Book: A Rain of Fire
A Rain of Fire
The Great War, Volume 1
Published by Ralph Kern, 2020.
This is a work of fiction. Similarities to real people, places, or events are entirely coincidental.
A RAIN OF FIRE
First edition. February 25, 2020.
Copyright © 2020 Ralph Kern.
Written by Ralph Kern.
Table of Contents
This book is dedicated to Private 5185387 Henry Patrick ‘Wink’ Goble of the Gloucestershire Regiment. Killed at Dunkirk on the 27th May 1940.
And to his wife, Patricia.
There are many people to thank in the writing of this story. The first is Wink, and his surviving family. I hope they feel I have honored him with this story – and thank you for allowing me to use his name.
Caroline, for putting up with an author’s antisocial hours!
The writer group I’m a member of. Their support is immeasurable.
Jamie Glover for the amazing art. To see he ran with this concept is an understatement. Steve Beaulieu for the awesome typography that makes it really pop.
Shay Van Zwoll for her great editing.
Tim C Taylor and Don Mies for their thorough proofing.
Claire Wood for her website design.
The many people who offered help, advice and support through this process.
I am eternally grateful to you all.
Pre-order Book 2 of The Great War here:
Colonel Tor Hest
The glowing red digits of the timer projected on the cockpit heads-up display counted inexorably down.
This is happening...this is really happening. Colonel Aria Tor Hest tried to focus on the task at hand. Running through pre-jump checks. Ensuring her Lance was ready. Preparing for the brutal business to come.
And she failed. It was only training which guided her hands on the controls, even as she looked through the scratched, pitted cockpit window. Past the swarms of gently twinkling ships and jump mechs hanging in orbit over the dawning hemisphere of a pristine world. She wanted to capture in her mind, to look at—to really look at—her world, Galton, the capital of the Neo Hegemony. Maybe for the last time.
Just on the terminator line, where night turned to day, lay the peninsula of Herriot Province. Her family’s estate sat in a meadow, a short distance from the cliff-lined coast. There, her children would be waking to a new dawn—both real, and metaphorical. She sought to etch a picture of her once beautiful land in her mind, the land which generations of her family had toiled over. Deep green tracts of lush forests surrounded the rough-cut stone of her manor while beyond, the vibrant blue Lestan Ocean bordered the peninsula. A small village, quaint in appearance, where her retainers lived nestled in a valley inland down a winding country road.
But also, from her elevated position in orbit, she saw the brutal craters and blemishes still unrepaired from the last war—the Great War—marring the land. The war the now dead Galton Imperium had lost so badly. The reason why she, and millions of others, had heeded this new call to action, united under a new banner and with a new cause.
A cause irresistible in its clarion call. Especially to the youth.
To take revenge. To take back their honor. To finish what their parents had started.
And to take their rightful destiny.
Her console chimed and the stern, scarred face of Field Marshal Richter Galen appeared on the HUD, obliterating the view of her home, bringing her musing to a crashing halt.
“All units of Army Group Alpha: Rain Fire Phase Two is a go.” The marshal paused. For dramatic effect, or through nervousness at what he was about to unleash, Hest didn’t know. But the pause didn’t last long. “In Father Terra’s name, execute.”
Hest pressed her head back against the leather headrest. She took a deep breath in, even as before her came a dizzying ripple of flashes. Dozens. Hundreds, then thousands of bursts of red light washed over Galton. So many, it would turn the night side of the world to a hellish day.
A brightness grew within the cockpit, its intensity turning the world before her to monochrome. Then even that was obliterated by the fierce light.
The blinding brightness disappeared as if a switch had been thrown. Galton had been replaced. She found herself hovering over another planet, the Orillion Republic world of Asteria in the Thuine System, her jump drive tuned to bring her to a sub-orbital velocity.
Glistening spider webs of cities crossed the night side, already turned a blurred orange as flames tore across them from the Aerospace Corps’ softening attack in Rain Fire Phase One. She craned her neck up. The number of stations and ships in Asteria’s orbit was so dense as to be visible to the naked eye. And directly above her loomed the nearest of the Republic’s massive fortresses: huge weapon-encrusted asteroids hauled into the world’s orbit a decade before.
But it wasn’t a serene vision.
Streamers of weapons fire lashed across the vista. The Republicans were good. They hadn’t hesitated. They had responded decisively to the swarms of Hegemony fighters tearing through them and the hordes of jump mechs appearing in their vicinity.
They may not have hesitated, but they hadn’t responded effectively.
The huge cannons and myriad weapons of the orbital fortresses were designed to ward off a conventional assault. To deal with fleets led by capital ships spiraling into orbit from above, not hundreds of fighters striking at them from below. And definitely not thousands of jump mechs screaming down to the surface of the world they hung over.
No, the Aerospace Corps, the fighter and bomber arm of the Hegemony’s military, couldn’t fight the Republic on their terms. So Galton had changed those terms to ones they could win.
The gently curved line of the horizon crept up the cockpit window as her mech fell from orbit. The fires from re-entry already flickering up the war machine’s hull. She felt the buffeting of entry as she hit the atmosphere proper. Spread across her vision, she could see thousands of fiery streaks plummeting with her. Her jump mech rocked as a squadron of S-91 Wolf Space Superiority fighters blurred past vertically down, the agile craft plummeting to the surface ahead of her invasion force leaving a trail of turbulence.
Anti-aerospace fire opened up from the surface. Wispy spirals of missiles, ineffective against the agile fighters’ electronic warfare suites, were deadly against the vulnerable mechs. Flak blossomed all around her. Streamers of pulse fire arced across the sky, both from above and below.
The clouds of descending jump mechs were riddled with a staccato of explosions. Hest felt herself being thrust back and forth within the tight confines of her cockpit, knowing death could come at any time with no more warning than seeing her mech disintegrate around her, leaving her to fall screaming to the surface.
One of her platoon mates exploded next to her as a missile slammed into the falling mech, turning it into a shower of debris tumbling alongside her. She gritted her teeth, her fear turning to anger at the loss. Another son or daughter of Galton dead—along with many others—before they’d even truly engaged the enemy.
She forced down the anguish at the loss. Now was not the time to mourn.
Hest glanced at the altimeter as she punched through a misty layer of stratus cloud. One hundred thousand feet. Close enough.
“AA fire is heavy. All mechs drop pods.” She didn’t wait for an acknowledgment; instead, she reached up and flicked four switches. With a series of thuds, the drop pods released from the mech’s back and plunged down alongside her amid a shower of chaff and flares, a probably vain attempt to ward off the fire seeking her out.
All around, the radar returns multiplied as the others did the same. Thousands of mechs each loosed four drop pods containing a soldier.
But even that impressive force would be a drop in the ocean against the resources of an entire world.
Among the descending cloud of jump mechs and personnel drop pods, assault shuttles plunged down, adding thousands more troops to the fray. And far above, the heavy transports containing tens of thousands more soldiers would already be entering the system, perfectly synchronized for when...
A huge explosion illuminated the night side.
One of the Republic’s much-vaunted fortresses had been destroyed, leaving a gaping hole in Asteria’s defensive coverage which the transports would wedge into.
The altimeter spun down. More fighters surged past, the punished pilots likely redded out by the intense negative gee they were subjected to as they plunged into the atmosphere.
The vibration of her passage distorted her vision as her deceleration rockets fired, but even so, from the horizon, monstrous mushroom clouds bloomed into existence. Each one was a pyre on which thousands were dying. Hest winced at the thought of the vile nuclear weapons being used. But they were cheap, and they were effective.
And it was no more than what the Republic and the Kingdom had inflicted on the worlds, and allies, of the Galton Imperium all those years ago.
She closed on the surface. Explosions stitched across fields and from clusters of buildings as she raced toward them. It was time she stopped being a passenger.
Soon, her work would begin. Her keen eye sought the small town, which was her immediate objective.
With a thunderous burst of retro rockets, the jump mech slammed into the ground. A geyser of dirt erupted from the force of her impact. The four drop pods of her mounted infantry speared into the field next to Hest. She keyed a switch. The actuator braces tightened around her arms and legs, transferring her muscle movements into driving the mech’s limbs.
The mech—Hest—reflexively ducked as a lance of light appeared; a Beamer anti-armor laser narrowly missed her. She stood from her crouch on the fire-blackened dirt, raising her arm and clenched her fist. Her pulse cannon fired.
A withering hail of electric-blue rounds riddled the building the beam had come from. Destruction scythed through it, turning the structure into a battered collapsing shell.
Something pinged off her armor. A brave, foolish soldier stood in the open, firing a rifle at her. Hest lifted her arm and fired again. The man disappeared, torn to pieces under the ferocity of her weapon.
From all around him, other mechs and drop pods thudded into the ground while above, fighters thundered over. And higher, the first of the huge civilian freighters converted into troop transports advanced into orbit.
The invasion of the Orillion Republic had begun.
And the same was happening across the whole of the Arcadian Sector.
New Avalon – Admiralty House
Admiral Jonathan Darrow swept down the long corridor of Admiralty House, the heels of his gleaming black leather knee-length boots clicking on the veined marble floor. To either side, busts, holo-pics and watercolors cluttered the wood-panel walls, depicting battles from history and the leaders of yesteryear.
Two guards drew to attention as he approached the imposing double doors. He noted in satisfaction that the ceremonial red uniforms were gone, replaced by the dark gray of battle armor. Good, because one thing he’d garnered from the messages urgently pinging his comm was that now wasn’t the time to be letting tradition dictate dress order.
The soldiers snapped off perfect salutes as he drew close before turning to allow him to pass unimpeded.
He nodded, then flicked an automatic salute in return as the deceptively sturdy doors rumbled open. They may have looked like mere wood, ornate and ancient. But it was a façade, hiding battle steel which could take a bunker buster bomb without bowing.
Tapping his foot, he waited impatiently for the doors to open sufficiently for him to twist through.
How the bloody hell had this happened? We moved the expeditionary force into the Republic precisely to stop this situation from arising.
The bustle of officers filled the operations room beyond. In a stark contrast to the hallway, no expense had been spared in ensuring every facet was state of the art, including the vast hologrammatic situation map slowly rotating in the middle of the room.
He gave a long exhalation as he took in what it showed. It made for depressing viewing. The green bulge of Republic space had red tendrils stretching through it from its neighboring star nation, the Galton Hegemony—no, Darrow corrected himself—the Neo Hegemony now. Each of the red lines creeping forward was a Neo strike force gaining more territory in a series of massive surprise assaults than they had taken in the Great War of twenty-two years ago.
“Admiral.” A mug of steaming hot tea was thrust into his hand and he accepted it with a grunt. Something stronger might have been more welcome right now given what he was seeing. He silently wished for the bottle of Silas Number One sitting in the bottom drawer of his desk as he watched the full-scale invasion of their strongest ally in the Arcadian Sector.
“What do we have?” he cast the whimsy aside as he addressed his head of intelligence.
Captain Raoul Martinez looked up from the console he stood over. His face glistened with perspiration, and it likely wasn’t because of temperature in the fiercely air-conditioned room. “Sir, the Republicans have just been handed their arses. On a plate.”
Darrow raised his eyebrow, allowing his expression to portray his disapproval at the staff officer’s report. “A few more facts and a little less rhetoric, if you please, Captain.”
The man pursed his lips. Not from the rebuke, Darrow wagered, but in having to articulate the horrendous scenario unfolding.
“Neo Hegemony forces have entered the Republic, striking here, here, and here.” Martinez gestured at three tendrils stretching through the hollow display. Darrow cocked his head. The Republic’s core systems of Orillia, Asteria, and Balarie. The admiral frowned; each of those heavily populated worlds were guarded by the Republic’s much-vaunted orbital fortresses, not that they looked to have slowed the Hegemony forces down one single iota. Off shoots from the main advances spread wide, the enemy striking secondary targets. “Initial reports suggest—”
Darrow flicked his eyes to look at the ashen captain. “Suggest?”
“Suggest,” Martinez continued undaunted, for the time being immune to Darrow’s exacting standards of report. “They will fall.”
“Lost Earth,” Darrow cursed.
Those bloody fortresses. Impenetrable to assault, my arse. The sheer arrogance of the Republic in hedging their defenses on the huge things, which had now proven to be little more than exceptionally large and expensive bullseyes.
“How, Captain?” Darrow asked slowly, processing furiously even as he spoke. “How did this happen?”
“Intel is sporadic. But, so far, it appears they direct dropped at least a dozen mechanized divisions on each world with an indeterminate number of infantry, supported by aerospace fighters and bombers to gain superiority.”
“And the fortresses themselves?”
“Fortress line Valianter over Asteria appears to have been completely destroyed. Again, intel is scarce, but if I were a betting man, I’d say the Republicans scuttled them to stop their seizure.”
“And the others?”
“Lines Defiante and Honourous over Orillia and Balarie are at around fifty percent each, however they appear to be offering minimal resistance now. They’ve either been taken, still fighting, or...”
“Their COs didn’t have the balls to push the button.”
Darrow massaged his clean-shaven cheek. A confusing emotion washed through him. There was disbelief at what he was looking at, of course. A supposedly hamstrung enemy had managed to take on the most significant emplaced nation in the sector and, to all intents and purposes, appeared to be winning. And yes, there was a glimmer of admiration there too. Neo Hegemony forces had managed it without naval support. Hell, they barely had a space-going navy worth a damn. The Treaty of Charis laid it out: a couple of capital ships which would barely be classed as more than heavy cruisers in any other navy, a handful of destroyers, and a few patrol craft.
Oh, Admiral Darrow wasn’t naïve. It was a known fact the Galts had small shipyards producing minor vessels—most worryingly their damnable stealths—but nothing big. Frankly, it hadn’t been worth the diplomatic headache to challenge them on it.
Simply, they shouldn’t be able to do this. To attack another nation. And certainly not one the size of the Republic. That was the whole damn point of the treaty.
“So how the hell had they landed so many?” Darrow continued his thought aloud.
In response, Martinez tapped on his tablet. The holo-display swapped for what looked to be gun camera footage from some kind of military craft, perhaps a Republic fighter defending its home—whoever it was didn’t matter right that moment. The twilight horizon was visible as thousands of shooting stars rained down.
The horizon tilted, and a box appeared around a comet screaming down toward the surface. A moment later, a line of tracer rounds lashed out toward it, riddling the already burning ember. An explosion bloomed even as the fighter banked around, then dived toward the ground where one of the objects had touched down.
The footage froze and the image zoomed in. There—a patch of burning ground, and in the center, a mech, its gun already blazing at something out of view.
“Intel has had”—Martinez lifted his arm, the black of his uniform sleeve drawing back, and glanced at an expensive silver watch—“thirty-two minutes to come up with an estimate of just what happened here.”
“As best we can tell, it looks like each of the mechs have a sub-fighter mass jump drive and a re-entry pack,” Martinez said. “They literally jumped them above the worlds and deorbited them directly onto the planet.”
An ember of admiration grew into a flame. The audacity. The sheer bloody audacity! “Will someone tell me why the Engineering Ministry never thought of that?”
“It’s certainly innovative, sir.”
“It is indeed, Captain. Right,” he settled on before clapping his hands, gaining the attention of the staff. They looked up from their consoles; the chatter faded. “The prime minister will be expecting a briefing soon, and I need some solid answers to take to her. I need initial estimates on what we’re facing. Size, composition, quality—the works. Intelligence has dropped the ball, and you need to pick it up. Hop to it, people.”
The bustle resumed, as if a switch had been flicked. Darrow gazed over the busy activity, his vision tracking past his troubled-looking staffer.
“Sir,” Martinez murmured.
“The KEF was staging on Asteria.”
“I know, Captain,” Darrow whispered back. “I know. And we need to know what their status is quickly. They may be our wild card, or they may be the key to the Neo Hegemony defeating us before we even get into this war.”
Martinez blinked. His mouth opened and closed, as if he had not even considered the prospect. Did he really think that this was just one of the Kingdom’s policing operations in its expansive dominion?
“War?” Martinez finally swallowed, and Darrow could sympathize. War implied someone was going to shoot back, something the Kingdom hadn’t had to seriously face in over two decades.
“Yes, son. As of today, we are at war with the Neo Galton Hegemony.”
New Avalon Orbit – Starbase Victory
Each breath burned his throat harder than the one before. Hal Cutter increased his speed from a jog, through to a run, and then into a dead sprint.
He followed the winding path, his trainers pounding on the flagstones as he powered through the lush greenery of the park, racing past the other early-morning runners heading in the opposite direction. He didn’t even take the time to give them the polite nod of greeting which signified companionship between fellow early-morning running masochists.
His arms pumped and his breath increased to a rasping grate. To his right, through the vast picture windows, the huge sapphire-and-emerald-colored globe of New Avalon loomed large, illuminated by the golden light of its parent star, Regis.
Thirty more seconds. Just thirty more. He refocused, his head dropping as the fatigue poisons infiltrated his muscles. Every step grew harder and harder, his legs turning to leaden weights.
Twenty. He reached deep into his empty tanks, summoning the last erg of energy to see him through to his destination. He could see it now. The bench he had identified as his stopping point. The objective.
He would get to it if it damn well killed him. Ten more seconds. A rasping groan escaped his lips.
He decelerated rapidly, cantering to a halt, and with a heavy hand slapped the back of the bench. Then, he promptly bent over double, wheezing in a desperate attempt to get air into his tortured lungs. Lost Earth, this wasn’t as easy as a few years ago. Back in the day, he’d think nothing of joining the Kingdom Marines on their brutal PT sessions—he’d even shown a few how it was done. Now, halfway between his fortieth and fiftieth birthdays, he could barely bring himself to watch that particular brand of torture.
Standing up, he pushed the palms of his hands into his back, arching it, and felt the welcoming release of his body stretching before slumping down onto the bench, his rasping pants reducing to normal breathing.
Before Cutter, the huge windows overlooked a vast mooring spoke reaching out from the spinning wheel of Starbase Victory. Dozens of docking slips permeated its length, the vessels within exposed to the harsh vacuum of space. The docks got bigger further out, going from the small and nimble destroyers to the aggressive, sleek lines of the cruisers. And then, finally, there she was. His ship, Achilles, squatting alone in the battleship bays.
Her lines were muscular, but to a seasoned spacer like Cutter, robust and lethal. Huge pulse cannon batteries studded her kilometer-long spaceframe. Even partially hidden behind a lattice framework of loading equipment as she took on the supplies and ammunition, she exuded a thunderous power. A battleship was made for war. To take the fight to the enemy. And win.
Cutter’s breathing slowly faded to normality, his hands still resting on his thighs as he looked out over the ships of the largest space-going navy in the known galaxy.
The Kingdom Navy. Feared by her enemies. Her battleships the largest. Her destroyers the most numerous. Her cruisers bringing the Kingdom’s foreign policy into their rivals’ space. They stretched through the Arcadian Sector, across the empty Reach, and even into the vast expanse of the Great Void. Protecting and projecting the Kingdom’s rule to the distant colonies.
Cutter gave a bitter chuckle. Or they had. Oh, the Kingdom Navy still had the numbers. Not even the Federation, with its massive economic might, could match them in terms of raw tonnage or hulls. But most of the fleet was old now, and frayed around the edges. Many of the ships had served in the Great War against the Galton Imperium of a quarter century ago. Achilles and her sister ships were among the only recent capital ship construction in years. The admiralty was steeped in dogma and arrogance. Unable and unwilling to accept that the galaxy had moved on, yet confident in their own superiority.
And seemingly blind to how damn thin spread they were. The chart showing the Kingdom’s territory wasn’t a homogenous mass like most, no every other star nation. It was isolated systems scattered throughout known space, separated by long weeks of travel time.
No, Cutter let his clasped hands dangle between his spread thighs as his frustrations boiled over. He was making the right choice. He’d risen far and fast, a testament to his own frustrated ambitions and drive, but what he’d found here, in the lofty position of captain of a battleship, was that the glory days of the Kingdom belonged to the generation before.
And now, he had other reasons to get out. Far more important ones.
This would be his last cruise. Then he was home...for good.
He stood and walked back along the meandering path toward the officers’ quarters.
“I’m home!” he bellowed as came through the door. As soon as it slid shut, he peeled off his sweaty tee shirt and flung it into the hamper as he walked past the bathroom of their small apartment in officer country.
“Morning to you, too,” he grumbled when no response came. He made his way through the lounge where Iona sat on the settee, watching a bunch of talking head news presenters frantically discussing something. Her face was a picture of rapt attention. He filtered it out as he entered the kitchen and plucked a glass from the cupboard and filled it with water. He’d catch up on the news when he caught the transit down the spoke. He tapped the kitchen counter holo-display, and a menu of mail flickered into existence above. He swiped his hand through the headers. Bills, junk mail. A flyer for a nice-looking restaurant that looked like it had opened up on the circumference promenade. And...
“Hey, looks like Sartis finally got back to me, honey.” He keyed it open and scrolled down the display with a flick of his finger, past the antiquated anchor crest of Sartis Shipping. “And they say my references have come through.”
If this panned out, the longest he would be gone from home would be days, not months. Still not ideal, but far better than what he had now. And the recompense would be a hell of a lot more than he saw now.
“Honey?” He frowned, not hearing a response. He paced through to the lounge, and saw what she was watching. Thoughts of Sartis Shipping disappeared from his mind as the footage on the news channel replaced the discussion panel. A world, Asteria—he recognized from the continents—flickered with explosions. Huge freighters hung in orbit, disgorging streams of landing craft. He saw the ticker band of breaking features scrolling across the bottom and listened to the commentary for the first time.
“Casualties are estimated to be in the thousands from thermonuclear detonations over military facilities at Noveu Sileria. Orillion Republic forces are reported to be falling back across all theaters and territories.”
Lost Earth. The Republic?
“We are still awaiting a statement in regards to our expeditionary force, which is stationed on Asteria, but it is likely they are engaging the Hegemony forces.”
He walked around the couch and lowered himself next to his wife. She glanced across to him, her eyes wide. She reached out and gripped his hand tightly with hers and pressed against him.
“To repeat. The Republic has issued a formal declaration of war against the Neo Hegemony. More as we have it.”
“I think...” Already a to-do list formed in his mind, and it was populating with a hell of a lot of items. “I need to get to the office, honey.”
“I know,” Iona replied. “I know.”
“Might have to put the resignation plans on hold, too.”
She gave a tight nod. “I know that, too.”
Standing, she pulled him up with both hands. “Go to work, spacer. I need to get to the hospital. It looks like we may be getting busy soon.”
“There’s going to be refugees, Hal. They’ve got to come somewhere.”
“Okay.” Cutter nodded. Lost Earth. In her state...dealing with a flood of people coming in from a warzone. He looked down at the bump of her belly. The primary reason why he wanted out of the Navy.
And, from what he could see, the primary reason he’d have to stay in. To defend his family.
“You do what you have to do,” he settled on. “But remember, you have someone else to look after, too.”
“I’m not likely to forget it, and neither should you.” His wife gave a thin humorless smile. “Go. Get to work.”
Private Wink Goble
Asteria – 100 Km East of Port Rorian
Private Patrick “Wink” Goble sat, leaning against the rough bark of a tree, his legs drawn up and his elbows balanced on his knees. He pressed his mouth to the small tablet in his hands, yet he couldn’t take his eyes off the lightning-like pulses of illumination punctuating the darkness, highlighting the copses of Terran-transplanted willow trees sprinkled over the fields and cow-filled pastures before him.
From the night sky above, fiery embers rained down. More and more of the invading Galts, streaming down in an unending cascade. Another bright flash came from above. Something big going up. Perhaps another one of the orbital fortresses. Perhaps one of the Republic’s last few ships fighting to defend this world. Who knew? Certainly not him, nor the other men and women gathered looking at the skies in fear.
He pulled his head back from the tablet and squinted at the picture on the lock screen. A young woman held a baby—the most beautiful woman in the world, as far as Wink was concerned—her face red and flush from the effort of delivery, yet cradling a newborn child to her breast. His wife, Lil and the daughter he’d never met, Patricia.
I just wanna go home soon. Lost Earth, please let me go back soon, Wink, so-called because of his perpetual squint, thought.
This wasn’t supposed to be a war. Not a real one, anyway. Yet here he was. In the middle of a fuckin’ invasion! A sudden surge of frustration filled him. He fought the urge to toss the tablet. It was the only private material he was allowed to carry on exercise. If it broke, then that was it. He’d have nothing showing Lil or Patricia.
“Private!” Sergeant Loomis snapped. An intimidating silhouette loomed over Wink, but the hand he laid on Wink’s shoulder told a different story as it gave a gentle, reassuring squeeze. “Son, rifle and admin.”
Wink gave a start, as the voice penetrated his consciousness, then nodded at the stern older man. Sergeant Loomis. Earth, Wink didn’t even know his first name. Unless it was “Sarge,” which he doubted. Somehow, he never figured he would be on first-name terms with the man.
“We gonna,” Wink cleared his dry throat, then tried again. “Are we gonna have to fight, Sarge?”
Loomis looked back to the east. The flashes of lights gave an eerie pulsing illumination to his face. He glanced up as a lone fighter thundered overhead, burning hard toward the battlefront. It disappeared into the battle-tortured night.
Then, where its course would have taken it, an explosion blossomed in the sky, followed a few seconds later by a crack.
“Yes, son. We’re going to fight.” Loomis surveyed the other young men and women of the platoon. “You all are. The war’s started, kids. The war we all knew was coming, but somehow eluded the brass.”
Wink felt his lips curling in a frown. Not everyone thought like that. He’d joined up because Lil’s dad would only give his blessing if he had a good job and could look after his daughter. There were no way he was gonna work in a factory or warehouse, doing jobs considered too menial even for ’bots, that was for sure. And in Derbin County, that left the army. So, he’d signed up with the Derbin Regiment. The Back Steppers, apparently named for a fighting retreat against the Republic in the Sphere, way back before they were on friendly terms with ’em. Being an infantryman was the only thing he was qualified for with his school scores.
Lil’s dad had nodded his approval when he’d told him he was signing up the youngest he could, right after his compulsory schooling was done. The older man had started talking about how his own father had been in the army at Charis, and helped fight the Galts in that bloody battle. He said he’d come back missing an arm. Like that was a badge of honor. Now he’d spent three years in the Kingdom’s army and was thoroughly sick of it. Sick of being away from home, away from Lil. Promises of “His Majesty” giving him a trade unfulfilled...the only thing he was qualified for was cleaning and firing a Barrington Mark 3 Pulse rifle.
“You’ve trained for this. I trained you for this,” Loomis’s voice cut through. The sarge turned and barked across the field. “Lieutenant?”
Lieutenant Roth wasn’t much older than Wink. Some kind of university graduate, though. Knew stuff about stuff. But she looked as pale and drawn as the enlisted. Wink swallowed. Shit. Officers were supposed to have the answers, not look like they were about to piss themselves.
“Lieutenant. We’re going to be needing orders,” Loomis barked harshly, causing Wink to wince. You didn’t speak to an officer like that...even one who looked as frozen in fear as everyone else. Loomis hustled over to her at a crouch. Then there was animated whispering. And finally, some jerky nodding from her.
She came back with Loomis to the center of the loose circle of packs and watching, scared soldiers. “Sergeant. Please get HQ on the comm. Request instructions.”
The sarge touched his sleeve, activating the comm screen imbedded there. “Sunray, 5th Bat, B Coy 2nd Platoon currently at position Hotel X-ray at Yankee on extended training exercise, requesting orders.”
The pad clicked and spluttered. Ghostly murmurs of barely discernible words pushed through the jamming or whatever was causing the disturbance.
“Tell us something we don’t fuckin’ know,” Henry “Hoof” McMillon hissed from where he hunched down next to Wink.
“Stow it.” Loomis glared hard, withering the bombastic man. He flicked his attention back to the comm, frowning at it.
Loomis darted a look at Lieutenant Roth. She breathed out hard, the mist from her breath rising into the cold night air.
“What’s a condition Zula? Lieutenant? Sarge?” Hoof looked between the two of them.
Wink shook his head. Hoof hadn’t listened during the deployment briefing. Not to the bit tagged on at the end in the section under unthinkable, anyway. Wink, though, he paid attention to that stuff. Mostly in a desperate attempt to stay awake ’cause falling asleep meant more PT.
Loomis took it in his stride, not even showing annoyance. “It’s the retreat—”
“Retreat?” Hoof scoffed incredulously, then pinned his lips shut, the young man fully aware of the dim view the sergeant took to being interrupted.
“People, I said stow it,” Loomis growled. “Listen up. We’re tabbing back, double time, to X-ray and loading up on our Turtles. No piss and no wind out of you. We need to move fast.”
Another booming explosion filled the skies. The source not even apparent. “And certainly no delay getting packed up.”
The platoon silently gathered their gear, lifting their packs onto their backs and picking up their weapons.
Wink spared a glance back to the tumultuous violence to the east. He knew he wasn’t a smart guy. Not like the lieutenant, anyway. Or even the sarge, who’d had years to get experience. He didn’t even have much of an imagination, beyond dreams of his beloved Derbin County team winning the next soccer cup.
But the thought of all the people fighting, that got him. And they were out there. The Kingdom, and those ’Pubs talking in their weird language.
The brawls and arguments with those strange folk back on the base were forgotten for the moment, because as far as he were concerned, if they were pointing their weapons in the same direction, then they were now friends.
Cradling his Barrington Mk 3 pulse rifle in his arms, he fell into the snaking column of men and women trudging their way through the dark field back toward their transports.
New Avalon Orbit – Starbase Victory
Squadron Leader Phil Wainwright lifted his watch and stared pointedly at it as the last pilot filtered into the flight ops room. He stood at the center plotting table, a swath of documents and charts already arrayed on the screen inset into it.
“Thank you for taking the time to come,” he said, the slight disapproval in his clipped voice more than expressing his disapproval at their tardiness.
“He’s got one on him, today,” Sienna Quinn whispered.
Flying Officer Jason “Rick” Richards nodded with a wry smile. Normally, Wainwright was calm, measured. A sarcastic tone was the equivalent of a screaming tantrum from anyone else. But, by all accounts, the man might be under a little pressure. “For good reason, I reckon.”
“I’ve just finished my briefing with the Group Captain,” Wainwright began as his audience shuffled into their places. “It has been confirmed that hostilities have commenced between the Orillion Republic and the Neo Hegemony.”
From the news Rick had caught as he had quickly tugged on his flight suit and sealed up his boots and cuffs, it looked like it was more than mere “hostilities.” More like a full-on war was going on just over the Regis Gap.
“At this time, command is discussing what our response to this is going to be.” Once again, a hint of disapproval laced his words. A symptom, Rick wagered, of the man’s concern that he let it slip through his professional façade.
In many ways, Wainwright was the antithesis of what the common perception of a pilot was. Calm, cold, bordering on the reserved. By all accounts, way back in the when, he’d been an animal. The bar room legends of extreme dares and pranks from him as a young pilot—and not to mention naked streaking through Victory—likely earning him rebukes and reprimands that his skill as a pilot, and as a leader, had managed to offset. But that had been way before Rick had arrived on Viper Squadron. As long as he’d known the boss, he’d always been an implacable rock, never subject to the highs and lows of most.
“Our tasking, along with Cobra and Adder squadrons, is to ensure Starbase Victory gets around the clock combat aerospace patrols.”
“We getting an upscale, boss?” Flight Lieutenant Shanya Munroe, the squadron executive officer asked, her arms folded.
Wainwright leaned forward, planting his hands on the table. “Yes, we’re upping it to one flight out at all times.”
Rick raised an eyebrow and glanced at Quinn, who rolled her eyes in response. Trust command to act decisively. One flight, four fighters in total, may have doubled the CASP...but then, the Galts had thrown hundreds of aerospace craft at the Republic.
Munroe chuckled humorlessly, and even Wainwright let a thin smile cross his face. Damn, he really was speaking volumes today.
“That’s the hand we’ve been dealt by command, so put a pin in your opinion on that,” Wainwright said firmly. “But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to ensure a second flight is at alert one at all times. Cobra and Adder’s commanders feel the same. I want us able to generate a decent response if the Hegemony decides to send anything our way.”
Rick nodded, not quite fully reassured, but the boss was saying that another three flights—twelve fighters—would be ready to burn out of Victory at a moment’s notice. It’d be harder on the pilots and crew. Cutting into rest periods. But, unless command decided they were going to reinforce the largest and busiest combined civilian and military starbase orbiting New Avalon, they only had each other to lean on if it all went wrong.
“Sounds better to me, boss.” Munroe nodded. “Want me to—”
“Absolutely,” Wainwright said as he tapped the table before him. “I want a full flying roster before you leave ops, covering the next seventy-two hours.”
He washed his gaze over the fifteen pilots of Viper Squadron gathered in the room. “Let’s be clear here. War may not have been declared yet, but you will treat it as such. When you’re up, everything gets challenged and visually checked out. And if it happens, if the Hegemony turns up, don’t hesitate. Don’t be thinking ‘should I or shouldn’t I?’ The Hegemony pilots are too damn good, by all accounts, and that’ll just get you killed. You squeeze the trigger and let command deal with the consequences later. Acknowledge that, please.”
“Yes, sir,” Rick said, in a respectable chorus with the others.
“Good.” Wainwright nodded in satisfaction. “Now listen up, I know you’ll be itching to take the fight to the enemy. And I promise you that time will come. Soon. But for the moment, we’re on defense duties. Use that time. Get yourself slick and quick so when we do go knocking on Johnny Galts’ door, we’re ready to rock. Understood?”
Rick joined the other pilots in nodding his agreement. Practice made perfect, after all. Train hard, Fight easy—as everyone in the room had had drilled into them from day one of flight school.
“Then let’s get busy, shall we,” Wainwright said, clapping his hands.
Rick exchanged another look with Quinn. So, this was it. War may not have been declared officially, but it was as good as happening.
Two years of training was about to get real.
The eager smile Quinn was trying to subdue matched the one he could feel tugging on his own lips.
New Avalon Orbit – KSS Achilles
“Captain on deck.” The young spacer snapped off a perfect salute as Cutter paced up the boarding tube past him. He absently returned it, still looking at his pad displaying a nonstop streamer of news from the Republic.
He gave a sigh as he came to a stop, remembering himself. If he didn’t keep up discipline, how the hell was his crew supposed to? And now, that was going to be needed more than ever.
He turned on his heel and this time gave a parade ground salute. “Thank you, Spacer”—he glanced at the nametag on the man’s gray working rig—“Grant.”
The man drew to at-ease in acknowledgment as Cutter returned to his path, marching through the starkly utilitarian corridors of the KSS Achilles. She was a warship through and through, and there were few windows, even on these outer sections, aesthetics and points of vulnerability ceding to the gray pragmatism of battle-steel armor.
He reached a transit capsule and ducked into it. Blue strip lighting illuminated the small cab and he grasped a railing as it set off. A display showed his path, threading and winding deep into the core of the ship.
She was barely finished. No scratch that, she wasn’t finished. She still had the damn manufacturer’s work parties onboard fitting out her huge pulse cannons. Her secondary batteries had just finished their tests and about the only thing he was completely confident around was the extensive suite of anti-aerospace weaponry.
“Bridge,” a soft feminine voice spoke. The capsule sighed to a halt and the doors slid open with a ping. He walked up the short corridor beyond, saluting at the two Marines adorned in combat armor guarding the vault-like entrance.
The doors rumbled open, revealing the long rectangular shape of the bridge. In the center, recessed into a pit, a huge holo-display showed a rotating schematic of Achilles, surrounded by consoles and the bustle of spacers and officers busy working, managing the huge vessel.
Damn, but she’s beautiful.
The feeling surged through him on occasion. All the ships he’d served on had, for different reasons, a special place in his heart, from his midshipman cruise onboard the cruiser Seal, to the old tin can destroyer, Scimitar, his first command, to the many other ships he’d crewed throughout his service. But there was no doubt, the Vengeance-class battleship, Achilles, was the pinnacle of any career. And one of the reasons he wanted to leave on a high; it would not get better than skippering this kilometer-long titan of guns and armor.
Oh, she might not be the legendary Cronus, the pride of the fleet. But the Battleship Achilles was a fine new addition. She was among the first of the few modern capital ships to enter the fleet listings in a generation.
“Captain on deck.” His executive officer Commander Hannah Ashford stood from the command chair atop a podium situated to look over the room. She trotted down the stairs and around the holo-display to him. “Looks like we may be getting rather busy rather soon, skipper.”
“That we will.” Cutter nodded in greeting. “How’s she looking?”
“Techs are still saying the primary batteries require some love and attention,” Ashford said disapprovingly. Overschedule and over budget were the two phrases he seemed to be reading most in his reports. The only upside being how much it must piss off the old cranky bastards who held the purse strings.
“It is what it is,” he finally said in reply. “And the crew?”
Ashford shrugged. “When you have 1521 people on board...”
“You’re going to get 1521 different opinions.” Cutter nodded. “Fine. Get it disseminated to the section leaders to keep an eye on their people. And make sure the messes know that when we’re in dock or not at action stations, I want the good silverware being used.”
His XO smiled in response. The least he could do, if soon they were going to war, was to ensure that the men and women under his command were getting good, decent meals, and not the usual swill which was served up in the messes. The time would undoubtedly come later when the crew was so busy, the most they’d get would be sandwiches hastily distributed while they were at their stations.
He gave a long exhalation. It was definitely going to get real soon. Together, they walked back to the command station and he keyed the display. Before them, the tactical screen switched to show a representation of the sector. The Kingdom sat on one side of a ten-light-year empty stretch of space called the Regis Gap. On the other lay the cluster of star nations known as the Arcadian Sector. The largest of those nations, by far, were currently engaged in a brutal war. The Orillion Republic and the Neo Galton Hegemony flashed red, showing where the battle was raging.
“The whole fleet’s going to have its work cut out for it, Hannah.” Cutter folded his arms, regarding the map.
The commander pursed her lips and leaned over to him. “Word in the mess, skipper, is the admiralty is getting windy. They’re reluctant to commit the fleet to support.”
“They’re certainly going to have some big decisions to make,” Cutter acknowledged drily. And windy was an understatement. Policing operations against poorly equipped rebels and single-world systems in the far-flung provinces of the Kingdom were one thing, potentially going to war with one of the powers of the sector was quite another.
“I say.” Ashford gestured at the display toward the closest of the Republic systems, Thuine. “We drop in there. Lay down some serious smack from orbit, and kick those damn Neos out of the Republic.”
Cutter flashed her a smile, then nodded at the gunnery stations. “Even if the damn cannons work, if we give bombardment of sufficient aggression to dig the Neos out, then we’ll end up decimating the local Republican population. Literally. Intel brief says we’d reduce it by ten percent if our aim is true.”
“And how many will they lose if we don’t dig them out?”
“At the moment”—Cutter let the smile drop from his face—“that is a moot point, unless we get given our orders.”
“You must have some kind of steer?”
Cutter gave a sigh of frustration. The same frustrations which had nearly driven him out of the fleet. “Lost Earth, Hannah, we build the biggest damn navy in the galaxy, so the Neos turn around, shrug, and say they’re not even going to try and take us on on our terms. Instead they’ve pumped their budget into one of the best jump-capable fighter, bomber, and stealth mixes we’ve ever seen. Low cost, and they were allowed under the treaty as no one thought they were worth a damn. The Kingdom Navy simply doesn’t have anything to engage.”
Ashford glanced around, as if making doubly sure no one was in earshot. Cutter recognized the expression on her face. The one which said she was about to speak her mind. And the reason why she was such a damn good executive officer. Right now, that meant focusing her captain.
“Are we going into the Republic or not?”
“What I want, Commander, is to do exactly what we’re talking about.” Cutter fought to keep the exasperation at the non-existent orders he hadn’t been cut from his voice. “However, what we’ll actually do is wait for orders from Admiralty House while they figure out what they’re doing, and how we get our expeditionary force out of Asteria, which was supposed to deter something like this in the first damn place.”
“The poor bastards.” Ashford’s gaze turned to the pulsing red tumor labeled Asteria. “It’s going to be a meat grinder for them.”
The captain inclined his head in agreement. “Yeah. Could get pretty bad for them before it looks to get any better. Hannah, I know the brass is prevaricating, but I want us ready to go the second they give the nod. Understood?”
Cutter gave a thin smile, then clapped his hands, drawing the attention of the bridge officers and enlisted. “Ladies, gentlemen. Shortly, Achilles will be called on to go to war. I want condition four throughout the ship. I want our weapons checked, tested, and ready to go. I want full combat maneuvering available. I want the engines ready to burn at one hundred percent. And I want us ready to go the second Fleet gives the word. No ifs, no ands, and no buts. Clear?”
“Clear,” a ripple of replies echoed through the bridge.
“And while we wait, Commander Ashford will be drilling the hell out of you. If, no when, Achilles is called on to fight, she sure as Lost Earth is green and blue going to win.”
New Avalon – Ridgeacre House
“The opinion of the intelligence services is”—Isabelle Latimore steeped her fingers over the desk—“that the Hegemony wish to demonstrate they have us over a barrel and force us to sue for peace. So, my question for you, Marshal Holden, is can they hold? Or are we going to lose the Kingdom Expeditionary Force?”
The Prime Minister of the Kingdom sat in her leather chair, facing her three most senior officers. The fact she was meeting them here, in her ultra-modern actual office, as opposed to the wood-paneled false antiquity of her ceremonial chambers at Ridgeacre House spoke volumes. They were here to talk business.
The officers were arrayed in three chairs before the prime minister’s desk, probably the best part of 120 years of military experience between them. A weight of power which would make anyone but the woman before them nervous. One entire wall had been transformed into a situation map, showing the entirety of explored space. Yet the part they were interested in, the Arcadian Sector, was surrounded by a pulsing red tumor. A pulsing red tumor that contained a good portion of Marshal Holden’s army.
Army Marshal Raymond Holden grunted as he shifted his large frame in his own seat. Once he had been a muscular bear of a man, legendary in the power-lifting circuit of the Armed Services’ Games. But age had caught up with him, turning that muscle to fat.
“Asteria has a significant defense infrastructure.” His jowls shivered as he spoke in a rumbling voice. “But it is built around defeating a conventional invasion force—”
“Ray,” The prime minister held her hand up, stopping him in his tracks, forestalling what would undoubtedly be a long and needlessly detailed explanation which, frankly, they didn’t need there and then.
She lowered her hand back to the desk, her sanguine brown eyes calm, for the moment, Darrow thought, in the face of what was going on a few short light years away across the Gap. The truth, though, was that calm façade presented to the public hid an often terrible and righteous anger. More than once, he’d seen it overspill as if lava from a volcano, her rage sweeping generals and ministers alike aside.
“Now is not the time to get your excuses in,” she continued. “We’re here to have a frank discussion. Those troops were sent to support the Republic as a deterrent to Neo Hegemony ambitions. That is a plan which has clearly failed. I, we, need to know just what we can do about the fact that a third of our standing army—the better part of half a million men and women—are currently trapped in what has suddenly become a warzone.”
Holden’s jowls accommodated the frown on his face. “No, ma’am. They’ll not hold, considering the amount of troops the Galts are dropping in. But they can grind the invasion to a halt and lock them down in an attrition war.”
The prime minister tapped her fingers on the table, cocking her head, looking beyond the three senior officers of His Majesty’s armed forces and into the distance. It was, Darrow, recognized, the same expression that all veterans who had seen too much combat had when thinking of the past.
Admiral Darrow spared a look at his counterparts. Holden shifted again, his large frame threatening to overspill from the chair as Lady Veronica Myles, head of the Kingdom Aerospace Force sat, her slim figure composed and her legs crossed.
“A war of attrition,” the prime minister spoke slowly, “is not something we’ve seen since the Great War. We all fought the old Galton Imperium in that, and none of us should be strategizing to recreate it. We’ll be sentencing many to death, hardship, and injury. I think we can all agree, that is not something which is desirable.”
“I don’t see what option we have,” Aerospace Marshal Myles spoke for the first time. Her voice—more a drawl hailing from the southern tip of Redmoor—often lulled people into underestimating her. A terminal mistake, for enemies and political adversaries alike. “Short of a full-scale counterattack and reinforcement.”
“And throw more meat into the grinder defense of a fallen nation?” The prime minister raised an eyebrow. “Admiral Darrow?”
“What are our evacuation options? We got them into the Republic. How do we get them out?”
It was Darrow’s turn to shift uncomfortably in his chair. “The insertion of the expeditionary force was actioned over months following the Hegemony Prime’s increasingly bellicose statements. We escalated as he did.” Not that anyone had believed the war of words would actually turn hot. “Simply put, it would take months to extract them using our conventional military lift capacity. We just don’t have the shipping in terms of troop transport to get them back.”
Darrow paused, knowing his next comment would be considered a scathing indictment of a strategy he had never advocated, yet which had been approved by those in the room: the placement of the Kingdom Expeditionary Force as a deterrent to Hegemony ambition. “It does not escape me that this may have been part of the Neo Hegemony’s objectives, to isolate a substantial part of our force and defeat it in detail.”
Lattimore’s facial expression didn’t change a jot, while Holden’s ruddy face grew, if anything, redder.
“This strategy was accepted by all of us here in this room,” he rumbled.
“Over my concerns.” Darrow fought to keep his voice courteous. He’d been backed into a corner. Move the damn troops, or move aside, and let an admiral who was more amenable take the reins.
“Like excuses are not welcome in this room, neither are accusations nor sniping over past mistakes. Yet.” The prime minister’s hand slapped down on her desk. Darrow fought to keep himself from snorting. Yes, because you signed off on it. “Despite what has now proven to be an...error in judgement, it came from a place of the best information available at the time. The KEF would deter any Galton military ambitions. That was common sense. The universe, however, does not cede to common sense.”
Holden gave a throaty, humorless chuckle in response. Lattimore fixed him with her gaze, silencing him.
“So, let me be clear. I consider all your judgements have been sound, given the intelligence we had available,” she continued. “If they hadn’t, I wouldn’t be accepting your resignations, I’d be sacking your arses.”
“I...admire the government’s focus,” Myles offered an overture. “In keeping stability in the military leadership at this time.”
Well put, Darrow’s lips turned in a thin smile. Lady Myles had long been a political animal. At the lower echelons, that was a curse. Here in the ivory towers of command, though, it was to be commended.
“Thank you, and to keep this focus, this is what you will specifically direct your efforts on. Jon, you will provide me with evacuation options with the goal of the return of our expeditionary force within one week. And that week starts now.” She pressed her pointed finger into the desk to punctuate her point. Darrow frowned; what she was asking for was the impossible. Half a million troops?
Lattimore continued, barreling over his mouth already opening to question her orders. “Whilst ensuring the adequate protection of His Majesty’s sovereign territories. Ray, you will work with Jon, to make that happen, but keep one eye on the fact it might not. You will form a strategy which will offer our forces on Asteria the chance of victory which doesn’t entail trench warfare. Veronica, you will defend our systems in conjunction with Jon. You will support Ray and Jon in their efforts, either way, whether that be the recovery option or the fight. Have I missed anything?”
“They are two rather large objectives for His Majesty’s Navy.” Darrow leaned forward in his chair. “And the fleet is spread throughout our wider territories—”
“Which must also be defended,” Lattimore interrupted. “I do not want to lose a single piece of our dominion to those Neo fascist bastards.”
“No recalling of the fleet?”
“I pay you to make these decisions, Jon. It’s a long time since I was the First Space Lady. You will manage deployments as you feel appropriate, considering my mission statement as your overall theme. We will not cede a single inch of Kingdom Territory.”
