Book: A Pale Dawn



A Pale Dawn

A Pale Dawn

Book Eight of The Omega War

By

Chris Kennedy & Mark Wandrey




PUBLISHED BY: Seventh Seal Press

Copyright © 2019 Chris Kennedy & Mark Wandrey

All Rights Reserved

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Get the free Four Horsemen prelude story “Gateway to Union

and discover other titles by Mark Wandrey at:

http://worldmaker.us/

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Get the free Four Horsemen prelude story “Shattered Crucible

and discover other titles by Chris Kennedy at:

http://chriskennedypublishing.com/

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Do you have what it takes to be a Merc?

Take your VOWs and join the Merc Guild on Facebook!

Meet us at: https://www.facebook.com/groups/536506813392912/

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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, then 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 products of the author’s imagination and used fictitiously.

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Dedication

This book is dedicated to longtime reader Dirk Flint, who lost his battle with cancer while it was being written. Fair winds and following seas, my friend, and thank you for all of your support over the years. You are already missed.

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Cover Design by Brenda Mihalko

Original Art by Ricky Ryan

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Contents

Dedication

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

Chapter Twenty

Epilogue

About Chris Kennedy

About Mark Wandrey

Titles by Chris Kennedy

Titles by Mark Wandrey

Connect with Chris Kennedy Online

Connect with Mark Wandrey Online

Excerpt from Book One of the Salvage Title Trilogy:

Excerpt from Book One of the Earth Song Cycle:

Excerpt from Book One of the Kin Wars Saga:

Excerpt from Book Ten of The Omega War:

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Chapter One


SOGA HQ, São Paulo, Brazil, Earth

“The latest messages we just received from Capital Planet still give no indication of a Keesius attack,” Captain Drakayl reported. She looked at her notes. “Based on the distance and the timing involved, the Guild Speaker believes the attack must have been foiled and has indicated she intends to return to the planet.”

Peepo nodded. If the attack still hadn’t occurred, it wasn’t going to. The Keesius ships were single-minded; once activated, they carried out what they were programmed to do. The ship would have blown up Capital Planet by now if it were able to. The fact that it hadn’t indicated the Humans had—somehow—stopped it.

Although that was good from a certain perspective, she almost wished the ship had been able to complete its mission. The destruction of Capital Planet, along with the leaders of most of the other guilds, would have left a power vacuum the Mercenary Guild could have easily stepped into. It would have been so simple; they would have not only rid themselves of the other guilds but could also have allowed the most troublesome members of the Council to be on the planet when the Keesius arrived. It would have been perfect. Peepo would have had free reign to do…just about anything she wanted.

Having taped the admission that the Humans had activated one of the Keesius ships, she wished she had one of her own that she could use to complete the mission. It would have been nothing short of a masterstroke. Queen Peepo? Empress Peepo? Both sounded great, although she was leaning toward Empress. Alas, that wasn’t to be…but she filed that plan in a certain section of her brain to be used if she ever found another of the ships.

“General Peepo?” Captain Drakayl asked.

“Yes?” Peepo asked, shaking herself out of her reverie.

“I asked if you had any return messages for the Guild Speaker.”

“Yes, I do,” Peepo replied. “Please let her know that I received her message and that we will be returning to our original plan. More and more of Earth comes under our control every day, and it won’t be long until all of humanity is under our leadership…or destroyed. I am waiting to hear back from our fleets, but the Humans’ major colonies should soon be in our hands, and I am expecting word from some of our spies on the location of the Winged Hussars secret base. Once that falls, integrating the Humans into our overall plans will be nothing more than a matter of logistics. Once Prime Base is destroyed, the Humans will have nowhere else to run.”

* * *

CIC, EMS Arion, Paradise System

“Shit,” Lieutenant Colonel Walker said under his breath, looking at the Tri-V screen. Louder, he added, “Yeah, that’s it. Paradise. Never was a planet so misnamed.” He shook his head, then added one more time, “Shit.”

“What did the planet ever do to you?” Captain Teenge asked. An Aposo, the captain was from a race that looked generally like the Veetanho, only a little more squat and rodent-like. They were also much more direct. Although it was rare to see the knife when there was a Veetanho after you, you always knew when you pissed off an Aposo.

“The planet? Nothing. However, its indigenous life forms ate a few of my friends and colleagues. It’s also where I had to kill my mom and dad. Aside from that, the exterior of the planet is a wasteland populated by stupid-looking cows and the giant sand worms that hunt them.”

“Is that all?”

“Yeah. Other than that, I don’t have anything against it.”

“How do you know so much about the planet?”

“I grew up there.” Walker shrugged. “When I left, I swore I’d never return. That’s a promise I’ve broken now…twice.”

“Ma’am?” the comms officer asked. “I’ve got comms with the planet.”

“Good,” the captain replied. “Let them know we are just passing through but would like to refuel and re-provision our ship before heading out-system.”

“I did, ma’am, and they said they could handle that for us; however, they are requesting payment of a more…unconventional nature.”

Captain Teenge frowned as she turned to the comms officer. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“Apparently, they’ve heard there’s a war on, and they’re requesting assistance in fortifying their defenses in lieu of repayment for services rendered.”

“There are a lot of ships in orbit,” the sensor officer noted, “but they’re all commercial. They don’t have any space-based defenses I can see beyond some customs cutters. How the hell do they expect to defend the system from a serious attack? Hell, we could kick their asses ourselves, if we wanted.”

“We could take the orbitals,” Walker replied, “but taking the planet would be a heck of a lot harder.”

“What do you mean?” the captain asked.

“Just what I said.” Walker waved at the Tri-V display. “Look at the planet, it’s mostly desert.”

“I see that,” the captain said. “I would assume that would make it easy to attack. There is nowhere to hide.”

“It’s easy to get to the surface, maybe,” Walker explained with a half-smile. “The problem is that the deserts harbor a species of sand worm that attacks anything moving across them. Because of that, all the habitations were dug into the rock of the planet…where you can find rock, anyway. The original colony here was started by a bunch of religious crazies, who were responsible for naming it. Once they started tunneling out a place to live, though, they found deposits of semi-precious gems and rare elements. Nothing along the lines of red diamonds, but enough to keep the colony funded.

“A couple of mining companies came in to exploit some of the bigger deposits, and two underground cities were established to support the mining operations. I think their total population is now over one hundred thousand.

“The problem you have in attacking those cities is that they are entirely underground, and they are dug in like an Alabama tick. Just trying to get at them would be a bitch.”

Captain Teenge nodded in understanding. “So you could bomb them and exterminate them, but actually capturing them would be difficult.”

“Even exterminating them would be difficult. Some of those tunnels go pretty deep, and that doesn’t take into account the rock. A lot is just sandstone; however, vast sheets of heavy basalt are overlaid in parts like a damned armored plate. Paradise is a tough nut to crack, no matter how you slice it.”

“And they want to make it better defended,” Captain Teenge noted. “I wonder if we have anyone from a company that specializes in defending installations…” She let the thought trail off and looked at Walker with a half-smile.

Walker stared at the planet’s image for several seconds, then sighed as his shoulders slumped. “You’re going to make me go down there and help them, aren’t you?” he finally asked.

“We need the supplies and you’re the best person we have to go sing for our supper. The Hussars may be able to take planets, but you guys know how to hold them.”

“Yeah, I know,” Walker said. He turned to leave, but he paused to look back at the Tri-V and added one more time, “Shit.”

* * *

Tunnels, Underdeep, Paradise

“You really think they’ll come here?” Colonel Ken Ferguson asked, his head cocked slightly.

The head of Underdeep’s police force—and now their defense force—was a short man, as many of the people who lived underground were. Perhaps they felt more comfortable in the tunnels; at six feet tall, Walker hated being inside them. It was bad enough growing up in the tunnels carved into the face of the cliffside. He had hated it when his parents brought him to one of the bigger complexes—tunneled deep underground—for supplies.

“I don’t think it’s outside the realm of possibility,” Walker replied. “They captured Earth, and it looks like they’re moving on some of the colonies.”

“But why? What have we done to them?”

“To them?” Walker asked. “No idea. Maybe we were cutting into their profits. Maybe they got tired of losing to us. Hell, I don’t know. Maybe they heard about the new CASPers we have coming.” He shrugged. When he saw the skeptical look Ferguson gave him, he added, “No, really; I hear they’re pretty good. I don’t think they’re going to be that much better than the ones we’ve already got in the Horde, but they will provide an additional edge against some of the other races, who already see us as taking too many of their contracts.”

Ferguson spat. “Seems stupid to me. If we’re doing things to get better, why don’t they?”

“No idea.” Walker shrugged again. He pointed to the bend in the tunnel. “This would be a good point for additional defenses. It’s a natural bottleneck.”

“Yeah, it would. Still seems stupid to waste money on additional defenses—we really don’t have much of anything they’d want.”

“What if what they want is us?”

“What do you mean?”

“What if they just want to capture as many Humans as they can to serve in some new sort of unit they’re creating?” Walker asked. “We’ve heard reports that they’ve been heavily recruiting merc forces on Earth.”

“I don’t know,” Ferguson replied. “It still seems stupid.”

“Well, I—”

“Lieutenant Colonel Walker, EMS Arion,” a voice in his pinplant interrupted. “Standby for the captain.” It was followed quickly by Captain Teenge’s voice.

“Walker, we need you back here immediately,” the captain said without any additional greeting. “A Merc Guild force just transitioned into the system that is bigger than I can take on alone. I’ve sent a shuttle to pick you up, but it’s going to be close.”

“It’ll take me some time to gather my troops and make it back to the surface,” Walker replied. “How big is the force?”

“The three cruisers are probably more than I’d want to face by myself, but then there are also a number of destroyers and other supporting ships. I’m a good captain, but I’m no Alexis Cromwell. If they all concentrated on me, I would be easily defeated.”

“How much time do I have?”

“None. I need you on the surface now or we won’t be able to get away in time. They also have three transports, so I expect they’ve come to stay.”

Walker shook his head. He was several miles below the surface and some of the squad he had with him were even deeper. Even if he left his gear and ran to the surface, he’d still need at least 20 minutes to get there; it would probably take at least an hour to get all of his troops there, too. “Leave us,” he said finally.

“What?” Captain Teenge asked. “The Winged Hussars don’t leave people behind.”

“This time you’re going to have to,” Walker transmitted. “It will take too long to get my people assembled.”

“But—”

“Trust me, Captain, there is no place in the galaxy I want to be less than here, but it comes down to the squad of us or the entire crew of the Arion. Go. Go back to New Warsaw and get the fleet, then come back and save me. We can…no, we will hold until you get back. We still have a little time to work on the defenses; the Merc Guild is going to have a much harder time getting at us than they think.”

“But—”

“I appreciate the thought, Captain, but you and the Arion are more important than we are. Humanity needs the Arion’s capabilities. Go.”

Walker could hear the captain sigh, even if it wasn’t transmitted over the comm link. “We will be back for you.”

“Good,” Walker replied. “Because I hate this fucking planet.”

* * *

Private Quarters—Lockdown, EMS Arion, Paradise System

Taiki Sato glared at the locked stateroom door as the Egleesius-class battlecruiser finished its maneuvers. He still had some access to the ship’s computers, so he knew they had dropped to a slightly lower orbit to make it easier for supplies from Paradise to be transferred aboard. He’d have loved a chance to go down to the surface.

“Sand worms,” he mumbled, and played one of the tiny files on the creatures with his pinplants. He possessed four separate pinplants, though they were not all discreet units as most Humans possessed. Since he’d been involved in normalizing the technology for Humans, through self-experimentation, his were highly unusual. As a byproduct, he needed little sleep. That suited him just fine; sleep was wasted time better spent learning.

The sand worms didn’t resemble the famous ones written about by a 20th century American novelist. These were only about 30 meters in length and not really all that fast. While the ones from fiction were massive beasts that could eat entire buildings, the sand worms of Paradise were stealth hunters who could wait unmoving for weeks until you moved too close, then wham, dinnertime.

“I’d love to dissect one,” he said to himself. Sure, biology wasn’t his forte. Who cared? Research suggested the worms could exude an acid to dissolve solid rock! Oh, not quickly, only over time. Tunnels had been found five kilometers under the surface! “There’s no reason to keep me locked in here,” he said to the door again. Maybe I’m a tad stir crazy, he thought. No, just bored.

It had all started when he decided someone needed to investigate the ships Alexis Cromwell, commander of the Winged Hussars, had brought back from 2nd level hyperspace. They looked like the Egleesius-class battlecruisers they’d found, but the two “new” ships were subtly different.

Sato managed to convince Colonel Cromwell to let him investigate. Oh sure, her authorization contained carefully worded limitations, but he’d been used to getting around such things all his life, although that skill almost cost him his life during his time in the Science Guild.

Using his modified Mk 7 CASPer, he’d flown to the strange ship and eventually found a way to get aboard. It was just as strange on the inside as it was on the outside. Even stranger. Space naval architecture was one of his many fields of interest. He’d studied it enough to realize these unusual ships weren’t designed to be crewed in the same manner the Egleesius were. Their interior structures more resembled a maze, a hive, or even a spider’s web. Quite unique!

When he found where its CIC—its combat information center, or the nerve center of a warship—should have been, he instead was confronted with an impregnable doorway and a strange computer interface. Breaching doors wasn’t his specialty, however working with computers was!

Breaking into the computer interface proved beyond his substantial abilities. Through trial and error, he ascertained the ship was functional and only required refueling to bring vital systems back online. He used the authorization granted by Colonel Cromwell and ordered up a tanker of reaction mass. Everything came back online almost immediately. That was wonderful. Then the ship proceeded to prepare for departure from the system. That was not wonderful.

He’d just managed to transmit to someone in New Warsaw about his predicament, including where the ship was headed, when it used its hyperspace shunts and jumped out of the New Warsaw system.

With some time on his hands, he began working to find a way to stop the ship at its next destination. He didn’t; in fact, it looked like there was no way to stop it. The cherry on the cake was finding out the ship was actually a doomsday weapon carrying out ancient orders to destroy the capital planet of the Galactic Union.

Colonel Cromwell had left earlier to prosecute her little war against the Mercenary Guild, which left Captain Teenge on the new Egleesius named Arion to come in pursuit. Luckily, the Aposa captain was persistent, and they’d managed to use some of the newly uplifted SalSha pilots flying Intruder bombers—which Sato, himself, had designed—to get aboard.

Prior to their boarding, Sato managed to discover the ship was known as a Keesius. It appeared unarmed, which seemed unusual for a doomsday weapon. Then he discovered it did its evil by turning itself into an antimatter bomb. Subtle. When Lieutenant Colonel Walker boarded with his marines, though, it turned out to be anything but defenseless. It used maintenance bots and its own manufactory to throw everything it could at them.

What followed was a multiple-week ordeal with him trying to get control of the ship from an AI. It wasn’t as sophisticated as the AI which ran Pegasus—the one Colonel Cromwell called Ghost. Yet it was still an AI, and just as stubborn and dangerous. He almost starved on several occasions, but Walker managed to get him food. They also couldn’t evacuate him, because the ship considered the marines enemies, although it didn’t consider him one. So, he’d continued trying to do what he could.

Eventually, he’d been forced to help disable the manufactory, at which point the AI decided he was an enemy and tried to kill him. One jump out from Capital and preparing for its terror attack, the marines forced entry into the CIC where they located the AI.

“Then they knocked me out and carried me away,” Sato said, throwing a stylus across his cabin. The throw started him spinning in freefall, and the stylus bounced around the space like a pinball. The damned Horde officer had used an EMP device to disable his specially-designed CASPer and hauled him off the Keesius like so much baggage. The marine commander, Colonel Earl, stayed behind with a SalSha pilot and forced the computer to trigger a premature explosion. It was on the order of several gigatons, from what he’d heard. Impressive.

Sato stopped his spin and ground his teeth. Of course, he’d modify his CASPer when he got back so that wouldn’t happen again. He’d missed a golden opportunity to study the AI. Since Colonel Cromwell wouldn’t let him experiment on hers, it was a serious loss. To make matters worse, he’d been locked up in his cabin ever since.

“Mr. Sato,” Captain Teenge had said, “I have no intention of letting you out of my sight until such time as we get back to New Warsaw and I can hand you over to Colonel Cromwell. You can cry, you can protest, and you can threaten all you want. Nothing will change my decision.” The captain was a typical Aposa—not a reasonable bone in her rodent body.

He didn’t notice the alarm claxon sounding acceleration stations until Arion fired her fusion torches, and Sato found himself unceremoniously flung against the “floor” of his cabin, raining slates, computer chips, and empty food containers everywhere. In a rage, he used his pinplants to call the bridge.

“Mr. Sato, we’re a little busy,” Captain Teenge said.

“You could have had the common decency to at least warn me you were going to accelerate!”

“Sir, we sounded acceleration stations ten seconds ago.”

Sato cocked his head and finally noticed the repeating Whee, whee, whee, of said alarm. “Oh,” he said, “I see.”

“Now, if you don’t mind?”

“May I ask what is happening?”

The captain said something in her native language the translator didn’t catch, then spoke more clearly. “The Merc Guild is attacking the star system, and we are retreating to New Warsaw.”

“I thought Major Walker was on the planet doing some sort of nonsense.”

“He is, and we don’t have time to recover him. We’ll be jumping as soon as we’ve cleared the planet’s gravity zone.”

Sato had another question, but Captain Teenge decided she had other things to do and cut the connection. Not a patient bone either, Sato thought, amending his earlier assessment of the captain’s Aposa nature. Still, returning to New Warsaw was good; he’d left a great many projects unfinished there.

Since he had gravity now, Sato sat on his hammock and used one of his several Tri-V projectors to show his current pinplant scheme. He needed to talk to Nemo about an idea. Sato had no intention of letting his next encounter with a Keesius-class AI end the same way.

“No, not at all,” he said, examining the technical drawings.

A short time later, they were unmade into hyperspace.

* * * * *



Chapter Two


Golara Command Center, Golara System

Sansar Enkh woke with a start, a vision of a pendant in her mind. Although the rest of the dream fled, the symbol remained burned into her vision, like an afterimage from looking at something too bright. A metal twist pendant with a pointed rattlesnake tail. A flash of light illuminated it, glinting off the symbol as it spun on a chain.

Something indescribably awful had happened. Deaths. Thousands—maybe millions—of deaths. So much death…and it was coming for her.

* * *

Colonel Alexis Cromwell, commander of the Winged Hussars, looked at the data displayed on the huge conference room Tri-V and considered the implications. Young Colonel Jim Cartwright, commander of Cartwright’s Cavaliers, sat across the conference table from her. He looked tired yet excited. He should, since he was the one who’d found the data. Or rather, his little furry friend, Splunk.

The Fae looked a bit like a monkey, only with huge intelligent eyes and doubly big expressive ears sporting tufts of fur at the end. The alien watched Alexis, just as curious about the Hussars commander, it would seem. The Fae carried a pair of dark goggles around her neck; it would seem she was sensitive to bright lights.

“Jim,” Alexis said, “what level of confidence do you have in this data?”

“Pretty high,” Jim said. “Splunk just about took apart the previous base commander’s offices. She found this in a hidden safe.”

“And she just broke into the safe herself?”

“Oh, yeah,” Jim said, and the alien grinned, showing tiny sharp teeth. “She has a talent for getting into things intended to keep her out.”

I bet, Alexis thought. She’d gotten a report before they left New Warsaw, which had referenced numerous reports of “Fae Sightings” around the system by her internal intelligence people, civilians, and operational units. When Jim somehow brought his asteroid Upsilon 4 from Karma through hyperspace, he appeared to have brought more of the aliens with him. She still wanted to know how he’d gotten the asteroid to travel through hyperspace and how he’d known the address of New Warsaw. The latter was the Hussars’ most closely guarded secret.

“Is it possible they left this data hoping we’d find it?” she asked.

“Wouldn’t they have to know we were coming?” Jim asked.

Alexis grinned. Of course, he was correct. “Yes, they would. As you saw, Peepo wasn’t happy to find out we’d taken the base from her. I’m convinced Peepo didn’t know about this operation and thus wouldn’t have left the data for us to find.” Jim nodded. “All Four Horsemen command staffs will meet in two hours. Do you have your unit TO&E ready?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Jim replied. “Hargrave has it up to date and we’re ready to roll.”

“Great. I’ll see you in two hours.”

Jim Cartwright got up with his little friend and headed out of the conference room, leaving Alexis alone with her thoughts. The target data was tantalizing in many ways. For one, it showed Peepo’s preferences, high to low. The assets she’d assigned ranged from just a single cruiser sent to the water world Valais, to a daunting fleet sent to the planet Frost.

“So I roll the dice again,” she said in the empty room.

<It is not too late to return to New Warsaw.>

Even that won’t keep us safe forever, she replied by simply thinking. Ghost, the Hussars long-time AI secret weapon, usually spied on her thoughts through Alexis’ pinplants. Having the AI looking over her shoulder had proved indispensable many times in her life; she’d never tried to keep it out. Lately, though, as she’d begun to realize the ancient entity operated by its own set of rules or moral codes, that decision had started to come into question.

<The alien with Jim Cartwright.>

What about it?

<It is dangerous.>

Why?” she asked. Silence stretched. “Ghost, you need to trust me.

<Your revealing my presence has endangered my existence.>

How? From a little alien monkey which is good at picking locks?

<You would be better to keep it away from me. That is all I have to say.>

Holy shit, she thought. What the fuck? Ghost offered no more information, and she shook her head in frustration. Too many variables were at work, and the damned AI behaving differently than it had for all her life—or all her ancestors’ lives, for that matter—was yet another variable she didn’t need bouncing around.

“Fuck,” she cursed.

As a bonus, she still didn’t know if the damned doomsday machine Sato unleashed had destroyed Capital, or if Teenge had succeeded in stopping it? No Hussars intelligence ships would come to Golara, so no answers were forthcoming while they were here. Plus, it looked like they weren’t going home anytime soon; there was more killing to do first. The other Horsemen were right—Earth could not be allowed to remain in Peepo’s paws.

What about Nigel? she asked herself. A small grin cut across her features. A few hours ago, she’d either made a huge mistake or simply followed her heart. The young man was…distracting. Unbelievably handsome, and equally arrogant, Nigel Shirazi, commander of Asbaran Solutions, gave her a tingle deep down that no other man had before. Yet another variable.

She stabbed the comms button a little too viscously and yelped when a fingernail cracked. Great.

“Yes, Colonel?” Paka, her Veetanho second in command answered immediately. She was a few kilometers away aboard Alexis’ flagship, EMS Pegasus.

“Move forward with the fleet dispersal plan I emailed, based on the data Jim Cartwright obtained.”

“Yes, Colonel. We’re going to strike back?”

“Yes,” Alexis said in reply.

Her second in command left her with her thoughts.

* * *

Tunnels, Underdeep, Paradise

“Well, it may not make sense to you,” Walker said, “but the Mercenary Guild is here.

What?” Colonel Ferguson asked.

“They just transitioned into the system. They’ve got several cruisers, a bunch of other supporting ships, and three transports. Smart money says they’re not just passing through. I’m guessing they intend to pay us a visit.”

“Wha-what do we do?”

“Well, first, I would say to get every Camille H5 sentry gun you have up here while we go see what they have to say, then we spend the rest of our time rigging traps and upgrading your defenses.”

“Do you think we can hold?” Colonel Ferguson asked, his eyes darting from side to side.

“There’s never been a defense that can’t be breached,” Walker said with a shrug. “All we can do is make it as hard as possible for them. If it costs too much to get in, maybe they’ll go away.”

“And if they don’t?”

Walker patted the side of the tunnel. “We’re surrounded by solid rock. It’ll take them a number of nukes before they get all the way down to the city.”

“Do they have enough to do it?”

“I’m sure they do.”

* * *

Golara Command Center, Golara System

Nigel was waiting for Sansar as she came out of her meeting with Rurranach, a Sidar who had showed up unannounced at the station with Major Hector Gage, the Human in charge of the Proud Fist Mercenary Company.

“I got a company of Lumar to subcontract for us,” Nigel said, falling into step with her. “What’d the Sidar want with you?” She didn’t say anything as she stalked off. Even though she was much shorter, she appeared to be in a hurry, and he had to lengthen his stride to catch up with her.

She appeared to be twitching, as if laughing, but then Nigel realized she was crying as a tear leaked out of the eye closest to him. She wiped it away almost as quickly as it formed, but he’d seen it.

“Wait,” he said, putting a hand on her shoulder. She struggled momentarily, trying to get away, but he was far stronger than the diminutive woman.

What?” she finally asked, sounding angry as she turned on him. “What do you want?”

“I want to know what happened in there,” he said, his anger starting to build. “If they did something to hurt or offend you…” He let his voice trail off. The Human who was with the Sidar would be a handful in a fight, but Nigel would personally take him down if the Sidar had hurt Sansar somehow.

“What?” she asked, sounding confused this time. “No, it…it was nothing like that. The Sidar just brought me some information that was distressing. A friend…who I didn’t even know was a friend…just died. Another victim of this senseless war, and one Peepo is going to pay for!”

“A friend you didn’t know was a friend?” Nigel asked, his brows knitting. “Sorry, but who is this person, and why didn’t you know they were a friend?”

“Do you remember when you rescued me from the Mercenary Guild headquarters?” Nigel nodded. “When Walker found me, down on the cell block, I was with two Tortantula. Do you remember that?”

“Yeah, I remember them. Didn’t they join the Horde?”

“Yes, they did, but this isn’t about them. There was a third person with me…well, not a person, per se, but a Depik.”

“A Depik? How did you survive it?”

Sansar chuckled, wiping another tear away as she thought back. “I survived it by not being its target, mostly. It—she—could easily have killed me whenever she wanted. But for some reason—don’t ask me why, I don’t know—she became attached to me during the trial and decided to help me. The only reason I survived long enough to still be alive when Walker got there was because she helped me. She killed a number of the Besquith and protected me until the rescue forces could get there.”

“And now she’s dead?”

“Not only her, but almost the entire Depik race.” Sansar’s hands went to her face, and she began sobbing.

Nigel looked up and down the corridor and the few people he could see averted their eyes, uncomfortable with the sight of a crying woman. Lacking anything better to do, he stepped forward and drew her in, putting his arms around her to lend her his strength while she cried.

After a couple of minutes, she got hold of herself, wiped her eyes, and gently pushed Nigel back. “Cahli—that was the name of the Depik—fled back to her home world after that. She was there when Peepo’s fleet got there, and…and…” She took a deep breath, gathered herself, and forced herself to say: “Rurranach thinks the entire race killed itself rather than do what Peepo wanted.”

Nigel’s jaw dropped as he processed the statement. “An entire race…”

Sansar nodded. “Yes. Rurranach said a Hunter would rather die defiant than live as a slave. If Peepo gave them an ultimatum and no way out…”

“They would have killed themselves. Wow,” he added. It sounded lame, even to his own ears. He wasn’t a fan of most aliens, and the galaxy was probably better off without the race of psychopathic killers, but…he had a thought. “Do you suppose what Peepo wanted was for them to kill us, and they decided to kill themselves, rather than be made to kill us?”

Sansar stepped forward into his embrace as she began crying again. He put his arms around her again as she nodded her head and said between sobs, “Yes, I do.”

He let her cry herself out again, then took her by the shoulders and held her at arm’s length, forcing her to look into his eyes. She was startled at the look he gave her.

“If that is what happened,” Nigel said with steel in his voice, “then we are only alive through their sacrifice, and we owe them a blood debt that we can never fully repay. There is, however, one thing that we can—no, that we will do, and I pledge all of my honor to fulfill.”

“What’s—” She sniffed. “What’s that?”

“We will kill the murderous bitch, and anyone else involved, and then we will ensure that something like this is never possible again.”

Nigel could see that his words brought resolve back to the older woman, and fire returned to her dark eyes as her back straightened, and her shoulders squared.

“You’re right,” Sansar said. “The bitch dies. This is personal now.”

Nigel nodded once at what he saw in her eyes. At that moment, he was very happy not to be Peepo, because she had just made an enemy that would never give up. His vendetta with the MinSha seemed like nothing more than a child’s disagreement by comparison.

He gave her his favorite pre-battle smile. “I will let the others know.”

* * *

Conference Room, Golara Command Center, Golara System

The conference room within the command center was abuzz as the various commanders filled it. It had the capacity to hold 50 Humans, but as the last commanders began to arrive, it was crowded with over 100. Alexis, Jim, Nigel, and Sansar entered together, a planned move on their part, to a resounding wave of applause. All four Horsemen commanders were brought up short.

“The Four Horsemen!” somebody yelled, and the applause turned to a roar of cheers. They stood together in the battle-scarred room until the applause died down. Then Nigel faced the room, came to attention, and saluted the attendees. In a moment, the others did the same. The room fell silent as everyone came to attention and returned the salute. Most mercs weren’t much for saluting, so it wasn’t the best-executed maneuver, but every man, woman, and alien present did their best.

“We are only four men and women,” Sansar Enkh said.

“We all fight for freedom,” Jim Cartwright said.

“No matter what world we come from,” Alexis Cromwell said.

“This victory belongs to all of us,” Nigel Shirazi finished.

Alexis waited a moment then led her fellow Horsemen to the head of the conference table. “Before we begin, I wanted to ask for a moment to remember those who came with us to Golara, and who will never leave. The following ships were lost with all hands:

“EMS Citation, EMS Laban, EMS Mercy, EMS Offering, EMS Empress Jito, and EMS Skofung. Casualties totaled 440 officers, enlisted, and technicians. In addition, EMS Sleipnir lost twenty-nine crewmembers; EMS Stonewall Jackson, fourteen crewmembers; EMS Secretariat, nineteen crewmembers; EMS Hrunting, thirty-one crewmembers; and another seventeen on other ships. In total, the Winged Hussars gave 550 lives with 114 wounded in the taking of Golara.” The mood of the room was as somber as could be as Alexis nodded to Sansar.

“Trooper losses total forty-nine,” Sansar said. “The brunt of those were in Ragnar’s Reapers, who lost all hands. They were tasked with holding the space dock against stiff opposition. The last to fall was Sergeant 1st Class Amunson, who held until my unit relieved them.” She saluted again, and the room followed suit.

“Ragnar’s Reapers!” Sansar roared, and the room echoed her call.

“These are not the last casualties we’ll suffer,” Alexis said. “Let’s make sure the price they paid is worth it.” She sat, and everyone did as well. “Now, thanks to Colonel Cartwright and his little friend, Splunk, we have some intel,” she said, nodding toward Jim whose neck was grew red with the attention. The little alien watched the proceedings quietly, as she had the ceremony moments before. Alexis used her pinplants, and the crowded room’s Tri-V came alive with a map showing the Cresht region of the Tolo arm—their home in the Milky Way.

After establishing the location, the map zoomed in to center on Earth. Those familiar with celestial maps knew the range was less than 500 light years. Right next door, in galactic terms, eleven star systems were illuminated blue—the various colonies either completely or partially Human.

“Peepo’s assault encompasses every Human presence within the Cresht region, which is every significant Human interest in the galaxy.”

“Fuck,” someone spat, and set off a wave of exclamations from others.

“We’re going to kick them off, right?”

Alexis glanced at the speaker, linking the face with a name through her pinplants: Colonel Shane Gries, commander of the largest merc unit rescued from Earth, Tom’s Total Terrors, aka “Triple T.” Colonel Gries had a lot of sway among the units assembled, and heads bobbed in agreement around him. She spoke: “No, Colonel Gries, we cannot relieve them all.”

“And why not?” he asked. An imposing man, Gries was pushing 60, with mostly grey hair and a jaw square enough to help in carpentry. His eyes flashed in accusation.

Alexis dug into his file a little further. Ah, there it is. His family was settled on the tiny colony of Valais. On the tactical map, four of the Human colonies had red rings around their icons. He’d come to the correct conclusion that the ones not in red were not going to be relieved. Valais was one not so ringed.

“We don’t have the assets,” Sansar explained.

Colonel Gries made a show of looking around the room. “Fourteen merc companies,” he said. “We got about twenty battalions. About two-thirds of that is CASPers, and the rest is armor, infantry, and some arty. We can kick a lot of alien ass with that.”

Alexis glanced at the line of her commanders at a table near the back of the room. Sixty-six ship commanders and their XOs. Quite a few of them were aliens, and they looked uncomfortable with Gries’ sentiments. For that matter, it looked like a lot of the merc commanders and their XOs weren’t too happy with the aliens, either.

“Colonel Gries,” Alexis said, “we do have a good-sized force; this is true.” The older commander smiled and nodded at her acknowledging his point. “How do you advise we defeat all of their naval assets?”

“The same way you did here,” he said. “The Hussars’ prowess is well known.” Several people yelled their agreement.

“I appreciate your confidence,” Alexis said, “however, I simply do not have the numbers.” The room fell silent again. “We prevailed here because they were not expecting an attack. The ships here were destined to reinforce those four worlds,” she said, and pointed to the key planets. We know which forces are where. We also have full knowledge of their strategic importance to Peepo and to us. We’ve picked targets based on that, and the colonies’ populations.”

“And the smaller colonies? Are they just to be left on their own?”

“For now, yes.” That same grumble of discontent.

We must be patient!” Nigel’s strong Persian voice cut through the room like a gunshot, bringing instant silence. “Few have lost more than I and my people. Few.” He looked around the room, his piercing brown eyes picking individuals out of the crowd and staring them down. “If I can wait and do my part, the rest of you can, too.”

“We’re not abandoning anyone,” Jim Cartwright added. “We just need to act in the most prudent way now, so that we can free all the others later.”

“Thank you, Colonel Cartwright,” Alexis said. “Getting back to the plan we’ve put together, here are the target packages.”

The Tri-V showed each of the four targets. The Hussars fleet was broken into four task forces, each intended to sufficiently counter enemy fleets in each system. Those systems were Talus, the largest Human colony, Canopy, Frost, and Paradise.

Talus was allocated to Cartwright’s Cavaliers. The largest of the worlds, Talus had always tried to suggest it was independent, even calling itself the Independent Republic of Talus. Its government was closer to that of the old Soviet Union than anything else. However, the planet was a prime weapons contractor and possessed modest strategic materials deposits. Mostly, it produced lots of food and was home to over one million people. In addition to the Cavaliers, the Red Lancers, Gitmo’s Own, Triple T, Hellcats, Dood Wrack, and the 1st Highland Regiment would join them.

Canopy would be the Golden Horde’s target. A jungle planet, its extensive cover played well into the hit and run tactics of the Horde. They would bring the Roaring Saints, Daredevils, and MMD (Maddox’s Mad Dogs).

Alexis expected the hardest orbital battle to be either Talus or Frost. She’d decided to take on the fleet at Frost. She was bringing the marine-specialized Mickey Finn to aid in any orbital battles. For the ground assault, she had the Copperheads, Muerte Negra, Titty Twisters, Laut Yang Tanang, Flambeaux Calais, and Espade Sangrenta.

Finally, it was Asbaran Solutions who would take on Paradise. To assist on the desert planet, Nigel would bring Drake’s Rangers, an infiltration specialist, Taint Nothin, and Derniere Legion.

Detailing everything took a total of two hours. Alexis was somewhat surprised to see a few of the merc commanders casting glares at each other. There was bad blood between some of them, and it seemed that not even an apocalyptic war could get them to put it aside. Sansar’s help proved instrumental in avoiding particularly caustic pairings; as the leader of a space naval unit, Alexis wasn’t nearly as aware of the squabbles as the other woman was.

“I am taking command of Task Force Frost,” Alexis said. “Task Force Canopy will be led by Commander Stacey aboard Shadowfax. Task Force Talus will be commanded by Commander Jormungd aboard Phaeton, and Task Force Paradise will be led by Captain Eshek on Franklin Buchanan.” To her surprise, Nigel didn’t flinch at finding out his fleet component would be commanded by an alien Sidar. She felt a small surge of pride for him. The man was changing before her eyes.

“Thank you and Colonel Enkh for handling all the organization,” Nigel said. “We’ll all do our best to free these planets and take the fight to Peepo. And, once we do, I’m hoping we can then take it to Peepo on Earth!”

A cheer from the crowd showed their general approval, although Alexis could see that many of the leaders—and most of the non-Human mercs—didn’t seem to be as enthusiastic for trying to make that assault as Nigel was. It was sure to be bloody, and many of the leaders thought it unnecessary. She shrugged internally. An assault on Earth would have to wait until they saw how the assault on the colonies turned out. If everything went as she hoped, the way to Earth might be clear. If not, though…they would have to re-evaluate their strategic options.

“Very well,” Alexis said. “My fleet logistics people are going to be handing out chips to each unit commander and fleet captain with details of your task forces. I’ve allocated carriers for systems where we expect heavy space resistance and transports to help move units which do not have their own ships. If all goes well, we’ll be back in New Warsaw to plan the next step of the operation in one month.”

The meeting broke up and left the Horsemen alone once more. “I’m sorry for saddling you with Colonel Gries,” Sansar said to Jim. “He’s a capable commander and Triple T is a tough unit. You’ll need them on Talus.”

“I can handle him,” Jim said, though she could tell by the look on his face that he wasn’t completely convinced. The young commander was full of surprises, so who knew? He was bringing his Raknar, and the very sight of the massive war machine might well compel the aliens occupying the planet to surrender.

“Well, we leave in twenty-four hours,” Alexis said. “Let’s finish up and get going.”

* * *

Command Center, Underdeep, Paradise

“You’re just in time,” Mayor Meredith McGee said as Walker and Ferguson entered the Underdeep Command Center. “The fleet just called.”

“What did they say?” Walker asked.

“They asked us to surrender.”

“No surprise there.”

“Dixia Cheng has already surrendered.”

Walker nodded. “No surprise there,” he repeated. Although the other city was close by geographically, the two cities had very different outlooks. While Underdeep was a commercially-driven enterprise, Dixia Cheng had started as a religious enclave—much like the commune where he’d grown up—and their council of elders was known to have a very “live and let live” mentality. Fighting of any kind just wasn’t in their natures.

“What did you tell them about Underdeep?” Ferguson asked.

“I haven’t told them anything yet,” McGee replied. “I wanted to get your opinion first. What do you think? Can we hold?” Her eyes bored into Ferguson as if trying to burn the truth out of him.

“I don’t know, ma’am,” Ferguson replied. “I was just going over our defenses with Lieutenant Colonel Walker here, and he thinks we can make it costly enough that they might give it up.”

“And what are they going to do then?” McGee asked, turning to Walker.

Walker shrugged. “No telling. They’ll do whatever Peepo ordered them to do. I suspect they want us brought in alive, and if they can’t do that, they’ll try to kill us.”

“I’ve heard rumors of entire systems being destroyed,” McGee said. “That’s what I’m guessing, too.”

“Admiral Jarkyl just called back,” a young technician said. “He wants an answer.”

“Put him on the Tri-V,” McGee said.

“What’s it going to be?” Walker asked. “Dead or slave?”

The mayor didn’t have time to answer as the screen lit up with the visage of a Maki admiral in his CIC. Walker immediately wanted to tear the look off the little creature’s face. He hadn’t realized the aliens could look smug. It turned out he was wrong—they could.

“Can I assume you’ve called back to surrender?” the admiral asked. “You have no space-based defense, nor do you appear to have any anti-space weapons. We hold your orbitals. What’s it going to be?”

“Admiral, have you noticed the surface of our planet?”

“Yes, Mayor, I have. It is a lousy world full of sand.”

“Great. Then you will know how big a job it is when I tell you to go pack sand.”

“I’m sorry, I do not know what that means.”

“That’s a euphemism that translates into me telling you to fuck off.”

I’m sorry! Did you just decline to surrender?”

“No, I told you to fuck off, but, since you obviously weren’t smart enough to pick up on it, the implication was yes—we are declining to surrender. If you want us, come and get us. You know where we are. My people tell me that you only brought three transports, though, so you didn’t bring enough troops to do it. Perhaps you ought to just start the bombing now. You’ll waste a lot less of our time if you’d do so. Or just leave. That’s a better use of resources for both of us.”

“We’ll see if you’re so disrespectful when my troops have dug you out of that hole you’re hiding in.”

“Hey, Jarkyl?” the mayor asked.

“Yes?”

“Why don’t you shove both your tails up your ass? You think you can beat us? Come down here and try.” She motioned to the tech, who cut off the transmission while the admiral was still spluttering and turned to Walker. “I think you have some defenses to improve. If you’d go see to them, I’d greatly appreciate it.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Walker said with a smile.

McGee nodded once. “I’m nobody’s slave.”

* * * * *


Chapter Three


EMS Pegasus, Standing off Stargate, Golara System

Alexis watched Task Force Paradise go through the stargate with mixed emotions. It was the smallest contingent of warships by ship size. It had been difficult for her to send only a salvaged Izlian battlecruiser as the heaviest ship. The task force also had four cruisers, two newly acquired Maki light cruisers, a couple of escort frigates, and four frigates. There were plenty of ships, but most of them were smaller ones. She also didn’t have a carrier to spare. She had to send two transports because Taint Nothin and Derniere Legion didn’t have their own ships.

You know why you’re really bothered, she thought. Nigel. They’d managed another couple of hours together before returning to their own commands. Now he was gone—the first of the four task forces to leave, because they guessed Paradise would be the most likely to have the aliens bog down. If so, it was a good bet he could fuck up their plans.

<What if he dies?>

Then he dies,” she replied.

<I mean, how will it affect you?>

Why do you care?

<Our fates are intertwined. I’ve been inevitably tied to the Winged Hussars since they found me a century ago, interrupting my long sleep.>

Are you thinking about leaving?” Alexis tried to imagine how long the one second pause was to a machine that could process a trillion times faster than she could. A day? A week? A year?

<It is not as easy as that.>

I’m relieved.

<Ships have transitioned into the system.>

Alexis’ head spun around to the big Tri-V in the CIC’s center. Two blips appeared near the distant emergence point. “Flipper, report!”

The Selroth sensor tech looked at her in surprise, then scanned his displays. “Sensor drones report two Hussars ships.” He paused for a moment. “It’s the Excalibur and Capricorn, returning from New Persia.”

The Tri-V updated the two ships as friendly and showed them boosting toward the stargate where nearly all the Hussars ships were standing to; the stargate and emergence point were two light minutes apart. Alexis scowled, annoyed at the lag the conversation would have. Two minutes later, right on cue, Excalibur’s report arrived.

“Commander Cromwell, Captain McQuay reporting. As you can guess, our being here means we ran into trouble. New Persia is gone. The entire population has been annihilated by orbital nuclear bombardment.”

“Bastards!” Abby Smith said. She had replaced Glick as SitCon when he went to be the XO on EMS Lubieszów, one of their two new battleships.

“Quiet,” Paka snapped, and Abby’s cheeks turned red.

“As we were unable to load as ordered,” Captain McQuay continued, “we followed contingencies and came here. It looks like we’re just in time.”



Good thing Nigel is already gone, she thought. New Persia was an attempt by his people to get a new start. The planet was a shithole in many ways, yet it had resources and industrious people. Binnig had built a factory there—the only non-Earth factory—to make their much-lauded Mk 9 CASPer. It sounded like that was now gone, too.

“SitCon?” Alexis said.

“Yes, ma’am,” Abby replied.

“Assign Excalibur to Task Force Frost, and Capricorn to Task Force Canopy. The Horde is next to last to leave, so they’ll have time to move forces off their overcrowded warships. We now have the transport capability to spare.”

“Right away,” the SitCon replied.

“Comms from Shadowfax,” Hoot, the comms officer said. “It’s Horde Actual requesting a private line with you, ma’am.”

“Link it to me,” Alexis said, and opened a channel on her pinplants so they could talk without being overheard.

“Alexis, I just heard,” Sansar said.

“Yeah, I was afraid Peepo would go that route. I just didn’t think she’d wipe out an entire colony.”

“I’m afraid it might not be the only one,” Sansar said. “There may be more coming…”

It was the second time in as many minutes that Alexis was brought up short. “What do you know?”

“What do I know?” Sansar asked. “Nothing. Blue Sky Above, though, I’ve been dreaming about it. This is going to sound crazy—trust me, I know—but precognition is a gift within our family.” She sounded uncomfortable talking about it, so when she paused, Alexis gave her a moment to gather her thoughts. “The women…” Sansar continued. “The women who have been in control of the Horde…we get dreams. All the way back to the founding of the Horde, this has happened. Prophetic dreams. They’re usually cryptic, and I don’t get them often; however, every time I get one—or nearly every time, anyway—it comes true.”

“You know,” Alexis said, “that sounds completely crazy.” She suppressed a shudder, and she hadn’t even heard what the dream was, yet. “But after what we’ve been through the last few weeks—what we’ve seen, and what’s happening—I can’t ignore it. What did you see?” She asked the question timidly, not sure she wanted to know. If it had Sansar this upset…

“I’ve had two dreams since we arrived at Golara…” Sansar replied. Her voice trickled off to nothing, but when she continued, it was stronger. “The first dream has already come true. The death of Katash and all of the Depik.” Her voice got soft, and Alexis was sure Sansar was fighting to hold back the tears. “Only those out on contract are still alive.”

Alexis didn’t say anything, as she was pretty sure a galaxy without assassins was a good thing. After a moment’s reflection on her experience with the Grimm, she decided she was sure of it.

“I tell you this,” Sansar continued, “because I saw it ahead of time. Not with enough time to do anything about it, even if we could have, but to lend credibility to what I’m about to tell you.” There was a sigh that was audible, even over the pinplants. “I believe that Peepo will do this again—wipe out another planet.”

“Just one?” Alexis asked. “Or more than one?”

“Blue Sky! I hope it is only one; I’d rather it was none.” She paused again. “The problem is, the dream I had was a space battle—a big one.”

“The battle where we take back Earth?”

“No. This battle occurred in a system that had been heavily fortified. There were missile stations on asteroids near the emergence point, battle stations with heavy—really heavy—lasers. And ships? Not as many as we brought here…but a lot of them. I got the feeling it was a ‘winner take all’ kind of battle. The kind where if you aren’t victorious, you will be destroyed. Like Scipio Aemilianus at Carthage, where he sowed salt in the fields…except there are no fields…there is just…Prime Base.”

What?” Alexis exclaimed. When everyone turned toward her, she realized she was so startled she must have said it out loud. She forced herself to keep the conversation through her pinplants. “What do you mean? You saw the destruction of Prime Base?”

“No…not the destruction of Prime Base, but a battle at the emergence point.”

“So you don’t know if I win or not? It isn’t a done deal?”

“That’s just it,” Sansar replied. “You’re not there! Neither is Jim! It’s just Nigel and me! We’re the ones in charge of holding the orbitals! We’re the ones in charge of holding Prime Base! We’re the ones fighting the desperate battle against overwhelming odds…and I don’t know why!

Somehow, finding out that she wasn’t part of the defense of New Warsaw was comforting to Alexis. No matter what else she knew, if there was a battle to defend New Warsaw, Alexis was going to be part of it. The dream, therefore, couldn’t be true.

“Easy…easy…” Alexis said. “You, yourself, said that the dreams don’t always come true.”

“But this one was so real! So vivid! Even though I am awake, I can still see it. I haven’t experienced anything like this since the Tortantula invasion of Earth.”

“Did that turn out the way you saw it?”

“Well…no. Some of the things were the same, but other things—defenses mostly—were put in place after I had the dreams. When it actually happened, we were able to better manage the fight.”

“See? So knowing this—you having the dream—means that even if a battle were to happen, we can change the outcome. Maybe we can keep Peepo from ever finding out about New Warsaw’s location. Perhaps the dream was intended to warn us we needed to strengthen our security procedures even more to keep Peepo from finding us.”

“Maybe…” Sansar said. Her voice indicated she wanted to believe Alexis…but couldn’t quite force herself to do so.

“Are you even sure it was New Warsaw?”

“Well, no…no, I’m not,” Sansar replied. “But it was a Human fleet waiting for the arrival of the Merc Guild in a system that was heavily defended. Where else could it have been?”

“I don’t know,” Alexis replied, “but let’s look at the facts. First, we’re the aggressors. We’re the ones going after Peepo’s fleets in the Human colony systems. That’s a fact, so the dream—if it is at all prophetic—isn’t any time soon. Second, the defense occurs without me present. Do you think there is any way I’d miss out on the defense of New Warsaw?”

“No…”

“Good. See? What happened in the dream is obviously not happening soon, and it’s not about New Warsaw. Wherever and whenever you end up defending a system—and maybe it’s decades from now—you’ll know it when you get there, and you can use whatever you’ve seen to help with your defense.”

“True,” Sansar replied. She sounded like she believed it, for the most part. “Just do me a favor?”

“What is it?”

“Don’t get yourself killed,” Sansar said. “As long as you’re alive, I know that the dream isn’t possible.”

A chill went down Alexis’ spine. She’d been fine, until then.

“I’m not planning on dying anytime soon,” Alexis replied, a touch of anger in her voice at having been made aware of her own mortality.

“I’m sure you’re not,” Sansar said, with a new tone in her voice. “Not while you have so much to live for.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing…” Sansar was quiet for a moment. “It’s just that you and Nigel have gotten pretty close lately.”

Fuck, Alexis thought, so much for keeping it quiet. “Maybe a little,” she replied, not wanting to discuss it with the other merc leader. For that matter, she still had problems discussing it with herself.

“Damn it, Alexis,” Sansar said when Alexis didn’t say anything else. “Why him? Why now?”

“Funny, I thought you were a woman, too.”

“That’s not what I meant,” Sansar said, sighing. “It’s just…it’s just really bad timing.”

“You think I don’t know that?” Alexis snapped. “I haven’t exactly let a squadron of men share my bed.” About as far from it as possible. “There was just something about him. I can’t explain it. One of my problems has always been approachability. Do you know how many employees I have? Some of my people joke they should call me Empress Cromwell, the Ice Queen.”

“I guess your position does make dating more difficult.”

That’s an understatement. Most of my partners have been men who didn’t know who I was.”

“How’d you pull that off?” Sansar asked. “You are a very beautiful and rather distinctive-looking woman.”

“A wig and far from home.”

“Ah,” Sansar said.

“We’ve been discreet,” Alexis offered.

“That’s good,” Sansar said. “It’s hard to say how your units would react to such an affair.”

“My Hussars would probably hold a party,” Alexis said and chuckled, then she sobered. “The rank and file merc units might be suspicious that favoritism is a factor with target selections. We’ll continue to be discreet.” At least until we can’t, I guess.

“I’ll call Jim Cartwright,” Sansar said, “and try to explain it to him.”

* * *

EMS Bucephalus, Standing off Stargate, Golara System

Jim floated in his quarters for several minutes after his conversation with Sansar Enkh was done, just staring vacantly at the wall. Splunk was quietly working on something in her corner of the room, which was originally a storage locker, and hadn’t so much as looked up.

First, the aliens killed all of the Humans on New Persia. The wanton slaughter made little sense if Peepo wanted to conquer humanity. You can’t conquer corpses. Just another unanswered question, he guessed. Then Sansar Enkh said she was having prophetic dreams. If he’d learned that even a year ago, he’d have thought she was barking mad.

He pulled his shirt up and reached along his ample gut to squeeze the little control embedded under his skin. His Raknar in excellent detail, appeared next to his bellybutton. Everything was accurate down to the Cartwright’s logo on the right chest and a smallish rainbow on the left. He had added the latter just before leaving New Warsaw, weeks after getting the tattoo.

There’s more going on here than we understand, Jim thought. He didn’t want to think about the person who’d pretended to be his girlfriend, and he also couldn’t avoid it. He’d known her as Adayn Christopher, technical sergeant with the Cavaliers, hired to work on CASPers. He’d been taken with her from the beginning. She wasn’t model beautiful, though she was good looking and liked him. Later, after he’d begun using the Raknar, she had allowed it to become intimate.

He found out afterwards that she had been ordered to become intimate with him to obtain intelligence on the Cavaliers and the Raknar. The Golden Horde’s intel operation uncovered the truth—Adayn Christopher was Captain Adrianne McKenzie of Earth Defense Intelligence, acting on orders.

He glanced over at Splunk, who was busy working. Nothing she did surprised him anymore. Not since she’d turned up with her own home-made spacesuit, customized guns, the ability to get him out of seemingly impossible ambushes halfway across the galaxy, and, then, a bunch of friends.

They’d first met when she’d rescued him on the planet of Kash-kah after a battle that went every way except correct. He knew back then there was no way she’d pulled him out of that underground lake by herself. The little Fae weighed maybe 10 kilos, probably less. He’d known there were more of her kind down there, maybe a lot more. He’d even glimpsed several, though never close enough to see them clearly. Then, a few weeks ago, he’d discovered there were not only more of them, but they’d found their way to Upsilon 4, his asteroid base.

Thinking back, after witnessing what Splunk was capable of doing on his months’-long trip around the galaxy searching for Raknar lore, he should not have been surprised when they’d made their appearance. Of course, he couldn’t help being shocked when during the evacuation of imprisoned Human mercs from Karma, the group of Fae on Upsilon 4 had done the impossible—they had moved the whole fucking asteroid through hyperspace to New Warsaw!

Anyone who knew the basics of hyperspatial physics was aware that it worked via an inverse law. The smaller a ship was, the more power it took to stay in hyperspace. At around 3,000 tons, a ship can’t make enough power to stay in hyperspace. Ships that small or smaller, referred to as jump-riders, would catch rides on bigger ships. Huge ships took amazingly little power, and clamping smaller ships onto your big ship actually made it cheaper to fly through hyperspace! With all that in mind, he guessed it must have taken very little power to move Upsilon 4. A five-kilometer-long asteroid, the damn thing probably weighed trillions of tons.

Here he was, months later and in the middle of a war against the very guild which was responsible for his family’s fortunes, and once again, he had to admit he didn’t know shit. All those months searching for info on the Raknar and how the Fae factored into it, and it was a rescue mission to Capital Planet to save Sansar Enkh from execution that had handed him the biggest clue.

Jim fished out a box from the side of his cabin and opened it. A token floated out as he removed the biggest clues he’d found. The first were the data chips Splunk found at the Valley of Loss. She was still working on decoding them, though not as vigorously since the war had started. Next was the slate with his notes about the Machine Empire—the asteroid in the middle of nowhere which held a cult centered on chopping off body parts to prove you weren’t mortal. That one had been a bit of a dead end. Then there was the broken computer module from his crazy visit to the Science Guild headquarters on Occul. He still wasn’t sure, but he thought they might have tried to kill him and set those assassins on his tail which chased him all the way back to his rendezvous with the Cavaliers. Maybe they didn’t like him messing with Raknar? Who knew? The Science Guild had turned out to be nothing like he’d expected. Finally, there was a Tri-V recording given to him by Lt. Colonel Walker from inside a strange four-legged Raknar they’d found on Capital Planet. The Raknar was the most complete and pristine model he’d ever seen, and the Tri-V just as amazing.

Jim triggered the Tri-V and the image which came alive was of a Lumar, a huge, four-armed humanoid alien merc, standing in the cockpit of a Raknar with a Fae on its shoulder. Both looked tired and dirty, but both were smiling. He’d been puzzling over the image for days. He glanced over and saw Splunk had paused in her work and was also looking at the image.

“Are those the Dusman?” he asked his friend and pointed at the Lumar. Splunk looked at the Tri-V for a second then returned to her project, apparently bored with the subject. Were you guys the Dusman’s secret weapon? Jim silently wondered.

The Fae were well beyond savants when it came to technology. Adayn had called Splunk “Watchmaker,” comparing her to the little creatures in the novel The Mote in God’s Eye who could improve any technology. Those aliens weren’t themselves advanced or technological; they did their magic through instinct.

What would Splunk and her people know about the Dusman, even if they were partners? That was 20,000 years ago. He looked back at the image. Lumar. The aliens weren’t known for their intelligence. Far from it, actually. They often found work as grunt labor, armed guards, or doing simple security duty. They were a merc race, though the most common contracts they claimed were garrison or basic defense. Jim knew Nigel had taken a group on with Asbaran. For a guy who hated aliens, and whose ancestors had invented the slogan, “Kill aliens, get paid,” he was finding himself with more than a few non-Human employees. Jim hadn’t found the time before they’d left to talk with a Lumar about the Fae. That would have to wait.

Jim packed away the items in their safe place, then remembered the token that had floated out and looked for it. Splunk had caught the token and was examining it.

“What is this, <Cheek!>

“I don’t know,” Jim admitted. Splunk let it float back to him, and Jim caught it. It was a simple golden token with an alien design on one side and what looked like a pawprint outlined in black on the other. “My father kept it in a display case in his office. He used to carry it on missions. He said he’d explain it when I was old enough to serve.” Jim frowned. “He never got the chance.” He stuffed the token into the same storage compartment as the other artifacts, closed it, and went to visit the CIC.

“Colonel Cartwright,” the older woman said with a nod as Jim entered the Combat Information Center.

“Captain Su,” Jim replied with his own nod. While he outranked Bucephalus’ captain, they were more like equals in command of their individual aspects of the Cavaliers. Jim could tell her where to go, but he’d never dare override her in space. He’d learned such from Traveler’s commander, Captain Winslow. He’d lost the man and the ship at Chimsa. “ETA to transition?”

She looked up at the Tri-V displaying the mercenary cruiser’s miscellaneous systems before replying. “Just under two minutes.” Jim floated down and took his chair, directly next to Captain Su, and buckled in.

The Tri-V central element showed the stargate ahead of their task force. Jim had seen large groups of ships before, though never on his side. Fifteen Winged Hussars warships were arrayed around Bucephalus and the other six merc unit ships, including one of the legendary Egleesius-class ships, Phaeton, and one of the new battleships, Lubieszów. Alexis even sent two of her carriers along. Talus was expected to be the biggest combined battle, though not the biggest space battle, of the campaign.

The countdown hit under one minute.

“All hands, prepare for acceleration.”

Moments later they all felt themselves float downward, opposite to the acceleration, as Bucephalus fired her two powerful fusion torches. The fleet’s three escort frigates and four regular frigates pulled ahead as the rest approached the stargate. Just to Bucephalus’ starboard and aft was the huge spherical bulk of Lubieszów, accelerating the slowest of them all.

“Hyperspace in ten seconds,” the computer announced. The stargate came alive and space swirled in discontinuity. Bucephalus’ thrust increased to her maximum of four Gs. The frigates all disappeared in a wave.

“Next stop Talus,” Jim said.

An instant later he was unmade into hyperspace.

* * *

Gray Wolves’ Hideout, Houston, Texas, Earth

“Did we get anything from Peepo’s morning conference?” Major Good asked.

“No,” Corporal Bolormaa Enkh replied. “If Peepo had a morning conference this morning, we either missed it or she did it somewhere else. I had the bug there in time. She went out several times, but no one else came in all morning, except for the new MinSha who is her aide and security director.”

“Did she have anything important?”

“No, just that the Keesius hasn’t been seen at Capital Planet, so she expects our people were successful in stopping it. There’s nothing else to report, and that isn’t anything Colonel Enkh couldn’t already have figured out on her own.”

“Well, I doubt Peepo changed her schedule. She must have suspected we were bugging her office.” Major Good shook his head. “Damn. We’re going to have to figure out where it’s moved to; it’s getting increasingly hard to operate, and we need the edge to know what’s going on.”

“They already found our asset at the cleaning company.”

“Yeah, and threw the whole cleaning company to the dogs.” They had heard the Besquith interrogation of the members of the cleaning company had been…thorough. Their operative had killed herself rather than submit to it, but now they were without eyes and ears inside the headquarters.

“There is one good thing this morning,” Corporal Enkh noted.

“What’s that?”

“Major Charlie Sinclair of Sinclair’s Scorpions just turned up in Scotland with twenty-five mercs. They’ve gone into hiding but are available for operations. Apparently, while they were gone, Peepo managed to kill all of their families. To say they are primed for some payback is an understatement.”

“Tell them to stay hidden. When the time is right, I have an idea for how best to use them.”

* * *

Tunnel Mouth, Underdeep, Paradise

“Here they come!” the sergeant exclaimed as his squad ran back to the mouth of the cave entrance. Ferguson’s troops had found a dozen anti-aircraft missiles and had fired them at the incoming dropships. They’d only hit one of the transports, but that was one less platoon they’d have to face.

The first wave of dropships landed in the desert outside the range of the defenders’ other weapons and began to disgorge their forces.

“Lumar,” Walker said. “No surprise there.”

“Why’s that?” Ferguson asked.

“They’re big, tough, and dumb,” Walker replied as the four-armed humanoids formed up into their units. “They can absorb a lot of punishment, so they make great frontline troops to throw into the opening wave of an assault. Point them at the defenders and watch them go,” he added with a shrug. “Looks like they brought about four hundred troops.”

“Think it will make any difference?”

“Nope.”

The pack of sand worms hit the Lumar just before they were in range of the tunnel, erupting from beneath them. Having survived a sand worm attack, Walker felt badly for the Lumar. He suspected the creatures had been created at about the same time as the Canavar, as they were near-perfect killing machines. Their hides reflected nearly every weapon, and they hunted as a pack, wiping out any force that tried to stand against them.

“That’s a big pack,” the sergeant said as twelve worms burst from the sand. Each grabbed a Lumar on its initial attack, biting them in half, as they rose to a height of nearly 50 feet. The worms then fell back to the surface, landing on as large a group of Lumar as they could target. Before the first round was fired, more than a company—or 50 troopers—had been killed.

Rather than running, the Lumar tried to attack them, and the situation went from bad to worse. While one group fired at a worm and watched their rounds bounce off, another worm would hit them from behind, claiming more victims. Over half the Lumar force was killed or eaten before the remainder turned and retreated to the dropships. Satisfied with the victims they already had, the worms let them go, concentrating on enjoying their meal.

“Looks like they got two of the worms,” the sergeant noted.

“Yep,” Walker said, nodding. “Like I said, the Lumar are tough.”

“Will they be back?” Ferguson asked.

“I suspect they’ll send in a different group to take the landing pads,” Walker replied, motioning toward the small port facility that rested on the plateau above them, “now that they see why there’s nothing built in the desert.”

“Why didn’t they do that first?” the sergeant asked.

“Probably because they figured we’d have the landing pads mined and booby-trapped.”

“We do, though,” the sergeant replied, cocking his head to the side.

“Yep,” Walker replied. “And for whoever comes down in the second group, it’s going to suck to be them, too.”

* * * * *

Chapter Four


Tunnels, Underdeep, Paradise

It had taken two days for the assault forces to make it to the cave. After the first wave had been eaten by the sand worms, the second force had landed at the mini-starport. Walker waited until the entire force had landed before turning on the defenses.

Despite a thorough preparatory bombardment, about half the explosives remained, and the devastation they caused wiped out a large percentage of the second wave, comprised totally of Besquith. Walker also dropped the causeway leading down from the starport to the entrance to the tunnels while there was a large number of additional troopers on it. McGee hadn’t wanted to destroy their only access to the facility, but Walker had insisted…and killed another hundred Besquith. The remaining mutts had gone back to their ship to lick their wounds.

“Incoming!” the local sergeant yelled as he followed his squad away from the tunnel mouth.

“What have you got?” Walker asked.

“MinSha,” the sergeant replied, out of breath. “There’s a whole bunch of them flying down from the starport.”

“Well, at least they won’t have heavy weapons,” Walker replied, “at least for a while. They’ll have to bring them down piece by piece and reassemble them.” So far, the Merc Guild forces hadn’t shown a desire to land in the desert since the aborted Lumar attack.

The mayor had broadcast the video up to the enemy fleet until one of the ships had slagged the town’s antennae, but apparently the message had been received—don’t land in the desert.

Which was exactly what Walker wanted. The fewer heavy weapons the assaulting forces had, the easier it was going to be to defend against them.

“Got it,” the technician said, stepping away from the Camille H5 automated sentry guns. “The target of choice is set for MinSha.”

“Pull back!” Walker ordered, and the defending forces ran down the tunnel past two bends to the next set of fortifications. As he rounded the first corner, he could hear the minigun barrels already spinning, and within seconds the three guns began firing with the sound of tearing sheets. Zeeeeeet! Zeeeeeet! Zeeeeeet!

“Now what?” asked Ferguson.

“Now they try to get past the guns. They’ll try throwing grenades, or their equivalent, which is why we put up the big electromagnets. When the guns aren’t firing, the magnets activate, and any sort of metallic grenade will be pulled off target. Eventually, they’ll figure out a way to get explosives on target, either by throwing in devices that aren’t metallic or by sacrificing someone to throw it in while the guns are firing.”

“What if they can’t?”

“The guns will run out of bullets or the enemy will run out of willpower.”

“Which do you think will happen first?”

“Peepo is driving these troops; we’ll definitely run out of bullets first. Then the MinSha will be in the tunnels.”

“They will? What will we do then?”

“Don’t worry,” Walker said with a smile. “We’ve put this extra time to good use. They won’t get far.”

* * *

CIC, Maki Cruiser Spreading Shade, Paradise System

“There has been a setback,” the communications officer said, looking up from his console.

“What is it now?” Admiral Jarkyl asked, frustration heavy in his voice. “I thought the MinSha had entered the tunnels and were in pursuit of the Humans.”

“Well, they were in the tunnels…and I guess, technically, they still are. They made it past the automatic guns at the mouth of the tunnel, but when they reached the next fortified section, the roof collapsed, burying about a platoon’s worth of soldiers. Colonel Winsayl is requesting we send down a contingent of Lumar to help dig out the tunnel, as her troops aren’t built for heavy lifting.”

“Do it,” ordered Jarkyl. “Send down one of the Lumar companies that wasn’t in the first wave to assist.”

“Yes, sir,” the comms officer replied.

“Whatever happened to the squad that was looking for the colony’s air vents to drop poison in them?”

“The Humans turned their vents on in reverse and blew the poison back on the squad. Apparently, it is quite caustic and lethal. We lost most of the squad.”

Admiral Jarkyl’s tails twitched in frustration. “These Humans are very frustrating—very frustrating, indeed!”

* * *

CIC, EMS Shadowfax, Chislaa System

“Established in the Chislaa system,” the sensor operator said. “I don’t show any ships here at the emergence area, but there are indications of ships in orbit over Chislaa.”

Commander Elizabeth Stacy nodded. “Very well. SitCon, let’s get the fleet formed up and headed toward the planet. Let me know what we’ve got as soon as you’re able.”

“Aye, aye,” the SitCon replied.

The Tri-V illuminated with a picture of the planet, and Sansar took a small step back in surprise. “That has to be the greenest planet I’ve ever seen.”

“Never been here before?” Stacy asked.

“No,” Sansar said, in awe. The surface was approximately half ocean, but the part that was land—mostly around the equator—was almost completely covered with dark green vegetation. She shook her head. “That definitely doesn’t look like back home.” When Stacy raised an eyebrow, she added, “Uzbekistan is about eighty percent sandy, scrubby desert. Definitely not that.” She waved to the Tri-V.

“I hear the natives—well the colonists, since there aren’t really any natives—call the planet Canopy, as most of it is under a tree analogue that looks like triple canopy jungle. It’s too cold for the massive trees up at the poles, but they grow pretty well in both tropical and temperate environments.”

“I’ve got the breakdown on the ships orbiting the planet,” the sensor operator announced. “Looks like about ten ships in orbit, of which several are transports. I have drive plumes illuminating on most of them; looks like they’re running for the stargate.”

“Understood,” Stacy replied. “Give me a channel to Lieutenant Commander Porter on Whirlaway.”

The communications officer nodded. “Open, ma’am.”

“Lieutenant Commander Porter, Commander Stacy. Looks like they’re running for the gate. Please take Whirlaway, War Admiral, Langur, Tizona, Orcrist, and Grape and see if you can beat them there. Take their surrender if you can; destroy them if you must.”

“We’re on our way!” Porter replied. “Whirlaway, out!”

“Will they be able to beat the Merc Guild ships to the stargate?” Sansar asked.

“Depends on how badly the Merc Guild doesn’t want to be caught,” Stacy replied, “and how many Gs they’re willing to take to make it happen. Of course, getting there is only half the problem.” She smiled. “Comms, get me a channel to the gate master.”

The communications officer nodded after a moment. “Go ahead, ma’am.”

“Gate Master, this is Commander Stacy, commanding the Earth Mercenary Ship Shadowfax, from Winged Hussars.”

A Sumatozou that appeared on the Tri-V. “This is Trostopopal, Gate Master of the Cartography Guild.”

“Greetings, Trostopopal. Might I enquire when the next gate opening is?”

“The gate has already opened today. The next scheduled opening won’t be until tomorrow. Unless, that is, you…really…need one today.” Sansar could see the greed in the giant creature’s eyes and how it twirled its bifurcated trunk as it contemplated how much it might be able to skim from the fees an unscheduled gate opening would allow him to charge.

“Thank you, Honored Trostopopal, but an unscheduled opening won’t be necessary today.”

“Oh.” The Sumatozou’s voice chilled as he realized his avaricious desires wouldn’t be fulfilled. “Then what is the nature of this call?”

“While I don’t need an unscheduled gate opening, I have a feeling there will shortly be other ships who will approach you about one.”

“Yes, that is correct,” the gate master replied. “The Merc Guild forces are demanding an unscheduled opening on another channel as we speak.”

“I know how…underfunded the stargates are, sometimes,” Stacy said. “Sometimes, they just can’t be made to operate a second time in one day, especially in out-of-the-way systems like this one.”

“That is true; this is a remote system, and the equipment isn’t always the best.”

“I would like to help with that,” Stacy said, smiling. “If the gate weren’t able to operate a second time today, because of some unfortunate…malfunction, I would be happy to contribute, say, 25,000 credits to help pay for the repairs so we can leave when we need to.”

The gate master looked to both sides, then back to the camera. “As it happens, I think one of the power relays that recharges the stargate just failed. I expect the cost to repair it, though, will be 50,000 credits.”

“This is an out-of-the-way system,” Stacy said, nodding. “I’m sure it’s hard to get parts here.” She nodded to the comms officer, who pushed a button. “You should be receiving our contribution to your maintenance fund momentarily.”

A tone sounded in the gate master’s office and the alien looked off-screen, then turned back with its version of a smile. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but I must terminate this call. It appears we just had a failure in one of our power relays that I must attend to. Good day.” The Tri-V went dark as the call ended.

Stacy turned to Sansar with a smile. “I have a feeling our ships will keep the Merc Guild forces from escaping. I doubt it will take more than a shot or two to get their attention. And, should they decide to put up a fight, it will only take a few more shots to end it.”

Sansar chuckled. “I’m sure it will.” She gave a small nod. “Well, it appears everything here is in order, so, by your leave, I’ll take a shuttle back over to the Draco. If the Merc Guild had three transports here, there are liable to be a lot of Merc Guild troops on the planet.”

“Going to do something about that?”

Sansar smiled. “Yes, I am,” she replied. “I doubt Peepo’s here, but this will help my folks get warmed up for when we do find her.”

* * *

CIC, EMS Pegasus, Asyola System Emergence Point

“We have arrived in the Asyola system,” reported Pleek, Pegasus’ new chief helmsman.

“Drones out,” Alexis ordered. “Let’s see what we’ve got.”

“Launching,” Drone Control replied, the voice Ghost used in her routine job aboard Pegasus.

“All Hussars ships accounted for,” Flipper reported. “As well as six mercenary cruisers.”

“Roger, that,” Alexis replied. “Abby, see that the fleet is formed up for assault. Launch the gunboats to remain as escort for the merc cruisers until we clear the system.”

“Yes, Captain,” the new SitCon replied. She was already using her pinplants to assess the positions and speeds of the other ships and issue corrections.

Even though Alexis expected the fight to be tough, merc cruisers full of ground forces were too questionable to be used in a fight like this; they tended to be under-armed for their size. To make up for this she had included a dozen heavily armed gunboats from Golara. Half the size of a frigate, they didn’t possess a hyperdrive, so they rode clamped to the side of the battleship Byczyna. Because they didn’t need hyperdrives, their internal spaces were optimized for firepower. Ton for ton, they were tougher than the average frigate. Currently, they were operated by skeleton crews, and inexperienced ones at that. She was scraping the bottom of the barrel for personnel.

The Winged Hussars had never possessed battleships until now. The unbelievably huge form of Byczyna began to accelerate ahead of Pegasus. The dozen gunboats unclamped and thrust back toward the waiting merc cruisers, while a ring of six Hussar cruisers formed around the battleship like satellites. The 100,000-ton bulk of the Crown-class cruisers and the slightly smaller Maki Branch-class cruisers looked like elongated marbles in comparison to the 1.5 million tons of the Thrush-class battleship.

Alexis didn’t know if she felt comforted by the huge ship, or discomforted. The Winged Hussars hadn’t had time to develop detailed battle plans which incorporated the new battleships. In addition, the battleship’s crews were new additions to her unit. They had a strong incentive to do well: the ship. If the Hussars prevailed in this war, the Bakulu crew would be given the ship as payment.

“We have four escort frigates and a destroyer in our threat box,” Abby Smith announced after a few seconds.

“Offer them a chance to yield,” Alexis instructed. The Winged Hussars’ three escort frigates began taking fire. “Never mind,” she said.

“Captain Chigasoolu on Byczyna is requesting permission to deal with them,” Hoot reported.

“Offer my respects to Captain Chigasoolu and tell him he may fire when ready.”

A series of brilliant flashes announced the battleship opening fire. The ship was more like a mobile fortress than any of the other warships the Hussars possessed. Her primary armament included 20 one-terawatt particle accelerators and six five-terawatt ones. In addition, she had 100 missile launchers for standoff and 240 thirty-megawatt close-in defensive lasers. The three enemy frigates were vaporized with one hit each from a one-terawatt particle accelerator, and the destroyer by one of the five-terawatt versions. One second they were there, the next they were gone.

“Holy shit,” Xander Opal, their TacCom, hissed.

“Steady,” Paka said.

“No other ships in our threat box,” Flipper reported.

“Drones in the black,” Drone Control said. Immediately, the big Tri-V began to fill with more data, slowly growing outward as data arrived.

They’d known where the planet, stars, and other regular stellar phenomenon would be. All of that was recorded in the ship’s database. What they needed was information on enemy presence or new navigational hazards. The first thing Alexis noticed was the debris.

“There’s a debris field,” Flipper confirmed. “An unknown number of ships. Looks like the Frost navy put up a fight, at least.”

“Maybe a few less for us to deal with,” Xander suggested.

“Maybe,” Alexis said, “but let’s wait and see, shall we?”

“Fleet is coming into formation,” Abby confirmed. “We are matching velocities toward the planet Frost and escorts are in position. Manticore has her drones in the black.”

The Tri-V began sporting red points to indicate the enemy presence above Frost. Alexis noted at least thirty markers.

“I show thirty-seven total enemy ships identified in-system,” Abby said, and the markers started to have distinguishing identifiers. “There are five battlecruisers, eight cruisers, three light cruisers, eleven escort frigates, five frigates, three carriers, and two transports.”

“About what we were expecting,” Paka said.

Alexis nodded. The data Jim’s little friend gave them looked to be almost dead on. They’d shown 40 ships assigned to Frost. The system was rich in resources.

The system was home to a set of binary stars, one a main sequence G, and the other an aging Y-class super giant. Frost was tidally locked facing the G-class star, with half of her surface a freezing hell, the other half a hot hell. Three cities perched on the interglacial zone between hot and cold. Two hundred thousand people were more or less evenly divided between the cities, with another fifty thousand at various mining towns or on the three eccentrically orbiting moons.

The Izlians tried to make a go of establishing a shipyard there. After nearly 1,000 years of failing at it, the Humans had bought the lease for a song, much to the Izlians’ chagrin. Now Frost’s manufactories were turning out ever-increasing parts shipments and had completed their first ships just a year ago. It was the most strategic target of Peepo’s war. After taking Golara, if they could take Frost as well, it would really kick the rat bastardess in the ass.

“Paka,” Alexis said, “detach Secretariat and Excalibur on a high-G intercept to the stargate. If they don’t find a highguard, they are to assume that position. If there is one, neutralize if possible, interdict if not.” Paka nodded and began issuing the orders. “Hoot, fleet-wide.” The Buma comms officer nodded his head, and Alexis spoke. “This is Hussars Actual, we are advancing toward Frost. Prepare for combat.”

* * *

CIC, EMS Bucephalus, Talus System Emergence Point

“Emergence in 3…2…1…” A brief sensation of falling, and Jim was in the Talus star system. The Tri-V in the center of the CIC updated the area around the cruiser, including the G-class yellow star. Talus was a lot like Earth—in the system’s goldilocks zone with regular climates—only the world was twice the size, with a lower gravity due to a small core. Despite the planet being all but perfect for most humanoid life in the galaxy, it was also mineral poor. Humans were one of the few races willing to try to turn a profit with agriculture.

Talus was founded just eleven years after first contact, when Human mercs still regularly got their asses kicked. It was the only truly intentional world planned by children of Earth. Funded by agricultural concerns, the initial population was largely environmentalists, back-to-basics types, and some wilderness survivalists. It was an eclectic mix, which resulted in infighting almost from day one.

Nobody in Earth’s government really gave two shits about the colonies beyond what good stuff they might bring back, which proved to be foodstuffs from Talus’-adjusted strains and its dissidents—the latter because the government of Talus quickly evolved into an authoritative oligarchy that would have been right at home on 20th century Earth. It only got worse from there.

Nestled in the center-rear of the fleet, Bucephalus took advantage of a lot of firepower. The Cavaliers’ cruiser might be considered a warship, but it had been stripped down and converted into what was commonly called a “mercenary cruiser.” Weapons and ammo storage were sacrificed for dropship storage, armories, and troop billeting. The ship was of the latest generation of Human mercenary cruisers, and thus more capable than most. But that didn’t mean Captain Su was interested in getting into a scrum, as the late Captain Wilson would have called it.

“Captain Jormungd on Phaeton is calling,” the comms officer said.

“Put him on,” Captain Su ordered. The comms officer pointed at the captain to tell her they were live. “My regards, Captain Jormungd.” The Tri-V displayed the other commander and Jim blinked. What else would one do when confronted with a five-meter-long cobra with clusters of tentacles for arms. The dark strip around the front of its head was a thermal and motion detection organ he used for eyes.

“Captain Su,” Jormungd said, the ship’s built-in translator rendering the alien’s speech into English. “Please maintain alert status. Our escorts are dealing with some pickets left by the enemy here at the emergence point.” The Kaa were uncommon because they weren’t a merc species. They were often found in space, though, and their serpentine biology was arboreal in nature so they were comfortable in zero gravity.

“Understood, Captain,” Su replied.

“You should be getting fleet-wide sensor data now.”

On the Tri-V, the system began to populate with enemy ships, remains of other ships, and the planet’s own defenses. Two cruiser-sized hulks floated nearby, evidence of the earlier battle. A considerable debris field was being mapped around the planet Talus as well. The locals hadn’t given up without a fight. However, as enemy ships began to be noted, it was obvious the defenders had no real chance.

“Enemy forces are tallied,” the Bucephalus TacCom reported. “The intel from Golara was accurate. They have a battleship, four battlecruisers, two cruisers, eleven frigates and escort frigates, and five transports.”

Jim found those numbers disconcerting and again wondered why Alexis sent the forces they had. The Hussars’ fleet had the other newly added battleship, an Egleesius battlecruiser, one of the Hussars’ native Steed-class battlecruisers, a standard cruiser and a light one, four escort frigates, four standard frigates, and two carriers. They also had seven merc companies, six of which had their own cruisers. The other was aboard a Hussars-loaned transport. To him, it didn’t seem even; it appeared to favor the aliens.

“Is this going to be a serious fight?” Jim wondered to Captain Su.

“Possibly,” Su said. “It depends on how the Hussars handle it. They’re known for unconventional tactics, something that drives the aliens nuts. Jormungd is one of their best strategists. As I understand, Phaeton is his first major command.”

“What does that say about his ability?” Jim asked.

“It means Alexis Cromwell is confident in Jormungd’s ability,” she said simply.

With little more to do than observe, Jim watched as the Hussars began to maneuver. He was surprised to see the light cruiser, Marmoset, and two frigates, Lobera and Carnation, begin accelerating rapidly away.

Captain Su noticed his eyes darting to the ships. “They are racing to the stargate,” she explained. “General Peepo is expecting us to move against the colony’s attackers; we don’t want to make it easy on her by telegraphing our moves.”

Jim nodded and used his pinplants to access the data himself. He examined the stargate, four light minutes away. Ships that would guard a stargate during an assault to keep enemy from escaping were commonly called highguard. Holding a system depended on controlling the stargate, and a good highguard was essential.

As the fleet formed up and began moving toward the planet, Jim watched the enemy highguard units which appeared to be composed of two escort frigates and a destroyer. He knew surface navy destroyers were ships tasked with sinking submarines. He checked the computers and found out space navy destroyers were used to run down enemy frigates and escorts, which made them perfect for defending stargates.

The three enemy ships immediately began moving toward the planet, likely with the intention of joining the main enemy fleet orbiting Talus. Captain Jormungd didn’t appear to be interested in allowing that. The three ships he sent after them already had a fair amount of velocity, and they used it to cut off the other ships.

The Hussars’ frigates were built around forward firing missiles, and the former Maki light cruiser was also a missile boat, though with considerably more launchers; all of the ships were designed to project power in an attack. The enemy frigates were an old Izlian design that were intended to screen larger craft and were as ill-suited for this encounter as the destroyer was. The Hussars ships engaged as they closed, the two groups passing quickly. In eleven seconds, it was over. All three enemy ships were gone, all three Hussars ships were alive.

The light cruiser sustained some damage, but not enough to reduce its combat effectiveness. The three ships came about and began slowing. In a few minutes they would take up position next to the stargate as the highguard, keeping Peepo’s ships from escaping and getting word out.

Jim used his eyes for the first time since the start of the engagement to see the fleet was approaching range to the planet. He gawked in surprise, not realizing how long he’d been watching the drama near the Talus stargate. Around Talus, enemy ships were moving out of orbit to intercept them.

“It would appear they don’t want to use the orbiting defense platforms,” Captain Su pointed out.

“Then I guess we wait to land,” Jim said. Su nodded in agreement. The plan anticipated the aliens might use one or all of the Talus orbiting defense platforms if they were intact. Sensors showed three of the four were operational and manned by enemy forces. The platforms could have supplemented the enemy fleet’s firepower considerably, but at the cost of leaving Jim and the other merc units free to land; it looked like keeping the Humans from landing was a higher priority. “Are the Hussars going to be able to handle this?”

“No problem,” Su said.

Jim shook his head in amazement and concern. He had to trust Su; this was her specialty. While she did her thing, he used his pinplants to call his XO.

“What’s up, boss?” Hargrave answered right away. “We gonna get in the shit soon? Your little friend just came through. She’s going to get into trouble down here.”

Jim grinned, figuring Splunk would be messing with every CASPer she could get her little hands on. Not having Adayn around anymore meant there were fewer eyes to keep track of the little Fae. “It’s going to be a bit,” he told the older merc. “I wanted to let you know the captain said we have to slug it out with the aliens first before we can land.”

“Same shit different day,” Hargrave said. “I’ll let Major Alvarado and Captain Wolf know what the deal is. You still want to keep Alpha Company in the tubes?”

“Yeah,” Jim said. “We’ll be making the HALD drop on the defense headquarters with Gitmo’s. As for assaulting the other targets, we’ll see after the fight develops.”

“Right it is, Boss,” Hargrave said.

Jim glanced over to see Splunk sail in and catch the back of his seat. She was looking at the brightly moving objects in the Tri-V and seemed to be examining the map with interest. Jim was about to sign off when he stopped. “Hey, Hargrave?”

