A loud clang reverberated through the shuttle, inspiring the immediate fear that an enemy had spotted them. When the vessel keeping them alive failed to disintegrate around his squad, Captain Jackson Reese breathed a sigh of relief, followed by a growled, “Hey, Stick, what the hell?”
The pilot’s response crackled through the comm he wore in his right ear, her voice angry. “Wasn’t aimed at us. They hit one of our satellites and a chunk of debris nailed us. Freak dumb luck.”
“Uh-huh. Admit it. You just steered too close to one.”
The curse that came across their private connection was inventive enough to make him smile. Jax subvocalized the commands to call up the external cameras in his helmet display, which had formerly shown only the schematic representation of their dive into Rathen’s atmosphere. The planet was a lot like Earth, if Earth had been entirely divided between oceans and the Amazon jungle. Thick forests covered everything, and the varied plant life that thrived within them held abundant resources that the United Constitutional Corporate Alliance—the Alliance to most, the Corp to those who took issue with them—needed to continue its expansion into the stars.
Unfortunately, both the Singrave Confederacy and the Lienthe had the same needs. The former, humans who had split off a century before to chart their own path, proudly remained a thorn in the Alliance’s side. The latter posed a new wrinkle in the plan for this planet, an alien race that maintained independence from the coalition that encompassed most of the non-Earth civilizations they’d encountered so far. Even after two hundred years of exploration, a whole lot of “new” existed out there.
The view in his helmet eliminated the surrounding walls to reveal what lay beyond. Below, far enough away to shoot discomfort from his toes into his throat, lay the verdant canopy. Still not a huge fan of heights, if we’re being honest. To the sides and above were space, filled with stars and emptiness, the uniformity broken only by the view of their opponent’s ships, which were far larger than their own.
He shook his head and activated the comm to his team, who occupied most of the remaining seats in the shuttle. “The thump was one of our satellites going boom. Hopefully the bad guys haven’t noticed the others. We’ll proceed as planned.” He included the pilot on the channel. “Forty-five seconds to drop. Confirm.”
Stick responded instantly. “Confirmed. Countdown started.” A set of descending numbers appeared on the border of his display.
“Up and at ‘em, people.” His squad of four hit the releases on the belts that secured them, grabbed their weapons from the racks, and locked them into place on the backs of their dropsuits. He strode to the rear hatch, and they fell into line behind him. They were among the most elite soldiers the UCCA had to offer, Special Forces troops trained to go in early to set the stage for the real invasion, which was a little over two hours away. It was their job to soften up the defenses.
He gripped the metal rails on either side tightly as the clock ticked to five seconds. The hatch opened to reveal the vacuum void. Then it was time, and he launched himself forward into the emptiness with the same defiant request to the universe as always: If this is my day to die, may that death be spectacular.
The dropsuit was a technological marvel, full of features that hadn’t yet propagated beyond the Special Forces. They weren’t the first guinea pigs in the chain, but their missions tended to strain the gear in unexpected ways, so they always played an early role.
It was electronically camouflaged, a combination of cameras and miniature display panels on all surfaces making those who wore them virtually invisible to the eye. A large backpack with battery cells provided power for a shield that rested an inch beyond the suit’s surface, generated by linked projectors spread over the entire outfit. Early efforts had revealed an essential need for backup projectors, so those were now part of the kit as well. Because burning up in the atmosphere before you can get your job done is much less than optimal.
His mind kept track of the critical information about his descent without conscious effort. He’d dropped more than fifty times in real life, and twenty times that in simulators. A “fabric” of tightly woven metal connected his arms to his torso and ran down his legs to provide flight control when the moment for it arrived. The speed was tremendous, despite a spiraling pattern that bled some of it away. The suit would take care of that, too. Hopefully.
One of his troops spoke over the comm using his call sign, as casual as if they were still on the ship. The suits automatically used line-of-sight communication by laser to avoid interception. “Hey, Axe, care to put some cash down on who gets their job done first?” Laughter spilled from the other three, and Jax shook his head.