Great. Darrow frowned. It was all well and good running the biggest navy in the known galaxy. Quite another thing when it was spread over the entire damn sector and far, far beyond. The Kingdom’s interests stretched across the Reach and the Great Void, to the Sphere and a dozen other redoubts. Suddenly, a huge navy started to look very thin, when one considered all that territory.
He glanced over at the chart on the wall, seeing the icons showing the dispositions of fleets and armies, and fought the urge to shake his head.
His peers in the Federation didn’t know how lucky they had it. Not compared with the strategic nightmare which was blossoming all around him.
New Avalon Orbit – Starbase Victory
Flying Officer Jason Richards drove the throttle lever firmly forward. The rumble of the Tempest’s four powerful RS-30 Warlock engines washed through the cockpit in response as the sleek fighter smoothly accelerated.
The vast, intricate spokes of Starbase Victory rolled by beneath him. It was a busy place, with all the ships moored in the slips and the traffic darting back and forth. Above him, relative to his position, New Avalon loomed high, her oceans glistening like sapphire, and small emerald landmasses peppered the surface.
He felt invincible in his fighter. Her aggressive lines exuded strength and power, the twin pulse guns on the wing roots capable of dealing death to anyone before him.
But word on the street had it that the Galts flew fighters just as good. And rumor had it they’d spent the past few months learning to get the best out of them in a real fight while providing elicit support in the Katerin civil war. Their pilots were blooded, and that might make a real difference in a fight.
To anyone except Viper Squadron, that is.
They’d trained hard for battle, against any foe the Kingdom might face. Trained hard, so they could fight easy.
“CASP Two, we have an unregistered jump signature,” the Victory’s fighter controller broke through his reverie. “Uploading the vector to you now, over.”
On his HUD, a digital ladder appeared, tracing a path up and away from Victory for the Combat Aerospace Patrol, toward the bogey. At its apex, a blinking red dot mingled in with the streams of incoming and outgoing small craft.
It was probably some jack-arse civvy crew who hadn’t filed their flight plan. In the current climate, Rick would likely be well within his rights to void the slacker. But he wasn’t that cold blooded; he’d get them under wing and shuffle them into a customs slip, where they’d probably spend the next few days getting poked and prodded as they had every orifice of their bodies and their ship explored.
“Roger that, Victory.” Rick pulled back on the stick, twisting the trajectory ladder to the center of his HUD. For the moment, he was alone. The other three Tempests on his CASP—Combat Aerospace Patrol—each had another segment of the space around the busy base to look after. “Following your plan.”
He felt the gees building in his chest as he accelerated away from the bustle of the base and over the top of the tightly controlled space lanes filled with ships, yachts, and freighters of every description. They tore past beneath him, going about their dull civilian business. Why in Lost Earth’s memory someone would want to fly those lumbering ships, he didn’t know. Not when they could’ve joined up. Flew something real. Like a Tempest. That was the real way to burn.
The blinking red dot on his HUD suddenly accelerated forward and weaved through the traffic-filled space lane. Even from beyond visual range of the craft itself, he saw the plumes of its exhausts as it approached him at breakneck speed, ripped past him and disappeared, lost behind a huge freighter.
“Victory, CASP Two,” Rick called. “Looks like we’ve gone full live.”
He moved his stick over, banking around, and drove the throttle forward again as he sped after the bogey. His fighter fought against its trajectory, coming to a halt, then began moving with the flow of ships.
What the hell are you? A bootlegger?
He threaded through the ships, his eye catching the occasional plume of a hard-burning exhaust, but never seeing more than a glimpse of the source. He raced over an exquisite star liner, her space-frame built for aesthetics rather than pure physics considerations.
There it is.
A tiny speck raced before him, through the traffic. Damn, but it was maneuverable. Twin main engines, maybe a couple of axillaries? But he couldn’t make out more.
This wasn’t right. The thing was moving like a fighter, not some reconfigured smuggler craft. Dammit, without a transponder on the thing, he was relying on visuals, kinematics, or EM profiles. And he wasn’t getting anything on any of them.
“Who are you?” he asked himself again, already an answer forming in his mind. A single ship burning hard for Victory? Surely it couldn’t be the Galts? They wouldn’t dare...would they? Either way, they’d picked the wrong time to act like this.
“CASP Two, you are cleared to engage the bogey.” The fighter controller sounded harried; the watch officer was probably hanging on his shoulder. “Weapons free.”
“Roger. Clear to engage.” Yeah, thanks. Think I might have made an executive decision on that one already.
The bogey ducked under a lumbering freighter. Rick traced its course, sweeping under the bulbous tanks and cargo containers of the huge ship. He cleared its bow. And there was the bogey, climbing over a tanker, presenting near as damn it a profile to him.
He lifted a finger and double-tapped on the canopy. A window opened in the smart display, focusing on the bogey.
The squat, muscular S-91 Wolf-class fighter sprang into sharp relief, huge plumes streaming from its afterburning exhausts. A black nose cone tipped its prow, while beneath her menacing visage hung a cylinder.
“Victory, CASP Two,” Rick called, his voice louder than he intended. He gave himself a swift mental kick. Cool was what was needed. Cool and calm. “Looks like we have a single S-91. Can’t see what it’s mounting, could be a recon package, but possibly a missile or torp.”
“Roger, CASP Two,” The controller said. “The rest of the CASP alert is being vectored in and we’re launching the alert flight.”
He tuned out the chatter washing over the comm from the rest of his flight as his thumb flicked the safeties off on his pulse guns. Goddamn, the war had come to Victory already? Why the hell were they sending one fighter on its own, though?
The huge station had grown to dominate the space in front of him. And as they got closer, the traffic was just getting denser.
The harsh burning light of the fighter’s plumes disappeared around a tanker. Grunting against the g-forces his inertial dampeners couldn’t quite compensate for, Rick swung around the lumbering craft. His crosshairs weaved their way over the craft’s aft as he sought to target it.
It disappeared behind an ore carrier.
There were too many damn friendlies to engage. If he opened fire, a civilian was gonna get hit, too. But whatever that fighter was doing, it wasn’t going to be good for Victory. And that wasn’t good for anyone.
He had to take the shot.
Rick careened through the flow of traffic. “Victory, CASP Two. No clear shot. Starburst the incoming ships. Get them out of my way before I go to guns. Now.”
If they didn’t, or if the individual skippers were too slow? Well, he’d have to deal with consequences of a blue-on-blue later.
The vast spoked wheel of Victory grew larger. He was still the best option with minimal collateral, though. If Victory laid down a flack barrage or opened up with her own anti-aerospace batteries, there would be a hell of a lot of corpses floating out here. And all of them—bar one—would be Kingdom civilians, innocent spacers of other nations come to Victory. And, quite probably, Flying Officer Richards himself. Those guns weren’t exactly built for subtle work.
He tightened his grip on his stick and winced, his finger flexing on the trigger. Damn, it had disappeared again behind a vessel. The ships all around him began turning away from their approaches.
He drove the stick over. The enemy fighter, well within visual range as it streaked forward.
And into a clear patch of space.
He had the shot.
“Guns, guns, guns.” He squeezed the trigger. His pulse guns lashed out, blue streaks ripping toward the fighter. It rolled in a corkscrew, Rick’s fire tearing by it.
“Come on!” he growled, urging his gimballed guns to better track the enemy.
The fighter crossed the outermost edge of a spoke, its course clear. It wanted at the naval dockyards. The little bastard probably wanted a look at what the Kingdom Navy was up to. Well, it was about to be sorely disappointed. At the serious lack of activity going on from the Navy, that was.
He pushed his nose down, getting below the fighter, seeking to angle up so his fire didn’t inadvertently strike the station. “Guns.”
The fighter rattled as his weapons lashed out again. A flash on the fighter’s wing and a smoky trail of debris. The fighter spiraled over again, undeterred, ripping past the cranes and structures of the naval dockyards.
“Come on. Come on!” Rick chanted, his crosshairs hunting for a shot.
He rolled in, hugging closer to the speed-blurred industrial landscape of Victory’s dockyards.
“Sir, flash traffic from Victory. Single S-91 is in theater.”
Cutter sat upright. “Tactical. On screen.”
The huge wheel of Victory appeared, then reduced to a wireframe, the structure rotating and focusing in. A blinking red dot crept across the spoke, heading right for them. Behind it, the single blue speck of a single Tempest fighter. Further in the distance, more blue specks congregated, the rest of the CASP coming in.
“Condition one!” he bellowed. Why the hell hadn’t they been informed already? “AS ordinance make ready and hold.”
The whoop of alarms blared through the bridge lighting then faded to an alert red, giving the CIC a hellish glare.
Damn, with Achilles wedged in the slip, they wouldn’t be able to move an inch.
“Crew, prime anti-aerospace guns and...” Lieutenant Commander Haynes, the gunnery officer, trailed off. “Sir, we’re slaved to Victory. Our guns are remotely set to safe.”
Cutter gritted his teeth. Damn, if Victory didn’t release the safeties, then they wouldn’t be able to fire so much as a spitball at the incoming fighter.
“Get on to Victory, I want full release on our weapons and yesterday, damnit.”
The fighter juddered. The fire missed by mere meters. Damn, this pilot was good. They were jinking and evading in an unpredictable way. Never letting Rick gain a bead for more than a fraction of a second.
But its course was now clear.
Ahead loomed a giant battleship, wedged in a docking slip. One of the new Vengeance-class battleships. If he wasn’t mistaken, she was the Achilles. The fighter angled sharply upward, a single speck dropping from underneath. A light flashed on the missile’s tail and it speared forward. An explosion bloomed on the hull of the battleship.
He hauled back on the stick, groaning as the gees pushed him back into his seat. His crosshairs crept upward. Meeting the fleeing fighter. He saw the distinctive red light of its jump drive charging.
The streamer of weapons fire traced toward the fleeing fighter.
Then a red flash. Rick blinked the vision floaters away.
The Wolf had activated its jump drive and was gone.
“Goddamn it,” Rick threw his helmet into the corner of the locker room, knocking over a metal trashcan with a clatter.
Sienna Quinn leaned in the doorway, a frustrated expression on her face, but not quite as wrathful as the one he knew he wore.
They were at war, dammit, that much was now clear. Yes, they’d doubled the CASP in response to what was happening in the sector, to a grand total of four fighters in space. Only Victory had a hell of a lot of space around it. Just a couple of flights on standby. Fucking bean counters didn’t envisage that Johnny Neo would come knocking, though. They needed a full squadron up, and another on alert. Not this piecemeal bullshit.
“Look on the bright side; the damage to that battleship was minimal.” Quinn tried her level best to reassure him.
“Minimal? The point is they got a damn hit in on it in the first place.” Rick twisted around and glared at her. “What if it had been a squadron of Wolfs with some of their bombers in tow?”
“Then Victory would be screwed.” Quin walked in and sat on a bench lining the locker. “Look, it may not seem like it, but they made a big mistake here. All they’ve done is put us on watch. Next time, they won’t be able to pull something like this off.”
“I sure as hell hope not.”
“Another bright side, you’re officially the most experienced combat pilot in Viper Squadron now.”
“Yeah, thanks,” Rick responded cuttingly as he paced over to retrieve his helmet. He rotated it in his hands, checking to see if his tantrum had damaged it. “Except did you see how good that Neo pilot was? And they were on their own, in enemy territory, and still handed us our arses. They didn’t make a mistake. They were sending us a message, Sienna. They wanted us to know they can screw with us anytime, anywhere. Even here, at Victory itself.”
“Get your head out your arse, flying officer.” Quinn stood and punched Rick—not so gently—on the shoulder. “The message they’ve given is ‘war is here.’ We can either hunker down, or we can deal with that. And go give it back and take names while we’re doing so.”
“Yeah.” Rick sighed. He opened his locker and placed his helmet, carefully, on its shelf. “Yeah.”
New Avalon Orbit – KSS Achilles
The whooping alarm of the ship at battle stations switched to the klaxon of damage alert. The weapons status indicators, filling the wall above the gunners’ stations, finally switched from the green of safe to red of live as Victory released the safeties. They were ready to fire.
Far too damn late.
“How bad was it?” Ashford said without preamble as she entered the bridge, drawing the seal closed on her battlesuit and climbed the steps to the command podium. Cutter turned in his chair and nodded in greeting. His XO had been away from the bridge, inspecting engineering. Bloody typical, but not her fault.
“Single S-91,” Cutter murmured, frowning at the schematic of Achilles in the holo-pit. The sonovabitch.
He felt his guts twist in anger at the glowing red patch on his ship’s flank. The holo-tank was set to damage-status display. A large rotating wireframe depiction of the battleship hovered in the center of the bridge. “It was configured in a light attack mode with a single anti-shipping missile. And Victory didn’t even release the remote safeties. We couldn’t do a damn thing.”
Ashford nodded. Her face calm, but the tendons in her neck showing her tension. “Damage?”
“Minimal. Single missile strike to the portside armor belt. Two light pulse cannons damaged in the blast wash.”
Ashford gave a long sigh, then nodded tightly. “Could have been worse. But a single missile wasn’t ever going to take us down.”
“They were sending us a message, Hannah.” Cutter gestured at the holo before their command podium. The wireframe of Achilles rotated back around, the red smudge of the impact area presenting itself again. “They weren’t interested in doing real damage. They just wanted to show us they could hit us. I’d say ‘mission accomplished’ for them.”
“The pilot must have had some cast iron balls.” Ashford sat and logged onto her console. As XO, she’d have the job of making sure the repair crew operated smoothly and efficiently. Repairing the harm to the ship. Fortunately, a little panel beating and paintwork would sort out the majority of the damage. The AA guns might be a little more intricate, but then, in theory, they were plug-and-play. With a little luck, they could simply swap them out for spares on Victory.
“They still have some crazy notion that we don’t really want to fight them.” Cutter thought back to the intelligence briefings he’d been looking at prior to the attack. Intel had concluded that the Hegemony Prime had every intention of demonstrating his superiority, and then suing for peace. Perhaps even wanting an alliance against the threat he faced on the far side of his territory. “Kindred empires and all that bullshit.”
“Funny way of showing it.”
“No, not really.” Cutter turned and looked at his XO. “It’s the perfect way of showing it. They snuck a single fighter in here and hit a battleship. Doing minimal damage and getting away doesn’t bring too much of a diplomatic cost for our government to overcome. And as a bonus, they probably picked up a motherlode of intel while they were at it. We thought the admiralty was windy before; it’ll get doubly so now.”
“The public is more likely to view it that they just took the piss out of the whole bloody Kingdom.” Ashford’s lip curled in a sneer.
“Yes, they did. And let’s hope they do.” Cutter took his seat next to Ashford. “In the meantime, let’s ensure Mister Haynes has disabled Victory’s remote safeties. This doesn’t happen again. Understood?
“Aye aye, sir.”
Private Wink Goble
Asteria – 95 Km East of Port Rorian
The platoon had marched for an hour to get to the company rally point. The whole time, trudging through fields which smelt like mud wasn’t the only thing that went “squelch” in them. To Wink’s mind, the Kingdom Army had an unhealthy fascination with finding the most shit-filled environments it could, whether for exercises or for deployments. The two times he’d had to go prone as fighters and bombers thundered over meant it wasn’t just limited to his boots. Lil would go mad when he brought his filthy kit home to be washed. She’d probably make him go take it down to the laundromat, saying she didn’t want it going into her Fresher, even on a full-spectrum cleanse.
The Derbiner Regiment recruiting sergeant hadn’t mentioned anything about that kind of thing.
He snapped to. He always did this, retreating inside himself when marching. Letting his mind wander around. Thinking stuff that didn’t matter. Normally, that wasn’t a problem. Only it was different now. He couldn’t afford to simply let his body automatically put one foot in front of the other. Now he had to keep his wits about him.
One after another, the soldiers climbed over a crumbling wooden fence. Hoof cursing to Lost Earth when the top slat collapsed under his weight, sending him rolling into a pile of manure. Far more carefully, Wink clambered over and joined him, looking for a clean patch on Hoof’s armor to haul him up by.
In the muddy fields beyond, the Derbiner’s K4 transports squatted in a rough line, their camouflage cowlings active, giving them the appearance of looming boulders. Three for each of the company’s platoons, nine in total, all guarded by 3rd Platoon while the other two platoons had been out on exercise.
The K4 was going to be their ride over to wherever they were going.
“Mount up in the Turtles,” Loomis barked as he swung himself into the front passenger seat of 2nd Platoon’s lead vehicle. “Wink, you’re driving.”
Wink settled into the driver’s seat of the transport and flicked the switches, bringing it to life. With a hum, the Turtle rose up in the air, bouncing gently on its repulsion field.
The sarge leaned forward, consulting the map on his tablet for a moment before gesturing Wink to look at the glowing display. “We follow this road for ten miles to Velan. Then we strike west for Zulu.”
“Got it.” Wink hauled the wheel hand over hand, swinging the transport around onto the sarge’s heading, and pushed the accelerator down.
Settling onto the course, Wink ducked in his seat, letting his eyes wash in vain over the predawn sky. The Galts had fighters up and hunting, and from the look of things, they owned the skies. Craning his neck up further, he took in the star-speckled night above and frowned. A glittering, almost solid-seeming band of dust and burning embers arced over from one horizon to the other. From the back of the Turtle, he could just hear the muffled talk of the rest of his section.
“What are we gonna do when we rally up, Sarge?” he finally asked. It wasn’t that he was afraid of the sergeant. Much. But, well, the army didn’t exactly reward an inquisitive mind.
“That’s up to the brass, son.” Loomis didn’t look up from his tablet as he worked on it with deft taps of his fingers. “We just go where they tell us.”
“Shouldn’t we be going the other way? You know, back east, if that’s where they landed. You know, so we can get fighting the Galts?”
“Neos. Or Neo Hegemony,” Loomis corrected absently as he turned the tablet in his hand and traced his finger down whatever was displayed. “Not Galts.”
“The Neos. The Neos are in charge on their world. They’ve decided to rebrand their nation the Hegemony, after we trounced the Galton Imperium in the last war,” Loomis murmured distractedly. “They’re the bad guys. The Galts are just the poor bastards who voted ’em in under false pretenses.”
Wink scratched his head with one hand, feeling the rasp of bristles against his hand while keeping his other on the wheel. The sarge had a point, he was sure, but he wasn’t seeing it. Galts, Neos, the old Imperium, the Hegemony...they were all the same thing. He glanced over at Loomis. The older man finally looked up and gave a sigh.
“Okay, keeping it simple. All Neos are Galts. But not all Galts are Neos. It’s just they’re in charge of their government now. The stupid bastards voted them in, having been hoodwinked by a whole bunch of promises the Neos will never be able to keep.”
“But, Sarge...” Wink shook his head. He didn’t want to question the sarge. Not really. But it sounded as if he was missing an important point. “If the Neos rule Galton...and they’re sending the Galts to fight...we’re fighting the Galts.”
“Your logic is unquestionable. Ask yourself this: you may be a Kingdom citizen, but are you a member of the royal family?”
“No.” Wink furrowed his brow.
“Same thing, different scale.” The sarge returned to looking at his tablet. Wink got that. The man was saying the conversation was over.
The drone of the transport’s repulsors filled the cabin as Wink created a mental flowchart, processing through what the sarge had told him. Every path led to the same conclusion and he had to say it. “Well, the Galts should kick ’em out then.”
Loomis gave a dry, humorless chuckle as he tapped away. “Son, you’re getting it. But all it takes for evil to succeed is for good people to do nothing. The Galts did nothing and let the Neos take over. By fair means, or probably foul, the Neos and their damn Prime are in charge now on Galton. They’re pulling the strings. But make no mistake, the Galts ain’t the bad guys here. It’s the Neos. When you kill a Galt, don’t hesitate, but that’s you doing your job. But when you kill one of those evil bastard Neos? You smile in pride, son.”
Wink nodded, understanding starting to dawn at just what on Lost Earth the sergeant was going on about. He still had the same question, though. He gestured vaguely over his shoulder with his thumb, back toward the front line. “Okay then, Sarge. Still, shouldn’t we be heading thataway and fightin’ the Neos?”
“Don’t be so eager.” Loomis replied with a thin, humorless smile. “It’ll happen, I promise you that. Then you’ll wish you were anywhere else but there.”
“But you’ve seen battle before, ain’t you?”
“Son, I joined the army, after the Great War against the Imperium. Back when it was little more than a travel agency for folk with abnormally high sex drives. The whole damn galaxy wasn’t ready to say boo to a goose for the best part of a decade. We were all still licking our wounds.” Loomis gave a smile, his face that of someone who was recalling fond memories. Then the smile dropped, as if the memories turned sour. “But then the whole damn cycle started again. Policing actions in the Sphere, which was dusty and hot. Even got sent over to the People’s Republic...and let me tell you, it wasn’t all fun and games down in the freezing foxhole I spent most of my time shivering in.”
The sergeant grew quiet, looking out the window at the light dawning as transport bobbed forward. “Lost some good friends in both of those places.”
Wink licked his lips, and ducked his head to look up through the window as a spatter of rain began drumming down. He toggled the rain shield, causing a hum, and the liquid was pushed away from the windscreen, clearing it. War was supposed to be glorious. That’s what he’d been told by the recruiting sergeant. The Kingdom was supposed to rule space. Yet the sarge weren’t talking like that. He talked like he was a mix of tired and scared. Like he had to be here, but didn’t really want to be.
He wasn’t showing it, though. Not properly. He wasn’t trembling in fear like some of those in the back of the Turtle. Well, ’cept Hoof. Hoof had had a big grin on his face and had been talking about kicking Galt...no, Neo arse, nonstop since the first ships had blazed into orbit and mechs dropped on the surface.
Maybe that was why sergeants were sergeants. They had to think about these things. Whereas privates just had to go where they were ordered, point their rifle in the right direction, and pull the trigger when told.
From the back, he heard the muffled shout of someone telling Hoof to shut up.
The sarge might be somber company, but he was glad he didn’t have to put up with that chatter up here in the driver seat.
New Avalon Orbit – Starbase Victory
“The incident of yesterday notwithstanding...” Darrow stood at the chrome lectern facing the full briefing room. Behind him, a huge tactical screen adorned the wall, the star-speckled green mass of Republic space filled with the throbbing red tumors of Neo occupation. If anything, the situation had gotten worse as Republic strongholds had crumbled. Asteria was contested. As was their capital world, Orillia. But the other Neo objectives? They looked to have been crushed. “We are now confident of aerospace supremacy around Victory and our home worlds.”
Cutter couldn’t help but allow a scowl to cross his face. Sayings about horses, stables, doors, and bolting sprang to mind. The fact of the matter was, Achilles had a dent in her armor belt, which had occurred when she was supposedly safely docked in the preeminent starbase over the capital world of the Kingdom.
“Fortunately, the same cannot be said about the Neos over Asteria. They have superiority, but not said supremacy.”
He turned on the stage, gesturing at the screen. The view zoomed in on Thuine, the closest system to Kingdom space, rushing through the circles scribing the orbits of the outer worlds and focusing on a planet whose continents and seas didn’t look so dissimilar to Lost Earth herself.
“We believe they have a significant number of their stealths operating in-system, not to mention elements of their aerospace fighter corps both forward deployed on Asteria and supporting within easy jump range from the neighboring systems. The damage to Asteria infrastructure is”—Darrow turned and let his gaze wash over the crowded room—“significant.”
On cue, in the center of the map display, a window opened. Raw gun-camera playback footage appeared. The horizon bars wobbling back and forth as the craft swerved its way through the rolling chunks of wreckage. Light from Asteria’s star filtered through the chunks of distended metal, catching on the escaped gases, debris, and—Cutter pursed his lips as he leaned forward in his seat—bodies.
The recon fighter broke through the remains revealing a world—Asteria. Gasps washed around the room. The sight of fires created a burning red spider web across the night side while dark clouds of ugly smoke filled the skies of the hemisphere lit by the world’s star.
The image focused in, settling uncertainly on dozens of freighters nestled in low orbit, disgorging shuttles in unrelenting streams.
“Intelligence suggests they have currently dropped several army groups onto the world, utilizing repurposed heavy freighters whose refitting is—believe it or not—not a contravention of the Treaty of Charis.”
“Let me be the first to express my confusion,” Commodore Arden Roe’s clear, clipped voice echoed across the room. The man stood, his handsome weathered features the poster child for the Kingdom Navy. Literally. The press simply loved him. Which is how, Cutter reflected, he had somehow managed to keep his job, along with—he admitted to himself—the fact the man had a reputation of being damn good. Problem was, he never knew when to shut the hell up. “The Treaty of Charis was specifically designed to limit Galton’s military capability. Yet, they have managed to achieve more with that limited capability than they did during the whole of the Great War.”
The footage froze as the fighter banked, leaving a skewed view of the burning world. Darrow turned back to the lectern. “Yes, they have.”
“The question,” Roe pressed, “remains how?”
“Because we let them. And now we must stop them.” Darrow lowered his head. “As a quick, dirty intel assessment, their new construction, in terms of shipping, aerospace, and mechs, was built from the keel or chassis up in a manner which met the Charis terms. Each element had a solid civilian purpose. But with the most minor modifications, could be militarized. Aerospace trainers to fighters. Loading mechs to combat mechs. So on and so forth.”
“A hell of a ball to drop, that, sir.” Roe sat back, folding his arms and scowling.
“Quite,” Darrow responded simply.
Another horse and stable door. Cutter couldn’t keep the cynicism from reaching his expression. He felt a nudge on his leg and turned to Ashford, who shook her head, her lips pursed. Damn, he was making it too obvious. And, unlike the notoriously outspoken Commodore Roe, he sure as hell didn’t have the rank or reputation to express his views frankly. Not in this forum, anyway.
The view flicked to the four home systems of the Kingdom, creating a tiny diamond next to the roiling mass of stars of the Arcadian Sector, separated by the thin strip of space called the Regis Gap.
“The Regis Gap is a natural barrier. We believe, from remote analysis of the jump mechs, they have the smallest, cheapest jump drives available. This makes traversing the short distances between the closely packed stars of the majority of the Arcadian Sector achievable, but we believe the Gap itself will be too long a span for them. As we are uncomfortably aware, however, we are still within range of Hegemony fighters and bombers.” Darrow’s gaze picked through the rows of naval officers before him and bored in on Cutter. “But we believe an invasion attempt similar to that they have performed throughout the Republic and other nations to be impossible. This leaves a conventional assault as the Hegemony’s only option, something we believe they do not have the shipping for.”
“They’ve proven they have the shipping in terms of lift capacity—” Roe began.
“But not in terms of being able to adequately defend said shipping,” Darrow interjected. “Let me be clear—we still have utter naval supremacy over the Hegemony. They try to voyage into the Kingdom, the home fleet will tear them to pieces. They can’t jump their mechs over the Gap. At this time, we do not assess we are under threat of invasion.”
“But it will come,” Roe urged.
“Arden, your input is, as ever, appreciated.” A ripple of dry chuckles washed through the room. Commodore Roe was as welcome in polite company as a bull in a china shop. “But I actually have to brief in this briefing. We’re here to talk about what response we’re going to take.”
Response? What about initiative?
Cutter felt another nudge on his ankle. A pre-emptive one this time.
“I have been given orders, along with Marshal Holden and Aerospace Marshal Myles,” Darrow said, leaning on his lectern, the slight smile dropping from his face, “to retrieve our expeditionary force from Asteria before they are completely overrun. We need them to be preserved for the defense of the Kingdom, and the future liberation of the Arcadian Sector from under the shadow of the Neos.”
A murmur filled the room. Again, it was Roe who spoke up, his booming voice drowning out the others.
“Sir,” even he was picking his words carefully. “Are we talking about a retreat here?”
“The phrase we’ll be using is strategic withdrawal,” Darrow corrected, his own distaste at the expression clear and evident on his face. “Despite our current assessments of Hegemony lift capability, we need to balance the protection of our Kingdom from future invasion or assault with the situation developing in the sector. Currently, our fleet is scattered throughout known space, protecting our interests, and is still concentrating. Something we do not have the time to wait for.”
The gun-camera footage disappeared, and the tactical display switched to show the space around New Avalon. Icons began populating the display: the home fleet disposition. “We are not going to allow an opening for a Neo assault of our home worlds, but we also must get our boys and girls home. We have assembled a task force out of elements of the home fleet. Captain Cutter?”
“Sir?” Cutter started as he was addressed.
“I’m sure Achilles is smarting to get her own back. As the largest vessel we currently have unassigned to a billet, Achilles will be attached as the major fire support platform.”
“Sir.” Cutter nodded. It made sense, Cutter acknowledged. Achilles was still waiting for its slot in a fleet. That meant she could be pushed into a role without completely messing up an existing order of battle.
“Frankly, this strikes me as an opportunity to get you out of port and away from banging on my door. You will lead the destroyer flotilla fleet.”
“Sir,” the bellicose man nodded, his arms folding, and a wolfish grin grew on his face.
“And seeing as we’ve identified forty destroyers for you to flag...” Roe raised an eyebrow, his arms unfolding and he leaned forward as a list of vessels appeared on the screen, captained by those in the room. “...Commodore seems a little undercooked. You’re going to be trading your epaulets for Acting Rear Admiral. The prime minister will ratify that, I’m sure, but frankly she doesn’t have time right now.”
“Sir.” Roe nodded, relaxing back into his seat, his initial expression of surprise changing to that of someone who’d been given a weather report. Damn, but he was a cool customer.
“The KAF will also be conducting combat aerospace patrols around Asteria, and within atmosphere, to soften up the enemy and to support our operations. That will be generated from our fighter forces here at Victory.”
“Not Navy fighters?” a voice asked from the audience.
Darrow shook his head. “They’re still cross-training onto the new carrier-variant Tempest. For the time being, they’re out of the game.”
The admiral paused, seeing if there were any more questions. None were forthcoming. Not everyone was as outspoken as Commodore—no, Admiral Arden Roe. “As for the rest of you pirates, your dispositions will be given over the next hour. Captain Cutter, Admiral”—Darrow let a smile creep over his face, emphasizing the word—“Roe. Stay behind.”
With a burble of activity, the hundreds of captains and their executive officers filed out. Ashford glanced at Cutter, the question on her face obvious. Stay or go?
“Stay,” he answered her unasked question. Common etiquette was, unless told otherwise, executive officers stayed at the hip of their skippers. Even if it was just to take notes.
Roe’s XO, a staff captain whom Cutter dimly recognized from the mess had clearly been given the same instructions, and the four met on the stairs and trotted down toward Darrow’s lectern.
“Arden, I know this has been sprung on you,” Darrow addressed the newly minted admiral as he reached to shake his hand in congratulation, “but things are moving fast and frankly, I need a combat-tested leader out there. You’re the most blooded I’ve got. Far more so than any on the current admiral list, although I imagine they’ll get their share of experience soon.”
“I suspect so too, sir,” Roe replied. “But thank you.”
“What I don’t want is you to suddenly turn into a bloody toady. I’m going to need to know what really is going on out there. Not bullshit. Consider that a standing order.”
“When have I ever done anything different?” Roe grinned.
Darrow gave a snort as he looked down at the defiant man. Cutter couldn’t help a smirk growing on his face. It was public knowledge Roe might have been the poster boy, but he’d been passed over for promotion more times than he’d had hot dinners, precisely because he lacked an ability to keep his mouth shut. But there was no doubt he was effective, his pacification of the pirates in the Storm Belt was legend in itself.
“As for you, Captain. I’ve had to fight to get a ship of the line involved in this. The prime minster wanted every battleship held back to defend the home worlds. I managed to convince her to send one, and Achilles has the best anti-aerospace fitting in the fleet.”
“And that’s what we’re likely to face out there,” Cutter stated.
“Exactly,” Darrow agreed. “You’ll be Admiral Roe’s heavy fire support.”
Roe punched him none-to-lightly on the arm. “Watch and learn how the tin-canners do it, Hal.”
Darrow ignored the interplay and gave a sigh. For the first time, Cutter saw—as he rubbed his arm—just how tired the man was. “I’ve been asked to get them all home. Every single one of those soldiers. And it isn’t going to happen. We simply don’t have the lift capacity.”
“So how many...” Ashford asked from where she stood alongside Cutter. “How many are we going to get home?”
Darrow frowned briefly, as if he were going to chastise the junior officer for raising a question. With a shake of his head, he visibly discarded the rebuke. “By our best estimates, we’re going to get maybe fifty thousand back.”
“Lost Earth,” Cutter couldn’t help himself from blurting out. “There’s half a million troops over there.”
“I know, son,” Darrow replied. “And ancestors help us, we will need every one of those men and women we get back before this business is done.”
“We’ll get them back,” Roe growled. “And more than your...ambitious goal, sir. We have to.”
“Set my expectations and surpass them, huh?”
“That’s what my dad used to say when he was selling hover cars.” Roe grinned.
It was a bad situation, Cutter thought. But at least they had someone going who knew what they were about.
Colonel Tor Hest
Asteria – 150 Km East of Port Rorian
Tor Hest stormed up the metal ramp into the darkness of the hulking command crawler and marched through to the glowing holo-table situated in the center of its operations room.
“Colonel.” Her aide-de-camp, Lieutenant Thraish, thrust a canteen of water into her hands. She thirstily gulped down the warm, metal-tinted liquid.
She’d been on the go for twelve hours straight, locked in the claustrophobic confines of her Lion Combat Mech. She placed the canteen down on the holo-table and wiped her sleeve across her mouth.
The landing had been hard, bloody work. The Republicans had not folded easily, and no wonder. Asteria was one of their last bastions and their most significant naval and trading world. When Asteria and their capital, Orillia, fell, then so would the Republic. One of the mightiest nations in the sector, brought to its knees in one of the most ambitious, brutally effective invasions in the history of the galaxy.
But there were still redoubts. To take something as massive as a world—any world—wasn’t easy.
“Report,” she finally croaked, standing upright.
“Our landing zones have been secured and are now held by the 251st Infantry Division,” Lieutenant Thraish replied. “The Aerospace Corps have gained command of the skies and space, but we are left with sporadic—although heavy—resistance through most major theaters.”
The wireframe graphics of the geography raised from the table. Blobs of red indicated the secured areas, the green of Republic forces was scattered in small pockets and, mingled close to Port Rorian, the deep ocean blue of the Kingdom forces.
Her real objective.
If they eliminated the Kingdom Expeditionary Force here, then Galton, sorry—she corrected herself bitterly—the Neo Hegemony would gain supremacy of the sector. With the Republic shattered, the other disparate nations too small to offer a significant challenge or already taken, and the Federation far away, and seemingly disinterested, only the Kingdom would be left to oppose them. Minus, if the plan worked, the better part of a third of their standing army.
Yes, the Kingdom might be safe across the Regis Gap from the kind of jump mech invasion used against the Republic, but they would have been dealt a blow from which they’d never recover. An armistice would be sure to follow. Perhaps even, if the politicians could play this right, some measure of an alliance. Eventually, of course. Forgiveness for what the Hegemony had done, the destruction of their military, would not come quickly.
Regardless, victory in the sector was within their reach.
Not for the first time, the thought that they had made a deal with the devil crossed her mind. The so-recently spayed Galton military was now subservient to the questionable policies of the populist Neo movement, which had grown like a cancer in her nation and transformed it into the Hegemony. It had united Galton as hadn’t been seen since the days of the Imperium.
But at what cost?
Possibly its soul.
“Good.” Hest cast the thoughts and doubts away as she regarded the map before her. “Signal a rest period for all units which have seen active combat. Make sure they get a cooked meal, too. I want no excuses from the logistics corps. All supporting units and reserves are to provide cover while that happens.”
“An excellent call, Colonel.” A deep, gravelly voice came from the hatch.
All around her, the operations room staff scrambled to stand, drawing themselves to attention as Marshal Galen swept into the room. Hest clicked her heels together, clasping her right fist across her chest.
“Hail Prime.” The words still felt odd, needlessly narcissistic of the Prime to have enforced upon the ranks.
“Hail Prime.” Galen returned the salute as his gaze washed across the room. “At ease. I have been monitoring your situation. Your successes are admirable and your losses far below expectation.”
Hest relaxed, clasping her hands behind her back. “Thank you, sir.”
“It seems our assessment of the Kingdom Forces fallback plan was accurate. They are collapsing back to Port Rorian.”
“Yes, sir.” Hest gave a thin smile. Galen was a superb tactician, which had long since earned him the command of Army Group Alpha. Not overly given to the melodrama which permeated the Neo-infested upper echelons. Truly, he was one of the last of the old guard. The scars on his face a testament to the fact he knew what it was like to fight in the mud and the blood of the Great War as an Imperium infantry commander...the first Great War, that was. And now, he was leading in the second. “My intention for the 7th Armored is to continue pursuit and harassment of the Republic and Kingdom forces through the Lonarre Valley and up the Mortain Highway. Once we position properly, we can mount a full assault using—”
“No,” Galen interrupted sharply as he stepped around the holo-table. He came to a halt, looking at her over it, his scarred face under-lit by its soft red glow. “At least to the second part of your plan. We’re going to get them bottled in Port Rorian. Contained, if you will. Then the Aerospace Corps will reduce them until they surrender.”
Hest frowned. What on Father Terra was he thinking in not attacking? She leaned over the table opposite him. “We’re not assaulting them at Rorian?”
“No.” Galen’s lips twisted in distaste, his own opinion of the orders not even thinly veiled. “The Prime has been monitoring the situation with some interest. He has decreed that the potential cost of a counterattack would be too great, not to mention the effect on his...intended diplomatic efforts. We, the army, will contain and encroach at a measured advance while Aerospace Corps will force a surrender on the Kingdom Expeditionary Force.”
Hest gritted her teeth. Politicians!
The Aerospace Corps might be able to soften the enemy up, but it would still be boots on the ground which would actually win this war. And yes, as much as she could see the value in combined arms tactics giving them a bruising, it still would give them time to harden their defenses and dissipate all the momentum they had built.
“Colonel...” Galen sighed, clearly seeing the dark expression on her face. “There is a bigger game afoot here than merely seeking glory in battle.”
“This isn’t about glory,” Hest snapped. “It’s about winning, damn it. And it’s about regaining our honor. Something I am increasingly believing our beloved Prime is not interested in.”
Galen’s face grew red as he grabbed her by her arm. She fought against her martial instincts to twist and throw him to the floor. Instead, she allowed him to tug her unceremoniously into the corner of the room and thrust her against the wall. The staff busied themselves, heads down at their consoles, studiously ignoring the interplay.
“Colonel Tor Hest,” Galen rolled his R, turning her name into a growl. His strong grip lifting her by her lapels onto her toes and his free hand pointing a finger to her face. “Your record, and what’s more your reputation among the troops as our best combat commander earns you a certain amount of leeway. I assure you, however, that is not unlimited. Your talk is dangerously close to sedition; it must be visibly challenged, and it will end now.”
“You feel the same, Marshal,” she whispered, looking into his scarred face.
“We’re all Neos now,” Galen’s voice softened to a whisper and his calloused grip released her mech undersuit. She dropped from her tiptoes to the floor. “Remember that, Aria. Me, your soldiers, even you.”
“You’re scared of them.” Hest realized, shocked as she saw a glint of fear in his eyes.
“And so should you be,” Galen hissed. “The Executors have spies everywhere. Rooting out the disloyal. And I don’t intend you to be one of those who disappears down into one of their ‘correction’ facilities.”
Hest felt her lip tug into a sneer. She quickly masked it. The only things the Executors corrected were those they thought were wrongly alive.
She looked over Galen’s shoulder, taking in the bustle of the operations room. The staff with their heads down, ignoring the quiet spectacle in the corner of the room. She was not immune to rumors. The disappearances, the tightening grip of the Prime. And—the thought caused her blood to boil in anger—any one of these seemingly loyal people’s true uniform might be the black leather of the Executor, not the gray or green of the soldier. She fought down the bile which threatened to rise and saw the hidden imploration in Galen’s words.
Play the damn game, Aria.
She let her voice raise, just loud enough for those in the room to hear. “I apologize for my words, Marshal. Please understand it was overenthusiasm to defeat our Prime’s enemies, and not intended as disrespect.”
The corners of Galen’s lips twisted in a slight smile, an acknowledgment of her understanding. And the need for theater.
“Your apology, Colonel, is accepted,” his voice matching hers in volume. “Eagerness to defeat our enemies must sometimes be reined in, but never punished. I’m sure the Prime himself would understand that.”
Hest could practically hear Galen’s thoughts. There, Aria, you may have a black mark against your name, but hopefully it will no longer be terminal.
“Come.” Galen turned and went back to the operations table. “Let us review the logistics of your orders. And see about getting your people some well-earned hot food.”
The inky blackness of space was obliterated by the flash of the jump drive activating. In an instant, it catapulted them across the Regis Gap, the ten light years of empty space lying between New Avalon and their destination.
Viper Squadron appeared over Asteria.
“Lost Earth,” Sienna’s voice breathed through Rick’s helmet earpiece.
Below, the shattered ruins of one of the Republic’s vast space fortress lazily rotated, spreading a Catherine wheel of multicolored gases and debris. The light of Asteria’s star, Thuine, shot dusty rays through the cracked and broken remains of ships and stations. Through the mess, Rick saw a world on which huge plumes of smoke filled the sky with diseased gray blemishes.
Rick winced as he heard the patter of debris on his cockpit, dust and detritus kicked out from the destruction. He started as a frozen body struck his canopy with a loud thud. A fraction of a second later, it tumbled away out of view.
Lost Earth. This was real. This was really...real. Rick swallowed. He’d seen a body before, a kid from flight training who’d pancaked in and wiped himself out. But this was the first time he’d seen one killed in combat. The combat he was about to become embroiled in.
Focus. Viper Squadron’s orders had expanded. Now they’d been given authority to commence CASP over the war-torn planet. To take the fight to the enemy. Suddenly, that didn’t seem nearly as appealing a prospect as it had back at Victory.
Asteria’s low orbit was a congested mess—part junk, and part graveyard. Who knew how many thousands of people, soldiers, spacers, and civilians were floating around up here? Forever looking down on their once beautiful world with eyes frozen to glass.
“Follow me in, and keep them peeled,” Squadron Leader Phil Wainwright’s lethargic sounding voice called. Lost Earth, the man was unflappable, even when leading a squadron into a warzone. “Johnny Neo could be hidden anywhere in all this crap.”
The sixteen Tempest fighters arranged themselves into a loose diamond of diamonds formation. Rick slipped into the rear port quarter of Wainwright’s bird, Sienna to the starboard. And Junior Jenkins, the buck pilot officer, trailing them to the rear.
The Tempests throttled up, the bright burn of their engine washes spilling out as they powered down toward the surface of Asteria, toward Port Rorian, around which the expeditionary force were gathering.
“Got engine flares,” the commander of Three Flight, Flight Lieutenant Hutching’s voice was high pitched.
Damn it lady, pull yourself together, Rick thought.
“Twin engine clusters,” she continued, ignoring Rick’s mental prompt. “Looks like—oh shit.”
“Three Flight, break and attack,” Wainwright interjected sharply. “Keep them off us while we head down sky side.”
Rick glanced through his cockpit as the four Tempests of Three Flight arced away from the formation toward the incoming bandits, engines flaring harshly behind.
Almost immediately, the flash of pulse fire tore across the skies. Objects flickered before him. He blinked, seeing them more as an afterimage than physical objects. Yellow-nosed fighters. S-91 Wolfs—the Hegemony Aerospace’s superiority fighter. Rick rolled his Tempest, striving to keep track of them even as they swept around behind a vast tumbling chunk of wreckage with Three Flight turning in and burning hard behind them.
“Let’s not get distracted.” Wainwright’s tone had gone from lethargic, to sharp and quick. “We have a job to do down there.”
And that job was to give close aerospace support to the poor bastards trapped on the surface, not getting all tied up here, in orbit. Rick drove his stick down, the first fiery flickers of Asteria’s atmosphere licked over his nose. His stomach rose sickeningly as they plunged down toward the devastated surface.
More flashes of pulse fire raced by from somewhere to Rick’s aft. An explosion blossomed. Rick glanced down at his status display. An icon denoting one of Two Flight’s fighters flickered, then dimmed. Damnit, their junior had been hit.
“Two Flight break and attack,” Wainwright snapped, releasing more fighters to cover the decent. The three remaining Tempests of Two Flight surged past Rick’s Tempest, then curved up, fighting for height, burning to join the rest of their comrades in the roiling battle above.
“Anyone getting a beacon for Two-Four?” Wainwright asked.
Flashing a glance at his radar. Nothing. The pilot officer hadn’t even had time to eject. For all the good that would do her. To go down in the sky or in space was survivable, at least more survivable than at suborbital speeds. Chances dropped when transitioning from one to the other, though. Dramatically.
Transitioning was not the place to get hit.
Rick gritted his teeth. Damn, that kid had only been out of flight school a few weeks. And now she was gone.
Time to mourn later. Preferably not when flying in a combat zone!
The cockpit rattled and groaned as his Tempest howled down to the surface. Automatically, the engines adjusted, going from a fuel-hungry reaction thrust to a slightly less fuel-hungry air-breathing mode. His fighter’s control surfaces extended, biting into the ripping airflow.
The eight remaining fighters—no, Rick saw as he glanced at his display—seven remaining fighters now, tore down into the ochre of the atmosphere. They swept through the wispy clouds and over the glistening seas of Asteria.
Lost Earth, he hadn’t even seen the other get hit.
But there was an advantage. Here, out of the debris-filled congestion of low orbit, the radar cleared up. He glanced at it, seeing malevolent-illuminated specks on the dark screen. Headed straight toward them.
“Incoming,” Wainwright barked.
Rick looked up, the cockpit window interfacing with his helmet and focusing in on the section of sky they were coming from.
The stark, aggressive lines of S-91 Wolf fighters sprang into view, powering hard toward them. The lead distinctive with a black nose, rather than the others’ yellow.
“One Flight, we’ll take them. Two Flight, continue ground support mission,” Wainwright snapped. “Break and attack.”
Rick snapped his stick to the left, rolling then accelerating onto Wainwright’s wing, even as the other two, Quinn and Jenkins, joined up. The three remaining members of Two Flight nosed down, burning hard to get closer to the surface and away from what was about to happen here.
Rick felt a tremble of fear in his belly. He’d seen how good the Neo pilots were firsthand. They were blooded. They were tough. And their fighters were near as damn it the equal of the Kingdom’s.
Wainwright’s fighter soared upward, shafts of flame erupting from his engines as he fought for the high ground and to distract the incoming Wolfs from the rest of their squadron tearing down to the surface. Rick fought to stay with his wingman.
A streamer of pulse fire ripped by, far too damn close. Rick snapped his stick over, barrel rolling away from it, and settled his crosshairs on a Wolf thundering down to intercept Two Flight. He squeezed his trigger. His fighter juddered as his own pulse cannons lashed out, far from the mark.
But it succeeded in putting off the enemy. The Wolf rolled away from its trajectory and arced around, the rest of Two Flight screaming ahead and out of danger. Rick brought his nose around, seeking to lead his opponent with his sights.
Fire ripped by from behind, a constant barrage that narrowly missed him even as the fighter ahead came about.
Shit, two on one.
He slammed his stick forward, putting his nose vertically down to the ground. He felt the blood begin to rush to his head under the intense negative gee. Red crept into the edges of his vision as his shoulders slammed painfully into his harness. His fighter’s four RS-30 engines howled as they overspun.
Wrenching his stick back, he flattened less than a hundred feet above the rolling, glistening seas and dared a glance upward. High in the ochre sky amid the wispy clouds, a speck moved off.
Where’s the other?
