Book: Sinclair's Scorpions

Sinclair's Scorpions

Sinclair’s Scorpions

Book Five of The Omega War


PP Corcoran

PUBLISHED BY: Seventh Seal Press

Copyright © 2018 PP Corcoran

All Rights Reserved

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License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only and may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, please purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

This book is a work of fiction, and any resemblance to persons, living or dead, or places, events or locales is purely coincidental. The characters are productions of the author’s imagination and used fictitiously.

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Cover Design by Brenda Mihalko

Original Art by Ricky Ryan

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Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

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Excerpt from Book One of In Revolution Born:

Excerpt from Book One of the Earth Song Cycle:

Excerpt from Book One of the Kin Wars Saga:

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Chapter One

Gut Feeling

The epitome of relaxation, Alastair Sinclair stood facing the picture window that ran the length of an entire wall of his second story office. Hands clasped behind his back, feet spread shoulder width apart and weight evenly balanced on the balls of his feet as if at the position of parade rest, Alastair breathed in the view beyond the thick glass on this late evening.

 A wide sandy beach ran for miles in either direction, and the islands of Gigha, Islay, and Jura crowned the horizon. On a day like today, with a whisper of wind and a clear blue sky, it was easy for Alastair to imagine why his great-grandfather, Duncan Sinclair, selected the old airfield of Machrihanish on the tip of the Mull of Kintyre as a base for his Scorpions.

One of only three survivors from Campbell’s Foxes to return to Earth following the time known as the legendary Alpha Contracts, Duncan Sinclair chose Machrihanish, with its magnificent views over the cold Atlantic waves, as the base from which to establish and run his own mercenary company: Sinclair’s Scorpions.

Prior to first contact, and the sudden thrusting of humanity into the galactic community, the British government short-listed the run-down airfield as a site for the country’s first spaceport. Galactic technology, however, dispelled that dream. Instead, the airfield fell into disuse and disrepair.

On his return to Earth, though, Duncan Sinclair had seen the isolated spot was ideal for his needs. With no industry and, therefore, little job prospects, the meager population had all but abandoned the area in search of greener pastures. Sinclair, along with David Buchanan and Mary Stuart, his last remaining comrades from Campbell’s Foxes, purchased the airfield and converted its buildings and hangars into barracks, stores, training facilities, and administration blocks.

In the ensuing years, the fledgling mercenary company’s profits were reinvested in the purchase of surrounding land, and, by the time of Alastair’s father’s birth, the Scorpions owned virtually the entire peninsula, which they put to good use. The Scorpions’ honed skillset made them a desirable commodity among the Galactic Union’s movers and shakers. For the Scorpions specialized in an area that even the relaxed laws of the Galactic Union viewed as on the edge.

To misquote an old Earth rock song, the Scorpions were experts at doing ‘dirty deeds’ but not so cheap.

Need to know your opponent’s industry secrets?

The Scorpions could infiltrate any facility and find out.

Has a nefarious group kidnapped an employee or gotten their hands on secret equipment?

The Scorpions could recover the execs and the equipment for you.

Does your corporation lack coherent security policies?

The Scorpions could assess and train.

Their business model was simple, a company demanded services and the Scorpions provided it, no matter if it was entirely legal.

 For administrative purposes, the Scorpions numbered two companies totaling 240 officers and other ranks.

In reality, most of the Scorpions’ missions called for smaller, self-sustaining, platoon-sized units. Thus, the Scorpions’ order of battle evolved into Gamma and Zulu Companies, each with four platoons.

Three platoons in each company were fully mission-capable platoons—the war fighters—while the fourth platoon consisted of support personnel and was responsible for maintaining the standard Mark 8 CASPers. The fourth platoon also provided technical specialists, including cyber warfare, small ship pilots, armorers, and intelligence analysts. The same platoon furnished off-book services: nefarious jobs that never reached a computer terminal.

The tax authorities might have raised a red flag if they bothered to examine the Scorpions’ returns. Why did the Scorpions pay their janitorial staff so much? Carefully placed cash payments in the right hands ensured such an examination never happened.

Alastair watched the gradual sunset while two men sat patiently in front of his desk. “Apologies for dragging you in, gentlemen. I appreciate it’s been a long couple of months for you on Galax.” Alastair turned from the window, regained his seat, and addressed Captain Tim Buchanan and First Sergeant Croll. “But, I want your initial take on the mission before I get into the minutiae, which is, no doubt, in your post deployment reports.”

A semi-suppressed sigh escaped Buchanan, the officer commanding 1st Platoon, Gamma Company, but it was barely audible over the seat shuffling of Croll, the Scorpions’ newcomer. The mission to Galax was Croll’s first deployment, but from the weekly updates Buchanan gave Alastair, the first sergeant had performed admirably.

Muscles at the side of Alastair’s lips tugged upward, but he suppressed his involuntary grin at the uncomfortable response his comment evoked. Like most military professionals, Buchanan and Croll much preferred soldiering to the paperwork which inevitably followed, particularly as they progressed up the chain of command.

Alastair’s smart desk had noted his return and automatically activated the built-in Tri-V display of a rather long-winded, and frankly boring, Logistics and Supply report from the mercenary company’s S4, the last document Alastair had read. Alastair appreciated the demands placed on the Scorpions’ S4, Captain Cristin Lapole. Running Logistics for any military unit was a major pain in the ass, but juggling the logistics and supply chain for a unit like the Scorpions, who could reasonably number several platoons on diverse missions throughout the known galaxy, was a job that took a certain panache.

A panache that Alastair, despite his best efforts during his time as the unit’s S4, had never managed. Lapole, on the other hand, reveled in finding order among the chaos, and Alastair had borne witness to many a junior officer, including his sons Charlie and James, coming away from their time under Lapole’s tutelage much the wiser.

With a final glance at the report calling for attention, Alastair swiped a hand through the floating document and deactivated the display, allowing him to turn his full attention to Buchanan and Croll.

“Save the minutiae for the report, Captain, just hit me with the highlights.” Alastair pushed back in his chair until it reclined to a more comfortable angle—elbows rested on the chair’s raised sides and his fingers interlocked—as he silently watched Buchanan marshal his thoughts.

“Sir, our contract with the Galax was to provide a small training cadre consisting of me, First Sergeant Croll, and Corporal Vega for the Galax’s own native security forces. As you know, sir, the Galax have recently discovered a substantial vein of red diamonds on their second moon, which has a thin, barely breathable atmosphere. Inevitably, the find has created significant interest from outside sources, primarily the Wathayat Trading Organization. They’ve been pressuring the Galax to sign agreements which would allow them to mine and distribute the diamonds while giving the Galax a pathetic percentage.”

“The Galax, unsurprisingly, were not enthusiastic about the prospect of allowing outsiders to exploit them and make a huge profit. They rejected the Wathayat offer…and then began to suffer.”

Alistair raised an eyebrow.

“Unexplained equipment failure, the odd missing machine part which caused expensive delays and, on one occasion, an explosion which destroyed an ore processing machine. The blast also killed the operator and the mining company’s Chief Operations Officer who had been escorting the Galax Deputy Minister for Finance around his shiny new investment.”

Alastair couldn’t help the small shudder that ran through him as he imagined the expanding fireball of the processor’s fuel cells igniting, losing containment, and engulfing everything, including people, within a two-hundred-foot radius in a hydrogen-fed fire reaching temperatures of over 5,100 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Yes…The Galax government sought our help after they confirmed the explosion was no accident, and we sent you as advisors to the mining company.”

“Yes, sir, that’s correct,” replied Buchanan, “and on our arrival I reviewed the locals’ security procedures and found them to be...” Buchanan searched for a suitably polite phrase.

“As watertight as a sieve,” interjected Croll helpfully.

Buchanan gave the first sergeant a look that plainly meant shut up, even if you are correct. Alastair suppressed a smile as the image of an old married couple popped into his mind.

“Inadequate,” said Buchanan. “I had Corporal Vega set up a trip line with Thumper motion detectors a few miles out from the mine to cover the most likely approach routes. Sure enough, the second night in, the Thumpers got a hit. From the readings, we estimated a section, plus, heading in on foot. We suited up, bounced out to take a look and, lo and behold, there were half a dozen Besquith doing their best to be quiet...”

“Not easy when you are six feet tall, all snappy teeth and claws, and expecting local security armed with nothing better than outdated laser rifles,” snorted Croll, a wicked grin spreading across his features. This time Alastair joined in. There was nothing better than an over-confident, sloppy enemy.

“As the first sergeant so succinctly put it, the Besquith had no idea we were on the moon. We corrected them.”

“Damn right we did,” gloated Croll. “There’s nothing like a Mark 8 CASPer and its twenty-millimeter cannon at close quarters to ruin your day.”

Alastair did not doubt that. The Mark 8s were smaller but no less powerful than the more generally used Mark 7s, and they were more suited to the type of contracts the Scorpions tended to attract: unobtrusive yet superior protection and firepower.

“And how did your encounter with the Besquith lead to the Galax renegotiating their contract with us? They’ve requested two complete platoons, right?” asked Alastair, noting that Croll suddenly found a spot beyond the colonel’s shoulder demanded his complete attention. Alastair fixed his eyes on Buchanan who held his commanding officer’s eyes unflinchingly.

“I made the command decision to go beyond the exact wording of our contract with the Galax, though I believe staying within the spirit of the agreement. I ordered First Sergeant Croll to return to the mine while I and Corporal Vega backtracked the Besquith’s path to locate their base of operations and ascertain their numbers and probable intentions.”

“I fully support Captain Buchanan’s decision, sir, and would like that to go on the record,” said Croll without moving his eyes or head.

Alastair let his chair come upright, fixed the first sergeant with a steely-eyed stare, and spoke. In the quiet of the room his tone, though low, was crystal clear. “You understand, First Sergeant, that Captain Buchanan’s actions could lead to the Galax claiming we breached our contract. That means a fine. A hefty fine, which, needless to say, would far exceed any payment that might have been due to us.” Alastair shook his head. “Doing work for nothing is not a good business model. Unlike Cartwright’s Cavaliers, I will not see everything I and my family have worked for go up in smoke in the hands of some slick lawyer in a suit.” Alastair pointed a finger as straight as an arrow at Croll. “Are we clear, First Sergeant?”

“Crystal,” replied Croll then remembered to tag, “sir.”

Alastair returned his attention to Buchanan. “Continue.”

“Uh, yes, sir.” Buchanan steadied himself; he really didn’t fancy witnessing another dressing down. “Vega and I traced the Besquith approach route to a point slightly beyond what would be the effective range, if the Galax had actually installed one, of any ground-to-air search radar. There we found a Wathayat ship stationary, in the open, bold as brass. They didn’t even have perimeter security. The crew had been busy little bees ‘cause off to one side there was a stack of weapons crates—a huge stack; more weapons than could possibly be used by the half-dozen Besquith we encountered.”

The skin on Alastair’s forehead creased into a frown as he considered the implications of Buchanan’s discovery. “That type of ship doesn’t have the legs to use a Stargate, so the Besquith must have another larger and more capable ship somewhere in the Galax system.”

Buchanan’s head bobbed in agreement. “That was my conclusion, sir. This was no rag-tag group of Besquith out for a little trouble and maybe some easy money. These guys were well funded and my guess was they’d have continued to up the ante until they forced the Galax to sign up for the crappy deal or, more probably, they took control of the mine by force.”

Alastair took his turn to nod in agreement. It didn’t take a genius to figure out who was funding the Besquith. The Wathayat had a reputation as sore losers and had been known to employ mercenaries to strong-arm less capable races. Well, it looked like they were up to their old tricks, only this time the Scorpions were stuck in the middle.

“I take it the Galax were not impressed when you informed them of your little discovery?” asked Alastair.

Buchanan let out a chuckle. “They were downright pissed. Did you know that a Galax’s head can expand to twice its natural size when they’re angry? An amazing sight.”

“I’m sure it is,” said Alastair. “OK, back to the contract, please.”

Buchanan turned to Croll. “First Sergeant.”

Slipping a hand inside his tan uniform blouse, Croll produced first one, then a second macro-bonded package, each about the size of an adult’s open hand, which he placed on Alastair’s desk top. As if from nowhere, a dull black blade appeared in Croll’s hand. The first sergeant used it to slice through the tough packaging and allow the tightly-packed contents to spill onto the desk. Alastair’s breath caught in his throat, and his eyes went wide as a small fortune in uncut red diamonds glinted in the light of the waning sun.

 “Payment in full for the initial training contract. And a bonus for carrying out actions not specified within the original terms. And a twenty-five percent down payment for two platoons to provide additional security and direct action to neutralize any other identifiable threats to the mine. The Galax apologize for being unable to transfer the required funds by Yack. Apparently, they are in the process of setting up suitable banking arrangements. I assured them raw red diamonds are acceptable.” Buchanan gave Alastair a half-quizzical, half-mocking look while keeping his voice deadpan. “They are acceptable aren’t they, sir?”

Tim Buchanan had known Alastair Sinclair for as long as he could remember. Tim’s forefather had been a founding member of the Scorpions before he sold his shares to the Sinclairs, yet the Buchanans were still integral in molding the Scorpions into what they were today.

Rendering Alastair speechless by anything in the known galaxy was an achievement, and, knowing Alastair for as long and as well as he did, Tim was more than pleased with his accomplishment. The uncut gemstones spread out before them had done the trick. Though, to give Alastair his due, the colonel recovered quickly.

Alastair pushed his seat back and stood, hands once more clasped behind his back. An action Buchanan and Croll immediately mirrored. Alastair continued to gaze at the gemstones for a few seconds before he addressed Croll.

“Perhaps you could excuse us, First Sergeant.”

Croll made it as far as the door when Alastair called out. “On your way out, First Sergeant, stop by accounting and ask them to hang on for a half hour, would you? I need to deposit something in the vault before they go home for the evening.”

“Of course, sir,” replied Croll with a cheerful smile.

As the door closed softly behind Croll, Alastair walked to the low table set against the far wall and retrieved a cut crystal decanter and two matching glasses emblazoned with the unit symbol of Sinclair’s Scorpions. The stinging scorpion contained within a thick outer ring glinted in the low light.

Placing one glass down in front of Buchanan he deftly removed the stopper from the decanter and poured the man a generous two fingers of the deep amber liquid before moving around the desk and repeating the process for himself.

Flopping into his chair, Alastair took a deep, reverent sniff of the one-hundred-year-old malt whiskey before allowing himself a gentle sip. As the warm liquid flowed down his throat and into his stomach, he eyed Buchanan over the rim of his glass. The younger man was subtly slouched in his chair, eyes closed and fully appreciative of not only the strong alcohol, but also the significance of the traditional toast at the end of a successful mission.

Buchanan’s manner also indicated that with the dismissal of Croll and the arrival of a drink that the formal debrief was over, now they were just two old friends enjoying a chat.

Neither man spoke for a few minutes, choosing instead to enjoy the peace and quiet, and, of course, the liquor. As Alastair topped off their glasses, he reluctantly brought the conversation round to work.

“So, Tim, how is Croll working out?”

“Surprisingly better than I thought, Alastair,” answered Buchanan, taking the use of his forename by his commanding officer as implied permission to reciprocate. “You know I had my reservations when you brought him over from the Strike Eagles, instead of promoting someone from within the Scorpions. He had an outstanding combat record, but he was damn young for a first sergeant position, and Mike Lennox left some pretty big boots to fill.”

Alastair automatically raised his glass in salute, taking a short swig of his drink at the mention of Lennox. The man had been with the Scorpions for nearly two decades, having joined the mercenary company straight out of school.

His untimely death on Bosnal due to something as stupid as a failed seal on his CASPer during a high-altitude drop was a crappy way for a soldier to go. Alastair shook himself from his morbidity, and Tim continued speaking.

“Well, after the events on Galax and our little encounter with your wayward daughter, I think he’ll make a fine addition. He knows,” Tim allowed a cheery smile to spread across his face, “mostly, when to make his opinion heard and when to keep his thoughts to himself.”

The mention of Nikki caused an edge of fatherly concern to enter Alastair’s voice. “And how is the youngest and fairest of my brood?”

“Still kicking ass and taking names. Nikki is her father’s daughter; I have no doubt. Being a Peacemaker strangely suits her.”

“Yeah, she always was the more adventurous of the kids, breaking all the rules like they didn’t apply to her and then, when her mother or I caught her, she would plaster that innocent smile on her face as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. I gather you were able to…provide assistance on her latest quest for truth and justice?”

Tim, in the process of swallowing, coughed and spluttered as the liquid tried to come back up. Alastair let out a burst of laughter at the unintended plight of his subordinate. After a few more coughs and a wipe of his watering eyes Tim was at last able to answer.

“Assistance my ass. Nikki went and conscripted us! She had us go up against a ship full of Besquith. Although I have to say, it was fun being on the right side of the law for a change, rather than the somewhat shady area we tend to operate in.”

Alastair raised his glass in mock salute. “And long may Lady Justice remain blind to those who fight the good fight.”

“And let her gaze not fall on those who unintentionally step over the line on occasion,” rejoined Tim, raising his own glass.

They each took a sip from their respective glass and as Alastair placed his glass on his desk top, his face took on a more serious look. Alerted by his commanding officer’s action, Tim became more attentive.

“I know you have just returned, Tim, but how quickly can you have the remains of Gamma Company ready to move?”

Tim’s head cocked slightly, and, puzzled by Alastair’s question, he inadvertently paused before answering. “I’d need to go over the readiness states with the platoon leaders. First and Second Platoons are deployed with Charlie; that only leaves Third Platoon under Caroline and Support Platoon under Gonzalez.” Alastair saw the cogs whirring in Tim’s brain as he ran numbers and procedures in his head. Tim opened his mouth to recite the recall procedure, and the time each phase of a recall would take, but Alastair cut him off.

“All personnel are confined to base. Not just Gamma Company; the entire unit,” Alastair said flatly.

Tim’s mouth snapped shut, and he leaned forward until he almost perched on his chair. In all his time with the Scorpions, Tim had never known Alastair—or his father—to confine every member of the unit to base. Yes, there had been a hurried recall of individual platoons or even—once—an entire company when an urgent, unexpected contract had come in, but never a blanket-wide recall. Something was up, and the concerned face of Alastair made that obvious. If his boss was worried, then Tim had best be worried too.

Alastair tapped a control on his smart desk, and the Tri-V flickered into life. Alastair oriented it to Tim’s point of view. “Tell me; what do you see?” asked Alastair.

Tim’s eyes quickly scanned the list: mercenary companies currently under contract and, where known, their employees and what the contract entailed. When he reached the bottom, the hairs on the back of his neck stood up. He spared a quick glance at Alastair before reading the list again. This time pausing to re-read the specific mercenary companies’ names and planets of origin. On most, the planet of origin was the same: Earth!

Tim sat back in his chair with a closed mouth exhale.

“You see it too?” Alastair asked in a low voice.

Tim nodded but decided to play devil’s advocate. “Could it be a coincidence?”

Alastair let out a snort of derision. “What? Alien mercs are so busy completing contracts of unspecified types, for unnamed employers, that it has left a glut of contracts that are siphoning Human mercs off-planet in ever-growing numbers?”

Tim shrugged his shoulders. “It’s possible.”

Alastair settled his eyes on his friend and subordinate. “And what if I were to tell you that we received a contract not one week ago requesting an entire company to head out to the Jesc Arm because some Wathayat was worried that his F11 refinery was being eyed up by the Transki Syndicate?”

“That leaves one fighting platoon, a Support Platoon, and whatever spare bodies happen to be hanging around, here,” concluded Tim.

The men dropped into an uneasy silence as Tim considered the implications of his boss’ interpretation of the data. For sure, there could’ve been a hundred other explanations for the sudden increase. But considering what has been happening to the Human merc companies, especially the Four Horsemen—the bankruptcy at Cartwright’s Cavaliers, higher than average attrition rates at Asbaran Solutions, and fleets lying in wait for the Winged Hussars—Tim saw why Alastair might see conspiracies around every corner.

But, he agreed with his boss. Someone was taking shots at Human mercs and with the data laid out in front of him, Tim harbored a suspicion they were reaching a tipping point.

“Have you run this past Charlie and Jimmy?” asked Tim.

A frown creased Alastair’s forehead and he answered with a trace of annoyance. “It was Jamie who recommended we begin the recall and confine the unit to base. Unfortunately, Charlie had left for Galax before I had gathered enough data to be sure my paranoia wasn’t playing tricks on me.”

Tim pointed a finger at the data hovering in the Tri-V. “Well, your paranoia must be infectious because my gut is telling me that something big is about to go down, and we are going to be slap bang in the middle of it. The question is, what the hell do we do about it?”

Alastair let his eyes pass over the walls of his office. Mementos collected from the Scorpions’ contracts packed shelves that lined one wall.

Pride of place, on the wall facing his desk, a copy of the Scorpions’ Roll of Honor mirrored the real thing found on display at the entrance to the Scorpions’ base. The Roll of Honor held an inscription of every mercenary who had worn the Sinclair’s Scorpions’ uniform and paid the ultimate price.

The third wall held a large Tri-V display where Alastair could call up any information he desired from the Aethernet or its Galactic Union equivalent GalNet. However, it was a four-by-four-inch plexiglass cube sitting on Alastair’s smart desk that his eyes eventually rested on.

Contained within the clear cube lay a tattered unit patch. Scorch marks darkened its edges and dried blood speckled its surface, which bore a carefully embroidered red fox head. Below it were the words, “Campbell’s Foxes.” Alastair murmured the name of the unit their great-grandfathers had fought with. The little cube had become a tradition, kept front and center in the Sinclair’s Scorpions Commanding Officer’s office. The battered badge acted as a reminder to learn from the mistakes of the past and to never repeat the catastrophic losses suffered during the Alpha Contracts.

Steadfast on the patch, Alastair’s eyes didn’t waver as he spoke. “We prepare for the worst.”

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Chapter Two

Aunt Kate

In the week since Tim’s return, things had gone from suspicious to downright conspiratorial. The rumor mill had been hard at work, as was to be expected when you kept a large number of mercs in close quarters with little to do but twiddle their thumbs.

However, Lieutenants Caroline Verley of Third Platoon and her Support Platoon opposite Gonzalez Rivero had been engaged in business other than idle gossip.

The platoon commanders were on the priority recall list and arrived back at the Scorpions’ base before their troops.

The unexpected sight of Jamie Sinclair’s Zulu Company and their equipment packed and ready for deployment, but still on base instead of halfway to Galax, was indicative to the young officers that something was up. Taking the initiative, the two junior officers quickly outlined and fired off a Warning Order to those troops still in transit back to the base, so they could start preparing for whatever the hell was going on. Employing the old military adage of doing something—anything—instead of doing nothing proved correct when Caroline and Gonzalez received a sparsely-worded Warning Order of their own from Colonel Sinclair.

Prepare for immediate extended operations off planet. Duration unknown. Mission parameters unknown.

Deciding to err on the side of caution, the lieutenants ordered that every piece of equipment, every power pack, and every piece of ordnance be boxed and ready for transport.

When Tim returned from Galax to assume command, both platoons were at full strength and every locker and storage compartment in Gamma Company’s lines were picked clean. Now, Tim and his officers had the unenviable task of keeping the troops busy.

Idle hands and troops equaled trouble. A prank or joke would get out of hand and fists would fly; it was a matter of mathematics.

The first day he got back, First Sergeant Croll called his senior sergeants together. Trouble was brewing all right. A bright spark in Zulu Company had lost a tidy sum at cards to a tech corporal from Gamma’s Support Platoon and rigged a dye pack inside one of the training CASPers scheduled for maintenance by said tech corporal. As planned, on opening the suit the dye pack went off, but, unfortunately for said tech, one of Captain Lapole’s civilian technicians ended up covered head to toe in the wash resistant, bright orange pigment.

Of course, Lapole went on the war path.

To her credit, the culprit came forward, and, within the half hour reaming from Lapole, she learned a few choice words, in a variety of Human and alien languages, found her monthly pay check would be considerably lighter than usual, and kept her job.

Croll moved swiftly to nip the problem in the bud and suggested to Lieutenants Verley and Rivero that extra physical training would be beneficial to the troops. The officers agreed.

Thus, at 0600 hours the following morning, twenty-four troops of Third and Support Platoons found themselves standing in formation as the early morning drizzle worked its way into every bone and joint of their bodies.

First Sergeant Croll, with his sergeants arrayed behind him, stepped forward to inspect each trooper. Tan t-shirts with the wearer’s surname and initials on the left breast, rank on the right. On the reverse, a black scorpion within a black ring and the word ‘GAMMA’ across the shoulders. Clean shaven, makeup and jewelry-free, with hair high and tight, no matter the wearer’s sex. Anyone foolish enough to infringe on Croll’s simple rules found not only themselves but their entire squad doing pushups.

Croll finished his inspection and returned to his place at the front and center of the formation, his legs spread at the exact position of parade rest and his hands resting lightly on his hips.

“Ladies and gentlemen of Gamma Company, it has come to my attention that you have excess energy.” An evil smile spread across his face. “Well, let’s see what we can do about that, shall we?”

A low groan came from the ranks. The first sergeant was known to love running and the fact he was in PT kit did not bode well. “Sergeants. Take post!” The platoon sergeants moved to the right-hand side of each platoon at Croll’s order. “Right, face!” Twenty-four pairs of feet moved in unison. “Quick, march!” Gamma Company headed for the beach.

At this early hour, the Atlantic air chilled their exposed skin, but the cool breeze fooled no one; they would be glad of its wicking properties once they had worked up a little sweat. As the two platoons passed the Bachelor Officers’ Quarters, Croll’s raised voice sounded loud and clear across the rhythmic pounding of marching feet. “Break into double time…Double time!”

The troops of Zulu Company could never prove their suspicions, but Croll’s shouted command was perfectly timed to coincide with his passing of the door belonging to one Captain Jamie Sinclair’s quarters.

Be that as it may, Jamie Sinclair had always been an early riser and when he looked out of his rain-speckled window and saw the troops of Gamma Company running past, he reached for his own PT kit with one hand while placing a call to Zulu’s first sergeant with the other.

Strangely, First Sergeant Isla Stuart answered immediately. Jamie put her fast response down to the fact she was a light sleeper and had probably heard Gamma forming up before their PT session. It escaped his mind that the Senior NCO’s accommodation was on the other side of the base.

“First Sergeant, Gamma Company is taking advantage of the beautiful morning to partake in some PT, and I was thinking that it would be commensurate of us to join them.” Jamie looked at his watch, “Ten minutes? Is that long enough to wake the troops and have them ready?”

* * *

Isla wiped at the light drizzle that soaked her face as she and her four platoon sergeants stood in their already-dripping-wet PT gear outside the four platoon-sized accommodation blocks holding the unsuspecting, sleeping troops of Zulu Company. Croll had given her a heads-up the night before, and she had been expecting the early morning call. Isla had to admit she was really starting to like Croll’s way of thinking. It was…devious.

“Oh, I think that should be plenty of time, sir. See you in ten.” Cutting the link Isla turned to her four colleagues, each holding a flash bang grenade. A devious smile remarkably like that of her opposite number, Croll, spread across her face as she nodded at her smirking sergeants.

“Let’s wake our sleeping beauties, shall we?”

One by one, each accommodation block door burst open and a small, soda-can-sized grenade followed the path of a gentle arc and landed in the middle of the corridor. A blinding flash. Then nine loud bangs, each at ever-increasing decibels echoed off the walls, the cacophony merging to form an ear-piercing shriek.

Isla made a mental note—flash bangs make a great alarm clock.

“Damn, I love my job,” Isla said, knowing the lingering aftereffects of the exploding flash bangs would disguise her words. Isla could barely hear the reactions of the troops as the platoon sergeants went from room to room screaming, “Get up! Get dressed! Form up!”

By the time Jamie jogged around the corner, Zulu Company was waiting. Jamie, and the rest of the base, couldn’t help but notice the piercing noise and lingering smoke trails escaping from the open doors of the company’s accommodation. Jamie came to a halt beside his stoic-faced first sergeant.

“It seems that I and the company may have been set up, First Sergeant,” he whispered to Isla out of the side of his mouth.

“I have no idea what you are talking about, sir,” replied Isla.

Jamie covered the short scoff that escaped his lips with a hand and feigned a cough before addressing the assembled company.

“Gamma Company took a fifteen-minute head start on us. Let’s see if we can make that up, shall we?”

* * *

The troopers of Gamma and Zulu Companies were not the only early risers that morning. Alastair Sinclair had been in his office for several hours accompanied by Tim Buchanan. Both men had already drunk copious amounts of a deeply aromatic coffee from a pot that a slow dripping percolator constantly refilled. Drinking the last dregs of his mug, Alastair considered getting himself a refill before deciding against it and returning to a comfortable slouched position in his chair.

The coffee had had the desired effect of kickstarting his body, and any more of the thick, caffeine-laced liquid was likely to have a detrimental effect on his concentration. Glancing across at Tim, he noted the man had already slowed his intake as his mug sat half-full, contents cooling, while his eyes scanned the overnight signal traffic.

Tim hadn’t fooled him. Alastair knew he was anxious, as anxious as himself. The commander of the Scorpions unconsciously tapped his fingers on his desk.

“He’s late,” commented Tim, noticing Alastair’s uncharacteristic fidgeting. “And don’t you think its damn odd of him to insist on delivering the information personally and not trust the usual comms channels?”

Alastair opened his mouth to reply when a beeping from his smart desk alerted him to an incoming call. Scrambling to sit upright, Alastair punched the accept key, and a distinctly alien head and face swam into focus in the Tri-V. Piercing red eyes stared at him from a Humanoid head, the skull and facial bones more protrusive than a Human, and the skin coloring so black it was almost indistinguishable in the low light location of the alien.

“I greet you, Bomak of the Grimm,” said Alastair solemnly.

“I greet thee, Colonel Sinclair of the Scorpions,” replied Bomak, equally as solemn.

It was only the third or fourth time Alastair had seen Bomak face to face. Well, third or fourth time that he could recall anyway, for the Grimm, often called Specters, had a naturally-occurring psionic ability to erase the memory of anyone who may have seen them.

An attribute which made them the perfect infiltrator. This skill had caused the paths of the Scorpions and the Specter to cross and for them to come to a mutually-beneficial arrangement. When the Scorpions had a particularly difficult facility to breach, Alastair had subcontracted the work to Bomak, who had been ostracized from his community for ‘misdeeds.’ What the misdeeds had been, Bomak wouldn’t say; however, he had penetrated the facility’s defenses with impunity and returned with detailed plans of the objective, giving the Scorpions an unparalleled advantage over their adversary. Afterward, Bomak had recommended the Scorpions to potential employers, leading to them securing a few lucrative contracts. Bomak’s latest contract, however, had been one of a more personal nature.

“I have the information you requested, Colonel. Penetrating the secure areas of Bartertown was simple, and I had little difficulty locating the computer server holding the data on the Bartertown’s mercenary pit. I got the details of their contracts, employers, details of duration and type of contract, which mercenary company bid for the contract, and who eventually won it. I also secured the account details from which the various contracts are being financed.”

Simple? Little difficulty? thought Alastair. Right! And that’s why I employ you, Bomak!

Alastair’s stomach tingled with a familiar sensation as excitement raged deeply in his stomach. Could Bomak’s information hold the key to the happenings within the merc community?

“However, I regret to inform you, it is not as complete as I desire, and I must apologize.”

Alastair’s excitement diminished at the alien’s words.

 “While tracing the account details I inadvertently tripped a security measure which released a worm. The virus wiped the server I had accessed and proceeded to wipe every other server connected to the GalNet in Bartertown.”

What? thought Alistair.

“As you Humans say, it was akin to using a hammer to squash a fly, and it indicates some extremely capable individuals will go to extraordinary steps to keep their identities hidden.” Bomak then cocked his skeletal head to one side and exposed his neck.

The submissive gesture caught Alastair by surprise. He had been busy deciphering Bomak’s words, but he gathered himself to respond to the Specter’s cultural demand. Bomak had exposed his vulnerable neck to the razor-sharp teeth of his opponent, putting himself at his opponent’s mercy; it was his way of offering an apology.

Alastair opened his mouth wide to reveal his own teeth which were pitiful compared to the pointed, shark-like ones of Bomak. Then Alastair snapped his jaws together with an audible click that signaled Apology accepted.

In the Tri-V, Bomak returned his head to an upright position before speaking. “I am transmitting the file now, Colonel.”

A couple of seconds later Alastair’s smart desk beeped, quietly acknowledging receipt of the file. Alastair entered a command into the desk which authorized the transfer of funds into Bomak’s Yack account. Another couple of seconds passed as the transfer was verified before the desk gave the same quiet beep. Bomak’s red eyes glanced momentarily to one side as his own computers acknowledged the status change of his account.

“I believe our business to be concluded, Colonel,” said Bomak. However, Alastair detected a slight hesitation in the Specter’s wish to terminate the conversation. In the years that he had known Bomak, Alastair had always found the Specter to be nothing if not businesslike to a fault, so he was momentarily confused by the alien’s dithering.

“Something else, Bomak?” asked Alastair.

The figure in the Tri-V took a second to gather its thoughts before answering. “Colonel. Unhappy that I was unable to completely secure the information you had requested, I made some—let us call them, inquiries—among a number of other sources.” If Bomak had wanted to garner Alastair and Tim’s attention more than he already had, then the promise of additional information was a sure way to get it.

“Whatever is happening within the Mercenary Guild, it’s not confined to that one guild. I have it on good authority that there’ve been subtle actions within the Information Guild to either delay or make disappear certain communications packets between Human mercenary companies and their units off world.”

Tim gasped in sheer disbelief. Alastair’s face drained of blood. Not only were Tim’s initial suspicions about the Mercenary Guild confirmed, but now Bomak alluded to the involvement of the Information Guild.

“Your diligence in completing the contract to the best of your ability does you credit Bomak, and this additional information is indeed appreciated and worthy of requisite compensation,” said Alastair.

In the Tri-V, Bomak waved one of his long arms in a very Human act of dismissal which both he and the Scorpions’ officers knew was only for show. In the dog-eat-dog world of the modern galaxy you got nothing for free. Alastair leaned forward and his fingers tapped at the keys on his smart desk for a moment before sitting back. Bomak’s facial expression gave no hint of satisfaction as his computer showed a hefty bonus arriving in his account.

“I thank you for your generosity, Colonel,” the Specter acknowledged.

Alastair allowed a grin to tug at the corners of his mouth. “Money well spent. I bid thee farewell, Bomak of the Grimm.”

“And thee, Colonel Sinclair of the Scorpions.”

Terminating the connection, Alastair adjusted his position in his seat so he faced Tim fully. The man had both files Bomak had transmitted open and side by side in the smaller Tri-V in front of him. A series of worry lines creased his forehead as his eyes rapidly scanned the rows of data.

“You don’t look happy, Tim,” Alastair said, not attempting to hide his concern.

“Look at this, Alastair.” Tim swiped an open-palmed hand at data hovering in front of him, the action activating the larger Tri-V on the wall behind him which sprang to life and filled with the two files he had been sifting through.

“On the left is the contracts’ data from Bartertown and on the right are the message logs of the Information Guild.” In the display, Tim highlighted a line on the left-hand column. “See here? Three companies of Tortantula have been contracted for heavy planetary assault.” A tap of a key, and a line extended from the mercenary company name to a seemingly random jumble of numbers and letters in the right-hand column. “And whomever issued the contract is hiding behind a pretty serious encryption code.”

Alastair worried his bottom lip as another, then another, then another line appeared in the display as the computer’s algorithms quietly worked at matching contracts to bank accounts.

More Tortantula heavy assault units. Destroyers. Battleships. The more Alastair looked at the information, the tighter the growing knots in his stomach got. This was all too much of a coincidence. Somebody out there was building themselves an army at a phenomenal cost. Whoever it was would unleash it soon, and Alastair pitied whoever was on the receiving end.

“How long to break the encryption codes and identify who is paying for all these contracts?” Alastair asked Tim.

A half grunt escaped Tim’s lips as he shook his head slowly. “Too be honest, Alastair, I don’t think that even our best guys could crack that code. Corporal Zou over in Jamie’s communications section is pretty good, if you are willing to bring him in on this.”

Alastair mulled it over for a moment. Until now, he had shared his suspicions with only one other person, Tim, choosing not to bring even his sons Charlie and Jamie into the loop.

It wasn’t that he didn’t trust them—Charlie was his chosen successor after all—it was that Tim had always been his sounding board. The Ying to his Yang, so to speak, and if anybody was going to spot a flaw in his thinking, it was Tim. However, with this new information Alastair agreed the time had come to widen the circle of knowledge.

“OK, do it if you think it’ll help,” he said.

“Maybe somebody over at the Golden Horde? They have the expertise and the resources. If this thing is as big as we think it is, it’s going to be a huge threat to them too.”

Tim had a point. The Golden Horde had a certain reputation in computer and signals intelligence. The only sticking point Alastair envisaged was that Commander Enkh was so damned paranoid that there was every chance she would jump to conclusions unjustified by the facts, and God knows where that could lead to.

“No, let’s keep it in-house for the time being. Only our own get to see the data until either Zou tells us he has reached a dead end, or something else changes the parameters of the game.”

Tim nodded in understanding. “I think it’s time to let at least the officers in on what we have found. The second we pull Zou from normal duties, they and the troops will know something is up, and the best way to squash rumors is with the truth.”

Good point well presented, thought Alastair. Nothing was worse for morale than when junior ranks thought their officers were hiding something from them. “Very well. How long will it take you to put together a briefing outlining what we think and what we know?”

“Couple of hours should be enough,” answered Tim, his brain already going over the format of the brief.

“Convene the officers and Senior NCOs at—” Alastair spared a glance at the clock which showed 0645, “fourteen hundred hours, and let’s give them the good news.”

Tim stood, took a couple of steps toward the office door, and reached for the handle, but stopped short of opening it. He turned back to face his friend, but before he could speak, Alastair held up his hand, a weak smile playing on his lips. “I know what you are going to say, Tim, and I’ll get on it the minute you leave me in peace.”

With a curt nod, Tim left and closed the door softly behind him. Alastair sat motionless for a long minute before he leaned forward and hunched over the keyboard of his smart desk. His face contorted in concentration as he entered a code. The code bypassed every control circuit on the base and re-routed its command through multiple communication servers, before being flung into space.

In the Tri-V, a gold scorpion in its enclosing band of gold rotated quietly as the connection was established. As he waited, Alastair angled his chair so that he could look out through the rain-streaked full-length window onto the sandy beach.

In the distance, he just made out the tan-uniformed figures of running troopers as they headed back to the base following their impromptu morning PT session. A double beep sounded as the connection completed, and Alastair spun around to regard the gray-haired, fine-boned woman with carved-from-flint eyes. As she recognized the caller, those eyes subtly softened until they regarded Alastair with a maternal look. Behind her, just visible in the camera’s range, Alastair made out several slightly out of focus figures moving purposefully. There was always something to do on the bridge of a ship.

“And to what honor do I owe a call from the esteemed commander of Sinclair’s Scorpions at this devilishly early hour of your day?” Kate Preissman said sarcastically.

Given that Alastair had not spoken to the woman in over a year, her words could have been misinterpreted by others as insulting and dismissive, but those others would’ve been unaware of the pair’s familial relationship. A relationship which they endeavored to hide from prying eyes.

“Aunt Kate, I need the Salamanca,” said Alastair.

If the older woman was taken aback by Alastair’s abrupt demand for her ship, the only sign was the slight hardening of her eyes. “Is it that bad?”

Alastair gave a shrug of his shoulders. His reluctance to give a direct answer was enough for Kate to switch personas from distant, convivial aunt to the captain of a merchant ship that she was. “How many do I need to lift?”

“A company plus, along with their CASPers and ancillary equipment,” said Alastair.

In the Tri-V Kate closed her eyes for a second as she did the mental math. “I’d need to dump most of our current cargo to make room and top off the F11 tanks—”

“The Scorpions will cover the costs,” interjected Alastair.

Kate gave a short laugh. “Alastair Sinclair, need I remind you that you may have hidden your tracks well by going through shell company after shell company, but, when you get down to it, the Salamanca is Scorpions property whatever the Trade Guild, the Merchant Guild, or the tax collector might think.” A gentle, gurgling laugh sounded from Kate, forcing a wry smile from Alastair. Their moment of joviality over, Kate continued in a more serious tone. “Your father always suspected that one day you would need a method to get off planet in a hurry, or he would never have spent the credits buying this old heap of junk.” Kate gave another of her infectious giggles. Heap of junk indeed! thought Alastair. The Salamanca was Kate’s pride and joy.

Like many merchant ships plying their trade around the galaxy, the Salamanca was a product of Jeha shipyards. The millipede-like Jeha may only be four feet long, but with multiple pincers combining to make highly-dexterous arms, they were prodigious ship builders, and, like most things in the Galactic Union, their ships were built to last. Salamanca was a Luka-class merchant ship, at 540-feet-long and grossing twenty-eight thousand tons she was on the limits of ships that could land unassisted by specialist support structures on the surface of planets.

Her triple fusion torches could push her hefty bulk along at over eleven Gs which had come as an unpleasant surprise to pursuing warships on a couple of occasions. Eleven hundred G-hours of reaction mass and thirty-two hundred hours of total fusion output until her F11 tanks were depleted also made the Salamanca a perfect medium-sized merchantman, and thousands had been built. Over two hundred years old, she had been patched, repaired, and updated so many times over the years that both the outer hull and the ship’s layout would have been unrecognizable to the original builders—a fact that had come in handy when the Scorpions procured it thirty years before and had made a few modifications of their own.

More powerful anti-missile laser turrets, anti-missile missiles, reinforced hull armor, more powerful shield generators, and another couple of less conventional twists that would come as a nasty surprise to any potential foe had all been added. The Salamanca may not have been able to take on and defeat a dedicated warship in a stand-up fight, but any frigate or destroyer captain had better be damned wary of her. Over the years she had, albeit sparingly, inserted and retrieved the Scorpions whenever they needed to fly below the radar; therefore, several of her standard cargo bays were not so standard. An untrained eye might have missed the adaptions for accommodating troopers and handling CASPers, but lifting 150 troopers and equipment would require much more overt modifications.

“I can make Earth orbit in—” Kate caught the eye of her Pendal pilot, Horak. With one of his lower limbs he interrogated the navigation computer which obligingly displayed the information Kate required in the bottom left corner of her display. “Thirty-eight hours, and be on the ground shortly after.”

“We’ll be ready. Sinclair clear.”

Pushing back in his chair, Alastair turned to once more face the silently-scrolling data on his over-sized wall display. If those numbers were correct, things were coming to a head, and soon. Really soon.

* * * * *

Chapter Three

Get Out Of Dodge

Even to Alastair’s trained eye, it looked like complete chaos, with troopers running this way and that, hauling pallets piled high with everything from MAC rounds to missile spares to rations, all disappearing at a prodigious rate up the gaping loading ramps of the Salamanca. Amid the apparent confusion, stood Cristin Lapole directing operations like a conductor would an orchestra. At her side was Hak Voslo, his blue near-feather plumage making the native Veetch more resemble the Earth avian that it was often compared to. Hak held a small slate in each of his upper hands checking off the loaded equipment as it rushed past him while the lower two grasped at the padded jacket it wore to protect it against the growing cool breeze that whipped across the large landing area the Salamanca nestled on. On the turned-up collar of the jacket, the twin silver bars glinted in the pale Scottish sunlight, indicating his status to those who didn’t recognize the Veetch as Salamanca’s second in command. Not for the first time, Alastair marveled at Kate Preissman’s ability to mold such a disparate group of Humans and aliens into an efficient crew. And, more importantly, a crew that knew when to keep their mouths shut when the Salamanca was employed on some of its more nefarious jobs. He supposed the money helped. Kate and the Salamanca were able to show a modest profit year in, year out, which kept them under the radar of any busy-body government civil servant, while each crewmember received an end-of-year, off-the-books bonus, in the currency of their choice. With such lucrative employment, the crew of the Salamanca tended to remain unchanged for many years, and close relatives often replaced retiring crewmembers.

Take Hak for example. Hak’s father, Yara Voslo, was Kate’s First Officer; he had carried out his duties for more than two decades before bringing his first born, Hak, into the family business. Thankfully, Kate had immediately taken to the no-nonsense Veetch. Besides being an outstanding Second-in-Command, Hak also attended to the mountain of paperwork, which was the lot of a starship captain while running a transport business. Kate was eternally grateful.

Now, watching Hak and Lapole work in perfect harmony, Alastair could only thank God for his own fortune at having Lapole on his team.

Another couple of hours and loading would be complete and then…And then what? A frown creased Alastair’s forehead as he wondered what his next move would be.

When he had briefed his officers and senior NCOs two days ago in the comfortable surroundings of the main headquarters, he had been certain something big was about to happen. However, when Lieutenant Rivero, Gamma Support Platoon’s OC, had asked, “…but, Colonel, where is this threat coming from? We’re busy preparing to evacuate the base, yet, every other merc company on this planet is carrying on business as usual. What do we know that they don’t?”

Rivero hadn’t meant the question to be impertinent, nevertheless, it had riled Alastair.

Looking back, Rivero’s words had touched a chord for a simple reason. Alistair had had no answer for the young lieutenant.

The urgent beeping and vibrating of the small slate in the utility pouch attached to his waist came as a pleasant distraction from his morose thoughts.

“Go for Sinclair,” he said as he answered the call.

The level voice of the senior duty communications tech failed to hide her underlying concern. “Sir, you need to get over here!”

Alastair was moving before he even terminated the call, his feet pounding the floor as he broke into a sprint. Troopers scattered to the left and right as they scrambled out of his path.

Situated in the secure area lay the Communications Room, buried twenty-five feet below the Headquarters Building and around a mile from the landing pad where Alastair had been observing the loading of the Salamanca.

The hybrid vehicle he had ridden from the landing pad used a circuitous hardened track, so Alastair had chosen to ignore the indirect route and had run directly across the undulating sand dunes shielding the Scorpions’ buildings from the back blast of ships.

Alastair may have been approaching fifty, but he had been subjected to a physical training regimen from his early teens. First by his father, then by a particularly evil, retired drill instructor by the name of Juro Fujii. Fujii had made it his mission in life to push the young Alastair to the brink of death, or so it seemed. Alastair had endured hours of endless physical training, weapons training, tactical studies, CASPer maintenance, and mock scenarios. So many hours of schooling that, by the time Alastair joined the Scorpions as a fresh-faced First Lieutenant, he felt like he had been a member of the mercenary company for a lifetime.

 However, Alastair had quickly discovered that whatever Fujii had put him through, his training had provided only a small taste of the reality of being a mercenary for hire.

Nothing could prepare you for your first shock of battle or for the loss of the first trooper under your command. The discipline his father and Fujii had drilled into him had served him well and, in hindsight, those hours of blood, sweat and tears were well worth it. So much so, he had found a Fujii of his own when it came time for his own children to begin learning the ropes.

