News! Snippets!

Just a quick post–Collisions of the Damned is in the final stages of post-production as an audiobook.  Hopefully it will be available by Black Friday, with the collection On Seas So Crimson being shortly behind.  If you know someone who would enjoy alternate history but may either have difficult finding the time to sit down with a hard copy book or is visually impaired, the Usurper War is now available as a thoughtful gift.

Also, an additional snippet from Though Our Hulls Burn.  

“So you say he is a rapist?” Agenor asked Commander Taylor, indicating Oliver at the end of the compartment.

“Yes, he was standing Captain’s Mast when we were alerted you had captured the aviso,” Taylor said, raising an eyebrow.

Agenor nodded.  Walking back down the noticeably cooling corridor, he drew his vibro katana.

“Prisoner!” he called to the man hunched in the corner, shaking.

“What do you want?!” Oliver cried, trying to scoot further away from the cell door.  Looking at the enclosure for a moment, Agenor took a deep breath…then punched through the lock with his battle armored fist.  The impact shot the lock and its fragments to the far side of the cell, Oliver screeching in surprise.

“Stand up,” Agenor said, shoving the door open.

“I-I-I didn’t do anything!” Oliver screamed, trying to scuttle away from him.

“I said, stand up,” Agenor shouted.  “If I have to lift you up, I swear you will suffer for it.”

Oliver stood, his eyes fixed on the blue sword, heat shimmers emanating from it as it hissed.

“Tell me, between us men, is your officer lying?” Agenor asked.  “Did you rape that woman?”

Oliver looked at Agenor, trying to meet his eyes through the tinted face shield.

I know he can still see the dried blood on me, Agenor thought.

“We Spartans are a reasonable people,” Agenor continued.  “If it was simply a misunderstanding, you could not help yourself, or she was intoxicated, our justice is more merciful than you are obviously used to.”

“They were going to throw me out an airlock,” Oliver said, his voice less afraid.  “It was simply a misunderstanding.”

Agenor moved with terrible swiftness, Oliver not even having time to flinch before the katana had severed his right arm beneath the elbow.  The man had just enough time to scream and start to reach for the limb before Agenor struck again, this time lopping off the left arm just above the wrist.  Stunned, Oliver fell backwards, screaming in pain as he looked at the two spurting wounds.  He had just enough time to look back up at Agenor before the man struck one last time.  Oliver’s head fell to the compartment’s deck, followed shortly by his crumpling body.  Steam briefly flashed off the vibrokatana as the man’s blood evaporated from its heat.

Resheathing the weapon, Agenor turned back to where Taylor stood between the other two Painbringers.  Her eyes were wide in shock and horror as she looked up at him.

“In Spartan lands, we usually geld a rapist in addition to removing both of his hands,” Agenor said conversationally.  “Does his victim live?”

Taylor looked at him, her mouth working but no sound coming out.  Manipulating his internal controls, Agenor raised his face shield so that he could meet Taylor’s eyes.

“Commander,” Agenor continued, “does his victim live?”

“P-p-probably not,” Taylor said.

“That is unfortunate,” Agenor said.

The deck groaned beneath their feet, reminding Agenor that they were still standing on a ravished hulk being dragged towards a star.

“Take me to your secondary bridge,” Agenor ordered.  “Quickly.”

 

Though Our Hulls Burn Teaser 2: Meet the Spartans

Well folks, Nano Wrimo has begun.  I’ve broken ground on the sequel/prequel to An Unproven Concept, and here’s the first  bit in rough draft form.

Chapter 1: When Next We Meet

Spartan Man of War (SMW) The Taken Umbrage

0345 Spartan Military Time (SMT) / 0145 Standard Spacefarer’s Time (SST)

Ellylon /Yankee 975  System

15 December 3035

 

The command console’s sudden beeping in his ear caused Leftenant Ian Campbell to startle in his seat.  While the young Spartan managed to hold onto all of his cards, the sharp upwards motion of his knee caught the edge of the small table set up between The Taken Umbrage’s helm and weapons station.  With a spray of colored chips, cards, and the weapons officer’s ration cubes, the table and its contents floated upwards towards the bridge’s roof.

Smooth move, Campbell, Ian thought, his ruddy face coloring in embarrassment as he stretched for the nearest poker chips.  Catching two, his thumb clipped a third one and sent it spinning towards his face shield in the zero-g compartment.

“I got the chips,” Midshipman Yubani Mendoza said, giggling as the brown plastic piece skipped off the clear front of Ian’s thimble shaped helmet.  “You get the console.”

Taking a moment to watch as Yubani launched herself gracefully after the cloud of poker chips, Ian fought the urge to shout in frustration.

First time I’ve been kicking her ass in five months and the damn console decides to see another ghost, he thought disgustedly.  Hell, first time anyone has been winning poker against her since we came out here.

The console beeped once more, reminding Ian once again what had broken up their mid-watch poker game.  Finishing his chair swivel, Ian pressed his finger into the corner of the cold touch screen.  There was a slight tingle as his suit and the touchscreen exchanged their security handshakes confirming that, yes, indeed the small corvette’s weapons officer wished to interface with the central computer.

I’m not saying that small ship designers are paranoid, Ian thought, but if someone wanted to kill the entire crew I doubt using the central computer would be the method.  Hello airlock, sure I’d like to vent the atmosphere, good day powerplant I’d like to make a su…

The sarcastic space shanty died in his throat as the screen displayed what had interrupted their poker game.

Mother of God, Ian thought, suddenly unable to swallow or even breathe.  Whipping his eyes to the screen’s side, Ian checked to make sure the ship’s computer had not accidentally initiated a training exercise.  Taking a single ragged breath as his eyes told him that, no, The Taken Umbrage’s XO was not playing one of her sadistic tricks, Ian’s mind had one last moment of unabashed terror before his training kicked in.  Turning, he whistled to get Mendoza’s attention just as the younger officer was gathering the final poker chip.

“Midshipman Mendoza, go wake up the Captain, the Executive Officer, and the Chief Engineer in that order,” Ian said quickly and steadily.  “Tell them we have an unidentified contact, course oh nine oh and range 3 AUs relative.  Do not awake any other crew, then report back to your station.”

Mendoza turned to look at him, her brown eyes broadening until the whites were terribly highlighted against her tan skin.

Now, Yubani,” Ian said, gesturing.  Nodding quickly, her face set, Mendoza spun her slight frame and gracefully kicked off the overhead.  Arcing her body, she passed through the bridge’s hexagonal hatch and was gone.

Turning back to the sensor screen, Ian watched as the single blip continued to move from port to starboard of the Taken Umbrage’s facing.  Ellylon system was relatively sparse, its five planets’ orbits all within six AUs of the single neutron star a little over 175 million kilometers behind the corvette’s stern.

‘Where were you when it all went to Hell, Daddy?’ Ian thought quietly.  ‘Oh Princess, Daddy had a front row seat when the shit hit the…

“Campbell, I really hope this isn’t a sensor ghost,” Lieutenant Commander Kirtida Gorman said as she floated onto the bridge.  Still fastening up her suit with her left hand, the Taken Umbrage’s XO rubbed her eyes with the right.  “I was in the middle of a great dream.”

“Ma’am, the contact has changed course,” Ian said, taking a look back at his screen.

Kirtida paled as much as her honey toned complexion would allow.  Narrowing her blue eyes, she swam to the captain’s chair.  Strapping herself in, she reached down and slid the furniture’s heavy readout screen up and over in front of her.  Taking a stylus, she began hurriedly displaying, then rewinding the last five minutes of sensor coverage relayed from the passive buoys at the system’s edge.

“Who did you tell Mendoza to wake up?” Gorman asked, then nodded after Ian relayed the information.  “Good.  Old man’s gonna want to have time to think on this one.”

As if summoned by Gorman’s statements, the Taken Umbrage’s commanding officer was the next to pass through the hatchway.  Waving down Gorman before she could stand, Commander Jung-Hee Song snatched a stray poker chip out of midair.  Continuing into the bridge area, Song tucked his legs up and activated the magnetic soles of his uniform boots.  With a slight metallic clank!, Song’s feet stuck to the deck, allowing him to walk over to Ian’s console.  Standing, he was just barely taller than Ian sitting, but with broad shoulders and a narrow waist that emphasized just how muscular the Taken Umbrage’s commanding officer was.

“Well, that’s definitely not a rogue planet,” Commander Song said quietly as the contact began decelerating, then changed course once more.  “Or a sensor ghost.”

“Looks like it’s going to do an orbit of Fairfolk,” Ian stated, referring to the Ellylon system’s fourth planet.

“Makes sense,” Song replied.  “Only thing that looks remotely habitable.”

All three Spartan officers watched as their unknown contact settled in around the medium-sized planet.  Ian looked from Song to Gorman, both of them keeping perfectly straight faces.  Looking at him past the command screen, Gorman met his gaze levelly.

“A problem, Lieutenant Campbell?” she asked.

“Trying to figure out if I’m the butt of some elaborate prank XO,” Ian said after a moment.  Gorman and Song shared a look, then turned back to him.

“Sometimes there are things one needs to know, Lieutenant,” Commander Song said.  “Then there are things that one needs to just accept and continue doing their duty.  Speaking of which, start to charge the main battery.  With the primary closer to us than them, I doubt the bit of extra energy is going to show up on their sensors.”

“Aye aye, captain,” Ian said, turning back to his console and pressing the necessary controls.  The Taken Umbrage’s sixteen railguns were arranged in broadside mounts, eight to a side.  In rapid fire mode the rail guns could deliver a veritable hailstorm of duranium projectiles each the size of a medicine ball.

Of course, those projectile won’t do shit against anything much bigger than us, Ian thought grimly.  Which is why we have the missiles.  Arranged in four silos that ran the length of the corvette’s centerline, twenty Angon missiles arguably gave the Taken Umbrage the ability to punch far above her 25,000 ton displacement.

“Do we have any estimates on that thing’s size yet, Ian?” Song asked, looking up as Yubani reentered the bridge.  Pushing off the bulkhead, Yubani executed a near flawless midair flip that allowed her to catch the comms / helm seat with her feet.  Folding forward, she braced herself on Ian’s shoulder, then twisted into the seat and strapped herself in.

“No really, people, turn on your magboots,” Song said, chuckling.  “If they can detect that energy at this range through the pulsar behind us, we’re fucked.  Although that was pretty impressive, Midshipman Mendoza.”

Yubani colored slightly behind her face shield, then turned back to her console.  After a moment of looking over at her, Ian did the same.  After a couple of minutes of tense silence, the sensor suite beeping caused them all to jump.

“Contact’s size is estimated at approximately 35,000 tons, three hundred meters,” Ian said, reading the print scrolling next to Fairfolk on his screen.  Touching the screen, he separated his scrolling key from that of the command console’s and zoomed in on Fairfolk.  After a moment’s glitch, he found himself looking at the dark, irradiated rock with the contact’s icon circling it.  With a flare of energy, the contact finished its deceleration and established a geosynchronous orbit around the distant world.

Thank you for becoming relatively stationary, Ian thought.  In a process that seemed painstakingly slow but was likely only a couple of minutes, the sensor buoys used the radiated energy from Fairfolk like a back light in a photo box to paint an outline of the other vessel.  The alien interloper was shaped like an elongated kitchen baster, with the bulb end five times thicker than the rest of the hull.  Opening a smaller window to study the sensor feed of the deceleration, Ian determined that the narrow end was forward, the thicker end aft.

Slightly heavier than us, but there can’t be much protection with a hull that thin, Ian thought.

“Looks like she’s almost all engines, doesn’t she?” Commander Song asked.

Forgot the old man was still standing there, Ian thought.

“Yes, Sir,” Ian replied.  “But I can’t imagine she doesn’t have something to sting with in that hull.”

Song shook his head.

“I imagine this is a reconnaissance ship,” he replied.  “Or an explorer.  I can’t imagine any military vessel coming in that recklessly.”

That was a little careless, Ian agreed silently.

“Sir, do you want to move us out to engage?” the XO asked.  Out of the corner of his eye, Ian could see Gorman leaning forward in the command seat almost like a Kursk Simishark leaning out of the shallows towards prey.

Yep, the unpleasant surprise of a predator with gills, an IQ to rival a Terran orangutang’s, and jaws that can sever a leg, Ian thought.  That about sums up the XO if she had her own ship right now.

“No XO,” Song said, his tone that of a long suffering gang leader having to rein in his favorite hitman.  “Let’s observe our friend for a little bit.  If she comes further in, then we’ll get a look see.”

Gorman’s face briefly showed what she thought of that idea.

“Aye aye, Sir,” she said, her tone even.

“Think about it, XO,” Song said conversationally.  “You saw how quickly she decelerated to get into orbit.  We come out of this pulsar shadow like a bloodhound on crack, that thing just might lead us grabbing vacuum on the way to get some friends.”

Gorman thought about it for a second, then nodded with a slightly sheepish look.

The Umbrage is not a slow ship in sublight, Ian thought.  But it looked like that contact pulled double the deceleration we’re rated for, and that’s nothing to sneeze at.  If the Taken Umbrage had been a human rather than a warship, she would have been best described as “inching towards middle age.”  There were faster and stronger corvettes and destroyers in the fleet…but that was why the Umbrage was on the proverbial picket line and not them.

“That being said,” Song continued, “let’s go ahead and start generating a fire solution for the Angons.  If she comes into system that fast, a barrage to the face might be just the advantage we need to close within railgun range.”

With a press of several more buttons, Ian activated the missiles’ onboard telemetry.  The Angons began to take input from the Taken Umbrage’s sensor relay.  While far, far outside of the missiles’ range even with a ballistic profile, being backlit by Fairfolk allowed the Angons’ sensors to get a good, solid image of what their prey looked like.

Helps not to be fooled by a decoy if you know what the real deal looks like, Ian thought.  Leaving the missiles to do their thing, he turned back to regard the other vessel.

“How long until the Wayward Lich is in line of sight?” Song asked, referring to the Taken Umbrage’s companion patrol vessel.  Ian saw Yubani regard the system map.

“Cynon will be around the primary in ten minutes, Sir,” Yubani replied, referring to the system’s second planet.  After a moment, a blue icon with dashed edges winked into being near Cynon’s moon.

“Here’s to hoping they’re watch was as attentive as ours was,” Song said.

Or that Commander Meeker isn’t as aggressive as Lieutenant Commander Gorman, Ian thought.  The Wayward Lich was a newer, faster vessel than the Taken Umbrage.  If she used Cynon’s gravity to slingshot, she just might have a chance of catching the intruder.

“I take it Midshipman Mendoza continues her unbeaten streak at poker?” Song said, breaking Ian’s concentration.

Ian and Yubani shared a look of mutual embarrassment.

“Lieutenant Campbell was having better luck than most, Commander,” Yubani replied with a slight smile.  Ian saw Gorman raise an eyebrow, the command screen keeping her from the midshipman’s line of sight.

“Interesting.  Well, XO, since you’re already in the chair, I’m going back to sleep until the Lich is in comm laser range,” Song said.  Gorman looked up in surprise, then realized she’d been behind the eight ball pretty much since Song had come into the compartment.

“Aye aye, Sir,” Gorman said.

“No starting interstellar conflicts while I’m gone,” Song continued.  “If she gets within 1 AU, bring us to modified yellow alert.”

“Aye aye, Sir,” the XO said.  To Ian’s surprise, she sounded almost relieved at Song’s instructions.

“Lieutenant Campbell, Midshipman Mendoza has three tells,” Song said over his shoulder while he walked towards the hatch.  “XO can get you the bridge camera files if you’re really interested.”

Ian felt his jaw drop as the hatch closed behind Umbrage Actual.

“Incidentally, Lieutenant Campbell,” Lieutenant Commander Gorman said conversationally, “I didn’t actually break my ex-husband’s leg.  That was the six meter drop to the street.  If you must know, I wasn’t waving at butcher knife either.”

Yubani turned to look at Ian, her eyes wide in horror.  Ian felt the blood rush to his face.

“And it was my sister he was sleeping with, not my superior officer,” Gorman continued.  “Now close your mouth, you’re going to start making your suit wonder why you’re hyperventilating.”

Ian did as he was told, turning back to his console almost in shock.  The Umbrage’s most recent refit had seen several of the cameras added for “damage control purposes.”

They had said the audio features hadn’t been added yet, Ian thought.

“Don’t feel bad,” Gorman stated.  “Lieutenant Drummond apparently believes the rumor that I actually castrated the poor man and made him listen to his balls sizzle in the waste incinerator.”

Ian looked and saw that Yubani was nervously glancing over at him.

Planet awkward, he thought.

“That’s just what I said I was going to do before he jumped out the window,” Gorman said with a laugh.  The sound made the hairs stand up n the back of Ian’s neck.  Before he could start to slouch behind his seat, the console gave yet another sharp tone.

Thank you, thank you, thank you, Ian thought.  The contact had broken orbit from Fairfolk and was accelerating.  After a moment, the Taken Umbrage’s computers assigned a vector line to the icon.  Looking, Ian saw that the lengthening line took the vessel to the ecliptic “east” and away from The Taken Umbrage.  As he watched, the line almost doubled in a couple of heartbeats.

Okay, no, not even the Lich is catching that thing, Ian thought.  I really hope that she is unarmed, because weapons plus engines of that power will be a tough out…

“Looks like she’s accelerating to hyperspace,” Gorman said.

“Shall I wake Commander Song?” Ian asked, reaching for his seat buckle.

“What?  So he can increase gravity and slow that thing down?” Gorman snorted.

Before Ian could reply, there was a momentary flash on the sensor screen as the intruder ripped a hole in normal space.  A moment later, the dark maroon of a hyperspace event signaled the contact had left.  Looking at the clock, Gorman’s eyes narrowed.

“No poker,” the XO ordered.  “Talk about home, talk about your first pet, talk about whether the North Americans or the Chinese started the Great War.  But you keep your eyes glued to those screens, and send Mendoza to come get me if anything happens.”

“Aye aye, XO,” Ian and Yubani said in unison.

“Failing that, you wake me up twenty minutes before you wake up the old man,” Gorman continued, unbuckling her belt then activating her magshoes.  “Not a word about the bridge cameras to anyone else, either.  Old man isn’t using them to spy, per se—he’s just trying to figure out who works well together.”

That explains all the watch rotations, Ian thought.

“Aye aye, XO,” he said.  Gorman started heading for the door, then stopped.

“Incidentally, Campbell, how is your ancient Cantonese?” Gorman asked.  “I see you took three years of it as a cadet.”

“Passable XO,” Campbell said, then continued in Cantonese, “I wouldn’t want to give someone instructions on how to dismantle a rail gun with it, but I can manage.”

Gorman gave a knowing smile at that.

“Brush up on it a bit,” she replied.  “Especially phrases you may use in a boarding action.”

With that, Gorman passed through the hatch.  It closed behind her, leaving Yubani and Ian in awkward silence.

“I’m so sorr…” Ian started.

“I didn’t mean to miss…” Yubani said simultaneously.  They both stopped, laughing at the other.

“I get the feeling there’s something they’re not telling us,” Ian said after a moment’s pause.

“Gee, could it have been that very large pachyderm that danced around the bulkheads?” Yubani replied sarcastically, then added a sheepish, “Sir.”

“I wonder what else they’ve heard?” Ian thought, turning back to his console.  Yubani was quiet for a moment, and he turned to see her face starting to blush under her light brown complexion.

“Is there something you’d like to tell me, Midshipman Mendoza?” Ian asked.

“Yes, Sir, my first pet’s name was Mephistopheles,” Yubani replied flatly.

Okay, I’m not going to press my luck, Ian thought.  But if ever I wish I could read minds.

B-Sides and Outtakes–Armageddon Dawn Part VIII (Conclusion)

Epilogue

 

C.C.D.F.S. Emancipation

1455 Confederation Common Time

30  June, 2011

 

“I’m telling you right now, you little weasel, this is it!  No more kids!” a woman said as Eric entered the medical ward.  The woman was leaning up in the bed nursing her newborn infant, brown curly hair about shoulder length down her shoulders.

“Julie, we’ve got to start repopulating,” her husband, a short, stocky man named David said.

“Let me put this in terms you can understand, Mr. West Point Man,” the woman replied.  “There will be no more sex for you until one of us gets fixed.  Three is enough, especially when they’re all boys.”

“Don’t you want a little girl that can grow up to be as beautiful as her mother?” Dave asked sweetly.

“No, and flattery isn’t going to get you laid.”

Eric shook his head.  Julie Donze had to be the most stubborn woman he knew.  After receiving her Doctorate in Mechanical Engineering from University of Missouri, Rolla, she had been set up with Dave by some crazy friend of hers.  Dave had been an Army officer, a veteran of Iraqi Freedom and Crescent Justice, the war with Saudi Arabia.  Neither one of them knew the ultimate fate of their friend, but the survivor’s rolls were still being compiled across the Confederation Fleet.

“Hey Dave, Julie,” Eric said, moving past the bed.

“Eric,” Dave said, then turned back to his wife and child.

Eric continued walking down the nearly empty medical bay.  There hadn’t been many wounded during the final evacuation, and what there had been had been quickly fixed up by the Dominionites medical nanobots.  Only four other beds besides Julie’s were filled, two of them with expectant mothers.  For all their medical technology, the Dominionites couldn’t speed up the labor process.  One more bed was filled with a vacant-eyed psychotic casualty, the stress having finally made the man snap.

It was the occupant of the fourth bed that Eric was interested in.  Lying flat on her stomach while the nanobots continued to work on her back, Jessica Banner had not regained consciousness since her injury.  The doctors had run out of ideas, but then had heard she was somehow known to a Star Colonel Eric Walthers, apparently her only close friend that had survived Earth’s demise.  Upon further review, the doctors had realized that it was Eric ‘Lightning Rider’ Walthers, Hero of Earth that the bedraggled members of 1st Shock Brigade had been referring to in the aftermath of their own personal Little Big Horn.  The one that had killed the Crown Prince and personally rode a Griffinfull of assault troops into the ground, then recovered from the heart of the explosion to charge his badly damaged mecha into a flank assault of Praetorian Guards.  Apparently he had even survived that despite several eyewitness accounts that stated his mecha had exploded, starting the galaxy’s largest dead man’s switch.

The actual truth was a bit less heroic.  The Praetorians had fixed the majority of the 6th and 7th Shock, their massive advantage in numbers being somewhat helpful.  If Eric hadn’t destroyed the third Griffin, the battle would have been lost.  As it was, a Praetorian detachment had been hustling towards his still active transponder, expecting to avenge their Crown Prince’s death, when Karin had arrived on the scene with a scratch detachment of Powell’s from the 2-70th Armor led by Jason.  Utterly outclassed, the men from the 2-70th had fought and died bravely, allowing Jack enough time to shift forces to deal with the threat.  With the Praetorians in a temporary retreat to await reinforcements, reinforcements that were already burning into the Earth’s atmosphere, Karin and Jack had extricated Eric from the wrecked Nikita.

With the enemy closing, Karin had made a snap decision.  Working quickly, she had attached Eric’s transponder to her own mecha.  She had given Jack a direct order to find Jessica, dead or alive, and given him the required information.  Then, kissing the unconscious Eric goodbye, she had revved her hovertank up to its maximum speed and headed north, away from the Praetorian landing site.  Predictably, the movement had the desired effect, the Praetorian and the incoming vessels starting to give chase.  Karin had met her end, her Grizzly shattered under a tidal wave of battle armor.

Her death left Jack to carry out her last order, and quickly.  Jack had found Jessica almost bled out, but had stabilized her.  Spinal injuries were relative child’s play for the Dominionites, and she was expected to make a full physical recovery.  With both Eric and Jessica strapped to the stop of his mecha in its hovertank mode, Jack had hauled ass back to Fort Riley.  The last ship, the Valhalla, had been just preparing to take off when he pulled onboard.  Lighting off her propulsion units, the Valhalla was followed out of orbit by General Connelly’s ship, the delay for the latter caused by a detour to Washington, D.C..  General Connelly was always a man of his word.

