“The first data is coming in, Centurion,” Captain Becan Mor reported over the Dauntless’ intercom. “The Yeheri task force is in orbit above the second moon of Iabreton, as expected. Initial assessments have tentatively identified two battlecruisers, two frigates, and what appears to be a heavy transport.”
Centurion Erekan Scalas was strapped into his acceleration couch aboard the Dauntless’ lead dropship, roughly amidships and several decks below the command deck where Captain Mor was watching the starship’s holo tank from a not dissimilar position. Every Caractacan Brother aboard the starship was armored, sealed, and strapped in.
He did some quick math in his head. That size task force could mean as many as a regiment of Yeheri fighters on the ground. They had, after all, had some time to deploy. “How far out?” he asked.
“Still sixty-two light minutes,” Mor replied. Which meant that the information was likely outdated. The Dauntless was still fully inertialess, though the Bergenholm fields had been turned down to the point that she was no longer tachyonic. The drive was pointed toward the gas giant Iabreton, the system’s sole major body, firing just enough to begin to gradually slow the ship. None of the Brotherhood aboard could feel it; they would have to go fully inert for the acceleration to register. That would not happen until they were far closer to their target.
Scalas looked around the interior of the dropship. The first squad of Century XXXII of the Caractacan Brotherhood, twenty consummate soldiers encased in the best armor Human ingenuity could produce, was strapped into the cramped circle of the drop ship’s hold. They were faceless behind their helmets’ vision slits, looking like little more than gray-green automatons, dull-painted armor festooned with ammunition packs, comm antennas, and other specialized gear. Weapons were secured in racks alongside acceleration couches.
“Two battlecruisers, two frigates, and possibly one heavy transport,” he relayed to the rest of the squad, and to the squad sergeants in their separate dropships, with the rest of the Century. “That means we could be facing as much as a regiment.”
There was no complaint, no exclamation, no chest-thumping. There were some nods of faceless helmets. Scalas was not a man given to much emotion, but he felt a surge of pride and satisfaction at the calm way his hundred men received the news. He might not be able to see the faces, but he knew every Brother in that compartment by sight, even in armor. They were Caractacan Brothers. They were supposed to be outnumbered.
“We will engage on the first pass, and if conditions merit, deploy you and your Century before returning to mop up,” Mor continued.
“Understood,” Scalas replied. Behind his visor, he allowed himself a half-grin. “Are you certain you’re not biting off too much with one pass?”
“The Yeheri are not known for the quality of their battlecruisers,” Mor replied tartly. “Nor for their skills at space combat. You worry about the ground deployment, Centurion. Leave the orbitals to me.”
There was a general chuckle around the drop ship’s troop compartment. The exchange had been on the Century’s open comm circuit. Scalas smiled as he flexed his shoulders and settled himself a bit more comfortably in his acceleration couch. “Brace yourselves, gentlemen,” he said. “Captain Mor’s admitted mastery notwithstanding, this could get a little bumpy.”
Captain Mor was not quite as stoic as his friend Centurion Scalas. He was grinning tightly behind his sealed helmet visor as the exchange ended. It was rare, usually only in the tense moments before combat, that he could get Erekan to come far enough out of his shell to actually banter. Usually, the man was as quiet and dour as a cloistered monk. Granted, such temperament and deportment were encouraged in the Caractacan Brotherhood, but it sometimes seemed as if Scalas took his bearing as a Brother slightly too seriously.
He turned his attention fully to the task at hand. The distances and timeframes of space battle were deceptive. A moment’s lapse in concentration could mean instant death for all aboard.
The Dauntless had already executed her synchronization maneuver, going fully inert just outside the system and synchronizing her base velocity to Iabreton’s star. At the same time, the attack vector had also been laid in. It had been done far enough out that the Yeheri would not detect the drive plume for another ninety-seven minutes. That time to detection would steadily decrease as the ship plummeted closer to Iabreton, but for the moment, they were still in the “blind spot” of the enemy’s light cone.
Iabreton swelled steadily in the command deck’s holo tank. The command crew were strapped into their couches, armored and sealed up, gathered in a circle around the tank. Controls were close by their hands, allowing for every function of the ship to be handled even when under high gees.
“Now,” Mor snapped.
The Dauntless’ Bergenholm fields shut down. All of the inertia set in during the synchronization maneuver returned, and she hurtled toward the gas giant’s second moon at hundreds of kilometers per second.