It had been tough watching first Charlie, then Jamie, come home day after day battered and bruised, only to then plug themselves into the Ethernet to study whatever subject their tutor had set for them that evening. By the time it came to Nikki, his youngest child and only daughter, he had relented and discontinued the harsh training regime for the little girl that was the apple of his eye. Every time Alastair looked at her, he saw Alana—his wife, partner, and second in command. Taken from him too soon by some unknown Tortantula and its Flatar rider while conducting a contract on some crappy planet in the middle of nowhere that nobody had cared about. Alana’s loss had ripped a hole in Alastair’s world that he had never quite filled, and seeing Nikki, who could very well have been a clone of his dead Alana, growing up, he just could not bring himself to put her in a position where he might lose her, too. That had probably been the biggest mistake of his life, for Nikki had grown up watching what her older brothers had been put through, and, rather than having been put off by it, she relished the opportunity to impress her father, and when that opportunity was taken away, the first seeds of resentment had been sown. Was she not good enough? Had she annoyed her father in some way? With the stubbornness that had been such a strong trait of her mother, Nikki had decided to train herself. She surreptitiously sought out the men and women who formed the small Scorpions’ training cadre and demanded they help her. When that didn’t work, she reverted to bribery and coercion. Not that a fourteen-year-old girl had much to bribe a trooper who earned the equivalent of a small fortune every year. It never occurred to her that from her very first approach, the troopers had reported it to her father who, seeing how important it must be to Nikki, had agreed to allow a limited amount of training. Nothing too dangerous, just enough to let her think she was getting the same training as her siblings had. Unfortunately, Nikki turned out to be a natural, and gradually Alastair had allowed the members of the training cadre to increase the difficulty level. By the time Nikki was a couple of weeks shy of her seventeenth birthday, the trainers were forced to admit they had nothing more to teach the girl. On the day of Nikki’s birthday, Alastair presented her with a burnished blue 1911A1 .45ACP, one of a matching pair that Alastair’s forefather had carried into action during World War Two. Nikki accepted the pistol with trembling hands, the two-and-a-half pound pistol looked massive in her delicate hands. However, the trembling was not brought on by anticipation of the present, it was by what she had to say to her father, words that echoed in Alastair’s memory.

“I’ve decided to apply for the Peacemakers,” Nikki stated all the while holding her father’s eye unblinkingly.

Not since his wife’s passing had Alastair felt the same icy cold ball form in his stomach. And his reaction to his daughter’s blunt statement was the same as it had been then. Disbelief, followed by denial.

“If you think that is for the best.” Those eight simple words had driven a gulf between father and daughter so wide that they had not spoken in five years. Tim Buchanan’s chance meeting with her on Karma was the first solid lead he had had on her whereabouts for nearly two years, and by the sound of it, Nikki was still the hell-raiser she had always been.

Alastair gave a wry grin despite himself as his feet carried him over the final sand dune on his race toward the solid, reinforced door on the west side of the Headquarters Building. Barely pausing to allow the computer to scan his retinal code and confirm Alastair was who he claimed, he pushed open the door and took the downward spiraling steps three at a time. Entering the subdued main communications room, Alastair was confronted by the stoic faces of Tim and Jamie. As was his place as senior officer, Jamie quickly brought Alastair up to speed.

“Nine minutes ago, we began receiving reports of multiple, unannounced arrivals in the emergence area. When hailed by the near-Earth Traffic Controller, the ships, now confirmed as sixty-four mixed warships and heavy transports, ignored them. They quickly oriented themselves and lit their fusion torches.” Jamie gave a curt nod to one of the communications techs who activated the Tri-V. A wire-framed globe with the continents drawn on it flickered into existence. Alastair’s tactical eye rapidly assessed the various ships’ projected trajectories.

“Holy shit! This is nothing short of an invasion!” Alastair said in hushed tones.

Tim and Jamie nodded in silent agreement.

The computer caught up with Alastair’s assessment as in the hovering display, thin, red lines spread from each ship to intersect at various points in Earth’s orbit. It was Tim’s turn to let out a half-heard profanity as he identified the locus of the ships’ destinations.

“Uzbekistan and Texas—” Tim’s finger stabbed at the display. “They’re targeting the remaining Four Horsemen troops on Earth.”

“And there is no guarantee that they, whoever they are, are going to stop there, and I’m not willing to bet my troopers’ lives on it.” Alastair placed a hand on the shoulder of the communications tech. “Get me the Salamanca.” Seconds later the face of Kate Preissman was staring sullenly back at him. Shipboard routine dictated that the Traffic Control frequencies be continually monitored, so Kate was already aware of the arrival of a large number of unidentified warships, and, if any more proof was needed that Alastair’s gut feeling had been right, those millions of tons of armor, cannon, and missiles was it.

“Aunt Kate, we need to lift now!” said Alastair.

“Way ahead of you, Alastair. I’m buttoning up as we speak, by the time you get your ass back here, I’ll be ready to lift.”

If Alastair’d had the time, he would’ve said a small prayer thanking God for his aunt’s ability to make quick decisions.

Damn! She would’ve made a great merc!

Instead, Alastair cut the link and spun to face the expectant faces of Jamie and Tim. Alastair began firing orders faster than rounds from a MAC.

“Jamie. Get all our Category One people aboard the Salamanca, strapped in and ready to lift ASAP.” Jamie did not bother acknowledging his father’s order, he simply turned and ran out the door while activating his pinplants for immediate access to the Scorpions’ secure communications link. As he raced up the stairs leading to the surface, he sent a priority message to all the Category One personnel, or as they were normally referred to, the ‘War Fighters.’

Flash message. Board now and prepare for immediate departure.

Across the base, the members of Gamma and Zulu Companies simply stopped whatever they were doing and rushed to comply with Jamie’s order. Aboard the Salamanca, crewmen dodged to one side as 150 grim-faced troopers made their way to the hastily-adapted, cramped cargo holds and strapped themselves in while platoon sergeants counted them off as they arrived.

In the Communications Room, Alastair was not finished giving orders. “Tim. Category Two. I want support personnel cleared from the landing pad ASAP and en route to their assembly points. No sense in them being anywhere near a big fat target like the Salamanca if our friends decide to come calling. Once you’ve got them moving, I want you to get yourself aboard.” Alastair spared a glance at the illuminated figures of the digital time piece on the wall. “You have ten minutes.”

Tim gave his boss a curt nod as he too headed for the door. The sound of his voice issuing the necessary instructions over his comms grew more distant as he made his way up the stairs.

Alastair had already switched to his next order of business. Being a mercenary was seen by many to be either a glamorous life full of action and adventure which resulted in a never-ending supply of rich pay packets or, as some would have you believe, a solitary life full of nothing but death and destruction while your Yack overflowed with blood money. Whatever your views on the mercenary life, there was something which an outsider tended to forget: the men and women who filled the ranks were Human, and Humans were, overall, not creatures of solitude. They had families. And the men and women of the Scorpions were no different. Over to the east of the sprawling base were the neat rows of two story homes that housed the husbands, wives, and children of the married personnel, and ensuring their safety was as much a priority for Alastair as that of his troopers. Activating his own pinplants, Alastair was connected to the one person on the base who the awesome responsibility for keeping the families safe fell to.

“Go for Lapole,” answered an expectant voice.

Alastair knew his Supply Officer had been awaiting his call. She couldn’t have failed to notice that her orderly loading of the Salamanca had come to a grinding halt. Many troopers abandoned their assigned tasks to make their way aboard the ship while others shepherded civilian support staff toward their assembly points, ready to exit the base.

Lapole had never been one for small talk, so Alastair got straight to the point. “I’ve ordered a full evacuation, Cristin.”

“Understood, sir. How many family members are still on base?” Yeah, straight to the point, thought Alastair, turning his head in the direction of Sergeant Quant, the senior comms tech. Quant had anticipated Alastair and a command via her pinplants sent the necessary information to Lapole’s slate.

Alastair heard a grunt over his link as Lapole received and digested the information before speaking. “OK, I’ve got that. Forty-two currently on base. I’ll round up the waifs and strays. I presume the plan is still to head for the Lodge?”

The aptly named Lodge lay on an isolated and peaceful stretch along the edge of Loch Ness. Normally accessed by air, the large hunting lodge complex hid the trappings of modern life and provided the perfect place for overworked Scorpions troopers and their families to relax. The Lodge could easily cope with the forty-two family members.

“The medium assault flyer we use for practice drops can handle forty-two. It might be cramped, but it means I can lift them in one sortie rather than shuttling back and forth in one of the smaller flyers,” said Lapole.

“Yeah, I think that is for the best until we can figure out the intentions of those ships. Good luck, Cristin, and I’ll see you on the flip side.”

Terminating the link, Alastair noted the communications techs concentrating on the flow of information while resisting the temptation to follow Jamie and Tim out the door and take their allocated seats on board the soon-to-be-leaving ship.

“Ewen,” Alastair addressed the junior tech. “Slave your links to the Salamanca and get going.”

A flurry of fingers and commands via his pinplants ensured the Salamanca’s Communications Section received a mirror image of the sophisticated set up of the Scorpions’ control room. Disconnecting the two hair-thin cables from behind each of his ears, which joined his pinplants to the base’s main computer, Ewen stood ready to leave, but hesitated as his eyes met those of the senior tech.

Sergeant Katrian Quant held her subordinate’s eyes for a fleeting moment before giving him a weak smile and jerking her head in the direction of the door. Ewen gave her a thin smile of his own before obeying Alastair’s command.

Their exchange had not escaped Alastair, but he had the good grace to wait until the junior tech left before saying, “Katrian—”

“No need, sir,” she said with a shrug and a resigned tone. “Even if I don’t want to admit it. It makes sense. Someone must stay until you get clear, in case there’s a problem with the link to the Salamanca, and you need up-to-the-minute data if you’re to make good your escape. It’s just bad luck that I’m right here, right now.”

The terminal in front of her gave a shrill beep. Quant’s eyes narrowed as she scanned her Tri-V. “Well, that’s not good,” she said in a low voice.

Alastair leaned over the back of her swivel chair, to see the Tri-V for himself and his eyes narrowed. In the display, three huge troopships were descending on an area in central Uzbekistan “Looks like the Golden Horde are about to have some unwelcome visitors.”

“Should we warn them?” asked Quant.

“I’m pretty sure they know they’re coming but give them a heads-up anyway.”

Quant sent the necessary commands via her pinplants composing a message which included a complete projection of the troopships’ flight paths and projected landing sites.

“Sir, they replied that they are aware, and they are warning all mercenary companies to leave Earth and join up with a convoy in space.”

“Did they say to where?”

“No; just that more info will be provided enroute. They were worried about the signal being intercepted.”

Alastair stood behind her, watching the icons representing decelerating troopships falling to Earth. It was still hard to believe, but the descending ships and their fleet mates moving into blocking positions in orbit were proof enough. This is what the all the hidden messages and contracts had been about. Invasion! Alastair accessed the communications terminal, bringing up a previously stored message. One he had composed weeks previously before his eldest son, Charlie, had left for Galax.

The text of the message was innocuous, and Alastair and Charlie hoped anyone intercepting it would take it as a pleasantry between father and son. It read, Happy Birthday, Son. Love, Dad, but it was a signal to Charlie. The message translated as The Scorpions have abandoned their base. Prepare for the worst.

Alastair could do nothing for his firstborn or his troopers, and his inadequacies weighed heavy on his shoulders, but what more could he do? Right now, he had his own problems and responsibilities.

A command sent the message flashing through the ether to join the stack of outgoing traffic held in the local GalNet node, awaiting download to the next ship to use the stargate headed in the direction of the Coro region in the Tolo arm of the galaxy. Then, the message would hitch a ride to the furthest GalNet node which, finally, routed the text to the first ship headed to Galax. It could be weeks before the message arrived, but Alastair hoped Charlie would receive the warning in time.

“Sir,” said Quant, interrupting Alastair’s thoughts. “Traffic Control is filling with reports of sporadic ship-to-ship engagements. Looks like someone is up for a fight.”

Alastair leaned in close to the Tri-V as if by staring at the icons in the display he could divine the warring factions. What he saw, though, was a carbon copy of the Traffic Control readout. The Tri-V filled with ghost images and flashes of static as the dueling warships permeated the electronic spectrum with powerful countermeasures against targeting systems, burning through their foes’ countermeasures with their own weapons. Who was winning or losing was impossible to tell, but the battle did provide an opportunity for the Salamanca to make good its escape while both sides were busy taking swings at each other.

“The minute we’re clear and out of range, wipe everything, then hightail it to join Captain Lapole, understood?”

“Understood, sir, and good luck. I wish I was going with you.”

Alastair gave Quant’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze before it was finally time for him to depart, leaving the sergeant alone in her darkened, underground bunker. Quant blocked out the sound of his receding footsteps and commanded her eyes to remain fixed on her display as she tried to make some sense of what was happening hundreds of miles above her head.

* * * * *

Chapter Four

No Time To Mourn

“Whenever you are ready, Mr. Horak,” Kate said, more of a command than an invitation. One which the Pendal pilot reacted to with calm, precise movements as his lower limbs engaged the Salamanca’s lift motors while his upper limbs were still running through the checklist to ensure the final personnel lock was secured and the ramp retracted behind the final person to board. Alastair Sinclair.

The same Alastair Sinclair, as if on cue, slipped into the only spare seat on the cramped bridge. His seat, sensing the ship’s acceleration, automatically deployed its restraints to secure Alastair in place. A good thing for Alastair as Horak steadily increased thrust, raising the nose of the ship, as the engines strained to push the 50,000-ton, fully-loaded merchantman skyward. Alastair and the rest of the bridge crew were pushed further back into their padded seats as the G-forces steadily increased. The seat deployed its G-shroud, wrapping Alastair’s arms, legs, and chest in its protective layers, contracting around his limbs and forcing blood to his brain to enable him to continue functioning. He spared a thought for his troopers, squeezed together like sardines in a can in their makeshift seats in the ship’s cargo holds, completely unprotected from the overpowering G-forces. The repeater display, which had deployed from the armrest of his seat, indicated Horak was pushing the ship toward the upper limit of the Human body’s ability to withstand the G-forces pushing down on it. Alastair felt his muscles straining as the G number passed six Gs. The G-shroud would allow him to continue operating until around nine Gs, depending on his personal tolerance, but he knew that his unprotected troopers would, at the current six Gs, be suffering from grey out, where their vision lost hue, while some may already have passed out.

After three minutes, Horak throttled the engines back as the Salamanca passed through the waning atmosphere and began to enter space proper. Alastair felt the crushing weight lift from his chest as he watched in strange fascination as a small slate that had not been secured before lift-off floated lazily past. Reaching out with one hand, he plucked it from the air and slipped it into the storage pocket on the leg of his utility suit. Better to be safe than sorry. If Horak was forced to make any radical, high-G maneuvers, that slate could very quickly turn into a ballistic weapon, either causing damage to equipment on the bridge or, worse still, striking some poor member of the bridge crew. And that included Alastair.

“Let’s keep all our active radio, radar, and lidar transmissions locked down good and tight, everybody. No need to give any of those warships a nice, new, shiny target,” said Kate from her seat at the center of the small bridge. “Mr. Jacobsthal.”

The dual-hatted communications and defensive systems officer, originally from South Africa, cocked his head so his sun-tanned face and searing blue eyes faced his captain.

“Bring up the feed from Sergeant Quant and put it on the main Tri-V.” An area of the bridge wall measuring twenty-feet-square resolved itself into a shifting, fuzzy, and confusing picture of the space surrounding the Salamanca out to fifteen hundred miles.

As expected of an industrialized planet, every type of craft filled the near-space of Earth: merchantmen, private cruisers, tugs, intra-system small craft, and many others of every shape and size. All had one thing in common. Each ship pushed their engines to the max to get clear of the deadly missiles and flashing, coherent-light weapons of the battling warships.

Alastair was the first to admit he was no expert on ship-to-ship warfare, and certainly not on this scale.

As the icon of a Human destroyer flickered and died, a palpable silence descended on the bridge.

The situation was dire. Even to Alastair, it was obvious that whomever the invaders were, they were rapidly gaining the upper hand.

Kate leaned forward in her seat, eyes flickering in all directions, as she sought to pick a safe route for the Salamanca and its precious cargo. “Aha! Mr. Horak, one-eight-six mark two-three should pass us well clear of that HecSha guided missile cruiser. Even if she picks us up, she’ll think we are just another merchie trying to get clear of the fighting and get away through the stargate.”

* * *

G’Yal’s shortened, prehensile tail flicked involuntarily from side to side in short, sharp motions, and a pair of large, ovoid nostrils at the end of a long, flattened, lime-green snout flared, sure signs to G’Yal’s crew that the commander of the HecSha guided missile cruiser, Great Claw, was enjoying himself. In this assumption, they would have been correct, for G’Yal and his crews’ participation in this contract was no coincidence. Their employer had sought them out for they had known that money only buys so much loyalty. The need for revenge, however, goes much further. And that need burned deep within the HecSha aboard Great Claw and its sister ships. When the Human-led ships of the Winged Hussars burned his nest mates from the skies in the F11 rich Ligal system in the Praf sector, they had made a blood enemy of G’Yal. His ship, Great Claw, circled the Humans’ sparkling blue and white globe, and G’Yal struggled to keep his burgeoning excitement in check as he watched the few Human ships who had decided to fight be washed away in the eye-searing light of megawatt lasers and waves of missiles. G’Yal could hardly contain himself as he struggled with the conflict between the need to follow his orders—to remain in his blocking position over the landmass the Humans called Western Europe while sweeping its skies with his armed drone craft—and the desire to join the battle raging over the Americas.

“Commander,” called the HecSha manning the tactical sensors, “a ship approaches at high G! A Luka-class merchantman.”

“Point of origin?” Demanded G’Yal.

The crewmember interrogated his computers, swiftly backtracking the ship’s flight path. “The northern part of an island off the main land mass.” A corner of his thin, rubbery lip rose to expose razor-sharp, yellowed teeth. “The area is listed as one of those belonging to a Human mercenary company.” A thick, clawed finger ran down the electronic compendium supplied by their employer for this contract until it came to rest on a name. “Sinclair’s Scorpions.”

A merchant ship running from a known Human mercenary base made it a viable target by the rules of engagement set down in the contract, and it would bring a large bounty when the ship and its cargo was sold to the highest bidder. G’Yal flexed his triple-clawed hands, his claws raking the reinforced armrests as his elongated spine tingled with anticipation. The claws dug fresh scratches to join the numerous ones already there. “Helmsman, plot an intercept course. Weapons, bring the spinal laser on line and load the forward missile tubes. Tactical, re-task one of the drones to fly past the ship’s point of origin. If there are any more ships, I want to know.” One of the few inviolable rules of warfare in the Galactic Union was that no spaceship could fire on a planet’s surface from an altitude of more than ten miles. By using semi-autonomous armed drones which flew below this height, the HecSha and others could get around this rule. As long as they still did not order devastating mass strikes, the Union was willing to turn a blind eye to this ‘bending’ of the rule. In G’Yal’s case, the drones under his command were intended for reconnaissance purposes only, though they did, of course, carry several missiles ‘for their own protection.’

Orders given, G’Yal felt the familiar pressure of increasing G-force as the Great Claw came about onto the intercept course plotted by its helmsman and increased speed. Through his seat, he felt the thrum of the fusion plants coming to full power and filling the capacitors with the energy required by the cruiser’s main hundred-terawatt lasers, while weapons crews did final checks on sleek, telegraph pole-sized anti-ship missiles before loading them into their launch tubes. In less than two minutes, Great Claw was ready for combat.

G’Yal’s pink tongue flicked out to wet his lips as the thrill of the hunt filled him like it had his ancestors on the great plains of his home world. “Time to intercept?”

“Twelve minutes, Commander. Permission to paint the target?” replied the Tactical Officer.

G’Yal paused momentarily as he considered the request. If he allowed the Tactical Officer to activate the targeting and acquisition radar, his prey would almost certainly pick up the waves of electromagnetic energy directed at it and may take evasive action. On the other hand, his missiles and lasers would need the targeting data if they were to successfully intercept the fleeing merchantman, and, as G’Yal reminded himself, it was only a merchantman after all, what chance did it have against a warship?

“Granted,” said G’Yal.

* * *

“Shit! Shit! Shit! That’s not good,” Kate Preissman exclaimed to no one as the Tri-V dispassionately noted the course change of the HecSha missile cruiser.

From his seat against the rear bulkhead, Alastair Sinclair strained against his restraints as he tried to see what caused his aunt’s outburst. Without the benefit of access to the repeater screens which sprouted like multiple arms from Kate’s seat, he was reliant on others telling him what was going on. A situation Alastair found most uncomfortable.

“What’s happening?” he demanded.

With a tap of the foot release, Kate spun her seat to face him, worry lines plain on her face. “Looks like that cruiser wants a piece of us. What the hell is going on here, Alastair?”

Alastair shook his head slowly. “I truly wish I knew.”

Kate’s eyes hovered on her nephew for a few more seconds, realizing eventually that she was not going to get a better answer to her question, before spinning her seat around again and locking it in place. With a tap of a control, she activated the inter-ship comm, and a three-tone whistle sounded throughout the Salamanca, followed a heartbeat later by Kate’s stoic voice. “All hands. Prepare for radical maneuvering!” Cutting the comm, Kate addressed her bridge crew. “OK, people, this isn’t going to be pretty, but those HecSha bastards have no idea what they have bitten off with the Salamanca.” Focusing on one crewmember she gave the command that committed the Salamanca to the fight. “Mr. Jacobsthal, if you please.”

A predatory grin spread over Jacobsthal’s face as perfect white teeth, appearing prominently in his darkly-tanned features, were bared. With a command through his pinplants, a dozen protective housings along the upper and lower spine of the speeding merchantman slipped obediently aside to reveal stubby-nosed, rapid-fire railguns. The guns may be as useful as spit against the oncoming cruiser’s multiphase shield array, but, when used as a close-in weapon system, the clouds of the baseball-sized tungsten balls they threw into the paths of incoming missiles, drones, or small crafts, were deadly.

“Keep the array and electronic countermeasures off-line for the moment, Mr. Jacobsthal,” said Kate, anticipating and staying the man’s next move. “They think we are just a plain old slow and dumb merchie ripe for the picking. Let’s keep them suffering from that delusion for as long as we can. Knowing the HecSha, they’ll try and seize us as a prize, and to do that they’ll have to get within knife-fighting range. Probably send over a boarding party, so let’s keep the really good news under wraps till then, shall we?”

A short burst of laughter echoed around the bridge, and a confused Alastair stared open-mouthed from face to face. Were these people nuts? There was no way a merchie like the Salamanca could take on a HecSha guided missile cruiser, but it looked like Kate was about to. Well, if she was going to fight, then he was damned if he would sit idly by and do nothing. Kate had mentioned a boarding party, and Alastair knew exactly how to give a boarding party a warm reception.

“Permission to leave the bridge, Captain?” Alastair asked as he fumbled with the unfamiliar seat restraints.

Kate’s seat spun to face him. “And where the hell do you think you are going, Alastair?” she demanded.

The last restraint came free, and Alastair stood, shrugging off his utilities, to reveal the thin haptic suit beneath. He was now held in place only by two-foot holds as the lack of gravity vainly attempted to float him across the bridge. “You mentioned a boarding party. Would it not be polite of us to greet them properly?”

A wicked grin tugged at Kate’s lips as a throaty chortle escaped her. “You, Alastair Sinclair, are a bad man.” She glanced at one of her repeater screens. “You have nine minutes until we begin maneuvers, and God help anybody who isn’t strapped in.”

“Understood.” Alastair slipped out of the foot holds and pushed deftly for the armored bridge doors, which opened with a hiss of hydraulics at a command from Kate. Pulling himself hand-over-hand toward the cargo bays where his troops and their CASPers were situated, he activated his link to Jamie and Tim.

“First Platoon Zulu and Third Platoon Gamma, prepare to repel boarders. You have seven minutes to get suited up and ready to move.”

* * *

The silence of the communications bunker was broken by the steady hum of the electronics which were the only thing keeping Katrian Quant company. The tech sergeant’s full attention was locked on the feed she was getting from Traffic Control. Dozens of ships highlighted in red were now either in Earth’s orbit or descending into the atmosphere.

“Fuck!” A command enlarged the area around the projected flight path of the Salamanca as one of the red icons—the computer identified it as a HecSha cruiser—broke from its orbit and powered toward the ship carrying her friends and colleagues. Almost without conscious thought, Quant sent a query to the central comms computer to ensure the feed was still being relayed to the fleeing ship in real-time. As the computer confirmed her link was still strong, a voice intruded on the silence of the bunker.

“Comms, this is Lapole. I have forty-two souls aboard, and I’m ready to lift. You better get your ass over here if you want a ride.”

Quant threw another glance at the screen upon which the computer had helpfully traced the intercept course of the HecSha cruiser. It took Quant only a moment to come to her decision. “Negative, ma’am. It looks like the Salamanca might be in trouble, so I think I’ll stay right here in case they need me.”

For a long second, silence lingered over the comms link before a softer voice, which Quant barely recognized as belonging to the tough-as-nails Supply Officer, replied. “Understood, Sergeant. Good luck, Trooper, and I’ll see you at the Lodge. Lapole, out.”

* * *

Cristin Lapole gently eased the throttles forward, and the assault flitter rose from the pad in response. In the co-pilot’s seat beside her, Mhairi Sinclair set her jaw and busied herself with the controls arrayed before her. Cristin spared a sideways glance at Mhairi, who had overheard the exchange between Cristin and Quant, so there was no hiding the fact that her father-in-law, Alastair, her brother-in-law, Jamie, and the other troopers aboard the Salamanca were in danger. However, like the professional pilot Mhairi had been before marrying the eldest Sinclair son, Charlie, and retiring from mercenary life, she was entirely focused on the job at hand—ensuring her two children, strapped into the rear of the flitter, and the thirty-nine other family members and dependents of the Scorpions—reach the safety of the Lodge.

“Power coming up nicely, Cristin. Twenty feet…thirty feet…forty feet…fifty feet. Ready to transition into forward flight.”

In the left-hand seat, Cristin deftly twisted the stick, bringing the twin turbofans from vertical to horizontal, allowing the nose to dip as the flitter picked up speed.

“Estimated flight time, twenty-six minutes,” called out Mhairi. Out of muscle memory more than conscious thought, Mhairi brought the assault flitter’s threat detection systems online, only for the system to immediately scream.

Mhairi’s eyes widened.

“HecSha search radar! Five miles and closing.”

Cristin responded instinctively, dropping the nose of the flitter even further and adding power, hoping to confuse the radar searching for them by hiding in the back clutter from the towering pine trees.

* * *

“Commander. The drones are reporting a second launch originating from the same area as the merchantman. A Human assault flitter.”

G’Yal had been concentrating on the chase, calculating the minor adjustments needed to place his cruiser on course with the merchantman’s in order to bring his main laser batteries to bear before launching his armed boarding party and seizing the vessel. The interruption of his Tactical Officer was unexpected and he reacted without considering his actions fully.

“Probably a group of mercenaries trying to escape before we round up the cowards. Order the drones to engage and destroy.”

The Tactical Officer acknowledged his orders and input the necessary commands, his attention returning to the bigger prize of the merchantman as he imagined the riches it carried and how he would spend his share.

At an altitude of thirty thousand feet, the central processor deep in the heart of the plastic and gel brain of the drone received the command.

Processing…confirming location…location confirmed.

Mode—Track and survey…off.


Much faster than any Human reaction, the drone switched modes and targeted the armored flitter.

The radar in the nose increased its pulse until a near constant stream hammered the skin of the flitter with electromagnetic energy. The fire control computer took account of the back scatter caused by ground clutter but dismissed it. A thin seam along the bottom of the drone’s radar-absorbent material split and widened, exposing the weapon’s hold and a rotary drum from which six evil-looking missiles hung.

The drum rotated as the computer selected an air-to-air missile. A final health check confirmed the missile was good to go. Locking clamps retracted, and the missile fell from the drum. The hold doors closed again, returning the drone to near radar invisibility. Clear of the drone, winglets popped out from the missile’s main body, the chemical rocket engine ignited, and the missile accelerated to Mach Three. The data link from the drone allowed the missile to keep its radar in standby mode until the final attack on the target, concealing its presence until the last possible moment.

* * *

The radar, mounted in the tail of the armored flitter, caught the handful of seconds the drone’s weapon’s bay doors were open, and obediently reported them to Mhairi Sinclair.

 “Possible missile launch! Evade! Evade!” Outwardly, Mhairi’s voice remained cold and professional as she reported to Lapole, but inwardly, she struggled to keep her thoughts from her two children strapped in on the other side of the cockpit doors.

Lapole flung the flitter into a tight, four-G turn, hauling on the stick to force the heavy flitter around, dropping the nose and adding power, desperately trying to hide the infrared signature of the flitter’s turbofans while masking the flitter’s bulk behind the steadily rising terrain as the flitter headed inland.

“They’ve still got us locked up!” called Mhairi, as the radar warning buzzer continued its steady warbling. The green, tree-covered landscape was flying past the cockpit windows, the low sun casting long shadows across what would have been beautiful vistas, but Mhairi and Lapole were too busy trying to save their precious cargo’s lives to admire the view.

The terrain following radar threw the fleeing flitter a desperately needed lifeline.

“High terrain, two o’clock, three miles.”

Lapole’s eyes flicked in the direction Mhairi had indicated for a split second as she fractionally corrected her course. A bead of perspiration dropped into her right eye, blurring her vision, and she blinked madly to clear it. The flitter was flashing across the ground at 450 miles per hour, and a single mistake would see the flitter and its Human contents plow into the ground, leaving nothing but a long gouge of light brown earth and a few charred remains.

* * *

High above, the inscrutable brain of the drone noted the flitter’s evasive maneuvers, and its cold calculations resulted in a lowering of the odds of a successful prosecution of the target. This was not acceptable. Once more the weapons bay doors opened and released an arrow-shaped missile which shot away. However, this time the missile, rather than following the flight path of its compatriot, maintained its altitude. Spearing forward at speeds nearing Mach Five, it was less than forty-five seconds from its destination.

* * *

The warbling of the radar alarm changed in an instant to a high-pitched screeching as the seeker-head on the missile went active. Mhairi may have been retired from active duty, however, as her husband, Charlie, took great relish in pointing out, once a merc, always a merc. He laughed at his wife as she read tech manuals and kept abreast in the latest weapons developments. It was a pastime she found strangely cathartic after chasing two kids around all day. Those moments of relaxation came in use now, as the onboard computer identified the hunting missile’s radar type.

“HecSha series XC270. Usually fitted to their Tol 9 missiles,” Mhairi recited from memory. “Missile has an infrared and radar seeker. Proximity warhead. Radar goes active only on final target acquisition. Susceptible to...”

“Radical course changes of its target at the last minute,” finished Lapole for her.

Mhairi turned her face to Lapole in time to see the merc captain flash her an evil smile. “Flares and chaff on my command.” Lapole flexed the fingers of her right hand on the control stick, as her left dropped to her side and found the turbofan maneuvering controls by touch. “And let’s pray to God that the techs kept this bird in good nick. I haven’t tried this trick since I was in flight school…and my instructors grounded me for a month afterward.”

Mhairi let out a half mumbled, “Oh, shit,” as she slipped a hand around the fixed handle above her instrument panel, and began a range countdown. “Missile at one thousand yards…Break! Break! Break!”

“Countermeasures, now! Now! Now!” cried Lapole. As she flung the flitter into a radical five-G turn, the towering walls of the glen rose high above as Lapole fought to level the protesting flitter. If Mhairi had not braced herself against the handle she would have been flung back in her seat by the turn. As it was, she barely managed to hang on, sending the required command via her pinplants to the flitter’s defensive measures pod. On the rear of the craft, a series of soda can-sized objects ejected, and their integral detonators ignited the tightly-packed phosphorous, which burned with the intensity of multiple suns and completely blinded the missile’s infrared system.

Mixed in with the flares were an equal number of containers which, when they burst open, formed a cloud of highly radar-reflective metallic strips, offering the missile’s radar-seeker head a big, juicy target. In case that wasn’t enough to fling the missile off, Lapole carried out the second part of her plan, and her left hand twisted hard on the turbofan vector controls.

The effect was like slamming the brakes on a ground car going at over three hundred miles per hour. Every ounce of energy propelling the flitter forward now blasted in the opposite direction.

In a maneuver perfected by the pilots of VSTOL fighters in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, Lapole waited for their airspeed to bleed to virtual non-existence before redirecting the vector thrust which was normally used to control landings and takeoffs. In a maneuver no missile could imitate, the flitter shot ninety degrees away from its previous position.

Blinded by the burning phosphorous and the floating metallic cloud, the missile’s onboard systems did the only logical thing. The sound of the warhead detonation reverberated off the glen’s walls as it spewed forth its deadly cargo harmlessly into the soft, green grass and bracken.

Lapole closed her eyes and tilted her head back into the padded pilot’s seat, releasing a long, slow breath. Mhairi reached across and placed a reassuring hand on the merc’s arm.

“Damn good flying, Captain.”

A gurgling laugh escaped Lapole’s lips. “Let’s never do that again, shall we?”

Mhairi joined in the tension releasing laugh. “Agreed.”

Lapole reopened her eyes and rolled her shoulders. “What say we get our asses to the Lodge? I need a drink.”

“First round’s on me,” said Mhairi, as she killed the still-sounding missile alarm. For a brief second, the cockpit descended into grateful silence, before the missile alarm once more screeched its warning. Mhairi interrogated the system, realizing too late the oncoming danger, which caused the blood to drain from her face as she looked into Lapole’s questioning eyes.

“I’m sorry...” was all Mhairi had time to blurt out as death overtook her.

The second HecSha Tol 9 detonated its warhead from a distance of less than ten yards, directly above the stationary craft, while still traveling at a little over Mach Two. The effect was akin to firing a shotgun at a block of cheese at point blank range. Fifteen hundred hardened carbon fragments flashed through the skin of the flitter as if its armor was nothing. Slicing through controls, electronics, flight surfaces, fuel, and oxygen tanks, and the soft, yielding flesh and bone of the flitter’s precious Human cargo. For the forty-two souls aboard, it was over in an instant. If the multitude of flying razor-sharp fragments did not kill them, then the expanding fireball of superheated hydrogen fuel did.

Ironically, the only piece of the flitter to remain intact after the missile’s impact, was the defensive pod within which the search and rescue transponder was located.

When the transponder failed to register input from the flitter’s flight control computers, it activated its downed aircraft procedure. The ghostly signal began transmitting on the search and rescue frequency, telling the world where to find the remains of its passengers and crew.

* * *

An attention tone caused the Tactical Officer of the Great Claw to check his Tri-V, and the blinking icon caused his lizard-like mouth to drop open in satisfaction. “The escaping flitter has been destroyed, Commander.”

G’Yal waved a hand dismissively at the news. He had bigger fish to catch, and the chase of the fleeing merchantman was moving the cruiser invariably westward and closer to the ongoing battle with the few Human mercenary ships which had joined the fight.

* * *

The urgent, repeated pinging of the search and rescue beacon echoed in the silence of the comms bunker. Katrian Quant sat stock-still in her seat, vision blurring as tears filled the mercenary veteran’s eyes before gently rolling down her cheeks. Quant sat there for a long moment, her mind filled with the memories of running, laughing children, as they pretended to be their parents, marching in ludicrous fashion, all out of step and producing some of the sloppiest salutes she had ever seen. Sorrow was slowly replaced with a deep, burning hatred. A hatred that would stoke the fires of revenge. One final time, Quant checked that the Salamanca had received her feed before reaching up and slowly disconnecting her pinplants.

Standing, she walked across to an ordinary looking console and keyed in a seemingly random but complex series of characters. A bulbous optical scanner extended on its pencil-thin stalk with a small whirring sound. When it had locked in place, Quant pressed her left eye against the scanner, which read the pattern of rods and cones laid out on her retina. Happy with her identity, a flat metal cover popped open at the side of the console to reveal a fat red button. Without hesitation, Quant pressed down on it so hard, the blood was forced from her finger. On each of the Tri-V displays in the comms bunker, a clock began to count backward from five minutes. From the computer memory core came a flash of light, and a puff of smoke, as the drives fried. When the timer reached zero, the C6 explosives rigged on each piece of sensitive equipment would detonate, completely trashing the bunker and ensuring nobody would learn the secrets of the Scorpions.

Quant ignored the acrid cloud permeating the bunker from the smoking computer drives, as she strode for the door, pausing to retrieve her Gal 12 Assault Rifle from the weapons rack. Like any professional soldier, she had a go-pack stashed under her bed with the minimum of spare clothes, food, water, and ammo. Without a backward glance, she shouldered the rifle and headed up the stairs, her face blank and expressionless.

Somebody had just made a blood enemy of Katrian Quant, and whomever that person was, it had become Quant’s sole purpose in life to end them.

* * *

“Oh, dear God, no!”

The moaning statement dragged Kate Preissman’s attention from her tactical display and the HecSha cruiser that was rapidly closing to within range to launch its small craft. Kate’s eyes found the source of the sound, and the rebuke that had been forming in her throat died as she saw the haunted look on Jacobsthal’s face. “Report, Mr. Jacobsthal.”

The bridge officer cleared his throat loudly, opened his mouth to speak, and nothing came out. Shaking his head, he squared his shoulders and tried again. “The flitter with the families on board has been shot down—the S and R beacon indicates no survivors.”

Kate felt like someone had slapped her across the face. Her sense of time and reality escaped her, as she tried to grasp what Jacobsthal had said. Her conscious mind rebelled against it. You just didn’t kill civilians. That was wrong. Just plain wrong. Then, like a stretched elastic band snapping back into place, she returned to the here and now. Put it away, Kate, she told herself. There’s no time to mourn. For now. We must concentrate on getting out of here alive, and to do that I need to lead by example.

Kate took a breath and forced herself to be calm. When she spoke, her tone remained even and almost unwavering, as she addressed the entire bridge. “Listen up, people. Put what’s just happened in a box and close the lid. We have the bastards closing on us, and they have no idea what they have bitten off, so let’s keep them fat and happy until we can kick them right in their HecSha balls!”

* * *

“Range to target?” demanded G’Yal.

“Three hundred miles, Commander,” replied the Tactical Officer, concentration etched on his face, as his gaze fixed on the radar. Something had appeared, momentarily, before disappearing amid the hundreds of geo-stationary satellites and hovering near-space stations that seemed to infest its orbit. He dismissed the momentary image as a partial reflection, a sensor ghost. “We have matched speed and course with the merchantman, Commander. Permission to launch small craft.”

“Launch,” ordered G’Yal, his attention already turning to the Communications Officer. “Order that bucket of bolts to maintain its course, reduce speed, and prepare to be boarded.”

“At once, Commander.”

* * *

“They’re ordering us to slow and prepare to be boarded, Captain,” said Jacobsthal.

“I’ll give them ‘prepare to be boarded,’” muttered Kate, as she activated her link to Alastair Sinclair. “Alastair. Keep your men on their toes, the HecSha have a couple of boarding parties on the way over, and you might need to take care of any that we miss.”

In the familiar surroundings of his Mark 8 CASPer, with two more CASPers from Third Platoon covering his right and left flanks, Alastair stood positioned on Deck Two Aft. The remainder of Third Platoon and First Platoon Zulu were spreading themselves out at tactical locations throughout the Salamanca, ready to respond to any penetration of the hull. The rest of Alastair’s command were already in lightweight vacuum suits, standing by to assist the freighter’s crew with damage control.

Alastair automatically checked his fuel and ammo levels before replying to Kate. All topped off and good to go. “We’re ready to give them a warm welcome.”

Kate terminated the link to Alastair before she blurted out the ghastly truth that was burning on her lips. Not now, Kate! Later. If we survive this shit.

“Light them up, Mr. Jacobsthal!”

A command flashed from the South African’s pinplant, triggering the Salamanca’s search radar. The twin radars mounted on the bow and the stern of the freighter went from passive standby mode to active tracking, filling the space around the Salamanca with enough electromagnetic energy to cook anything made of flesh and bone that was not protected by thick shielding. In each small craft’s cockpit, radiation alarms went berserk as the flood of searching energy passed easily through the craft’s thin skin, irradiating every living thing on board. In Jacobsthal’s Tri-V display, the Great Claw went from a shadowy return to a finely detailed image, while the two small craft carrying the boarding party were lit up like deer in the headlights of a moving vehicle. With no input from Jacobsthal, the Salamanca’s fire control computers assigned an equal number of railguns to each of the two targets. On the hull of the outwardly defenseless freighter, servos whined as turrets swung to the correct bearing and elevation. The targeting reticle around each small craft went from amber to green, and Jacobsthal gleefully gave the release to fire.

In the blink of an eye, each of the assigned railguns spat forth two baseball-sized projectiles. Each projectile left the gun’s muzzle with an energy equivalent to fifty Mega-joules, or roughly the kinetic energy of a five-ton school bus traveling at 316 miles per hour. They flashed across the gap between the Salamanca and the small craft faster than any creature made of flesh or bone could possibly hope to react. The first railgun round hit the small craft and barely slowed at the impact. For the shuttle, its pilot, and the dozen HecSha soldiers eagerly awaiting the chance to kill some Humans, the fight was over before they even had a chance to realize they were in one. When the second railgun round arrived, it struck the still expanding gas and random pieces of solid debris, immolating any piece it struck as it transferred its kinetic energy into heat and light. To the casual observer, it was as if both small craft had simply exploded of their own accord.

Kate slammed her finger down on a key on her armrest, which sent a klaxon blast reverberating throughout the ship. A warning to its crew to standby for radical maneuvers. She hoped that the sudden demise of the HecSha’s boarding party, and an unexpected course change by the merchantman, would be enough to buy her the time to get away from the avenging HecSha’s missile batteries. A desperate gamble, but she could see no alternative.

“Mr. Horak...” Whatever instruction Kate was about to give to her helmsman was stayed, as three beams of coherent light struck the HecSha cruiser amidships, literally cutting it in half as the concentrated fire of megawatt output lasers sliced through the cruiser’s armor like a hot knife through butter. The two, now distinct, pieces of the cruiser tumbled away, bleeding air and debris out of control, no longer a threat to Kate or the Salamanca.

“Incoming hail, Captain,” said a still-shocked Jacobsthal.

Kate accepted the hail, and her surprise was complete as the face of a smiling, surprisingly young, Human male filled the Tri-V. “Looks like you needed a hand there.”

Kate recovered quickly, stilling her features to present the face of a captain who had everything under control. “Thanks for the assist. And you are?”

“Ah, excuse my impoliteness,” the man said. “Jim Cartwright, commander of the Bucephalus, Colonel, and owner, of Cartwright’s Cavaliers. At your service, ma’am.”

“Kate Preissman of the Salamanca. Currently carrying a contingent of Sinclair’s Scorpions.”

Cartwright’s left eyebrow rose as his interest was piqued. “And your destination?”

Kate gave an easy chuckle. “Somewhere way the hell away from here, where we can give these assholes some payback.”

“Now that, Captain Preissman, I can definitely help you with. Have you ever been to New Warsaw?”

* * * * *

Chapter Five

Council Of War

The gentle pricking of his pinplants brought Alastair Sinclair out of his morbid reverie. The Tri-V paused its playback of the final transmission the Salamanca had received before Bucephalus had latched onto the merchantman and then taken it from the war zone. Alastair’s emotionless eyes soaked in every minuscule feature of his enemy. In the display, the motionless face of the Veetanho General Peepo, her rodent-like face with its obligatory darkened goggles to protect her light-sensitive eyes. It may have been a HecSha missile that downed Lapole’s flyer; however, it was Peepo and the Mercenary Guild who had orchestrated the attack.

“Go for Sinclair,” he said gruffly, allowing his heavy eyelids to close. Peepo’s face burned deep into his psyche.

* * *

“We’ve entered the New Warsaw system, Alastair. Would you like to join me on the bridge?” asked Kate Preissman. An edge of nervousness was evident in her tone, as she knew the news of the deaths of his daughter-in-law and his grandchildren had hit the man hard. Harder than Kate would ever have expected.

“I’ll be up momentarily,” replied Alastair, closing the link without another word.

A concerned frown creased Kate’s forehead. She had barely seen or spoken to her nephew after she had broken the news of the fate of the flyer. Alastair had received the news with barely a twitch of a facial muscle. He had given her a polite thank you before excusing himself and returning to the cabin set aside for him. As was expected of Alastair, as the commanding officer, he had called on each trooper who had suffered a loss after the shooting of Lapole’s flyer, and told them, personally, of the grief he shared. Nine times the door to Alastair’s bunk opened and closed, and with every entrance and exit the sense of loss spread, for every platoon had a member who had lost someone. The empathy the troopers felt for their comrades became something else during the 170-hour trip to New Warsaw—something ugly.

Being attached to the hull of the Bucephalus had meant that Kate had been unable to extend the gravity deck, which was the norm for hyperspace flights, so the crew and passengers of the Salamanca had spent the entire trip in zero gravity. Kate had fully expected the lack of gravity to restrict the activities of the Scorpion troopers; in fact, the opposite was true. On direction of Alastair, Tim Buchanan had liaised with Horak, who doubled-hatted as Kate’s First Officer, organizing seemingly never-ending drills. Everything from section level infiltration drills where one section would be tasked to enter covertly a specific section of the ship and recover an object while an enemy force comprising a platoon or more attempted to foil their attempts. The drills went as far as full-on company-sized boarding actions which caused merry hell in routine ship operations. When Kate had tactfully approached Alastair with a request to scale back the drills, he had pointed out that while the troopers were kept busy doing seemingly needless training, it gave them little opportunity to brood on recent events. Faced with the choice of physically-exhausted troopers gratefully retiring to their makeshift bunks for sleep when given the chance to, or seven days with bored troopers hell-bent on vengeance, Kate opted for the drills. Now, though, with entry into the New Warsaw system, the Salamanca had disconnected from Bucephalus and was navigating freely. Or as freely as it could. Jacobsthal was reporting that they were under constant lock by numerous fire control radars. The Winged Hussars took their security seriously.

“Will you look at the size of that thing,” commented Horak. With a flick of a lower hand, the Pendal flung an image of their destination, Prime Base, across the main bridge Tri-V just as Alastair Sinclair entered the bridge. The sight of the massive construct caused him to misjudge his reaching for the hand hold that would have swung him neatly into his chair. Instead, he continued his zero-G flight until stopped ungracefully by the rear of Kate’s seat. Kate let out a small chortle, while the remainder of the bridge crew feigned ignorance at his clumsiness. For his part, Alastair made the best of a bad entrance, pivoting on the ship captain’s headrest, and slipping his feet through the floor restraints to hold himself in place, while he, too, took in the sight of the massive space station.

Space tends to cause the uninitiated to misjudge the true perspective of objects, and sitting at one of the Lagrange Points of the planet that rotated slowly beyond it, someone viewing it from a distance could find it hard to gauge its size. That would be until you spied the flickering minnows that seemed to hover in an ever-moving cloud around it. These minnows were the cruisers and destroyers that had secured the Winged Hussars its deserved reputation as one of the galaxy’s premier space fighting forces, dwarfed by a space habitat which was miles on a side.

Horak busily tapped away at his console, four limbs entering and retrieving data quicker than any Human without pinplants could ever hope to. In the Tri-V, sections of Prime Base were highlighted one after another. The Pendal spoke with a sense of approval, “It looks like a mix of modern Galactic Union technology and something much older.”

