The dropship came to rest with a barely noticeable thump. It wasn’t so much a landing as a docking; the anchor cables had just been reeled all the way back in.
There was no sound as the hatches folded away; the dropship’s troop compartment had been depressurized all the way in, with the twenty-man squad of Caractacan Brothers sealed in their armor and plugged into the dropship’s life support to spare the air supplies in their sustainment packs. As the hatches opened, all twenty men unplugged their packs from the hoses attached to their acceleration couches.
It was dark outside, with the hard clarity of total vacuum. The stars were brilliant pinpoints of light against an otherwise pitch-black emptiness. With the dropship’s drives pointed at it, the asteroid appeared to be “down,” as much as that direction had any meaning in microgravity.
Gripping his VK-40 assault shotgun in one hand, Squad Sergeant Erekan Scalas found the control arm for his maneuvering unit with the other. “Keep close to the surface, combat dispersion,” he told his squad, as he jetted out of the hatch. The asteroid designated Akela-Z84 was far too small to provide enough gravity for walking, so the Brothers were essentially going to have to fly to the target.
The squad deployed quickly, their armor shifting colors to a mottled gray and black that almost perfectly blended with the darkened shadow side of the asteroid. Scalas propelled himself about fifty meters from the dropship before retrofiring to bring himself to a relative halt, taking a moment to look around and orient himself, while checking on his squad’s deployment.
The rounded, silvery spearhead shape of the starship Dauntless was barely visible, some fifty kilometers away. She was a bright, hard glint of light in the distance, as she was holding station outside of the asteroid’s umbra. She was still sheltered from the cylindrical pirate ship that was moored at the main docks of the asteroid’s mining colony, though.
Five Caractacan dropships, truncated cones on stout landing legs, were clinging to the asteroid’s surface by anchor cables, and the entirety of Century XXXII of the Avar Sector Legio of the Caractacan Brotherhood was deploying, armored figures armed with assault shotguns, cutters, and heavy submachineguns, floating along the asteroid’s surface on nearly-invisible puffs of propellant gases. They were forming a wedge, curving around the contours of the irregular rock.
“Squad Sergeants, report,” the heavy, bored-sounding voice of Centurion Michael Kranjick came over the comms.
“First Squad, deployed and moving toward the objective,” Scalas reported crisply. Kranjick always spoke in the same droning monotone, but Scalas had served under the massive Centurion long enough to know that he expected his men to be responsive and alert. He always was. The immobile features and flat voice were deceptive; the big man’s eyes were always watching, always calculating. Scalas knew of at least one Squad Sergeant who hadn’t lasted more than a day in the position under Kranjick, because he had taken his superior’s dull exterior at face value.
“Second Squad, moving up on First Squad’s left flank,” Squad Sergeant Cobb called a heartbeat later. Scalas and Cobb had been novices together, and had taken their final oath as full-fledged Caractacan Brothers on the same day. Cobb was a gruff, no-nonsense sort, and, Scalas fully believed, the best soldier in the Century, behind Kranjick himself. When Kranjick inevitably was elevated to Brother Legate, Scalas was sure that his friend would become the new Centurion of Century XXXII.
“Third Squad, on the right,” Vong Nu reported.
“Fourth Squad, left,” Richter called.
“Fifth Squad is center, behind First,” Maximilian Soon finished the roll call.
A large figure drifted closer to Scalas. He recognized the Centurion by his size, if nothing else. If Caractacan armor had not been custom-built for each man, Kranjick would never have been able to be a Brother at all; he was too big. Well over two meters tall and weighing over one hundred thirty-five kilograms, he was a giant even among the hardened warriors of the Caractacan Brotherhood.
“Acknowledged,” Kranjick said over the comm. “I will be with First Squad. Fast and quiet, Brothers. No more emissions until we are on target.” It would seem to be a superfluous caution, in the vacuum of space, but there were several other asteroids within a few thousand kilometers of Akela-Z84 that a signal might bounce off of, not to mention some of the debris from the reportedly brief fight when the pirates had attacked the colony.
Kranjick came up beside Scalas and pointed forward. Slightly intimidated at having the Centurion with him, Scalas was glad for the emotionless, ridged faceplate of his helmet, and simply nodded, rotating to face away from the dropships and toward the enemy.
Silently, one hundred of the finest soldiers in the galaxy drifted across the face of Akela-Z84.
Going in through the main docks was out of the question. The pirate cruiser was anchored just above them, and it would be next to impossible for the ship’s gunners not to notice a hundred armored men making entry right below them. It was conceivable, given that they were pirates, that they might just be too lazy, figuring that they had the asteroid locked down, but relying on the enemy’s incompetence was not how the Caractacan Brotherhood had lasted so long, or built its fearsome reputation.
