Authors: Michael G. Thomas
CALL TO ARMS
STAR CRUSADES NEXUS, BOOK 6
By Michael G. Thomas
Part of the STAR CRUSADES series
Copyright © 2013 Michael G. Thomas
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.
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Private space travel increased in popularity wherever money was there to be made. The new colonies of the Alliance were filled with haulers, mining ships, and traders, but the old worlds of Sol were another matter. Cut off by long journeys and slow communications, the old colonies of Sol developed at a different rate. Even when the Rift brought them into the great Alliance family, their small populations, poor living conditions, and a general distrust of outsiders put them at a great disadvantage. Private enterprise had stagnated and suffered over the decades so much that it fell to a state controlled monopoly to create a workable transport network between Earth, Mars, and the moons of Sol.
Origins of Private Space Travel
Eos was a miserable place, a relatively barren rock with little strategic value to the Alliance. As Wictred stretched his left leg, he thought back to his time on Hyperion and realized he actually missed the place. Where Eos was barren with just a smattering of industrial bases on its surface, Hyperion was a lush forest world filled with the surviving Biomech monsters that his kin so loved to hunt. Hyperion was in many ways a more dangerous place, yet he would rather be there with blades and firearms than on this dust bowl.
I can’t even remember the smell of Hyperion.
Wictred checked the radiation markers on his overlay display. The centigray scale had dropped right down to the average for the moon, and even he had been surprised at how quickly it had died down. In the first hours after the bombardment, the sensors had peaked at levels that would kill a man outright. He was just thankful they’d been able to shelter deep enough underground as the radioactive clouds spread. Even though it showed the area was safe, he still checked it again before activating the visor mount on the armored helmet. It was actually all part of the same unit, and it hissed open to let the cool air enter his system. Even as the air mingled with the stagnant air that had been in his armor, he still checked, ever paranoid of the threat of radiation.
Still at safe levels, good.
The visor made a grinding sound where dust had built up around the moving parts until it was completely open. Wictred closed his eyes and took in a long, slow breath. The ventilation unit built into all of their armor versions still took in air from the outside and ran it through a number of rigorous scrubbers. Nonetheless, there was little right now that was better than the feeling of fresh air on his face. He lifted up his left arm and pulled on the levers to open up access to his arm so that he could wipe the sweat from his face.
“Corporal Wictred, I’ve got the Alliance broadcast. It’s different his time. I think it’s the General.”
Wictred found a mixture of blood and sweat that had stuck to his bruised hand, and he flicked his hand before reactivating the armor that protected his limb. The radiation levels might be safe, but there was still the chance of coming upon contaminated material. He had no intention of dying to radiation exposure. He would die as he’d always intended, with his hands around an enemy’s throat, and he really didn’t care which enemy, right now.
“Turn it up.”
The marine had positioned the deep-space receiver on the ground and tapped the keyboard to alter the settings. It took a few seconds for the system to catch up with the data. At first it was garbled, but after just a few more seconds, the decryption software had done its work, and the noise turned into familiar voices.
“Gun,” said Wictred happily.
“...priority is to stay hidden and await help from the NHA. They have been notified of your positions.”
“The NHA?” said one of the marines further inside the cave.
“Are you frigging kidding me?”
The marine began to break out in a laugh that quickly turned to something bordering on the hysterical.
“Come on, they are no army. You heard the reports from Fort Macquarie. When the Biomech landers came in, they just bugged out. We can’t count on ‘em.”
From his position at the edge of the cave, Wictred had a good view of the ground around them. Although he was desperate to hear something useful from the receiver, he had already resigned himself to a bloodbath on Eos. He scanned with his eyes back and forth as he listened, ever watchful for signs of the enemy, or the even less likely help from the NHA. The news from the fleet wasn’t particularly positive.
“Alliance is mobilizing...Helios is preparing for a massive assault...War has come to the...”
All of the words coming from Gun told him one simple truth; the Alliance had left them there. If they were going to get out alive, it would be up to them and them alone. If the fleet had left, it could only be for one of two reasons; either they’d been forced to leave because they were needed elsewhere, or they had been chased away by superior numbers. Wictred doubted it was the latter. Gun wouldn’t leave them behind.
“It has to be Eos,” he said, more to himself than the others.
“What do you mean?” asked the youngest of the marines.
Lance Corporal James laughed and then answered the other marine.
“What the Corporal means is that the fleet had to leave Eos. You heard the message. The enemy is here, and they are heading for Helios. If they can take the planet, they’ll control the Nexus and access to all the primary Spacebridges.”
He pointed to outside of the cave.
“This is just a moon, one of many under Helion control. They can afford to lose the place, and so can we. We’re marines, and every one of us is expendable.”
Wictred couldn’t argue with that.
“They haven’t abandoned us. They will be back.”
He looked back at the armored figures of his comrades.
“This is a war, and we’ve all trained for this. The fleet has to go where it can do the greatest good. We smashed this assault, and we can survive the Biomechs that remain here.”