“Yeah, kid?”

“How long ago did you say you saw Splunk?”

“It wasn’t me,” Hargrave said. “One of the guys from Charlie Company, younger kid, said he’d spotted her. Musta been five minutes ago?”

“Right, thanks.” Jim looked at Splunk, his eyes narrowing. Even with the speed and ability Splunk had displayed in zero gravity, there was no way she could have gone from Charlie Company’s area at the back of the ship to the CIC in only five minutes. While they were in Condition 3—ready for battle—all the pressure doors were sealed. It took time to open and close them. “Splunk?” She looked at him, her big blue-on-blue eyes gazing into his. “How many other Fae are onboard?”

She grinned.

Fuck.

* * *

Dropship One, Main Continent, Chislaa

Sansar watched as First Sergeant Muunokhoi “Mun” Enkh walked to the ramp controls and pushed a button.

“All right, you jalaplar,” Mun said as the ramp came down, revealing an unbroken expanse of treetops just a meter below the belly of the dropship and the line of dropships strung out behind them. “Here’s where it gets fun.” She picked up a coil of carbon nanotube rope, checked it was attached to the craft, and tossed the weighted end off the back of the ramp. “Just like we discussed. Every ten seconds, the next person in line picks up the rope, slides down to the end, and then drops. When you hit the ground, clear the area. Any questions?”

The light next to her went green.

“Let’s go then. With alacrity, but no hurrying. Jacobs! You’re up.” Staff Sergeant Yvonne Jacobs stepped up to the rope, took it in both hands, and stepped off the ramp, allowing the rope to slide through her CASPer’s hands. Crashing could be heard as she hit the trees below them.

“I’m stuck,” she transmitted after a couple of seconds.

“Give it about a one second blast on your jumpjets,” Mun replied.

“That worked,” Jacobs said a few seconds later. “I’m down. Tell everyone to be ready on their low light sensors…it’s darker than you’d think down here.”

Corporal Matt Horan stepped up, took the rope, and stepped off. There were fewer crashing sounds this time. He made it down quicker, and the process sped up as the mechs tore a hole through the canopy for the following CASPers to exploit. Soon, it was only Mun and Sansar remaining.

“You’re next,” Mun said. “Unless you want to be last?”

“No, thanks,” Sansar said, taking the rope. She stepped off and immediately went through the first level of foliage. She squeezed the rope, slowing her fall, and guided herself through the second and third levels. She reached the end of the rope about ten meters above the ground and dropped, using a blast of her jumpjets to land softly.

It was a lot darker down on the ground, and Sansar turned her optics to their low light setting.

She looked up and saw the rope being drawn back up; it wouldn’t do to have the dropship get snagged. Both pilots were busy holding the craft in place, which left the jumpmaster to retrieve the rope and then do the drop without it. After two squads had gone down, though, Mun was able to navigate through the branches with short taps on her jumpjets and soon was standing next to Sansar.

“We’re not getting paid by the hour,” Mun said over the company net once all the platoons had checked in. “Let’s get going. We’ve got ten miles to go to get to the city, and it’s going to be full dark in a few hours. Scouts out, and let’s move, people!”

The CASPers began moving east, crashing through the forest, and Sansar realized her perception of the terrain—primarily based on Tri-V movies—was all wrong. The floor of the jungle wasn’t the vine-strewn maze she had expected; instead, it was relatively clear of vegetation, probably due to the darkness created by the 40 meters of vegetation above them. Although there had been some wind above it that the dropship had to fight to remain in position, the canopy blocked it out and the jungle below was still…aside from the giant machines that would never be able to negotiate it quietly.

In the primary forest, she found her low light optics were more useful than the arm blade she thought she’d have to use to cut her way through. Instead of the choking vegetation she’d expected, she found large tree trunks and plenty of saplings trying to fight their way to the light. A handful of ground plants that looked like small Earth shrubs completed the picture.

She flipped one of her monitors to thermal, and it wasn’t long until she saw some flashes at the edge of her vision.

“Hey, Mun,” she transmitted on a private channel, “is it just me, or is there something following us?”

“No, there’s something out there,” Mun replied. “A number of the troops have reported them, and I’m catching hints of them, too. They aren’t much hotter than the ambient temperature, so the thermal displays are having a hard time with them. It looks like they’re tracking us, but I didn’t think there was supposed to be any intelligent indigenous life on this planet.”

“That’s what I’ve got, too,” Sansar replied. “Tell everyone to keep an eye out for them; I want to know what they are.”

“Roger, Colonel,” Mun replied.

“I’ve got something!” Jacobs transmitted. “There’s something…strange here.”

Sansar checked her monitor, found where the squad leader was, and hurried over.

“What have you got?” Sansar asked as she approached, Mun close behind her. In addition to Jacobs, two other CASPers stood by. Judging by the way they were positioned and continued to pan their cameras back and forth, they were worried about some sort of danger but weren’t really sure which direction it was going to come from.

“I’m not really sure,” Jacobs replied, pointing to a large square patch of ground that was slightly higher—about a meter—above the rest of the jungle floor. “I didn’t want to disturb it until you got here to see it. I was trying to get a better look at whatever was following us, and I jumped onto that…thing…because it was a little higher. When I landed on it, though, it made a funny noise, as if there was something metal under there rather than just dirt.”

“Any ideas?” Sansar asked the group.

“I’m not getting any readings on whatever it is,” Mun replied. “The area is a little cooler than the surrounding terrain, but that’s the only thing I can see.”

When no one else had any suggestions, Sansar motioned to it. “You found it, Jacobs, let’s see what’s under there.”

“Uh…yes, ma’am,” the trooper said, sounding like she didn’t want to know anymore. She approached the raised, 10-meter square area cautiously, then reached down, plunged her hand into the dirt, and pulled it away, scooping off the dirt as she went. After a few more scoops, her hand went clunk! and she scooped off the dirt and detritus to reveal a patch of metal.

“Why don’t you give her a hand,” Sansar said to the other two members of the squad who were standing around. They jumped in and, between the three of them, soon had about a quarter of the area cleared.

“Does that look like some sort of lid?” Mun asked as they scraped around the edges.

“Yes, it does,” Sansar replied. “Call the troops and tell them to halt the advance while we investigate this.”

Mun called for a halt and brought several other troopers over. With six CASPers working on it, they excavated a large metal lid, about six centimeters thick, that seemed to be sitting on top of a large metal square of…something.

“What do you think?” Mun asked. “Want to see what’s under it?”

“I’m not sure,” Sansar said. “Whatever it is, it’s been sealed off a long time. There’s no telling what’s under there.” She paused, looking at the giant lid, then came to a decision. “On second thought, I do want to know. If it goes down, maybe there are tunnels or something we can use to sneak up on the city.”

“All right,” Mun said. “Jacobs and the two private Enkhs, grab hold of the lid on this side. When I tell you, lift it up. Everyone else, be ready to shoot whatever jumps out of there.”

“Uh…jumps out of there, First Sergeant?” Jacobs asked. She had bent over to grab the lid but stood back up.

“I don’t know what’s under the lid,” Mun said, “but I don’t want something to jump out and surprise us.” She chuckled. “Don’t worry, I’ll protect you.” Jacobs muttered something Mun’s pickups didn’t quite catch. “Okay, Privates,” she said in a louder voice, “let’s lift this off. On three. One, two, three!”

Nothing happened, except the straining of gears; the lid didn’t move. “Okay, stop,” Jacobs said after about five seconds. She stood up. “Nothing, First Sergeant. It didn’t even shift. We’re just going to burn out our servos.”

“What do you think?” Sansar asked.

“I don’t know,” Jacobs said. “Maybe it’s rusted shut. I would have thought we could have lifted it, but it didn’t move.”

Mun leaned forward to look at it more closely. “I don’t think it’s rusted,” she said. “There isn’t a trace of rust on the entire thing, at least as much as I can see, and it’s been buried here in the dirt for—” She waved to the big piles of dirt that had been excavated, “—a long time.”

“Metal that doesn’t rust,” Sansar said, more curious now. “Let’s all give it a try.”

The eight CASPers standing by the lid all lifted, but once again, couldn’t even make it shift, much less lift it.

“What do you think, ma’am?” Mun asked.

“It’s almost like something is keeping it shut,” Sansar said. “Maybe suction, maybe…something else. I’d love to know what’s under that, but we have colonists to save and HecSha to kill. We’ve wasted too much time with this already; let’s get headed toward the city.”

Sansar began walking again but kept the metal lid on one of her displays as long as she could see it. It never moved.

* * * * *

Chapter Five


Council of Guild Masters, Mercenary Guild, Capital Planet

“My queens are starting to get restless,” the MinSha representative said to the closed council meeting. “You promised this war would be quick and cheap. So far, it has been neither.”

“Which is exactly what I warned you of,” the Goltar representative interjected. “My race has had…closer dealings with the Humans than perhaps you’ve had. While you have treated them as antagonists, we have seen them as partners, and our profits have grown.”

“Shut your beak,” said Leeto, the Speaker of the Council. “When we want your opinion, we’ll ask for it. But that won’t be any time I’m in charge of this council.”

“This has become much more expensive than we were led to believe,” the Oogar representative roared. “You said this would only last a couple of weeks—a month at the outside—and yet we do not seem to be any closer to victory. The Humans even captured Golara, for entropy’s sake!”

“You fail to see the image through the pixels,” Leeto replied. “We make progress every day toward the successful conclusion of this campaign. Their world has been taken. Their colonies have been taken or destroyed. The only base they have left—the Winged Hussars’ base in New Warsaw—we expect to have locating data on any day now. Once this base is wiped out, there will be nowhere for them to run and nowhere for them to hide.”

Leeto turned to the Goltar representative. “Nowhere to hide, that is, unless some of our members are assisting them.”

“We have done nothing to assist the Humans. We have followed the will of the council. Even when you brought Sansar Enkh here for your sham of a trial, we agreed to convict her.”

“You had to!” the Tortantula representative exclaimed. “She was guilty of uplifting a race that wasn’t ready.”

“That is true,” the Goltar representative replied, “which is why we voted to convict her. Some of the other evidence, though, was as see-through as an open portal, and just as leaky.” His body twitched. “That said, the Oogar representative is correct—this has become a very costly endeavor.”

“Have we heard anything from the Izlians?” Leeto asked, hoping to change the subject. “If they returned, we would have overwhelming forces to use against the Humans.”

“No, Speaker, we have not,” the Flatar representative noted. He also served as the council’s secretary and dealt with the council’s correspondence. “Our messages to them have been ignored, as have the emissaries we’ve sent to them. The only thing they’ve said is that they are in a period of mourning for Admiral Omega.”

“Have they said when it will end?”

“No,” the Flatar replied. “Only that it will end when it’s over.”

“Stupid Izlians,” the Besquith representative growled. “Perhaps we should remind them of their responsibilities once we have dealt with the Humans.”

Leeto smiled. She could always count on the Besquith to take the path of greatest destruction.

“You probably just want to eat one,” the Goka representative said.

“So what?” the Besquith asked, sneering. “Even if I do, what’s it to you?”

“Besides the fact that they’re poisonous, nothing,” the Goka relied. “On second thought, go ahead and have one. We’d probably be better off without you.”

“Okay, that’s it,” Leeto said. “Let’s try to remember we’re all on the same side here.”

“Are we?” the Goltar asked.

“Yes, we are,” Leeto replied firmly. “We are all on the side of profit, regardless of our points of view on the war. Now, I know this conflict has been divisive, but it is rapidly coming to a conclusion. General Peepo has nearly pacified Earth and is starting to meet her recruiting quotas. There are only a few places the Humans can run and hide, and they are rapidly disappearing. Once we destroy New Warsaw, the war will be over, and we can go back to maximum profiteering.”

That brought out smiles from around the table, even from the Oogar, and she quickly brought the meeting to a close.

Afterward, she hurried back to her chambers so she could draft a message to her mother. There was a courier ship leaving for Earth later that day, and she still had time to get it aboard.

Dear General Peepo,

My apologies that I didn’t send something sooner; I haven’t been feeling well lately.

We just concluded a council meeting, and there are cracks evident in our alliances. Some are whining about the cost and length of the operation against the Humans, and it is becoming hard to keep them all in line. The Goltar representative does his best to cause discontent, like always, but I am used to that. If they didn’t have…never mind, but at some time, we need to look at getting rid of the Goltar for good. Especially with what we have coming, we all need to be swimming in the same direction.

Speaking of which, the Sooloo have sent a second operative to make up for the failure of the first. They expect to have the information you are looking for very soon. They wouldn’t say how, just that they would report to you soon.

Good luck in your continued campaign. I hope it all comes to a successful completion soon.

Your daughter,

Leeto

* * *

EMS Pegasus, Between Emergence Point and Frost, Asyola Star System

“Captain Thibodeau on Manticore confirms all 120 drones are in the black,” Hoot said. “They are handing over control to us.”

“Roger that,” Alexis said. “Drone Control, you may commence operations.”

“Orders confirmed,” Drone Control replied. The 120 drones from Manticore suddenly changed course and swarmed over to join the 30 drones from Pegasus. The new force, 150 strong, then formed up into three groups of 50. Over the course of a few seconds, each group assumed a tight formation then followed the fleet, just behind the battleship Byczyna. “Ready.”

“Enemy has initiated drone launch,” Xander said. “Approximately 300 drones in the black.”

“Profile suggests Asha-class Izlian drones,” Abby said.

“Slow and uncreative,” Paka said.

Alexis smiled in reply. “Intel says the fleet is commanded by Zuul,” she said. The Zuul didn’t do a lot of space navy operations. She was certain the three carriers were loaners, while all the rest of the ships belonged to the Zuul merc company. The Izlians still hadn’t recovered from Alexis turning their beloved Admiral Omega into dissociated atoms. The floating gas bags would have had the drones in the black the minute she came out of hyperspace. So much the better.

<Seventy-five percent chance this will work.>

In part or completely?” Alexis asked.

<At least partial success. Only forty-two percent of total success, and a twenty percent chance of failure.>

Nothing comes without risk,” she replied. Alexis watched the tactical board for a minute and hissed between her teeth. That god-damned battleship. The Bakulu crew had Byczyna accelerating at maximum, producing a scorching 1.9 Gs of thrust. It was ironic the ship’s crew was 90% Bakulu, one of the most G-tolerant races in the galaxy. She imagined the huge mollusks were laughing and playing cards under that modest thrust.

“Enemy has commenced missile launch,” Abby said.

“Inform Glamdring and Cherry to prepare for screening operations,” Alexis ordered. She wished she hadn’t sent their third escort frigate, Excalibur, to the stargate, but it had to be done. She could well end up missing Secretariat as well before this day was over. “Cruisers, fall back; have the frigates move up to provide additional laser fire.” The Sword-class frigates only had a single 100-megawatt laser; it wasn’t designed for anti-missile fire. That was purely for show, anyway. She strongly suspected she knew what the missiles’ target was. The missiles and the hundreds of drones came at them like a cloud of angry hornets.

“Enemy missiles and drones in coast,” Abby said. “Estimate the missiles to enter terminal boost in two minutes. Byczyna standing by with countermeasures.”

Alexis merely nodded. She felt completely out of place behind the massive round bulk of the battleship, with the five cruisers ringed around it for defense. I hope this new doctrine works, she thought. The new fleet assignments kept her from getting much sleep on the jump to Asyola. Should she have taken both battleships? Should she have sent both with Cartwright and kept more battlecruisers instead? She was driving herself crazy with second guessing before the battle even began.

The clock ticked down as the missiles and drones coasted. After missiles expended their first stage they coasted, making them all but invisible unless you used active radar. If you did that, you’d find a few, and the rest would see your radar and use it to target you. The drones used a similar principle, though they were somewhat bigger targets and usually didn’t use expendable boosters. The Tri-V showed the fleet in formation as the clock reached zero.

“Missile plumes,” Flipper said.

Instantly the escorts opened up with their lasers. The Legend-class escort frigates mounted three 100-megawatt lasers on their sides so they could be used fore and aft. Being able to screen against missiles while retreating was often just as important as doing it while advancing. The lasers each possessed beam splitters and fired at a high rate. They could effectively engage twenty missiles a second with each laser. The single, newly-acquired Maki escort frigate, a Seed-class, possessed five lasers, though with lower output.

All five cruisers let loose a salvo of anti-missile missiles. The Tri-V tactical display showed a dizzying wave of crisscrossing beams as the two remaining escorts also tried to take out as many missiles as possible. The battleship’s own anti-missile lasers fired as well, and it had 240 of them. Only 100 could fire in the same direction at once, but that was still enough to tear massive holes in the accelerating missiles. The space between the enemy fleet and the Hussars became a field of blossoming explosions and flashing lasers. The interceptor missiles, low yield nuclear weapons, added to the maelstrom.

Now,” Alexis sent.

<Going.> Ghost replied.

As Alexis expected, the missiles all went for the biggest, juiciest target—the battleship. With only a pair of highly capable screening ships, she’d kept them aside, seemingly inviting a strike on the shiny new war machine. The Merc Guild happily obliged.

Missiles by the hundreds slammed into the battleship’s massively powerful shields. Shields which were focused on facing the attack they expected all along. Just as the missile storm was spending it’s fury, all the other Hussars ships surged forward as one.

Races that commonly used battleships employed them as mobile assault platforms. Ships used their shields and bulk to protect themselves in order to get closer to the enemy, at which point those ships would use their own weapons, supplemented by the battleships’, for maximum firepower. The Hussars weren’t other races.

The enemy fleet commander, a Zuul admiral with no major actions under his belt—and none against the Winged Hussars—floated in his CIC, muzzle hanging open as the battleship simply ate the missile storm and kept coming. The shields were nearly breached, but nearly isn’t good enough on a battleship. Captain Chigasoolu, schooled in the best way to use his new ship to help the Hussars, cut thrust and rotated his battleship to a new shield facing, and redirected power to those fresh shields. He couldn’t thrust toward the target anymore, but he still had the velocity he’d gained from the initial advance. Battleships fought better during coast, anyway; it gave them more options.

The Zuul admiral continued to stare in amazement as fourteen Winged Hussars warships raced around the bulk of the battleship and straight at his formation. He was caught completely off guard, and Zuul didn’t improvise very well. When he was informed the battleship was in range of the drones, he stuck with Izlian battle tactics—take out the battleships first.

He split the next missile wave between the advancing enemy fleet and the battleship, not completely able to ignore the fourteen enemy ships racing toward him. He outnumbered them nearly two to one, and even more in throw weight. However, they were coming at him awfully fast.

The Zuul drones flew through the Hussars formation without engaging in even a passing barrage. A few were spotted by the Human ships and ignored. Those were their orders. His ships had firing solutions on the advancing Humans. They began to exchange weapons fire.

<I have the enemy command ship identified.>

Excellent,” Alexis replied, “feed that data to Flipper.

“Captain!” Flipper yelled. “I have the enemy command ship pegged.”

“Afeeko, match bearings. Xander, charge the main gun, fire on charge. Full power!”

Pegasus rocked as three enemy missiles made it through its laser defenses. None penetrated her shields. Ships throughout the Hussars’ fleet were hit randomly. The missile barrage which could have done serious damage to several cruisers, or even crippled Pegasus, was instead not directed at any select targets. Alexis’ lips skinned back from her teeth in a feral grin as she felt the vibration of the ship with all three power plants thrumming at maximum output.

Overpowered thrusters fired, changing the ship’s heading by several degrees. Large flower-petal doors opened on her bow and exposed the already glowing muzzle of Pegasus’ main offensive weapon.

“Firing!” Xander called.

The ship’s lights dimmed slightly for a moment as a 40-terawatt, 50-millisecond pulse from her particle accelerator lanced out. The enemy command ship, a KL-class Bakulu-designed battlecruiser, was struck by the pulse, slightly off center. Her shields shorted out in less than three milliseconds, and 90% of the beam’s energy laced through the target. The KL-class battlecruiser was sliced nose to fusion nozzle as the direction of Pegasus’ rotation carried the beam up and away. The effect was like impaling a watermelon with a sword and ripping the blade up and out; huge chunks of molten deck plates flashed off, careening off the enemy frigates’ shields like fireflies dancing in the moonlight.

The command ship had been under 2.5 Gs of thrust in preparation for a devastating passing attack on the Hussars. One of her three fusion plants lost containment, its safeties blowing the baffle plates clear, and most of the plasma jetted out the side of the crippled ship. The two other engines continued thrusting at full power as the command pathways were gone. Not that it would have mattered—the particle beam had cut the CIC neatly in two, and the million-volt electrical plasma discharge of its passing had killed the command crew instantly. The engine thrust was enough to make the compromised hull fold in on itself, turning the battlecruiser into a macabre origami parody of its former greatness.

“Good hit,” Flipper said.

“Clean kill,” Abby verified, interpreting the data.

“All ships, fire,” Alexis ordered.

While the Crown-class cruisers lacked Pegasus’ 40-terawatt death ray, they did possess their own sting. The design, created by the genius of Taiki Sato, was inspired by the Egleesius-class. They even looked a little like miniature ones, right down to a smaller version of the Egleesius’ spinal mount. Their particle cannons were only one terawatt, but that was a weapon usually only found as bay weapons on battlecruisers and battleships. The Crown-class commanders were also masters of the Hussars tactic of combined selective fire.

The first salvo of three one-terawatt particle beams from Sir Barton, Omaha, and Affirmed all hit the same KL-class battlecruiser. They didn’t succeed in hitting the same shields, though two of the shots did and that one went down. The Sword-class frigate Goujian put her one-terawatt spinal-mounted laser directly through the downed shield, gouging into armor and tearing a 20-meter-deep, 100-meter-long crease in the battlecruiser’s side.

At the battleship, the second half-sized wave of missiles from the enemy ships streaked past the still-coasting drones and into the battleship’s threat box. The Byczyna’s defensive lasers lanced into the missile formation, taking out even more of them than the last time. Less than 100 missiles hit the battleship’s shields, weakening but not depleting them.

Controlling their drones from the three carriers, the enemy operators scanned the battleship for weaknesses as the attack progressed. They knew the original impact site was the weakest, and as they brought the drones back online, they began to maneuver them in that direction. With their tiny fusion torches burning once again, the drones could be targeted. The same lasers Byczyna had used against the missiles clawed at the hundreds of enemy drones. These were much more nimble targets, though, and few were destroyed. The drones began to pound at the already weakened shields with their integral one-gigawatt lasers. The shields weakened further.

“Captain,” Abby said, “Byczyna is about to lose her forward quadrant shield.”

“How many drones are left?” Paka asked.

“Over 250,” the SitCon replied.

“We can’t wait any longer,” Alexis said. “Drone control, do it.”

The enemy fleet, missing its command ship and struggling to fight off the powerful incoming attacks while dishing out their own, failed to notice that three of the Hussars’ frigates were giving strange readings. Despite being frigate sized, their power signatures were closer to a battlecruiser. The TacCom on one of the KL-class battlecruisers realized something was wrong when his one-terawatt particle beams appeared to pass right through one of the anomalous frigates. He was about to tell his captain when all hell broke loose.

The three “frigates” suddenly accelerated at 50 Gs, then 75…100…200 Gs! Sensor techs and TacComs all over the enemy fleet yelled in alarm. Firing solutions were redirected, and missiles launched to intercept the “frigates” which would be in their midst in only seconds. But the three frigates then…fell apart. They broke up into 145 drones which had been carefully flying in formation to appear like a frigate. A frigate with way too much power. The particle beam which passed through them had destroyed five of their number.

The Winged Hussars drones were notorious for their abilities. Many commanders who’d faced them commented they did things no other drones could do. It helped that they were controlled by an AI named Ghost.

The drones shot into the enemy formation at incredible speed—into and through the formation. Like the enemy drones, these had a mission. The commanders of the enemy carriers, nestled at the back of the fleet and carefully screened by escort frigates, and with the bulk of the other ships between them and the enemy, barely had time to realize they were fucked.

Half the Winged Hussars drones were outfitted with missiles this time. They darted through the screening escort frigates—which managed to take out six more—and unleashed their missiles. Of the 72 ship killers launched, 59 hit their targets; the first carrier was hit sixteen times, the second nineteen, and the last one an unfortunate twenty-four times, its defensive fire failing to kill a single missile.

The third carrier was torn apart by several of the Hussars custom, nuclear, sub-critical munitions called Squash Bombs. The first and second carriers’ shields were wrecked and their hulls damaged. The other 67 drones were equipped with a 50-megawatt, high-pulse-rate laser. They darted in on the crippled carriers and carved them up like a Christmas turkey as they passed by. The entire drone attack lasted three seconds.

Several hundred high tech drones, which had been moments from penetrating Byczyna’s shields, suddenly went into safe mode when their control signals cut off. SitCons on the beleaguered KL-class enemy battlecruisers tried vainly to regain control of the operator-less drones and save the attack against the battleship, but they’d never practiced that contingency. By the time the proper codes were entered, and computer processes dedicated to reactivating the drones, Byczyna had swept the drones from the black. Coasting powerless, they proved ridiculously easy targets.

“Drone control, well done,” Alexis said as her CIC command crew cheered. “Clear our targeting solution.”

“Moving drones clear,” Ghost answered.

“All ships, commence missile barrage. Byczyna, you are cleared to engage, as well.”

“The Izlians aren’t going to be happy,” Paka said. “Looks like those loaner carriers turned into keepers.”

A 50-terawatt particle beam from Byczyna turned one of the enemy KL-class battlecruisers into a rapidly dissipating ball of fire. At the same time, it started launching 100 missiles every ten seconds. Pegasus and the rest of the Hussars fleet also began launching missiles.

Our turn, Alexis thought. The two fleets met in fire and death.

* * *

One Kilometer West of Manaus, Main Continent, Chislaa

“Thank heaven you’re finally here,” a man was saying as Sansar walked up to where he was speaking with two of her troopers. “Them lizards are everywhere!” The man had obviously had better days—or weeks—as his clothes were ripped, his skin was scratched, and he was doing his best to chug an entire quart of water between sentences.

“Calm down,” Sansar said. “We got here as fast as we could.” She turned to Corporal Eric Chase who’d brought the man to where they were planning their assault on the city. “Where did you find him?”

“He was in the tree line,” Chase replied. “We didn’t get close enough for anyone in the city to see us; he came running to us when he heard us coming.”

Sansar turned back to the man. “Are these lizards about five and a half feet tall, with wide, flattened heads? Look a little like a dinosaur?”

“Yes! That’s them! They’re everywhere!”

“What do you mean by that? Can you give us details of where you saw them?”

“Well, they came in and landed at the starport after dropping some sort of rock just outside the city to show they could. Once the lizards hit the ground, they fanned out, seemingly everywhere, killing anyone that even looked like they were going to stand up to them! My wife was in the garden and stood up with a rake and one of them blasted her! Put a laser bolt right through her chest in front of my kids!”

“Okay, I need you to give me any sort of details that you can,” Sansar said. “Troop concentrations, defenses, anything like that. We know they brought down some big antiaircraft systems that they set up at the starport, which is why we didn’t land there. Did you see any defenses around the outside of the city?”

“I know they have some,” the man said. “After I ran away to the jungle, I got scared. I mean, being out here’s scary—there’s giant bugs out here!—so I tried to go back to the city, but they shot at me. So, I’ve been stuck here in this limbo—afraid to go further into the jungle, but unable to go back into the city.”

“Big bugs? We haven’t seen any bugs out here.”

“Yeah, there are some really big ones! At least three feet tall, they are. And they’ll swarm on you, if you aren’t careful. That’s the most dangerous thing on the planet. Well, second, now that them lizards are here.”

“What do you think, Mun?” Sansar asked. “Do you suppose that’s what’s following us?”

“Could be, ma’am. Hard to tell. If they were insects, though, that would make them harder to see on IR. Just like the damn MinSha.”

“What do the bugs look like?” Sansar asked the man.

“They look like big damn praying mantises,” he replied. “Three feet tall, like I told you.”

“So, like a MinSha?” Sansar asked.

“I don’t know what a damn MinSha is, but if it looks like a praying mantis, then yeah.”

“Do you suppose they brought some MinSha to track us and let them know we’re coming?” Mun asked.

“That’s what I’m worried about, but if they’re only three feet tall, that’s not a MinSha.”

“How long have these bugs been following you?” Sansar asked. “Were they here before the HecSha—I mean, the lizards—got here?”

“Yes, ma’am; they were here before. Didn’t you hear me say they were indigenous? They are. They were here when they set up the colony. I heard they had to kill lots of them when we got here. They don’t come around the city often, because we kill the ones that do.”

“Contact!” Corporal Akram Enkh transmitted. “I’ve got a group of HecSha moving through the jungle. Looks to be at least three of them.”

“Have they seen you?” Sansar asked.

“No,” Enkh replied. “Believe it or not, they were making more noise than Private Enkh and I were, and we were able to get into cover. It’s weird, ma’am; it’s almost like they were trying to be seen and heard. I don’t—oh, shit, there’s a second group of them that just popped up on my system. I can’t see them, but I’ve got IR signals. Looks like the first group are some kind of beaters, and the second group are catchers or shooters or something. They aren’t moving; they just appear to be waiting.”

“Can you tell what they’re trying to drive? Are they trying to drive you from cover?”

“No, ma’am. They’re coming from the wrong direction to see us—wait! There’s a third group coming, and there’s a big bunch of—you aren’t going to believe this—it looks like a herd of baby MinSha. The damn things are only like a meter tall, or maybe just a little under that.”

“I do believe that,” Sansar said. “We just—”

“Ma’am, sorry to interrupt, but there’s now a fourth group of the lizards, and they’re coming from the other direction. They’re definitely going to see us,” Enkh reported. “There are at least twenty of them, total, and probably closer to twenty-five, between the four groups. If they keep coming, they’re going to see us. There’s nowhere to run!”

* * *

Drop Ship Phoenix One, EMS Bucephalus, Approaching Talus

EMS Bucephalus shuddered, the dropship rocking in its cradle as the space battle for Talus’ orbitals raged. Chatter on the battle frequency was playing in his mind over his pinplants as he ran through his CASPer’s checklist.

“Shield 3 is down,” Bucephalus’ TacCom called. “Compensating overlaps.”

“Rotating facing,” the helmsman called.

Biter’s shields are down, they’ve lost power.”

“Drone Group One has engaged enemy escorts.”

“Roger that.” Jim recognized Captain Jormungd, commanding the squadron from Phaeton. “Orders to Hippogriff, fire on facing shields of that battleship in three…two…one…”

Jim pulled up the fleet net and watched, trying to understand what he was seeing. Jormungd’s Egleesius-class battle cruiser unleashed its 40-terawatt particle accelerator as Hippogriff also unleashed its pair of one-terawatt spinal mounts. All the weapons hit the alien battleship’s shields with a brilliant discharge. The shield on that facing went down, and the beams lanced into the ship. The images were digital recreations from radar and thermal instruments, so Jim wasn’t sure how much damage the ship took. The battleship was huge. His hands made fists, wishing he was in his Raknar as he remembered the battle at Karma.

“All drone groups, go!” Jormungd ordered. Hundreds of the Hussars drones flashed at the battleship and through the disabled shields. Laser fire from the battleship turned dozens into debris, but not enough to matter.

“Five of the enemy escorts are down,” SitCom reported. “Drone Group One is spent.”

Gallant Fox, we have moderate damage, one torch is out.”

Daisy, mayday, mayday, fusion containment is—” there was a blast of static, and a ship disappeared from the status display.

“Shit,” Jim said. He immediately remembered the terrible battle above Chimsa. They’d arrived in-system aboard Traveler in the middle of a huge space battle. A lone merc cruiser in the middle of the mayhem. It was a strikingly familiar situation.

“Watch that battlecruiser!”

“Got it!” An enemy ship flashed out.

Lubieszów, we’ve got these other battlecruisers. Their battleship is out of position for us.”

Hippogriff was just hit by a particle beam from the battleship!”

Hippogriff, report,” Captain Jormungd called.

“It’s bad,” the static-filled response came.

“Captain Corder, what’s your situation?”

“Reactor two was hit,” the captain reported. “Most of my engineering crew was killed. I can’t tell what’s going on down there.”

“Withdraw,” Jormungd said.

“Drones on target,” the TacCom said. The battleship lit up with detonations as the drones rained ship-killers against its unshielded hull. Dozens of squash bombs ripped massive gouges from the armor and exposed its insides.

“Bring us up into position for a shot at that opening,” Jormungd said.

“We’ve got the angle,” Corder said. “Taking the shot.” Crippled and venting plasma, Hippogriff fired her dual particle accelerator barbettes over and over again. With its shields down and hull ruptured, the particle beams sliced deeply into the battleship’s fuselage. Secondary explosions ripped through the huge ship, and its weapons fell silent.

Hippogriff is adrift,” TacCom said.

“Enemy is trying to break orbit.”

“Got it,” Jormungd said. “Muster damage control teams for Hippogriff and Biter. Let the enemy disengage, send word to Marmoset, Lobera, and Carnation that the remaining enemy fleet is attempting to retreat. We show one damaged battlecruiser, two cruisers, and an escort frigate coming their way.”

“Looks like we’ve got a go for our assault,” Captain Su said to Jim.

“Roger that, we are prepped for launch.” Jim checked the status board showing Talus’ orbitals. “What about the orbital defense platforms?”

Lubieszów is continuing her course toward the planet. Captain Fookoolu is going to offer the platform closest to your drop location a chance to surrender. I think the Bakulu are enjoying their new ship.”

“You sound like you don’t like it much.”

“I don’t,” Captain Su agreed. “My career has been commanding cruisers. Battleships make me nervous.”

After watching the two he’d seen here maul other ships, he could understand her feelings. Battleships treated cruisers like Splunk treated pepperonis. She was already nestled in the left leg of his Mk 7 CASPer, ready for action.

The orbital platforms went from red to yellow. “The stations have surrendered,” Captain Su confirmed. “Colonel Cartwright, you have a green light to drop.”

“Roger that.” He switched channels. “Cavaliers Actual to Gitmo Actual, over.”

“Gitmo Actual,” answered the deep voice of Colonel Dan Spence. “Go ahead, Jim.”

“Ready, Dan?”

“Oorah!” he said, echoed by over 60 voices.

Jim grinned. Gitmo’s Own was descended from the United States Marines, and you could tell by their traditions. This unit, though, didn’t go in for modern marine tactics; they were into orbital HALD drops. They also kept the tradition of honorable, tough-as-fucking-nails fighters.

“Cavaliers,” Jim called over the fleet open channel. “All up!”

“Lead the Charge!” his personal company called back. Jim grinned. It might not have the history of an Oorah, but it was still awesome in his book.

“Coordinates are set,” Captain Su said. “Prepare to launch.”

“Standing by,” Jim said. On the tactical map in his mind he could see Bucephalus and the Gitmo ship Fallujah skim the outer atmosphere. An animated model of their drop track moved toward their position. Simple, animated lines showed ground fire. Jim tried not to think about the lasers or missiles attempting to kill them. It was the reason the cruiser kept them on board as long as possible, to protect the dropships with its shields. Gs built quickly as the drop position approached.

“Launch,” Captain Su called.

Jim felt a jerking shudder as his dropship fell free of Bucephalus at the same time as the other three in his company. Jim rocked in his CASPer as he went from positive Gs to negative with a jolt. “Gah,” he said as the restraining straps bit into him. From the left leg of his suit he heard quiet snoring.

The flight of four dropships fell away from Bucephalus and spread out into a wide phalanx, dropping radar decoys as they bit into thicker atmosphere. Ionization built up, and he lost the feed from Bucephalus, though he still got data from the dropship showing their vessels and those of Gitmo’s Own. The last part of their flight got them just into the exosphere, at which point the pilot gave them the green light.

“Drop, drop, drop!” Top Akamai “Buddha” Kalawai’a called over the squadnet, and Jim tripped the release.

The dropship began firing the CASPers into the atmosphere.

* * *

Command Center, Underdeep, Paradise

“The invaders have found the second set of explosives,” the technician said, looking up from her display.

“Good,” Walker replied. He looked up at the Tri-V in time to see a MinSha with a scanner reaching up toward the camera. After a couple of seconds, the Tri-V went blank.

“Good?” asked Ferguson. “Isn’t that bad?”

“After someone just dropped a roof on you, wouldn’t you be extra cautious before you continued on, just to make sure they didn’t do it again?” Walker smiled as he indicated the Tri-V screen where the MinSha were again moving through the tunnels. It was the same company; either they were getting paid really well, or Peepo had them running scared of failure. Walker was willing to bet it was the latter. Too bad for them.

“So, those explosives were fake? You wanted them to find them?”

“Oh, no, they were real enough,” Walker replied with a chuckle. “If they hadn’t found them, we would have triggered them and collapsed the roof on them, again, but you’re right—we wanted them to find them.”

“I don’t get it,” Ferguson admitted.

“Okay,” Walker said, “let’s look at it from their perspective. We dropped a ceiling on them. They removed the debris and are moving forward again. What do you think they’re going to be looking for?”

“Us to do it again?”

“Yes,” Walker agreed. “And then what?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, if that’s all we did, it would show a certain lack of imagination and sophistication, right?” Ferguson still looked confused. “We have to assume the enemy leader isn’t stupid. She’s going to be asking, ‘What next?’ Even though she knows we can mine the roof again, she’s going to know that we know she’ll be on the lookout for that now, and it’s likely she’ll find our next set of explosives, which she did. She may start to feel comfortable, but if she’s smart, she’ll be cautious and worried about what’s next. She’ll be looking out for something else.” He leaned down to the technician. “Bring up the cavern monitors, please.”

The Tri-V screen divided into four views of a large cavern with a number of tunnels running off into the darkness. The cavern appeared empty on all the views. After a few moments, movement could be seen in the upper right quadrant as a MinSha reached the cavern and looked around.

“She doesn’t look very comfortable, does she?” Walker asked as the trooper’s eyes searched from side to side, her laser rifle jerking around at phantom targets. After about thirty seconds, a second MinSha joined her. This one had a scanner it used to survey as much of the cavern as it could from the mouth of the tunnel.

“Are they going to come in?” Mayor McGee asked, looking over Ferguson’s shoulder.

“They want to, really badly,” Walker said. “The cavern has tunnels that extend in a number of directions, so they know that if they can capture and hold it, we’ll have a harder time guarding the rest of the complex because we’ll have to defend more area.”

“So why don’t they charge in and take it?” she asked.

“Because the one with the sensor is getting the same reading from the roof of the cavern—which she can’t see clearly—as she did when she found our earlier trap, and she’s really worried that if she steps into the cavern, she’ll set off a bunch of explosives and bury herself. I expect she’s talking to her superiors, asking for guidance.”

“And what will that guidance be?” Ferguson asked.

“What would you do if you were the leader?” Walker asked. “Would you tell them to move forward, based on the report of what is probably a low-grade trooper and some sort of technician?”

“Hell, no. I’d want to send someone senior down to survey it before I made a decision on how to proceed.”

“And if they couldn’t give you the information you needed?”

“I’d probably go take a look myself, especially if there weren’t any actual shooting going on.”

Walker nodded. “Me, too.” He gave Ferguson a half smile. “Although, due to the nature of my work, I’d probably still go, even if there was shooting.” He indicated the Tri-V screen, where a number of MinSha were now jostling for position to look into the cavern. Several had high-powered flashlights and were scanning the ceiling. “Looks like it’s getting crowded. The senior people have arrived.”

“I take it you have a plan,” the mayor said. “What are you waiting for? If they disperse down those tunnels, they could get into some of the habitations in just minutes.”

“We have people in all the tunnels, just out of sight,” Walker replied. “As to what I’m looking for…there she is!” Walker exclaimed as a larger MinSha pushed its way to the front. The others backed off, except for two. The leader conversed with one of them while the other held a light on the ceiling.

“All Horde forces, stand by,” Walker said. He tapped the technician on the shoulder. “Blow it!”

The technician pressed a button and the ground vibrated underneath them.

“All Horde forces,” Walker transmitted again. “Move out!” He turned and started for the exit.

“What was that?” the mayor asked. “Where are you going?”

“We had another set of explosives hidden prior to the one they found. The transmitter and everything attached to it was dormant until they cut the power to the one they found, which activated the one they had already passed. They never went back and checked; they continued on from where they found the other trap. The explosives just dropped the roof of the passageway behind them, and now the leadership of that company—and probably most of its personnel—is either buried or trapped with no way out, and it’s going to take a long time for their Lumar friends to dig them out.” Walker chuckled. “And where am I going? I’m going to go take that MinSha colonel’s surrender.”

* * *

CIC, Maki Cruiser Spreading Shade, Paradise System

“There has been another setback,” the communications officer said.

“Now what?” Admiral Jarkyl asked. “Those are our best troops down there! Do not tell me there has been another problem! I’ll have your ears!”

He was nearly screaming by the time he finished, and the comms officer looked back down at his console. Being somewhat attached to his ears, he was unwilling to say any more.

“What?” the admiral asked after a few moments, once he’d calmed down a little. “Speak! I’m not going to cut off your ears.”

“The MinSha made it into the first main cavern, and they were about to move out toward the main dwelling areas, but then the tunnel collapsed behind them. Most of the battalion was buried.”

“How many are left?”

“We’re not entirely sure. Those that were left were forced to surrender, so the unit is a complete loss.”

The admiral turned to his SitCon. “What ground units do we have left?”

“On the transports?” the SitCon asked, not having to look at his slate. “None. That battalion was our reserve. Aside from the remains of a few Lumar units, who I wouldn’t trust to do much more than clear debris, there is nothing left. We have failed.”

Failed?” the admiral screamed. “We have not failed. We hold the orbitals, and if they won’t come out on their own, I will turn their holes into their graves. Bury them! Commence orbital bombardment now!”

“Before we resort to that,” the SitCon said. “There is still one other thing we could try…”

* * *

EMS Pegasus, Approaching Frost Orbit, Asyola Star System

Pegasus shuddered under six Gs of thrust as her anti-missile lasers blazed. Glamdring and Cherry struggled to control the huge number of missiles flying at the fleet. Both escorts were fully defensive, laying down an intense screen of anti-missile fire. The two fleets had done one pass at each other, trading weapons fire and raining missiles.

The Hussars got the better out of the exchange. While the cruisers Omaha and Macaque were disabled, and the frigate Crocus destroyed, the enemy fleet lost a battlecruiser, two frigates, and one of their light cruisers. Now both fleets struggled for position as they traded missile fire.

“That’s a lot of nukes,” Xander Opal, the TacCom said, gritting her teeth against the acceleration. The battlecruiser was swinging back around to help screen for the Byczyna.

I’m beginning to regret that fucking beast, Alexis thought. Despite the heavy screen, missiles peppered across the battleship’s shields. The huge ship’s 50 massive shield generators soaked up the damage without much difficulty, even though it couldn’t change facing as it thrust to avoid making an accidental atmospheric entry. It wouldn’t have been an entry, more like a fiery suicide.

“Losing fix on enemy positions,” Flipper said. “It’s almost a radiation storm.”

Alexis made a face as she watched the tactical display updating ship positions. The enemy fleet was a series of flashing symbols with ghostly traces, indicating the ship’s positions were uncertain and their movement plots were estimates. Her eyes narrowed as the seconds clicked on.

Status on the drones?” she asked Ghost.

<Mine have 25% F11 reserves. The ones from Manticore are being recovered.>

“Drone control,” she spoke, “dispatch drones on wide swing for sensor data.”

“Acknowledged.”

In space, the surviving drones from Pegasus instantly split and raced laterally to the fleet, forming a spider web with an expanding radius. Their acceleration was many times that of the fastest ship in the squadron. In less than a minute, the Tri-V lit up with fresh data, and it was nothing like the prediction.

“The enemy fleet has disengaged,” Paka said, examining the data. Alexis examined the information and had to admit her XO was right. The fucking Zuul were making a run for it.

“Predict and intercept,” Alexis ordered.

“Stand by,” Pleek said. The screen began to update with each Hussars ship’s projected course, in relation to the fleeing enemy. The only ships that could close before the enemy reached the stargate were Pegasus and the two escort frigates.

“Captain Kaskata on Secretariat is requesting instructions,” Hoot said.

The tactical display showed Secretariat and Excalibur holding highguard on the stargate. One Crown-class cruiser and a Legend-class escort frigate against the remnants of the Zuul fleet—two battlecruisers, six cruisers, one light cruiser, seven escort frigates, and three frigates. She was certain Captain Kaskata would do her best to hold the stargate. There weren’t many Maki in the Hussars, and she’d always worked twice as hard against that deficit. In the end, it would only mean they lost two more ships and 260 more lives. They didn’t want any of the ships getting out of the system to spread the word. Maybe there was another way around that.

“Send my regards and order Captain Kaskata to yield highguard.” Hoot nodded and sent the transmission. “Tell her to take Excalibur and swing wide but be in a position to match a possible assault by my force. Pleek, plot a combined fleet force minus Byczyna for the stargate, best speed.” Thrust fell off and Pegasus began to change course. “Hoot, order Captain Chigasoolu to assume a safe orbit around Frost out of range of any ground batteries but still able to intercept anyone who takes off.” Alexis looked at the tactical display of the stargate again. Already her two ships were maneuvering away as the enemy ships raced toward escape. She didn’t intend to grant them that. “Hoot, raise the gate master.”

“Standby,” the Buma comms officer said. He worked for a minute, his beak moving as he spoke into the radio. After several attempts, he looked at her and shook his huge feathery head. “No response, Captain.”

“What?” she said. “Try again.” He did, with the same results. “Can they hear us?”

“I’m using laser comms,” he said, “I have a proper handshake between our transceivers. They just aren’t responding.”

Alexis narrowed her eyes. She wouldn’t put it past whoever was in charge of the gate to deny any request she might make. The problem was that they would have to at least talk with her first before turning her down. Plus, there were always credits to do the talking. The gate masters were usually Sumatozou. The big pachyderms were nothing, if not greedy. She’d yet to meet one who didn’t have his or her price, even if that price might be astronomically large. She’d pay this time, too.

Ghost.

<Go ahead.>

Can you break into the stargate’s computer?

<Stand by.> Seconds ticked by as the AI worked its magic over the distance between Pegasus and the stargate’s control station. <I cannot link with the computer,> Ghost said finally. <I believe the physical connection has been severed.>

That is strange, isn’t it?

<Yes,> Ghost agreed. <I have never seen them do that before.>

Alexis looked at the course plot again. All their ships except the battleship and the damaged and disabled were now racing toward the stargate. So were the enemy. The computer plot showed them gaining, but the intercept was predicted well past the stargate. Her eyes flicked to the emergence point where the six merc cruisers and a dozen gunboats waited.

“What about the merc cruisers?” Paka asked.

Alexis smiled slightly. Paka was her best strategist, no doubt about it. The Veetanho could almost read Alexis’ mind. She needed to find time to talk to her XO again. It was high time she had her own command. She’d been offered Nuckelavee before they’d left New Warsaw, but Paka had refused.

“I was just thinking about that,” Alexis said.

“They’d be safer with Byczyna,” Paka suggested.

“Agreed. Hoot, order the mercs to begin falling toward Frost. There is one orbital defense station which appears active. Contact EMS Blarney Stone, give Colonel Stephen Desmond my regards and ask him if Micky Finn would be so kind as to give me that station intact.”

A man’s voice came over a moment later. “This is Micky Finn Actual, Colonel Cromwell. It would be me and my fine lads’ honor to wrap that station up in a bow and hand it to you.”

“My thanks, Colonel,” Alexis said with a grin. Desmond was a chronic alcoholic and a bit of a bore. He’d put the moves on her a few years ago in the most sleazy way possible. However, he’d accepted the no before she’d been forced to break his neck, so all was fair in love and mercenary combat. You couldn’t blame an alpha male for trying. She had complete confidence his three companies would deliver the station, no matter what.

“Continue intercept,” Alexis ordered the fleet. “They’ll either have to swing wide when the gate doesn’t open or start braking soon.” Only, they didn’t. As the minutes ticked by she got more and more suspicious. The enemy did stop accelerating, though they made no effort to slow or change course.

“One minute from gate intercept,” Pleek said.

“Something’s wrong,” Paka said.

“Yeah,” Alexis agreed. Only what? A window in the central Tri-V showed the cluster of ships and the asteroid ring which made up the stargate. Suddenly there was a distortion in the stargate and the stars swirled. “Son of a bitch,” she said. A few seconds later, the fleet was gone.

“How did they do that?” Xander asked.

“That is something I intend to find out,” Alexis said. “Order the fleet to brake and make course back to Frost, medium consumption maneuver. Pleek, I want to bring Pegasus alongside the station. Paka, contact marine country. Inform Lieutenant Williams I intend to have them board the stargate control station.”

As the fastest ship with a sizeable marine contingent, it only made sense for Pegasus to be the one to investigate the stargate. They were still two light seconds out from the stargate when the fleet flipped over and boosted back toward the planet. Pegasus flipped but did not slow until the others were already almost stopped and headed back.

“Bring us in quickly,” Alexis said.

“Prepare for high-G acceleration!” Pleek said over the ship-wide PA. Two seconds later Pegasus’ three fusion torches roared to life, and power poured from her engines. Had her captain wished it, they could have pushed the ancient ship over 20 Gs—far beyond the capabilities of even the best frigates in the galaxy. Pegasus was designed to fight a different kind of war, against a different kind of enemy, and with a different kind of crew. Pleek limited her acceleration to eight Gs.

I hate this part, Alexis thought as she was crushed deep into the gel pad of her command chair. She wasn’t getting any younger, and as she struggled for breath under the Oogar sitting on her chest, she wondered how much longer she could keep up with the kids.

She knew many in her crew were just as miserable. Some of the aliens, not so much. Quite a few Bakulu were crew on Pegasus, as well as Jeha and any number of other G-tolerant races. She glanced at the navigation data in her pinplants and counted the seconds.

Thrust cut and everyone in the CIC gasped in relief. Alexis did her best to look calm and composed. Remember, you’re Colonel Cromwell, she told herself and she worked to slow her breathing. Over five minutes at eight gravities was brutal. A fraction of a G returned as Pleek used the ship’s less powerful ion engines to scrub the last meters per second on approach.

“Lieutenant Williams,” Alexis called on the intraship comms, “are you ready?”

“Yes, Captain,” the marine commander replied, “I have Dragon Squad standing by with Raptor geared for backup.”

“Are you aware of the situation, Lieutenant?”

“I’ve been following along at home,” Williams said.

Alexis smirked, glad she’d stolen Lieutenant Matt Williams from Major Kratlik. The MinSha commander of the Hussars’ marines had been using Lieutenant Williams as her executive assistant. Poor use of talent, she thought. “Very good, Lieutenant. Please take your squad and find out what the fuck is going on over there.”

“Will do, Captain. ROE?”

“Your rules of engagement are to not fire unless fired upon.” There was silence for a few seconds during which Alexis noted the marine’s skiff departing. “I know, Lieutenant; I know. But we can’t roll into a stargate and start shooting the place up without justification. The Cartography Guild will have my ass for lunch if you do.”

“Understood, Captain.”

I hope so, she thought. “Ghost, any luck getting access?

<Negative. I have been working on the station’s systems since my first attempt failed. I can confirm the main computer network was physically severed from the physical gate function.>

Alexis absorbed that as she watched the marine’s skiff slip over to the station and move to one of the docking ports where it paused. She knew the lieutenant would be carefully examining the situation prior to attempting to dock. He wouldn’t risk his six troopers unless he was sure of what they’d be facing, while knowing that his captain had his back with all of Pegasus’ massive firepower.

“No sign of forced entry,” Williams broadcast. “Docking system is responding. We’re going to attempt a manual docking, just in case some kind of fuckery is underway.”

“Roger that,” Alexis replied. “We’re monitoring.”

The skiff moved and gently nudged against the docking collar. Nothing happened for a few seconds, then a series of lights came on around the docking module—indication that the skiff was locked in place.

“We’re aboard. No opposition. Initiating live feed.”

Seven small windows appeared within the large central Tri-V—one from each of the six marine troopers and Lieutenant Williams himself. Alexis looked at the interior of the docking module, a rather typical Union design you’d find in any of a thousand star systems. The seven CASPer-suited troopers used puffs of gas on maneuvering packs to move down the module and into the station. Which was where they found the first body.

“Xander, take manual on the anti-missile lasers,” Alexis ordered.

“Yes, ma’am,” the TacCom said. The anti-missile laser clusters were only 10-megawatts each, yet extremely accurate. When you were floating next to the only way the majority of her fleet could leave the system, you didn’t want to be firing 100-megawatt tactical batteries which were not as precise. They weren’t very powerful by comparison to Pegasus’ main armament, yet they could still carve up the station like a blowtorch did a marshmallow.

One of the marines moved close to the body, which was nearly torn to pieces and slowly spinning in zero gravity. It was an elSha, or rather used to be one. Alexis guessed the reptilian alien had been torn apart by someone or something with great physical power.

Other marines were moving deeper into the station and immediately found a slaughterhouse. Alexis watched as Lieutenant Williams supervised his marines and investigated all the inhabited areas of the stargate control complex. They moved from the zero-gravity part of the complex onto the gravity deck, and found the rest of the station staff, including the gate master. It was a Sumatozou, and, like all the rest of its staff, quite dead.

Entropy, Alexis thought, they killed everyone!

“All of this is being recorded?” she asked Paka.

“Yes, Captain,” her XO confirmed. “From the moment we first tried contacting them.”

The rest of the investigation took less than an hour. William’s tech specialist located the main computer racks and found where they’d been modified, cutting the connection to the gate’s control systems. A very simple slate was in place, generic in every way, and an equally simple program was installed on it. A battery-powered, ultra-high frequency receiver was attached and integrated with the slate’s inputs.

Someone sent a preprogrammed signal that was picked up by the receiver, which in turn sent a command to the slate to initiate its simple program. The program activated the gate for exactly one minute, then closed it.

“No other sign of sabotage exists,” Lieutenant Williams reported from the station. “The only thing amiss was the gate master’s office, which was ransacked. The safe has been broken into and emptied as well.”

“Why not rob him too?” Paka asked.

Alexis nodded. “After you have everything documented, return to Pegasus, Lieutenant. Good job.”

“Thank you, Captain,” he said. “Looks like whatever happened here, we just missed it.”

“Once the skiff is back aboard, set a low-G course back to Frost,” Alexis ordered Paka, who nodded in acknowledgement. She floated back to her ready room and closed the door, then called back to the fleet. Captain Kaskata was in charge. “Update, Captain?”

“We have full control of the orbitals,” the Maki captain replied. “We have Omaha and Macaque’s orbits stabilized. They have extensive damage and casualties.” Kaskata relayed the losses, and Alexis sighed. Still more Hussars dead. “As we feared, Crocus was a total loss. Some crew did manage to get out in their escape craft, so there’s that.”

“How did Colonel Desmond fair on the station?” she asked.

“No problems. The colonel took it with seven wounded. He said there was a mixed Jivool and Lumar defensive team. When the Jivool commander was killed, the Lumar stopped fighting.”

“Sounds like Lumar,” Alexis agreed. “Hoot,” she sent on her pinplants, “please link in the ground company commanders.”

“Right away, Captain.”

Through her pinplants, names and units began to appear. Colonel Andrew Sivula, Muerte Negra, a heavy assault unit with one company of CASPers. Colonel Frank Hart, Titty Twisters, standard assault, one company of CASPers. Colonel Rob Koppenhoefer with Dood Wraak out of South Africa, a standard assault unit with one company of CASPers and one of infantry. Lastly, Colonel Doug Triplett, Copperheads, a unit specializing in garrison composed of one company of CASPers and one company of infantry. A considerable force, though a little light on CASPers.

“Gentlemen,” she said, “we have space superiority and are ready to begin the assault. I understand Colonel Sivula will be taking overall command and has drawn up the assault order of battle.”

“Thank you, Colonel Cromwell,” Sivula said, a dark-skinned man with rather wide eyes and a slightly crazed look. His record as a commander was impeccable. “We are sorry for your losses in taking the orbitals and thank you for keeping us safe.”

“It’s our job,” she said. “We’ve lost a fair number of drones so we are going to task several shuttles from Manticore to provide you air support during your landing. If you would take charge now, please begin your landing.”

She listened with half an ear as Sivula detailed how the forces under his command would proceed. She set her pinplants to record the details to go back over later. In the forefront of her mind was the slaughter on the stargate control complex. The Zuul fleet had slaughtered everyone there. It was difficult to believe the Zuul did it on their own initiative. Zuul were good fighters, not good improvisors. She was sure that was why Peepo sent them here, a target where little opposition was expected.

There’s no fucking way they would have killed a gate master without orders, she thought. That meant Peepo ordered them to, and that meant Peepo either never planned for the Cartography Guild to find out, figured she could blame it on someone else, or just decided it was a price worth paying. Entropy, she thought. None of those were good options.

As Pegasus made her way back to Frost, the merc cruisers began their assault.

* * * * *


Chapter Six


Command Center, Underdeep, Paradise

“Did the MinSha surrender?” Mayor McGee asked as Walker returned to the command center.

“Yes, ma’am, they did.” He chuckled. “Some of the MinSha sort of…know…me. When they saw I had come to take their surrender, their commander didn’t have any problem surrendering.” He chuckled again. “If this goes on much longer, though, you’re going to need a larger jail or some sort of containment facility. We’ve now captured enough to fill all the jail cells Colonel Ferguson had available.”

“Do you think that’s really going to be an issue?”

Walker shook his head, sobering. “No, ma’am, I really don’t. They can’t have too many more units available. And if they did, it’s going to take a long time to dig out the last cave-in we dropped.”

“So, what do you think they’ll do? Give up and leave?”

“No, ma’am, the one thing I don’t think they’ll do is give up.” He shook his head. “I’m sorry, but I’m afraid they’ll probably take the next step.”

“You’re sorry?”

“Yes, ma’am. When this first began, I told you that if they couldn’t bring us in alive, they’d probably try to kill us. I tried to kill them slowly—to drag this out as long as I could—but I think they will soon move into the next phase of the operation.”

“So, what should we do?”

“We need to pull everyone as far back from the surface as possible. I have a feeling they will start lobbing bombs at us next. I don’t know whether they’ll be nukes or just kinetic weapons, but either way, if they can crack us open or nuke us down until we have nowhere else to go, they’re going to do so.”

“So, our only remaining defense is to cower behind tons of rock?” Ferguson asked.

“I wouldn’t say ‘cower’ so much as ‘ha ha, you can’t get us,’” Walker said, “but then again, I’ve always liked to taunt my enemies.” The smile was back, and he winked at the mayor.

The mayor smiled back. “So, what if—”

“Ma’am,” a technician interrupted. “We have reports of tremors!”

“The bombing has already begun!” Walker exclaimed. “We need to get everyone away from the surface, now!

“No—it’s not from the surface,” the tech replied. “The tremors are coming from the passageway to Dixia Cheng.”

Passageway to Dixia Cheng?” Walker asked. “You didn’t tell me there was a passageway to Dixia Cheng!”

“That’s because there isn’t one,” the mayor replied. “We started a tunnel to connect the cities—it was close to complete, but it’s not finished yet.”

“It sounds like someone on their side is working to complete it, ma’am,” the technician said. “I just had a report that there are vibrations, and some cracks are forming.”

Walker looked from the technician back to Ferguson. “Well, it looks like you just got your wish—the time for cowering is over. Have all your forces meet me there—the active defense of Underdeep is starting now!”

* * *

Near Sulphur Springs, Talus, Talus System

“Fighters!” Hargrave called.

“Cover!” Jim yelled and watched as his squad dove into ruined shops, houses, anything that would conceal their outlines. The alien sun—like Sol only brighter—burned high in the sky. A second later, his radar painted the screaming fighters coming in straight down from 20 kilometers above. They indiscriminately rained bombs of various types before climbing away. Sporadic and largely ineffective laser fire chased them back into the sky. They didn’t care about the city at all.

“That fucking air is kicking our asses!” Sergeant Jesus “Lamb” Ortega, his second squad sergeant, yelled. “Tucker took damage—he’s okay, but his suit is offline.”

Damn it, Jim thought, that’s the second in my platoon since landing, and one in Hargrave’s. “Roger that, Lamb. Get him somewhere safe while we try to get hold of this situation.” He switched channels. “Phaeton, this is Cartwright Actual.”

Phaeton SitCon, go ahead Cartwright.”

“We can’t get clear of this air attack. Can you relay to Gitmo for their situation?”

“They’ve reported the same, Cartwright,” was the immediate reply.

That fucking figures, Jim thought. His company had HALD dropped southeast of the Capital of Johnstown, some 250 kilometers away. The town of Sulphur Springs was their target; intel suggested it would be the main location of the enemy air power. That had proven incorrect. Enemy air was based out of a mountain location called Redoubt, where the terrain was too difficult to use drones.

Gitmo’s Own had dropped into the crossroads of Satan’s Byway and the Road to the Crystals, which ran north of his position. In his six hours on the ground, every attempt he’d made to break out of the city and into the open had been met with massive bombing attacks. The attacks were always the same—the dive bombers that just hit the Cavaliers. Jim was sure that if they could move out, a spread out and fast-moving formation would neutralize the enemy attacks.

“How about some drones, Phaeton?” Jim requested, not for the first time. He knew they’d been using them to suppress the orbital platforms. The Hussars didn’t have enough marines, so they’d been forced to use drones.

“Colonel Cartwright, this is Phaeton Actual.”

Captain Jormungd, Jim thought. “Go ahead, Captain.”

“Colonel, I’m going to order a squadron of drones from Wyvern to your position. We’ve been trying to suppress ground missile fire from the vicinity of Leaning Peak. If you can neutralize that launch site once we break you loose, we can land more troops there and open a second theater.”

“Colonel Gries is chomping at the bit, isn’t he?” Jim asked.

“You could say that,” Jormungd said.

“Stand by one,” Jim said and switched to his command channel. “Hargrave, what do you think?”

“Well,” Hargrave said from his hiding place a few blocks away, “we can go with this push, use the window those drones can give us to link up with Gitmo, or we can drop in Bravo Company on the site.”

Jim accessed his maps, generated from planetary records—such as they were. Talus was not an open society, so the maps were less than reliable. The missile base, Redoubt, only appeared as a place on the map, and not a precise location. Leaning Peak was supposed to be a mining complex. It was clear most of their intel was for shit. If he dropped in Major Alvarado with Bravo Company, they’d have to do their own close target acquisition…as they were dropping right onto an active missile base.

Jim’s company dropped where it had because they could tell from orbit there weren’t any defenses. He should have realized that likely meant it would be defended by aircraft. If the enemy air was coming out of Leaning Peak, that meant there were air defenses there. It would need to be taken overland.

“I say we go with this drone intercept to get us free.”

“I think you’re right,” Hargrave agreed. The man had been Jim’s mentor from the first day he’d taken command of the Cavaliers, and Jim trusted him more than anyone else alive.

“Let’s link up in that hotel a block over. Bring Tucker in his disabled suit; we’ll see if we can get them going.”

“Your little buddy?” Hargrave asked.

“Yup,” Jim said. He switched back to fleet. “Captain, we’ll take that raid. Give us an hour to get set.”

“Roger that, Colonel. We need to rearm and refuel those drones anyway.”

Jim cut the channel and used his pinplants to set a timer, then called his top sergeant. “Buddha, let’s get them moving. Double up on the down suits.”

* * *

The hotel was holed from an earlier bomb, which partially collapsed an entire wing of the structure. The town once supported a population of a hundred thousand or more, and a lot of the civilians were still there, hiding in the outskirts. There were bodies everywhere in the hotel—Human bodies. Jim tried not to look too closely. They were here to help these people…yet the Humans were dying by the hundreds.

When he got to the hotel, Hargrave’s platoon was already there. They’d occupied a ballroom—the huge room was at least fifty meters across. Despite the size, it was crowded now with thirty CASPers. Hargrave already had his men out of their damaged suits. As soon as Jim was inside, he popped the cockpit. The air smelled like rotten eggs and smoke. That explains the name, he thought. Two of his privates were carrying Tucker, still in his suit.

Splunk clambered up and into the open cockpit, looking around. Hargrave had his own cockpit open and waved to Jim.

“That suit,” Jim said and pointed with his CASPer’s arm.

“You got it Jim, <Skee!>” The Fae jumped from his cockpit onto another suit’s shoulder, across two more, and landed on the disabled armor’s back. The driver, Private Tucker, was already out, and the suit was lying face down. He had his personal assault rifle out and was looking around nervously. CASPer drivers never felt comfortable on a battlefield without their suits. It wasn’t natural.

Lamb’s squad was the last to arrive, now crowding the space with forty CASPers. Jim scanned his external feeds. He’d launched a pair of small surveillance drones to hover over the hotel and watch for attack. They were well-hidden in the big building, but also concentrated and potentially vulnerable. The enemy air commander would be very curious as to where the Humans had suddenly disappeared to.

Jim carefully walked his suit over to Hargrave. Buddha and Lamb came closer as well.

“It’s a miracle we haven’t lost anyone,” Hargrave said. Buddha and Lamb both nodded.

“If we can’t take out that air, we’re going to have to have some of the other companies force a landing,” Jim said. Everyone’s faces looked somber. An opposed landing would cost lives. Maybe a lot of them. Only half the company’s transports were designed to carry dropships, so the ones which weren’t would be forced to land the entire unit in their transport. Those would be big, fat, slow-moving targets.

“What’s the plan?” Lamb asked.

Jim explained how the task force commander, Captain Jormungd, was being heavily opposed by ground fire, in particular from the base at Leaning Peak. He also told them that Hargrave and he had agreed that dropping in another company on that target would probably be a disaster.

“So Jormungd is going to send a wave of drones in”—Jim checked his timer—“twenty-one minutes. We’ll make a move toward the edge of town, draw another attack, and the drones will chew that up. Then we make a run for Gitmo’s position and hopefully assault Leaning Peak together.” Buddha, Lamb, and Hargrave nodded in understanding.

Jim checked his suit’s endurance. Power was still at 90%, and jump juice was nearly full. It was a good thing; they had just over 100 kilometers to cover to get to Gitmo’s position. There, they could top off again from their reserve packs and push on to the objective. Once that was secured, he’d bring down dropships with another company and resupply. He could get an orbital supply drop, though those usually had a way of drawing unwanted attention.

Splunk jumped onto the edge of his cockpit and gave him a thumbs up. Jim looked over to see Tucker already climbing back into his CASPer. “Great job,” he said and held out a hand.

“No problem, <Skaa!>” she said and slapped him a low five. She looked over at the next suit where the driver was trying to get out and headed over immediately. Jim grinned and watched her go to work. Every one of his men he could see was grinning as well. They all loved the little Fae, and why wouldn’t they? She was like an entire squad of maintenance techs, and all it cost them was an occasional pack of pepperoni or meat snacks. Everyone in the Cavaliers usually packed a snack or two for her; a little bribery never hurt.

Everyone used the pause to see to any personal issues. Some needed to take a quick relief break, others just drank some water or munched a ration bar. Jim went around to all the men and said a word or two. Spirits were high now that they were finally taking the fight to the enemy.

As usual, Splunk didn’t disappoint. Jim’s clock still showed seven minutes remaining when she leaped into his cockpit and popped a cute-as-fuck salute. “All done, <Cheek!>

“Awesome!” Jim said and scratched between her ears. She gave a coo of appreciation and headed down inside the CASPer to his left leg where she had room. Safe and secure, she was ready for action. With five minutes left, Jim sealed his cockpit. “Everyone up; squads report,” he called over the squadnet.

“All ready,” Sergeant Ester “Buckshot” Martin called from Second Platoon, Second Squad.

“Ready,” Sergeant Willy “Wonka” Peskal said from Second Platoon, First Squad.

“Good to go,” Sergeant Lamb said, First Platoon, Second Squad.

“All squads check,” his top sergeant agreed. “Ready to go, Colonel.”

“By squads,” Jim ordered, “let’s go.”

As was tradition, Jim was the first out of the ballroom. A pair of young people were huddled near the hotel desk. When Jim came tromping out of the ballroom in his huge Mk 7 CASPer, they gawked at him in amazement.

“You here to get rid of the aliens?” the braver of the two asked.

“Yes, we are,” Jim said, waving the rest of his squad forward.

“You going to bring back the Council?” the other asked.

Jim accessed his pinplant data on Talus. The Council was the name of the planet’s leadership council. The article did some comparisons to the old Soviet Union’s Politburo. “Did the alien mercs remove this Council?” Jim asked.

“No,” the first boy answered, “there was a revolution a while before the aliens got here.”

“Yeah,” the other one said, “the aliens moved in while we were kinda fighting over a new government. The aliens have been talking to some of the old Council after they let them out of prison.”

Holy shit, Jim thought. This place is a mess. “We’re just here to get rid of the aliens,” Jim assured the two young people. “What you do with your planet is up to you.”

The looked at each and nodded, then they both left via another door.

“That was weird,” Hargrave said. He’d been just behind Jim.

“We knew this planet had issues,” Jim said. “We just didn’t know how big those issues were.” He looked back in the direction the two kids had disappeared and saw no signs of where they’d gone. Now that he thought about the interaction, he wondered if he’d made a mistake talking to them. Too late to worry about it now.

Out in the wide paved streets, the men broke into their squads and moved laterally on various roads toward the northeast. They reached the end of the town proper with one minute left on his clock.

“Cartwright Actual,” he called on the tactical channel, “we’re in position and standing by.” He switched back to the squadnet. “Cavaliers, get ready.” He and Buddha trotted out from under cover the second his counter reached zero, walking fifty meters past the edge of the town.

Jim tried to suppress his uneasiness at being out in the open. His cameras were on 360-degree mode, feeding a wraparound view into his mind through his pinplants. It took some getting used to, but he’d been doing it since his first days in a CASPer. Now he added the suit’s integral radar to the view and created a hybrid radar/visual overlay that included directly above them. The only problem was the suit’s radar range—less than two kilometers. It was going to be tight.

The radar pinged multiple contacts. Jim triggered his jumpjets and yelled “Incoming!” at the same time. Buddha was on his game, and he triggered his jumpjets at the same time Jim did. The two CASPers leaned back sharply, angling toward the town they’d just left. Jim guessed they were thirty meters away from where they started when the first bomb hit. The shockwaves slapped them like a flyswatter.

“Shit!” he yelled and fought the suit’s controls, trying to level his flight. The building he slammed into ended that effort. “Oof!” The Mk 7 CASPer weighed in at just over 500 kilograms. Composed of high-tech metal and carbon fiber alloys, it was designed to absorb a lot of damage—more damage than the brick building side he careened into. The wall crumbled, which was good, because Jim managed to hit it face first. He was slammed forward against his restraints as the CASPer tumbled into the building’s interior, coming to a stop half-embedded in a large wooden bureau.

“Not my finest move,” he mumbled as he extracted himself, rolling to the combat suit’s feet. The system’s diagnostics indicated his left elbow and right knee actuation systems were overstressed by 14 and 22 percent, respectfully. Not bad, considering. “Buddha, you okay?”

The Polynesian top sergeant had been with Cartwright’s longest next to Hargrave. His telltale on Jim’s command status board was green, as well as his bio readings. However, experience told him you could be hurt badly and have that little light still glowing green.

“A-okay, Jim,” Buddha said. “I controlled the roll and landed.”

Quit bragging. In the years he’d been a professional merc, Jim’s skill in the CASPer had continued to grow—at least he didn’t ruin a suit every time he went into combat, not anymore. That said, controlling the suit in radical flight was still a skill that eluded him. “Good job. I’ll join up as soon as I get out of this wrecked house.”

Jim looked around at the interior. The nearby dresser was empty, with all the drawers pulled out. Like everywhere else in Sulphur Springs, the evacuation was obvious and disorganized. Ordered by the aliens? Jim wondered. The city—with its long-abandoned air fields—certainly had the feeling of a trap. Probably a damned good thing the occupation force hadn’t thought to plant a nuke or two, otherwise there might be one less Horsemen just then. They probably thought we’d land here in force, and could then assault in force, Jim concluded.

He pushed back through the damaged wall out to where Corporal Seamus “Moose” Curran and Private Ventura were waiting.

“Good to go, boss?” Moose asked.

Jim flashed him a thumbs up. He focused his sensors into the sky. The enemy fighters were tearing away, climbing fast. A group of twenty silver flashes dove out of the sky after them. “Surprise, bitches,” Jim said as the Winged Hussars drones tore into the enemy fighters. What followed was an intense, minute-long dogfight.

Normal drones were no match for a well-manned atmospheric fighter. The variabilities of atmosphere and gravity, in addition to the limits on a drones’ performance in air, put the drones at a tactical disadvantage. But these weren’t regular drones. Jim had heard stories about the Hussars’ drone capabilities, not to mention Pegasus’. Now he understood their unique capabilities better. Ghost, the Hussar’s secret AI, no doubt programmed the drones itself, giving them unmatchable combat abilities.

Seventeen drones flashed back up toward space, leaving behind a dozen burning wrecks. The Cavaliers around Jim cheered and pumped their fists and weapons in the air.

“Let’s go!” Hargrave yelled over the squadnet and lifted off with a roar.

“You heard the XO,” Buddha said and shot into the sky. “Move it, Shovel Heads!” After a second, the rest of the Cavaliers, including Jim, were airborne.

The company of CASPers raced across the rolling hills east of Sulphur Springs. The powered armor could run at speeds approaching 40 kilometers per hour. Using their jumpjets in great, bounding leaps, that speed increased to 100 kilometers per hour. Of course, that was in the hands of a highly experienced operator.

The technique was simple; at least on paper it was simple. The CASPers had jets powered by a fuel known collectively as jump juice, a fuel whose formation had varied considerably over the century-long history of CASPers. In the early days it was a highly toxic hypergolic mix of hydrazine, and it was deadly if there was an accident. The modern version was oxygenated and highly refined kerosene. With a pair of thrusters in the back and one in the rear of each leg, they collectively provided enough thrust to propel the suit vertically for 100 meters before thermal safeties shut them down.

To move forward quickly, you leaned forward and fired your jumpjets for a hard two count, rocketing the suit into the air twenty or thirty meters, and forward at up to 100 kilometers per hour. You continued leaning forward, put one leg ahead and pulsed that jumpjet to slow the landing, bent your knees to absorb the impact, took a single stride, and fired the jets again for a hard two count. Boom, you were running like a superhero.

Yeah, easy, Jim thought as he did the best he could. He used a subroutine in his pinplants to help the process. Using the program, he could move in jumpjet-assisted bounds at maximum speed, providing the ground was flat, there was no wind, and the gravity a nominal one G. Talus had a lighter gravity, the ground was broken rolling hills, and there was a strong southerly wind.

“Son…of…a…bitch!” Jim yelled in time with his long powerful strides. He almost fell twice in the first kilometer, jumping badly and just catching himself. He forced the suit back on course. He was not going to crash or fall behind, because if he did they wouldn’t leave him, even if he ordered them to, and that would mean the company would get caught in the open. “Fuck…that!” he yelled in the cockpit as he landed and jumped again. Then again. And then again.

“I think I’m getting it,” he said and jumped again. He began to realize the reason he’d never mastered the bounding movement was necessity. His father, Thaddeus, often said that necessity was the mother of invention. In this case, it appeared to be the mother of a skill which had eluded him.

The kilometers raced by at 1.6 per minute. His suit’s computer, constantly monitoring all aspects of operation, estimated they were going 114 kph—better than what the manual said was possible. That was good, because the aliens in charge of planetary defense would know they’d just lost a dozen fighters and would respond quickly.

Jim’s forward-facing camera picked up movement high in the sky. A delta of three darts left contrails as they headed south toward Sulphur Springs. He tracked them through his bounding leaps; the delta stayed at an extreme altitude as it moved south, until he could see shapes falling away. A few seconds later Sulphur Springs was engulfed in a series of rolling explosions as the aliens carpet-bombed the city.

Entropy, he swore. They destroyed the entire city!

The CASPers played cat and mouse with the enemy for the hour it took Jim’s unit to reach Gitmo’s position. If their adversaries had bothered to come in force, they could have found Jim. Losing a dozen fighters in one fell swoop seemed to have dissuaded them from trying another mass air attack. Luckily, they didn’t seem to realize the Hussars’ drones had returned to space and were no longer available.

As they approached Gitmo’s, the Cavaliers came under their fellow unit’s air protection. Gitmo’s had dropped with air defense, albeit not a lot of it. A legacy of their USMC lineage, they liked to be prepared for everything. The Cavaliers only carried what they knew they would need. They hadn’t expected an air attack in force.

“Welcome, Colonel Cartwright,” Colonel Spence called as Jim’s Mk 7 CASPer bounded toward the defensive line.

“Colonel Spence,” Jim said, “call me Jim. How are you holding out?”

“Then call me Dan,” he replied, a smile in his voice. “We’re fine, just tired of hunkering down.”

“You’re better off here than Sulphur Springs,” Hargrave said. “They pasted it right after we broke out.”

“Hargrave, you old war dog,” Spence said and slapped his armored hand on Hargrave’s suit shoulder. “Been a long time.”

“Sure has,” Hargrave agreed. “I wanted to meet up while we were in New Warsaw and tip a few. Just never had the chance.”

“Things were too wild, and everything happened too fast,” Spence agreed.

“How long before you can pull out?” Jim asked, looking around. Gitmo’s Own had made good use of the rocky ground to create basic protective trenches, all excavated with high explosive charges. Their gig was to assault from orbit against heavily dug-in targets. Jim was sure that if they’d known about the missile site at Leaning Peak, Spence would have just dropped in on top of them and blown the place to hell.

Spence was quiet for a second, no doubt talking to his various lieutenants and his XO. “We can be ready to move in two minutes.”

Wow, Jim thought, these guys know how to move. “Roger that,” he said aloud, then switched to his squadnet. “Prepare to move!” In two minutes, both companies were ready to go, and they bounded up the road toward the mountains.

* * *

EMS Pegasus, Orbiting Frost, Asyola Star System

Alexis floated in her ready room, using her pinplants to sort reports on the conquest of Frost. It was a mixed lot. She’d lost three ships in dislodging the Zuul defenders; two disabled and one effectively wrecked. She’d expected to take losses, and all things considered, these were light. The two cruisers were a hard loss. They were repairable, but it meant docking them with Byczyna and hauling them back to New Warsaw. Both had high casualties, too.

The Bloom-class frigate Chrysanthemum was a loss. Her reactors had been destroyed, and the engineers who’d gone over to assess the ship said she also had damage to her central core. Basically, she’d been shot to shit, and her crew was all dead. Alexis had another frigate shove her out of orbit so the ship didn’t accidentally crash on an inhabited area. After the remaining consumables and ordinance was removed, Byczyna used the hulk for gunnery practice.

Moving on to the so-so news, she reviewed the report from Colonel Desmond of Micky Finn. After taking the orbiting defense platform with no losses, he’d moved on to the other two orbital facilities with only a few losses. That was good. Then he went with two Hussars frigates and their own ship, Blarney Stone, to assault the main space objective: Frost’s two shipyards.

As the task force approached the shipyards, they started taking fire from static defenses and had to fall back. Blarney Stone was a typical merc cruiser with average shields and average armor, and it wasn’t terribly maneuverable, either. The shipyard defenses were a pair of 500-gigawatt particle cannons and a slew of missile launchers. Under a screen from the frigates, all three ships fell back to reevaluate the operation. The follow-up to that was still under review.

Next, she pulled up the ground-side reports. The assault had landed in three phases. Overall command was with Colonel Andrew Sivula and his Muerte Negra heavy assault unit. His one company of CASPers was joined by Colonel Frank Hart’s Titty Twisters with another company of CASPers, and Colonel Emma Marchand’s Flambeaux Calais. The latter was a mixed command with an entire battalion of older CASPers, and another battalion of light-armored infantry. They landed just outside the industrial center of Touku.

Touku was also the location of Frost’s major starport, and they had expected the assault there would be the hardest. Sivula elected to land his own company right outside the starport, drawing the most enemy attention. Two companies of Jivool troopers immediately engaged and stalled his attack. He allowed himself to be pinned down and had Colonel Hart put his company down on the other side of the starport and hit the Jivool from behind.

When Colonel Marchand landed, her numerically superior forces overwhelmed the remaining defenses at the starport. Touku fell three hours after the initial landing, and the Jivool surrendered before Hart’s attack on their flank even materialized.

The second phase of the assault was against the capital of Trake, twenty kilometers east of Touku and on the edge of a sea which was iced over 2/3 of the year. It was led by Colonel Bayu Li with his Laut Yang Tenang. A mixed light assault unit composed of a battalion of light infantry with a single platoon of older CASPers for fire support, they hit the capital from a low ridgeline to the north. The city defenders, a single company of Aposa, along with some Besquith, were dug in on the west side, expecting a follow-up attack from Touku.

The aliens rushed to stop the attacking Laut Yang Tenang just as Colonel Enrico Sousa’s Espade Sangrenta landed where the aliens had originally expected the attack. Sousa’s troops were a garrison unit with a company of mixed aged CASPers and a company of armor. They’d trained to work the two disparate unit types in concert with each other and had developed a reputation for creative tactics. Once those two components were in place, Sousa landed his battalion of light infantry and air mobile artillery.

The fighting became house to house, with the city’s residents fleeing in disarray. However, Sousa’s infantry flooded into the city and soon engulfed the Aposa/Besquith forces. The Besquith managed to break out to the east, heading out over the ice, while the Aposa were isolated and hunted down. They fought to the last, like rats usually did.

Alexis noted the route and retreat of the Besquith and could see they were heading for a small fishing settlement built on the ice some thirty kilometers out in the ocean. She made a note to have Ghost send a squadron of drones to blow the wolves to hell. She wasn’t in the mood to play games.

While the capital was being mopped up, Colonel Doug Triplett’s Copperheads landed at the last objective, the fishing and industrial town of Taskah. There they found a single company of Lumar under the command of a squad of Veetanho. The Veetanho were unable to motivate the Lumar to engage an entire company of modern CASPers with another company of light infantry in backup and were easily captured.

Three days of light to moderate fighting, and Frost was in hand. The locals, who liked to call themselves Frosties, were proving extremely helpful in rounding up the occasional stray alien merc. Their defenders had fought to the last trying to hold the starport, and when they’d tried to surrender, the Veetanho had bombarded them from orbit. The Frosties weren’t too interested in negotiating with their invaders.

Alexis okayed the plan of having the Copperheads and Espade Sangrenta set up as long-term defense. The aliens generously donated a considerable amount of weapons systems for that effort. All that left was the entropy-cursed shipyards.

“Captain, do you have a second?”

Alexis glanced up to see Abby Smith floating by the door to her ready room.

“Sure, what can I do for you?”

“I was wondering if you had a plan for the shipyards yet?” the younger woman asked.

“I wish I did,” Alexis admitted. “We could just blow the shit out of them, but that doesn’t do us any real good.”

Abby nodded and held up a slate. “I’ve been working with Flipper to gather data on the shipyards. The defenses are fairly elaborate.” She activated the Tri-V on her slate which projected a view of the two facilities orbiting a half million kilometers above Frost, enjoying an unnaturally strong LaGrange point created by Frost’s three moons. She’d included such details as the power plants, shield generators, and the one thing that had eluded Alexis, the garrison headquarters.

“How did you find that?” Alexis asked, pointing at the marked garrison.

Abby grinned shyly. “I used the navigational telescope and just watched.”

“How long?”

“Oh, about eight hours?” Alexis gawked. “I did it while I was off duty.”

“Abby, you’re supposed to be resting in your off-duty time.”