Something sparked from his wing and his fighter bucked. He rolled in response, a wild random evasive move made more by instinct than thought, and craned his head back, searching for who had just hit him.
The other Wolf must’ve followed him down.
Grunting, he pushed his stick over and pulled back. The horizon rotated to the vertical as he hauled his nose around. The Tempest’s space frame groaned and rattled in response.
He looked up, his head weighing nearly five times what it normally did, seeing the Wolf overshoot and attempt to follow him around.
The two fighters circled each other, over the red-tinted twinkling seas. Slowly, so slowly, the aggressive lines of the streaking enemy fighter crept toward his nose.
I have the turning circle on him! Rick realized in a flash of inspiration.
Crying out in pain, he pulled his stick all the way to its stop, dragging his nose toward the fighter. Then beyond. The guns on his wings gimballed up to their max, seeking to aim toward the crosshairs on his HUD symbolizing where he should lead his foe.
He squeezed the trigger. His fighter juddered.
Pulse fire lashed out to a point ahead of the circling yellow-nosed Wolf. The apex of his fire, and the enemy fighter intersected.
The Wolf didn’t explode. It disintegrated. Smokey black trails of debris arced down into the shimmering sea.
With a gasp, he straightened out and raced over the sea, his breath quickly calming from near hypoventilation.
Holy shit. My first kill.
He blinked. His first kill. He’d done it. His first. He wanted to cheer in victory. Dance a jig. It felt better than when he’d popped his cherry.
Instead, he said, “Splash one.”
Another explosion bloomed high in the sky, snapping him back into the present. And another Tempest flickered, then disappeared from his status displays. There was no beacon. No sign the kid had ejected.
Junior Jenkins was gone. Like that, the young pilot was dead.
He squeezed eyes closed for the briefest of moments. Not now. Again, he forced his feelings down. They were fighting for their lives. Against an opponent who was as good as them, if not better.
Rick slammed his throttle forward and speared into the sky on howling engines.
The smoking trail of a fighter plummeted past him. His brief glance catching the yellow nose cone of a Wolf. He rolled, keeping it in view, seeing it wobble and weave as its pilot brought it under a semblance of control and begin limping away.
A sure thing. An easy kill. Two in one sortie? Could he do it? He started to push his stick forward.
“Got one on me,” Wainwright snapped.
He fought his instincts, stopping himself from coming about, from finishing off the bastard.
No, it wasn’t a threat anymore. But his friends were still fighting for their lives up there.
In the wispy clouds, he could see four specks, weapons fire flashing between them.
There, that one was Wainwright’s fighter, wounded but still operable. The Tempest scribed an oily trail in an S shape through the ochre skies, pursued by a Wolf. Behind it, Sienna fought for a position to take out the hunter seeking to kill their squadron leader.
“Negative clear shot,” Sienna called. She risked taking out Wainwright if she opened fire.
The flashes of enemy fire crept closer to the squadron leader’s bird. He could hear Quinn grunting as she strived for a shot. Above them, a contrail arced around—another Wolf, this one tipped with a black nose cone. The leader. Rick was sure of it. Why else would that fighter have a different paint scheme?
Rick burned vertically up coming from underneath. Sat on his back, like an astronaut from Lost Earth on a rocket.
The crosshairs of his sights met the icon of the enemy hounding Wainwright. And unlike Quinn, he had a clear shot.
He squeezed the trigger. His guns chattered, sending a judder through his Tempest’s spaceframe.
The Wolf exploded as he erupted up through the melee, narrowly missing the expanding ball of debris.
He flung himself over, straight and level, next to Wainwright’s crippled craft. It slowly weaved as the squadron leader struggled to keep his Tempest straight and level.
“Good shot,” Wainwright sounded breathless and exhausted through the comm. “There’s another out there, the leader, I think.”
Rick glanced at the radar, then out the cockpit window, seeking the enemy.
The black nose coned Wolf spiraled up on twin geysers of fire, its acceleration outpacing even a Tempest’s.
“Sonovabitch is bugging out,” Rick croaked, his throat dry and course from the high-G maneuvers. “Looks like he doesn’t like the idea of a three on one.”
The Wolf thundered up toward orbit, and the radar looked clear, for the moment.
They’d won, but at what cost? They had the damn Neos outnumbered and the squadron had still taken more losses than they’d given.
Rick focused on the sparking, smoking squadron leader’s fighter. It looked bad. “You still jump capable, boss?”
“Yes, son. But I’m not going to be doing anymore fighting today. Let’s get spaceside and get out of here.”
“Sir,” Rick called as he checked over his fighter’s status displays. “I’m still combat effective. Sienna, how you looking?”
“That’s a yes yes.” Her voice sounded shaken and scared. The furious speed of combat had rattled them all.
“Boss, you push up. Get spaceside and jump. We’ll join up with Two Flight. Go give the Galts some payback.”
A second’s silence. Then, “Earth speed to you.”
Shakily, Wainwright’s fighter angled upward, climbing into the heavens as Quin and Rick banked around, heading toward Port Rorian.
And then there were two.
The two fighters streaked toward the hive of skyscrapers clustered around the huge steelcrete landing pads of Port Rorian clustered on the plains of Asteria.
Columns of smoke rose from all around the city, creating a dark murky cloud above its buildings.
“What a mess,” Rick breathed out. Hidden down there were nearly half a million men and women of the expeditionary force, mingled in with the crowds of civilians and remnants of the Republic forces.
People trapped. Desperate to get home. Away from this place. Civilians terrified and about to be besieged at best, or more likely occupied or worse.
The chatter of radio traffic filled his ear.
Two Flight had spotted a pair of incoming Raptors, Hegemony fighter-bombers. Lethal, agile, and equipped to do real damage to ground assets. Probably what the Wolfs had been escorting. What they’d been trying to keep Viper Squadron away from, an objective they’d damn near succeeded in.
But they hadn’t.
“Okay, Sienna. Let’s get to work.”
Private Wink Goble
Asteria – 50 Km East of Port Rorian
The dust and dirt kicked up by the violence of the Neo Hegemony’s advance across Asteria had turned the darkening sky a hellish ochre. The sarge said they’d been using tactical nukes and plasma-yield warheads against concentrations of Republic forces. Weapons which would atomize the poor bastards before they even knew they’d been hit.
But the sarge had also said with confidence that the Neos would want Port Rorian and its extensive facilities intact. More or less. They wouldn’t nuke it. Not unless they had to, that was. It was far too useful to them to be able to bring in more troops and material if—when—they captured it.
Wink sat in the back of the Turtle transport with the other members of his section, the break from the long drive across the Rorian peninsula giving him an excuse to at least try and get a few precious minutes of shut-eye. In theory, that was. The banter in the back was incessant, and he’d long since given up on the idea of having a doze. At least Hoof had gone out for a piss, although his whistling was audible even through the vehicle’s armored shell.
The sarge and lieutenant had gone out a while ago, too, and joined the company captain; together, they were getting orders from the major in charge of this sector. Personally, Wink could about cope with the pips of a captain without getting too star struck, but anyone with crowns and above gave him a churning in his belly and made him develop an odd stutter from somewhere.
“Man, when we gonna fight?” Hoof whined as he climbed back in to the rear of the transport, still fastening the pee flap up on his armor. “War is fucking boring.”
“I’d rather listen to you pissing than bombs going off all around.” Private Maisie Truro had hunkered down into her fatigues, only her petite face showing in the dim red light of the transport’s interior.
Hoof pulled his harnessed rifle around to his front and slumped down sullenly in his seat, scowling at them. “You guys didn’t join up to just sit in the back of some tin can Turtle, did ya?”
“No, I joined up to get out of the slum and get my three square meals a day,” Masie snapped back.
“Whatever, sister.” Hoof’s tone was patronizing. “You’re in it, now you’ve got to win it.”
“Hoof,” Wink finally had enough. The man’s relentless chatter was driving him up the wall. “Please shut up.”
The young man grunted, his scowl deepening.
Wink looked across the transport at his section mate. Lost Earth, the man got on his nerves like no one else. At first, when they’d met, he’d liked his cocky attitude, but now? He’d had enough, and not just of his section mate. Wink had always known that war wasn’t going to be glamorous. Joining up was a means to an end for him. And that end was getting a ring slipped on Lil’s finger.
But as he glared at his comrade, he saw something he hadn’t before. Hoof’s fingers worried at his rifle in a way which would have had the Sarge tearing him a new one. His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down a little too often. And he had a glisten of sweat to his skin which was a little too obvious, even for the stuffy confines of the transport.
He was scared. As scared as all of them. He didn’t withdraw and hide inside himself like Maisie did. Or even like Wink knew that he did himself. He needed to talk. To vent his stress like a kettle. Maybe it wasn’t the right thing to just shut him up.
“Hey, Hoof,” he began. “You gotta—”
The dull rolling sound of thunder came from outside the transport. Then the metal box they were in rocked and bucked as if they were in the middle of an earthquake.
A bass chatter of pulse fire came from somewhere overhead. The soldiers looked at each other, their eyes widening. Then, as one, they began scrambling over each other to climb outside what was likely to turn into their metal coffin.
Wink dropped to the muddy ground, churned up by the Turtle transport’s repulsor field and brushed the reaching hand of someone about to clamber over him from his shoulder.
A V-shaped silhouette raced across the darkening red sky. A smaller speck behind. The flash of pulse fire ripping between them. A loud crack, and the bigger craft, a bomber maybe, corkscrewed into the ground followed, a second later, by a deep thud Wink felt in his guts.
“Yes!” Hoof shouted.
“How the hell do you know that wasn’t one of ours?” Masie cried out, rolling up onto her knees.
“Because,” Hoof called out triumphantly pumping his fist, “that there was a Hegemony T-105 Raptor fighter-bomber that just went down. And the beauty that shot it down is a Mk 2 Tempest fighter. One of ours. It probably saved our—”
A dark shadow and a deafening thunder rolled over them. A transport, one of 3rd Platoon’s Turtles lying a hundred meters away, exploded. A dissipating ball of flame rolled into the air. Too late, but unable to fight instinct, Wink covered his ears, recoiling and ducking as a wave of heat washed over him.
He shook his head, looking up as the twin engines of the same kind of craft Hoof had called a Raptor sped away. Another Tempest roared over them, striving to intercept the enemy aerospace craft, spitting blue fire at the receding enemy.
Wink plunged a finger in his ear, trying in vain to clear the ringing from it and to clear the cobwebs from his brain.
The transport had been replaced by a crater filled with smoldering, twisted metal. He picked himself up and glanced back at his section mates. “Come on, we have to see if there’s anyone left.”
He lurched forward, stumbling, falling into the muck, his balance off. Like he’d been spinning around like when he was a kid, trying to make himself dizzy. He picked himself up and wove into a staggering run, passing the outskirts of flaming debris cast from the remains of the transport.
Then he reached the first body part. He sank back down to his knees amid the mud and flickering metal embers. It was an arm. Perfectly preserved below the ragged remains of the elbow. Something glistened on one of its fingers. The ring finger had a band of glittering metal on it.
Without warning, his stomach heaved. A wave of liquid vomit furiously expelled from his mouth as he dropped onto his hands. His stomach cramped hard as his eyes watered. The contents of his stomach gone, he dry retched. Two, three times before managing to draw a sobbing desperate breath into his lungs.
Alive—this person had been alive a moment ago. This was someone’s husband or wife. They’d probably been bantering in the back of the transport like Wink’s section had. Now he, or she—Wink couldn’t tell—was dead. Ended, just like that. And they hadn’t even known it was coming. Literally alive one second and gone the next.
He wiped his mouth and crawled forward, finding himself amid the ruins of the transport and broken bodies of his colleagues. Hoof stood over him, a dazed expression on his face as he turned around, taking in the carnage.
“It was so fast,” Hoof muttered, the bravado gone. His shell-shocked face reflecting the flickering flames of the wreckage.
“Yeah.” Wink stood. The world seemed surreal, a hellish mix of fire and smoke. His lungs caught on the acrid stench; his nose twitched at the smell of cooking meat. His brothers and sisters in arms. He didn’t want to look anymore. They were gone. They were all gone. There was no way anyone would have survived that. But they still had something they needed to do.
“We need to get their tags,” Wink croaked through the stomach acid coating his throat. “That’s what the sarge would say.”
Moving forward, he knelt in the mud next to a limbless, smoldering torso. He fought the nausea which threatened to set his stomach off again and tore the blackened tags from around the corpse’s neck.
The sarge approached Wink at a jog.
He hadn’t known what to do, so he’d thought of what the sarge would have wanted. Stay out of the transport. Stay separate in a wide circle around it. That way, at least if they got hit again, it wouldn’t kill them all.
Loomis hunkered down next to him and Wink extended out his hand, clutching the seven tags they’d managed to recover. Who knew where the eighth who’d been in the transport was? Probably completely disintegrated. Or buried somewhere deep in the mud beneath the wreckage.
“Are you alright, son?” Loomis asked, his voice gentle. A contrast to his normal commanding barks.
Silently, Wink nodded. He didn’t trust his voice not to crack, like he was some kind of coward who couldn’t take the sight of blood.
The sarge grasped hold of the dangling tags, pausing for a moment, before gently pulling them from Wink’s grip. He tucked them into a pocket on his armor then clasped Wink’s mud-and-blood-streaked shoulder. “You kept your section out of the Turtle, son?”
“Yes, sergeant,” he finally managed.
“Good work.” Loomis nodded. “You’ve done good work.”
“Didn’t know if it would get me in trouble,” Wink said, then remembered himself, “Sarge. You told us to stay in the Turtle.”
A sad smile flashed across Loomis’s stern face. “We’re all learning as we go in this war, son. You make good decisions, I’ll stand by you. Don’t you ever forget that. You made a good one here.”
Wink nodded again. Normally, the faintest approval from the sarge would make him swell in pride. Now? Nothing.
Loomis looked up, his face dirt smeared, yet somehow the moustache on his face seemed perfectly groomed as his intent eyes surveyed the horizon. Columns of smoke rose into the darkening skies. Closer than they had been before. The Neo bombing runs were coming nearer.
“We’re getting new orders.” He stood after a moment’s contemplation and hauled Wink up by his outstretched hand.
Together, the two men shuffled toward the other soldiers. All looked uncertain, regarding the skies above with wariness.
Lieutenant Roth stood in the center of the gathering, a holo-chart already set to show a wireframe graphic of the land. Captain Ellsworth stood next to her, the bull-headed, thickly muscled man appeared barely contained in his armor.
“All elements of the expeditionary force,” she croaked, her mouth clearly dry, “have been ordered back to Port Rorian, along with any Republicans we can gather. Once there, we’ll be...we’ll be evacuating. In a coordinated manner, of course.”
Wink looked around. Hoof’s belligerence had gone, replaced by a tremulous bottom lip, contrasting with the look of steely determination which had grown on Maisie’s face.
“We’re running?” she asked.
The captain stepped forward, an aggressive tilt to his head as he addressed her. “Private. The Kingdom Army doesn’t just win battles, it wins wars. Every soldier who we take off this mud ball comes back to fight another day. At a battlefield of our choosing, not theirs.”
“Lieutenant?” Ellsworth growled, casting an angry look at the woman. His meaning was clear: Get your troops under heel or I’ll do it for you.
“Private, less of that,” Roth said, her voice lacking the aggressive authority of Ellsworth’s. “These are our orders. We are to pitch up here.”
She gestured at the map. It focused in on a suburb of Port Rorian. Middle-class houses of the type Wink’s richer school friends had lived, but a far cry from the stuffy Derbin tenements he’d been brought up in.
“We will find a suitable location from which we will cover the retreat—” Roth continued.
“Withdrawal,” Ellsworth corrected sharply.
“From which we will cover the withdrawal of forces lagging behind us.”
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Ellsworth took over. “Nearly half our strength is still returning to Port Rorian. Some of them are as battered as hell. Intel has ascertained that the Hegemony Aerospace Corps has been tasked with softening us up, but their ground army, including battle mechs, are nipping at our heels too with the intention of keeping us moving. At the moment, we’ll oblige them, but once we get to our destination, B Company will be positioned to cover the good guys coming in and keep the bad guys away. Do you have any questions?”
The tone of his last words were such it brooked no such thing. They were being given orders. And that’s how things were. Questions were unwelcome.
“You have five minutes for admin.” Loomis stepped forward, clapping his hands spurring them to action. “Move, move, move!”
New Avalon Orbit – Starbase Victory
Fifty thousand men and women. By any measure, that was a lot of people. That was what he could give the prime minister. That was what he could recover from the besieged world of Asteria.
But it was ten percent of what was over there, in the lion’s den.
The office he’d taken over was situated deep in the bowels of Starbase Victory. The room was quiet, the lights dimmed, even the news feeds subdued to help him think.
Fifty thousand troops. That’s how many troops he could bring home, and he knew that was stretching the Kingdom Navy’s lift capacity to its absolute limit. And, of course, that assumed things went perfectly. That the Hegemony wouldn’t have a problem with him offering a ride to their enemy.
What it would actually mean was putting ships, shuttles, and troop carriers down in the small oasis of safety of Port Rorian amid a whole world engulfed in war. If he had another week, he could maybe get another fifty thousand berths from vessels he could recall from the nearer parts of the far-flung Kingdom Dominion.
He sighed—or was it groaned?—as he sat working the numbers. It had never been envisaged that they would need to move so many troops at once. Even at the height of the Great War, troop movements were measured in the tens of thousands, not hundreds.
Could he pull off two passes by the transports? Three? To increase the amount of troops brought back? Each would be whittled down by the ever-swarming fighters of the damn Neos who, as the Kingdom Aerospace Force had discovered, had proven hellishly good at their jobs.
He rubbed his tired face. He shouldn’t judge harshly. The KAF was doing some bloody fine work, but there was no getting around the fact—the Neos were just more experienced in battle. Their pilots had been blooded in the brutal Katerin civil war and they were giving more than they got in terms of kills.
And his orders— from the prime minister herself—bound him more than they should. No Neo Hegemony forces were to set foot on the home worlds or the provinces. And that meant he had to keep the bulk of the home fleet locked in defense. Even at the cost of the expeditionary force.
The simple brutal calculation was obvious. Troops were more easily regenerated than ships. To train, salary, equip, billet, and support a soldier took twenty weeks and one hundred thousand sovereigns. The construction lead-time on a new destroyer hull was six months and a cool billion sovereigns. A battleship? More than a year and ten billion in cold, hard cash. The economics and calculation worked out. Population pool notwithstanding, a single destroyer was worth ten thousand soldiers. And a battleship? Ten times that.
Try telling that to the mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, husbands, or wives, though. How was he supposed to put a value on that? The lives destroyed. The towns broken. And then there was the fact that if they weren’t fighting for people, what the hell were they fighting for?
Sometimes, being a flag officer was a shit job because things like that became a consideration. Having to contemplate the economic costs of what looked like it was going to turn into the first total war since the Great War. The First Great War.
So where did that leave them? A few assault transports backed by a single battleship, and forty destroyers. That was all he could muster without jeopardizing the home fleet defenses. And every single vessel would be used to carry off the troops. By his rough calculations, the assets he was going to put in were simply not commensurate with what they would get out.
That didn’t sit right. Not by a long shot.
They had to get them all out. And to do that, he needed more ships and more landing craft.
The Kingdom Navy didn’t have them. They didn’t have nearly the lift capacity here in the core systems. Certainly nothing like the big freighters and passenger craft of the lines which the Galts had turned to the purpose of moving their huge armies around.
He blinked, a thought blossoming in his mind. Lifting his head, he turned to look out the expansive window. Beyond lay the convoluted pipework and intricate architecture of the Navy’s mooring spoke spearing out of Victory.
But above that, he could see the twinkling congestion of the shipping lanes. Huge vessels surrounded by streams of smaller ones. Everything from rockhopper mining boats to lumbering freighters. Even the sleek, pristine lines of a Trans-Reach cruise liner and the small private pleasure ships darting around.
If the Galts could do it, then why couldn’t he?
Turning to his console, he began searching. Surely there would be something like what they wanted? Almost frantically, he waded through pages of legal texts, scanning their headings to find something close to what he was looking for.
There. That looks like it fits.
At least he knew there was something in the right ballpark. Some legal mechanism by what he was thinking could happen. It was time to dot the Is and cross the Ts, and for that he needed an expert. And frankly, that was what the Naval Legal Services existed for. He jabbed at his comm. “Get me Commodore Bill Peterson. Now!”
Darrow nodded in greeting as Lattimore paced into his office.
The woman was nothing if not smart. She knew, despite her being his superior, Darrow was the one against the clock right now. And that meant she’d taken the time fly up to him, not the other way around. But there was no way her demeanor gave any doubt about who was in charge.
“You want me to sign off on this.” There was no preamble. She held out her palm, the glow of a holo-document in it. “Then convince me and fast.”
“I’ve run every number I have. There’s no way we can manipulate things to get more than fifty, maybe sixty thousand tops off that death trap with what I have available. Not without help.”
“And so you want to press every available civilian ship into service to give that help?” The prime minister clenched her fist, the document disappearing. “Can we even do that?”
“Apparently we can,” Darrow replied. “My head of Legal, Bill Patterson, has worked through a rather obscure act, the Royal Right of Requisition,” he said, careful not to stumble over the alliteration. “It is something that dates back from a few hundred years ago, once we’d gotten back on our feet after arriving in this sector from Lost Earth and started to form the government as it is now, but before we actually had a navy. If the Kingdom needed the shipping, it would simply seize the vessels it wanted and press them into service.”
Lattimore sighed and dropped, uninvited, into the chair before his desk. “Pirating a bunch of civilian ships will not go down well.”
Darrow gave a thin smile at her dry tone. “It’s your job to sell it to the nation, not mine. I’m just presenting you with what I feel is the best option.”
“You want our civilians to fly with you into that maelstrom,” Lattimore retorted. “It’ll be a massacre.”
“We’re going to have a massacre either way,” Darrow said, deliberately keeping his voice cold. “At least with this we get a good portion of our boys and girls back to fight again another day.”
The mental cogs almost visibly whirred behind Lattimore’s eyes. ”I can in good conscience send soldiers to war. Just. They know their duty. But civilians?”
Darrow held up his hand. “Some will be killed, yes. But not as many as you think. I can skeleton crew the big ships, even some of the small ones, with reservist personnel. And being able to re-task more of our warships to convoy defense from doing the donkey work of transport will cut losses down further. But yes, we won’t be able to staff them all. And people, civilians, will die.”
Lattimore shook her head. “The House of Commons will crucify me for this. The population pays their taxes so the military takes the risks. Not the other way around.”
“Ma’am,” Darrow said formally, tapping his console. The document appeared again on the desk before the prime minister. “Frankly, that is your battle to fight. Mine, as you made clear, is against the Hegemony. Spin it how you want, that’s up to you. But if you want our people back, this is the way to do it.”
Lattimore paused, then set her thumb on the signature strip of the document. A soft chime acknowledged it. “Very well, Jonathan. I’ll win the fight at home. But you do your part. Get our people home.”
“I’ll begin immediately.”
New Avalon Orbit – Swift
The smartass and slick New Avalon banker and his family had offloaded, satisfied their little excursion around the four systems of the Kingdom had gone swimmingly. To cap it all off, that had included a light show coming into Starbase Victory. Some kind of fighter interception leading to a firefight.
Overall, another overpaying customer for Swift Tours was happy as could be. Well, other than the fact that by the time they’d gotten home, they’d found their nation embroiled in a brutal war.
The Swift had docked at one of the piers stretching out from the inner surface of the huge cylinder forming the inner core of Victory’s superstructure. It was a busy place, filled with hundreds of small craft. Even within the vast space station, the easiest way to cross from one side to the other of the blue floodlit space was by ferry.
“Lot of uniforms around,” Gus Clay, her copilot, deck hand, and general dogsbody noted, casting one eye on the black rig of the Navy personnel who scurried around all over the dock. He hauled another crate of supplies from the dolly onto the conveyor leading up into the hold of the ship. The box of meal packs trundled its way within the sleek white hull.
“To be expected.” Shannon Reeve shrugged as she grabbed the next. “Some bad guy comes and drops a bomb on your base, it’s gonna kick up a hornet’s nest.”
She watched as two Navy officers turned onto the pier headed to the ship next to them. An animated conversation kicked off with the owner of the rockhopper. The conversation started cordially enough. Within a minute, though, he’d begun gesticulating angrily at the Navy stooges. Even from all the way over there, snippets of his shouting voice could be heard. Man, he was pissed off about something.
“Guess they’re giving a big list of dos and don’ts that Micky ain’t liking,” Clay noted, grunting as he lugged more supplies up onto the conveyor.
Micky looked at a holo the officers had presented to him. If anything, his expression grew even more furious before swatting with his hand, signing whatever it was. Then he turned and disappeared back into his ship. One of the Navy officers gave a helpless false shrug coupled with a smirking grin.
Yeah, Micky had a way with words that was almost poetry when he was in full rant. Whatever he’d had been told, he hadn’t had a choice on...and it looked like, neither had those officers.
The two men left the gangway and walked up the pier before turning and clanging up toward Swift’s slip.
“Captain Reeve?” the young man called up. “Permission to come aboard?”
Reeve exchanged a look with Clay and gave a shrug. The look on the officer’s face said the request was a formality. He was coming up, whether she wanted him to or not. “Yeah, kick off your boots, though.”
“Can’t do that; I’d be here all day if I did with the amount of ships I have to see,” the man called back. “If it’s an issue, be a darling and pop down here instead.”
Arrogant bastards. Reeve seethed.
Clay’s eyes bulged as he puffed out his cheeks. He knew how far that attitude was going to get this idiot with his skipper.
“Why of course,” she called back with forced politeness. “Doll.”
She clanged down the gangplank and looked up at the tall officer—a lieutenant, by the rank slides on his epaulettes.
“That’s better, navy boy,” Reeve cut him off. She’d done her time in the Federation Navy, and she wasn’t impressed with this idiot swaggering along and thinking he was in charge. This little upstart needed to know his place and she let a hint of derision enter her tone. “You’re a lieutenant. And I’m a captain. Remember that.”
“Of course...Captain. I have a message from the Kingdom Admiralty.” The officer forced a strained smile as he presented the clipboard holo to her. “It is with great regret, and humble thanks, that all civilian vessels at Starbase Victory are being seized for use in the war effort as per the Royal Requisition Act of—”
“Very funny.” Reeve made to turn around. She felt a hand grip her upper arm.
“This is effective immediately.”
“Two things.” Reeve deliberately let anger lace her voice. “One, take your damn hand off me. And two, no.”
“The first, no issues.” The man’s grip released. “I’m afraid the second isn’t optional.”
“Bullshit!” She spun around to face the kid officer. “Try again.”
“Captain,” the lieutenant’s voice and face became earnest, almost a complete contrast from his earlier demeanor. “We have a lot of men trapped in the Republic, at Port Rorian. We need every capable ship to get them off. And that means this one, too. I’m sorry, but Swift is being commandeered.”
“Yeah, I heard about your little problem over there. I just fail to see why it should be mine.” Swift was her ship. She’d bought her, admittedly with her family’s blood, sweat, and tears. To have some dirty Kingdom Navy slob get his greasy paws on her controls? No, it wasn’t going to happen. Over her dead body.
“Because, it’s all of our problems,” the officer said quietly, the earnestness growing. “Once the Neo Hegemony is done with Asteria and the Republic, where do you think they’ll come to next?”
“Here,” Reeve answered plainly. “And in which case, I’ll go home to the Federation. Rochelle Harbor is looking good this time of year for the charter business.”
“Your vessel is seized,” the lieutenant’s voice became firm. “No ifs, no ands, and no buts. The Harbormaster won’t be letting you leave. Gather your belongings.”
Her ship. Her damn ship. She felt a fury build in her. “And if I say no?”
“Then you’ll be having your tantrum in jail. Look, we need this ship. We need them all. As many as we can crew—”
“I’ll crew her,” Reeve spoke before she could stop herself. “I’d rather that than lose her because some idiot doesn’t know how to get the best out of her. If she’s going to Port Rorian, then so am I.”
“What?” Clay began, finally contributing something to this exchange beyond a bemused expression.
The two officers glanced at each other. “One less crew for yours means another ship we can staff. That’s within our brief.”
“Maybe you should have asked that first,” Reeve snapped.
“Maybe we should have,” the officer conceded.
Kingdom Navy, what a bunch of arrogant pricks. These two junior officers fit right in. They didn’t even bother to ask, just try and take. As if they were entitled to her ship simply because they had some piece of holo-paper.
Which, to be fair, they probably are.
Navies were all the same. No wonder she’d left the Federation Navy after three years, the minimum she could serve. She wasn’t enough of an asshole.
“Now that we have that cleared up, it seems I have some prep work to be done. If you’d be so kind?” Reeve waved her hand vaguely in the direction of the next ship they’d damn well try and pirate.
“Thank you, Captain.” The lieutenant turned. He paused and looked back and repeated himself quietly, “Thank you.”
“No, screw you,” Reeve snapped in response.
The two men marched away down the gangplank.
Reeve slowly turned and mounted her ship. It was only then she realized the young man’s face had something bubbling beneath the usual arrogance of the Kingdom Navy. Even the earnestness he’d managed.
They were scared of what was happening in the Republic. And Swift—she—was going to be headed into whatever was making the most powerful navy in known space afraid.
New Avalon Orbit – KSS Achilles
“How many ways can this go wrong?” Cutter felt incredulous as he stormed through the corridors of Achilles, heading toward the ship’s conference room. Admiral Darrow had just given him and Roe the news. And it wasn’t good. “We’re going to use a bunch of freighters, passenger ships, asteroid hoppers, tenders, and civvy shuttles? It’ll be murder. Plain and simple.”
Ashford paced alongside him, her lips pursed in determined distaste. Yet that disapproval did not meet her words.
“We have to use every asset we have available,” she reasoned. “Admiral Darrow has activated the civilian ships. Every soldier they can pick up is another person saved.”
“Yeah.” Cutter paused at the bulky metal hatch of the conference room. “Just feels like we’re throwing them into the fire.”
He waved his hand before a panel and the hatch rumbled open.
The conference table within was surrounded by Achilles’s senior officers. As one, they stood, snapping to attention.
“At ease. Sit.” Cutter waved them down a little more curtly than he intended. “Ladies and gentlemen, there have been developments in our recovery mission. Which, by the way, as of an hour ago has a new name: Operation Replevin.”
“What happened to the old adage of code names being designed to hide the operation?” Lieutenant Commander Winston Haynes, the gunnery officer, asked as he settled back into his seat. His head sported thinning hair he’d never bothered to have regenerated and on his nose were balanced wireframe spectacles for eyesight he’d never had corrected. To Cutter’s mind, though, the affectations gave him an air of gravitas which was so rare these days.
“Good point.” Cutter sat at the head of the table. “But let’s be honest, the damn Galts are going to know we want our people back anyway. I somehow doubt the Neo Executors would be pondering too hard about the real nature of Operation ‘Nothing to do with Asteria’ if we’d named it as such.”
The chuckles around the table were forced and, Cutter frowned, more than a little bitter.
“The initial plan to use only naval units to embark the troops is out of the window,” Cutter forced a confidence he didn’t quite feel into his voice as it rang out through the room. “Instead, we are going to be repurposed to an escort mission.”
“Escorting what, may I ask?” Haynes looked over the top of his spectacles.
“We will be covering a civilian fleet who will be doing the heavy lifting.” Cutter forced the emotion out of his voice.
“Crikey,” Haynes murmured as he slipped his spectacles off and laid them on the table.
“Crikey indeed.” Cutter gave a thin smile both at an old Avalonian word he hadn’t heard in a decade and Haynes’s understated expression. “Every available hyper-capable ship is being requisitioned from Victory. This will be supported by atmospheric-capable shuttles for those bigger craft that can’t land. Jump-capable craft will rendezvous with us in Asterian orbit on our arrival.”
Cutter let his eyes wash across the room. “Make no mistake. This will be the largest fleet ever assembled.”
“That will make life awfully complicated for gunnery,” Haynes said, the cogs already whirring behind his eyes. “What’s the status of aerospace cover?”
“The KAF have already been wrestling superiority back from the Hegemony Aerospace Corps,” Cutter replied. “This won’t be purely a Navy show.”
“Great,” Haynes said dryly. “You say the biggest fleet ever? How many friendly ships are we looking at?” Hayes’s finger was poised over his pad, ready to take notes.
“That’s work in progress, Admiral Darrow’s office is telling me near enough a thousand vessels on the list. Many will be crewed by Navy personnel and reservists. And many by their own crew.”
Haynes held up one hand, pausing the captain. “Skipper, a thousand ships? Congestion alone will be madness. I may as well just open fire on them now and be done with it. They won’t be integrated into our defense nets. I mean, they’ll probably be getting in our way if we even try and put up defensive fire.”
“Yet if they lift even one more soldier than they lose in crew, it’ll be worth it,” Ashford cut in from her place at the opposite end of the table to him. Doing her job, supporting her captain.
Cutter nodded in agreement. “Make no mistake. We’re in a mess here. And we need the civvies to get us out. The plus side of all this is it’ll mean we get to focus on our core role, fighting.”
Haynes held his hands up helplessly, while shaking his head in exaggerated theatrical dismay. “Fine, Captain. We know the Hegemony Aerospace Corps are going to be giving us a hard time. What about the Hegemony Astral?”
“Unknown,” Cutter replied. Frankly, he shared the gunner’s concerns about the Astral—the Neo Hegemony’s naval fleet. It may have been small, hamstrung by the Treaty of Charis into a collection of ships designed around border defense, but as they had learned, what the Treaty of Charis dictated wasn’t necessarily what the Neos were fielding.
Still, the chances of them building up a navy with the fighting power to take on the Kingdom’s had to be—Cutter mentally cursed the jinx he was about to perform—minimal.
“Neither the KAF, nor intel, for what they’re worth, have reported any significant units in the area beyond their heavy transport craft and light destroyers to provide cover. The simple fact is, they know we will beat them hands down in ship-to-ship combat, so they aren’t even going to bother trying to fight us on our terms. If we had a concentrated force to fight against, then Darrow would be more inclined to cut loose the home fleet against them. But while what they actually have is absent, the home fleet is going to be covering the core worlds. But that leaves us with another problem...”
“Their stealths.” Haynes’s face twisted in distaste.
“Yes, their stealths,” Cutter confirmed. “Republic heavy units have mostly been ambushed and taken out by the Hegemony Aerospace Corps, but there have been unaccounted-for losses. Something killed them, and the assumption, at this time, is they have to have fallen victim to stealths.”
A somber silence filled the cabin. The thought of those invisible hunters prowling in the darkness filled any good spacer with dread. The Kingdom Navy’s own fledgling Stealth Corps was viewed with both distaste and respect in the halls of Admiralty House and the messes. In wargames, more than one proud battleship, once viewed as an invincible bastion of Kingdom naval power, had fallen prey to them.
As much as Cutter hated to say it, between the huge advances in aerospace fighter and bomber technology and the dreaded stealths, the days of the once-mighty battleships was starting to look decidedly numbered.
“Anything confirmed?” Eve Banning, head of Achilles’s sensory department asked. It would be her job to find the damn things, after all.
“No, and Admiral Roe is going to have the lion’s share of taking on the top cover against them. Our job is going to be to provide central fire support, and assist the KAF in maintaining aerospace superiority. In a nutshell, there isn’t much we can do about it if there are stealths in the vicinity other than ensure we’re integrated into the admiral’s plans.”
“A Vengeance-class battleship will be one hell of a kill for some hotshot Neo stealth skipper,” Lieutenant Banning replied.
“Let’s make sure it doesn’t happen then.” Cutter slapped his hand down on the table. A habit of his signifying the debate was over. Time was short, and as much as he wished they had the luxury to kick this soccer ball around the table, his staff needed concrete instructions. “Your actions are as follows: Commander Ashford, you will link in with the admiralty and the KAF. When the civvy list is complete, we’re going to need to get them formed up in order to afford them the best cover. Commander Haynes, I want you to get on the blower to Admiral Roe’s tactical adjutant; I want to be wedged so hard in his fire-support grid nothing is going to get anywhere close. Lieutenant Banning, despite my off-hand comments about leaving them to the destroyer screen, you will make damn sure you are up to scratch on the latest and greatest things in stealth tactics. If one slips through, it’ll give us a real headache. Ms. Larcy, can you give an update on the status of Engineering?”
New Avalon Orbit – Starbase Victory
On the replay, the small blue icon of Rick’s Tempest plummeted toward the gridded holo-table surface of the flight operations room, leaving the roiling dogfight above. Right behind his craft, the angry red icon of a Wolf fighter followed.
Rick hadn’t realized it at the time, but the enemy had kept firing the whole way down, the shots understandably going wide. But still, the fact the pilot had even attempted it spoke volumes about their skill and tenacity. Whoever it had been had wanted his head on a platter, and had been determined to get it.
“Okay, sir.” Rick glanced up at Captain Martinez as the two fighters leveled out, a hairsbreadth above the sea. “About here’s where it gets interesting.”
The tattered remains of Viper Squadron were in the dimly lit operations room, surrounding the table as they gave a debrief to Admiral Darrow’s intelligence staff officer. They’d lost six in their first raid over Asteria. Two beacons had been tracked going down. One had plunged into Port Rorian, and hopefully had been rescued by friendlies, although they were still waiting for confirmation through the patchy communications channels. The other pilot had ejected well behind enemy lines. No one was under any illusion she was anything but a prisoner of war now. As for the rest? No beacons had been spotted from them. They were already tentatively listed as killed in action, something which didn’t look as if it would change.
There would be time to mourn them later, though. The one small benefit, Rick thought, about the tempo of Viper’s operations. What little downtime they were getting was being used to extract every usable piece of information from their engagements, and not dwelling on lost comrades.
With the Navy about to take the fight to the enemy, they needed every single head’s up they could get on what they’d be facing in Republic space. Any advantage they could wrestle from the enemy. Whether a gap in the enemy’s tactics, or an observation of their capability. And that was what Rick had spotted.
“Flying officer, I must say it looks fairly interesting up to this point.” Martinez gripped the rail around the table. The Navy officer had frowned at the furious combat as it had replayed in front of him.
The Wolf opened fire again. Rick gave a wince; it wasn’t until he’d gotten home that he’d seen the brutal scorch marks down his upper starboard engine nacelle. His Tempest rolled and began a sweeping turn, and the Wolf tried to follow, arcing out wider than its prey. The nose of Rick’s fighter inevitably crept toward the enemy.
“So.” Martinez squinted at the holo. “They don’t quite have your Tempest’s rate of turn.”
“Negative, sir.” Rick paused the playback of his battle over Asteria. They didn’t need to see the Wolf explode, knowing the enemy pilot was dying in there. His point was made. “It isn’t much of an advantage, but it is a small one.”
“Could the pilot have just held back on their turn?” Martinez frowned as he slid a finger up the holo’s control console, increasing the magnification. The sleek, aggressive Wolf was revealed in all its muscular glory. “Maybe they bottled it?”
“Sir, they followed me down on a negative 4g decent straight toward the surface, and leveled out at one hundred meters. They most certainly didn’t ‘bottle’ it.” Rick felt a strange moment of solidarity with his foe. Or maybe it was that he wanted to believe he’d taken on the best and won. Maybe those two emotions were the same thing. “No, we have the advantage on the turn; they have an advantage on the burn with their better acceleration.”
“It’s something.” Martinez turned to Squadron Leader Wainwright, who stood watching with his arms folded. “You’re going to cascade this to the rest of the KAF?”
“Already done, sir,” Wainwright answered in his clipped tones. “Our analysis does show the differences are small. Enough that individual pilot skill is more likely to count than hardware limitations, but yes. The bloody Galts have been forcing us to fight on their terms, at least now we know what terms we are going to attempt to dictate in an engagement.”
“We’re going to be looking to force them into a turning fight.” Rick nodded.
“Which might make things more difficult for our naval gunners.” Martinez sighed. “Very well, that’s the hand we’ve been dealt and we’ll work with it. When we go in, at least we’ll know what you’ll be seeking to achieve and be able to set our fire solutions around that.”
Martinez finally left the briefing room, chatting animatedly to his staff and using his hands to simulate fighter movements in a way which, if anywhere else, would seem almost childlike.
“I still think he wants us to force them straight and level,” Rick murmured.
“Navy gunners are going to be last-ditch defenses on this one.” Wainwright picked up his tablet and stuffed it under his arm. “But we’re the ones who will be the main screen, keeping the Hegemony Aerospace Force off their back.”
“It’s going to be a tough fight, boss.”
“That it will.” Wainwright turned to the other squadron members clustered in the seats. Rick felt a sudden ache as he saw the amount of empty chairs. “Dismissed, chaps. Give Rick and me a moment.”
The other men and women stood and filed down the aisles between the tiered seats, headed toward the exit. Wainwright’s eyes tracked them as they left before settling on Rick. “You did good out there. Saved my arse, that’s for sure.”
“You’d have done the same thing for me, boss.”
Wainwright nodded, then slumped down into one of the seats. Suddenly, Rick saw how tired and on edge the implacable squadron leader really was. “We lost a lot of people out there, including Flight Lieutenant Hutchings. I need to reconstitute Viper Squadron. I’ve got one replacement coming through from Python Squadron. They took so many losses the group captain has decided to just disband them and reallocate the survivors. That’ll bring us up to eleven. I’m looking to restructure into two full Flights and one three-quarter strength.”
“Seems sensible to me,” Rick agreed, not quite sure why Wainwright seemed to be seeking his counsel. Quite literally, it was above his pay grade to have an opinion on this.
“I need someone to head up Three Flight,” Wainwright said. “I want that person to be you.”
Rick blinked in shock. A flight commander was a flight lieutenant’s job, something he was pretty far down the list for. Hell, he hadn’t even taken his promotion exams yet, let alone sat before a board.
“I must admit”—the hint of a weary smile on Wainwright’s face was likely as a result of the skepticism on his own face—“other than the fact I damn well think you can do it, is that with two kills, you’re our most blooded pilot. That has to be worth something. I’ve run it past the group captain, and she’s all for it.”
“I don’t know what to say...” Rick said. “Thanks, I guess?”
“Don’t thank me yet. Welcome to the wonderful world of line management. Now, go pick up your new epaulettes from stores and...” Wainwright gave a gallows grin at Rick. “Remember the mantra.”
“Don’t fuck it up.” Rick returned his commanding officer’s grin.
“Don’t fuck it up,” the older man confirmed.
Wainwright snapped off a salute, turned on his heel, and paced out of Operations.
The moment he’d left, Rick let out a long, low exhalation as he leaned over the holo-table. Flight lieutenant? That seemed a little too close to being an adult. But then, he suspected they’d all grow up fast in this war.
On a whim, he tapped the console, setting it to play again. The Wolf disintegrated, then Rick’s Tempest soared nearly vertically up, twitching from its course only slightly before he claimed his second kill.
Not that Rick was watching that, instead, his eyes narrowed as they settled on the last Wolf. The black-nosed one.
The one that had got away. But only after killing at least one of his wing mates. It couldn’t be the same as the one which had attacked Victory?
Private Wink Goble
Asteria – 10 Km East of Port Rorian
An impending sense of dread had filled Wink from the moment he’d stepped up into the confines of the transport until the second he’d managed to get out of the metal coffin and back into the open air.
Who knew when an enemy fighter would descend upon them? Eviscerating the vehicle like the other Turtle had been, leaving behind nothing but burning wreckage and broken body parts. Like those poor bastards from 3rd Platoon, he wouldn’t have even known about it, his life over in the blink of an eye. Lil widowed, and Patricia fatherless. Or maybe he’d have heard the thunder of a fighter coming over. Or...no, he was alive still, and that’s what counted.
He blinked as he emerged into the murky red-hued daylight. If anything, Asteria’s skies had grown angrier. The flaming debris from the battle in orbit slamming in to the surface kicking up as much dust as that of the Neos’ savage nuclear bombardment itself.
The Turtle had pulled into a gray tarmac of an abandoned high school’s rear parking lot and parked alongside a mixture of Kingdom and Republic transports. The surroundings here were far different from the muddy fields of the constantly receding front line. At least there was one positive in pulling back to civilization. There was less cow and sheep shit to have to dive into every time there was the slightest hint of a bad guy flying over.
On the roof of the glistening glass building, the ugly dome of a portable anti-aerospace turret swung ominously around, its four barrels relentlessly scouring the darkening skies. The military contraption was a stark contrast to the brightly colored school’s cheery front.
“Get the gear unloaded!” the sarge bellowed, hopping down from the Turtle’s front passenger cabin. “Move it, move it, move it!”
Warily, Wink took a look at the sky; the thunderous sound of a prowling fighter was distant. He was under no illusions that it couldn’t pounce on them in seconds, but still, they had a job to do. He hopped back into the rear of the transport and picked up a black military case and passed it down to the silent, sullen Hoof.
The road they’d traveled in on faced to the east, relative to their position, toward the direction of the Neos’ landing grounds. If the Hegemony came up that way, then they’d have a long patch of dead ground to cover, and would face a hell of a lot of firepower. Assuming they had time to dig in properly, that was.
As he turned to climb back in to get the next case, he glanced over at the sarge and the lieutenant. Someone else had joined them, the tools hanging from her belt suggesting she was one of the combat engineers they were rendezvousing with here. She gestured up at the building. Probably pointing out how she wanted their defenses set up.
Before long, the school’s reception was filled with equipment. Black military cases were stacked, covering the children’s drawings and the trappings of an ordinary life.
Was this what waited for Patricia, his baby, if they failed? Would the small nursery Lil took her to while she went to the bakery she worked at turn into some kind of military outpost in a desperate attempt to fend off the Neos?
Yeah, he desperately wanted to go home. But he was even more desperate for that not to be his family’s fate.
“Wink,” the sarge shouted, breaking through his thinking. “I want an LRC set up on the second floor. Make sure it covers down the road.”
Wink nodded, then inclined his head at Hoof and Masie. She grabbed one of the handles on the case containing the Light Repeater Cannon, and he grabbed the other while Hoof picked up the heavy power packs. Together, they lifted the weapon.
“Which comedian thought to add the ‘light’ in the name?” Maisie complained as they trudged through the brightly lit corridors to a set of elevators and dropped it with a clunk within.
With a whirr, the elevator rose and gave a chime. The doors sighed open. The corridor stretched away in front of them, classrooms leading off to either side.
“Gotta find a good place,” Wink murmured, stepping out. The signs were in Republican script. It may have used the same letters and stuff as the Kingdom’s language, but that was where the similarities ended. He didn’t have a clue how to read it.
What the hell were they doing out here on these foreign worlds?
“This way, I think,” he said tentatively, pushing the thought aside.
The LRC squatted on its gunmetal gray tripod, the long barrel just before the glass of the window.
They’d shifted desks, chairs, and other paraphernalia out of the way and now, braced against the windows, were the shimmering heavy armor dispersion shields which the engineers had brought up.
The shields could take a lot of damage, both physical and the energy of the pulse rounds. But the weak point was going to be the structure itself. A school was still a school, not a fortress. And it’d only be able to take so much abuse.
Hoof wired up the power pack, good for 2000 pulse rounds. At a cyclical rate of 600 rounds per minute, they could drain a pack dry in three minutes of sustained combat if the Hegemony decided to try advancing on their position.
Lucky for them, they had more than a few packs to spare. Not to mention the crate of anti-armor single-use Beamers one of their platoon mates had brought up. The small tubes fired insanely powerful lasers, capable of slicing through even a battle-mech’s armor. They were also so expensive he’d only ever fired one in training, the rest of the time having to practice with dummies and simulators.