Fortunately, the asteroid was honeycombed with tunnels; the ekuz colonists of the Vakkea system had been mining it for over a decade. Which meant there were alternate entrances and exits that the pirates couldn’t cover from one ship.
One of these entrances was little more than an inflatable dome with a semi-rigid airlock, anchored to the surface of the asteroid at the end of a rough, unfinished tunnel. Scalas had no idea why it was there; it was entirely possible that an ekuz miner might have found a rich vein and followed it until he accidentally breached the surface. Or, maybe, the vein had been closer to the surface in the beginning, and the miners had come in from that direction.
It was, ultimately, irrelevant. All that mattered at the moment was getting inside, securing the asteroid, and rescuing any prisoners or hostages that the pirates might be holding in there.
Pointing his assault gun at the lock, Scalas waited. Five years of novitiate plus however many years of experience that came after that ensured that the Caractacans rarely had to speak much for such a common task as breaching. They knew the drills, they knew the tactics. They played off each other’s actions as they went, finding a job that needed doing and doing it.
Somewhat to Scalas’ surprise, Kranjick slung his submachinegun and moved to the lock.
He realized that he should have known the Centurion too well by then to be surprised; Kranjick was not going to send his men into the breach while he hung back and watched. He would be the first man in, if possible. He didn’t just command; he led. It was the Caractacan way. And therefore, it was Kranjick’s way.
The entire assembly was translucent, so they could see that there was no one in the lock or the dome. It was also flimsy enough that even their close-quarters weapons would shred the walls in short order. Which would quite possibly depressurize the tunnels, killing anyone inside who wasn’t wearing a suit. So, they had to be careful.
Kranjick looked over at Scalas and signaled that the lock was already depressurized. He unzipped the outer “hatch,” and Scalas pushed inside, keeping his shotgun pointed at the inner hatch.
The lock wasn’t large; it could probably hold four miners in bare-bones pressure suits, but could only accommodate two Caractacans in armor with maneuvering units. Kranjick moved in behind Scalas and zipped up the outer door, while Scalas continued to cover the inner.
With the lock sealed, Kranjick reached past Scalas and touched the control pad built into the wall. The lock material began to billow slightly, and after a moment, they could hear the hiss of air as the lock pressurized.
By the time the walls were rigid and the readouts on the inside of Scalas’ visor showed just below one atmosphere, both of them had their weapons pointed at the inner door. If the airlock’s mechanism was tied into the asteroid’s main life support system, then someone had to have noticed that it had just cycled. Surprise could well be gone.
With Kranjick covering, Scalas locked his shotgun to his gauntlet, making it a rigid extension of his arm, and then reached forward with his off hand and unzipped the inner door. Using the maneuvering unit precluded having both hands on his weapon, so he permanently freed that hand. Kranjick had already done the same with his subgun.
The small space was big enough for about a squad, even with the equipment scattered around it. Most of the drilling rig appeared to have been cannibalized for parts; it looked like the theory of the tunnel having been bored from the surface was correct. There was no sign of anyone else inside the dome, even as Scalas and Kranjick came out of the lock, splitting to either side and moving quickly to check the dead spaces around the dusty old equipment.
Scalas moved to barricade on the tunnel leading deeper into the asteroid, while Kranjick recycled the airlock. Fortunately, the cycle did not take long, and in a few minutes, the majority of First Squad was inside the dome and ready to push in.
“Chamblin, Rowles,” Scalas picked two of his more senior Brothers out, “hold here and run the airlock for the rest of the Century. The rest of First Squad, with me.” Time was pressing, and they were out of space inside the dome anyway.
He jetted into the tunnel, which was still lit by work lights affixed to the rock every few dozen meters. His visor adjusted to the dimmer light, and he could soon pick out details as if they were standing in direct sunlight. Keeping his shotgun up and the sights just below his eyes, he drifted down the tunnel, his mind shifting his perception from the idea that he was going “down” to going “in.”
The tunnel curved slightly, and the lines of ore and tool marks along the walls confirmed that it had followed a vein of ore deeper into the asteroid. For the first hundred meters, it was abandoned, but then the light ahead began to brighten, and Scalas slowed his advance, keeping his weapon ready.
A junction appeared ahead, walled with metal, and lit by multiple permanent light strips. It was also a sentry post.
There were four ekuz in lightly armored spacesuits stationed at the junction, armed with stubby submachine guns. Scalas frowned as he drifted slowly closer. Those black and green suits looked strangely uniform; pirates were usually far more eclectic in their equipment. Scalas had fought quite a few pirates in the last four years of his Brotherhood; he was familiar with most of the bands, ad hoc and organized, in the Avar Sector.
And none of them were ekuz in uniform.
He was nearing the point of no return. Settling his weapon’s sights on the nearest ekuz, he drifted closer, his finger resting lightly on the trigger.
