Solstice

From Sphere
Jump to: navigation, search

An Imaginary story

I

Londenium

Gleaming crystal rose all around Kade, a palace of false ice. Great flying buttresses of gleaming white supporting a vast arched roof like a church. The ceiling was made so it absorbed sound, reducing what would otherwise have been an echo chamber to the pleasant hum of a normal party. Starlight gleamed through the panes above, even as snow beat against the rooms wall. The crystal palace had been placed at this specific height so parties could be starlit while still enjoying the sight of snowflakes rushing into distant windows.

It was a remarkable achievement, made all the more remarkable by the fact the whole structure had been built into a high mountain. Snow was not quite as unknown on Londenium as on Kade's native Tempest, but it was still rare enough as to be a spectacle. The whole place was served by a special subway, allowing guests to make it back to the capital in less than half an hour.

When she'd first come here she'd been a little overwhelmed by places like this. Indeed that was part of their function. Still it was an alien place to Tempesti sensibilities, to build somewhere like this just for the sake of building it. . . For all that she tried to remind herself how much of Londenium's wealth came from its vast dust reserves or the external investment it had received as a UN colony, or that the average Tempesti was better off than the average Londoner it was still, if she was honest, a little disheartening.

Not that she'd ever let her hosts know that they'd got to her of course. Instead she wore Tempesti party dress like armour and pulled every advantage she could find to influence Tempest's richer, larger ally.

As ever the Tempesti ambassador was surrounded by a crowd of friends. Right now they included the wife of the Home Secretary (herself a prominent industrialist, and secretly resentful of her husband's greater fame), A vice president of Londenium Metalworks (A secret patriot of the Tempesti system with whom Kade was arranging several military contracts), the junior minister of Defence (who was very much in love with Kade) and the mistress of one of Londenium's most fashionable political salons. (ditto).

It was a mixture of gossip and shop talk. Trade matters and personal. "Married again? Really? I don't know where she finds the time!" "Of course Tempest doesn't have a position on that until the vote comes up. Personally though I think that kind of extraterritoriality is just shameful." "Too New Mercia? I hear it's spectacular in the spring. . . if you should happen to meet General Tanes of the Tempesti mission give her my love would you?"

Kade could almost have maintained the conversation in her sleep, but she would remember all the facts. The neural wetware would forget nothing, and the crew on the other end of her neural lace supplied her with anything she needed to know. Part of her mind was on other things. The upcoming trade negotiations tomorrow. How exactly to try to sell the latest round of intellectual property treaties to the deeply hostile Tempesti public. . .

Kade's eye was caught by a movement across the room. Jane Ellison cut quite the dashing figure in a black suit with black diamond cord banding across it. Londenium's foreign secretary always did know how to dress. The Londener raised an eyebrow and made the smallest motion with her head. She waited for polite gap in the conversation them smiled. "Excuse me a moment. Duty calls." she walked over.

"Madam Ambassador." Ellison kissed her hand Londenium fashion.

"Foreign Secretary." Kade smiled. "You seem to be loitering near me."

"Ah... business follows even at parties." the Londoner motioned to one side. She offered an arm "Might we at least discuss business in one of the upper galleries though? I don't want to spoil your evening too much."

Kade smiled and took the offered arm. "How's your daughter? It was her graduation a few days ago?"

"She got a first on upgrade." Ellison smiled. "She's already talking about postgraduate."

"She'd be a good academic." Kade nodded to the muscular man in house livery waiting at the top of the stairs, Ellison said a few words to him as they passed and he closed the door, the two women reluctantly separating. In front of Kade snow beat at the window, flowing and rippling. Kade rested a hand on the glass but it wasn't even cold. "So, business."

Jane nodded and walked over to sit next to Kade "Yes. . . it's about Solstice."

Kade nodded. She'd guessed already. "Well, all the preparations are in place. . . but it's going to cost you. The intellectual property treaty for one. If that captures the news cycle back home you can forget it."

Jane winced, then smiled. "This would be much easier if you people had a proper government."