It was an intimidating amount of firepower contained in this one room—and their company had fortified the whole building. At the first hint of an enemy, they would light them up with thousands of rounds from dozens of weapons. Protecting them from the fighters, the heavy anti-aerospace cannons on the roof, and hopefully the KAF would also drop in and help out with that. Wink, sure as Lost Earth wouldn’t have wanted to advance up the highway going against all of that.
But, somewhere at the end of that road was an army that outnumbered and outgunned them, while above, lurked an aerospace force that could give even the KAF pause.
Yeah, they might have a lot of gear. But then, so did the bad guys.
Colonel Tor Hest
Asteria – 50 Km East of Port Rorian
The mechs and troops of Hest’s 1st Battalion trudged into the fields on the outskirts of the village, even as her light artillery companies set up far to the rear, ready to lay down fire on her command.
Orbital imagery had shown the red smudges of activity. An attack run by a pair of Raptors had resulted in one craft being shot down, gouging a deep brown furrow in a cornfield; the pilot undoubtedly captured or dead, what with the stragglers of Kingdom and Republic forces still operating in the area. So, in revenge, the Aerospace Corps had asked she clear out the village.
The majority of the enemy had been driven back, in long trailing convoys of troops and material. A combination of the Aerospace Corps’ merciless round-the-clock attacks, and the army’s relentless push forward. Despite her misgivings, it was working. But the warrior in her? She hungered for that decisive battle, the chance to finish off the enemy once and for all. Instead, she was left with the scrag ends which hadn’t managed to retreat and were too much effort for the fighters and bombers to attack.
So, clear out this village she would, in what amounted to a mission to sweep up after the Aerospace Corps.
She liked to lead the charge—be the first in, last out. But as her Lion Mech crouched low, resting on its haunches behind a grass covered bluff, she acknowledged that she couldn’t do it all. By all rights, as a brigade commander, she should be far to the rear, with the headquarters element sitting alongside the artillery company. Instead, she moved to where the action was hottest, letting her adjutants handle the dull admin of an army on the move.
If she were to get too deep into combat itself, then the tactical overlay dominating one side of her HUD would be too much of a distraction, and without it, she’d lack the situational awareness required of a true commander. So, she admitted to herself, she had to hang back. Leave the glory of actual combat to others. This time, at least.
“3rd Lance, A Company, you are veering too far north. I am setting you a new waypoint.” She tapped the map, showing exactly where she wanted the formation of four mechs which formed that Lance to move to. “B Company, hold there while they catch up.”
There were times when she felt that warfare had become little more than a grand computer game, with her as the player orchestrating events. But, in itself, that probably gave a healthy sense of disassociation. If all she thought of the enemy was that they were just icons on a map, she didn’t have to consider they were actual people. And, the cold side of her psyche murmured, the same held true for her own troops. She held the lives of her men and women in her hands, yet to think too much about the meat grinder she must send them into might well paralyze her.
The jaws of her forces surrounded the drab agricultural village—its eastern front covered by her forces. Whatever was hidden in there, amid the dour structures, would be decimated. Nodding in satisfaction, she saw her forces in position.
“Artillery barrage, fire for effect. Three volleys.” Her eyes flickered over the tactical display, taking it all in. “All Lances, advance behind.”
The chatter of acknowledgements came from her comm.
She heard the first whistles of artillery shells arcing overhead. Muddy splashes of dirt erupted all around the village as they plunged into the ground. With a possible MIA in there, she didn’t want the buildings too badly damaged. It was all for show, to force the enemy to consider the foolishness of resistance.
Then the artillery barrage stopped.
Her mechs stormed forward, entering the opening of the crater-riddled field. The first, sporadic return fire of light weapons opened up on her Lances. The mechs ignored the pulse fire, letting it ping off their heavy armor. A piercing line of light stretched from a building’s window, an anti-armor Beamer. It caught a mech on the arm, ripping it off. The mech stumbled into a crater and dropped to the ground.
“1St Lance, B Company.” Hest checked her map. She may have wanted the MIA alive, but that didn’t mean she was going to risk her own people’s lives. That was just the brutal calculation of war. “Structure at coordinates DG-17. HEAT barrage. Go.”
Seconds later, the structure erupted in flame as the mech’s high explosive rounds found it. Whoever had been in there, Kingdom or Republic, was gone.
The advance continued, the ripple of fire from the other structures diminishing under the withering assault.
They didn’t have a chance.
“Twelve prisoners, and there are at least sixteen dead,” Lieutenant Colonel Tor Shenar, the executive officer of her brigade, announced proudly. The wide grin on his face stretched across his too-handsome face. “With no casualties of our own and minor damage to a few mechs.”
“How many mechs?” Hest snapped irritably. She caught herself. War was a thing of beauty, in many ways. The clash of soldier and machine. The test of ensuring one was better than her opponent. It was one of the universe’s ironies that the fact people actually died in war left such a sour taste in her mouth.
And she knew enough about soldiers to know that she, and her troops, shared more in common with those they’d been asked to defeat than their masters back home. Especially the Neo government who now stalked the halls of power within the Hegemony.
Eight enemy prisoners were on their knees on the muddy debris-strewed ground, their wrists cuffed behind their backs with thin plastic bindings. The other four were injured and being treated by her medics. It was unlikely at least two of them would see out the day.
“Six, Colonel.” Shenar rocked his chin back, affront showing on his face. The man, like her, was descended from nobility. Unlike her, he was an arrogant idiot about it. Chances were even her rebuke and irritated tone would be noted down, on the off chance at some point he would be her senior in the endless rank-leapfrogging of the ambitious and the connected. Father Terra, it wouldn’t surprise her if he was one of the Executor plants Marshal Galen had alluded to as infesting her ranks. Still, he was also a very competent commander. “Three field serviceable. The others will have to go back for deeper repair. But we’ll likely have them back within a week.”
“Very well.” Hest nodded, satisfied with the exchange. “Make it happen.”
Hest turned and walked toward the prisoners with Shenar trailing along behind. As she approached, she noted their uniforms, with gold flourishes to the cut of their armor, as if designed as much for style as for operational use.
They looked utterly defeated. As they should. The cities of their worlds already had the flags of the Neo Hegemony fluttering above them. Their armies were in disarray. Their fleets fleeing into exile, captured or destroyed. Their vaunted fortresses were, even now, creating a ring of debris around the planets they orbited. No one could have expected their defeat to be so quick, and so complete. Not even, Hest thought, the Hegemony brass themselves.
The guards shuffled out of her way, but kept their weapons trained on the prisoners.
One of them looked up at her, her eyes red-rimmed with fatigue. Her face was smeared in dirt and blood. Yes, her armor would look beautiful on the parade ground. Yet here, on her knees in the mud and spattered with blood, it looked faintly ridiculous.
“Are you the senior officer here?” Hest squatted down on her haunches before the woman.
“Yes. Lieutenant VaRole,” she croaked in heavily accented Galtese, her voice dry and parched, yet still containing the singsong lilt of the Republic. In fact, she was an Asterian native, if Hest’s ears didn’t deceive her. “2nd Republic Army, Brithkey Regiment.”
“A unit with an honorable past. Water.” She gestured for a canteen. One appeared and she gently put it to the woman’s lips. VaRole shook her head, lowering it again, her matted hair hanging loosely around her filthy face.
“It’s all right, Lieutenant.” Hest drew her hand away slightly. “You fought well. You knew you couldn’t win, yet you tried anyway. Your war is over. You will be returned to Galton as a POW. You will be treated well—”
“Bullshit,” the young woman said lightly. “We’ve heard about what you are doing to your prisoners.”
Hest blinked, a sense of shame washing through her. Yes, she’d heard rumors too, all of the army had. Of torture by the black leather-clad Executors. Of summary executions without cause. Of pits full of bodies.
“You are prisoners and as such, we are obligated to treat you under the terms of the Concorde Articles. That will be done.”
“It seems obligations and treaties don’t mean so much anymore to Galton, no?” The woman looked up into the sky. Even in the murky daylight, a glittering band scribed an arc across the sky. A beautiful spectacle from down here. A beautiful spectacle comprised of bodies and debris. The young woman’s eyes glistened, but they didn’t shed tears.
VaRole shook her head resignedly. “You will wrench what information from me you wish in due time, I’m sure. But for now I do not wish to talk further to the scum who have invaded my home.”
“I think a little more respect—” Tor Shenar snarled, stepping next to Hest, his hand reaching for the holstered pistol on his waist.
“Enough,” Hest raised her hand and stood. She turned and stormed away from the prisoners. “Feed them, water them, and treat them well. Any mistreatment will be subject to the harshest field sanctions I can administer. Am I understood?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Shenar responded sullenly as he trailed behind her. Another mental note of a perceived insult would no doubt be being made, and she didn’t care one little bit. Over her dead body would her honor be besmirched by handing over military prisoners to those who would dishonor her. Those who would dishonor Galton’s proud history...even if its present left something to be desired.
She paused and turned, staring at Shenar intensely. “And make sure they are processed under army administration. I don’t want our...friends in the Executor Divisions concerning themselves with my prisoners.”
“We...may not have any say in that.”
“You have connections. Use them for something which isn’t purely selfish for once.” Hest sneered at the political animal. “And prepare for an advance down the Mortain Highway. I’m sure the Aerospace Corps will require our assistance again before too long.”
“Yes, Colonel.” Shenar beat his right fist against his chest.
With the approved Neo salute, of course. Shenar turned and marched off. Practically goose stepping.
Hest shook her head. What had her army become? A war machine of death marching across worlds. Where the simple noble courtesy of one warrior to another was in danger of being forgotten.
A voice, Marshal Galen’s, echoed in her mind as she watched Shenar disappear from view into the cluster of dismounted mechs.
We’re all Neos now...
New Avalon Orbit – Swift
“What the shit is all this?” Reeve growled at the spacers busy unloading boxes from a small hover-dolly. She opened one up, ignoring the call of “Hey!” from the rating. It was filled with meal bars. Each, according to the wrapping, could provide all the calories and sustenance a trooper would need in an emergency for a standard day.
From her own time in the military, Reeve knew them to taste like cardboard laced with antiseptic. Frankly, going hungry was a pretty viable alternative option.
She turned to the neat piles of clear packets along the gangway. Emergency skinsuits. She picked one up and turned it in her hands. It was the most simplified spacesuit imaginable, designed solely to keep someone alive aboard a holed craft.
“The quartermaster reckons you can bring back thirty on this tub.” Cheeky bastard. Reeve scowled at the spacer for calling Swift a tub. The rating chewed on gum, his face disinterested at the offense he’d caused. He turned to continue unloading suits from a pallet. “So you get thirty suits.”
“Fine.” She tossed the suit back on the pile and made her way up the gangplank. Thirty? Someone was being optimistic about her yacht’s carrying capacity. The small craft would literally be packed to the gills. “I’m going to be casting off in twenty minutes. They best all be aboard is all I’m saying, or they’ll be some real disappointed ground pounders if this ‘tub’ gets perforated.”
She entered the Swift, turning up the short passage and into the passenger lounge. Lost Earth! It was full of medical supplies and rations.
Trotting up the spiral staircase leading to the cockpit, she dropped back into her chair, refusing to look at her copilot, whose gaze was locked rigidly forward.
“Think it’s too late to let the Navy take the Swift?” Clay finally asked after letting the silence stretch on. “We can just go hit Saddlers. Drink Kingdom swill beer until all this blows over.”
“Over my dead body,” Reeve growled, finally snapping into action and tapping on the console screens in front of her, beginning the pre-flight sequence.
“You know, seriously...” Clay finally turned to look at her. “This ain’t our war. The Galtons or Neo Hegemony, whatever they call ’emselves now. The Kingdom. The Republic. As far as I’m concerned, they’re all as bad as each other.”
Reeve ran the diagnostics on the hyper engine, ignoring him. The two engine nacelles flashed green, the fuel supplies showing as topped up, courtesy of the Kingdom.
“Let’s just bust outta here. They turn right, we turn left. Shit, Rochelle Harbor is sounding better and better to me all the time. Let’s make tracks thataway.” Clay gestured vaguely out the cockpit window.
She checked the internal monitors; the two spacers were busy filling the lounge with the suits. They looked to be almost done.
“Why should we risk our asses for ’em?” her copilot pressed.
Sighing, Reeve finally turned to him. “Because, as much as it pisses me off to say, they’re not all the same. Not really. You’ve seen the news. You know what’s going on in the Arcadian Sector. The Neos have taken over Galton, and they’ll take over the sector. Maybe the Federation will sort its shit out, stop posturing to the Dawn Empire and come wading in, but until then, the only thing standing in the way is the Kingdom. And if they fall, then the Federation will have an even harder time putting all this shit back together again.”
“We’re one ship—”
“We’re one ship that can carry thirty soldiers trapped over there. That’s thirty people who have wives, husbands, parents, and kids.”
Clay shifted awkwardly in his seat. Damn, but the man was so easy. All she had to do was tug at his heartstrings and the romantic third-generation Katerin immigrant would keel over. But he did have a point. This wasn’t their war. Not yet. But whatever happened, Reeve was getting the impression it would be theirs soon. Maybe she’d come to accept that, but it sounded like Clay hadn’t quite. Not yet, at least.
“I’m going. But you don’t have to.” She clicked her fingers, drawing his attention to a screen she had brought up. “There, contract is up. You can walk away if you want to. I’ll even write you a reference while I’m heading out-system.”
“Meh.” Clay scowled, huddling down into his chair.
“Seriously. Think on it.” Reeve turned her attention back to the console. “You have fifteen minutes before hatches close.”
“Shit,” Clay muttered. “Shit.”
“Is that you getting off?”
“Shit,” Clay repeated, this time with vehemence. Reaching forward, he tapped his console. “You play me like a violin. Generators are spooled up, battery backup is registering full charge.”
“That’s the spirit.” Reeve grinned as she synched in with him, getting Swift ready to fly.
New Avalon Orbit – KSS Achilles
It was time.
“XO,” Cutter announced. “Take us out.”
The captain sat in his chair next to Ashford on the command podium. His legs were crossed, doing his utmost to portray a picture of calm. As if he was taking the ship out for a patrol around the uninhabited dim stars of the Reach rather than about to launch them across the Regis Gap toward the fires of battle.
“Lieutenant Banning,” Commander Ashford announced. “Signal Victory that we are slipping our moorings.”
A dull thud reverberated through Achilles’s kilometer-long hull. The huge mooring arms attaching the battleship to Starbase Victory retracted and folded back into themselves, leaving Achilles floating free over the spoke of the naval dockyards.
“Mister Singh.” Ashford turned to address the helmsman. “Set us in the departure lane for rendezvous with the fleet.”
On the holo-display, recessed in the pit in front of the command podium, the huge ship rose over the naval spoke extending from the dome of the vast starbase. Slowly, Achilles orientated itself toward a dense cluster of twinkling lights.
Her mighty engines glowed. Even at little more than steerageway, the sense of power throbbing through the vessel was palpable. And not just from the sheer momentum of her under thrust. But her massive cannons, her myriad defenses. She felt...invincible. Cutter felt invincible.
And that feeling, that over-confidence, was something to be wary of. It could, and would, kill them against a foe like the Hegemony.
Serenely, she cruised up and away from the massive starbase toward her rendezvous.
“I’ve never seen anything like it.” Haynes murmured as they soared toward the vast gathering of ships.
Over three hundred hyper-capable vessels hung in New Avalon’s high orbit. Hundreds more craft which had neither jump engines nor were hyper capable streamed toward the open docking bays of the larger ships. The fleet was comprised of nearly a thousand vessels, all told. From the smallest of space-to-surface tenders to the largest of freighters.
Warily circling were the forty destroyers of Roe’s flotilla, their sleek, lethal forms mean and aggressive as they gathered in packs. And beyond them, the darting, dancing lights of the KAF’s fighter cover.
“Sir,” Banning called. “I have Admiral Roe for you.”
“Put him on.”
Roe’s trim figure flickered to life before the command chair. The bullish former destroyer skipper nodded his head in acknowledgement. “Hal. Good to see Achilles forming up.”
“Thank you, sir.” Cutter gave a thin smile. “Hopefully we won’t be cramping your style too much.”
“I’m sure us destroyer jocks will be able to slum it with you battleship pansies.”
The admiral had the faintest of disparaging tones. By all accounts, Roe thought any vessel bigger than a heavy destroyer was a needless luxury, and any spacer that didn’t have to hot-bunk was simply not a team player. In the captain’s messes, destroyer skippers tended to have a mentality not dissimilar to that of fighter pilots—all bravado and sweat. The light warships were one—perhaps the only—way the Kingdom could keep a grip on its widely spread provinces. And that gave the destroyer skipper corps a certain feistiness. They were often given to telling tall tales of their adventures far from the Kingdom core worlds.
But then—Cutter felt a faint sense of amusement rise in him—Roe would be thanking them before too long for the anti-aerospace firepower Achilles was bringing along.
“Take up position as per cruise plan Transit Alpha. We’re going to have a lot of ships to shepherd here.” A ghostly outline of Achilles appeared somewhere near the center of the formation as Roe spoke. “So, stay wedged in there and provide the close cover for our merchant shipping. Anything that gets through us, you’re going to have to take down and quickly.”
“As per Transit Alpha, aye aye,” Cutter responded. “Sir.”
It was Roe’s turn to smile faintly. “Time for me to address the fleet.”
A chime echoed through the bridge. Roe’s flickering blue figure skipped over to the tactical display, standing tall in the center of the bridge as he switched to the fleet-wide network. His words and visage were playing out to all 350 hyper-capable vessels, the hundreds more intersystem ships nestled within them, and the jump-capable small craft waiting until the moment when they could cross the Gap and arrive under the protection of the escort’s guns.
“All ships and crew. We are about to undertake the biggest recovery operation in the history of interstellar warfare. We are going to Asteria, where nearly half a million of our boys and girls are waiting for a ride home. And we’re going to give it to them.”
The man swept his head from left to right, as if he was surveying them all. Then a buccaneering grin crossed his face. “Glory. That is what awaits us on the other side of the Gap. Now let’s seize it.”
The holo flickered off and Ashford turned to look at her captain. “Glory?”
“Well, better that than a full-scale rout,” Cutter replied. It was impossible not to be caught up in Roe’s enthusiasm. He really hailed from a different age, when the battleships of the Kingdom and the Galton Imperium clashed in savage broadsides. When the expeditions of the fleet roamed far into the unexplored reaches of the galaxy.
It was a distant, long-gone age. But one the man exemplified.
“Shall we get this rescue...I mean recovery underway, sir?
“By all means,” Cutter said, “Let’s go seize our glory.”
“Mister Singh,” Ashford called across to the helm. “Put us in our position for Transit Alpha.”
Achilles steadily moved into her assigned position, picking through the shoal of vessels. The fleet flocked around, some craft more hesitant in their formation keeping than others, but eventually they were all, at least, pointed the right way, something which Cutter couldn’t help but feel was a heroic achievement in itself.
Not for the first time, Cutter envied the fighter jocks and small craft skippers with their fancy new jump drives. Able to instantly leap across the light years into a position of their choosing.
Not so for bigger vessels. Jump cores became exponentially more expensive the higher the tonnage, and the longer the range. For fighters, bombers, passenger craft and, as it turned out, jump mechs, it was possible, even economic for them to simply jump across between systems with scant regard for their point of origin and free reign as to their destination. From, and to, planetary orbit if needs be. For anything bigger than a fighter or bomber, they had to go the long way between the stars.
They’d have to cruise out under conventional drive, out to the Karnov Boundary—the zone where a star or other major mass wouldn’t screw with their hyper engines—and orientate themselves on the correct vector to reach their destination. That meant going at intersystem accelerations to that point and that took time, even with the fleet heading out at best possible engine burn.
In the thirty hours it would take them to get out to the Karnov point in the Regis system, and the twenty-seven hours it would take them to decelerate on the other side at Thuine after transit, Lost Earth only knew how many people would die down on Asteria.
And who knew how many ships they would lose to the enemy.
That was something Cutter had a responsibility to reduce as much as possible. And, at the moment, the only thing he could do to keep that down was to make sure his people knew what to do when an aerospace raid came. He tapped at his console, bringing up the program he wanted.
Train hard, fight easy. And the element of surprise added to that. Even if they were only just underway. He tapped his console, activating a simulation.
“Bogeys, Bogeys, Bogeys,” Cutter suddenly called. “Many bogeys. This is a drill.”
Ashford started, wrenched her gaze from reviewing her tablet. “I acknowledge this is a drill. Mister Haynes, safe weapons, switch to simulated maneuvering and fire. Go to condition one throughout the ship.”
The lights of the bridge dimmed to a red hue.
“Mister Haynes?” Ashford called. Cutter nodded in approval. She had synched into her position of taking tactical control of the ship; in theory, that would free him to keep his eye on the big picture.
“I have...” the gunner consulted his screen and took a deep breath. “Eighty incoming bogeys. Lieutenant Banning?”
“I can confirm, we are not expecting friendlies.”
“Understood,” Haynes snapped back, the interchange between them smooth. Efficient. “I am designating them as bandits. All gunners, standby for firing patterns. Dispersion shields to full.”
A hum permeated through the bridge as the shields activated.
“Commander Ashford,” Captain Cutter said. “Please take appropriate action. It looks like they’ve just rolled over our destroyer screen and our KAF friends are out of position. It also appears that I am neglecting my duties and am not present on the bridge. Nor am I bothering to answer my comm. So please consider the wider fleet implications.”
“Understood,” Ashford replied as she tugged on her gloves. They sealed automatically around her wrists. Reaching under her chair, she grabbed her helmet and pushed her head into it. “All hands to battledress order. Simulate depressurization of outer sections on acknowledgment by relevant crew.”
Cutter looked at his console; the destroyer screen had whittled down the enemy some. But not nearly enough. Still over sixty had slipped through on a course straight for the merchant shipping. Worse, the other destroyer squadrons were out of position. It was all up to Achilles.
“I want all civilian shipping to drop back relative our position,” Ashford called. “I want us between them and incoming.”
The tactical display slowly adjusted as the simulated Achilles accelerated out of the pack.
“Are we getting types yet?”
“We are looking at a mix, half Wolf escorts, half Raptor.”
“We have to presume those Raptors are rigged for anti-shipping. Very well, Mister Haynes, priority on the Raptors. Ignore the Wolfs,” Ashford called.
The blinking swarm steadily advanced on them.
“At your discretion.” Ashford’s eyes lingered on the display. “Open fire.”
Cutter massaged his temple as they played back the battle again on the large display on his office bulkhead. Ashford had joined him in his small, sparse ready room behind the bridge, debriefing what had happened in the drill. And while there had been a lot of good, there was also a hell of a lot of development to be had.
The icons of the incoming fighters and bombers washed toward the fleet, the playback at double speed.
Achilles gave a good accounting of herself. Ten enemy shot out of space. Another dozen limped away with varying degrees of simulated damage. Then the rest had rolled over the fleet and devastated it. Achilles herself had taken a dozen torpedoes. The huge battleship would likely be slowly dispersing wreckage if this had been for real.
And that was likely nothing compared to what they would face out there. His executive officer had an expression that oscillated between pissed off and dejected. Breaking her morale hadn’t been the objective of this exercise; seeing how far they could push Achilles had. And it was getting clearer to Cutter every day that a battleship was a sitting duck to the agile aerospace fighters and bombers.
“Chin up. Hopefully, this isn’t going to be a situation we’re going to find ourselves in.” Cutter gestured with his mug at the display, then took a sip of his coffee.
“I do admit it’s rather an extreme situation you set up for me,” Ashford agreed. Was she pissed off? It sounded it.
“But one we’re likely to face,” Cutter said. “Look, Hannah. I know it seemed like I sprang this on you at the worst time, pulling out of dock, but the Galts are going to seek their opportunities. They won’t hit us at a time of our convenience. I want to know Achilles is in good hands even if I keel over from bad mess food. And, for the most part, I’m content with how you performed.”
“Right,” Ashford said curtly.
He’d deliberately set up the scenario so they had little supporting coverage from either Roe’s destroyers or the KAF’s fighters. But still, it was the rawest test he could think of to see how many of the enemy they could take out. “So, how do you think we fared?”
“Not great, from the look of it.” Ashford grimaced. “Maybe Roe and the Fleet Aerospace Wing or KAF are right. The days of the battleship really are over. For this kind of fight, anyway.”
Giving a grunt, Cutter turned in his seat to face his XO. Candid speaking was not something generally encouraged in the dogmatic Kingdom Navy. Party lines were there to be toed, not to be disparaged. It was one of the reasons that—for example—despite his nature, Cutter actually liked Admiral Roe. To be blunt, he didn’t give a damn about dogma, or keeping his mouth shut. It was one of the ironies of the Navy that it was only by virtue of the fact he always somehow came out right, and bulldozed over his opposition, that he had come so far. And that same thing had stopped his career in its tracks, too, as soon as he reached the rank which required political acumen.
Perhaps things were changing. Look at him, Captain Harold Cutter, a battleship skipper, traditionally one of the positions populated by the most conservative officers, who actually encouraged his XO to speak her mind.
But that didn’t change things. They were going into a new kind of battle here. And very shortly, the staid Kingdom Navy would be fighting an enemy that had no compunctions about throwing tactical and strategic mainstays out of the window in favor of stuff that actually worked in the modern age.
Here and now, however, the hand they had been dealt meant they were riding a battlewagon toward Asteria. “That, Hannah, is a debate for another day. As for now, this is what we have and we need to give our people the best chance of getting back to actually have that debate.”
“Understood, Captain. We’re going to have to do better here,” Ashford said. “I’ll make sure Mister Haynes squeezes every extra bit of learning he can out of this scenario and gets his performance tuned up.”
Cutter nodded approvingly. “Sounds good to me.”
The Karnov Boundary appeared on the tactical display as a hatched fence in space as the fleet surged toward it.
Soon, it would be time to transition. And when they did, they would be thrust into enemy-held territory.
Cutter looked over the busy bridge, not at the displays, not at the equipment, nor at the holo.
He looked at his people.
After the exercises, including a final confidence-boosting easy victory, he’d given them as long a rest period as he could. He knew not everyone would have been able to sleep. Lost Earth, he knew he hadn’t. He lay on his bunk, his eyes closed, listening to his favorite ancient music—the classical, but angry tones of Linkin’ Park pumping in his ears. Then he’d recorded a holo to Iona.
Just in case.
The last thing he wanted to do was worry her. Make her think he wasn’t one hundred percent confident he’d come home. So instead, the message had gone to Martinez, one of his buddies who worked back at Admiralty House in the intel section. If he didn’t come home, he’d take it to his wife.
“Sir, we are thirty minutes out,” Mister Singh spoke quietly.
“Very well.” Cutter refocused on the task at hand. “Set condition two throughout the ship.”
“Condition two, aye aye,” Ashford barked, her voice clipped.
Condition two, ready for battle. Weapons would be loaded. Damage repair crew and corpsmen would deploy throughout the vessel. Bulkheads would be closed. The auxiliary bridge staffed. And the outer compartments depressurized. The ship, and all aboard her, poised and ready to do their duty.
The lights dimmed. Throughout the ship, people would be preparing themselves as much as they could for battle—and then waiting in anticipation.
“All hands report at condition two.” Ashford’s eyes were glued to her console.
And now, it was simply a question of waiting until the fleet slipped over the Karnov Boundary and into the Thuine System.
The fleet crept ever closer to the hatched fence depicting exactly where that ethereal marker in space lay.
Outbound Regis System – Swift
More ships than Reeve had ever seen cruising together filled the cockpit window, creating a sense of congestion which was rare in the vastness of space. It was confused even more by the sleek fighters sweeping between and the packs of destroyers prowling the periphery of the fleet.
The vast bulk of the kilometer-long battleship, Achilles, cruised at the front of the mass of large vessels forming the core of the fleet. It made sense, she guessed, for that vessel to be situated there. The big ships would be the most valuable, able to take thousands, not the thirty she could. But a disturbing sense of unease filled her rather than reassurance. The Kingdom Navy was sending one of its big gun ships with them. Ships which hadn’t been unleashed on an enemy since the Great War.
The first Great War, she corrected herself.
And there was little doubt in her mind that Achilles would defend those bigger ships over hers. As, she admitted to herself, she should. They were the most valuable, after all.
“Swift Two, confirm your hyper engines are primed and ready.”
Reeve pursed her lips as she checked her displays. With the amount of ships they were talking about, it should have come as no surprise that there was another Swift in the fleet. But still, even though she had one of the smaller ships, her beautiful yacht being relegated to the designation of Swift Two was a damn insult. Swift Two was the Swift.
“I can confirm,” she forced curt politeness into her tone. “We are ready to make translation when we hit the Karnov Boundary.”
“Thank you, Swift Two,” the voice on the comm unit responded. The man sounded harried, and to be honest, it was no small wonder considering the hundreds of ships being coordinated. “Achilles will be the jump datum. Please ensure you are slaved onto her vector and good luck.”
“Last chance,” Clay muttered. “We can turn around and burn the hell out of here.”
“It’s a little late for that,” Reeve said under her breath, her fingers playing over her console. “I think we’re committed now, don’t you?”
Clay grunted. She doubted the Kingdom would do anything as crass as shoot them out the sky if they turned and escaped the mad gathering of ships. But they would, sure as the Lost Earth was green and blue, make their displeasure known. Chances were, they’d send their people to impound her ship out of sheer spite and charge her with all kinds of offenses wherever in known space she fled to. The Kingdom had that kind of reputation.
Hell, she hadn’t read all the small print on the tablet she’d signed. But it wouldn’t surprise her if it would count as piracy if she flew off with her own damn ship. And if they went down that route? Then technically that was still punishable by being spaced, not that that had been wheeled out as a sentence in the past decade.
She let the vague flights of fantasy and fear flee her mind. It was a distraction. And she didn’t need that right now.
Reeve clenched and unclenched her fist as it rested on her console. On the heads-up display, she watched as the hatched digital representation of the Karnov Boundary crept closer. That invisible shell around a star where the gravimetrics made translations to hyperspace possible for ships too big to mount jump drives. Dead ahead, yet lost amid a million others, lay the star, Thuine, around which Asteria circled.
Thuine, one of the closest star to the Kingdom systems, yet it entailed crossing the ten long light years of the Regis Gap, the only thing, she supposed, which would protect the Kingdom from succumbing to the same fate as the Republic. The handful of light years between the stars of the Arcadian Sector proper was one thing, but the sheer cost of equipping enough of those mechs with jump drives with the range to successfully invade across the Gap would make it economically impossible.
In her brief tenure in the Federation Navy, she had never seen combat. Never been particularly interested in doing so, either. The Feds were isolationist in nature, and that suited her just fine.
Joining up had been part of her mother’s deal, bless the old patriotic old-money matriarch of the Reeve dynasty. Serve your nation, then the trust fund is yours. Don’t serve, and you make your own way in life.
So serve she had, just to get at the cash.
And then, rather than buying a house, marrying into the right family to solidify some dynastic agreement, and taking her position in the family’s shipping business as she should, she’d blown the whole lot on Swift.
Yeah, mom. Take your flag waving elsewhere. This girl’s gonna see the universe. And not on your terms, the family’s, or the Navy’s, for that matter.
Except, it hadn’t worked out like that, because now she’d found herself pressed into naval service, and under a different flag at that. Lost Earth, the irony was borderline hilarious.
“We’re matched with Achilles and our hyper vector is on the money.” Clay leaned back in his seat.
For the moment, they were slaved to Achilles. The battleship would dictate the precise moment of jump for them so they would all move in formation and translate into Thuine space together.
A countdown appeared. A sickening feeling filled her gut. This was it. They were going in. Into a damn warzone.
She reached across and gripped the top of Clay’s hand, giving it a reassuring squeeze. Or was it that she was being reassured? She wasn’t sure. Not anymore.
“Here we go,” Clay murmured.
“One,” Reeve breathed.
A swirling blue whirlpool formed before Swift, then the small craft was catapulted through. As always, Reeve’s eyes and body told her she should be thrust back in her seat, then be driven forward as they breached the other side and appeared to slam to a halt. The rippling tatters of the hyper-field’s exotic particles dissipating around them, like embers scattering from a fire.
All around them, ships crashed back into real space amid shockwaves of light.
“Star fix,” Clay called, his voice an octave higher than normal. “I can confirm. We are in the Thuine System.”
Above them, a massive Trans-Reach Liner jumped in, her two kilometer-length scrolling overhead as she retook her position in the fleet.
“Welcome to the Republic, Shannon,” Clay breathed out.
“This ain’t the Republic anymore,” Reeve snapped back. “It’s Hegemony space. Slot us back in.”
More flashes, this time the angrier red bursts of jump drives. KAF fighters swarmed to take up escort positions in diamond formations around the fleet, ready to respond to any—
Far across the fleet, an explosion suddenly bloomed. Reeve tapped the cockpit window, zooming in on a stricken freighter. The huge ship rolled ponderously out of formation, leaving a glittering trail of debris behind.
“What the hell was that? A collision?” Clay leaned across Reeve, staring at the tumbling craft with wide eyes. A formation of fighters arced toward the wounded ship, engine plumes washing out from their rears as they accelerated hard.
“Not a chance,” Reeve responded as she pulled her harness over her shoulders. “The Neos haven’t messed around, they’ve hit us already. Prepare for maneuver. I want to be able to evade if we have to.”
She stared hard at the sensor screen. Damnit, it was so congested out there with friendlies. But still, they should be spotting something if a warship had hit them. That left fighters, bombers or—
“It’s got to be a stealth,” Reeve realized, the sickening feeling in her stomach turning up a notch. “It must have been sitting here on the New Avalon vector waiting for us to hyper in.”
“Holy shit.” Clay swallowed. Stealths were new, or at least relatively so in naval warfare. Small, lethal ships. Black as space. Nearly invisible to detection. And dangerous as hell with their torpedoes.
Swift’s displays gave a flash as the powerful active sensors of the destroyer flotilla washed across her yacht, seeking to find the elusive stealth which had just hit them. Damn, they were at such a close range, her hull temperature actually rose by a fraction from their intense scanning.
The freighter continued falling away; her engines flickered and died. Then a series of secondary explosions rippled through her body. She bucked, her back breaking, and then her wreckage was obscured beneath the roiling clouds of escaped gases.
A starburst of icons sprang out of the vessel. Escape pods fleeing their doomed mothership.
“Come on, they must have got an incoming vector on that weapon impact,” Reeve said impatiently. She tapped her console, cutting the slave-formation program. She’d rather have her fate in her own hands on this one. “Find that damn stealth before it repositions.”
More sensor pulses, as the flotilla of destroyers spread into a search-grid formation, probing ahead of them.
Another flash of light came from the opposite side of the fleet. This time from one of the destroyers. The three-hundred-meter-long warship was simply transformed into a shockwave of glowing gas as a torpedo lanced into it.
Lost Earth. This wasn’t a lone stealth, they were in the middle of a pack of them.
“Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit,” Clay chanted as he reached below his seat for his helmet, for what little good it would do them. If they got hit by a stealth’s torpedo, Swift would just cease to be.
“Don’t worry.” Reeve hated the tremor which had crept into her voice. “We’re too much of a small fry for them. They’re going for what’s important.”
Pulse fire opened up in an impressive rain of fire, originating from the flotilla hunting the original stealth. They’d either got a position, or were getting desperate, trying to saturate the area of space where the stealth would—should—be.
Goddamn, they’d been in Thuine for less than five minutes and already they were neck deep in it.
Inbound Thuine System
“Jump drive tuned,” Rick called to his Flight. “Engage.”
The power coursing through the jump drive sent a vibration up through his backside as it spooled up. The fleet’s predicted vector had been programmed in, so when the drive dumped them back into real space, they would match their wards’ position and velocity. Without that tuning, and at intersystem speeds, the fleet would disappear into the distance in less than a blink of an eye as their vector carried them away.
A flash of red light.
The fleet appeared, a few dozen kilometers in front of his fighter as a cluster of stars far denser than the veil behind. Already, he could see expanding blooms of distant explosions tearing through the collection of ships.
“All Flights, looks like the fleet’s in trouble,” Wainwright called, his voice his clipped and taut. “Form up and prepare for SCM. Let’s get in there.”
Rick drove the throttle forward, and his Flight of three Tempests surged forward. He checked, then rechecked his IFF. Last thing he wanted was for one of the destroyers to get all confused and open up on him with anti-aerospace fire. Frankly, it was a headache he could do without, and it looked like the fleet had enough to contend with without wasting flak or pulse rounds on him or making their lives more difficult than they had to be.
His HUD populated as his flight computer decrypted and deciphered what was going on out there. Icons filled his cockpit window, too numerous to decipher. Distress signals from escape pods, and the chatter of engaging warships filled the comms. He tapped his console, clearing everything but his own squadron and the fleet’s fighter directors, who even now were doing their best to interpret the bedlam all around them. And any bandits, of course.
Viper Squadron swept forward.
“Command, this is Viper Squadron. I am a CASP of eleven Tempests,” Wainwright called. “What trade do you have for us?”
“Viper Squadron, Fighter Control,” a man’s harassed voice called back. “We are currently engaged with what appears to be a stealth pack. Establish combat space patrol on the upper side of the fleet formation and await further, over.”
“Roger that. CASP on the upside, out,” Wainwright responded. “Okay, people, it’s not much to go on, but keep an eye out. You get a hint of a stealth, you call it in.”
Rick pulled his nose up, soaring over the expansive mass of ships. He rolled his fighter onto its back so the fleet was upside down relative to him so as better to keep an eye on what was going on down in that mess.
Another explosion. The huge hospital ship, Nurse Francis, visibly bucked. Rick grimaced as the vessel slowly came apart, transforming into huge chunks of debris following the ship’s original vector. How many had gone down with the Francis? Hopefully not as many as her size suggested. The ships were all traveling on skeleton crews to be able to pack more in when they got to Asteria. And reduce potential causalities on the way in, of course.
“Lost Earth,” Quinn called, her voice barely hiding a frustrated rage. “If those destroyers don’t do their job, there isn’t going to be a fleet to defend.”
A ripple of red flashes. The sign of jump drive ships dropping into real space. An alarm warbled urgently in Rick’s ear. He glanced at his radar. Their transponders were off, exactly what an attacking force would do. In other words they were—
“Bandits,” Rick called, fighting to keep his voice calm. “I have many bandits.”
“Break and attack by flights,” Wainwright snapped. “Stay together and watch each other’s backs. And keep an eye out for traffic. It’s damn busy out there.”
“Viper Three Flight on me.” Rick pulled his nose up, climbing toward the mass of ships and the enemy angling toward them. “Let’s go find the bombers.”
Flashes of pulse fire crisscrossed space. Some of the bigger ships had light armaments on them to ward off pirates. Not that it would do much good against modern fighters in the hands of a competent pilot. But it had to be better than nothing. It was a deterrent, at least.
Wincing, Rick saw a massive deluge of blue pulse cannon fire erupt from the battleship near the center of the fleet. The searching destroyer flotilla leant their own much less, but still substantial fire into the mix.
“Those damn gunners better watch their aim,” Quinn muttered.
Damn straight. The chances of friendly fire wasn’t just a possibility with the volume of fire those ships were putting out, it was likely.
Glancing between his radar and his cockpit, he suddenly swerved to avoid a huge ship which suddenly appeared in his view. Lost Earth, no training simulation had ever contemplated such a dense environment as this.
Grinding his teeth, he looked for trade.
Threading through a cluster of freighters, his HUD projected a box outline over a Raptor weaving between ships ahead of him. His crosshairs met the target, then drifted away both from the Raptor’s evasions and his own need to avoid collisions.
He gave a low frustrated growl, his finger tensing then releasing on his trigger. Just when he thought he had a clear sight picture, the damn bomber ducked behind another vessel.
Then it curved round in front of him, twisting onto a heading toward a destroyer.
“Come on,” he murmured, his crosshairs fighting to find the aim point. “Come on, come on...”
Flashes of pulse fire rained down on him; his fighter rocked under an impact. He drove his stick over, corkscrewing away from the Raptor. Goddammit, it had led him into a trap. He looked up, striving to find the fighter which had pounced on him. It flashed by, a flicker of black adorning its nose, diving behind the ruins of a ship.
His hand tightened on the stick. His nose dipped as he made to pursue the bastard who’d taken a pot shot at him.
No. He fought his instincts. That fighter wasn’t the priority. The Raptor was what would do the damage to the fleet here. He pulled up, returning to his course after the Raptor streaking further ahead, about to start its attack run on the destroyer.
It didn’t mean he had to be completely defenseless, though. That’s why they operated as a team.
“Quinn, keep that Wolf off me.”
He swept back in, from high right. Trying to judge his shot so it would intersect the Raptor without touching the destroyer.
He squeezed his trigger, more in hope of distracting the Raptor pilot than anything else. A streamer of pulse fire tore toward the Raptor. One glanced off its wing. The bomber rocked, then resumed course.
Shit, this guy’s determined.
The destroyer wouldn’t dare fire her own weaponry back in this direction. The chances of hitting a friendly were far too high.
“Come on!” Rick grunted in sheer frustration as the crosshairs played around the enemy. Lock this bastard up.
His rate of intersection meant he had one more volley before the friendly ship was back in his sight picture. The Raptor opened up with its heavy cannon, designed to penetrate a light warship’s dispersion shields. Visible explosions rocked the flank of the destroyer, flaying the side from her.
He squeezed his trigger again. Another streamer of pulse fire. He struck the Raptor’s port engine nacelle. The large fighter-bomber corkscrewed, clearly a dead stick and out of control, scattering debris like a Catherine wheel as it spiraled past its intended target.
“Good hit, good hit,” he called. “Splash one Raptor.”
He twisted around in his seat as fire flashed by him. The Wolf was back. Where the hell was Quinn? He drove his stick over, glancing down at his status board showing his wingmates.
Shit. Quinn’s bird flashed yellow. She’d taken a pounding. As for the third member of his squadron, the icon was blank. Not even replaced by the icon which showed the pilot had ejected. He hadn’t even seen what had taken him out.
“You okay, Quinn?” he growled through his high-G turn. Time to use his turning advantage over the enemy.
“I’ve lost engines two and four, Rick,” she coughed back, pain in her voice. “And that bastard took out Hanson.”
The new member of their squadron, a transferee from Python Squadron, gone. Hell, he’d barely met the man.
Circling tightly, he moved his eyes rapidly, searching for the Wolf.
There it was. Burning hard down through a mass of ships. The Hegemony fighter lashed out with pulse fire indiscriminately as it weaved, seeking to do what damage it could even as it evaded him.
“Quinn, get yourself back to Victory. You ain’t going to do any good out here with a damaged bird.”
“I can still fight.” Rick glanced at the status display. Like hell she could. Her fighter’s systems were failing, the icon of her Tempest flickering between yellow and red.
“Negative, get out of here. Go. I’ll see you back at the ranch,” he urged.
“That’s a damn order,” Rick called. His eyes hunting for his quarry. “Go. Now!”
A red flash. Quinn’s icon on his status display flickered, replaced by the circle denoting she’d jumped out.
He swept over a freighter, plumes of escaping gases from cannon fire hits erupting from her riddled hull.
The Wolf sprang back into view, rolling in behind a Tempest which in turn stalked another Raptor.
“No,” Rick breathed out as he watched the Tempest transform into a shower of debris under the Wolf’s merciless fire.
There was no sign the pilot had ejected.
The Raptor rolled toward an ore carrier with deadly intent. Growling, he flicked his eyes between the Raptor and his quarry, the black-nosed Wolf.
Again, the Raptor had to be the priority.
Fighting every instinct he had to avenge his unknown comrade, he banked over, pursuing the fighter-bomber. He squeezed his trigger. Pulse rounds flashed by his target and it rolled away. This guy was clearly made of less stern stuff than his dead comrade.
He dragged the nose of his Tempest around, tracking it. Trying to stay unpredictable for the enemy out there undoubtedly seeking an opportunity to hit him. Someone who had already proven how brutally skilled they were at this game.
The Raptor slid back into his sights. He squeezed the trigger.
One of his prey’s atmospheric engine intakes crumbled, the fighter leaving a black trail of debris and gases.
A red flash.
“Shit!” Rick muttered. The pilot had chosen that discretion was the better part of valor and jumped back to wherever its base was.
His radar was so full of returns, it appeared to be static-laden. No way was he picking anything out of it. This was going to have to be done the old-fashioned way—with the eyeball mark one.
Where are you? He ducked his head, looking all around him. That Wolf was still here. Somewhere.
He rammed his stick around, so hard the inertial compensators warbled. An elephant felt like it was sitting on his chest as his fighter swung around.
There. The black-nosed fighter. Its pulse fire slashed ahead of it into a Tempest, leaving nothing but a roiling cloud of gas.
Whoever that was had taken out two Tempests in under a minute. Probably had taken out Hanson, too. Not to mention given Quinn such a battering she’d had to flee.
The lethal enemy swept around in a long arc. Rick groaned as he brought his own nose about, striving to make the lead crosshairs meet his cannons’ apex point.
“Say goodnight, mother fu—”
It disappeared with a flash of red. From all around the fleet, the rippling light of other jumps sparkled.
He took a deep breath as the threat indicators disappeared.
They were bugging out.
“Shit.” Rick thumped his armrest with a gloved hand. Again. That bastard had come in, kicked their asses, and then left.
“Looks like this wave is over,” Wainwright called, his voice tight and strained from his own high-G maneuvering. “Anyone at fifty percent fuel and undamaged maintain CASP. Everyone else, get yourself home.”
For the first time, he checked his damage status. The fire he had taken in the first volley had ripped a big hole in his tail. He gave an abortive attempt at a shrug beneath his harness. No matter. They weren’t going atmospheric on this flight. He didn’t need it.
“Viper Three-One. Maintaining CASP solo,” Rick panted. “Anyone need a wing?”
“Viper Two-Three. I’m solo, sir.”
“Got it, Two-Three,” Rick replied. “Ping your transponder and I’ll join up with you.”
Rick banked over, seeking his new wingmate. And appreciating for the first time the destruction the stealth and aerospace attack had unleashed on the fleet.
A trail of broken ships extended behind the main bulk of the fleet. Shoals of debris, clouds of gases, and frozen bodies filled the space between damaged ships. Shuttles and small craft were already darting from their motherships to recover what survivors they could from the blistering attack.
Rick shook his head, horror slowly overlapping the adrenaline and thrill of battle. They’d only just entered the damn system and already taken horrendous losses.
And they still had a long way to go before they even reached Asteria’s orbit.
Inbound Thuine System – KSS Achilles
The deep thudding noises of Achilles’s huge pulse cannons diminished in frequency as the last of the enemy fighters jumped away, fleeing back to their unknown base.
Cutter rotated slowly in his chair, taking in the calm, yet urgent working of his crew. Haynes stood behind his bank of gunnery coordinators, all of them looking as if they’d gone ten rounds in a boxing ring. The lieutenant commander opened the visor of his battlesuit, plucked off his spectacles, and wiped the sweat from his brow before looking up toward the command podium.
“We’re clear, sir.”
“Thank you, Mister Haynes. Good work.” Cutter nodded down at him. “And to your crew, too.”
It looked as if they’d drawn blood. Two Raptors and a Wolf which had strayed into the devastating sleet of fire Achilles had laid down.
Chatter washed across the comm. He spun back round to face the tactical holo, recessed in its pit before the command podium.