“Kansas, would it be too much to ask for you to focus on the mission just this once?” Lieutenant Kyle Drent had been with him for longer than any of the others and made it his mission in life to be as inappropriate and annoying as possible without crossing the line into insubordination. At least in public. His call sign was a leftover of his first days in the force when he was roundly mocked for being a hick from the countryside. His abilities had quickly earned him the respect of his comrades, but the name stuck.
“That’s an affirmative, Captain.”
Jax grinned. “Okay. Fifty bucks on someone other than you.”
Drent groaned. “That hurts, boss. Deeply.”
A light pulsed, indicating the time for action had arrived. “Game faces. Do your thing, stay safe, and we’ll meet up after so Kansas can pay off his losses.”
Clicks of affirmation sounded in his helmet as he shifted his balance and spread his arms to catch the air and vector toward his target. His team operated together two-thirds of the time, but this was one of the other times. Each had a separate task to prepare the way for what one of his instructors had called the “un-special forces.” His involved infiltrating the enemy’s installation and bringing down the turrets protecting the base the opposition forces had grown.
The use of that word had shocked his team. Even more revelatory was the confirmation that the Lienthe had the technological aptitude to cultivate structures from genetically modified seeds and existing raw materials. The military scientists had no idea how the process worked, and one of his secondary objectives was to get his hands on samples for analysis. His target building came into view, and he had to admit it was quite a sight. A local rock that resembled shale had been formed into a tall tower, with several smaller structures around it. The barrels of anti-ship weapons protruded like spikes near the pinnacle. I wonder if they grew the weapons, too? He magnified his view briefly but saw nothing that answered the question, then switched back to a display appropriate for his landing.
A wireframe overlay appeared, creating a virtual tube for him to steer into. His landing spot was two-point-three kilometers away from the base, which was the strategy computer’s definition of just far enough away to avoid notice. When he reached the altitude that the same computer judged appropriate, a parachute deployed automatically, jerking him backward and orienting him for landing. He hit and rolled, and the lines of the parachute detached so he didn’t get tangled. One more clean landing in the books.
That was the moment things started to fall apart. A crashing sound to his right prefaced the arrival of a pair of alien creatures he was pretty sure he’d had nightmares about as a kid. Their carapaces resembled the obsidian tower, seamless suits of sharp edges that looked unearthly and decidedly deadly. The aliens were a foot taller than he was, and half as broad. They didn’t yell or speak, just charged him with what looked like metallic spears held before them, covering the ground in long strides. At the sight of the enemy, his suit’s computer fed him a stripped-down combat display and jammed local signals, which would hopefully prevent the aliens from signaling for help.
He’d never faced the Lienthe in person, but he’d done his research, so it wasn’t a shock when what looked like stabbing weapons discharged bolts of energy at him. His dropsuit was intended to get him to the ground safely, not to preserve him afterward, but it still had enough ablative power to shrug off the initial blasts. Luckily, they chose energy instead of projectiles. He grabbed his rifle from where it was secured on his back beside the battery pack and skipped to the side to evade one of the pair. The other stabbed at him, but he smashed the gun down on the spear, then stepped forward and levered the stock upward into the armor protecting the alien’s face.
The blow had all his twisting power behind it and lifted the creature off his feet, shattering the obsidian and revealing ebony skin underneath as it hit the ground. Its face was humanlike, as were those of many of the alien species they’d encountered. The scientists liked to use that as evidence for a “great seeding” of life across the universe in its early days. Jax figured it was just as likely that a certain set of characteristics made most things easier and thus wound up as part of many species. Eyes here, mouth there, et cetera. In any case, it was clearly unconscious, and he had no time to administer a death blow as the other one’s spear jabbed in to skewer him.
The blade scraped over the dropsuit and parted it along his ribs. Holy hell, that’s sharp. The creature was efficient with the weapon, stabbing it at him as fast as he could block, not allowing the opportunity for a counterattack. The thing didn’t seem to have a weak side, so exploiting that wasn’t an option. Fortunately, the UCCA had foreseen the possibility of a quick transition from drop to combat and had added an extra toy to the dropsuit’s features. Jax blocked in such a way that it brought his right arm in line with the thing’s face, then growled, “Explosive flechettes.”
