Original Work Favour The Bold (The Empire's Corps 16)

Discussion in 'Survival Reading Room' started by ChrisNuttall, Aug 26, 2019.

  1. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Hi, everyone

    Favour The Bold is, technically, Book 16 in The Empire's Corps ... but it's really the start of a whole new story arc. Basically, all you really need to know is that the Galactic Empire has collapsed, chaos is breaking out everywhere and the remains of the Terran Marine Corps are struggling to save something - anything - of civilisation. You can see the earlier books in the series here - The Chrishanger. (Book One is on KU).

    See the cover here - http://chrishanger.net/Kindle/TEC/FTB/Favour the Bold.jpg

    As always, comments, spelling corrections, etc are warmly welcomed.

    My health is a mess right now, so updates may be slower than you might wish.

    Now read on ...

    Thank you


    PS - a couple of people were asking how to follow me. Just watch my blog <grin>.

    The Chrishanger
  2. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


    From: The Dying Days: The Death of the Old Order and the Birth of the New. Professor Leo Caesius. Avalon. 206PE.

    It is difficult to say, with any real certainty, when the collapse of the Galactic Empire became inevitable. The stresses and strains that would eventually tear the empire apart, sparking off a series of vicious civil wars that would kill uncounted trillions of people, were clearly visible - to those who cared to see - hundreds of years before Earthfall. Indeed, by the time I was born - a mere fifty years before Earthfall - it was unlikely that anything could avert collapse. The best anyone could do was stave off disaster for a handful of years. Eventually - inevitably - Earth collapsed into madness, then death. It took the Core Worlds with it.

    The chain of events that led to Earthfall - and the plans made by some, particularly the Terran Marine Corps, to salvage something from the disaster - have been amply documented elsewhere. Our historical records are open to debate - and generations of historians have debated extensively - but the basic facts are not in dispute. Reconstructing the events following Earthfall, however, will always pose a challenge. It is very difficult to track the course of events, as the news radiated out from Earth. There were naval officers, for example, who declared themselves warlords ... only to be swept away, days later, by the press of events; there were space stations, asteroid settlements and entire colonies that were wiped out, in passing, by one side or another. Governments declared quite draconian measures to control unrest - or secure their power, or remove minorities they found troublesome - and discovered, too late, that they quite unable to enforce them. There are great gaps in the historical record that will probably never be filled.

    It is simply impossible, too, to grasp the true scale of the disaster. Earth’s official population, before Earthfall, was eighty billion. Eighty billion! The human mind cannot imagine so many people. It certainly cannot truly comprehend their deaths in a few short days of nightmarish horror. Nor can it grasp the deaths - millions, billions, trillions - that followed in the days, weeks and months after Earthfall. They died because society collapsed around them, they died because of military action, they died because they were the wrong sort of people and the military was no longer around to oppress everyone into behaving themselves ... in the end, it doesn’t matter why they died. All that matters is that they died.

    There were some, even before my birth, who understood that the end could not be delayed indefinitely. First amongst them was the Terran Marine Corps, led - in its final years - by Major-General Jeremy Damiani. Enjoying an independence from the Grand Senate that even the Imperial Navy could not dream of, possessing an infrastructure that was largely free of political interference, corruption and cronyism, the marines were free to make their preparations for the coming disaster. Long before they recruited me - and shipped me to Avalon - they had a plan. It was not a good plan, as Damiani happily admitted, but it was the best they could put together on short notice. It says something about the scale of the problem that ‘short notice’ was nearly a century.

    The first part of the plan called for securing colony worlds, like Avalon.

    The second part of the plan involved the Core ...
    rle737ng likes this.
  3. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter One

    It is difficult to say when the Fall of the Galactic Empire became obvious to the vast majority of its citizens. The Core Worlders, living as they did in a political, media and social bubble, had no idea of the gathering storm until the empire collapsed and all hell broke loose. The Fringers, on the other hand, had very little contact with the Core and didn’t realise - at first - that Earth was gone.
    - Professor Leo Caesius. Earthfall and its Aftermath.

    The city was falling into darkness.

    Specialist Rachel Green felt her heart start to pound as the aircar flew towards the distant spaceport, her enhanced eyesight picking out the armed helicopters and skimmers orbiting the installation and watching for signs of trouble. Hundreds of aircars, trucks and buses were heading to the spaceport too, the rats leaving the sinking ship. The news - Earthfall - had arrived only two weeks ago and the planet was already falling into chaos. The policemen, guardsmen and soldiers on the streets below weren’t enough to keep long-held discontents from bursting into violence.

    It will be worse when they realise that food is going to run out, sooner rather than later, she thought. Gamma Prime had never been a particularly habitable world, more dependent on most on advanced technology and food imports to keep the population alive. There was no way they could feed everyone, now that interstellar trade had gone to the dogs. And when they realise their leaders have abandoned them, they’ll go mad with rage.

    She looked down at the darkened CityBlocks - the power had been cut, only a few short hours ago - and shivered in sympathy. The towering skyscrapers weren’t anything as horrific as the endless warrens of Old Earth - dead Earth, now - but they were still nightmarish, as far as she was concerned. Generations of people could be born, get married, have children, grow old and die ... without ever stepping into the wider world. She wondered, as the aircar adjusted course and flew towards the security zone, if Lieutenant Opal Moonchild would be grateful that Rachel had taken her place. She’d be transported off-world, whatever happened. She’d survive the brewing chaos that would throw the planet into the deepest darkest pits of hell.

    She’ll be grateful once she realises she’s no longer in any danger, Rachel told herself, firmly. Lieutenant Moonchild had been on long-leave, before Earthfall and the emergency recall of everyone who had ever worn a uniform. It’s I who should be concerned.

    The aircar started to descend, heading towards the landing pad. Rachel took a long breath, calming herself. She always got the shakes before a mission began, particularly one that left her isolated from the rest of the team. She’d known she’d be on her own going in, of course, right from the moment she’d been briefed ... but no training and planning could ever encompass the feeling of being completely alone. If everything went to hell, she’d have to punch her way out and hope for the best. And she knew, all too well, that if her cover was blown once she was inside the security perimeter, she didn’t have a hope of getting out alive.

    As long as it isn’t quite impossible, she thought, I can do it.

    The aircar landed with a bump. The hatch opened. Rachel stood and clambered out, looking around with interest. The entrance was guarded by five heavily-armed men, looking so much like hulking gorillas that she knew they were enhanced. Their enhancements probably weren’t comparable to hers, but that didn’t mean they weren’t dangerous. She was mildly surprised their employers hadn’t tried to hide the enhancements. They probably had all their licences in order - and no one really cared any longer, in any case - but humans still reacted badly to openly-enhanced soldiers. It saved a great deal of angst if the enhancements were carefully hidden.

    One of the guards peered down at her with cold, discerning eyes. “Papers, please.”

    Rachel removed the biochip from her blouse and held it out to him, trying to show just the right amount of unease under his porcine gaze. He took the chip and scanned it, his companions keeping a close eye on her. Rachel braced herself, silently calculating how best to escape if the mission failed at the first hurdle. She’d worn a tight blouse, deliberately, but they weren’t eying her like a piece of meat. That was worrying. It suggested they were depressingly professional. They’d be harder to fool.

    The biochip is perfect, she told herself firmly. And all the details were inserted into the central databases.

    The guard returned the chip and opened the door. “Pass, friend.”

    Rachel felt a chill running down her spine as she walked through the door and into a large foyer. Hundreds of men and women - some clearly military, some more likely civvies - were sitting on chairs, or the hard metal floor; others, more impatient, were pacing the room while they waited to be called. Rachel found a seat and forced herself to wait, watching as names were called and people left to pass through security screening. It was nearly an hour before they called for Opal Moonchild. Rachel couldn’t help feeling uneasy - again - as she walked through the door and into the security section. If she was going to be caught, she was going to be caught here.

    Another guard, a stern-faced woman, caught her eye. “Strip,” she ordered, shoving a large plastic box at Rachel. “Put everything, and I mean everything, in this box, then seal it up and walk into the next room.”

    “I understand,” Rachel said. Opal would be nervous, so Rachel acted nervous. “What will they ...?”

    “Get on with it,” the woman ordered. “My shuttles at 2250 and I don’t intend to miss it.”

    Rachel nodded and undressed hastily, then walked into the next room. Her implants bleeped up an alert as soon as the door closed behind her, warning her that her body was being scanned right down to the submolecular level. Rachel was torn between being morbidly impressed by their thoroughness and rolling her eyes in disdain. She didn’t have to be naked for a deep scan. It was probably just a reminder that her life was in their hands, that it had been in their hands from the moment she received the recall notice. She schooled her impression into impassibility as the next door opened, allowing her to walk into the third chamber. Three beefy security guards were waiting for her.

    “The scan says you have a neural implant,” the guard said. He kept his eyes firmly on her face. “What’s it for?”

    “Porn,” Rachel said, trying to sound ashamed. It wasn’t easy. She’d feared they’d detect the rest of her implants. “I use it for VR sims ...”

    “A pretty girl like you needs VR sims?” The guard held up a scanner. “I have to test it.”

    “Go ahead.” Rachel bent her head as he pressed the scanner against the back of her neck, trying not to tense too visibly. If the scanner picked up more than it should, she’d have bare seconds to take them all out before the alert sounded and the entire complex went into lockdown. “I ... will it hurt?”

    “Stay still,” the guard ordered. “It’s just a simple ping ...”

    Rachel smiled as her implants went to work, feeding false information into the scanner while - at the same time - accessing the security systems and subverting them. The scanner wouldn’t see anything more than a simple VR cortical stimulator: shameful, as if she’d been caught with a datachip loaded with porn, but hardly illegal. Or dangerous. She could put up with hundreds of ribald jokes if it meant they missed the rest of her implants. She wondered, idly, what they’d make of it if they did. They’d certainly have reason to suspect that something was badly wrong.

    “What a waste,” the guard said. “You wouldn’t need such a toy if you were with me.”

    “If you say so,” Rachel said. She crossed her arms over her breasts. “Can I go now?”

    “Yeah, sure.” The guard pointed at yet another door. “See you on the flip side.”

    Rachel shrugged, then walked through the door and into a small changing room. A large matron was waiting for her, holding a simple uniform tunic in one hand. Her face was friendly, but her eyes were flint-hard ... an anger, Rachel thought, directed at the security goons rather than Rachel herself. She felt an odd flicker of respect for the older woman. She clearly took care of the girls in her charge.

    “You alright?” The matron’s voice was calm, but there was an edge to it that reminded Rachel of some of her sergeants. “They can be a little ... intrusive.”

    “Just a little.” Rachel took the tunic and donned it with practiced ease. “Do they have to make us strip naked?”

    “They’re assholes,” the matron agreed. “Buy a girl a drink first, why don’t you?”

    Rachel had to laugh. “What now?”

    “Now you wait for your shuttle,” the matron said. She held out one meaty hand. “I’m Grace, by the way. I don’t recall seeing you before.”

    “I’ve been on leave,” Rachel said. Opal had been on leave for over a year, long enough - Rachel hoped - for everyone to forget her. She’d had few acquaintances and even fewer friends before she’d gone on leave. As far as the data-miners had been able to determine, there shouldn’t be anyone who’d known her assigned to the spaceport. “I only got the recall yesterday.”

    Grace shrugged. “Wait in the lounge,” she ordered. “Have a drink, if you like. We’ll be boarding in an hour.”

    Rachel nodded, keeping her face under tight control as she made her way into the lounge. It was crammed with people, all military or ex-military. They barely spoke ... or drank, for that matter. The tension was so thick one could cut it with a knife. She wondered, absently, where the civvies were going, then decided it didn’t matter. She’d made it through the security perimeter. The rest of the mission should be a doddle.

    Don’t get overconfident, she told herself, as she found a seat and settled down to wait. You’re not there yet.

    Rachel was used, very used, to waiting, but it still felt as if time was moving slower than usual before they were finally called to the shuttle. The relief in the air was almost palatable. The civilians might be too ignorant to know the planet was doomed, but the military personal had no such luxury. Blasting into space might be their only hope of survival ... no, scratch that, it was their only hope of survival. Grace checked her girls were all buckled in before taking her own seat and waiting for takeoff. Rachel felt a pang of guilt, mingled with the grim awareness she was probably doing Grace a favour. It was never easy when she liked one of the people she was going to betray.

    “I hate flying,” the girl next to her muttered. “I really hate flying ...”

    “It could be worse,” Rachel said. She’d made a HALO jump through a thunderstorm once, back when she’d been young - well, younger - and stupid. The shuttle might be a military design, built more for practicality than comfort, but it was hardly an assault shuttle making a landing on a defended world. “Just close your eyes. It’ll all be over soon.”

    She allowed herself a tight smile as the shaking slowly tapered off into nothingness. The shuttle flight was astonishingly smooth, compared to some of her flights ... but then, someone who’d spent most of her career behind a desk probably wouldn’t realise it. Rachel reminded herself, sharply, that Opel had spent most of her career behind a desk. She’d probably be scared to death, if she was on the shuttle. Rachel sighed at the thought. She’d left it too late to pretend.

    A voice came over the intercom. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We will be docking at the shipyard in two hours, thirty-seven minutes. Please sit back and enjoy the flight. Anyone who wants to join the Light Year Club can apply at the front hatch ...”

    Rachel concealed her amusement as a senior officer towards the front of the shuttle began to shout in outrage. Idiot. He might outrank the pilot, normally, but as long as they were in transit the pilot outranked him. He’d be better off waiting until they docked before he gave the pilot the ass-chewing to outdo all all-chewings. Besides, who cared about stupid jokes when the galaxy was falling into chaos?

    Him, obviously, Rachel thought.

    She closed her eyes, trying to sleep. There was no point in doing anything until they docked, where ... she told herself, firmly, to stop worrying about it. She’d have to improvise ... and have faith that the rest of the team were in position. They were marines. If anyone could do it, they could. But ... she shook her head. There were too many moving parts in the plan for her peace of mind, too many things that could go wrong, but ... they’d planned for as many contingencies as possible. And, if all else failed, they could improvise. She grinned as she fell into sleep. She was quite looking forward to it.

    The shuttle shuddered, snapping Rachel out of sleep. She opened her eyes to see the senior officers already gathering at the hatch, even though it was against safety regulations. But then, the rules didn’t apply to senior officers. She snorted at the thought, then waited for Grace’s command before unbuckling and joining the rest of the girls. One of them was asking, rather plaintively, about the man she’d left behind. Grace didn’t seem to have the heart to tell her that she’d probably never see her boyfriend again.

    Unless he’s bagged himself a shuttle ticket too, Rachel thought, as they started to make their way through the hatch and into the shipyard. He might just have a way to get off-world before the shit hits the fan.

    She looked around with interest as they were pushed down to the barracks. Dozens of armed guards were clearly visible, although they carried shockrods and neural whips rather than automatic weapons. They shoved anyone who didn’t move fast enough to suit them, silencing any complaints with brandished weapons. It looked as if things were worsening, Rachel noted, as she did her best to avoid attracting attention. The planet’s collapse might have accelerated. Who knew what had happened while they were in transit.

    “We’ll be waiting here until we get reassigned,” Grace said, once they were in the barracks and the hatch was firmly closed. “Get some sleep. You’ll need it.”

    A young girl held up a hand. “But what about ...?”

    “Stay in here and get some sleep,” Grace snapped. “Do not go out of the barracks.”

    Rachel took a bunk near the door and closed her eyes, pretending to sleep as her implants reached out and queried the local node. It was locked, but her hacking implants rapidly cut through the node’s defences and gained access. She scanned the security files quickly, noting just how many soldiers, spacers and commandoes had been assigned to the shipyard. Someone - the planetary governor, perhaps - was determined to keep the shipyard under tight control. It was just a shame, Rachel thought, that she was going to steal it from under his nose.

    She waited until everyone was asleep, then rose and looked around. Grace was sleeping right by the door, snoring so loudly that Rachel was surprised that everyone else could sleep. The hatch was locked, probably impossible to open without making a noise. Rachel briefly considered doing it anyway, then shrugged and walked towards the washroom. She’d downloaded a copy of the shipyard’s internal plans from the central database, when she’d been briefed on the mission. There should be a link to the maintenance tubes just inside the washroom. She smiled as she closed the door behind her, then opened the hatch. It hadn’t been locked.

    Careless, she thought, but who would have expected a new recruit to go exploring?

    Her lips twitched at the thought - marines were taught to familiarise themselves with their surroundings before the shit hit the fan - as she pulled herself into the tube and started climbing up towards the command centre. It was a tight squeeze, even for her, but she forced herself to cope. She’d been in worse places. It was more of a challenge to open the internal hatches without setting off the alarms. Thankfully, someone had taken down half of the security network. She smiled, rather coldly. No doubt they’d gotten tired of a constant stream of false alarms from people blundering around like idiots.

    You only need one real alarm to ruin your day, she thought, as she reached the top of the shaft. The tubes didn’t open in the command centre, unfortunately. And this time, the alarm will be real.

    She pressed herself against the hatch, listening intently. There would be at least one guard, perhaps two, outside the command centre itself. That was procedure. She found it hard to believe they’d change that much, even if they were pressed for manpower. Someone would have to tell anyone who got lost that they couldn’t go into the command centre ...

    Bracing herself, she opened the hatch and jumped through. A guard was standing by the command centre hatch, his eyes widening with surprise as he saw her. She didn’t give him time to recover. She drove her hand into his throat with enhanced strength, knocking him to his knees. He was enhanced himself, part of her mind noted. The blow would have killed him if his throat hadn’t been reinforced. Rachel didn’t give him time to recover. She hit him again, harder this time. His body hit the floor with a sickening crunch.

    I’m committed now, Rachel told herself. It had always been true, but ... she could have played at being Opal Moonchild until she had a chance to escape, if she hadn’t shown her hand so blatantly. It’s time to move.

    She searched the guard quickly, removing both his access cards and weapons, then stood and readied herself. Again. If something went wrong, the entire mission would fail spectacularly ...

    Smiling, she pushed her hand against the hatch and hacked the access codes.
  4. Merkun

    Merkun furious dreamer

    Time for a find and replace.
  5. mysterymet

    mysterymet Monkey+++

    Great start to the story!
  6. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Two

    Indeed, some worlds were so isolated - so cut off from the Galactic mainstream - that the inhabitants never actually realised the Empire was gone.
    - Professor Leo Caesius. Earthfall and its Aftermath.

    Space was dark, as dark and cold as the grave.