As soon as the inertialess field was off, the starship’s weapons constellation began to deploy. Hatches along the outer hull opened, and a string of egg-shaped objects began to drift outward, propelled by tiny gas charges. At the same time, canisters in the starship’s nose cone fired, sending clouds of pellets and reflective chaff ahead, drifting a few hundred meters per second faster than the ship. Point-defense lasers were unshrouded, powergun turrets rose outward from the hull on long, telescoping booms, and missiles drifted out of their launch cells, stabilizing a few dozen meters from the hull. The missiles didn’t need to be nearly as far away as the bomb-pumped X-ray laser pods.
Iabreton loomed large, a massive, roiling green-and-orange crescent of storms and exotic gasses. The dark side flickered with lightnings the size of planets. The second moon was currently a tiny point of light, just over the limb of the gas giant, but was quickly growing larger.
As the Dauntless closed, the moon grew to a reddish, rocky ball, with the faint flickers of drive flares in space above it. The Yeheri had noticed the starship plummeting toward them, and were trying to maneuver to meet the coming attack.
“Focus on the battlecruisers first,” Mor instructed. “We can clean up the frigates later, if need be.
He watched the tank closely, counting down in his head even as the weapons officers worked out their firing solutions. The X-ray lasers would fire line-straight and light-swift, but even then, they had to work with probability cones for enemy positions. The missiles and powergun bolts would be even trickier.
Mor did not concern himself with the firing solutions. His command crew was as skilled and finely honed as Scalas’ armored ground pounders in their dropships below. His responsibility was timing and strategy. Engaging at any farther out than a light minute was generally folly; there were too many variables that could not be accounted for based on information that old. And yet, to wait too long to engage could give the enemy a chance to get in a kill shot first.
It was jousting, just like armored knights on long-lost Terra, thousands of years before. Only with energy weapons, guided kinetic kill munitions, and high explosives, at velocities that a man on horseback could not imagine.
The first wave of missiles ignited their drives and streaked away at fifty gees. Moments later, actinic flashes out in the dark on the ship’s flanks announced the deaths of X-ray laser pods, as the weapons immolated themselves with nuclear explosions to drive the powerful directed energy weapons. They were one-shot devices, just like the missiles.
A moment later, the powergun batteries opened fire, pulsing blue-white fire toward the reddish orb of Iabreton II. At those distances, the relativistic packets of copper plasma actually looked like discreet bolts.
A ravening storm of high-energy destruction blazed toward the ships in orbit over Iabreton’s second moon.
The Yeheri battlecruisers were ugly, ad hoc looking constructions, with mushroom-shaped forward hulls, kept far away from temperamental reactors and drives by long booms. They were about as high-tech as they looked, as well. The Yeheri as a race were relative newcomers to the galaxy at large. They did not have centuries of starship design behind them, like some worlds and races did.
They had detected the Dauntless’ drive flare only minutes before; the warband’s leader was a fat, slovenly, careless lout who had been far more focused on cracking the last of the Quarisian resistance in the main mining settlement than in maintaining security for his task force. So now his ships were relatively low in the gravity well, barely at orbital velocity—which was not high, given Iabreton II’s gravity—and with half the weapons not yet ready to deploy.
For the flagship, there would not be time to remedy the mistake. The slightly larger, slightly newer battlecruiser suddenly flared with incandescent brilliance as the boom took a direct hit from one of the Dauntless’ X-ray lasers. Alloy flared to plasma in a fraction of a second, and the energy dump actually shattered the rest of the boom with the force of small nuclear weapon. Silently, the battlecruiser detonated with a titanic flash, a fraction of a second after the laser touched it. The four missiles, two more lasers, and salvos of powergun fire were wasted in the atomized debris.
The second battlecruiser fared rather better. That ship’s captain was somewhat more conscientious than the warlord, which only meant that he kept her on an extremely short leash when he could. As soon as the Dauntless’ drive plume had been detected, she had disregarded orders and started accelerating out of the gravity well while deploying the first of her ship’s countermeasures. That was why the first salvo of X-ray laser beams missed. Mostly. One struck the chaff cloud deployed above the climbing starship, spending most of its energy in a coruscating display of brilliance all but drowned by the titanic flash of the flagship’s demise. Radiation scoured away the top layers of the surviving battlecruiser’s hull, melting sensors and weapons emplacements.
Then the powergun salvo arrived.
White-hot packets of copper ions flashed around the starship. Several missed, either tearing off into space where they would continue for nearly a light year before becoming too attenuated to do much damage to anything, or spending their fury against the thin atmosphere and crust of Iabreton II. Three struck home, detonating through hull and decks, venting entire compartments to space at the same time the sheer thermal and kinetic energy release turned the crew inside into scorched debris. A fourth struck the reactor. The battlecruiser turned into a small sun, bringing a second dawn to the surface below.
