Book: Gates of Hell



Gates of Hell




Gates of Hell


Echoes of War Book 4


Daniel Gibbs



Contents


CSV Lion of Judah Blueprints

Free Echoes of War Book

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Acknowledgments



Gates of Hell by Daniel Gibbs

Copyright © 2019 by Daniel Gibbs

Visit Daniel Gibb’s website at www.danielgibbsauthor.net

Cover by Jeff Brown Graphics—www.jeffbrowngraphics.com

Additional Illustrations by Joel Steudler—www.joelsteudler.com

Editing by Beth at BZhercules.com

3D Art by Benoit Leonard

This book is a work of fiction, the characters, incidents and dialogues are products of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review. For permissions please contact [email protected]p.net.


Gates of Hell


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Gates of Hell


1


July 6th, 2461

League Army Headquarters

Freiderwelt (Occupied Terran Coalition Border Planet)

“I hate this planet,” Lieutenant Colonel Haun Pan said as he glanced out of his office window. “I hate its inhabitants. I hate its so-called culture. I hate its climate. Above all else, I hate being posted here.”

“It’s not the worst posting in the League army, sir,” Major Vladislav Pavlik replied. “Freiderwelt has no active resistance, its population is compliant with our orders, and they produce fresh fruits and vegetables for us,” he continued. “I’ve been subjected to far worse.”

“I was on the fast track to general!” Pan thundered. “Instead, now I babysit farmers so backward, they won’t even use a robotic tractor. They go out every day and tend crops by hand. What kind of moronic idiot does that?”

Pavlik listened to his commander rant. I’ve only got six more months of this turd before we get a new one. A draftee like all League soldiers, he’d decided to go in for life after his parents died. His wife and two children lived back on a core world, one of the many perks an officer who agreed to serve thirty years was entitled to. “Ones who cling to their old ways. I got one of their children to talk to me once, during some period where they’re allowed to experience the outside world. These traditions date back to before the League’s founding, on Earth. In some ways, they have the perfect socialism, sir.”

“Which is why our political commissars haven’t allowed me to execute them all, Pavlik. I wish they would, so we could get off this stupid rock.”

It’s a good thing that for all his blustering of ruthlessness, the man is a complete coward who hides behind the rest of his men. “Of course, sir.” Knowing when to pick a fight with the colonel was vital. “We do have some business to discuss.”

“I read your report. I don’t understand what the problem is. They want more land to build housing on. The answer is no.”

“Sir, they’ll appeal to the commissars if we don’t give it to them,” Pavlik pointed out. “Right now, we don’t have to deal with one because this place is off their radar. Do you want to have a political officer overseeing every action we take?”

If that doesn’t bring him along, nothing will. Everyone in the League military detests political officers.

“How much land do they want again?”

“Three hundred square kilometers.”

“I worry about our garrison being able to patrol such a space,” Pan whined.

“These people don’t commit crimes, Colonel.”

“Yet they refuse to adapt themselves fully into the League.”

“We could offer them half that space, sir?”

Pan stared at Pavlik coldly. “I do not offer anyone on this planet anything, Major. I tell them what they will get. If they don’t like it, I’ll be happy to have them lined up and shot. They get one hundred and fifty square kilometers.”

“Yes, sir,” Pavlik said, inwardly pleased with himself. He’d asked for twice the representative of the planet’s inhabitants had requested, knowing that Pan would want to feel like he somehow won. Such a petty person. All he cares about is his next promotion. How he manages to keep his party membership in line is beyond me.

Pan’s eyes narrowed, and he grated on in a nasal tone. “What else?”

“Still awaiting resupply. We’re very low on consumables and have had to take extra from the locals. If this continues, we’ll need to plant our own crops next year.”

“You want our soldiers to plant crops?” Pan asked incredulously.

“Either that or starve.”

“We could simply force our guests to do it for us.”

“They can only farm enough to sustain their own families. Feeding us would require doubling their fields,” Pavlik insisted.

“Then they can starve. You seem to be close to these people, Major. Inform them they will need to expand their farming operations greatly.”

“Which will take more land, sir.” What an idiot.

“Talk to them. Then present me with options,” Pan replied.

“Yes, sir.”

“Anything else, Major?”

“No, sir. I’ll leave you to your duties.”

“Dismissed,” Pan said.

Pavlik jumped up and came to attention, bringing his fist to his chest in the salute of the League. Taking one last look at the unkempt appearance of his commanding officer, he turned to go. There is a reason that soldiers take pride in their uniform and appearance. It keeps them grounded. I’d still pass inspection by the most hardened drill sergeant from my youth. Pan couldn’t be bothered to look like a proper soldier if the Chairman of the Social and Public Safety Committee was coming our way. Shaking his head as he walked into the hallway beyond the CO’s office, he resolved to complete his tour of duty, get off Freiderwelt, and back to someplace closer to the League.


2


July 10th, 2461

CSV Lion of Judah

Deep Space – Inside of Terran Coalition Expanded Border Zone

Colonel David Cohen woke up with a start, nearly hitting his head on the top of his bunk after a particularly bad nightmare. He couldn’t remember exactly what happened, but an image of a massive monster ripping him limb to limb as he screamed was etched in his mind as he shook off grogginess. The ship’s relative position and heading were displayed on the underside of his bunk, an improvement to the cabin he’d done to allow him better sleeping conditions on the advice of Doctor Izmet Tural, the Lion’s chief medical officer.

“Uuuuuuuh,” David said out loud, rolling out of his bed to see that it was 0415 CMT. No point in trying to get fifteen more minutes of shuteye. He popped up and put on his workout clothes.

David had a very regimented morning routine: he woke up, said his morning prayers as required of all Orthodox Jews, exercised, prepared himself for the day, and had breakfast. Normally all before 0700. I remember reading somewhere that I need to change up my routine to force my brain to function better… eh, maybe next year.

I can’t believe it’s going on a year since I took command of this incredible ship, David pondered as he walked into the officers’ mess near the bridge. One deck down, it was a favorite of nearly the entire bridge crew and the last thing on his mental to-do list before starting the first watch.

“Colonel! What can I get for you, sir?” the mess steward manning the ordering station asked him.

“The usual,” David replied with a grin.

“Two eggs, over easy with hash browns, wheat toast, and coffee, coming right up, sir!”

“On second thought, let’s change it up a little. Add a small bowl of oatmeal for me.”

“Aye aye, sir!”

David smiled and walked into the dining area, looking for an open table. Instead, he was greeted by the smiling faces of his XO, Lieutenant Colonel Talgat Aibek, First Lieutenant Shelly Hammond, the Lion’s senior navigator, and Lieutenant Colonel Hassan Amir—an old friend who served as the ship’s embarked air wing commander—all sitting together.

“We’ve got space for one more, sir!” Hammond called out. The younger, bookish woman had come out of her cocoon over the last few months, though she was still an introvert.

For that, David was glad. He slid into the open chair and flashed a smile at them all. “Good morning.”

“Good morning, sir,” Aibek replied with a toothy smile. A Saurian, Aibek was an exchange officer in the Coalition Defense Force and had been David’s XO since the death of Major Sheila Thompson. Saurians were large, taller than normal humanoids. He had a particularly colorful patch of scales on the top of his head. The human equivalent to hair, every Saurian had slightly different scale colorings. “How was your exercise?”

“The same workout,” David joked. “I need to break up the routine.”

“We could get back to flying missions against the League. The defeat of all League forces on our side of the arm has left me with nothing to do,” Amir said.

“Spoken like a true warrior,” Aibek interjected. “I sometimes envy you, Amir.”

“Why?”

“Because you get to sit at the very tip of the spear and put your life on the line in what is almost hand-to-hand combat with the enemy. I would relish that kind of opportunity to test myself against the best soldiers the League of Sol has to offer.”

“Interesting way of looking at it, XO,” David said. “I never had the desire to fly fast movers. Hats off to those who do, though,” he continued while glancing at Amir.

“What about you, Lieutenant? Would you rather be back in the fighting?” Aibek said toward Hammond.

“Honestly, sir? I’m divided on the subject. Not going to condition one three times a day is nice for a change.”

“I can’t disagree with you there,” David replied. “But it’s high time we get back on the road to Earth.”

Aibek cleared his throat. “Perhaps the brass is wasting too much time debating tactics.”

“Unlikely,” David said. “More likely is that we don’t have enough ships to be successful as of yet.”

“Get my wing close enough, and we’ll blow every ship the League has left into atoms,” Hassan boasted.

“I’ll take you up on that one of these days,” David said, his mouth curled up in a grin.

“Anything special on tap today, sir?” Hammond asked.

“Just another day of keeping the watch.”

The steward that took his order approached the table with another waiter in tow, both holding multiple plates of food that were deposited in front of each person. David almost laughed at Aibek’s breakfast order: a T-bone steak barely seared, with eggs.

“Thank you, Sergeant,” David said as the food was delivered.

“Any time, sir!”

“Whose turn is it to pray?” David asked the table at large. “On second thought, how about you do the honors, XO?”

“With pleasure, sir,” Aibek replied and bowed his head.

David bowed his head as well and closed his eyes as the big Saurian began to pray. “God, we thank You for granting us the food that we now eat. We thank You for giving us life so we may hunt, and in doing so, praise You. We thank You for the opportunity to share our bounty with others, and for the ability to fight evil in this galaxy. In doing so, we aspire to glorify Your name. By the mercy of the great prophet, we ask for Your guidance and help, amen.”

“Amen,” David said along with the rest.

Aibek cut off a piece of the nearly raw meat and bit into it with gusto. “I have grown to love this food you humans call ‘steak’.”

David laughed as he dug into his eggs. This command is a gift, as are these people who have grown to be more than just my crew; they are genuinely friends. God has unquestionably blessed me. I wish Sheila were here to see it.

Gates of Hell

In the expansive engineering space on the Lion of Judah, engineers of all stripes, including enlisted personnel and officers, mixed with the occasional contractor, dotted the area. It’s far too big to be called a room, Major Arthur Hanson, the Lion’s chief engineer, thought as he walked with purpose through a group working on a console. The matter/anti-matter reactor that powered the ship was encased in multiple protective housings, which wouldn’t matter at all if they lost containment, but there were safety regulations to be followed. Coming to a stop at its base, he couldn’t help but feel small in comparison to its incredible power.

“Inspecting the latest safety feature you insisted on, Major?” Doctor Benjamin Hayworth groused. Hayworth was the civilian scientist that had invented a practical method of storing anti-matter for reaction and the reactor itself.

“After our last major combat, it was apparent we needed a fourth-tier coolant redundancy, Doctor. This reactor has more power generation capability in it, and therefore the potential for destructive force, than most of the planetary-based reactors for our core worlds. You realize that, right?”

“Oh, no, I didn’t realize that,” Hayworth replied, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “Would you care to explain it to me?”

“Boys,” another voice interrupted. It belonged to Major Elizabeth Merriweather, the CDF project officer and right hand to Dr. Hayworth.

Chastised, both men grinned sheepishly. “I still do not believe we need additional coolant loops,” Hayworth insisted.

“Noted, Doctor,” Hanson said. “We can agree to disagree.”

Hayworth snorted and looked toward Merriweather. “What can we do for you, my dear?”

Merriweather held out a tablet toward them. “Here’s a list of problems with the magnetic-cannon upgrades. I have solutions to each but would like you both to vet them before I send this up to Colonel Cohen.”

Hanson plucked the tablet up and stared at the screen. “Would have been nice if the Saurians had helped us integrate their double-shell launching technology a bit more.”

“I’m afraid weapons isn’t the main focus of my research,” Hayworth said absentmindedly.

“I’m sure your brain is up to the challenge, Doctor,” Merriweather responded while giving him a dazzling smile.

She sure has Hayworth under her thumb. That guy will barely treat anyone with respect, but he worships the ground she walks on. Hanson looked through the list. “I’ll need some additional time to review, Major. At first glance, it looks solid to me.”

“Thank you,” Merriweather said while inclining her head.

Hayworth harrumphed. “I’ll do the same. I’m sure it’s quite competent. Major Hanson, have you given any thought to when you’ll no longer need the research team? I feel it’s quite past when we need to get back to the lab and begin working on improvements.”

“Not my call, doc,” Hanson said, watching Hayworth wince at the use of “doc.” “That’s up to Colonel Cohen and the brass. I have heard him say that you’re a force multiplier, though. High praise coming from him.”

Hayworth grimaced. “I seem to remember telling him that once. I guess it stuck.”

“Careful what you wish for, Doctor,” Merriweather said, still smiling.

“Time for me to go get cleaned up and get some dinner,” Hanson said as he tucked the tablet’s clip onto one of his belt loops. “Have a great rest of your day.”

“Good day, Major,” Hayworth said, sounding incredibly unenthused.

“I’ll look for your inputs later, Major,” Merriweather replied.

Hanson nodded and walked away, heading for the showers. Yeah, I still can’t figure those two out.

Gates of Hell

Calvin Demood, Terran Coalition Marine Corps MEU commander for the Lion of Judah, looked up from a book he was reading on his tablet when the chime rang outside of his cabin. Sparsely decorated, the room was almost nondescript, unlike the bombastic Marine’s demeanor. “Come in!” he yelled out.

The hatch swung open, and David walked in. “Hey, Calvin.”

Calvin jumped out of his seat, going rigid at attention. “Sorry, sir, didn’t realize you would be dropping by.”

“Please, sit back down. I’m not here as your CO. I’m here as your friend.”

“Still surprised you’re willing to have anything to do with me,” Calvin replied, dropping back into his chair.

David took a seat in the chair facing across from the tough Marine. “If I got rid of my friends after a bad conversation or some loose talk, I wouldn’t have any left.”

“It was a lot worse than loose talk.”

“Maybe. No one’s perfect. Besides, you do what I tell you most of the time. That’s a miracle coming from a jarhead.”

Calvin snickered. “Fair enough.”

“How’s your treatment going?”

Calvin looked away. I’m so ashamed of what I did. I became the very thing I hate. Maybe I needed to hit rock bottom from shooting that man. “Rough. Doctor Ellison is excellent, but… well, it’s a long way back.”

“The first step is the hardest one.”

“Yeah. That’s what she says.”

“Are you praying with her yet?” David asked.

“Not yet. I can’t quite get there. She’s great at praying, though. If nothing else, she inspires me.”

“Yeah, I had the same thought when she treated me,” David said, pausing for a moment. “Are you ready for action?”

“I was born ready, Colonel,” Calvin answered with a cocky grin. Yeah, my brain may be scrambled, but I’m always ready to put down some Leaguers.

“You sure?”

“Absolutely positive. You got a target?”

David shook his head. “Not yet. But we’ve been on what feels like downtime long enough that something is going to shake loose before too long. Even if that something is the invasion of the League.”

“Music to my ears. I want to be on the first shuttle heading toward Earth.”

“Careful what you wish for. I expect we’ll be on the sharp tip of that particular spear when the time comes. Are you still speaking to Amy once a week?”

“Yeah. Usually more.”

“What about the family?”

“Jess is supportive. She spent a lot of time with me while we were on shore leave, and it helped us patch our marriage up. Those comm credits you arranged to help us stay in touch are great. I can’t thank you enough.”

“Least I could do for a good friend and fellow officer,” David said with a broad smile.

“Something tells me most guys would have kicked my sorry Marine ass to the curb.”

David lifted his shoulders in a shrug. “I’m not most guys. I think we’ve established that already.”

“Yeah,” Calvin said and snorted as he laughed. “No, you are not, Colonel. However this ends, it’s been a fun ride.”

“It ends with us finally achieving a lasting victory and going back to doing something besides killing for a living.”

I don’t have the heart to tell him I don’t think I’ll make it to see that day, if it even happens. Still, Colonel’s a good man. I wish I were more like him. Calvin pursed his lips together while he shook his head. “What about you? How are you holding up?”

“Not too bad,” David admitted. “I’m still dating Angie.”

“I don’t get the reporter thing. She’s not Jewish, is she?”

“No, she’s not.”

“I don’t know a whole lot about Jews, but don’t you guys tend to marry other Jews, especially Orthodox practitioners?” Calvin asked with a quirky look on his face.

“Yeah, there is that. Hey, I don’t know where it’s going. It’s just nice not to be alone, you know?”

“I feel you. Nothing quite like having my wife snuggled up with me at night. I feel safe.”

“You,” David began while laughing, “not feeling safe, Mister big bad Marine?”

“It happens,” Calvin replied.

“I’ll won’t poke you too hard on that one.”

“Well, if you want to poke something, we can get some pugil sticks…”

“I’ll pass. I heard about Taylor getting destroyed in a match with you using those things.”

Calvin flashed a two-hundred-watt grin. “Yeah, he’s got some cute martial arts training. I’ve got superior skill with pugil sticks.”

David just laughed.

“Got any plans for the evening?” Calvin asked.

“Nah. Wanted to check in on you, then off to grab a bite to eat and retire early. Last few days, I haven’t gotten a lot of sleep. I had to rewrite a technical manual.”

“Don’t you have people for that?”

“I do, but it's somewhat relaxing to do it myself. Yes, weird. I like to paint walls too.”

“As in, painting the walls of a house?”

“Yup,” David replied and nodded.

“We’ve got robots for that.”

“Yeah, but nothing quite makes my brain clear out like rolling a wall.”

“Whatever you say, sir.”

“Would you quit with the ‘sir’ stuff? Again, just here as a friend.”

“Old-school Marine.”

“Stubborn is more like it,” David shot back.

“Sticks and stones...”

David stood up. “Yeah, yeah. Okay, I’ll leave you to it. Take care, okay?”

“Yes, sir.”

David flashed a brief smile and turned around to walk out of the cabin.

“Thank you!” Calvin called after him. I wish I felt as good as I led everyone to believe. Facing my past has been far harder than I ever expected. Some nights, I think I should’ve pulled the trigger when I had the chance. Then Colonel Cohen or someone else comes by and reminds me I’m still needed. Okay, Cal, time to quit feeling sorry for yourself. As he pondered, his face morphed between a frown, then a smile. He picked up the tablet and went back to his place in the book.




3

While the public saw the extensive briefings that had fifty people in them with finely honed graphics, impressive displays, and maps, Justin Spencer, president of the Terran Coalition, preferred the simple two-person briefing his secretary of defense and General MacIntosh delivered every week.

No posturing, no bull, and advice I can trust in, Spencer thought as he walked into his usual conference room deep within Canaan’s government annex, which served as the headquarters for the Canaan Alliance— primarily made up of the Saurian Empire and Terran Coalition – and its Allied Expeditionary Force. Called SHAEF, or Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force, its mission was to defeat the League of Sol.

MacIntosh and Secretary of Defense Dunleavy sprang to their feet as soon as they saw Spencer; both came to attention. It was easy to see the weariness on their faces: dark circles present under both eyes, drawn faces, and just a hair slower than usual jumping up to parade rest.

Spencer strode across the room. “Gentlemen, please be seated.” He took his seat at the head of the table. The two close protection service bodyguards who stayed with him around the clock took up positions near the door after they closed it.

“Good morning, Mister President,” Dunleavy said.

“Thank you, William. Andrew, what do you two have for me this week?”

“Same as always, sir. Overall update on the war effort, and our progress.”

“Well, don’t keep me in too much suspense, gents,” Spencer replied with a grin.

“First things first; the front remains quiet. We’ve still only had token attempts to probe our positions around Unity Station,” MacIntosh stated.

“Good. Still perplexed by that.”

“Our best analysts continue to believe that the League is unable to bring its entire fleet to bear due to political reasons, most likely around keeping its non-core worlds in line,” Dunleavy interjected.

“That’s been our operating theory for nearly thirty years. It would be nice to get some confirmation.”

“Yes, sir, it would.”

MacIntosh cleared his throat and pressed on. “Our shipbuilding efforts continue on track, as they were last week. Still estimating three months before our anti-matter reactor-based heavy cruisers are online and operational. We’ll have to decide then if we want to send them on a standard shakedown cruise, or if we press them into service as soon as they come out of the yard.”

“How many ships do we have ready for combat this week?” Spencer asked pointedly.

“Counting Saurian assets, nine hundred twenty-three starships, including frigates, destroyers, cruisers, battleships, and carriers,” Dunleavy answered. “The first wave of Saurian-made Ajax class destroyers are entering service next week.”

“Excellent news, William. Any movement on additional Saurian ground troops?”

“Same answer as last week, sir. Not really,” MacIntosh replied ruefully.

“Can’t say I blame them. Not sure I’d want to put millions of Marines on the line for a Saurian planet either,” Spencer said. “Have you two reviewed my request for options on liberating the border planets the League still controls?”

“Sir, it’s my professional opinion that staging full-blown invasions over worlds with less than fifty thousand civilians on them is a poor use of our limited resources.”

“You told me the same thing last week, William,” Spencer responded. “I’ve got the same answer… I want some out-of-the-box options. We owe it to the citizens of the Terran Coalition who remain enslaved by the League to rescue them. Period, full stop.” I swore an oath to defend the constitution and the citizens of the Terran Coalition from all enemies. Allowing the League to continue to hold our people hostage is something I won’t allow. Not with them finally on the run.

“The problem is the planetary defense systems the League installed. They’re very effective and would bleed off our fleet strength precisely at a time where we need every last ship we can get our hands on,” MacIntosh interjected. “That said, the joint chiefs have reviewed your request, and we have a proposal. Send in a six-man space special warfare team, and determine if there is a way for us to surgically disable the defenses so the fleet and our Marines can stage a landing. Most of these planets have less than ten thousand garrison troops, and their morale has to be low.”

Spencer couldn’t help but see the dirty look that Dunleavy shot toward MacIntosh; So my top two advisors don’t agree on this one. Pity, but so it goes. “How do you propose to get them down there without being detected?”

“Latest generation stealth assault lander prototypes are quiet enough, low signature enough that the League’s computers won’t see them coming,” MacIntosh replied.

“Got anyone in mind for the task?”

“The Lion of Judah has been off combat assignment for a few months. I’m sure Colonel Cohen and the ships’ embarked special warfare unit would be up to the task.”

“William?”

“I concur, sir,” Dunleavy said, a trace of annoyance present in his voice. “I would propose the planet of Friederwelt for this experiment.”

“Any particular reason?” Spencer questioned.

“Because the planet is the closest that fits the profile to a recent spate of successful League attacks on our supply lines to Unity station. Once the Lion drops off her team, we could retask her to convoy duty and surprise the Leaguers.”

“I agree, sir,” MacIntosh said suddenly.

“Good. Then we’re agreed—send the Lion in.”

“Yes, sir,” Dunleavy replied.

“Any other items of note?”

“No, sir. Everywhere else, we’re proceeding according to our plans. We should be able to commence the invasion of the League of Sol within the next six months.”

“Music to my ears, gentlemen. Very well, I’ll let you all get back to your duties. Keep me informed as to the status of the Friederwelt mission.”

“Yes, sir!” MacIntosh replied.

Spencer stood up, and as he did, both Dunleavy and MacIntosh stood as well. It didn’t matter how many times he told them not to, they did it automatically. “Godspeed,” Spencer said as he turned to leave.

Gates of Hell

Pausing to put his index finger in the biometric scanner to unlock his day cabin, David reflected on how the military had turned him into a human automaton in many ways. I get up every day at 0430 CMT, I do my morning prayers in my cabin, then I exercise and move on to shave and shower in less than fifteen minutes. On top of it all, I have the same breakfast every day. At least I’m dating finally someone.

The hatch swung open after authenticating his identity, and he walked in. Even though most civilian ships had automated doors, the military kept using tried and true hatches that were heavy and resistant to fire, among other hazards. The lights turned on, and he took a seat behind his desk and smiled as he always did at the inert hand grenade that sat on a piece of wood, bolted to the top of his workspace. It bore the label “Complaint Department, please take a number.” A small piece of plastic with the number one printed on it hung off the pin. Of all the knickknacks he owned, it was his favorite.

Starting with the outstanding administrative requests, he worked for two hours straight without looking up. Interrupted by his tablet, reminding him he had a 0800 CMT vidlink with General MacIntosh, he pulled himself away from the paperwork and turned on the vidlink app. Sitting up a little straighter, he initiated the call.

A few moments later, MacIntosh’s unsmiling face appeared on his tablet. “Good morning, Colonel Cohen,” he said.

“Good morning, General. Hope you had a decent night’s sleep,” David replied while smiling.

“Why are you always so chipper, Colonel?” MacIntosh groused.

“Well, sir, not always chipper, but the last few months haven’t been bad. You’ve had us on what felt like diplomatic babysitting duty. It provided, honestly, a quite needed decrease in battle rhythm for my crew.”

“Don’t get used to it, Colonel. There’s still a rather large war on.”

“Of course, sir.”

“I am personally waiting for the other shoe to drop. The League hasn’t done much to try to take Unity Station back, nor have they made any real attempts at reinvading our side of the galactic arm. I’m convinced something else is at work.”

“You and me both, sir. We’re not ready to take the fight to them without new ships coming online, however.”

“We’ve read the same intelligence, Colonel. In the meanwhile, I’ve got a few tasks for you.”

“Yes, sir,” David replied. Maybe we’ll get a real mission out of him. The relaxed pace of operations is starting to affect our operational readiness.

“What do you know about a planet called Freiderwelt?”

“Only what I saw in the last overall intelligence briefing. Low population border planet, extensive mineral deposits, poor farming on most of the continents. It’s traded hands several times and is now held by the League.”

“Excellent memory as always, Colonel. That’s about right. What’s not widely known is the last time it was captured, not everyone got out. There’s still Terran Coalition citizens on the planet… how many, we don’t know.”

David’s eyes got wide. “I thought the entire reason we quit fighting over it was our people were fully evacuated, sir?”

“It’s not always so clean in war, son. You ought to know that by now.”

Don’t I ever. I’ll go to my grave with shame and guilt over many things I’ve done for flag and country. “I understand, sir, just shocked we’d leave civilians behind.”

“President Spencer has demanded the CDF find out if there’s anyone left on the planet, and if so, stage an invasion. Intelligence believes there’s only a small League garrison left, ill-equipped and poorly trained. If that’s the case, retaking it should be a simple affair.”

“There’s a but in there somewhere, sir,” David interjected.

“Of course. The but would be the League has put some potent planetary defenses up around the worlds it took from us. A frontal assault would cost us a lot of ships and lives. The Joint Chiefs are adamant that we not take the risk to save a few thousand civilians. As cold as it sounds, I have to agree with them.”

“We could try to disable those defenses with a pinpoint strike,” David mused out loud.

“Got it in one, Colonel. You’ll be deploying a commando team down there to perform recon, and if possible, determine how to take out their central control for the planetary defenses. If we could pull that off, the Lion of Judah, along with her Marine contingent, can deploy and secure the rest of the planet, once we plan and execute the op.”

“Makes sense to me, sir. I’ll get Captain Singh on it.”

“Good. Next item of business,” MacIntosh continued. “After you drop the team off, your next task will be to take up convoy escort duties.”

“Uh, sir, with respect, isn’t that a task best suited for fast warfare assets? Specifically, destroyers and frigates?”

“Convoy work too good for you, Colonel?” MacIntosh said, smiling for the first time.

“Of course not, sir. It just seems like using a sledgehammer to kill a fly.”

“The last three cargo convoys we sent to Unity Station were jumped by superior League forces, which included Rand class heavy cruisers. Rather than task a battlegroup with convoy defense, it's easier just to send you. You will link up with the DESRON 57 and her overall commander. You might remember him… Lieutenant Colonel Dyson.”

David’s face lit up; he hadn’t talked with Dyson in many months. He had commanded the destroyer squadron, or DESRON, that David’s first command, the CSV Yitzhak Rabin, had been assigned to.

“It’ll be good to see him again, sir. Who will have overall command of that mission?”

“Dyson’s got strategic command over the convoy routes and protection, but you will have tactical command of any missions you run. No pissing matches. Clear?”

“Crystal, sir.”

“Good. Any questions for me, son?”

“No, sir. Your orders seem quite straightforward, as always, sir.”

“I’m glad you approve,” MacIntosh cracked, a rare smile on his face. “How’s Colonel Demood doing?”

David shifted in his seat and pursed his lips together. Ah, that’s a charged question. “He’s progressing, sir. Discharging his duties with his usual vigor.”

“We can’t afford any screwups,” MacIntosh said, which David took as a statement more than anything.

“Yes, sir.”

“Okay, Colonel. I’m on to my next appointment. Good luck, good hunting, and Godspeed.”

“Godspeed, General. See you after another successful patrol.”

“Don’t count your chickens before they hatch,” MacIntosh complained as he killed the connection.

Staring at the now blank screen, David began to run the dual missions through his head. Not having the ability to offer direct support to the commandos bothered him, but orders were orders. Freiderwelt… Ruth was born and raised there, he remembered from a conversation long ago. I’ll ask her about this and see if she has any insights the commandos could make use of. He pulled the administrative cue up on his tablet and went back to work.

Gates of Hell

David decided that instead of calling Captain Singh up to his office, he’d stretch his legs and go down to Marine country. Nestled in the bowels of the ship, the tier-one operators had their little enclave, with a private space for each commando. He swung the hatch open, and even though he was the commanding officer of the Lion, he always treated the Special Space Warfare teams with the utmost respect. “Greetings, gentlemen!” he called out.

“Colonel on deck!” Master Chief Petty Officer Gordan MacDonald called out. Only he and Captain Rajneesh Singh were present; both came to attention.

“As you were,” David immediately replied, and both men relaxed. “Captain, Master Chief. Good to see you as always.”

“Same here, sir,” Rajneesh said. “What brings you down to our part of the ship?”

“I do rather enjoy admiring your toys,” David responded with a grin, pointing toward one of the specialized battle rifles on display in the small cage each commando had. Incredibly customized, the tier-one teams used weapons and technological gizmos that the Marines and ship’s security details could only dream about handling, much less being issued. “But I’m here on business today. The Lion was tasked with doing a stealth insertion behind enemy lines. I need you to put together an op plan to drop a team on Freiderwelt. League-occupied border planet, limited civilian population. The objective is to gather intelligence, specifically on planetary defenses and how best to neutralize them in preparation for an invasion.”

“Simple recon?” Rajneesh echoed.

“No such thing as simple recon,” MacDonald said with a snort. “With respect, sir, I’ve been doing this for twenty-four years. Every single time we’ve been dropped on a League-held planet, it goes south.”

“First time for everything?” David offered back, then cringed. Wow, that was lame.

“Do you have an intelligence workup for us?”

“I’ll have Lieutenant Taylor get it over to you. SHAEF sent it about fifteen minutes ago.”

“There are things drones can’t tell you,” MacDonald groused. “Any HUMINT in that intel file?”

“No human-gathered intelligence on this one,” David replied. “Though I may be able to offer you some assistance there.”

“What’d you have in mind, sir?” Rajneesh asked.

“I’m sure you’re familiar with Lieutenant Goldberg, our TAO?”

“Of course, sir,” Rajneesh said.

“She’s from Freiderwelt and served with the resistance movement there.”

“That might come in handy.”

“Only if she can handle herself in a firefight. The last thing we need is a cake-eater liability on this mission,” MacDonald stated, then added, “sir,” as if he remembered who he was talking to.

David took it in stride, flashing a smile toward MacDonald. “I understand your concern, Master Chief. I have nothing but positives to state about Lieutenant Goldberg, however. I doubt she would be anything except an asset to you.”

“I think the help would come in handy, Colonel,” Rajneesh said while shooting a look at MacDonald. “How long before insertion?”

“I have broad discretion over when we drop you guys; I think you’ll want to use a stealth assault launder?”

“We’ve got a few down in the hangar for that purpose, sir,” Rajneesh replied as he grinned. “Nothing quite like a high-altitude, low-opening jump from sixty miles up.”

“I will take your word for that, Captain. Anything else you need from me, besides your orders packet and intel brief?”

“No, sir.”

“I’ll speak with Lieutenant Goldberg and make sure she feels comfortable with the assist. Pretty sure the answer will be yes.”

“Roger that, sir. I’ll get Alpha team prepped. We’ll be ready to go regardless of her status,” Rajneesh said directly.

“In that case, good day, gentlemen. Good luck and Godspeed,” David replied as he flashed a smile and turned on his heel to leave. One problem down, another fifty to go.

Gates of Hell

The hatch to David’s office swung open, and Ruth strode in. She looks quite refreshed; hopefully, the sign of a good night’s sleep. Ever the stickler for customs and courtesies, she walked to his desk, brought herself to attention, and announced, “First Lieutenant Ruth Goldberg reports as ordered, sir.” She was the TAO, or Tactical Action Officer, for the Lion of Judah; in combat, she fought the ship as David ordered and was responsible for all weapon systems onboard.

“At ease and have a seat,” David replied while gesturing to the chairs in front of his desk.

“What can I do for you, sir?” Ruth asked after dropping into the chair nearest him.

“We’ve been assigned a mission that I think you could help with.”

“Of course, sir. What’s the mission?”

“We’re sending a commando team to Freiderwelt,” David said, carefully observing her face as he spoke. “Drone recon is great, but my memory is that you were born there and joined a resistance cell.”

“After my parents were killed, yes, sir. I’ve been sticking it to the League for thirteen years now,” Ruth said with a grim smile. “They want a local guide?”

“Basically. It helps you’re military and I would assume you can handle yourself in a firefight.”

“Was in quite a few of those before I joined the CDF.”

“This is a simple recon,” David explained. “There’s a rather robust planetary defense system around Freiderwelt… SHAEF wants to know if an attack by tier-one operators could succeed, allowing for a fairly painless invasion. Without it, the fleet would take serious losses.”

“I wonder how many civilians are even left for us to rescue. It’s been a long time since the flag of the Terran Coalition flew over my home. I’ll do anything I can to help, sir. Sign me up.”

“Are you sure?” David asked. “I can’t begin to imagine what happened to you there, but if it's too much to relive, there’s nothing wrong with saying so.”

Ruth looked David directly in the eyes, her stare intense and unwavering. “I can handle it, sir. More directly, sir, I want to handle it.”

“Remember, recon… if all goes well, you won’t fire a shot.”

“Yes, sir,” Ruth said, her eyes continuing to bore into him.

“How’s everything else? Your performance evaluation is coming up,” David said, seeking to change the subject.

“Will I be writing it again this year?”

“Always,” David said with a smile. “I have to write most of mine too… military tradition. Given any thought to your next posting? You’re up for transfer next year.”

“No, sir. I’d prefer not to think about it.”

“It’s possible you could be deep selected for promotion,” David replied. “You might even aim for a posting as XO on a smaller ship with your experience set.”

“Honestly, sir? If it's all the same, I’d rather get a waiver to serve on the Lion of Judah for another tour, assuming the war continues.”

“Those are pretty hard to come by,” David said with a grin. “Brass doesn’t want people getting comfortable. They want new ideas on ships, especially big ones like this.”

“I know. All things being equal, though, I like it here. The Lion is my family, and I think we’re better than the sum of our parts. Why mess with the formula?”

“Well, when the time comes, if that’s what you want, I’ll make the request,” David finally said. I’m going to have to think about how to prod her to leave the nest. Ruth’s got great potential, and I don’t want her to squander it on remaining at the same job for too long, even if she is the best TAO I’ve ever seen.

“Thank you, sir.”

“Okay, Lieutenant. I think we’re good. Report to Marine country this afternoon and meet up with Master Chief Petty Officer Gordan MacDonald. He commands the Alpha team. You’ll be inserting with them.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Ruth replied crisply as she stood up.

“Take care of yourself out there. Godspeed, Ruth. Dismissed.”


4

“Kiai!” Ruth screamed as she delivered a single sharp kick to the punching bag in front of her before launching in a flurry of punches that left her winded and wiping the sweat off her face. The officers’ gym was mostly deserted as the first watch was on duty, while the third watch was asleep.

“Taking out some frustration there, Ruth?” First Lieutenant Robert Taylor called out from behind her. He was the senior communications officer on the Lion of Judah, and the two of them had grown closer over the last six months.

“No…maybe,” Ruth said as she turned around, wearing a sheepish grin. “I got some orders today… they’re forcing me to remember things from my childhood I’ve tried to bury.”

“What orders?” Taylor blurted out.

“Colonel David wants me to go along with the commando team that’s being sent to Freiderwelt.”

“That’s where you grew up, right?”

“Yeah. Home. Place where my parents died, I was nearly raped, and where the hell that is my life started.”

Taylor winced. “It's not all bad. You’ve got friends here.”

“I know. I just… there’s a part of me that wants to do this mission. I pray to God I’ll be face to face with one of the men who inflicted so much pain on us… even more, I hope I can put him down. There’s another part which knows I have to give up this hatred before it consumes me.”

“I’ve been there,” Taylor replied earnestly. “Six months ago, when I volunteered to join Demood’s assault team against Unity Station. I thought what I needed was to put some Leaguers down with extreme prejudice, as the colonel would say. We both know it didn’t work out like that.”

“Still having nightmares?”

“Yeah, just last night.”

“I’m sorry,” Ruth replied, reaching out and squeezing Taylor’s shoulder. “It’ll get better.”

“That’s what the shrink says. All I’m saying is you don’t have anything to prove, Ruth, nothing at all. If you were looking to make up for what the League did to your family, I’m going to wager you’ve more than evened out the score by now.”

Ruth closed her eyes and looked away. “No matter how many of them I kill, I can’t bring the people I loved back.”

“I couldn’t either,” Taylor said. “I had to prove to myself I could take the fight directly to them, or at least that’s what felt right.”

“Are you trying to tell me not to take the mission, Robert?” Ruth asked.

“I’m just worried about you. Don’t sign up to get some revenge. Sign up if you think you can help end the occupation of your world and do some good.”

“What if I can do both at the same time?”

“Then I’d worry you were doing it for the wrong reasons,” Taylor said, his brow furrowed.

It’s sweet that he cares. I’m not sure I’m capable of caring even for myself, the way I am. I’ve hardened my heart as much as I think another human can. I barely form attachments as a coping mechanism. That’s what the doc said anyways. Ruth tried to smile, instead, she formed a sheepish grin and rolled her eyes. “Look, I’m not going to go full Demood on the place and absolutely, positively put every Leaguer on the planet down.” The last bit was said in a passable imitation of Calvin’s accent.

Taylor placed his hand over hers. “Promise me you're going to do it for the right reasons.”

“What’s the right reason?”

“To save people and beat the League.”

“Always. How are you doing?” Ruth said, changing the subject. “We haven’t been able to talk by ourselves in a while.”

“I’m always getting sucked in some new decryption problem, aren’t I?”

“Might make me wonder if you’re ducking me,” Ruth observed with a wry smile.

“Not at all. I’m hanging in there. The colonel warned me I’d kill people on that mission, and it would haunt me, change me, and stick with me the rest of my life. I should’ve paid more attention to him.”

“I’ve noticed he’s good like that,” Ruth replied. “I honestly haven’t cared for most COs I’ve been assigned under. Colonel Cohen is something different, though.”

“He’s a leader,” Taylor said. “Somehow, the man is capable of making me believe in myself, even when I’ve given up.”

“Not a bad thing either.”

“Hah,” Taylor answered while grinning.

“Want to spar? I’ve got to get cleaned up before watch soon, but I wouldn’t mind testing myself against those lightning reflexes of yours.”

“Anytime, Lieutenant,” Taylor said and winked.

Maybe he won’t run away like all the others did when they figured out how screwed up I am. “Let’s get this party started,” she replied, taking up a karate stance.

Gates of Hell

Later that morning, Ruth pushed open a hatch deep within Marine country, labeled as the staging area for Alpha team. The sight that greeted her was a spartan room with six individual storage areas, each containing unique weapons and supplies. She supposed that each commando had a specialty and customized rifles to go with it. There were six males, each with powerful muscles that she could see through their uniform shirts standing around a holoprojector in the center of the room.

“Good morning, Lieutenant,” MacDonald called out.

Ruth noted that no one came to attention. Then again, why would they? These guys have more combat ability than I’ll ever have. “Good morning, Master Chief,” she replied. “I understand you guys could use a local guide.”

It was like a cold blast of wind went through the room; Ruth felt the mood change in a second. “Let’s be very clear here, Lieutenant,” MacDonald replied. “We don’t need a local guide. Command gave us one. This team is the best of the best, elite tier-one operators who have successfully engaged the League more times than we can count. You are here to observe and answer our questions. You will not move unless I tell you to, you will not use your weapon unless I tell you to. Hell, you won’t speak unless I tell you to.”

Ruth was stunned; no words came out of her mouth while anger built within her.

“While we’re on the subject, you may outrank us, but for this mission, I have tactical and strategic command. Are we clear, Lieutenant Goldberg?”

“Yes, Master Chief,” Ruth grated out, her face blood red. “I don’t doubt your ability, nor the ability of anyone on your team. You will, however, respect my abilities. I grew up on Freiderwelt. I fought for a year with the resistance. I’ve earned my rank and my stripes.”

“That’s great, Lieutenant. Stay out of the way of the professionals, and this op will go just fine.”

Determined not to allow her anger to show, Ruth pressed on. “What can I do to help now, Master Chief?”

“Got any memory of landmarks that would be useful to us?”

“If you can pull up the drone imagery, I’ll do my best,” Ruth replied. “Also, if we’re going to be working together, would you care to introduce me to your team?”

A darker-skinned man, who had the unshakable air being a nerd, stuck out his hand. “Petty Officer First Class Esmail Rostami at your service, Lieutenant. I’m the resident network and information warfare expert for Alpha.” Rostami had the country patch of the Kingdom of Persia on his shoulder with the emblem of Islam directly under it in the religion position.

“Pleased to meet you, Rostami.”

Another broad-shouldered man stuck his hand out. “Chief Petty Officer Amancio Carlos Mata.”

Ruth took his hand into hers and shook; they all possessed vise-like grips. “What’s your job, Mata?”

“Sniper. I’m the angel of death to the League of Sol,” Mata responded without a trace of irony or sarcasm in his voice. Ruth noted that his country patch was the Republic of Brazil and lacked a religious flag.

“I am Senior Chief Petty Officer Dennis Harrell,” the Caucasian man who stood to the right hand of MacDonald announced. “Second in command of Alpha team. Let me echo the sentiments of the Master Chief. This isn’t a mission for cake-eaters.” His uniform had the country patch of the United States with a Christian flag underneath it.

I’m not a damn cake eater. It was a term Marines and those who considered themselves real soldiers used to insult officers, civilians, and anyone who didn’t have a front-line military occupational specialty. “Point taken, Senior Chief.”

“Chief Petty Officer Ibrahim Ahmad, EOD specialist,” the tall, dark-skinned soldier next to Harrell said. “A pleasure to meet you, Lieutenant. I look forward to working together.” Ruth took note that his uniform had a Republic of Saudi Arabia flag on it, coupled with a Christian flag underneath. That’s a combination you don’t see too often.



The last man present reached across the table to offer his hand. He too was Caucasian, with the flag of the United States on his shoulder. “Petty Officer First Class Nicholas Meissner. Trigger puller, frogman, door kicker,” he said with a relaxed smile. “Pleasure to meet you, LT.”

Ruth couldn’t help but smile in return, and she pumped his hand as hard as she could.

“Not a bad grip for a console jock, LT. Maybe there’s hope for you yet.”

Well, at least he didn’t call me a cake eater. “I guess we’ll see, Meissner.”

“Okay now, if we’re done playing nice, anyone object to us getting down to business?” MacDonald said, his gaze directedly squarely at Ruth.

“None at all, Master Chief,” Ruth replied, matching his stare and refusing to show weakness by averting her eyes.

“Well, thank you, Lieutenant,” MacDonald said in an overly polite manner. He pressed a button on the holoprojector, and it displayed a rotating three-dimensional image of Freiderwelt. It was encircled by blinking red points of light. “The dots represent League planetary defense satellites. As you can see, there’s a lot of them. The inherent problem with these sorts of systems is that the satellites themselves lack the computing power to be autonomous, and almost all of them are controlled from the ground.”

“I could just hack them for you, Master Chief,” Rostami interjected.

“Too bad the exterior surface of the damn things are charged with fifty-thousand volts, so you’d be fried if you tried to spacewalk to one and open it up to perform the hack.”

Rostami shrugged. “I guess they built a better mousetrap.”

“We’ll insert via an assault launder, the smallest in our inventory,” MacDonald continued.

“Are you sure it's stealthy enough?” Ruth asked.

“We wouldn’t be proposing to do it if the tool wasn’t up to the job,” Harrell said before muttering “cake eater” under his breath.

Ruth chose to let the insult pass. “Is there any reliable information as to what sensor capabilities of the defense system are?”

“None beyond typical League specifications,” MacDonald replied. “It’s within our safety parameters.”

Ruth nodded, placated. MacDonald pressed on with his briefing. “Our objective is a mountainous area about a hundred klicks from what was once a city. Drone recon suggests that there’s almost no one left in the cities on this planet. From our insertion point, we have a roughly thirty-kilometer hike to what appears to be the main League military installation on the planet. Intelligence believes that’s where we will find the control center.”

“Can you zoom in on that area, Master Chief?” Ruth asked.

MacDonald grunted and zoomed the holoprojection in. “There.”

“Thank you, Master Chief. During my youth, this was where the Amish lived.”

“What’s an Amish?” Meissner piped up with the same easy grin.

“Amish are a type of Christian. They don’t interact with outsiders much, have no use for technology, money, or the things they consider of the ‘English.’ That’s their word for anything not Amish. We’re talking about people who still use horse and buggy,” Ruth answered. Met by abject stares, she continued, “Horses are draft animals and pull wooden carts behind them to carry people and cargo.”

“I know what a horse is… but seriously, we’re what, seven hundred years removed from that technology? Seriously old school,” MacDonald said.

“Forget old school, Master Chief. It’s ancient history,” Rostami joked.

“So am I, Rostami. Don’t forget it,” MacDonald grumbled in return. “You’re telling me the only people around our landing area are Luddites that hate technology?”

“They don’t hate it, Master Chief. They don’t use it. I remember the Amish farmers we lived around as being incredibly kind human beings that like to keep to themselves. If anything, the fact they’re the only people seemingly left is great news for our op.”

“Our op, not yours, cake eater,” Harrell said bluntly.

“Oh, for the love of all things holy, stow it, Senior Chief,” Ruth snapped.

“Is that an order?” Harrell shot back, stepping away from the table and appearing next to Ruth.

“Yes, it’s an order, Senior Chief,” Ruth replied, glancing up as he towered over her, unflinching and refusing to break eye contact.

“Fine… Lieutenant.”

Harrell walked away, and Ruth turned back to face MacDonald. His gaze moved up and down her body, as if he was sizing her up after the interaction with his second in command. “Shall we continue, Master Chief?”

“These Amish, they don’t have communications equipment?”

“No,” Ruth answered while she shook her head.

“Maybe the LT’s right, a stroke of luck for us. They can’t turn us in if they’re somehow working with the League,” Meissner said lightly.

“I don’t see Christians or people of any faith ever working willingly with the League,” Ahmad said. “I do think it’s a stroke of good fortune, however.”

“We still can’t take any of this for granted, people,” MacDonald said. “We’ll access the situation once we get on the ground. At any rate, once we have eyes on the League installation, Rostami will work his magic and determine if we’re at the right place. As long as we are, we’ll find a way in, work out a plan, and exfil the area. Questions?”

“Why not take out the defenses now?” Ruth questioned.

“Those aren’t my orders, Lieutenant.”

“Point taken, Master Chief.”

No one else had any questions or comments as MacDonald’s eyes flickered to each commando. “Okay, then we’ll insert tomorrow. Get a good night’s rest and be back here at 0800 for final suit up and weapons check. Oh, and, Lieutenant, be here early so we can fit you with proper combat armor and a battle rifle.”

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world, Master Chief,” Ruth replied with a dazzling but ultimately fake smile.

“Glad to hear it. Rest of you, dismissed. Lieutenant, please stay.”

The rest of the team dutifully filed out, leaving Ruth and MacDonald alone. Ruth waited for him to speak.

“Lieutenant, I don’t think your presence on this op is a good idea.”

“Nor does your XO,” Ruth replied. “I was asked to try to help. That’s why I’m here.”

“I have no doubt you’re good at your job, but you’re not trained for what we do.”

“I wasn’t trained to kill Leaguers when I was a teenager either. Still did it.”

“Fair enough. Do not be a liability on this mission. There is no dishonor, nor will anyone here speak ill of you if you tap out now,” MacDonald stated directly.

“I won’t be a liability,” Ruth insisted. “I’ll help you accomplish the mission and free my home.”

“Then I’ll see you tomorrow morning at 0700.”

Ruth nodded and turned to walk away. I hope I’m doing this for the right reasons, she pondered as she cleared the hatch. Otherwise, the Master Chief is right. I could cost more lives than my own.


5

The following day, the Lion jumped close enough to Freiderwelt so the commandos would be within the range of a single Lawrence drive jump.. David had decided to see the team off personally with Captain Singh. While many soldiers milled about the massive central hangar bay working on space superiority fighters, shuttles, and other small craft, the two officers stood off by the assault lander itself.

“What do you feel about their chances?” David asked Rajneesh, almost absentmindedly.

“I believe Alpha team is made up of competent tier-one operators. If anyone can pull off this mission, it’ll be them.”

“I’m uncomfortable with our lack of QRF coverage.”

“You’re not the only one, Colonel. What are we going to be doing again in the meanwhile?”

“Convoy escort duty,” David said with a grimace. “If it’s as hot as command says, though, we’ll at least put some League ships down.”

“Any day we put more tonnage than them away is a good day,” Rajneesh replied.

Not quite. Any day we put six times more tonnage of theirs down than we lose is a good day. Anything else is a loss. He was jolted out of his thoughts by the commando team, plus Ruth walking across the hangar deck. I almost don’t recognize her in all that ground pounder gear. The entire group walked up to the two of them and came to attention.

“Master Chief Petty Officer Gordan MacDonald reports as ordered, sir!”

“At ease, Master Chief,” Rajneesh replied.

“Good to see you again, Master Chief,” David said while flashing a smile. “Ready to go help us figure out how to take back Freiderwelt?”

“Commandos were born ready, sir,” MacDonald replied in a cocky tone of voice he’d come to expect from the tier-one operators.

“Well, good luck and Godspeed.”

“Thank you, sir. Okay, let's mount up! And remember,” MacDonald said, pausing for effect before shouting, “If you ain’t spacewalking—You ain’t shit!”

David couldn’t help but laugh as the rest of the commandos shouted “Hoorah!” in unison. They trooped off into the assault lander, leaving Ruth to take up the rear. He leaned over and whispered toward her as she passed, “Good luck, Lieutenant. You’ve got your hands full.”

Ruth smirked and paused. “You have no idea, sir,” she replied, equally quiet.

“You’re going to do fine,” David said. “Now get up there and make me proud. Godspeed.”

“Aye aye, sir!” Ruth answered as she walked off into the lander.

David watched the hatch close, then turned back to Rajneesh. “Well, Captain, I’ll leave you to it. I’m due on the bridge for our check in with the overall sector commander for convoy defense.”

“That sounds lovely, sir,” Rajneesh said, grinning himself. “Have fun.”

“Always, Captain Singh.”

Gates of Hell

An hour later, David sat on the bridge in the CO’s chair. He couldn’t suppress the nagging feeling something was off; Ruth not being present on the first watch was odd. She hasn’t missed a shift in I can’t remember when. Not even illness keeps that woman away from her post.

“Conn, Navigation. Lawrence drive is charged and ready to engage,” Hammond announced.

“Acknowledge, Navigation,” David said. With the commandos deployed, his next task was to get in position at the convoy staging area in deep space. “XO, readiness of the ship?”

“All systems show green, sir,” Aibek replied.

David leaned forward. “Navigation, engage Lawrence drive.”

“Aye, sir!” Hammond answered and triggered the jump. The lights on the bridge dimmed, and an artificial wormhole opened in front of the Lion of Judah. Its portal through the stars, the ship’s sub-light engines engaged, and it flew through the gaping maw that displayed a rainbow of colors. Moments later, the transit was complete, and for several seconds, all sensor data was lost, a side effect of the jump.

“Conn, TAO. LIDAR online, no hostile contacts,” Second Lieutenant Victoria Kelsey called out in a sing-song Australian accent. She was the second watch tactical action officer and came with Ruth’s highest recommendation. A recent transfer to the Lion, David hadn’t interacted with her that often.

“Acknowledged, TAO. Populate the board with all contacts,” David ordered.

“Aye aye, sir!” Victoria replied promptly.

David turned around in his chair, staring at the large holoprojector in the well aft of his and Aibek’s seating. Dozens of blue icons indicating friendly ships snapped on; most were merchant ships. Taylor’s voice snapped his attention back to the front of the bridge. “Conn, communications. I’ve got Colonel Dyson for you on vidlink, sir.”

“Put him through to my viewer, Lieutenant.”

Dyson’s face appeared above David on his personal viewer; the older officer’s face was creased with a few too many frown lines and dark circles under his eyes. His brown hair had streaks of gray in it. The ravages of stress on the human body. That’s going to be me soon. Still, he smiled. “Greetings, Colonel Dyson. Good to see you again.”

“I’ll not lie, Colonel Cohen, your performance in our last combat together was outstanding. I never got the chance to thank you for saving my ship.”

“All part of the service,” David replied. “You’d do the same for me.”

“Amen to that. I have to admit, I was amazed command sent the Lion of Judah out here to run convoy escort duty.”

David smiled tightly. “My crew and I are simply looking to make sure our cargo ships get to resupply Unity and the fleet out there, while putting the hurt on our friends from the League.”

“You’ll get your chance, Colonel. I had an entire squadron of destroyers—twelve of them—when we started this escort rotation. We’re down three, and I’ve lost four frigates. There’re just not enough ships to go around to protect all these merchant vessels. You got any escorts with you?”

“Negative, Colonel. The Lion plus her two hundred combat spacecraft are all you get.”

Dyson frowned. “I was hoping we’d rate some additional reinforcements.”

“Fleet is thin after the battle to take Unity. That, and we’re trying to marshal our forces as best as we can to invade Earth.”

“I know… but it won’t mean anything if we can’t keep supplies flowing.”

“Professionals deal with logistics,” David said offhandedly. “Something my dad used to say.”

“Oh, that’s an old saw,” Dyson replied. “But yes. I’ll get you plugged into my command net and assign you a patrol route. There are three primary jump points we utilize, unless you object, I’ll have the Lion cover one by itself.”

“No issues at all, unless you’ve seen battleship strength forces.”

“We usually get a Rand class cruiser, escorted by Cobra class destroyers, and sometimes they send Lancer-class frigates in. You know how hard it is to defeat a Rand with just a destroyer group.”

David thought briefly to his engagement with a Rand—the victory that put him in command of the Lion—and nodded. “I do, indeed.”

“Anything else you need from me, Colonel Cohen?”

“I’d ask you send over the sensor records of your engagements so we can look for any obvious patterns and load the signatures of the ships you’ve been facing into our tactical computer.”

“I’ll have them sent over. Not sure what you’d find, but feel free to crunch it one more time.”

“Thanks,” David replied.

“I’ll have your mission outline by 1800 CMT today, Colonel. Dyson out.”

“Cohen out.”

Aibek peered at David intently. “Interesting. I would think the Terran Coalition could spare more ships for such an important task.”

“As I told Dyson, there’s so much else going on right now, this problem hasn’t hit critical mass for command yet.”

Aibek let out a sigh. “What is your plan?”

“Destroy enough League ships so they stop attacking our convoys due to an unfavorable rate of exchange,” David replied with a broad smile.

“That sounds easier said than done, as you humans say.”

“Exactly, XO, exactly,” David said and settled back into his chair. If nothing else, this is going to be an exciting combat evolution.

Gates of Hell

This cockpit is barely larger than a shuttle. Ruth was strapped in and staring out the transparent alloy “window” toward the stars. They’d come out of Lawrence drive a few hours earlier and were moving at sub-light speed toward Freiderwelt.

“Ever rode an assault lander down before, LT?” MacDonald asked from his seat next to the pilot.

“Can’t say I have, Master Chief. I’ve taken shuttles more times than I can count, but never a combat insertion.”

MacDonald turned around in his seat and grinned widely. “There’s nothing else like it in the universe. Gets your blood moving.”

“I’ll try not to scream like a little girl,” Ruth replied. Maybe some self-deprecating humor will help avoid another round of cake eater insults.

“That’s the spirit!” MacDonald replied between laughs.

“Master Chief, we’re coming up on the planet,” the pilot interjected.

“Got it, Warrant,” MacDonald said. “Engage maximum stealth protocol.”

The lights dimmed in the cockpit, and Ruth heard the heating unit shut off. “Is it going to get too cold in here?” she asked.

“Not in the time it takes us to deorbit and deploy. Head on back to the cargo area and start suiting up,” MacDonald instructed.

“Got it, Master Chief,” Ruth replied as she popped her shoulder straps off and stood up, thankful that as small as the little ship was, it had artificial gravity. A few steps down a short passageway, she arrived in what could be called the cargo area and deployment bay. The rest of the commandos were present and had already started putting on their modified power armor.

“Hey, LT!” Meissner called out, still wearing his trademark wide grin. “Need some help putting your armor on?”

“Won’t turn it down, Meissner,” Ruth answered. She walked to one of the powered suits sitting on the deck; given its smaller size, she assumed it was hers. “How is this different from standard TCMC power armor?”

“Seventy percent lighter, just as effective, and tight integration into comms and ISR,” Meissner replied.

“ISR?” Ruth asked as she squatted down to pick up the torso piece of the suit and lift it over her head. She stopped, seeing a sticker that had a cartoon drawing of a three-layer cake on the front of the panel. “Seriously, guys?”

Most of the commandos, excepting Ahmad, laughed uproariously. Ruth’s face turned red, and she started trying to rip the sticker off, only succeeding in tearing it.

Rostami leaned over as he finished putting on his gloves. “LT, word of advice. Never show emotion at being hazed. It’s like blood in the water to the sharks, got it?”

Ruth nodded and continued her efforts to tear the offending paper off; she finally succeeded and threw the suit over her head, pulling it down and checking for fit. “You got my size,” she deadpanned, trying to move on.

“Next you’ll want to sit down and put the leg portion on, and then we’ll help you with the arms,” Meissner offered.

“Thank you,” Ruth replied and followed his instruction, scooting the leg portion of the armor on and sealing it into place with the torso piece. “I’ve worn space suits before that were akin to power armor. This stuff is a lot lighter,” she commented.

“Tier-one always gets the best gear,” Mata interjected. “I’ve got optics in my rifle most can only dream about.”

“Tier-one, baby!” Harrell shouted. “Always ready! Always deadly! Always there!”

Ruth fought down the desire not to roll her eyes. This is like something out of one of those ludicrous action holomovies. The ones that always get what life is really like in the fleet and on the ground wrong.

Meissner picked up the right arm piece. “If you’d hold out your right arm, LT?”

After Ruth compiled, he fitted the piece in and ensured a tight seal. After repeating the process on her left arm, the suit was in place. “I’d stand up and walk around if were you, LT. Get used to it before we jump out the back.”

“Good advice. Thanks, Meissner,” Ruth said as she stood up, taking a few steps gingerly, shocked at how easy it was to walk in what appeared to be a heavy armor suit, but in reality, had servos and assists in it that automatically adjusted to her walking gait and made her faster and stronger.

The sudden tight turns the ship made were the first indication something was wrong; Ruth was flung off her feet and narrowly missed hitting her head on one of the padded seats that were used for hard landings.

“Secure yourselves! We’re under fire from the planetary defense grid!” MacDonald’s voice came out of a speaker in the room at a shout.

Ruth tried to get herself up, only to find a powerful hand lifted her suit and helped her into the chair. “There you go, LT,” Ahmad said and handed her the helmet that went with the armor. “Get it on and strap in.”

Ruth just nodded in reply, fumbling around with the helmet for a moment before it locked into place. Whoa, this is neat, she thought as the HUD initialized, automatically linking her into the same tactical network that the commandos shared. It also allowed her to see metrics from the ship, which weren’t right. Multiple missiles appeared to be tracking their craft. How the heck did the League even get a lock on us? This thing is supposed to have the latest in stealth tech. Wishing for a moment she hadn’t looked at the feed, she braced herself as a missile hit the ship.

Time seemed to slow down and almost stop as the muted sound from the explosion roared through the tiny vessel. Ruth held on to her straps as the floor seemed to rush up at her; the rest of the commandos looked like it was merely another day at the office. “New plan!” MacDonald’s voice came over the speaker again. “Brace for impact! We’re going down!”

Ahmad dropped into the seat next to hers. “You’re not properly strapped in, Lieutenant,” he said as he pulled the straps tight enough so she couldn’t move. “The entire point to these harnesses is they keep us from moving and our feet out of contact with the deck. Large reduction in injuries that way.”

Ruth nodded in return. I’m not showing my fear. “This happens often?”

“All the bloody time!” Meissner yelled. “It’s because we use the lowest bidder on building our shit!”

The ship began to rattle uncontrollably; Ruth used the helmet’s interface to look at their relative position to the planet. They were eighty miles up and coming in at a near ballistic trajectory. The pilot appeared to be on track to somehow get them near where they had planned to recon. That’s some real dedication or just crazy amounts of skill.

Yasue yahminana min alshar,” Ahmad said quietly, causing Ruth to look over. The commando had his head bowed and was holding his hands together.

“I’m not sure what you just said, but amen,” Ruth interjected.

Ahmad laughed. “I asked Jesus to protect us,” he said as the ship rattled once more and the hull made groaning noises, indicating extreme stress. Through her HUD, Ruth saw they were now fifty miles up.

“I think we’re going straight in,” Ruth said, fighting to talk through rising G-forces as the inertial dampening system was overtaxed and at the point of failure.

“Pilot will pull out of the dive before that happens,” Ahmad gasped back. “Done this before, Lieutenant. Don’t worry, we’re not dying today. At least not in this crash.”

That sounded a whole lot like false bravado to me. Ruth closed her eyes and chose not to watch the updated sensor readout as they hurtled toward the ground. For those few moments, she considered her choices and the decisions she had made. God, if You’re up there… if You can hear me, if I even matter to You, she prayed silently. Just help me to get through this and do the right things down here.


6

“Wake up, Lieutenant!” MacDonald screamed into Ruth’s face as he shook her suit. She moaned as he did, finally opening her eyes. “Can you hear me?”

“Yes…” Ruth replied, her speech slurred.

“Let me have a look,” said an accented voice that Ruth couldn’t place.

Ruth blinked her eyes several times and saw the face of Mata, the sniper, appear in front of her. “I feel like someone beat me up,” she managed to say.

“I also serve as the unit’s medic, though we all have medical training,” Mata explained as he ran a hand scanner over her. “You’re lucky. No broken bones, minor concussion.”

“Great, damn cake eater gets a concussion,” Harrell said as he too stood over them. “Get her back on her feet, Mata. We don’t have time for this.”

Mata pulled a device out of his pack and adjusted it before giving her a shot. “You’ll be fine in two minutes, Lieutenant.”

True to his word, Ruth felt better, almost momentarily. Her brain cleared, and she sat up to see she was still in the lander; the rest of the team was collecting ammunition and supplies. “We crashed?”

“That we did,” MacDonald replied, stepping back and double-checking his loadout. “Pilot’s dead. This bird will never fly again.”

“We need to be thinking about getting off this rock, Master Chief,” Meissner interjected. “Leaguers will send patrols this way.”

“Got any bright ideas on how to do that? I suppose we could walk up to the nearest League officer and politely ask to use a shuttle?” MacDonald replied to scattered chuckles.