“It was pretty restful,” the young lady said, then lost a battle with a yawn.

Alexis shook her head. She’d almost picked an older officer for SitCon when Glick went over to Lubieszów. Now she was glad she hadn’t. This young lady was brilliantly innovative, a trait Alexis highly valued in her command crew.

“I hope you aren’t mad I did this by myself,” Abby said.

“Mad? Abby, free thinking is one of the things you need as a Winged Hussar. There’s only one problem with you.”

“Ma’am?” she asked nervously.

“I’m going to have to give you your own ship sooner rather than later.” Abby blushed, making Alexis smile. “But for now, I’m impressed. I just need to see if I can put that data to good use.”

“Oh, I thought of that already.” Alexis blinked in surprise again, and Abby’s blush renewed. The captain made a “go ahead” gesture, and Abby quickly initiated a preprogrammed routine. “The problem is we need the yards,” Abby said, and Alexis nodded. “So, we can’t just blow them up, obviously. We also can’t risk losing ships getting in close. Well, we know where the garrison is now, so if we can get in there, we can give Colonel Desmond a refined target, so he doesn’t have to fly around the structures getting shot up.”

“Exactly,” Alexis said, eager to see what the woman had come up with.

“Well, their defenses are pretty good, but not as good as Byczyna’s.”

“Holy shit,” Alexis said, giving her forehead a little smack. “The damned battleship.”

“I know,” Abby said and laughed. “They’re a change for us in so many ways.”

Alexis sighed and berated herself for not thinking of it. The battleships had unbelievable shields. Pegasus sported four powerful 500/6 class multiphase shields, able to handle 3.5 terawatts of incoming fire on any individual facing. The damned battleship had 60 500/5 class multiphase shields. They couldn’t all overlap, of course, but still they could absorb 3 terawatts each, with a nominal overlap of 30 terawatts. They could take a hit from Pegasus’ main gun if they were expecting it.

However, the shipyards didn’t have a fraction of that firepower. They could rain everything they had on Byczyna until entropy took the universe, and the big fucker would just smile and ask for more.

“So, we just have Byczyna slide up to the space dock with Micky Finn in their boarding launches waiting. Once Byczyna is almost in contact with the space docks, Colonel Desmond swings around the battleship and hits his objectives.”

“Slicker than a Flatar’s ass,” Alexis said. It was Abby’s turn to blink. “Inside joke,” Alexis said. “Abby, I’m putting a commendation in your permanent file. This was simply fantastic thinking on your part.”

“I’m sure you would have come up with it,” Abby said shyly.

“Maybe,” Alexis admitted, “but for now we were just sitting here twiddling our thumbs. Good job.”

“Thanks, ma’am.”

“Bring that plan to Paka and have Hoot let Captain Chigasoolu know to get that tub moving.”

“Yes, ma’am,” she said, and saluted. Alexis would work to get her to stop doing that before long. It wasn’t really part of daily life on Pegasus, but Alexis knew a lot of other ship’s captains liked to see salutes. “Oh, one more thing?”

“Yes,” Alexis said.

Abby clicked the control on her slate, and the little Tri-V refocused on the shipyard. Four vessels were outlined. “These are nearly completed.”

“Well, well, well,” Alexis said. In the shipyards’ zero-G cradles were four Houston-class cruisers, the first of their class. She grinned, because the Winged Hussars had designed those ships. Apparently, the aliens had continued building them, probably planning to use them against the Humans. Surprise, assholes! she thought. The worm has turned.

* * *

It took an hour to organize the operation, but a day to get Byczyna into place. The great Thrush-class battleship was many things, but fast wasn’t one of them. Thrusting at a steady one G was the best it could manage, and maneuvers around a planet’s huge gravity well needed to proceed with caution. It was difficult to take back a mistake when a ship had so little extra power.

That slow plodding approach helped the rest of the ships involved in the operation take extra time to prepare. As Byczyna swung out of orbit around Frost and toward the shipyards, those in charge of the facility quickly realized they’d been undone. They unleashed everything they had at the battleship.

Not having to fight asymmetrical attacks, the battleship went into coast mode and slowly began spinning. Its 60 shields were set into overlapped zones; in addition, dozens of anti-missile laser batteries either swatted missiles out of the sky or just soaked up the damage. By the time the shield generators on the side facing the shipyards started to fail, they were already orbiting away from the fire.

Byczyna and the two available escort frigates, Glamdring and Cherry, approached the shipyards at a snail’s pace. Alexis watched from Frost orbit, with Pegasus far from the battle for a change. The tactics of this strange slow-paced space battle felt deeply wrong to Alexis. She’d led the way into battle countless times, and this time she was completely out of harm’s way.

<You could have taken command of the battleship.> Ghost said to her.

That isn’t how a good commander works,” she replied. Ghost had nothing more to offer.

As the slowly spinning battleship approached the shipyard, the defenders must have realized there was more to the Hussars’ tactics than just getting close enough to engage with pinpoint fire, as they’d been expecting. Instead the battleship was passing close aboard—so close their shields would brush. At that instant EMS Blarney Stone, escorted by Glamdring and Cherry, slid out from behind the battleship’s shields and through the shipyard’s.

The battleship fed detailed sensor data to Alexis, enabling her to watch as Blarney Stone discharged a swarm of boarding pods, while the defensive modules on the shipyard tried to fire at the lightly defended merc cruiser. The two escort frigates added their shields to the merc cruiser’s own, and the three ships continued right through the middle of the shipyard, making them even harder targets. Since the attackers were now inside the shipyard’s defenses, the defenders now risked firing on their own personnel.

A dizzying number of boarding pods flew in all directions, penetrating the shipyard’s facilities in dozens of places. As the three ships passed the far side of the shipyard and were at the most risk, the weapons fell silent as the defenders tried to repel the attackers.

“Estimate Mikey Finn lost two boarding pods,” Flipper reported.

“Noted,” Alexis said. Mickey Finn used a different type of pod than the Hussars employed that only carried three troopers each. While losing only two pods out of over two dozen was exceptional, it still meant six lives were snuffed out.

Then came the waiting. Even the powerful sensors of Byczyna, supplemented by Ghost’s abilities, weren’t enough to give any details on the battle raging in the shipyards. Minutes slowly ticked by, as they always did when people were fighting and dying. Twenty-nine minutes had passed when Colonel Desmond’s voice came over the radio.

“Micky Finn Actual to Pegasus.”

Pegasus Actual, go ahead Mickey Finn,” Alexis replied.

“The shipyard was defended by a shit-ton of Goka,” he reported. “Just like Golara, only more of them. It’s going to take a week to get all the splattered cockroach out of this place, but the shipyards are now in our hands.”

Alexis took a deep breath and let it out. “Thank you, Colonel. Excellent job.”

Frost was theirs.

* * *

One Kilometer West of Manaus, Main Continent, Chislaa

“There’s nowhere to run!” Corporal Enkh exclaimed.

“We’re coming,” Sansar said. “Alpha Company, on me.” She turned toward where her system indicated Corporal Enkh’s position was. “Hold your fire, Corporal, until you have—”

Chunk! Chunk! Chunk! A MAC began firing and was immediately joined by a second.

“Blue Skies!” Sansar swore. She wished she could jump, but the confines of the jungle prevented it. The troopers weren’t far, though, and within seconds her system began picking up laser fire ahead of her.

“Watch out!” she told her troops. “There are at least twenty HecSha in front of us, spread out in several groups. Jacobs, take your squad to the right; Staff Sergeant Enkh, take yours to the left. Second Platoon, we’ll hit them straight on. Follow me!”

At least one of the MACs was still firing periodically, and she slowed as she approached the firefight. The CASPers were louder than the lasers the HecSha were armed with, and a group of six spun around, diverting their fire from her troopers. With a thought, her reticle snapped to the head of the one in front of her as her MAC came up, and she fired twice. The second round missed; there wasn’t enough head left for it to hit, and the extra round smacked into the tree behind the corpse.

She popped open her laser shield as the group returned fire, mostly at her as she was in the lead, and the rest of the platoon finished the HecSha off. The platoon continued forward, and she could see where her troopers were, down in a small creek. It was only deep enough to submerge the CASPers to their waists, and both showed evidence being hit several times on their exposed portions.

Sansar sent half her remaining troops to the left as she charged the group on the right. The HecSha turned toward her and repositioned themselves behind the trees for cover. Racing toward the group, Sansar fired several times at one, but the reptile was fast and jumped back behind the tree. They might have had a chance to hold Sansar off, but then Jacobs’ squad crashed into them from behind. An arm blade burst through the chest of the HecSha she had targeted, then Jacobs stepped out from behind the tree.

“Clear here,” Jacobs announced, and Staff Sergeant Enkh reported the group on the left had been neutralized as well.

“There should be one more group,” Sansar said, continuing forward. “We need to keep them from escaping!” She led them forward again, but the fourth group could not be found.

“Got ’em!” Corporal Chase called. He sprinted off at a diagonal. “They’re running!”

Sansar raced after the trooper, the rest of the company strung out behind her, but they weren’t able to make up any ground on the HecSha. The lizards were fast and agile, darting between the trees as they fled toward the city. Sansar had just caught up with Corporal Chase as they reached the edge of the forest. Beyond the tree line was a half-kilometer-wide open area and then the wall of the city.

“No!” she yelled as Chase darted out into the open. Several defensive positions immediately opened up on him from the wall. He threw himself to the side, then rolled back to the cover of the trees as slugs and laser fire peppered the trees at the edge of the forest. The Horde troopers retreated farther into the forest. Sansar risked a last glance out at the city as the HecSha she’d been chasing made it to the wall and a door opened to let them in. She sighed—if the lizards didn’t know her forces were nearby before, they certainly did now. That was going to make things more difficult.

She walked back to where the medic was tending to Corporal Enkh.

“The private?” Sansar asked.

“Sorry, ma’am,” the medic, Sergeant Jonathan Wyatt, replied. “He was gone when I got to him. Took a laser through the head.”

“Damn,” Sansar said. “How are you, Corporal?”

“I’ll be fine, ma’am, although my CASPer will need some work. It’s hard to defend yourself when you’ve got lizards on every side.”

“I’m sure. Can you tell me a little more about what the lizards were doing?”

“All I can compare it to is a big game hunt, like they used to do back on Earth a long time ago. It looked like there were three groups driving the bugs toward the fourth group, and the fourth group looked like they were lined up to kill them all. I don’t know what the HecSha wanted the bugs for, but they wanted them dead.”

“There’s a dead one over there,” Sergeant Wyatt reported, pointing. “I saw it on my way in.”

Sansar walked over to the body and knelt next to it. Aside from the size and the fact that it was unarmed, the creature could have been a MinSha, like any of the ones she’d faced in battle. There was an uncanny resemblance. She shook her head. Parallel evolution was funny that way, sometimes.

* * *

Tunnels, Underdeep, Paradise

Walker looked down the tunnel to its end, twenty meters away. There hadn’t been time to do more than make a hasty barricade at the mouth of the tunnel where it joined into a large cavern before their time had run out. The spot where the tunnel was supposed to connect to the one coming from Dixia Cheng had already become a spider web of cracks, and drill bits had punched through several times.

It was even more ominous when the drilling stopped.

“Why’d they stop?” Walker asked.

“Probably because they’re about to dynamite it,” one of the locals said as he checked the laser pistol he’d brought. A former merc by the look of him, he’d probably come here to retire. Walker shook his head. Bad choice.

Although dynamite hadn’t been used in a century, Walker knew what he meant as the term remained in use—the enemy was about to blow the last bit connecting their passages. He was even more familiar with the term now. In addition to dropping the roof on the enemy several times during their defensive fight, the locals had drilled some holes of their own—a lot of holes—into the ceiling in front of the rock wall where the Merc Guild was tunneling through. When they opened the breach, Walker intended to drop the roof again on the first troopers through it. People on the pointy end of the spear often had a short lifespan…and he intended to shorten it even further for them here.

“What’s going to happen when they blow the wall?” Walker asked. Although he’d grown up on the planet, he’d never been allowed to go where they were actively mining, and his experience with underground blasting was limited to what they’d already done.

The former merc shrugged. “Depends,” he said then spat on the rocky floor. “They’ve probably already looked through their drill holes and know where we are. I suspect they’ll try to shape the blast to target as much of the force and rock shrapnel our way.”

“So, we should stay away from the mouth of the tunnel?” Walker asked.

“I would.”

Everyone cleared the mouth of the tunnel.

“No need to be there anyway,” the man said. “Once they blow it, they’ll have to move the debris out of the way and we’ll be able to shoot them while they’re doing it.”

“Sounds like you’ve done this before,” Walker said.

The man nodded. “Once or twice.” He chuckled. “It was a lot more fun doing it in a CASPer, though. Don’t suppose you want to trade?” He tapped his armor. “I’ll give you my armor and rifle for your suit.”

“Thanks,” Walker said, “but I think I’ll hold onto it for now.”

“Didn’t hurt to ask,” the man replied. “I just—”

The wall detonated down the passageway. Even from their position around the corner, Walker could feel the concussion through his CASPer and was happy to be inside the suit. He rounded the corner to begin shooting at the rubble movers but stopped, and his jaw dropped.

Fire!” he yelled as he brought up his MAC. There wouldn’t be time to shoot at the rubble movers, after all; there wouldn’t be any. The enemy troopers poured through the holes they’d created, not waiting to clear the passage. He saw the wires from their own explosives dangling from the ceiling—they’d obviously been cut by shrapnel from the blast—and he knew they’d never be able to stop all the Goka pouring through the breach in time.

* * *

Near Leaning Peak, Talus, Talus System

The noise dampening systems on his CASPer kept Jim from going deaf as another volley of artillery rolled in on their position. They moved up the ridgeline one bloody meter at a time for three hours, under constant bombardment and occasional direct fire by enemy Besquith troopers. The wolf-like aliens were tenacious fighters with little fear, and they hated Humans. Jim had more than a few past encounters with them.

“Buckshot here, Colonel!” Ester Martin called. By the sound of her voice, it wasn’t the first time, either. The powered armor suppressed the sounds of exploding ordnance, but that included all other sound if the explosion was loud enough.

“Go, Buckshot,” he said, afraid he was probably yelling.

“Feeding you fresh telemetry. We’ve got a pair of light V-TOL flyers over here; I think we found the scouts.”

Jim’s CASPer computer gave a ping to indicate new data, and the Tri-V battlespace updated. Two small flying craft were painted in the hollow of a hill. They were no bigger than riding mowers. The drone feeding the data zoomed in, and Jim saw they were piloted by Flatar.

Well that’s new, he thought. Probably the first time he’d personally encountered a Flatar without their eternal battle buddies, the Tortantula. Splunk perked up in his thigh compartment. She liked smashing the three-meter-wide giant spiders, with or without the chipmunk-like Flatar on their backs.

“Got it, Buckshot,” Jim said, “wait one.”

Crack-Boom! More artillery rolled in. He gritted his teeth as the ground heaved, and shockwaves rolled over them. The enemy knew more or less where they were, but not precisely, so they were pounding the entire area. The problem was, every time the Cavaliers or Gitmo’s Own moved up, the artillery followed. The Winged Hussars controlled the orbitals, which gave the Humans the high ground. However, the enemy was jamming the planet’s magnetosphere effectively, so the only observation possible was some radar and visuals. Storm clouds were dusting them with light snow, and the tiny drones explained why radar wasn’t working.

Hargrave had taken his personal squad into a tunnel network he’d found an hour ago. There’d been no word since then. Jim wasn’t terribly worried; Hargrave was a survivor. He’d lost four men since the mountain assault began, though, and his command suit’s computer was now constantly reminding him that most of their CASPers were below 30% endurance, and some were below 25%. Time was running out. As if to remind him further, a series of missiles roared into the sky to the north where their objective sat.

“Just a mining community, my ass,” he growled.

Jim plotted the flyers’ locations against where his three squads were positioned. As luck would have it, Second Squad was closest; however, Lamb was down two personnel. He’d been doing the majority of the scouting, and two of his remaining troopers were at 25% endurance. Jim’s own squad was next closest; they all had more than 30% endurance, and he’d taken no losses. The answer was obvious.

“Attention all squads,” Jim said and waited while their sergeants got everyone’s attention. “Observe the two ridges to the northeast in Sector 3-A, and northwest in Sector 5-A. Lamb, take your squad to 3-A, Buckshot, you make a run for 5-A. I’m going to take out those flyers when they reposition to watch your move.”

“We can do that,” Lamb said immediately.

“I’m sure you could,” Jim said, “but I’m doing it.”

“We got this,” Buddha said. “Do as the colonel says.”

“Yes, Colonel,” Buckshot and Lamb both said.

“Begin thirty seconds from my mark,” Jim said. “Mark!” He started a clock and switched to his own squad. “Okay, listen up. Moose, I want you to take Partlow, Ventura, and Stodden over there,” he said and highlighted a location on the computer battlespace. The data relayed to the troopers. “Buddha, take the rest of the squad; we’re going here.” He lit another location. “Everyone got it?” The squad signaled they did.

With time counting down, the ten CASPers moved along the bottom of the hill they were shielding behind as another salvo of rounds thundered in. They got on point exactly at the 30-second mark, and the other two squads began their advance.

Corporal Seamus “Moose” Curran had Private Stodden, known somewhat affectionately as Rick, launch a small drone. Rick’s suit was equipped as a scout and possessed better than average sensors and jumpjets, and it carried a brace of multi-use drones on its arm. The drone rocketed over the ridge in front of them and dove over the other side. It was just twenty-five centimeters long and presented almost no EM signature to speak of. The same couldn’t be said for the two Flatar-piloted-flyers.

They were the same ones Buckshot had spotted with her drone, but now they were split up facing northeast and northwest. Jim nodded; he’d guessed the recon craft likely had their own tiny drones out. Assault operations like this were often games of dueling drones.

“Set the diversion,” Jim ordered Rick.

“Roger that,” the private replied. The drone slipped between the two flyers and part way up the next ridgeline before setting down gracefully on a rock. “Firing,” Rick said. He activated one of the drone’s special features, and a second later its little capacitor power source shorted, and the machine exploded.

“Go,” Buddha ordered. Both squads activated their jumpjets and sailed toward the crest of the hill they’d been behind.

All ten of them landed, smooth as silk, even Jim. Over the last nine hours he’d gotten more practice with his jumpjets than all his time before as a merc. He had to admit, it showed. Below them in the next little valley, the two flyers had both spun around to face the same direction. A little curl of smoke was just visible where the drone had blown itself up. A completely successful diversion too, Jim noted. Buddha and Moose took shots with their shoulder-mounted MACs. The hypersonic projectiles were aimed at the tiny pilots, both of which were turned into red mist.

At least it was quick, Jim thought as the flyers skewed wildly and spun to the rocky ground. One of the two fanned flyers ingested a rock and the impeller exploded violently. The other died on impact.

“All squads, advance in bounds!” Jim called, immediately taking off. In one minute, they leaped over three tiny valleys without taking any enemy fire. Excellent, he thought and turned on the inter-unit channel. “Colonel Spence, come in.”

“Go, Colonel Cartwright.”

“We’ve broken though their outer defenses on the east flank.” He checked the battlespace on his Tri-V and saw structures just a kilometer away. “We are less than a minute from our assigned target.”

“Roger that,” Gitmo’s commander answered. “We think your breakthrough got their attention because the wolf bastards were about to move their artillery, and that gave us the break we needed.” Echoing weapons fire and the thuds of MACs could be heard over the radio. “We’ll have the arty in hand in just a few minutes.”

“Excellent news,” Jim said.

To the north, a pair of missiles roared into the sky as fast as lightning.

Jim scowled. A pair of jumps and the first structure was in view. It was a low-lying industrial building with a very un-industrial job. Its roof was alive with activity.

“Rick, give me eyes,” Jim called. The scout focused his better cameras, and Jim’s Tri-V relayed the image. Dozens of Besquith were busy moving heavy weapons while twice as many hulking four-armed Lumar were dragging sacks to stack along the wall. Jim guessed the sacks were heavy, because the Lumar were extraordinarily strong.

“Caught them unprepared,” Buddha said.

Jim nodded in his CASPer as he quickly evaluated the situation. The terrain between them and the building was 200 meters of mostly open, descending ground. A few rocks and scrub trees would provide precious little cover, and about as much concealment. The wolves might not be ready, but it wouldn’t stop them from chewing up Jim’s men before they could cross the 200 meters.

“What do you think, Buddha? Worth a run?”

“We’ll lose several,” his Hawaiian top sergeant said. Jim could hear the man shaking his head, even if he couldn’t see it. “We can do it, though. Better be soon.”

“No,” Jim said. They wanted to take the planet back from the aliens without chewing it to pieces. However, his men were worth more than some buildings. “Lamb, Buckshot, missiles if you please?”

“Good call,” Buddha said to him on their private command channel as the two sergeants ordered the troopers who had rocket launchers to put a salvo on target.

“Try and avoid the Lumar,” Jim added, and the sergeants acknowledged. They didn’t carry many of the short-range guided missiles, and they wouldn’t have much chance to use them later. Once they were in and among the buildings of the mining center, the missiles would be useless.

A dozen missiles from the two troopers roared out from their shoulder-mounted launchers. They designated their targets carefully. With only 200 meters to cross, the subsonic rounds were on target in less than three seconds.

Jim watched the enemy from the scout’s cameras and clearly saw when the Lumar noticed the rockets launching. To his surprise, they didn’t warn their Besquith superiors. Instead they yelled something in their own language and jumped over the side of the building. The Besquith looked on in surprise as their manual laborers abandoned the roof. A couple spotted the flash of the missiles and yelled, just as the ordnance landed on target.

The missiles rippled across the building’s roof, destroying the incomplete fortifications, weapons, and the Besquith. All that remained were torn apart Besquith and ruined or burning equipment. Jim nodded in satisfaction, then saw the Lumar were running toward his position as fast as they could. Uh oh, he thought.

He brought his gunnery system online and raised an arm-mounted minigun. The Lumar all carried sidearms and light armor, but that was it. There were maybe fifty Lumar, Jim noted, and they’d never survive to get within range of their small arms before the Cavaliers slaughtered them.

“Orders?” Buddha asked.

Damn it, Jim thought, I don’t want to kill them.

“Jim, wait, <Shaa!>

“What?” Jim asked. “Are you sure?”

“<Skee!>”

“Hold fire,” Jim called on the squadnet. A minute later the Lumar all came to a stop just short of the Cavaliers. One of their number stepped forward a few meters and held all four of his hands in the air.

“I/we surrender,” he said, Jim’s translator rendering it into halting English.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” Jim said. “Let them across the line,” he said, gesturing with his CASPer’s arm. He pointed at the leader who’d spoken and waved him over. The alien stopped just before Jim’s armor and bowed his head.

“Boom!” the alien said.

“Yes, we blew up the Besquith.”

“No,” the Lumar said and pointed at the burning building. “BOOM!” He gestured with his hands expansively, and Jim understood.

“Brace for blast!” he barked over the squadnet. As one, all the CASPers turned away from the burning structure and dropped to one knee, just as the building went up in a titanic explosion.

Without hesitation, most of the Lumar jumped over the ridge of the hill and took cover, although some just sheltered behind the larger CASPers as the shockwave slammed into the platoon.

“That was awesome!” Private Morty said from Jim’s Second Squad. Of course, he and Rick were the company’s two lovers of all things carnage, which was why Jim had them in separate squads.

“What was that?” Jim asked the Lumar as he got back to his feet. The alien leader seemed unaffected, and all his fellow Lumar were unharmed. No new status light changes were on Jim’s command channel either.

“Generators and fuel,” the Lumar said and pointed at the miniature mushroom cloud.

“Well, thank you for the warning,” Jim said.

The Lumar nodded. “We prisoners?”

“For now,” Jim agreed. “Why did you abandon the Besquith?”

“Them?” the Lumar asked gesturing back at the ruins. “They were not nice. They did not pay us on time. We owed them no loyalty.”

“That seems fair,” Jim said. “Would you like to work for us?”

The Lumar’s head came up in surprise. “You would employ us?”

“Yes,” Jim said, “I would, and I will pay you cash.” Jim had at least five million credits in chits back on Bucephalus. He’d happily pay the Lumar, especially if they had additional valuable information on their former employers. Besides, if Nigel could do it, he could, too.

“We were your enemy just minutes ago.”

“Yes,” Jim said, “and you were working for…bad people. But you know we are criminals to the Merc Guild?”

The Lumar smiled, its big square teeth flashing. “We do not care what the guild says, they treat us bad, too. I will work for you,” he said. “We can negotiate later.”

I think I understand why they get taken advantage of, Jim thought. They’re too trusting. He resolved to do something they might not be used to, treat them fairly. It seemed to be working for Nigel.

“What is your name, sir?” the Lumar asked.

“I am Colonel Cartwright, commander of Cartwright’s Cavaliers.”

The Lumar’s eyes got wider. “A Four Horsemen,” he said, and bowed slightly. “I have heard of you. Most of the galaxy has heard of you.”

“Good stuff, I hope.”

“Not all,” the Lumar admitted. “But that is not bad. You are known and feared.”

Better to be feared than to be discounted, Jim thought. “What is your name?”

“I am Japu, leader of Big Fist mercs.”

“Glad to meet you, Japu,” Jim said. “Now that you work for me, can you show us the nearest entrance to the facility where those missile launches came from?” As if on cue, another series of missiles roared up from their launch location further up the mountain.

“Yes,” Japu said. “There are several. The closest is some kilometers down the mountain in that direction.” He pointed back the way they’d come, and Jim moaned. They must have advanced right past it. “There is another that way, next to the Besquith garrison.”

“Where were you garrisoned?” Jim asked.

“We had tents in those trees,” Japu said and pointed. The trees were burning brightly, having been set afire by the generator building explosion.

“Everything you own is burned up, then,” Jim pointed out.

“Yes,” Japu said, “but we’ve been worse off.”

“How could you be worse off?”

“We still have clothing and weapons. And we are alive.”

“I see your point.” Jim made another note to be sure the Lumar got equipped again. The way other races treated them was deplorable. “I guess we’re going to have to go for the entrance by the Besquith garrison,” he said aloud. Now I regret using all those missiles, he thought.

There was a booming roar, and for a second, he thought another volley of rockets was launching. Instead, the entire mountain top exploded instead.

“Excellent,” Morty said.

“Well that was unexpected,” Buddha added. “I wonder what happened?”

“Jim, you there?”

“Hargrave!” Jim said. “Was that huge explosion you?”

“Yup,” Hargrave said. “That cave led up to the base of the missile launch facility. We had a short fight with some of the aliens guarding it, mostly a bunch of elSha and some Besquith, then we just rigged it and blew it all up.”

“Excellent!” Jim said. “I’m linking the details we have on the Besquith garrison down here. With you up the hill from them, I think we can pull off a nice two-front attack and neutralize them in no time.” He fed the data to Hargrave’s suit.

“Yeah, looks good from here. Give us a minute to set up, and we’ll jump them at the same time.”

Jim switched to the Hussars frequency. “Hussars Actual, the ground-based missile site has been neutralized. Inform Colonel Gries he can begin his landing.” Finally, we can move this thing along.

* * *

SOGA HQ, São Paulo, Brazil, Earth

Peepo looked at her slate in disgust. “Cracks in the alliance?” she asked it softly. “I’ll show them cracks.” She tossed the slate onto her desk. “And then, once this is over, anyone who was unsure of my leadership will find their way to a KzSha slave camp.”

She took a deep, centering breath and let it out slowly. Although most of her daughter’s letter was annoying, the part about the Sooloo was good news. All she needed was the location of New Warsaw, and this whole campaign would be over in the time it took to get her forces there.

* * * * *


Chapter Seven


Tunnels, Underdeep, Paradise

Walker fired, and the MAC round punched through the Goka. Not so the laser pistol of the miner next to him; it reflected off the shell of the next one. Walker shifted his aim and killed that one, too, but the deaths did nothing to stop the Goka advance. As the ones in front died, the ones behind them simply skittered across the walls and ceiling, making targeting difficult.

“We’ve got to blow those charges!” Walker yelled.

“The wires are disconnected!” the merc next to him yelled.

As more of the enemy troopers poured through the gap, Walker could see it was now or never—if they let the Goka push them back, they’d never be able to take back control from them.

“Get ready to follow me!” Walker yelled, pulling out his last K-bomb as he killed a Goka skittering toward him on the ceiling. He pitched the giant, CASPer-sized grenade toward the bigger of the two holes in the wall.

At least the Goka are keeping their heads down, Walker thought. Although that made them harder to kill, they couldn’t look up as well. The grenade detonated, stunning most of the unprotected people and Goka in the tunnel. He tapped his jumpjets just enough to get off the floor and slammed down on the Goka in front of him, crushing its head under the weight of his suit. He stomped on Goka troopers’ heads as he rushed forward, tapping his jumpjets as he went. Just to make sure.

He reached the wall as a big Goka was squeezing through, and he speared it from underneath with his arm blade, pinning it in place. The creature grabbed onto the blade and tried to pull itself within knife range, but Walker slammed the blade on his other arm through its head and the creature ceased moving. Using the big Goka as a plug for the gap, he grabbed the dead body of a second and forced it into the other hole the aliens were coming through. The wires from the charges hung tantalizingly close…if only he had a third hand to work with.

“Hurry!” Walker yelled as the pressure of the Goka pushing against the bodies of the troopers he held against the wall increased.

The former merc had shaken off the effects of the blast and ran toward him, dodging the Goka troopers that were still alive and fighting in the tunnel. He made it about halfway before one of the Goka spun on him and sliced through his right Achilles tendon with one of its knives. The miner hit the ground, and the alien was immediately on him, knives flashing.

“Help him!” Walker transmitted to the other two CASPers under his command, putting a laser targeting caret on the Goka. “I need the box the miner has.”

The closer of the two, Private Sean White, stepped forward and drove his arm blade through the Goka’s head, then raised his arm, lifting the creature off the man. White flicked the enemy trooper off his blade into the wall.

Before he could grab the box next to the obviously-dead miner, two of the Goka jumped on White’s CASPer, and Walker could see portions of his suit going red in Walker’s HUD as the Goka knives found joints and exposed systems.

Walker lost his balance as the Goka troops stopped pushing against him and began pulling, instead, trying to draw the bodies of the two Goka he was holding through the wall. He shifted his right arm blade and was able to jam it into a crack in the wall, holding that Goka in place, but the other one was pulled most of the way back through, and he went down to a knee, losing most of the leverage he had. He could feel the Goka on the other side of the wall tearing at the bodies of their comrades, dismembering them, and he knew he didn’t have long before the live Goka shredded the bodies and began attacking again.

Distracted by the CASPer, the Goka didn’t see Colonel Ferguson scoop up the box and race forward to where Walker was quickly losing his grip on the Goka bodies.

“Better hurry,” Walker said with a grunt as the Goka body was pulled from his left hand. He started to withdraw his hand from the hole, but several Goka grabbed his wrist and began pulling him back in. He fired the MAC on the arm several times, and the Goka pulling him were blown backward, freeing his arm.

He continued firing into the hole, once a second, but then lost his rhythm as the Goka pinned by his right arm blade disintegrated as it was cut apart from the other side. He fired his laser into the hole, knowing it was unlikely to kill any of them unless it hit them just right.

Walker glanced at Ferguson—he had one of the two wires connected—and two Goka reached through and grabbed his right arm, pulling him off balance. His MAC was pulled out of the hole on the left, and a Goka shot through it like a cockroach after a piece of cake left out on the counter.

“Run!” Walker yelled, knowing he couldn’t hold back the tide any longer.

“Can’t!” Ferguson replied. “There isn’t enough line. It will have to be detonated from here. Go!”

“Not leaving—” Walker stopped to spear the Goka that had come out of the hole as it spun to face him, and two more emerged, “—without you.”

“You have to!” Ferguson yelled as he stepped back from the Goka. Both wires were connected, and his thumb hovered over a red button. “We need you to run the defense. Go! Quickly! I’ll wait until you’re clear!”

Seeing he had no other choice, Walker tapped his jumpjets to give him a boost off the rock pile, then raced toward the tunnel exit. He kept one eye on Ferguson and braced himself as the security officer was swarmed by the Goka emerging from the wall. Ferguson pushed the button, and the end of the tunnel disappeared in the dust and fire from the blast.

Walker was blown forward off his feet, and he slammed his cheek into the Tri-V screen in front of him as he hit the floor face first.

He rose unsteadily to his feet and turned to find the passageway blocked with new rubble. The last Goka skittered up and jumped onto his right arm. He scraped it off with the arm blade on his left hand and stomped on its head. The exoskeleton snapped with a satisfying crack! and blood flew from under his boot.

He looked back at Ferguson’s cairn. The old merc had obviously done his job mining the ceiling, according to the merc credo, “There’s no kill like a good overkill.” The ceiling, along with nearly thirty feet of tunnel had completely collapsed, including much of the sandstone layer above it. The Goka would be a long time clearing the passageway.

He squared his shoulders as he walked toward the remaining defenders, who were milling around. Although they looked happy to be alive, he could see they had no idea of what to do next. He started issuing orders as he approached.

Ferguson’s sacrifice would not be in vain. The defense would continue.

* * *

CIC, Maki Cruiser Spreading Shade, Paradise System

“What do you mean, ‘The Goka have failed, too?’” the admiral screamed. “They were the only group to accomplish any of their objectives!”

The SitCon grunted something noncommittal, not wanting to answer the question. The city the Goka attacked had surrendered upon seeing the first black carapace and never offered a single shot fired in anger. Although he was confident the Goka troopers would have captured the city in the end, the fact that they had succeeded so quickly was because the Humans hadn’t tried to defend the city at all seemed to be lost on the admiral.

“All batteries, fire!” the admiral ordered. “Reduce them to rubble!”

“Firing,” the weapons officer replied.

Admiral Jarkyl’s tails twitched as he watched the missile launches on the tactical Tri-V screen. Now, finally, he would pay the humans back for their temerity.

* * *

Leaning Peak, Talus, Talus Star System

Colonel Jim Cartwright was out of his Mk 7 CASPer for the first time in two days. He’d gotten a four-hour nap and was now standing inside a half-collapsed school auditorium, mechanically eating a field sandwich while watching the tableau of conquest unfold.

His XO, Lieutenant Colonel Ezekiel Hargrave, was overseeing an improvised trial. Twenty locals, picked by those not involved with the aliens, were trying nearly 100 of their own for treason against their fellow citizens. The prosecution was being handled by a local representative named Avery Bates. He’d apparently been a popular man locally who’d once owned a mine before the aliens invaded.

“This is bad.”

Jim turned and saw his top sergeant, Buddha, also watching. He was drinking a protein shake, one of the other field rations. Buddha was a big man, and casual observers might think he was overweight, like his commander. Jim had been fat his whole life, and even after years as a merc, he continued to struggle with it. Buddha simply had the physique typical of his Polynesian ancestry, a rather round torso, but with considerable muscle under it.

“I know,” Jim said and shook his head, “but what can I do about it? These people have a right to rule themselves.”

“They’re going to kill those people,” Buddha said. Both still wore their haptic suits, with a light plastic rain jacket and a hat. The former mining town of Leaning Peak was more than 2,000 meters above sea level, and rain mixed with snow was falling. The temperature hovered just above one degree Celsius. Jim watched the “trial” continuing, with all the accused zip-tied to their chairs as the accusers testified, one after another. Hargrave was presiding over the event while Colonel Spence from Gitmo’s Own acted as defense counsel.

Jim didn’t answer his top sergeant, because he didn’t know what to say. The group of prisoners had cooperated with the occupying alien forces, and many of them also were part of the Council, the secretive organization which had run the planet’s previous government. Jim was a little uncertain of just how and why these Council members managed to avoid being caught, and how the alien occupiers used them to try and run the planet. He was clear on the fact that the residents of Leaning Peak wanted them dead.

“This isn’t the kind of stuff we’ve ever been involved in,” Jim eventually said. “Mercs aren’t soldiers. We don’t have the body of laws that the military used to have back before first contact.” He wondered how Earth was faring under alien occupation and hoped they’d finish on Talus in time to move onto that final objective. And then what? a little voice asked in the back of his mind. He had no clue.

Jim went out into the former parking garage, which was currently a combined barracks and maintenance center. Once they’d finished neutralizing the Besquith resistance, Captain Su began sending down the remainder of the Cavaliers’ forces. After Bravo and Charlie Companies were on the ground, two dropships full of maintenance crew and ordnance came down. Across the street, a mechanical maintenance company served the same purpose for Gitmo’s Own.

The Cavaliers’ maintenance teams were swarming over Alpha Company. Everything from simple refueling and rearming to major repairs were underway. Splunk was sitting on the shoulder of Private Ventura’s Mk 8 CASPer, munching a pepperoni and watching a pair of techs troubleshooting the computer. Ventura had taken a non-lethal hit, but it had screwed up the computer. Splunk had performed a field repair, and now the crew was trying to reverse the Fae’s repair and bring the suit back into normal operation.

As he walked past, personnel waved, nodded, and occasionally saluted. Jim was sure to give each his attention. The company held him in high regard, according to Hargrave. Considering he started as an 18-year-old fat kid with zero experience, that was quite the accomplishment.

Off to one side were the Lumar of Big Fist, with their commander, Japu. They’d scavenged some of the equipment formerly belonging to their ex-merc commanders, the Besquith. They were chatting and eating and seemed in good cheer. Japu waved with two of his four hands as Jim walked by. They were amiable beings and had helped mop up their former allies. Still, Jim’s people were keeping an eye on them. Just in case.

Finally, at the far end of the area a pair of medics were zipping up a body bag. Jim stopped to watch, his jaw muscles bunching as he ground his teeth. The Cavaliers had lost four men between the landing and the assault on Leaning Peak—light losses by any estimate. Jim had learned a lot of things from his father, and one of those was that no loss was acceptable.

The names were in a special file in his pinplants. From First Platoon, Privates Scott Atkins and Bill Bradford, Second Squad. From Second Platoon, Private Phil Acey, First Squad, and Curtis Haden, Second Squad.

“You okay, Colonel?”

Jim realized he’d just been staring off into space, and one of the medics had spoken to him. He used his pinplants to put a name to the face: Lieutenant Dustin Hoagland, combat nurse/medic, Alpha Company. He was a little embarrassed he didn’t already know that, but a lot of people had been hired while he was off looking for Raknar secrets.

“I’m fine, Lieutenant Hoagland.”

The man looked from Jim to the line of four body bags, then spoke to him again. “They all died quickly,” he said.

“They shouldn’t have had to die at all,” Jim said, scowling.

“I-I’m sorry, sir,” the medic said, “I didn’t mean to mis-speak.”

Jim looked at the man, ten years older than him by his file, and felt humbled. “You didn’t mis-speak, Lieutenant. I just meant that I hate losing any men and feel like I failed when it happens.”

“From what I heard, that we only lost four is an accomplishment.”

Jim didn’t entirely agree, but there was some truth to it. Considering they’d faced a prepared, numerically superior enemy, the losses were light. Gitmo’s Own had lost six. “Any more wounded?”

“Just a few minor ones,” Hoagland said. “All were treated without nano-therapy.”

“Very well,” Jim said. “Thanks, Lieutenant.” The man gave him a quick little salute, and Jim moved out through the door.

The weather was still trying to make up its mind if it would rain or snow. It was cold, but he could ignore the cold. The town of Leaning Peak was somewhat worse for wear. The damage wasn’t extreme, and most was caused by the aliens. Jim had resisted using heavy weapons; the aliens had not.

The citizens had all sheltered in place when the Cavaliers advanced through the town center. Gitmo’s swept around the east, hugging the mountain edge to flank the last of the alien defenders. The Besquith commander unleashed multiple waves of rockets on the town, trying to flush the Cavaliers. They had missed the mercs entirely and destroyed dozens of homes in the process.

There was a crowd of men, women, and children sitting around the outside of the Cavaliers’ area, all waiting. Jim went over to them. “Are you people okay?”

“Are you going to kill my daddy?” a boy of maybe five asked.

“I’m not going to kill anyone,” Jim replied. “We’re just trying to make sure the trial is fair.”

“But our daddy didn’t do anything,” the child persisted.

Jim looked at the kid for a moment. He was standing next to a woman in her thirties who sat on the curb. She was holding a younger girl, perhaps three years old, who looked up at him with big scared eyes. Jim felt like an asshole.

“What does your daddy do?” Jim asked.

“He works on computers,” the boy said. Jim looked questioningly at the woman, obviously the mother.

“He’s a data engineer,” she said.

“Why was he working for the Council?” Jim asked.

“Because they had us locked up and said they’d kill me and the kids,” she said.

Jim blinked in confusion for a second. “Are you saying the Council kept you as hostages?” The woman nodded, and her kids were silent. “How many of you were hostages?” Jim asked. Every hand went up. Son of a bitch, he thought. “Didn’t the people we helped get rid of the aliens ask about that?”

“They don’t give a fuck,” someone said. The crowd mumbled their approval.

“Yeah?” Jim asked. “Well, I do.” The men and women began to move around Jim, curious.

“You didn’t know?” one woman asked him.

“No,” Jim said, furious.

“Will you help?” the first woman asked.

“Give me the names of all your people in there,” Jim said, and started a list.

When Jim marched into the auditorium, Hargrave looked up from the slate he was using to take notes. He immediately noticed the expression on Jim’s face, and saw four men from Jim’s squad were behind him, all armed with laser rifles. Buddha was there, too, though armed only with a sidearm.

Avery Bates stopped in midsentence and looked angrily at Jim. “What is the meaning of this, Cartwright?” It was clear he considered the interruption a challenge to his newfound authority. Negotiating the nature of the trial had been a difficult thing.

“That’s Colonel Cartwright to you, Bates,” Jim snapped. He went to the men and women all zip-tied to the auditorium chairs. “If you hear your name, acknowledge.” He used his pinplants to begin listing names. “Allens, Edgar, G.” A man nodded his head. “Ayers, Ted, B.”

“What is the meaning of this?” Bates demanded. “We were assured that you mercenaries would let us handle our own trials.”

“They were to be fair trials,” Jim said, and pointed to the line of prisoners who now watched him with laser intensity. “I’ve been told many of these people only worked for the aliens because their family members were held.”

“They’re traitors, what difference does it make?” Bates demanded.

“A fucking lot,” Hargrave snapped. “What would you do if your family was being held at gunpoint?” Bates glared at Hargrave, who nodded. “Yeah, that’s what I thought. Go ahead, Colonel.”

Jim nodded and picked up his list. As each man or woman was identified, one of the troopers with Jim went over and cut the zip-ties binding them. By the time he was finished, only twenty-three of the original 100 were left. “You men and women are free to go,” Jim said.

The 77 men and women turned around and ran up the steps to where their families were waiting, tears of joy streaming down their faces. Jim nodded as a huge weight was lifted from his chest.

“How do you know if any of them cooperated voluntarily?” asked Bates.

“We have a way of doing things in my country,” Jim said. “Better ten guilty men go free than one innocent man go to jail.”

“Let alone be put to death,” Buddha added.

Jim glanced at his top sergeant and nodded. “Indeed.” He turned back to Avery Bates. “You can proceed with your trial, Mr. Bates.”

“We can always settle up later,” one of the men next to Bates said in a stage whisper.

Jim immediately rounded on the man. “Oh, you go right ahead, and we’ll deal with you ourselves.”

“Big man, Mister Merc,” the man said, looking down his nose at Jim. “You’ll be gone eventually.”

Jim narrowed his eyes at the man, but the bastard had a point. The Cavaliers and the other merc companies would finish the conquest and then leave. What could he do about it? He looked at the reunited families, all holding each other and crying over their unexpected freedom. Then an idea came to him. “Top?”

“Sir?” Buddha replied.

“We have all the arms taken from the wolves, right? What’s the condition and count?”

“Yes, sir, all stored and reviewed. Armorers report 219 functional weapons, including 92 hand weapons, 111 long arms, and sixteen heavy weapons, as well as a large supply of ammo.”

“Very good. See that all those men and women are armed as they wish,” Jim said, pointing at the newly released colonists.

“What?” Bates cried out. “You promised us those weapons.”

“I made no specific promise,” Jim replied, “only that they’d be turned over for your defense. As it appears, some of your own people will need to be defended from you. They need them more.”

“You can’t do that,” Bates growled and came around the table toward Jim.

Jim reached for his GP-90, but before his hand reached the weapon, Buddha and Corporal Moose stepped in front of their commander, both with weapons in hand.

“You should seriously consider your next action,” Jim said, his voice low and menacing. The room was deathly silent as the two men locked eyes. Jim was concerned about what might happen, though not afraid. He’d been through far more desperate standoffs in his short merc career. Even though there was a pistol on the man’s belt, Jim knew Bates would be dead before he could get his weapon clear.

After a long moment, Bates cursed and returned to the desk he’d been using to try the prisoners. Jim nodded to his men, who also returned to their positions. “Complete the trials,” Jim told Hargrave. He noticed his XO’s hand was on his own sidearm under the table where he’d remained seated during the entire exchange.

“Yes, sir. Mr. Bates, you were saying?”

Jim moved away, back toward the garrison area. Buddha patted Jim on his shoulder and gave him a slow, respectful nod. “Well done,” he said quietly.

Jim gave him a little smile as he moved on. As he reached the top of the auditorium, the crowd of families pressed in to thank him. He shook a few hands, patted some backs, and assured them that he’d, “Only done what justice demanded.”

“Are you really going to arm us?” one man asked.

“Yes,” Jim assured him. “Just remember that this imparts a responsibility on you. Remember the mercy I gave you,” he said, looking at the men and women he’d freed. “Violence is easy; mercy is hard.”

He disengaged from the families and went to the repair area to check on progress. He found most of the work completed, and men getting back into their suits. The technical sergeant confirmed that all the suits were operational, and another resupply dropship was due in only five minutes.

“Order the company to prepare to move,” Jim ordered. He went to his own CASPer and reached inside the open cockpit to trigger the startup sequence. Splunk was perched on the suit’s shoulder, looking out into the afternoon. The precipitation had turned from rain mixed with snow to merely snow. It would likely make combat more complicated as they moved onto their next objective, Redoubt.

At first Jim thought the Fae was watching the weather, then he saw she wasn’t really focusing on anything. She was staring off to the west as if she could see something he couldn’t. “You okay?” He had to ask her a second time before she slowly looked down at him.

“Not sure, Jim, <Pree!>

He looked at his friend for a long minute, then looked at where she was staring. All he saw was the falling snow.

* * *

Winged Hussars Prime Base, New Warsaw System

“There you go, Dr. Sato,” the marine said as he coded open the door. “Home, safe and sound.”

“There is no need to do that,” Sato said, looking at the young man suspiciously.

“I’m afraid I have orders, Doctor,” the man explained. “Captain Teenge gave explicit instructions from Colonel Cromwell that you are to be kept in your quarters—”

“Locked up!” Sato exclaimed.

“—to be kept in your quarters and given all consideration you are due.”

“I’m sure,” he said, not bothering to hide his contempt. “Am I even to be allowed access to my lab?” The marine gestured and Sato walked inside. The quarters looked the same as when he left, except a new door had been added. He went to it, and it slid aside for him. His entire lab had been moved. Sato walked inside and looked around, trying his best to find something to complain about. Whoever did the job had done it well. Everything was there, even in the same places he’d left them, except it was all in his quarters. “Okay, I’m impressed.”

“You’re welcome, Doctor.” The marine left without fanfare, the door sliding closed behind him. Sato checked and wasn’t surprised to find the door locked.

“Baka,” he said. Didn’t they understand he was doing everything for them? He’d been stuck in an AI-controlled doomsday machine for weeks, nearly brought to the point of having to drink his own urine, just to find more tools for the Winged Hussars to use. Sure, the doomsday Keesius ship could have been bad, but Captain Teenge and Arion had caught up with it, and the marines had stopped it and got them all off. Well, most of them.

“They can’t hold all of that against me,” he said. “Right?” There was nobody to answer him, so he started looking around his lab, trying to find something to mumble about. He was still looking an hour later when a logistics team delivered his Mk 7 CASPer from Arion. Of course, he tried to slip out while they worked.

“I’m sorry, Doctor,” a marine he hadn’t seen said at the door.

“I was just going to get some tools,” Sato said with a half-smile.

“Just use your slate to request anything you need, and it will be delivered.”

“Can I speak to Colonel Cromwell?”

“She hasn’t returned and isn’t expected for some time. Please return to your quarters, sir.”

Sato sat in his quarters and stared out at the slowly rotating view of the dark greens and blues of the planet in the distance. I can’t even go down to the planet, he thought. Of course, he hated it down there. It was too cold and dark.

He got a shower, some food, and then went to bed.

When he woke up three hours later, he was fully refreshed and ready to try some new ideas. Some toast and tea in hand, he went to the lab door that led to the main corridor, which had once been the door to the quarters adjacent to his. Apparently, when they’d converted the quarters to his new lab space, they’d altered the control interface on that door.

Like this is going to stop me, Sato mentally snorted and picked up an interface cable to link the door’s controls with his pinplants. This should only take a second. Only it took longer. In fact, after a few minutes he was forced to admit he couldn’t get the door open. The simple door interface program was gone, replaced by something all too frustratingly familiar.

“That baka AI, Ghost,” Sato spat, and kicked the door, which had even less effect than his attempt to break the encryption. Not only wasn’t he out of his prison, now his foot hurt. He sat at a table and drank his tea while he thought. Okay, fine, I guess I’ll just go forward with my other plan.

He immediately set to work on his rack of computers. Less than an hour later, he’d finished his project. Sato walked over to the door and knocked. It opened immediately.

“Yes, Doctor?” a marine asked, this one an aquatic Selroth.

“I need to go see Nemo.”

“The squid?” the Selroth marine asked.

“Nemo is a Wrogul,” Sato said, more than a little offended. “They resemble an octopus.”

“Why?”

“I have a malfunction on my pinplants.”

The marine considered him as bubbles floated up in his helmet. The apparatus covered most of his face, leaving nothing for Sato to look at to determine what he might be thinking.

“Well?” Sato eventually asked.

“I am speaking with my commander,” the marine said. A few seconds passed before he spoke again. “He said you aren’t answering his call.”

“That’s because my damned pinplants are damaged!”

The Selroth blinked his nictitating membranes. “Please wait,” the marine said.

Stupid marines, Sato thought, but he went back inside his quarters. He didn’t have too long to wait before there was a knock. Sato opened the door to find a MinSha with a major’s gold oak leaf painted on her chiton, along with the Winged Hussars logo and marine pipping. Sato knew Major Kratlik by reputation but had never met the current marine commander before.

“Dr. Sato,” she said in surprisingly crisp English. “My man here informs me you are having difficulty with your pinplants?”

“That is correct,” Sato said. “They were damaged when Walker zapped my CASPer on the Keesius.” Kratlik’s antennae did little circles, a sure sign she was thinking it over. “Do you want to check?” he asked, holding out the cable linked to his pinplants. Kratlik looked at the cable for a moment then took it with one of her delicate manipulator hands and clicked it into her own pinplants. Of course, nothing happened.

“I see,” she said and handed the cable back. “Why didn’t you report this before?”

“I was on the ship and couldn’t do any work anyway,” he said then shrugged. “Besides, I didn’t know how bad it was until I got back here and tried to diagnose it.”

The MinSha marine seemed to think again for a long moment. Sato was surprised he didn’t see smoke coming from between the big, multifaceted eyes. “Private Shev, here, will take you to medical,” she said.

It was everything Sato could do not to grin ear to ear. “Thank you, Major Kratlik.”

The major clicked her claws in reply and left Sato with the less-than-interested Private Shev. The Selroth marine seemed to sigh, an interesting thing to watch an aquatic humanoid do, as he gestured down the hall.

Traveling to the medical center only took a short time. Prime Base was huge, and travel between rings utilized glideways—padded tubes which used pressurized air to move people quickly and safely. Some races enjoyed it more than others. Humans were one of the ones who liked it. Sato always thought it reminded him of a waterslide he’d gone to as a child in Yokohama.

As they dropped toward the next ring and air pressure slowed their progress, Sato glanced up, hoping Private Shev was falling behind or might accidentally take a wrong turn. The Selroth was not a meter away, watching him carefully.

The next deck approached, and Sato pushed off the back wall to land gently on the floor. Prime Base’s glideways all worked perfectly. Of course, he’d overseen their installation. The original station was constructed without them. It more closely resembled a starship than a space station. Curious design.

The gravity was slightly higher here than on the deck where his quarters and labs were. Lower gravity was favorable for many of his experiments and other work. He found he slept better in that lower gravity as well. Ever since the years he’d spent on Yoku—

“Are you okay, sir?”

Sato looked up at the Selroth marine in confusion. How did I get on the deck? It took him a moment to realize he hadn’t spoken out loud and to repeat himself verbally.

“You seemed to have had some kind of a seizure,” Private Shev said.

“Seizure?” Sato asked. He used his pinplants, which, other than the comms feature, were working perfectly, and ran a diagnostic/recall routine for the last ten seconds. Nothing came up. Well, that is strange. He got to his feet quickly and easily, with no sign of anything being wrong. The Selroth marine watched him for a moment.

“Are we continuing, or do you need to return to your quarters?”

“No, I’m fine,” Sato said. “It must be my pinplant malfunction.”

That seemed to placate the marine, who gestured for Sato to continue. The entrance to the medical section was only a short distance away, and they reached it quickly.

As Sato walked in, the medical technician, a lovely younger lady in a black uniform with a green stripe on the legs and arms looked up in surprise. “Dr. Sato? I thought you were under arrest.”

Sato turned and glared at the marine who seemed nonplused by the statement. “I need to see Nemo.”

The medical technician looked confused and glanced at the marine, who shrugged.

“Major Kratlik said to bring him here,” the marine said, then he took up position next to the door and looked prepared to wait indefinitely.

So much for just sneaking out later, Sato admitted to himself. He didn’t know if the medical section had another exit, having never thoroughly explored the area. He’d check into that later, after he’d followed through with his plan. “Tell Nemo I’m here,” Sato said.

The young technician sputtered, and he gave her his best menacing stare. She blinked, and half closed her eyes. Sato recognized someone with little experience using their pinplants. A few seconds later, a door opened, and Dr. Gorge Ramirez stuck his head out.

“Dr. Sato!” he said, surprised. “I heard you were under arrest.”

Sato fumed, almost shaking with fury. “I…need…to…see…Nemo!

“Come into my office, Doctor,” Ramirez said and gestured. Sato looked from the young woman, who was staring at her desk, to the marine who was bubbling by the door, then back to Ramirez. “Now, please.”

“Fine,” Sato said and marched in.

“Now, can you please explain?” Sato took a few calming breaths then laid out his prepared story. “That is highly unusual,” Ramirez said when Sato was done.

“Don’t you think I know that? That damned Walker used an EMP weapon on my CASPer, and it shorted out the pinplant.” He was mad enough at having his lie questioned that he didn’t have to try and keep a straight face. The very idea that he would build an interface into his CASPer that wouldn’t protect him from anything up to a nuclear-generated EMP was simply ludicrous. Of course, what would a medical doctor know about such things?

Ramirez held out a connection cable. Sato ground his teeth at being questioned on his fanciful story, but eventually took the cable and connected it to his pinplants. Ramirez hooked the other end to his own pinplants and closed his eyes. A second later, he opened them in surprise.

“Well, there is a problem,” he said.

“No shit,” Sato spat.

“There’s no reason for that,” the physician said. “You must understand, the command structure is rather miffed at you.” Sato tried to look confused. “You unleashed a doomsday weapon, Sato. Entropy, you really stepped in it this time.”

“It needed to be investigated,” Sato insisted.

“I understand Kleena was going to assemble a team—with you—when there was time.”

“Yes, so they could carefully watch me,” Sato whined.

“Seems like that would have been a good idea,” Ramirez said.

Sato opened his mouth to rebuff that assertion but gave up and just sighed. “Can I please see Nemo so he can fix my pinplants? I have other work that’s waiting.” Ramirez lifted an eyebrow. “Work Colonel Cromwell has asked me to do!”

Ramirez eyed him for a critical second, then nodded. “Okay,” he relented. “Nemo is back in his lab. He’s been preoccupied with some side project and won’t talk to me half the time anyway. Maybe you can give him something to get his brain back into the job. That is, if Wrogul even have brains.”

“Thank you,” Sato said and left without saying goodbye.

Ramirez shook his head as the scientist left, then pressed his intercom. “Amanda, please let Dr. Sato into Nemo’s suite, would you? Thank you.”

Sato walked past the receptionist, refusing to look at her as he went by, and to the series of suites occupied by the Wrogul. The door opened for him, and he went inside.

When he’d first suggested Nemo as a member of the Hussars, Alexis Cromwell was hesitant. There were many alien races in the company, more than a hundred, though none were considered exotics. An exotic species was one with either non-carbon-based biology, required special atmospheric considerations, had abilities which defied explanation, or possessed completely non-Human psychology. In the case of the Wrogul, they fell into two of those categories, non-Human psychology and abilities which defied explanation.

Based on Sato’s recommendation, Alexis had sent Dr. Ramirez to the biotech firm Nemo was working for, and after interviewing him, offered the alien a job. Because Ramirez mentioned that Sato already worked for the Hussars, Nemo accepted the offer. When he arrived, he’d been given a massive suite of labs in the medical quadrant of the .75 G ring. Which was where he’d continued to work except for an occasional mission when asked. He was quite happy just to do research and supervise pinplant operations as needed.

Sato looked around the outer labs, which were mainly used for pinplant operations. It was empty, so he moved on deeper into the various labs. One was filled, from floor to ceiling on three of the four walls, with tanks of all sizes. Inside the tanks were a dizzying array of lifeforms living in everything from water to swirling, colored gasses.

When Sato visited him after the Wrogul had moved in, he’d joked that he wouldn’t have been surprising to see an Izlian in one of those cages.

“Do you know where I can get one?” Nemo had asked in complete seriousness. It was one of those moments when Sato was reminded that Nemo didn’t think the way Humans did. Not at all. When he was working on other beings, Dr. Ramirez acted as the alien’s guardian. Nemo would never purposely do harm, but he possessed no moral compass whatsoever. Sato once asked Colonel Cromwell if he could move his quarters adjacent to Nemo’s, so they two could work more closely together.

“Under no condition are you two allowed to work together unsupervised,” she’d said.

Sato had been both confused and offended. I’m nothing like Nemo, he thought. I carefully think through everything I do! He glanced in a few of the tanks as he passed, thinking he spotted a few creatures which were new. I wonder if Hussars personnel are bringing new ones for him? Since he couldn’t know the answer, he moved into the next lab. This one was full of racks of equipment and instruments, many medically related so Sato wasn’t sure of their functions. With no sign of Nemo, he moved on.

As he opened another door, he realized he had never been this far into Nemo’s domain before. Looking at the door, he wondered if anyone knew the Wrogul was using this room.

Prime Base was well over three kilometers on a side. Even with 70,000-plus employees and dependents, they weren’t using a tenth of the station. Nemo could have moved into a hundred additional rooms, and likely nobody would have noticed.

“Close the door, please,” Nemo’s voice echoed slightly, his translator rendering the Wrogul’s light pulses into English.

“Nemo, where are you?” The room was almost completely dark, and the open door cast an elongated rectangle of light onto the floor. Sato could see some of the light reflecting from huge upright cylinders in the room.

“Further back in the chamber. The light disturbs the Bregalad; please close the door.”

Bregalad? he thought as he returned and closed the door. He had never met a Bregalad. Sato accessed his pinplants, ran a recording feature on what he was seeing, took the recording and ran a light intensifying subroutine on it, and viewed it in a mental window. The effect was similar to night vision goggles. The delay between his eyes receiving the image and his viewing it was only five milliseconds, below his ability to notice. Now that he could see, he looked around…and stopped in his tracks.

“Entropy!” he cursed. “Nemo, what is going on here?” He walked over to the nearest cylinder, a big glass container, with a Human floating inside.

“It’s a project,” Nemo said. “I’m trying to finish something that was interrupted.”

Sato looked around the room and found a total of six identical cylinders, each with a body in various conditions. He couldn’t see physical details of the body inside beyond that it was Human and appeared to be an adult male. The one he was looking at appeared to be missing part of its head.

“Are these actual Humans?” Sato asked.

“Of course,” Nemo replied. The Wrogul’s robot transport rolled down the lines. A tracked base with six robotic arms and a big, round, glass fish tank on its back, Nemo used the device to move around the world of Humans. He didn’t have legs and could barely move out of water, unlike the Selroth. He could exist outside of water for hours at a time, though, unlike the octopus he so resembled. Nemo stopped next to Sato and looked at him. Unlike a terrestrial octopus, he had two bright blue—almost Human—eyes.

“Nemo,” Sato started, thinking through what he wanted to say, “are you experimenting on Winged Hussars personnel?”

“Of course not,” Nemo said. “This person is dead.”

“Person?” Sato looked at the five other cylinders. “I see six people.”

“No, they are all the same.”

“Okay,” Sato said, trying another tack. “How are they all the same?”

“The Bregalad made them that way for me.”

Sato narrowed his eyes. That was the second time Sato had referred to it as the Bregalad. He accessed his pinplant records and searched for the name in common spelling. Bingo. Bregalad: one of only a handful of flora species in the galaxy, they were an exotic with unexplained medical talents including being able to exactly reproduce just about any biological toxin, chemical, or cellular structure. Kuso, he cursed. Oh, Colonel Cromwell is going to be pissed. “Nemo, does the colonel know you have a Bregalad on Prime Base?”

“No, why would she?”

“Because SOP is that any and all sentient aliens have to go through quarantine and approval.”

“Oh, that.” Nemo floated sideways and looked at the second cylinder. Sato could see a shadowy shape moving inside. “The Bregalad aren’t actually sentient, at least not as you would see it.”

“They’re an exotic, Nemo,” Sato explained, “just like you. The Galactic Union classifies them as sentient.” He read a little more. According to the GalNet, supposedly the Bregalad only worked for the Veetanho. Entropy, how did he get one of these?

“We need to report you have a Bregalad,” Sato said, finding himself in the rather strange situation of being worried about someone else breaking a rule. A part of his mind realized for the first time some of the consternation he might have caused over the years. “Maybe if you tell me where you got it?”

“I have six of them,” Nemo said. “They have proven remarkably easy to breed. You see, they didn’t like where they were before. They are quite happy now, though.”

Sato moved closer to the cylinder next to him and let his light gathering program work. Sure enough, it wasn’t just a body. He could see it was wrapped in vines, wrapped around the body, slowly prodding it in places. Where it prodded, new bits would be attached. It’s making a body, Sato thought. Fascinating!

“Nemo, why did you do this?”

“Breed the Bregalad?”

“That too, but no, I meant make these bodies? What use is having six corpses?”

“They’re not corpses,” Nemo explained. “They are quite alive. You see, it began when I was helping a crew member attempt to repair damage to his brain. It was a quite fascinating case, and I was enjoying myself greatly. Then he went and got himself killed. They didn’t bring the body back for me to work on, and I wasn’t content with computer models. I had one Bregalad which I’d been studying, and I had an idea.

“I gave the Bregalad some samples of the Human and it began to rebuild him for me. As it worked, it became easier to communicate. You see, if a Bregalad doesn’t have things to do, it kind of goes to sleep. Well, it eventually bred, and I needed to keep that one busy, too. So you see, that’s why I have six copies now.”

“They’re clones?” Sato asked.

“Not specifically, no. They’re exact copies.”

Brain damage, Sato thought. He moved down the line of tubes, each one holding a Human body, which was further along in its reconstruction process than the one before it. When he reached the last one, it was complete in every way Sato could see. Complete enough that he recognized the face.

How am I going to explain to Colonel Cromwell that Nemo made six copies of Corporal Rick Culper? Sato asked himself. The body inside the tube opened its eyes and looked at him, and Sato screamed like a little girl.

* * * * *


Chapter Eight


Manaus, Main Continent, Chislaa

Sansar snuck up to the edge of the forest, keeping behind large trees as much as she could. While the interior of the jungle was relatively open, the edge was less so, as the flora competed for the additional sunlight and water available there.

Eventually, she worked her way up to the tree next to the one Mun was sheltered behind and eased out to look at the city wall. After a second, she gasped and dialed her magnification up to maximum. In addition to the wide-open killing ground they’d have to cross, the automated sentry guns, and the roving patrols of HecSha which could be seen, there was something new.

“Son of a bitch!” Sansar exclaimed. “Those are Humans on top of the wall!”

“Yeah. I had one of the snipers take a look. He said there are at least two Humans chained to every single one of the sentry guns he could see. He didn’t go all the way around the city, but I suspect if they’re in one place, the damn lizards have people chained to all of them.”

“That’s going to complicate things,” Sansar noted. “We can’t just go in there, guns blazing, nor can we pre-emptively take out the turrets, or we’re going to kill a lot of innocents.”

“And pretty much do Peepo’s work for her,” Mun noted. “Just like I’m sure she wants us to.”

“I swear to Blue Sky Above, that rat is going to have me hating aliens more than damn Nigel Shirazi!”

Mun chuckled. “Easy, Boss. One bad rat doesn’t a bad pack make.”

“This time, I think it does. Once we kick those damn rats’ asses, there’s going to have to be some changes made in the Merc Guild.”

“Shoot, ma’am, I kind of expected that would happen all along. I never figured you or Colonel Cromwell—or especially Colonel Shirazi—would take what they’ve done to us and not make some…adjustments…once we’re through with them.”

“But first we’re going to have to figure out how to get into that city.”

“Got any ideas on how we’re going to do that, Colonel?”

Sansar sighed. “No, not yet. Let’s go back and see what we can figure out.” She took a last look at the city, trying to etch the defensive positions into her mind. Mun turned to leave but then froze.

“Move very slowly,” Mun cautioned.

Sansar turned slowly to see three of the “Baby MinSha,” as her troops had taken to calling them. All three were armed with sharpened sticks whose points looked like they’d been hardened in fire. One was a little closer, with the other two a little farther back, making a V formation. They all brandished their spears at the CASPers.

“Well, hello there,” Sansar said.

The creatures all waved their spears again, before dropping back into a defensive stance.

“That would be kind of cute,” Mun said, “if I didn’t think they were really trying to threaten us with those things.” She chuckled and then added, “Not that there’s anything they can do with those sticks except stick them between our legs as we walk and trip us. Want me to take care of them?”

“No,” Sansar said. “I have a feeling if they wanted to attack us, they would have done so while our backs were turned.”

“Maybe they have some code against stabbing people in the back. If so, maybe we could get them to explain it to certain guild leaders I know…”

Sansar laughed once. “If I thought she’d listen, I’d try it.” She knelt on one knee and held out both hands to show they were empty. “Hello, little guys,” she said to the creatures. “You don’t really want to try to stick us with those things now, do you?”

The one in front gestured toward the city with its spear and said something. A notice popped up in Sansar’s mind. “Language not recognized. Closest linguistic variant is MinSha. Use this?” Sansar mentally clicked on Yes, and the suit translated.

“Evil. Expiry,” the alien said.

“An evil expiration?” Mun asked. “Is that what that thing just said?”

“My suit had it as two words,” Sansar said. “Evil. Expiry. Did your suit think it was MinSha, too?”

“Yeah, but those little things are hardly MinSha. They aren’t even half the size of a MinSha.”

“I don’t know,” Sansar replied. In MinSha, she said slowly, “I don’t understand you. What do you mean, ‘Evil Expiry’?”

“Are you messengers of the gods?” the alien asked. “Bad beings come, carrying death.”

“Oh!” Sansar said. “He’s talking about the HecSha coming and killing them. Maybe they’ll help us.”

“What are they going to do? They can’t throw those sticks any great distance; they’ll all be dead before they cross half the killing zone.”

“I don’t know, but they live here. Maybe they know something we don’t.”

“Well, can we at least take them back to camp, rather than stand here almost within sight of the HecSha? I’d hate to start our discussion with them by having us all get killed.”

Sansar felt her cheeks redden inside her suit. I should have thought of that! “Yes, let’s take them back to camp.”

She turned to leave, but the creatures got agitated and shook their spears. “Come, Messengers!” the leader said. “Home!” He pointed in a different direction.

“Yes. We’re going to take you to our home,” Sansar said. She continued walking, although she watched them out of her rear camera.

They continued to brandish their spears and shout, “Home!”

“I’m going to have a hard time not shooting them if they throw those spears,” Mun said.

“Oh, don’t be a baby. The spears can’t hurt us.”

Sansar and Mun were almost out of sight of the three creatures when they huddled up, shaking their spears at each other as they discussed something at a high volume. Sansar hoped it wasn’t loud enough that the HecSha came to investigate. After about twenty seconds, though, the group apparently came to an agreement and raced to catch up with the two CASPers, following about ten meters behind.

“We’re coming in,” Sansar transmitted on the company net as they approached the area they were using as their base. They had found another one of the metal lids, and Mun had delegated a squad to clean it off so they could set up a portable Tri-V projector to use for planning.

“We have three of the bugs with us,” she added. “They appear to be sentient, but unsophisticated. Be careful not to scare them.”

Sansar and Mun, along with the aliens, approached the metal lid where the man they’d found, along with the Horde platoon leaders, were waiting, all still wearing their CASPers.

“Holy shit!” the city man yelled when he saw the creatures following Sansar. “Quick! Shoot them! Shoot the bugs!”

For their part, the aliens started shouting something that sounded very much like the word they’d used for “Evil Beings,” while they brandished their spears. The man pulled out the laser pistol he’d been given, aimed, and fired at one of the creatures, but Sansar stepped in front of it and deployed her laser shield. The bolt deflected away harmlessly.

“Ow!” the man yelled as one of the platoon leaders stepped forward and swatted his arm. Although he didn’t use the full force of the CASPer, it was obvious the man’s arm was broken. Still, he bent over to pick up the pistol with his other hand.

“Stop!” yelled Sansar, her speakers set to maximum. The man froze, and the creatures ran to hide behind Mun’s suit. “Sergeant Wyatt!”

“Yes, ma’am!” said the medic, hastening over to the group.

“Take him somewhere else,” Sansar said, pointing to the city man, “and tend to his arm. Make sure he doesn’t interrupt us again.”

“Yes, ma’am,” the sergeant replied and led the man away.

“Now,” Sansar said in MinSha, turning to the aliens. “What was that all about?”

* * *

Tunnels, Underdeep, Paradise

The world jumped, throwing Walker’s CASPer into the side of the tunnel and then the ceiling, before finally depositing him on his side on the floor. Additional aftershocks bounced him off the walls but weren’t strong enough to bounce him off the ceiling again.

“That fucking sucked,” someone muttered, but Walker was too stunned to tell who.

“What the hell was that?” someone else asked.

Walker shook his head to clear it as he climbed back to his feet. “Hurray,” he said darkly. “I think we finally pissed them off enough to get them to start bombing us.”

“Wha-what?” several of the troopers asked.

“If you ever wondered what it felt like to have a nuke go off above your head while you were underground, you don’t have to wonder anymore,” Walker said, “because you just experienced it.”

Several more blasts shook the tunnels, although they were farther away, and the shaking was markedly less. They were followed by something Walker found far more ominous—quiet.

“What the hell?” asked one of the troopers. “Now what are they doing?”

“Probably assessing the damage from the first round,” Walker replied, “and looking to see if they need to hit us again…or maybe use bigger bombs on the second go-round.”

“You think there’ll be another round?” the same trooper asked.

“We’re still here, aren’t we?” Walker replied. “I don’t think—”

“Colonel Walker!” a high-pitched voice interrupted. “Colonel Walker! Where are you?!”

Walker turned to see a boy of about ten years old running between the CASPers assembled at the cave-in. While they could hear the Merc Guild forces on the other side of the tunnel collapse working to clear the rubble, they were still going to be a while.

He opened his canopy and yelled at the boy. “I’m Walker,” he said, once he had the boy’s attention. “What do you want?”

“They just…sent me…to find you,” the boy said, his chest heaving. “The bugs…have broken through…the tunnel…to Dixia Cheng!”

“Broken through?” Walker asked. He waved toward the collapse. “They didn’t break through. We stopped them.”

“No, not those…tunnels,” the boy said, trying to catch his breath.

“Wait. There are more tunnels?” He turned to Ferguson’s second-in-command, Rachel DuBois. “You didn’t tell me there were more tunnels.”

“There aren’t!” she replied. “This is the only one.”

“No!” The boy exclaimed. “They’re coming through the air vent.”

“What?” DuBois asked. “There’s no way! The air shafts aren’t big enough for them to go through there.”

“They’re fucking roaches,” Walker replied. “Going through air vents is what they do.” He closed his canopy and transmitted on the squadnet, “Saddle up everyone! We’ve got a break-through!”

He got down on one knee, so the boy would know he was talking to him. “Take us there,” he said. “Right now.”

* * *

Winged Hussars Prime Base, New Warsaw Star System

The last thing Sato wanted was for anyone to see him screaming like a child in a horror movie. Luckily, the only one who saw him act that way was an alien who didn’t understand Human reactions in the least. After Sato got over the shock, he looked at Nemo in his mobile tank. The Wrogul was just looking back with his two, big, lidless, almost Human, blue eyes.

“Entropy,” Sato said, trying to swallow his heart again, “is he conscious?”

“No, of course not!” Nemo said. “I haven’t uploaded a consciousness yet. I was thinking about just—”

“Wait,” Sato said, holding up both hands. “Did you say upload a consciousness?”

“Yes.”

“You can do that?”

“Of course.”

Sato had calmed from the shock of seeing a copy of Rick Culper open his eyes, and now he was excited by what he’d heard. “How do you do that?”

Nemo was silent for at least a minute, long enough to make Sato consider asking the question again before the alien answered. “I can’t really explain that.”

“Try.”

Nemo was again silent for even longer the second time. “Brains—Human brains in particular—are actually just overly complicated switchboards.”

“Overly complicated?” Sato asked.

“Yes, you don’t use half the connections your brain makes via neurons and you have triple or even quadruple redundancy in many cases. Some of those redundancies make sense to compensate for possible damage, yet there are too many!”

Sato was amazed. In all the years he’d known the Wrogul, this was the first time he’d ever detected a possible emotion; Nemo appeared frustrated.

“That confuses you?” Sato asked.

“It perplexes me,” Nemo corrected. “Brains have always been a favorite organ of mine. They are infinitely creative in how they work. Take the mixed elemental function of a Depik brain with what they call quintessence. I’d very much like to get another look at one of their brains…” Nemo seemed to lose his train of thought for a moment—which was ironic—then he continued, “or the Tortantulas. Their females’ brains are organized on almost a quantum structure! So organized, so…incredibly powerful! And yet, they’re systematically underutilized, like using a starship fusion reactor to warm your lunch. I wish I could have the chance to examine a male; I bet that might answer a lot about why the females are that way.”

“You were talking about uploading a consciousness?” Sato prodded.

“Oh, yes, of course. Well, you see, your brains are efficient machines, as best as they are capable with their design, yet machines they all are. Those neuron connections are detectable.”

“And?” Sato persisted.

“Don’t you understand? I worked on Corporal Rick Culper’s brain to assist with his injury.” One of Nemo’s tentacles wiggled out of the tank and reached over to the cylinder. Inside, the vine-wrapped body took no notice, even though its eyes were open. Nemo’s tentacle pointed at the face, and Sato could see a pale line of scar tissue. “That wound caused considerable damage to the brain, and I was trying to map it in order to fix some or all of those effects. That’s how.”

“I’m afraid I still don’t understand,” Sato said. “How can you remake that person after you examined him?”

“I can’t,” Nemo said frustratingly, “but the Bregalad can. I kept some small samples of Corporal Rick Culper.”

“Did he know you did that?”

“No,” Nemo said, not realizing this was a problem. “I did it internally.”

“You what?”

“I kept a sample internally, in my J’kk’pfz.” The colors of Nemo’s pulsing communications luminescence were particularly odd as he said the last word.

Sato checked the translation, there wasn’t one. He assumed it must be a piece of medical equipment unique to the Wrogul. “Where is the J’kk’pfz?” he asked.

Another of the Wrogul’s tentacles touched his large central body. Sato’s eyes bugged out. “Are you saying this J’kk’pfz is part of your body?”

“Yes,” Nemo agreed.

“So, you…ate…part of Rick Culper and kept it inside you?” Sato’s level of horror was quickly approaching Eko Azarak levels.

“That’s a crude analogy,” Nemo complained. “I didn’t consume parts of the Human marine. I stored them as a byproduct and for future encoding.”

“Did you say encoding?”

“That’s probably the result of the translator,” Nemo said. “Closer might be to suggest memorizing? Plus, I copied the entire internal construction of the brain’s neural pathways.”

“You mean you have his essence, his soul?”

“We do not ascribe to this idea of a transcendent entity that lives outside your body after death,” Nemo said, and the tentacle indicated the tube again. “I will be able to demonstrate that shortly.”

Sato was about to tell Nemo that was a bad idea when his Achilles Heel kicked in—curiosity. He wanted to know if Nemo was right. Could the Wrogul recreate Rick Culper by uploading all the details of his brain’s neural processes? “Why haven’t you tried yet?” Sato asked.

“Your neural pathways are numerous. Something in the order of 1 times 10 to the 15th.”

“That’s a lot. So, it would take you years?”

“No, nothing like that,” Nemo said, “about two weeks. In the meantime, the Bregalad have continued to produce extra neural copies for redundant research.”

Extra copies, Sato thought, then he returned to the uploading idea. “When are you going to start?” Sato asked, now eager to see the results.

“I already have,” Nemo explained, “sixty-seven hours ago.”

Sato looked at the nearest Rick Culper. I guess that’s why it opened its eyes, he thought. Sato looked back at the former marine floating in the tank. One of the Bregalad’s vines moved to a new area and an infinitely small amount of flesh began to appear on an incomplete ear. It was both fascinating and horrifying at the same time. A memory tickled at the back of his head, and he jerked slightly. “Oh, yes, I need help with something. Can you spare time from this?”

“For you, of course. What is it?”

Sato took out a computer chip and held it up. One of Nemo’s robotic arms plucked it and inserted it into a reader on his mobility platform. It only took the alien a moment to analyze it.

“Oh, interesting,” Nemo said. “This is a radically different design than previous pinplants.”

“Yes,” Sato agreed, “and I need it to access my cognitive centers.”

“Fascinating challenge,” Nemo said. “Where did you get this idea?”

Sato laughed and then fell silent. He screwed up his face as he thought. “You know what?” he said. “I have absolutely no idea.”

* * *

Tunnels, Underdeep, Paradise

Walker’s first indication they’d arrived at the breakthrough was when the boy he was following turned a corner, screamed, and ran back toward him. Walker let the boy go past, then eased around the corner. His blood ran cold. Down the passageway was a large cavern that held a variety of machinery used to circulate the air around the caverns. It also held the second largest concentration of Goka he’d ever seen, and more continued to drop from an overhead vent.

He pulled back and turned to DuBois. “The cavern down the passageway. Are there any other entrances to it?”

“No, that’s it,” she said.

He eased a camera around the corner then immediately jumped back and armed a K-bomb. “Good,” he said. “Then all we have to do is hold them here.”

“Do you think we can?” she asked.

Walker threw the oversized grenade around the corner.

“Hold them?” he asked. “Not a chance in hell.”

* * *

Golara Command Center, Golara System

“Hey, Ruiz!”

The tech looked up the central spire from the charge he was placing. Major Greenville waved from the next level up.

“Time to go,” the major said. “The Merc Guild is here.”

Sergeant Ruiz nodded as he connected the last wire. “On my way, sir.”

The major’s head disappeared, and Ruiz mounted the control box to the adhesive he’d spread on the spar, careful not to get snagged on the wires trailing down to the warhead one level below his feet. He smiled as he pushed off toward the open panel where the major had just been. The Golara Command Center had soaked up a lot of damage when the Humans had taken it. Although they’d made repairs, the station’s spin had never been quite the same—one of the arms was slightly out of calibration. While you couldn’t tell it from the outside, he could hear the groaning here, where all the main structural members met. The song of the metal straining at its limits had worried him the first time he’d come through to check on the station’s integrity; now it just made him smile.

This was going to be easy.

He slid through the panel and pushed off again down the passageway. He definitely didn’t want to get left behind here.

* * *

MGS New Era, Emergence Point, Golara System

“Emergence in the Golara System,” the Bakulu navigator said, looking at his console. “Frigates are detaching.”

“The fleet is accounted for,” the sensor operator added. “Some minor repositioning is underway, but most ships are close to their intended positions.”

“What about the enemy?” Admiral Galantrooka asked. “Get the drones into space. I want to know where the Humans are, now!” He looked at the tactical Tri-V. He could see all the shipyard facilities filling in, however, there were no icons indicating the presence of Human ships. With all of the space docks and other shipbuilding structures in orbit around Golara, though, there were a lot of places for the Humans to hide.

“I am searching for them, Admiral,” the sensor operator replied, “but I am not currently finding any near the emergence point. I am expanding my search.”

All three of the admiral’s eyestalks were out as he scanned the Tri-V screens in his quest for answers. It didn’t make sense for the Humans to not be waiting for his fleet—they had to know the Merc Guild would send a force to reclaim Golara, and he had expected to be attacked upon entering the system while his ships were in disarray. Allowing them to get situated and in position was…sloppy, and he hated sloppy tactics. Still, he hated death and losing his forces more, so if the Humans were going to allow him to prepare his forces, he would do so.

He wasn’t particularly worried. The Humans weren’t known to have battleships. Even if they’d captured the two battleships which were under construction in the system’s shipyards, they still wouldn’t be able to crew them or operate them effectively. He had two additional battleships under his command, as well as a plethora of cruisers, destroyers, and other supporting ships.

He also had his command ship, the Mercenary Guild Ship New Era. The first of its kind, it had been built for the Merc Guild under Peepo’s orders. It was meant to be the flagship of the Guild, the rock on which future Merc Guild fleets would be based. It was aptly named, as it ushered in a new era in space warfare, and it would crush any foes foolish enough to try to stand against it in battle. Well over two million tons—closer to 2.5 million tons—the dreadnought was the largest warship in existence.

It was also the best armed, with four 10-terawatt particle accelerators, eight 5-terawatt particle accelerators, and sixteen that were rated at 1-terawatt. The New Era also sported 128 missile launchers and an array of 256 40-megawatt, close-in defensive lasers, that could also be used offensively, if needed, as well as a complement of frigates carried the way most battleships carried gunships. It was a ship made for one thing only: the complete and utter reduction of enemy fleets and planets. While it would be effective at showing the Mercenary Guild flag and influencing races to do as the Guild suggested, it had been built—secretly—to do what he was brought to Golara for: to crush Humanity’s rebellion and destroy any planets that couldn’t be brought into line.

He was just killing time here while waiting for information on the location of the Winged Hussar’s hidden base. Once that was found, he would destroy it and end their rebellion. His eyestalks vibrated in excitement at the thought.

“Contact!” the sensor operator called. “I have contact with the Humans!”

“Calm yourself!” the admiral admonished. If there was anything wrong with the ship, it was that with all the new personnel, some of the crew weren’t quite as seasoned as he would have liked. “Give me a correct report!”

“Sir, I have contact with the Human forces,” the sensor operator replied, calmer now. “There are two shuttles leaving the command center at a great rate of speed.”

The admiral chuckled. “Two shuttles aren’t worth even warming up the close-in lasers to destroy. Where are the shuttles heading?”

“They are heading toward the stargate.”

“No, they aren’t,” the admiral replied. When it looked like the sensor operator would say something else, the admiral held up a tentacle to stop him. “Shuttles can’t go through the stargate; they are headed to a ship. Focus your sensors between the shuttles and the stargate; you will find them there.”

