Loading...
Menu
Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Science fiction  ➡  Adventure  ➡  Military

Iron Five

 
p={color:#000;background:#fff;}. IRON FIVE

AN EARTHFRONT NOVEL

SEON O. STRONGHOLD

Copyright 2016 Seon O. Stronghold. All rights reserved.

Written by Seon O. Stronghold

St. Vincent and the Grenadines

 

Cover design by Seon O. Stronghold, copyright 2016

Edited by Seon and Rosette Stronghold

This is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents written here are the products of the author’s imagination and are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment. This eBook may not be sold or printed without the author’s written consent. If you would like to share this book with another person, feel free to do so. Thank you for respecting my hard work.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PROLOGUE

Through the cockpit viewscreen, Earth appeared as beautiful as ever and like always, Captain Kelly Winterfield marveled at it. He had been docked at the International Space Station for four hours and now, sitting in the dim pilot’s cabin of The Legacy II, he prepared for departure.

The station controller’s voice crackled over the comm. “Legacy Two, you’re good for auto and cleared for undocking.”

“Legacy Two copies clearance on full guidance.” Kelly responded.

The ship lurched as the powerful arms holding it in place, disengaged. Manipulating the controls with experienced nudges this way and that, Kelly turned the freighter a full one hundred and eighty degrees until the view of the planet was replaced by the white shell of the sprawling space complex.

The International Space Station was an old one, the very first as a matter of fact. Unlike its newer counterparts, it was the only station in the galaxy with this design. Made up of a patchwork of hundreds of years of additions, cylindrical arms, over ten miles long, extended horizontally from its bustling core and harbored thousands of ships of varying sizes, linking them to its interior by way of retractable bridges.

The Legacy II drifted away from the wharf-like structure and ten minutes later, when the computer indicated that they were safely beyond the outer edges of Earth’s junk rings, Kelly took full control of his ship and ignited its thrusters.

Seven minutes later, the Legacy II came out of Hyper Light and the coppery colored planet, Venus, came into view. His destination was a Military facility, five hundred feet above the base of Mount Danu. In all his time delivering for Earthfront, he had never been to this port, had never even heard of it. Whatever the cargo in his hold was, it must have been something really big because only very high level clearance could get him surface-side on Venus. According to his agent, all he needed to do was pick up the shipment, deliver it, don’t ask questions, make no inspections and not stick his nose into it. Whatever it was, he had an uneasy feeling about the whole deal and just wanted to get there, drop the shipment and get Earth-side in time to catch a shuttle home. Today was his daughter’s birthday. She was, in her own words, officially ten and he knew she would never let it go if he missed her big celebration.

Do you really have to go out this time?

His wife had tried to convince him to stay but this job was important and the credits it would earn him would set them good. His daughter would have a better future and he and Laura would finally be able to go on that honeymoon vacation they always wanted. After all, a Light Class Space Trucker made barely enough credits to cover the cost of living on Earth but this time, they would be able to make the move to Pluto or Charon. Life on the Border Worlds was easily affordable and less stressful than planetary hubs in the mid system. His trucking business would flourish out there too. Haulers were always in high demand on the outer edges of Sol.

The cockpit beeped three times, alerting him of his proximity to atmospheric entry.

Venus and Mercury, unlike Mars, Jupiter’s moons, Saturn and Neptune’s moons and Pluto and Charon, were nothing more than mining planets. The space stations orbiting Venus numbered only two but Kelly would not be docking in space on this trip. His hauler was one of a few types of interstellar Light Classers that could make the transition from space to atmosphere and back.

At twenty thousand kilometers from entry, The Legacy II slowed rapidly, covering the remaining distance in twenty minutes before burning through atmosphere. As the ship transitioned into Venusian airspace, Kelly found, though nothing like Earth, that there was a unique beauty about this hostile world.

Sulfuric clouds, twenty kilometers thick, spread planet wide below him and lightning lit up the vast blanket in periodic displays of spectacular bursts. A few miles away and even as far as the horizon, Massive barges hung miles above the surface, transporting precious ore to waiting cargo ships in vacuum. But they soon disappeared as the acidic cloud cover enveloped his ship, blotting out the bright yellow sky above. The cockpit shook with turbulent winds and bucked its way through the density of the mid atmospheric storm.

Beneath the perpetual cover, life on this planet existed in near darkness by day and utter blackness by night. As Kelly broke free of the haze after what seemed like ages, the ship’s external lights automatically activated, illuminating massive wisps of sulfuric acid, drifting lazily along their paths. At twenty thousand feet above ground level, the lights of the mountain base finally came into view and the communications module crackled to life.

“Legacy Two, this is Outpost Three Command. Give link up and pilot ident, over.”

“Captain Kelly Winterfield of Legacy Two, Venus bound from Earth.” He read the identification codes on his thigh board and waited for confirmation.

“Welcome to Venus Captain.”

The Legacy vibrated as the outpost’s tracking system took control of it, directing the hauler to a docking bay built into the side of the mountain.

The first thing Kelly noticed, as his ship glided smoothly toward the hangar, was the grunge that had built up along the outer walls of the base. Eversteel would not be corroded by sulfuric acid, but grimy deposits collected over time gave it a disgusting appearance and covered it like a mossy shell.

The winds had also picked up. Fifty five miles per hour to be exact but the base’s auto guidance system kept the ride stable and when he finally entered the complex, the shaking of the cockpit ceased.

********

Fifty minutes later, Kelly stretched his cramped muscles and leaned against the headrest of his seat. This would be over soon. In the next three hours, he’d be back on Earth with his family and five hundred million credits in the bank.

The communications console lit up.

“Legacy Two…shipment has been received, you have clearance for startup, over.”

Kelly responded “Legacy Two copies clearance for startup.”

He jumped back into the pilot’s seat, strapped in and ran through the sequence that would ready his ship for the trip home. And as he hit the ignition switch, violent streaks of gunfire lit up the massive hangar outside his viewscreen.

Kelly’s heart slammed into his chest like an out of control wrecking ball. Tracer rounds shredded men and women in mechanized suits, and mercilessly blew apart ships and armored vehicles. The Legacy II lifted gracefully from the landing pad, glided its way out of the cavernous space and into the strong gusts outside. Without the station’s auto guidance system to keep the ship stable, Kelly had to rely on natural reflexes honed by years of experience; nothing he couldn’t handle.

The scene before him was unreal. A lone, military grade, walking battle tank viciously tore the place apart as an unmarked transport ship nearby loaded cargo into its hold…his cargo.

Heart hammering, hands trembling, head swimming, Kelly sent a distress signal to Earth and adjusted his angle of ascent, then rocketed skyward, wanting nothing more than to escape the madness below. He never saw the four missiles streaking toward him. Then in a bright flash of fiery debris, that last thing he felt was horror.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FACT

 

Kedenians were among the first to leave for the stars. Originally, they settled on Nema; a Goldilocks planet in a system five light years from Earth. But after fifty years of disputes now known as The Splinter Wars, Earthfront expelled the rogue clan, known then as, Keden Industries. Their leader, Amir Kedeni and his supporters were banished and forced to search for a non-hostile world in unknown space and it wasn’t long before they stumbled across a rich, desert planet now named Keden.

As time passed and mankind colonized many systems in the Milky Way, Large Corporations, Governments and various organizations rose to govern it all. Earthfront, the leading authority in most of our Galactic Domain, is the largest governing body in existence. Yet as peace reigns throughout known space, Keden, it seems, would forever be a hostile world to Earthfront.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 1 – IRON FIVE

 

 

My MAV is part of a five man team on patrol across this barren Kedenian dunescape. I am Alpha Dog, call sign Huski. On my right, is Dachshund and Pitbull and to my left, Akita and Terrier…names chosen by us based on what breed of dog we have on our respective home planets; it is one of the worthwhile things we all have in common.

MAV’s are the most widely used equipment when it comes to military operations, Mechanized Armored Vehicles; walking tanks, so to speak. And just like the rest of the team, mine is a light class Mecha.

We are Legs-Dangling at forty feet above Artificial Ground Level and heading east at seventy miles per hour. My Heads-Up-Display shows me the sandy terrain and all its contours as they intersect with the computer’s generated lines. These lines keep us clear of obstacles but below dune peaks and off enemy radar. Our mission is simple. Patrol the Outlands and report any anomalies, life-forms and or threats. We are to remain on our side of the fence. For no reason, are we to go beyond the digital and imaginary lines which separate us from the locals. At no point are we to go weapons hot unless fired upon and some more blah, blah, blah. Personally; this being an unfriendly world and all, I think this is bullshit. But this is our mission according to SysDef, the System Defense Administration; our Diplomatic Relations Bureau stationed on this rock, eight thousand light-years from Earth. Our Unit is here to assist these slackers because these weekend soldiers wouldn’t know what to do if the Local Guerillas stood on the borderlines and stared them down, let alone declared a full-scaled attack. The only solace these pushovers have is the fact that the Kedenians know the repercussions of such an act. But as history has taught us so very often, it only takes one madman to take the plunge.

So we are the servants of SysDef for the time being. However, we don’t take orders from SysDef. Our directives come from General, Alexander ‘Hawk’ Madison; one of the heads of Earthfront Galactic, the military might and arm of our home planet spread out across the Milky Way. Our real mission, as far as our General is concerned, is to confirm that an Earth Based contingent of rebels is here along with their leader and if they are, we are to eliminate them. According to our most recent intelligence report, a few months ago, an Earthfront military base on Venus was attacked and all of the evidence links our targets to the crime.

Another chill runs through my body as my combat suit, the mechanical and biological link to the machine, cools my skin with filtered air. My communication module lights up.

“Iron Five…one bar to lights out, Link and rep live, over.”

Our unit is Iron Five. One bar to lights out means one hour till sunset. Link and rep live means to contact base and report what is happening. The voice in my ear is feminine yet devoid of femininity. Her name is Mirana O’Canon and she is a genuine hard-assed, straight laced, battleaxe woman who kicks ass and takes no prisoners.

How in the galaxy can a woman be so unwomanly?

I respond “…Huski to base, nothing but sand and rock out here. We’re runnin’ one bar after lights out before headin’ back, over.”

“Roger that Captain, squawk on ret.”

The com goes dead.

Squawk on return is standard procedure when dealing with Earth based military installations. If the pilot of any craft does not give the proper codes when returning to or approaching a base, the 550 millimeter auto-cannons placed around the Station would go active. These bad boys are the most feared armor Killers out there and as any pilot would tell you, respecting them is always a healthy decision to make.

“Alpha…” my Com flashes again. It’s Pitbull on our secure channel “…Keds Roving patrols on scan, seven clicks south.”

“Okay Bull, mark ‘em…” They would show up on my scanners at three kilometers but Bull’s MAV is equipped with heavy sensors and detectors that enable him to see a lot further than any of us. He is our very early warning system and because he has traded most of his heavy weapons for extra eyes and ears, we keep him well protected. “…do we cross paths?”

“I’ve marked ‘em but they’re not gonna cross us…they’re bugging south…”

“Okay maintain course…going dark in two.”

According to my Heads-Up-Display, it is 16:55 Kedenian time, which means that in two minutes, this Solar System’s dimming sun would end Keden’s ten hour daylight time. By the looks of it, tonight is going to be a bit clearer than usual and unless our readings are wrong, there won’t be another sand storm for at least two days.

“Okay fellas, going dark.” I throttle down, bring my engine to hover, and descend until the thud of machine meeting ground, shakes the cockpit. As my MAV’s Automatic Balancing System keeps me from toppling over, the rest of my team falls in beside me. Mentally, I hit the digital key on my visor and watch as we all become rippling reflections of our surroundings.

When we go dark, our stealth capabilities truly come to life. Reflective Regeneration Technology allows our MAVs to blend in to our surroundings while Bull’s jamming equipment keeps us off radar and other sensor systems. I half-consciously check the Neural in the lower right corner of my screen. It is an indicator that monitors the team’s movement, locations and life forces individually. We all feel it, taste it, hear it and are digitally connected to what is called The Neural Link. I can feel the life of the men under my command…a sensation that is often strange and borders on invasive but it becomes natural over time.

“Dogs you’re all a go…” I wait for my check

“Alpha you’re good”

Terrier confirms that my camouflage has engaged.

“Okay let’s make this as clean as possible…” I turn my head toward Pitbull and the outline of his cloaked MAV shows up on my visor; all its info and stats readily available at my command “…Bull, you know what to do. Hound, you’re on guard duty tonight.”

“Roger that Alpha.”

Dachshund’s German accent is still very strong, even after all these years away from home. His job on this run is to guard Pitbull as he scans and jams our enemies. His position is one that’s close enough to Bull to provide protection but near enough to us to come in guns blazing if needed. He is the right man for the job, as he has proven so often before.

 

**********

 

I approach the digital lines that divide Earthfront and Kedenian law. There is a feeling of satisfaction in our defiance as my MAV crosses it. The Dune Desert is behind me, all of its massive sand dunes in our wake; I give the signal and we come to a stop.

We are standing on the edge of a small cliff. The drop is two hundred and eighty six feet according to my reading and spreads out as far as the eye could see; one broad, flat, dirt and rock landscape. The view is captivating. Ten miles into the distance, a city sprawls like a massive manmade mountain, made of buildings and endless lights; wide and low on each end and rising near the center. Above it, one of this planet’s two spaceports shines like a large star in the brown sky and every so often, shuttles, like little fireflies, travel to and from it.

I look at the drop-off in front of us; this could be a problem “Terri…I thought you said this was the best route?”

“It is Alpha. It’s the most direct…”

I turn my attention toward the expanse of land beyond our position “Bull…you in position?”

There’s a flicker of static before I hear him “Dug in and watching, over.”

“Hound..?”

“All set sir…”

“Okay boys, on go and fly.”

I do a split second systems check “Ready…” we move closer to the edge “…set…” I push the accelerator and the gears in my MAV whine “…go!”

The three of us take a two-step run, and jumping from the cliff, we free fall with our thrusters cold. My head swims in the sensation of the fall and we kill the stealth; we’ll show up on every radar system within a hundred miles. My altimeter counts down in a frenzy of numbers and now, with a hundred feet to go…

“…fly!”

I fire my engines full blast; every heat detector in the vicinity would see us, but this slows the fall tremendously and I stiffen as the full power of the Sol Combustion engine jolts me into a million shudders. My rate of descent goes from fifty two feet per second to nine feet per second and then I shut the thrusters down, go engines cold again and brace for impact. The titanium legs of my MAV slam into the ground and the hydraulics in them do what they were designed to do. Then we immediately reactivate our camouflage.

Enemy radar and sensors would report our five seconds of madness as a glitch…at least I hope so. Frantic fists pound into my chest as I draw deep breaths of purified air.

“Let’s move.” I give the command and we begin our run toward the City.

 

CHAPTER 2 – DUNAN

 

 

DZ087 is one of numerous Districted Zones located along Dunan’s eastern edge. Entirely the opposite of its western counterparts, it is a rough and sordid zone where seedy taverns, rundown towns and derelict infrastructures make up a dangerous and unfriendly environment. As we approach, I notice that parts of its tall perimeter wall are lying scattered on the ground in some places, while in others, it no longer exists. The place looks as though it got hit by a nuke. Buildings that would have once been architecturally pleasing to the eyes are now rundown, empty, broken, or rubble.

My MAV steps over the vandalized fence and I give the word to deactivate our camouflage. Now that we are close enough to the city, we won’t need it. There are too many signals and too much equipment that run interference on our behalf; we would be considered no more than the usual traffic.

Our destination is down a main road and then off through a dark and usually deserted side street. So far, the folks we’ve passed have hardly acknowledged our presence. Everyone seems to be somewhere else, either in mind or body. There is a feeling of emptiness here, a lack of openness and freedom. The only thing I can think of is desolation. It is in their walk, their demeanor…their eyes.

In the dark sky, void of any clouds as usual, the stars sparkle few and far apart. This is because of Keden’s dusty atmosphere and unlike back home, there is no moon. A few Air and Magnatech Vehicles parked beside derelict structures catch my eye and questionable figures can be seen going into questionable buildings however, our mission has nothing to do with whatever is going on here; so we continue along.

My secure com lights up “Alpha…?”

“Terri…”

“How do we know that there are no spies here?”

“We don’t…this is where we’re gonna have to take our chances but I doubt we’ll have that problem in this part of town.”

I don’t worry about anyone reporting our presence to the local authorities because there are way too many illegal activities going on in this one locale for anyone to be so stupid. No one in their right mind would dare bring the law here and as we get to the end of the street and turn onto another wide road, everything changes. It’s a lot livelier here. The glows of dull yellow street lights and neon signs everywhere, reveal many of the district’s citizens going about their nightly lives, from street-side substance dealers to vendors, to buyers, to prostitutes, all driven by a common denominator; credits.

We come to a halt outside a well aged tavern. Like most of the manmade structures on this planet, it is built of metal and almost all of its yellow paint has been stripped away. The guards at the front entrance seem a bit uneasy. I guess I would be too if three Earthfront Mecha came and stood less than thirty feet away with guns and missile pods pointed in my direction. But they hold their positions, admirable in a way, their guns futile at the ready.

“Bull…how’s the weather?”

Static hits me “…All clear Alpha…”

“Hound…?”

“Ready and waiting sir…”

“Terri, Akita, if anything goes wrong, do what you have to do.”

“…Will do boss.” Akita’s voice is steady. He knows, just like the rest of us what the risks and potential consequences of coming here entail.

I power down my MAV and hit the release switch. The dashboard in front of me hisses, as the pressurized air around is expelled, and slides downward. The legs of the machine crouch, thus lowering the cockpit to the ground. My harness tightens for a second, then goes loose and I unclip it.

“Be careful Alpha…eyes open.”

I won’t reply but Terri knows I acknowledge his concern.

The air here is warm and dry but my Combat Suit filters it in and allows me to breathe cool and moist oxygen. My visor tells me that the temperature is a nice 32 degrees Celsius and I say nice, because the daytime temp is usually anything around 60.

I climb out of my seat and down the built-in-ladder in front of my Mecha. The two guards at the door are now joined by three more and as I walk toward them, the sound of my MAV resealing itself ripples through the far recesses of my mind until it becomes another distant background noise.

I get to the door of the tavern and one of the guards step between me and it “Who are you and what is your business here Earther?”

His gravelly voice is like the rest of all who come from or live too long on this planet. It’s because of the dust and sand, according to those who are qualified to know these things. Gets into the throat and lungs and over time, the human body adapts.

“I am death to my enemies, but I am here to see Toros, my friend.” I keep eye contact and though he defiantly returns my gaze, I see a flicker of uncertainty.

“Wait here.” He leaves me with the other four guards and goes through the door.

Two minutes and some pass before he returns and makes way for me to enter. His colleagues seem on edge but they are of no concern. As a matter of fact, I think that the two MAV’s facing us have placed a healthy bit of fear in them; exactly what I was hoping for.

The guard I spoke to eyes me suspiciously but motions for me to enter. Through the slanted steel doors, I go without hesitation and the world around me changes from openly wild, street-side life, to controlled and nice…an almost cozy indoor getaway. The bar is dusty and hot but lively. Its yellow lights cast a dull glow across the large room. I recall from memory the exits and windows in my immediate view; on these hostile worlds, it has become second nature over time to do so.

The big bartender looks like ex Kedar; Kedenian Special forces. And two men not far from him seem to be trading something unholy. Then there is the guy sitting at a corner table with two prostitutes; a Kedenian tradesman by the look of his clothing. Tradesmen on this planet are often leathery skinned because of their extensive time in the sun. Their clothes are always long and made of patchwork that covers most of their bodies including heads and faces.

“Hello there…”

I turn toward the soft voice. A woman dressed in a very short, formfitting jumper and rugged high heels is standing next to me. She takes advantage of my silence.

“You look lost hun…” Eying me like a piece of meat.

“Sorry, but I’m here on business.”

“Sorry indeed…”

Just like most Kedenian women, her face is rough and chiseled yet very attractive and her hair, bleached and damaged; all a result of the harsh weather.

“You’re here to see Toros. I’m here to take you to him.”

She looks at me as though I were a strange thing that made her curious. I realize now that she isn’t a prostitute and remove my helmet, attach it to the magnetic clip on my waist and follow the slinky woman through the crowd and into a hallway.

The Digital Optics covering my eyes like contact lenses, Digital Eyes, or Dees as we call them, take over and feeds me second by second digital, visual information about my surroundings. They tell me what I want to know, when I choose to want it. But nothing ever prepares me for the air. It hits me like an invisible wall of stale warmth that smells like old carpets. I hate it but have no choice in the matter now; no one in the known galaxy takes kindly to people in masks and helmets, especially Earthers in masks and helmets. We walk a few steps and turn through another metal door. It opens up into a large, dimly lit room made up of split levels where women and men of many races mingle and mix.

As I tread the velvety floor, a blue haired Kedenian woman nearby looks my way and smiles but I continue on, passing what looks like a local miner and a Rokan Woman uncomfortably embraced in a purple lit booth. I have never been to the Roka but I know what the folks there look like. Prolonged exposure to the atmospheres on the twin planets, Roka and Rokus tend to give the skin a light-purple hue. The darker the skin, the darker the hue, in my book however, purple is purple no matter how you look at it.

My escort guides me through the mingling crowd, past two guards, through another hallway, two more guards, and now an unusually broad door stands before us. With a knock she opens it and I step into a fairly large office and finally, I see the man I have come to find.

“Welcome my friend!” He is falsely excited to see me. But it is never a problem, because I am also falsely happy to be here. The semicircular and windowless room smells of Cuban Cigars. How in the galaxy did he get Cuban Cigars?

“How are you Toros?” I shake his rough hand and look into the square, chiseled, hairless face as I take a seat by his desk; my escort stands between us waiting.

“Elna…drinks!” He says it as though there is a celebration to be had, then watches her slyly as she walks away. “…Very nice girl…been with my establishment from the beginning.”

His voice is rough and deep…way too much dust I always say.

“You’ve been hiding her…I’ve never met her before…”

“My friend…” he gives me a broad smile “…I have more than one places of business on Keden; surely you know this?”

“You must treat her like gold then? Good help is hard to find no matter what planet you’re on…” I indulge the meaningless conversation for the moment.

“Not on Darion…” He grins, reminiscing “The service there is always excellent…you ever been to Darion, Earther?”

“No, but I know of it…” I have never been to the planet of cities, but I have seen it on flybys and walked through it virtually many times.

“…Beautiful place my friend…” Toros shifts his hulking frame and the chair beneath him protests loudly. “It’s been a while since I’ve seen you Earther. I was beginning to think that you’d left us here on this damned rock for good.”

“I’m here because I need information…”

“Ah…as always, straight to the point…” His mouthful of bright white teeth flashes a broad grin.

I relax in my chair and accept my drink now that Elna has returned. Toros waits for her to leave again and after the door is shut behind her, he continues. “What kind of information do you seek my friend?”

It is Kedenian custom to not ask, but for the host to present a drink of their choice to a guest. I take a sip of the blue-ish green cocktail and it is good. “What is this drink?”

He leans heavily into his big, black leather chair. “Pine fruit, water pears and the best Kedenian Fermentia you can find; it is good, no?”

I sip it again and nod my approval. Fermentia is Keden’s version of wine and is ranked in the top ten of fine wines that the Galaxy has to offer.

“I hear that a small Deepcore fleet has landed on Keden…” I search his face for any sign of acknowledgement, but there is none “Do you know where they are based?” but I see his crooked mind working; the well-oiled gears of it turning at full steam.

“You’ve been coming to me for a long time now Earther…” He plays with his glass “…and I’ve always given you whatever you ask, you know this. You pay well and that is what it’s all about, no? What you ask now though, puts me in a difficult position…do me…and you, a favor my friend and leave this one alone…”

He’s getting shifty so I cut him off “…Name your price.”

But it is as though I said nothing “…These guys, they don’t play nice. They’ll find me and end me, you must understand this Earther.”

“I thought you were well protected here…thought this was your domain?”

“Domain..? Earther, to these people, there is no domain they cannot reach; they’ll just send their assassins or bomb everything. They have spies…everywhere, and government connections. You have no idea what you’re getting into.”

“Who said I was getting into anything? I just asked a question.”

Toros places his drink on the desk and looks at me. The fear in this man’s eyes says it all. Deepcore is obviously bigger and more dangerous here than on Earth. A burst of static hits my ear. “Alpha..?”

It’s Pitbull

“…I just hacked into Toros’ logs and it appears that he has ties to Deepcore. There was a transaction of fifty million Kedenian Credits two days ago to Toros for services rendered…sending to you…now.”

The info appears across my Digital Eyes. Now I know why the Kedenian opposite me is avoiding the question.

Toros is still rambling. “…and I’m not stupid Earther. You don’t care if I get ended by these men. All you want is…wait a minute. You wouldn’t be asking about them if you weren’t planning some sort of raid…” His words trail off as the truth registers.

I wish it wouldn’t

“…or a hit…this is a hit. You’re going after them on Kedenian soil…” He looks away from me in thought “…yes, you’re not here under instruction from your base. As far as I know, you’re not allowed to even be here. This is some kind of unauthorized operation and you don’t care what happens to me after…”

“I’ll double the credits Toros, and give you protection.”

“Protection..? Ha!”

I don’t like the look in his eyes

“…I’m sorry Earther. I can’t let you this time…bad for business, you understand, no?”

The room seems to be getting a bit too small. I hate to do this but Toros has now become a liability…no, a threat. He shifts suddenly so I draw my hand gun and point it toward his face. “Don’t do this Toros. All I asked was where, are, they? Please my friend, I won’t mention you, I swear.”

“Friend..? Ha!” His face contorts in anger “…That will not stop them from knowing that it was me. No one tolerates a rodent. I’ll be eaten alive.”

“Last time Toros. Where..?”

“You’ll never make it out of here alive Earther.”

I refuse to answer. The situation has gotten out of control. Inside, I recoil at the thought of what I am about to do. I wish it were different but now I have no choice.

“Please Earther…” The bulky, bald headed Kedenian is on the edge of panic “…do not do this…You have no idea…” And as he draws his hidden gun and shouts for help, I squeeze the trigger on my Tex’s Fifty-eight. The ‘Hand Cannon’ as is nicknamed, lets loose its bullet with a heavy thud and I move as what was Toros’ head explodes into an expanding pulp.

“I’m sorry old friend.” I reattach my helmet just as the door bursts open and slam the butt of my gun into the face that appears. The big man cries out but regains his footing and lunges toward me. I shift my weight and use his own to throw him over the desk of his fallen boss.

Another thug comes crashing through the door and my Fifty-eight puts him back through it. I need to get out of this hallway; it is a death chamber the longer I wait. I fire into the first man now rising from behind the desk and begin my run, then slow to a walk beside the metal door separating my corridor from the commingling on the other side. Pushing the button to open it is either going to give me freedom or death but time is of the essence, everyone in the building would have heard those shots.

The door flies open and after a quick glance, I run through the now empty space and stop once more near the hallway on the other side. No one is here either. I don’t like this, it’s too easy but I have to get out.

“Alpha…” Terri’s is in my ear “…keep coming to us.”

I suck in deep breaths of purified air, and take the passageway in long strides with my heart clawing its way out my chest. But the deep breaths and a well-trained, steady mind keeps me calm and thinking straight. The door to the bar and lounge is now within reach.

“BOOM..! Rrrrrrreeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!”

The sound hits like thunder and I open the door in time to see the front end of the tavern disintegrate.

“Alpha, come on!”

Akita’s MAV stands like the Grim Reaper, gun whirling and tearing up everything moving or not and I run for it, putting a hole into the chest of another guard. I don’t know for sure, but it appears as though every customer that I left in here is now holding a weapon.

While I push my legs for more speed, My MAV is already opening by mental command and bullets whiz nearby as I run up the ladder.

“Alpha…” It’s Bull’s voice “…heavy armor in-bound on your six. I make two Rhinos.”

Terrier is on the air now “Yeah we’ve got company. I got em on scope. Huski let’s go!”

I strap into my seat and wake my MAV’s sleeping systems. Everything comes online instantly and we turn to leave the half leveled building. Now I know for sure that Toros had dealings with Deepcore. Rhinos are the heavy Mecha of Deepcore’s operations; heavy Mecha class war machines that could level a city block in a matter of seconds. This is fast turning into a ‘not-good’ situation.

“Okay boys, look alive, weapons hot, Bull get on it.”

I activate both missile launcher pods and hear the whir as my Auto Cannon turns to lock onto my digital targets. We go back the way we came and as we come out onto the deserted main road the ground in front of us and the edges of the building nearby tear up with gun fire.

“Bull, do you have them?” I hope to God his answer is yes.

“Got ‘em boss…”

“Disable the bastards. Hound, hold your position.”

“Holding…” he replies

I imagine Pitbull siting in his cockpit and targeting our enemies. His two hundred and twenty pound frame, taking up his entire seat, is perfectly matched to the monster, Long Ranged Rail gun mounted above his MAV.

Bullets twang off our armor and my missile alert systems are going mad. I hear the sound a split second before the wall to my left explodes. Chunks of metal and evercrete slam into my armor but no damages are indicated. According to my scope, the Rhinos are a hundred and twenty three meters out and closing. My warning system shrieks as it detects their missile lock again but in a bright flash…ONE…TWO! Both heavy Mecha go down, their legs, blown out at the joints. Bull’s long range assault has done its job and now, my targeting computer alerts me.

“Alpha…” Terri’s voice “…I got lock…”

“Hold!”

I need to make contact so I think it, and see the module appear in the upper left of my virtual Head’s up Display. I select it with another thought that activates my MAV’s auto-frequency-find and it scans until I have the right one.

“Rhino squad…you have engaged Earthfront military in unauthorized combat. Stand down or we will kill you. You have five seconds to comply.” Eying the time counter on my digital screen, I wait as the milliseconds change the seconds that will eventually bring the moment of destruction. There is static on the air.

“Earthfront dogs…” his breathing is heavy and his voice like a loud whisper “…you are the ones who will meet death…”

His hoarse voice and labored breathing makes his words heavy, and in them is the sound of finality. I look at our crippled enemies and take in the shattered scene of old buildings and the empty street behind them. One of the Rhino’s, using what’s left of his destroyed hydraulic legs, rolls over and brings his missile launchers to bear. My warning systems light up…I have no choice.

“Fire…!”

I mentally select how many missiles I need and my finger squeezes the trigger on my control. Four of them leave me. The cockpit shudders. Their trails of grey and black smoke joining those from Terri’s MAV creates an eerie sight as the missiles track their prey. Two seconds, One second, Impact, the fallen Rhinos flare up in a brilliant flash followed by a wicked thunder and a raging dust cloud that expands rapidly outward; it is over. What is left of them is nothing more than superheated metal, melted into clumps of hard waste. The ground where they lay is now a small crater. Their debris, just more broken pieces added to the picture of this forsaken place; we turn to head back to base, I try to push Toros from my mind. I can’t.

The time on my HUD is 17:35.

CHAPTER 3 – FRIENDS AND FOES

 

 

We fly into base at 17:58. The massive complex is a waste of space if you ask me. Ten miles into the Dune Desert, most of it is buried below ground. I doubt that the folks stationed here take up even half of it. Lights outline the base’s circular metal dome. Windows at varying levels appear as electric-blue lines from this distance; giving the structure an eerie glow. This architecture reminds me of how far away from home I am.

“Base Control…” I read the code on my visor and then “…Iron Five on approach, over…”

“Iron Five, You’re cleared for entry. Touch down on zero seven.” A digital line materializes on my navigation screen. It will lead us to Landing Pad seven. The voice this time is that of a young lady. I have no idea who she is though. Many new recruits and interns often get shipped out here from time to time and as they come…they go.

Lucky bastards

My team and I have been here for four months now. Four months of crap. This rock is nothing more than a routine-filled life of nothing, as far as I am concerned, and this is the tenth time they have shipped us out here; I can’t wait to leave it behind again.

I drop toward the landing pad four hundred meters ahead. My thrusters whine as they compensate for the loss of thrust versus gravity. In my peripherals, Akita and Hound are right with me. Bull and Terri would be behind them. I switch my engines to hover and slide the throttle back, reducing power until my altimeter reads, ten feet above immediate ground level. We all kill the upward thrusts almost at the same time and our MAVs touch down with a series of heavy thuds.

“Iron Five. Proceed to wash down. Welcome home.”

She sounds so young. Why don’t these kids stay at home and enjoy their youth? But then I think of the Battle Axe who runs the base and I am suddenly more grateful for the new voice.

The landing pad; large, circular and made of dense metal is red and brown and covered with constantly shifting dust. The winds out here read at a good seventy miles per hour but our forty ton Walking Battle Tanks hold steady. While we walk, I do a thorough systems check. This is standard procedure and it will take about five minutes as my team approaches the wide opening of the outer hanger.

I follow the lines glowing on the ground ahead of me with my brain feeling the tingle of millions of microscopic neural electrical jolts. Mind and computer linked together in a dance of pulses and waves; this stuff never ceases to amaze me. We continue, through the hangar opening and to a large chamber that seals us inside with a giant Eversteel door. Locked in now, the five of us are subjected to powerful streams of super-heated and compressed water and gas that hit our armour under extreme pressure; scrubbing us clean of dust, parasites and any other dangers that might have been picked up on the outside. I finish up my usual systems check as every few seconds, jets of water and whatnot slam into the narrow strip of cockpit glass around me.

After our time in decontamination, we go through another set of hangar doors and stand the MAV’s in their designated spaces. Each assigned space has the Earthfront EFG logo, and uniquely coloured lines along their edges, representing rank, indicate who goes where. I log the final reading from one of the sensors on my HUD, then power down my engine and hit the release switch. A moment passes as the cockpit lights come on and my visor switches from external to normal view, showing what is really around me. Then the front section of my MAV slides downward and I climb out.

As my feet touch the metal floor of our docking bay, I remove my helmet and blink. There is a slight jab behind my eyes as the Digital Eyes adjusts to the brightly lit space and I join Bull and Akita while they wait for the rest of the team.

Standing lifelessly nearby, my MAV towers above us; its black skin casting dull reflections of lights around. I remember the first time I saw it, and the joy I felt knowing that it was mine. With its two cylindrical missile pods hanging off short pylons on both sides, and the Tex Auto-cannon mounted above and behind the cockpit, it still makes me feel insignificant. Designed by famous weapons specialist, Gregory Tex, son of the great, General Ganton Tex, the Tex’s Auto-cannon is the military’s most widely used projectile weapon. It is also the Crown Jewel of Tex Contractors back on Earth.

Across the gunmetal-grey hanger, with its Eversteel floor almost reflective, small sky fighters, space shuttles, armored tanks and a few other Light Mecha class machines fill the manmade cavern. There is also a SysDef Starship here.

Our MAV Carrier, the Mirage, is here too. Originally built as a small black-ops Starship with a fully fitted weapons system of its own; she’s perfect for vacuum warfare. The sleek and attractive spacecraft had been refitted to transport up to six MAVs after being assigned to us. Its primary function; to take us from space to any planet’s surface and back without having to use a spaceport.

“Time to eat…” Hound says as he approaches.

“The Pitbull agrees. Nothing else to do anyways so let’s…”

I have no reason to disagree with them so we all follow Bull and Hound out of the hanger and to the Mess hall.

“That was a good run guys…”

“Good run? Alpha, unless you forgot, we got no leads…”

I turn toward Terri, his black wavy hair a mess after its time in his helmet. “Of course we did…” They all look at me, puzzled “…we know for sure that the fleet is somewhere on this planet.”

“But how do we know where..?” Akita jumps in.

“We’ll pay another friend of mine a visit…”

“At the rate we’re going…” Terri again “…you’ll be out of friends by day after tomorrow. I’m thinking of unfriending you right now as a matter of fact.”

We all laugh and walk toward a glass doorway that slides into the wall.

“Captain..!”

We turn toward the voice. Damn it’s her.

 

********

 

“Sit, Captain!” She’s all business. I take a seat. We are in her office, or prison cell, depending on how you look at it. All these enclosed metal rooms are basically the same to me, differentiated only by color and furniture. Hers is light blue with an L-shaped, blue-metal desk, two white-cushioned metal chairs, and a hidden shelving system.

I try to read her for any signs of what is to come but there are none…she’s good. We sit in silence for a while. I know she is assessing me, maybe even trying to make me nervous; she should know better. Her red hair is in a tight bun today. Her eyes are livid as they scan the documents before her. There is an undercurrent there, an anger that is kept well in check if I am not mistaken. On the other hand, she has what I like to call ‘an unattractive, attractive face’. Even with the weathered effects of Kedenian weather and the broad, painfully looking deep scar running from the middle of her forehead, down her left eye and to her lower jaw, something appealing still exists.

A Certificate case hanging on the wall behind her reveals that I need a shave. The stubble on my face, along with my black crew cut hair makes me look a bit older than I am, but then again, that could just be the reflective glass being negative; like its owner.

“Captain Richard Victor Gant…” She says it without looking at me, snapping me from my daze, her attention rooted to a sheet of digital paper as she slides it across the metal desk. I haven’t heard my name face to face in a very long time; so much so, that now I do; it seems foreign, especially coming from her. For the past few years, it has been Captain, Alpha or Huski. She must be really pissed off.