    Captain Haydn Steel felt it as the stealth shuttle waited, hovering just outside long-range sensor range of the shipyard. The enemy shipyard. It felt odd to be planning an invasion and occupation of what had been, only a few short weeks ago, a friendly shipyard, but the old certainties were gone forever. Earth was gone. The Empire was gone. And he and his men were alone.

    No, he corrected himself. We’re not alone.

    He rested in his webbing, watching through the shuttle’s passive sensors as they waited for the signal. The plan had seemed insane, when he’d been briefed. There simply hadn’t been the time to gather more than a handful of marines and throw them at the problem, not when there was no way to know when Earth would actually fall. Haydn had been brought into the Safehouse Cell years ago, after he’d been promoted to captain, but it had been made clear to him that his entire career might go by without ever having to put the Safehouse Contingency into effect. He’d learned to hope that he would never have to watch helplessly as galactic civilisation collapsed into chaos. He’d seen the projections. The Empire, for all its flaws, was vastly superior to the nightmare that would sweep over the galaxy when it was gone.

    The shipyard hung in front of his eyes, a three-dimensional image that spoke of power and potential, both long-since lost as galactic civilisation started to contract. Gamma Prime had been important, once upon a time. The Imperial Navy had placed a shipyard there that, over the next few centuries, had grown into a commercial enterprise that had rivalled Old Earth herself. Perhaps that was why it had failed, Haydn thought. Earth hadn’t been able to tolerate a rival, not indefinitely. The recession had turned Gamma Prime into a dumping ground for old ships, for warships and commercial vessels that had been placed in reserve, rather than being sold to the highest bidder. No one had expected Gamma Prime to become important, once again. But it had ...

    And if the reports are accurate, he thought grimly, someone is clearly trying to activate the old ships.

    His eyes narrowed as he contemplated the reports from the Pathfinders. Someone - more quick-witted than the usual corporate blowhard - had issued orders for all spacers and industrial workers to report to the shipyards, where ... the reports weren’t clear on where they’d be going, in the long run, but it was clear that their first destination was the shipyard itself. Haydn wasn’t going to knock it - the chaos caused by the sudden demand for personal had allowed the Pathfinders to get their agent onto the shipyard - but he couldn’t help feeling concerned. Someone was thinking ahead. Someone ... might just have a plan that conflicted with Safehouse. And who knew what would happen when the two plans collided?

    We might come to terms with them, he thought. Or we might have to push them out the way.

    He felt sweat prickling down his back as he waited, intimately aware of the seconds ticking away. There had been no time to plan the mission down to the last millisecond and no way to do it, even if they had had time. He would have expected failure, right from the start, if they wound up depending on perfect timing. Instead, they had to keep themselves at the ready for a call that could come at any moment. Or never come at all. If the Pathfinder was caught in transit - the worst possible scenario - the entire plan would fail spectacularly before it even got off the ground. Haydn and his men wouldn’t even know the plan had failed until it was far too late. They’d have to keep waiting until higher authority finally called the mission off.

    And we’d never know what went wrong, he thought, sourly. The only consolation is that they won’t know what happened either.

    He took a long breath, reminding himself - again - that he was a marine with over twenty years of service. He was used to waiting. He was used to being on standby, waiting for a call that came late or never came at all. But ... this was no normal mission. They were going to be engaging potential allies, people who might have worked with the marines ... people who probably had worked with the marines, in happier days. Haydn had strict orders to avoid casualties, as much as possible, but both he and his superiors knew there was no way to guarantee that no innocents would be killed. Only a Grand Senator could be so foolish. If they killed the wrong man ...

    The thought made him snort in irritation. No one was that important, not even Major-General Damiani himself. The engineers and technicians and mechanics and what-have-you on the platforms surrounding the shipyard were important, true, but losing a handful of them wouldn’t be a disaster. Not in a strategic level, at least. But their deaths would be a personal disaster ... he shook his head. He’d do everything in his power to keep casualties as low as possible. There’d already been enough death. If the reports from Old Earth were true, eighty billion people were already dead.

    And that’s just the beginning, he thought. It won’t be long before the Core Worlds start to collapse too.

    He shuddered. Eighty billion! He couldn’t even begin to grasp it. He’d seen death - death had been his constant companion, from the moment he’d dedicated his life to the corps - but death on a small scale, on a personal scale. He’d walked through the remains of townships, destroyed by barbarians; he’d drafted though burned-out freighters, their crews tortured and murdered by pirates ... he’d seen death. But eighty billion dead? He couldn’t even begin to visualise so many people. It was just ... a number. Even the billion or so people on the planet below were just another statistic. The briefing notes had made it clear that most of them were doomed, whatever happened. Gamma Prime couldn’t survive without imports from off-world. Whoever owned the shithole hadn’t bothered to invest in some proper algae-farms, damn them. The population would complain about the taste, of course, but at least they’d be alive to complain. And there was nothing the marines could do about it, not now. They’d just have to bear witness as the planetary government’s mistakes came back to bite them.

    And watch as their people pay the price for their misgovernment, he told himself, morbidly. What were they thinking?

    Command Sergeant Mark Mayberry swam up beside him, his face hidden behind a featureless helmet. “We just got word from the observers, sir,” he said. “The planet is starting to riot.”

    Haydn winced. “And the cops aren’t doing anything about it?”

    “No, sir,” Mayberry said. “The cops are doing the rioting.”

    “Brilliant,” Haydn said, sarcastically. He wished he was surprised. He’d grown up on a colony world and he’d been astonished, during his first visit to Old Earth, to discover that the cops were just another gang of thugs, preying on the helpless civilians. No wonder so many people hated and feared authority, even the marines. Authority was just another enemy. “Are our people heading to the extraction point?”

    “They’re holding position, apparently,” Mayberry said. “They seem to think they can bug out before it’s too late.”

    “Let’s hope they’re right.” Haydn had no illusions. Gamma Prime was descending into a nightmare. The mob would loot, rape and kill ... unaware that they were destroying their only hope of survival. By the time they realised there was no more food and drink - that there would never be any more food and drink - it would be too late. The entire planet would collapse into an orgy of violence that would end in death. “Tell them ...”

    He shook his head. He couldn’t micromanage from a distance. He didn’t know what was happening on the surface, except in the broadest of strokes. And he had no right to give orders to the Pathfinders anyway. They knew what they were doing. They’d get out before it was too late. His lips quirked. The Pathfinders probably had enough firepower to cut their way through any opposition on their way to the extraction point. If law and order had broken down, no one would be organising opposition.

    “Keep me informed,” he ordered. “And be ready to jump.”

    “Yes, sir,” Mayberry said.

    He turned and made his way down the aisle, checking on the men in their webbing. Haydn knew some of the younger marines would resent his attentions, although they all had enough experience to know that it was better to check and check again rather than let a single mistake stand long enough to do real damage. Better the mistake was discovered before it cost a life, he reminded himself. They were going into danger ...

    And until we get the signal, all we can do is wait, he told himself. And that’s when mistakes happen.


    Ensign Susan Perkins looked up from her console. “No word, Captain.”

    Captain Kerri Stumbaugh told herself, firmly, that the lack of word - either from the shipyard or the planet itself - wasn’t Susan’s fault. The people on the surface were the ones who were supposed to send word if things changed, not an ensign who was so young Kerri half-expected her to have milk on her lips. Susan had been incredibly lucky to graduate from the naval academy - and then be streamlined into the Marine Expeditionary Force - before all hell broke loose on Earth. Normally, she would spend a year with the marines before being sent back to the Imperial Navy ... Kerri snorted, dismissing the thought. There was no normal any longer. The Imperial Navy no longer existed, to all intents and purposes. They were alone.

    She settled back in her command chair, trying to project an air of calm as she studied a holographic display that hadn’t changed in the five minutes since she’d last looked at it. The planet itself was surrounded by orbital installations, hundreds of shuttles and spaceplanes buzzing around like angry bees. It looked as if the entire planet was being evacuated, although anyone who knew anything about interstellar logistics would know that evacuating even one percent of the population would be pretty much impossible. The last set of reports had made it clear that the upper crust and their support personnel - everything from spacers to butlers and maids - were being evacuated. The remainder of the population was being left to starve.

    Kerri gritted her teeth, trying not to show her anger and contempt. She’d grown up on Tarsus, a world dominated by oligarchies and ruled by politicians who had about as much in common with the people they claimed to serve as she did with imaginary aliens from an absurd science-fantasy flick. She’d been forced to watch, helplessly, as all her applications to various naval academies and space training institutions had been declined, while arrogant rich kids had been allowed to enter without taking exams or jumping through hundreds of petty and pointless hoops. It had been the marines who’d given her a chance, despite her lack of qualifications. Their leaders didn’t abandon troops - or support staff - when they became inconvenient. But then, the marines were a meritocracy. She wasn’t remotely surprised that Gamma Prime’s leaders were running for their lives. Their days had been numbered, the moment their former subjects realised the Empire was gone.

    Rats leaving the sinking ship, she thought, nastily.

    “Captain,” Lieutenant Tomas said. “I’m picking up a handful of ships entering the system on a least-time course to the shipyard. They’ll be here in seventeen hours.”

    Kerri leaned forward as a new set of icons flashed into existence. “Do you have an ID?”

    “No, Captain, not at this distance.” Tomas worked his console for a long moment. “I think four of them are bulk freighters, but I can’t be sure. They’re moving at quite a clip for bulk freighters.”

    “I see,” Kerri said.

    She stroked her chin, considering. Bulk freighters were slow, ponderous ships. They made easy targets for pirates, although they rarely carried anything worth the risk. Unless ... Q-Ships? She knew better than to think that converted merchant ships would make good warships, but Q-Ships were different. A Q-Ship didn’t have to be fast. It just had to look unable to defend itself until the pirates got within point-blank range. And yet ... why would anyone send a Q-Ship to Gamma Prime? What were the remaining ships?

    Escorts, probably, she thought. Interstellar trade had been shutting down for the last two weeks, ever since Earthfall. Everyone wanted to wait and see what happened, now that Earth was gone. And no one would send out a bunch of freighters without being sure they would come back.

    She ran through the calculations in her head. There were already too many variables for her liking, even though she was used to it. Havoc was safe, well-clear of any prying sensor platforms that might notice a stealthed cruiser. And yet ... Kerri was uncomfortably aware that all hell would break lose if the locals realised they were being watched. Kerri herself would have no trouble breaking contact, if the locals spotted her ship in the first place, but the marines would be in deep shit. The shuttles wouldn’t be able to get out of range before they were blown to hell if they were spotted.

    And now we have a fleet of newcomers, she mused. What do they want?

    She looked at the timer. The last pulse from the planet had confirmed the Pathfinder had entered the spaceport ... five hours ago, give or take a few minutes. There was no hint the Pathfinder had been caught, although that was meaningless. Kerri had handled enough insertion missions - she’d been in the supporting arms ever since she’d failed Boot Camp - to know that something might have gone badly wrong, without anyone on the outside having the slightest idea. The locals might have caught the Pathfinder ... she shook her head. The Pathfinder wouldn’t talk, if interrogated, but the mere fact of their existence would be a tip-off. The locals would suspect something. No one would go to all the trouble to insert someone into the evacuation queues - and get them onto the shuttles - unless they had something in mind. And it wouldn’t take much imagination to guess what. The shipyard - and the hundreds of decommissioned starships - was the only thing of any real importance in the system.

    And it’s only a matter of time before the shit hits the fan, she thought. And who knows what will happen then?

    She glanced at Susan’s back. “Record a burst transmission for Commodore Steel,” she ordered, giving the Marine Captain the standard courtesy promotion. “Steel. Long-range sensors are detecting at least seven unidentified starships, three of them possibly warships, entering the system. ETA at shipyard is just under seventeen hours, at current course and speed. We will continue to monitor and advise.”

    “Message recorded, Captain,” Susan said. “Compressed and ready to transmit.”

    “Send it down the laser link,” Kerri ordered. No one would be able to detect the laser signal, unless they actually managed to cross the beam itself. The odds against that were staggeringly high. “And inform me if he replies.”

    “Aye, Captain.”

    Kerri forced herself to relax. The unknown ships were a long way away. It was unlikely they could do anything to interfere, unless the Pathfinder waited hours before going into action. Or if they had a drive system out of a science-fantasy nightmare. She’d heard all sorts of stories about advanced technology secretly developed by semi-independent worlds or big corporations ... she snorted under her breath. It was absurd. A corporation that developed something new, something game-changing, would have sold it to the highest bidder. A semi-independent world would have used it to make themselves it truly independent. And besides, it had been a long time since there had been anything beyond incremental improvements in science and technology. She found it hard to imagine there was anything left to invent.

    She felt the tension on the bridge start to rise, even though her crew knew that nothing had really changed. She didn’t blame them. They’d all been a little unsure of themselves, when they’d heard about Earthfall. Some of the crew had friends and family on Earth, their fates unknown; others, lucky enough to be born on the Rim, feared that they might have lost contact with just about everyone outside the corps. Kerri herself wouldn’t have shed many tears if her homeworld collapsed into chaos - she’d lost contact with her family long ago - but she understood. The corps was her home now. She would have regretted losing it.

    The console pinged. More shuttles were leaving the planet’s atmosphere, heading for the shipyard. Others ... Kerri’s eyes narrowed as she realised that none of the shuttles were returning to the surface, not any longer. Someone had called off the evacuation ... it didn’t bode well. A message appeared in her console, sent from the planet’s surface ... she knew what it said, even before she opened it. The planet had started its final inevitable slide into madness.

    Poor bastards, she thought. She knew how dependent the locals were on technology - and imports. They don’t have a prayer.

    She glanced at the timer and winced. Time was running out: for her, for the marines, for the planetary population ... a shiver ran down her spine.

    Time was running out for everyone.
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  7. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Three

    The hatch opened with a hiss.

    Rachel stepped inside, raising the stunner as she looked around. The control centre was massive, a giant circular chamber crammed with consoles and illuminated by holographic displays, but only a handful of people were on duty. She glanced from side to side, making sure that no one was concealed behind a piece of machinery, then opened fire. The stunner hummed as it spat nerve-jangling pulses towards its targets, sending them crashing to the deck. Rachel reminded herself, sharply, to check that her targets were truly unconscious before she relaxed. Stunners weren’t reliable, not in combat situations. A person with the presence of mind to fake being stunned might be able to do terrible damage, if she gave him the chance.

    She heard a howl and looked up. A giant of a man leapt at her, holding up his arms to cover his face. She was sure she’d hit him ... she guessed the pulse had struck his tunic, giving him a shock without actually knocking him out. She darted to one side, silently grateful the man hadn’t had the common sense to hit the alarm rather than try to fight. If he’d summoned help, the mission would have become a great deal harder. Instead, she rammed a fist into his gut as he landed beside her and followed up with a blow to the head. He was out of it before his body hit the deck. She checked his pulse, stunned him again just to be sure, then hastily checked the remaining bodies. Everyone seemed to be stunned.

    Which doesn’t mean they won’t wake up in a hurry either, she thought, grimly. The other disadvantage of using stunners was that it was difficult to predict when their victims would wake up - or, for that matter, what state they’d be in when they did. I have to hurry.

    She sealed the hatch, made certain there were no other ways into the control centre and checked the office. The shipyard’s commanding officer didn’t look up from his datapad as she stunned him, his head hitting the desk with a satisfying THUNK. Rachel rolled her eyes as she placed him on the deck, wondering just how he’d managed to miss the sound outside his office. The chamber was soundproofed, according to the plans, but not that soundproofed. Maybe he’d been reading something absorbing ... she picked up the datapad and glanced at it, only to discover that it was a report on shipyard queens. She puzzled over it for a moment, then realised it referred to decommissioned ships that had been cannibalised for spare parts. The CO was lucky the Inspector General’s office hadn’t carried out an inspection, she noted. He’d be in big trouble if the ships couldn’t be readied for deployment within six months.

    Or he would have been, if the Inspector General hadn’t had other problems, she thought, as she found a roll of duct tape in the maintenance locker. Right now, the Inspector General is probably dead.

    She bound his hands and feet with tape, slapped a makeshift gag over his mouth, then left him in his office and returned to the control centre. One of the staffers was stirring slightly, moaning as if he’d gone on a bender the previous night and was now suffering from a terrible hangover. Rachel felt a flicker of sympathy as she stunned him again, then taped him up and dumped him in the centre of the chamber. The other operators were still stunned. She taped them up anyway, just to be safe. She was stronger and better trained than any of them, but her enhancements didn’t make her invincible. She wasn’t stupid enough to think she couldn’t be taken down, if she got unlucky. Or if she made stupid mistakes.

    She sat down at the prime console and pressed her hand against the sensor. It should have rejected her automatically, but the implant in her palm went to work, hacking its way through a set of civilian-grade safeguards. No one had bothered to update the system in the last twenty years, she noted. She supposed it made a certain kind of sense. The shipyard datanet was a closed system. You couldn’t access it unless you were already on the shipyard and you couldn’t get on the shipyard unless you passed through a set of stringent security checks. She rather suspected it would have been harder to get through security if the shit hadn’t already hit the fan. The locals had been so desperate to get everyone important off-world before it was too late that they’d let her slip through the net.

    The system opened up in front of her. She keyed through a series of menus, quickly assessing the best way to proceed. It was relatively simply to insert a message into the communicator, then order the entire network to slip into secure mode. She sealed the hatches, shutting down communications between the different compartments. If she was lucky, the locals wouldn’t realise she’d carried out a soft coup before it was far too late.

    And if they do realise, they’ll have some trouble dealing with it, she thought. The control centre was a self-contained system, isolated within a mass of hullmetal. Her opponents might be able to cut the control links, if they were willing to butcher their own systems, but they wouldn’t be able to get to her. Not in a hurry, at least. They’d need a heavy-duty laser cutter to make an impression on the hatch. And by the time they do, my backup will be here.

    She heard a moan behind her. She glanced back - a young woman was stirring, struggling vainly against her bonds - and then returned her attention to the display. It wasn’t hard to shut down the sensor platforms, or to ready the hatches, or to order the shuttles in transit to go doggo and wait for instructions. She had no idea how long it would take the rest of the system to realise that something was badly wrong, but it wouldn’t matter. They shouldn’t be able to do anything about it ...

    I hope, she told herself. She sent the signal, then settled down to wait. We’re about to find out.

    “That’s the signal,” Sergeant Mayberry said. “We’re cleared to make our approach, plan alpha.”

    Haydn allowed himself a tight smile. “Take us in,” he ordered. “And be ready to jump if necessary.”