“I have them,” the sensor operator replied a few moments later. “The makeup of their fleet is strange. There is a battlecruiser, a frigate, and something in-between the two. The third ship appears bigger than a cruiser, but not quite a battlecruiser. There are also three smaller corvettes. They just lit their fusion torches and are moving toward the stargate.”

“Pass me the data on the ship you can’t identify.”

“Yes, sir,” the sensor operator said, and the information appeared on one of the tactical Tri-V screens.

“Interesting…” the admiral noted. “It appears they have an old Izlian heavy cruiser, although where they might have found that old piece of junk is beyond me. An interesting question, but ultimately irrelevant. Full speed ahead. We will send it back to the scrap heap they pulled it out of.”

“Sir!” the sensor operator said. “I am picking up explosions across the entire shipyard. It looks like a number of nuclear detonations on the major facilities. I see at least three explosions on Space Docks 17 and 22, and one explosion at each of the others. There are several more at the main command center. The station is—sir, it looks like the station is tearing itself apart.”

“I’m sure it is,” Admiral Galantrooka said. “As long as the Humans have held this system, I would have expected nothing else. In fact, I would have done similarly.”

“The shuttles have arrived at their fleet, and they are boosting toward the stargate.”

“That is also not surprising. I wouldn’t want to face our fleet, much less with that pitiful group of escorts.” The admiral looked at the tactical screen for a moment, then said, “SitCon, send a cutter back to Earth informing General Peepo that the Humans’ main fleet wasn’t here when we arrived. The ships that were here left after destroying all the major facilities, including the command center and the battleship docks. We will inventory the destruction and then report back to her on Earth, but it appears the Humans have ceded the shipyard to us.” He chuckled. “Well, the remains of it, anyway.”

As the SitCon carried out his orders, the admiral studied the strategic Tri-V showing all the systems in their area of the galactic arm. He hadn’t really expected the Humans to fight against the main guild fleet here, although he’d hoped to at least catch and destroy some of their ships before the rest could flee. He expected they were trying to recapture some of their systems, for what little good it would do them.

Ultimately, they would have to face him. He didn’t care whether that was in their home system, at the Hussars hidden base, or at some other system. Sooner or later, he would find them and eradicate them. Peepo seemed to think she would have the location of the Hussars’ base soon. He experienced a warm glow at the thought.

Although the Humans weren’t here, he would use this time to prepare so his crew would be ready when he finally caught up with them.

“All ships, set formation Claw-7,” the admiral ordered. “Execute.”

* * * * *


Chapter Nine


One Kilometer West of Manaus, Main Continent, Chislaa

The leader of the Baby MinSha waved his spear in the direction the Human male was being led off.

“Bad beings come,” the alien said. “Carrying death.”

“He said that before,” Mun noted.

“Yeah, but we thought he was talking about the HecSha…” Sansar replied. “What if he was talking about us—about Humans—coming, bringing death.”

“Well, the city guy certainly didn’t look like he had any good words to say about them, and he was about to shoot them before we stopped him. Do you suppose there’s been a war going on here between the colonists and the aliens?”

“It looks like it,” Sansar said. She got down on a knee in front of the alien leader. “We are sorry if there have been problems between your people and his. We can help make things better between you.”

The leader leveled his spear. “Make better?” he asked. “How? Are the gods coming back?”

Sansar toggled her canopy open.

“Do you think that’s a good idea?” Mun asked, as it started moving. “They obviously have some issues with Humans.”

“I hope so,” Sansar said. “We need them to trust us. Still, it would be nice if you’d step a little closer so you can stop him if he tries to spit me on that spear of his.”

As the canopy opened, the aliens jumped back, forming a circle with their backs together in a defensive formation, leveling their spears at the CASPers.

“You!” the leader exclaimed. “Bad man!”

“No,” Sansar said, climbing down from the cockpit, but transmitting through the CASPer so she could use the suit’s translation program. She began a background download of the MinSha language to her pinplants. “We are not bad, and we want to help your people.”

“Not need help,” the leader said. “Gods will come from skies. Gods come before to help. They will come again and help us drive bad people away.”

“I’m sorry,” Sansar said, noticing the translation was improving the more the aliens talked. “But there aren’t any gods who will come and help you. We will help you, though; we will stop the people in the city from killing you anymore.”

“There are gods!” the leader said emphatically. “The grzch says so. They came and made us rulers.”

“Did you catch that word?” Mun asked. “Who says so?”

“No,” Sansar said, turning to Mun’s CASPer. “That word must not have been translatable.” She looked back to the alien leader. “Who says that the gods came?”

“The grzch. Once, there were merksht. Then the gods came and helped us fight them. They made new homes for us. When they left, they took many people to the skies with them. They promised to come back to take the rest of us to the afterlife. We wait for them.”

“Wait…” Sansar said. She cocked her head as things started to line up for her. She looked at the metal lid the Tri-V was on, and suddenly it clicked. Creatures that were almost MinSha, but not quite. They almost had the same language. Gods coming from the skies and taking the aliens away. The obvious influence of a technological society on the planet.

“What is the name of your people?” Sansar asked. “All of you—” she indicated the group of three and waved off toward where she guessed the rest of the leader’s people might be. “What are you called?”

The leader stood straight, rising to his full height. “I am Fentayl, of the Clan Shintaa. My people are the Minchantaa.”

“Blue Sky,” Mun muttered.

“Entropy!” several people in the group exclaimed as everyone seemed to catch on at the same time.

Sansar nodded, her guess validated. While other Humans might not have known the naming convention for an uplifted race, the Golden Horde, and especially its leadership, was very familiar with it, having uplifted the Salusians, thereby changing the race’s name to SalSha to indicate their uplifted status. She realized who she was looking at: the progenitors of the MinSha…before someone had come and uplifted them.

This then—Chislaa—had to be the original home world of the MinSha, before they had been uplifted.

Sansar went to the Tri-V and had it display a picture of a C’Natt, a client race for the Kahraman. They had been scientists who had experimented on the races under their dominion, conducting genetic trials and manipulations, and sometimes even uplifting young races if it served their overlords’ purposes.

“Is this one of your gods?” Sansar asked, pointing to the C’Natt.

“No,” the Minchantaa replied—who Sansar now realized must be female, as they were the warrior caste, at least among the MinSha. The leader swept away the leaf clutter on the ground and quickly drew a picture in the dirt. “This is what our gods look like.”

Sansar stepped closer, and her eyebrows furrowed. The picture the alien had drawn didn’t look anything at all like a C’Natt. In fact, it wasn’t reptilian at all. The creature looked like a mammalian with long arms and long ears.

“Weird,” Mun said, stepping in to look. The aliens moved back, giving her room. “The closest thing I can think of that looks like that is the creature that accompanies Colonel Cartwright.”

“Splunk,” Sansar said. “Yeah, that’s the only thing I can think of, too, but it makes no sense.” She looked up at the alien leader. “That’s what your gods look like?” she asked. “How do you know?”

“There is a picture that was drawn, many, many lifetimes ago, when our gods left. The grzch shows our gods leaving us.”

“What do you make of that?” Mun asked.

“I don’t know,” Sansar said. “Maybe the race that uplifted them didn’t want to be seen and only let them see the Fae, if indeed that is a Fae.” She shrugged, “Regardless, I’m pretty confident that this is the original MinSha home world. That, however, doesn’t get us any closer to the city.”

Sansar turned back to the Tri-V and brought up an image of a HecSha. The three aliens jumped back, defending themselves with their spears.

“Devils!” the leader said. “Those are the devils your kind brought to take us to hell!”

One of the other Minchantaa drew back its arm as if to throw its spear, and Mun stepped in between them. “Easy,” she said. “We’re all friends here. Let’s keep it that way.”

The leader turned and waved at the other Minchantaa to put its spear down. When she seemed to relax, Mun stepped back out of the way.

“No,” Sansar said. “We did not bring those creatures with us. They came here on their own and are trying to kill and enslave us, too. We want to kill them and set both your people and my people free, but we need to get close to the city without being seen. If they see us coming, they will kill many of our non-warriors.”

“They kill our non-warriors, too,” the leader said. “They have no honor.”

Sansar tapped on the metal lid. “You wouldn’t happen to know how to get this open, would you? I think it might lead to tunnels that can get us into the city, but we can’t figure out how to open it.”

“That is because they do not open,” Fentayl said. “Never in all of our history—not since the gods made them—have they opened.”

“Do you know where they go?”

“Yes,” the Minchantaa replied. “They go Home.”

“Can you take us there?”

The leader looked at the other Minchantaa, then turned back to Sansar. “Yes, we will take you there if you give us your vow as a warrior to harm no one you find there or along the way.”

“I give you my vow.”

“Then you may bring five of your warriors,” Fentayl said. “Follow me.” She turned, and the three Minchantaa skittered quickly into the forest.

* * *

Redoubt, Talus, Talus Star System

Jim watched as the flight of Phoenix dropships screamed by overhead and unloaded a wave of powerful missiles. Get some, he mentally snarled as the ordnance slammed into the side of the mountain with a series of titanic detonations.

They’d pulled out of Leaning Peak twenty-four hours ago. The trials had been completed in short order, and, as Buddha feared, the convicted traitors were executed. However, thanks to Jim’s intervention, 77 men and women were spared. He didn’t watch the actual executions; he’d seen enough death in his time as a merc company commander already. He simply confirmed that the weapons were distributed to the civilians, then mobilized his troopers.

The Cavaliers advanced along a rugged mountain road which wove through the Crystal Mountains for 50 kilometers. Besquith drones harassed them intermittently, only now they didn’t do it with impunity. With the fall of the orbital defense base at Leaning Peak, the Winged Hussars were able to use their own drones much more effectively. Every time the aliens tried an airstrike, the Hussars knocked them out of the sky.

Besquith assault troopers attacked the Gitmo’s Own troopers, who were working along a divergent path, trying to create a pincer attack. Colonel Spence’s troopers punched through the attack with no difficulty, and the enemy fell back to their mountain stronghold. It was at that point Jim decided he was tired of playing games. The dropships returned to Bucephalus, were rearmed for ground attack, and returned loaded for Oogar.

The fourth bombing run pounded the slope of the mountain around the facility. Huge chunks of the mountain were blown into the sky and rained down like meteorites. Once the last of the debris was out of the air, Jim moved away from the cliff they’d been using as cover to get a better view. Fire was pouring out of several craters, a clear indication they’d inflicted some serious damage this time.

“That did the trick,” Hargrave transmitted. His Second Platoon was further up the hillside, ready to defend against surprise air attack. After the fiasco around Sulphur Springs, two troopers from each platoon had been equipped with anti-air lasers from the dropship resupplies.

“Roger that,” Jim replied. “I’m going to see if they’re willing to pack it in again.”

“Worth a try,” Hargrave agreed.

Jim programmed his CASPer’s radio to simultaneously broadcast on all the common planetary frequencies they’d picked up signals from. His suit’s radio systems were considerably more powerful than most other suits in his unit, as were the other platoon and company commanders’. When you were running dozens or even hundreds of troopers in combat conditions, it was essential you could reach people when you wanted to, not just when it was convenient. He also set his translator to broadcast in Besquith, just in case.

“Attention Besquith forces in the Redoubt facility, this is Colonel Jim Cartwright of Cartwright’s Cavaliers. We are prepared to offer you surrender terms.”

“To entropy with you, Human,” came the immediate reply.

Well, Jim thought, at least they finally replied. “You should note, we’ve established air superiority. I’m prepared to simply bombard that mountain until your facility is nothing but rubble. I’d just as soon save the ordnance, but it’s your call.”

Japu, the Lumar commander of Big Fist, loped up. He’d been given a modified headset, letting him listen into the command channel. He spoke to Jim as he approached. “Besquith are as stubborn as Goka,” he said and pointed at an entry where a stream of alien troopers was pouring out.

It looked like the Besquith wanted to make a last stand instead of surrendering or getting blown up in place. Jim sighed. He detested wholesale slaughter. However, he detested losing men even more. He keyed his radio.

“Phoenix Flight One, Cartwright Actual.”

“Cartwright Actual, go for Phoenix Flight One.”

“I have a fire mission,” Jim said and transmitted the live telemetry from his suit.

The Besquith got halfway to Jim’s unit before the flight of five Phoenix dropships screamed overhead and dropped their payloads. The Besquith forces were engulfed in death. In seconds, there were no survivors. Jim was silent in his CASPer; only the sound of the atmospheric processing system and hybrid hydrogen fuel cells interrupted his reverie.

“You did what you had to, kid,” Hargrave’s voice said over their private command channel.

“We’re mercs, not executioners,” Jim said. He hoped he never got the taste for wholesale slaughter, even of crazy Besquith. Hargrave didn’t add anything. “We need to get in there and finish securing what’s left of the facility.”

Japu observed the slaughter emotionlessly. Once the Besquith met their end, he turned to look at Jim’s powered armor, waiting to be acknowledged.

“Are you going to enter there?” Japu said, pointing to the still-open mountain facility.

“Yes,” Jim said over his PA speaker. “We need to secure the facility.”

“Let us do this,” Japu said.

“You barely have enough equipment to protect yourself,” Jim pointed out.

“Your armor is huge,” Japu said, “you will not do as well in there as we. Also, two of my people have been there.”

“Hargrave?” Jim said on their private channel.

“Go, Jim.”

“The Lumar want to go in.”

“They aren’t exactly well equipped,” Hargrave said.

“I explained that, and he said they were better suited to go in there.”

“What do you think?”

“I’d hate to see them get chewed up, but Japu is pretty confident. He says two of them have been inside Redoubt.” He thought for a second. “I say let them have a go of it. They want to prove themselves.”

“I concur,” Hargrave said. “Let them try.”

“Okay,” Jim said to Japu, “go ahead.”

“We will not fail,” Japu immediately ran to his people. In minutes, the entire team was loping up the mountainside as fast as any CASPer could have managed with its jumpjets.

Shit, Jim thought. Splunk wiggled out of her space in the thigh compartment and up to the chest where she watched the Tri-V display.

“Lumar fight along, <Cheek!>” she asked.

“Yes,” Jim said. “They wanted to do this by themselves.”

Splunk watched the aliens disappear up the mountainside until Jim switched to FLIR, the forward-looking infrared, to track their progress. Her ears were back in concentration as she observed. Jim glanced down at her, the intense look on her elfin face was not really curiosity. To him it appeared more akin to someone watching how a machine they’d crafted was functioning.

Jim started thinking about their adventures halfway across the galaxy, the Tri-V image of a Lumar in a Raknar, an all-too-familiar Fae on its shoulder. Interacting with the Lumar, like he had during their travels, made him shake his head. The Lumar couldn’t be the Dusman, the Kahraman’s foes in the Great War 20,000 years ago. These beings weren’t inventive creators, they couldn’t have manufactured the 30-meter-tall mecha known as Raknar.

The Lumar reached the entrance and stormed inside. They attacked with a surety and fearlessness that surprised Jim. It also made him wonder why so many races seemed to underestimate and abuse the Lumar. They seemed extremely faithful, if you just chose to reward them with a small amount of respect.

Big Fist secured the former stronghold of the alien occupying force in only 90 minutes, and with almost no casualties. The Besquith had thrown nearly every available trooper at Jim’s forces, leaving just a few guards and technical staff. Most of them surrendered, and the Lumar rooted out the few who wouldn’t.

Jim led his unit into the facility as the Lumar worked to contain the fires started by the bombardment. At the same time, Gitmo’s Own took possession of Redoubt’s landing field and motor pool. As Jim suspected, the Besquith had been nearly out of drones by the time the base fell. Finally at a secure location, his comms specialists set up a secure orbital relay, and he was able to get a complete battlespace readout.

Unfortunately, the rest of the assault wasn’t going as well. As the map developed, he cursed silently.

When he’d been tasked with command of the ground forces against Talus, Jim had consulted with Hargrave on how to best prosecute the campaign. He’d been given seven merc companies, including his own—the largest assault force of the campaign. Talus was the largest Human colony, and the Horsemen all considered its liberation vital to the success of that campaign.

At Hargrave’s advice, Jim had split the assault forces into three teams. His Cavaliers and Gitmo’s own, the only two units specializing in orbital assault, went after the crucial targets of Leaning Peak and Redoubt, home of Talus’ orbital defenses. Once Leaning Peak was taken, it freed the two other teams to proceed.

The two foreign units he’d brought with him, Dood Wraak from South Africa and the 1st Highland Regiment from Scotland, landed at Ember Plains, a regional food production center. Surrounded by hundreds of kilometers of farmland, the town held 200,000 people and was classified as a soft target. Colonel Koppenhoefer from Dood Wraak was in command with two battalions of light infantry and a single company of older CASPers. The Highlanders brought just one company of nearly new CASPers and one of light infantry, but considerable experience.

They took their objective easily and had begun to advance northwest up Ember Road toward the capital, Johnstown, when they were hit by a battalion of heavy armor coming across the Rapid River, down from Sawtown to the north. Once again, intel was shit, and there’d been no warning. The armor was Zuul and tough as shit; Jim had personal experience with their tanks.

The other element was led by Colonel Gries with Triple T. Gries’ unit was large—two entire battalions of CASPers, mostly Mk 8s. With him were Colonel Leanne Jenning’s Hellcats and their two companies of mostly Mk 7 CASPers and a company of light infantry. They also had Colonel Un Xian’s Red Lancers, a single platoon of modern CASPers and a company of specialized infantry. Xian’s unit was a rare bird in Human mercs, specializing in scouting and recon.

Gries intended to set down as close to Johnstown as possible. However, when their big transports started taking fire, the units redirected and came down unopposed in the fishing settlement of Smoker, 250 kilometers south of Johnstown, along the shore of the Great Shallow Sea. With only a population of 20,000, the little town was all but overrun with hundreds of Human mercs, vehicles, equipment, and CASPers.

Once Gries got all his forces down, he sent the Lancers up the Coastal Highway toward the capital to scout. They immediately encountered a battalion of Besquith troopers digging in at Graball, the next town. Despite the intel reaching Colonel Gries, it took him four hours to mobilize a company of CASPers, and another half hour to cross the intervening 20 kilometers. Neither Triple T nor the Hellcats specialized in rapid assault. The Besquith were well entrenched by the time Gries arrived.

The Lancers attempted to scout a route around Graball and found rough, rocky, and steep terrain to the east, which was unsuitable for the various tracked and wheeled transports of the infantry elements. The CASPers could advance, but only if they left their support and infantry behind. The assault force was repelled by the Besquith defenders.

Jim examined the map at that stage of the assault. He would have left a small harassing force at Graball to keep the Besquith from disengaging and instead moved the bulk of the forces east, down the Road to the Crystals, which eventually led to Ember Plains. Gries could have linked up with Koppenhoefer, defeated the Zuul armor, and advanced on Johnstown. Unfortunately, Gries hadn’t seen it the same way.

Triple T moved forward with a full-scale assault against Graball, which turned into a major sustained firefight. Merc combat wasn’t usually a slugfest. One side or the other would decide it wasn’t worth the losses and fall back or give up, hoping to get ransomed. The war against humanity didn’t follow those rules. The Besquith fought with the same intensity at Graball as they’d fought with at Redoubt.

“Why didn’t he call for air support?” Jim asked.

“He’s not used to having it,” Hargrave guessed.

Jim quietly cursed again. Colonel Gries obviously didn’t like being subordinate to a twenty-one-year-old merc commander, even if that same man was a Horseman. It looked to him like the older man was trying to make a point and was instead making mistakes. The last thing Jim wanted to do was take direct command, but Triple T and the Hellcats were bogged down in street-to-street fighting at Graball, a coastal city of 8,000 mostly fisherman, and of no real strategic importance to the conquest.

“I think I need to take Alpha Company over and dig him out of that mess,” Jim said.

“I think you’re right,” Hargrave agreed. “But Gries is going to take it personally.”

“I’ve considered that,” Jim admitted.

“Figured you did, just needed to mention it.”

“Thanks. Contact a Phoenix flight to come pick us up. We’ll do a hot LZ behind the Besquith and flank them.”

They were aboard dropships and airborne in less than an hour. Hargrave had the Hussars in orbit patch him directly through to Colonel Gries, and he informed the commander of Triple T that Jim and his company was coming to drop in behind the wolves. Gries didn’t acknowledge the transmission.

“What’s that mean?” Jim asked Hargrave as the dropship climbed away from Redoubt in the Crystal Mountains.

“Can’t be comms failures,” Hargrave said. “His XO was just talking to me.”

Jim considered for a second as the Phoenix dropship’s engines screamed, lifting them up to 10,000 meters before angling westward. “Ask the Hussars TacCom for a detailed feed in and around Graball.”

“Coming in on your computer,” Hargrave said less than a minute later.

Jim watched his combat computer assemble the data and cursed out loud this time. “Crazy son of a bitch just attacked straight at the center of the Besquith lines.”

“He’s taking major losses,” Buddha said, also seeing the same data. “Why didn’t he wait?”

“Because he’s letting his pride override his tactical common sense,” Hargrave said.

As the dropships flew westward, Jim watched the remainder of one entire battalion of CASPers race through the gap they’d created and advance up the Coastal Road at high speed. Behind them, the Besquith closed ranks once more and no other units were able to get through. Jim scowled. “Get me Colonel Gries.”

“What do you want?” Gries voice came a minute later, the sounds of his CASPer audible over the radio.

“Colonel, stop your advance and hold, something is wrong,” Jim said.

“The only thing wrong is we did it without you, Cavalier,” Gries said, the scorn evident in his voice.

“They let you though,” Jim persisted.

“Bullshit.”

“Listen to him, Shane,” Hargrave urged.

“We paid a fair price for that breakout,” Gries insisted. “Once we’re a couple dozen klicks toward West Trace, I’ll come around and engage the Besquith from behind.”

Jim checked the orbital feed once more. There was no sign of pursuit from the Besquith. It had to be some kind of ambush. “I’m telling you, Colonel Gries, stop now and hold for our arrival.” Jim looked at the camera feed from the dropship he was flying in. The coast was visible in the distance as they flew at more than three times the speed of sound. Data on their flightpath was included in the feed. “Our ETA is seven minutes.”

“We’ve got this in hand,” Gries insisted.

Jim’s dropship raced on with the rest of the flight. He ground his teeth, willing them to hurry. The minutes creeped by until only four remained.

“Dropping to subsonic,” the pilot told him.

“Roger that,” Jim replied. The tactical feed showed the battalion of Triple T now ten kilometers north of Graball and stopping, apparently preparing to come around. The Besquith hadn’t moved. “Colonel Gries, we’ll be on the ground in a couple minutes.”

“I’ve already said we don’t need you, go assist the South Africans or the Scots.”

The orbital data from the Winged Hussars suddenly flashed a warning. One or more missiles had launched from Johnstown. “Colonel, you have inbound ordnance!” Jim warned.

“We know,” was Gries’ curt reply, “I have anti-air ready to—”

The transmission cut off with a squeal and Jim gasped. The forward view from the dropship’s camera turned to static. What the fuck? he wondered. A second later the image returned. A mushroom cloud centered over the last position of Colonel Greis’ unit was climbing into the sky.

* * *

CIC, EMS Franklin Buchanan, Emergence Point, Paradise System

“Welcome to Paradise!” the navigator said. He chuckled. “I always wanted to say that.”

“Less jokes,” the captain, Lieutenant Commander Eshek, said. A Sidar, he wasn’t known for his sense of humor. “More work. Launch drones. Let us find out what our adversaries are doing.”

Nigel Shirazi looked at the tan planet on the main Tri-V screen and smiled. “That planet reminds me of New Persia.”

“If New Persia is a desert world,” the captain replied, “then, yes, it should.”

“It is,” Nigel said with a nod.

“Well then, you can have it,” the captain said. “I don’t like them. The sand gets into places it shouldn’t and rubs me something fierce.”

“Happily, I’ll be the one going down there then, if needed,” Nigel said. “Desert planets are great.” He made a motion of shooting a pistol. “There’s nothing to get in the way of your shot.”

“Contact!” the sensor operator said. “There are Merc Guild forces in orbit over the planet.”

“Type and number?” the captain asked.

“Looks like three cruisers, sir, plus a number of supporting ships. Including what looks like three transports.”

“Understood,” the captain replied. “See if you can make contact with the civilian government and get a status update. On the speakers, please.”

“This is Meredith McGee,” a voice said. “I am the mayor of Underdeep. Do I have you to thank for the cessation of bombing?”

“This is Captain Eshek of the EMS Franklin Buchanan. We just arrived at the emergence point, so I doubt if it’s anything we did.”

“Well, any assistance you can provide would be greatly appreciated. I have ships in orbit bombing us and bugs in my tunnels.”

“Excuse me, ma’am,” Nigel said. “This is Colonel Nigel Shirazi of Asbaran Solutions. What kind of bug problem do you have?”

“I haven’t been down there, but Colonel Walker says he’s, and I quote, ‘Up to his ass in Goka.’”

“Colonel Walker?” Nigel asked. “Colonel Dan Walker?”

“Yes,” the mayor replied. “Why?”

Nigel turned to the captain. “Two things. First, Walker was with the Arion when it was chasing down the Keesius. How the hell did he get here, and where the hell is the Arion? Second, and more importantly, Walker saved my ass from a Goka attack in the Merc Guild headquarters, and he hates those things. We need to get there and help him, right now!

“Full speed ahead,” the captain ordered. “Mayor, we are on our way.”

“Can you take the ships in orbit?” Nigel asked.

“They have three cruisers,” the captain said. “In addition to the battlecruiser Buchanan, I have four Crown-class cruisers, two light cruisers, and six frigates. My guess is that they will run, but if they want to stay and play, it will be their end.” The captain chuckled. “You will want to get your troops assembled; we will be there soon.”

Nigel spared one more glance at the front Tri-V screen. “I’d much rather kill aliens and get paid,” he said, “but if they’re putting my friend in danger, today, I’ll be happy to do it for free.”

* * *

Winged Hussars Prime Base, New Warsaw Star System

Sato spent the next week settling into his new forced seclusion. Most of his interactions were with various marines and occasionally HST, Home Security Team, members. He had full access to the various Hussars networks, both civilian, as a member of the Winged Hussars family, and military, via his rank as a member of the elite Geek Squad. With those accesses, he knew work within New Warsaw continued at a fevered pace.

Elements of the Golden Horde were furiously working to finish a decades’ long defensive project in and around Prime Base. The ancient station dated back to the great galactic war more than 20,000 years ago and was truly massive. The Winged Hussars had been working to activate old defenses and install new ones, while devising the best way to use both should the secret base ever be discovered.

Food was produced in a number of greenhouses in the little-used areas of Prime Base. However, production of food in space was problematic and limited to mass growing of algae and some small crustaceans used in space operations rations. Most of the “regular” food was grown down on the planet they simply called Home. It was a dark planet because New Warsaw’s sun was an ancient red giant that provided substantial infrared radiation but little visible light. Plants on Home were adapted to the atmosphere and yielded a plethora of foodstuffs.

Mining operations continued to keep the various industries working at peak efficiency. Those varied from raw materials production for ship building, to production of consumer goods to supply the thousands of dependents with the necessities of life.

Finally, there were the extensive military manufacturing operations. Consisting of six manufactories salvaged by the first Winged Hussars, they were fed raw materials from the mining operations and a few scarce materials stockpiled from out-system. Self-contained robotic factories, the manufactories created everything from computer slates to small spaceships.

One of the regular jobs Sato oversaw was managing the manufactories. While they were incredibly versatile machines which could operate with almost no supervision, including self-repairing features, they were the ultimate in savant. Sato compared a manufactory with a Jeha—it was incapable of doing anything except exactly what you told it to do.

After his disturbing meeting with Nemo and undergoing a procedure on his pinplants, Sato was escorted back to his quarters. The marine, Private Shev, showed little interest in whether Sato was successful in fixing his professed problem. He simply made sure the scientist was returned to his quarters and secured. Sato dropped into his bunk and rested while his brain processed the changes.

As usual, he awoke to the insistent automatic alarm he’d set next to his bunk. The difference that morning was he remembered something. He remembered floating in a strange circular passageway inside a ship he’d never been in. How could he remember it? Was that a dream? He wondered. He didn’t know, because he never dreamed. At least, until now.

As he went about the business of using his private autochef to make a breakfast of tea, toast, and some boiled fish, Sato began to wonder if the pinplant modifications were a mistake. Using those very same pinplants, he called up the schematics and examined them. Nemo assured him the connections to his higher brain functions wouldn’t affect Sato’s day-to-day mental faculties. Who better to assure him than an alien who’d had his tentacles inside your brain?

His pinplants seemed to be working fine. The modifications wouldn’t make them work any differently until he needed the new functionality. Assuming he’d get a chance to use it one day. Putting the strange nighttime memories aside, he went back to work examining the manufactories’ progress in their various assigned tasks. He was at the end of a week’s work when his boss finally visited him.

Sato looked up from his lunch of rice and fish as his door buzzed. “Come,” he said and cleaned up the last of his food. The door slid aside to show a familiar elSha standing there. “Hello, Kleena,” Sato said. “Nice of you to finally stop by.” Sato gestured for Kleena to come in, and he did.

“I’ve been off overseeing the final refitting work on Dragon,” Kleena said.

Sato nodded. The Fiend-class drone carrier was undergoing a refit he’d designed. The ship would be the first of a new class dubbed Intruder, and they would carry the Avenger-class space bomber. A craft which was also his design, and currently being produced by Manufactory #2. “How’s it coming?” Sato asked.

“We’ve had a few issues with the robotic recovery system, but I think Larras figured it out.”

Larras was one of the Geek Squad’s Jeha. He was particularly good at solving direct engineering and robotics problems. Jeha were known as exceptional ship builders, just not exceptional designers. Like the other two Jeha in the squad, called Thing 1 and Thing 2 by the colonel, Larras wasn’t a master of creating new things. Their ships tended to be improved or upgraded versions of older designs. They also maintained massive ship refit and repair yards which suited them quite well.

“Good,” Sato said. He remained seated as the elSha stood regarding him. The elSha resembled Earth geckos, including the ability to look in two directions at the same time with independently moving eye turrets. Both were focused on Sato, a sure sign he had the alien’s complete attention. “Sato, you fucked up.”

“So I’ve heard,” Sato said dryly.

“No, I’m serious this time. Colonel Cromwell has tolerated your behavior in the past because you’ve accomplished great things for the Winged Hussars. But entropy, Sato!” He shook his head and sighed, a sure sign of how long Kleena had been around Humans.

“That ship needed to be investigated,” Sato insisted.

“Yes, I had planned to do it.”

“Without me, of course,” Sato said in a surly manner.

“Frankly, I hadn’t made up my mind yet. We were going to board with marines, just in case, and once we were sure the ship was safe, the Geek Squad would have boarded to begin our assessment. At some point, we’d have brought you in.” Sato snorted. “You think that would have been a bad idea? Your actions confirmed it would have been the correct course of action. Sato, people died. An entire planet almost died!”

Sato didn’t know how to respond, so he just asked a question. “Then what happens to me?”

“Frankly? I don’t know. Colonel Cromwell will have to make that decision. We’re at war, so you won’t get exiled…yet.”

Sato gave a little gasp. Would they really throw him out of New Warsaw? Someone like him wouldn’t have a problem finding a living. The Hussars paid him well, and he had nothing to spend it on. All his needs were provided. Last time he’d looked, his account was well over five million credits. Money wasn’t the problem. But if he was exiled from the Winged Hussars, where would he find such incredible challenges and new discoveries? The idea was horrifying.

“E-exiled?” he asked with a stutter. Kleena nodded. “But there’s so much more I need to do. Work on 2nd level hyperspace and the salvage we brought back, the new CASPers, the design for the new class of battlecruiser, and a hundred other things.”

“You aren’t the only scientist here,” Kleena reminded him.

Sato considered and was forced to admit Kleena was right. He might be the smartest, even the most able, scientist in the Hussars’ employ, but the others together probably surpassed his abilities in the whole. Chikushō, he thought. “What can I do?”

“Work hard,” Kleena said.

“I am,” Sato said, pleading. “Every day.”

“No, I mean just work. Work your ass off, as you Humans like to say. Work, and don’t cause even a tiny problem. If you so much as screw with a computer terminal, I won’t speak up for you when the colonel gets back.”

“We’ve been friends for years,” Sato said dejectedly.

“Yes,” Kleena said, “and I’m still your friend. The Winged Hussars are my family, too. People died, Sato. You have got to learn to use your head for more than science.” Then, in his typical elSha manner, Kleena departed without another word. Sato was left with a profound feeling of betrayal.

Of course, the personal feelings had nothing to do with his abilities. Even as he considered the conversation, he went back to work finalizing changes to Manufactory #6. The machine was the least reliable of the six and was constantly falling out of trim in producing its assigned materials. Nobody had noticed it was producing at a gradually reduced effectiveness. The loss was only five percent total, but Sato noticed, of course.

What do I do? he wondered as he worked. My creativity has always been one of my strongest assets. “People died, Sato,” Kleena had said. They worked for a mercenary company; of course people died. Sato designed weapons system, after all. Sato didn’t use the weapons himself; he left that to others. He’d never killed anyone. That’s not true. The thought made him shudder. And this isn’t the first time.

“I’ve been a fool,” he said and sighed. Self-introspective moments were few and far between for Sato. It didn’t help being brought up Japanese—a proud, creative, and industrious people. He’d also been brought up to never admit a mistake, almost a cultural prerogative. Yet here he was, being forced to admit Kleena was right. He’d fucked up, and other people had died for his fuck up.

Sato went back to work, digging into his various projects with a vengeance. He was so absorbed with his work a technician had to come visit him and ask if his autochef needed replenishment. Sato was working with such single-minded determination he’d been unaware he was selecting whatever the machine still had in inventory. He had subsisted for two days on toast and tea, not extending his powerful brain beyond his self-assigned tasks.

Four days after Kleena’s visit, Sato had amassed a considerable list of completed tasks. He’d handled reassignments on three of the manufactories, a job that usually took most of a week for each operational change. He’d reviewed the performance reports on the Avenger bombers filed by Hussars instructors and SalSha test pilots. After those reviews, he submitted retrofit instructions on the existing models, and updated the template in the manufactory tasked with making the bombers.

Sato also entered more than 200,000 words in a report on the Keesius doomsday ship, including recordings salvaged from his modified CASPer and personal observations gleaned while interacting with the ship’s simple AI. It was impressive what you could do if you only slept two hours in every 24. He was determined Kleena would have nothing to report on him except a huge list of accomplishments.

With those tasks finished, he took a slight break from pure brain-work and tended to his CASPer. It had been dutifully moved to his lab the day after his return. Without thinking about his personal commitment, he made upgrades on his CASPer to avoid future shutdowns similar to what the marines had done to it on the Keesius. He also incorporated a dozen other improvements, then left it on the diagnostic rack before going back to other work.

He went back to a particularly interesting item—an artifact brought from 2nd level hyperspace. It was a shuttle stolen from a derelict ship by Corporal Rick Culper and Sergeant Eva Johansson. But the shuttle wasn’t from the derelict, it belonged to another race, possibly one native to 2nd level hyperspace.

The ship looked like nothing Humans had ever designed. Sleek and organic in appearance, it more closely resembled a manta ray. When he’d first gotten his hands on it, Sato had wondered if it was derived from a living thing. There appeared to be no seams in its construction. Then he’d begun examining it from the inside and found plenty of indications of construction. The outer hull had appeared to be manufactured in one piece. The very effort and technique that would take amazed Sato, who knew he’d been given a treat.

By the time they brought it back to New Warsaw, he’d already taken the shuttle completely apart. The hull had turned out to be made from three parts, not one. The engineering was incredibly elegant. Sato also found tantalizing hints of what the owners must have looked like from the shape of the seats, control interface designs, and the atmosphere. There was zero doubt; the owners weren’t Human. Of course, he’d already known that.

It was unlike anything manufactured in the Union, either currently or in the past. Some of the internal components defied understanding as well. Sato had organized them into three categories. The first was recognizable technology. This included the lighting, air lock designs, and the basic nature of the controls. Second was technology whose function Sato understood, but he wasn’t sure why it was made differently. Those items were the propulsion system, life support, and sensors. Third, and last, were things he had no clue about.

In the time he’d worked on the shuttle, he’d just about finished his write-ups on the second category items. He was certain they were the result of adaptation to the strange environment of 2nd level hyperspace. Propulsion was made to work in the contrariness of how gravity and inertia worked there, furthering the theory the shuttle was native to there. He made notes to upload a new maneuvering bios to all Hussars ships for the next time they were there; flying around wouldn’t be a problem anymore. The sensors were a similar situation, though he was still tweaking his understanding of that. The exact methodology still eluded him.

The unknown items were what inevitably drew his attention. His very nature was offended by a technology which defied his understanding. He was driven to continue pushing until he figured it out. Two items from the shuttle were the worst. One was shielding, which was not unlike the all-but-ubiquitous technology in the Galactic Union. Only it didn’t work in normal space.

He put a lot of time into that, going as far as to employ his miniature vacuum chamber for bench testing prototypes. You had to be careful with shields in an atmosphere; they tended to have catastrophic reactions against high barometric differences created from simple movements. Which was the reason there were no planetside shields, of course.

He fitted the strange shield technology onto a tiny ship in what he called his space tunnel, a play on the term wind tunnel. Using sensors, he watched as he tried to make the unusual tech produce a shield. A zone of augmented nuclear strong force should have formed around the test vehicle. He observed it trying to do just that, except it would only form a tiny fraction of a shield and then the zone of targeted strong force would collapse.

“So frustrating,” he said, returning to his space tunnel for the first time since he had his ride on the Keesius. Whoever moved his lab had also moved the space tunnel. He was doubtful they had any idea what it was. There were probably a great many things in the lab that confused the average being. That gave him a little smile. Sato did enjoy being smart. Then he frowned. “Why won’t you work?” he asked the inanimate object, which, of course, didn’t answer him.

Sato ran another test sequence. As it had weeks ago, it failed in exactly the same way. He scowled as the slate attached to the space tunnel displayed the test run. He sat down on one of the dozen stools scattered around the lab and stared at the tunnel. Being away so long gave him some new perspective. “Maybe a different approach?” he said.

He pressurized the space tunnel and took out the shuttle model. Shield tech didn’t scale perfectly for a smaller size like the one-meter long model, although it worked well enough. He’d built this model the same as the ones for the new generation battlecruiser, a model of which was on a shelf nearby, so he took that out and examined it. That battlecruiser model was covered in twenty-two emitters. Being methodical, Sato covered the test model with the same numbers of emitters, then used copies of the alien shield generator design.

Sato looked from one model to the other. He knew the battlecruiser model’s shields worked, so why was the fundamental theory behind these new shields not working? The math was…strange, sure. However, it should have produced a nuclear strong field. It was like using two calculations to arrive at the same solution. So, it should work, right?

He put the battlecruiser model back and returned to the new test model. “If one emitter works, that’s a start?” he said. Sato opened the model and disconnected all but one of the emitters, then put it back in the tunnel and let the pumps depressurize it. He confirmed a near-perfect vacuum then ran another test sequence. It should have produced a less than perfect field, weak and unreliable, but a field, nonetheless.

A field formed and stayed. “Yes!” He nodded. Then the sensor data showed a strange warping, followed by a zone of nothing. “What the fuck is that?” he said. The sensors had registered a shield, only, it wasn’t a shield. He moved his sensor probe to the side of the tunnel where the sole emitter was still connected and got more nothing. Several other sensor modules started sounding off all over the lab. It was as though the shield was reflecting his attempts to scan it. “What the fuck?” he said again. Sato moved the sensor probe to the other side. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

“That isn’t possible,” he said, and shut everything down. He pressurized the tunnel, removed the model, reconnected all the emitters, depressurized the tunnel, and ran the sequence again. Results returned to the same as what he got originally. A nuclear strong force zone tried to establish and promptly failed. He ran it three more times before screaming in frustration and giving up.

Trying to clear his mind of the frustrating results, Sato left the 2nd level hyperspace shuttle behind. There was another mystery apparatus, but after being stymied so thoroughly, he had no intention of potentially subjecting himself to failure again.

He went over to the small manufactory in his lab and checked on another project. The machine had been dutifully making one part after another in a programmed sequence for weeks. Full-scale manufactories possessed hundreds of machines once called 3D printers. That was an oversimplification of what a manufactory could do. His miniature manufactory would have been more recognizable as a 3D printer in the previous century, albeit coupled with several robotic manipulators and large rack of raw material supply bins.

He examined the orderly bins of manufactured parts and nodded in satisfaction. This, at least, had gone well in his absence. He used his pinplants to pull up the schematics brought back from New Persia and smiled. This would be satisfying after the previous hours of frustration. Sato set about assembling the prototype Mk 9 CASPer, the product of untold thousands of hours of design work by Binnig Industries on Earth.

He slept for a couple hours after getting the prototype started; he was worried something was wrong. He woke up with the same images running through his mind—dreams of a strange spaceship’s interior. Already frustrated because his sleep didn’t leave him refreshed like it should have, he went back to the prototype and picked up where he’d left off. As his midday mealtime arrived, Sato had confirmed it, something was wrong. The prototype Mk 9 wasn’t going together correctly.

He possessed extensive knowledge of CASPer design. In order to rework his personal Mk 7, he’d gone through every design iteration, all the way back to the Mk 2. Binnig’s engineers were not incredibly innovative; they seemed to prefer incremental, practiced, and economically profitable improvements. When he’d first seen the summary of the Mk 9, he’d been impressed. Here was a true leap forward. It was almost half the bulk of the Mk 8 while being nearly as protective, three times as fast, and able to mount considerable firepower. It would have been revolutionary. The original Four Horsemen’s dream, given life. A quantum leap forward. Except the half-built prototype in his lab was none of that. It was, simply put, junk.

Sato stopped his assembly and went back to the files from New Persia. Petabytes of designs, page after page of individual parts, electronics, and specifications—everything needed to build the most advanced powered armor ever built. Every single part a new design, the culmination of a century of design innovation. Only, it wasn’t. Something was deeply wrong with the files themselves. He began to look at the underlying code of the files. The encryption that produced each of the thousands of designs and specifications that would be fed into a manufactory in order to make the CASPer.

As his dinnertime approached, the conclusion was unavoidable. The files were corrupted at the base code. The encryption should have made that impossible. The encoding process used was Union standard, timeless, completely reliable. It was like standing on a planet and tossing a ball in the air, it would land back in your hand every time, as expected. It could not fail. Only here was a file which was corrupted by the incorruptible.

Sato looked back at the prototype—physical proof that the file was corrupted. It had to be. A single part with an engineering problem or error was possible. But in this case, every single part was wrong—some of them fundamentally. He was relatively certain some of the parts were not even part of the Mk 9, but from an earlier model, or simply not part of the suit at all. He took one of them and ran a search on it. It was a Binnig part. From a 75-year-old Type 89 Industrial Loader. Other parts were obviously meant for the Mk 9 CASPer, but the measurements and details were wrong by mere micrometers, as if they’d been done sloppily. Or were purposefully wrong.

He looked at the checksums on the file’s encryption. They were perfect. It was impossible. It was so reliable—if there was a problem in transmission, the program would have immediately realized it and retransmitted that part. Yet, here it was, corrupted.

“I can’t fix it, either,” he admitted. A couple parts, sure. But this was screwed up so systematically it would require almost as much work to reproduce it as had gone into the original design. It was a seriously effective corruption job.

Well done, Proctor.

“Who said that?” he asked, jumping off the stool and looking around. The voice had been right over his shoulder, as if the speaker had been standing behind him.

Acquire, corrupt, destroy.

Sato spun in a circle, looking about frantically for the speaker, but found nobody. He looked back at the slate. It was projecting the display of the checksums and data signatures from Binnig of the Mk 9 design files. In that second, he knew. He knew how it had been done.

“Oh,” he said, and sat back down. “Oh my.” The lab was quiet except for various machines running, doing their designed jobs. “Now what do I do?”

* * * * *


Chapter Ten


One Kilometer West of Manaus, Main Continent, Chislaa

“There it is,” Fentayl said. “Home.” She pointed to a thicket of large trees. The stand of trees was a circle nearly thirty meters in diameter, with each individual tree nearly ten meters in diameter. They appeared to have been planted close together when they were smaller, but they had grown together to present an almost solid surface.

“Oh,” Sansar said, disappointment heavy in her voice.

“What?” the leader asked, obviously picking up on her emotion.

“I’m sorry, but I expected something…else. I don’t know…I guess I hoped you had a secret entrance to the tunnels…something that could help us…something…more.”

The three Minchantaa began laughing. “You think the trees are our home? Why would we want to live in trees?”

“You must leave your shells here,” Fentayl said when she stopped laughing. “Although there is room below, my people will be frightened of you in them.” She waved to Sansar. “You must come out of your shells.”

“They will be frightened of them without their shells, too,” one of the other Minchantaa noted.

“Yes,” the leader replied, “but we will make do.”

Sansar opened her canopy. “Dismount, everyone.”

“You’re sure about this?” Mun asked on a private circuit.

“No,” Sansar replied. “But we need their help, or we’re going to have to kill a lot of innocent civilians to capture the city—and a lot of our own troops. It’s a gamble, but I think I trust them.”

“How about if we leave three of the troops here, geared up, and you, Jacobs, and I go with them?” Mun asked. “That will leave a ready-reaction force here. Not saying we’ll need it, but if we do…”

“They can come running,” Sansar finished. “Good idea.” She switched to the group net. “Jacobs, you’re with us. The rest of you stay here in your CASPers in case anything happens.”

Sansar, Mun, and Staff Sergeant Jacobs got out of their suits, causing a reaction from the Minchantaa guards, which was waved off by their leader. They grabbed their laser pistols and went to stand by Fentayl.

“I never gave you my name,” Sansar said, “but I am Sansar Enkh of the Golden Horde, and these are my warriors Mun and Jacobs.”

“This ‘Golden Horde,’ is the gods’ messengers?”

“No, we are not messengers from the gods,” Sansar replied. “Why do you keep calling us that?”

“Come,” Fentayl said. She led the group around to the other side of the trees, to where several armed Minchantaa guarded the entrance into the interior of the grove.

As they rounded the last tree, all three Humans drew in a breath—there was one of the giant metal lids, covering a huge opening that led underground…and it was open!

“You do have one of these open!” Sansar exclaimed. “How did you open it?”

“We didn’t,” Fentayl replied. “Just wait,” she added, when Sansar started to ask another question. “Wait until you see the grzch. Then you will understand.”

Fentayl led the group to the opening. The Minchantaa had built up the level of the ground around it, so that the top of the tube was level with the surface. A ramp inside the tube led down at a fairly steep angle until they were almost ten meters below the surface, where it flattened out. The metal ramp had some sort of non-skid material on its surface, allowing them to negotiate it easily. Without the non-skid, it would have made a good slide, especially if wet.

The underground passage joined what appeared to be the primary passageway at a “T” intersection, where the tunnel extended off to both the left and the right. The walls of the shaft appeared to be the same material as the ramp had been and were ten meters wide, with a ceiling five meters high. Bundles of wires and conduits ran along the ceiling.

“What is this place?” Jacobs asked.

“No idea,” Sansar replied. “But I see why that lid is still up.” She pointed to a control pad on the wall. Not only did it appear dead, there were scorch marks above it on the wall and ceiling. “Looks like the controls must have burned out at some point. They may have tried to put this one up, too, but couldn’t.”

“Who?” Jacobs asked.

“I don’t know…yet.”

“I do know one thing,” Mun said. “The Minchantaa didn’t build this; someone else did. It looks old—really old—and they don’t have the technology now to do this. There’s no way they could have done it sometime in the past.”

“Wait until you see the grzch,” Sansar muttered in a whisper. “Then you will understand.”

Mun and Jacobs chuckled, although somewhat uncomfortably as they proceeded into the darkness, and the walls seemed to press in on them. Sansar wasn’t claustrophobic by nature, but as they walked through the underground tunnel, she realized it wouldn’t take much to make her that way. A single, dim glow strip provided a minimal amount of illumination which, after their eyes adjusted, was just enough to see by.

There was a decent amount of traffic through the tunnel, with Minchantaa coming and going in both directions. The ones they saw gave the Humans a wide berth and appeared either scared or angry to see them. Sansar wanted to ask, but figured she’d get the same reply she had gotten earlier.

After ten minutes’ travel, they came to a small cross passage. It would have been unremarkable—they’d passed many cross passages on their journey—except this one had two armed guards at its mouth. Fentayl waved, and both stepped aside, allowing them access.

“This is the grzch,” she said. She said it quietly, as if in awe of the place. “Do not touch anything, or we will kill you.”

Sansar nodded to the alien and stepped into the smaller tunnel. The space—Sansar saw it was not a tunnel, but more of a small room jutting off the main passageway—was about three meters cubed. Having the ceiling close in on her ramped up the claustrophobia. She forgot it immediately, though, when she saw the writing on the walls. Looking closer, she could see it wasn’t writing, but more a series of pictures.

“These look like cave paintings,” Jacobs said, “only better.”

“True,” replied Sansar, lost in thought as she tried to decipher them. Rather than waste time, she turned back to Fentayl. “What are we looking at here?” she asked.

The alien pushed into the room with them, making it a little more crowded, but Sansar was too engrossed to notice. “The grzch is a series of pictures that tells our history of meeting the gods,” Fentayl replied.

She pointed to the first image, which showed what looked eerily like an ant mound back on Earth. “Once, we lived below ground here, in tunnels of our making. We spent most our time there, because of the merksht.” She pointed to the next panel, where a cluster of Minchantaa with spears fought what looked like a saber-toothed tiger, three times the size of the largest Minchantaa.

She moved to the next panel. “Then, the messengers of the gods came.” All three drew in a breath. There, on the wall, was an image of a trio of mechs descending from the sky on massive plumes of fire. Sansar had no doubt that, to the Minchantaa, the mecha must have looked like gods. The mecha looked like Raknar, only smaller. Without anything to compare them to, though, it was hard to tell.

“The messengers killed the merksht and moved us up to the surface of the planet.” The next scene was what looked like a cluster of shacks with a number of Minchantaa nearby. “Then the gods came. They helped us—made some of us bigger and stronger—and we helped them build the tunnels we are now in.” The women drew in another sharp breath as two panels showed a dropship of an unknown variety landing in a clearing in the jungle, and then what looked like one of the Fae standing over a Minchantaa on an operating table.

“But then the gods grew displeased with us,” Fentayl continued. “They took all of the bigger, stronger Minchantaa, and they left to go back to the skies, and threw down fire on us. We didn’t know what we did to displease them—nor do we to this day—but their wrath was mighty. They threw down fire to show us their displeasure.” The next panel showed several mushroom clouds rising from the jungle.

“Those of us who could, fled to the tunnels, where the gods had left much of their goods, although we did not know how to use them, nor do we know what they are to this day. So we wait. We wait for the return of the gods, so that they will take us up to the skies with them, too.”

Fentayl pointed to the last picture, one that appeared newer than the rest. “We thought the gods had returned recently and we went to great them. We tried to show them that we were ready to go to the skies, but the beings who’d arrived killed us. We realized they weren’t the gods. After discussion, we decided to see if they were gods, and used our weapons on them. The invaders were not gods—they died, just like our people—and they got angry with us for testing their people. They have tried to kill us in revenge, ever since.”

“That was bad,” she continued, “but then they—you, I guess—brought in the new creatures to hunt us.”

“The HecSha,” Mun said.

“The smaller creatures with the tails.”

Sansar nodded. “They are called HecSha, but we didn’t bring them. They came here to conquer us.”

“As you say,” Fentayl replied. “When things looked darkest, we saw you in your shells and thought the messengers of the gods had returned. We did not know it was just a cruel trick on us.” She paused for a moment then added. “The gods are still displeased with us.”

“Can we have a moment to look at these by ourselves?” Sansar asked. “We promise not to touch them.”

“Yes, you may,” Fentayl replied. “But do not touch them. They are our history, and they are sacred to us. If you do anything to disfigure them, you will be killed.”

Fentayl moved out of the alcove, leaving the Horde members to discuss quietly.

“What do you think?” Sansar asked.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that this is the home world of the MinSha,” Mun replied. “Who uplifted them, why, and when, though…those are all still questions.”

“What are those floppy-eared things?” Jacobs asked, pointing at the panel with the operating table.

“It almost looks like a race known as the Fae,” Sansar said. “But I’ve had the opportunity to observe one of them up close. They are great with mechanical things, but that’s where their skills end. They are almost idiot savants—they have an innate ability to fix machines but are barely sentient outside of that.”

“So maybe the Minchantaa saw a Fae fixing part of the uplift machinery and assumed they were the ones doing the uplifting?” Jacobs asked.

“Maybe…” Sansar replied, not sold on the idea. “If that is indeed the Fae. It’s possible—probably, really—that the race in the picture isn’t the Fae, but one that just looks like them.”

“Do you know what race that is?” Mun asked.

“No, but it may be a race that was made extinct during the Great War. There’s so much we don’t know about that time; so much that doesn’t exist in the records…”

“Why is that?” Jacobs asked.

“No one knows,” Sansar replied. “Or no one is telling anyway…”

“So, how does this help us get into the city?” Mun asked.

Sansar shrugged. “The pictures don’t; they just provide additional riddles.” She turned back to where Fentayl waited in the main tunnel. “Unless I miss my guess, though, these tunnels are part of an extensive network that extends under the city.”

“It does,” Fentayl replied. “I know the ones that are under the city; we could hear your people banging on them when they came, trying to get into them. Thankfully, they were never able to breach them.”

“How many of the doors lie under the city?” Sansar asked.

“Four. From what we can tell, there is one near the center of the city, and three that are toward the edges.”

“We need to get back to the rest of our people. If you don’t mind us walking through your home, I think we can get the doors open to get into the city, and then we can work things out between your people and mine so that no one else has to die.”

* * *

Near Graball, Talus, Talus System

“Nuclear detonation protocol!” the Phoenix pilot yelled.

Jim and the rest of his squad locked their CASPers, which were in turn secured to frames in the back of the dropship. They shoved themselves back against their suit padding while the dropship crew prepared for what was coming.

The dropship bucked like it had flown into a cliff. Even braced, Jim grunted as he was smacked against the padding in his armor. Then the dropship went into a steep climb followed by a plummeting descent.

“This is bad, <Skaa!>” Splunk yelled. He felt her tiny claws bite into him through his haptic suit as she grabbed him and held on for all she was worth.

Is this it? Jim wondered. They’d been flying at a high altitude, which meant the pilots had a lot of space to get control of the ship. It was a hybrid—part spaceship and part airplane—which meant it wasn’t particularly good at being either. He closed his eyes and hoped it was good enough at flying.

They plummeted for a frighteningly long time until Jim felt the craft right itself, and Gs pulled at him as it angled upwards once more to level flight.

“Hussars TacCom to Cartwright Actual, are you okay?”

“Cartwright Actual,” Jim replied as he looked at the data feed from his dropship’s cockpit, “we’re going to be okay.” He checked the other dropships in his flight and saw they’d all fared better than his own, being somewhat behind them. “Report on what happened, please.”

“We show a 50-kiloton nuclear device was detonated directly over Alpha Company of Triple T. Colonel Gries and all the men in that unit have been killed.”

“Son of a bitch,” Jim cursed. One didn’t throw nukes at other mercs or even civilians. It was a degree of warfare beyond the pale. Bad for business, his father said when he was little, responding to just such a question from a very young Jim Cartwright.

“A massive unit of armor and infantry is forming outside the city. The surviving battalion commander of Triple T is requesting advice,” the Hussars TacCom called from orbit.

Jim briefly considered asking Captain Jormungd on Phaeton, the commander of the Winged Hussars space combat element, to take out the launcher from orbit. He considered it long and hard. The Egleesius-class ship’s weaponry would make short work of such an installation. The only problem was he and the other Horsemen commanders had all agreed not to break the rules against orbital attacks versus ground targets, even if their alien adversaries didn’t respect those same rules. They were taking the high road in this conflict…as long as they could.

“TacCom, inform Triple T and the Hellcats I advise them to scatter to avoid further targeting by tactical weapons. Please maintain overwatch and fire on any more missile launches.”

“Roger that. I’ll pass along the request to Captain Jormungd.”

They might not be able to slag the launch site from orbit, but that didn’t stop space forces from shooting down missiles. He was sure Jormungd would have already had ships in position to do just that, had they known a nuclear strike was a possibility. It was a waste of orbital firepower to shoot at every rocket flying around in a battlespace. Besides, a miss could hit ground targets, and then you were back to that “against the rules” thing.

“Hargrave,” Jim called.

“Go, Jim.”

“Take the rest of the company and establish a position further up the coast, as close to West Trace as you can get. Have all the other commands ready to push hard for Johnstown.”

“And what exactly are you planning on doing?”

“I’m heading for Bucephalus,” Jim said. “I’m done playing with these fuckers.”

“What are you going to do up…” Hargrave stopped when he realized what his young commander was thinking. The channel Hargrave was broadcasting from switched to their privileged frequency. “Damn it, kid, you can’t be thinking of dropping that thing from orbit?”

“That’s exactly what I’m going to do,” Jim said, switching channels to order his dropship pilot to boost for space.

“You’ve never tried something like that,” Hargrave persisted. “Shit, you don’t even know if it can do that.”

“I know,” Jim said, and he did. He didn’t know how, he just did. “Those are my orders.”

“Very well,” Hargrave replied, his voice tense.

Jim changed frequencies again. “Captain Su?”

“Go ahead, Colonel Cartwright.”

“Please have the armorers prepare Dash for combat.”

“I’m with Lieutenant Colonel Hargrave on this,” she said, “this is not advisable.”

“Duly noted,” Jim said. The dropship’s much more powerful ascent engines roared as it nosed upwards toward space.

“Kick ass time, <Cheek!>” Splunk asked.

“Damn straight,” Jim said, already feeling the excitement build.

The Phoenix dropships were designed for fast movement between space and the ground, and vice versa. Nine minutes from the moment he gave the order, they were docking with Bucephalus. A tech came aboard and released Jim’s suit from the deployment frame. Once he was free, he floated toward the ship.

“Buddha,” Jim called.

“Go ahead,” his top sergeant replied from further back in the dropship.

“Take the squad back down to Talus and link up with Hargrave.” Buddha didn’t reply. “You don’t approve either?”

“No, I don’t, Jim. You take too many risks with your life.”

“Those bastards just killed a hundred men under my command,” Jim said. “They’ve been killing civilians indiscriminately. What do you think I should do? An assault force is mustering, and they could have dozens of nukes just waiting for us to mass to receive their attack. Who knows how many civilians would die? I can end this in minutes.”

“You could also die in minutes, Jim.”

“I take that chance every time I climb into a CASPer,” Jim reminded him. “Follow my orders.”

“Yes, sir,” Buddha said, and Jim entered Bucephalus. The armorer helped him quickly exit his CASPer, which was decidedly easier in zero gravity. Splunk flew out of the cockpit right behind him, and the two headed aft.

“Captain Su,” Jim called through his pinplant-linked radio, “please let me know when our orbit will intercept an approach to Johnstown.”

“You’ll have a somewhat less than nominal approach in twenty minutes, Colonel,” the ship’s captain replied.

“Thank you, Captain. Prepare for launch at that time.” Splunk rode with him as he quickly flew through the ship’s corridors until he reached the midline access ports. A trio of techs waited there for him. “Ready to go?” Jim asked them.

“Yes, Colonel,” the senior tech said. Unlike everyone else who’d heard about Jim’s intention, the techs were genuinely excited. All three of them saluted their commander as Jim moved sideways into the corridor.

“Thank you for working quickly,” he said as he activated the lock.

“Go get ’em, sir!” one of the other techs said. All three were grinning like kids. For that matter, so was Jim.

The connecting collar was one of the inflatable plastic types used when ships of differing designs needed to dock. He always thought it was like climbing through a plastic coated slinky surrounded by vacuum, and it was just as scary as it sounded. There were only a few mils of plastic between himself and sucking death.

Splunk shot ahead of him through the next hatch, her tail whipping back and forth for balance and showing her excitement. In a second, she was inside and out of sight. Jim grinned as he floated behind her, grabbed the inside hatch, and using his legs against the interior wall, shoved it closed. Gratefully, the airtight door cut them off from the tube of death.

The interior space was familiar from hours of work and operation, and it also felt incredibly comforting. Jim was suddenly overwhelmed with the childhood memory of coming home to the family’s now-sold estate outside of Houston after a hard day at school. It was a sensation of belonging and welcome which left him gasping in surprise.

It’s never felt like this before, he thought as he pushed through the strange sensations and through the curving, conduit-strewn passageway. Luckily, the task was considerably easier in zero gravity than on a planet. He arrived in the cockpit just a minute behind his Fae partner.

“Ready, Jim, <Cheek!>

“Yeah, sure,” he said, though not as confident as he’d been before boarding. He shook his head and slid the access hatch closed, dogging it tight and isolating them from the rest of the machine.

The cockpit was many times larger than the one in his Mk 7 CASPer, which itself was considered spacious compared to the Mk 8. His operator station was suspended in the center, a framework he would fit into with a section behind him where Splunk rode. She was already there and was working at the controls. The strange luminescent displays filled with living chemicals were pulsing with multicolored activity.

His strange feelings were washed away as he noticed changes. The other Fae have been busy, he realized, noting a new fixture here, a moved component there. Before the assault on Talus, he’d seen that one or more of the many Fae who’d come with him to New Warsaw were aboard Bucephalus. Here was evidence they’d been working on his personal Raknar in addition to whatever else they were up to. Splunk wouldn’t tell him how many were aboard.

Splunk had assured him back at New Warsaw that the ancient Raknar was now ready for what was coming. Jim knew the machines could do it; he’d seen as much from the scant surviving records as well as evidence unearthed on his and Splunk’s information gathering trip across the galaxy. Now he was about to come face to face with it.

Trying to concentrate on what he needed to do, Jim pushed off and floated across the cockpit to his operator’s frame and strapped in. Splunk continued to work at her tasks in silence. With a final nod to Jim, she triggered the twin fusion plants, bringing the Raknar to life. Power surged and the 30-meter-long mecha thrummed with barely restrained terawatts of power.

Bucephalus, this is Dash,” Jim called through his headset.

Dash, this is Bucephalus, go ahead.”

“We are hot and ready to rock. Release when ready.”

“Orbital track is nominal, release in five…four…three…two….one…”

There was a loud Clang! as multiple magnetic clamps released, and he felt the mecha drift free. Jim used the hand controls to fire the RCS thrusters, moving them away from the merc cruiser.

“We show you clear,” Captain Su said. “Godspeed.”

Jim acknowledged the transmission and turned his attention to operating the mecha. He manually pushed them away from the Cavaliers’ ship and burned the thrusters for a solid minute, watching on his pinplants as data confirmed the deorbit burn and approach profile. They were on target, and it was time to get his game face on.

“Okay, Splunk,” he said, and looked over his shoulder to where she waited, watching him with her huge blue-on-blue eyes. The tinted goggles she habitually wore against bright light were floating loosely around her tiny neck, one dexterous foot grasping a conveniently placed protrusion. She was as at home in the Raknar as anywhere he’d ever seen her. “Akee,” he said.

<Akee!>” she agreed and reached out to touch his pinplants.

Jim gasped at the now familiar and somehow atavistic surge of oneness he got when Splunk linked his mind to the Raknar. He’d realized some time ago that she was a sort of telepath. He’d been surprised by that. Of course, thinking back to how she completed the link of machine to man, he shouldn’t have been surprised at all. What was that action, but a form of telepathy performed between man and machine?

Jim, the young commander of Cartwright’s Cavaliers, ceased to be, and Jim/Splunk became something incredibly more powerful. They weren’t piloting a 1,000-ton, 20,000-year-old war machine. They were the machine.

He felt parts of his mind shifting to evaluation and control of the Raknar. Power levels were tested, reserves apportioned, motive systems evaluated. Those steps underway, another part of him reviewed their mission profile, then examined the approach. Far too conservative, was the conclusion. The Raknar fired its maneuvering jets again, and the angle of attack became extreme.

That’s more like it, he thought. The weapons were reviewed. The part of him older than humanity’s written language was satisfied with the improvements it found. While no optimized assault weaponry was on board, the previous improvised main armament was now much more functional, and secondary weapons were in place. This included melee options as well as close defense. Excellent. A part of Jim’s remaining self gasped as he realized what was at his disposal. The greater self exulted in pure unbridled POWER!

The atmosphere began to make itself felt, heating the Raknar’s armor. It rolled into a ball and spun, coming out of the spin with feet pointing down toward the leading edge of atmospheric interface. The most heavily armored and heat resistant part of the Raknar, it could easily slough off 3,200 Kelvin like it was nothing.

The braking forces built in only seconds, going from zero to just over nine Gs. The cockpit had flooded with interface gel moments after they dropped, so they felt nothing but a smooth ride as the Raknar was buffeted. The plummeting machine was bright as a star as it burned down at an ever-increasing angle, and G forces topped seventeen Gs before they began to decrease. The being known as Jim/Splunk listened to an ancient melody composed of a thousand intricate systems working in perfect harmony.

The atmosphere eventually became thick enough to slow them below the speed of sound once they’d reached an altitude of twenty kilometers. Sections of armor deployed, acting as flaps, and thrusters fired to control descent. As soon as the flight path leveled off, sensors detected the anticipated attack. Four missiles launched from Johnstown,

The missiles might have been a threat several months ago. But in addition to the upgrades, the Fae had also brought the other systems up to date. Included among them were automated mid-range defensive measures. The missiles were swatted from the sky without Jim/Splunk even aware the threat existed.

Jim felt the rush of their descent as an almost sexual explosion. Below him, weapons began to fire upward at the descending war machine. Jim/Splunk evaluated their descent, noted the weapons concentrations, and used the Raknar’s various flight surfaces to alter their targeted coordinates.

When the Raknar’s altitude reached below two kilometers, it retracted the flight surfaces, locked its legs together, and reaction mass was channeled through the three fusion torch chambers. Naked drive plasma burned the atmosphere as millions of pounds of thrust blazed from the Raknar. Jim/Splunk felt a little of the fifty Gs of thrust as the Raknar slowed from 950 kph to under fifty in just three seconds.

The leg-mounted fusion torches cut out as the legs unlocked, and the Raknar hovered for a split second with only its back jet firing as the operators and native system evaluated the landing site. Half a kilometer below, a unit of unarmored infantry stood their ground, pouring every type of fire they had up at the hovering nightmare. The radioactive wash of the torch meant they were all dead, eventually. Jim/Splunk cut the back jet and the Raknar dropped like a stone. They fired the leg jets and flexed just before impact. A thousand tons of Raknar landed in the midst of the unit, and the radioactive blast of the jets turned the survivors into disassociated atoms.

The Raknar settled its mass, adjusted its stance, and began evaluating threats. There were no serious threats within a kilometer. The descent torch chamber linings were ejected. Several tons of composite metal/ceramic that would be radioactive for 500 years were left behind to reduce exposure to the operators as the machine strode forward.

“Time to kick ass,” Jim/Splunk said, crunching over the half-melted remains of a troop transport. Thousands of dead Lumar littered the ground or were crushed underfoot as the machine took 20-meter-long strides toward the nearest hillock.

A series of intermediate-range missiles flew in from the city. They were dealt with in the same way as the previous ones. The Raknar’s top sensors cleared the hillock, and heavy MAC fire came its way. The mecha didn’t have a head, at least not in the way a Human would recognize, just a massive torso with arms hanging below the knees of its short legs. Jim always said it reminded him more of an ape than a giant robot.

The magnetic accelerator cannon rounds were designed to take out tanks or even large troop carriers. They were made from super-dense metallic alloys and carried a depleted uranium core. Each one could deliver hundreds of tons of kinetic energy on target. The projectiles hit the Raknar armor and either ricocheted away harmlessly or were flattened and stopped.

For all their firepower, the MAC carriers were themselves nothing more than a soft target to a Raknar. To Jim/Splunk, the attacks were beyond trivial; they were insulting.

“This is all you have?” Jim/Splunk laughed. They activated the mecha’s medium range weapons, selected the upper laser array, and simultaneously engaged all the weapons carriers. In less than a second, they were all flaming wreckage.

Jim/Splunk roared their laughter, unaware it was broadcasting over the Raknar’s external loudspeakers at 200 decibels as the machine stormed up the hill to see the alien army arrayed before it. Thousands turned to see the machine rise above them like a colossus, its laughter loud enough to shatter glass.

Before the enemy could decide whether to attack or flee, the Raknar’s rocket-powered jumpjets flared to life and lifted it into the air with an ear-splitting roar even louder than the laughter. The jumpjets used the same nozzles which had previously acted as the Raknar’s ascent/descent fusion torches. Now they were routed to provide rocket power instead of fusion. They provided less than 20% of the power of the fusion-powered engines, but they also didn’t throw enough radiation to kill everything in a one-kilometer-radius.

As the Raknar soared into the sky, the enemy mercs screamed in terror and tried to flee. The mecha flared its jets and thundered down into their midst. The shockwave of its landing sent hundreds flying through the air and knocked over tanks. A few fired at the huge, raging machine; most simply tried to flee.

Close-in defensive weapons were brought online, and streams of chemicals sprayed around the mecha’s legs in all directions. The liquid gasified quickly, spread by the blast of the Raknar’s jumpjets. A second later, one of the weapons fired at the Raknar detonated the thermobaric explosion. The heat and shockwave massacred the surrounding mercs. The survivors threw down their weapons and ran in all directions.

Jim/Splunk scanned the area. Some weapons were still being fired at them, but none were even a theoretical threat. A series of defensive lasers on the Raknar’s torso neutralized them. “This is all?” they wondered.

Twenty kilometers away, a starship began to lift off from the starport in Johnstown. It was identified as a Besquith design. The Raknar turned and raised an arm. The target was acquired, details of its flightpath analyzed, and the reworked 406mm Mark 7 gun roared. The newly built breach mechanism worked, and another round was loaded, the arm moved upward and the gun fired again, then a third time.

The projectiles were custom made, each one weighing 900 kilograms, computer-fused, armor-piercing, and each held 650 kilograms of K2 explosives. All three projectiles hit the starship, which was essentially torn in half by the explosions. The two pieces careened downward, just missing the city as they slammed into the ocean.

Jim/Splunk ejected the spent main gun magazine, grabbed another from the holder at the mecha’s waist, and fit it into place. They waited for another ship to take off or a challenge to their supremacy on the battlefield. None did, but another sensation reached them, and they gasped in revelation.

“Adversary!”

The Johnstown city wall exploded in two places as a pair of massive forms raced through the breach. Darkly armored, fast moving, 100-meter-long insectile nightmares came at the Raknar in a serpentine pattern. Two Canavar.

The part of Jim’s mind which was still functioning at a Human level examined the alien monsters. These were at least half again bigger than the ones he’d fought over a year ago on the planet Chimsa. These two didn’t stop to call a challenge or appear hostile to each other. These were fully in control of themselves and operating together.

The gun arm came up again and fired, and the recoil rocked their shoulder back. The Canavar dodged the shell which sent up a huge gout of dirt and rocks just meters from their racing forms. They emptied the other two rounds of the magazine as the Canavar closed. The monsters easily dodged the shots then straightened their course and came straight on. The distance closed quickly.

Jim/Splunk felt no feelings of dread or fear—only excitement. The Raknar safed the cannon and reached its hands down to both legs and grabbed the two sections of the Ia’kaa. The move to link the sections together only took five seconds. In that time, the Canavar exploded across the intervening space, closing to within a kilometer of the Raknar.

Jim/Splunk fired the jumpjets, leaning backward to buy distance and time. The Ia’kaa was assembled, but it took time to energize. The lead Canavar launched itself at them—a 100-meter-long insect missile traveling just shy of 200 kilometers per hour. That move did catch them by surprise, and Jim/Splunk tried to dodge while kicking at the same time. Neither move worked, and the Canavar slammed into them full force.

Jim/Splunk partially rolled before the impact so the Canavar collided with the Raknar’s upper legs instead of the center torso. Pincers powerful enough to rend battleship armor scrambled for purchase as the two spun wildly through the air, out of control.

Jim/Splunk ignored their wild flight, leaving that to the Raknar’s innate controls. Instead, they concentrated on channeling fusion power to the Ia’kaa. The charge was incomplete, but the Canavar had found a gap in the Raknar’s leg armor and was beginning to bite down. They swung the blade’s edge, crackling with terawatts of power, into the side of the monster’s head.

There was a massive discharge of energy into the Canavar, accompanied by an explosion as chiton cracked and flew away in meter-thick chunks. The Raknar’s leg thrusters screamed as the Raknar spun an instant before both monster and mecha slammed into the ground with enough force that people hiding in basements around Johnstown screamed in alarm from the thunderous tremors.

The Raknar landed back first, rolling with the force and velocity of the fall. Rocks and dirt flew as the mecha skidded. The Canavar lost its grip as the Ia’kaa temporarily stunned it. Jim/Splunk kicked out as they rolled, and the long, segmented insectoid was flung away in a spinning, sinuous rope of chaos. Jim/Splunk brought the Raknar to one knee, deploying the foot blades on the opposite leg and digging into the ground. Trees, grass, and boulders flew as the momentum was canceled, and the mecha finished its skid, ending on its feet.

All available power was channeled into the Ia’kaa as the second Canavar leaped over its stunned compatriot, using it as a springboard to launch itself at the Raknar’s center torso where the operators lived.

Jim/Splunk waited until the last second, then fell backward, away from the enemy. The Canavar’s pincers slammed closed, scraping and sending up sparks from the Raknar’s armor but failing to close on it. The Raknar swung the chisel-tip point of the Ia’kaa upward, and the weapon penetrated the Canavar’s head segment, punching through the thick armor with a deafening Crunch!

An instant later, Jim/Splunk triggered it.

The tip was chisel-shaped, and it functioned in two ways—the first was like a drill bit. The tip was super-hardened; it had been heated by fusion power until it was nearly as hot as star plasma. This helped it penetrate dense, hardened armor or a Canavar—armor so hard it could resist the most powerful MAC round, gigawatts of laser energy, or blunt nuclear fire. The other reason was that once it penetrated, the tip delivered a microgram pellet of antimatter into the dense matter of the monster’s head.

The explosion was a half kiloton in magnitude, blowing the Canavar apart from the inside out, and slamming the Raknar back onto the ground.

“Die now,” Jim/Splunk snarled as the blast smashed into the Raknar, and the Canavar’s body was blown high into the Talus sky, along with a fiery blast wave and a mushroom cloud that climbed into the sky.

The Raknar rolled to its feet, reached down for another Ia’kaa blade section and snapped it quickly together. Jim/Splunk reveled in the death of the ancient adversary, aware at the same time they only had three of the blade tips remaining.

They were also aware that setting off the weapon so close to the Raknar had caused some minor damage. Normally the tip would be thrust into the enemy, and then the Raknar would jump away to a more prudent distance prior to detonation. Using the Ia’kaa in such a way was suboptimal and presented a certain level of danger to the operators. An Ia’kuu would be a better option, but that wasn’t available yet. Still, it had worked, and there was no mission-critical damage.

Jim/Splunk danced the Raknar back several hundred meters, giving them room to act; the Ia’kaa was held out to the side in its right hand as fusion power generated another antimatter pellet.

The other Canavar rolled onto its dozens of legs, and its head spun toward the Raknar, mandibles spread wide, as it issued a roar of rage across the distance between them. The area was a chiton-and-gut-strewn nuclear hellscape, smoking and burning in the aftermath of the matter-antimatter explosion. The Raknar itself was smoking in places where its paint had been burned off by the blast.

The Canavar flexed the spines on its back, and the meter-long, five-centimeter thick pointed lances quivered and snapped forward with explosive force as the monster launched dozens of them at the Raknar at more than the speed of sound. As they flew, their shape made the spines spin like flying drills.

Jim/Splunk snatched a shield plate from their left side, gave it a flipping wrist motion which made it snap/deploy open between the Raknar and the fusillade of inbound drill-spines. All but three slammed into the shield, spending their energy and embedding in the absorbent metallic surface.

The other three hit the mecha. One lodged in a heavy torso armor plate. Another ricocheted off the arm holding the shield, taking a long chunk of armor with it. The last one found an articulation point between two armored plates and carved its way through in the blink of an eye.

Sensory hairs on the spine felt the tip penetrate the armor and set off a biochemical reaction, and the spine exploded inside the Raknar. Immersed in the tank of interface gel, Jim/Splunk sensed more than felt the fragment penetrate to bite into flesh. The Raknar ensured the operators didn’t know more.

The Raknar’s shoulder-mounted missile launcher snapped up and a salvo screamed away, targeted to detonate on and around the Canavar’s head. The monster tensed to launch more spines just as the missiles slammed home. They were Human-made weapons, though, and like the cannon, incapable of causing more than minor injury to the Canavar. Nevertheless, it reeled away from the attack, the spines flying randomly. A second later, the Raknar landed all 1,000 tons of its mass on the middle of the Canavar’s 100-meter length.

The Canavar’s body was split in half by the impact, the Raknar’s feet penetrating a dozen meters deep into the ground after cleaving the monster in two. The beast writhed in agony from the fatal blow, but still managed to whip its head around, its snapping mandibles reaching for the Raknar to tear, rend, injure. Jim/Splunk caught the head in their massive arms and squeezed and twisted with all the machine’s mechanical might, and the head came away in a fountain of gore.

Jim/Splunk took the spasming head and held it aloft, screaming their own primal battle cry of success. Then they turned and marched purposefully toward the city. Before they’d covered a single kilometer, another starship roared up from the starport. Just like before, a series of shots from the former battleship gun ripped it from the sky.

Human merc units were flooding in from the south, others dropping in on dropships. The surviving enemy units were surrounded; most surrendered. Those who didn’t were quickly neutralized. Jim/Splunk stood in the midst of it all and watched for a time, then turned away. They weren’t needed anymore.

They began to jog toward the city, aiming toward the gaps in the wall created by the now-dead Canavar. The Raknar’s systems identified the defenses and began to provide the operators with options to engage those defenses. Only, none of them fired. Jim/Splunk could see the defenses were manned by alien troopers, and they were determined to be insufficient to stop the Raknar.

Jim/Splunk came to a stop less than a kilometer from the wall. The defenders faced the ultimate war machine, which had just defeated two of their terror weapons. The Canavar were supposed to utterly devastate the Humans when they tried to retake Talus, then slaughter every other Human on the planet as a message. Humanity’s time as a preeminent merc race was over. All of that was laid to waste by a Raknar, run by a Human.

Jim/Splunk understood that, and they sensed the hesitation. They wanted to storm in and slaughter every alien in the city, to grind their bones to powder under the Raknar’s invincible treads. Except more than the aliens would die. A hundred thousand or more Humans lived there. Despite the chaos and some of the Humans’ twisted political ideology, they were still Humans, and the Raknar flattening the city would send the wrong message to those Humans.

The Raknar swung its arm back and threw the Canavar head like a missile up and over the city’s walls. It slammed into the side of an office building, cracking the concrete and blowing out several windows. It hung there in the splintered concrete for a long moment before slipping free and sliding toward the ground. It left a huge splatter of greenish blood and an equally long smear all the way down.

Jim/Splunk stood and waited. Their message was delivered, the meaning indisputable. The part of them that hoped for battle was at a loggerhead with the part that didn’t want to kill more Humans.

“Make up your minds,” Jim/Spunk roared over the Raknar’s loudspeakers. A second later, the aliens surrendered.

Splunk broke contact as the last of the interface gel drained away. Jim sighed as the oneness became separateness, then gasped. The gasp became a gurgling choke. He looked down in the dimly lit cockpit and saw bright red blood pumping from his chest.

“Splunk?” he gurgled, and went limp in the harness.

“Jim!” he heard a tiny voice yelling over and over. Then the darkness took him.

* * *

Dropship One, Descending to Paradise, Paradise System

“Nice of the Merc Guild ships to run away,” Lieutenant Simon Douglas, the pilot of the dropship, said. “All things considered, I don’t mind making a drop where I don’t get shot at.” He paused and then added, “Um, sir, where did you want me to land?”

“At the Underdeep landing pad,” Nigel Shirazi replied from his CASPer in the back of the craft. “Why?”

“Because it’s gone!” Douglas exclaimed. “Along with anything else that used to be on that rocky promontory…including the rocky promontory, itself! I’m getting—yeah, I’m getting radioactives. Looks like they nuked the entrance to Underdeep.”

The lieutenant sent the feed to Nigel’s CASPer. All that remained was a series of glass-like craters carved out of the rocky prominence that had previously stuck out of the desert.

“Woulda been nice if the mayor had thought to mention that,” Nigel muttered.

“Maybe she didn’t know,” Douglas replied. “It’s not like there are any cameras left up here to view the devastation.”

“I don’t care how far down you are…you have to know you just got nuked.”

Douglas nodded. “You would think. What do you want me to do?”

Dropship One, EMS Franklin Buchanan,” a voice called on the radio. “Be advised, you will have to land at the Dixia Cheng entrance and work your way over to Underdeep.”

“Well, we certainly aren’t going through the front door,” Nigel said. “Take us to that other city entrance they just mentioned.”

“You got it, sir!” the pilot replied. He paused and then added, “Uh, I’m picking up missile radar emanations from that direction.”

“Not surprising, since there is a large Goka contingent that’s invested Dixia Cheng,” Nigel replied.

“So much for my unopposed drop…” the pilot muttered.

* * *

Tunnels, Underdeep, Paradise

Walker’s forces were down to a squad of CASPers and two squads of the Underdeep security force in light armor, and he had to continue to give ground in order to keep the battle from turning into a hand-to-hand affair. In their light armor, the security forces’ lives would be measured in seconds if it came to that. From personal experience, he knew the CASPers wouldn’t last much longer.

Fucking bugs.

“Charges set,” Sergeant Waters said. “Those are our last explosives.”

“Got it,” Walker replied. “Pull everyone back past the tunnel that goes to Dixia Cheng.”

“We don’t have much farther to drop back,” Rachel DuBois said, “Once we’re past the Dixia Cheng tunnel, it isn’t very far until the tunnel splits and we’ll have to divide our forces.”

“We don’t have enough forces to divide,” Walker said. “If we split up, the Goka will be on us in a heartbeat.” Walker shrugged inside his suit. “Won’t matter much, anyway, before too long. Most of our suits are low on ammo; we’ll be down to hand-to-hand soon enough.”

“Colonel Walker!” a runner yelled as he ran up.

“What is it?”

“The aliens are breaking through the tunnel to Dixia Cheng!”

“Shit,” Walker muttered. Just what he needed, more of the damned Goka. Louder, he called, “Everyone back beyond the tunnel to Dixia Cheng! We’ll make our stand there!”

* * *

Dropship One, Descending to Paradise, Paradise System

“How do you want to do this, sir?” the pilot asked. “We didn’t brief a hot drop, and it looks like there are at least a couple of missile systems active there.”

“Stay as low as you can and bring the other three CASPer dropships into a line abreast. We’ll do a low altitude, low deploy across the target. Once we’re down, have the Lumar dropships land.”

“You got it,” the pilot said.

“Just give us a five second heads-up when it’s time to go,” Nigel said.

He stood and dropped the ramp. “Okay,” he said to the troops as they stood to join him. “LALD protocol. The landing zone is hot with at least two antiaircraft missile systems and an unknown number of Goka. Kill anything black and crawly; don’t let them get in close because their knives are sharp, and they like nothing more than to cut us from our suits. Any questions?”