“Escape and evade is the first order of business,” Ruth said, causing everyone to stare at her.

“Okay, cake eater, I’ll humor you for a bit,” Harrell said as he tilted his head to the side. “Since you managed to at least get the term right. In your expert opinion, how would we do so?”

“Take the body of the pilot, set the entire thing alight with white phosphorus grenades, and destroy what’s left of the ship.”

MacDonald and Harrell exchanged glances before MacDonald turned back to her. “That’s pretty damn dark, LT. We’re not burning the body of one of our own.”

“Why not?” Ruth said, her tone a challenge.

“Because everyone goes home. Even if it’s in a body bag. We’ll spread some tissue samples around, but we’re burying her in the woods. Someday, she will be returned to her family.”

Ruth stared at him, silent. Who cares anyway? No one will remember us if we die here. “Fine, we’ll do it your way. Hopefully, it’ll be enough to fool the front line League garrison troops that have no interest being here in the first place. Someone will eventually figure out there’s not enough DNA for a ship this size, but by that time, we’ll be long gone.”

MacDonald nodded. “Okay, people, gather up everything we can carry. Bring the heavy weapons, explosives, food, and medical gear. We may have to fight our way off this rock. I want to be prepared.”

“You heard the Master Chief! Let’s go, ladies!” Harrell shouted, with one last dirty look toward Ruth.

“Do we have comms?” Ruth asked.

“I’ve got the mini-burst dish,” Rostami answered. “Once we get far enough away from here that it’s safe to stop for a bit, I’ll set it up, and we can get off a transmission. The problem is, we can’t keep it up in receive mode. Not without attracting unwanted attention.”

“One problem at a time,” Ruth mused.

“I hate it when ops start like this,” MacDonald said. “Puts a hex on the whole damn mission.”

“What can I do?” Ruth asked.

“Gather up what you can in your pack. I assume you can carry twenty kilos?”

“I passed my fitness eval with flying colors, Master Chief. Thirty-five kilos isn’t a problem.”

“Good. Load her up, Ahmad.”

The group worked in silence, taking everything that could be of use to them, while Harrell and Mata handled taking the pilot out of the craft and putting her lifeless corpse into a standard-issue CDF body bag.

“Ahmad, wire this thing up with charges. Nothing left, understood?” MacDonald stated.

“Yes, Master Chief.”

Despite having only known the men for a short period, Ruth could tell from the frowns, drawn faces, and somber attitudes that the loss of the pilot deeply affected Alpha team. At times like this, I hate the war.

“Everyone off the ship,” MacDonald barked. The team followed him out, Ruth taking up the rear. Upon exiting the craft, a forest confronted them. It appeared to extend for miles in every direction, a canopy of green with a gash left in it by the crash.

Ahmad was the last one a few minutes later. He trotted up to MacDonald. “Charges and grenades set, Master Chief.”

“Blow it.”

Ahmad did as he was told and triggered a remote detonator that caused a surprisingly small series of explosions. They all stood watching as thick smoke began to waft out of the back of the ship, followed by white-hot flames that forced the group back. MacDonald spoke again. “I’m not that good at this, but here goes. Lord, we ask you to watch over the soul of Warrant Officer Rebecca Douglas. She gave her life so that we might live. Amen.”

“Amen,” Ruth answered along with the rest of the team.

“Harrell, take point,” MacDonald ordered. “Ahmad and Meissner, you get the first round of carrying the body. Everyone else, in line. I’ll take up the rear. For now, we’re charlie mike.”

“Charlie mike?” Ruth asked.

“Continuing mission,” Meissner explained.

“I figure wherever that control center is, we’ll find some shuttles there too. We’ll kill several birds with one stone.”

“Ever tried killing a bird with a stone?” Ahmad quipped. “It’s quite difficult.”

“Fall in,” Harrell said, walking off after consulting his tablet.

Ruth got into line with the rest of the team, wondering what would happen next. This day can’t possibly get any worse.

Gates of Hell

With blackness in every direction and only the light of faint stars, space is a lonely place to be. Sometimes I wish Angie were here. David sat in the CO’s chair, watching the readouts from his tactical display as the Lion of Judah traversed the artificial wormhole created by his ship’s powerful Lawrence drive.

“Conn, Navigation! Emerging into normal space!” Hammond called out.

Even with the advanced inertial dampening systems, David felt the massive warship accelerate as it left the tunnel it had traveled. “Conn, TAO! LIDAR array snapping on, no hostile contacts,” Kelsey, the second watch TAO officer, said.

“Acknowledged, TAO. Are all civilian vessels present and accounted for?”

Kelsey carefully checked her screens before answering. “Yes, sir. Everyone’s here.”

“Navigation, take us into the middle of the formation and maintain speed with the rest of the transports.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

“No reception party as of yet,” Aibek observed. “I wonder if anyone will show up.”

David turned his head and grinned. “We’ll give them a vigorous welcome as long as they do, XO.”

“Conn, communications! I’ve got an emergency distress signal coming in from the CSV Dutiful sir,” Taylor interjected.

“On my viewer, Lieutenant,” David commanded.

A couple of moments later, Colonel Dyson appeared on the screen above the CO’s chair. “Colonel Cohen, wasn’t sure you’d get this!” he said, with an explosion from a console and a blast of smoke appearing in the background. “We’ve been jumped by two Rands and several escorts. Can you assist?”

“We just dropped out of Lawrence drive, Colonel,” David said, alarmed. Back to back jumps are always bad news.

“Understood. Get here as soon as you can,” Dyson replied.

“We’ll be there.”

The screen went black, and David sat back in his chair. “Dang,” he muttered under his breath while he reached over to hit the commlink. “Cohen to Hanson, come in.”

“Hanson here, sir.”

“We need to execute an emergency long distance Lawrence drive jump. What’s our risk factor?”

There was a pregnant pause on the open comm line. “Right now, five percent sir. If we can wait fifteen minutes, it’ll go down to one or two percent.”

David closed his eyes and looked up at the ceiling. They don’t have fifteen minutes. “Prepare for immediate jump, Major.”

“Aye aye, sir, Hanson out.”

David opened his eyes and glanced toward Hammond. “Navigation, plot a Lawrence drive jump that puts us five hundred kilometers from the Dutiful’s last position.”

“Aye aye, sir!”

“Are you sure about this?” Aibek whispered into David’s ear.

“Yeah. Two Rands will cut them to ribbons. Too many dead soldiers on my watch already, XO.”

“We could end up dead too,” Aibek observed.

“The odds are largely in our favor.”

Aibek nodded, but his dour facial expression didn’t suggest much confidence. “What about these ships? If we depart, they will lack protection.”

“I’ve got that covered,” David said with a grin.

David punched the button on his chair for 1MC. “General quarters... General quarters, this is your commanding officer. Man your battle stations. I say again, man your battle stations! Set material condition one throughout the ship. This is not a drill. I say again, this is not a drill.” The rote procedure for calling the crew to man their posts was at this point, ingrained into him. Now the words just flowed off his tongue with little thought. The lights on the bridge dimmed to a blue color, and the general quarter's klaxon sounded, over and over.

“Conn, TAO. Material condition one set throughout the ship, sir.”

“Conn, Navigation! Course plotted and locked in, sir,” Hammond announced.

David punched up the commlink to the air boss down in the central hangar bay. “Boss, this is Colonel Cohen. Launch the ready five fighter squadron!”

“Aye aye, sir, launching now!” came the reply.

“Conn, TAO, showing twelve SF-103 Phantoms safely away from the Lion,” Kelsey announced several seconds later.

“Thank you, TAO,” David replied. “Navigation, activate Lawrence drive and take us in, Lieutenant.”

“Aye aye, sir!”

There were rumblings deep within the ship that caused vibrations in David’s chair as the Lawrence drive worked its magic. In front of the Lion, a multi-colored wormhole sprang open, a beautiful and majestic sight that still moved him after all the years in space. A testament to God’s handiwork. The ship glided through under sub-light power, the drive humming away. Having been through enough jumps to know every sound by heart, it was clear there was something wrong on this one. Hold it together, old girl.

Suddenly, stars appeared in the large transparent metal window at the front of the bridge as the Lion returned to normal space. The tactical display that David watched began to flash red. “Conn, engineering!” The speaker on his chair crackled with Hanson’s voice. “Lawrence drive overheated, and we had a release of anti-protons.”

Oh, snap. While not an engineer, David knew that if the wrong exotic elements were created by the drive and they annihilated in the wrong place, it could cause the drive to explode, destroying the ship. “Thank you, Major. We won’t be jumping for a bit.”

“Conn, TAO! LIDAR online, I’m showing multiple enemy contacts.”

“TAO, populate the board,” David barked before he turned in his chair to stare at the holoprojector well in the middle of the bridge. Red and blue icons came into being, showing the positions of ships relative to the Lion. “What’s the nearest enemy contact, TAO?”

“Cobra class destroyer designated Master Nine, sir.” Hostile contacts were code-named “Master,” while friendly or neutral contacts were designated “Sierra.”

“TAO, firing point procedures, Master Nine. Set firing solution for neutron beams,”

“Firing solution set, sir.”

“Match bearings, shoot, neutron beams.”

Light blue lances of energy erupted from the neutron beam emitters on the Lion, and they instantly connected with the hapless League destroyer. After three blasts, the fourth found unshielded hull, while the fifth and sixth racked the enemy ship from bow to stern with explosions. Finally, the seventh beam found the main reactor and the destroyer exploded into two-foot sized chunks.

“Conn, TAO! Master Nine destroyed,”

“TAO, status of Rand class cruisers?”

“They’re attacking the Dutiful and a frigate, sir. Wait, aspect change, all League contacts! League ships are powering their Lawrence drives.”

“TAO, snap shot, closest ships to us, neutron beams and magnetic cannons!” David ordered, not even bothering to give ship designations. She shouldn’t need me to handhold there.

“Aye aye, sir.”

David’s eyes were glued to his tactical monitor as Kelsey fired off most of the charged neutron beam emitters on the ship, as well as the forward magnetic cannons. Most of the magnetic cannon shots missed, but a couple connected. One brace of shells hit a Lancer-class frigate, which she followed up with neutron beams. A few seconds later, the hapless vessel exploded. Either the reactor went critical or one of the hits impacted a munitions magazine.

“Conn, TAO! Master three destroyed, sir. All other enemy contacts have jumped. We’re clear!”

“Good shooting, Lieutenant,” David said. “Communications, contact the Dutiful and Colonel Dyson.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Taylor said. “I’ve got the colonel for you now, sir.”

Dyson’s face again appeared on the monitor above David’s head. “Colonel, I owe you my life a second time. As does my crew.”

Holding back a rueful smile, David shook his head. “Just doing my job. How bad is it?”

“We lost an Ajax and two Meades. That was the largest attack force yet. We were concentrating our firepower on the Rands and didn’t get any kills before you arrived.”

David exchanged a glance with Aibek. “Understood. We’ll dispatch medical and engineering teams to whichever ships need them.”

“Much appreciated, Colonel.”

“We’ll jump back to the other Merchant Marine group as soon we’re able to. The drive stressed a bit on the way over,” David said, choosing not to reveal how close they came to disaster. “I left a squadron of fighters behind to protect them, but I don’t want to leave those guys alone for too long.”

“Of course.”

“Once our respective freighters clear the final jump, I suggest we rendezvous and discuss how we can outwit our foe.”

“Absolutely, Colonel. We can meet back up at rally point Charlie in six hours.”

“Agreed. See you then, and Godspeed, Colonel Dyson.”

The screen blinked off, and David found himself back within his head. Who is this Leaguer we’re fighting? He or she is better than most I’ve seen from their side. More importantly, did they make a lucky guess, or did we do something that gave away our plans?


7

Doctor Hayworth threw a technical interface tablet across the engineering space while screaming. “You idiots! You almost destroyed my reactor with overuse of the damned Lawrence drive!”

Hanson stared impassively, doing the same thing he had for the last ten minutes: let Hayworth rant and stay out of the way. This guy’s ego is big enough to need its own planet. “I think the key word is ‘almost,’ Doctor.”

“Oh, is it? You would’ve died too!”

Nice of him to finally realize that. “We all would’ve died, Doctor. Colonel Cohen needed to bail out friendly forces. This job is about risks at times.”

Hayworth got two inches from Hanson’s face. “When you’re making decisions that affect the greatest invention mankind has ever made, you don’t risk it.”

“It’s not my call, or yours,” Hanson replied. “Why not focus on what we can affect? The Lawrence drive won’t recalibrate itself, and the reactor still needs a thorough safety check.”

“I’ll handle the reactor,” Hayworth said matter-of-factly. “Lawrence drives are beneath me.”

“Whatever you say, Doctor,” Hanson muttered and turned on his heel to walk off. He picked up a portable tool kit and walked off toward the assembly that shunted power from the anti-matter reactor into the FTL drive. Lost in his work as he checked the power flow regulator and safety interlocks, he didn’t hear Major Merriweather come up behind him.

“Major Hanson?” she said.

Hanson nearly took his head off when he jerked backward, slamming it into the console he had crawled under. “Uh, hey, Major.”

Merriweather chuckled, a wide grin on her face at his hijinks. “How’s it going?”

“Everything looks good, but I’m doing a second tier of checks just to be on the safe side. Anytime there’s exotic particle release, I like to be extra careful.”

She nodded and winked. “Of course. I would do the same if I were the chief engineer of a ship.”

“Would you hand me that scanner?”

“Sure.” She picked up the handheld structural scanner and handed it down. “There’s a reason we don’t do back-to-back Lawrence drive jumps except in abject emergencies.”

“Colonel’s boat. He gets to call it the way he sees it,” Hanson said as he ran a quick scan of the power interface. “Good news. No fatigue beyond normal wear and tear.”

“Doctor Hayworth does make a good point. This is the only functioning anti-matter reactor powered warship, or ship at all, for that matter, in the Terran Coalition. It has to be protected.”

Hanson pushed himself out from under the console and sat up. “I don’t see an undue risk being taken, Major Merriweather. If we’d done another jump after this one, then yes, I would have insisted on an engineering stand-down. I’ve no interest in dying in a blaze of glory and be someone whose ship was lost to a Lawrence drive mishap.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to question you.”

I may have overreacted there. “No, I’m a bit tense. I’m sorry I bit your head off. On a different subject, why haven’t you put in a fleet posting yet? I’ve heard you mention several times in the last six months you’d like to try your hand at chief engineer.”

“Oh, mostly because Doctor Hayworth still needs my help, especially with the smaller versions of his reactor soon to come out. Like it or not, anti-matter power will likely be my life’s work.”

“Not a bad legacy,” Hanson observed.

“I suppose not. What about you? What’s next after being the chief engineer of the Lion of Judah?”

Hanson grinned. “Haven’t much thought about it. I might try for command track at some point, but I don’t think I want to make the decisions that come along with the big chair. I’m content to fix the mousetrap so that others can find the mice.”

“Interesting way of looking at it,” Merriweather replied.

“Well, our drive is ready to go with another hour of cool-off. I think I’ll let Colonel Cohen know and move on the next issue on my list.”

“Always another problem to solve, isn’t there?”

“Always,” Hanson replied as he stood. “Good seeing you, Major. I wish you continued success with the doctor.” I still don’t understand how she stands him.

Gates of Hell

Kenneth pressed the chime outside of David’s day cabin on deck one as the hatch was closed. It swung open, and Aibek’s massive Saurian form was directly in front of him.

Aibek gruffly pushed by. “Good morning, Mister Lowe.”

“Good morning, Colonel Aibek. Sleep well?”

Aibek paused and cocked his head to one side toward Kenneth. “Saurians require far less sleep than humans, so almost all nights, I sleep well. You know this, yet you persist in asking me. Why?”

“Small talk, sir,” Kenneth replied.

“Ah. Carry on,” Aibek said and stalked off down the passageway.

“Come in, Kenneth!” David yelled.

Kenneth ducked under the hatch, thanks to his height of over two meters, and presented himself in front of David’s desk. “You asked for me, sir?”

“Have a seat.”

Kenneth sat down in one of the chair’s directly in front of David’s desk and waited for David to speak.

“I’ve gotten some reports from both Colonel Aibek and Major Hanson that our contractor support has been less effective than usual lately,” David began. “I looked over your metrics, and while what we’re getting is far better than most, it’s off what I’ve come to expect from you. What’s going on?”

Kenneth sighed. I’ve been dreading him finally noticing. “This is going to sound stupid, Colonel.”

“Try me.”

“Remember Ms. Blackman?”

“I’ll never forget her,” David replied with a smirk. “There are few people I actively dislike. That woman is one of them. Don’t get me started.”

“Well, sir, she’s still in charge of our overall program. There’s been a push to bring another contracting firm in to supplement our efforts.”

“You know I hate contractor politics.”

“I do, sir. The problem is she’s insisting we add this other firm as a subcontractor to us, but I refuse.”

David sighed himself, closed his eyes, and looked up at the ceiling. “You realize I don’t have time for this, right?”

“That’s why I haven’t brought it to you, sir.”

“So why have you refused?”

“Because they’re woefully ineffective, have a poor reputation, and Ms. Blackman only wants them added because she’s in a relationship with the guy who would lead the project from their company.”

David’s face snapped down, and he stared at Kenneth with a look that bordered on rage. “That is preposterous and illegal.”

“I agree, sir, but it’s what she’s doing. Since I’ve refused, she won’t allow us to backfill people who find other jobs, get tired of being out in space for so long, or are injured and can no longer work.”

“Which is lowering the number of people you have to do the job and causing some things to be missed.”

“Yes, sir. I’ve been using overtime to make up for it, but at some point, the human brain becomes less able to do delicate work after it’s been going for twelve hours a day, seven days a week.”

“I get it,” David replied. “I don’t have time to deal with Ms. Blackman today, nor will I tomorrow. Once we put an end to these League raids on our supply lines, though… we’re going to have a very direct conversation with her. Clear?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. Hold it together as best as you can and try rotating some people off. My suggestion to you would be to tell the XO and Hanson what’s going on and work with them to prioritize repairs. Get your people some downtime because we’re going to be in combat starting shortly.”

“Yes, sir, I’ll do that.”

“Very well. Dismissed.”

Kenneth nodded respectfully and stood up. He fought the urge to brace to attention and instead walked out the hatch. That didn’t go too badly. Just don’t want to distract David right now, especially with some petty nonsense. They’ve all got enough on their plates. He strode toward the gravlift and back to his office. God help us all.

Gates of Hell

“Welcome to our not-so-humble conference room, Colonel Dyson,” David said as he walked into the room, followed closely by Dyson, Amir, and Aibek. The familiar table and chairs had once been something of a wonder to him; no ship he’d ever served on had been so finely appointed.

“Impressive, Colonel Cohen. Nothing like a destroyer,” Dyson replied.

David gestured to the chairs. “Gentlemen, please have a seat.”

Once they’d all settled in, David continued. “Colonel, thank you for joining me. I thought it was best to discuss our strategy face to face. I’m concerned at what appears to be increasing concentrations of League ships.”

“Agreed,” Dyson said. “Every time we take one out, two more crop up in its place. That’s been our problem with the League from the beginning.”

“Quantity over quality,” Aibek interjected. “I’ve studied our foe and its history. Massed wave tactics which border on using sentient beings as cannon fodder with no hope of survival.”

“Not to derail our council of war on a history lesson, XO, but that’s been the calling card of government systems like the League throughout history. Human wave attacks where one person would have a weapon, the one behind didn’t, and when the first guy fell, the second would pick it up and keep fighting. Regardless,” David paused for a breath. “We need to strike a knockout blow to this particular battlegroup of Leaguers.”

“I’ve requested reinforcements, but command has told me they’re several days away, at best. Until then, we’ve got to hold the line and keep supplies flowing. The amount of parts needed for repairs, not to mention food and munitions, is staggering,” Dyson stated. “The slow bleeding of our merchant ships is starting to catch up too.”

“It could be why the League hasn’t attacked the station yet,” David mused out loud. “Weaken us first, then attack.”

“Perhaps,” Dyson responded. “Still, we’ve only got the ships we’ve got. I don’t see any other tactics besides what we did previously. My fast warfare group will escort one convoy; the Lion can escort the other.”

“What about combining the convoys into one unit?” Amir asked. “That would make them far easier to defend, would it not?”

“Unfortunately, they have two separate start points, Colonel Amir. It would add days onto the trip, and more stops where we could be ambushed.”

“I’m more worried about the fact the League seems to have very accurate information about where the convoys are inside of what is our space,” David said. “Have you discussed this with CDF Intelligence?”

“I have, but the answers have been less than illuminating. Their best guess is the League has populated our space with stealth drones.”

“The League’s stealth technology has never been anything close to on par with ours,” David replied.

“Except those mines…” Amir interjected. “Those were better than anything we have.”

“True. Very troubling and true. Thankfully, CDF Special Projects determined a countermeasure based on their EM signature through scientific sensors,” David said. “Still, we have the same problem we started with. Not enough ships and too much space to cover. Any ideas?”

Dyson and Aibek remained mute, but Amir spoke up. “I’ve got one, sir. It’s a bit out of the box.”

“I think we all know I’m a bit unorthodox,” David said with a grin.

“The same thing you did when we jumped out to respond to the distress call, except large. We time it so that we jump first, launch half of our fighter and bomber wings – more than enough to defend against the League formations seen so far.”

“And then after Dyson’s convoy jumps to its mid-point, the Lion preemptively joins his force, hopefully catching the Leaguers with their pants down,” David finished.

“That sounds pretty good to me, Colonel,” Dyson said. “I’d like to have some Marines standing by to storm any ships we might disable. Maybe get to the bottom of their fiendishly good intelligence?”

“Agreed,” David said. “Any objections or thoughts, people?” Receiving nothing but silence in return, David continued. “In that case, we’ve got our orders. Let’s get to implementing them.”

“Yes, sir!” Amir crisply replied, as did Aibek.

“Thank you, Colonel Cohen. Look forward to crushing these bastards with you,” Dyson said.

“Amen to that,” David said and stood, signaling the end of the meeting. “Godspeed.”

As the meeting broke up, David found himself walking back to toward the bridge. Something feels off with the League actions here. Perhaps they finally found some competent sector commanders, but I can’t shake the sense there’s something else going on here.


8

I thought I was in shape. Ruth dodged fallen branches and other obstacles in her way, thankful for the combat HUD and night vision optics in her helmet. After six hours of near constant hiking, the team had covered over thirty kilometers. They had used a vast forest for cover and were nearing its edge as the trees began to thin out.

“Keep up, cake eater,” Harrell hissed through the commlink into her helmet. “We don’t have time to lag. Daylight in four hours.”

Ruth rolled her eyes, though no one could see her. After all night with this guy, I’ll be cured of this ground pounder crap for the rest of my career. “Yes, Senior Chief.”

The symbol for “Hold” flashed through Ruth’s HUD. She immediately froze in place. “I’ve got several buildings about eight hundred meters away,” MacDonald said through the commlink. “Fan out, take covering positions. Rostami, get up here with your gear. I want ears on this farm yesterday.”

“Yes, Master Chief!” Rostami replied, his voice muted thanks to the commlink system.

The team spread out, while Ruth ended up next to MacDonald, hidden behind a tree and all but invisible thanks to the active camouflage system the suits they wore sported.

“Master Chief, looks like a decidedly low tech farm. I’m not detecting any power, any transmissions of any type, and no guards,” Rostami said.

Ruth scanned the farm herself with the onboard optical package in her helmet. It was just as Rostami had said, a nondescript farm in the what appeared to be the middle of nowhere. Do people live like this? I’d go nuts after three days. She noted a large barn some distance from the main house, along with multiple out-buildings.

“Wait a minute, Master Chief. I’ve got a powered vehicle approaching. Southwest quadrant,” Rostami continued.

“Can you get a fix on what it is?” MacDonald said.

Ruth turned her head and saw the headlights, plainly visible on the horizon. “League of Sol personnel carrier, Master Chief.”

“Crap. Maybe they saw us?” Mata posited.

“If they had any idea we were here, this place would have an entire army in it,” Harrell said in a haughty tone. “This is some security patrol. Mata here can smoke the entire lot of them before they know what hit ‘em.”

“Do not engage without my explicit order,” MacDonald cautioned. “Maintaining stealth is paramount.”

“Aw, shucks, I wanted to add to my kill count, Master Chief,” Mata joked back.

The vehicle came to a stop outside of the main house, and Ruth watched as two League soldiers got out. Identifiable by the black and gray uniforms they wore, she thought something was off about how they moved. The two men walked to the back of the vehicle and roughly pulled a third person out.

“I’ve got two tangos here, and what appears to be a civilian in distress, Master Chief,” Rostami said. “Confirmed, young woman. Possibly a teenager.”

Rage boiled into Ruth’s veins as she confirmed Rostami’s observations through her helmet optics. “Master Chief, we can easily dispatch these two. They look drunk to me,” she said. While she spoke, the Leaguers dragged the girl toward the large barn.

“Negative, LT. We’ll maintain overwatch.”

Ruth turned toward him. “They’re going to rape her.”

“I’d like nothing more than to waste the two mothers right here, LT. We do that, every Leaguer on this God-forsaken planet will be after us. Mission first.”

“Master Chief, we could hide the bodies… steal the transport,” Ahmad interjected.

“This isn’t a debate. I’m in command, and we hold.”

Ruth closed her eyes, deep in thought. I remember being that girl. I’ll never forget that day, and I’ll always remember what they did to me. I can save her from a fate worse than death. “Do whatever you want. I’m going in,” Ruth announced, tossing her battle rifle aside and taking off toward the distant figures at her fastest running speed.

“Get back here, LT! That’s a direct order!” MacDonald thundered into her ear; Ruth turned the commlink off in reply. She covered the distance without making a sound, tracking her targets like a hunter. These Leaguers are so drunk, they probably wouldn’t notice if I started screaming at them and waving my arms.

The two soldiers dragged the girl through the door of the barn, and Ruth poured on everything she had for speed. Twenty meters from the door, her hand found the silenced sidearm on her leg, and she charged through the door at full tilt, knocking it backward with a loud crash.

“No! No!” the teenaged girl screamed, trying to in vain to push the two away. Ruth quickly took in the scene; the girl was wearing clothing consistent with what she remembered of the Amish. A basic, no-frills dress that looked like it had come out of a museum. The drunk men glanced her way, apparently surprised at her sudden appearance.

“What’s this here?” the one directly to her right said as he walked toward Ruth. “Want to join our little party?”

“Rot in hell, Leaguer,” Ruth replied, bringing the butt of her sidearm up and using it as a blunt force weapon. She rammed it into the throat of the closest Leaguer, leaving him clutching his throat and gasping for air. Turning to the next man, she leveled the sidearm and squeezed the trigger three times; twice into his center mass, once into his brain.

The stunned Leaguer meanwhile began to fumble with the sidearm he carried; Ruth turned back to him. Without another word, she shot him three times in the same locations. Cool as a cucumber, she then holstered the pistol on her leg. Silence descended like a curtain over the barn. The girl looked between the two dead men, then up at Ruth.

I guess I’ve still got combat reflexes. Ruth surveyed the interior of the barn. The girl curled up in a fetal position and began to sob.

“It’s okay,” Ruth said as she walked toward the girl. “I’m a friend.” Ruth embraced her, and the girl just cried, seemingly overcome with emotion.

“Tha…thank you,” the Amish girl finally said between sobs.

Meanwhile, Ruth’s mind raced. Shit. Okay, I killed them. What’s next? I need to find MacDonald and the team. We’ll have to clean this mess up. Another figure came running through the door; Ruth drew her sidearm in a lightning-quick manner and aimed it toward the opening.

“Safe your weapon, Lieutenant!” MacDonald barked.

Ruth immediately dropped her hand to her side. That was close. “Sorry, Master Chief, didn’t realize it was you.”

MacDonald took in the scene in the barn, finally looking back at Ruth. “Not bad. Two tangos down?”

“They won’t be getting up from this,” Ruth replied, just a touch of smugness in her voice. Harrell and Meissner came through the doorway next, weapons at the ready.

“Guess you didn’t need us, Master Chief,” Harrell said, glancing around.

“Lieutenant didn’t need any of us, Harrell,” MacDonald corrected.

“She put those bastards down?’ Harrell asked, clearly dumbfounded.

“Yeah. So, stow the cake eater crap,” Ruth grated out. “I’m sick of it.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Harrell said.

Hah, that sounded like genuine respect for once. “Thank you, Senior Chief. I think the bigger question right now is what now?”

“Which we wouldn’t have to answer if you’d followed my orders, LT,” MacDonald grumbled through gritted teeth. “Now, thanks to you, the entire planet will know we were here because, while there was no noise, there is enough trace evidence for several murder scenes!”

“It was the right call,” Ruth replied, her voice steady and sure.

“Maybe it was. Doesn’t matter now, LT. Any suggestions, gentlemen?”

“Load their bodies into the transport, drive it into the woods, bury the bodies, and hope the Leaguers take a while to figure it out?” Harrell said with a shrug.

“Hope is not a strategy,” MacDonald replied. “That idea does nothing to solve the problem of cleaning up this mess. We need chemicals.”

As they spoke amongst themselves, the girl stirred. She walked to Ruth’s side and clutched at her arm. “Will you talk to my parents?”

Ruth nearly jumped out of her skin at the touch of the girl’s fingers on her arm. She whirled around to face her. “Can they help us?”

“My father will be grateful, even though you are English.”

“I’m not English, I’m an American,” MacDonald replied in an annoyed tone.

“Master Chief, to Amish, everyone that isn’t one of them is considered English. It’s just a term,” Ruth said. “What’s your name?” she said toward the girl.

“Susanna,” she began, her voice trailing off. “Susanna Nussbaum.”

“Ruth Goldberg, Coalition Defense Force. These gentlemen are space special warfare commandos,” she said, gesturing back to MacDonald, Harrell, and Ahmad. “We’re here to free your planet from the League.”

“The League says the Terran Coalition abandoned us. That we’re socialists like them and have a place in their society.”

“Are you buying what they’re selling?” Harrell asked dismissively.

“No. Some of them are decent, but most are like these two. They prey on us, especially when it is time for courtship to begin,” Susanna said, beginning to tear up. “I turned sixteen a few weeks ago. Now I’m marked.”

“Susanna, why don’t you go with Senior Chief Harrell and Chief Ahmad to wake up the rest of your family?” Ruth began. “I need to discuss something with Master Chief MacDonald.”

Harrell and Ahmad both looked toward MacDonald, who nodded his assent. Harrell guested toward the barn door. “Let’s go,” he said gruffly.

Susanna walked off with them but turned back toward Ruth as she reached the door. “Are you going to help us?”

Ruth flashed a brief smile. “We’re going to help you all by getting rid of the League once and for all.”

“Thank you,” Susanna said, a genuine smile gracing her face for a moment.

Ruth could feel the outburst coming from MacDonald. As soon as the others left, he turned toward her. “What the hell do you think you’re doing, Lieutenant?”

“The right thing,” Ruth countered.

“We’ll be lucky to get off this damn rock. How do you expect us to free the planet at the same time? I mean, come on, I get the John Wayne stuff on these idiots,” MacDonald said, jerking his thumb back toward the dead Leaguers. “Even though it compromised our mission, in the end, I probably would have done the same thing.”

Ruth stood stoically as the verbal barrage continued.

“Now we need to put as much distance between us and these people as possible before sunup. Otherwise, Lieutenant, they’re going to be executed. Do not make promises you can’t keep.”

“Are you done?” Ruth said quietly. “You think all of this happens in a vacuum, Master Chief? The six of you are the best-trained soldiers the Terran Coalition has to offer, yes?”

“We’re not superheroes. We have no eyes in the sky, no backup, no fleet support, and no air. Nobody is coming for us because I won’t allow QRF to risk insertion when our stealth was ineffective,” MacDonald replied.

“You guys can move on if you want. I’m going to try to help these people,” Ruth insisted. “This is my home. It’s where my parents were killed in front of my eyes. This is where I fought, bled, was tortured, and survived. This is where I belong,” Ruth stated calmly but with fierce determination.

MacDonald’s face turned red, and his nostrils flared as he spoke. “Do you have any plan at all?”

“First things first. Enlist the locals to help us, hide the bodies, stash the transporter somewhere. Maybe Rostami could disable whatever tracking system it has, and we could use it under cover of darkness to get closer to our objective.”

“And then?”

“Continue with our existing mission. Find the control center for the defense grid. Take it down, call in the fleet. You guys can get some beers and toast the TCMC arriving.”

MacDonald threw back his head and smirked. “Let’s say, in some weird alternate reality, I might even consider doing what amounts to a suicide mission. Where the hell did a fleet tactical action officer learn how to fight like this?”

“It started when I was fifteen,” Ruth began to recount. “The League had invaded about six months prior, and they were stepping up their activities to reeducate the population to our glorious future under socialism,” she said, her voice dripping with sarcasm. “It’s a night that’s seared into my mind for as long as I draw breath.” It was just after her fifteenth birthday and the first frost of the year had occurred the night before. Strange how little details like that still stick out. Her father had just come home from work. An accountant by trade, he worked for a firm that she couldn’t remember the name of. Odd how some things are lost to the sands of time.

Gates of Hell

The front door of their small suburban house swung open, and in walked Yaakov Goldberg. He was a man that reached nearly two meters and had brown, thinning hair. “Girls, I’m home!” he shouted cheerfully.

“Dad, I’m not a girl anymore,” Ruth said, looking up from her tablet that contained the lessons she was completing for homework.

“You’ll always by my little girl, Ruthie,” Yaakov replied, dropping his briefcase on the table and sitting down on the couch in the living room.

Ruth rolled her eyes in return. “Always hated that nickname, Dad.”

“Alright, alright! Then tell me what big girl stuff you are working on tonight.”

“Civics lessons,” Ruth replied, dropping the tablet into her lap. “It’s just they’re not the same. All the things we learned throughout middle school and my first year of high school are gone. The League’s trying to tell us that our religion is the root of all problems among humans and that we should renounce it voluntarily.”

“How do you feel about that, Ruth?” Yaakov asked quietly.

“I’m proud of our heritage, and I’m not turning my back on God,” Ruth said.

“Good,” Yaakov said. “Very good.”

“Besides, the Leaguers are hypocrites. All of us can see it. They talk about socialism for mankind, then take bribes and look the other way. Everyone in school knows who you go to if you want to pay them off for a pass out of classes you don’t like.”

Yaakov laughed. “Is that what your allowance goes toward?”

They were interrupted by Ruth’s mother, Leah Goldberg. “Dinner’s almost ready!” she yelled from the kitchen.

Ruth sprang up, leaving her tablet behind, and raced into the kitchen. “What do we have tonight?”

“I got some chicken at the market today, so we’re having that with potatoes and leeks,” Leah said.

“Ugh, Mom. More potatoes? Can’t we have something else?”

“Be thankful for what God has provided for us,” Yaakov interjected as he walked up behind Ruth. “We’re lucky we have this. Many of our friends are doing worse.”

“Sorry. Dad. I forget that,” Ruth forced out.

“Now let’s sit down and enjoy your mother’s hard work,” Yaakov said with a warm smile.

A few minutes into the meal, the sound of loud knocking on the front door reverberated throughout the house. Leah looked at Yaakov, her face dropping and her hands beginning to shake on the table.

Ruth recognized the sound of the knocking; League soldiers using the butts of their rifles to smack the door. It had happened three times previously over the last few months.

“Stay here,” Yaakov said as he stood up, dropping the napkin that had been in his lap on the table.

Ruth jumped out of her chair, as did Leah. Yaakov walked to the front door and opened it; she could see that much through the opening between the dining room and the living room. Three League soldiers forced their way inside of the house, pushing him back.

“Yaakov Goldberg?” one of the soldiers asked.

“That’s me.”

“Where’s your family?”

“My wife and daughter are in the other room, eating. Please, what can we do for you? Would you like some dinner? We’ve got chicken tonight.”

“Shut up, old man,” the soldier replied.

Another man walked into the house; he wore the dreaded armband of the League political commissars, emblazoned with the logo of the League: a fist on a black and red background, with the nut of a bolt surrounding it. Supposedly to show the solidarity between all classes and that the League is built on workers. Such utter crap.

“Yaakov,” the new arrival said as if he’d somehow known her father for years. “May I call you Yaakov?”

“Of course, sir.”

“You know your place, then. That’s positive,” he said, walking around the living room. “We’ve been watching you, Yaakov. We know about your ties to the so-called resistance.” He stopped, turned on his heel, and stared directly at her father in a way that made Ruth’s blood run cold.

“Is that your wife and daughter there?” the man said, pointing toward Ruth.

“Yes,” Yaakov replied. “Please, don’t harm them.”

“Come here, Ruth,” the man said as he pointed at Ruth. “You too, Leah. We’ve been watching the lot of you for weeks.”

Somewhere deep within Ruth, she heard a voice. Don’t be afraid of them, it said. She stepped forward, and her eyes flashed defiance. Her mother was close behind.

“Such a happy family. Did you know that family is the root of the League? It’s what we live for. The family of humanity. What happens in your family, Yaakov, when your daughter misbehaves?”

Yaakov opened his mouth, but words didn’t come out at first. “I counsel her and redirect her behavior.”

“You correct her, yes?”

“Yes.”

“You make her see the error of her ways?”

“Well, as best as I can.”

The man smiled thinly. “You love your family, Yaakov?”

“Of course. They’re my entire life.”

“Then you are going to tell me the names and addresses of everyone in your resistance cell.”

“No, Father!” Ruth blurted out.

“Don’t listen to your daughter, Yaakov, unless you want to watch her die in front of you,” the man said, his exaggerated pleasant demeanor dropping in an instant.

Leah had turned entirely white. Her hands were on Ruth’s shoulder and shaking so hard that Ruth shook too.

“You will let my family go?”

“Not only your family, but you too. After all, we’re all part of the human family,” the man replied, his fake exterior returning.

“I have a list hidden in a safe, right here,” Yaakov said, gesturing toward a painting on the wall of the living room.

“By all means, get it for me.”

Yaakov slowly turned and walked to the painting and pressed a button under it. The portrait swung back off the wall, revealing a hidden safe that Ruth had never seen before. He pressed his thumb against the biometric lock, and it popped open. She watched in amazement as her father swung back around, holding a small pistol. There was a loud pop, and Yaakov stumbled forward, clutching his chest as a dark red stain spread across his shirt.

“Yaakov!” Leah shouted at the top of her lungs. She lunged forward, seemingly to catch him as he fell. There three more loud pops, and she collapsed next to him in a heap.

Ruth’s eyes tracked over to the League commissar. He held a pistol in his hand that had smoke wafting up from the barrel. “Such a pity,” the man remarked to the other soldiers, who had unslung their rifles and had them trained on the two bodies.

Ruth remained rooted in place. She felt something break inside of her. Her emotions, her ability to feel, just stopped. The tears wouldn’t come; the cries that she desperately wanted to scream were lost in her throat.

Her eyes fixed on the pistol her father had dropped; she knew how to use it from target practice with him. They had spent many a Sunday morning at the range with Ruth even entering marksmanship competitions at her school.

“Call the social services cadre,” the commissar remarked to one of the soldiers. “The orphanages need additional charges, especially ones that we can cleanse of this mental crutch they call religion.”

I could kill them when they turn their backs to me. That pistol has a seventeen-round magazine. All I have to do is shoot them.

“Yes, sir,” the soldier replied. “What would you like us to do with the bodies?”

“Send them to central processing. I want this house torn apart, and every last piece of actionable intelligence found.”

The commissar turned on his heel and flashed a smile at Ruth. “Don’t worry, little girl. You’ll be in better hands soon, in the bosom of the family of humanity. The League will take care of you.”

I’m going to kill them. I’m going to kill all of them. I’ll start with these four, and then I’ll kill every last Leaguer in the galaxy, and I’ll keep killing them until they kill me.

Once they had all turned their backs on Ruth in their arrogance, she reached for the pistol that was lying on the floor. Real soldiers would have picked up that weapon and never turned their backs on a potential threat. These men aren’t soldiers; they’re thugs and murderers. As it slipped into her hand, it was like the weapon spoke to her. She sighted down the iron sights, first at the commissar. If I only get one, it’ll be him.

She squeezed the trigger twice, sending two bullets directly into his back. The short distance guaranteed there was no possibility she’d miss. Her aim shifted, settling onto the next soldier, again she squeezed the trigger twice, before moving to the third.

The last man turned around and had started to bring up his rifle when Ruth fired again, another two rounds that hit him directly in the center mass. All four men fell to the floor, a couple of them clutching their wounds. Ruth slowly walked to where the commissar had collapsed. She stood over his body as he tried in vain to pull out the pistol he had used to murder her parents.

“I don’t know your name. I don’t care what it is. I don’t care about you, except that you die tonight. My Christian friends at school say that if you sin against God, you’ll go to hell. They say it’s a place where demons torture you for all eternity in a lake of fire,” Ruth said as she aimed the pistol directly into his eyes. “I hope they’re right.”

Without hesitation, Ruth squeezed the trigger again, sending another bullet directly into his brain. Shock began to set in, not that she had killed them, but that she was still alive. One teenager vs four Leaguers. Maybe the resistance slogans about defeating the League have truth in them. She tucked the pistol into her pants, walked back to the safe, and took the money chip, along with a tablet of a design she’d never seen before. I’m going to find the resistance, and I’m going to keep killing Leaguers. As she walked out into the night, sirens wailed in the distance.

Gates of Hell

“After that, I was found wandering by the resistance. They took me in and trained me. I put a lot of League garrison troops down with them, until the fleet arrived and the TCMC retook our planet,” Ruth said, finishing up her story.

“Lieutenant,” MacDonald began. “I apologize. I had no idea. You realize we do what we do in good fun, I hope.”

Ruth looked across the barn at him, from where she had sat down during the recounting of her parent’s death. “Oh, I know you do, Master Chief. I’ve been in the CDF for almost twelve years. I’ve hazed many a newly minted soldier, but this is personal for me, you understand?”

“I do, but you also must understand it can’t be personal. Personal feelings get in the way of the mission.”

“You’re probably right, Master Chief. Right now, though, on this planet, it’s real. There’s got to be a place where you’d feel the same.”

“More than one.” MacDonald pursed his lips and bit down on the edge of his lips. “Can I count on you to stay focused, LT?”

Ruth smiled thinly. “As long as by ‘stay focused,’ you mean killing as many Leaguers as possible and liberating my home? Yeah. You can count on me to be very focused on the objective.”

“Not quite what I meant, but it’s a start. Let’s go meet these people more formally and see if we can gain some intelligence.”

“After you, Master Chief,” Ruth replied and stood up from her perch. Twelve years. Only God himself knows how many Leaguers I’ve killed. It’s still not enough.


9

David adjusted himself in the CO’s chair on the Lion’s bridge, staring up at the tactical plot. The cooldown for the ship’s Lawrence drive had just ended, and he was itching to get moving. I can feel the League out there, hunting Colonel Dyson. It’s up to us to turn the tide and send them running. He stretched his neck and fixed the ballcap he wore that bore the insignia of the Lion of Judah and her motto: Semper Anticus. “Always on the frontline.” Ever popular with the crew, he tolerated them. I prefer regular cover, but who cares if it helps morale. His mind snapped back to the task at hand.

“Navigation, confirm our exit coordinates,” David ordered.

“Lawrence drive coordinates confirmed, sir,” Hammond said.

“We jump in, launch our fighters, jump as soon as our minimum cooldown period expires, and hope we catch the League with their pants down?” Aibek asked quietly from the XOs chair.

“That’s the plan,” David replied. “My thought is that the League commander will have timed how long it took us to respond last time from the initial distress call. From there, he’ll calibrate hit and run tactics to match.”

“Logical.”

“We’ll be effectively executing a time-on-target attack,” David continued.

“A what?”

“It’s an old term for an artillery attack in which rounds from multiple batteries hit within three seconds of each other.”

“Saurians call that multiple rounds, simultaneous impact.”

David smirked a bit. “We always have to dress something up with a cute term, don’t we?”

“That is the military for you, sir,” Aibek replied with a chuckle.

David punched up the 1MC link on his chair and spoke. “General quarters! General quarters! This is your commanding officer. Man your battle stations. I say again, man your battle stations. Set material condition one throughout the ship. This is not a drill. I say again, this is not a drill!”

The energy level on the bridge spiked up even more than David was used to; the crew seemed to be genuinely excited to get back into combat. The lights dimmed to a blue hue, allowing console screens to have more evident contrast.

“Conn, TAO. Material condition one set throughout the ship, sir,” Kelsey said.

“Conn, communications. Civilian ships report jump readiness,” Taylor interjected.

“Communications, signal the fleet to jump when we do. Navigation, execute Lawrence drive jump,” David commanded. I can’t help but think I’m missing the bigger picture here. Right now, we’re playing the League’s game. We need to get back to playing our game.

“Conn, Navigation. Commencing jump!”

The lights on the bridge dimmed just a tad, signaling the start of the sequence that culminated with the opening of an artificial wormhole directly in front of the ship. Moving forward on sub-light thrust, the Lion glided through the multi-colored maw and a kaleidoscope of colors. Popping out on the other side, there was a pause of several seconds as the systems of the ship came back online; standard procedure after a jump.

“Conn, TAO. LIDAR online, our flock of heavy lifters are jumping in.”

“Thank you, TAO,” David said. “Communications, get me Colonel Amir.”

A moment later, Amir’s face appeared, framed by his head encapsulating flight helmet. “Ready to rock and roll, Colonel?” David asked.

“Always, sir,” Amir responded. “Major Hume is standing by with the rest of the wing on ready five, just in case.”

“Excellent,” David said. “You’re cleared to launch, Colonel. Good luck, good hunting, and Godspeed!”

Ila’liqaa’, Colonel Cohen.”

Until we meet again, indeed. The screen blinked out. David steepled his fingers together and waited. The bridge was quiet beyond the background murmurs of enlisted personnel working their various stations. On his tactical display, he had configured two timers. One for the time to the Dutiful and its convoy’s next jump, the other counting down before when the Lion could safely jump without the risk of exotic particle creation.

“Worried?” Aibek asked.

“Mildly,” David replied. “Always before combat.” He closed his eyes briefly and looked down. “God, please have mercy on those who serve under my command. If it is Your will, please allow them to come home safely to their families. I pray this for Colonel Dyson and all the soldiers on this mission. Amen,” he whispered.

As was usual for David by now, the time before engagement crept by. The waiting sucks.

“Navigation, plot Lawrence drive jump for Colonel Dyson’s projected position,” David ordered.

“Aye aye, sir,” Hammond replied crisply.

“TAO, load high explosive rounds into all magnetic cannons.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Kelsey said.

“Conn, Navigation. Lawrence drive coordinates plotted and inputted into the jump computer.”

“Navigation, stand by to jump on my command,” David answered.

It took another five minutes of the timer creeping down to zero before the Lion could safely jump. I hope to heck this works. “Navigation, execute Lawrence drive jump!”

Again, the Lion crossed vast distances in the blink of an eye; her ability to do so a technological advance that stood above nearly all others in the history of mankind. After re-entering normal space, the ship’s sensors came back online a few seconds later.

“Conn, TAO. Reading only friendly contacts, including CSV Dutiful, her battlegroup, and thirty-seven freighters,” Kelsey announced.

“TAO, populate the board with all Sierra contacts,” David ordered.

Immediately, the holoprojector in the middle of the bridge sprang to life with dozens of blue icons, each signifying a friendly ship. David’s tactical plot also came alive, showing the same information but in a more concise manner.

“Communications, please send Colonel Dyson my compliments, and integrate us into his tactical command network.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Taylor replied.

“TAO, raise shields, charge the energy weapons capacitor.”

“Aye, sir, shields up and energy weapons capacitor charging,” Kelsey answered. A moment later, her voice went up in volume. “Conn, TAO! Inbound wormholes… League signature!”

“This is it, people,” David said as he leaned forward on his chair. A jumble of unidentified contacts appeared on his tactical plot.

“Conn, TAO! Four Rand class cruisers designated Master One, Two, Three, and Four, escorted by twenty-plus Cobra class destroyers.”

That’s a lot more ships than we were expecting. David forced fear and emotion from his face and stared at the plot. They would have finished off Dyson and his task force. I’m more convinced than ever something more is at work here.

“TAO, snap shot, Master One and Two, neutron beams and magnetic cannons.”

If we can hit them hard enough before they regain primary systems function, that’ll even up the odds.

“Aye aye, sir,” Kelsey called back as she got to work.

The Lion’s massive magnetic cannon turrets rotated and belched their high-explosive shells toward the League ships, while neutron beams stabbed into the dark of space. The snap shot didn’t have an affirmative firing solution attached to it and was in effect a best guess. Even so, many of the weapons connected with their targets.

“Conn, TAO. Master Two disabled, sir. Master One shields reduced to twenty-eight percent. Aspect change, all enemy contacts, sir! Sub-light engine light off. Master One, Three, and Four are heading directly for us, while their escorts are on a bearing toward the Dutiful and her battlegroup.”

David looked up at his tactical plot, which showed what Kelsey had just reported. Why would they charge us? Three Rands versus this ship is a one-way death sentence. What am I not seeing? The Lion shuddered as multiple impacts from League plasma weaponry impacted on its shields. On the tactical plot, the available shield power dropped precipitously.

“It would appear that some League cruisers now have upgraded weaponry, not unlike the battleships we encountered at Unity station,” Aibek interjected.

“Noted, XO.”

“TAO, firing point procedures, Master One, neutron beams,” David ordered, waiting for the magnetic cannons to be reloaded by the automated systems.

“Conn, TAO, firing solution set for Master One,” Kelsey replied.

“TAO, match bearings, shoot, neutron beams.”

Again, the Lion struck her foes; multiple impacts quickly collapsed the remaining shields on the cruiser, and the ship was gutted from bow to stern with energy beams that turned its hull molten. There was only so much punishment the vessel could take; it exploded when something explosive within—a weapons magazine or fuel bunkerage—was hit. After a matter of seconds, nothing but debris the size of a plate was left.

Staring at the tactical plot, David couldn’t help but feel sorrow for the lives snuffed out in an instant. Even though they’re my enemy, dying in a split second with no hope to save yourself is a cruel fate I don’t wish on anyone… except maybe Seville.

“Conn, TAO. Master One destroyed.”

“TAO, make the forward VRLS tubes one through one hundred and twenty ready in all respects, open outer doors.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

The remaining two cruisers poured on more plasma cannon fire; while impressive, they just weren’t strong enough to batter down the Lion’s shields. While staring at the tactical plot, David noticed that several friendly icons had blinked out; the League forces were putting on a beating, especially on the Meade-class frigates in Dyson’s group.

“Conn, TAO. Forward VRLS tubes one through one hundred and twenty ready in all respects, sir, outer doors are open.”

“TAO, firing point procedures, Master Three and Four, magnetic cannons and neutron beams.”

“Conn, TAO. Firing solutions set, sir!”

“TAO, firing point procedures, forward VRLS, ten Hunters, twenty Starbolts. Transfer control to the Dutiful once launched.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Kelsey replied.

“Match bearings, shoot, all weapons,” David commanded.

Magnetic cannon rounds weighing as much as a helicar raced out from the Lion of Judah at speeds approaching a tenth the speed of light. Crossing the black of space unseen, they slammed into the League cruisers and wreaked havoc on their shields. Followed up with neutron beams, both ships suffered significant hull damage. At the same time, thirty warheads launched over fifteen seconds from the Lion’s forward VRLS. On the tactical plot, David watched as their icons merged with those of several League escorts, a number of which were destroyed outright.

“Conn, TAO. Aspect change, all enemy contacts! Lawrence drive activation, sir!”

Enemy icons began to blink out, one after the other, as they fled the battle. “No way their drives had cooled off long enough,” Aibek observed. “The League commander must have been desperate.”

“Strange behavior,” David muttered. “I would have expected them to ground down the task force and then retreat.”

“Perhaps our missile salvo bloodied them more than we realize?”

David shrugged, unsure. He continued to stare at the plot and realized that one League contact remained. “TAO, status of Master One?”

“Master One did not jump, sir. I show a failure in her Lawrence drive on my scan. It looks like her reactor was SCRAMed,” Kelsey answered.

“Navigation, intercept course, Master One.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Hammond tersely replied.

David punched a sequence into his commlink and was rewarded with Demood’s voice. “What can I do for you, Colonel Cohen?”

“I need a VBSS team on deck. We’ve got a disabled League cruiser, and I want answers from her crew and officers as to how they’ve been jumping our convoys. Make sure to instruct your teams to use non-lethal ammunition at all times and avoid destroying computer systems as well as data storage devices as much as possible,” David said.

“Yes, sir. I’ll get our recon Marines and the other special space warfare operators ready to go. Demood out.”

David clicked off the commlink and glanced over to Aibek. “Maybe we can get some answers.”

“I’m unsure what you expect to get without enhanced interrogation techniques.”

“Is that a nice way of saying torture?” David mused.

“Many words used by humans have a different definition to us,” Aibek replied with a toothy grin.

“Throughout our history, we’ve been confronted by a choice between the expediency of taking short-term gain over what we know to be right. Humane treatment of prisoners is one of those choices. Lieutenant Taylor, see if you can get whoever is in charge over on Master One to reply to us,” David said, switching gears.

“Aye aye, sir,” Taylor replied. “I’m not getting any response from them, sir.”

“Conn, TAO!” Kelsey interrupted. “Aspect change, Master One! Her reactor is going critical!”

Through the transparent metal windows on the bridge, David watched as the League cruiser exploded, a bright smear of orange against the deep of space. A moment later, it was gone, no evidence that the vessel ever existed.

“TAO, did you see any evidence of an uncontrolled reaction occurring in your scans?” David demanded.

“No, sir… their reactor was SCRAMed.”

“Are you thinking that they blew themselves up on purpose?” Aibek questioned.

“That’s exactly what I’m thinking, XO.”

“Since when do Leaguers blow themselves up rather than surrender?”

“Never,” David deadpanned. “Because we give them three hots and a cot. TAO, secure material condition one, stand down battle stations. Communications, notify all department heads I want them in the conference room in sixty minutes to discuss our next steps, and pass my request on to Colonel Dyson for him to attend.”

Gates of Hell

Walking over the threshold into the farmhouse proper was like a journey through time for Ruth. She recognized devices like oil lamps, an old-style clothes washer and the like from history books she’d studied as a child. To see people living like this in the 25th century is something else entirely, she thought. Such a different way of life than what I’m used to.

It was apparent that the house had already been woken up; several team members stood in the foyer of the home, while Ruth heard Susanna’s voice talking in a different language. “I think that’s German,” she remarked to MacDonald, who was right beside her.

“Yeah, I think you’re right. I don’t speak it.”

“I’m fluent in Hebrew and English,” Ruth said with a grin. “I knew a few words of French too.”

“Let me guess, some colorful metaphors you shouted at the League?”

“Guilty as charged, Master Chief,” Ruth replied as she walked forward toward the voices. Upon walking into what looked like a living room, she took in the sight of two adults that were attired in rustic Amish clothing, and Susanna, who was still crying as she spoke.

“Hi,” Ruth said to the room at large. “I’m Lieutenant Ruth Goldberg, Coalition Defense Force. These gentlemen are also with the CDF.”

The older man, who Ruth assumed was Susanna’s father, stepped forward, looking her up and down. He had on a blue shirt and worn denim pants. His face was rugged with a square jaw. “I am Ezekiel Nussbaum. This is my wife, Mary. You’ve met my youngest daughter, Susanna. I believe I have you to thank for her safe condition,” he said, with the same slight German accent.

“A pleasure to meet you, sir. I wish it were under different circumstances.”

“You will tell me what transpired in the barn,” Ezekiel said; it was a statement, not a question.

MacDonald made a move to step up and speak, but Ruth held out her hand. “I’ve got it, Master Chief. Mister Nussbaum, we were sent here to find some information the CDF needs to liberate your planet from the League. We happened to come across your farm when I observed some League soldiers hauling your daughter into the barn. I intervened and killed both of them to save her life.”

“You killed another human being here?”

“Yes,” Ruth replied, unflinching. “I grew up on this planet. I know your religious beliefs are strict and that you’re unwavering pacifists. I respect it. But there was no other way.”

“It’s always like this with the English,” Ezekiel complained toward his wife and daughter. “They don’t share our ways and bring the scourge of evil and death.”

“Father, they want to help,” Susanna spoke up. “They saved me when they didn’t have to. Ruth says she wants to help free our people. Don’t we pray for deliverance every day?”

“We pray to God and place our trust in Him, not in men.”

“All things work together for good to them who love God, and to them who are called according to his purpose,” MacDonald interjected.

Ruth did a double take. “I didn’t realize you were devout,” she whispered under her breath.

“Are you a man of faith... Mister?” Ezekiel asked.

“Master Chief Gordan MacDonald, sir. Non-denominational Christian,” he answered, stepping forward. “I’m a soldier, and in war, it's recognized you must kill or be killed. This war is just, and I’m called to fight it. The lieutenant is right; we’re here to figure out how to get rid of the League. We might have a chance if you’ll help us.”

“It seems like you’ve brought very few people to try to defeat the League army on our planet,” Mary said from across the room. “Forgive me, but how can so few prevail against so many?”

“They’re the best of the best, ma’am,” Ruth said. “We were supposed to conduct recon quietly and leave without alerting the garrison on this planet to our presence. That’s now out of the question. Our tactics must adapt, we must find a way to complete our mission and get back to our ship. Please help us help all of you.”

“I will never raise my hand against another person,” Ezekiel stated. “To do so is an affront against God.”

“Not even to defend your home and your family?” MacDonald asked, his tone one of annoyance.

“The word compels us to turn the other cheek, every time. Regardless of what the League and its soldiers do, we won’t resist them with violence.”

“There’s your answer, Lieutenant,” MacDonald groused. “I told you the locals would be of no use here.”

“We still have to clean this up, so our actions don’t come down on this family,” Ruth said.

Rostami stuck his head into the living room. “Master Chief, I was able to disable the vehicle’s tracking system. It’s ours if you want it.”

“Get it ready,” MacDonald ordered. “We’ll bury the two unlucky Leaguers in the forest and press on toward our objective.”

“We’ll provide you with food and clothing if you wish,” Ezekiel announced.

“I thought you said you weren’t helping us,” MacDonald responded in his gruff tone.

“I said we would not use violence. Giving you food and clothing so that you may blend in to help your mission… this is permitted.”

“Fine line you’re walking there,” Ruth observed. “We’re grateful for any help or supplies you can spare.”

Susanna stood up from her seat on the simple couch. “I will accompany you.”

“I forbid it!” Ezekiel shouted, surprising everyone.

“It’s my time of rumspringa, Father. I am sixteen,” Susanna countered, her head held high. “It is my decision, and mine alone.”

Mary began to cry; Ruth couldn’t help but sympathize with her pain. “You could be killed, daughter.”

“I was about to be killed or worse a few minutes ago, Mother,” Susanna practically shouted. “If it hadn’t been for them, who knows what would’ve happened? I can help. I could show them where the League hides, where they live.”

“Then what? Bring killing and death?’ Ezekiel thundered.

“We’re talking about killing people who believe they have the right to jam what they believe down our throats, while they steal anything they want from us, then commit rape and murder with impunity. You seriously have a problem with us prosecuting the League with extreme prejudice?” MacDonald responded, his voice rising.

“No one has the right to decide who lives or dies,” Ezekiel replied, staring MacDonald down.

“With respect sir, the League’s already decided it does. We’re the people who try to stop them, and we’re your planet’s only hope right now. So why don’t you stow this pacifistic bullshit, and get my team and me what we need?”

“Master Chief,” Ruth interrupted. “Please. You’ve made your point.”

“Lieutenant,” MacDonald began.

“Master Chief, enough,” Ruth said forcefully. She turned back toward Ezekiel and Mary. “We respect your ways. We respect your beliefs. That doesn’t change what we need to do. You have to see that the League being defeated will help everyone.”

“Of course I see it,” Ezekiel said. “It doesn’t change that my family and I cannot be a party to killing.”

“Father, stop talking as if I don’t exist and have no say,” Susanna said, tears streaming down her face. “Let me do this.”

Ezekiel glanced from Susanna to Ruth and back again. “Do you give me your word, Lieutenant Goldberg, that you will protect my daughter, with your own life if necessary?”

“Before God,” Ruth replied.

“Then go with them, daughter. I’ll pray for your soul.”

Susanna gave her father a bear hug, which Mary joined in with, while MacDonald and Ruth watched.

“Bloody stupid if you ask me, LT. If they don’t want to fight, they don’t want to fight,” MacDonald said, sotto voce.

“Master Chief, we need intel. The girl has it, and if she doesn’t, her friends of the same age do. It’s not always about brute force,” Ruth hissed.

“You do remember you’re talking to a tier-one operator, right?”

“Sorry, you weren’t quite acting the part.”

“Careful, LT.”

The family before them broke up the embrace and Susanna turned toward Ruth. “I’ll get us food and water for the journey. What else can we do?”

MacDonald shifted his feet. “We need any cleaning chemicals you might have.”

“Vinegar and lemon, bleach,” Mary said. “That’s about all we have.”

“I’ll take it,” MacDonald replied. “Also, you have animal manure on this farm?”

“It’s a farm,” Ezekiel deadpanned, the first sarcasm Ruth had heard out of him. “Cow, horse, goat, sheep, dog. All different types.”

“Excellent,” MacDonald said, turning his head toward Ruth. “Lieutenant, take Meissner, collect as much of it in whatever containers these fine folks have, and bring it to the barn.”

It was all Ruth could do not to roll her eyes at him openly. “Crap detail?”

“We’ll spread it everywhere blood went, after cleaning it with bleach. Throw the League off our scent, so to speak.”

Ruth fought to keep a grimace off her face. “You got it, Master Chief.” Embrace the suck, ugh.

“Let’s get to it,” MacDonald stated before looking toward Ezekiel and Mary. “Thank you for the food. We’ll bring your daughter home, and with any luck, evict our friends in the League from your planet.”

Ezekiel bowed his head. “I will pray for your success, without bloodshed.”

“Thank you. Okay, LT, let’s move. Harrell,” MacDonald called through his commlink. “You and Rostami get the transporter moved up. Wrap the bodies in tarps or canvas, load them into the back. Make sure to get a couple of shovels too.”

“On it, Master Chief,” Harrell’s voice came back.

Ruth turned to go, and for the first time, fear flooded into her head. Her hand tightened around the battle rifle she carried to mask the sudden shaking that started. I’m so focused on eliminating the League, what if I cost these people their lives? I wonder how David grapples with these feelings as he commands a ship with ten thousand people on it. I’m not even in command, yet I still bent the Master Chief to my way of thinking. If this goes south, it’s on me.

Gates of Hell

David quickly strode through the hatch into the deck one conference room on the Lion of Judah, where the rest of the command staff had already assembled. They stood as he walked in, as was typical. “As you were,” he said, making a beeline toward the chair at the head of the table. He pulled it out and sat down. “I’ve asked you all here to work through our engagements with the League so far and develop a more effective strategy.”

Taylor and Aibek, both sitting to David’s right, nodded their heads. Hayworth, Hanson, Kelsey, and Hammond were on the left side of the table, as was the defense contractor, Kenneth Lowe. All stared at him intently.

“Taylor, get Colonel Dyson for us, please. It’s his command, after all.”

“Yes, sir,” Taylor replied while tapping the controls on the commlink unit. A moment later, Dyson’s face appeared.

“Colonel Dyson,” David said. “Good to talk to you again.”