    A thrill of excitement shot through him as the shuttle hummed to life, banishing his previous concerns. Plan alpha was the best-case scenario, allowing them to actually dock at the shuttle ports rather than landing on the hull and forcing their way into the shipyard. He wasn’t going to complain, not if everything worked perfectly. He’d been in enough tight spots over the years to know that a nice easy mission was nothing to sniff at. But then, the enemy had no idea they were about to be attacked. It was easy to get an advantage if you attacked without warning.

    He snapped orders, watching through the shuttle’s sensors as the small craft headed towards the shipyard. The orbital weapons platforms - outdated, but still perfectly capable of blowing the shuttle into dust with a single shot - were shutting down, their active sensors going offline as he watched. It meant nothing - passive sensors radiated no betraying emissions to mark their presence - but he couldn’t help finding it reassuring. The closer they got to the shipyard, to vital installations the enemy couldn’t afford to lose, the harder it would be for the enemy to deal with them. Indiscriminate firing within a shipyard was a very bad idea. The enemy would wind up destroying the very facilities they were trying to save.

    His intercom buzzed. “Contact in ten ... nine ...”

    Haydn nodded to himself as Lieutenant Joseph Wooten led his men towards the hatch, readying themselves for a hard entrance. He couldn’t help feeling a twinge of guilt at not leading his company into battle, even though he had nothing to prove to himself or anyone else. It felt wrong to let someone else take the risk of blundering into an enemy force and being blown away before realising his mistake. But it couldn’t be helped. He understood the logic - better to lose a lieutenant than a captain - yet it still didn’t sit well with him. It felt as if he was driving a knife into Wooten’s back.

    He volunteered for the job, Haydn reminded himself. And you did plenty of door-knocking when you were a stupid greenie lieutenant yourself.

    A low thud ran through the shuttle. “Contact!”

    The hatch hissed open. Wooten jumped through the hatch, weapon at the ready. Alerts flashed up in Haydn’s helmet, warning him that weapons were being fired. He stood, following the rest of the marines as they hurried into the shipyard. A handful of bodies lay on the ground, breathing harshly. They’d been stunned before they had a chance to react.

    “No obvious weapons, sir,” Wooten reported. “I think they were trying to open the hatch.”

    Haydn looked up and down the corridor. In one direction, a blast door was firmly in place; in the other, the door looked to have been blown open ... he wondered, absently, what had been used to knock it down. The average shipyard worker didn’t carry shaped charges, as a general rule. He was morbidly impressed. Someone had clearly reacted quickly, although he doubted they knew what they were doing. There was no point in trying to open one of the outer hatches when there was no shuttle on the other side ...

    Maybe they didn’t know that, he thought. A handful of bodies were carrying rebreathers. Or maybe they were trying to get onto the hull and make their way to the emergency pods before it was too late.

    He dismissed the thought as his intercom buzzed. A female voice, very familiar. “Code Theta-Alpha?”

    “Clear,” he said. “Code Emily-Cat-Gwen-Elaine.”

    “Welcome onboard,” Rachel said. “I’ll clear you through the blast doors and sealed hatches, Captain, but you’ll have to stun everyone you encounter.”

    “Understood,” Haydn said. It was no surprise. “We’re on our way.”

    He snapped orders, deploying his men to their pre-planned targets. The shipyard was immense, but only a handful of sections were truly vital. The marines would secure the control centre, the power cores and the life support, then give the remainder of the giant complex a flat choice between surrendering and suffocating when they ran out of air. If, of course, the defenders had a chance to coordinate resistance. A team of marines would be able to cause a great deal of trouble before they were hunted down and killed. A team of civilians ...

    They know the territory, he reminded himself, as they pushed through the first hatch. They know all the little details that don’t show up on the plans.

    He pushed his doubts aside as they passed through a second hatch. A dozen people were behind it, milling about awkwardly. Haydn stunned them at once, without giving them a chance to surrender. He tried not to feel guilty about it. Right now, they were just in the way. They’d have a opportunity to join Safehouse later, if they wished, or be dumped somewhere they might have a reasonable chance to build a new life for themselves. Until then ... he pushed his doubts aside as they reached the intership car hatch. It was closed, the cars themselves shut down in transit. He hoped no one had been unlucky enough to be inside them when the power shut down.

    “I can call a car for you, if you like,” Rachel said. “Or ...”

    “We’ll climb up the shaft,” Haydn said, as the marines opened the hatch. “Better not to risk it.”

    He frowned as he peered into the darkness. “Do they know there’s trouble yet?”

    “They know something is wrong,” Rachel said. “There’s a lot of panic in the dorms. But so far there appears to be no organised resistance.”

    “That’s something, at least,” Haydn said. “Keep me informed.”

    He scrambled up the hatch, silently cursing the light combat armour under his breath. It was good for a great many things, but climbing ladders wasn’t one of them. He supposed he should be grateful they hadn’t been ordered to use heavy combat armour. The corridors and passageways were too small for it. They’d get stuck. He smiled at the thought - he’d hate to be the person who had to write the after-combat report if that happened, then sobered. There would be worse consequences than a bollocking from his superiors ...

    The hatch opened as he reached the top of the shaft. A handful of guards were clustered around the control centre hatch, trying to hack the lock. They turned, grabbing weapons as they saw him climbing through the hatch. Haydn didn’t hesitate. He launched a stun grenade down the corridor, then ducked back down as blue-white light flared above him. The rest of the team followed him as he scrambled back up and down the corridor. The guards lay on the deck, moaning. They’d done well, he supposed, but it hadn’t been good enough. They hadn’t had a hope of breaking into the control centre before time ran out.

    He keyed his throat mike. “Did they cut the command links?”

    “It doesn’t look like they thought to try,” Rachel said, through the intercom. “I suppose they thought they’d get the bill.”

    Haydn smirked as the hatch opened, allowing them to take possession of the command centre. Corporate security guards were all the same, fearful of breaking the rules and destroying corporate property ... even if they had no choice. No doubt the handful of guards who’d realised something was badly wrong had hesitated, too scared of the potential consequences to act decisively. Haydn had never had that problem. His superiors were smart enough to know there were no perfect options. They would have backed him to the hilt if he’d destroyed something to keep it from being turned against the marines.

    He looked around with interest as he entered the chamber. Rachel was sitting at a console, looking strikingly harmless. She looked more like a computer geek than a marine pathfinder. No wonder the security officers hadn’t taken her seriously. They hadn’t realised just how dangerous she could be. Or that she’d taken the defences down, practically single-handedly.

    “Mission accomplished,” Rachel said. She didn’t sound dangerous either, although there was an assurance in her voice that came with being very good - and knowing she was very good - at what she did. “Captain?”

    Haydn nodded, then keyed his throatmike. “Teams sound off, by the numbers.”

    “Target Two secured,” Wooten said.

    “Target Three secured,” Lieutenant Malone said.

    “Target Four secured,” Lieutenant Lavin said. “Captain, some of the shuttle pilots managed to disengage from the shipyard datanet and escape.”

    “Good thinking on their part,” Haydn conceded, without heat. “Do they pose any threat to us?”

    “Unclear, Captain,” Lavin said. “There’s no hint they carry weapons. But they could certainly raise the alarm.”

    “Understood.” Haydn took a moment to assess the situation. The shipyard was under control, for the moment. It wasn’t too likely that the planetary defenders could mount a counterattack, at least before Havoc and her consorts arrived. A handful of fleeing shuttles probably wouldn’t make any real difference. “Secure the remaining shuttles, then hold the pilots until we have a chance to speak to them.”

    “Aye, sir.”

    Haydn glanced at Rachel. “Do you want to give them the good news?”

    “No, thank you.” Rachel smiled. “I should probably slip out of sight, before they notice me.”

    “Understood,” Haydn said. Pathfinders didn’t like publicly. Better the general public thought of them as supermen, with muscles on their muscles, than harmless-seeming individuals who wouldn’t attract any attention from security goons. “Do you want to slip back to the shuttle?”

    “I probably should,” Rachel said. “Grace will have noticed I’m missing, by now. She’ll put two and two together.”

    Haydn nodded. He didn’t know who Rachel was talking about, but it didn’t matter. Instead, he sat down at the console and opened the intercom. Everyone would hear him, on or off the shipyard. And they would believe ... eventually. He just hoped no one would try anything stupid.

    “This is the Terran Marine Corps,” he said, keeping his voice as level as he could. “This installation is now under our control. Please remain calm and await processing. If you wish to remain with us, and work with us, you will have that opportunity. If, on the other hand, you wish to go elsewhere, we will do everything in our power to arrange it. However, until that moment, I must warn you that this system is now under martial law. Any attempt to impede our operations will result in immediate and thoroughly unpleasant consequences.”

    He paused, then continued. “My men will open the hatches as soon as possible. When they do, please follow all orders without hesitation. Thank you.”

    “Some of them will refuse to cooperate,” Rachel said, quietly. “The people they were moving to the shipyard aren’t used to the iron hand of authority.”

    “They’ll have to get used to it,” Haydn said. He’d always found Core Worlders to be silly creatures, but the ones who worked in space - where the slightest mistake could be lethal - tended to be a little smarter. “And if they’re not, they can go into the stockade until we’re ready to drop them somewhere out of the way.”

    “If there is anywhere out of the way, these days.” Rachel stretched, the moment drawing attention to her tight shirt. “I’ll head back to the shuttle now.”

    “Get some rest,” Haydn ordered. “The rest of your team is already on their way.”

    “Good,” Rachel said. “Once they’re here, insert a couple into the crowd. Just in case.”

    “Understood,” Haydn said.
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  8. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Four

    Indeed, they saw this as a definite bonus! Earth - as has been made clear in other volumes - was not seen as the home of civilisation, or a respected mother, but an official nuisance, source of taxmen, corporate exploiters, social justice wokescolds and people who were - not to put too fine a point on it - thoroughly uncivilised.
    - Professor Leo Caesius. Earthfall and its Aftermath.

    “Go active,” Kerri snapped, as soon as she saw the first report. “Tactical, bring weapons and sensors online.”

    “Aye, Captain,” Lieutenant Tomas said. New alerts flashed up on the display. “The planetary defences are going online.”

    “Ignore them,” Kerri said. The orbital weapons platforms were formidable, but irrelevant as long as her ship stayed out of engagement range. “Can you locate the defence force?”

    “I’m picking up all four destroyers,” Lieutenant Tomas reported. “Their drives are powered up, but they’re not leaving orbit.”

    Smart move, Kerri thought. The destroyers were tough ships, but utterly outmatched by Havoc and her consorts. They’d do better to stay near the planetary defences than getting themselves blown away for nothing. I wonder if their superiors will let them get away with a display of prudence.

    “Captain, I’m picking up a hail from the planetary defence network,” Susan reported. “They’re demanding that we vacate the system at once.”

    Kerri resisted the urge to say something cutting. The planetary defenders didn’t have the firepower to make her withdraw. One didn’t have to be a naval officer with fifty years of active service to know that four destroyers would be utterly outmatched if they tried to fight nine heavy cruisers. She’d have problems capturing the high orbitals, if she took her ships against the planetary defences, but as long as she stayed out of their range she was effectively untouchable. And she had no interest in trying to capture the planet. Gamma Prime was on the brink of collapse.

    “Transmit the pre-recorded message, then close all communications,” she ordered. She had no intention of wasting time bandying words with the planetary government. They could stay out of the way, if they didn’t want to cooperate. “Helm, keep us on course towards the shipyard.”

    “Aye, Captain.”

    Kerri settled back in her chair, watching as the display continued to update. The shipyard really had been heavily defended, for a free-floating installation near a Core World. It was lucky they hadn’t had to punch their way through the defences or ... they might have destroyed the shipyard while trying to save it. Her eyes moved to the hundreds of decommissioned starships, drifting in neat rows just inside the defence perimeter. The ships - and the trained personnel - were the true prize. She just wasn’t sure how many of the ships would still be usable.

    We’ll find out soon, she thought, grimly. And then we can decide how many of them we want to take with us.

    “Captain,” Susan said. “The marines are requesting that we bring the transports into the defence perimeter.”

    Kerri nodded. “Order them to move in,” she said. “And then remain within the perimeter until we’re ready to leave.”

    She forced herself to remain calm as the transports picked up speed, heading directly towards the shipyard. The plan had seemed too improvised, too thrown together on the fly, for her peace of mind, but it seemed to have worked. Letting the planetary government do the hard job of collecting and transporting everyone with military and industrial experience had been a stroke of accidental genius. She might have felt a little guilt at swooping in and kidnapping the experienced people, once they’d been collected, if she hadn’t had a great deal of experience with deeply-corrupt planetary governments. She was doing the hapless conscripts a favour. Most of them would probably agree with her. The only ones who’d think otherwise were the people who had relatives on the planet’s surface.

    “I’m picking up another communication from the planetary defences,” Susan said. “They want to talk.”

    “I’m sure they do.” Kerri bit down on the urge to remind the younger woman that she’d ordered all communications to be closed. “We’ll talk to them after we secure the shipyard.”

    “Aye, Captain,” Susan said.

    Kerri glanced at her back, then turned her attention to the helmsman. “Commander Joaquin. Report.”

    “We are entering the shipyard defence perimeter now,” Commander Joaquin rumbled.

    “Hold position, just inside the defences,” Kerri ordered. She looked at Susan. “Any updates from the Pathfinders?”

    “The last update said they were nearly at the extraction point.” Susan frowned. “That was fifteen minutes ago.”

    “There’s no need to panic just yet,” Kerri said, dryly. The planetary defences had gone to full alert. The Pathfinders might have decided to wait on the ground, rather than draw attention from the orbital weapons platforms. Pathfinders were tough, but a single plasma burst or railgun strike would be more than enough to vaporise their shuttle and scatter their atoms across the planetary surface. “Let me know when they send an update.”

    Susan glanced up. “Shouldn’t we be planning to rescue them ...?”

    Kerri made a mental note to remind the girl, again, that questioning her superior officers in the middle of an operation was not a good idea. “There’s no need to panic just yet,” she repeated. She pretended not to notice the girl flushing bright red. “If they don’t get back in touch with us ... we’ll do something about it them.”

    She kept her face impassive, even as she thought hard. It wouldn’t be easy to recover the Pathfinders, not if they were pinned down. Even trying might prove disastrous, if the planetary government hadn’t twigged to their presence. And ... the planet was collapsing into chaos. It was quite possible they’d been lost somewhere within the vast planetary charnel house ...

    Worry about that when it happens, she told herself, firmly. Until then, concentrate on your duties.

    “Captain, the transports are docking now,” Lieutenant Tomas reported.

    “Very good,” Kerri said. “Hold position and wait.”

    “Aye, Captain.”

    “The transport is in position, sir,” Sergeant Mayberry reported. “The secondary transport is at the lower docks.”

    “Understood,” Haydn said. He glanced at the hatch. “Open it.”

    The hatch hissed open, revealing a barracks. It was larger than anything he’d enjoyed, as a lowly marine rifleman, although anyone who wasn’t used to such accommodation would find it more than a little claustrophobic. The occupants were all women, ranging from girls just out of their teens to middle-aged ladies who looked torn between fear and defiance. They’d heard his message, he was sure, but he had no idea if they believed it. Pirates were fond of pretending to be naval officers until they got into weapons range.

    He raised his voice. “Form an orderly line, one by one,” he ordered. “If you’re carrying any weapons, leave them behind. Anyone found with a weapon will spend the voyage in irons. Make sure you have your ID chips ...”

    A line formed behind a grim-faced woman who looked to be pushing forty. Haydn studied her for a moment, then ran her ID through the processor and directed her through the airlock and into the transport. She - and her fellows - would be held in stasis until they reached Sanctuary, where they’d have a choice between joining the marines or being sent elsewhere. Haydn was fairly sure most of them would stay, once they realised they would be protected for the first time in their lives. The corps wouldn’t take advantage of them.

    We’ll be offering a chance to help rebuild, Haydn thought, as the line started to move. How many people could turn that down?

    He felt a moment of grim concern as the barracks slowly emptied. The women had been crammed into the compartment, crammed so tightly they’d practically slept two to a bunk. The mischievous side of his mind noted they’d probably gotten very friendly, but the more practical side found it odd. He passed the duty to Lieutenant Travis and checked the stream of updates from the other checkpoints. There were so many people on the shipyard that the installations life support must have been pressed to the limit. He knew there was a great deal of redundancy built into the system - the old-timers had been practical engineers, not dreamers - but any competent safety inspector would have howled in outrage. For once, he would have had a point. The slightest mishap would have condemned hundreds of people to a horrible death.

    “I think they’re breeding stock,” Rifleman Leyland noted. “They’re all young women ...”

    “That will do,” Haydn said. “Concentrate on your duties.”

    He scowled at the datapad, watching as the numbers slowly added up. There was a slight preference in favour of women, young women. Experienced, true, but ... odd. He didn’t want to consider the possibility that Leyland might be right. A colony couldn’t survive without mothers ... if he was right, where had they intended to go? It wasn’t as if they were shipping people to the Outer Worlds, or even to the Rim. It made no sense.

    And they didn’t recruit young mothers, he thought. They recruited people with experience.

    He put the thought aside. The mystery would solve itself, sooner or later. Until then ... he had work to do.

    Rachel had had a quick power nap, as soon as she’d boarded the marine shuttle, but - afterwards - she hadn’t been able to keep from returning to the shipyard. It wasn’t that big a risk, she told herself. Grace - and everyone else who might have seen her, who might have realised that she’d vanished shortly before the shit hit the fan - had been moved to the transports, where she would be held in stasis until the ship reached its destination. She looked like a harmless intelligence officer, not a lethal specialist. And besides, it kept her from worrying about the rest of her team. They hadn’t returned to the MEU. She had no idea what was keeping them.

    She found her way to a data room and sat down at the console, imputing a handful of codes to unlock the system. The WebHeads had already copied everything - the intelligence officers on Safehouse would dissect it, piece by piece - but she was morbidly certain they’d miss everything important. Marines were riflemen first and foremost, yet ... even marine intelligence officers had a tendency to miss the trees for the forest. Or sometimes the forest for the trees. She smirked at the thought, then started to access the files. The corporate shipping manifests were a mess. Someone was probably going to be fired for it.

    If their superiors ever find out, she thought, as she opened the first file. And they probably never will.

    She worked her way through the file - a series of passenger manifests, listing people who’d been transported from the planet to the shipyard - hoping that something would leap out at her. There was nothing, apart from an ever-growing list of evacuees ... it was astonishing, she noted, just how many experienced personal had been living on Gamma Prime. She would have expected anyone with any real experience to realise just how fragile the planet’s ecosystem was and run away, right to the edge of explored space if necessary. Had someone been inviting them to move to Gamma Prime? She couldn’t find any record of it. The Imperial Navy’s interest in the system had waxed and waned as resources rose and fell. The corporations hadn’t been much better. There was little to attract anyone, save perhaps for vast land grants. But those weren’t enough to attract everyone.