“…gives you the right to think…” Her voice registers again “…that you have the authority to carry out an unauthorized Op in my jurisdiction, on my watch..?” She is looking at me now, her eyes furious but her demeanour composed.

“I don’t understand. I don’t know anything about an Op…” The images on the translucent paper are those of three MAV’s standing in place while an unseen attacker blows the crap out of two Rhinos. Outside of the current circumstances, it looks pretty cool on paper.

“…I don’t know what you are doing here or why you were sent, but I know one thing…this is my base. Your briefings and debriefings might be to General Hawk but, everyone who is a part of my base is subject to the rules and regulations of my base…” She pauses, for some kind of effect I guess “…therefore, you are to remain on my base for the duration of your stay. You and your team no longer have access to the hanger bay…”

“You can’t do th…”

She raises her voice “…and I order you…” Volume down and voice stern again “…to cease and desist whatever operation you are currently carrying out until further notice! Do I make myself clear?”

“Commander you don’t…”

Loud again “I will have you and your squad court marshalled…!” Calm once more “…now do, I, make, myself, clear?”

I return her gaze “Crystal clear, Ma’am.”

Her eyes move away from mine “You are dismissed.”

I stand and walk away without hesitation. We have been back and forth in arguments ever since my first time here but this time…this one could be a problem. I quickly push her out of my mind. We have a job to do, and we need to get out of here.

 

********

 

A half hour later, I am in my cell…room…quarters…whatever it is and thinking about our current predicament. I will have to discuss it with the guys when we get together in the Mess. I don`t trust talking on coms in this place. There is a knock on my door.

“It’s open…”

The steel door slides aside to reveal the oval opening, and who I see standing there catches me off guard, but I don’t show it. I stand and deliver an over exaggerated salute and try hard to not show my surprise…or is it interest…doesn’t matter.

“Captain..?” her voice is steady. She is carrying a file and obviously not in a good mood. Her manner has not changed since we last spoke. So why is she here?

“Commander…” I acknowledge her.

“I have great news…” She has not even spoken a full sentence and already her lips drip with fury “…the boots you wipe have cleared you for duty.” Her composure is failing. She throws the file and it lands on the mattress next to me. I look at it, sit up and open the shiny case. “When your Op is completed, you are cleared to leave this planet forthwith. Good day Captain.”

Her head is held high and her back straight as a ruler. I continue to read what is before me and she turns to leave.

“Commander…?” I can’t help it. This is ridiculous the more I think about it. But she continues walking. “Mirana..!” She stops and turns her head slightly “…Wait. Please.”

She turns her face away from me and toward the door but does not move. “Captain, you will address me with the necessary respect re…”

“Then court-martial me, but before you do, tell me, what is your problem?” I wait but get no response, so I get off the bed and continue. “…This makes no sense. This is the tenth time I’ve been stationed here and for whatever reason, of which I have no idea, you have shown me nothing less than unwarranted hostility.”

“What is my problem…unwarranted hostility?” The words slither from her lips like poisoned silk. She re-seals the door behind her and turns to me now “…okay, you want to talk? Let’s talk.” Her eyes glare like shiny hornets “…you…full of yourself, pompous sonofabitch and answerable to no one…”

I’ve never heard her like this before and now her cheeks blossom red…I’ve never seen this either

“…Yes that’s you. Every time your unit is stationed here, you undermine my authority. You treat the regulations of my base as though they are beneath you…Unwarranted hostility?” She begins to walk away.

“This is pointless…” I move toward her.

“Yes, it is pointless.” She puts a hand to open the door. I hold her arm and she stops.

“I didn’t mean this conversation is pointless. I meant this…” I gesture to the space between us “…this hate between us.”

She retaliates

Shit!

I move just in time as she swings into me but I was not expecting it. Her manoeuvre does not hit true but my body is still slammed against the cabin wall. She is good. I mean, I am a fully trained soldier and yet her technique against me was flawless.

“You don’t ever touch me Captain!” Glaring, she holds me in place. I think about what is happening. The tension between us had been building for some time now. I always knew she hated me and that eventually our clash would come but damn, how was I to know it would happen like this? Her eyes bore into mine and I take in the intensity on her face. Her anger, hair like fire, lips like…I don’t know but they are nice. I also see her scars up close for the first time. She has obviously seen battle, or maybe the wrong side of a past relationship who knows…why the hell do I care? I shift my weight, all one hundred and eighty five pounds of it and redirect hers. She releases her hold and I drive her slender frame to the spot where she previously pinned me.

“We’re adults Commander.” I release her now.

“Assaulting a Commander of any SysDef or Earthfront installation is punishable by…”

I back away. “I’m not what you think…”

She takes a deep breath “What difference does it make Captain?” Her emotions betray her now. Anger and frustration in her eyes and voice spill out.

“…It’s not easy doing this job. You should know how it is when your directives don’t come from your immediate superior. You have no idea what my job entails so don’t judge me based on it.”

“And what..? Are we supposed to be friends? Does your secretive occupation of black-ops and whatever other ungodly acts you do, give you the right to make me look like a fool on my own base? You obviously can’t see past your objectives.”

She’s cold and I find it difficult to digest. “…And you can?” I ask the question without thought.

“I know how to follow orders, but I also know when to show respect and common courtesy.”

“I couldn’t give privileged informa…”

”It’s not so privileged now is it?” She’s loud again. Her eyes lock on to mine, as if boring through me…this is awkward. With her voice regular again “…You did not have the decency to let me, the base Commander, know what you were about to do…”

“I had no choice. You know this. You know how this job works? You know how the Chain of command works. You above many should know what comes with taking orders.”

“You just don’t get it…”

I cut her off “…No, you obviously don’t get it…” I’m annoyed now but she continues as though I said nothing.

“…after you foolishly do what you come here to do, and you and your little squad leave, the Kedenians become more hostile toward us. They don’t see us any different from you. No Captain, you don’t get it. We’re the ones who have to clean up your shit.”

She turns on her heels to leave. I don’t think I need to say this but maybe I do…who knows?

“I’m sorry.”

“…for what? It makes no difference. You come, you leave, and we pay the price.” The door opens again.

“So why can’t we put this behind us, start over…move on?”

I don’t even know why I’m continuing this. Maybe I do but I don’t think so. I’m confused now as she stops outside of the porthole.

“I have moved on, just as I always do. I suggest you do the same.” She turns and disappears down the corridor, her boots echoing on the metal floor and the door closes. I want to turn my attention to the folder on my bed, I want to scream, I want to go after her, I think of Toros…I think of her again, I need to get this mission done but for the moment, I can’t do anything. What the hell is happening to me?

 

********

 

I open my eyes. My Dees tell me that it’s 4:31 am. My first thoughts are of her. This annoys me and I wish, for a moment, that there was some sort of pill for forgetfulness. Well there are pills for that but not in the way I want. I eventually forget her and remember my dream. It was of life back on Earth; I have not been home in such a long time. I wonder how much has changed. But these thoughts won’t help me now. There are more important things to deal with today. I gotta get up and down to my team. We have a lot of work to do. If we want to catch that fleet, we have to be quick and decisive about it. I push her out of my mind again.

 

The Mess Hall is not too crowded. The team and I have been discussing our strategy for our next run. We’ll be heading out in a few hours, when the sun is at its hottest. This way we should meet few, if any, local patrols. In a way, I am not looking forward to this trip. I just know it is going to be one of those drawn out and tedious ones but if all goes according to plan, we should be at our destination by late afternoon and back in good enough time.

My next contact is a Kedenian who I met during my fourth attachment here; a narcotics and weapons dealer who gives me information for credits. He is not a problem because no dealer in their right mind would risk being exposed as a snitch or worse, having an Earthfront Battalion storming their happy little world. Hopefully, he won’t be spooked by my last meeting with one of his associates.

“Okay guys, we’ll be mobile in a few hours so I’ll let you get back to your free time.”

“Thank you Alpha…” Akita jumps up and without looking back, hurries away.

“What’s up with him?” I turn to Terri.

“The usual…she’s young this time, blue-blonde and hypnotized by the Akita.”

I laugh “It’s the same thing everywhere we go. This is what now, seventy-something?”

“I`ve lost count…” Hound joins in.

Terrier slides out from the table “Well I’m going to go back to my room to get some air time with the folks back home. The link up is gonna be good today.”

“Do your thing Terri…” I watch him leave and think of his mother. She was like a mother to me after my parents died. I’ve known them a long time. “…and hey…” He turns to me. His face is older but his eyes…his eyes are still those dark brown ones belonging to that kid I grew up with. “…Tell them I said hello.”

“No problem Cap.”

“I’m gonna head to the lounge and see if I can get as lucky as Akita. See ya later guys.” Pitbull disappears and Hound and I remain seated.

“We need vacations.”

I look at Hound before answering. The big German swings both boot clad feet onto the table and leans back fearlessly in the narrow chair.

“Tell me about it.”

He sighs “When this is over, why don’t we put in for some time off? We’ve been on the prowl for so long I can’t remember what life outside of my job feels like.”

“Sounds like a great Idea. I’ll talk to the Hawk when this is over. I know Terri wants to go home. I also want to see Earth again.”

Hound laughs “Terri? He’s already had time off. He’s the only one who has.”

“Yeah but that was different. His mother was sick so that doesn’t…”

“He spent a month with her Alpha. Way longer than needed. You know it, I know it. He got lucky and we’re on his side about it, but at the same time, we don’t like being overlooked either.”

“Okay you’re right, I must admit it, but that was six months ago…”

“Six months…” He cuts in again “…a year, yesterday…doesn’t matter. All I’m saying is that I too, would like some R and R. Sometimes I wish my mom would get sick.”

“Okay, okay. I’ll see what I can do. Pitbull keeps talking about Creus…”

“…The Island planet?”

“Yep…”

“That’d be fun”

“I can only imagine. I’ve never been there.”

“…Seriously Cap..? I’ve been there a few times…nothing but tropical air and seas and islands everywhere; just awesome.”

“Where’d you like to go?”

“Well, Akita has been telling me about Eroi Three…”

I should have known. “…The Red moon?”

“Yep…sounds like a blast…been thinking of it for some time now. He says that whenever, if ever, we get off this beat for long enough, he’d show me around there.”

“Yeah that’s Akita for you. Travel a thousand light years for easy women. It’s the perfect place for him.”

We both laugh and I remember meeting Hound for the first time. We were both young recruits in the Spaceforce Academy on Rouna, the paradise planet. We had just landed and after a small scuffle over seats in the transport, our hostilities became very evident in everything we did.

“Cap…I’m gonna go talk to the mechanics for a while. Keep myself busy so I don’t fall asleep.”

He drags both large feet off the shiny table between us. Then, standing to his full six feet five, he walks away; blonde hair hanging a few inches below his crown and shifting with his walk.

“See you in a bit Hound…” Back in our days at the training facility, I had grown to hate everything about Hound, just as much as he did about me, right down to his beady blue eyes and our rivalry had sprouted a separation in the camp, much to the disgust of our commanders. I remember him tracking me hard in his training MAV as I tried to get into a firing position to take him down. We had been viciously going at it for a good ten minutes and then as I out maneuvered and bested him, my MAV went critical and slammed into the ground. It was Hound who dragged me from the twisted heap of metal and wires and burning debris. The man had carried me a seemingly safe distance before the explosion threw him and put us both out of commission for almost six months. It was in the infirmary, on those two neighbouring beds that we had gotten to know each other, and we have been brothers ever since.

The sounds of three female voices break my train of thought. They walk past nearby and one of them flashes me a cute smile. I look at the few folks around me. I have no Idea who most of these people are. All nameless faces in a place far away from home, but I have my unit…and my unit is all that matters.

I notice the time. There is absolutely nothing to do in this place and so I get up and walk back to my room.

“Captain…”

God please, not again.

“Commander…” I acknowledge her with a salute.

She hands me a file containing a few sheets of digital paper “These may be of some value.”

I take them from her, not sure what to make of her sudden friendliness “What are these?” I look at the first sheet.

“We are not the slackers you take us for. You’ll find that we are more resourceful than you think.”

I must admit, she is a beautiful woman in spite of the scars. Her red hair is still pulled into a tight bun with apparent military precision and her uniform, as crisp as ever. “Why are you doing this?” I’m not bothered by her for the moment. The thoughts and feelings from of our fight amazingly remain at bay.

“…because duty comes before personal issue. Good luck Captain.” She walks past me and continues until out of sight down the narrow corridor. I am still in shock but quickly regain my senses. That was bullshit and she knows it. At least I would like to think so. Duty indeed…The file reveals information about a small fleet of ships that had entered Kedenian airspace a few days ago. I continue toward my quarters.

Maybe she was right after all. If I had let her know of our mission, Toros would still be alive and Iron Five would have been on that well deserved vacation.

One of the sheets of digital paper shows a map of Keden and a possible location for the unauthorized fleet. The image shows an unusually large concentration of heat signatures in a valley four thousand miles from here. I enter my room and barely register the door closing behind me. This spot on the map has got to be where they are based. They have obviously masked their position with some form of camouflage, so all the drones see are these red splotches. But I don’t get it. Why did she help us?

 

********

 

It is 10:45am and I am in my MAV doing a systems check. The rest of my team is doing the same as technicians and electronics specialists run around beneath us prepping our gear for departure. My communications console comes alive.

“Iron Five…” I know the voice, it’s the Battle Axe “…ten minutes to departure.”

“…Alpha copies ten minutes; ready and waiting.”

We walk toward the outer doors of the huge hangar. I take a look at my cockpit before switching to the virtual display on my visor. I have always been a believer in checking any computer system manually before digitally.

“Captain…” It’s her again “…drones have spotted three Heavy Mecha…Rhinos to be exact and four Light Booster Tanks so approach with caution.”

“Will do Commander…” We pass through the outer lock and then the protective doors of the outer hangar and take up positions on a sand swept landing pad. “Base…Iron Five is ready for launch.” I give my engine a little power and wait.

A flash of static hits me “Iron Five, your launch is a go.”

I increase power and the MAV fights gravity as we lift off. The sand and dust filled winds read at sixty six miles per hour, making visibility very limited but we push upward nonetheless. At two thousand feet above AGL I give the signal and we level out, then check the uploaded flight path and hit the throttle. The vents of my thrusters shift and I am pushed back into my cushioned seat. My heart thumps away at my chest and we shoot forward. The acceleration is hypnotic. Within thirty seconds we are pushing a little over a thousand miles per hour and should be where we want to be in about three and a half hours.

CHAPTER 4 – KEDEN

 

 

The landscape below us is drastically uneven. Deep fissures spreading out in random directions look like gnarled fingers between massive sand dunes. These dunes rise, in some areas, as close to us as seven hundred feet. The winds at our altitude are seventy miles per hour but rogue gusts register every now and again at a hundred or more. This is a treacherous location so I maintain our two thousand feet above Immediate-ground-level flight path.

“Captain..?” It’s the Commander. I haven’t heard from her since we left base three and some hours ago. “Link and rep live, over?”

“Huski to base, we’re alone out here. Thirty minutes to contact.”

“We’re tracking you but the weather is getting worse…signal interference is heavy.”

“Roger that.” I focus on the ground below as we speed by. My Sol engine is a remarkable piece of work. We, as a race, have come a very long way.

The year is now 878TE and according to history, mankind came across Sol-technology in the year 2035 AD. I remember learning this in History class and wishing for it to end so I could go meet Rachel Sommers. I wonder whatever became of her.

A scientist by the name of Doctor Lorenz Olivius created the first ever successful, miniature replica of the sun. The applications were, as one can imagine, limitless. Within fifteen years of its dawn, the Sol Combustion engine had allowed mankind to go beyond their limitations and finally reach for the stars. This breakthrough had then led to one hundred years of galactic searching and mapping and development. Then in 2150 AD our ancestors left Earth in massive Starship fleets for new homes and in doing so, a new era was born; the era of, The Exodus.

“Alpha…ten minutes to contact.”

“Okay Bull, let’s get to five on deck.”

I pull the throttles back, extend all my speed brakes and feel my stomach reach up my throat as my MAV slows rapidly and drops to five hundred feet. As we fly past the last of the wicked looking fissures and tall dunes, and cross over a terrain entirely covered by massive boulders, I kill the throttle and switch the engine to hover. The machine vibrates through the transition and we descend to a few feet above an enormous flat stone and drop to the rough surface, dislodging and kicking up rocks with a quaking thud; we immediately go dark.

“Bull…?” I wait

“All clear for one mile. Their warning systems don’t reach this far…got nothing else on scan.”

“Okay let’s move!”

I switch from flight to ground commands and hit the throttle. My MAV takes the uneven, rocky surface with ease as we get closer to what could be another successful run, or our last mission.

“Alpha…” Its Pitbull again “…I’m picking up interference of some sort. Not sure what it is but I think we should be careful here.”

We are standing on the edge of another flat rock face. I step off, a mere five foot drop, and onto the dusty ground of yet more desert. On either side of me are high, wind carved dunes made of hardened dust and sand. The valley is wide for maneuvering but still small enough to make us sitting ducks. I come to a stop and check my scanners; there’s nothing. But I don’t like the feeling in my gut. And if I am feeling it, and Bull feels it, then by experience, we need to be cautious.

“Bull, how’s the weather?”

“…sunny…but something doesn’t seem right boss.”

Bull hardly ever calls me boss. He is worried “Okay. Look alive, boys…weapons hot…” I focus on my weapons module and make the mental command. My cannons come online with a whir. There is an uneasy stillness in the air that puts me on guard. It could just be a case of nerves but after a few years in this business, you learn that the jitters often precede a real event.

We continue our trek until the valley lies behind us and another one appears ahead and below. According to the co-ordinates, this should be the place but all that is here are generators and large transformers.

“Alpha…”

But Bull gets interrupted by the base commander on our open channel.

“Iron Five…we’ve got four Light Booster Tanks and an unknown transport approaching Dunan from the south west. Drone Surveillance just picked them up. They’re two hours out.”

“They’re runnin’. Bull, give me another full scan.”

“There’s nothing but that weird interference boss.”

“Let’s fly then. We gotta catch those bastards”

I deactivate my stealth and barely notice as everyone else ripples into sight.

Bull comes over my com again “Alpha, these generators are the same heat signatures on the map…so was this a decoy?”

But reality hits me like a hammer. They knew we would come “No…” My warning systems light up. “…it’s a trap..!” My virtual cockpit goes wild. Alerts of missile launches and gun locks assault my senses like a wildfire. “Evasive guys, go, go, go, go..!” I switch to flight mode and drive my throttle all the way as my computer sends me flashes of tracking information and I almost feel the three missiles that approach. My MAV shakes violently with the sudden discharge of power, but I hold it steady as G-forces pin me to the seat while I accelerate upward.

What type of missiles are they?

The computer sends the answer with a barely noticeable sting. Another mental command sends hundreds of chaff spitting from the back of my machine with thousands of miniature vibrations that shiver the armor around me. But the first heat seeker is already here and hits close. The impact shakes me like an earthquake but my systems do not read critical. Thank God. Rising high into the air now, a forty ton bat out of hell, my Sol engine screams with the effort as I try to locate our unseen enemies. There are three of them.

“I’ve found those Heavies…” I shout it to the others.

“Roger, three Rhinos, northern hill top.” Hound comes across calm and collective and he already has one locked.

I swing around and fly toward the Heavy Mecha that is tracking me; he is already on the move and my systems warn of another missile lock. It leaves his launcher but I am within firing range. They might have more armor and heavier firepower but we’ve got speed and agility. I wait, hear my gun lock onto its target, and open fire. My bullets shred into the oncoming missile and it explodes in a vicious flash of white as I quickly close the distance. With another squeeze of the trigger my Auto-cannon spits with a flurry of fiery streaks.

The view around me, with my altimeter counting down 500FT, 425FT, 350FT, 275FT in less than three seconds, shakes and shifts on the outer edges of my vision. The smoke and lights of my cannon-fire leads me toward my target as he tries to turn in my direction; I guess they thought we would have been dead on the first launch.

My gunfire rakes a trail of superheated dents and penetrations across the ground and the Rhino in my sights. Dust and sparks erupt where my target stands and my pulse, amplified, beats wildly in my ear. I have to get high again, so I jam my throttle to full power, angle my thruster vents and brace myself as I launch back into the sky. The engine howls with the effort, and the pressure of the maneuver squeezes me beyond comfort, but its fly or die, as every digital module goes blinking red again.

Damn, another missile!

My heart hammers madly as all around, bullets slice the air and I hear, almost feel, a few ping off my armor. Smoke trails crisscross the battlefield. Explosions light up the sky and another missile comes toward me from below but it goes wide and detonates well away; I see that Bull is alive and working his magic.

“Good work Bull…”

I push over and return to the ground but the Rhino is in the air now. My systems alert me again but I am faster than my opponent. At seven hundred feet, my targeting computer locks on to the rising Mecha and I squeeze the trigger twice. Eight missiles leave my launchers. The cockpit shakes with it and their smoke-trails, like black and grey spider webs, fill my vision. But gun fire slams into my armor. I activate the auto-coolant system; it will stop the overheating. And while I fight to clear the space between us, my visor adjusts in a millisecond as the Rhino explodes.

I got him.

My computer shouts its complaints into my senses as I roll over and force the engine to sustain the current power. I have to get down from here; I am an open target. But the other two Rhinos are busy and this gives me a perfect opportunity to strike.

I shove my MAV into a shallow dive and get a target lock just as another of our enemies light in a magnificent flash of fire and expanding energy.

“…got that son-of-a-bitch..!” It’s Bull. His long range rail gun has hit true and Akita’s barrage of missiles finishes the job.

There is one Heavy left. I see his smoke trailing from a damaged hull. He’s in the air and heading south.

“I got-im…” Terri comes over the com as his missiles trace a deadly arc through the sky. The explosion thunders through the valley as what looks to be eight warheads detonate in the distance; this fight is over.

“Iron Five…?” Our Base Commander is not as composed as before.

I respond “…still standing…” I adjust power and descend slowly. My MAV is a bit damaged but I keep my nerves “…where are they?”

“…Seven hundred miles out, and a half hour to the city.”

I touch down “Guys…status?”

“Terri here…”

“Akita, good to go…”

“A few scratches but Hound is okay…”

“Pitbull is alive and kicking…”

I am relieved. My computer tells me that all is well except a minor armor breach; that first missile had almost gotten me. “Okay let’s go!”

“Alpha, we’ve got half hour to cover seven hundred miles…”

Bull is right, but we have to try. I push the throttle forward and lift into the air once more.

“Iron Five, you’ve got twenty nine minutes…”

“…Copy base. We’re going for it.” The ground falls away as we push toward our targets “…Bull, get me locked on. I need a flight path.” My tracking system finds our prey through Pitbull’s sensors and gives me an intercept route. My engine screams. The ground below becomes a blur and the speed indicator soon reads a thousand miles per hour and climbing.

At this rate, we will be cutting it close. My virtual map, courtesy SysDef’s Drone surveillance, shows our escapees gunning it across the desert.

“Bull, can you get a shot?”

“…already on it and locking one now…”

“Take it when you have it. Let’s try and slow ‘em down.”

I glance toward Pitbull’s MAV and the long range Rail gun lights up. Blue and white arcs of electricity ripple over its split rail and launch soundlessly; the highly charged projectile traveling at nearly light speed should be hitting its mark right now. No sooner than I think this, the display shows one of the Booster Tanks, as part of it disintegrates and then the entire thing falls to the desert floor.

“Good hit…”

“Iron Five, Base is picking up heavy activity just outside of Dunan. You’ve got multiple hostiles about to launch, get out of there.”

“Alpha…” Bull’s rail gun does not fire the next charge “…I’ve got em on my scan too; about twenty missile tanks and a heavy launcher.”

These Deepcore guys must be high profile. Missile tanks could be dealt with but a heavy launcher? Those things launch Hunters, Cruise missiles and ICBM’s.

“Okay guys bug out. Let’s go two above deck. Bull jam that shit.”

I turn hard and drop to two hundred feet. Outrunning a Hunter missile is difficult in the air so we’ll be better off getting on foot and going dark till it’s passed but my systems remain calm. All I’m receiving is an enemy lock threat, but nothing has been launched; I know when I’ve been beat.

“Base…?”

“Go Commander…”

“I need to know where that entourage is headed.”

Static hits me “…on it.”

And with time against us, the ground rushes by at a thousand, eight hundred miles per hour; we’ve gotta get to our ship.

 

********

 

My team and I rip pass Dunan. The sprawling city lies thirty kilometers off to my right while directly ahead; our base awaits us some fifteen away. I reduce power and jam my emergency stoppers to full extension. The large rectangular slats would rise up and out at different angles and immediately cut most of my forward momentum. The powerful displacement of energy from this maneuver jolts me violently as my MAV slows hard. Then we descend without much thought.

“Huski to Base Control…” I read the code on my visor “…Iron-Five on approach, over.”

“Iron Five. You’re cleared for entry, touch down on Pad Zero Five.”

We drop to the red-dusted, metallic landing zone and almost run our MAV’s to the hangar. After decontamination we are all docked and grabbing gear from our quarters while large machines load the MAV’s onboard our Starship. With gear in hand, I head out and down the corridor. My helmet, attached to my waist hits my leg with every stride and as I pass Mirana’s office…

“Captain…”

I stop and turn to see her approaching. She’s all business as usual. “…what are you doing here? The briefing has been uploaded to your system…we have…”

“I’m trying to get to my ship is what I’m doing.”

She raises an eyebrow “Captain, there are shorter ways to your ship. That Deepcore fleet launched a half hour ago.”

What in the galaxy is wrong with this woman? I take a deep breath “…I gotta go…”

“Then Go.”

“You stopped me…”

“Captain…” Her voice is steady “…if you lose these rebels, all of our efforts would have been for nothing.”

Our efforts’…What the hell did she do to be a part of this? I wait in the silence. Of all the women in the galaxy, why does this one get under my skin? She open’s her office door and closes it. I hate not having the last word. Why do I even bother? I begin to move again until the cavernous hanger finally comes into view.

 

********

 

“Alpha, the weather’s about to get really nasty, we’ve got about twenty minutes before everything goes to dust.”

I’m strapping the X shaped harness across my chest after sitting in one of the rear seats of the cockpit when Terri informs me of this.

“Okay we’re a go.” I give the order and he rolls us out of the hangar and toward one of the launching pads outside. As we transition from within the base to the open air of Keden, I notice that the weather is a bit worse than when we had just arrived. Red and brown dust whips past the windshield of our Starship, with winds reading from sixty to seventy five miles per hour. But thanks to Magnetic Technology, it’ll take a bit more than this to make our liftoff a problem.

“Base…Iron Five has window, all is a go, over.” Terrier is our Starship Pilot. I’m the communications officer and Bull is our Co-pilot and weapons specialist. Akita and Hound are the engineers who make sure that all the mechanical aspects of this bird run problem free. But at the moment, we’re all strapped into our respective seats and awaiting launch.

“Iron Five, Base copies your window. You are cleared for launch…”

She sounds no different than normal but I notice that the channel stays open but I ignore it.

The cockpit shakes a bit as Terri begins our lift off. The Ship leaves the pad and the sensation of our thrusters counteracting the planet winds makes my head drift a little. I check the information that has been uploaded concerning our Deepcore buddies. They went off world forty eight minutes ago in a ship named Deep six. What type of ship though; the Intel doesn’t say.

“…good luck Iron Five…”

Pitbull and Terrier turn and look at each other. I am sure we are all thinking the same thing; since when has she ever cared if we had good or bad luck? The question is written on both their faces. But the Base and ground are no longer visible. It has all been replaced by high altitude dust and sand so I relax and let the G-forces glue me to my seat. I feel the ship angle more steeply. Everything outside of my window is becoming distant and shrinking further behind.

I smile to myself.

We are leaving this Rock. She’s back there. Who cares? I do, and I hate the confusion of it.

The air clears now. A few flat clouds rocket by and disappear behind us. The sky becomes darker. Our engines rumble and the sound of it grows deep and deeper as we rise. It seems lodged somewhere in the back of my head and echoes throughout my mind. Then the sky gets even darker and Keden’s spaceport is now visible in the distance. A huge disk shaped station with lights traveling to and from it; and then it is gone.

We are about to go to Hyper Light speed. The exhilaration is second to none. I want to contact base again, but what for? What reason is there? I want to think of a plausible one yet it eludes me, but these thoughts fade away as we enter the vacuum of space.

“Iron five…”

I listen to Mirana’s voice with mixed feelings. Maybe I am a bit embarrassed by our fight…or a lot disappointed that we didn’t fix it. I hate feeling confused.

“…you are now out of our airspace and hand over to Starport Command is now in effect. Is all a go?”

Starport Command is the communications deck on any local Starport. While space stations are the access points to and from planet surfaces, Starports are the stations that launch travelers from solar system to solar system. Each inhabited or utilized solar system has one Starport or more depending on its population and or purpose. This system, K-1, has a single Starport along with three inhabited planets, five mining worlds and an F1-III class sun, which simply means a Yellow-White Giant.

Why is she on comms?

“Iron Five copies hand over…”

I hate having to talk to her…no I don’t.

“…Switching on next transmission, we’re a go.”

The com stays open. I wish she would say something. My hand slides across the digital tab that would disconnect us from Keden.

“…come back in one piece Iron Five.”

For some unknown reason, I am annoyed at her for these words. Why didn’t she say this to my face? My finger hits the key and we all listen to the new sounds of K-1 space traffic control.

“After all the thousands of years that men and women have co-existed, we’re still baffled by them.”

Terrier’s smiling face beams in my direction and I can’t help but add a groaning grin to this awkward moment. “Shut up and drive.”

Everyone’s laughter hits me at once while Terri works his magic, and in a moment, we clip our helmets in place and the familiar tug on my senses takes control as we accelerate to Hyper Light speed and punch through the fabric of space at eighty three point three, three, three times the speed of light.

 

********

 

The engines on any standard spacecraft have what is known as an Eon Drive. The Eon Drive is just a larger and more amped up version of the original Sol Combustion Engine; the difference being the scale of the output when it comes to power. And so it is that Sol Combustion powers our galaxy, from the smallest of planetary machines to the massive Jump Gates on any Starport.

The lights of stars in the distance blur, and two hours and some minutes later, we come out of Hyper Light and rocket toward the massive outline of K-1’s lone Starport.

This is the part I hate.

As soon as Terri engages our braking system, we hit a cushioned, invisible wall. Everything slows down so rapidly that no one in existence has ever been known to resist throwing up the first few times; except infants for some long-winded reason.

The effect is known as a Bio-Magnetic Reaction. It is caused due to the use of Magnetech or Magnetic Technology. Magnetic Technology is the reason we don’t go careening off into space like in the old days. Gone are those historical days of tedious calculations and intersecting an object or planet’s trajectory at just the right time. Through Magnetics, powered by Sol Combustion, we are able to maneuver in space, speed up and slow down, change course on a whim and more.

Weapons used in space also rely on Magnetech. Missiles, being the most widely used in vacuum, use Magnetic Technology to track targets. However, as great as this breakthrough was and is, it’s the, getting used to it, which makes it rough on the human body.

Two billion miles from Keden, I select the communications module “K-1 Traffic Control…Captain Richard Gant of the UNA Mirage requesting docking.”

UNA…I think of home. The United Northern Alliance, home for me and Earthfront Galactic. But is it still my home? I feel so disconnected.

“UNA Mirage…” The voice is male, and professional “…Docking request acknowledged, cleared for entry, you have Guidance on link. Welcome Captain Gant.”

I check the linkup and Terri sets us on autopilot in order for the Station’s Magnetic Guidance system to pull us safely in. There is a slight jolt as the ship goes from manual command to auto. In all my time of space travel I still haven’t gotten over the fascination of all this.

“Now to catch these bastards…”

“We’ll find them Cap…”

Terri’s visor hides his expression but I imagine the look of determination on his face; I know him well enough.

Outside of the ship, the awesome picture that hangs there is astounding as the massive complex appears to slide closer. The monstrous, flat, half-disk-shape, made from Immix; a Kedenian bluish metal, reflects the solar system’s sunlight with a shiny azure glare.

“This Port reminds me of one in the Glebe System.”

Pitbull’s words pull me away from outside.

“That’s your home system isn’t it?” Hound asks.

“…Yeah…”

Terri chimes in “…Paiz right..?”

“Yep and thanks to you guys, I haven’t been home in over four years”

“Welcome to the club my brother…” I jump in.

“I knew a girl on Paiz…” Akita as usual “…There are some really sweet women in that system too.”

We all laugh and chant him about this until the conversation fizzles off and we each go back to our own thoughts. Stars and spiral Galaxies millions of light years away display the vastness of space beyond us, but what I see directly outside is also just as spectacular. Thousands of windows in perfect lines, like rows of colored lights set against the black expanse of deep space, glimmer. A movement draws my attention; A monster Hauler, floating slowly away from one of three very large rectangular docking bays below us. Opening up into the nothingness of space, they are the entrances and exits for thousands of ships on a daily basis. This hauler, moving away from us now, is a Titan that looks a few hundred times our size. Pitbull had told me that he once worked on a freighter. As for me, I have never done time on an Ore Ship but I have heard many a story from the guys that did. And theirs is a life of just as much adventure as any military pilot.

The com breaks my train of thought. “UNA Mirage…you are cleared for Docking bay T-seventeen, enjoy your time with us.”

I give the required reply and let the smooth sailing of the Autopilot take us in. I think of the thousands of ships docked here; some leaving, some just arriving, others parked indefinitely; owned by those who make this port their home. In reality, we are just another droplet in the galactic bucket.

Looking out my window I wonder about our Deepcore friends. Where are they? When is their jump? Where are they going? If we lose them now…Mirana’s words replay in my ear. “All of our efforts would have been for nothing” Why do those words sting me?

“Alpha…?”

I turn toward Terri

“…we’ll get em…”

It’s like he’s read my mind.

“Yeah…” It’s Hound now “…Let’s get on deck, snoop around, and catch these shits.”

“Leave the snooping around to me and Akita.” With a raised palm I quiet their disappointment “…we’ll get more done, and done quietly if it’s just two of us.”

“Okay Cap…I have no problems with that.”

“I knew you wouldn’t Hound. You guys could go have some fun and wait for us. More than likely, they’re not gonna be making a jump within the next twelve hours.”

The lights from the Starport Jump Gate flash. Out in the distance, one of its huge, two mile-long cylinders, separated from the complex but connected via powerful magnetics, undulates with blue energy and in about a minute, a light exits the mouth of the monstrous barrel and disappears into space.

 

Jump Gates use Sol Technology on a scale much larger than any other mechanism in galactic use. The power this one generates is equivalent to a class V sun and sends a starship to any other solar system along its targeting trajectory at the speed of eighty three point three, three, three light years per hour.

I’ve asked a million times about the calculations and how they came up with this number, but the mathematics concerning this has always been way above my head; and like I’ve often said after asking every time; I don’t care, as long as it keeps working.

What we have to do now is no easy task. We will need to get to a travel desk in the terminal first; gonna have to figure out how to get the information we need from an agent even though it will be against policy. In these times, nothing beats a face to face. It is never safe to work the system via computer when it involves breaking the rules.

The rippling energy from the Jump Gate pulls my eyes to it again. I know what it is like to be shot out the end of it. What is funny about this though is that you don’t feel a thing after the initial jolt.

It will be about twenty minutes before another jump takes place as the Gate has to recharge and recalibrate for the next destination. As far as I know, this Gate only sends you to one of three systems, the trick will be finding out which of them our targets intend to visit.

FACT

 

In the past, the idea of jumping from one solar system to another had always been a fascination of men. Could a Starship be built with the ability to do this without the aid of a Jump Gate? The problem however, was never just the inability to outfit a ship with an Eon Drive capable of eighty three point three, three, three light years per hour, but was also navigating the area between systems. Known as The Verge, it is often filled with anomalies and obstacles that could prove catastrophic if disturbed.

Like projectiles that are launched by weapons in vacuum, anything shot into space, be it by collision or expulsion, becomes a possible doomsday missile for space craft, stations, or if big enough, even planets. Without the Jump Gates and their computer generated trajectories, we would all be shooting through space blindly and without any way of knowing what was in our paths; imagine the chaos.

CHAPTER 5 – DESTINATION SOLACE

 

 

Leaving the ship behind, I walk with the team. The brightly lit corridor is wide and through its large windows, as we pass by, the vast expanse of deep space looms. Stars flicker against the inky blackness and billions of light-years away, three spiral galaxies complete the portrait. So much, so vast, but on the inside, the human traffic here is sparse. This terminal is primarily used for military and government business so this comes as no surprise. The more populated areas would be those on the other side of the station. The Freight and civilian terminals are often filled with hectic workers, tourists, business folk and anyone else with enough credits to burn.

Our ship is in a private, air-locked hangar and after docking, I acquired the usual security code, ensuring its safety from any unwanted guests. As any military operative who have traversed space would tell you, pirates don’t just steel ships and cargo. Selling military grade parts can be a very lucrative business too if you have the right connections. Stepping out onto a wide sidewalk that runs along a busy street, we go over our plans before splitting up. Bull, Terri and Hound head off to find us proper lodging, while Akita and I continue toward the departures terminal to look for answers. We all agree to meet back at an obscure bar and grill…should be about an hour or so.