"That's why we don't have a proper government Jane." Kade sat down beside the Londoner. "Besides, this is kind of a bad thing you're asking." She ruffled the other woman's hair. "The truth is going to have to come out sooner or later. So you might want to think how you want to spin it."

Jane nodded. "Alright. . . I'll talk to the Treasury and the PM about the IPT. Can you put things in motion today?"

Kade nodded. "It'll go out in tonight's message package." she paused for a moment "Jane, I think I might be in love with you, but please never ask me to do something like this again."

Jane looked over at her, a little shocked, then smiled. "Alright. This will be the last time."

The snow blew thick against the window.

II

The inside of the shuttle was long and thin and mostly stuffed with seats. The shuttle was about half full, it's passengers tall, muscular young women in non-descript civilian dress. They sat in small groups, chatting as the aircraft fell through the sky.

"What the heck you got there?" the team's leader peered over her second's shoulder.

"Imported SF magazines, from earth." The woman waved the reader. "You need this to actually read them. It's proprietary. The company that imports them makes them."

"Why not just crack them?" the team leader asked.

"Some bullshit about re-export or something. Anyway, the magazines good." a shrug. "Hopefully what with the end of this stupid IP treaty thing I can get a copy for my lace."

There was a beep and the team leader stood "One minute to touch down, stow your stuff and junk any ID you're carrying." she braced herself, grinning as the aircraft bumped into the ground, then walked down the unfolding ramp. "Shit. Another fucking icebox." A light rain was falling, wind starting to gust. There would be a storm soon.

"It's not that cold." her second stepped out beside her." There's not even snow, this is like summer on New Mercia." she looked around the field. it was small and civilian, with several hangers standing to one side, each holding a variety of vehicles. From them two men approached.

He nodded to the pair. "I'm John, this is Donald. Welcome to Solstice."

"Good to be here. Everything prepped? You have a lead on the primary for us finally?"

"Yeah. We've got him. He's at Site-three, the old hotel."

"Good enough." The woman turned and her voice changed to a harsh lyric tone. The rest of the team debarked rapidly and began to head for the vans. Stepping up inside the team leader looked at the assembled armoured suits that filled the van's back and grabbed one for herself. "Everyone get suited and checked out. If there's any snags with this stuff I want to know before we leave." She peered back at the breaching automaton in the back. "Someone pull that out so it exits first, and check it actually works too."

One of the team yanked the crablike machine out and pressed a button on the top. The device came to life with a beep, its rail gun swinging back and forth. "Seems okay. I'll run a diagnostic."

"Everyone in as soon as you've got your armour on and squeeze up for the drone."

"This armours really heavy." one of the other team members tested her grip. "I really hope the power pack doesn't take a hit."

"It should be resistant to any of the small arms the enemy is using. Don't worry. It's well engineered. The capital police use the same model." The team leader looked around then lifted her mask. "Faceless!"

"Faceless!" The others did the same. The team leader pushed her mask into place. . .

Alpha-Six looked out, running a final status check on her armour and said a prayer to god. She checked her weapon and looked at the others checking theirs. You weren't supposed to think about the ethics of these missions but this time it was hard not to. They were planning, potentially, to murder a man. A president. Dead or alive was the order. His election might be a shame and he might be an EU puppet but wasn't that for his own people to determine?

Still, there'd been a vote, and this had been decided. Perhaps not this mission precisely, but the idea of changing this planet by force. Alpha-Six said another prayer as the van moved down the night time streets, running a final check on her weapons and armour.

She could hear the chatter of the other teams and the sniper team on her net. The snipers were not Tempesti, and so didn't speak battle language, so she had to give them orders. At least she could see what they saw.

"Alpha, this is Echo, We have two men the gate and a sentry gun."

"Go for the gun. Wait for my go."

A double click. Alpha-Six took a deep breath. Her team knew their business. The van pulled to a halt and one after another the other team vehicles reported that they had arrived at their stage marks. It occurred to Alpha-Six she had only a fairly vague notion of what the actual city looked like except for the target. This mission had been planned hastily at best. Guess that's why they give us the big likes. "Tiger, Tiger, Tiger."