The shotgun was specially designed for microgravity. Counterweights reduced the recoil to next to nothing, and the main charge of the round fired after it had cleared the barrel. It was almost a rocket launcher, in many ways. So he wasn’t worried about being thrown backwards when he fired. He only hesitated because there was something about this situation that bothered him.
He could feel Kranjick close behind him, but the Centurion hadn’t opened fire, either. In fact, the tunnel was wide enough in zero-g that there were actually four of the Caractacans now advancing almost abreast, their weapons aimed in. The ekuz were targeted and helpless. They apparently hadn’t seen the chameleonic armor drifting closer.
“This is Centurion Kranjick of the Caractacan Brotherhood,” Kranjick’s voice boomed in the narrow space, speaking Trade Cant, the odd lingua franca of the spaceways, instead of the Brotherhood’s regular Latin. “Each of you is about a quarter of a kilo of trigger pressure away from death at this moment. Surrender, or die.”
The ekuz started. They really hadn’t detected the Caractacans’ approach. One of them twitched his weapon toward the sound, and his finger tightened on his trigger, but a barked command from another halted him before a shot could be fired. Very slowly, and very carefully, weapons were unfastened from retaining slings and gingerly pushed away from open hands.
The ekuz were hexapods, with a pair of legs, a pair of hands, and a middle pair of intermediate limbs that could be used as either. Their triangular heads were rather flat in the front and back, with small eyes shrouded by bony ridges and blowholes at the tops of their heads, that could be sealed against water.
All four were keeping both their primary manipulators and their intermediate limbs as far away from weapons as possible.
“We wish no fight with Caractacanzzz,” the ekuz who had given the order said in Trade Cant, with the peculiar buzzing accent that most ekuz, regardless of their native tongue, seemed to use. “There has been mizunderztanding.”
Kranjick drifted forward, his submachinegun still held ready. “Seizing an established asteroid mining operation from the Kz’fai Administration is a ‘misunderstanding?’” he asked.
The ekuz started a little. “Iz that what Kz’fai told you?” he asked.
“The Caractacan Brotherhood’s mandate includes suppressing piracy,” Kranjick said, sounding like he was reading a particularly dry news article. “That is why we are here.”
One of the other ekuz made an outraged noise. The leader shushed him, then turned back to Kranjick and carefully turned to display the insignia on his spacesuit’s sleeve. It was an abstract, interwoven design that meant little to human eyes, but probably involved considerable meaning to an ekuz. “Pirates, they call uz?” he demanded. “We are Defenze Forzez of Lezzer Zh’khen! The zame Lezzer Zh’khen that Kz’fai illegally ztole thiz baze from!” Even through his helmet, with his alien features, the ekuz leader managed to look incensed. He positively quivered with outrage. “Zixty-two Zh’khen vanished; zpaced! Only becauze Kz’fai’s inzultingly low offer to buy baze out was fittingly rejected!”
Scalas glanced at Kranjick. Of course, the Centurion’s expression was invisible behind his visor, and would have been blank and unreadable anyway. But Kranjick had warned the ekuz before opening fire, which meant that he had sensed something amiss, just as Scalas had.
“If what you are saying is the truth, we should get to the bottom of it,” Kranjick rumbled. “However, I cannot simply take your word here and now, while the rest of your men are possibly maneuvering to flank us.”
“Like I zaid,” the ekuz replied, “we want no fight with Caractacanzzz. I will call Commander Vo’izzh. I am zure he will zurrender baze to Caractacanzzz until matterz can be zorted out.”
“No,” Kranjick said. “You will come with us. No comms. You may offer your comrades a chance to surrender as we reach them, but only once I have told you to. Any other action will doubtless result in your deaths in the following firefight. Do you understand?”
The ekuz “nodded,” which for an ekuz was a peculiar wave of his intermediate limbs. “Yez, yez,” he said. “No treachery. Treachery againzt Caractacanzzz folly. Kz’fai trick. Beneath Defender of Lezzer Zh’khen.”
Kranjick nodded, as Scalas, Torg, and Shanda covered the four ekuz with their weapons. “Brothers,” he called over the Century comm net, “we have encountered some of the ‘pirates.’ They claim they are part of the Defense forces of another faction within the system, taking back an installation that our beneficiaries illegally seized. They have offered to surrender to us. We are proceeding to Central Control, with our prisoners. Deploy as we go, stay alert. Remember Hostile Act, Hostile Intent.”
It was standard Brotherhood Rules of Engagement. Waiting to be fired upon was often suicide when the battlefield saw the use of such weapons as hypervelocity coilguns and near-lightspeed powerguns. The Brotherhood took its Code of Honor very seriously, and every Brother had it drilled into him from the first day of his novitiate that he was ultimately responsible for every shot he took. Legal responsibilities were less important than the eternal ones; every Brother knew he would answer for every life he took at the Last Judgement. But to point a weapon at a Caractacan Brother was to die.