Not that it particularly mattered.  With the destruction of Eric’s transponder, a massive time bomb had begun ticking.  General Connelly had directed the Tectal to surreptiously place anti-matter warheads on the Earth’s major faultlines during their recovery operations.  Triggered by the destruction of Eric’s transponder, the bombs simultaneously triggered forty-eight hours after the destruction of Eric’s transponder.  The result had gone much like General Connelly had expected.  Earth was no more.

With a heavy sigh Eric sat down in front of Jessica’s bed.  He had just come out of the body and fender shop himself two days before.  It took awhile to get used to alien technology.  Reaching out, he stroked Jessica’s hair.  Tears began to run down his face as he looked at her sleeping.

“You know, you really need to wake up,” he said softly, sobbing.  “You don’t need any more beauty sleep.”

“You said that yesterday and the day before,” Jessica replied softly.  “A girl gets tired of hearing the same lines over and over again.”

Eric nearly jumped out of his seat in joy, suddenly unable to speak.  Jessica’s next words stopped the celebration.

“The first day, I thought I was in heaven,” Jessica said.  “To hear your voice again…it was one of the most powerful emotions I’ve ever had.  Then I realized that I was still alive, and I suddenly didn’t want to be anymore.”

Rolling over, Jessica met Eric’s eyes, her face set.

“I don’t know what’s happened to you for the past six years.  I don’t care.  I never want to speak to you again, Eric.  Ever.  Go back to wherever the hell you’ve been and stay there.  Leave me alone.”

Feeling as if he had been sucker punched, Eric stood up.  Taking one last look at Jessica, he turned and headed for the door.

***

So for those of you who read this far, what’d you think?  I’ve always debated going back to this universe and fleshing things out.  I will say that I got about another 10,000 words into a longer version of this, but stopped when I realized that it really did seem like I was channeling John Ringo plus had grad school to worry about.

I’ll be honest–I didn’t want to end the story so abruptly, especially after introducing new characters.  At the time, it was being written for short story markets.  Since I submitted it, I’ve come to realize that it’s really a full novel trying to wear a novella’s outfit.  (“High waders!  Get your high waders here!”)  With the Vergassy, Usurper’s War, and Scythefall Universes all vying for time, this will likely stay somewhere in the back of the cupboard.  At any rate, hope you enjoyed.

B-Sides and Outtakes–Armageddon Dawn Part VII

West Point, NY

1330 Central Time

 

“Oh look, it’s the great General Connelly, gracing us with his presence,” General Michael Wallace slurred through the video screen from the Pentagon.  Behind him, General Connelly could see scenes of debauchery occurring that would have made a Roman blush.  At least Michael, an old West Point classmate of his, was still in uniform at he Universal Command Console, a video device installed in the Pentagon’s war room just the previous year.

“Michael, I need your help,” General Connelly said, letting his suit modulate his voice so that it was somewhat more suggestive.

“Oh no, Adam, that mind-control shit won’t work through the damn video monitor,” Michael slurred.  “We made sure of that real special, just for you.  So, try again!”

General Connelly inhaled, then exhaled.

“Michael, I’ve got units on the ground in Kansas getting ready to come to grips with these bastards,” General Connelly said, trying to put a positive spin on things.  “I need assets.”

“Oh, you mean you can’t get one of your great arks to help them out?  I mean, save the best and the brightest, screw the rest, right?!”  Michael’s eyes suddenly cleared up, the man reaching a moment of utter lucidity.  “Even men who have been with you for the last thirty-five years.”

“Michael, you knew.  You knew everything the aliens had given us, and you let that stupid son-of-a-bitch screw over the country and the world.”

“Well as sure as there’s a pretty redhead captain underneath this table,” Michael said, a fierce grin on his face, “I’m not going to lift a finger to help someone who’s going to leave me to rot.  Oh no, actually, leave me to be eaten.”

“Dammit Michael, people are going to die,” Connelly replied.  “We have lost here, but you can help make it less of a loss.”

“Oh, and just why would I want to do that?” Michael asked.  “I mean, I’m figuring we can keep doing everything that we’re doing here until either we run out of supplies or I start hearing alien footsteps upstairs.”

“And then what, Michael?” Connelly asked.  “You going to try and negotiate with them?”

“No, actually I’m going to take this .45 right here on the table,” Michael said, reaching for the pistol.  “Then I’m going to shoot old Samantha here in the head, then myself.”

“Hey!” a muffled voice said from underneath the table.  A head of long red hair popped into view, a quite stunning captain in a state of relative undress struggling to stand up.  “No one said anything about shooting me in the head,” she slurred.  “You’ll mess up my makeup.”

Oh my God, Connelly thought.  Perhaps there’s a reason our race is about to be nearly exterminated.  He thought of several of the older members of the TEC, men and women of the World War II generation.  He suddenly found himself wishing that the Dominionites had come sixty years earlier.  He played his last card.

“Michael…” he started.

“Oh, this oughtta be good.  Are you going to talk to me about Mom, Apple Pie, and how I need to save the flower of America youth?” Michael asked.  “Well, guess what, I’ve got the flower right here, don’t I Samantha?”  With that, Michael kissed the woman who looked a full ten years younger than his youngest daughter.

“I can make it quick,” Connelly said shortly.

“Huh?” Michael asked, suitably distracted by Samantha’s wandering hands.

“I said I can make it quick, you bastard,” Connelly said.  Not that it’ll be any quicker than a whole shitload of other people.

“Oh?  And how is Wünderkinder Connelly going to make it quick?” Michael asked, holding Samantha off for a second.

“I’ll blow you off the face of the planet,” Connelly said.  “You shoot yourself with that .45, especially in your condition, you’re going to screw it up.  Orionans will eat you with half your jaw missing as well as completely whole.”

For a moment, Connelly didn’t think he had reached the other man.  Samantha leaned back in for a kiss, obscuring his view as she moved suggestively onto Michael’s lap.  Connelly found himself wanting to head for the shower and wash himself off just for seeing what was going on.

“How’s dying instantly sound to you, baby?” Michael asked, stopping Samantha from moving.  Samantha looked at him with a pout, then nodded her head.  Connelly averted his eyes as she got off his lap, then turned back to face the man he had once called a close friend.

“I hope you burn in Hell for what you’ve done, Adam,” Michael said somberly.  “You’ve got a deal.  I don’t want to feel a thing.”

“Done.  When?”

“I don’t care, you bastard.  I don’t ever want to talk to you again after you tell me what you want me to do.”

Connelly nodded.

“I need every unit you have in the Colorado area.”

 

Atchinson Kansas

1530 Local

 

“Mommy, will Jesus be mad at me for lying to you about drinking my milk?” Pauline Banner asked, the five-year old’s eyes starting to droop.

Jessica Erin Banner, nee Fowler, felt her heart lurch, the butterflies of fear and loathing flying up from her stomach again.  She felt her control on her emotions slipping, the fingernails of her mind starting to scratch down the cliff face of insanity with the enormity of what she and her husband had just done.

“Why don’t you ask him here in a little bit, huh Pumpkin?” she heard herself answer, brushing her curly blonde hair away from her face.

“How will we find you and Daddy in heaven, Mommy?” Pauline continued, desperately fighting off sleep now.  I’m glad I didn’t give her more, Jessica thought, a tear starting to roll down her cheek.  Her brother, Jeffrey, was already drifted off, having little or no chance against the narcotic laced bottle of formula.  Looking over at the towel-headed toddler, his blonde hair a mess upon his head, thumb securely locked in his mouth, she almost leaped up screaming from beside Pauline’s bed.

No, dammit, no, she thought.  If I’m going to murder my children I’ll be damned if I’m not going to sit here and spend every last moment I can with them.

            “Where’s Daddy, Mommy?” Pauline asked, fighting sleep.

“Daddy’s right here,” her husband, Arie Banner said, his face flush from having run into the house from outside.  Fighting down his own emotions, he rushed over to Jeffrey’s crib, lifting the toddler out and hugging him to his chest.  Visibly relieved, the man sat down next to Jessica and Pauline, wrapping his arms around them both.

“Honey, remember that song we always sing in Sunday School?” Arie said, realizing that Pauline was going to fight the drugs her mother had put in her porridge every step of the way.  C’mon honey, you need to go to sleep, he thought.  Don’t fight it.

            “J…Jesus Loves Me?” Pauline asked, sounding like a record being played far too slow.

“Yes,” Jessica said, just stopping from sobbing out the answer.  “Why don’t you sing it for us?”

“Jesus…loves me…this…I…” Pauline started, then went unconscious.  Checking her eyes, Jessica realized that her daughter would never sing for her again.  Looking down at the child’s light brown complexion and long, unruly black hair, she suddenly couldn’t hold back the emotions anymore.  Her body wracked with sobs, she watched as her daughter’s breathing slowed, then stopped for the last time.  Arie squeezed her hard, his tears falling on her shoulder as he began to weep also.

“It was for the best,” he said.  “She’s with her father now, and soon you and I will be with them again.”

There was a long, painful silence as the two of them sat with the bodies of their children.  It had been Arie’s idea after hearing General Connelly’s broadcast.  A devout Protestant, Arie believed that suicide was a sin, with eternal damnation as its reward.  Murder, however, was forgivable, far more so than leaving his wife and children to be killed by monsters.

Jessica had met Arie at a religious retreat three weeks before she had gone out to visit Eric in Washington.  The two of them had become fast friends, the Dutchman being quick with a joke or witty comment throughout the retreat.  A brilliant architect, the Arie was a self-made millionaire that had designed buildings in Europe, Asia, and South America.  Four weeks later, when the Air Force chaplain and two officers had shown up at her parents’ house in the middle of her bridal shower, Arie had been the first person there to comfort her.  Not two weeks later, she had found out that she was pregnant with Eric’s child, a traumatic event in and of itself.  Arie had been her rock through it all, and after a long courtship the two had been wed in a quiet ceremony in Wichita.

Now, six years later, as she stared down at the cold bodies of her children with Armageddon at hand, she wondered if she even believed in God anymore.

“We have to bury them,” Arie said.  “Quickly, before those monsters get here.”

Jessica nodded numbly, scooping up her daughter.  She would have started kindergarten next year, she thought.  Pauline had shown all indications of being tall, like both her parents.  Now she would never be anything.

There was the sound of thunder in the distance, and Jessica looked out the window at a bright, clear sky.

What is going on? she thought.

 

Colorado

1620 Local

 

It was inarguably the largest dogfight to ever take place over North America.  Outside of World War II, it was the largest dogfight to take place in the entire world.  A special medal, forged out of precious metals and rare gems, would be struck by the Confederation government to commemorate the day.  The few that survived it would wear it would pride, it entitling the wearer to the finest drink in any establishment on Barren.

Like most battles, it would have its share of mythology.  The number of Orionan fighters present would grow as time went on and the few participants exited stage left.  The courage and bravery of the NORAD fighters, private planes and, in a couple of bizarre cases, large airliners present would grow with the telling and retelling of the story.  Like a macabre morality tale whose lesson was unclear, the Walther’s Last Stand would become so famous that it would eclipse all other tales of bravery that occurred on that day, making it impossible for historians to tell the myth from the reality.

 

“Dammit!” Eric muttered, watching as two more Sparrowhawks exploded under a hail of rail gun slugs from the plodding Griffins.  The war machines were moving at a stately fifty miles per hour, the better to give their gunners a stable platform from which to fire.  Humanity had entered the fray with over five hundred aircraft counting his mecha.  Less than seventy-five, counting the fifty remaining mecha, were still present.

On the Orionan side, there were no fighters remaining.  As predicted, once Eric turned his transponder back on the fighters had been like sharks after a wounded whale.  Unfortunately for the Orionans, this whale had had friends lurking in the wings and just waiting for them to get out of support range from the Griffins.  The dead pilots over Hawaii had been avenged in spades.

That had left the Griffins, those spectacularly equipped engines of doom.  Whereas the fighters had been heavily armed, the Griffins had carried more collective airborne firepower than an entire USAF fighter wing.  What they had not counted on was nukes coming into play, which was all right because Eric had been unaware that nukes were in play until an F-16 with a 100kt bomb strapped to its belly had gone hurtling by him into the fray.  There had been just enough time to call out warnings before a rail gun blotted the fighter out of the sky, tripping the deadman switch the ingenious pilot had rigged up.

One of the Griffins had been destroyed outright, the blast snapping it in half and sending it to Earth with debris and Orionans streaming out behind.  Another Griffin had been so badly damaged it had headed down towards Denver, spewing out battle armor as it went.  That particular event sucked for Denver, but it had given Eric a limited amount of hope that they just might get the last of the civilians out of Fort Riley.  Looking at his watch, he realized that the time to disengage was rapidly drawing near.

“Colonel Walthers, they’re accelerating!” someone shouted.

“Crap!” Eric said, pulling up just out of range of the main batteries.  It was true, the Griffins were picking up speed and turning to take an angle towards Fort Riley.  Looking down at his combat display, he realized that he was almost out of railgun ammunition.  His defensive computer was sounding a constant warning tone, indicating that he was low on shield power and needed to exit the battle to recharge.  If he was that low on power, it meant that there was no chance he’d get an effective charge on most of his energy weapons.

“Jack, how much battle armor can you fight?!” he asked over the direct comlink.  To his front, two Canadian CF-18s flamed out and fell out of the sky, their pilots ejecting.

“Eric, you know the answer to that one!  I can’t fight the Praetorians without another battalion of tanks!”

Out of options, and now those people are going to be dead anyway, Eric thought.  He realized that the Griffins were starting to pass six hundred miles per hour, and most of the conventional Human fighters were running out of fuel trying to catch them.

“Jack, listen to me—you know what happens if this mecha gets destroyed.  Start falling back towards the ships!”

“Eric, what are you going to do?” Karin broke in from her mecha.  Her Grizzly was located with the rear guard, ensuring no leakers flanked the 6th Shock.

“I’m going to ride the lightning,” he muttered, watching as another pair of conventional fighters fell out of the sky.  “Computer, no power to shields, all to propulsion and energy lance.”

“Estimate a…” Olivia began.

“I said sound like my mother, not be her!” Eric shouted, shoving his throttles forward and climbing.

The shift of power was like goosing his mecha with an atomic blast.  He shot upwards, gaining ten thousand feet with such quickness it would have made an ICBM envious.  Rolling inverted, he arced his fighter down towards the rapidly advancing Griffin, choosing the right hand of the Orionan assault vessels.

Time to come to papa, he thought, passing double the speed of sound as he descended like a black streak out of the sky.  The Griffin’s guns opened fire on his fast moving mecha, but he had chosen his arc for a reason.  In space, the Griffin could easily roll to maintain heavy fire in any direction.  In atmosphere, such a maneuver was dicey, to say the least.  While it seemed as if every gun in the world was shooting at him, in reality the ship’s hull protected him from most its fire.

Not so from the lead Griffin.  He felt a rail gun slug slam into his aircraft’s fuselage, the armor ablating back to disappear in his slipstream.  Out of the corner of his eye he watched the lead Griffin start to turn to expose its entire broadside to him, causing his target to slow to avoid a collision.

“Oh shit…pull up Eric, pull up!” he dimly heard Jack say.  Ignoring him, he looked at his indicator for the energy lance.  A flashing 100% was in his field of view, then the Griffin was impossibly close, too close to pull out.

“Transform!” Eric said, his voice utterly calm.

No one had attempted what he was about to.  Mecha that transformed in the middle of firefights tended to make wonderful targets, as they were unable to use any of their weaponry or shields.  Eric had no need for either, but the sheer force of slipstream would have ripped anything but a Phoenix to shreds.  Not that it was an easy move by any means for his mecha, the scream of tortured metal indicating that he would not be transforming back to fighter anytime soon.  With a tortured whine, his repulsor’s kicked in, and that was when the g-forces nearly blacked him out.

He came to just as his mecha impacted, slamming so hard into the decking that his head bounced around the canopy, causing him to bite a portion of his tongue.  Blood filled his mouth, and he was forced to spit it out into the cockpit.  Moving his arms in the control straps, he pressed up to his feet, feeling the Griffin shuddering underneath him.  Turning, he found himself looking into the armored viewport at the Orionan captain and his bridge crew.  The tall aliens were scrambling, several of them pointing at his mecha as he hovered in the slip stream.

“Power levels dropping.  Power levels dropping,” Olivia sighed in his ear.  He raised his mecha’s right arm, pointing the closed fist at the viewport.

“Lance ready!” Eric barked.  Just above his mecha’s gripping hand, a small circular device swirled open.  There was an unearthly purple glow, a field of condensed anti-matter swirling within its containment field.  Realizing the danger, a crewman clawed for his sidearm, preparing to attempt to shoot Eric through the viewport.  Behind him, it was déjà vu for those Praetorian gunners that could see him, his mecha in the exact same posture as when he had killed Argnor.  Before any of them could fire, Eric gave his final command.

“Engage lance!”

The energy lance was an experimental attempt to focus anti-matter and plasma in a combined beam.  The first attempt had vaporized a continent on Dinotilia, a significant emotional event for a species with a hive mind.  Once the shock and horror had been erased, the Dinotilians had managed to create a beam for ten milliseconds, long enough to cut two scientists and six sections of massive battleship armor in half.  Eric’s lance was the fortieth attempt, and Argnor’s death had been its first operational use.  Much like his current situation, desperation had eased his fears.

There was no armor that could withstand the lance.  Limited by safety protocols to fifty meters in penetration, the lance shot from Eric’s arm through the bridge into the forward battle armor bay.  Whipping his arm to the right and left, Eric used the full three seconds of lance power to utterly immolate the bridge and with it the attitude and altitude controls.  With a whine, the Phoenix shut down, automatically sensing a ferrous metal and magnetizing itself to hang on.

Eric’s reply to Jack had been apt.  As the Griffin descended from the heavens, he indeed found himself riding the lightning, a 225,000 metric ton bolt of it.  Cursing at the top of his lungs, he did the quick mental math of how long it would take the vessel to fall from their 25,000 feet perch.  He didn’t like the numbers, and they began to get worse as the Griffin accelerated towards the ground.

“Power reset.  Computer reset.  Analyzing battlespa…” Olivia started to say.

“Shut the Hell up, all power to thrusters!”

With a clunk, the Phoenix released itself.  Eric had a horrible moment as he watched the length of the Griffin hurtle past him, projections a blur on either side of his mecha as he got clear.  Wth a terrible clarity, he realized the ship was twisting, its hull swinging towards him like a bat as it tumbled and accelerated out of control.  A startled Orionan gunner’s face was the last thing he saw as he managed to steer clear, his left arm being ripped off by the vessel’s extreme stern.  The blow spun his fighter around, away from what he knew was coming next as he continued to fall.  Spying a depression, he accelerated his mecha towards it.

“Opaque and get us down!” he screamed in terror, knowing he was a dead man.

Amazingly, the Griffin’s fusion bottles did not explode.  Orionan safety protocols had always accounted for collisions with solid objects or other ships, and they performed as advertised in the current situation.  The anti-matter warheads on the one thousand suits of battlearmor, however, did not.

 

Arie cocked the rifle, taking careful aim at the back of his wife’s head.  Jessica was kneeling in her grave, having made her peace with Jesus and cleansed her soul.  The contrails and explosions of the battle were clearly visible, the massive Griffins stark agains the sky thirty miles away.  The nuclear explosion over Denver had occurred just as they were finishing putting the dirt in Pauline’s grave.

“Honey, I love you,” he sobbed.  “Oh God, I can’t.”

“Think of the images Connelly showed all of us,” Jessica said quietly, not turning around.  She knew her husband, and knew that he would never be able to shoot her as he looked into her eyes, no matter what the cost of his hesitation.

Arie took a deep breath, then brought the rifle up.  An avid hunter, he knew exactly what the .30-.06 would do to his beautiful wife’s head.  Reconsidering, he lowered the rifle, then started to take the slack out of the trigger.  May God forgive me, he thought.

In the next instant, he got a chance to ask his Maker himself.  The anti-matter warheads did not explode as one concerted blast, which was fortunate as they would have excavated a significant portion of Kansas and Colorado.  What they did do is explode and fling debris for several dozen miles, to include the massive portion of armor that neatly cleaved Arie’s left side off on its way over Jessica’s head.  The impact both spun Arie’s corpse and caused him to fire the rifle, the sound lost in the roar of the explosion.

The bullet slammed into Jessica’s back, snapping her lower spine.  Hit hard, she pitched forward, stunned by the sound wave that passed overhead.  The world went black.

B-Sides and Outtakes: Armageddon Dawn Part VI

Chapter 3

 

Pacific Ocean

1200 Kansas Time

 

The first hostile alien vessel to enter Earth’s atmosphere, a Griffin-class assault lander, penetrated the atmosphere at a point two hundred miles to the west of the International Date Line.  As a result, the official Day the Earth ended would be 26 June, 2011.  Hitting the Earth’s atmosphere at several times the speed of sound, the lead vessel was quickly joined by its three consorts, the large arrowhead-shaped vessels’ bows burning bright enough to lighten up the pre-dawn sky.  A full five miles long, two miles deep, and half mile wide, the Griffins were so named because they doubled as both an aerial combatant and a fearsome indirect fire support apparatus.  Normally, a size of Earth received the gentle attentions of ten such vessels, but Kwirh’s violent counterattack had seen to it that reinforcements would be a little bit longer in coming.

The collective sonic boom from their passage made many Christians who heard it, those few who were still thinking of religion at that moment, to think of the book of Revelation and the sounding of the final trumpet.  To those who were able to look up into the sky, the four bright fiery trails seemed to signify the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and the beginning of the end.  Across the Pacific, that largest of Earth’s oceans, men and women began to fall to their knees and pray, beseeching their gods for deliverance.

All four ships were detecting a single bright strobe, the source of the signal that had so impudently insulted their sovereign Lord and God of their existence, Emperor Krognar.  In the three trail vessels, a thousand each Orionan shock troopers in their brilliantly scarlet power armor waited, nestled in the drop chutes that led vertically through the vessel’s keels.  They did not care of numbers—the fact that this planet had not raised its shields the instant their fleet came into system or fired any defensive weapons at their incoming vessels indicated that it was technologically stagnant, its population literally easy meat.

Many of their leaders, those that had survived the numerous cauldrons of nameless battles across the stars against the TEC found themselves sickened with disgust that a race from such a backwards planet had managed to give them a handful of bitter defeats.  While King Pyhrrus of Greece was unknown to them, the term Pyhrric Victory would have easily described at least another dozen of the occasions where they had faced the tasty, two-legged beings from this world beneath them.  No matter, according to the life scans busily scrolling across their screens, there would soon be enough food to wash away the foul taste of bile that rose past their two tongues.  In many cases, their faces broke into feral grins, their vaguely feline features and four-inch teeth making them look like evil Cheshire Cats.  If, of course, the Cheshire Cat had had orange-tinged scales, not fur, been fifteen feet tall, had a pair of long, curled horns, and walked on two legs with cloven hooves.

Aboard the fourth vessel, only five hundred larger suits awaited in their drop chutes.  Overall black, a black that had been described as so dark it seemed to swallow one’s soul, nevermind all the surrounding light, the power armor had scarlet shoulder armor attachments, the extra bulk making them look like malicious interstellar linebackers.  These Orionans were all that remained of the Praetorian Guard, Argnor’s personal bodyguards that had failed in their mission.  Krognar, upon hearing of his son’s death, had forbade the Praetorians from committing suicide, the traditional Orionan response to failure.  Instead, he had decreed that the Praetorians would be allowed to end their lives once they had brought to account the Human responsible, a man who’s location continued to strobe near the center of the continent continuing its journey to darkness and the point where the final arks of humanity would lift off towards safety.