This Starport, while different in shape, reminds me of many others throughout my travels. The monolithic, manmade, floating-in-vacuum city, complete with vehicles, streets, housing, hotels, businesses and whatever else it takes to make the clockwork run smoothly, has an appeal unlike that of any planet surface. And like all Starports, everything, can be found on various levels. The lower you go, the more industrial and mechanical it will become while the higher, the more open and touristy. The sidewalk and street where we stand is also a part of the huge terminal; a wide and long circular link that connects the three ports of entry. Each of these docking bays and terminals in their entirety is as or maybe even larger than the city of Dunan.

Angry voices fill the air as two cab drivers hang out of their respective windows cursing. I see that stealing each other’s passengers is still a popular sport, and as the debacle escalates to what might become a physical confrontation, we move on. Traffic here is just as busy as I expected. K1 is a popular system. Many corporation and government envoys and agents come to do business with its wealthy planets while tourists show up for all sorts of reasons. It is also a well known pirate hub. K1’s laws allow for off-the-book transactions that might appear questionable elsewhere, making it the perfect breeding ground for illegal substance dealers, and the like to thrive in relative safety. And then there are the freighters; heavy haulers that make hundreds of millions in credits on each run. Finding our Deepcore agents here would be like looking for a needle in space; a daunting task.

As Akita and I walk on, I take comfort with the weight of my Fifty-eight, tucked away near my waist. I can change it from single action to semi-auto with the flip of a switch. Hopefully, I won’t have to use it on this trip. As for the rest of the team; every man has his preference when it comes to a sidearm; except Bull. Even with his dual guns, he rarely ever uses them. His fists and raw power often gets the job done.

Entering the departures terminal, we take our time here and move carefully through the bustle.

“Okay…” I turn to Akita “…let’s do our thing.”

Standing in the busy open space, as the sea of people shuffle to and fro, we search for our target. In all the years of mankind looking to the stars for extraterrestrial life, it is amazing to see that the only inhabitants of space as we know it, turned out to be just us.

“Right there…” Akita nods to what he’s talking about.

His gaze leads me to an attractive travel agent behind a desk with a fast moving line, and we walk casually toward it. Akita follows two people behind me. If my efforts are unsuccessful, then he is all we have left. My fingers slide across the edge of the Credits card in my pocket. Bribery is not my forte’ but if it comes to it…

The line moves steadily. This tells me that she is efficient. Her stance is strong and well balanced; shoulders squared, back straight; she’s disciplined. Eyes focused, her reaction time is fast and she speaks with confidence; a trained thinker. This might be a bit more challenging that I thought.

I forget the travel agent and search our surroundings. I wouldn’t know a Deepcore agent even if I saw one. They could be standing right next to me and I’d have no clue. All we have is the name of a ship, but this is good enough for me; I arrive at the desk.

“Hello…”

Her brilliant smile lightens my mood

“…and how may I help you?”

She has a nice voice. Her eyes sparkle and her hair is perfect; another clockwork clone in my book. I pass my fingertips across the scanner on the flat of her desk and wait.

“Hi…” I return the smile; I hope it is radiant enough “…I am in need of your help.” She shifts her head slightly in acknowledgment and I continue “I’m not booking a jump as yet. I am an Earthfront agent and I need information…” I wait, but she says nothing “…a ship docked here not long ago. I need to know where this ship is headed, when it’s set to jump and who’s on it. Can you do this for me please?”

“Captain Gant. I’m sorry…” It’s like she had the answer at the ready before I decided to ask the question “…but it is against our regulations and laws to give information of this nature to anyone without the proper authorizations.”

I absorb her smile. She’s almost robotic.

“I understand, but its Earthfront business. We are tracking known criminals and this information would go a long way to…”

“I’m sorry Captain Gant, but it is against policy…”

I slide the credits card across to her but keep my fingers on it.

“…twenty five thousand Creds. All I need is the destination, crew and time of launch.”

She doesn’t even look at the pre-programmed card. “Captain, if that would be all, I kindly ask that you please step out of the line.”

This is done. I know when I’ve hit a brick wall so I nod courteously and move away; it is up to Akita now. I take a walk and then sit in a plush chair at a distance where I can see him clearly.

“She’s by the book…”

“Don’t worry Cap…I’ve got this…”

Even on coms, I can recognize his intensions. He is next in line and I wait…

 

Hello, how may I help you?”

Hi…” Akita’s voice, but he doesn’t give his fingers to the scan “…I was standing in line, thinking about whatever it was I was thinking, and then I saw you. And I decided that unless you have your next meal with me, I’m not leaving this terminal.”

There is no sign of amusement on her face “You don’t remember what you were thinking before you saw me?”

She’s not buying it.

How could I…what is there to remember after seeing you?”

I don’t believe it; she’s smiling.

You’re good…” She says “…I’ll give you that. But I can’t.”

I don’t mean you any disrespect. Please, I hope you didn’t take my compliment this way…”

No, it’s not that. I can take a compliment…but I’m already spoken for.”

You’re married?”

No, I’m engaged.”

What’s your name?” Akita plows on.

Why do you want to know?”

A beautiful girl such as you must have a beautiful name. I must know it.” and as Akita waits for her answer, I am yet again mystified by him.

Riara…” she says it softly.

I was right…” Akita continues without missing a beat as another smile lights her face “…seriously, when do you get off work..?”

I don’t even know you?”

How could you, if you don’t get to know me?”

You don’t even know me?”

I think she is at a loss for words now.

I know, that the lights O’ Galactic, astronomical the more, I bespeak you visit mine, and to yours invite that I explore.”

What the hell was that? Was that poetry? When did Akita start quoting poetry?

I get off in two hours…coffee and sandwiches, nothing else.”

Coffee and Sandwiches..? That’s more than gold as long as it’s with you.”

I’ll meet you at The Vienna. It’s a café not far from here. If you are the kind of person you appear to be, you should be able to find it.”

What do I appear to be?”

I’ll let you know if we meet again.”

I remain seated and after Akita walks away and out the main doors, I follow.

********

 

I stretch my hand and a sticker-covered yellow taxi, hovers to a stop in front of me…thing looks like a flying ad-board.

“Gascloud nine…”

The driver, no more than eighteen, sticks a wild looking head of lime green hair out the window “…eighty creds man!”

I get in and in a moment we’re off. I’ve left Akita at the café to do his thing. With a little more than luck, we will have the information we need and be on our way in good time. How he does it..? I wish I knew. It’s some kind of natural gift, I guess, or maybe it’s his eyes, green and bold, or the hair, shoulder length, shiny-black and straight. It couldn’t be his build…but we all have military grade bodies. Whatever it is though, he has got more of it than the rest of us.

I am on my way to meet up with the rest of the team. Until we hear from Akita, we are stuck here so I might as well enjoy it while it lasts.

You know what I love about our job?” Is what he told me before I left him at the café “…even though we’re always on the go, we can still find time to enjoy the finer things.”

I looked at him and saw nothing more than the anticipation of having yet another woman to add to his trophy wall. It is the same with him every time. He had given me that sly grin of his and I couldn’t help but laugh; what else could I have done?

 

********

 

It has been six hours since I left Akita at that café, but I received his message a half hour ago and now, I’m in the cockpit of the Mirage with holoscreens up and information about Deepcore streaming across them. I wonder what Mirana is doing. I wonder if she’s wondering about me. I can contact her, but as much as I want to, I don’t. What would I say? It is times like these I wish I had Akita’s gift with the opposite sex. Of all the people I have ever known, none could win the heart of a woman as easily as he, the difference between us however, is that he does not know how to keep it.

The onboard system alerts me that the airlock has been opened. One of the holoscreens shows Pitbull, Hound and Terri on their way up and as usual when we make port for more than four hours, Akita is nowhere to be seen.

The doors of the cockpit cabin slides apart.

“…Brought a little something for you Cap…” Terri hands me a bag full of Kedenian chocolates. I smile and pop a Pine fruit Mocha in my mouth.

“I forgot how great these taste.”

“I know you and chocolates bro…I got your back, but you still owe me…”

Terri laughs and I am instantly transported back to a time when the most urgent thing in our lives was getting home on time so our parents wouldn’t go ballistic.

“Hey Cap…” Terri again “…you remember the mochas we stole from Colin Simpson?”

I grin with the memory “Yeah, he cried and blamed his brother while we ate them all on the roof of his house, how could I forget.”

“You were a bad influence on me you know that?”

“And now the roles are reversed so we’re even.” I pop another chocolate in my mouth and savor the smooth sensation of it, gliding like honey coated happiness along my tongue.

“Cap…” Terri’s looking at me as though I am doing something I shouldn’t “…No eating before the jump…”

“…Yeah, yeah…” I put the bag of goodies away.

I had left the guys at the bar shortly after eating. I couldn’t bring myself to indulge in the usual pleasures of making port. Not even with Nilani, the very beautiful and interested hostess who offered me her services…what is wrong with me?

“Where’s Akita?”

“…at the hotel with his newest victim. Riara…” Pitbull deliberately bends the name for added effect “…said he’d book us out when they’re finished.

“Well he’d better be finished soon, ‘cause time’s running out.”

We all get to work. Preparing the flight systems for launch would take five minutes but in forty five, we are going to have to get moving in order to get our holding slot. The volume of traffic passing through this Starport has every ship making a jump, lined up in the queue three hours before launch. I wish I had contacted Mirana. Once we leave this system, communications will become difficult. An underlying current drives the urge to hear her before we leave, but duty…or is it fear..? I prefer duty…duty forces my attention back to the task at hand, and then the door opens, Akita stands there smiling; it is time to go.

 

********

 

Deep six is due for launch in two hours and forty minutes. Their destination is Solace Five; an industrial ice planet in the Solace system roughly two hundred light years away. They are a crew of four, made up of a Commander Pierce Larson, Captain Juno Gallagar, Sergeant Mark Riley and Captain Janet Barlow. And quite conveniently, Riara has booked our jump right after theirs. How can I not be awed by Akita’s achievements? And like the rest of the crew, what I want to know is how he did it.

The Mirage’s engines are online and awaiting our command. In a few minutes the outer airlock would disengage and we will be on our way to the Jump Gate. I look around the cockpit. These are all good men and even more…great friends…brothers, and after our six years together, I could not have asked for a better unit.

“So Akita…you know what we all are thinking, spill…” Terri asks the question before I do. Akita gives the usual grin and then tells about his time at the café. How he talked her into showing him around the station. Their common interests and the like, their spark of chemistry, according to him, and her willingness to spend some quality time at the hotel.

“I thought she was engaged?” I just remember this fact.

“Not anymore.”

And yet again, Akita burns a hole in my mind. How the hell does a stranger get a beautiful, intelligent woman to hook up with him and break off an engagement in less than twenty four hours?

“I offered her a better life.”

“What life? When are you going to see her again?”

“When we get back to Keden…”

“What makes you think we’re going back to Keden?”

I should not have asked this. They all look at me with funny eyes and Pitbull jumps in.

“…Two words Alpha…Mirana O’Canon…”

I ignore their smart-ass grins “Okay let’s say we do go back to Keden…are you saying that you’re giving up your life of womanizing for this girl?”

“Yep…”

Everyone reacts to this with individual expressions of “not-this-again” and while I thumb through the virtual keys in front of me…Well forgive us, but, I gotta see this to believe it. It’s not exactly the first time we’ve heard this declaration.”

“Believe me Alpha, I mean it this time…”

“What was the poetry thing about?”

It’s what I’ve wanted to ask ever since he recited it. It turns out that it was from a book he saw on her side of the desk. “Poetry is a hobby…” None of us believed him. What’s interesting about Riara though, is not that she gave Akita her private com-code, but the fact the he gave her his. This relationship will definitely be an interesting one to watch.

We put on our helmets after the laughter fades, and as our flight suits seal up, the ship shudders when the artificial gravity outside is replaced by vacuum. The conversation dies. The main lights in the cockpit go out and all that remain are those from our Holoscreens.

With gentle touches and jolts, Terri and the Semi-Autopilot guide us out of the small hangar and into the tunnel system of the Starport. Ships of all classes bearing various flags and emblems representing nationalities, corporations, alliances and the like can be seen in their respective hangars. Some behind sealed airlocks and others either being parked or leaving. One ship, an imperial transport vessel docking not too far away, boasts the symbol of the Raiku Dynasty across its hull. The red and black Starship, labeled Raiku IV, belongs to one of the few known empires in the galaxy, if memory serves me correctly, about fifty or so thousand light years from earth.

Through my window, the dense Eversteel floor of this monstrous manmade chamber is lined with thousands of well lighted grooves. Five hundred feet below us, it slides by as our computer system, now on full auto pilot, guides us via Digital Magnetics; a computer generated magnetic field that enables our ship’s AI to work in unison with that of the Starport.

We’ll be arriving in Solace via the Starport Argos and by the calculations on my Holoscreen; our time in hyperspace will be two hours and forty two minutes.

 

According to our history books, Hyperspace in the movies of old was as simple as hitting a few buttons and strapping into your seat; if only it was that simple. Unlike Hyper Light, the forces at eighty three point three, three, three Light Years per hour are so astronomical, that no human body would be able to survive it without Magnatech. Every flight suit uses Magnetic Technology to keep the wearer in gravimetric stasis. In other words, no one is ever conscious during time in hyperspace, be it for a few seconds or many hours.

My com alerts me of an incoming transmission.

“Starship Mirage…K1 traffic control has you in sync for launch in forty minutes; stand by for guidance on link.”

“Starship Mirage copies stand by.”

No one ever gets accustomed to the anticipation of the jump. Although you don’t feel the trip, that initial jolt as you enter the slipstream of hyperspace always gets you. Outside, as we exit the docking bay, the expanse of deep space fills my vision again. Most of the complex and its many bright windows lie behind us and the Jump Gate, even though it reads four miles away, still looms above us like a monstrous cylindrical mountain. Blue, red and white electrical surges, arc and split along the surface of the gate, giving the appearance of an oversized Rail gun. Now that I think of it, I guess that’s what it is in actuality. This is an interesting revelation because if it is indeed a giant rail, that would make us, the projectile.

Our cockpit lights up in dim flashes as the highly charged currents ripple more and more rapidly across the barrel of the Gate. Then without a sound, it spits our Deepcore targets from its mouth in a flash of light, and they are gone. My com crackles to life.

“Starship Mirage you’re cleared for taxi. Twenty minutes to jump.”

My heart gives me that unusually large thump. “Mirage copies twenty to jump. We’re ready for taxi, all is a go.”

“Control acknowledges copy, stand by for loading.”

The world around us glides by like a dream as our ship is ferried toward the Jump Gate. The ride is flawlessly smooth. The station is no longer visible from our windows and as always before any jump to another system, I often wish there was another way.

“Here we go…”

None of us responds to Akita. The looming structure before us has our minds in its hold. The red lights that line it in some areas, the monstrous yellow K1 painted on its base, the undulating energies that crawl along its surface, the giant opening that awaits us as we begin the loading sequence; it just never gets old. Were it not for the cooling system in my suit, I know without a doubt that I would be sweating like crazy right now. Goose bumps rise and fall across my flesh even though I try hard to remain calm. The gate gradually changes from vertical to horizontal as the Magnetics alter the ship’s angle of approach. In actuality, we are the ones who are changing angle. Slowly, eventually, we get to the open rectangular chamber and slide sideways into place; The groan of the gate’s giant mechanized doors fill my ear as they begin to move and then our ship finally comes to a stop.

As the massive doors seal themselves shut, darkness envelops us. My eyes adjust to the computer lit cockpit. All is quiet. Every man at this point would be preparing, in his own mind, for the sensations to come; so why am I thinking of Mirana?

“Mirage…Control has you ready for launch to Solace via Argus, rep live.”

I look toward Terrier and he gives me a thumb’s up. I respond.

“Control…Mirage is ready for launch, all systems are a go.”

I make the extra effort to keep the nerves out of my voice.

“Control copies all systems are a go. Jump is initiated…twenty seconds.”

The com goes dead. Here we go. There is no turning back even if we wanted to. The silence is mentally deafening. I imagine the crazy arcs of electricity that run up and down on the outer skin of this cannon. There is no countdown to zero, just the fact that at some point within the next twenty seconds, we will be in hyperspace.

A hammer slams into my chest. I think it’s my heart but it’s not. The sudden movement catches me off guard and the ship pushes me further into my seat. A single strand of blue electricity surges through the tunnel ahead, lighting up the cockpit in a brief flash.

“…BLAM!”

It’s the last sound I hear as the sensation of being electrocuted grips and twists the insides of my stomach, and everything goes black.

CHAPTER 6 – SOLACE V

 

 

The cockpit and all in it, is a blur while my seat automatically returns to its inclined position and my muscles tingle as the blood-flow in my body becomes normal again. The Starport Argus is nothing more than a hazy shape to me. A very unpleasant heaviness saturates me as the magnetics from Argus slows us rapidly to a crawl. This ungodly and tormenting sensation feels like an unwanted hand moving around in my stomach. I hate it. I look around, and the rest of the team is in no better shape than me.

The cockpit’s auto induction system whirs into action, a little late, and fills the space with an odorless gas that clears the effects of our jump and everything becomes normal again.

Why couldn’t they invent something to drink before the jump?

Well according to them, whoever they are, eating and drinking should be done at least four hours before any jump. The forces in hyperspace could cause undigested food and drinks to flow back into the lungs…enough said.

“We need to get that fixed…”

“I agree buddy…”

Hound and Akita stop their chatter as the com lights up.

“Mirage…Argus Control has you…link and rep live.”

I find my tongue. I think it was hanging around somewhere near my chin, but I’m not entirely sure. I’ll definitely have to get the Induction mechanism looked at when we get back to base.

“Mirage copies Argus. We’re a flyby to Solace Five.”

“Argus Control copies Mirage flyby to Solace Five. Link out.”

I close the coms and pull up a map of the system. We are ten point eight AU’s from Solace Five, one point something billion miles and it will take us one and a half hours to get there. I punch in the co-ordinates and Terri aligns us for Hyper Light speed.

I open the com again “Argus Control…” A bit of static comes through “…Mirage is ready for high-light to Solace Five.”

I wait as they run our trajectory through their systems. I am as hungry as ever; another aftereffect of the jump. The com goes active again. “Mirage…Argus Control copies your flight. You’re a go for high-light.”

“Control…Mirage copies go.”

I kill the com and Terri hits the throttle. The scene beyond the windshield stretches a bit, and then stretches some more, and all sound in the cockpit vanishes. I am pushed into my seat and the lights on the outside become blurs as we vanish into space.

 

********

 

The blue and white, more white now than blue, ball of Solace Five takes shape ahead of us. It looks like a distorted sphere as we exit the warp stream. My mind seems to have arrived first, but my body catches up not long after. It’s a rush.

“Terri, go dark. Bull, give me a scan. We need to find them.”

The cloaking device used on the Mirage, gives us the appearance of invisibility by using the same reflective regeneration technology as our MAV’s. It’s just one of the many toys on board.

“I got ‘em in planet airspace and heading north.”

“What’s ahead of them?”

The image increases in detail as Bull checks the data. “I’ve got a mountain Base about ten miles from their current location.”

“Terri, get us down there.”

“When all this is over, I’m gonna buy the first round.”

“Bull…when this is all over, you can buy all the rounds, how about that?”

Laughter fills the cabin. The ship’s cloak deactivates and the thrusters push me into my seat as we begin our approach for atmospheric entry. My tracking module relays that the Spaceport belonging to this planet is on the other side of its thick ice rings and wouldn’t be at our position until the next twelve hours, so our presence here should go unnoticed. With its lack of a structured law enforcement system, the risk of being tracked or intercepted by any authority won’t be a problem on Solace Five. So unless we encounter Pirates or security from the local Mining Companies, we should be on the deck and still undetected in about twenty minutes.

Almost three times the size of Earth, the bright surface of Solace Five fills the windshield until it is all that is there and the cockpit shakes as we enter atmosphere. Outside, the skin of our ship superheats to over two thousand degrees Fahrenheit and flares crimson but on the inside, other than the minor shaking around us, it is a relatively comfortable entry.

The planet surface shifts and shimmers but becomes clearer as we descend. I make out mountains and the gaseous clouds that surround them. Made up entirely of ice, frozen gases to be exact, this world has a temperature, according to my reading, of a lovely minus five hundred and fifty five degrees. I remember this place well. I had been here once in the past but that was a recon mission when I was a rookie in the corps and hungry for a little action.

“Bull where are they?”

“…Fifty miles north of our drop zone. They’ve stopped.”

“Terri and Bull, stay with the ship and wait for my orders.”

“Aye Cap’n…” Terri comes back in mock pirate lingo.

I remove my helmet and unclip my harness. The metallic scent of the ship hits me. It is a cold scent that reminds me of winter nights on base back on Earth. I miss home. It has been a long time…too long.

“I can’t wait until we’re back on Earth and getting a little R and R.”

“I’m with you on that one Alpha.” Terri answers longingly.

“It’s been too long. I miss Earther girls.” Akita breaks in.

We all laugh.

 

We’re seven minutes from arrival and Akita, Hound and I are strapping into our MAV’s and waiting for the thud that would signify touchdown. The old, rusty tasting power bar in my hand will silence my stomach’s protests for now but as soon as this ordeal is over, I will be having some good old Tai food. This mission is now unpredictable. I’m not sure what we are going to find out there but whatever it is, I hope that it is worth the trip.

Everything around me shakes as we impact the icy surface.

“Damn Terri, take it easy!” Hound’s voice rings over the com.

“Sorry guys, the winds are a bitch.”

The hiss of the ship’s hydraulics, connected to the Hold as it closes and decompresses, meets my ears. I hit the virtual switch on my HUD, and my cockpit clamps down and seals shut as the floor beneath us rumbles and begins to lower our MAV’s to the ground outside.

“Bull, scan and jam.”

“Bull copies. Scan and jam.”

“Terri, keep the engines hot.”

“The fires will be lit boss.”

I push the throttles and the machine begins to move. The three of us step down from our platforms and touch the frozen surface.

“Let’s go.”

My com lights up. It’s Bull. “Good hunting guys…”

 

********

 

With this system’s bright white sun directly above, we push our MAV’s across and above the rough but blindingly white, icy surface and were it not for our Digital Eyes, we’d be blind in a matter of minutes. The ground rushes by forty feet below us at one hundred miles per hour; we should be arriving at our destination in seven minutes.

“Okay guys, on foot from here.”

I pull the throttle back and reduce speed. My mental command initiates the air braking system and I am suspended for a moment in time, between positive and negative G. I switch my engine over to hover and drop vertically.

Akita comes to me “I’ve got three light Mecha and a Heavy on scan, two miles out.”

“Okay let’s disappear.”

The three of us ripple into the surroundings and vanish from sight. We’ll run-walk it from here. There is no telling what we are getting into. My warning system goes haywire.

“What the hell is that?” Akita shouts over the coms.

“Terri Get the ship in the air, we’ve been compromised!”

My scope shows the three light Mecha and one Heavy along with an unknown. This changes things.

“Alpha I can’t get a read on the new guy. Where’d he come from?” It’s Akita again.

Hound breaks in “Must have been cloaked.”

I link with the ship “Bull keep us undetected all the way in.”

“I’m trying Alpha.”

My com comes alive. A rush of static and…“Earthfront Terrorists…” His words are sharp and clipped “…You are within a restricted zone and are therefore in violation of our laws. I order you to immediately cease your advance and power down your machines.”

I switch to our secure com “How are they detecting us?”

“I don’t understand it Alpha…” Bull’s confused voice echoes across our channel “… I’m blocking with everything I’ve got.”

Solace Five’s blue and white, uneven ice carpet rushes by on the edge of my vision. “Guys we’re weapons hot, I repeat, weapons hot.”

The calm but angry voice comes through again. “Earthfront Militia, you are to stand down immediately or die.”

I think for a split second about making contact but I get rid of the thought all the same. Our mission is to destroy that fleet. We will need another man. “Bull, get over here. Terri, get the ship to us and give air support…”

“Already on my way…”

“Hound, Akita…track the heavy and get rid of it first. Bull…you out there?”

“Comin’ to you, boss…got a tally on those Lights.”

“Hound…flank ‘em, Akita…take the high ground, I’m going after the unknown, Bull, take a shot when you have it.”

My targeting computer tracks and locks on to the strange Mecha just beyond the last rise ahead. Warnings of all sorts bombard me now. I pull the trigger and rocket low, fifteen feet to be exact, above the terrain. The familiar vibrations run through the space around me as five missiles pull away and mark a smoky path toward the enemy machine in the distance.

“What the hell is that thing?”

I’ve never seen anything like it. It looks like a forty-foot metallic man. I wait but two of my missiles hit air and three explode before impact.

“Hou…lee, Boss, you see that..?”

Akita’s comment helps to free my mind from the minor trance.

“…That thing dodged five missiles!”

“Akita, go for the heavy!”

I’m barking into the com, my eyes never leaving my target. I switch to hover and ground controls and drop heavily to the planet surface. The sensation is crazy, like hundreds of massive ground quakes rushing through my stomach all at once. My MAV hit’s the planet surface running. Large chunks of ice split apart under the tremendous weight as I engage the unusual Machine in close quarters combat.

My tracking systems alert me of its lock on. I shove the throttles for more power and watch the distance between us close rapidly. Every sensor on my HUD that can, warns of enemy radar and weapons that are targeting me but I ignore them, maintain my mad dash, switch to guns, squeeze the trigger and hold it.

RRRRREEEEEEEEE!

Somewhere on the outskirts of my mind I hear my Auto-cannon erupt. Tracer rounds light a path to my target and the cockpit trembles with the kick-back. But the bullets hit nothing. He jumps into the air and rockets straight up; the ice beneath him cratering in his wake.

“Look at him go.” Akita’s voice in my ear

I switch to flight mode in my run and push for every ounce of power my MAV can muster. The engine howls and the G’s push me hard into my seat. I leave the ice but my finger does not release the trigger and my gun follow’s its prey in a deadly arc as he tries to outmaneuver me.

“Guys I’m airborne and engaging the unknown. Terri, keep tracking us just in case.”

“Gotcha on scan Cap, be careful.”

I level off at fifteen thousand feet and cut in toward the enemy machine as he doubles over and plummets back to the planet surface. He’s fast, and agile. I’ve never seen anything like it. But my tracer rounds never stop. I’ve got to get him. Almost…damn I was so close.

I’ll be out of ammo soon if I keep this up. In my head I activate missile launchers, and while keeping the gunfire blazing, four Hammerheads speed away from me.

This guy’s good.

I watch as his Mecha easily avoids the attack and “…WUW!” I hit the speed brakes, roll over and pull away hard. The unknown machine just stopped, almost instantly.

“Alpha, what’s going on?” Akita screams into my head.

“That crazy sonofabitch just dead stopped me…almost had an air to air.”

I strain against the forces that are trying to rip me apart. My speed brakes retract and just as I add power the warning systems go red. A missile is speeding my way. He’s toying with me, and getting under my skin, but I refuse to run and so, push toward the oncoming projectile.

800ft

700ft

600ft to impact

I center on the approaching killer and squeeze off three quick bursts of tracers.

The missile explodes as I pass a hundred or so feet away. My warning systems alert me yet again and I realize that the strange Mecha is behind and above me; a killing position. With a movement of eyes and hands, I enter a mind bending dive. I hope my pursuer is foolish enough to follow…apparently he is. The planet surface dangles beneath me. Thirteen thousand feet, twelve thousand feet, ten thousand feet, nine thousand, my enemy’s tracer rounds track off and ahead of me but none of them hit true.

“Bull, are you jamming his tracking?”

“Gotcher back Boss.”

That’s a relief. Where is he? I don’t believe it. The unknown has already freed itself from the insane plummet and is trying to intercept me from another angle. My warning systems go mad again, he has me locked up. I drive full power to my thrusters and enter a stomach knotting turn and burn to approach him head on, engine screeching, guns blazing. I hope to catch him off guard as the superheated streaks leaving me, bridge the gap between us. My com comes to life just as the strange Mecha drops below me and out of sight.

“Earthfront dog…It’s time to die.”

Every warning light comes alive and screams madness in my ear. I can almost smell the chemicals in the oncoming exhausts as no less than ten missiles, Nova class, now track me. I’ve got seconds before I become ash and dust. Mentally I command the vents on my thrusters to yaw. And as my MAV spins and I face my ten demons, the vents in front of my machine obey me now, driving me backward.

Digital numbers on the upper right of my HUD tells me that I’m pushing past Mach two. I center the reticule on my pursuers and squeeze the trigger as my heart, beating the life out of me, feels like it’s trying to claw its way into my guts, but I keep it together taking deep breaths; I got this.

I barely hear the Auto-cannon but the lines that it carves through the sky finds their prey as one, two, three missiles are cut down. My thoughts are rapid and ever changing in the moment. Pulling a hard left turn, I roll inverted and drop, back first, still flying backward, toward the planet surface now twelve thousand feet below.

Guns spitting and chewing up the sky, I select my MD’s and deploy a large load. Looks like frenzied fireworks going off in my trail as I turn yet again and push hard on the power.

Unlike chaff for heat seekers, MD’s or Magnetic Decoys draw weapons guided by Magnatech away from their intended target. Six missiles register now on my HUD as neutralized; the MD’s have done their jobs disrupting the onboard tracking systems and fooling the miniature computers into thinking they had found their targets. The sky in my line of sight, lights up as the missiles detonate, and in my head, the focused thought of climbing higher changes my course with only one thousand feet to go.

As I shift to the right, the clear sky vanishes and the icescape below comes into view. The last missile is still tracking me and my Cannon is almost out of ammo. I am now reduced to short bursts, but the wild and erratic evasive maneuvers, coupled with flying backwards makes it difficult to center on this target. I see the missile clearly. My computer tells me that it’s five hundred feet and closing.

The com comes to life. “Alpha I’ve engaged the unknown and I’m…oh God!”

Hard static hits my ear. I twist my machine hard, roll over at twenty thousand feet, and drop into a suicidal plunge. I say suicidal because it is against everything I have learned, to enter a backward supersonic dive.

“Terri!”

I shout into the com. The missile is still tracking hot on my trail…damned Magnatech things, never stop. I’m sure that was Terri. A gnawing sensation forms in my stomach and chest that I haven’t felt in a long time. The Neural Link between Terri and me is gone. The effect of this, like a hole dug in my gut shakes me. I hate it. I want to scream, or cry but I can’t. I gotta keep it together.

“Alpha, we’ve engaged the unknown…” Akita’s words are quick and his voice is strained as though in a high G turn “…He got Terri, and now the bastard’s on my six.”

The chatter increases as Hound comes through. “I’m on him, just hold it together”

“I can’t shake him, Alpha, get down here!” Akita’s Auto-cannon is going mad in the background along with his shrieking engine. It means that he’s backwards flying too.

“Hang in there I’m on my way…”

My gut cramps as though held in a vice. I can’t wrap my thoughts around what Akita just said. A proximity warning goes off. The missile is closer now. I’ve got to get into the fight.

“Bull…” I roll out of my crazy dive and try to outplay the incoming projectile “…where’s that rail gun of yours?”

“…Can’t get a lock Alpha. This guy is either a magician or he’s that good.”

I kill the evasive and drop straight down. The altimeter hits seven thousand feet and shows me six thousand in two seconds. I’ve got twelve seconds before I become a permanent part of this planet.

The missile closes but I wait for the digital crosshair to move into place. A little bit more…almost…I squeeze the trigger and hold it. I can feel the ground not far below. The last of my ammo leaves me and the line of tracers end with the explosion of my pursuer. I shift my vents again, they spin me around and I begin moving forward once more.

My MAV comes out of the dive with a murderous cry and a hundred and fifty feet to spare. I’m hard pressed to my seat and my vision dims around the edges, but my suit does what it was designed to do and prevents me from passing out. Akita’s signal is five miles south of my current position so I hit the throttle and watch the indicated airspeed push beyond the speed of sound.

“Bull, where are you?”

Static

“…trying to kill this thing without hitting any of our guys…”

“Why was Terri in his MAV? I told him to stay with the ship.”

“He jumped in to back us up. I wish I had told him no.”

I ignore Akita’s pain as his gunfire saturates the background of my com.

“Hound…?”

“In the heat boss…wuw! This guy is crazy!”

“Hold on I’ve got a fix and I’m burning hot…” I hit the speed brakes so as not to overshoot the action going on below, and fight the wave of nausea as the reading goes from one thousand seven hundred, to five hundred miles per hour in five seconds.

The battlefield looks like something from a bad dream. The three, enemy Light Mecha are all nothing but melted piles of black metal. The Heavy is in pieces not too far away…looks like it fell out of the sky, and a large lump in my throat drops into my stomach along with a hundred stones. Terri’s MAV is spread across the ice and burning in large and small pieces.

I shove it from my mind; I’ll have time to deal with it later. My engine burns hotter as I force my MAV higher. “Where’s that bastard…?” I see him now “…Hound, Akita, keep him busy.”

“Not a problem boss.”

I track the unknown Mecha as he pursues Akita and evades Hound. They too should be running low on ammo by now.

“Bull, get to the ship and be ready for anything.”

Static again “…Okay boss, on my way.”

After climbing to five hundred feet above the action, I push my MAV into a shallow dive to catch and match the speed of our Deepcore opponent. Akita has him following his evasive run in a large, seven mile circle, perfect for my intentions. Just a little bit more…almost there. I can’t fire my remaining missiles because he’s obviously able to detect them early and steer clear, but for what I’m about to do…for Terri and the rest of my team…he will never see it coming. I push my engine for more power and drop toward my enemy.

“Akita, get out of the circle and lead straight.”

And without question he obeys. “Alpha, I’m in the open and that bastard is locking me up.”

I watch the Deepcore Mecha zigzag Hound while keeping a bead on Akita.

“Hold Akita, I got him.” And my team trusts me as I drive full force toward the unknown; all of my proximity warnings alerting me. “Terri…this one’s for you buddy…”

“Alpha…!” Hound’s voice “…what are you doing?”

Five hundred feet

Four hundred feet

Three hundred feet

Two hundred feet

One hundred feet

At fifty feet away, I switch to ground controls. The machine fights me but I hold it, extend and then shove the titanium legs of my MAV forward.

Impact

The collision is monumental. Beyond anything I have ever felt; it shakes me to the bone. Every joint in my body feels unhinged. My head snaps back violently and I know that were it not for my seat’s protective brace, I would be dead now. The sounds of metal bending and twisting against metal bombards my ears as the thin strip of bullet proofed, protective glass around my cockpit shatters.

With the last of my mental capacity, I switch the controls to hover and initiate full power. The MAV hits the ice with thunder. Ice and snow rush by and onto my visor and everything around me, goes black.

CHAPTER 7 – AFTERMATH

 

 

“Hey Alpha…?”

I open my eyes. The room is bright with sunlight and a gentle breeze brushes my skin. I sit up on the couch and see Terri in the seat opposite me.

“Terri…I thought…”

I can’t remember what I thought.

“It’s okay Rich. Everything is okay.”

He hasn’t called me that since we were teenagers. There is something about the way he says it that makes me think, about what? I have no idea.

“How long have I been out?”

“The guys are preparing to launch so I thought I should remind you. I know you wouldn’t want to be left behind.”

Suddenly I remember that we are supposed to leave this planet. I look closely at my childhood friend. He looks younger.

“Damn, I forgot. Thanks, let’s go.”

But his eyes keep me unmoving. They are soft. His face is sad but happy. How is this possible?

“I’m sorry Cap. But I’m not flying with you guys this time.”

We look at each other and the strange feeling that passes between us is unnerving.

“Why can’t you go with us?”

He smiles “Good hunting Alpha.”

His voice echoes into the distance. His face becomes a transparent nothing and instantly, the room around me disappears and is replaced by a frozen ground littered with bits and pieces of a MAV…Terri’s MAV.

I open my eyes and feel warm tracks of tears run down my face. The soothing sound of the Mirage’s engines in space flight comes first. Then the sterilized scent of the medical bay and now I see Bull sitting across from me with a semi-automatic in his lap.

I exhale hard and use my left arm to free the fixed harness holding me in place.

“Alpha…” Bull rises at my sudden movement and approaches me “…take it easy Boss.”

Holographic modules remain suspended all over me as I lie on the floating bed, monitoring every vital sign that I produce.

“What happened?”

Bull sets the gun down and sits beside me. “We lost Terri.”

He says it as though he doesn’t want to believe it. That fist in my gut is back and it’s heavier than before.

“I know. Did I get that sonofabitch?”

“Yeah you got him but he’s not dead.”

I begin to rise but Bull stays me at the shoulder and my head returns to the pillow with a pulsing ache.

“We have him in the brig.”

“That explains the gun.”

“Yeh…” The big Military man seems lost “…You screwed him up good though. I didn’t think we’d find you alive but the Neural told me otherwise.”

“Where are we?”