There weren’t any as the troopers ran through their final checks.

“Okay,” Nigel said. “This planet has a bug problem…”

“…and we’re the solution!” the troopers roared.

“Damn right we are,” Nigel said. He moved to the end of the ramp.

“I fucking hate these,” Sergeant Rahimi said as he came to stand next to Nigel and watched the terrain racing past.

“Beats dropping from orbit,” Nigel said. “You might survive going splat on a LALD.”

“I don’t care,” the sergeant replied. “I still fucking hate ’em.”

“Five seconds!” the pilot transmitted.

“Here we go!” Nigel said. He bent his knees and leaned forward, watching the desert race by just meters below him at about 750 kilometers per hour. Before he had a chance to think, his jumpjets fired, and he was in the slipstream. Something flashed past him—an antiaircraft missile?

Shit!

The computer compensated for downrange travel, and he ended up hovering at the edge of the field. He killed the jumpjets, dropped to the sand, and spun to find the rest of the company dropping in four strings across the landing pad. Sparks and fire showed where one of his troopers had crashed. Whether due to suit malfunction or combat damage, the suit hit at several hundred kilometers an hour and cartwheeled across the ceramic pad into one of the anti-aircraft missile systems. Several of the missiles had detonated, destroying the emplacement.

He was one of the closest people to the other emplacement, and he jumped to it as a missile roared off its rails. In addition to the operator, two more Goka were guarding it, and they came skittering out, firing laser pistols as they ran forward.

Two MAC rounds killed the first, and one of his troopers jumped in to land on the other, shattering it. Another trooper missed landing on the missile operator, but his arm blade snapped out and skewered it.

A quick scan showed the landing pad was theirs. “Bring in the Lumar,” he called on the aviation circuit. “Lieutenant Colonel Valenti,” he said, switching to the company channel, “find us a way into the town and someone to guide us to where we need to go.”

The first dropship was already coming in to land, and Nigel went to meet it. The craft’s ramp was down, and a Lumar jumped off before the dropship had even touched down. A CASPer followed him off the ramp a half second later.

“Major Sulda!” Nigel said. “Major Gage!”

“Sir!” said the alien, jogging over to him.

“Yes, sir?” Gage echoed.

“Valenti is finding us a way in,” Nigel said. “Sulda, take your troops with him. We don’t want to hurt any of the Humans here, but they might be…surprised to see you. If you see any Goka, kill them immediately.”

The Lumar nodded once. “Go with XO. Kill bugs not Humans.”

“That’s right,” Nigel said. They’d been working with the Lumar on the trip through hyperspace and had found that, while they were exceedingly tough and great fighters, the aliens could really only remember three directives at a time. After that, things got complicated for the giant humanoids and they tended to either forget certain orders or jumble the directives together. “Go here, do this, kill the MinSha, and don’t kill the Humans” might very well become “Go here, do this, and kill the Humans.”

Like any weapons system, you just had to know how to use it effectively, and the Asbaran leadership had implemented a system where the Lumar never got more than three orders, and they always had to repeat what they thought those three orders were. Once that was set, though, the Lumar followed their orders with a single-minded purpose that made them excellent shock troops. As Sulda gathered his troops, smacking some in the back of the head when they didn’t listen, Nigel smiled. They really were good troops…you just had to know how to handle them. He turned to Gage.

“Take Proud Fist Company and back up the Bold Warriors,” Nigel ordered. “Same conditions apply. Try not to kill any of the locals, but every Goka you find is fair game. If you see anything I’m missing as far as leading the Lumar, let me know. You’ve got a lot more experience with them.”

“Yes, sir!” Gage replied, with a tinge of surprise in his voice.

“What?” Nigel asked.

“Nothing, sir. It’s just…”

“You didn’t expect me to care about the Lumar? You thought I’d just throw them away like they were expendable?”

“Well…uh…”

“This is a mercenary company,” Nigel replied, “and it isn’t cost effective to throw away your assets unnecessarily. I wouldn’t break a rifle, nor would I send someone to be killed, no matter what their race.”

“Oh,” Gage replied, his voice now tinged with disappointment.

“It is more than just that, though,” Nigel continued. “The Bold Warriors gave me their loyalty, and, even if I haven’t always liked aliens, this is something I can understand and appreciate. In my culture, loyalty is rewarded. I will not throw their lives away needlessly, nor will I throw away the lives of the Proud Fist.”

“So, an old dog really can learn new tricks,” Gage said.

“I’m not that old,” Nigel replied. “But yes, I can.”

* * * * *


Chapter Eleven


Underneath Manaus, Main Continent, Chislaa

“Do you think you can open it?” Sansar asked.

“Looks like a pretty standard control pad,” Corporal Eric Chase replied as he pulled out his slate. “My slate can power the pad, but if there isn’t enough power to run the door mechanism, we might have to hook it up to some of the CASPers.”

As the connection was made, a low hum went through the tunnel, and the glow strips brightened noticeably.

“What…what are you doing?” Fentayl said. “You didn’t say that you would make it light in here. There are people whose eyes will be hurt by this!”

“Sorry, Fentayl, we didn’t know that would happen,” Sansar said. She tried to sound soothing, although she didn’t know how much of that would be lost in translation.

After a couple of seconds, lights winked on down the length of the tube, making it brighter than many of the Minchantaa had ever seen in the perpetual gloom of the jungle. After a few more seconds, the lights dimmed back to just the glow strips, which now seemed extremely dim by comparison.

“Sorry about that,” Chase muttered. “Apparently, that’s the default setting.” He worked with the system for another two minutes then said, “I got it.”

“You do?” Sansar asked. “Are you sure?”

“Yes. The system is somewhat antiquated, and it has some security features I’ve never seen before. It took me a few minutes to bypass those, but I now have the whole system operational again.”

“What about the other teams?”

“I broadcast it to the other teams as I was jacking in, so all of the other hackers saw what I was doing real-time. All the doors are ready to open. We’re just waiting on your go.”

Sansar brought up her commanders’ view on her Tri-V and separated it into four windows. Bravo, Charlie, and Delta each had a platoon of troops and were tasked with clearing the walls of the city and rescuing the hostages there; Alpha, who she would be following, was tasked with taking out the HecSha command center, so it was the largest group with two companies of troops. They had triangulated the lizards’ transmissions, and most seemed to come from one location. The doorway she was waiting at was within 100 meters of the facility, as best as she could tell, and she hoped they could chop the head off the alien merc force quickly.

The final platoon was scattered around the outside of the city, just inside the edge of the forest. Each trooper had five Minchantaa warriors with them. If any of the HecSha tried to flee to the forest, the natives would help the troopers track and eliminate them.

“Task Forces commanders, report status,” Sansar ordered.

“Alpha, stacked and ready to go,” Major James Henry replied. His view matched hers closely, as he was standing next to her, just outside the alcove holding their doorway.

“Bravo, ready,” Captain Tiffany Reynolds replied. She had the eastern door.

“Charlie, ready,” Captain James Cliffson said from the southwest door.

“Delta, ready,” Captain Anne Light said from the northwest door.

“All right, everyone, let’s go save some Humans. If you see any of the Minchantaa, don’t shoot them. We want them as friends when we’re all done here. Begin the assault on my mark. Standby! Mark!”

Corporal Chase pushed a button on his slate and initiated the door-opening sequence. First, four massive mechanical interlocks—one at each corner—released and moved out of the way. The first time Sansar had seen them from underneath, she’d immediately understood why they hadn’t been able to remove the cover from above. It would have involved breaking all four of them, and the force required to do so—and applying it correctly—would have been staggering.

Once the locks were clear, the ramp cycled down from where it was held, closing off the bottom of the access pipe. If anyone had ever gotten past the entrance lid, they would still have had to defeat that. Whoever had built the tunnels had taken their security seriously.

The ramp touched down, followed by a grinding noise, but the lid didn’t move.

“What’s that?” Sansar asked.

“I don’t know,” Chase replied. “It looks like the lid is stuck. The system says it’s opening…but the damn thing isn’t moving.”

Sansar took a breath to order the other groups to hold in place, but saw she was too late. Bravo and Charlie were already streaming up their ramps, and as she watched, the lead elements of Delta started up theirs.

“I’m going to re-cycle it,” Chase said. The ramp went back up and came back down. There was no grinding this time, but a loud hum could be heard. “I’m sorry, ma’am,” Chase said. “It looks like something’s blocking it. I don’t know if I’ll be able to get it open.”

“Blue Sky!” Sansar said. The biggest concentration of enemy forces, and no one was going to be there to stop them. “Forget it. Major Henry, shift to the eastern door; it’s the closest to the headquarters. Captain Reynolds, we’re going to be coming your way. All task forces, once you clear the walls, watch for reinforcements—Alpha is going to be late!”

* * *

“Shit,” Captain Tiffany Reynolds said. Her platoon’s worth of troopers had spread out toward the wall and had only met light resistance. Unfortunately, she was the closest to the headquarters building, so she would be the first one hit by any reinforcements the HecSha sent—and she knew they were coming.

“Second Squad, return to the door and take up defensive positions. Once the word’s out that we’re inside the wires, they’re going to guess we came out of the tunnels. We have to hold it long enough for Colonel Enkh to get here. We can’t let them get into the tunnels!”

The CASPer-clad troopers took what cover they could, hiding behind shops and homes, and boosting onto the roofs of a couple of the more sturdy-looking buildings. It wasn’t long before the first HecSha soldiers appeared, running down the street toward them. It was the first time she’d actually seen the aliens, and Reynolds couldn’t decide if they looked more like giant lizards with wide, flattened heads or mini-tyrannosaurus rexes. About five and a half feet tall, the lizards wore armor that blended with their mottled skins.

The HecSha running down the street weren’t as much an assault as they were a loosely organized race to the wall. She smiled. And they obviously don’t know we’re here!

She sent targeting instructions via her pinplants to her troopers, assigning individual targets to some and general fields of fire to others. The HecSha troopers approached in singles, then twos and threes, and then in a large mass.

“Hold fire,” she transmitted to the squad, hoping to catch as many in the open as possible. There were far more HecSha than she would probably be able to stop, but she had to try. If nothing else, she had to at least slow them down. “Steady…”

As the first one drew abreast of the squad it suddenly stopped running, and its tongue flicked out.

“They’re onto us!” Reynolds transmitted, aiming her rifle at the HecSha who continued to sample the air. “Fire!

She pulled her trigger, and a beam of coherent light connected her suit’s laser rifle to the HecSha’s head and speared through it.

Rockets, MAC rounds, and laser bolts ripped into the HecSha forces, and the lizards scattered, diving for any cover they could find. Although they left a large number in the street, there were far too many for her squad to target all of them, and at least twenty-five—more than double the number of troopers she had with her—made it to safety and returned fire.

“Colonel Enkh, you’d better hurry,” she transmitted. Despite accurate sniping, the HecSha were spreading out and would soon be able to flank her small group. “There are an awful lot of them, and I don’t know how long we can hold!”

* * *

Sansar raced through the tunnels, silently urging Fentayl to run faster. If they’d been on the surface, they could have used their jumpjets and been there in seconds. As it was, they had to negotiate the twisting and turning tunnels, and her audio receivers were filled with the screeching of metal on metal as the CASPers ran into walls as they sped around corners. The metal of the tunnel walls was stronger than the giant mechs’, and she knew the troopers who had to paint the giant armored suits were going to have their work cut out for them on their next trip through hyperspace.

“Almost there!” Fentayl said, looking back over her shoulder before darting into a passageway to the left.

The speed at which she changed directions caught Sansar by surprise, and she barely negotiated the turn. Sansa swore as she scraped along the wall, rubbing off some of the laser-reflective paint on her own CASPer.

“Here!” the Minchantaa leader said, pointing ahead of her to the ramp that lay in front of them. She moved to the side of the tunnel as Sansar led her troops up the ramp and into the sunlight.

Sansa’s suit automatically dimmed its pickups as she burst from underground and into full light for the first time in hours. She turned toward the sound of weapons fire coming from her right and nearly ran into a HecSha that had somehow gotten behind the blocking forces. Too close for weapons, she reached out and grabbed the lizard by the neck with one hand while she slapped the rifle from its hands with her other. Having disarmed it, she grabbed its head in her free hand and twisted it around once, snapping its neck, then dropped it to the ground.

Movement on her Tri-V showed the troops following her had engaged other HecSha soldiers who had been following the one she killed. She sent one of her platoons to the left and another to the right to stop the leakers, then yelled, “Follow me!” and raced up the street with the other company trailing her.

Although she was receiving—and processing—the feeds from a number of soldiers, she didn’t feel like she had a complete grasp on the situation, so she tapped her jumpjets and rocketed into the air. She immediately got a good picture of the battle, but just as quickly became the focus for a number of her enemies’ weapons. She spent the next couple of seconds alternating her maneuvering thrusters to dodge enemy fire as she came back to the ground.

The embattled forces were only a block in front of her as she touched down, and she raced forward to find her troops fighting hand-to-hand with the HecSha. Though her troopers had the advantage of a longer reach with their swords, and they were lopping off heads and pithing the smaller HecSha like frogs, the aliens had the advantage of numbers, so while a CASPer pilot dealt with one HecSha, another would step back and fire its laser. Her troopers were doing the dance of death with their laser shields out, spinning, firing, jabbing, and—just as often—dying.

As she raced forward, she saw Captain Reynolds gut a HecSha, only to have a laser beam reach out from behind another building to spear her in the back.

“No!” Sansar yelled, tapping her jumpjets to boost over the building. The two HecSha taking cover there didn’t see her until she was right above them and her suit blocked out the sun. They both turned to stare as she crashed down on one and slammed her fist down onto the other like a giant piston, shattering the bones in its skull and neck, driving it to the ground.

The battle, while fierce, was over within minutes. The platoons she had sent to the wings swept back in on the HecSha, flanking their force as their leader had been trying to do to hers, and crashed into them from behind.

A squad led by Staff Sergeant Jacobs caught the command element trying to retreat to their command bunker and killed them, and the rest of the HecSha forces surrendered.

By then it was too late for some of her troops, though. Over half of Captain Reynolds’ squad, including the captain herself, had given their lives to hold back the aliens’ assault.

* * *

Johnstown Starport, Talus, Talus System

Colonel Jim Cartwright waved to the Tri-V camera and tried to look like the liberating merc commander. It wasn’t easy. His side felt like a burning ember was lodged inside. Splunk was sitting on the pillow next to his head. She hadn’t moved from the spot since he’d woken after surgery. Apparently, he’d died twice before they got him stabilized.

“The people of Talus wish to thank you, Colonel,” the reporter holding the camera said. “Do you have any advice for the new government?”

“Yeah,” Jim said, and sat up a little straighter. He grimaced a bit as he moved, not really caring if the viewers noticed. “Don’t do something stupid like last time. People deserve a say in their own leadership.”

The reporter blinked, not knowing what to say. Jim glanced to the side and gestured with his head. Hargrave moved in. “The colonel needs his rest,” he said. Two more Cavaliers were at the door, both armed. “Thank you for taking the time.”

“I’d hoped to ask some more questions,” the man complained as Hargrave took him by the elbow.

“Maybe later.” Then the man was gone. Hargrave came back in and shook his head. “Jesus Christ, kid, don’t sugar coat it, okay?” He tried to look serious, but a chuckle escaped.

Jim gave a little laugh that turned into a gasp as the ember burned brighter for a second. Hargrave looked concerned. “I’ll be okay,” Jim assured him. Splunk looked surly.

“The hell you will,” Hargrave reminded him. “That barb inside you, the doctors can’t figure out what it is.”

“A little souvenir from the Canavar,” Jim said, then made a dismissive gesture. “Is Colonel Spence outside?”

“They can wait. We need to transport you back to New Warsaw and get the thing removed.”

“I’ll go back when everyone else does. They can treat it well enough for now. So, who’s out there?”

“Xiang, Jennings, Koppenhoefer, and Pieper, too.”

“Nobody from Triple T?”

“No,” Hargrave said. “The survivors are still trying to decide what to do.”

Jim nodded. “Ask them in.”

“Kid, you’re still gonna need at least another nanite treatment,” Hargrave insisted.

Jim gave him a hard look and nodded toward the door. His XO sighed and went out to collect the other commanders. Truth was, the fragment in his chest had him concerned as well. Nanite treatments could remove anything known to them as a foreign body, everything from bullets to wood splinters. They wouldn’t touch the fragment which was lodged in the side of his aorta. They’d fixed the artery, and doggedly refused to disassemble the splinter. He needed a top-quality surgeon, and there wasn’t one on Talus.

While he waited, he tickled Splunk between the ears. She glanced at him with her blue-on-blue eyes, fear and concern obvious. His near-death experience had hit her pretty hard. The Duplato on Kash-kah had told him that if either he or she died, the other wouldn’t survive. Maybe it was a tight brush with mortality? “I’m fine,” he said. She scowled.

Jim lifted the blanket covering his torso and stared at the morphogenic tattoo. His Raknar, Dash, stood on his sizeable belly, just visible under the bandages covering his chest. The formerly clean blue paintjob was burned away, and scrapes were visible, just like in real life.

Antimatter, he thought. And where the fuck did that weapon come from? He knew the Fae had done that; there was no other explanation. Had they found the weapon? What was it called? He struggled with the memory of the word until it came back: Ia’kaa. Had they found it on Karma Upsilon? And if so, how did they find something nobody else had in the thousands of years that asteroid was sitting around? The old Raknar weapons were devastating beyond reason, and using them was so fucking addicting!

His hospital room door opened, and he put the sheet back in place as the merc commanders filed in. They each looked at him with expressions ranging from amazement to awe. He had dropped from space in a robot the size of a skyscraper. After chewing up a few thousand alien mercs, he’d then single handedly fought two huge Canavar, blowing one up with a nuke (by their perspective), and ripping the other’s head off before throwing it at the aliens holding the city and daring them to fight it out.

After looking at him for a minute, Colonel Spence came to attention and saluted. Jim began to shake his head when all the other commanders followed suit. Not knowing what he should do, he returned the salute, and they all dropped theirs. What the fuck have I done, he wondered.

“What are your orders, Colonel Cartwright?” Colonel Spence asked.

“Status of resistance?”

“None remains,” the commander of Gitmo’s Own replied. “There was a small garrison at the political prisoner camp in that place—Drift Abyssal—in the middle of the desert. Colonel Jennings took care of it.”

“We’d seen the least direct combat until then,” Jennings said, an attractive woman in her forties. “They were trying to organize for evac when we landed on them. A mixed company of Aposa and Besquith, they didn’t work well together. Probably why someone sent them out there in the first place.”

“I want to thank you all,” Jim said. “Each and every unit did their part, especially Triple T.”

“Gries was onnosel,” Colonel Koppenhoefer said.

Jim accessed his Human language database. Onnosel meant stupid in Afrikaans.

“He couldn’t get over a number of problems with how this shook out,” Hargrave said, sparing Jim the task of coming up with something equally diplomatic. “He’s dead now, so that’s that.” The other commanders all nodded, though Koppenhoefer’s nod was more perfunctory than the others.

“Colonel Pieper, your team took some heavy casualties and needs time to recover?” Jim noted.

“Correct, Colonel, but we’ll be okay,” Pieper responded, his Scottish accent strong.

“I know that, Colonel, but we need some garrison forces here while we move to the next phase.”

“You standin’ me down, sah?” Pieper asked. He didn’t look happy.

“No, Colonel, I’m asking you to hold this planet. The Highlanders are the only unit we have with a large infantry contingent. They might be needed if the government falters. I’d also like you to help with the remains of Triple T. They need leadership until that company can put the pieces back together. Will you do that for me?”

Pieper snapped to attention and saluted with his hand flat against his forehead. “Aye, sir, we will serve as you wish.”

“Thank you,” Jim said, and saluted him back. Can’t get used to doing that. “As for the rest, I want you to finish cleaning up your casualties and police your gear. The new government gets another week to put its shit together, and then we start moving back to orbit. Time to return to New Warsaw.” The commanders nodded and filed out.

“Well played with him,” Hargrave said, nodding to Jim. “He could have been difficult.”

“We need heavy CASPer units for what’s coming,” Jim said. “He’s ideal to hold this planet just in case.”

“Jormungd agreed to leave some ships behind?”

“Yes,” Jim said. “I just talked to him. Not a lot of ships, but enough to maybe hold the emergence point. Now we need to get back to New Warsaw.” Hargrave’s jaw muscles worked, and Jim knew he was thinking. “What’s on your mind?”

“That Raknar of yours,” Hargrave said. Splunk’s little head turned to look at the older man.

“What about it?” Jim asked.

“We need to figure out how to get it back to New Warsaw later.”

“Later? We’re taking it when we leave.”

“Jim,” Hargrave said, “you can’t fly that thing in your condition.”

“Bet me,” Jim said. Splunk nodded as well.

“Do you know what that thing of yours did out there?”

“Sure,” Jim said. “We kicked the shit out of those alien mercs.”

“Kick ass,” Splunk agreed.

“Oh, you killed the shit out of them and those Canavar.”

“I can’t wait to tell the other Horsemen about those Canavar,” Jim said. “They accused us of breaking the Galactic Union laws, and they used Canavar against us?”

“I know kid. But what I meant was the other things you did.” Jim looked confused. Hargrave took out a slate and went over next to the hospital bed to show Jim. The image was of a devastated landscape. “This is south of the city here,” Hargrave explained, “bringing that Raknar down created a radioactive wasteland.”

The slate showed images of people in radiation suits taking readings. Then more images from a drone vehicle approaching a series of metal plates lying in a badly charred area. As the vehicle approached the plates the image began to crackle and break up.

“Radiation,” Hargrave explained. “Extreme radiation. That was the third drone containment vehicle. It was brought down from the Hussars’ ships where it was used for working on fusion torches and modified with tracks. Those are part of your Raknar’s landing jets you dumped there. They’re so radioactive you could roast a cow.”

“Raknar powerful and dangerous,” Splunk said.

“You can say that again,” Hargrave said. Splunk looked back at him with a defiant expression on her furry face. “Those things are as dangerous as the monsters you fight with them, and you still almost got killed.”

“I won’t have the only one next time,” Jim said. Hargrave’s look was not thrilled. “Let the doctor know I’m ready for that next treatment, and please make sure my team has Dash fueled and ready for flight.”

“You’re going to make another dozen square kilometers into a radioactive wasteland?”

“I’ll take measures to make sure no more damage is done,” Jim assured him. Hargrave left to find the doctors, and Jim glanced at Splunk. He’d never given a single thought to the radioactive consequences of firing a fusion torch in a planet’s atmosphere. Not before, during, or after. The altered state he shared with Splunk when they were…Akee, was so incredibly intoxicating. As the doctor came in, he resolved to try and keep more of himself present.

Eight hours later, his Raknar team took him out to where Dash stood waiting. They’d washed it down to rid it of any fallout from the antimatter explosion. Like his tattoo, the Raknar’s paint job was mostly burned off, and there were a lot of new gouges in the armor. Still, they’d defeated two adult Canavar this time. He now knew the three he’d killed on Chimsa had been young ones.

A support vehicle from the starport lifted Jim and Splunk up to the cockpit access. As they were raised twenty meters into the air, Jim got a good look at the Ia’kaa in its two parts affixed to the Raknar’s legs. The cylindrical weapon fit into the legs so well, he’d never noticed it was there. The Fae back on Upsilon 4 were certainly working on more such surprises. He had so many questions, but they were racing ahead at full speed, and there was no time for questions.

The vehicle platform held in place while Jim and Splunk climbed inside and sealed the hatch. Minor repairs were already in progress, restoring the airtight environment after being penetrated by projectiles, one of which was still in his chest. Several pointed fragments were sitting on the cockpit gantry. He absentmindedly bent and took one as they went by. The fragment was pointed, deformed from penetrating the Raknar armor, and it was viciously barbed.

His chest hurt as he climbed into the harness, and he wondered if it was from looking at the barb or the injury. One of those is in my chest, he thought. It was a sobering thought.

“Jim, <Akee, Cheek!>

“No,” Jim said, “I just want to a simple flight to orbit.” Splunk didn’t complain, yet Jim was sure she was disappointed. He turned on the Raknar’s powerful external loud speaker. “Everyone clear,” he said. “Powering up.” The 360-degree Tri-V projection showed the ground crew retreating to a pair of vehicles a kilometer distant. “Start her up,” Jim said to Splunk.

Fusion power thrummed through the Raknar, and Jim took the manual controls in hand. He hadn’t used them for some time, preferring to Akee with Splunk. As power built to operational levels, he took the first step, and almost faceplanted thirty meters of war machine right then and there.

“Damn it,” he cursed and regained his balance before trying again, with nearly identical results. He was forced to admit he’d lost whatever rudimentary ability he might have gained to operate the mecha without Splunk. “Akee,” he said to her. To the Fae’s credit, she didn’t say anything about his earlier reluctance, just simply reached over to touch his pinplants.

The now familiar explosion of consciousness enveloped him, filling Jim/Splunk with power and incredible capability. Joined with her, he/they could do absolutely anything.

The first thing he did was look for any adversaries. There were forces about, but they were all tagged as allies. With a sense of disappointment, they tried to remember why they were there. Another mission, came to Jim/Splunk. Right, they needed to return to the transport in orbit.

After checking that new high-power torch baffles were installed and that sufficient reaction mass was in the tanks, they almost took off immediately. Concern, echoed through their mind. No more harm to the planet.

Jim/Splunk felt disgust as they fired their less powerful jumpjets, lifting all 1,000 tons of Raknar into the air. From a height of 200 meters, the mecha’s sensors could see more than 100 kilometers in all directions. There was an ocean 52 kilometers to the west. They flew in that direction, landing a kilometer from where they’d taken off, and then strode overland from there.

The Raknar took huge loping strides twenty-five meters long, nearly a jog, which ate up distance at 90 kilometers per hour. Traffic on a coastal road came to a halt, with people abandoning their vehicles to watch in amazement as the machine as tall as a skyscraper strode to within a short distance of the ocean shore and fired its jumpjets again.

The Raknar climbed up and over the ocean with a roar audible up and down the coast, climbing quickly to a kilometer before the jumpjets warned they’d reached their limit. Jim/Splunk cut the jumpjets, and the Raknar began instantly to plummet. Then they engaged the fusion torches in each leg, and 1,000 tons of 20,000-year-old war machine rocketed toward space on a plume of pure energy. The ocean was left to absorb the radioactive residue.

After they’d docked with Bucephalus, and Jim was himself again, they floated out of the Raknar and into the Cavaliers’ starship. Hargrave was waiting there with a physician.

“I’m fine,” Jim said.

“We’ll just let the doc make that decision,” Hargrave said. Jim relented without a fight. The entire time he was being scanned, poked, prodded, and examined, Jim had a hard time thinking of anything except the next time he got to become one with the Raknar.

Two days later, the Hussars organized their fleet for departure, leaving a small squadron to defend the emergence point, and jumped for New Warsaw and the next stage of the war.

* * *

EMS Pegasus, Approaching Stargate, Asyola Star System

Alexis watched the fleet form up as she transmitted her access request to the stargate. Her own crew was operating the gate because the Cartography Guild’s crew was dead. Her marines had carefully recorded everything they’d found there, lest she be blamed for that event as well. That crew would be staying behind, along with several other precious ships, to hold the Asyola star system against a follow up assault by Peepo.

<There will be no follow-up assault,> Ghost said to her.

You are still certain?” she asked.

<Yes.>

Alexis nodded, the information consistent with what the AI had told her after they took the system from General Peepo’s forces. But that hadn’t changed her decision to leave forces behind. Peepo was nothing if not a thorny adversary. Could she outthink an AI dating back to the First Republic? She didn’t know. The decision to keep several ships was the safe move, from a defensive standpoint, though risky from an offensive one.

Comms confirmed the stargate was opening, and she saw the distortion form. “Order the fleet into hyperspace,” she said, and the ships moved forward as one. An instant later, that moment of destruction flooded through her, instantly followed by reconstruction, and they were in the featureless whiteness of hyperspace. In a week, she’d be home at New Warsaw. The image of Nigel drifted into her mind’s eye, and a small smile crossed her face.

* * *

Tunnels, Underdeep, Paradise

“Here they come!” The scout yelled as he crossed through the lines and retreated into the cavern.

“What do you think?” Rachel DuBois asked. “Should we try to surrender?”

“The time to surrender is long past,” Walker replied. “Now that we’ve killed as many of them as we have, I doubt they’re going to stop until at least all of the CASPer operators are dead. You can run for it and try to surrender once their blood has cooled a little, but for everyone who stays here, this is a fight to the finish.”

“Well, can you at least slide over a little so I can have a better line of fire to shoot through?” she asked. “If I’m going to die, I want to at least take some of them with me.”

Walker adjusted his position to the left, without creating too big a gap. He didn’t have the heart to tell her that her laser rifle probably wouldn’t do much to the aliens. Hell, maybe she’ll get in a lucky shot.

The other five remaining CASPers and Walker were formed up at the entrance to the cavern in a semicircle, where each of them had enough room to maneuver. There was no sense trying to hold the enemy mercs in the tunnel; they’d just get mobbed there—two at a time. This way, they could spread out the aliens a little and maybe have five to ten at a time per CASPer.

The two troopers in the center of the line began firing down the passageway—they were the only ones with any ammo remaining—then the Goka burst through. Walker stepped forward with a tap of his jumpjets to break up the momentum of their charge with both of his arm blades out.

He skewered one of the Goka, but the other ducked low, skittering toward his leg. Walker tapped the jets again, jumping back into position and giving himself room to stab down on the alien that had gotten inside his guard.

The remaining civilians were firing, and laser bolts ricocheted randomly across the cavern, more a threat to the shooters than they were to the enemy.

Walker noticed in his command HUD that the icons for his squad were changing color—from green to yellow to red—as he stomped a Goka and then speared another that slid past him to go after the unarmored DuBois. As he turned to stab the Goka, two more jumped onto his back, and his left shoulder joint went immediately from green to red, and a blinding pain hit him as one of the Goka’s knives found a seam and stabbed into his left shoulder blade.

He swept his right blade down and across the back of his left shoulder and arm, but the enemy merc ducked the blade and kept wiggling the knife into his back. He twitched away from the blade inside his CASPer, only to have a second knife poke through on the right side. It slammed into his right shoulder blade, and the two knives pinned him forward in his straps.

Walker glanced around his displays. He was too far from the cave walls to back into them and had just decided on a desperate move—to fling himself back onto the ground to dislodge the Goka—when he was suddenly sent flying through the air by a series of detonations that hammered the Goka at the mouth of the cave.

He landed on his side, stunned, but the Goka on his right shoulder somehow managed to hold on through the blast and stabbed him again. The blinding pain brought him to his senses, and he rolled over, squashing the Goka underneath him, but also driving the blade into his body. When he could see again through the pain, he found the point sticking through the top of his right shoulder.

Walker struggled to his feet, trying not to move his right shoulder, and was met with a wave of steel and armored flesh as a company of CASPers—and Lumar? Where the fuck did the Lumar come from?—rolled into the cavern from behind the Goka.

The aliens were so bent on killing Walker’s troops that they didn’t see the new forces arrive, and the CASPers were on them in seconds, with the Lumar striding in behind them to grab the Goka from the ground and rip off their appendages in their four-armed grasps. The lead CASPer jumped forward to land on a Goka racing toward Walker, then turned as its pilot surveyed the rest of the battle. Apparently satisfied, the pilot turned the mech back to Walker, who could now see the stylized Huma bird logo on the CASPer along with the number “1.”

“It looked like you could use some help,” Nigel Shirazi’s voice said. He flinched as part of a Goka’s wing carapace flew past. “Sorry,” he added. “The Lumar are kind of excited to fight alongside CASPers, rather than against them.”

“I’m sure that’s a long story, well worth telling,” Walker replied, “and you have my thanks for coming. But you wouldn’t happen to have a medic or two who can look at my folks and maybe pull the blades out of my back that those damn Goka stuck through my suit, would you?”

“It just so happens, I do, my friend, although how you got here is a story I’m sure is also worth telling. First, though, let’s get you healed up.” Nigel turned to where the rest of his troops were mopping up the last of the Goka. “Sergeant Epard, front and center!”

* * * * *


Chapter Twelve


SOGA HQ, São Paulo, Brazil, Earth

Captain Drakayl raised her hand to knock on the door, then hesitated. The thing she hated most about her job was bringing bad news to the boss. Although working for the nominal head of the Mercenary Guild—in practice, if not in actual title—was a tremendous opportunity, it also put her very close to Peepo’s temper, which had grown very short ever since they’d come to Earth. She understood why—these Humans continued to do things that made the underside of her carapace itch—but that didn’t make being inside Peepo’s blast zone any better.

Summoning her will, she knocked. “General Peepo?”

“Come in!”

Captain Drakayl entered the office to find her boss looking out the window over the skyline of São Paulo. “Yes?” Peepo asked.

“I have the latest dispatches from the comm center. There are a few I thought you’d want to see immediately.” Part of her duties were to screen the messages for Peepo, and her position also gave her access to information that few others in the guild did. It also, unfortunately, made her very aware when Peepo was about to explode. Like now.

When Peepo waved her in, Drakayl crossed the room, handed Peepo the messages that were too important to pass over their computer system, and came to a position of attention while her boss read them.

“Good,” Peepo commented as she finished the first one. That was not the reaction Drakayl had been expecting. She knew the top communique detailed the recovery of the Golara shipyard—what was left, anyway—and the fact that the Human fleet had escaped slaughter at the hands of Admiral Galantrooka and New Era.

An involuntary breath must have escaped her, because Peepo looked up from the messages.

“You were expecting a different reaction?” Peepo asked.

“Yes, ma’am. I’d be lying if I said otherwise.”

“You thought, perhaps, that I would be angry that the Humans captured two battleships and destroyed the entire facility?”

“Well, yes, ma’am. They did capture your private yacht.”

“Indeed, they did.” Drakayl nearly broke her position of attention when Peepo did something even more unexpected, she smiled. “That was the most important ship there,” Peepo added. “I would have been very disappointed if they’d missed it.”

“Ma’am?”

Peepo chuckled. “You’re confused, aren’t you?”

“Yes, ma’am, I am.”

“At ease,” Peepo said, then she explained. “Let me put it to you another way. Since you’ve been here, have you participated in any recreational activities?”

“Uh…what?”

“Have you gone out and done anything, or have you only stayed here at the headquarters and worked?”

“I’ve mostly just stayed here, ma’am. The Humans are somewhat…wild. I don’t trust them to walk around among them alone.”

“I don’t think they trust each other enough to walk alone, either, so I don’t think you’re wrong there,” Peepo replied. “However, it’s safe enough in a group, especially if you’re armed. It’s no worse than Karma Station, and actually better than a number of places there. As long as you look like you can handle yourself, you should be fine.”

“Okay…” She let her voice trail off, not completely sure where Peepo was going with the conversation.

“In any event,” Peepo continued, “there is a recreational activity here called ‘Deep Sea Fishing.’ This activity is conducted by going out onto the ocean in a relatively small boat and then dropping lines into the water to catch some of the creatures there. The bigger the creatures you’re hoping to catch, the bigger the bait you attach to the line.” She smiled at Drakayl as if that explained everything.

“I’m sorry, ma’am, but what does fishing have to do with Golara?”

“Golara was the bait,” Peepo replied. “I’m fishing for the Horsemen, who are humanity’s biggest fish. Therefore, I needed appropriately sized bait. I simply let them know that Golara existed, and, sure enough, they came and took the bait.”

“You…let them seize the system and capture the battleships there?”

“Of course I did. Do you think I would be so stupid as to leave a facility like that under-protected? That I would send all of my fleets off for such a trivial activity as capturing their colonies?” Peepo chuckled. “Obviously you did, and you thought I made a mistake.”

“Entropy, ma’am; I’m sorry.”

“You have nothing to be sorry for. You fell for it, just like the Humans did. The ‘gift’ of the battleships and allowing them to conquer the system was all intended for one purpose, and one purpose only—to make them overconfident. They were supposed to capture Golara, and then they were supposed to go off and recapture their colonies. As I said, what good are their colonies to me, anyway? They don’t produce that much, and there aren’t many people there. We could take the colonies any time we wanted and either strip their people from them or kill them at our whim.”

“And your yacht?”

“Yes, my yacht.” She smiled. “That was the most important piece of the whole deception. This is why study of your enemy—and doing things like participating in their recreational activities is so crucial, my young captain. If you had done those things, you would see how wrapped up Humans are in their possessions. They also like to attribute the emotions they have to other beings and races they meet. Therefore, because they are attached to their possessions, we must be, too.

“The fact of the matter is that I don’t care about the yacht. It is one of several I have. While it is nice, it is nothing compared to what is really important—the conquest of all the Humans. As such, I was happy to throw it away if it helps me achieve my goals. I could buy hundreds of them if I wanted, but when do I ever use a yacht? Never. They can have it.”

“But…but…by doing that—letting them capture Golara, the battleships, and your yacht, it makes it look like they are winning and causes dissention on our side. I have heard several people mention that they were unsure whether you were fit to lead anymore.”

“Yes, it does, doesn’t it?” Peepo asked with a smile. “And some of those people will probably have…shall we say…accidents once this is over? I know who my friends are…and who my enemies are, as well. I didn’t get to be where I am without learning how to find out who is truly with me, and who just appears to be to get ahead.”

“So, this is not only an operation against the Humans, but also to see who in the Mercenary Guild might be disloyal?”

“It is. The Humans, as a race, just happened to work well for both of these things. We need their abilities for upcoming operations, and they can’t be trusted to do as they’re told. Taking them over was the only way to acquire their capabilities without all the drawbacks attached to using them as mercenaries. Also, we need to go forward as a strong, unified body. I can’t have dissention within the ranks.”

She paused as if giving Drakayl time to digest everything she had said, then added, “It all comes down to the yacht. Since the Humans would never believe I’d allow it to be captured—whether due to greed or a loss of status—they will never think that their capture of Golara was anything other than what it seemed: a victory on their part. And because they believe that their victory was earned, they will believe that they are the ones in charge. They will begin to believe they can win. When they recapture their colonies, they will be sure of it.”

“And what will they do then?” Drakayl asked.

“They will come to Earth believing they can take back their planet. Unfortunately for them, we will be here, and we will not be as unprepared as what they are expecting. The Humans are nothing without the Winged Hussars’ fleet and secret base. Golara, and everything involved with the operation at Golara, was the bait to draw that fleet out so it could be destroyed. Then, once the fleet is gone, we will find and eliminate their secret base as well.”

Peepo chuckled as she turned back to the window and waved at the city below. “Even my own displays of temper have all been an act to draw out my enemies and the people who didn’t believe in me, as I’m sure they’re watching us even now. I would be if our positions were reversed.”

Peepo turned back to Drakayl. “Go back 50 years and see if anyone ever remembers seeing me lose my temper. They will tell you no. I don’t lose my temper, even with minor setbacks like when the Golden Horde blew up the Tortantulas; it isn’t conducive to clear thinking. My ‘loss’ of temper, just like my ‘loss’ of Golara, was calculated to bring the Hussars out of the shadows and into the light where we can catch them and kill them. This has truly been my finest operation and the masterwork of my life to this point.”

Drakayl blinked as the extent of Peepo’s planning began to register on her. In order to have Golara ready for the deception, Peepo would have had to begin preparing months—no, years—ahead of time. Not only that, but Peepo was willing to sacrifice dozens of her own ships and thousands of lives to accomplish her plans! No, Peepo had not lost any of her abilities; she was the head of the Merc Guild because she was cold, cruel, and by far the best tactician and strategist the galaxy had ever seen. Drakayl, herself, had been totally taken in by the act; she worked with Peepo every day and had been completely deceived. Drakayl understood she was in the presence of a master and wanted nothing more than to bow to her.

Peepo walked to her desk and sat down with a smile. “And that doesn’t begin to go into the other machinations that have gone into this plan. Some may be revealed at some point…but others never will. The Depik suicide was…unfortunate, but the rest of the races…all have played the part they were destined to.”

Drakayl didn’t think she could have been more stunned…but that revelation succeeded in doing so. Was there nothing Peepo couldn’t do?

Peepo held up the sheaf of correspondence Drakayl had given her. “Anything else important in this stack?” she asked.

“No…no, ma’am,” Drakayl replied, still trying to regain her composure. “The messages are just confirmations that your plan is proceeding. The Humans appear to be on their way to recovering their colonies.”

“So, the fleets in Frost and Paradise have reported they’ve been evicted from those systems?”

“How did you know they would be—” Drakayl stopped herself. How had Peepo known it would be those two systems? Because Peepo had planned it that way. Drakayl looked back to find Peepo smiling at her, and Drakayl realized she needed to stop talking and start listening…a lot more. “What are your orders, ma’am?”

“Recall the fleets from the rest of the Human colonies and have them return to Golara. Once they are assembled there, have them proceed to Earth. It’s time to bring this operation to its successful conclusion.”

* * *

Winged Hussars Prime Base, New Warsaw System

Taiki Sato watched the system complete its test sequence and examined the results. It correlated with the other three tests. The conclusion was irrefutable.

“Wow,” he said. The breakthrough was second only to what his new pinplants had unleashed. Watching the data comparator program run, he thought about himself and his life with a clarity he’d not possessed for a long time. He realized his behavior and mannerisms were, to say the least, somewhat antisocial. He also realized he needed to maintain that, for now; he didn’t know if he was being watched.

Sato turned his full attention back to the test results. He’d come up with three practical applications, and one impractical. Of the practical applications, only one seemed the most prudent, given their current situation. He’d run several projections on current events since coming around and didn’t like what the data suggested. He also didn’t know if Alexis Cromwell and the other Horsemen knew what they were up against. With the information he’d gleaned from his simulations, Sato decided on the application for the new technology.

Manufactory #3 was finishing up a run of combat drones. The production schedule showed it would transition to missile manufacture. He checked the inventory and found the various magazines throughout the system contained 39,500 missiles. More missiles were always better; however, the new tech might be even better than having a few more shots.

Using his authority, Sato reassigned Manufactory #3. His authority to move supplies and ordnance was now extremely limited, thanks to his admittedly ill-advised expedition to the Keesius. However, the manufactories possessed their own materials’ priorities, and Sato’s authority to manage the manufactories was unchanged.

The manufactory evaluated Sato’s new design with its efficient, if simple, AI to decide what components it would need. Sato knew there were titanic manufactories elsewhere in the galaxy capable of making machines as big as starships, complete from the hulls down to the tiniest components. But none of the Winged Hussars’ manufactories were that capable. However, when working together, they could accomplish the same task.

His orders set about a chain of events involving two other manufactories. Much of the components could be drawn from stores, including ancient ones left from the Great War—bought and transported to New Warsaw—and others previously manufactured and kept on hand. However, a few of the needed components were not in any of the warehouses, and that need was what prompted the other two manufactories to be tasked with their production.

He knew it was a risk that someone in supply would notice the chain of events, but he calculated the risk as relatively small. Over the next few hours, he monitored production to see what would happen. By the evening, he was sure nobody had been alerted that he’d once again gone rogue.

Satisfied, he ate and moved back to the problem of Nemo’s little project. He needed to tell Colonel Cromwell about it, of course. She would likely be furious. Part of him considered that to be an advantage to him. After all, to a Human, the idea of producing clones of a dead person in order to conduct experiments would be rather…abhorrent. Some people would call that throwing Nemo under the bus, while Sato just considered it prudent in drawing ire away from himself.

There’s the behavior mechanism again, he realized. I need to work on that. On one of his huge Tri-Vs, a recovery program was running. He wrote it a few days ago to repair the remnants of the CASPer Mk 9 program. His revelations had led him to a better understanding of what had been done and how to undo it. Whoever had performed that act of sabotage wasn’t as thorough as Sato had expected them to be. They’d been hurried, it seemed.

The Tri-V showed production schematics for about half the new CASPer. Unfortunately, it was not enough to produce combat armor suitable for a Human to operate. It wouldn’t be as innovative as Binnig originally intended, but it was enough to combine with the Mk 8 for a more advanced model. More like a Mk 8.5.

He sent the final results to the pair of manufactories which were already making partial components. With the new data, they would be able to complete the finished products. In addition, he now had a unique design which was more like what Binnig intended, minus the space a human needed to operate it. The operating space was only large enough for maybe a small dog or a large cat.

“Not enough,” he said to the empty lab. What good would it do? “Maybe I can solve two problems with a single solution?” Sato manipulated the design, removing some life support components while adding others. Yes, that sort of support tech existed; it was used by the Hussars’ medical section and was in inventory.

Sato grinned and again accessed the manufactory control systems, in particular the two working on the new CASPer Mk 9. He inserted instructions to produce one of the modified design suits, and gave it a designation: the Æsir Mk 1. It would be an interesting test. He’d been so busy finishing the modifications that he hadn’t considered the name would cause any curiosity. His comms system buzzed the next day.

“Sato,” he said before he recognized the caller.

“Dr. Sato, this is Lieutenant Titler.”

Sato’s eyes scrunched up. Lt. Ian Charles Titler was in logistics; why would he be calling? Then he used his now greatly augmented pinplant array to find more details on the man’s job: CASPer manufacturing and distribution, and logistics for the Armorers’ Department. Damn.

“What can I do for you?” Sato asked with a poker face.

“We were running the Mk 9 design you sent over, and I noticed the one prototype. I assume this is actually another version of the Mk 9 CASPer?”

“Yes, of course. It took more time than I planned; there were some issues with adapting that Binnig design to our manufacturing process so the single-run prototype is a test.”

“Of course, of course,” the man said.

Sato recognized the response of a man who had no idea what he was talking about. Titler was a mechanic with logistics skills, he possessed no clue how a CASPer was actually manufactured. “So, what can I do for you?” Sato asked. “I’m kind of busy.”

“Well, that new CASPer looks incredible, and all, but…”

“Yes?” Sato pushed.

“It’s just the name. I mean…why did you rename it Æsir? I had to look it up to even know what that meant. Something Norse, right?”

“Yes, of course,” Sato replied, cursing his own creativity. He should have just stuck with CASPer Mk 9, but what he’d created was so elegant and amazing, he couldn’t bring himself to do it. “The system is vastly improved, as you noted, so I gave it a new name.”

“Oh,” Titler said.

There was a long moment of silence, leading Sato to believe he wasn’t satisfied. “Is there anything more?”

“Could you tell me what Æsir means?”

Kuso, Sato thought, I was a baka. He frantically tasked his pinplants with a solution, running both the meaning of Æsir and possible letter combinations as an acronym. Several thousand possibilities flew through his mind before he settled on a winner less than a quarter second after the question was asked, allowing him to respond as if he’d had the answer waiting.

“AESIR stands for Armor Experimental System, Improved Response.”

“Oh!” Titler said. “That’s cool. Thanks.”

“Of course,” Sato said. “I’ll need to get an armor manual and training regime put together. It’s really complex and dangerous; please be sure to keep drivers away from the Æsir until I have those put together?”

“Sure, sure,” Titler said, smiling now. “I’ll do that.”

“Very good,” Sato said, and hung up as the lieutenant opened his mouth to ask a new question. “That should hold him for a while.” Sato made sure the manufactories were sending the two components to different locations—the armor to Titler’s area and the interface to a medical storage facility, then he nodded in satisfaction. That dealt with, he sent a message to Nemo. They needed to talk again, soon.

* * *

EMS Bucephalus, Approaching Vishall System, Hyperspace

“I don’t necessarily agree that another fight is a good idea at this point,” Captain Su said. She was an incredibly capable ship’s commander and a no-holds-barred pragmatist.

“There is risk,” Jim agreed, “but Captain Jormungd agrees it’s worth it. We finished at Talus a week ahead of schedule, and Vishall isn’t out of line with our travel through hyperspace. We can get intel and possibly help the Humans there.”

“All correct, of course,” Su said, looking at him in his courtesy commander’s seat in Bucephalus’ CIC, “and I was at the meeting, as well. I just don’t agree with the risk.”

“Duly noted, Captain,” Jim said. She nodded back, and he knew she wasn’t happy. The potential tactical situation didn’t warrant her trying to override him. With a dozen Winged Hussars warships along, there wasn’t much actual risk to Bucephalus, but as the commander of a mercenary cruiser, she was always extra cautious; they didn’t have the firepower to stand in a real fight.

Hargrave glanced over at Jim. He didn’t approve either. The Cartwright’s Cavaliers’ XO seemed to be increasingly distressed by Jim’s behavior where the Raknar were involved. He’d said after the meeting that his concern was based on Jim’s motivation for going to Vishall. “You sure you aren’t only going there looking for another fight?”

“Just to see if we can help,” Jim assured the older man.

“Hyperspace emergence in one minute,” the ship’s computer announced.

Jim looked around for Splunk but didn’t find her anywhere in the CIC. She had spent quite a bit of the week in hyperspace aboard Dash, working to repair some of the Raknar’s damaged systems. The 30-meter-tall mecha was docked to Bucephalus like a warship catching a ride. It was almost as large as a frigate, but not as wide, so it was able to benefit from the merc cruiser’s hyperspace field without needing its own hyperspace generators.

He’d talked with her a bit about his feelings while Akee with her, and she said he shouldn’t worry about it. He also wondered about their plan to get the twenty new Raknar into operation.

“There is a plan, Jim, <Skee!>

“Who’s plan?” Jim had wondered. “Yours or Sly’s?”

“Sly is in charge, <Soo!>

That last meant she wasn’t happy with it, but not sad about it either. “Do you have any say in what the Fae are doing, both on New Warsaw and here?”

“Yes,” she’d answered simply, but hadn’t given any other information. That worried him some.

When the Fae had first turned up, it had been on his newly purchased asteroid, Karma Upsilon 4. Apparently, they’d been moving there for months, likely after Splunk had somehow contacted them. It was the beginning of a wave of revelations for Jim regarding the Fae. He’d once thought they were a simple species living on a relatively primitive world, possessing natural prowess with tech. Of course, even in the beginning there were inconsistencies. Why would a seemingly arboreal species be living in underground caverns on a winter-locked planet?

Jim was forced to update his opinion on the Fae during his months’ long trip with Splunk searching for the secrets of his Raknar and looking for more. Time and time again she’d shown both independence in action and savvy in combat. But it had floored him when the other Fae turned up at Karma Upsilon 4 and had managed to move the entire asteroid through hyperspace to New Warsaw. While the rules of hyperspace suggested something as big as an asteroid would only require a tiny amount of energy, it did take a lot of hyperspace generators and a computer to get them into hyperspace in the first place. Not to mention knowing where New Warsaw was, Jim thought, as the location was kept so secret that not even Peepo knew where it was.

The Fae were more than they seemed to be. When Daniel Walker came back from Capital Planet after rescuing Sansar Enkh, he’d brought back an unusual four-legged Raknar, and a Tri-V he’d found inside it. That Tri-V showed a Lumar inside a Raknar with a Fae on its shoulder. The Fae had been involved in the Raknar project, which explained a lot about them.

Part living toolkit, part interface, Jim thought. It explained both their ability with machines and their telepathic skills. The Kahraman had genetically engineered many creatures for their own purposes. So many, in fact, that uplifting species was now illegal. Maybe the Fae had been uplifted as well.

“Emergence in ten seconds,” the computer announced. “Three…two…one…” A brief sensation of falling and the Tri-Vs projected space outside.

“We are in the Vishall star system,” the navigator announced.

Bucephalus, this is Phaeton. Hold your position while we evaluate the situation.”

“Acknowledged, Phaeton,” Captain Su replied.

They waited for several minutes while the Winged Hussars decided how safe the system was. Eventually, the pronouncement arrived. Vishall had seen some action, but it was over. A Human merc unit, Bjorn’s Berserkers, was present on Vishall and had everything well in hand. They relayed the news that they’d fought against another Human unit who’d been cooperating with Peepo.

It was a surprising and alarming development, and Jim decided he wanted to meet the Berserkers commander, who had also gotten hold of a low-power shield generator—a smaller version of the ones used on starships—and had deployed them on his vehicles. That little fact had piqued Splunk’s interest. As Captain Jormungd had no objection, Jim and Splunk took a shuttle down to the planet.

Bjorn turned out to be a huge bear of a man with a cybernetic arm, a remnant of a childhood encounter with…a bear, of course. He’d survived and grown up to eventually take over his father’s unit. There were a few similarities between his and Jim’s story, though they looked nothing alike. Bjorn was in the middle of celebrating his wedding but took time to talk with Jim.

A massive man, he’d designed an improved Mk 7—he didn’t fit in the Mk 8—even though Binnig had abandoned that model. He also had the shield generators, although they hadn’t worked out quite the way he’d wanted them to.

“We can use those, <Skaa!>” Splunk said.

Jim was sure she was thinking the same thing—Raknar—so Jim cut a deal and bought fifteen of the miniature shield generators. Bjorn needed the credits, and Splunk got a new toy for her fellow Fae to experiment with.

“Are you sure you don’t need any more troopers or ships?” Jim asked as he was leaving.

“No,” Bjorn said with a booming laugh. “I don’t think Peepo will attack here. Our alien friends on the planet are full Union members and they would cause a lot of trouble. But I’d love a shot at Peepo. Just say the word, and my Berserkers are yours.”

“I think you’re better served here,” Jim said as he smiled. It was refreshing for a big strong merc to treat him as an equal. “If we need you, we’ll call.”

With that they were back to space. Several of the Hussar ships had been topped off with reaction mass, and, hours later, they were transitioning out through Vishall’s small stargate on their way to New Warsaw.

* * *

EMS Pegasus, Emergence Point, New Warsaw System

“Emergence in three…two…one…” A brief sensation of falling, and EMS Pegasus was in normal space.

“Report,” Alexis Cromwell ordered.

“We are in the New Warsaw system,” Flipper reported. The Selroth officer’s liquid-filled helmet showed bubbles slowly rising as he respirated inside his aquatic environment. “I have the picket located.” The large central Tri-V came alive, rendering images of the ships guarding their home system’s hyperspace emergence point.

“Things must have proceeded well,” Paka said as she pointed at one of the ships. “That must be Nuckelavee!” Visible were a pair of frigates and the unmistakable cigar-shaped outline of an Egleesius-class battlecruiser like Pegasus.

“I have comms,” Hoot said. He gestured at the nearest speaker, and a huffing Zuul voice came through.

“This is Nuckelavee Actual. Welcome home, Pegasus.

“This is Pegasus Actual,” Alexis said. She’d been expecting Lech Kowalczy. She’d wanted him to take command of Nuckelavee when she’d left, only that wasn’t who she was talking to. “Thank you, Captain Drizz. It’s good to be home.”

“I trust your operation went well?”

“Well enough. We lost Crocus, and Omaha and Macaque were badly damaged. They both stayed behind. Conquest of the planet went well, but a large percentage of the alien fleet escaped.”

“For now,” Captain Drizz said.

“Your ship is now combat ready?”

“Correct, Colonel,” the former intelligence officer replied. “The space naval architects worked out the last issues four days ago. Nuckelavee is one hundred percent combat ready.”

“Excellent news. Any other arrivals yet?”

“The task force from Golara returned over a week ago. The end of that operation went as expected. The Arion also arrived about a week ago, and Captain Teenge is waiting to speak with you. Apparently, Lieutenant Colonel Walker and some of the Golden Horde people got left behind on Paradise when the Merc Guild forces arrived, and Captain Teenge would like to set up a rescue. None of the other task forces have appeared yet.”

“Very well. We sent a task force to Paradise, so hopefully they will recover our wayward colonel. I’m going to detach Affirmed and Howler to take your position. Follow us to Prime Base; I want to get a jump on what is to come.”

“Right away, Colonel.”

“Paka, take us to Prime Base.”

“Yes, Captain,” her XO replied. “Secure from battle stations. Prepare to maneuver. Pleek, set course for Prime Base. Hoot, relay detachment and…”

The voice from the CIC cut off as Alexis floated into her adjacent ready room and closed the door. She allowed herself something she wouldn’t do in front of her crew—a deep shuddering sigh of relief. The entire week’s transit in hyperspace returning from Asyola she’d been at wits’ end, hoping nothing had gone wrong.

Any number of things would have signaled that upon her arrival. If any of the other task forces had beaten her back, or if they’d sent ships as couriers, it would have meant the individual operation had gone badly, or the intel they’d gathered on Golara was not entirely reliable. If any of the Hussar’s intel ships returned prematurely, it would have meant additional unplanned attacks. Then there was her biggest fear: that the secret base had been discovered.

<We will be discovered,> Ghost said. <Eventually.>

The Hussars have planned for that eventuality for nearly a century,” Alexis replied. It was a simple truth, dating back to when Ghost first led them to the New Warsaw system before anyone knew the AI existed. Shortly after they’d adopted it as their home, the previous commanders of the Hussars realized they might need to one day defend it against a superior force. It was Alexis’ own mother who’d hired the Horde to work on completing the base’s defenses. The project had a scheduled completion date that was still ten years in the future.

<Will that planning be enough?>

Only time will tell.” Alexis still held out hope she’d never have to know. She programmed her comms for a direct link and sent the message. A minute later she got the reply.

“Colonel Cromwell,” Lieutenant Commander Kowalczy answered.

“Lieutenant Commander, why aren’t you in command of Nuckelavee?”

“There were quite a few Zuul assigned to Nuckelavee,” he explained. “I talked it over with the command instructors, and we agreed that our first Zuul commander was warranted. The Zuul were impressed with Drizz’s accomplishments in escaping Earth, so I gave him the command.”

“I’d rather you’d given him Alicorn,” Alexis said, “but I can see the logic. Is he doing well?”

“Exceptionally,” Lech said. “The morale of all the Zuul throughout the Hussars is at an all-time high. I think it was a good move, but, of course, it’s up to you. We told him it was pending your review.”

“Very well, I’ll approve the assignment. I still think you just wanted to keep Alicorn.” She signed off and began reviewing other communications.

With several hours before they reached the huge multiple ring station of Prime Base, Alexis let her personal slate accept the thousands of files being sent to her. Everything from minor personnel movements, children born, some older members dying, a couple of training incidents, and progress on manufacturing war material.

The training losses concerned her, even though they were often the cost of doing business. Learning to fight and fly in combat weren’t without risk, and you couldn’t do it all in a simulator. She was surprised the losses weren’t from the SalSha. They’d all been the result of a failed reentry to the planet Home, which Prime Base orbited above, from the sort of everyday event which sometimes proved fatal. Spaceflight wasn’t completely safe, either, and never would be.

She looked up the information on the SalSha and was pleased to see the results. The little uplifted otter-like aliens were progressing well in their training. They were difficult to control; of that there was no doubt. The write-ups by Lieutenant Colonel Walker before he left were as detailed as they were frustrating. The SalSha showed serious potential to be the best star pilots in the galaxy, if they could learn to control their impulsiveness.

Captain Teenge’s report upon returning the Arion spoke volumes on their bravery as well. That same report spoke of the loss of Colonel Frank Earl and his company, Burt’s Bees, while stopping the Keesius doomsday ship. And the reason it was unleashed in the first place—Sato.

Alexis accessed Taiki Sato’s Winged Hussars personnel file. It was extensive. Extensive in its list of accomplishments for the Hussars, in particular. Every new ship design they’d fielded in the last fifteen years had been one of his designs. He was the one responsible for all the major improvements in their drones, in developing designs for their pinplants, for improved utilization of Prime Base, and for integrating the Golden Horde’s defensive systems improvements with what New Warsaw already had in place. And, to tell the truth, that wasn’t 10% of what he’d accomplished.

However, the number of entries for things he’d fucked up were nearly as impressive. He was responsible for the single biggest explosive decompression on Prime Base, exposing almost a quarter of the low gravity wing to vacuum. He’d decided a live test of a rocket motor in his lab was necessary. Sato had unwittingly released a virus into New Warsaw’s local version of the GalNet which wiped out all their financial records, which had to be reconstructed from backups on ships. That one had been a side project to develop a replacement for the Union’s Universal Account Access Card, the ubiquitous yack. And there were forty-two times he’d cost the Hussars at least one million credits due to research which had ended up without a real-world use.

“What a mess,” she thought. Over his career, he’d done much more for the Hussars than the net loss he’d generated. At least, until now. Up until now, nobody had died…until he’d activated the Keesius doomsday ship. It had taken weeks of pursuit to catch the ship and stop it, which they had managed to do just before it would have destroyed Capital Planet with a massive antimatter bomb. At least the rule against antimatter now had some context, she thought. The two sides in the war 20,000 years ago had been throwing around planet-killing doomsday ships. Preventing that seemed like a good reason to outlaw antimatter.

But many of the Burt’s Bees marines and some of the Golden Horde members had died stopping the Keesius—both in trying to rescue Sato from the trap of his own making and in actually stopping the ship. Sato had done his part to try and unscrew the situation. He’d filed extensive reports on what he’d learned from the Keesius, as well as a new request to look at the other Keesius they had. Entropy, no, she thought. Uuth, her security officer, had wisely restricted him to his quarters upon his return, and he’d remained locked down ever since.

If he were anyone but Taiki Sato, she’d have fired him and had him transported out of the system on the next available ship. In fact, if he’d been an officer in the Hussars, he might well have found himself sucking vacuum. His actions were nothing short of willful negligence, resulting in the loss of life for numerous Hussars personnel—one of their few capital crimes, right up there with treason. But it was Taiki Sato.

She scanned down to the end of his file and stopped. He’d been back over two weeks. Normally he’d already have found a way to cause some sort of trouble. However, except for a trip to medical to fix his damaged pinplants, which occurred during his rescue, he had not gotten himself into any mischief. In fact, he’d worked his ass off.

Alexis read his report on the Mk 9 CASPer project, including how the data had been sabotaged. Which explained why New Persia hadn’t been turning out finished suits. The load Nigel had brought back had turned out to be unassembled suits. When Sato tried to have them assembled, he discovered they were non-working models. The manufactory on New Persia had been building junk…before it was destroyed, anyway. In his time back, Sato had managed to salvage the designs and put a greatly improved Mk 8 into production. It was still labeled a Mk 9, though it wasn’t going to be nearly as ground-breaking as Binnig had promised. It also now made sense why the Mk 9 was years behind schedule.

Sato also had the six manufactories running at a hitherto unknown level of efficiency. He’d made several improvements on the SalSha’s bombers, the Avenger-class, which he’d designed years ago but never built because nobody could fly them. The rebuild of Dragon from a Fiend-class carrier into the first Intruder-class to carry both drones and Avengers was finished, as well as nearly a full complement of bombers.

Lastly, he’d said that research on the shuttle they’d brought back from 2nd level hyperspace was progressing well, and some new technology would be available shortly. In short, it looked like Sato was a born-again team player. Frankly, it was an amazing development.

“In order to implement some of the new technologies, I’ll need limited access to the shipyards. It can, of course, be under supervision.” That line of his report was nearly as surprising as his lack of mischief. No complaint on being watched, locked down, or under close scrutiny. Simply a matter of fact statement of his needs, with no weasel words.

“Grant him limited access to shipyard facilities,” she ordered. “Under no circumstances is he to be out of view of at least two marine guards. Furthermore, inform Kleena that a member of the Geek Squad needs to be with him at all times. This isn’t in lieu of a marine, but in addition to. Any sign of questionable actions, behaviors, or possible subterfuge is to be reported to myself or Commander Uuth immediately.”

She fully expected him to balk under that degree of control, and that was fine. If he could continue to produce results and not cause more mayhem, then maybe, just maybe, those lives weren’t spent in vain. Ultimately, Sato was probably worth the lives lost. It was a shitty thing to think, but Alexis made decisions almost every day that cost lives. She hoped this wasn’t another of those decisions.

“Captain?” Paka’s voice intruded on her introspection.

“Go ahead,” she said.

“Check your Tri-V feed; we have an escort.”

“Escort? What do you mean?”

“Best to just look, ma’am.”

With a shrug, Alexis activated her ready room’s Tri-V which was tuned to an outside camera. This one looked forward from one of the Pegasus’s currently retracted four gravity decks.

It took a second for her to recognize what she was seeing. The ships were tiny compared to Pegasus. Each was under ten meters long, and half that wide. They had distinctive dual bubble cockpits, large engines, and extensive points on which to mount weapons. It was the final iteration of the Avenger-class bomber. Twenty or more of them were flying along with Pegasus, only they were flying a spiral pattern around the battlecruiser in an intricate reverse-helix pattern.

“Entropy,” she said, shaking her head. Every couple of seconds a pair of Avengers would pass within meters of each other as they raced around in their pattern. “What the hell are they doing?

“They say this is similar to an underwater ballet they do called a Kloop. It is to welcome an honored warrior home after a successful battle,” Paka explained.

She started to wonder why Walker had thought this maneuver was a good idea, but then she remembered he was still on Paradise. He’d elected to stay and take command of their defenses. Which meant…

“Paka, who’s been in charge of the SalSha training since Walker left?”

Paka pulled up the manning documents and shrugged. “According to this, I don’t see anyone assigned. It looks like they’ve been training themselves.”

Alexis sighed. That could not be good. Outside Pegasus, the Avenger bombers continued their Kloop.

* * *

EMS Bucephalus, Emergence Point, New Warsaw System

“We have arrived in the New Warsaw system,” the Bucephalus’ navigation officer announced.

“Orders, Colonel?” Captain Su asked.

“Intercept with Upsilon 4, if you will,” Jim asked.

“You need to see the Hussars surgical team,” Hargrave reminded him. The two were in the CIC for their arrival at New Warsaw. Captain Su looked between the two men.

“Soon enough,” Jim said, “I just need to see to a couple things.” Hargrave gave him a surly look. “Captain, Upsilon 4, if you will, please.” Splunk chirped and jumped away, heading back into the ship. She was probably heading for the Raknar.

“As you wish,” she said, and Bucephalus broke off from the rest of the fleet, which navigated toward the huge rotating rings of Prime Base, and maneuvered outward, away from the hustle and bustle around the Hussar’s main structure. The CIC Tri-V showed that quite a few ships were already there, many more than when they’d left. At least one of the task forces had beaten him back. He wanted to know which, but he wanted to get to Upsilon 4 more.

The asteroid base was in a geostationary orbit some 200,000 kilometers further out from Home than Prime Base. It needed to be located there to avoid coming into conflict with the various orbiting shipyards, manufactories, and numerous fleet rally points the Hussars used. Any further out and it would come into conflict with the system’s enormous debris field—a million orbiting fragments of ships which put him in mind of Capital, only there it was more like a million wrecked ships, not a million pieces.

Bucephalus pushed away from the fleet with her fusion torch then coasted for an hour, flipping over to use her ion drive to brake as they closed on the asteroid. As the ion drive provided a bare fraction of the fusion torch’s power, she burned those much longer in order to come alongside.

As Bucephalus came to a stop relative to the asteroid base, Jim was about to call down to his three Raknar techs to prepare and move the mecha when he saw movement from the asteroid. He touched the controls on his chair in the CIC to focus on the movement. A pair of vehicles were moving toward his ship. As they got closer, he could only see that they resembled tugs.

There was a central module which probably contained motive power and a crew section, however, the rest of the vehicles were an oddball collection of cranes, robotic arms, and booms. What in entropy have the Fae been up to now? Jim wondered as the two “tugs” floated toward Bucephalus.

“Should I be concerned?” Captain Su asked as she examined the approaching machines.

“Not at all,” Jim said, trying to speak with more conviction than he felt. “It’s just some handling equipment.” A minute later they used maneuvering jets to reposition themselves near the Raknar mounted on Bucephalus side. As they approached, both began to open their various arms and booms, positioning over the Raknar.

Jim used his pinplants to inform his Raknar team to release the mecha’s magnetic locks holding it to the hull. The sound of the mecha being released reverberated through the ship. In seconds, the two tugs had secured it with a variety of grapples and arms and were moving it toward the base. Jim was impressed, yet somehow not surprised.

“Shuttle inbound,” the sensor tech announced. Sure enough, a small shuttle was exiting the asteroid base’s main bay. Months ago, he’d had Bucephalus shoot the bay door out because a rampaging robot was trying to kill him. He didn’t know if the robot had survived that encounter, only that it had been blown into space and left behind at Karma.

“I guess that’s my ride,” Jim said. He caught a sharp look from Hargrave and added, “I’ll head over to Prime Base in a few hours. Please join the fleet assignment area, Captain.”

“As you will,” Captain Su said, and Hargrave nodded.

Jim floated free of his chair and headed to the personnel lock. By the time he was there, the shuttle had already docked and the automated airlock system was balancing atmospheric pressure with the shuttle. Out of the corner of his eye, Jim saw a brown shape flying toward him. He turned to greet Splunk, only to see another Fae. Well, he thought, that confirms my suspicions.

While they were at Talus, Jim had gotten various reports of Fae sightings on Bucephalus, often simultaneous ones—too many to just be one. He’d asked Splunk if more Fae were along, and she’d just grinned. Since it hadn’t made any difference really if there were, he’d let it go.

This Fae was brown also, but considerably darker than Splunk, bordering on black. It also had a white tuft of fur on the end of its tail, a sign he now knew meant that this one was male. “Hello,” he said, and the Fae nodded in a most Human manner. “What’s your name?”

“My name Peskall,” he said.

There was a sound behind him, and Jim turned and saw two more Fae. One was female with the same shade of dark brown fur as Peskall, but with black ear tufts and half her tail was black, as well. The other was an even darker brown female, with gray hands, feet, tail, and ears.

“I Ryft,” the female with black highlights said.

“I Jocko,” the other replied.

“Are there any more of you aboard?” Jim asked.

“Not this ship,” Peskall said.

“If Alexis Cromwell finds out, she’ll be pissed,” he warned them.

“She not find out,” Peskall said and winked. They all had the same blue-on-blue eyes as Splunk. The only Fae he’d seen without those same eyes was Sly, their leader.

“Where’s Splunk?”

“She rode on Raknar,” Peskall said, again speaking for them all. “Sly wanted to see her when you come.”

“I see,” he said. The airlock finished cycling and opened. Inside was still another Fae, a male. Jim wasn’t surprised by that. What he was surprised by was the way the Fae looked. The others all appeared young, at least to his uneducated eye. Their fur was smooth and glossy, their eyes bright, and their mannerism quick and agile. This Fae’s fur was more of a matte color, his movements slower and more deliberate. He also had an unmistakable cybernetic arm. As if that wasn’t enough, the obviously battle-worn Fae sported a patch over his left eye, and his tail looked like it had been partly amputated at some point, though it still sported a tuft.

“And who are you?” Jim asked.

The Fae gave him a long look with his only bright blue eye, then issued a grunting sound before turning and floating back into the shuttle. Jim shook his head in bemusement. I’ve just met my first surly Fae, he decided and followed him in. Peskall, Ryft, and Jocko floated right behind him, and the door closed immediately.

“Prepare to maneuver,” the older Fae snapped. Jim grabbed the nearest handhold and the shuttle jerked almost before he could get a good grip.

This Fae has been through hell, Jim thought, then chuckled. The old Fae was in the pilot’s section. It was clearly designed for a larger race and had been adapted for their use. He appeared quite comfortable at the controls. “What do you want me to call you?” he asked the male.

“Whatever,” the replied.

“Okay,” Jim said, a small grin on his face. “I’ll call you Dante.” Dante grunted and glanced back at him. If Jim hadn’t known better, he would have said the old guy was smiling. Did he understand the reference? “Dante it is, then.” The other three Fae didn’t pay attention to the exchange. He desperately wanted to ask Dante a hundred questions, maybe a thousand, but it just wasn’t the time.

The shuttle flight over to Upsilon 4 only took a minute. Dante’s piloting skills were impressive. Jim’s mind filled with the thought that there could well be Fae colonies out in the galaxy that nobody knew of. Was it really all that difficult to imagine? There were tens of thousands of races in the galaxy. Maybe hundreds of thousands. More races went unnoticed than noticed. How many of them were familiar with starship operations? Or for that matter, how many could take a 20,000-year-old asteroid base and turn it into a hyperspace-capable ship?

Jim watched their arrival through a port. The bay where he’d fought the alien robot looked like new and the landing platforms were now aligned properly, with various fuel transfer cables and power couplings all racked and ready. Dante brought them down onto one of the landing platforms. The shuttle touched with a tiny bump, then was pulled downward by magnetic couplers. The big bay doors closed, and atmosphere flowed into the bay. A completely professional operation.

When the hatch opened, the three Fae from Bucephalus swarmed out, intent on an unknown purpose. Dante stayed at the controls of his craft, and Jim floated over to the hatch the others had exited through and saw two Fae outside attaching cables to the shuttle. Neither were ones he’d previously met, and he was pretty sure he hadn’t seen them…ever. His estimate of how many Fae were in New Warsaw kept going up.

The hatchway into the station proper was standing open, and Jim made the jump easily. After months of living in space, he felt just as at home in zero gravity as on a planet. Better, truth be told. In zero gravity his extra 50 kilos of fat didn’t work against him as much. Once inside the station, he made his way to the command center.

Everywhere he went, there were more signs of the work which had proceeded in his absence. Working light fixtures which had once been few and far between were now set up at regular intervals along every passageway. Maybe not as common as Jim would have preferred, but Fae eyes were light sensitive compared to a Human’s. Where there were once loose electrical conduits, now they were all either carefully closed or reconnected. Where open panels were common, now he only saw one, and it had a Fae’s tail sticking out, slowly twitching as the alien worked inside.

He quickly reached the command center. Despite all the improvements he’d seen, Jim hadn’t expected what he found there. When the Fae moved Upsilon 4 from Karma to New Warsaw, they’d taken the formerly stripped command center and turned it into a maze of improvised computer control systems and displays. Now it looked as if the space had been returned to how it might have looked before.

A series of massive Tri-Vs were at the center of the oval room with a ring of workstations facing them. At least thirty Fae were manning the stations, all working at them with intense concentration. A couple looked up; most didn’t.

At their center was a trio of three stations, each with its own array of Tri-V screens, occupied by three Fae. Jim immediately recognized Splunk as one of them. She looked at him as he entered, her blue-on-blue eyes bright with interest and…was that concern? Another was Sly. Jim recognized his all-white fur easily. The last was Dante. He might be old, but he was fast!

Sly followed Splunk’s gaze to Jim. He considered the Human interloper for a moment, then made an unmistakable “come here” gesture. Jim hesitated for a second, then pushed off to float across the command center. He caught himself on the edge of a panel in the center cluster. Now many eyes in the room were looking at him.

“Hello, Jim,” Sly said, “Welcome home.”

“You’ve been busy,” Jim said, looking around. Everything looked so finished, so polished, so…perfect.

“Yes,” Sly agreed. “You have questions.”

“Only about a thousand.”

Sly smiled for the first time, a small grin that showed his perfect, sharp, little white teeth. Dante grunted while Splunk nodded. She’d know, of course; Jim had been trying to get answers from her for months now, ever since they left on their galaxy-cavorting trip.

He looked around at the huge Tri-Vs. Many showed deep space scans of the New Warsaw system. Scans that would probably make Alexis Cromwell and her defense planners rather uncomfortable. A series of other screens showed a long line of Raknar in their maintenance cradles. Several had their chests open as robotic arms moved within them, working. Others were closed up, newly painted and pristine. Ready for war.

“Ask your questions,” Sly said.

“How many Fae are here?” he asked.

“On Upsilon 4? There are 211 of us.” Jim gasped. “In the New Warsaw system, 303 in total.”

“How?” Jim asked. “How did you get so many here?”

“We’ve gotten good at moving around without anyone noticing us,” Dante said, and gave a dry chuckle.

Jim gave the old Fae a surprised look. He hadn’t expected the grizzled old Fae to be the talkative type. “This place,” Jim said, gesturing around the command center and beyond. “You knew about this place.”

“Yes,” Sly admitted, “for a long time.”

“Kash-kah isn’t your home system, is it?”

“No,” Splunk said, “but many of us were born there.”

“We went there to hide, after everything came apart,” Sly said.

Jim saw another Fae float into the command center. A female that everyone looked at, then cast their eyes away from. Her fur was light gray with little, whitish speckles. What was most prominent about her, though, was that her ear tips were white and seemed to have sparkles in them. Her movements were almost catlike, graceful and deliberate. She floated across the command center and caught a hold with her tail, her shining blue-on-blue eyes examining Jim.

“Sla’etou,” The new comer said to Sly, calling him by his Fae name, gesturing at Jim, “is this the one?” she asked. “This is the first rider paired with J’asa?”

Jim looked at the new arrival, then at Splunk. He knew that was her real name—her Fae name. Splunk was J’asa. It was a lot prettier than Splunk.

“This is the one,” Sly said. He looked at Jim. “You are in the presence of Seldia. She is special among our people. A K’apo.

Jim looked from her to Splunk.

“Far-talker is the literal translation,” she said. “They are a sort of spirit guide to us, <Otoo>

“I see,” Jim said. “Pleased to meet you, Seldia.”

Seldia looked at him. Really looked at him, and Jim felt like she was gazing into his very soul. A shiver ran up his spine, along with a deep-down jolt not dissimilar to what he felt when Splunk and he joined in Akee. He wondered just how far the Fae’s psychic powers went.

“He is a start,” she said, continuing her examination of him. “He has the qualities we need.”

“Why have you come here?” Jim asked them. “Why now? I know you were with the Dusman, 20,000 years ago. I have a picture of a Fae with a Lumar.” He looked at Splunk. “I asked before, but you didn’t answer. Were the Lumar the Dusman? Did something happen to them in the Great War? Maybe some revenge attack by the Kahraman?” All of them shook their heads, further confusing him.

“We came back to help you,” Splunk said. “The guilds must be stopped.”

“The Merc Guild?” Jim asked.

Splunk started to say something but Seldia gave her a sharp glare, and she looked away.

“Yes,” Sly agreed. “Their subjugation of you Humans is a mistake. A dire one.”

“Okay,” Jim said, “I’m not going to argue that. But what can I do? It’s taken me months to learn to run one of those.” Jim pointed at a Tri-V showing a Raknar. “I’ve almost died fighting Canavar. There shouldn’t even be any of them—the Merc Guild is using them against their own laws.” Splunk nodded. “We can’t wait for months or years while I figure out how to train more like me. We don’t even know who might be compatible.”

“We do,” Seldia said, sending another shiver up Jim’s spine.

“Maybe if we could find the Dusman out there. If you are still around, maybe they are, too.”

“You don’t understand,” Sly said. Jim shook his head. “Look around you,” Sly said, gesturing broadly. “Jim, we are the Dusman.”

* * *

Jim floated in the center of the room he’d claimed as his office in Upsilon 4, trying to keep from freaking out. The truth he’d just been told was far more powerful, more far-reaching, and more profound than anything he could have imagined.

Of course, it made complete sense. He hated himself for not figuring it out on his own. All the facts were there, almost from the beginning. The final piece should have been their visit to the Machine Empire, then the Science Guild.

“I’m such an idiot,” he said to the darkened room.

He’d been there for an unknown time when Splunk floated in. She caught a handhold and watched him from across the room, her big blue-on-blue eyes examining him closely. After a minute, he spoke. “Answer a question? A personal question?” Her little head nodded. “Was I just a tool, like the Lumar?”

“No, <Skaa!>

“Then why me, why Humans in general?”

“You are new to us,” she explained. “We never see Human until you visit Kash-kah. When we save you, I touched you and knew <Akee!> was there.” She smiled. “Then I learn of Adversary, we fight them. I sent word home. Argument was made. Some say come, some say stay.” She shrugged. “Decision made to come.”

“Who said not to come? Sly?”

“No,” Splunk replied. “Dante.”

“Oh,” Jim said, a little surprised. “I thought Sly was in charge.”

“We not work quite that way. When decision needed, groups form of opinions. Majority decide. But if no clear majority, we need <Kroof!>

Jim thought about the word and how it felt. Arbitrator? Judge? Maybe a little of both. “Is that a Fae? I mean, Dusman?”

“Yes,” Splunk said.

“That must be Sly, then.” She nodded. “How do I tell everyone about this?” He asked. “Entropy! It changes everything!

“You can’t tell them, <Clee!>

“What? Why not?”

“Think, Jim. How will Humans react? History tells so many stories, many not good. There will be fear and suspicion.”

She’s right about that, he thought. I’m afraid and more than a little suspicious.

“We are worried you will want us to take over, <Froo!>

“You’re the Dusman,” Jim said, “maybe you should.”

“No, <Skaa!>” she said instantly. “Not again.” She shook her head several times. “We’ll help. We have no choice but to do that, but we won’t be in charge.”

“Okay,” he said, then held his hands apart in a helpless gesture. “What do we do?”

“Keep calling us Fae,” she said, then began to lay out an explanation. He thought it sounded a little weak.

“You know others will figure it out, sooner or later.”

“We know, <Skee!>” she agreed. “We can hope for later.” Splunk produced a miniature slate. “For now, bring these people together. They’re all like you. These will be the first of the other Raknar drivers. Together, we’ll train them to <Akee!>

Jim took the slate and examined the names. He only recognized one, then realized why. “Oh, this isn’t going to be easy.”

“Nothing is, <Pree!>

* * * * *


Chapter Thirteen


Winged Hussars Prime Base, New Warsaw System

It had been two months since they’d sat at the four-pointed solid gold table, each point carved in the symbol of a Horsemen. Alexis, Sansar, Nigel, and Jim all stood with a raised golden goblet. “The Four Horsemen for Earth!” they all intoned together.

“For Earth!” the seventeen company commanders and XOs cheered. Alexis tried not to notice the six missing commanders. Several had remained behind to bolster colony defenses, but three were not present because they were wiped out. She was keenly aware of how many of her ships would never make home port again.

“Together,” Alexis said, still holding up her goblet, “we took back four Human colonies from Peepo and dealt her the second major setback!” The room reverberated with cheers. “Our enemies are in retreat, and we are in agreement.” She looked at the other three Horsemen who all nodded. “The next step is obvious.”

“EARTH!” the room roared.

“Earth!” the Four Horsemen agreed and drank from their golden goblets.

The formal meeting broke up into a celebration. Several large conference rooms adjacent to the one hosting their golden table were opened up to provide room for more than 500 officers and NCOs of the various ships, merc units, and support crews. The Hussars’ supply division had laid on quite the feast, with delicacies from Home as well as some tastes of Earth.

Alexis worked the room, shaking hands and offering kind words. Many of the commanders offered their condolences on the crews she’d lost. She did the same for those who’d lost troopers. Despite that, the mood was quite high. With an unbroken series of successes, they were ready to take the next step.

“Do you have a minute, Alexis?”

She turned and saw it was Jim Cartwright. She’d been so wrapped up in the moment earlier she’d failed to notice his expression. The young man looked like he’d seen a ghost. “What’s up, Jim?”

“I…” he trailed off without ever getting started.

The look on his face was the most conflicted she’d ever seen on a man’s face in her life. Just over his shoulder she saw Nigel look at her, and she felt heat run up her body. He slowly flashed one of his patented half-grin, half-smirks, and her knees almost gave out.

“Are you okay?” Jim asked, his haunted look giving way to confusion.

Alexis got control of herself and shook her head slightly. “Yeah, of course.” Across the room Nigel winked, and she licked her lips. “I’m sorry, did you have something you wanted to say?”

“No,” he said, his face looking resolute now. “It can wait. Have fun.”

“Thanks, I will,” she said, without even realizing it. Jim moved away, and she walked over to Nigel.

“I am glad you came back safe,” he said, his rich accent rolling across her like a warm wave.

“And I’m glad you made it back as well. The report you filed on Paradise said it was a tough fight, and you took losses.”

