the oceanic mantle of the planet was thousands of kilometers deep. Thousands of kilometers down, the ammonia-methane-water stew took on a solid state (called "ice," though it existed at incredible temperatures), but that was of academic concern to Peregrine mechwarriors. The notional operational depth of the Peregrine was seventy-five bars, about seven hundred and fifty meters below the surface of an Earth-like ocean. But the surface of Aethra's Sunless Sea was already at sixty-four bars…
Though Star Commander Lewis didn't know it, sending "unprotected" workers out to the surface was actually a practiced tactic among Aethran militias and a right of passage among saturation breathing mix surface workers. (Well, it was more of a stunt performed by drunken, off-duty saturation surface workers than a right of passage, but most of them had tried this on one payday celebration or another.) Their heavy, knitted habitat-interior clothes were soaked in water, frozen in cafeteria freezers, and then the workers would storm out of their high-pressure sections of the habitat for a few minutes of stupid, unprotected cavorting on the surface of a station. Well, unprotected except for their respirators. No sense in burning out eyes and lungs in the high-temperature ammonia-methane-hydrogen-sulfide atmosphere. (Saturation surface workers normally wore lightweight cooling suits for hours of external operation, unlike those pansy hardsuit operators and their 1-atmosphere, air conditioned pressure suits.) Militias exploited the practice because it allowed them to send far more troops to the surface of a station - briefly - than there were chill suits.
Thus, the workers of this station were used to acting quickly during short dashes to the exterior. Though their front ranks were being blown apart in a very messy fashion (assisted by rupturing high pressure heliox tanks on their backs), the native surface workers had been prepped for their simple role and were able to carry it out with admirable effectiveness. Point their shoulder-fired rocket launchers at the hulking Clan "hard suits" and fire. Aim for the center of the torso of any of the huge "battlemechs" remaining.
As Star Commander Lewis was splashing into the Sunless Sea, a little over one hundred anti-armor rockets were flashing through the thick air to hammer Undines and the remaining Peregrine. Soon enough, two lucky missiles had punctured the Peregrine's center torso. The damage would've been trivial on a terrestrial world, but the high-pressure gas screamed through the holes to damage delicate internal equipment. The first item to fail was the battlemech's gyroscope, which had several spinning reaction wheels in vacuum chambers, none of which were rated to withstand 64 atmospheres of external pressure. Several components of the fusion engine failed moments later, triggering an emergency scram. Each of the seven surviving Undines was hit by at least five rockets, sometimes ten. That was all it took. Damage that was trivial in a normal environment resulted in scalded elementals with destroyed lungs as Aethra's environment found its way in through punctures and cracks in the suits' shells.
Meanwhile, Star Commander Lewis struggled to get his 'mech upright in the water. As water sloshed over his canopy, he damned the safeties and struggled to fire the Peregrine's jump jets. The 'mech protested mightily. It knew what would happen if the jump jets were fired while submerged, but had no clue about the crushing doom of water pressure it faced. Or, rather, its designers had put "triggering jump jets in liquid" into the mech's list of "operator actions likely to cause massive damage," and the Peregrine would not act until multiple safeties had been overridden. The machine had no ability to guess at its fate if it did not trigger the jump jets. Lewis got through the safeties with record speed.
It was a desperate, last-ditch maneuver, and Lewis had known - intellectually at least - that he was basically screwed. With safeties removed, the Peregrine's jump jets went about their duty.
The jump jets were already partly flooded by the Sunless Sea; compressors designed for pumping air struggled to pump in water and finished filling the jump jets' reaction chambers. A moment later, the jump jets had sampled the contents of their reaction chamber and adjusted their electron beam emitters for best absorption by the water-ammonia mix. Megajoules were pumped into the reaction chambers, and some of the water evaporated. Water, unfortunately, was incompressible. The remaining water in the reaction chambers took time to squirt out, while air would've compressed and absorbed the sudden expansion around the electron beam emitters. Reaction chamber pressure skyrocketed (unlike the Peregrine) two orders of magnitude above normal.
"Overdesign" is a hallmark of jump jet designers so instead of simply exploding, the Clan mech's jump jets split along weld seams. Reaction chamber pressure remained high enough to squirt the remaining water out of the chambers and send the Peregrine surging half out of the water. Then seawater rushed back into the chambers. The interior of the mech was below local atmospheric pressure, well below. The seawater sprayed through the fractured refractory metal housing of the jump jets and into the Peregrine's legs and side torsos.
The Peregrine's cockpit was above water for just seconds, but that was enough to see that this attack was more than a personal failure.