“Prime Base is hailing us, Captain.”

“Put it up, Mr. Jacobsthal,” ordered Kate. The imposing image of the space station disappeared to be replaced with a pair of ruby-red compound eyes which stood out like laser points from the iridescent blue chitin which covered the entire head and body of the MinSha. The hairs on the back of Alastair’s neck stood bolt upright, and he had to physically restrain himself from reaching for the laser pistol which sat snuggly in its holster on his right leg. Alastair had no love for the MinSha, either as individuals or as a race. On his very first mission as a trooper in the Scorpions, an eighteen-year-old Alastair had been forced to watch helplessly as his squad mates had been sliced into small pieces by MinSha high-intensity lasers, like a Human would carve up a roast for Sunday dinner. The screams of the troopers trapped inside their CASPers was the theme of many of Alastair’s recurring dreams. Mentally shrugging off the image, he returned to the present, where Kate opened her mouth to introduce herself, and the MinSha spoke abruptly, leaving Kate’s jaw flapping in midair.

Salamanca. You are to cease all active probing immediately, or you will be fired upon!”

Kate nodded to Horak who complied with her unspoken order. If there was one thing that Humans had learned about the MinSha, it was that they never bluffed. The entire concept appeared alien to them. If they said they were going to do something, then you could bet the house on it that they would. In the Tri-V, the mantis-like head twisted to one side on its stick thin, elongated neck, light glinting off the blue chitin as it appeared to acknowledge some unseen speaker.

“Colonel Sinclair, I am Major Krat’lik of the Winged Hussars Marine Element, and I will be your escort during your time among the Winged Hussars. You are to travel via shuttle to Landing Bay Six, where I will meet you.” And with that, the transmission was abruptly terminated.

“Well, I see the MinSha reputation as happy-go-lucky hosts is well deserved,” stage-whispered Jacobsthal, with a lopsided grin. His comment brought a grin to everyone else’s faces, even Alastair’s. Moment of levity over, Horak set them on a course to follow the beacon, while the Alastair slipped once more into silence as he contemplated his, and his troopers, next move. For the moment, those with him were safe; however, his thoughts strayed unbidden to his eldest son, Charlie, and the two platoons of troopers that were on their way to Galax. Without a conscious thought, his pinplants accessed the ship’s internal chronometer. Set to Standard Galactic Union time, the Union’s equivalent to Earth’s Greenwich Mean Time, was used as the standard time throughout the Union on all ships registered with the Merchant Guild. Alastair briefly did the math and correlated that with the travel arrangements for Charlie and his troopers. If they were still on schedule, they should be arriving at Galax sometime tomorrow. Alastair’s coded warning, however, having to be carried from stargate to stargate by any ship headed in the right direction, would arrive at the whim of the shipping schedule. Alastair could only hope it arrived in time.

* * *

Happy Birthday, Son. Love, Dad. The message hung solemnly in midair, and the hustle and bustle of the thronging bar, which was the heart of Tal Station, receded as if someone had placed a large noise-canceling bubble around the stock-still form of Charlie Sinclair.

“Everything OK, Major?” asked Torey McDonald. Torey had been a merc long enough to recognize when something wasn’t right. She had joined the Scorpions as a snot-nosed trooper seventeen years before, rising to the rank of sergeant, where she had moaned about how every officer she encountered had a baby face which had never seen a razor, and who had to be led around by the hand. That was before Alastair Sinclair had offered her the chance to join the ranks of the ‘know it all officer types.’ As Lieutenant Torey McDonald, she had made it her mission in life to be the best officer she could be. And, if the countless offers she had received to leave the Scorpions and sign up with other merc companies were a judge of her competency, she had achieved that aim. Still, it was Alastair Sinclair who had made her an officer, and loyalty and respect was something too hard to come by in the modern world for her to just up sticks and abandon her troopers for what might, or might not, be greener pastures.

“Heads up!” she said in a voice loud enough to carry just as far as the other two tan uniformed troopers sitting at the table. Sergeant Angus Deacon casually dropped a hand below table level, until it rested gently on the grip of his ever-present Steyr 880 ten-millimeter, case-less machine pistol. With his opposite leg, he spun himself ever so slightly in his seat, clearing the weapon of the table and giving himself a clean draw if he needed to utilize the lethal little compact. His eyes calmly scanned the melting pot of aliens in the bar for any subtle sign of a threat. A group of knuckle-dragging Jivool grunted and drank some purple concoction that was an affront to any race with decent sensory organs. Another table was virtually overflowing with hairy-ass K’kng, six-foot-tall gorilla analogues with razor-sharp teeth and small, beady eyes. Deacon automatically dismissed them as a threat, for though K’kng looked scary as shit, they didn’t have the mindset to be mercs. Nature had a cruel sense of humor. Deacon continued his threat assessment, his gaze flicking from table to table, never resting long enough on one group to arouse suspicion, while all the time he carried on his mundane conversation with the fourth Scorpion trooper, Second Lieutenant Stacey Kamala.

Kamala may only have been be a newly-promoted second lieutenant, but it was a long-standing tradition in the Scorpions to promote from within its ranks, and though some other merc units insisted that their officer corps be selected from outside the company to discourage patronage, the Scorpions took the view that you would fight better and harder for those you considered friends, if not family. It also meant that in situations like the group of Scorpions found themselves now, Torey, utilizing only a minimum of words, could alert her troopers to a potential threat, confident in the fact that after years together she knew exactly how they would react.

Seeing Deacon align one-way, Kamala automatically aligned in the opposite direction. Raising her glass, she let out a gurgling laugh, and her head fell back while she hugged her ribs. To those in the crowded bar around her, it appeared like a normal Human reaction to what must have been a hilarious joke. The laughter masked the movement of her free hand, which tucked up into her armpit to where her PS6 hung in its shoulder holster. Mean and ugly, the PS6 was jokingly referred to as the People Stopper. Made only in .30 caliber, the magazine was mounted along the top of the heavy pistol, which allowed it to hold twenty mercury-tipped rounds. A single well-placed round from a PS6 would stop a Tortantula in its tracks at close range. A less hardy race would find themselves with a hole the size of a watermelon as an exit wound, and woe betide anyone standing behind the target, because they were more likely than not to suffer a fatal injury as the slug of mercury entered their bodies without slowing perceptibly. Yeah, if you wanted to put a target down so it didn’t get back up again, the People Stopper was the weapon of choice. Like Deacon, Kamala continued the mundane conversation while searching the thronging mass of alien clientele for threats.

Satisfied her troopers were now on alert, Torey spared a fleeting glance at her boss. Charlie’s features had formed themselves into what Torey normally described as his ‘it’s all gone wrong’ face. Lips pursed, eyebrows scrunched down, causing worry lines to cover his forehead, head bowed, eyes trying to bore holes into the floor. Yeah, something has gone pear shaped, thought Torey. And not for the first time on this contract. We should have arrived on Galax by now, instead of being stuck on this hunk of junk, floating around a barren planet because some merchant ship is running late. We’re still one jump away from our destination, and the more time wasted getting to Galax, the more the situation could have changed, making any intelligence Captain Buchanan had passed as much use as a sieve in a water-collecting contest. Meanwhile, all our gear is stacked in temporary storage with a couple of troopers keeping guard on it, while the remainder loaf around the entire floor of the hotel Charlie was forced to rent. Torey hated when the Scorpions had to rely on a third party to arrange transport, because it invariably went wrong somehow.

Charlie’s head came up, and instead of the usual flurry of quick battle orders Torey would have expected to receive over her pinplants, her boss shuffled closer to her, cupping his hand over his mouth so no one could see his lips as he whispered into her ear.

“Assume every electronic means is compromised. All messages are passed by word of mouth only and are done so face-to-face. Trust no one who is not wearing this uniform and that you personally know. Double the guard on our gear in storage, and I want someone with eyes on the gear, not just standing outside the door. Post armed guards at the hotel. I want our floor turned into a fortress as of yesterday. Send runners out in pairs to locate any of our troopers not at the hotel and get them back there ASAP. We’re reneging on the contract and heading home.”

As Charlie reeled off his orders a deepening sense of confusion filled Torey; the veteran could feel the blood slowly draining from her face. When Charlie finished speaking, she turned her head to look into his steady, unblinking eyes. “What the hell is going on, sir?”

In all the years that Torey had known Charlie Sinclair, she had never known him to hesitate before he answered her. Now he hesitated, and that hesitation was enough to send a shiver down Torey’s spine. A commotion by the bar rapidly became a roar of noise as a dozen races shouted to be heard. Torey’s eyes fixed on the Tri-V as it projected an image of a planet she could hardly fail to recognize. Earth. The image split in half as the whiskered, goggle-covered face of Veetanho General Peepo, master tactician and legend of the Mercenary Guild began talking. The bar fell into a stunned silence as each race’s individual translator converted Peepo’s words into their respective tongue. Torey was struggling to comprehend what she was seeing and hearing. Earth invaded! High orbit held by alien warships! All Human mercenary leaders to hand themselves over for trial on Capital Planet! Human mercenary companies to be subsumed by the Mercenary Guild. And, did she hear that damn rodent correctly? Earth itself to be controlled directly by the Mercenary Guild?!

“I think we might have just gone to war,” said Charlie quietly.

* * * * *

Chapter Six

The Mission

Alexis Cromwell considered the man sitting opposite her. Solidly built under an impeccable tan uniform. Oak leaves designating him a colonel glinted on the collar. A golden scorpion encircled in a ring of equally-bright gold sat on his right breast. A name tag, Sinclair, A., on the left. This then was Alastair Sinclair, thought Alexis. The man whom all their plans to upset the stranglehold of the Mercenary Guild rested upon. The man Alexis wanted to get the measure of.

In the five days Sinclair had been on Prime Base, he had not ventured from his assigned quarters except to attend the two meetings called by the Four Horsemen to hammer out a course of action. A course of action which had ended with Jim Cartwright declaring that with enough Raknar, along with the promise of fresh reinforcements by Nigel Shirazi, that fighting and defeating the combined forces of General Peepo was actually a viable option. The only fly in Jim’s plan was that he knew where to find the Raknar, but the original power sources the Dusman had equipped them with were missing. Alastair Sinclair had stepped forward and informed the gathered group of mercs that he knew of a place where he could secure the required power sources. Many of the mercs present had doubted Sinclair’s claim; however, they didn’t have any choice but to let the Scorpions’ commander take on the mission.

Clearing her throat to speak Alexis was forestalled by the large, open palmed hand of Alastair.

“Ms. Cromwell—”

“Please, Colonel Sinclair, call me Alexis,” Alexis interjected with her best winning smile.

Alastair pursed his lips for a moment as if considering ignoring her attempted platitude. “Alexis,” Alastair began again with a smile of his own which failed to reach his cold eyes. “Why don’t we dispense with the pleasantries and get to why I’m really here today shall we?”

The mistress of the Winged Hussars had never had dealings with the Scorpions, but, like any other business enterprise, it was good practice to do research on potential adversaries, and it appeared at least one of the things she had learned about Alastair Sinclair was on the mark. He had no time for BS. For the first time a real smile creased Alexis’ lips.

“I need you to find something for me—”

Alastair raised one quizzical eyebrow as he felt the growing tug of intrigue. “We will keep up our part of the deal, Alexis. I will track down the power sources Jim Cartwright needs for his army of Raknar.”

“I have a little side-project in mind,” said Alexis. “I need you to find something.” Alexis could see Alastair’s intrigue transform into open-mouthed surprise as she added, “And then steal it!”

* * *

“She wants us to do what?” exclaimed Jamie Sinclair, his face flushed as red as the hair on his head. Jamie’s words caused several heads to turn in the direction of the three most senior officers of the Scorpions clustered around a table in the corner of the mess hall.

One look at the stern faces of First Sergeants Ethan Croll and Isla Stuart, sitting at an adjacent table, ensured those heads invariably found something more interesting to do in a hurry.

Alastair Sinclair let out a small sigh as he repeated himself. “For those of us who are obviously hard of hearing or were not listening the first time, we are going to locate and steal an unknown number of Raknar and experimental guild power sources which, if the rumors are true, will allow them to fight at their full potential for an unlimited time.”

“This is a joke, right?” asked Tim Buchanan from the seat beside the younger Sinclair.

A trace of a grin hidden quickly by a raised coffee mug only added to Jamie Sinclair’s consternation and, Tim noticed, Alastair’s amusement. Alastair eyed his youngest son through the steam rising from his coffee. Jamie had inherited his mother’s quick temper which, in his childhood, had led to many a bruising confrontation with his elder brother Charles. In his teens, his temper had seen him suffer more bruising, though this time it had been at the hands of experienced mercs employed by Alastair to train his boys for their future careers in the Scorpions. Slowly but surely, Jamie learned to curb his rush to anger, instead he let the more logical and calmer side of his brain guide him. Even so, every now and then something would prick him just the wrong way and, in a flash, traits of his mother would surface.

Alastair sat back, watching the flash of anger rapidly dissipate as Jamie marshaled his inner Zen. The older Sinclair winked conspiratorially at Tim who raised his own mug in mock salute. An evil smile formed on the lips of Jamie Sinclair as his brain worked the problem.

“Oh yeah, we can do this. It’s going to take a bit of planning and stones the size of a mountain to pull off, but I think we can do this,” Jamie said. That’s when Alastair dropped his second bombshell.

“Not ‘we’ son—you.”

Jamie’s head flicked sideways from his father to Tim and back to his father in confusion. Alastair put down his coffee, resting his elbows on the table, and pointed one large, fat finger at Jamie as he spoke. “You are to take Zulu Company and secure as many Raknar as you can. Alexis Cromwell has assured me you have the entire resources of not only the Winged Hussars available to you, but those of Asbaran Solutions and Cartwright’s Cavaliers also.” Alastair let out an unexpected chuckle. “Not that you are going to need them. Cartwright, Shirazi, Cromwell, and their ilk seem to think that the answer to any problem is to fling shit loads of firepower at it—we know better.”

“Non Vi Sed Arte,” said Tim proudly.

“Not by strength, by guile,” Jamie interpreted the Latin motto of the Scorpions.

“Meanwhile,” said Alastair, “I, and my trusty sidekick here,” a casual nod indicated he meant Tim, “will track down these experimental guild power sources.”

Tim’s lips thinned as he chewed on his lower lip for a moment before clicking his fingers as a thought came to him. “You know, Colonel, if there is anybody able to give us the low down on a guild site they are trying to keep below the radar, its Deeral.”

“That underhanded piece of Kirex turd? He is one Flatar I would never tire of kicking,” stated Jamie with a face like he had eaten something sour.

“Yeah, if Zeorta, his Tortantula partner, ever let you get that close,” joked Alastair. In all his dealings with Deeral, the diminutive furry chipmunk-like Flatar had never once been without his overly aggressive partner. And an angry Tortantula was not something you wanted to be near.

“True, Deeral is not the most trustworthy of individuals,” agreed Tim, getting the conversation back on track, “but, as an information broker, he has never let us down—if the money was right.”

“Money is not something we have to worry about on this job,” replied Alastair, producing two Yacks from his breast pocket and handing one to Jamie, who took a glance at the small, Universal Account Access Card—the Yack—before slipping it into his own pocket. “The Four Horsemen have been good enough to give us an open-ended line of credit.”

Jamie let out a low whistle. “Wow, when you said money was no object you meant it.”

“And you’re going to need it, son. Aunt Kate and the Salamanca will take you as far as Waylan Station in the Centaur region, but from there you’re on your own.”

“What about us?” asked Tim.

“Alexis Cromwell has kindly lent us a frigate—the EMS Glambring—which, Alexis assures me, has a solid captain and crew. And, before you ask...” Alastair saw the imminent question on Tim’s lips. “I will be in command and you my second.” Tim’s closing jaw showed Alastair that he had satisfied the anticipated query. The older Sinclair understood that a clear chain of command was essential, and it was one of the things he had insisted on when Alexis had suggested the Scorpions use one of her ships rather than a merchantman like the Salamanca. Having said that, Alastair had taken on board one of Alexis’ other suggestions. A suggestion which he knew Tim would not be too happy about.

“I also need you to select a trooper for a close protection position,” said Alastair.

Tim didn’t hesitate. “Corporal Vega. Solid, dependable, thinks on his feet, and damn good in a fight.”

In his head, the face of the man who had sat in his office not so many days ago came to Alastair. Corporal Jonny Vega had been with Tim on the initial contract to Galax, so Tim had first-hand experience with his skills as a merc, but also of another factor crucial to a good Close Protection post. The ability to be affable with your client while standing your ground when called for. If Tim was happy Vega was the man for the job, then Vega it was.

“Why do we need a CP trooper?” asked Tim warily.

A large, toothy grin split Alastair’s face. “Did I forget to mention we are taking a civilian expert with us?” Tim’s protest was cut short as Alastair stood, and Tim and Charlie sprang to their feet. The meeting was over; they had their orders.

“We ship out at zero six hundred hours tomorrow, so I shan’t delay you any further. I’m sure you both have lots to be taking care of.”

In unison, Tim and Jamie braced to attention with a simple, “Sir,” before spinning about and heading for the mess hall exit. As they passed Croll and Stuart, the first sergeants slipped into step one pace behind. Alastair watched them go before retaking his seat. Cradling his still-hot coffee, he closed his eyes and, to the casual observer, appeared to be a man marshaling his thoughts. In truth, he was constructing a third set of orders for transmission via his pinplants to Kate Preissman. He had plans for her and the Salamanca once they had completed their task of transporting Jamie and Zulu Company to Waylan Station.

* * * * *

Chapter Seven

Let’s Get This Show On The Road

Alastair Sinclair stepped gingerly from the travellator which had carried him to one of the seemingly endless number of docking berths along the outer skin of Prime Base. Although this berth was in what should have been one of the quieter areas of Prime Base, there was a steady flow of Winged Hussars personnel and equipment moving purposefully between the various docks.

Through the throng, Alastair caught sight of the tanned Scorpion uniform of Tim Buchanan waiting impatiently for him alongside the access doors leading to the berth where his new ship awaited. The Salamanca had departed for Waylan Station two hours earlier, carrying Jamie Sinclair and the troopers of Zulu Company on their strand of the mission, and Alastair staunchly refused to linger on the thought that he had sent his youngest son into harm’s way without knowing the fate of his eldest, Charlie. Both men were experienced commanders, fully capable of looking after themselves.

“Glad you could make it,” said Tim, failing to notice his colonel’s attention lay elsewhere. “Things have gotten really busy around here, and Captain Kothoo is eager to get underway.”

“Well, let’s go take a look at this ship Commander Cromwell has graciously allowed us to borrow.”

“I think you will be suitably impressed,” replied Tim, as an impish smile played upon his lips. Forestalling anything Alastair may have been about to say, Tim turned, tapping the berth access controls. Motors whined as the heavy door split and retracted into walls. With a grand sweeping gesture of one arm, Tim bade Alastair enter the berth. With a half-joking scowl, Alastair strode past his friend, wishing he would sometimes take things seriously. All thoughts of reprimanding Tim disappeared as Alastair set eyes upon EMS Glambring for the first time. Coming to a halt, Alastair allowed his eyes to trace the superstructure of the Legend-class escort frigate. The ship’s specs that the Scorpions’ commander had reviewed in his office the day before did not do the sleek warship justice. Ninety-six meters long, its dual fusion torches could push the Glambring along at a maximum fifteen Gs. Her primary weapons were three one-hundred-megawatt lasers oriented for forward or rear fire primarily, along with a single forward missile tube, and a multiphase shield array. In anybody’s book, the Glambring was a force to be reckoned with.

“Not too scrappy eh, Colonel?” said Tim, bringing Alastair back to the world.

“Are our people aboard yet?” asked Alastair.

“Aboard and settling in. The Hussar Marine complement were not too happy about being kicked off to make room for us, but I understand they cheered up when they were told Commander Cromwell had assigned them to her own ship for the operation at Karma.”

Alastair caught sight of a small knot of people gathering around the Glambring’s forward personnel lock. “Looks like my reception committee. Shall we?” Flanked by Tim, Alastair headed in the group’s direction. As he got closer he recognized the large frame of Corporal Jonny Vega standing at parade rest, apparently completely at ease with his surroundings. Alastair knew better. The corporal wore tan-colored ballistic body armor—the match of his Scorpions’ uniform—and an ugly black PS6 People Stopper which sat in its holster at his waist. Alastair gave Vega an approving nod as he stopped in front of the group.

“Colonel Sinclair,” said Tim formally. “This is Captain Kothoo, Commander of EMS Glambring.”

The elSha captain may only have been ninety centimeters tall, but he oozed command confidence. Having graduated from the Hussar’s naval warfare college, Alastair reminded himself that the diminutive elSha had earned his current position.

“Captain,” said Alastair respectfully. “I look forward to working with you.”

“And I you, Colonel.” The reptile-like elSha cocked his head as if to ascertain Alastair’s ilk, and, after a few seconds, the small head returned to vertical. “Commander Cromwell speaks highly of you. My ship and its crew are at your disposal. Where you lead, I shall follow.”

Alastair’s lips formed a thin smile. The elSha captain had, in one eloquent sentence, neatly sidestepped any issue of who was in command of this mission, making what could have been a thorny problem disappear before it even arose. Switching his attention to the next person in the small reception party, Alastair found himself confronted by an outstretched hand which he automatically grasped and shook. The owner of the hand smiled a blinding smile at him while a pair of jade-green eyes, which seemed to sparkle playfully, captivated his full attention. Alastair shook himself mentally, tearing his gaze away from the hypnotizing eyes to assess their owner properly. Before him stood a Human female of obvious East Asian extraction. Slight of frame, though you would never have guessed it by the way she had returned Alastair’s strong handshake with one of her own, and jet-black hair pulled back from her face and tied in a bun. She wore a jacket and pants, with more pockets than Alastair could count, colored the same green as her intense eyes.

Tim leaned in, mouth beginning to form words, only to be cut off by the petite woman. “I am fully capable of remembering my own name, thank you, Captain—” The woman’s eyes searched his uniform until they alighted on Tim’s name tag, “Buchanan.” Tim’s mouth closed with an audible click, and Alastair fought hard to suppress a laugh which he converted to a cough into his hand, while giving Tim, whose cheeks had begun to flush red, a knowing glance.

“Doctor Anna May Wong,” the woman said, introducing herself while blatantly ignoring Tim.

“Nice to meet you, Ms. Wong—”

“Doctor Wong, Colonel. I hold doctorates in a half-dozen fields of physics, energy generation, and engineering. In fact,” she thumbed in the direction of the warship behind her, “the Glambring has my latest design powering her,” Anna ploughed on with barely a breath. “And this is my assistant, Engineer Larras.”

Beside Anna, a four-foot-long millipede reared up, it’s elongated, flattened segments bent smoothly, and its front legs clicked together in welcome as the Jeha gave Alastair a short, curt bow which Alastair returned. Satisfied, the Jeha lowered itself until all of its feet were back on deck. A fleeting thought passed through Alastair’s mind, “A good thing you’re on board, we’re going to need all the engineering skills available where we’re going.” In fact, Doctor Wong and her Jeha assistant were crucial to the success of the mission, hence the presence of the heavily-armed Corporal Vega. Speaking of which...

“Perhaps, Captain Buchanan, you would like to explain Corporal Vega’s presence here.” Alastair couldn’t help but notice Doctor Wong’s wary look in the direction of the Scorpion trooper. Tim didn’t miss it either and grasped his opportunity to needle the doctor.

“Of course, sir. As Doctor Wong so eloquently explained, she is an expert in all things power-plant, and our mission is to secure energy sources capable of powering Raknar, therefore it seems only prudent to ensure her safety.” Tim gestured toward the trooper. “Hence, Corporal Vega here, will become your constant shadow. Everywhere you go he will go—”

“Now just one damn second—” blustered Anna. “No way am I having some over-muscled, thick-skulled gorilla—”

Alastair held up an open-palmed hand and cut Anna’s furor off mid-sentence. “Corporal Vega’s presence, Doctor Wong, is non-negotiable. No Corporal Vega, no Doctor Wong on this mission.”

Anna took a calming breath while wringing her hands in front of her. After a few moments she loudly exhaled, and her features returned to their previous state of calm. Gracing Alastair with a blinding smile she said, “Your wish is my command, Colonel.” Turning to Vega, she playfully slapped his arm saying, “Let’s go, King Kong.” And with that, she headed up the ramp into the Glambring; Larras, the Jeha engineer, and Vega in tow.

A short, sharp laugh from Captain Kothoo surprised Alastair. “You’ve got your hands full there, Colonel. If you’ll excuse me, I must see to final preparations before launch.”

“Of course, Captain,” said Alastair. The elSha made his way back into his ship already deep in discussion with someone over his comms link.

“Well this is going to be fun,” intoned Tim sarcastically.

“Look at it this way, Tim,” Alastair said with a grin, “if Vega shoots Doctor Wong before we get where we are going, we can all turnaround and come home. Now, why don’t you show me where I can store my gear, and we can get this show on the road.”

* * *

With a smoothness that belied the power that was required to complete the action, the Glambring maneuvered itself clear of Prime Base. Once it had reached a safe distance, the frigate slowed, allowing the ship’s two dropships to catch up.

“Dropships secure, Captain.”

Captain Kothoo acknowledged the report absentmindedly as he concentrated on the navigation display. In the space around Prime Base, the staggering firepower of the Winged Hussars was massing, readying itself for the operation to free their comrades held captive by forces loyal to General Peepo.

“Well, there’s something you don’t see every day,” said Alastair, as his repeater display showed the enhanced view from one of the Glambring’s exterior cameras.

Kothoo depressed a pedal with one foot, spinning his chair to face Alastair while remaining securely strapped in. “I have not seen a mobilization like this in my lifetime, Colonel. I fear that this is only a sign of what is to come.”

The elSha’s observation wiped away any levity or wonder Alastair may have had at the sight of so many tons of warship readying for battle. In its place, he now felt a burgeoning sense of dread.

Kothoo’s years among Humans had made him adept at recognizing Human facial expressions, so without another word he spun his chair once more to face forward, returning his gaze to the navigation Tri-V, double-checking the course which Glambring’s navigator had plotted to the stargate and onward to Ralla Station.

Alastair felt the familiar pressure of acceleration push him back into his padded seat as the Glambring came under power, like the thoroughbred racehorse that she was. Turning his head to the left, his eyes hovered over the lithe figure of Anna May Wong, her blank expression belied the furious activity going on behind it as, through her pinplants, she constantly monitored every system aboard ship. No doubt, thought Alastair, her assistant Larras is doing the same thing from Engineering. Behind Anna, strapped into a makeshift jump seat, Vega sat maintaining his silent vigil.

Accessing his own pinplants, Alastair checked on the status of his troopers sequestered away in Glambring’s Marine spaces. Each Scorpion troopers’ name was tinged in the green ‘good to go’ color. Reassured, Alastair accessed the ship’s exterior cameras again, forcing himself to relax and enjoy the view. For now, he was only a passenger; however, things would get interesting when they reached Ralla.

* * *

Late morning on Day Two of the transit to Ralla, the gravity deck of the Glambring rang out in protest as the heavy metallic feet of half a dozen CASPers thumped across it. As Alastair Sinclair watched, assessing the CASPers intricate maneuvers with a critical eye, Lieutenant Caroline Verley tried and failed to hide her almost parental need to join the troopers of Third Platoon. The platoon had already lost nearly half its strength and all its senior members, who now lay prone, scattered across the deck when their CASPers had registered critical or fatal hits. Alastair smiled inwardly while on the outside maintaining his aura of neutrality. He fully understood Verley’s desire to jump in among her troopers and prevent the train wreck toward which they were inevitably barreling. However, this was not a test of her leadership skills, nor of the platoon sergeant, Faroqh Shadid, who stood quietly to one side under the watchful gaze of First Sergeant Ethan Croll. Not that Alastair didn’t trust Sergeant Shadid, but he wouldn’t be the first senior NCO to attempt to influence a training exercise which his colonel had decided to drop in on.

On the deck in front of them, the scenario faced by the remaining troopers of Third Platoon, now commanded by a junior corporal, continue to play out. And it looked bleak. From behind a simulated barricade, members of Support Platoon were laying down withering laser fire on the stalled Third Platoon assault before suddenly three members of the assaulting platoon went to one knee, shoulder-to-shoulder, snapping on their laser shields and deflecting the incoming fire harmlessly away. Behind them, the remaining three CASPer-suited troopers activated their own laser shields, raising them over their kneeling comrades until all six shields interlocked, forming an impenetrable wall. As one, the troopers advanced on their enemy until they reached, and then breached, the barricade. The battle was over in moments as the CASPers closed to knife-fighting range, four-foot-long steel blades flashed under the high-intensity gravity deck lighting. The barricade’s defenders were slaughtered.

“OK, Lieutenant, I’ve seen enough,” said Alastair. “Keep working on enforcing the ethic that every trooper needs to stand ready to take on the responsibility of the trooper above him in the chain of command. Combat is unpredictable and there is no guarantee that those in positions of command will survive first contact with the enemy.”

“Understood, sir,” replied Verley.

“Remember, Caroline. Every day is a school day. You are never finished learning in this job. That corporal’s use of the Testudo is exactly the kind of initiative we need to foster. I bet the Romans never thought that we would still be using the tortoise formation two thousand years after they first used it to protect their legionaries.”

Finally, a smile cracked Verley’s hard face. “Well, sir, if it was good enough for the Romans, it’s good enough for the Scorpions.”

Alastair let out a short barking laugh. “Exactly, Caroline. Exactly.” Leaving the lieutenant to debrief her troopers, Alastair headed for the exit, fully intending to enjoy an early lunch. First Sergeant Croll fell into lockstep beside him, something which Alastair knew did not bode well as Croll had four more combat scenarios to supervise that afternoon.

“Out with it, First Sergeant.”

Croll cleared his throat before speaking, another sign Alastair would not like what he was about to say. “It would appear, sir, we have a somewhat delicate situation brewing in the CASPer storage room.”

“What kind of situation?” demanded Alastair with a quizzically-raised eyebrow, noticing that the muscles at the edge of Croll’s lips were quivering as the first sergeant suppressed the urge to smile. “I’ll not ask you again, First Sergeant,” Alastair said menacingly.

By now the smile which had threatened to appear on Croll’s face had transformed into what Alastair’s father would have called “a shit-eating grin.”

“Captain Buchanan has confined Engineer Larras to the brig after he found the Jeha carapace deep inside one of our CASPers, and Doctor Wong is explaining to Captain Buchanan, using a few choice words which I have never heard before, why the captain should release Larras. In return, Captain Buchanan is using a similar vocabulary to put forward his side of the argument.”

Thoughts of a well-deserved breakfast were chased away as a low, rumbling anger descended on Alastair, and he spun around and stalked off in the direction of the CASPer storage room.

* * *

The Glambring was not the largest of ships in the Winged Hussars’ fleet by a long way, nor did it have the largest crew, with only twenty-six officers and eighty enlisted. Add that to the twenty-seven personnel of all ranks from the Scorpions, count Doctor Wong and her assistant Larras, and the total complement of the frigate came to 135. As Alastair Sinclair turned the last bend in the corridor leading to the entrance of the CASPer storage area, he was confronted by what Alastair could only assume was every single living soul aboard, squashed into the access way. The noise of raised voices, one male, one female, echoed off the walls. Each sentence was emphasized by oohs and ahs from the gathered onlookers. For the first time in his life, Alastair Sinclair was lost for words. At his shoulder, First Sergeant Croll was not. “Make a hole before I stick my boot where the sun most definitely does not shine!” he roared.

Like the sea parting before Moses, the multiple races in the corridor attempted to force themselves into the corridor walls, allowing a now fully-enraged Alastair past. Croll glared at every face as he passed them by, his unspoken command causing the petrified crewmen and troopers to suddenly realize they had important work to do elsewhere.

Alastair entered the storage room and found Tim Buchanan, all six feet four inches of him, standing toe-to-toe with the five-feet-two-inch Anna May Wong. Each were bright red faced as they screamed at each other while jabbing at the other with pointed fingers like dueling swordsmen. Arrayed around the walls of the room stood several Scorpion troopers, all grinning from ear to ear as they watched Tim and Anna spar with each other. When they realized that Colonel Sinclair and his personal attack dog, First Sergeant Croll, were now in their midst, grins disappeared in an instant. Croll locked his best ‘consider yourself not wanted here’ look on the ranking noncoms who immediately began ushering everybody out of the room. The only trooper who remained unmoved was Corporal Vega, standing stoically to one side, right hand resting on his ‘People Stopper’ while, in his left, Croll’s eyes lit on the unmistakable outline of a stun baton. Croll’s gaze moved up to Vega’s face and each man assessed the other for a fraction of a second. It finally dawned on Croll that Vega was prepared to stun Buchanan, his superior officer and de facto second in command of the merc company, if things got physical between Buchanan and Vega’s charge, Doctor Wong. For his part, Vega held the First Sergeant’s gaze for a few seconds ensuring that Croll understood that the corporal was willing to do what was necessary to guard his protectee, before shrugging his shoulders and returning his attention to the pair giving each other a tongue lashing in the center of the room.

Croll’s head and shoulders swiveled back to the front where Alastair was standing, feet apart, hands on hips, as if waiting for the arguing pair to notice his presence. It didn’t seem like it was about to happen any time soon as the shouting failed to diminish in either volume or choice of vocabulary.

“This would never have happened if your pet millipede had kept his claws out of my CASPer!” shouted Tim. “What was he doing in there anyway? A bit of industrial espionage, eh? Trying to figure out how our suits perform better than a Hussars?”

Anna’s head drew back as if she was about to head butt Tim square on the nose, instead she screamed her own retort. “You have got to be joking! Your suits are pieces of junk compared to what our marines are equipped with. He was probably trying to figure out how in entropy you keep them from falling apart.”

Tim leaned in close to the elfin woman who refused to flinch. “Now you listen here, Missy, why don’t you go back to your crib and play with your toys and leave—” Whatever Tim was about to say next was mute as Anna’s face flushed and her open hand struck Tim across the cheek with a resounding slap.

For a brief instant the room fell silent. Anna’s eyes bulged, and her mouth formed a large ‘O’ as she realized what she had done. Tim’s fighting instinct told him to strike back, his right fist formed into a ball, muscles in his arm quivering with pent-up energy, preparing to smash his aggressor into a bloody smear on the deck.

Croll caught a movement off to his left as Vega pushed off the wall, stun baton extended, and targeted for Tim’s exposed back. Croll began to move in what he knew would be a vain attempt to intercept Vega before he reached and stunned his target. A guttural roar like thunder filled the room.


Every head in the room snapped in the direction of Alastair Sinclair. Face red, neck muscles and veins straining against the skin, the colonel’s rage was evident and enough to stop even Vega, who snapped to attention, stun baton still held in his hand. Croll and Tim followed the corporal’s example, moving to the position of attention so fast they felt as if their spines might break in two. Anna may not have been a mercenary; however, she had been brought up on Prime Base and lived her entire adult life surrounded by them, so she understood plainly when she was in the presence of a superior officer and when, like now, she had overstepped the mark. Taking a deep breath, she opened her mouth to apologize, only for Alastair to shut her down.

“Doctor Wong, you are to return to your quarters immediately and remain there until such time as I deem fit,” said Alastair.

“If I could explain, Colonel—” Anna began.

“Now! Doctor Wong, if you please,” Alastair said, his tone brokered no argument and his eyes, hard as flint, zeroed on Tim.

Anna scrubbed at her face with her hands before releasing a heavy sigh and heading for the door, only to halt after a couple of steps and turned to face Tim. “My apologies, Captain Buchanan.” Spinning on her heel, Anna fled the room. Without waiting for permission, Vega followed, the stun baton now absent from his left hand, returned to wherever he had concealed it.

That left Alastair, Tim, and First Sergeant Croll alone in the room. Without taking his eyes from Tim, Alastair addressed Croll over his shoulder with a voice so cool it would have turned helium into a liquid. “Give us the room please, First Sergeant.”

“Yes, sir.”

Alastair waited as Croll stepped out and slapped the door control pad as he passed it. The gentle hiss of the pneumatics as the heavy door closed, was the only thing to penetrate the deathly silence which had descended on the room. The silence extended as Tim continued to stand at attention. Eyes fixed on a point slightly above head height on the smooth, seamless metal wall of the storage room. Tim sensed, rather than heard, Alastair circle around him slowly and when the colonel spoke, his voice held only one thing—disappointment.

“How long have we known each other, Tim?”

“For as long as I can remember, sir. My father was your father’s second-in-command when he was colonel of the Scorpions. When our fathers were killed during the operation on Ulak IV, you inherited the company. I had just completed my Vows and been accepted into the company.”

An uneasy quiet as both men remembered their lost fathers and the hole their deaths left in their lives. When Alastair spoke again, it was with a huskiness to his voice.

“I was only a captain when my father was killed; overnight, I became a colonel, and the man who had seemed irreplaceable, no—” a sanguine chuckle escaped Alastair, “—indestructible, was gone. Within a year my wife died, leaving me to raise three young kids. I had no idea how I was going to do that, but I did my best, Tim, maybe not as well as I should or could have. But, damn it, Tim, I tried.”

Alastair completed his slow circling of Tim and now stood directly in front of him once more. The junior man remained stock still, his eyes fixed on the wall, having not been released from the position of attention.

“Now I have sent Jamie on some foolhardy mission to steal a bunch of one-hundred-foot-tall metal monsters. Charlie, for all I know, could be dead in a ditch on Galax, and Nikki? Entropy knows where the Peacemakers have her.”

Alastair laid an unexpected hand on Tim’s shoulder. Unexpected enough that Tim broke discipline and looked his friend and boss in the eye. “I need your head in the game, Tim. We don’t have time for whatever is going on between you and Doctor Wong.”

Tim failed to swallow on his first attempt but was more successful on the second. “Sir…Alastair. Every time I see that woman, my skin feels like someone has stuck needles in it. When she speaks to me, it’s like she is challenging everything I say—undermining me—”

“Or possibly trying to get you to take notice of her? I met a woman like that once. Damned insufferable she was. Complete pain in my ass,” Alastair said, one corner of his mouth tugged upward, hinting at a smile.

Tim thought he must’ve misinterpreted what Alastair was saying, and he stumbled over his words to get clarity.

“And…uh…wha…what did you do about her?”

Alastair’s features dissolved as he let out a long belly laugh. When he finally stopped, he was forced to wipe away a tear from one eye. “Good God, Tim, your face!” he chuckled again. “Why, I married her of course. Now let’s go and get poor Larras out of the brig, shall we?”

* * * * *

Chapter Eight

Why Did It Have To Be Purple?

With a gentle bump, the pilot of the dropship set down on the landing platform assigned to them by Ralla Station Traffic Control. As the rear ramp cracked open, a short, sharp, high-pitched whistle filled the troop bay for a couple of seconds before tapering away as the air pressure within the dropship equalized with that of the space station. Alastair and Tim swallowed rapidly a couple of times to clear their ears, and not for the first time, Alastair found himself envious of the half dozen elSha who were the Humans’ companions on this little furlough. The elShas’ lack of an auditory canal meant the little lizards failed to notice the discomfort afflicting their Human companions. Alastair ensured the magnetic grips built into his ship boots were activated before releasing his securing straps and standing upright, towering over the tallest elSha who were gleefully waiting to search the markets and dealerships of Ralla Station for supplies. Supplies which the Glambring had no need of whatsoever, but, as Captain Kothoo had quite rightly pointed out, what better excuse for stopping over for an indefinite period than the need to conduct urgent repairs and renew dwindling foodstuffs?

The sight of Tim tugging at the unfamiliar purple one-piece jump suit caused Alastair to let out a deep chuckle. Tim stopped his pulling and tugging to give his boss a baleful glance.

“I feel like a baby Oogar in a romper suit!” Tim moaned. His second-in-command’s discomfort only made Alastair chuckle again as he tried to picture what a baby Oogar would look like in a romper suit and failed miserably.

“The less we look like Human mercs the better. It would sort of defeat the point of Larras disguising the Glambring’s encoder signature if we strolled around the station in our own uniforms, would it not? And what could be less threatening than an elSha recovery crew taking a damaged ship back to the ship yards for repair and overhaul?”

Tim gave a shrug as he finished wrestling with the jump suit, admitting defeat. He knew Alastair was right, but still, purple? Really? A dark thought passed through Tim’s brain. Was this that Jeha’s ongoing revenge for nearly squashing him during one of the numerous CASPer training exercises the Scorpions had run during the 170-hour journey through hyperspace? Or perhaps for that short spell in the brig Tim had subjected the Jeha to after he found him tampering with Tim’s suit? How was Tim to know that the engineer had noticed a slight hesitation in the CASPer’s servo motors and had decided to investigate? That confrontation had ended up in Tim having a blazing row with Anna May Wong in full view of the Glambring’s crew and Tim’s own troopers. Something that had led to Alastair having to intervene, and forcing Tim to face up to the uncomfortable truth that perhaps his feelings toward Anna were more complex than he was willing to admit. For the remainder of the journey, he had pointedly avoided any situation where he had to spend any more time than necessary in the woman’s presence.

Tim shook his head, dismissing the image of Anna from his brain and concentrating on his current gripe. The color of his coveralls. He wouldn’t put it past the multi-legged, multi-armed, smug little engineer whom, Tim had learned after an extremely uncomfortable experience when someone, and he had his suspicions, had slipped powdered Kanara seeds into his CASPer’s ventilation system. Kanara seeds were normally used in tiny proportions to flavor food by chefs who wore protective gloves. Though Kanara could add a delightful tingling sensation to food, it was not the same story when more than a nominal amount contacted unprotected skin. When added to a CASPer’s ventilation system and blown around so that every piece of exposed skin was covered in a film of the highly-irritating seed, the results were, to say the least, painful.

Tim had cracked his suit and bounded out like a rat up a drain pipe. However, even the limited exposure had left him gagging for breath, while his skin had turned bright purple from contact with the Kanara. It had taken more force of will than he thought he possessed not to scratch his own skin off as the Kanara burned at his skin. A night spent in a soothing med gel bath had cleared the last remnants of the seeds from his skin, while the medical nanites had done their efficient work. By the time he emerged from the Glambring’s med bay the following morning, he looked entirely normal again, with no long-term effects. Except of course, to his pride. The purple jump suits, which had been produced by the Glambring’s materials synthesizer, were too close of a color match, in Tim’s opinion, to his own skin color that day.

Back to business, thought Tim, as he resigned himself to being uncomfortable in the loose-fitting, one-piece garment, and instead turned his attention to the only other Human in the dropship’s personnel bay. Support Platoon’s corporal, Kofi Okoro, sat quietly in his seat by the cockpit hatch, retaining straps still secured, eyes closed, with the outward appearance of someone sleeping. However, he was far from asleep. If you looked closely, you could hardly fail to notice the constant motion of his eyes or the expensive, military-grade slate he held loosely in his lap. Kofi Okoro was a cyber warfare specialist, and right now he was hard at work penetrating Ralla Station’s security network. Hacking the security network remotely from back on the Glambring had been an option; however, Okoro had pointed out that whenever the dropship was secured into its berth on Ralla, it was standard procedure to automatically connect the little ship’s navigation systems to the space station’s Traffic Control system. The idea being that whenever the small ship launched again its pilots would have the most up-to-date data to plot their course through the busy shipping lanes which surrounded the station. What it also did was give the cyber warfare expert a back door into the station’s overarching computer core, one which he was now using to insert a ghost program into the facial recognition program of the security network, which, once complete, would cause the security network to automatically ignore any searches or alerts issued which matched the faces of two particular Humans. Alastair Sinclair and Tim Buchanan had, as far as the security computer of Ralla Station was concerned, become invisible.

Okoro’s eyes opened with a deep, gratifying sigh, and a sheepish grin spread across his face. “You are good to go, sir.”

“Outstanding work, Okoro,” said Alastair. “Shall we go pay Deeral a visit, Tim?”

“Ready when you are, sir,” replied Tim.

Side by side, the two men headed down the ramp, magnetic grips keeping them firmly attached to the metal deck with each step, preventing them from bouncing ignominiously away in the virtually non-existent gravity of the docking bay. It appeared Ralla Station was as busy as usual. Alastair counted five other small vessels in this berth, and it was only one of a dozen that serviced the space station. Ahead of them, the gaggle of elSha had already reached the bay doors and were waiting patiently while the station security system registered each into its database. Like many commercial stations spread throughout known space, Ralla Station was owned and maintained by a mix of interested parties ranging from the Merchant and Mercenary Guilds to the nearby planetary authority.

The stations came in all shapes and sizes and, like everything else in the Galactic Union, the state of repair was dependent on how much profit there was to be made from it. In Ralla’s case, being in a system which had a moderate-sized F11 refining capacity, it experienced a good amount of through traffic. And with traffic came profit and opportunity. Not every opportunity was a legal one.

A point in case being one Flatar who went by the name of Deeral. Over the years, the Flatar had been described as many things; however, the best fitting analogy the Humans had come up for them was one-foot-tall chipmunks. Their physical similarity to the stripe-furred rodent, prolific in North America and Asia, had caused the first Humans to encounter them to initially dismiss them. That was a mistake, and for many a Human merc, a fatal one. Flatar were highly intelligent, vicious creatures who enjoyed nothing more than a good fight, especially if they could do it riding high in the saddle of their life long companions—Tortantula. Looking like something from a B movie of the early cinematic film days of the mid-twentieth century, Tortantula just looked evil. Giant spiders who would kill you as quick as look at you, who, in a twist of Darwinism at its most humorous, bonded for life with their Flatar riders. Whatever the reasoning behind it, the combination of Flatar and Tortantula resulted in mercs from any race having an extremely bad day if they met them in combat.

Today though, Alastair and Tim had no intention of engaging in an armed struggle with Deeral. For this Flatar had a string to his bow which the two Scorpion troopers needed badly. Deeral had used his species’ guile and cunning to earn him a tidy fortune in another field entirely—the field of information gathering, which the furry little creature sold on to the highest bidder. If anybody knew the location of a covert Science Guild research and development facility that was being funded by General Peepo and her backers, the Flatar and his shiny black nose could dig it up. Given enough time and plenty of credits, of course.

Alastair absentmindedly patted the breast pocket of his jump suit, feeling the reassuring outline of the Yack that rested there. Nestled in its integrated circuitry was access to enough credits to buy every vessel in the landing berth twice over. All courtesy of the Four Horsemen and some decidedly underhanded banking techniques.

Reaching the bay doors, Alastair and Tim halted among the babbling elSha while the security network’s cameras finished their scans of the station’s latest visitors. Burrowed deep in the programming matrix, Corporal Okoro’s subroutine intercepted the biometric data relating to Alastair and Tim, wiping it from the system while simultaneously sending a positive instruction to the bay doors to allow access to the main station. The bay doors opened with no sign of an alarm being raised, and Alastair and Tim exchanged a relieved glance as they followed the thigh high elSha into the bustling corridor beyond.

A pair of bored-looking Lumar dressed in the uniform of Ralla Station Security blatantly ignored the new arrivals as they immersed themselves in a Tri-V which, from the brief glimpse Alastair got as he went past them, was showing scenes from the brief battle the fleeing Human mercenary forces had had with General Peepo’s vastly superior ships high above Earth, as they fled the planet of their birth.