The van surged forward. There was a sharp crack up ahead as the sniper drone destroyed the sentry gun, its report loud enough to shatter nearby windows. The van screamed to a stop and the back doors opened, the breaching autos skittering out like murderous crabs. The men had time to gape before the autos dropped them with single shots from their rail guns. Dozens of Tempesti commandos were storming out behind the autos, guns up and tracking and they moved towards the massive concrete shape of the hotel above them. Others she knew were heading in from different sides.

On her display the walls of the hotel began to fall away, microbots and T-wave radars revealing the interior. The panic and confusion of guards and staff. The first auto swung its turret towards the door and fired, the rocket destroying the heavy wood and metal in a spray of fragments. The autos stalked through, turrets tracking and firing. One auto fell, hit by a rocket from deeper within the building. The commandos behind countered with a hail of explosives and fletchettes, shredding the strike bot and the men who'd been trying to activate a second.

The Tempesti commandos went up, moving quickly, securing cross passages and stairways. For Alpha-Six the killing became mechanical. The guards weapons seemed completely unable to penetrate She wished they would stop trying. Even if they had had weapons physically capable of killing her team the mismatch in skill and genetic was utterly obvious. There was no legend to be had here, merely death.

Top floor. The penthouse suite. Armoured walls, blocking radar. Hand signs from the first section. 'In here' Alpha-Six moved up beside the others. "Why haven't you burned it out?" Her hands asked.

'We think his family is in there.' Alpha-two-two, the point commando sent back.

'Alright. Let me.' Alpha-Six moved to the door. "President Mark Redgrave!" Her suit augmented her voice to a giant's roar.

There was a moment and then a reply. "I'm... I'm here!"

"President Redgrave." It was awkward to talk in English, much less so soon after having spoke in battle language. Alpha-Six had to carefully construct what she wanted to say. "There's no way you can stop us if we come in there. There's no need for further violence. Please surrender."

There was a long pause and then the door opened. A in a dowdy old fashioned suit stepped out into the corridor, goggling at the ring of commandos and pointed weapons. He was balding, unimpressive looking. This was the man they had been sent to take.

"I am President Redgrave." He spoke slowly, voice almost steady. "I am your prisoner."

III

Landing lights glittered in the rain, matching the distant street lights and the slight glow of one of distant spire. Wind blowing billows of sand up off the nearby beach, pushing the breakers high. Ratna watched, turned towards the curve of the coast, away from the wind. The on shore part of Port Halan Space Centre was a pair of long runway surrounded by shacks and hangers. The artificial bay, sheltered by break waters was separate from the main port, was supposed to allow for the larger local lift vehicles to be launched from there.

Now it was a stirred muddy caldron by the wind and tied. Ratna sighed, then stepped back into the hut next to her. "We can forget about our launch slot. There's no way they'll let us launch in this weather." She lit up a cigarette.

Behind the desk, Ratna's boss looked over at her from the TV screen. "Eh. It'll be fine. You wait, soon as the storm passes they'll be people lining up to get off this rock." Tommy's eyes were unusual. The eyes of someone who'd spent too much time digging through posthuman ruins. Delta dust eyes. Ratna always wondered if he could see through her clothes. Handsome as he might be from a dozen biosculpt jobs, Tommy was kind of a creep. She much preferred the third member of the ship's ground team. Jiri was a geek, but he was a real cutie. Unfortunately he was buried in the back office, doing some kind of trade in grey market data with some locals over the planets shitty primitive networks.

On the TV screen a news caster was talking. ". . . President Redgrave has rejected the Tempest ultimatum and called for more negotiation." the screen cut to a the face of the president standing amid flashing camera. "The government of Jefferson completely rejects this interference in our internal affairs! The electoral process, which has served since the days of our ancestors is beyond reproach. However, in the interests of continued peace I am willing to continue good faith negotiations with representatives of ZOCU. Negotiation, not ultimatums are the path to peace." The screen cut back to the news caster, who began to talk about the weather.