The display was a mess of ships, too many of those attacked, stricken, or destroyed. The fleet had left a trail of broken vessels behind. Search and rescue shuttles and small craft of the fleet had braved recovering their stranded crews, even in the midst of the battle. But now that it was over, or was for the time being, rescue efforts were commencing in earnest.
The brutality of the attack had been shocking. The stealths had opened up, sowing confusion and destruction in the lines, yet even that had been little more than a distraction. As Roe’s destroyers had moved to engage, the Hegemony Aerospace Corps had pounced, flying into the weaknesses left in the coverage and tearing through the fleet.
Over two dozen ships had been destroyed. Who knew how many were dead, drifting frozen in the void, here on the outskirts of the Thuine System.
“I have Admiral Roe on the comm net, sir.” Banning twisted in her own chair, her finger pressed to her earpiece.
Cutter stood and made to straighten his skin suit. With a wince, he could feel how much sweat had gathered, chafing his armpits. “Put him through.”
The admiral’s flickering blue figure appeared, replacing the tactical holo. It broke into a static of pixels before reassembling itself.
Cutter took in the man’s visage. An angry-looking burn marred his brow, but he stood as straight as ever and the expression on his face almost looked pleased.
“Hal,” the admiral’s voice crackled. “Quite a furball.”
“That it was, sir.” Cutter nodded. That was sure as hell one way to put it. He wasn’t sure if he admired Roe’s excitement over the fight, or should write a memo to Darrow about it.
“Gave the Neos a good kicking, though.” Cutter raised an eyebrow. It felt like anything but. Two dozen ships gone, and the KAF was reporting fourteen Tempests down. In response, they’d taken out twenty-three enemy fighters and bombers. Not good arithmetic. At all. “My flotilla is currently chasing a couple of sensor shadows away. Probably our stealth pack skulking off like the sneaky bastards they are.”
Cutter cast an eye at the tactical holo—a pair of destroyer groups arced out from the main bulk of the fleet, snapping at the heels of the stealths which had ripped into the fleet. He frowned, one part of him knowing the need to see off the enemy and prevent them repositioning, the other trepidant at the thought of those ships leaving themselves vulnerable without support. And of course, every ship chasing stealths was one not protecting the fleet.
“Probably don’t want to let them roam too far out from mutual cover positions. Frankly, we can do without the gaps.”
Roe gave a snorting grin, unfazed by his actions being questioned. “Don’t worry, son, I’m not an amateur. They have orders to chase them just far enough from our vector they’ll have to drop stealth and go to conventional drive to position back in. If they do that, we’ll send in the flyboys to give ’em what for.”
“Sounds a plan, sir.” Scratch that strongly worded memo. Roe might have been a belligerent dog of war, but there was method to his madness.
“Took some pulse fire from some Raptors trying their hand,” Cutter replied. “Nothing our dispersion armor couldn’t handle. No damage of note.”
“Good.” The cocksure look dropped from Roe’s face. “I lost two of my ships. Rapier is gone, and Cutlass will be heading back to Victory. She’s more holes than ship right now after she was used as target practice.”
“What will that do for our coverage?”
“Honestly? Trying to turn the frown of our lost ships and those which will have to return home into a smile...” Roe gave a dismissive shrug. “Not much.”
Cutter felt a sense of grim amusement wash through him. Trust the old bulldog Roe to see lost ships as being a bright side.
“We’ll get the formation tightened up a bit,” the admiral continued. “Hell, considering the relative losses between escorts and transports, it’ll be tighter than before. I’ll send through the disposition to your tactical officer, Mister...what’s his name, the one who thinks it’s cool to wear spectacles?”
“Haynes, sir.” Cutter cast an eye at his watching tactical officer, who nodded in acknowledgment even as his cheeks reddened in indignation.
“Mister Haynes.” Roe gave a clap, signaling the end of the conversation. “Right, back to business. Escort Actual, out.”
“Sir.” Cutter returned the salute Roe snapped off with jaunty aplomb.
The man’s holo flickered and disappeared, replaced again by the congested icons of the tactical display.
“You’d think he’d just had the time of his life,” Ashford muttered from where she stood behind him.
“Got to admire the old pirate’s enthusiasm,” Cutter responded with a smile. He was mindful to keep his voice low. It was one thing discussing the brass in this manner with his trusted confident. Another entirely letting the crew overhear. He raised his voice. “Mister Singh, please link in with Mister Haynes. I want a revised ETA for Asteria’s orbit taking into account any adjustments in our formation.”
“Aye aye, sir.”
The tactical holo scrolled out, encompassing the whole system. The fleet’s path cut a dashed arc, heading deeper into Thuine’s gravity well and intersecting with the circle denoting Asteria’s orbit.
“Feels like a long way to go,” Ashford said quietly.
“Yeah.” Cutter looked at the display. “A bloody long way.”
And he didn’t just mean it as a cuss.
Colonel Tor Hest
Asteria – 15 Km East of Port Rorian
A group of fighters roared through the red-hued sky overhead in a V-formation, heading back toward the aerospace fields set up to service them. The attacks against the incoming fleet and aerospace strikes against the gathering Kingdom and Republic forces at Port Rorian were relentless, as much designed to break the enemy’s morale as it was to inflict material damage.
The thunder of their passage left a lingering ringing in Hest’s ear. She let it subside before turning to look forward at the men and women of the 7th Armored Brigade, and gave a nod of satisfaction. Behind the soldiers and personnel, hulking silhouettes of mechs stood, each one radiating power.
They’d blazed a path across this continent, driving the Republicans and Kingdom alike before them. The enemy had crumbled. Oh, they’d fought tooth and nail. But they had fallen more rapidly than even the most wildly optimistic of the Hegemony battle plans had predicted. This new type of warfare had already proven a resounding success.
But success brought its own problems. Not that they risked getting bogged down in the kind of bloody trench warfare of the first Great War, but that they were advancing too fast. The beleaguered support corps were working themselves to the bone to keep the front properly provisioned, but the supply lines were getting long and stretched between the secured landing sites and the ferocious battles of the front.
But also, momentum had to be maintained. For if they lost that, then the enemy would surely consolidate. And the storming advance would become mired, and thrust them right back into the meat grinder of a conflict like that of the last war.
In other words, the logistics corps would just have to work harder. For the moment, though, her brigade had rallied up at one of the staging areas, situated at an old freight service area on the Mortain Highway. Soon, they would be marching again.
Another flight of Wolf fighters thundered over, one of them leaving a smoking trail behind, the sure sign of battle damage.
The Aerospace Corps might be taking the glory of the real fighting at the moment as the enemy fleet swept toward Asteria, and on the ground, softening up the opposition. But the army had been the ones who’d secured this place. Stopped the enemy from merely scattering then reforming later, keeping that pressure on with their steady, relentless advance.
And, the only resistance worth mentioning left on this world had all been driven toward one place.
Now her brigade, over a hundred mechs, and nearly three thousand troops in support, would be joining a dozen army divisions of Army Group Alpha positioning to encircle the starport city.
If the Kingdom thought they had anywhere to run to, they were mistaken. Sorely mistaken. The coming fleet would be pounced upon. Anyone left to land would not be able to lift more than a fraction of those on this world. For the remainder, at best, they would be sieged. At worst, swept away before the tide of her forces.
She surveyed her troops as she began to stroll the line, Lieutenant Colonel Tor Shenar next to her. Her soldiers. She’d die for any one of them, from her most senior deputy to the lowliest private.
“Carl.” She nodded at one young man, standing at rigid attention on the front row. She dimly recalled signing off on an educational scholarship for him in the barracks back home on Galton, a lifetime ago. He’d wanted to study for an engineering degree on the army’s paycheck at the Larches University on Galton. He was one of the many who’d joined in the hope of bettering himself. Yet war had come—no that was wrong, they’d brought war to the enemy—and changed all that. “We will get this done, so you can get back to what you want to do, no?”
“I want, and live, to serve the Prime, Colonel.” The private looked up at an angle, not making eye contact. Hest gave the faintest of frowns at the glint of zealotry she saw in his expression.
She gave a smile, struggling to keep sadness from it.
Casualties of this crusade are coming in more ways than one. This war may gain us a future, but cost it, too. The Neo movement was an insidious infection. And the youth? They were more susceptible than most to it.
“You can best serve by getting an education,” Hest settled on, fighting to keep her hands from grabbing the boy’s shoulders and shaking the fanaticism out of him. Marshal Galen’s words to her, his fear, still burned strong in her mind.
We’re all Neos now.
She continued down, the mud-streaked infantry and oil-smeared services giving way to the black jumpsuits of the real fist of her brigade. The mech pilots. Warriors one and all. In her more romantic moments, she thought back to the tales of Father Terra. Stories of knights in shining armor, riding their faithful steed to war, battling for the right and just.
Hest nodded in greeting, careful not to show favoritism to them. After all, every man and woman was valuable. Not just those doing the glamorous jobs. The cooks, who kept her warriors fed. The engineers and mechanics, who kept the mechs fighting. The infantry and armored vehicles, who kept their flanks covered. All were part of this war machine.
She reached her Lion Mech and gave a final nod of approval over her gathered brigade.
From before her, the men and women of her command erupted into motion. Preparing to go into battle.
Shenar turned away from his position at her side, ready to climb into his own mech.
“A moment, Lieutenant Colonel.” Ordinarily, she wouldn’t have emphasized the “lieutenant” part of his rank, yet with this one, she felt the need to remind him—not so subtly—that there was a difference in their positions. “The Republican soldiers we captured. I presume my instructions were carried out?”
“Ma’am?” Shenar turned back to her.
“That they were to remain under army jurisdiction.”
He cocked his head as he regarded her. Behind him, the clanks and sounds of an army preparing rolled over the tarmac of the service area. “I’m afraid not. The Executors messaged. They wished to...interrogate them.”
Hest gritted her teeth. Interrogate? She knew what that meant. And for the Executors, that meant pliers and blowtorches would be involved. “I ordered you to—”
“Colonel,” Shenar smirked. “I was not prepared to use my...connections, as you put it, for a bunch of two-bit Pubbys. Favors are slowly accrued, yet easy to burn on irrelevancies to our objectives. I merely allowed the course of events to unfold as they should.”
“And so you consigned soldiers who fought with honor to a slow, painful—”
“Death, Colonel,” Shenar interrupted. “It is no more than they deserve for defying the Hegemony.”
Anger boiled within her. An anger which would be self-destructive if she allowed it to show.
We’re all Neos now.
Instead, she simply nodded. “Dismissed, Lieutenant Colonel.”
“Hail Prime.” Shenar beat his chest with a fist.
She watched him climb into his own mech, somehow keeping the contempt she felt for this lackey from her face. What had her once proud nation become?
Shaking her head, Hest cast the shame and melancholy from her mind as she turned to her own war machine. With a hiss of servos and motors, her Lion Command Mech knelt down, the armored chest retracting, revealing the dark cocoon of its cockpit. The arms automatically came down, joining in a cradle and creating a step for her to climb up into the brutally efficient vehicle.
Around her, the actuator braces automatically clamped onto her limbs as the HUD sparkled to life with tactical data and status readouts.
She—the mech—stood, rising to its full height of four meters. Around her, the brigade rose as well. The support troops jumped into their transports, the ones which would be coming with them for the final encirclement of Port Rorian, at least. The rest busied themselves, going back to their business in the nascent forward operating base.
The metallic clanking of their movement filled Hest’s audio pickups, as the column of mechs began trudging down the Mortain Highway.
Far in the distance, the towers and spires of the city were visible, smoky columns rising from all across the skyline into the ochre sky.
New Avalon Orbit – Starbase Victory
“Reports are understandably sporadic from Port Rorian itself.” Marshal Holden flourished his hand over the 3D holo-map to encompass the situation. “However, the majority of the expeditionary force has successfully made it to the Port or embedded in and around the city to provide protection for the evacuation.”
Lattimore stood at the opposite end of the table from Darrow, her arms folded, the look of distaste evident on her face as she regarded the grim situation depicted on the display. Port Rorian was completely encircled with the red of Hegemony forces. A hand that would clench into a fist, squeezing the life from the blue and green of the Kingdom and Republic armies gathered there.
“However, due to the speed of their retr—withdrawal,” Holden corrected himself, “the majority of the equipment they have with them is light arms. They have extremely limited armor and heavy weaponry with them. Certainly not enough to ward off the amount of mechanized divisions the Hegemony are bringing to bear from the east.”
“Lady Myles,” Lattimore addressed the aerospace marshal. “I presume marshal Holden can count on the continued support from your forces to keep the enemy at bay.”
Lady Myles leaned on the holo-table, slight ripples emanating from her hands pressing on it. “Of course. We are however looking at having to achieve two goals in this Operation. Protection of the fleet and a ground support function. That will effectively halve the resources I have available for either. If we could re-divert elements slated for home systems defense—”
“No,” Lattimore snapped in response. “By your own admissions, you have stripped the defenses of the home systems to the bone. We cannot risk more in case all of this is simply some kind of elaborate diversion.”
“The Galts have likely committed every piece of war power they have on taking on the Republic,” Myles pressed. For the first time since he’d met the politically savvy aerospace marshal, Darrow heard a hint of unguarded frustration in her voice. “I doubt they’ll have enough forces in their strategic reserve for a successful invasion of the Kingdom itself.”
“They don’t have to invade, my lady,” Lattimore said irritably. “They merely have to show our government and our bosses—i.e. the public—that war with the Hegemony is more trouble than it’s worth. Frankly, I suspect that is what the Prime wants, and what his principle objective is. No, we keep the defenses staffed, and utterly defeat any potential incursions into our territory while rescuing our people.”
“Recover,” Darrow corrected without thinking. The party line was they were recovering them for future battles. Rescue was deemed too unseemly for public consumption for His Majesty’s armed forces.
Lattimore rolled her eyes. “Please. If we can’t speak frankly in this room, then we’re all fucked anyway,” she said plainly, her coarse tone causing Darrow to blink. “Operation Replevin is a rescue mission, pure and simple. Marshal Holden, Admiral Darrow, Lady Myles, stop correcting yourselves every time we don’t use Ministry of Information approved words. It’s getting tiresome.”
“Aye aye, ma’am,” Darrow replied, even as Holden muttered, “Yes, ma’am.”
“Good. Now, Admiral, what’s the status of the fleet?” the prime minister asked. “They should be well in-system by now.”
Darrow took a deep breath, bracing himself for Lattimore to turn her ire on him. “The insertion into Thuine occurred on schedule, and the fleet is inbound for Asteria.”
“But?” Lattimore raised an eyebrow.
“A stealth pack was waiting on the insertion vector. They attacked and presumably signaled for support from aerospace units. There have been losses.”
“Don’t beat around the bush.” Lattimore scowled.
“One destroyer down, one returning here. Fourteen Tempests.” Darrow held out his pad. “Here is a breakdown of the civilian and transport shipping losses, of which the most significant is the hospital ship, Nurse Francis.”
Lattimore waved the pad away with a shake of her head. “I only need to know, is the Operation still viable?”
“Yes,” Darrow murmured, then repeated in a firmer tone at Lattimore’s still raised, inquisitive eyebrow. “Yes. We expected losses. There is sufficient redundancy built into the fleet’s lift capacity.”
“Very well.” Lattimore nodded. “Thank you, my lady, gentlemen. That will be all. I will return to Ridgeacre House and appraise Parliament.”
She straightened her suit and gave one last look, halfway between a gaze and a glare. “And I’m sure you all have important business to take care of without me looking over your shoulders.”
New Avalon Orbit – Starbase Victory
The Wolf fighter dove down, opening fire with its pulse guns, obliterating his wingman so quickly he never even managed to cry out his distress. Then it was on him. More by luck than judgement, the fighter raced by, its fire striking the tail fin of his Tempest. The enemy swept around to engage Quinn. A short and fierce battle ensued.
Quinn lost, forced into retreat, trailing smoke and debris from her wounded fighter. Only by the grace of Lost Earth surviving what could have—should have—been a kill shot. She jumped out, retreating back to their base, Victory.
Whoever that is, they’re good. Damn good.
Rick ran his finger back along the rewind bar of the holo and then set it to play frame by frame. He was back in the Flight Operations room, the main display showing a composite of all the fighter sensors in the squadron, enabling a three-dimensional holo-recreation of the battle in the Thuine System. The positions of the friendlies and the enemies, accurately mapped out.
The Wolf fighter dove down from high right, the muzzles of its pulse guns flared. He paused the replay and focused in.
The nose again. Instead of being painted the distinctive yellow of every other Wolf they’d encountered, it was a matte black with a jagged sawtooth effect, almost like the petals of a flower closing around the nose. He’d seen it three times before. At Victory, over Asteria’s seas, and in the frozen outer reaches of the Thuine System. And it had always had the exact same appearance.
It was the same person. Every time. It had to be.
“It’s black nose?” Quinn appeared next to him. A plastic tray in her hand. She gestured with her fork at the holo before digging it into the pasta and taking a mouthful.
“Yeah, that’s the bastard, or bitch.” Rick focused in even more, this time on the cockpit, the faintest silhouette of a head visible behind it. “That paint scheme is unique on the nose. Whoever it is ain’t shy. They’re happy to announce they’re special...they want us to know who they are.”
Quinn finished her mouthful and passed the half-full meal tray to Rick. Taking it, he shoveled down the rest of the tasteless food.
“It’s very old school,” Quinn remarked. “Didn’t I read it somewhere the Galton Imperium used to allow that back in the last war? Someone scores an ace, then they get permission to paint what the hell they want on their fighter?”
“Something like that,” Rick mumbled through his pasta. He’d read the reports, too. The Crimson Hunter was the most famous. The stuff of legends in the aerospace circles, in fact. Back when jump fighters were primitive and basic, more inclined to kill the pilot than deliver them into battle with the enemy. The Crimson Hunter had painted his fighter a distinctive red, and had been responsible for shooting down at least eighty allied fighters.
“So we have ourselves a bona fide, old-school ace operating here.” Quinn leaned closer to the display. “You send this over to intel? Maybe they have something sitting in one of their databases about this guy.”
“I will.” Rick set the tray on the holo-display. “For all the good it’ll do. They’ll just tell us to watch out. And try and kill ’em if we can.”
“I don’t have a problem with that plan.”
“Yeah.” Rick flashed a humorless smile. “Seems a solid one to me, too.”
Wainwright’s face appeared in the briefing room hatch. His disapproving eyes were as red-rimmed as theirs. Too many missions in too short a time, and his pilots were spending what short rest periods they had obsessing over playback footage. He shook his head, visibly disregarding any admonishment he was going to give. “You two, get set. We’re wheels up in fifteen.”
“Got it, boss. Thanks,” Rick called back, then turned and gripped his wingman’s shoulder. “Look, Sienna, this pilot is dangerous. They had a paint scheme the first time we fought ’em. They were already an ace before we got anywhere near this damn war, and they’ve scored enough kills to do it again. That’s at least ten they’ve shot down.”
“We’re getting pretty experienced ourselves, you know.” Quinn gave a grim smile. “And I’m only one behind you now.”
Rick returned the grin, before letting it drop from his face. He gestured at the holo. The Wolf fighter frozen as if about to dive on an unsuspecting prey. Him. “I want this piece of shit. You leave ’em to me.”
“Not a chance. Sir,” Quinn emphasized his new rank in that eternal way of an officer who had seen one of her peers promoted before them. She turned to grab her helmet lying on one of the ops’ room chairs. “I owe this arsehole. If I see ’em, they’re mine.”
She walked out of the room, Rick following, shaking his head. He didn’t know whether to feel exasperation or pride. Or maybe it was less pride and more arrogance. To be a fighter pilot, to be a good one, anyway, you had to have a hint of it. Be confident in your own ability; know that you were one of the best. And Rick knew he was one of the best of the best. Chosen to fly the new Tempests, not the older, and more numerous Lightning or Cyclone fighters. But as convinced as he was that he was the best, Quinn was just as determined she was, too.
And, presumably, the pilot of the black-nosed Wolf felt the same. Whoever that was, they were likely doing what he was doing. Deconstructing every encounter. Figuring out how to get an advantage. The one thing Rick was sure about, it wouldn’t do them any good.
“Not,” Rick finally offered in retort, “if I get ’em first.”
Viper Squadron slipped into their escort positions high above the fleet burning hard toward the inner system. Thuine, the star lying at the center of the system, had visibly grown in size. Going from a mere speck of light, albeit far brighter than the rest, to a discernible disk automatically compensated for by the cockpits’ auto-tinting
“Good Morning, Cobras,” Wainwright’s clipped voice was tense. “We are in position and you stand relieved, over.”
“Thank you, Vipers. May Lost Earth damn your patrol with violence, heartache, and struggle.”
Rick gave a chuckle as the rippling red flashes of Cobra Squadron departing back home washed across his view. It had long been the worst curse you could give a pilot, telling them you hoped they had a quiet patrol. Invariably, it would turn out to be anything but.
In an ironic spin, a new tradition of wishing the worse had evolved in the past few days of intensive action, in the hope that fate would act in its usual, contrary nature and offer up a peaceful, stress, and battle-free flight. It was a tradition, Rick suspected, which would be continued for many years and had slowly grown more exaggerated with each relief of the CASP.
Not that they had much of a cross section for this tradition to be proven right. It was only in the last two of the hour-long rotations that the fleet hadn’t undergone some kind of attack, whether from a single stealth—which had torpedoed a destroyer, reducing it to wreckage falling ballistically toward the star—to a full-on Hegemony Aerospace Corps assault, accounting for another destroyer and even more civilian ships.
And that, Rick suspected, meant they were due something. And big. He shook his head. He wasn’t here to deal with maybes. He was here to protect the fleet. To guard it, whether from a “quiet” patrol, or one full of “violence, heartache, and struggle.”
And that meant focusing.
Thuine grew larger as the fleet thundered toward the inner system. Their destination, a small blue speck surrounded—even from this distance—by a spider silk ring.
Asteria. And the wreckage and debris of previous battles circling the war-torn world.
Inbound Thuine System – KSS Achilles
Cutter pulled his shaver away from his face for long enough to allow a huge yawn to escape. In hindsight, it had been a real mistake using these couple of hours to get a bit of sleep rather than powering through on stims and caffeine. He felt worse now than when he’d laid his head down on his bunk. It felt as if he’d blinked, and then had to drag himself off the hard mattress.
Finishing, his face smooth, he stowed the shaver and splashed water on his face in a vain attempt to wash the fatigue cobwebs away.
He pressed a key on his cleaner-closet. The door sighed open. He took out his freshened battlesuit and slipped it on, all the while running an eye over the display hanging on the bulkhead showing his ship’s status.
Nothing significant had changed in the past couple of hours. The sub-light fuel tanks had dropped a few percent more than he’d like, but that was to be expected in the high-speed run into the system. The main guns were still failing their checks with alarming regularity, but—he shrugged to himself—thus far there looked to be nothing in-system to actually use the brand-new heavy cannons on anyway. This battle would be fought using Achilles’s secondaries and anti-aerospace weaponry.
He finished sealing up his suit and ran his hands through his short-shorn hair while giving a deep breath. He stared in the mirror. His eyes were red-rimmed, tired seeming. He tilted his head, rehearsing the manner in which he would portray himself to his crew. Calm, collected. Like he had all the time in the world, but still prompting his crew to action with a gesture or a nod. Practicing the grand theater of command. He stopped, going back to simply looking at himself.
Today’s the day.
Hegemony forces hadn’t given as much as a squeak as they had closed within half a million kilometers of Asteria.
That meant one of two things: either they weren’t going to contest the rescue...recovery, he corrected himself, of the expeditionary force and what Republicans they could...
Or they were going to hit them with everything they had when the fleet was going to be at its most vulnerable—during the deceleration into orbit and the dropping of atmospheric-capable craft.
He’d bet the farm on the latter.
Cracking his knuckles, he walked the couple of meters across his cabin to the hatch.
“Captain on deck.” Ashford made to stand from the captain’s seat on the command podium.
“As you were.” Cutter rapidly responded before everyone could disrupt what they were doing for a stupid tradition which should have long since been discarded. Dogma again, seeking to get in the way. Or maybe it was discipline, the cement which would hold the forces of the Kingdom together in these times of strife.
Ashford continued rising, and shifted over to her executive officer position. Tapping her consoles, she brought them to life.
Instead of taking his seat, Cutter stepped down the stairs into the holo-tank pit.
The display was filled with the hundreds of ships of the fleet, stretched out in an elongated oblong formation. The destroyers warily prowled the edges, searching with their powerful sensor systems for any of the lethal stealths which might chance their hand, even at this late stage.
Mingled in with the fleet, and ranging away from the outskirts, the Tempest fighters arced and danced. Ready to respond to any incursions of fighters coming in.
They were as ready as they’d ever be, but still a sense of dread filled him. People would die today, no matter what they did or how well the plan went. Probably many people. Both up here and down there. But any delay, any procrastination or indecisiveness would cost even more lives.
He glanced over at Banning. “What’s the status on the ground?”
“The same,” she replied, an almost sanguine calm to her tone. He felt a dim satisfaction; she was taking comfort by finding recourse in professionalism, rather than losing herself in fear of what was to come. That was a damn big tick as far as he was concerned. She’d do well in what was about to happen. Both in this battle, and in this war.
He tapped the angled console on the rail surrounding the holo-tank. A map of Port Rorian appeared.
“They’re under constant harassment by the Hegemony Aerospace Corps,” Banning continued, pacing toward him and gesturing at the tank. “Ground units—armor and infantry—are closing around them. The Neos’ support assets are hanging back a bit—artillery, logistics functions, and whatnot.”
The display focused in more, into the spires and towers of the city proper. To the north, a vast area of landing pads and service buildings formed the spaceport, one of the largest and most important in the sector. Clustered around that, and in the city, mingled with the population, were nearly half a million troops.
Damn, what he’d give for the strategic and tactical situation to be simpler. To simply pull into low orbit with the rest of the home fleet and bombard the hell out of the area surrounding Port Rorian with Achilles’s, and every other Kingdom battleships’, mighty cannons.
They’d reduce the Hegemony invasion to nothing within a week as pulse round after pulse round slammed to the ground amid them. Digging them out of whatever holes and fortified positions they set up for themselves.
Unfortunately, the Republic government, or what was left of it, at least, was not likely to take that well. Not likely at all.
No, they weren’t going to win the war here. But they would get back what they needed to win it. An army. And now wasn’t the time to dwell on the ideal situation, but the time to play the hand they’d been dealt.
“Signal Admiral Roe.” Cutter turned to climb the stairs and take his seat. “Tell him we’re prepared for deceleration on his mark.”
Private Wink Goble
Asteria – 10 Km East of Port Rorian
Wink knelt next to the stove and poured the contents of a foil ration pack—a foul-looking slurry which was supposedly long-life beef stew—into the pan they’d discovered in the school’s refectory. Masie’s Mac ’n’ Cheese joined it, creating a bubbling concoction.
She followed it up by sprinkling some Orillion seasoning they’d taken at the same time as the pan, while Hoof sliced the stale bread they’d also found into hunks with his vibro-knife.
“Yummy, soldier stew.” Hoof sniffed, his appreciative look turned into that of distaste within seconds. Over the weeks they’d been in the Republic, they’d become real experimental in mixing the standard rations into something supposedly more edible.
Beef stew and Mac ’n’ Cheese most definitely looked like it would not be a success, the bright idea of turning it into something which would resemble the famed Iconian Pasta failing utterly. Wink doubted even the “liberated” Republic seasoning would help the taste.
A positive, though, was that rather than heating it to body temperature under their armpits—as they’d had to on the march here—they could at least cook it up on a field stove. Although the downside to that was they actually had the opportunity to look closely at what they were going to put in their mouths.
Wink’s nose twitched. Still, the most charitable thing which could be said about it was that it was sustenance...but then, at least they had the time to eat. From the sounds of distant thunder and weapons fire washing over the school from the direction of Port Rorian, it sounded as not everyone had that luxury. Other units were under a constant, relentless assault by the Hegemony Aerospace Corps. From the snippets he’s gained over the comm, the Aerospace Corps was throwing its all into assaulting the city.
But for them, actually on the front line, it seemed they’d been bypassed by the Hegemony Aerospace Corps and had a reprieve.
With a shrug, he made to dip his spork into the bubbling slop.
“Hey,” Masie swatted it away, her brow furrowed in rebuke. “Thanks first.”
“Oh, come on,” Hoof said, a plaintive whine to his voice. “Johnny Neo could come knocking at any moment, then we’d have to miss out on this delicious-looking feast.”
“Ah, let her.” Wink pulled his spork back and clasped his hands over his lap. “We don’t want the ancestors pissed off at us and I reckon we’ll be needing all the help we can get.”
“Hmmm.” Hoof rolled his eyes. He wasn’t a believer, that much was for sure. For most citizens of the Arcadian Sector these days, Lost Earth was something back in humanity’s distant past. The mother world had no relevance to the here and now. “Fine. Whatever. Get on with it.”
The disapproving anger in Maisie’s eyes dissipated as she lowered her head over the simmering mess. “Lost Earth, we thank you for nurturing your children into existence. We thank you for casting your seeds across the stars. We grieve that we will never know the paradise of humanity’s home, but we will never forget. We give thanks.”
“We give thanks,” Wink and Hoof echoed, the words coming out automatically in response to the grace, believers or not.
“Now you can eat, you savages.” Maisie smiled.
“Thanks, mum.” Hoof scooped a dollop of the stew onto a hunk of bread and shoved it in his mouth, barely chewing before swallowing it down.
“Positions,” Sergeant Loomis’s urgent voice hissed through the comms. Utensils clattered to the floor as the three of them scrambled for the blast shield-covered windows. Wink dropped prone behind the Repeater, Hoof skidded down next to the ammo packs, and Masie knelt before the optics and brought her eye to the sights.
“What we got?” Wink whispered as he pushed the priming lever on the side of the weapon. It hummed in response. He glued his eye to the sights on the weapon. They were good, but not as good as Maisie’s optics. Her job was to designate the targets for him.
“Got a column coming in.” She squinted through them. She clucked her tongue, like she did when she was all nervous or concentrating. She made to open her mouth, then closed it. Finally she cried out. “Friendlies, friendlies, friendlies.”
“Friendlies,” Loomis confirmed over the comm net. “Troops, we have friendlies. Clear ’em through.”
A ripple of confirmations came over the comm net as Wink watched the bedraggled soldiers trudge miserably toward the school. Their armor was bloodied and filthy. Some of them limped. Others were carried on litters or on their comrades’ backs. Wink counted them through. More than a platoon, but not many more. That meant, chances were it was a company. And they’d taken a hell of a lot of losses.
“Shit. They took a beating,” Hoof murmured, his eyes tracking left and right as he followed them shuffling past their view. “How many more are coming through?”
“Can’t be many more,” Wink quietly responded. Retreating forces had been coming past the school headed for the port at an ever-decreasing frequency. It must have been getting to the stage where there simply weren’t that many friendlies left beyond their defensive line.
One of the men stopped in the open quad before the school, not a care that he had a dozen Repeaters pointing in his direction. Wink let his sights cross over him. His armor was splattered with blood and marred with burns, but he looked uninjured. Until Wink’s sights crept up his body and saw his eyes.
They looked straight back through the sights at him. No, through him. The thousand-yard stare they called it. Wink didn’t even know what a yard was, but he knew the stare was what he was seeing. The glazed, dead look of someone who had seen too much.
The man began to breathe heavily, as if hyperventilating, his armored chest bloating in and out. Then he broke out in a shriek, “Run! Just run. They’re coming!”
One of his colleagues jogged over to him, wrapping an attempt at a comforting arm around his shoulder, gently guiding him back into line. The man quietened, malleable for his friend.
“Pussy,” Hoof sneered.
“Don’t knock him,” Maisie whispered back. “He’s probably seen some shit.”
“So have we,” Hoof retorted as he twisted around to lean back against the blast shield. “He needs to man the fuck up.”
“Like you did when that transport got dusted in front of you?” Maisie snapped.
“Fuck you,” Hoof responded.
“Fuck you,” Masie retorted sharply.
“Guys!” Wink shouted, louder than he intended. Something about the soldier’s scream had unnerved him. Something so high pitched shouldn’t come from a man’s mouth. “Save it for the Neos.”
“She should shut up,” Hoof complained, wanting to get the last word in. His tone surly but quieter.
The low sound of thunder echoed from the sky. Wink leaned his head up, trying to see where it was coming from. There hadn’t been any lightning. No sign of storm clouds. And that left only one thing it could be.
“You should shut up,” Masie hissed.
The thunder rose in volume.
“You should both shut up,” Wink snapped, sweeping his sights over the sky.
“Incoming. Get to cover,” Loomis bellowed, his voice a strange stereo, coming both over the comm unit and hearing the shout from a couple of classrooms over.
A V-shape flashed by with a roar. Wink saw flashes of blue and geysers of dirt erupting around the column of men and women below. The soldiers flung themselves down into what minuscule cover they had before Wink lost sight of them, clutching his hands over his head.
The dull repetitive thud of the small anti-air battery on the school’s roof opened up. Wink glanced up from behind his palms and saw tracer fire reaching out from a dozen points along the line, chasing after the Raptor receding untouched into the orange skies.
“Fucking KAF needs to start earning their living here.” Hoof hauled himself to a stand, shouting after the craft in frustration. “I mean, where the hell are they? Enjoying a nice meal in some officer’s mess, talking politics and stuff while we’re eating this...this”—he scrambled over to the pan and kicked it over in a rage, spilling the gloopy mess over the floor—“this shit!”
Wink put his eyes back to the Repeater’s sights. The quad before the school was a crater and pulse round-riddled mess. Broken bodies lay on the churned ground, their blood turning it into mud.
“Medics, down to the quad,” Loomis spoke quietly over the comm. “Get the injured inside into cover.”
There, in the middle of the quad, stood the man who’d screamed out, somehow untouched amid the churned-up devastation. The friend who’d tried to guide him away was nowhere to be seen. He looked around, a confused expression on his face. Then he stared straight up at Wink.
This time, there was no shriek. Instead he mouthed a single word.
The Ace is out there. Somewhere.
The huge swelling blue and green sphere of Asteria loomed in his cockpit window as they crossed the orbit of the world’s gray crater-riddled outer moon.
Visible, even from here, the scars of war marred the surface and even space above. Dirty smudges of smoke from the nuclear firestorms spread over the dayside. In orbit, a glittering ring had formed—the debris, gases, and bodies from the disintegration of the orbital fortresses laying a trail around the world. Asteria would likely have a halo for as long as humanity existed. Maybe those who would come after in the distant future would wonder what had gone on here.
But for the here and now, it was total war. The like of which hadn’t been seen in decades.
Rick shook his head. Now wasn’t the time to focus on what was below, though. Not with that ace out there; someone who’d proven themselves to be one of the deadliest fighter pilots in the system, perhaps the sector. Hell, perhaps even the galaxy.
And Rick was going to be the one who took ’em out. He was sure as Lost Earth was green and blue that was going to be the case.
Every moment of downtime he’d had, he’d played back footage of the black-nosed fighter’s technique. This was someone who knew how to use their Wolf to its best effect, to accentuate its strengths, to diminish its weaknesses. Who could make it dance and soar. Whoever it was, was as much an artist as a pilot.
And the Ace was a stalking hunter. They didn’t come head on. They never let themselves be drawn into the kind of turning fight for which the KAF’s Tempests had a tenuous hairsbreadth of advantage. They watched for—or made—an opportunity, and burned into it with determination and skill. Then left spinning debris and lifeless corpses in their wake.
That meant that the first Rick would know the Ace was in theater was when some poor unsuspecting Tempest had been smashed to pieces. And someone, probably one of his friends, would be dead.
He had to be faster. Better. Pull that pilot into the kind of fight where he had the advantage. And then not stop until they were dead. Because if he gave the slightest quarter? Well, that would be the last thing that Flight Lieutenant Jason “Rick” Richards would ever do.
The fleet burned hard as it decelerated, hundreds of braking engine plumes extending far ahead.
“All fighters,” the voice wasn’t one of the fighter controllers he recognized. It was deeper, more authoritative. “This is Replevin Actual.”
Ah, Admiral Arden “Bulldog” Roe himself is on the blower.
“We are commencing Phase One Drop now. If you thought this theater of war was busy before, you ain’t seen nothing yet.” A tinge of grim humor permeated the admiral’s voice. “Fight hard, boys and girls. And remember, if you find yourself flying alone, over lush and verdant lands with the light of a yellow sun warming your face, do not fear, for you are flying over Lost Earth, and you are already dead!”
Rick felt a wry smile cross his face. If half of what they said about the bombastic Admiral Roe was true, he’d probably bastardized that from some old Earth movie he’d somehow gotten hold of. Flashes of jump drives rippled through space. Hundreds of cutters and smaller ships filled his radar—craft small enough to jump, rather than having to take the long way through hyper. The jump-capable small craft had waited in orbit over New Avalon until now, when the whole fleet could go in as one.
“All ships, we’re going in. Roe, out.”
“Right, Viper Squadron,” Wainwright called in his clipped tones. “You heard him. We’re playing to win here. Vipers, we’re taking ground support. Let’s get down sky-side.”
Rick pushed the throttle forward, the rumble of his four powerful Warlock engines growing in response. He felt himself being driven back into his seat, then the inertial compensators caught up, taking the edge off.
They were going for a hot deorbit. Viper Squadron, along with the others allocated for ground support, raced ahead of the bulk of the fleet.
The world swelled before his canopy, wreckage and ruin going from an abstract glitter to chunks of the huge orbital fortresses spilling debris behind on their eternal orbits.
Weaving back and forth, his FOD radar pinged constantly, warning him of anything which could cause damage in the mess that orbited Asteria. The Tempests were robust enough to withstand the dense fog of microscopic debris, but the big pieces would be as lethal as a pulse blast.
The Ace is here somewhere, I know it. The radar was next to useless with the amount of traffic and crap about. This war, here at least, was going to be fought the old-fashioned way, by eyesight and reflexes. Rick craned his neck, his head darting left and right, desperately looking in every direction at once. Whoever that pilot is, they won’t be able to resist with the fleet coming in at its most vulnerable.
“Contact. Bandits 2 o’clock low,” Quinn called sharply.
“Game time,” Rick murmured. He scanned through the tumbling debris. There. Ten twinkling stars rising in a V-formation, backdropped by the bloated, battered world.
Rick keyed his comm, switching to a private channel between him and Quinn. “Sienna, remember what I said—”
“You remember what I said,” she cut him off. “I want this arsehole.”
“Damn it, Sienna—”
“Back to comm one,” she retorted. Giving a guttural growl, he tapped his comm console, switching back to the main channel.
“...Blow through. Sidewinder, Boa, and Krait Squadrons are taking orbital CASP. Leave the fighters up here to them,” Wainwright snapped. “Cobra, Adder, Asp and us, let’s get down there.”
The squadron leader’s fighter veered to the left, diverging away from the oncoming Wolfs. Lost Earth, but Viper Squadron should be having a taste of them, not leaving it to those amateurs.
Asteria swelled under them, changing from a sphere to a flat horizon. The first flicker of flames licked over Rick’s nose cone as the chatter of combat washed through the comm. A bizarre vista surrounded him. A constant barrage of debris and the first wave of landing craft were falling alongside them. As if they were plummeting amid a rain of fire.
The chatter of combat erupted over the comm.
“He’s on me—”
“More bandits. I count another fifteen.”
“...In my sights, guns, guns, guns.”
“...More of them—"
“Cut left, on my mark—"
“Stay focused,” Wainwright snapped. “Their job is up there. Ours is down below.”
Fire buffeted the Tempests as they scorched through Asteria’s atmosphere. They’d be coming in like a shower of shooting stars, burning through the heavens.
The rocking steadied as they decelerated to normal atmospheric speeds, their deorbit perfectly windowed to bring them over Rorian.
“Oh my...” Quinn uttered.
The port city grew in front of them, an animal’s carcass of broken, rib-like towers, columns of smoke rising from a hundred places as specks swarmed over it.
Yeah, they were taking a beating down there. The Hegemony Aerospace Corps was tearing into the city, their precision strikes had long since given way to carpet-bombing. Lines of pulse fire reached out from the few anti-aerospace batteries left among the towers and streets, desperately trying to swat away the fighters and bombers tearing through the streets.
“Break and attack by pairs,” Wainwright barked. “Raptors are the priority but watch out for Wolfs.”
Rick nosed down, glancing over his shoulder to see Quinn matching his maneuver. They needed to be in the fight. Every second they delayed, another person was getting butchered by the aerospace craft swarming overhead.
They swept over the fields surrounding Rorian. A quick glance. Lines of mechs surrounded the suburbs in a ring of battle steel. They thundered forward, the formerly middle-class homes rolling by beneath. Then, in the blink of an eye, they were in the thick of it and over the towers and spires which made up the city proper.
Rick didn’t even have to change course, the skies were so damn congested. A Raptor dove toward the spaceport, the muzzle of its cannons flaring as it crept into Rick’s sights. He squeezed the trigger, feeling the judder of his pulse cannons rumble through his fighter.
The twin lines of weapons fire intersected before the Raptor, then trailed back over it, the shots riddling it. The Raptor rolled onto its back, lazily arcing down toward the streets below, the pilot incapacitated or dead. The fighter-bomber disappeared behind a tower, black smoke emanated in a puff from the other side.
“Good hit, good hit. Raptor down.” Rick banked round, searching for another target. Now those goddamn Neos knew what it felt like to be pounced on, not knowing when death was going to strike. And, to boot, he was up to four kills.
One more. Just one more. Then you’ll have an ace to contend with on our side, you bastard.
Quinn had crept ahead; her fighter roared around a spire in downtown Rorian. He followed her, not wanting to be separated. He saw the thunderous wake of her engines leaving a glittering cascade of glass from the few intact panels still adorning the building. She was hunting something. He just couldn’t see what.
“Got a Wolf on CASP. Gonna take him.”
Quinn swung around, using her superior turning ability to cut around the fighter. In response, the Wolf dove for the ground, slipping deeper between the towers.
Rick pursued as, in turn, Quinn followed the fighter into the urban valley. Below, the wreckage of military transports and the specks of people filled the street. The Wolf raced ahead. Rick thought he saw a flicker of black on the nose. Could it be the Ace?
He couldn’t tell. He was only catching the briefest of glimpses.
“Guns—” Pulse rounds lashed out from her Tempest, a brutal line of ruin stitched across the buildings before her. Glass rained down like a waterfall from the building. Some even crumbled under the devastating power of her guns.
“Check fire, check fire,” Rick shouted. Earth only knew how many friendlies and civilians were taking shelter in the buildings of the city. They were damned if they did take the shot, and damned if they didn’t. But it was likely that kind of indiscriminate fire would cause as much damage as the Wolf could if they engaged like this.
The buildings blurred by as Rick streaked through the manmade valley, his warning to Quinn enough to get her to pick her shots carefully. The Wolf banked around into the main street and across Rorian’s central plaza. Beneath, the ant-like specks of people parted, ducking out of the way, fearing its attack or the simple wash of the fighter’s passage.
“Come on, Quinn. Finish this bastard,” he muttered. Then a realization coursed through him.
This was taking too much time.
Far too much damn time. The pilot of that fighter wasn’t only thinking in terms of dogfighting; they had the spare brainpower, even in the midst of this bedlam, to think tactically, too.
“Quinn, break off.” Rick pulled back on his stick, climbing out from between the skyscrapers. “The Wolf’s trying to distract us.”
“Just a little more.”
“Negative.” Rick climbed above the towers. He glanced around; he needed to find real targets. The Raptors, the other ground-attack birds. Hell, even get out to the periphery and start strafing the hell out of the mechs snapping at the heels of the expeditionary force. “It’s pulling us away and leading us a merry dance.”
“Rick—” The exasperation crackling through the comm.
“Negative,” Rick snapped, for the first time exerting his new authority over her. “Disengage when able. We’re hunting bigger game here.”
With an frustrated growl, Quinn rose from the streets, the engines of her Tempest flaring as she went to full military thrust.
The skies swarmed with fighters. More Kingdom fighters had joined from orbit, and more Galts had entered the fray from their own bases. And from below, the tracer fire was near indiscriminate in whom it lashed out at.
Rick grimaced at the vista of total war he was seeing before him.
“Let’s get into the fight.”
Asteria Orbit – KSS Achilles
“We have more bandits entering theater,” Banning called.
Cutter focused on the holo. It was filling rapidly with the red specks of incoming fighters. Wolfs and Raptors weaving among the fleet, slicing into it with savage ferocity.
Calm and composed. Act like you have all the time in the world to make things happen. You’re just choosing to make them happen now.
The majority of Achilles’s anti-aerospace weaponry was designed to saturate entire wedges of the space centered on the battleship. But in this kind of congested environment, her flak cannons would cause as much harm to friendlies as they would to the enemy. That left the light pulse guns.
“Mister Haynes, I am designating you a free-fire corridor.” He tapped on his console. His old academy buddy, Captain Raoul Martinez, had told him the KAF would be trying to pull the enemy into turning fights where their fighters were superior. That meant he didn’t want to give the Hegemony craft straight runs. “Maintain saturation fire there to stop the enemy from using it as a corridor. Lieutenant Banning, link in with the fighter controllers and inform them of that.”
The bridge crew set to their tasks with a measured urgency. A deep throbbing rattle emanated through his boots as the dozens of guns opened up.
He didn’t like to focus on the large screen at the front of the bridge. It merely showed a limited view from the bow of the ship. Yet, he couldn’t help but look in awe at the devastating sleet of fire washing out from his ship, creating a spectacular light show before the rapidly swelling world and tumbling debris of the Republic’s shattered defenses.
As he watched, a streamer of blue fire found an incoming Raptor, tearing it to shreds. Then another fell in rapid succession.
The Galts were seeing just what a vengeful navy could do.
“I have more incoming,” Banning cried out.
Hundreds of engine plumes burned furiously as the fleet decelerated from intersystem speeds to orbital velocity, and then decelerated more to a velocity which would survive entry into Asteria’s atmosphere. Already, the first wave of landing craft was putting down in and around the city, despite the hellish swirling maelstrom of the dogfight above.
Swift rattled and groaned as Reeve checked her engine status displays. The wireframe graphics flashed yellow, the temperature of the engines too hot, the chamber pressures too high. Dammit, her yacht was a pleasure craft, not a combat craft. It wasn’t designed for the kind of abuse a rapid de-orbit brought with it.
But if they cut thrust, then they’d bounce clean out of orbit. Left alone and undefended. Vulnerable to the fighters, bombers, and stealths presently clashing with the fleet’s defenders. They’d love that, the opportunity to pick off isolated craft. And Swift would be isolated, until they’d made the long trip back to the Karnov boundary and safety.
Not that it looked particularly safe here, either, nestled within the defensive grid of the fleet. But at least the Navy and the KAF afforded them some protection.
The destroyers lashed out with their pulse cannons in a desperate attempt to swat away the enemy fighters ripping through the descending fleet, while magnificent torrents of fire washed out from the huge battleship. None but the bravest Neo pilots dared to get anywhere near that damn thing as its dozens of batteries opened fire.
An unarmed asteroid miner in front of the Swift disgorged landers ranging from their own boats to civilian craft piggybacked on. Without pause, explosions tore through them. A pair of Wolfs pounced from nowhere, strafing the vulnerable craft. Spinning, letting their vector carry them past the craft, they unleashed another stream of pulse rounds into the tug.
The girders, cranes, and mining equipment of the miner disintegrated in front of Reeve, leaving a cloud of spinning debris.