Tim had caught sight of what the Lumar had been watching also, and the telltale tensing of his muscles caused Alastair to nudge him none too gently. When Tim turned to face Alastair, the older merc could see the anger brewing just below the surface.

“Our time will come, Tim. For now, let’s get to Deeral and his pet spider.”

Tim gave the Lumar a last, scathing look—which they were totally unaware of—before giving Alastair a curt nod and speaking through gritted teeth, “Deeral has a spare parts shop on Level 3 spinward that he uses as a cover for his day to day work.” Tim used his pinplants to access the station’s chronometer. “If we hurry, we should just catch him before he closes for the night.”

* * *

Ralla Station may have been in a moderately wealthy system; however, every station that Alastair had ever been on, in his decades as a merc, had its equivalent to this station’s Level 3. Exiting the lift, his Human nostrils were assailed by the unmistakable smell of too many members of too many races living in close quarters. The corridor lighting, what there was of it, flickered and occasionally died totally, turning even the smallest of doorways or corridors into dark expanses which could hold anything or nothing.

“It’s about one hundred feet up on the left. Just beyond that group of Pushtal,” said Tim quietly. He didn’t use his hands because one of the locals might have taken it as an aggressive gesture.

Alastair, as casually as he could, turned his upper body in the direction Tim had indicated. Three aliens who resembled dwarf Bengal tigers with bandolier cross harnesses, from which hung high-intensity laser pistols, were in an animated conversation that looked as if, at any moment, it could turn nasty. Pushtal could get like that. Ever since they got their asses handed to them by the MinSha a couple of centuries back—losing their home planet in the process—they had floated around the galaxy like a bad smell. Some had formed into mediocre merc companies while the rest resorted to basic thuggery or piracy. Slightly beyond them, a gaudy blue and green sign indicated the entrance to Deeral’s nefarious establishment.

“No time to go the long way around if we want to speak to Deeral tonight, and I don’t feel like wasting a day waiting for him to open tomorrow.” Alastair scanned the corridor leading to the Flatar’s store entrance. “OK, we don’t really have a choice but to go past those arguing Pushtal. We’ll cross to the opposite side of the corridor. That should give us a reasonably wide berth.”

Tim nodded his agreement before deftly threading his way between a pair of Lotar, haggling with a leather-faced Blevin, whose large six-fingered hands hovered near an impressive-looking short, but wide-barreled, weapon, which reminded Tim of a blunderbuss of old. Old, but lethal, Tim reminded himself, as he moved further along the corridor, managing to skirt the Pushtal whom were now all displaying razor sharp fangs and claws. Things were about to go south.

Alastair had caught the warning signs too, and with a final step he pushed the admittance chime located on the edge of Deeral’s door, keeping a wary eye on the Pushtal.

“Go away, we’re closed!” came a scratchy, impatient voice through the speaker grill.

“I have urgent business with the proprietor,” said Alastair.

A combination of a short roar/growls came from one of the Pushtal, while a second took a step back away from the two main agitators. Others in the corridor had now noticed the impending fight and had begun to clear a large area around the two tigers.

Alastair was running out of time. “I have deep pockets if it is a matter of money, but if you don’t want my money I will take my business elsewhere. You decide, and decide now, so I can be on my way.” With a click, the door lock was released, and, with infuriating slowness, the door retracted to the side. As soon as it was open wide enough, Tim pushed Alastair through and back-handed the door close switch. The door had not quite closed when an enraged roar echoed up and down the corridor, immediately followed by the boom of a chemical-based weapon firing. The door sealed, leaving the events of outside to the imagination. Tim spun on his heel to be confronted by raised pedipalpi with sharp, jagged ridges at their ends. Tim’s eyes followed the pedipalpi up until they reached the gaping maw of a fully-grown Tortantula. Its multiple, dark as night eyes, fixed on him, unblinking.

Tim’s tongue darted between dry lips. “Hey, Zeorta, long time no see,” he managed to get out with more confidence than he felt.

From behind one of the Tortantula’s multi-segmented legs, a small, gray-and-black-furred head popped into view. “Well, well, well. If it isn’t Tim Buchanan,” came a slightly high-pitched, squeaky voice. A body covered in the same fur as the head detached itself from behind the large Tortantula’s leg, the over-sized laser pistol loosely held in one hand still aimed in the general direction of Alastair, who was pinned to the wall by one of the Tortantula’s rear legs.

Tim managed to drag his eyes from the razor-sharp teeth which filled the giant spider’s mouth only a few feet from his face. Tilting his head to the side, he gave the Flatar a weak smile. “Hey, Deeral. Any chance you might call Zeorta off me and my friend here, so we can talk a little business?”

The Flatar let out a chattering laugh. “Now why would I do that, Captain Buchanan of Sinclair’s Scorpions and—” Deeral waved the pistol toward Alastair. “If I’m not mistaken, your companion would be none other than Colonel Alastair Sinclair, commander of the Scorpions. Tut, tut, tut. Don’t you know that you are supposed to have presented yourselves to face trial on Capital Planet by now?” Deeral looked from Tim to Alastair and back to Tim. “Nothing to say, Human? Oh well. Perhaps I shall just hand you over to General Peepo myself—I’m sure she has an ample reward posted for you by now.”

“What if I offered you twice as much to let us go?” said Alastair to Deeral’s back. “And twice as much again for information.”

The Flatar paused briefly before turning back to face Alastair. “And how do I know that you have such funds to hand? I don’t take credit, you know,” Deeral said with a wicked grin.

Now it was Alastair’s time to grin. Slowly, so as not to agitate the Tortantula who could easily squash him with one leg or the Flatar who could hole him with his laser pistol, he retrieved the Yack from his pocket and offered it out to Deeral. The Flatar took it from him and touched it to a slate which had appeared in his free hand. Seconds later the slate let out a gentle beep and Deeral’s mouth fell open. Without taking his eyes from the slate, he addressed his Tortantula. “Release our new friend, Zeorta.” The Tortantula removed its leg from Alastair’s chest, and Tim let out a small sigh of relief as the gaping mouth closed and the blades, which could easily slice him to pieces in one easy move, were retracted.

Deeral returned the Yack to Alastair with a flourish. “And how can this poor merchant be of assistance to you?” Alastair let the sarcasm slip.

“Tim tells me that when he last had dealings with you, you mentioned you had got wind of a rather odd rumor. The rumor was that the Mercenary Guild had commissioned the Science Guild to complete some mysterious project for them.”

“That is true, Colonel Sinclair. Rumor had it the Mercenary Guild wanted the Science Guild to develop a new, ultra-compact power source for them.”

Alastair and Tim exchanged a glance. So, it was true, thought Alastair. But what the hell did the Merc Guild want something like a miniature, super-powerful energy source for? Are they planning to bring the ancient Raknars back to life themselves? Or was it for another weapons system they had yet to reveal? Whatever, we must get our hands on it, if the Four Horsemen’s plans to kick Peepo’s ass are to come to fruition.

“Our employers are interested in knowing the location of the Science Guild’s new toy’s development facility,” said Tim.

Deeral rubbed at his snout slowly. “It’s not cheap. The Merc Guild are playing this one pretty close to their chests, but I think I can help you out.” Deeral gave the two Humans a sly grin. “For a price, of course.”

Alastair took the slate from Deeral and tapped the Yack to it before tapping the screen and handing it back to the Flatar. “Is this a sufficient down payment?”

The slate nearly slipped from Deeral’s fingers as his brain registered the number highlighted on the slate’s screen. Recovering quickly, he mimicked tipping his hat to Alastair. “I believe that figure is sufficient, Colonel Sinclair.”

“And how quickly can you obtain the information I require?” asked Alastair.

“Station security is a joke here, Colonel. However, I am still subject to the occasional random inspection, so I keep my more—shall we say, ‘sensitive?’—information elsewhere, and I must physically recover it. Why don’t you return tomorrow at this time and we can conclude our business?”

“I look forward to it, Deeral,” said Alastair.

“You should leave by the rear entrance,” said Zeorta, indicating the Tri-V which displayed the footage from the surveillance camera on the store’s main entrance corridor. A group of Lumar security forces were gathered around the motionless body of a Pushtal. Blood splatter coated the walls and floor around the fallen alien. Of the other Pushtal there was no sign. The Lumar were stopping and interrogating any onlookers or passers-by.

“Zeorta is right. I don’t think we need any undue attention from security,” agreed Tim.

Deeral approached a section of wall which looked the same as any other in the cluttered store. As he laid his flattened palm on it, the concealed biometric reader confirmed his identity, and a crack in the wall expanded until it became a narrow doorway.

“Follow the passage to the end, and it will bring you out near the elevators.”

“Till tomorrow, Deeral,” said Alastair.

“Till tomorrow, Colonel Sinclair,” replied Deeral.

* * *

The emergence point two thousand miles sunward of Ralla Station, was empty one second, but for a few scattered hydrogen atoms, and the next filled by the sleek lines of an expensive space yacht transiting back to normal space. Carrying almost no delta-v, it gave the most spartan nudge of its attitude jets to orient itself before activating its ion drive and setting course for the floating space station. Ralla Station Traffic Control interrogated the yacht’s transponder, which identified it as the play thing of a ridiculously rich Wathayat trader. Traffic Control wasted no time in assigning one of the private landing berths and was just as swiftly rewarded by an electronic payment securing the berth for a week. Satisfied everything was in order, the staff of Traffic Control cleared down their screens awaiting their next arrival—an inbound mile-wide mega-ton freighter which would require their full attention.

Aboard the yacht, a distinctly feline-like creature gave a slow blink of amusement. Kitta of the Depik had arrived in Ralla, and the life span of her target could now be counted in hours.

* * *

Charlie Sinclair let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding, as the merchant ship Tla’koz passed through the stargate and entered hyperspace, leaving the Tal system in its wake. Ten days of skulking around the various bars and dives of Tal Station, and a shit load of credits—all in cash of course—had secured Charlie and the Scorpion troopers of Gamma Company passage on what could best be described as a bucket of bolts held together by spit and twine.

No matter, thought Charlie, the Tla’koz’s captain, a weasel-like Zuparti who recognized a good deal when he saw one, had agreed to take them as far as the Elo system in the Cimaron arm, where Charlie would have to source another ride.

Elo may not have been in the right direction for Earth; however, as Charlie had pointed out to his ranking officers, Torey McDonald and Stacey Kamala, Human merc companies were now considered fair game, and he would rather spend time going the long way around and get home safely than fight every alien merc out to make a quick credit by bringing a few Human scalps into the Merc Guild.

Charlie released his restraints as the freighter’s gravity deck extended out from the main hull and began its steady rotation until gravity had settled on a steady one G. Rolling his shoulders and flexing his legs to release the pent-up energy that the anxiousness of the past few days had brought on, he thought about his wife, Mhairi, and the kids before admonishing himself. Snap out of it, Charlie! You can bet next month’s pay that Mhairi and the kids are sitting comfortably at the Lodge or playing in the cool waters of Loch Ness, hoping to catch a glimpse of the mythical monster.

It was going to be a long enough 170 hours to Elo without worrying about something he had no control over. And if he was thinking about home, then you could bet his troopers were doing the same thing. Accessing his comms, he scheduled a meeting with his officers and senior noncoms for an hour’s time. Some routine training would break the monotony of a week in hyper.

* * * * *

Chapter Nine

Easy Money

The tingling of his pinplants woke Alastair Sinclair before the beeping of the slate which lay on its shelf beside his cot. Without opening his eyes, he accepted the message, which appeared as if projected onto his inner eyelids. The message was a request from Captain Kothoo to contact him urgently. Alastair accessed the Glambring’s internal sensor system, which located the elSha captain in an instant. The captain was on the bridge, and a side bar indicated the ship was being brought to full readiness. Something was up. With a command, Alastair pinged Captain Kothoo to let him know he was online. Kothoo activated the camera in front of his command chair and the sleek image of the elSha replaced his message in Alastair’s simulated vision.

 “Colonel Sinclair. A pair of HecSha cruisers have completed translation and are assuming parking orbits. They have requested permission to allow their crews shore-leave and are preparing shuttles for this purpose. We have matched the cruisers’ signatures with recordings the Bucephalus intercepted as it departed Earth. It’s a safe bet these ships are loyal to General Peepo.”

“Shit,” Alastair cursed under his breath. His meeting with Deeral was not due to happen for another two hours, yet it looked like the HecSha were going to force his hand. If they recognized the Glambring for what she really was, a Winged Hussars’ ship, then they would not hesitate to open fire on her, and no matter how good a captain Kothoo was, the Glambring was only a frigate, and up against a single cruiser, never mind two, it would be a short, sharp fight which could only end up with the Glambring becoming expanding gases in short order.

“Very well, Captain. Please have a dropship prepared for immediate departure and warn off Captain Buchanan that we will be departing for the station as soon as possible.”

Kothoo gave a single nod of compliance. “Consider it done, Colonel. I shall contact the stargate and see if we can bring forward our departure time. Hopefully we can retrieve the information from Deeral and his pet Tortantula without alerting the HecSha to our presence.”

Fat chance, thought Alastair. He terminated the link with Kothoo while swinging himself upright. The purple ship suit hung by the door to the small cabin, next to a set of lightweight body armor and a shoulder holster containing a rapid-fire flechette pistol. With a magazine capacity of one hundred rounds of two-inch-long tungsten carbide flechettes, the magnetically charged rails of the pistol could accelerate the metal dart up to a speed of 2,500 feet per second. Any opponent would need reaction speeds of twice that of an Olympic sprinter and be five hundred feet away to dodge a dart. And best of all, there was no recoil to disturb Alastair’s aim. If you saw your target, you hit your target. And if you were unlucky enough to be the target, the flechette was almost guaranteed to penetrate any light-weight armor or thick alien hide. Alastair slipped on the ship suit, left his cabin, and headed for the starboard airlock securing his dropship.

On reaching it, the two pilots were already running their pre-flight checks as part of the Glambring’s heightened alert status. Time dragged, though it was probably only another couple of minutes before a slightly-out-of-breath Tim Buchanan, closely followed by Corporal Kofi Okoro, joined him and a single elSha dressed in the same purple jumpsuit they had used as cover before. This elSha, however, did not look as enthusiastic as the last group which had accompanied Alastair and Tim to the station.

“He was unlucky enough to be passing me in the corridor, so I scooped him up and hung the jumpsuit on him. At least we can pretend to be coming back for more spares,” said Tim with a shrug of his shoulders.

“Let’s get moving, Tim,” Alastair said, reaching for the handle above the airlock.

“One minute, sir,” said Tim, looking back the way he and Okoro had come. Alastair gave him a quizzical look, which transformed into one of annoyance when his second-in-command continued to look back down the corridor. Alastair was about to berate him when First Sergeant Croll and two Scorpion troopers, Jackson and Terhune, came bouncing around the bend. The three of them wore tan Scorpions uniform and tactical gear making no attempt to hide the fact they were mercs. Each carried a full combat loadout, their Gal 12 assault rifles were locked and loaded, and the laser pistols attached to their chest plates blinked the green of a full charge.

“I thought we might need a bit of back up, and the First Sergeant was complaining he needed to stretch his legs,” Tim said with a thin smile.

Alastair spared a glance for the grim-faced Croll and his two troopers and gave a curt nod. “Better to have them than to be looking for them, I suppose.” With that he pushed off down the umbilical joining the dropship to the airlock, nimbly pivoting himself on a handhold and slipping into a seat, the restraints deploying to secure him in place. Looking across at Croll, Alastair hoped the trooper’s extra firepower would not be required. However, the experienced merc commander in him knew how the God Murphy enjoyed throwing spanners in the best laid plans. With a shudder, the dropship disengaged its locking clamps and maneuvered clear of the Glambring, before a burst from its engine sent it arrowing for Ralla Station. Alastair closed his eyes and brought up the exterior cameras. A few seconds to orientate himself, and he was able to locate the two HecSha cruisers. Magnifying the image, the empty locks where the cruiser’s own parasitic small craft should be hanging told its own story. Some of the cruiser’s crew were already aboard the station. Could this go any more wrong? wondered Alastair.

The short journey to the station was over in a matter of minutes, and Alastair was out of his seat before the dropship had come to a complete stop. As soon as the power and comms umbilical were attached, Corporal Okoro worked his magic; Alastair and Tim were invisible to the station’s security network once more. Croll flashed the colonel a thumbs-up which Alastair returned as he headed into the station.

* * *

“Easiest credits we have ever made,” said Deeral as he punched in the code which unlocked his store’s front door.

“If you say so,” agreed Zeorta. The Tortantula was grumpy. She didn’t like making the six-hour round trip to the small moonlet where Deeral had built a habitat just big enough to hold his ill-gotten gains and the secure servers where he stored the most sensitive of the information that was the basis of his business. Schematics for the latest tech from the biggest conglomerates in the Galactic Union. Industrial secrets that would fetch a pretty penny if the right buyer could be found. Information pertaining to upcoming Mercenary Guild contracts that would allow a smart competitor to undercut his opposition. If you needed it, Deeral was the Flatar who got it. It was an open secret, but one that those in power tolerated because the Flatar could be useful to them one day, too. Deeral never considered that, sooner or later, one of his clients, or perhaps one of his victims, would decide that his usefulness should come to an end.

The store’s computer registered the presence of Deeral and Zeorta and activated the lights, bringing the main room slowly up to full illumination. Deeral had been working out of this store for longer than he wanted to admit, so knew where every step and piece of junk was located, so he did not wait for the lights to come to full intensity before setting off across the room. When he tripped over some unseen item and fell flat on his snout, the curse that escaped him was one of surprise rather than fear. That all changed when a disembodied voice let out a playful, “Oops.”

Deeral tried to scramble to his feet, but something landed heavily between his shoulder blades, smashing his face once more into the hard floor. Deeral tasted blood and as the weight fell off his body, Deeral’s oversized laser pistol came out of its holster. His eyes scanned the room, searching for his assailant, but he saw only Zeorta standing by the open front door.

“What you doing on the floor, Deeral? You fall over those tiny feet of yours?” The Tortantula let out a rumbling laugh, which turned into a horrible gagging sound as a flash of excruciating pain exploded at the back of her head. The Tortantula’s mouth filled with blood which flowed freely from it. In slow motion, like some crappy Tri-V drama, Zeorta’s legs gave way and the giant spider slowly sank to the floor in an ever-expanding pool of her own blood.

“Noooo!” The anguished scream echoed in Deeral’s ears. The Flatar barely recognized the voice as his own, his mind struggling to comprehend what his eyes were showing him. A feeling. A pinprick at the base of his skull. Somebody was behind him. Deeral tried to turn to bring up his pistol and burn down whoever had murdered his best friend, but his body refused to move. What? Turn! Damn you, commanded Deeral, but his muscles refused his orders. What in entropy is happening here? Deeral went to scream but his mouth would not open. His vocal cords could not form words. He tried to shift his eyes from the sight of Zeorta, to blank out that terrible vision, but his eyes refused to move, and he continued to stare at his dead friend’s body.

“Don’t struggle, Deeral,” came a soft whispering voice in his ear. “I’ve injected you with medical nanites. And, as you can see, I am now fully in control of your bodily functions.”

No this can’t be happening, thought Deeral. With more will than he thought himself capable of, he gathered his strength. Commanding his hand holding the pistol to raise up and smite the voice in his ear. For all his exertion, he only managed a weak shake of the arm.

“Ah! A fighter. Good, good I like that. Some beings can be so pathetic. Not you, though, eh Deeral?” The voice sounded like it was enjoying Deeral’s struggle. “Now Deeral, you have been a naughty little Flatar, haven’t you? You stole something from my client, and she is rather annoyed with you, because she has big plans and the last thing she needs is you sticking your scrawny little snout where it’s not wanted.”

Deeral’s mind raced within his unresponsive body as he tried to figure out what the voice was talking about. He had so many secrets, proprietary data, weapons specs, images of powerful people in compromising situations—how was he meant to identify a single item when the voice was being so vague?

“Of course, an industrious little information thief like you, Deeral, most likely has gigabytes of data hidden away somewhere. It’s certainly not stored anywhere in here, or I would have found it. That means you have a little hidey hole somewhere and you are going to tell me where that is, aren’t you? Because if you don’t—”

Before Deeral’s unblinking eyes a shape, slightly larger than he was, appeared out of thin air. If Deeral would have been capable of it he would have gasped and quivered in fear, for before him stood a Depik. Her large, round Depik eyes blinked once, and, as if by magic, a thin stiletto blade was in her hand. With the skill of a surgeon, the Depik ran the blade diagonally from Deeral’s left shoulder to his right hip, splitting the fur and skin and leaving a bright red line of blood in its wake. Deeral tried to scream at the pain, but nothing came out.

“The nanites allow you to feel pain, Flatar. In fact, they enhance it. They also clot your blood faster, so I could do this—” the Depik ran the blade from right shoulder to left hip. The pain was intolerable, and under normal circumstances Deeral’s brain would have simply shut down; however, the nanites were interacting with the opiate receptors in the Flatar’s brain, keeping him conscious and aware of every touch of the blade.

“All day long,” the Depik finished. “Unfortunately, I am on a tight schedule. My client has already dispatched another group of—shall we say, her employees—to secure the data you stole from her.” The Depik twisted the thin blade in Deeral’s line of sight. The light glinted off the blood on the fine blade. “The way I see it, Deeral, you tell me where the data is stored, I kill you quickly or—” the Depik tapped Deeral on the snout with the knife, “—I get the information anyway, and you endure a great deal of suffering while I do it. Your choice.”

Deeral’s eyes screamed his hatred for the alien, who looked back at him with not a care in the world. “Oh, that’s right you can’t speak can you. Hold on, we can remedy that.” The Depik tapped on a slate with one clawed finger before looking back at Deeral. The Flatar tried and succeeded in licking the blood that was congealing in his mouth. The face of the Depik filled his vision.

“Entropy take you, Depik, I shall never speak!”

If Deeral had expected the assassin to become enraged, he was sorely disappointed, for the Depik merely blinked a long, slow blink before gesturing around her with the stiletto. “I take it this whole place is sound-proofed and electronically screened? Of course it is. How else could you ensure nobody snooped on your nefarious deals, eh? You just tell me when you want me to stop. OK?” And with that Kitta plunged the blade deep into the muscle group below Deeral’s upper arm. The Flatar’s scream filled the room, but outside in the bustling corridor, not a sound was heard.

* * * * *

Chapter Ten


The elevator doors opened with a squeaking protest, and Alastair and Tim stepped out onto Level 3. The same overhead lights flickered, and unfamiliar scents assaulted their nostrils as various aliens plied their trade from stores up and down the corridor.

“You ever get that déjà vu feeling?” Tim asked in a harsh whisper, which caused Alastair’s lips to twitch as he tried not to grin. Any jovial thoughts he may have been having disappeared as an urgent message from Okoro appeared in his vision. For those not used to pinplants, the sudden appearance of text or information hovering in the middle of your line of sight could be disorienting, but to someone as familiar with pinplants as Alastair they took it in their stride. Alastair continued walking along the corridor while aliens of all shapes and forms passed through the message text which read, ‘Heavily-armed Jivool are disembarking a dropship from the HecSha cruiser. They are headed for the elevators. First Sergeant Croll believes your source may be compromised and advises you to proceed with extreme caution.’

“Shit!” said Alastair, loud enough to bring Tim to a halt and for his hand to slip inside his jumpsuit, touching the reassuring shape of the laser pistol hanging in its shoulder holster.

“Problem?” Tim asked.

Alastair flicked Okoro’s message across to him, and he read it quickly.

“Yeah, that’s not good.”

Alastair glanced up and down the corridor and its occupants carrying on their business blissfully unaware that a bunch of ugly purple bears were about to descend on them. Alastair briefly considered aborting the meeting and heading back to the Glambring; however, he quickly dismissed that as an option. If the Jivool were indeed after Deeral and the information the Flatar possessed, that info would be lost to Alastair and the Four Horsemen forever if the Jivool got to Deeral first. And, if that happened, then the plan to use the Raknar to free the Earth would probably be down the proverbial toilet.

“OK, let’s make this quick. I’ll get the info from Deeral, and you keep an eye on the corridor. First sign of the Jivool, we bug out.”

Alastair had only taken a couple of steps when he received another message from Okoro. ‘Second dropship offloading Jivool who appear to be securing the landing bay. The first group, eight strong, have entered the lift and are descending to your level…Correction. A third dropship has now landed, and its load of Jivool are headed your way, too.’

This is going to hell in a hand basket, thought Alastair, as he pushed the second message across to Tim, whose grim expression said more than words. Eight armed Jivool were not a force to be sniffed at. When the large bears got angry, you didn’t want to be anywhere near them. Even when seemingly unarmed, they had a retractable half-meter-long wrist claw that could easily gut an unarmored Human with ease. Then there was a second wave following them.

Reaching the entrance to Deeral’s store, Alastair decided to forgo ceremony and retrieved his compact slate from a pocket and held it up against the lock. The piece of smart tech overrode the lock and opened the door, which obediently began to slide aside. From the interior, a scream burst forth that was so full of pain it rocked Alastair to the core and caused every head in the corridor to immediately focus on him.

* * *

The pain was excruciating; blinding flashes left stars in Deeral’s vision as again and again the Depik slipped the thin blade into his body. The medical nanites kept him conscious while amplifying the pain. Deeral had never known such pain and fear. He knew as soon as the damned Depik extracted the location of the moonlet he stored his servers on, he was as good as dead. And tough as he was, he knew he could not bear much more of the torture. It was time to make peace with his ancestors.

Then…a movement…the outer door was opening and through his dimmed vision he made out the shape of a Human…it was Sinclair!

The Depik was already turning to face the door, ready to slay whoever dared interrupt her. Deeral seized his opportunity. His screaming had reduced his voice to a hoarse whisper, but the store’s vocal interface still recognized it. “Dump all to Sinclair and seal the room—“

The assassin spun, her rage boiling over, and the stiletto sliced through Deeral’s throat, vocal cords, and arteries in one stroke. The Depik danced to one side to avoid the spray of bright red blood, but even her fantastic reflexes were not quick enough to stop the computer from locking every door in the store. Locking her in, and whoever had attempted to gain entry out. No matter, Kitta thought to herself as she hacked into the store’s computer. The Flatar’s last command would leave an electronic footprint she could trace, and she would recover the data her employer, General Peepo, had contracted her for. Whoever or whatever this ‘Sinclair’ was did not interest her in the slightest.

* * *

The elevator doors opened, and Loc led his squad of Jivool out onto Level 3. The passers-by only needed to take one look at the expressions on the faces of the bear-like Jivool and the laser rifles hanging from their shoulders to know they were trouble. Loc was already in a bad mood. The plan had been for two squads of Jivool from his HecSha cruiser to rendezvous with a third squad from the second cruiser. Loc’s squad and the one from the second cruiser, under squad leader Horal, would proceed to Level 3 and recover the data from the Flatar Deeral, while the remaining squad would secure the landing bay and the dropships. It came as no great surprise to Loc that Horal was late. Loc despised Horal, who had been selected as this mission’s leader even though he was junior. Loc supposed it helped that Horal’s uncle was the overall commander of the Jivool the HecSha had contracted for General Peepo’s attack against the Humans’ home planet. Attack, snorted Loc. The fabled Four Horsemen had run away, leaving only sniveling Human politicians to come crawling to the great Peepo and virtually beg her to rule their planet. With so little opposition, Loc had thought the contract would be reduced to becoming garrison troops.

When the orders came through to head to Ralla Station to secure some super-secret data from a Flatar information broker, Loc could not believe his luck. A big fat bonus and the chance to kill anything in his way. And now, with Horal delayed, the opportunity to make his rival look foolish too. Well, I’ll show that piece of Uilk dung that I can get the job done without him. Let’s see what your precious uncle has to say when I return with the prize we have come so far to retrieve.

Checking the station schematic on his slate, Loc set off in the direction of Deeral’s store, his squad of Jivool hot on his heels, pushing their way past anyone who failed to see them coming.

Following the curve of the corridor, it was only a couple minutes before the store entrance came into view. Loc stopped the squad as he checked the address against the one he had been given. The slate gave a confirmatory beep as he pressed his thumb down on the highlighted block number. Happy he had the correct address, Loc looked directly at the entrance to the store and was surprised to see two Humans skulking in the doorway. Something was not right here. The action of Loc unslinging his rifle alerted the other Jivool that something was wrong, and they all followed suit. The odd growl in the direction of anyone who cast their eyes toward the Jivool mercs had the desired effect of causing them to look and move away abruptly.

Loc centered his attention on the two Humans in the doorway. What the hell were they up to?

* * *

The entrance to Deeral’s store began to retract into the wall and the harrowing scream that emanated from within was like a physical thing. Alastair caught a brief glimpse of the Tortantula Zeorta’s massive, unmoving bulk just inside the doorway, and beyond, a tattered, bloodied figure that seemed to be standing in a pool of its own blood. Alastair barely recognized Deeral before the door slammed shut, causing Alastair to jump back. Still not sure what he had seen, it took Alastair a moment to register his slate was beeping for attention. Lifting the slate, Alastair’s eyebrows knitted in confusion. The slate was receiving a download, and based on the amount of time it was taking, it was a big one. A non-too gentle nudge from Tim alerted him to another problem.

“Incoming Jivool! And I think they’ve seen us—” The lead Jivool grunted something to his comrades, and laser rifles were unslung and charging handles slapped. “Correction, they have seen us, and they don’t look happy. Time to leave.”

Alastair slipped the slate back into his pocket while he eyed the approaching Jivool. “Yeah, we’ve been clocked. You got something to give them a warm welcome?” Alastair said as he retrieved his pistol.

Tim turned to him, effectively covering his hand movements, while a laser pistol came out of its shoulder holster and a small, dark canister appeared in his other hand. “Eyes,” Tim said simply, as he spun on his heel, throwing the small canister underhand to land square in the middle of the Jivool.

With a flash equivalent to staring into a powerful search light, the device exploded. The blinding, white light may have dazzled the Jivool mercs, but the little device wasn’t finished. A whine, so high pitched that it was beyond Human hearing, emanated from its tiny speakers. Originally designed in the 1970s, the flash bang grenade had been upgraded over the years and improved using alien tech. Before throwing the flash bang, Tim had used his pinplants to set it to be most effective against Jivool. The flash temporarily blinded the bear-like creatures, but the output from the grenade’s speakers was set to cause the Jivool to lose control of most of their bodily functions, cause temporary paralysis, and, in more extreme cases, unconsciousness and brain hemorrhages. The other alien and Human occupants in the corridor were only affected by the initial flash of incandescent light.

Uncovering their eyes, Alastair and Tim wasted no time. Many of the races in the corridor were suffering from the side effects of the flash bang, with the notable exception of a lone XenSha. The bipedal three-foot-tall alien used a series of tentacles which saw into the infrared and ultraviolet spectrum; the visible spectrum light from the grenade barely affected him. All the same, he was hot-footing it out of the combat zone as quickly as his short legs would carry him. The XenSha were a merc race, but they hated hand-to-hand combat, much preferring drones to do their fighting for them.

Stepping among the moaning and groaning Jivool, the two Human mercs coldly and clinically dispatched each with a single shot to the head. Four ripping zips, like someone tearing cloth, from Alastair’s flechette pistol accompanied by four phizzes from Tim’s laser pistol silenced the Jivool merc squad forever. What may have seemed unusually callous to any onlooker was simple tactics to Alastair and Tim. Any Jivool they left alive was just another one who could join the fight against them when they recovered their senses, and with another eight heavily-armed bears between the Scorpions and their dropship, leaving an enemy alive was simply not an option.

Gruesome task completed, Alastair and Tim entered the elevator which would take them back to the docking level.

* * *

“Loc, answer me! Have you secured the package?” The comm unit in Horal’s hand hissed quietly. “Damn you to entropy, Loc!” Even with the admonishment, the comm unit remained eerily silent. Horal and his squad of Jivool mercs were meant to have arrived in the docking bay at the same time as Loc’s squad; however, the HecSha pilot had not received clearance from Ralla Traffic Control in time. Rather than ignore the station’s instructions, as Horal had urged him to do, the HecSha pilot had complied with Traffic Control’s instructions.

In his last communication, Loc had stated that he had arrived on Level 3 and was proceeding to the Flatar Deeral’s store; now the idiot was not answering the radio. Horal was getting an uneasy feeling about this. Ever since the Four Horsemen had supposedly fled from the far superior forces of General Peepo, Horal had an itch he just could not scratch. He had never personally had the honor of facing any Human mercenaries on the field of combat, but he had heard stories from those who had, and if these Humans were as tough as he had been led to believe, then it was hard to believe they would run away like the cowards they were being presented to the Galactic Union Tri-V audiences as.

Besides, what was so important to General Peepo that she would dispatch two HecSha cruisers and a company of Jivool to recover a single piece of data from one, lone Flatar, trading from a space station in a system that even Horal’s uncle had to look up in a Cartography Guild database? When Horal saw that three squads—twenty-four Jivool—had been assigned to this mission, and that he was in overall charge, instead of bursting with pride at being entrusted with command of so many men, Horal had wondered why it took twenty-four laser-rifle-armed Jivool to confront one Flatar. Even if that Flatar was undoubtedly accompanied by a Tortantula, they were still only two against twenty-four. Hence Horal’s insistence that one squad secured the dropships, their only method of withdrawal, and two squads went to the Flatar’s store. Now that whole plan was screwed up.

The radio hissed, but instead of it being Loc, it was Captain Po, the senior captain aboard the HecSha cruisers. “We have intercepted radio traffic on the station’s security frequency. They are reporting a fire fight has erupted on Level 3! Eight Jivool are dead, allegedly dispatched by—hold on, this cannot be correct—two Humans! What the hell is happening over there, Squad Leader Horal?”

Horal let out a silent curse. He desperately wanted to tell Po that Loc had gone off half-cocked, but now was not the time for recriminations. His mind raced to piece together a plan of action. Why had the Humans acted this way? Because they had the data, and Loc had tried to stop them. That was the only plausible explanation. OK then, the next question must be, where were they headed? Horal activated his link to Po.

“Captain, I believe the two Humans have what we are looking for. Has station security got a bead on them?”

“No. Nothing. From the intercepted radio traffic, it seems they have simply disappeared.”

Horal clenched his fists in frustration. Think! Think! Think! They must be headed somewhere, and the logical thing would be to a ship of some kind to get off the station as quickly as possible, and he was on the landing bay level. If he used the squad guarding his dropships, he had two squads at his disposal.

“Captain Po. I will take my squad clockwise and the other squad will go counterclockwise. We will search each landing bay until we find their ship, and, once we do, they will be trapped on the station. We will find them, and we will get that data back.”

“You better,” replied Po’s cold HecSha voice. “Because if you don’t, it will be you, not me, explaining to General Peepo why you didn’t. And General Peepo does not take kindly to being disappointed.”

The threat hung in the air as Horal rushed to give his new orders. Moments later, two squads of Jivool, out for blood, left the landing bay.

* * *

“Situation update, Okoro?” demanded First Sergeant Croll as he stalked back and forth in the cramped personnel bay of the dropship for the thousandth time in the past hour.

“My hack into the station security network is still holding. I can see the colonel and Captain Buchanan on the surveillance cameras, but as far as security is concerned the cameras are blank. The only problem is that security has locked down Level 3, Level 4, and the Docking Level, and they are conducting a level-by-level search for our guys. Looks like somebody has fingered them as the ones who took out the Jivool.”

“And, sooner or later, even those idiotic four-armed, no-brain Lumar are bound to stumble across the colonel.” Croll halted his pacing. “Show me where the colonel is now.” Immediately his outward persona changed to one easily recognizable as someone who was using his pinplants to access information. As far as Croll was concerned, he was now watching a live feed of the colonel and Buchanan mingling with crowds while making their way slowly back toward the landing bay, pausing at various retailers and stalls to keep up the pretense they were scavenging for parts. The ticker tape which was running along the bottom of the image told Croll the feed he was watching was from Level 4, the level below the landing bays. It looked like the colonel and Buchanan were heading for the emergency stairwell to avoid any uncomfortable confrontations with security.

“And what are the Jivool doing?”

A pause while the cyber warfare specialist reconfigured the system. “Oh, that’s not good,” said Okoro, flinging the feed across to Croll before he asked for it.

The bay, where only minutes before two squads of Jivool had been located, was now bare. Where the fuck had they gone? “Okoro, I need—” The image changed again, and this time it was split into two distinct screens. Both showed a squad of armed and obviously pissed off Jivool not taking no for an answer as they pushed their way into the landing bays, one after the other.

“I’d say they were looking for us, First Sergeant,” said Okoro.

“And I say, you are correct,” said Croll, with a wry grin. “You keep an eye on the colonel while I go and prepare a warm reception for our unwelcome guests.” Lifting his Gal 12, he wished he was in his CASPer instead of body armor. While it was good enough to stop most ballistic rounds or laser fire, that didn’t stop him wishing for more. Croll motioned for Jackson and Terhune to follow him. Without a word, the two troopers set aside the card game they had been using to pass the time and checked their weapons.

“Time to go hunting bear,” Croll said as he left the dropship with the two troopers.

* * *

“Get out of the way!” Squad Leader Nuill growled at the elSha dressed in the stupidest of purple who was, for being so small, making it difficult for Nuill to reach the bay door control pad with its constant running around between Nuill’s feet. After the third attempt to access the pad was blocked by the elSha’s bobbing head, Nuill lost his patience and back-handed the three-foot-tall lizard, sending it crashing into the side of the bay door where it slumped to the ground, dazed and with blood oozing from a long cut up the side of its thin neck where Nuill’s claw had caught it.

Ignoring the prostrate elSha, Nuill tapped in the code to open the bay doors, which responded by splitting apart and retracting into the roof and floor. Without waiting for the lower half of the door to fully retract, Nuill stepped into a bay, which was easily large enough to accommodate a dozen ships of moderate size. Immediately to his front was a pair small intersystem freighters with the markings of Ralla Station. Both were locked down and showed no sign of life. The only other ship in the bay was a dropship which looked the worse for wear. Must be from that frigate we noticed when we moved into parking orbit, thought Nuill. Something about it being ferried by a skeleton crew of elSha back to the yard for repair. The Jivool glanced back at the prone elSha by the bay door. A low moan escaped it as it started to regain consciousness. “Still alive then? Maybe next time you will remember to stay out of my way.” said Nuill over his shoulder.

Nuill was about to turn around, dismissing the dropship from the elSha frigate to go to the next docking bay, when movement in the dropship’s cockpit caught his eye. The shape was hard to distinguish in the poor lighting of the bay, but he could tell it was too big for an elSha. Nuill turned his head to look at his squad and saw that they were all still gathered around the bay door. The steady light from the corridor outside outlined them perfectly. Easy prey for anyone lurking in the bay. Movement from the top of the nearest locked down freighter was the only warning Nuill got, but it was enough to save him as a burst of semi-automatic rifle fire cut down three of his squad. Nuill rolled away from the kill zone, crashing into a heavy metal pallet, as the space where he had been a fraction of a second before was intersected by a burst of 7.62-millimeter rounds from Trooper Jackson’s Gal 12.

“Ambush!” screamed Nuill uselessly. If any of his squad hadn’t noticed by now, it was because they were dead or dying. Cursing loudly, Nuill fired off a couple bursts of his own. The coherent light from his laser rifle lashed the top of the Ralla freighter in the general location of where he had seen the muzzle flashes of one of the ambushers. Return fire battered the pallet, and he prayed the metal would hold as he tried to squeeze more of his enormous frame into its limited cover.

The sound of his opponent’s rifles filled his ears as the booming echoed around the docking bay. Keeping his head low, Nuill twisted until he could see across the open bay doors. In the light streaming through the still-open doors, he counted four of his squad down. Dead or wounded, they were effectively out of the fight. That left three of his squad unaccounted for. A sharp phizz from somewhere in the murky darkness told Nuill that at least one of his squad was still with him.

Another burst of rifle fire from his unseen enemy pummeled the pallet, and this time a round passed closer to his body than was comfortable. Whoever these people were, they had him pinned down, and Nuill was an experienced enough merc to know that in a fire fight, movement was life. If the rifleman who had him in his sights switched to penetrator rounds, they would go through the metal of the pallet like it wasn’t there, and that would be the end of him. Nuill spared a glance toward the beckoning safety of the bay doors and the corridor beyond, weighing his chances of making the twenty feet or so dash. Even a half-blind K’kng could have cut him down before he made it halfway.

Nuill reached for his comm. If Horal could get his squad here before the unseen riflemen finished them off, then he had a chance. Nuill’s hand touched the place on his utility harness where the small device should be and found only empty space. Looking in horror, Nuill saw the comms unit lying four feet from him—it must have been dislodged when he dove for cover. A distinctly Jivool scream of pain came from the darkness off to his right, followed by an almost continuous stream of laser fire aimed high up one wall of the bay, with flashes of light as the laser rounds splashed off metal work. More laser fire was followed by a screeching sound as metal buckled and gave way under the near continuous impact of the high intensity laser. With a final wrenching sound, the metal gave way and, with ridiculous slowness in the lower gravity, fell the fifty feet to the bay’s deck. A single shot cut short a Jivool cry of victory. Despair filled Nuill as he gazed at the comms unit. How could the universe be so cruel as to put his only hope of survival so close, yet so far?

* * *

The bay doors leading out onto the corridor split open just as Croll was settling himself into position on the roof of the freighter. Jackson had center, nestled among a collection of raw ore containers which may as well have been a reinforced block house because no laser rifle was going to penetrate them. Terhune was the most exposed of the three Scorpions, as his area of the docking bay was completely free from anything which could be used as cover, so he selected to go for height.

In the lower gravity of the bay, he had virtually sprinted up the open steel ladders until he was perched high above the bay with a great line of fire. All he had to do was remember to keep moving between shots. Toola, the poor elSha that Buchanan had dragged along with them, had managed to delay the Jivool long enough for Croll, Jackson, and Terhune to get into their positions. Croll’s plan was, of necessity, simple. Wait for the Jivool to enter the bay and, if even one of them makes a twitch in the direction of the dropship, then blow the shit out of them.

As the leading Jivool stepped over the still-not-completely-open bay doors, Croll snuggled the stock of his Gal 12 just that little bit more into his shoulder, slowing his breathing as his eyes focused on the small red dot of the sighting reticule. Taking aim on the rearmost Jivool to the right of the group, Jackson would take the center rear and Terhune the left rear. Croll knew the guys at the back of the group were the ones most likely to escape back out of the bay so they were the first to go down, then the Scorpion troopers would service each Jivool target as it presented itself, and they had to do it quickly for the colonel and Captain Buchanan might need them in a hurry if they ran into the other squad of Jivool prowling the station’s docking level.

Croll’s finger stretched around the trigger as the Jivool entered the bay. “Keep on coming just like you are. Big, fat, and stupid,” Croll whispered to himself. The squad of Jivool paused in the doorway, perfectly outlined by the corridor’s light. The Jivool that was obviously the leader began to turn away, and Croll let his finger relax. Looks like you get to live another day, he thought. Without warning the Jivool’s head spun in the direction of the dropship. Shit! Croll’s finger stroked the trigger, and the Jivool closest to the entrance went down. The sound of Jackson’s and Terhune’s weapons firing was lost on him as Croll switched targets, hunting for the leader. Cut off the chicken’s head, and its body will just run about aimlessly, as my daddy used to say. The leader was nowhere in sight. Suddenly, laser rifle pulses splashed off the side of the freighter’s superstructure. Not near enough to prove a danger to him; however, it meant the leader was still in the fight. Croll switched to thermal imaging and a spot to one side of a large rectangular cold block showed residual heat. Looks like the leader managed to get to cover. Let’s see if we can scare him out. Croll sent a burst into the cover, but the Jivool behind it stubbornly refused to reveal himself.

Croll’s brain had switched into combat mode, and everything seemed to slow down as the First Sergeant’s brain moved to another plane, and his rifle became an extension of his being. Panning the weapon to the left, Croll caught another Jivool in the open as he rose from behind cover. Three rounds spat from the Gal, taking the Jivool’s head clean off, the torso flopping to the ground. Pan right, put another three rounds into the leader’s cover to keep him from getting any smart ideas. Fire from Jackson put another Jivool out of his misery as he made a break for the safety of the corridor—the runner made it two steps before Jackson put three rounds into the small of the Jivool’s back, lifting the towering bear off its feet and propelling it through the air like some angry god would smite an annoying insect. The lifeless body flew out the bay doors to land in a bloody heap.

And then there were two, thought Croll, as he put another group into the leader’s cover. Keep him pinned while we finish off his squad then...

A flurry of laser fire as the Jivool to the right broke cover. A last-ditch attack, a forlorn hope. Call it what you will, but the intensity of the fire punched into the metal around and below Terhune’s perch. The trooper’s body armor stopped the first round, and the second, it even slowed the third, but the fourth and fifth passed through the armor plate. The intense heat punched neat holes through Terhune’s chest, exited his back, and neatly cut and cauterized his spine.

The trooper died almost instantaneously; he never felt his slow fall to the deck below or the weight of the metal walkway that fell atop him.

Magazine empty, the Jivool charged Jackson’s position while screaming his victory cry. Jackson put him down with a single shot between the eyes.

Croll’s attention refocused on the leader, still cowering in cover. Perhaps he was emboldened by Terhune’s death or shamed by one of his own’s courage at charging Jackson with an empty weapon. Whatever, the leader broke from cover and ran for the bay door. Croll let a half breath out slowly, held it, and allowed the sighting reticule to fall naturally onto the center of the leader’s retreating back. Gently his finger applied pressure to the trigger and—click! Nothing! Croll cursed himself as he raced to replace the spent magazine before the Jivool could reach safety.

The Jivool ate up the distance in long strides, and Croll’s hands were simply not going to be quick enough.

* * *

The cry of his dying squad mate broke Nuill. The squad leader jumped up from behind the relative safety of the pallet and ran for the bay door, fully expecting to be cut down, but he didn’t care. If he stayed in this hell hole any longer, he was dead for sure. Nuill’s blood pumped loudly in his ears. Every step was another moment of life. Why had the unseen enemy not fired? The doorway was nearly within reach. Nuill extended his arms as if to embrace the light streaming in from the corridor like some long-lost love. Three more steps. Two more steps. A shadow in the doorway. So small he almost missed it. Nuill’s brain had time to register the smiling face of an elSha before the compact laser pistol in its hand fired a single laser round, and the elSha hopped to one side as Nuill’s body charged on to crash into the corridor’s far wall before rebounding and slowly collapsing onto the corridor’s floor, a neat hole still smoking in his forehead.

Toola slipped the pistol back beneath his purple jumpsuit before gingerly touching the side of his neck, where his fingers came away stained with blood. Giving the dead Jivool one more disparaging glance, the little elSha squared his shoulders and lifted his head high before entering the bay to see if anyone needed his help.

* * *

With the last remaining Jivool taken out by Toola, Croll clambered down from his firing position, slapping a fresh magazine into his Gal as he ran over to where Terhune lay. Jackson was already there, kneeling beside his fallen comrade. Terhune’s open, unblinking eyes and the shake of Jackson’s head told the first sergeant everything he needed to know.