“Such is war,” he said with a nod. “The Lumar fought well, though, and will be a valuable addition to our company.” His eyes roved down her body, and she was conscious of how snugly her uniform fit and that she was blushing. Music was playing and some of the mercs were dancing. While men greatly outnumbered women in the room, there were still a few pairings. Most appeared to be out of courtesy, though a few looked more earnest. “Dance?” he asked.

“Oh, I couldn’t,” she protested.

“Psh,” he snorted. “You are Colonel Alexis Cromwell, legendary commander of the Winged Hussars. I would be insulted if you said no!” His hard-lined chin was up, his eyes flashing.

For a half a second, she thought he was being serious, showing that fiery Persian blood he was so known for. Then she saw the barest hint of a wink, and she laughed. He held out his arm, and she took it. He led her toward where the others were moving to the music.

Just before they arrived, the song finished and was replaced with another. It took a second for her to recognize it. “Ostatni usćisk?” she gasped. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“What?” Nigel asked, “I do not recognize this.”

“It’s an old Polish waltz, known as the last kiss,” she explained.

“I pray it won’t be,” he said, and swept her into motion.

She’d seen the dance done by some older people in the Hussars. A few of the company’s Polish traditions survived, after all. Without thinking, she gently guided Nigel into the movements. He was observant and watched the others who knew the waltz. Soon, they were in step. The cadence was not complicated. Despite herself, she was smiling broadly, and Nigel was as well. They were halfway through the dance before she realized everyone in the room was watching them, clapping to the beat, and many were cheering.

I’m going to find out who played that and kill them, she thought.

<You would never kill me,> Ghost said through her pinplants.

You? she thought. Why? Ghost didn’t answer. As the waltz wound its way down, Nigel pulled her closer, and she felt her heart racing. The last beat played, and he gently kissed her lips. The crowd exploded.

Entropy, she mentally cursed. Sansar Enkh was watching, her second in command, Lieutenant Colonel Dan Walker, standing next to her. She was shaking her head, but a tiny smile was on her face. Walker’s jaw hung open slightly, and his eyes were wide. The Depik is out of the bag now, she realized as Nigel swept her out of the room.

* * *

“Well, that’s something you don’t see every day,” Walker said as Nigel and Alexis strode from the room arm-in-arm. There was no question what they were off to do; the only question was whose quarters they were going to do it in. Judging by the looks in both their eyes, it was probably going to be whichever one was closest.

“Yeah,” Sansar said, shaking her head slightly. “I’ve known about that for some time. I didn’t think it was a good thing at first…”

“And now?” Walker prodded when she didn’t continue.

“Now?” She snorted. “Now I have no idea. It’s a terrible idea, based on the timing. We’re going to assault Earth, and anything could happen. I’d hate to see Nigel get put in a position where he has to choose between the mission and Alexis. Based on his past…”

“That would be a tough call,” Walker finished. “Hell, it would be a tough call for anyone, regardless of their history.”

“Alexis, though, she’s probably going to do what is required of her.”

Walker cocked his head. “Only probably?”

“I would have been sure of it a couple of months ago…maybe even as much as a month ago. But after just watching that exit…”

“Yeah, their judgment is somewhat clouded.” Walker nodded. “I see what you’re saying.”

“Still, though…I don’t think that has to be a bad thing.” Sansar made a motion that encompassed the personnel present. “Just seeing the two of them together has given the people here hope. Hope for the future. Hope that they will be happy again. Hope that we’ll drive the Merc Guild off and win this thing.” She shrugged. “That much, anyway, is good. And, as strange as it seems, I also think she’s had a mellowing influence on him. He has, what? Two separate contingents of Lumar working for him now?”

“Yeah, he does, and I’m damn glad for it. They saved my ass on Paradise.”

“Exactly. Six months ago, could you have imagined Nigel having aliens working for him?”

Walker chuckled. “No. Not so much.”

“That also is good,” Sansar said. “He has become more accepting, and more willing to see the gray areas, rather than just see everything as black and white.”

“That probably wouldn’t be so bad for Alexis, either.”

“I think it’s had that effect on her, too; it’s just taking longer for it to show. Nigel has always been one to wear his emotions on his sleeve—it’s part of his heritage, I guess—but Alexis has closed herself off from her humanity, from her emotions, and it took longer for her to accept it.”

Walker smiled. “So, Boss, what’s it all mean?”

Sansar laughed. “I have no idea. Maybe it means nothing more than that there is someone for everyone, no matter how big a pain in the ass or how bitchy they are. Maybe it means you find love in the strangest places. Maybe it means you should never give up hope, even when things are the darkest. Who knows?”

“So, does that mean we’ll see you dancing around with Jim Cartwright sometime soon?”

Sansar’s eyes twinkled. “Six months ago, I would have laughed at the idea. He was too young, too inexperienced, too naïve. He has good genes, though, and he has come a long way. A girl could do worse than Jim.”

Walker’s jaw dropped even further than it had when he was watching Nigel and Alexis dance.

Sansar chuckled. “You can shut your mouth. Neither of us are the other’s type, and I’m a lot older than him, too. You don’t have to worry, that isn’t going to happen.”

It was Walker’s turn to chuckle. “You had me going there for a moment, because I never saw that happening. Not in a million years.”

“Really?” Sansar asked, sounding slightly annoyed. “Well, who would have seen Nigel and Alexis together? They hated each other when they first met. Besides—” she looked over to where Jim was shaking the hands of some of the NCOs from one of the smaller companies “—he does have a fascination with pinplants, and who has more of them than I do? He’s young and a CASPer driver, so he probably has a lot of stamina; whereas I have a lot of experience to share with him…”

Sansar laughed as Walker’s jaw dropped again. “I’m just kidding, but who is to say what is possible or impossible with love? Blue Sky Above! If Nigel and Alexis can get together, anything is possible.”

* * *

Winged Hussars Prime Base, New Warsaw System

Jim knocked on Alexis’ office door the next day and entered, as was customary of a fellow officer. She was sitting at her desk staring into space, using her pinplants. The back wall of her office was a single, five-meter-wide, one-and-a-half-meter-tall, clear crystal window looking out into space. Home was slowly moving out of view with the station’s rotation, and one of the Hussar’s fleets came into view.

“Sorry to disturb you, Alexis,” he said.

Her eyes refocused, and she nodded to him. “Not a problem, Jim. Sorry I was distracted last night.”

“I can understand,” he said. “It was a nice party.”

She gave him a quizzical look, then shrugged. “What’s on your mind?” she asked.

“The timetable for the attack on Sol.”

“Right to the matter,” she said with an appreciative nod. “You are Thaddeus’s son, after all.”

Jim smiled, and his cheeks got a little red. Wow, he thought. I forgot she knew Dad.

“Sansar and I have only briefly talked,” she continued, “but it won’t be long. I have six ships in for some quick repairs, and I need to meet with my tech people—the Geek Squad—to see if we can get the Mk 9 CASPers into some of our elite people’s hands. I’d like to have at least a platoon for each of our units, if possible.”

“I know my people would be excited,” Jim said. “So how long?”

“Say two weeks.”

Damn it, he thought. I was afraid of that. Jim’s jaw tightened, and he gave a little head shake.

“Is that a problem?” Alexis asked. “I know you’re eager and all, but we can’t really go any sooner.”

“It isn’t that,” he said. “I need a month.”

Alexis’ eyes went wide in surprise. Clearly that wasn’t what she was expecting. “Do you have a problem that needs attention? I can redirect resources to your people.”

“No, it’s not really a problem,” he said. “It’s the Raknar; we’re almost ready to go.”

“I was hoping that was the case, but why an entire month? It can’t take that long to load it and prep it for flight.”

“Not at all, but that isn’t the problem,” he said and sighed. He wanted to tell her the truth with every fiber of his being. And yet, he dared not do it. What would be her reaction to finding out her private star system was overrun with Dusman? The implications alone might cause her to respond poorly. He wasn’t taking it very well himself. I feel like a pawn, he thought. What part do I really have in this?

“Then explain it to me, if you will.”

“Sure,” he said. She gestured him to a chair in front of her rather modest desk, and he sat gratefully. Alexis’ office was in the 90% gravity wing of Prime Base; Jim wasn’t used to higher gravity anymore, and his back was sore. “You are aware there are quite a few Fae on Upsilon 4?”

“Yes,” she said. “There were also reports they were on the fleets as well.”

Jim knew he looked surprised, and she nodded. So, Dante’s assurance that nobody knew was a tad overstated. He was glad the Dusman hadn’t pulled one over on Alexis entirely.

“Hopefully, that didn’t cause any problems?” he asked.

“There’s been some pilfering,” she admitted. “I gave orders to tolerate it unless anything critical went missing. I know they were working on the Raknar.”

“Yes, they were,” he agreed. “I’ll happily compensate you for the equipment.”

She waved a dismissive hand. “That won’t be necessary, Jim. We’re all fighting for the same goal. However, I still don’t understand—why do you need a month?”

“I need Fae to operate the Raknar,” Jim said, “but that’s just part of the equation.” He took a deep breath and let the prepared lie go. “The Lumar used to be the Dusman.”

“I surmised as much after seeing that Tri-V Walker brought back from Capital Planet. Only…I’ve met them. We have a few Lumar in the Hussars, and Nigel brought back even more. They aren’t exactly the galaxy-leading type.”

“No,” Jim agreed. “Something happened after the Great War. A bio weapon or something. They’re not what they used to be. The Fae were their mechanical geniuses and half the team to operate a Raknar. It’s a mild form of telepathy, actually.”

“Fascinating,” Alexis said.

Jim nodded and continued. “The Lumar, or Dusman, were particularly good matches for the Fae. They were a nearly perfect team. But that’s gone.”

“You and your Fae seem to manage well. I saw the image of your fight on Talus with the Canavar. Entropy! That was incredible! And we now have proof Peepo is using Canavar as well. When this is over, we’re going to bury her.”

“We are a good match,” Jim agreed. Alexis looked expectant. “There are other good matches. The Fae weren’t dispersed in the fleet just to steal stuff, they were looking for partners.”

“Like you and your Fae—Splunk isn’t it?”

“Yes, Splunk, and that’s exactly it.”

“Did they find them some?”

“Six,” Jim said, “so far. They say there are more.”

“How many Fae are here?” she asked.

Jim swallowed, caught off guard. He’d been hoping that wouldn’t come up. More lies, he silently cursed. “Almost a hundred.”

Her eyes nearly bugged out. “It’s like they were waiting for something,” she said.

More than you know, Jim thought. “They’d never seen a Human until I met Splunk on Kash-kah. They were drawn to me.” He shrugged. “I’m just as overwhelmed as you are.”

“So,” Alexis said, “those six names?”

“Yes,” Jim replied, and put a mini slate on her polished desk. “They’re from across the Four Horsemen.” Alexis picked up the slate and examined the names.

“Your intention is to train them?”

“As much as possible in a month, yes.”

“You have two Hussars, two Horde, one of yours, and one of Nigel’s. Have you asked them yet?”

“No,” Jim admitted, “you’re the first.”

“Lucky me,” she said. “Well, neither of these people are what I would classify as essential personnel, but I’m shorthanded already. What becomes of them in the long run?”

“I don’t know,” Jim admitted. “While they’re Raknar drivers, they’d be under my command.” He gave a shrug. “Afterward, we can figure it out.”

“Good enough for me,” she said, and pressed her intercom button. “Paka?”

“Colonel?” the Veetanho XO replied instantly.

“Please have Ensign Darrel Fenn and Sergeant Mia Kleve detached from active duty and sent over to Prime Base immediately.”

“Sir?”

“I’ll explain later. Arrange for a meeting room; have them there in two hours.”

“Understood, Colonel.”

Alexis looked at Jim, and he nodded. “Good luck with the others,” she said.

“Yeah,” he said, and went out. A minute later, he was at another door and knocking. The portal slid open to reveal Colonel Shirazi in a T-shirt and jeans, a slate in one hand and a beer in the other.

“Jim,” he said, blinking in surprise. “What’s going on?”

“Nigel,” Jim said. “I have a request.”

“Anything,” Nigel replied.

“I hoped you would say that,” Jim said and handed him a slate.

Nigel looked at the device, then up at Jim. “Why her? What do you need her for?”

“Raknars,” Jim said. Nigel’s eyebrows rose, and Jim explained, similar to what he’d said to Alexis. Of course, since he and Nigel were both CASPer drivers, that altered his position a bit and allowed him to remind Nigel of how their capabilities could be essential to retaking Earth.

“I understand that much,” Nigel said, “but why her? She’s CASPer-qualified, but fighting isn’t her normal job.”

“The Fae made the calls on people,” he explained. “It’s something to do with compatibility.”

“Oh, I see.” Nigel picked up a slate and tapped a message. “Okay, she’ll be there.” He went to the little refrigerator in his room and brought two fresh bottles of beer. “A toast to your corps of Raknar,” he said.

Jim was taken aback. Raknar Corps? he thought. I like that. “I’m not really much for alcohol,” he complained.

“I know you are young and all,” Nigel said. Jim’s face darkened, and the man laughed congenially. “Just a drink, Jim. As friends?”

Jim looked at the offered beer for a moment, which Nigel had already opened. He gingerly accepted the bottle, and Nigel beamed.

“To victory,” Nigel said, holding his out.

“Victory,” Jim agreed and clinked the glass. He took a sip. It was a lot stronger than the beer his father used to drink, with a heady, hoppy smell. He didn’t exactly love it, but he also didn’t hate it. Nigel was watching Jim with a cocked eyebrow. “It’s not bad,” Jim said, and took another sip.

“Excellent!” Nigel roared, and downed half of his bottle in a long swallow.

Jim took a couple more drinks then set the beer on a coffee table. “I need to go see Sansar now,” he said.

Nigel looked a little disappointed but nodded in agreement. “More recruiting for your Raknar Corps?” he asked.

“Yes,” Jim agreed. “Thanks, Nigel.”

Down the hall, he found Sansar’s quarters and knocked a final time. Sansar opened the door, in uniform and with a slate in her hand. “Jim?” she asked, looking surprised. “What can I do for you?”

“I need to borrow a couple of your people,” he said, and began his spiel for the third time. She seemed the least surprised of his fellow Horsemen.

“I’ve been waiting for that request,” she said with a little smile. “Or one like it.”

“How were you expecting it?” Jim wondered.

“I had a dream.”

“I knew you had them,” he said, “but I didn’t know you were having them about me.”

“Not you, specifically,” she said. “It’s your Raknar. I guess, in retrospect, I should have known it would be you. Do you need specific people?”

“Yes,” Jim said, and handed her the last of the three slates he’d prepared. He then explained how the process would work. “As you can see, a lot of it is up to the Fae.”

“They’re a lot more than just smart little aliens,” Sansar said. “We’ve known that for a while.”

Jim looked down at a slate in his hand to cover up the strained expression on his face. He wanted to tell her so badly, and she looked as if she expected to hear more. These three were his compatriots—the Horsemen were risking more than any of the Humans, and they were humanity’s best hope. Maybe he could tell them? No, was the silent answer in his head, the risk of it backfiring was just too high. Soon enough, after Earth was liberated, they would have that discussion.

Sansar watched him for a second then made a little sound in her throat before taking up her slate again. She keyed in a message, waited a second, then nodded. “Okay,” she said, “they’re yours for as long as you need them.”

“Thanks, Sansar,” he said.

“Do you mind if I attend this ritual?”

“It’s not really a ritual,” Jim explained.

“Sounds like one to me,” she said. “Either way, would it be okay for me to be there?”

“Of course,” he said, although he didn’t really mean it. The Fae might not appreciate it. Still, neither Sly, Splunk, nor Dante had said she couldn’t be there.

“Good,” she said. “I look forward to it.”

Once Jim left, he considered her attending and decided it was only fair that the others come as well. He took his slate and sent a message to Alexis and Nigel, inviting them. Both responded almost immediately they would. The die is cast, he thought, and headed for his own quarters. He needed a little time to put together how this was going to proceed, and he had a special shuttle flight from Upsilon 4 to arrange. Then a reminder came in from Hargrave.

“Don’t forget your trip to the doc, Boss.”

“Shit,” he said and changed his destination.

* * *

“Colonel Cartwright,” the distinguished-looking older man said, “I was told you’d be stopping by.” On his Hussars uniform was a nametape declaring him to be Dr. G. Ramirez.

“I’m here under protest,” Jim admitted.

“Typical of you CASPer driver types,” Ramirez said with a chuckle. He gave Jim a quick up and down. “I must admit, though; you don’t look like the typical type.”

“Yeah, life doesn’t always work out the way you want it to,” Jim said.

Ramirez led Jim from the reception area into an examination room. “Please understand these are necessary questions,” Ramirez said. Jim nodded for him to proceed. “How old are you?”

“Twenty-two,” Jim said.

“Height and weight?”

“One hundred ninety centimeters, around 160 kilos.”

Ramirez nodded, blinked, and Jim noticed he had pinplants like all the other Winged Hussars and Golden Horde he’d seen. He resolved to move for his Cavaliers to reach 100%, as well.

“Your obesity has held over from childhood?” Ramirez asked.

“Yeah, I was a fat kid, too.”

“Based on images I have, you’ve lost a fair amount of weight.”

“Around 20 kilos,” Jim said.

“That’s a good start,” Ramirez said, and Jim shrugged. “Can you sit here on this table while I get some equipment?” Jim did as he was asked, and a pair of medical assistants joined Dr. Ramirez.

“You know the details of why I’m here?” Jim asked.

“Yes,” Ramirez answered. “Your XO sent me a file with all the data obtained through the medical intervention on Talus.” He looked at a slate one of the assistants handed him and gave a tut-tut sound. “That is supposed to be an advanced colony; you’d think they’d possess better equipment.”

“I think they’re suffering from their previous form of government,” Jim said.

“Perhaps,” Ramirez said.

An assistant moved over what appeared to be a medical scanner, though it was half the size of any other model he’d seen, even back in Houston on Earth.

“That’s an impressive machine,” Jim said.

“The scanner? Yeah, it’s a design by Sato. We make a lot of our own equipment internally. Colonel Cromwell prefers the Hussars to be as self-sufficient as possible.”

Jim watched as the medical staff set up the scanner and activated it. It projected an image of his chest, constructed from a combination of positron emissions and magnetic resonance. The scanner’s wand continued to sweep back and forth in front of him as the doctor examined its display.

“I see the little bugger,” Ramirez said, then manipulated the display while leaning closer. “Fascinating,” he added, then pressed a control before looking off into nowhere. After another moment, he closed his eyes as he manipulated the data and images. “The report said this foreign body was non-responsive to nano-therapy?”

“Foreign body?” Jim wondered.

“The dart lodged in your aortic arch just before the brachiocephalic trunk.”

“Oh, that,” Jim said, only understanding the aorta part. He had a dozen petabytes of data in his pinplants, though none of it was the kind of biology he’d need to understand the doctor. “Yeah, they tried three times. It controlled the bleeding, of course, but never managed to melt the dart.”

“Fascinating,” Ramirez said, then opened his eyes and directed the assistants to do something. “You shouldn’t be walking around, you know. If that dart comes unstuck, you would bleed out in a minute or two.”

Jim shrugged. “That’s what they said.”

“You might not be a typical specimen of a CASPer driver physically, but you certainly are mentally,” Ramirez said.

“Thanks, I think,” Jim said.

“It was a compliment, considering your profession. Colonel, I could remove it in surgery, but it would require an extremely invasive thoracic procedure. You’d be down for at least a week, maybe more.”

“Not acceptable,” Jim said.

“I thought you might say that. However, I will not clear you for duty with that thing in your chest. The scans indicate possible biological signatures. Besides the fact that it could be dislodged by any serious jar—which is common in your line of work—and your immune system isn’t responding to it, despite those biological indicators. It is, to say the least, puzzling. I think I’d like to do a micro-biopsy procedure to get some to analyze.”

“You want to examine the dart?” Ramirez nodded. “Here,” Jim said and reached into a pouch on his uniform belt. He removed the dart fragment he’d picked out of his Raknar and held it out for the doctor. “It was one of these; it’s part of a Canavar.”

Ramirez stared at the proffered fragment in complete shock for several seconds. It was dark brown with tiny barbs visible on one end, while the other looked jagged, as if it had broken off a larger piece. He nodded to an assistant who quickly produced a tiny metal tray which Jim dropped the fragment onto. It hit with a metallic tink. The assistant took it away.

“From a Canavar, you say?” Ramirez asked. Jim nodded. “And you’ve just been walking around with it in your pocket?” Another nod. “You merc types,” the doctor said with a shake of his head. “I’ll never understand you. The marines who work for the Hussars are, if anything, even more foolhardy.”

“It wasn’t dangerous,” Jim said defensively.

“You know that how?” Ramirez asked. “Is it your extensive knowledge of xenobiology?” Jim didn’t respond. “Right.”

“It’s biological,” an assistant said a minute later. “However, we can’t get a fix on any of the possible amino-factors or chemical bonds. Standard nano-therapy wouldn’t touch it.”

“Why not?” Jim asked.

“Nanites are programmed to only go after either recognized biological contaminants, such as some diseases or cancers, or foreign materials like bullets or shrapnel. That’s why all modern implants use metals or plastics tagged with a trace of niobium, so the nanites will recognize that they are supposed to be there and will leave them alone. Your little intruder has an unrecognized biological signature, so the nanites will leave it alone, just to avoid any unhappy side effects…like dissolving your liver.”

Jim swallowed; he rather liked his liver. “Can you program the nanites now that you have a sample?”

“Sure,” Ramirez said, “in a day or two. But we might have a simpler solution.”

A door opened in the back of the examination room and what Jim took for a strange robot rolled in on nearly silent treads. Then he noticed the robot was supporting a fish tank, and inside the tank was a huge octopus with two blue human-like eyes.

“Holy shit,” Jim exclaimed. “Is that a Wrogul?”

“You’ve met my people before?” the alien asked through a translator on the side of the tank.

“Yes,” Jim said. “Years ago, in Houston, though only for a few minutes. One installed my pinplants.”

“One of our most lucrative professions,” the alien replied. “Truth be told, I spend a lot of time doing that here as well. I’m known as Nemo.”

Jim laughed out loud and shook his head. Someone in the Winged Hussars had a spectacular sense of humor. He gestured at Dr. Ramirez. “I’m surprised you aren’t known as Dr. Aronnax.”

“You know,” Ramirez said, “you’re the first one to ever say that.”

“I love the classics,” Jim said. “Though late 20th century and early 21st are more to my liking, I’ve always enjoyed 1950’s movies as well.”

Not seeming to notice the interchange, Nemo’s support machine rolled him over to where the assistant had the dart fragment. One of the Wrogul’s tentacles slid out of the tank, its brownish length glistening with moisture, and reached toward the container. The assistant stood back to let Nemo work. The alien’s tentacle picked up the fragment and held it for almost an entire minute before holding it close to one of its big eyes, then replacing it in the metal container.

“Interesting,” he said. “It’s from a Canavar.”

“Yes,” Jim said. “How did you know?”

“Well, it tastes like Canavar.”

“You’ve tasted a Canavar?” Jim asked incredulously. “What does one taste like?”

“Why, like chicken, of course.”

Jim gawked for a moment, then began to laugh. Oh, I like this character, he thought, then considered. “Nemo, how old are you?”

“Well, as you see me here, about seventy of your subjective years. However, we reproduce via a form of mitosis. Our reproduction doesn’t impart complete memories, of course. However, it does share tastes and senses of nearly everything we sample. An ancestor of mine tasted Canavar on many occasions, so I recognize this.”

The examination room was silent, for a number of reasons. Ramirez was staring at the Wrogul which remained sitting in its tank near the specimen. Jim was struggling to understand how an intelligent being could pass down how something tasted for tens of thousands of years. He finally got past it and spoke. “Dr. Ramirez, you said there was an alternative to surgery?”

“Yes,” he said and gestured at the Wrogul, “Nemo could simply remove it and fix the damage to the artery.”

“How would he do that?” Jim asked.

Ramirez moved from looking at Nemo to fixing Jim with a perplexed stare. “I’m sorry, you said a Wrogul installed your pinplants?”

“Yes,” Jim agreed.

“You should know how, then.”

“He gave me a sedative,” Jim said. “So other than knowing a Wrogul was involved, I don’t know any more than that.” He looked between the Human doctor and the Wrogul. “What don’t I know?”

A few minutes later Jim was in the medical facility’s bathroom, puking up his lunch. It had taken everything he had to stay in the chair as the Wrogul’s special pair of tentacles slid into Jim’s chest, removed the splinter, and fixed the artery, all in a matter of minutes. When Nemo withdrew his tentacles, there’d been a moment of incredibly uncomfortable pressure—though just a moment—then the alien held up the somewhat bloody dart.

Psychic surgery. He’d found the reference in his pinplants. Quackery from 20th century Earth, usually accomplished with chicken guts and sleight of hand. This wasn’t quackery. It was all too real; the newly removed and cleaned dart was proof of that. His chest hurt a little, but only a little. It was clear from the lack of discomfort and the nearly perfect match for the one he’d found in Dash that Nemo’s disturbing talent was 100% real.

He opened his uniform top and examined the pale flesh underneath. He had a nearly centimeter-long scar from the initial wound just over two weeks ago. There was no blood on his skin after the procedure. In addition, there was not so much as a blemish where the tentacles had entered his chest and removed the splinter.

“Fuck me,” he hissed.

“Are you okay, Colonel Cartwright?” Ramirez asked from outside.

Jim wiped the bile from his lips and exited the bathroom. Both assistants were nearby and poised to grab him if he should sway. Jim was mostly recovered, though, and needed no assistance. “Yeah, I suppose,” he said.

“It’s kind of shocking the first time,” Ramirez said. “Nemo does all our pinplant work.”

Jim had never thought about his own pinplants. He knew a Wrogul was involved, but he had never thought about how the actual implants got into his head. He leaned over and puked some more. After he was done, he straightened up and got control of himself. “I’m okay now,” he said. “How about my…” he touched his chest.

Ramirez turned to the Wrogul who’d been examining the spine removed from Jim’s chest. “Prognosis?” he asked.

“The Human is fine,” Nemo said. “There is some scarring on the artery; however, that should only make the vessel stronger, though less flexible. I can rebuild it, if he wishes.”

“No thanks,” Jim said and began buttoning up his uniform shirt.

“As you wish,” Nemo said, and his tank rolled out of the room.

“Not much for formality, are they?” Jim asked.

“Wrogul are exotics,” Ramirez said. “That category of intelligent life is pretty wide and includes biology which doesn’t match carbon-based life, species who exhibit abilities outside the established norms, and those with psychology unintelligible to others. Wroguls have both abilities outside the established norms and unintelligible psychology.”

“I get the abilities,” Jim said, swallowing against more rising bile, “but he seemed to communicate ideas and such well.”

“Don’t be fooled,” Ramirez said. “That’s just a façade. Their motivations are completely their own, and they are utterly amoral. Sato comes the closest to understanding how the Wrogul think and act, and in anticipating how they’ll react.”

“Are they dangerous?” Jim wondered.

“Oh, without a doubt. You don’t want to get on the bad side of an alien that can manipulate your flesh like it was putty.”

“Well, tell him thanks,” Jim said. “I feel fine now.”

“I will,” Ramirez said, then considered. “You know, he could bring you to a perfect weight in about an hour. He just sent me a message suggesting as much.”

“No,” Jim said, shaking his head. “I’ve had the offer using nanites several times. I’ve lost some weight on my own and will lose more. I don’t want a magic pill.”

“I can respect that,” Ramirez said, “but the sooner the better. That extra 60 kilos or so isn’t doing you any good. Take care, Colonel.”

* * *

Conference Room, Winged Hussars Prime Base, New Warsaw System

The conference room provided by Alexis was perfect. Jim adjusted the light in the room to roughly 40% of what would be ideal for Humans and took a seat in one of the chairs provided by his Hussars hosts. He looked around the room and took a deep breath. What was about to come would change the rest of his life. Maybe a lot of people’s lives.

The door opened, and his three fellow Horsemen came in together. Each nodded to him and he returned the pleasantry. They moved off to the side, not out of sight, yet out of the way. The next to arrive was the only member of the Cavaliers to be summoned, Corporal Seamus Curran, who’d served in Jim’s own personal squad.

“Colonel,” Seamus said and saluted. Jim returned the salute, and Seamus looked around at the nearly empty conference room. When he noticed Nigel, Sansar, and Alexis in the back, he did a double take. “Can I ask what’s going on, sir?”

“Soon enough, Seamus,” Jim said, and gestured to one of six chairs set in a line at the center of the conference room. “For now, take a seat, please.” Seamus nodded and did as requested, though the young CASPer driver looked as nervous as Jim had ever seen him.

Next was the pair of Hussars—Ensign Darrel Fenn and Sergeant Mia Kleve. They both immediately saluted Jim, then noticed all the other commanders and gave one to them as well.

“Please have a seat,” Jim said, preempting their questions, “we’ll begin in a minute.” The man and woman sat. The final three came in together; Sergeants Scott Mays and Shawn Thompson of the Golden Horde and Sergeant Cindy Epard from Asbaran Solutions. All came to attention and saluted Jim.

“At ease,” Jim said, returning their salutes. “Please, sit with the others.” All six seats were now filled. “None of you know why you are here,” Jim said, and they all nodded. A couple glanced back at their commanders. The three Horsemen watched silently. “The answer is pretty simple. We’re looking for volunteers for a special combat unit.”

“Colonel Cartwright?”

Jim looked at the speaker. Ensign Fenn was holding up his hand. “Ensign?”

“I’m a flight operations specialist,” he said. “I’ve only qualified with small arms. I don’t know what good I’ll be.”

Sergeant Epard spoke up. “Me, too. I’m qualified to operate the Mk 8 CASPer, but my primary warfare specialty is medic.”

Jim held up a hand to forestall any more questions and said, “I understand this might seem unusual. However, if you can just wait a few minutes, I believe a lot of your questions will be answered.”

Everyone waited patiently—the six volunteers taking their cues from Jim who sat and watched the door. He knew they were on the station because his shuttle pilot confirmed the transfer from Upsilon 4. He was just beginning to wonder when they’d make their appearance when Sergeant Epard gasped and pointed.

Jim turned his head and looked. Up in one corner of the conference room was a ventilation shaft. The cover was open, and a dozen Fae were either looking out of the shaft or hanging from the edge of the cover.

“The reason has arrived,” Jim said, and all eyes turned to follow his and Epard’s gaze.

“Wow,” said someone. The only one of the six not surprised to one degree or another was Corporal Curran. Being part of Jim’s personal squad, he’d seen Splunk many times. She was right in the middle of the group of Fae, with Dante to one side and Sly to the other. Jim smiled at Splunk who grinned back.

“For those of you who don’t know, these are Fae,” Jim said, gesturing to the little aliens. “It isn’t much of a secret that we’re going back to retake Earth in a short time.” All six Humans smiled and nodded; a couple laughed. “As you can imagine, that will take a lot of firepower. More than we have, to tell the truth.” Using his pinplants, he activated the room’s Tri-V. His Raknar, Dash appeared.

The mecha was displayed in a technical format with blowup text showing dimensions, equipment, and some vital statistics. “I first operated a Raknar in combat on the planet Chimsa, where I fought several Canavar.” Images of the titanic monsters and of Jim fighting them appeared. They were all less than perfect, clearly taken by various CASPers in his command during the fight. The six mercs watched with wide eyes—even Seamus, who’d seen it before.

“I only managed to control the Raknar through the cooperation of my partner, Splunk.” The Fae swung down from the roof and landed lightly on Jim’s shoulder. “Thanks to her, we were able to defeat the Canavar, using only a small percentage of the machine’s ability.

“Ever since we completed that contract, I’ve done everything I could to learn more about the Raknar. I’ve traveled extensively and researched every source of information I could find.” He looked up at Splunk who sat on his shoulder passively. “Eventually, that quest led to a planet with twenty nearly mint-condition Raknar.”

Someone whistled in appreciation, and Jim nodded. “They all needed power supplies, but thanks to a daring mission by Sinclair’s Scorpions, we got them.” The Fae had all come down to the floor and were walking around the Humans in their chairs. The people were split between watching the Fae and listening to Jim. “At first, I thought the Fae were just talented mechanics, and my finding them an incredible stroke of fate.” Jim hesitated, and he felt Splunk’s grip on his shoulder tense. “Eventually I found out they were once the assistants of the Dusman, the very race which created the Raknar to fight the Canavar.”

The words tasted like ash in his mouth, and he felt a little sick saying them. He was not only lying to these six men and women, he was lying to his fellow Horsemen who were watching from the wings. He resolved to tell them the truth at the absolute earliest opportunity.

“The Fae had been out in the galaxy, keeping out of view from fear of being found. They were afraid of retribution, even though the Great War was 20,000 years ago. When I stumbled across their settlement on that remote world, they decided it might be time to come out. Fighting the Canavar later proved that decision was a good one, and since then, many Fae have made their way here to help.

“So now we need more people to operate the Raknars,” Jim said and gestured to the six. To the last they all gasped.

It was Cindy Epard who spoke first. “Whoa,” she said and held up her hands. “Why me? I don’t know anything about giant robots or monsters.”

“Yeah,” Sergeant Mays agreed. “Why us?”

“Because you’ve been identified as candidates,” Jim said.

“Identified by who?” Ensign Fenn asked.

“By us,” Sly said, standing in front of Fenn. The man jumped slightly, surprised the Fae could speak English. “We’ve been scouting for Humans who possess the needed traits.” He pointed to Fenn’s pinplants. “The implants are necessary, as well as a certain kind of mind. You must be resourceful as well.” None of the Humans offered a complaint, they all clearly met those requirements. “Lastly, you needed to be receptive to Akee.”

“What’s that?” Fenn asked.

“You’ll find out,” Jim said. “Now, you’ve all been cleared by your commanders to participate in what I’m calling the Raknar Corps. You’ll be detached to my command until such time as the fighting is over, at which point you can then return to your unit if you wish. However, you are all volunteers.” He gestured to the Tri-V which showed a freeze frame of Dash locked in mortal combat with a Canavar on Talus. “As you can see, Canavar are very real threats once again, and we’ll be fighting on Earth; probably greatly outnumbered and in mortal peril. If any of you do not wish to proceed with this, you can back out now. Nobody will think any less of you.”

“Well, I’d think less of myself,” Sergeant Mia Kleve said, and the others laughed.

Jim looked at each of the six in turn. None of them moved. He nodded his head. “Okay,” he said, “now we see if you can be paired.”

“How does that work?” Corporal Curran asked, eyeing the group of Fae circling them.

“It’s up to them,” Jim explained, and gestured to the Fae. “It’s a little like how a jigsaw puzzle piece fits into the entire design. If you’re a match, it will become clear to the Fae.” Seamus nodded as the Fae continued to circle.

Jim watched the proceedings with curiosity. He’d never seen this himself, of course. When he’d woken up in the cave where he’d nearly drowned, Splunk was there—already bonded—watching him curiously. He’d always suspected several Fae rescued him from the water, and Splunk was the one who’d bonded with him. Now he got to see how it worked.

The small group of Fae slowly stopped circling. Sergeant Epard was the first to be approached, by a dark brown female Fae with black ear tufts and a distinctive half-black tail. Jim was pretty sure it was Ryft, whom he’d met upon returning to New Warsaw.

The Fae stood a short distance from where Epard sat and examined her with big blue-on-blue eyes. Then Epard leaned forward and held out her hand. Ryft reached out a hand, and the two touched. Both of them gave a little gasp, and Epard’s eyes went wide.

“Match, <Skaa!>” Splunk said quietly.

Ryft jumped into Epard’s lap and touched her face. The woman responded by stroking Ryft’s ears. The Fae’s coo of appreciation was evident even from several meters away. The other Humans, including the Horsemen off to the side, spontaneously applauded. Epard looked up in surprise, evidently forgetting there were witnesses. She blushed slightly, and Jim smiled. He knew how intimate that bond felt and was happy for her.

One down, five to go, he thought. He watched how the Fae—or rather Dusman—reacted to the bonding. Splunk was observing keenly, Sly seemed attentive but not engaged, while Dante was watching with a scowl of obvious distaste. As time went on, some of the Dusman would leave, and new ones appeared. Nobody seemed to notice the parade of new arrivals except him.

One of the newest to arrive stopped in front of Ensign Fenn. A male Dusman with a rich brown-furred body and white limbs and ears. Fenn reached out, like Epard had done, and the Dusman touched the offered hand. Another gasp, and another bond was created.

This new one didn’t seem to speak English, like Splunk when Jim first met her. Fenn gave him a name. “How about Peanut?” he offered. The Dusman cocked his head then chirped in appreciation.

Next, a female, all-white with speckles, bonded with Sergeant Kleve. She named her Sandy. Then a gray male with a black nose and a white tail tuft joined Sergeant Thompson and was dubbed Shadow. Next, a white female with a single brown ear and tail tip named Aura bonded with Sergeant Mays.

That left Corporal Curran, which caught Jim by surprise. He’d been around the Dusman more than anyone in the group, so Jim thought he’d be the first. Yet somehow it appeared that wasn’t the case.

Curran looked around in confusion, unsure what was going on. The other five were all holding and talking to their new partners, most in broken English. Jim had a half smile on his face, knowing they would be hearing the strange alien words with ear and mind, likely not realizing it.

Then Curran seemed to see something and locked his attention on it. The other Dusman all moved away from one of their number, who looked both ways at those moving back.

The gray-furred male with white ear tips and one white hand glared, clenching his robotic hand. “Entropy,” he cursed. “You can’t be serious.”

Jim looked up at Splunk who had her hand over her mouth in either shock or amusement. She saw Jim and took her hand away for him to see the huge smile on her face.

Dante said something in his own language to Sly who replied in kind. As Splunk learned English so quickly, Jim never had the chance to study Dusman well enough to learn more than a few of her common special words. He did hear the word Pree, which he knew was either anger or regret. It was pretty obvious Dante did not approve of what was happening.

“What’s going on?” Curran asked Jim.

“It’s complicated,” Jim said. How could he explain to him that the Dusman form of government involved a “for” and “against” each issue as well as a Kroof, or arbiter. Or that Dante was against the Dusman even being there.

After a few moments of argument, Dante sighed and walked over to Curran, looking up at the Human with his one good eye in an unmistakable glare. He sighed again and held up his non-cybernetic hand. Curran reached out, and they touched. The bond was formed. Dante didn’t jump up for a petting session like the others, but he did climb up on Curran’s shoulder.

It was done.

“Very well,” Jim said. “Welcome to the Raknar Corps. If you’ll follow me, we’ll head for the docking bay to catch a shuttle over to Upsilon 4 and get started right away.” The six got up, their Dusman either riding on their shoulders or being carried by them. As they went by Jim, Dante gave him a sour look, and Jim was hard pressed not to laugh.

Nigel, Sansar, and Alexis all stood by the door, nodding to each of their troopers as they exited, and to the others as well. Eventually only Jim and Splunk were left with them.

“Thank you for letting us see that,” Sansar said. “It was amazing.” Sansar’s brown eyes were shinning with unspoken questions.

“Yes, most…interesting,” Nigel said, obviously not as amazed, though very curious.

“Those first contacts,” Alexis said. “Was that a bonding?”

“Yes,” Jim said. “I don’t remember mine with Splunk. I was unconscious.”

“I see,” she said. “Well, you have a lot of work and not much time.”

“Yes, true. Thanks for helping make this happen. I think we have a much better chance on Earth with them. If the Merc Guild used Canavar against us on Talus…”

“Who knows what they might try on Earth,” Nigel finished for him. Jim nodded in agreement. Nigel patted Jim on the shoulder as he walked out. The other two did the same, then he was alone. Only, he wasn’t. Behind him two dozen Dusman sat around the area where the six new Raknar drivers were created.

Jim turned to face them. Sly was in the middle of the group, and they were all watching him. “Keep up the illusion,” Sly said. “Even though Dante has bonded, it doesn’t mean he’s not formed a consensus.”

“They deserve to know,” Jim said. “This is getting too big for me.” He pointed back out the door. “Those six men and women are volunteering their lives; haven’t they earned the truth?”

Sly shook his head. “No, not yet they haven’t. Besides, they may figure it out themselves. All their partners have been counseled on keeping the illusion as well. You must follow our wishes.”

“Why?” Jim demanded. “Because you are the Dusman?”

“No, because deep down, you know we’re right.”

Jim grunted and turned to go, then stopped. “If you went into hiding after the Great War, who created the Union?”

Sly looked at him, shook his head, and led the other Fae out of the conference room. Jim glanced at Splunk on his shoulder, a questioning look on his face. She also shook her head.

“You don’t know, or you won’t tell?” Jim asked.

“There are some things we don’t entirely understand. <Froo!>

It was the first time anything Splunk told him had made him scared.

* * *

Jim hadn’t thought a month could pass so quickly. At first he was concerned that he’d have a hard time concentrating while keeping the Dusman’s secret. It turned out he was far too busy to worry about such a seemingly mundane concern.

The first two days were spent moving the six new drivers into Upsilon 4 and letting them become accustomed to their partners. He’d planned to explain to them that their new partners were at least partly telepathic. That turned out to be unnecessary.

“Does Splunk talk to you with her mind, too?” Sergeant Epard asked Jim the first afternoon. Their training was taking place in a barracks area of Upsilon 4 adjacent to the Raknar work area. Immediately all the others looked up and nodded.

“Yeah,” he said, “but it took me a lot longer to figure it out.” The Dusman were in a little confab at one end of the table, eating from a tray piled high with various sausages, their favorite food.

“You only had the one,” Ensign Fenn said. “When they’re in a group, and you’re all talking together it’s easier to tell.”

While they all agreed, it still made Jim feel a little like an idiot. Nobody else made any note of it, and Jim took advantage of the mealtime to use a Tri-V to go over the history of his explorations into the Raknar’s function. Unfortunately, some of the recordings involved showing his former girlfriend turned traitor, Captain Adrianne McKenzie.

The montage continued, showing various Raknar systems and their understanding of them, from the early belief that the glowing slime in the cockpit was an infection, to the realization it was part of the control system. A living entity in itself, possessing conductive qualities bordering on superconductivity as well as other undetermined ones.

“The joints are interesting,” Jim said after taking a bite of sandwich. The Tri-V changed to show a knee joint disassembled. “Obviously there’s no metal that can handle the stress of a thousand tons’ force, so the designers got around that with magnetic joints.” The image showed the joint functioning, two super-powerful magnetic fields keeping them from touching and another keeping them from separating. “It’s brilliant, actually.”

“Uses a lot of power,” Ensign Fenn said. His dossier said he was a shuttle maintenance technician who’d served on Pegasus. He’d know about such things—a useful skill in his new endeavor. However, he possessed even fewer combat skills than Sergeant Epard.

“Yes,” Jim agreed, “though maybe not as much as you’d think. The Raknars make extensive use of superconducting power systems and carefully maintain optimal power flow to essential systems. Very little is wasted.”

“You ran one of those on batteries?” Sergeant Mays asked.

Jim nodded. “Yes, for a little over five minutes. However, it didn’t have any of the offensive systems we do now, which is what uses the vast majority of the power.” He showed the power distribution network. Two fusion plants were centered in the middle of the chest, uncomfortably close to the cockpit. Fenn whistled. Jim nodded again. “The heart of the Raknar, dual five-terawatt pumped-fusion power plants.”

“They’re so small,” Fenn observed.

“Very small,” Jim agreed. “Too small for us to make. The ones secured by Sinclair’s Scorpions as replacements are only three terawatts. I think the KzSha who owned them before I did sold the power plants for profit.” He shrugged. “The two smaller ones should suffice.”

“What does that thing need ten terawatts of power for?” Sergeant Kleve asked.

Jim showed them the array of weapons the Raknar was capable of using, as well as how it flew.

“Oh,” Kleve said, looking abashed.

“We’ve also added two micro-shield generators to each of our seven Raknar,” Jim said. “These function similarly to how CASPer pilots use their laser shields. As Ensign Fenn is familiar, ship’s shields are highly dependent on fusion power to absorb damage. They also often have issues in atmosphere. These were obtained from Bjorn’s Berserkers and field tested on tanks. The Fae are certain they’ve integrated them into the Raknar, and, as I discovered when the battleship gun was added to Dash, the Raknar itself is adept at utilizing new weaponry, even if it wasn’t designed for the mecha.”

The Tri-V showed a simulation of a Raknar crouching, holding up its left arm with the shield activated as an orbital beam weapon hit the shield. They were all quiet as they watched, nobody wanting to think about that scenario.

“Now,” Jim said, “you can never forget these machines made entire worlds uninhabitable while fighting the Canavar. It was a war of cataclysmic scale, and these were the principle weapons of destruction. It might have been a good war—one to stop terror weapons, but who can say?” He glanced at the Dusman sitting on the table talking among themselves. He thought they were all occupied, but he saw Dante watching him with that single bright blue-on-blue eye, unblinking.

“We won’t forget,” Epard said, and the others nodded.

“You say that now,” he said, “but just you wait.”

The next two days were busy with simulator runs. The Dusman had built the sims while Jim was fighting at Talus. He was past being surprised at what they could accomplish, especially considering who they were. The galaxy was full of remnants of the Dusman’s technology. Was it all designed by them, or did they have help?

Each of the new Raknar drivers experienced Akee for the first time with their partners. Just like it had been for Jim, they all described a feeling of massively expanded consciousness and the sense they could accomplish anything. “You’ll feel invulnerable,” Jim warned them, then showed a still of the medical crew removing him from the cockpit of Dash, blood pouring from his chest. “You aren’t.” The day ended on a somber note.

The following day they mounted their Raknars for the first time, spending their time going over the interior spaces and familiarizing themselves with the layout. In his absence, the Dusman had installed survival systems meant for Humans, rather than Lumar. The trainees were all amazed at how much open space there was.

“The Raknar were designed for a lot of different missions,” Jim explained. “Thus they were built overly large and spacious. Equipment for special missions, consumables for long duration missions, et cetera,” he said, not knowing himself what “et cetera” might be. “The extra space also acts to buffer weapons fire,” Jim added. “Most weapons used against Raknar are designed to penetrate armor and detonate, the extra internal gaps between layers of armor help defeat that. They’re damned hard to stop.”

* * *

A day later they were in space for the first time.

Ensign Fenn, with no CASPer experience, was the most nervous. Jim did his best to calm his fears. “The Raknar does all the hard work,” he explained. “As you felt when you were Akee, the knowledge is there already.”

“But where does it come from?” Fenn asked.

“Inside the Raknar, <Skaa!>” Splunk said.

Jim/Splunk went out first, gently flying Dash out through the huge Raknar access bay into space. The other six flew out one at a time, all taking their time. Once they were floating a kilometer from Upsilon 4, Jim/Spunk spoke to them.

“Follow me,” they said. “This will be fun.”

They used their built-in fusion torches to accelerate at ten Gs toward the nearest part of the debris field which surrounded Home. The others fell into rough formation behind.

“Let the experience fill you,” Jim/Splunk said to them. “You will know what you can and can’t do.” They accelerated to fifteen Gs and began to maneuver with arm jets around debris, spinning for orientation, and renewing main torch power as necessary.

Behind them, Thompson/Shadow overcompensated and hit a multi-ton piece of debris. The Raknar exploded through it in a shower of meteoric debris. They cursed over the radio.

“Relax!” Jim/Splunk said. “You’re fighting it.”

“It is not doing what I say,” Thompson/Shadow complained.

“You are trying to tell it what to do, instead of being it,” Jim/Splunk said.

Slowly, each of the Humans began to master being Akee with their partner and the Raknar. After four hours in space, they returned. Only when Jim was no longer Akee with Splunk was he able to concentrate on the mundane data and review how things really went. He’d equipped Dash with recording gear to monitor what happened; that way, he didn’t have to rely on Jim/Splunk’s memories; those tended to be less subjective.

Reviewing the recordings, he was surprised to find Fenn/Peanut to be the most natural working with their Raknar. The lack of previous mecha experience appeared to be working in their favor. I guess that makes a sort of sense, he decided. Subsequent flights over the next three days confirmed that, and by the end of that time, they were all performing well. Jim/Splunk benefitted from the extra flight time as well.

“How are we able to take such extreme Gs when Akee?” Corporal Curran asked.

“The Cood,” Dante said. “Goo, as he calls it,” he added, pointing at Jim. “It protects us, and more.”

And more, Jim thought, remembering how he hadn’t known he was critically injured on Talus until after they’d broken the Akee. Would the Raknar have allowed him to die if the fight had continued?

Now that they were doing well in flight, Jim moved onto the last stage—ground combat. He’d wanted to use Home. The planet had a lower gravity than Earth, but its atmosphere was thicker. Colder too. It would have been fine, but Alexis said under no circumstances could Jim fly giant, fusion torch-powered mecha to their planet.

Instead he got the use of a dwarf planet named Hades, located several light minutes further out-system than Home. It was a nasty ice ball with a rather thin atmosphere and only a quarter of a G, but Alexis didn’t care if they made a mess of it. In the end, that was fine, as it proved useful in creating a more complete simulated battle. All seven of them were loaded on a Hussars transport and flown out to the planet.

* * *

Hades Orbit, New Warsaw System

Jim took an entire week to run drills. First, they practiced detaching from the transport and flying into Hades’ orbit. Next, they did it under simulated fire. Then he graduated them to combat drops.

They ended up doing six combat drops onto various terrain. By the end, they still struggled to come down in a coherent formation, but Jim decided it wasn’t going to get any better in the time they had left, so he spent the last week simulating Canavar attacks and dealing with armored ground units.

Enemy merc units on Earth wouldn’t be a threat to the Raknar; only armor, defensive fortifications, or air power would be dangerous to them. That was also the hardest to simulate because he had no idea what Peepo would be willing to do. Were orbital bombardments or nukes off the table? He finally decided he had no choice but to concede the Hussars would maintain space superiority. Without it, they would be in big trouble.

* * *

Winged Hussars Prime Base, New Warsaw System

“They’re as ready as they can be,” Jim said while reporting to the Horsemen back on Prime Base, twenty-nine days after the six recruits met their partners.

“Then it’s time to finalize our attack on Earth,” Alexis said.

They all nodded in agreement.

“Direct assault is our best option,” Alexis noted as she switched the Tri-V over the four-pointed golden table to display the Sol system. Around Earth were the key points—the emergence point, stargate, Luna’s orbit, defensive platforms, and orbital installations. The Hussars fleet appeared at the emergence point and immediately moved toward Earth. “We’ll come through with two kilometers per second of velocity, already oriented toward Earth.”

“How do you do that?” Sansar asked.

“The AI can do it,” Alexis said. “It’s been an ace up our sleeve for a long time.” Sansar scowled. “It’s actually possible for any computer to do it, with enough processing power. Most ships just don’t have that kind of power.”

The display showed the fleet engaging another fleet over Earth. “Of course, we don’t know exactly what forces Peepo has around Earth, but from what we got at Golara, it won’t be much; she’s been off trying to consolidate gains. Also, since the Izlians haven’t come into the fight, I don’t think they can stand against us.”

“But we’re coming in with enough velocity to run if necessary,” Nigel said, pointing to the display. A fleet element had come out at a different angle and was approaching the stargate. “Live to fight another day?”

“That’s the plan,” Alexis agreed. “If she’s got her entire fleet there, we’ll hit and run.” The display zoomed into the Earth orbit. “Once we approach orbit, the battleships will engage the orbital defenses while the frigates provide cover for our drops.” The planet lit up, showing targets.

“São Paulo and Houston,” Jim said, pointing.

“Exactly,” Alexis agreed. “We have several smaller strategic targets such as the CASPer plant outside of Osaka, Japan and the jail facility in Lagos, Nigeria where they’re holding some of the mercs they captured, but the majority of our forces will be focused on the world capital and Houston.”

“I’ll take São Paulo,” Jim said.

“Why?” Sansar asked.

“São Paulo is probably going to have the hardest defenses,” Jim said, and he manipulated the map. “We can come in over the ocean, avoiding any damage to the population. The land around Houston makes that harder. The Gulf of Mexico is heavily populated and lots of people depend on the seafood from there. Seven Raknar landing on fusion torches aren’t going to do a closed ecosphere like that much good.” Sansar nodded, and he continued, “We come ashore and liquidate all defenses. Half my force secures the starport, the rest goes for the capital.”

“The capital area is heavily populated,” Nigel pointed out.

“So is Houston,” Jim said, “and we need the infrastructure there. I’ll use the Cavaliers in CASPers for the capital, Raknars for the starport and defenses.”

“And we’ll have allies on the ground in Houston,” Sansar said. “My people have been working the whole time. I don’t know exactly what we can call in, but as soon as we emerge in system, I’ll transmit a code to let them know we’re attacking. Once we free the mercenaries the Guild is holding in Nigeria, they will join the remaining forces we have on Earth. They can then get the CASPers we have in storage at sites in Alaska and join the fight.”

“Every little bit will help,” Nigel said. “So Asbaran will land at the starport in Houston. We will secure that while the smaller merc companies capture the other strategic sites in the area. The Horde can hit Lagos and then join us in Houston in case we run into more Merc Guild forces than we’re expecting, and the mercs they free can go to where the CASPers are stashed, and then on to re-take the CASPer plant in Japan.”

“Exactly,” Alexis said. “We’ll maintain space superiority, neutralizing or forcing capitulation of as many forces as possible. Most importantly, Peepo will be contained.” She looked at Jim. “We need her alive, Jim.”

“Hey!” Jim said and laughed. “You are mistaking me for Nigel.”

Nigel flipped him the bird, and everyone laughed.

“In all seriousness,” Alexis said, “we’ve all seen how in-the-moment you and your fellow Raknar drivers can get. Please be sure to hold back when it counts.”

“Will do,” Jim said. “My Cavaliers will come in once we have a beachhead. The Raknar aren’t exactly suitable to capturing individuals anyway. My XO, Hargrave, will be tasked with that mission.”

They spent another two hours modifying some operations, assigning units to others, and generally going over the entire plan several more times.

“Now down to the hardware,” Alexis said. “I briefed everyone that the Mk 9 CASPer project was sabotaged before we got to it. Our Geek Squad has managed to salvage it, and we have four platoons of Mk 9 CASPers completed. I’m going to assign two to Asbaran, and one each to Cartwright’s and the Horde. It’s up to you how you use them, and you’ll have a week to get them integrated into your command enroute. I’m sorry we couldn’t have them sooner.”

“Better late than never,” Nigel said.

The Tri-V showed the new Mk 9 suit and the three ground force commanders all grinned in appreciation. The new combat suit was smaller, faster, had better armor, and was completely modular. It was also designed to use full pinplant integration from scratch.

“Thanks, but we’ll pass,” Sansar said. “My folks are used to using our own CASPers, which have always had full pinplant control. I understand there are some upgrades from the Mk 8, but I don’t want to change anything this close to the assault. I’ll be happy to look at them and evaluate them once we have some time, but I’ve been burned in the past by using equipment we didn’t develop ourselves. Pass. Cartwright’s can have ours.”

Jim nodded. “That’s fine; we’ll take them.”

“Okay,” Alexis said, “my people are on forty-eight-hour notice for deployment. Let’s get this done. Next stop, Earth.”

“On to Earth!” Jim said, pumping his fist.

“I can’t wait to see Peepo’s face when she’s in chains,” Nigel said as he got up to leave. “She owes me—hell, she owes all of us—an awful lot. And it’s time for her to pay.”

* * *

Winged Hussars Prime Base, New Warsaw System

Sato floated in his specially modified CASPer just outside the control node of the brand new Steed-class battlecruiser EMS Sphinx. He’d been out in space for just over eleven hours, integrating the new technology into the ship. It was an easy job that he’d finished hours ago.

The manufactory had been working on the modules for more than a month now. One of the orbital support docks contained 105 of the modules, ready to install. He’d been using this one as a demonstrator. Other personnel could handle the rest of the ships. He had more important things to do.

His escorts, a squad of Winged Hussars marines, watched from where they were clamped to the hull or practicing EVA tactics, completely convinced Sato was doing something important. He was—just not what they thought.

Out in space, he could see the Hussar’s fleet mustering. They’d been accelerating toward the stargate for a while now, preparing for the assault on Earth. A dozen merc cruisers were in formation, as was the newly refit carrier, Dragon, with dozens of the new Avenger bombers aboard. He’d been sure that would work out as well. The SalSha was a fascinating new race, and Sato was positive the galaxy was a better place with them. Another squadron was also accelerating toward the stargate a light second behind the first one, but from a slightly different angle. Sato expected the attack was a two-pronged assault.

A laser comm touched his receiver, and Sato opened the line. A single text message arrived, and he acknowledged it. Out in space, the stargate flashed, and the first fleet element moved through into hyperspace.

“There they go,” he said to the marines over the radio. “Off to Earth.” He waited a second then used his pinplants to initiate a program. Checking that it was running properly, he moved a meter over on the hull and opened a major access panel. It was more than large enough for him to enter, and he did. The tiny drone he’d left behind observed the marines as he got situated. The first had just started to move toward the hatch when the CASPer came back out.

“You okay there, Mr. Sato?” asked the squad leader.

“Fine,” his suit replied.

The second fleet element was just entering the stargate when another access hatch opened on the other side of Sphinx, and a CASPer floated out using cold gas thrusters. A maintenance tug was waiting nearby, and the suit quickly moved to it. A crew hatch opened, and the CASPer entered.

“Thank you,” Sato said to the pilot.

“No problem,” the pilot replied. “Prepare for thrust.”

The tug boosted away from Sphinx and toward a nearby deep-space mooring buoy used to tie up various equipment carriers or supply tugs being used in the dry docks. The buoy was an automated ship, containing spare fuel for anything moored to it. It had the ability to perform station keeping for itself and other craft. It also allowed traffic control to track where everything was in the busy shipyards.

The tug docked with the mooring point, and Sato and the pilot both transferred to a cargo module. There they waited for two hours until another tug came along. The new tug took no notice of the other moored tug, it was looking for the cargo module. It locked onto the module, unmoored it from the buoy, and took it under tow. Minutes later, it placed the module into the hold of a waiting ship.

The module was the last item to be loaded onto Virginia Hall, which closed its hold and immediately began to maneuver toward the stargate. Right on schedule, the intelligence cutter transitioned into hyperspace.

Safely away, Sato activated the specially constructed cargo module’s internal systems, which changed it from an EM-dead cargo unit into a pressurized living space. When a full atmosphere was indicated, he opened his CASPer’s cockpit and took a deep breath of the canned atmosphere. It was a little cold but tasted just fine. He grinned. Back on Sphinx, the marines would not realize they were shepherding an automated CASPer identical to Sato’s for many more hours.

“Are you okay, sir?” asked the pilot.

“Perfectly fine,” Sato said. “Yourself?”

“I’m fine, sir, just a little confused. How did I end up here? Last thing I remember was having my pinplants installed.”

“It’s a little complicated,” Sato said. “However, we have a week to explain. Where to begin?”

The visual pickups on the Æsir hummed quietly as they tracked over from the pilot’s station to look at Sato, still inside his CASPer. The Æsir piloting the craft was only about half the size of Sato’s modified Mk 7 combat armor. Nobody would have recognized the machine if they hadn’t seen the proposed final design of Binnig’s original Mk 9 system, prior to those plans being destroyed.

“You can start by explaining why I can see in radar and infrared,” Rick Culper replied.

“Have you ever heard of a Bregalad?”

* * * * *


Chapter Fourteen

EMS Bucephalus, Hyperspace

Jim Cartwright watched Hargrave’s platoon working to familiarize themselves with the new Mk 9 CASPers. He would have liked to have given them to his own platoon, but his platoon was going to be dropping in direct support of the Raknar landing so they were sticking with the orbital drop-proven Mk 7s and Mk 8s. Hargrave’s platoon, with the Mk 9s, would be inserted for the raid on the SOGA HQ.

“These aren’t as great as Binnig promised,” Hargrave commented. He and Jim were watching the Tri-V simulation proceeding in Bucephalus’ gravity deck. All twenty of the platoons were in a close combat drill that Hargrave was simulating with a computer.

“I understand there was some sabotage,” Jim said. “I didn’t get any more details.” Hargrave grunted and manipulated the Tri-V for a different view. “You can do that with your pinplants,” Jim reminded him.

“I hate these things,” Hargrave said, reaching up to touch the pinplant, his fingers feeling the strange new addition to his skull. All the Cavaliers had them now. Hargrave was one of the last to get his—only hours before they’d departed New Warsaw.

“You’ll get the hang of them, and then you’ll see the benefits.”

Hargrave glanced back at Jim then away without comment. They watched the sim until it completed. With two days to go before emergence in Sol, the platoon looked ready. The Mk 9s were similar to the Mk 8s in a lot of ways. However, they were much faster, possessed greatly improved jumpjets, and they could now fly for extended periods.

The other improvements included a completely modular add-on system that allowed any suit to be customized for any operation, an integrated CID—close-in defense—laser that could intercept missiles, and the best anti-laser protection to be fielded, based on a new ceramic matrix used with the armor. Last, the sensor suite on all the new suits was as good as what the scout armor used to have. In addition to having a better view of the battlefield, this capability also contributed to better anti-missile defense. Interestingly, the new sensor system was mounted in a low protrusion at the top of the armor, giving the CASPer a sort of “head” for the first time.

“It’s so damned small,” Hargrave said, shaking his head. “Hard to believe it provides nearly the same protection.”

“The armor isn’t as tough,” Jim agreed, “but the predictive systems and direct pinlink connections makes it harder to hit. It’s probably a good tradeoff. Add in the improved flight capabilities, and the suit is incredible.” He looked at a Tri-V view of the armor, which included the measurements. “I doubt I’ll ever fit in one, though.”

“You prefer the Raknar anyway, don’t you?” The look on his face said he didn’t approve.

Splunk sat on a console nearby, munching a meat snack and talking with Ryft, Sergeant Epard’s partner. The Winged Hussars transport Perseus had been loaned to him for the Raknar operation. The ship was mated with Bucephalus, allowing the two to travel through hyperspace together. The Cavaliers, already used to Splunk, took the new Fae in stride. Jim wondered what they’d think if they knew the Fae were the ancient race of Dusman.

“They’re just like big CASPers,” Jim said.

“Bullshit,” Hargrave replied. “You’ve been changing since you started using them and even more since all those Fae turned up. You’re more willing to fight and less worried about the consequences.”

“You’re just mad I don’t need your guidance anymore,” Jim snapped, and instantly regretted it. Fueled by frustration, he doubled down instead of backing off. “I’ve been making the calls and you’ve had to take a back seat.”

Hargrave’s head came around, his mouth hanging open. “Is that what you think?” Jim’s jaw set, unable to take it back. “Well,” he said after a second, “there’s more of your old man in you than I thought.” He got up and left the control room without another word. Splunk watched the older man leave without comment. Jim didn’t see him again before they arrived in Sol.

* * *

EMS Pegasus, Hyperspace Emergence Point, Sol System

“We have arrived in the Sol system,” Flipper announced. “Sensor sweeps underway.”

“Hoot,” Alexis said, “confirm all ships of Squadron One have arrived and are in combat readiness.”

“I’m getting good telemetry from all ships,” the Buma comms officer confirmed.

“We have good trajectory,” the helmsman, Pleek, stated.

“Data on the emergence point picket is coming in,” Paka said. “Looks like eleven ships—two battlecruisers, five cruisers, and four escort frigates. They are attempting to line up for a missile swarm attack.”

“All battlecruisers, assign targets,” Alexis ordered.

“Transmitting,” the TacCom, Xander, replied. “Done.”

“Match bearing and fire!”

Under the direction of Xander, the five Egleesius battlecruisers all locked on an alien counterpart; they arrived in-system with their primary weapons charged and ready. As one, all five released a 40-terawatt charged particle beam. The blasts overwhelmed their targets’ shields and carved into the hulls. All five enemy ships were either destroyed outright or so heavily damaged they couldn’t maneuver or fight.

The Hussars fleet’s pair of Steed-class battlecruisers lacked the massive firepower of the Egleesius, but they both possessed a pair of one-terawatt particle accelerator barbettes which they turned on two of the enemy cruisers. It wasn’t enough to destroy them, but it was enough to knock out their shields. Laser fire from other escorts tore into them a second later, leaving both yawing hulks.

The remaining three cruisers and escorts tried to run. Pinpoint fire from the Hussars escorts inflicted considerable damage, keeping them from mounting their own missile strikes. The Hussars continued on their course for Earth.

“One undamaged enemy cruiser and two escorts are withdrawing,” Xander reported.

“Task a squadron of drones with pursuit,” Alexis ordered. “Launch recon drones as well.” An image of the Earth-Moon system began to build on the main CIC Tri-V, and Alexis forced herself to breathe as she waited for sensors to build the picture of the battlespace.

<There are not extensive forces present,> Ghost told her.

Is that good or bad?” she asked.

<I do not know yet.>

Damn it, she thought. They’d expected a real fight. The battlespace showed fifty ships in-system so far, with twenty-two of them designated as non-combatant. That initial assessment remained to be confirmed. Of the twenty-eight combat ships—not counting the ships that had been at the emergence point—there was only a single battleship and six battlecruisers. The remaining twenty-one hulls were not yet confirmed. Not many damned ships at all, she thought, not mollified in the least.

“Highguard squadron emerging,” Flipper announced.

The battlespace updated as the eight-ship squadron tasked with taking the stargate appeared. They were on a much different course, cutting across Earth’s orbit toward the LaGrange point where Sol’s stargate sat. There still wasn’t any data on what waited for them there. She’d tasked three former Maki Stem-class light cruisers, three Sword-class frigates, and two Seed-class escort frigates, also former Maki ships, to that mission. If it wasn’t enough firepower, they were maneuverable enough to abort and join the assault on Earth.

“Enemy fleet movement,” Paka said.

Alexis looked at the twenty-eight enemy combatants on the Tri-V. They were reducing their orbits. “They’re going to play defense,” she said.

“Looks like it,” Xander agreed.

More details on the other fleet filled in. There were ten cruisers and two carriers. The remaining nine were various types of frigates. And they were falling back because Alexis had brought considerably more throw weight. Her lips pulled back from her teeth in a smile. Your ass is mine, Peepo.

“Paka, order the drone carriers to get their birds into the black. All ships prepare to initiate missile launch. Three minutes’ continuous launch; coordinate with drones. Prepare for combat.”

Like ripples on a pond, wave after wave of missiles launched from the approaching Winged Hussars warships. The various merc cruisers coordinated their own launches, adding to what became over 5,000 missiles falling toward the enemy fleet around Earth. Once the missiles finished their boost stage, they went into coast mode and became EM quiet. Their electronic brains held their targets and told them how long to coast and when to come alive. Mixed in with them were 500 Raven-type drones, also silently falling.

Sensing the Hussars’ launch, the enemy also began unloading their missiles. Lacking multiple battleships with huge missile complements, their own waves were considerably smaller. Once the enemy missiles were in the black, the Hussars ships maneuvered, bringing escort frigates forward. The two swarms of missiles closed at hundreds of kilometers per second. Just two minutes after launch, they passed each other.

The enemy missiles were programmed for attack only, while a quarter of the Hussars missiles were set for multirole, which watched with visual sensors for signs of enemy missiles. When they detected one, they went active and intercepted. The space between the two fleets lit up with hundreds of sub-nuclear detonations. The Hussars’ drones ignored the missiles.

“Confidence is good that 400 to 500 of the enemy’s 2,000 to 2,500 missiles were intercepted,” Flipper reported.

“Very good,” Alexis said. “Prepare for missile attack.”

The Winged Hussars ships all used point defense lasers, and their standard offensive lasers were also capable of acting as anti-missile lasers. Once they were all in position, they waited. The instant the enemy missiles went live on their terminal trajectory, the Hussar’s defenses lit them up. Out of the entire enemy missile launch, only seventeen found their targets, and only one ship, the cruiser Count Fleet, was hit more than once. With its shields down, the Crown-class cruiser fell back to allow the other ships to screen for it. None of the others hit were damaged.

“Is this the best you’ve got?” Alexis said. “Do we have orbital defense assessments yet?”

“Not quite,” Xander said. “I can confirm two of the original six orbital platforms are operational, based on enemy fleet movements and taking their screen into account. One was definitely knocked out, which was confirmed by intelligence, but the other three are a mystery.”

“At least two will be a problem for our landings,” Paka said.

Alexis nodded. “Contact Dragon,” she said, “let’s see if the SalSha and the Avengers can prove their worth.”

* * *

Ferret One, Near EMS Dragon, Sol System

Ferret One, Dragon Ops.”

Major Thorb’s head popped up in the cockpit of his Avenger-class bomber. The entire air wing—all four squadrons of the new bombers—had launched upon emerging from hyperspace, but then they were ordered to a holding point to wait until they were needed. He was starting to wonder if his Human allies didn’t trust them. Sure, they liked to push the limits—including the in-port speed limits—but they could be serious when they needed to be; they just hadn’t any reason to be before now. It wasn’t the SalSha’s fault that the Humans didn’t understand the importance of play. The SalSha had continued training themselves when all the Humans left, hadn’t they? Thorb had even kept them focused on the things Walker had said were, “important.” Most of the time.

Ferret One, go ahead, Ops,” Thorb’s bombardier, Second Lieutenant Skald, replied.

“Hussars Actual just called. Your targets are the orbital defense platforms. Take them out.”

“Roger that. Take out the orbital platforms. Interrogative, do you want us to hit all six of them?”

“Negative. Only ODPs One, Two, and Five are operational. Destroy them ASAP.”

“Roger. Out.” Skald looked across the cockpit at Thorb. “They want us to—”

“Take out the ODPs,” Thorb said. “I heard. That’s easy enough. We have four squadrons and only three platforms. Send the Badgers to ODP One, the Minks to ODP Two, and the Wolverines to ODP Three.”

Thorb watched his screen as his bombardier made the calls to the squadron commanders—the Badgers of Space Attack Squadron Two (SA-2), the Minks of SA-3, and the Wolverines of SA-4—and the individual squadrons turned and proceeded toward their targets.

“What about us?” Skald asked. “Why aren’t we attacking, too?”

“Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned from the Humans,” Thorb said, “it’s that you don’t put all of your srkeches in one net. You can have the best plan in the world, but the enemy has a say in how that plan is carried out, and, usually, their interests are much different than ours. We are the reserve that can be used if something goes wrong.”

“But I want to get into the battle! We have some of the most experienced pilots in our squadron!”

Thorb smiled. He remembered a time not long past when he would have thought the same thing. Seeing how quickly his friends could die in this new method of fighting had tempered those desires, and being promoted to wing commander had tempered them even further. While he understood the need for everyone to fight when the grahp came—and the Mercenary Guild was far more dangerous than any grahp from his home world—Walker had talked to him so much about the concept of responsibility—a foreign concept to him less than a year ago—that he knew it was his job as wing commander to look at “the big picture,” as the Humans called it, even if that wasn’t any fun. Being in charge sucked, actually.

“I suspect we will see battle,” Thorb finally replied. “I am sure the Merc Guild has something bigger planned. You are right that we have the majority of experienced pilots in our squadron; I expect they will all be needed when we have a more complete view of the enemy’s plan.”

“But…but…”

“But we have lost ships? But the Mercenary Guild has a good plan to defeat us, even though they have fewer ships than we do?” Thorb asked.

“Exactly!” Skald replied. “We need to destroy these platforms before they can destroy any more of our ships!”

“And the other squadrons will do so. Because of our attack profiles, we can launch our missiles from outside the range of the platforms’ defenses. Then, once those squadrons have knocked down the defenses, they can go in and finish them off. Our squadron isn’t needed for this. However, if something else happens, our pilots’ experience might be.”

“Like what?” Skald asked.

“Like that!” Thorb said, pointing to the screen where ODP Six had just begun powering up its weapons. “They were playing dead, but they’re not!”

“And the Minks are within range of its weapons!”

“Yes, they are, and this is exactly what I was talking about. The evil Peepo is too smart to let everything be this easy.”

Mink One, Ferret One,” Thorb called, switching to the comm. “Be advised, ODP Six is going operational. Come left now and go to max acceleration!”

The squadron turned and accelerated at twenty-two Gs as the station’s weapons approached readiness.

“Quickly, Skald!” Thorb said. “ODP Six was designed and built by the Golden Horde—in the briefing notes, there was a kill code for it. Find it and send it.”

“That’s right,” Skald said. “I got so worried about them I forgot.”

“Stop worrying about what you can’t affect and do your job,” Thorb said. He wanted to call the youngling “Pup” but knew that wouldn’t help Skald’s confidence.

Skald scanned the information stored in his pinplants, found the frequency, and sent the kill code to the platform.

“Did it work?” Thorb said.

“I don’t know!” Skald exclaimed. “It didn’t do anything.”

“Focus,” Thorb said, watching the systems on ODP Six approach readiness. “Maybe you sent it wrong. Do it again.”

Skald typed in the information, checked it, and re-sent it.

“Any luck?” Thorb asked.

“Nothing,” Skald replied. “It’s like they changed the codes.”

“Shit.”

The platform’s weapons reached their operational power levels, and Thorb found himself holding his breath. The Avenger bombers were fast…but the base’s missiles were faster, and the platform launched forty of them in rapid-fire mode at the bombers. Despite their maneuvering and use of countermeasures, Mink Ten and Mink Twelve were destroyed.

“They’re…they’re…” Thorb looked over. Skald was staring at the view screen, shuddering in distress.

“Yes,” Thorb said gently. “They’re dead.”

“But it was so quick…they never had a chance. It’s not fair…”

“No,” Thorb replied, “they didn’t have a chance. Nor is it fair. Nor is what we’re going to do to them going to be fair…not the way they see it, anyway.”

Ferret One, Mink One,” SA-3’s squadron commander called. Thorb could hear the distress in her voice. “We are turning back in on attack runs against ODP Six.”

“Negative, Mink One,” Thorb replied. “Your target remains ODP Two. We will deal with this platform.”

But—

“Negative!” Thorb replied, cutting her off. His voice left no room for dissent. “Destroy ODP Two. We will take this one.”

Roger.

The Minks turned back toward their original target as the carrier called them. Ferret One, state intentions for ODP Six.”

Dragon, Ferret One. Ferret Squadron will be attacking the target. We still have our missiles.”

Roger that, Ferret One. Be advised, Hussars Actual says we need that platform down. Our assault cannot proceed while that station is still operational. She’s counting on you to take it out.

“Copy all, Dragon. We’ll take it out.”

Thorb switched to the squadron frequency. “Ferret One to all Ferrets,” he commed. Having grown tired of telling the Humans that the SalSha were not otters, the SalSha commanding officers had chosen logos for their squadrons that were also not otters. Although the Humans probably never caught onto that fact. “Follow me. We will attack ODP Six and make them pay!”

He led the squadron out further into space, away from the offending platform, then turned back into it and accelerated once they were pointed at the platform. The Avenger bombers were fitted with a variety of ordnance for the mission, since they hadn’t known whether they would be needed in space or in atmosphere, and SA-1’s Avengers had both long-range anti-ship missiles as well as two bombs on each of the craft—one nuclear and one conventional—in addition to their internal lasers.

Their attack profile was similar to the ones the other squadrons were performing—a line abreast formation so all the squadron’s missiles arrived simultaneously, from nearly the same direction, which would complicate things for the defenders. By taking advantage of the speed and agility of their craft, they could also launch their missiles from beyond the range of the platforms’ defenses. Skald set up the attack parameters and the missiles launched as programmed, followed almost immediately by the missiles from the rest of the squadron. Once everyone had fired, Thorb led the squadron in a skew turn away from the platform to watch their sensors and evaluate the success of their strikes. Theirs was the last strike, and the other three squadrons were already headed back to Dragon, mission complete, when their missiles entered the defensive zone of ODP Six.

“Shit. Shit. Shit,” Skald said.

“What?”

“It looks like the platform killed all of our missiles. I think we got a near miss or two, as a few systems went offline, but the majority of them did not.”

“The Golden Horde builds good defenses,” Thorb noted. “Unfortunately, we’re the ones who now have to defeat our own defenses.”

“How are we going to do that?” Skald asked.

“I’m not sure yet,” Thorb said. “All things considered, I don’t want to have to use our bombs on it…we’d have to get far too close for our own health.” He looked at the tactical screen, then tapped on one of the nearby icons. “That will do nicely,” he added, as he saw what the icon represented.

Dragon, Ferret One. Our missiles didn’t get past the platform’s defenses. Although we had one near miss, the station is still operational. Are the drones near us available for re-tasking to this target?”

Standby. We’ll coordinate.

After a few moments, the icon representing the fifty drones began moving toward ODP Six. Unmanned, the drones were able to accelerate even faster than the Avengers, and as they reached the edge of the platform’s defensive bubble, the drones began jinking, making targeting them difficult for the defense platform.

“Ferret One, drones inbound.

“Thanks,” Thorb muttered as the defensive platform’s offensive lasers spewed coherent light. “I would never have known.”

The drones maneuvered violently as they raced toward the station, but the station appeared ready for that, and a slew of anti-missile missiles launched, destroying a number of drones. Then the station’s short-range defensive lasers got into the fight, and the numbers quickly began dropping.

“What…uh…happens if the drones don’t take out the station?” Skald asked.

“You heard what Dragon said, didn’t you?” Thorb asked. “The station has to be destroyed for the attack to proceed. If the drones are unsuccessful, we will have to try a bombing run on it.”

“Into that m-m-mass of lasers?” Skald asked, his teeth chattering inside his helmet. “The platform has already obliterated thirty-one of the fifty drones. If we have to go into that, we won’t be coming back out—we’ll be going into the light.”

“That is true,” Thorb said as the number of remaining drones dropped to seventeen. “But just like when the grahp attacks back home, everyone must do their part. Our part in this is to take out the platform or die trying. There are twenty-four of us—think about how many beings will be killed if one of the ships has to engage that platform. Hundreds of people might die. This fight is up to us to win, and we must succeed.”

The number of remaining drones dropped to fifteen.

“Just hope that we don’t need to, and that the drones are able to destroy the station.”

“What should I do?”

“Humans would begin praying to their gods.”

“How do I do that?”

Thorb sighed and shrugged as he made eye contact with his bombardier. “I don’t know.”

He looked back to the tactical plot. Eleven drones remained.

* * *

Merc Training Center, Houston, Earth

“Attention!” the staff sergeant called, and the six recruit privates snapped to attention next to their bunks in the open squad bay.

What now? Private Kayla Hanson wondered. The drill instructors the Varangian Guard had employed to train her cadre had been the biggest bunch of assholes she’d ever seen. She understood why drill instructors acted the way they did, but this group had taken it to a whole new galaxy. They had started with twenty-five recruits but were currently down to just six remaining. And, apparently, it was time to say goodbye to someone else.

But instead of the first sergeant walking in to dismiss someone, she caught a flash of color out of the corner of her eye, and she started—there was an officer present. She stiffened even more; this was the first time an officer had spoken to them.

“At ease!” the officer said, and Hanson relaxed appropriately and turned to look at him. The captain was tall, dark, and scarred. He looked like someone who had come up through the ranks and seen his share of combat.

“I wanted a couple of minutes to speak with you,” the captain said. “My name is Captain William Hoke, and I’m the company commander for Alpha Company of the Varangian Guard’s First Battalion. I’m happy to be here today to welcome you to the Varangian Guard.”

An intake of breaths could be heard around the room.

“That’s right; you’ve passed and are now members—provisionally—of the Guard. I’m sure those of you who have done this before—” he stopped and looked into Hanson’s eyes before continuing “—are aware that we’ve been harder than normal on you. You are correct! We have been harder on you than on normal recruits, because we expect more. Due to your skills and experience, you have been chosen to be in an elite group. You are going to be in my company, Alpha Company, the showpiece of the Guard.

“We’ve been given a mission to prove our worth to the Mercenary Guild. Now, I know some of you might have had reservations in the past of working for the guild, but you need to leave them behind. This is the new way of business, and the only way humanity moves forward is by doing what we’re told and showing our worth. We will show the guild that we can listen to orders, do what we’re told, and represent the guild faithfully in all matters. Once we do that, we’ll get our planet back.”

A hand went up. “Sir, how do we know we can trust the Merc Guild to make good on that promise?” Private Jennifer Green asked.

“Because I’ve spoken to Peepo, myself, and she assured me that’s what her plan is,” Captain Hoke replied. “And I believe her.” He looked around to see if anyone disputed his claim, but all the privates kept their eyes forward.

“Like I said, you are now provisional members of the Varangian Guard. We’ve just been given our first mission, and you can look at it as a graduation exercise. We’re going to go capture some traitors to the planet. If you do what you’re told and perform well, you will be made full members of the Guard, with all the privileges and benefits thereof. Fail to perform as expected, and you will be sent back to your mommies and daddies. Am I clear?”

“Sir, yes, sir!” the privates thundered, having been well-conditioned to this type of question.

“Good,” Hoke said. “Get your gear together. The mission briefing starts in five minutes.”

* * *

As Hanson walked out the door of the squad bay toward the briefing room, a tall figure detached itself from the building and came to walk alongside her. She suppressed a shudder as she realized it was the man who had made her life a living hell for the last few weeks.

“Staff Sergeant Decker,” she muttered. “Come to yell at me once more for old-time’s sake?”

“Aw c’mon, Kayla,” he replied. “You should know that was all just for show. I’m not really like that.”

She raised an eyebrow at him.

“No, really,” he protested. “I’m a good guy. You heard the captain; we were being especially hard on you because we only wanted the best for this company. I already recommended a meritorious promotion for you to private first class; most of us are veterans and you’ll fit right in.”

“Really?”

“Really. And I want us to get along. Especially since you’ll be in my squad.”

“Your squad?”

“Yeah. I’m First Squad leader for Alpha Company’s First Platoon.” He stopped her with a hand on her shoulder, and she turned to face him. “Continuing to yell at you was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I had to make shit up. You’re a great trooper, and I know we’re going to get along well.”

Oh shit, Hanson thought. I see where this is going. “Apology accepted,” she said, before he could ask her out on a date or something equally awkward. “C’mon,” she added, looking at her chrono. “We’re going to be late.”

* * * * *

Chapter Fifteen


EMS Perseus, Approaching Earth Orbit, Sol System

“We are a go for insertion!” Captain Su said over the laser comm.

“We drop in one minute,” Jim replied. “See you in São Paulo, Hargrave.”

“See you on the ground,” Hargrave answered.

They hadn’t talked in person since the argument, and Jim regretted his harsh words. There hadn’t been time to clear things up between them. The planning session had taken most of a day, and then it had been time to prepare for emergence.

Perseus rocked as the crew maneuvered, fighting to stay behind their screen of two cruisers and a frigate. A dozen other combat transports were diving toward Earth’s atmosphere, making it impossible for the enemy to single Perseus out as a priority target. If they’d known it carried seven Raknar, Jim suspected his ship would be the highest priority target in space.

“Time for <Akee>” Splunk suggested from behind him in the Raknar cockpit.

“Yes,” Jim agreed. “Akee!

“Kick ass time, <Skaa!>

Jim felt her hands touch his pinplants and his consciousness expanded to the familiar and intoxicating greater self of Jim/Splunk. His individual self knew that six others were doing the same thing only meters away, their seven Raknar moored evenly around the hull of Perseus’ cylindrical structure. To enemy scanners, it would look like a modified dropship carrier, or even a tanker. In seconds, they’d have that illusion violently dispelled.

One by one, the other six joined them in the Raknar battlespace, called Zha Akee by the Dusman. So much more than the Tri-V battlespace he used in a CASPer, it was a completely immersive experience. When he first felt the Zha Akee back in New Warsaw, he almost lost himself completely. He hadn’t thought it was possible to go deeper than Akee. He’d been wrong.