“…Short docking at Starport Vycen Three and waiting.”

“How long have I been out?”

“About seven hours.”

“…Seven hou…Where’re we going?”

“Rouna…”

“Rouna…?”

“Yeh…got the order from Earth a few hours after the battle. Hawk says that we are to go to Callican and resupply, repair and await further instructions.”

I exhale heavily. I feel my headache subsiding. “Has anyone spoken to the Deepcore pilot?”

“No. The General gave us orders not to interact with the prisoner until on base at Rouna.”

“Well that’s bullshit. We’re gonna interrogate the bastard here and now…” The headache is back “…are you guys with me on this?”

“We were just waiting for you Cap.”

“Then let’s not wait any longer. Deactivate this thing and unhook me.”

 

********

 

The walk to the Hold, through the very narrow corridors of the Mirage, has me feeling as though my legs are not my own. Effects of the jump through hyperspace coupled with the collision. I run through what Bull has told me. Vycen Three is one of four Starports in the Vycen system, six thousand light years from Earth. Rouna is one of two planets here, two of the most beautiful known to mankind. Paradise is what Vycen translates to from the language once spoken by the original inhabitants on these worlds; and they were absolutely right about it.

“Good to see ya Cap…”

Akita is not himself. I pat him on the shoulder.

“I assume that Hound is at the controls?”

“Yeah…”

“Okay let’s get this done…” I walk into the room, head no longer pounding. The serum Bull gave me has acted quickly. I feel almost one hundred percent again.

Our Deepcore prisoner is naked and in a sitting position, strapped to the only chair in the space. Stale vomit paints his mouth, chin, and chest. From his nostrils, a thin line of blood oozes, tracing a path along his body, ending beneath his chair where it pools.

“I take it this man wasn’t inducted after leaving hyperspace?”

Akita looks to Pitbull “I thought you activated it?”

The mock tone is entirely void of amusement and Bull responds.

“…thought you did…”

I approach the sitting pilot and hold my hand toward Akita. He moves toward me as Bull positions himself against the wall behind the seat. I take a vial from him and administer a serum to the groaning man. I hate seeing another human in this state but in this case…I make the exception. We wait a few minutes until the pilot is fully conscious and aware of us and then he stares at the floor.

“Deepcore pilot…” I hold a split second but he does not acknowledge the statement “…under our orders we are to extract information from you using any means necessary and place you dead or alive into the custody of our agents on Rouna…”

Still no response

“…Who are you?”

I signal to Pitbull. The big soldier moves forward, grasps the pilot by the back of his head and forces him to look at me.

“…Easy or hard way, your choice…”

Still no response

“…I’m not in any mood to play games. Who are you?”

I remember Terri and now anger replaces the fist in my gut

“Have it your way. Bring me The Gun.”

Akita leaves the room immediately. I return to the Deepcore man before me.

“You will answer by will or by force. Who are you? Why were you on Keden? Why were you on Solace Five? What are the plans of Deepcore and their interests in Keden?”

The man keeps our eye to eye after Bull releases him and with a concentrated effort, responds

“You don’t scare me. If I told you what I know, you wouldn’t know your right hand from your left.”

The door opens and Akita enters the room again. I turn to the man in the chair. “What do you mean by this?”

No answer.

Akita hands me The Gun and I turn once more toward the chair. The tool in my hand, named simply, The Gun, is a modified handgun that shoots truezine serum into the bloodstream. The truth serum, frozen in the form of a very small needle, dissolves once lodged in the body and can kill its host if they are not in the best of health. I point the gun to the neck of the naked man in the chair.

“Do you know what this is..?”

No answer

“…This is Truezine and you know what it does. Now who are you?”

No answer again.

“Did you guys strip his tech?”

Akita steps forward “…Yeah, nothing much…”

He removes two plastic packs from a slot in the counter nearby and hands them to me. In one, is a locator device and in the other, a pair of Digital Eyes which I take from him.

“Get rid of the locator…”

Terri’s final words echo in my head. My finger squeezes the trigger and the man flinches as the red dot in his neck shows where the serum is now lodged. I watch his eyes as they begin to water and his sudden cry is pitiful. We wait for the drug to take effect. His eyes roll in their sockets. His mouth curves into a playful smile.

I ask again “Who are you?”

The smiling man looks happily at me “I am Captain James Hiram…”

“Why were you on Keden?”

“To remove the obstacle…”

I turn to Akita and he shrug’s in ignorance. “What obstacle?”

“You…”

“You were sent to Keden to remove me?”

“Yes…”

“Who sent you?”

“The man…”

“Who is the man?”

“The man…”

“Who do you work for?”

“The man…”

I turn again to Akita. “Who the hell is, The Man?” He raises his shoulders and shakes his head. “What are the intentions of Deepcore on Keden?”

“Protect it…”

“Protect it..? From whom..?”

“The man…”

“This conversation is going nowhere. How could you be protecting it from the man you work for?”

No answer.

“Why were you on Solace Five?”

“To kill you…”

“How did you know I was going to be on Solace Five?”

Silence

“Who ordered you to kill me?”

“The man…”

“Where is The Man?”

No answer

“Where is The Man?”

Still nothing

“What were your orders after killing me?”

“Rendezvous on Keden and lock it down…”

“What do you mean, lock it down?”

The man’s face suddenly contorts. The after effect of the drug is taking over. I need more time “What do you mean, lock it down?”

His smile and bright eyes vanish and is soon replaced by a menacing look. “Keden will fall…”

“What?”

“You stopped me…” His voice is becoming a coarse but loud whisper “…Keden will fall…Earth will fall.”

“Why will Keden and Earth fall..? How…?” I immediately think of Mirana.

The pilot’s eyes roll into the back of his head and I shake him back to consciousness.

“We will lock down Keden. Take the Cyclones. No one can match them.” He’s rambling now.

“What are the Cyclones?”

“You destroyed mine…”

“He’s talking about his Mecha.” Akita cuts in.

I turn back to the dying man “There are more like it?”

“Ten…”

This is not good. One was hell but nine more? “Where are they?”

“Keden…”

“When is Keden going to be locked down?”

“Keden is…locked…d…d…d…” And with that, the man spasms and froths at the mouth as what’s left of his life leaves him in a shallow breath of foul air.

My mind is in hyper drive. I pocket the Digital Eyes and force myself to turn and walk away.

“Store him and let’s get to Rouna.”

This simple search and destroy mission has just become something else. Who is, The Man? Why did he send these men to Keden to get rid of us or was it just me? How did they know we would follow them to Solace Five? What the hell is going on?

I leave the room and stumble through the corridor to the narrow ladder leading into the cockpit. If Keden is locked down, how are we to get back undetected? Mirana…is she okay…is she alive?

“Terr…Hound…” The reality is numbing. Terrier is not coming back. There are so many emotions running unbound and wild through me that I don’t know how to feel. But I must keep it together. This is bigger than me or Terri right now.

“Yes Alpha..?”

“…get us to Rouna.”

CHAPTER 8 – ROUNA

 

 

We exit hyperspace and the paradise planet called Rouna comes into view. Its thin, white asteroid ring passes by below us and the Magnatech kicks in. My stomach tightens and feels like it is about to come up through my throat, but it doesn’t bother me as much as usual. I watch Hound sitting in Terri’s seat and wish my buddy was still here. I don’t even have a body to take back to Earth.

What am I going to tell his folks?

The rich-blue world in front of us, almost twice the size of Earth, is a mind-blowing sight. Entirely covered by a beautiful blue, salt sea under a perpetually calm, tropical atmosphere, it is a paradise indeed. It has been a long time since I’ve seen Rouna. Almost every pilot in Earthfront military service would have passed through here at one time or another. Being entirely under Earthfront control, it plays host to one of the largest Earther military training bases in the galaxy.

One of the three spaceports orbiting the planet is now in view. The mammoth diamond shaped complex hangs suspended in nothingness like a brilliantly lit, white city. The coms come to life.

“UNA Mirage…Argyle Spaceport Control has you on approach, go auto and state Intensions.”

“Argyle Traffic Control…Captain Richard Gant of the UNA Mirage, requesting docking. In need of resupply and repair under order of General Alexander Madison.”

“UNA Mirage, one sec…” The voice is female and almost robotic. Five seconds pass “…request acknowledged, cleared for docking, you have Guidance on link. Welcome to Rouna Captain Gant.”

I check the linkup and Hound sets us on autopilot.

I wish more than anything that Terri had stayed in the ship. The station’s Magnetic system shakes us as it takes over. Why did he go against my command? I’m angry with this sadness, and with him. On the other hand, any one of us would have joined that fight, and died for each other if necessary. I should have killed the unknown in combat. Why couldn’t I kill it? The wreckage of Terrier’s MAV flashes through my head and I blink back the tears.

The Communication Module flashes. “UNA Mirage, docking at Bay, F seven, five, three.”

“UNA Mirage copies Bay F seven…five…three…”

I turn to Hound and he looks my way. Under his visor I don’t see it, but I feel his sorrow. There are no words to express it so our silences remain. My fingers find the digital Com panel and I enter a code that would give me direct access on a secure link to our superior. His image comes up on all of our holographic screens as Argyle’s Magnatech pulls us closer.

General Alexander ‘Hawk’ Madison appears. He looks older, but just as mean and hardened as ever. His greying head, proud eyes and hawkish nose looks through me as though I were a rookie all over again.

I acknowledge him “General…”

“Iron Five…”

“We’re on approach to Argyle…”

“…And Terrier..?”

“Gone, Sir…”

“Do you have his body and his Dees?”

“No Sir, there was nothing salvageable from his wreckage.”

I’m not sure what I see in Hawk’s eyes when it comes to his sympathy, but a look of annoyance is clearly visible.

“I’m sorry about Terri. He was one of the best…and not just pilots…I know he was a brother to you. How are you holding up soldiers?”

He’s not genuine. I’ve been around the man long enough to know what formality and protocol is supposed to look like.

“We’re holding well sir.”

“Good. You have the bastard responsible for it and that’s what matters. Right now…”

“Had him, sir…interrogated him with Truezine and got some valuable Intel before he died.”

Its funny how the General, as far back as I’ve known him, could go from zero to ballistic in the same split second; like the good old days of me and Hound at each other’s throats, all over again.

“I gave specific orders not to interrogate him until on base at Rouna! You disobeyed a direct order soldier!”

“Sir, with all due respect, I felt it right to carry out the interrogation. After all, it was us who suffered and lost in order to bring him in…”

“You know full well the consequences of these actions. As of this moment, Iron Five is hereby decommissioned until further notice. You’re lucky that you and your team are not on a ship to Earth by morning.”

My guts feel as though they are being sucked into some deep hole within “But sir…we have valuable Intel that I think might make a…”

“My orders were clear, were they not soldier? Yet you disobeyed the directive and in doing so, lost us our only link to Deepcore!”

I remain silent. Maybe I’ve pushed it too far this time. But we need to get to Mirana and its too late. We’ll never be able to break free of Argyle’s Magnatech now.

“What did you learn from the interrogation?”

The look on the General’s face is dangerous. He is a hardened man, by-the-book and void of emotion. But I am angrier than before and no longer willing to talk to him. Yet, as my commanding officer, I have no choice in the matter. I tell him about “The Man”. He is unusually silent about this. I think it has caught him off guard. He is also equally puzzled about the Deepcore fleet being on Keden to get rid of Iron Five.

“That’s a farce. How could they have known that you would have been sent to Keden to find them?”

“Either way it almost worked. They got Terri.” My voice is not my own.

“…After you got all of them.”

His words sting me. There is no victory in this fact. I lost my friend, my brother. I could not care any less about some Deepcore imps getting away to live another day, as long as Iron Five remained Five.

“…must be a mole in the ranks…” The General is talking again “…Someone is obviously leaking information to Deepcore.”

I go on about Keden being locked down and what the pilot said about Keden and Earth falling. I remember Mirana again. My stomach rolls over. I have a screwed up sensation in my gut that just won’t go away. I mention the Cyclones and what they might be capable of but it doesn’t seem to impress him.

“As of this morning we received a coded message from SysDef’s base on Keden. The base has been attacked, all air and space travel has been locked down and the Commander and her men have been holding off a siege for the past eight hours…”

I sit up in my seat…I’m sorry buddy…and push Terri from my mind.

“We need to get back. We’re only two thousand lights away. We could be there in…”

“Negative Captain. You are to report to Station Commander Brice and remain on Rouna until further orders. I won’t court-martial you for your disregard of my command this time but one more strike Alpha, and you and your team, are out…”

We look at each other in a moment of silence and then he continues

“…Earthfront has dispatched a Starfleet and will have the Keden crisis under control in a matter of days.”

Mirana won’t last that long

“General Madison, we’re twenty four hours away from Keden. We can get there ahead of Earth’s forces and…”

“And what soldier?” He’s the man I remember now “What…Four ill-disciplined soldiers in Light Mecha will just walk onto Keden and win the day? I understand you want to avenge your brother-in-arms but you, like countless others, along with Terrier, knew the risks and how to deal with the losses. So deal with it soldier or you will be deemed unfit for this service.”

I’ve already avenged his death. I want to prevent another from happening. But I can’t say this or I’ll definitely be on my way back to Earth in a military shuttle by nightfall. I’ve zoned out again.

“…understand me soldier?”

“Yes sir. I was just caught up in the loss sir.”

The General softens again “We all have been at some point son. Get some rest.”

The connection vanishes and the thud of the ship connecting to the docking bay brings the surroundings to my attention. We all feel the loss. I have known Terrier ever since we were kids. Mrs. Andrews had brought a then six year old Carlos to play with his next door neighbor while she and my mother prepared for the family barbeque; we’ve been best friends ever since.

The walk through the suspended corridor is a hard one. The last time I set foot on this station, it was Terri and me, fresh out of flight school and ready for training on Rouna.

Through the large, almost floor-to-ceiling windows, Rouna, the stunning blue orb many miles below, is breathtaking. Two doors ahead of us hiss and slide smoothly into the walls. The magnificent view of the paradise world is replaced now by a large and busy terminal filled mostly with tourists dressed in tropical wear and toting luggage, children, or both. Not far away, two kids slip out of sight and begin switching their parent’s bags while their guardians talk to a travel agent. I remember the first time Terri traveled with my family. It was the beginning of summer and my parents were headed to Titan. We would have been no more in age or size than those two bag switchers.

I continue on and follow the rest of the team into an elevator and come out three levels above. The guard behind the desk nods us toward an office with a large oak door, and we enter.

“Have a seat, gentlemen.”

Station Commander Arnold Brice, the man behind the voice, is a powerfully built soldier and the commander of Earthfront Galactic on Rouna. He has allowed no time for salutes and protocol so we take our seats.

“I am disappointed in your lack of discipline but at the same time, I commend you on your recent achievements and sympathize with your loss…Terrier was a good man…”

It’s as though he just stuck in that last part for effect. His beady, but focused eyes stop at mine.

“…General Madison has asked that I be lenient with you on this however, I run a tight ship. Any soldier who has trouble following orders will find themselves a little short of being ejected into vacuum. Are we clear on this?”

We all acknowledge with a quick “yesir” and he continues. “…The Deepcore pilot on your ship will be removed and your MAV’s will be resupplied and repaired. However, you are to board a shuttle and get planet side for debriefing and some good R and R. I’d say you almost deserve it.”

His squared jaws become squarer as his broad mouth cracks a slanted smile. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a more clinical and one sided conversation in all my life. Not even with the Battle Axe.

“Sir, if I may?” He seems a bit put off but allows me to speak “…We were ordered by General Madison to resupply, repair and await further orders…”

I know it’s a long shot, but at least I must try.

The man behind the desk looks menacingly at me “These, are, further, orders. As you know, Keden is now entirely under Deepcore control. Our forces should be arriving there in four days and with the Kedenian Government, this minor problem will be solved.”

“Permit me Sir…” I can tell that he’s fighting with himself now “…We’ve seen what our forces would be up against. You’ll need pilots who are experienced in dealing with this threa…”

“You are ordered to get planet side and stand down Captain. Now unless you’d rather spend your time in paradise, in a cell, I suggest we end this meeting here and now.”

I return his cold stare for a split second. “Yes Sir, thank you sir.” I stand and the rest of the guys follow, then issue the crispest salute I can muster and he nods his head in approval.

 

********

 

“That was bullshit!”

We’re walking through another corridor and toward the shuttle bay while the monstrous, blue planet below us fills the space through every window.

“Coming from you Bull…that’s saying something.”

We all laugh at Hound’s reply but the laughter is hollow and without substance. In fact, we haven’t really spoken to each other since Solace. I have got to let this go. Somewhere in the back of my head, I know that it makes no sense to lose what I have for what is gone.

We pass through the retractable corridor of a bridge that extends outward and away from Argyle, connecting the complex to our shuttle. Unlike Starships, planetary shuttles here don’t dock in-station.

As we enter the low ceilinged, cozy cabin of the shuttle, I remember sitting in tandem with Terri the first time to Rouna after my scuffle with Hound. We had both wanted window seats. I walk to where he would have been a little over eight years past and strap in. God, that’s not so long ago. The flight today would be just the four of us but back then, it was filled with young pilots ready for adventure. Terrier and I hadn’t met the rest of the team yet, in fact, we wouldn’t meet some of them until almost a year later.

I relax and settle into the formfitting, memory cell seat. The material shifts as it takes my shape and I look through the oval window next to me. Our view is now the white of the space station’s outer shell and the black of space beyond the edge of it.

Exhaling and letting my weight go, I take another look around. The Cabin is chilly, almost homey and soft lights add a nice ambiance to it. On the overhead Holo’s above and behind every seat, a counter counts down to launch…fifteen minutes to go.

“Good day Iron five…” The thought of us being five, only a few hours ago and only four now, stings me. “…I am Captain Benn, along with Co-pilot Galeno, and we’ll be planet-side in forty five minutes. The weather at Callican is a balmy twenty seven degrees with crisp chips, cool breezes, pissed off generals and hot chicks. Strap in and enjoy the flight.”

The com goes silent. I see that the cabin announcement hasn’t changed much. If anything…I’d say that it’s gotten a bit cleaner since my last visit. The room is weirdly quiet save for two seatbelts being clipped into place. We are all lost in our own thoughts. On another day, in another time, this trip would have been exciting and just what the doctor had ordered. But today…there are no words to describe what we all feel. I see Terri’s face again. He’s concentrating on landing us on Solace Five while I leave the cockpit to go strap into my MAV, never to see him again. I see Mirana, telling me not to let the Deepcore fleet escape before going into her office. I hear her voice “Come back in one piece…”

There is a thud and the cabin shudders as we undock from the space station. The ship drifts backward for a short while. Everything shakes a bit more from the pilot’s slow, deliberate magnetic interactions with Argyle and then we begin a flat spin, until the planet is ahead and below us and the Giant Spaceport drifts behind.

More small vibrations ripple through as the four thrusters behind us begin their push. What will become of us now? How will our actions regarding our prisoner affect the future of Iron Five? Iron Four…I wish I could scream right now. What kind of soldier am I? For God’s sake, how many times have I seen death? Too many to count and yet here I am, like a child who has lost his brother.

Through my window, the black of space fills every corner as Argyle disappears. I am pressed into my seat but comfortably and while we rapidly accelerate, Rouna’s atmosphere begins to embrace us.

The blue planet slowly changes color, from rich blue, to almost white, to orange and now red as we burn through the sky at more than ten times the speed of sound, but barely feel it. The ship’s rhythmic hum is almost soothing and I fix my eyes out and below my window. Red to light-red to light-blue to dazzling blue, we enter Rouna’s airspace.

Bright white clouds, drifting lazily, take shape and within minutes of entry, we pass through a few and leave them above and behind. The shuttle’s low rumble is all I hear and my memories of a time when the world made sense and every problem was solved by a Mom or a Dad are all I have; memories of traveling by aircraft to countries unknown on vacations never to be forgotten; of spaceports and holidays on moons with views of deep space with my friend…my brother…

The Spacecraft tilts on my side and Callican reveals itself in the early morning sunlight. I turn to the rest of the guys and they all look my way. There is still nothing to say so I return to my window.

Callican’s first spire appears now that we’re a few thousand feet above the tropic blue and I remember the first time learning of them.

Picture this” my teacher had said “…the planet Rouna is like a ball of tightly wound fiber. These fibers, made up of rock and metal break free of each other over time, millions of years, and give the planet, land, in the form of towering, straw-like landmasses.”

I remember her saying this while standing in front of the class wearing a short skirt and high heels. I don’t remember what else she was wearing, as a matter of fact, most of the class, as ten year old boys, nearly missed the whole lesson because of that red and white skirt. However, the image of what our teacher had used for a visual is still clear. In her hand was a ball of straw and after making a few cuts across it, pieces of its fibers stuck out at odd angles. I remember her short skirt again but the com jolts me from my reverie. “Iron Five…welcome to Rouna.”

We are now only six hundred feet above the ocean and the view outside my window is marvelous. Over thirty spires, some separated by a few miles and others, close enough to each other to almost touch, jut out of the water and angle up and out; all in the same direction.

The land at its highest point, according to my Digital eyes, hangs around five hundred feet above sea level which puts us only a hundred above the nearest one. The information, appearing before me in visible colors that adjusts to the light, also tells me that the spire off my side of the shuttle is about a half mile away. Where it and the sea connects is a broad, white sand, crescent beach with a road linking it to the rest of the land mass, and hover and Air vehicles move along their individual paths, adding to the strange serenity.

I take a deep breath. The shuttle has slowed considerably…seventy knots and as the clear blue waters move smoothly below and the tip of the spire is much closer now. On its edge, the Spire’s highest elevation, a glimmering city stands like a crystal mountain. The mixtures of light-blue, white and silvery glass buildings make it blend into its surroundings. But the shuttle tilts again, replacing the city with the sea and we begin a gentle turn toward our destination.

“It’s been so long.”

I turn to Akita as his voice comes to me. It’s good to hear.

“Yeah, it has…” Pitbull jumps in now “What do we do now Alpha? I know when they’re lying. Once we set foot on Rouna, we’re grounded.”

It’s as though they were just waiting for someone to break the ice. The thought of being grounded had indeed crossed my mind.

“We’ll figure something out. We just need to get some rest and then get together with fresh minds on this.”

“Hey Alpha…” Hound now “…let’s cut the crap. We’ve got to get off Rouna, get to our ship, get out of this system and back to Keden. It’s as simple as that. So the first order of business is…how do we get off Rouna?”

Silence

I think hard but come up with nothing “Rouna is not just an ordinary world where we can just come and go. It’s one of the most secured locations in the galaxy, bested only by Earth.”

“I know a way…”

We all turn to Akita now

“…I know someone who might be able to help us.”

“Who do you know on Rouna?”

“I girl I met a few years ago when I was stationed here, not long before I met you. We had a thing for a while but then…well you know…it didn’t work out.”

“…Should have known that it’d be one of your trophies.”

“…No, not a trophy. She was the real deal, but time and distance and…you know…?”

“No, we don’t know…” Hound smiles.

“…Seriously guys, she’s heavy into the underground, the best mechanic you’ll find and a damned wicked pilot to boot…”

“…Pilot? I must admit, I’m curious now.”

“Yeah, she was a test pilot for the Galactic nine…”

This is interesting. The Galactic nine is a Syndicate made up of nine major, Corporations from nine different Solar Systems. Their pilots are some of the best, Galaxy-wide, and the Air and Spacecraft of the Galactic Nine Syndicate, rival even the technologies from Earth. They are supposedly one of the very few organizations outside of direct Earthfront control.

“So how’s she gonna help us get off this world?”

“I’m not sure Alpha, but if there’s a way off this planet, she’ll know it.”

FACT

 

In the year 2150 AD, the International Computer Network, was at its peak in performance and information availability. But after a hundred years of space exploration and migrations, the Inter System Network was established and as the Internet evolved into the ISN, computers and the way we interacted with them, changed to suit. Holo-screens, lenses, modules and micro-consoles quickly replaced tangible screens, keyboards and CPUs. But mobility and convenience were insatiable creatures, and laptops, tablets and the like were not enough. And so, in 151 TE, digital paper was born. A transparent, disposable sheet of computerized paper that did everything their predecessors did and more, but without the cost of upgrading and maintenance. Yet this too, lacked what most space travelers required until four years later, when the introduction of Digital Eyes revolutionized the industry and changed the way we saw forever.

CHAPTER 9 – CALLICAN

 

 

The shuttle slows to a crawl, almost a hover and glides gently to the landing pad beneath us. The touch-down is hardly felt as the hydraulics dip and adjust to the weight of the craft settling on them.

“Iron Five…Welcome to Callican.” The com crackles and then goes dead.

Buckles unclipping fill the cabin with their noise and when the door opens it hisses.

“Welcome to Callican…” Akita mimics the pilot “…welcome to prison is more like it.”

“Let’s just get Base-side and see what’s what.”

I lead the team through the exit and into the bright sunlight outside and my Digital Eyes adjust to suit.

“Thank God for Dees…” Akita again “Man, this place is paradise.”

We step from the ladder onto the tarmac and a cool, constant breeze hits my face. I am conscious of my helmet attached to my waist as it bumps against my thigh with each step. At the same time, my flight suit filters the warm air and keeps me cool in the morning sun even though I don’t need it to do so; the temperature here is perfect.

I think back to what Toros had said about Deepcore having Kedenian government connections. There was no place he could hide from them. And the Deepcore pilot onboard our ship. Who was The Man he was talking about? Somehow, I know that the answer to this question would unravel everything but there isn’t much time? In my head, I see Mirana O’canon but I don’t like the thoughts that come with her image. She’s been holding off a siege for over eight hours…

What has become of her?

The urge in my gut tells me that come high or go low, we have to get to Keden but reality stabs me like a knife; we are stuck here until…only God knows when.

The sky above us is an awesome blue ceiling that stretches into the distance where it merges with the massive military tarmac. The Base is so huge that I can’t see past it and from what I do see; it’ll take us at least an hour to walk to the other end. Not far away, an airtruck awaits us and its driver is the only welcoming party we have. So we head toward it and as we do, the sounds of shuttles and a lot of military aircraft that are either, taxiing, taking off, landing or parking, seem to be everywhere. For a so called peaceful paradise planet, the military presence here is astounding.

In the distance, and if I didn’t know better, I would have found it hard to believe that if you kept going for a few miles, the ground would get steeper and steeper until it fell away and curved under and around to the other side of the spire. It’s like living on a very broad and large straw, sticking up out of the sea and bent into a curve…amazing no matter how many times I see it.

“Welcome to Callican…Private Avery…here to take you to base sir!”

I return the young man’s firm salute and board the vehicle with Akita mentioning something about a Claudia to Hound. Our seats vibrate with the rumble of the Airtruck and the feeling of my stomach staying on the ground while my body rises from it, embraces me. I’ve always enjoyed this sensation. It was this thrill as a teenager that led me to believe I was meant to be in the sky.

The back of the truck is covered, but not enclosed by solid windows. The air rushes in freely, whipping past my ears with a constant ruffle and I take a deep drag of the freshness. I notice Pitbull looking at me he’s smiling at the way I took that last breath.

“Man that feels so good.”

He shifts to better throw his voice over the sounds of the wind and engines “You’re late. I’ve been sucking up this air since we got off the shuttle.” We both laugh

“Hey Cap, check that out…”

I scan the scene and in the distance, find what Akita is showing me. The city sprawling and rising like hundreds of crystal knives all perfectly lined up, their pointy ends to the sky. But then everything gradually disappears and I leave my stomach in the air as we begin to descend.

Terri…you should have been here.

 

********

 

We leave the Airtruck and its driver behind and enter, with our new escort, a building made almost entirely of evercrete. The new man, in standard Earthfront Military fatigues, leads us through a fairly wide passageway, lined with doors, and then into another as the sounds of our boots echo loudly on the hard floor. From here we enter an elevator that shoots upward, almost enough to give me that gut feeling that I like. But within a few seconds, the small lift slows rapidly and stops at level fifteen, according to the digital screen on my Dee’s and the one next to the door as it slides open. We follow the unnamed soldier into a wide, carpeted and brightly lit corridor. The off-white walls on both sides are lined with paintings of old military craft of all sorts. I recognize the MAV’s of years past and aircraft belonging to a time long before me…they look alien.

The soldier stops and opens the door for us. It is an oak door…looks like Earth oak…and we enter the room. Then he closes it behind him after exiting the office and I eye the man behind the desk. He’s writing on a sheet of digital paper.

“Please, gentlemen… have a seat.”

He is a man of authority, but the door had no symbol or sign to indicate who this man is. Nevertheless we all sit and wait, and watch as he hits the button that will send his note to whomever it is intended, a button, like most digital screens today, invisible to the naked eye, but with my Dee’s, as visible as daylight.

He looks at each of us now and then stops at me…fingers decorated with heavy gold rings…I didn’t know that this was allowed in the military. I guess the rules change with rank.

“You all have done remarkable work but I will not tolerate insubordination on any level…” He pauses “…I am Commander Walborough…and it is my duty to handle your debriefing…” he eyes us all like an angry school teacher “…now…your Dees please…”

I don’t like parting with my Digital Eyes. Since when did a debriefing require us to remove them?

“Sir…” I wait for him to permit me to speak. He barely nods and I continue “…I’ve never had to remove my Digital Eyes for debriefing. Where’s the scan…”

“You apparently have a penchant for rebellion…”

Who the hell is this guy?

“…I am to retrieve your Digital Eyes by order of General Alexander Madison and it will do you well…” His voice has gone from authoritative to menacing “…to follow it to, the, letter.”

I look at the rest of my team and they return my gaze. “I apologize Sir…I was just curious and decided to ask, Sir.”

He doesn’t answer but leans back in his leather chair. I slide my fingers across my eyes; I hate doing this. It’s a weird feeling when the devices unlatch their tiny fingers from my eyeballs. My team follows my lead as I hand over my Dees to the superior officer before us.

“These will be returned to you in due time. That will be all Gentlemen. You are dismissed. Go get some rest and await further orders…”

I think of the Dees in my pocket. The one’s from that Deepcore Pilot. Idiotically, the thought of handing them over passes through my head. But common sense takes over in an instant and I leave them safely tucked away, as the sounds of weights shifting on chairs and boots shuffling along the carpet fill the room. We all rise, salute the man and walk away.

“…oh, and men…” We turn toward him “…we have overlooked your actions relating to your Deepcore Pilot. Due to your commendable past and present performances, General Madison has seen to this. But I warn you, one foot out of line on my base, and I will not be so lenient.”

 

********

 

“What the hell was that about?” Akita’s anger is no longer contained as we sit in the truck once again. We are in the air and on our way to the military housing complex on the outskirts of the monstrous base.

“I’ve got to admit. I have no idea.”

I had never been asked to remove my Eyes for a debriefing. It is always the Dee-Scan; a restricted program designed to extract everything we’ve seen, heard, felt, tasted and smelled for all the times logged.

Akita’s voice again “…Now that bastard has my data, and there’s no telling what else they’re gonna do with it. I’m telling you Alpha, something’s not right here.”

“I know…that wasn’t even a debriefing. Why make us go all that way just to hand over our eyes? I know something’s off…”

It’s been my gut feeling ever since Bull told me about the General’s orders to interrogate the prisoner on Rouna. That was unlike him, and after all, he’s the one who taught me to look for irregularities in the pattern.

“…but there’s nothing we could do about it now.”

“They wanted the Deepcore fleet dead. What difference does it make who interrogates the prisoner? It’s not like they expected us to have him alive. I don’t like it Boss…” Pitbull shouts into the conversation now.

“…Something tells me that we need to get off this world ASAP.”

“Or we could all just be paranoid and stressed…” Hound draws our attention toward him “…I’m just saying…We all feel the loss of Terrier…you Cap, lost your best friend and possibly your woman…”

She’s not my woman

“…Bull…you’re always suspicious, and Akita, the restrictions here simply limits your horny escapades…” Akita opens his mouth but Hound silences him with a palm “…However, I do understand what you’re all saying. We all lost something and this situation does seem a bit odd but let’s not lose our heads here.”

“He’s right…” I jump in before Akita can retaliate “…let’s keep our focus. Akita, you said you know a pilot who can get us off world?”

“I knew a pilot who might be able to get us off world.”

“That’s good enough for me. When we get surface side, we’ll pay her a visit.”

“If she’s still there…” Pitbull now

“She’ll be there. I know her well enough. She settled here and business, as far as I know, was and still is booming on Rouna and wherever the credits flow, there she will be.”

My stomach lurches up my throat again as we begin to move downward and we all kill the conversation for the time being. Using the sounds of the engines and wind while flying to mask our words would have given us all the privacy we needed while on base. But on the ground, especially in our quarters, nothing is ever a hundred percent secured.

As we touch down, our pilot waits for us to grab our gear and with a nod, lifts off and fades into the distance. I push my sunglasses further up my nose. Without my Dees, the sunlight gets to me. We walk across the small landing zone just outside of the Base perimeter fence, across a two lane roadway and onto a sidewalk.

It is beautiful here. Long clean sidewalks, separated from the roadways by wide strips of grass. Trees transplanted from Earth over two hundred years ago. Cool breeze, sparse traffic. It all comes together nicely.

The large housing complex made up of apartment buildings and houses that spread out for what looked, from the air, like six or so miles remind me of home. The house that we are assigned to is about a mile away, so we hail a passing taxi. A purple haired girl behind the controls looks through the window after sliding to a halt nearby and before I can open my mouth…

“One twenny seven, Norbrook Drive…” Akita is already on the prowl.

She eyes him with what looks like curiosity “Two Hundred Creds…”

The team and I squeeze into the cramped rear of the vehicle and the automatic gullwing door closes. The design of the Aircar is nothing like back on Earth, as we hover down the street at a good clip. The seating behind here was obviously designed for three passengers of average size and clearly not four bulky soldiers. The front seat however, is the only one in that space because the car slants inward on either side, forming a curvy triangle; the curved point where the front bumper of a car on Earth would be.

“…First time in Callican..?”

She is young but not that young. I trace her gaze in the rear view mirror to Akita. How does he do this? By experience, no one answers but him.

“No, but it’s the first time seeing you. How old are you?”

Here we go, and just like that.

The rest of the team looks at me and I try not to laugh by the sight of it. We’re all crammed in here pretty good. Hound looks like he’s about to pop. I smile and try even harder not to laugh when I look at Bull.

“…twenty six…how old are you?”

“…Old enough to have a great time. How about stopping by the house later on? We can get to know each other better.”

This is ridiculous. It can’t be that easy.

“I get off at eight…”

Akita smiles broadly “I’m thirty two, what’s your name?”

“Karen, what’s yours?”

“Neil, but everyone calls me Akita…”

Our driver laughs and it’s a nice laugh, I must admit. “You guys get in from Argyle?”

“Yeh, how did you know?”

“I know that most military flights come through there. My brother is a Traffic Controller on Argyle…says I should aspire to be more but I love it planetside, and it’s not like I’m not aiming higher.”

The taxi turns a corner and I’m now between the conversation inside and the sights outside. The houses along this street are larger than the ones we’ve seen so far. This must be where the soldiers with families live.

Akita continues in the background “…you work for a company?”

“Yeah but I’m getting ready to branch out on my own.”

“That’s great…”

The weight of the other guys press me a bit as we round yet another bend and then head straight for a while. The houses in this new section, unlike the large ones a while ago, are all of the same design. Their lawns are also noticeably smaller but each has its own driveway all the same.

“…eight thirty…” The driver’s voice registers as we slow down “…I’ll be here around then.” We’re now in front of a small, split leveled timber house with a well-kept lawn. “It’s a deal…”

I cut into their conversation and hand the girl a credits card with three hundred Credits programmed into it “…We tip for good service.”

She looks at me like I’ve done something great “Thanks…” and then back to Akita “…see ya.”

He waves and follows us to the house while the Aircar speeds away.

I can’t wait to get this off my chest. “Akita…?”

“Alpha…?”

“What about Riara?” I get the desired reaction. He looks from me to Hound to Pitbull and we all laugh.

“…I knew it…” Hound waves a hand between us and walks away.

“No, that’s not what I meant…”

Pitbull adds his piece. “Who cares what you meant. We all know The Akita very well. Riara was just another notch in your belt.”

“No…I was serious about Riara…”

“I know you were. Serious enough to have a go at Karen…” I follow Pitbull to the front door.

“I’m just inviting her over, you guys.”

“Yeah whatever…”

“No…this is not…guys?”

 

********

 

Its two thirty in the afternoon in Callican and the team and I are speeding along an evercrete road in a military issued Airvan and heading toward the city. A half hour behind us is the huge housing complex where we are now staying, and ahead of us, Callican City appears sprawling and beautiful as the sunlight plays in colors off the many glassy buildings there. Where we are head though, is not into the metropolis but near it; about seven miles from it to be exact, to a place where village life meets modern life, meets farm life, according to Akita. And he was right, but he had also been blabbing nonstop about Karen ever since we left the house and the only way I could have shut him up was to ask about Riara again. So the van is quiet now and I don’t mind it.