Croll accessed his comms. “Okoro, get out here and bring one of the pilots to help recover Terhune. Once you’ve done that, prepare for immediate dust off. Jackson and I are going to get the colonel, then we’re getting the hell out of here.”

* * * * *

Chapter Eleven

Run For The Gate

The emergency stairwell was exactly what it said. An emergency stairwell which, by the looks of it, had never been used since Ralla Station had been built god knows how many centuries before. The lock-cracking software on Alistair’s slate got them through the sealed door on Level 3 and into the stairwell with barely a pause in his stride. By using the stairwell, they had, so far, avoided the organic eyes of station security while the hacked security network had effectively blinded the station’s electronic eyes to the two Humans.

Unfortunately, that same electronic blindness was about to prove itself a double-edged sword.

Alastair gave a small prayer of thanks as he reached the docking bay-level door. A prayer that became a grunt of frustration as he looked for a door lock. “Maybe I am an old man and going blind, but do you see a lock?”

Tim had been concentrating on watching the way they had come to ensure they weren’t being followed, and it took him a moment to understand what Alastair was getting at as he scanned and then double-checked the area around the door. Directly above the door was a black circular protrusion. A micro mesh grill was the only break in its otherwise seamless surface.

“Crap,” said Tim. “Is that what I think it is?”

Alastair pursed his lips and let out a sigh. “Yep. A biometric scanner. The same biometric scanner that our very own Corporal Okoro has so effectively, up to now, hidden us from.”

“No chance we could jimmy the door open, I suppose?”

Alastair took a step back, inviting Tim to inspect the door. Tim gave the door a once over before rapping it with his knuckle. “Solid carbide alloy. You’re not getting through this without the help of a heavy-duty plasma cutter.”

“Time to put in a call to Okoro,” said Alastair as he used his slate to connect him with their waiting dropship. When Okoro did not answer immediately, Alastair did not get overly anxious, after all, comms links could be traced and perhaps the corporal was maintaining radio silence. By the time he had changed channels three times and still had not gotten a reply, the furrows of his brow were deep enough you could have planted crops in them.

On the fourth attempt Okoro answered. “Sorry Colonel, things got a bit heated for a few minutes.”

Alastair wanted to get a full explanation, but, right now, he needed to get out of the stairwell, back to the dropship, and the hell off the station. Everything else, including his curiosity, could wait.

“We have a problem, Okoro. The door on our side can only be opened with a biometric sensor.”

On the dropship, Okoro accessed the security network and brought up the schematics for the emergency stairwell. “OK, Colonel. I see it, give me a second.”

One second became two which quickly became ten. A loud bang and the sound of multiple feet pounding on stairs came from below them, and Tim stuck his head over the bannister rail to look and swiftly brought his head back in.

“Station Security,” he whispered harshly. “At least four of them, maybe five, and they don’t look happy.”

“When was the last time you saw a happy Lumar?” asked Alastair, before calling Okoro. “Corporal, our position has become untenable, it’s now or never.”

“Sir, I can’t override the door from here, the whole level has been put into local operation only; I’m effectively locked out.”

Alastair squeezed his eyes closed in frustration as he tried to figure out a way around the lock without exposing himself and Tim to even more danger. Not coming up with anything, and with the Lumar pounding up the stairs behind them, he made his decision.

“Okoro, do you still have access to the biometric sensors?”

“Yes, sir,” replied Okoro, wondering where the colonel was going. It hit him like a thunderclap. “Sir, if I unmask you from the biometric sensors, not only will security know where you are, but you can bet your last credit, the Jivool have a tap into the system as well.”

Alastair looked across at Tim who was busily checking the charge on his pistol. The Lumar security guards were almost on top of them.

“No choice, Okoro. Do it, and do it now.” Alastair put one hand on the door handle and a second later was rewarded with a thunk as the locking bolts were withdrawn. Alastair swung the door open, and the two Scorpions burst out into the corridor, bouncing along in the lower gravity of the docking level for all they were worth.

* * *

“Squad Leader Horal!” screamed the slightly tinny voice of Captain Po from Horal’s comms unit. “Two Humans have suddenly appeared on the station’s sensors. They are only one sector from you heading spinward.”

Horal felt a moment of elation. Perhaps, just perhaps, he had an opportunity to snatch victory from disaster. Switching to the inter squad channel, he called Nuill. “Nuill! Nuill! The Humans are heading directly for you. Cut them off and I will bring my squad up behind them. We will have them trapped! Remember, we need to take them alive if we are to find out where General Peepo’s data is…Nuill do you hear me?…Answer me, damn you!”

Horal’s fleeting moment of elation disappeared. Not again. Curse these Humans, they shall not escape me!

“Follow me!” Horal shouted, as he set off down the corridor. Horal used his bulk and the butt of his rifle to clear a path through anyone too slow to move out of his way.

* * *

“Security is right behind us, Alastair,” said Tim, between heavy gasps for air. The men’s best efforts were hampered by a simple matter of natural selection: Lumar were bigger than Humans and had a longer stride, and they were able to close the gap on the fleeing men exponentially. At this rate, the security guards would catch them before they reached the safety of the dropship.

Through the noise of hard-pumping blood pounding in their ears, their heaving chests, and the shouts of abuse and complaint from those pushed from their path, the men failed to hear similar shouts, tinged with fear rather than outrage, emanating from the corridor ahead. The gentle curve of the corridor gave them gradual sight of what closed on them from the front. Danger awaited.

Spread across the corridor stood Horal’s squad of evil-looking Jivool. Tim, on the outer edge of the curve, saw the danger a split second before Alastair. The pistol in his hand whipped up, and he fired wildly. Although he didn’t deliver a fatal hit, the shots disrupted the aim of the waiting Jivool.

Tim dove to one side and was struck with a searing flash of pain in his upper right arm as he flew. He collided with Alastair just below the shoulders and took the colonel down in a heap. Two blasts of laser fire scorched through the space where they would have been, had Tim had not flung them both into a half-opened doorway.

“Thanks,” Alastair managed, through the tangle of arms and legs they had become. A Jivool peaked around the corner of a spur corridor that it used for cover, and Alastair sent a burst of flechettes in its direction. The tungsten carbide darts flew faster than a speeding bullet, and they ripped into the lightweight prefabricated construction of the corridor and tore through, barely slowing. The unlucky Jivool was stitched in a neat, diagonal line running from his chest up past his shoulder. The Jivool, like most warm-blooded mammals, had their most vital organs encased in the chest cavity, and Alastair’s flechettes made short work of them, shredding the Jivool’s insides like they had been put in a blender. It all happened so fast, the Jivool only had time to look down at his bloodied chest, aghast, before his brain told him he was dead, and he crumpled to the deck.

“Shit, I’ve been hit,” said Tim in a monotone. Keeping as low as he could, Alastair disentangled himself from Tim who was holding his pistol limply in one hand while his other held onto his upper arm protectively. The unmistakable smell of seared flesh filled the air. Another barrage of laser fire battered the area around the two prone men, punching holes in the corridor walls. The heat from the impact of the laser fire had already started some parts of the corridor smoldering, and it would not be long before the station’s ancient fire detection systems began to douse the entire area in anti-flam, covering everything and everyone in a thin coating of smart powder that bonded its molecules together and denied any fire the oxygen it needed to survive. Unfortunately, any personnel who didn’t have breather units on when the anti-flam came down ran out of oxygen, too.

“We need to get out of here,” said Alastair as he frantically searched for an exit before raising his pistol and firing off a return volley to let the Jivool know he was still alive. And fighting.

At that precise moment, the Lumar security guards made their appearance. The wide-eyed lead Lumar shook his head in disbelief. Instead of the two Humans he expected to meet, he was confronted by a war zone. Civilians scattered and sought shelter where they could, while the business end of a half dozen laser rifles were pointed directly at him. Nobody had ever described the Lumar as overly bright, but even this Lumar knew he had run into something way above his pay grade; however, the decision on the best way forward was taken out of his hands. Horal and his men opened fire on the new interlopers. The Lumar fired back.

The three-way firefight quickly reduced the once-pristine docking level into a scorched, smoke-filled wasteland.

“Okoro, we need an exit, and we need it fast!” screamed Alastair over his comms link.

Back in the dropship, Okoro scanned the docking level’s schematics. In conjunction with the security network’s surveillance feed, he used the schematics to pinpoint the colonel and Buchanan’s exact location. In seconds, he had them. They were in the doorway to Sector 2, Storage Facility 16. That was the good news. The bad news was the storage room was classed to hold secured, bonded goods and only had one way in and out.

On the secondary channel, First Sergeant Croll’s voice demanded attention. “Okoro, we have the firefight from hell going on in the corridor up ahead of us, and I don’t see a clear route to the colonel’s location without going through a shit load of angry Jivool.”

Okoro expanded the image showing the colonel and Buchanan trapped in the doorway, not a hundred feet away but separated by two solid walls was Croll and Jackson. Okoro drew a deep breath and released it before speaking. “I’m looking at the schematics now, Sarge,” said the corporal, the frustration evident in his voice, “and there are no access corridors I can route you through that would get you to the colonel without you having to run the gauntlet of either the Jivool or the Lumar guards’ fire. And it’s only going to get worse because the Lumar are on the security net screaming for assistance, and it looks like every guard in the station is headed their way and bringing every heavy weapon they’ve got with them. It’s going to get real ugly for the Jivool real soon.”

Crouched in a service corridor with the sound of weapons fire echoing off its narrow walls, Croll and Jackson knelt back-to-back, their weapons levelled and covering the direction of any potential threat. Croll activated his pinplants and brought up the same schematics Okoro was using as he desperately searched for a way to get the colonel and Buchanan clear of the death trap they were in.

Croll scrunched up his face before releasing it, trying to remain calm. Slowly, the seed of an idea germinated in his brain. The line from an old twentieth century movie. ‘Adapt. Improvise. Overcome.’ An evil smile spread across the first sergeant’s face. “Hey Jackson, how much C6 you got?”

* * *

The situation was becoming desperate. Tim’s laser wound may have been cauterized neatly by the immense heat of the laser round, but the man was rapidly going into shock. “Tim…Tim stay with me,” Alastair shouted as Tim’s head lolled once more, and his eyes rolled up into the back of his head. The doorway the two Scorpions had sought refuge in was now pock marked and blackened by repeated impacts from the Jivool rifle fire and the occasional hit from the Lumar security guards, whose reinforcements had been arriving at a steady trickle, which was rapidly turning into a deluge.

“If they have any common sense and tactical awareness, they’ll seal the entire level and send in enough men and equipment to overwhelm the Jivool,” Alastair said as a maudlin chuckle escaped him. Another burst of laser fire struck the edge of the doorway, forcing him to hunch over the now unconscious Tim to protect him as bright sparks flew in every direction. Without warning, the sheet metal door Alastair was leaning against flew to one side, and he fell backward flat onto his back, his head striking the unyielding floor with a bang, sending stars spiraling across his vision. Instinctively, his pistol flew up ready to engage the new threat, only for his arm to be grasped in a strong, vice-like grip.

“Easy there, Colonel,” said Croll, as he released Alastair’s arm while keeping a wary eye on the flechette pistol in the colonel’s hand.

A sense of relief filled Alastair as a wide grin spread across his face at the sight of the first sergeant. “What took you so long?”

“Traffic’s a bitch today, sir,” replied Croll, looking across to where Jackson was giving Tim a brief but thorough examination. The trooper slipped a hypo spray from the med pouch on his combat rig and pressed against the captain’s neck. Swiftly checking the man’s vitals again, he gave a thumbs-up to Croll. “I’ll need to carry him, but we’re good to go. Nothing here that a night in the med bay can’t fix.”

Croll fixed Alastair with an assessing eye. “Can you move on your own, sir?” Alastair rolled to his feet, shaking the last few stars from his vision before checking the load on his pistol. Under half a magazine left.

“Jackson. Give your weapon to the colonel,” ordered Croll.

In one deft movement, the trooper unclipped his rifle and passed it over. “Locked and loaded, sir.”

Alastair hefted the rifle in his hands, briefly checking the fire selector was on three round bursts, before replying to Croll’s question. “Now I’m ready to go.”

With Croll’s help, Jackson lifted Tim’s limp body over his shoulder. “OK, let’s get the hell out of here.”

It only occurred to Alastair then that he had not asked how the first sergeant and Jackson had managed to reach him. The answer was the jagged hole in the side of the storage room and the corresponding hole in the wall of the neighboring storage facility which opened onto the service corridor, and the end run to the docking bay and the waiting dropship.

The sound of rifle and pistol fire retreated into the distance as Alastair and his small party raced along empty corridors, through the service door into the bay, and up the ramp of the dropship, whose pilots did not even wait for their passengers to get seated or for the ramp to lock into place before applying power and heading for the bay’s outer doors, which opened at a command from Corporal Okoro’s hacking program.

Clear to navigate, the dropship boosted for the Glambring, waiting a few hundred miles away.

“Contact the Glambring,” Alastair ordered Okoro. “Tell them we have wounded and—” Alastair’s eyes fell to the prone, lifeless figure of Trooper Terhune covered by the only thing Okoro had on hand, a dusty and tattered cargo tarpaulin. Alastair’s stomach hardened, and a lump formed in his throat. “And one fatality.”

Alastair forced his gaze away from Terhune’s body and retrieved his slate from his pocket. At some point during his and Tim’s escape, the information download had completed. Closing his eyes, he brought up the file index via his pinplants and the true extent of the amount of information was simply staggering. It would take weeks to go through it all, and Alastair had no idea why Deeral had entrusted him with it. Perhaps the Flatar knew he was dying, and it was a final one-digit act of defiance. Who knew? At the head of the index a single file was highlighted. Kathal.

Alastair opened the file and began reading the summary. Having read it once, he read it again before letting out a low whistle.

In the seat opposite, Croll gave the colonel an inquisitive look, to which Alastair replied with a weak smile. “It looks like Terhune’s sacrifice may not have been in vain.”

When Alastair did not expand any further, Croll decided not to push it. Advantageously, a call from the pilot forestalled any awkward questions.

“Colonel, the Glambring is already underway, and we are accelerating to catch up with her. Captain Kothoo reports that he has secured early departure through the stargate. Looks like he wants to put Ralla Station behind us.”

“Him and me both,” replied Alastair.

* * *

Tim Buchanan opened his eyes with the trepidation that someone who has skirted death on too many occasions tends to. One day, those eyes might open to reveal a place of either wonder and everlasting joy or, more likely in Tim’s occupation as a mercenary, never ending fire and brimstone. As Tim’s eyes revealed his surroundings, it appeared he had cheated death one more time, unless of course, hell had a room especially put aside for him that was an exact duplicate of the Glambring’s sick bay.

The noise of gentle snoring penetrated his pondering, and he rolled his head in the direction of the sound, and for a second Tim did question his surroundings for there, curled in a chair with a blanket draped over her, was a sleeping soundly Anna May Wong. As if aware of his scrutiny, Anna awoke, her jade-green eyes focusing on him as a slow smile formed on her lips.

“Finally awake, sleepy head,” Anna said softly. Her tenderness confused Tim; he felt as though this was the first time he and seen or heard her. No shouting. No arguing. No swapping insults.

Opening his mouth to reply, Tim’s throat felt as though he had gargled dry desert sand. A water bottle on the bedside table caught his attention. Without thought he reached for it with his right hand. He grunted loudly as the wound he had sustained from the Jivool laser round reminded him of its presence.

Seeing what he reached for, Anna uncurled from the chair as elegantly as a ballet dancer and scooped up the water bottle, and offered the straw to Tim’s dry lips and parched throat.

“The doc says the wound was a lot worse than we first thought. It didn’t just burn away the outer dermis, it flash-burned the underlying muscle and a part of the bone. Not to worry though, your nanites, with a little help from the doc and a sprinkling of fairy dust, will have you good as new in a few days. A week tops.” Anna graced him with a blinding smile, and he nearly gagged on the water at how attracted to her he was. Oh Christ, could Alastair have been right when he pointed out that they each had feelings for each other? Surely not. But, how can he explain the tingling in his hands and the lightness in his limbs. Must be the pain killers, thought Tim.

With the water came the ability to speak, and Tim asked the question burning deep in him. “Why?”

Anna gave him a blank look. “Why? Oh, why are you here? I told you, the Jivool laser...” Anna stopped as Tim shook his head.

“No,” Tim said. “Why are you here? You hate me.”

A gurgling laugh escaped her perfect lips. “Hate you?” Another laugh. “Oh, you silly man. I think I love you.”

Tim’s mouth dropped open slackly. Words that made no sense came bubbling out. “But. You. I. We.”

“Ah. I see you are awake, Tim,” called Alastair Sinclair, as he walked into the room reigning himself to a stop as he noticed the interaction between Anna and Tim. “Perhaps I should come back later,” Alastair said hurriedly.

“No need, Colonel,” said Anna. “I’m just leaving.” Turning to Tim, she planted a gentle kiss on his forehead. “We shall finish this conversation later, Captain Buchanan.” And with that, she skipped out of sick bay.

Tim was at a complete loss for words as he ran his left hand through his short hair, slowly shaking his head.

A deeper laugh now filled the room as Alastair enjoyed the confusion of his friend. “If you think that was strange, be grateful you were out of it when we docked the dropship. The airlock was hardly open when she came through it like a Tasmanian Devil. I think Croll still has the bruises and poor Toola was lucky not to be stood on. When the good doctor saw the body of Terhune, she thought it was you, and I swear I have never heard a wail like it. I thought the witches from Macbeth had descended upon us. When Jackson lifted you out of your seat, she was on top of you and hanging on like a mama bear. It took two of us to get her to let go so the medics could haul you off to sick bay. And she’s been camped out here for two days, refusing to leave. I’ll say one thing for her, she is one bloody-minded woman when she wants to be.” Alastair’s short laugh filled the room for a second time. “You’ve got your hands full there, Tim Buchanan. No doubting that. Even Corporal Vega decided it was more than his life was worth to get between the pair of you. He’s been living in the corridor outside.”

Tim was completely baffled by the turn of events, and Alastair could see that he was losing him so snapped him back to reality.

“We need to bring you up to speed as we are already—” Alastair checked the ships chrono, “Fifty-one hours into our journey to Kathal.”

“Who or what is Kathal?” asked Tim, bringing himself back to the business at hand.

“Kathal is, or rather was, a red diamond mine. It’s a fairly large moon, one of seven, in orbit around a gas giant in an otherwise obscure system in the Tolo arm. The atmosphere is breathable with the aid of re-breathers for a limited time, but too long and the skin absorbs the nitrogen-rich atmosphere and it eventually replaces the oxygen in the blood stream. It’s what the old deep-water divers called ‘the bends.’ Not a nice way to go.”

“And why are we headed there? Tell me that little rodent Deeral is not sending us on a wild goose chase,” said Tim.

“On the contrary,” replied Alastair. “According to his files, which admittedly are not overflowing with details, the mine was closed down in a hurry when the Caroon who operated the mine were forced out by none other than our friend General Peepo, when they discovered an ancient Dusman facility. Rumor has it, it was an energy research facility, one which built power sources for Raknar.”

“Rumors are one thing,” Tim said, flapping a hand dismissively. “How many times have we came across so called Dusman artifacts only for them to turn out to be fakes?”

“I would agree with you except for one thing,” Alastair said as he looked Tim directly in the eye. “Would you guard a ‘rumor’ with a battalion of Besquith and declare a no-fly zone within five thousand miles of the moon?”

* * * * *

Chapter Twelve

Heave To For Inspection

The fleeting moment of falling vanished nearly before Charlie Sinclair realized it was upon him. “Damn, you would think after years of traveling the universe I would get used to translation.”

In the seat beside him, Lieutenant Torey McDonald was sitting with her eyes closed as the last flutters left her stomach. “You and me both, Major,” she said sotto voce.

Packed into the too-small cargo pod which had been hastily converted by the Zuparti crew of the Tla’koz, the men and women of First Platoon, Gamma Company, Sinclair’s Scorpions were mumbling and joking among themselves. Charlie was sure that on the opposite side of the tramp freighter Second Lieutenant Stacey Kamala and the members of Second Platoon were doing the exact same thing. If Kamala was suffering any side effects from the transition from hyperspace to normal space, Charlie was willing to bet his last credit that she was doing her damnedest to hide it from Sergeant Deacon. The senior NCO had stepped up to fill the first sergeant post left vacant because First Sergeant Croll had returned to Earth along with Tim Buchanan, Charlie’s second-in-command, to brief Alastair Sinclair directly. Now that all hell had broken loose on Earth after Peepo’s invasion, their whereabouts were unknown.

The half-strangled buzzing of the inter-ship caller mounted on the grime-streaked wall galvanized Charlie into motion. How the hell anything on this tub worked will never cease to amaze me, Charlie thought as he slipped his seat restraints and half bounced, half floated, over to the caller. The Tla’koz had carried virtually no delta-v across from hyperspace, meaning that she was crawling clear of the emergence point. This was not unusual as it was expensive in reaction mass and, therefore, cost to dump speed and alter course, so some ships’ captains preferred to come through emergence points at the lowest navigable speed.

Charlie tapped the accept key, but before he could speak, the excited voice of the Zuparti ship’s captain exploded out of the speaker.

“I wish to renegotiate our contract, Human.”

Charlie tried to disguise his surprise by asking a simple question. “Why?”

The Zuparti rushed on dismissively. “It is of no importance, Human. I am willing to make you a generous offer if you expand our simple transportation contract to one covering anti-piracy operations.”

“Well, what you ask is not something we specialize in—” said Charlie, stalling for time as he sent a message to Torey via his pinplants. “There is something up; the captain wants to employ us, and he is in a hurry to do so. Check the ship’s sensors.”

Torey was sitting in her acceleration couch when she got Charlie’s message. It was a matter of moments to access the ship’s systems as the run-down protective firewalls matched the condition of the rest of the ship. The freighter did not have the best sensor suite in the world, but you could not help noticing the pair of radar returns that were closing in on the Tla’koz. Small and nimble, they screamed pirate. Torey shot the feed over to Charlie who gave a grunt of acknowledgment.

“Your sudden offer would not have anything to do with the pair of vessels that are closing in on us would it?” asked Charlie of the Zuparti, his voice dripping with sarcasm. The silence on the other end of the line was all the answer Charlie needed. “Very well, Captain, consider our contract expanded.”

“Thank you. Thank you. Thank you,” gushed the captain.

“Don’t thank me yet, Captain,” said Charlie. “My payment shall be transport for myself, my men, and all our equipment back to Earth.”

“That is outrageous!” bellowed the Zuparti. “The cost in F11 alone, never mind the lost revenue in missed completion times—”

“Will all be covered by my company on our safe arrival at Earth,” reassured Charlie. Once more the line fell silent. “The clock is ticking captain, and those two pirate ships are getting closer.”

“Very well, Human. You have a deal.”

“A wise decision, Captain. Now do exactly as the pirates tell you and leave the rest up to us.” Without waiting for a reply, Charlie terminated the call and spun to face the expectant face of Torey McDonald.

“Break out the small arms and pressure suits, and let’s get ready to give our unexpected visitors the sort of reception they deserve.”

“What about the two pirate vessels? Even if we take care their boarding party they could simply pull away to a safe distance and blast the crap out of us.”

Charlie paused. Torey had a point, and then an evil grin split his face. The grin, Torey instantly recognized, meant Charlie had settled on one of his impulsive and mad-cap plans.

“We’ll need a couple of anti-armor mines,” Charlie said, as he pulled his haptic suit from his deployment bag and stripped out of his ship suit while he spoke. “Fancy a spacewalk, Lieutenant?”

* * *

Fifteen minutes later Charlie was still breathing hard from the mad rush to get his Mark 8 CASPer out of its transit case and powered up. The Mark 8 may have been smaller than the CASPers that had proceeded it, but it had a fifty percent greater endurance and a new modular system which made swapping out weapons and surveillance systems easy; it was a perfect fit for the Scorpions’ deep reconnaissance work. The state-of-the-art suit was one which Alastair Sinclair had insisted was an investment well worth spending the small fortune each suit had cost the Scorpions. The speed at which Charlie had been able to bring it on line and ready for action justified the expense to Charlie.

Calming his breathing, he double-checked his suit’s power emissions were as low as he dared, just enough for life support, heating, and basic suit functions. Perched where he was on the outer hull of the Tla’koz, held in place by magnetic boot clamps, Charlie watched the approaching pirate ship close with the Zuparti freighter’s bow airlock. A command to the suit caused his Tri-V display to split and show the view from Torey McDonald on the stern. The second pirate vessel was making its own approach to the rear airlock.

Charlie replayed the sole message the pirates had transmitted. No video. Audio only. “Zuparti freighter! Cut your engines and prepare for boarding. Do not resist. Anyone who deviates from my orders will be immediately executed. We only want your cargo. Once we have it you will be free to go. You have my word.”

A pirate’s word indeed, thought Charlie, as he watched the two small craft close. No way they were big enough to handle the amount of cargo the freighter was carrying, and the Zuparti captain was smart enough to know it or he would not have come to us for help.

The pirate ships changed course angling for the bow and stern of the freighter. Classic pincer maneuver, thought Charlie. No doubt the pirates were going to go for the command deck and engineering as their first targets. Take those two areas and you effectively controlled the ship. Any crew who were brave enough to put up a fight could be sealed into whatever section they happened to be in, and that section opened to space. A grisly death which Charlie did not think for a minute the pirates would lose any sleep over. Once they had secured the ship, the pirates had a range of choices. Sell off the cargo and ship or ransom it back to the original owners. As for the crew, their fate was more uncertain. If the ship owners were inclined, they could pay a ransom to secure their employees’ freedom or, more likely, the crew would simply disappear into one of the myriad of slave markets scattered across the Galactic Union. For all its preaching about taking the high moral ground, slavery was still legal in many parts of the Union.

A brief puff of maneuvering jets came from the closing pirate ship, slowing its approach to a bare crawl. Charlie activated his suit’s lidar and allowed it a single scan over the ship. His suit’s onboard computer ran the electronic image against its database and projected its assessment into Charlie’s line of sight. “Hey, Torey, looks like I got a converted Il’ak intersystem tug. Extra external reaction mass tanks and—” Charlie double-checked the suit’s assessment. “A twin railgun mounted in a chin turret that looks like it was welded on by a blind man. Not a fantastic amount of firepower, but enough to turn the Tla’koz into a flying sieve.”

Clamped a few feet from the stern airlock, Torey McDonald assessed her objective. “Same amateur night equipment here, Major. Computer is calling it a tug boat which has been around longer than I think humanity has been out of our caves. This guy has a single, fixed spinal laser, and, with the power output of the tug’s reactors, I think it’s safe to say, it’s somewhere in the ten- to twenty-megawatt range. Easily enough to punch through our ship’s unarmored hull.”

Torey’s opinion was enough for Charlie to be confident his original plan was the correct choice. Switching across to the company command net, Charlie put in a call to Lieutenant Kamala and Sergeant Deacon. “OK, guys, stick with the plan. Let them board. I only need a minute at most for Torey and I do our thing.”

From behind a sheet of replacement hull she was using as a makeshift barricade blocking the access corridor twenty feet from the bow airlock, a pressure-suited Stacey Kamala acknowledged Charlie’s orders before switching channels and addressing the three troopers crouched beside her. “We let them board and advance to within a few feet of us. We need to give the major and Lieutenant McDonald as long as we can, so weapons tight until I give the order.”

The corridor was simply too narrow for all the troopers of Second Platoon to fit into it, and Stacey had deployed the rest to a secondary barrier in case the pirate’s boarding party were able to force their way past her. Sergeant Deacon had a similar block at the stern airlock, though he had deployed the remainder of First Platoon throughout the Tla’koz’s engineering spaces rather than at fixed defense points.

A sound like a hammer hitting a bell was accompanied by a shudder that ran through every frame of the Tla’koz’s hull as the pirate crews used magnetic clamps to secure themselves to the outer airlocks.

“Stand by. Stand by,” said Kamala, settling her laser rifle into a more comfortable position. The smart tech of the weapon projected the aiming dot directly onto the face plate of her light-weight pressure suit. There was no guarantee a random round from either side would not breach the ship’s hull and cause decompression, so the Scorpions had opted to fight in pressure suits. If the pirates were not similarly equipped then that was too bad for them.

The telltale light above the airlock changed from red to green, and Kamala got her first view of the pirates as the heavy door swung to one side. Humanoid in appearance, but beanpole thin with bulbous heads that made them a dead ringer for a child’s stick drawing. Those heads had wrap around, dark glass goggles which completely covered their eyes, and oversized ears located on either side of those bulbous heads. Shortened arms held equally-stumpy weapons. Rapid fire laser carbines each with a wicked looking foot long blade extending beyond the barrel. Each had an ill-fitting utility harness with a random assortment of pouches. There was no sign of body armor.

Shit! thought Kamala. Dragoos. Pirates by choice and slavers for fun of it.

Four of the Dragoo exited the airlock, heads moving from side to side warily as they scanned the corridor. “Probably looking for the captain who was meant to surrender himself to them on entry,” said one of her troopers helpfully.

“Well whatever is slowing them down is good news for the major,” replied Kamala, praying the Dragoo would remain undecided for a few seconds longer.

* * *

Deactivating the magnets holding him to the hull, Charlie applied a gentle amount of pressure to the CASPer’s suit jets and edged clear of the freighter’s hull. Centering his vision on the Dragoo ship, he picked a spot near the rear of the tug where a large square of red was painted around a removable hull plate. If the CASPer’s computer was accurate, then that plate was the emergency plasma vent designed to blow off and allow superheated plasma to escape from the tug’s reactor.

The perfect place to deposit Charlie’s little present.

Ignoring the spinning stars that gave him vertigo, Charlie reoriented the CASPer to allow him to land on the tug beside the red-edged plate feet first.

“Nice and gentle, Charlie,” he said to himself. “Let’s not bounce off and have to go around for a second attempt. Sooner or later those Dragoo are going to run out of patience and go looking for the crew. As soon as his feet touched down, Charlie engaged the magnetic boots and moved onto the second step of his part of the plan. Reaching into the snap-on pouch attached to his leg with both hands, he felt for the twin handles of its contents. Finding them, he pulled the anti-armor mine clear of the pouch. Linking his suit to the mine’s controls, he swiftly programmed it for remote detonation. The blinking red light went solid as the mine’s tiny computer brain acknowledged the command. Satisfied the mine was ready for action, Charlie tethered it to his CASPer while his hands dipped into the pouch again, this time retrieving a can of adhesive. Bending at the waist and knees until he was just a few inches from the hull plate, Charlie sprayed an area roughly the size of the mine’s diameter. The chemicals in the bright blue adhesive bonded at the molecular level with the hull. Untethering the mine, Charlie ensured he pushed it down firmly into the adhesive, which bonded to the mine’s casing in seconds. Stepping back, Charlie admired his handiwork before releasing his boot magnets and jetting back to the Tla’koz.

“Torey, I’m clear; how are you doing?”

“Heading back now, Major. The mine is armed and linked to your CASPer’s fire control.”

“Understood.” Charlie switched to the company-wide frequency. “All Scorpions, this is Scorpion Actual. Light them up!”

* * *

“All Scorpions, this is Scorpion Actual. Light them up!” With the Major’s order resounding in her ear, Kamala squeezed the trigger of her rifle, sending enough energy to melt a steel plate into the chest of the lead Dragoo. Although not as spectacular on impact as other weapons, the vaporization of the Dragoo’s entire chest was, nonetheless, just as satisfying. Switching targets, she dropped another Dragoo, who was unlucky enough to be moving as Kamala’s laser round struck, removing a goodly portion of his lower bowel, hip, and upper leg. A follow-up shot eased his pain forever. The fight for the bow airlock was over before the Dragoo even knew it had begun.

However, the Dragoo aboard the tug must have been watching via remote surveillance because without warning the ship carried out an emergency breakaway maneuver which ripped the still open airlock clean off its mounting, exposing the corridor to space. Air rushed out the tear with the force of a jet engine, pulling anything not tied down with it.

Kamala was swept off her feet before she could activate her mag boots only for the trooper beside her to wrap both arms around her floundering legs before she could be sucked into the depths of space. “I’ve got you, Sir,” came the reassuring voice over her comm over the sound of her racing heart. The screaming quickly dissipated as the air vented into space, leaving the corridor in silent vacuum. With the wild forces of decompression no longer pulling her, Kamala activated her mag boots and felt them reassuringly anchor her to the deck.

Through the gaping rupture left in the Tla’koz’s outer hull by the pirate’s emergency undocking, Kamala watched as the pirate ship rapidly receded. “Don’t think you’ve got away, you bastards. A Scorpion always has a sting in its tail.”

* * *

“Safe distance achieved, Major Sinclair,” said Charlie’s CASPer, as he continued to watch the pirate ship recede. Charlie, like many mercs, had programmed the suit to talk to him in a familiar voice, and his CASPer’s vocalization matched Mhairi’s intonations precisely.

Mhairi’s calming inflections reassured and comforted him. She was never far away, no matter the distance which separated them when he took a contract. Perhaps strange to those who did not live the merc life, but Charlie equated the boost he got from listening to his CASPer to that of an old-time soldier receiving a letter from his sweetheart before the advent of first contact.

It reminded him that no matter where or what he fought, a pair of loving arms awaited his return.

 “Keep going. Keep going. Take your medicine, gather up your toys and go home to play another day,” said Charlie to himself.

“Aspect change on both pirate ships, Major Sinclair. My sensors are detecting fire control radar. The ships are targeting us.”

“Well don’t say I didn’t give you a chance,” Charlie said with an edge of disappointment. “Detonate the mines.”

Traveling at the speed of light, the radio signal reached out from Charlie’s CASPer and was received at virtually the same instant by the mines placed by Torey and himself. Two pounds of C6 explosives warped the copper cone at the mine’s base.

The intense heat and explosive force converted the copper into a stream of super-heated plasma which cut through the pirate’s hull like a hot knife through butter. The plasma flashed through pipework and electrical conduits surrounding each ship’s reactor core.

The interaction of the plasma, the protective casing surrounding it, and the reactor’s own mass was nothing short of cataclysmic. Charlie witnessed two new stars burn brightly in the night sky for a fraction of a second, before the greedy nuclear blast ate its own mass and fizzled to an expanding cloud of gas and hard radiation.

Charlie began the trudge back along the hull to the airlock, hoping there was not too much damage to the hull’s integrity and that a makeshift airlock would be functional soon. The thought of having to evacuate a whole corridor to use as an airlock just seemed such a waste of resources.

“Major Sinclair, the captain is trying to contact you.” Charlies face took on a pinched expression. The Zuparti probably wanted to haggle over the contract now that his ship had sustained damage, no matter how minor it was. No matter. Charlie would haggle over reparations; the important thing was he would hold the captain to his agreement to get Charlie and his troopers home. Though Charlie wondered what to expect when he got there.

“Put him through.”

* * * * *

Chapter Thirteen

Old Friends

Alastair Sinclair perched on the jump seat which had become his in all but name at the rear of the Glambring’s bridge as the frigate made transition back into normal space. Immediately the sensors reached out and the navigation and threat boards began registering contacts.

The Scorpions’ colonel had never pretended to be a naval man; he left that to people like the Glambring’s captain, Captain Kothoo. However, he did know his way around a threat board and noted the bubble superimposed around an area on a planetary object bearing the name Kathal. The tactical computer was calling it an overlapping group of fire control radars which were capable of detecting any air or ground movement out to a range of 220 miles from the mine’s main site, while the Glambring’s radar picked up a number of satellites in geo stationary orbit above the site. From their electronic emissions profile, a number were additional radar detection satellites which were probably providing coverage for the no-fly zone. The remainder had little to no electronic footprint at all so were either dead or, if the Besquith were serious about nobody coming within five thousand miles of the moon, were missile- or laser-equipped defense satellites. This was going to be a tough nut to crack, thought Alastair. On the bright side, there did not appear to be any other warships in the system nor, for that matter, anything in the way of interstellar shipping. Releasing his restraints, Alastair pushed off from his seat and deftly snagged the corner of Kothoo’s seatback before he swung his feet down to the deck and engaged his mag boots to hold him there.

“Well, we’re here,” said the elSha captain. “And, from the lack of radio traffic asking about our business here, I’d say there is no system government. Mind you, with the amount of electromagnetic interference created by that gas giant, authorities may not notice our arrival. Now what?”

There’s a good question, thought Alastair as he took in the various planets of the system floating sedately in the captain’s navigation Tri-V. Fifteen moons made up the gas giant’s own solar system, similar to Jupiter’s back home; a bright, white ring encircled the third one. That would be Kathal then. “Well, the Cartography Guild catalog states there are no planets with a breathable atmosphere in this system.”

“Breathable by Humans,” corrected the elSha.

“I stand corrected, Captain,” said Alastair, slightly embarrassed by his inadvertent Human prejudice toward races from oxygen-rich planets.

“None the less, Colonel,” Kothoo went on tactfully ignoring Alastair’s comment. “The Caroon who originally established the mine on Kathal were oxygen breathers like ourselves, so the nitrogen rich atmosphere of the moon would be as unhealthy for them as it would be for ourselves. Though there are a number of species who would be equally at home in that atmosphere as we are in our own, the majority of races in the Galactic Union prefer a more oxygenated environment.”

“Including the Besquith guarding the research facility, never mind the various scientists and technicians,” said Alastair, as he got an inkling of where Kothoo was going with his line of thinking.

“Exactly, Colonel,” Kothoo stated, as he tapped a finger on another of the gas giant’s moons which expanded until it filled the majority of the Tri-V. “Moon 5 has an atmosphere which can sustain our form of life. The Cartography Guild don’t appear to have ever got around to giving it a name. What it does have, however—” Kothoo enhanced the image once more until smudges on the surface resolved themselves into easily recognizable shapes. “Is a medium-sized settlement complete with a couple of landing pads. If I were to hazard a guess, I would bet troops or scientists looking for R and R would be right here.”

Alastair eyed the settlement’s buildings, landing pads, and neat lines of agricultural fields. If they were to find a safe way onto Kathal, then a loose tongue from the settlement was their best bet.

“Still, a frigate arriving in this area of space without good reason is bound to raise suspicions,” said Alastair, as his forehead wrinkled in uncertainty.

“Who said we were a frigate?” the elSha captain said as he turned to his tactical officer. “Select Ghost Program Three, Tactical.”

Tactical tapped a command into his station then sat back. “Ghost Program Three engaged, sir.”

Kothoo looked at Alastair and chortled. “Our transponder now confirms that we are the Pillos, a Sidar trading vessel. And—” Kothoo touched a control on his armrest, an image of a wiry haired being with a large bony head and leathery wings filled the captain’s Tri-V. “Meet Captain Yesh’al.” As Kothoo spoke the Sidar’s mouth mirrored him.

Alastair nodded appreciatively. “Impressive.”

“I can take credit for the original idea, but the brains behind it is Doctor Wong’s assistant, Larras. That Jeha is a master programmer, never mind a skilled engineer.”

“So, as long as you keep any visitors out of visual range, no one will suspect that a Winged Hussars’ warship is in the vicinity?” mused Alastair.

“With the range of dropships and the number of moons in orbit…I’m confident that I can keep Glambring away from prying eyes,” replied Kothoo.

Alastair looked back at the small settlement hovering in the navigational display. “Let’s pay it a visit then!” said Alastair, and returned to his seat as the Glambring brought her drive online and headed for Moon 5.

* * *

“Hang on back there folks, this is going to get a little bumpy,” called the dropship pilot to his three passengers a few seconds before the entire craft seemed to drop vertically until the straining engines caught the ship and the pilots regained control. Looking around him, Alastair saw that his companions were outwardly making light of the heavy turbulence. Without warning the entire dropship was flung violently to one side, tipping the ship up onto one wing. Alastair was pushed back into his seat while directly ‘above’ him First Sergeant Croll’s limbs flopped loosely ‘downwards’ before the dropship righted itself.

“Helluva ride, eh, Colonel?” Croll grinned as Trooper Jackson, sitting beside him, tried in vain to cover his mouth with the affectionately known ‘barf bag’ before losing his breakfast onto the floor.

For a moment, a feeling of regret passed over Alastair as he thought of the downcast face of Tim Buchanan when he had told the man that he would not be accompanying Alastair to the surface. Tim had been about to argue his case when Anna Wong succinctly pointed out that the med tech had recommended at least another twenty-four hours of nanite and regen-therapy before doing any strenuous activity or risk causing more damage which would lead to another stay in sick bay. Realizing this was an argument that he was going to lose, Tim had reluctantly withdrawn his request to accompany Alastair but had insisted the colonel take not one but two troopers as escort. Hence Croll and Jackson’s presence in the dropship.

“They’ll not let you fly with them again if you don’t clean that up you know,” Croll cautioned Jackson with a half laugh.

Jackson wiped his mouth with the empty barf bag. “I’m sure the fly boys do this on purpose. It’s probably a bright sunny day outside and they are just fucking with us,” he moaned.

The sound of the engines screaming lessened as the pilots eased back on the power and the dropship’s flight profile smoothed off. “We’re through the worst of it now. Landing pads are in sight, and I would like to thank you all for flying Winged Hussars today and look forward to seeing you again,” came the jovial voice of the pilot.

“Smart arse,” grumbled Jackson.

Minutes later, the dropship touched down smooth as a feather, the engine noise dying away completely. Croll was up and at the ramp controls, hand hovering over the release switch, as he looked to Alastair for permission.

With a nod from Alastair, Croll mashed the ramp control panel, and, with a hydraulic whine, the ramp dropped smoothly until it touched the concrete surface of the landing pad. The wind sweeping across the pad whipped up the dust into tiny dust devils which appeared and disappeared at random. Croll went down the ramp and his head did a quick but thorough three-sixty as he searched for threats.

Satisfied nothing was going to jump out and start blasting at them, he shouted over to Jackson who was repeating Croll’s action on the far side of the dropship. “Go see if you can scare up any transport,” ordered Croll, having to shout to be heard over the whistling wind.

Rather than shout an acknowledgment, Jackson flashed a thumbs up and jogged off to the nearest building.

Alastair paused at the bottom of the ramp, looked up at the alien sky, and marveled at the complexity of the universe. The massive gas giant filled a little under half the sky at this point of Moon 5’s rotation and was close enough that it looked like you could reach out and touch it. It was massive enough that it could swallow up nearly fifteen hundred planets the size of Earth, and the giant hung like some malevolent being ready to unleash its fury and consume the small world that Alastair now stood upon. If that was not disconcerting enough, four more moons were visible to the naked eye. Focusing on the second most distant, Alastair tried to make out details but Kathal was simply too distant to pick out the Science Guild research base without artificial aid.

“Everything good, Colonel?” asked Croll through the thin membrane filtering out the microscopic dust particles carried in the stiff breeze. His eyes were hidden behind protective lenses. Moon 5 may have been habitable, but that did not mean it was a Garden of Eden. Life here was hard here, but it was better than living within Kathal’s atmosphere, which could kill you in minutes.

“Yeah, no problems here, Ethan,” answered Alastair. “And try to remember that we are prospectors working on behalf of the Sidar looking to scope out the feasibility of setting up an F11 extraction plant in this system. So, first names only, understood?”

“Roger that, Colonel—” Croll paused as he corrected himself. “Understood, Alastair.” Using the colonel’s first name just sounded—wrong to him; however, he would have to get used to it.

Jackson rejoined them. “This whole place is shut up tighter than a Cartar’s bum hole.”

The image of the underwater race that looked like an octopus had mated with a squid came unbidden to Alastair’s mind. Dismissing it, he scanned the buildings ringing the landing pad. “Abandoned or just closed up for the day, Gregor?” By Jackson’s momentary pause before answering, Alastair guessed the trooper was having the same difficulty with his colonel addressing him by his first name.

“Eh—I would say closed up rather than abandoned, eh—Alastair.” The sound of a harrumph from Croll reached Alastair over the sound of the wind before Jackson continued. “I took a look in through some of the building’s windows and a few of the terminals are still on, so somebody is using them and either forgot or didn’t care about turning them off before leaving.”

“Transport?” asked Croll.

The trooper shook his head. “Nothing.”

Alastair straightened his jacket while attempting to access the local GalNet. The cursor floating in his right eye continued to blink for a few seconds before a message was displayed. ‘No local access.’ Alastair dismissed the message, pulling his slate from beneath his knee length jacket and bringing up an aerial view of the settlement. “This building here near the town center has a cluster of vehicles around it, so I vote we head there and see what we find.”

“Sounds like a plan, Alastair,” agreed Croll.

Decision made, the three Scorpions headed into town.

As the three men walked, Alastair was struck by how ramshackle the buildings and the street furniture were. In the modern Galactic Union, everything revolved around money, and it looked very much like that when the red diamond mine had ceased operating, the majority of the population, or at least those who could afford it, simply upped sticks and left, leaving everyone who was barely scratching a living out of the ground, such as the arable farmers, to get on with it.

Occasionally the men would pass a building or home where a stray light would cast its shadow across the cracked and pot-holed surface of the sidewalk. There would be the fleeting image of a shadowy figure or a muffled shout to move away from the window before the light was extinguished.

“Looks like they are not too friendly around here,” said Croll.

“Or scared of visitors,” Alastair said as an occupant doused another light as they passed the crumbling facade of a dwelling.

The town was not a large affair, emphasized by the fact it only took the Scorpions around ten minutes to walk from the landing pads to the nominal town center. Standing with the wind tugging at his jacket, surrounded by darkened buildings, Alastair wondered if coming here had been a colossal waste of time. Then he heard a faint sound of what he generously called music, barely audible over the noise of the wind. Pulling his hood down, Alastair cupped his hands behind his ears as he strained to locate the source of the music. Satisfied he had a general direction, he re-covered his head. It now had a generous amount of grit on it which was slowly working its way down his neckline.

Alastair set off in the direction of the sound, trailed by Croll and Jackson. Going down a narrow side street Alastair was rewarded by the sight of a blinking, gaudy neon sign winking on and off like some distant lighthouse warning unwary mariners of an impending danger. Scattered around seemingly at random in the street was a variety of ground and air transport vehicles. This would be the building from the aerial image, surmised Alastair. As they got closer, the music got louder and, as the incessant wind dropped momentarily, a yelping laugh cut through the music. Besquith!

“Well, looks like we may be in the right place,” said Jackson having to raise his voice to be heard over the resurgent wind.

Alastair looked up at the blinking sign which was randomly rotating through the multiple languages prevalent in the Union, proudly announcing the name of the establishment. Automatically Alastair’s interpretation software converted the sign to English for him. ‘The Red Fox.’ Has to be a bar, thought Alastair as he wondered for a moment at the choice of name. It seemed very…Human. And what would a Human being be doing this far out in the Union? Nobody had really been out this way since the Alpha Contracts over a hundred years ago. Maybe a member of another race had heard the phrase somewhere and liked the sound of it.

Dismissing the thought, Alastair waved a hand for the men to follow him and covered the last few steps to the building’s entrance. The exterior of the building looked as badly maintained as the rest of the town; however, the door panel glowed invitingly, and Alastair obligingly tapped it.