As the four ships continued down, down to around fifty thousand feet above the tranquil Pacific waters below, they slowed then almost stopped, detecting their first population center of over a million sentient beings.  Continuing to twenty thousand feet, the four ships continued their descent towards the islands of Hawaii, slowing even further as they reached the thicker air at lower altitude.  It was at that point the hulls of the vessels seemed to come alive, fragmenting in what appeared to be a sudden disintegration.  If any human had been present to lay eyes on the event, he or she might have cried out in exultation, thinking deliverance was at hand.

Those cries would have quickly turned to dismay as the fragments, flat flying wings nicknamed Boomerangs due to their distinctive shape, scurried away from their mother ships.  The Orionans, while disdaining to use fighters in the depth of space, were quite aware of the devastating effect airpower had within an atmosphere.  While far from sophisticated machines, the Boomerangs made up for their lesser technology with a truly devastating forward firepower and a truly robust level of armor.  Leveling off, the one hundred and twenty ‘Rangs headed off like a swarm of bats, arrowing straight towards the Hawaiian Island Chain.

Realizing the entry vector of the assault ships, General Connelly had ordered the evacuation vessels at the various Hawaii base complexes to immediately cease loading and retreat to the U.S. mainland.  He had only been forced to repeat his order twice, the second time threatening to kill the offending captains himself.  With tears in their eyes, screaming their impotent fury at Connelly through their data links, the five men and four women had complied, leaving thousands of trained military individuals to their fates.  Of the nine, four would commit suicide in the following years, still hearing the cries of those pitiful few they left behind in their ears.

Realizing that their last hope for getting off planet had left, scurrying off at high speed low over the Pacific, many of the remaining personnel resolved to defend their families.  The Griffins were closing far too quickly to have a hope of attempting to sail any ships from Pearl Harbor, but there were the roughly two hundred serviceable Navy, Marine, and Air Force combat aircraft stationed in the Hawaiian Islands.  As the Orionan fighters accelerated away from the Griffins, their pilots sighted the approaching human aircraft and howled their joy at opening the hunt.

Due to the limited introduction of retrofits by the United States Armed Forces as well as the basic level of Orionan technology, the mismatch was not as great as it could have been.  Instead of a modern jet fighter engaging a biplane, it was more a case of a 21st Century warplane engaging the early, much more primitive models flown at the closing stages of World War II.  While the Orionans had yet to develop an effective atmospheric laser, the devastating combination of rail guns, anti-matter missiles, and short-range plasma cannon was more than enough to stack the deck in their favor.

The fight took all of 45-minutes, broadcast live to the world.  Only slightly better than a massacre, it left the major cities of Hawaii in flames and all military power in the state broken.  For the Orionans, it cost twelve ‘Rangs.  Given that all the humans in Hawaii were now the property of the bypassing Griffins, it was a small price to prey.  Hawaii would continue to be a tourist mecca, except when these tourists returned it would be to gorge themselves on human flesh.

 

Fort Riley

1245 Local

 

Eric could hear the cries of shock and dismay from where he sat, his armor open so he could enjoy the breeze as it blew around him.  He could hear the buzz of the bees as they went about their business, and the rattle of small arms fire and the occasional boom of a main gun in the direction of Manhattan as the Reservists and Guard went about theirs.  Well, at least it was quick for most everyone around Pearl Harbor, he thought grimly.

Now wouldn’t it be ironic if we had some 50’s sci-fi movie shit go down and we find out the Orionans are allergic to bees or something? he thought.  We like evacuate the planet, come back, and find everyone we’re leaving behind alive, well, and really, really pissed off because we left them to face a bunch of psychopathic walking cat lizards?  Oh wait, let’s not forget rabidly carnivorous, and with an acquired taste for Human flesh.

            Someone nudged him in the back, causing him to jump and startle several nearby bees.  Looking up, shading his eyes, he saw Jack standing above him.  The man held two cups in his hands, extending one towards Eric.  In complete shock, Eric saw the logo familiar to anyone who had lived in the Puget Sound area for more than twenty-four hours.

“Holy shit!” Eric shouted, causing several nearby people to turn and look from where the last of the orderly queues were heading into the rear of the evacuation vessels.  One mother covered her child’s ears and favored Eric with a glare, a move so quaint it caused Eric to break out into laughter.  Stopping, he took a deep pull of the latte, savoring the Hazelnut.

“Okay, laughing at a woman who’s probably just left her entire home behind is probably not the smartest thing you ever did,” Jack said, seeing the woman staring hard at Eric as if memorizing his face.  “I think when we get to Barren someone’s going to get the ass-kicking of their life.”

“Right,” Eric scoffed.  “Hey, my name’s Eric!  Eric Walthers, Star Colonel, one each!” he turned and shouted to the woman.

Eric!” Jack said.  “Get a freakin’ grip.”  Eric turned and looked at Jack, a smile on his face.

“Oh yeah, get a grip my hovertank friend says.  You just don’t get it, do you?” Eric asked.  “This is it.  This is the last freakin’ cup of Starbucks I’ll ever have.  I’ll never see DisneyWorld again.  Never go for a midnight swim in the Pacific, as incredibly stupid as doing that is.  Nope, not Star Colonel Walthers, the most wanted man in the Universe—he just keeps getting the schlong!”

Jack was about to open his mouth, then closed it.  Pondering for a moment, he thought of a different tack.

“What do you think the Reservists are going to think when they see these ships lift off?” Jack asked, the small arms fire at the main gates picking up again.  General Connelly had made the call not to inform the men that they were to be abandoned, realizing that it was absolutely critical that the gates to the post be held to the last possible moment.  Eric found himself stunned once more at the utter cold-bloodedness of his commander, but there was a reason he had been tapped to lead the TEC and it hadn’t been his sparkling personality.

Bet POTUS is regretting that decision right now, Eric thought.  If not, he will be really, really soon.  While Colorado Springs wasn’t a major population center, it was probably pretty high on the Orionan target list thanks to NORAD.  Only the nearby presence of Denver would probably delay the inevitable.  The Orionans’ tremendous appetite for fine dining, which they considered the Humans, usually colored their decisions.

“I’ll be sure to ask them,” Eric replied sarcastically.  He saw Karin striding up behind Jack and nodded towards her as he drank the last of his latte, trying to make the movement seem casual.

“You haven’t told Karin yet, have you?” Jack asked quietly, not seeing the signal or realizing the Dominionite woman was right behind him.  Eric winced, mentally wishing that his friend knew when to shut up.

“Told Karin what?” the Dominionite asked, her features calm and imperturbable as always.  She held a bundle of dandelions in her hand, the yellow flowers strangely quaint for a woman decked out in her armor.

“Who gave you the flowers?” Eric joked, attempting to change the subject.  “Point him out so I can go kick his ass.”

“Your feeble attempts at distraction never work with your own females, what makes you think it would work with me?” Karin asked flatly.  “Tell me what?”

“I asked you a question first,” Eric replied.  Dominionites hated it when Humans were utterly illogical, almost to the point of homicidal rage.  Given that a completely irate Dominionite was going to be the end result any way one sliced it, Eric figured he might as well go for broke.

Karin took a deep breath, her eyes starting to deepen in hue, then suddenly caught herself.

“I have been watching a great deal of human interaction today, Eric,” Karin said, her voice approaching the Dominionite standard for humor.  “While I have always thought your race bizarre despite individuals being completely, as you say, loveable, I never realized the complete range of your species emotions and communication techniques until this morning.  From your sheepishness when I admitted we coupled, and quite enjoyably, last night to the strange female child that handed me these flowers ‘because I looked sad’, I have seen much.”

Eric realized he was screwed.  Dominionites were not happy unless they had someone in what his old wrestling coach had called the “old hucklebuck”, completely helpless and in a world of hurt.  If Karin was happy, that meant the hammer was coming down.

“So, I recognize your tactic for what it is, an attempt to make me upset so that you may avoid telling me whatever it is you have neglected to tell me.  I laud your efforts.”

Eric looked over to find Jack, and found much to his surprise that his friend had disappeared from beside him.  Typical, he thought.

“General Connelly has asked me to be the last pilot off Earth,” Eric said quietly.  “I was going to wait until your mecha was stowed, then tell you.”  Better to tell you a half truth than a whole lie, he thought to himself.

Karin turned towards him, her eyes literally flashing so brightly it looked like summer lightning.  In times of extreme emotions, Dominionites generated a minor static electricity field throughout their body, manifested in their eyes and at the tips of their limbs.  Touching one at such a time was like grabbing onto an old joy buzzer, slightly tingly and very surprising.  Needless to say, it made cross-species relationships rather interesting, and more than once Eric had been glad he didn’t have a pacemaker or undiagnosed heart murmur.

Okay, not the time to think about sex, he thought, Karin’s hands balled into fists.

“If I had told you the information that I was about to share with you,” Karin spat out, “I would think that you would be staying behind to die with your former love.”

“What?!” Eric asked, shocked.

“The woman who still owns a part of your heart, no matter how much you try to fight it,” Karin said, her voice low and angry.  “The one you refuse to find so that you can finally end your relationship in your mind.”

Eric was shocked once more.  His face obviously showed it because Karin favored him with a slight mocking look, the equivalent of a full sneer with humans.

“What, you didn’t think after one of your years of marriage that I would not know you so well, Eric Walthers of Topeka?  For the first year you were with the Confederation you thought of little else, even telling my uncle that you wished you had never been flying the day we came to your world,” Karin thundered.  Eric started backing up, a mistake as it caused Karin to cover the distance between them in two steps.

“Oh, I hated you, and what I considered your pathetic whining.  You killed my bethrothed, albeit through is own arrogance and stupidity, and you had the audacity to complain about unrequited love?  You have no idea how often you flirted with the Dark One while in the middle of your self-pity.”

“Karin, you know I did not intend to kill Qatran,” Eric stammered, never having seen his wife so angry.  “The collision…”

“Do you really think, after six years, that I still have feelings for him?  He was arrogant, the marriage was arranged, and you would never have rammed his fighter on purpose—until today you were never so determined to die.  But can you say the same about this Jessica person?”

“She’s as good as dead, honey,” Eric replied, starting to wave Karin’s concern away.  Karin reached out and snatched his hand, her eyes locking with his.

“I will not allow you to take the easy route out, Eric,” Karin snapped.  “You wish to allow the Dark One to choose what woman you shall spend your life with because you lack the courage to do so yourself.  This is cowardly, and I have never known you to be a coward.”

“What difference does it make?” Eric asked.  “General Connelly…”

“Put out very strict rules regarding who could be taken.  I have done the work you would not,” Karin said fiercely.  “Her DNA is of a superior strand.”

“How do you…?” Eric asked, his eyes suddenly widening.

“Foolish Human, you of all people should realize how bad I am when truly determined,” Karin replied, her voice low and primal.  “You will have to decide, not Death.  I will go get her myself if I have to.”

“What?!  Are you insane, the entire Orionan Fleet is getting ready to begin bombarding this planet, the world is such complete chaos they are having to shoot down people at the gates to this post, and you are talking to me about going to find an individual?!”

Karin’s comment was interrupted by the sound of a couple hundred screams from the direction of the Potemkin, four hundred yards to their south.  Simultaneously, Eric heard the screech of his communications speakers and realized that the last of the civilians had been loaded.  Karin released him, her look clearly telling him that their conversation was not over.  As he sprung for his armor, he saw Jack sprinting towards him from the Wizard of Oz, cycling his helmet back as he came.  Eric finished slipping on his suit and cycling his helmet on just as his friend reached him.

What he saw was not good by half.  Thank you, Murphy, may I please have another? Eric thought, the weight of the world suddenly heavy on his shoulders.  The Potemkin, one of the first vessels loaded with over two thousand family members, had just suffered a critical powerplant failure.  The vessel wasn’t going anywhere for at least three hours.  In three hours, the Orionans would be over the Earth’s horizon and able to engage the vessel as the attempted to take off.  While fighting one Griffin was a fair fight for the evacuation ship, four was far from it.

“Olivia, General Connelly, priority line, right fuckin’ now!” Eric barked to his suit.

“Swear word count now at…” his mother’s voice, recorded from the Birthday CD she had made for his 15th Birthday, started to chide him.  Eric had been trying to improve his temper and command presence as befitting his promotion to Commander of 1st Brigade.  As several of his now subordinate leaders had pointed out, Colonels and above didn’t swear every other word—it started to make people believe the situation was worse than it actually was.

“Olivia, now!” Eric said desperately.

A moment later, General Connelly’s visage appeared in mid-air in front of Eric.  The screams and cries from the Potemkin were growing louder, then suddenly ceased as her captain got on the intercom.

“Sir, we have a problem,” Eric said, then quickly recounted his issue.  Connelly looked as if Eric had struck him, seemingly aging five years in a matter of seconds.  I wonder when the last time he slept was, Eric thought to himself.

“Star Colonel, you need to leave the vessel,” Connelly said tiredly.  “Get the other four out of there.”

“What?!  Sir, I will not…”

“Dammit Eric, it’s only two thousand people.  We are talking the deaths of billions in a matter of hours.  The Heart of Orion just folded out of system with half of the Orionan Fleet.  You know what that means, don’t you?”

Eric felt as if the bottom had dropped out of his stomach.  He physically staggered, then looked up at both Jack and Karin.  Their faces were similarly shocked, Jack’s a total and complete pale.

“We killed Krognar, and now whomever was next in line of succession…” Eric began.

“Is preparing to take possession of this planet, yes.  It will be a blood orgy the likes of which the world has never seen, and what remains of the Orionan Fleet is closing with you as we speak.”

Eric closed his eyes, suddenly absolutely aware of every smell and sensation around him.  It would be the last time he felt Earth’s gravity beneath his feet, saw the rolling green plains of Kansas in front of him.  The Orionan Prophecy had come to pass—Earth had caused the fall of the House of Krognar.  The remainder of the Prophecy, however, spoke of the blue green planet being swallowed in a tremendous orgy of flame, its ashes to be scattered to the solar winds.  The Orionans were big into prophecies, almost as big as they were into eating.  The new Emperor had probably sent away all but those who were most in his favor, the better to dine on the delicacy that was mankind.

Time to run as if the Devil himself was behind me, Eric thought, then stopped.  No, I’m tired of running.

“Sir, if we leave these people, we’re not better than our former leaders,” Eric said firmly.  “First Brigade will buy ourselves time.”

General Connelly’s face colored as if he was going to override Eric, then he stopped.  Sighing heavily, seeing the determination on Eric’s face, he nodded.

“Sir, I’ll need additional elements,” Eric said, doing the calculations in his head.

“No,” Connelly replied.  “You want to play Jim Bowie, I’m going to play Sam Houston.  You fight with what you have there with you, at Riley.  Uplink me your plan.”

“Why?  So you can talk about how brave I was at my eulogy?” Eric asked bitterly.  “Or so you know which way no to run.”

Connelly’s face was set in stone as he looked into Eric’s eyes.

“I will ignore those last remarks and chalk them up to stress, Star Colonel.  Do you have the package?”

“Yes, I have your damn package, it’s aboard Nikita,” Eric replied, referring to his mecha’s nickname.

“Good.  I am rerouting the Hawaiian ships to your location.  Get the rest of the ships out of there, now.”

“Wilco,” Eric said, not quick enough to catch Connelly as he disappeared.

“Karin, I need Commander Wallaby here now,” Eric said, turning to his wife.  Karin nodded, heading towards the Shangri-La.  Jack looked at him, shaking his head.

“Eric, this is insane,” he said darkly.  “You, especially you, cannot be risked in combat right now.”

Eric looked back toward the Potemkin, its hatches opening to allow people to file out from its sides.

“I’m not leaving anyone here, Jack.  Go see to your men.”

“Dammit, I don’t feel like getting blown to smithereens because you’ve got a hero complex,” Jack said, not moving.  Eric turned to look at him.

“Jack, Amy’s on that boat,” Eric replied.  “You want to leave her here?  You want to tell Jason that you left his freakin wife to die?

“Fuck you, Eric,” Jack said fiercely, tears in his eyes.  With that, he turned to go get his battalion ready.

“I Can’t Believe I Wrote That…”–

In addition to Writing Tips and Random Confessions, I will also have a regular entry called “I Can’t Believe I Wrote That.”  In each of these, I will post a snippet from something I’ve written in the past.  Sometimes it will be an item that won an award, other times it will be a story idea that got overcome by events.  Today’s sampling is from the way back machine–the 1990s.  I used to be a huge fan of the FASA game Battletech and it’s various spinoffs.  As a player, I once designed my own unit, Clan Rabid Badger, with a backstory that basically this was an entirely different splinter group from the other clans.  Of course, this would never get published.  I place it here both for your entertainment and so that you can (hopefully) observe my evolution as a writer. :

 

                   The Dragon and the Skull

                        By James Young

 

Introduction

 

In the year 3075, the Precentor Martial of Comstar, Maximillan Focht, decreed that it was Comstar’s sacred duty to begin exploration beyond the Periphery.  In the years since Truce End, the Clans had been quiet, and the Inner Sphere was gradually beginning to relax.  Some called it a new age of prosperity that needed to be taken advantage of.  Others warned of it as a time before the Clans overran the entire Inner Sphere.

 

                           Chapter 1

     2nd Lt. Frank Jackson was having a really bad day.  No, the word bad did not do this day justice.  He was having a really shitty day.  Shitty as in diarrhea, beans, and hot tamales all rolled up in one day.

First off, he and his platoon had been put on ready alert early that morning.  Early as in 0230 hours that morning.

This had come right after a grueling four day excercise in which his platoon of battle-armor had been pitted against ‘Mechs in drill after drill.  This wouldn’t be so bad if they would’ve had some support when they did it.  Unfortunately, the excercise guidelines did not call for this.  So his unit had been forced to take on 100-ton behemoths single-handedely.  Needless to say, they had not fared well.  This, to Jackson’s thinking, was very bad for morale.  His men had walked off the field during the last battle looking like whipped dogs.  It seemed to be High Command’s way of telling them that no infantry, powered or otherwise, belonged on the battlefield.

As soon as they had made it to stand-to some colonel had showed up and gave them the bitching out of their lives for not being there in full armor ready to go.  It had been another half-hour before they were all totally suited up and ready to go.  As soon as they had been done getting ready they got another chewing out due to the fact it had taken them so long.  They had then been made to wait four hours while someone finally decided where they were going.  They had then been loaded onto a ferry ship for a one day voyage to the last planet at the edge of their current system.

The weather on Dragoon was terrible.  A screaming wind and windblown snow made hearing or seeing anything external quite difficult.  A quirk in the electromagnetic field of the planet made their communicators go dead every so often for around twenty minutes.  It compared favorably to living permanently in a snowblower.

The day was reaching its climax of shittiness just at that moment.  They had been ordered to cover twenty miles and investigate an object that had landed just a few minutes before.  It had appeared to be as large as a ferry ship on radar.  However, any idiot it could tell you that it hadn’t been because none were supposed to pass within two light years of the system.  In Frank’s humble opinion, it was just an asteroid or something that had fallen to the planet.  Any idiot could tell you that Battle Orion was the only planet that had any spacefaring capability.  Hell, they were probably the only higher-intelligience civilization within several thousand light years.

At the moment, they were in another communicator dead zone.  Jackson turned behind him and made a hand motion, moving his first squad forward.  The ten armored figures fired their jump jets, arcing up and moving forward ninety meters.  Jackson waited until the troopers had taken up covering positions before moving himself and the second squad forward.

They had just landed when Jackson caught the furious pointing of his platoon sergeant, Jonathan Winters.

He turned his head to look towards where the man was pointing.  His suit’s special optics immediately focused on the motion he saw.

A cold feeling lanced through his guts.  Either someone was playing an incredibly cruel trick on him…

Or there was a Battlemech walking through the cold and mists.

“Fuck me,” he said softly.  This was not good.  This was not good at all.  One glance at the ‘Mech’s IR signature told him it was not of Battle Orion origin.  The silhouette was totally foreign to OSDF style, which emphasized composite, slab-sided armor.  The ‘Mech’s outline on his screen appeared to have rounded edges, with its head and cockpit section somewhat rounded also.  In a very severe contrast with OSDF standard procedure, one arm of the ‘Mech ended in a weapon.

There was no doubt about it.  Frank Jackson, son of Elvira and Naomi Jackson, a native of Battle Orion and a graduate of Newfoundland Military Academy, had just seen the first ‘Mech of an invading army.  The fate of millions of lives rested upon him.  There was no standard procedure or written books for what he was to do next for no one had expected this event to ever happen.

 

Lieutenant Daiyo Osa, commander of First Scout Lance, Charlie Company, 5th Battalion, 12th “Ghost” Regiment, smiled to himself as he piloted his Daiyo-class ‘Mech.  The Lieutenant found it somewhat ironic that his name was the same as the ‘Mech he piloted.  He had drawn the dubious honor of being the first pilot to leave the Overlord-class dropship Mogami.  The thirty-six ‘Mechs on board this vessel were mainly medium and light vehicles, ordered to scout out this world before the main assault force arrived.  His lancemates were arrayed in a crescent behind him, two Komodos and a Scarabus.

Osa had to shake his head once again while scanning the wastes in front of him.  The compact with Comstar had made some very strange bedfellows.  He had never thought he would see the day that a Federated Commonwealth ‘Mech was working in concert with a Draconis Combine group in a scouting role.  The lance was very well equipped to handle any threat from any range.

A movement to their left set off several sensors and warnings in his cockpit.  Daiyo quickly came out of his reflective state and started turning his ‘Mech to face what his computer was obviously designating a threat.

“Unidentified Battlemech, cease advancing forward and do not make any threatening moves.  I am Lieutenant Frank Jackson, Battle Orion Self-Defense Force.  You are violating OSDF space.  Cease all military activity and prepare to be interrogated,” his headset crackled.

Daiyo had no idea what the man was talking about, but he could clearly see the squat, metallic and menacing shape of what looked to be a Clan Elemental battlesuit facing him with both of its SRM launchers and a small laser pointed square at his ‘Mech.

Daiyo knew that if there were Elementals on this planet that it was not a good sign and someone higher up needed to know.

 

Frank’s announcement had brought an immediate response from the alien ‘Mechs.  The original target had frozen and turned its torso towards him.  The two wasp-waisted, forward-thrusting ‘Mechs to either side and behind the first target brought their lasers onto line with his armor suit.

Frank could hear multiple intakes of breath over his com net as the rest of the platoon prepared for sudden combat.

“Mech pilots, cease transmissions unless spoken too and do not make any more hostile movements.  You are…”

The original ‘Mech fired its PPC.  The azure bolt caught Frank dead center in his chest, punching through the majority of his armor and knocking him breathless.  Fragments ripped into the flak suit that all Battlearmor troops wore under their heavier plate.  Some penetrated, and he felt the warm oozings of blood starting in the wounds.  Amazingly, he was not knocked unconscious.

The remainder of the platoon did not hesitate.  Twenty-five of the troops had been lying motionless in the drifts to the rear of the ‘Mechs line of advance.  These now popped up from the drifts, firing their small lasers and SRM packs.  Five of the battlearmor troops concentrated on the offending ‘Mech, six of the missiles thundering into the Daiyo‘s rear left torso.  The pounding exposed skeleton, armor fragments being hurled for yards around.  The ‘Mech started to stumble forward, smoke pouring from its rear.

 

Osa fought hard to keep his ‘Mech standing, the blast having savaged his internal skeleton and ripped his rear armor to shreds.  He knew his original fire had put one trooper down, probably permanently.  Unfortunately, it seemed that he had opened the door to a hornet’s nest.  His fire computer counted at least thirty other battle troopers closing in on their ‘Mechs.

Another SRM salvo hit his front armor.  He triggered his own SRMs and the ER PPC in reply, the combined weapons killing another trooper and severely injuring one of his squadmates.