“Likewise, Colonel Cohen. We gave better than we got, but I still lost two ships. The League is just catching us over and over with our pants down,” Dyson replied in an exasperated tone. “They threw more ships at us than I thought they had in the next two sectors over.”

“Something more is at work here than some commerce raiding,” Aibek interjected. “We need to be open to those possibilities.”

“What are you suggesting, Colonel?” Dyson inquired.

“I think what my XO is getting at is this is too neat. The League rarely guesses right, and they never guess right twice in a row.”

“We could be dealing with an effective League commander,” Hammond said.

David peered at her. “We could… but it still feels like they have solid intelligence on us.”

“League SIGINT has never been that great,” Dyson countered, using the acronym for Signals Intelligence.

“Maybe they have a psychic,” Hanson said to several chuckles.

“That’s poppycock,” Hayworth retorted. “It’s far more likely that whatever lab put out the stealth technology for their infernal mines adapted that technology to remote drones.”

“Got any ideas on how to counter that, Doctor?” David asked.

“I’d need to see one.”

“Touché.”

“What about using the scientific sensors to hunt for stealth drones?” Aibek said.

“It’s an idea,” Hayworth agreed. “Needle in a haystack, though.”

“I think we need to involve CDF intelligence,” David finally said, after the back and forth lulled for a few seconds. “The Oxford should be around here, somewhere. I’ll contact Colonel Sinclair and see if he’ll help. If that sounds like a good strategy to you, Colonel Dyson?”

“I’ll take any help I can get, even from the spooks,” Dyson said. His face curled up into a grin. “What’s that motto of theirs?”

“In God we trust, all others we monitor,” Taylor interjected.

“That’s the one,” Dyson said. “Yeah, see if they will help us out.”

“Done,” David said. “Sinclair is good people. What now, Colonel?”

“The convoy jumps to Unity, and we lick our wounds. I’ve been promised repairs and resupply by the temporary station commander.”

“We’ll jump back and pick up our fighters, then join you.”

“You’ve got General MacIntosh’s ear, right?”

David smiled slightly. “I’m not sure I’d go that far. But I think we have mutual respect.”

“How about you ask him for some reinforcements?”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

“Thanks,” Dyson said.

He looks utterly defeated. “Colonel, your task force performed superbly. No one has anything to be ashamed of here.”

“I’ll try to remember that when I’m writing letters to the families of those who perished.”

Ugh, the worst duty of all. I feel for him. “Same here. We’ll see you at Unity station, Colonel. Godspeed.”

“Godspeed to you too, Colonel Cohen. Dyson out.”

The screen went dark, and David glanced around to his team. Looks of worry and apprehension were abundant. “Taylor, send an urgent message to the Oxford. I want Sinclair on a vidlink before the end of the day.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Taylor replied.

“Anyone have any ideas, no matter how wild?”

Hayworth leaned forward in his seat. “Perhaps the flying spaghetti monster is punishing you.”

“That all you got, doc?” David replied, determined not to roll his eyes.

“On a serious note, I’m concerned the League is fielding advancements before us,” Hayworth said.

“You and everyone else in the Terran Coalition,” David responded, annoyance showing through his tone. I need actionable answers, not platitudes.

“I’m not an intelligence analyst, but it seems to me that, perhaps somewhere, we have a leak,” Hayworth mused.

“Regardless, we need a way to defeat the current problem,” Aibek interjected. “We need to narrow down possibilities.”

“I’ll work on two lines of research. One, find these supposed stealth drones. Two, adapt our EM jamming systems to possibly jam the drones, if we can find one and determine how it works.”

“That sounds good, Doctor,” David said. “Okay, people, let’s get back to our respective stations. Colonel Amir and his boys are waiting for a pickup. Dismissed.” As they filed out, doubts invaded his mind at the situation. Something’s off here. The League is coming out with fancy tech ahead of us? Nah, doesn’t track. On top of it, whoever we’re facing on the other side is picking Dyson’s force apart. Worse, morale is falling. MacIntosh has hammered into me over the last year how important confidence is to a soldier. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Sinclair better have some answers, or this is going to get dicey fast.


10

A couple of hours later, after returning to the convoy and retrieving Colonel Amir and his squadrons, the Lion had achieved orbit around what had been called Unity Station—Freedom Station now. A smile spread across David’s lips. Half the fleet still calls it Unity... guess old habits die hard. His eyes moved between stations and the officers who manned them. Sinclair needs to pick up his messages. We need his help. A frown returned, the dominant facial expression he’d worn most of the day. In orbit around the station, there wasn’t a whole lot to do today, but he wanted to remain on the bridge just in case.

“Conn, communications. I’ve got an inbound burst transmission for you, sir.”

“On my viewer, Lieutenant.”

A fuzzy image appeared that zoomed in and out a few times before it pulled back to reveal the faces of Ruth and MacDonald. “Colonel, can you hear me, sir?” Ruth asked.

“I wasn’t expecting to hear from you, Lieutenant,” David said as a broad smile spread across his face. Thank God. “But it’s a welcome surprise. How are things going?”

“Not that great,” MacDonald groused. “Our lander was shot down by the League planetary defense system.”

“What?” Aibek interjected, his tone rising in pitch. “How?”

“We’re not sure, but they had the sensors to penetrate our stealth coating. I retrieved our short-range scanner logs before we destroyed the ship.”

“Status of the mission?” David asked.

“Compromised, sir,” Ruth answered. “There’s no ISR net or recon capabilities. The team is fighting blind. We also intervened in a situation with two League soldiers who were attacking a civilian at my insistence.”

MacDonald’s face clouded over, and he grimaced. “I concurred with the decision. The bottom line is, before too long, we’ll have a whole mess of Leaguers looking for us.”

“I’ll get QRF spun up immediately,” David said. “We’ll get you guys out of there.”

“Negative, sir,” MacDonald stated. “QRF would just get shot down the same way we were. Recommend we continue on mission, and attempt to take out the control center.”

These tier-one guys have a brass set. “Did I hear you right, Master Chief? You want to press on even though you’ve been compromised and have no backup?”

“Yes, sir. Only play we’ve got. Unless you want to come riding to the rescue with the fleet,” MacDonald replied.

“We’ll get you support somehow, Master Chief. Drones, something.”

“Much appreciated if you could make it happen, Colonel.”

“What’s the next move?”

“We captured a transport craft. I had our electronics expert disable its tracking mechanisms, and we’re going to cross some serious ground with what charge it has left in its batteries. Then continue on foot to the installation we believe houses our objective. Once there, determine a way to destroy it and get off this rock.”

“Destroying the control system for the defense stats is the only way you can evac safely…” David mused, thinking out loud. “That’d be the ideal time to stage an invasion, if we could time it right.”

“Agreed, sir. Not our first choice, but if that’s the cards we’ve got, why not play them?”

“I’ll see about getting additional ships and Marines rallied, then, Master Chief. Can’t waste an opportunity to liberate thousands of Terran Coalition citizens.”

“They need our help, sir,” Ruth insisted.

“Is the local population willing to help?” David asked.

“No, sir,” MacDonald said before Ruth could respond. “They’re total pacifists. I think it’s the only reason they’re still alive, ironically enough. The League seems to view them as brother socialists because of how their society works together.”

“Interesting. What about non-combat help?”

“They’re feeding us, and providing shelter. But we can’t count on them for much more, or that they won’t rat us out.”

Ruth frowned sharply. “I disagree, Master Chief. I think they’re good people that have a strict moral code. We have to frame our requests in a form that is compatible with their beliefs.”

“You’re smoking something if you think these dudes are going to pick up weapons and defend themselves or us, LT,” MacDonald shot back.

“As long as they’re a neutral entity that provides shelter and food to the team, that’s a win,” David said, trying to calm both of them down.

“Colonel, as the leader of Alpha team, I think we have to acknowledge the long-shot possibility of success here,” MacDonald said.

“We can look into an extraction plan that minimizes contact, Master Chief,” David said.

“No. We’re here, we’re the sharp tip of the spear, and our best play remains to disable the defense system and get out of here. If you can time it so that the Marines show up, then it’s an outstanding play. I intend to proceed. The lieutenant is right; these people need our help.”

“Then it’s settled,” David began. “I’ll talk to General MacIntosh, and you keep in contact with us. One way or another, we’ll sort this out and get your team off Freiderwelt. Good luck and Godspeed.”

“Understood sir. Alpha team is charlie mike.”

The connection cut out before David could say anything else; he sat back in his chair while Aibek peered at him. “This grows more ominous. Not only can the League seemingly spy on us at will, but they can penetrate our own stealth craft?”

XO’s right. The League is suddenly showing technical and training competence I’ve never seen out of them in such a concentrated way. It’s making the hair on the back of my neck stand up. The negative effect isn’t lost on me, XO. CDF tactics have always emphasized lethality and hiding our platforms to project power from the League. If we lose either one of those advantages, we’re in deep crap.”

“I believe the Saurian expression would be up the rapid without a canoe.”

David grinned. “That sounds an awful lot like a human expression about being up the creek without a paddle.”

“Maybe that is what I was going for instead.”

“Thanks, XO, I needed some levity,” David commented as he laughed.

“What’s next, then, sir?”

“You have the conn. I’m going to go talk to General MacIntosh and see what I can shake out of him in the way of reinforcements for both problems we’re working.”

“Aye aye, sir. This is the XO. I have the conn,” Aibek said crisply.

David stood up and walked off the bridge toward his day cabin. This was supposed to be a milk run. Now it’s a life and death struggle for a friend and thousands of lives. We’ll have to find a way to win like we always do.

Gates of Hell

David stared at his tablet, finger hovered over MacIntosh’s profile within the vidlink application. I wonder how he’s going to take this; we were supposed to come out here and smash the League with impunity. He glanced at a small picture he kept on his desk of him and Angie Dinman, who had previously been on the Lion as the embedded reporter. Her slender form looked even smaller in the photo, standing next to him. He’d been attired in dress whites, her in a formal dress, her brown hair styled up. He grinned, thinking back to the CDF ball they’d attended together.

He finally touched the screen and waited for MacIntosh to appear. It only took a couple of minutes for the general’s face to invade the tablet. “Good morning, General.”

“Good afternoon, Colonel,” MacIntosh replied, taciturn as ever. “I looked over your after-action report. Superb tactics, as I’ve come to expect.”

“Thank you, sir,” David said. “Did you see my request for reinforcements?”

“I did. I’ve requested we shake loose another fast warfare action group, but I haven’t heard back. For now, it still falls on the Lion and what’s left of Colonel Dyson’s force.”

“We’ll do our best, sir. I would be remiss in my duties if I didn’t tell you I believe without reinforcements, or getting to the bottom of the League’s ability to guess our next position, we’re unlikely to see success.”

“What do you mean by their ability to guess your position?”

“I can’t explain it beyond the League commander seemingly puts the right combination of forces on target at the right place, every time. We’re operating off the idea there are some stealth drones out here transmitting data back.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” MacIntosh said as his face scrunched together. “I assume you’re trying to run all possibilities down?”

“Yes, sir. Doctor Hayworth is on it along with the science team, and I’m going to pull in Colonel Sinclair and the Oxford to help.”

“Sound ideas,” MacIntosh replied. “I can’t make suggestions on this one, Colonel. Just keep the transports coming. Whatever it takes.”

“Of course, sir.”

“Anything else?”

“Yes, sir. I received word from the team that we inserted into Freiderwelt. The stealth lander was shot down by the planetary defense system.”

“Damnit,” MacIntosh exclaimed. “If it’s not one thing, it’s a hundred others.”

“Everyone except the pilot survived. The team is currently evading League forces.”

“There’s a ‘but’ in there, Colonel,” MacIntosh said, a grin spreading across his face. “I’ve known you too long.”

“The team rescued a civilian from Leaguers. As a consequence, they believe it’s only a matter of time before they’ll be tracked down. I can’t get QRF in to help them, and we don’t have a fleet to knock down the defenses. With my approval, they’re continuing to advance the mission. The only way off that rock is to take down the satellite control center, and then we’ll have a unique opportunity.”

“No defenses… no reason why we can’t painlessly liberate the planet,” MacIntosh replied.

“Got it in one, sir.”

MacIntosh smirked. “Wasn’t born yesterday, Colonel. What you just did is called managing your boss.”

David felt his face grow warm and turn red. “Just working the situation, sir.”

“I didn’t say it was a bad thing, son,” MacIntosh stated while stroking his beard. “Our intel suggests less than five thousand hostiles on the planet. My thinking is that if the sats are unavailable to them, the League forces will fold.”

“I concur, sir, but we’d need a credible invasion fleet.”

“I’ll see what I can do, Colonel. Hear me on this, though… I won’t authorize the commitment of assets until the defense system is offline. Let me remind you of a previous conversation we’ve had. If you in any way try to get around those orders, I’ll bring my hammer down on you so hard, you’ll still be spinning next week. Clear?”

“Crystal, sir.”

“Keep me informed, Colonel. I’ll get back with you shortly with answers.”

“Aye, sir,” David stated. At least he’s on the same page with me. MacIntosh is a force unto himself once he gets going.

“Godspeed, Colonel.”

“Godspeed, sir.”

The tablet went dark and David sat back in his chair. Time to find Sinclair. He pulled up the intelligence officer’s profile on vidlink, and he was —of course— offline. He pressed the screen on the option for an email and hurriedly typed a message.

Colonel Sinclair,

I hate that I only tend to pop up when I need a favor. Still owe you a drink for the crackerjack job you and your team did at Unity Station. The intelligence types don’t get much credit from us ship drivers and trigger pullers, but you saved our rear ends. With a slap on the back out of the way… I’ve got another real hot situation I need your help on. The Lion of Judah has been assigned to help escort convoys to the aforementioned space station now in Terran Coalition hands. Somehow, the League has excellent information as to the makeup and position of our ships. I need your assistance in sorting it out. Got some time for an old friend? Let me know. I’ll have Lieutenant Taylor set up a vidlink if so.

– Colonel David Cohen

After reviewing the message once for clarity, David pressed send and powered off his tablet. Back to the bridge I go. Hopefully, he can help.


11

It’s a wonder someone hasn’t fragged Colonel Pan before now, Pavlik thought as he trotted up the stairs toward his superior’s office in the main administration building on Freiderwelt. Even this building is over the top… typical League of Sol style. If we spent more time winning the hearts and minds of these people by showing them we genuinely want to help them, this would be a lot easier. Instead, we sit behind barbed wire, point guns at them, and violate basic laws of decency.

Pavlik knocked on the door to Pan’s office, waited a moment, and walked in.

Pan glanced up from his desk. “I didn’t indicate you could enter, Major.”

“Would you like me to step back outside, sir?” Pavlik responded. Any idiot could tell I’m mocking him, but for some reason, he can’t figure it out.

Pan grimaced. “No, Major. Come in. Have a seat,” he grated out. “I’ve received word of a situation from one of the outlying districts.”

“A situation, sir?” Pavlik commented as he dropped into one of the chairs positioned in front of the ornate desk.

“Two soldiers and their vehicle are missing. Last known location of it is out in the farmlands.”

So what? That happens every other week. “Probably some privates out drunk, sir.”

“I would tend to agree. Except that the bio-locators in the men in question showed them dying before losing signal.”

Pavlik perked up immediately and pulled himself to a ramrod-straight position. “That is most unusual, Colonel.”

“I agree. It would appear resistance activity is breaking out.”

Where the hell does he get that? “I would caution against jumping to conclusions, sir. It’s most likely the work of a single individual.”

“There is also the matter of the ship we shot down yesterday,” Pan said.

“I read the report. Looked like a recon vessel, pilot and crew killed. We’re waiting for the DNA results to see how many were onboard.”

“Perhaps the Terran Coalition is working with a resistance movement, then.”

Talk about putting two and two together and coming out with twenty-two. “I see no evidence of that, Colonel. The Terran Coalition hasn’t shown much interest in Freiderwelt outside of occasional reconnaissance flights. Oh, and some leaflet drops saying they haven’t forgotten the inhabitants.”

“Major, I want you to go out and explain to the Amish that we won’t stand for this collusion with the enemy,” Pan insisted.

“What would you like me to do exactly, sir?”

“We’ll go with ten inhabitants for every one League soldier. So kill twenty of them at random. I’d prefer you do it from multiple villages and farms.”

Pavlik was barely able to hide his disgust. “Colonel, that will do nothing except inflame the situation and cause more attacks on our forces if it’s, in fact, a resistance movement. In the case of a lone wolf, all collective punishment would do is cause needless suffering on people who share our values.”

“Oh, for the love of Marx, Major! These people don’t share our values; they’re all religious zealots. We ought to send them all to reeducation camps or shoot them. Carry out my orders.”

“With respect, sir,” Pavlik began, struggling to keep emotion from creeping into his voice. “The political commissar has identified the population of this planet as democratic socialists, just like us. It is forbidden to use collective punishment without proof of a conspiracy.”

Pan leaned forward, his face twisted in a frown. “Why do you care about these people so much, Major?”

Because they’re decent folks who don’t deserve to be slaughtered when they present no threat to anyone. “They are citizens of the League, Colonel. I am simply discharging my duty to ensure we treat them properly and protect them from those who would lead them astray of the human family,” Pavlik replied.

“Hmm. I see your point,” Pan said.

Propaganda buzzwords work every time on this idiot. “I have a suggestion, sir, if I may?”

“Of course, Major.”

“I’ll get the particulars from the lead investigator and look into this matter myself. While I’m at it, I’ll go out to the site of that ship crash and see what clues I can glean.”

Pan nodded thoughtfully. “Yes…Yes. Put your considerable talents to work on the problem, Major. I’ll have someone cover your duties here for a couple of days. Report back to me as soon as you know what’s going on.”

Pavlik stood and gave Pan a salute by bringing his fist to his chest. “Yes, sir!”

“Oh, and, Major… don’t be afraid to use harsh measures. I trust your judgment.”

“I’ll use whatever measures are required, sir.”

“Good. Dismissed.”

Pavlik turned and strode out of the office. I’ll get an excellent field trip out of it at least. Beats sitting around this palace, wishing I was home.

Gates of Hell

“Thank you for joining us on such short notice,” David said toward the vidlink screen in the Lion’s main conference room, which displayed an image of both Colonel Robert Sinclair and his lead analyst, First Lieutenant Alon Tamir.

“Oh, it was hard to pull myself away from the excitement of watching transmissions decrypt, but here we are,” Sinclair replied with more than a trace of mirth. “Good to see you again, Colonel Cohen.”

Aibek and Taylor were also present, spaced out amongst the chairs around the large wooden table. “What can CDF Intelligence do for the Lion of Judah today?” Sinclair continued.

“We are matching wits and tactics with a most interesting opponent,” Aibek stated. “A League commander that seemingly knows our moves as we make them.”

“I’m intrigued. Tell me more,” Sinclair said.

“To make a long story short, we’re trying to assist Colonel Dyson and DESRON 57 to protect our supply lines out to Uni… Freedom Station. The League is jumping its forces into position with outstanding precision. If we lower the number of ships assigned to a convoy, then it gets hit, even if the timing is mixed up in an attempt to confuse the enemy. Our best guess is the League has some new stealth drones out here keeping tabs on everything,” David explained.

“They did spring those funky new mines on us six months ago,” Sinclair conceded. “Question, Colonel. Has that League commander been wrong so far in his or her guesses? Have you one-upped them?”

“The only drop we’ve managed to get so far is we left our fighter contingent behind and jumped in to assist Colonel Dyson. That maneuver worked. They seemingly weren’t expecting us to do that, and we bagged several Rands and their escorts.”

Sinclair’s face clouded over, and he appeared to be rooted in thought. Tamir spoke instead. “If I may ask, sir, who did you tell about the strategy before executing it?”

“My senior officers. Why?”

“Did you communicate it to anyone off the ship, by any method?” Tamir persisted.

“We did brief Colonel Dyson,” Aibek said.

“Do you know if he communicated it forward?”

“I have no idea, Lieutenant,” David replied. “What exactly are you getting at?”

“What he’s getting at,” Sinclair interrupted, “is this sounds like a HUMINT leak, not SIGINT.”

Aibek stared blankly at the screen and blinked his eyes. “I am not familiar with those terms.”

“Human intelligence, provided typically by double agents, intelligence assets… also known as traitors and spies. Signals intelligence, provided by electronic eavesdropping,” David explained.

“You believe there is a spy at work?” Aibek asked incredulously.

“Or a traitor,” Sinclair said. “All possibilities must be examined.”

“A very unsettling thought, Colonel,” David stated. Not to mention the last thing we need to deal with right now.

Aibek shifted in his seat. “What makes you think it’s a spy?”

“If it were SIGINT-based intel, they would guess every move you made correctly, because they’d see it in real time. The fact that there was a hole suggests someone, somewhere, is providing information to the League. How it’s occurring, or why, is up to us to sort out.”

“I can’t believe a member of the Coalition Defense Force would provide any aid to the enemy,” David insisted.

“Intelligence is a nasty business. That’s why I enjoy it,” Sinclair stated, his posh British accent on full display. “I’ll huddle with my team and see if we can figure out a way to sniff out what’s going on here. For now, consider this entire matter classified at Top Secret level, and subject to special compartmentalized information restrictions. There is to be no discussion of the matter outside of this subset of personnel. Are we clear on that, gentlemen?”

“Understood, Colonel Sinclair. I’ll have our communication records marked TSSCI.”

“Excellent. We’ll be in contact once the team has some ideas.”

“Thank you,” David replied.

“Godspeed, Colonel.”

“Godspeed,” David replied, motioning for Taylor to cut the vidlink.

The three of them stared at one another after the screen cut off, looks of dismay circulating the room.

David was the first to speak. “I don’t like the implications here.”

“Should we consider lie detectors for the senior staff and communications on the Lion, sir?” Taylor asked.

Oh, heck no. “Absolutely not, Lieutenant.”

“But, sir,” Taylor tried to say.

David cut him off. “There will be no witch hunts on my ship. Period. End of story, don’t ask again.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You’re dismissed, Lieutenant.”

“Yes, sir,” Taylor said before he hastily stood and exited the room.

“A bit hard on him, Cohen,” Aibek said.

“Maybe. I won’t have that sort of thinking breaking out among my senior officers.”

“I understand where you’re coming from there. On a Saurian ship, to suggest anyone was a traitor would instigate a fight to the death.”

“Not quite the same here,” David replied with a bit of a smirk. “But the morale hit we’d take would be enormous. I won’t risk it unless there is direct, actionable information that we have a traitor on the Lion of Judah,” he finished while closing his eyes and shaking his head. “Damnit, XO. This is the last thing we need to deal with right now. Give me a target to destroy any day, but not this cloak and dagger crap.”

“On this, we agree. I detest subterfuge. I prefer a straight-up fight, and may the best combatant win,” Aibek said, his teeth gleaming as he smiled.

“A fair fight, eh?”

“Yes, the noblest kind.”

David shook his head. “Maybe in sports. In combat, if we’re in a fair fight, I did something wrong.”

“An interesting philosophy, sir.”

“I’m full of surprises today,” David said and sprang to his feet. “Let’s get back to it. I’ll see you on the bridge later.”

“Where to now?”

“Oh, I need to meet up with Colonel Demood and have a chat with our resident defense contractor. Looking for some solutions to help the team on Freiderwelt.”

“Good luck, sir.”

“Thanks, XO,” David replied as he opened the hatch and walked away.

Gates of Hell

Kenneth glanced up from his tablet to see David and Demood walking across the hangar bay, directly toward him. He’d been reviewing progress reports and inspecting a new machine learning system for reloading fighters; it had the promise to increase the number of sorties flown in a day. He made eye contact with David and was rewarded with an acknowledgment in the form of a head dip.

“Mr. Lowe,” Demood began. “Feel like doing some real work today?”

Kenneth smirked. “I do real work every day, Colonel Demood.”

“You two need to get a room sometime,” David groused.

Oooh, he’s not in the mood today. “What can I do for you, sirs?”

“We have a bit of a problem with Freiderwelt. Namely, its planetary defense systems,” David said. “They’re able to locate our stealth landers, and we don’t understand how or why. That’s preventing us from sending a QRF.”

Kenneth frowned as he ran through some of the scenarios. “I’m going to assume sending another lander on autopilot and trying to figure out how they’re targeting us through the stealth coatings and engine exhaust dampers is a non-starter?”

“We don’t exactly have ships to throw away,” Demood snapped.

“Then I would suggest we instead focus on providing overwatch fire capability to the commando team,” Kenneth replied.

“How do you know that it’s a commando team?” Demood blurted out.

“Colonel… the Lion of Judah is a tiny ship, regardless of how large it appears from the outside. One of the tier-one teams is gone. Everyone knows it. Logically speaking, they’re who we dropped on Freiderwelt.”

“Kenneth rarely misses a beat,” David said toward Demood with a smile on his face. “Got any ideas on how you’d provide fire support to them?”

“Maybe we could put some drones in orbit that spoof a League power signature and don’t show up as hostile… the team could interface them into their command net and get some indirect fires. We could load them up with air-to-ground missiles.”

“Wouldn’t the League just blow them up whenever they fired?” Demood asked skeptically.

“I would expect so… each drone would be single use.”

“Not a half-bad idea,” David said. “What would it take to make it happen?”

“Support from the science team, including Doctor Hayworth, a supply of recon drones, and we’d have to make a couple of micro-fusion reactors to power them,” Kenneth explained.

“Any objections, Colonel?” David said with a glance at Demood.

“None, sir. Even limited overwatch would provide a large increase of lethality for the team and increase their odds of survival.”

“I’ll send a note down authorizing you to get to work, Kenneth,” David said. “Anything else?”

“No, sir,” Kenneth replied.

“I’d like to talk to Mr. Lowe for a few minutes privately,” Demood stated.

Oh no, what’d I do to him now? “Of course, sir,” Kenneth replied.

“I’ll see you both later,” David said as he turned and walked off quickly.

David always moves quickly. I’ve never seen him dawdle at anything, even when having fun. Kenneth stared at Demood, waiting for him to speak.

“I owe you an apology,” Demood began without preamble. “I accused you of some nasty things a few months back. I called you a coward. I’ve never treated you with respect, and for that I’m sorry.”

What the heck? “Uh, I…” Kenneth stammered. “No apology needed, sir.”

“Stow the ‘sir’ shit,” Demood replied. “Look, I’m bad at feelings. You know I’ve had some issues. I still do. I’m trying to make amends. I rag on you and your guys for getting paid a lot more than my Marines do, and not having to put in the dangerous work. There may be a lot of crappy defense contractors out there, but your team isn’t, and the reason for it is the man who leads them. You saved one of my Marines. I should’ve thanked you for that, not smeared you.”

Kenneth stood silently. His eyes were wide, and his mouth slightly ajar, as if he’d been slapped. I have no idea how to respond to this… I could try the truth. “Colonel, I was terrified,” he began. “I peed my pants the first time bullets flew. You’re right… I’m not a soldier, I’m a nerd. My way of contribution is to be a brain and try to make things work. I’m not cut out to be on the sharp tip of the spear. It’s a shame I carry.”

“If you know you’re not cut out for it, why did you volunteer?”

“Because I thought I needed to. I wanted to prove to myself, maybe to everyone else, maybe even to God, that I could stand up and put my life on the line.”

“You don’t need to prove yourself to anyone except yourself and God, Mr. Lowe.”

“Kenneth, please, especially in a conversation like this,” he replied while forcing a smile.

“Hah, okay. Look, I’m just trying to change some things about me. Be a better man. It’s a long road, and making amends with people I’ve hurt for no good reason is something I need to do.”

Kenneth stuck out his hand. Demood reached down and shook it with a substantial grip. “Apology accepted, Calvin.”

Much to Kenneth’s surprise, Demood turned the handshake into an enormous bear hug that nearly crushed him. “You take care of yourself, Kenneth.”

“Always, sir.”

“Okay, what are we standing here jawing for? Commandos need those drones,” Demood said with mock reproach.

“On my way, Colonel. Remember… anytime you want a real job, come see me,” Kenneth said, unable to keep a straight face as he busted out with a giant belly laugh.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Demood replied, laughing as well.

Kenneth made his way through the hangar bay, consulting his tablet to determine where Doctor Hayworth was; that was his first destination. The rush of feelings surrounding Demood’s apology surprised him. I think the colonel has a point. Trying to prove myself to others doesn’t work. I suppose I have some things to work on too. I hope he’s holding up. Maybe I’ll drop by and see how he’s doing tonight.


12

Ruth rocked in her seat as the old, beat-up transport vehicle rolled across the landscape of Freiderwelt. Operating off electric batteries, it was designed to be a short-range personnel carrier, and not well suited for combat. She was up in the forward compartment, where the driver sat. Susanna had squeezed in up front too, between her and Meissner, who was handling the driving or at least trying to.

“Master Chief!” Meissner shouted through an open window into the rear of the vehicle.

“What?” MacDonald roared back over the noise of the wheels bouncing over rough terrain.

“Our energy cells are getting low.”

“Seriously? League-built crap. We should’ve been able to get to our destination and back on half a charge!”

“This thing was built before I was born, Master Chief,” Ruth interjected to laughs from those who heard her.

“Fair point, LT,” Meissner replied. “Still, we need more juice, or we’re going to be walking.”

Susanna peered at Ruth, her eyes drooped, a scared expression on her face.

“Do you have something to tell us, Susanna?” Ruth questioned.

There was a bit of a pause before the girl spoke. “There’s an old recharging station not too far from here. It looks like our buildings, but it’s not one of ours. Does that make sense?”

“Yeah, little girl, it’s called trying to blend in,” MacDonald said as he chuckled. “Do you know where it’s at exactly?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Quit that ‘sir’ shit. I work for a living,” MacDonald groused, ever the curmudgeon.

“Language, Master Chief.”

“This isn’t the bridge of the Lion of Judah, Lieutenant.”

“Colonel Cohen’s thoughts on the matter have impacted me,” Ruth replied. “Besides, she’s sixteen, and swearing of any type is against her beliefs. Is it so hard not to curse for a couple of days?”

“You’re almost as bad as my wife, Lieutenant,” MacDonald finally said. “Okay, let me rephrase. Quit that ‘sir’ stuff. I work for a living. Happy?”

Ruth responded with a dazzling smile. “Thank you, Master Chief.”

Pausing for a moment, MacDonald looked toward the driver’s seat. “Meissner, pull over,” he ordered. “I’m going to show you a map on my tablet, Susanna. I want you to point out the place on the map for me, okay?” he asked in what Ruth assumed was the most soothing tone he could muster. I wonder if he has kids.

After the lumbering transporter ground to a halt, MacDonald stuck his tablet through the window between the compartments. It was designed for use in a rugged environment and looked as if it had seen its fair share of abuse from the dings, nicks, and dents around the edges. A topographical map of the area around them was visible on the screen.

“Now, where’s this recharging station?”

Susanna stared at the tablet, then looked up at Ruth. “I don’t know what this is.”

Before MacDonald could respond, Ruth took the tablet. “Allow me, Master Chief.” Upon receiving a nod from him, she changed the mode to a top-down bird’s eye view and turned it so Susanna could examine it too. “These are pictures of everything on the planet from our recon drones. Do you see us, here?”

Susanna squinted at the screen and shook her head. “I’m sorry, I don’t.”

Ruth smiled. “It’s okay. Here, see the brown top of the transporter?” She pointed to a mark on the screen.

Susanna nodded. “I see it.”

“Okay, now you can try to find the building we’re looking for. Do you have any idea how far away it is?”

“We don’t measure distance like you do, Ruth,” Susanna replied, clearly frustrated. “I remember going by it on the way to Brother Carmichael’s farm. We only go a couple of times a year because the journey takes two days by buggy.”

“How many horsepower on that thing?” Harrell quipped from the rear. “One or two?”

“Senior Chief,” Ruth said, her tone reproachful. “Stow it,” she continued before turning back to Susanna. Ugh, boys. I’m overrun by alpha males. “Are you sure it was two days?”

“Yes, very sure. We’d have to pitch a tent, and I always hated getting bugs in my hair.”

Ruth played with the settings on the tablet and began to change the range of the map shown. “Care to let me in on what you’re doing, Lieutenant?” MacDonald asked.

“A horse and buggy can go anywhere from thirty to forty kilometers in a day. Which gives us a maximum range of eighty-five kilometers. What we’re looking for has to be within that radius from their farm.”

“How the heck do you know how far a horse and buggy can travel daily?”

Ruth grinned in return. “You have to remember I grew up here. These people were a part of our daily lives.”

“Carry on, Lieutenant.”

After a few minutes, Ruth finished her search parameters and was rewarded with several possible candidates; buildings that fit the description of a garage or recharging station but retained Amish design. She cued them up to show in sequence. “Okay, Susanna, have a look at these for me. Tell me if any of them look familiar.”

Susanna nodded and took the tablet, swiping the pictures to the right after looking at the image displayed. After several, a grin broke onto her face. “This is it! We passed it by so many times, I can’t forget the façade,” she said, handing it back to Ruth.

“Jackpot, Master Chief,” Ruth said, holding up the tablet. “McInnis Country Store.”

“Punch it in, Meissner,” MacDonald ordered.

“Got it, Master Chief,” Meissner replied. After a few minutes, the destination appeared in the vehicle’s navigation system. “Twenty minutes away. More than in range.”

“Not bad, Lieutenant,” MacDonald commented.

“Thank Susanna, Master Chief. I just helped explain it to her in a way that made sense.”

“Thank you both, then,” MacDonald said.

“You’re welcome, Mister MacDonald,” Susanna stated.

“Call me Master Chief. I’ve been doing this long enough it’s about all I answer to reliably.”

Ruth chuckled, as did everyone else in the transporter. It rolled on toward its target.

Gates of Hell

Thirty kilometers away, Pavlik’s shuttle glided over the green fields of the Nussbaum farm, glancing out the transparent metal window. He had already spoken in person to several Amish families but received no pertinent information. The Nussbaums were the furthest out in the small network of farms and were his last stop for the day. The craft touched down in a cloud of dirt, hitting the ground with a thud.

“Thank you, pilot,” Pavlik said, popping his restraints off and standing up. “I’ll conduct my questioning and return shortly.”

“Are you sure you wouldn’t like to take some soldiers with you, sir?” the pilot asked in return.

“No. I know these people, and besides, they’re not insane enough to assault a League shuttle in broad daylight.”

“Of course, sir.”

Pavlik made his way back through the shuttle, past a group of smartly dressed soldiers, who saluted him as he passed by. He returned the salutes and strode out onto the ground, taking in the pastoral scene that greeted him. It’s almost hard to believe this is a farm on a technologically advanced human society.

The door to the farmhouse opened, and Ezekiel Nussbaum lumbered out. Pavlik had met Ezekiel on several occasions; he had tried to meet with the elders of each village at least once, preferably several times. If Pan would get out of his office, he’d realize making personal connections goes far further than displays of military power.

“Mister Nussbaum,” Pavlik called out. “Wie bist du?” he said, using the unique form of German the Amish families still spoke.

Gut, Major Pavlik,” Ezekiel replied.

“Glad to hear you’re well. May I trouble you for a few minutes?” Pavlik asked.

“Would you care to join me in the main house?”

“If that’s where you would be most comfortable,” Pavlik replied.

Ezekiel gestured toward the front door and held it open. Pavlik quickly crossed to the distance to the stairs and walked into the house. “Thank you, Mister Nussbaum.”

“Please have a seat in our parlor, Major,” Ezekiel said after he closed the front door. “Would you like some coffee or tea?”

“No, I’m fine. I’d rather not be awake half the night,” Pavlik joked. “I’m getting to be an older man.”

Ezekiel chuckled as he sat down. “I’m familiar with those problems, Major. What can I do for you?”

“A couple of our soldiers went missing last night,” Pavlik began. “They were driving a short-range transporter. Did you see them by chance?”

“I can’t say I did, Major.”

“Did you notice anything unusual?”

“Such as?”

“Powered vehicles, weapons fire of any type?”

“Out here?” Ezekiel began. “We never get that kind of excitement.”

“How was the harvest this year?” Pavlik queried. Something is off here. I can feel the tension coming off him.

Gut,” Ezekiel replied with a worn smile. “It was all my children and I could do to get it all in.”

“I’m glad,” Pavlik said sincerely. “It’s almost time for your youngest daughter to have her courtship, yes?”

“You have an excellent memory, Major. Susanna just celebrated her sixteenth birthday. Many of the young men find her attractive. Me, I’d rather have her stay around for just a few more years… but she must go create a family of her own, ja?”

“I miss my own family,” Pavlik confided. “At least they’re well taken care of, thanks to my service to the League.”

“How much longer do you have on our planet?”

Pavlik shrugged. “I’ve had this post for two years now, yes? I could leave next year, but I do love Freiderwelt. Of all the planets I’ve served garrison duty on, this is the only one I’ve seen where we live in harmony. Do you mind if I walk around your property and check a few things? Just for my official report, of course.”

“I cannot stop you, Major. My house has nothing to hide. Check everything that you need.”

“Thank you, Mister Nussbaum,” Pavlik replied, a tone of respect in his voice. “I’ll see myself out and onto the grounds.”

“Ja.”

Pavlik made his way out of the house and onto the lawn of the farm; he drew a small scanning device out and began to calibrate it specifically to look for the residual electromagnetic signature of League electric motors. He slowly walked down the driveway of the farm, taking in the sights around him. A grain silo stuck up into the sky, with several other structures dotting the area. The scanner began to beep, drawing his attention. So there was a League vehicle here in the last twenty-four hours. Curious.

Pavlik stared at the driveway and observed the tracks in it. There’s no evidence that the transporter was here. Maybe the scanner is wrong. As he continued to walk down the driveway and stare, he realized that something was off. This is all too pristine… it looks new. It suddenly dawned on him that the dirt had been raked over, then a horse and buggy had been run back and forth. Almost perfect… almost.

If they were here, then why were they here? “Because Susanna is in courtship,” he said out loud, answering his question. It was well known the enlisted soldiers would try to bed the more attractive Amish girls when they turned sixteen. Pavlik had made examples out of several, but the practice wouldn’t go away. Because the platoon leaders think it’s funny. We should shoot them too.

The barn stuck out at him as he scanned the property again. They wouldn’t take her back to the main house, Pavlik reasoned. He set off at a quick walk toward the bright red structure and strode in through the open doors. Pausing for a moment to look around, he saw that nothing was visually amiss, so he recalibrated the scanner to look for signs of human blood. It didn’t take long for the device to begin to beep; in short order, he found trace evidence of blood in several different places. Whoever cleaned up here did a damned good job. I can’t even tell what type of blood it was.

Pavlik turned around, his face buried in the scanner, and found Ezekiel standing behind him. Surprised by his sudden and quiet appearance, his hand immediately went for the sidearm in its holster on his right thigh.

“That will not be necessary, Major,” Ezekiel said, showing both hands, palms out. “I have not come to harm you.”

“Then what?” Pavlik replied cautiously.

“I am responsible for the deaths of your two soldiers.”

“Why? I know you are a man of peace… all of you are.”

“Because they violated my daughter. They brought her back here and tried to rape here in this barn. I heard her cries for help, grabbed the nearest weapon—a pitchfork—and stopped them.”

“Why didn’t you call for the police? We would have dealt harshly with them,” Pavlik responded. Something doesn’t add up here.

“They were dead, Major. I know what the League does to anyone who resists its rule. My entire family would have been executed. I realize that’s my fate now, but I must have your word I’m the only one to pay for the crime committed.”

“What did you do with their bodies?”

“I had several farmhands help me load them up into that vehicle they were driving. I drove it into the woods through trial and error; we buried the bodies and burned the vehicle.”

If they’d done that, the locators implanted under the skin would have alerted us. “Who helped you?”

“I will not reveal their names, Major. Please, only I am to blame.”

Pavlik frowned, considering the revelations. Wouldn’t I have done the same? I’d protect my family to the death. Something is off here, though. There’s no way I buy this old man put down two privates fresh out of boot camp. “How’d you burn the transport?”

Ezekiel hesitated for a moment. “I used kerosene.”

“Can you take me to it?”

“I’m not sure… we did this at night and buried it under trees. I can try if you’d like.”

Definitely something else going on. “What about their weapons?”

“We have no use for weapons, Major. They were burned with the transport.”

“Who knows of this?”

“Only the men who helped me, and my daughter.”

“Where is your daughter now?”

“I sent her away for a few weeks to recover from the trauma of what happened.”

“I see,” Pavlik replied. I don’t buy it. “You realize I’m going to have to take you into custody?”

Ezekiel’s shoulders sagged. “Yes, Major. Will you allow me to say goodbye to my wife for the last time?”

There was something in the way that he said it that struck Pavlik to the core. Perhaps there’s a way I can figure out what’s really going on. Maybe Pan’s right for once, and we do have professional CDF soldiers on planet. It would explain a great many things. I’ll need to visit the crash site of the shuttle and find out for myself. “On second thought,” he said as Ezekiel had turned around and was shuffling out of the barn. “Perhaps I don’t need to take you in.”

Ezekiel whirled around, startled. “Major?”

“I would’ve done the same in your place,” Pavlik said as he pursed his lips together. “Truth be told, we would’ve executed the soldiers involved in this anyway. You saved us the cost of the bullets.”

“I must answer to God for killing two men.”

“Perhaps, but not to the League. Speak of this no more,” Pavlik said, stepping forward and slapping Ezekiel on the shoulder. “Your secret is safe with me.”

“I don’t know how to repay you, Major.”

“How about a jar of that amazing jam your wife makes?”

Ezekiel flashed a weak smile. “We can do that.”

“Good. I’ll pick it up the next time I’m out this way,” Pavlik said, giving Ezekiel one last squeeze on the shoulder and walking out of the barn. I’ll have this place watched day and night with drone surveillance. In the meanwhile, to the crash. Who knows how badly the technicians bungled the scene.


13

“Mata!” MacDonald yelled, seemingly into Ruth’s ear, causing her to wince. That guy has a voice. I bet he was hell as a drill instructor.

“Master Chief!” Mata yelled back from the rear compartment of the transporter.

“We’re going to stop about a click out. I want you providing overwatch from the high ground. You got that?”

“Aye aye, Master Chief!”

“Meissner, pull over here,” MacDonald ordered, pointing toward the side of the trail they were on; it couldn’t really be called a road, as it wasn’t paved, even with gravel. As the vehicle came to a stop, the back door opened, and Mata took off running toward a hill about half a kilometer away. “Okay, take us in nice and slow. Heads on a swivel.”

Ruth stared out the window, sweeping the countryside with her gaze. The planet, while lush, wasn’t the normal green hue she was used to. Many of the flowers were blue, a byproduct of a slightly different formation of their chlorophyll. She was pondering the wonder of the different color palette as they came to a stop directly in front of the building. The rear compartment opened, and the commandos filed out; Ruth kicked her door open, as did Meissner. “Stay frosty, boys,” MacDonald intoned.

“There are two girls here too, Master Chief,” Ruth interjected.

“Nothing stopping you two from staying frosty,” MacDonald replied with a wry grin. “Sit tight with the civilian, Lieutenant. We’ll scope the place out.”

Ruth opened her mouth to argue but realized he was right. Susanna can’t be left alone, and she can’t be taken into a potential combat situation. “Understood, Master Chief.”

MacDonald and Meissner were the last two out. Ruth observed them stack up against the door and breach quickly, the shouts of “Clear!” filling her commlink as they moved through the structure.

“You don’t let them speak down to you,” Susanna observed.

Ruth tilted her head. “No, I don’t.”

“Do they do it because you’re a woman?”

“No,” Ruth replied, suppressing a smirk. “They do it because they’re tier-one commandoes and I’m a fleet officer. To them, I don’t know what I’m doing.”

“In what way?”

“They’ve trained most of their adult lives to be the best soldiers the Terran Coalition has to offer. They can endure pain the likes of which you and I can’t imagine. I’ve seen tier-ones take a bullet and keep on going without even stopping to dress the wound.”

“You sound impressed with them.”

“Beyond impressed,” Ruth agreed. “They know how to fight in ways I’ll never be able to. Still, I’m competent and in more than just ship weapons. The only way to get them to see that is to prove it to them through actions.”

“Why does proving it to them matter to you?”

Why, indeed? “I don’t know. I guess that’s a good question.”

“Amish women do as we’re told by our fathers and husbands.”

Ruth frowned. “I don’t think I’d handle that too well. No one tells me what to do, except my commanding officer.”

“It’s simply the way of things,” Susanna said. “It’s our culture.”

“Don’t you ever want to do something more than what you do here? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I admire your people’s dedication to a plain lifestyle and shutting out technology. But not all of it is bad.”

“That’s why most people who test out our ways can’t stay. They crave something more, as you put it. I think that something more is a hole in all of us.”

“Oh?”

“We find different ways to fill it. I plan to marry a Godly man, have many children, and make a well-run farm,” Susanna said, a trace of pride in her voice. “What about you?”

“I fill my life with fighting the League,” Ruth replied. “It’s what I’ve known since I was a child.”

“Do you like it?”

Ruth shrugged. “I don’t know if I like it, but I’m good at it.”

“Why?”

“Revenge at first, I think. Over time, I grew to realize I had talents for specific parts of combat, so I focused on those, honed my skills, and applied for a higher position. The CDF isn’t a bad gig, you know? Give them twenty to thirty years of your life, defend our way of life, and in return, there’s a nice retirement. You also get to see the galaxy for free,” Ruth said while a grin spread across her face. “That’s what the recruiter told me anyway.”

“Do you regret your path?”

“Never.”

“I think that’s all we can hope for in life, isn’t it?”

“Anyone ever tell you that you’re wise for a teenager?”

“My mother says I’m an old soul.”

“She’s right,” Ruth said. “At least as far as I’m concerned.”

“All clear!” MacDonald’s voice interrupted through the commlink in Ruth’s helmet. “Feel free to join us, Lieutenant.”

“Let’s go,” Ruth said, gesturing to the garage. “They’ve cleared the structure, and it’s safe for us to enter.”

Ruth dropped out of the vehicle and steadied her rifle, pointing the barrel toward the ground.

Susanna made her way around the cab and came up beside her.

“Come on,” Ruth said and trudged the few feet to what had once been the front door of the establishment. She pushed the door in, taking in the sight of dusty shelves and smashed windows, indicating it had been abandoned long ago.

“This place has seen better days,” Ruth commented as MacDonald and Harrell walked into the store portion of the little shop.

“I think the lieutenant just got promoted to Captain Obvious,” Harrell deadpanned.

“That means I outrank you one more rung, Senior Chief,” Ruth replied, equally free of mirth. “Did you find a functional charging station?”

“Rostami is working on it now,” MacDonald said. “We’re going to get the transport moved inside of the garage, just in case we get unwanted visitors.”

“Sounds like a plan, Master Chief,” Ruth said.

“Glad to you know you approve,” Harrell said, apparently unable to help himself.

“You ever going to quit razzing me, Senior Chief?”

“Probably not, but the next time you go wild and kill some Leaguers, I’ll be momentarily impressed and give you a pass for ten minutes.”

Ruth rolled her eyes, a smirk evident. “I’ll see if I can oblige before this op is over.”

“Master Chief, I found a fusion battery, and it’s almost fully charged. We’ll be back in business inside of two hours,” Rostami said through the commlink, cutting into the banter.

“Excellent,” MacDonald stated. “Harrell, get that vehicle moved. LT, bring the civilian into the garage and camp out. I don’t want her leaving your sight.”

“Roger that, Master Chief,” Ruth said, taking Susanna by the arm and taking her along through the next door, stepping gingerly through overturned shelves and trash as she did.

The garage was just as trashed as the rest of the structure; there were piles of garbage and refuse, empty boxes, and food wrappers everywhere. I wonder if people tried to hide here from the League after the evacuation? Ruth pointed at an empty corner of the room. “Let’s stay over here,” she said to Susanna as the door to the garage creaked open.

Once the door had fully opened, the lumbering transporter drove into the bay in fits and stops. Once it came to a halt, Meissner jumped out of the driver’s side and slammed the door shut. “It barely fits,” he commented, causing Ruth to look up toward the ceiling and see the top of the vehicle stood less than six inches from the ceiling.

“Close enough for CDF work,” Ruth said to chuckles from those in earshot.

Rostami poked his head into the garage and tossed a long cable toward Meissner. “Plug this into the charging port.”

“You got it,” Meissner replied, popping open the cover for the charger and attaching the cable, which erupted in a shower of sparks. “Guess it’s live, eh?”

Ruth broke into a smirk. “I’m going to go with yes.”

“Everyone’s a critic on this team,” Meissner complained to laughter from the rest of them.

“Oh, I just give it back as much as I take it,” Ruth said with a touch of snark. “Girl power, you know.”

The garage door dropped down with a thud. Susanna jumped a bit at the sound, causing Ruth to glance back at her. “You okay?”

“Yeah,” Susanna began. “I don’t like loud noises now.”

Poor thing probably has PTSD. “It’s okay, you’ll be fine in here,” she said. “Meissner, how long ‘til this piece of crap is recharged?”

“Three hours or so, give or take?”

“Master Chief, you’ve got company incoming,” Mata’s voice interrupted on the commlink. “Got a patrol vehicle, League issue. Three soldiers and one heavy weapon mounted to the back of it.”

“Distance, Mata?” MacDonald replied through the commlink.

“Three clicks. You’ve got five mikes before they arrive. Should I engage?”

“Negative. Do not engage; we need them to keep going right on by. Everyone, listen up! Get inside the garage, don’t make a sound. Move!”

A few moments later, the rest of the team came racing in, led by MacDonald. They crouched behind the doors, kept their heads down, and hid behind the vehicle itself. “Not a word,” MacDonald whispered as a warning.

Ruth could hear the soft whirring of an electric motor as it came closer and felt her heartbeat quicken inside of her chest. “Tangos are slowing, appear to be pulling in to park,” Mata’s voice whispered over the commlink. “I have them in my sights.”

“Hold,” MacDonald breathed out.

Muffled voices were heard outside of the door, and shadows passed through the room. Ruth tightened her grip on the battle rifle she carried, expecting to need it at any moment.

“Tangos are peering through the windows, Master Chief,” Mata said. “Something has their attention.”

Susanna leaned over and whispered into Ruth’s ear, “What are they doing?”

Ruth shook her head and shrugged her shoulders while pressing a finger to her lips for silence. Outside, the rustling continued along with the noise of male voices.

“They see us,” Susanna fretted in a whisper.

“Master Chief, they’re spooked. Repeat, tangos not moving on. One of them is heading toward the front door,” Mata said in a whisper through the commlink.

“Hold,” MacDonald repeated, sub-vocalizing the command.

Susanna stood quietly and pointed toward the door in the back of the store area of the building. Before Ruth could grab her, she took off.

MacDonald almost lost it. He flailed his arms, and cursed into the commlink, again in a whisper. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“Master Chief, civilian has exited the building,” Mata reported.

Outside, Ruth heard shouts of “Halt! Stop! Hands up!”

“Do you have a shot, Chief?” Ruth whispered into the commlink.

“Yes, ma’am,” Mata replied.

“You are not cleared to fire, Mata. Lieutenant, shut the hell up and stand down. We’re not going loud unless we have no other choice to save our own lives,” MacDonald rasped into the commlink.

“You’re a long way from home, little one,” one of the Leaguers shouted.

“I’m out exploring,” Susanna replied in a voice loud enough to be heard inside the structure.

“She’s trying to get them to move on,” Ruth stated.

“Thank you, Captain Obvious,” MacDonald caustically replied.

Amidst the crosstalk, Ruth couldn’t hear the Leaguers. “Shut up, all of you.”

“The two tangos are heading back to their vehicle.”

“Are you sure you don’t need a ride?” a male voice said.

“No, a friend is coming by with his buggy soon. We have dinner at the next farm to celebrate his birthday,” Susanna said.

I’m blown away she’s being this cool, calm, and collected.

“Okay, be safe, then. To the League!”

A few more seconds passed. “Third tango is heading back to the vehicle,” Mata stated. Ruth didn’t move a muscle as they all waited. “He’s on board, and they’re moving off. We’re clear.”

Susanna skipped through the door, all smiles. “How’d I do?”

“You pull a stunt like that again, I’ll shoot you my damn self,” MacDonald barked.

“Master Chief, please,” Ruth began, only to be interrupted.

“Stow it, Lieutenant. This is not a training simulation. This is not a game… it’s real, do you get that? Do you both get it? I want my people to get home to their families, and I want to go home to my wife. None of us get to do that if you two don’t stop the John Wayne shit and get squared away!”

“You done?” Ruth asked, her face turning red. Meanwhile, Susanna had slunk along the wall and collapsed in a heap, near tears.

“Yeah, I’m done.”

“Good. Because if you ever speak to someone who just saved your rear end like that again, I swear, Master Chief, I’ll kick you into next week.”

“You and what army?” MacDonald answered as he smirked at her.

“I’m younger, faster, and I’ve trained in Semper fu for years.” The other commandos had turned to watch the exchange, and Ruth felt their eyes boring into her.

“Is that a fact… well, when we get back to civilization, thanks to the efforts of my team and me, I’ll gladly take you up on a sparring match, and show you my sixth-degree black belt level skills in TCMC martial arts. Until then, follow your orders, Lieutenant.”

“Her quick thinking saved our hides, Master Chief,” Ruth insisted. “You could at least say thanks.”

MacDonald looked toward Susanna. “Thanks,” he said, particularly exaggerated and sarcastic. “Now everyone kindly get back to work so we can get the hell out of here before the next patrol comes along.”

“Susanna,” Ruth said, pointedly ignoring him. “Regardless of what the Master Chief says, that was one of the bravest things I’ve ever seen. Actions like yours are consistent with the finest traditions of the Coalition Defense Force.” The last phrase was said directed at MacDonald’s back.

“Thank God we’re all safe,” Ahmad interjected.

Trying to defuse the situation in his own way, I guess. No one else spoke. Ruth settled in for the recharging cycle, hoping the enemy wouldn’t return until they were well on their way.


14

Pavlik jogged up the steps to the admin building. I can’t believe for the life of me that Pan might be right for once. He’d kept up the pace from the shuttle pad and had started to get sweaty in the warm summer evening air. As he cleared the front door, he exchanged salutes with a young guard and scanned the biometric ID chip in his hand for access. The device turned green, and he walked through the mantrap-like entrance and on into the building.

Upon reaching Colonel Pan’s door several minutes later, Pavlik knocked politely on the door.

“Come in!” Pan yelled out.

Pavlik walked in to find Pan pacing back and forth in his office. “Good evening, Colonel.”

“What do you have to report, Major?”

“I’ve visited several farms today as well as the crash site,” Pavlik began. “I have some interesting findings.”

“Out with it, Major.”

“I believe I located the farm where our soldiers met their end.”

Pan whirled around, his face turning blood red. “Did you arrest the traitorous criminals responsible or execute them on the spot?”

“Neither, sir.”

For a minute, Pavlik thought Pan’s eyes were going to explode out of his head. “What?” he demanded, in a loud and angry voice.

“Colonel,” Pavlik responded, holding up his hand. “I made a judgment call based on the situation. The farmer who works the fields where I believe the crime was committed indicated to me that these soldiers had a fancy for his daughter. I confirmed that they were most likely killed in the barn, which further corroborates his story.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Yes, it does. We both know there’s a problem on this planet with undisciplined conscripts getting their jollies off with the locals. It’s been a problem for years. If they had been caught in the act by me, I would have shot at least one of them on the spot. Are we going to punish an old man for that?”

“He has no right to pass judgment on anyone in the League, Major,” Pan snarled in return.

“A man protecting his family? I’d do the same and so would you,” Pavlik said hotly. “If you were a man at all, that is!”

“Don’t forget who you’re talking to, Major,” Pan replied, nearly shouting.

Pavlik forced his face to go neutral and bit his lip. I’d better dial this back before I get myself shot. Hiding my disdain for this moron gets harder every day. “There’s another reason why I spared him.”

“Which was?”

“It’s clear to me that an old man, no matter how skilled, didn’t sneak up on two young soldiers and kill them without any evidence of a fight. The Amish also can’t make a vehicle disappear in the way this one was. Something else is at work here.”

“I told you there were Coalition spies!”

“There well may be. I investigated the site of the crashed ship. It was military design, with advanced stealth features. I’m surprised it was even detected by our forces. What’s not readily evident is if anyone survived the crash. I’ve requested DNA tests on human remains found in the wreckage.”

“When will they be completed?”

“As soon as we’re done here, I’ll go to the lab and wait on the results,” Pavlik explained.

Pan walked behind his desk, clearly sulking. “What of the farmer?”

“I have my best men watching his land. If there’s a group of spies or Coalition operatives out there, they’ll come back. We’ll watch, wait, and learn… then capture them all at a time of our choosing.”

“Good,” Pan finally said, his face still red. “I can accept that. When the time comes, however, I want everyone on that farm executed as an example of what happens when you defy the League.”

I must find some way to keep Ezekiel and his family from being executed. “I believe the farmer is a decent man. They don’t deserve to be executed.”

“Going native, Major? You cannot possibly condone killing a soldier of the League.”

“I don’t condone it, sir. But executing his entire family? Collective punishment isn’t allowed by the political commissars on this planet. Its population is considered to be socialists in good standing.”

“So you keep reminding me. I expect you to influence the commissar, in that case. I want an example made. Do not fail me, Major.” Pan barked.

“Yes, sir,” Pavlik grated out. “Anything else, sir?”

“Go find the spies and traitors, then kill them all, Major. That is your only duty until this is resolved.”

“Yes, sir,” Pavlik replied, slapping his right fist to his chest before turning on his heel and swiftly marching out of the room.

Gates of Hell

Tamir sat behind his station, perched on the operations floor of the CSV Oxford. He had three monitors going with various decryptions, testing out different algorithms to find the best one. Another analyst, Second Lieutenant Rodney Kellogg, leaned over from the station next to him. “Hey, Tamir. What’s cooking?”

“Same thing that was cooking ten minutes ago, Kellogg.”

“Don’t have to be like that.”

“At least come up with a different intro to bug me with,” Tamir said, altering one of the decryption algorithms to take advantage of a new set of code words.

“Looks like you’re as bored as I am.”

“You’re in the wrong business if you want excitement, Kellogg.”

“Except those rare occasions when something cool happens.”

“Uh, huh. I’ll take your word for it,” Tamir replied, staring at his screen.

“Hey, Tamir. Why don’t you try running last week’s decrypted codeword list against those messages?”

“There’s a reason why it’s last week’s… the League has to change its cipher every week to stay ahead of our hypercomputers.”

“All I’m saying is sometimes they get lazy, especially lately.”

This is a waste of time, but it’s not like I don’t have all day to work on the problem. Tamir punched up the decryptor program and changed its list. Almost immediately, the message began to fill in, and within fifteen seconds, was fully decrypted.

“Well, will you look at that. Lieutenant Kellogg, right again.”

“It’s the first time you’ve been right all week, Kellogg,” Tamir deadpanned. “Proof that even a broken watch is right once a day.”

“Twice a day.”

“Not in the military.”

“You’re something else, Tamir. Just because Sinclair likes you doesn’t mean you get to lord it over the rest of us.”

“Sinclair doesn’t like me,” Tamir replied hotly. “He grinds me down.”

“You’re his favorite,” Kellogg insisted. “Whatever, I’m going back to work.”

“Wow, there’s a first time for everything.”

Kellogg didn’t respond and put his nose back into his station, leaving Tamir in peace. Running the message through a translation matrix as it was in Russian, he eagerly read it over once that program had finished.

Captain Baburin,

Thank you for the recent update. Notwithstanding its accuracy, the enemy deploys a new tactic against us. The operation nearly ended in disaster and was it not for the sacrifice of many brave sailors, the Terrans would’ve gained insight into our intelligence source. In the future, make sure that we have all pertinent information and inform our asset failure to comply will mean the loss of our protection.

– Commander Anikeyev

“Holy crap,” Tamir blurted out, astonished as he finished skimming the message.

“What’s got a bee up your shirt, Tamir?” Kellogg yelled over.

“I’ve got to go,” Tamir said as he sprang up from his chair, locked his console, and took off running. Got to find Sinclair and show this to him… he was right, as usual!

Gates of Hell

Major Pavlik walked through the sterile halls of the League medical facility within their military installation on Freiderwelt. The building was depressing and dull. It’s like it was designed by half-drunk architects that wanted us to feel their pain. With no decorations except propaganda posters urging everyone to watch what they use, report any capitalistic activity, and warning against the evils of religion, it was difficult to remember where exactly the pathology lab was located. After making wrong turns and backtracking, he finally ended up in front of a door with a plastic sign on the wall next to it marked “Pathology.” Opening the door, he walked in to find several white-coated individuals sitting around a metal table.

“Who’s in charge here?” Pavlik asked.

“No one, brother. This department has been fully socialized and has achieved the objectives of the proletariat,” one of the men responded without glancing up.

“That might work on your supervisor,” Pavlik said dryly. “But I’m not your supervisor.”

The woman in the group looked up, and her face contorted in fear as she elbowed the nearest technician to her. “He’s an officer!”

“Why yes, I am an officer,” Pavlik repeated back to her. They send the worst of the worst here, I’m sure of it. All of them are a few cards short of a full deck if I were to judge by the quality of our conscripts. “Major Vladislav Pavlik, at your service,” he continued with an exaggerated smile. “Now who’s in charge?”

“I am,” the woman stammered. “What can we do for you, Major?”

“I sent badly degraded human remains to be tested from a crashed Terran Coalition ship. I specifically wanted the DNA compared to understand how many died.”

“It’s in process, Major.”

“When can I view the results?”

“It’ll take some time, sir. We need to reach a consensus between the technicians.”

“Excuse me?”

“One of the regulations is we must all agree before publishing a report of our findings.”

Bureaucrats. Idiots. “I don’t have time for a committee meeting, Doctor. What’s your name again?”

“Doctor Anna Beridze, sir.”

“Doctor Beridze, I want the results in my hand within the next four hours. Do I make myself clear?”

“Major, it takes a long time to compare the DNA strands…” Beridze began.

“Don’t insult my intelligence, Doctor,” Pavlik snapped. “You have a computer that does almost all of the work. All you have to do is sit there and compare two slides to ensure they match. Stop bullshitting me, put your card game away, and get to work!”

“Yes, sir.”

“Get up!” Pavlik yelled, angrier by the second.

The three scrambled to their feet, and the two men scurried toward the nearest computer station.

“We’ll have it ready within two hours, Major,” Beridze managed to say.

“See that you do,” Pavlik answered before turning on his heel and smartly walking out. It’s amazing we get anything done, he fumed inside. Pan better not be right. With the poor quality of troops on this planet, we’d be lucky to defeat a single of the Terran Coalition’s best, much less a squad or two of them.

Gates of Hell

I wonder why the geeks always get stuck on the inside of the ship with the crappiest rooms and offices. Taylor strode into a tight-fitting office belowdecks on the Lion of Judah. Marked “Decryption Analysis,” on a small nameplate beside its hatch, the space held an interface to the Terran Coalition’s separate intelligence data processing network. It was air-gapped from the rest of the militaries tactical and unclassified networks, and access was tightly controlled.

Taylor took a seat at the station and went through a series of biometric security checks of his fingerprints and retina after putting his security token into the appropriate reader. He finally entered a twenty-character passphrase, coupled with a voice print keyword. Yeah, whoever designed this thing is paranoid.