Six long needles shot from the cuff around his wrist and buried themselves in his enemy’s chest. It backpedaled in surprise, and Jax dove to the ground. The tips exploded an instant later, small charges that were almost silent but devastatingly damaging since they’d penetrated the enemy’s armor and flesh. The alien dropped like an unstrung puppet, and Jax rose smoothly to his feet to check on the other one. His combat computer scanned the creature and reported it would likely remain unconscious for at least an hour, which was plenty of time for him to do his thing.
Jax issued a series of voice commands, and the heavy suit split along its seams and fell away as a series of plates. He pulled off his helmet and set it in the middle of the gear, then grabbed a brown and green backpack that had been tucked inside the suit and stepped away. If anyone not wearing a UCCA transponder touched any of the equipment, it would self-immolate using the remaining power in the battery pack. Otherwise, once they’d won the battle to come, someone would retrieve it for reuse or recycling. He pulled a pair of stylish glasses out of his pocket and put them on, then walked down the nearby path that led to the base.
Under normal circumstances, sabotage would have been the appropriate play to take out the enemy’s defensive capabilities—a lot of explosives, carefully placed under cover of darkness. The Confederacy’s soldiers had added their own twist: an energy shield that protected the perimeter of the base, so the only way in was through one of the four gates. He and three of the others would be trying to enter more or less simultaneously, and the remaining special forces member would be scouting the perimeter to find traps to disarm. As the one in charge, Jax had reserved the most challenging and most important task for himself: getting into the tower to neutralize the guns.
His looks were neutral enough that he could pass for a member of the Confederacy: blond-brown hair styled up and off his forehead, shorter on the sides than the top, collar-length in the back. It fit the looser expectations of the Confederacy military perfectly. His blue eyes were common enough, and his square jaw would have looked correct on any soldier. The uniform was as accurate as the spies could make it, right down to the properly encoded transponder ribbon threaded down the front panel. If their information is right, and if they didn’t get double-crossed or played, and if these bozos haven’t changed things in order to work with the aliens, well, everything should be fine. He had some extra tricks hidden in the pouches that were part of the khaki and green ensemble, and while both the pistol at his hip and the rifle across his back looked like Confederacy weapons, they were far more than that. Hopefully, he wouldn’t have to use them.
The flesh-colored comm set deep in his ear would have allowed for crystal clear conversation, but operations like these were almost always radio-silent. The satellites they’d sown above the planet would relay communications if they did need to speak in order to defeat the triangulation of signals, but none of his team members would be the first to sound off except in dire need. Doing so would result in the immediate loss of any active wagers, with the speaker paying them all off, and worse, a stain of shame that would take months to live down. He smiled as he approached the guard post at the perimeter of the slightly shimmering dome. This close, he could feel the energy pulsing from it, and he hoped the guards had taken their anti-radiation meds recently.
He put on a look that said he belonged there and strode up to them with a nod. “Gentlemen.”
They nodded in return. It was impossible to judge their reactions beyond that since both stood strictly at attention and wore full helmets that covered their faces. The one on the right, about an inch taller than Jax and several inches taller than his partner, spoke in a raspy voice mechanized by the face covering. “State your purpose, soldier.”
Wonder if they’re robots under there. Technologies developed, shared, and stolen had allowed most civilizations to create cyborgs, artificial intelligences, and even fully mechanized versions of themselves. The thought made Jax shudder, and a phantom twinge came from his left leg, which was mechanical below the knee, more implanted technology than he’d ever really wanted. “Solo patrol complete. Nothing to report. Heading in for a rest.” They’d noted the Confederacy’s patrol patterns, and while they usually worked in teams, that wasn’t always the case.
An eternity passed while he stared at the blank black surface of the guard’s mask. The display on his glasses provided no extra information about the two in front of him. They produced heat in the range that living beings would, but that didn’t mean they weren’t cyborgs or robots. Their dark uniforms defeated the other modes of inspection available to him. Finally, the other one grated, “You may pass.”
Jax nodded, suppressed a smile, and strode through the barrier as it opened just wide enough to permit his entry. Now the hard part starts.