Kranjick waved at the ekuz to precede them. “If you are telling the truth,” he said, “you may retrieve your weapons later.”
The lead ekuz gave a strange ekuz salute, involving both upper and intermediate limbs, and led the way, grabbing handholds to propel himself down the tunnel. The other three followed, with the Caractacans in trace.
The ekuz were very careful to move slowly and deliberately, apparently acutely aware of the weapons in the hands of men who were known for light-years as deadly shots at any range.
The ekuz commander, Vo’izzh, was as conciliatory as the junior officer had said he would be. “Thiz iz Lezzer Zh’khen inztallation, Zenturion,” he said, “but I will zurrender it to Caractacan Brotherhood. We truzt Brotherhood for juztize. Kz’fai lied to Brotherhood. Well iz it known, prize of lying to Brotherhood.”
“Indeed,” Kranjick said. “I accept control of the base. Instruct your men to stand down and fall back to the docking area. Leave their weapons behind. My men will hold them there until we can determine what to do.”
Vo’izzh saluted just as his subordinate had, and hastily gave the orders in a buzzing, clicking ekuz language. Scalas couldn’t pick out which one it was; all but the three major dialects sounded much the same to him. Soon the ekuz command squad was pulling itself hand over intermediate limb toward the exits from the control center.
“Not you, Commander,” Kranjick said, as Vo’izzh started to follow. “I need more information.”
Vo’izzh stopped dutifully just short of the hatch, holding onto a handhold with one hand and one intermediate. Once the last of the ekuz had disappeared down the tunnel toward the main docks, Kranjick nodded to him.
“Now,” he said. “Tell me everything.”
The whole story was long and involved, as most local political struggles tended to be. There were egg-line rivalries crossing boundaries, old grudges, old slights, new outrages taken over minor comments and actions, and a whole lot of political and economic backstabbing involved. Neither faction appeared to have clean hands, something which Vo’izzh freely admitted.
Kz’fai was a major player on the planet Vakkea, though it wasn’t so much a country as an oligarchical cross between an alliance of city-states and globe-spanning corporations. To hear Vo’izzh’s version, Kz’fai was practically a stereotype of rapacious robber barons, looking out for each other’s egg-lines at the expense of everyone around them, even those who depended on them for livelihood. There were no laws in Kz’fai except what the Kz’fai Administration Board decided was convenient for the moment.
Lesser Zh’khen was an independent colony, set up on Zh’khey, the next world out from Vakkea’s sun. Right on the edge of the habitable belt, it was a harsh world, and existence was difficult, but the Lesser Zh’khen were determined to remain apart from the corruption of the Kz’fai Administration. If they were perhaps a bit fast and loose with Kz’fai property, they justified it by pointing to Kz’fai’s basic lawlessness in the first place, essentially pointing out that whatever they had taken had probably been stolen by the Kz’fai Administration first.
But Akela-Z84 had been purely a legitimate Lesser Zh’khen claim from the beginning, Vo’izzh insisted. It had taken a lot of the struggling colony’s resources to divert the asteroid from its lethal orbit—which would have impacted barely five hundred kilometers from the colony itself—into a stable trajectory, where it could be mined, both for raw materials for the colony, and trade goods with outsystem ships, since they didn’t want to trade with any of the Vakkean factions. Kz’fai had demanded they sell the asteroid once word had gotten out about just how rich it was, and the Lesser Zh’khen had, understandably, refused.
“They tried to wipe all recordz of attack after,” he said. “But we were ready, and ztruck before they could.” He pointed to a nearby console. “Not all are ztill intact, but worzt atrozity iz ztill there.”
Kranjick nodded his assent, and Vo’izzh moved to the console, bringing up a holo.
The ekuz being herded down a tunnel were clearly wearing the same green and black as Vo’izzh and his men. The ones doing the herding were wearing gray and blue suits, with recognizable Kz’fai markings.
The unarmed ekuz were herded onto the docks, then the doors sealed behind them. They huddled together, some trying to bang on the massive doors. None of them were wearing space suits.
A moment later, the wind began to pluck at their clothing, as the outer doors of the docks cracked open. They clung to each other, a few holding on to the nearest handholds to the sides of the inner doors, but it was no use.
It took very little time for the air in the docks to evacuate altogether. By the time the wind died away to nothing, none of the ekuz were conscious. Without a doubt, after another three minutes, they were all dead. The corpses began to drift in the asteroid’s microgravity.
“My ship was cloze enough to rezpond within hourz,” Vo’izzh said. “The Kz’fai criminalz are zecured aboard her. I can offer you a chance to interrogate them, if you chooze.”