Then the Dauntless was overhead, whipping past the moon at well over escape velocity, her drive plume a blinding dagger of blue-white ahead of her, dropships spilling from their hatches as her powerguns hammered at the frigates that were either just rising above the moon’s horizon or beginning to dip below it. A glancing hit on one killed a dozen Yeheri in a fraction of a second. The other managed to get enough chaff in the way that the hull held when the remains of the plasma bolt got through. Then the Caractacan starship was gone, dwindling in the distance toward the dark limb of the gas giant, even as the dropships decelerated savagely, falling toward the reddish surface below.
Scalas endured the gees as the dropship fell atop a raging pillar of fire. The Brotherhood trained to endure prolonged entries at six gees, but this was only five. It still made it difficult to breathe, even though his armor was built to keep its weight off his chest under acceleration. For a man to suddenly weigh half a metric ton is not easy on the Human body, no matter how well trained and honed it is.
A holographic representation of the descent was being projected on his eyeslit. The five truncated cones of the Century’s dropships were beginning to glow and shake from the moon’s meager atmosphere, though they would never reach the fiery blaze of atmospheric entry on a larger world. Besides, the drive plumes were also carving their way through the upper atmosphere, lessening the air resistance on the ships themselves.
“Five minutes!” came the warning from the cockpit. The acceleration did not lessen; if anything, the pressure seemed to increase. The pilot was throttling up, trying to dump as much velocity as possible before slamming into the ground below. Scalas’ vision started to darken, but he forced himself to stay conscious.
“Thirty seconds!” The pressure eased as the pilot throttled back. They were now descending at only one gee, and the Brothers quickly unclasped their weapons and prepared to deploy.
It was not a gentle landing. The dropship hit hard, the pistons in the landing legs compressing fully to absorb some of the shock of the multi-ton lander’s impact. Every armored form in the troop compartment was hammered deeper into his acceleration couch.
Then the dropship doors were falling open. Scalas punched the release on his harness and rolled out of his couch, turning and charging down the still-descending ramp, sprinting for the nearest cover. In the four-fifths of a gee, it was more of a series of long bounds, but in seconds he was down on a knee behind a rise, his powergun in his shoulder, scanning the broken ground around them.
The dropships had landed some distance away from the enemy emplacements, the pilot having picked the drop zone on the fly as he had observed the visible enemy dispositions from above. All the information had been relayed to the ground troops on the descent, so they all knew where they were, as well as where the enemy was.
Scalas found himself and his Century deployed on the bottom of what might have been a meteorite crater. The crater rim rose slowly above them, and fell away to the west, where it had collapsed at some distant time in the past. The dusty ground underfoot was reddish, though there was plenty of iron gray mixed in. There was no sign of vegetation. If there ever had been any on this moon, it was long since dead, killed by a waning atmosphere, or the radiation sleeting from nearby Iabreton. Their armor would shield them from the radiation, at least until the job was done.
Scalas’ armor was already starting to shift to the same reddish hue as the dust, at least in most places. The armor’s chameleonic surfacing was always the first victim of wear-and-tear, impact, and in many cases, battle damage. Many of the Caractacan Brotherhood bore their armor’s scars as badges of honor, often to the armorers’ exasperation. His own was as scarred as anyone’s, but where the coating was still intact, it would soon be a dusty red.
He looked left and right. The four tactical squads were deploying quickly, spreading out and finding cover, setting security around the drop zone and watching for an enemy counterattack. There had been no way to miss the detonations in the sky, let alone the meteoric descent of the dropships. The Yeheri pirates knew they were coming.
The fifth squad was the heavy weapons squad, and was already lugging the rocket mortar batteries out of their dropship, deploying the bulky weapons in the center of the drop zone. They wouldn’t have much to shoot at until the tactical squads got eyes on the enemy positions, but the fire support would be welcome.
Satisfied that landing had gone according to plan, and that his men were oriented as they should be, Scalas rose and started jogging toward the crater rim.
The slope turned out to be steeper than it looked, and by the time he was halfway up, most of his tactical squad spread out in a loose wedge behind him, he was down to a slog, even in the relatively light gravity. His armor’s articulation meant that most of the weight was well-supported and distributed, and the oxygen tank in his sustainment pack meant he wasn’t even breathing hard, but the footing was difficult and treacherous. The crater wall had had centuries to erode away, and sand and dust threatened to slip out from under his boots.
He slowed as he neared the lip of the crater rim. It appeared to be the highest point of the surrounding terrain, and while the Caractacan Brotherhood had a well-deserved reputation for aggressiveness on the battlefield, none of them were stupid. There would be no screaming charge here. He got to the edge, dropped to a knee, and crept up to peer down the slope beyond.
The Quarisian mining camp was a scattershot collection of squared-off prefabs, about as expected. Quarisia was a relatively poor world, and couldn’t afford much more. Which only made the Yeheri attack that much more indefensible.