Daiyo started his ‘Mech moving, realizing his heat was starting to build up and that he could not continue to blaze away with the PPC.  The medium lasers in his left arm flashed twice, finishing off the trooper he had injured.

Several thumps and a severe overbalancing of his ‘Mech told him that the Elementals had swarmed his craft.  Fighting hard to keep from panicking, Daiyo began to run.  As he reached top speed he stopped and rolled the ‘Mech.

The two troopers who had just begun to climb up his back were smashed to the ground, stunned.  One trooper managed to hang on, though.  He pushed his small laser into the gaping hole that had been his rear left torso and fired again and again.

One look at his internal structure readout told Daiyo that it was time to leave the ‘Mech.  The Daiyo‘s center torso internal structure was starting to give, and it would not be long before the Elemental smashed his gyro.

Daiyo fired the PPC one last time, killing another trooper, before he reached between his legs and pulled the ejection toggles.

 

The remaining ‘Mechs, once their lance leader began to fall, turned and ran, firing parting shots.

“Hold down, people!” Sgt. Winters shouted, as a couple of the troops attempted to follow.  The blood lust was upon them, and he had to get them back under control.

He was amazed his voice was so strong.  His hands were shaking like leaves, and the only thing he could see was the hatchet arm of one ‘Mech slicing a trooper in half.  A quick count showed twelve of the troops, including the LT, down.  Six were definite deaders.  Two more looked to be serious casualties that would need immediate attention.

Winters sprinted over to where the Lieutenant lay, being attended to by two of his troops.  He could see a very large burn hole where the PPC bolt had hit.  The armor had saved Jackson, but just barely.  At the moment, the medically trained officer of the platoon was breaking open the suit to get to the lieutenant.

Jackson was very much awake.  Winters kneeled down and began blowing excess heat air over the man, trying to keep him warm.  It would suck for him to survive the PPC hit and die from exposure.

It all became a moot point very quickly.  Jackson’s chest heaved one last time, then he died.  Command of a platoon of very scared, very green battlearmor troops had just passed to him Winters.

“All right people, let’s mark the bodies,” Jonathan said, suddenly tired.  The Lieutenant had been a good man, and it somehow hurt Winters to see such a fine young man go.

The platoon moved quickly, breaking out body bags and marking ID’s.  Once this was done, the group opened up the Battlearmor individual units and took out the bodies of their comrades.  Several of the men and women were crying openly inside their armor as they pulled the zippers on friends that had seemed like family.

Winters found it hard to keep his own eyes dry as he placed the LT into the silicon-nylon fiber bag.  The special weave and airtightness of the bag would keep the bodies from decaying.  Winters pulled the pin on top of the bag, arming its location beeper.  A single pulse would be sent out every five minutes, having a range of ten miles.  The pulse could be received by vehicles that had graves and registration assignments.  The radio pulses would not lead enemy units to the position, thank God.

Thoughts of enemy units suddenly made him think of their ferry ship.

“Holy shit!  Police up the wounded, second squad, and fall back to the ferry ship.  Tell them what happened here.  First squad, third squad, and fourth squad, follow me,” Winters said.  He didn’t have to explain where they were going.  The twenty battlesuits that he had ordered to follow him fired their jumpsuits, bounding after him.  They were going to find war.

As Winters was leading his men off, one of the second squadders found Daiyo, lying facedown and unconscious in his seat.  The troopers gently placed him in a wounded carrier, then strapped him to the back of their armor.  The group turned and began dashing back towards the ferry ship.

 

 

Dropship Invincible

 

Captain Eric Potelemy, Federated Commonwealth Space Fleet, wiped his brow and looked at the three Mechwarriors before him.

“So you gentlemen left Lt. Osa to his fate?” he asked finally.

“Sir, we had no other choice.  I have never seen so many Elementals move in coordination like that before.  You may accuse us of cowardice, but I assure you, we would not have made it out alive if we had stayed there and fought.  If the situation was repeated, sir, I would still have ordered the retreat,” Mechwarrior Hanse Mitchell said.

Eric pondered for a moment, thinking.  If what these warriors reported was true, there was a significant Clan presence on this world.  This could make an evacuation very necessary.  All he had aboard his Overlord-class dropship was now thirty-five medium and light ‘Mechs.  Eight of these were of the Komodo and Snake-classes, dedicated anti-Elemental hunters that were next to helpless against enemy ‘Mechs.  Ten of the remaining twenty-seven were light ‘Mechs that probably wouldn’t be much use against an OmniMech assault.  In short, they were about to get their ass kicked off the world if the Clans were there in force.

“Mechwarrior Mitchell, I have three choices at this moment.  Choice one is have you shot for abject cowardice on the battlefield.  Although this choice occurred to me at first, a look at your battle tapes tells me that you were clearly outnumbered and outclassed.  A point of Elementals is easily the equivalent of a ‘Mech, and you were facing eight of them.  You would have done nothing but gotten killed and your ‘Mechs destroyed.  I’m sure if Lieutenant Osa had understood how many toads you were facing he would not have fired upon that first Elemental.

“My second choice is to simply send you back to your ‘Mech.  I don’t think I will do this either.”  Mitchell prepared to protest, his face starting to turn red.

“Calm down, Leftenant Mitchell.  You are now in command of your lance.  I will assign another Komodo, and attach a scout lance to you.

“Your orders are to go find this enemy unit, or its parent garrison.  Do not, repeat, do not engage in combat.  If the enemy finds you, run and report as you come.  I understand our techs have figured out that there is a serious communications problem with this planet at certain intervals, but that shouldn’t be a problem.  In thirty-six hours, four more dropships are arriving.  They carry one hundred and forty-four ‘Mechs in their bellies.  I do not want to be the man responsible for them getting ambushed by the Clans, understood?”

“Sir, yes sir.”

“Proceed, Leftenant.”

Mitchell and his two compatriots got up and left, headed for the ‘Mech bays.

A door opened to his right.  Major Alan McWaters stepped through the door, saluting.  McWaters, a fellow Fed-Com officer, pulled up a chair.

“Alan, I think you need to extend the perimeter by about two kilometers after those eight ‘Mechs leave.  I don’t feel like getting surprised today.  Those pilots not on perimeter duty should be in yellow alert status, flight suits at the ready.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I hope we don’t find anything on this godforsaken world.  It’s not the place I want to die.”

 

Winters gently raised the periscope attachment on the back of his armor.  The Battlearmor troops were first and foremost scouts, and their suits were well equipped for the work.  At the moment, Jonathan and company were sited two miles away from the landing site.

Jonathan fought hard to keep a sick sense of fear from rising in his stomach.  At first he had thought these phantom invaders might simply be pirates who had modified a few agricultural machines and then wreaked havoc upon the surrounding area.  As pirates, they would be easy to chase down and destroy.  Winters and the group behind him, now that they knew what they were facing, could’ve probably done the job.

Now, looking through the periscope, he knew that they were actually facing an alien race.  A huge ferry ship lay grounded, surrounded by vehicles, ‘Mechs, and men.  He could count eight weapons ports on his side alone.  This was looking nastier by the moment.  Winters began recording, his battle camera getting number of ‘Mechs, their IDs, and a threat analysis of their weaponry.

“Sir, movement at our three o’clock,” one of his troopers said calmly.

Winters turned slowly to look, trying to avoid setting off a motion detector.  What he saw chilled him even further.

Eight ‘Mechs, three of them obviously survivors of the earlier fray, were heading back towards the battlesite.  A pair of hovervehicles carrying infantry followed.

“It’s time for us to leave, ladies and gentlemen,” Winters said.  “Sergeant Wreks, take your squad south.  Corporal Lewis, take yours west.  Fourth squad follow me.”

The battle group moved per his orders, going slowly.  The enemy unit soon moved out of sight in the blinding snow, but Winters could still track it on his IR screen.  This meant they were still quite capable of seeing him.

“Squad four, we’re going to trail these people,” he said.

The look of horror was unanimous among the members of the unit.  Most of them had only one SRM volley left, meaning they might, just might, be able to take out one ‘Mech between them.  Their small lasers that they carried in their right arms would do nothing but piss a ‘Mech off unless they swarmed it.  To trail this unit was apparent suicide.

“I know, I know, it appears crazy.  But folks, we’re now in a shooting war that we didn’t start.  We’ve got to track these folks and keep reporting in, or else the crew of the  is going to get surprised.  I dispersed the other two squads because we had too large of a force.  I’m not looking forward to it, and I’m just as scared as you guys.  Unfortunately, it’s gotta be done,” Winters said.

 

                           Chapter 2

The ferry ship Invincible was name ship for an entire class of OSDF ferry ships.  Heavily armed and armored, she was capable of landing two companies of Battlemechs with an air support arm of ten fighters.  Her multiple racks of missiles, banks of lasers, and volleys of autocannons could clear a hostile landing zone quickly.  The advanced habitation and communications suite that she was provided with made her a very capable task force leader/command post.  Trips aboard this ship were very comfortable, and she was a popular vessel.

At the moment, she was carrying a skeleton crew.  Her fighters were off on excercise, and the two companies usually assigned to her were back on the planet of Valhalla.  Actually, this was not much of a problem.  This had been strictly an exploration of the asteroid that had impacted on Dragoon.  Four ‘Mechs and their pilots had simply been brought along just in case there had to be some lifting or manual work done.

Captain Wendell Korper turned and looked out over the grey expanse of Dragoon.  At the moment they were not in the middle of a blizzard for once.  The light of Valhalla’s primary, Viscerus, was reflecting harshly off the snow.  Korper was glad for the light-dampening shades of his cockpit glass.

He was the pilot of a Battle Orion Defense Manafacturing Systems (BDMS)-1 Gunslinger Mk III.  The 100-ton ‘Mech was the workhorse of the Battle Orion Defense Forces, having a good balance of electronics, fire control, and targeting systems.  The Gunslinger was the epitome of combined arms philosophy, able to attack a target on its own, jam an enemy’s fire systems, or call in artillery support with its targeting systems.  Korper, who hadn’t originally been assigned to the Gunslinger-class, had come to appreciate his ‘Mech.

“This place is actually pretty when it stops snowing,” came the quiet voice of Lieutenant Irene Cage.  She was his wingman, and had strode out of the Invincible along with him.  Her Ninja-class ‘Mech was the cutter and slasher of the OSDF, able to use its mobility to quickly close with an opponent.  Its armament also suited it well to the long range killing of opposing ‘Mechs, preferably from ambush.  Matching it with a Gunslinger made a very capable killing team for ambush or the long-range assault.

“Yeah, but I wouldn’t want to live here.  I hate cold weather.”

“You’re a pansy, Wendall.  It’s not that cold, especially in a ‘Mech.”

“Oh shut up.  Just because you come from the Helsinki system, where the temperature is perpetually eighty below, doesn’t mean we normal people are used to it,” Wendall replied.

“I still think you’re a pansy.”

Wendall was about to retort when he saw the first members of the 1st Platoon.

“Holy shit!  Battlearmor, coming in!  They’re missing a few!” Wendall said.  He could see the battlesuits had been in action, seeing the burn marks from where their SRMs had left the racks.  A couple of the suits had wounded on their backs.

“This is Echo One to Tin Man.  You’ve got eight battlesuits coming in with casualties and they look as if they’ve been in fight.  You might want to get the medics up and ready,” Wendall said, looking over the incoming troops.

“This is Bandito Two to Tin Man.  Large enemy force, repeat large enemy force inbound your position.  Appear to have been tracking Bandito elements.  Force is eight ‘Mechs and seven vehicles strong.  ‘Mechs are in the light scout class, but numbers could be a problem to Echo elements.  Vehicles appear to be mostly infantry carriers, but there are two missile vehicles.  Will attempt to delay enemy force.”

Bandito Two?  Where the hell is Frank? Wendall thought.

“Bandito Two, what is the state of Bandito One?” another voice, that of Major Paul Roderick, asked.

“Bandito One is Kilo India Alpha.  Current position is strobing on all Golf and Romeo elements.  Would suggest lifting off as soon as remainder of Bandito Force makes it to ferry ship.  Enemy has ferry ship on ground.  Will transmit all pertinent data over data link before attacking.”

“Roger that, Bandito Two.  Data links open.”

“Two transmitting now.”

 

Jonathan depressed the transmit button and relaxed into the harness of his suit, fatigued.  They had been in almost constant movement for the last two hours, pursuing the ‘Mech and vehicle force at a long distance.  The ‘Mechs had a great speed advantage on the battlesuits, and had been drawing away before they stopped at the battlesite.  Now the men of Fourth Squad had a chance to kill a ‘Mech and delay the enemy force.

Winters had already chosen their prey.  The ‘Mech appeared to be a walking gun platform, a large bore weapon extending from its  right torso.  Winters armed his SRMs, the last volley drifting into the racks.  He then charged his small laser.

The other eight battlesuited warriors followed suit.

 

“Sir, we have found seven body bags,” one of the infantryman reported.

“Any identification?” Hanse asked over his external speakers.

“Yes, sir.  These men have what appear to be encrypto tabs on necklaces around their necks.  These have no instructions or external messages, but we are policing them anyway.  Sir, these men do not appear to have been Clan.  They are not the size of normal Clan Elemental pilots, but their suits appear to be even more advanced than those of the Clans.”

Hanse pondered this for a moment.  He had been born after the Clan invasions and had never faced one of these units.  The infantryman speaking to him was an expert in the Clans, having fought them in numerous raids and skirmishes that had been given no real names.  If he said these soldiers were not Clan, they more than likely were not.  The final verdict would have to wait until the arrival of the Draconis Combine heavy ‘Mech units.  These warriors had had several close brushes with the Clans, most of them recent.  A few of them had commandeered Clan ‘Mechs even.  Hanse hoped that they didn’t run into any Clan ‘Mechs for their sakes.  Any of the warriors on this expedition would likely shoot first and ask questions later in the heat of battle.

“Do you have any idea where the enemy units went?”

“Their tracks lead in two directions, sir.  One is north, the direction we just came.  The other is south, away from the dropship, sir.  This appears to be the location of the enemy base,” the infantryman said.

Hanse really had to stop at this moment.  This sounded like an opportunity for him to gain greater glory.  If they found the enemy’s base or a dropship that was acting like one, they could get more ‘Mechs to come up.  With a few more medium ‘Mechs, Hanse and company could probably cripple the enemy vessel while it was on the ground.  If it was crippled, the Invincible could probably proceed to make a strafing run and do severe damage to the ship, neutralizing it on the ground.

Hanse would be hailed as a hero.

All of this ran through his mind in a single moment.  Just as he was about to give the order for his unit to pack it up and prepare to move, they were under attack.

 

Winters leaped through the air over the rise, his jump jets carrying him through a sharp arc.  The instant his feet hit he fired the small laser at his target.

The bolt carried high over the ‘Mechs head.  The pilot sidestepped sharply, running away from the attacking squad.  He obviously did not intend to fire his main weapon on Winters and his battlesuit.

Someone else obviously did not feel the same.  A medium laser flashed into his armor, some of the intense energy carrying through to him.  He fought down the urge to vomit, the pulse making him nauseous.  Once again, he fired his jump jets.  Two more medium lasers hit where he had been standing.  Waters turned towards the enemy ‘Mech, arming his SRMs.  The moment his feet impacted, he fired, then fired his small laser a split second later.

The enemy ‘Mech had triggered its medium lasers at just that moment.  Winters was kicked backwards, landing hard on his back.  The impact knocked him unconscious.

 

The impact of two SRMs staggered the Scarabus, and Hanse turned from watching a Komodo dispatch another Elemental.  One of the armor suits had attacked him from behind, and was about to pay the price.  The enemy trooper fired a desperation shot from its small laser.  The shot hit the ‘Mech in the hatchet arm, doing a slight amount of damage.  Hanse stepped forward just as the enemy trooper fired his jump jets.

With a catlike maneuver he swept his hatchet arm to intersect the enemy trooper.  The hatchet sliced through a leg, the limb tumbling back down to the ground.  Blood spurted onto the crystalline ground, as the suit tumbled crazily away and hit the ground, tumbling.

“Gotcha,” Hanse said quietly, turning to oversee his command.

The infantrymen were policing up the area, approaching the two suits that had any chance of their pilots having survived.  They pulled one slightly wounded, unconscious trooper out of his suit.  The pilot had caused moderate damage to a Komodo with his sharpshooting, but had been caught by that ‘Mechs massed laser fire.

Hanse considered ordering the man killed out of hand.  Elementals were the most despised of Clan troops, having wreaked great havoc among Inner Sphere forces during the Invasion.  Some of the infantry hands had been in units that had suffered heavily from these attackers.  The Elementals had not been gentle with normal infantry that they had encountered, often killing hand-to-hand for the sheer joy of it.

The orders were on his lips until they pulled the man out.  He was a small man, looking about average height.

“Do not harm him, Sergeant,” he barked over his external speakers.

“Yes sir,” came the clipped reply.  The man’s brother had been ripped limb from limb by an Elemental.  He had a personal score to settle with the genetically engineered soldiers.  If the man had appeared to be a true Elemental, Hanse would’ve let him satisfy his bloodlust.  However, he felt that it would not be wise to do so at this time.  They needed information, and this was the first live prisoner they had.  The second trooper they had pulled out, however, could die.

“Do what you will with her, Sergeant,” Hanse said simply.

The woman’s screams began to echo in his external speakers.

 

The wind was starting to kick up again.  Wendall was incredibly unhappy, thinking of the death of his friend as he looked at the battlevids one of the troopers had brought in.

“They didn’t even give him a chance,” Wendall said darkly.  His friend had simply been ordering a challenge to someone invading OSDF space.  That was within the rights of any sovereign planet or representative of such a planet.  There had been no reason to shoot him with the PPC.

“Don’t worry, sir.  We’ve got the bastard who did it,” one of the troopers said.  Wendall got ready to turn and head for the brig, hand resting on his pistol.

“Freeze Wendall!” Irene said, stepping in front of him.

“Out of my way,” Wendall growled.

“I’m not about to let you get put away for life, dammit!  You know that that is against OSDF regulations,” Irene said.

Wendall stopped, Irene’s words catching him.  OSDF Regulations, Code 17, Section 14, “The Treatment of Prisoners”, expressedely forbid the abuse or mistreatment of an enemy or mutinious individual.  Wendall could not touch the man without facing a life sentence and total stripping of his rank in court-martial.  Especially with this being an unknown alien race.

“I just want to talk to him,” Wendall said.

“You’ll leave your damn pistol here, Wendall Korper,” Irene barked.

The look on Wendall’s face told Irene that she was pressing too close.

“I remind you of your rank, Lieutenant Cage,” Wendall replied.

“Sir, yes sir,” Irene bit off the words.

Wendall took off his weapons belt and dropped it on the table, then strode off into the ferry ship’s belly, headed for the brig.

 

Daiyo came to with an IV dripping into his arm.  He fought the urge to yawn, knowing he was probably under observation.  The sound of someone breathing convinced him that this was true.

“Captain Korper, he is conscious now,” a silky female voice said.

Daiyo steeled himself.  Clanners were notorious for being good interrogators.  If he began to experience too much pain he would bite off his tongue.  That would end all interrogation.

Daiyo opened his eyes, expecting to be restrained.  found that he could move his hands, and even move his body.  He sat up, looking into the piercing blue eyes of a man sitting across from him.

“Who are you?” the man asked simply.

“I am Lieutenant Daiyo Osa, Draconis Combine, Fifth Battalion, Twelfth Ghost Regiment.”

“That tells me nothing,” the man said simply, his eyes still boring into Daiyo’s.

“Are you Clan?” Daiyo asked.

Wendall began to feel confused.

“What are you talking about?!” Wendall asked.

“Clan.  Which Clan do you belong to?  Who is your ilKhan?”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Wendall asked.

“Are you not Clan?” Daiyo asked.

“What are these damn Clans you keep talking about?  What the hell is the Draconis combine?” Wendall asked.

“The House of Kurita?  You mean that you have not heard of the Battle of Luthien?  Once again, what Clan are you?”

“I believe I will ask the questions here, Lieutenant Osa,” Wendall said sharply.

“I do not intend to answer anything else, uh, whatever your name is…”

“It is Captain Korper, Lieutenant Osa.  The battlearmored trooper you killed this morning was my friend.  Now, I have no idea who you are, what these Clans are, or who House Kurita is, but you will most definitely tell me why you killed my friend when you were violating Battle Orion space,” Wendall said archly.

“I have no idea what this Battle Orion space is, but my unit is claiming this planet and the other two planets in this system for House Kurita.  If you wish to surrender, you may any time,” Daiyo said.

Wendall was struck by this man’s arrogance.  He tightened up his hands as they were in his lap, cracking his knuckles.

“Okay asshole, let me inform you of something.  First, you are in Battle Orion space.  Battle Orion is the home planet of the Orion Self-Defense Force, or OSDF.  Our duty and job is to protect the borders of the Republic and carry out exploratory missions beyond these borders.  Second, we did not start this conflict or invade one of your planets.  We simply were acting in defense of our star system.

“Third, unless you brought a hellacious amount of ‘Mechs with you, you’re going to die.”  Wendall lifted up his collar tabs, pushing them up towards Daiyo.

A screaming skull on a red background was mounted under the Velcro tab.  A black triangle outlined the skull, with the insignia “Fuck With The Best-Die Like The Rest”.

“It’s a simple uniform tab.  I have one of those on my uniform also,” Daiyo said, pointing to his shoulder.

“You don’t understand.  That is the insignia of Legion No. 4, First OSDF Army.  Dark Legion is our unit’s name.”

“I don’t think you understand, my friend.  More than two regiments of ‘Mechs are dropping down to this planet in less than a day and a half.  Another regiment of assault class ‘Mechs will follow in another day.  You cannot hope to stand before this assault, my friend,” Daiyo said cockily.

Wendall began laughing hysterically.  He was consumed in belly laughs, convulsing on the chair.

“This force will destroy your pitiful legion, my friend,” Daiyo replied.

“Oh that’s good, buddy.  You’re a regular comedian,” Wendall said, smiling.

“Three regiments, all heavy, is not a force to be laughed at.  Obviously you have not faced the might of the Dragon,” Daiyo said.

“You really don’t know who you’re dealing with, do you?” Wendall asked.  “Three regiments is not even a brigade.  Dark Legion is composed of sixty-four regiments.  We are the best of the OSDF, for we are at the cutting edge of exploratory missions.  Even if you managed to smash through this little group here on Dragoon and Valhalla, then you would be crushed by the 121st Assault Brigade.  We will smash you, then go back down your trail with the entire Legion.  We will find your planet, raze it to the ground, and kill your entire population.  And if a Legion can’t do it, we’ll call in the entire First Army.  An Army is made up of four legions.  That’s two hundred and fifty-six regiments, asshole.  We can crush you entirely if need be.  If you wish to put you head in the hornet’s nest, that’s fine.”

“This is a pretty good lie, Captain Korper.  I must congratulate you on your great imagination.”

“You were warned, my friend,” Korper said simply.

It was at this moment that the alarm began screaming, riging in its stridency.

“See you in Hell, then,” Daiyo replied, leaping to his feet and taking off running.  Daiyo briefly considered tripping him, but thought better of it.  With rescue obviously so close there was no reason to try and get himself killed.

 

Irene was buckling into her boarding bucket when Wendall came into the ‘Mech bays.  She looked worried, her face lined in a frown.

The other two members of their platoon were sprinting for their own ‘Mechs, rubbing sleep out of their eyes.  The two had been exchanging shifts with Irene and Wendall.  Wendall hoped that the two had enjoyed their four hours of sleep.  He buckled into his own seat, riding up into the Gunslinger.  He sat down into his heavily padded seat, pulling his straps over.  The ‘Mech powered up immediately, sensing his weight.  He felt the electromagnetic rail gun in his right torso being loaded and his two lasers being loaded.  The IR-guided missiles mounted on the outside of his right arm came online, the sensors going active.   Finally, his fire control system, a Boomerang Mk. 23, came alive.  This was the most advanced of the OSDF’s targeting systems, allowing the destruction of individual limbs on an enemy Battlemech.  Even if this option was not used, the computer gave a general advantage to a ‘Mechwarrior at long ranges when matched with the fighting radar.