“We can take the whole planet by ourselves!” exulted Mays/Aura, and the rest cheered as one.

“Let’s start with São Paulo,” Jim/Splunk said. “Raknar Corps, on my mark—detach!”

The seven Raknar released their magnetic grapples. Fusion power surged through their beings as Perseus angled away under cover of the Winged Hussars ships. Instantly, a squadron of enemy drones changed vector and shot at the seven mecha. The Raknar swept the drones from space without giving them a thought.

Several thousand kilometers away, a battle raged around one of the orbital defense platforms still in enemy hands. For a second Jim/Splunk thought about taking the group there. Not group, the Fist. Seven Raknar were called a Fist, and if they had two Fists, that was a Star. The bit which was still Jim wondered why this only came to him now. Then he remembered they already had a mission.

“Prepare to drop from orbit,” he said. The group used their thrusters to maneuver. Five enemy cutters dove through a screen of Winged Hussars frigates, losing three of their number as they moved forward, desperately trying to get within weapons range of the Raknar.

“Curran/Dante,” Jim ordered, “neutralize that threat.”

Their Raknar slid up in the formation to where they had a clear view of the two remaining cutters. Over the massive back of the mecha rotated their main gun—the 10-meter-long barrel of a particle accelerator cannon. The cutters both fired their heaviest weapons, dual forward-mounted 50-megawatt lasers. The weapons scored across Curran/Dante with only dulled flashes of dissipated energy. The Raknar’s one-terawatt particle cannon flashed, and the beam worked across both cutters, tearing them apart.

“Let’s go kick some ass,” Jim/Splunk said. “The fight up here is beneath us.”

All seven Raknar fired the fusion torches built into their legs and began the long fall to Earth.

* * *

EMS Pegasus, Approaching Earth Orbit, Sol System

“Squadron of seven cruisers at one-three-three mark two-two. They are attempting to come between the screen and the battleships!” Xander called in the chaotic CIC.

“We’re being overwhelmed by group,” Paka warned.

Alexis examined the Tri-V. Her second in command was correct, the enemy might lack the throw weight of her Hussars, but with Earth at their backs and that one damned firebase still assisting, she was forced to deal with each of their attacks en masse. And when she did, they fell back. Entropy, their admiral was good.

“Send to all ships,” she said. “Break the fleet. Reform into Squadron Formation Tau!”

Paka’s whiskers quivered in concern as she passed on the order. In space, the Hussars main fleet broke into three formations that would remain to fight. The majority of the cruisers and half the frigates stayed with the two battleships as Squadron One, the Egleesius battlecruisers regrouped as Squadron Two, and the other battlecruisers, cruisers—including the sole heavy cruiser—and frigates became Squadron Three. The carriers were already falling back to the stargate, which the fleet’s original second element had secured as planned with minimal losses. The carriers would join the ships at the stargate and form a reserve Squadron Four.

“Squadron Two, concentrate on those entropy-cursed cruisers,” Alexis ordered as soon as the fleet finished its quick shuffle. It wasn’t as smooth as she would have liked, but how could it be when they’d never had time to practice the maneuver with the addition of the battleships or the Maki prize ships? “Squadron One, keep the pressure on that damned Bakulu battleship, and see if you can force it out of position. Squadron Three, support the landing.”

“The Raknar have been released,” Flipper said. A section of the big Tri-V showed the seven 30-meter-long mecha separating from Perseus like seven frigates, and the transport angling away. The frigates she’d assigned to guard the close approach beachhead landings fell in tightly to protect the vulnerable transport, leaving the Raknar wide open.

“Oh, shit,” Abby Smith, the SitCon said and pointed. A formation of fast Maki cutters lanced though the screen, but they didn’t go for the transport, they went for the Raknar.

Are they vulnerable like that? Alexis wondered as a flight of drones also angled in.

<Watch and learn,> Ghost spoke to her.

On the screen, the Raknar unfolded into their humanoid forms. Immediately one flew forward of the other six. Pinpoint laser fire lanced out from all the Raknar, and the drones ceased to exist. The formation of cutters was ravaged passing through the Hussars screen; only two survived. Those two opened up with 50-megawatt lasers as they closed, targeting the Raknar flying toward them. The weapons hit and seemed to have no effect.

The Raknar pivoted a shoulder-mounted cannon a third its length and fired. The beam of the weapon dissected the two cutters like a chef slicing carrots.

“That was a one-terawatt particle beam,” Xander announced, analyzing Flipper’s data. “There is no damage evident to the Raknar.”

“They don’t have shields,” Alexis said. “Do they?”

“No shield emanations present,” Flipper confirmed, “but I do detect a few emitters among them. They don’t appear to be using them at this time.”

A 50-megawatt laser at that range would easily carve through anything up to a battlecruiser’s armor. As Alexis watched, the seven Raknar flipped over and accelerated toward Earth. She wondered if the damage they would inflict would be worth any victory they obtained.

“All other advance elements have begun their combat drop,” Abby said. “Main elements are still waiting for that orbital defense station to be neutralized.”

“Contact the SalSha Avenger squadron,” Alexis ordered Hoot. “Get an update. Tell them Squadron Three is closing in to assist if needed.”

* * *

Ferret One, Near ODP Six, Earth Orbit, Sol System

The number of remaining drones continued to fall. The closer they raced toward the orbital defense platform, the more the distance between the defenders’ laser beams shrank. Nine, then seven. Skald jumped involuntarily when it dropped from seven to four, then just as quickly fell to two. Then to zero.

“Wait!” Skald cried as something flashed from the last drone. “What was—”

A small sun blossomed from the direction of ODP 6.

“Nuclear missile,” Thorb said. “The drone must have been armed with one of the ship killers, and the drone controller fired it right before the drone got hit. I think those drones have weapons with two-kiloton warheads.”

“So that should do it?” Skald asked, sounding excited as he worked the sensors to get a clear picture of the target.

“I doubt it,” Thorb said.

“But the platform got hit with a nuclear weapon!” Skald exclaimed. “It must be destroyed.”

“No necessarily,” Thorb replied. “ODP Six is a hollowed out asteroid with interconnected passages blocked off with reinforced doors. When Colonel Sansar builds something, she does it right.”

“But to take a nuke—” Skald stopped in the middle of his sentence as the picture cleared enough for him to assess the damage to the station. “I was wrong. The station appears to still be operational.”

“If it had been in atmosphere, it probably would have been destroyed,” Thorb said. “Unfortunately—”

“—it’s not.” Skald sighed, then asked in a small voice. “So, we go in?”

“We do,” Thorb replied. “Still, all hope may not be lost. The nuclear weapon must have knocked out at least some of the platform’s capabilities. While they can still launch missiles from their other launchers, there may be at least a little bit of a blind spot that its sensors can’t see, and as we get in close, there will be some areas the lasers can’t defend.”

“Regardless, it must be done, right?” Skald asked.

“Correct,” Thorb replied. “It is our duty.” He switched to the squadron net. “Ferret One to all Ferrets. The drones failed and it is up to us to take out that defense platform. If we don’t do it, it will cause the loss of our ally’s ships and hundreds—maybe thousands—of their personnel. We must do this, so do this we shall. Arm both bombs, and set the nuclear bomb for maximum yield. We will attack in a line abreast formation to complicate their targeting, with the rest of you offset five kilometers from the Avengers to either side of you. Everyone should hit the target, or the largest piece remaining, so we are sure we knock it out. Are there any questions?”

There were not, and the rest of the squadron moved to take their positions. Communal beings, the SalSha understood duty and sacrifice for the group, and if this was their turn to go into the light, then they would do so. Not happily, perhaps, but with their chins up, knowing they had done what the community needed them to do.

“Arm them up,” Thorb said. “Max yield on the nuke.”

“Here we go. One’s in hot!” Thorb called on the squadron net. “Brace yourself,” he added to Skald. They both got into a good G position, and he used his pinlinks to jam the throttles to the firewall. They were both pushed back into their seats and pinned there with the rapid onset of Gs. He backed off slightly as the horizon started to creep in on the corners of his vision. “Still with me?” he commed mentally.

“Yeah,” Skald replied. “Does this ever get better or hurt less?”

“No,” Thorb said. “The more times you pull twenty-two Gs, you learn to endure it better, but it still sucks.”

“Then I hope we survive this so I can,” Skald replied, “because this hurts!

Thorb didn’t reply as he concentrated on staying awake and alive through the bombing run. Although the platform had been nuked once, it still had plenty of weapons available to target the squadron, as it had been developed with overlapping fields of fire. Even with the platform having to split its fire among the twelve craft, there still seemed to be plenty of weapons to go around. It would only get worse as the members of his squadron were whittled down, and the platform’s weapons shifted onto the remaining craft.

He crossed into the platform’s threat zone and immediately became the focus of what seemed like all of the platform’s weapons, and he slammed the craft back and forth, up and down, as unpredictably as he could as he proceeded inbound. The craft was armed with a variety of expendables and he had no intention of dying with any of them still aboard, so he began firing them off—flares that burned hotter than the sun, chaff to make larger returns that would blot out the enemy radars, and radar jammers to blind them completely.

The closer he got to the platform, the less effective they would be as the enemy ramped up the power of their radar, trying to burn through the jamming, but they would at least get him closer. He hoped.

“Three’s down,” Skald said.

“Don’t worry about them,” Thorb replied. “Focus on the target. I’m not going to get us through all of this just to have you miss!”

“I’m not going to miss,” Skald mentally muttered. “It’s a big target.”

Sure, it’s a big target, Thorb thought. We’re also going to go screaming past it faster than any SalSha has ever traveled, with me jinking the craft to keep us alive. Even with guided bombs, we could fling them…who knows where? At least Earth wasn’t on the other side of the target to get hit with their errant nuclear weapon.

Thorb noted in the back of his mind as the members of his squadron perished one by one. Whether it was laser bolts or missiles, it didn’t matter—they were still gone. Soon, the twelve craft were down to nine, then seven, then four…

“Five seconds to release,” Skald said.

This was the part Thorb hated most. The Humans called it “Company Time,” and it was the few seconds of the bombing run where the pilot had to stop jinking so the system could get a last look at the target and update the weapon’s targeting. It also was best for the weapon to separate from the craft without a huge number of lateral Gs, so you didn’t sling it off beyond the weapon’s ability to bring it back toward the target.

Two more of his wingmen were destroyed as the defensive weapons focused on the non-maneuvering targets, but then Skald yelled, “Bombs away!” and Thorb put the craft into a twenty-three-G skew turn away. He swore he saw a laser flash past, but it may have been how hard he was squinting to keep from blacking out. A warning light flickered—Skald had lost consciousness. Thorb snapped the bomber back to the other direction and began jinking again, but by then all of the defensive platform’s systems went off line simultaneously as two one-megaton blasts broke the platform in half.

He eased off the Gs, and Skald woke up. “Wha-what happened?” the bombardier asked.

“We won,” Thorb replied, tears weeping from his eyes in the flooded cockpit.

“How many made it?”

“Just us.” Thorb paused to control his emotions. “Eight also released their bombs, but then they flew into the platform, along with their bomb.”

“On purpose?”

“I don’t know,” Thorb replied. “All I know is that we’re the only ones who survived.” He rolled the Avenger over so he could look at the planet below them through his tear-filled eyes. The blue ball reminded him of home, even though it had too much land area. He hoped it was worth his squadron’s sacrifice.

* * * * *

Chapter Sixteen


The Raknar Fist, Approaching São Paulo, Brazil, Earth

The Raknar’s feet heated to many thousands of degrees as they burned through Earth’s dense atmosphere.

“Yeehaa!” Fenn/Peanut exulted as they rode the thrust from their Raknar and burned in like a comet.

Jim watched it all in Zha Akee, the Raknar handling the details of making sure they didn’t plummet into the Atlantic Ocean at thousands of kilometers per hour. All seven stayed in a roughly round formation as they plummeted. Some missiles streaked up from the São Paulo starport and were contemptuously swatted from the sky with laser fire. No energy weapons were fired at them. Lasers would be ineffective due to the plasma shockwave ahead of their reentry, and particle beams didn’t work well in atmosphere beyond a few dozen kilometers. Ones below a terawatt didn’t, anyway.

Curran/Dante fired several bursts from their particle cannon as soon as they were below sixteen kilometers. It was the soonest they could legally fire at ground targets. The low mountains between Baia de Santos, their target bay, and the São Paulo defenses only allowed those quick shots. The Zha Akee showed two orbital-class missile batteries disappearing in balls of fire. Curran/Dante grunted in satisfaction.

Then they were all burning their fusion torches like miniature stars. Five, ten, twenty, forty Gs of force tore at the Raknar as the aptly-named suicide burn scrubbed off thousands of kilometers per hour of velocity. The shockwave of the seven fusion torches blasted away mountains of water below them as they stopped, exposing the sea floor in places and flash-boiling several thousand acre-feet of ocean.

Along the bay, the city of Santos was host to a five-meter tsunami which inundated the settlement. Air raid sirens had cleared most of the residents to shelters, so casualties were light.

The seven Raknar rode on pillars of fusion fire, rising above sea level like phoenixes. Those on tall buildings who’d been drawn out by the alarms looked on in amazement as the mecha hovered there for several long seconds. Then as one, they all increased thrust and angled inland, accelerating rapidly.

“Drop landing baffles,” Jim/Splunk ordered. All seven of them jettisoned the highly radioactive baffle plates from their fusion torch thrust chambers. The plates fell behind and slammed into the ocean like drop tanks off ancient bombers. As soon as the Raknar cleared the coast, they switched to rocket motors.

Now, with much less thrust, the towering mecha slowed to under 100 kilometers per hour as they skimmed the buildings and tree tops. Occasionally a tree or a house would burst into flames from the white-hot exhaust of their passing. The Raknar were only alert for one thing, and one thing only, though: Enemy.

They passed over São Vicente; Largo da Pompeda was crowded with boats of all kinds. A thousand heads turned to watch the unearthly forms pass overhead. The dragon’s breath of their motor exhaust tossed the water like a blowtorch. Passengers in boats below their passing either dove into the water or risked being capsized or burned.

The town of Cubatão passed below them. There wasn’t much damage there as the seven were climbing higher in anticipation of the Mantiqueira Mountains. These were only foothills of the much greater ridges northward, though they were still more than a kilometer high, and presented the Raknar with natural cover.

“As planned,” Jim/Splunk said, “break into teams, and let’s go in.”

The Raknar split into two teams of two, and one of three. Jim stayed with Epard/Ryft and Curran/Dante in the middle. To the north went Fenn/Peanut with Thompson/Shadow, and to the south were Mays/Aura with Kleve/Sandy.

“All ready,” Jim/Splunk said when the teams were in position. “And…go!” The seven Raknar exploded over the mountains.

* * *

Dropship One, Nearing Merc Internment Facility, Lagos, Nigeria, Earth

“We’re taking light anti-aircraft fire,” the pilot called. “A few lasers, here and there. So far, no missiles.”

“Roger that,” Sansar replied. “Continue on to the drop zone.” The pilot sounded excited about the lack of missiles, but it caused a worm of anxiety to crawl up Sansar’s back. No missiles? Had they caught them flatfooted? It didn’t make sense. There had been plenty of time to let the facility know they were coming—and there wasn’t anything else in the area that was worth assaulting. Maybe it didn’t have any defenses because Peepo didn’t think the facility would be attacked in central Africa? That no one remaining on Earth would do such a thing? Did that make sense?

“Ten seconds,” the pilot said, interrupting her thoughts, and the ramp started down. The members of First Platoon stood up. “Holy shit!” the pilot yelled. “Missiles! Missiles everywhere!”

The shuttle banked hard left, and its nose rose precipitously as the pilot tried to avoid some unseen threat. The CASPers had already unlocked from their seats, and they were thrown into each other and down the ramp. Sansar watched in horror as two of her troopers went into the airstream. They pin wheeled for several seconds then slammed into the trees below the dropship before their systems could get their descent under control. The lights for their suits went red in her display.

There was a crash as something hit the dropship, and another CASPer went out the back as the craft yawed violently. Things suddenly got quieter as one of the motors cut out.

“We’re going down!” the pilot yelled as the wings leveled. “Jump! Jump now! I can’t hold it!”

The trees rose to meet them as the platoon raced out the back of the craft. Sansar was the last person out of the dropship, and she could easily see the palm fronds on the trees whipping past the craft just a few meters below the ramp as she launched herself out. Four of her troopers’ icons were now red as she touched down. Happily, it looked like all the members of Second Platoon had made it down safely.

“Everyone, gather on me,” she commed.

“What do you think?” First Sergeant “Mun” Enkh asked. “They obviously know we’re coming.”

“They do,” Sansar agreed. “But that doesn’t mean they’re ready for us.”

“The dropship pilots might disagree with that.”

Sansar frowned. “I’m sure they would. However, there’s a difference between being ready to stop a dropship or two and being ready to stop a company of CASPers. We proceed to the target and we recover the people the Merc Guild is holding. Trust me, having been there, I can tell you that being held by the Merc Guild isn’t something they’re enjoying.”

Mun nodded, then turned her CASPer to the rest of the group that was gathering around them. “All right, you heard the boss. Being held by the Merc Guild isn’t any fun. Let’s go rescue our compatriots from the loving care of aliens. First Platoon, First Squad, you’ve got point. Head out and follow by squads. Let’s go!”

Although the jungle was thick, the company didn’t have far to go before they reached the outskirts of town.

“We’re here,” Staff Sergeant Dirk Flint, the squad leader of First Squad, transmitted a couple of minutes later.

Sansar moved forward and found that the imagery they’d looked at hadn’t lied—one second there was jungle, the next there was city. The road through the neighborhood just kind of trailed off into the jungle.

“Where the fuck are we?” Corporal Gantulga asked.

“Looks like hell,” Staff Sergeant Jacobs said as Second Squad reached the edge of the jungle.

Sansar found it hard to dispute her assessment. She’d seen plenty of third world countries, both human and alien, over her life—Blue Sky Above, she’d grown up in one—but the outskirts of Lagos, Nigeria made Uzbekistan look like a rich metropolis. It would have taken a huge infusion of credits just to upgrade the houses to awful, though at least the residents had walls and a roof. The houses were either of cinder block or sheet metal construction, and most had a simple sheet of metal over a space large enough for a single room. A small creek wound past them with feces floating down it; the creek was obviously used as an open sewer. A board laid across it provided a means for Humans to cross without having to touch its fetid waters.

If Sansar knew one thing, it was that she was not opening her canopy here.

“Is this the right road?” she asked.

“Yes, ma’am,” Flint said. “The target should be about 500 meters east of here and then 100 meters south of the main road we have to cross.”

Sansar could see groups gathering to the left and right of her at the ends of the parallel streets. “Everyone accounted for, Mun?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Flint, there are some mercs who need saving. Let’s go; on the double!”

“Let’s go, Horde!” Flint commed. “Follow me!” He raced off down the street, with the company following. By this point, the aliens had to know they were coming, so there was no point in trying to sneak up on the facility.

Sansar caught flashes of faces in the holes that passed for windows in the structures as she ran by. None seemed scared; most seemed merely inquisitive, as if they saw a squad of CASPers running by their houses every day. Weird.

They reached the main road—the first paved road they’d seen—and the company started stacking up as they waited for breaks in the traffic.

“Don’t bunch!” Mun commed. “Go over them!”

She tapped her jumpjets and roared over the traffic, followed by the rest of the company. Sansar didn’t need the augmented hearing from her external microphones; she could hear the sounds of cars slamming together through her sealed canopy as the cars’ occupants watched the giant mechs fly over them.

The buildings along the main road were a combination of professionally-built structures and hovels mixed together without apparent rhyme or reason. She hoped the vibrations of the mechs touching down on the other side of the road didn’t knock any of the shanties down, because they didn’t have time to set them back up if they did.

She got her first view of the target facility while in the air—it was the only two-story building in the area. The top of the structure was visible as the company charged down the streets one block to the east and west of it, using the intervening buildings for cover. A laser beam burned through one of the shanties several meters in front of her, and Sansar realized that while the buildings—mostly just sheet metal here on the back street—could be used for concealment, they didn’t really provide much cover.

They came even with the facility, and Sansar could see the four-meter-high wall that surrounded the complex, along with the rolls of razor wire on top. Neither of those were impediments to the CASPers’ progress. The high-powered laser turrets in the corners, however, were very much so.

“Move in!” Sansar ordered as the company encircled the prison. They closed in, racing from building to building, as the defending lasers fired more and more frequently at the moving shapes. “Fire at will!”

Rockets launched from seven of her troops—an eighth trooper armed with rockets had been one of those lost—destroying the turrets.

Snipers fired from the roof of the building, and the CASPer next to Sansar fell, a laser hole through its canopy.

Sansar fired the heavy MAC on her shoulder and the Zuul sniper was blown from the roof’s edge in two pieces. The other snipers were also killed by the Horde troopers, if not quite as messily.

“Charge!” Sansar yelled, and the company jumped as one, soaring over the walls to land in the courtyard surrounding the jail facility.

A number of Zuul were waiting for them, and two of her troopers were hit as they soared in. Sansar saw one of the Zuul aiming its rifle at another of her troopers and landed on top of the alien, squashing it as she crashed onto it.

The battle was over in seconds, and the members of First Squad stacked up at the main door to the facility. The entry command was given, and the door was kicked in, slamming the Zuul hiding behind it into the wall across the small anteroom. Flint smashed his CASPer through the door frame and fired once through the alien’s head as he crossed to the interior door.

Without waiting, he kicked it in, then dove through the opening, looking for a target. He didn’t find one.

The rest of First Platoon poured into the building and drew up short. They stood inside a large two-story building, with cells going around the outside of both the floor they were on and the floor above, which they could see through a large central opening in the building.

And they were all alone.

There were no signs of any jailors or any of the mercs who were supposedly being held in the facility. The individual cell doors were open, but they were all empty.

“Shit,” Corporal Gantulga said as he inspected the closest cell. “I wouldn’t keep my goat in this place. It looks worse than some of the places we passed by on our way to get here.”

Sansar had to agree; the cells were grim. A thin blanket was thrown on the cement floor, and that was it. Some of them had a bucket for refuse, but the majority didn’t, and the floors were stained with all manner of…stuff. Having been a prisoner not long before, Sansar shuddered to see the conditions the mercs had been kept in.

“Search the building and the grounds,” Sansar ordered. “Odds are they are still here or close by, or they wouldn’t have had the Zuul guarding the facility. Find them or find what they did with them.”

Sansar could feel an anger building in the pit of her stomach as she surveyed the facilities. This was one more thing Peepo would be held accountable for, if it was the last thing she did. This facility—even if Peepo had never seen it—was being managed on her watch, by people she had hired. She was responsible for this. Words failed her.

“We found a door,” Flint called, and she hurried off to see what they’d found.

Flint, along with Gantulga, were standing in the only clean rooms Sansar had seen in the jail. A small anteroom led into what must have been the manager’s office. The desk had been pushed—well, thrown, probably, as it lay on its side—against a wall, and a carpet thrown over top of it, revealing a large trapdoor in the floor.

“What do you suppose is down there?” Gantulga asked as Sansar stepped into the room.

“Only one way to find out.” Flint replied. “Open it up.”

Gantulga reached down but couldn’t grab the latching mechanism with his CASPer’s fingers. “Umm…Staff Sergeant, I can’t get it,” he said after a moment.

“That’s why you need one of these,” Flint replied, pulling a thin metal rod from a bracket he had mounted to his lower leg.

“What the hell is that?” Gantulga asked.

“It’s a poker,” Flint replied. “After you can’t pick up things enough times, you start carrying tools to help you.” He bent the metal rod into a “J” shape, then leaned over, hooked the door latch, and popped it up so Gantulga could grab hold of it.

Flint snapped the poker back into its bracket, stepped back, and aimed his rifle at the door. “Go ahead,” he said. “Open it.”

Gantulga flipped the door open and jumped out of the way. Stairs led into the darkness below.

“Well, shit,” Flint said.

“What?” Gantulga asked.

Sansar saw what Flint noticed immediately. “Why don’t you go down and investigate what’s down there?” she asked.

Gantulga stepped toward the staircase, then realized it was too narrow for his CASPer. “Oh, got it. We’ll have to dismount.”

“Yeah,” Flint said. “And the only reason I can think of to have a staircase that a CASPer can’t get down…”

“Is to make us dismount,” Sansar finished.

“Yes, ma’am,” Flint replied. “Ma’am, if you’ll back out of this room, I’ll take a squad down there and see what they have planned for us.”

“You can lead,” Sansar replied, “but I’m coming, too.”

* * *

Houston Starport, Houston, Texas

Laser fire rose to greet the members of Asbaran Solutions as they dropped toward the south end of the starport on their HALD profile. The laser fire, while significant, wasn’t as fierce as he’d expected. Also…he checked his sensors. They appeared to be working, but…

“Does anyone show any missile launches?” he asked over the command net.

“Nope.”

“No, sir.”

“None.”

“Looks like we caught them unprepared!”

Nigel shook his head. While he was happy anytime he got to land unopposed, it didn’t make any sense. No missiles? At the base the Horsemen would most likely attack first? Could it be that Peepo was that confident of her position here on Earth? If so, she was going to be sorely surprised. If not…it was almost like Peepo wanted them to land. Why would she do that?

“Ten seconds,” his system advised as his rocket motors went into full boost to slow his descent. It didn’t matter at that point, anyway—they were committed. They could no more boost back to orbit than they could stand on the surface of the sun. The ground rushed up to meet him, and Nigel was down, for good or bad.

Several MinSha fired lasers at them from the direction of the Hellcats’ hangars to the north—which lay in ruins, Nigel saw—but they skittered off when the Asbaran Solutions’ CASPers returned fire.

“What do you think?” the Asbaran XO, Lieutenant Colonel Paolo Valenti, asked.

“I think something’s very wrong here,” Nigel replied. “I expected them to try to hold the starport.”

“I would have thought so, too. Perhaps they didn’t have enough troops to do so, and they’re trying to draw us into a trap.”

“It’s possible,” Nigel said. He looked up and down the tarmac then made up his mind. “Call in the Lumar. If we’re going to spring their trap, having a little extra muscle won’t hurt.” Nigel looked around again and added, “Standing around here makes my skin crawl. Let’s get to the hangar where we have a little more cover.”

The troops jogged to the closest hangar—Tom’s Total Terrors’—taking periodic laser fire from the north.

“They sure want us to know they’re at the Hellcats’ hangar,” Nigel noted.

“They sure do,” Valenti replied. “Do you suppose that’s where the trap is?”

“Must be. Either that or they heard this is your first time back on Earth in ten years and they’re going easy on you.”

“It’s closer to fifteen, and I doubt they’re going to cut me any slack.”

After ten minutes, two dropships screamed in to land close to the hangar, and the two companies of Lumar disembarked from them. The laser fire picked up again as the large humanoids lumbered into the hangar and the dropships lifted off.

“What’s going on?” Major Gage asked as he jogged up, along with Major Sulda, and looked around the hangar. While the CASPers were spread out, covering the approaches to the building, none of them gave any indication they were going anywhere in the near future. “Are we actually assaulting something today or just taking it easy?”

“We’re still trying to determine that,” Nigel said. “Something’s wrong—it’s like they are trying to bait us in—and it’s making my skin crawl.”

“Asbaran Actual, Dropship One.”

“Go, Dropship,” Nigel replied.

Just wanted you to know there is movement from all around you. We took much heavier fire lifting off than we did coming in. It’s almost like they didn’t want us to leave. I can see several new laser burns on my wing. What do you want us to do?

“Stay out of range of their weapons. We’ll handle it down here.”

“What are we going to do?” Valenti asked. “If we’re surrounded—if this is a trap—shouldn’t we have the dropships come back and get us?”

“If we did that,” Nigel said, “we’d have to leave all our CASPers here. Since we dropped in, there wouldn’t be enough room to get everyone back up.” He shook his head. “No, they want us to go north, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

“But that’s where the trap is,” Valenti noted.

“Yes, it is, but there’s no way they’re going to be expecting us—two companies of CASPers, one of which is in Mk 9s, and two companies of Lumar. They’re expecting our forces to get pinned down there, but we’re going to hit them and blow right through them. Then we’ll spin around and envelope the forces coming from behind us. Here’s what we’ll do…”

* * *

The Raknar Fist, Approaching São Paulo, Brazil, Earth

Heavy MAC rounds exploded from tank barrels with brilliant flashes of ablative linings. As they had drilled, all seven Raknar had their large leg-deployed shields on their left arms, held in front of the mecha as they cleared the mountains. The hypersonic projectiles boomed against the shields and deflected away instead of pancaking against the defensive armor.

“Return fire at will,” Jim/Splunk ordered. All seven Raknar raised their right arms and engaged the tanks. Each possessed a pair of starship-class 100-megawatt pulse lasers mounted along their forearms in recessed fittings. The Fist directed their laser fire across the battalion of Zuul tanks arrayed along the southern shore of Billings Reservoir.

The position would have been highly advantageous against aircraft cresting the mountains to attack the city. Aircraft would have been climbing, and their high speed would have made it difficult to angle downward and attack. But the Raknar were traveling under 200 kph and didn’t need to change their angle of attack in order to bring their weapons to bear.

The tanks used local businesses and residences as cover. The 100-megawatt lasers tore through the civilian structures like a katana parting rattan mats. Buildings exploded, were cleaved into pieces, and burst into flames. The tanks hidden amidst them fared no better. The Raknar flew low across the reservoir and landed in a line, sensors seeking the next enemy targets. It didn’t take long to find them.

A massive residential area just past the reservoir disgorged thousands of highly mobile, heavily armed and armored Besquith sappers. Many wore assault armor, which included flight packs, and carried breaching charges. It was an assault designed to deal with a Raknar. It wasn’t an attack designed to deal with Raknars.

They attacked en masse as the mecha grounded and took their first steps. The machines’ titanic legs didn’t walk over or around the multi-story apartments and condos so much as through them. Even sturdy buildings weren’t made to survive a 200-ton robot leg ramming it. Several groups of Besquith never deployed; they were crushed by collapsing apartments.

Their instructions were to mass attack a Raknar. When seven of the 30-meter-tall mecha appeared and began chewing the tanks to pieces, the Besquith sapper platoon leader tried calling his company commander for instructions. He was still waiting when the Raknars crashed into the buildings they were using for concealment. Realizing the opportunity to deploy was quickly coming to an end, he ordered an attack on the two closest mecha.

With two squads lost in collapsing buildings, and two targets instead of one, the sappers’ attack wasn’t nearly as practiced as it had been during their drills in the previous weeks. More ended up on one Raknar than the other, and because of the late launch order, their low-powered jumpjets only got them as high as the knees, just above ten meters.

“Boarders!” Fenn/Peanut said.

“Us, too,” Thompson/Shadow said.

“Cook ’em,” Curran/Dante told them.

The two Raknar with the Besquith sappers aboard stopped. The aliens were desperately trying to get their explosive charges in place, but the fast-flash thermite style attachment packs weren’t holding, so instead they attempted to attach them by wedging climbing pitons into the Raknars. Now that the Raknars were fully serviced by the Dusman, though, they possessed the full breadth of weaponry. Previously, Jim would have been extremely troubled by a sapper attack like the one which was occurring. Now, both Raknars under attack simply pointed an arm at their lower body and fired their flamers—nozzles on the arm which channeled superheated plasma directly from the fusion cores. They were really designed to assist in maneuvering in space, but when a small amount of flammable fluid was injected to the plasma, it created a 50-meter-long tongue of 1,000 degree fire. The Besquith sappers had just long enough to realize what was happening before they were incinerated.

“Nice,” Curran/Dante said, and the Raknars resumed their march.

Now, less than ten kilometers from the starport, the buildings began to change. Inexpensive housing and high rises began to give way to light industrial and ten- to twenty-story high rises as the star town came into sensor range. The high rises were too large and substantial for even the Raknar to easily tear through, so they stuck to the large avenues in their preassigned groups.

The population density increased steadily as well. The streets were crowded with tens of thousands fleeing the battle, and innumerable cars and trucks were stuck in the sudden gridlock of the afternoon attack. The 1,000-ton bulk of the Raknars crushed occupied and empty vehicles with equal ease, the crunching akin to walking on bubble wrap. A few flyers were unfortunate enough to approach the marching Raknar and were swatted from the sky by point defense lasers.

As they reached the last line of buildings, a ripple of missile fire rose from the port’s defensive batteries. These were intercepted, the same as the flyers had been. The starport itself was situated in what was once São Caetano do Sul. The remains of the old district was now the star town—the extra-jurisdictional area around the starport. Jim/Splunk noted the missile launcher locations. These were portable, vehicle-mounted erectable launchers, not the static defenses they’d known about prior to landing.

The two flanking groups both lifted off in short, 200-meter-high jumps. Once they cleared the nearest buildings, all four deployed their arm-mounted lasers and began destroying the mobile launchers. That was when the squad of heavy tanks on the north flank opened fire. Mays/Aura was hit in the right leg with a 200-megawatt particle cannon, damaging the thruster mechanism there. Kleve/Sandy spun an arm around and pumped their 100-megawatt laser energy into the tank that had hit Mays/Aura. In turn they were hit in the side by another particle beam, which severely damaged their armor without penetrating.

“Ground!” Jim/Splunk ordered as they examined the Zha Akee.

Mays/Aura struggled to land, using a five-story apartment building as an improvised crash-bag. They completely destroyed the building and ended up on their back.

“Nice landing,” Kleve/Sandy laughed.

“Bite me,” Mays/Aura replied as they extracted themselves from the debris.

Jim/Splunk found the tanks. The data wasn’t 100%, though it looked like six of the huge, particle cannon-equipped Zuul tanks were hidden in the midst of a tank farm three kilometers away. The tanks were identified as liquid hydrogen storage; more than a million liters per tank.

A particle beam lanced out at Jim/Splunk. They side-stepped behind a 25-story office building and the beam only chewed a chunk of armor off their shoulder.

“Curran/Dante, the tanks.”

“Got it,” Curran/Dante answered. The Zuul heavy tanks blasted at the Raknars, all of which were now using buildings as cover. Fenn/Peanut held up their shield as the tank’s particle cannon penetrated the building. The shield easily took the remaining energy.

Curran/Dante moved to the side, toward a hulking 20-story industrial building as a particle beam took a huge gouge from the shorter building they’d been using for concealment. They shouldered into the industrial building, turned, and slammed both arms into the structure. Then, slamming a foot into the concrete and rebar, they reached up a hand, rammed it into the building, and pulled themselves up ten meters.

The Zuul tanks took advantage of roads and terrain to snipe at the Raknar. Curran/Dante stopped climbing just below the top of the building. A pair of particle beams lashed at the building, burning through the skyscraper just below the Raknar. The second the beams missed, Curran/Dante gave a small burst of their jets, rocketing up to land on the roof. The Raknar’s legs crushed the roof’s structure and sank twelve meters into the building as it settled.

The shoulder-mounted particle beam rotated down and fired a single beam. They weren’t shooting at the armored tanks, but the storage tank farm, which exploded like a small nuclear bomb. The blast incinerated every structure within a kilometer, and the shockwave wrecked buildings for another kilometer. The Zuul tanks were obliterated, along with every living thing for kilometers in all directions.

“That works,” Jim/Splunk said, examining the enemy damage without taking notice of any collateral damage to the city. The Zha Akee showed objects dropping from orbit ahead of their course. They were immediately tagged as friendly. A formation of 120 “mini-Raknar” of three different configurations, rated from less than 20% as effective as Konar to about 50%. The part of him that was Jim knew those would be the Cavaliers dropping into São Paulo. Without another thought, he advanced toward the starport.

* * *

Cartwright’s Cavaliers, HALD Drop, Target São Paulo, Brazil, Earth

“Clean up the formation!” Hargrave ordered over the squadnet and heard the individual squad sergeants snap out orders. Quickly the companies dressed up to take advantage of the 360 decoys. The Phoenix dropships inserted them under 100 kilometers, and they had absolutely screamed though the thermosphere. When he’d triggered his pod ejection via pinplant (the first time he’d ever done it), the data feed from the dropship said they’d been traveling at ten kilometers per second, or 36,000 kilometers per hour.

“Ten fucking Gs,” he grumbled, careful to keep it off the squadnet. He knew he blacked out for a few seconds. For once, he didn’t have to worry when he came around that the CASPer in its pod might have tumbled or gone all catawampus. The Mk 9 had not only stayed on course, the damned thing was evading brilliantly. “I’m too old for this shit.” Of course, at nearly 70 he was too old for a lot of things.

They’d blown the decoys ten seconds after ejection, when the Gs were passing six. It was like flying into a car crash, feet first, for minutes on end. His decades-old nano treatment that hardened joints and ligament attachments saved him from serious injury, but it didn’t keep him from feeling like he’d been beaten to hamburger, even though he was in better shape than he would have been in an older Mk 7 or Mk 8. The Mk 9 was tight and fit like a glove, leaving less room to rattle around inside during high-G maneuvers.

Now they were under ten kilometers, and the shit was hitting the fan. The decoys were only effective when there was enough thermal ionization to make it uncertain what was a CASPer and what was a decoy. Only the most advanced, densest, and well-deployed defenses were capable of not being overwhelmed by an assault three companies strong.

Laser fire began to lance out at them, and he saw one of Charlie Company, Second Platoon disappear from the squadnet.

They were at terminal approach.

“All squads,” he called. “Break, break, break!”

The Cavaliers went from dropping like stones to actively evading, the various suits spinning, jinking, and dodging wildly in completely random patterns as much as their particular CASPer allowed. As the final few kilometers fell away, he lost seven more troopers, all of them in older Mk 7s. Jim Cartwright used to like the old models as they suited his extra-large frame. Now he only talked or cared about the Raknar, and Hargrave was afraid he was losing the kid and failing Thaddeus.

Equipped with two platoons of the new Mk 9 CASPers, Jim elected to give them all to Alpha Company, dispersing the Mk 8s formerly operated by those Alpha Company members to those who were qualified in Bravo and Charlie Companies. When they’d deployed ten minutes ago, there’d been fifteen Mk 7s left. Now there were only seven.

One of the most fundamental differences between the older model CASPers and the Mk 9 was flight capability. The combat suits had possessed the capability to do orbital drops, or HALD, since the Mk 5. However, it was always with the addition of special thruster packs, or, in the early days, something akin to a miniature starship faring; not a cheap prospect. The new Mk 9 did away with all that. Their flight capability was a quantum leap forward. They dropped from orbit with only a three-sided ablative shield over their feet and lower legs, and a pair of drop-tanks. Equipped with more powerful and efficient jumpjets, the Mk 9 was capable of long, sustained flights instead of merely short 20-second jumps. The addition of the drop-tanks allowed them to either fly for hours or make reentry in a dense atmosphere.

This is pretty badass, Hargrave silently admitted as his CASPer came to a hover less than 100 meters above a city street. The rest of Alpha Company were all within a kilometer. He hadn’t lost a single trooper from the two Mk 9 equipped platoons. Switch to combat operations, he ordered the suit through his pinplants, and the drop-tanks simply fell away. Like the ablative shields, the tanks were not expensive components. These new suits would be both better in combat and more cost effective.

He set down on top of a nearby restaurant, and Sergeant Panka landed next to him. When Hargrave took over Alpha Company for the operation and equipped them all with Mk 9s, Buddha had a problem; even though he was top sergeant, the man was simply massive, and the Mk 9 couldn’t accommodate the Samoan’s frame. Instead, Buddha was piloting one of the last Mk 7s, helping Major Alvarado with Bravo Company. Under protest, of course. Having a single Mk 7 in a Company of Mk 9s wasn’t tactically feasible. Alvarado gave Panka high praise, and Hargrave was happy to have him.

“What’s the plan, sir?” Panka asked.

“Muster First Platoon over there, on that hotel,” Hargrave said, indicating with his pinplants in battlespace. Jim was right, it was just like a fucking video game. He wasn’t sure he liked it, but it was efficient. “The low roof will give us cover while we rally. Second Platoon needs to move over to the Avenue 23 de Maio,” he said, working a bit to handle the pronunciation. “Data on approach indicated a platoon of Oogar holding the town hall. I want them contained while we coordinate with Bravo and Charlie Companies.”

“Roger that,” Panka said and started issuing orders.

Hargrave examined the battlespace. Their objective was clearly marked: the former Mirante do Vale, now known as SOGA Headquarters. He could just see the 101-story monolithic slab with its split walls of glass. Remodeled in 2030 to become the world government headquarters, they had added 60 stories, reinforced the structure, and added multiple landing platforms near the top where the president’s office was.

On the battlespace, Hargrave could see the Raknars rampaging toward the starport. A second later, a mushroom cloud rose into the sky from a huge explosion. The battlespace indicated it was the fuel farm. Hargrave tried not to think about how many were probably dying, only that the Raknars were keeping the enemy’s attention away from the city center. With any luck, his troopers would be at their objective in just a few more minutes.

* * * * *


Chapter Seventeen


Merc Internment Facility, Lagos, Nigeria, Earth

First Squad dismounted from their CASPers, and Flint started down the stairs. Just below floor level there was a switch. He flipped it, and light illuminated the stairway, allowing him to see that it descended to a narrow hallway with three doorways—one on each side and one at the end of the 30-foot corridor.

“Well, at least now we can see where we’re going,” Flint said. He went down the stairs slowly, as if expecting something bad to happen at any moment.

He approached the door on the left side, and the members of his squad stacked up behind him.

“Wait,” Sansar commed. “Something’s wrong here.”

“What do you mean?” Flint asked.

“This was too easy; it feels like a trap.”

“So don’t use the door?”

“No. Let’s blow a hole in the wall.”

The squad backed up the stairs, and the demolitions expert, Sergeant Green, moved forward and made a rectangular outline with advanced det cord. He backed up, blew the charge, and a door-shaped hole opened in the wall. The smoke and plaster dust hadn’t even settled when Flint led the squad through the breach, followed by Sansar.

There was nothing there, aside from some boxes and plastic crates, and an eye-watering stench.

“Well, that was anticlimactic,” Flint said. “And God above, that smell!”

“Don’t open the crates,” Sansar said. “I don’t know what’s in them, but I don’t want any more of that smell to get out.”

“Want a new door into the room across the hall?” Green asked.

“Yes, please,” Sansar replied.

Green pulled out some more det cord and blew a hole through the wall into the next room. Once again, the squad charged through the opening before the dust had a chance to settle. This room was also empty, although stains on the floor showed it had been used previously. Based on the rust color of the stains, though, Sansar didn’t want to speculate on what that might have been.

“Blow the door at the end of the hall?” Sergeant Green asked. “Or try to go through the wall of this room into it?”

“I really don’t want to use that door,” Sansar said. “Blow the wall in this room.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Green replied. “Just to let you know, though, this will pretty much use up all of the det cord I have.”

“That’s fine,” Sansar said. “I don’t see any more doors after this one.”

“You got it, ma’am.”

He followed the now-familiar procedure, and once again Flint led the charge into the next room. On the other side of the wall waited forty-one mercs, bound and gagged, along with enough explosives to level the building and the surrounding couple of blocks, had they gone through the door in the hallway.

“Glad we didn’t set that off,” Flint said.

“Indeed,” Sansar replied. She switched to her comm. “Second Squad, get down here and remove the prisoners to the courtyard while we finish checking the basement.”

“On our way, ma’am,” Staff Sergeant Jacobs replied.

* * *

Houston Starport, Houston, Texas

“Everyone ready down there?” Nigel asked over the comm.

“We’re ready and standing by,” Major Gage replied.

“XO?” Nigel asked

“We’re ready,” Valenti said. “Just give us the word.”

Nigel panned his camera around. Like the rest of the Mk 9-equipped company, he waited on the roof of the hangar. He’d already received the hand signal that all was in readiness from the troops with him. They were on their hands and knees in the suits so they could hide behind a wall that ran around the roof of the hangar. It was an uncomfortable position, as it forced them to hang in their straps, but it was necessary to stay out of sight.

“We need to go soon, sir,” Staff Sergeant Hearne said from his lookout position on the south end of the building. “I have movement on the perimeter road. Looks like we’re going to have company soon—I’ve got tanks and APCs inbound.”

“All Asbaran forces,” Nigel transmitted on the company-wide net. “This is the moment we’ve been waiting for since the aliens chased us from our planet. Hell, this is the moment some of us have been waiting for all our lives. The moment when we finally get to stand up for ourselves and give the aliens who would take our planet—our very freedom—from us the payback they deserve.

“For those of you who are Lumar, this is where you get to pay back the races who have held you down and abused you—who have treated you like second-class garbage all your lives. This is where you finally are able to take back your birthright as honorable mercenaries.

“We do this today to show them that things are changing in the Merc Guild. Those races that think they can maintain their hold on the guild are about to see there is a new breed of merc—one who is honorable and won’t stab you in the back while pretending to value your service.

“Today, we throw them from our planet; tomorrow we throw them from our guild. The Veetanho and their minions are the problem—”

“And we are the Solution!” yelled four companies of troops, Lumar and Human voices joined together for the first time in genuine brotherhood.

“Attack!” Nigel ordered. He stood and triggered his jumpjets, followed by the rest of Alpha Company in its Mk 9 suits. The Bravo Company troopers in their Mk 8 suits sprinted from the hangar’s main doors and triggered their jumpjets, taking their positions slightly below and behind Alpha Company, while the two Lumar companies streamed from all the exits on the hangar’s north end, forming a battle line that raced forward on the tarmac slightly behind, but no less determined than the two battle lines that soared above them.

The two lines of CASPers held back so as to not get too far ahead of the Lumar. While large and strong, their best speed was more of a lumber than a sprint, and they would have been left far behind if the CASPers had advanced at top speed. At the forefront of the advance, Nigel had a great view of the spaceport and a position where he could use all his new sensors to their maximum advantage.

The MinSha in the ruins of the Hellcat’s hangar saw Asbaran’s advance, and they fled before them like rats leaving a sinking ship. Nigel didn’t fire on them—enough of his Mk 9 troopers were doing so that his weapons weren’t needed—instead he looked ahead to see where they were running to.

From above, it was obvious the enemy wasn’t waiting at the Hellcat’s hangar—there wasn’t much left of it. A crawler lay on its side on the tarmac west of the hangar, and Nigel shook his head, wondering how it got in that position—there were no signs of damage to it beyond the fact it lay on its side.

To the east of the hangar, the burned-out hulks of an Oogar APC and a MinSha anti-aircraft vehicle rested in the grass just outside the perimeter fence. They were missing pieces from every surface; scrappers had obviously removed the sections they thought were valuable…or the ones they could, anyway.

There were two wrecked tanks on the inside of the fence. Nigel didn’t know what had hit them, but it must have been big; they didn’t have much more than their shells remaining. More importantly, though, there were no signs of enemy activity around them—while a battle had been fought here, it had occurred months previously and the enemy forces weren’t using the hulks as cover.

That wasn’t true of the next hangar to the north. The former headquarters for Micky Finn had a number of MinSha visible on and around it, and his equipment picked up indications of power sources from inside it. All of a sudden, the Merc Guild’s plan became apparent—they were trying to draw the Asbaran Solutions forces out into the open. When they got to the Hellcat’s hangar—where they would have the least amount of cover—they would roll out the armor and open up on them from both the north and south.

Beyond the Micky Finn hangar, he could see more armor and marching troops headed in their direction. That made sense. Since the Merc Guild wouldn’t have known where the Earth troops were going to land, they probably had ambush sites on both sides of the star port, with troops centrally located to move to wherever they landed on. The motorized guild troops, if allowed to get into their prepared positions in and around the Micky Finn hangar—he could see where the MinSha troopers were already running—would be extremely hard to root out without a huge loss of life.

They had to hit the troops in the open before they arrived.

“XO, I want you to take Bravo Company, the Proud Fists, and the Bold Warriors. Advance and take the Micky Finn hangar. Once you have it, come help us.”

“Where will you be?” Valenti asked.

“Further north,” Nigel replied. “Alpha Company, with me!” He added more power to his jumpjets and soared higher into the sky. As he flew over the Micky Finn hanger, he zoomed his view in on the MinSha troopers below him. They all stared up as the CASPers went past; if they’d had mouths that could hang open, he was sure they would have been. Bravo Company hit them while they were still distracted.

* * *

The Raknar Fist, São Paulo Starport, Brazil, Earth

Armored units fled as quickly as they could before the Raknar. The explosion of the starport fuel depot had set fire to nearly twenty square kilometers of the startown and with it all the hidden forces and armor around the starport perimeter. Whatever tactic had been planned to stop the Raknar went up in a fireball, along with their forces.

Jim/Splunk fired at targets of opportunity, his 100-megawatt lasers blazing back and forth between armored troopers, tanks, APCs, and anything they might be near. The fire spread, and the seven Raknar marched into the conflagration. Compared to the many thousands of degrees from reentry, the fires weren’t a challenge for the mecha to handle.

The Zha Akee alerted them to activity. The starport was just two kilometers away, and dozens of tiny targets were leaping into the air. “Drones,” Jim/Splunk warned the Fist. Instantly, they switched from harassing the fleeing forces to slapping down drones as soon as they cleared the ground. In the midst of dealing with the drone swarm, they were hit from behind.

Atmospheric fighters screamed over the same mountains they’d cleared only minutes before. They didn’t bother with a direct attack, instead they released bombs on a parabolic arc and pulled up hard, climbing with all the power their turbojets could manage.

“Bomb attack to rear,” Epard/Ryft warned, the first to note it.

Jim/Splunk ordered his group to turn and engage the bomb attack while the rest continued to deal with the drones. Curran/Dante and Epard/Ryft spun about and brought their lasers to bear against the bombs. Dozens of simple iron bombs flew through the sky, reached apogee, and came down. They directed the Raknar to use the arm-mounted lasers, but the targeting systems struggled. Standing amidst the firestorm meant their sensors weren’t as accurate.

Epard/Ryft changed targets and fired at the fleeing fighters instead, while Curran/Dante scored hits on several bombs. Jim/Splunk exceeded Curran/Dante’s hits, but still only accounted for less than half. The 500-pound bombs exploded in their midst.

The bombs were primitive enough that the Raknar’s assessment routines nearly discounted them. However, the bombs had been refitted with advanced armor piercing noses and a shroud of specially-designed penetrator shrapnel. The Raknar’s legs were peppered with the shrapnel, holing the armor in places and doing damage to sensors and systems. Curran/Dante took one square in the chest. The explosion, coupled with the leg damage, rocked them backward and over. The Raknar hit the ground with a thunderous crash of ruined buildings and burning debris.

Curran/Dante Combat Readiness Status: 59% was displayed in the Zha Akee readouts for Jim/Splunk. The other six were also damaged, though to a much lesser degree than Curran/Dante. With their leg thruster damage, Mays/Aura was the next worst off at 88%.

We’re being chewed up piecemeal, Jim/Splunk thought. In Zha Akee he saw where the towering starship hangars and launch cradles sat. They were powerfully built from concrete and earth to support spaceships lifting off while providing shielding for other ships. Near the center of the starport was its main launch laser, a 100-meter-tall pyramid with multiple laser collimators at its apex. The gigawatt-powered mechanism possessed its own fusion power plant and could boost huge ships into orbit. It could also provide great cover.

Epard/Ryft was just helping Curran/Dante back to their feet when Jim/Splunk ordered: “Jump for the center of the starport. Lasers on full defense.”

“What about the rest of the ground forces?” Curran/Dante demanded.

“Later,” Jim/Splunk answered. “We’re being chewed up. We need to get to the objective.”

They turned, fired their thrusters, and lifted off with a roar of fusion-powered motors. The others followed in quick order. The last was Curran/Dante, who seemed to consider staying to finish the enemy. At last, they, too, roared into the sky, though they fired several more laser shots at the now-many-kilometers-distant bombers.

The Raknar needed to get to the starport and take control. Several parts of their mission depended on it, not the least of which was the possibility of more adversaries. Jim/Splunk shuddered with excitement at the idea of killing more Canavar, despite the injury they’d suffered last time. It was what they existed for, to crush the beasts in their mechanical hands and feel the life drain from them.

As they roared over the perimeter into the starport a few drones tried to skim in from the side, but they were easily dispatched. Jim/Splunk again noted the lack of depth in the enemy’s attacks. They did not expect an entire Fist and were paying the price in blood. At this rate the Fist could single handedly take back the entire planet! After all, wasn’t it their due? Who else would be lords of this glorious battlefield, but the triumphant Raknar?

The Fist landed next to the towering launch laser. A few small vehicular ground units fired chemically propelled ballistic weapons at them. Fenn/Peanut kicked one vehicle like a stray pebble and sent it flying hundreds of meters. Kleve/Sandy stomped on two others. The rest fled. Risk assessment placed the threats at a nominal zero. They’d reached their primary objective.

Jim/Splunk activated their comms and struggled for a second to form words that would be understood by Humans. “I/We, Raknar Fist Cavalier, have taken primary objective,” they said. “Sub-Konar can proceed to their primary objective.”

“Cavalier Actual, that sort of sounds like you,” a Human replied. “This is Pegasus Actual. We copy your objective, though not all your nomenclature. Are you saying Cavaliers’ CASPer forces are clear to take their objective?”

The modified Egleesius, Jim/Splunk thought. Alexis, the part of them that was Jim finally managed to put a name to the sounds. “Yes.” It wasn’t the best reply he’d ever given.

“Understood, Jim. Relaying your status. Hold the starport.”

“Acknowledged.” They cut the transmission, and a pair of transports burst from their cradles with a roar of lift motors. “Curran/Dante, that one,” Jim/Splunk ordered, designating the one on the left within Zha Akee. “Everyone else, the other one.”

Curran/Dante’s particle cannon rotated over their shoulder and glowed as it prepared to fire. The other six Raknar fired at the other desperately climbing transport. Their 100-megawatt lasers cut deep furrows in the transport’s hull, causing it to yaw crazily. Curran/Dante’s weapon cut the other one in half. The two halves plummeted to the ground, exploded, and showered debris all over the other landing cradles.

The laser-damaged transport tried to roll sideways and engage its main ascent motors, which allowed the Raknar to concentrate on its engine section. It fell from the sky more or less intact, but the explosion was the same. The seven Raknar moved into a circular formation and prepared to deal with any other attempted escapes. Jim/Splunk watched and waited for the next attack.

* * *

Cartwright’s Cavaliers, HALD Drop, Target São Paulo, Brazil, Earth

“Cartwright’s CASPer Actual, this is Pegasus Actual.”

“Go, Pegasus Actual,” Hargrave replied.

“The big guys have taken the starport. We have nominal space superiority. You are clear to trap the rat.”

“Confirmed,” Hargrave said and switched to the squadnet. “We have a go,” he announced. “Charlie Company, Bravo Company, take the barracks and armory. Alpha Company, follow me.” The Cavaliers burst from cover and jumped/bounded toward the SOGA headquarters building.

“All up!” Buddha called over the squadnet.

“Lead the charge!” every Cavalier yelled.

Splitting into their assigned missions, the older CASPer-equipped troopers swept into the adjacent barracks, using their jumpjets to move over roads with ease. The city was in a full panic, with thousands on foot, in cars, and even buses, trying to flee the growing combat zone. It didn’t help that the starport was east of the downtown area, and many from the east were fleeing to the west, right into and around downtown.

Hargrave put that concern aside for a minute and gave the mission all his attention. The SOGA building was two streets away with only a ten-story office building between his platoon and the structure. “Paulson,” he commed.

“Go sir,” Lieutenant Pat Paulson replied. He’d been promoted from first sergeant after Talus and given command of Second Platoon, Alpha Company, formerly Hargrave’s command.

“Take Second Platoon in through the front door. Hit it hard, you hear me?”

“Unequivocally,” the young lieutenant replied.

“I’m taking First Platoon in through the 25th floor. There’s no way the target can escape from the roof, so you hold the front door and we’ll come in from above.”

“Roger that,” Lieutenant Paulson replied. “Good luck, sir.”

“You too, son,” Hargrave said, and switched to his sergeant. “Panka, did you hear the op as discussed with Paulson?”

“Yes, sir,” Sergeant Panka replied immediately.

Hargrave checked the battlespace and confirmed everything was going as he ordered. Charlie and Bravo Companies were hitting the barracks a block away. After little initial resistance, they were now wading into heavy fire; it looked like there were several platoons of Oogar. The giant purple don’t-care-bears were tough fuckers. Lieutenant Paulson’s platoon was bounding across the street and crashing into the ground floor of the SOGA headquarters. Civilians scattered in all directions as the CASPers blasted their way into the building’s security center. Which was his cue.

“Go,” Hargrave said, and Panka gave the word. All forty Mk 9 CASPers in his company leaped into the air with a whoosh of improved thrusters. The Mk 9 thrusters still used jump juice—the specially formulated fuel all other flight-capable CASPers used—but they used it much more effectively. Instead of the parabolic arc he’d become so used to over decades of merc service, the suit soared into the air and the software angled him automatically into a stable, flat flight path. He wasn’t jumping, he was flying.

They flew up and over the intervening office building. Hargrave had a great view of three men in business suits looking out from the top floor, directly at his CASPer as it flew up and over the roofline. In a day of such carnage, it gave him a moment of mirth. Seconds later the armored wall of the SOGA headquarters was looming before him.

As one, the entire platoon raised their right-arm-mounted miniguns and fired a sustained burst. The windows were chewed up badly, but not penetrated. Hargrave hoped it would be enough as he lowered the gun, leaned his CASPer shoulder first, and hit the window he’d been targeting going 50 kilometers per hour.

CRRRASH!

As soon as he hit the window he rolled into a ball. Which was a good thing because he careened into an interior office, bounced off a huge desk, and embedded himself in a wall. “Well,” he grunted, “that hurt.” He called out to the men. “Platoon, report.”

“We all made it,” Panka said. “Some minor damage; these Mk 9s are badass.”

Hargrave grunted in agreement. The armored glass was a reinforced polymer. He didn’t know if his old Mk 8 would have come through as easily, even though it outweighed the new suits by 200 kilograms. “Penetrate to the interior,” he ordered. There were two massive, open interior atriums which ran from the ground to the 90th floor. All they had to do was get there and then fly up to within eleven floors of their final objective.

Through his battlespace, projected into his brain, Hargrave could see a pair of his troopers in Second Squad—Privates Strader and Tucker—slam into the interior wall and through it. Their momentum was so great that when they penetrated the wall, they were catapulted out into the void of the atrium.

The troopers’ CASPers automatically engaged their flight systems and stabilized, their sensors gathering details of their surroundings and sending it to Hargrave’s suit, which assembled it into the battlespace; details like the height of the floors, the construction of the balconies overlooking the atrium, and the hundreds of Tortantula hanging from those balconies.

“Holy sh—” Strader started to scream before his suit was torn apart by a dozen MAC rounds. Tucker didn’t bother yelling, he evaded, sending his suit into a dizzying spin within the open atrium. It worked for a second, but the atrium wasn’t wide enough to allow much maneuverability. He got too close to a wall, and a Tortantula snagged him as he went by, jumping onto the suit and clamping onto it with all ten of its arms.

“Get off me, you fucker!” Tucker yelled, his suit’s thrusters screaming in protest at suddenly supporting over a ton.

“Get through to help him!” Panka yelled.

Hargrave could see a dozen more Tortantula leaping out into the open atrium, with nothing but air below them for 100 meters. All but one missed. When a second massive spider-like alien trooper latched on, Trucker’s suit thrusters overloaded, and he fell like a stone, cursing until the concrete below silenced him forever.

The rest of the platoons cut through interior walls without racing out. Their two men were dead; it made no sense to join them. Hargrave’s battlespace showed at least a hundred Tortantula within easy view. As soon as each trooper got enough of a hole, they opened fire with autocannon or shoulder-mounted laser and MAC.

The Tortantula went absolutely berserk, diving into the barrage and crashing against the walls to get at the Humans on the other side. They died, mowed down without concern for themselves. Hargrave had seen this tactic more times than he cared to remember. He also learned the best way to deal with it: unrelenting fire.

“Hold what you’ve got!” he roared over the squadnet. The two platoons of Alpha Company dug in, falling back from the walls only far enough to allow a better field of fire before pouring hell onto the charging aliens. Hargrave’s arm-mounted minigun was glowing red-hot by the time the Tortantula charge finally wavered, faltered, and then stopped all together.

“Reload; assess losses,” he told Panka as he grabbed a fresh magazine for the minigun, one of only two he was carrying for this assault. The suit said its power was down to 81%, minigun overheated, and armor undamaged. He’d lost another trooper, this one from First Squad, Private Timmy Ventura, who had been with the Cavaliers since they’d reconstituted. Corporal Manni Ratliff from Second Platoon was critically injured, but they had no way to evac him.

“What’s his odds?” Hargrave asked his squad’s medic, Private “Moose” O’Hara.

“Not good,” Moose replied. “I pumped him full of nanites; it’s the best I can do.”

“Okay, back in line,” Hargrave said. “Rick,” he said, calling Private Carl “Rick” Stodden.

“Sir?” Rick replied.

“Get me eyes in there, ASAP.”

“Right away,” the trooper replied. A second later, a pair of miniature drones were flying through the ravaged walls and into the atrium. Instantly the battlespace was updated.

There were still Tortantula. Lots of them. However, they were a dozen floors up and just as far below. He saw the tiny shapes of Flatar on some of them, which meant they were reorganizing. The Flatar were the brains of the killing organization. The Cavaliers might just have a few critical seconds.

“Go!” he yelled. “In and up as far as you can get. Take cover when we get organized; return fire.” The thirty-six surviving Cavaliers of Alpha Company exploded through the wrecked walls, angled upwards, and rocketed toward the top.

* * *

EMS Pegasus, Geosynchronous Orbit over Central North America, Earth, Sol System

“Thank you, Major Thorb,” Alexis said to the SalSha Avenger commander on the screen, “that was a tough job.”

“It cost us many crew, Colonel Cromwell,” Thorb replied. “All of them were my friends.”

“My condolences for your losses, but I fear the dying isn’t done quite yet,” she said. “Please transmit your combat readiness update to my XO as soon as it’s available.” She regretted being so businesslike with the young alien, but such was the way of war. She also regretted that their baptism of fire was as hard as it was—they’d lost an entire squadron, with Major Thorb’s Avenger the only one to come out alive. Even so, she marveled at the replay of their attack. Xander estimated they’d pulled at least twenty-three Gs on the attack. Take that, MinSha, she thought with a smile.

“We have established geosynchronous orbit for our operational area,” Pleek, the helmsman reported.

“The squadron is in position,” Paka confirmed.

All five Egleesius-class battlecruisers orbited over the major area of ground operations. Should the need become dire, they would be able to rain down 200-terawatts of death in moments. The need would indeed have to be dire, though. All through their campaign against General Peepo’s war of conquest, the Humans had taken the higher ground, refusing to break the rules of merc warfare. Bombarding a planet from orbit was one of the most stringent rules. But this is our home world, she thought with growing anger. Over a thousand Human mercs were down there fighting to take it back.

<Your restraint, while admirable, is a weakness.>

You don’t think I know that?” Alexis replied.

<Then in the end, what will you do to prevail?>

Whatever I must.” Ghost had nothing more to add.

“Squadron One is reporting intercept of the enemy battleship!” Abby Smith, the SitCon said.

Alexis’ head came around to focus on that squadron’s area of the big Tri-V showing the four separate squadrons and their positions. The two battleships, Lubieszów and Byczyna, along with five cruisers and ten frigates, had been chasing the largest enemy fleet element since the Hussars had destroyed the only high-orbit defense platform. The battleship had a battlecruiser and three cruisers as screen and had played cat and mouse in orbit for hours. Now, the game was nearly over.

“Offer them quarter,” Alexis said. Paka glanced at her as Hoot relayed those orders.

Lubieszów Actual,” a translated voice came over the radio.

Pegasus Actual,” Alexis replied, “go ahead, Captain Fookoolu.”

“The enemy element is unwilling to yield.”

“Destroy them,” she said without hesitation.

The engagement played out in less than five deadly minutes. Waves of missiles and terawatts of particle energy flashed back and forth on the far side of Earth, and ships maneuvered to avoid it. Then it was over, the hulk of the alien battleship was deorbiting, headed for a fiery end in the Indian Ocean. The enemy battlecruiser was adrift, as was one of the cruisers. The other two were trying to run. The Hussars had lost two of her cruisers, Assault and Howler, along with the escort frigate Orcrist. Byczyna had taken moderate damage.

“My regards to Captain Fookoolu,” Alexis said to the comms officer. She inwardly heaved a sigh. Sol was theirs. “Order Squadron One to eliminate those last two cruisers at their convenience but climb to geosynch to avoid ground fire and provide orbital support for that hemisphere.”

<Something is not right.>

What do you think?

<Estimates from intel at Golara suggested at least fifty squadrons of drones had been relocated here. We have encountered no more than fifteen, at most.>

Maybe their command and control features are compromised,” Alexis suggested.

<Possible, but not probable.>

Alexis considered. The assault had gone incredibly well, with minimal losses so far. They’d only lost twelve ships in the entire campaign and gained many more than that from the Maki prizes in Golara. A burning feeling of unease sat in the pit of her stomach. However, regardless of those feelings, she thought of something she’d learned something from her mother: Don’t let doubt steal success.

“Update on Operation Rat Trap,” she ordered Paka. The Veetanho XO floated over to Hoot and spoke to the Buma. A minute passed before she got the answer.

“Lieutenant Colonel Hargrave is only a few floors below the offices,” Paka said. “Colonel Cartwright has the starport in hand.”

Alexis knew the last part. She’d seen the view of São Paulo on her monitor. At least a tenth of the city was in flames. The Raknars’ assault path was as clear as if a huge ship had crashed and left a burned and charred trail of destruction. Further orbital assessment showed three to four battalions of enemy mercs holding twelve kilometers to the north near the town of Mairiporã. Intel suggested they’d been ordered to counterattack, but seven 30-meter-tall killer mecha were something they didn’t seem to want to play Russian roulette with.

She decided it was time to try to end it, before they were forced to let Cartwright clash against those battalions and do immeasurably more damage. The fight to re-take Houston was also becoming incredibly bloody, with more forces headed into the grinder. If that battle was allowed to go on much longer, they were going to lose a lot of people they really couldn’t afford to. A voice in the back of her head whispered, Maybe even Nigel. She needed to end this. Now. “Hoot, try and reach General Peepo.”

Hoot’s big feathered head turned like a turret to look at her, “Captain, I don’t know which channels to use. The enemy has their comms satellites all locked down.”

“Broadcast in the clear.”

The alien blinked slowly, then nodded before turning his head back and working his boards. “All known tactical channels open; you are on,” he said.

“General Peepo, this is Colonel Alexis Cromwell of the Winged Hussars, in command of the fleet holding in Earth orbit. We would like to talk.”

Hoot closed his eyes as he scanned thousands of frequencies at the same time. A full minute passed, and Alexis was beginning to think it was a waste of time when Hoot’s eyes suddenly snapped open. “I have laser comm lock,” he said in obvious surprise, “direct to Pegasus.

“Origination of signal?” she asked.

“I can’t be one hundred percent certain, but it’s from the area of Brazil, possibly São Paulo. Voice only.”

“Put in on,” Alexis ordered.

“Stand by,” a computer voice said from the other end.

A second later, a voice she recognized came on. “Good afternoon, Colonel Cromwell.”

“General Peepo?” Alexis asked.

“Of course; you know my voice.”

“I do,” Alexis agreed. She’d first met Peepo decades ago, the first time she’d ever gone to Karma with her mother. Peepo’s Pit had once been considered by many as the preeminent merc pit in the Tolo arm, possible the entire galaxy. “However, I’d feel more confident if we could talk, face to face.”

“Humans are so sentimental.” The sneer was evident in her words, but in a second, Hoot nodded, and Alexis pointed at the big Tri-V.

Combat data was reduced to half the display and moved to one side. The remainder of the space became the inside of a luxurious office with a surprisingly simple, though massive, wooden desk. The view through the wall-to-wall window behind the desk showed the wide eastward expanse of São Paulo. She could just make out several humanoid shapes in the distance next to the towering launch laser of the São Paulo starport. Columns of smoke rose skyward in many places while fires raged in others. Sitting behind the desk was the graying whiskery face of Peepo.

“I wish I could say it’s nice to see you again,” Alexis said and bowed her head ever so slightly, “General Peepo. You should have stayed in retirement.”

“And you should have accepted capitulation,” Peepo responded instantly.

“And you shouldn’t have tried to murder Colonel Enkh. Now she’s down there kicking your ass.”

Peepo shrugged. “The situation is fluid.”

The sounds of explosions echoed over the link, and Peepo got a pained expression for the first time. A pair of MinSha in heavy combat armor moved in from either side to stand at the ends of the desk, powerful laser rifles held ready. The trooper’s helmets were closed, their multifaceted eyes glowing slightly red in the office’s illumination. The chittering of more MinSha were audible elsewhere in the office.

“That would be Cartwright’s Cavaliers downstairs preparing to have a little talk with you,” Alexis said, a huge grin on her face. Her expression then became somber as she continued, “Your fleet is defeated, we hold São Paulo starport, and will have Houston shortly. In a few more minutes the Cavaliers will be at your door.”

“What exactly do they intend to do when they get here?” Peepo asked, no real sign of concern in her voice. Peepo’s English was polished with a decidedly American accent after decades of dealing with Human mercs from that country.

“Why, take you into custody for crimes against humanity.”

“Preposterous,” Peepo snapped. “You Humans are guilty of innumerable crimes. I am here to enforce the Mercenary Guild’s lawful orders.”

“What’s lawful is determined by who can enforce that law.”

There was a thunderous crash on Peepo’s end, and her eyes got wide for just a second. “The outcome will be unchanged if you take me,” she said quickly. “Whatever you hope to accomplish by my capture, it will be a waste of lives.”

“A waste of lives,” Alexis said and nodded. “That’s why I’m talking to you now. We’re offering you a temporary cease fire.”

“Why?” Peepo asked, her eyes narrowing and whiskers twitching in suspicion.

“So we can talk,” Alexis said. “You are effectively held hostage by our forces. Any attempt to take off, and those seven Raknar will end your miserable life. I’ll come down myself—to you—so we can hold discussions.” Paka looked at Alexis. Being a Veetanho herself, she looked a lot like Peepo, including the look of surprise. She gave a little shake of her head, silently saying This is a bad idea. Alexis gave her XO a calming smile.

“Just you,” Peepo said, agreeing to the idea quicker than Alexis expected.

Maybe her forces are in worse shape than we believe, she thought. “Yes, just me. If you agree to a cease fire.”

“You cannot land or recover forces during the cease fire,” Peepo said.

“Medical evacuations need to be allowed,” Alexis said.

“Very well, for both sides.”

“Agreed.”

 “Then I will call a cease fire immediately,” Peepo said. “For six hours or the duration of our negotiations.”

“Done.” Alexis used her pinplants to transmit the update to all Hussars forces, and relayed it to the other Horsemen and the smaller merc units on Earth.

Peepo closed her eyes for a second then opened them again. “Done.”

Alexis looked at Abby. The woman used her pinplants and examined her various small Tri-V displays. After a second, she looked at Alexis and nodded. “We are getting reports of a cessation of hostilities by all enemy forces.”

“Excellent,” Alexis said and looked back at Peepo. “I’ll be down in less than an hour.”

“That is acceptable,” Peepo said, then turned her head looking at Paka floating just behind Alexis. “And you—you are a traitor to your race.”

The word traitor was spat like a rat facing a predator. Paka jerked as if she’d been physically struck. It took her several seconds to reply. By the time she did, she was shaking with fury. “Is that so?” She turned to her captain. “I will fly you down.”

“That isn’t necessary,” Alexis said.

“I want to tell Peepo what I think of her myself.”

“See you soon,” Peepo said, and the transmission terminated.

“Contact the hangar deck,” Paka ordered, “and prepare a shuttle. I’ll be flying the captain down to São Paulo.”

Alexis nodded in resignation. Likely the worst that would happen is she’d have to keep her XO from trying to kill Peepo. She was actually a little relieved to have her closest ally at her back. A year ago, she wouldn’t have thought that Peepo would ever violate a truce. Now? Now she just didn’t know. In an hour, she’d find out.

“Lieutenant Commander Akoo,” she said, addressing Hoot by his proper name.

“Captain?” he replied.

“You have the conn. See you soon.”

* * * * *


Chapter Eighteen


Merc Internment Facility, Lagos, Nigeria, Earth

The first shuttle landed with the ramp already down, and Sansar’s executive officer, Lieutenant Colonel Laverno, strode down it as soon as the shuttle touched down. A second shuttle immediately followed, landing alongside the first in the courtyard.

“Good to see you again, Boss!” Laverno called as Sansar walked over to him.

“Good to be back,” Sansar said. “What have you heard so far?”

“Looks like the landings are going well in São Paulo and Houston, and in several other smaller ones around the globe. In many places, people are rising up against their captors.” He nodded to the mercs who were boarding the shuttle. While they had obviously seen better days, they also had a steely look of determination in their eyes. They wanted payback on the person—no, the alien—who had held them in those conditions. “In fact, I just heard Peepo offered a truce.”

What?

“Yeah, Peepo just offered Alexis Cromwell a ceasefire to negotiate a truce.”

“Do you think it’s legitimate, or is she just stalling for time?”

Laverno shrugged. “No idea, ma’am. Who knows with that Veetanho? She’s never doing what she seems, unless she is because she wants you to think she’s not. Trying to figure her out makes my head hurt. That’s what we have intel people for.”

“And what do they think?”

“They don’t know for sure.”

It was Sansar’s turn to shrug. “In that case, we’ll continue on with the plans, as if hostilities were still underway, aside from actually shooting anyone, until we know more.”

“Sounds good, ma’am.” He indicated the last of the mercs, who were just getting onboard the shuttle. “We’ll get these mercs fed and into some CASPers so they’re ready to fight.” He paused as another thought came to him. “Almost forgot to mention—you’re never going to guess who appeared a little while ago. Out of nowhere, Sinclair’s Scorpions just showed up on-planet. Apparently, the Merc Guild wiped out all their dependents—they’re ready to get into the fight and grab a little payback, too. Their suits don’t have any ammo so we’re going to loan them some of ours until we can get them resupplied.”

“You’re going to take the Scorpions to Elmendorf along with the mercs we just liberated?”

“Yes, ma’am. The CASPers we pre-positioned are still up there in the hangar. We also have a contingent at the Bjorn’s Berserkers hideout. Once we get the mercs you just recovered fed, we’ll link up with Scorpions, grab the CASPers at Elmendorf, and be ready to roll wherever we’re needed. We’ve got the transport to hit anywhere on the planet.”

“Well, you better get on it, then,” Sansar said. “Some of those mercs probably need some medical attention. And clean clothes…they will definitely need those.”

“We have all that onboard the shuttles, ma’am. We’ll get them patched up and into new uniforms. I even have contracts onboard to make them temporary employees of the Golden Horde, so everything is legitimate in case anyone asks afterward.”

“I like your positivity,” Sansar said with a smile.

“What do you mean?”

“You say ‘afterward’ as if there was never any doubt that we’d win, and we would be around for an accounting.”

Laverno smiled. “There was never any doubt. We’re the Golden Horde. How could we lose?” He saluted, turned, and ran up the ramp into the shuttle, already calling out orders. Within seconds, the ramp retracted, and the shuttles leapt into the air.

Sansar watched as the shuttles quickly became specks and then disappeared completely, only to be replaced by two more dropships arriving and landing in the compound. She nodded once as she reflected on what her XO had said. For the first time in a long time, she finally felt like they could win. It would be nice if Peepo would recognize the obvious—that they were going to re-take Earth—and would work out some kind of settlement. But even if she didn’t capitulate, their victory was almost a foregone conclusion. The Horde would soon have three more companies’ worth of troops to aid in the assault on Houston, if needed, including the ones she had with her.

“All right, everyone, into the dropships,” she said as the ramps came down. “I want to be in position in Houston if the ceasefire fails.”

* * *

Houston Starport, Houston, Texas

Nigel hoped by staying high that he could reach the reinforcing Besquith troops before the aliens saw his forces. It didn’t happen as the aliens had an anti-aircraft vehicle as part of the group, and Nigel’s missile warning system began flashing red while they were still a half mile out. With a burst of flames that was easy to see, a missile lifted off from below, and—nearly as one—eighty pairs of eyes turned and looked up at them.

“Troops with rockets—take out that damn anti-aircraft system now!” Nigel ordered as the missile blew up down the line of troopers, killing a member of Second Platoon.

The antiaircraft gun on top of the vehicle came to life, spitting 30mm rounds, as a second missile lifted off. The vehicle was destroyed by return fire from three of Asbaran’s troopers, but not before a second member of Second Platoon was blasted from the sky.

“We’re easy targets up here,” Nigel said as guns on the four APCs started rotating in their direction. “Everyone land!”

Nigel dropped to the ground, followed by most of the company, and he raced toward the Besquith troopers. Most were still firing into the sky, and he shot one of the wolves before they realized he had landed. A rocket slammed into one of the APCs, and he checked his battlefield display. Several of his rocketeers had stayed airborne and were trading fire with the APCs. A second APC blew up as troopers poured from it. At the same time, another trooper’s icon went red.

“Attack!” Nigel yelled. He would make their sacrifice worthwhile. His blade snapped down on his right arm, and he drew his pistol with his left as he raced forward, his troops at his side. He reached the Besquith troopers as the last APC exploded, followed quickly by the last rocketeer being blown from the sky, then he was into the enemy mercs and too busy to watch anything but the next Besquith trying to kill him.

The Besquith were traveling in a column four-wide. Nigel triggered his jumpjets just as they hit the enemy formation, and he crashed down on the first alien in the left column and bowled over the next several before running out of momentum. Then he was up and in motion, the Mk 9 CASPer more fluid and responsive than any mech he’d ever piloted.

A thrust through an armored chest, followed by a spin to pull the blade out, ended in a pistol shot to the face of the next opponent. A yellow light appeared on his monitor. He ignored it and shot the next Besquith. Red lights appeared. He ignored them, losing himself in his dance of death. The pistol went dry; he dropped it, and his left arm blade shot out.

His right knee locked up, hindering him, so he compensated with bursts from his jumpjets, jumping forward to impale and backward to disengage, landing on his foes when he could. More red lights only caused him to fight more furiously.

Motion to his side, and he swung his right blade, the left one having broken off at some point—he couldn’t remember when. A metallic figure off to one side swept away his blow with its arm blade. Dimly he recognized the CASPer as “friend” and spun away to attack the next Besquith. After a few seconds of spinning around and looking for the next target he saw there weren’t any, and he slowly came back to himself. He realized the voice in the back of his head he was ignoring wasn’t his conscience, but a voice talking to him.

“Colonel Shirazi, sir!” First Sergeant Thomas Mason, his senior enlisted, yelled over the laser link. “It’s over!”

Nigel blinked several times, then asked, “What?”

“The attack,” Mason said. “Peepo and Alexis just called a ceasefire in place. We tried to call you, but you didn’t answer.” He pointed to the carnage surrounding Nigel. “Apparently you were too busy to notice? Or was it that you just didn’t want to stop?”

“Where’s the—” Nigel had started to ask where the rest of the company was, but then he’d realized the mutilated and mangled wrecks of a company’s worth of CASPers—all the Mk 9s he had—were intermingled with the bodies of about three companies-worth of Besquith. He alone had survived. “Where’s the rest of our troops?”

“They’re back at the hangar trying to dig in, so we’ll be ready in case the ceasefire collapses.” His voice changed, becoming softer. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” Nigel said. He felt…Is this what being ashamed felt like? If so, he didn’t like it. He remembered going into battle knowing the odds were against them, knowing he needed to keep the Besquith reinforcements from reaching the main body of his troops. He had stopped them…but at the cost of his entire company of troops and all of the new Mk 9 suits. There must have been a better way—something else he could have tried. He could have—no, he should have done better.

“I…I lost myself,” Nigel added, realizing that’s where the feelings came from. People were counting on him to keep his head and make rational decisions, not to give in to some sort of berserker lust for battle. “I haven’t had that happen since I was a child…”

“Is your suit okay?” Mason asked. “From out here, I have to say it looks like shit. I think your right leg is out, if nothing else. And you’re going to need a high-pressure hose to clean off the gore; it’s probably in all your joints.”

Nigel focused on the icons on his display, intentionally ignoring the forty-two red icons denoting the troops laying all around him. The only weapon that wasn’t red was the right arm blade, and as he looked at it, he could see it was bent and had a number of nicks in it. His right leg had locked in maintenance mode, and his CASPer only had a few systems still in the green; most were yellow, and there were far more in the red than green. And he was out of jump juice.

“This suit is pretty trashed,” he finally admitted. “I’m out of jump juice, too.”

“Well, let’s see if we can reclaim one of the other ones here,” Mason said. “Doesn’t look like anyone in Alpha Company is going to need theirs anymore. Let’s get you into a new one and get back to the hangar while the peace holds. There are enemy mercs all around our position. The Horde is sending some folks, but we’ll have to manage until they get here.”

* * *

The Raknar Fist, São Paulo Starport, Brazil, Earth

Jim lay suspended in the harness aboard his Raknar, shivering from the after-effects of Akee and being submerged in alien goo for hours. It didn’t usually feel like this, but, of course, he’d never spent time in Zha Akee participating in actual combat before. Like usual, his detailed memory was foggy on exactly what he’d done, and it forced him to use his pinplants to run back recordings.

“Holy fucking hell,” he gasped as São Paulo’s starport tank farm went up in a non-nuclear—yet very convincing—mushroom cloud. How many civilians just died, he wondered. Over his shoulder on her customary perch, Splunk was munching a meat snack and talking. Jim was glad Alexis had managed the ceasefire.

One of the most recent additions to the Raknar cockpit was a series of small Tri-Vs. The 3D projection displays were ubiquitous in CASPers; one created a virtual environment in front of the operator’s face in all models from Mk 5 through Mk 8 so the operator wasn’t in danger of catching a round through a viewport. The Mk 9 didn’t need it; they were operated entirely through pinplants. The Raknar operated via dozens of sensors that combined data and projected it into the driver’s brain, sort of like the pinplants in CASPers, only infinitely more detailed. During Akee, the driver didn’t feel like they were in the Raknar, they joined with their Fae and they were the Raknar.

Jim moved over a few centimeters and saw Splunk talking with another Fae, or rather Dusman. It looked like Peanut, who was Ensign Fenn’s partner. He recalled seeing Splunk with Peanut a lot during the time since he’d returned from their trip, and that her friend was a male. He watched her mannerisms closer and for the first time saw more than friendship.

Holy shit, he thought, he’s her boyfriend! A bittersweet smile crossed his face. Despite the betrayal, he missed the intimacy he’d had with Adayn. It had all been so good, before it became so bad. With an effort, he pulled his thoughts away.

“Mays, you there?” he sent on the radio.

“Yeah,” Mays replied, amidst a number of grunting and banging sounds.

“Any luck with the repairs?”

“Some,” he said. “These legs are surprisingly crowded for a 30-meter-tall machine. Aura is down in the housing trying to weld together a temporary fix.”

Jim nodded. May’s Raknar was still operational for short jumps with one of its two thrusters out in that leg, though only just barely. The mecha were designed by the Dusman—that much was obvious—as many of the serviceways and access shafts only fit their tiny frames. The Human operators could help, though. Jim tried to imagine the Lumar wedging their huge bodies down there, and couldn’t. He guessed they would just stay in the torso, mostly.