Collision alarms warbled as she grabbed the control yoke, taking manual control. She had seconds to react to the wreckage showering over them. She pushed the yoke down, barely avoiding a tumbling derrick which flashed by, end over end.
A booming clang, as if Thor’s own hammer had struck the craft, echoed through the cockpit. More alarms blurted out, both signifying damage as the Swift spiraled, half as a result of a collision with a hunk of wreckage and half from the stresses as Reeve desperately fought to weave her way through the debris.
“Shannon, this is madness,” Clay shouted, jabbing at his panel, desperately trying to reroute the already taxed systems.
Gritting her teeth, doing her best to ignore him, she maneuvered through the worst of it, wincing in horror as a body slammed into the cockpit window and rolled out of view.
Asteria had grown from a visible sphere to an expanse in front of them. A digital hatched area appeared. Their window to put down. If they snuck in there, then they’d put down on top of Port Rorian itself.
And do their job. Pick up survivors, just thirty of them. That’s all it would need to be, then they’d have done their part. Then they’d get to go home.
Didn’t seem like a big thing to ask.
Before her, the burning streaks of dozens, no hundreds of ships entering the atmosphere. Then she felt the first buffet as they hit the ethereal gases at this altitude.
Lost Earth, I’ve never been a believer, but if you guide us home, I’ll give Thanks tomorrow, I swear.
She pushed the yoke forward again, the engines sending a shuddering vibration through the cockpit as they dove toward the shattered carcass of the city amid the cloud of falling ships.
Asteria Orbit – KSS Achilles
The huge ship let out a groan as she sank lower and lower into orbit. Below her, hundreds of embers streaked through Asteria’s atmosphere, and further below them, the first of the landing craft were putting down at Port Rorian itself.
The relentless drum beats of Achilles’s anti-aerospace weapons reverberated through the ship. Cutter leaned forward as far as his harness would let him, studying the holo-tank before him. Enemy fighters strived to weave their way through the overlapping fire arcs of Achilles’s thirty-two light pulse guns, each one spitting blue fire nonstop at them.
They were doing a damn good job of keeping the bad guys away from his ship, but it felt like that was all they were accomplishing. Actually defending anyone else? Not so much. At least the KAF were doing their job. Or trying, anyway.
“Ready to drop boats in two minutes.” Ashford’s eyes, like his, were focused intently on the holo, striving to discern meaning from the confusing mass of icons populating it.
Cutter nodded. The entry window was getting tight now. And the fleet wasn’t going to be able to stop. Instead, any ships going down were going to be caught in a stern chase to catch up with the fleet as it circled Asteria and raced back for the Karnov Boundary on a vector home. Achilles sure as hell was too big to make landfall and pull away again in anything close to a reasonable amount of time. And that was true for many of the other big ships. The only thing they could do was decelerate once they were on the right vector, let those ships behind race ahead of them, and form a rearguard with as many combat effectives as Admiral Roe had left from his beleaguered destroyer escorts.
But those who couldn’t catch up would be left to fend for themselves. And those left in-system, with damaged ships, or who weren’t jump-capable when the last of the hyper-capable ships went through the Boundary...
Cutter shook his head. It hadn’t even happened yet, but it would. The brave men and women who’d answered the call to come here—or been forced to come—to this new kind of hell would die or be captured.
Either way, they wouldn’t be coming home.
How many had died, or been left floating lost and abandoned in the vacuum of space on the journey in already? It had to be in the hundreds, if not thousands.
But it wasn’t the time to mourn. That would most assuredly come later.
He watched the countdown timer run down.
“Drop now,” Cutter’s voice was raised higher than strictly professional. Steady Hal, steady. They’re looking at you.
“Fire pattern adjusted,” Haynes called back as he made sure Achilles’s massive suite of weapons wouldn’t strike friendlies. “They have their corridor.”
A ripple of thunks momentarily masked the sound and feel of Achilles’s anti-aerospace fire as her few landing craft, pinnaces, and scout birds fell away from their bays.
More icons poured into the blizzard falling to the planet below. Achilles wasn’t a troop transport or a carrier; she was a battleship. Her shuttles were designed more for conveying a handful of crew from one vessel to another. At most, her pinnaces could take a Marine platoon. Her few scout birds even less, two or three in their tiny cabins, but at least they could jump home to New Avalon under their own steam as soon as they’d picked up their precious cargo and climbed back into orbit.
It would be little more than a drop in the ocean for the amount of people who were down there on the surface. But each craft would pack a few more souls in. And each was one more son or daughter, husband or wife, father or mother to someone. Each one a Kingdom subject and soldier. Each one a life.
Transfixed for the moment as he was by the sight below Achilles, Cutter missed it at first. A lone Raptor had seen the fire-free corridor and, in a maneuver which must have damn near turned the pilot’s innards to mush, curved up into it.
“Mister Haynes...” The drumbeat of Achilles’s other fire was eclipsed by the shudder of the Raptor’s heavy cannon rounds impacting the dispersal fields over her thick-armored hull. Cutter clenched his gloved hands into a fist. “If you would be so kind as to take that Raptor out.”
If that thing still had a torpedo left, then this could hurt. Bad.
The fighter-bomber swept close, closer than the point a torpedo would be released, all the while its retros burning hard. The tiny craft sped over Achilles’s hull, so tight the guns didn’t have a chance of depressing low enough to hit it. Fire lashed out from its heavy cannon, creating ripples of energy over Achilles’s dispersion fields. And some slicing clean through already damaged sections, gouging great scars in the battleship’s armor.
“Get us a fighter over here for close support.” Cutter winced in sympathetic pain at the damage to his ship. “We need that bloody thing peeled off us.”
“Aye aye,” Banning snapped.
An explosion jolted the ship. The ship rocking in a tortured response.
What the hell was that? That felt more substantial than taking a hit on the armor. “Damage report,” Cutter ordered.
A wash of chatter over the comm, then the forward turret, Alpha, blinked red on the status display. Two of Achilles’s main guns were out of action, and at least four of the surrounding AA were gone. The Raptor had scored a lucky hit, a round cutting deeply into the capacitors used to charge and fire the guns. The thickness of fire washing out of the battleship visibly reduced.
“Main charge feed got hit on one of the Alpha Turret heavies.” Haynes’s brow glistened in perspiration under his survival suit helmet’s visor. “Secondary explosions took out the AAs in the surrounding area.”
“Get them back on line. AAs are the priority and—”
Another explosion rocked the ship. More damage showed on the display.
“And I said get us CASP cover now!” Cutter shouted louder than was right or proper for a captain. He didn’t care; that little bastard was pecking away at his ship. Giving her a death of a thousand papercuts. A Raptor shouldn’t be able to do this amount of damage alone. An impotent rage filled Cutter. The thing was under his fire envelope. It had all the time in the world to peck them to pieces.
But also, the enemy fighter was committed, slowing to near relative motionless as it strafed Achilles’s hull, tearing apart the AA guns which couldn’t depress close enough to hit it, it’s objective obvious. This Raptor may be dry on torpedoes, but it wanted to clear the way for its buddies who were still packing serious heat.
“That’s the way it is, is it?” Cutter muttered, then spoke louder. “See how you like this. Mister Singh, I’ve had enough of this. Prepare us to roll. All emergency RCS. I want the maximum degrees per second anti-clockwise rotation. On my mark.”
“Sir?” The helmsman’s voice was hesitant, even as he focused on his console. Cutter watched the fighter-bomber drift closer, fire tearing out from her heavy cannon.
Lieutenant Singh didn’t hesitate despite his question. Cutter felt himself being pushed across his seat as the thrusters in the belly of the battleship ignited, driving the huge ship into a roll.
The massive armor-clad hull of the battleship rotated into the hovering Raptor. A million tons of titanium slammed into the small craft. They weren’t at intersystem speeds by any stretch. By the time of contact from the thrusters, the relative velocity was 15 km/h. But for the small craft, it may as well have ran into a metal wall at that speed. One of the Raptor’s stubby wings snapped and the engine nacelle below crumpled. The bomber was swatted away from the hull, spinning up on its remaining sputtering engine.
Straight into the sights of an AA gun. The blue pulse rounds slammed into it, turning the Raptor into a dissipating cloud of gases and debris.
“Thank Lost Earth for that.” Whoever that brave fool of a pilot had been, they were no more now. And for the first time in his life, Cutter felt pleased at someone’s death. If all the Neo pilots were as skilled as that Raptor pilot had been, then this was going to be a short, painful war.
Admiral Roe flickered to life before him. His battlesuit was torn and ripped to such an extent he’d removed his helmet. Instead, a bloody bandage was wrapped around his forehead, covering one eye. Stomach churningly, the bandage was stained yellow right over his socket. Yet if anything, it simply added a more swashbuckling appearance to a man who loved to portray that very image.
But his tone was a contrast to his appearance. He meant business now. “Hal, the fleet battlenet is showing you’ve taken a few hits. How bad is it?”
How on the ball was Roe? Keeping up with that kind of information, among the deluge of data which must be cascading over him. Although small wonder really—Achilles was his most significant fire-support platform. He’d be damn remiss if he didn’t keep at least one eye on it. Cutter, almost blurted a chuckle at the unintended gallows humor of his thoughts. Yeah, it might be a bit soon for that, and frankly, they were all a bit busy for comedy.
But still. Roe had his finger on the pulse, injured or not.
Maybe the casual act was just that—an act.
“I haven’t even had chance to check yet, sir.”
“I’m going to need better than that, son,” Roe snapped back. “We’re getting kicked around in low orbit here. And I have at least four stealths pecking at the periphery. Get me your status, and get me it quick.”
“Aye aye, sir.” Cutter gritted his teeth at the rebuke. His amused thoughts, probably as much incited by the adrenaline coursing through him as actual humor, were gone.
It looked like even the great Roe was starting to feel the heat on this one.
Colonel Tor Hest
Asteria – 14 Km East of Port Rorian
“Hold,” Hest called over the comm net.
Her line of mechs had joined thousands of others. They’d destroyed the last dregs of resistance, and chased the retreating Republic and Kingdom forces to one point.
Now they formed a vast front, surrounding the distant, smoldering spires and towers of Port Rorian. Columns of smoke rose from a hundred points or more, while above the city, she could see specks swarming and darting between the towers amid flashes of explosions.
A savage battle already raging—total war in the modern age.
Yes, they could—perhaps should—simply nuke Rorian, or drop a salvo of kinetic spikes into it. That would be the easy solution. They’d done it already to a dozen redoubts of tough resistance. And with the whole of the Kingdom’s expeditionary force bottled in there, along with a good portion of the remaining Republican forces, that would perhaps be the pragmatic tactical solution. Something which would solve their problem right there and then.
But, to the strategist in her, it would mean the loss of a modern, developed planet-side spaceport. And to the soldier in her, conquerors didn’t simply conquer lands, they conquered people. The populace would understand the destruction of military bases by nuclear fire, perhaps, in the years to come. When they were fully integrated into the Neo Hegemony.
But the destruction of major population centers? That would color their occupation for the next hundred years or more. It would be a clarion call for rebellion, and a thorn in the side of the Hegemony. No soldier or citizen would ever be able to rest easy, wondering when the next rebel would take them and string them up from a lamppost in an expression of rage. Father Terra, she sighed, chances were they’d have to put up with that anyway. But if they showed they were reasonable—only targeting the military—then maybe, just maybe, it would stop the whole population from wanting to do things which would make an Executor squeamish to any Galton soldier—any Hegemony soldier, she corrected herself—they happened across.
Besides, there was another motivation for this pause, this withholding of their full might. One which would become apparent to the beleaguered defenders soon.
Her lips curled in distaste. How naive was the Prime to think this would work, or even influence the Kingdom? Or perhaps it was sheer arrogance brought about by fortune so clearly favoring every move he’d made thus far. Every decision he’d taken, and been proven correct with, had given him a sense of confidence which bordered on hubris.
To her east, the engineers had finished setting up their equipment—a series of holo-panels the size of four soccer pitches. Brought here, filling up transport spaces which could have been used for entire companies of soldiers.
And now twilight was setting in. It was time.
A huge hologrammatic image of the Prime flickered to life, the blue figure a mile tall, dominating the horizon.
The Prime’s eyes squinted in that angry, impassioned way of his. As if his gaze was burrowing like a laser through whatever he turned it on. In the privacy of her mech, Hest couldn’t help but sneer at the soul-patch beard on his chin. A strange affectation he’d taken up during his meteoric rise to power. Something, which on anyone else would look ridiculous, yet on him was a symbol of his ruthless ambition.
“Defenders of Port Rorian.” The Prime’s voice boomed out, both from the huge speakers set up by the field engineers and across every comm channel. “Forces of the Kingdom. You are surrounded. Your defeat is inevitable. Yet that does not have to be the case, for we are not your enemy and you are not ours.”
The figure looked up, his head inclining to the heavens where thousands of embers streaked to the surface: the Kingdom recovery fleet, and the still-burning debris from the battles which had raged, and were still raging, in orbit.
“The true enemy, yours as well as ours, lies up there, on the far side of the Arcadian Sector. An enemy who soon we will be forced to face. The People.” The Prime extended his arm, and swept it across the sky. “Their numbers are without measure, yet we, the proud children of Galton—the Neo Hegemony—will defeat them and claim their worlds for our own. Before they take yours, and ours.”
Hest gritted her teeth. The bastard hadn’t even finished one war yet, and he was already looking to the next.
“We beg of the Kingdom to join us.” His head turned to linger on the distant city, his tone anything but a plea. “Join us in our great crusade.”
The Prime’s eyes narrowed as he faced the spires of Rorian. “Join us, or be defeated.”
The hologram flickered and disappeared. Silence washed throughout the land. As if even the birds and insects feared to make a noise.
Hest shook her head in dismay. The man who had torn through his political opponents like a whirlwind thought the Kingdom, and worse, the People, would be so easily destroyed. What next? To look across the Reach and rage against the might of the distant Federation itself?
For the first time, with her objective so close, she realized there would be no end to this war. The Prime would blaze across the galaxy. There would always be another enemy to defeat, each bigger than the last, like some kind of Hydra of Earth myth.
But, she was a daughter of Galton.
And she would do her duty.
We’re all Neos now.
Private Wink Goble
Asteria – 10 Km East of Port Rorian
The shimmering blue light of the figure turned to look at them, illuminated despite the setting sun. Wink watched the show through his gun’s sights, fighting the urge to squeeze the trigger in an impotent expression of rage at the man responsible for him being here, so far from his home. So far from Lil and Patricia.
“Join us,” the voice rumbled. Its sheer bass making his chest feel as if it were vibrating. “Or be defeated.”
The Prime of the Hegemony disappeared from view. A strange, eerie silence descending upon the land. As if not even the creatures of this world wanted to make a sound. Wink closed his eyes, letting a moment of fantasy break through the anger of his presence.
A moment of weakness.
What if they said yes? Would he get home quicker? The rumors and murmurs about what was happening on the far away worlds of the People had even reached New Avalon. Stories of a dictator, maybe by what some said, even more brutal than the Prime. Of how the People were repressed by a woman ruling with an iron fist. But that wasn’t the Kingdom’s problem. The worlds of the People were far away, beyond the far side of the Arcadian Sector. If the Hegemony wanted to fight them, then let them. Then there’d only be one bastard left in the galaxy to face down...whichever survived.
“Dunno what he’s telling us for,” Hoof complained from where he lay prone next to Wink. “Should be telling this to the brass.”
Why didn’t the sarge, hell, the lieutenant or the generals or whoever needed to make these decisions put an end to this? Tell the Neos we just want to go home. Tell them they can go fight the People, or whoever on Lost Earth they wanted to.
Anything to get home, home to Lil and Patricia.
“It’s not about that.” Maisie swept her optics back and forth, taking in the highway and the land to either side of it. “That bastard is trying to sap our morale. Make us think he’s all reasonable. Well newsflash, kids. He ain’t. He’s a butcher. So you don’t be listening to his propaganda bullshit.”
I just want to go home.
“So’s the Premier of the People, I hear,” Wink said quietly, not taking his eye from the sights. The Prime and the Premier were welcome to each other, as far as he was concerned.
“Yeah, but she ain’t conquering every star between Veloka and the Reach. She don’t tell me what to do in my house, I ain’t telling her what to do in hers. The Neos, though? They’re knocking on our door an’ demanding we do things their way.”
“The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” Wink muttered.
“Maybe, but which is the enemy? Which is the enemy of the enemy?” Maisie asked. “And which is the friend?”
“Shit, we ain’t paid to worry about this,” Hoof grumbled. “The only thing we need to worry about is showing whoever comes at us not to fuck with the Kingdom. And it don’t sound like the Prime wants a piece of us. So, let’s leave him to it.”
“It sounds like his piss-poor attempt at propaganda is working on you two,” Maisie retorted.
A rustle came from next to Wink. He gave a wince. Last thing he wanted was for these two to set off bickering like kids again. “You said it, Hoof. People are paid to deal with the negotiatin’ and making the decisions. We ain’t. We’re just paid to blow the crap out of whatever comes up that road.”
“Amen, brother,” Hoof finally settled on after another moment of fidgeting, his scattered brain seemingly satisfied with the thought of a simple objective. “Just got to hope they don’t forget about us out here on the line doing that crap blowing.”
Wink reached to his armor’s thigh pocket and tugged out his tablet. Quickly, making sure he kept flicking his eyes to look back through the sights of his Repeater, he thumbed open a picture of Lil and Patricia. His wife. His baby. The two most important people in the galaxy. More important than primes and premiers. Than kings and generals. Than even the two members of his section next to him. He set the device facing him against the wall next to the dispersion shield, so he could spare the quickest of glances and see them whenever he wanted.
“Pussy,” Hoof said, but this time the scorn he normally reserved for such comments was gone. Instead, an undertone of gentle amusement, perhaps even envy, lacing the word.
“Gotta remember what home is,” Wink replied, with the flicker of a smile. “I intend to go back there.”
Above them, the embers of the rescue fleet burned through the atmosphere, spearing their way toward Rorian. The rumble of the first big ships setting down washed across the city.
Or, I want home to come to us.
Asteria Orbit – Swift
A bang reverberated through the cabin, and Reeve winced in sympathetic pain. Swift was being tormented by the damage she’d sustained in the collision as she entered the skies of Asteria, and now she was paying the price as she entered the thick lower atmosphere.
They were running alongside a destroyer, the Gladius, her pulse guns streaming in every direction at once in an effort to fend off the Hegemony fighters defending this world even as her armor burned from the heat of slicing through the world’s skies
Something flared—an enemy fighter igniting into a fan of debris under the power of Gladius’s guns. Four of them had been harassing Gladius and her charges the whole way down, pouring fire into the destroyer even as it lashed back.
Score one for the good guys.
Overall, though, the brutal arithmetic of this battle wasn’t working out in the Kingdom’s favor. At all. Lost Earth only knew how many ships they’d lost getting in here. Dozens...more likely, a figure which would be measured in the hundreds. The people in charge weren’t telling her. Hell, they probably didn’t even know yet. It was madness out there.
She should have cut and run when she had the chance. Returned to the Federation. Trusted her mother’s contacts would keep the anger of a betrayed Kingdom off her back, and out of jail. The matriarch would have managed that, with nothing more than a disapproving frown that she’d even got involved in the first place. Lost Earth, the Kingdom was far too busy to bother with chasing a wayward deserter. Especially one not from their own nation.
Screw that. The only thing worse than being here, in this hell hole, would be having to put up with being lectured constantly by that harridan.
Was it duty? Or was it something more primeval? That she should simply fight something which was wrong. Something evil. The Neos.
Another bang. Clay groaned in response as he looked at the engineering status. Swift started to bank over. Reeve gripped the yoke, yanking back. They slid over the back of Gladius, avoiding scraping along her back by a few scant meters. Pulse fire flashed past them from the Wolf’s wingmen who sought revenge.
The digital ladder extending down to the surface began to contort away from their destination, even as they fought to get Swift back on track. With what felt like superhuman effort, Reeve twisted over, hearing her ship’s protestations.
“Attitude controls took a real kicking,” Clay muttered. “We’re getting out of balance here. You want to abort?”
Damn it. All this way. And they weren’t going to do their damn job. Yeah, Reeve didn’t want to be here. But now that she was, she was going to damn well see it through. “Not on your life.”
“That’s what I’m worried about.”
Swift speared through the stratus clouds, streaking down to the surface and the city lodged in there. Already other ships were setting down all around, in every available place that had even been half-assessed as appropriate to land on.
The other Wolf fighters swept past Swift. They pounced on Gladius, ripping huge chunks out of the ship with volley after volley of fire.
The 300-meter-long destroyer, already brutally damaged, rolled onto her back, streaming a billowing thick black cloud behind her as she lazily descended to the surface. Twinkling lights of escape pods sprang from all over her, striving to reach the safety of space or ground.
The three remaining enemy fighters starburst, each seeking individual targets among the collection of ships which Gladius had been escorting down into the atmosphere.
This is where arithmetic would play out. The sheer number of landing craft acting as cover for the lame gazelle which was her yacht among the wider herd...the selfish hope they would go for something—someone—else.
A Wolf arced around, swinging its nose toward Swift, the glow of her drive intake creating a menacing eye looking straight at them.
And they’d lost the throw of the dice. Reeve felt her heart stop. Maybe Clay had been right. They should’ve broken for orbit.
Now what were they going to accomplish? To do nothing more than soak up a few rounds which could have gone elsewhere.
Something slammed down from orbit, smashing through the Wolf, disintegrating the craft, leaving not a trace. It continued through, plunging to the surface where a huge explosion bloomed.
Achilles, Reeve thought. The huge battleship had slid into orbit above, firing her powerful pulse cannons down through the atmosphere. This shot must have been more luck than judgement, but it had saved their asses, and that was something that Reeve would take.
“We’re gonna have to abort, Shannon,” Clay called, his head craning as he desperately looked for the other fighters through the cockpit window. “There’s gotta be hundreds of fighters over Rorian. Come on, Shannon, Let’s get space-side. Get our asses out of here.”
Reeve looked through the cockpit before her. Already, the first ships were bobbing back up out of the city, orientating themselves skyward and taking off on rumbling columns of fire.
This was actually working. For some. Hopefully, each was full of people from the surface.
They were giving those poor bastards a chance to actually survive this mess.
“Get on the comm to our liaison officer. Tell ’em we’re still in play and requesting landing coordinates.”
“I’m doing this.” Reeve gestured over her shoulder with her thumb. “You don’t like it, jump in the pod and get gone.”
“No chance,” Clay grumbled. “Worse out there than it is in here. Even with a mad woman like you.”
“That’s the spirit.”
“You owe me quadruple pay for this trip.”
“Double.” Reeve didn’t let the haggling distract her. Her eyes were focused on the skies around them, watching for the other fighters which were prowling.
“Deal.” Screw it, she could have offered him a million Kingdom sovereigns, Fed credits, or any other currency of his choice. Chances were, he wouldn’t be around to collect.
The oblong outline of where they were going to put down visibly shrank. It encompassed the suburbs of Rorian and the fields and highways leading east. Straight back toward the Neo lines. From what she could see, it looked as if a swarm of ants were filing toward the city. And from this distance and height, they were unlikely to be mere human-sized.
The Hegemony Army was on its way. And they had serious hardware coming.
A collection of buildings caught her eye. Strong looking. Robust. Overlooking the highway leading toward the east. Even as she watched, she saw the enemy close on that position. If there were going to be defenders, they’d be right there. Protecting the best access in.
Whoever had that location had all hell bearing down on them.
Asteria Orbit – KSS Achilles
The fleet had parted into two distinct flotillas. The smaller craft, surrounded by half the destroyer screen, plunged through Asteria’s atmosphere toward the surface, while Achilles, the larger vessels, and the rest of the tin cans swung over the planet in low orbit.
Cutter gripped his armrests, feeling his fingers dig into the faux-leather padding. The sensation of speed as the world rolled beneath the fleet was alien to his perception of space combat. Things generally didn’t happen fast for a warship in combat, not when they had whole star systems to consider as their battleground, and most certainly not for a ship of the line whose job was to dominate as much by sheer presence as by its firepower.
Below them, the signs of war were obvious. The huge columns of smoke rising from the nuked ruins of military establishments. Contrails spread like a spider’s web in the atmosphere. From many of the cities on the night side, fires raged through them. The devastation was immense.
And, since they were here and within spitting distance of Asteria itself, then perhaps it was time to push against the barriers of their rules of engagement.
“Mister Haynes, I’m giving your gunnery crew carte blanche. You are to offer any support you can to the recovery fleet and Port Rorian.”
“Sir,” the gunner responded. “Admiralty House was pretty windy about laying down fire on the surface.”
“Mister Haynes,” Ashford barked from her seat. “Acknowledge and action your orders.”
“Aye aye, ma’am.” Haynes turned back to his station. “Free fire on Rorian as per your orders.”
Ashford scowled as she shook her head. Then she refocused. “Mister Singh. 180 degree roll and present main guns at surface.”
“180 degree roll, aye aye.”
Cutter nodded a thanks at Ashford. Haynes was a damn good gunner. One of the best in the fleet, but his constant questioning was pissing him off.
Achilles’s huge frame rolled onto her back, presenting the majority of her guns to world below.
“Ready to open fire on targets of opportunity,” Haynes bellowed.
They would have moments before they passed over Rorian. A bombardment sure as hell wasn’t in their orders. He’d take that on the chin if Roe or Darrow decided to bring him to task on it, but there was only so far this rebellious nature was going to go when he opened up on an allied world.
“Carefully,” Cutter urged. The bridge recorders would pick up his defiance of orders not to bombard the surface. He wanted to be damn sure he covered all their arses as much as possible. “If in doubt or near a civilian center or a friendly, leave it alone. I want you primarily supporting where we can do good without risk.”
Deep booms echoed through the ship as Haynes’s crew opened fire.
In the densely populated area, that limited them drastically. But a pulse round sliced down on one of the Wolfs which had taken out the destroyer Gladius, giving some small measure of revenge for the ship whose remains had ploughed a long burning ravine through the fields surrounding Rorian.
Lost Earth only knew what the butcher’s bill was so far. Too high. So many ships had gone down. So many people. Trapped as their vessels spiraled to the ground, or slowly dying of asphyxiation in the void of orbit. Shuttles and SAR birds were committed on the recovery of the troops below, and the fleet was moving too fast to even attempt a rescue of those left in space.
“Sir,” Banning called. “We may have a shot on a mech brigade coming up.”
The tactical display swept dizzyingly down to the surface. A crescent of red dots encircling a small cluster of greens. The holo resolved, showing friendlies to be within a large structure. A council building, a school? No matter. They were about to fall under attack by a massively superior force.
And behind the advancing crescent was another small cluster of reds.
That’d be one of two things. The Hegemony command element, or their artillery. Or hopefully both.
Whichever way, the best chance for those good guys was if they were gone. He tapped on his console, prioritizing the red dots.
“Bravo battery.” Haynes received the fire order in his attack priority queue. “Target my designated location. HE entry rounds. Shot as she bears.”
More booms echoed through the ships as the huge heavy pulse cannons fired. The holo showed four blinking dots speeding down toward the surface of Rorian.
Colonel Tor Hest
Asteria – 14 Km East of Port Rorian
This was going to hell.
Hest cast an eye at the window she had open in her HUD showing strategic updates from all across Rorian. And from above.
The Kingdom fleet had been battered by the Aerospace Corps and stealths coming in, and their losses had been horrific. And yet they were still advancing. Still fighting to get their trapped forces off the ground.
Maybe we underestimated the Kingdom. Yes, they were arrogant bastards. But perhaps that was justified. They were determined, and they were not stopping.
She ducked her head to see the sky better above her. A light show of hundreds of streaks entered the atmosphere above Rorian, to join the dozens which had already set down.
If we don’t lock them down now, we’re going to lose them.
And every enemy combatant who escaped would be another enemy combatant who could come back later. No, would come back. She was damn sure of that. More experienced, and hungry for vengeance.
With the fleet above and the KAF pouncing on the Hegemony from every direction, they had only now to stop the escape of the expeditionary force. They had to attack. Whatever the Prime’s orders.
It was that or lose them.
She ground her teeth. The Prime was not known for his forgiving nature. And she was about to act in defiance of his will.
But her purpose here was to win. Not to blindly follow the orders of a man light years away.
She came to a decision. And it was an easy decision to make.
“All units, advance.”
The line of mechs didn’t argue or question her. They responded, like good sons and daughters of Galton. The wall of metal trudged forward along a front which spread for miles, while between their legs, armor-clad infantry darted forward.
“Aria?” Marshal Galen’s stern and scarred face appeared in the corner of her HUD. “What are you doing?”
“Sir, we need to get in there. If we don’t...” She responded distractedly, her attention focused on the arc of her troops advancing, making sure no elements got too far ahead, or behind. “The enemy will escape.”
Galen gritted his teeth, the muscles in his scarred, cleanly shaven cheeks protruded. He gave the slightest of nods. “I didn’t receive your last. I understand your communications systems are experiencing some form of jamming?”
She snapped her full attention back to Galen. “This is Colonel Hest, transmitting in the blind. We are experiencing jamming from an unknown source.”
Galen nodded, the slightest twist of a smile on his face. “I order you to return to position, Colonel.”
“I’m afraid I didn’t receive your last, sir.”
“I better go find out with what’s going on with comms. Please keep transmitting your status in the blind,” Galen responded.
Hest felt her own lips tugging into a smile. For the first time in months, perhaps years, she saw a hint of her old mentor. A man who knew how to lead people, and who knew when people didn’t need to be led, but needed to be unleashed. “I didn’t receive you. I will keep sending in the blind in case you are getting my transmission. Any support which can be offered, would be welcome.”
With the jab of the console, she set her comms system to update HQ automatically.
Far in front of her, a red glow backlit towers and spires of the starport city. The flames of battle washed through the streets and urban valleys of Port Rorian. Above, the specks of aerospace craft darted, as if the city was a wasp nest which had been kicked.
Glancing at her map, she saw her brigade would soon reach the fields surrounding a suburb of that great city. A place where her powerful mechs would be vulnerable to preying fighters. A place they’d have to trust their aerospace forces would defend them.
“Two-Four.” She heard the crackle of a voice in her ears. “Contact front.”
“Four-One. Contact front.”
“Seven-Three. Contact front.”
Hest’s eyes played over the map. Her people had pushed into the outskirts of the city. And the Kingdom rearguard and what was left of the Republic were responding. Far to their rear, the icons indicating her artillery batteries flashed as they requested firing orders.
“All units, be advised. Artillery is available. Place requests to Major Hammund.”
From somewhere above, her mech’s audio pickups detected a faint, but growing sound of thunder.
Pirouetting around, her Gatling gun raising, she looked up, expecting a fighter to scream through the wisps of clouds.
Instead, she saw four piercingly bright dots creep down from the heavens, descending and speeding up in her perspective.
The Kingdom is bombarding us? They must know how many civilians are here.
No, they knew and didn’t care. Not in the face of losing their army.
“Incoming bombardment,” she roared. “Cover.”
She hunkered down, knowing her mech would protect her, or not. If fate decreed those bombardment rounds land close to her, then no amount of armor or cover would protect her from projectiles designed to smash through another battleship’s thick hide.
The four specks streaked ever faster.
And then they slammed into the ground to the east, one after another. Moments later, she felt thuds of such force, they resonated in her chest cavity.
Fireballs rolled up from the horizon, washing and dissipating into the sky.
What had they hit?
The artillery and her brigade HQ icons flickered, then went dark.
She’d just lost her artillery and command units. A moment later, it struck her. If she’d been a regular commander—one who stayed at the rear, directing from the supposed safety of the mobile HQ crawler—she would be nothing but ashes scattered in the winds right now.
Lucky she wasn’t.
Hest turned her mech, facing back toward the city. No matter. She had always led with a personal touch. Only now, she had a damn good reason to do so.
She had to get her people in close to the enemy. Surely, the Kingdom wasn’t so ruthless as to bombard its own men and women.
“Forward!” she shouted.
Private Wink Goble
Asteria – 10 Km East of Port Rorian
Far in the distance, nearly perfectly aligned with the apex of the road in front of the school, flashes of space-to-surface rounds slammed to the ground. A row of fireballs rolled up into the sky, dissipating as they rose.
“That’ll teach the bastards.” Hoof pumped his fist where he lay next to Wink. “Finally the Navy is doing something.”
“From what I hear, they’re working plenty hard,” Masie murmured.
From the direction they overlooked, they couldn’t see the aerospace battle raging over Port Rorian, other than the occasional flaming trail of a fighter or bomber arcing overhead, turning to get back into the fight or slamming into the ground somewhere in front of them. But they could hear it. The explosions, the roar of engines. The boom as fighters went supersonic. The bellow of weapons fire.
It sounded furious.
“Reckon the KAF is earning its keep, too,” Wink whispered.
“Right,” Hoof grunted. From his position, Wink couldn’t see, but he got the distinct impression he’d just rolled his eyes. “Give ’em that. Still get to sit in comfy seats while doing it, though.”
Shifting on the hard concrete floor, Wink couldn’t help but agree on that one. If you were gonna be putting your ass on the line, you may as well be perched somewhere which wasn’t gonna give you piles if you sat on it too long.
“Everyone, listen up,” Loomis’s voice rang through on the comm. “First transports are setting down over at the starport. Doesn’t mean you should lose focus, though. Stay frosty and stay alert. If they’re gonna come get us, this is their last chance.”
“Better not forget us,” Maisie whispered.
Wink pulled his eye from his weapon’s sights and glanced at the tablet showing Lil and Patricia still angled to look up at him.
“Soon. I’ll be home soon,” he whispered.
“Contact!” Masie shouted.
Shit, cursing himself for even the moment’s distraction, Wink pressed his eye back to his Light Repeater Cannon’s sights. A mile away, silhouettes began to protrude. Lost Earth, even from this distance they looked huge. Lumbering.
“Hold fire,” Loomis called, his voice dropping to an icy calm.
More and more appeared, cresting a hill. Dozens, maybe. It was difficult to count how many. But they were coming toward the school.
A mech flashed red in his sights, one Masie designated ready for him to open up on.
“Charge to AP,” Wink called to Hoof.
The man scrambled, adjusting the power pack. It hummed even more urgently. In the lower right of his sights, the ammunition count suddenly halved to a thousand rounds. But each would be twice as powerful, able to penetrate even the mech’s thick armor.
“Let the light of Sol guide our way home to Lost Earth,” Maisie chanted a prayer. For the first time, Wink started to admire the woman’s devout religion. At least she had something to cling to when those monsters were stomping toward her.
“How the hell they going to pull us back from this?” Hoof moaned, the man’s bravado slipping in the face of the enemy advancing.
“They’ll get us home.” Wink spared a second, glancing at his beautiful wife and the even more beautiful Patricia, the baby he’d never seen. “They have to.”
“Hold!” Loomis urged. His voice didn’t have a hint of tension, but it did have calm authority. “No one opens fire ’til I say.”
More and more silhouettes crested the horizon. They could hear the mechanical clanks and thuds of their steps.
The red outline of the one Masie had chosen crept closer, growing more distinct in his optics. A Lion-class, if he was right. He wasn’t great at mech identification, but it had the same brutish and muscular lines he’d seen in the lectures back home.
“Come on,” Hoof whimpered.
The mech reached less than a kilometer away.
Optimal firing range, where their weapons had both accuracy and penetration power.
“Open fire!” Loomis roared, his tone changing to urge them to speed and action.
Wink squeezed the trigger. A deep bass chatter. The blue flashes of his pulse rounds raced toward the target. In his periphery vision, other streamers of fire leapt out of the school and the other buildings of the line.
The weapons fire riddled the mech. It juddered under the force of dozens of heavy pulse rounds slamming into it.
Wink kept his fire on his target, the auto stabilizers on the Repeater’s tripod keeping the weapon trained on the target. The ammunition counter wound down horrendously fast. Down through nine hundred rounds. Then eight hundred. The barrel began to glow with heat, quickly racing through red and to white hot.
Die, you bastard.
Something popped on the mech. A burp of fire washed out of the war machine’s flank. It tumbled to the mud. Then a flash of an explosion. Maybe its ammunition store cooking off, maybe something else. Who cared, it was dead. And that’s what mattered. A second later, thunder rolled over Wink.
“Tango down,” Masie shouted over the noise. “Designating number two.”
“Seven fifty,” Wink shouted his ammo count, summarizing to the nearest two fifty rounds like he was trained to. His barrel hissed and popped, descending back to merely red-hot as he adjusted it toward the next target Maisie had chosen. “Get us a new barrel ready. We might be getting through ’em here.”
The red outline of another Lion Mech appeared. Wink squeezed the trigger. His Repeater roared, spitting more rounds at the advancing enemy.
Asteria – Over Port Rorian
Situational awareness was breaking down. Tactics were going out of the window. Instead, the battle over Port Rorian had turned into dozens of individual dogfights as pilots clashed in a desperate attempt to score one more kill. To live a few seconds longer.
The one thing which was clear was that the Hegemony Aerospace Corps were throwing everything they had into the storm. And those numbers were beginning to tell. Viper Squadron was down to six. Other squadrons were faring even worse. A wave of landing craft had touched down, and from the odd glances he could spare, were desperately loading up soldiers.
Rick’s banked, hunting for a new target over the burning city. High above the horizon, he saw a dark cloud. He pushed the stick over in the opposite direction, daring to take a second look. He focused for as long as he could. The cloud resolved itself into hundreds of specks.
Please say it isn’t another wave of fighters coming in.
“Quinn, we’ve got more bogeys incoming.”
“We’re getting outnumbered badly here.” Quinn’s voice was strained and course from all the high-G maneuvering of combat.
“We’re not outnumbered,” Rick growled, feeling a wave of grim amusement which didn’t quite border on the hysterical wash through him. “We’re just operating in a target-rich environment.”
“Ha,” was all Quinn managed in response.
A flicker of weapons fire across his nose. He pushed down. Even the distraction of that short exchange had been enough to make him vulnerable to the veteran Galt pilots.
He plummeted down to the surface, then hauled his stick back and across to take him around a pockmarked, weapons-fire-riddled tower. He hadn’t even seen who shot at him. Lines of tracer fire rose from emplacements through the city, their point of aim somewhere behind him.
This is going to be it. Last thing I’ll see is this city.
He tore between two skyscrapers, desperately hoping to have thrown off his attacker.
Just one more kill, though. Just one more. And if I make that one, one more after that.
And if he was alive after that, he’d be thinking the exact same thing. Just one more.
With more Galts coming in, that was all he could hope for. He knew it. He wasn’t going home. He knew it, and he was okay with it.
“Another wave of transports is incoming,” the fighter controller crackled over the comm.
He flung himself round another tower, even as he processed what he was hearing. The cloud wasn’t more Galts. It was more rescue ships!
“Keep them clear of enemy.” Command had long since given up trying to direct in anything more than the most general of terms. Things were happening too damn fast. But that was the best news he’d heard all day. Whatever happened, this was going to be over soon.
Fire flashed by from behind. The enemy had somehow followed him, ignoring the theory that the Wolfs should be less maneuverable. Whoever it was must have been damn good.
Rick didn’t even need to see the craft to know who it was. He sensed it. The pilot who had torn through the KAF like they were nothing.
“All call signs, I’ve found the Ace.” Or the Ace has found me.
“I’ve got another engaging me,” Quinn called. “Am committed.”
Rick tore through the streets, the buildings on both sides so close it felt they would rip his wings off.
Got to shake ’em.
He hauled back on his stick, pulling his Tempest into the beginnings of a tight loop, crying out from the pain of the high gees crushing his chest. Weapons fire lanced past him. First close, then drifting away as the Wolf couldn’t keep up with his pitch.
He slammed his throttle back, cutting engine power to nothing, and drove his right foot down. His Tempest groaned as it flung itself into a cartwheel. His wings juddered hard from a maneuver it was never intended to perform, then one lost lift and snapped down in a spin. He drove the throttle forward as his foot stamped down on the rudder. His flight control computer automatically sensed it needed more thrust to pull him out of it, closing the air intakes and activating the space-flight mode. He surged forward, powering through the stall.
The Wolf appeared in front of him, its black nose already turning but not quite daring the same risky maneuver Rick had a few scant meters above the tops of the buildings.
Looks like you bottled it, friend.
He squeezed his trigger. Weapons fire raced toward the enemy’s side. He missed by a hair’s breadth, the momentum of his travel taking him into the cone where the Wolf’s weapons could strike.
Another line of tracer fire lashed at the enemy fighter, most missing, but a few rounds slamming into the fighter’s armored flank.
“One-one, I’m with you.” Wainwright’s fighter slashed across the enemy’s tail.
The Wolf went full thrust, unencumbered by the wound it had sustained yet realizing to finish its attack on Rick would be suicide. Plumes of fire surged from its engines and it raced forward, Rick and Wainwright dropping in behind.
The three fighters scissored and swept over the streets, the enemy fighter seeking to evade the fire from the two Kingdom Tempests hunting it.
“Slippery bugger, isn’t he?” Wainwright groaned, his voice straining against the high-G maneuvering.
Rick fought the urge to quip back at his squadron leader about radio discipline. Even the cool customer of the squadron leader was susceptible to an adrenaline high. Wainwright’s fighter locked onto the enemy like glue, a line of blue tracer seeking the enemy’s tail.
Lost Earth, the boss is going to take my glory.
The Wolf dove, thundering below the building line into the streets. Wainwright’s Tempest followed, trailed a second later by Rick’s. His fighter wobbled as their exhausts washed over him.
Kill him, boss. Or move out the way.
The three fighters sank deeper into the valley of the buildings which raced past his cockpit in a blur.
“I’ve got you now,” Wainwright growled. Damn it. Didn’t he realize this was personal between Rick and the Ace?
Thoughts streaked through Rick’s head as quickly as the buildings raced by. Maybe, the thought dawned on him, it was as personal for the boss as it was for Rick. After all, this bastard had taken out Lost Earth knew how many of his pilots.
Fire sliced furiously at the enemy fighter.
Every air brake the Wolf popped open at once. It suddenly expanded in Rick’s view, decelerating sharply. Wainwright’s fire grazed the enemy as it seemed to reverse at full speed back past his Tempest, narrowly avoiding it.
“Shit!” Rick shouted.
He pulled back on his stick. His Tempest surged over the top of the enemy, missing it by a couple of meters, if that.
Rick raced upward in a climb, in impromptu formation with Wainwright as both desperately sought to climb from the death trap the street had become. A few wild shots streamed past him, the Ace still trying to take them out, even while trying to recover from the risk-filled move they’d just pulled.
An explosion blossomed next to him. The rear half of Wainwright’s Tempest had simply disappeared. A freak shot from the Ace. The forward section rose for a few seconds under its own momentum before, almost sedately, curving down toward the city streets below.
“One-One,” Rick shouted. “Boss? Phil?”
There was no response. The remains of the Tempest gathered speed as it barreled toward the ground.
Come on, eject dammit.
The forward half of the fighter disappeared, lost behind a building. Then a puff of black smoke. There was no sign of an ejection beacon racing upward, carrying the boss to safety. He glanced down at the squadron status panel. The icon denoting Wainwright’s fighter blinked red, then dimmed.
“All call signs,” Rick groaned as he wrenched his fighter around in a high-G turn. “One-One is down. I repeat, One-One is down.”
He came about, looking back at the street the Wolf had been in. It was lost, only the twinkling remains of shattered glass still cascading down from the fury of its engine wash. The damn thing had probably lost so much kinetic energy in the air-brake maneuver that the Ace had no doubt skulked away until it could build up some speed again. For the moment, seeking respite from the desperate combat they’d just engaged in.
Don’t you worry, you bastard. This ain’t over yet, Rick vowed to himself. I’ll find you.
For the first time since the Ace appeared, he focused on his comm again as he swept around, his eyes seeking his quarry.
“Break left, Cobra Two-Four. That’s it...guns.”
“I’m going down, I’m going—”
“Shit, lost ’em.”
“All craft, you are to provide cover for the fleet. Break engagements now,” the fighter controller’s voice was urgent as it broke through the chatter.
“Negative,” Rick called, searching. “I say again, Viper One-One is down. Get SAR out here. Now.”
There was silence on the radio for a few seconds.
“I’m getting nothing from his fighter telemetry, Viper,” the controller said. “SAR is committed on the recovery operation. We need you back on cover.”
“Is dead,” the harried controller virtually shouted in frustration. “We need you back on cover. No exceptions. That’s why you’re all here. To get them home.”
Rick let out a guttural growl, then glanced to the west. A deluge of recovery ships descended. Destroyers were intermingled, lashing out with fire at the specks swarming around them.
“Finished up here,” she panted. “I’m even with you now.”
“The boss is gone,” Rick said, hauling his stick around. A Raptor flashed by. He loosed off a volley of fire at it. With disdainful ease, it rolled, avoiding the fire and disappeared from view. Damnit, he needed to focus. “The bastard took him down.”
“I know,” she said.
“The Ace is still out there.” Rick decided, “I’m going to go get him.”
“Rick, we ain’t here for us,” Quinn was quiet on the comm. “We ain’t here for the Ace. We’re here for them. The troops. Focus. It’s what the boss would’ve wanted.”
He ground his teeth, flicking his eyes between the congested radar and the building line. The memory of the controlled fury Wainwright had shown in his attack told him something different than what Quinn said. The boss had wanted the Ace dead.
“We are, but that bastard out there is too dangerous. If the Ace gets to the recovery fleet...” Rick came to a decision. “Get over to the fleet. Protect ’em enough for both of us. I’ll take out this asshole.”
Or at least tie them up enough so they’ll be too busy to cut through the fleet.
“Okay,” Quinn said breathlessly. “Okay.”
Over on his port side, he saw the roiling dogfight roll toward the descending ships. The enemy seeking to get at them, the Kingdom fighters striving to stop them.
“Good hunting, Rick.”
He banked over, turning his head to look down into the rubble-strewn canyons of buildings.
“Now where the hell are you?”
Colonel Tor Hest
Asteria – 10 Km East of Port Rorian
Blue streamers of pulse fire erupted from dozens of points all over the school buildings ahead. They swept over and around Hest, slamming into her mechs, riddling them with high-powered armor-piercing rounds.
A beam of light appeared, one end at a window. It stretched out, piercing through a mech, right into the cockpit and slashing into the ground behind. The Lion froze, immobile and impaled, its pilot dead. The beam shut down and the mech sank to the ground.
“Keep pushing!” She raised her arm, firing her Gatling gun. Pulse rounds from her weapon and dozens of others streamed into the school. The building front ablated away amid clouds of dust and cascading rubble. Then she saw the ripples of rounds striking energy dispersal shielding, which they must have set up in advance.
This was why they should have advanced faster. They’d had the chance to solidly fortify their positions. Now they’d have to dig the enemy out, and with her artillery destroyed and the Aerospace Corps heavily engaged over Port Rorian itself, this would have to be done the hard way.
No matter. She crouched, the heavy gauss cannon swung over from her back onto her shoulder. Crosshairs appeared on her HUD, settling on the front of the building. Her cannon gave a deep boom.
The electromagnetically driven conventional shell smashed into the building, its high explosive sending a shuddering ripple through the dispersion shields.
They didn’t fall. They must be combined kinetic and energy shields, able to ward off both kinds of damage.
But they were still only physical shields. And they could be worn down under a sustained assault.
A clunk came from behind her, the autoloader slamming another shell into the chamber. She glanced down at her console, seeing the gauss cannon charging itself, ready for another strike.
“All Lances, go to gauss,” she shouted. “We need to break them.”