He tapped his head.
“If we use our heads.”
It was a calming message but seemed to do the job. Wictred was no officer, but his cool attitude, coupled with his great size, did its job for now.
“Corporal Wictred. Why can’t we contact them for help?”
As if in reply, the black shape of a Helion fighter screamed past overhead. A trail of black smoke ran from its left wing. Right behind it moved a Helion fighter, its guns blasting away. The two craft vanished as quickly as they had arrived. Wictred pointed at the sky.
“That’s why. We might have wiped out their ground assault and made this moon safe from invasion, but out here away from the towns, they are still here.”
The marines looked at him but none spoke.
“You saw what happened to Theta platoon when they called for assistance. We cannot take the chance until we have numbers and weapons on our side.”
None of them wanted to speak of that, but it was also a memory none of them would be able to shake off. The depleted unit of less than twenty marines had climbed atop one of the highest peaks and called for help on an open frequency. Wictred had heard it but forced those that would listen to stay down. Less than three minutes later, a hunter killer team of three fighters and a small lander swept down and obliterated them.
He indicated for them to approach and bent down to scrape a diagram on the floor.
“You need to remember that the NHA forces here are spread thin. The intel coming in shows they are dealing with the Biomechs, but it’s taking time.”
“Why?” asked one of the marines.
“Eos has a small population and an even smaller military. Most of them are still trying to deal with the Animosh insurgency. We cannot deal with the Biomechs ourselves until significant reinforcements arrive. In the meantime, the reports from the major settlements are that they are digging in until relieved.”
“Yeah, man, the Helions control the towns,” said another.
“And the canners have the desert,” answered the female marine from back in the shadows.
“It’s true,” Wictred agreed. “Until we have air cover and transports, the enemy has the advantage out here.”
Their discussion had given him some ideas, however. He brought up the digital map and the last details for their combat operations. He had the flight plans for the rescued Hammerheads that had never landed, as well as the link up routes they were supposed to take with the NHA. The one thing he’d given no attention to since the attack was the Animosh, the personal security force of the previous regime that was now fighting a guerrilla war against the populist government.
“Wait, I have an idea,” he said.
At first nobody spoke until Lance Corporal James moved closer.
“What is it?”
Wictred looked out to the main ground car route out in the open. There were seven military vehicles, all of them burned out and abandoned. Four had been hit where they waited, but the rest had spread out to avoid further explosions before being knocked out in turn. It was a painful reminder of how badly things had gone for the Alliance, and more specifically, for Wictred.
I hate this place.
He looked back at his comrades and did his best to look confident.
“Our vehicles weren’t destroyed by the Biomechs.”
“No man, that was the rebels.”
“Exactly,” Wictred replied.
The Lance Corporal seemed even more confused.
“What are you getting at?”
“The Animosh are not our friends, that is true. But there is somebody, or more specifically, there is something they hate more than this populist uprising or even us.”
“The Biomechs,” said the Lance Corporal, as though he had just discovered a great secret.
Wictred looked back to the map and checked on the routes used by the insurgents. They certainly knew the area well, and they had been able to strike and escape almost with impunity.
He looked at the rest of his unit, and all of his ideas seemed to fade away. The images of a great union of factions, with Animosh, Helions, and marines fighting side by side now seemed more like a children’s story than an actual possibility. There were just five of them now, and all were wounded to one degree or another. There was more than that though, they were suffering, and he knew it. They had plenty of food and water, but it was the radiation that was causing the biggest problem, and it was an enemy that Wictred had no idea how to fix. It was what frustrated him the most, the fact that he could not simply stand up and strike the enemy; because this time it was an invisible wind that killed his comrades slowly over a matter of hours and days.
Who will go next?
He had never liked Helios much, but since the attack, he’d found a completely new level of bitterness towards the place. Unlike his comrades, he’d been taking part in a training exercise with the New Helion Army outside of the main compound when the attack began.
That was a week ago, and now look at us.
“Corporal, look!” said Private Harvey.
The middle-aged man still wore his PDS Alpha Armour, and from the analysis provided by the suit’s computer, he was the only one in his unit that had managed to avoid a fatal dose of radiation immediately after the bombardment. The man had refused to leave his suit for the entire week now, and Wictred wondered quite how he was managing. The man pointed off to the left and Wictred had to strain to see where he had pointed.
“What is it?”
The man continued to point.
“The smoke trails, they stopped just beyond that ridge.”
Wictred spotted a double column of black smoke.
“Well, both of them must have crashed.”
“Yes, you are probably right. I don’t see how this is...”
The man pointed again, and this time Wictred spotted the flickering light. He counted the pattern and then shook his head in surprise. He looked back into the tunnel and nodded at the engineer.
“Smyth, up here, fast. Tell me if this is what I think it is.”
The man looked carefully through the enhanced optics of his suit.
“Uh, it’s light bouncing off something on the horizon. Could be machine, I guess.”