Following the computer’s initialization, he checked his secure message log and found a request from Tamir to contact him regarding the Oxford’s findings. Quickly looking on the encrypted vidlink and seeing he was online, Taylor pressed the icon to connect. A few minutes of blank screen later, and Tamir’s face appeared on the screen in front of him.

“Lieutenant Taylor, you got my message!”

“That I did,” Taylor replied with a relaxed smile. “I take it you found something?”

“Yeah. I’m learning to never bet against Colonel Sinclair. It’s like he has a direct line to God or something.”

Taylor laughed. “I know what you mean. Colonel Cohen is the same way when it comes to outfoxing the League in ship-to-ship battle.”

“Do you have the special codeword Space Keyhole?”

“Yes, let me upload my authentication token. I worked signals on my last posting and was read in.”

“They never debriefed you off?” Tamir asked, surprised.

“Keeping it allowed me some flexibility to help out in intelligence-related matters on the Lion.”

“Nice. I confirmed your token. What I’m about to say is considered codeword intelligence and is not to be repeated to anyone without that level of clearance.”

“Including Colonel Cohen?”

“Yes.”

Taylor frowned and pursed his lips together. “Understood.” He reached over and pressed a button to engage the security lockout protocol that would prevent someone else from opening the hatch without his explicit okay.

“Earlier today, I decrypted a message between the League External Security Service and the captain leading the raiding forces. The contents made clear they have a HUMINT asset in play.”

“I—” Taylor stammered. “Find that somewhat hard to believe.”

“I suggest you believe it, Lieutenant. Traitors exist, that’s a fact. Most of the time, we know little about them until they slip up. I think we got lucky here. Leaguers didn’t change out their crypto keys fast enough. They’re on last week’s, which we’ve already cracked. I’m reading these guys’ mail, if you will.”

“That’s positive, I guess,” Taylor replied. “Any idea who the traitor is?”

“By process of elimination, I have to assume that the crew of the Lion of Judah and Colonel Dyson’s ship are ninety-nine percent out of the running. I say this because if the traitor were onboard, they’d likely have known about the plan to trip up the League forces with the quick jump stunt.”

“That makes logical sense to me. But if not one of us, then who?”

“There’s a wide variety of personnel outside of those two ships that are suspect, all the way back to planners in SHAEF and staff on the joint chiefs panel.”

“We need a way to narrow it down,” Taylor interjected.

“I’ve been thinking about that. To use Occam’s razor on this,” Tamir began.

“Huh?”

“Occam’s razor… it’s the idea that all things being equal, the simplest solution is most often correct.”

“Ah, okay,” Taylor replied. A nerdism I didn’t know. Interesting.

“It’s got to be someone attached to the task force that is getting near real time, but not actual real-time information as to what Cohen and Dyson are up to.”

“Don’t we have some forward deployed stealth raider assets in this sector?”

“Great minds think alike. I had the same thought. There’s three, to be exact. The comm officer on any of them would get regular updates on friendly ships in the area, and would pass back intelligence on League vessels.”

Taylor’s face broke into a grin. “We could smoke out whoever it is with flash traffic that suggests we’ve found a mole and are taking steps to apprehend the suspect. Send a slightly different version of it to each ship and announce the Lion will be performing inspections and an investigation.”

“Then administer lie detector exams to the comms team on each ship.”

“It’s tailored and direct. Colonel Cohen should buy off on it.”

“It’s your idea, Taylor. I’m happy to let you write it up and present it to the colonels.”

“How about a joint presentation? I’ve never been one for hogging the limelight.”

“You’re on,” Tamir replied with a grin of his own. “I’ll have Colonel Sinclair set up the briefing for tomorrow morning. That’ll give us enough time to put it together and not sound like blathering idiots.”

“I’ve got watch in an hour. I’ll do my part afterward.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant. Godspeed, Oxford out.”

It’s going to be a long night, Taylor thought as he turned off the computer, shivering at the thought that there was a traitor in their midst.

Gates of Hell

Ruth took another step, each one more painful than the last. Three hours of this mountain-hiking crap is taking its toll. I could ask MacDonald for a break… I’d rather eat dirt. He’s not getting a whiff of weakness out of me. Grimacing, she could make out Ahmad about twenty meters ahead of her in the dense undergrowth. To her surprise, Susanna had not only kept up but seemed to enjoy the hike.

“Hold,” MacDonald’s voice rasped through the commlink, quiet and muffled. “Coming to a clearing and I have eyes on enemy installation. Form up on me.”

“Acknowledged,” Ruth said, picking up her pace. Crossing a rise in the path, she looked down toward the rest of the team. The clearing he’d mentioned was visible before her. She saw a tall plasticrete wall with guard towers ringing it. Taking care to stay hidden and within the protective brush, ten minutes later, she plopped down next to the rest of the team, who’d taken up positions lining the woods.

“What’s the situation, Master Chief?” Ruth asked.

“Situation is, we’re—” MacDonald began, then glanced at Susanna. “—in a mess.”

“The base looks fortified.”

“It’s beyond fortified. They’ve got interlocking guard towers, kill zones, and electronic security measures.”

“They allow Amish in to perform day laborer tasks,” Susanna said.

MacDonald, Ruth, and Harrell all turned and stared at her.

“Think we could pass for Amish?” Harrell asked to guffaws from the rest of the team.

“I’m sorry, Senior Chief, I don’t think so. You don’t have the proper beard.”

“Hey, I’ve been telling you for years, Master Chief, you ought to let me grow my beard out to at least tier-one status,” Harrell cracked, and the rest of the team replied with muffled laughter.

“There’s got to be a way in there,” MacDonald finally said after a good thirty seconds of silence.

Ruth used the optics in her helmet to zoom in on the guard towers. “Each one of these things has a searchlight and a mounted heavy weapon.”

Ahmad cleared his throat. “I noticed that too, LT.”

“I’d wager if we could silently take out two of the towers at once, scaling the wall would be simple.”

“A direct assault?” MacDonald asked incredulously. “Do you know anything about tactics, LT? Anything at all? We’d get cut to ribbons with the troop strength they have in there, even if we did get over the wall.”

“You got a better idea?”

“We’re going to sit tight for a few hours, see what they do after dark, then find a place to hole up and let the professionals do their jobs. Clear?”

“As a bell, Master Chief.”

“Good. Meissner… start scoping targets. I want a full map of this place with tangos marked.”

“Aye aye, Master Chief.”

Ruth settled back in and said little for the next two hours. It’s almost like being on the bridge for a shift where nothing happens. The few times a conversation broke out, MacDonald quickly shut it down, demanding comms silence. As darkness descended across the landscape, she watched a beautiful sunset that left the sky a green hue.

“Master Chief, I see the towers changing the guard,” Harrell said, his voice cutting into Ruth’s thoughts. “Right on time, as always.”

Ruth snickered. “Leaguers are good for that.”

“We’ll keep recording for thirty mikes. Then back to the barn we found earlier… Contact the Lion of Judah, get some shut-eye, and figure out our next move.”

Ruth thought about replying but didn’t. Staring at the League base through night vision enhanced optics in her helmet, she wondered how Susanna was holding up. From outward appearances, while her dress was ruffled and stained with dirt, her face was chipper, and she appeared, if not happy, resolute. I’ve kind of taken her under my wing. Not sure how much good it will do. We’re going to need a miracle to survive this.

Gates of Hell

“Conn, communications,” Taylor said, causing David’s head to snap around from the conversation he had been having with Aibek. “I’ve got flash traffic from the commando team, sir. They have five minutes of transmission time.”

“On my viewer, Lieutenant,” David quickly commanded.

MacDonald’s unsmiling face appeared, causing David to wonder if he ever showed emotion beyond annoyance. “Colonel Cohen, can you hear me?”

“Good copy, Alpha leader,” David replied with a smile. It did not affect the Master Chief.

“Hey, Rostami, you did something right for once,” MacDonald said to someone off-screen. “We haven’t found the enemy control center yet, sir.”

“Any progress at all?”

“We’re very close to the main League military installation on this planet. Found a hiding place for this evening, and we’re going to work through the information we gathered tonight. I thought about going in, but the team has been on the move for forty-eight hours and needs a break.”

“Understood, Master Chief,” David began. “Got a little bit of good news for you.”

“You remotely shut down the League defense net?”

“Not quite. But the contractors are putting together a few stealth drones with air to ground missiles on them. You’ll have limited indirect fire support in a day or so.”

MacDonald raised an eyebrow. “I see. How are you going to insert it?”

“Another stealth craft, but from well outside the detection range previously established by your shoot down.”

“Makes sense. Anything else?”

“Our primary mission continues. Until we clean up the raids on our supply lines, I can’t offer direct support. Don’t worry, Master Chief. The moment we do, the Lion is on the way.”

“Don’t wait too long, or you won’t have any Leaguers left to fight,” MacDonald said, with what hit David as false bravado.

“Hoorah, Master Chief. We’ll burst transmit the access codes to the drones once they’re on station. Good luck and Godspeed.”

“Same to you, Colonel. MacDonald out.”

The screen blinked off, and David glanced at Aibek. “I don’t like leaving them there.”

“I cannot say I like it any more than you do, sir. Lieutenant Goldberg has grown on me during my time here.”

“She has a great head on her shoulders. Between her and the commandos, they’ll get out of there.” Aibek remained silent and stared at the monitors, leaving David to his thoughts. A frown spread across his face as he considered the predicament the team was in. I’ve got to sort out this problem and get there to help because I don’t believe they’ll survive without it… and I’m not losing another friend on my watch.


15

Later in the evening, the commandos made a small dinner of standard CDF ready-to-eat meal rations, from which everyone contributed something to Susanna. Afterward, the team had melted away, some to stand watch, while others talked amongst themselves. Ruth sat quietly, staring out of a hole in the roof toward the night sky, filled with emotional memories of the past.

“Ruth?” Susanna said, after a long period of silence.

“Yes?” Ruth replied, glancing down to see her crouched nearby.

“Could we talk? No one else seems to want me around.”

Ruth forced a smile. “They’re boys. Boys don’t like the girls invading their clubhouse. Don’t mind them.”

“Something about they can’t use proper language for Leaguers when I’m around because you asked them not to swear.”

“Marines, commandos—heck, most soldiers period—swear every other word. Not that I’m an angel—I swear too.”

“My father would have caned me for the language Master Chief MacDonald uses,” Susanna said with a bright grin. “I like him.”

“You do?”

“Yes, he’s so different. All of you are so different. I’ve never seen people behave as you do before.”

“Great,” Ruth said with a laugh. “We’re not the right role models for a sixteen-year-old girl.”

“What’s a role model?”

“Someone you aspire to be like, that’s a positive influence or a negative one.”

“Being like you when I grow up wouldn’t be that bad, would it? You’re a respected and powerful warrior. You defend the weak and hold back evil.”

“I suppose when you put it like that, it does sound kind of nice,” Ruth admitted. “Do you have goals for the future?”

“We’re a straightforward people. The goal is to glorify God through our actions, be good stewards of the land, and raise strong families. I’ll hopefully find a husband soon, and we can start our own farm and journey. You have no idea how in debt to you I am for saving me. If you hadn’t, I’d never be able to have a family.”

“Why?” Ruth asked as she frowned.

“Because if I wasn’t a virgin, I don’t know if anyone would want me.”

“You’re a lot more than just a virgin, Susanna,” Ruth retorted. “You’re smart, brave, and while we’re on the subject, not bad-looking either. It comes in handy, trust me. I don’t have that advantage. I’m very plain.”

“In our culture, purity is sacred.”

“So? It is in mine too. Jews are supposed to avoid those sorts of activities before marriage.”

“Have you?”

Ruth’s face blanched. “We’re not discussing that.”

“I’m sorry. I don’t have anyone to talk to… no sisters. Only five brothers.”

“It’s okay; I’m very private. I don’t tend to let people get close to me.”

“Why?”

“Because everyone I get close to ends up dying,” Ruth admitted. Why am I opening up to this girl? She doesn’t need my baggage.

“Is this why you hate the League?”

“I don’t hate them… I fight them.”

“Ruth, the reason I was so scared of you at first, back in my family’s barn, is you looked like you enjoyed killing those two men.”

Is it that obvious? “I,” Ruth began to say, her voice trailing off. “I don’t know anymore. Yeah, maybe I did,” she continued, silent for a few moments before her voice returned. “They took everything from me. My family, our home, our planet. Everything I had, they destroyed it.”

“You survived, though.”

Ruth shook her head. “My body and mind survived. Part of my soul died the day they killed my parents… as we fought them and watched the atrocities they committed, more of it died every day.” As she talked, her mind drifted back to a day, several weeks after she first joined a resistance cell.

The cells were by their very nature, disjointed. This was done to prevent one unit from giving away the others if they were captured; something that happened far too often for comfort. They were based out of an abandoned factory and lived in squalor in a sub-basement. Ruth was cleaning an old hunting rifle that was her weapon, along with her parents’ old pistol.

“You sure know how to clean guns, Ruthie,” Greg, a young man who was just over twenty years old, commented toward her.

“I prefer using them on Leaguers,” Ruth replied, venom dripping from her voice.

“We get to do that tomorrow.”

“The thought of shooting our no-good collaborating mayor in the head keeps me going.”

Another young woman who, unlike Ruth and Greg, shared ancestry with the Asian-Pacific area of Earth, looked over. “That’s pretty cold, even for you.”

“What’s so cold about it exactly?” Ruth said, putting down the rifle and glancing up. “The jerk makes accommodation after accommodation with the Leaguers. Now he’s allowing them to put little tags on people so the patrols can tell our religion at a glance. I guess that’ll make it easier to round up Jews on Monday, Muslims on Tuesday, and Christians on Thursday.”

“Hey, I’m not saying he doesn’t deserve what’s coming his way. I’m just saying maybe we shouldn’t be gleeful about it.”

“Don’t start with me, Judith,” Ruth snapped.

“Enough, you two,” Greg interjected, his broad shoulders flexing as he leaned his head back and stretched. “The enemy is out there, not in here. Save it for the Leaguers we’ll face.”

Ruth finished cleaning the rifle in silence, then cleaned a pistol and tucked it into her belt. Dinner was whatever canned goods they could scrounge up; generally, items they would have thought not fit for human consumption six months prior. Now, though, as long as it didn’t have maggots in it, they’d eat it and thank God for the luxury of a hot can of soup when it showed up. She rarely interacted with the rest of them, choosing to focus solely on the task at hand, which in her mind was killing Leaguers.

The next day, after barely sleeping, they took positions three hours ahead of time, warned by a mole in the local government what route the mayor and his convoy would be taking. Freiderwelt was a remote planet that lacked the interlocking satellite coverage required for autonomous helicars, so people used self-driving electric vehicles on paved roads. Primitive by the rest of the galaxy’s standards, but it’s our home.

From the number of people involved, Ruth suspected that there was some method by which the resistance leadership knew where the cells were and who was in them, because there were fighters present she’d never seen before. Sighting down the scope of the hunting rifle, she aimed at the lead vehicle. As they’d practiced, a bomb planted under the road went off as it passed over top, manually detonated to avoid transmission jammers employed by the League protective forces.

The explosion was colossal; a fireball erupted from the large passenger car, blowing its hood off and lifting it into the air. The next vehicle behind it slammed into its back bumper at fifty kilometers an hour, causing a chain reaction with the rest of the convoy. Better trained soldiers might’ve realized they’d do better inside of an armored and bulletproof vehicle, but Leaguers aren’t well trained. “Hold fire,” a voice Ruth didn’t recognize rasped from her commlink. “Wait for them to get out.”

Sure enough, one of the car doors swung open, and a League soldier climbed out; when he didn’t take fire, the rest of them began to get out as well. Ruth thought she could make out talking between the soldiers, commenting that it was just a random bombing. We’ll be disabusing them of that notion momentarily, she thought with a great deal of satisfaction. “Weapons free,” the voice announced. Ruth had a Leaguer in the center of her scope the entire time, finger on the trigger guard. The moment she heard the command, her finger moved to the trigger and squeezed. The soldier collapsed, bright red blood pouring down his uniform.

Instantly, other shots rang out. The Leaguers brought up their weapons and fired back wildly; the resistance took care to take out the leaders first in the hopes whoever was left wouldn’t know how to track snipers. Ruth sighted down on another man; this one older and moving as if he’d done this sort of thing before. “Goodbye,” she whispered, squeezing the trigger. He too collapsed, still twitching, but mortally wounded.

“Close in, close in!” Greg said into the comm, causing Ruth to stand, slinging the hunting rifle over her shoulder quickly, and draw her sidearm. Holding the weapon in her hand, she felt like the hand of God, reaching out to slay those that had killed her family. She raced to the side of the roof she was perched on and bounded down the ladder.

Ruth turned the corner to see several of her fellow resistance members crouched behind cover, exchanging fire with a dwindling number of enemy troops. She slid in behind a trash can, took stock of the situation, and rose, aiming her pistol toward the enemy. An unlucky soldier stood up at the same time; she pumped four rounds into his center mass, sending him flying backward.

The gunfire slackened, then ceased. “Move in!” the unfamiliar male voice said into her commlink, and several others, as a group of them stood up at the same time and quickly walked toward the car that held the mayor. Ruth was the first one there, aiming her weapon into the open door. Inside, she saw a balding Caucasian man in a suit, cowering on the floorboard.

“Please, don’t kill me!” the mayor whined, hands over his head.

“Get out,” Ruth barked.

The man scrambled around, crawling out of the vehicle, clearly overcome with fear.

Ruth leveled her pistol at his head, finger on the trigger. “By order of the Freiderwelt resistance, for crimes against the Terran Coalition and humanity, you are sentenced to death,” she stated coldly.

“What? I’ve tried to stop the League from killing, I’ve tried to save as many as I could!” he stammered, wildly gesturing with his hands. “If we didn’t at least fake cooperating with them, they’d kill us all. My family, everyone. I can’t let them kill my family,” he said, words breaking way to sobs.

An older man wearing a Terran Coalition Marine Corps uniform appeared at her side. “Coward,” he said toward the mayor. Ruth recognized the voice as the unfamiliar one on the commlink. “What’s your name?” he said toward her.

“Ruth. Ruth Goldberg.”

“How’d you come to join our resistance?”

“Leaguers killed my parents in cold blood, in our home. I killed them, and one of your cells found me on the street.”

“Then, by all means, execute this pathetic excuse of a man. You’ve earned it,” the man said, his tone icy.

Ruth aimed the pistol directly between the mayor’s eyes. Holding it steady, she hesitated. Do I really want to do this?

“Shoot him already,” the Marine said.

“He’s unarmed,” she finally said.

“Your point?”

“I thought we didn’t shoot unarmed people,” Ruth protested.

The man raised his weapon and fired a burst into the mayor’s chest. He fell backward, red stains spreading across his shirt. It only took a few moments as Ruth looked on for his eyes to glaze over and his breathing to stop.

“Listen up, everyone! Get to the sewer tunnels and make your way back to your cells. Lay low for the next couple of weeks. Now get out of here; we’ve got three minutes until the nearest Leaguer QRF arrives!” the older Marine thundered.

Ruth didn’t need any more encouragement to move; following the practiced plan they’d trained on repeatedly, she and Greg opened the sewer cover, and they climbed down into the smelly river of sludge.

Gates of Hell

“You did all that when you were my age?” Susanna asked, her eyes wide and jaw halfway on the barn floor.

“Yeah, I did,” Ruth replied, chuckling a bit. “Sometimes it seems like yesterday.”

“Why didn’t you kill him?”

Ruth shrugged. “Shooting an unarmed man was a line I couldn’t cross. I’m glad I didn’t, but later on, I regretted it.”

“Why?” Susanna asked with a frown.

“Because later on, some of us, including me, were captured. It was a dark time and place.”

“Will you tell me about it?”

“Maybe some other time. Not tonight. We both need some rest. I have to stand watch later, so… how about we turn in?”

“Okay,” Susanna said, scurrying off to a bed of straw she had put together.

Ruth took notice as Susanna knelt and prayed in a language she didn’t understand. Pondering on how long it been since she’d prayed, Ruth lay back, looking up through the hole in the roof into the sky at the stars. She closed her eyes and tried to pray silently.

HaShem, if You still listen to me, please hear my prayer. I come to You to ask for help in saving these people from the League. Help the team, give us wisdom, strengthen our hearts and our courage. Help me… I know I’m a bad Jew, and I don’t even know what I believe anymore. If You haven’t turned Your back on me, please try to guide me back to where I belong. After praying, she stared at the sky for what seemed like hours. Rest would not come, and her soul remained troubled. Why did I encourage this young woman to join us? I’m setting her up to become me. Despite rationalizations, the guilt wouldn’t disappear.


16

A few hundred lightyears away, the Lion of Judah flew through space. David glanced up at his personal viewer as the last merchant vessel in the group they’d been escorting disappeared from LIDAR. A successful run with no League intercepts. I’ll take a small victory.

“It has been quiet the last two hours,” Aibek said from his chair.

David didn’t bother moving his head; he stared straight ahead into the blackness of space. “Don’t jinx us, XO.”

Taylor cleared his throat. “Conn, communications. Incoming flash traffic, sir. Text only. Message reads, Convoy 17 under attack, request immediate assistance. It repeats, sir.”

“Too late,” Aibek stated.

Under normal circumstances, Aibek’s dry humor would be funny, but not now. David hit a button on his chair to engage 1MC. “General quarters! General quarters! This is the commanding officer. Man your battle stations! I say again, man your battle stations. Set material condition one throughout the ship. This is not a drill. I say again, this is not a drill!”

“Conn, TAO. Condition one set throughout the ship, sir,” Kelsey said above the din of the alert klaxon. The lights on the bridge turned to a dim blue hue, shadows forming across every surface.

“Navigation, prepare for Lawrence drive jump, input coordinates from the distress call.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Hammond replied.

“TAO, load all magnetic cannons with dual EMP and high explosive shells. Raise shields.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

She’s a bit too enthusiastic for my taste, but a competent officer. I’ll have to give Ruth some advice on how to mentor her going forward.

“I have a bad feeling about this, as you humans say, Colonel.”

David turned his head toward Aibek. “Oh?”

“Convoy 17 is two jumps behind us. How did the enemy know where to strike?”

“We’ll get answers on that later. For now, focus on the task at hand—defeat the Leaguers, save the merchant ships.” XO is spot on as usual… something more is at work here. League officers are never this clever.

Aibek nodded curtly and apparently had nothing else to say.

“Conn, navigation. Coordinates inputted, Lawrence drive charged, sir.”

Here we go. “Navigation, engage Lawrence drive.”

The lights on the bridge flickered from the enormous power draw of the artificial wormhole generator. Suddenly visible through the transparent metal window at the front of the bridge, was a multi-colored distortion whose maw opened and beckoned the Lion in. Her sub-light engines kicked in, and the ship flew into its tunnel between the stars, popping out a moment later.

Anxiety gnawed at David’s stomach as the first few seconds after emergence ticked down. God, please protect my crew, as well as the crew of Colonel Dyson’s ships and the merchant vessels. Allow them to return home safely to their families if it is Your will.

“Conn, TAO. Showing twenty-two sierra contacts, nine Rand class cruisers, and twelve Cobra class destroyers.”

My God… Convoy 17 had thirty-five ships in it, plus escorts. “TAO, populate the board.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

David glanced up at his viewer as the multitude of red and blue dots appeared. Where are their escorts? “Navigation, intercept course, Master seven. Flank speed.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

The bridge hummed as the Lion’s engines engaged at maximum thrust. Inertial damping systems aside, the drives generated incredible G-force. At flank speed, it was evident in a one to two-tenths of a gravity more pull.

“We appear to be out of position, sir,” Aibek said.

“The jump put us on the far side of the convoy.”

“Conn, TAO. Sierra twenty-one destroyed, sir! Sierra twelve destroyed… Sierra six… destroyed, sir.”

“Navigation, everything we’ve got.”

“We’re at flank, sir,” Hammond reported.

David punched a button to connect his commlink to engineering. “Hanson, this is the bridge. Can you hear me?”

“Hanson here, sir. What can do I for you?”

“What percentage of reactor output are we at?”

“One hundred and five percent, sir.”

“Take us to one hundred and fifteen percent.”

There was a pregnant pause on the open commlink, with muffled voices in the background. “Sir, Doctor Hayworth strongly advises against it, as do I.”

“Noted. One hundred and fifteen percent, now, Major.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

David clicked off the line and glanced toward Hammond. “Navigation, direct all additional power into the engines.”

“Aye, aye, sir.”

“Conn, TAO,” Kelsey interjected. “Sierra seventeen destroyed, sir.”

David gripped the rests on his chair, willing the ship to go faster. How’d they get the jump on another convoy? That’s the question, isn’t it? I’m fighting like a man with one arm tied behind my back, and it's costing too many good people their lives. He pulled up the status display for the launch tubes, which showed two squadrons of space superiority fighters—SF-106 Phantoms—on ready five alert. “Communications, signal the air boss to launch both squadrons of ready five fighters. Orders are to engage the enemy as quickly as possible.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Taylor quickly replied.

“I cannot imagine two squadrons of Phantoms will be effective against cruisers, sir.”

David turned to Aibek. “I know, XO. I’m hoping they can distract the enemy from blowing up more freighters.”

As if to underscore David’s point, Kelsey interrupted him. “Conn, TAO. Sierra ten destroyed, sir.”

“Navigation, use the thrusters to boost our speed. Time to intercept?”

“Just under two minutes, sir.”

David glanced back up to his monitor and toggled an overlay that showed the maximum range of all weapons as a different color. Their missile armament was closest to being useful. “TAO, firing point procedures, forward VRLS. Make tubes one through one hundred twenty ready in all respects, open outer doors. Target ten missiles per Rand, and eight per Cobra with what’s left.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Kelsey said.

Aibek raised an eye scale. “Overkill, much?”

“We don’t have time to play around at the rate they’re bagging merchant ships, XO.”

“Conn, communications. The lead civilian vessel reports the convoy is moving toward us, sir, and begs us to hurry.”

“Lieutenant, tell them help is on the way.”

“Conn, TAO. Tubes one through one hundred twenty ready in all respects, firing solutions are set, outer doors are open.”

David leaned forward in his seat. “TAO, match bearings, shoot, tubes one through one hundred twenty-five.”

A different type of rumble emanated from the Lion of Judah as missile after missile roared out of her forward launch array. A sea of new blue bots appeared around the ship on David’s tactical readout, quickly zooming away from the vessel and toward enemy targets. More blue dots disappeared—victims of the League task force—but finally, the scales began to even. Several enemy contacts blinked out after icons representing the Starbolt and Hunter missiles intersected with them.

“Conn, TAO. Master six destroyed. Master eight destroyed. Master two destroyed!”

“TAO, firing point procedures—”

Kelsey interrupted him mid-word. “Conn, TAO! Aspect change, all remaining enemy contacts. Lawrence drive spin-up!”

“TAO, snap shot, anything we’ve got that’s in range, closest enemy contacts!”

“I’m sorry sir, they’ve jumped out,” Kelsey reported, briefly turning in her chair toward him.

David slammed his fist into his hand in frustration. “Lieutenant Taylor, get search and rescue moving.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

David stood up from his chair and paced to Taylor’s console. “Have you had any luck working with the Oxford?”

Taylor looked up. “We’ve got a theory, sir. Lieutenant Tamir is running down a few things…”

“Be ready to present it in an hour. Main conference space, deck one.”

A look of uneasiness passed across Taylor’s face. “Sir, it’s still a theory.”

“Firm it up. This doesn’t happen again. Are we clear?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Carry on, Lieutenant.”

David walked back to the CO’s chair and resumed his station. I’m done watching civilians die. We’re going to find out the source of the League’s intelligence and terminate it for good. So help me, God.


17

Precisely an hour later, the conference room on deck one was occupied with David, Aibek, and Taylor all clustered together. Far less than the usual number of officers for a high-level briefing.

I hate having to keep my senior officers in the dark. David had gone so far as to have sentries posted outside of the door to prevent any interruption from occurring. Forcing himself to move on from the disaster of Convoy 17, he tried to focus on the task at hand.

“Lieutenant Taylor, do you have the vidlink ready for us?” Aibek asked, interrupting David’s thoughts and putting him back onto the subject at hand.

“One moment, sir.”

“I am amused our communications officer is working hand in hand with spies,” Aibek stated.

“The Oxford isn’t a spy ship, XO. It’s a technical research vessel studying deep space phenomenon,” David said, somehow managing to keep a straight face. I must always show the mask of command. Never let them know it affects me.

The banter was short-circuited by Taylor cutting in. “I’ve got the vidlink up, sir.”

“Take us live, Taylor.”

The screen at the far end of the room shifted from blank to showing two separate video streams, one of Dyson, the other of Sinclair and Alon. All three smiled. “Greetings, Colonel Cohen,” Sinclair said before anyone else spoke.

“Back at you, Sinclair,” David responded with a smile. “How’s spookville?”

“Another day, another decryption. Life on the front lines?”

“Harrowing and action-packed, at least with all these Leaguers around and seemingly able to guess our next steps.”

“Lieutenant’s Alon and Taylor have some thoughts on why that’s happening,” Sinclair responded. “I’m going to let them run with it.”

“By all means, gentlemen. What do you have for us?” David said.

Taylor cleared his throat. “Well, sir, we believe that we’ve identified a possible vector for the intelligence leak that seems to be plaguing us.”

“If you put any more qualifiers in there, Taylor, I’ll get you a paddle for your canoe,” David deadpanned.

“Sorry, sir,” Taylor replied, his face turning red. “What we’ve determined is whoever or whatever the leak is, it is one rung out from the Lion of Judah, and Colonel Dyson’s space action group.”

“One rung?” Aibek asked. “Explain.”

“One operational link. Specifically, the ships that provide intelligence for us. That would be the Oxford, and the three stealth raiders conducting deep space scans of our intermediate Lawrence drive jump points.”

“I’m going to assume you’ve already examined the Oxford?” David said.

“We went through our comm logs, incoming and outgoing, and swept the entire ship for transmitters and bugs,” Sinclair said. “Nothing. I also reviewed the file of everyone on this ship personally. No red flags. For now, our personnel are in the clear.”

“That leaves the stealth raiders,” David said.

“Exactly, sir,” Alon interjected. “We believe all things being equal, our leak is in the comms shop of one of these ships. With your and Colonel Dyson’s permission as the ranking officers in our area of operations, I’d like to have lie detectors ordered for all communications officers and subspace radio room enlisted personnel on the three vessels in question.”

“Any objection to that course of action, Colonel Dyson?” David queried.

“None from me, Colonel,” Dyson answered quickly.

“What are we hoping to gain from doing this?” Aibek asked.

Taylor took up the answer. “We feel whoever’s behind this will be rattled and make a mistake. They’ll probably communicate back with their handler. The Oxford will be watching for any stray transmissions, and that’ll help us narrow down which ship. Once we can, a simple visit to and questioning of the crew will get us the traitor.”

“I’d like to remind everyone that whatever is going on, everyone involved is innocent until proven guilty,” David remarked.

“In God we trust; all others we monitor,” Sinclair said. “I trust no one.”

“I suppose it takes all types, Colonel Sinclair,” David responded, unable to suppress a grin. “Anything else, gents?”

“Not from us, sir,” Taylor answered.

Oxford is good,” Sinclair said.

“I’m clear on the course of action, though still shocked at the idea of a traitor,” Dyson interjected.

“For once, I hope you’re wrong,” David said toward Taylor. “I really do. Okay everyone, back to work. Dismissed.”

The vidlink shut off, and Taylor stood up quickly, heading for the hatch. Aibek, however, remained seated. “May I have a word, sir?”

“Certainly, XO,” David replied as the hatch opened and shut behind Taylor. “What’s on your mind?”

“I thought your species, at least those members of it that were a part of your nation, were united in their war against the League of Sol. If this is the case, why would there be a traitor in our midst?”

“One, we don’t know if there’s a traitor. Second, humans are all… different, XO. Each one of us is a unique piece.”

“On Sauria, once the government makes a position on a subject of species importance such as war and peace, dissent is not tolerated.”

“The Terran Coalition welcomes, and even celebrates, dissent.”

“Why?” Aibek asked, his tone rising, and his eyes scrunching together. “Such behavior only weakens the resolve of the whole.”

“Because we believe dissent adds to our society and freedom is an antidote to any evil.”

“If the Terran Coalition suppressed dissent, it would likely have fewer incidents such as these.”

“Perhaps,” David replied. “I would argue it would cause more, at least among humans. Citizens would chafe at being told what to do by the government, and question why they were being suppressed. In turn, causing more dissent and eventually rebellion against our rulers.”

“An interesting position. Our cultures are quite different, I concede. Our government, before losing the war fought against your people, hadn’t changed in a thousand years.”

“And yet with those differences, we’re still allies and friends. I would argue it’s precisely because of our uniqueness.”

“An interesting perspective.”

David grinned. “Hey, better to be interesting than dull. I’m going to hit some paperwork.”

“I have the mid-watch to stand,” Aibek said, standing.

“See you later, XO.”

Aibek stood up and left, leaving David alone in his thoughts.

I may put on a brave face, but I’m still as bothered as the rest of them. I hope this is some deep cover sleeper agent. A loyal citizen turning to the League is beyond belief. He stood and walked toward the hatch, stopping right before it. Closing his eyes for a moment, he shook his head. God, please help us all.

Gates of Hell

“Is it just me, or are there a lot more Leaguers out today?” Ruth said into her commlink as she skipped over a tree trunk that had fallen across the path through the forest they were hiking through. She was taking the rear security position, while Susanna was up front with the rest of the team.

“Not up for the challenge, LT?” MacDonald’s gruff voice answered.

“You know me, Master Chief. Always ready, always there.”

The fist symbol for “Hold” flashed through her HUD, and Ruth instantly froze in place. She cranked her head from side to side, got into the closest brush to the trail, and engaged the power armor’s stealth generator. Designed to change the exterior camouflage pattern to blend in with whatever was around it, the hope was it would make her and the rest of the team invisible to the League patrol.

“I’ve got eight tangos coming up the trail, Master Chief,” Ahmad said.

“Hold. Do not engage,” MacDonald’s raspy voice whispered. “Let them pass by.”

Seconds stretched into minutes, and minutes seem to drag on for hours as the patrol slowly made it by. Most of the enemy troops looked like they were no older than Susanna. Ruth observed sloppy weapon-handling skills and a general lack of interest in doing anything but walking down the path. Good for us… if they bothered to look anywhere, I’m sure a determined hunter would quickly discover the team.

Then everything started happening—very quickly. Ruth heard something snap—a branch or a twig—it sounded like the crash of thunder in an otherwise quiet and peaceful wooded glen. A moment later, shouts rang out in a foreign language, which she recognized as Russian, followed by the sharp report of automatic gunfire.

“Engage! Engage! Waste ‘em!” MacDonald shouted across the commlink.

Ruth popped up from the brush where she was concealed, bringing up her suppressed battle rifle and aiming for the center mass of an unlucky League soldier standing ten meters down the trail. She squeezed the trigger, sending a trio of rounds down range.

The Leaguer fell backward, and Ruth saw bloodstains spread across his uniform. “Tango down,” she said into the commlink, then took off down the well-worn dirt, heading toward where the rest of the enemy patrol would be coming back from.

Three soldiers appeared from behind a large boulder that blocked Ruth’s view, their rifles blazing. Her armor absorbed the impacts, but she was knocked off her feet and thrown backward. As she fell, she fired her weapon on full auto, spraying the area they occupied and hoping she’d take them down.

No such luck.

An instant later, one of the burly men landed on top of her, punching the faceplate of her power armor. He accomplished nothing except possibly breaking a knuckle, while Ruth took the opportunity to knee him in the groin with her servo-assisted armored knee.

The man howled in pain, granting her a momentary reprieve.

She reached down to her leg and Ruth’s hand found the butt of her sidearm. Thank God it’s still there. With practiced muscle memory returning to her, she drew it and quickly fired twice into the unlucky enemy’s chest. Blood spurted from the wounds, and the Leaguer made a gurgling noise as he collapsed to the side.

Then the other two soldiers opened up on her with their rifles at full automatic, the range point blank. Ruth felt like someone had punched her in the gut until her insides were ready to burst. The pain was intense and searing. She struggled to raise her sidearm; one of the Leaguers kicked it out of her hand.

“Now you die, suka,” one of the men said in broken English. They aimed their rifles at the weakest point of power armor—the helmet’s faceplate.

As Ruth tried to force her body to move, a shot rang out. One of the men in front of her collapsed in a heap, blood spreading across his uniform. She triggered a last-ditch backup of her suit—a combat knife built into the right gauntlet. It sprang out into her hand. She thrust the blade up, aiming for the closest flesh of her enemy.

The remaining Leaguer squeezed the trigger on his weapon, sending another fifty bullets into the center of her armor while cursing in Russian. He dropped the rifle and drew a sidearm, continuing to fire on her.

Special operations variant armor was better than even the best TCMC power armor, but every construct of man had a breaking point. The suit’s master alarm went off, indicating imminent failure as Ruth fell back to the ground, overwhelmed with pain that seemed to emanate from every nerve in her body. Through it all, she heard the report of another high-powered rifle. Immediately, the remaining soldier collapsed, shot in the head.

The team… must be the team. Waves of pain swept through Ruth’s body, even as she tried to force herself up. The internal medical diagnostic program indicated she had a broken rib. The suit had a limited ability to medicate its wearer, which she used to administer a mild pain neutralizer. As she stumbled to her feet, Mata and Meissner appeared out of the forest.

“LT! You okay?” Mata asked.

“I’ll live,” Ruth said. “Who do I owe the thanks to?”

Mata flipped his faceplate up. “That would be my handiwork. If you’d stayed down instead of trying to play hero, I would’ve finished off the other one before he unloaded on you again.”

Ruth nearly doubled over in pain. “Sorry, Chief.”

Meissner completed a check of all three Leaguers’ bodies, retrieving Ruth’s sidearm from where it dropped as he did. “Not looking so great there, LT.”

“Broken rib, according to your amazing technology.”

Mata pulled the med-kit off his back. “Sit down, Lieutenant. Let me examine you.”

“We need to get back to the rest of the team and get out of here, Chief. I’ll live.”

“Don’t make me order you to as your doctor.”

Ruth smirked inside of her helmet. “You’re not a doctor, Chief.”

“Closest thing within ten lightyears. Now sit down.”

Nothing to be gained by toughing it out. I’ll only slow the team down. Not sure what Mata can do with his little kit, though. Ruth gingerly sat on a log, the pain still searing through her torso. It feels like a helicar landed on me. “Okay, doc. You win.”

“Thank you,” Mata replied, flashing a dazzling smile. He knelt beside her, running a device over her torso. “Three broken ribs, two more bruised. I’m amazed you’re not bleeding internally.”

“I’m a tough little Jew,” Ruth said with a snicker.

Mata laughed. “Something we agree on.” He pulled another device out of the bag. “Hold still, please.”

“What is that?”

“Bone regenerator.”

Ruth’s eyebrows shot up. “Those are the size of a person in the doc shack on the Lion. Where’d you get a hand-held version?”

“Special ops is first for all the fun toys, LT.”

A warm sensation spread through Ruth’s chest as Mata ran the device back and forth repeatedly. It’s almost like I can feel my insides tugging together. So weird. “Thanks, Chief.”

“Not quite good as new, but close enough for government work.”

“We’ve got to move,” Meissner interjected. “They got off a warning, and reinforcements are coming. Master Chief says to clear out.”

Ruth raised a hand. “I’m fine. I can walk.”

“Forget walking; we’ve got to run,” Mata said with a smirk.

“No time like the present,” Meissner replied before taking off at a full run.

Mata held out his hand, which Ruth took gratefully and pulled herself to her feet. “My armor’s damaged, Chief. I may slow you down.”

“The team takes care of itself, LT. Like it or not, you’re one of us now.”

Ruth cracked a smile in return. “I’ll remember that, Chief. Hey, is Susanna okay?”

“She did fine. Kept her head down and did as instructed. Can’t ask for more out of a civilian. Now, move!”

They took off as fast as possible down the path, while Ruth’s mind raged at her injuries. We’re not coming all this way for the League to win. Whatever it takes, we will defeat them.


18

The chime to David’s day cabin rang twice in quick succession, causing him to glance up from the casualty report he’d been reading. “Come!” his voice rang out, and the door opened to allow entry to Aibek, Calvin and Taylor.

The three officers lined up in front of his desk, Aibek and Calvin glancing toward Taylor, who spoke. “Colonel, we have some new information on the investigation.”

“By all means, have a seat, gents,” David said. “Just pull an extra chair over.”

Calvin shrugged. “I’ll stand, if it's okay, sir. Tired of sitting around on this ship waiting to shoot some Leaguers.”

Everyone laughed politely at the joke as they sat down, though David found himself thinking it wasn’t entirely meant to be funny.

“What do you have?” David asked, all business.

“One of the raiders, the Monterrey, behaved strangely when we asked for updated crew rosters and her comms shop to undergo lie detectors,” Taylor stated.

“Define strangely, Lieutenant.”

“Well, sir, it took forever to get a response, and I had to request one multiple times. Finally got a message back from her CO saying they were busy with tracking a League ship and would get back with us.”

“It’s entirely possible that’s true,” David observed.

“Only their transponder location shows them behind the lines,” Aibek interjected.

“Ah.”

“Part of this is a hunch,” Calvin said from his position behind the two other men. “Personally, it felt wrong to me when Taylor explained it.”

“My training would tell me to instruct you that hunches don’t matter, only observable facts. However, I’ve had hunches before and they panned out,” David said, thinking back to the entire debacle with Admiral Seville placing a sleeper agent on the Lion of Judah under the guise of a POW.

“We’d like to visit the Monterrey and conduct the interviews ourselves. Most likely, the mole in the comms shop has intercepted our request and has doctored the CO’s response,” Taylor said.

“Okay. We’ll show up unannounced, take a shuttle over, and have a chat.”

“I want Marines on the shuttle, sir,” Calvin said. “We don’t know who we can trust over there, and maybe it gets dicey if the CO feels like we’re being unfair.”

“I’m the ranking officer on site, Colonel. That’s all that matters. We don’t need to take a VBSS team,” David replied, mildly annoyed at the idea of taking fully armed and armored Marines to visit a friendly vessel in the CDF. They’re our brothers and sisters in arms. We shouldn’t treat them like criminals.

Calvin cleared his throat. “Just suggesting caution, sir.”

“Noted. If it makes you feel better, we can bring one escort, and you can both carry sidearms.”

“Excellent, sir.”

“I’ll be joining the investigation unit,” David said matter-of-factly.

“Your place is on the bridge, sir,” Calvin immediately replied, his face clouding over.

“Colonel,” David began, his eyebrows raised. “We’re going to another ship and telling them they have a spy in their midst. The absolute least I can do as an officer in the CDF is look Major Drymand in the eyes and tell him what’s going on.”

Calvin and Aibek glanced at once another before Calvin spoke. “What if the spy is present and tries to harm you, sir?”

“I know how to fight,” David deadpanned. “Ask any number of Leaguers in the past that tried their luck against me. Or the Monrovians, for that matter. You’re not winning this one, Cal.”

“Yes, sir.”

David glanced toward Aibek. “XO, you’ll take command in my absence. Don’t scuff up the paint.”

Aibek laughed, as did Calvin and Taylor. “Aye, sir.”

“Back-of-my-head math says we’re good for a Lawrence drive jump.”

“Correct, sir,” Aibek replied.

“Then let’s get moving. I’ll head with Colonel Demood to the shuttle, along with Lieutenant Taylor and whoever else you’ve picked. XO, to the bridge and get us underway.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Aibek answered.

“Right behind you, sir,” Calvin said.

David stood, and the rest quickly followed. “Dismissed, gentlemen.” Traitors… for the life of me, I can’t accept there are traitors in the CDF. I pray this is a misunderstanding or some League technological trick where they hacked a computer and made it look like human intelligence interactions… that would be far easier to accept.

Gates of Hell

Aibek pulled down the starched khaki-colored uniform shirt he wore after exchanging salutes with the TCMC sentries that guarded the Lion of Judah’s combined bridge and combat information center. Human clothing is so strange, he thought, passing by the rows of enlisted personnel working consoles that monitored the ship. These uniforms lack functionality, do not look good, and have a tendency to rip easily. I must, however, conform to what the humans wear when I serve among them, as one of them. He came to a halt next to the CO’s chair to find it occupied by Hammond, who was the current officer of the deck on watch.

“Lieutenant Hammond, I have the conn,” Aibek stated formally.

“Aye aye, sir. Colonel Aibek has the conn,” Hammond replied, standing as she spoke. She walked back to the navigation console and took her station, excusing the junior officer that had been manning it.

Aibek sat down in the chair David usually occupied, stretching out his long Saurian legs in front of him. “Navigation, plot Lawrence Drive coordinates for the current location of the CSV Monterrey. Pull its existing location from our blue force situational awareness uplink.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Hammond replied.

A voice to his left called out, “Major Hanson reports as ordered, sir.”

Aibek looked to his left to see Hanson standing there. “Thank you, Major. I need you to ride, how do the humans say it, shotgun for me?”

“No problem, sir. Just surprised to be requested on the bridge.”

“With Colonel Cohen busy with the boarding party, and Lieutenant Goldberg deployed elsewhere, you were next in line,” Aibek stated as Hanson dropped down into the XO’s chair.

“Well, I’ll try not to let you down, Colonel.”

“I hope you do not, Major. Otherwise, I would be forced to space you as a warning to others who would shirk their duties,” Aibek said with a toothy grin.

“Uh,” Hanson stammered. “Joke, sir?”

“Perhaps,” Aibek replied, his large Saurian incisors still showing in his grin.

“Conn, navigation. I have located the Monterrey and plotted our jump coordinates, sir.”

“Navigation, charge the Lawrence drive.”

“Aye aye, sir, charging.”

“Have we let them know we’re coming, sir?” Hanson asked.

“No. Colonel Demood didn’t feel it would be prudent to do so.”

“This entire situation is a bit weird, if I may say, sir.”

“It is not every day we uncover possible espionage, Major.”

“As you say, sir.”

“Conn, navigation. Lawrence drive charged, sir.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant. Navigation, activate Lawrence drive.”

Each race has its own version of the technology the humans call Lawrence drive. A multicolored wormhole formed to the front of the Lion, its maw creating a kaleidoscope-like effect through the transparent metal windows that sat fore of the CO’s chair. It remains a beautiful sight to behold, and a sure sign of God and the Prophet’s power and grace.

“Conn, navigation. Wormhole is active, sir,” Hammond announced.

“Navigation, take us in, maximum sub-light speed.”

The massive vessel began to move forward in space, its inertial dampeners compensating for the increased of G forces generated by the engines. The mouth of the wormhole loomed, and suddenly, they were inside; the transit took less than five seconds, and out popped the mighty ship on the other side. The field of stars was completely different as he viewed them through the window.

“Conn, TAO. New contact, designated Sierra One,” Kelsey announced after the customary delay in sensor readings after a jump. “Sierra One identified as CSV Monterrey, sir.”

“Communications, please send my compliments to Major Drymand on behalf of Colonel Cohen. Inform him Colonel Cohen will be shuttling over and request docking permission.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Second Lieutenant Jefferson Bell, Taylor’s relief and second watch communications officer, said.

“Feels weird to be up here on the bridge,” Hanson said.

Human small talk. Most inefficient. Aibek did not respond.

“Conn, communications. Monterrey has replied and given docking instructions to their shuttle hangar,” Bell interjected.

“Notify our boarding party, Lieutenant,” Aibek said.

“What now?” Hanson asked.

“We wait.”


19

“Lieutenant Bell just indicated we’ve got docking clearance from the Monterrey, sir,” Taylor announced, jolting David out of his thoughts in the jump seat of the shuttle’s cockpit. Demood and the pilot were also present, making for a slightly cramped ride.

“Well then,” David mused. “Let’s get this flight underway. Warrant, if you please?”

“Aye aye, sir, undocking now,” the pilot answered.

“This whole thing feels wrong, somehow,” Taylor said.

“How’s that, Lieutenant?” Calvin asked.

“Traitors or moles in the CDF? I don’t recall ever hearing about either before.”

“There’s been traitors and moles since the beginning of time, Taylor,” David said, injecting himself into the conversation. “I doubt we hear about them now because such things are bad for morale. Count on there being some small percentage of citizens in the Terran Coalition that supports what they think is a better system of government without thinking it through.”

“Enough to throw away their lives and get God knows how many of their fellow soldiers killed?” Taylor responded earnestly.

“Ideology does strange things to people.”

“Give ‘em a fair trial, then shoot them, preferably in the head,” Calvin said, his tone dark and foreboding.

“Do I need to remind everyone we’re not rolling in there like a bunch of cowboys?” David said, pointedly toward Calvin.

“No, sir,” Calvin replied. “Just not interested in giving whoever this loser is three hots and a cot for the rest of his or her miserable life.”

David smirked. Can’t say I am either. The idea of helping the League by giving up CDF intelligence information was so foreign to him, he couldn’t wrap his brain around the concept. Calvin doesn’t need this right now… he’s a die-hard patriot and seeing someone trample on the flag screws us all up inside, but him especially.

“Coming up on the Monterrey’s hangar, sir,” the pilot announced.

“Take us in,” David commanded.

“Sir,” Calvin began, causing David to look his way, to find him holding out a holster with a standard issue CDF sidearm in it. “You might need this.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me, Demood. I told you we’re not treating this as a VBSS.”

“No, sir. This individual may get violent, and we need the means to defend ourselves. They’re loaded with stun rounds, sir. No need to worry about killing one of our own accidentally.”

David sighed, closing his eyes for a moment. The day I need to arm myself before visiting another ship of the CDF is a day I don’t want to see. He opened his eyes and reached for the holster. “I don’t like it, but you’re right. As much as I hate to admit it..”

Calvin nodded and passed another holster over to Taylor. “For you, Lieutenant.”

“Thank you, Colonel,” Taylor said. “I’ve also got my martial arts training.”

“Yeah, I don’t need that fancy Marine fu. A nice solid metal sidearm is my weapon of choice… or a pugil stick,” Calvin snarked back.

“I’m skilled in several types of martial arts,” Taylor replied. “All subsets of Takenouchi-ryū.”

“Whatever that is.”

“You two need to get a room,” David interjected, drawing laughter from the pilot, and causing both Calvin and Taylor to stop and look at him. “Let’s focus on the task at hand, gentlemen.”

“Yes, sir,” Calvin said.

“Aye aye, sir,” Taylor commented.

Outside of the cockpit, the hangar bay of the Monterrey came into focus before them; small and cramped, there was barely room for their shuttle with the other craft inside. A few moments later, they sat down with a minimum of turbulence. “We’re down, sir. Would you like me to open the rear ramp?”

“Yes,” David replied. “Stay here with the shuttle, Warrant. We shall return.”

“Yes, sir.”

David sprang out of his seat, followed closely by Calvin and Taylor. He entered the aft cargo area to find the Marine that Calvin had insisted on bringing, along with several enlisted communications personnel.

“Everyone ready for this?” David asked the lot of them.

“Sir, yes, sir!” the enlisted personnel belted out.

“Okay, look alive,” David replied and turned on his heel, walking down the ramp and into the shuttle bay to find an honor guard of soldiers from the Monterrey arrayed in front of them. “Permission to come aboard?” he said toward a squat man wearing the insignia of a major, who he assumed was Drymand. His hair was black and appeared to have gel in it, judging from how it was slicked back.

“Permission granted, Colonel Cohen,” the man stated in a clear voice. “I’m Major Drymand, commanding officer of the CSV Monterrey. A pleasure to welcome you and your shipmates to our humble raider. Allow me to apologize for the lack of a bosun’s mate with the pipes… our deck force is working a power outage on B deck.”

“No problem at all, Major,” David said. “I’m afraid we’re not here for a social call.”

“I understand you want to question someone in our communications department?” Drymand asked.

“You understand correctly, Major. The CSV Oxford and her analysis team, working in conjunction with Lieutenant Taylor,” David began, gesturing toward the Taylor as he did, “have concluded the recent intelligence leaks they’ve been investigating appear to be coming from your ship. As the ranking officer in this sector, I’m here to ensure your cooperation. We must get to the bottom of this situation quickly.”

Drymand’s face went white, draining of color in what seemed like a matter of milliseconds. “I’m sure there’s a mix-up of some kind, Colonel.” Beads of sweat broke out on his forehead like an act of God.

“Doesn’t appear to be the case, Major,” David quickly answered, noting the man’s discomfort. “I understand this is difficult to process, but we need to get moving. My people are going to go through your comms logs line by line and trace down our mole.”

“Right now?”

“Yes,” David said, beginning to grow annoyed. “We’re in the middle of a crisis and supplies need to get to Unity Station. No time like the present.”

“I see,” Drymand stammered. “Take them!” he yelled suddenly, raising his voice.

David froze, not fully comprehending what was going on. Time itself seemed to slow, as each of the officers from the Monterrey drew sidearms. What the hell? Since when do CDF officers draw weapons on one another? It took Calvin colliding with him and throwing him behind cover for it to finally compute mentally that shots were ringing out across the shuttle bay.

“Son of a–!” Calvin exclaimed as bullets pinged off to the side of the shuttles, making metallic ricochet sounds. “Maybe they’re all traitors!”

“There’s got to be a rational explanation for this, Demood,” David insisted, his sidearm entirely in his hand now. “Let me try talking to them,” he continued. “Major! Major Drymand, cease fire! That is a direct order!”

“We won’t let you take us alive,” Drymand shouted back. “The repression of the Terran Coalition must be stopped!”

David glanced at Calvin. “Okay, maybe you’re right. Twice in one day isn’t bad for a Marine. Options?”

Calvin snickered and slapped David on the shoulder. “Hey, what can I say. On a more serious note, I’m guessing they’ve got the rest of our team pinned down. You lay down some covering fire, I’ll see if I can’t pick one of theirs off and get a mark one eyeball on the others.”

“On three,” David replied. “One…two…three!” he said, sticking his hand out and squeezing the trigger repeatedly. After a few rounds, he leaned out and continued to fire, allowing Calvin to scurry out as the incoming rounds slackened.

The tough Marine raced between the two shuttles in the bay, bullets pinging off the sides of the small craft. The hangar was tiny compared to even the VIP hangar on the Lion, but it was still large enough to make it difficult to hit a moving target. As he ran, he fired his sidearm toward the locations the shots were coming from.

Taylor leaned out and opened fire, along with the Marine private who’d joined them in the shuttle. The barrage felled one of the officers shooting at them, causing his body to drop, twitching and writhing in pain from the electrical stun round.

No commlinks… poor selection of equipment for a shoot-out. David furrowed his brow. Traitors in the CDF? I still can’t believe this. There’s got to be a rational explanation. Incoming shots raced by his position, showering him in sparks and the odd metal splinters that stung due to the heat they radiated. They’re using lethal rounds.

Calvin’s deep voice echoed across the bay as he shouted. “Now!”

Though outside of David’s field of view, the incoming fire immediately slackened, and more shots rang out. Taking advantage, he leaned out to see the two officers that had been aiming at him now firing in the opposite direction. Catching the enemy with their backs turned, he squeezed the trigger of his sidearm repeatedly, successfully dropping both men. “Two tangos down!” As he walked forward slowly, gun at the ready, another figure jumped out from behind a shuttle—Major Drymand.

Drymand’s hands latched on to David’s sidearm like a drowning man grabbing for a life preserver. The weapon discharged as he wrenched it away, both men losing control of the gun as it clattered to the floor.

David retreated to his rudimentary hand-to-hand combat training, throwing a couple of quick jabs toward Drymand’s head. He avoided them and in turn threw a punch directly into David’s gut, which caused him to stumble backward. The din of gunfire, grunts, and screams of battle died away as the battle in front of him drowned out everything else.

With the practiced stance of a longtime martial artist, Drymand settled in and launched a series of strikes with his hands that left David reeling, finishing it off with a sweeping kick. As he collapsed to the floor, Drymand fumbled for a sidearm that lay on the deck.

Is that mine, or another one with real bullets? With no time to think, David launched himself off the deck as best as he could and tried to punch the man in the face. Drymand parried him with ease, delivering another harsh kick to the gut. He raised the sidearm and aimed squarely at David.

“I’m sorry, Colonel, but this is how it has to end.” Then he squeezed the trigger.

David’s mind sent a message to his body to move as Drymand spoke, but he was far too slow. The first bullet struck him, sending waves of pain through his body, quickly followed by another. As he stepped forward to deliver the finishing blow, a series of shots registered, and Drymand collapsed, twitching and trying in vain to move his hands.

Calvin appeared at David’s side, clearly accessing the situation. “Colonel, can you hear me?”

“Yeah…” David replied, his voice faint and weak.

“Okay, I’ve got a clean entry and exit wound in your shoulder. Entry in your stomach area. No exit.”

It took a few minutes through the pain and shock to register with David that the sounds of battle had ceased.

“Medkit! Get a medkit over here!” Calvin yelled.

David found it difficult to measure time as he focused on breathing. “I think I’m getting too old for this, Demood.” He felt the sting of an auto-syringe, followed by a marked decrease in pain.

“You should feel better now.”

“Much,” David said as he cracked a grin.

“I injected you with some medication to counteract internal bleeding, but we’ve got to get you back to the Lion for treatment.”

David shook his head. “Secure this ship first. That’s an order, Colonel.”

“Sir—”

As if to underscore his point, the vibration of engines became apparent through the deck plating. “They’ll try to jump out. Get to the bridge, stop them by any means necessary, including lethal force.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

Taylor trotted over, his sidearm at the ready. “You okay, sir?”

“I’ll live, Lieutenant. Get going with Demood. Take the private with you too. I’ll cover the shuttle bay so they can’t double back and escape.”

Calvin’s face betrayed his lack of enthusiasm for leaving David behind. “At least let me leave the comm geek behind, sir.”

“Negative. Now get going.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

As the trio took off through the hatch that led to the main deck of the small ship, David found himself hoping they’d accomplish the objective quickly, as one thing was certain: he needed further medical treatment.

Gates of Hell

“Conn, TAO. Aspect change, Sierra One. Lawrence drive power up, sir!” Kelsey announced from her station.

Aibek leaned forward, his head scales turning a deep red hue. “Communications, order the Monterrey to cease maneuvering immediately.” He punched the button for 1MC on the CO’s chair. “Attention, all hands, this is Colonel Aibek. General quarters, general quarters! All hands to battle stations. This is not a drill. Set condition one throughout the ship.”

“No response, sir,” Bell replied.

“Condition one is set throughout the ship, sir,” Kelsey said as the bridge lights dimmed to the deep blue hue that Aibek had grown accustomed to.

“TAO, re-designate Sierra One to Master One.”

“Uh, you sure about that, sir?” Hanson interjected. “The Monterrey is a CDF ship.”

“With Colonel Cohen aboard, along with a suspected traitor.”

The words “suspected traitor” caused a hush to descend across the bridge of the Lion of Judah. Enlisted crewmembers stared at one another in shock, while even Master Chief Tinetariro looked unsettled.

“Conn, TAO. Sierra One is now designated Master One.”

“Communications, open a channel to the Monterrey.”

“You’re on, sir.”

“CSV Monterrey, this is Colonel Aibek in command of the CSV Lion of Judah. Power down your engines immediately, or we will be forced to fire on you.”

Kelsey and Hammond exchanged sidelong glances as palpable unease swept the room.

“No response, sir.”

“TAO, firing point procedures, Master One. Target her aft hull and engine bracings with the neutron beam emitters. Disabling shots only.”

“Firing solutions set, sir,” Kelsey answered, her voice off-key and filled with anxiety.

“Sir… are you sure about this?” Hanson asked, his voice quiet.

“Do you have a better idea, Major?” Aibek replied.

“No, sir.”

“Then, this is the only course of action I can think of to preserve the status quo and allow us to ascertain what is transpiring on that ship. TAO, match bearings, shoot, neutron beams.”

Bright blue beams of energy swatted out at the small raider; its size next to the Lion of Judah was comparable to an insect beside an elephant. Burning through the shields of the vessel in seconds, the directed energy weapon neatly sliced off the engine housings aft of the reactor on the Monterrey.

Ah, just as good a job as I would expect from Lieutenant Goldberg. Perhaps there is something to this human obsession with regimented training. “Communications, demand their surrender again.”

“Conn, TAO. Master One disabled, sir. She’s drifting and leaking atmosphere.”

“We should send a VBSS team, sir,” Hanson said quietly.

“VBSS? Oh yes. Human acronyms,” Aibek replied with the Saurian version of a smirk. “Get the commando teams suited up and on the way, along with whatever ready Marine elements Colonel Demood has available.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

Gates of Hell

“This is mighty weird, Colonel,” Taylor said as he switched stances from backward to forward facing. The group was advancing down the central passageway on the Monterrey with Calvin in the lead.

“There are over a hundred soldiers on one of these tubs. We haven’t seen a soul.”

“My point exactly.”

As they reached the entrance to the bridge, it too was deserted. A rumble nearly threw them do the deck. It was accompanied by alarms shrieking and the sound of groaning alloy.

“Somebody’s shooting at us,” Taylor observed.

“Thank you, Captain Obvious. You’ve been promoted.”

The Marine with them snickered, as did Taylor. “Suppose I walked into that one, sir. We need to get into the bridge. Got any explosives on you?”

“No… I wasn’t prepared for a commando mission. Maybe I’ve got something better, though,” Calvin stepped up and began to enter a long sequence into the security scanner to the side of the door. “My O-5 level security access codes.” After he finished, there was a loud beep, and the pad flashed red. “Stupid technology.”

“You’re not on the access list for this ship, sir.”

“I outrank everyone assigned to it, Lieutenant.”

“Which doesn’t mean you have a need to access it,” Taylor said with something of a grin. “Let me take a crack.”

“Be my guest.”

Taylor took a step forward and examined the device as Calvin fell back. He fiddled with it as more impacts wracked the vessel. The pad sparked several times after he pried the cover off. “Okay, I think this will open it up.”

“You think?” Calvin asked dryly.

“Well, I am just a comms geek.”

“Private, sidearm up,” Calvin said as he raised his pistol and aimed at the center of the door. “Let’s do this, Taylor.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

A moment later, Taylor touched the last contact with his small multitool. The locks disengaged and the bridge doors slid open to reveal the cramped control center of the Monterrey. There were only three people on it; they all made moves to grab sidearms strapped to their hips.

“Touch those, and I will shoot you down. Pro-tip… I’ve got live rounds in here, not that sissy stun crap.”

Slowly, all three raised their hands into the air. One spoke up. “We surrender… your ship already disabled us anyway.”

Calvin broke into a smug grin. “Of course it did. If you thought you’d get away with this, you’re crazy. Private! Secure these prisoners. Taylor, get the Lion on the horn. I want a company of Marines over here and a causality evac shuttle ASAP.”

“Coming right up, sir!” Taylor replied, his voice confident and the tension gone.

“Now, where are all the soldiers on this ship?”

“Major Drymand ordered them to their quarters. Then we locked them in,” the same man replied toward Calvin. “They weren’t harmed.”

“Doesn’t matter at this point, Lieutenant,” Calvin replied. “Your CO shot Colonel Cohen and tried to kill all of us. You’re all traitors, and I’ll see justice is served.” Preferably with the entire lot of you lined up and shot for treason.

Taylor interrupted him. “Sir, Lion of Judah reports VBSS teams already in route, along with medical support.”

“Excellent. You got it covered here?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’m going down to check on Cohen. They move, shoot ‘em.”


20

Tural glanced up, hearing a commotion in the passageway outside of the medical bay. “I believe our patient is arriving. Doctor Bhatt, are you ready?”