"This place is like a fucking museum." Ratna sat down.

"Well it is one of the oldest long shots." Tommy shrugged. "These guys left before Tempest. I think they were like, the second on the boats." he grinned. "Trying to get away from all the bad trends they saw, and the posthumans put up one of the biggest spire fields off Zoo or Surface down here with them. I think the posties were fucking with them."

"So if they're that old does that make them older than your ship huh?" Ratna grinned, lifting her cigarette out.

"Hey if you want to find another ride... fuck" The door opened and Ratna's cigarette blew a spray of burning ash across the room.

"Oh, I'm sorry." The woman in who'd just stepped in was small, obviously baseline and pulling a huge wheeled case that looked way too big for her. She shut the door hastily. "Uh, I'm here to buy passage."

"Try the sailor clubs down at the wet dock." Tommy leered, then coughed at the woman's expression. "Sorry, only a joke. You can get off world from here. All you need is cash." He looked around. "I think we're practically the only ship left, unless you want to travel on a dust runner or something."

The woman frowned, obviously not liking Tommy and Ratna felt a surge of irritation. A customer had walked through this storm to get to them and now he'd scared her off with one of his dirty jokes. "Hey boss, let me handle this one." She stepped over to the woman. "So, you want to get off world. Our ship's the fastest way to do that. The Tumult's old, but she's run without fail for better part of a century, and we've got a Theta Drive, that makes us the fastest way to any destination you want."

"Also we're discrete, we ask no questions as long as your money's good." Tommy put in.

"I have money." The woman nodded. She fished around in her pocket and pulled out a gleaming black card. "I-I assumed that you'd want Euros or um... Earth Dollars, not local money."

"That's right." Tommy smiled. "We go with half up front, half when you get to your destination. The rate is ten thousand Euros for passengers."

"T-ten thousand?" The woman blinked rapidly then frowned. "How about five thousand?"

"Eight thousand."

"Seven thousand up front." the woman said, looking levelly at Tommy.

"That..." Tommy broke off as Jiri poked out of the back office.

"Holy shit guys! Look at the TV. I'm streaming all the footage I can get."

The three looked over at the big screen, Tommy almost falling out of his chair.

A view of a military space ports, locally made space defence boats were taxiing. Beams of pink slashed down from the sky, burning across hangers and spacecraft, turning everything into flame. The view cut off and a new one appeared. Jiri must be controlling the screen with his neural lace. "It's the fucking Zocs. They're hitting everywhere." the hacker was babbling.

The next view looked like a sea port. There was sound this time, shouting. Troops ran around, knocking the camera around. Rows of combat surface craft stood at the edge of the shot, bobbing around in the swell. Some looked like they were getting underway.

Someone yelled, pointing upwards and the view spun crazily skywards. A blue painted Sarissa with a black devil log on the side dropped out of the sky, landing on one of the moving ships with a thump, the impact pushing swamping the watercraft. A line of tracers spat out from a bunker on the shore, bouncing uselessly off the blue painted suit and it swung around, leaping off the shattered frigate to slam a beam spear through the top of the bunker with a boom.

Outside there was the crash of sonic booms. Ratsha rushed to the door looking skywards. The cloud cover was too low for her to see much but she could hear. Don't look up at a space battle. The old advice floated back to her and she deliberately looked down. Something fell out of the clouds trailing fire and slammed down somewhere in the city. A moment later a long streamer of pink energy slashed downwards, ripping across the land as a massive sound hit.

"Holy shit." Tommy muttered. "Holy shit."

The woman was looking panicked. "I'll... I'll give you fifty thousand Euros if you get me off this planet." She squeaked.

"You may not have noticed but the zodiacs are invading!" Ratsha yelled back. "I don't think we're going anywhere!"

"Seventy thousand!" The woman looked at Tommy. "Please."

"Seventy thousand huh?" Tommy took a deep breath. "Alright. Ratsha, get the ladies baggage. Jiri, grab your gear, we're heading back up."