“This is Echo Leader, coming online now,” he said into his comlink.

“Roger that Echo Leader.  We’ve got multiple hostile paints coming in from all four quadrants.  Computer’s getting a count right now, but we’ve got more on the way.  Range to nearest contacts are eight miles,” the voice of the Invincible‘s controller came over his comline.

“That’s a big check, Tin Man,” Wendall said.

“Get a move on, Mr. Korper.  The contacts are massing for attack now,” the controller said.

“Roger that.  Okay Fourth Platoon, let’s get a move on,” Wendall said, rumbling towards the open door.

“We’ve got thirty contacts, twenty-four ‘Mechs, six vehicles, Echo Leader,” Korper said.

“Roger that,” Wendall said.

A different voice came on the phone.  “This is Captain Lukes, Captain Korper.  We’re not ready to lift off.  We need at least thirty minutes to secure everything, Captain.  We’ll need another ten to secure your ‘Mechs.  Get out there and do some damage, Korper.  The heaviest enemy ‘Mech appears to be fifty-five tons, but they’ve got six to one odds,” Lukes said.

“Ain’t life a bitch,” Wendall muttered to himself, moving his ‘Mech towards the weapons door.  The measured tread of his feet vibrated gently through the ‘Mech.  The Gunslinger was ready to go to war.  Wendall was amazed that there was no fear in his heart.  He simply had a grim purpose.

 

Irene was frightened.  Her hands shook terribly on the controls as they advanced from the ferry ship’s hull.  She kept her eyes on Wendall’s ‘Mech, trying to gain her concentration.  It seemed that her ‘Mech was getting bad vibes off of her, moving with trepidation.

“Let’s get ready to rumble, folks.  Tallyho, twelve o’clock.  Range is five klicks,” Wendall said.

“I’ve got more contacts, three o’clock, range six klicks,” the second section leader, 1st Lieutenant Petros Moral, said.  His quad-legged Arachnid Mk III ran over the cold wastes, the weapons fit being mostly long-ranged.  His wingmate was piloting the deadliest ‘Mech out of the group, a BDMS-2 Samurai.  This ‘Mech was well respected, having the best combination of speed, protection, and firepower, provided it was used correctly.  However, should a pilot fire every one of the heavy weapons in his arsenal he would find himself swiftly overheated.  The pilot, Julie Thornburg, was quite competent, having graduated first in her class and been given one of the deadly Samurai‘s as her reward.

“Alright folks, odds are six-to-one but they’ve got only half our weight.  Each of you take a quadrant!” Wendall barked.

“Roger,” Irene choked out, running to the south.  Julie turned and dashed to the west, her Samurai‘s full military throttle kicking in.  It could run at double its walking speed for a few minutes before its legs would freeze, but those few minutes could make the range close incredibly quick.  Thornburg was jumping in with both feet and a roundhouse swing.

The six ‘Mechs advancing towards her were the heaviest of the attacking ‘Mechs.  Two of them were 55-tonners and three were 45-tons.  It was a fair match,  Julie and her 100-tonner able to deal heavy death.

 

The advancing ‘Mech was closing at high speed.  Hanse turned to the other five ‘Mechs in his lance.

“Torez, Morikos, Lakes, your kill,” Hanse said.

“Sir, that beast is at least one hundred tons!” Torez shouted back.

“Have fun,” Hanse replied, leading the 55-ton Shadow Hawk IIC behind him to their left.  The commandeered Clan ‘Mech was a key to his plan with its amazing ability to close with a certain position.  The pilot inside began running, making himself a very hard target over the clear ground.

The enemy ‘Mechwarrior turned and began to go after the Shadow Hawk.  Torez, piloting a APL-1M Apollo, stopped and targeted the oncoming ‘Mech.  The Artemis IV system inside either ‘Mech’s torso achieved lock on the enemy ‘Mech, and he depressed the trigger.  Thirty missiles arced from the torsos, headed downrange towards the enemy ‘Mech.  The three other ‘Mechs, two Komodo‘s and a Stealth, had to close to close range to kill the enemy ‘Mech.

The enemy ‘Mech twisted to the side, trying to avoid the missile fire.  Unfortunately, the ‘Mech could not get rid of the Artemis lock.  Twenty-seven of the missiles thundered into the massive ‘Mech, staggering the behemoth.  The enemy pilot stopped and brought up its left arm, pointing it at the Apollo.  The pilot triggered his weapons, three bolts zipping downrange and hitting the ‘Mech dead center.  Hanse had recognized two of them as PPC bolts.  He shuddered at the range they had been fired upon.

The Apollo was shattered by the damage, its internal skeleton showing.  This was just briefly though, as the last weapon, a large laser, shot into the internal structure of the Apollo.  The laser found the engine, shattering it.  The ‘Mech pitched forward, smoking heavily.  It thundered face down with a heavy thud.  The shielding to the engine suddenly gave way, exploding through the ‘Mech.  Torez did not get out.

 

Julie felt the heat starting to rise in her ‘Mech and made sure that she did not fire the heavy energy bombardment once more.  She then brought up her right arm to engage the closing medium ‘Mechs.  She was being diverted from the other two enemy ‘Mechs, but that was of no matter.  The ferry ship’s guns could handle the attacking ‘Mechs.  She was doing her best to finish off these enemies.

The missiles had simply chipped away armor on her arms and torso.  She brought up the U-AC-20, pointing it at the first enemy ‘Mech.

The Stealth was closing at 152 kph, firing all of its weapons.  Julie waited until the ‘Mech was swelling in her windscreen, its fire starting to impact all over her ‘Mech.  The enemy pilot was cocking back and getting ready to deliver a punch when she fired the huge autocannon at double rate.

The stream of tungsten-carbide shells hit the ‘Mech dead in its cockpit.  The stream went clear through the enemy ‘Mech’s cockpit, blowing its head completely off.

The carcass slammed into her ‘Mech, knocking it backwards.  Julie immediately knew she had held her fire way too long, as she stumbled backwards and landed flat on her back.

The damage board began screaming warnings on her.  She had lost a pair of heat sinks and the majority of her rear armor.  The ‘Mech was hard hit, but not mortally damaged.

The first Komodo suddenly came flying through the smoke and snow she had stirred up.  The ‘Mech slammed into him hard, smashing her chest armor to pieces and driving her to the ground.  The ‘Mech stumbled over her and landed face down.

Julie was first to her feet, the Samurai having great responses and control.  She ignored the ‘Mech on the ground behind her, bringing up her autocannon to fire at the other ‘Mech’s teammate.  The stream of shells caught the charging Komodo high in its left torso.  The ‘Mech’s left arm fell to its side, as the torso crumbled.  The massive amount of damage left the ‘Mech stumbling backwards.

The impact of multiple medium lasers into her back through her forward.

“Shit!” Julie shouted, looking at her damage schematics.  There were just too many of the enemy ‘Mechs.  Her extended-range laser and part of her engine had been hard hit.  She could no longer fire the twin PPC’s in her arm due to the high heat.

She turned, taking the second volley from the Komodo into her chest.  The enemy pilot suddenly realized that he was taking on more than he could handle, and fired the jump jets.  The medium ‘Mech sprung away from her, firing back for its own defense.

Julie tracked slowly with her PPC’s and fired one.  The bolt caught the ‘Mech at the apex of its climb, knocking it off balance.  It hit hard, tumbling and shearing it’s arm off.

Some sixth sense made her duck her ‘Mech and turn.  The volley of laser shots went over her head, missing close.

“I’m sick of your ass,” Julie said, firing her jump jets just as they enemy ‘Mech fired again.  The Komodo pilot’s shock was evident as he did not move out of her way.

The Samurai had been designed to be the most mobile and deadly ‘Mech in any phase of combat.  Its physical attack capabilities were enormous, its size and maneuverability giving it the ability to match smaller ‘Mechs.  The favored attack of all Samurai pilots was the “Leap o’ Death”.  When first conceived, the ‘Mech’s designers had realized that this would probably occur.  Its arms were designed to automatically go up vertically to protect the weapons mounted there if a pilot decided to use such an attack.

The sight of a 100-ton beast falling from the skies was the last thing the enemy ‘Mech pilot saw.  Her kinetic energy smashed the ‘Mech’s forward thrusting head up and back, and she smashed the enemy war machine to the ground, controlling her fall so she landed atop it.

The impact threw her hard against the straps, bruising her.  The computer screamed out dire warnings, telling her that the ‘Mech could not take much more abuse such as this.

“Just give me a few more seconds,” Julie said, and smashed her fist forward into the enemy torso.  Her steel clad hand smashed through and grabbed the enemy’s gyro, shredding it.  Even if her first impact hadn’t killed the pilot, this final act had disabled the ‘Mech.

Julie turned to face the other enemy ‘Mech.  Its leap had taken it out of its weapons’ range, and now it was trying to rush back to take her in the rear.  Unfortunately Julie had enough time to turn and bring up her autocannon.

The massive weapon spoke for the last time.  The storm of shells obviously hit something major, for the ‘Mech exploded violently in a thousand pieces.

“That was impressive,” Julie said coldly, standing to her feet.  The jump into the enemy ‘Mech had seriously damaged one of her leg structures.  She could walk, but not run.

 

Wendall felt the four electromagnetic rail gun shots slam into his ‘Mech.  The damn light ‘Mechs were packing very large weapons for their weight.  The mounting gave them the appearance of running rail guns.  His ‘Mech’s armor was already reduced, and he saw incoming missiles launched from an infantry vehicle.

“That’ll be enough of this shit,” Wendall said, picking his first target.  He had let the enemy fire first to close the range and be sure of his targets.  Now he was ready to fire.

His large pulse laser lashed out first, hitting one of the running rail guns dead center in its torso.  Wendall watched as the thing’s armor seemed to melt away, leaving its skeletal internal structure exposed.  Wendall mashed down on the trigger for his extended range medium lasers just as the enemy pilot fired his rail gun.

The slug passed close by his cockpit as his laser bolt pierced the enemy ‘Mech through.  The bipedal war machine went face down hard, coming to a dead stop.

Wendall turned to face its charging platoon mates, his own rail gun coming online.  The agile ‘Mechs suddenly changed direction, scattering.  Wendall focused on the one closest to his own ‘Mech, swiveling his torso to fire as he began advancing at a steady walk.  The firing control computer began assimilating information and probable paths, then highlighted the one most likely to be taken.  It began tracking along this line, cueing him to fire.

The rail gun spoke once.  The depleted uranium slug sped downrange and smashed into the enemy ‘Mech, hitting it hard in its right side.  The capacitators to the rail gun exploded, completing the destruction of the ‘Mech’s right side.  The massive damage blew it over on its back, out of the fight.

The other two light ‘Mechs stopped and fired, their rail guns hitting him low on the left side.  Wendall turned towards the two ‘Mechs, and was about to fire when a fusillade fire hit him.  Two laser bolts and a rail gun slug savaged his right arm.  The computer showed serious damage to this area, the limb being partially severed.  He could still use it, but not that well.  He was fortunate that no major weapons were mounted there.

Wendall turned to see a ‘Mech that looked like it had a war bonnet atop its head.  This ‘Mech was obviously a greater threat than the two light ‘Mechs with the rail guns.  He would not be able to fight all of them at the same time.  It was time to get moving.

Wendall reached down and slapped the ‘Mech into full military power, the legs starting to pump at a faster rate as he turned towards the enemy ‘Mech.  Two rail gun slugs passed close by, as the two ‘Mechs behind him tried to hit him in the back.  Wendall knew it would take them a few moments to get turned and begin pursuing him.

He had forgot about the vehicles.

As the twenty LRMs slammed into his back, his memory was jogged.  The damage was enormous, his reactor starting to overload.  The computer fired him out of his cockpit, arcing him through the cold sky.

I hate cold weather, was his last thought before he was knocked unconscious.

The Gunslinger exploded, its death throes lighting up the dusk sky.

 

The pilot of the ‘Mech that had hit him with the double punch of Gauss rifle and ER large laser smiled as he brought his communicator up to his lips.

“Sir, we have another prisoner,” he said simply.

“Roger that,” Captain Potelemy replied.  He was riding in his command vehicle ten kilometers from the scene of the action.  “Do not hurt him.  He may prove..”

The planet’s weird electromagnetic field had cut off the last of the transmission.  The important part, however, had gotten through.  The ‘Mechwarrior signalled the infantry troops not to hurt the enemy pilot.  He then turned his Huron Warrior towards the enemy dropship’s last position.  Smoke was rising from that position, and he hoped that meant their assault had accomplished its mission.

 

Invincible

 

Those members of Echo Platoon that wre still in one piece fell back in order towards the dropship just as Wendall was going down.  The group had killed fifteen of the small enemy ‘Mechs between them, their clear firepower advantage having told in spades.  A fifteen to one kill ratio wasn’t bad at all.

Irene fought hard to keep the tears out of her eyes.  Wendall’s ejection transceiver had not been picked up.  This could mean several things.  More than likely it meant he had not punched out before the enemy vehicle had killed him.  As she walked her battle scarred Ninja into the ferry ship, firing a parting shot out the door, she tried hard not to think about what Korper had meant to her.

A shadow suddenly blocked out the sun.  An enemy ‘Mech had managed to jump through the sleeting fire Invincible was putting out and land in front of her ‘Mech door.  The enemy pilot was hoping to get an internal hit, shooting through the door and hitting something major.  Unfortunately for him he had jumped right into Irene’s crosshairs.

Three lasers flashed in unison, hitting the Shadow Hawk IIC dead center in its chest, blasting it backwards.  Just as the enemy ‘Mech was trying to scramble to its feet, Irene’s ‘Mech door shut.

Irene backed her ‘Mech into its transporting cradle, hearing and feeling the ferry ship’s guns thundering on.  She picked up her comset, clicking it on.

“Echo Two…”  She fought down a sob.  “Echo Two secured,” she said finally.

“Roger that.  Liftoff in two minutes,” the controller replied.

 

Hanse looked at the prone Shadow Hawk IIC and the dropship starting to shudder and knew they were going to lose the ‘Mech.

“Get out of there, Gary!” he shouted over the com.  As if he heard him, the ‘Mech started to rise and turn to jump.

A pair of weapon’s mounts swivelled to track the ‘Mech.  A large autocannon began its buzzsaw song, catching the ‘Mech in the back.  When Hanse saw the stream of autocannon shells exiting out the other side of the ‘Mech, he knew it was over.  The explosion of the ‘Mech was lost in the flames and fire of the enemy dropship taking off.

The ship rumbled into the sky and headed into the leaden sky.

“Dammit!” Hanse said, pounding his control panel.  The ship was rapidly lost in the low hanging clouds.  The enemy had escaped!

 

Invincible

“Okay folks, we’re out of boost stage,” Captain Lukes voice came over the com.  “All officers meet in the ready room.”

Irene popped her cockpit tab.  This automatically released a rope ladder, and she headed down it, disdaining the boarding bucket.

Julie was waiting for her at the bottom of the ‘Mech, tears also in her eyes.  Wendall had been a friend to them both, a good company commander.  The two hugged each other, consoling.

Petros came over and hugged them both to his huge chest.  He was speechless.  Just six hours before, they had all been one happy lance that had volunteered to go to Dragoon and were just then making planetfall.  Now they were minus one member, the pilot still on the planet dead or seriously wounded.  It was the first incident of combat in over twenty-five years for the OSDF.  That had been a minor pirate outbreak.  This appeared to be an alien invasion.

“We’ve got to go,” Petros said.

“Yeah, he’s right,” Julie said, letting Moral go.

The ready room was a grim place.  Gunnery Sergeant Chris Potter, acting commander of the First Platoon, looked like he was still somewhat in shock.  More than half of the Platoon were either casualties or missing.  Master Sergeant Winters had never called again.  They had left their dead to the enemy’s mercy.  His unit had only managed to kill one ‘Mech in exchange for all of this.  It was truly a bad day for the infantry corps.

Captain Lukes looked over his battle scarred troops as he walked into the room.  He had just finished setting the ferry ship on course for the system capital of Valhalla and was preparing to put the Invincible into two times the force of gravity to get there.  The officers were first going to meet and discuss what had just happened.

Lukes sat down at the head of the table.  He had not served during the pirate outbreak, being assigned to a different sector.  Lukes had never had to face speaking to troops had suffered the loss of friends in combat.  This was as new and frightening experience to him as it was the young men and women grouped before him.

Of course, Lukes had never let something like that stop him before.  His general philosophy was to seize a bull by the horns and not let go.

“Ladies and gentlmen, it may not feel like it, but we’ve won the first round,” he said shortly, keeping his voice level.  “In exchange for one ‘Mech and twenty troops, we destroyed sixteen enemy ‘Mechs and three vehicles.  I know that sounds like I’m a coldhearted bastard, but we have won an important victory.”

“Pardon me, sir, but that’s not going to bring a single one of our friends back,” Petros said simply.

“Belay that, Moral!” Major Roderick barked.

“Sir, yes sir,” Petros said, his voice having not changed a bit.

“Sir, what are we going to do now?  Are we going to go back?  Are we going to call for help from the rest of the Legion?  Or are we going to wait for the enemy to screw up and land on Valhalla?” Julie asked Roderick, giving Petros a glance that told him to hold his tongue.

“I think we’re going to do two of those things.  Those two are calling for reinforcements, at least a brigade, and waiting on Valhalla.  I understand that you want to go back and attempt to find Captain Korper, but unfortunately that just isn’t viable now.  The ferry ship was moderately damaged just by that small number of ‘Mechs, and we can’t afford to run the risk of getting damaged beyond repair by any forces the enemy may have on Dragoon.  We know that they have a fairly large dropship thanks to the battlevids of Sergeant Winters.  I don’t know what they’re carrying, but let’s not take any chances.  I’d feel alot better with the remainder of the 121st Garrison Battalion behind me,” Roderick said.

“I hear that,” Lukes replied.

The members of Echo Lance were obviously not happy with this decision, but kept their mouths shut.

 

Mogami

 

Wendall awoke with a gasp of pain, screaming.  Someone had jostled his arm, shaking the broken limb.  The pain was like a white dagger through his pleasant, unconscious state.

“He is awake now, sir,” a voice said with laughter in it.  Wendall snapped his head towards the voice, seeing a laughing technician.  Wendall realized swiftly that his arm had been jostled in order to shock him back into consciousness, not accidentally.  Right behind this brainstorm came the fact that he was not lying in Irene’s arms like he had been fantasizing about, but was stuck inside an enemy ferry ship.  Finally, it occurred that he should try to escape.

All of this happened in a millisecond.  In the next, he was popping up and swinging with his good hand.

The shock of a stunner slammed him back onto the cot.  Wendall bit back his scream, vowing death to the man in front of him.

“I was hoping I would not have to stun you, ‘Mechwarrior, but you obviously do not know how to make yourself a good houseguest,” the technician said.

“You men are jackals!” Wendall shouted.  At the moment his diaphragm was all that was responding.

“Ah, but we are the jackals who have you in our clutches, Clanner,” the tech replied.

The glow in Wendall’s eyes was very, very apparent.

“I don’t know what in the hell a damn Clanner is, but I am not one!  Now let me see one of your superior officers, asshole, and we can talk about this!” Wendall shouted.

The tech looked at him strangely, then scurried out of the room.  Wendall looked up towards the ceiling, wondering at what his fate was about to be and trying to ignore the nagging pain in his arm.

A few minutes later a large, blonde-haired man came striding into the room.  His steel gray eyes met Wendall’s blue ones.  He did not extend his hand or give a greeting.  He simply said, “Follow,” and turned towards the exit to the interrogation room.

As Wendall was leaving he happened to glance over at another table.  A man was jerking under the influence of electricity.  He seemed familiar somehow.

Then it hit him.

“Sergeant Winters!” Wendall shouted, turning and dashing for the table.

A block of muscle and gristle hit him dead in the back, driving him to the floor.  A pair of hands reached around and grabbed his good arm.

“I would hate to break your good arm, my friend.  Now this time, follow me,” the man atop him said, adding a little bit of pressure.

“To hell with you!” Wendall gritted.  “You’ve treated me like an animal, not a prisoner of war.  You’re torturing one of the men in my command!  Have you no honor?!”

The man holding him suddenly realized he had a leverage.

“We will stop torturing him if you cooperate with us fully and answer all of our questions.  However, if you do not, we will kill him in the most painful manner possible,” the man said.

Wendall realized he had messed up.  Looking over at the screaming, thrashing Winters he realized he had no choice.

“Agreed,” Wendall said.

 

Major McWaters turned to his chief of intelligience.

“Strange, but he does not seem Clan.  If he was, he would be a ‘trueborn’.  And if he was trueborn, he would not be using so many contractions.  I think this man and his subordinate are telling the truth-they are not Clan,” McWaters said.

“I’m afraid I must agree, sir.  They do not seem Clan,” his intelligience said.  The man had been a lance commander in 3050 when the Clans had first arrived.  These men were definitely not exhibiting any of the Clan characteristics.

This is not good, McWaters began thinking.  If these men are not Clan, we may have bitten off more than we can chew.  The last thing the Inner Sphere needs is more enemies.

“We shall see how things go between the captain and our ‘Mechwarrior,” Alan said, switching to another camera.

 

Wendall sat down across from the enemy officer.  He had inferred that the man held real rank when the crew had treated him with great deference as he escorted Wendall through the ship.  A few soldiers they had passed had treated Wendall to hot glares and looks of hatred that assured him of his death if the captain ever let him out of his sight.

Wendall returned these looks with a smile.  These were obviously warriors his platoon had bested or killed friends of in the battle.  Somehow their looks did not bother him that much.

“You are quite cocky, my young friend,” the man he was walking with said.  They came before a compartment, and the door whispered open.  His companion gestured for Wendall to have a seat.

“Looking at the way my platoon conducted itself, I have reason to be.  And before you say I’m cocky, just think about this:  Two of those pilots had less than a year’s service under their belt.  The men and women you will be facing on Valhalla, which I assume you are going to try and occupy, are the cream of the crop.  I admit, with a hundred and forty-four ‘Mechs, you might take the planet, assuming their larger than these tin cans you call ‘Mechs aboard this ship.  But, I assure you, it’s going to be at a cost.  And the population is not going to just sit there,” Wendall said.

“You talk too much, my friend,” the man replied.  “I assume you took Lieutenant Osa prisoner, which is how you found out your information?”

“You’d probably be correct in that assumption,” Wendall replied.

“Hmm.  I guess that means we will have to discipline him when he returns,” the man said.

Wendall looked at the man strangely, than shook his head.

“You don’t understand ‘Mechpilots if you’re going to do that.  If he’s anything like an OSDF pilot, he’s naturally cocky.  And from what I’ve seen, we’re alot alike.”

“What is your name and rank, ‘Mechwarrior?”

“Captain Wendall Korper, Orion Self-Defense Force.”

“And I am Captain Eric Potelemy, Federated-Commonwealth.”

Wendall smiled.  He had thought that this was the enemy ferry ship commander.

“I must protest the treatment of Sergeant Winters and myself.  We have not been treated for our injuries or given the decency and respect an enemy prisoner of war accords.  It is bad enough that you and your men have invaded a sovereign state without provocation.  You did not need to increase your crimes by mistreatment of the prisoners you take.  I demand that you cease torturing Sergeant Winters and give us the treatment that we deserve,” Wendall said.

Eric pondered for a moment.

“It is done.”

Wendall looked shocked at the ease of the decision.