The road is mostly straight at this point and through the large glass windows on either side of us, are shrubs and grasslands that follow the gentle curve of the spire. In the distance and far below is the vast blue ocean of Rouna. Other spires, some near and others far, rise from the sea in similar form to ours. Life here is amazing. Their world is truly like no other.

“This is it.” Akita breaks my daze, and ahead of us, as we turn off the evercrete road and onto a dirt path, a farm house about a quarter mile away appears. Passing rows and rows of corn and potatoes and fruit trees and now animals in open fields reminds me of home. The nostalgia is weird. The flashback of life on Earth brings Terri to mind. We had played in fields like these when we visited his uncle in the summer. But the House ahead of us looks nothing like the one back home. It’s huge, a little old-world architecture spliced awkwardly with the new. The farmhouse looks just that…a farmhouse. Brown trimmed and off-white painted timber siding, wooden veranda with full length steps, complete with rooster wind vane. But the Magnatech windows that open outward and up without any thing connecting it to the building and Everglass garage with four vehicles hovering in it, adds a whole other dimension. I feel for the pair of Digital Eyes in my pocket. I’m glad I brought them for some reason, I just thought I should…I have a gut feeling.

“Let’s hope she’s still here.”

“I thought you said that you knew she’d be here. You said you knew her well enough.” Pitbull eyes Akita warily.

“I know I did but now I think of it…who knows?”

He brings the Airvan to a stop a few feet from the front veranda and the light brown dust below, blows out from either side of us. The engines whine down until they become silent and the sliding doors open almost noiselessly, letting in the warm but breeze-cooled air of Callican.

“Okay let’s get this over with. Akita you take point.”

I jump out of the van and notice that the light brown dirt beneath my boots is a bit soft; dry…but soft.

“I’m on it…” Akita swings around from the driver’s seat, slips through the two foot wide aisle and steps onto the ground beside me. Then we’re off, Akita in the lead, all of us in breathable clothes, and military boots behind him and spread a few feet apart.

“Akita?” He keeps walking but acknowledges my voice “What’s this girl’s name?”

“Maria…Anna Maria but she prefers Maria.”

I’m glad you remembered, you slimy snake-minded bastard.”

We all stop, Akita on the veranda and the rest of us, feet on the stairs. A dark haired, beautiful, fiery-eyed woman with a Hispanic accent standing off on our right is holding what appears to be a Bullhorn shotgun.

“Maria!”

Akita’s voice does not betray his nerves but he remains where he is and so do the rest of us.

“What do you want Neil?”

She lowers the gun, and he begins to walk slowly toward her.

“You want the truth or do you want to hear what you want to hear?”

“Don’t be smart with me…” Gun raised again “…spit it out.”

“Seriously Maria, put that thing away. We need your help.”

She eyes the rest of us suspiciously. “Who is “we”?”

“My team, it’s a long story.” She doesn’t move “Mariaaaa, come on, let’s go inside, have a drink, talk about what we need…”

“…No, let`s go round back and talk about what I get in return…”

“…Yes, and what you get in return.”

“You sonofabitch…” I like her accent “…You tell me one thing, do another, avoid me, and then disappear…” The way she clips her sentences “…Now, you’re here what…five years later, telling me you need my help?”

“I’ll explain everything once we go inside and you calm down.”

“Oh believe me Neil, I am calm.”

I smile and the rest of the guys fight to stifle theirs. If I were to guess…it seems that Akita had met his match five years ago, ran from it and now, ended up right back where he started.

Maria shoulder’s the weapon and walks past us. But not before staring me and the other guys down. “Names…?”

“Huski…”

“Hound…”

“Pitbull…”

She turns around “…and Akita…Dogs…” then walks through the front door, rambling off in her native tongue, only God knows what.

I linger behind until Akita is near me “Nice one…”

“…just a little misunderstanding, she’s harmless.”

Riiiiight…”

 

********

 

“So you want me…” Maria mumbles something in Spanish “…to get you off Rouna, so you can get to your ship…a ship that is guarded by Earthfront Military?”

We are in her back yard beneath an open shed and some large trees where what looks like a severely modified Aircar, sits with half its body parts missing.

“We need you to smuggle us into Argyle and we’ll do the rest.”

“And what’s in this for me?”

“Credits…”

She looks toward me as I say this

“…lots of credits.”

“How much of these credits are we talking about?”

“Two hundred thousand creds…”

“Make it two million, Earth credits, and we have a deal.”

The guys and I exchange looks. I think on this for a split second. “Two million credits…? I don’t even know if you can get the job done.”

“Then get your asses off my property and find your own way.” She ready’s the Bullhorn.

“Okay…two million credits…if, you get the job done.”

“No…two million credits, when, I contact you before we go anywhere.”

She’s a tough one but we have no other choice “Deal…”

She looks at me as though I’m crazy and then stares at the ground…Spanish under her breath again while pacing. “I can get you to Argyle but how do you know that your equipment will be ready?”

“If they’re not, then I know where I can get them fixed.”

“Okay, I’ll get organized and we’ll get on the move in twenty four.”

“Twenty four hours?” Akita jumps in now

“You want to fly with a rocket up your ass to Argyle, or do you want to travel comfortably?” She’s ballistic again.

Akita, what did you do to this woman?

I intervene. “Maria. We just need to get off world undetected. Then once we’re on Argyle, we’ll be able to get to the ship, undock and leave the system before any red flags can be raised.”

“You are all insane. Even if you get to your ship, and I’m not saying I believe you will, you’d never get out of the system unnoticed…”

I cut her off “…You leave that to us…”

“They will know that the ship is no longer docked…”

“Not if the computer tells them it still is…”

I see understanding register on her face. Her eyes light up but they grow hard again. “No one…no one, has ever cracked Earthfront system security…”

“Who said anything about cracking it?”

She’s puzzled and so is the rest of the team. “Um…Cap…now I don’t get it…” Pitbull speaks for the first time since we’ve started this conversation.

“Karen said she had a brother who’s a Space traffic controller at Argyle…”

“Who’s Karen?”

Akita eyes me like a bird of prey.

“A girl we just met here on Rouna…” He answers her quickly.

I jump in again “She’s the taxi driver that got us to our place. She told us that she had a brother who works as a…”

“…and why, would she help four men, she just met?”

Silence…I think of Terri, I hear his final transmission and see Mirana with a gun in her hand holding off the inevitable. “Akita…Get Karen in on this if you think she can be trusted. Find a way to convince her to get her brother involved…I know…”

He begins to protest but I cut him off

“…but this is the only way we get off this planet and right now, it is all that matters.”

Maria looks to Akita and then back to me “Hmm, so you’ve found yourself another victim…” It’s not as much a question, as it is an accusation “…well I don’t care. I just want you all gone and my life returned to the peace that it was. I’ll help you but when I’m done, we’re done.”

“There’s one more thing…”

The annoyed woman eyes me warily “What?”

“I need to know what’s recoded on these.” I remove the small pouch with the two Digital Eyes from my pocket and show them to her.

“There’s no place on Rouna outside of Earthfront Military that has the technology to read that, but I’ll see what I can do.”

“Thank you baby…”

“Neil…if you call me baby again…”

“Okay there’s not much time…” This feud is going to cost us everything so I have to cut in “…We’ll wait for you to make contact. You have my Com Code. Let’s go guys.”

As we walk around to the front of the building, I take a lung full of air. It’s fresh and clean and feels the same all the way through. I hear Akita pleading with Maria and her voice rising, accent even thicker and switching effortlessly between English and Spanish. I join the rest of the team in watching the fun but I sense something. Pitbull and Hound both feel it too. We turn toward the Airvan and then without a doubt, I see it, a barely noticeable ripple in the perfect picture. My heart pumps more blood into my system and new energy surges through me.

“HOSTILES..!”

I shout it as the first assailant appears, no more than three feet from me, knife drawn and moving like lightning toward my throat. Instinctively I shift, deflecting his thrust with my left hand while the right draws my Fifty-eight, brings it to bear and I pull the trigger. The assassin tries to vanish but after the first powerhouse slug hits true, his suit’s Regeneration Technology fails, so I put another one into him for good measure and watch what’s left of his twitching corpse fall to the ground.

Across the yard and down the iron sights once more, I pause on the trigger. My new target is now in the air as Pitbull’s hulking frame stands tall, with his attacker held at arm’s length high above his head and then with a sickening crunch, he merges the combat-suited man with the dirt below.

The dead man is now a twisted heap in Bull’s wake; the suit, arms and legs and neck, all bent at awkward angles malfunctioning and going from visible to semi visible. But I have no more time for this split second pause so I jump to my feet and squeeze off two rounds in Akita`s direction, breaking his opponent’s focus just long enough for the martial artist to drive his knife to the hilt through the enemy’s throat. The blood sprays but Akita is already on the move. I scan the area for any more signs. Their suits would keep them invisible, only if they move very slowly or remain still, but I don’t sense any more threats.

BLAM!

The sound jolts us all into a moment of confusion. I turn to see the lower half of the last attacker slam into a post of the farmhouse veranda, splitting the timber in two and Maria’s Twelve Gauge smoking as she lowers it. Then she spits and begins cursing in her native tongue.

“There will be more. There’s no time to get our gear, the house is no longer safe…”

“Alpha, what the hell is going on?”

I look at Pitbull and then to Maria “Someone wants us dead that’s for sure. Maria, we need to get off this planet and by the looks of it, so do you.”

“And where am I to go eh?” Anger in her voice “Everything I’ve invested in is here. Where do I go?”

“You can come with us or fight the next wave alone, make your choice.”

Time is of the essence. I run toward the Airvan, feeling my pocket to make sure the bag with the confiscated Dees is still there, and it is. Akita pleads with Maria for what seems like the last time and then as he walks toward us, she turns and goes into the house.

“She says that she’ll help us”

He enters the vehicle and jumps into the driver’s seat. Maria reappears with a crate hovering behind her and Hound and I get out of the van in order to help put it in the back. In it, are automatic assault weapons and a few high explosive grenades; I must admit…I like this woman. We jump back into the Airvan and Maria enters after.

“Get out!”

Akita, with a quick glance in my direction, unbuckles himself after I give the okay, and moves to the other front seat as the curvy woman in her green jumpsuit and military boots, slides into the driver’s side.

Without pause Maria guns the throttle and then we’re off, but not back to the road. Instead, we cut a path across one of her wheat fields and then enter into a tree line that will supposedly take us off this spire and to the underground network on Rouna. I do as she suggests and hand out the weapons in the now opened crate. In my hand is an M-8 or the Mate as is generally known. I haven’t seen one of these in a long time and they are hard to come by. However its accuracy and high velocity, high impact rounds do their jobs and more than make up for its unusual weight.

“Those were Earthfront assassins…”

Hound is right. I had feared that they might be.

“Something seriously full of shit is taking place here boss and we’re in the middle of it…” Pitbull now

My mind races with new thoughts “I know. Maria, what’s the plan?”

“We get to a friend of mine and he gets us a flight off Rouna. We’re obviously not going to get your ship from Argyle…”

Hound cuts in “…I was really hoping that was still an option…”

Maria looks at me in the rearview mirror “What kind of idiot team do you have Captain?”

Hound retaliates but I stop him quick. “I’d appreciate it if you showed a little more tact. We’re in this together weather you like it or not and we’ve got one shot so let’s get it done right.”

She remains silent for a second or two. “I have a friend. His name is Manny, if there’s anyone who can get us off this world, it’s him…”

“How do you know that this, Manny, will help…?”

“I know because I know. Unlike some of the bastards I’ve come across, he, is a man of honor, he’ll do as I ask…” She ignores Akita’s stare and he doesn’t reply.

The ground below the Airvan suddenly becomes steeper and rockier. The drop goes from gently sloping hill to ninety degree, boulder ridden incline and now we’re high over the beautiful blue once again.

“Who’s Manny?”

“What’s it to you?”

I intercept this new argument. They are going to have to put their differences aside if we are to be successful in this venture.

“Guys..!” Silence now “…Just drive Maria…” Akita looks at me “…and shut up Akita.” And I put up a hand to silence him as the sparkling blue now passes under us, less than twenty feet away.

 

********

 

Half hour later, we land between some trees on a spire very near the water’s edge. This spire, by the look of it and from what I remember from my days of geography class, still has a few thousand years to go before it leaves the sea entirely. We all exit the vehicle. The breeze is cool and the air, crisper than in Callican. There is not much here. The land in every direction can’t be any more than three acres, give or take a few meters; we are definitely in the middle of nowhere and far from prying eyes.

We follow Maria silently, guns at the ready, down a rocky path and through a dense line of wiry brush. These plants snagging our pants and shoes have adapted to the salty air and water and rock covered surface of this Spire and in doing so, have become almost as ridged.

We keep walking until we meet a small clearing where she stops at a patch of grass, stoops down with one hand in the ground, and pulls upward. A hidden metal cover slides aside smoothly and gives way to a ladder that leads down into an abyss, but there is no time for hesitation. I wait as my team follows, and climb in behind them.

The ladder takes us to an empty room. We then pass through a metal corridor, our footsteps echoing loudly, and down a set of stairs. Through two doors, now held open by our guide, we enter what looks like a command center. With the sound of the doors slipping shut behind us, I turn to Maria and we lock eyes. In the dim light, hers glimmer and her face, void of emotion worries me. Her dark hair flows to her shoulders and if it were another time and place, I might have asked her to dinner.

“Welcome captain, to my home away from home.”

She turns and walks toward the nearest computer console. The rest of us follow and the room lights up as she hits a switch and a holoscreen appears.

“Manny..?”

A man’s face appears on the Holo and the computer’s male voice fills the room. “Hello Maria. What color is the sky today?”

“It’s okay Manny they’re with me, it’s safe.”

A sound of gears moving, almost silently, causes me to look up. I hear someone gasp. High above us, embedded in the stone roof of the cavern are about a dozen narrow metal tubes hanging off the ends of a dozen wicked looking Auto-cannons. We would have been dead and not heard a single shot.

“Now, before I help you…” Maria looks at me coldly “…tell me this…What the hell is going on?”

I’m a bit taken aback by her sudden outburst, but the memory of the Auto-cannons overhead and the sociopathic looking computer named Manny makes me answer.

“To be honest, I don’t know.”

“Manny..?”

The emotionless voice comes to us again “He is not lying.”

She looks to me “Then what’s so important on Keden?”

I’m between a rock and very hard place. I breathe deeply, this will calm me enough and without interruption, I tell the story of our ordeal from the start; from our encounter with the Rhinos on Keden, to Mirana and to our current plight.

 

Almost ten minutes have passed and I finally shut my mouth. I’m thirsty now but there’s nothing I can do about it, so I’ll wait and see where we all go from here. Maria looks at me, no doubt processing everything I have said and deciding if we are worth her troubles or not.

“You’re risking your lives…” She looks from face to face and then back to me “…You’re risking their lives, for a woman who has no attachment to you?”

“Look…” I remove my Fifty Eight as a sign of openness and hear the gears above us move, but I don’t care, and slam it to the desktop near the console. “…We need to get off Rouna. It’s either you help us, or we find our own way. No bullshit…just results, and if this is too difficult for you, then I’m sorry for getting you into this but you go your way and we’ll go ours.”

It’s now or never. Maria’s next move will decide whether I walk away from this place, or we benefit from her help. But she turns away and goes back to her computer generated man.

“You must really love her…”

Her statement hangs in the air and the silence is not as awkward as I would have imagined it to be. I’ve never thought of the possibility of it being love. I don’t know what it is really. All I do know is that I can’t stand the thought of Mirana being captured or dead. I don’t know what I feel, I don’t know for sure. I haven’t felt it in so long and yet to say I didn’t recognize the signs would be a lie.

“…Manny I need to hitch a ride on a ship to Keden. Are there any leaving today?”

I keep looking at Maria but she turns away. The humanoid face on the Holo blinks and runs through the data. His shockingly green eyes no longer move but shimmer and flash with millions of files and bits and pieces of information. The speed at which Manny processes is unbelievable, not because of how fast he gets the job done, this is the norm with computers nowadays, but because I have never actually seen the info physically moving with my own eyes.

“The Anon…” A holographic image of a massive deep space barge appears “…leaves for Keden in two days, outside of this, there are no ships heading to that region.”

I join the conversation “Are there any ships heading out of this system that we can hitch…”

“He won’t respond to you Captain…” Maria cuts me off with a smile and then a frown “…And now that I think of it, even if you do get to Keden, you won’t have your gear. How do you expect to be of any use there?”

I did actually think of this, ever since the reality of not getting to our ship had hit me.

“We’re Black Ops, we’ll get it done.”

“No…you’re foolish and not thinking straight, and will get yourselves killed…”

She turns back to the image floating nearby

“…Manny, we need to get to Adula and fast. But we must leave this system undetected.”

“Adula..? Adula is…only a jump away from Keden. Something like, four hundred lights…but what’s on Adula? It’s a mud planet, we can’t land there…we’ll never get off.”

Maria stares into me in a way that makes my words seem foolish “Adula is a mud planet yes, but it is also home to a base we once used…”

“The Galactic Nine..?”

“There are ships there and Mecha that can get the job done.”

“How do you know that the Syndicate hasn’t scrapped it all by now?”

“Because the underground stretches far beyond Rouna, and needs every foothold it can get, besides, you want to read those Dees, right? Then Adula is the place.”

I don’t have to think about this for long. We need to get off this planet and we’ll be doing it without our gear or our ship.

“Okay let’s do it.”

She turns back to the Holo “Manny what do you have?”

“The Jamavin is set to depart Mayreau for Adula in five hours…”

An industrial class ship replaces the Barge on the holoscreen now.

“What’s its eta?”

“…Seven hours to Adula.”

A seven hour jump and then at least seven more before we get off Adula…we’ll be on Keden in twenty hours…hopefully, a little more than forty eight hours before Earthfront forces…that’s good enough for me…as good as it’s going to get anyways. I nod my approval and Maria gives the computer the command.

A few months before Iron Five’s deployment on Keden

 

MIND GAMES

 

Year: 878 TE

System: Sol

Planet: Earth

Location: New York City, United Northern Alliance

 

Carlos Andrews walked into an upper class restaurant in downtown Manhattan. At seventy floors up, the view through the glass wall was mind blowing. Sky scrapers of silvery Everglass rose majestically from hundreds of rows of unseen streets, and copper colored transport hubs floated on thin air, filtering steady streams of traffic at varying altitudes.

Subdued music and soft chatter filled the room. A woman in a fitted, flowing azure dress approached and led him across the thick carpeted floor to a booth where a broad man in an exquisitely tailored suit sat alone.

“Terrier…Welcome…Sit.” The man’s voice was strong and brutish

“Thank you Sir.”

Across from them, at a table for four, three men appeared deep in conversation, but Carlos knew a bodyguard when he saw one. Sleek and stylish, they could have easily been passed over for high level lawyers or traders, but the eyes…the eyes never lied. A soldier was a soldier regardless of his dress code and it was always the eyes that gave him away.

“We think the mole might be implementing something big…and soon…”

The big man stuffed his mouth with a forkful of meat before continuing “Your friend, you say that you are certain about him?”

“Huski is loyal to Earthfront, I’ll bet my life on it.”

“Then it must be one of the others.”

“They are all good men sir and I still don’t think this is right…”

“I understand your loyalty to your team. I understand how difficult it is to even imagine one of them in this light. But facts are facts and all evidence points to Iron Five. We know it’s not you, and you swear for Gant, but you can’t, to this day, be absolutely sure about the others.”

Carlos was silent and the man continued.

“Look, if your team is innocent, then there’s nothing to worry about after they’ve been investigated. But if not…”

There was no way around it. Iron Five was under surveillance and there was nothing Carlos could do about it. Regarding this mole however, that wasn’t the case. He had long decided to find the person responsible for his team’s scrutiny and expose them by any means necessary, and if he was lucky, by the time the rest of the guys found out, they’d be more than willing to forgive him for not giving them a heads-up.

“…get to Kona immediately…” The big man was still talking “…and await further instructions. Your next Earthfront op will re-deploy you on Keden. I have arranged for your team’s arrival there within the month. With patience and a little luck, we should prove Iron Five’s innocence, root out this traitor and put an end to this madness.”

“Yessir…” Carlos replied

He had been forbidden to talk to his team about the matter and with the threat of disbandment, court-martials, and jail time hanging over their heads; he thought it best to follow orders…for now.

A slight wave of the older man’s gold ringed fingers told him that he had been dismissed, and without further ado, he left the room.

 

 

*******

 

Carlos stepped onto a sky-deck outside the fancy restaurant and beyond a metal handrail, that separated life from death, a parking assistant brought his Dragonfly to rest against the edge of the open waiting area. With a few quick steps, he slid into the driver’s seat and let the gull-winged door seal shut. Then in the blink of an eye, the sleek aircar fell away from the building and blended seamlessly into a flowing river of traffic below.

Miles of sky lanes crisscrossed the city and millions of people sped to and fro in them. The Dragonfly’s navigation system kept it moving in sync with the tide and after fifteen minutes, Carlos ascended an off ramp, invisible to the human eye but clearly indicated on the cockpit windscreen, and continued his climb toward a monstrous disk that capped one of New York’s busiest spaceports.

Within minutes, he was parked and walking through a vast, bustling terminal where the sounds of technology and endless multitudes filled the air with an overwhelming, never ending hum. But implants made it possible to control the sound bombarding his ears by merely desiring it, just as his Dees provided information in the form of holographic images at the speed of thought. Everyone had them in a variety of models, but unlike the average civilian, Carlos’ implants were military issued.

Fifteen minutes later, he exited a lift that brought him to a private hangar on one of the highest levels of the complex and boarded an automated transport cart. The robot ferried its passenger to a ship a half a mile across the cavernous Eversteel room where rows of starships and other spacecraft slept peacefully in their slots. These belonged to New York’s most influential families and corporate heads; billion credit technology that none but the crème de la crème could afford.

Once aboard his ship, the Vanon; An Earthman Industries, Liberty Class vessel, prized by many for their easy space to surface capabilities, Carlos initiated the computer’s start up sequence and opened its digital communications module.

“La Guardia Space Command…Captain Andrews of Starship Vanon requesting departure from A-Deck to Vacuum.”

A flawless female voice responded “Captain Andrews of Starship Vanon, you are cleared for departure. Link up and go auto.”

“Copy clearance and link up…going auto.”

The spaceport’s auto guidance system took control of Carlos’s ship and the dull-grey, hundred ton, forward wing machine lifted effortlessly from the floor.

“Starship Vanon, you have guidance on link, window to Karis is open and rocket to station is a go. Please confirm.”

“Vanon copies rocket to Karis.”

Over the lively city and into the clouds, the Vanon shot skyward until the Earth hung beneath it like a beautiful marble and the floating city that was the Space Station Karis rushed into view. Carlos let the autopilot take him toward it but he would not be docking there.

“Starship Vanon…” his com came alive “…Karis Command has you on guidance…state intensions.”

“Karis Command…Vanon requests clearance for flyby to Triton.”

Five seconds passed

“Vanon, you have guidance for hyper light to Triton. Set course and sync up.”

Carlos activated his navigation module, punched in the co-ordinates for Neptune’s most popular moon, and then the Vanon disappeared from Earth’s orbit. Three hours later, he came out of the warp stream fifty thousand kilometers from Triton. Below and off to his right, the stunningly blue gas giant that was Neptune dominated the blackness of space but with a few quick adjustments, he took manual control of the ship and changed course to Proteus.

The Vanon approached the irregular moon and came to rest on a landing pad beside one of its many massive craters. And there he would wait, at Kona, a decommissioned Earthfront military storage base, until he received his orders.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 10 – ADULA

 

 

The Jamavin is an impressively large vessel, measuring roughly three thousand feet long by five hundred feet high and eight hundred feet wide. Emptied of its cargo on Mayreau; one of the Starports in Rouna’s System, it is now headed to Adula for another pickup. Its cargo…? Billion-Credit stones and minerals and whatever else that has been churned and extracted by the miners.

The rumble of its fifteen colossal engines fills the cabin with a constant hum and the scents of oil and grease hang ever present in the air. It is my first time on an Industrial ship and I hope to God that it will be my last. Greasy pipes, running in many directions, line the glossy white metal walls around us. A few very small windows and compartments, housing wires and whatnot, make up the rest of the space as dim white lights along the roof flicker. Above and in front of us is a long-dead Holo-screen unit; a relic of older times. This is one of the very few ships left that run on both Sol Technology, and Oiled Mechanics, which means that the Jamavin must be over three hundred years old. It’s Amazing…Of all the Industrial ships in the galaxy to choose from for my first flight, I had to end up on a clunker.

Maria had lived up to her promise. After leaving her underground lair and the psychopathic looking Manny behind, we ditched the Airvan and traveled by speedboat to an old-world looking Spire group called Richmond. With its closely packed, colorful brick and limestone houses, bakeries and market squares, it wasn’t difficult to blend into and move unnoticed though the fishing town; just another group of tourists taking in the scenery.

Once in Richmond, Maria led us through a maze of sidewalks and alleys to an almost hidden pub, tucked away in one of the many back streets. There we met her contact who, even though a bit suspicious, knew well enough that our presence there was none of his business and so, helped us along our way. I must say, I am impressed by Maria; Akita definitely lost a good one. But that was a little over nine hours ago, and now we are here, safely tucked away in a small passenger compartment behind the cockpit of this ship and approaching Adula.

 

********

 

The Jamavin shakes as we pass through atmosphere and enter the Mud planet’s airspace. On my right, through a little oval window, the clear and bright blue Adulan sky is dazzling. The ship jolts again and I look down. Thick grey clouds, miles beneath us in every direction, span as far as can be seen and below them, all is mud; one very giant ball of perpetually shifting muck and rain and because of this, life cannot exist here without the proper facilities or equipment.

Known for their massively high yield of precious stones, minerals and rare deposits, mud planets are few and far between. Miners from all over the galaxy travel to these worlds under the protection and banners of major corporations that are a part of the Super Credit Industry. It is quite fitting really, now I think of it…that a Galactic-Nine secret military facility would be placed here. I just never had a reason to think about it.

 

“Maria..?”

She is sitting in the aisle seat to my left and her eyes meet mine

“Where exactly is this base?”

What I’ve seen through the tiny window next to me ever since entering the thick cloud cover, is nothing more than a mud ocean and heavy rains that limit visibility to less than a quarter mile.

She raises her voice over the rumble of the ship “It’s beneath the docks where we’re headed. We’ll have to be careful when we land though, the last thing we need are suspicious miners asking too many questions.”

I nod my understanding and return to the bleak world outside. What has become of Mirana? Is she alive? Where is Terri? Is he happy?

The Jamavin slows to a crawl and the outline of what looks like a mountain range comes into view. The sight is unreal. What might have been soil-covered ridges and valleys thousands of years ago, are now bare rock and monumental boulders all wedged together.

“We’re here. Stick to me and don’t talk to anybody.”

Acknowledging her with nods and grunts, we have no choice but to do as she says. The reality of our situation has fully sunken in and if there is nothing on Adula, then we are properly screwed.

The Starship banks and turns as we fly over a huge Eversteel complex that floats above the deep mire by way of Magnatech. The power it generates to stay afloat must be enormous. The mining docks and facilities slide closer and closer and with wicked jolts and rumbles, the ship touches down; shocking me physically and mentally until the immense shakings and noises cease, and after a few minutes, die out entirely. Maria unbuckles her harness. I stand as the rest of the team unclick from their seats, and follow her through the constricted corridor. Looking back at the cockpit, the pilots are nowhere to be seen.

Walking is uncomfortable and trying not to get chaffed is becoming no less difficult than when I first put on this flight suit. It’s bulky and rough, both inside and out but it’s all we’ve got for now. We were given them when we boarded and by the look and smell of mine, it has been used way too many times and not cleaned nearly as much. But I’ll manage.

The smell of oil and grease is even stronger here in the confinement of the passage and were it not for the periodical blasts of recycled air overhead, my lungs would be in need of serious cleaning. But we keep walking, down some narrow stairs now and through a sliding door to the cargo hold. As we enter I survey the scene. There is nothing here but a few crates in a corner, strapped to the not so shine floor; a monstrous room of nothing.

“When we leave the ship, speak to no one. You follow me and do exactly as I say…” Maria looks toward Akita and then back at me “…are we clear?”

I speak before Akita does “…let’s just get this done.”

This back and forth between them is wearing my patience thin. Twice during our trip here I had to break up their heated arguments. The hiss of shifting hydraulics fills the air as the lights above and ahead of us go from green to red. I pull my helmet over my head and let the auto-clasp seal it to my suit. All sound temporarily disappears and there is a split second of not being able to breathe. But then the suit’s air filters kick in and what was greasy and oily scented is now clean and fresh. Sound comes to me again but just a little better than muffled. Then the large cargo doors pop out and slide upward and as Maria moves forward, so do I.

 

********

 

The team and I follow our guide across the Eversteel deck of the floating docks. There’s barely anyone around and the few we have seen seemed unaware of our existence. The air on this world is very dense but breathable; however, the muck is all around us microscopically. The thickness of this, it is said, is enough to clog a human’s lungs to the point of death within minutes, so I enjoy my filtered air and continue in Maria’s wake.

Across the large platform and toward two, three story structures, I absorb the sights and my conclusion is, that this planet is what hell would be if it were made of mud. The rain slams into us like sheets of iron droplets. I imagine being pelted with this water without a suit; it would definitely be a memorable experience, if I survived to have the memory that is. Finally, I have a reason to appreciate this smelly suit. Its bulk and coarseness has its purpose.

We continue against the sheet rain as the thick, roiling muck beneath us swells and dips like any ocean on Earth. It is a sight I would in no way soon forget. The mountains we had passed only a few minutes ago are now mostly shrouded by low hanging, thick black clouds and the rain is getting worse.

How in the Galaxy can it get worse?

Between the two, three story buildings now, we walk on, and what looks like a construction MAV, sits abandoned beside a row of old iron crates. One of its legs are missing, a pitiful sight; as though it had beating heart, sitting maimed and helpless.

We round a corner and approach a doorway of a third building. Maria motions for Bull to open the dense door and after he turns the locking mechanism with powerful arms, we all trail her inside. In an instant the room illuminates with the glare of red lights, projected from about a dozen or so bulbs in the ceiling.

“Close the door, and for your own good, keep your helmets on.”

Pitbull pulls it shut and turns the lever that locks it. Almost everything here has to be operated manually. There hasn’t been one digital interface up to this point and the reason behind this had made itself clear ever since we set foot on this complex. Maria leads us through another opening and into an elevator. Perpetual muck and rain of this magnitude is no friend to electronics and the heavy moisture here would eventually destroy any form of Digital technology in a short time.

I see why an old bird like the Jamavin would be the perfect ship for its job.

The elevator shoots downward with a gut wrenching lurch and then rapidly slows to a halt. My innards force themselves back into place and the doors slide open. Pacing Maria, we move out of the lift and through another passageway. Our boots echo dully on the floor of the wide, red-lighted corridor and in our silence there is tension. There are questions to be asked and answers I doubt we would get but for the moment, all words remain contained.

Maria takes us to the closed doorway of a room not far from the elevator, then punches in a few security codes on a rubberized keypad, gives her thumb, eyes and voice to the scanner, and the door opens. White light engulfs us as the doors seal shut behind and after squinting for a few seconds, our surroundings become clear. We are in what looks like a class or conference room, filled with chairs and desks, all facing a small platform. On this platform beneath a low ceiling, a narrow, waist high computer console stands like a sleek silver pedestal. Maria immediately goes to work, waking the sleeping system, and then removing five sheets of digital paper from a shelf nearby, she passes them to us. She hits a few keys on a digital keyboard only she can see and the familiar Dee-Scan interface appears on the translucent sheets in our hands.

“Captain..?”

I remove the bag containing the Deepcore Pilot’s Digital Eyes and hand the lenses to her. Then, with anxiety threatening to overtake me, I wait as she places the pair of Dees; face up, on the flat, thin glass plate of the computer’s scanner. As the program is activated, images of the ceiling above us appear on our papers.

“Go back, before the battle on Solace Five, we’re looking for the moment he received his orders.”

I think of “The Man” according to the dead, enemy pilot. I know in my heart that if I find this person, I will find everything. And the computer scans its way back in time and brings with it a group-felt pain.

I watch as the battle that took Terri’s life rewinds before us through the eyes of our opponent. I see him maneuvering after and before Terri’s MAV explodes in a wicked fireball. Buried thoughts and feelings surface, but anger and a drive for vengeance replaces the pain, and yet I find myself blinking back the emotions threatening to overtake me. But the war on the Ice Planet rages on. He is locked in combat with me. It’s strange seeing me in the form of my MAV flying in rewind. But it is over quickly and eventually, the Deepcore pilot is alone and in an underground bunker on Solace Five. A day flies by, and then another, and after two more trips to the bathroom, a desk and holoscreen comes into the picture.

“Slow it down…”

Maria gives me what I want and I wait…but not for long.

“Stop it…”

Everyone’s exclamations merge with mine as we stare into the face of the impossible.

“Play at normal speed…”

The voices grow gradually until the volume is right and the conversation fills the room.

“…No, he won’t stop. I know him and he hasn’t gotten soft, the ambush your men have set up won’t work. This is why I’ve sent you there. If Iron Five is not destroyed on Keden, they must be led to you. The Light Mecha would be no match for a Cyclone and this way, there will be no questions or investigations into the matter. Kill them all and get to Keden. Lock it down. Take the Cyclones, none can match them. Keden will fall and then Earth will follow. You must not fail and do not delay…”

“Pause it Maria…”

Terrier’s face stares into mine. Words escape me. The world makes no sense. Everyone remains speechless until Akita swears, breaking the dumfounded silence. I suspect now why Hawk wanted the pilot interrogated on Rouna and us to have no contact with him. The General must have been in on it. Who else could have sent the assassins?

“Can somebody tell me what’s going on?”

“I don’t know Hound…”

I’m still searching the recesses of my mind for clues; anything that might have been an overlooked warning sign.

“Why the hell is Terri giving orders to kill us?”

Akita answers Hound with a question of his own “Why would he want the downfall of Keden and Earth?”

Bull answers “Whatever this is, it’s a mess and we’ve become expendable and the funny thing is…none of us knows why…”

“Let’s take this one step at a time…” Everyone turns to me now “…we know that those Deepcore Heavies on Keden were sent to lure us into a trap and destroy us. The question is, why? The answer was, according to our prisoner, to remove the obstacle. So we know that we were a hindrance to whatever plans they had.”

The thought of my brother becoming my enemy in such a short space of time, cuts deep. Everyone nods in agreement

“…the second question was, who is this ‘Man’ that Captain Hiram was talking about, and now we know it was Terri. As for General Hawk, we don’t know for sure where he fits into all of this but those were Earthfront assassins that attacked us on Rouna and after the way we were treated there, it is safer to assume that he is behind this, at least until we gather more information. There is something else too. Deepcore somehow stabbed them in the back…”

“How do you figure this?” Maria asks

“…The pilot we captured told us that he was ordered by “The Man” to kill us. He also said that he worked for him, but when I asked what Deepcore’s intentions on Keden were, he said, to protect it…”

Maria again “Protect it from..?”

Pitbull now “From “The Man”, I remember.”

“So then…” Hound jumps in “Terrier was not supposed to die on Solace, but they killed him anyway.”

“Exactly…” I continue “…and the unrest on Keden must have been deliberately provoked by Earthfront…”

Hound cuts in “Then that means…the Earthfront fleet that’s headed to Keden is not a helping hand…”

“No…it’s a full scaled invasion…”

Pitbull’s words send shivers up my neck. I retrieve the Dees and store them once more

“The Kedenian Government and Deepcore must have discovered Earthfront’s plans and so united against a common enemy. We need to get to the hangar. There’s not much time.”

“Huski..?”

I turn to Maria. It is the first time she has ever addressed me by this name

“…Does it make a difference if you go to Keden now? I mean…”

“Iron Five is headed to Keden…you may go where ever you choose from here. But right now, it’s where we need to be.”

“I didn’t mean it that way…I’m just looking at it realistically…”

“Maria…”

Every second wasted here seems to add a few pounds to my shoulders

“…Get us to the hangar.”

“Wait…” She hits a few more buttons and a hidden shelf on the wall opens “…we will need these.” She spins on her heel, walks toward the exposed shelves and then back to us. She looks up at me and opens her palms and in them, are five pairs of brand new, still-sealed-in-plastic, Digital Eyes.

“Unregistered Dees…you will need these.”

“Does this mean that you’re now a part of Iron Five?”

“I have nowhere to go and I definitely am not going back to Rouna…”

I take a pair from her and the rest of the guys follow. After a bit of fuss and cheering over getting them in place and seeing everything more clearly again, we all follow Maria through a hidden doorway, along a few corridors and down a very long ramp.

 

********

 

Five minutes later, we enter a vast room made up of dense Eversteel walls, and a perfectly flat floor and roof. The place lights up and relief…joy…or is it hope..? Maybe all three…etch a ridiculous smile across my face. Ten MAVs, I count them again just to make sure, all standing in line not far away. I have never seen anything like them; similar to the one we fought on Solace Five but remarkably different.

“What kind of MAV’s are these?”

Pitbull’s voice echo’s eerily across the hangar.