    Odd, she mused. She flipped through another set of files. A marine - Captain Steel, she noted - had raised questions about just how many people had been transported to the shipyard. She felt her eyes narrow as she checked the figures. How the hell had she missed that? There were too many people on the shipyard for anyone’s peace of mind. Why didn’t they send the evacuees to the orbital habitats?

    Her mind raced. The habitats were big enough to take all the refugees, without pushing their life support into the red. Sure, there’d be a little crowding ... maybe that was why they’d been sent to the shipyard. The habitats were owned by the great and the good, people who would complain if they had to share their homes with their social inferiors ... people who wouldn’t know the difference between whiskey and gin if their lives depended on it. But ... who cared about what the rich thought, after Earthfall? Trillions upon trillions of credits had been wiped out, when the interstellar economy collapsed. The planetary government could have forced the rich to take evacuees ... at gunpoint, if necessary. There was no solid reason not to put them on the asteroid habitats. Transporting them to the shipyard was an unnecessary risk.

    And that means there must be some reasoning behind it, Rachel mused. She’d served long enough to know that something might make sense to one person and, at the same time, being utterly absurd to someone else. What were they thinking?

    The more she looked at it, the less sense it made. They’d moved too many people to the shipyard, too many to handle easily ... if they’d wanted to bring the shipyard back to full production, and bring the decommissioned ships back into service, they’d actually brought too many people. They’d be tripping over themselves when they tried to organise their people to actually work. She frowned, puzzling it out. It made no sense ...

    And then it hit her.

    “This isn’t their final destination,” she said, out loud. She kicked herself, mentally. She should have seen it right from the start. The planetary government had been gathering the evacuees so someone else could collect them and ... and transport them elsewhere. She felt a giggle escape her lips, despite her best efforts. “And we came and stole them before they could be collected.”

    She keyed her intercom. “Commander, this is Green. What happened to the CO?”

    “He’s in the brig,” Commander Walters said. He’d taken over the shipyard, once the remainder of the MEU had arrived. “Do you want him?”

    “I want to have a few words with him,” Rachel said. “Can you clear me for access?”

    There was a long pause. Rachel knew what Walters was thinking. Technically, the CO had to be held until higher authority could decide what to do with him. He wasn’t supposed to be interrogated. But ... Rachel was a Pathfinder, with wide authority to do whatever she thought was necessary to get the job done. She wondered, absently, if Walters would forward the question to Captains Steel or Stumbaugh or ... make a decision for himself. Walters wasn’t a marine. He was just ... an auxiliary. He might not have the nerve to say yes or no.

    “I’ve cleared you,” Walters said, finally. “Make sure you record everything.”

    Teach your grandmother to suck cock, Rachel thought crudely, as she rose and headed for the hatch. You could have been a little more decisive ...

    She pushed the thought aside as she reached the brig. A handful of senior officers and corporate managers had been captured and, in accordance with standard convention, held separately from their men. She checked the pickups - the CO was sitting on a bench in his cell, his head in his hands - then opened the hatch. He looked up, his eyes narrowing when he saw her. She saw cold calculation, just for a second. She hoped he’d have the sense to realise he didn’t have a hope of escape, even if he somehow managed to subdue or capture her. The entire shipyard was in unfriendly hands.

    His eyes glared at her. “What do you want?”

    “I have a question,” Rachel said. “Who was intended to collect the evacuees?”

    She had the satisfaction of seeing his eyes open with surprise, just for a second. “What ...?”

    “You gathered them all here,” Rachel said. “You put your life support at risk ... the only reason that makes sense is that someone was coming to pick them up. Who?”

    The CO looked at the deck. “I won’t talk.”

    “Someone will,” Rachel said. There were ways to prevent someone breaking, under interrogation. Implants, conditioning ... it wasn’t that difficult. The CO probably had at least some conditioning. It was fairly standard amongst higher-level types. “What do you think is going to happen to you, when we send you back? They’re not going to be very pleased with someone who lost an entire shipyard to a single attacker.”

    “Hah,” the CO said.

    Rachel allowed her gaze to harden, willing him to believe. “If you tell me freely, we’ll give you a free ticket to wherever you want to go. And some trade goods, if you like. If not ... you’ll go into an interrogation lab. Maybe we can break you. Maybe your brain will start melting and leaking out of your ears instead.”

    “Fuck.” The CO looked from side to side, as if he expected someone to come riding to the rescue. “They’ll kill me.”

    “We might kill you, once we get you in the lab,” Rachel pointed out. She had no idea if she was bluffing. Her superiors might sanction an extreme interrogation or they might not. It wasn’t as if the CO was a terrorist who deserved to die slowly and painfully. He’d been doing his job when he’d been captured. “But if you cooperate, we’ll make it worth your while.”

    The CO eyed her for a long moment. “You have authority to make a deal?”

    “Yes.” Rachel met his eyes, evenly. “Talk now and we can deal. Talk later ... and, well, whatever is left of you will be dumped on a penal world.”

    “Fine,” the CO said. “You’d better give me a new ID, after this.”

    “We can do that,” Rachel said. “Talk.”
  9. Merkun

    Merkun furious dreamer

  10. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


    Chapter Five

    It is therefore unsurprising that vast numbers of distant colonies effectively slipped out of the Empire’s control long before Earthfall, even though - in theory - they remained part of the Empire. It was difficult, almost impossible, for the Empire in its waning years to impose itself on the colonies.
    - Professor Leo Caesius. Earthfall and its Aftermath.

    “Captain,” Tomas said. “The unknown ships are reversing course.”

    “Interesting,” Kerri mused. “Did someone signal them?”

    “Unknown.” Tomas glanced up at her. “We didn’t detect any radio transmissions, but they could have used a narrow-beam or a pinpoint laser ...”

    Kerri nodded, curtly. It would be difficult to use a laser to communicate at such a distance - the bulk freighters were tiny, on an interplanetary scale - but it wasn’t impossible. She hadn’t had time to deploy a network of sensor platforms to watch for narrow-beam communications ... not, she supposed, that she could have done anything about it if she had detected a transmission. The unknown ships were well out of range. She could detach a cruiser or two to chase them, but they’d be over the Phase Limit long before her ship could run them down.

    “Keep an eye on them,” she ordered. The unknowns would go, as silently as they’d come. “Do we have an update from the shipyard?”

    “Yes, Captain,” Susan said. “The advance parties state that a third of the decommissioned ships are either serviceable or can be returned to service relatively quickly. They’re already moved the personal to the transports and they’re ready to depart on your command.”

    “Assign Pollux and Nemesis to escort the transports home,” Kerri ordered. She had no idea how long it would be before things changed, perhaps for the worse. Gamma Prime wasn’t that isolated. Sooner or later, one of the warlords would remember the shipyard and send ships to take it. “When can they get the ships underway?”

    “They’re detaching tugs and worker bees now,” Susan said. “They think they can get the ships moving in a few short hours.”

    Kerri nodded. The ships wouldn’t be combat-worthy, of course, but at least they’d be away from Gamma Prime. She’d take them to a concealed shipyard, where they would be refitted and prepared for deployment. A handful would probably have to be cannibalised to keep the rest underway, but ... she shrugged. It didn’t matter. The ships would be refitted well before crews were assigned to them. There would be no one to complain about their ship being sacrificed to keep the others alive.

    Which was always a problem, back in the day, Kerri thought, wryly. The Imperial Navy had too many captains with political connections to get anything done.

    She allowed herself a moment of amusement, then sobered. It wasn’t good news. The Imperial Navy had also had a lot of very capable, very competent officers who’d never been promoted to command rank because they lacked political connections. Their ambitions had been stifled, their resentments growing even as the empire they served weakened. How long would it be, she asked herself, before some of those officers realised they could just take the ships they wanted? How long would it be before even more warlords appeared on the galactic scene?

    Probably not too long, she told herself, grimly. And some of them will have enough firepower and supplies to become a major threat.

    “Captain,” Susan said. “I’m picking up a signal from the planetary government. They want to negotiate.”

    “Really?” Kerri considered it for a moment. “What do they have to negotiate with?”

    “I don’t know, Captain,” Susan said.

    That was a rhetorical question, Kerri thought, wryly. The poor ensign wasn’t experienced enough to realise it. She was luckier than she knew. There were officers who wouldn’t have hesitated to tear her a new asshole - hopefully metaphorically - for daring to answer the question. They don’t have anything to offer us, not now.

    She leaned forward. “Have we heard anything from the Pathfinders?”

    “No, Captain,” Susan said.

    Kerri frowned. If the Pathfinders had been caught, or simply pinned down ... it would cause some problems. She might have to negotiate for their freedom. But ... she shook her head. The planetary government wouldn’t play games, if they knew they had leverage. They’d make it very clear that they knew they did have something to bargain with. Kerri wasn’t sure what she’d do, if she did have to negotiate. Her orders didn’t give her much leeway.

    “We wait,” she said, calmly.

    She felt an odd unease as she surveyed the holographic display, even though she knew there was no reason to worry. No logical reason, at least. There was no force in the system that could match her, as long as she didn’t go too close to the planetary defences. She’d be in some trouble if she wanted to take the planet, she admitted coolly, but thankfully she didn’t have to do anything of the sort. And it would be a long time before forces arrived from elsewhere to dislodge her. It would have taken weeks to get a relief force organised, back in the old days. Now, it was anyone’s guess if anyone would care enough to bother.

    The old days, she mocked herself. They were only a few short weeks ago.

    Perhaps that was the root of her unease, she considered. She could feel the seconds ticking by. The universe she’d grown up in was gone. All the old certainties were gone. The old rules no longer applied. She’d seen some of the reports, back before the squadron had been dispatched to Gamma Prime. Earth had merely been the first world to fall. Death and devastation were sweeping across the galaxy. She could no longer rely on anything and she knew it.

    I can rely on the corps, she thought. And they can rely on me.

    “Captain,” Susan said. “I just picked up a burst transmission. The Pathfinders are on their way.”

    Kerri let out a breath she hadn’t realised she’d been holding. “Have them brought onboard, when they arrive,” she ordered. “And then we can start preparing to vacate the system.”

    “Aye, Captain.”

    Haydn felt as if he’d gone beyond mere exhaustion as he walked through the empty shipyard, checking - again - that they hadn’t missed anyone as the engineers and techs steadily stripped the installation of anything useful. The Imperial Navy had designed the shipyard to make it easy to dismantle and move elsewhere, given enough freighters and technicians, but the corporate bosses hadn’t been anything like as farsighted. Their additions to the original design were proving a nightmare, causing delay after delay as each non-standard installation was either dismantled or pushed to one side for later attention. Clearly, they had never heard of the KISS principle. Haydn wasn’t surprised. Corporate bureaucrats weren’t known for caring about anything beyond their monthly profit margins.

    He stopped outside a transparent blister and peered out, into the icy depths of space. The stars burnt in the darkness, utterly unconcerned about the affairs of man. It still surprised him, at times, that they didn’t twinkle in space, although he knew that the stars only seemed to twinkle because of atmospheric distortion. A handful of lights could be seen as the technicians worked on the ships, powering a handful towards the edge of the defence perimeter. They’d be moved or towed to the Phase Limit, once the remainder of the shipyard had been stripped. By then, Haydn was fairly sure he’d be well on his way to his next deployment. There were more fires to put out than there were marines to piss on them.

    “Captain Steel?”

    Haydn turned and blinked in surprise as he saw a young woman making her way towards him, wearing a standard shipyard tunic. She looked ... harmless, almost too harmless. She was practically the very model of a nerdy girl, so shy and retiring that she was practically unnoticeable. No one would pay any attention to her. And yet ... his eyes narrowed as he picked up a faint sense of danger. His instincts knew she was trouble, even though he couldn’t put it into words. And then he realised who he was looking at.

    “Specialist Green,” he said. He shook his head in quiet admiration. He’d met Rachel Green and yet .. he almost hadn’t recognised her. It was astonishing what a handful of tiny cosmetic changes - and a marked shift in attitude - could do. “What can I do for you?”

    “You’re out here, alone?” Rachel stood next to him, staring out into space. “Where are the rest of your team?”

    “Half of them are catching some rest,” Haydn said. “The remainder are on standby, waiting for something to happen. I should be resting too.”

    Rachel shrugged. “I was interrogating Commander Anshan.”

    Haydn lifted an eyebrow. “Anshan?”

    “The CO - the former CO.” Rachel smiled, as if she was reliving the moment when she’d taken Anshan’s shipyard from under his nose. “He had a few interesting things to tell me, once I promised him safe passage somewhere else.”

    “Really?” Haydn was mildly surprised the shipyard had been in the hands of a mere commander. Gamma Prime was hardly a tiny little colony on the ass-end of nowhere. It wouldn’t be hard for someone to make money while they counted down the days until they could go home. “What did he say?”

    “We thought they were moving essential personal into space before all hell broke loose, down below.” Rachel jabbed her finger at the deck, as if the planet was directly below the shipyard. “I thought they were bringing too many people to the shipyard. They were pushing the safety limits to the margins, about as far as they would stretch if something didn’t go wrong.”

    Haydn nodded, slowly. Put that way, it sounded odd. No one in their right mind would risk pushing their life support too far, even if they kept the system in perfect condition. And, on a shipyard that had practically been written off years ago, he wouldn’t have trusted the life support any further than he could throw the entire installation. God alone knew how many components had been left in place, well past their replacement date, or simply cannibalised to keep another part of the giant structure alive. Transporting tens of thousands of people onto the shipyard would have been a dangerous gamble. Haydn wouldn’t have taken it unless he was desperate.

    “Why?” He glanced at her, sharply, as the pieces fell into place. “They were being moved onwards, weren’t they?”

    “So it seems,” Rachel said. “Commander Anshan believed the evacuees were going to be transported to Hameau.”

    “Hameau,” Haydn repeated. It meant nothing to him, but it wouldn’t be the first time trouble came out of a system he’d never heard of. A lifetime spent travelling from trouble spot to trouble spot had convinced him that anywhere could turn troublesome, given time. “And they were going to be transported ... when?”

    “Soon,” Rachel said. “We beat them to the punch.”

    “Good,” Haydn grunted. It was disturbing, more disturbing than he cared to admit. They’d been in a race, without knowing it. The only upside was that whoever was on the other side had clearly been unaware of it too. He supposed it shouldn’t have surprised him. Gamma Prime was an obvious target for someone who realised the Empire was on the brink of complete collapse. “Why?”

    “Presumably, they did it for the same reason we did.” Rachel shrugged, expressively. “They wanted to put the evacuees, all the trained and experienced personnel, to work.”

    “Yeah.” Haydn rubbed his scalp. It felt itchy, after hours spent in combat armour. “We’ll have to inform our superiors.”

    “Yeah,” Rachel echoed. “And then ... what?”

    Haydn smiled. “Someone a bit higher up the food chain will have to make that call.”

    “Belinda’s report stated that other people were making contingency plans of their own,” Rachel said, as if Haydn hadn’t spoken. “We could find ourselves clashing with others who weren’t caught by surprise.”

    “Belinda?” Haydn shrugged. It didn’t matter. “It was predictable.”

    But was it? He’d moved from trouble spot to trouble spot - yes, he had - and he’d seen the Empire’s steady decline. And he’d grown up on a world that made Earth seem like a nightmare of steel and shadows, where the crime rate was so high that people just shrugged off things like being mugged or raped or murdered ... he shook his head. People could get used to anything. They might not have realised that the Empire’s days were numbered.

    And anyone with the power to do anything about the coming fall might keep it to themselves, Haydn thought. Only a handful of marines had been briefed on Safehouse before Earthfall, before it had become impossible to keep the news from the rest of the corps. Who started collecting experienced personnel as soon as the news reached them?

    He put the thought aside. “Our superiors will have to worry about it,” he said, calmly. “We have other problems right now.”

    “True.” Rachel grinned. “I have to rejoin the team.”

    “I’m glad to hear they got out safely,” Haydn said. “Have you made a report to the CO?”

    “I passed it up the chain,” Rachel said. “But you’re right. Someone with more brass on his shoulders will have to decide what to do with it.”

    She turned and hurried off. Haydn watched her go, feeling torn between two contradictory impressions. Rachel was harmless, utterly harmless ... and, at the same time, a deadly warrior with enhanced strength and speed. It was difficult to rid himself of the former impression even though he knew she was tougher than him. She would have been hard to handle even before she’d been enhanced. He would have bet half his pay packet that she had a few weapons hidden under her pale skin.

    If I still get paid, he thought, wryly. The marine banking system was still intact, as far as he knew, but he wasn’t sure if his bank balance meant anything. Earth was gone. The interstellar economy had practically evaporated. It was quite likely that everyone’s banking datachips were worthless, now the banks were gone. Their owners couldn’t even use them to wipe their asses. Do I even have any money left at all?

    He shook his head. Under the circumstances, it didn’t matter.

    “Captain,” Tomas said. “The captured ships are ready to depart.”

    Kerri nodded. It had taken longer than they’d promised - four days, instead of two - but thankfully no hostile force had turned up to force her to cut and run. She’d had visions of being faced with a choice between destroying the ships herself and letting them fall into potentially-hostile hands ... she hadn’t wanted to do the former, yet she’d known she couldn’t do the latter. She promised herself she’d make a prayer of thanks, later. She knew she had a great deal to be thankful for.

    “Order the flotilla to start moving, as planned,” she said. “And then send our farewell message to the planetary government.”

    “Aye, Captain,” Susan said.

    “Helm, keep us on station,” Kerri added. “Tactical, watch for trouble.”

    She turned her attention to the planetary display, wondering if the government would do anything - anything at all - to impede their departure. Hundreds of messages had been received and logged, ranging from threats to promises and pleas. Kerri had ignored them, right until the moment she was ready to leave. If the planetary government cooperated ... she shook her head. It was hard to be sure, now the forward teams had been extracted, but it was fairly clear that Gamma Prime was doomed. The orbital installations would wither and die shortly after the planet itself descended into chaos.

    They’ll be eating themselves in the streets, she thought, numbly. Her stealthed probes had noted fires burning out of control, entire CityBlocks collapsing into rubble ... Earth had always claimed the CityBlocks were so stable that nothing, not even a nuke, could bring them crashing down. She wasn’t surprised they’d been wrong. And their deaths will pass unnoticed as the chaos spreads wider and wider.