“Yes, Doctor.”

The doors swished open, retracting to allow the anti-grav stretcher carrying David through. He was surrounded by medical personnel, while Calvin took up the rear. “Hang on, Colonel. We’re here. Doc’s got you now.”

“Patient is a Caucasian male, age thirty-eight. Type B+ blood, pull three units, and activate the mass transfusion protocol!” Tural barked as he quickly flipped through the medical scanner results from the integrated system on the stretcher. “Transfer to bed six!”

The emergency response team, aided by the nurses and Bhatt, quickly moved David onto the bed. A nurse turned on the more in-depth diagnostic tools within it. “Pulse is faint, forty-two beats per minute. BP is seventy over fifty.”

Tural leaned over, staring down at David’s blood-stained face. “Can you hear me, Colonel?”

“Barely, Doctor,” David rasped out.

“You’ll be fine. You have a bullet within you, and we’re moving you to emergency surgery. Routine procedure for battlefield trauma.”

“Am I going to die, doc?”

“Yes, Colonel, but not today,” Tural replied as he forced an assured smile onto his face and stepped back. “Fifty ccs of sedative. I want him out immediately. Transfer to OR 1.”

“I’ve got a location on the bullet, Doctor Tural,” Bhatt interjected. “He’s lucky. One centimeter to the right or left, and it would’ve hit a major artery.”

“May Allah guide our hands,” Tural replied. “Let’s get scrubbed in.”

“Is he going to be okay, doc?” Calvin shouted from across the medical bay. “You damn well better not let the colonel die on us.”

“Demood, the wounds are serious,” Tural began. “But I believe you got him here in time.”

“Stubborn... I knew it was worse than it looked.”

“I believe this would be a case of the pot calling the kettle black… isn’t that how Americans put it?”

Calvin broke into a grin. “Yeah, fair enough, doc.”

“There’s nothing you can do here. Please allow us to do our jobs. You know I will do everything in my power.”

“I guess I can go have a chat with our prisoners.”

“Is that a euphemism for something?”

Calvin shook his head. “No, doc. I’m done with the… nastiness of before. We’ll have a very direct conversation.”

“Then I wish you all success.”

As the two men talked, the medical personnel completed the transfer of David back to the anti-grav stretcher and guided him off further into the bay toward the operating suites.

“I must go, Colonel Demood.”

“I’ll try to pray for both of you, Doctor.”

Tural flashed a hint of a smile. “I won’t turn it down.”

Gates of Hell

A few hours after dispatching the League patrol, Ruth and the rest of the team were holed up in another abandoned barn. The landscape of Freiderwelt was dotted with small empty houses and depilated structures the League didn’t bother to maintain or bring in colonists to occupy. They’d set up an automated perimeter with a few small tracking drones and an auto-turret.

Ruth shifted as she tried to rest. Ironically, the League never seems to build anything, just take over what we made. There’s probably some deep meaning there, but I’m too tired to find it.

“Wake up, Lieutenant,” MacDonald barked from under Ruth’s perch. “We’re discussing options. Get your butt down here.”

“Coming, Master Chief,” Ruth grumbled, opening her eyes and jumping off the bed she’d made. When she got into the main area where the rest of them were, it wasn’t lost on her that Susanna was already present. What do I have to do to earn MacDonald’s respect anyway? Better question, why do I care?

“Rostami has some new intel,” MacDonald stated, gesturing toward the lanky commando.

“I was able to hack into the League C2 network,” Rostami announced. “They’ve figured out that we got off the transport intact, and they put two and two together. There’s a pretty persistent major leading the effort to find us.”

“Great,” Ruth said sarcastically. “Got any more good news?”

“Three-quarters of their garrison is looking for us,” Rostami deadpanned.

“Sounds like a target-rich environment to me,” Harrell interjected to muted snickers from Mata and Meissner.

“This isn’t freaking funny,” MacDonald barked. “We’re not superheroes, and we can’t take out a thousand Leaguers.”

Ruth snapped her head up. “Maybe we don’t have to, Master Chief.”

“Explain?” MacDonald replied.

“If seventy-five percent of their garrison is out looking for us… maybe that’s the opening we need.”

“You seriously want to stage a frontal assault on their main military installation with six shooters?” MacDonald asked incredulously.

“She might be onto something, boss,” Meissner said. “It’s the last thing they’ll expect.”

“Surprise is a great ally to have, Master Chief,” Ruth followed up, pressing forward. “We scoped out the base. The weakest side has two guard towers. I know Mata and Meissner are qualified snipers; they could handle the towers in tandem. Take those out, get up and over the fence fast. All we’d have to do is find the building that houses their control center for those damn satellites, play the music, and wait for the fleet.”

“Play the music?” Susanna asked with a look of bewilderment.

“It’s what we call marking a target electrically,” Ahmad explained, drawing a sharp look from MacDonald.

“We do have some indirect fire support to call on, boss,” Meissner said.

“This is madness,” MacDonald replied. “Absolute madness, but,” he continued, his voice trailing off.

“The only choice we’ve got unless we want to be run down like dogs,” Harrell said. “I don’t like it either. I’ll be damned, though, if I die without taking some Leaguers with me.”

“Okay,” MacDonald finally said after a good fifteen seconds of silence. “Let’s suppose I go along with this insane idea for the sake of argument. We’re just going to wander around a military base, hope no one sees us, and have Rostami do his business until we find the right building?”

“There’s got to be a way we can narrow it down,” Ruth stated.

“If we could’ve gotten away with getting in there dressed like Amish, we could have, Lieutenant,” Rostami said. “I mean, there are some pretty basic things we can assume. First is it has large power requirements, second is it’s probably partially underground.”

“They’d have to have some system that regulates the power,” Ruth said, thinking out loud. “If you hack that, you could tell us what building is drawing the most power.”

“Then we could just make our way there and blow it up,” Rostami finished.

“Because that’s a walk in the park,” MacDonald groused.

“I thought you were the biggest, baddest soldier in the Terran Coalition, Master Chief?” Ruth asked with a grin.

“She’s got you there, boss,” Meissner said, laughing.

“Glad to see someone’s having fun here.”

“Best plan I’ve heard,” Harrell said.

Ruth turned toward him, her eyes half bugging out. “Did I hear you right, Senior Chief?”

“Don’t get used to it, LT.”

“We still don’t have enough shooters. With Mata providing overwatch from a guard tower or the top of a building, plus a spotter, that leaves us with four,” MacDonald said.

“Five,” Ruth said defensively. “I think I’ve proven I can handle myself.”

“With respect, Lieutenant, I have no doubt you were once rather good at ground combat. You’re nearly fifteen years out of practice.”

“Some things you never forget, Master Chief. I’ve got it.”

“What’s a spotter?” Susanna asked, causing several of them to turn toward her.

“A sniper is most effective when someone is looking for targets for them, marking them with the optical scanners in helmets of our armor, and calling out wind speeds for long-range shots,” Ruth explained, wondering why she asked.

“I could do that,” Susanna replied.

“Absolutely not!” Ruth exclaimed, surprised by the forcefulness of her response. No!

“Why the heck not, Lieutenant?” MacDonald said while staring at the young Amish girl like he’d had an epiphany.

“Because she’s sixteen, hasn’t had any training, and isn’t a combatant, Master Chief,” Ruth barked. “We don’t use children to fight.”

“Lieutenant, the boss told us all about you fighting as a teenager in the resistance,” Harrell said quietly. “I doubt you had training.”

“That was different, that was…”

“Your choice, right?” Harrell continued in a tone Ruth hadn’t heard out of him before. “Truth is, Susanna here has already made the choice to help. She put her behind on the line for us back at the garage, and she did it without losing her lunch. You and I both know some people have what it takes to fight naturally. If she wants to roger up to help, I say we need all the help we can get right now.”

Ruth was silent; she looked down at the ground. I don’t want her to have to experience what I did. No one should ever have to go through what I did.

“I want to do this,” Susanna said, her jaw set and her voice sure. “I can help. Let me.”

“Are you sure?” Ruth asked. Please say no.

“Yes. All seven of you are willing to die to save my people and me. The least I can do is put my life on the line too. The Bible says that there is no greater love than someone who lays down their life for another. If you are willing to lay down your lives for us, then I must do the same.”

The commandos glanced between themselves; Ruth could tell that no one wanted to speak first.

MacDonald finally did. “Perhaps my judgment of you was wrong, Miss Nussbaum.”

“What if she has to kill someone, Master Chief?” Ruth said quietly. As soon as she did, the room went still.

“That’s war,” MacDonald replied bluntly.

She shouldn’t have to do this. No teenager should, especially one that’s never been exposed to our kind of brutality. “Can we at least try to train her?”

“Why don’t you take point on that, LT?” Harrell said.

“Sure,” Ruth said. I got her into it… I have to help her get out of it.

“Okay, we’ve got the beginnings of a plan,” MacDonald announced. “It’s 2100 hours local. I want everyone in here to bed down, get two hours sleep. I’ll stand watch. We’re up at 2300 hours, and it’s a two-hour hike to the objective. We’ll finish planning along the way. Any questions?”

“Execution time?” Ruth questioned.

“0100 hours. Standard League watch change is every six hours, with the next guard shift beginning at 0200. Hopefully, they’ll be slacking off.”

“While we’re frosty as… crap,” Mata said, clearly fishing for something besides a curse word at the end of his sentence.

“Everyone clear?” MacDonald said, glancing between each of them.

“Hoorah,” several commandos said as one.

Ruth grinned, despite herself. “Crystal, Master Chief.”

“Okay. Get some rest. LT, before you bed down, take Nussbaum out back and show her how to use a sidearm.”

“Roger that, Master Chief,” Ruth answered, pointing toward the back of the barn and nodding toward Susanna. She got up, and they both walked outside into the crisp, fresh night air. She reached down and pulled her sidearm out, ejecting the magazine and racking the action to ensure it was unloaded.

“You don’t want to teach me, do you?” Susanna asked.

“I need you to understand what this does,” Ruth said, holding up the pistol. “When you kill someone, there’s no coming back from it. I swear to you with God as my witness, the face of the first person you take the life of never leaves your memory.”

“You take life. I’ve seen you do it twice.”

“Yes, but…”

“What’s different?”

“I’m already screwed up. I’m already broken. This is my job, I do it well, and sometimes I enjoy it. When we’re done here, you have to go back to your life. There’ll be no one to talk about it with, no one who understands what happened or the pain you went through. Oh, they’ll try to be nice, they’ll try to help you, but they’ll never understand!” Ruth said the last few words with anger and pain, her voice a cry.

“Are we talking about me or you?”

“Perceptive, aren’t you,” Ruth said, her tone bitter. She held the pistol out, butt first, toward her. “Take it.”

Susanna picked it up like it was a foreign object she had no idea what to do with. “First things first,” Ruth stated. “Do not aim it at anything you don’t want to kill. Always treat it as if it’s loaded, even if you’re sure it’s not and just checked. Never look down the barrel.”

“I see,” Susanna said.

“You’d be surprised how many people can’t master those simple rules. Now hold it out in front of you, grasp with two hands, keep your trigger finger on the guard, and do not place it on the trigger until you’re ready to fire.”

“Like this?” Susanna said, following her instructions to the letter, grasping the pistol tightly.

“Yes, exactly. We can’t do live fire training because of where we are, but dry fire by squeezing the trigger so you can feel what it takes to do so.”

Susanna placed her finger on the trigger and pulled back; the pistol’s action made a harsh click. “Very good,” Ruth said. “I’ll give you one with a suppressor on it when we get going in a few hours.”

“A suppressor?”

“Makes it quiet. Stealth and speed are our watchwords.”

“I understand.”

“Let’s get some sleep,” Ruth said, not wanting to spend another minute out there. I’m teaching her how to kill. My God, what kind of monster have I become?

The two of them went back inside, Ruth taking up the rear. After she lay down and closed her eyes, she fell into a restless sleep, dreaming of the night she killed the man who murdered her parents.

Gates of Hell

Calvin tightly gripped his tablet, which had a script of questions for his “interview” with the next officer captured from the Monterrey. Keep your cool, stick to the manual, and get some information. He repeated the mantra several times while pushing the hatch open. The man at the table glanced up, his face ashen. Still wearing his uniform, the ribbons were unremarkable but showed a soldier who’d served for at least ten years. Beneath the flag of the Terran Coalition on his sleeve, there was the Christian flag. His entire life must be a lie.

“Captain Thomas Mendoza,” Calvin said as he sat in the chair directly across the table.

“Yes.”

“Captain, Coalition Defense Force. Served during the ’56 campaign. Executive officer, CSV Monterrey. Traitor,” Calvin spat.

“No,” Mendoza said as he glanced up. “Not a traitor.”

“You sold your country out for what, some money?”

Mendoza’s face flashed defiance; it showed in his eyes as they narrowed. “Never. I never took money.”

“What then, got passed over for promotion? Sleeper agent plant? If you tell me what I want to know, things might go better for you.”

“You think I’m stupid, Colonel? I’m going to be executed.”

Calvin shrugged. “Six months ago, I would have done it myself after a battlefield interrogation.”

“And we’re the good guys?”

“Yeah, we are. You’re a disgrace to the uniform you wear. The same uniform I’ve buried too many good men and women in.”

“I was acting on conscience.”

“Conscience?” Calvin repeated incredulously. His face began to turn red as anger rushed through like a roaring flood.

“I won’t answer any further questions,” Mendoza stated, his jaw set.

“You know what I think, Captain? I think you’re a cheap SOB that profited off killing his fellow soldiers and Marines. I think you’re not worth the bullet that ends your life.”

Mendoza sat stoically, not flinching or saying a word.

Calvin stared him down. I ought to draw my sidearm and erase this piece of filth from the face of the universe. No, that’s not the way, another voice countered within. Right and wrong still matter, even if they don’t matter to him.

“There are two ways this can go down,” Calvin finally grated out, staring at the disgraced officer. “You can help me, and in doing so, help yourself, or I can mark you down as non-compliant and move on down the list. Someone’s gonna crack. We have all your compatriots dead to rights on charges of treason. Only crime with an automatic death sentence. You’ve got to realize you’ve no choice but to cooperate with me.”

“I know where my soul will go when I die, Colonel.”

“Yeah, yeah. I get it, no God and all that. We’re just stardust.”

Mendoza, for the first time, stared directly into Calvin’s eyes. “No. My faith in God is unshakeable. I’m certain that I will go to heaven when I die.”

What the hell? “Wait a minute. You’re telling me that you betrayed your country to the nation of communists and militant atheists that shoot people like us if they find them on their worlds, yet you believe you’ll end up in heaven? Explain this one to me, Mendoza.”

“I’m doing what needs to be done, as were my fellows. The Terran Coalition has grown decadent, even cold, and it ignores the suffering of the poor and the lost.”

“You think the League’s better?” Calvin blurted out, dumbfounded by what he was hearing.

“No one starves, all are taken care of. Yes, the League is intolerant to religion, but that could be changed. At least they understand at a basic level that society must take care of all its citizens.”

“I’m a Marine. I don’t debate politics, Captain. I eliminate targets. The only reason I’m sitting here is because we don’t have professional interrogators on this ship, and our commanding officer is lying in the doc shack after your CO shot him. I’m getting answers. I’ll get them from you or I’ll get them from the next guy.”

“What can you even offer?”

“For starters, the death penalty can be taken off the table.”

“So I get to spend the rest of my life in a metal box, allowed one hour a day to exercise? I think death sounds preferable.”

“Who said it had to be Lambert’s Lament? There’s nicer places to be incarcerated in the Terran Coalition. Almost any prison is better than what you just described.”

“I remain convinced what we were doing was just.”

“You were offering up your fellow soldiers to the League for slaughter, not to mention God only knows how many civilian merchant crews that paid the ultimate price, trying to get supplies out to Unity Station!”

“The idea was if Unity fell back into League hands, both sides would sue for peace.”

Calvin couldn’t help but laugh loudly. “You believe that crap?”

“Yes.”

“How long have you been lying about this double life, Mendoza? How many years?” Calvin asked, while his mind raged. This piece of trash isn’t fit to live. Not my place to judge… not my place to judge. God help me.

“Several.”

“Christian?”

“Yes. I consider myself to be a Christian socialist.”

“Okay. Read your bible?”

“Do you read yours?”

“I do. There’re dozens of references to not lying in mine. What about yours?”

Mendoza looked away and didn’t answer.

Calvin pressed on. “I’ve been doing a lot of reading in my bible the past few months. It helped me get through the most difficult period in my life. Liars are described as the children of Satan in John. Proverbs warns us again and again not to lie. The only person killed by God in the New Testament did so because he lied! You think you can outrun the punishment you’re owed, Captain?”

“God will judge me justly. Not you, Colonel.”

“First thing you’ve said that I would agree with, Captain. God will judge you. Why not take a step to mitigate that judgment, right here, right now?”

“As long as we accept Jesus as our savior, our sins are forgiven.”

I’m not equipped for a religious debate. Going to have to try to pull this one out of my rear. “Pretty sure there’s something in there about faith without works being dead.”

“I’m happy with my works, Colonel.”

“Is that so?”

“Yes.”

Calvin leaned back in the chair, a smug smirk forming on his face. “Maybe we should let your fellow traitors, and of course, the holonews teams that’ll be crawling all over this, know how much you helped us.”

Mendoza’s eyes darted up to meet Calvin. “You can’t do that. I haven’t helped you. You’d be lying!”

“Yeah, but who’s to know? Then we could put you into genpop with the rest of the Leaguer POWs. That’d be a fate worse than death, wouldn’t it? They’d beat you to hell and back, daily. Probably do some pretty unnatural things to you too,” Calvin said, staring him down. “There’s a way to avoid it, of course. Just tell me what you know.”

“You wouldn’t dare. It’s against procedure.”

Even as Mendoza spoke, Calvin realized he’d seen the first chink in the man’s mental armor. He smiled thinly. “I almost got drummed out of the service for shooting POWs, Captain. Do you think I’m going to lose sleep over a report with a few misstatements in it? If you do, I can sell you a planet.”

“What information would you want?”

Aha. There the façade goes. “Names, operational plans, what the next phase of the plan was.”

“I don’t know all the names.”

“Were there more, outside of the officers on your ship?”

“I think so.”

“Names and ranks will be a good start, then. Right now, I’m more interested in what the League was planning next.”

Mendoza looked off to the side, avoiding Calvin’s stare. “The objective, once the Lion of Judah became involved, was to destroy her.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s a symbol… of decadence, of capitalism. The technology which powers it was invented by a godless heathen who openly mocks His name. It’s an abomination.”

This dude has a few screws loose. “How are they going to do that? Because Seville’s tried a few times and come up short.”

“We transmitted your patrol plans for the next convoy. They’re going to jump in on top of you with two battleships and escorts. The League commander has advanced model Alexanders at his disposal.”

Calvin sat back in his chair. Damn. I’m no ship driver, but I remember David saying those battleships of theirs were no slouch. God only knows what would happen if a task force caught us unaware. “Okay, Mendoza, here’s what we’re going to do. You’re going to write all this down on a tablet and sign. I’m going to find a JAG to sign as a witness, and then we’ll turn you over to Intelligence. You play your cards right, you might even get to see your family again someday.”

Without waiting for a reply, Calvin sprang up and walked out the hatch. Hopefully, the colonel is awake.


21

David sucked on the straw sticking out of a box of juice, still groggy and taking in his surroundings in the medical bay. Hospital food… makes combat rations seem like a five-star restaurant. He’d be attended to be a steady stream of nurses, while Doctor Tural watched over it all. I hate the feeling I’m getting better treatment than those under my command do. Finishing off the juice, he raised his hand to attract the nearest nurse’s attention.

“Excuse me, nurse. Could you ask Doctor Tural to come here? I need to talk to him.”

The younger woman nodded; she appeared to be less than twenty-five years of age and likely still on her first stint in the CDF. “Yes, sir. I’ll get him presently for you,” she replied in a decidedly British accent. Which made sense; the country flag on her uniform was Great Britain.

A minutes later, Doctor Tural appeared at his bedside. “Ah, by the hand of Allah, you’re awake.”

David cracked a smile. “Pretty sure Allah works through those hands of yours, Doctor.”

“It is my hope you are correct,” Tural said, returning the smile. “Now let’s see here. The shoulder is sewn up, regenerative gel applied, and you’ll be in pain there for three days. The stomach wound, on the other hand… we almost lost you, sir. Extensive internal bleeding, coupled with the bullet splintering.”

“How bad was it?”

“It took two hours to get all the fragments out. All bleeding was laser cauterized, and we packed the wound with gel… your BP crashed to the point you almost flatlined, twice.”

David glanced away and nodded. “One of these days, there’s going to be a bullet, plasma cannon burst, or missile with my name on it.”

“Perhaps, but as I told you a few hours ago… not today.”

“When can I get back to my duties?”

Tural raised an eyebrow, staring down at him. “I want you on bed rest for at least a day.”

“Point taken, but I’ve got a ship to run, Doctor.”

“Which Colonel Aibek is doing a fine job of running in your absence.”

“I promise not to run back into combat,” David replied, forcing a smile. “I just need to do some paperwork and have a staff meeting.”

The two men’s exchange was interrupted by the arrival of Calvin and Aibek, the large Saurian leading the way. They came to a stop next to David’s bed.

“Well, well. Looks like our resident doc got you back in fighting shape, Colonel,” Calvin said, his tone jovial and loud as always.

Tural cleared his throat. “Colonel Cohen requires rest. Please, make this brief.”

Aibek and Calvin exchanged glances before the large Saurian spoke. “Sir, interrogation of the captured traitors has revealed a wealth of information. We know what the League’s next move will be.”

“Outstanding. Do we know the information is legit?”

“I broke three of them,” Calvin said. “It all lines up.”

“Can you get me on my feet, Doctor?” David asked.

Tural’s face clouded over, and he furrowed his brow. “I can’t recommend you leave the medical bay, Colonel. If you begin to bleed internally again, we need to know immediately.”

“How about a gravchair? Keeps me off my feet, lets me get to the staff meeting. Afterward, I’ll come back here for observation.”

“I want you back in this bed within three hours, Colonel,” Tural said, his tone one of a man who would accept no argument.

“Agreed.”

“XO, get everyone together in the briefing room. I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Aibek replied, the scales on his head flushing. “We will see you shortly.” He turned and walked out, while Tural stepped away to the next patient.

Calvin remained, a pensive look on his face. “I’m sorry, sir.”

“For what, Cal?”

“I couldn’t stop him fast enough. I should’ve been there for you.”

“Nonsense. We both had a job and found ourselves in an unexpected combat situation. You saved my life, and I’m in your debt.”

“Yeah, let’s just put it against the debt I owe you… one I’ll never pay off.”

David cracked a smile. “Who did the interrogations?”

“I did.”

“And?”

“No harsh measures, no simulated executions, straight and narrow.”

David nodded. “How do you feel now?”

“Honestly, sir, there’s a part of me that wants to space the lot of them. But I fought it down.”

“Some days, that’s the best we can hope for… fighting down the worst instincts within us.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Keep it up, Colonel,” David said, again flashing a smile. “I’m going to get dressed and transferred into a chair. See you soon.”

“Roger that, sir,” Calvin said, and he too walked away.

It took two nurses to get David out of bed, help him dress in a uniform over Tural’s objections, and finally get seated in the gravchair. It floated above the deck plates and allowed someone with reduced mobility complete freedom of movement. With just a few minutes to spare, he made it to the conference room on deck one in time for the meeting to start. Aibek, Calvin, Amir, Hammond, Kelsey, Hanson, Master Chief Tinetariro, and Kenneth were all present and accounted for.

“Greetings, ladies and gentlemen,” David said as he maneuvered the gravchair into the conference room, taking care not to hit the sides of the hatch.

“Colonel on deck!” Calvin announced, coming to attention along with the rest of those present, excepting Kenneth, who stood.

“As you were.”

Aibek pulled the chair at the head of the table out and placed it against the back wall, allowing David to guide the gravchair up and park it in his usual spot.

“Before we begin… I’ll be fine in a few days. Don’t worry about me. The focus on stopping these League attacks and ending the threat posed by the traitors once and for all. Now, what do you all have for me?”

As everyone dropped back into their seats, Calvin spoke up. “Well, sir, we’ve got a pretty good read on the rest of the League force. They’re planning to hit the Lion of Judah with a couple of souped-up Alexander class battleships and escorts. Another screening force will hit a major convoy, hoping that we’ll be caught without any supporting ships of our own.”

“Not bad for a League plan,” David remarked. “I sense whoever is on the other side this time, assuming it’s not Seville, is quite intelligent in tactical matters. They’ve given us a run for our money.”

“A worthy opponent?” Aibek asked.

“Not sure I’d give any Leaguer that honor,” David replied. “The new variant of Alexanders aren’t to be underestimated, though. Two, with escorts, would give us fits without a screening force.”

“There’s another problem, sir,” Aibek interjected. “Based on what Colonel Demood was able to pull out of our prisoners, I do not believe Colonel Dyson’s force can achieve victory. They would face complete destruction.”

David glanced downward. I can’t order Dyson to sacrifice himself like that, not to mention all those under his command. There’s got to be a better way.

“We could deploy my wing to protect the convoy,” Amir said, causing all eyes to dart toward him. “How many League ships are we talking here?”

Calvin shrugged. “A couple dozen Lancers and Cobras.”

Amir smiled thinly. “Versus nearly one hundred and eighty combat spacecraft? I wouldn’t like those odds if I were the League commander.”

Assorted chuckles broke out, relieving some of the pressure cooker of stress that gnawed at the team. David laughed, himself. “Agreed, Amir. The problem is I don’t think our tactically smart friend on the other side of the table would fall for the same trick twice. Besides, the Lawrence drive is already taxed from the previous double jump I did.”

Kenneth leaned forward, and raised his hand. “If I may?”

“Go ahead, Mr. Lowe.”

“What if we strapped to the fighters and bombers to the freighters, well in advance of the ambush?”

Aibek turned and stared at the lanky contractor. “What you say is impossible. No such device exists.”

“We could make it.”

“How?”

“The Lion has dozens of industrial 3D printing arrays. Give my guys some time, we’ll design a device that’ll allow small craft to latch on to the merchant ships, then detach to fight.”

David looked between the two men, his brow furrowed. “That’s one heck of a risk, Kenneth.”

“We can do it, sir.”

“Okay, let’s assume for a moment you succeed. It leads to another problem… without our fighters, we’ll be at an extreme disadvantage against the League capital ships.”

Kelsey cleared her throat. “Colonel, I have a suggestion on how to overcome our weak tactical position.”

“I’m all ears, Lieutenant.”

“Since we know when and where the enemy is coming… we could pre-fire a full flight of missiles, reload our tubes, and have another flight ready to engage. It would give us a significant edge.”

The wheels in David’s brains immediately started turning. That’s out of the box all right… almost sounds like something I’d come up with. “Hanson, how long to reload both VRLS with the improvements we got to the autoloading systems?”

“Twenty to twenty-five minutes, sir.”

“Not fast enough,” Aibek interjected. “Starbolt and Hunter missiles have a maximum loitering time of thirty human minutes, yes?”

“That’s correct, sir,” Kelsey said, reentering the conversation. “If we put manual loading teams to work alongside the autoloader, fifteen minutes is achievable, according to my math.”

Hanson’s face twisted and he glanced from Kelsey to David. “We’d have to work with block and tackle, sir. It's risky. If just one of those missiles drops too far and hits the deck, we could have a cook-off situation inside the ship.”

“I believe it’s a manageable risk, sir,” Kelsey rejoined.

“Major,” David began, addressing Hanson. “Can you mitigate the risk? Fire suppression teams on hand, that sort of thing?”

“Yes, sir, but the biggest thing will be the ship can’t be rocking around or performing quick turn maneuvers. You’ll need to fly it in a straight and level manner. Our inertial damping systems are good, but there’s only so much they can do… the Lion is a massive ship.”

“High risk, high reward,” David said while stroking his chin. “That’s typically how we do things around here, isn’t it?”

No one responded. All eyes stared at him.

“Okay. We need to wrap this up, and reinforcements are too far away to get here in time without arousing suspicion. So, Kenneth, pull another rabbit out of your hat and get whatever device you’ve thought up out of your head and into reality. Hanson, Master Chief, I want all hands needed from the deck force available for reloads. Fill those bays with strong bodies and get us to fifteen minutes. We’ll finish off these Leaguers and then find a way to rescue Lieutenant Goldberg and the commando team. Any questions?”

“How are you feeling, sir?” Amir asked. “Being shot is nothing to sneeze at.”

“I’ll be fine… you’ll see me on the bridge tomorrow. I’m more worried about why someone would betray the Terran Coalition. I can’t get my brain around it.”

“Makes two of us, sir,” Tinetariro said, her voice harsh. “They make me sick.”

“They make all of us sick,” Kelsey said.

I still don’t get it. I could understand one man or woman… but most of the officers of a stealth ship? It's insane to even contemplate. David flashed a smile. “Enough about them. We’ve got a job to do. Now let’s get to work. Dismissed.”


22

“Just snap the gauntlet in, here,” Ruth said as she tried to guide Susanna through putting on her armor. The young woman struggled to turn the piece for a moment, but it finally locked into place.

“This is so weird,” Susanna admitted, waving her hands around within the suit. “All these readouts and information. It's like my brain is overloading with input.”

“You get used to it,” Ruth replied. “We didn’t get combat armor back when I was doing this in the resistance. If you were shot, well, you probably didn’t make it. Having these would have been like magic to us, way back when,” she finished, looking around the barn. The commandos were selecting their rifles and outfitting sidearms with suppressors.

“You two ready?” MacDonald shouted from down below.

“Just about, Master Chief.”

MacDonald grunted. “Well, get a move on. We’ve got places to go and Leaguers to kill.”

“Are they always like this?” Susanna asked, leaning in to whisper. “It’s strange. Like all this technology I’ve never seen before.”

“I’ve never been with them before in battle, but probably. You must understand we all have our own rituals, ways that we keep calm and collected before battle. Sometimes the tech helps with it… for me at least, I trust in the edge we have over the League.”

“What do you think about before a battle?”

Ruth stared into space. “Usually, what happened to my family and me on this planet. I vow to make the League pay.”

“That’s how you get ready for a battle?”

Ruth nodded. “Yes.”

“Forgive me for saying so, but that sounds awful.”

“I won’t deny it is, Susanna. You weren’t there, though. They killed my parents, and the things they did to me were despicable, beyond any standard of morality.”

“My father says the reason the League is so awful is they don’t worship God.”

“Colonel Cohen is always telling me not to fall into that trap when we have deep discussions.”

“Why?”

“Because he believes anyone is capable of having a set of morals,” Ruth said.

“You don’t sound like you agree with him,” Susanna observed.

“I’m not sure. He’s right in there’s plenty of atheists in the Terran Coalition, and most of them are decent people. I think what I’ve come to believe, though, is none of us are good. We’re all flawed, and all of us are capable of incredible acts of evil. I think by admitting it, our religion helps to keep us on a better path. Sometimes, at least.”

“What else happened on this planet, all those years ago?” Susanna suddenly asked.

Ruth closed her eyes. “It wasn’t just them killing my parents or what happened to me in the resistance.”

“Ruth, I don’t know you that well, but I can see this pain all about you. Maybe it would help to talk about it?”

“I don’t talk about this to anyone.”

“Except me.”

There is that. Maybe it’s because she has a frame of reference. “Remember what those two men tried to do to you?”

Susanna shuddered. “Yes. I’ll never forget it.”

“There are far worse things that can happen,” Ruth said quietly. “The resistance wasn’t all successes. We put our licks in on the Leaguers, but they put some on us too. I was eventually captured during a large-scale uprising timed to tie down garrison troops during the liberation of our planet by the TCMC.”

“Did they… “ Susanna began, before trailing off.

“They did horrific things to me. Questioning, torture… things I’ll never forget,” Ruth replied, her mind suddenly gripped in the memory of that day, so many years ago.

Gates of Hell

Like it was yesterday, Ruth could feel the damp clamminess of the interrogation chamber. Captured the day before, she sat, handcuffed to a table, a single light hanging from the ceiling. The only door swung open, and a League officer walked in. He wore a pristine uniform that appeared freshly pressed, hair slicked back, and a smug expression of superiority. It’s a pretty boy, how cute. Her mind was still looking for ways to cope with humor.

“Prisoner Seven-Five-Six-One, I am your interrogator,” he announced, pacing into the room like an animal on the hunt for its latest prey.

“Goldberg, Ruth. Rank, Leaguer killer first class.”

The man laughed coldly before he slammed her head casually into the table. Pain seared through her head, and blood gushed from her nose.

“Consider that the first and last answer you’ll give me which is anything but respectful,” he stated, his tone oddly formal.

Ruth raised her head, fighting to preserve defiance in her face. I’m not giving them anything.

“Your friends have launched attacks all over the planet. There must be something special about today. What is it?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do not lie to me,” he said quietly in a threatening tone that made her blood run cold.

“Our cells are compartmented so that no one knows what’s going on,” Ruth began. “We get our orders from a dead drop and carry them out.”

“What were your orders for today?”

Ruth remained silent as the man paced around the table. “I asked you a question, Prisoner Seven-Five-Six-One.” At her continued silence, the man reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a small device. “Do you know what this is?”

“No,” Ruth replied.

“It’s an entertaining little toy. See the little pieces of metal at the end there? If I touch this to your skin, it will send a pulse of electricity throughout your body. Quite painful, you see.”

This is one sick dude.

He pressed the thing against her arm. Intense pain swept throughout her body, and unable to control herself, she went into convulsions, her arms and legs flailing around.

“I would prefer not to use this on you, of course. Just tell me what I need to know.”

Ruth breathed in and out, her lungs on fire, mind racing at the predicament she found herself in. “We were supposed to attack the paramilitary police motor pool. Where you caught us,” she finally said. That wasn’t entirely true; while it had been an objective, the real goal was to steal a few armored vehicles and deliver them to another cell.

“See? Wasn’t it simple to give me a little information?” the man asked, his smug smile returning in full force. “Now, who runs your cell?”

“We don’t use names,” Ruth lied.

The interrogator didn’t even bother calling her on it. He jammed the torture device into her arm again, sending pain to every corner of her body. Ruth screamed at the top of her lungs. “Please! Please make it stop!” Tears poured down her face, and just when she thought she could take no more, it stopped.

“Who runs your cell?”

“I don’t know!” Ruth shouted, spit flying out of her mouth while the tears continued to flow.

He jammed the device into her arm yet again, and she braced herself for another wave of torment. When it didn’t come, she opened her eyes to see him standing there staring at her.

“Perhaps there is a better way for us to reach a mutually beneficial resolution,” the interrogator said, walking around the table and taking a seat in the other chair. “I have a superior who has been asked by our sector admiral to fulfill a request for him. You are Jewish, yes?”

Ruth nodded.

“A virgin?”

Oh my God. Panic welled up from within. “Yes,” she whispered.

“This admiral… he likes younger women who are virgins. Very rare in the League, you see. While I can see you recoiling in horror, it’s not like that. The admiral treats his concubines with respect. You would be well-fed, clothed, and want for nothing. In return, his every whim would be catered to.”

Horror passed over Ruth’s face as it contorted, and her eyes went wide. She remained mute, unable to form words in her mouth.

“All you need to do is give me a small piece of actionable intelligence. Just the smallest little bit. I’ll get you off this rock and into a better life in the League.”

I could tell them our cell leader’s name. He died in the attack. It wouldn’t be wrong. Despite everything she had been taught and believed in, the offer tempted her. I could do worse. I’m lucky something worse hasn’t already happened, with the stories some of the other girls have.

“What do you say?”

If I do this, I’ll be dead inside. I might still be alive as a human, but everything that makes me who I am will be gone. Ruth considered the battle within raging between the desire to make it all stop and the determination to do what was right. She looked up and met the interrogator’s eyes; victory was painted across his face. Apparently, this was a tactic that had worked for him before.

“No,” Ruth said, the word at the same time whispered and shouted, as a cry of defiance.

“Foolish girl,” he replied with a snarl, jamming the device into her neck.

Horrific pain once again took hold of Ruth, and she thrashed against her restraints spastically, unable to control her body. Over and over, he jammed the prongs into various parts of her exposed skin. At some point, it all ran together, and she mercifully blacked out.

Gates of Hell

Susanna sat entirely still as Ruth finished relating the memory, a look of abject horror on her face. “I… I am so sorry,” she said quietly.

“I’ve never told anyone that before,” Ruth said, a single tear running down her cheek. “I’ve hated myself for it, all these years.”

“Why?” Susanna asked incredulously.

“Because I considered doing what he asked. It seemed so tantalizingly simple… give up a small amount of information they probably had anyway and escape it all to a life of luxury.”

“It would have tempted anyone.”

“Including you?”

“Especially me,” Susanna replied. “Our bodies are weak. Compromises are easy to make.”

“Later that day, our Marines stormed the facility I was held in and rescued me. I never knew the name of the man that burst into my cell in power armor like the judgment of God, killing every Leaguer in sight. In that instant, I knew what I was going to do with myself. I was going to become a soldier, and I would make the Leaguers pay.”

“I think now I understand.”

“Not quite,” Ruth began. “You have to realize, even now, the hate still grips me. Later tonight, I’m going to kill my share of the enemy. I promise you I will see the face of the interrogator on every man and woman I shoot. At some point, I’ll probably enjoy it.”

Susanna put her hand on Ruth’s shoulder and gave it a sisterly squeeze. “I can’t imagine.

“We’ll both get through this. Things will be better on the other side, once the League has gotten the boot from Freiderwelt.”

“Maybe you need to change something inside of you?”

Ruth snorted. “Like what?”

“Forgiving yourself?”

“Someday.”

“Tomorrow will be no different unless you change today,” Susanna said.

“What are you, the oracle of truth now?” Ruth cracked, a small grin appearing on her face.

“No… just something my mother likes to say.”

“Sounds like a wise woman.”

“Get down here! We’ve got an op to run!” MacDonald interrupted, his voice sharp.

“Coming, Master Chief!” Ruth shouted back. “Ready for this?” she continued toward Susanna.

“Not really, but who's keeping score anyway?”

Ruth grinned and passed Susanna her helmet. “Want some help?”

“Please,” Susanna admitted, staring down at the helmet.

Ruth stood up, grasped the helmet in her hands, and put it over Susanna’s head. A moment later, the mechanism clicked and sealed with an audible beep.

“Wow,” Susanna said. “This is unreal.”

“Oh, it gets better. You can integrate your viewpoint into our little drones, see the battlefield from a hundred feet up, and conduct pinpoint strikes against the enemy.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” Susanna replied as she stood.

“Let’s get down there so MacDonald doesn’t get an ulcer,” Ruth deadpanned, turning and dropping off the second story of the barn and onto the first with a thud. “Reporting for duty, Master Chief.”

“Nice of you to finally join us, Lieutenant. Do you need a massage or a facial?” MacDonald groused to scattered laughter from the rest of the team.

“That’s the best you’ve got, Master Chief?” Ruth shot back. “Would you like me to get you a gravlift chair, a cane, or your dentures?”

“Now that’s a burn,” Rostami interjected as he laughed loudly.

“I don’t recall asking for your opinion,” MacDonald replied. “Mata! Get our guest a sidearm.”

A moment later, Mata appeared, holster in hand. “This is a standard-issue CDF sidearm,” he said to Susanna. “I believe the lieutenant familiarized you with its function?”

She reached out and took the holster. “She did, Chief.”

“Loaded and ready to use,” he said with satisfaction. “I’d recommend attaching to your right leg for ease of draw.”

Ruth watched as the girl fumbled with the strap, eventually securing it to her thigh. “Good. Hopefully, you won’t need to use it.”

“You got any more of whatever you’re smoking, LT? I could use some before this op,” MacDonald deadpanned, again drawing laughter from the team.

“Seriously, you want her to have to kill someone?”

“No, as a matter of fact, I don’t,” MacDonald said. “I do want her to know exactly what she’s getting into, though. This isn’t a damn milk run. We’ll be lucky if half of us survive, much less if we accomplish our objective. Now, everyone ready?”

“Locked and loaded, Master Chief,” Meissner announced.

“Ready, Master Chief,” Ruth replied through gritted teeth.

“Then let’s go. Two-hour hike ahead of us.”

Ruth settled into the back of the formation, Susanna just ahead of her. Keeping her head on a swivel as they made their way, silence reigned. Lost in her thoughts, Ruth tried to clear her mind of revenge to focus solely on the task at hand.


23

Walking into the hangar bay, Kenneth carried a box with the prototype of the bolt assembly, visibly struggling with its weight. A hundred meters later, he dropped the container with a thud next to the Phantom fighter that bore Amir’s name.

“Try not to damage it before installation, Mr. Lowe,” Major Richard Hume, the XO of the Lion’s fighter wing, called down. He wore a standard CDF flight suit and had an clear British accent. “I don’t want to be billed for another unit.”

“Ask Colonel Amir, Major… I don’t play those games,” Kenneth responded curtly. “One mating mechanism with explosive bolt, at your service, gentlemen.”

“How many do we need per fighter and bomber?” Amir asked, climbing down the ladder from his cockpit.

“Three per fighter, four per bomber. My team has taken over cargo bay three for fabrication. Every 3D print array on this ship is working on the same design as we speak.”

“You’re sure it works?” Hume asked.

“Yes. My team tested it out on one of the spare fighters, below decks.”

Amir cleared his throat. “I don’t have to tell you… if these devices fail, my pilots will be nothing more than targets for slaughter.”

Kenneth held up his hands. “Colonel, I get it. Let me walk you through it, okay?” At Amir’s nod, he continued, pulling the device out of its box and gesturing to pieces of it. “The mechanism is micro-welded onto the underbelly of the craft and has a remote control. We’ll install that into the cockpit of each fighter or bomber. The control is straightforward. It’s got two buttons. The red one activates the micro-welder packs built into the bottom plate and fuses it to the merchant ship. Green button activates the explosive charge… whamo, you’re back in action,” he finished, dropping it back into the container.

“Simple at least,” Hume commented. “I like simple when it comes to some new gizmo.”

“I’m more worried about having weld patches next to explosives. What if they mix?” Amir said.

“Sir, they won’t. We ran hundreds of computer simulations against the design,” Kenneth insisted.

“Computers aren’t the real world,” Amir replied bluntly. “When engineers fail to take into consideration all possible outcomes, people like my pilots and me are the ones that pay the price, usually in blood.”

“With respect, sir. I wouldn’t give you something I wouldn’t use myself.”

“You’d sit in a bomber with this device being employed?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Seems honest enough,” Hume replied.

I haven’t worked with this guy much, or any of the pilots, for that matter. I suppose I should change that, so we have a better working relationship. “I try my best, Major.”

“When can you get the rest completed?” Amir questioned.

“Two to three hours, sir. I need your help with something, though.”

“What might that be, Mr. Lowe?”

“A couple of S&R shuttles with lockout chambers. I want to have some technical personnel in spacesuits perform EVAs and spot check the welds during deployment.”

“I’ll be happy to provide them, as well as engineers from the Lion’s military crew to access the devices with your team.”

“Thank you, Colonel,” Kenneth replied. “Anything else, gentlemen?”

“No, thanks for bringing this thing over to show us,” Amir said. “Good luck finishing them up.”

Kenneth nodded respectfully before picking up the box once more. “Godspeed.”

Inshallah Allah,” Amir stated.

I wish we had more time to test these things. Kenneth trudged across the deck. Super-computer testing will have to be enough for now.

Gates of Hell

A few hours later, Kenneth sat in the co-pilot seat of an S&R craft, piloted by a no-nonsense warrant officer named Kadesh. They were on their fourth checkout test of one of the larger bombers, which required four devices. Glancing out of the cockpit windows, he marveled at how massive the merchant ship looked with them directly on top of its hull.

“Made it to the first bolt assembly,” Harold Billings, a long-time team leader and good friend, said in his gravelly voice, which echoed through the cockpit’s commlink speakers.

“Run a mass spectrometer test against the weld,” Kenneth said into the mic in his helmet; everyone on the craft wore a combat spacesuit in case of decompression.

“Boss, I’ve been doing this awhile.”

“Sorry, Master Chief,” Kenneth replied, a bit chastened. “Sweating this one. I wish we’d had more time to test it in real-world conditions.”

“Those computer simulations supposedly test what, ten quadrillion different variables?” Billings said. “Best virtual testing money can buy.”

“Yeah, but the real world almost always tosses something extra in.”

“Maybe God will smile on this particular bit of creative engineering.”

Kenneth cracked a smile. “Let’s hope.”

“I’m seeing the proper metallic makeup of a solid micro-weld here, boss. Moving on to the second device.”

God help us if these don’t work. Kenneth stared straight ahead, trying to pass the time. Kadesh had proven to be impossible to talk to; he wasn’t interested in giving more than one-word answers, and only if prodded. “The second device is good, boss,” Billings said through the commlink.

“Acknowledged, Master Chief.”

“Why do you call him that?” Kadesh asked, the first question he’d posed since they started the flight.

Kenneth glanced over at the pilot. “Because he’s an older guy, keeps the kids in line, and teaches them what they need to know. That’s what a Master Chief does, right?”

“Yeah.”

Back to one-word answers. “So I gave him that nickname several years ago when we started working together. It stuck.”

“I heard him say he didn’t earn that rank,” Kadesh stated.

“Not in the CDF, no.”

Silence reigned, leaving Kenneth not entirely sure what the point of the conversation was in the first place.

“Boss, made it to the third device. How much time on the clock do we have left for this fighter?”

“Eight minutes, Master Chief.”

“Roger that. Proceeding with the test.”

“I fail to understand why you would call him a rank he didn’t earn,” Kadesh interjected.

“He’s earned it on my team,” Kenneth replied.

“How?”

“By single-handedly training dozens of young people, most of them straight out of the CDF, on the proper way to maintain electronic equipment and advanced computer systems. I’ve seen that man raise up so many, without hesitation. It’s like his life mission.”

“I see.” Spanners have more personality. I’m dying here.

“Third device checks out, moving on the fourth, boss,” Billings said, his voice echoing through the cockpit.

“Understood,” Kenneth replied. “Do you have the next fighter location locked in, Kadesh?”

“Yes.”

“This is Colonel David Cohen, to Kenneth Lowe. Come in, over.”

Kenneth exchanged a surprised glance with Kadesh, who had his eyebrows raised. “This is Kenneth Lowe. I read you loud and clear, sir.”

“How far into the testing process are you?”

“We’re almost done with the fourth fighter, sir. We’ll be moving on to the next one in a couple of minutes.”

“Any issues so far?”

“No, sir.”

“Good. Stay on schedule. We’ve only got a few hours left.”

“Yes, sir,” Kenneth replied crisply.

“Godspeed, Cohen out.”

“Since when does the colonel call up a civilian by name?” Kadesh blurted out.

Kenneth shrugged. “Since now?”

“That’s mightily peculiar.”

“Just another day in the office, Warrant,” Kenneth said with a grin.

“The fourth device checks out, boss. I’m heading back to the airlock.”

“Great, Master Chief. Step on it… we’re on the clock.”

“Yes, boss.”

Four down, thirty-six to go.

Gates of Hell

After finishing up a small meal —David never ate much before a battle— he made his way the short distance to the gravlift and up to deck one. Walking off the lift, he crossed the distance to the large hatch to the bridge in thirty steps. The two Marines posted on either side of the entryway saluted sharply, which David returned and pulled on his cover as he crossed the threshold.

“Colonel on the bridge!” Master Chief Tinetariro announced.

“As you were,” David replied a split second after everyone who was standing and not harnessed into their stations came to attention.

“Officer of the Deck, this is Colonel Cohen. I have the conn.”

A young lieutenant jumped up from the CO’s chair, and he turned to face David. “Aye aye, sir, Colonel Cohen has the conn.”

“Anything to note, Lieutenant Jackson?” David asked.

“No, sir. All systems normal, right where you left her.”

“Very good. You are dismissed, Lieutenant,” David replied and settled into the CO’s chair; the chair directly next to it, marked “XO,” was unoccupied. He supposed Aibek hadn’t made it back yet.

The second watch tactical officer, Second Lieutenant Victoria Kelsey, was present at her station, along with 1st Lieutenant Shelly Hammond, the Lion’s chief navigator. Over the next fifteen minutes, David reviewed the ship’s readiness status and tactical board. The waiting… the waiting never gets easier. It’s a broken record before battle, but I can’t escape it. He was rousted from his thoughts by the deep baritone voice of Aibek. “Are you ready for the battle to come?”

“I think I’d be lying if I said I was ever quite ready for battle. You can be prepared for it, but I don’t think anyone is quite ready,” David replied.

“Saurians look at it differently. We view life as one long, ever-changing battle. In effect, we are always ready for battle,” Aibek stated as he made himself comfortable in the XO’s chair.

“Perhaps we can both learn something from each other, in that case.”

“Perhaps,” Aibek said with a toothy grin. “I prefer my way.”

“Somehow, XO, that just doesn’t surprise me,” David said, smirking. “Ship is ready. How was your inspection tour?”

“I visited both the reloading compartments for both our forward and aft VRLS. Major Hanson has done an outstanding job of staging additional manpower and equipment for reloading the missile tubes.”

“That’s one of the critical pieces of the plan. Hanson’s a good engineer, though. Hasn’t failed us yet.”

“What’s the time left before mission start?”

David glanced up and looked at the mission clock directly above his head. “T-minus eighteen minutes, forty-nine seconds. I’m not sweating those forty-nine seconds. Our fighters and bombers are all strapped onto merchant ships… everything is ready.”

Aibek snickered a bit, then began to review information from own display.

David realized that over time, those around him had learned to allow him the few minutes before the commencement of combat to clear his mind and prepare it along with his soul. As the clock ticked below fifteen minutes, he closed his eyes and prayed softly in Hebrew. “God, King of the Universe and all things within it, if it is Your will, please grant mercy and watch over those under my command in the battle to come. Protect them and allow them to return to their families safely. Amen.”

“Amen,” Aibek said, jolting David’s eyes open. “I have been working on my understanding of Hebrew,” he explained.

“Ah, I see.”

“I still don’t understand, after all this time, why you don’t ask for victory.”

David turned to look at Aibek. “I don’t think I have the right, XO. We’re sitting here and, in a few minutes, we’re going to do our best to eradicate thousands of God’s creations from the universe He created.”

“Does the toll from the battle bother you?” Aibek asked. “As a Saurian, the human viewpoint on the subject is different and interesting.”

“XO, I’m quite at peace with the fact we must fight. The cause is just, and this is a defensive war. Even so, I can’t bring myself to ask for victory. That feels presumptuous to me. So I ask God to spare those I lead; I discharge my duty to the best of my ability. The outcome and consequences of those actions are solely in the hands of God.” But do we have the right to kill? That’s what it comes down to, because no matter how I rationalize it, I’m going to kill a lot of people today. Worse, too many of the men and women under my command won’t be going home.

Aibek nodded and didn’t respond further. The mission clock continued to tick down.

At T-minus ten minutes, David spoke again after cueing the microphone on his chair to 1MC. “General quarters. General quarters. This is your commanding officer. Man your battle stations! I say again, man your battle stations. Set material condition one throughout the ship. This is not a drill. I say again, this is not a drill!”

The lights immediately dimmed and switched to a soft hue, bathing the bridge in blue light. Kelsey was the first to speak afterward. “Conn, TAO. Material condition one set throughout the ship, sir.”

“Thank you, TAO,” David replied. “Communications, get me Colonel Dyson, please.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Taylor said. “One moment.”

Dyson’s face appeared on the monitor directly above David. “Colonel Cohen, good to see you, sir.”

“I thought I’d check in one last time. Knowing the enemy’s plans is naturally a great advantage, but we’re still outnumbered and outgunned.”

“Every ship remaining in my task force is combat ready, sir. On your signal, we’ll jump in and engage.”

“Remember, Colonel,” David said. “Don’t tangle with the League battlewagons. That’s the Lion’s job. When we give the word, drop in and attack whatever’s left of their escort forces.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Dyson replied crisply.

“Okay. Time for our final Lawrence drive prep. Good luck, and Godspeed.”

“Godspeed to you too, Colonel Cohen.”

The vidlink blinked off, leaving David to look at the clock, which now ticked under five minutes to showtime. “Navigation, confirm Lawrence drive coordinates.”

“Conn, navigation. Lawrence drive coordinates triple checked and confirmed, sir.”

“Jump readiness?”

“Weapons capacitor is discharged, Lawrence drive is at full power and ready,” Hammond answered, her voice calm and professional, as David had come to expect from over a year of working with her.

“About time, XO,” David observed as the clock marched on.

“How do you humans put it? Time to kick some ass?”

David laughed in spite of his combat demeanor. “That’s what Marines say, XO.”

“I am still learning your idioms.”

“Yeah, so am I. I can’t keep up with the kids these days,” David snarked. “Here goes nothing,” he said quietly to Aibek and turned back to Hammond. “Navigation, engage Lawrence drive.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Hammond called back.

From deep within the ship, David felt the straining of the reactor and the massive Lawrence drive generators. The lights dimmed for a moment, and through the transparent metal window, he saw the familiar form of an artificial wormhole take shape directly in front of the ship. A kaleidoscope of many colors, the Lion sprang forward under sub-light power, gliding through its portal through the vast distances of interstellar space.

Emerging on the other side, the ship’s power cycled and sensors reset. Just like every other jump David had been through. Those five seconds were the longest of any ship-driver’s life. No incoming fire… Intel checks out for phase one.

“Conn, TAO. No contacts, sir,” Kelsey reported. “We’re clear.”

“Now, XO, the next question is when do we launch the first volley of Hunters.”

“Remind me again, what’s the loiter range on those missiles?”

“Roughly thirty minutes.”

“If the intelligence the traitor gave us is accurate, the League fleet arrives in fifteen minutes.”

“We’ll wait ten minutes, then launch,” David said, his tone firm.

“I thought we were going to launch immediately,” Aibek insisted.

“Call it a gut feeling. I think we’ll need those ten minutes somewhere.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Don’t worry, Aibek. We’ll get our chance to pound the Leaguers. I promise you.”


24

Amir cranked his head around, staring off into the black of space. These moments, gliding through the cosmos before and after combat, are when I can appreciate the beauty of the universe Allah created. He could see a distant nebula directly in front of his cockpit, its red and green coloring a picture of natural beauty. Such a pity that the League must mar this universe with their infidel desire to destroy the faithful.

“Colonel, can you hear me?” Major Hume, his XO, asked through the commlink.

“Loud and clear, Major.”

“Our Leaguer friends appear to be late,” Hume observed.

“Since when do the Leaguers do anything right?”

“When they kindly blow up.”

Amir snickered. “Dark, Hume. Very dark.”

“British humor, sir.”

“All fighter squadrons show ready to detach. Any malfunctions among the bomber squadrons?”

“None, though we do expect a couple of these explosive bolts to fail. Contractors put them together after all. The phrase ‘good enough for government work’ comes to mind,” Hume continued.

“You ever think about getting out here without combat? To look at the amazing sights of the universe?”

“My absolute favorite pastime when on shore duty is test flights for that very reason, sir. I volunteer for every one I can get, especially the extended tours through a high gravity system.”

“Someday, I would like to own a pleasure craft I could fly through a nebula or another anomaly. Once the war is over.”

“Amen,” Hume replied.

The mission clock ticked forward on Amir’s HUD. He closed his eyes, reciting an Arabic prayer. “Allu Ackbah, hasbunallaahu wa ni’amal-wakeel.” It was a prayer for protection against evil. Allah is sufficient for us and the best on whom to depend. Right hand gripped tightly on his flight stick, he waited for the enemy.

Gates of Hell

“Ten minutes is up, Colonel,” Aibek stated, causing David to turn his head. The bridge lighting made it difficult to see, and the blue hue caused shadows to stretch across the room.

“I know,” David replied.

“You know something I don’t?”

“Ever get that unsettled feeling?”

“Usually after eating something humans try to pass off as food, called kale.”

“Try it in a salad with fish on it. It’s pretty good then,” David said with a small laugh. “This one is a go, no go decision point.” He closed his eyes and hoped he was making the right choice. “TAO, make VRLS tubes one through two hundred and forty ready in all respects. Input flight path to move them eight thousand kilometers in two groupings, one port, one starboard. Open outer doors.”

“Aye, sir,” Kelsey said as she tapped furiously at her controls.

“Guess you made it, sir,” Aibek said quietly.

“Fortune favors the bold, right?”

“Another human saying.”

David grinned at Aibek before glanced forward.

Kelsey interrupted the exchange. “Conn, TAO. Tubes one through two hundred and forty are ready in all respects. Outer doors are open.”

“TAO, snap shot, tubes one through two hundred and forty.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Kelsey answered crisply.

David felt the salvo of missiles thundering out from both the forward and aft VRLS simultaneously. The shake was barely noticeable, but he’d spent so many months on the Lion that he could tell what practically any vibration or movement was by sound and feel.

“We’re technically not shooting at anything,” Aibek said as the missiles continued to blast forth from the ship.

“Does everything have to be sarcastic with you, XO?” David replied with mock annoyance. “It’s a snap shot because we don’t have a target. I can’t think of anything else to call it.”

“Always have to follow proper procedure, eh?”

“By the book. Always by the book. That way, no mistakes. There’s a reason why we use the same commands, the same order syntax over and over. There can be no mistaking my intentions because the orders are clear and concise.”

“Human can be quite confusing.”

“How so, XO?” David asked.

“Some humans say to live in the moment. Others quote people who have been dead for hundreds, even thousands of years. You have a myriad of rules to follow, but most of you say you would like to have less rules and do what you want. When a Saurian wants something, we go get it.”

“Different strokes, different species?” David offered. Heh, Aibek isn’t wrong. We are quite confusing at times.

“Another human saying.”

David grinned, looking up at the clock as the shudders finally ceased. “Conn, TAO. All missiles launched and running hot, straight, and normal.”

“Excellent, Lieutenant. Update the mission clock with the time remaining before our Hunters run out of fuel.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Kelsey replied.

A few moments later, the mission clock changed to show a countdown from twenty-nine minutes, eighteen seconds.

“Now back to waiting,” David said with a grimace. “My favorite pastime before an engagement. Leaguers better not be late.”

“We’ll give them a reception they won’t forget when they finally do arrive, Colonel,” Tinetariro said from her perch behind the CO’s chair, overseeing damage control functions.

“Amen, Master Chief.” God, I hope she’s right. Otherwise, a lot of CDF soldiers are going to die today. All because of a disgusting set of traitors.

Gates of Hell

“Get that brace over here right now, Corporal! Move it!” Hanson shouted at the top of his lungs toward the young soldier who led a team of four carrying a large metal pole, designed to be used to prop up a missile as it was pushed into place in the tube.

“Yes, sir!” the ruddy-faced soldier replied as his team struggled to comply. All around them, there were hundreds of other personnel—enlisted, officers, and civilian contractors— frantically trying to reload the VRLS as fast as possible.

Colonel Cohen challenged me to have both launch arrays reloaded in fifteen minutes. It’ll still take a miracle to pull that off. Hanson jumped out of the way of a cargo drone carrying yet another missile up and into the tube. There’s a reason we don’t do it this way… if one of these things drop, it could set off an explosion that destroys the ship from the inside.

“Five minutes in, twenty-five percent reloaded, sir,” Corporal Hunter, who had been on Hanson’s team for the past six months following her promotion, said, causing him to look to his side quickly.

“Didn’t see you standing there, Hunter.”

“Sorry, sir, it’s a bit loud in here.”

“That it is,” Hanson agreed.

“I wish I still had my bionic arm. It lifted ten times what my normal arm can,” Hunter said with a grin on her face.

The fact that she came back from a triple amputation, reenlisted, and has a great attitude about life should put all of us to shame. Hanson nodded toward her. “You know how it is, though, regulations prohibit use of any bionic devices except for therapeutic reasons.”

“Yeah, it would be nice to have about now,” Hunter replied. Another missile was carried in by a team of eight soldiers, and they started pushing it up into the cell, using hand tools.

“Hopefully, we’ll have this done before the Leaguers arrive.”

“What’s that Colonel Cohen’s fond of saying? Hope isn’t a strategy?”

“Yeah,” Hanson said as one of the missiles began to slide out of the tube. Time seemed to slow down. He rushed forward, throwing his weight into the pole that was pushing it up. Hunter and several other soldiers did as well. It took a good thirty seconds of effort, but finally, the weapon clicked into place, locked.

“Next?” Hunter asked with a cocky grin.

Gates of Hell

David looked up at the mission clock, each second ticking down. Where are they? There’s no way they were able to communicate we turned him, and Sinclair’s team knows their business. Forcing calm into his mind, he again repeated a prayer in Hebrew for the crew. Focus on what you can alter, and do not dwell on that which you can’t.

“TAO, confirm all forward magnetic cannons are double loaded with HE shells.”

“Conn, TAO. Loadout confirmed. Forward magnetic cannons are ready in all respects, excepting a firing solution.”

I’ll get a fifteen-second window to light these guys up. Six turrets pointing forward, six shells each. That ought to be enough to make a very bad day for the lighter ships.

“Conn, TAO. Aspect change!” Kelsey began, her voice betraying excitement. “Inbound Lawrence drive signatures!”

David leaned forward, waiting for her report on the type of signature. Come on, Leaguers, follow your protocols.

“Conn, TAO. League signature confirmed, sir! Two Alexander class battleships, designated Master One and Two, eight Cobra class destroyers designated Master Three through Ten and twelve Lancer-class frigates, designated Master Eleven through Twenty-Two.”

“TAO, firing point procedures, Master Twelve, Thirteen, Sixteen, Nineteen, Twenty, and Twenty-Two,” David began, picking the six closest frigates.

“Conn, TAO. Firing solutions set, sir,” Kelsey crisply replied.

“TAO, match bearings, shoot, forward magnetic cannons.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Kelsey answered.

Immediately, David felt the ship shudder as the giant turreted magnetic cannons spat out their projectiles, which weighed as much as a helicar or two. It only took a couple of seconds for the rounds, which were traveling at ten percent the speed of light, to reach their targets. The addition of double-loading technology from the Saurian empire had taken an already effective Terran Coalition weapon and put it on steroids. With a salvo of six HE rounds fired per turret, as long as they hit the brittle hulls of unshielded frigates, he could count on crippled if not outright destroyed Leaguer ships. I shouldn’t be so gleeful at the thought of paying them back.

“Conn, TAO. Five League ships destroyed, Master Twenty still combat-capable; our shots missed her.”

“TAO, populate the board,” David ordered. I wish Ruth were here. She would have made every shot count.

“Aye aye, sir.”

A cluster of red icons appeared on the tactical board above David. An extremely tight formation of enemy ships. The sensors identified several debris fields from the destroyed frigates.

“Conn, TAO. Aspect change, all enemy vessels. They’re maneuvering on a direct intercept course with us. Master One and Two are firing, sir.”

As if to underscore her report, the Lion shuddered from League plasma cannon impacts. Checking the tactical readout, David quickly confirmed that these particular battleships were outfitted with the newer weapons that were significantly improved over previous League technology. As a result, their shields took a beating. I suppose it was silly to think they’d send anything but the best to try and finish us off.

“Aye aye, sir,” Kelsey replied.

“Communications, ping Major Hanson. I need an ETA for completion of reloading on our VRLS.”

“Yes, sir,” Taylor said quickly.