"You're crazy." Ratsha glared at him. "The zodiacs will smoke a rising ship, even if Tumult is still up there when we arrive!"

"Oh ye of little faith." Tommy grinned, putting a hand to the side of his head. "I got a plan."

"Fucking fine, but we better get hazard pay." Ratsha hefted the suitcase. "Come on." she hustled the woman out towards the shape of the Tumult's shuttle. . . if you could call the Eris a shuttle. The Galileo was immense for an atmospheric craft, and heavily modified.

"We have top of the line automation in both ships." Tommy was giving his sales spiel to the woman even as they walked towards the ship. "The crew is only about two dozen across both ships, and we operate the Eris here alone. He smiled "Hey. I don't think I caught your name?"

"Doctor Evans. Janet Evans." The woman looked up at the sky as there was another loud thunderclap. "Please let's just go."

"Alright." Tommy nodded, helping her up the ramp and into the Eris's bay. "We'll take off as soon as you're seated."

Ratsha pushed the luggage in after her then looked around at a noise. "I don't think we're going to be taking off yet Tommy." She pointed down the runway where several vans were disgorging armoured figures. They blurred as they dropped free, adaptive camouflage obscuring them.

"Shit." Tommy frowned. "Get her into the smuggling compartment, her luggage too." A pair of Legionnaire mobile suits touched down at the other edge of the field. "I guess our departure is going to be delayed a bit."


IV

The Bridge of the Menantang was large and spacious, with rows of consoles pointing front to back. Its arrangement copied almost wholesale from the C&C of the Drake class battleship Resolute which still orbited about Tempest as testament to the EU's long ago peace keeping mission. The breakdown had destroyed the ships drive, leaving it trapped far away from home, even when the crew had been evacuated. It had been the first major combatant that Tempest had ever studied, and formed the basis of many of their later developments.

Of course now, the control systems were rewired to far more powerful computers, the old flat panel displays removed in favour of featureless white screens on which their users could impose augmented reality. Boxy, heavily armoured routers were mounted on each console, boosting the signals of the crew's neural lace, and meaning that even if the ships main network went down the ship's augmented reality system wouldn't.

This was an old ship, but one now with a multitude of new components. Fatima liked to think that the fleet's old lady was finally reaching her full potential. The burning remains of the shattered Delta Class hanging in front of the bridge window was mute evidence for her views correctness. She could feel her crews pride as they continued to work.

"The last bombardment satellite is in place now sir." The vessel's cargo officer looked up. "We've sorted out the handshake problem and we're transferring control to the ground commanders." The satellites had been scratch built for this operation around old particle cannons. The software still had some bugs, but hopefully had suffered its glitch for now and wouldn't hang fire in combat.

"Excellent. Communications, signal phase eight." phase eight would see the Tempesti fleet jump away to a dead spot deep in the system, keeping them safe from an ambush like the one they'd pulled on the orbiting Jeffersonians. There were still at least four Jeffersonian warships unaccounted for, and though she had fourteen (four cruisers and ten escorts representing the better part of Tempest's interstellar space force) there was no reason to take chances. The Parasite warships and pocket frigates launched from the cruisers, in concert with the heavy Hiu class mobile armour would continue ground support and the reduction of the remaining Jeffersonian space forces. Not that there was much left to do their except sweep up or subvert the remaining surveillance satellites.

Her job was done. . . at least for now. Really she worried about the ground situation. The Tempestian Ground Defence Force planned to take Jefferson, a nation of fifty million, with only thirty thousand troops. It seemed a tall order to her, even if the landing had taken place in text book fashion. It was hoped of course that now that the Tempesti had given them the excuse the other states of ZOCU would get some spine and deploy their own ground components.

"Group Commander." Her overlay spoke. "I have a priority message from the Crossbow.

The Crossbow was the ship they'd left covering the outer system. "Play it."

"White, this is Crossbow. Spot report: One ship, EU markings, Unity: Danube Class Battlecruiser. Heading your way at speed. Gave us a wide birth. Heads up."

"Fuck." Fatima mouthed.