Kranjick nodded thoughtfully, then turned to face his Squad Sergeants, his helmet’s visor moving like a turret. “Thoughts, gentlemen?” he asked in Latin.
“They tried to use the Brotherhood as hitmen,” Cobb said flatly. “We can’t let that stand.”
“No, we cannot,” Kranjick said. “If that is indeed what has happened. We only have part of the story.”
“It seems pretty straightforward to me, sir,” Vong Nu said. “If they really were pirates, would they have surrendered to us so easily?”
“Perhaps they would have,” Kranjick mused. “Pirates tend to have self-preservation quite high on their list of priorities, and the Brotherhood’s reputation precedes us.”
“If we still aren’t sure,” Scalas said, “it shouldn’t be too difficult for the Dauntless to do some data mining, and find out if that ship over the docks really is a Lesser Zh’khen patrol ship.”
Kranjick turned to him and nodded. Somehow, he managed to put a note of satisfaction in the gesture. “Good thinking, Squad Sergeant Scalas,” he said. He pointed to the comm console. “Hail the ship.”
It took a bit of maneuvering to reach the console, and some study before he could decipher the ekuz controls. “Dauntless, Scalas,” he called.
“Go ahead, Squad Sergeant,” the comm officer replied.
“The asteroid is secure. We need to know: is there an ID readout on that ship anchored above the docks?” he asked.
“Stand by,” was the reply. “We will have to maneuver a bit to get line of sight.”
“Acknowledged,” Scalas said.
It took several minutes while they waited. When the comm officer came back over the circuit, there was a faintly puzzled note to his voice. “Squad Sergeant, the ship is showing as the Ik’zhirzh, a local patrol cruiser of Lesser Zh’khen. It looks military.”
“Apparently, it is,” Scalas answered, glancing at Kranjick’s faceless visor. “We seem to have been fed some bad intel. Possibly maliciously. Stand by.”
Kranjick was nodding. “So, it appears that you were right, Squad Sergeant Cobb,” he said. “The Kz’fai Administration thought to use the Caractacan Brotherhood as their personal dirty-tricks squad. Which, from what Commander Vo’izzh has said, rather fits their attitudes.”
He looked around the assembled Squad Sergeants. “Get your men back to the dropships,” he said grimly. “We have an appointment with the Kz’fai Administration’s Board of Directors. They need to learn the price of attempting to blacken Caractacan honor.”
“Centurion?” Captain Sekor called over the intercom link. “We are being hailed by a Kz’fai patrol cruiser, the J’zhem. They are asking if we have secured the asteroid. And Centurion?” he added. “Their energy weapons are primed and their missile pods are open.”
Scalas could not see Kranjick’s expression, but he could imagine it, as the Centurion’s heavy voice replied. “Indeed? Tell them that the asteroid is secure.” He paused for a moment, and his voice turned grimmer. “Let them make the first mistake.”
The infantry Brothers were back aboard the Dauntless, still strapped in aboard the dropships, ready to redeploy immediately. Kranjick was expecting trouble; and failing its appearance, he had made it clear that he intended to start it. Scalas still had his shotgun in its cradle next to his couch, but his powergun was nearby, just in case. He watched the holo display overhead, and waited, keeping his breathing slow and even. He didn’t like being a passenger for a space battle; none of the infantry Brothers did. But there was nothing he could do about it.
So he watched and waited, and trusted Captain Sekor’s skill and judgement.
The J’zhem was a stubby cylinder with three massive thrust bells at one end, not particularly dissimilar from the Lesser Zh’khen patrol craft that was still tethered near the asteroid installation’s docks. In fact, on close observation, it appeared to be almost identical except for its markings; it was entirely likely that the poorer independent colony had obtained an older model of the same Kz’fai ship for its own use.
The Kz’fai ship was currently about ten thousand kilometers from the asteroid, invisible to the naked eye except as a tiny glint against the darkness, but blazing brightly on more advanced radiation detectors. It was nearly knife-fighting distance as far as space combat went; most engagements happened at more than an order of magnitude greater distances.
Captain Sekor formally informed the J’zhem’s captain that Akela-Z84 was secured, as the Administration had requested, though none of the civilian personnel had been found alive. It was a testament to the Captain’s self-control that he kept his tone even as he added that last part. He had seen the recording of the murder of the Lesser Zh’khen miners.
The J’zhem acknowledged the information. “Will Caractacanzzz be departing zoon?” the ekuz captain asked.
“Our Centurion wishes to meet with your Administration first,” Sekor replied. “All communications were conducted via messages; he wishes to meet those upon whose behalf we fought.”
There was a pause. The ekuz voice that came across the comm a moment later sounded…hesitant?
“I am afraid that will be impozzible,” the ekuz captain said slowly. “The Adminiztration iz extremely buzy, and haz many other matterz to deal with at the moment. We thank the Caractacanzzz for their azzizztanze, but we will handle the azteroid inztallation from here.”