A chime in her ear. And then a boom as her cannon fired again.
Two lines of tracer fire swept across the field, seeking her. She stood from her crouch and darted forward and took cover behind the battered hulk of an immobile mech. The rounds pinged into the mech, making it shudder under their blows. More zipped around her, a veritable sleet of blue fire.
Clunk. Her cannon flashed as ready in her HUD. She stood, just long enough to let off another round. A corner of the school crumbled under the blast.
All around, her infantry scrambled into what cover they could find. With the mechs darting around, ducking and advancing unpredictably, there was the very real danger many of them would be crushed underfoot.
“Colonel Shenar, pull all infantry units behind the mechs,” she decided. They would have no place in this fight until they got among the buildings. Then she would unleash them to root out the enemy.
Asteria – Over Port Rorian – Swift
Swift thundered over the port itself, joining the swirling vortex of ships circling in the landing pattern, waiting to touch down on any free patch of steelcrete which would accommodate whatever sized ship they were in.
To Reeve, it looked like a nightmare to control. Yet the stressed-out voice on the comm was, she admitted, doing a damn fine job of it.
Below, she saw the long black lines of ant-like figures, ready and waiting for the recovery ships already putting down amongst them. Amid the ships and people, the smoking and smoldering wreckage of eviscerated fighters and gutted ships sat where they’d crashed down.
Reeve pursed her lips. Thousands, tens of thousands, more waited stoically to board their ships home.
Could she have been so patient in these circumstances? At least she held her fate somewhat in her own hands. But those poor bastards down there could do nothing more than wait for rescue.
Her ship rocked as she slipped behind a large surface-to-space ferry, the sort of craft designed to take old people on a nice easy jaunt to one of the space cities over New Avalon rather than be a troop transport hauling people through a combat zone. And over there, a classic racing pinnace. A chrome-lined hot rod which was probably worth millions of sovereigns and could only carry two. Presumably the pilot, and one other they hoped to pick up. Behind that was something which looked to be the kite-like shape of a Librian float-driver—a less-robust craft probably didn’t exist anywhere in the galaxy. There were hundreds of different ships. And yeah, many had been pressed to service, but many more must have simply volunteered. Came of their own choice into this hellhole.
They’d answered the call.
The Kingdom may have been arrogant. But when called upon, its people pulled together like no others.
She felt something in her start to break through the cynicism she’d felt for years. What was it? Pride, perhaps? She shook her head. Yeah, she’d heard that came before a fall.
But still, she was damn proud to be here.
Among these heroes risking all to get their people home.
Her right hand gripped the yoke hard, her left wrapped around the throttle as she stared out at the controlled bedlam. Clay reached across and lay his palm over the top of her hand. She glanced over at him. “Still wish you’d never come?”
The young man gave a snort as he stared out the window as they banked around to face the hellish vista of the city. The fires raging reflected in his dark eyes. “Couldn’t leave you to come here alone, could I?”
“Thanks,” she said. There was nothing else she could say. So, she said it again. “Thanks.”
Clay smiled. “Let’s see if we get out of here first before you thank me, no?”
“Swift Two, control,” the harried voice called. “Stand by for landing instructions.”
“Time to get busy.” Clay released his grip, moving his hand back to his own console.
“Yeah.” Reeve frowned at the congested starport. “Let’s do this.”
Asteria Orbit – KSS Achilles
“Perigee in four minutes.”
Perigee. The closest the fleet would come to Asteria. Roughly the far side of the world relative to the distant vector back to the Regis System and New Avalon. The direction home.
Achilles and the other large ships which wouldn’t make landfall powered forward, so low over the world that they would be dipping into the tenuous clutches of its upper atmosphere.
The battleship’s huge space frame shuddered and groaned as the wispy gases tore at it, the ionization causing her dispersion fields to flicker angrily. For the moment, they had respite from the Neo fighters and bombers. They’d flocked down after the recovery fleet, still attacking even as they plunged through the atmosphere.
“All ships are down or in the final holding pattern,” Banning called.
“Good.” Cutter nodded. They weren’t home yet. Not by a long shot, but this was a hell of a milestone. And to get there had cost a lot of blood, sweat, and—he knew would come later—tears.
“Get me the portmaster.” It may really have been Roe’s staff’s job, but he needed situational awareness. He wanted to know what was happening down there, but he didn’t need everyone to see and get distracted. “To my console only.”
A screen opened up. The man on screen looked harried, his Navy ground utility uniform bedraggled. In the background, smoky columns rose to the skies and crowds of people waited in long lines. Beyond them were the subdued roar of landing craft engines and ships setting down. “Captain Cutter.”
“Captain Foster.” Cutter nodded in greeting. “We’re burning through here, and we aren’t going to be stopping. You need to get those ships loaded up ASAP.”
“Yeah.” Foster plucked his cap off and vigorously rubbed his head. “Arden’s already given me the pep talk, Hal. We’re going as fast as we can. But we’re going to be moving a lot of people.”
“I get that, Bill.” Cutter urged, “But you’re going to be losing Achilles and half the rest of the destroyers soon. What do your numbers look like?”
“I’ve got, what? Five hundred ships coming down, of which I can land around a hundred at a time, and that’s using every available bit of steelcrete. We’re figuring once they set down, we get everyone to run in. One of my guys assumed five seconds per person, on average, to process through, though once the queues start moving in, it’ll be a lot faster. With each ship having on average three loading ports, that’s six hundred every ten seconds. 1800 each minute. That gives us just over four hours to pack everyone in.” Captain Foster gave a tired grin. “I call bullshit on those figures. I reckon we’ll at least halve how long it takes.”
“I hope so, Bill.”
“Some will be faster. The ships with the big loading hatches will get a lot more in at once. Besides, we’ve had a week to prepare for this.” Foster’s grin grew wider, more genuine. “Trust me, it’s gonna happen.”
“Ever the eternal optimist,” Cutter responded. The man was going to be busy enough soon marshaling in hundreds of thousands of soldiers. It seemed an impossible amount to load in such a short period.
“I know what you’re thinking, Hal,” Foster said. He broke his focus, pointing at someone and bellowing orders before turning back to the screen. “But if they can fill the Empire Stadium full of drunk soccer fans in an hour before the match, then we can do better here.”
Cutter smiled back at the man. He’d been one of those drunk fans more than once. And indeed, he did have a point. The Empire Stadium could take 100,000, and they filled it in an hour with a hell of a lot less doors than they had on Port Rorian’s landing pads.
“Good man, Bill,” Cutter settled on. He didn’t need to distract him anymore. “Achilles, out.”
The screen closed, and Cutter settled back in his chair.
“They’re going to be awfully naked without cover,” Ashford murmured. From her station on the command podium, she was close enough to have heard much of the conversation.
“They’ve got cover,” Cutter replied. “We just have to hope it’s enough.”
“Sir, we are at perigee,” Mister Singh called. The holo zoomed out to show a sphere, a line projected around it and then shooting back into the depths of space. Their course home.
Cutter briefly felt a pressure build on his chest, quickly absorbed by the inertial compensators as Achilles’s huge engines fired in preparation to send the ship racing back home. On the front screen, he saw the world rolling by below. It presented a strange contrast, both serene with crystalline seas and lush green land. But never far from view were the scars, smoky columns rising high into the sky, and fiery blemishes showing the planet for what it was—a war-torn hellhole.
It was a good thing they weren’t staying.
Private Wink Goble
Asteria – 10 Km East of Port Rorian
The battle hadn’t quite reached a stalemate. The Hegemony still advanced toward them, but they were slowed by the weight of fire sweeping over them, the crater filled landscape, and the carcasses of destroyed mechs.
“Winchester!” Wink shouted as his Repeater gave the insistent beeping of having ran dry. The muzzle of the barrel blazed with light and he could feel the heat radiating from it. He was close to slagging it with the constant rapid fire. “Gonna need a swap out, too.”
He hauled the weapon back from between the glowing, warped blast dispersion shields. They’d taken a beating, the mechs throwing HE gauss rounds at them. The front wall of the building had long since crumbled under the onslaught. Only the creaking concrete of the floor between the levels somehow remaining sound, giving the structure integrity. The disconcerting sight of the building flayed open in front of the shields certainly didn’t help Wink’s feeling of vulnerability. He cast an uneasy eye upward as the ceiling groaned loudly enough to be heard through his ringing ears. There was the very real danger that the whole roof was going to come down on them.
He refocused, unsnapping the clasps attaching the barrel to the receiver. Gingerly he rotated the cylinder and slid it out, feeling the heat even through his gloves.
“Here ya go.” Hoof handed him a replacement. He deftly pushed and locked it in as Hoof busied himself replacing the power pack.
“How many we down to?” he bellowed hoarsely, his throat aching from having to shout. They were all partially deafened by the sound of combat.
Hoof’s eyes slid down over the discarded batteries littering the floor next to them. “A couple, maybe.”
“Shit.” It was the only thing Wink could think to reply with.
“The sarge has got to pull us back soon. He’s got to. The ships are down, man. They’re loading. You think they’re gonna wait for us?” Even in the pits of despair, Hoof swapped the power pack with practiced hands. Muscle memory and training guided his body, even when fear was dominating his words.
“We break the line, these guys get through.” Maisie watched through the slit of the blast shields. “Got you one.”
Pushing the Repeater’s barrel back through the firing slit, Wink glued his eye to the sights. Through the sights. The ammo counter reset to a thousand AP rounds.
A red-highlighted mech appeared in his sights, partially occluded by the burning carcass of one of its fallen brethren. He squeezed the trigger rhythmically, this time going easy. They’d been burning through their ammo and barrels like they had an infinite amount.
That wasn’t the case. What they had, would have to last until they got pulled back.
If we get pulled back.
Wink flicked his eyes down at the picture of Lil and Patricia for the briefest of seconds before pushing his eyes back to the sights again. He wanted one last look, just in case.
Asteria – Over Port Rorian
“Where are you, you bastard?”
Rick had had a few minutes of respite as he’d swept back and forth over the city, hunting his quarry, his rage and despair of losing his commanding officer descending into a cold fury.
But he had the dawning realization that he couldn’t spend all day searching for the Ace while the battle still raged over the port itself. He felt guilty he wasn’t in there. The tone of the chatter over the comm announced just how exhausted the pilots were after nearly ninety minutes of intense combat.
“Two Raptors on an attack run. Dropping in behind...damn it.”
“He’s on me...” The radio reduced to a crackle.
“I’m hit! I’m hi—"
Rick bared his teeth. He should go. It was the right thing to do. It was the sensible thing to do.
“Damn it!” he muttered.
Could the Ace somehow have recognized him? Perhaps his nemesis was trying to tie him up in the same way Rick was doing to the Ace. Both unknowingly working together to keep each other out of the fight. Rick disregarded the thought at first. Yeah, his Tempest, like all those in his squadron, sported a stylized red Viper crest. But it was tiny, nowhere near as obvious as the Ace’s paintwork, and nothing to differentiate him from his squadron mates.
But they’d met three times now. Maybe the enemy pilot just knew, like Rick had sensed the Ace. It wasn’t premonition, as such. Maybe subconsciously he was picking up cues on the Ace’s flying style, his mind working strangely to interpret that into a gut feeling. Perhaps the Ace felt the same way.
Was he...was he being egotistical? Maybe. Maybe to the Ace, he was nothing. Just another target to shoot down.
Who knew? And right now wasn’t the time to consider it. He had business to attend to. And if he was nothing? Then he would show that Neo how badly they’d underestimated him.
A flicker of motion below caught his eye. Rick banked around just in time to see the black-nosed Wolf pounce out of the streets, cannons firing.
Pulse fire tore around him, and through one of his wings. His Tempest rocked in response, threatening to go into a roll.
Lost Earth. A moment’s distraction was all it took, that bastard.
Groaning, Rick hauled his fighter around. He didn’t even need to look; the judder in his stick told him he’d taken a hit on his control surfaces.
The Wolf flashed by, and Rick tried to turn to follow.
“Come on!” Rick growled, urging his fighter to come about faster. The enemy had overshot, rather than shuffle into a pursuit. An amateur mistake. Surely?
His nose crept toward the enemy. And then he saw it. Smoke trailing from one of its engines. Wainwright’s hit down in the streets must have done more damage than they’d thought. And if so, maybe the Ace had lost fine control of his engines.
You got him, you bastard. But he got you, too.
The crosshairs of his guns bounced around unpredictably as it sought the tail of his quarry. Just when he thought it was mating up with the rear of the enemy craft, it darted away.
He squeezed the trigger anyway, spitting rounds at the enemy. Hoping his prey’s own random evasive jinking would carry it into the fire.
A brief flash of irony coursed through his mind. How quickly their roles had been reversed. Now the Wolf was the maneuverable one with intact control surfaces, but a damaged engine, while Rick still had the engine power but couldn’t turn worth a damn.
He drove his throttle forward, catching up with the Wolf spearing over the city. The tall spires of the city gave way to industrial districts, and then suburbs.
“Lost Earth,” Rick muttered as his peripheral vision took in the scene below. A fierce firefight raged. dozens of streamers of fire racing back and forth. The brave Republic soldiers and rearguard of the expeditionary force fending off what looked like a horde of mechs.
The Wolf corkscrewed up in a climb, leaving a spiral of smoke behind. Rick fought to follow, his fighter groaning in protest.
Then a loud bang from his port wing, and his stick gave a shudder in his hand. He glanced over to see what had caused the racket.
“Shit.” The tip had sheared off, falling away from his fighter, dragging an aileron with it. The stick went mushy. He reached down and flicked the RCS motors on. They weren’t designed for atmospheric work. Hell, they wouldn’t even push a hover car down here, but he’d take every small piece of attitude adjustment he could get right now.
The Wolf either sensed, or simply saw his plight in a rear-facing camera. It dipped a wing, beginning a wide banking turn.
Slowly, so slowly, his fighter rattling and groaning every degree of the way, Rick turned to follow. The two wounded fighters coming around in a pained dance.
They circled wearily, both noses coming about, turning toward each other.
The Wolf beat him in the turn. Coming around, leaving a wide arc of smoke behind.
And then they were nose on. Charging at each other like jousting knights from the legends of Lost Earth.
Rick rammed his throttle forward and opened fire, even as the first flashes of pulse rounds surged past his cockpit from his enemy’s guns.
The crosshairs bounced. Flicking over and around the Wolf. He kept his finger squeezed on the trigger. His guns roared. Something smashed through the cockpit window leaving a dinner plate-sized hole, missing his head by mere centimeters. Wind howled in through the gap.
“Come on,” he growled.
A flash of light on the Wolf’s jump drive, his fire ripping into it. Then his tracer tracked away.
Something crashed behind him as the streamer of fire continued unabated from the Ace. Alarms warbled. His HUD flashed up one of his engines, then two. Gone. His fighter vibrated angrily and groaned.
“Come on!” he shouted, his finger squeezing the trigger as tightly as he could. Lost Earth, he could see the enemy pilot in the cockpit.
The crosshairs, and the line of pulse rounds, kissed the Wolf’s nose, riddling and ablating it away under the weight of fire.
Then, in a flash, they tore past each other.
The juddering in Rick’s fighter increased in violence, rocking and bouncing him. The drone of his remaining two engines raised and lowered. His consoles flickered and died, then came alive again. It wasn’t good. Everything that could flash an angry red of damage was.
“Shit,” Rick muttered. He pulled back on the stick. Reluctantly, the fighter lifted its nose. Then it sank again. He had hardly any control left, at all.
He watched the power readings on his butchered remaining engines fade away. The dull roar diminishing, eclipsed by the howl of air rushing through the hole in his cockpit buffeting his visor-covered face.
“Mayday. Mayday. Mayday,” Rick called. “Viper Three-One going in.”
“Rick?” Quinn’s voice was urgent. “Where are you?”
“I’m...” He glanced down at his nav console. It faded to darkness, then came alive again. Only getting halfway through its reboot before dying again.
Back to doing things the old-fashioned way, I guess.
He looked through the shattered cockpit window, only his helmet protecting him from the howling wind. Past what remained of his port wing were the smoke-filled skies and spires of Port Rorian. “About fifteen clicks east of Rorian.”
“That’s bandit country, Rick. Standby.” Her voice sounded strained. She must have been in the middle of her own desperate battle. A moment later. “Back with you. You go in there, you ain’t coming back.”
He gritted his teeth, experimentally starting a bank to the left. Yeah, the nose started to reluctantly shift around.
But where was the damn Ace? Had they gone down, too? He flashed a look to the right. A trail of black extended into the sky, capped by the distant shape of the enemy fighter. A flickering fire scorched from its engines. And not the clean cone of flame from a properly functioning engine.
Something twinkling erupted from the top of the Wolf.
Had they just ejected? He couldn’t tell for sure from this distance.
A sudden explosion blossomed from where the Wolf had been. A fan of fiery lines spread across the sky.
“I got you, you bastard,” Rick whispered.
“I got ’em, Sienna,” he said. Louder, clearer. Even if he didn’t make it back, Viper Squadron needed to know that, for what that pilot had done to them. “I got the Ace.”
“I don’t care, Rick. Just get your ass back behind lines.”
Slowly, painfully, his nose met the city. His altimeter spun down, and the dog-fighting craft hadn’t exactly been high altitude to start with.
5000 feet AGM.
At a glide ratio of one to ten in ideal world circumstances, and with an unpowered, but undamaged bird, his Tempest should nicely kiss down on the steelcrete at Port Rorian. He glanced out his window as he kept a constant right-stick pressure on. Except it wasn’t ideal world. He was missing a third of one wing.
There was no way he was getting back into the port.
But there was a chance, a small chance, he could reach the front line.
And a small chance was better than none.
Especially if he landed on the right side of it.
He focused forward, staring at the tumultuous firefight raging, visible even from here, and gave a swallow.
Things were going to get real interesting.
Colonel Tor Hest
Asteria – 10 Km East of Port Rorian
An S-91 Wolf fighter, trailing smoke, thundered overhead, pursued by a KAF Tempest weaving its way in pursuit as if it struggled to hold a straight line. Whoever it was, they were doggedly refusing to give up. Pulse fire flashed furiously after the evading Galton pilot.
Everyone was fighting hard this day.
“Keep pushing.” Hest refocused; she had her own part of this war to take care of. She stood, the thick hide of her mech pockmarked with Repeater rounds. She pressed forward. Only the fact that she was aiming for the next piece of cover rather than straight forward saving her from the Beamer scything through the air.
This school’s defenders had proven to be stubborn. They fought with such tenacity they had damn near ground her brigade to a halt.
Beyond the school, she could see the ships of the enemy fleet lifting into the sky, streaking toward orbit and safety with their precious cargo of soldiers. Soldiers who would come back one day. She was sure of it. The Kingdom would never bow to the Prime’s offer of an armistice. They had been bloodied, and they were angry.
If they’d been unleashed earlier, or even dropped directly onto Rorian, then the enemy would have been trapped on this world. Hell, they wouldn’t have even had to take it, just stop anyone leaving. Instead, elements of the expeditionary force were now fleeing from under their noses.
Her leg sank into the churned-up mess of what had been a school playground, slowing her to a trudge. Repeater rounds slammed into her. Her HUD shuddered and fuzzy lines coursed across her vision as she took damage.
She lifted her Gatling gun, spraying it over the school in an effort to keep the enemy from at least firing at her.
The fire abated as those inside took cover from the rounds slamming into the shattered remains of the school, and Hest stumbled behind a wall bordering a hover car lot. Blue flashes slashed through the thin brickwork, the wall providing no more resistance to the armor-piercing rounds than paper. But at least the enemy didn’t know exactly where she was. They couldn’t focus fire on her, and that was a small mercy.
Father Terra, if we don’t press through now, all we have accomplished and sacrificed would be for naught.
She jabbed angrily her comms console.
“Colonel, I thought comms were out between us?” he said warily.
“Sir,” she ignored him, hunkering her mech down lower. “They’re getting away. We need a full-scale advance across the entire front or we’ll lose them.”
“My orders are...not clear.”
“What is clear, sir, is they’re going to get away,” Hest growled in frustration.
“Look, Aria. I have one person telling me to let the Aerospace Corps have a sole role over Rorian—”
“There looks to be hardly any left over there,” Hest snapped. “We’re it.”
“Another,” Galen ignored her, “telling me to preserve all mech armored forces. And another saying that we must let the Kingdom Expeditionary Force escape.”
Blood rushed in Hest’s ears. The sound of the fierce fighting faded out as she focused on his words. “Say again?”
“There is still talk at flag level of cutting a deal with the Kingdom. Letting them go, rather than forcing their surrender,” Galen said. “We would show them we are dominant, but they would still have a place in our Hegemony for when we face the People. If we kill them all, that will no longer be an option.”
“You think the Kingdom will play that game?” Hest scoffed incredulously, hunkering her mech down as low as she could. “You know that if we let them escape, they will come back for us. And on their terms.”
“Command wants to cross that bridge when we get to it,” Galen said quietly, urgently, at a near whisper. “The flag ranks are a confused mess, Aria. We never anticipated the success we’ve had. Not in our wildest dreams. We’re so close to taking the whole of the Republic in mere days, when we thought it would be weeks or longer. And now we don’t know what to do with it. I certainly can’t order a general advance, and nor can I micromanage a single brigade. If you go in, that will cause havoc with us having to support you. Marshal Galen out.”
Quite right, Marshal. She smiled again at his diplomatic use of words. A brigade falls to a colonel to command. Yet it was too big a unit to allow to be lost.
She would march through to Port Rorian as quickly as possible. The rest of the front would be forced to as well. They would tear through the defenders like they were nothing, the army’s orders be damned. She was doing this for Galton, not for petty party politics and machinations.
She turned her mech’s cameras, looking over the field behind her, over which night was settling in earnest. It contained the smoking ruins of many of her brothers- and sisters-in-arms. But many dozens more of her mechs still advanced.
And something in the sky. She squinted at the object amid the embers of the battle raging in orbit.
Something much closer.
Above the dark field, a flaming comet surged toward the school. A piece of re-entering debris? In which case, her moment of glory might well be cut short before it even began. She focused on it, her HUD zooming in.
The Tempest was coming back, its engines on fire. Huge bites taken out of it from fierce fighting. It swept low, spearing a few meters above her head.
Then it slammed into the field and skidded across the ground, grinding a deep furrow through the dirt and tarmac. With a huge crash, the fighter smashed into what was left of the school’s foyer, leaving a cascade of glass and debris in its wake.
The fire from the school abated, the defenders undoubtedly shocked into silence by the fighter’s impact
She shook her head. Fortuitous. That thing had just made them an opening.
“It’s time, Major,” she barked as she stormed forward. “Bring the infantry up. Everyone push, push, push.”
The fire resumed, first the odd splutter, then with ever-increasing fury as the defenders recovered.
She heard the chatter of comms, even the undisciplined cries of men and women making their final charge at their objective.
This wasn’t for the Hegemony. And it wasn’t for those bastard Neos.
Instead, she whispered quietly what it was for, under the volume her mic would pick up, of course.
Private Wink Goble
Asteria – 10 Km East of Port Rorian
The muzzle of the Repeater burned white-hot as it spat hundreds of rounds down range at the advancing mechs, his efforts to be more measured about it ceding to the simple fact that everywhere he looked, there were more and more of the damn Hegemony mechs.
“Barrels runnin’ hot!” Hoof’s shout was dim, barely piercing through the ringing in his ears from the deafening explosions and gunfire.
“I know.” Wink saw the temperature bar flicker and bounce between yellow and red in his sights. He’d have to give it a respite soon or they’d slag the barrel. Possibly even cause a hangfire. And that was not good.
“What?” Hoof shouted back.
“I said, I know!” Wink bellowed, not breaking his concentration. The enemy mechs were so close now, he didn’t need Maisie to designate. Instead, she hefted the meter-long metal cylinder of the Beamer and sighted along it.
A piercing line of light extended out from the end of the weapon. The mech that she was targeting moved with an agility which belied its size. In a lumbering run, it charged forward, ducking behind a wall bordering the hover car lot in front of the school, somehow avoiding the beam.
They were so damn close now. Wink turned his Repeater on the wall, peppering it with rounds in a vain effort to kill the mech taking cover behind. He eased off on the fire. It wasn’t like he could guarantee destroying the bastard, so he wanted to wait for an opportunity to do just that.
Taking advantage of the pause, he drew back from the sights and wiped the sweat from his brow which threatened to run into his eye. He flicked his gaze back down to the tablet, somehow still standing. Lil and Patricia’s sanguine expressions stared back at him. He reached his gloved hand forward, brushing it along the tablet’s surface. “Soon, baby. Soon.”
He looked up. Over the horizon, a bright flame hung low, somehow seeming closer than the fires of the battle in orbit. Gradually it grew bigger. He pushed his eye back to the sights and focused on it.
The battered form of a Tempest fighter sprang into sharp relief. Two of its engines were aflame. The cockpit was riddled with holes, along with the fuselage. It looked as if the thing only had half a wing on one side. Lost Earth, how could the thing still be flying?
“Got a friendly incoming.” Wink watched it visibly sink closer to the horizon. “Well, going down.”
The fighter descended lower and lower. It tore through a line of trees on the far side of the field and smashed into the ground. It skidded, shedding debris as it ploughed through the field, the churned-up mud dousing most of the fires of its engines.
“I think it’s gonna hit,” Maisie shouted, ducking to cover her head.
“No shit.” Wink followed her lead, flattening himself to the floor. A moment later, a deafening crash, and the room shook as if they were in the middle of an earthquake.
Cracks appeared all through the floor. Wink scrambled to grip the blast shield as a hole opened beneath him, billowing dust. For an awful moment, he thought he would be swallowed by it. Then the shaking subsided.
“Yeah.” Hoof coughed, followed a second later by Masie.
My tablet! He desperately looked around for it. Then saw it, knocked on its back, the illumination from its screen creating an eerie puddle of light in the shimmering dust. He grabbed it and stuffed it in his thigh pocket. A sense of relief washed through him, which disappeared a moment later.
He had no clue what had happened to the Repeater. He shook his head, disregarding it. Whether the weapon had fallen outside, plummeted into the chasm, or had simply been buried in rubble, he didn’t have a clue. It was gone. His rifle still lay where he’d placed it. Grabbing it, he slung it over his shoulder.
Crawling on his hands and knees through the rubble, Wink tried to circumvent the hole, casting a glance down as he did.
Below squatted the Tempest’s fuselage. Within the cockpit, a silhouette of a figure beat weakly at the already damaged canopy.
“Come on, we have to get him out!” Wink shouted.
“But—” Hoof began.
Wink lowered himself over the creaking edge of the hole and dropped down onto the groaning, popping fuselage of the aerospace craft. The foyer was a ruined mess. Small fires cast a flickering illumination through the space. Power cables dangled from the ceiling, sparks showering down from them. And the fighter? Lost Earth, the fighter had had the crap shot out of it. How could the pilot still be alive?
He reached the cockpit window and wiped away a layer of grime and dust. A helmeted figure looked up, then the muzzle of a handgun appeared, pointed straight at Wink through the glass.
“Friendly!” Wink shouted. He turned, showing the Kingdom flag on his shoulder.
The helmeted figure nodded in understanding.
“Friendly,” the man repeated, his voice traveling through a vicious-looking hole in the canopy. Its edges were sloughed and melted. Damn, this guy had almost been beheaded by a pulse round.
Wink looked around for some kind of handle or release. Seeing a panel, he flicked it open and jabbed at the button saying “open.”
Around him, he more sensed than saw Hoof and Maisie dropping next to him. They grabbed at the cockpit, sliding their gloved hands into the sharp holes of the cockpit, straining to lift it. The figure within gestured for them to stand back.
The three soldiers moved away. A series of pops came from around the cockpit, small explosive bolts shearing the cockpit glass. The three returned, hauling the heavy glass and metal structure off and pushing it down the side of the fighter. It landed with a crash on the rubble-strewn ground.
With movements that spoke of pain, the figure pulled his helmet off, revealing a sweat-stained young man’s face.
“You okay?” Wink asked, looking him up and down, checking for any signs of wounds. He couldn’t see anything. But then, the light wasn’t great.
“No need to shout.” The man winced. Whether from the volume of Wink’s voice, or from other injuries, he couldn’t tell. He reached for the buckle in the center of his chest and twisted it, releasing his harness. “Lost Earth, I’m glad I put down on the right side of the line.”
“Sir,” Wink lowered his voice. He didn’t know the KAF rank insignias, but he figured it was a safe bet that the bars on his epaulettes showed the pilot as being an officer or senior enlisted. “You ain’t on the right side of the line. You’re on the line.”
The man grunted as he hauled himself up out of the cockpit. “Aren’t you folks supposed to be pulling back?”
“Yeah. Yeah we are!” Hoof shouted. “’Cept I think they forgot about us.”
“Guys.” The man wafted his hands down. “The shouting. Please. I’ve got one hell of a headache.”
“Apologies, sir,” Wink said. “I’m Wink—Private Gobels. This is Privates Heffernan and Truro.”
“Flight Lieutenant Jason Richards. Call me Rick.” The man stood, visibly wobbly on his legs. “What’s the plan?”
“The plan,” Hoof sneered, “is that the KAF was supposed to cover our arses. ’Cept you were nowhere to be seen. Now we have a million fuckin’ mechs about to shoot the shit out of us.”
“Hoof!” Wink shouted. Then he remembered himself and tapped the comm console on his arm. “Sarge. We’ve got the pilot who crashed.”
“Good,” Loomis called back. “Take that flyboy and make your way to the rear of the building. We’re gonna be exfiltrating at haste.”
“Those mechs ain’t going to let us go,” Masie said.
“I know,” Loomis sounded breathless. “And so does the Republic. They’re covering our retreat.”
Wink glanced back through the massive hole torn through the entry to the foyer. A massive, menacing figure could just be made out through the swirling dust outside.
They won’t get out. The Republic forces are sacrificing themselves so we can leave. He shook his head. The poor bastards.
“Make it mean something.” Loomis sounded as if he was moving fast as he unknowingly acknowledged Wink’s thoughts. “Go now.”
“Roger.” Wink turned to the others. They’d have to raise a toast to the brave Republicans later. “We’re leaving.”
“Final-fucking-ly,” Hoof replied.
The three soldiers jumped off the fuselage of the Tempest. Wink turned when he saw the pilot hadn’t joined them. “Sir?”
The pilot knelt on the fuselage, pressing his hand to a red depiction of some kind of snake aft of the cockpit. He bowed his head for a second. But only a second. “Been an honor, old girl.”
“We have to leave!” Wink shouted. This flyboy needed to get serious down here. Delay would kill them all.
Asteria – Port Rorian
The landing field looked to be madness. Yet at closer examination, method could be seen within it.
Thousands of troops were arrayed in long lines, some snaking around each other in an attempt to fit them all in. In some places, bollards with rope between them had been laid out to channel people. In other areas, belligerent and angry-sounding NCOs shouted and bawled, herding their flocks like sheepdogs.
Elsewhere, marshals wearing high visibility coats and with hologrammatic banners floating overhead ruled with an iron fist. Anyone who stepped out of line was unceremoniously shoved back in. And the worst transgressions, thankfully rare, were sent to the back of the queue.
But overall, Reeve couldn’t help but admire the fact discipline was holding even while the tattered remains of the Kingdom and Galton fighters ducked and dived overhead. An occasional Hegemony Wolf or Raptor managed to free itself from the melee. Strafing the field, unleashing death, pain, and misery on those below. But thus far, the KAF had always managed to exact a sharp vengeance on the pilot who did so.
Swift had put down at the far edge of the field among the final wave of ships. Reeve stood in the open forward hatch, a hand pressed to her ear in an attempt to drown out the roar of engines taking off, and ships soaring into the sky and through the bedlam of the combat above.
“Yeah, we’re down. And good for thirty.” She was on the comm to...someone. The head marshal, maybe. Or perhaps an officer who’d drawn the short straw and had to manage all this on the ground. She didn’t know. She’d just been given the frequency and told to speak to them. “Now are you going to load us up or not?”
“That’s a negative,” the harried man snapped. “We have a rearguard coming in. And we need the fastest ships to wait for them. Swift Two meets that requirement.”
Thunder washed out her reply as the imposing shadow of a destroyer rolled overhead, its weapons lashing out toward the dogfight.
Reeve turned back into the hatch and jogged up the short passage. “Is everything pre-flighted?”
“Yeah,” Clay responded. The man sat in his copilot’s seat, staring warily through the window at the tens of thousands of people filling the port. “We’ll be ready to lift as soon as we get our fares.”
“Yeah,” Reeve replied testily as she slipped into her seat. “About that. We’re going to have to wait on that one. Apparently, we’re holding for the rearguard to catch up.”
“What?” Clay spat, turning to her. “You may not have noticed, Shannon, but we have half the Galton army, not to mention a significant portion of their fighter forces, bearing down on us. The longer we wait, the more chances we’re gonna have something real bad happen to us.”
“Actually,” Reeve retorted, “I’m uncomfortably aware of that fact.”
“So what we gonna do?”
“We’re going to do what they tell us.”
“I was afraid you’d say that.” Clay sank into his seat, a surly expression on his face.
Reeve reached across to her copilot and lay her hand over his, giving it a squeeze. “We’ll be okay.”
He turned to her, his lips pressed together, and gave a thin, humorless smile. “Yeah. I hope so.”
Together, they watched the long queues of soldiers filing into the dozens of ships nestled throughout the expansive port while overhead the thunder of combat boomed.
Asteria – 10 Km East of Port Rorian
Rick clutched his aching midriff as he staggered through the devastated foyer of what looked to be a high school. It felt like he had one hell of a bruise there, probably from the harness buckle. Who knew? It didn’t matter. Not really.
The three figures—imposing in their dirt-stained combat armor—pushed, pulled, or dragged him, whichever was the most fitting for whatever piece of debris or wreckage they were traveling over or through.
The sound of gunfire diminished. The only defenders left, the brave Republic troops buying time with their lives. But the cracking noise of incoming rounds striking the school continued unabated.
Rick stumbled over a warped metal beam just as an almighty crash came from the foyer. He turned, pulling his suddenly tiny-seeming pistol from its shoulder holster. A creaking ominous sound, then a hiss and clank.
Lost Earth, he’d never felt so out his element as right now. He was trapped down here, in the mud, blood, and dirt with only a damned handgun. Up there, in the skies, was where he should be. Where he knew what to do and how to do it.
A mech’s leg appeared in the gaping hole, then the whole of its imposing body pushed into the foyer amid a cascade of debris.
“Shit. Move, move,” the one with the permanent squint—Wink, he thought his name was—barked.
The four of them scrambled forward, tumbling over the debris as the huge war machine stalked further in, causing rubble to plunge to the floor where it brushed against the walls, clouds of dust billowing out from their impact.
The tall gangly soldier turned and sighted his rifle back toward the enemy, only to be dragged back by Wink. “Hoof, come on. We ain’t winning this one.”
The man growled. A pulse round zinged past Rick and he ducked lower. A moment later, a cacophony of fire washed through the foyer.
Rick flinched away from the fire, then pointed his pistol out of cover, squeezing the trigger in a random and desperate attempt to at least make the enemy think twice.
Suddenly, he felt himself being dragged backward and flung behind a concrete slab. “Stay the fuck down.”
The woman pulled a cylinder from her back. A Beamer. Something used to take down enemy armor. With deft fingers, she primed it, even as Wink pulled a grenade from his webbing. Blindly, he flung it over the lip of the rock. A moment later, a loud crack as it detonated.
More hisses and clanks. Then a grinding drone. Pulse rounds scythed through the concrete as if it was nothing. Rick flattened onto his back, blue flashes raced past his face.
“Shit.” Maisie fumbled the laser-lance in her rush. It dropped to the floor, rolling between concrete slabs to the one behind which Wink hunkered.
We’re sitting ducks here; that mech is gonna tear us apart.
Private Wink Goble
Asteria – 10 Km East of Port Rorian
The cylindrical Beamer rolled to his leg and stopped. A blinking red light showing the one-shot laser was primed and ready to go.
Wink gave an exhalation of relief. If somehow the trigger had depressed, they’d all be dead as the piercingly powerful laser scythed all over the place.
“All units, if you don’t get to the transports now, we’re leaving you behind,” Loomis’s voice was almost firm, but his authority was tinged with the slightest crack. He was serious. They were pulling back, and now.
The hail of rounds diminished. More whirring, clanking, and the sound of rubble shifting as the mech moved forward.
Wink glanced over to the battered, dirt-stained pilot. Hoof was huddled down next to him, his hands over his head. Maisie sat slumped back against a chunk of debris, gesturing for Wink to roll the Beamer back to her.
If they ran, the mech would cut them down. Or the infantry sure to pour into the school behind it would overrun them.
They were trapped. Behind them was the clear area of the relatively undamaged end of the foyer leading to the rear. There was no cover to hide behind on the way out, no respite from the mech as it advanced. It was just an open hallway.
Wink felt himself nearly hyperventilate, his stomach a churning mess that didn’t know whether to puke or shit in fear.
No, there was one way out. One of them would have to take the shot against the mech.
“Wink. Give me the Beamer!” Maisie shouted, her hand still gesturing for it. For a moment, weakness took him, and his arm made to roll it back to her. Let her stick her head out where that monster could blow it off.
He stopped himself. No. Everyone wanted to go home. Not just him. Everyone.
Lofting the Beamer in both hands and hugging it to his chest, he looked over at his comrades. “I’ve got one shot at this. No matter what. You run. Got it?”
Maisie bared her teeth, then gave an abortive nod. He flicked his eyes to Hoof and the pilot. Their expressions showed they understood.
He brought himself onto his knees, hefting the Beamer onto his shoulder. “In five.”
There was no point in waiting for an acknowledgement. They got it, or they didn’t. They would move, or they wouldn’t.
He rose up. The sights on the laser trained on the mech’s armored carapace where it loomed over the downed Tempest, lit by the flickering flames and cascading sparks of the wreckage around it.
The mech whipped around, faster than anything so massive had a right to move. It pirouetted almost gracefully to the side as Wink squeezed the trigger. A piercingly bright beam of light appeared between him and the mech. It sliced into its center of mass, where the cockpit area was located.
The mech continued turning, the beam gouging a swath through its armored flank. Then it raised its arm in a desperate reflex. He heard a popping noise and saw a black speck arc over the hulk of the Tempest and land next to him.
A flash of light and then the world washed out in agony. For the briefest of moments, his ears registered the noise of an explosion. He saw the room twisting in his view. Ceiling, then floor, then ceiling again. He struck the floor. His pain gave way to numbness. The ringing in his ears reduced the noise of the world to a background murmur.
His head lolled to one side. He saw the sliced-open mech there, slumping against the wall, more cracks appearing around it as its weight settled. Then another huge machine appeared behind it. A fresh one, undamaged. Around its feet, he saw the smaller figures of infantry rushing into the foyer.
He let his head roll, so he could look to the other side. Maisie was being dragged away, her mouth opening and closing, shouting something which was muffled by his damaged eardrums. They were already nearly at the rear exit.
They were nearly home.
With a barely functioning hand, he reached to his thigh pouch and pulled out his tablet. He fumbled it. It dropped down next to him. He tried to lift himself to find where the tablet had gone. But he couldn’t. Nothing below his chest seemed to work.
Why doesn’t it work? Why doesn’t my body work?
He looked up again. His friends had disappeared from his view and out the exit heading to the rear of the building.
He lay there. He couldn’t seem to get enough air in his lungs. His mouth was full of a tinny metallic taste.
Earth, I just want the tablet.
That’s all he wanted. He didn’t even care about going home anymore. All he wanted was to see his wife and baby. One more time.
A shadow fell over him. He flicked his eyes up. The sleek black armored form of a Galton soldier loomed over him with a rifle in its hands, the muzzle pointed straight into his face.
Colonel Tor Hest
Asteria – 10 Km East of Port Rorian
The targets slipped behind piles of rubble pushed before the crashed Tempest. Hest continued firing for another couple of seconds, knowing her pulse rounds would penetrate the concrete with ease. Maybe she’d take out the enemy soldiers.
Or maybe, if they were still alive, they’d come out with their hands up. She gave a mental shrug. It didn’t make a difference. She had a vague sense of admiration for them, pausing to rescue their downed comrade. But that didn’t mean she would hesitate if they forced her to kill them. Not for one second.
She stepped forward, her audio pickups hearing the creaks and groans of the building above. Looking up, she tried to assess whether pushing the carcass of the Tempest out of the way would cause the whole structure to come down atop of her. Not the end of the world. She was confident her mech would fend off the falling debris, but it could prove embarrassing if she had to be dug out. Not to mention, she would be vulnerable if any of those soldiers were fool enough to come back with a desire to tear her out of the mech.
She glanced at the tactical display, seeing the blinking dots of infantry transponders catching up with her, along with the bigger icons of her fellow mechs.
No, they was definitely in the end game now. All throughout the front, her forces were attacking and the enemy line was crumbling. It looked as if the Kingdom troops were pulling back. The Republicans, with nothing to lose, continued fighting a desperate last stand to give them the time to retreat, but even they were falling before her. With a little luck, Galen would be monitoring the breakthrough, channeling every last mech and soldier he could into the hole she’d hammered.
She drew her mech’s arm back from the Tempest fuselage. There was no point in being risky now. It would not influence momentum in the slightest. Not with the troops on the—
Movement flickered from the pile of rubble, alerting her. Her mech’s threat-detection suite identified she was targeted by something. A window opened in her HUD and focused in rapidly. One of the enemy soldiers, with a cylinder in his hand.
She reacted fast, twisting back even as a piercing white line appeared between the muzzle of the Beamer and her mech. The shaft of light pierced through the cockpit window, slicing into the rear bulkhead, only centimeters away from her head. As the mech turned, it gouged a line of destruction. She activated a grenade launcher, more in reflex than anything willed. It fired. A small egg shape popped out of its tube, flying back in an arc to land behind the rubble.
The beam shut down, half the cockpit torn open, exposing her to the cloying, dusty air. An explosion thumped from behind the rubble. She looked up in time to see a ragdoll-like figure being flung end-over-end amid a cloud of dust, before slamming back down to the ground.
Behind them, two figures bolted toward the opposite door, dragging a third with them who looked to be fighting to get at their comrade. She tried to lift her mech’s arm. It whirred and groaned, sparks flying from tortured servos. It was no good.
Hest popped her harness, grabbed the small carbine docked next to her, and sighted along the weapon.
Dammit. She lowered her weapon and pulled herself out of the wreckage of the mech, careful to avoid the razor sharp, red-hot edges of the damaged hide. Dropping the two meters down to the dust-covered floor, she glanced back at her Lion.
Her once-mighty mech crouched against a wall cracked from its weight, the cockpit splayed open. She shook her head. There was no time for sentimentality for this device which had carried her across the battlefield. Black-clad figures rushed around it, taking positions. Her infantry had arrived while behind them, another mech clanked into the opening.
“Colonel?” An armored figure addressed her with a voice which was metallic and impersonal.
“I’m all right,” she responded sharply, swatting away the helping hand. “Push forward. There’s at least one casualty ahead.”
The sergeant nodded and barked out a rapid-fire series of orders. His men surged ahead tactically, half covering, the rest sprinting for the next piece of debris.
Hest gave a deep breath. She had been close to death before. Many times. But this had been the closest. An anti-mech beam so close if she’d nodded in the wrong direction, it would have lobotomized her. She shook her head. Now was not the time to dwell on what could have been.
The sergeant next to her gave a nod as he pressed a finger to the side of his helmeted head. “Acknowledged. Colonel, he’s alive.”
She glanced up at the carcass of her mech. He’d done this to her mech. She gave a thin smile. Fair play to him. “Take me to him.”
With a cluster of troopers around her, she moved forward to where a soldier stood, his weapon trained down.
Hest skirted around a slab of concrete and saw the bloodstained, twisted figure of a man lying in the dirt. His eyes were wide, darting around. His breath quick and rasping. His armor was cracked and smashed, but the flash of a Kingdom crown crest could still be made out on his shoulder.
So, this was the soldier who’d come closer than anyone to killing her. She knelt next to him. His wild eyes focused on her. His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down, as if he were trying to speak.
The sergeant pointed his rifle at the man. “Colonel, do you want me to put this scum down, or leave that to the Executors?”
Hest turned and scowled up at the man. She shook her head. How the Galton, sorry the Hegemony, Army had changed; honor a thing of the distant past.
We’re all Neos now. Galen’s voice resonated again in her mind. Yes, they may be. She might be a dying breed. Perhaps literally, when her unauthorized advance was communicated to the Executors. But that didn’t mean this shattered man didn’t deserve to be respected.
“Soldier.” His eyes bored into her. She noticed one of them was drooped, as if he were almost winking at her. “You did well, you fought fiercely, and you bought your friends time to escape. You couldn’t have performed better.”
The man gave a rasping breath. She heard his remaining arm fumbling in the dirt. She looked down. His hand was crawling by the fingertips toward a battered tablet. She picked it up. The screen was cracked, but an image could be made out. A young, homely woman clutching a tiny newborn baby, its face scrunched as if it were midway through a cry. An image of her own children, Greta and Arnold, flashed in her mind. How, if it were her time, she’d want them to be the last she ever saw.
She held the tablet over his head so he could see. He visibly relaxed. A tear trickled from his eye, cutting a clean swath through his dirt-stained face.
“Rest, easy soldier,” she said in Avalonian. No, he wouldn’t survive these injuries. And neither would he be consigned to spend the rest of his final hours at the tender “mercies” of the Executors as they desperately wrenched what information they could from him before he died.
She placed her pistol to his temple. He stared hard at the picture, as if absorbing every detail. Then he gave a jerking nod, his eyes still locked on the tablet.
Colonel Aria Tor Hest squeezed the trigger.
She counted down in her mind from ten to one. Then stood and plucked her comm unit from her belt.
“All Lances and infantry,” she said, quieter than she intended. “Continue the advance.”
She spared one last look at the brave soldier below, then drew her pulse carbine against her shoulder and pushed forward down the hallway.
Asteria – 10 Km East of Port Rorian
The woman, Maisie, ceased struggling, instead turning and pulling at Rick with increased vigor. It was like a switch had been flicked for her, going from being desperate to go to her comrade, to wanting to honor his sacrifice and complete his last wish.
The large atrium doors at the rear of the hall stubbornly refused to slide open, the power likely out. Hoof took the simple approach; a combat armor-clad shoulder barged through, his figure occluded in a twinkling blizzard of glass.
“Friendly, friendly,” he shouted at the figures rushing to mount up in the transport, already facing toward the west and ready to roll out.
The sound of an explosion rolled out of the open door as another figure grabbed at Rick’s stained flight suit. He saw the flash of adornment on the grimy armor, as if it were as much for show as it was for business. He felt something being pressed into his hand.
“You, go. Get in now,” the thickly accented voice barked at him. Before he could examine what was given to him, he felt himself being half-launched, half-pushed into the rear. He stumbled to the bench lined against the left bulkhead.
Hoof and Maisie dropped down opposite. Another figure appeared, his hands bracing himself against the roof. An older man, sporting a moustache of a style which had gone out of fashion decades ago, and with the chevrons of a sergeant on his armor.
He regarded them for a briefest of moments. “Wink?”
Maisie shook her head, biting her lip as she did so. The sergeant nodded, twisting down onto the bench next to Rick. “You were the last.”
The last? There looked to be dozens of men and women still out there!
The vehicle lurched forward, causing them all to jar back. Behind the sergeant, Rick could see the Republic soldiers dropping into the scant cover of hastily arrayed blast shields.