“TAO, firing point procedures, remaining Lancer-class frigates, forward magnetic cannons, and neutron beams. Double load EMP and HE rounds into the magnetic cannons; EMP first.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

David stared straight ahead, glancing up every couple of seconds to view the tactical plot. It showed the mass of League ships coming straight toward him while the Lion’s shields continued to drop.

“Conn, communications. Major Hanson reports eight minutes to complete reloading evolution, sir.”

“TAO, ETA to close pass with enemy formation,” David inquired.

“Ten minutes, present course and speed, sir,” Kelsey answered.

“Navigation, come to course,” David glanced up to check the relative bearing of the enemy formation. “Zero one zero. Five degree down bubble.”

“Not taking aggressive evasive action, sir?” Aibek questioned quietly.

“We can’t,” David said. “Any active maneuvering will complicate matters for the reload team. If one of those warheads drops and goes off in a freak accident…”

“Free trip to the afterlife without having cleared this area of space of the enemy.”

David couldn’t help but grin. “Touché.” It was Aibek’s job to ensure David was considering all elements of the battleship in his tactical decisions.

“Conn, TAO. Firing solutions set, forward magnetic cannons double loaded and ready in all respects, sir.”

“Match bearings, shoot, all weapons,” David ordered.

Again, the Lion’s weapons suite spoke as one, sending thirty-six shells toward the enemy. Upon impact and detonation, David watched the tactical plot, which he had selected to show pertinent information on the frigates, shields on most of them collapsed. Those that still had active defense screens, only functioned at a fraction of full effectiveness. Followed up with neutron beam strikes, the League frigates were gutted; several exploded outright, the rest were crippled. A couple continued to maneuver, but had no effective weapons; they could be dealt with later.

“Conn, TAO. All League Lancer class frigates neutralized, sir.”

“Good shooting, TAO,” David said. Perhaps I was a bit too hard on her a minute ago. That was an excellent performance, and eliminating the enemies interlocking point defense capabilities opens our tactical playbook. “Reload forward magnetic cannons double load EMP and AP rounds. EMP first,” he finished. Next target, Master One.

Gates of Hell

“Oh, shit!” Hanson shouted as one of the reloading teams lost control of the metal brace they were using to push the Hunter missile into place. Time seemingly stopped as the long pole clattered to the deck plate, a metallic ringing affecting his hearing. The fifteen-hundred-kilogram weapon was now shouldered by a single team and brace; it began to buckle almost immediately.

“Cargo drone! Get a drone over here,” Hanson screamed, watching helplessly as the worst happened: the missile fell out of its tube and careened onto the deck. It bounced once, and a stabilizing broke off, scattering soldiers as they tried to avoid it; one wasn’t so lucky. It hit his ankle with a sickening crunch, causing cries for a corpsman to echo out.

There was a pregnant pause among everyone in the aft reloading space. Hanson ticked off three seconds in his mind, waiting for the gelled fuel motor to explode. “Thank you, Jesus,” he whispered when it didn’t. His brain switched to the rote procedures for dealing with a weapon misfire. “Fire watch! Fire watch!”

Seasoned chiefs took up the task, and within moments, a team of soldiers in full fire gear hosed the missile down with liquid nitrogen to prevent any possible spark or ignition from causing a potential loss of ship casualty. “Master Chief,” Hanson yelled toward the older woman, who was leading the fire suppression team. “Get that warhead jettisoned into space, ASAP!”

“Aye aye, sir!” she replied.

“Okay, step it up, people, we’ve got to move,” Hanson shouted to the room at large, picking up one end of the fallen brace pole. “Get the next missile in here and let’s prop it up. Come on, put your backs into it!”

Corporal Hunter appeared at his side, grinning. “I thought you were an officer for life,” she commented.

“I was,” Hanson said sheepishly.

“Could have fooled me with the master chief routine there.”

“I’ll have to remember that one,” Hanson replied, glancing at anxiously at a cart carrying the next missile. “Don’t drop this one!” he yelled with a grin.

A smart mouth in the back of the room yelled back, “Can we drop the next one, Major?”

“Shut the heck up and move, Private!” a grizzled old master chief shouted back, causing Hanson to shake his head. Never a dull moment in this job.


25

“Conn, communications. Major Hanson requests maneuvering be kept to a minimum. A Hunter missile fell out a tube. No release of propellant, but the fire watch has been set.”

David closed his eyes for a moment. “Communications, get me Major Hanson.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

A moment later, Hanson’s voice emanated out of the speaker in the CO’s chair. “A bit busy down here, sir. What can I do for you?”

“Major, if we don’t take evasive action shortly, the front of the ship’s going to be blown off. Hurry it up,” David said, his tone intense and direct.

“Working on it, sir!”

“Then go faster.”

“Aye aye, sir. Hanson out.”

David glanced up at the tactical plot and confirmed the forward shields were down to fifteen percent. Another good volley from those battleships and we’ll be taking hits on the armor.

“Conn, TAO. Forward magnetic cannons double loaded with EMP and AP rounds. Ready in all respects except firing solution.”

“Navigation, line us up with Master One. Dead on, less than one-degree drift.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Hammond called back.

“TAO, firing point procedures, Master One. Forward particle beams, magnetic cannons, and neutron cannons.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Kelsey replied.

“What about the missiles in space?” Aibek asked.

David shook his head. “We’ll need them along with another volley from our VRLS to handle Master Two.”

“At least the one that fell did not explode.”

“There’s a reason why we use gel fuel, as opposed to liquid,” David observed. “Far less chance of it blowing up when disturbed.”

“Conn, TAO. Firing solutions set, sir.”

“Navigation, how are we looking?”

“Lined up within one degree of Master One’s direct bearing, sir.”

“TAO, match bearings, shoot, particle beams.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Kelsey replied, and David felt the incredibly powerful weapon fire; the lights dimmed as the energy weapon capacitor drained every bit of power it could from the ship’s power grid. Through the transparent metal window on the bridge, he saw the four beams zoom away from the Lion, and the red shield effects on the League battleship. After several seconds of sustained contact, a small series of explosions were evident. Confirming on the tactical plot their target’s defense screens were down, he moved on to the next phase.

“TAO, match bearings, shoot, magnetic cannons, and neutron beams,” David ordered, leaning forward just a tad in his seat.

“Aye aye, sir.”

The ship again shuddered as the Lion’s magnetic cannons spoke into the blackness of space, throwing projectiles that weighed over a thousand kilograms at the enemy. On the tactical plot, it only took the entire salvo a few seconds to hit its target, propelled at ten percent of lightspeed. More explosions dotted the hull of the battleship, while the neutron beams added to the conflagration. Then a massive fireball erupted from amidships; the tactical plot showed it split into two separate contacts, quickly followed by another colossal explosion.

The League ship had been firing another volley of plasma weaponry at the Lion, which cut off in midstream.

“Conn, TAO! Master One destroyed, sir!” Kelsey nearly shouted.

From behind him, David heard the cheers and hollers from the enlisted soldiers fill the bridge. It only took Tinetariro a moment to intervene. “Maintain proper bridge protocol! Back to your stations!” she barked.

God, I shouldn’t be happy we just did that. But it’s a small payback for all the members of Dyson’s taskforce who’ve perished. The specter of enjoying what he was doing was never far from David’s mind, especially at a time like this.

“Conn, communications. Major Hanson reports reload evolution is complete for forward and aft VRLS!”

As soon as Taylor’s report registered in David’s brain, his mouth sprang into action. “Navigation, hard to port! Present our starboard shield to the remaining enemy vessels, engage combat thrusters, maximum burn. Communications, signal Colonel Dyson to jump in and join the fight.”

“Major Hanson’s timing is impeccable, as always,” Aibek commented dryly. “Our forward shields are under five percent power.”

“Miracles never cease to happen, XO,” David replied, allowing himself a small grin. “TAO, reload magnetic cannons, make VRLS tubes one through two hundred and twenty ready in all respects!”

Gates of Hell

Red dots lit up Amir’s HUD, so tightly clustered together, they became a blob of contacts with overlapping text. Filtering through the technology “noise,” as he thought of it, to the vital information of how many ships had jumped in, he realized with a start they were seeing more League ships than expected.

“Colonel, I’m showing four Rand class cruisers, supported by Cobra class destroyers and Lancer-class frigates,” Hume’s voice cut in on the squadron leader channel of his commlink.

“I have the same, Major,” Amir said. “They’re broadcasting a general call for the merchant vessels to surrender,” he continued, his mouth curling up in a grin inside of his flight helmet. “Let’s ring their bell, shall we?”

“With pleasure, sir.”

“Attention all squadron leaders, this is Colonel Amir. Trigger explosive bolts! Fighter squadrons, remember your briefing. We will provide interlocking fire support for our bombers, and strafe point defense emplacements. Bomber squadrons, priority targets are the cruisers. Good hunting, and may Allah be with you!” Amir thundered into his commlink as, simultaneously, he triggered the decoupling mechanism rigged up by the contractors.

Propelled backward by the concussive blast, his fighter drifted free, and he immediately engaged fifty percent thrust, pulling back and away from the merchant freighter he had been linked to, along with the rest of the Grim Reapers.

Once he was free to navigate, he adjusted the direction of his Phantom toward the target that Hume had selected; a foreboding Rand class cruiser. “Reapers, form up and stand by for maximum thrust,” he spoke into the commlink channel for his squadron, to a smattering of affirmative replies.

“Are you in position, Major Hume?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Reapers, engage max thrust,” Amir said, pulling back on the engine thrust control until he felt it click into place at one hundred percent. The effect was instant, pushing him back into his flight chair. The League ships directly ahead became larger and larger as they flew on, first as specks in the black, barely visible against the backdrop of stars. Balls of red plasma began to zoom past his craft; League plasma-based anti-fighter weaponry.

The bombers lined up behind them, using interlinked ECM to jam the enemy targeting systems; still, lucky hits were achieved, and an unlucky Reaper exploded in a one-second fireball, its debris quickly becoming invisible against the darkness of space. “Max range achieved, weapons free, Reapers,” Amir called into the commlink.

He waited for missile tone on a PD emplacement on the Rand’s port side, pressing the missile fire button as soon as it sounded. “Reaper One, Fox three!” The rest of his squadron fired off their missiles, and the bombers added large, anti-ship munitions to the fight. Wave after wave of them dropped from the bomb bays, engines igniting and flaring in the darkness.

The fusion warheads began to impact against the League cruiser; its shields flared, then collapsed. Both anti-ship and the smaller, fighter launched missiles slammed into the armored hull of their foe, causing explosions that turned the metal alloys molten. “Reapers, strafe with guns! Reaper One, guns guns guns!” Amir ordered, triggering his miniature neutron cannons and sending stabs of light blue energy into the side of the already damaged ship. He pulled up on the flight stick as the distance closed, leveling out as his fighter continued to rain light blue fire.

As the fighters pulled away, the bomber squadron fired one last anti-ship missile volley before they broke off, causing another wave of explosions that Amir saw the glare of against his transparent metal canopy. “Not bad for the big ugly fat fellas,” Hume commented into Amir’s ear.

“Not bad at all, Major, though, I’m not quite sure that’s how that saying goes,” Amir replied with a chuckle.

“Word is Colonel Cohen doesn’t like profanity, so I keep it to a minimum,” Hume explained. “Scratch one enemy cruiser. She’s launching life pods,” Hume reported. “Next target, sir?”

“Nearest Cobra class destroyer, Major. Turn and burn,” Amir commanded as he whipped his fighter around in space. I pray David and the Lion of Judah are faring as well as we are.

Gates of Hell

“Conn, TAO. Aspect change, inbound wormholes, sir,” Kelsey reported as the Lion rocked beneath the onslaught of the remaining League ships, who pounded her starboard shields. David watched the tactical plot as a cluster of new icons snapped into place. “The new contacts are Colonel Dyson’s task force, sir. Four Ajax class destroyers, four Meade class frigates, designated Sierra One through Eight.”

“TAO, link all friendly ships into our tactical network, and prioritize the remaining League escorts as their targets,” David ordered, holding on to the sides of his chair.

“Have the smaller ships run interference for us?” Aibek said.

“Sort of, XO. I want to avoid having those escorts shoot down too many of our Hunters. Master Two seems to have tunnel vision when it comes to us.” The ship shook again as if to confirm what David had just stated.

“TAO, firing point procedures, Master Two, starboard magnetic cannons and neutron beams,” David ordered.

“Aye aye, sir, firing solutions set.”

“Match bearings, shoot, all weapons, Master Two.”

Again, the barrels flashed, spitting death toward the League ship. Its immense shields took the blows in stride and soaked up an incredible amount of punishment from the neutron beam emitters. The broadside would have probably destroyed a heavy cruiser but didn’t even get the shields of the Alexander class battleship under sixty percent. I wonder if they’ve upgraded their shields too, David pondered as he watched the tactical plot update.

“Conn, TAO. VRLS tubes one through two hundred and forty ready in all respects except a firing solution, sir,” Kelsey stated.

“TAO, firing point procedures, Master Two. Prepare time on target firing solutions for deployed Hunter missiles, all missiles loaded into our VRLS now, neutron beams and magnetic cannons. Double load the magnetic cannons with two EMP shells.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Kelsey replied.

“Everything but the kitchen sink,” David said quietly to Aibek. On the tactical display above him, two of the icons for League Cobras blinked out.

“Dyson got a couple,” Aibek observed.

“That he did.”

“Firing solutions set for time on target, sir,” Kelsey interjected.

“TAO, shoot, all weapons, Master Two.”

David’s eyes went back up to the tactical monitor. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw dozens of flashes of orange flame as Hunter missiles launched from the forward VRLS, visible out of the bridge’s transparent metal windows. Dozens of icons blinked into being on the screen, and dozens more appeared on the edges of the display, heading toward Master Two. He felt the thud of the magnetic cannons firing, and seconds later, the shield readout of the enemy battleship dropped dramatically on the EMP shells detonating.

“Incredible, really, how much punishment these unseen energy fields can take,” Aibek commented.

“Far more effective than armor plating, though we still plaster that all over our ships as a final line of defense,” David replied.

“Conn, TAO. Starboard shields have failed, sir,” Kelsey said.

“That is why, apparently,” Aibek deadpanned.

“Navigation, rotate the ship, present our dorsal shield to Master Two. TAO, adjust firing solutions for the neutron beams.”

“Aye aye, sir,

“Aye aye, sir, firing solutions adjusted,” Kelsey said.

There they go. David glanced up at the tactical plot one more time. Terminal runs of the Hunters took them straight into weakened shields of the monstrous battleship, hammering multi-megaton fusion warheads into the thin layer of protection. Then the defensive screens failed; the miniature suns began to go off on the surface of the ship, melting its armor and hull. Kelsey followed up with repeated neutron beam strikes, cutting holes in the League vessel, blowing molten pieces of the hull into the blackness of space.

“Conn, TAO. Master Two has ceased maneuvering, sir.”

“TAO, is Master Two still combat capable?”

“Yes, sir, we’re taking limited weapons fire that appears to be under local control.”

As long as they can fire at this ship, they’re a target. “TAO, firing point procedures, Master Two. Target any remaining weapons emplacements or power discharges with the neutron beams. Route all available weapons power into the energy weapons capacitor.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Kelsey said.

“Conn, TAO. Aspect change, Master Two! Contact is charging its Lawrence drive, sir.”

“TAO, belay last order. Target Master Two’s engines instead.”

“They cannot possibly operate their wormhole drives safely,” Aibek stated, more as a fact than a question.

“I concur, XO. But if they want to try to escape, that’s the only option. Communications, signal Master Two, demand an immediate surrender.”

“Conn, TAO. Firing solutions set, sir,” Kelsey reported.

In the split second before David could open his mouth to order weapons release, Kelsey interrupted him. “Conn, TAO. LIDAR effects! Master Two’s Lawrence drive is going critical, sir. I’m detecting exotic particles off the chart.”

David closed his eyes for a brief moment, knowing what would happen next, having seen it too many times throughout his career as a space warfare officer. On the tactical plot, the League ship exploded; its blast radius tight enough that heavy damage occurred to several nearby enemy and CDF ships. Despite seeing the sensor readout, he still spoke. “TAO, any life pod launches?”

“No, sir.”

Another three thousand lives wiped away by my hand. We knew where they’d be, we dialed in the shot, and they never had a chance. Kind of blurs the line between war and murder, doesn’t it?

“Conn, communications. Remaining League vessels are requesting surrender terms.”

“Standard terms, Lieutenant,” David replied as he steepled his fingers together.

“Another fine battle, sir,” Aibek said.

“You don’t ever get tired of this, do you?”

“Not really. It makes me feel alive.”

“It doesn’t make them feel alive,” David replied, pointing up at the few remaining red icons on the screen.

“Perhaps not. They are not the ones I am concerned with, though.”

“I envy you at times, XO,” David said, staring forward into the dark of space.


26

A series of thermonuclear explosions lit up space to the right side of Amir. His integrated HUD briefly went blank and formed a protective shield for his eyes, saving him from blindness. They’re using anti-ship missiles against us?

“I show six fighters down, Colonel,” Hume said across the commlink.

More fusion thunderclaps went off, again turning the darkness of space to pure white light.

“All squadrons, break formation and go to loose spread,” Amir ordered, his voice loud and insistent. “Enemy is using its anti-ship munitions against us for area denial.”

A dozen, then more blue icons blinked off his tactical plot, each representing a loss of craft and the probable death of one of his pilots. Damn the Leaguers. They’d suffered lightly so far, both in fighters and merchant vessels, while eliminating over half the enemy force. Still, each one was another life that Amir felt in his bones.

“Colonel, I analyzed the fire pattern of those missiles. It looks to me like the remaining Rand is orchestrating the volleys,” Hume interjected, interrupting Amir’s thoughts.

He mentally tagged the closest Cobra as a priority target. “Major, I need bomber support on Master Nine. Once we open up a lane… we’ll redirect to the Rand.”

“Aye aye, sir. Help’s on the way.”

Amir rolled his fighter, taking care to leave a large gap—five kilometers—between him and his nearest wingman. Fusion warheads, while fearsome weapons, attenuated quickly in the vacuum of space. Red-hued plasma balls filled the area around him and the rest of the squadron while they sent their missiles and neutron cannon fire back toward the enemy. Even at a reasonably distant range, he could see repeated hits falling on the Cobra’s shields, each one marked by a reddish flare. Finally, they blinked out and the hits started landing on the hull.

“Master Nine shields have collapsed,” a wingman called into the commlink.

“Red Dawgs on station, Colonel. Lining up for ship strike,” a female voice Amir didn’t recognize at first interjected into the conversation. One of his newest squadron leaders, the Red Dawgs were a heavy bomber unit assigned to the Lion.

“Acknowledged.” Amir selected a LIDAR guided missile and targeted an active point defense emplacement on the destroyer they were attacking; he pressed the firing button at the same time he spoke into his commlink. “Knight One, Fox three.”

The missile detached from his fighter and raced toward the Cobra. It impacted with a small explosion, and the outgoing fire ceased—Scratch one PD gun. New icons in his HUD sprang to life, showing anti-ship missile launches from a squadron of bombers. Over several seconds, they accelerated before the images merged on top of the enemy vessel. Progressively larger explosions broke out, followed by a massive one, which reduced the ship to debris.

“That’s a confirmed kill, Colonel. Red Dawgs breaking off.”

Hume’s voice filled the comm. “Still feeling good about taking a run at the Rand, sir?”

Another blue icon disappearing from his HUD underscored the race against time as Amir opened his mouth. “Yes, Major. Form up as many bombers as you can peel off, and we’ll run interference. The merchant ships can’t jump for another ten minutes without risk of self-destruction from their Lawrence drives, and we need to finish this off.”

“Aye aye, sir. We’ll be there.”

Insha’Allah,” Amir said in his rich baritone voice as he again rolled his fighter, pointing the nose toward a distant speck on his HUD: Master Two, the last enemy cruiser. Engaging the afterburner, he transmitted orders mentally through the interface in his helmet to the rest of the Grim Reapers. They too formed on his wing along with another squadron of Phantoms.

A far larger and more capable opponent, the Rand grew larger and larger, its point defense suite lashing out at the approaching CDF squadrons. A wave of bright flashes erupted in front of Amir’s fighter, and he instinctively pulled up on the flight stick. It raced ahead to outrun the shockwaves of nuclear fire. Jolted within the cockpit, he took note of several more blue icons that winked out; one was a Grim Reaper.

With no time to grieve, Amir focused his energy on the enemy ship that lay before him. Opening up with his neutron cannons, he triggered several bursts of bright blue energy pulses that impacted on its protective screens, triggering the same red flash. Made from slightly sterner stuff, the cruiser shrugged off the combined assault of two squadrons and kept up concentrated point defense fire. Forced to pull up to avoid ramming into the top of the Rand, he zoomed away to prepare for another pass.

“Mayday, mayday, this is Black Lion five, declaring an emergency. I’m eject—” The calm and measured voice of the pilot cut off mid-word.

Amir’s face twisted in anger at yet another one of his pilots cut down. “Major, where are the bombers?”

“ETA three minutes, Colonel. Got caught up dealing with another frigate.”

“Acknowledged.”

Looping around, Amir lined the cruiser up once again in his sights; pushing up the afterburner to maximum thrust, he sought to cut down on time spent in the danger zone of optimal engagement for the enemy. Firing on the neutron cannons, he called into his comm, “Reaper One, guns, guns, guns.”

Red flashes spread across the shields of the cruiser, the pinpricks of the two squadrons taking their toll. As Amir prepared to pull away, he realized with a start that the Rand was preparing to fire its missiles again; the launch doors were open. Deciding to test a hunch, he maintained fire until the last possible second, disrupting the defense screens.

His guess was rewarded when the Rand launched a missile which impacted on the shield distortions and exploded rather than flying through as designed. The bright flash of the fusion reaction momentary blinded Amir’s helmet visor and his craft’s sensors. He picked a course he thought would take him away from the ship and flew by the seat of his pants.

When the interference cleared a few seconds later, Amir was gratified to see dozens of icons representing CDF missiles headed straight in for the Rand. Its shields showed as non-existent on his readout, and the warheads impacted directly onto the armored hull. Explosions erupted out from the cruiser, while all outgoing fire from it ceased. Finally, his sensors showed the reactor of the enemy ship going super-critical, and without further warning, the entire thing blew up.

Allu Akbar!” Amir yelled into his commlink.

“Nice shooting, Colonel. How’d you pull that off anyway?” Hume asked.

“Just a lucky guess, Major. What’s left?”

“A few frigates to mop up. Wait, no, they’re jumping out.”

Amir pulled up the larger battle map overlay and confirmed what his XO told him; the League ships were bugging out. It only cost us forty-eight fighters and bombers, he considered somberly. Too many. Always too many. “I will contact the Lion of Judah. Perform a damage assessment for our Merchant Marine friends, Major.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

A few minutes later, Amir heard Taylor’s voice across the void of space. “Colonel Amir, can you read me?”

“Yes, Lieutenant, I read you loud and clear. Please pass on to Colonel Cohen our mission has been accomplished by the will of Allah. The League force is shattered; we need search and rescue support as soon as you can return to us.”

“Understood, Colonel. I’ll pass it on. If I may, sir, good show. Godspeed, we’ll see you soon.”

Gates of Hell

Susanna lay prone in the tall grass about a hundred meters from the wall of the League military installation the team was preparing to attack. She could hear her heart beating in her chest while she cradled the electronic spotting scope that Mata had shown her how to use a little over an hour previously.

“One,” Mata whispered into his commlink. “This is Four. How copy, over?”

“Four, solid copy,” MacDonald’s voice sounded through the commlink.

Susanna was still having trouble getting used to formfitting armor and helmet she wore. It’s like a second skin. It flows with me. She marveled at the technology. I can’t believe I’ve adapted so quickly to using this… what did they call it? Oh yes, gear. Father would be so ashamed of me.

“Six and I have tangos sighted in.”

“Understood, Four. Hold position and stand by to execute.”

“What the hell is he waiting for?” Meissner grumbled. He was a meter away from Susanna, to her left, while Mata was a similar distance to the right.

“Only God knows,” Mata said with a snicker. “Eight, any other tangos on the scope?”

It took Susanna’s brain a few seconds to process that he was talking to her. “No other people, uh, tangos on the scope, sir.”

“Don’t call me ‘sir.’ I work for a living,” Mata responded with a slight lilt to his voice.

“Habit,” Susanna said, her face turning red inside of the helmet. “Any elder is sir or ma’am.”

“We’ll PT it out of you later,” Meissner said, joining in the ribbing.

MacDonald’s voice suddenly cut into their banter. “Alpha Four, you have a go. Execute, execute, execute.”

Both commandos squeezed their respective triggers at nearly the same time. Susanna heard the harsh metallic click of the firing pins coming down and little else. A split second later, watching through the scope, she saw small puffs of what looked like a cloud explode from the back of each Leaguer’s head, and they collapsed in a heap in their respective guard towers.

“One, this is Four. Tangos down,” Mata reported.

“Acknowledged, Four. Maintain overwatch as we ingress the target,” MacDonald ordered.

Through the scope, Susanna saw a group of figures stand and sprint across the field, somehow blending into the grass as if light reflected off of them. I feel alive for some reason, I can’t explain. It makes me feel equally horrified and happy I’m able to help save my planet. Fighting down the thoughts within her, she focused on the task at hand and kept scanning for additional targets.


27

Ruth was second to last in the formation of four commandos, led by MacDonald. They covered the distance at a full run, using every bit of momentum assist their power armor could provide. She found herself winded by the time they came to a stop directly under the wall, much to her chagrin. MacDonald aimed his right gauntlet upward toward the guard tower they were standing under. A small grappling hook shot up and dug itself into the wall.

“Not working out enough, Lieutenant?” Harrell commented through the commlink.

“Oh, stow it, Senior Chief,” Ruth snapped between deep breaths.

“Cover me,” MacDonald said, triggering the grapple and lifting in the air.

“That’s pretty neat tech, Master Chief,” Ruth said, staring at him as he scaled the twenty-foot-tall wall like it was a simple rock-climbing course for children.

“Not even the half of it. You can pee in these things without shorting them out,” Rostami commented.

“There’s a reason you don’t get dates, Rostami,” Ruth said, unable to contain rolling her eyes.

“Quit your yakking and get up here, Rostami,” MacDonald barked, cutting off the exchange.

Moving quickly, Rostami triggered his grappler and propelled up. Little was said as Ahmad followed.

“Your turn, Lieutenant,” Harrell said. “I’ll cover you and go last.”

“Roger that, Senior Chief,” Ruth replied, turning toward to the guard tower, raising her right arm and clenching her fist to trigger the grappling hook. The first try was a failure; the hook failed to latch on. After retracting the wire back, she tried again, finding success. Okay, this is pretty cool. She flew up the side of the wall, the plasticrete façade whizzing by. Using the servo-assisted arms, she toppled over the lip of the outcropping and landed with a thud, surrounded by the others.

“Quiet!” MacDonald whispered. “Get to the side so Harrell can get in. Two, you’re clear.”

“Understood, One,” Harrell replied.

Ruth crouched at the edge of the ladder, peering over the side into the League base. As far as she could see, there was no movement and no other people visible. “Completely quiet out here, Master Chief,” she said quietly into her commlink.

“I still have ten percent odds of success for this half-assed op,” MacDonald retorted as he dropped next to her. “Two, Three, and Five, take up positions along the building,” he ordered, marking a nearby structure in their respective HUDs. “Four, Six, and Eight, get up here, ASAP.”

Harrell, Rostami, and Ahmad squeezed by them and slid down the ladder. They didn’t bother with climbing but grabbed the two posts and used their suits to zip down them like a rappelling line. From her position, Ruth sighted down the optics of her battle rifle, scanning the area as the three commandos sprinted to cover. She marveled at how fluidly they moved together. It’s like they can telepathically sense what the others will do.

Mata vaulted over the wall into the guard tower, followed by Susanna and finally Meissner. “That was fun,” Susanna blurted out.

Ruth glanced back, doing a double take. I’m teaching a sixteen-year-old girl war is fun? Ugh. I can’t think about this right now.

“You think this is fun?” MacDonald asked.

“Isn’t it?”

“I think we just found our newest recruit,” Mata commented. “Anyone who thinks this is fun is definitely space-walking material.”

“One, this is Two,” Harrell interjected over the commlink. “No tangos in sight. We’ve taken position next to what Rostami assures me is a place he can access the League network.”

“Understood, Two,” MacDonald replied. “Four, Eight, hold position here and provide overwatch. Everyone else, on me.”

Ruth stood, swung herself onto the ladder, and followed the previous example, sliding down to the bottom. Okay, maybe it’s fun, she admitted to herself. It’s what happens next that’s not. While she covered the street with her battle rifle at the ready, the others plopped down in short order.

MacDonald gave orders via their HUDs, and the team made its way across the street, and down a building to where Rostami was squatting next to a hole cut into the alloy of the outer sheath of a utility box. A laser cutter lay at his side.

“Doing a crafts project, Rostami?” Ruth said as she took up a position near him, rifle pointed down a dark street.

“Heh, no, LT. Leaguers, just like us, tend to cut corners on securing electronics. They rely heavily on physical security, thinking that there’s no way someone can get past the wall, since it's controlled by armed soldiers. Makes my job a bit easier.”

Ruth glanced over to see him fitting a piece of cabling into a black box. “Mind if I ask what you're doing?” she said.

“I’m taking the semiconductor-based fiber optic cabling that’s used to connect everything in here to the League’s version of GalNet, and putting in a special device that’ll get me into their network,” Rostami responded as he plugged his table into the box. “Master Chief, I’m in. Give me a few more minutes to locate our objective.”

“Acknowledged,” MacDonald replied.

Minutes ticked by in silence, the mental pressure increasing with every passing second. Finally, Rostami spoke again. “Good news and bad news, boss.”

“Always is with you techies,” MacDonald groused.

“Good news is I found our target. Bad news is it’s on the other side of the base.”

“Of course, it is,” MacDonald commented in his normal caustic tone. “Two, take Five and Three, the rest of you form up with me,” he began to command.

“One, this is four. Tangos are coming up the street next to you. I count two on foot patrol.”

“Cover, cover!” MacDonald barked; immediately, the team scattered. Ruth squeezed herself as small as she could into a doorframe and drew her sidearm.

“Contact in thirty seconds,” Mata advised. “I can take one of them.”

“Suppressed weapons only,” MacDonald ordered, his voice a tight whisper. “Aim for the head. If they get one shot off, we’re done for.”

Ahmad was the closest commando to the corner that the sentries would pass and he took up position, also drawing a sidearm that had a suppressor fitted to the end of it. “Which one do you have, Mata?” he asked through the commlink.

“I’ve got the tango on the right. You take the left.”

“Roger,” Ahmad replied.

Some distance away, Ruth could do nothing more than watch. I forgot about this part. The sheer terror of the moment right before engaging the enemy, where you get to think about what’s going to happen.

“Ten seconds,” Mata advised. Ruth ticked them down in her head before Mata spoke again. “Five, four, three, two, one.”

The two Leaguers rounded the corner and amazingly didn’t see the team, or at least didn’t act as if they did. Maybe they’re strung out on something. The two shots were taken at nearly the same time; both soldiers dropped in their tracks like clockwork.

And then, all hell broke loose. Alarm klaxons sounded, flood lights sprang to life, bathing the area in harsh light like it was daytime.

“Son of a—” MacDonald exclaimed into the commlink. “What the hell is that?”

“Audio monitoring system, boss,” Rostami said. “Designed specifically to capture gunshots.”

“Since when do backwater League bases have that kind of hardware?” MacDonald fumed.

“Not sure,” Rostami answered. “I can’t turn it off from here.”

“One, you have a problem,” Mata interjected. “Lights are turning on all over the base. I see armed soldiers rushing into the streets. You’ve got to move now.”

Ruth cursed under her breath and looked toward MacDonald. This is about to hit the fan. “We could pull back.”

“Seriously? We just got here. Getting in was the hard part. I’ll take my chances against half-asleep conscripts any day,” MacDonald retorted. “Rostami, populate our HUDs with a map of the area.”

“Yes, Master Chief,” Rostami replied, a few moments before an overlay of the base appeared on Ruth’s HUD, complete with a route and blinking dot indicating her position. “Not only that, but the fastest way to get there.”

“And this is why we keep the nerd around,” Harrell said, accompanied by a slap on Rostami’s shoulder.

“Let’s move,” MacDonald ordered. “Two, take point. Everyone else, fall in. Four, shift position with Eight to provide overwatch.”

Gates of Hell

“Time to go, Eight,” Mata said as he slung the sniper rifle over his back, collapsing its bipod as he did.

Susanna pushed herself off the ground, taking the scope with her. “Where are we going?”

“See the building over to the left there?” Mata asked, pointing toward a nondescript modular building with a gray façade a block away. Susanna nodded in return. “It has a nice flat roof. Perfect for our purposes. I’ll climb down first, make sure it’s safe. You follow.”

“Yes, Chief,” Susanna replied, her voice quiet and mousy.

“Hey, keep your head in the game,” Mata said. “Tonight will probably be the toughest thing you ever do in life. I’ll be with you every step of the way, but I need your help to make every shot count.”

“I won’t let you down,” Susanna said, trying to force her tone to sound hard. Why did I ever volunteer? Another voice within her rose to the surface. Because something deep inside said I had to.

“Of that, I am certain, little one,” Mata responded in his accented English. “If my own children grow up to be as brave as you are right now, I’ll be a proud father. Now, wait for my signal.”

With that, Mata swung himself onto the ladder and disappeared down it. Susanna peered over the side and saw him land gracefully. He drew his sidearm and motioned for her to follow. Taking his cue, she too gently lowered herself onto the ladder, but unlike the trained soldiers, she climbed down one rung at a time. Reaching the bottom, she turned around to face him, breathing heavily.

“Follow me and don’t make a sound,” Mata whispered, taking off at a run down the street. Susanna followed closely, though her movement was unwieldy thanks to her limited experience with the power armor. With all of the information flowing into the HUD in her helmet, she suffered from sensory overload; it was a struggle to take each step.

“Four, this is One. Where the hell are you?” MacDonald said, his voice echoing through their helmets.

“A hundred meters from the next overwatch position, One,” Mata quietly responded into his commlink.

“On the double,” MacDonald replied. “We’re sitting ducks out here.”

“On it, boss,” Mata said, exhaling as he raced down the street, Susanna close behind. He came to a stop and held up his arm, causing her to stop as well. “We’ll ingress the roof here,” he said, pointing upwards. “Remember how to use the grapple?”

“I do, Chief,” Susanna answered. She lifted her arm, aimed at the flat outcropping of the roof, and triggered the hook. It zoomed away from her and attached on the first try.

“Not bad. I’m beginning to think you’ve done this before,” Mata observed, flashing her a smile. “Now get up there,” he continued, raising his arm and repeating her action. As soon as she lifted into the air, he triggered his suit and followed. Susanna climbed onto the roof, scanning it with her helmet optics. Empty, I think. Mata dropped down beside her, his sidearm at the ready, and pointed into the black night in front of them.

“We’ll set up on the left side,” he said, indicating a spot roughly midway along the roof.

Susanna followed him across and set the scope down on the lip of the parapet, overlooking the street below. “Chief, there are many people down there,” Susanna said. “Which ones do I mark as targets?”

“Anyone not on our team,” Mata replied as he unslung the sniper rifle, snapped the bipod down, and assumed a crouched shooting position.

“Some of them are just carrying flashlights.” Isn’t it wrong even in war to kill someone who isn’t armed and a threat?

“If they’re not with us, they’re against us. Mark everyone so the Master Chief knows what he’s up against.”

Susanna sighted down on a young-looking male Leaguer, saving him as a target in the tactical network, and moved down the row. What if I’m wrong? What if I’m sinning against God? Despite her concerns, she carried out the task assigned. When she was done, there were over thirty tangos marked in the data feed.

“One, this is Four,” Mata said into the commlink channel. “I’ve got thirty-plus hostiles, some without visible weapons, advancing toward your position.”

“Acknowledged, Four,” MacDonald said, his voice barely a whisper. “Engage when you hear us go loud.”

“Susanna,” Mata said, drawing her attention away from the scope. “This is going to get real in a few seconds. When the bullets start flying, once they see us, you get behind the half wall and keep your head down. Clear?”

Susanna nodded, though a wave of fear swept through her body. I’m not going to give in to fear. “I understand.”

Mata returned to one eye down the scope of his rifle, calm and collected like it was just another day in the fields. Without warning, bursts of gunfire rang out, followed by screams and shouting. An explosion rocked one end of the street, and Mata’s finger squeezed the trigger. From her perch, Susanna saw several League troops crumple over; one toward the end of the road collapsed after a cloud of red issued from the back of his head. This is what war is like. The thought brought a wave of horror through her as she stared down at lifeless bodies and soldiers running for their lives.

Gates of Hell

Simultaneously on the street below, Ruth propelled herself upwards, bringing her battle rifle to bear downrange. She aimed at the nearest Leaguer and put a three-round burst into his center mass. Taking a second to access her shots and noting his body falling to the ground, she shifted the rifle to the right and put another three-round burst into the next unlucky enemy soldier. Return fire began to find the area around her, so she ducked behind the nearest garbage dumpster and put its tough metal alloy between her and the gunfire.

“Energetic buggers, aren’t they, Goldberg?” Harrell commented from his position next to her. He waited a moment, then sprang up, spraying the advancing Leaguers with sustained bursts from the squad automatic weapon he carried.

“Yeah, that’s the adjective I’d use, Senior Chief,” Ruth snarked back as she reloaded her rifle. “You guys enjoy this?”

“Live for it, Lieutenant,” Harrell replied, thudding back next to her. “Your turn.”

Ruth tossed a smirk in his direction and whipped herself up, sighting down again on the nearest Leaguer; before she could fire, something hit her in the back with the force of a freight train. She pitched forward from the impact, her helmet slamming into the dumpster.

“Crap! Leaguers on our six! Cover fire, Two, now!” MacDonald shouted above the din of combat.

Meanwhile, Ruth picked herself up. Thank God for this special commando armor. She brought up the battle rifle, running on muscle memory, firing from the hip on full automatic toward the corner of the street that another squad of League troops had emerged from.

Gates of Hell

“Four, shift fire to threat at our six,” MacDonald’s voice said over Susanna’s commlink. Mata immediately pivoted around, shifting his field of fire one hundred and twenty degrees to the left.

“Eight, mark the targets!” Mata barked.

Spinning around, Susanna felt overwhelmed from the cacophony around her. Gunshots, explosions from hand grenades, coupled with screams of the wounded didn’t wane as she tried to focus, sighting down on the figures that were advancing from the rear of the team.

“Anytime, Eight!” Mata practically screamed at her.

She triggered the acquisition marker on the first soldier, and a split second later, watched through the optics of her helmet as the man took a round through the chest. Adjusting her head to the side, she marked the next man, and Mata’s shot following a moment afterward. Again and again, like a well-oiled machine, she acquired, he fired. After six times, the surviving Leaguers got the message and took cover.

Susanna fell backward, stunned beyond words, her mind overloaded with the mental images of bullets impacting the soldiers. Nothing in her life had ever prepared her for such things. Retreating to the first thing besides death that was in her mind, she began to recite the Lord’s Prayer with her eyes closed. “Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed by thy Name.”

Mata’s hand slapping her across the helmet jolted her, mid-sentence. “Focus, Susanna,” he said quietly and intensely. “There’s no backing out now. We’ve got a job to do—protect our brothers and sisters. You get back up and light up anything still moving.”

“I’m killing them,” Susanna whispered back, close to hysterics.

“No, I’m killing them. You’re just tagging things with an electronic device. Even if you were, it’s them or us, and they’re the bad guys.”

How’s he able to be okay with this? What am I doing?

“Damnit, Four, we’re pinned down. What’s taking you so long!” MacDonald’s voice thundered across the commlink.

“Get up there,” Mata said as he grabbed Susanna’s shoulder and gave her a rough push toward the parapet. Stunned, she complied and dropped back into a crouch, peering over the side. “I see them, One. Engaging tangos,” he said back into the commlink.

Susanna focused her optics on those she could see, triggering the electronic tag each time someone emerged from cover. Mata continued to methodically take each shot, almost always resulting in one kill. It was only a matter of time before the Leaguers got their wits about them long enough to figure out the sniper was inflicting a heavy toll. Bullets began to smack the plasticrete wall around her; one impacted her body armor and flung her backward onto the roof.

“Are you hit?” Mata shouted over the sounds of impacts and ricochets.

“The HUD says I’m okay,” Susanna replied hesitantly. “My back hurts.”

“You’re fine,” Mata replied, dropping back from the edge of the roof into cover. “Damnit, they’re lighting us up good.”

“What now?”

“Wait for them to go back to paying attention to the other group down there that’s killing them,” Mata answered, a grin evident inside of his helmet.

“Chief, I think you’re insane,” Susanna finally said.

“Maybe. Do this for a few years, you’ll be just fine too.”

As enemy fire kept them pinned down behind the wall, a figure emerged across the roof from an interior access hatch. Susanna stared as, in what seemed like slow motion to her, Mata drew his sidearm and repeatedly fired, felling the Leaguer, and the one behind him. Then there were two, three, then four soldiers rushing toward them, firing from their hips on full automatic. Bullets pinged all around them.

Susanna reached down to her leg, grabbing at the sidearm strapped to it; after two attempts, she drew the weapon and aimed down its iron sights, her hands shaking nearly uncontrollably.

Mata dropped two more enemies, then his pistol clicked dry.

I can’t do this. I can’t kill them, even if it means my death.

“Shoot, Susanna!” Mata’s voice interrupted her thoughts.

Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Mata struggling to reload his pistol, while the Leaguers concentrated their fire on him and scored several hits. I must. God forgive me, I must. Susanna squeezed the trigger once, then twice, and finally, three times. At least one of the rounds hit, sending the enemy soldier to the ground.

Mata completed reloading his sidearm and dispatched the final man with two bullets to the chest. He glanced at her and smiled through his helmet. “Good job.”

“I… killed someone.”

“No, you didn’t. I loaded your weapon with stun rounds. He’s out for few hours… that’s all.”

Tears began to fall inside of Susanna’s helmet. “Thank you.”

“A teenager, especially one devout as you, shouldn’t have to live with taking a life on their conscience,” Mata said and put his armored gauntlet on her shoulder. “You did well. Really well.”


28

At street level, bullets smacked the walls around Ruth and rest of the team. She leaned out and fired several bursts to keep their attackers guessing. “You got any bright ideas, Master Chief?”

“Yeah, shoot your rear end for getting us into this!” MacDonald grumbled as he put a three-round burst into an unlucky Leaguer that broke cover.

“How about something a bit more constructive?”

“Four, this is One. You got your drone with you?” MacDonald said across the commlink.

“Affirmative, One.”

“Now’s a good a time as any to deploy it.”

“Roger that,” Mata replied.

“Didn’t realize we had a tactical drone,” Ruth said while she was reloading her battle rifle.

“I was saving it for a rainy day.”

“It’s past raining, Master Chief. It's hailing,” Harrell interjected as he fired off a long burst from the machine gun he carried.

The drone began to whine as its rotors spun up. Ruth saw it zoom up from the roof, and a few moments later, a League soldier behind cover screamed, hit by a bullet fired by it. The enemy began to fill the sky with blind fire and tracers, trying to get a lucky shot in. There was a loud whoosh, and a trail of flames leapt into the air; the telltale sign of a man-portable anti-aircraft missile. Moments later, there was a flash and explosion.

“One, they got the drone,” Mata reported, confirming what Ruth already suspected and she was sure everyone else had to.

“Damnit,” MacDonald said, his anger and frustration showing. “We need to push out of this. A sustained firefight on the street isn’t a winning strategy.”

“I’ve got an idea, Master Chief,” Ruth said as she flipped the toggle on her trigger to switch to control the grenade launcher mounted to the barrel of her battle rifle. “How about we just make a new hole and exfil that way?”

“Which one you thinking?” MacDonald asked.

“The big one there,” Ruth replied, pointing toward a large structure twenty meters away. “It’s big enough we can lose these guys in it.”

“Fire in the hole, LT.”

With a grin, Ruth brought the launcher up and squeezed the trigger. A 40mm grenade blew out of the firing tube and exploded against the plasticrete building façade. When the smoke cleared, she could see a human-sized opening blown open. “Pay dirt, Master Chief.”

“Two, Five, cover us!” MacDonald barked, rattling off a three-round burst at the Leaguers.

Harrel and Ahmad stepped up, firing long bursts from their weapons to encourage the enemy to keep their heads down. MacDonald added to the maelstrom with a smoke grenade that obscured the battlefield. Ruth, Meissner, and Rostami dashed through the smoke and into the building, followed closely by the rest of the team.

Ruth triggered the night vision optics within the HUD as the room they’d entered was pitch black. The reward was an eerie, green-tinted view of a large warehouse-like structure. It contained dozens of military vehicles—mostly troop transports.

“Heh, anyone want a set of wheels? Got the League’s finest here,” Harrell commented through the commlink.

“Stay frosty,” MacDonald warned. “Two, Six, cover our six and discourage our friends outside from pursuing us in here.”

Ruth continued to press forward, sweeping her battle rifle in front of her as she crept between rows of parked transports and small all-terrain vehicles.

“Got it, boss,” Meissner replied.

“Holy crap,” Rostami said. “Guess what I found?”

“A shrine to the Virgin Mary?” MacDonald cracked.

Ruth never ceased to be amazed at how the commandos could keep up good humor and a steady stream of wisecracks, even in the craziest of combat situations. “A Leaguer ready to turn off their satellite defense network,” she interjected.

“Even better… I’ve got a Zhukov main battle tank sitting in front of me.”

“A League tank?” Ruth asked, surprised. “Why would they need tanks in a place like this?”

“Just in case an uprising started? Who knows, who cares,” MacDonald rejoined. “Team, all except Two and Six, form on Rostami. We need to figure out if it’s operational, and if so, commandeer it.”

“Lieutenant, think you could look around for the keys?” Rostami asked.

“What the heck do the keys to a tank look like?” Ruth replied, annoyed. “Where would we even find them? Can’t you pry the door open, Chief?”

Snickering laughter filled the commlink. “It’s a snipe hunt, LT,” Ahmad finally said. “We don’t have time for such childishness.”

Ruth rounded a corner to see Rostami standing next to a large tank covered in green camouflage. Its size dwarfed the other vehicles parked next to it. “Keys to a tank, cute,” she said quietly.

“You have no idea how many variations we have on that,” Rostami said as he pulled a device out of his bag.

“Oh, I can imagine. We’ve got our own set in the fleet. What are you doing?”

“Cracking the biometric security panel here. Then I’ll use an ICE stick on the main operating system for the thing.”

“ICE stick?” Ruth asked, her voice betraying her bewilderment.

“Quick hacking tool. Military issue.”

“Got it. I’ll take perimeter security while you work this thing,” Ruth commented.

“Thanks, LT.”

“One, this is Four,” Mata’s voice came in loud and clear through the commlink. “Be advised, you have multiple platoon strength enemy forces gathering outside of the building you’re in. We’re unable to engage.”

“Acknowledged, Four,” MacDonald replied. “Rostami, get the tank unlocked, now!”

“We’re in!” Rostami shouted. Ruth glanced over her shoulder to see him fist-pumping the air.

“Don’t get too excited, Chief.”

“Hey, it’s not every day you get to crack the biometrics on a League tank.”

“Valid point,” Ruth said, chuckling to herself in spite of their circumstances. She worked her way back to the tank and took up position next to it while he climbed in the hatch.

MacDonald and Ahmad jogged up, battle rifles dropped in their one-point slings. “I heard you yell, Rostami. We good or what?” MacDonald questioned, his voice tight and harsh.

“One freaking minute, Master Chief!” Rostami called out from inside the tank, his voice echoing inside the cavernous warehouse. Sustained automatic gunfire sounded, followed by multiple bursts that Ruth identified as coming from a CDF issue battle rifle.

“One, this is Two. We just discouraged ingress by the enemy, but we can’t hold them. Strongly suggest we get the tank up here or get the hell out of this building before everything goes sideways,” Harrell said through the commlink.

“Rostami!” MacDonald practically screamed. Almost like something out of an action holomovie, the tank’s external lights came on, and its electric motor turned on with a quiet but distinct whirring. “About time,” he muttered. “Everyone inside, now! Two, Six, hold fast. We’ll be there in a minute.”

“Ladies first,” Ahmad said, drawing a snort from Ruth.

“There’s a cargo area in the rear if memory serves,” MacDonald said. “Lieutenant, sit back there. Ahmad, take the gunner position. I’ll take the commander’s seat. Rostami, you get to drive.”

“I’ve never driven a tank before.”

“First time for everything. Just imagine it’s a new drone.”

Ruth rolled her eyes and climbed in the top hatch. The interior of the tank was claustrophobic, to say the least. The control chamber was cramped, with monitors, controls, and cables everywhere.

Directly to the front of the main turret was the driver’s compartment, where Rostami sat. “Hey, LT.”

“Nice work, Chief,” Ruth replied as she crawled back into the passenger area. MacDonald was right; there was room for at least four people and some gear behind the turret. She set her battle rifle into a holder that accepted the weapon after some fiddling. Another hatch led upwards directly to her right, she mentally noted. Just in case I have to bail out quickly.

“Okay, settle in, folks. It’s going to be a wild ride,” MacDonald said, almost sounding giddy.

Ruth felt the tank begin to move, slowly at first, then gaining momentum as Rostami figured out the controls. I’m not sitting back here for the entire trip like a schoolgirl. She pushed off the seat and stuck her head into the control area. “Miss me?”

“Those aren’t two words I’m liable to ever use regarding you, Lieutenant,” MacDonald said with a snort.

Ruth cracked a grin. “Back at you, Master Chief. So what’s the plan?”

“Wait for Rostami to stop driving this thing like a ninety-year-old woman,” MacDonald deadpanned to an eye-roll from Ruth. “Then pick up Mata and your Amish friend. After that, we could cruise around the base on our way to the control center, blow things up, act like hooligans, and generally cause mayhem on the Leaguers. Then we can call the fleet and get the heck out of here.”

Ruth laughed. “You’ve got the acting-like-hooligans part down pat.”

“Okay, I think I’ve got it,” Rostami hollered from his seat up front.

“By all means, then, Chief,” MacDonald ordered.

“This is your captain speaking. Please ensure that your tray tables are in their upright and locked position… keep all limbs inside the tank until it comes to a complete and final stop. And don’t forget, in case we get blown up by the Leaguers, stick your head between your legs and kiss your rear-end goodbye!”

Ruth, along with everyone else, laughed out loud at Rostami’s joke. Even he could be heard snickering across the internal communication relay. It took less than a minute for them to reach the area of the building that the rest of the team occupied; she watched through the monitor as Harrell and Meissner ran up to the tank. While they worked the hatch in the rear compartment, MacDonald used the anti-personnel automatic rail gun to discourage any pursuit by the massed group of enemy soldiers that waited just outside of the hole they’d previously blown in the side of the building.

Ruth looked behind her as both men dropped into the passenger compartment, quickly securing the exit. “Nice to see you again, LT,” Meissner said, grinning. “It was getting a bit hectic out there.”

“Yeah, like this entire half-assed op,” Harrell groused. “No offense, LT.”

“None taken, Senior Chief,” Ruth replied, looking back toward the control center.

“Rostami, back us up, then build up as much speed as you can,” MacDonald ordered. “Punch through and get us out of here.”

“Yes, Master Chief!”

First, they glided backward, jerking around as Rostami maneuvered around rows of parked vehicles. Then they lurched forward as he poured on the speed. From the readouts on the commander’s HUD that Ruth was watching, it appeared they were up to about fifty kilometers an hour and on a direct path to impact the interior/exterior wall of the building. There was a bone-jarring thud as the armored mammoth went through the plasticrete like a hot knife through butter; a moment later, the external camera showed open street and a whole mess of Leaguers. On those nearest to the tank, she could make out expressions of bewilderment and shock on their faces.

“Those bastards you can shoot, Ahmad!” MacDonald yelled into the turret.

“Lima Charlie, Master Chief,” Ahmad answered. The turret quickly rotated around, the primary gun shifting to point directly at the blob of hostiles. Most began to run away as fast as their legs would carry them, while those who were thinking on their feet ran away at right angles.

“Alpha Mike Foxtrot, suckers,” MacDonald said as the gun fired; the shell hit in the middle of the fleeing Leaguers, causing Ruth to look away. “Mata, your lift has arrived,” he continued.

Meissner stood up in the passenger compartment and opened the top hatch. A couple of minutes later, even with sustained gunfire echoing, Mata and Susanna rappelled down the side of the building they’d been perched on.

Ruth found herself incredibly impressed by the young woman’s poise. She’s grown up a bit quick. Kind of like I had to. Mata put her between him and the tank, shielding her from wild Leaguer return fire. Once they were both inside the vehicle, Meissner pulled the hatch down and dogged it shut.

“We’re clear back here, Master Chief,” Ruth said, projecting her voice forward.

“Rostami, step on it!” MacDonald ordered.

As the tank raced forward, its electric engine straining and screaming from the maxed-out acceleration, Ruth thought he didn’t need much encouragement.

“I’ll admit, Master Chief, you guys are fun in a crazy sort of way,” Ruth commented.

“Look at that, a compliment from an officer,” MacDonald shot back. A pinging, metallic noise began to echo through the vehicle, getting louder and more frequent by the second.

“What is that?” Ruth asked, confused.

“That, LT, is the sound of the enemy firing small arms against our armor,” Harrell replied. “Quite ineffective.”

“But annoying,” Ahmad complained over the intercom.

MacDonald reached over and flipped a switch on the panel that showed the forward view from the IR camera; it switched to an aft view. Several pursuit 4X4s were evident, with Leaguers standing up in the passenger seats and firing at them.

“Ahmad, would you inform those guys they’re following us a bit too close?”

Almost everyone in the tank snickered at MacDonald’s choice of words, but Ahmad didn’t miss a beat, all business and professional in his tone. “Roger that, Master Chief.”

Ruth heard the turret turning, its motor whirring in action above them. There was a blast of smoke and flame in the external shot as the main gun fired. The middle 4X4 was there one second and gone the next. The other two swerved out of the way, the leftmost vehicle running into a building, while the one on the right came to a stop and its crew ran for their lives. Another high-explosive round erupted from the extended barrel; it turned the empty 4X4 into burning slag. MacDonald flipped the screen back to the forward view, and the turret rotated once more.

“That’s gonna leave a mark,” Meissner said to laughter from the rest of the team.

Ruth looked back and shook her head at him, unable to suppress a grin herself. I shouldn’t be taking such pleasure in killing these men… but it feels good to put some pain on them for what they’ve done to Freiderwelt and so many other planets. She noticed Susanna appeared uncomfortable; her arms were crossed in front of her, and she was frowning. Ruth got up and sat down next to her. “You okay?”

“I… guess. I’m scared,” Susanna confessed.

“Nothing wrong with that. Like I told you before, I was terrified the first time I fought the Leaguers, and we were just a bunch of kids and civilians with little training. This time, we’ve got the CDF’s finest spacewalkers doing the heavy lifting.”

“If you ain’t spacewalking, you ain’t shit!” Harrell roared before slapping Susanna on the back of her armor. “Not doing bad for a pacifist, little lady.”

“Knock it off, Chief,” Ruth said a bit testily.

“All in good fun, LT.”

“Hey, you may not realize this, being a big bad commando, but some of us didn’t come out of the womb clutching a rifle and armor,” Ruth replied. Okay, dial it back. I'm far too defensive here.

Susanna spoke up, surprising both. “I’m fine. Really. I volunteered for this mission.”

An alarm shrieked, interrupting the discussion, and the tank swerved to one side. “Shit!” MacDonald yelled. “That was an active threat denial system. Leaguers are shooting anti-armor missiles at us.” As if to underscore the point, the alarm sounded again, and the after-effects of a nearby explosion reverberated through the vehicle.

“Where the heck is it coming from?” Ruth asked.

“They’re firing on us from the rooftops,” Ahmad said. “I can’t get them all with the rail gun.” The tank shuddered as it fired its main gun.

MacDonald grunted. “Harrell, Meissner, get topside and put some rounds downrange on these idiots. I don’t think this crappy League tech will keep working,”

“Right, boss,” Meissner called out as he sprang out of his seat, opening the hatch and shoving it upward. He climbed up quickly, followed by Harrell.

Ruth looked at Susanna. “Stay here.”

“Where are you going?”

“To deal with the jerks shooting up our ride,” Ruth replied with as quirky a look as she could muster, trying not to alarm the girl further. The last thing she needs to think about is how dead we’ll all be if one of those missiles connects.

“Be careful?”

“Always,” Ruth replied, grabbing her battle rifle and climbing out the hatch. As her head cleared its lip, she saw tracer fire raining around them and bullets pinging off the sides of the tank. “Nice party you guys have going here,” she commented dryly and triggered the magnetic soles on her suit to ensure she wouldn’t fall off the moving tank.

“Only thing we’re missing is one of those old school disco balls,” Harrell said between firing long bursts from his squad automatic weapon. “I’ve got this side, LT. Help out Meissner. It’s a target-rich environment over there.”

“Got it, Senior Chief,” Ruth said, shifting her focus to the left side of the tank. The sounds of battle echoed as she aimed at a Leaguer who held a missile launcher and fired a three-round-burst into his center mass. The man toppled backward, pulling the trigger as he died; thankfully, the missile roared up into the sky, nowhere near them. She crouched and steadied herself, searching for more tangos.

“You shoot good for a fleet officer,” Meissner said over the commlink.

“Thanks,” Ruth replied between firing bursts from her battle rifle. “Out of practice a bit.”

“We’re two mikes out from our objective. Stay frosty,” MacDonald advised.

“I’m so frosty, if I got frostier, I’d freeze and shatter, Master Chief,” Ruth retorted, her tone cocky.

“LT’s losing her officer shine,” Harrell said. “There’s hope for her yet!”

“Oh crap!”—someone—Ruth couldn’t quite make out the voice— said as what sounded like a shuttle roared overhead, before exploding against the building next to them in a ball of flame. She looked to the left and saw another squat, black-painted League tank advancing toward them.

“Everyone back inside, now!” Ruth shouted, “We’re safer in there than we are exposed on the top of this thing.”

Harrell was the first one to drop down the hole, followed by Meissner and finally Ruth. As she entered the passenger compartment, the tank shuddered, the now familiar sign it was firing its main gun.

“Enemy armor still operational,” Ahmad reported. “I’m going to try an armor-piercing round.”

Noting that Susanna sat with her hands together and head bowed, Ruth climbed forward and stuck her head into the control area. “Master Chief, how’re we doing?”

“Just fine,” MacDonald replied icily.

“AP round in!” Ahmad called out. Ruth felt the now familiar shudder as they fired again. “Direct hit!”

“Rostami, speed it up,” MacDonald ordered. “We’re still moving like a ninety-year-old woman!”

“Why’s it always got to be a woman?” Ruth deadpanned. “You ever saw a ninety-year-old guy? They move slow too, Master Chief.”

“Oh, shut up,” MacDonald replied as they were all flung to one side by another impact.

“Enemy tank still with us, Master Chief!” Ahmad called down. “It’s slowing, though. We hurt it. I’m loading an AP round.”

MacDonald reached over and toggled the cameras to the back view, showing the enemy armored vehicle trying to keep up. Smoke trailed out from behind it. “Looks like we’ve almost got them,” Ruth stated.

“Thank you, Lieutenant Obvious,” MacDonald snarked back. “Take the shot, Ahmad!”

There was a flash on the monitor, and the trailing tank took a direct hit, an explosion engulfing its front. The range between them opened dramatically, and there was no further fire from the enemy. Ruth heard the turret rotating back around and breathed a sigh of relief.

“What, you think we’re out of the woods or something?” MacDonald asked with a sneer.

“For now, yeah. They’d have thrown all their armor at us, not just one.”

“Logical thinking, I’ll give you that. Combat isn’t typically logical, though, LT. Rostami, what’s our ETA?”

“One mike, Master Chief!”

An imposing building loomed directly in front of them, visible through the external camera. Three stories tall, it had several antennas on top of it, and what appeared to be an array of satellite dishes in a small field directly adjacent.

“Ahmad, take out the dish farm over there. High-explosive rounds.”

“On it,” Ahmad called down from the turret.

Ruth watched as they fired, again and again, blasting the flimsy devices and setting the field on fire. After five shots, MacDonald spoke. “Cease fire! Rostami, can you confirm we got the uplink?”

“I’ll need to take some readings outside to be sure,” Rostami replied.

“No time like the present. Ahmad, you stay in the turret. Everyone except Eight, exit the vehicle and take security,” MacDonald ordered. He turned back toward Ruth. “That includes you, LT.”

“Of course, Master Chief,” Ruth said with a mocking formality. She’d lost all patience with the crusty commando, her annoyance rising to the surface in the pressure cooker of combat that surrounded them. Swinging back from the commander’s area, she turned to find Harrell opening the hatch that led to the exterior.

“Let Meissner and me get out first, LT,” Harrell said, looking toward her. “Then you head up.”

“I thought it was ladies first?”

“Touché, LT,” Harrell answered as he climbed out the hatch. Meissner was close behind him, and Ruth headed up as soon as she saw him disappear from view. Sticking her head out of the tank, she looked around to see smoke billowing everywhere, with orange flames spreading across the field and lapping against the hard plasticrete exterior of the League building.

Rostami and MacDonald had climbed out of another access point on the vehicle and were milling about; everyone had their battle rifles at the ready, though no Leaguers were in evidence.

“Not bad for a team of eight… including two non-commandos,” Ruth said as she plopped her feet down on the hard paved surface. “I wonder where the rest of them went?”

“Who cares?” MacDonald asked rhetorically. “When the balance of the enemy garrison makes its appearance, we’ll kill them too.”

“I thought I was cold…”

MacDonald walked up next to her and put his hand on her shoulder. “For a cake eater, you’re one of the better ones, LT. But… no one’s as cold as a spacewalker. Now we need to plan for what’s next.”

“Master Chief, pretty sure this building is their HQ too. Might be HVTs inside,” Rostami called out as he glanced up from his tablet.

Susanna appeared at Ruth’s side. “What’s an HVT?”

“High-value target… someone worth capturing,” she started to explain before pandemonium erupted when, out of nowhere, a tank shell went wide of their location and exploded against another building. Flames shot out from the impact point, and the concussive wave knocked Ruth off her feet. She raised her head to see League tanks rounding a distant corner, advancing on them.

“Cover… Cover… Move it!” MacDonald shouted, picking Ruth up with one hand and hauling her backward.

“Get behind cover, Susanna,” Ruth cried out as she reloaded her battle rifle and chanced a glance out into the street.

The enemy tanks fired more shells toward them, them, but all went wide. The team retreated to the building entrance as Rostami worked to unlock the door.

“I guess that’s the rest of their armor corps,” Harrell commented. “We got any portable anti-tank weapons?”

“There’s a wire-guided AP rocket in the ammo bag,” Ahmad said. “I’ll grab it.”

Ruth glanced up to see the tanks fire once more, again missing them. “They can’t seem to shoot for anything.”

“That’s because our tank has its active denial system running. It’s probably throwing off their targeting computer,” MacDonald said. “Rostami, hurry it up!”

The seconds crawled by for Ruth, as she was unable to affect the situation. The only thing she could do was watch and wait. Ahmad passed in front of her, cradling the launch tube for their lone anti-tank weapon. He stepped down and knelt at the front of the building and aimed. It seemed as if the rocket launched simultaneously as the enemy fired; the shells reduced their tank to a burning wreck. At the far end of the street, the warhead smacked into the turret of the vehicle to the left, sending up a plume of flame, followed by the it blowing off and flying backward.