Sekor’s hand was poised over the control that would signal his tactical officer to go weapons-free. So far, this was playing out exactly as Centurion Kranjick had expected it to.
“And I am afraid that we must insist,” he said in reply. “The Centurion wishes to discuss some…irregularities that our men found on the asteroid. These irregularities could well damage relations between the Caractacan Brotherhood and the Kz’fai Administration if they are not addressed.” Not that there had been any other interaction with the Vakkea system, at least not within living memory, but the threat of becoming one of the Brotherhood’s enemies was a serious one, and even these backwater brigands had to know it.
There was no response; at least no spoken response. Alarms whooped in the Dauntless’ command deck as the J’zhem’s active targeting scanners went live, and weapons were launched in the next moment.
Captain Sekor was a moment faster, however. As soon as the ekuz captain had not replied, he had tapped the “Weapons Free” icon, and unleashed Brother Koll.
Brother Koll had only needed the go-ahead from his commander. He had been using the Dauntless’ passive scanners to line up the distant Kz’fai ship for powergun shots. The 50cm powerguns the Dauntless carried were already at full extension on their firing booms, invisible to the ekuz because the powerguns fired from discreet cartridges and did not require the kind of priming that High Energy Lasers and particle beam cannons did.
All four powerguns fired at the same time, the ravening bolts of coherent copper plasma crossing the ten thousand kilometers almost at the speed of light. They were, briefly, solid lines of blue-white luminescence connecting the Dauntless with her prey. At the same time, Koll punched the countermeasures control, releasing clouds of chaff and “sand,” charges of small shot that would sleet through oncoming missiles and even kinetic rounds. The chaff flared brilliantly a tiny fraction of a second before a similar, if dulled, flare blasted vaporized metal off the Dauntless’ flank.
Sekor felt the kick of the impact shudder through the frame of his ship. He didn’t wait to see the results of Koll’s shots. He had already been reaching for the controls at the same time Koll had fired. He activated the starship’s Bergenholm field, canceling out her inertia without going tachyonic, quickly rotated her through three axes, and blasted away at very nearly the speed of light.
The short hop was only a little over a second long. He cut out the Bergenholm and the Dauntless returned to her previous vector, two hundred ninety-six thousand kilometers away.
He was already spinning her around to point back toward Akela-Z84 when Koll called out, “Target acquired. Firing.” The distant thumps of the firing powerguns vibrated down through the booms and into the hull. Supposedly, the powerguns had little enough recoil that no one aboard should feel them, but Sekor felt them every time they fired, just like he felt every other minute vibration going through his ship. She was the Brotherhood’s, but even more so she was his, and he knew her more intimately than he would have his wife, had he had one.
This time, it took nearly two seconds to see the effects; slightly over a second for the bolts to reach their target, and slightly less for the light to reach the Dauntless.
The J’zhem had already been hit, a direct strike from one of the first salvo of powergun bolts, and was spinning from the impact, a jagged, glowing hole blasted in her flank. Her maneuvering thrusters were firing madly, trying to bring the tumble under control, when the second salvo arrived.
One bolt hit just forward of the first, blasting another glowing crater in her hull and slewing her to one side. The next two missed.
The last one slammed straight up a drive bell. The feedback loop of the drive coming apart made the reactor lose containment.
For a brief moment, the surface of Akela-Z84 was lit up brightly as a tiny sun went supernova barely three hundredths of a light second away.
“Damage report,” Sekor demanded.
“Light hull damage, Section Five,” the damage control officer reported. “No penetration, but I’ll have a crew going to shore up the outer hull as soon as we have a chance. Some thermal damage to systems in that area; it looks like it was an HEL strike. No other major damage reported.”
“You heard, Centurion?” Sekor asked.
“I did,” Kranjick replied from below. “If you are ready, Captain, I believe we have an appointment on Vakkea.”
“Agreed,” Sekor said. “We shall be there within the hour.”
The headquarters of the Kz’fai Administration was a cyclopean, vaguely organic-looking tower looming above the center of the biggest city on Vakkea, a sprawling metropolis of gleaming buildings at the center and increasingly miserable slums toward the edges. It was as much a symbol of the Kz’fai’s domination of the planet as it was a luxurious estate for the cronies and bureaucrats who ran the Administration.
It was also relatively heavily defended, given the on-again, off-again wars with Lesser Zh’khen. Missile banks and lasers ringed the expansive grounds around the base of the flaring tower, far enough away that they could cover the entire sky above it.
Those defenses had not been built with the Caractacan Brotherhood in mind.
Most of the missiles were picked off by HEL beams before they could impact. There was nothing the Kz’fai Administration’s defenses had that could deal with powergun bolts, however.