V

Dozens of men in close fitting but heavily padded dun overalls sat under the trees, weapons slung. Around them vehicles stood under camouflage netting, only the air defence lasers visible through holes in the trees.

Mark sat with his back propped against a tree, a pad of note paper in front of him, keeping his eyes on Captain Morrows standing up front. "Alright, the situation is this." the captain pointed to a large map on the tree. "The Zodiacs have put down in Hillsview Station in what intelligence believes is battalion strength. It's our job," by which he meant the whole of Regimental Combat Team 18, not just 3rd company 2nd battalion, or at least Mark hoped so, "to clear them out. To do that be providing a support by fire position while the rest of the battalion attacks into town." He pointed to a cluster of buildings on the map. "There's an old church and grain silo here, that will be our base of fire. We'll advance by bounds, along each of these stage markers with first platoon in the lead. There's not much expected air threat from the Zocs, and we think the orbital strikes are done. On the other hand the air force is finally ready to start flying sorties, so we have the advantage. Go brief your squad leaders."

Mark felt a bit more confident as he hurried back to his platoon. The RCT 18 would outnumber a Zodiac battalion about five to one, and now they had air support. The air force had been absent so far, their bases hit in the initial orbital strikes, but now they were finally getting it together.

His platoon, 2nd, sat near the edge of the woods that the company was sheltering in, providing infantry cover for the four EU Lambert dopples that had been attached to the company for fire support. Near them several of the platoon stood around hood of one of the platoon's utility vehicles, playing with a radio.

"I'm telling you it's not the radio, it's the transmitter. The Zodiacs must have shut it down."

"I just want to get some news. Let me try it one more time." The speaker played with the antenna, producing a hiss followed by some almost words. "See, I almost got it." the private grinned widely, moving the antenna some more and fiddling with the dial.

"Alright, squad leaders cluster up for briefing." Mark yelled.

The squad leaders began to move over to him when the private pushed the dial slightly and words burst out onto the camp. It was a woman's voice, her English strangely accented. Off world, Mark realized.

"Soldiers of the 18th Regimental Combat Team. We know that you intend to attack us in Hillsview today."

"Holy shit." Someone muttered.

The voice continued smoothly. "It would be a pity if you chose to turn this peaceful town into a battlefield in support of a criminal president who has subverted the democratic freedoms your ancestors fought so hard for. If however you do decide to go ahead with this venture, then be aware that the soldiers of the Tempesti First Division: Ten Thousand, will give you death."

The transmission cut off. There was silence.

"W-what do we do sir?" Mark realized everyone was looking at him.

He took a deep breath. "We do our duty. Turn that shit off. It's just bullshit theatrics. Squad leaders, assemble for briefing!"

Silently, Mark prayed to god that he'd survive today.

VI

Mark's platoon was moving forward in line, up the back of one of the numerous wooded undulations that stood around the town. It was ripple country here, as if god had thrown a pebble into the land. There was plenty of good cover, a fact that Mark was heartily glad of, even with the chameleon systems in the smart suits they wore, Long range was where he expected the Zodiacs to have their biggest advantage. He was sure that his men could take the Zodiacs up close, with all their technology they couldn't be so used to close fighting. Not that the RCT was lacking in firepower, with a battalion of tanks and artillery, not to mention the promised airstrikes. Plus they'd changed their approach march and were keeping radio transmissions to the minimum. These Tempesti had outplayed themselves with their parlour tricks. They'd given away their advantage. Mark was sure of it. He told himself he was sure of it.

The platoon waited for a moment before the crest, then all moved over it together, low crawling, guns aimed at the town below. Hillsview Station was a mass of white fenced wooden homes, with a few larger buildings in the distance. Not much cover in there for the Zodiacs, bullets would go right through.

He clicked his radio four times. In position, and got two clicks back. That meant confirmed. If he got four, that was go.

There was the sound of aircraft engines. "Here we go boys!" Mark yelled. "Our angels are coming!"