    She allowed herself to relax as the flotilla picked up speed, heading up above the system plane as it headed to the Phase Limit. They were safe, now. The mission had been carried out perfectly, from start to finish. There hadn’t been any casualties on either side ... she shuddered. That wasn’t entirely true. The entire planetary population was about to become a casualty. She knew it wasn’t her fault, that the population had been doomed from the moment the government had started cutting corners, but it still grated on her. It would be worse, she supposed, if she could truly grasp how many people were about to die. They were just ... numbers.

    And they’re a drop in the bucket compared to Earth’s teeming billions, she thought, glumly. And those teeming billions are all dead.

    Tomas cleared his throat. “Captain, the charges are ready for detonation.”

    “Confirm that everyone got off the shipyard,” Kerri ordered. It went against the grain to destroy whatever they couldn’t take with them, but she was damned if she was leaving anything behind for their unknown rival. “Once you’re sure, send the detonation command.”

    “Aye, Captain.” Tomas worked his console. “All present and accounted for.”

    “Then send the command,” Kerri said. “Now.”

    She returned her attention to the display, watching as the shipyard icons winked out of existence. It was so ... sterile. There was no hint of the nuclear megatonnage tearing the shipyard apart, atomising the facilities and melting the handful of remaining starships. They would be well beyond repair, if anyone cared to try. It would be cheaper and easier to build an entirely new fleet from scratch.

    But it may be a long time before anyone can, she mused, as her fleet picked up speed. The interstellar economy is gone.
    squiddley, techsar, oldawg and 2 others like this.
  11. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


    Chapter Six

    This was both good and bad for the colonies themselves. On one hand, they were designed to be self-sufficient, at least in the essentials of life. Most colonies could and did feed themselves; indeed, many worlds produced a significant food surplus that, in happier times, might have supplied off-world asteroid mining centuries, cloudscoops and other installations.
    - Professor Leo Caesius. Earthfall and its Aftermath.

    It had often surprised Major-General Jeremy Damiani, Commandant of the Terran Marine Corps, that Safehouse-I had never been colonised, let alone developed, even though it was relatively close to the Core Worlds. A lone moon orbiting a lone gas giant, the only object of interest within the otherwise useless system, it should have drawn some attention. But then, there was little to draw settlers and tourists to the system. Anyone who wanted to set up a hidden colony would prefer to be a great deal further from the Core.

    He stood by the transparent hullmetal window and stared over the plain. The views were spectacular, if nothing else. The gas giant hung in the sky, a giant blue orb that utterly dominated the tiny moon; the lands below the window looked strewn with white snow and ice. It looked charming, if one didn’t know the surface was largely composed of liquid nitrogen. The installations the corps had established, over the years, were buried well beneath the ground. They wouldn’t be easy to detect, even if the system was searched thoroughly by an entire fleet. Safehouse was practically undetectable.

    Or so we tell ourselves, he thought, grimly. The Slaughterhouse was gone. It hadn’t just been bombarded from space, although that would have been more than enough to render the world useless. The atmosphere had been thoroughly poisoned, rendered so antagonistic to human life that anyone who set foot on the ruined world without heavy-duty armour would be dead in a few short hours. If Safehouse is discovered too soon, whoever wrecked the Slaughterhouse will come for it too.

    He gritted his teeth as he watched snow being blown through the air by a gust of wind. He’d taken control of the contingency plans from his predecessor, when he’d been promoted to Major-General, but ... he’d always hoped he wouldn’t be the one who actually put them into action. The Empire had been failing for years, yet ... he’d dared to hope he’d see out his entire career before it finally collapsed into rubble. But he hadn’t been so lucky. He’d been the man on the spot when the shit hit the fan.

    And, no matter what we do, trillions of people are going to die. The thought gnawed at him, mocking him. He’d spent his career fighting to protect a population that, all too often, regarded his men as wolves in human form. And yet ... he’d failed, in the end. The people who had been safe and warm because men like him had been ready, willing and able to commit violence on their behalf were no longer safe. There’s nothing we can do to stop it.

    The news was a constant liturgy of horror. Earthfall had merely been the start. War, death and destruction, rape and slavery ... ethnic cleansing and all the attendant horrors as ancient conflicts, conflicts Jeremy and his men had tried to keep under control, restarted one final time. Entire planets collapsing into chaos, their populations going mad and tearing down the infrastructure that might - might - give them a chance of survival. Jeremy had seen the classified projections - he knew the specialists had predicted that twenty to thirty percent of the population would die in the first year, after Earthfall - but reality had somehow managed to be worse. Each successive wave of chaos claimed billions of lives.

    Jeremy shook his head, slowly. Entire governments had declared independence, although it was a little pointless when there was no one left to declare independence from. Former Imperial Navy officers had declared themselves warlords, tearing the navy into a hundred feuding factions that would try to re-unite the human race under their rule or die trying; garrisons that had once tried to protect ungrateful populations were turning on their hosts, throwing the rules of engagement to the winds and hammering insurgents who’d been protected by the laws of war ... insurgents who were now being slaughtered, along with millions of innocents who were caught in the crossfire. And it was all so pointless! Jeremy suspected that half the warlords wouldn’t survive the first year. Even if they kept themselves alive, would they be able to keep their ships functional? Jeremy doubted it.

    He shuddered. Two days ago, a report had informed him that a fully-loaded bulk freighter had fallen out of orbit and crashed into a planetary biosphere. Hundreds of thousands of people had died in the first few seconds alone. Six weeks ago, it would have been a sensation. Ill-informed media pundits would have speculated on the cause - accident or terrorism, who knew? Grand Senators would have made pronouncements and promised new laws to prevent further such disasters, without ever knowing what had caused the disaster in the first place. There would have been protest marches and counter-marches and violence on the streets ... six weeks ago. Now, it was barely noticeable. Hundreds of thousands dead? What were they, compared to the eighty billion people who’d died on Earth?

    And the media is gone, he thought. That probably makes things a little easier.

    He had to smile, even though he knew he shouldn’t take any pleasure in the fall of the media empires who’d made his life hell. There would be no more journalists putting themselves in danger for a scoop, no more reporters taking his words out of context, no more editors making details up out of whole cloth, no more publishers insisting on articles being slanted to reflect political orthodoxy ... whatever that happened to be at the time. The nasty part of his mind hoped the reporters were enjoying watching their world falling apart. The bastards had played a major role in undermining social trust. It was only right that they would finally reap what they had sowed.

    And you should take your pleasures where you can find them, he thought. There’s nothing you can do about it anyway.

    His wristcom buzzed. “Commandant? They’re ready for you.”

    “I’m coming.” Jeremy took one last look at the gathering storm, and eerie lightning flickering amongst the darkening clouds, then turned and walked to the door. “I’ll be there in a moment.”

    There were no frills on Safehouse, nothing that might distract the base’s staff from the awareness that the colony had only ever been intended as a temporary refuge. Even now, with the barracks crammed with evacuees from the Slaughterhouse and the training rooms steadily putting the final generation of recruits through their paces, Safehouse was about as welcoming as a prison. He made a mental note to do something to make the place more homely, although he wasn’t sure what. The corps had a vast collection of paintings, some dating all the way back to semi-mythical organisations like the Royal Marines, the United States Marine Corps and the French Foreign Legion, but they were all in bunkers on the Slaughterhouse. It would be a long time before they were recovered, if they ever were. Jeremy knew there would always be something more important to do.

    But a generation that has no past has no future, he reminded himself. It had been terrifying, once upon a time, to realise just how ignorant the average citizen was - and, worse, how ignorant they were of their own ignorance. We have to make sure the newcomers know where we came from.

    The briefing room was larger than he would have preferred, he admitted to himself, but it was comfortably barren. A pair of folding tables sat in the centre, surrounded by a cluster of folding chairs. Someone had pulled them out of an MEU, he guessed. They’d been designed to allow marine officers to set up a command post at terrifying speed, with none of the frills their naval or army counterparts demanded as a matter of course. A holographic projector sat on one of the tables, displaying a star chart that had changed - politically speaking - sometime in the last two hours. It wasn’t easy to keep track of political changes. Jeremy was uncomfortably aware that the chart might already be out of date - again.

    He looked forwards the far wall, feeling a touch of wistfulness. The transparent metal overlooked one of the larger training rooms, where - he knew - the new recruits would be being put through their paces. It had been fifty years, more or less, since he’d been a recruit himself, fifty years since he’d been so innocent that all that mattered was pleasing the Drill Instructors and mastering everything from unarmed combat and sharpshooting to tactics and logistics. He was tempted to stroll over to the window and watch, knowing it might be the last generation of recruits. Instead, he took his seat.

    “Well,” Jeremy said. “Shall we begin?”

    He allowed his gaze to wander the room. Colonel Chung Myung-Hee, Marine Intelligence, sat beside the projector, her face grim. Beside her, Major-General Gerald Anderson, 1st Marine Division, looked uncomfortable. He was not the sort of man to like being trapped on Safehouse when he could be in command of his formation, heading out to crack some heads together. Jeremy understood, better than he cared to admit. There were nine Major-Generals in the Marine Corps and seven of them had combat assignments. If Earthfall had waited a few days, Anderson and his men would have been on their way when the shit hit the fan.

    “Sir,” Chung said. “We have received word from Gamma Prime.”

    Jeremy studied her for a long moment. She was a short, heavy-set woman with dark hair and a sense of age that reminded him she’d actually been in the corps longer than himself. And yet, as an intelligence officer, she was permanently barred from the highest ranks. He might have worried about that, if he’d been in the navy. The corps, thankfully, allowed intelligence officers to qualify as line officers, if they wished. It kept resentments from building to dangerous peaks.

    “What happened?”

    “The operation itself was a success,” Chung said. “The shipyard was seized. The personnel and decommissioned starships are being moved to secure locations. However, there was a curious incident. The planetary government intended to send its cadre of experienced personal to Hameau.”

    “Hameau,” Jeremy repeated, slowly. “I seem to recall something about that world.”

    “It’s a corporate settlement,” Chung said. She indicated the planet on the display. “It belongs, through a series of shell companies, to the Onge Corporation. They were developing the planet as a centre of industry and space technology.”

    Jeremy’s eyes narrowed. Grand Senator Stephen Onge had been an old sparring partner, always trying to bring the Marine Corps under the control of the Grand Senate. Jeremy had suspected the old bastard had had some form of contingency plan for Earthfall, even though he hadn’t had any proof until the shit really hit the fan. But Onge himself had died when he’d attempted to flee Earth with the Childe Roland. It had probably been too much, Jeremy acknowledged privately, for the Grand Senator’s conspiracy to die with him. The Onge Corporation had had more power, wealth and resources than most planetary governments. Power like that didn’t simply ... go away.

    “And ... they were willing to snatch the people we wanted to snatch,” Jeremy commented.

    “The people we were going to kidnap, kidnapped,” Anderson said. “How terrible.”

    “It isn’t as if we were going to use them as slaves,” Jeremy said.

    “We were going to take them - we did take them - without asking if they wanted to come,” Anderson pointed out, dryly. “And not all of them are going to work for us willingly.”

    Jeremy nodded, as if he hadn’t had any ethical or moral qualms at all. He had. He’d worried about it more than he cared to admit, certainly to any of his subordinates. There was something fundamentally wrong with kidnapping people and putting them to work. He’d liberated enough captives from pirate ships to believe that kidnapping was wrong. But he’d had no choice. The trained and experienced personal - soldiers and spacers as well as mechanics and technicians - were all that stood between humanity and a new dark age. They had to be protected. They had to be saved.

    “We’ll give them the chance to survive, if nothing else,” he said, sharply. “And if they refuse to work for us, they can go elsewhere.”

    Chung cleared her throat. “The intelligence staff on Havoc interrogated the captured officers,” she continued. “They were basically promised homes and jobs on Hameau, presumably through the Onge Corporation, if they cooperated. Given that Hameau is actually quite heavily defended, for what is - on the surface - a stage-two colony world, the corporation should have had no trouble keeping those promises.”

    “No doubt,” Jeremy said. The whole affair was an unexpected wrinkle. He didn’t want to have to work with the Onge Corporation. He’d known its former CEO too well. The old bastard had always been genteel, but that hadn’t stopped him from slipping in the knife as soon as the victim turned his back. “And now we have competition.”

    “Yes, sir,” Chung said. “I’ve been studying the records. It’s quite possible that the colony was further along than they claimed.”

    “I wouldn’t be surprised,” Jeremy said. “It’s astonishing how many things get left off the official records.”

    “Such as the existence of this place.” Anderson waved a hand at the nearest wall. “So ... we know the bastards are up to something. What do we do about it?”

    “Our projections always assumed there would be a power vacuum in that sector,” Chung said. “If Hameau turns into a major power ... it could be problematic.”

    “Perhaps,” Anderson said.

    “There’s no perhaps about it,” Chung said, grimly. “I’ve been running projections. They’re going to get a lot of refugees, particularly once people realise that the Core Worlds are going to be really unsafe for just about everyone ...”

    “They’re probably realised that by now,” Jeremy said. He knew, better than most, how word spread amongst the stars. His most optimistic estimates suggested that everyone for a few hundred light years knew about Earthfall. “We have to assume the worst.”

    “Quite.” Anderson shrugged. “The question remains, sir. What do we do about it?”

    Chung tapped the display. “We get there first, sir. We take the world off them.”

    Anderson blinked. “You suggest we come out of hiding and ... invade ... a star system?”

    “Yes, sir.” Chung looked at him, evenly. Her voice was very calm. “That’s exactly what I’m suggesting.”

    Jeremy kept his face under tight control. He’d never been comfortable with remaining underground, the finest military machine in the known galaxy lurking in the shadows while it refitted old starships and readied itself to return to the light. He’d seen the projections. He knew that any attempt to stem the chaos was likely to end badly. And yet, sitting on his ass and doing nothing seemed ... wrong. Experience had told him that doing something was always the better option, if only because it kept the enemy from seizing the initiative. He’d certainly never been comfortable sitting around waiting to be hit.

    There are times when you have no choice, he reminded himself. And times when you have to throw caution to the winds and take the war to the enemy.

    “There are definite advantages to taking the system,” Chung said. “The corporation has established a bunch of industrial nodes and suchlike in orbit, all of which would come in handy if we took possession. The population is quite sensible, as many of them are first and second-gen immigrants ... and probably very aware that the corporation will start to see them as cheap mass-produced tools, if it doesn’t already. And ... we can send our own new recruits there too.”

    She nodded to the display. “And sir, do we really want a corporation, one known for pushing the limits on just about everything, to turn itself into a government? A real government?”

    Jeremy shook his head, slowly. Most corporate-dominated planets had maintained at least some pretence at democracy, although it was fairly clear that the corporate nominees were still in control. It helped that anyone who wanted to leave was generally allowed to go, urging corporations not to tighten their grip too much. But that had been with the Empire, enforcing - in its erratic manner - fair play. He dreaded to think what would happen if the Onge Family became de facto royalty. At the very least, they’d become a rival state ...

    And we might have to fight them later instead of now, Jeremy thought. The contingency plans would need to be updated, again. They’d assumed that most of the successor states would burn themselves out fairly quickly, either through war or simply running out of supplies. This is definitely an unexpected surprise.

    He leaned forward. “Have the planning staff take a look at the details,” he ordered. “Let them determine if it’s possible to take the planet, with the ships and resources we have on hand. And then ... if it’s possible, we’ll make the final decision then.”

    Anderson lifted an eyebrow. “You don’t want to be decisive?”

    Jeremy knew he was being teased. But there was a serious point behind it.

    “We’ll find out what we’re facing, in every sense of the word, before we commit ourselves,” he said. He’d seen too many people make that mistake, in the heyday of empire, to wish to make it himself. “And then we’ll make up our minds.”

    But he knew, deep inside, that he’d already made a decision.
    squiddley, techsar, oldawg and 2 others like this.
  12. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


    Chapter Seven

    On the other, however, they lacked the ability to bootstrap themselves into a technological civilisation. The vast majority of their tech base was primitive, when it existed in the first place. They could produce tractors and primitive, gas-driven cars, but not shuttlecraft and spaceships. This ensured that any lingering off-world installations had to be rapidly shut down before the population starved, suffocated or simply died on the vine.
    - Professor Leo Caesius. Earthfall and its Aftermath.

    Kerri gritted her teeth as the shuttle plunged through the storm.

    She clung to her seat for dear life, cursing the commandant - and tradition - as another gust of wind hit the craft. She should have insisted on holding the discussion over the communications grid, damn it. If she’d realised just how unpleasant the flight would be, she would have insisted on it. She knew it was safe, relatively speaking, but ... hell, she wasn’t really sure it was safe. Shuttlecraft rarely had any problems landing on Earth-type worlds, even if they had to fly through a hurricane, but Safehouse? A tiny moon orbiting an immense gas giant, with tidal waves that reached up and kissed the skies? She would hardly have called it safe.

    The craft shook again. She heard a giggle behind her and felt the back of her neck burn, even though she was fairly certain the Pathfinders weren’t laughing at her. Or perhaps they were. People who would make HALO entries through a full-fledged storm probably thought nothing of flying through heavy turbulence. They were welcome to it, Kerri considered, as the shuttle flew into a clear zone. The peace lasted just long enough for her to relax - slightly - before one final crash echoed through the shuttlecraft. The gravity field seemed to weaken a second later. They’d landed.

    She unbuckled herself carefully and stood on wobbly legs. Safehold was smaller than Earth, it’s gravity barely a third of the homeworld’s. She was mildly surprised the corps hadn’t installed a gravity generator to ensure the long-term residents didn’t lose muscle tone, but it might be all too revealing if someone probed the system and picked up flickers of graviton particles. It would certainly attract attention if the wrong people noticed. Besides, the corps had probably made medical treatments mandatory for anyone who visited the planet. The treatments were expensive, but the corps had plenty of money.

    Or had, she thought, as she stumbled through the hatch. Who bankrolls us now?

    It was a sobering thought. She was devoted to the corps, but she hadn’t intended to spend her entire life in its service. There would come a time - or there would have come a time - when she would want to go elsewhere. And then ... what? Did her bank account still exist? Was her money worth anything? Did she have any legal existence at all? And ... she frowned as she made her way down the corridor, following the handful of signs on the walls. Who was legally in charge, if Earth and the Empire were gone? Was she still bound by her oaths?

    You have nowhere else to go, she told herself, dryly. And you still have your duty.