With a whoosh, the door slid back to reveal a well-lit airlock type affair roughly ten feet by ten feet. The floor and ceiling were constructed of fine mesh, which looked like there was no way in hell it could support the weight of a grown man—never mind three—however, looks can be deceiving, and Alastair stepped confidently into the small room. Once all three men had entered, the outer door closed, shutting off the sound of the incessant wind, which only allowed the raucous music to assault their ears. From below the mesh they were standing on, strong fans whirred to life. Around them the dust from their clothes danced in the air before being sucked away by the extraction system built into the room’s ceiling. Well that makes sense at least, thought Alastair. You needed to keep the copious amounts of dust carried in the air out somehow.

The fans died abruptly, their task completed, and the inner door slid to one side, allowing the deep, booming music to assault them like a physical thing. Alastair raised his arms, slipping his hood down while removing his goggles and placing them securely in a pocket. The thought of walking back to the landing pads through the mini dust storm outside without eye protection was not an appealing one. Alastair’s eyes took a moment to adjust to the dimly-lit interior of what was obviously a bar. At least a dozen Besquith, armed with a mix of laser and chemically-propelled sidearms, were gathered around a music terminal howling along to whatever the hell was coming from its speakers while slurping from glass mugs full of a green liquid that looked like the rejected scum of a waste recycling plant.

Alastair ran his eye over the remaining patrons of the bar, and it was your typical eclectic mix of Union races. Short framed elSha, multi-tentacled Bakulu, Jeha scampering across the floor holding plates of mush which Alastair recognized as a delicacy, having seen Doctor Wong’s assistant Larras devouring it back on the Glambring. There was even a sprinkling of Zuul who were either strolling around the bar on their rear legs or had assumed their more lackadaisical quadruped method of movement.

Ethan Croll had been viewing the crowd also, and he leaned into Alastair to speak in a low voice. The loud music easily ensured that anybody not standing directly beside the two men would ever overhear their conversation, but why take chances. “Notice how only the Besquith are armed and everybody else is making a point of not making eye contact with them?”

Alastair scanned the crowd again, verifying Croll’s observation. “You think the Besquith are their guards, Ethan?”

“Guards, escorts, call it what you will. One thing is for sure,” said Ethan. “If the Besquith said ‘jump’ everybody in here would ask ‘how high?’”

To one side of the entry door there was a small booth with a very bored-looking Zeewie slumped over the counter. “Drop your jackets in here, we don’t want all that crap from outside being dragged everywhere. It will only give me more work to do when we close up, and I have enough to do tidying up after those mutts.” The Zeewie inclined its head toward the howling Besquith, and its pink nose twitched in apparent disgust.

“Sure thing,” said Ethan, unsealing his jacket and letting it slip off his shoulders to reveal the PS6 pistol hanging at his waist. The Zeewie’s black on black eyes went wide at the sight of the weapon and, if anything, got wider as Gregor Jackson’s jacket opened to reveal another of the deadly People Stoppers.

Ethan gave the rodent his most reassuring smile. “Company policy I’m afraid. Quote ‘All personnel engaged in prospecting operations on behalf of the Eili Corporation must be armed while visiting an unfamiliar planet, moon, or orbiting station.’ Unquote.” Ethan moved closer to the diminutive Zeewie, taking a quick glance about before whispering conspiratorially to him. “I reckon it’s because they could not get insurance for us if we were not armed, then anything that goes wrong is all our fault leaving the corporation off the hook and indemnity free.”

Reassured by Ethan’s explanation, the Zeewie took the opportunity to engage in some corporation bashing. “I know exactly what you mean, friend. I was employed in the red diamond mine on Kathal, a supervisor I was, until the owners just closed the whole damn thing down. They left a shitload of us without cash to pay for a ticket out of here. So, here I am, saving every last credit I can to buy my way off this rock.”

“Damn, man,” said Ethan sympathetically, immediately recognizing a potential source of intelligence that only needed a friendly shoulder to cry on. “A friend of mine had that happen to him when some Cochkala aligned with the Wathayat dumped his sorry ass out in the Centaur Region. Tell you what, why don’t we get ourselves a drink, and you can tell me all about it?” The Zeewie looked at Ethan uncertainly until Ethan produced his Yack. “Hell, I’ll even buy the first round or two.”

“Now you’re talking,” grinned the Zeewie.

Alastair tapped Ethan on the shoulder to get his attention. “We’re going to find a seat, Ethan.”

“Sure, sure. I’ll be over in a minute,” Ethan said dismissively while whispering something to the Zeewie that made the little rodent squeak with laughter.

Leaving Ethan to interrogate the talkative employee, Alastair and Gregor made their way across to the main bar area, dodging the occasional worse for wear patron as they did. Reaching the bar, they found that their Veetch bartender was as about interested in his job as the Zeewie and, although he had undoubtedly seen them, he ignored their presence while he continued a conversation with a Bakulu who was holding a drink in two of its tentacles and employing a third to emphasize what must have been an enthralling story.

“Service is pretty poor around here,” commented Alastair, to which Gregor decided to take matters into his own hands, reaching over the counter top and retrieving a pair of none-too-clean glasses, placing one in front of Alastair and the other on the counter in front of himself. With still no reaction from the Veetch, Gregor’s hands disappeared over the top of the counter once more only to reappear holding a half-filled bottle of a brownish liquid. Unsealing the cork, Gregor held it under his nose and gave the contents a sniff, regretting the action instantly as a powerful odor cleared his sinuses and threatened to burn the back of his throat clean out.

“You might not want to try that again, son; it’s likely to leave you looking for a new pair of lungs,” came a deep, booming voice with an accent that neither Scorpion had heard in what felt like a lifetime. The Scottish brogue cut clear through the background music, even managing to overwhelm the yapping of the Besquith.

Alastair’s head spun in the direction of the voice, and his eyes went wide as they fell upon something behind the bar which, if you were only to see the head, you would happily have taken for a Human male, even with the obvious prosthetic eye, which burned like a laser out of the darkness of its socket. It felt like Alastair had lost control of his own eyes as they moved down the man’s neck onto a torso partially covered in loose-fitting clothing. Where there should have been flesh and blood, skin and bones, there was instead metal alloy joined haphazardly to the original flesh. Arms, bare from the elbow down, showed signs of being supplemented under the skin by artificial aids.

“Aye, as you can see, laddie, there’s not much left of the man I used to be and over the years I’ve made do with what’s at hand to keep me alive.” A low, rumbling laugh—a mixture of sadness and melancholy—filled the air. “Not many decent cybernetic surgeons out this far.”

Alastair shook himself, dragging his gaze back to the man’s face. The one still-Human bright blue eye stared back at him, assessing him. “Alastair Sinclair,” he said by way of introduction, nodding toward Gregor. “And this is Gregor Jackson. Arrived in the system a couple of hours ago. Doing some preliminary work to see if it’s worth our boss’ time and money investing in an F11 extraction and purification refinery operation here.”

The man’s eye maintained its steady gaze for a few seconds more before it blinked, and the man thrust out a gloved hand. “You can call me Oren.” The name was pronounced with the rolling Rs of the Scottish Highlands, so it came out more like Orrren. Alastair gripped Oren’s hand firmly, feeling the distinctive unnatural outline of metal beneath the cloth.

“Prospectors you say?” Oren pointed toward Gregor’s sidearm. “Packing a bit heavy for that are you not?”

“Company policy,” interjected Gregor, preparing to go through Ethan Croll’s explanation from earlier, only for a sardonic expression from Oren to stop him in his tracks.

“Of course it is, laddie. Of course, it is.” Oren reached under the bar and produced a bottle of clear liquid and slammed it down in front of Gregor. “Now stop yer jabbering and drink some of that while I speak to yer boss will yae.”

Suitably rebuked, Gregor unstopped the bottle and poured himself a generous helping of the lighter brown liquid, sniffing tentatively before taking a sip. Fire burned its way from his lips, across his tongue, down his throat, and slammed into his belly.

Oren let out another of his deep laughs as Gregor coughed hard enough that it felt as if his lungs were about to come out of his mouth.

“Have yae no had decent whisky before? I make that one myself and it’s only about 110 proof. Not even enough to put hairs on yer chest, man.”

Ignoring the still spluttering Gregor, Oren returned his attention to Alastair. “And I take it that fella gossiping like an old fisherman’s wife to yon wee Zeewie of mine is wh’ay you, too?”

Alastair looked across to where Ethan Croll was engaged in deep conversation with the Zeewie that had relieved them of their jackets when they had first come in. “That would be correct Oren. Ethan Croll, my chemical engineering expert.”

“Inquisitive lot, aren’t you?”

Alastair shrugged while keeping his face expressionless. “My bosses like us that way.”

“I’m sure they do, Alastair, though yae might want tae be a wee bit careful around some of my more—” Oren cast his eye toward the yapping and howling Besquith. “Aggressive patrons.”

“Yeah I saw them when we came in,” said Alastair in a low voice. “Surprised to see mercs around here. I thought the red diamond mine was closed.”

“That it is, Alastair. That it is.” Oren waved one artificial hand in a wide sweeping motion. “But as yae can see I’m busier than ever.”

Alastair decided to press his line of questioning. “And why would that be, Oren? Did somebody take over the mine?”

Oren let out his now-familiar deep, bass laugh. “Yae could say that, laddie. Would you be spending the night?”

Alastair was momentarily taken aback by Oren’s sudden change of direction, but recovered quickly. “We’d planned to return to our ship tonight. She’s carrying out a geographical survey of Moon 14 to see if it could sustain our refinery.” In fact, the Glambring was hiding a lot closer, just a hop, skip, and a jump by stellar standards, in orbit around the neighboring moon, Moon 4.

“14 would be all the way around the far side of the gas giant at this time of year. It would take hours in yon wee dropship of yours.”

It never occurred to Alastair to wonder how Oren was aware of their method of arrival, he was too busy wondering why the Scotsman would suggest they spend the night. Well there was only one way to find out. “I think that’s a great idea Oren. It’ll give me a chance to pick your brains about what support facilities we can expect to get from this town.”

Oren reached over and gave Alastair’s shoulder a friendly slap. “Och! Sure, we can jabber on over a drink after we close up and—” Throwing a look at the mixed crowd in the bar. “After this lot head back to their rooms.”

A Besquith banged his glass on the bar halfway between Oren and the Veetch bartender who was busily serving his friend the Bakulu. “Duty calls,” said Oren, heading down the bar.

“Gregor,” Alastair said, beckoning the man over. Gregor looked happy to place his drink down even though he had been nursing his second glass for the entire duration of Alastair and Oren’s conversation. “Head back to the dropship and tell the pilots we are going to overnight here. Grab our go bags and bring them back here.”

“Understood, Colonel.” The words were out before his brain realized he had said them. Both men looked around furtively to see if they had been overheard, and Alastair’s eyes locked on one single, bright blue eye staring straight at him. Oren gave Alastair a curt nod before returning to serving the Besquith. Had the man overheard Gregor’s slip of the tongue? Surely the background noise had covered his mistake? Still, Oren’s single eye seemed to have a playful glint to it.

Alastair decided that it was something to worry about later as he reached for the bottle sitting beside Gregor’s abandoned glass. Pouring himself a shot, he threw it back. The fiery liquid was certainly a kicker. Perhaps he should order something less potent. Catching the eye of the Veetch, he ordered a Crassian beer and settled back to await Gregor’s return.

* * * * *

Chapter Fourteen

Nothing To Do But Wait

The Glambring’s gym was deserted late at night, which was why Tim liked working out then. Alone with his thoughts, he had time to think without being interrupted by the endless platitudes dictated by military protocol if other Scorpion troopers or members of the Glambring’s crew were about.

It also allowed him to listen to his somewhat quirky taste in music without having it funneled directly into his brain via his pinplants. There was just something to be said for listening to twentieth century heavy metal music through thrumming speakers, the sound waves bouncing off your skin and making the thin hairs on your arms stand on end.

Angus Young’s guitar solo from AC/DC’s 1981 hit “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” was in full swing and Tim’s running legs pounded on the running machine’s rotating belt as he increased his pace to match the beat of the song. Through his panting, he struggled to get the words of the song out. The AC/DC song was the unofficial anthem of the Scorpions and Tim had not met a trooper yet who could not repeat the entire song from memory.

In Scorpion lore, the song had been a favorite of Duncan Sinclair, founder of the Scorpions, who had played it incessantly during the PT sessions of the original Sinclair’s Scorpions recruits as he said it got their blood up.

Well, it was sure as hell working with Tim as his feet pounded remorselessly on the moving belt of the machine while he tried without success to put thoughts of Alastair, Ethan Croll, and Gregor Jackson out of his head. The communication they had received via the pilots of the dropship while the Glambring lurked in low orbit of the airless Moon 4 had simply stated that the group had made contact with a person of interest and would be spending the night on-planet to follow up.

Having nothing more to go on, Tim had decided to err on the side of caution and have a Quick Reaction Force of ten CASPer equipped troopers on five minutes notice to move for the duration of the colonel’s stay on planet. Effectively, this meant that either Lieutenant Caroline Verley’s Third or Lieutenant Gonzalez Rivero’s Support Platoon were living in the second dropship for eight hour shifts, ready at a moment’s notice to head in and extract the colonel and his companions if they found themselves in a shooting match.

In the middle of the song’s finale it died suddenly, and Tim’s head jerked around to see who had had the audacity to interrupt him, only for the sudden change of balance to cause him to miss step, flinging him bodily from the machine to crash into an unflattering heap on the gym’s floor.

“You do know that it is highly recommended that you allow the machine to come to a full stop before you get off it?” Anna Wong said with a gurgling laugh as she sauntered over to the embarrassed mercenary and offered her hand to help him up.

Ignoring her, Tim pulled himself into a sitting position while rubbing at his elbows and knees which had bounced off the floor on his way down, trying to ignore the hot flush that was creeping across his cheeks. Since waking from his medically-induced coma while the meds and nanites healed the injuries he had sustained during the firefight with the Jivool on Ralla Station, Tim had been trying to come to some understanding of his feelings for Anna. Her sudden and unexpected outburst that she was in love with him had floored him.

During the intervening five days, the two had become near constant companions in their down time. Tim had even sneaked off early from CASPer drills to meet Anna for meals. Something which, he had no doubt, Alastair Sinclair and the other Scorpions troopers were politely ignoring. As for Anna, aside from tinkering with the Glambring’s propulsion systems and having deep technical discussions with Larras, her Jeha engineer, she had little in the way of work to keep her occupied until the Scorpions were able to secure the as-yet-unidentified new power source. Which, if the Flatar information broker Deeral was to be believed, was located on Kathal, barely three hundred thousand miles distant from where the Glambring hovered in the radar back scatter of the high mountains of Moon 4.

“Now that you have attempted to put me back in sick bay, how can I help you, Doctor Wong?” Tim said with as much sarcasm as he could muster while sitting on his rear end.

“Well, Captain Buchanan, since we are being so formal. Larras may have discovered something which could be of assistance getting us onto Kathal unobserved.”

“Oh,” said Tim. He still scratched himself occasionally in an automated response to the powdered Kanara seeds which had somehow found their way into his CASPer. “What has that spawn of Loki come up with?”

A faint, pained expression came over Anna’s face at Tim’s reference to the ancient Norse god of mischief. “You did throw him in the brig, Tim, after all.”

Tim held his hands up in supplication. “OK, I’ve already apologized to that little—” The admonishing look on Anna’s face prevented Tim from saying what was on the tip of his tongue. Instead he went with, “Brilliant engineer who has no equal anywhere in the entire Union.”

Anna’s smile was a reward in itself. “Flattery will get you everywhere, Tim Buchanan,” she teased.

God, I hope so, thought Tim, as a smile of his own tugged at his lips, and his eyes ran appreciatively down Anna’s lithe body. Catching her still smiling at him as if she could read his mind, Tim decided to get back to business. “So, are you going to share this great revelation?” he asked.

“Well, Larras had noticed that the Glambring’s reactors had been experiencing some minor—and I mean minuscule—fluctuations. Beyond what we should normally see during routine operations,” explained Anna. Tim could already tell that this was going to go above his head but decided to let her carry on until he was completely lost. “Carrying out a diagnostic of the reactor system, he could not discover a cause for these fluctuations, so he widened the scope of his search.” Yep, definitely got too much time on his hands, thought Tim. “And guess what?” Anna asked excitedly.

“What?” replied Tim, doing a very poor job of mimicking her excitement, an action which earned him a disapproving look.

Glambring is being bombarded by radio waves in the 0.6 to 30 megahertz range,” Anna stated.

Tim jumped to his feet, eyebrows drawing together. “Is it some form of search radar? Have we been detected?” he demanded, only for Anna to let out a short, snorting laugh.

“No, not at all. It’s a completely natural phenomenon. The moon we are using to mask our presence sits within the gas giant’s magnetosheath, a part of the magnetosphere. When this region interacts with the solar winds it causes the magnetosheath to release intense radio waves. Once the moon passes out of this region the radio waves drop off to a more normal level.”

Tim’s forehead creased as he tried to see the relevance. “And how does this help us get to Kathal undetected?”

“Oh Tim. Sometimes you military types should pick up a physics book once in a while,” Anna admonished him. “Kathal is on the same orbital plane as we are, only a few hundred thousand miles behind us, so in a couple of hours it will be entering the same region of the magnetosheath that we are in now and the intense radio waves will—”

Suddenly it clicked with Tim. “Will play merry hell with the radar detection systems protecting the facility.”

“There you go,” said Anna, like she was congratulating a kindergarten student who had successfully learned to write their own name. “Who said all you military types were just muscle bound, knuckle draggers?”

If he heard Anna’s derogatory comment, Tim chose to ignore it. “How frequently will their radar systems be affected?”

Now it was Anna’s turn to wrinkle her brow as she attempted to recall the figures Larras had come up with. “Eh, about four hours in every completed orbit.”

“I could kiss that little Jeha,” cried Tim. “But since he’s not here—” Tim wrapped his arms around Anna and pulled her close, kissing her full, red lips with a passion and desire that surprised both of them. Eventually, the need to breath forced them to separate.

“I need to go…speak to Captain Kothoo,” Tim managed.

Anna’s hand went to her throat, stoking it gently, not trusting herself to speak.

Tim reached out and touched Anna’s cheek softly with his outstretched fingers. “I’ll find you later,” he promised, dropping his hand and heading for the exit.

Anna watched him go, her knees loosening and feeling weak. As Tim passed through the door, Corporal Vega poked his head in. Her ever-present shadow’s normally stolid features were split by something she had never seen him do before. Vega smiled and gave her a knowing wink. Anna felt her toes curling in embarrassment. Tim Buchanan had a lot to answer for, she thought.

* * *

If Alastair Sinclair had any thoughts of an early night, he was sadly mistaken. For the better part of four hours he had sat and nursed one drink after another, doing his best not to look too much out of place while the mixed gathering of alien races surrounding him had gone from slightly inebriated to roaring drunk. Eventually, though, even the Besquith had their fill and their leaders rounded up their charges and hustled them out the door of ‘The Red Fox.’

Oren locked the inner door with an audible sigh as he made his way over to where Alastair was perched on a stool, which best suited his Human frame. Ethan Croll and Gregor were seated in a booth, showing an inordinate amount of interest in a slate which was purporting to show the latest test results from their fictional research ship, relayed to them via the dropship which sat quietly on the landing pad at the edge of the small town. If anyone had been at all interested in what the men were actually viewing and decided to tap into the link from the dropship, they would have found a three-year-old soccer match between Ethan’s and Gregor’s favorite teams. As both men already knew the result—a win for Ethan’s team—it was hardly surprising that Gregor’s face reflected his despondent mood while Ethan’s had a distinctly devilish look.

“Yon man of yours, Ethan, seems awful happy aboot yon geological results, Alastair,” commented Oren, as he sat heavily on the stool beside Alastair. The metal gave a loud squeal in protest.

Alastair spared a glance for Ethan and Gregor before returning his attention to Oren. “What can I say? He’s a man happy with his work.”

Oren fixed Alastair with that single piercing blue eye. “And what line of work did yae say you were in again, Colonel?”

Alastair felt his muscles go rigid as his posture stiffened. Damn, Oren had somehow overheard Gregor’s slip, even in a crowded bar.

By way of explanation, Oren tapped his prosthetic eye. “Micro laser ranging. Picked up the young lad’s voice waves striking the glass in his hand and read the vibrations. Kind of like you would use a laser mike to listen into a conversation in a room by bouncing it off the glass window. Over the years, I’ve kinda got into the habit of listening to my various guests. Especially those—” Oren indicated Alastair’s holstered sidearm, “—with shiny new PS6 pistols, and who carry them like they know how to use them.”

Alastair raised his glass to Oren in mock salute at the man’s deductive process. “Guilty as charged, Oren.”

The bar owner sat back with a misshapen, incomplete, smug look on his face as the Human side tried to grin, while the plastic/metal side did a very poor imitation, resembling more a glower than a grin.

Tipping a shot from the still-half-full bottle into his glass, Alastair said, “How about we make a deal? I’ll tell you why I’m really here, if you tell me how a Scotsman ended up on the other side of the galaxy with a body that looked like it had been put back together by someone with spares he had lying around.”

If Alastair had been intending on getting a rise out of Oren, he was mistaken, for the man let out one of his signature deep basso laughs. “Laddie, I have been on this moon since before yer daddy’s daddy was a glint in his daddy’s eye, so don’t think yae can pull one over on me.” Oren lifted his own glass with his Human hand and downed it in one easy motion, reaching for the bottle to refill it. Eying Alastair’s still full glass, he gave Alastair a chagrined look. “Are yae gonna drink that or hug it like an old woman, lad?”

Resigning himself to having to drink the fiery liquid, Alastair gave a small prayer of thanks to the man who invented the nanites which flowed through his bloodstream and would remove the alcohol before it left him prostrate on the bar floor. Emptying the glass, he slammed it on the bar and let out a loud gasp. The nanites might stop him getting falling-down drunk, but they could not stop him feeling the initial effects, and this whisky felt like paint stripper on the way down his throat. Oren immediately filled the glass again.

“Well, Alastair, I’m all ears,” said Oren.

“How much do you know about what’s going on at home?” asked Alastair.

Oren’s Human eye closed as if he was struggling to remember something, his voice was flat and wistful. “I’ve no been hame in a lang, lang time, Alastair. And, as yae huv probably gathered, we don’t huv GalNet oot here, so we’re mare reliant on gossip than actual news.”

It dawned on Alastair that Oren might not know about Peepo and the Mercenary Guild’s invasion of Earth. Nor the fact the Four Horsemen and the other Human mercs had been forced to flee.

“You’d better have another drink, Oren, for I have a tale to tell you that might be hard to swallow. My name is Alastair Sinclair, but my real job is Colonel of a Human merc outfit called Sinclair’s Scorpions. A little under a month ago, Earth was invaded by the Mercenary Guild under the command of the Veetanho General, Peepo…”

* * *

By the time Alastair had finished his tale, the remaining half of the whisky bottle had been consumed, primarily by Oren.

“I never trusted them pesky wee beasts, yae ken? Never trust a man when yae cannae see he’s eyes, ma Da used tae say and he wis right.” Oren emptied his glass and reached behind the bar to retrieve another full bottle of whisky. Uncorking the bottle, he poured himself a fresh glass and offered to top up Alastair’s, an offer Alastair politely refused. It was not that he was feeling the effects of the alcohol—his nanites ensured he remained stone cold sober—it was just that his throat was feeling the effects, and he would rather maintain the ability to talk.

“So, wit are yae going tae do aboot it, Alastair? Are the three of yae going tae take on the whole Union single-handed?” Oren leaned in close, and Alastair smelled the whisky on his breath. “Or are yae maybe here tae steal witever yon aliens are working on over on Kathal?” Oren’s good eye scrutinized Alastair’s reaction. When he didn’t get one, the bar owner changed tact. “Do yae know how I came up with the name of the bar, Alastair?” he asked.

The bar’s name and the fact that a Human, never mind a Scotsman, was running it was a question that Alastair had been curious about all evening.

Oren took Alastair’s silence as leave to continue. “Yer no’ the only man who came oot tae the stars tae seek his fortune, Alastair. I may only be half the man I used to be—” Oren tapped his metallic cheek with one prosthetic finger and gave a little, sad chuckle. “But there was a time when I was a young man like you. When the day came that they were looking for men like me tae come oot here and fight fur money, I saw the chance for fame and fortune. As yae can see, I ended up wae neither.”

Alastair had suspected Oren had been a mercenary and now he had confirmed it, after a moment Alastair’s eyes narrowed in confusion. “But, surely, your unit paid compensation for your combat injuries? That’s written into a standard contract.”

“Aye it might be now, Alastair, but no when I was a lad. And besides, my unit was wiped oot. Nay body got to go hame.” Oren’s voice trailed off, and his natural eye glinted softly as a tear filled it.

Oren’s statement only added to Alastair’s confusion. “If the unit was wiped out then how are you here?”

“My platoon was assaulting an enemy position, and I stepped on a mine.” Oren’s gaze was far away as the vivid memories came back to him. “A bright flash and pain—oh God, lad, the pain. I passed out. When I came round, it wis dark. I thought it wis night, but there wis’nay stars in the sky. I wis cold. Colder than I’ve ever been. I cudnae feel ma body or move any part of me. I dinna ken how lang I wis in the dark, it felt like days, weeks maybe. Never seeing anyone or anything. Just the dark. And the nightmares.”

“Nightmares?” asked Alastair in morbid fascination of Oren’s tale.

“Fragments of memory,” said Oren. “Blurred outlines of beings. Not Human. Definitely not Human, but something else. I can never see them clearly, as if my mind has drawn a veil over the whole experience.” Oren paused to take a swig of his drink and smiled a languid smile that never reached his eyes. “Then one fine day I woke up here.” Raising his prosthetic arm with its metal hand, flexing the fingers under the glove with a faint whirring noise. “With all my added extras and not a penny to my name. There were only farmers here at the time, and they appreciated the extra pair of hands.” Oren lifted his flesh and blood arm and compared it to the prosthetic with a gentle snort of derision. “Well, hand. I helped out, and they fed and clothed me. Over the years I made a steady living and some good friends. As they aged, I remained the same, unchanging year after year. A passing ship, maybe fifty or so years ago, had a doctor on board. Decent lad for a Wrogul. Stuck those damned tentacle things of his in my head. He was able to stop the nightmares, but still couldn’t explain all the cybernetics work that had been done on me. Said it was unlike anything he had ever encountered. Wished me luck, and off he went.”

Unnoticed by Alastair, who had been completely engrossed in Oren’s story, Ethan Croll and Gregor Jackson had halted the pretense of examining their slate and were also listening avidly.

“When the red diamond mine opened.” Oren’s head cocked to one side as he accessed his memories. “Oh, wit, twenty odd years ago, yon miners needed somewhere tae git away from being underground all the time. The mining company came here looking for a place where the miners could walk under open skies and breathe fresh air. I seen a wee business opportunity and opened this place tae cater to their liquid refreshment needs. It wis all gone alang great until they found yon Dusman shit, and the Mercenary Guild turned up with yon wee rat-faced woman, Peepo, and took over. Now instead of miners, I huv tae put up way those bloody yappy Besquith and the mix of scientists and engineers that come doon here fay some R and R. All just so Peepo and her ilk can have some new reactor tae power their shiny wee toys.”

Alastair’s mouth dropped open in surprise, and he snapped it shut with an audible click. “How do you know they are working on an ancient Dusman power source, Oren?”

The man waved his glass in front of Alastair’s eyes. “Them lads come here and drink till they cannae stand up, but their mouths keep working just fine. Besides, who are we gonna tell. The only ships that come here now are those contracted to the Merc Guild.”

“Have you never thought about going home?” asked Alastair. “Back to Earth. Scotland?”

“Och, lad. Every wan I ken has lang turned tae dust. I wis an only child, so no lang lost nephews or nieces are waiting for great, great, great uncle Oren tae come hame from his grand adventure among the stars. The only wans I would have called family were my mates in the Foxes. That’s why I named this place in their honor.”

Ethan Croll was out of his seat and beside Oren in three steps, looking at the drunk man in disbelief. “The Foxes! Do you mean Campbell’s Foxes?”

Oren’s head was beginning to droop as the copious amounts of whisky he had consumed finally took affect and his voice began to slur. “Private Oren Baird, late of Second Platoon, Campbell’s Foxes. Sole survivor and oldest man in the galaxy reporting for duty, Colonel.” Oren passed out, forcing Alastair and Ethan to catch him before he slipped from his chair.

“Now what do we do with him?” asked Ethan.

“I can show you his room,” a quiet voice said from behind the partition which separated the bar from the more private parts of the building. Gregor hopped over the bar counter and pulled the partition across to reveal the Zeewie who had taken their jackets earlier and whom Ethan had been pumping for information.

“How much did you hear?” demanded Alastair gravely.

“Enough,” replied the Zeewie, holding Alastair’s gaze steadily. “And I’m willing to help you get into the Dusman facility on Kathal.” Alastair and the two other Scorpions were equally surprised by the little miner’s offer. “On one condition.”

“Go ahead,” said Alastair warily.

“You get me off this dust bowl and drop me on some civilized world. And—” The Zeewie nodded to the snoring Oren. “You take Oren home. He will never tell you but he misses his own world more than he would ever admit.” The little Zeewie’s whiskers twitched. “At least when he’s sober.”

“Deal,” said Alastair.

The Zeewie’s head bobbed up and down a couple of times and, if Alastair was any judge of alien facial expressions, a wave of relief mingled with gratitude spread across the miner’s face. “Help me get him to bed, then I’ll tell you everything I know about the mine and the Dusman facility.”

Alastair hooked his arm under Oren’s bulky frame while Ethan did the same on the other side, heaving the sleeping Scotsman to his feet. “Just how much does he know about Kathal?” Alastair asked Ethan under his breath.

“He was the mine supervisor for the area they found the Dusman facility in, and when Peepo’s people took over he ran one of the crews that cleaned the place out and made it habitable before all the scientists and engineers arrived, and he was kicked out. So, pretty much like the back of his hand.”

“OK, we’ll head back to the Glambring tomorrow morning and get our heads together and see if we can come up with a plan of attack,” said Alastair, his head already running through various permutations. The biggest problem he could see was how to get past the radar screen, completely unaware that that particular problem had already been solved.

* * *

“As you can see, ladies and gents,” said Alastair Sinclair to the gathering which crowded around the small table in the officers’ mess of the Glambring late the following morning. “Our new friend, eh—”

“Al’ozeka Haklavak Ohr Qopalzaek,” piped up the mole-like Zeewie.

“Call him Al, it’s a lot easier,” Oren Baird said, loud enough to be heard through the hands, which cradled his head as he tried to ease his pounding headache.

The short Zeewie glowered at his Human friend but did not correct him.

“Al,” continued Alastair, as he used a laser pointer to play over the image slowly rotating in the Tri-V hovering above the table. “Fortunately for us, he retained a copy of the mine and the facility’s lay out. Now, even though we don’t have a definitive floor plan, because the facility was not in full use when Al was removed, we still can make educated guesses based on the infrastructure of power and computer conduits, thickness and composition of walls, ceilings, and floors that the labor force put in before the scientists and engineers moved in.”

Around the room, sets of eyes from various species soaked up the image.

Al stood up and addressed the group. “The original Dusman facility consists of eight levels descending from the surface of Kathal, spreading out from a central core into five distinct corridors. After the final level, the core continues down through the crust until, at around thirty-six miles in depth, the core crosses from the surface crust and into moon’s mantle. We presumed that the Dusman had tapped the magma at that level to power the facility.”

“Makes sense,” agreed Anna Wong. “If there is a sub-surface magma ocean it would produce thermal power for millions of years. Knowing the Dusman’s excellence in engineering I’ll bet that they also perfected a means of extracting all the ilmenite, uranium, thorium, potassium, and hydrogen they would need to construct the power sources used in the Raknar. Combine that with their ability to extract F11 from a gas giant right next door, and I can’t imagine a better place to mass produce the Raknar reactor.”

Larras grunted loud enough that Anna gave him a slap on the cylindrical segment containing his head. “What I mean,” began the Jeha engineer, “is that we have no idea if they have managed to reverse engineer the Dusman reactor designs yet.”

“They’ve not only did that, ya wee beastie, yon laddies have a working prototype,” said Oren, raising his head to fix his one eye on the Jeha.

“How can you be sure?” asked Anna.

Oren waved a hand dismissively. “I told yae before. When they drink, they talk, and I listen.”

An uneasy silence settled on the room as they all digested the information.

“What’s our best way in, Al?” asked Alastair with a new-found sense of urgency.

The Zeewie ran his eyes over the floating image until he found what he was looking for. Tapping at the slate in front of him, he expanded an area eight miles to the west of the facility. “I would suggest here, Colonel. When the red diamond mine was operational we excavated a number of exploration tunnels, hoping to find more deposits. This particular run proved to be dry, but it was extended anyway, to provide an emergency egress in case of a main shaft collapse. If we enter through there then we can follow the abandoned tunnels right up to where the outer skin of the facility meets the original tunnels.”

“The Besquith might be a bunch of mangy dogs, but that does not mean that they are stupid,” piped in Tim Buchanan. “They are bound to have put all kinds of traps and alarms on the approach tunnels.”

“Nothing my troopers can’t bypass,” said Gonzalez Rivero, the Support Platoon commander, confidently.

Alastair appreciated his well-placed confidence. “That leaves the issue of how we get to the insertion point.” Alastair nodded to the Glambring’s elSha commander. “Captain Kothoo?”

“Thank you, Colonel,” the elSha captain said gracefully. “Using the data Engineer Larras has gathered on the magnetosheath, we’ve been able to plot a course which will effectively render us invisible to the Besquith’s orbital radar.” A tap of his slate replaced the image of the Dusman facility and the intricate complex of mining tunnels surrounding it with an equally complex rendering of the orbits of the gas giant’s moons and lesser objects. Another tap of the slate and the projected course of the Glambring was overlaid, tracking from their current position around Moon 4 to the outer edge of the Besquith’s much-reduced orbital radar detection zone. “When we reach the outer edge of their reliable radar coverage we deploy the dropships which will carry the strike team to the insertion point.”

“What about the ground-based radar?” asked Caroline Verley.

Kothoo tapped again at his slate and a series of red overlapping circles appeared on the surface of Kathal. “These are my tac officers’ best guess at the effective range of the ground-based radar our electronic warfare systems have identified. As you can see, your insertion point is beyond their range. However, the dropships will fly nap of the earth well beyond the predicted detection range until they reach their destination.”

A groan escaped the Scorpion troopers around the table. Nap of the earth meant flying as close to the ground as you could without crashing into it. The ground effect turbulence meant for a deeply-uncomfortable ride for the dropships’ occupants. However, a bit of turbulence was much more preferable than being splashed from the sky by a surface-to-air missile.

Alastair clapped his hands once loudly to get everybody’s attention. “OK, people. Let’s get this show on the road. Final drop checks in sixty minutes…”

“Excuse me, Colonel,” interrupted Oren.

Unused to interruptions, especially by a man suffering a hangover, Alastair bit his tongue. “Yes, Oren?”

The Scotsman focused his good eye on the ship’s clock displaying Galactic Union Time and ran a quick calculation. “If we wait another eight hours before we launch your operation I think you can improve your odds of success.”

Tim’s eyebrow raised incredulously. “Care to explain, Oren?”

“When yon Besquith first arrived here they wer keen as mustard. Garrison duty has made em fat and lazy. There shud be only one platoon off duty at any one time, but the last few months the beasties have been lingering langer and langer. Now they dinna leave Moon 5 till the next R and R platoon arrive at the bar and kick them oot.”

Alastair clicked his fingers as he understood where Oren was going with this. “And if we wait another eight hours before launching our attack half the Besquith will be stranded hours away from the site they are meant to be protecting. Good call, Oren.”

Oren’s half-Human, half-cyborg face gave that odd smile again. “I try my best, Colonel.”

“Very well people. Change of plan. Time on target is now zero-two-thirty G.U.T. For now, we’ve nothing to do but wait. Dismissed.”

As the group dispersed, Tim caught Anna’s eye and tipped his head in the direction of one corner of the room. Making their way over into the corner they had a semblance of privacy, but, still, Tim kept his voice at a level whisper.

“You don’t need to come with us, you know.”

Anna clasped her hands behind her back and spread her feet shoulder width apart. “Now you listen to me, Tim Buchanan. I have my part to play on this mission, too, you know. I’ve come a long way to find these reactors, and you tell me one other person on this ship, no, in this entire solar system, is more qualified to identify, understand, and advise your troopers on what to recover from the facility?” Anna clenched her jaw, daring Tim to argue, but he had to try.

“I’m sure Larras is sufficiently up to speed that…”

“Enough, Tim,” said Anna in a tight voice. “You have your job and now it’s time for me to do mine.”

Tim gave her a pained stare. He knew she was right; however, he did not want to put the woman that he had such deep feelings for into the line of fire. Seeing his anguish, Anna’s eyes softened, and she tried to put on a reassuring smile. “Corporal Vega will keep me safe.”

Tim glanced over at the imposing trooper hovering near the room’s entrance, trying to make his bulky, body armored frame less conspicuous to give the couple at least a sense of privacy while staying within a few steps of his protectee. Tim gave in gracefully, stepped forward, and wrapped his arms around her slim frame. “Just you be careful, OK?”

“You too, Tim,” she said, pushing him to arms-length and looking around furtively. “Any more of this hugging stuff, and your reputation as a heavy task master with ice running through his veins could be in jeopardy.”

Tim let out a small laugh as the tenseness of the moment passed.

“Doctor Wong?” called Larras, as he stuck the tip of his elongated head around the door frame, spotting the couple in the corner. “Ah, there you are. Could you help me calibrate the sensor array one last time? Captain Kothoo would like it double-checked since we have a few hours.”

“Of course, Larras,” replied Anna, then rolled her jade green eyes at Tim. “Duty calls.” With that, she followed the Jeha engineer out of the room, Corporal Vega a step behind.

Tim looked around the empty room. The diagram of the mine and the Dusman facility still floated serenely above the briefing table. Nothing to do but wait I suppose, he thought. He walked over and closed down the Tri-V before leaving the room.

* * *

God, I hate waiting, thought Kate Preissman, for possibly the thousandth time since the Salamanca had entered the Elo system. After dropping Jamie Sinclair and his company of troopers off at Waylan Station in the Centaur Region, Kate had wasted no time in setting off on the next task Alastair Sinclair had given her. Find his eldest son, Charlie, the two platoons of Scorpions under his command, and return them to New Warsaw and the relative safety of the Winged Hussars home system.

As Kate had discovered, finding Charlie was easier said than done. Alastair had supplied Kate with Charlie’s travel itinerary so she knew he and his troopers had been due to transship at Tal Station on their way to Galax. Unfortunately for Kate, it looked like Charlie had received his father’s cryptic birthday message and understood it for what it was. A message to go dark and avoid all contact while doing his best to return home. And it appeared Charlie was very good at following his father’s instructions.

It had taken Kate three days of bribes and pay offs to the various low lives of Tal Station to discover that Charlie had managed to secure transportation on a Zuparti freighter, the Tla’koz. Said freighter was due to make a cargo run to the Elo system before heading out to the Crapti region, but from the scuttlebutt she had managed to overhear, the Tla’koz had had a little trouble with pirates on its arrival in Elo. Pirates which, supposedly, had gotten their asses kicked by the crew of the freighter, who had not only fended off the pirates’ boarding parties, but had then somehow managed to blow the two pirate ships into nothing more than expanding gas and tiny fragments. Kate smelled the hand of Charlie and his Scorpions.

Immediately on dropping off its cargo, the Tla’koz had ignored the freight waiting for shipment to the Crapti region and instead passed through the stargate and that was where the trail went cold. And now Kate waited, rhythmically tapping her fingers on the armrest of her command chair to the great annoyance of the other members of the bridge crew.

“Incoming signal from the stargate, Captain,” said Jacobsthal, the Salamanca’s communications officer.

“At last!” said Kate, as she tried in vain to hide the impatient scowl which formed on her face. “Put him through.”

The Tri-V at the front of the bridge came to life and revealed the red and green striped face of a Sumatozou, its bifurcated trunk swinging lazily from side to side. “And how may the Cartography Guild be of service to you today, Captain Preissman?” the gate master asked in a deep orotund voice.

“I have a somewhat embarrassing request of you,” Kate said, putting the right amount of contrition into her tone. “My great-nephew has run away from home and managed to secure passage aboard a Zuparti freighter, the Tla’koz, which departed through the stargate about a week ago. His father is obviously concerned for his well-being, and I promised him I would do my utmost to return his wayward offspring to him.” Well part of it is the truth, thought Kate, as she looked into the unmoving features of the Sumatozou. “I understand that this is an unusual request, but if you could access your records and pull up the destination on the Tla’koz’s flight plan, then I, and his father, would be eternally grateful.”

The expressionless face of the gate master stared back at Kate from the Tri-V. Seeing that the Sumatozou was unmoved by her attempt to appeal to his better nature, she decided to play her next card and appeal to his baser instincts. “My nephew is quite wealthy, Gate Master, and has offered a substantial reward to anyone who may be of assistance in reuniting him with his son. And I’m sure if I were to tell him how helpful you were in this task he would be very grateful.”

That got the Sumatozou’s attention. “How grateful?” the gate master asked, as his eyes narrowed in anticipation.

“Oh, say half a million credits,” replied Kate. The Sumatozou grunted and played with the ornate robes which covered his expansive body. “In cash of course,” added Kate. The Sumatozou’s hands stopped playing with his robes and the mouth below the trunk opened and closed without a sound emanating from it. After a moment his stubby fingers tapped briefly on his slate.

Kate heard a brief chime as Jacobsthal’s console acknowledged the arrival of a data packet from the gate master. The Communications Officer quickly scanned the information streaming across his display before turning to Kate with a worried frown. “The Tla’koz was bound for Uiok in the Gresht Region. The captain logged his intention of taking a planned maintenance and refueling cycle when he arrived and then plans to continue on to his final destination—Earth.”

Oh, crap, thought Kate, then she remembered the Sumatozou was still watching her impassively from the Tri-V. “If you send over a drone I’ll ensure your payment is loaded aboard and returned to you.”

The Sumatozou nodded appreciatively.

“One last thing, Gate Master,” said Kate before the gate master terminated the connection. “I need to transit at the earliest opportunity if I am to intercept my great-nephew before he gets away again.”

The Sumatozou played with his slate for a moment. “The next scheduled transit is in less than an hour; can you reach the gate by then?”

“Mr. Horak?” Kate queried her Pendal pilot who had overheard the Sumatozou’s statement and was already working out the calculations. “If we burn like hell we can do it,” he said.

Turning back to the Tri-V Kate addressed the gate master. “We can make it. Good doing business with you.”

“My pleasure,” replied the Sumatozou, who had just made a tidy sum for less than a minute’s work.

The acceleration alarm rang its shrill warning throughout the Salamanca, followed thirty seconds later by a second alarm which was followed by Kate being pressed back into her padded seat as Horak engaged the Salamanca’s ion drive and pushed the freighter to six G, as he raced to meet the departure time.

Straining against the G-force, Kate thought about the consequences of Charlie and his troopers reaching Earth before she could stop them. Kate tried and failed to put herself in Charlie’s place when he discovered his wife and children were dead.  A shudder ran down her spine, and it was not due to the Gs she was being subjected to.

* * * * *

Chapter Fifteen


The sudden deceleration of the dropship caught Anna by surprise, and her head rattled against the padded sides of her seat. Recovering quickly, she looked across the cramped personnel bay directly at the impassive, metal-armored casing of Tim Buchanan’s CASPer. The Scorpion captain and his CASPer were secured in place along with Corporal Jonny Vega immediately beside her and, as she looked down the length of the dropship, the unmoving metallic forms of the troopers of Support Platoon.

Anna and Tim were aboard the second dropship, following Alastair Sinclair and the members of Third Platoon, who were in the lead craft.

“Two minutes,” called the pilot from the cockpit, his voice sounding slightly tinny in her small ear piece, as the dropship slowed perceptively again, though this time not so suddenly. The trip from where the Glambring had released the two smaller ships had been rougher than Anna had expected. Tim had warned her that the nap-of-the-earth flying the dropships would need to do in order to avoid the Besquith search radars protecting the Dusman facility would be best acquainted to a roller coaster ride that seemed never to stop. And he had been correct. Anna was sure she would have bruises all over her body as she had been bounced around in her seat as the dropship pilot had done his best to follow every contour and undulation of Kathal’s rugged surface.

“Remember to keep your mask on at all times, Doctor Wong,” cautioned Vega in her ear.

Anna nodded in response as she lifted the flimsy mask which was hanging from its elasticated strap around her neck and placed it snuggly over her nose and mouth. Kathal’s nitrogen-rich atmosphere was not suited to Humans, but the additional oxygen provided by the rebreather would keep her from suffering any adverse effects.

At least for a few hours, Anna thought, until the tank runs dry, and I suffer an excruciatingly painful death as the nitrogen replaces the oxygen in my blood stream, causing my muscles to spasm and tear while my eyeballs explode, and my ear drums burst.

Anna shook off the melancholy as the rear ramp of the dropship began to drop and her ears were assaulted by the high-pitched whistle of atmosphere screaming past the dropship. Through the opening ramp Anna got her first glimpse of the surface of Kathal as it flew past apparently only inches from the dropship’s floor. Everything appeared to be covered in a yellow hue. A rocky surface with no sign of vegetation.

“One minute,” the pilot’s voice said, and, as if taking that as their cue, the assembled CASPers turned as one to face the ramp, completely blocking her view of the ground rushing past.

“Remain in your seat with your belts fastened, Doctor, until I tell you to release them, then follow me down the ramp. Remember, each of these CASPers weighs nine hundred pounds, so watch where you’re going. We don’t need any little accidents do we?”

“Damn right we don’t,” mumbled Anna as the whole dropship swayed. The pilot raised the nose sharply, dropping the tail as the craft lost its forward momentum. A fraction of a second before the engines stalled, the pilot brought the nose horizontal again, and the dropship dropped onto its now-deployed skids, bouncing slightly.

Tim Buchanan charged down the ramp and, clearing the dropship’s tail, activated his 20-millimeter Magnetic Accelerator Cannon, which swung into place over his right shoulder. Next, he pushed out his left arm where the under slung 8-millimeter gun pod detected his movement and automatically released its safeties, clearing the gun for action and projecting a green telltale into Tim’s Tri-V display. Finally, Tim’s suit ran a brief subroutine confirming the high cyclic laser attached to his right arm was good to go. Satisfied his suit was fully operational and ready to fight, he checked in with Alastair who, with Third Platoon, had landed thirty seconds ahead of Tim’s dropship.

“Scorpion Bravo, down and clear.”

“Glad you could join us, Tim,” answered Alastair over the command net. “Caroline and Third Platoon have secured the area so you can bring out the package.”

Tim was pretty sure that Anna’s codename ‘the package’ would not impress her, but now was the time for professionalism, not sentiment. Switching channels, he called Corporal Vega. “All clear, Vega.”