“Woooooohoooooooooo!” Harrell shouted, slapping Ahmad on the back. “Nice shooting, brother.”

“I got the door,” Rostami interjected.

Ruth turned around to see him holding it open; the team rushed through without needing a command. She waited for Susanna to get ahead of her, then took off at a run. Seconds after they entered the lobby, which contained a station for a guard and a scanning system for visitors, another tank shell slammed into where they’d just been. Debris rained down from the ceiling, and she felt like an armored fist punched her gut, the concussive effect was so strong.

“We need more anti-tank weapons,” Ruth blurted out, momentarily stunned.

“Flat out of those, LT. Got any other bright ideas?”

Ruth rolled her eyes at MacDonald’s comment, trying to force herself to think. This doesn’t look good.

“Yes!” Rostami yelled. “I’ve got one of those drones the Lion sent in range.”

“What are you waiting for? Blast those damn Leaguers!” MacDonald shouted as he pulled himself to his feet.

“Gladly, Master Chief!”

Another shell smacked the building, causing the few transparent alloy windows that weren’t already blown out to crack and shatter, sending shards flying all over the lobby. Ruth stared, mesmerized as the tank advanced down the street, and just as suddenly, it was engulfed by a series of explosions. There was no sound before the strike, just an eerie quiet. It took thirty seconds for the smoke and dust to clear, after which it was apparent the enemy armor was disabled.

“Thank God for those contractors,” Harrell said with a sigh.

“Never thought I’d hear you say something along those lines,” MacDonald grunted. “Okay, ammo and weapons check.”

Ruth discharged the magazine in her battle rifle, and with her hands shaking, checked the bullets inside. I should be dead. We should all be gone. Maybe God wants us to finish the job first.

“Rostami, get our commlink up,” MacDonald said as he finished reloading his weapon.

The sound of gunfire brought Ruth out of her thoughts. Bullets smacked into the walls, sending out clouds of dust from the impacts, as well as sparks when they hit metal. She took refuge behind a desk and fired blindly on the enemy.

Rostami thudded down beside her, his hands clutching the small tactical comm unit. “Feel like making a call?”


29

“Conn, communications. Convoy Alpha-Six-Eight reports no issues reaching the station,” Taylor said, interrupting David’s thoughts as he had been studying a loss report from Dyson’s squadron on the bridge of the Lion of Judah.

“Thank you, Lieutenant,” David replied.

“That’s the second convoy in six hours to make it through with no losses or engagements,” Aibek observed from his seat, next to David.

“We still need to be cautious, XO. I never trust the Leaguers not to have another trick up their sleeve. This business of traitors in our midst reinforces that notion.”

“A den of vipers that must be dealt with accordingly.”

“Amen,” David said, smirking a bit at the big Saurian’s use of human expressions. “One more successful convoy and I’m going to ask General MacIntosh to clear us to head back to Freiderwelt.”

“Oh?”

“I’m tired of waiting for updates.” And Ruth needs our help. I’d be lying to myself if I didn’t admit I was worried about her.

“Conn, communications,” Taylor interjected. “I’ve got Lieutenant Goldberg, sir, from Freiderwelt. Audio only.”

“Obviously, her ears were smarting?” Aibek said, apparently testing out another slang phrase.

“You need to have whoever’s teaching you these to do a better job, XO,” David said with a grin. “Communications, put her on.”

“Can anyone hear me?” Ruth’s voice said, filtering in through the speakers around the CO’s and XO’s chairs.

“I read you loud and clear, Lieutenant,” David said.

“Thank God, sir. It’s so good to hear your voice.”

“Likewise, Lieutenant. Sitrep?”

“We’ve disrupted the League’s ability to control the planetary defense grid, sir. The team and I are currently inside of the HQ for the main military installation on Freiderwelt. We need help, sir.”

David glanced at Aibek. Technically, my orders are to stay here and protect the convoys. He bit down on his lip, thinking through the variables. Screw orders. “Sit tight, we’re on the way.” Aibek jerked his head around toward David, words forming on his lips. David just held up his hand to ward off the interruption.

“Any idea on ETA, sir?”

“We’ll start emergency spin up now. Call it fifteen minutes.”

“Yes, sir. I’ll inform the team,” Ruth said, sounds of combat and automatic rifle fire evident behind her.

“Be careful, Lieutenant.”

“Aye aye, sir!”

“Godspeed. Lion of Judah, out.”

“As your first officer, I must register my reservations about departing our station, sir,” Aibek said a moment later.

“Noted, XO,” David said. Upon seeing the look on Aibek’s face, he realized the topic wouldn’t be dropped. “Our job here is done. It’s bending our orders, but we were instructed to secure the convoys. We did that. Now there’s another problem to deal with—Freiderwelt—and I intend to move on.” And it diverts my brain from having to think about the elephant in the room… the traitors down in our brig.

“Yes, sir.”

“Navigation, plot a Lawrence drive vector for Freiderwelt.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Hammond answered.

“Communications, get me Colonel Demood.”

“One moment, sir,” Taylor replied.

“This is Demood,” Calvin’s voice rang out.

“Colonel, Alpha team got the planetary defenses down. We’re jumping in fifteen minutes.”

“Hot drop?”

“That’s what I’m thinking, as soon as we make orbit.”

“Flyboys going to provide cover?”

“That’s my next call,” David said with a grin. “I doubt Amir can get his bombers outfitted for a ground attack this quickly, but maybe we can get a few ready. Remember, the League garrison is less than five thousand troops.”

“Oh, don’t worry, Colonel. We’re going to wipe the floor of those Leaguers.”

“Never doubted it.”

“I’ll start getting everyone locked and loaded, sir.”

“Carry on, Demood.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

The line cut off with an audible click. “Communications, Colonel Amir, if you please.”

A second later, Amir’s voice was heard. “Yes, sir?”

“Colonel, I need you to outfit your squadrons for ground attack to support a Marine landing on Freiderwelt,” David said.

“ETA to attack, sir?”

“Fifteen minutes.”

“We’ll do our best,” Amir said, though David had known him long enough to hear the hesitation in his voice.

“Thank you, Colonel. Cohen out.”

That job accomplished, David turned his focus back toward the more rote task of getting the ship on station and ready to fight. He punched up the 1MC ship-wide intercom. “General quarters. General quarters! Attention, all hands, this is Colonel Cohen. Man your battle stations, set condition one throughout the ship! This is not a drill. I say again, this is not a drill.”

As they had countless times before, the lights on the bridge turned a deep blue hue, dimming to allow the various stations and screens to be better seen in combat. “Condition one is set throughout the ship, sir,” Kelsey reported from the tactical station.

“Acknowledged, TAO,” David replied.

“Lawrence drive course plotted and inputted into the navigation computer, sir,” Hammond said.

“Navigation, start the clock. We jump in five minutes,” David ordered.

God, help us get there fast enough. If it is Your will, please protect my crew and defend the lives of the team on Freiderwelt and its civilians.

Gates of Hell

“These guys don’t know when to give up,” Harrell shouted as he fired a sustained burst into the entrance of the HQ building.

“Tell me about it, Two,” MacDonald replied.

Ruth didn’t stir from her post, staring down the sights of her battle rifle and picking off another Leaguer that tried to rush the door. “Suggest we split up to infiltrate the building, Master Chief.”

“What do you think you are now, LT, the freaking tour guide?”

“No, I’m the tour director,” Ruth snarked back as she sent more rounds downrange. “Rank has its privileges!"

“Not sure staying here is our best play,” Harrell said. “It’s a solid defensive position, sure. At some point, these guys have to wise up and pull out more big guns.”

“Got anything in mind?” MacDonald asked.

“Well, according to our comms geek here, this is the HQ. Maybe we go find the Garrison CO and force him to surrender at gunpoint.”

“I’m in,” Ahmad began. “Having the initiative is almost always better than not.”

“We could leave Mata, Rostami, and the civilian here. Split into two teams, see what’s what,” MacDonald said.

“I’ve got dibs on Meissner,” Ruth said between bursts.

“Oh yeah, why’s that?” MacDonald questioned.

“Simple. He’s not a jerk.”

Harrell snickered as he reloaded his squad automatic weapon. “She got you there, boss.”

“Fine. Meissner, you’re with the LT. Harrell, Ahmad, with me.”

“We’re going to leave the LT with only one escort?” Harrell questioned.

In spite of the satirical way in which he said it, Ruth thought she heard genuine concern in there too.

“LT is capable of taking care of herself,” MacDonald replied.

“Hey, can I get a recording of that?” Ruth interjected, causing laughter to ripple across the group, including Susanna.

“Enough jaw-jacking. We’re on the clock until the Terran Coalition’s misguided children get here, taking their sweet time as usual,” MacDonald said. “Let’s roll.”

Ruth sent a final burst toward the enemy before she stood and joined Meissner, while MacDonald and the others formed up. They moved through an open door, further into the building. She followed and reached a bank of elevators in short order. “Let’s cause some confusion here,” MacDonald began. “LT, you two hit the third floor. We’ll take the second. They won’t expect us to split up.”

“Understood, Master Chief,” Ruth answered, pressing the button on the wall for “up.”

MacDonald, Ahmad, and Harrell took the first car, while Ruth and Meissner waited for the second. The doors to the lift closed, and it began to rise. The obnoxious sound of grainy music played in the background.

“What’s that noise?” Ruth complained.

“Gravlift music?”

“No wonder these guys are perpetually pissed off. I’d be too if I had to listen to that,” Ruth deadpanned.

The doors slid open, revealing another bare corridor filled with propaganda posters on the walls and the dull gray paint that seemed prevalent in every Leaguer building Ruth had been inside. Battle rifles up and at the ready, they entered the hallway, covering both sides and checking their angles to avoid an ambush. No enemy soldiers were in evidence, and she walked to a sign that had office names and numbers on it, along with a diagram of where they were.

“Looks like the CO is some colonel named Pan, while the XO is a major named Pavlik. Both of them have offices on this floor,” Ruth said.

“You think those guys are stupid enough to stay in their offices while a commando team is loose in their HQ?”

“We’re talking about Leaguers here.”

“Valid point,” Meissner replied. “Still, I can’t believe the HVTs would hold up there.”

“Got anything better to do than find out?” Ruth asked, a smile visible through her helmet.

“Can’t say I do, LT.”

“Okay then, we’ll proceed. I’ll take point, you cover the rear.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Not wasting any time, Ruth aimed her rifle down the corridor, ambling toward the far end of the building, each step quiet and muffled. She held up her hand in a fist and peeked around the first corner they came to. Three Leaguers lay beyond, all carrying rifles of their own. She held up three fingers and marked the targets in her HUD so that Meissner would have their position as well.

Ruth pulled a concussion grenade off her belt and held it up; Meissner nodded his approval, and she pulled the pin. A second later, the little gray cylinder bounded down the hallway before coming to a rest and exploding in a violent flash of white. She turned the corner, rifle up. The Leaguers were holding their hands to their ears in a daze. A long burst from her battle rifle put two of them down, while he finished off the third with two shots to the target’s center mass.

“Three tangos down,” Ruth announced on her commlink. “Proceeding toward HVT offices.”

“Pretty sure they know we’re here now, LT,” Meissner commented.

“Yeah. Doesn’t change our objective,” Ruth replied. Her single focus was putting an end to the League’s command structure.

“Lima Charlie, LT.”

The two power-armored soldiers continued to advance down the hallways of the League building; no one was present, or if they were, they were adept at hiding. Ruth marveled at the lack of resistance. Coming up to another junction in the maze of corridors, she held up her hand once more in a fist. Using a microdrone in her suit, she flew it around the corner. The image beamed back into her HUD by the tiny device showed a group of six Leaguers standing guard outside of a door labeled “Garrison Command.”

“That’s a lot of enemies,” Ruth whispered into her commlink.

“Two of us on six of them? Cakewalk, LT,” Meissner replied, his boyish grin evident through his helmet. “The same strategy should work twice. Toss a couple of concussion grenades down there, then we send them on to their maker.”

“It’s not our job to judge the Leaguers,” Ruth began.

“That’s God’s job,” Meissner finished. “Our job is to arrange a face-to-face meeting, as soon as possible.”

Ruth cracked a smile, despite the stress of everything around them. “You guys are experts at somehow keeping perspective and staying upbeat as you do this job. How?”

“Lots of experience, LT. You ready?”

“Charlie mike,” Ruth replied, having picked up some of their lingo.

Meissner pulled a concussion grenade out of a holder on his armor, as did Ruth. They removed the pins together, then threw them a split second apart around the corner of the junction. After an explosion that sounded like a thunderclap and the telltale blinding white flash of light, she charged around the corner, firing her battle rifle as she did. Methodically sighting down on each Leaguer and squeezing the trigger, she cut down four of them in short order.

Meissner stood right behind her, adding to the fusillade.

Without warning, several bullets impacted Ruth’s rear power armor, sending her stumbling forward. Her battle rifle clicked dry, and she dropped it, quickly reaching for the sidearm on her thigh. A glance to her left confirmed that Meissner had been hit as well; he’d turned to face the new threat. She brought her pistol up in her right hand and quickly dispatched the Leaguer directly to her front with two shots to the head. The last enemy in her line of sight stepped forward and carried out a round-house kick that knocked the sidearm from her hands.

Momentarily stunned, Ruth dropped back and reached for her last weapon—a CBAR combat knife—and drew it from its sheath. She adopted a fighter’s stance and lunged at her opponent, nicking his arm with the sharp blade. They traded a series of blows before he brought the empty rifle up and swung it at the knife, attempting to dislodge it from her grip. Parrying the blow with her armored gauntlet, she used his momentary lack of balance to charge the Leaguer and jam her knife repeatedly into his chest. As he collapsed, she looked back to Meissner to see him locked in hand-to-hand combat with another Leaguer; a series of bodies lay just beyond that she surmised had attacked them from behind.

Instinct more than anything propelled Ruth forward, her strides long and sure. As the two men continued to grapple with each other, she stepped behind the Leaguer, brought her hands around his neck, and used the power-assist mode in her armor to snap his neck like a twig. The lifeless body hit the floor, followed by Meissner.

“You okay?” Ruth asked, thinking him exhausted by the fight.

“Don’t think so, LT,” Meissner replied, coughing.

She immediately noted that it contained blood.

“Let’s get that helmet off,” Ruth said, kneeling next to him and helping to unlock the headpiece. She linked her suit into his and checked his vitals; blood pressure was dropping, and his heartbeat was irregular and racing. “Hey, stay with me,” she continued. “This is Goldberg, on the third deck. I need medical help. Meissner’s been hit.”

“Don’t divert them, LT,” Meissner began between coughs of blood. “They’ve got a task. I looked at my vitals before my HUD went dark. I’ve got massive trauma to my chest. Not coming back from it.”

Ruth froze, her hands shaking. A person dying next to her hadn’t happened in so long. Now it was someone who was ostensibly under her command. “No…” Her voice trailed off. “No, hang in there. I’ll inject some coagulant into your bloodstream, and we’ll get it under control.”

Meissner reached up and grabbed her arm with what little strength he had left. “Listen to me. Mission first. You were right; we had to help. It’s almost done. Press on and finish. Promise me.”

“I promise,” Ruth finally said, quietly and with a tear dripping down her face, falling against the hard shell of her helmet. As soon as she uttered it, his grip loosened, and his arm fell back. A few seconds later, heart function flatlined, and his breathing stopped. She pried off the mangled chest plate of his power armor to find it awash with blood. Realizing there was nothing she could do, tears poured down both cheeks, and it seemed like shock was imminent.

“Seven, this is One. We’re trying to disengage to get up there. What’s going on?”

“Meissner is down, One,” Ruth said, fighting with every fiber of her being not to sob on an open commlink. I will not show weakness.

“Can you stabilize him?”

“No. He’s dead.”

“Stay put, we’ll come to you,” MacDonald replied. Ruth could hear sounds of gunfire and shouts through the commlink.

“Negative, Master Chief,” Ruth said, finding a steely resolve somewhere deep within. I must carry on. “I’m only a few meters from our objective, and we neutralized all open resistance. I’ll proceed alone.”

“LT, strongly advise you wait for one of us to reach you.”

“Understood and denied, Master Chief. Don’t lose focus on the mission,” Ruth said, echoing Meissner’s words. “I’ll update you once I’ve secured the HVT office.”

“One, out.”

Ruth stood and ejected the magazine from her battle rifle, the spent one dropping to the floor while she slapped another in. Looking around, she found her sidearm and reloaded it as well, returning it to its rightful place in the holster on her thigh. Time to finish this and to make the Leaguers pay. Storming down the hallway like an avenging angel, she had one objective: Kill every enemy in her way.


30

“Conn, navigation. Emergence within two thousand kilometers of the target, sir,” Hammond called out, her familiar form a little harder to see thanks to the dim blue lighting on the bridge while they remained at general quarters.

“TAO, raise shields the moment main power is restored,” David ordered.

A few seconds later, Kelsey announced, “Shields up at maximum level, sir. LIDAR array online, numerous contacts detected in orbit of Freiderwelt.”

“The moment of truth, as you humans put it,” Aibek said.

“Indeed it is,” David replied.

“Conn, TAO. No change in status detected in contacts around the planet, sir. Designating them as Sierra One through Eighty.”

“Negative, TAO. Re-designate contacts as Master One through Eighty, make forward VRLS tubes one through eighty ready in all respects, target one Starbolt missile per contact. Open outer doors.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Kelsey replied.

“I’m not taking any chances on these things,” David said toward Aibek. “Without guidance to raise their shields, one missile per satellite ought to do the trick.”

“I concur, sir.”

“Conn, TAO. Firing solutions set sir, tubes one through eighty ready in all respects, outer doors are open.”

“TAO, match bearings, shoot, tubes one through eighty.”

The bridge rumbled slightly as the entire ship shook; dozens of Starbolt missiles thundered out of its forward launching tubes. David watched his tactical plot as the little blue dots indicating each weapon raced away from the Lion, their courses splintering as they moved away from the ship. Spreading out around Freiderwelt, they impacted one defense platform after another, in most cases erasing them from space in a massive fusion explosion.

“Conn, TAO. All warheads have impacted. Twelve defense satellites are still intact.”

“Navigation,” David began. “Put us into low orbit, all ahead full.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Hammond replied.

“TAO, firing point procedures, all remaining contacts, one Starbolt missile each.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Kelsey said.

“Low orbit to limit the time the pods have in freefall?” Aibek questioned.

“Got it in one, XO. Who knows what other defenses the Leaguers might have… I don’t want them to pick off Marines in the atmosphere if we can at all help it. Low orbit at less than five hundred kilometers is preferable to a geostationary one.”

“We won’t be able to offer fire support with that attack profile, however.”

“No, but do you think we need it?” David asked rhetorically with a grin. “Three thousand of the TCMC’s finest against an equal number of League garrison troops spread out over a large area?”

“Point taken, sir.”

“Conn, TAO. Firing solutions set, sir.”

“TAO, match bearings, shoot, tubes one through twelve.”

The rumbling far was less notable with only a dozen missiles launching vs. eighty, but still, enough to jostle David about in his chair for a few seconds. The range closer now as the Lion had approached the planet at near flank speed, the Starbolts spread out like a flower almost as soon as they cleared the one-hundred-kilometer safety range of the ship. One by one, the remaining defense satellites disappeared from the plot as they were struck.

“Conn, TAO. All contacts neutralized, sir.”

David nodded with satisfaction; one less threat to his ship now. “Communications, patch me into the Marines. It’s go time.”

Gates of Hell

Well, this has sure gone to shit. Pavlik threw open the doors to Pan’s office to find the man at his desk, banging on a tablet computing device. “We need to think about evacuating, Colonel.”

“I’m trying to get us some reinforcements,” Pan replied.

“Seriously, Colonel? Reinforcements? Have you lost your mind? We’re cut off and behind enemy lines. We should’ve evacuated months ago!” Pavlik thundered, his carefully controlled persona gone.

Pan stood and flung his ornate leather chair backward. “I remind you cowardice in the face of the enemy is punishable by death, Major!”

“Our defense systems are gone. There’s a Terran Coalition tier-one special operations team loose on this base, and they’ve killed over a hundred of our troops so far. Admitting it’s time to go isn’t cowardice. It’s common sense!”

“The reports I’ve heard so far say there’s only a small number of enemy troops here. Less than ten,” Pan insisted stubbornly.

“Colonel, for crying out loud, those less than ten soldiers have blown up our entire supply of armored vehicles, killed dozens of our men, and haven’t taken a single loss. That ought to tell you something. We need to leave. Now.”

Pan’s shoulders shrugged, and Pavlik saw the light in the back of his eyes change; his typical way of signaling defeat. “Fine. I’ll activate the failsafe weapons with a timer of thirty minutes, and we’ll order a general retreat.”

“Failsafe weapons?”

“You don’t think we’d leave this world to the Terrans, do you now? I’ve had fusion warheads planted around all population centers and farmland. This place will be a lifeless husk once they go off.”

“That’s murder… we can’t kill all those civilians,” Pavlik said, his face tight and red with anger.

“Just following orders, Major. That was the last directive we had from command. Scorched earth… under no circumstances do we allow this world to fall intact.”

Taking in how Pan stated it, without compassion, without feeling… like he was walking his dog, shocked Pavlik to his core. Who and what I serve is laid bare. If I go along with this, I’ll be complicit in the murder of thousands of innocents. “Surely, sir, we could disregard the order.”

“Why would I possibly do that?”

“Because killing civilians is wrong, sir. We took an oath to defend them as citizens of the League.”

“You’ve been mixing with these Amish for too long, Major. Time to remember you’re a League officer first and foremost,” Pan stated with a sneer, turning away back toward the tablet.

Pavlik reached down and put his hand around the butt of the sidearm on his hip.

At that exact moment, Pan looked back up. “Take your hand off your weapon, Major, or I’ll have you shot.”

Momentarily frozen, Pavlick didn’t release his grip, nor did he draw his weapon. “I won’t allow you to kill them all, Colonel,” he said quietly.

“If you harm me, you’ll never get off this planet. You’re an officer of the League, Pavlik. The Terran Coalition would try you for crimes against humanity, whatever that is.”

The sudden realization he’d spent a life in service to a barbaric regime slammed into Pavlik like a freight train going two hundred kilometers an hour. What have I done? As if sensing his indecision, Pan reached for his sidearm; finally spurred to action, they both drew at roughly the same time and sighted down on each other.

“Traitor,” Pan hissed.

“No. You’re the traitor to the ideals of human solidarity and compassion,” Pavlick replied.

“Last chance, Major. Put down your weapon and we both walk out of here.”

It would be so easy to make one more compromise, to step across one more line. “Not happening, Colonel. Drop the pistol.”

“I’ll shoot you!”

Pavlik allowed a small smirk to come over his face. “Not with the safety on, you won’t.” Pan is such a poor soldier.

As Pan looked down at his weapon’s safety, his eyes widened in shock, and he began to fumble with the small lever. Pavlik squeezed the trigger of his pistol twice, sending two bullets directly into the colonel’s center mass. The man fell backward, the gun sliding out of his reach. He clutched his chest, blood pouring out of it. Pavlik kept his sidearm trained, his mind racing. I could surrender to the Terrans. Maybe they’d believe I didn’t know the warheads were there.

Further thought was interrupted by the report of a Terran Coalition battle rifle and a searing pain in his chest. Pavlik looked down in shock to see blood spreading across his shift. Twisting around, he saw a power-armored soldier in the doorway, the Coalition Defense Force emblem visible on it. He dropped his weapon and tried to force his hands up. All he succeeded in doing was collapsing on the floor. “Please, I’m not one of them…please don’t,” he said, his voice weak and fading.


31

Ruth looked down the barrel of her battle rifle, tracking the fallen League officer in front of her as he fell. “Please,” he said in English, to her surprise. “Please help me.”

She stepped into the room, sweeping it for other enemies; finding none, she strode to the desk and glanced down. Why would one Leaguer kill another one? “Why’d you shoot that man?”

“Because,” Pavlik said weakly. “He was going to kill everyone on the planet. I need medical attention,” he gasped, his breathing uneven.

Ruth knelt beside him and took a small medical kit off her armor. She ran the medical scanner over him, surprised at the results. “Must be your lucky day. I missed your vital organs and blood vessels. I’m usually a much better shot,” she said coldly. “I’ll hit you with a coagulant to stop the bleeding, along with a mild painkiller.”

A few seconds after she’d made the necessary injections, Pavlik’s breathing improved, and he became more alert. “Thank you.”

“Who are you?”

“Major Vladislav Pavlik, League Army. Serial Number…”

Ruth cut him off, mid-sentence. “I don’t care what your serial number is, Leaguer. What’s your job here?”

“XO of the garrison on this planet.”

He’s not fit to live. A mental image of shooting the man roared into Ruth’s mind. For a brief second, it was if he had the face of her interrogator from so long ago. “You…” she began, her voice trailing off. “People like you are why teenage girls are molested in their homes, and the League spreads its poison across dozens of planets.”

“No. I kept those things from happening here and imposed harsh punishment on any soldier that disobeyed the rules.”

“I don’t believe you’re the one honest Leaguer in the galaxy.”

“Terrans are all the same,” Pavlik hissed. “You think we’re all evil and God’s sent you on a righteous crusade to rid the galaxy of socialists. You’re one of the commandos going around killing my men, aren’t you?”

“Not only that, but we’ve disabled the orbital defense system. The TCMC will be here shortly.”

Pavlik glanced down, his eyes scrunching together. “Will you permit me to use the communication system?”

“And call your friends in here… I don’t think so,” Ruth spat.

“No. I want to order my soldiers to surrender. There’s no need for further bloodshed.”

Ruth stared, her jaw dropping open. “You want to surrender? Seriously?”

“We might be able to defeat your team, but once the Terran Coalition fleet arrives… there’s no point to continued resistance. Better to surrender now than lose another fifty of my troops fighting the CDF’s best.”

“What do you need?”

“The tablet on the desk.”

Ruth stood and quickly found the only electronic device on the ornate desk. She handed it down to Pavlik, who pressed his finger against reader’s screen, unlocking it. “Any deception and I will shoot you on the spot. Clear?”

“I understand.”

“Proceed.”

He tapped the screen a few times, then began to speak. “Attention, all soldiers of the League. This is Major Pavlik. Colonel Pan was killed in combat and I have taken his place as your commander.”

Ruth smirked at the blatant lie. I wonder how many others this guy tells regularly.

“You’ve all fought bravely, but our war is over for now. The Terran Coalition has deactivated the planetary defense network, and we can’t repair it in time to prevent an invasion. I am ordering everyone to surrender. If you’re in active combat, cease fire and retreat. Everyone else, exit the building or vehicle you’re in and discard your weapons. I repeat, I order all personnel to surrender immediately,” Pavlik stated before setting the tablet down.

“It doesn’t make up for what you people did here.”

“I wouldn’t expect it to… I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage, knowing my name and rank.”

“Lieutenant Ruth Goldberg, Coalition Defense Force. You’d know me better by the ship I serve on…CSV Lion of Judah.”

“Ah, the ship that inspires fear in the hearts of all members of the League,” Pavlik said with a rueful laugh.

“Does it now?”

“That ship is a symbol of our inability to defeat you.”

Ruth smiled. “Good. I hope to be on the bridge when we finally take Earth.”

Pavlik was silent, and her commlink began to buzz. “One to Seven. What’s going on up there? League troops just started throwing their weapons down.”

“Master Chief, I captured the Leaguers’ second-in-command after he killed his CO.”

“Did I hear you right? A Leaguer officer fragged his commander?”

“Affirmative, Master Chief.”

“There really is a God,” MacDonald said with a snicker. “We’re coming to you. Third floor?”

“Third floor, last set of offices. Bring Mata. I shot him a few times.”

“Roger that, LT. See you in a few.”

Gates of Hell

“Been awhile since you’ve used a drop pod, Colonel?” a young Marine said with obvious amusement as Calvin adjusted his restraints.

“I was making combat drops before your parents were thinking about getting together, Private,” Calvin replied with a sarcastic grin.

“But you haven’t done one in a while,” Master Gunnery Sergeant Reuben Menahem interjected. “So the youngster has a point.”

“Really, Master Guns?”

Menahem smiled. “Fair is fair, sir.”

“This ship is filled with more and more smart-alecks daily,” Calvin groused.

“As said by grumpy old colonels the galaxy over,” Menahem zinged back.

“Stand by for hot insertion,” David said over an open commlink line. “Thirty seconds.”

“About time!” Calvin chuckled. “Who’s on board for capping these Leaguers and saving Freiderwelt in time for an evening beer?”

“Hoorah!” the squad of Marines on the pod shouted in return.

A digital readout showing the time to drop ticked down, its red light changing to green followed by freefall. At first, there was the feeling of weightlessness, quickly replaced by growing G-forces as the insertion thrusters engaged. In the three minutes it took to enter the atmosphere fully, Calvin thought his head was going to explode. There’s a reason why this is a young man’s game.

After they broke through the tropopause, exterior cameras snapped on, showing those inside the pod a view of their surroundings. They hurtled down, the altitude indicator dropping like a stone. At one kilometer above the surface of Freiderwelt, the retrorockets built into the pod fired. The Gs quickly subsided, leaving Calvin clear-headed as the pod touched down roughly, the restraints automatically releasing, and the doors to the exterior opening. Like a human wave, four fireteams of Marines swept out of the pod, battle rifles up and at the ready.

Expecting an active firefight, Calvin was shocked beyond belief to see a row of League soldiers marching out of a building, hands behind their heads, weapons discarded as they stepped out. “Cover formation! Secure those prisoners,” he ordered. “Anyone does anything stupid with a weapon, take them down.”

“Colonel!” Ruth shouted, taking Calvin by surprise as she walked out beside a group of Leaguers. “Belay that. These men have surrendered.”

“Seriously?” Calvin asked.

“Major Pavlik ordered it a few minutes ago.”

“Who the hell is Major Pavlik?”

“Second in command of the League garrison here. Do you have EOD support?”

“Yeah, at the company and brigade level. What do you need?”

“The League has seeded the countryside with several high-yield fusion warheads. We need to disarm them ASAP.”

Calvin blanched. Damn Leaguers, always have to spoil the well. “Wait one,” he said toward her, flipping his commlink to the brigade support channel. “I need EOD and an emergency radiologic response team at my coordinates. Confirmed fusion warheads in civilian areas.”

“We also need a causality evacuation shuttle. One of the commandos was KIA,” Ruth reported as she crossed the ground between them. Despite the steel she was trying to inject into her voice, Calvin could tell it was bothering her.

“Don’t tell me the Master Chief bought the farm?”

“No… Petty Officer First Class Meissner,” Ruth replied.

“I only knew him in passing. Alpha team is solid, though. I’m sure he was a good soldier.”

“They’re beyond good soldiers, Colonel.”

“You okay, Lieutenant?”

“Why wouldn’t I be?” Ruth responded with what seemed like forced pique. “Today’s a good day. League defeated, a planet liberated, and it only cost one of ours.”

“Yeah, just don’t lose sight of that one life being precious,” Calvin said.

“Surprised to hear you say that, Colonel.”

“Yeah, well. Things change, you know?”

“I guess.”

“Sometimes you look into the abyss and don’t like the reflection of yourself in it, Lieutenant.”

“As long as we keep killing Leaguers and eventually win this war, who cares, right?” Ruth said, her voice like a knife’s edge.

Before Calvin could respond to her, MacDonald and Harrell came through the exterior doors on the HQ building, shoving some prisoners before them in zip-tie handcuffs. “Well, lookie here,” MacDonald started in. “It’s the Terran Coalition’s misguided children. Always late to the party.”

Harrell laughed in response. “Nice of you guys to finally show up. Got a few hundred POWs in need of ferry service back to the ship.”

“You guys weren’t cracking jokes when we saved your rear ends back on Unity Station,” Calvin commented darkly.

“Guess we have to give him that, Master Chief,” Harrell replied.

“Where’s everyone else?” Ruth asked.

“Ahmad and Mata are bringing Meissner down. Did you call for evac?”

“Yes. The shuttle should arrive shortly.”

“I’m going oversee rounding up these prisoners,” Calvin stated. “I’ve got squads spreading out, and EOD is in route.”

“Sounds good, Colonel. Thanks for getting here as soon as you could,” MacDonald said, gratitude evident in his voice. “Jokes aside, it’s terrific to see you guys.”

“Same here, Master Chief. We were worried the Leaguers had eliminated the team.”

“They didn’t have enough men,” MacDonald responded, swagger and cockiness permeating his comments.

Calvin just snickered in reply before turning toward Ruth. “You okay?”

“I’ll be okay.”

“If you want to talk…”

“I’m fine, Colonel,” Ruth answered harshly. “I’m going to go help with Meissner.” She turned on her heel and marched off into the building, while League soldiers continued to walk out, hands over their heads.

“She okay?” Calvin asked.

“We gave her a lot of shit, Colonel. But not bad for a cake eater.”

“You better not be calling me that behind my back,” Calvin deadpanned. “I may be old, and an officer, but I will take you down with a pugil stick any day of the week.”

“Bring it, sir.”

Calvin laughed and shook his head. “I’ll see you gentlemen around.”

Gates of Hell

In a billowing cloud of dust, a gleaming white shuttle that bore the emblem of the CDF’s medical service—a cross, Star of David, crescent, and star all in a bright red color—touched down in the dirt and its rear ramp swung down quickly. Two armored corpsmen trotted out of the back, holding a portable stretcher.

“Over here,” Ruth called out. The commandos had brought Meissner out of the building and laid him on the ground, where Mata had tried in vain to revive his vitals. She watched as the two professionals went to work, taking readings and injecting drugs through the input ports on his armored suit.

“I’m sorry, there’s nothing we can do. He’s gone,” one of them said, glancing up at Ruth after a few minutes. While confirmation of something she already knew, it still stung to the core.

MacDonald cursed under his breath.

“I’m sorry, Master Chief,” Ruth replied quietly.

“Sorry?” MacDonald said, like the word itself was disgusting. “Sorry?” he said again, his voice rising. “Don’t ever say that to me when I’m looking at the body of one of my brothers.”

“It was my fault,” Ruth said tightly. “I don’t know what else to say.”

“Spare me, Lieutenant. Welcome back to the real world where people die when we do battle. It’s not tidy and clean like the bridge of your all-powerful starship. Of all the people on our team, Meissner was probably the most innocent of us. He wanted this op to succeed and he convinced me it was a good idea!”

Ruth fought to keep her own emotions in check. “What do you want from me, Master Chief?”

“I don’t want anything from you. There’s nothing you can give. This is war, and it freaking sucks. Why don’t you run along back to the Lion of Judah and get your hero’s welcome?”

“That’s what you think I did this for?” Ruth said, her voice rising in volume and pitch. “To hell with you, Master Chief! I just wanted to help!”

“Hey!” Harrell interjected, stepping between the two of them. “Stow it, both of you.”

Ruth took a step back, her eyes blazing fire, while MacDonald just glared at her. “I’d like to stay with him until we get back to the Lion,” she finally said.

“Why?” MacDonald replied tightly.

“So he’s not alone.”

“Our brother won’t be alone until he’s taken off the Lion of Judah and returned to his family, back at Canaan,” Harrell explained. “One of us will always be there. You’re welcome if you’d like to take a watch. I think Meissner would appreciate it, wherever he is now.”

“Thank you, Senior Chief,” Ruth said. As they had talked, the two corpsmen had put Meissner’s body onto the stretcher and covered it with a Terran Coalition flag.

Mata, Rostami, and Ahmad walked out of the building together, single file, their moods turning somber as they took in the scene. “Everything’s secure, Master Chief,” Ahmad stated. “The Marines are taking custody of the prisoners now.”

“Good,” MacDonald said. The corpsmen picked up the stretcher and walked off with it, back to the shuttle. “Anyone who would care to join me for the causality evacuation flight may do so,” he continued quietly.

The team filed dutifully into the cargo area, following the medical team. Ruth turned to join them but was stopped by MacDonald’s outstretched arm. “Lieutenant, I’d like to apologize.”

She stood mutely as he continued.

“I said some things just now out of anger, and I shouldn’t have.”

Ruth nodded, “I understand, Master Chief. It all gets the better of us at times.”

“You have to understand the death of teammate is rare. These guys, they’re the best of the best. Impossible is what we do for lunch daily. Losing one is like ripping out your heart. We form bonds for life.”

“Yeah, I know. I quit making friends with people because of that. Here today, gone tomorrow.”

“I don’t regret the op. None of us do.”

“Let’s get back up there, Master Chief,” Ruth said, not willing to continue the discussion. All I feel is shame. Shame I pressed them to go on when the risk was so high.

“After you, Lieutenant.”


32

Ruth stood outside of the Nussbaum home, filled with a biting trepidation as she hesitated before knocking on the door. It was a beautiful day; the temperature pleasant, the local sun bright in the sky, and most of all, it felt peaceful. Almost like the entire planet is happy to be finally free of the League. Overcoming the knot in her stomach, she rapped on the door a couple of times. The patter of feet got closer and closer, then the door swung open, revealing Susanna, who was back in her plain dress. “Ruth,” she exclaimed. “I was worried I wouldn’t see you again.”

“Could we talk for a minute?” Ruth asked quietly.

“Of course. Would you like to come in?”

“I’d rather just walk around out here if it’s all the same.”

“Sure,” Susanna replied, adjusting her bonnet. She walked out of the house, past Ruth, and down the steps.

Ruth followed her slowly, parts of her body still aching. “I want to apologize for dragging you into this mess.”

“Why?”

“I put you in a pretty extreme situation.”

“No, I put myself into it. No one forced me. I did all of it of my own volition.”

“You almost had to kill someone,” Ruth began. “You’re too young for that. David…I mean, Colonel Cohen, says it shouldn’t be as easy as it is for us to kill. I used to think he was just an idealist, but now I wonder.”

“I didn’t kill him,” Susanna rejoined. “Only stunned him.”

“I came here and changed you. I should’ve left you here, with your family.”

“And if you had, maybe everyone would’ve died. Maybe it was God’s will I helped.”

“Not sure I believe God wanted a teenager to have to fight the League,” Ruth said somberly.

Susanna stopped and glanced toward Ruth. “Wasn’t David but a youth when he fought Goliath?”

“I suppose, but this isn’t six thousand years ago. We’re more civilized now.”

“I’m not sure I can agree with that statement,” Susanna said with a grin. “Especially not after being subjected to League occupation.”

“Trust me, the irony isn’t lost on me either,” Ruth answered. “What’s next with you? Is your period for running around over?”

“The rumspringa? I suppose it is, for now,” Susanna began. “Truthfully, I think I’m going to enlist in the CDF when I turn eighteen.”

“Why?” Ruth asked, her jaw dropping in shock.

“Because I want to help others, I want to free others from the League. Senior Chief Mata said I was good at it and showed courage under fire.”

“He’s not wrong, Susanna… you showed incredible courage. But are you sure? You have a great life here. Quiet, peaceful existence, parents who love you. I’m sure more than a few young men that would like to court you.”

“There’s no denying this is my home, and it’s a wonderful place, especially with the League gone. Even with them, we kept it special. How can I sit here, knowing what’s going on out there, and do nothing?”

Ruth’s face crumpled into a frown. I don’t want this for her. “There’s a lot of people out there, fighting the good fight. Every day. I think we’ve got it covered.”

“I can always come back here, once I finish my enlistment.”

“Susanna, look… you’re kind of like the sister I never had. I realize that may sound weird since we’ve known each other a week,” Ruth said with a nervous laugh.

“I know, I feel the same way, though I have a bunch of brothers,” Susanna replied, grinning from ear to ear.

“Then hear me. If you go into the CDF, yes, you’ll do some great things. You’ll make a difference, and I know you’ll do your duty. But it will change you. It will change you in ways you can’t imagine. You’ll do things that will keep you up at night, and the mental image of those who you must kill or be killed by—will invade your thoughts and dreams.”

“If it’s so awful, then why do you do it?”

“It’s not awful,” Ruth said, a tear falling down her cheek. “It’s the only job I know how to do, and the pride I feel from wearing this uniform is beyond words. I serve with some of the finest men and women in the galaxy, and I know I make a difference. You have to understand the things I’ve done, the people I’ve killed, the darkness that exists in here…” She slapped her chest for effect. “It’s part of the package. If you truly want to join the CDF, for the right reasons and to be one of the many that stand on the line, then do it. Make sure it’s for the right reasons.”

“Did you join for the right reasons?”

“I joined because I wanted to kill as many Leaguers as I could before they killed me,” Ruth admitted, more tears falling. “I kept waiting for the time after I had won a battle—thinking I would finally feel fulfilled—my desire for revenge quenched.”

Susanna stood mutely, a pained expression on her face.

“It still hasn’t been. So if that’s what you want… revenge for what they did to you, for what they did to your friends, your family, and your planet—don’t join. Stay here, get help, grow your faith, be with your family and friends. Dig a giant hole in your soul and bury the desire for revenge. If you don’t, something truly awful might happen. You might end up just like me.”

“Why would it be awful to be like you? You’re brave, strong, and confident. God sent you here to help us,” Susanna insisted stubbornly.

“Maybe He did,” Ruth admitted. “I don’t know. I say my prayers, I used to go to shul. Now I sometimes go to Christian services. I try to keep my faith.”

“You don’t talk to God?”

“I pray to Him. I don’t think I get a response,” Ruth said sadly.

“Do you still have faith?”

“Do I have faith that a higher power exists, that we’re not just the random offspring of apes, in a random universe? Of course. Do I think that the being who made all of this still cares about us… I can’t say I do every day. Some days, sure. Others, I wonder.”

Susanna suddenly threw her arms around Ruth and hugged her tightly. “It’s okay to question. Just don’t do it alone. I know others care for you.”

“I push people away, Susanna. I don’t let them get close to me.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s easier that way, rather than have to grieve when they die.”

“You must be very lonely,” Susanna said with pity in her voice.

Ruth pulled back from the embrace and glanced sadly down at the ground. “You have no idea.”

“Can we stay in touch?”

“How? You don’t use technology.”

“There’s a public communication terminal in town. It won’t be very often I can get to it, but I could vidlink you.”

“I’d like that,” Ruth admitted. “I don’t think you guys have credits, though, do you?”

“No, I guess I don’t,” Susanna replied.

“But I do,” Ruth blurted out. “I’ll send you a credit chip with enough to be able to talk a few minutes a month.”

“You will?” Susanna said, her eyes bright and smiling.

“Yes. As soon as I get back to the Lion.”

“Great!” Susanna began before her tone turned somber. “Ruth, I can’t begin to know what you’ve been through. All I can say is that you saved my life. Even if those monsters hadn’t killed me, they would have scarred me in ways I don’t think I’d have been able to overcome.”

“You’re strong. You would’ve gotten through it.”

“Maybe, but thanks to you, I won’t have to. No one else on this world will. You may think you’ve done things wrong. Only God knows what’s truly on our hearts, and we can’t hide from him. Whatever you’ve done wrong, He is faithful and just to forgive us of our sins and redeem us. Don’t give up on that. Don’t give up on Him.”

I came here to try to help her. Instead, she ended up saying something I needed to hear. “Thanks.”

“I’ll give what you said some thought, but I still think I need to serve.”

“Your father won’t be happy about it,” Ruth observed.

“No, but I know he’ll respect my choice.”

Ruth raised an eyebrow. “Given how closed your society is, I find that somewhat difficult to believe.”

“We don’t force people to abide by the rules here. You must want it. I’ve been told in the past, many used to come here, seeking a different life. Nearly all of them couldn’t do it. It’s a radical way of doing things compared to the rest of the galaxy.”

“Yes, it is,” Ruth agreed. “I guess I’d better be getting back to my duties.”

“How long are you staying for?”

“Not long. I’ve only got a couple more tasks to handle planetside. That, and my ride’s going to be leaving,” Ruth said, grinning.

“I should do my chores too.”

Ruth embraced Susanna yet again. “Take care of yourself.”

“You too.”

“I might come by once more before I leave.”

“How come?”

“Classified, but some business with your father.”

“Oh, very mysterious.”

“That’s intelligence guys for you,” Ruth said, grinning. “Godspeed, Susanna.”

“Goodbye,” Susanna replied.

Ruth turned and walked away toward the shuttle she’d taken to get to the remote farm. I must continue to look in on her and make sure she stays on the right path, if I can help it. You break it, you own it.


33

The eternal progression of paperwork. David leaned back in his chair and groaned. He’d been at it for an hour, sifting through personnel reports, fitreps, and transfer requests. Military forms will survive the heat death of the universe. He’d just finished up the list of documents marked “urgent” in his inbox. He sat back in his chair, glancing about the small day cabin and office most of his business was conducted out of. After not even a year in command of the Lion, the space had truly become his. Framed mementos of his service hung throughout the room, along with one of the dedication plaques that featured the ship’s emblem, with the CDF motto of “Honor, Courage, Commitment, Duty, Faith” etched into the wood around it. Seeing it always made him smile.

David’s tablet beeped, causing him to glance down. It showed an incoming call from Colonel Dyson, which he accepted. A few seconds later, the older man’s smiling face appeared in real time. “I hope I’m not calling at a bad time, Colonel Cohen.”

“Not at all, I just finished up paperwork for the day. What I’m willing to do on it today anyway,” David replied with a grin. “It’s one part of the job I could do without.”

“I doubt any CO would disagree,” Dyson said. “I’m sure you’re busy, but I wanted to thank you for helping out. The Lion turned this whole thing around.”

“Just doing our jobs.”

“I remember you saying the same thing after you saved my ship the first time.”

David shrugged. “Not for self, but for country.”

“Look, I get that’s what we’re supposed to say… perhaps not enough of us believe it. It’s nice your ship was here to help.”

“Thank you, Colonel. I’ve got the best crew anyone could ask for. Between them, our TCMC contingent, and the pilots, the League doesn’t stand a chance,” David stated.

“Your optimism is infectious.”

“What’s next for your squadron?”

“We’re running convoy protection operations now, though there hasn’t been so much as a LIDAR shadow since you dealt with the battleships. I expect reinforcements within the week.”

David nodded approvingly. “Outstanding. Keep the supplies flowing, Colonel.”

“Count on it,” Dyson began before biting his lip. “Did you ever get a reason out of them?”

David immediately extrapolated he was talking about the traitors. “I haven’t personally talked to them. Colonel Demood questioned several of the suspects while I was undergoing surgery. The ones that broke were like a bad holorecording of one of those nutcases who think the League is a positive force for change in our decadent capitalist system.” Part of me wants to shove them out the nearest airlock. Treason disgusts me to the core.

Dyson laughed, a bitter tint to its lilt. “I don’t know about you, but I came from a decidedly lower-middle-class upbringing. I won’t say our system is perfect by any means, but at least we have the freedom to do something with our lives besides whatever the state declares we happen to be good at.”

“Amen,” David replied. “I’ll admit, life wasn’t awful as a kid. We always had everything I knew to want. Well, the basics anyway. After my father died, my mother had enough money from insurance and the community’s support so she didn’t have to work. I know we were lucky. Still, even if the League did offer a free life, without work… I wouldn’t want to live in a place like that. Any government large enough to give you everything will control your thoughts and life.”

“So we fight for our own way of life,” Dyson finished.

“That we do. I hope to cross paths with you again, Colonel. It’s been an honor.”

“Same here. Fair winds, and following seas out there.”

“Godspeed, and good luck with those Leaguers.”

“Godspeed, Colonel,” Dyson said, and a moment later, the connection cut out.

David was left with his thoughts drifting back to why men and women who wore the same uniform as him would betray everything it stood for. Troubled by the fact that it happened, and more so by being completely unable to understand or wrap his mind around why, he set his tablet down and stood up. Back to the bridge, he thought. If nothing else, being around people who know who the enemy is and aren’t afraid to fight it is the antidote to traitors. Forcing further dark thoughts about what should happen to the prisoners in the brig, he tried to focus on the positive. Because at the end of the day, even sitting in the CO’s chair for six hours without a single item of interest occurring was better than paperwork.

Gates of Hell

“How in the heck did we allow an entire ship to become staffed by traitors?” the deep baritone voice of President Spencer asked to the room at large.

“That’s unclear at this point, sir,” Dunleavy, the secretary of defense, stated. They were in a large conference room within the Canaan government complex, filled with mostly military personnel and a few civilians.

“The bigger question is was this a one-off aberration or do we have a larger problem out there,” a woman with three stars on her uniform denoting her as a lieutenant general interjected from the back row.

“General Munoz has a point, Mr. President,” Dunleavy continued after the interruption.

“I refuse to believe we have a wholesale problem with traitors in our midst,” Spencer insisted. “It’s patently absurd. I find it hard to believe there were even six of them. Who in their right mind would support the League of Sol? Especially someone who claims to be a Christian.”

“These people did indicate during interrogation by the Lion of Judah’s crew that they’re part of the Fabian movement,” MacIntosh said; he sat to the right of Dunleavy, looking toward Spencer and the rest of the joint chiefs of staff.

“Perhaps we should consider taking action against the Fabians. They’ve always been an outlier in Coalition politics and a fringe group at best,” Munoz stated.

“Let me get this straight,” Spencer began. “Some people from a minority most of us disagree with do something bad. Our solution is to what, round them all up?”

“Internment isn’t unprecedented, Mr. President. We interned the citizens of any neutral world that supported the League in the early days of the war.”

“There are things that stick out in history as places where great republics erred and behaved against their core values in the name of security. Any time we give in to the desire to restrict our freedoms in exchange for comfort or perceived safety, we weaken the very things that bind us together and make us a nation of laws, not of men.”

“With respect, Mr. President, that’s a nice soundbite,” Munoz replied. “Sometimes we must do distasteful things for the good of our country.”

“I’m with the President on this,” MacIntosh said. “Let’s not mince words. Internment is a euphemism for arresting citizens and depriving them of their rights under the Terran Coalition’s constitution. It’s going to take a lot more before those tactics make any sense regarding the Fabians.”

“Nice white castle you have for yourself there, General. Does it come with a horse?” Munoz shot back.

Infighting, just what we need. “Enough,” Spencer barked. “The enemy is out there, not in here.”

“Apologies, sir,” Munoz quickly replied.

“Anyone have useful ideas?”

“We could consider lie detector exams for all field grade and senior officers,” Dunleavy ventured.

“Mr. Secretary, with respect, do you want to destroy morale?” MacIntosh asked, his mouth agape.

“I don’t like it, but we’ve no idea how bad this problem is. I, for one, quake in my boots at the idea of a fifth column operating behind our backs.”

“Telling every loyal officer in the Coalition Defense Force they aren’t trusted would further the cause of defeat more than losing a hundred warships,” MacIntosh said. “In the strongest possible terms, I can’t state my opposition to that course of action enough.”

Just what the League would want. “He’s right,” Spencer said, causing all heads to turn toward him. “No loyalty tests and no politically motivated witch hunts.”

“But, Mr. President, how else can we determine if our people are loyal without asking some simple questions? Higher levels of security clearance require a lie detector test… we could mandate everyone needs a refresher by the end of the month,” Munoz interjected.

“General, I understand that as the director of our military intelligence service, it’s your job to be paranoid,” Spencer began. “What you’re proposing goes beyond paranoia, into derangement. The answer remains… No.”

“If those options are off the table, sir, what would you entertain?” Dunleavy asked, his voice a bit pointed.

“Targeted surveillance actions approved by the Alien Surveillance Court, and a broader investigation into the background of the traitors. I’m not against looking into the Fabians, only that we don’t in practice or by suggestion, persecute them.”

“It’s difficult to get warrants for communication intercepts out of the court,” Munoz stated, “especially when the target is a Terran Coalition citizen.”

“That’s the idea, General. Otherwise, we’d descend into a surveillance state.”

“I hardly believe listening in when people vidlink suspicious characters is a surveillance state.”

“Let’s suppose I agreed with you. From there, it wouldn’t be too much further to surveil the family members of those people. Then we’d proceed to their friends, and acquaintances. Heck, before too long, we’d be tapping the commlink of a waiter that served someone who met one of the suspects once,” Spencer replied, his voice rising. What part of slippery slope don’t they understand?

“Sir, I continue to disagree. But it’s not my call.”

“No, it’s not,” Spencer said, his voice filled with a bit more edge than he was used to projecting. “Listen… and this message is for everyone at this table. Don’t ever fall into the trap of thinking if we had just a little more power and information, we could do more. Once that road is explored, it never ends. Thinking like that brought the world the civic scoring systems of the 21st century, where citizens were rated by the government based on their actions, which were observed through a massive network of cameras, audio listening devices, and information collection schemes. They ended up rewarding people for ratting out their friends and family. It’ll never happen here. There’s a reason why we have so many laws protecting the privacy of our citizens and why it's enshrined in our constitution. Anyone who isn’t clear on this and can’t get behind my policies… there’s the door. Don’t let it hit you in the rear on your way out.”

Dunleavy and MacIntosh exchanged glances, and many officers adopted a rigid posture and stared straight ahead. Good, I got their attention. “Now,” Spencer continued. “I want the domestic security agencies involved, specifically the Coalition Bureau of Investigation. Open a counterintelligence investigation into this matter, and put enough agents on it to get quick but precise results.”

“Yes, sir,” Dunleavy replied crisply.

“Any saved rounds here?” Spencer asked the room at large. No one replied. “Good. Godspeed and carry on.”

Almost everyone stood to leave, filing out of the area from two separate doors, but MacIntosh and Dunleavy stayed in their seats. I guess this will be the private session asking me if I’ve lost my marbles. After the room had cleared, they were left alone with two bodyguards. “Okay, gentlemen, what’s on your mind?”

“Mr. President,” Dunleavy began. “I’m not sure you’re taking this threat seriously enough.”

“I take it quite seriously. I’m however, not willing to overreact.”

“Let me put a finer point on it. The Fabians don’t even support the war effort half the time. What’s to be lost by using enhanced investigation techniques on them?” MacIntosh said before either man could reply.

“Okay, Andrew, I’ll bite. What would you do if you had the power to order it right now?”

“Tap every commlink they have, surveil every known member of their leadership, and go through their lives with a fine-tooth comb. There’s got to be connections there, back to the League.”

“You know this?”

“Mr. President, the fact that six Fabians, serving on the same ship, at the same time, turn traitor and nearly get our most important military asset destroyed… come on, sir, it’s not a coincidence.”

“Maybe it’s not. Maybe it is. What I won’t do is shred due process and our constitution on a hunch.”

“The constitution doesn’t replace common sense in a war,” Dunleavy stated.

“No, it doesn’t. I’ll admit, we bend the document at times. What you’re asking me to do isn’t bending it. It's ripping it in two. Not on my watch. Gentlemen, I believe if we don’t hold to our ideals and keep alive what makes our country great, respected, and a place those who are downtrodden, regardless of their species, want to escape to… what’s the point? If we become the League in order to defeat it, we don’t deserve to win.”

“I sense there’s no moving you on this matter, sir,” Dunleavy said.

“No. None at all.”

“What if there are more traitors out there? What if, God forbid, it escalates?” MacIntosh asked, his voice firm and direct.

“Then we revisit the subject, Andrew. I’ll tell you this, we’ll have to have bombings on multiple planets a day. Traitors will have to succeed disable our ships on a large scale before I’ll remotely consider defaming our principles. I don’t believe we’d ever get there, unless our republic has truly lost its way. Are we clear?”

“Yes, sir,” MacIntosh said.

“Of course, sir,” Dunleavy echoed.

“Good. Carry on, I’ve got another staff meeting back at my residence.”


34

Ruth absentmindedly pressed her uniform shirt down as she rounded the corner to the hatch that led to the commando’s area. It’d been a couple of days since combat ended, and the fusion weapons disarmed. Life was returning to normal. Except I can’t get Meissner’s death out of my mind. She paused for a few seconds, collecting her thoughts before she hit the button to open the hatch, and walked in. A quick look around the room confirmed only MacDonald was present. He was seated at the table in the middle of the room, tapping away at a tablet.

“Master Chief,” Ruth called out, suddenly not so sure being there was a good idea.

MacDonald looked up from the tablet. “Lieutenant,” he replied. “Please, come in.”

Ruth made her way over to an empty chair, pulled it out, and sat down.

MacDonald spoke first. “What can I do for you?”

“I’m not sure,” Ruth began. “I…” Her voice trailed off, and a tear slid down her face. “I’m sorry. I don’t normally show emotions. This is the first time I’ve cried in only God knows how many years.”

“Meissner?”

Ruth nodded as another tear fell. “I hold myself responsible for his death.”

“Why?”

“If it wasn’t for me, and my need to be a hero, he wouldn’t have died.”

MacDonald snorted. “Meissner didn’t die because of you. He died because he was willing to give his life so his brothers—and sister—in arms would live. Don’t come in here with some BS attitude about how it’s all about you, little girl.”

“I wasn’t saying it’s all about me,” Ruth protested, more tears falling.

“Look, LT, I get it. You sit at that nice console all day, press some buttons, then you go back to your bunk and probably get a nice hot meal in between. Down there on the ground, we’re all forced to deal with the reality of war. You made some calls. You’re headstrong, impertinent, stubborn, and annoying. But you were right,” MacDonald began. “Sometimes it takes a little idealism to break through the cynicism of a ground pounder. All of us, including Meissner, were glad you did. There’s a few thousand people down there that aren’t going to sleep tonight with the boot of the League on their throats. Does it suck my friend and brother had to die for it to happen? You’re damn right it does. I promise you, there’s a lot of bullets in my pack with Leaguers’ names on them to make up for it. Don’t dishonor his memory by coming in here with regret. Celebrate his life and our victory. It’s your victory too.”

Ruth sat mutely as tears streamed down her face. “Master Chief, it’s more than that. I wanted to punish the League… I wanted them to pay for what they did to my parents, to me, to my friends. No matter how many of them I kill, I’ll never even out the score. The need to make them pay…” Her voice trailed off.

“You think you got someone killed because you needed to feel good about killing Leaguers?”

Ruth nodded her head up and down between sobs.

“Let me allow you in on a little secret. Everyone, no matter how pure and noble their goals and beliefs, wants to put down Leaguers at some point. And yeah, if you let it get in the way, good people die. As much as you may want to even up the score as you put it, I still think you’re an idealist that wanted to help. Sometimes just as dangerous, but a far purer motive,” MacDonald groused.

“Why do you do it?”

“You mean why am I in special ops?”

“Yeah… I mean, it’s got to be the hardest job in the universe.”

MacDonald picked up the tablet and tapped on its screen a few times before turning it around to show Ruth a picture of a middle-aged woman and three teenaged children. “This is my family. My wife of twenty-three years, Amber, two daughters, and a son. A long time ago, I decided I didn’t want my children to have to grow up and do a job that every day left them in a position where they’d have a reasonable chance of killing another person or being killed in a given twenty-four-hour period. It’s no life. I know, because I’ve lived it,” he said as he put the tablet down and stared at Ruth intently. “So I dedicated myself to being the best soldier anywhere in this galaxy. I challenged myself to join the best of the best, and I’ve had the honor of leading them in missions that made a difference. That’s why I’m here, LT. So maybe just maybe, my kids don’t have to do this job too.”

“Very noble of you,” Ruth replied.

“Any father or mother would do it. Nothing special about me. But back to you. If you’re looking for absolution, go see a priest… because I can’t offer it to you. What I can say is, all things considered, it was a good op. We did our jobs and our duty.”

“Did Meissner have a family?”

“Ex-wife, mother, and father. No kids. A lot of us don’t have families. It’s bad enough when you’re on a ship for three months at a time. We get called to action for nine- to fifteen-month stints and can be sent on a mission with two hours’ notice at any point. Not very conducive to making a family work.”

“You seem to have done pretty well at it,” Ruth said.

“Thank my wife. She’s got the patience of a saint and is the glue that holds our family together.”

“Would you allow me to be there when his body is taken off the ship? I want to pay my respects to his family,” Ruth asked, finally in control of her tears.

“You’d better be. If you’re not there, you wouldn’t be half the person I think you are, LT.”

“Thank you,” Ruth said, her eyes downcast.

The hatch swung open, and the rest of Alpha team filed in; they were all wearing battle dress uniforms and had clear sweat stains across their chests. “Lieutenant!” Harrell called out; he was in the lead. “Good to see you.”

“Likewise, Senior Chief.”

“What brings you down to spacewalker country?” Rostami asked.

“Just had to ask the Master Chief something,” Ruth said, forcing a smile to her face. She turned toward MacDonald. “I suppose I’ll be heading out. Colonel Cohen always has the ceremony to offload the fallen thirty minutes after we dock. I’ll see you then.”

“Take care, LT,” MacDonald replied.

Ruth stood, and as she flashed a smile at the rest of the team, started walking out the hatch into the passageway beyond. MacDonald’s voice stopped her. “Attention on deck!”

Puzzled, Ruth turned around to see all five members of the team, standing at crisp attention, with their shoulders squared. Caught off guard, it took her a moment to bring her hand up and return the salute. “Carry on, gentlemen.”

“Yes, ma’am,” MacDonald said, something approaching a grin present on his face.

Turning to leave once more, Ruth stood just a little bit straighter as she set off. I must get better at this. David is a great role model. I’m going to set my mind to watching how he does it and find a way to start putting the pain behind me.

Gates of Hell

MacIntosh gave his uniform a once over as he tossed back the remains of his first cup of coffee. I need to be a few minutes early this morning. Cohen owes me a status report on Freiderwelt. He walked out of his cabin on Canaan’s central orbital space station, which doubled as the fleet headquarters of the Coalition Defense Force. Five kilometers in diameter, it was a floating city housing millions.

It took the usual fifteen minutes to reach his office, during which he listened to a few chapters of a book he’d meant to read but never had time to, electing instead to consume the audiobook. I can’t remember the last time I had a day off. Be plenty of time for that when this bloody war is over.

His adjutant, Major Melanie Roberts, was already present and chipper as ever, greeting him as he walked into his office. “Good morning, General MacIntosh!”

“Good morning, Major. Anything important for me right off?”

“No, sir, but Colonel Cohen is waiting on the vidlink for you.”

“Ah, to be young and still full of energy,” MacIntosh said with a grin. “Send it through to my office.”

“Yes, sir.”

Walking through the inner doors to his private office, he hastened to sit behind his desk and pull up the vidlink application, not wanting to waste the credits. David’s face soon appeared. “Good morning, General,” David said, as chipper as his adjutant. “Good night’s rest?”

“When you get to be my age, Colonel, you’ll value getting through the night without having to pee more than twice.”

“I’ll take your word for it, sir.”

“Freiderwelt. Status?”

“As I indicated in my report last night, sir, the League garrison surrendered without much in the way of a fight. There was localized resistance, but nothing organized.”

“I take it we have Alpha team to thank?”

“Yes, sir. I’d recommend medals for all of them.”

MacIntosh nodded. “While it was supposed to be a simple recon mission, I’ll take this result. President Spencer is delighted to boot.”

“I’m glad, sir.”

“I need you to clear something up for me. What’s the status of this League officer, Pavlecheck? Something like that.”

“Pavlik, sir. Major Vladislav Pavlik. He ordered the League forces on the planet to stand down and shot his commanding officer to prevent him from killing thousands of civilians with buried thermonuclear charges. Those charges have been removed, by the way. EOD finished up the last one this morning.”

“That’s well and good, but your report recommends giving him a new identity and stating in our official records he died in combat. Care to explain?”