“But on one condition, Captain Korper.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to ask you to compromise your comrades by giving me their defensive positions.  No, what I’m going to ask you is much more important than that.  I want to know everything there is to know about your society.  I mean I want to know rulers, protocol, military training, everything.  I don’t want it all at once, for you’ll have plenty of time to tell me everything.  I just want it by the time we finish off Valhalla,” Eric said.

“You have a deal, Captain Potelemy.  But, I assure you, Valhalla will not be the cakewalk you expect,” Wendall said, smiling.

A tone sounded from a speaker mounted in the bulkhead behind Wendall.

“Captain Potelemy?”

“Yes?”

“Sir, the Oi group has arrived,” the intercom buzzed.

“Thank you, Mr. McWaters,” Potelemy said.  “Follow me, Captain Korper.  You’re about to see just why Valhalla will be a cakewalk,” Eric said.  Wendall rose, his arm reminding him that it was still broken.

The captain led him to the bridge of the ferry ship and gestured for the shields to be removed from the windows.  Wendall was treated to a panoramic view of Dragoon’s cloudy sky.  Night had fallen, and the clouds looked dark and sinister as they went about their paths.

Suddenly these clouds were lit up from above.  Drive blasts pierced the bottom, melting the snow and ice on the ground below.

A very large shape passed through the clouds.  Wendall saw the outline of the ship and realized that it was the same type and size of the ship he was standing upon.  The vessel came to a rest, its landing legs deploying.  Wendall realized that the OSDF was going to have problems as he looked over the full three hundred and sixty degree area.

The first ship had been joined by three others.  A total of five dropships were now sitting on the ground.  Sure, sixteen of this ferry ship’s ‘Mechs were gone, but that still left at least twenty more.  There were one hundred sixty-four ‘Mechs preparing to invade Valhalla.  It wasn’t looking good for the garrison battalion.  With all of their aerospace assets and a large number of their battalion assets gone on Exercise Winter Thunder, the 121st Garrison Battalion was going to be in deep kimchi.

 

Valhalla

 

Colonel Iam Pilot, commander of the 121st Garrison Battalion, finished making his last turn on the three mile run.  The headquarters building for the unit, sited in the center of downtown Valhalla, was only a quarter of a mile ahead of him.  He began sprinting, pumping his legs faster and faster, the air burning in his lungs.

The sound of a siren totally surprised him.  Iam almost stopped to look up at the pole behind him to see if someone was working on the siren when he realized that not just that one was going off.

Military officers everywhere were stopped, looking up in stunned silence.  Unannounced drills were illegal by vote of the Valhalla Council.  If the sirens were screaming, there had to be a reason.  After their brief moment of immobility, the men snapped out of it and started sprinting for their positions.  Iam sprinted hard for the HQ building, his muscular legs flashing.  His ebony face carried the worry that was running through his mind as he entered the front door and headed for the elevator that led to the subterranean command post.

The command post was proof to gas, fire, and all forms of explosive ordnance short of direct nuclear barrage fire.  This was the safest place on Valhalla.

Iam punched in his access code, and the doors opened.  Iam nearly ran down a pair of company commanders sprinting out of the elevator.  He grabbed one of them, Captain Herschel Allen.

“What’s your status?!” he shouted against the din of the restarting sirens.

“We’ve got all of our tanks back online.  I don’t know what in the hell happened to Third Platoon, but if it’s Loker’s fault, he’s out of there.  Damn butterbar lieutenant needs to get his head out of his ass or my foot’s going to be in there with it,” Herschel said.

“Give him some time.  I seem to remember another butterbar lieutenant who wasn’t exactly the smartest person in the world that I gave a break,” Pilot told him.

“Yes, sir.”

“Get a move on.  I wish Korper hadn’t gone on that stupid expedition to Dragoon and left the one company of ‘Mechs I have without a commander,” Pilot said.

Herschel gave him a strange look.

“Sir, don’t you know?  That’s why we’re on red alert.  Someone shot up the Invincible,” Herschel shouted behind him, headed out the door.

It was in this manner that the commander of the 121st found out he was in a shooting war.  However, Colonel Pilot did not realize yet what he was about to face.  The first thought running through his mind was simply pirates.

Little did he know what was coming.

 

Dragoon

 

The group of men in the current room were some of the deadliest fighters in the Inner Sphere.  Each and every one of them was a veteran Invasion and the bitter fighting and raiding afterwards.  Most men here had lost family and friends to the invading societies, but had also exacted a very heavy price for their losses.

The expedition had been set up by Comstar in a diplomatic flurry.  The organization had first been forced to get rid of the natural distrust most of the Succession States had for it.  The second phase had been presenting the Com Guards as the basis for the expedition into unknown space.  Third had been getting all of the Houses to lay aside their differences and agree to go into the expedition jointly.

In all of these endeavors, Comstar had succeeded.  The group of 163 ‘Mechs gathered here were the best of the newest plus a few older, renovated models.  Sure, these units weren’t the Kell Hounds, Wolf Dragoons, Seventh Sword of Light, Gray Death Legion, or Black Thorns, but they were good enough.  And more were coming.  When all was said and done, Comstar and its alliance would have 326 ‘Mechs, 124 vehicles, 60 Aerofighters, 21 VTOLs, and 12,000 infantry in this system.  If necessary, the system could be used for raids into Clan space from the rear.

The overall commander of this large force was not from Comstar, however.  General Mutsu Fuchida had been a simple ‘Mechwarrior at the start of the Battle of Luthien.  By the end of the engagement, he was a captain in charge of his own company.  His bravery and capability on subsequent raids and assaults had got him promoted to command of his own regiment.

That’s when Comstar had requested him for this mission.  The man had graciously accepted, realizing he would probably be held a hero if this was successful, and could blame it on Comstar’s planning if he did not.

At the moment, he was reviewing the ROMs of the earlier battles with a grim look on his face.

“Every one of these enemy ‘Mechs massed around one hundred tons, my lord,” Hanse was saying, as the vids of his lance getting worked over were run.  “This ‘Mech in particular seemed to have the firepower of my entire lance comprised in its frame, plus the mobility of any one ‘Mech.  Its pilot, we have found out from one of our prisoners, is just out of their training academy.  She moves like one of our most experienced warriors,” Hanse said, the replay of the last Komodo‘s destruction moving across the screen.

“Lights please,” Hanse said, sick of seeing the slaughter.  “Gentlemen, we are facing a very dire threat as we sit here.  Apparently, these ‘Mechs are not Clan, even though they have Clan technology.  Both of our prisoners claim that they are not Clanners, and lie detector tests seem to bear this out,” Hanse said.  “We…”

“Have you subjected the men to torture?” Major Himoto Osa asked.  He was the older brother of Daiyo Osa, and the news of his brother’s capture had him in a generally unhappy state.

“No we have not, Major Osa,” Captain Potelemy thundered from the end of the table.  “Simply because your brother was to stupid to gain knowledge of the situation before he made an unprovoked attack is no reason for us to subject these men to torture.  I’ve decided we can get a hell of alot more information out of these men of their own free will than by torturing them to death, which is what we were going to end up doing with the enlisted man.”

“How are you so sure, oh great Captain, that they will comply with us willingly?  Have you asked them about what we can expect to face on this ‘Valhalla’?!” Himoto retorted.

“Calm down, both of you.  Himoto, I am ashamed of you showing such emotion.  You must control yourself better.  There is no reason for you to become upset.  And as to you, Captain Potelemy, it is not standard practice for us to treat our prisoners so well,” Mutsu said.

“And perhaps that is why you are the most disliked of any foe,” Potelemy retorted.

“We don’t lose often, and I would like to remind you that I am your superior officer, despite what our House’s differences in the past,” Mutsu said.

“Yes, sir.”

“Now then, I will allow you to continue in your treatment of the prisoners.  However, if they do not begin to produce pertinent information, than we are going to try the Draconis way.”

“Yes, sir.  However, I would just like to state that you will have to use mind-altering drugs and that you will leave these men mental wrecks that will be no good to anyone,” Eric said.

“We did not plan to keep them alive anyway if it got to that stage,” Mutsu replied.

“What is our timetable for invading this last planet?” a Free Worlds Federation officer asked.

“It is a six day journey to this other planet.  We will leave tomorrow, after all of our scout ‘Mechs are repaired.  This will be different in that we can use our Aerofighters to soften up the planet and its defenses.  Hopefully, this means we will not have to rely on our scouts to such a great extent, considering that not many are left.

“The Oi will lead an armed reconaissance tomorrow.”*** FINIS  (Battletech and associated terms retain their copyright with Topps, Inc.  All other characters and this text are copyrighted by myself.  This may be shared at will, but may not be published for profit or used in any manner that violates copyright)

Acts of War Sample Chapter

From Acts of War

H.M.S. Exeter

North Atlantic

1330 Local (1030 Eastern)

12 September

Whether or not Eric was all right was likely a matter of opinion.  He wasn’t flying anymore, as the weather conditions had started to become much worse since he’d left Ranger’s deck that morning.  The base of the clouds had once again descended, and he estimated that the ceiling was well under ten thousand feet.  At sea level, visibility was under ten miles, and an approaching squall promised to make it less than that very soon.

I don’t blame the Brit pilots for nixing the thought of flying reconnaissance in this, Eric thought.  Yet for some reason I’d still rather take my chances in that soup than be on this ship right now.  She’s definitely going into harm’s way, and fast.

The heavy cruiser’s deck throbbed beneath his feet, and the smoke pouring from her stack and stiff wind blowing onto her bridge told him that Exeter had definitely picked up speed.

“Sir, I’ve brought Leftenant Cobb,” Adlich said, causing Captain Gordon to turn around.  Exeter’s master had obviously been mollified by the worsening conditions, as he gave Eric a wry grin when the American officer stepped up beside him.

Whoa, it’s cold out here, Eric thought.  As if reading his mind, a petty officer handed him a jacket.

“We remove the windows when we’re getting ready to go into action,” the man said.  “Lesson learned after River Plate.”

“Thank you,” Eric said.  “I guess the windows would be a bit problematic in a fight.”

The petty officer gave a wan smile, pointing to a scar down his cheek.

“Glass splinters are a bit sharp, yes.”

“Your squadron commander was either a very brave man or a much better pilot than anyone I know,” Gordon said solemnly from behind the ship’s wheel.

Or alternatively, Commander Cobleigh was an idiot who didn’t check with the meteorologist before we took off.

Eric was about to reply when the talker at the rear of the bridge interrupted him.

“Sir, Hood should be coming into visual range off of our port bow,” the rating reported.  “Range fifteen thousand yards.”

“Thank you,” Gordon replied.  The captain then strode to the front of the bridge, stopping at a device that reminded Eric of the sightseeing binoculars atop the Empire State Building.  Bending slightly, Gordon wiped down the eyepieces, then swiveled the binoculars to look through them.

“Officer of the deck,” Gordon said after a moment.

“Yes, sir?” a Royal Navy lieutenant answered from Eric’s right.  Roughly Eric’s height, the broad-shouldered man looked like he could probably snap a good-sized tree in half with his bare hands.

“Confirm with gunnery that the director’s tracking Hood’s bearing to be three one zero, estimated range fourteen thousand, seven hundred fifty yards.”

“Aye aye, sir,” the officer replied.  Eric heard the RN officer repeating the information as Gordon stepped back from the sight and turned to look at him.

“Well, if you want to see how the other half lives, Leftenant Cobb, feel free to have a look.”

Eric hoped he didn’t look as eager as he felt walking forward towards the bridge windows.  Bending a little further to look through the sight, he pressed his face up against the eyepieces.  Swinging the glasses, he found himself looking at the H.M.S. Hood, flagship of the Royal Navy.  With her square bridge, four turrets, and rakish lines, the battlecruiser was a large, beautiful vessel that displaced over four times the Exeter’s tonnage.  Black smoke poured from her stack, and her massive bow wave told Eric that she was moving at good speed.

“You can change the magnification with the switch under your right hand,” Gordon said, startling Eric slightly.  He followed the British master’s advice, continuing until he could see the entire approaching British force as it closed.  Destroyers were roughly one thousand yards in front of and to either side of the Hood.  Behind her at one-thousand-yard intervals were two large vessels, either battleships or battlecruisers, with another one starting to exit the mist like some sort of great beast stirring from its cave.  After a moment, Eric recognized the distinctive silhouette as that of a Nelson-class battleship.

“That is the King George V, Prince of Wales, and Nelson behind her.  Warspite should be next.”

Eric nodded at Gordon’s statement, continuing to watch as the final battleship made its appearance.  A moment later, Gordon starting to give orders to the helmsman.  Exeter’s bow began to swing around to port, causing Eric to step back from the sight with a puzzled expression.

“We’ll be passing between the destroyer screen and the Hood to take our place in line,” Gordon said.  Eric turned back to the device, continuing to study the British battleline.  A few moments later, there was the crackle of the loudspeaker.

“All hands, this is the captain speaking,” Gordon began.  “Shortly we will be passing by the Hood.  All available hands are to turn out topside to give three cheers for His Majesty.  That is all.”

Eric stepped back from the sight, his face clearly radiating his shock.  Gordon smiled as he came back up towards the front of the bridge with the officer of the deck.

“The King is going into battle?” he asked incredulously.  “Isn’t that a bit…”

“Dangerous?” Gordon finished for him.  “Yes, but much like your situation, circumstances precluded His Majesty’s transfer to another vessel.”

“What?  That doesn’t make any…”

“His Majesty was apparently aboard the Hood receiving a briefing from the First Sea Lord when the Queen Mary was torpedoed,” Gordon said, his voice cold.  “We were not expecting the German surface units to be as close as they were, and it was considered imprudent to stop the Hood with at least two confirmed submarines close about.  Is that sufficient explanation to you, or would you like to continue questioning our tactics?”

Eric could tell he was straining his host’s civility, but the enormity of what was at risk made him feel he had to say something.

“I’m no expert at surface tactics…”

“That much is obvious,” Gordon snapped.

“…but the Hood is a battlecruiser,” Eric finished in a rush.  “While I didn’t get a great look at the Germans before they shot up me and my commander, Rawles saw at least two battleships.”

“Your concern is noted, Leftenant Cobb, but I think that you will see the Hood is a bit hardier than a dive bomber.”

Okay, I’m just going to shut up now, Eric said.  I may have slept through a lot of history, but I seem to recall the last time British battlecruisers met German heavy guns it didn’t go so well. A quote about there being problems with your “bloody ships” or something similar comes to mind.  The Battle of Jutland hadn’t been that long ago, as evidenced by the Warspite still being a front-line unit.  Eric sincerely hoped Gordon’s confidence was well-placed.

“Sir, we are almost on the Hood,” the officer of the deck interrupted.  Eric turned and realized that the lead destroyer was indeed almost abreast the Exeter, with the Hood now a looming presence just beyond.

“The Hood, after her refit, is the most powerful warship in the world,” Gordon continued, his voice a little less frigid.  “The Bismark and Tirpitz have only recently gone through refit, while the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau have not been in the open ocean for almost six months.  There should not be any major danger.”

If you’re looking around the room and you can’t find the mark, guess what?  You’re the mark.  Eric’s father’s words, an admonishment to always be suspicious of any situation that seemed too good to be true, came back to him with a cold feeling in his stomach.

The Germans would not be out here unless they had a plan, Eric continued thinking.  Somehow I think that, much like the Royal Air Force, the Royal Navy is about to receive a rude shock.

“All right lads, three cheers for His Majesty,” The loudspeaker crackled.  “Hip…hip…”

As the Exeter’s crew yelled at the top of their lungs, Eric studied the Hood in passing.  The two vessels were close enough that he could see a party of men in white uniforms standing on the battlecruiser’s bridge and the extraordinarily large flag streaming from the Hood’s yardarm.  Picking up a pair of binoculars resting on a shelf near the bridge’s front lip, he focused on the pennant.

“That’s the Royal Standard,” Gordon said after the last cheer rang out.  The device consisted of four squares, two red with the other pair gold and blue, respectively.  The two red were identical, forming the top left and bottom right portions of the flag.  Looking closely, Eric could see elongated gold lions or griffins within the squares.  The gold square had what looked like a standing red lion within a crimson square, while the blue had some sort of harp.

“What do the symbols mean, sir?” Eric asked.  Gordon shook his head.

Leftenant, I could probably remember if I thought hard enough about it, but I do not think that is very important right now.”

Eric nodded, placing the binoculars back down as the Exeter continued to travel down the battleline.  After Warspite, there were two more British heavy cruisers.  At Gordon’s command, the Exeter finished her turn, taking her place behind the other two CAs.  Satisfied with his vessel’s stationing, Gordon began dealing with the myriad tasks that a warship’s captain was expected to perform before battle.  Eric observed these with a sense of detachment, noting that the bridge crew operated like they had been there dozens of times.  Mentally, he compared the men to those he had observed aboard the American heavy cruiser Salt Lake City.

Things are so similar, yet so differentYou can tell these men have been at war for over three years, Eric thought, feeling strangely comforted by the obvious experience in front of him.  The feeling was fleeting, however, as the talker at the rear of the bridge broke the routine.

“Sir, Hood reports multiple contacts, bearing oh three oh relative, range thirty thousand yards,” the talker at the rear of the bridge said.  It was if his words touched off a current of electricity around the entire compartment, as each man seemed to stiffen at his post.

“Well, glad to see that she’s got better eyes than we do,” Gordon muttered under his breath.  “Pass the word to all stations.”

Eric saw motion out of the corner of his eye and turned to see the Exeter’s two forward turrets training out and elevating.

“Flag is directing a change in course to one seven zero true,” the talker continued.  “Vessels will turn in sequence.  Destroyers are to form up for torpedo attack to our stern.”

Gordon nodded in acknowledgment, and Eric could see the man was obviously in pensive thought.  After their earlier exchange, Eric had no desire to attempt to discern what he was thinking.  Judging from the look on the man’s face, it was probably nothing good.  Looking to port, Eric could see the British destroyers starting to steam past for their rendezvous astern of Exeter, a scene that was repeated a moment later on the starboard side.

Is it my imagination, or is it getting a little bit easier to see again? Eric thought. If so, is that a good or a bad thing?

“Enemy force is turning with us,” the talker said quietly.

Now that is definitely a bad thing.

Eric had a very passing familiarity with radar, as he had been the target dummy for Ranger’s fighter squadron to practice aerial intercepts.  It was obvious, given the visibility, that the Hood hadn’t sighted the enemy with the naked eye.  Unless the Germans had a team of gypsies on their vessels, it appeared that they also had the ability to detect ships despite the murk.

Explains how they were able to shoot down Commander Cobleigh, Eric thought, feeling sick to his stomach.  My God, they probably knew we were there long before we came out of the cloudbank but wanted to make positive identification. 

The visibility was definitely starting to get better, at least at sea level.  With only the distance of the British line to judge by, Eric guesstimated that visibility to the horizon was somewhere around twenty thousand yards.

Well within maximum range of everyone’s guns, he thought.  I hope someone on this side knows what size force we’re facing, as I doubt the Germans are idiots.

“Sir, the Hood reports she is…”

With a roar and spout of black smoke from her side, the British flagship made the talker’s report superfluous.  The rest of the British battleline rapidly followed suit, the combined smoke from their guns floating backward like roiling, black thunderheads.

I can’t see what in the hell they’re shooting at, Eric thought, searching the horizon as he felt his stomach clench.

In truth, Hood and her counterparts had only a general idea of what they were engaging.  Indeed, if the commander of the opposing force, Vice Admiral Erich Bey, had actually followed his orders to simply compel the Home Fleet to sail a relatively straight course while avoiding contact, there would have been no targets for them to engage.  Instead, Bey had decided to close with the last known position of the Home Fleet in hopes of picking off the vessel or vessels the Kriegsmarine’s U-boats had allegedly crippled that morning.  Regardless of his reasoning, Bey’s aggressive nature had inadvertently led to his superiors’ worst nightmare—the hastily organized Franco-German force being brought into contact with the far more experienced Royal Navy.

Admiral Bey, to his credit, played the hand he had dealt himself.  Moments after Hood’s initial salvo landed short of his flagship, the KMS Bismarck, the German admiral began barking orders.  The first was for the radar-equipped vessels in his fleet to return fire.  The second was for the entire column to change course in order to sharpen the rate of closure and allow the Vichy French vessels, limited to visual acquisition, to also engage.  The final directive was for a position report to be repeatedly sent without any encryption so that nearby U-boats could immediately set course in an attempt to pick off any stragglers.

“Well, looks like the other side is game,” Captain Gordon drily observed as multiple waterspouts appeared amongst the British battleships.  A moment later the distant sound of the explosions reached Eric’s ears.

“Looks like they’re over-concentrating on the front of the line though,” Eric observed.

Gordon turned to look at the American pilot.

“Would you prefer they spread their fire more evenly so we can have a taste, Leftenant?”

“No sir, not with the shells that are being slung out there.”

Gordon brought his binoculars back up.

“Still can’t see the enemy yet, but that’s why the boffins were aboard during our refit,” Gordon said.  The man turned to his talker, jaw clenched.

“Tell Guns they may fire when we have visual contact or the enemy reaches nineteen thousand yards, whichever comes first,” Gordon said, his voice clipped.  “Inform bridge of the eventual target’s bearing so we may get a look.”

“Aye aye, Captain.”

Gordon turned back towards Eric and opened his mouth when he was interrupted by the sound of ripping canvas followed by the smack! of four shells landing between Exeter and the next British cruiser in front of her.  A moment later, a bell began ringing at the rear of Exeter’s bridge.  Eric was about to ask what the device signified when the heavy cruiser’s forward turrets roared, the blast hitting him like a physical blow.  The look of shock was obviously quite apparent, as Gordon gave Eric an apologetic smile.

“Sorry, guess I should have…”

Exeter’s captain was again interrupted, except this time by two bright flashes aboard the cruiser forward of her the British battleline.  The other vessel was visibly staggered by the blows, with a fire immediately starting astern.

“Looks like Suffolk has worse luck than we do,” Gordon observed grimly.  The British heavy cruiser’s turrets replied back towards the enemy, but it was obvious, even to Eric, that their companion vessel was badly hit.

“Guns reports target is at bearing two nine zero, range twenty thousand yards…”

The bell ringing cut the rating off, as it was followed immediately by the Exeter unleashing a full broadside.  Gordon had already begun to swing his sight around to the reported bearing, and bent to see what his guns were up to.  Eric, looking past the captain, saw Suffolk receive another hit, this one causing debris to fly up from the vicinity of her bridge.  He suddenly felt his mouth go dry.

Someone has the range, he thought grimly.

“Bloody good show Guns!” Gordon shouted into the voice tube near his sight.  “Give that bastard another…”

The firing gong rang again, Exeter’s gunnery officer apparently already ahead of Gordon.  Eric braced himself, the roar of the naval rifles starting to cause a slight ringing in his ears.  He turned to look towards the horizon, following the direction of Exeter’s guns.

“These will help,” the officer of the deck said from beside him, handing him a pair of binoculars.

“Thank you,” Eric said, turning towards the officer only to see the man go pale.

“Oh bloody hell!  Look at the Hood!”

Eric turned and looked down the British line, noting as he turned that the Suffolk was heeling to Exeter’s starboard with flames shooting from her amidships and rear turret.  Ignoring the heavily damaged heavy cruiser, he brought up his binoculars as he looked towards the front of the British line.  In an instant, he could see why the officer of the deck had made his exclamation.  The battlecruiser’s guns appeared frozen in place, and oil was visibly gushing from her amidships.  As Eric watched, another salvo splashed around her, with a sudden flare and billow of smoke from her stern indicating something serious had been hit.

“Captain, the Hood is signaling a power failure!” the officer of the deck shouted.  Eric turned to see the man had acquired another set of eyeglasses and was also studying the flagship.

Gordon nodded, stepping back from his captain’s sight and brought his own set of binoculars up to study the battlecruiser.  Eric quickly handed his over before the OOD could react.

“It would appear that our Teutonic friends can shoot a bit better than we expected,” Gordon said grimly.