Aboard the dropship, Vega gave Anna a thumbs-up with his armored gauntlet. “Let’s go, Doctor,” Vega said. He paused for a second while Anna untangled herself from her seat restraints before following her metal guardian down the ramp, squinting in the odd, too-dim sunlight. “Reflected light from the gas giant. The system’s star is on the other side of the moon at this time of day,” said Vega helpfully. The corporal checked his telemetry repeater which showed him the location and I.D. of each Scorpions’ CASPer; each trooper looked just like every other when wrapped in the mechanical armor. Identifying Tim’s icon, he made his way over to him while checking his suit’s readouts for threats to Anna and himself.

He took special notice of the raised, unnaturally-straight lines protruding from the gentle curving edges of the hollow where the dropships had landed. A trooper from Support Platoon that Vega’s suit was telling him was Okoro, the cyber specialist, with Lieutenant Rivero watching his back, was working on a panel located beside a pair of impressively large and heavy-looking doors. Vega had just stopped beside Tim when the heavy doors split and rumbled into their recesses.

“Eyes out!” ordered Alastair. Two troopers from Support Platoon toggled controls within their CASPers and each of their left armored legs popped open to reveal a dozen baseball sized objects. From the top of each ball a small rotor sprouted and spun up until each ball lifted from its dock and, under the control of the trooper whose suit they had come from, whizzed past Okoro and Rivero, through the open doors, and off into the dark.

“Good telemetry from the Eyes, Colonel,” Rivero reported on the fully-automated surveillance drones. Apart from transmitting real-time images, the drones also carried a full miniature sensor suite, which detected enemy surveillance systems. If they came upon one, they halted, reported their position, and waited for someone like Okoro to neutralize it before proceeding.

Alastair brought up the Eyes’ feed. The tunnel the little drones were moving through angled downward, steadily getting deeper. This matched with what Al, the Zeewie mine supervisor, had told them to expect. “So far, so good,” said Alastair over the command net. “OK, Gonzalez, two of your troopers have got the back door.”

“Sir,” Rivero said as he pinged two of his troopers and ordered them to remain with the dropships and guard the Scorpions’ escape route.

“Caroline, you’ve got point. According to Al, the tunnel was designed to accommodate heavy diggers in case of structural failure somewhere in the mine, so let’s advance in pairs. The Eyes show the tunnel is wide enough for two CASPers side by side.”

Without further ado, the Scorpions headed into the mouth of the tunnel, disappearing from view in pairs. Anna was reminded of animals boarding the Ark before the great flood. Hopefully this particular mission would not end up in a similar disaster. Reaching into her jacket pocket, she retrieved a set of goggles which she placed over her eyes. With the tap of a control on the goggles’ side, the darkness of the tunnel was transformed into shades of white, grey, and black by the image intensifiers built into the goggles. The sight of the Mark 8 CASPers surrounding her was reassuring. Anna hoped Al’s directions would be accurate; she didn’t fancy wondering around darkened tunnels for the rest of the day.

* * *

The normal quiet of space was torn asunder as Striking Talon and Devil’s Fang emerged from hyperspace. “Transition successful, Captain. Devil’s Fang reports systems nominal.”

Captain Po did not bother to acknowledge the bridge officer’s report; the HecSha cruiser’s commander had expected nothing less. His crews were professionals, unlike Gorak and his cursed Jivool, who had screwed things up so badly on Ralla Station that Po had been forced to authorize Gorak to sub contract a platoon of Flatar to bolster the Jivool mercenary soldiers’ ranks. Po had explained to Gorak in no uncertain terms that he should expect the extra expenditure to come out of the Jivool’s pay for this mission. The HecSha captain had thought for a moment the Jivool mercenary commander was going to argue with him until Po had succinctly pointed out their employer, one Veetanho General Peepo, would be sure to point out Gorak and his Jivool mercenaries’ mistakes. By the look on the Jivool’s face at the mention of the infamous Peepo, Po was satisfied he would receive no further argument from Gorak.

Po dismissed any more thought of the Jivool; he was more concerned with the delay caused by waiting for the arrival of the Flatar mercenary replacements. General Peepo was not renowned for accepting tardiness without good reason. Po allowed himself a wry smile as he imagined the look on Gorak’s ugly Jivool face when Po placed the blame squarely on Gorak and his men’s shoulders if General Peepo showed even the slightest sign of being annoyed with Po, even though he’d said he wouldn’t.

“Contact the facility on Kathal,” ordered Po. “Inform them of our ETA and tell them to prepare the reactor for immediate transport.” Po ran a clawed hand over his dry scales and promised himself a long, luxurious mud bath once this contract was fulfilled.

* * *

Captain Kothoo had not left his command chair on the bridge of the Glambring since the departure of the dropships carrying Alastair Sinclair and his Scorpion troopers, and, he admitted to himself, he had no intention of moving off the bridge until the colonel and his men were safely back aboard. In the navigational Tri-V, the current status of the ship was displayed. The Glambring was hovering barely beyond Kathal’s atmosphere, and the ship’s helmsman was having to make constant course and altitude adjustments to ensure the frigate did not dip into the upper atmosphere.

These problems didn’t make it to the top of Kothoo’s worry list—the elSha was more worried about avoiding detection—so he had put the entire ship on Emission Control State One. To the uninitiated, that meant every electronic system with even the slightest chance of broadcasting an electronic signal, radar, lidar, communications devices, even the Glambring’s mess’ microwave ovens had been shut down or put into standby mode. Kothoo spared a glance over to the bridge’s communications section where his Comms Officer and two senior ratings had their eyes and ears glued to the frigate’s comms systems, which had been manually placed in receive-only mode.

He shifted his gaze around the bridge until it landed on the activity going on in the Electronic Countermeasures section of Tactical. Jutting out from below a console which had been literally torn to pieces was the multi-appendage form of Engineer Larras, and hovering above him was the very worried face of the Glambring’s Tactical Officer. The trip through the gas giant’s magnetosheath may have gotten them past the Besquith radar but, concernedly, the ECM system had become overloaded by the intense radio waves contained within the magnetosheath. The finely-tuned system could detect a single pulse from a radio source from beyond the edge of the solar system. Unfortunately, that sensitivity had been the cause of the damage because the duty operator had mistakenly left the detector grid online during transit through the intense radio-generating magnetosheath.

The tactical officer became aware of Kothoo’s intense stare and joined him by the captain’s chair. “Larras estimates another thirty to forty minutes until we are back up, sir.”

Kothoo worried his lip before replying. “With the active systems in standby mode we are blind as a bat until the ECM detectors are back online. A mile-wide Wathayat freighter could be sitting a foot off the stern and we would have no idea.” Kothoo let out a small sigh and shook his head. “Let’s hope that Larras is as good an engineer as he tells us.”

* * *

By the time the Scorpions navigated their way through the underground tunnels and were forced to halt their progress while members of Support Platoon went forward and dealt with a booby trap left by the Besquith for the third time, Anna Wong had stopped worrying about what might be up ahead in the dark. Instead she had come up with a routine to pass the time. Switching off her image intensifier goggles she allowed the enveloping darkness to fold in on her. Without any input from her visual senses, her brain naturally attempted to compensate by accentuating her auditory senses. Closing her eyes, Anna tried to place each of the CASPer-clad troopers surrounding her purely by the low hum of the suit’s power cells. Admittedly, she’d had limited success, but she had found that by concentrating hard, she could even discriminate between some of the suit’s more individual traits. Vega’s suit made a hardly noticeable squeak whenever he moved his left shoulder, probably caused by the seals rubbing together. Tim’s CASPer, on the other hand, had a faint clinking coming from the under-arm gun pod. Anna had speculated what it might be and had settled on a loose link in the drum magazine which fed ammunition into the weapon’s breach.

“Moving,” Vega’s voice said quietly in her ear. Tapping the control of her goggles, the faded color tones which were her world for the moment returned. As her eyes adjusted to the enhanced vision she caught her breath as she realized the imposing figure of Vega’s CASPer was only inches from her face.

“According to Al’s tunnel map, we should only be a couple hundred feet from a maintenance access installed to link the tunnels to the facility. The colonel plans on breaching it with explosives and when we do that all hell will break loose. Stay close. OK?”

For the first time since entering the tunnels, their precarious situation hit Anna with a sobering effect. In a few minutes, people would die. In her years with the Winged Hussars, no matter the number of propulsion or weapons systems she worked on, installed in warships, or observed in the weapon’s proving grounds in New Warsaw’s outer system, she had never been involved in combat.

Shit! I’m walking into a war zone. Oh. My. God, Anna thought, then fought to bring her nerves under control. Bottling her fears deep inside, she answered Vega in a steady voice. “Understood.”

* * * * *

Chapter Sixteen

Non Quarta

Alastair Sinclair pored over the image in his display, relayed to him by Caroline Verley’s CASPer. Twenty yards along, the tunnel ended with a blank, reinforced wall along with an inset maintenance hatch.

No chance a CASPer is getting through that hatch, thought Alastair, as he squinted at the display to make sure he hadn’t missed anything. Surely the Oogars designed this place? Alastair had reasoned that if the corridors could handle the dimensions of the seven-foot-tall purple bears, then the Mark 8 CASPers of the Scorpions would have ample room to maneuver.

“OK, Caroline, make us a hole.”

“Roger that, sir!” The lieutenant answered enthusiastically and took a step back to allow a trooper, holding a spray can in either hand, to pass her in the confines of the tunnel.

The trooper reached up, his armored gauntlets scraping the roof of the tunnel, and began spraying.

The white, frothing liquid spewed out of the containers and transformed to a rigid foam. The trooper spread his arms wide and sprayed vertically from top to bottom of the smooth facility walls. At ground level, he brought the two lines of spray back to the middle and finished, leaving a ten-foot square outline on the wall that blocked the Scorpions’ path.

Caroline stepped forward. A mind of brilliance thought this one up! C6 explosive and aerosol…Caroline thought as she inspected the workmanship. Looks good, even, no breaks; should be clean, she thought. Satisfied, Caroline inserted a firing cap in the foam and retreated a few steps.

“Ready, Colonel.”

Alastair activated his command radio link, the blood pounding through his body on fire as he prepared to face those who bore at least partial responsibility for the loss of his loved ones. “All Scorpions, Scorpion Actual. When we breach, consider everyone you encounter to be the enemy. Remember our families on Earth and let our enemy share their fate.”

In Anna’s ear, the gentle hiss of static broke the silence before Alastair continued. “Non quarta!”

“Non quarta!” echoed each and every Scorpion.

The blood drained from Anna’s face as Alastair invoked an ancient order declaring no mercy to the enemy, no matter if they tried to surrender.

Before she recovered her thoughts, a loud explosion assailed her ears as the C6 charge cut through the facility’s wall, and the Scorpions charged through. The sound of their MACs and gun pods sounded again and again.

Anna covered her ears to block out the screams of the dying and the Scorpions’ weapons’ fire which almost drowned them out. It seemed an eternity before silence reined.

“Doctor! Doctor! Anna!” Vega’s voice broke through, and Anna opened her eyes, eyes she hadn’t realized she had squeezed tight.

Anna looked up at the metal exterior of Vega’s CASPer, his hand reached out to her. Taking it, Vega pulled her upright in one easy move half guiding, half dragging her through the neat hole the shaped charge had made in the wall. Anna slipped off her goggles, seeing the carnage with her own eyes for the first time.

A bloodbath. The mixed colors of blood from a number of races greeted her. Blue, green, and various shades of red pooled around the dozen or so corpses that lay spread out in various poses of death. One unfortunate must’ve been standing directly near the heavy metal access door. The door had embedded itself in the far wall of the corridor and from behind it rivulets of dark red blood ran down the wall to pool on the floor. Surreal…it’s all so…surreal, thought Anna.

“Snap out of it, Doctor,” cautioned Vega. “Get your head in the game or somebody will take it off for you.”

Anna nodded her head vigorously. “Which way?” she asked.

Vega consulted Al’s map and overlaid the swiftly-moving icons representing his fellow Scorpions. Like an unstoppable wave, the Scorpions flowed through this level of the facility.

Third Platoon under Lieutenant Verley moved at a steady trot toward the central core where they could move up two levels and secure what they assumed to be the main control room.

Colonel Sinclair and Support Platoon, minus two troopers tasked to hold the breaching point, were moving to the west toward a heavily-shielded section of the facility, which Al and Anna had guessed to be the most likely place for a completed reactor.

“Stay on my six and remember—” Vega’s CASPer twisted at the waist as if he was really looking at her rather than seeing her through his external cameras. “I’m wrapped in hundreds of pounds of armor so if the bullets start firing, stay behind me.”

Anna gave him a thumbs up. “You bet.”

Vega grunted and Anna swore the shoulders of the metal fighting machine shrugged as Vega set off at a relatively sedate pace for the giant machine, leaving her jogging to keep up and dodging the occasional cadaver as she went.

* * *

The frame charge went off, and before the last of the rubble hit the floor, Sinclair and Buchanan stepped through, one turning left and the other right, so they stood back to back.

MACs blazed, laying down a withering fire while each man employed the 8-millimeter gun pods more selectively.

Designed to destroy buildings, reinforced positions, and light- to medium-armored vehicles, the MAC rounds pumped out at a rate of two-hundred per minute and had an effective range of ten thousand feet. In the confines of the corridor it was like shooting fish in a barrel.

Rolling smoke gradually cleared as air conditioning units battled to remove nitrogen and ‘contaminates’ from the air, and the Scorpions saw the damage they had inflicted.

Alastair viewed his gruesome handiwork dispassionately and calmly finished off any wounded with a single round from his gun pod. The remaining Scorpions entered the corridor and none felt any remorse or guilt. The lives taken here were involved in the deaths of their innocent families and in the wider conspiracy to enslave Earth.

Non Quarta. “Caroline, get your platoon moving. I want the control room secured A.S.A.P. and this level must be isolated before the Besquith get a chance to rally their forces.”

“Roger that, Colonel. OK, Third Platoon, let’s get moving.”

“Gonzalez. You’ve got point. Get us to that shielded section,” ordered Alastair.

The Support Platoon commander tagged two of his troopers who immediately set off down the corridor, MACs swiveling left and right, like hunting dogs sniffing out a quarry. Occasionally, their thermal image or bio readers detected a scientist or engineer hiding in a side room and the trooper flung his feed to one of the following Scorpions who zeroed his MAC on the target and fired through the intervening wall.

Death had come to Kathal, and it had no mercy.

* * *

“What in entropy is happening?” screamed Bre-ok, the duty watch officer. As the Besquith monitoring the internal cameras pointed at the image on his display, a metal monster emerged from a cloud of dust and smoke.

Yellow flame flashed from a heavy weapon on its shoulder and where it touched the facility personnel the Besquith were paid to protect, they died.

The officer’s jaw dropped to reveal sharp, canine teeth and saliva dripped to the floor. “Sound the alarm, you idiot!” Bre-ok shouted as he backhanded the junior man, his claws drawing blood.

The third Besquith in the control room fixed his eyes on his air defense console and refused to look at his inept companion.

“Of all the times for the company commander to take R and R on Moon 5. Curse him for leaving me to deal with this!” Activating his comms unit, Bre-ok placed a call directly to the small quick reaction force located in the Besquith barracks on the uppermost level of the facility.

A Besquith answered the connection, but Bre-ok gave the unlucky bastard no time before he barked his orders.

“Get your sorry asses moving! We have a breach on the lower level, at least two intruders. Load up with armor-piercing, they’re in mechanical combat suits.”

Bre-ok cut the line, too impatient to wait for an acknowledgement. Bre-ok cursed the company commander, for he had selected the uppermost level as the company barracks. Logical, at the time, but who would’ve suspected an assault on the facility would come from the lowest level?

“The lowest level.” Bre-ok mused aloud. His eyes hunted the console displaying the status of the booby traps he had had placed in the old tunnels of the red diamond mine.

Propped over the console lay a slate, a colorful screen displayed the joys of gambling. Bre-ok shrieked with anger. The junior Besquith lowered his head, cowering from his enraged officer.

“I’ll deal with you later,” growled Bre-ok, swiping at the slate and sending it crashing against a wall.

All the booby-trap tell-tales showed green, but that couldn’t be. Bre-ok let out a low mutter as his claws tapped a command which sent a fresh interrogation command. He watched as each tell-tale blacked out for a split second before coming back online. One by one the system confirmed their viability. All except a perfect line reaching from an emergency access on the surface, miles beyond the search radar’s limit.

The line extended to, of course, the exact point the invaders had breached the facility.

“Bre-ok,” called the junior man in a quavering voice.

“What!” Bre-ok yelled as his mind raced to marshal his thoughts and come up with a plan to repel the invaders.

“We are being hailed by the HecSha cruiser Striking Talon. A Captain Po. We were expecting them days ago, but they were delayed.”

“Delayed! Who cares! They are here now, and they might just be our saviors. Put him through.” A tap of a control connected Bre-ok directly to Captain Po.

“Captain, this is Duty Watch Officer Bre-ok. An unknown number of attackers are assaulting the facility; they’re equipped with mechanical combat suits. I believe they’re trying to steal the Raknar reactors. You must send reinforcements to my location immediately—as many as you can!” Bre-ok paused as he remembered the chain of disabled booby traps. “The attackers entered the facility via a tunnel which reaches the surface about—” Bre-ok checked the map on the wall of the control room. “Eight miles northwest of the facility. I believe they may have ships waiting there to extract them.”

“Message received, Bre-ok,” replied the calm, controlled voice of the HecSha captain. “Our company of Jivool are loading up and will be with you shortly. Just hold a little longer; help is coming.” The connection terminated, with Bre-ok thinking he might just get out of the entropy-be-damned situation unscathed.

The explosion which blasted the reinforced metal control room door off its heavy hinges also sent the door flying across the room like a giant’s Frisbee, and it decapitated Bre-ok neatly before embedding itself in the far wall.

The compression wave lifted the other unfortunate Besquith from their seats and sent them sprawling to the floor. A giant fighting machine filled the hole where the door once was, raking 8-millimeter gunfire that punched into the bodies of the Besquith before they could draw their weapons.

“Control room secure, Colonel,” radioed Caroline Verley as she stepped over the mess on the floor while Okoro, detached from Support Platoon to assist with the systems in the control room, made no effort to step over the headless corpse lying between him and the main console. Okoro’s armored nine-hundred-pound weight stepped squarely on the dead Besquith’s chest, and the alien’s internal organs squirted out like toothpaste from a tube.

Okoro scanned the console rapidly but thoroughly. Finding what he looked for, he extended his arm and his left index finger hovered over a computer input port. The cyber-warfare specialist’s adapted CASPer’s fingertip slid to one side and a multi-function jack extended, then configured itself to fit the input port.

“I’m in, Lieutenant.”

Damn! That was quick, thought Caroline. She knew Okoro was one of Gonzalez Rivero’s best, but still…impressive work.

“Elevators are locked out. That should hold them for a while,” said Okoro as he overrode the system. “OK, we have five emergency stairwells located at the tip of each corridor at the furthest point from the central core that were not on the plans supplied by Al that the Besquith will undoubtedly use to try and force their way onto this level.”

“Show me,” ordered Caroline.

Okoro pushed the updated floor plan to her.

Inside her CASPer, the Scorpion lieutenant cursed softly. When she had discussed the assault plan with the colonel the possibility that Al’s layout for the facility might not be up to date had arisen, however, they had agreed that in that event they would…improvise.

Looking over the floor plan hovering in her Tri-V, Caroline knew that was exactly what she had to do, although doing so would spread her forces dangerously thin.

Including Okoro, she had brought only eight troopers to secure the control room. Nine if she included herself. Now, however, she was going to have to split her forces. One trooper per stairwell and two for the central core elevator shaft would leave herself and Okoro to hold the control room and to act as reserve force, which she could switch from pressure point to pressure point as required.

“Yeah we can do this,” Caroline said to herself inside the confines of her sealed CASPer. Sending the new deployment plan to her platoon’s CASPers, she was grateful to see that not a single trooper hesitated; each headed for their assigned posts.

While Caroline had been doing her ‘on the fly’ deployment plan, Okoro had been accessing the other Besquith systems. One of his priorities was the surface-to-air and orbital anti-ship batteries. If he were to disable those batteries then the Scorpions’ dropships would have a clear flight path direct to the Glambring which could move closer to the facility and cut their flight time to minutes rather than having to fly nap of the earth. Bringing up the search radar, the cyber warfare specialist’s eyes widened in shock as he caught sight of a pair of HecSha cruisers entering orbit.

“Lieutenant, we have a major problem.”

As Caroline pulled up the radar feed Okoro sent her, she did a double-take on seeing the two cruisers, and her eyes bulged. A half dozen smaller radar returns separated from the cruisers and in a flash, Caroline realized that what she thought had been a stable situation a minute ago had just gone to rat shit. Activating her link to Alastair she gave him the good news.

“Colonel, two HecSha cruisers have appeared in orbit and have already deployed small craft.” Caroline’s tongue darted between suddenly dry lips. “Sir, my assessment is that the small craft contain reinforcements. I do not believe our positions are tenable once they arrive.”

Through her suit speakers the toneless voice of Alastair answered her. “Keep them occupied as long as you can, Caroline, then blow the stairwells and get your ass to the extraction point.”

“Understood, sir. Verley clear.”

* * *

Tim switched to his private channel once Alastair finished giving his instructions to Caroline. “How long do you think we have?”

Alastair had done the math in his head; he was sure Tim had, too, and his friend was just being polite. “Call it five minutes for reinforcements to get here, travelling from orbit at max burn. Another five to disembark and get down here if they are good, ten if they’re average.”

“Third Platoon will hold them,” said Tim reassuringly.

“I’m tempted to order Caroline to blow the stairwells now and force the Besquith and their new friends down the central elevator shaft. A damn sight easier to defend,” mused Alastair, bouncing the idea off Tim.

“Better to keep them from concentrating their forces. Splitting their assaults across five or more points will make it easier for Third Platoon to hold. If it looks like any assault will succeed, then we blow that stairwell and cut off that route to them.”

Alastair grunted. Just as I thought. From up ahead came the sound of a heavy weapon firing. Alastair’s eyes darted to his secondary Tri-V display where the unit’s battle effectiveness status reported that Trooper Liz Hawkins had gone from green to a blinking red to a solid red.

“Trooper Hawkins is combat ineffective,” reported his suit in a dispassionate voice.

The first sign of active resistance. We’re headed in the right direction; it’s got to be the reactor storage area, thought Alastair. If anyone could’ve seen through the thick armor plating enclosing the Scorpions’ commander they would have seen the grim face, the light of vengeance in his eyes as he broke into a floor-rocking trot and raced to the scene of the action.

Seconds later, Alastair came up behind Gonzalez Rivero. “What’s the situation, Gonzalez?” asked Alastair.

“We’ve got ourselves a bit of a bottle neck, Colonel. The Besquith have a strong point equipped with a high-intensity laser covering the approach to the entrance to a shielded section. Damn thing must be made of battleship armor cause our MAC rounds are bouncing off it like they were made of rubber. First we knew of it was when it took out Hawkins with its first round and punched right through her laser shield and armor.”

“Caroline reckons reinforcements are on their way. The clock is ticking, Gonzalez, and we need to take that laser out sooner rather than later.”

“Roger that, sir. The first sergeant thinks he might have a solution. He’s holed up with Jackson in a room across the corridor.”

Alastair put a call into the first sergeant. “Hey Croll, what’s the play?”

Ethan Croll checked the ammunition counter for his MAC before answering. “That corridor is a death trap, sir. Jackson and I are going to make our own path and come at the strong point from the flank.”

“Make it happen, First Sergeant.”

“You ready, Jackson?” Ethan asked the trooper standing shoulder to shoulder with him in the narrow confines of what looked like a chemical lab of some kind. Both men had their MACs pointed toward the wall only a few feet in front of them.

“Ready,” replied Jackson.

“Advance!” ordered Ethan as he triggered the cannon. Traveling at thirty-six hundred feet per second, the armor-piercing rounds ripped into and through the double thickness reinforced concrete wall, shredding it.

Side by side, the men stepped through the falling masonry and clouds of fractured wall. They maintained the rate of fire and poured rounds into the adjacent wall, which succumbed to the fate of the first.

The third and fourth wall collapsed under the weight of their combined fire until, at last, the pair of CASPers encountered the heavily-reinforced wall of the shielded area. Whether the Besquith operating the strong point were aware they had enemy soldiers on their flank or not didn’t matter as Croll turned his CASPer ninety degrees to the right and let loose a storm of MAC rounds, disintegrating the wall between them and the strong point.

The Besquith were torn to shreds. The 20-millimeter rounds had initially passed through them only to rebound off the strong point’s armor. Though now spent, the rounds still carried significant kinetic energy, and Ethan was so close to his own rounds that they peppered the outside of his CASPer, and his suit’s computer registered them as incoming enemy fire.

“All MAC rounds expended,” his suit informed him. Now, in the quiet that descended, he observed his handiwork. What had once been a strong point now resembled an abattoir.

“Target neutralized,” Ethan called over the radio.

Alastair stomped down the corridor glancing at the blood-soaked CASPer of his first sergeant before using his own suit’s sensors to analyze the sealed door the strong point protected. Tim appeared at his shoulder.

“No visible door control panel,” noted Tim.

“Yeah, looks like it can only open from the inside.” Alastair looked around the door’s circumference until he spotted a surveillance camera. Squaring his suit off to it, he activated his external speaker. “This is Colonel Alastair Sinclair of the Human mercenary company Sinclair’s Scorpions. Open this door immediately and I promise, you will come to no harm. Refuse and your lives are forfeit.”

One, two, three, four…Alastair counted to ten in his head. When the door remained sealed he turned to Tim. “Open it. They’ve made their choice.”

Tim beckoned two troopers. The troopers leveled their high cyclic lasers at the exterior hinges of the armored door. The incredible heat produced from the makeshift cutters turned the armored metal to a stubborn, glowing red.

“This is going to take a few minutes,” said Tim.

“I know, I know,” replied Alastair, trying not to sound anxious. “And it’s time I don’t think we have.”

* * *

“Here they come,” said Okoro, as he lost the feed from the cameras he had been using to keep tabs on the mix of Besquith and Jivool heading down the stairwells.

“Cameras are down. I’m blind here.”

Caroline let out a string of swear words that would’ve made her drill sergeant proud, before regaining her composure. “OK, Troopers,” Caroline said over the platoon net. “We’ve enemy movement one level above you. Keep your eyes peeled and make every shot count. We need to buy the colonel as much time as we can.”

Moments later the sound of laser-rifle fire answered by the distinctive sound of CASPer gun pods reached her via her suit’s external pick-ups. In Caroline’s Tri-V, the ‘in contact’ icon blinked alongside each of her trooper’s names. Caroline repressed the urge to rush to their aid. Her place was here, coordinating the defense of this level.

Behind her Okoro’s CASPer stood as a statue. “What are you—” Caroline’s question went unfinished as a loud explosion rocked the control room. Trooper Espada’s icon went blood red.

“Enough of this standing-around shit,” said Caroline. “Okoro, keep me updated over the radio. I’m going to the fight.” And with that, Caroline Verley headed out through the hole where the control room door had once stood.

The cyber warfare specialist hardly noticed her leave, as he pushed through one computer generated fire-wall after another. For Okoro had identified a fatal stumbling block to the success of the Scorpions’ plan.

The HecSha cruisers in orbit.

* * *

After exhausting two complete CASPer arm-mounted lasers, the massive hinges holding the armored door to the shielded area finally dropped to the floor with a loud clang.  Grasping the top of the door the two troopers who had cut away the hinges steadied themselves before using their combined mechanically-aided strength to pull the two-thousand-pound door.

With a “pop!” the door came free of its frame and the air pressure from the clean room beyond equalized with that in the corridor.

The troopers quickly ducked into cover as a volley of laser-rifle fire burst from beyond the room’s threshold.

“No firing,” called Alastair. “We don’t need to blow the crap out of a reactor full of fuel. Laser shields only.”

Gonzalez and Tim stepped forward, arms held at shoulder height, elbows bent, and activated their CASPers’ twin laser shields. From their forearms the shield sprouted and formed an impenetrable barrier which extended from floor to just above the CASPers’ head. Locked together Gonzalez and Tim stepped over the threshold as the rifle fire intensified. Using the two Scorpion officers as shields, the remainder of the armor-clad troopers entered the room as wicked looking four-foot-long blades sprang from suit arms ready to dispatch the defenders.

As the laser-fire splashed uselessly on his shield, Tim spotted his assailants. A couple of Besquith had tipped over some sturdy tables and were using them as an improvised barricade while they poured fire into the advancing Scorpions. An amber warning light began blinking in Tim’s display as his shield warned that it was beginning to overload. Tim broke from Gonzalez and ran toward the Besquith. In the short distance, Tim’s CASPer accelerated to fifteen miles per hour and he crashed into the tables, splintering them like match sticks. Tim’s momentum carried him through the tables, and he scooped both of the Besquith off their feet as he crashed into the wall behind them. Nine-hundred pounds of armor traveling at fifteen miles per hour squashed the Besquith against the wall like they had been hit by a giant fly swatter.

Turning to see what was happening in the rest of the room, Tim was greeted by a sight that reminded him of the scene that would have been all too familiar to the knights of medieval times. Soldiers in head to toe armor, swords in their hands dripping with the blood of their slain enemy. As Alastair had promised the rooms occupants, they could comply and open the door or suffer the consequences. Those consequences were stretched across the room’s floor in pools of their own blood.

“Corporal Vega. The room is secure. Bring in the package,” ordered Alastair.

Out in the corridor Vega turned and bent down to speak to Anna Wong softly through his external speaker rather than broadcast their conversation over an open radio net. “Doctor. This is not going to be pretty. Concentrate on what we are here to do. Don’t look around, and you will be fine.”

Anna took a deep breath, straightening her shoulders before giving Vega a curt nod. “Let’s get on with this.”

Holding her chin high, Anna followed Vega into the room resolutely refusing to acknowledge the bodies spread around the floor or the large streaks of blood and gore on one wall. “No. No. I’m not going to look.” Anna whispered to herself stepping over an unmoving Bakulu to a console which was beeping softly. The display was splattered in blood and Anna looked around for something to wipe it clear with. Not finding anything, she resorted to the sleeve of her own jacket. “That’s better,” she said as she concentrated on the information, occasionally tapping at the console’s keyboard to bring up new windows of information.

“How long, Anna?” asked Alastair.

“I don’t know, Colonel. There is a wealth of information here. Years of research. I could spend months going through this data trying to find exactly what we are looking for.”

“Time is not something we have a lot of, Anna,” said Alastair, failing to keep the exasperation from his voice. “I need to know where that working prototype is!”

Anna flicked through another couple of screens then let out a loud. “Aha!” Spinning on her heel Anna went to take a step only to find her way blocked by the limp form of a—Anna stared at it as she her brain tried to process what the bloodied heap may have been. A large metal leg and foot appeared in her vision and pushed the body out of her line of sight. “Thank you, Vega.” She said in the same matter of fact tone that one would use to acknowledge the removal of a piece of garbage.

Alastair and Tim watched on as Anna moved to the far wall which was segmented vertically into a dozen or so large units, moving along them until she came to the one she was looking for and halted. Tapping at the compact control panel on the face of the unit, Anna stood back as the entire segment slid smoothly out of the wall to reveal a dark, lozenge shaped capsule roughly six feet high and four feet around. The capsule’s exterior was perfectly smooth, but Alastair could make out what he assumed were panels which could be removed to gain access to the internal workings.

“Gentlemen. I present to you the galaxy’s smallest and most efficient reactor,” Anna said with a flourish. “If I’m reading the specs correctly, this little baby will change our complete understanding of energy production. Forget powering a Raknar in combat, this marvel of Dusman engineering could supply all the power a battleship might need.”

Tim could not help himself, he reached out a hand to touch the dark as night reactor, forgetting for a moment that he was wrapped in armor. From Anna’s perspective the sight of a giant metal fighting machine trying to softly stroke a piece of engineering which contained the equivalent of a small star within it laughable. And that was exactly what she did. Surrounded by fighting men, devastation, and the dead, Anna’s soft, lilting Human laugh reminded them all what they would lose if General Peepo was successful.

Gonzalez Rivero brought Alastair back to reality with a very uncomfortable bump. “Colonel. Check Third Platoon’s status.”

Alastair cursed himself for getting caught up in the moment and taking his eye off the ball. Flicking screens, the blood drained from his face as he double-checked what his suit’s computer told him. Of the nine troopers on the control room level, seven were a solid, dark red of combat ineffective. One, Caroline Verley’s, blinked amber while only one remained a steady green. Corporal Okoro.

“Times up, people!” shouted Alastair. “Tim, the reactor is your responsibility. Get it ready to move.”

Tim spun on his heel, taking the couple of steps it took to stand before the reactor. “Roger that, Colonel. First Sergeant, you plus one are with me. Hustle it up.”

“Jackson. On me,” called Croll, as he used his CASPer’s amplified muscles to literally rip the reactor from its mount, unconcerned if the thing blew up or not. Jackson arrived beside him and presented his back. Croll deftly secured the reactor to the cargo hooks on the rear of Jackson’s suit.

Tim raced his eye over the reactor, ensuring it was securely attached. “Good to go, Colonel.”

“Wait! Wait!” cried Anna, causing Alastair to turn in her direction. “We can’t leave.”

“Explain, Doctor,” demanded Alastair.

“If we leave this place intact, leave all this research behind, they will be able to build another reactor as soon as they replace the scientist and engineers.”

If Anna could have seen Alastair’s face behind his armored suit, she would not have recognized the man with the evil grin. “Who said anything about leaving this place standing? Gonzalez bring it all down.”

Vega ushered Anna from the room, falling into place behind the reactor-laden Jackson, his escort Croll, and Tim on point. It was over half a mile to the point where the Scorpions had originally breached the facility and another eight miles from there to the extraction point.

* * * * *

Chapter Seventeen

Plan B

“And I’m done.” Announced Engineer Larras as he wriggled his segmented body free of the ECM console he had crawled completely into for the past hour and a half. “Shall we try powering it up?” the Jeha asked jauntily, failing to notice or deciding not to notice, the tense atmosphere on the bridge of the Glambring.

Captain Kothoo flung his own Chief Engineer a questioning look, only for the man to shrug his shoulders. The elSha captain closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “Permission to power up the detectors, and the detectors only.” Kothoo thought about crossing his fingers as he had once seen his Human compatriots doing but decided against something so un-captain like.

“Aye-aye, sir,” acknowledged the Tactical Officer. Being out of the captain’s line of sight, he did in fact cross his fingers as he activated the detectors. With a series of small beeps, the console came to life as the system rebooted itself.

“See, nothing to worry about,” said Larras cheerfully, seconds before the shrill buzzing of the threat receiver wiped the smile from his face.

“Report!” demanded Kothoo of his tactical officer.

“Entropy protect us,” the man said as Kothoo’s eyes locked on him like a laser beam. Clearing his throat loudly, he began his report. “Two bogeys. Computer is calling Bogey One a HecSha Ripper-class light cruiser. Bogey Two is a second cruiser. Same class.”

Entropy protect us, indeed, thought Kothoo, as the Tactical Officer continued his report. “Navigational radar emissions only. No indication of search or fire control radar. Confidence is high we remain undetected.”

Well, thank the high-being for small mercies, thought Kothoo. “They may not know we are here for the moment, but the second Colonel Sinclair’s dropships lift off, the cruisers are bound to see them.” Kothoo weighed his odds against not one, but two, cruisers and came up with the only sensible answer. A frigate such as the Glambring was out-gunned and out-matched, but his duty demanded he try.

“Tactical. Get me firing solutions on both cruisers but remain at EMCON One until I order otherwise.”

The officer for a moment looked like he was going to question Kothoo’s orders before nodding once and getting to work.

A tense silence descended on the bridge, broken only by hushed conversations. Kothoo rolled his shoulders in an attempt to relieve the pressure building there as his eyes followed the two HecSha cruisers on his tactical display, like a hawk watching for any sign they had detected the Glambring.

He had no way of knowing that the HecSha cruisers had already altered the balance of the battle on Kathal.

* * *

Squad Leader Wela was trying very hard to disguise his disappointment at being ordered to a hole in the ground miles from where the other Jivool of his platoon were engaging those who had dared assault General Peepo’s facility.

Taking a deep, warming breath of the nitrogen-rich atmosphere which reminded him so much of home, he stumbled over a rock and was forced to bend forward to keep his balance. It was a stumble that saved his life as a burst of automatic weapons’ fire speared through the space where his head had been a split second before. Allowing his stumble to turn into a dive for the hard ground, Wela brought up his laser rifle, searching for whoever had nearly ended his life.

Bright yellow muzzle flashes from directly in front of him identified the location of the shooter and Wela sent a burst of laser-fire in its direction. The ground around him was torn up as the shooter zeroed in on him.

At last, the other members of his squad began firing as they formed up in a rough skirmish line, seeking whatever cover was available. A second heavy weapon joined the first, and Wela realized that his entire squad was pinned down.

Well, we shall see about that, thought Wela, as he dragged his comms unit from his belt. “Dropship One Four, Dropship One Four. This is Squad Leader Wela. We are pinned down by at least two heavy weapons. Get off your lazy HecSha asses and give me some air support. Now!”

* * *

“Shit, Jonsey! You opened up too early.” scolded Kathy Appleberry.

“Yeah, I noticed that, thanks,” replied Fergus Daw as he sent another burst of MAC fire in the direction of the Jivool, who had appeared out of nowhere a scant one hundred yards from where the two troopers of Support Platoon had been idling time, awaiting the return of the assault group. The pilots of the dropships sitting at the bottom of the bowl had already decided that there was no longer any need for stealth and were bringing the ships’ engines on line in preparation for departure.

As the senior of the two troopers, Kathy put in the call to the colonel. “Contact! Contact! Extraction Point is taking fire from Jivool. Approximately squad strength.”

“Understood Extraction Point. We are six miles out. Tell the pilots to warm up the engines for a hot extraction.”

“Roger that, Colonel. The pilots are already on it.”

“Sinclair, clear.”

“The Jivool must have guessed our extraction point,” said Tim to Alastair on their private channel.

“And if they know about the extraction point, then they bloody well know our route to it.” Alastair finished Tim’s line of thinking for him as the older man ran the various scenarios through his head. “If they manage to bottle us up in the tunnels then eventually our CASPers will run out of power, and we will have to fight them on foot, and I don’t like those odds. Do you?”

“It would not be my favorite way to spend the day,” joked Tim weakly.

“OK, time for Plan B. Take your group plus Anna and Vega and double time it to the dropships. When you get there, bug out for the Glambring…”

“Now hold on a minute, Alastair. I’m not going to leave you here for the bloody Jivool to chop you up!” protested Tim vehemently.

“You, Captain Buchanan, will obey my orders. You will get that reactor and Doctor Wong back to the Glambring at all costs. You hear me? At all costs! I will remain here with Gonzalez and delay the main force of Jivool and Besquith from catching you before you lift off. When I hear that you are in the air, we will fall back to the second dropship and get the hell off this rock.”

“Sir, Alastair. Don’t make me do this,” pleaded Tim.

Alastair slapped Tim’s CASPer’s shoulder with his own armored hand. “You’ve got orders, Tim. See you aboard the Glambring for a drink.” Alastair changed channels, effectively ending any argument. “Gonzalez. We are going to make a blocking position here. Let’s dig some boulders out of this tunnel wall. Come on man, move!”

Gonzalez and his two remaining troopers jumped to obey Alastair’s orders while Tim scooped Anna up into his large metal arms and bounded off down the tunnel as fast as his CASPer would carry him, his small group of Scorpions following close behind.

* * *

The firing in the corridor outside the control room had slackened significantly. Okoro had nearly completed the task that he had set himself and the lines of code flashed past on his Tri-V display at a pace only someone equipped with pinplants and with the aid of his CASPer’s onboard computer could hope to sustain. The last security system had proved to be a complete bitch. Whoever had designed it had meant for it to slow the hacker down long enough for him to be caught and, if the rate of fire in the corridor was anything to go by, being caught was the least of Okoro’s worries.

The faint rumble of an explosion shook more plaster dust into the already filthy air, and in a side display the icon that had represented the trooper fighting in the remaining stairwell changed from amber to a solid red. Okoro’s lips thinned. That left only himself and Lieutenant Verley still in the fight, and unless he completed this hack, the sacrifices of the other Scorpions would be for naught.

“Okoro,” came the weak voice of Caroline Verley. “I don’t know how much longer I can hold them off you. The Jivool have managed to get past us and are headed down the stairwells to the lower levels; they’ll be right up the colonel’s ass in no time.”

“I’m nearly finished, just another few minutes.”

“Here they come again—see you on the other side, Okoro.”

Out in the corridor the fire picked up again. The sound of Caroline’s MAC died off as its ammunition hopper ran dry. Controlled, aimed bursts from the gun pod was answered by the fizz and whiz of massed laser rifle fire.

Okoro worked frantically. Inserting a piece of code here. Deleting a piece there. Until, all of a sudden, he was in. “I have you now!” cried Okoro. “Targeting data accessed. Fire lock removed. And—” Okoro entered the final command into the Besquith space-based missile defense system which controlled all of the orbital satellites. “Missiles away.”

Okoro was still smiling when the back plate of his CASPer was hit by a dozen Besquith armored piercing rounds and a handful of Jivool laser rifle rounds. The Scorpion died a happy man.

* * *

“Captain Po!” the HecSha staffing the Striking Talon’s missile detection system shouted.

“What is it now?” asked Po, more annoyed by the raised voice on his bridge than what the man had to tell him. That changed in a second.

“We are being painted by the orbital defense platforms.”

“Which one?” Po demanded.

“All of them.”

Po looked at him, and his mouth dropped open in disbelief. After a moment, he shook himself and acted, firing out orders as fast a machine gun. “Shields up! All anti-missile defenses are free to engage as they bear. Comms, warn the Devil’s Fang to move out of our engagement zone!”

“Missile launch!” shrieked the HecSha missile detection operator. “Multiple missiles incoming.”

“Be more precise, damn you!” Po chastised the man. “How many missiles do you have on your display?”

The technician turned and it looked like he had seen a ghost. “The entire complement of each orbital satellite, Captain. Over a hundred missiles.”

Po wanted to reach over and strike him down. What he was telling him was not possible, but one look at his repeater display told Po the truth of it. Po was looking death in the face, and he could not escape.

Travelling at thirty-six thousand miles per hour, the missiles from the orbital platforms leapt across the expanse of space separating them from the HecSha cruisers. Defense crews were still rushing to arm their weapons as the first missiles struck home. The HecSha cruisers were designed to survive and fight in space combat but not the onslaught of missiles they faced that day, all of which arrived within seconds of each other. Computer-controlled anti-missile laser clusters managed to get off a few shots and destroy a small number of the incoming swarm. The remainder doggedly bore down on their targets.

Corporal Okoro breathed his last as both cruisers were vaporized.

* * *

“What are they waiting for?” asked Jonsey, as he sent another burst at a Jivool who dared to raise his head high enough for Jonsey’s CASPer’s targeting system to get a shot off at it. The back of the Jivool’s head exploded in a spray of blood and brain matter, and the Jivool dropped face down like a limp rag.

“Who cares! As soon as the colonel gets back, we are aboard the dropship and out of here,” replied Kathy. She was about to give Jonsey some more sage advice when her suit’s audio receptors picked up the high-pitched whine of approaching turbine blades.

A shadow flew over her faster than she could react and her CASPer was picked up and tossed through the air like a rag doll by a series of explosions. Kathy ended up lying in the open, her suit instrumentation flickering on and off. She let out a soft groan as she tried to roll upright only to discover that where her right arm had been was a bloody mix of metal and shattered bone.

Another shadow blocked the sunlight and Kathy struggled to focus through the pain. A single, high-powered laser round at close range scorched through Kathy’s CASPer and put her out of her misery.

* * *

Squad Leader Wela gave the armored monster which had killed half his squad a final kick before walking over to the raging funeral pyre that was the remains of the two Scorpion dropships. “Well those lazy ass HecSha sure did a number on them.” Wela commentated to one of his surviving squad as he observed the effect of Dropship One Four’s cluster bomb attack.

At his waist his comms unit’s beeping demanded his attention.

“Squad Leader Wela,” he answered, still fascinated by the results of a single pass by Dropship One Four.

“Wela. This is Commander Gorak—” Wela automatically brought himself more upright.

“We have identified those who attacked the facility as Humans. They are escaping down the mining tunnels and may be headed in your direction.”

“Commander. I have already destroyed the dropships they arrived in and have killed many of their armored warriors,” Wela boasted, forgetting to mention it was actually the HecSha who had destroyed the Scorpions’ ships while he had his head buried in the rocky ground to stop it from being blown off.

“Excellent work, Wela. We are flushing them toward you, and I have dispatched another squad to join you. Between us we will make these Humans rue the day they took the field of battle against the Jivool.” Gorak cut the connection without further ado.

Wela set to work placing his surviving squad members along the rim of the bowl with an unobstructed view of the mine entrance. Confident his men, with the aid of Dropship One Four, had enough firepower to deal with any Humans who were stupid enough to poke their heads out into the daylight, they waited.

* * *

Squad Leader Horal sat strapped into his seat aboard the single remaining dropship attached to the underside of Striking Talon. His uncle, Commander Gorak, had put him in command of the replacement squad of Flatar. It was a stain on his honor that he wasn’t allowed to command the Jivool, all because of Ralla Station. Horal closed his eyes as he tried to block out the incessant chattering of the Flatar who seemed to be incapable of exhausting the list of things they wanted to moan about.

“Hey, Squad Leader,” called the nearest Flatar. Horal recognized him as the mouthpiece of the group.

“What?” asked Horal irritably.

“Is it true we got stuck with you because you’re on your uncle’s shit list?” The Flatar in the bay all burst into raucous laughter.

Horal bared his teeth and let out a deep growl as he unstrapped from his seat. “Enough!” Horal shouted angrily. “Time for you to learn some manners.” Horal was easily seven times the height of the Flatar, who realized too late that his attempt to look big in front of his companions had crossed the line, and now Horal was going to do him some serious damage.

A warning klaxon reverberated through the bay, and its occupants felt a sudden lurching motion. “Standby for immediate break away; the Striking Talon is under attack!”

The dropship was flung violently to one side. The Flatar who were all belted securely into their seats were bounced around a bit. Horal, however, had already released his straps and was subsequently flung about, crashing into a heavy metal stanchion which knocked him senseless. The ship made another radical change of direction, flinging the hapless Jivool skidding along the floor of the bay until the rear ramp stopped him with a bone-crushing jolt.

“Not so big now are we, Squad Leader?” said the mouthpiece sarcastically.

The pain in Horal’s back and neck had sent stars bouncing around in his vision; he was sure he had a concussion and perhaps that explained the words that came out of his mouth before he remember he was surrounded by armed Flatar. “I shall crush the life from you just like that other waste of atmosphere Deeral and his revolting pet Zeorta we sent to the great beyond. My uncle’s right. When General Peepo has finished with the Humans then you Flatar and your cursed Tortantula will be next.”

The wide-eyed stares of the Flatar rapidly contracted until they became narrow slits. Suspicion and loathing oozed from the Flatar, and all of them aimed their oversized pistols at Horal.