A moment of realization. They weren’t coming. The sad remains of the Republic army were simply making sure they could escape. The figures reduced in size, then disappeared from view as the transport sped away down the road.
And then came the zing of pulse rounds, reaching in vain for the transport from long range. A turn, then the school itself was gone.
Rick looked down to the mud-covered deck of the transport.
“Lost Earth.” There was no other way to articulate himself. Nothing to say.
“If we hadn’t stopped for you...” the voice was full of cold fury. Rick looked up, seeing Hoof glaring at him with eyes glistening with unshed tears. “He would have got away.”
“I know,” Rick murmured.
“What?” The man lurched across the cabin, grabbing Rick by his flight suit lapels, smashing him against the bulkhead behind him. He felt a hand grip his throat, beginning to squeeze, choking him. “You know? Fuckin’ Aerospace Forces. All comfy and warm. Sitting on your arses while—”
A pistol appeared, pressed against the side of Hoof’s head, the weapon humming. The sergeant. Rick’s vision began to darken. He couldn’t take in enough air through the man’s choking grip. “Private. Rules of War: Article Ninety, Subsection C. The striking of a senior officer in a time of war is punishable by death as tried by the ranking person present.”
Hoof’s wild eyes flicked to the sergeant’s face, his expression changing from one of anger to fear as he realized just how far he’d stepped over the mark. “Sarge—”
“Don’t make it mean nothing, Private.” The sergeant looked intently at the young man. The grip around Rick’s throat released. He sucked in a gasping breath. “Please don’t make his sacrifice mean nothing.”
The sergeant moved the pistol away from Hoof’s head. Rick looked between the two men, coughing, his hand reaching to massage his bruised throat.
The sergeant spoke, “With apologies, sir. The ride in these Turtles can get a little bumpy. We often fall on each other. Please accept the private’s apologies.”
Rick slumped back against the rattling metal bulkhead even as he felt a sudden rage build in him.
Fucking kid don’t know how hard I’ve fought. Doesn’t care, instead, he laid hands on me. Fuck you, I’m Viper Squadron.
The man...no the boy, in front of him pressed his hands to his eyes and his shoulders heaved in a wracking sob.
The rage subsided as suddenly as it had built. He reached across the cabin, and with a hand he didn’t know quite where to put, patted Hoof’s armor-plated shoulder. He turned to the sergeant. “No apology necessary, Sergeant. Accidents happen.”
The sergeant took a deep breath, holstering his weapon.
“I’m sorry about your man,” Rick said, inadequately. He’d lost comrades. He’d lost friends. Their lives snatched in the blink of an eye. Some of them wouldn’t have even known it was happening. He always thought that somehow he would know when he would die. He’d have time to accept it. To make peace with the mistakes he’d made in his life and remember the happy parts.
The one thing this damn war had taught him was that wasn’t the case. You could be laughing and joking in the morning, and dead by lunch, with no more warning than a flash of light.
Damn this war. And damn the fact there were people left behind.
“The Republicans?” Rick finally asked, his voice croaky. “They have no plan to get out, do they?”
“No,” the sergeant said quietly. “They will stay and ensure we get away.”
Rick suddenly remembered the Republic soldier had given him something. He looked down to his hand, still automatically gripping it. It was an armor patch, the stylized sun of the Republic proudly emblazoned.
He shook his head as they sped back in the direction of the port.
Damn this war.
Asteria – Port Rorian
“Swift Two, we need you to site to site,” the controller’s voice harried and urgent.
The swirling melee above had reduced to a few exhausted fighters, wearily spitting fire at each other. The evacuation itself was in full swing, though. Ships large and small kissing down, troops hustling onboard, and launching back into the relative safety of space on rumbling columns of fire. From the city, more smoke rose. The signs of brutal combat evident in the shattered scars covering the flanks of buildings.
Every time a Wolf or Raptor broke away to attack the ships in the holding pattern, a Tempest managed, somehow, to fend them off.
In the port itself, there was still the black ant-lines of thousands of men and women, yet the congestion had visibly reduced in size.
To Reeve, one thing was clear. More were getting off than even the wildest and most optimistic of expectations.
“What are you asking for, Control?”
“We have a rearguard unit incoming,” the controller said quietly. “They stayed on the line to cover our arses. We owe it to them to at least try to get them out.”
“Yeah, you know we’re only rated for thirty, don’t you?”
“Roger, Swift Two,” the controller said quietly. “I doubt you’ll need more capacity.”
“Send it through,” Reeve replied, the implications not lost on her. Whoever they were picking up had taken heavy losses.
Her console highlighted an intersection, just big enough for Swift to put down. About five clicks out, around halfway between the port and the front. The controller had, either by mistake or intention, sent through the real-time tactical map. The line of Hegemony units had visibly bulged in—the enemy penetrating deep into the perimeter and overwhelming the green blemishes of the last defenders. And just ahead of the flashing red-hatched line, a pulsing blue icon sped toward the rendezvous.
“Time to earn our pay.” Reeve gave a gallows smile at her copilot.
“Yeah.” Clay’s face was pale and drawn, perspiration glistening on his brow. “Time to do what we came to do, huh?”
Reeve gave him a grin as she tapped on her console. With a jolt, Swift rose into the air then banked around. She throttled forward, crossing the outskirts of the city toward a cross which overlaid her HUD.
The landing site.
In a few moments, and with a burn of retros, she slowed to a hover above the intersection, where the Mortain Highway met the Rorian Ring Road. From up the highway, she saw a cluster of transports racing toward them. Behind, the flash of weapons illuminated the night sky.
She flicked on the repulsors, letting Swift settle down into the broken tarmac of the crossroads.
Pulling herself out her chair, she opened up a locker in the bulkhead behind her and pulled out an aging particle pistol and slid a charge pack into its handle. The weapon hummed.
Trotting down the spiral staircase, she made her way through the main cabin and along the corridor, opening the forward hatch and lowering the stairs.
The air outside stank of ashes from the fighting and, presumably, debris from the battle above plummeting to the surface, kicking up all kinds of shit into the atmosphere.
She watched as five transports hummed into the intersection and settled to the ground. Armor-clad men and women hustled out, some of them carrying stretchers on which moaning and worse, silent, figures lay.
A man approached her, a tasteless and frankly awful moustache on his face.
“You in charge of this lot?” Reeve began mentally counting the troops. With a depressing feeling, she realized there were more than the thirty they were rated to carry. It was more like fifty.
“Yes, ma’am. Sergeant Loomis.” The man extended a hand. Reeve grabbed it, pumping it firmly. His grip was strong, the set of his jaw determined. But his eyes were full of heartache and loss. “We’re all that’s left Five Battalion Bravo Company. My platoon commander, Lieutenant Roth...hell, most of the officers, didn’t make it back.
“Understood. My condolences, sergeant.” Reeve looked across the intersection. The men and women formed themselves into a line. Their discipline holding, even with the enemy a mere handful of kilometers away. She grabbed Loomis by the shoulder, turning him away from the crowd. “I can take thirty. Thirty-five at a push. And that’s going to be red-lining my weights and balance to the max.”
Loomis gritted his teeth, squeezing his hollow eyes closed. After a long moment, he looked at her. “They all want to go home—”
“Swift is a pleasure yacht, not a damn troop transport,” Reeve barked her own frustration. Did he not understand, she wanted to get them off as much as he did? “She’s supposed to carry a family of five rich pricks on a jaunt round the Kingdom and sector. Not fifty.”
Another crack of thunder washed over the intersection. Closer than before. There was no way they’d get another craft here. Not in the few minutes they had left. They had no time. Whether death would come from a swooping Hegemony fighter or the enemy ground forces undoubtedly racing to catch up, it was coming.
“Anything you can do. Every extra person you take is another son or daughter, mother or father,” Loomis urged. “Please.”
Reeve closed her eyes, grinding her teeth. They were. Everyone was a person. Every one of them was the star of their own story. And every person she left behind would be a stain on her conscience.
“Okay.” She nodded. “Okay. These are our options. We lose everything we can. Even the survival suits. The rations. The potable water tanks. We pull out the seats, the tables. Everything. They shed their armor, they strip to their underpants. Every kilogram is gonna count. You understand me? Maybe we get to resupply on route, but I doubt it—we’re doing a high-speed run out. And people are going to get hungry, thirsty, and pissed off.”
“Understood, Captain.” Loomis gave an attempt at a smile. “They’re hungry, thirsty, and pissed off now.”
“I don’t think you do understand.” Reeve gestured at the troops waiting in line. Some stood with stoic patience, others hopping from one foot to the other. “We get holed—one pulse round—and we lose integrity. These are all gonna die.”
“If I ask them,” Loomis retorted, “they will all say that’s a risk they’re willing to take.”
Reeve continued, “It won’t be comfortable. Hell, chances are we may still not lift, but we’ll damn well try.”
Loomis gave a nod. “We’re the Kingdom Army. We signed away comfort when we joined up.”
He turned. “1st Section. You are under the charge of the captain here. You have five minutes to throw everything off the ship she says we don’t need.”
“Sir,” They chorused in acknowledgment and sprinted toward the ramp.
Asteria Orbit – KSS Achilles
The bridge officers and ratings all wore grim expressions, but perhaps none more so than Lieutenant Commander Haynes.
“Coverage is awfully thin...” The perspiration glistened on his face as he stood over his bank of gunnery officers. “...to nonexistent. A good percentage of the transports are going to be fending for themselves as they get strung out on whatever passes as full-acceleration burn for each of them.”
Cuter frowned as he regarded the trajectory line of Achilles arcing away from Asteria on a reciprocal to the direction they had come in from. Home. Only rather than a tightly clustered fleet bordered by the destroyers, it was an elongated line, and any kind of structured formation was a thing of the past. This was part plan—there were a hell of a lot of casualties on board many of those ships in critical condition. With the Nurse Francis gone, their only hope for survival was a best-speed return home. But for others, it was a simple failure of discipline, the relentless grind of the battle in orbit meaning the civilian ships felt they had a better chance alone than densely clustered in formation.
That made individual ships vulnerable, but the Hegemony Aerospace Corps would be as exhausted as the Kingdom’s defenders. Their fighter squadrons would be depleted and even with the best will in the world, they would still be disorganized, low on fuel, and their pilots worn out. The KAF was in a similar battered state, though. The butcher’s bill on both sides horrendous.
“Mister Singh,” Cutter addressed his helmsman. “It’s time to cut our acceleration. We’ll take the tail-end Charlie position and cover off the fleet against the bandits following up.”
“Aye aye, sir.”
“Just be damn careful. Those ships are burning hard coming up behind us. I would rather not get back-ended by one of them.”
Cutter felt a pressure softly driving him forward, the huge battleship slowing relative to the fleet. Then the inertial compensators won out, chasing away the sensation of movement.
Stepping onto the command podium, he sat and began drumming his fingertips on the leather of his seat.
This was it. They were going home.
The number of estimated evacuees had ticked upward dizzyingly. Well past the total that Admiral Darrow had said would indicate Operation Replevin was a success. Beyond their wildest dreams.
But they still weren’t going to get everyone home.
On the ground, the rearguard had collapsed. The Galts, initially reluctant to commit their ground forces had, after a single breakthrough, sorted themselves out. They were advancing across all fronts, their mech units smashing their way through what was left of the Republic’s lines.
But there was a plus point. The brave Pubby soldiers had slowed the enemy. “Admiral Roe, on the comm.”
“Put him through.”
The admiral’s figure shimmered into existence. His bandage-covered eye gave him a piratical appearance. “Son, you best not be counting our chickens before they hatch.”
“No, sir.” Cutter smiled, his lie obvious. “I’m pulling Achilles back to the rear of the formation.”
“Good. I’ve got half of the rest of the destroyers wedging ahead. They’re going to throw so many sensor pulses out it will cook the dinner of any stealth captains lying in wait. My ships that went down to the surface will assist you with the rearguard. We’ll get the KAF, what’s left of them anyway, to do their best on the flanks.”
“They’ve taken a hell of a beating,” Cutter said quietly.
“They have.” Roe’s face lost its buccaneer grin. “They really earned their keep today. We all did. See you back at Victory, Hal. Roe, out.”
Cutter turned his head to look back at the holo, watching as Achilles plunged to the back of the elongated oblong of ships which formed the rescue fleet.
5 Km East of Port Rorian – Swift
Rick stood in line at the entry hatch of what had clearly once been a luxurious yacht. Everything that was thrust into his hands, he immediately passed to Maisie, who stood next to him on the ramp. Outside the ship, a pile of trash was building, everything from emergency skin suits to first aid supplies, to tables, chairs, fixtures, and fittings.
Everything had to go.
Every kilogram they threw out was a fraction of another person to take with them.
That still didn’t stop the captain, Reeve—he thought he caught her name as—from having a wrathful look on her face. She stormed through the ship, directing the soldiers as to what they could rip out and what they shouldn’t touch. He got the impression that anyone who went against her directives would find themselves having to walk home.
As she jogged past again, she seemed to notice Rick for the first time. Her eyes flicked down over his filthy flight suit.
“Hey, you. You a pilot?” Her accent held the twang of the Federation in it. Wonder why she’s here...giving up so much for another nation?
“Yeah.” Rick passed another chair along. “Tempest Mark Two. Had to ditch and these fine people picked me up.”
“Right.” She nodded. “I saw you guys in action. We wouldn’t be down here without you.”
“You’re...welcome?” Rick said uncertainly.
“I’m not sure if I’m thanking you or not.” Reeve walked away.
Rick turned to grab another stack of skin suits from Hoof. The man retained them in his hand, preventing Rick from tugging them away.
“’Bout what happened in the transport—”
“Don’t worry about it,” Rick interrupted. Now really wasn’t the time. He didn’t know how far away the Hegemony ground forces were, but it couldn’t be far.
“No, it’s just, I kinda didn’t know what you guys did. All we knew on the ground was we were getting shot up. And you weren’t anywhere to be seen. And then...Wink...” The kid looked about to break into tears again.
“We’ve all been fighting hard.” Rick lifted his hand and patted Hoof’s shoulder. “You guys saved my ass, too.”
Hoof nodded. He caught himself; his voice cracked. “Guess I’m saying thanks.”
Rick squeezed his grip. “I’ll accept your thanks if you accept mine.”
“Sounds like a deal.” Hoof sniffed.
“Come on, you two,” Reeve called from down the corridor. “This ain’t a honeymoon yacht. Not anymore, at least.”
The two men grinned at each other, a comradeship bonding them through the differences in society and services.
“Put your back into it, KAF,” Hoof snapped.
“I’ll start when you do, Army.”
Rick grabbed the skin suits from the soldier and twisted to thrust them into Masie’s hands.
“Contact!” the cry from outside verged on the panicked.
Shit. They were here.
Reeve pushed Rick out the way, her hand clasping the edge of the hatch as she shouted outside, “Everyone aboard. Now.”
She turned and ran into the interior of Swift as a mad charge of those troops outside hustled to get in.
Rick twisted back from the hatch, letting the people flood in. Damn, but it was going to be tight in here. He twisted through into the bare, scraped clean lounge area. He saw a flicker of legs disappear up the spiral staircase in the center and made to follow. Finding himself in a short corridor, he ran through, entering the small flight deck.
“Get below,” Reeve barked without looking. She tapped her consoles and the sound of engines powering up resonated through the hull. “We’re going to be busy up here.”
“I can help.”
She glanced back, seeing who it was. “Fine. Take the jump seat and buckle in.”
Rick flipped down the hard plastic chair and pulled the harness over his stiff shoulders.
“All aboard?” Reeve snapped at her copilot.
“Yeah, buttoning up now.”
“Guess we’ll find out if we ditched enough weight.”
The woman gripped her yoke, and with a lurch, the yacht lifted from the intersection. To Rick’s practiced senses, he could tell the ship’s engines were straining to contend with the weight of extra people and the fact they hadn’t ditched nearly as much as they’d hoped.
Incoming rounds pinged off the hull. Thankfully low caliber. Not the AP rounds of the mechs, more like the patter of infantry weapons. Perhaps a scout unit pushing ahead and seeing the yacht as an easy target worth taking on.
“Shit.” Reeve pushed the nose down too far; the ground filled the cockpit window and Swift slipped forward. The yacht swept over the intersection, then angled upward. She slammed the throttle open. Rick felt himself being thrust back into his seat as they raced for the skies on shuddering, straining engines.
Around them, blue streaks of pulse rounds zipped past. Slowly, diminishing in intensity as they burned at maximum acceleration, striving to escape the death trap of Port Rorian.
From the cockpit, he saw the star-speckled night. The hazy line of the debris ring surrounding Asteria.
They were away. Finally. Rick, Hoof, Masie, the sergeant, and the others who’d held the line were going home.
Colonel Tor Hest
Asteria – 10 Km East of Port Rorian
She’d directed her troops to advance forward. But for Colonel Tor Hest, her mech a gutted wreck in the bowels of the ruined school, the direct fighting was done.
She stood on the broken, debris-covered roof of the school, feeling and smelling the cool breeze carrying particulate ash and cinder from the brutal combat. She watched as, in the distance, a ship raced skyward on a column of fire amid a flurry of pulse rounds.
“Negative, ma’am. She’s gone,” the infantry officer announced. She had sequestered the captain to act as her liaison element now that her mech was in pieces below. “I’m putting a tasking out for the Aerospace Corps. They will do their best, but they’re saying they’re heavily committed.”
So be it. Hest gave a mental shrug. A mere drop in the flood of ships which had lifted from the port and from throughout the city.
Besides, she thought back to the brave soldier who had given his life for his comrades. The universe perhaps would not have been just if that particular ship hadn’t escaped.
Not that such a romantic notion would have stopped her from giving the order to bring it down for even a split second if opportunity had allowed. That wasn’t the way she operated. But she wasn’t exactly...displeased.
Night had properly fallen over the Port Rorian area. The city was lit by the fires of conflict and the last few ships burning their way into orbit. Even the Aerospace Corps, what remained of them anyway, were following them up in a last effort to harass them off the world.
A semblance of calm after the storm settled over the land.
Far more of a victory than even the most ambitious of war planners had envisaged.
They’d chased the Kingdom from the sector proper, back to their small collection of stars across the Regis Gap. Their vaunted military fleeing before the might of the Galton—the Hegemony—Army. The Republic was broken. The tattered remains of their forces surrendering all across the front, along with those the Kingdom had left behind. The once-mighty star nation had joined the myriad others assaulted at the same time—none as big, but significant nonetheless—who were now in thrall to the Prime.
Yes, this had been a victory. And not even, by any objective measure, a particularly costly one.
Hest tilted her head back to look into the night sky. It flickered with the embers of burning debris and escaping ships. The glistening new ring of this world scribing a huge arc across the heavens.
No, this hadn’t been a costly victory.
Not yet, at least. But the price might yet to be paid.
“Colonel, I have Marshal Galen on the comm.”
She turned to the open case in which the communications equipment sat. A tiny figure flickered to life on the small holo-panel set into the lid. She clasped her fist to her breast in salute. “Sir.”
“Aria,” he stated, his expression an unsettling frown. “You are to return to headquarters. Immediately.”
“Of course, sir.” She nodded. The holo snapped off.
Yes, and the price for this victory might come sooner for her than it would for Galton.
“Prepare me a ground transport.” She marched to the broken stairs without waiting for a response.
Asteria Orbit – Swift
“Lost Earth.” The controls were sluggish, whether from the hits they’d sustained, the fact the ship was loaded to the gills with people, or a combination of both. whichever way, it handled like a wallowing pig.
But they were away.
Problem was, from the look of things, it looked like they were one of the last to go, too. And that made them the lame gazelle at the back of the pack which the hunting predators could, and would, pick off.
The altimeter raced as they blasted up through one hundred kilometers. They reached space and the ship started to handle a little better.
Reeve twisted the yoke, angling them around onto the vector back home to the Regis System. Back to New Avalon.
The pilot, Rick, appeared between her and Clay’s seats, looking intently into the rolling chunks of debris ahead of them. Reeve cast an eye at his face. It was frowning.
“You don’t think we’re alone out here, do you?”
“Not a chance,” Rick murmured. “One thing I learned about those Neo pilots is that they’re cunning bastards and they don’t have a problem taking out a defenseless target.”
“Kill any transponders we’ve got. It ain’t like we’re stuck in a defense grid. At the moment, we’re lit up like a firework,” Rick said quietly. “And use every bit of cover we have for as long as possible. With all the debris around, sensors ain’t worth a damn so dark and quiet might let us sneak out.”
“This ain’t a fighter,” Reeve whispered back. She checked herself, shaking her head at the ridiculousness of it. Her volume wouldn’t make a blind bit of difference if there was anything hunting them. Still, it felt right to keep her voice low. “If there’s anything out there, we’ll be sitting ducks.”
“Yeah.” Rick nodded. “Yeah, we will.”
He leaned forward and tapped the comm console. She watched as he dialed in a frequency. “Quinn? Sienna, you out there still?”
A pause stretched on for long seconds.
“Rick?” The woman’s voice was full of surprise. “Is that you? How the hell did you get off?”
“Long story, and not now,” Rick replied, his words a flurry. “But I’ve just made orbit in one of the transports with fifty souls. Looks like we’re one of the last ones up. Any chance of some cover coming in?”
“Rick, I’m damn near bingo fuel and charge.” The woman on the comm sounded unsure.
“How bingo is bingo?” Rick asked, casting a glance at Reeve. Bingo fuel. Whoever that pilot was, they were near as damn it dry.
“I have enough,” the woman’s voice firmed up. “I’ll do what I can.”
“Great, sending you through our vector now.” Rick gave a relieved exhalation. “We’ll be going dark.”
“Roger that. I’ve got your position. Viper Three-Two, out.”
A vast hunk of rock rolled ahead of them. A shattered piece of one of the orbital fortresses, broken buildings encrusting it.
Reeve flicked the intercom. “Everyone, we’re off and, as you can see, space-side. We are going passive. Anyone near a window, keep your eyes glued to it. If you spot an engine flare or weapons fire, shout it out and from which side. Twelve o’clock is ahead. Six o’clock behind. Say high or low, just like the holo-movies.”
Threading between debris, Swift moved to hug the surface of the ruins. She swept past buildings, some of them which appeared to still have integrity.
Reeve grimaced; she didn’t want to look too closely. To see someone at one of the windows, staring out, knowing rescue would never come. The temptation to do something, anything, would be too strong.
“Engine flare. 10 o’clock high!”
“Dammit.” Reeve pushed the nose down, driving closer to the rock. “Think they’ve got us?”
“Yeah,” Rick muttered, gripping the back of their seats. “They got us.”
“Fine. For what it’s worth...” She came to a decision. They had no defenses and there was only one thing to try. She flickered her fingers over the comm panel. “Galton fighter, this is Swift. We are an unarmed transport containing fifty. Please, I beg you, do not attack.”
There was no response.
“I think we’re a little beyond that,” Rick called. “Come on, Sienna.”
Reeve thrust the stick over as a flash of pulse fire swept across her bow. Swift plummeted across the surface, debris pinging off her bow.
If they could get out of view of the damn thing, with all this crap around they could power down. Just look like another piece of debris tumbling around in this mess.
Only that won’t work, would it? Reeve corrected herself. With radar clogged up with all the crap out here, the pilot would be relying on visual and thermals. With the heat they were putting out, they’d stand out like a sore thumb, and Swift was a pleasure yacht. She was as stealthy as a cruising discotheque.
“Where the hell is your friend?” Clay was relegated to craning his neck, desperately trying to look in every direction at once.
“She’ll be here,” Rick replied, a quiet confidence in his voice.
Swift tore around the shattered, rolling remains of a tower protruding from a hunk of debris. The controls physically jolted from the momentum of the people within slamming into the port bulkhead like organic wrecking balls. Then the strained inertial compensators caught up, evening them out.
“There.” Rick pointed. The Hegemony fighter weaved across the broken surface toward them. A Wolf-class, if Reeve wasn’t mistaken.
“Shit.” Reeve slammed the yoke across. The momentum of the passengers bouncing around jarred her again. “Why the hell isn’t that thing firing?”
“It can pick its shots,” Rick said simply. “Why waste pulse charge on an unarmed ship? It’ll get us dead to rights, then—”
“Boom,” Reeve finished for him. Fuckin’ Galts. Swift wasn’t even a challenge for this pilot. Or, like Rick’s friend, it was so low on weapons charge after the swirling combat, it didn’t want to waste it on something which it had all the time in the galaxy to finish off.
She glanced down at the rear view. Shit, it was closing on their tail. Easily matching any evasive maneuvers her yacht could pull.
The Wolf advanced, its jump drive a baleful red eye staring right up Swift’s exhausts.
“This is it, isn’t it.” It wasn’t a question which she uttered. She felt a resignation wash through her. She was going to die here. For nothing. For people who weren’t even hers. The Wolf would open fire. Eviscerate her ship. Murder—and that’s what it would be, murder—the people within.
And yet, for all the inevitable horror of the situation she’d found herself in, she would do it again in a heartbeat.
For the first time since she’d left the Federation Navy, she’d had a sense of purpose. A duty which had become hers.
The Wolf closed. The sleek, muscular fighter was at point-blank range. Any second now. Swift wasn’t armored. It would be quick. A couple of bursts would be all it took and then—
Pulse fire slashed across the rear camera view. The Wolf disintegrated under the barrage, transforming into a roiling, tumbling cloud of debris. Then, like a flash, a Tempest streaked across the view.
“Rick, you’re in the clear.”
“Earth, Sienna!” Rick gasped as if he was letting out a pent-up breath. “You cut that bloody fine.”
“Not as fine as my fuel,” she replied. Her voice held a tone of resignation. “I’m done.”
Reeve glanced out her starboard window, watching the Tempest fall away from them, back toward the devastated world they’d just left.
“What? Done?” Rick asked. “Jump.”
“No can do,” Sienna responded, her fighter receding away from Swift. “I redirected the charge from my jump drive back to weapons. I’m out.”
“Okay, standby, we’ll come pick you up.”
“Negative,” she responded quietly. “I’m tracking another flight of Wolfs cresting the horizon. They’ll be on you before you can reverse thrust, pick me up, then burn for the fleet. You go now, you’ll get into Achilles’s cover before they can catch up. Hopefully I can distract them enough. Go.”
Rick let out a guttural cry of frustration.
“It’s okay, Rick.”
Reeve turned to the distraught, battered pilot clutching at her headrest in a white-knuckled death grip. “We’ve got to go.”
She drove the throttle forward to the stops. Swift’s engines erupted to full burn. She raced forward, weaving through the field of debris.
“Sienna...” the young pilot spoke quietly. “Why? I’d have never asked you to come back if—”
“Just get them home,” she responded, her voice catching. “That’s why we came here. To get them home.”
Swift burst out of the debris field, heading straight toward the distant cluster of lights—the engine plumes of the retreating fleet.
“Rick, I said it’s okay.” The Tempest had reduced to a tiny speck, backdropped by the world. “You know why? ’Cause I’m ahead of you. I’m officially the best pilot in Viper Squadron now. You remember that, you hear. No bragging in the mess about the Ace. You brag for me, you hear?”
“Damn straight you’re the best,” the pilot stood upright, recouping himself, his voice growing firm. “There’s a shit ton of Republic forces still down there. They won’t take this lying down. You glide yourself in and hook up with them, you hear?” His words came out quicker. “They’re going to keep fighting. A resistance. You get with them and we’ll be back. We’ll come get you. I promise.”
“I hope so,” Sienna called. Her voice was strengthening and growing in bravado. But hidden in her tone was fear. “See you soon. Viper Squadron, out.”
A flaming streak appeared on the planet’s night side—the Tempest entering the atmosphere unpowered. Moments later, it disappeared.
On the horizon, a cluster of twinkling lights split into two, one group diving after the stricken Tempest.
And the other, continuing after Swift.
“Shit,” Reeve murmured.
Outbound Thuine System – KSS Achilles
The huge battleship had turned broadside to its trajectory, side-slipping its way along its vector. The rain of fire streamed out of broadside anti-aerospace batteries relentlessly.
“Tracking bandit three-seven,” Haynes shouted. “Good shot, good shot.”
The Raptor spiraled, then disintegrated under the weight of dozens of pulse rounds slamming into it.
“We’re clear. For the moment.”
Cutter clenched his armrests. They’d taken a hell of a lot of hits, but, whether it was sheer fortune or just that the Hegemony Raptors were out of torpedoes, not anything serious.
The enemy had been worrying at the tail end of the convoy, the fighters and fighter-bombers striving to get at the vulnerable fleet beyond. And the only thing standing in their way? Achilles.
“Sir?” Banning cried out. Cool, calm, and collected was a thing of the past. The battle as they’d risen away from the planet had been intense. “I am tracking one bogey. Whoever it is has four bandits up her tailpipe and closing.”
Glancing at the holo, Cutter saw the math. The bad guys would intercept just after whoever it was reached Achilles’s effective firing range.
Was that a bomber they were shepherding in? Or was it a friendly? Some last refugee ship from the surface.
He needed to call it.
He stared hard at the holo. They were on a definite intercept. Were they joining to escort a Raptor—or something heavier—in?
His head told him not to take the risk. He had over fifteen hundred people on board. He should just order up a firing solution on the lot of them.
But his heart said it was some smart bastard who had shut down their transponder in an effort to slip out.
Screw it. We’re here for them.
“Mister Haynes, get me a firing solution on the four bandits. Bogey is not to be targeted. Give me an open fleet comm.”
The five sensor returns closed. The bogey reached the outer limit of Achilles’s firing range and slipped inside. A few seconds later, the four contacts followed.
“Unknown contact at tail of the fleet, Achilles Actual. On my mark, full burn 90 degrees down relative to my vector.”
The contact soared closer.
The unidentified craft’s vector line began arcing down sharply. He imagined an immense plume of fire emanating from her engines as the craft wrestled her vector down.
And they had a clear shot.
The man didn’t delay or even wait until he’d finished the word. “Fire!”
A torrent of fire erupted from Achilles’s broadside, narrowly missing the unidentified contact. Pulse rounds rained all around the enemy fighters. One simply disappeared under the onslaught. Another was struck, somehow managing to limp away. The other two were wiser or simply better. They twisted and turned, somehow evading Achilles’s fire and arced away, their courses diverging them far from the battleship’s firing range.
“Targeting solution on the bogey,” Cutter snapped. “And hold.”
“Sir,” Banning called. “I have a transmission from the bogey. She is announcing she is the Swift and...”
“And?” Cutter asked.
“I’m getting a lot of cuss words.” Banning looked up, a grin creeping onto her face through the visor of her battlesuit. “But the general gist is ‘thanks.’”
Cutter let a thin smile cross his face as he watched the remaining enemy fighters retreat.
You’re most welcome, Swift.
Colonel Tor Hest
Asteria – 25 Km East of Port Rorian
Hest sat in the back of the transport with a few other silent, exhausted soldiers with business back at headquarters. Her dust-covered elbow rested on the windowsill as she looked out at the dawning star of the Thuine System. It washed a red light through the myriad columns of dark smoke rising from the horizon.
What fate awaited her? She didn’t know. The Prime wasn’t well known for consistency of behavior. His number two, the head of the Executors, Revanch, at least had method, cruel and vicious as it could be, to his actions. It really was a toss-up as to which would be better to stand before.
She sighed, letting her head rest back against the seat but not taking her eyes off the battered landscape outside. It didn’t matter. Nation before party. Her job was to win wars. To go conduct diplomacy by other means. She would accept whatever punishment was her due with her head held high. Like a good daughter of Galton.
The transport gently swayed and rocked as it powered down a road between two fields, its motion hypnotic and soothing. She struggled to keep her eyes open.
Father Terra, how long has it been since I’ve had a good night’s sleep? Too long was the answer. That was tolerable when she was on the sharp edge of adrenaline-fueled combat. Now? It just made her eyes want to close and let herself slip into the oblivion of sleep.
The transport hummed to a halt. The gunner in the turret on the roof shouted something, which was muffled in the cabin. Her fellow passengers looked between themselves and her uncertainly.
“Gear up.” Hest reached to her holster and drew her pistol. She keyed the safety and it hummed to life as the others made their odd assortment of weapons ready.
She slapped the hatch. It slid open and she dropped down to the mud-puddled tarmac of the road and glanced up at the top-gunner, who warily aimed his turret into the field to their right. “What do you have?”
“One tango,” he called down and pointed. “Unknown intention.”
“Roger.” Hest nodded, turning in the direction of his finger.
A figure paced forward, hands up. Hest squinted, seeing it wearing the gray of a Hegemony flight suit. She frowned. It was likely, and sooner rather than later, that the Republicans would form some kind of resistance against those they would perceive as their occupiers—and the one thing she was sure about, was they wouldn’t play fair.
She watched as the figure came closer; it resolved into a man. He dropped to his knees, seemingly exhausted.
“Hold here.” She held up a hand. She gave a thin smile to herself. There was no guarantee she wouldn’t end up the “guest” of the Executors anyway, considering her recent actions in defying orders. There was no point in jeopardizing these others.
She swung her leg over the low fence bordering the field and walked toward the man. He stood on shaky legs, drawing himself into a respectable attention as she approached.
“Name, pilot?” she asked, her gun down by her side but ready to snap up to take aim at a split second’s notice.
“Corla, ma’am.” The young man raised his chin. She recognized the cruelly handsome face and the hint of arrogance nearly obscured behind the layers of muck and exhaustion. “Captain Gan Corla, of the Hegemony Aerospace Corps.”
Ah, that’s where I know you from. Captain Corla, the finest fighter pilot in the Hegemony, and Neo poster child, of course. The man had shot down dozens in the Katerin Civil war. And, rumor had it, cut a swath through the Republic and other nations the Hegemony had swept across.
“I’m Colonel Tor Hest.” She holstered her sidearm and gripped him by his upper arm, guiding him back toward the transport.
“I wondered where I knew you from.” The man nodded. “A legend in your own right.”
Like me, being his unspoken words. A short exchange, and she felt she already had a measure of this one.
“Well, Captain...” She helped him over the fence and back toward the transport. “I’m guessing from the fact you’re down here, and not up there, you’ve had a hell of a day.”
A look of abject rage flashed across his face. He quickly quelled it. “Yes, ma’am.” His teeth practically ground. “Yes, I have.”
So, it looks as if the legend has met his match.
“Come.” She gestured to her quietly humming transport, the men and women surrounding it relaxing and mounting up. “Let me give you a ride back to headquarters. You can tell me all about it.”
Corla turned his head to look up into the lightening skies and scowled at the heavens. “I’d rather not, if it’s all the same to you, Colonel.”
Hest shrugged as she climbed in and offered a hand to the young pilot. He ignored it, gripping the sill and hauling himself inside, and slumped down onto the seat.
I guess we’ve all had our problems this day.
The transport set off headed back toward headquarters. And whatever fate awaited her.
New Avalon Orbit – Starbase Victory
Space around Starbase Victory was always congested, but never more so than now. Every type of ship imaginable was clustered around the base. From the vast freighters to tiny rockhoppers, to pleasure craft and—lost in the midst—the naval vessels.
And most looked, when Darrow turned his gaze on them, to have suffered damage. What had happened in the Thuine System had been brutal beyond measure, but also successful beyond all expectations.
“Lost Earth,” Lattimore whispered as she stood next to him, looking out of the observation deck’s huge windows. “How many did we lose?”
“Too many,” Darrow murmured. Lattimore turned to him. He half expected her typical fiery comeback for when she was given too much detail, or too little.
Instead, her face was drawn and her eyes red-rimmed.
“We’ll probably never know the exact total of civilians,” Darrow answered her unasked question. “Not for sure, anyway.”
Lattimore nodded, her hands clenching and unclenching.
“I prefer to focus on what we got back,” he responded to another question she hadn’t yet asked. “Nearly three hundred and fifty thousand troops of the Kingdom and Republic forces have been recovered.”
“Some succor.” Lattimore turned her back to the railing inset before the window and leaned on it. “The public may have the luxury of focusing on that, but we need to know what we didn’t.”
“Every seventh soldier,” Darrow said quietly. He turned to join her leaning on the railing, an unbelievable sense of weariness washing through him. “Nearly seventy thousand troops were left behind. They are likely prisoners of war as we speak. Of the eight hundred and sixty vessels which set out, two hundred and forty-three were destroyed, including eight naval vessels. Most of the others have sustained varying degrees of damage.”
“Lost Earth.” She repeated. Lattimore turned her head, looking over at Lady Myles, who stood quietly alongside them. “And for you, my lady?”
“We lost one hundred and forty-five fighters.” Myles shared the grim look of the prime minister. “Thus far, by our initial estimations, we accounted for one hundred and fifty-six enemy aerospace fighters or bombers.”
“Understood.” Lattimore sighed, pushing herself off the railing and standing upright. She straightened her suit jacket, visibly composing her face from a look of sorrow to the one of her normal calm confidence. “I have to go back to the capital. To the Winter Palace. I must address Parliament, and the people.”
“Understood, ma’am,” Darrow said.
“They have to understand what happened here,” Lattimore spoke slowly. Darrow realized she wasn’t speaking to him. More, she was articulating her thoughts. Still, her statement warranted a response.
“Yes,” he said simply. They had to know what the brave men and women of the Kingdom had done, and how magnificently they had acted. “Yes, they do.”
New Avalon – The Winter Palace
“I...thank you for the invite, sir,” Cutter said. “But this seems a little beyond my paygrade.”
“Nonsense, kid.” Roe slapped the back of his hand against his chest. “These ground-lubbing sonsovbitches are going to be deciding our fates. You need to hear it, so you can tell your boys and girls. Straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.”
Cutter looked over at First Space Lord Jonathan Darrow, who gave a tolerant nod. “Arden has a point.”
The three men stepped into the viewing gallery overlooking the huge chamber in which hundreds of politicians gathered. This was the heart of the Kingdom government, the Winter Palace. Where the fates of civilians and soldiers alike was decided. The huge domed chamber was full. The ruling conservative party, the shadow government, the myriad other lesser political entities. Some were milling, still taking their leather seats. Others were already sitting, intently inspecting tablets and even, for the old-timers, paper folders.
Lattimore stepped forward to the table in the center. Confident, composed. Dignified. She planted her hands on it as if, despite being at the lowest point in the room, she was looming over everyone before her. Her gaze washed across the chamber, like she was attempting to look each and every politician in the eye.
The bustle in the room ceased. The members of Parliament took their seats. Silence washed across the chamber.
Lattimore cleared her throat. Then her voice rang out with firmness and sincerity. “Good members of Parliament, from both sides of the House, and every corner of the Kingdom, I have something to tell you.”
She paused, her posture one of sad resolution. And then her speech proper began.
“We are now at war. A Great War. Of the kind the galaxy hasn’t seen in decades. The Arcadian Sector has been dealt a blow. We have been dealt a blow. Some may call this a defeat. History may remember this as a victory for the Hegemony.” She looked down, silent for a long moment. Then she looked up again, her voice once again growing stronger. More powerful with every word she spoke. “I choose to consider this as something different.”
She paused for a moment, her gaze turning to a glare. “Even though large tracts of the sector and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Executors and all the odious apparatus of Neo Hegemony rule, we shall not flag nor fail.”
She paused, as if gathering her words. The members of Parliament leaned forward. From some of them, a guttural and primeval growl of approval.
“We shall go on to the end.” Lattimore’s voice grew suddenly intense. And intent. “We shall fight in the Republic. We shall fight in space, and in orbit.”
The audience gave a rumble, filling the pauses in her sentences. “We shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength among the stars. We shall defend our worlds, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight in the skies, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, and we shall fight in the hills.”
A thumping noise began resonating through the room, as the politicians stamped their feet, the noise joining the sub-vocal roar. The politicians signaled their approval with a drumbeat of any kind they could muster. It grew with intensity, even as Lattimore’s voice grew even stronger and firmer in volume and resolve.
Anything they could do to signal their approval, from both the government and the opposition alike.
“We shall never surrender,” Lattimore cried out, the crescendo of her voice matching the peak of her audience’s noise. She paused, letting it subside before continuing in a quieter voice. “And if, which I do not for a moment believe, our worlds—or a large part of them—were subjugated and starving, then our Empire among the stars, armed and guarded by the Kingdom Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in Lost Earth’s good time, the nations beyond the Reach, with all their power and might, step forth to the rescue and the liberation of these stars.”
There wasn’t a person in the room who didn’t stand, applauding, whooping and hollering in approval.
And Cutter, for all his cynicism, found himself right there cheering along as well.
The noise subsided again and Lattimore waited for a long moment before turning a full three hundred and sixty degrees.
And then she roared, “The Kingdom is at war!”
New Avalon – Derbin County
Rick had been given forty-eight standard hours’ leave.
Part of him felt guilt, that he wasn’t visiting his family. Hell, that he wasn’t getting absolutely drunk in the mess with his friends and comrades.
But the tasks he’d set himself were much more important than that.
Rick opened his sporty hover car’s door and stepped out onto the litter-strewn street. The Derbin tenement block stretched above him, each level recessed back from the one below, creating terraces and turning the street into an imposing gray concrete valley. It was a far cry from his home, in a small village nestled in the fields of Galerian County.
He straightened his dark blue dress uniform, then leaned back into his car, picking up the bouquet of flowers.
Were they even appropriate? He shook his head. He didn’t know. This was new to him.
Climbing the stairs between blocks, he did his best to ignore the stares of the locals as he sought the apartment he was looking for.
Reaching the door, he saw the terrace before the front door was neat, filled with pots containing multicolored flowers. A humble home.
A swell of emotion washed through him, and he nearly turned and ran. It shouldn’t be him here. It should be that private, who’d given his life so he could escape.
He lifted his hand and knocked. The door opened a moment later. A young woman, a girl really, looked through the crack in the door, her eyes red-rimmed and puffy from too many tears.
“Mrs. Goble?” Rick croaked, his voice suddenly constricted and dry.
The woman nodded as she looked him over. The uniform clearly reassured her, and she pulled the door open wordlessly. There was no hallway; the door opened straight into a lounge. A tiny outdated holo-unit sat in the corner, and a baby crawled on a changing mat.
“I’m Flight Lieut...” Rick started again as he walked in. “I mean, I’m Jason Richards. Friends call me Rick.”
“What can I do for you?” she whispered back.
“I didn’t know your husband, except for the shortest of times,” Rick began, already stumbling over the words he’d rehearsed over and over on the two-hour drive. “I was one of the pilots. I was sent to help get him home. From the Republic.”
“He’s not home,” Lil Goble whispered back.
“I know.” Rick swallowed as his eyes tracked the baby crawling, seeking to escape the edge of the mat. Lil reached down, sweeping the child into her arms. He felt a desperate urge to run away. To flee. He quashed it. No, this woman, this girl, would have to deal with this the rest of her days. The least she deserved was an explanation. “I should have gotten him home. I’m sorry. I should have. But...I got shot down and he saved me, Mrs. Goble. He saved me. He got me home instead.”
With a jerky motion. Rick held the flowers up. “I’m so sorry for your loss.”
Mrs. Goble nodded. Keeping one hand cradling her child, she took the flowers with the other. “Thank you.”
Rick turned and looked around the small room. “I was wondering...if it’s okay with you. If you would tell me something about him? I owe the man my life, and I don’t know anything about him.”
Mrs. Goble gave a jerky nod toward the threadbare couch. “Please sit down, mister. I’ll make us some tea.”
An hour later, he was on the road again. This time, he was headed north, to where Flying Officer Sienna Quinn hailed from.
To tell her story to her parents. To tell them their young daughter was the best pilot in Viper Squadron. The best pilot in the Kingdom.
After that, he was jumping on a flight to see Mrs. Wainwright and the children that his boss, Phil, had left behind. To tell them how the man had trained and led him and the rest of Viper Squadron.
And there were others. So many of them. So many who wouldn’t come home.
Yes, this was the most important thing he could do with his leave. Not to take his own comfort hiding in a bottle at the mess bar. But telling the stories of the brave men and women who were laying down their lives and their liberty to fight in this conflict against an evil that, even now, was spreading across the stars.
An evil they would defeat.
THE END OF BOOK 1 OF THE GREAT WAR
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Within known space, there are two primary methods of interstellar travel.
For low mass craft, such as fighters, bombers and small passenger craft, jump drive is utilised. This enables a near instantaneous hyper jump between one location and another in space. It does not function within the atmosphere of a planet.
It is crucial that craft travelling in this manner ‘tune’ their jump drives prior to engaging. This is to ensure that when they arrive at their destination, they are travelling at the correct velocity relative to their target destination.
Jump drives grow in expense dramatically proportionate to the mass of the craft, and the distance it is to travel. For jump mechs, in order to keep this an efficient balance, their range is relatively limited to around 6-8 lightyears, insufficient for crossing the Regis Gap but suitable for mounting assaults within the more congested Arcadian Sector.
Fighter and bomber scale craft tend to have a range of around 10 light years, enabling strikes between the Kingdom and the Hegemony to take place.
While generally, these craft only carry enough charge to engage their drives twice, (there and back, or a longer-range double-jump) various powers have experimented with longer range variants – especially the Federation who dominate the vast expanse of the Void.
There are rumours the Hegemony are also experimenting with jump-missiles, though this has not been confirmed...
For larger vessels, hyperdrives are the most efficient means of interstellar travel. This relies on a vessel reaching the Karnov boundary, under conventional drive, which lies at a suitable distance from a star or other significant mass.
Around 12 light years can be crossed in a single bound, however they must ensure they are transiting on the correct vector for the target system, often meaning ships have to cross entire systems if they are travelling long distances.
This book is dedicated to the memory of Private Henry Patrick “Wink” Goble – Gloucester Regiment, 5th Battalion
He died aged 23 on the 27th of May, 1940 in Dunkirk—leaving behind his wife, Lil, and his daughter, Patricia.
Thank you to his family for allowing me to honor him in this book.
We owe him our liberty.
When I set out on this project, my goal was to create a blow-by-blow recreation of World War II in a Military Science Fiction setting.
That, as I quickly learned, was absolute hubris.
To do proper justice to such a tale would require not just a few books, but dozens, if not hundreds. From the political relationships, to the stories of the individuals involved—the subject is massive. Even getting to the stage of the Dunkirk Evacuation would have been an epic in of itself.
Instead, I consider this series to be inspired by the brave people who struggled and strived through the darkest days of that terrible time. A time when heroes rose up and answered the call to fight true evil. Some of the people in this novel are based on real people, like Wink, Cutter and Hest. Others are an amalgamation.
I humbly hope that if nothing else, that people who have knowledge of the huge events depicted in this series will feel that justice has been done to them. And more importantly, for those to whom these events are part of a dim and distant past, they will be prompted to read about the real-life events.
Rain of Fire is inspired by what occurred between the 26th of May and the 4th of June, 1940, when the soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force, trapped and surrounded in the port town of Dunkirk, were evacuated by a combined military and civilian fleet.
68,000 soldiers were killed or captured, but 338,226 fathers, sons, brothers, and husbands were rescued from the attacking German army. Many of those went on to return to France in the summer of 1944 and helped in liberating Europe from under Nazi rule.
The French forces provided a valuable rearguard. Their brave sacrifice allowed our armies to fight another day.
And not every German was a Nazi or believed in that warped ideology. Instead, they considered themselves patriots to their country.
Whilst exact numbers vary according to source and different means of counting, of the over 800 vessels which set out to rescue the BEF from the beaches, both civilian and military, 243 were sunk. The RAF lost 145 fighters having shot down, alongside the Royal Navy, 156 Luftwaffe planes.
The scale of this war should never be underestimated. Nor should the bravery of those who fought.