Beams suddenly rose out of the town, turning impossibly as they lashed skywards, curving down towards somewhere behind Mark. He heard but didn't see explosions. More conventional missiles were rising now, curving out of the town on trails of smoke, the medusa beams flashing among them.

"Mother of god! Mother of god!" someone was screaming.

Missiles flashed over Mark's head from the other direction. Some curved away wide, impacting out of the town, others blew apart in the air before they reached it. A few slammed into targets inside the town or airburst over it. "We're getting through!" Marl shouted "We're getting through!" He dared not look behind him. . . Artillery was starting to come in now, much of it also air bursting short. "Come on boys! Give it to them!" Mark raised his rifle, bracing the heavy smoothbore rifle against his shoulder and looked for a target. Mark could hear artillery going over him from the town too. It seemed there was less of it though, or at least he hoped so.

He couldn't see anything. There seemed to be nothing moving in the town except the fires started by the rockets and artillery. All the air defence systems were hidden deeper into the town. Where the hell were they?

The artillery from behind cut off suddenly with another massive explosion from behind him. The radio crackled. "All units: Advance now! Even numbered units cover fire! Odd numbered units charge!"

"Pour it on!" Mark yelled and began to fire into the town. Other troops were breaking from the wood line, tanks firing into the edges of the town as well, infantry sprinting forward in bounds.

Then the world was full of explosions. There was none of the telltale muzzle flashes Mark had learned to look for when fighting the Northern insurgents, instead it seemed like the whole area had been planted with fire crackers. Bodies flopped, torn to shreds, vehicles came to a halt and began to burn.

Then the beams came, sugar pink, lighting the tree line on fire. Too his horror Mark realized they'd been flanked. Turning he fired a wild burst that way, shredding the treetops.

A Lambert exploded out of the trees to his right, missing an arm, followed a moment later by a massive red painted giant. A Zodiac mobile suit! The huge machine smashed a huge beam lance through the EU machine, separating its top half from bottom. A rocket burst out from somewhere on the right and impacted on the massive red machine's upraised shield as it turned, a huge bazooka type weapon unfolding from over its shoulder. There was a bright pink glow in the weapons barrel and the woods became fire.

Mark felt a hand on his shoulder. "Lieutenant!" His platoon sergeant was shaking him. "Lieutenant we got to get out of here! Come on move!"

Mark's body reacted even if his mind didn't and he ran back down the ridge.

VII

The buzz of tactical chatter filled the bridge of the Guadiana as the Danube class battle cruiser slid into orbit.

Gilliam could feel a tightness in the pit of his stomach as the ships sensors came up after the jump. The enemy ships snapped into existence on his overlay. Two cruisers and six destroyers. The cruisers were the main threat, a Menantang , which the AI was calling the lead vessel in her class and a Concord. Intelligence suggested that that was only a half to two thirds of the Tempesti force. Obviously the rest had jumped out to keep their numbers unclear once they'd detected the Guadiana's arrival at the jump zone.

"Bring us to full combat alert. Weapons and defensive systems up and tracking." The tactical officer reported. She was controlling her console through her lace and Gilliam could see her hands clenching and unclenching. It was worse to do this with a crew he barely knew. He still had to check nametags on his overlay.

"Anything from the Tempesti ships yet?" Gilliam asked.

The communications officer shook his head then put a hand to his earpiece. "Message from the Tempesti flag, audio."

"Play it." Gilliam said quickly.

"European Union Vessel. You have entered declared a total exclusion zone. If you do not withdraw you will be fired upon."

"Short and to the point as usual." Gilliam frowned. "Give them the pre-recorded response."

"Tempesti Vessels, this is the European Union Vessel Guadiana . We do not recognize your right to impose a total exclusion zone. Attacks on this vessel will constitute an act of war and we stand ready to defend ourselves." The message played.

"Get the Dopples launched." Gilliam said as it ended.

"Already done sir." His XO, a French Algerian by the name of Maria Girard, looked up. "The ground team are also waiting in their pods." The ground team. The passengers. It was always some euphemism or the other. Even the word special forces was rarely used. Frankly Gilliam wasn't quite sure who they were, he only had to deliver them without ZOCU shooting down his ship.