The Dauntless had opened fire from ten light seconds out, before going inertialess again and darting in close. The missiles and powergun bolts seemed to come down out of an empty sky, just before the silvery spearhead of the Caractacan starship appeared above the tower, already standing on her tail, her brilliant blue-white drive flare like a second, smaller sun in the noonday blue.
The powergun bolts hadn’t been as precisely aimed as Koll would have liked; the distance had precluded it. But 50cm powergun bolts have a certain area of effect, and while not all the emplacements ringing the tower were destroyed outright, there was certainly enough disruption as the plasma vented its white-hot fury on the grounds that the surviving weapons stations didn’t have enough time to target the starship that was suddenly descending through the atmosphere before Koll could direct follow-up shots to clean up what he’d missed.
Titanic flashes of heat energy, hammering explosions, and fountains of atomized dust blasted into the atmosphere momentarily obscured the gigantic tower. Shockwaves rippled out across the city and rocked the tower on its very foundations. A second and third salvos were unnecessary, but Koll kept up the fire, while searching for more defensive positions that needed attention. There were a few patrol ships in orbit, but so far, they were running for cover, either activating their Bergenholms and running for the nearby moons, or deorbiting as fast as they could, desperately trying to get below the horizon before they could be shot out of the sky.
It hadn’t taken long for their captains to figure out that the Caractacan Brotherhood was bringing a reckoning.
Dropships spilled from the Dauntless’ bays and plummeted toward the grounds on their own, smaller pillars of white fire. Their drives, though significantly less powerful than the Spear-class starship’s, still roared loudly enough to rattle any windows that had survived the thunder of the initial bombardment. Unopposed, they settled on the grounds in whorls of smoke and splashes of flame that vaporized the reddish grass-analog that covered the largest open space in the city.
In First Squad’s dropship, Scalas hit the release on his harness as the hatch dropped open before him, snatching his powergun out of its cradle as he surged to his feet and pounded down the ramp. He took a knee at the base of the ramp, scanning the smoky, dust-filled air as the rest of his squad debarked. His Centurion would always be one of the first into the fight, so Scalas had determined to follow that example.
Kranjick appeared next to him, a looming statue of gray armor in the artificial gloom. “With me,” the Centurion rumbled. Somehow, even in the hell of destruction they had unleashed, he still managed to sound so calm and disinterested that he seemed bored.
In a loose, fighting wedge, the Caractacan Brothers trotted across the scorched and blasted landscaping toward the entrance of the tower.
The wide doors led into a massive lobby, clearly designed to overawe anyone who entered. The lines were slightly off to human eyes, the colors strange. The ekuz saw farther into the ultraviolet, and not as far into the red as humans did, and the colors they decorated with showed it.
There was what was unmistakably a security desk in the center of the cavernous room, but it was abandoned. A door was closing another fifty meters behind it; the security guards had clearly fled. The Caractacans advanced across the shining floor, powerguns up and ready, their armor turning a sort of charcoal color to reflect the smoke and dust that filled the air.
“Fourth and Fifth Squads, secure the lobby,” Kranjick ordered. “Third Squad will secure the elevators. First and Second are with me.” He strode through the doors where the guards had disappeared. Scalas and Chamblin fell in on either side of him, their weapons held ready.
No sooner had they cleared the doors than there was a flash, a boom, and something struck Scalas in the chest plate. The impact was bruising, but the armor attenuated the shock and the shot didn’t come close to penetrating. Without a moment’s hesitation, he flicked the muzzle of his BR-18 powergun toward the shotgun’s muzzle flash and stroked the trigger. Thunder rolled through the hallway, and an eye-searing flash momentarily blinded anyone not wearing an auto-polarizing helmet visor. The ekuz with the shotgun fell to the ground, a smoking hole blasted clear through his torso, just above his intermediate limbs, the shotgun falling to the floor with a clatter.
The other guards dropped their weapons and held their hands and intermediate limbs out to show they were no longer a threat. Kranjick pointed, and Second Squad moved to secure them, binding their hands and intermediate limbs behind their backs.
Kranjick had barely broken stride, and was continuing toward the elevators beyond. Scalas and the rest of First Squad hurried to keep up.
Elevators were a less than ideal approach; they channelized an attacker and made them vulnerable. But time was a factor, and so far, the opposition hadn’t shown that they were ready to repel Caractacan Brothers in full combat armor. None of the guards they had passed had carried anything but low-powered shotguns. That might change higher up, but Scalas doubted it. The Kz’fai Administration had not been remotely prepared for this. Even their exterior defenses were apparently mostly for show; even a Caractacan starship should have had a bit more difficulty flattening them by itself.
As soon as they were on the elevators, the Caractacans knelt, keeping back from the fatal funnel directly in front of the doors, their powerguns trained on the openings. The elevators swept upward, heading for the top levels, where the Administration’s Board could look out on their domains.