Maria walks toward the closest one and runs a tender hand along the sleek frame of the sleeping machine.

“These are not MAV’s…” She turns to us “…They are Dynamic Automated War Gear…DAWGs.”

This is too good to be true and after a moment of gathering our thoughts, we all break out in stupid grins.

“I knew you’d like it…” She’s grinning too.

“Dogs…” I get her attention “…perfect…”

“These are the Galactic Nine’s response to Earthfront’s Cyclone project.”

“I’ve never even heard of the Cyclones before that pilot mentioned them…how…”

“Not everyone who works for Earthfront belongs to Earthfront, Captain.” Her eyes tell me that she knows a lot more than any ordinary pilot should.

“Who are you?”

She smiles “The proper question would be; what do I do for the Galactic Nine?”

“So how can you be a part of us, if you still work for the Nine?”

Maria glances toward Hound “I am a freelanced Tech-head. I maintain, prepare and repair computer systems, test fly, design programs, program, and re-program anything that needs to be. Whenever they are in need of my expertise, I’m there, the pay is good and the benefits are…well, you can see for yourself.”

You said that it’s a response..? I thought Earth and the Galactic Nine worked hand in hand?”

She turns to Akita “You surprise me Neil…”

I cut in and Akita refrains from whatever it is that he was about to say “…Are they better than the Cyclones?”

“Based on our tests, both virtual and physical…no…the Cyclones are technologically more advanced however, a machine is only as good as its pilot.”

“Well said…”

I touch the mechanical monster now. Its skin is strange, rubbery but as solid as metal, almost reflective, almost chrome but not quite. I have seen it before, back in the day while training on Rouna. Not in reality but virtually. Still, I am curious to know if I’m right.

“What is this tech? It’s not Reflective Regen…”

“It’s not. This is Lizard Skin Technology…”

“I’ve heard of that…” Pitbull joins us. “…Takes the color and patterns of its immediate surroundings, but not as effectively as Reflective Regen.”

“It might not be as effective but it gets the job done…”

Hound chimes in “Is the Camo automatic?”

“Yes it is…”

As she says this it becomes clear to me, that the reason for the machine’s almost chrome appearance is that the floor, walls and roof of this place are the same color. Its legs are based on the T-Rex design which simply means that its legs are fashioned after those of the king of dinosaurs.

“Let’s see if they work…” I turn to Maria “Open this one…”

Opening to a holo-console nearby, her fingers slide through a sequence of digital keys and a high pitched sound builds until it surrounds us. Then in a matter of seconds, the DAWG next to me hums as it becomes active.

“This is awesome…”

Hound is obviously excited, but I choose to remain calm. I need to see these things work before I celebrate. With a loud hiss, the front of the machine splits in half and slides apart on either side. I walk around it to getter a better view as what appears to be a man shaped gurney, hangs vertically between the two open halves. Then all motion stops, leaving nothing more than a whirring hum.

Maria motions to me where to get a flight suit and I move quickly to grab one. I’m extremely glad to finally get out of this bulky and funky smelling getup from the Jamavin, which by-the-way, takes forever to get out of, but eventually I break free. Careful to keep the Mecha between me and Maria, I strip to my underwear and let the new flight suit slide onto my skin. The motion is smooth and almost refreshing.

I’ll need a bath soon.

“Remember…” Her thick accent echoes “…these are not MAV’s. There is no pilot’s seat. You are the machine. Whatever you do, it will do so let the interface take you and don’t fight it.”

Let the interface take me? Don’t fight it? What the hell is this thing?

After stowing the Deepcore Dees in my new suit, I walk carefully toward the cockpit and between its two open halves. The man-shaped elevator-gurney-thing is more like a vertical metal sleeping cot covered with memory-cell material. There are no wires, computer screens or interfaces, just thin strips of blue light that outline its edges and the like. It is awkward but I step onto the slightly angled seat, if I can call it that, and lean back into it. The memory-cell padding adjusts to my body shape and weight with ease and thoughts of sleep threaten to overwhelm me. It’s as comfortable as any plush bed I’ve ever slept on.

“Captain, are you ready?”

Maria’s shout sounds distant. My nerves are overtaking me

“…Yeah!”

The gears around me hiss again. She must be running the startup sequence. My head is sucked onto the headrest and prickly needling fingers pass through my helmet and into my head, my brain…my mind. At least that’s what it feels like. The initial invasion of my thoughts is frightening but I go against all natural reactions and relax, letting the machine take me.

“Close the cockpit Captain!”

This is weird

I do as she says, the only way I can think how, and before the thought even registers clearly, the two open halves of the cockpit slide shut and while they do, my memory-cell cot-thing lifts me up and into the so called cockpit.

Darkness surrounds me. It is as though I am being pressurized and wedged into place. My legs become bent at the knees and for the moment, I am actually in a sitting position…or a squatting position…at least I think so…I’m not sure. A split second, needle stabbing pain passes through the back of my eyes as my Dees connect with the machine and they Sync up. The onboard computer links to my suit and the merger is mind twisting. Like electric ants inside my skull, the tiny ripples of energy tickle my scalp from the inside with a pinch here and tingle there. After a few seconds that feel like an hour, the mild torture ends and I become one with my DAWG.

“…Maria…”

“Yeah..?”

“Am I moving with the machine, or is this all in my head? Cause if I’m moving with it, I’m gonna get tired pretty soon.”

She laughs “It’s all in your head Huski. The computer and your mind are now one. Whatever relevant command you think, the machine will do it. Your physical actions are for basic movements only. But don’t fight it…go with the flow…”

“I can live with that. What about weapons for this thing?”

“We’ll load up after you both get to know each other…”

The large hangar is now visible to me and I turn my head to see what is in this direction, and then the other. What’s funny about all of this is that I’m standing, yet I feel completely at ease. I look at the other Mecha sitting on their haunches nearby and notice that there is no cockpit glass. It hits me that where I am at the moment is more like a sealed, metal coffin; definitely not the place to be if you’re claustrophobic.

“Guys…” Maria’s words come clearly to me, as though she is literally in my ear. “Suit up and pick a DAWG…”

The rest of the team grabs their new flight gear and gladly discard the old ones. Akita is the only of the group who changes his suits in plain sight but to my amusement, Maria refuses to look his way. I think of my weapons systems and in front of me, appearing in transparent but very visible outlines are modules for missiles and guns. I’m currently unarmed but the computer gives me hundreds of options relating to missile types and ammunitions, load out options and what to do with them.

“Iron Five…”

The name slaps me with the hard truth of Terrier never being a part of us again. But these memories and emotions have no place on the battlefield. If I want closure in this mess, then I would achieve this by not getting the rest of my team killed.

Maria comes over the comms again “I’m going to have to get us all in sync so the computers can recognize and respond to each other without any problems, so close your cockpits and wait for me…”

The sounds of whirring and whines fill the manmade cavern as Akita, Hound and Pitbull become one with their Gear. My mouth is dry. I have not had anything to drink since the tainted mineral water given to us onboard the Jamavin, but I ignore the thirst and turn my head in order to look at Maria. Her back is what I see. She is busy at the console doing her thing and even in her non-appealing flight suit, she’s still attractive.

I continue to watch when she leaves the computer and head off to grab a flight suit. At this point I know that we are all watching and I’m pretty sure she knows too.

“Perverts…”

Maria leaves the room after accusing us and enters a changing area nearby. The collective protests from the guys make me laugh, however…with a thought, I see her through the metal walls, but quickly change from it as I focus on something else. The speed with which this thing processes thought and information and action is unreal. I will have to be careful while I get used to it.

In about a minute, the now pony-tailed woman emerges from the change room and walks toward one of the DAWGs nearby. Her body is perfectly outlined in her form fitting flight suit…I see why Akita was and is so struck, then she steps into the cockpit seat thing in front of her and after a few seconds, disappears into the machine.

“Had a good look?”

There is no crackle of static over my com, just her voice as though in my head, as clear as crystal. This is awkward. Did she know that I peeked? But I didn’t. I looked away as soon as the thought crossed my mind and I realized that the computer had granted the unintended wish.

“What…an outline of a translucent you and your ten million muscles and veins..? No, it wasn’t a good look.”

It’s Akita. I should have known.

“You’ll never change…”

“Why change a good thing?”

I cut into their little back and forth “Okay guys, let’s get synced. Maria, do your thing.”

With a jolt and a zillion images flashing past my Dees, we all merge in computerized minds and bodies. The Neural Link on these machines is similar to what I am accustomed to but larger and of more depth. How this is possible, I have no idea, but it goes beyond feeling the rest of the team…I am the team.

“Hey Maria..?”

“Yes Dachshund…?”

“…Ever owned a dog…a real dog?”

Everyone laughs with that last part and we all wait for the answer that will determine Maria’s call sign.

“…not on Rouna, but on Earth when I was a little girl, we had a Great Dane…”

“Fellas…”

It’s Hound again

“…Maria, new call sign, Great Dane, welcome to Iron five. Owwooooo..!”

The howling erupts across the comms and I join in. I hear Maria laughing in the background and then she attempts to add to the noise.

“You guys are crazy…”

I answer “That we are…”

“Alpha..?” Bull’s voice comes plainly to me. “…when do we get our ammo?”

“Dane..?”

I wait for her response. The name works perfectly.

“The holding slots across from us. We stand in place there and select our arsenal, but one thing at a time. Let’s see how well you Earthfront boys do with Galactic Nine technology.”

We all scoff at this. Instinctively, I stand from my sitting position and feel the Mecha lift itself from the floor. I am thirty five feet above ground according to my Dees and as I look to the left, unlike my Earthfront MAV, I see a robotic arm moving with my own as I flex, push and pull it physically. The mechanized arm is like its counterpart, extending from a metal elbow with forearms in the form of heavy hitting Tricada Vulcan Auto-cannons. Tricada, according to the info on my Dees, is the leading weapons development company under the Galactic Nine; The GN’s equivalent to the Tex’s Auto-cannon.

I take a few steps. They are clumsy at first but I quickly develop a rhythm. Whatever I do with my body and mind, the machine copies it. It’s like wearing mechanized body armor.

I love it.

 

********

 

It has been an hour now since my first step in my new Mecha but now, we are all standing in our flight suits, outside of the DAWGs once again. The last half hour has been spent weaponizing and programing and syncing, so much so, that even though this mission of ours is of utmost importance, I am as tired as any day in physical training. “Side effects of the digital to mental connection” is what Maria had said. “We won’t ever feel it while connected to our Mecha but once we leave them…”

I pop another piece of chocolate into my mouth and savor its stimulation as my strength and focus return more and more. Maria had broken out a few boxes of nutrient bars and rejuvenation cocktails and to our delight, there were more than enough to stock up on.

“Okay, the Mecha are good to go…”

I admire the sleek design of my DAWG again.

Maria answers “Let’s hope that there’s a ship in the next hangar or we’ll be sleeping in these machines and no more.”

“Well there’s only one way to find out now isn’t there?”

Akita leads the way across the floor and into the only other hangar in sight. In it, a lone starship stands no less than fifty feet above us and it is definitely large enough to do the job.

“She’s not the most beautiful thing in the galaxy, but she’ll do.”

Maria slaps Akita across the back of his head for his comment

She is the Cala and she is a beautiful ship.”

Rubbing the sting out of his skull and keeping a safe distance between them, Akita replies with mock Spanish accent “The question now is…does She still work?”

But I answer before things get out of hand “Let’s find out.”

 

********

 

The engines on the lone Starship rumble the Airdock with tremendous force. Everything seems to be in perfect working order and after a few mechanical fixes and the shifting around of a few things; Maria has managed to get the five DAWGs on board. Our Starship however, has no defense mechanisms, not even an auto-cannon, so Vacuum warfare is an absolute no-no. But I seriously doubt the possibility of meeting any hostiles in vacuum…at least I hope so.

“Okay let’s go over this one more time. Maria, where are we going?”

I shift in my seat at the communications console to get a better view of her as she turns toward me.

“We’re going to find Artac Nine. As long as it’s still there, I can get us to K1 undetected and without any problems.”

“Artac Nine…how long?”

“Not sure but if it’s where I think it’ll be, then give or take three hours…”

Artac Nine is a Galactic Nine System Gate. Unlike Starports, System Gates have no docking facilities and are entirely run by computers. Used by major planetary organizations or corporations, Jump Gates like Artac Nine are often hidden in various Solar Systems with their locations and codes accessible only by ships affiliated with their owners.

Through my visor, I look at Maria as she prepares us for lift off. In an instant, I see Terri sitting there instead and wonder what our current predicament would had he not betrayed us. But the blast of rain that hits the windshield as the hangar doors slide open breaks my train of thought. Maria guides us out of the dock and the thick, moving mud currents below, steal my breath away. To fall into it would be a one way ticket to the great beyond but she leaves the deck easily and takes us out of the large structure, over the tumultuous sea of absolute death and into the dense, raining air of Adula.

The ship tilts, accelerates and begins its climb. Through my window, a Starship, a Colossus Class Hauler judging by the size of it, is also beginning its lift off sequence. The tera-ton Eversteel Beast is all lights and uneven grooves that trace blinking lines along its impressive rectangular hull. The insignia across the stern is a sun and moon, the flag of New Zion; a System of wealthy worlds over twenty thousand light years from Sol. But in another few moments, the behemoth vanishes amidst the rain and fog and so does Adula’s mud ocean, replaced now by dense clouds that flash with wild lightning. The ship buckles in the turmoil but Maria holds the controls steady and after ten or so minutes of shaking and battering, this too fades away. The glare of bright sunlight in the blue sky hits my visor as we break through the cloud cover. Then we rocket skyward, until dimness sets in, haze now, then darkness and the fuzzy looking orb behind grows distant as black space embraces us.

What happened to you Terri? Why did you betray us? Did I do something wrong?

My mind is overloaded with too many questions as a few tears spill from my eyes. I am still saddened by the loss of my friend. But he left us to die at the hands of a Cyclone, yet he came to our rescue. Did he have a change of heart? Was his sacrifice a repentant one…a clearing of his conscience? I would never know. I don’t know what my emotions are. They are foreign to me. I miss my buddy, but I am hurt at the same time. I worry about his parents but I think them better off for not having to be fooled by his charades.

I wonder what awaits us on Keden.

I need to focus on what’s important now. I must force myself to remember. After we get there, we will have about thirty five hours before Earth’s forces arrive.

Is Mirana still alive? Has she been captured? Can I get to her? Am I leading my team on a suicide mission? But I push newer thoughts into my head and ignore the negatives. What if she is still alive? What if we can get in, get her and get out?

And while I ponder these things, the scene outside the windscreen stretches and blurs as we go to Hyper Light speed.

 

 

 

CHAPTER 11 – KILLERS

 

Twenty Two and a half hours before Iron Five leaves Adula

 

System: K1

Location: Keden, Dune Desert

Time: 0330 Hours Local

 

Base commander Mirana O’Canon hit the Eversteel floor hard and it felt like it had hit her back. Another explosion rocked the domed complex and brought more glass and evercrete crashing down around her. What she had seen was madness and if it had not been by her own eyes, she might not have chosen to believe it.

Six of the strange looking Mecha, bearing Earthfront insignias surrounded the base while a seventh cut a deadly path through the outer and inner hangars, devastating everything in its sights. Nothing in Mirana’s arsenal could have held their ground. Every MAV that had engaged the unknown was cut down and the armored Tanks never even had the chance to fire a single shot. What puzzled her was that while the machines carried the Earthfront logo, the foot soldiers bore the red and black insignia of the Raiku Dynasty. The implication of this was mind blowing.

As Mirana dragged herself from the floor, she could still hear the two Auto-cannons of the killer in the distance. Everything and everyone was gone, save her and the frightened girl trailing behind. The men and women on her base, with their lives snuffed out in an instant, hung like a weight above her head. Guilt gripped her and Bile rose into her throat but she forced it back; she would deal with that later.

Knowing she would never have made it to the starship in time, her orders across all coms were clear…leave without her. But as she ran across one of the upper corridors after escaping the control room, a blast of expanding energy shook the walls and shattered windows. She was powerless and could only watch as the four hundred and fifty ton starship returned to the planet surface in a hail of fires and raining debris.

“Let’s go!”

She yelled it to the scared girl on the floor. Twenty years old and fresh out of communications training

“We’ve got to keep moving.”

Mirana had not long arrived on the ground floor level of the base, when she spotted the frozen cadet crouching beneath a broken table. The weight of her Tex’s Semi-automatic M71 hung heavily on her shoulder but she ignored the temptation to relieve herself of it. She had used it to end the lives of those wretched soldiers who had stormed her base just over seven hours ago, just as her father had done when she was seventeen. He died saving her that day and she had escaped because of it. The hostile takeover of her father’s base on the moon of Karin eighteen years ago served as a reminder of how desperately wicked the hearts of men were and still are. They had tried to take her but she’d fought, the way he trained her to, and for it they had marked her for life. Her scar was a permanent reminder…

Richard Gant

Why was he in her head? She knew that he’d taken a good look on more than one occasion. What did it reveal to him? She chose yet again not to care. She had worn her mark proudly ever since that day.

Mirana looked at the scared girl beside her and vowed to save her, even if it meant making the same sacrifice her father had made. She and the men and women who had stood against these new invaders had done well, but then the machines came, and now only she remained. The thought of this cramped her throat but she pushed on until reaching the debriefing room. A pang of desperation lodged itself into her gut like a large stone. Her office was only a corner away, a mere hundred feet or so.

The complex shook violently again and the girl behind her stumbled but used the commanding officer’s outstretched arm to regain her footing. The hammering had intensified. They were bringing the place down but why? She had been nothing but loyal to Earthfront, and a duty minded soldier for Earth ever since she could remember. What could have caused this? Her mind drew a picture of the only possibility it could conjure. Gant…Captain, Richard Gant and his Iron Five. She knew deep down that somehow, somewhere in all this chaos, she would find them in the midst and right now, she hated him for it.

That self-centered bastard! What right did he have to bring this on her? But what if she was wrong? What if he had nothing to do with it? Why was she even thinking of him?

She ran on feeling conflicted and to her relief, her office door appeared. The walls shook and the floor suddenly turned to jelly but Mirana launched herself inside and to the wall behind her desk. The girl, following, whimpered but her commander remained calm. She had to do this right the first time. Slowly, but deliberately, her fingers tapped out a sequence on the keypad behind her gold trimmed certificate. In a few seconds a hissing sound filled the room and a doorway, half on the floor, half on the wall opened up and she grabbed the young recruit by the hand and bolted down the still aligning staircase.

The entire building shuddered and groaned as it began to cave in and when Mirana slapped her palm against the button at the base of the steps, the doors re-sealed and the last thing she saw outside it, was her office folding in on itself and then darkness encased them. But the Commander wasted no time. She was up and moving, her Digital Eyes adjusting almost instantly.

“Come on!”

The girl snapped out of her trance and followed and they both ran on.

 

 

********

 

900 hours Dunan Time

 

Almost two days had passed since Mirana and her young escapee had fled the fallen base. They relentlessly navigated the tunnels and had eaten old tasting MRE’s from a bunker a half mile or so in. But now she was hungry again and although the young girl, Sari, according to their conversations, said nothing about it, Mirana knew that the craving was mutual.

“We’re here…”

The girl was much calmer now. Her anxiety and fear had faded into nothing after eating, talking and rest but that was ten hours ago and now, as natural light made the tunnel ahead visible, Mirana could only hope that Sari’s newfound courage would hold out.

“Is that it?”

The girl had an untainted innocence about her, in her eyes, in her voice that had no place in SysDef let alone Earthfront.

“Yeah…”

Mirana had not been to Dunan in over two years. The City lay in the distance, ten miles and some, as shown on her Dees. The dusty outline of it rose in the center and reminded her of a mountain near her home back on Earth. As for Earth…she had not seen Earth for over seven years; her home and what was left of her family, an aunt, uncle and sister, was all that she had.

“How are we going to get there?” Sari’s voice brought Mirana back to reality. This was a part of the equation she had yet to come to grips with, but there was only one way and although her body rebelled against it, her mind was resolute.

“Let’s go…”

Mirana, with Sari’s help, pushed the brown-rusted metal grate until it moved, creaking, outward. Below them was nothing more than a four foot drop where harsh winds had eroded a long gone dirt pathway. Above them was dust and sand, hardened into a natural roof, held up by strands of weathered, rock-solid dirt columns. It took five minutes to get clear of these shelters which were actually the foot of the cliffs marking the edge of the Dune Desert. Then they began the long walk. A trip through the open plains of dry dust with only their station suits to keep them cool.

 

********

 

An hour and twenty eight minutes later, Mirana ignored the fact that they had just covered barely a quarter of the distance. If she were alone, the trip would have been a short one but this girl was tired and needed a reason to go on.

“Sari…”

Maybe if she got her talking, the trek might seem easier

“You said you were from Dullus?”

It took Sari a moment to acknowledge the question “Yes, I was born and raised there.”

“I’ve never been to that planet but I have heard of it. Is it nice there?”

“It’s great, if you love…”

Sari’s voice trailed off and as Mirana turned toward the growing sound, she understood why.

Across the landscape, and approaching fast, was what looked like two MAV’s, a Booster Tank and a Transport of some kind. They were on an intercept course, and based on Mirana’s knowledge of military operations, she had no doubt that she and Sari had been spotted and were about to be picked up.

“Sari..?”

The Commander put her hand on the girl’s shoulder, making eye contact

“No matter what happens today, do not run. Let’s not give them a reason to harm us. If they pick us up, we’ll be okay and if not…”

The fear had returned to the innocent eyes but Mirana had to be real about the situation. She recalled her own fears when her father had shouted for his Aide to take her to safety. It was not the fear of losing her life, no it was not that. She had feared that she would never see him again

“If not…then tell the Galaxy that I defended my men with my life…”

There were no other words to say and Sari knew this much. Their silence was now drowned out by the small convoy slowing to a halt. Both MAV’s took up positions a few hundred feet out, between the SysDef women and the Dune Desert and what made it interesting, was the fact that the MAV’s were facing away from them. The Booster Tank however, swiveled its turret toward her. Its sleek tank frame and Fiber Steel Armor hung suspended from the ground. The Magnatech keeping the thirty ton beast afloat whined while spreading dust and dirt out and away from under it.

Mirana’s M71 hung loose enough to have it ready in a flash, not that it would make a difference but for the time being, she held on to hope.

The Transport; a long, wide, hovering, aerodynamically sleek and reinforced vessel, touched the light-brown desert with a quake. The engines remained running while more dust fluttered out and around it, adding to the thickening haze created by the Booster Tank. Two very thin slits of Everglass in front of the caterpillar-like machine showed Mirana where the pilots sat.

Did this thing have any weak points?

Mirana knew the answer and it was a disappointing one. A slot in the side of the Caterpillar opened like a large wing and five soldiers stepped out. The first noticeable thing about them was that they had no helmets, but their heads and faces were covered with the same material as their combat suits. She left her gun hanging and did not grip it or appear threatening in any way. According to Kedenian law, soldiers apprehending non hostiles are to capture and hold. At any rate, they would be taken as prisoners or sent back to Earth, but her heart hit a bump in her chest and she forced herself to take deep breaths. These were not Keden’s ordinary soldiers. By the black insignia’s on their battle suits, and Keden’s large red K behind it, these were the Kedar…Keden’s elite.

“Weapon down, on your knees, hands behind your heads!”

The gravelly voice reminded Mirana of her own; it was the one thing she hated about this place more than any other. When she first arrived, they had told her about this, and that her suit’s filters and whatnot would keep her safe. But after five years on a planet, habits form and precautions easily disappear.

The women did as the man commanded. Mirana watched his boot clad feet move behind them and felt a rough hand lift her effortlessly from her knees and shove her toward the transport. She heard Sari’s whimper as she too was shoved but remained calm; resistance would be foolish.

Mirana was approaching the wide doorway of the transport when gunfire erupted. She heard the unmistakable tumbling of Auto-cannons and familiar fizzles of rockets leaving their launchers. She grabbed Sari and shoved her ahead and away from the transport. It would be a death trap in there and their best bet was to get as far away from this battle as possible. The soldiers were now too busy to concern themselves with the women and as Mirana looked back, she saw one of them gesture for her to run, and then he and the transport exploded into a billion pieces.

 

********

 

Mirana left the darkness and opened her eyes to a bright expanse of dusty air. Sari was shouting in her ear and explosions and gunfire erupted nearby. She saw the melted transport and remembered what had happened. The blast must have knocked her off her feet and thrown her to where she now lay. She allowed Sari to help her to her up and both women huddled together, powerless in the face of what was happening around them. What she saw now was imminent death. One of the strange looking Mecha that had attacked her base was here and by the looks of things, even though it was alone, it was winning this fight. One Kedenian MAV was standing its ground while the other lay in ruins not far away. The Booster Tank was in full assault, tearing up chunks of desert as the driver maneuvered wildly to get a shot from below.

Sari screamed as the menacing Machine flew by no less than two hundred feet overhead in hot pursuit of its prey, bathing the women in a backwash of hot dust. Mirana looked on and her stomach sank. Up to this point she had not panicked or given into fear but here, after the hope of escape had eluded her, all of her restraints gave way.

Her Father, where was he? Was he in heaven? Was there a heaven? And if there was, would she be there in a few minutes? How does one get to heaven? She remembered going to church one Sunday, a very long time ago when the world made sense and her mother was still alive, a few months before she would pass away. Mirana must have been about seven, the pastor had said something relating to getting into heaven but it was all a blur now.

The Sol engines overhead shook her back to reality. This Kedenian pilot was good. He rolled and looped and jinked his way out of his pursuer’s claws but Mirana knew that it would only be a matter of time until the whole ordeal was over. The Booster Tank, keeping up its mad dashes made little impact on what was going on yet she had to admit, even in the face of annihilation, its driver was admirably persistent. And then it happened. The loud boom of missile meeting metal echoed overhead and the women watched as the stricken Kedenian MAV glided its way to the planet surface and crunched a deep groove in the dirt not too far away.

Mirana’s heart planted a few punches squarely into her chest as the man-like machine landed no less than eight hundred feet away. Even at this distance it bore down on her like a towering beast, but the sound of the Booster Tank filled the air and she watched as it shot across the surface, toward its doom. The Unbeatable Mecha turned toward it and Mirana knew that when there were no more metal targets left, she and Sari would be next. The Monster lined up its prey and the Booster Tank fired futilely, but then without warning, what must have been ten trails of missile exhausts suddenly appeared in the air above the enemy machine, and then the Invincible MAV exploded into a ball of crimson fire and flying pieces.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 12 – BEHIND ENEMY LINES

 

Iron Five

System: K1

Time: 0600 Hours Dunan Local

20,000 Km from Atmospheric entry

 

We are flung out of hyperspace and the caramel colored Keden warps into view and takes shape. Our approach is not from the K1 Starport, but from a point in the Solar System given to us by the computer on Artac Nine. All of our warning systems go haywire.

“Guys we’re locked up and it’s not the Spaceport that’s doing it…” Maria shouts this across the comms.

“We’ve got no weapons…” Bull is busy at his console trying to jam whatever it is that has us in its sights.

“Maria, get us out of here. Go to hyper…”

“Where..?”

“Anywhere..!”

“I can’t. They’ve got us Magnet-blocked…”

“Can we approach the planet?”

“Yes but not fast enough to escape…”

“Get us as close as possible. You said the DAWGs could survive in vacuum?”

“Yes but the systems have never been fully tested.”

“Well from the looks of this, we might be testing them real soon…”

“Alpha..!”

“Akita..?”

“Look…”

We all turn toward what Akita is showing us and my breath leaves me. It’s madness. Hundreds of Kedenian and Deepcore destroyers hang on the open side of the planet and one of them has its sights on us.

“Starship Cala, you are entering restricted space and are ordered to surrender ship and crew. Keden Battle group Command requests Commanding officer ident and intensions. You have ten seconds to respond.”

I don’t hesitate. It makes no sense to fight this “Starship Cala copies orders. Ident, Captain Richard Victor Gant and our intentions are non-hostile, I repeat, non-hostile. We are here to find and recover SysDef Base crew. I also request to know who has us in Magnetic Guidance…”

“Battleship Nova Seven has you on link. You have ten seconds to surrender.”

“Request to speak with a commanding officer.”

“Request denied. You have seven seconds to comply.”

I kill the coms “Maria, get us to that planet. Bull, jam whatever they throw at us…” I turn to Hound and Akita “Hang on to somethin’ boys…”

The ship shudders as we break free of the Magnatech holding us. Unlike Spaceports, because of our distance from the battleship, we have the power to escape it.

“Alpha we’ve got incoming missiles” Akita confirms visually what we see on the holoscreens.

“Maria, can we get into atmosphere?”

“I think so…”

The Cala launches toward Keden and the first missile goes wide and detonates safely away. I turn just in time to see three more approaching and…

One!

Two!

Three!

The Cala buckles and lists and the crunching noises that I hear, tells me that the ship is beginning to break apart.

“Get to the Gear!”

Frantic sounds of belts unclicking and bodies shuffling fill the cockpit. I get to the doorway and wait there while Akita, Hound, Maria and then Pitbull passes through. Without a second glance, I follow my team into the large hold behind the cockpit and run, drift, almost fall toward the opening DAWG. Then the ship shakes violently and I lose my footing, but I reach out and Pitbull stops my fall. In a split second I am back on my feet.

“Thanks…”

“Nothing to it Cap…”

I slide into the cockpit thing, The Brace, according to Maria, and let it suck me into the confinement of the machine. Then the systems come to life and I activate everything, from full offensive to total defensive modes.

“Maria…I hope you were right. Are we ready?”

There’s no time left

“Let’s go Cap and if not, it was an honor serving with you…”

Hound’s words sink deep but Maria’s fill the com now “Bullshit. You got me into this and now, you’re going to get me out.”

Another missile warning alerts me of our imminent doom. I lift my hands and see the robotic arms on my DAWG rise in front of me, both Vulcans beginning to spin. In my head I select armor piercing rounds and squeeze both triggers with my index fingers. The side of the Cala tears up and disintegrates within seconds as I trace a destructive arc along it. The bullets leaving my machine appear as superheated streaks of high speed lights that carve and decimate everything in a whorl of sparks and smoke. Then as the intense decompression of oxygen suddenly meeting vacuum takes place…“Go, go, go..!” I yell it with all my heart and wait as the team makes for freedom one after the other.

The last of the team gets to the crumbling opening and I disengage the clamps that keep my Gear in place. The sensation of being released mixed with the knowledge of the missiles about to strike, makes me push my legs like never before. I feel as though a foot is lodged somewhere in my stomach and as I make my run, the impact of the final few missiles hits me from behind and pushes my DAWG at odd angles away from the exploding ship.

The momentum carries me until I am a safe distance away, and then I shut down my thrusters, initiate the suit’s Magnatech and everything stops spinning. The first thing I notice is the mixed brown of Keden below me. The caramel colored orb hangs in the black of space like a shiny marble.

“Status..?” I stabilize myself and take a look around.

“Bull, all good…”

“Akita’s alive and kicking…”

“Hound is okay…”

“Maria is…Dane is okay…”

We need to get out of here now. The silent detonations in vacuum close to atmosphere draw my attention as the Cala splits apart and begins to drift in pieces at all angles. The front of it bends under while the center tears up into millions of burning particles. Then the stern bursts open, spinning slowly away from the blazing frame and toward us.

“Hou…lee…um Cap…”

I turn in the direction Akita is facing and the sight is increadible. From what my computer tells me, five hundred Raiku ships have appeared from hyperspace and without delay, the fireworks begin.

What the hell is going on?

“Alpha, let’s get out of here before we become space dust…”

“You’re right Hound. I’m on point. Team, follow through, tight formation let’s go!” On the digital interface in front of me, I see many options outlined in translucent blue lines. I select what I need and think of entering Keden’s atmosphere and without realizing what I’ve done; the computer initiates the required sequence.

Atmospheric entry ninety eight percent success”

“What the hell…? It talks? Dane, you didn’t say this thing talked…”

“I forgot about that…”

Ninety eight percent..? That’s good enough for me. And because we are all synced, my actions are easily followed by the rest of the team’s auto piloting systems as I drop toward Keden.

 

Picking up speed, we accelerate and are pushing past five times the speed of sound. In a few minutes I approach the hazy aura of the planet and for the last time, look back at the muted battle raging above and behind us. The Raiku have clashed with the blockade and while the first wave is halfway through, more of the Dynasty forces are still arriving. This is a full scaled invasion. In all my time, I’ve never seen anything like it.

Atmospheric entry in five, four…”

I focus on what’s beneath us as the computerized voice continues

“…three, two…”

Everything shakes

“…one”

The DAWG’s auto piloting system keeps me from tumbling uncontrollably and shuts the engine down. Keden is now a blur of light brown and red haze and we rocket downward at over ten times the speed of sound.

 

********

 

“Alpha…” It’s Bull on the open channel. Even in atmosphere there is no static interference “…We’re on the outer edges of the Dune Desert. From what I’m picking up, there’s nothing at the base.”

“Copy that Bull…I’m still gonna check it out.”

“…Gotcher back boss…”

His words carve furrows into my stomach. The thought of finding her dead is beyond me. I switch to manual command, then open up the menu on my HUD and select Air Operations. Almost instantly the machine responds and the sensation of freefalling takes over. I am no longer a passenger in a cockpit, I am now a man flying in a suit and without much thought I push my head over, ask my engines for power and enter a burning dive.

The rest of the team follows suit. The Neural Link tells me that we are all spread out at five miles apart and my Dees indicate the ground at fifty thousand feet and closing.

Forty thousand feet

Thirty five thousand feet

Thirty thousand feet

Twenty five thousand feet

Twenty thousand

Fifteen thousand

I pull my head up and push my hands back to force the DAWG out of the fall. The engine screams and the heady rush flows through me like an overdose. The Mecha responds more like body armor and less like a Machine. Maria was right, it does whatever I do. We pass over the Dunescape by only a thousand feet and while the sandy hills zip past us, I see the base in the distance…what’s left of it.

“Coming up on the Base guys, everyone, give me a full sweep…”

I’m calm on the open channel. I’ve made up my mind to accept whatever I meet and in spite of the hollow feeling in my gut, I still hope.

“Roger that Alpha…”

“Damn, it’s all gone…Huski are you seeing what’s under all that rubble?” It’s Akita in my ear now.

“Yeah…”

I ignore the lump in my throat. I’ve seen death before but this is ridiculous. Through the eyes of the onboard computer, the forms of dead bodies buried under tons of fallen steel and Evercrete is life changing. I will the DAWG to slow down and it does. The fallen Starship and what is left of its passengers appear in layers of lines connected to streaming data.

This is tragic.

“Those weren’t Earthfront ships Alpha…”

“I know Akita…Something very big is happening and we’re flying blind in it.”

“Yeah…” Bull joins us “…flying blind in a shit storm.”

Between the Cyclones bearing Earthfront logos and an invasion of Raiku ships on Keden, I am left to believe that Earthfront and the Dynasty have bigger plans for the Galaxy.

“So what’s the plan Boss?”

I take a second to reply to Akita “We go with the flow.”

“Aye aye Cap”

Descending brings an unfamiliar sensation. If it weren’t for the knowledge and memory of me climbing into this thing, I would believe entirely that it was me, naked and flying around with guns and missiles somehow strapped to my body.

“What the hell happened? What did this?”

Pitbull answers Hound before I can say anything “Cyclones…”

I look on as the last of us touch down on one of the dusty landing pads; my mind grasping for answers before asking my question. “How do you know?”

Pitbull’s voice is steady and even. He is angry but in control…I know him enough by now to judge correctly “…I’m picking up a Cyclone a few miles out. We can get to it if we try.”

“…Anyone got any live readings here yet..? Because I’m getting nothing…” I take note of the time on my HUD. It’s now oh-nine-hundred hours, Dunan time.

Maria, who has been silent for most of the trip, joins in “Negative Alpha…”

As a matter of fact, I haven’t heard her speak since we escaped the ship in vacuum.

“Dane..?”

“Huski..?”

“…you alright..?”

“I’m okay Alpha, just pacing myself…”

“Okay lets go get that Cyclone and see what this sonofabitch is all about.”

I open my vents for maximum push and as they burn hot, I jump into the sky and watch the ground fall away in the blink of an eye.

If this Cyclone is nearby, then where are the others? That Deepcore pilot had said that there were seven more. It had to be them that had leveled the Base. Either way, the dead of SysDef on Keden will be avenged today.

The team and I are now edging past the speed of sound and as the sand and dust dunes of the desert flash past; I try to ignore the worry that’s beginning to seep in.

Maria comes over the com “Alpha, I got a tally on the Cyclone…”

“Copy tally…” I see my target “…I got him too. Looks like we’re crashing the party…weapons hot…”

I’m two miles out and slowing down quickly. The edge of the Dunescape is in view and what looks like a Kedenian MAV is battling an Earthfront Cyclone.

That Ked pilot is good.