Admiral Bey would have agreed with Gordon’s assessment had he heard it, as he too was pleasantly surprised at how well his scratch fleet was performing.  Unfortunately for the Germans, however, the British could shoot almost as well, their guns seemed to be doing far more damage, and they had much better fire distribution.  The only British capital ships with major damage were the Hood, set ablaze and rendered powerless by the Tirpitz and Jean Bart, and Nelson due to hits from the Bismarck and Strasbourg.  Among the cruisers, only the Suffolk had been hit, being thoroughly mauled by the KMS Hipper and Lutzow.  In exchange, only the Jean Bart, Gneisenau, and Bismarck remained relatively unscathed among his battleline.  Of the rest of his vessels, the French battlecruiser Strasbourg had been thoroughly holed by the H.M.S. Warspite’s accurate shooting, Tirpitz was noticeably down by the bows, and Scharnhorst had received at least two hits from Prince of Wales in the first ten minutes of the fight.

Bey’s escorts, consisting of the pocket battleship Lutzow and a force of German and Vichy French cruisers, had arranged themselves in an ad hoc screen to starboard.  The fact that they outnumbered their British counterparts had not spared them from damage, albeit not as heavy as that suffered by the Franco-German battleline.  Moreover, while Exeter’s shooting had set the lead vessel, the French heavy cruiser Colbert, ablaze and slowed her, this was more than offset by the battering the Suffolk had received from the Lutzow, Hipper, and Seydlitz.  As that vessel fell backward in the British formation, the remaining cruisers split their fire between the Exeter, Norfolk, and the destroyers beginning their attack approach.

Word of the British DDs’ approach caused Bey some consternation.  While it could be argued that his force was evenly matched with the British battleline, the approaching destroyers could swiftly change this equation if they got into torpedo range.  Deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, Bey ordered all vessels to make smoke and disengage.  It was just after the force began their simultaneous turn that disaster struck.

The KMS Scharnhorst, like the Hood, had begun life as a battlecruiser.  While both she and her sister had been upgraded during the Armistice Period with 15-inch turrets, the Kriegsmarine had made the conscious decision not to upgrade her armor. The folly of this choice became readily apparent as the Prince of Wales’ twentieth salvo placed a pair of 14-inch shells through her amidships belt.  While neither shell fully detonated, their passage severed the steering controls between the light battleship’s bridge and rudder.

The Scharnhorst’s helmsman barely had time to inform the captain of this before the second half of PoW’s staggered salvo arrived, clearing the battleship’s bridge with one shell and and hitting Scharnhorst on the armored “turtle deck” right above her engineering spaces with a second.  To many bystanders’ horror, a visible gout of steam spewed from the vessel’s side as all 38,000 tons of her staggered like a stunned bull. Only the fact that her 15-inch guns fired a ragged broadside back at the British line indicated that the vessel still had power, but it was obvious to all that she had been severely hurt.

One of those observers was the captain of the KMS Gneisenau, Scharnhorst’s sister ship and the next battleship in line.  Confronted with the heavily wounded Scharnhorst drifting back towards him, the man ordered the helm brought back hard to starboard.  In one of the horrible vagaries of warfare, the Gneisenau simultaneously masked her sister ship from the Prince of Wales’ fire and corrected the aim of her own assailant, the H.M.S. Nelson.  No one would ever know how many 16-inch shells hit of the five that had been fired at the Gneisenau, as the only one that mattered was the one that found the German battleship’s forward magazine.  With a massive roar, bright flash, and volcanic outpouring of flame, the Gneisenau’s bow disappeared.  Scharnhorst and Jean Bart’s horrified crews were subjected to the spectacle of the Gneisenau’s stern whipping upwards, propellers still turning.  The structures only glistened for a moment, as the battleship’s momentum carried her aft end into the roiling black cloud serving as a tombstone for a 40,000-ton man-of-war and the 1,700 men who manned her.

“Holy shit!  Holy shit!” Eric exclaimed, his expletives lost in the general pandemonium that was Exeter’s bridge.

“Get yourselves together!” Gordon roared, waving his hands.  As if to emphasize his point, there was the sound of ripping canvas, and a moment later, the Exeter found herself surrounded by large waterspouts.

“Port ten degrees!” Gordon barked, the bridge crew quickly returning to their tasks.

“Sir, Nelson is signaling that she is heaving to!”

“What in the bloody hell is the matter with her?!” Gordon muttered, a moment before Exeter’s guns roared again.

“Guns reports we are engaging and being engaged by a pocket battleship.  He believes it is the…” the talker reported.

Once again there was the sound of ripping canvas, this time far louder.  Eric instinctively ducked just before the Exeter shuddered simultaneously with the loud bang! just above their heads.  Dimly, he saw something fall out of the corner of his eye even as there was a sound like several wasps all around him.  Coming back to his feet, Eric smelled the strong aroma of explosives for the second time that day, except this time there was a man screaming like a shot rabbit to accompany it.

“Damage report!” Gordon shouted.  “Someone shut that man up!”

Feeling something wet on his face, Eric reached up to touch it and came away with blood.  He frantically reached up to feel if he had a wound, and only came away with more blood.  Looking around in horror, he suddenly realized that the blood was not his, but that of a British rating who was now missing half of his head, neck, and upper chest.  Eric barely had time to register this before a litter crew came bursting into the bridge.  The four men headed to the aft portion of the structure, obviously there for the man who had been screaming before a gag had been shoved in his mouth. Eric followed the litter team’s path, then immediately wished he hadn’t as his stomach lurched.  The casualty’s abdomen was laid open, and Eric saw the red and grey of intestine on the deck before turning back forward.

Oh God, he thought, then had another as he thought about the injured man’s likely destination.  I hope Rawles is okay.

“Hard a starboard!” Gordon barked.  Eric braced himself as the Exeter heeled over, the vessel chasing the previous salvo as her guns roared back at the German pocket battleship.  He noticed that the guns were starting to bear even further aft as the cruiser maneuvered to keep up with the remainder of the British battleline.  Looking to starboard, Eric saw the battleship Nelson drifting past them on her starboard side.  The vessel’s forward-mounted triple turrets, still elevated to port, fired off a full salvo once Exeter was past, but it was clear that the battleship had suffered severe damage.

“Sir, we took one glancing hit to the bridge roof,” the OOD reported, pointing at the hit that had sprayed splinters into the structure.  Eric was amazed at the man’s calm.  “We took another hit aft, but it detonated in the galley.”

King George V signals commence torpedo attack with destroyers,” the talker interrupted.  “All ships with tubes to attack enemy cripples.”

Six waterspouts impacted approximately three hundred yards to port, and Eric found himself questioning the wisdom of staying aboard the heavy cruiser after all.

“Well, looks like this ship will continue her tradition of picking on women bigger than her,” Gordon observed drily.  “Flank speed, port thirty degrees.  Get me the torpedo flat.”

Eric looked once again at the hole in the bridge roof.

A step either way and I’d probably be dead, he thought wildly.  Or worse, if that shell had it full on we’d all be gone.  Shaking his head, he turned to look off to port as the throb of Exeter’s engines began to increase.

“You ever participate in a torpedo attack during your summer cruise, Mr. Cobb?” Gordon asked after barking several orders to the helm.

“No sir,” Eric croaked, then swallowed to get a clearer voice.  “Our cruisers don’t have torpedoes.  I’m familiar with how to do one theoretically…”

Exeter’s guns banged out another salvo, even as the German pocket battleship’s return fire landed where she would have been had the cruiser continued straight.

“Well, looks like you’re about to get to apply some of that theoretical knowledge,” Gordon said, bringing his binoculars up.  The man scanned the opposing line.

“The three big battleships are turning away under cover of smoke along with the majority of the cruisers.  That Frog battlecruiser looks about done for, and that pocket battleship and heavy cruiser will soon have more than enough to deal with when the destroyers catch up,” Gordon said, pointing as he talked.  Exeter’s master turned to give his orders.

“Tell Lieutenant Commander Gannon his target  is the pocket battleship!  Guns are to…”

The crescendo of incoming shells drowned Gordon out, this time ending with the Exeter leaping out of the water and shuddering as she was hit.  Once again the bridge wing was alive with fragments, and for the second time Eric felt a splash of wetness across his side.  Looking down, he saw his entire left side was covered in blood and flesh.  For a moment he believed it was his, until he blissfully realized that he felt no pain.

“Damage report!” Gordon shouted again.  “Litter party!”

“Sir, I believe I am hit,” the OOD gasped.  Eric turned to see the man’s arm missing from just below the elbow, blood spraying from the severed stump.

“Corpsman!” Gordon shouted angrily, stepping towards the lieutenant.  The captain never made, it, as the OOD toppled face forward, revealing jagged wounds in his back where splinters had blasted into his body.

“Helmsman!  Zig zag pattern!” Gordon barked.  “Someone get me a damage report!  Midshipman Green, inform damage control that we need another talker and an OOD here!”

“Aye aye, Captain!”

Leftenant Cobb!”

“Yes sir?” Eric asked, shaking himself out of stupor.

“It might be prudent for you to go to the conning tower,” Gordon said.

“Sir, I’d prefer to be here than in some metal box,” Eric said.  “With the shells that bastard’s tossing it won’t make a lick of difference anyway.”

“Too true,” Gordon said.  “Looks like the heavy cruisers and that pocket battleship are covering the bastards’ retreat.”

Gordon’s supposition was only partially correct.  In truth, the pocket battleship Lutzow had received damage from the Exeter and Norfolk that had somewhat reduced her maximum speed.  This had prevented her from fleeing with the rest of the screen, their retirement encouraged by a few salvoes from the Nelson.  Realizing that she could not escape the closing British destroyers, Lutzow’s captain had decided to turn and engage the smaller vessels in hopes of allowing Scharnhorst to open the distance between herself and the British. Unfortunately, Lutzow had failed to inform the heavy cruiser KMS Hipper, trailing in her wake, of her desire to self-sacrifice while ignoring Admiral Bey’s signal to retire.  Thus the latter vessel, her radio aerial knocked out by an over salvo from the Nelson’s secondary batteries, found herself committed to engaging the rapidly closing British destroyers along with the larger, crippled Lutzow.

The British destroyers, formed into two divisions under the experienced Commodore Philip Vian, first overtook the damaged French battlecruiser Strasbourg.  Adrift, afire, and listing heavily to port, the Strasbourg wallowed helplessly as the British destroyers closed like hyenas on a paralyzed wildebeest.  Just as Vian was beginning to order his group into their battle dispositions, flooding finally compromised the battlecruiser’s stability.  With a rumble and the scream of tortured metal, the Strasbourg rotated onto her starboard beam and slipped beneath the surface.

That left the crippled Scharnhorst, the Lutzow, and the hapless Hipper.  Still receiving desultory fire from Nelson and Warspite, the trio of German vessels initially concentrated their fire on the charging Exeter and Norfolk.  After five minutes of this, all three German captains realized Vian’s approaching destroyers were a far greater threat.  The Lutzow and Hipper turned to lay smoke across the retreating Scharnhorst’s stern, the maneuver also allowing both vessels to fire full broadsides at their smaller assailants.  The Hipper had just gotten off her second salvo when she received a pair of 8-inch shells from the Norfolk.  The first glanced off the heavy cruiser’s armor belt and fell harmlessly into the sea.  The second, however, impacted the main director, blowing the gunnery officer and most of the cruiser’s gunnery department into disparate parts that splashed into the sea or onto the deck below.  For two crucial minutes, the Hipper’s main battery remained silent even as her secondaries began to take the approaching British destroyers under fire.

The respite from Lutzow’s fire had arrived just in time for Exeter, as the pocket battleship had been consistently finding the range. Staggering to his feet after another exercise in throwing himself flat, Eric looked forward to see just where the heavy cruiser had been hit this time.  His gaze fell upon the devastation that had been Exeter’s “B” turret, where a cloud of acrid yellow was smoke pouring back from the structure’s opened roof to pass around the heavy cruiser’s bridge.  Damage control crews were rushing forward to spray hoses upon the burning guns, even as water began to crash over the cruiser’s lowering bow.

“Very well then, flood the magazine!” Gordon was shouting into the speaking tube.  “Tell the Norfolk we shall follow her in as best we can.”

Looking to starboard, Eric could see the aforementioned heavy cruiser starting to surge ahead of Exeter, smoke pouring from her triple stacks and her forward turrets firing another salvo towards the Hipper.

“We are only making twenty-three knots, sir,” the helmsman reported.

“Damage control reports heavy flooding in the bow,” the talker stated.  “Lieutenant Ramses states we must slow our speed or we may lose another bulkhead.”

Gordon’s face set in a grim line.

“Torpedoes reports a solution on the pocket battleship,” the talker reported after pausing or a moment.

“Range?!” Gordon barked.

“Ten thousand yards and closing.”

“Tell me when we’re at four thousand…”

The seas around the Exeter suddenly leaped upwards, the waterspouts clearing her mainmast.

“Enemy battleship is taking us under fire!”

Looking over at Norfolk, Eric saw an identical series of waterspouts appear several hundred yards ahead of their companion.

“Two enemy battleships engaging, range twenty-two thousand yards.”

“Where’s our battleline?” Gordon asked bitterly.  “Report the news to the King George V.”

Another couple of minutes passed, the Exeter continuing to close with the turning Lutzow.  Four more shells exploded around the Exeter.

“The Nelson is disengaging due to opening range,” the talker replied.  “The remaining ships are closing our position to take the enemy battleship under fire.”

Again there was the sound of an incoming freight train, and the Exeter was straddled once more, splinters ringing off the opposite side of the bridge.

“Corpsman!” a lookout shouted from the crow’s nest.

Okay, someone stop this ride, I want to get off, Eric thought, bile rising in his throat.

“Commodore Vian reports he is closing.”

“Right then, continue to attack!”  Gordon shouted.  Eric winced, convinced he was going to die.

Unbeknownst to Eric, the Bismarck and Tirpitz had only returned to persuade the British battleline to not pursue the Scharnhorst.  Finding the two British heavy cruisers attacking, Bey had decided some 15-inch fire was necessary to discourage their torpedo run as well.  In the worsening seas the German battleships’ gunnery left much to be desired, but still managed to force the Exeter and Norfolk to both intensify their zig zags.

Unfortunately for the Germans, the decision to concentrate on the heavy cruisers meant that Commodore Vian’s destroyers had an almost undisturbed attack run.  Vian, realizing that he would not be able to bypass the aggressively counterattacking Hipper, split his force into two parts.  The lead division, led by himself in Somali, continued after the crippled Scharnhorst.  The second, led by the destroyer Echo, he directed to attack the Hipper in hopes that the heavy cruiser would turn away.

The German heavy cruiser reacted as Vian had expected, switching all of her fire to the approaching Echo group.  For their part, the British ships dodged as they closed, the Echo’s commander making the decision to close the range so that the destroyers could launch their torpedoes with a higher speed setting.  Seeing the German cruiser starting to turn, Echo’s commander signaled for his own vessel, Eclipse, and Encounter to attempt to attack from her port side, while the Faulknor and Electra were to move up to attack from starboard.

Discerning the British destroyerman’s plan, Hipper’s captain immediately laid on his maximum speed while continuing his turn towards port.  Ignoring those vessels attempting to move in on her starboard side, the German vessel turned her guns wholly on the trio of British destroyers that was now at barely seven thousand yards.  With a combined closing speed of almost seventy knots, there was less than a minute before the British destroyers were at their preferred range.  In this time, Hipper managed to get off two salvoes with her main guns and several rounds from her secondary guns.  Her efforts were rewarded, the Echo being hit and stopped by two 8-inch and four secondary shell hits before she could fire her torpedoes.  That still left the Eclipse and Encounter, both which fired their torpedoes at 4,000 yards before starting to turn away.  The latter vessel had just concluded putting her eighth torpedo into the water when the Hipper’s secondaries switched to her as a target, knocking out the destroyer’s forward guns.

Pursuing the Hipper as the German cruiser continued to turn to port, the Faulknor and Electra initially had a far longer run than their compatriots.  However, as the German cruiser came about to comb the Echo group’s torpedoes, the opportunity arose for the two more nimble vessels to cut across her turn.  Hitting the heavy cruiser with several 4.7-inch shells even as they zigzagged through the Lutzow’s supporting fire, the two destroyers unleashed their sixteen torpedoes from the Hipper’s port bow.  Belatedly, the German captain realized that he had placed himself in a horrible position, as he could not turn to avoid the second group of torpedoes without presenting a perfect target to the first.

It was the Eclipse which administered the first blow.  Coming in at a fine angle, one of the destroyer’s torpedoes exploded just below the Hipper’s port bow.  The heavy cruiser’s hull whipsawed from the impact, the explosion peeling twenty feet of her skin back to act as a massive brake.  The shock traveled down the vessel’s length, throwing circuit breakers out of their mounts in her generator room and rendering the Hipper powerless.  Looking to starboard, the vessel’s bridge crew could only helplessly watch as the British torpedoes approached from that side.  In a fluke of fate, the braking effect from Eclipse’s hit caused the heavy cruiser to lose so much headway the majority of the tin fish missed.  The pair that impacted, however, could not have been better placed.  With two roaring waterspouts in close succession, the Hipper’s engineering spaces were opened to the sea.  Disemboweled, the cruiser continued to slow even as she rolled to starboard.  Realizing instantly her wounds were fatal, the Hipper’s captain gave the order to abandon ship.  The order came far too late for most of the crew, as the 12,000-ton man-o-war capsized and slid under the Atlantic in a matter of minutes.

“Well, the destroyers just put paid to that heavy cruiser!  Let’s see if we can get a kill of our own!” Gordon said, watching the drama unfolding roughly twelve thousand yards to his west.  Another salvo of 15-inch shells landed to Exeter’s starboard, this broadside somewhat more ragged due to the heavy cruiser’s zig zagging advance.

“Battleships are returning to aid us.”

“About bloody time!” Gordon snapped.

When the Warspite’s first salvo landed just aft of Jean Bart, Admiral Bey had more than enough.  Signaling rapidly, he ordered the Scharnhorst and Lutzow to cover the remainder of the force’s retreat.  Firing a few desultory broadsides, the Franco-German force reentered the mists.

Eric watched through his binoculars as Lutzow gamely attempted to follow Bey’s orders, slowly coming about so she could continue to engage the destroyers closing with Scharnhorst.  Barely making fifteen knots, the pocket battleship was listing slightly to port and down by the bows.  Just as Lutzow finished her turn, several shells landed close astern of the German vessel.

King George V is engaging the pocket battleship.”

“Good.  Maybe she can slow that witch down so we can catch her.”

Warspite and Prince of Wales are switching to the closest battleship.”

Gordon nodded his assent, continuing to watch as Lutzow attempted to begin a zig zag pattern.

“Destroyers are running the gauntlet,” Gordon observed drily, pointing to where the Lutzow was engaging the five destroyers passing barely eight thousand yards in front of her.  Eric nodded grimly, then brought his attention back to Lutzow just in time to see the King George V’s next salvo arrive.  Two of the British 14-inch shells slashed into the pocket battleship’s stern, while a third impacted on the vessel’s aft turret with devastating effect.  Eric was glad that Exeter was still far enough away that he could not identify the contents of the debris that flew upwards from the gunhouse in the gout of smoke and flame, as the young American was sure some of the dark spots were bodies.

“Looks like you got your wish, sir,” Eric observed as the Lutzow began to continue a lazy circle to port.  There was a sharp crack as the Exeter’s secondary batteries began to engage the pocket battleship, leading to a disgusted look from Gordon.

“Tell Guns we may need that ammunition later,” he snapped.  “I’m not sure those guns will do any damage, plus she’s almost finished.”

I was wondering what good 4-inch guns would do to a pocket battleship, Eric thought.  Especially when Norfolk is pounding away with her main battery and a battleship has her under fire.

King George V is inquiring if we can finish her with torpedoes?”

Gordon looked at the pocket battleship, now coming to a stop with fires clearly spreading.

“Report that yes, we will close and finish her with torpedoes, she may assist in bringing that battleship to bay,” Exeter’s master stated.

Norfolk is firing torpedoes,” the talker reported.

Eric brought up his binoculars, focusing on the clearly crippled Lutzow.  As he watched, one of the German’s secondary turrets fired a defiant shot at Norfolk.  Scanning the vessel from bow to stern, Eric wondered if the gun was the sole thing left operational, as the pocket battleship’s upper decks were a complete shambles.  Looking closely at the Lutzow’s forward turret, he could see two jagged holes in its rear where Norfolk’s broadsides had impacted.  The bridge was similarly damaged, with wisps of smoke pouring from the shattered windows, and the German vessel’s entire amidships was ablaze.  The vessel’s list appeared to have lessened, but she was clearly much lower in the water.

“Should be any time now,” Gordon said, briefly looking at his watch.  “Tell guns to belay my last, we’re not wasting any more fish on her than necessary.”

Eric turned back to watching the Lutzow, observing as Norfolk hit the vessel with another point blank salvo an instant before her torpedoes arrived.  Given that the Lutzow was a stationary target, Eric was surprised to see Norfolk’s torpedo spread produce only a pair of hits.  It was still enough, as with an audible groan the Lutzow’s already battered hull split just aft of her destroyed turret.  Five minutes later, as Exeter drew within five hundred yards and Eric could see German sailors jumping into the sea, the Lutzow gave a final shuddering metallic rattle then slipped stern first into the depths.

“Stand by to rescue survivors,” Gordon said, dropping his binoculars.  “How are the destroyers doing with that battleship?”

The answer to Gordon’s question could be summed up with two words: very well.  The Scharnhorst had briefly managed to work up to sixteen knots, and had Lutzow’s fire been somewhat more accurate, may have managed to escape the pursuing destroyers.  However, as with the Hipper, Vian’s destroyers split into two groups even as Scharnhorst’s secondaries increased their fire.  Another pair of hits from Prince of Wales slowed the German light battleship even further, and at that point the handful of tin cans set upon her like a school of sharks on a lamed blue whale.

Like that large creature, however, even a crippled the Scharnhorst still had means to defend herself.  As the Punjabi closed in from starboard, the battleship’s Caesar turret scored with a single 15-inch shell.  The effects were devastating, the destroyer being converted from man-of-war to charnel house forward of her bridge.  Amazingly, Punjabi’s powerplant was undamaged by the blast, and the destroyer was able to continue closing the distance between herself and the larger German vessel.  The timely arrival of a salvo from Warspite sufficiently distracted the Scharnhorst’s gunnery officer, preventing him from getting the range again until after both groups of destroyers were close enough to launch torpedoes.

Severely damaged, Scharnhorst still attempted to ruin the destroyers’ fire control problem at the last moment.  To Commodore Vian’s intense frustration, the battleship’s captain timed his maneuver perfectly, evading twelve British torpedoes simply by good seamanship.  Had Scharnhorst had her full maneuvering ability, she may have then been able to pull off the maneuver Hipper had attempted by reversing course.  Whereas geometry and numbers had failed the German heavy cruiser, simple physics served to put the waterlogged battleship in front of three torpedoes.  Even then, her luck remained as the first hit, far forward, was a dud.  Then, proving Fate was indeed fickle, two fish from the damaged Punjabi ran deep and hit the vessel just below her armored belt.  Finishing the damage done by Prince of Wales’  hits earlier, the torpedoes knocked out the German capital ship’s remaining power and opened even more of her hull to the sea.  Realizing she was doomed, her captain ordered the crew to set scuttling charges and abandon ship.

King George V is inquiring if any vessels have torpedoes remaining.”

Gordon gave the talker a questioning look.

“I thought Commodore Vian just reported that the enemy battleship appears to be sinking?” Gordon said, his voice weary.  “No matter, inform King George V that we have all of our fish remaining.”

Wonder what in the hell that is about? Eric thought.  Looking down, he realized his hands were starting to shake.  Taking a deep breath, he attempted to calm himself.