"Prepare too . . ." Gilliam said, heard a yelp from the sensor officer.

"Brace for impact!"

A red icon flashed into existence on his overlay, coming out of its jump right in front of the Guadiana . The Tempesti parasite had appeared right on top of them, directly across their path. The smaller vessel spun around on its axis, main drive firing to divert it out of the way of a direct impact with the Guadiana. The Danube and the Parasite whirled past one another and Gilliam let out his breath.

"She's still on us." The sensor operator warned. Indeed the Parasite was yawing crazily back into line with the battle cruiser continued to separate. It pulled back across the Danube's path, spraying them with its drive flame. The shields and armour took it easily enough but it was still setting off the alarms.

"Keep us on course." Gilliam was tempted to just shoot the Tempesti down, but even though his Danube could likely take both the Tempesti ships in orbit there was still at least one more enemy cruiser and escorts out there, no doubt waiting to pounce. Besides, his orders weren't to start a war.

"Yes sir." his XO looked a little doubtful. More alerts came in. The Tempesti task force was hitting the ship's sensors with bright lasers, trying to blind the cameras. Several of the views on his overlay washed out or came back fuzzed. "How long till we can launch our passengers? Will the parasite pick it up?"

"Soon sir. . . and they shouldn't. The pods are unpowered and coated in metamaterials. It should be completely invisible." Tempesti sensors still weren't quite up to the level of Londenium, Erebus or Kanon, even though their operators were top notch. Gilliam hoped they hadn't got any upgrades as part of whatever conspiracy Londenium had hatched to get them there, because if it looked like the EU were dropping people then the Tempesti probably would attack.

The Tempesti parasite choose that moment to drop back level with the Guadiana and match velocities. Flying in formation for a moment before one wing came up. "Brace for impact!" The vessels collided, gently for space craft and alarms howled through the ship. The Tempesti vessel spun one way, and the Guadiana the other.

Gilliam felt his head slam into his chair's cushions as the restraints automatically deployed. The Parasite had gotten the worst of it but it was only a parasite not a battle cruiser, and a large part of the Guadiana's hull now glowed orange warning.

"They tapped us. Those crazy witches tapped us." The tactical officer shook his head, disbelieving. "I don't believe that can have been on purpose."

"Is the parasite going to go up?" Gilliam.

"It's reactors looked to have scramed but its still mostly flying. . . other Tempesti vessels are moving to assist. They're asking if we require rescue assistance?"

"Cheeky." Gilliam winced. His neck ached from slight whiplash. "Do we?"

"No sir. It rung our bell but that's it."

"Alright, drop the passengers and keep us on course. . . Keep our distance from any other ships that come at us. I don't care if we have to swerve. I'm not playing chicken with a bunch of crazy people." Gilliam sat back.

At least this probably meant he wouldn't have to fight.

VIII

The Tempesti commandos had been surprisingly polite. They had of course occupied the ship, plugged a medusa unit into the computer that could freeze it solid on a signal and watched each compartment with smart dust and microbots (Jiri assured her all of those were cleared out now) and patrolled about with giant payload rifles. They weren't about to let two military grade rail guns and a AA missile launcher sit at the end of the runway and potentially knock down their transports if the crew felt like it.

For all that they'd been polite. It had also been funny when Tommy had tried to hit on one and she'd called him a pig. Now as a reward for good behaviour the ship was being allowed to lift. Probably the Tempesti just needed their troops elsewhere.

The ship was climbing towards orbit, the black opening up ahead, and the familiar shape of the Tumult coming into view ahead. Only when the ship was well and truly docked, and when they'd made sure that the potentually compromised parasite was unhooked completely from the old UN explorer's systems did they relax.

"Let's take our guest out of her bondage pod." Tommy laughed as if it was funny.

"I'll do it. Don't you have some captain stuff to do Tommy?" Ratsha said.

"Fine. Go do whatever girl shit you do." He stomped off down the corridor.