“I think he earned it, sir. First and foremost, many inhabitants of Freiderwelt praised him as a fair representative who tried to take care of them and ran interference against his CO. By all accounts, he was a decent man.”

“A decent man working for the enemy.”

“He also provided actionable intelligence to Colonel Sinclair and his folks. Passwords and access to numerous information storage systems, and their entire military network.”

“Why can’t we simply put him in a POW camp again?”

“Because as a higher-ranking officer, his family will be treated harshly if the League learns he surrendered.”

“Are you proposing we give him a new identity and resettle him in the Terran Coalition?”

“After a fashion, sir. Many Amish families on Freiderwelt have stepped up to offer a place for him in their own homes.”

“And since they have no technology, the galaxy will never hear from him again.”

“Yes, sir. We’ll also know where he is if the spooks want to pick the major’s brain again.”

“Against my better judgment, I’ll approve it, Colonel.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Have you finished turning over the prisoners from the Monterrey to intelligence?”

“Yes, sir,” David answered. “I’m a bit perplexed as to why they're not immediately put on trial.”

“You’re one of my more intelligent officers, Cohen. You figure it out,” MacIntosh remarked dryly.

“Command hoped to keep it secret?”

“Got it in one, Colonel.”

“Something this big can’t be sat on,” David observed. “We’ve seen single traitors before. They’re usually motivated by money.”

“Yes, but not like this. Every officer on the vessel, excepting the ship’s doctor, was a damn traitor. You have no idea how badly that’s shaken some members of the joint chiefs.”

“I’d be lying if I said it hadn’t shaken me. After some reflection, I see a lot of danger in snap judgments or a rush to look for a traitor under every rock.”

“President Spencer already quashed a proposal to administer lie detectors to every CDF and TCMC officer.”

“Dear God… That would be a morale disaster of epic proportions.”

“Preaching to the choir, Colonel. But I’m glad you approve.”

David smirked. “It might be early on Canaan. Still, the sarcasm is spot on as always, sir.”

“That’d better be a compliment,” MacIntosh groused as he allowed the trace of a smile to grace his face.

“Always. I’m here for the good humor… and showing the League the door.”

“Speaking of which… there’s a GNN reporter headed to the Lion. Before you depart Freiderwelt, give him an interview without biting his head off.”

“I’ll do my best, sir. Anything else for me, sir?”

“Now you’re trying to manage your boss off the vidlink?”

“No, sir,” David replied hastily. “Just mountains of paperwork to do.”

“You’ve got an XO for most of it.”

“On a ship with nearly ten thousand people on it, sir, both of us spend most of our time pushing paper. There’s not enough bandwidth to go around.”

“Military life, Colonel. You’ve got a few more years of it in you.”

“That I do. Ever think about life after this war, sir?”

MacIntosh was silent for a moment. “Not really. It’s consumed my entire life, since the first battle of Canaan, all those years ago. An entire generation has spent its life at war. I’m sure there’ll be something for this old soldier to do, once the war is finally won.”

“I look forward to it myself.”

“I take it you have some plans from the way you asked the question.”

“Yes. I hope to resume my rabbinical studies, marry, have a family. Do… normal things.”

“Good luck with that, Cohen. I’m too far gone.”

“Lying awake at night thinking about the next battle, sir?”

“No. I don’t lie awake at night. I keep the League awake at night with nightmares of whatever new ship or tactic this command will come up with next.”

David laughed loudly. “Amen, sir.”

“Don’t light up the reporter,” MacIntosh repeated.

“Aye aye, sir.”

“Alright, Colonel. Wrap it up out there and head back home. We’ll top off your supplies and get the Lion ready for its next patrol.” And take the deceased off for proper burial. We always leave off that point.

“Understood, sir. See you next week. Godspeed.”

“It was a good show you put on out there, David,” MacIntosh said. “Carry on and Godspeed to you too.”

The screen blinked off, leaving MacIntosh alone in the quiet of his office. He set the tablet down and put his head in his hands. God help us all if the threat from traitors is more widespread than just the one ship.


35

“What made you decide to ask the Nussbaums to take you in, Major?” Ruth said toward Pavlik. They were both seated in the aft compartment of a TCMC shuttle, along with a single enlisted Marine, who sat ramrod straight in his harness, silent as a church mouse.

“Just Vladislav, or Vlad, please. I’m no longer an officer,” Pavlik began. “That part of my life is over.”

“Do you regret it?”

“Such a loaded question, Lieutenant. I would say there are aspects of my service to the League I regret. There are, on the other hand, things I will cherish the rest of my life. I believe I made a difference for good. I also believe in the ideals of socialism and think it’s a superior form of government to the unbridled capitalism of the Terran Coalition.”

“I disagree, but I respect your opinion,” Ruth said neutrally. “Truth is, having a civil conversation with a League officer is something I never thought I’d do.”

“Because we’re all monsters that need to be shot?”

“I think the description fits more of your fellow soldiers than either of us would care to admit.”

“My argument back to you is that war brings out the worst in everyone who participates in it.”

“You know what the real difference between the Terran Coalition and the League is, Vladislav?”

“Something tells me you’re about to explain it to me,” Pavlik said with a trace of a grin.

“The rules, and how they’re enforced.”

“What do you mean?”

“Justice is equal under the law in our system. Your system, there’s one set of rules for the party elites, another for everyone else.”

“Do you seriously believe everyone on your side of the border gets equal justice? What’s the phrase that comes to mind… oh yes, the best defense money can buy. If you have money, you have more pull.”

Ruth shrugged. “Sure, but you’re still judged by a jury of twelve common citizens. We’re not without our flaws, but I’d never want to be anywhere else. I thank God every day for the privilege of being born as a human within the Terran Coalition.”

“I used to count myself as lucky to be born in the League.”

“That would imply that you changed your mind.”

“After what I did, it’s no longer my home.”

Funny, the feeling called duty. Leaguers have it too. “Do you regret helping us?”

“No. Massacring a bunch of innocent civilians because some party apparatchik ordered it is morally wrong. You don’t need to be a Christian or a Jew to see that.”

“Fair enough,” Ruth replied. “You know what being a Jew helps me with, though?”

“Avoiding unhealthy food?”

Ruth couldn’t help but laugh. “I suppose. No, it helps me to remember there’s a reason for the rules beyond just what another human or alien species say they are. If God says something is wrong, then who am I to say anything differently?”

“An interesting argument, Lieutenant,” Pavlik replied.

“Back to my first question you so artfully dodged. Why the Nussbaums?”

Pavlik steepled his fingers together. “A few reasons. One, their farm is the furthest one out from the rest of the settlements. It stands to reason I’d have the least amount of interaction with others there.”

“Why’s that important?” Ruth questioned.

“You need to ask? A former League officer, now reduced to the life of a simple farmer, under those he used to be the victor over?”

“Nothing wrong with being a simple farmer. I wish I were at times.”

“I can’t see you being out, tilling the soil.”

“What are the other reasons?”

“Like a dog with a bone, aren’t you?”

Ruth grinned. “You have no idea.”

“I respect Ezekiel Nussbaum. I’ve known him for years and admired how he conducted himself and protected his family. He’s a good man, by any standard—League or Coalition.”

“So you hope that because he’s a decent man, he’ll take you in?”

“Yes.”

Ruth pursed her lips together. “Makes sense to me. Just remember, you’re not in control anymore. If they don’t want you around, we move on to the next farm.”

“I understand,” Pavlik said, a bit of pique in his voice.

“Lieutenant,” the pilot called back over the intercom. “We’re coming in to land. Have you down in thirty seconds.”

True to her word, the shuttle came to a hover, and Ruth could feel it slowly dropping, almost like a fast gravlift that could give a sensation of freefall. After their craft came to a stop and touched down, the back ramp opened up and slid down. Sunshine spilled into the cargo area, causing her to blink from its intensity. “What a beautiful day,” she commented after the glare died down. “Let’s not keep our hosts waiting.”

“Ladies first,” Pavlik replied as he stood up.

Something tells me this one was quite the ladies’ man in his youth. Ruth smirked as she walked down the ramp. Ezekiel, his wife Mary, and Susanna were all gathered on the porch of their farmhouse. They waved at her and Pavlik as they approached.

“Lieutenant Goldberg, it’s agreeable to see you again,” Ezekiel called out. “Major, welcome to our humble home, though under different circumstances.”

Pavlik bowed his head respectfully. “I’m honored you would receive me, especially under those different circumstances, as you put it, Mr. Nussbaum.”

I guess he’s going all in on formality and politeness. “Ezekiel, we’re here to discuss Mr. Pavlik taking up residence on your farm,” Ruth said without preamble.

“Please, why don’t you all come inside? We prepared some refreshments to share,” Mary said from the porch. “Then we can discuss your request as a family.”

“After you, Vladislav,” Ruth said, gesturing to the steps.

Ruth took up the rear as Pavlik strode into the house, the Nussbaums going first. They all sat down in what she guessed was the Amish equivalent to a formal living room. It was decorated with solid wood furniture, every piece made by hand if her memory was right from childhood.

“Thank you, ma’am,” Ruth said as she took a cup of hot tea from Mary.

“I baked fresh raisin bread, if anyone would like a slice?” Mary asked the room at large.

“It’s far better than your energy bars,” Susanna said from her chair, directly next to her father. From the look Ezekiel gave her, Ruth figured he preferred to do the speaking with outsiders.

“Oh, why not,” Ruth replied, grinning. “You only live once.”

Silenced prevailed until Mary returned with a plate of neatly cut bread, many raisins visible throughout its interior. Ruth took a piece and flashed a smile at her, then took a bite.

“Wow,” she exclaimed, chewing with her mouth open. “That’s incredible. Beats ship food any day. That’s saying something too. The Lion of Judah has some of the best food I’ve had in the fleet.”

“Major,” Ezekiel began, looking directly at Pavlik. “We have considered at great length both as a family and a community, the request of the Terran Coalition that you be allowed to live here, among us.”

“If I may, I no longer hold that rank,” Pavlik immediately replied. “I wish to leave it, and its trappings, behind.”

I wonder how much of this is real and what’s just a ploy to save his skin, Ruth considered, watching the two men with rapt attention.

“I respect your actions a great deal. The road to redemption often starts with a single act of contrition. I’m told you prevented Colonel Pan from killing everyone on our world. Is this true?”

“Yes, but I don’t want to overstate what I did. Pan’s actions were despicable. I didn’t think about it; I just acted.”

“What we do with little thought gives a window into our soul and its motivations,” Ezekiel replied.

“That’s pretty deep commentary there,” Ruth interjected.

“Don’t let the plain clothes and simple life fool you, Lieutenant,” Ezekiel responded curtly.

“I apologize, sir.”

“We have a rich history of accepting who would seek our way of life. Any are welcome, as long as they agree to abide by our customs, laws, and beliefs. Are you certain this is what you want, Vladislav?” Ezekiel asked, his eyes boring into Pavlik.

“I’ve always respected your way of life, Ezekiel. I’ve respected how you treat one another and work together. Losing technology, that’s not going to be easy. I’ve no choice in this matter, you see. If I don’t fade away here, I’ll end up in a CDF prisoner of war camp. The League will know what I did in time, and my family will face harsh punishment. Imprisonment if they’re lucky, death if they’re not,” Pavlik explained, showing emotion at the end of his statement, a tear forming in his eyes. “I’ve worked my entire life to take care of them. Now I must let them believe I’m dead. This is one of the only places in the galaxy I can go to disappear.”

“Throwing yourself on our mercy, then?” Ezekiel asked.

“Yes.”

“You must realize that in an Amish community, it’s not about you, as some of the younger generations might say. We all look out for one another. You will be no different.”

“I understand.”

“What about your beliefs?”

“Political or religious?” Pavlik asked.

“Part of being Amish is very much in our religious belief, especially in our Lord, Jesus Christ,” Mary interjected. “The council has discussed the matter. Becoming a seeker and attempting to join us typically requires a statement of faith.”

“I have no faith,” Pavlik replied quietly. “I did have faith in the state, but perhaps it was misplaced.”

“In light of the situation, the council agreed to waive that requirement,” Ezekiel said.

Pavlik looked up. “Thank you. I would not want to start my time here by lying to you.”

“Maybe you would consider learning about what we believe someday?” Susanna asked. Ruth felt her innocence shine through in the bright smile and cheery voice she asked the question with.

“I can’t make any promises.”

“It’s possible God brought you here to us, in this place, at this time, specifically to show you a different way,” Susanna continued.

“I suppose that’s one possibility,” Pavlik said. “Not one I would normally consider.”

“We will check in on Mr. Pavlik from time to time,” Ruth said. “Regular debriefings, just in case he remembers something else of value. It won’t interfere in your daily lives, though. CDF Intel will fly him to the interim authority staging base and back.”

“Of course,” Ezekiel replied.

“Then it’s settled?” Ruth asked.

“Yes, Vladislav may stay with us,” Ezekiel said, with finality.

“Thank you,” Pavlik said, his voice sounding contrite at least.

“You will have to work just as hard as we do,” Ezekiel replied. “There are no free rides here, and all must work for their food.”

“I understand. I’m used to that maxim.” Pavlik turned to Ruth and pursed his lips together. “Lieutenant, I must thank you for doing this. Keeping my family safe means the world to me.”

“Don’t thank me. Thank them,” Ruth replied matter-of-factly.

“Thank you all,” Pavlik said in return, gesturing to the entire room.

“I’ll show you to your room,” Susanna said. “We prepared it for you this morning, along with your clothes.”

As she led Pavlik away, Ruth was left with Ezekiel and Mary. “You guys sure about this?”

“We prayed diligently, Lieutenant Goldberg. I believe God wants us to shelter this man. Regardless of his sins, Jesus is faithful and just to forgive them. We must do the same, in every action we take in life. Turn the other cheek.”

“I’m not good at that,” Ruth admitted. “Not all of us can be. Some of us have to fight.”

“Don’t tell the elders, but I do see at least the logic of what you say,” Ezekiel said. “Without you and the rest of the CDF, this universe would be a far darker place.”

“Take care of yourselves. I’d better be heading back. The Lion ships out in a few hours and I don’t want to be late.”

“God bless you,” Ezekiel said as she stood.

“Susanna told us your normal goodbye is to say Godspeed,” Mary stated, smiling.

“Yes… she also told me it traces its roots back to old English and German. It means may God cause you to succeed. So Godspeed to you too, ma’am,” Ruth said, a smile spreading across her face at the feeling of a job well done.

As she walked down the steps toward the shuttle, Ruth cast one final look back at the farmhouse. The price was high. I’m not sure I’ll ever lead men and women into battle again like that. I don’t know if I’m cut out for it. The pain of Meissner’s death was still fresh and raw. Would I be able to sacrifice myself to save my fellow soldiers like that? I pray I never have to find out.

Gates of Hell

Kenneth Lowe pushed the door open to one of the Lion’s communications booths. Located within the ship’s comms center, the booths allowed up to four people to make a vid or commlink call anywhere in the Terran Coalition. As long as we can pay the charges, that is. Kenneth first dropped his tablet and its carrying satchel on the table, then he sat down and began to program the system for a vidlink back to Canaan.

The door behind him swung open, causing Kenneth to spin around in his chair, surprised. David strode in, carrying a covered coffee mug with “CO” on the side of it. “Mind if I join you, Kenneth?”

Kenneth jumped out of his seat. “I apologize, sir. I didn’t realize you’d be here. I’m shocked to see you here.”

David grinned. “Oh, remember, as the commander of the ship, I have to approve all vidlink requests over a certain credit amount.”

“Yes, sir,” Kenneth replied sheepishly. “Don’t worry, sir, the cost is being charged back to SUPSPACE.”

“I couldn’t help but notice there was a rather nasty note attached to the request for a vidlink.”

“Ms. Blackman has made her displeasure with my team and me quite clear, sir.”

“We’ve discussed this before. I think now would be the right time for me to get involved. Pull up a commlink back to Canaan, but do not engage video.”

“She specifically asked for video, sir.”

David smiled broadly. “Consider that countermanded.”

“Yes, sir,” Kenneth said and sat back down, punching up the commlink line back to Canaan and to the conference room information he’d provided. A few moments later, there was some static on the line as it went live.

“This is Kenneth Lowe. Is anyone else on the call?”

“Sabrina’s here,” a woman’s voice called out. “I’ve got Director Bachman with me. Why isn’t video active?”

“Technical difficulties, ma’am. There wasn’t enough bandwidth for a vidlink.”

“I specifically authorized the expense,” Blackman fumed.

“I’m sorry, ma’am, it was overridden by the Lion’s military personnel.”

“Let’s get on with it, then. I’ve received and read your report for last week. Can you explain to me why you didn’t request a change order to your contract before undertaking the task of fabricating explosive bolts? Your team isn’t rated for that kind of work.”

“Ma’am, Colonel Cohen requested we assist. The TCMC contingent on the ship provided explosives technicians who set up the charges. We provided the brackets and engaged in spacewalks to weld them onto the exterior hull of the merchant ships so the fighters could attach safely.”

“This report also says that you provided personnel to supervise the mating of fighters to merchant ships.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“That work is so far out of scope for what you’re approved to do, it’s not funny.”

“It was required for the success of the mission, ma’am.”

“Who authorized the work?”

“Colonel Cohen.”

“For the last time, Mr. Lowe, only civilian SUPSPACE personnel may give you tasking. Clearly, you haven’t listened to me the last fifty times I told you.”

“With respect, ma’am, I understand the reasoning for the regulation, but out here, if I were to wait for approval from people back on Canaan prior to doing anything remotely out of scope, nothing would ever get done,” Kenneth said forcefully, drawing a grin from David, who held up his hand as if to say, “my turn.”

“I’ve got Director Bachman with me today because we’re going to be removing you from this program. I wanted him to see for himself the gross disrespect you show for protocol, and that you’re not fit to support a project of this caliber.”

David leaned down toward the multisided microphone on the table they sat around. “Ms. Blackman, is it?”

There was a pregnant pause on the other end of the line. “Who’s this?”

“Colonel David Cohen.”

“Uh, I wasn’t aware you were on this call, Colonel.”

“I’ve been watching for the last year as you’ve progressively thrown more and more red tape at Mr. Lowe and his team. I’m not amused.”

“Excuse me?”

“Daily reports from every person on his three-hundred-person team. Failure to allow new hires after employee attrition. An attempt to force Mr. Lowe and his company to add some company that’s run by a friend of yours as a subcontractor and making his life difficult when he declined. I’m pretty sure the last one is at the least highly unethical. It’s possibly illegal too.”

“That’s a severe charge, Colonel Cohen,” a male voice said; Kenneth presumed it was Bachman.

“I’d agree with you, Director. Kenneth, you did keep the records of that correspondence, yes? The same ones you’ve shown me?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, I’ll have Mr. Lowe send those over to you, Director. I want Ms. Blackman removed from her position effective immediately.”

Kenneth cranked his head around to stare at David, his mouth agape. Now I didn’t see that coming.

“I think it would probably be for the best, Colonel.”

“You can’t possibly believe…” Blackman sputtered in the background.

“We’ll discuss that later, Sabrina. Colonel, do you have any preferences for who you’d like assigned on an interim basis?”

“I do. We’ve got an officer on board from CDF Special Programs, Major Elizabeth Merriweather. I want this program put under her for the time being, until we’re all able to sort out what’s best going forward.”

“Sounds reasonable to me. Can you send me her fleet link profile?”

“Of course. I’ll do that after we log off here.”

“Thank you, Colonel. You can access my fleet link profile from the registration list for this meeting.”

“I’ve used one of those before, Director,” David replied with just a hint of snark.

“I meant no disrespect, Colonel.”

“In the interest of full disclosure, Director… I ordered Mr. Lowe to devise a method by which to attach our fighters to those merchant ships. His team performed exemplary work, completed the task with a few minutes to spare, and allowed us to inflict a significant defeat on the League. I’ve had nothing but positive things to say about his work, and the work of his team since I took command of this ship. That hasn’t changed. To be blunt, we all have better things to do than look for problems where they don’t exist.”

“I completely agree, Colonel. I’ll see to it that the appropriate kudos and notifications are made.”

“Thank you, Director. Any saved rounds, anyone?”

The room was silent; Kenneth shook his head, fighting down a massive grin.

“Good. I’ve got to get back to work. Good meeting you, Director Bachman. Hope we can shake hands in the flesh someday. Godspeed.”

David reached over and clicked off the commlink, leaving them cut off from the SUPSPACE civilians. Kenneth leaned back in his chair and laughed loudly. “That was one heck of a beating you applied there, sir.”

“I get tired,” David began. “Really tired… of do-nothing government employees with rocks for brains.”

“We all do.”

“I heard you were down in the cargo bay working a 3D printer yourself.”

“Yes, sir,” Kenneth replied. “It was all hands on deck. I won’t ask my people to do something I’m not willing to do, and if I can help at any point, I will. Though… I was reminded a bit I haven’t done real work in a while.”

“Try not to lose that attitude,” David said before quirking his face. “What happened?”

“Well, I programmed a 3D printer incorrectly, and it started making the bolts twenty times larger than they were supposed to be.”

David snickered. “Nice. Hey, a little humility never hurt anyone. Especially those of us in charge.”

“Never, sir.”

“Well, with Blackman out of the picture, what’s next?”

“I’m going to go find Major Merriweather and get her approval to hire some folks. We’re still understaffed by about forty positions.”

“Sounds like a plan. I briefed her on this earlier today, so you won’t be coming out of left field.”

“Thank you, sir.”

David stood up. Kenneth quickly followed. “As always, thanks for taking care of my ship, Kenneth,” David said and extended his hand out.

Kenneth took it and shook warmly. “I think I speak for everyone when I say it’s an honor to be able to work here, sir.”

“Keep cranking. Godspeed, Kenneth.”

“Godspeed, sir.”

David left the room, leaving Kenneth standing there. He paused to pick up his tablet and its carrying bag, which held most of the things he needed to do his job. It felt good to have someone notice what we’re doing here and stand up for the team. Unable to suppress a grin, he pushed the door open and walked out, heading back toward his office to get on the with the day. I’m getting the team together, and we’re having a party tonight.


36

David’s face twitched as the news crew made what seemed like the five-hundredth lighting adjustment to his day cabin. He’d been waiting for thirty minutes while they set up, growing more impatient with every passing second. I could be doing something, anything, including paperwork, rather than watching these guys. Better yet, talking to Angie and thinking about normal life.

“Okay, I think we’re ready, Colonel,” Mathew Cantrell, the GNN reporter who was to interview him, announced.

“Good,” David replied, his tone barely hiding annoyance.

“Please, have a seat behind your desk.”

David realized he had a bit of pique at a civilian telling him to sit behind his desk. Suppressing the desire to roll his eyes, he dropped into the chair facing the holocamera—and Cantrell.

“If you would, please introduce yourself to our viewers, Colonel.”

“Colonel David Cohen, commanding officer, CSV Lion of Judah.”

“Thank you. I want to start by asking about your most recent deployment. Tracking down a traitor in the CDF… had to be a difficult assignment, yes?”

David narrowed his eyes and stared into the holocamera. “I’ve yet to receive an easy combat assignment, Mr. Cantrell.”

“But surely a traitor—”

“Is something I don’t understand,” David said quietly, his voice intent. “I’ve sworn my life to defending our country and our way of life. How someone who also wears this uniform could betray it all for the League, I can’t help you with a why. The situation, however, has been handled.”

“Can you shed any light on how the traitors were unmasked?”

“I’m afraid that would reveal classified sources and methods.”

Cantrell flashed a smile. “Of course. Moving on… the Lion of Judah was awarded its seventeenth battle star, yes?”

“That’s correct. We’re running out of room under the bridge to paint them on the hull.”

“More than any other non-carrier ship in the CDF fleet?”

“Yes, and only three carriers have more,” David replied with evident pride.

“Why is your ship apparently in all the big battles, Colonel?”

David shrugged and grinned. “It’s big, powerful, and has huge guns?”

“Fair enough. What I’m getting at, though, is the Lion of Judah has become a symbol. You and your crew too.”

“I think we’re all aware of our status… and I certainly try not to dwell on it.”

“Why is that? Why not embrace it?”

“Because it’s our job as soldiers to defend the citizens and constitution of the Terran Coalition. Not win popularity contests. Reporters like to say they can’t become the story. Same thing for us.”

Cantrell laughed. “Sounds like you’ve been hanging out with some of us too long, Colonel. Great analogy. Many people around the Terran Coalition are starting to ask, with the League defeated on our side of the Milky Way… why continue this war? Why not make peace with them?”

“I would remind anyone who asks what happened the last time we entertained peace with the League. I lost my XO and the Lion barely survived.”

“Does the personal element make it difficult for you to separate what’s good for you from what’s good for the republic as a whole?”

What is this guy, a counselor or a reporter? David adjusted himself in the chair, buying a few seconds as he composed his answer mentally. “A soldier obeys lawful orders. Period. I’m a soldier… and if my commander-in-chief orders us to stand down and signs a peace treaty with the League, I’ll obey, regardless of personal beliefs. As is my duty, if I’m asked to advise our civilian leadership on such a matter, I’d counsel them to grind the League down and never take our foot off their throat.”

“What makes you so adamant about your stance, Colonel?”

“Twenty years of fighting them, Mr. Cantrell. The horrific things I’ll never unsee… mass graves… reeducation camps… all the friends who will never go home. I believe the League is pure evil, and it must be defeated.”

“You mention the ones who don’t go home. Isn’t that one of the strongest arguments for peace?”

I’m getting into dangerous ground here. I shouldn’t be arguing politics with a reporter. “We owe it to everyone who has died so far to finish the fight, so their sacrifice wasn’t in vain.”

“A just peace would be in vain?”

David paused, set his jaw, and narrowed his eyes. “Mr. Cantrell, if we stop now, they’ll rebuild. When they finish rebuilding, the League will invade us again. It’s in their DNA. History shows us the League can’t be trusted. They built up power and took over Earth. They’ve tried for thirty years to impose their will on us. The only solution is total victory.”

“And the cost of lives?”

“I’d rather pay the bill now, including my own if it's required, than pass the task off to the next generation, thirty years from now.”

Cantrell shifted in his seat, flipping to another section of notes on his tablet. “Your team successfully liberated Freiderwelt from League control.”

“That’s correct.”

“How do you react to the news the Amish were treated well by the occupation forces and allowed to conduct their lives unmolested? That runs counter to the charges we regularly make of how life would be under League rule.”

“Seriously?” David asked as his jaw dropped open. “On the contrary, they were put through reeducation campaigns and spared solely because the League felt their cooperative community spirit was socialist. There were widespread human rights abuses, and atrocities committed by the occupation garrison.”

“But not as much as we would expect…”

“So they had a slightly less sadistic garrison commander. Who knows? They’re by far better off now, freed from the yoke of the League.”

“For what it’s worth, Colonel, I completely agree with you. But we must explore both sides.”

“In my mind, there is no ‘other side’ when it comes to League, Mr. Cantrell. There’s decent Leaguers, sure. But the government? No… I repeat my earlier statement. The League is pure evil.”

“What’s next for the Lion of Judah?”

David shrugged and smiled. “Some refits, a week of liberty for the crew, and then wherever our orders take us next.”

“Thank you, Colonel.” The light behind the camera blinked off, leaving the room with its familiar shadows and hues. “Off the record… how far would you go to defeat the League?”

“Anything within the confines of our laws and orders,” David replied. “With an added caveat that I will not compromise my beliefs to defeat the enemy. When we do that, we become our enemy.”

“Well said.”

“So how much of that will be reported accurately, and how much cut up and taken out of context?” David asked, his tone acerbic.

“I’m not in the business of hit pieces, Colonel,” Cantrell said tightly. “Your ship and crew will be presented fairly.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Cantrell replied as he stood; the camera crew had already packed up most of its gear. Tearing down was far faster and easier than setting up.

“Do you think we should aim for peace, as opposed to victory?”

Cantrell pursed his lips together. “I do. I think there’s been enough war, enough killing. Perhaps the military has grown to like war too much.”

David stood up from the desk, a wave of anger sweeping through him. “Listen to me very carefully. While I can’t categorically state that no one in the CDF enjoys fighting… ninety-nine point nine percent of us hate it. We do this because we love our country and because we want to protect it. Not because of some blood lust that enjoys death.”

“I believe you believe what you say, Colonel,” Cantrell said evenly. “I doubt your numbers, though. Far more people like war than you’d care to admit. Defense contractors make trillions of credits off this war. It drives half our economy. There are factions within the CDF which would want it to continue forever.”

“Sounds like a conspiracy theory to me.”

“And you sound like wishful thinking to me.”

“I suppose we’ll have to agree to disagree,” David finally said, his jaw set and anger still flashing in his eyes.

“Yes. If you’ll excuse us, Colonel.”

“Good day.”

David waited until they’d all left before sitting once more. Cantrell’s words stung him, more than he cared to admit. The specter of enjoyment of killing always troubled him. It seemed to stalk him from afar and up close. It’s something I must never give in to.

Gates of Hell

A few days later, after all the news crew had departed the Lion, David found himself having dinner in the officers’ mess nearest the bridge. I’m such a creature of habit. He stared out at the scene in orbit of Canaan. Dozens of capital ships in orbit were beyond the translucent metal windows, and the lights of orbital habitat and shipyards lit up the night. He heard a familiar voice call behind him.

“Colonel, may I join you, sir?”

David looked up to see Ruth, carrying a glass of water and her tray. “Please, have a seat,” he said, gesturing to the open chair in front of him.

Ruth set her items down gently and opened the wrapper with a fork and knife. “Thank you, sir.”

“I would remind you that, in the mess, customs and courtesies don’t apply,” David said gently.

“I’m sorry… I tend to retreat into the rigid formality of the job.”

“Same here, especially when I’m troubled. I haven’t seen a lot of you since you got back from Freiderwelt,” David observed.

“Taking some personal time. sir.”

“I read your after-action report, Ruth,” David said, choosing to use her first name to remind her of their friendship. “You’ve nothing to be ashamed of.”

“I’m not so sure about that,” Ruth replied. “You once warned me if I continued to hate the League, it would eventually eat me alive. I saw what happened to Colonel Demood last year,” she said, her voice trailing off before she continued. “And for whatever reason, I just can’t set it aside. I tried to tell Master Chief MacDonald my lust for killing Leaguers got his man killed, but he wouldn’t have any of it.”

“Oh?”

“He told me I was an idealist at heart.”

“I think the Master Chief is a rather astute fellow,” David said with a grin. “What’s going on here?”

“The girl that helped us—Susanna—she looked up to me. She thought I was something worth emulating. I realized it when she told me that her big plan was to join the CDF and help protect the galaxy.”

“From where I sit, you’d be something to look up to if I was a teenager too.”

“That means a lot, coming from you.”

“Calling it as I see it.”

“I encouraged her not to.”

David raised an eyebrow. “Why?”

“Because I’m afraid if she tried to be like me, she’d eventually end up like me. Cold, bitter, angry, and enjoying every time I erase a League ship, and more importantly, the Leaguers on it from the universe.”

Okay, that’s pretty intense. “I thought you were making progress there?” he asked. “It’s not lost on me that you’ve been spending a bit of time around Lieutenant Taylor. I thought perhaps the two of you were getting through your shared losses together.”

“Nothing like that,” Ruth replied as she blushed. “He’s just someone I can share my feelings with sometimes. Heck, I don’t even let him in. I don’t let anyone in.”

“I know what you mean,” David admitted. “Neither did I, for a long time. You have no idea how close I came to complete mental collapse after Sheila was killed.”

“We were all worried about you.”

“Yeah, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that unless I had the experience I had, I wouldn’t be here today.”

Ruth frowned. “I don’t even want to think about that.”

“Neither do I. Listen, it took me a long time to get over her death. I’m still not over it. I live with it, some days better than others. Every time I have to send a letter to someone’s family telling them their son or daughter, father or mother, husband or wife isn’t coming home, it’s not a good day. It’s not supposed to be a good day.”

“How do you get through it?”

“You remember why we’re here. You remind yourself tomorrow will be better and the people under your command need the best leadership you have to offer. And you pray, a lot.”

Ruth smiled. “You make it sound far too easy.”

“Nah, just have a good rabbi and some great friends to keep me on the straight and narrow. Speaking of the rabbi, when was the last time you went to the shul?”

“It’s been a few months,” Ruth confessed. “I’ve been going to the Christian chapel instead, though I haven’t been there much lately either.”

“I see.”

“I know you don’t approve.”

“Ruth, I’d never tell you I don’t approve of your religious choices. I’m not that guy. If it’s what you’ve come to believe, then who I am to say you’re wrong? It’s not like you started practicing satanism,” David deadpanned.

“I’m not sure what I believe anymore.”

“Why do you say that?”

“I wonder if God wants anything to do with me after all I’ve done.”

“Sometimes, I have the same question about myself.”

“Have you come to a conclusion?”

“Rabbi Kravitz says God doesn’t consider killing in a war a sin. The Torah says it too. I believe it,” David replied. “But I don’t think God is happy at war. I think He would prefer we not resort to fighting each other for thirty years. I also know this is a just war. Ultimately, the souls I grieve over are the innocents I know I’ve killed while doing my duty and the ones I’ve failed to save.”

“Maybe,” Ruth replied. “I don’t feel a connection with God anymore. There’s all this noise around me, like a cacophony of chaos.”

“And then there was a still, small voice.”

“The voice of the Lord,” Ruth said, a rueful smile on her face. “I haven’t heard that voice in a long time.”

“Then seek it. I believe God is always close at hand to those of us who call His name. Jew or gentile.”

“What about Jews examining different religions?”

“Especially those,” David replied, a small grin coming across his face.

“Maybe I’ve gone too far to reach back,” Ruth said with a frown, looking beyond David and out at the ships in orbit.

“I don’t believe that. You’ve got a good heart.”

“How can you possibly know that? Only God knows what’s truly on our hearts.”

“I’ve found it to be fairly easy to tell who’s evil.”

“Care to share?”

“Those without remorse; those who never question any actions they take. The very fact you’re disturbed by some of the things you’ve done tells me you’re not remotely beyond redemption.”

“I think that’s what maybe draws me to Christianity,” Ruth said softly. “The idea maybe my sins can be forgiven. I’m not sure even Jesus can forgive me.”

“Well, if Jesus is the Messiah we’ve been waiting for, I’m going to be in a lot of trouble, given my belief structure,” David replied. “But let’s suppose for a moment that’s the case. I’ve read the Christian bible. It says plainly, if you repent of your sins, He is faithful and just to forgive you.”

“Thanks.”

“You’ve got a decision coming up. Don’t be afraid to make it, regardless of your choice.”

Ruth smiled but didn’t say anything. Instead, she glanced down at her food. “I haven’t touched my chicken.”

“I think they’ve got a machine that warms it up.”

“Very cute,” Ruth said with a laugh.

“I’m still quite disturbed that an officer of the Coalition Defense Force, especially a senior officer, would turn traitor,” David said, changing the subject.

“You and me both. Or that he recruited others.”

“CDF Intelligence is trying to figure out how far it went.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard some bizarre things on Voice of the Coalition, and on the various news outlets.”

“Oh?” David asked.

“It’s hit people hard. Of course, the crazies screaming about spies hiding among us are emboldened and yelling all the more.”

David made a face. “I can’t stand those nuts. Screaming about conspiracies. We’ve got big enough problems without fear mongering.”

The hatch to the mess suddenly swung open, drawing David’s attention. MacDonald, Harrell, Rostami, Mata, and Ahmad burst in with a drink cart he’d heard about from the last time they invaded the officers’ mess.

“There goes the neighborhood,” Ruth said with a giggle. “I can’t believe they get away with this.”

“It’s their tradition for sticking it to us ‘cake eaters,’ as they love to call officers,” David remarked. “Truth be told, I enjoy it. I was never much for all the customs and courtesies.”

“If you ain’t spacewalking, you ain’t shit!” Harrell yelled as he pushed the cart up to a table, clanking it loudly.

“That’s got to be the silliest tagline ever,” Ruth continued.

“I’ve got five hundred credits if you have the balls to walk over there and tell them,” David said, grinning.

“Make it fifty thousand and you’ve got a deal.”

“Touché.”

MacDonald set five shot glasses up on the table they’d taken over and started pouring a brown liquid that David assumed was whiskey into them. Someone noticed Ruth was present; he wasn’t sure which one. Mata walked toward the two of them.

“You’ve been spotted,” David commented dryly.

“LT in the house!” Mata thundered in his slight Spanish accent.

Ruth whirled around to face him. “Chief,” she replied.

“Care to join us, LT? We have a little ceremony we do when someone dies in an op. We’d all like you to join in.”

David inclined his head just a bit. “Don’t say no on my account.”

Ruth smiled uncomfortably and stood up. “I’d be honored to, Chief.”

“Well, come on, these shots aren’t waiting all night!”

Ruth followed Mata back to the table, where magically, another shot glass had been procured. It too was full to the brim with the dark brown liquid.

“Seeing as how you’re the ranking officer here, LT… any words before we begin?” MacDonald asked.

Grasping one of the shot glasses in her hand, Ruth raised it high. “Let us give thanks to God for the blessings we have received. Let us give thanks to our brothers and sisters in arms,” she began.

The traditional toast for the fallen. I remember saying that for Sheila. David furrowed his brow at the sad thought.

“Let us remember the price that is paid for the freedoms we enjoy. Petty Officer Meissner was one of us. We knew him. He was brave, and he paid the ultimate price without regard for himself. We remember him tonight, that he fought and died, not in vain but in honor. Let us never forget our fallen comrades. We knew them, we’ll remember them, and they will never be forgotten!”

The entire mess had stopped whatever they were doing to watch the toast; as Ruth concluded, everyone present repeated the refrain. “To our fallen!”

David smiled as Ruth downed the shot in one gulp, as did the rest of the commandos. She’s going to make one heck of a leader.

“Got any plans for the rest of the night, LT?” Harrell asked.

“I was going to turn in before too long.”

“Wrong answer!” MacDonald said.

Ruth forced a smile. “What are you guys planning to do besides get wasted?”

“There’s something to do besides getting wasted?” Mata said, laughing at the same time.

“I thought we could moon Demood’s quarters from space,” MacDonald suggested.

David laughed out loud from halfway across the room at the mental image that popped into his head. He stood and made his way over to the commandos and Ruth. “I’d pay real money to see you try it, Master Chief.”

“How much?”

“Five hundred credits.”

“Takes what, fifteen seconds of exposure to vacuum before your insides blow out?” MacDonald said rhetorically.

“About that,” Harrell replied. “Should be enough to drop the suit, press up against the window, and pull back up.”

“You guys are nuts.”

“Sorry for busting into your meal, sir. Didn’t realize you’d be here.”

“I’ll excuse it for tonight, gentlemen,” David said, unable to suppress a grin. “Fine work by all of you. Liberating Freiderwelt was a real victory. You should be proud of your contributions.”

“I have to admit, we weren’t sold on your TAO at first, but she’s all right. We’ll take her back any time. How about it, LT, put in for a MOS change and try out for BSD.”

“BSD?” Ruth asked, looking lost.

“Basic Space Demolition,” David said, filling in the acronym. “Hardest course in the CDF.”

“Hoorah!” several commandos shouted at once.

“Sorry, guys, but I’m going to stick to my console. It’s what I’m best at.”

“Nothing wrong with blasting those Leaguer assholes out of the universe with the biggest guns ever invented,” Harrell said while pouring another shot.

“I’m going to leave you all with it,” David said as he turned his head toward Ruth. “Don’t forget, you’ve got the first watch.”

“Yes, sir,” Ruth replied.

“Goodnight everyone, again. Good show,” David finished, walking out of the mess to the continued shouts and cheers of the commandos. Ruth’s in for a long night. It’ll be good for her.


37


July 25th, 2461

League Navy Headquarters

Switzerland, Earth

Far away from the front lines of the war, Admiral Pierre Seville sat in his office, staring at the Director of the League’s External Security Service, Dmitry Borisov. The director had requested, which meant he’d insisted on a meeting to discuss the outcome of their operation against the Terran Coalition’s supply lines. I detest this man. He’s so incredibly arrogant. I loathe his presence and his agency.

“To what do I owe the pleasure of your company, Dmitry?”

“I thought you might want to be filled in, albeit it after the fact, on our actions,” Borisov replied, a small smirk plastered on his face.

“In so far as the intelligent asset you developed inside of the CDF?”

“It wasn’t just one,” Borisov gloated. “I had most of the officers on one of their prized elite stealth ships.”

For once in his life, Seville was impressed by a spy. “How’d you pull that off?”

“Do you have anything decent to drink around here, Admiral?”

“Any preferences?”

“I suppose its cliché, but I do love a good vodka. With a touch of lemon.”

Seville stood up and walked to a bookcase; he opened a cabinet on it and withdrew a bottle of clear liquid. “I understand this is a good year… twenty-four fifty-two. Traditional Russian vodka.” At Borisov’s nod of approval, he splashed a generous pour into two glasses and topped them with a spray of lemon juice. He handed one to the dour Russian and sat the other down on his desk as he plopped back down into his leather chair. “To good health and the success of our partnership, Director!”

Borisov raised his glass, as did Seville, before taking a sip. “Ah, it’s the small things in life,” he said. “They make it all worthwhile. As to how I pulled that off… remember my remarks that the Terran Coalition is made up of many different groups?”

“Yes, I do.”

“You see, it’s a matter of fracturing those groups and reminding them of the differences they share while exploiting the basic human fear of otherness. In the League, we force everyone to be the same. Regardless of if they want to or not. The Terrans do it differently. They figured out how to get many different groups to work together.”

“From many, one,” Seville said. “One of their mottos.”

“E Pluribus Unum,” Borisov corrected. “Out of many, one. It’s the key to their success, and their defeat.”

“I still don’t follow.”

“I used undercover operatives to convince an otherwise decent, loyal, Christian officer that his government was corrupt and abusing the poor. We then convinced him that the Socialism of the League was the salvation of all. Before long, we had him operating his own branch of the Fabian Society and recruiting fellow Christian officers to it.”

“That’s brilliant,” Seville blurted out. “A pity the damnable Colonel Cohen foiled our plans. That man is a thorn in our side. You ought to figure out how to have him removed.”

“We will remove him someday, Admiral. You should try to avoid fixating on any one man. It leads to moments of impertinence and poor decision-making.”

“That one man has defeated us too many times. He is a symbol, along with the damned ship of theirs.”

“Perhaps. In this instance, however, I gave the Terrans the breadcrumbs to figure out who our mole was.”

Seville did a double take. “You what? Are you a traitor?” he exclaimed.

“Of course not, Admiral,” Borisov chided. “It’s all part of the grand plan.”

“What grand plan?”

“The destruction of the Terran Coalition from within.”

“You keep saying that,” Seville complained. “But I’ve yet to see the substance behind your boasts.”

“Consider this act one. If you look over the media outlets and what they’re spewing today, it’s all about this officer and his actions. The Terrans allow free speech. Indeed they can say just about anything they want,” Borisov said, his voice betraying his amazement at such a concept. “Some of them are saying Major Drymand was right in his assessment of corruption and lack of concern for the poor. Some say he’s an abject traitor and should be shot on the spot. Still others claim there’s a large network of spies throughout the Terran Coalition, and anyone who supports socialism in any form should be purged.”

“I think I begin to see your point,” Seville said, a small grin growing on his face. “They’re whipping themselves into a frenzy over this one event.”

“Which will turn into more than one event in time. I’ll feed them a steady diet of traitors and socialists in their midst. Eventually, I will stoke religious extremism amongst those who used to fight one another. It wasn’t that long ago that Jews and Muslims fought one another to the death over their supposed holy lands. We will provoke and fan the flames of discord throughout their entire pathetic republic.”

“It will take more than a few traitors to do that, Director.”

“Oh, that’s not the only tool in my bag of tricks. The very essence of their society… its openness… it’s a weakness I’ll exploit. They trust everyone. They trust everything they read on their social media platforms, on their holochannels. By injecting stories that are believable, but ultimately false, we can bend the narrative to fit our ends. They’ll be powerless to stop it and won’t even realize what's happening until it’s far, far too late.”

I wonder if he’s wily enough to pull this off or merely insane. “What next, then?”

“I have other operations in progress, Admiral. They’re classified at the highest levels, and above your need to know. I’ll make you aware of them when it’s time.”

Seville fought to keep his face from twisting in rage. How dare this master of the shadows talk down to me. “I expect it to be sooner rather than later, Director,” he said, his tone like ice.

“For this partnership to work, Admiral… both of us must remember our places, and our strengths. Mine is the work behind the scenes. Yours is actual combat. If I do my job right, yours will be far easier than it would be alone. Need I remind you, the track record of the League Navy against the CDF hasn’t been stellar.”

“We don’t have enough ships to impose our will on them,” Seville fumed.

“Which is why we must weaken them from within.”

“I don’t disagree with the strategy; I simply want to be involved.”

“You will be, Admiral. At the right time. For now, keep marshaling your forces. The Terrans are coming. When they do, it will be up to you to defeat them and pursue them all the back to Canaan for a decisive battle.”

“I look forward to the day.”

Borisov smiled thinly. “I have no doubt that you do. I, for one, live for the game of deception. When we finally defeat the Terrans, I will have lost one of my best opponents. That will be a sad day for me, because I have to look another group to match wits against.”

“I’m sure you’ll be up to that task, Director.”

“Oh, no doubt,” Borisov replied before he stood up from the chair. “Good day, Admiral.”


38

Not entirely sure how I did it, but I’m not drunk, and the commandos aren’t pissed at meRuth finally left their company around 0200 CMT, making her way back toward her quarters, several decks down from the officers’ mess near the bridge. The route she chose took her right by one of the four chapels on the Lion of Judah. She rounded the corner and realized she’d chosen the path for a reason.

Ruth stood outside of its hatch, peering at the service schedule; the various Christian faiths shared the same space and staggered their services. She had attended several nondenominational services in the months after Sheila’s death, before she stopped going to anything – shul or otherwise. For some reason though, tonight, the doors beckoned.

The hatch swung back, and another officer filled the space in front of her. “Lieutenant!” the other woman said, clearly startled. Ruth recognized her as Major Estrada, one of the Christian chaplains.

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” Ruth said, jumping back a bit herself. “I was coming to…” she began before her voice trailed off. “I’ll just be going.”

“Wait!”

Ruth turned back, looking toward her.

“Please, come in. I’m always here to talk, and the look on your face says you need to,” Estrada said with an easy grin.

“You sure?” Ruth replied. “It’s very late, and I know you have duties in the morning.”

“Never too late to talk to a friend. Besides, it’s been forever since I’ve seen you near the chapel.”

Ruth followed her back into the chapel, looking around the nondescript room; while containing many symbols of Christianity, since a wide variety of denominations used it, the room itself lacked much in the way of adornments.

“Sit anywhere you like,” Estrada quipped. “Plenty of seats.”

Ruth laughed and sat down in one the nearest row of chairs that were secured to the deck plating so they wouldn’t fly around during combat maneuvers. She folded her hands in front of her and glanced down.

“What’s on your mind?”

“I feel lost, Pastor,” Ruth began. “I should warn you I’ve had a few drinks tonight.”

“Hanging out with Alpha team?”

“How’d you know?” Ruth blurted out. “This ship is so small.”

“Very small. When a group of enlisted guys busts into the officers’ mess, especially the one closest to the bridge, it gets around fast. From what I heard, you earned their respect.”

Ruth shrugged. “Maybe. It doesn’t entirely register with me. None of it does. I’ve just kept on, forcing myself to keep trudging forward. One foot in front of the other foot, never looking back.” Tears began to flow down her face.

Estrada reached out and put her hand on Ruth’s shoulder. “Part of this job is being a counselor, you know. What’s going on, Ruth?”

“I’m sorry. I don’t ever act like this,” Ruth said between sobs. “Remembering my parents, remembering what happened to me on Freiderwelt; it’s catching up, and I can’t make it stop.”

“There’s nothing wrong with allowing yourself to feel.”

“I feel so alone,” Ruth admitted. “I wonder if God is there, I wonder if He cares about me, or anyone. If He does, why do we have to go through this? There’s this hole in me, Pastor. I’ve tried so hard to fill it in,” she continued, openly weeping. “I thought I could fill in by killing the people responsible for killing my parents, but it didn’t. Then I dedicated my life to stopping the League, by killing as many of them as I could. That didn’t fill in the hole either. Back on Freiderwelt over the last few days, I tried to liberate my home. I saved a young woman from the fate that befell me. I even encouraged her not to follow in my steps.” Ruth looked up, tears streaming out of her eyes. “But I still feel so empty inside. Lifeless, soulless. Like nothing matters. I feel like I’m just an automation.” Just saying that makes me feel so weak and useless.

“You’re not the first person to say this sort of thing,” Estrada replied. “Many of us have felt like you do right now, along the way.”

“So I should be happy others are defective too?”

“Misery does love company, but no. The point is you’re not alone.”

“How do I fill in the hole, Pastor?” Ruth asked plaintively.

“It sounds to me like you have a God-sized opening in your soul. Have you considered that?”

“I have,” Ruth said, her tears beginning to dry.

“I don’t mean to be indelicate, but I haven’t noticed you in a while. Are you going to the shul instead?”

Ruth shook her head. “I haven’t been going anywhere lately. Just standing watch, handling my extra duties, eating, and sleeping.”

“Doesn’t sound like much of a life when you put it like that.”

“No, I don’t suppose it does.”

“You’ve identified the problem, then,” Estrada prodded. “If you can see what you’re doing doesn’t work, then what should you do next?”

“I’m not sure,” Ruth replied.

“Right now, you’re doing the same thing over and over again, yes?”

“Yes.”

“That’s the definition of insanity, Ruth,” Estrada said with a grin. “You have to try something different.”

“Is that a God thing?”

“It could be. It could be many things. You could try changing your routine, talking with a therapist or attending services either here or at the shul. There might be some chemical-based solutions Doctor Tural could discuss with you.”

Ruth shook her head. “I don’t believe medicine will fix this. I think I have to somehow get me fixed inside.”

“Let me help.”

“How, Pastor?” Ruth said, shaking her head. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but unless you’ve been in combat, I don’t think you can relate to what I feel.”

“TCMC, two tours. Six combat drops,” Estrada said.

“I’m so sorry,” Ruth replied. I’m good at sticking my foot in my mouth tonight.

“Don’t be fooled by the cross. I can still put Leaguers down.”

Ruth forced herself to smile. “Point taken, Pastor.”

“Tell you what, how about we schedule a session tomorrow afternoon after the first watch to discuss what’s going on with you?”

“I’d like that,” Ruth said.

“Good. 1600 CMT?”

“I’ll be here with bells on,” Ruth said, trying to inject some level of levity into her voice, but failing.

“See you then,” Estrada said as Ruth stood up to leave. “You’re not lost, whatever you’ve done, wherever you’ve been. Jesus died for our sins. Even the worst Leaguer, if he or she were to repent, can be saved.”

“I’ll try to believe that, Pastor.”

On her way back to her quarters, Ruth tried praying silently. God, if You’re up there, if You still listen to me, please hear my prayer. Help me, show me the way. Let me find some way back to Your will, and into the light.

Gates of Hell

David walked into his quarters, and as soon as the hatch closed, pulled off his uniform sweater. In the course of thirty seconds, he stripped down to his skivvies and ended up in his bunk, another eighteen-hour day in the books. I even managed to get evening prayers in, at the shul for once. He reached for the tablet on his nightstand and pulled up the tracker for his commlink credits. The monthly reset had just posted, so he decided to see if Angie was available and online. A few minutes later, her smiling face appeared on the screen.

“Be still, my beating heart,” Angie said with a grin. Her brown hair was unkempt, as if it had been through a windstorm. “It’s the great Colonel Cohen, giving me a few minutes of his time. All I got was an email after the last emergency vidlink you sent, post-shooting.”

“Hey, my credits just reset,” David replied, with just a hint of snark. “I promise you were the first girl I called.”

“I better be the only girl you’re calling,” Angie replied archly.

“I can neither confirm nor deny that information.”

“Who are you kidding? I’m the only girl that’ll give you the time of day.”

“My mother can set me up with an endless stream of eligible Jewish girls from our town,” David said, and his face broke into a wide grin.

“Trying to tell me something?”

“Only that I’ve missed you.”

“You’d think the great hero of Canaan could get some extra commlink credits.”

“I wouldn’t take them if they were offered,” David said pointedly. “I’m not a hero. Just doing my job.”

“You’re a hero to me.”

“Is that why you like me?”

“No, I like you because you took me seriously and treated me with respect. There’s the whole gentleman thing too. Opening the door gets you bonus points.”

David laughed. “How’s it been going?”

“Remind me again why I took this political beat again?”

“Something about wanting a less stressful job after going through combat after combat.”

“Yeah,” Angie said, smirking. “About that. Politics is worse than being on a ship in combat.”

“That’s a pretty bold statement,” David replied. “You can always get another embed slot. Carrier maybe?”

“Nah. I’m not going to be allowed near the military anytime soon. I’m viewed as pro-CDF.”

“What’s so bad about that?”

“We’re supposed to be presenters of facts, remember?”

David snorted. “Right,” he began, then had a change of heart. “On a different note… how have you been outside of work?”

“I’m okay. I miss you.”

“I miss you too,” David admitted.

“Every time I see the Lion of Judah in the news, my heart skips a beat. I wonder if you’ll come home.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. I knew what I was in for, and I’m a big girl.”

“If it helps, I make every possible effort to come home,” David said with a grin. “The League keeps swinging and missing.”

“Sports metaphors… so predictable.”

“Blame my dad. He loved baseball.”

“Do you think you’ll be able to get planetside any time soon?”

“I got my orders packet this morning. I think it’s safe to say we can have a date in the next couple of days before we get underway. That is, if you’d like to.”

“That’d better not be a serious question, mister.”

David winked. “Steak again?”

“How about seafood this time?”

“Seafood I can do. Gefilte fish?”

“What’s that?”

“You’ll see,” David replied, unable to keep from grinning. “It’s a traditional Jewish dish. Let’s say it’s an acquired taste.”

“So is going to church.”

“Oh?”

Angie shrugged. “I was going to a small church for a while that one of my co-workers attends. I quit because I was sick of being told I was going to hell because I hadn’t accepted Jesus as my savior yet.”

“No religion has a monopoly on overly sanctimonious people. Trust me.”

“I’m still searching, you know?”

“I forget which rabbi said it, but something to the effect of Judaism being an eternal search for God.”

“I like that,” Angie replied. “How’s your mother?”

“She’d like to know when we’re getting married, having kids, and you’re converting.”

“Yeah, about the same as mine, without the converting part.”

David laughed. “I have to meet these parents of yours someday.”

“Likewise.”

“What’s bugging you at work?”

“Ugh. What’s not? I go around and interview people who want to be the next president of the Terran Coalition.”

“With President Spencer being term-limited, it’s a bit of a free-for-all,” David observed.

“The Liberals have something like twenty-eight first-tier candidates. Dozens of second-tier candidates. Labor has even more.”

“I wish Spencer could run again, personally,” David said. “He seems like the real deal.”

“That’s what they all want you to believe. They’re all slimy when you have to work with them day in and day out.”

“Maybe. Still, you can see in his eyes he cares for those who have paid the price. I don’t think all of them do. Especially on the Labor side.”

“I thought military officers couldn’t have political opinions?”

“Not publicly, and you’re not cleared to quote anything I say,” David said, smirking.

“But you’re allowed to privately?”

“Yes. My dad always voted Liberal. I went through a phase when I was a teenager and a young man where I was more of a Labor guy, then I came back to Liberal,” David said while shrugging his shoulders. “At the end of the day, both sides want the same thing… a free and prosperous Terran Coalition. They differ on how to get there.”

“There’s a Labor candidate who’s making a lot of waves. He’s making noise about coming to a peace agreement with the League.”

“Oh, I’ve heard of him. Eduardo Fuentes, right?”

“That’s the one.”

David rolled his eyes. “The man is a blistering idiot. You don’t tell your mortal enemy you’re willing to take the foot off the gas, ever.”

“I can see the logic of what you’re saying… but it would nice to not be at war.”

“I’m all for not being at war, after we defeat the League. You can’t coexist with them. At least, not when the League is powerful and capable of projecting that power into the Terran Coalition.”

“It’s not anymore, since we took over Unity, though, right?”

“Despite what the talking heads on GNN might say, the League can jump a fleet in any time it wants. It’s just a little harder to supply it. Do you want real peace? Plant the Terran Coalition flag on Earth and allow her citizens to decide what kind of government they want.”

“You have strong feelings on the matter,” Angie observed.

“I’ve been fighting these jerks for twenty years. What do you think?” David flippantly replied.

“Okay, different subject?”

“I’m sorry,” David said, letting out a sigh. “I get wound up talking about politics.”

“I noticed.”

David cracked a grin. “I get wound up about other things too.”

“Religion?”

“You know, Mom always taught me not to discuss those two subjects in polite company.”

“So I’m not polite company?”

“I’m just digging this hole deeper.”

“Yup.”

“Are you okay?”

“Physically?”

“Well, yes, but mentally too,” Angie said, her lips pursed together. “I do worry about you, you know?”

“I’m like a good watch. Take a licking and keep on ticking. I’m okay… my wounds have healed. Thank God for good old Terran Coalition medical science. Take a round to the shoulder and chest… a week later, don’t even know it happened. Mentally,” David shrugged, “I’m still sane, and I still feel. That’s about as good as I think it can get on the frontline.”

“Well, isn’t that a pretty picture,” Angie said with apparent sarcasm.

“I’m okay. Promise.”

“You’d tell me?”

“Yeah, I would..”

Angie laughed. “Getting a bit past your bedtime, isn’t it?”

“Almost out of credits too. See you next week?”

“If you know what’s good for you, you better see me next week.”

“Promise,” David said with a bright grin. “Good night, dear.”

“Stay safe.”

“Always,” David replied and tapped the disconnect button on the screen. It immediately went blank, leaving him alone in the dark of his cabin, looking up at the top of his bunk. Tomorrow is another day, another step on the way to victory. Why does it feel so far away? God, please help us to carry on. Help me to carry on and keep doing what’s right. He finished with the Shema, then rolled over on his side and was asleep within thirty seconds.

Gates of Hell

Far away from the Lion of Judah, Pavlik took the last bite of his dinner, a piece of chicken that was covered in a type of gravy he’d never had before. “What is this called?” he asked Mary, who had prepared the meal. They all sat at a roughhewn kitchen table that was made from hand-carved wood.

“It’s called sawmill gravy. Cream-based mixed in with the oil from cooking the chicken.”

“Most amazing meal I’ve ever had,” Pavlik gushed.

“We eat well,” Susanna said. Ezekiel just watched; he’d barely said anything all night.

“I see you do. It surprises me, given how simply your people live.”

“How we live,” Ezekiel interjected, emphasizing “we.”

“Of course,” Pavlik said, chastened.

“Don’t forget that you must become one of us. It’s not an easy process, but one you must willingly embrace, accept, and eventually rejoice in to have any hope of long-term fulfillment,” Ezekiel continued.

Seems like a daunting task. “I will do my best,” Pavlik said. “May I be excused?”

“You’re an adult,” Mary said, grinning for the first time that evening. “You may do as you please within our rules. Workday starts at four AM tomorrow. You will assist in milking the livestock.”

Pavlik’s eyes bugged out. “Milking?”

“You don’t think the food we have just magically appears, do you? We make everything. Cows provide milk, which we drink and turn into cheese, butter, and creams. It’s a good place to start learning our ways. Once you’ve mastered those jobs, on to the fields,” Ezekiel said.

“Sounds like I need a good night’s sleep,” Pavlik said. Mary and Susanna chuckled politely while Ezekiel sat impassively. Deciding he’d worn out his welcome for the day, he stood. “Good night, everyone.”

“Good night, Vladislav,” Mary said.

Taking his leave of them, Pavlik went back to the small room he’d been assigned. He hadn’t brought much with him; the uniform he’d worn, a couple of mementos from his career, and a sidearm. Regardless of what the Terran Coalition might say, someone from the League would try to find him one day. He’d be prepared, if nothing else. Staring at the uniform, he considered the course of his life. I wish I could go back and never have made the choice to stay in the League’s Army.

Pavlik picked up the uniform, the realization of what he needed to do with it, a sudden flash of clarity in his mind. He walked through the house to the great room that had a roaring fire, one that burned all day and night during the winter months and was the primary source of heat. Glancing one last time at the pressed black uniform he’d worn for so many years with pride and distinction, he carefully opened the fire screen.

He threw the bundle into the flames, and immediately, the fire consumed the shirt, rendering it unrecognizable. A voice behind him caused Pavlik to nearly jump out of his skin. “A difficult step, I’m sure.”

Pavlik whirled around, seeing Susanna in the back of the room. “I’m sorry, you startled me.”

“I sense you’re not used to being the one that isn’t in charge.”

“No, can’t say I am. This is all new to me.”

“The proud will be humbled.”

“Certainly seems to be the case, at least for me.”

“Ruth told me you killed Colonel Pan.”

“Yes,” Pavlik said, his voice very soft. “I had no choice.”

“A week ago, I would’ve rejected the idea that killing another was ever justified. Now, I don’t.”

“We’ve both changed, then?”

“Yes. I suspect you’ve changed for the better, while I’m not sure I have,” Susanna said, a frown on her face.

“If my opinion carries any weight, I would tell you that from what I understand of your actions, you conducted yourself in a manner consistent with the finest traditions of the Terran Coalition.”

“It’s more God that I worry about, than men.”

“I don’t have that particular worry,” Pavlik said, flashing a smile.

“An interesting way to go through life.”

Pavlik shrugged. “Perhaps. I can still make moral judgments and know right from wrong.”

“It is said that the law of God is written on our hearts and made aware to us through our conscience.”

What an odd concept. “I can’t say either way, Susanna. What I can say is I feel at peace here. I made the right choice back in that office, even if it cost me everything I had.”

“Sometimes you have to lose everything to gain your soul.”

“I’ll take your word on it,” Pavlik answered, unsure how to respond to her religious beliefs. “I’d better get to bed. I don’t think there will be any reprieve for staying up late, even if it was to burn the accursed uniform of the League.”

“There’s hope for you yet,” Susanna joked with a grin. “Good night.”

“Good night.”

Watching her go, Pavlik waited for a few minutes before he walked back to his room, lost in thought. Will I ever see my family again? Was this all worth it? For reasons he couldn’t readily explain, a feeling of peace had descended over him since coming to the house. Perhaps this is where I belong, at least for now. Maybe there is something more than this life.. even a higher power at work. Perhaps in time I will gain clarity into that truth, if it really is one. His head hit the pillow, and deep sleep came quickly. Tomorrow would be the first day of his new life.

THE END

Echoes of War: Book 5 – Keep The Faith: As the League attacks the Terran Coalition from within, only David Cohen and his crew can stop them before it’s too late.

Now available on Amazon!

Tap here to get Book 5: Keep the Faith

FREE BOOK: Read the story of Levi Cohen and his heroic fight at the first battle of Canaan in Echoes of War: Stand Firm.

Available FREE only at www.danielgibbsauthor.com/standfirm.


Acknowledgments

Dave – thank you for all the guidance and mentorship as I continue to write the Echoes of War series.

There are many people (too many to name) that have offered encouragement, support, and help on this novel—you know who you are. Thanks.

As I have with my previous works, I continue to thank God for giving me the ability to write and bring this story to life. I hope everyone enjoys reading it, as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it.


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