    She walked down a flight of stairs , wondering at the mindset of whoever had decorated the place. There were no personal touches, no paintings or drawings ... nothing to suggest that Safehouse was anything other than temporary - very temporary - accommodation for a handful of refugees. No, she’d been in makeshift refugee camps with more character. She heard a handful of voices behind her and stood to one side as a line of trainees ran past, chanting as they ran. She remembered her own days at Boot Camp, before she’d reluctantly admitted defeat and allowed herself to be streamlined into the Auxiliaries instead. It hadn’t worked out too badly, but ... part of her would always feel like she’d failed. She hadn’t become a marine.

    The Commandant’s office was closer to the surface than she’d expected, although she supposed it shouldn’t have been a surprise. His door was bare metal, without any decoration save for the single nametag. She was half-convinced she’d gone to the wrong place, despite the nametag. She tapped the door and waited, counting the seconds. It unlocked - no sliding doors on Safehouse, it seemed - bare seconds later. She stepped inside, looking around with interest. The office was large, but it was as bland and boring as the rest of the installation. It looked as if the occupant had only just moved in. He hadn’t even set up an ‘I Love Me’ wall.

    Which isn’t always a bad sign, she reminded herself, dryly. There’s always some cock-sucking asskisser who will give the CO a memento of his service.

    “Captain,” Major-General Jeremy Damiani said. He didn’t waste time with pointless power games. “Welcome to Safehold. What do you make of the place?”

    “Boring,” Kerri said. She had the feeling that Damiani would prefer the truth over pretty words. “And very vulnerable, if the system is occupied.”

    “It’s only the tip of the iceberg,” Damiani said. He indicated a folding chair. “Tea? Coffee? Chocolate?”

    Kerri relaxed, slightly. It was odd to have a senior officer serve the drinks ... but she would have been a great deal more worried if the officer hadn’t offered her something to drink. It would have been a sign that it was going to be a far from pleasant conversation. Her lips twitched, humourlessly. She might be about to be sent to do the impossible, or die trying, but at least she wasn’t in trouble.

    “Coffee, please,” she said. “Milk, no sugar.”

    Damiani smiled. It was a surprisingly endearing expression. “A spacer’s drink.”

    “Better to have something I can drink than something that stripes the enamel off my teeth,” Kerri countered. She’d never cared for coffee so thick and strong that one could stand a spoon in it. “Or burn a hole in the deck, if I accidentally drop it.”

    “True.” Damiani poured them both drinks, passed her a mug and sat down facing her. “I read your report. The operation was very well done.”

    “The Pathfinders did most of the work,” Kerri acknowledged. “We would have been in some trouble without them.”

    “You handled your side of the operation very well,” Damiani said. “Well done.”

    Kerri shrugged. She hadn’t had to do much, beyond escorting the transports in and out of the system. She would have proved herself - or not - if the flotilla had actually been attacked. Or if she’d had to make a very hard call indeed. She kept that thought to herself. She was entirely sure Damiani knew it as well as herself.

    Damiani took a sip of his coffee - black, she noted - and tapped a hidden switch, activating a holographic display. A starchart appeared in front of them, a lone star blinking red. Kerri leaned forward, silently running the calculations in her head. At flank speed, the mystery star would be around three weeks from Safehouse. She’d have to check her navcomp to be sure.

    “Hameau,” Damiani said. “I believe you’ve heard of it.”

    “Yes, sir,” Kerri said. She’d read Specialist Green’s report very carefully. “Those mystery ships might have come from Hameau.”

    “Might.” Damiani leaned back in his chair. “We couldn’t match their drive signatures against anything in the record books. They may simply have been retuned, sometime in the last few years, or they might have been deliberately kept off the books.”

    “They didn’t come that close, sir,” Kerri said. She knew the realities of naval life better than any groundpounder. “I wouldn’t be confident that our long-range sensors were able to get an accurate reading on their drive fields. We certainly didn’t get any visuals of their hulls. I wouldn’t care to bet on the accuracy of any of our readings.”

    “True, Captain,” Damiani said. “But it is something to bear in mind.”

    He met her eyes. “I’m detaching Havoc from the remainder of the flotilla, Captain. I want you to take your ship to Hameau, maintaining stealth at all times, and carry out a tactical survey of the system. Your formal orders will be forwarded to you before you depart, but basically we want you to pay close attention to defences, both fixed and mobile, and anything else that might ... impede ... operations within the system. If possible - and this I leave to your judgement - you are to land the Pathfinders on Hameau itself. I trust you to determine if the operation can be carried out without being detected.”

    Kerri nodded, slowly. She wouldn’t have believed an Imperial Navy officer if he’d said that to her - everyone knew that he’d steal the credit if things went well, while leaving her holding the bag if things went badly - but Damiani? She believed him. It wouldn’t be easy to convince the Pathfinders that things were too dangerous - she sometimes thought they had a death wish - but their ultimate superior would back her up. Besides, the corps didn’t have enough active ships to risk losing one for little reward.

    And we’re not supposed to have any warships, she reminded herself. Officially, the corps was only allowed a handful of ships ... none of which were real warships. Havoc and her sisters were thoroughly illegal, their existence known only to a handful of people before Earthfall. And now we have a fleet, if we can get the decommissioned ships back into service.

    “Yes, sir,” she said, finally. “Do you intend to invade the system?”

    Damiani’s lips twitched, as if she’d said something funny. “It depends. Bring back your report and we will see.”

    “Yes, sir.” Kerri finished her coffee. “Sir ... what are we going to do? I mean ... everything’s gone to hell.”

    If the sudden shift in the conversation surprised Damiani, he didn’t show it. “We swore to uphold the Empire,” Damiani said, simply. “We will do whatever it takes to reunite humanity and re-establish the society that, once upon a time, bound us all together.”

    “And also tore us apart,” Kerri said. The Empire had been strong and domineering when it should have been weak and relaxed, weak and relaxed when it should have been strong and domineering ... she understood, all too well, why so many factions sought independence. A sector, let alone the entire galaxy, could not be held together by force. “The future will not be peaceful.”

    “No.” Damiani shook his head. “But we will do what we can to contain the damage.”

    Kerri nodded. It sounded like a dream, but it was more realistic - far more realistic - than anything she’d heard from their civilian superiors. Their former civilian superiors. They’d expected perfection, they’d expected peacekeeping missions to be carried out without a single casualty on either side ... and they’d been bitterly disappointed when they’d discovered that it was impossible. Damiani had been serving for longer than she’d been alive. He knew what could and couldn’t be done.

    He met her eyes. “Do you have any other concerns?”

    “Supply issues may be a concern, sooner or later,” Kerri admitted. The corps had an excellent support system, one that had carefully been kept separate from the navy’s, but Earthfall had placed a lot of strain on their logistics. “We may have trouble keeping the ships going.”

    “We should be able to overcome them, sooner or later,” Damiani said. “But you’re right. It will have to be watched.”

    “Yes, sir.” Kerri finished her coffee. “When do you want me to depart?”

    “This evening, if possible.” Damiani’s lips twitched. “But take as long as you need to make your final preparations.”

    “Yes, sir,” Kerri said.

    “I guess we’re in trouble,” Specialist Steven Phelps said, as the four Pathfinders made their way to the Commandant’s office. “Which one of you bastards screwed the pooch?”

    “It wasn’t me who was caught in bed with the general and his wife,” Specialist Michael Bonkowski countered. “What were you thinking?”

    “Well, his wife was quite a looker and the general himself wasn’t half-bad for someone who spent most of his time behind a desk, so I thought to myself ...”

    “I don’t think you were thinking at all.” Bonkowski sneered at him. “I think you were letting your small head do all the thinking for you.”

    “It is surprisingly qualified,” Rachel teased. “It just can’t resist the temptation to put itself in a convenient orifice.”

    “Hah fucking hah,” Phelps snapped. He glared at the other three. “That was four years ago, you idiots. The Old Man isn’t going to pound my ass about it now.”

    “Mental images, mental images,” Specialist Tony Perkins moaned.

    Bonkowski laughed. “You have a filthy mind.”

    “It wasn’t me who took photos from the surveillance cameras and put them on the datanet,” Perkins said. “It was you.”

    Rachel tuned them out as they reached the Commandant’s office. There was no point in speculating, not when they’d find out why they’d been summoned in a few short minutes. She didn’t think they were in trouble, if only because they hadn’t had time to get into trouble. She couldn’t imagine the Commandant hauling them in to give them grief about something that had happened years ago, particularly not now. It was more likely that another tempting opportunity to commit suicide was heading towards them at supersonic speed.

    They stepped into the office and snapped to attention. The Commandant looked back at them evenly, then returned their salutes. He was shorter than Rachel remembered - it had been years since she’d last met him in person - but that meant nothing. Some of the most vicious bastards she’d met, in and out of the corps, had been short. They’d always acted as though they were compensating for something. She supposed it made a certain kind of sense. A short man would look weak, compared to his taller contemporaries.

    “You did well, on Gamma Prime,” the Commandant said, curtly. “Green” - his eyes met Rachel’s - “did very well. Your discovery that the evacuees were due to be transhipped elsewhere may have saved us some trouble.”

    Rachel nodded, stiffly. The Commandant had been surprised. He’d barely mentioned the rest of the operation, even though it could have failed spectacularly. But then, it hadn’t come remotely close to disaster. And very little had been at stake ... she shook her head, mentally. There was no point in woolgathering when the Commandant was talking.

    “Havoc will be heading to Hameau this evening,” the Commandant informed them. “The four of you will be accompanying her. If possible - and this is solely in the captain’s discretion - you are to be landed on Hameau itself. Your orders, should you make it to the surface, are to scout out the political landscape and get an idea of how things work down there.”

    “Yes, sir,” Phelps said. He was, technically, the team leader. “Will we be recovered?”

    “No.” The Commandant looked displeased. “If we proceed with operations within the system, you will be worked into our plans or eventually picked up after the operation goes ahead. If not ... you are to extract yourself as quietly as possible.”

    “Ouch,” Bonkowski muttered.

    Rachel said nothing, although she agreed. Extracting oneself from a deployment into enemy held territory was never easy, not if the enemy was on the alert. Getting off a planetary surface and into deep space would be far harder, almost impossible. It had been done, she knew, but it had always relied on luck as well as judgement. They were amongst the best-trained soldiers in history, yet ... if they were caught in transit, all the training in the world wouldn’t save them from being blown to atoms.

    “Yes, sir,” Phelps said, again. “We won’t let you down.”

    “I feel a bit of a sniffle coming on,” Bonkowski said, mock-mournfully. “Can I take some sick leave? Or shore leave? I’m not fussy.”

    The Commandant gave him a droll look. “You can always take a walk out there,” he said, indicating the view. Purple lightning flashed through dark and gloomy clouds. Droplets of snow brushed against the window and slid out of sight. “I’m sure it will do wonders for your attitude.”

    Rachel looked past him. The moon was eerie and alien and completely inhospitable, even to an enhanced and augmented human. She’d heard of people who augmented themselves to the point of being able to live in space without spacesuits, or survive on worlds that would otherwise have been lethal, but ... she’d never wanted to be one of them. Safehouse was many things, yet ... it would never be home. She’d certainly never considered retiring to such a desolate world.

    “It’s going to take at least two weeks to get there,” Phelps said. “You’ll have time for a nap or two.”

    “More like three,” Rachel calculated. “Assuming we don’t break any speed records ...”

    The Commandant nodded. “Report onboard Havoc before departure and don’t give Captain Stumbaugh a hard time. If she feels she can’t land you, put up and shut up.”

    “Yes, sir,” Phelps said. “We’ll see how things go.”

    Bonkowski let out an unconvincing cough. “I really need sick leave,” he jested. “Really ...”

    “I’ll have the doctors prescribe something painful, humiliating and absolutely unnecessary,” Phelps said. “Sir, we’ll do our best. And we won’t let you down.”

    “Very good,” the Commandant said. “Dismissed.”

    “I’ll go see what I can find in the records,” Rachel said, once they were out of the office. “It’ll do us good to know what we might be facing.”

    “Three weeks of boredom, followed by an endless wait to see if we’re getting the go order or not,” Bonkowski said. “That’s what we’re facing.”

    “Three weeks of heavy-duty training,” Phelps said, evilly. “Don’t you know? A DI a day keeps the cough away.”

    Bonkowski snorted. “I hate you.”

    “And I’ll bang your heads together, both of you,” Perkins said. “Come on. Let’s go get some chow before it’s too late.”
  13. Merkun

    Merkun furious dreamer

    "he" for grammatical correctness

    I thought they were on a planet -- ?
  14. mysterymet

    mysterymet Monkey+++

    Maybe something about who attacked the slaughterhouse and how many survived. Did they evacuate before the attack? (Would make sense being as it is filled with marines, retired marines and their families) maybe something about the retired marines (at least the ones not too old) getting back in fighting shape.
  15. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    It's a gas gient's moon.

    Merkun likes this.
  16. techsar

    techsar Monkey+++

    Perhaps a bit more homey? ;)

    Nice lead up thus far, Chris. Looking forward to more!
  17. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Eight

    In one sense, this was simple practicality. A stage-one colony world could not support a modern tech base. Shipping vast amounts of advanced technology from Earth to the Rim was inefficient. It made a great deal more sense, to the colony planners, to install a very basic tech base, knowing that anything the colonies produced for themselves could be repaired on site.
    - Professor Leo Caesius. Earthfall and its Aftermath.

    “Commandant,” Christie Loomis said. “Havoc just cleared the Phase Limit. She’s gone.”

    “And out of touch for the next six weeks,” Jeremy grunted. “Or seven, more likely.”

    “Yes, sir.” Christie frowned. “Have you been getting enough sleep recently?”

    “I don’t think anyone has been getting enough sleep recently.” Jeremy barely looked up from his datapad. “I’ll rest when I’m dead.”

    “Which may not be that far in the future, if you keep pushing yourself too hard,” Christie said, tartly. “Get some rest. Sir.”

    Jeremy snorted. “Let me know when Major-General Anderson arrives,” he said. “I have too much paperwork to do.”

    His aide nodded and withdrew. Jeremy sighed and returned his attention to his datapad. It didn’t seem fair, somehow, that galactic society had fallen into chaos and he still had to worry about paperwork. He’d been a serving officer long enough to understand the importance of keeping one’s paperwork in order - and the dangers of allowing one’s subordinates to write lies in the files - but it still ground on him. He wasn’t cut out to spend the rest of his life driving a desk. He wanted to get back into action at least once before he was finally declared medically unfit and discharged ...

    And who, he asked himself, is going to discharge me?

    He rubbed his eyes, tiredly. He’d never really imagined life without the chain of command, life without the Empire ... a life where the corps were practically on their own, hiding in their boltholes as the galaxy collapsed into chaos. It had always seemed unthinkable, even as he’d made preparations for the day he dreaded ... the day he knew would come. Who did they serve now? Themselves? Or some ideal of the galaxy? It wasn’t as if the Imperial Family would ever retake the throne. The throne itself was nothing more than dust and ash on a heavily-polluted world.

    On impulse, he reached forward and tapped his processor, bringing up the live feed from the training grounds. A team of men in black tunics were going through a series of exercises, readying themselves for yet another training exercise. He had no trouble spotting the former Child Roland amongst them, his body still flabby after nine weeks of intensive training. The Imperial Heir wasn’t the sort of person he would have recruited, back when the galaxy had been sane, but ... Jeremy had to admit Roland was starting to shape up nicely. It would be months, if not years, before he was ready to graduate ... he was trying, at least. Jeremy had been impressed, despite himself, by how little complaining he’d heard from the former prince. Roland might even turn into a decent man.

    If he completes Boot Camp, Jeremy thought. And if we manage to put together a substitute for the Slaughterhouse.

    He sighed and turned off the display. He wasn’t blind to the advantages of having the Imperial Heir under his wing, but he knew the advantages came with significant disadvantages. The Child Roland had never been popular, even - perhaps especially - amongst the people who had never known the real him. The tales of his debauchery and general ... unpleasantness had been firmly rooted in truth. And even if he’d been the sweetest, kindest man imaginable, there were plenty of worlds that resented the Imperial Family and had no intention of bowing the knee to them ever again. Roland was a knife that could turn in his hand, Jeremy knew. He could injure himself as easily as his enemies.

    And Roland himself might want to slip into obscurity, Jeremy reminded himself. He’d seen the prince’s psych report. Roland was ashamed of the man he’d been, before Earthfall. He didn’t want to take the throne. He might not want to let me use him.

    His intercom bleeped. “Commandant, Major-General Anderson is here.”

    Jeremy nodded. “Send him in.”

    The door hissed open. Major-General Anderson strode into the room, his eyes flickering to the rear window before resting on Jeremy. Jeremy waved a hand at the coffee pot, inviting his subordinate to help himself, and put the datapad aside. He should know better than to bury himself in the little details, even though it gave him a sense of doing something. It was his job to keep an eye on the bigger picture. He had subordinates to handle the details.

    “We just got word from Morrison,” Anderson said, as he poured himself a mug of coffee. “He’s evacuated Primark. He and his men will be on their way in a few days.”

    “I can’t say I’m surprised,” Jeremy said. Major-General Morrison had been permission to pull his forces off Primark, if he felt the situation was beyond repair. Jeremy wasn’t the man on the spot. He wouldn’t judge the man who was. But ... it still felt like a failure, one of far too many. “The cluster was heading into chaos well before Earthfall.”

    “Sins of the past return to haunt us,” Anderson agreed. “If we’d been given a free hand ...”

    Jeremy shrugged. The Primark Cluster would have worked, he thought, if the colonisation department hadn’t insisted on landing settlers from a dozen mutually-opposed cultures and then, instead of trying to forge a united society, wavering between repression and tolerance for the ethnic divisions and conflicts that had inevitably followed. Years later, the hatred between the cultures was so great that the only thing preventing mass slaughter, ethnic cleansing and outright genocide was a large and growing military presence. The Empire had tried to keep the peace, its leaders unaware there was no peace to keep. And now ...

    His imagination provided too many details for his peace of mind. The conflict would start small, but rapidly grow into a holocaust. Men would be tortured and killed, women would be raped and then killed, children - young children - would be taken away to be raised by the victors, their former culture beaten out of them ... he shuddered. It would be horrific beyond words at any time, but now ...? It was just another footnote in the bloodiest era of human existence.

    “We can’t worry about it now,” he said, with more savagery than he’d intended. He wanted to tear Morrison a new asshole, even though he knew the poor bastard wouldn’t have pulled out unless the situation was truly untenable. “As long as he got his men out ...”

    Sure, his thoughts mocked him. They got out. And they left the world to burn.