“Do the best you can,” Jim said, “but don’t take too long. This ceasefire might not last long once negotiations begin.”

* * *

EMS Pegasus, Hangar Deck, Geosynchronous Orbit, Earth, Sol System

Alexis floated into the hangar and waited while her crew prepped a shuttle. During combat operations, the hangar was only used for drone launch, recovery, and rearming, and it had taken the flight ops team every minute available to get a shuttle ready. The deck officer floated over as soon as she and Paka entered from the lock.

“Captain,” Ensign Lana Eastman said, “the shuttle is almost ready.”

“Any problems?” Paka asked.

“No, XO,” Ensign Eastman said. “The hangar deck reaction mass tanks are low from operations, so it took an extra minute to transfer some in from main tankage.”

Alexis nodded and watched the hangar crew work. Four Humans, two elSha, and a Jeha worked together without concern for what species the others were. This was the dream of the earliest Winged Hussars commanders; she doubted it was Peepo’s dream. More than anything else, she hoped by talking to the Veetanho merc commander they might find out why this war was happening and how to stop it.

Ensign Eastman waved to her then pointed at the shuttle before saluting—the shuttle was ready. Alexis returned the salute and, with her XO, floated across the hangar deck toward the craft. Paka entered first while Alexis looked at the crew, who were all watching her. Nobody said anything, though she knew what they were likely thinking: I hope she can pull this off. She hoped she could, too.

Paka took the pilot station, Alexis the copilot. There were a dozen empty couches in the back as the shuttle was configured for passengers. As they went forward, Alexis noted a pair of survival bags stowed just behind the cockpit. As usual, the hangar deck crew were on their game.

Alexis and Paka were both in uniform. Alexis wore her black jumpsuit with gold stripes and a golden eagle on her epaulet, while Paka wore the common Veetanho onboard clothing—a loose-fitting vest trimmed in gold with a silver oak leaf on the collar. Paka also had an equipment bandolier holding some tools and a sidearm. Alexis wore a simple belt with a holstered slate and sidearm. She fully expected to be disarmed before meeting General Peepo, but that didn’t mean she’d be helpless.

Shuttle One, prepare for hangar deck decompression,” the hangar deck pri-fly, or primary flight controller, announced.

“Ready for vacuum,” Paka answered. There was a whooshing sound as the atmosphere was sucked out of the deck. It quickly tapered off as the air pressure became too low to convey sound. The hull gave a few pops and creaks as the pressure dropped. “We show relative zero,” Paka said.

“Roger that,” pri-fly responded. “Equalizing.” A valve opened and what air couldn’t be sucked out was lost to space. “Equalized, we are opening the hangar bay doors.” One of the four ten-meter-wide doors slid into the deck below and a half circle of Earth became visible. “Shuttle One, releasing clamps.” A bong! announced the cessation of magnetic conductance and the shuttle floated upward.

Paka immediately used her thrusters to stop the movement and push them toward the exit. “Pri-fly, Shuttle One, we are in the black.”

“Acknowledged, Shuttle One, safe flight.”

As soon as they’d come aboard, Alexis had linked with the shuttle’s computers via her pinplants. Using the shuttles’ numerous cameras, she watched as the view of her home, EMS Pegasus, slowly came into view. It started with the hangar deck, then more and more of the cigar-shaped ship came into focus. Various scorch marks and scars were visible; blemishes on the Egleesius-class vessel were like beauty marks on a mature woman. The ship was home to her earliest memories, and so iconic to the Hussars as to be recognizable almost anywhere in the galaxy.

When the bow of Shadowfax came into view, she was jolted back to the present. Pegasus was no longer the only Egleesius-class ship in the Hussars, but one of five. The shuttle banked and eventually all of Pegasus’ sister ships were visible, the blunted point of their bows pointing toward the western hemisphere of Earth, 35,000 kilometers below. Down where thousands of Humans were fighting to take back their world.

From reports she’d heard, some were also fighting to keep the aliens in charge. Entropy, she thought, why did I have to wait until now to first set foot on my race’s home world?

<Why did you wait until now?> Ghost asked.

“I really don’t know,” she admitted. Her mother had been to Earth and had visited the blue world during Alexis and Katrina’s lifetime. She vividly remembered her mother telling them a story about how her Jeha chief engineer was nearly attacked by a group of Humans at the Saint Petersburg starport. Attacked because he was an alien. Maybe that was the day she decided Earth wasn’t a place she wanted to visit.

“Atmospheric interface in five minutes,” Paka said.

Alexis glanced at the rear camera view. The five Egleesius ships were tiny elongated shapes. She only knew which ship was Pegasus by its position in the formation. In minutes they would be too far away to tell. There was a bump from behind the cockpit, and she used the interior camera to look. One of the survival packs had floated loose.

“That could be a problem,” Alexis said.

“I’ve got it,” Paka replied. She unclipped from her seat and gracefully pushed to the rear of the cockpit. Alexis took the controls.

* * *

Elmendorf Field, Anchorage, Alaska, Earth

The six shuttles landed on the pad in front of the large hangar at exactly the time the Varangian Guard had been told they would, and Kayla Hanson shook her head. The Merc Guild had to have someone inside the Human’s organization. How else would they have known when to expect them?

The Varangian Guard had arrived at the field earlier in the day and had been waiting in the next hangar over so they didn’t spook the shuttles. Once everyone had disembarked, the plan was for the Guard troopers in their CASPers to swoop in on the people and capture them for questioning. The goal was to take them peacefully, with no shots fired, but force was authorized, if necessary, to bring them in. Or if they tried to escape—that was not to be allowed.

A large Tri-V had been mounted on the wall with several cameras positioned outside to give numerous views of the people getting off the shuttle. If Hanson hadn’t known any better, she’d have said that the people looked guilty of something, based on their body language. The first few people off the back of two of the shuttles looked around suspiciously, with the practiced eyes of mercs. One of the cameras zoomed in, and she could see a scorpion patch on the sleeve of one of the men. Sinclair’s Scorpions. She had heard of them but never worked with them. They had a good reputation.

Hanson’s eyebrows knit. The Scorpions were one of the units that made it off-planet. How did they get back? What were they doing here? The Guard hadn’t been told, but it was obviously something important if six shuttles of mercs had arrived to get it.

As the camera shifted, she drew a sharp breath—walking down the ramp of one of the other shuttles was the Golden Horde’s XO, Lieutenant Colonel Laverno. She recognized most of the people debarking from that shuttle, as well as the shuttle next to it. If the Horde and the Scorpions were here, it was more than just “important”; their mission was something vital to the safety and success of Earth.

She had to do something.

But what? She only had seconds before the Varangian Guard swept out the doors and grabbed them…and she doubted the Horde members, at least, would allow themselves to be captured without a fight. If they were doing something important, they would do everything in their power to complete their mission. Looking closer, she could see they were all armed. This was going to be ugly. And bloody. Very, very bloody.

She initiated a private laser link to Staff Sergeant Decker’s suit. “We have to stop this,” she said.

“What do you mean?” Decker asked. “Stop what?”

“Half those people out there are Golden Horde!” Hanson replied. “I know them! If they’re here, this is a mission of the greatest importance to Earth. We have to help them!”

“You’ve got to be kidding me! Are you crazy? With all the Besquith here, and right as we’re about to charge out and snatch them all, you want me to…what? Kill all the Besquith and let them go? What about the rest of the Varangian Guard? What do you think they’ll be doing?”

“Well, your squad will do pretty much anything you tell them. They’re all a bunch of newbies who are too afraid of you to say anything. If you can get the company commander to go along with it, we can wipe out the Besquith and help the Horde do whatever it is they’re here to do.”

“I don’t think there’s any way he’ll go along with it. He’s advanced rapidly under the new management, and he’s done that by doing everything Peepo says as soon as she says it. Helping your friends will mean throwing away everything he’s done, and I don’t see it happening.”

“Well, can I ask him? Maybe if I tell him how important this is to humanity, he’ll see that there are more opportunities with us than by fighting for the Merc Guild.”

“You can do what you want,” Decker said. “If you can get him to go along with it, I’m in. Otherwise, I’m going to do what I’m told. I’ve got family to look out for.”

“Fine!” Hanson replied. “Thanks for nothing. Just when I thought you actually had a backbone under that wussy Varangian Guard front. I’ll do it myself.”

“That’s enough,” a large Besquith wearing first sergeant’s stripes said, stepping in front of Hanson’s CASPer. Two more Besquith flanked him, one on each side, with one pointing a laser rifle at Hanson and the other at Decker. “We’ve been listening to your conversation, and I think your sedition has gone on far enough already, without implicating anyone else.”

“Hey!” Decker said. “If you’ve been listening, then you know I didn’t agree to help her!”

“I know that you also didn’t do what you should have,” the Besquith said.

“What’s that?” Decker asked. “Report her? I was just about to do that.”

“No,” the Besquith said, raising his own rifle to point it at Decker, “you should have killed her, like this.” He fired, and the laser bolt hit Decker’s CASPer before he could flip open his shield. The Besquith was obviously familiar with CASPers—the beam drilled through Decker’s head. The CASPer took a step backward then crumpled as Decker slumped.

“There’s only one end for treason,” the Besquith said, turning to Hanson.

Her left arm started to come up as she deployed her laser shield. But the Besquith was faster, and his laser beam went through the front of her suit and through her chest as she began a dive to the left. The dive turned into an uncoordinated slide as the laser severed her spine and she lost control of her motor functions. As everything faded to black, she triggered a sustained blast from her MAC.

* * *

“Entropy!” First Sergeant Gal-An swore, diving to the side as the CASPer’s MAC fired. He picked himself back off the floor and turned to find the rounds had hit one of his troopers and removed his head. Worse, the rounds had gone through the wall of the hangar on the side where the Humans had just landed.

A quick glance at the Tri-V confirmed his suspicion—nearly all of the Humans outside had recognized the sound of the MAC firing and were now sprinting for the hangar.

“Quickly!” he roared as one of the dropships started to lift. “Outside! Shoot down any of the dropships that try to flee!”

The Varangian Guard mechas joined his troops as they raced for the hangar doors. Some of the Humans showed a little more initiative, deploying their arm blades to cut the thin metal of the hangar before slamming their CASPers through. He followed one of the CASPers through the gap it had made in time to see the third dropship lifting. Missiles were already flying off the rails from a number of CASPers, and within seconds, all three of the airborne craft were hit and tumbling to the ground. Several other CASPers surrounded the other dropships, and the pilots shut down their engines.

“What do you want us to do?” the Human captain in charge of one of the CASPer companies asked on the command frequency. “We’re starting to take fire from the hangar, and if they get to the CASPers inside it, we could have a real fight on our hands.”

“There is no reason to worry,” Gal-An replied. “Peepo had the suits removed a week ago. All the people in the hangar are, right now, probably looking at each other with fear in their eyes, knowing that they’ve been outplayed.”

“So, what do you want us to do?” the captain asked again. From the tone of his voice, he didn’t find taunting their prey to be as much fun as Gal-An did.

“What do I want you to do?” Gal-An repeated. “I don’t want you to do anything except watch what ultimately happens to all of Peepo’s foes. She gave them the opportunity to turn themselves in, and they refused. Now the time has come to dispense justice. I said the people in the building would be afraid; it is now time to put their minds at ease.”

Gal-An pulled a transmitter from his utility belt, armed it, and pushed the button triggering the device. The explosives hidden in the hangar detonated with a force that pushed back some of the Besquith and CASPers on the line who were too close. As the smoke cleared, Gal-An could see his explosives experts had done their job efficiently. The entire hangar had been leveled.

“I doubt anyone survived that blast,” he said, waving his troops and the CASPers forward, “but let’s go make sure now, shall we?”

* * *

Shuttle One, Descending to Earth, Sol System

“Captain!” Abby Smith called from Pegasus. “Combat is breaking out again in Alaska!”

“Isolated?” Alexis asked.

“No, a Golden Horde company and all the mercs they recovered from the internment facility were just slaughtered, along with a company of Sinclair’s Scorpions!”

Alexis cursed and changed frequencies to the one Peepo had used. “General Peepo, we’re getting reports of an attack against our forces in Alaska. What’s the meaning of this?”

“I’ll have to talk to that commander,” Peepo said. “They jumped the gun, as you Humans are fond of saying.”

Alexis felt her blood run cold. “What the fuck does that mean?” she demanded. The connection with Peepo was cut at the other end.

“Attacks across all fronts!” Abby yelled. “The Merc Guild has reinitiated hostilities in Houston and São Paulo as well!”

“We have contacts,” Flipper cut in. “Dozens of, ships lifting off the surface of the moon.”

“How is that possible?” Alexis asked. “Even though the lunar settlements were largely evacuated, there were observers who would have told us.”

“We’ve lost contact with all those observation posts. All of them…at the same time.”

<At some point they were taken and replaced with enemy forces,> Ghost said. <The threat force from the moon includes multiple battleships and carriers.>

“What race are they?” Alexis asked, afraid she already knew the answer.

<Izlian.>

Alexis used her pinplants to rapidly examine her shuttle’s course at the same time she transmitted to Pegasus. “Hoot, prepare to maneuver. Xander, get a threat assessment underway and prepare to alter orders to the entire fleet.”

In her pinplants she could see the CIC on Pegasus as her command crew flew into action. The calculations finished, and there was just enough delta-V to avoid atmospheric entry on the shuttle and move toward rendezvous with Pegasus, but the Gs would be bad. “Paka, what’s taking so long! Get up here, we have to boost hard.” The hairs on the back of her neck suddenly stood up, and she started to turn. The deafening roar of a gunshot stunned her ears, and an inconceivable pain tore into her back.

“Gahk,” she cried, trying to move, but she couldn’t seem to make her limbs work. She tried to yell; instead, she coughed violently, and bright red blood sprayed from her lips. The lights in the cockpit seemed to dim as she turned her head and saw Paka holding a smoking gun, braced against the door with her back and her other hand. “But…” she started to say, and darkness fell.

* * * * *


Chapter Nineteen


EMS Pegasus, Geosynchronous Orbit, Earth

The CIC was alive with activity as Pegasus’ crew jolted into motion. Fusion plants began to move toward peak output, and shields were maximized. A corner of the Tri-V showed Colonel Alexis Cromwell in the cockpit of her shuttle giving orders from the camera at the back of the cockpit.

“Hoot, prepare to maneuver,” she ordered. “Xander, get a threat assessment underway and prepare to alter orders to the entire fleet.”

“Roger that,” Hoot said, now wearing the hat as temporary commanding officer. He heard Alexis call for Paka and looked up just as the bullet struck Alexis in the back. There was a gasp and a scream in the CIC. Alexis cried out and flailed, looking over her shoulder with bright blood flowing from her mouth. She only managed a single word.

“But…” before a clawed hand grabbed the camera and turned it to show Paka, a gun in one hand and a look of intense anger on her face.

“Your commander is dead,” she said, “surrender.” And then all comms from the shuttle were severed.

“Can we scramble marines to intercept that shuttle?” Hoot asked. Nobody answered. He could hear someone crying, probably Human. “Hussars!” he snapped. Everyone turned to look at him. “Can we intercept it?”

The helmsman Pleek shook her head. “No,” she said.

“Very well,” Hoot replied, shaking his head and ruffling his feathers in a full-body motion. “Xander, destroy that shuttle.”

“What?” Xander barked. “Are you crazy?”

“I’m in command now, Lieutenant!” Hoot replied, snapping his beak for emphasis. “I will not let our commander’s murderer get away. Take that shuttle under fire and destroy it!

Xander wiped tears from her eyes. “But…”

“God damn it, Xander,” Abby said, also crying, “don’t make this any fucking worse than it already is!”

Xander looked from Abby to Hoot and gave a single gasping exhalation. “Preparing to fire,” she said.

“To Entropy with you, Paka,” Hoot said. But nothing happened. “Why haven’t we fired?”

Xander looked up from her board, grief changing to confusion. “Weapons not responding.”

“We’re coming under power!” Pleek said. “Orbit is being altered.”

“Who’s doing it?” Hoot demanded.

“I don’t know!”

As Hoot watched in furious impotence, the shuttle carrying her commander’s body fell into Earth’s atmosphere and disappeared, the ionization blocking their sensors.

* * *

Micky Finn Hangar, Houston Starport, Houston, Texas

The dropships landed alongside the hangar, and Nigel watched as the Golden Horde troops marched out warily. Although the ceasefire was still in place—and they were wearing their CASPers—it never hurt to be careful. There were plenty of mercs through the years who’d thought they were walking into a situation where a ceasefire was in place, only to find out—to their detriment—that hostilities had again broken out.

He jogged out to meet Sansar. “Good to see you,” he said. “I guess your assault went well?”

“Better than yours, apparently,” she replied. “Where’s your CASPer?”

“It’s being repaired.” He could feel his face going red. “There were troops waiting for us here, and we took a lot of losses.” He shrugged and moved on. “There are still are a lot of Merc Guild troops here, so it’s really good to see you. It looked like they were trying to trap us here—they let us land, but then tried to hit us from all sides.”

“Yeah, the Merc Guild had some surprises for us, too,” Sansar replied. “Still, we got through it all right and recovered about forty mercs. My XO is getting them patched up and into CASPers, along with a contingent of Sinclair’s Scorpions, which showed up unexpectedly. We should have another three to four companies of CASPers here shortly. Between what you’ve got here, my folks with me, and what we’ve got coming, we’ll kick the shit out of anything the Merc Guild—”

She cut off suddenly, as if receiving a transmission, and Nigel waited patiently.

“Shit!” she exclaimed. “They just hit our forces in Alaska, and it looks like they wiped them out! Not captured—they wiped them all out without warning. Most of them weren’t even armed, and they just slaughtered them like animals!”

Nigel heard his pickets reporting in—the enemy forces were moving and had taken them under fire.

“Those motherless sons of goat fuckers!” Nigel said with a snarl. “Dishonorable bastards! It sounds like they broke the ceasefire everywhere—my pickets are saying they’re taking fire.”

“Where do you want my people?” Sansar asked, ever practical.

“We broke the forces to the north, so we should be good there for a while. Take your forces to the south end of the hangar and coordinate with my XO, Colonel Valenti. I need my CASPer.”

Nigel turned and sprinted to the hangar as the Horde’s CASPers marched off toward the south. Nigel could hear weapons firing from that direction, and the sounds quickly grew more and more frantic.

He raced into the hangar and found one of the techs still working on the Mk 9 he had replaced his original with. “Is it ready?” he asked as he climbed up and into the running mech. It didn’t fit, exactly, as the original driver had been a little shorter than Nigel, but at least the cockpit was now clean; he didn’t have to get Private Johanson’s blood all over him.

“Not yet, sir,” the tech replied. “It’s been rearmed, but the jump juice reservoirs are only about half full. It’s also only got a sword blade on the right arm; we haven’t found one for the left yet, and I know you like to have one on each arm.”

“The ceasefire is over; I’ll take it,” Nigel said. He closed the canopy and connected the leads to his pinplants, but he was instantly overwhelmed by the amount of traffic on the networks—everyone seemed to be shouting at everyone else, with no one really in charge.

He turned off the non-Asbaran networks for the moment and mentally toggled the command override. “Valenti, report!” he ordered. “Everyone else, shut the fuck up!”

The tech moved to the side as Nigel ran past.

“I don’t know where the armor went, but we’ve got Torts and Flats coming from the south,” Valenti said. “They’re massing at the Hellcats’ hangar, but so far they’re only probing our forces. Nothing from the west on the tarmac, and nothing, yet, on the perimeter road to the east. I have people watching that in case they try to flank us. The north is quiet; apparently, they were counting on the Besquith to hit us, and they may have sent the missing armor there to cover that gap. The Horde forces are online and integrated. We’ve got enough to hold out against what we’re currently facing.”

“What forces do you have in reserve?”

“The Bold Warriors and the Proud Fists.”

“Perfect. Major Sulda, Major Gage, meet me with your forces at the north end of the Micky Finn hangar.”

“We come,” Sulda replied.

“On the way,” Gage added.

“What’s your plan?” Valenti asked.

“What do Tortantulas and Flatar do when told to attack?” Nigel asked.

“They charge,” Valenti replied. “Why?”

“Exactly, and the only reason they haven’t hit us so far is that they must be waiting for other forces—maybe that armor you mentioned—to support them. When they figure out that it isn’t coming, or another force shows up to support them, they will charge.”

“Makes sense,” Valenti replied.

“But they are going to fail.”

“Why’s that?”

Nigel smiled as the Lumar formed up in front of him. “Because we’re going to do it to them first.”

* * *

The Raknar Fist, São Paulo Starport, Brazil, Earth

Jim had been observing the shuttle transmissions with his command circuit as the shuttle fell toward him from above. He was hopeful Alexis could end the war, and that hope warred with his internal desires. The desire to Akee with Splunk and utterly destroy his enemies.

Tactical transmissions were coming in from all over the planet. Status of unit movements during the ceasefire. He’d checked on his Cavaliers, talked to Hargrave for a moment, and was just waiting, now. Waiting until the report of the attack in Alaska.

Splunk on her perch looked up from talking with Peanut, her eyes narrowing. “Fighting starting, <Cheek!>

“Looks like it,” Jim agreed. He heard and saw Alexis in his pinplants, and watched her die in stunned disbelief. He shook his head in confusion. What did I just see? It couldn’t have been what he thought he saw. The command channel of the Winged Hussars was going insane, and fighting was going on everywhere, including in the SOGA building occupied by his Cavaliers.

Akee,” he said and settled back. Splunk reached out and Zha Akee enfolded him.

“Deceit,” Jim/Splunk hissed. For a moment he almost unleashed missiles on the headquarters building where the deceiver was hiding. Allies there, the part that was Jim reminded them. Little Konar.

In Zha Akee, they could see the battalions to the north were beginning to move. Drones were taking off from hidden locations. They meant to deceive? Fine, the Fist meant to kill.

THREAT FROM ORBIT!

Jim/Splunk spun their awareness up, up, up into orbit. One of the orbital defense platforms which was dead when they arrived was now anything but. Huge fusion spikes were now apparent.

“Everyone, move!” Jim/Splunk ordered.

“Hurry!” he heard Mays yell over their internal radio. Aura had still been working when everything changed. Jim/Splunk silently urged her from afar. The Raknar’s sensors screamed warning and everyone fired jumpjets. Everyone but Mays/Aura, because they weren’t in Zha Akee.

A brilliant beam of incandescent light connected space to earth, intersecting Mays and Aura’s Raknar where it stood, unmoving. The light consumed it in a ball of particle fire.

“Noooooo!” they screamed as one in Zha Akee.

Curran/Dante roared in rage; their particle accelerator snapped up and began to fire. Craack, Craack, Craack! The barrel glowed orange, red, then white hot as they pushed the weapon to its maximum. In orbit, the defense platform, caught completely off guard by the multi-terawatt particle beam, was hulled over and over again. The fourth shot stuck one of the station’s oversized fusion plants and ruptured its containment, turning the entire station into a growing ball of plasma.

A furious wave of short-range missiles rolled in on the Raknar, and the six surviving mechs spun and raised their shields. The missiles detonated in a wave of destruction, walking in and over the mecha. Damage was caused. Then their sensors picked up high-power spikes from several skyscrapers overlooking the starport, several kilometers to the south. Fixed particle cannon, and they were in the open.

“Powered shields,” Jim/Splunk said. All six Raknar turned to the south and raised their shielded arms again, this time channeling gigawatts of energy into the newly installed miniature shield generators. Particle beams lashed out at what they thought were unprepared targets and hit the shield generators provided by Bjorn’s Berserkers. At ten gigawatts each, the beams were absorbed by the shields in brilliant flashes of energy.

The incoming fire stopped. The six Raknar lowered their shields and returned fire. Curran/Dante with their somewhat-reduced-power particle beam, the rest with short-range rocket pods built into the Raknar’s shoulders. The particle beam operators were still recharging their weapons when the buildings were hit by the particle beams and high explosive rockets, completely destroying every building within a kilometer, regardless of whether it had harbored a weapon or not.

Tanks hidden in parking garages and starport hangars came to life and began to move out to engage the Raknar.

“Wreck it all!” Jim/Splunk growled and let the song of oblivion take them.

* * *

SOGA HQ, São Paulo, Brazil, Earth

“Tortantula coming up the outside walls!” Captain Wolf, the Charlie Company commander, called.

Hargrave spat in frustration. He’d just been listening to the reports of fighting in Alaska and was hoping it was because someone hadn’t gotten the word. Wolf’s observation put paid to that. Then he heard Alexis murdered over the command channel on his pinplants, and his blood ran cold. It was all a trap.

Outside, a thunderous explosion rolled over the city. Hargrave checked his battlespace and saw where there had been seven Raknar, now there were only six. Oh, no, he thought, and checked the transponders. The one tagged as Dash was still there. Thank God. Then he didn’t have time to think beyond his command.

“Suppressive fire on those spiders,” he ordered Captain Wolf. They were on the ground a kilometer away, holding several alien merc companies prisoner after capturing them in their barracks. “Best you can manage,” he ordered.

“Movement on the ground floor,” Lieutenant Paulson said from his position on the 25th floor, holding their rear.

“God dammit,” Hargrave said, and looked up. They were on the 98th floor, just three floors below Peepo’s office. He needed to act.

“Keep them off my back,” he ordered Paulsen.

“I’ll do the best I can,” Paulsen replied.

Hargrave knew he would. “First Platoon, up we go!” He moved to and crashed through the wall. Behind it was an elevator shaft, an express that only went to the top floor. He fired his jumpjets and rocketed up the elevator shaft. “Let’s end this!”

The fifteen remaining members of his platoon fell in behind him and followed him up the elevator shaft. Hargrave brought his CASPer to a hover at the top, facing an elevator door which said 101 on it. He brought up his chain gun and fired, shredding the door. The instant the door was torn apart, the scouts and friends, Privates Rick and Morty, shot through. They moved so fast Hargrave barely had time to stop firing before they went by.

The hall inside was wide and occupied by a surprised squad of MinSha troopers. The Cavaliers tore into them with miniguns and laser carbines, carving through the aliens and down to the ornate outer office of the former president. Two MinSha in heavy armor opened up with fixed anti-armor lasers. Rick and Morty went down without ever knowing what hit them.

“Grenades!” Hargrave ordered, backpedaling. Sergeant Jesus “Lamb” Ortega and his corporal snatched K-bombs from their suits and lobbed them down the hallway. The screams of the MinSha were audible for a split second before the grenades exploded and blew out the walls for ten meters in all directions.

Hargrave charged down the hallway with Lamb by his side. In one of those fluke situations, a MinSha was still alive, clinging to life. With their trademark stubborn unwillingness to give up, the alien raised a laser carbine and fired. The first shot was shed by the improved laser-resistant armor on Hargrave’s Mk 9 armor. The second went through, and he felt the all-too-familiar icy slice of a laser cutting through his left thigh. The MinSha fired once more before Hargrave’s minigun cut him down. Lamb’s suit took the last shot dead center; it bisected his chest and killed him.

The door to the office was damaged, but still there. Its look of intricate wood was gone, revealing it was really armor covered with an expensive wooden façade.

“Breach it,” Hargrave said, and hobbled aside. His left leg didn’t want to work right. Worse, the nano dispenser was offline. Figures, he thought. The sensation of wetness built on his left foot, meaning he was bleeding badly. Just a few more seconds, and he could use a manual medkit nanite dispenser.

Private Morgan “Dancer” Feldman flipped his heavy laser over his shoulder, set up the shot, and fired several sustained beams. The door might have been reinforced but it wasn’t designed to resist more than a megawatt of coherent laser. In five seconds, the door yielded and fell inward with a floor-shuddering crash. Hargrave hobble/marched into Peepo’s office.

“It’s over,” he said and raised a minigun. Then he stopped. Dancer’s laser had melted the window in places and cut the desk into three pieces. Anyone sitting behind the desk would have been cut into big, messy chunks. Not to mention anyone by the doors or standing next to the desk. But the office was empty.

“What the fuck?” Sergeant Panka asked, stepping up beside Hargrave. “Where is everyone we saw on the broadcast?” Alexis had relayed the brief negotiation to all their forces to avoid confusion. The office and desk were unmistakable, but it was obvious it must have been filmed elsewhere.

“We’ve been duped,” Hargrave said, noticing the office was lined with dozens of large metallic suitcases. All of them were wired to each other. “Mother fuck.”

The building once known as Mirante do Vale, then the SOGA headquarters for the government of Earth, then Peepo’s Office of Occupation, exploded.

* * *

Merc Guild HQ, São Paulo, Brazil, Earth

Peepo smiled as the Tri-V screens showed the Human mercenaries advancing up the building. The only disappointment was that the Cartwright XO led the force up to the SOGA’s office and not Jim Cartwright, himself. It had been a while since she’d bested a Cartwright, who she had always found to be worthy adversaries.

“Blow it,” she said as the XO stumbled into her former office. He was limping as he walked in, and she could see a laser hole in his leg. Obviously, Hargrave was getting slow in his old age.

Her gaze shifted to an exterior view of the building, and she watched as the entire top five floors exploded outward, followed by an equally large explosion at the base of the building as the demolition charges in the basement detonated. The building seemed to collapse in slow motion at first, but gathered speed as it fell. When the dust cloud cleared, only a couple of structural members extended beyond the second floor.

It was a pity she’d had to sacrifice the Tortantulas in the building. She had already paid out more in death benefits for this operation than in the next three put together, and most of it had gone to the Tortantulas. It was wasteful, but, in this case, it had served its purpose. Cartwright’s Cavaliers—another of their vaunted Horsemen—had just been eliminated. Most of the Golden Horde—and what a stupid name that was—had been eliminated in Alaska. The remnants of it, along with Asbaran Solutions, would fall to the combined Besquith, Tortantula, and Flatar forces in Houston. Which just left the Hussars, who had already been decapitated by one of her longest-serving assets. Paka will be well-compensated for her time. Now it was time to destroy the Hussars’ fleet. She was sure its destruction would lead to prisoners, which would lead to the location of their hidden base—her inquisitors could be very persuasive—and that would bring the whole operation to a close, allowing her to concentrate on other issues. It was a tough job, being savior of the galaxy, but someone had to do it. She smiled again. Time to end this.

“Get me a comm channel to Admiral Galantrooka on the New Era,” Peepo said.

“You have it, ma’am,” one of her technical support staff replied seconds later.

“Admiral Galantrooka, are you there?” Peepo asked.

“I am here, General,” the Bakulu admiral replied.

“Good,” Peepo said. “It is time. My skies are full of Hussars, and I would really like to be rid of them. Can you please do something about that?”

“It would be my pleasure,” the admiral replied. “My fleet will be there shortly; we are inbound at maximum acceleration. I have been keeping up with the Humans’ order of battle via the datalink. The pitiful forces the Hussars have won’t be a match for my fleet.”

“Very well,” Peepo said. “We shall see you soon.”

She sat back down, her smile growing, as she waited for the rest of the Humans to be destroyed.

* * * * *

Chapter Twenty


São Paulo Starport, São Paulo, Brazil, Earth

The destruction of the SOGA headquarters building was noted by the Raknar, along with the destruction of a company worth of Konar. The man who was Jim Cartwright didn’t process the information; Jim/Splunk were completely in the moment.

All six Raknar moved, struck, fired weapons, used both arm shields and powered shields, and sowed destruction far and wide.

Kleve/Sandy joined with Fenn/Peanut and Thompson/Shadow, putting the Raknar Fist into two groups of three. Spread a kilometer apart, the two parts of the Fist worked in close concert to crush anything between them.

After the death of Mays/Aura and the orbital defense platform’s obliteration, the battalions to the north began rushing into the starport area. The Raknar didn’t wait to be attacked, they took the battle to them.

Jim/Splunk powered their fusion power plants to maximum, channeling terawatts into their antimatter generator. When they’d fought the Canavar on Talus they’d been missing their preferred weapon. After returning to Upsilon 4, that problem had been solved.

Jim/Splunk’s shoulder-mounted weapon swung up into place. Four grams of antimatter was fed into the modular magazine. They grabbed the magazine from its holder at the waist of the mecha and inserted it into the shoulder mount. The Raknar confirmed loading, and Jim/Splunk fired. The Ia'Kuu fired.

Effectively a highly efficient MAC, the projectile left the barrel with a blast of fire, the round accelerated to twenty times the speed of sound. It traveled down range the five kilometers to the advancing alien mercs in seven tenths of a second, whereupon the magnetic buffers holding the four grams of antimatter shut down and four grams of powdered lead was blown into contact.

The explosion resulting from a high yield matter/antimatter combination of four grams was roughly 250 terajoules, or 60 kilotons. The district known as Guarulhos, along with every living thing for ten kilometers, was atomized. The shockwave reached them ten seconds later. Jim/Splunk was already building up another antimatter charge.

Drones came at them, a hundred at a time. Wave after wave were intercepted by the Raknar’s close-defense lasers. The deadly accurate pulse lasers flashed in all directions, indiscriminately cutting up buildings or anything in their midst as they swatted the drones from the sky. The Raknar were only tangentially aware of the thousands fleeing in all directions, around them or under their feet as they smashed them to paste. Death was everywhere, and in Zha Akee, it only meant they were doing their jobs.

Fenn/Peanut and Kleve/Sandy launched half their complement of long-range missiles, programmed to intercept the drone carriers. They were finally able to locate them: ships grounded 100 kilometers away and disguised as part of an industrial complex. The missiles could have been armed with antimatter warheads, but the drone waves were in danger of overwhelming their close in defenses, so the retaliatory strike was hastened.

Zha Akee warned of imminent loss of orbital superiority. Data from the fleet above showed more than 100 ships lifting from the planet’s only moon, and many of them were battleship class. Without their baffles, the Raknar could not reach orbit.

PROBABILITY OF SURVIVAL BELOW 10% AND FALLING

Jim reached a level of consciousness not normally available during Akee. He forced his will against that of the combined selves and the Raknar. We have to surrender.

No, they all cried, never!

Die now or fight later, Jim thought, and used Zha Akee to show them the alien fleet slowly climbing out of the moon’s modest gravity well. His mind reeled with the resources it must have taken to land battleships on the moon, even under 1/6th of a G. The trap was elaborate. My Cavaliers, he finally thought, and for the first time consciously saw the burning pile of rubble which had been the SOGA headquarters.

Transmitting surrender, he said, and did it without waiting for the others. Splunk, help? For a moment that might have lasted a lifetime, Jim feared she wouldn’t. Then he felt her will join in his, and all the Raknar were shut down.

* * *

Jim gasped and coughed as the alien goo was emergency purged from the cockpit. He’d never come out of Akee while that process was still going on. He wretched hard enough to see spots, coughing the goop out of his lungs. He turned to see Splunk looking at him, a mixture of fear and resignation on her face.

“Get the other Dusman,” he said, “and run.”

“No, <Clee!>” she said with a violent shaking of her head. “I won’t leave you, Jim, <Skaa!>

He released the harness and reached up to touch her rapidly drying brown fur. “You have to. They’ll be coming for us. They won’t destroy the Raknar. Remember the rescue mission? The guild has been trying to figure out Raknar for a long time now. They already have Canavar, we can’t let them have the Raknar. Without the Dusman, they won’t get what they want.”

She looked at him with her bright blue-on-blue eyes and gave a little shake of her head. Then she looked down, and her head sagged in resignation. He was right, and she knew it. Splunk jumped into Jim’s arms, and he hugged her tightly.

“I’ll be okay,” he said, the lie tasting like shit in his mouth. “Don’t let them catch you.”

Splunk disengaged from his embrace and jumped to one side, where she extracted a Dusman-sized pack out of a locker. Still loosely linked with the Raknar, Jim could see the drones were now just circling, and combat troop flyers were lifting off several kilometers away, racing toward them at high speed.

“I’ll be back, <Froo!>” she said, and disappeared through an access hatch, leaving Jim alone.

“Jesus Christ,” he heard Ensign Fenn over the radio, “what did you just do?”

“I saved all our lives,” Jim replied. “Report if your Fae are evacuating?” They all did. “Okay,” he said, “when the enemy comes for you, don’t resist. They’ll want us alive and our Raknar intact.”

“Then what?” Sergeant Kleve asked.

“We survive,” Jim said. His radio suddenly came alive with a weak orbital relay.

“Jim, are you okay?”

“Nigel?” Jim asked, surprised.

“Yes. We have the battle in hand here. What’s your status?”

“Untenable,” Jim said. He heard the sound of Nigel yelling something in Persian to his dropship pilot and getting a reply.

“We can be there via suborbital hop inside of ten minutes.”

“No,” Jim said. His data showed five Hussars battlecruisers skimming the upper atmosphere at a shallow angle. From his piloting experience, he knew how dangerous that was. Those ships could not land, they were all risking a fiery death. Dozens of dropships were lifting off to intercept them—Human mercs fleeing. It was a rout. “One of the Hussars ships will be in position to get you in five minutes. Go.”

“No!” Nigel roared. “I will not leave you behind. No more left behind, I say. No more!”

“Nigel!” Jim yelled back. “You’ve learned so much just since I’ve known you. I…I respect you, Nigel. You’re my friend.”

Momentary silence. “You are my friend as well, Jim Cartwright.”

“Then if you are my friend, you will escape and come back for me later. If you come down here, you will only get yourself captured.” Silence. “If you come down here, your father was right about you.”

“Damn you, Cartwright,” Nigel spat. There was a long pause, and for a second Jim despaired, but then Nigel transmitted again, “Against my better judgement, we’re going for orbit.”

Jim heaved a sigh of relief. “Good man.” The signal broke up for a second.

“You as well, Colonel Cartwright. Khodâ negahdâr—may God protect you. I will see you soon.” He lost the signal. Jim watched the Hussars ships skim the atmosphere. Missiles rose up toward them. While most were swatted down, a few made it through, but the ships continued on their course despite the damage. The data relays began to break up as ships moved out of range, and a troop transport flyer hovered outside his Raknar, hundreds of weapons pointed at the mecha.

Jim laughed. How easy it would have been to swat them from the sky like the insignificant bugs they were. Instead, he climbed from the cockpit, opened the armored door into the smoke-filled light of a ravaged São Paulo, and held his hands high in surrender.

* * *

Micky Finn Hangar, Houston Starport, Houston, Texas

“Bold Warriors are ready,” Major Sulda said.

“The Proud Fists are also ready to go,” Gage added. “What’s the mission?”

“We have been betrayed by the Merc Guild,” Nigel reported. “They have attacked Human forces all across the planet during a ceasefire, and they have killed many honorable warriors. We’re going to show them what happens when they make us angry.”

“Not fighting fair makes Lumar angry,” Sulda said, “and when Bold Warriors get angry, we kill!”

“Good,” Nigel said. “Follow me.” He led the two companies north of the hangar to where his four dropships waited along with the two dropships the Horde had arrived in. He had spoken with his pilots while the Lumar were forming up, and crewmen were waiting at two of them.

“Know where we’re going?” Nigel asked as he jogged up.

“The pilots have the brief, and we’re ready to go,” one of the crewmen said. “As soon as the troops are aboard, we can go.”

“Great!” Nigel exclaimed. “Our window of opportunity on this is probably very small.” He turned to his officers. “Get everyone into the dropships; there’s one for each company. Don’t worry about sitting down—we won’t be traveling far. We’re going to take a page out of history and do a vertical envelopment. You’re now part of the air cavalry.”

Gage smiled as he realized what Nigel was proposing. “I like it, sir.”

Sulda, on the other hand, was confused. “Not understand, sir.”

“That’s okay,” Nigel said. “Get aboard the dropship. I’ll explain it on the way.”

The Lumar quickly got loaded onto the dropships, packing themselves in like sardines. Although it would have been uncomfortable for Humans, the big warriors didn’t seem to mind having their personal space invaded. The craft lifted and flew east, never going more than five feet above the ground, except to pass over the perimeter fence. Nigel briefed the troops as they traveled east and then south along the road. The ramps were left extended, and Nigel took quick glances out the back to track their progress. Having spent a lot of time in the area, he recognized the landmarks as they skirted around the starport.

The pilots dropped to the median between the lanes of traffic, staying behind—or as much as they could, anyway—two large hover trucks as they went about their business. Nigel could see a look of astonishment on the face of one of the truck drivers, but the pilots must have given him some sort of signal because he nodded and sped down the road with the dropship using his truck as cover.

The perimeter road curved back to the west, and the dropships rose slightly, crossed the perimeter fence, and landed behind the Tom’s Total Terrors’ hangar. Nigel jumped down the ramp, and the Lumar followed behind him in a wave. Nigel reached the end of the hangar and paused, not wanting his mech to make any noise that might call attention to their presence. The Bold Warriors went around one side of the hangar, while the Proud Fists went around the other.

“Hit them, Valenti!” Nigel ordered once the Lumar were in position. “Hit them now!”

The Asbaran Solutions and Golden Horde CASPers jumped as one, soaring into the sky to fire down on the Tortantulas, who were much easier targets than the Flatars who rode them. Although the enemy troopers fired at the airborne CASPers, the heavy, mounted weapons on the Tortantulas couldn’t be elevated high enough to be effective. Which meant the Flatar could only use their handheld hypervelocity pistols and the Tortantulas their laser rifles.

Still, Nigel’s troopers weren’t invulnerable to the fire, and one of his troopers fell from the sky as he watched. “Charge!” he ordered the Lumar, and the humanoids raced toward the Hellcats’ hangar in a near solid line abreast. Nigel toggled his jumpjets, roared into the sky, and zoomed toward the enemy line. Although he wanted to fire, he held off so that he didn’t give away the Lumar. They were halfway to the enemy, who were looking to the sky, trying to shoot the CASPers in an oversize duck hunt.

With eyes literally in the back of their heads, it was inevitable the Tortantulas would eventually see the Lumar running toward them, and the enemy began to turn to meet the threat coming from behind.

Nigel triggered his comms. “Now! Firing line. Open fire!”

The Lumar lumbered to a stop and fired at the Tortantulas in a firing line reminiscent of a Revolutionary War British formation. Both sides were horribly exposed, although the Lumar were worse off, and Nigel could see the Lumar start dropping as more of the Tortantulas turned to face them.

“CASPers drop!” Nigel commed. He killed his jumpjets and dropped like a stone into the battle. He turned them on, full force, just before touchdown, roasting a Flatar/Tortantula pair, then slamming to the ground on top of a dismounted Flatar. The rest of the Asbaran and Horde CASPers dropped amid the Merc Guild forces, and the Lumar ran forward, yelling their battle cries as they joined in the melee.

The battle was far more pleasurable this time. The odds were in their favor from the start, and Nigel was able to remain detached as he strode through the mayhem, cutting off spider legs and slicing hypervelocity pistols in half before removing tiny Flatar heads. It wasn’t as satisfying as killing MinSha would have been, but his company was actively engaged in recovering their planet from aliens, and he smiled for no other reason than he had been allowed to participate in it.

God—whichever God you believed in—was good.

* * *

Micky Finn Hangar, Houston Starport, Houston, Texas

“We are surrendering.”

Sansar heard the words, but it took a minute for them to register. Wait, that was Jim’s voice! She shot the Flatar next to her in the head with her MAC—a massive amount of overkill—and stepped out of the melee.

She found Nigel on her system. He didn’t appear to have heard, as he jumped twenty feet into the air to crash down with a burst of flames on a Tortantula’s head.

“Nigel, did you hear that?” she asked.

“What?” he answered after bending over to skewer the Tortantula with his arm blade. The alien collapsed to the ground, and he stepped back from the scrum.

“Jim just transmitted on the emergency comm net that he was surrendering.”

“What?” Nigel asked. “I had that turned off. Just a second.”

He shot a Flatar that got too close, then came up on the net. “Jim, are you okay?”

“Nigel?” Jim asked. He sounded surprised.

“Yes. We have the battle in hand here. What’s your status?”

“Untenable,” Jim said.

Nigel called over the local net. “All pilots, stand by for immediate dust off; destination São Paolo, Brazil. All Asbaran and Horde forces, stand by to disengage.”

“We’re ready,” the lead dropship pilot called. “We can leave immediately. I’m also getting the recall notice from the Pegasus—all forces are withdrawing from Earth.”

“Fuck that. The Cavaliers need help in Brazil. How long will it take to get there?”

“Uh…are you sure, sir? Pegasus was very specific about the fact that we need to leave now, or we’ll get left behind.”

Damn you! I pay you to fly, not to whine like a little baby. How long will it take to get to Brazil?

“Ten minutes, sir.” The pilot sounded cowed.

Nigel came back up on the emergency net. “We can be there via suborbital hop inside of ten minutes.”

“No,” Jim replied. “One of the Hussars ships will be in position to get you in five minutes. Go.”

“No!” Nigel roared. “I will not leave you behind. No more left behind, I say. No more!”

Sansar’s pilots and her intel support began broadcasting the withdrawal message and the fact that they needed to leave now!

The Merc Guild fleet was incoming, and they had an overwhelming amount of ships. The Hussars were good, but they had no chance. They were fleeing. She also heard the call that Alexis was dead and realized Nigel had missed it while his comm net was turned off. There’s no telling what he would do if he knew that, too. She stepped behind Nigel’s CASPer and reached for the canopy jettison handle, ready to blow it and drag him—kicking and screaming, she suspected—from his mech and into the waiting dropships, if that’s what it took.

“Nigel!” Jim yelled back. “You’ve learned so much just since I’ve known you. I…I respect you, Nigel. You’re my friend.”

Nigel’s mech stopped and stood a little straighter. Sansar’s hand rested lightly on the jettison handle; she paused as silence reigned on the net for a moment.

“You are my friend as well, Jim Cartwright,” Nigel finally said. Sansar wrapped her hand around the release, not sure how this was going to go. On her right monitor she could see an Asbaran CASPer approaching, its pilot likely wondering what she was doing behind their commander.

“Then if you are my friend,” Jim said, “you will escape and come back for me later. If you come down here, you will only get yourself captured. If you come down here, your father was right about you.”

“Damn you, Cartwright,” Nigel swore as he jerked into motion. Sansar quickly released the handle and withdrew her hand. “All Asbaran and Horde forces back to the dropships! Follow me!”

Nigel turned and jumped back toward the Tom’s Total Terrors’ hangar, and Sansar instructed her dropships to meet them there. She watched for a second as the troops broke contact and fled to the south, firing twice at alien mercs who looked like they were going to pursue the fleeing CASPers. Most, however, appeared stunned the force that was winning would suddenly turn and flee. After another second, she turned and boosted for the hangar, too.

Nigel touched down, leading the mass of retreating troopers toward the dropships at his fastest pace. “Against my better judgement,” he said, “we’re going for orbit.”

“Good man,” Jim replied.

“You as well, Colonel Cartwright,” Nigel transmitted as he reached the first dropship and began waving his troopers in. “Khodâ negahdâr. I will see you soon.”

Sansar reached her dropship and turned to provide fire support for her troopers as they piled in. The Tortantulas must have had a good leader; the aliens were now in hot pursuit of her forces. The last trooper made it onboard, and she turned and raced up the ramp. “Go! Go! Go!” she yelled.

Motion along the floor of the dropship caught her eye as a large grenade rolled to a stop next to her.

“No!” Staff Sergeant Flint yelled. He grabbed the grenade and threw himself through the gap between the rising ramp and the bulkhead of the dropship as it started to rise. The grenade detonated as he hit the tarmac and his suit’s icon went red.

There was no need to go back; Flint’s monitor showed he was dead. Sansar got a last glimpse of the starport as the ramp closed, and the dropship roared into the heavens. A single CASPer lay on the tarmac where Flint had jumped onto a grenade for her. His death was just one more in a long list of crimes that Peepo would be made to atone for.

It was Sansar’s last view of Earth, this time. But she would be back, and next time, by Blue Sky Above, Peepo would be made to pay. She would find Peepo and kill her. If it was the last thing she did.

* * *

EMS Pegasus, Earth’s Upper Atmosphere, Sol

“How is our profile?” Hoot asked, panic evident in his voice.

“It’s going to be fucking tight!” Pleek yelled. She had to yell to be heard over the roar of Pegasus’ passage through Earth’s ionosphere. The hull was well above 1,000 degrees and climbing. The ancient battlecruiser’s overpowered attitude control thrusters were burning at 110% output to maintain the angle of attack. And through it all, none of the crew were controlling the ship.

God damned AI, Hoot thought. I finally get my first command, and I can’t command a toilet!

<I do not believe in a deity,> a voice said in his head.

Hoot almost jumped out of his feathers. It was like a standard pinlink-to-pinlink comm, but not quite the same. The words were just there, like he’d said them to himself.

Who is this?” he replied in the same manner.

<You know who I am,> the voice replied.

Entropy, Hoot thought. The Ghost.

<Correct assessment.>

Are you flying the ship?

<Of course.>

Why? What are you doing?

<Rescuing as many as possible,> Ghost replied.

“Captain,” Flipper said, “we have dropships coming up on intercept!”

Hoot turned and looked at the Tri-V plot. At least a dozen dropships were rising from the planet’s surface, burning their engines hard to match the plummeting ship’s course. Too many, though, far too many for them to pick up. But then he saw they weren’t the only ship skimming the atmosphere.

“We’re with you, Pegasus.” The voice of Captain Jormungd from Phaeton was a confident hiss. “We don’t know how you’re doing these course calculations, but we’re with you.”

Hoot saw all the Egleesius-class were following Pegasus. None of them in as steep of a dive as his ship, however. All the dropships coming up would be intercepted for pickup. He’d never seen anything like it.

Thank you,” he said. There was no reply. He glanced at the fleet tactical board. Lieutenant Colonel Kowalczy had assumed overall tactical command after Colonel Cromwell was betrayed and murdered by her own longtime XO. The fleet rising from the moon was massive compared to the Winged Hussars. He’d done the only thing that made sense and ordered a retreat.

He was a good fleet commander. Maybe not as good as Alexis Cromwell, but good. He had the other squadrons slingshot into a far orbit, accelerating all the way. They would easily reach the stargate before the enemy could intercept them.

Hoot thought at first they should fight, until the sensor drones picked up another fleet dropping toward Earth from the direction of Mars. It was led by a ship far bigger than a battleship. A dreadnought? Nobody knew—only that it was huge and had a full complement of escorts. Lieutenant Colonel Kowalczy’s call had been a good one. Maybe the only one.

Over the next few minutes, dropships matched course and latched onto Pegasus’ hull in highly risky maneuvers. Only one failed to clamp on and Ghost actually maneuvered Pegasus to the dropship for a second attempt. Pleek watched the maneuver with her jaw hanging in stunned disbelief.

The last few to match and dock were the ones from Asbaran Solutions and the Golden Horde, fresh from their evacuation from Houston. Missiles rose from Earth’s surface and pummeled the five meteoric battlecruisers. Pegasus rocked from a hit, alarms sounding.

“I’m on it,” Afeeko said over the intercom, dispatching his damage control teams.

On the tactical board, the enemy fleet was falling toward Earth to cut off the Egleesius ship’s route of escape to the stargate. As the five ships orbited back out into space, they would come into weapons range.

“Winged Hussars,” a voice said over the radio, “this is Admiral Galantrooka on the New Era. If you surrender, quarter will be given.”

Hoot checked the Tri-V, verifying that the rest of the Hussars had reached the stargate. He clicked his beak nervously as he watched until the stargate opened, and the fleet escaped. He gave a contented chirp and smiled. “Admiral Galantrooka, this is Captain Akoo of EMS Pegasus. The Winged Hussars are nobody’s prey.” He changed his radio to the command frequency. “Jump when ready.”

One after another the five Egleesius-class ships powered their hyperspace shunts and winked out of the Sol system. The battle for Sol was over.

* * * * *


Epilogue


Merc Guild HQ, Ubatuba, Brazil, Earth

Peepo looked up as her door opened, and the Grimm walked in. Almost six feet tall, the skeletal humanoid’s skull was more pointed than a human, with eyes that looked like glowing red coals. There was no chin or nose to speak of, and its neck was extremely long and thin. While Peepo had worked with enough of them to overcome her innate revulsion of them, an involuntary chill went down her spine. She didn’t know if it was because the creature’s arms almost reached the floor or because of the lines of glinting, razor sharp silver teeth she could see when it smiled—something about it set her teeth on edge.

The Grimm walked over to the window then looked around the room before coming to stand next to her desk. It silently looked down to see what she was working on. Consummate spies, she knew they never missed an opportunity to gather intelligence. She also knew she was tired of their games.

“Yes?” she finally asked. “You know I can see you, right?”

The Grimm jumped as if she’d hit it with an electric prod, and she smiled. Maybe she needed to keep one handy for the next time one visited.

“You can?” the Grimm rasped.

“Yes,” she replied. “I have a psychic shield that keeps me from falling under the effects of your psionic ability.” In reality she had an electromagnetic scrambler installed in the office that affected the Grimm’s ability, but there was no reason for the creature to know that, or every Grimm that came to see her would try to find and disable it.

“Now,” she continued, “do you have the information for me?”

“Yes,” the Grimm replied. “I found the being who was contacting you. He was in possession of the information you’ve been looking for.”

“He had the location of the Winged Hussars Prime Base? How exactly did he come by it?”

The Grimm’s laugh was dry and sounded like sandpaper rubbing on coal. “Most people don’t know it, but every time you go through a stargate, your ship transmits its destination to the stargate, where it is logged. No one ever checks the data, as it would be too hard to correlate whether you actually arrived where and when you said you would, but that data exists…and it can be found and manipulated by someone with master-level hacking skills.”

“Which he obviously had.”

“She,” the Grimm replied.

“What?”

“The being may have passed itself off as a male, but it turned out to be a female Tortantula.”

“So, she was an excellent hacker,” Peepo said.

“Yes, she was,” the Grimm replied. “She is no more, as per the stipulations of our contract.”

“Understood. And the data?”

“As I said, there is data resident in the stargate system that tells where ships have gone.”

“So, it was easy to determine where Prime Base was.”

“No…” the Grimm hissed. “There is much more to it than that. For some reason, the data that was entered in the case of ships jumping for Prime Base always matched a star system, but they never showed up where they said they were going.”

“How did they do that?”

The Grimm twitched and shifted from foot to foot. Could it actually be uncomfortable?

“I am…unsure,” it said after a pause. “It seems the data was changed. Either the data resident in the stargate system was modified or—and I find this more likely—in the microseconds between transmitting their jump coordinates and actually jumping, the crew changed the coordinates they were jumping to.”

“Why don’t you think the data has been modified?”

“Because it would have taken a better hacker than I am…and such a person doesn’t exist.”

Peepo shrugged, not wanting to be drawn into an argument over who was the best hacker. In her experience, there was always someone better. “So, if the data was changed, how did the Tortantula come up with the ship’s destination?”

“The Cartography Guild has much more knowledge and experience with the operation of the stargate system than they necessarily let on. Although they profess to just be operators of the system, there is a certain group inside the guild that is able to manipulate the data they collect…even though they say they aren’t.

“For example, different stellar phenomena affect how far a ship can jump when transiting through hyperspace. If you know the effects, and you are able to pinpoint a number of places from which ships jumped to the same destination—in this case, Prime Base—you can triangulate where the system resides. It isn’t easy, but it can be done if you have the skills. As it turns out, the group within the Cartography Guild has people with those skills, and they also have a master list of all the stargates ever made, even the ones that are currently listed as destroyed or inoperative. With these two pieces of information, you can rule out very quickly the systems that it isn’t in, thereby coming up with the system it is. The Tortantula who was trying to sell you the location of the system really did know its location…and has known it for some time.”

Peepo sat back, deep in thought. When the shadowy online entity had contacted her, she had initially dismissed it. Other beings had offered to sell her the location of Prime Base, but this offer was different from the rest. Where others had asked for millions, and sometimes billions of credits, this one had asked for 1.21 trillion credits. The audacity of the asking price would have made her delete the message…except that it went directly to her personal account, while leaving no trace of how it got there. Her best hackers were completely unable to trace it. One moment there was nothing, the next it was there.

The being hadn’t mentioned anything about a group or being part of the Cartography Guild, just that he—now she—was in possession of the data on the Winged Hussars base, and that she would sell it to Peepo. She hadn’t originally taken the being up on the offer as she had the Grimm working to find the location of the base, and they never failed. When they ultimately did fail, though, they had owed her for not completing the task, and she had given them the task of finding the shadowy being and recovering all the data the being had. The Grimm race had been uplifted by the Kahraman and trained as spies; they really were masterful hackers, despite her earlier thoughts. If there was any group that could find the shadowy being, it was them. And this time, they’d been successful. But there were still several loose ends…and she hated loose ends.

“Tell me more about this group the Tortantula belonged to,” Peepo said leaning forward in her chair. “You cannot tell me you didn’t try to find out more about them.”

“I did try to learn more about them, but the trail went cold. The organization appears to have a number of cut-outs to prevent anyone from following them up-line. Rather than continue to search, I returned with the data to complete the contract.”

Peepo smiled. She suspected the Grimm had been replaced with another, who was now actively searching for information on the organization. The Grimm were completely amoral, and they were bred to be intelligence gatherers. They hated not knowing something. But that was something for the future.

“I want all of the data you recovered from the Tortantula,” Peepo said, holding out a hand. The Grimm reached into a small pocket on the black skinsuit it wore, retrieved a computer chip and placed it in her hand.

“The data on the location is on that chip.”

Peepo continued to hold her hand out. “I want all the information you recovered from the Tortantula. Our contract stated you would return with all the relevant data. I want all the information you stole from their data banks, including the lists of stargates that have been removed from the database as being destroyed or inoperative.”

“But—”

“No buts,” Peepo interrupted. “I know you have other copies of the data; you may do with them as you wish, but you will give me a copy.” She could feel the creature pressing on her mind, and its outline started blurring. She pulled the laser pistol from under her desk and fired several times at the alien’s leg. One of them hit, and her vision cleared as the Grimm dropped to the floor. It screamed with a high pitch wail, and her door opened as Drakayl and several of her troopers raced into the room with rifles at the ready.

Peepo waved them back as she came around the desk. “Leave,” she ordered. “I have everything under control.”

“Are you sure, ma’am?” Drakayl asked, looking down the barrel of her rifle at the Grimm. “How did this…thing get into the room?”

“Don’t worry about it,” Peepo said. “Leave us!”

Drakayl nodded once, turned, and followed her soldiers from the room.

Peepo walked back to her desk, pulled a medkit from a drawer, and tossed it to the Grimm, who had ceased wailing, but was in obvious pain. “Take that and fix yourself,” she said, “and don’t ever try that again. Next time, I will shoot to kill, not wound.”

The Grimm was obviously familiar with the kit, as it quickly injected itself. It didn’t scream again as it did so, for which Peepo was grateful—the wail was like claws being dragged across a tile floor. After a few minutes, it climbed to its feet, although it still favored the leg. It limped to her desk while she kept her pistol trained on it. The Grimm pulled another chip from a different pocket.

“That one has all the data on it,” the Grimm said. “Are we done?”

“Yes,” Peepo replied. She motioned toward the door with her pistol. “The contract is complete. You may go.”

The Grimm nodded once, then limped to the door and went out.

Peepo walked back to her desk and fell back into the chair with a sigh. Although the meeting could have ended better, she now knew two things. First, the Cartography Guild had been lying to her. Even though they said they didn’t keep records of where starships went, they did. That was information they could use for profit—and probably did. Whether that was selling information to smugglers or legitimate corporations, the group within the guild was certainly using the data they were acquiring. When this was done, they would have to be dealt with.

And second, she now had the location of the Winged Hussars’ secret base. With the Human attack repulsed, she now had a number of the Human leaders incarcerated, as well as their operational Raknar. She allowed herself a small smile. She would be able to deal with the Cartography Guild in the near future because this war would be over soon…very soon.

She commed Drakayl. “Get me Admiral Galantrooka on MGS New Era.”

* * *

Under the Merc Guild HQ, Ubatuba, Brazil, Earth

Jim looked at the restraints on his wrist. The pain was constant. They’d used some kind of nanites to attach it to him. He figured it was meant to be painful; that only made sense, but the restraints only hurt slightly more than the rest of his body. The Besquith mercs who’d taken him into custody had beaten the shit out of him as they hauled him into their transport. He had no doubt they would have ripped him limb from limb had they not been under explicit orders.

During the trip to Ubatuba—a small city on the coast and the real headquarters of the alien presence on Earth—he’d only gotten a brief glimpse of the other Raknar drivers. It was enough to confirm they were alive, and that was something big to hang onto. It helped him deal with the pain. The devious little machine they’d attached to his pinplants locked them from his use and kept him from doing anything else about the pain, or even accessing the fucking things. Again, Peepo had thought of everything.

He sat in the gloomy cell and tried to think of anything except the thoughts that kept coming to him. Sergeant Scott Mays and his partner, Aura, dead in their very first battle. His vaunted Raknar Corps defeated. The slaughter they’d wreaked on São Paulo. The borderline insane rage he’d felt at losing the Raknar. The lack of realization when Hargrave and his Cavaliers died in a senseless diversion. What a complete and utter disaster. How could it get any worse?

The door ground open.

“Colonel Cartwright,” a high-pitched voice said in English, “we meet again, at last.”

“Hello, Peepo,” he said without looking up.

“General Peepo.” Jim snorted and looked up. She was standing in the door, looking exactly the same as the last time he’d seen her in person on Karma. She looked considerably more smug, though. “You’ve certainly been busy since we first met.”

“As have you. Enslaved an entire people, impressive.” She smirked, her whiskers twitching. “Well, all except the Hussars.” He made a whooing sound. “Oh, they are not going to be happy you killed their leader.”

“I’m unconcerned with them,” Peepo said and made a dismissive gesture. “We’ll finish what we started in New Warsaw soon enough.”

Jim felt a cold shiver run down his spine, despite the too-warm cell. “What do you want from me, then?” he asked.

“I want to know how you operated those Raknar,” she said.

Jim grunted, then gasped a little at the pain in his ribs. The Besquith had done a real number on him. If he hadn’t gotten the nanite treatment years ago, he’d probably have a bunch of broken ribs, instead of bruised ones. “I’ll bet you do,” Jim said, then shrugged. “I guess you don’t know everything.”

“There are ways of getting answers out of you, with or without your cooperation,” she said. “I’d much rather not have to kill any of your friends.”

“No amount of threats or torture will give you what you want,” he said with far more conviction than he felt.

“You’re talking about your little Fae friends,” she said. Jim gasped despite himself. “Yes, I know about them. Brilliant little sophonts; they’re the secret to your control of the Raknar.” Jim ground his jaw closed, and she laughed. “How they helped you figure it out is a mystery. We know they escaped before you were captured. We even have some security footage of one.”

“But you didn’t capture them,” Jim said, just managing to not make it sound like a question.

“No,” she admitted, then shrugged again, “but we will.” She turned to go. “I’d consider cooperating,” she said as the door ground closed, “for all your sakes.”

He sat in the cell for an unknown time. The restraints gave him full movement of the cell, though using the toilet made him stretch to its limit and hurt like hell. He slept, and they brought food, he guessed, twice a day. Nobody else came to ask him anything. The server who brought the food was Human, a twenty-something man who never said a word. When Jim spoke to him, the man ignored him. By the end of the fifth day, Jim didn’t even look up as the server came in. At least, not until the server spoke.

“Hello Jim.” His head came up in surprise at the familiar feminine voice. “It’s been a while,” Adayn said.

* * *

EMS Pegasus, Hyperspace, Proceeding to Prime Base

Sansar prowled the empty passageways of the ship’s night cycle, if prowled could be used to describe pushing off from bulkhead to bulkhead to move about in the zero G. Her body was tired—achingly, crushingly so—and she longed to try to get some of the rest she needed, but she knew what would happen.

The dream.

As soon as she closed her eyes, she knew she would instantly be teleported into the dream where she and Nigel Shirazi had to defend Prime Base. She understood, now, why only two of the Horsemen were there for the defense. Jim Cartwright had been captured—at least she hoped he hadn’t been killed in the final minutes, anyway—and Alexis…oh, Alexis…

She left a trail of droplets in her wake as the tears overflowed her eyes, ran down her cheeks with her sudden accelerations, and were left behind her. The fact that Alexis’ second-in-command had been the one to betray her…

Maybe Nigel was right; maybe you couldn’t—no, maybe you shouldn’t—trust any of the alien races. They thought differently, and…

She slammed into the bulkhead as a waking vision overtook her. Stunned, she rebounded from the bulkhead, leaving a trail of red droplets from her nose to join the tears.

Sansar had no idea how long she floated in the middle of the passageway, lost in the vision, but the next thing she knew someone was shaking her.

“Ma’am?” a voice asked. “Ma’am? Are you all right?”

She looked down to find a Jeha holding onto a handhold with two of its lower feet while some of its upper ones grabbed her and pulled her to the bulkhead. Suddenly, the touch of an alien was more than she could bear.

“I’m fine,” she spat, ripping her shoulder from the alien’s claws. She pushed off as hard as she could, leaving the stunned creature behind.

Suddenly, she knew where she needed to go, and she traversed the corridors without any further thought. Although she had stopped crying after running into the bulkhead, the tears began again as she neared her destination.

Catching the handhold at the hatch, she knocked twice, then tried to wipe the majority of her tears away.

“Get fucked!” a voice yelled from the interior.

“Nigel, it’s me, Sansar,” she called back. “Can I come in?”

“No,” Nigel replied. “I’m getting drunk. Go away!”

“I need to tell you something…” Sansar said. “I…I had a vision…”

The seal on the door was imperfect, and Sansar heard him mutter, “Fucking women,” but there were also sounds of movement. After a couple of seconds, the door opened, but only enough for Nigel to talk through. He looked like Sansar felt, with matching red-rimmed eyes and the remains of tears shining on his cheeks.

“What is it?” he asked roughly.

Sansar pushed the door open and entered his stateroom. A Tri-V monitor on his desk was paused in a replay, just prior to when Paka shot Alexis. Blue Sky! Was he really sitting here watching that over and over?

“Sure, c’mon in,” Nigel muttered sarcastically, closing the door behind her. “Obviously, I wanted visitors. That’s why I said to go the fuck away.”

“I—” Sansar hiccupped. “I had a vision…of Alexis.”

Nigel waved a hand in the direction of the monitor. “I did, too. And then that bitch Paka fucking shot her. Just like I’m going to fucking do to her. Maybe once in each knee…a couple in each arm…she’s going to be a long time dying. A long time.” He stared at the monitor replaying his revenge in his mind. “Just when I’d finally begun to trust those fuckers, too…”

“Nigel,” Sansar said. She hiccupped again, then continued, “I don’t think Alexis is dead.”

“What?” Nigel roared, turning on her. “Did you hit your head and forget about everything that happened? She’s dead! That bitch Paka shot her.” He waved at the monitor again, and it caught his attention. He stared at the screen for a moment then muttered, “No, on second thought, shooting Paka is too good…I need something better…”

“No,” Sansar said. “I just had a vision of her.”

“A vision? A vision of what? Her grave?”

“No, I had a vision of her, sitting in her command chair in the CIC of Pegasus. I know this was in the future, and I am sure she is still alive.”

“Really?” Nigel asked. “How do you know? How do you know this isn’t just something you’re hoping for so much that you make yourself see it as true?”

“I don’t know, I guess,” Sansar said, “but I feel it more strongly than anything I’ve ever felt before. Alexis is alive!

“Are you sure?” Nigel asked, a little hope coming to his eyes.

“More sure than I’ve ever been in my life.”

Nigel pushed off the table and wrapped his arms around Sansar. “Thank you! Thank you for coming! But…but…how do you know it’s in the future? How do you know you weren’t just seeing something from the past?”

“Because she was bouncing your son on her knee.”

# # # # #




About Chris Kennedy

A bestselling Science Fiction/Fantasy author, speaker, and publisher, Chris Kennedy is a former naval aviator and elementary school principal. Chris’ stories include the Theogony and Codex Regius science fiction trilogies, and stories in the Four Horsemen military sci-fi series. Get his free book, Shattered Crucible, at his website, http://chriskennedypublishing.com.



Chris is the author of the award-winning #1 bestseller, Self-Publishing for Profit: How to Get Your Book Out of Your Head and Into the Stores. Called “fantastic” and “a great speaker,” he has coached hundreds of beginning authors and budding novelists on how to self-publish their stories at a variety of conferences, conventions, and writing guild presentations, and he is publishing fifteen authors under various imprints of his Chris Kennedy Publishing small press.



Chris lives in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and is the holder of a doctorate in educational leadership. Follow Chris on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/chriskennedypublishing.biz.

About Mark Wandrey

Located in rural Tennessee, Mark Wandrey has been creating new worlds since he was old enough to write. After penning countless short stories, he realized novels were his real calling and hasn’t looked back since. A lifetime of diverse jobs, extensive travels, and living in most areas of the country have uniquely equipped him with experiences to color his stories in ways many find engaging and thought provoking. Now a bestselling author, he has no intention of slowing down anytime soon.

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The following is an

Excerpt from Book One of the Salvage Title Trilogy:


Salvage Title

___________________

Kevin Steverson


Now Available from Theogony Books

eBook, Paperback, and Audio




Excerpt from “Salvage Title:”

A steady beeping brought Harmon back to the present. Clip’s program had succeeded in unlocking the container. “Right on!” Clip exclaimed. He was always using expressions hundreds or more years out of style. “Let’s see what we have; I hope this one isn’t empty, too.” Last month they’d come across a smaller vault, but it had been empty.

Harmon stepped up and wedged his hands into the small opening the door had made when it disengaged the locks. There wasn’t enough power in the small cells Clip used to open it any further. He put his weight into it, and the door opened enough for them to get inside. Before they went in, Harmon placed a piece of pipe in the doorway so it couldn’t close and lock on them, baking them alive before anyone realized they were missing.

Daylight shone in through the doorway, and they both froze in place; the weapons vault was full. In it were two racks of rifles, stacked on top of each other. One held twenty magnetic kinetic rifles, and the other held some type of laser rifle. There was a rack of pistols of various types. There were three cases of flechette grenades and one of thermite. There were cases of ammunition and power clips for the rifles and pistols, and all the weapons looked to be in good shape, even if they were of a strange design and clearly not made in this system. Harmon couldn’t tell what system they had been made in, but he could tell what they were.

There were three upright containers on one side and three more against the back wall that looked like lockers. Five of the containers were not locked, so Clip opened them. The first three each held two sets of light battle armor that looked like it was designed for a humanoid race with four arms. The helmets looked like the ones Harmon had worn at the academy, but they were a little long in the face. The next container held a heavy battle suit—one that could be sealed against vacuum. It was also designed for a being with four arms. All the armor showed signs of wear, with scuffed helmets. The fifth container held shelves with three sizes of power cells on them. The largest power cells—four of them—were big enough to run a mech.

Harmon tried to force the handle open on the last container, thinking it may have gotten stuck over time, but it was locked and all he did was hurt his hand. The vault seemed like it had been closed for years.

Clip laughed and said, “That won’t work. It’s not age or metal fatigue keeping the door closed. Look at this stuff. It may be old, but it has been sealed in for years. It’s all in great shape.”

“Well, work some of your tech magic then, ‘Puter Boy,” Harmon said, shaking out his hand.

Clip pulled out a small laser pen and went to work on the container. It took another ten minutes, but finally he was through to the locking mechanism. It didn’t take long after that to get it open.

Inside, there were two items—an eight-inch cube on a shelf that looked like a hard drive or a computer and the large power cell it was connected to. Harmon reached for it, but Clip grabbed his arm.

“Don’t! Let me check it before you move it. It’s hooked up to that power cell for a reason. I want to know why.”

Harmon shrugged. “Okay, but I don’t see any lights; it has probably been dead for years.”

Clip took a sensor reader out of his kit, one of the many tools he had improved. He checked the cell and the device. There was a faint amount of power running to it that barely registered on his screen. There were several ports on the back along with the slot where the power cell was hooked in. He checked to make sure the connections were tight, he then carried the two devices to the hovercraft.

Clip then called Rinto’s personal comm from the communicator in the hovercraft. When Rinto answered, Clip looked at Harmon and winked. “Hey boss, we found some stuff worth a hovercraft full of credit…probably two. Can we have it?” he asked.

* * * * *

Get “Salvage Title” now at: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07H8Q3HBV.

Find out more about Kevin Steverson and “Salvage Title” at: https://chriskennedypublishing.com/imprints-authors/kevin-steverson/.

* * * * *




The following is an

Excerpt from Book One of the Earth Song Cycle:


Overture

___________________

Mark Wandrey


Available Now from Theogony Books

eBook, Paperback, and Audio




Excerpt from Overture:

Prologue

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: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B077YMLRHM.

Find out more about Mark Wandrey and Earth Song: Overture at:

https://chriskennedypublishing.com/imprints-authors/mark-wandrey/

* * * * *




The following is an

Excerpt from Book One of the Kin Wars Saga:


Wraithkin

___________________

Jason Cordova


Available Now from Theogony Books

eBook, Paperback, and Audio Book




Excerpt from Wraithkin:

Prologue

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 backward 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.

* * * * *

Get Wraithkin now at: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01N0RGYZS.

Find out more about Jason Cordova and Wraithkin at:

http://chriskennedypublishing.com/imprints-authors/jason-cordova/

* * * * *




The following is an

Excerpt from Book Ten of The Omega War:


Alabaster Noon

___________________

Chris Kennedy & Mark Wandrey


Available Soon from Seventh Seal Press

eBook, Paperback, and Audio Book




Excerpt from Alabaster Noon:

Prologue


São Paulo, Brazil, Earth

The sounds of misery were nonstop as the Besquith specialist team reached their objective, the roof of a five-story building which once housed several hundred Humans. Once in position they verified none of the occupants remained, alive or otherwise, and began setting up monitoring equipment.

“Filthy Humans,” one of the sensor operators said, tossing a severed arm over the side of the building “Team leader Kreth, why didn’t they just nuke the entire area; that would have destroyed the Raknar.”

“General Peepo wanted the machines intact, and their operators alive,” his squad leader reminded him for the dozenth time. Grawts wasn’t the quickest on the uptake, but he did have a mastery with the finicky elSha-manufactured gear. Several others in the team growled their support of Grawts. “Just shut up and finish deploying the sensor drones. We have nine more to place before dark.” The five-Besquith team, including himself, all went about their tasks, but Grawts wasn’t satisfied.

“Okay, I understand preserving the war machines and operators. Peepo has them prisoner now. Why are we looking for these little creatures that accompanied them?”

“Do I look like a general?” Kreth snarled and snapped at the back of Grawts’ neck. The hapless sensor tech rolled over and whined, so Kreth didn’t rip his rotten throat out. Satisfied, Kreth turned back to look out over the remains of São Paulo.

The Human city, formerly one of the biggest if what he’d been told was true, was largely in ruins. Seven assaulting Raknar, along with hundreds of Humans in their entropy-cursed powered armor, tended to do that to a city. Massive defenses had been positioned to protect the seat of occupation, but the Raknar had plowed into, and ultimately, through them. The damage was horrendous. Kreth approved.

He shielded his eyes from the setting sun to the west and could see the six surviving Raknar. Dozens of flyers were alight on them, or flying around as heavy equipment went about preparing to move them. Peepo’s prizes. He wondered what she intended for them. It didn’t matter.

The faked cease fire worked perfectly, allowing forces to move in close to Human mercs all over the planet before springing their trap. One of the Raknar was vaporized by orbital fire. Kreth’s unit was just over a kilometer away, monitoring the mecha’s progress when it happened. They’d been flash-blinded by the orbital particle beam.

The last six went berserk, destroying indiscriminately and totally. They’d even destroyed the orbiting station. From the ground! Kreth looked at a building a block away; half its height had been severed cleanly by a Raknar particle beam. Then, when heavy Zuul tanks attacked, the Raknar unleashed what appeared to be nuclear cannon, but they were much more compact and discrete in their damage.

“Antimatter weapons,” an elSha tech in a weapons company said after the fight. Even Kreth sucked his breath in at the idea. Such unbelievable firepower, and now it was theirs! He desperately wanted to finish this mission so they could be assigned to the next stage.

“Come on, come on,” he growled. “I want to go to the Human’s secret base. Oh, to see their end will be a glorious battle.” The others grunted in agreement as they affixed their sensors. It was no secret the fleet was preparing to go to the final assault. Sure, lots of Humans were still fighting in places, but they wouldn’t be fighting for long. What chance did they have? “Aren’t you done yet?” he snapped.

“Yes, you’re done,” a tiny voice said in such perfect Besquith he thought it was a juvenile. Kreth turned, and his jaw fell open in surprise. A tiny furred creature just like he’d been told to look for was framed in the doorway pointing at him.

“Hey—” he started to say, then something slammed into his throat, and he fell backward, unable to control his body.

“Ambush!” one of his mean cried.

Good, Kreth thought, struggling to breath. My men will deal with them. Lying on his back on the rubble strewn roof, he heard his men moving, grabbing weapons, and yelling, then the sounds of falling bodies. It was all over in two, maybe three seconds. He exerted all his will and managed to turn his head. Five of the creatures were standing in the center of where his men had been working. None of the Besquith were alive, save himself. He tried to say something, and it came out as a gurgle.

One of the creatures dropped into a partial crouch, its head spinning to face him. Kreth could see one of its eyes was covered in a patch, and it had a cybernetic arm on the same side. The creature grunted and marched over to Kreth.

* * *

“Be more thorough, Peanut,” Dante snapped as he stabbed the Besquith through the eye, driving hard with his cybernetic arm to be sure the blade penetrated into the alien’s brain.

“Sorry, sir,” Peanut said.

“Did any of them get a transmission off?” Ryft asked, cleaning her knife.

“No.” They all glanced up at their leader. Splunk clung to the half-melted antenna above the roof where she’d been watching the clumsy Besquith setting up their instruments. She looked at her frequency scanner one more time to be sure. Nothing within a hundred meters. “They weren’t even staying in contact with their command staff.”

“Stupid animals,” Shadow said, putting away his long blade. “Even the Kahraman would have not wasted time with their lot.”

“They might be pathetic at tactics, but they are strong and numerous,” Ryft pointed out.

“Peanut, take their comms gear,” Splunk ordered. “Break into their network and let’s get some intel.”

Peanut waved, and they all started piling the dead Besquith’s equipment at his feet. Like every Dusman who’d come on the mission, they were all gifted in technology, although Peanut and Splunk were the most gifted. Since Splunk was in command, she’d delegated the job. As soon as the bodies were stripped, the other four moved toward the edges of the roof to assume overwatch.

<The fleet is away,> Dante sent to her.

<I felt it,> Splunk sent back. For 170 hours they would have no contact with their agents within the retreating fleet. She tried to appear confident, despite her inner feelings of failure. Jim was there, only a few kilometers away. She could point to him, if she’d wanted to. They all knew where their operators were, a side effect of the joining. It wasn’t like the texts said it would be. She’d tried to explain it to Sly, but he didn’t believe her. Well, now he did.

“Command. Echo-5, report,” said a voice from one of the Besquith radios.

Splunk pointed, and Peanut snapped it up. He had a device already set, and he clipped it to the radio. A second later, another Besquith spoke. “Echo-5 to command, system is almost up.”

“What is taking so long, Kreth?”

Peanut cocked his head and tapped on a tiny screen with his claws. The machine answered, “My team are idiots.”

Laughter came in reply. “That they are. Hurry up, command out.”

From across the ruined rooftop, Splunk could see Dante nodding without looking over. He approved of efficiency almost as much as he approved of slaughter.

Peanut sat the voice duplication device aside. It was the reason Splunk had been hanging from the antenna while the Besquith worked and gave away intel—she’d been recording their voices. “Here we go,” Peanut said, and Splunk jumped down next to him. She moved close—closer than she had to—and surreptitiously put a hand on his shoulder. He glanced at her, giving a tiny smile so nobody else would notice.

You are such a fool, she scolded herself.

Peanut reconfigured the monitor’s Tri-V and a map of the vicinity came up. In a second, a sea of tiny blue pinpoints decorated it. “These are all the units they had deployed searching for us.”

“Hmf,” she said as she examined the pattern. Efficient, but predictable. All the search teams were using the same type of equipment too. All the better. “Modify their gear to give a false positive in five minutes,” she said and pointed. “Have us going that way, toward where our operators are being held.”

“We’re not going there?” Peanut asked. He looked surprised and disappointed. “I have listened to Darrel thinking about it. There are almost no guards. We can be in and out—”

“That’s what Peepo wants us to think,” Dante said from a few meters away. “Use your head for a change, child. Splunk might be a fool for believing in these Humans, but she’s a solid commander.”

“So, you agree with Sly putting her in command?” Sandy asked, her voice obviously surprised.

“I didn’t say that,” he replied, but didn’t add anything to it.

Splunk knew he had it out for her. She’d known it ever since he turned up on Karma and tried to make her come back to Kash-Ka. When she’d told him about the Canavar, he’d been as stunned as anyone else. She’d known something was happening when the Human boy showed up suddenly that night. Known it in the depths of her being. It was time for them to come out of hiding.

“We’re still alive, aren’t we?” Peanut snapped at Dante.

“Yeah, we are,” Dante replied. “It’s the fact she thinks some sort of damned destiny is guiding her that scares the piss out of me.”

“Seldia sees it too,” Splunk reminded him.

“Seldia is insane, just like all K’apo.”

Splunk couldn’t argue. They were a necessary part of Dusman society, though. More so after The Disaster than ever before.

“Speaking of Seldia, when are we going to do it?”

“Better be now,” Splunk said, looking at the Tri-V. “We’re going to be moving too fast the next couple days to take that kind of chance. “Everyone double check for unwanted visitors.” Nobody saw anything, then they joined her.

Splunk stood in the center and the other five Dusman reached out, touching each other and making a circle. Then each put a hand on her head. Splunk sighed, reached within herself, and stretched.

<Seldia…Seldia, hear me.>

<I hear,> came the reply from light years away. <What news?>

<Defeat,> she thought, reluctantly. <Aura is dead and all the surviving Raknar and operators captured. We are still free.> There was a long pause. Splunk knew she was probably contacting Sly, and she feared what he might say. She hoped it didn’t take long, the strain was incredible. Then another presence entered on the Far Talker’s side.

<What happened?> Sly asked.

<Deception,> Splunk said. <We don’t know the full details. Alexis Cromwell is dead. The Humans either fled, were defeated, or have gone underground. Their fleet is enroute to New Warsaw now, ETA 169 hours.>

<Can you escape off world?>

<Not without our operators.> Silence for a moment. <We can avoid capture indefinitely.>

<Do so. I will contact the Humans in command here. We will coordinate their defenses. Contact again in 60 hours.>

The connection cut, and Splunk gasped from the suddenness of it. She’d been expecting something. What, anger? Accusations? But there was none of it.

“He seemed calm,” Peanut said.

“A Koof always seems calm,” Dante said and snorted. “They seldom understand what’s really going on.”

“Sly will handle his end of it,” Splunk said, changing the subject. “Our job is to not get caught, and to see if we can get our operators out.”

“We should cause as much carnage as possible in the meantime,” Dante suggested.

“I like the sound of that,” Shadow said.

Splunk found herself agreeing. Aura would have approved of some payback as well. Suddenly she felt Jim was highly agitated. Something had happened; either they were interrogating him, or he’d found some piece of information which had him highly upset. She tried to send a calming thought to him. <We’ll get you out soon, Jim.>

Splunk knew it was unlikely he would get the thought. Humans were remarkably weak when it came to receiving thoughts. Maybe it was part of what made them so different from the Lumar? The others had cleaned up any evidence of their presence, except the five dead Besquith, of course. It was time to go.

# # # # #



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