Scores of narrow, beige-white contrails hung in the air. The contrails cast unusual, reddish shadows where the stations' arc lights shone through the rockets' smoke.
One Undine was crawling aimlessly; the elemental inside was dead but hadn't quite realized that. The suit was already collapsing when two more rockets slammed into its flank.
Many of the native civilians were returning through the large airlock they had emerged from, while the properly suited workers collected the injured. They showed every sign of moving deliberately and carefully. There was not a mad rush for the airlock.
The 10-meter diameter pontoon Lewis had been on was still rolling as it sank. The far edge of the surface grating was going to hit his Peregrine, so Lewis worked the arms to bring them up over his cockpit. Moments later, he would wonder why he bothered. A cracked cockpit casing would be a faster end.
As the sinking pontoon hurried his mech underwater, Lewis sent a last transmission on the cluster frequency.
"Gold Star 3 has failed."
There was half of a response. "Acknow-"
And then Lewis was underwater again. After the first collision against his mech's arms, the pontoon had not further battered his mech. In fact, the Peregrine's sink rate seemed to be exceeding the pontoon's. At this rate, and allowing for the water gushing into the torso and legs…a minute. Maybe two. The scientists were always conservative about crush depths. For now, the mech was upright because the legs were heavier than the torso, but as the flooding increased, Lewis expected the mech to flip to a head first fall. The Clan mechwarrior silenced the alarms and switched the cockpit's multi-purpose displays away from damage displays. The mech was wrecked. He didn't need the machine to tell him that.
The Peregrine started its alarms again, almost causing Lewis to curse. Some other component must have failed due to the flooding. He started adjusting the user interface so new alarms wouldn't be triggered due to progressive flooding damage. He could at least die in silence…
Except those weren't damage alarms, they were torpedo alarms.
The patrol boats were back and intent on crushing an already-defeated foe. Lewis wanted to rage at them. His mission was a failure. He was doomed. But the barbarians kept attacking a defeated foe…a foe they could not was doomed. The locals had been isolated from the Inner Sphere since the beginning of the Amaris Coup and were too primitive to build, or even maintain, battlemechs. Not that they had a lot of places to use battlemechs. They simply did not know what the giant robots could do and were taking no chances. Well, fine. If they wanted to beat on a fallen foe, they should learn to wait until he was at least incapable of firing back.
As torpedoes streaked past him, Lewis used the Peregrine's arms to adjust its position. The mech could not swim, but he could steer the fall a bit. The Clan warrior didn't need the mech's sonar to target the patrol boats because he could see them skimming along the receding surface. The inky-black water was black for lack of light, not contaminants. In the water near the station, the station's lights provided abundant light. The water seemed to be that crystal clear sort prized at tropical resorts. In that water, the station's lights turned the long ranged torpedoes into swarming schools of shadows. Some were going past him, some were beginning to explode on the flooded legs and torso of his Peregrine.
Lewis got off one good burst from his torso-mounted large pulse laser that missed a patrol boat by thirty meters. Progressive flooding in the right torso froze the mech's right arm and left it twirling awkwardly. He would not be able to fire at the boats again. The left arm failed a moment later, either due to the torpedoes or flooding in the left torso.
The Clan warrior reckoned his cockpit was going to implode before the boats lined up for another attack run. Good. A few moments of silence (discounting the creaking and cracking coming from his cockpit's pressure hull) and then it would be over fairly quickly. He had heard some angry, pained shouts from elementals with punctured suits, so it would not be instant. But fast. Good.
A voice spoke in Lewis's earphones, "I rather liked this world-"
"DAMN!" Lewis was startled into un-Clan-like profanity.
Oh, right. Warrior Paul's Peregrine had fallen into the Sunless Sea, too. The mechs' ultrasound secondary communications system enabled them to communicate underwater.
"Excuse me, Paul. It has been an honor serving with you." In the vids, there were always less awkward ways of saying that. Lewis could not remember any of those more fitting words or smooth lines. "But I agree. The cloud tops were…beautiful."
What else was there to say? Just wait for the inevitable-
Paul found something to say. "Star Commander," there was an audible 'crack' and sudden hissing over Paul's channel. "I know we have been in tight squeezes before, but this is ridiculous."
Then there was nothing else from Paul, and Lewis had to admit there were worse last words than a bad joke. Now, here he was, facing his own doom, and instead of pondering all his regrets in life, Lewis found himself with a smile on his face and regretting that he could not think of any similarly witty line for poster-
The Peregrine's front canopy panel blew in in one piece, interrupting Star Commander Lewis's final thought much more suddenly than he had expected.