Well, this has been a rather…interesting day.  I just wish someone would have told me I’d get shot down, see my squadron leader killed, and participate in a major sea battle when I got up at 0300 this morning.

Leftenant Cobb, are you all right?” Gordon asked, concerned.

Eric choked back the urge to laugh at the question.

“I’m fine sir, just a little cold,” he said, lying through his teeth.  The talker saved him from further inquisition.

King George V is ordering us to come about and close with her.  She is also ordering Commodore Vian to rescue survivors from Punjabi then scuttle her if she is unable to get under way.  Norfolk is being ordered to stand by to assist Nelson.”

“What about the Germans?” Gordon asked.

“Flag has ordered that all other recovery operations are to cease.”

There was dead silence on Exeter’s bridge.

“Very well then, guess the Germans will have to come back for their own.  Let’s go see what King George V has for us,” Gordon said.

Eric was struck by just how far the running fight had ranged as the Exeter reversed course.  From the first salvo to the current position, the vessels had covered at least thirty miles.  The King George V was a distant dot to the south, with her sister ship and Warspite further behind.

No one is going to find any of those survivors, Eric thought.  Especially with this weather starting to get worse.  He could smell imminent rain on the wind, and even with Exeter’s considerable size he could feel the ocean’s movement starting to change.

“I hope this isn’t about to become too bad of a blow,” Gordon observed, looking worriedly out at the lowering sky.  “Not with the flooding we have forward.”

“If you don’t mind, sir, I’d like to avoid going swimming again today,” Eric quipped.

“Wouldn’t be a swim lad.  If we catch a big wave wrong, she would plow right under,” Gordon replied grimly.  “What has got King George V in such a tussy?  She’s coming at us full speed.”

Eric looked up and saw that the battleship was indeed closing as rapidly as possible.  As she hove into visual range several minutes later, the King George V’s signaling searchlight began flashing rapidly.

DO YOU READ THIS MESSAGE?  DO YOU READ THIS MESSAGE?

“Acknowledge,” Gordon said.  A few moments later Eric could hear the heavy cruiser’s signal crew employing the bridge lamp to respond to the King George V.

YOU WILL PROCEED TO HOOD.  ONCE ALL SURVIVORS ARE OFFBOARD, YOU ARE TO SCUTTLE.

What in the bloody hell is that idiot talking about?” Gordon exploded.  He did not have time to send a counter message, as the King George V continued after a short pause.

YOU HAVE TWENTY-FIVE MINUTES TO REJOIN.  FORCE WILL PROCEED WITHOUT YOU IF NOT COMPLETE.  TOVEY SENDS GOD SAVE THE QUEEN

“God save the…oh my God!” Gordon said.

Eric looked at the Exeter’s captain with some concern as the man staggered backward, his face looking as if he had been personally stricken.

“Ask,” Gordon began, the word nearly coming out as a sob before he regained his composure.  “Ask if I may inform the ship’s company of our task?”

Three minutes later, the King George V replied.

AFFIRMATIVE.  EXPEDITE.  HER MAJESTY’S SAFETY IS THIS COMMAND’S PRIMARY GOAL.

“Acknowledge.  Hand me the loudspeaker,” Gordon said, his voice incredibly weary.  Eric could see tears welling in the man’s eyes.

This is not good, Eric thought.  This is not good at all.  Although he was far from an expert on British government, he dimly remembered seeing a newsreel when Ranger had been in port where the Royal Family had been discussed.  He felt his stomach starting to drop as he began to process what the King George V had just stated.

“All hands, this is the captain speaking,” Gordon began.  “This vessel is proceeding to stand by the Hood to rescue survivors.  It appears that His Majesty has been killed.”

Holy shit, Eric thought.  Isn’t Princess…no, Queen Elizabeth barely sixteen?

Eric looked around the bridge as the captain broke the news to the Exeter’s crew.  The reactions ranged from shock to, surprisingly, rage.  As Exeter’s master finished, the young American had the feeling he was seeing the start of something very, very ugly for the Germans.

I would hate to be someone who got dragged out of the water today, he thought.  That is, if any Germans get saved.  Eric’s father had fought as a Marine at Belleau Wood.  In the weeks before Eric had left for the academy, his father had made sure that his son understood just what might be required of him in the Republic’s service.  One of the stories had involved what had befallen an unfortunate German machine gun crew when the men tried to surrender after killing several members of the elder Cobb’s platoon.  Realizing the parallels to his current situation given the news he had just heard, Eric fought the urge to scowl.

Looks like you don’t need a rope for a lynch mob, Eric thought as he reflected on the “necessity” of leaving the German and French sailors to drown.  He was suddenly shaken out of his reverie by the sound of singing coming from below the bridge.

Happy and glorious…long to reign over us…”

The men on the bridge began taking up the song, their tone somber and remorseful.

GOD SAAAAVEEE THE QUEEEEENN!!”

Almost a half hour later, the Exeter sat one thousand yards off of the Hood’s starboard side, the heavy cruiser’s torpedo tubes trained on her larger consort.  The Hood’s wounds were obvious, her bridge and conning tower a horribly twisted flower of shattered steel.  Flames licked from the vessel’s X turret, and it appeared that the structure had taken a heavy shell to its roof.  Further casting a pall on the scene was the dense black smoke pouring from the Hood’s burning bunkerage, a dull glow at the base of the cloud indicating an out of control fire.  The battlecruiser’s stern looked almost awash, her bow almost coming out of the water with each swell, and as Eric watched there was an explosion of ready ammunition near her anti-aircraft guns.

Might be a waste of good torpedoes at this point, Eric thought.  He realized he was starting to pass into mental shock from all the carnage he had seen that day.

“I’m the last man, sir,” a dazed-looking commander with round features, black hair, and green eyes was saying to Captain Gordon.  “At least, the last man we can get to.”

“I understand, Commander Keir,” Gordon said quietly.  “I regret we do not have the time to try and free the men trapped in her engineering spaces.”

“If we could have only had another hour, we might have saved her,” Keir said, his voice breaking.  It was obvious the man had been through hell, his uniform blackened by soot and other stains that Eric didn’t care to look into too closely.

It’s never a good day when you become commander of a vessel simply because no one else was left.  From what he understood, Keir had started the day as chief of Hood’s Navigation Division.  That had been before the vessel took at least three 15-inch shells to the bridge area, as well as two more that had wiped out her gunnery directory and the secondary bridge.

Captain Gordon was right—she was a very powerful warship.  Unfortunately that tends to make you a target.

“Commander, you are certain that…” Gordon started, then collected himself.  “You are certain His Majesty is dead.”

“Yes sir,” Keir said.  “His Majesty was in the conning tower with Admiral Pound when it was hit.  The Royal Surgeon positively identified His Majesty’s body in the aid station before that was hit in turn.  We cannot get to the aid station due to the spreading fire.”

“Understood.  His Majesty would not have wanted any of you to risk his life for his body,” Gordon said.

“I just…” Keir started, then stopped, overcome with emotion.

“It is not your fault lad,” Gordon said.  “Her Majesty will understand.”

Gordon turned and looked at the Exeter’s clock.

“Very well, we are out of time.  Stand by to fire torpedoes.”

“Torpedoes report they are ready.”

“Sir, you may want to tell your torpedo officer to have his weapons set to run deep,” Keir said.  “She’s drawing…”

There was a large explosion aboard Hood as the flames reached a secondary turret’s ready ammunition.  Eric saw a fiery object arc slowly across, descending towards the Exeter as hundreds of helpless eyes watched it.  The flaming debris’ lazy parabola terminated barely fifty yards off of Exeter’s side with a large, audible splash.

“I think we do not have time for that discussion,” Gordon said grimly.  “Fire torpedoes!”

The three weapons from Exeter’s starboard tubes sprang from their launchers into the water.  Set as a narrow spread, the three tracks seemed to take forever to impact from Eric’s perspective.  Exeter’s torpedo officer, observing Hood’s state, had taken into account the battlecruiser’s lower draught without having to be told.  Indeed, he had almost set the weapons for too deep a run, but was saved by the flooding that had occurred in the previous few minutes.  In addition to breaking the battlecruiser’s keel, the triple blow opened the entire aft third of her port side to the ocean.  With the audible sound of twisting metal, Hood started to roll onto her beam ends.  She never completed the evolution before slipping beneath the waves.

 

If you like what you’ve read, try the full Acts of War here.

 

Unproven Concept Sample Chapter

From An Unproven Concept

Titanic

1825 SST

 

As he approached yet another hatch to Corridor C, Marcus found himself thinking back to his Marine officer basic course.  His drill instructor, a tall, wiry Warrant Officer nicknamed ‘The Spider’ had been feeling rather benevolent one day after trying his damndest to kill them all in Zero-G Initial Entry.  Rather than making the twenty remaining trainees queue up once again, Spider had gathered the group for some impromptu professional development.

“You idiots don’t get it,” Spider had told them as they were all in the front leaning rest position, his face focused on his own faraway memory.  “It’s not the lack of gravity that will be what sticks with you.  Oh no, all you pussies who keep puking in your helmets will eventually get used to that.  No asshats, it will be the smell that you will never, ever be able to overcome.”

The decisions made by Titanic’s central computer had had devastating consequences within the vessel’s common spaces.  Making their way aft, Marcus and the Ballroom A survivors had seen sights that would stick with them until they drew their last breaths.  A great hound the size of a small adult whining piteously as it furiously licked its master’s face, the animal’s back as clearly broken as the dead human’s.  The woman with her three small children, their arms still inextricably linked even as they floated past the viewport of a sealed emergency hatch.  The layer of offal and gore that literally floated like gelatin roughly three meters off the floor, rippling like some evil god’s punch bowl with the Titanic’s motions in the gloom.

Yet, despite all these visuals Martin was certain the smell would yield high grade nightmare fuel when…no if any of them ever slept again, Spider’s admonition would be proven correct.  Marcus had fought on crippled vessels before, but never one with so many people or activities as Titanic. The stagnant air, smoldering spot fires, chemical spills, and the various liquids that were a vessel’s lifeblood had combined with the sudden, violent rupture of things that were supposed to be inside bodies, not floating in midair.  The result was an unremitting, soul searing stench that had him hovering on the knife’s edge of madness.

Goddamn you, Spider, Marcus thought, his anger rising.

“Marcus…” Sarah said, her voice breathless.  “Marcus!

It was the desperate, out of breath cry followed by the wet gurgle as she nearly vomited from inhaling that finally pierced the fog around Marcus’s brain.  Turning around, he found himself confronted with his very angry fiancé.

“Dammit, Marcus, you and the fucking Spartans are about to give us all heart attacks,” Sarah snapped, her chest heaving and sweat pouring down her face.  “We have wounded and elderly people, and half of them are having to hang onto other people.  Where the hell are we going in such a hurry?!”

Marcus felt himself nearly scream at Sarah in rage, his expression causing her to take a step back.

She doesn’t realize what’s going on, he thought, fighting to contain his rage. No one besides the security folks and maybe the Spartans do.

“Engineering,” Senator Lu interjected from behind Marcus.  “The first place you secure in any boarding action is the powerplant.”

Thank you, Senator, Marcus thought, slightly more in control of his emotions.

“Why not the bridge?” Sarah asked, confused.

“You can’t really do much from the bridge if you have no power,” Marcus bit out. Realizing he had snapped, he moderated his tone while continuing to explain.  “You’re basically king of a little realm that has no ability to supply its own air, heat, or light.  But engineering is our second stop, I’m just trying to get us into Corridor C so we can find a working intraship communication console.”

“I thought we’ve passed two?” Sarah said.

“No power,” Aimi remarked, still scanning the darkened hallway to their front through the Kanabo’s scope.  “Whomever designed this ship’s subroutines should have their legs broken then left out on the plains for predators.”

“Charming,” Sarah observed lowly, drawing a poisoned look from the Spartan woman.  Marcus hated that he found himself agreeing with Aimi’s sentiment more than Sarah’s.  He looked and saw that their gaggle had closed up slightly.

“People have to keep up, Sarah,” Marcus said lowly.  “This isn’t a pleasure cruise anymore.”

Sarah’s lips compressed in a thin line.

“It’s not a death march, either,” she snapped.  “These people…”

“If you two would like to have a lover’s quarrel, we can waste more time,” Senator Du interrupted heatedly.  “While I find it quaint you can argue in the midst of this insanity, pardon me if I’m all out of patience for sentiment.”

Sarah turned to look at Du, then back at Marcus.

“Well, glad to see the Union of the Carnivore is showing cross sector solidarity,” she sneered.  “Would you like me to just shoot Mrs. Konarski due to her broken leg, or were you taking bets to see if Mr. Schembek has a heart attack first?  Oh wait, I know, you’re waiting to see if Konarski has a bone shard that gives her a heart…”

“Are you done?” Marcus asked flatly.  Sarah’s mouth opened in shock, then she closed it.  Giving him a glare that would have melted deuranium, she turned away without another word.  Marcus watched her go, then turned back forward and started walking.

“I get the feeling you’re going to deeply regret that later,” Senator Du said after a moment.

“If I am at a point to be sorry, it will mean I’ve done my damn job,” Marcus responded.  “She’s just trying to do hers, I get that—but I’m not going to get us all killed trying to be nice.”

Marcus saw Senator Du give him a speculative look.

“You know, I think I might need to tell my staff to update their information on you, Mr. Martin.”

Oh the irony of that statement given who is walking in front of us, Marcus thought as Aimi reached the next passageway hatch to Corridor C.

“Betrayal changes a person, Senator,” Marcus replied coolly.  “Nearly dying because some people espouse honorable principles yet betray oaths does as well.”

Du gave a slight grimace.

“A lion does not make deals with lambs,” Du replied.

“So tell me, what does a lion do when confronted with freakin’ lizards?” Marcus snapped as Aimi turned back towards them, her body language indicating that they had finally found a hatch which did not open into an unsafe section of Corridor C.  Not waiting for the Senator to answer, Marcus walked up to the hatch’s control panel.

“Shouldn’t you…” Aimi had time to say before Marcus quickly entered his code and hit the button to open the door.

“Only the crew has access to Corridor C,” Marcus said, then stepped into the open hatch.

There were three things that saved Marcus’s life.  One, the din of weapons fire that the closed hatch had concealed also served to disguise the sound of it opening.  Two, the alien standing on the other side of the hatch had been in the process of contributing to said weapons fire and thus was fixated on its target.  Last but not least, the fact he was holding a flechette gun, a.k.a. the ultimate point and squeeze weapons system whether one was nearly pissing his pants in fear or not.

In a move that was pure reflex, Marcus fired from the hip while using his toes to press down on the magnetic shoes’ friction release.  The Pata’s recoil forced Marcus backwards while the cloud of flechettes blasted through the lizard in front of him.  The metal rods continued on to decapitate another lizard kneeling behind an overturned table five meters away.  As the bulkhead behind him stopped his movement, Marcus noted that both reptiles and their blood fell to the deck beneath them.

Corridor C has gravity and air circulation, he had time to think, right before a storm of fire came spitting through the hatch where he had been.  There were screams and exclamations to his left as he quickly reengaged the magnetic shoes and stepped to his right.  Looking into Corridor C back towards the bow, he saw another lizard starting to turn towards him, bringing up a weapon before the Kabano cracked next to his head and negated that threat.  Springing back forward in a crouch, Marcus placed his back to the bulkhead on the hatch’s right, noting that Senator Du moved smoothly to the opposite side.  The Kabano cracked again, Aimi’s cursing and shoulder roll forward to evade counterfire telling Marcus she had missed.

This would be one of those times comms was helpful, he thought angrily.  There was no way he knew what was on the other side of the hatch other than someone had been in a firefight with the gaggle of aliens.  Reaching into his satchel, he pulled out a small, shiny object the size and shape of a billiards ball.

“Dazzler out!” he shouted, then tossed the sphere around the corner.  It hit with a metallic clink, followed a moment later by several intense strobes of light that elicited several decidedly angry sounds and a storm of projectiles from the other side of the hatch.  Unlike his silver sphere, the ones that came back through the hatch exploded on the far bulkhead in a series of bright flashes, acrid smoke and, worst of all, slivers of spall that went singing down the corridor in all direction.  The Spartan beside Senator Du grunted then, looking down at his reddening chest in surprise, slumped forward, and there was a scream from down the hallway.

The storm of fire suddenly stopped as there was a rising crescendo of flechette guns, rail rifles, and energy pistols on the far side of the hatch.  Going prone, Marcus leaned his upper body briefly around the hatch just in time to see a last alien decapitated by a Kanabo slug.  There was a long silence, and after about thirty seconds of no movement, it was apparent there were no more aliens in the next compartment.

“Sidney Goodwin!” Marcus shouted from the hallway.

“Cosmo Duff!” came a shocked response.  “Boss is that you?”

“It ain’t Santa Claus!” Marcus shouted back, drawing a nervous laugh.  “Coming in!”

Ten minutes later, the ragged band with Marcus had shuffled into what had been the Corridor C “aviary.”  Designed as a space to allow crewmembers to forget they were on a giant can in the middle of space, the compartment’s domelike shape was intended to facilitate the holographic projection of a generic planetary scene.  Completing the production was the movement and sounds of various bird species selected at random from the Confederation’s numerous worlds.  In its original state, the illusion had been completed by the presence of faux foliage over a couple of slight rises, picnic tables, and a small refreshment stand complete with an ice cream machine.

Much like the rest of the ship, the room’s current state was a stark rendering of its previous opulence.  What was left of the refreshment stand lay burning in the middle, with three corpses inside well past being unrecognizable.  Divots and scorch marks made the greenery look like a scene prop from a 20th century warfare holovid, while the sound system played a staccato confusion of bird calls in a constant loop.  The acrid smell of smoke, smoldering artificial turf, and the usual offal that came from violent death still managed to enter his sinuses despite the valiant efforts of the air circulation fans.  As Marcus listened to the report from the deputy squad leader whose life he had just saved, he found himself almost wishing he was back in Corridor B where the power wasn’t working.

“Bastards blew in the door from the starboard side,” Jin-su Hwang said, his voice still raw from having been screaming the last ten minutes.  A full head taller than Marcus, Hwang’s build reflected the hours of Tae Kwan Do instructing he had done as a former Marine.  Marcus noted that the man’s hands were shaking as he gestured towards the open hatchway.  Marcus noted that the explosives the aliens had used appeared to have had a cutting effect rather than a raw, uncontrolled blast.

“We were heading aft when it happened, had just enough time to turn and start fighting.  There were about twenty to start with, and I’m not sure they were expecting trouble because we got several right off the bat.  Then they shot something through that door…”

Hwang’s voice trailed off as he looked toward the burning refreshment stand.

“Whatever it was, it wasn’t just the explosion but the flash.  Next thing I know, they’re in the compartment, and it’s all assholes and elbows after that.  Marina,” Hwang said, referring to the original squad leader as he gestured towards a group of alien and human bodies to their left, “died over there.  They’re so fast.”

Marcus winced sympathetically.

“I know.  We’re all that’s left from Ballroom A, and I don’t think there’d be this many of us if not for the Spartans,” Marcus replied grimly.  “Have you been able to reach the bridge?”

“Haven’t had a chance to try.  We passed Dragnita’s squad on our way up here.  She had the Purser with her, they were headed towards the Nursery.”

Marcus’s eyes widened.

“What?!”

“There were injured at the Nursery.  The Purser grabbed Lavinia, said they had to protect the children.  Lavinia agreed.”

Goddammit!

“Set up a perimeter.  Hopefully this is the only breach they’ve got into Corridor C so far, or we’re well and truly fucked,” Marcus snapped.  “Get with Quentin, cross level what ammo you’ve got.  I’m going to try that damn communicator and see if I can get a hold of the bridge.”

With that, Marcus moved off towards the console.  He was almost there when Sarah caught up with him.

“What is your plan, Marcus?” she asked wearily.  “We’ve got people who aren’t…”

“Sarah, enough,” Marcus seethed.  “Enough.”

Sarah recoiled as if he had struck her.

“What in the hell is your problem, Marcus?!” she shouted, causing several people to look in their direction.  Marcus ignored her, reaching towards his inside suit pocket in order to fish out a comms headphone.  It was only at that point that he realized the entire left side of his suit was a ruin of tears and missing cloth.  Sarah, following his hand motion, gasped in shock.

“You want to know what my problem is, Sarah?” he asked lowly.  “My problem is that apparently I’m the only person aboard this fucking ship who realizes that all these pleasantries and customs you people want to keep observing don’t mean shit if the aliens blow our engine room into space.”

Sounding a little too scared shitless for comfort, he admonished himself, pausing to get his emotions back in check.

“So, no, I do not care that some septuagenarian whose sole importance in life is that she happened to get knocked up by a billionaire is about to have a heart attack,” Marcus continued, his tone slightly calmer.  “Indeed, if I were a decent human being I’d walk back there and put two in her head myself, as that would be preferable to leaving her behind for some aliens to snack on.”

Sarah’s expression went from shock and dismay at his obvious near injury to outright horror.

“What about me, Marcus?  Would you shoot me if I chose to stay with her?  Or would you figure that was my own dumb decision and I deserved whatever happened to me?”

This would be why I wanted to plug in a headset rather than use the speakers, he thought darkly.  Because the last thing I want is to revisit this conversation after getting in touch with Lorraine.

“Maybe you should ask yourself what you think the answer to that question is, Sarah,” Marcus replied sadly.  “Let me know what conclusion you come to if I save all of us.”  With that, he turned to the communications console.  Pressing the buttons to bring it to life, Marcus said a little prayer that the thing still worked.  As if to prove some deity in the universe at large was still accepting calls, the flat screen came on.  Swiftly entering his override code, Marcus patched through to the bridge.

 

Bridge

Titanic

1845 SST

“Captain, I have made contact with Mr. Martin,” Ms. O’Barr reported from her position.

Abraham was astounded at the woman’s calm given their present situation.  While there had been no sounds of combat for the last twenty minutes, no one present was under any illusions that would last.

Apparently Mr. Martin is more resourceful than I gave him credit for, Abraham thought.  That and his people are far more desperate.

The aliens initially moving towards the bridge had been checked roughly twenty meters aft.  The method of “checking” had been for one of the security squad leaders to blow a hole in the Titanic’s deck with what had seemed like an extraordinary amount of explosives.  What the poor woman had not known was that the compartment below had been filled with vacuum, meaning that the emergency doors just outside of his day cabin had dropped unexpectedly behind her.  Neither death from asphyxiation nor at the hands of twenty aliens one had just condemned to die sounded pleasant to Abraham, and he had studiously avoided asking O’Barr what had happened.

This is all my fault, Titanic’s master thought.  All my goddamned fault.

“Marcus, we have no control over the comms system,” O’Barr said, then stopped to listen to Marcus’s retort.  “Because the helm station is wrecked and we have no contact with the Secondary Bridge.”

It didn’t take a rocket scientist to imagine Marcus’ response to O’Barr’s report.  The woman calmly waited for his short, profane retort to end, then responded firmly.

“Because the helmsman’s head looks like it’s been through a log splitter, that’s why.  Now, you want a situation report or you want to continue making wishes?”

Abraham was amazed at how little ire was in O’Barr’s last statement.  If anything, the Deputy Security Officer sounded incredibly weary, as if the weight of the world was on her shoulders.

“Bad.  The only good news is that the Dutchman protocols are trying to fix our orbit, but they weren’t designed to account for the deadweight bitch we’ve got attached,” Lorraine said.  She took a moment to quickly recount what had occurred with the railguns.

“Sensors report that there’s, for want of a better word, chaotic energy pulses coming from the wreckage.  Judging from how quickly the other cruisers moved away from us and the radiation alarms we’ve got in a couple of compartments portside, I think whatever we knocked loose might have been important.  No matter—if someone doesn’t show up with a tug in about six hours this is all going to be moot.”