    He tried not to remember his first deployment, on a world so savage that he’d almost despaired of humanity. Ethnic, racial and religious conflicts were the worst, the ones where both sides felt the other was utterly beyond the pale. He’d met pirates who were more civilised than fanatics. He could practically smell the blood, the burning flesh, the utter hopelessness of the handful of captives he’d rescued ... he swallowed, hard. There would be no rescue for the captives on the cluster, not any longer. They’d have to make the best of it.

    “I’ve been studying the files on Hameau,” Anderson said. “It’s a curious world and no mistake.”

    “Quite.” Jeremy would never have admitted it, but he was privately glad Anderson had changed the subject. “Can we take it?”

    “I think so.” Anderson shrugged. “That said, the last survey was completed ten years ago. God alone knows how much got left off the survey. The researchers think the system was actually wealthier than the bastards ever admitted ...”

    “I’m not surprised,” Jeremy commented. “It would have raised their tax liabilities.”

    Anderson grinned, humourlessly. “Did they ever pay taxes?”

    “They paid them to themselves,” Jeremy said. He’d once sat down with the researchers to determine why the Empire, with a tax base stretched across thousands of worlds, was permanently short of cash. It had taken him quite some time to realise that the Grand Senate used a financial sleight of hand to avoid paying any taxes at all. “And then they channelled the money everyone else paid to themselves too.”

    “Ouch,” Anderson said. “From what I saw in the files, sir, we can take the world. But ... we don’t know what we don’t know.”

    “Yeah.” Jeremy keyed his processor, bringing up the planetary display. “What can we commit to the mission?”

    “My division, of course,” Anderson said. “And fifteen ships ... twenty-one, if we’re willing to recall units from other operations. We can probably pad them out with freighters, if necessary. The problem is that we’re going to be committing ourselves to a ground campaign. Even with the gloves off, we may be engaged for longer than we’d prefer.”

    “Naturally.” Jeremy took a moment to savour the irony. He’d spent his entire career begging for permission to take the gloves off and just give the wretched bastards the thrashing of a lifetime. One solid example of a terrorist-led insurgency being crushed would be worth a million threats from the Grand Senate, threats no one took seriously because they were never carried out. Now, when he was finally answerable to no one outside the corps, he might not have the resources to lay down the law. “How long do you think we’ll be committed?”

    Anderson shook his head. “It depends, sir. If there’s no real resistance, the world will fall overnight. If they make a fight of it ... we’ll have to take or disable the Planetary Defence Centres by force. That could prolong the fighting indefinitely.”

    “And no way to know what we’ll be facing,” Jeremy mused.

    He studied the display for a long moment. It had been centuries since the marines had carried out a landing on a hostile world. His entire career had been spent on worlds that had been unable, if not unwilling, to keep the marines from landing. A combination of orbital bombardment and rapid deployment had made them the masters of any situation, as long as they were not lured into engagements that played to their weaknesses. Indeed, there had only been a handful of engagements where they’d had to face serious opposition when they made the first landings. Most worlds understood that, when they lost control of the high orbitals, the game was up.

    But now ... he shook his head as he skimmed through the file. It was impossible to be sure, but it was fairly clear the Onge Corporation wouldn’t have invested so much into the system unless they were sure they could take care of it. The Grand Senator - he wondered, sourly, who’d succeeded the man who’d died during Earthfall - hadn’t been stupid. There would be a lot of hardware within the system, almost all of it off the books. Powerful corporations had been violating the rules on privately-held military hardware for longer than he’d been alive.

    I probably shouldn’t make too much of a fuss, he thought, dryly. We’ve been violating the rules too.

    He leaned back in his chair, understanding - finally - why so many Grand Senators had been reluctant to commit everything to the field. The buck had stopped with them, once upon a time; now, it stopped with him. And yet ... a Grand Senator could get a million soldiers and spacers killed and no one would give a damn. Jeremy knew the remainder of the Major-Generals wouldn’t hesitate to remove him if they lost faith in his leadership. And yet ...

    They’d understand taking a gamble, he told himself. And they’d be much more concerned about me doing nothing.

    “Start making the preparations,” he ordered. “And keep me informed.”

    “Aye, sir.” Anderson stood. “Get some rest, sir.”

    “You too?” Jeremy laughed. “Why does everyone want me to get a good night’s sleep?”

    “When the boss is asleep, everyone else can goof off,” Anderson said. “And I’ve been waiting years to goof off.”

    “And you can wait a few years more,” Jeremy said. “Your schedule is too full for goofing off.”

    Anderson chuckled, threw him a jaunty salute and hurried out the door. Jeremy sighed, then turned to the window and looked out over the darkening landscape. There were times when he was tempted to collect everything they’d built over the years, from the warships they weren’t supposed to have to the giant transports and factory ships, and set course for the Rim. He’d seeded hundreds of marines and retired marines out there, most of them with sealed orders to maintain civilisation by any means necessary. He could join them, with enough firepower and technology to rebuild a formidable industrial base in a few short years. But it would mean giving up on the Core.

    And giving too many others a chance to build up power bases of their own, he thought, grimly. He had no idea who’d inherit most of the Imperial Navy, but anyone who controlled a battle squadron and a handful of supplies would be in an excellent position to carve out a vest-pocket empire for himself. Jeremy had already authorised the assassination of one such officer, although it would be weeks before he knew if the operation had succeeded or failed spectacularly. And, one day, whoever comes out ahead will start expanding into the Rim.

    Shaking his head, he turned and headed for bed.

    Haydn hadn’t expected more than a day or so of rest when his company reached Safehouse. Indeed, he was a little surprised they’d been recalled to Safehouse in the first place. Their orders, filed before the raid on Gamma Prime, had been to remain on the concealed shipyard and provide security until the evacuees were processed, interrogated and shipped to their final destinations. Haydn hadn’t expected trouble from their guests, save perhaps for the handful of evacuees who’d had to leave their families behind. He’d been morbidly amused to hear one man promising the stars, as long as he didn’t have to go back to his estranged wife.

    He walked into the briefing room and looked around with interest. The chamber was packed, with brass as far as the eye could see. Haydn himself was one of the lowest-ranking officers in the compartment, although that meant less amongst the marines than the regular army. His lips quirked at the thought. He’d be a coffee boy if he’d joined the regular army. An officer he’d met once - unfortunately - had thrown a fit when he’d discovered that he was expected to brief mere captains and even majors ...

    Haydn put the thought aside as he surveyed the other officers. Most of them were active-duty, but a handful looked to be reservists who’d been recalled to the corps when the shit hit the fan. Haydn guessed most of them had lived on the Slaughterhouse, evacuated ahead of the attack that had left the world a radioactive wasteland. The wags might joke that it was a vast improvement, but ... he felt a cold rage simmering in his gut. There would be no mercy, when they found out who was behind the attack. They’d pay for what they’d done.

    That was part of our history, no matter how much we hated it when we were there, he thought. He didn’t remember much about the Slaughterhouse, but pain ... pain and a grim determination to never quit. They had no right to take it from us.

    Major-General Anderson strode into the room, followed by a pair of grim-faced staffers. Haydn rose with the rest of the assembly, then sat down when Anderson waved them to their seats. He didn’t stand on ceremony, unlike regular army officers. Marines knew their superiors had gone through the Slaughterhouse - and then served on the front lines - well before they’d been promoted. And they rotated in and out of the front lines for the rest of their careers, just to make sure they didn’t lose their touch.

    “We may be deploying, as a division-sized force, to a hostile world,” Anderson said, without preamble. A rustle of anticipation ran around the room. “Our objective will be to land, capture the PDCs and convince the local population to work with us. As of now, we don’t know how they’re being treated or how they’ll react to us.”

    Haydn nodded, curtly. Civilians were inherently unpredictable. Some loved the marines, some viewed them as trigger-happy rambos - whatever a rambo actually was - some viewed them as corrupt bastards like the Civil Guardsmen and some, the most heartbreaking of the bunch, saw the marines as people who would go away and let the former government come back and punish anyone who welcomed the marines too openly. It was never easy to trust an outsider when that outsider might cut and run at any moment, leaving you to face the wrath of your former friends. Better not to commit yourself than run the risk of being abandoned.

    “The staff will put together the deployment scenario, which will be updated when we obtain accurate information from the target,” Anderson continued. “Your role will be to prepare your troops for deployment and poke holes in the plan, before the enemy puts bullet holes in it. I don’t think I need to tell you that this mission is important. We cannot fail. We will not fail.”

    His eyes swept the room. “We haven’t done anything like this for years. We’re out of practice. And now ... we have to get it right, first time. Failure is not an option.”

    Haydn let out a breath. A forced landing, an opposed landing ... it would be a challenge. But he relished it. He’d joined the corps for the challenge. He would not fail. They would not fail.

    “Now,” Anderson said. “To work.”
    squiddley, oldawg and rle737ng like this.
  18. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


    Chapter Nine

    There was no point, they argued, in wasting time shipping broken devices or vehicles back to the Core Worlds. And indeed, they were right. Given the problems with interstellar shipping and trade, in the last century before the fall, there was no guarantee that anything sent back to Earth would ever be returned.
    - Professor Leo Caesius. Earthfall and its Aftermath.

    It was almost a relief, Kerri decided, when Havoc finally started her approach to the Hameau System. The trip itself had been so boring that she would have almost welcomed a pirate attack or an encounter with a hostile warship, even though she had strict orders to avoid enemy contact. The only real excitement had come from one of the Marine Pathfinders hitting on her, a courtship she’d shot down without hesitation. Technically, she wasn’t in their chain of command, but as long as they were on her ship she was in charge. It would cause all sorts of problems, she thought, if it came down to a question of command. Both sides knew better than to put too much pressure on the relationship.

    She took her command chair and watched as the timer steadily ticked down to zero. She’d given a great deal of thought to where and when to come out of Phase Space, but - in the end - she’d found herself balancing trade-offs between speed and security. It didn’t help that she had no idea what sort of defences awaited her, or how many sensor platforms the Onge Corporation had scattered around the system. In the end, she’d made the decision to come out of Phase Space some distance from the Phase Limit. It would add several hours to their flight, once they headed into the system, but it would minimise the risk of detection. They’d have to get very unlucky to come out of FTL close enough to a ship that would note their presence and sound the alarm.

    “Captain,” Commander Joaquin said. “We will drop out of Phase Space in five minutes.”

    “Sound battlestations,” Kerri ordered. “Set Condition One throughout the ship.”

    She smiled, grimly, as the drumbeat drove her crew to their combat stations. Cold logic told her there was no chance of detection, but she knew better than to take the risk of coming out of FTL fat and happy. Besides, it would underline the fact they were entering hostile territory. Her crew was as well-trained as any regular navy crew - she’d drawn half of them from the Imperial Navy, back when it had been a going concern - but all crewmen had a tendency to backslide when confronted with long weeks of boredom. It wasn’t a problem in FTL - the odds of an engagement in Phase Space were very low indeed - but she couldn’t tolerate it when they might find themselves going into battle at any moment. The slightest delay could prove fatal.

    “All stations report combat-ready, Captain,” Tomas said. “We are ready to engage the enemy.”

    “Keep all sensors passive only,” Kerri ordered. “I say again, passive only.”

    “Aye, Captain,” Tomas said.

    Commander Joaquin was intently focused on his console. “Realspace in ten seconds,” he said. “Nine ... eight ...”

    Kerri braced herself as Havoc dropped back into normal space. It had been a long time since she’d had any reaction to FTL travel - people who didn’t overcome their first nauseous reaction rarely served on starships - but she knew to take precautions, just in case. The display blanked, then started to fill with icons. Hameau’s star - the locals hadn’t bothered to give it a proper name, if the files were accurate - glowed in front of her. Hameau itself was on the other side of the primary. It would make it harder, she hoped, for anyone to notice their arrival.

    “Transit complete, Captain,” Joaquin reported.

    “No enemy contacts detected,” Tomas added. “Local space is clear.”

    “Deploy sensor platforms, then hold us here,” Kerri said. The impulse to power up the drive and glide into the enemy-held system was almost overpowering, but training and experience held it at bay. She needed to wait and make sure of her ground before she put the ship at risk. “Put the live feed on the main display.”

    “Aye, Captain,” Tomas said.

    Kerri watched, grimly, as the display continued to fill with icons, natural and artificial. The system had two visible gas giants - the files claimed there was a third, which was presumably on the other side of the primary- each one surrounded by a host of artificial emissions. Artificial emissions sources, she knew; everything from cloudscoops to industrial nodes. A number of asteroids were clearly being mined, although - as far as she could tell - there wasn’t a major asteroid-dwelling population. She supposed it wasn’t really a surprise. It was uncommon for corporations to encourage asteroid settlements to develop, despite their advantages. They tended to be difficult for founder corporations to boss around after the first few years.

    “I’d say this was more of a stage-three or stage-four colony, Captain,” Tomas said, after the first hour. “There’s more industry in this place than in a bunch of older worlds.”

    “It probably helps that they kept the colonial development bureaucrats out,” Kerri commented. She’d yet to see a system the bureaucrats couldn’t screw up, one way or the other. Malice, stupidity or ignorance ... it hardly mattered. The bastards had given themselves a bad name, practically guaranteeing that hardly anyone outside the bureaucracy had a good word for them ... or their masters. “Are you picking up any transmissions?”

    “Not much,” Tomas said. “It looks to be pointless chatter. Nothing obviously encrypted.”

    Kerri leaned back in her chair. “Tactical, put the ship on condition-two,” she ordered. There was no point in keeping her crew at battle stations indefinitely, not when there was no immediate threat. “Helm, I think we’ll go with Course-Delta. Take us into the system.”

    “Aye, Captain,” Joaquin said.

    Susan looked up. “We could be there a lot quicker ...”

    “Yes, we could.” Kerri kept her face expressionless. Clearly, one lecture on not questioning superior officers on their bridge hadn’t gone very far. She had to struggle to keep the sarcasm out of her voice. “If, of course, we wanted to be detected. Which we don’t.”

    She understood the younger girl’s impatience, better than she cared to admit. It felt odd to be creeping around the system when they could reach their destination a lot sooner, but they had strict orders to avoid detection. She put the problem aside for later contemplation and forced herself to watch as a handful of new icons appeared on the display. It looked as if the cloudscoops were funnelling HE3 to the asteroids as well as the planet itself. Her analysts suggested that the corporation wasn’t interested in making the asteroids self-sufficient.

    Which would be par for the course, Kerri thought. They’d sooner cut their own throats than risk having their people start dreaming of independence.

    Her lips quirked at the thought. There was literally no one more capable of improvising than RockRats, independence-minded asteroid dwellers. She would have been astonished if someone wasn’t already thinking of ways to circumvent the corporation’s dictates, probably by setting up fission reactors or even concealed fusion power plants. Who knew what would happen, if the system was left alone? Civil unrest? Civil war? Or a simple declaration of independence? She shrugged. It wasn’t going to happen.

    The hours ticked by, steadily wearing down the crew. Kerri sent her bridge crew to take a rest as they crawled through interplanetary space, then took a nap herself in her ready room. It felt odd to be sleeping when the ship was in danger, but she knew - through training and experience - that there was very little actual danger. If they were detected ... theoretically, they’d have plenty of warning to reverse course and evade contact, or simply escape, before it was too late. It wouldn’t be easy for the locals to set up an ambush without being detected themselves, although she knew it could be done. If that happened ...

    Nothing materialised as she slept, then returned to the bridge. Hameau itself was growing larger within the display, an slightly oversized world surrounded by a single moon and thousands of pieces of space junk. She sucked in her breath as she saw the impossible sight, her experience telling her that her passive sensors had to be having flights of fancy. Earth’s halo of industrialised asteroids and space habitats had been huge, but Hameau was an order ot magnitude bigger. It took her several seconds to realise that most of the rocky asteroids had been utterly untouched by mankind.

    “My God,” Susan said. “What happened here?”

    Tomas looked up. “Well, Ensign, there were some very angry aliens who blew up a moon and the debris ...”

    “Please,” Kerri said. She’d read the files. No one had been able to give any real explanation for why Hameau was surrounded by a halo of asteroids, but she doubted the truth included aliens. No traces of alien life had ever been discovered. It was far more likely that the double-system - more like a triad system, really - had been unstable until gravity had torn one of the worlds apart. “We don’t need to waste time on a snipe hunt.”

    She felt her expression darken as she studied the sensor feed. Dozens of asteroids were being mined, or converted into industrial facilities, or ... the scale of the program was astonishing, the vision quite beyond anything she would have expected from a latter-day interstellar corporation. She silently saluted whoever had come up with the plan, even though it was inconvenient. They were well on their way to establishing a formidable industrial base. She tapped her console, making a handful of projections. It was hard to be sure, but it looked as if Hameau was well on the way to becoming the most efficient industrial base in the sector.

    “Captain,” Tomas said. He sounded hesitant, as if he expected her to refuse him without thinking. “I’d like to deploy a pair of stealthed drones.”

    Kerri hesitated, silently weighing up the pros and cons. The drones were tiny, compared to the ship. The odds of them being detected were very low, even in an empty system. Here, with so much space junk orbiting the planet - her sensors tracked a handful of chunks of debris falling out of orbit and burning up in the atmosphere - it was hard to believe that the drones would be detected, let alone identified. The system had to be a nightmare to secure. The sensor grid must either be stepped down or ... her lips quirked in cold amusement. The alarms would be going off every day. The defenders must be sick and tired of the sensors crying wolf.

    And when a real wolf comes along, no one believes in him until it is far too late, she thought, dryly. And then everyone starves to death.

    “Launch the drones, ballistic-only,” she ordered. There was no point in woolgathering. The corps needed the information only drones could provide. “Steer one of them into the planet’s atmosphere.”

    “Aye, Captain.” Tomas sounded surprised. He knew as well as she did that they had orders to minimise risk ... but he also knew, he should know, that some risks had to be taken. “Drones launching ... now.”

    Kerri smiled - normally, the beancounters would have thrown a fit at her sending a drone to certain destruction - and then sobered as more and more data flowed into the display. The planet was heavily defended, although most of the defences appeared to be automated weapons platforms rather than giant battlestations. She wasn’t sure if that was a good sign or not. Battlestations were formidable opponents, but they were also easy targets. They couldn’t hide from incoming missiles or move to evade them. Their only real advantage came in soaking up hits and even that wouldn’t last. Sooner or later, their defences would be ground down and they’d be blown away.

    “I’m picking up twelve warships, holding station just above the halo,” Tomas said, slowly. “None of them are within engagement range, none appear to be powering up. The largest appears to be a battlecruiser.”