The onboard computer alerts me of six life-forms. I push the thought to a place somewhere in the back of my mind, keeping my focus on what is going on ahead. In a split second, the information races through me and my heart stops for a moment. I pick up the Kedenian pilot who’s MAV is now slamming into to the ground but somehow, he has survived the crash. The enemy in the Cyclone is there also, along with the two crazies in the Booster Tank headed to their deaths. I turn my attention to the other two on foot…

“Alpha, are you getting this?”

“I see them Akita…going ballistic!”

I am seeing Mirana and a girl in my head as the super computer streams the battlefield information through me like a wildfire.

How did she get out here?

But there is no time to waste. Switching to ground controls as I drop out of the sky, my tracking reticule locks on to the tin-man boasting the Earthfront insignia. I think of my missiles, select ten Brimstones and without thinking twice, release them.

I’m making sure this bastard doesn’t come back.

As my legs slam into the ground, the heat seekers trace an arc above the space between us and with a series of hollow booms and a vicious flash, the cyclone becomes nothing but a balloon of tumbling fire and bits and pieces of flying metal.

“Bull…weather..?”

“Clear and Sunny Alpha…”

“Let’s get to them and when we do…” I’m already moving “…give me a defensive perimeter, and kill anything that shouldn’t be there!”

“Copy that Cap…”

I find the communications linkup and activate the frequency find “Kedar Booster Tank, this is Iron Five Commander, Richard Gant and we are non-hostile…repeat, non-hostile. Request pilot ident and escort to Dunan do you copy?”

I wait a few seconds before he comes back “Captain Asan Aseid copies Iron Five request and will be ready for escort when you are.”

“Copy that. You guys go get your pilot from that wreckage and we’ll keep eyes out for any more hostiles.”

“Will do Commander…”

I approach Mirana and the girl. They are scared but the Base Commander stands defiantly still. I physically crouch and the DAWG does the same. In my head I split the cockpit open and hear it depressurizing. The Brace lowers me to the dirt and the bright world outside my machine comes into literal view. With my feet on the desert floor, I remove my helmet and walk-run toward her. She is a mess. Her tight bun of hair is now loose and scattered across her shoulders. There is enough dirt on her skin to be noticeable even from this distance and her clothes are torn and ragged but I don’t care; she is alive.

“Huski..?”

I like the look in her eyes but she is as shocked as she is worn “Commander…” I salute and then nod to the young girl behind her.

“What are you doing here..?”

“I’ll explain later…” What in the Galaxy justifies me being here? “…right now, we need to get you to safety. We’re going to Dunan and when we get there, I’ll let you know what’s going on.”

I turn my thoughts inward and find the Booster Tank then speak away from Mirana.

“Hey Asan..?”

“Yes…”

“You got room in there for two more?”

“We’ve got room in here for four more…”

“Good, come get these two ladies when you’re done and then we’ll be heading out…”

“…On our way”

The Booster Tank whines as it turns, a quarter mile away and begins coming to us.

“Captain…” She looks at me and even in our predicament, amazingly, they haven’t lost their intensity “What are those, and where are your MAV’s?”

Those are Dynamic Automated War Gear…”

“Dogs..?” She utters with a smile.

“Yeah, Dogs. But there’s no time for an explanation now. You two get in the Booster and we’ll take it from there.”

I keep an eye on her as she hustles away and thank God she’s alive. I want to tell her what I am feeling but I can’t. It just doesn’t fit and I know somehow that it is better this way.

FACT

 

Bullets and missiles used in vacuum, all guided by Magnatech, explode and disintegrate on contact or once they have achieved their maximum flight time. Laser cannons on the other hand are relics of the past that very few ships still carry. Since the dawn of particle absorption and laser redirection technology, the laser cannons of yester-year have all been scrapped and or confined to laboratories and mining equipment.

A few months earlier

 

MIND GAMES

 

Year: 878 TE

System: Sol

Planet: Neptune

Location: Kona base – Proteus

 

“Welcome Captain Andrews…”

“Hello Amanda”

A streamlined woman in a grey flight suit approached Terrier casually. They had met six months earlier, when he was first contacted by Earthfront command regarding their suspicions of Iron Five. She was the representative assigned to him when docked here, but that was bullshit…she was more like his handler than a rep and even though he knew it, the circumstantial intimacy between them made it easier to live with.

She kissed him when she was sure that none of the few guards stationed throughout the facility were near and led the way to a briefing room two levels below the moon’s surface.

“Welcome Mr. Andrews…sit…” A heavyset man in a black flight suit gestured him to a seat on the opposite end of a large triangular table.

As Terrier sat, the man continued. “Let me get straight to the point. Iron Five has become a hindrance to our operation and must be discredited and destroyed…”

Terri took a moment to comprehend what the man was saying and when it registered, he jumped from his seat but was shoved firmly back into place as the pain of a thick, white hot syringe burrowed stomach cramping fingers into his neck and shoulders, between which the needle had been inserted.

“…this must be done quietly however and to keep it below radar, we will need your team to start the ball rolling. We will break Iron Five apart, from the inside…”

Terrier coughed as the massive soldier holding him down released his grip “Why are you doing this?” His head swam and he knew without a doubt that he would be dead, or worse, unconscious in a few seconds.

The man continued as though nothing had happened “Our cause is paramount and you, my friend, will be the man to lead our charge…”

“I will die before I betray my brothers…” Terri’s voice did not sound as his own. He slurred the words and felt his tongue roll around in his mouth.

“Don’t you worry, my friend…everything will come in its own time. I will see to it that you are handled with care. You will be wiped and reprogrammed to carry out the necessary orders and when you have run your course, you will be rewarded accordingly. In the mean time, Gemini, see to it that his processing goes as planned.”

Terri lolled his head toward his recent lover and felt the chill of horror flood through his bones. Even now, in the haze of her betrayal she had the gall to smile at him.

“By your orders sir…”

And then the world around him faded to black.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 13 – CROSSROADS

 

 

Planet: Keden

Location: Dunan City

Time: 1030 Hours Dunan Local

 

We leave the large, blue and grey metallic landing pad where our DAWGs sit idle and walk across an open-to-the-sky bridge. On my right is a small hangar with a few MAV’s being readied for action and to the left, is nothing. We are high above Dunan’s metropolitan core and from here, one can see the tops of every other Eversteel and glass building near and far, which, now that I am this close, are actually all a part of one very large complex. Connected at varying levels by way of enclosed passageways, they stand weather-beaten but proud. In every direction below, the buildings of steel, mostly stripped of their paint and painted symbols, reveal glints of their natural grey, giving the city an aged yet modern and otherworldly look.

The wind is gusty where I walk but not a problem. I hope Mirana is already on the inside. After we had left the battle site, our Booster Tank allies contacted their superiors and relayed my request to meet with their leaders; the urgency of this message was met with surprising willingness to co-operate and we and the Booster Tank had parted ways after flying into Dunan about ten minutes ago.

I look past the outer edges of the hazy city, and appearing as a blur on the horizon, is the edge of the Dune Desert. It is funny…as much as I hated it here, SysDef’s Base of Operations on Keden had unwittingly become my home and now, a sense of emptiness resides within, as though I have lost something dear to me.

Our armed escorts, five heavy Kedar Soldiers and a few light guards, lead us through an opening made up of three sliding doors. Two of these doors slip off to either side of the opening while the third disappears into the metal wall above. Our boots echo on the reflective floor and goose bumps ripple along my arms and neck as my combat suit filters the hot Kedenian air and cools my skin.

We enter the building. The outer world vanishes and we are now in a fairly large room with a very high, richly decorated ceiling. I remove my helmet now that we are away from the harsh, dusty air outside and hear the clicks of the rest of the team doing the same. It’s chilly and I take a deep breath of it…smells like winter air…tastes like it too…reminds me of my cabin back home on a crispy winter’s night.

We follow our escorts through another set of sliding doors where the ceiling is lower, and then into a wide, blue carpeted hallway. Along its white walls that are broken up by brown doors, paintings of Kedenian landscapes, dawns, daylights, sunsets and nights, hang.

The artist must be phenomenal, because these images look more like still-shots.

As we walk, it occurs to me that much thought had been put into the decorations here. The paintings, hanging near plants in large brown pots by every door, give the long passageway a welcoming and homey feel.

Ten doors later, at the end of the corridor, through the only set of double doors I have seen thus far, we enter a large semicircular room. The circular wall is made entirely of Everglass while the straight edge, behind us now, is all reflective metal. This gives the illusion of a larger space. The guards, along with our escorts remain outside and the doors close.

Unlike the rest of what I generally know when it comes to Kedenian Interior Design, this room is perfectly put together and reeks of high society and wealth. Thick, deep-red carpeting is wall to wall. Large and heavy drapes made of Kedenian Brocade hangs, pulled aside, at each end of the monstrous windows. Magnatech lamps hover several feet above the floor here-and-there and the massive semi-circular Earth Oak table sitting in the midst of all this, along with its million-Credit-a-piece, Oak chairs completes the portrait. I take another drag of the purified air. It’s a lot like the air in my suit.

“Gentlemen…Lady…”

I turn toward the rough but soft voice. A sleek, expensive looking woman in a black, full body pant suit and grey, high cut military boots is walking toward us. Her curvy hips and long legs move in unison. Her upper body bulges in the right places while her long, black-jeweled neck leads to a slender and hard face…Definitely not my type…with her short, cropped, dark-green hair that stays rigidly in place. We make eye contact, and like the hair, green, they stare into mine. There is great intelligence there, the gift of discernment. In them I see authority and the confidence of a good speaker.

“Lady…”

She acknowledges my response with a slight bow. It is a sign of great respect to refer to a woman here as “Lady” much like Ma’am back on Earth.

“Please have your seats. We will be with you shortly.”

Who is, we? But I simply acknowledge her words with a curt “Thank you.” And we all take our seats as she leaves the room.

Akita breaks the silence “Well, Alpha, what do you think?”

“She’s not my type…”

He smiles but quickly gets rid of it and down to business “You know what I mean…”

“I don’t know. We’re gonna have to play this by ear and see what happens.”

The doors open and we all turn in that direction. Mirana O’Canon enters the room. Her tangle of red hair is now combed and hanging in a ponytail and she’s changed into a fresh, desert-camo combat suit.

She eyes us all and just before sitting…

“Iron Five…” She finds Maria; I see the question forming in her eyes and remember Terrier. I have been ignoring them but the mixed emotions are now back.

Why Terri?

“Commander…”

She looks to me and I answer the unasked question.

“Terrier is dead.” My own words sting and my stomach turns to knots but I keep it together as the expression on her face goes from questioning to understanding, to sorrow.

“I’m sorry…”

There is nothing more to say. Not now. I’ll explain it to her when the time is right.

“Gentlemen…Ladies…”

The streamlined woman is back and this time, there are two men with her. One of these men, a giant with a strongly chiseled face, stands on her right. He is a fierce looking man with fierce looking eyes and bulging arms that look like they could crush an Aircar. The other man, on her left, is more sophisticated and elegant. His eyes, even with his tranquil exterior, are deceptive. There’s an animalistic cunning in them. He is a calculator, no doubt the brain of the outfit. I take in the ensemble; the Muscle, the Ambassador and the Brain; this should be interesting.

“Please…”

The woman motions for us to sit again and as we do, the three strangers take their seats as well. The table is semi-circular, like the room. We sit along the straight edge of it while our hosts sit near the middle of the curve opposite us; the Brain, in the middle, is on the largest chair. The Lady sits to his left and the Muscle to his right. These must be Keden’s royalty. It feels strange to be here with them but then again, under the current circumstances…

The man in the middle speaks

“SysDef Commander, Mirana O’Canon. Iron Five. Captain Richard Gant, Huski. Neil Valeno, the Akita. James McKee, Pitbull. Michael Reihgt, Dachshund. And. Miss Anna Maria Santina, what is your call-sign?”

He waits for the answer.

It is impolite to speak to a Kedenian official if they have not directly interacted with or asked a question of you; one of the many iffy little rules and regulations that give me the unwavering resolve to never live here.

The man in the middle, with a flawless, full head of white hair hanging down his back, curves his thin lips into a smile and then Maria answers.

“Dane…Great Dane…”

He looks to me again “A shame what happened to Terrier?”

“He’s dead, there’s nothing more to say about it. May I ask with whom do we speak?”

They look a bit taken aback but not for long, and then the man in the middle speaks

“I am King, Al-Raadein Asaud Kedeni and this is my sister, Princess, Al-Shari and my brother…he puts a hand on the broad shoulder next to him…General Al-Jair…”

“We are the Tri-rulers of Keden, direct descendants of Amir and Sharai Kedeni. Forgive us if we bypass the usual etiquette and get directly to business. As you know, at this moment, Raiku forces are at war with our defenses on the outer perimeter of our planet’s vacuum so time is of the essence…”

He just launches into it. I like that…straight to the point

“…Reinforcements are on their way but until then, we must hold off the invaders and prevent them from touching down planet side. After the events on Solace Five, you have proven yourselves friendly against our enemies and along with recent intelligence reports we are now convinced that you are in no way allied with them. So I offer you a choice…”

“Wait a minute…” I cut him off. I can’t help it “How do you know about Solace Five?”

“Mr. Gant…regardless of what you think you know…Sol is not the only system with a Galactic Spy Network. We know many things. Like the fact that Earth, just as Keden, is in danger of a hostile takeover. As a matter of fact, as we speak, Earth is now in full lock down and your esteemed brother-in-arms is at the helm of this treachery…”

“Brother…but how? Terri’s dead.”

“On the contrary Captain Gant, Terrier is alive…” He stops me from interrupting again with a raised palm and continues. “Hear us. Listen. You might learn something.”

I am a bit taken aback but my instincts tell me that I need to shut up. So with a slight bow, I remain silent.

“…Huski, you are here to rescue your people, and we are here to save ours…” The sleek woman cuts in “Normally, we would not have graced you with our presence…however…given the current state of affairs, there is little room for protocol…”

Appalling

It’s the only word I can think of. Like we needed or wanted more than anything else to be graced by their presence. But she continues without falter.

“…We need your help…”

I think carefully before answering because this situation is as real as it gets.

“Explain…”

“It is as I said. We need you to help us in this fight…”

“And how would the five of us make much of a difference?”

Their leader joins in again “You have had firsthand experience with the Cyclones and you are very familiar with Earthfront technology and how it works.”

What he is saying makes sense but it makes no difference either way. Iron Five has never set foot in a Cyclone. And, without Keden’s assistance, we might as well just kiss Earth goodbye.

“We no longer have ties to Earthfront, which means that free access to their system no longer exists…” I shift my focus to the lady of the three “…If we are to remain here…to help Kedenian forces, we will most certainly need to be paid.”

“Credits…Mr. Gant?” The Largest of them opens his mouth for the first time “…Surely you’ll need more than Credits to save your home planet?”

His words are a punch to the gut but I hold my ground

“We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. But for now, it’s either we get paid or we leave you to fight your war on your own…”

”And how, Captain Gant, are you going to leave without a ship?”

I give the muscle the best defiant look I can muster. It is obvious that he doesn’t think much of me. But this is fine, because the feeling is mutual.

“Five Earthfront soldiers and a Galactic Nine pilot..? Acquiring a ship will be the least of our challenges.”

“We have strayed…Gentlemen…Ladies…” The Brain breaks the tension and activates a Holoscreen in the middle of the desk. General Hawk’s mean face appears.

“Welcome, General Madison…”

“Greetings, King Al-Raadein…Princess Al-Shari…General Al-Jair. Commander O’Canon, it’s good to see you alive and well. Iron Five…”

“General Hawk?”

“Huski…you and your team have caused me much trouble. Your flight from Rouna has made it very difficult for me to prove your innocence in all of this.”

“Our innocence..?”

What the hell is he talking about?

“You and your team have been under surveillance for some time now. Terrier’s involvement with the Raiku made you all suspect. Were it not for our history Huski, I would not have given you the benefit of the doubt.”

“What are you talking about? Neither of us knew about Terri’s betrayal. All we knew was that we got set up and an Earthfront Cyclone tried to kill us. Then your assassins attacked us on Callican…”

“The assassins you speak of are not our own. Earthfront is as much a victim of the Raiku’s plot as you are. Some time ago, Kedenian spies discovered a plot, conceived by General Hj’igori of the Raiku Dynasty, and implemented by Terrier…”

A knife carves its way through me as the truth rears its ugly head.

“…A plot in which he would help the Raiku to overthrow Keden and take control of K-One’s resources, but in order to do this, they needed Earthfront out of the way…”

“The attack on us and the SysDef base of operations here…”

“No Captain Gant…” Al-Raadein rejoins us “…not an attack. The Raiku destroyed an Earthfront base on Venus and stole the Cyclone prototypes to make it appear as though we had attacked Earthfront, breaching the intersystem peace accord and Deepcore, under the guise of pirates paid to move gold off world to Solace Five, were our way of determining the truth…but there’s more…Toros…”

“Toros..?” This catches me off guard. It no longer surprises me how vast Kedenian Intelligence is. That was what they had paid him for…fifty million Kays for services rendered…Hard gold. His words echo through me “Do me a favor my friend and leave this one alone…” He was warning me.

“Yes, Toros…Your contact did in fact arrange the delivery of the gold to the Deepcore pirates. The same Pirates you were ordered to track and kill. At the time, your commander thought them to be responsible for the theft of the Cyclones. However, the gold operation was just a front. It would help to facilitate the lie making Deepcore appear to be terrorists working with our enemies…Earthfront, we thought also, at the time. After confirming that the people who had employed them were in fact an Elite group of Raiku mercenaries, Deepcore contacted us and along with Earth’s Intelligence Network, we were able to put the puzzle together.”

“So you’re saying…” I cut in again “…That after Deepcore, a known pirate organization, realized they were helping the Raiku to overthrow Keden’s leadership, they gave you a heads up? They were willing to smuggle your gold but not willing to help overthrow you?”

“No, they, with our authorization, carried out the smuggling run in order to maintain their guise. You see, we needed more Intel…”

“So you let them do as planned, knowing fully well that we were being set up for an ambush?”

“You were enemies of the state. You had come to Keden to carry out illegal activities under Earthfront command and your association with Terrier placed you on our watch list…”

I understand what he is saying but I still don’t like it.

“All I knew was that we were ordered to intercept and terminate a Deepcore fleet that had attacked an Earthfront base. Those were my orders and nothing more.”

General Hawk cuts in “At the time we sent you on your mission, we had believed Keden to be responsible for the Venus assault. However, new Intel revealed that it was your very own who had led that attack.”

“Hold on a minute…” I retaliate. “Terri might have been involved in all this but he was nowhere near the attack on Venus. How could he lead it? He was always…”

My words fail me. Embarrassment, betrayal, anger, sorrow…all play vicious games in my mind.

Hawk continues “Terrier was on leave to see his mother, was he not? At least that is what he was cleared for. Our investigations proved that he never set foot near her. Instead, Terrier led the assault, stole the Cyclones and made it appear to be the work of Deepcore. Even now, you fight to come to grips with his betrayal, but facts are facts. The Pirates you were sent to track were ordered to kill you when you found them, ordered by him. According to the plan, Deepcore was to take the gold to Solace Five and that would have been the end of their mission. But Terrier knew you well. He made sure that when you got there, assuming that you would have survived here, you’d meet the Cyclone and die by it.”

“Well we’re alive and kicking…there’s hope.”

“Captain Gant…” General Madison shifts his weight “…the leaders of every alliance on Earth are dead. Their assassinations were carried out simultaneously…” His look pierces me “…by Raiku assassins, defects from Earth who sell information to our enemies and that, my friend, is why there is a Raiku Battalion knocking at Keden’s doors and an all out siege happening right here on your home world.”

“This is why we need your help…” Al-Raadein speaks now, turning his attention to Mirana “…That Cyclone tracked you in the desert. You bore witness to what they did on your base. You were the only witness left who could have exposed the Raiku before their intended assault.”

“Excuse me..?” All eyes turn to Mirana “…there were two of us…”

“No Commander…you were the only witness. The woman you were with was a Dynasty spy. Didn’t it strike you as odd, that the Auto-cannons around your base did not engage the hostiles?”

I feel her distress. The look on Mirana’s face is easily readable.

“Sari..? But then why didn’t she kill me? She had more than enough opportunities to d…”

“Sari was not an assassin. She was put in place to relay sensitive information, shut down your defenses when the time came, and await further orders. Hers was with no doubt, to be the same fate as your base.”

“Where is she?”

“She is in a holding cell and will be contained there until this is all over and she can be tried before a court of law.”

I cut in. Sari’s fate is of no concern to me.

“If we help you, we’ll need our records cleared…” I make it obvious to Hawk that I’m addressing him also.

“Soldier…” He responds angrily “…you are still under Earthfront command and I urge you to remember that. Iron Five’s new orders are to provide the requested support to Keden’s forces and after Earthfront reinforcements arrive, get your asses to Earth ASAP. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes Sir…”

Somehow, the highs and lows of this hand that I’ve been dealt aren’t working out, no matter how I play them.

Keden’s Leader stares into me and in his face I see my father’s. It’s the same way he would have looked at me when I was a child. A time so long ago that it sometimes is no more than a blur. Times when I thought I knew what was right, but he knew better.

“Captain Gant…your service to Keden will guarantee a new leaf in our relationship. Your records will be wiped and you will be honorary citizens of our world. I cannot, however, speak for your superiors on Earth. Your fate with them is beyond our control.”

I gather my thoughts and pull myself together. This is bigger than any of us had imagined. Terrier has betrayed us and the Raiku are about to usher in the apocalypse.

“Al-Raadein…Iron five is at your command.”

The tension in the room lifts. It’s almost tangible. Beyond the Everglass wall, behind Keden’s royalty, the sun hangs halfway through its afternoon curve. The sky is clear and thoughts of what’s happening beyond the haze, out in vacuum, fill my head with images of battleships and cruisers, some burning, others maneuvering and missiles tracking targets. We all know that the battle will eventually reach us here. We also know that the chances of victory against Dynasty forces are minimal but then again…

“Wait…” Everyone looks to me now “General. You said that reinforcements were on the way. How soon will they arrive?”

“Four Earthfront armadas are jumping to K1 and will be in your space in a little over sixteen hours.”

A loud crack, like the heavens have literally split in two, rocks the room and we are all shaken by a quake that moves us from our seats. Guards rush through the doors and begin shuffling their leaders to safety. Long lines snap and crackle diagonally across the large window-wall, cutting it into gnarled sections, and then the City’s air defenses come alive. Hundreds of fiery streaks trace lighted arcs across the desert and missiles leave vapor trails in their wakes.

Out and above the landscape beyond, a menacing Raiku Dreadnought peals away from the sky and descends to the dusty planet surface. Even from this distance the red and black Logo on its hull stands out boldly.

“They won’t bomb Dunan…too much to lose…they’ll need the place intact. The rest of the fleet won’t descend anywhere near the city’s air defense limits. That Dreadnaught is just testing your limitations. So prepare your troops Al-Raadein, this battle is going to be up close and personal.”

The King looks back to me as guards hustle the three leaders to the exit

“…Get to your armor and await orders…”

These are his last words before vanishing through the door. The Holoscreen image of Hawk flickers and sputters, drawing my attention. “Good luck Iron Five…” And then it is gone.

“Iron five…” I find Mirana “…Get to the gear and wait for me…”

“Aye Cap…”

Pitbull acknowledges the command and leads the rest of the team out of the conference room and into the hallway. Akita gives me a questioning look but keeps moving, and now I think carefully before I speak.

“Commander…” I walk toward her and there is a slight shift in her stance “…you need to get to safety…” I am close enough to smell the metallic odor of her flight suit.

“…let’s face it, we are about to go to war. We might not come back…”

“I won’t run and hide Huski. They killed everyone one on my base…”

“Commander…” The stubborn look on her face makes me refrain from continuing. I have no choice but to accept her decision “…How do you intend to fight?”

“I’m a qualified MAV pilot. I know my way around them well enough.”

“Okay. Let’s go Commander…”

“Huski, call me Mirana…”

There is a moment between us but it does not last long enough for me to do what my mind tells me to do, so I nod and turn away.

“And Alpha…” I turn to her again “…you have to come back…”

I wish this moment existed in another time, even if it was the same place. I want to kiss her but instead, I nod with a smile, it is the best that I can do with what little time we have left.

CHAPTER 14 – DAWGS

 

 

1358 hours Dunan time

 

We run through the outer doorway and onto the open bridge that will take me to my DAWG and Mirana to her MAV. The guard assigned to us, leads her to the hangar across another bridge-way and I watch until she disappears indoors, no doubt to suit up.

The air is stifling…too much dust.

How do Keds live in this?

I shove my helmet on, suck in a deep breath of the pure air and move toward my waiting machine.

“Alpha…”

“Hound..?”

But his words are cut short as a peeling clap of thunder shakes the platform under my feet making me stumble. Regaining my footing, I look out across the desert. The Dreadnaught, minutes from touching down, explodes and begins to disintegrate, as hundreds of long-range heavy missiles continually tear into it. The sound of the titanic battleship breaking up, is like mountain sized boulders being split apart and grinding against each other.

“Alpha I’m beginning to think we should not be on this ledge…”

Akita is right, so I run to the opening cockpit, and while I slide into the brace, the onboard computer tells me that Mirana’s MAV is now walking out of her hangar. The world around me goes black for a moment as I am sucked into the DAWG and synced up. In that split second of suffocation and nothingness, I feel the Neural Link joining me to the rest of my team. Everything is at my mind’s disposal now. I open my eyes from my new height and instantly, before the thought barely registers, I connect with the Commander.

“Mirana…you with us..?” Two seconds pass and “Yeah I’m with you…”

Her voice is a bit muted. The Kedenian mechanics that interacts with our Galactic Nine Technology creates a slight rift in our connection. She sounds a bit nervous. I want to ask if she’s sure about going through with this, but I don’t. Yet I can’t help but worry. I have never thought of her as a MAV pilot but then again, no one gets to be Commander of any Earthfront base unless fully trained in combat and combat operations.

I think it and my DAWG links up with her. In a few seconds, her Neural is connected to ours and now I feel her, somewhere in my gut; at least it seems that way.

“Okay guys, look alive…”

I open the digital menu and select ground and air combat

“…Let’s get low for a while, five hundred on deck. Follow me.”

In my head, my engines burn for lift off and in reality, so does the DAWG. Then I jump and it does the same. The vertigo brings a natural high while the city of Dunan dangles below, but I break free of Keden’s gravity, push into the air, over the edge of the landing pad, and down to five hundred feet above immediate ground level.

I see what I desire in front of me in the form of translucent tabs and lines and I mentally choose it. Dunan’s Military Command Center comes alive in my ear and I make contact.

“Dunan Control, Captain Richard Gant requesting linkup and relay to General, Al-Jair.”

A rusty sounding male voice comes back after a second or two

“Iron-Five, you have linkup and are asked to report to General Al-Jair at the Forward Command Center on Nalas…squawk code is, nine-nine-four-two-five-zero.”

“Copy, report to Nalas with squawk nine-nine-four-two-five-zero. We’re on our way…”

The com goes quiet and instantly an image of Dunan’s landscape flashes through my head as the computer sends the information in a millisecond.

“Okay team…tight formation. Let’s stay five on deck and bullet to location on link. Speed sync up in five, four…”

And as we synchronize our thrusters for formation flying, I feel the other Mecha in my group increase in power and with relief, Mirana is right on the ball with us.

“…three…” I lean forward and the team follows “…two…” I am aware of my heart hitting my chest, one thump after the next, with the whine of my engines about to blast off and world around me on the edges of my vision “…one!”

My DAWG jumps into flight and I’m pushed forward weirdly as the cushy walls around me hold my body firmly in place.

We rocket toward Nalas; an Island base, twenty miles from the shoreline of the Minera, Keden’s ocean-lake and the only body of water on the entire planet.

“Huski…” Pitbull is on the com “…I’m picking up a dozen battle cruisers entering atmosphere. Their projected drop-zone is forty clicks south east of us.”

“They’ll most likely set up shop there. The sooner we get to Nalas, the better.”

My green-outlined indicator in the lower right of my sights tells me that we are on course at two hundred miles per hour.

How did General Al-Jair get out there so fast?

The onboard computer projects our time of arrival somewhere in the back of my skull, and based on the way the information feels, we will be there in ten minutes.

“Mirana…”

“Huski…”

“How are you doing?”

“I’m keeping pace if that’s what you mean…”

“Yeah that’s what I mean. Do you have a call sign?”

“Yeah, they used to call me Gunner back in flight school…”

“Gunner..?”

“…something to do with my last name”

“Iron Five…we’ve got a Tag-along…Call sign, Gunner… Owwooooo..!”

And this time, Maria joins in.

“Hilarious…” there is laughter in Mirana’s voice.

“Okay Gunner, stick close to us and be ready for anything.”

“Roger that Alpha…”

She is not a part of Iron Five but I like the thought of her being with us. At least this way I can keep an eye on her. We blast past the shoreline and are now over the open lake. I look down at the crystal clear water. Keden’s ocean lake is entirely made up of crystal clear, mineral water. It is the only body of water on the planet and all of Keden’s water supply comes from here, be it by direct pumping or deep wells near the shore.

“Boss…” Its hound and he’s on a secure channel. He has said very little since we arrived here so I’m a bit anxious to hear what’s on his mind.

“Hound..?”

“Let’s do this for Terrier…”

“Terrier betrayed us?”

Hound comes back as though he’d been rehearsing it all day “They must have brain wiped and re-informed his mind. Think about it Alpha…we’ve all known him long enough and you, better than any of us.”

“I don’t know Hound…I don’t know what to think anymore.”

“All I know is that I feel it in my gut, and I always trust my gut.”

I have mixed feelings about this, and the funny thing is that I can’t put a finger on any of them. It is like a jumbled mass of unrecognized emotions flooding me.

“We’ll see how it goes Hound…”

The communication ends and the rest of my thoughts have gone with it just as I see the island. It is actually one very huge, flat, grey rock formation with a few patches of shrubbery here and there. The base is in sight too. Blending into the island, it is an interconnected rectangular Evercrete complex with runways and landing pads everywhere.

I need to contact the general, the com opens up and the right frequency is automatically selected.

“Nalas Command…Iron Five on approach, request guidance on link. Approach code, nine-nine-four-two-five-zero”

“Iron-Five, you are cleared for approach. You have guidance. Follow digital to Landing Zone four and contact on touchdown”

Other than Keden’s royalty, this is the first clean Kedenian voice I’ve heard in a while. He is either always indoors or always wearing face-gear.

“Roger that Base…”

I open up every speed-brake on the machine and let the Magnatech do the rest. The sensation between positive and negative G dazes me slightly but is nothing to worry about. The team does the same and I follow the computer generated lines that will lead us to Landing Zone four.

We pass over an Evercrete runway and I drop to twenty feet above it. Approaching the designated landing-pad, I notice many Hover Tanks and a weapons carrier parked nearby. Almost every landing zone and runway has MAV’s and Sky Fighters ready and on standby. But I soon forget what I see outside and concentrate on landing this thing. Then with a slight thud, Iron Five touches down and I let the cockpit lower and spit me out. There is no time to waste. Walking briskly toward our escort, I am aware of the rest of my team behind and on either side of me.

I return the salute of a young, wild eyed lieutenant and follow him into the center of the hangar where twenty or more Holoscreens illuminate the space. General Al-Jair is standing on a raised platform in the midst of the Holos, and lined up in groups below and around him is a few hundred of Keden’s Elite.

“Welcome Iron Five, fall in. The situation is, as you see here, Jackal one, Jackal two and here, Jackal three…” He manipulates the screens so they show us what he wants us to see “…Three Raiku battalions have entered Kedenian airspace and set up bases on three fronts outside of Dunan…”

The Holoscreens show us enlarged satellite images of the enemy ships and their positions along with live streaming visuals from drone flybys.

“…They will hold their locations until all of their battle groups have landed, by which time, Dunan would have been boxed in on all fronts. Our objectives therefore, are to stop this from happening. We have a defensive line with a thousand forward command posts on the borderlands outside the city. It is our first line of defense so we cannot let them overrun the lines and converge on Dunan.

Objective one: I will lead Raider One in a concentrated attack on Jackal three. It is the best strategically placed outpost of the Dynasty’s forces thus far. Raider two…”

I find the unit he’s referring to, about a hundred men and women on my right

“…You will proceed to outpost Two Six and clear the air around Jackal Two. Dunan has been evacuated and so have the surrounding towns and villages. Our heavy missiles and Hunters are doing damage but not enough. Iron Five…”

I acknowledge him and await our fate.

“…While we push their deployed forces back, you are to advance and take out their Command Platform. Each battalion has one of these and if we can destroy the platforms, we will scatter their units. You are to also keep a lookout for any Cyclone activity. Go after them once you make contact. The Cyclones are your primary responsibility. You may request assistance when engaging them but they are your sole purpose outside of the platforms.”

I remember fighting one Cyclone and not being able to even dent it, but that was before, and that was with a light MAV. This time however, I’ll be more than ready.

The General is still speaking “…Re-loading will be done via Hawk, in flight. Co-ordinates will be given as you go…”

The Hawk he is speaking of is a High Altitude Weapons Carrier; HAWC.

“…And when we have destroyed these three command posts, you will receive further orders…Men…” The General’s voice is louder now “…through vicious trickery, these Raiku Dogs have come to take our resources. But by our triggers, let us give them hell..!”

The army around us erupts in cheers and shouts and Al-Jair goes on. “…Fly brave..!”

The men and women in flight-suits everywhere shout in return. “Fly strong..!”

The General can barely be heard now as he issues his final words.

“Gear up and await launch!”

There is nothing to do but go back to our gear and get ready. As I exit the hangar and my Dee’s adjust to suit the extra-bright sunlight out in the middle of nowhere, a heavy hand palms my shoulder and I spin around to see the General standing close.

“Fly brave, my brother…”

With all hostilities aside, I smile in return. This is their custom. A blessing before the battle and so I place my hand on his shoulder all the same “Fly strong General…”

And with a nod he releases me and heads off to his Mecha.

 

 

********

 

1443 hours Dunan Time

 

We are in the air and moving south-west across the Minera at the speed of sound, twenty one thousand feet above the sparkling water. We will be approaching Jackal Three, high and from the west. They would have already picked us up even with our Lizard Skin Tech but this is not a problem. This battle is inevitable and stealth is of no use.

Anxiety; the calm before the storm, doesn’t hit true this time as it often does; at least for me that is. It’s strange, the way I’m focused on what is to be done while thoughts of Mirana and her Kedenian MAV linger in my head. I hope to God that she can keep up in that thing. I listen to the chatter over the coms and smile as Hound retaliates and fires a nice response to Akita’s taunting. It’s good to hear the team in good spirits again.

I check my weapons. Three hundred Cats; short for Catalysts, these missiles bring the heat; enough heat to incinerate a Heavy Mecha in a second. I have also got four hundred thousand rounds of tracers, fifty pops of Chaff and Magnetic Decoys, and two Supernova Heavy missiles. The Supernovas are there to add the finishing touch to our main target; the Raiku Weapons Platform.

“Okay guys…the coast line is in twenty seconds. Kill the chatter. We’re now weapons hot and five minutes from the fireworks, ready up…”

Akita now “Aye-aye Cap…”

I continue “Remember…anyone pick up any Cyclone activity, do not engage alone…”

Pitbull joins in “Copy that Alpha…”

“We’ll take it down to angels fourteen and do a three-way split. Help the General clear the air and then meet up at our point of entry…”

“What about me?” Mirana now

“Three-way split means three teams of two. You’re with me.”

“Copy that Alpha” She sounds relieved.

I wait but she has nothing more to say so I go on “…Now we came as Iron Five, so we’re leaving as Iron Five. I don’t want any heroics. We stick together and bring the rain on these Cyclone sons-of-bitches…are we clear?”

“Clear as air boss…” Akita once more

We rip past the shoreline of the lake, and the dusty expanse of The Jeraka, Keden’s Mineral Desert, slips by far below

“Gunner..?” I connect with Mirana’s MAV on a secure link.

“…Huski…”

“…You ready for this?”

“…As ready as I’ll ever be…”

I like her voice. The idea of her life being in my hands is a bit unnerving and I wish that she was piloting a DAWG instead of a Ked Mecha. At least she has a few Catalysts on board. I still see Terrier’s machine in pieces on the ice. I can’t help the flashbacks.

I’ll be damned if I let that become her fate…or anyone else’s

“…Keep your eyes open and stick with me…”

“…Alpha…I’ll be okay…”

Pitbull cuts in on our open channel “Alpha, we’ve got hostiles five miles out and closing at angel’s fifteen…”

“I’ve got tally…” Dane’s accent floods the air “…Flight of eight coming in hot…”

The computer shows me the eight MAV’s, Light class, heading our way at fifteen thousand feet.

“…Well let’s introduce ourselves…Weapons free, light em’ up!”

“Cat one…” Maria alerts us of her missile launch “Cat two…Cat three…”

Damn she’s out for blood.

I lock-on to two Earther MAV’s headed my way. Warnings of missile launches flash in my head but my tracers cut them down in no time. In the background of everything going on, I hear my Vulcans roaring. The barrels, at one hundred rotations per second, sends streaks of superheated, armor piercing rounds toward my enemies and shreds the first machine into a million particles of twisted, jagged metal shards.