Presently, at least three of the prefabs near the open-pit mine had been destroyed. It appeared that the Quarisian defenders had dug in along the edge of the pit, and were still trading fire with the Yeheri troops on the relatively open ground around the prefabs. The Yeheri force was centered on a group of mushroom-shaped landers squatting haphazardly between where he sat and the Quarisian camp.
Some of the Yeheri forces, having watched the dropships descend, were already trying to reorient to face the incoming Caractacans. A combination of blocky, balloon-tired armored fighting vehicles and foot soldiers were milling around the landing area, trying to get organized. Scalas’ eyes narrowed behind his vision slit. Mor had spoken disparagingly about the Yeheri reputation as space fighters. This band, at least, didn’t appear to be much better on the ground.
He brought his powergun to his shoulder, finding the holographic sight with his eye. The Yeheri combatants were still a good distance off, but the powerguns fired their bolts very nearly line-straight, and at a substantial fraction of the speed of light.
Even so, a small target is a small target, and the plasma packets tended to attenuate more in an atmosphere. He had little doubt that he could hit at that distance, but it was always better to be sure. The small arms cartridges weren’t anywhere near as powerful as the big charges the Dauntless had fired at the battlecruisers in orbit.
Searching for the next bit of cover, he went up over the lip of the canyon and dashed down the slope, hitting his belly behind a boulder. The rest of the squad followed, bounding forward in short dashes, either finding rocks to take cover behind or cracks in the ground, or even simply dropping prone when no better cover presented itself. Fire discipline held; the Brothers would open fire when they were sure of kill-shots, not before.
He paused just before a landslide, where part of the outer crater wall had slumped away, and checked distances and azimuths before relaying them to the heavy weapons squad back in the crater. He got a terse acknowledgement, and a moment later, the noise muted by the thin atmosphere, the rocket mortars were coughing skyward, each warhead aimed precisely, sight unseen.
The wave of Caractacan Brothers was hard to see, dusty-red figures visible for a handful of seconds before dropping behind cover or out of sight altogether. That did not stop the Yeheri from opening fire anyway.
A ragged fusillade of laser fire, powergun bolts, and solid bullets ripped out from the equally ragged Yeheri formation, blasting pits in the dirt around the advancing Caractacans. Many of the bullets were falling short, but the lasers, sometimes dimly visible in the drifting dust, and the brilliant powergun bolts, were getting much closer.
Scalas dove into the dirt a moment before a powergun bolt slammed overhead, slapping him with the thunderclap shockwave of the plasma’s passage and searing the surface of his armor with its heat. The next Brother who tried to bound past him, Korvan, was not so lucky. The next bolt caught him in the faceplate. His helmet exploded, taking most of his head with it, and his armored body plunged into the dirt, rolling another two meters downhill before coming to a stop in a cloud of grit.
There are few defenses against a direct hit from a powergun bolt. And as good as it was, even Caractacan armor wasn’t good enough in the face of that kind of firepower.
It was about that point when the rocket mortars reached the top of their trajectory, turned over, and ignited their secondary engines, plunging toward the ground at twenty gees.
The rounds that hit landers and vehicles were moving fast enough to punch through most of the thin armor. After that, the molecular explosives did the rest.
The leading edge of the milling Yeheri company that was moving to engage the Caractacan skirmish line disappeared in a cloud of smoke, dust, and debris. The shockwaves slammed through the thin atmosphere, washing over the Caractacan warriors and shaking the very ground beneath their feet.
Scalas was on his feet and moving forward before the dust had even begun to settle. None of the rest of his squad was far behind. The Yeheri fire had died away to almost nothing in the wake of the bombardment. This was the time.
He plunged into the dusty murk left behind by anemically burning vehicles and airborne dust that was slowly starting to settle back toward the surface. The dust was going to shorten the range of his powergun, but that was a small price to pay.
With Maldon, Brunuk, and Squad Sergeant Kahane close behind him, he advanced on the nearest Yeheri lander.
A dazed Yeheri, its long tail and hammer head distinctive even in the murk and disguised by a wildly impractical, spiked battlesuit, staggered out from behind the shattered wreckage of a crawler. The vehicle was burning, but the flames were guttering and going out, strangled by the dust and the low oxygen content of the atmosphere.
The Yeheri must have spotted some movement, because it turned toward the advancing Caractacans and froze. Then, with a faint yawp, the staggering alien lifted its stubby weapon, at which point four powergun bolts thundered through the dust and smoke to blast its head completely off with a cataclysmic flash. The smoking remains of the corpse collapsed to the dirt.
The line of armored figures continued their advance through the destruction.
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