    “Interesting,” Kerri said. The Imperial Navy was the only force authorised to deploy battleships and battlecruisers ... or it had been, before Earthfall. There should have been no way in hell the Onge Corporation could have gotten its hands on a battlecruiser - or the trained and experienced crews to keep her functioning. “Can you get an ID?”

    “No, Captain,” Tomas said. “She’s not emitting anything beyond basic navigational beacons. No IFF, no nothing. I can tell you her class, but not her name.”

    “Curious.” Kerri considered it for a moment. The battlecruiser CO could have been working for the corporation all along, or been bribed, or ... or simply offered a safe port in the storm tearing the galaxy apart. “Is she in working order?”

    “Impossible to say,” Tomas said. “Her sensors are stepped down and her drive nodes are offline. She could be ready to depart at a few hours notice or in desperate need of a refit before she risks bringing her drives online.”

    We’ll have to assume she’s in full working order, Kerri thought. The Imperial Navy had taken a relaxed attitude to maintenance, but ... she dared not assume the battlecruiser was anything other than a deadly threat. She’d have to take it seriously. Hopefully, they could get into engagement range before the battlecruiser’s crew brought her weapons and drives online. And if we can’t force her to surrender, we’ll have to destroy her.

    She put the battlecruiser out of her mind as the lead drone neared the planet, relying its impressions back to the mothership through a pinpoint laser link. Hameau was ... odd, although perhaps it should be expected. The planet was a strange mixture of pitted airless rock, scarred by generations of meteor strikes, and perfectly habitable world. The atmosphere was Earth-normal, more or less; there was no reason to think that humans needed rebreathers or genetic modification to live on the surface. It was clear that the corporation had established hundreds of settlements, from tiny hamlets and farms to mid-sized towns and cities. She felt an odd little twinge as she surveyed the images, flicking through pictures of people at work and children at play. Had her homeworld looked so ... so decent, once upon a time? Had Earth looked so decent? So ... so free.

    You can’t see the details, she thought, coldly. You have no idea what it’s really like down there.

    She shook her head, slowly. Earth had looked like one giant city from orbit. In reality, the planet’s land surface had been covered with endless cities and the ocean had been so heavily polluted that no one in their right mind would swim in it without protective armour and breathing mask. She hated to think of what the planet looked like now. And she’d seen idyllic towns and villages that had been ruled by religious fanatics, places where the slightest mistake could get someone whipped, mutilated or brutally killed. They’d looked nice, on the surface. So did the planet in front of her. It was what lay beneath the surface that worried her.

    “They’ve planted a number of Planetary Defence Centres on the surface,” Tomas said. He was still working his console, parsing his way through the torrent of incoming data. “A lot of them.”

    “Good thinking on their part,” Kerri said. There was no way to capture the orbital industry without taking the planet’s surface first. The defenders could blow hell out of any industrial node that fell into enemy hands. “We wouldn’t find it easy to take the high orbitals.”

    She scowled, remembering the private briefing notes the Commandant had forwarded to her. The Onge Corporation had definitely been making preparations for Earthfall. And they’d done well, too. She wondered if there was any point in asking for cooperation, in trying to make an alliance, before dismissing the thought in annoyance. She’d met too many corporate managers to have any doubts about the world they’d create, if they had a chance. Better to nip it in the bud before it was too late.

    “Keep us here,” she ordered. They should be reasonably safe from detection, as long as they didn’t go too close to the planet. She keyed her intercom. “Specialist Phelps?”

    “Yes, Captain?” The Pathfinder sounded surprisingly respectful. “What can I do for you?”

    “I trust you’ve been monitoring the live feed,” Kerri said. “Do you think you can make it down to the surface?”

    “I think so.” Phelps sounded utterly confident. Kerri hoped he had the common sense to be careful. “It might be easier than we thought. There’s a lot of junk orbiting the planet.”

    “You’d still be dropping through the planet’s atmosphere,” Kerri warned. “And if they think you’re a potential threat, they’ll blow you out of space without ever having the slightest idea what you actually are.”

    “We are aware of the dangers,” Phelps said. He sounded like her was stating a simple fact, rather than bragging. But then, she knew Pathfinders had carried out far more dangerous missions. To them, it was probably just another day in the office. “We’re ready.”

    Kerri nodded, even though she knew he couldn’t hear her. “We’ll take a few more hours to complete the survey,” she said. They’d have to survey the gas giants too, but they could do that after they’d inserted the Pathfinders. “You have that long to plan your deployment. And then we’ll deploy the communications platforms and drop you.”

    “Understood,” Phelps said. He still sounded confident, even though he was about to throw himself into an uncertain future. “We won’t let you down.”

    “Don’t worry about me,” Kerri said. “Worry about yourself.”
  19. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


    Chapter Ten

    The colonials themselves accepted the logic, although with certain cavorts. They did not want to find themselves in (any more) hock to interstellar corporations, who would have to do the repair work (one of the problems with the late-stage imperial tech base was that on-side repairs were effectively forbidden) and they were quite happy to build and maintain a reasonably small tech base. If nothing else, it provided an outlet for colonists who didn’t want to settle the land and set up farms.
    - Professor Leo Caesius. Earthfall and its Aftermath.

    “Remind me,” Rachel said as the landing pod disengaged from Havoc, “which one of you bastards came up with this idea?”

    “This from the person who put herself at risk walking into a high-security zone,” Bonkowski said. “You could have been caught and killed at any moment.”

    “That wasn’t quite so dangerous,” Rachel said. “And I was in control.”

    That wasn’t entirely accurate, she acknowledged as she felt a low shudder running through the landing pod. She could have been killed at any moment, if the defenders had realised she was a deadly threat. But she was good at reading people. She would have known as soon as they knew that they had orders to arrest or execute her. She could have fought her way out or, at the very least, died with her boots on. A plasma pulse from an orbiting weapons platform wouldn’t care if she tried to fight or not. It would just blow her to dust before she even knew their cover had been blown.

    She shifted uncomfortably within the suit, feeling oddly confined even though she wasn’t claustrophobic. The suits would be no protection whatsoever if the planetary defences opened fire, but ... they might provide some protection if there was a hull breach or something else went badly wrong. She wasn’t sure it was worth it. The suits were cumbersome, weighing her down if she had to move in a hurry. Her imagination kept suggesting that they’d be trapped, the moment they hit the ground. She cursed herself under her breath for simply going along with the plan, when it had been suggested. A stealth shuttle would have been a great deal more comfortable.

    But more risky, too, she told herself. Put up and shut up.

    She watched through the pod’s passive sensors as it fell towards the planet, mimicking the course and speed of a meteor shower. She had to admit there was no real reason for the planetary defences to pay attention to them, not when there were thousands of pieces of space junk falling into the atmosphere every day. Most of the pieces were tiny, unlikely to survive long enough to reach the surface. She hoped the defenders would assume the pod would burn up well before it landed. If they thought otherwise, they’d be dead before they knew it. She told herself, firmly, that they’d done all they could. All they could do now was wait and let the automated systems handed it.

    The shaking grew worse as the pod hit the planetary atmosphere and started to fall. Rachel gritted her teeth, wishing - again - that she was in control. They might have been able to sneak onto one of the orbital facilities and get down from there ... she shook her head. Corporate assholes always knew who should and who shouldn’t be on their platforms. The odds of being caught in transit were just too high. She heard Perkins mutter a prayer as the pod spun madly, a gust of wind blowing it off course. Beside him, Bonkowski started a loud and involved story about a crewwoman he’d met on Havoc. It was torrid and filthy and Rachel would have been astonished if there was any truth whatsoever in it, but it kept her distracted from the prospect of imminent death. She wouldn’t feel any better until she hit the ground.

    “We’re going slightly off course,” Perkins said. “We’ll be coming down a few extra miles from the target.”

    “Better than the alternative,” Phelps commented. “We don’t want to look like a threat.”

    “They’ll probably die laughing when they see us,” Bonkowski said. The pod rattled, violently. “Impact in ten ...”

    “Stasis field active,” Perkins said. “Ready for ...”

    The world sneezed. Rachel blinked. The hull was torn and broken, bright sunlight beaming in. She reminded herself that they’d been in stasis for a few seconds, the field protecting them from the impact. Her suit felt heavy, so cumbersome she had to struggle to move; she opened the breastplate and crawled out, one hand grasping her pistol. If the enemy suspected something, they’d have troops on the way already. She had no idea how quickly they could respond, but she dared not assume they’d be slow. The corporations didn’t always hire incompetents.

    She took the lead as the three men joined her, Bonkowski marching along in his suit while the other two disengaged themselves. They’d crashed down in the middle of a forest, the force of the impact smashing a number of trees into firewood and sawdust. Rachel kept herself low, hoping the enemy wasn’t watching from high orbit. They’d aimed themselves at the woods deliberately, but the treeline wouldn’t provide much cover if the enemy suspected something. She looked around, listening carefully. She couldn’t hear any engines or helicopter blades. The coast appeared to be clear.

    “Here.” Phelps passed Rachel her pack as Bonkowski struggled out of his suit and dumped it in the pod. “Ready to march?”

    “Yes, sir,” Rachel said. She checked her internal compass. They’d only added a few short miles to their journey. “You?”

    “As ready as I’ll ever be,” Phelps said. He checked the other two had their equipment, then triggered the pod’s disintegrator. Anyone who stumbled across the wreckage would be hard-pressed to realise it had been more than a simple metallic rock that had practically melted on re-entry. “Let’s move.”

    Rachel fell into position as the four marines started walking through the forest, looking around with interest. It was clear that someone had dumped a terraforming package on Hameau - and, afterwards, left most of the undeveloped land strictly alone. She spotted a handful of plants and lichen that were clearly native, utterly alien to the flora and fauna from Old Earth. They had to be tough, she guessed. Hameau had been savagely bombarded by asteroids, sometime in the distant past. The local biosphere had been lucky to survive. That was rare. Normally, Old Earth’s plants and animals rapidly displaced their alien counterparts.

    And no one has been here for years, if at all, she thought. There were no signs of human settlement, nothing to suggest that they weren’t the first people to set eyes on the forest. I wonder why they never bothered to develop it.

    She considered the question as they kept moving, finding their way through a mountain rage that looked decidedly odd to her experienced eyes. It took her longer than it should to realise that they’d walked into a blast crater, one left behind after something had hit the planet thousands of years ago. The impact had practically liquefied the ground below her feet, once upon a time. She had to admit it looked striking. The different ecosystems were practically isolated from one another. The terraforming package might not have changed that very much.

    They rested up in a cave as darkness fell, taking the moment to test the communications link to the stealthed platform. Havoc was probably already on her way to the gas giants, unless her CO had decided - for whatever reason - to change her plans. Rachel felt a little isolated, although she was used to that. She took first watch as the sun started to set, the stars overhead coming out in force. There were so many stars in the sky ... she frowned, then realised that she was looking at the asteroids and other junk orbiting the planet. Her enhanced eyes had no trouble picking out a handful of industrial nodes and starships moving from place to place. The industrial tempo was quite frightening. It was clear that the corporation had no intention of hiding from the chaos and waiting for things to settle down.

    So they’re just like us, she thought, dryly. But we can’t let them shape the future.

    Perkins relieved her, three hours into the watch. Rachel slipped into the cave, lay down next to Phelps and closed her eyes. She’d grown used to sleeping next to the men long ago, although it helped that she’d learnt to fall asleep and catch some rest whenever she had the opportunity. There was no way she could predict when - if - she’d have a chance to sleep again. It felt as if she hadn’t slept at all when she heard Phelps clearing his throat, a few seconds later. She was surprised, deep inside, to see the sun rising outside. Phelps offered her a ration bar, then went to relieve himself at the back of the cave. She politely ignored him as she chewed her food. It tasted like cardboard.

    They checked the cave carefully, just to make sure there were no traces of their presence, then resumed their march. The land was starting to look more cultivated. Their ears picked up hints of engines in the distance. It was almost a surprise when they stumbled across a road - more of a muddy track, really - leading westward. They looked up and down the road, then continued their march towards the nearest hamlet. They’d discussed what they intended to do, when they reached civilisation, but they’d come up with no real answers. It would depend on what they found.

    “Nearly there,” Phelps announced, cheerfully. “We should be able to see the town from the other side of this hill.”

    “Killing ... you ... with ... mind,” Bonkowski grumbled. “I haven’t been so tired since I serviced the entire ...”

    “Oh, shut up,” Perkins said. “We’re nearly there.”

    Rachel took point as they climbed the hill and, staying down, crawled towards a cliff. The drop was awesome, the land scarred and pitted by ancient impacts that had carved a channel for a twisting river leading down to the town. The town itself was like something out of a dream, at least at first. It was almost idyllic, the kind of place someone could raise a family without being too worried about their neighbours. Rachel felt an odd twinge of envy, mingled with an awareness that something was wrong. It took her a long moment to place it. The town was planned. Someone had designed it, piece by piece. The more she looked at it, the more she was convinced of it. There was something oddly inhuman about its sheer perfection.

    “The shops should be close to the houses,” she said. “But instead, they’re on the other side of the town.”

    Bonkowski gave her an odd look. “I don’t understand.”

    “You can just walk to the shops,” Rachel pointed out. “But an old man - or woman - wouldn’t be able to get there so easily. Or ...”

    She shook her head. It wasn’t the first time she’d seen planners place neatness and organisation over simple common sense. They should have put the shops closer to the homes ... in fact, the more she surveyed the town, the more she was convinced the population didn’t have access to cars, aircars or any other form of personal transport. There were only a handful of vehicles on the roads and they looked to be designed for the farm. Beyond them ... her eyes narrowed. The people looked prosperous, certainly when compared to Earth’s teeming billions, but they didn’t look happy. She wondered if they knew how lucky they were. They could have been on Earth!

    And if they had been living on Earth, she thought grimly, they’d be dead.

    “They’re all women,” Bonkowski said. “I ...”

    Phelps glared at him. “This is no time to be thinking with your dick!”

    “I’m serious.” Bonkowski sounded serious too. “Look at them. Pretty much everyone within sight is a woman or a child. There aren’t many men within eyeshot.”

    Rachel frowned as she scanned the town. Bonkowski was right. There weren’t many people on the streets and almost all of them were women. Adult women. There weren’t many children, male or female; there weren’t many men at all. A shiver ran down her spine. It was normally the other way round. The only place she’d visited where women outnumbered men so strikingly had been a colony that flatly refused to allow men to visit. Ever.

    “It’s mid-morning,” Perkins pointed out. “The menfolk could be in the fields, harvesting corn.”

    “Perhaps.” Phelps didn’t sound convinced. “I think we’d better keep our eyes open.”

    He took charge effortlessly. “Rachel, set up the passive sensor array. Michel, find us somewhere we can hide. Tony, keep an eye on the town. Watch for any traces of military activity.”

    “Yes, sir,” Rachel said.

    She slipped back until she was hidden under the trees and dug into her pack. The passive sensor array was - for once - almost as useful as the techs claimed, although it was so expensive that most marine recon teams were denied permission to take them into the field. She wondered, as she powered the device up, if that would change. They didn’t have to answer to the beancounters every time they spent an extra credit over their budget, not now. She smiled, then set the limits as wide as possible. She’d narrow them down later.

    Her eyes narrowed as the sensor array started producing results. There were a handful of radio transmitters within the town, but ... surprisingly few database nodes. It was possible they were using wires rather than relying on wireless systems, yet ... it was odd. She hadn’t seen such a hardened system outside Safehouse. Unless ... she frowned as she studied the results. What if there wasn’t a datanet? She could easily imagine the corporation restricting - or even banning - their development. They were useful, but they also made life far too easy for dissidents.

    Particularly the dissidents smart enough to realise that nothing is completely secure on the datanet, she mused. She’d known worlds that basked in the semblance of free speech and communications while ruthlessly undercutting the reality. By the time the population had realised their freedoms had been sharply circumscribed, it had been too late. And the ones cunning enough to find ways to work around it.

    She stroked her chin. It wasn’t going to be easy to hack a solid-state system, assuming it existed in the first place. They’d have to find an access point ... she contemplated the possibilities as an alert popped up on the display, warning her of a short-range broadcast. She connected her earpiece to the sensor array and watched a local news program, most of which was completely uninformative. There was no mention of anything outside the local system, not even Earthfall. The locals couldn’t be that ignorant, could they?

    “I doubt it,” Phelps said, when she explained the problem. “This isn’t some low-tech world. They don’t think the primary revolves around the planet.”

    “No,” Rachel agreed. She’d been on worlds where the population truly was that ignorant. They’d been hellholes. “We’re going to have to get up close and personal with someone. Someone snotty.”

    “If we can find someone snotty,” Phelps said. “And if we can figure out what snotty means in this context.”

    “There will be someone,” Rachel said. Bureaucratic worlds tended to breed snotty bureaucrats. It was funny how few people bothered to complain when tax assessors and collectors went missing, somewhere in the hinterlands. There was never any proof they’d been murdered, even if everyone knew what had happened. “We just have to find him.”

    “We’ll spend the rest of the day studying the town,” Phelps said. “And if we can’t find a place to get into the network ... well, we’ll just have to look elsewhere.”

    “Yes, sir,” Rachel said. She frowned. The town was going to be a nightmare. If everyone knew everyone else, a stranger would stick out like a sore thumb. It would be a great deal easier to infiltrate a large city. “Getting out of here might be a bit tricky.”

    “We knew the job was dangerous when we took it,” Phelps said. “If nothing else, there’s an army garrison and a small PDC not too far away. We can try and get some answers there.”

    Rachel nodded. They had time, thankfully. They could take a few days to survey the local region before deciding what to do next. But if they couldn’t learn anything useful ... she shook her head. They’d have to do a lot of research before deciding what to do next. A corporate-dominated world could be hell, if one didn’t have the right travel permits. It was quite possible they’d be caught because they didn’t have permission to leave town and go elsewhere.

    She shuddered. Whoever controls the government and bureaucracy can keep the rest of the population in a vice.

    There would be dissidents, of course. She was sure of it. The terraforming package included hundreds of plants humans could eat. Someone could survive, beyond the edge of civilisation. But they would be difficult to find and they probably wouldn’t be very well organised. Any large insurgency on a corporate world would be crushed before it took on shape and form. Leaderless resistance worked well, under the right circumstances, but it wouldn’t be enough to break the corporation’s grip on power.

    “We should probably start with the farms,” she said. Farmers tended to be very practical, with little tolerance for corporate bullshit. They also tended to have covert links with the underground, if there was an underground. “They can fill us in on what’s really going on.”

    “Yeah,” Phelps said. He grinned at her. “And if we can do them a favour, perhaps they’ll do us one in return.”
  20. Merkun

    Merkun furious dreamer




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