Flying by what is left of the wreckage at over six hundred miles per hour, it disappears off to my side and I rotate my torso and enter backward flight…

Feels like ice skating

…as I lean to the left and force the machine into a hard high-gravity turn. The sensations of flying like this takes my breath away and I make a concerted effort to remain focused, as the engines scream to give me the power I desire. I raise my hands while tracking my prey, still flying backwards, and the robotic arms on my DAWG moves with me. The second MAV is in my sights, I squeeze the trigger and the evasive Mecha takes a few hits before exploding into a cloud of flying parts and burning dust.

“Gunner has tally on objective…ten miles. Alpha, call it”

Mirana is suddenly on coms. She’s excited.

I run a mental scan and in a millisecond, the onboard AI tells me that there are no more hostiles in our space.

“Wedge formation, sync up…”

The Command Platform is now in sight. I lean forward and enter a steep dive, the ground dangles eighteen thousand feet below, one eye filling, and brown, barren platter of sand and dust.

“…follow me through…”

Mirana responds “On you Alpha…”

I tear out of the dive at fourteen thousand feet and hear-feel the enemy tracking and targeting systems reaching out to me. At this altitude I see, digitally enhanced, as far as the other battalion, code named Jackal two, a hundred miles away. But warnings of incoming Sky-fighters draw my eyes to what’s happening below. The Weapons Complex here, Jackal Three, is nothing more than a grey, mile wide, disk shaped saucer with the blue, Earthfront Galactic E and logo on its upper surface. It is like a hive surrounded by angry bees and some of those bees are headed our way. The airwaves light up with mad chatter and in the distance, General Al-Jair and his forces have engaged the hostiles and the war has now begun.

“Okay guys, angels fourteen and three-way split. Rendezvous at point of entry…”

I drop off to the left and feel Mirana move with me. The rest of the team splits away and my AI alerts me of a group of Sky-fighters inbound at two thousand feet and rising. They are coming in at the speed of sound, loaded with hammerheads and armour piercing rounds.

“Gunner…it’s gonna be a close quarters…”

“Not a problem. I love a good gunfight…”

“Target Sync and let’s go suicidal.”

“Syncing…”

I cut the communication as my targeting module automatically selects three of the five incoming hostiles. Mirana’s MAV would have already locked on to the other two by now, so I roll over and enter an insane plunge at over a thousand miles per hour.

Mirana’s voice comes over the com “…Cat one!”

“Gunner what are you doing..?”

“One of my targets has me locked…I’m not gonna give him a chance to fire!”

“…just watch the missiles up here. We’re close quarters…”

“Copy that…”

My dive is increadible. All of my muscles and tendons, everything, right down to my bones, have come together to form a runaway freight train in my chest and throat. My head drifts in the moment as the Minera Desert rushes up to meet me.

Ten thousand feet

Nine thousand feet

Eight thousand feet

I squeeze off the first round and my tracking computer steers the flow of red hot streaks away from me and into the first of the three Sky-fighters, devastating it in an instant.

Speed brakes…

The thought brings the desired reaction and I spin with the passing fighter, guns rattling and ripping him to shreds. The third target turns hard to get a bearing on me.

“Cat one!”

I unleash the missile and watch it track and kill my opponent. Instantly I turn my attention to Mirana but the mental flash that comes shows her a mile away and returning without any hostiles. I must say…she’s impressive.

What the hell?

Every warning light comes alive in my cockpit and the AI burns the image of a Cyclone to my eyes, imprinting it in my head. He is ten miles away but moving fast and if I head south-east, we will intersect in forty seconds.

“Iron Five…” I open our secure com “…Alpha team has Cyclone visual…engaging…need lookout for others…”

Akita and Dane comes back “Copy that Alpha…”

Then Pitbull and Hound “Gotcha Boss…”

“Gunner…”

“I’m on you at a hundred oh’…”

Mirana is thousand feet above and behind me so I have room to play. My systems indicate the Cyclone locking me up with its missiles but I push toward it.

“Gunner..?”

“Alpha..?”

“Keep your distance, and eyes open…”

“Copy…”

Our rate of closure is too fast so our missile battle is now a gun fight. The Cyclone slices by me at seven hundred miles per hour, guns blazing. We both turn at odd angles, trying to get a bead. Scratch that…our battle is now a knife fight. The engines on his machine light up. He knows that I have the kill shot, so while I take aim, he skyrockets and I follow a split second later.

He has gained some distance and altitude but I still have him in my sights. My altimeter runs through the numbers. The Cyclone rolls over at twenty five thousand feet and launches under me, trying to get behind, but I am not the helpless MAV pilot back on Solace anymore. I turn with his maneuver and open fire. Arcs of red hot metal, trace a path in the sky between us but he is running so I take off after him and we break the sound barrier, twice.

“Alpha I’m having trouble following you and now I’m dancing with a Sky-fighter and a MAV…” Mirana is worried but focused.

“Can you handle them?”

“I’ll be with you in a sec…”

I like her attitude “Then do what you must. I’ve got this. Meet up with the rest of the team when you’re done and clear the air…”

“Copy…”

She didn’t question me or hesitate; impressive again

“Akita..?”

“Alpha..?”

“Get up here!”

“On my way…”

This Earther pilot is good…and fast…but my mind is quicker. I see what he’s about to do and in this instant, as his air brakes begin to deploy, the onboard AI reads my mind and my DAWG’s Magnatech kicks in, slowing me down to a crawl in a matter of seconds. My insides become like liquid and then compresses but I stifle the urge to vomit. The Cyclone, slowing rapidly, no more than fifty feet away is like a blur to me. The effects of this flight is demanding as I stop, move to the right, arms up, guns online, he’s turning, I squeeze both triggers…

RHEEEEEEEEEEEE!

My Vulcans revolve and the Cyclone takes the hits until there’s nothing left for its pilot to do. He ejects, twenty five thousand feet above Keden, but the DAWG’s auto tracking system sees him as hostile and turns the helpless Earther into spray and vapor.

Target critical…proximity warning…target critical in four…three…”

My DAWG’s computerized voice echoes in my ear. I let go of the Magnatech holding me in place and cringe as my stomach reaches through my throat and I drop out of the sky, roll over onto my back and push for maximum thrust. It is the quickest way I know to escape the blast. The falling Cyclone above breaks apart and mentally, I shut of the Vulcans still tearing into it. The shockwaves from the explosion shake me but I am clear, and the once sleek Earther Machine becomes a brilliant ball of fire and burning, spinning parts.

“Alpha..!”

“Akita?”

“I’m in trouble. Cyclone on my six, I can’t shake him, help me!”

“Hang on buddy!”

Desperation is in my voice and Terrier’s MAV, in pieces on the ice, is in my eye.

“…Iron Five…Get that bastard off Akita!”

“It’s a full court press boss. We’ve got incoming Cyclones too!” Bull comes through first.

“Mirana…”

“Huski…”

“…How are you on ammo?”

“Low but I’m coming to you…”

“No…get to the Weapons Carrier and wait for us!”

She pauses, only for a split second and then “Don’t keep me waiting…”

“I’ll be there, go!”

This is not good. There are six of those bastards and six of us, one of which is no match in this fight. We’ve destroyed three so far and added to the six that are here right now, that leaves one unaccounted for.

Terri, where are you, you bastard?

I think of Akita and the tracking system finds him thirty miles away at three thousand feet above ground. I fall from the sky head first and ask the AI for more power; and my DAWG responds.

Mach one…I push for more…Mach two…Faster…Mach three…I’m sixty seconds away, ten thousand feet and leveled out.

“Alpha..!” It’s Pitbull “…got a breakaway, I think he’s tracking you…”

I maintain my mad dash toward Akita and scan the skies for the incoming Cyclone. The Computer shows me what I am looking for like the blink of an eye and its speed, altitude, angle of approach and arsenal, embeds into my brain like a leech.

“Bull, can you get it?”

“Would love to Cap, but we’re two on two right now…”

“Dane..?”

“…Estoy tratando pero estoy demasiado lejos!” She’s hyped so I don’t bother her about the Spanish

“Keep coming to us…”

By the looks of it, I have a minute-and-some to kill Akita’s pursuer if I want to be ready for the demon behind me

“Akita, I’m on my way, hang on…”

“I’m hanging!”

His guns are blazing in the background. He is backwards flying. I slow to suit the rate of approach as the distance between us closes in seconds. I boost my Magnatech to full power and resist the vomit once again; I doubt that I can fight it a third time. The Cyclone is on Akita like lightning, jinking and turning with him like it was nothing but I am here, four hundred feet behind, six hundred above and closing still. Images of my battle on Solace Five flicker in and out of sight but I push them away. My weapons system locks on to him but the Earther drops to the desert floor below, stands still, and makes his final line-up on Akita. So I, without thinking about it, hit the ground too. If I don’t do something soon, Akita will be battling, God-knows-how-many missiles.

The enemy is seconds away from launching while the brown dusty ground rushes up to meet me. I hit the dirt running, plant one foot forward and the other behind, I have got to be steady, raise both arms, focus, and open fire.

The hyper-rattle of both Vulcans erupting fill the air as I release a barrage of twenty Catalysts that streak away and toward the Earthfront Mecha five hundred feet out. I may have overdone it with this attack. My enemy rotates in my direction and my Dees immediately adapt to the wicked glare that expands and blossoms into a mushroom of superheated death and again, my warning systems come alive.

I turn in time to see another Cyclone on the ground a hundred feet away, Auto-cannon spitting at me. My armor takes the hits but I am going to have to do something about it soon or he will tear into me.

Warning…missile lock…missile launch imminent…” But…One…two…three…four…five…six…seven…and still more Catalysts rain down on him as bullets slice through his armor, reducing the advanced technology to bent, twisted, burning and torn apart scrap metal. The Mecha bursts open in a hail of fire and debris.

“…Whooooooow!” Mirana flies by and leaves a row of rising dust in her wake.

“Nice save Gunner…”

“Anytime Alpha…”

“I thought I was supposed to meet you on the Hawk?”

My DAWG lifts me into the air and I join her MAV as she comes around for another low level fly-by.

“I owed you one…”

I select the open-communications module “Iron Five…”

Akita is first in my ear “Alpha…”

Pitbull now “On our way boss…”

Maria is still on her high “Estoy Aqui…”

“Get down here…”

I hold a two mile circle at five hundred feet while waiting for them

“Gunner..?”

“Alpha..?

“Get to the Hawk this time, re-load and wait for us there…”

“Copy that…”

I watch her peel away from our holding pattern, gain altitude and shrink to a dot in the brown sky. Through the Neural, I get a flash of my team approaching and when we are all flying in sync, I take us to a thousand feet at the speed of sound. With the majority of the Cyclones out of the way, we might actually have a fighting chance.

“Okay guys, there’s no room for error here. I’m on point, Pitbull and Akita, you’re the second wave. Hound, Dane, you guys finish what we’re about to start.”

“Boss…I have visual on Jackal Three…”

“I see it Bull, follow me in and let’s do it clean the first time…”

I accelerate and lead the team to three hundred feet above Immediate Ground Level. The desert floor whipping by looks like a never ending smudge as we close in on our target.

“Raider One…”

The onboard computer projects Al-Jair’s call-sign and his voice hits me like a slap in the ear. He is in combat. I can tell by the wildness in his words and the chatter-chatter of gunfire behind them.

“Alpha I have you on scan, bring the fire!”

“Clear out, this is gonna be a storm…”

“Copy, clear-out…”

We rush toward the monster saucer with sixty seconds to impact and a menu opens in front of me. At the speed of thought, I select my Supernova’s, launch them both, and climb straight vertical.

Keden’s dirt floor shrinks within seconds and the indicator passes two thousand miles per hour as the first heavy missile detonates, and one by one the rest of my team deliver their blows.

At fifteen thousand feet, I roll over as the rapidly rising and churning cloud of fire and smoke erupts. The Raiku Command Platform breaks apart and crumbles to the desert floor, all of their aircraft and ground troops either surrendering, being blown up or high-tailing it to the next platform a hundred miles away.

I go to open-communications now “Iron Five. Angels twenty, form up on me…”

“Aye Captain…”

I rise to twenty thousand feet and we head off toward the Minera. Then, stepping up to twenty five thousand feet, I connect to our Forward Command Center.

“Nalas Command…”

“Captain Gant, Nalas Command has you on link, what’s your status?”

“Low on firepower and need re-load…”

“Track Hawk at angels forty, locale is being uploaded to you…now”

“Copy, Hawk is Angels forty and location is received…Iron Five on our way.”

We take our flight to forty thousand feet and the expanse of Keden, like a light-brown desert map, spreads out beneath us. The HAWC is two hundred miles away and we will be there in five minutes.

“Iron Five, Hawk has you on approach vector, you have guidance on link. Go auto and reduce speed to three hundred and twenty, over…”

The voice is female and sounds like her throat is made of sand paper.

“Iron Five copies guidance…”

I slow to three hundred and twenty miles per hour and give control to the autopilot

“…Hawk, you have control.”

“Roger that Iron Five. Re-load is twenty seconds after dock-up. Remain inside your machines. Await clearance and coordinates before undock.”

“Will do…”

The com flickers off and the hazy outline of the High Altitude Weapons Carrier appears ahead. Fighter groups of MAV’s serve as escorts to the heavily fortified and armed Carrier and can be seen flying with it and in patterns at varying altitudes. A few Mecha and Sky Fighters are on deck, some just arriving, some being loaded while others head off to other battle sites. My altimeter reads forty thousand feet and the switch from manual to auto flight is flawless. I connect to Mirana’s MAV on a secure link.

“Gunner..?”

“Alpha…”

“When this is over, let me buy you a coffee…”

My heart beats as if in combat while she takes her time with the answer. Three seconds, but it seems like an hour. The Weapons Carrier is clearer now.

“I know a joint in Marasa…”

I have no idea what Marasa is and no doubt, she realizes this

“…it’s a little town on the Minera. There’s a coffee shop on the waterfront called King’s brew…”

“Sounds like a plan…”

 

Our conversation lasts a good five minutes and I am about to ask her about her tastes when the HAWC Flight Director comes through again.

“Iron Five…Speed sync in twenty seconds…”

I acknowledge him as the Carrier gets closer until we pass over its flat surface of lights and landing docks. Three heavily armed Mecha unlatch from an area off on my right and as they lift into the wicked air currents, one by one, the Ked pilots slide away from us and drop off into nothingness.

The sensations of the Autopilot as it shifts and corrects my trajectory are strange. Slowly, it takes me over the designated space for my DAWG, and the computer shows my deceleration while my team and I slow to three hundred miles an hour; matching the flight of the Weapons Carrier.

The auto-guidance brings me down until the thump of my machine colliding with the Eversteel surface indicates a solid connection. The docking clamps snap my legs in place and my Mecha is now held stable as robotic arms and loaders connect to me. A digital menu appears and I select my choice of weaponry.

Armor piercing, explosive rounds – Full re-load

Catalysts – Full re-load

Supernovas – 2

The slight shudders that rock me are effects of the ammunition being fitted outside. The computer tells me that I’m good to go and the Flight Director makes contact.

“Iron Five, you have release in thirty…”

“Iron Five reads thirty seconds to release. We’re good to go.” Switching to my team “Iron Five, follow to angels fifteen and bullet to Jackal two…”

Pitbull comes back “On you, Boss…”

The flight director is in our ears again “Iron Five, you’re good for flight. Undocking now…good luck…”

The Latches unclip and I feel the change in motion as they do. I go from securely standing on deck to swaying in the wind, so it’s back to manual control for me. Asking my DAWG for power, I lift into the heavy air-currents and accelerate over and away from the HAWC.

CHAPTER 15 – JERICHO

 

 

Sunlight cracks the dusty horizon with its silvery glare. It has been a wild night. The dark, early morning skies had been all lights and action unlike anything I have ever seen in my career. Guns blazing, missiles tracking, bombs targeting, explosions erupting, ground shaking, sky shattering…we did, however, manage to destroy Jackal Two and One but the celebration was short lived. Not long after our efforts to hold our enemies at bay seemed successful, we found ourselves badly outnumbered as swarms of Dynasty fighter squadrons and Battle groups broke atmosphere, overran the forward command posts and devastated Keden’s frontlines. We and Al-Jair were forced to regroup and await further instructions, and now, the Raiku are mere moments away from taking Dunan and its outlying territories.

 

“Iron Five…”

Al-Jair comes over our coms

“…We’re making a run on Jackal Seven in twenty minutes. Keep us clear of hostile aircraft and artillery until we’re through…”

“Iron Five copies, we’ll be there in twenty…”

But an avalanche of noise splits the heavens. At thirty thousand feet in the air, we bear witness to a crippled Raiku Battle Cruiser as it falls helplessly to the desert floor below. No doubt killed in orbit, it is a spectacle to behold. About a mile long and half mile wide, the warship comes apart in balls of flaming pieces, each chunk monstrous while the bulk of it travels, according to my scans, at over a thousand miles per hour. But as it falls, it slows. Even in the face of annihilation, the Magnatech fail-safes on board would slow it down, reducing a potential planetary catastrophe to nothing more than localized damage.

“That’s gonna make a dent…”

I respond to Mirana on the open com “Whatever hit it must be a powerhouse…”

As if on cue, hundreds of Starships pierce the sky, their blue and white hulls dazzling in the morning sunlight and their Earthfront logos visible even without magnification.

“Earthfront…” Hound breaks the silence.

And we look on as our home ships descend and flood the battlefield within minutes.

“Alpha..!”

I accept Al-Jair’s incoming transmission “Victory here is ours. Your new objectives are to report to Nalas and board the designated Starship there. Your mission is to rendezvous with Al-Raadein on Aaram. He will give you your new orders when you arrive.”

“Alpha copies objective Nalas, and Mission Rendezvous with Al-Raadein. It was a pleasure fighting alongside you General.”

“The pleasure was also mine Earther…Fly brave…”

“Fly Strong…” I give my blessing and switch to Iron Five’s secure com “…Iron Five, Bullet to Nalas. Form up on me and speed sync in ten.”

The thrill of battle is still in me but I am, at the same time, glad to be away from this war and finally one step closer to my ultimate objective. I don’t care how long it takes, or what I have to do to get it done, but Terri will answer to me for what he did, even if it is by my trigger.

Leaning sideways, my DAWG drops from the sky and thirty thousand feet becomes twenty thousand in seconds. The fight on Keden might be over, but the war has only just begun. Getting a battle-group to an already invaded Earth is not going to be a walk in the park.

“Iron Five, Nalas Command has you on approach, follow digital to Landing Zone one five, contact on touchdown.”

“Roger that, Nalas Command, we have digital.”

Nalas Base is a hazy outline ahead of us. As I descend to two thousand feet above the Minera, I deploy my airbrakes and the distance closes within the minute.

“Nalas Command…Iron five is on deck and waiting.”

“Iron Five, power down and proceed to Hanger seventeen. Condor awaits you for bullet to Aaram. Welcome back.”

“Copy that…Iron Five out.”

After shutting down the DAWGs and stepping out from our cockpits for the first time in almost twenty four hours, we get to our new ship. It has been a rough ride, the past few hours, and we each take turns in the double bathrooms onboard Condor. The spaces are not as roomy as the Mirage but will still do nicely. While each of our flight suits are run through a cyclic cleaner, sterilizing and eliminating all traces of piss and shit and whatnot, the team and I relax in clothes given by Al Jair’s staff. This is the nasty side of war and military life, unsavory and unpleasant but a part of the whole nonetheless.

 

********

 

Now harnessed and sitting in the cockpit of this triangular ship in fresh flight suits, we ready the systems for lift off and are awaiting permission to launch. It has been a gruelling battle and we are all feeling the effects of sleep, but Aaram is five hundred light years from K1 so we will have a good six hour sleep after we enter hyperspace.

“Condor, Nalas Control has you ready for launch. Taxi to runway five and hold, over?”

“Condor copies Taxi to runway five and hold.”

I take a good look at the people around me. It was not so long ago that Terrier was with us, behind the controls, right where Dane is sitting. Things have changed but we are still Iron Five. I steal a glimpse at Mirana and she looks my way. I smile before going back to what we were doing; there will be time to talk later.

With a slight push into my seat, Maria rolls us out of the hangar and into the blazing sunlight, across the tarmac, and then with a one hundred and eighty degree turn, lines up with the runway. We put our helmets on. It has been a long time since I have experienced a rolling takeoff and within the minute, our coms come alive.

“Condor, your launch is a go. Take it to angels seventy and await co-ordinates.”

“Condor copies angels seventy and wait for co-ords…”

The brakes are released and the cockpit shudders under the immense power of the Sol Combustion Engines. Dane accelerates the ship and we speed down the runway. Outside my window, Nalas and her island blurs past and then drops and angles away from us. The familiar sensation of my stomach being pushed into my gut lingers on the edges of my thoughts but in two minutes, the sky grows darker and Keden becomes an image of grooves and lines far below.

At seventy thousand feet, we are on the edge of the planet’s atmosphere. The Condor’s artificial gravity kicks in, and after a crackle on the com, the rusty female voice from Nalas comes through again.

“Co-ordinates to System Gate Jericho have been uploaded. Good luck Condor.”

I acknowledge the Flight Director “Condor has co-ords and our flight is a go.”

Keden’s two Starports are nowhere in sight. Based on the Holo in front of me, they on the other side of the world and according to the info I unintentionally ask for, neither of them would ever be in this location. But Dane draws me from my thoughts as she speeds us up. Everything outside my window shifts now that she has engaged our Eon Drive, and we jump into the blackness of space.

 

Keden would be nothing but a micro-speck in the portrait of space now, with all of its fighting no longer our concern. After twenty minutes, we come out of warp and the large, cube shaped Gate known as Jericho speeds toward us. Interacting with the System-Gate’s AI is not at all difficult. The Condor’s Artificial intelligence gives the exact calculations to the isolated station and Maria guides us via the Gate’s Digital Magnetics. We slowly, one thousand miles an hour, move along the Eversteel rail that extends outward from the control center and within the minute, the jolt from a split second of electrocution shocks us all as we are launched into hyperspace.

CHAPTER 16 – IRON FIVE

 

 

We come out of our jump and the most visible thing in sight is a planet that is, according to my screen, fifty thousand kilometers away. It is nothing but a monstrous ball of white and green, hanging in the middle of nowhere and based on the information being fed to us, this is Aaram.

We are in the Armenese System and from memory it is a very remote one. Ten thousand light years from Sol, its location in the Galaxy allows for obscurity, because the only access to it is by System Gate or Xien, the Capital System of the Raiku.

We approach the planet on its day side at twenty thousand miles per hour and after an hour and a half, and fighting the waves of nausea from our Magnetic deceleration, we enter atmosphere and follow the co-ordinates given to us from Nalas.

“Condor…” The com comes alive “…Nest has you on approach, take it to angels twenty two and Auto-dock on pad eight, nine.”

At least this guy’s voice doesn’t sound as though he’s got sand in his throat.

“Condor copies, taking it to twenty two thousand feet…”

Aaram’s mountain ranges become clearer, spreading off in every direction and as we get closer, grooves and crevices and cliffs suddenly become menacing. Like jagged arms outstretched and begging us to come near, the granite edges shimmer in the sunlight, casting long shadows down their barren sides. Under Aaram’s pale green and white sky, mostly green, the planet maintains a surreal appearance, like soft colors in hazy memories of childhood days back on Earth.

“Condor…slow to two hundred and go auto”

“Copy…Condor is on approach, slowing to two hundred, we are now on auto…”

“Nest has you Condor. You have guidance on link. Welcome to Aaram.”

At twenty two thousand feet above ground, our flight path takes us between many peaks and rock faces that stand like heads on the shoulders of titans. As the scenery drifts by, I imagine what it might be like to live here. The air is a hundred percent breathable, making Aaram the only planet in this system like it. However, there are no cities on this rock, but settlements can be found at the bases of many of these mountains where the rivers run clean and clear and disappear below surface.

In times long ago, Geologists had paved the ways to large lakes in caves, deep underground, but few make the journeys now. Flash Flooding has forever been a danger on Aaram.

The ship veers to the left and we round another precipice. This reveals a large complex built into a massive mountain near its peak dead ahead. Eversteel buildings, runways and landing pads at many different levels which have been embedded into the surrounding nature, make up the strange sight; latched into the rocky incline like a parasite.

 

Within ten minutes we are docked at a landing pad on one of the upper levels. Our escorts lead us through a series of tunnels by way of Airvan and within the hour, my team and I are now standing in an expensive office and in the presence of Keden’s leader, Al-Raadein.

“Sit, Gentlemen…Ladies…” We take our seats quietly and he continues “…Our efforts have been successful, thanks to your selfless service to Keden…”

Selfless service..? His definition of selflessness and mine are entirely unrelated

“…However, our spies have relayed new information. A Cyclone unit has recently been stationed at a Raiku base on Jakta.”

“Jakta..? That’s a mere four hundred Lights from Sol.”

“Intelligence has confirmed that it has gone to rendezvous with an army of Dragons…the Dynasty’s equivalent to the Cyclone project. With Raiku battleships awaiting our invasion, it is safe to believe that Terrier will be leading the Dragons to intercept us in Earth’s atmosphere.”

“Then we’ll be ready for them…”

“…That you will. The Galactic Nine has sent more Dogs to our aide and Earth’s older Cyclone regiments are already engaged in combat as we speak.”

This is a relief. During my military training, we learned of the high tech battle gear of the Raiku. But little information about the Empire’s top secret program had given way to more speculation than fact.

“When this is over, we will strike the Raiku menace at their heart…and you will be among those of us leading the way.”

I was wondering when it would get around to this. If the Dynasty fell, the first galactic power to lay claim to its wealth would have a permanent foothold among the stars. I’m beginning to have second thoughts about helping these people. What is there to stop them from going to war with Earth if they took control of the Raiku worlds?

 

 

********

 

 

The meeting lasted for an hour before we were dismissed. It will take Keden’s combined forces with Earthfront and the Galactic Nine, eighteen hours to arrive in Sol. If their calculations are correct, we should exit hyperspace around five hundred thousand kilometers from Earth; close enough for a successful assault and atmospheric entry.

According to Al-Raadein, the armadas on Aaram will not be ready for launch until midday tomorrow. That is twenty hours from now, so in the midst of all this mess, there will actually be some downtime and without wasting any of it, Akita is off and on the prowl. Hound and Maria were last seen deep in conversation around a stripped down engine in the hangar and Pitbull was left chatting up a busty brunette in the cafeteria

…As for me and Mirana…

“It’s not King’s Brew, but this is nice…”

I smile at the way she says it with a sigh; a steaming mug of coffee in her hand. We are on an open, stone patio, part of a riverside restaurant in a village at the foot of one of the mountains a few miles from Base. It’s beautiful here, even without plant life. The clear water coming around a bend not far away, flows past us and disappears about a quarter of a mile downstream. The constant gurgle of it, relaxing, and everywhere, no matter where you go on this planet, smells like freshly cut stone.

I follow the scars on her face. Some might say that she is unattractive because of them, but she is beautiful to me. Her red hair is let down and I like that. I don’t think I have ever seen her wear it this way and as our conversation lasts well into the evening, her eyes shimmer in the dimming light.

A green and white glow has now spread across the canyon. On the opposite riverbank, the smooth rock face that lines the shore, reflects the sunlight and glistens like one very large precious stone.

“How does all this affect you?”

I look at her without any idea of how to answer and she continues

“…I mean Iron Five and your life as a soldier?”

“I don’t know. If Earth is not the way I want it to be after all this, then it’s hard to say. I don’t want to work for the Keds, and Galactic Nine is nothing but one big spy network…not my thing really…”

“…I know…Black Ops is your, thing…”

“Is that why you hated me?”

“I didn’t hate you…I found you to be arrogant and disrespectful. It’s normally that way when a woman is in any position above a man.” She pauses “I’m not saying that it’s that way with you now. But I’ve seen my fair share of pig heads so forgive me if I once placed you in the same category.”

“It’s okay, none is taken, and it was never about your position as a woman. I just hated Keden and I guess I let my emotions get the better of me.”

“Well your hatred for the place got me to not like you.”

“…and now?”

She goes quiet. Our eyes arrest each other again

“…I like you a little bit…”

We both laugh.

 

The afternoon turns to night. Stars light the clear sky and one of the planet’s three moons illuminate the valley, causing rocks here-and-there to cast glints of reds, greens, blues and purples. I stand and walk to the stone balustrade at the edge of the terrace and Mirana joins me in gazing out at the colored rocks all around.

“When this is over, where are you going to go?”

It is a question that I had been meaning to ask her for some time now. She leans on my arm and rests the side of her head on my shoulder. It is an unexpected move, but I keep my cool and put my arm around her.

“I’m not sure. I doubt that I’ll fit in on Earth, it’s been too long…” She sounds tired “…to be honest, I’ve grown quite attached to Keden…”

“Keden..?” I didn’t see that coming.

“Yes Keden. It’s not as bad as you think.”

“So you’d live where…in Dunan?”

“No…I’m not a city girl. I can though, see myself settling down in Marasa…”

“…the town on the Minera..?”

“Yeah…”

“What would you do there?”

“Tourism…yes…” She continues before I can say anything “…there’s a market for it there. I’ve envisioned it for some time now. There are so many islands on the lake and everyone sees them by air. I’d like to provide some good ole boat tours…”

“Sounds like fun, and it makes sense now that I think of it. It’s just that I pegged you for a lifetime in the military.”

“Don’t get me wrong Huski, I love my job. But there comes a time, especially after surviving two invasions, when one has to re-evaluate life and where to go in it. What about you, where would you go?”

I want to tell her wherever she goes but I know I am not going to ever settle on Keden. And besides, I doubt that I would ever be able to leave the team.

Maybe I’d like it on Keden…”

“You, on Keden..?” She laughs “I know better than anyone else how much you hate that place.”

“I could love what’s on it…”

The moment of silence is awkward but I ignore it.

“…and what will you do there?”

“…That’s the tough part. I don’t know anything outside of my life as a soldier. It’s all I’ve ever known and dreamed of…”

“…Then live your dream…”

There is another moment between us. I wish that we were headed down the same path but it is obvious we are not. What will I do without the team? Iron Five is everything I know. Could I actually let it all go and settle down…on Keden?

“Live my dream?”

“Yes…you only have on life…Alpha…

I fall head first into her eyes. Her waist is heaven as I slide an arm around it.

“Alpha…” Her body, warm and perfect against mine, enchants me “…what are you doing?”

Her voice is soft, I drift in it.

“…Living my dream…”

And with her hands slowly finding their place around my neck, the soft heat of her lips connects with mine. I am complete.

 

The night wears on, and after a walk through the lively village filled with bonfires, food, drinking, music, happy voices, and another out-of-this-world kiss, we get to the port and board a shuttle that will take us back to base.

The chemistry is definitely there, but the uncertainty of our immediate future hangs like a rift between us and takes root where intimacy should be. I want more of her and she feels the same, I can tell by the way she held my hand and returned my gaze but now, back on base and alone in my room; I am not sure where we go from here. I close my eyes and after God-knows-how-long, I finally drift off to sleep.

 

 

 

********

 

 

Aaraman Desert

1330 Hours Aaram Time

 

According to my computer, the time is thirteen thirty hours and we are in the Condor awaiting launch. From our position we have a good enough view of the Aaraman Desert as it is called by the locals, fifty thousand miles from the nest. Akita’s voice is the one most heard in the cockpit as he drones on about his latest love; the sexy mechanic who had connected our ship to the base’s maintenance equipment when we arrived here. Akita just never ceases to amaze me.

In a half of an hour’s time, midday on this twenty eight hour world, eighty thousand ships; Battle cruisers, Dreadnaughts, Carriers, HAWC’s, Command Centers, Invaders and more will launch from every military installation on the planet. The fleet would be rendezvousing at a System Gate known as Chronos One; the only Gate in the system with the power to jump such a large force.

Mirana is strapped in not too far from me, but a conversation here is a conversation with everyone so I remain silent. We had a great evening yesterday and although our paths seem to go separate ways, I know that if we are alive after this whole ordeal, then the gap which keeps us apart might somehow be bridged.

The coms crackle to life and Akita closes his mouth

“God-fist…” It’s the name of our fleet “…Nest has you ready for launch in ten minutes…go auto and sync up…”

The moment has arrived. We are engines rumbling and hearts pounding as the armada, as far as the eye can see, quakes the dry plains and fills the air with dust, revealing flat rocky surfaces beneath the dirt. Our Magnatech takes over, lifting us slowly…twenty feet, forty feet, sixty…a hundred. Every ship, in every direction floats above ground at a hundred feet right now. The cockpit vibrates with the force of thousands of engines that pound the planet surface. Wild winds whip up and spin into dust tornadoes and the world beneath us cracks and splinters as the count down from ten seconds reaches zero and God-fist begins to accelerate.

With tremendous force and incredible noise, our armadas defy Aaram’s gravity and climb to ten thousand feet and still rising. The rumbling grows in intensity after a while and the skies darken. Twenty five thousand feet…I’ve never seen anything like this. Thousands of ships of all sizes and classes taking off at the same time…the sight is phenomenal; without doubt something to talk about while having a cold one at the bar with the guys.

The coms flash on again

“God-fist…you are a go for vacuum. Bullet to Chronos in fifteen, prep for high-light.”

We put on our helmets and prepare for departure in fifteen minutes. Our angle of ascent has changed from horizontal liftoff to a vertical climb. The planet and its deserts, along with all of its mountain ranges now lay behind us and the black of space becomes more and more visible with each passing minute. Fifty thousand feet…The fleet is now moving at six times the speed of sound and as the computer signals the fifteen minute mark, the scene outside our windscreen warps and stretches as we jump through the solar system.

 

As though time flew by in a millisecond, we come out of Hyper Light and instead of blurred lights, the eighty thousand ships that are now headed to Earth, fill our view. Chronos, one of the few manned System Gates in existence, is a half circular, grey and red station with a rail so large, it reads at ten miles wide and fifty long. The power this thing generates must be astronomical in order to throw eighty thousand battle ships into hyperspace at once; Sol Technology at its peak if you ask me.

“God-fist…Chronos has you on link. You are cleared for hyper to Sol. Maintain sync and flight pattern, jump is a go in forty, thirty nine, thirty eight, thirty seven…”

The time has finally come. There is no turning back. The massive rail is a dazzling sight as arcs of pure white electricity ripple along its length. I prepare my mind for the split second shock to come but the anticipation of it still gets my heart pumping. Yet I have questions I cannot shake.

The Raiku knows we’re coming. How big is the battle group awaiting us on the other side of this jump? Are we going to survive this? After all is said and done, who among us will still be alive? What happens to Mirana and me afterwards? Is there an “afterwards”?

“…five, four, three…”

I feel the tug on my senses as I am squashed into my seat

“…two, one…jump initiated…fly Brave.”

We lurch forward, the arcs of electrical currents split apart, reaching out to every ship in the fleet and with a wicked shock to my system, we enter the slipstream at eighty three point three, three, three light years per hour, and everything goes black.


Iron Five

To give a traditional description of my book would be the acceptable thing to do, however, I tend to do things my way every-so-often and so, in light of my excitement to share my world with you...here is what I know. According to history, mankind came across Sol-technology in the year 2035 AD. A scientist by the name of Doctor Lorenz Olivius created the first ever successful, miniature replica of the sun. The applications were, as one can imagine, limitless. Within fifteen years of its dawn, the Sol Combustion engine had allowed mankind to go beyond their limitations and finally reach for the stars. This breakthrough had then led to one hundred years of galactic searching and mapping and development. Then in 2150 AD, our ancestors left Earth in massive Starship fleets for new homes and in doing so, a new era was born; the era of, The Exodus. Now as far as I remember, Kedenians were among the first to leave for the stars. Originally, settling on Nema; a Goldilocks planet in a system five light years from Earth. But after fifty years of disputes now known as The Splinter Wars, Earthfront expelled the rogue clan, known then as, Keden Industries. Their leader, Amir Kedeni and his supporters were banished and forced to search for a non-hostile world in unknown space and it wasn’t long before they stumbled across a rich, desert planet now named Keden. Shortly after...a few decades to be precise...mankind colonized many systems in the Milky Way and large Corporations, Governments and various organizations rose to govern it all. Earthfront, the leading authority in most of our Galactic Domain, is the largest governing body in existence but even as peace reigns throughout known space, Keden, it seems, would forever be a hostile world toward them. And so here we are. The year is now 878TE and thirty Million Light-years from Earth, on the arid Planet Keden, is a wealth of untapped resources and power. But one man, with a twisted vision, sets in motion a plan that can change the fate of the Galaxy forever and caught in the crossfire, our heroes of Iron Five, Captain Richard Gant and his crew, must overcome the challenges of Love, Grief and Betrayal, and strap themselves into the cockpits of Next Generation war machines as they are thrown headlong into the heart of a conflict, the likes of which has never been recorded. I hope you enjoy Sincerely – Seon O. Stronghold

  • Author: Seon O. Stronghold
  • Published: 2016-07-15 18:50:17
  • Words: 63686
Iron Five Iron Five