The ascent seemed to take a very long time. The tower was quite tall. Scalas felt himself tensing up; the longer they were on the elevator, the more time the opposition had to get ready for them, or send the elevator car plummeting to the bottom with all of them in it.
But they continued to ascend, and a few moments later, the doors swept open.
A flurry of light small arms fire crackled through the doors, the bullets hitting the back wall with hard little bangs. One struck Aken’s helmet, snapping his head back, but did not penetrate.
A storm of precisely aimed powergun fire knocked the brave but foolish security guards off their feet, the thunder of the shots slapping the surviving ekuz with their shockwaves.
Kranjick strode through the doors, his own BR-18 held muzzle-high in one hand. Three of the ten security guards had survived the initial exchange of fire, and were lying flat on the floor, having thrown their weapons away. Beyond them, readily identifiable by their more colorful and refined clothing, lay the Board, quaking.
Kranjick stepped up onto a strangely-shaped ekuz chair—more like a bench—and then up onto the table. He said nothing at first, simply gazing at the leaders of the Kz’fai Administration from behind his expressionless visor.
“Squad Sergeant Scalas,” he intoned. Scalas shifted his powergun to one hand and drew the small holoprojector out of his utility pouch as he stepped forward to stand beneath Kranjick. He didn’t need any further instruction; he placed the holoprojector on the table and keyed it to play.
The massacre of the Lesser Zh’khen miners played out in real time. All eyes in the room were fixed on the holo, while Kranjick loomed over the Board, unmoving, threatening.
“You ordered the mass murder of sixty-two ekuz, in order to seize a mining installation you had no claim to,” Kranjick rumbled once the recording had stopped. “Then, to make matters worse, when the Lesser Zh’khen retook their asteroid, you attempted to ensnare the Caractacan Brotherhood in your crimes, lying to us and counting on the fact that the Brotherhood is death on pirates to use us as your attack dogs.” That the ekuz likely did not know what a dog was Kranjick ignored. “And to cap it all off, you attacked my ship when you thought it was all over, rather than let us confront you. I do not know if that was the plan all along, or if your captain, whom I would call stupid were it not ill courtesy to speak badly of the deceased, simply panicked.”
He looked around at them again. “Did you truly think that we would not notice? That we wouldn’t find out? Worse, that we would simply go along and stain our honor with the blood of those simply fighting for their own?”
None of the prostrate ekuz answered. This was doubtless the first time any of the Board had been faced with such consequences for their actions, and they were in shock.
“Justice is a part of the Caractacan Code,” Kranjick said grimly, “and we will see it done. Squad Sergeant Scalas. Take the Board into custody.
“We will see what the Lesser Zh’khen have in store for them.”
None of the Kz’fai ships in the area dared move against the Dauntless as she pulled for orbit. A few patrol craft shadowed her from several light seconds away, but broke off and returned to the planet when Koll swept them with an active targeting beam.
The controllers on Zh’khey hadn’t quite known what to make of the Dauntless’ request to land, but apparently Vo’izzh had sent a message ahead with news of what had transpired on Akela-Z84, so the Caractacans received clearance fairly quickly. When the descent cage had reached the still-smoking landing pad, and Kranjick, Scalas, and most of First and Second Squads stepped off, herding the manacled Board of Directors of the Kz’fai Administration ahead of them, there was a welcoming committee waiting.
The ekuz goggled at the Caractacans and their prisoners, and the leader quickly got on a commlink and started buzzing and clicking for reinforcements. Then he looked up at Kranjick, who was still in his armor, his helmet in place. All of the Caractacans presented the same armored, faceless implacability.
“These are the men who ordered the mass killing of your miners, and attempted to kill us from ambush,” Kranjick said. “I leave their fates in your hands. Let justice be served. And if anything like this happens again, send a message to the Avar Sector Keep on Kaletonan IV, in the Tokanan system. This is why the Brotherhood exists; to defend the defenseless and right such injustices.”
He took a step closer, looming over the ekuz, who took a nervous half-step back. “But remember this, as well. Part of why I have done this is because they sought to undermine Caractacan honor through treachery, to make us party to their crimes. Do not make the same mistake. Or you will find yourselves in their place. If you survive.”
Without another word, he turned on his heel and led the way back toward the ship. Their business was done.
Back in the cage, as they ascended, Kranjick turned to Scalas.
“Remember this well, Squad Sergeant Scalas,” he said. “There are those who mistake honor for rigidity and gullibility. They must be disabused of that notion. You will be a Centurion yourself, one day, and you need to remember this lesson. It is not, strictly speaking, part of the Code, but there is a saying that you should take to heart.
“’Speak the truth, deal fairly with all, and always be prepared for treachery.’”