“Tell us more about what happened to our brethren, Deeral, and what your uncle knows of Peepo’s plans.”

Now it was Horal’s turn to feel fear.

* * *

“Sir! Captain Kothoo, sir,” exclaimed the Glambring’s tactical officer as he looked around wildly for the frigate’s captain.

What hand has fate dealt us now? wondered the elSha as he made his way across to the man.

“It’s the orbital satellites, sir,” the officer said, hurrying on when he saw the shadow of dismay pass over his captain’s face. “They have engaged and destroyed the HecSha cruisers.”

What!” asked Kothoo as he stared at the man in disbelief.

“And that’s not all, sir. The ground-based radars have gone offline—all of them. If I’m interpreting the data correctly, the entire air defense system has gone into a maintenance cycle. We could park the ship right on their heads and there is not a thing they could do about it.”

Kothoo let out a very un-elSha whoop of joy and jumped back into his command chair. “Helm. Take us down to the pick-up point. We are getting our people back!”

* * *

Alastair did not need his external audio pick-ups to hear the sound of heavy feet pounding the floor of the mine’s tunnel toward him. Even so he filtered it through the CASPer’s computer which analyzed the sound, breaking it down into its component parts and flashed a number on his display. Thirty-six. There were thirty-six distinct pairs of feet racing up the tunnel toward him, Gonzalez Rivero, and the two remaining troopers of Support Platoon.

Alastair glanced at the names beside the icons representing the two troopers. Coleen Hann, Irish father, Chinese mother. Alastair had gone up against her in the Scorpions’ annual hand-to-hand combat competition shortly after she had joined the company. At five foot one against Alastair’s six foot four it looked like an easy win. The match was over in under twenty seconds. Alastair really should have done his research on his opponent that day, for Coleen Hann was a double black belt in Kung Fu, and she had put Alastair down before he even knew the fight had begun. Alastair smiled wryly at the memory.

The other trooper, Finn McNeilly, was the complete opposite to Coleen. Loud, brash, outspoken, and opinionated were some of the words used to describe the flame-red haired Scotsman from the small island of Islay. In lots of ways, Finn reminded Alastair of Oren Blair. Finn liked a drink, and, when he did, you could pretty much guarantee it would end in a fight. Alastair could not remember the number of times he or Tim Buchanan had to go down to the local police station and bail the man out. All that changed the day he met his future wife, Lorna Kennedy. Not only had she put a stop to his drinking and brawling, she had made him into a doting family man.

A wave of sadness ran over Alastair. Lorna and her newborn daughter had been aboard the assault flitter downed on its mad dash to The Lodge. Finn hadn’t spoken of it, even to his closest friends in his platoon, but Alastair knew the man had had his heart torn out.

The first Besquith came into view, an eerie sight in the shades of gray of the CASPer’s image intensifier. The Besquith’s mouth hung open, displaying its vicious fangs as it charged the Scorpions’ make-shift barricade. A volley of fire tore into it flinging it backward. As if that was some kind of signal, a tremendous amount of fire engulfed the Scorpions, and a mix of armor-piercing and laser rifle rounds filled the narrow confines of the tunnel. Alastair and his companions returned fire with the same viciousness.

In the corner of his eye, Alastair’s ammo counter crept steadily down. Two hundred rounds remaining. One hundred rounds remaining. Fifty rounds remaining. Rounds expended. Switch to 8-millimeter gun pod. His controlled bursts raked the waves of oncoming Jivool and Besquith and the bodies piled higher. So high in fact that the living were able to use the dead as a sandbag wall.

Gonzalez Rivero was the first to fall. A line of armor-piercing bullets stitched across his chest. The CASPer’s armor defeated most of the rounds but a single round managed to get through and took Gonzalez through the heart.

Coleen Hann was next. A group of Jivool used the combined fire from their laser rifles to burn a hole clean through the front and back of her suit. Thankfully her dying screams were cut off as the suit’s computer dosed her with pain killers. At least she would feel no more pain in her last minutes.

That left only Finn and Alastair to fend off the attacking horde. Finn’s MAC and then his gun pod ran out of ammunition. His own under arm laser had been damaged during the fight so it was useless. Rather than await the inevitable, Finn vaulted over the barricade and charged the enemy, his extended blade slashing and stabbing as he went. Finn’s war cry was one of the proudest moments of Alastair’s life. Charging the enemy, Finn screamed, “Non Quarta!”

Then Alastair was alone. Out of ammo and with his left leg badly mangled by laser-fire, he used his hands to pull himself hand over hand until he sat propped up, facing the mixed Besquith and Jivool force.

A lone Jivool approached out of the darkness until it stood looking down at the Scorpions’ commander. “I am Commander Gorak. I shall accept your surrender and will present you as my prisoner to General Peepo as my gift to her.”

Alastair popped the armored cover of his CASPer which opened until Alastair could see Gorak with his own eyes. A large toothy grin spread across Alastair’s face. “When you see that bitch of a rodent, Peepo, tell her I’ll see her in hell.” Alastair opened his left arm and a C6 grenade rolled out to rest at the feet of Gorak. Alastair laughed loudly as the Jivool stared wide-eyed at the grenade.

The ensuing explosion brought down the roof of the tunnel, burying Alastair, Gonzalez, Finn, and Coleen, along with all the Jivool and Besquith, living and dead, under tons of rock.

* * *

Tim’s heart sank as he edged closer to the sunlight streaming in through the tunnel’s entrance. If his CASPer’s filters hadn’t scrubbed the outside air before allowing it to circulate within the suit, he knew that he would smell the stench of burning jet fuel and scorched metal. Both dropships lay in smoking ruins in the center of the sunken bowl. A myriad of craters pockmarked the base of the bowl. “Yeah, definitely an air strike,” said Ethan Croll from beside him. “Cluster bombs most likely, looking at the crater pattern,” Croll added.

Tim did not feel the need to voice his agreement with the first sergeant. Tim did not doubt that whatever had killed their ride was lurking out there, out of sight, waiting for them to pop their heads out so it could blow them off.

“Well we can’t stay here, that much is obvious,” said Tim, more to himself than Croll. “The colonel might have stopped the Besquith and Jivool from coming up behind us, but you can bet your last credit there are more where they came from, and the longer we wait here, the more likely they turn up, and then they can sit out there and wait for us to die from oxygen starvation.”

“Or old age,” commented Croll.

“What?” Not understanding the comment.

“Well, you are older than me, and I’m older than Jackson and Vega, so statistically you would be the first to pop their clogs if we had to stay in this damn tunnel,” Croll said lightly.

Tim shook his head inside his CASPer. “You know, First Sergeant, I don’t know what I was thinking when I recommended to the colonel you be allowed to join the Scorpions.”

“It was my boyish charm, sir,” quipped Croll.

Tim let out a soft chuckle. “You keep right on believing that; meanwhile, I’ll try to figure a way out of this mess we have got ourselves into.” Both men lapsed into silence as Tim surveyed the lip of the bowl above them. Tim replayed his last thought. The enemy were above them. What if I took that advantage away from them and instead made it ours?

“OK, First Sergeant here’s the plan…”

Less than five minutes later the four Scorpions troopers were lined up, one behind the other, at the edge of the tunnel entrance. With Vega’s help, Jackson had detached the Dusman reactor, which now lay propped against the tunnel wall beside a nervous-looking Anna Wong.

Tim was first in line and he briefly glanced at the worried picture of Anna in his rear-view camera pick-up. He wanted to say something reassuring to her, but when he had tried while waiting for Jackson to get ready, words had escaped him. Now he wished he had said something—anything before embarking on this last chance plan of his.

“Ready,” said last man Vega.

“Ready,” echoed Jackson.

“Ready,” repeated Croll.

“On my mark…Three…Two…One…Mark!”

The four men sprinted out of the tunnel entrance, and as they cleared the tunnel, they activated their jumpjets, sending them shooting into the sky. Tim and Croll cleared the tunnel before the Jivool could react to the unexpected maneuver. Jackson and Vega took a few hits but nothing that did any significant damage. Each CASPer settled into a hover at a height of one hundred feet as they scanned the area below them for targets.

Squad Leader Wela had made his men lie prone on the rocky ground to present as small a target as possible to anyone who took a shot at them from the mine entrance. Unfortunately for Wela and his squad, they now presented the biggest target possible to Tim and the hovering Scorpions, who gratefully took full advantage of his error. MAC, gun pod, and laser-fire rained down on the defenseless Jivool.

It was over in a matter of a few blood-soaked seconds.

“OK, people, well done. Let’s get some dirt back under our boots—” Tim’s congratulations were cut off by the urgent screeching of a threat warning receiver. Before he had a chance to shout a warning, the HecSha dropship screamed past, twin cannons in its nose mount blasting away at Jackson. The trooper had no chance to evade as depleted uranium rounds bigger than an adult’s forearm hammered into his CASPer, blowing chunks off it and the trooper inside. Jackson plummeted earthward, smashing into the ground and lying still.

Tim’s suit’s radar tracked the dropship as it banked hard around preparing to make another pass. “Spread out!” shouted Tim, but Croll and Vega had anticipated his command and had already moved further apart to provide a less-clustered target for the returning HecSha.

“I’m out of MAC rounds, Captain, and my gun pod’s nearly dry, too,” called Croll.

“Push him my way,” said Vega. “I’m green on MAC and gun pod.”

“You heard the man, First Sergeant,” Tim said as he watched the range to target wind down at an alarming rate. Tim settled the targeting reticule for his MAC on the left side of the cockpit and selected armor-piercing rounds. In the ammo pod below the MAC, the feed mechanism slipped across to the selected type and fed the first round into the breach. Tim held his position as the dropship grew larger in his vision. Wait…Wait…Wait…Now! Tim pushed the CASPer sideways as a finger of light flew from the twin guns of the dropship. Firing his own weapon, Tim sent a stream of armor-piercing rounds, which impacted the side of the speeding dropship, cracking off the armored cockpit glass and sending wild cracks across it.

The HecSha pilot flipped the craft away from the incoming fire directly into the path of the waiting Croll. The First Sergeant may not have had any ammo left for his MAC or gun pod but he did have his under-arm laser and he sent a near continuous burst at the cockpit. The pilot pulled the dropship further to the right causing the craft to slip onto its wingtip as it turned, exposing its less well protected underside.

Vega let loose with everything he had. 20-millimeter MAC, 8-millimeter gun pod, and finally his high-cyclic laser. Under the constant pounding the airframe buckled and came apart in midair, strewing pieces of dropship across the unforgiving surface of Kathal.

Killing his jumpjets, Tim lowered himself sedately to the ground. Anna came running over to him and hugged one metal leg, tears streaming down her cheeks below her rebreather. Croll and Vega landed beside the tunnel entrance and went in to recover the Dusman reactor.

“Oh, Tim. When I saw the CASPer falling from the sky I thought—I thought—” Her face dissolved into more tears.

Tim looked across to where Jackson’s suit had impacted the ground with such force that it was partially buried. The sight of the dead Jackson, like so many they had lost today, made Tim even more determined to get the few that had survived home. Looking over the two wrecked dropships that had brought them here from the Glambring, though, he had no idea how he was going to achieve that goal.

Croll and Vega reemerged from the tunnel, Vega carrying the reactor. With a touch of his controls the corporal used his jump jets to take him to the rim of the bowl.

“Captain Buchanan. You better get up here,” Vega called over the radio.

Croll jumped up beside Vega while Tim walked up with Anna by his side. When he reached the two men, they were both looking to the east where a low dust cloud appeared to be closing on them. Tim used his suit’s optics to enhance the dust cloud and the slab sides of an armored flitter sprang into focus.

Tim felt his head sag as he released a heavy sigh. He was low on everything. Croll was already out. Only Vega had anything left to fight with. Could he just not get a break?

“Eh, Captain,” said Croll, his voice sounding odd. Almost disbelieving.

“Now what? Has the devil himself decided to add to my bad day?”

“Not the devil, sir. I think it might be an angel.”

Tim refocused his optics on the approaching flitter only to see a dark spot behind it, which was growing in size at a remarkable rate as it gained on the speeding flitter. Seconds later, the outline of the Glambring emerged from the dark spot. It looked like those aboard the flitter had spotted the frigate thundering toward them, because the flitter’s pilot swerved violently, but then a blast from one of the Glambring’s laser missile defense pods sent the flitter and its occupants into oblivion.

As the Glambring got closer, it slowed to a crawl until it came to a full stop, hovering directly over the cluster of Humans, blasting them with dust and small stones whipped up by the Glambring’s engines. A bay door retracted and winch lines dropped down. The Scorpions troopers attached them to their suit lift points. Croll wrapped his arms around the reactor while Tim gently lifted Anna into his arms.

“Don’t you dare drop me, Tim Buchanan!” she shouted through the mini whirlwind.

With a slight jolt, the three CASPers were hoisted through the open bay door which closed smoothly after they had passed through, becoming a floor onto which they were lowered. A more breathable atmosphere was pumped into the bay and Captain Kothoo entered, accompanied by Oren Blair, Al, and Larras.

Tim cracked his suit and slipped down onto the deck to be joined by Croll and Vega. Anna stood protectively beside Tim, an arm wrapped around his waist. It was the first time she had been able to have physical contact with him since the nightmare on Kathal had begun, and she needed the intimacy to reassure her that nightmare was behind her.

Kothoo eyed them one at a time, his expression grave. Eventually his eyes fell on the dark lozenge of the Dusman reactor. He reached out and touched it reverently. “I hope this was worth the high price in blood we paid today.”

Tim looked at Anna before answering. “If it gets us back our planet then any price is worth paying.”

“Let’s get you lot cleaned up,” said Oren. “You all look a bit worse for wear.”

“And you smell a bit,” put in Al as his whiskers twitched.

“Best idea I’ve heard all day,” agreed Ethan Croll.

Oren draped his prosthetic arm around the first sergeant’s shoulder and whispered conspiratorially. “And then maybe a wee dram eh, Ethan?”

“It’s always drink with you, Oren,” moaned Al as he scampered after the two men.

Vega tapped at the leg of his suit which hissed open to reveal a stubby carbine. Slipping it over his shoulder he took post behind and to one side of Anna.

Anna let out a small giggle. “It looks like my guardian angel is back on duty.”

“I think it’s safe to stand down now, Corporal Vega.” said Tim.

“The colonel said—” Vega stuttered to a stop. Alastair Sinclair was no longer in command of the Scorpions that bore his family name. Tim Buchanan was now the ranking officer. “You’re the boss, sir,” replied Vega as he unslung the carbine and headed off to find Croll, Oren, and the promised drink.

Larras was busily poking and prodding the Dusman reactor, ignoring what was going on around him until he noticed it had gone quiet. Turning his head, he found Tim and Anna looking at him.

“I take it you would have no objection if I had this moved down to Engineering so I can get a proper look at it?”

Anna waved a hand dismissively. “Take it, just don’t take it apart until I get a chance to examine it properly, OK?”

“Anything you say, Doctor Wong.” The Jeha started circling the reactor again while he tapped away at his slate.

“Penny for your thoughts,” said Anna, noticing that Tim was staring at the bay’s blank wall.

“Vega’s right you know,” said Tim in a low voice.

“About what?” asked Anna softly.

“Now that Alastair is—” Tim swallowed a lump that had suddenly formed in his throat. “Gone. And with no sign of Charlie, it makes me the Scorpions’ ranking officer.” A frown creased Tim’s forehead.

“Then I vote we find Oren and have that drink with the Scorpions that we are lucky enough to still have with us.”

“Who said you never have a good idea?” joked Tim, dancing beyond the reach of Anna’s playful swat.

* * *

The Glambring pulled herself out of the Kathal atmosphere and back into open space. Captain Kothoo began to relax until a call from his Communications Officer brought him back to full alert.

“Sir, we have an incoming transmission from a dropship pilot who claims he is carrying survivors of the HecSha cruiser Striking Talon.” The officer cocked his head to one side as if he could not quite believe what he was hearing.  “Sir, the pilot says he is under duress and that a squad of Flatar have taken over his vessel and are now requesting asylum aboard the Glambring. They claim to have information that the Humans that assaulted the Dusman facility may find useful.”

Kothoo scratched his chin with one claw while he considered their request. “Very well; allow them to dock then escort the lot of them to the brig. Let’s get through the stargate and into hyperspace before we worry about what they have to say.”

Could this mission hold any more twists? thought Kothoo as he watched the HecSha dropship dock. Its passengers were escorted to the brig while the Glambring kept up a steady acceleration as it made its way to the stargate.

As the frigate passed Moon 5, radar reported two contacts traveling at high speed for Kathal. That would be the Besquith returning to find out what had happened to the facility they were meant to be guarding. Kothoo let out a little chuckle. I would love to be a fly on the wall when somebody had to explain what had happened to General Peepo.

Two hours later, the Glambring transited through the stargate and an exhausted Kothoo headed to his cabin for a well-deserved night’s sleep. Passing the Officers’ Mess, he heard a caterwauling that could only have been Oren Blair singing at the top of his voice. Let them party, thought the elSha. They deserve it.

* * * * *

Chapter Eighteen


Tim Buchanan sat quietly at the table in the cramped Officers’ Mess of the Glambring. The coffee in his cup had long since gone cold, and the steward had prudently left the mercenary officer to his thoughts.

The entrance door slid to one side to admit Captain Kothoo and the steward began pouring the fresh apple juice the elSha captain favored.

Kothoo pointed a slim finger toward Buchanan’s table and sidled over. Tim didn’t notice his presence which forced Kothoo to clear his throat, loudly. Blinking in surprise Tim started to stand, but Kothoo raised an open hand stopping him mid-way.

“Please, Tim, remain seated.” Kothoo tilted his head to one side while his mouth dropped slightly in the elSha equivalent to a chortle. “In theory, since you have inherited our friend Alastair’s position, you are now Commander of the Mission and, therefore, outrank me.”

A lazy grin split Tim’s gloomy features. “I suppose you are right there, but I’ve no intention on pulling rank. Besides—” Tim paused as the steward arrived with an apple juice for Kothoo and a fresh, steaming coffee for himself before retreating into the kitchen. “We are on our way back to New Warsaw now, and I don’t see much happening between now and our arrival.”

“Talking of things happening, how was your little chat with our new Flatar friends?” asked Kothoo.

Tim gave a wistful shake of his head. “Those boys are certainly something. They considered their contract to be null and void with the destruction of the Striking Talon and had every intention of hitching a lift on the next ship headed for civilized space. Until, that was, the Jivool currently residing in Sick Bay decided to open his big mouth and blab all about how his uncle, who happened to be the Jivool merc commander, had told him that once Peepo had finished with Humans then her next target could very well be the Flatar. Whether that is true or not, though, remains to be seen.”

Kothoo took a sip of his juice and savored the bitter taste as it passed down his throat. The elSha really should grow apples on their home planet. Maybe he would start his own orchard when he retired.

Cutting short his musings, he returned to the matter at hand. “I take it the Flatar were unimpressed at the Jivool’s suggestion, thus, his residency in Sick Bay?”

“That and not being strapped in when the cruiser exploded. Apparently, it was a bit of a rough ride.”

The elSha winced as he imagined being within touching distance of a vaporizing HecSha cruiser. “What about their current accommodations?”

Tim shrugged. “They seem happy enough. Their leader, Urral, understands that we just can’t let them have the run of the ship. He asked for a pack of cards and some gambling chips.”

“There is no gambling aboard my ship I can assure you, Tim,” said Kothoo firmly.

“So the bosun’s mate assured me. I had to have the cards and chips especially manufactured. When I gave them to Urral, he and his friends started a game. I wouldn’t be surprised if they are still playing by the time we reach New Warsaw.”

Kothoo turned to a more sensitive subject. “Was the Dusman reactor everything we hoped for?”

Tim nodded affirmatively. “According to Anna and Larras it performs as advertised. Providing Jim Cartwright can keep up his end of the deal and procure some Raknar or if we end up relying on Jamie to steal some, then Anna assures me that given time and resources, she can replicate the reactor in sufficient numbers for what we have planned.”

The mention of Jamie Sinclair caused Tim a fresh wave of anguish. How am I going to tell him of his father’s death? he mused.

Kothoo noted the change of mood and sought to lighten things up.

“And how are things between you and Doctor Wong?”

“You know, Captain,” Tim said as he hid a smile behind his raised coffee cup, “I do believe that you are an old gossip.”

Kothoo laughed aloud. “I am only concerned about the morale of my crew,” he said innocently.

“Of course you are.” Tim grinned. “How about we have some breakfast?” He asked, smoothly changing the subject.

“Excellent idea,” said Kothoo, beckoning the steward who had invisibly reappeared. “Then, perhaps, you can share the name of that song Oren murdered last night?”

Tim and Kothoo laughed at the expense of the Scotsman.

* * *

Kate Preissman felt like screaming, but she refrained for fear of scaring the living daylights out of her bridge crew. Instead, she took a deep breath and let it out through her thin lips. She had made a solemn promise to Alastair that she would find Charlie, his eldest boy, and now she had a difficult decision to make.

The Salamanca had arrived in Uiok, where the Zuparti freighter carrying Charlie and two platoons of Gamma Company were thought to be, only to find the freighter had departed five hours before. Now, she must get her priorities right and balance the needs of her flesh and blood family against that of her adopted family, the crew of Salamanca.

Hak Voslo, the freighter’s second in command, entered the bridge and halted beside her chair. He was close enough that Kate and the Veetch could hold a private conversation, if they kept their voices low.

“Have you come to a decision, Captain?” inquired Hak. He served Kate, now, as had his father before him; the Human and Veetch pair had developed a bond deeper and more personal than friendship. Often likened to an old, married couple, they could hold conversations without actually exchanging any spoken words.

“Are we sure they were aboard the Tla’koz when it left the system? Charlie has his father’s knack for subterfuge and he could well have sent the Tla’koz ahead to Earth while he hides out here for a while and then charters transportation on a different vessel at a later date.”

Hak remained silent. He knew Kate was not questioning him, rather she argued with her inner self to avoid the difficult decision she knew, in her heart, was the right one.

The pair lapsed into silence for several minutes until, with a sharp intake of breath, Kate tugged up her sleeves and settled herself more comfortably in her command chair. “Very well, Mr. Voslo. Prepare the ship for departure. Contact the stargate and arrange a departure time.” Kate fingered the small key hanging from its chain under her uniform blouse.

The key stayed with her at all times, asleep or awake. The little piece of jewelry contained a onetime encryption code which, when inserted into the navigation computer of the Salamanca on entering hyperspace would supply the coordinates of New Warsaw, home of the Winged Hussars.

* * *

Charlie Sinclair’s eyes flicked from the slate in his hands to the clock on the wall of the converted cargo pod and back to the slate. Forty-three hours left in hyperspace.

“You know,” said Torey McDonald, “there is a branch of theoretical physics which proposes that if you continually check the time, it will actually effect the slowing down of the whole space-time continuum?”

Charlie lowered the slate and gave her a derisive look. “And did you know that I have the power to have you shot at dawn for taking the mickey out of your commanding officer?”

“I’m pretty sure that’s not in the regs. Stacey is pretty read up on the regs, with her father being a lawyer and all that. I could ask her to check for me. You know—” Torey smirked, “—just to make sure my execution is legal and such like.”

Charlie flung his hands up in surrender. “OK, OK. I will cease the clock watching.”

Torey swung her legs off the bench she had propped them on while she read the latest maintenance check on her platoon’s CASPers. The troopers had unpacked their suits from their shipping crates and were now running system checks to ensure they were at peak performance for what was to come.

“For what it’s worth, sir, I think you are doing the right thing. Let’s get home and kick some alien ass.” Torey didn’t wait for Charlie to reply, instead, she spun on her heel and headed to the CASPers’ maintenance area.

Torey may have been the platoon commander, but like every other CASPer trooper, she insisted on doing her own maintenance and final checks; after all, it was her life in the balance if something went wrong with her suit.

Charlie watched her go, wondering if, like him, Torey had someone waiting at home. That person was the real but unspoken reason for Charlie to push so hard to get back home.

* * *

As the transit clock on the bridge of the Glambring reached zero, the very fabric of space became a distorted, shifting thing, allowing the frigate to slip from hyperspace back to normal space.

“Transit complete, sir.”

“Very well,” said Captain Kothoo. “Comms, ensure we are transmitting the correct IFF codes.”

Kothoo was acutely aware that New Warsaw was probably the best defended system he had ever visited. If the missiles, ships, mines, and heavy particle weapons all currently trained on his small frigate received an incorrect Identification Friend or Foe code, it would bring the Glambring’s homecoming to a short, spectacular end.

“Codes entered and verified, sir.”

“Prime Base acknowledges receipt of our IFF code and welcomes us home. We are cleared for a priority approach by Traffic Control and Commander Cromwell requests that Colonel Sinclair make himself available to meet with her on docking.”

Kothoo resisted the urge to turn in his seat and look at Tim Buchanan now sitting in the chair previously allocated to Alastair Sinclair on the Glambring’s bridge. “Please relay that Captain Buchanan will attend the commander on completion of our docking.”

* * *

The Glambring settled gently into its docking cradle on Prime Base. No sooner had the mooring clamps locked and the boarding tube been connected, than a Human major, dressed in the uniform of the Winged Hussars’ marines, arrived to escort Buchanan to his meeting with Commander Alexis Cromwell.

Making their way through the vast station, Tim noted the mix of uniforms representing various Earth-based mercenary companies that now called the station home.

Neither Tim nor the marine major engaged in small talk, and Tim was happy with this. He was sure the major was a pleasant enough guy, but Tim’s mind was more on the upcoming meeting with Alexis Cromwell. Tim had never met her in person; Alastair had handled all the dealings with the Four Horsemen. Now such meetings would fall on Tim. He wasn’t sure he was ready.

His escort led Tim to a door on either side of which stood Winged Hussars marines, complete with laser carbines. Tim’s escort knocked on the door once before opening it, then he stepped back and—catching Tim by surprise—flung up a perfect parade ground salute. By the time Tim realized the salute was for him, he was halfway past and his return salute was nowhere near as precise.

“Captain Buchanan, I presume,” said a cool, soprano voice.

Tim paused, eying the woman who held out her hand in greeting. Alexis Cromwell was striking. Around Tim’s age, she possessed blue eyes like shards of diamonds, set in a face accentuated by her white hair.

Remembering that Alexis’ hand hung midair, Tim grasped and shook it firmly and received an equally firm shake in return. Alexis indicated a chair, and Tim sat while Alexis returned to her seat on the opposite side of her desk.

“I was sorry to hear about Colonel Sinclair. Please accept the condolences of the Winged Hussars, and I am sure the other companies here.”

“Thank you. I will pass your words on to my troopers who will very much appreciate them.” Tim squashed the thought that at present he could only be sure there were three Scorpions still alive in the entire galaxy.

“It would seem that I and the commander of the Scorpions are fated to meet only after the worst of times. Alastair Sinclair sat in that very chair a little over a month ago, where I expressed my condolences for the loss of so many of your family members. And now—” Alexis gave a sad smile. “Here we are, again.”

“It’s part and parcel of being a mercenary, Commander Cromwell. Sometimes we don’t get to go home.”

“An unfortunate truth, Captain Buchanan,” Alexis agreed. “Now to business. I have briefly read over Doctor Wong’s preliminary report and I, and the other Horsemen, are encouraged by her findings. If the Dusman reactors are even half as powerful as the good doctor believes, then we should have no problems powering as many Raknar as we can get our hands on.”

“Speaking of which, Commander, have we gotten word on the progress of Captain Sinclair’s mission?” asked Tim.

“No, not as yet. But, rest assured, as soon as I have additional information you will be informed.” Alexis stood, and Tim guessed the meeting was over. Alexis walked around the desk to the door which opened as she approached. Standing outside was the same marine major who had escorted Tim from the Glambring to Alexis’ office.

“If you need anything at all, Captain, please contact Major Williams here, or, if he is unavailable, contact my office directly.” Alexis held out her hand again, and Tim shook it. As the door closed behind him, Tim wondered what was next for the Scorpions. Oren Blair had already discussed with him the process of rebuilding the company, and it would keep him occupied while he waited for Jamie’s return. Hopefully, before too long, he would also discover the fate of Charlie and the missing platoons.

* * *

Behind her closed office door, Alexis Cromwell marveled at the incredible piece of engineering the Scorpions had secured.

On its own it would not win the war against General Peepo and the Mercenary Guild, but it remained a key part, although a part that came at a high cost.

As Buchanan had crudely put it, not everyone comes home.

Never a truer word was spoken.

* * * * *

Chapter Nineteen


Tla’koz re-entered normal space. Almost immediately, half a dozen fire control radars from the host of warships orbiting Earth swept the ship.

“I do not like this, Human,” moaned the Zuparti captain. “What if they demand to board us and you are discovered. They will imprison or—” The captain’s weasel-like features scrunched as if he had eaten something disagreeable. “Kill me.”

Charlie Sinclair sat to the right of the frightened captain, already dressed in his haptic suit. “Calm down. Stick to the plan, and we will be out of your hair in minutes.”

“Not soon enough for my liking,” the Zuparti added. “I shouldn’t have agreed to your contract terms.”

“Well, you did. Stop feeling sorry for yourself and get on with it, just like we planned.” Charlie stood to leave, but not before he overheard the captain speaking to Earth Traffic Control.

“Traffic Control, this is the Tla’koz, en route to Kiev. We are experiencing pressure fluctuations in Cargo Pod 5. Request permission to enter low Earth orbit earlier than planned, in case of further malfunctions.”

There was a pause, then a bored voice replied. “Permission granted Tla’koz.”

Stage One complete, thought Charlie. Hopefully Stage Two will go just as smoothly. Charlie left the bridge. With the gravity decks retracted, the entire ship was in zero gravity, forcing Charlie to pull himself hand over hand along the freighter’s central corridor.

Finally, reaching Cargo Pod 5, Charlie met Sergeant Angus Deacon who, after Charlie had deftly sailed past him, closed and secured both the outer and inner pod doors.

Standing in two neat rows were the twenty-four CASPers of First and Second Platoon, Gamma Company, Sinclair’s Scorpions. Sealed up and ready.

Charlie used the CASPers as improvised handholds as he pulled himself along to reach his personal suit.

Bringing his knees to his chest, he spun around and extended his legs to drop them vertically into the suit. Wasting no time, he buckled up and connected his pinplants.

Information flowed between the CASPer’s onboard computer and his brain.

In a section of his consciousness he noted the icon for Sergeant Deacon’s suit changing from white, unsealed, to green, combat ready. With a short command, the canopy of his own suit lowered and sealed.

Everything depended on the Zuparti captain holding his nerve.

Back on the bridge, the captain was doing anything but holding his nerve.

He checked the ships’ position relative to Earth and its exact height. The Human, Sinclair, had been very specific about the height. The freighter had already slowed considerably to enter Earth’s upper atmosphere, and, as they dropped lower and lower, the increasingly thick atmosphere buffeted the ship.

The altitude readout reached the specified number—136,000 feet.

In Cargo Pod 5, a small row of explosive charges flashed and ripped open the exterior skin of the pod, exposing the interior to open space.

On the bridge, the Zuparti captain cleared his throat and opened the channel to Traffic Control.

“Traffic Control, this is the Tla’koz. Be aware, we have suffered explosive decompression in Cargo Pod 5, there are no injuries onboard; however, debris may affect other ships in the area. We will pass insurance information should anyone report damage.”

Back in the cargo bay, Charlie’s exterior camera captured the brilliance of the dark blue and green waters of the Irish Sea, bordered by the darker green land masses of the north coast of Ireland and the west coast of Scotland. He would be home soon.

“Drop! Drop! Drop!” He called over the platoon net, as he released his magnetic boot clamps and dropped like a lovesick stone for the ground below. The nine-hundred-pound suit quickly reached supersonic speeds.

Lower still he dropped until, at last, his target came into sight, and his jumpjets began firing, slowing his descent. At 22½ miles long and nearly two miles wide, Loch Ness stood out among the green hills and glens of northeast Scotland. Charlie slowed further as the computer continued firing the jets on its established landing program.

With an ease that belied many hours of training Charlie touched down on the fine, shingle beach of the loch. Behind him, twenty-three more suits made landfall and moved off into the thick tree line so that, in under a minute, no sign of the Scorpions’ homecoming was visible.

Sweeping around to the north, each platoon formed its own skirmish line and advanced until they reached a narrow stream beyond which lay a small complex of log buildings. The Lodge. The designated bug out location if the Scorpions’ base at Machrihanish on the tip of the Mull of Kintyre was ever compromised.

An hour of observation satisfied Charlie that The Lodge was unoccupied, a fact he found disturbing. Perhaps, his father had decided to evacuate the families to the farm the company maintained in New Zealand instead.

Passing the word to stay back, Charlie stepped into the open. He had taken a couple of steps when a loud, female voice called to him from behind one of the log cabins. Involuntarily, his MAC flipped into position and tracked the source of the voice.

“Easy there, Major, I’m coming out.” A female figure in a tan uniform detached herself from the matching wood color of a cabin. Held in clear view in her left hand was a Gal 12 assault rifle. Charlie zoomed in on the woman’s face, and his suit ran facial recognition. In Charlie’s Tri-V, a Scorpions’ personnel jacket popped up. Tech Sergeant Katrian Quant.

Charlie popped the canopy of his suit so the sergeant could see who she was talking to, but rather than the expected relief, Katrian Quant’s face drained of blood, and her legs turned to jelly.

Charlie assumed the woman was injured, so quickly jumped down from his CASPer and ran to her.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” Quant repeated in a low moan.

“What’s wrong, Sergeant? What are you sorry for?”

With tears in her eyes Katrian Quant related her story from the beginning. From the evacuation, to the departure of the Salamanca and the flitter with the families on board. She spoke of the missile attack on the flitter, which had killed everyone on board, while the Salamanca had successfully escaped to points unknown. Quant told of her own journey on foot from Machrihanish across the width of Scotland until she had arrived at The Lodge, where she had waited, praying someone would come and tell her what to do next.

The news of his wife and children broke Charlie Sinclair, and he shed silent tears of despair.

Hours later, as the sun was setting behind the high peaks surrounding Loch Ness, Charlie Sinclair sat with Torey McDonald.

“What are we going to do?” Torey asked him quietly.

“I’m going to find everyone who had a hand in this…and kill them. I’m going to find who ordered it…and kill them. I’m going to find who paid for this…and I will kill them, too.” Charlie paused before saying. “I will have my vengeance.”

Torey watched the setting sun for a moment, seemingly lost in her own thoughts. She stood and breathed in the spectacular landscape, and, without turning, she softly addressed Charlie.

“Count me in. Count us all in.”

# # # # #

About PP Corcoran

Author of the Amazon bestselling Saiph Series, PP Corcoran writes fast-paced military science fiction because he gets to mix his two loves; shoot em ups and science. A 22-year-veteran of the British Army, Paul began his writing career in 2014. After serving all round the world, this native of Scotland now lives in Northern Ireland and writes epic space opera for a living.

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Excerpt from Book One of In Revolution Born:

The Mutineer’s Daughter


Chris Kennedy & Thomas A. Mays

Now Available from Theogony Books

eBook, Paperback and (Soon) Audio

Excerpt from The Mutineer’s Daughter:

Kenny dozed at his console again.

There he sat—as brazen as ever—strapped down, suited up, jacked in…and completely checked out. One might make allowances for an overworked man falling asleep during a dull routine, watching gauges that didn’t move or indicators that rarely indicated anything of consequence, perhaps even during a quiet moment during their ship’s long, long deployment.

But Fire Control Tech Third Class Ken Burnside was doing it—yet again—while the ship stood at General Quarters, in an unfriendly star system, while other parts of the fleet engaged the forces of the Terran Union.

Chief Warrant Officer Grade 2 (Combat Systems) Benjamin “Benno” Sanchez shook his helmeted head and narrowed his eyes at the sailor strapped in to his right. He had spoken to the young weapons engineer a number of times before, through countless drills and mock skirmishes, but the youthful idiot never retained the lesson for long.

“Benno, Bosso,” Kenny would plead, “you shouldn’t yell at me. You should have me teach others my wisdom!”

Benno would invariably frown and give his unflattering opinion of Kenny’s wisdom.

“Get it, ya?” Kenny would reply. “I’m a math guy. Probability, right Warrant? The Puller’s just a little ship, on the edge of the formation. We scan, we snipe, we mop up, we patrol. We don’t go in the middle, tube’s blazing, ya? We no tussle with the big Terrans, ya? No damage! No battle! So, something goes wrong, back-ups kick in, buzzer goes off, we mark for fix later. And when’s the only time you or the officers don’t let a man walk ‘round and don’t ask for this, don’t ask for that? When’s the only time a man can catch up on the z’s, eh? One and the same time! So I doze. Buzzer goes off, I wake, make a note, doze again till I can work, ya? Such wisdom!”

Benno usually lectured him about complacency. He asked what would happen if they were hit, if the shot was hot enough, deep enough, destructive enough to burn through the backup of the backup of the backup. What if they did have to face the Great Test, to rise and work and save the Puller themselves?

Kenny would always smile, relieved. “Well, then I be dead, ya? No more maintenance either way. Good enough reason to doze right there!”

Benno could have reported him any number of times, but he never had. Putting it on paper and sending it above them was a two-edged sword. It would solve Kenny’s sleepy disdain for order, of that Benno had no doubt, but he also knew he would lose Kenny’s trust and the vigorous drive the young ALS plebeian applied to every other task. Plus, it would signal to the officers above that Benno couldn’t handle a minor discipline problem on his own. And it would indicate to the ranks below that Benno was no longer one of their own—when he had gone from Chief to Chief Warrant Officer, he had changed his ties, forever.

So Benno growled, but he let it slide, content only he would know about Kenny’s acts of passive rebellion. No one else would ever know why the young tech kept getting extra punishment duties. Besides, it wasn’t as if Kenny was actually wrong, in the fullness of things.

Then, before Benno could check his own side of the console to verify whether things were indeed alright, his internal debate was blown away by the unforgiving, indiscriminate lance of an x-ray laser blast.

The single beam struck the Puller a glancing blow, centered on a space just beneath the outer hull and aimed outboard. Armor plate, radiation shielding, piping, wireways, conduit, decking, internal honeycombed structure, atmosphere, and people all ionized and ablated into a dense, mixed plasma. This plasma exploded outward, crushing the spaces surrounding the hit and dealing further physical and thermal damage. Combat Systems Maintenance Central, or CSMC, lay deep within the Puller’s battle hull—three spaces inward from where the x-ray laser struck—but that meant little next to the awesome destructive power of a Dauphine capital-class xaser warhead.

The forward and port bulkheads in front of them flashed white hot with near-instantaneous thermal energy transfer and peeled away, blown out by the twin shocks of the outward-expanding plasma and the snapping counterforce of explosive decompression. The double blast battered Benno in his seat and threw him against his straps to the left. As the bulkheads vanished, their departure also carried away the CSMC monitoring console the two watch standers shared with them into the black, along with Kenny’s seat, and Ken Burnside, himself.

The young engineer disappeared in an instant, lost without ever waking. Benno stared, dumbfounded, at the blank spot where he had been, and of all the possible panicked thoughts that could have come to him, only one rose to the forefront:

Does this validate Kenny’s wisdom?

Benno shook his head, dazed and in shock, knowing he had to engage his brain. Looking beyond, he could see the glowing edges of bulkheads and decks gouged out by the fast, hot knife of the nuclear-pumped xaser. Only vaguely could he recall the sudden buffeting of explosive decompression that had nearly wrenched him through the straps of his acceleration couch.

He knew he had things to do. He had to check his suit’s integrity. Was he leaking? Was he injured? And what about Kenny? Was he gone, unrecoverable? Or was he waiting for his poor, shocked-stupid boss Benno to reach out and save him?

And there was something else, something important he needed to be doing. He wasn’t supposed to just sit here and think of himself or unlucky, lazy Kenny. Oh no, thought Benno, still trying to marshal his thoughts back together, Mio is going to be so angry with me, sitting here like a fool

“CSMC, report!”

Benno shook his head against the ringing he hadn’t realized filled his ears. He reached out for the comms key on his console, swore at how futile that was, then keyed his suit mic. “Last station calling, this is CSMC. We’ve taken a hit. I lost my technician, console is…down, hard. Over.”

“CSMC, TAO,” the Puller’s Tactical Action Officer said through the suit channel, “pull it together! We just had a near miss by a capital-class Dauphine warhead. The battle with the Terrans has spread out of the main body. I have missiles up but zero point-defense. I need guns and beams back, now!

* * * * *

Get The Mutineer’s Daughter now at:

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The following is an

Excerpt from Book One of the Earth Song Cycle:



Mark Wandrey

Available Now from Theogony Books

eBook, Paperback, and Audio

Excerpt from Overture:


May 21st

Dawn was still an hour away as Mindy Channely opened the roof access and stared in surprise at the crowd already assembled there. “Authorized Personnel Only” was printed in bold red letters on the door through which she and her husband, Jake, slipped onto the wide roof.

A few people standing nearby took notice of their arrival. Most had no reaction, a few nodded, and a couple waved tentatively. Mindy looked over the skyline of Portland and instinctively oriented herself before glancing to the east. The sky had an unnatural glow that had been growing steadily for hours, and as they watched, scintillating streamers of blue, white, and green radiated over the mountains like a strange, concentrated aurora borealis.

“You almost missed it,” one man said. She let the door close, but saw someone had left a brick to keep it from closing completely. Mindy turned and saw the man who had spoken wore a security guard uniform. The easy access to the building made more sense.

“Ain’t no one missin’ this!” a drunk man slurred.

“We figured most people fled to the hills over the past week,” Jake replied.

“I guess we were wrong,” Mindy said.

“Might as well enjoy the show,” the guard said and offered them a huge, hand-rolled cigarette that didn’t smell like tobacco. She waved it off, and the two men shrugged before taking a puff.

“Here it comes!” someone yelled. Mindy looked to the east. There was a bright light coming over the Cascade Mountains, so intense it was like looking at a welder’s torch. Asteroid LM-245 hit the atmosphere at over 300 miles per second. It seemed to move faster and faster, from east to west, and the people lifted their hands to shield their eyes from the blinding light. It looked like a blazing comet or a science fiction laser blast.

“Maybe it will just pass over,” someone said in a voice full of hope.

Mindy shook her head. She’d studied the asteroid’s track many times.

In a matter of a few seconds, it shot by and fell toward the western horizon, disappearing below the mountains between Portland and the ocean. Out of view of the city, it slammed into the ocean.

The impact was unimaginable. The air around the hypersonic projectile turned to superheated plasma, creating a shockwave that generated 10 times the energy of the largest nuclear weapon ever detonated as it hit the ocean’s surface.

The kinetic energy was more than 1,000 megatons; however, the object didn’t slow as it flashed through a half mile of ocean and into the sea bed, then into the mantel, and beyond.

On the surface, the blast effect appeared as a thermal flash brighter than the sun. Everyone on the rooftop watched with wide-eyed terror as the Tualatin Mountains between Portland and the Pacific Ocean were outlined in blinding light. As the light began to dissipate, the outline of the mountains blurred as a dense bank of smoke climbed from the western range.

The flash had incinerated everything on the other side.

The physical blast, travelling much faster than any normal atmospheric shockwave, hit the mountains and tore them from the bedrock, adding them to the rolling wave of destruction traveling east at several thousand miles per hour. The people on the rooftops of Portland only had two seconds before the entire city was wiped away.

Ten seconds later, the asteroid reached the core of the planet, and another dozen seconds after that, the Earth’s fate was sealed.

* * * * *

Get “Overture” now at:

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The following is an

Excerpt from Book One of the Kin Wars Saga:



Jason Cordova

Available Now from Theogony Books

eBook, Paperback, and Audio Book

Excerpt from Wraithkin:


The lifeless body of his fellow agent on the bed confirmed the undercover operation was thoroughly busted.

“Crap,” Agent Andrew Espinoza, Dominion Intelligence Bureau, said as he stepped fully into the dimly lit room and carefully made his way to the filthy bed in which his fellow agent lay. He turned away from the ruined body of his friend and scanned the room for any sign of danger. Seeing none, he quickly walked back out of the room to where the slaves he had rescued earlier were waiting.

“Okay, let’s keep quiet now,” he reminded them. “I’ll go first, and you follow me. I don’t think there are any more slavers in the warehouse. Understand?”

They all nodded. He offered them a smile of confidence, though he had lied. He knew there was one more slaver in the warehouse, hiding near the side exit they were about to use. He had a plan to deal with that person, however. First he had to get the slaves to safety.

He led the way, his pistol up and ready as he guided the women through the dank and musty halls of the old, rundown building. It had been abandoned years before, and the slaver ring had managed to get it for a song. In fact, they had even qualified for a tax-exempt purchase due to the condition of the neighborhood around it. The local constable had wanted the property sold, and the slaver ring had stepped in and offered him a cut if he gave it to them. The constable had readily agreed, and the slavers had turned the warehouse into the processing plant for the sex slaves they sold throughout the Dominion. Andrew knew all this because he had been the one to help set up the purchase in the first place.

Now, though, he wished he had chosen another locale.

He stopped the following slaves as he came to the opening which led into one of the warehouse’s spacious storage areas. Beyond that lay their final destination, and he was dreading the confrontation with the last slaver. He checked his gun and grunted in surprise as he saw he had two fewer rounds left than he had thought. He shook his head and charged the pistol.

“Stay here and wait for my signal,” he told the rescued slaves. They nodded in unison.

He took a deep, calming breath. No matter what happened, he had to get the slaves to safety. He owed them that much. His sworn duty was to protect the Dominion from people like the slavers, and someone along the way had failed these poor women. He exhaled slowly, crossed himself and prayed to God, the Emperor and any other person who might have been paying attention.

He charged into the room, his footsteps loud on the concrete flooring. He had his gun up as he ducked behind a small, empty crate. He peeked over the top and snarled; he had been hoping against hope the slaver was facing the other direction.

Apparently Murphy is still a stronger presence in my life than God, he thought as he locked eyes with the last slaver. The woman’s eyes widened in recognition and shock, and he knew he would only have one chance before she killed them all.

He dove to the right of the crate and rolled, letting his momentum drag him out of the slaver’s immediate line of fire. He struggled to his feet as her gun swung up and began to track him, but he was already moving, sprinting back to the left while closing in on her. She fired twice, both shots ricocheting off the floor and embedding themselves in the wall behind him.

Andrew skid to a stop and took careful aim. It was a race, the slaver bringing her gun around as his own came to bear upon her. The muzzles of both guns flashed simultaneously, and Andrew grunted as pain flared in his shoulder.

A second shot punched him in the gut and he fell, shocked the woman had managed to get him. He lifted his head and saw that while he had hit her, her wound wasn’t nearly as bad as his. He had merely clipped her collarbone and, while it would smart, it was in no way fatal. She took aim on him and smiled coldly.

Andrew swiftly brought his gun up with his working arm and fired one final time. The round struck true, burrowing itself right between the slaver’s eyes. She fell backwards and lay still, dead. He groaned and dropped the gun, pain blossoming in his stomach. He rolled onto his back and stared at the old warehouse’s ceiling.

That sucked, he groused. He closed his eyes and let out a long, painful breath.

* * * * *

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