Now we’re getting into the meat of the story, but we’ve still got a long, twisted road to travel. Ready? Buckle up and hang on. Reinforcements are inbound.
The dormant red light sprang on, and the sublight engines of the Imperium 7th Fleet cut down to cruising speed. They were still a good distance from their destination, but the risk of running into a moon or small planet was too great. Imperium navigators went to great lengths to keep their vessels safe. The universe had thousands of shipping and transport lanes open to all commercial and military ships, but it was near suicide to cruise through a system with sublight engines. Alarm sirens began sounding, alerting crews and passengers to possible danger.
Captain Soutack watched the planets in the system come to life in a superior way. It was one of the most serene things he’d ever bore witness to and the primary reason for his continued service to the Imperium. Looking down on a planet as you passed by was as close to touching the hand of a God as man could ever come.
“We’re now entering the Telgeise System, sir. Estimated time to planetary orbit is seven hours and twenty-two minutes.”
“Bring up the immediate sector to include all neighboring systems on screen one. I want to know if the Xemp’s or the United Federation has anything nasty waiting for us.”
The Tech’s fingers moved faster than the words could come out, and soon everyone on the bridge was staring at this tiny corner of space.
“Defense grid is all clear, sir.”
Soutack grinned despite himself. He didn’t envy the men and women he was about to strand here, but he was sure glad it was the only thing he was responsible for. The hardest part now was going to be getting his fleet out before one of their two enemies picked them up. Cut off from the rest of the armada and at the edge of controlled space, his fleet was a disaster waiting to happen. He wanted to drop the ground pounders off and be gone before anyone noticed they were here.
“Inform General Pierce that we have entered the target system. Planet fall will commence in twelve standard hours.”
“Ensign, alert all ship commands. The fleet will deploy into defensive array and head for the staging areas in thirty minutes. I want all staff officers in the briefing room for mission brief and deployment orders at once. Let’s make this painless so we can get the Hells out of here, gentlemen.”
Soutack took his chair and watched a bluish-red planet come up on the main screens. “Gods help them,” he whispered.
Major General Joneth Pierce stood examining his uniform for deficiencies. Of course, there were none, but a good soldier always double-checked — especially before he made an entrance among subordinates. Pierce had an overabundance of ribbons and awards for the thousands of campaigns and battles he’d been privileged to participate in. A scar ran from the corner of his left eye down to his shoulder. He kept closely cropped hair, gray and nearly gone now. A perpetual snarl twisted his ashen face, even when he was pleased.
His career was only twenty-four years young, and many were whispering his name for the next chair on the Imperium War Staff. As was the case with most of his career, he found his reputation preceded him when he arrived to assume the command of the 76th. It was already a famous division, but with Pierce’s brilliance in strategy and the natural ability to bring out the best in his troops, it fast became the most feared in the Xempsarillian War. Every one of them would follow unquestioningly where he chose to lead. He could ask for none better. They were his pride and joy, and he theirs.
The very air about him held an air of authority and respect the ensign had never felt. Pierce was known for his lack of humor, and many of the brass were against the style of tactics he often employed, but none could dispute the overall efficiency with which he accomplished his goals. It had been many years since the last time he had left the field in defeat.
The klaxons sounding general quarters had gone off not too long ago, heightening his arousal of the situation. The thrill of the hunt was flowing in his veins, filling his lungs with vigor and violence and compelling his soul to unseen heights of rage and fury. Glory beckoned him. This was the moment he had been born for.
Some men spent their lives searching for that one way to better humanity, but not him. Joneth Pierce had little time for the weakness and frailty of the species. He was a killer. The deep sense of satisfaction he felt when his army stood on conquered ground was more than those who lived for peace would ever know. The irony came in how well he accomplished his missions. How many worlds had he helped cultivate by having them burned to the ground?
This invasion was to be the crowning achievement in his already storied career, though it had a taint to it. He didn’t like what he was being asked to do. When General Gulluette had come to him, he’d been skeptical. It wasn’t like the Imperium to barter with native tribes. Despite his ill feelings, he’d accepted the mission. Joneth knew he’d betrayed his principles that day, but the opportunity to command a full Corps was something he couldn’t pass up. Besides, history only remembered important men. No one remembered the names of the footmen. A wicked smile sat upon his face as he stared at his image in the mirror. A lot of his people weren’t going to be coming back from this, but none of that mattered now. Destiny was his to control. Pierce was in his own private world.
His decision to skip the Captain’s brief was an easy one to make. His Colonels and aides were more than capable of handling the minor affairs of planet fall. This was time to spend with his soldiers. There was a certain ambiance to the cargo holds during this part of an operation. The hopes and fears of thousands of men, women and aliens blended into one as they prepared themselves for war. Whistling as he walked, Joneth Pierce went to absorb it all.
Klaxons went off at the same time throughout the massive ships of the Seventh Fleet. Hangar bays bustled with crews and mechanics as final checks were made on the drop shuttles. Fighter escorts were launching from the carrier class ships. Docking bay doors hissed open and long lines of combat shock troops began streaming to their shuttles. All had a look of death about them as they were counted and strapped into their seats. Equipment shuttles were already dropping from the cargo ships, taking down the division’s tanks and heavy artillery. Deck chiefs finally cleared their levels for drop, and the unnecessary personnel hurried out of the bays before the vacuum seal was opened. Despite the dynamic intensity from everyone involved, the drop was going to take more than a day to complete. This was merely the first wave.
“One minute to drop time! One minute to drop time!”
Captain Soutack stood in the command office overlooking the main deck with apprehension twisting his features. As impressive as the sight was, Soutack wanted to be done with the task and back within the safety of Imperium space. He caught a glimpse of Pierce boarding a distant shuttle. The man actually had a smile on his face! A certain sadness crept into Soutack as the bay lights dimmed and the droplights flashed. Once, twice, three times.
It took only the push of a button to wash the oxygen into space as the airlock was broken. The hangar floor began to retract, leaving the dozen or so shuttles suspended only on their own engine power. Helscape was a grueling scar beneath them. It was the last time Soutack ever wanted to see this place.
“All shuttles, prepare to drop on my mark.”
Soutack placed his hand on the window in silent prayer as much for his fleet as for the men and women about to drop and watched. “Five…four…three…two…one…mark. Engage drop engines. Good luck, people.”
The shuttles plummeted from the belly of the beast, screaming through open space to the planet below. Soutack closed his eyes, knowing that most of them would not be coming back. It wasn’t some kind of prophetic revealing, merely an indication from the past. He’d been assigned to run troops out here before, and more always came back in bags than on their feet.
Satisfied with what he’d come to see, Soutack wasted no time in heading back to the bridge. The sooner they left, the better he’d feel.
Fifty combat-ready troopers filled each shuttle, each of them feeling their stomachs rise into their throats. Most of them had lived through this a dozen times over, but for the rest, it was a new experience. Sure, Imperium combat training required them all to pass a mock planet drop, but there was no substitute for the real thing. They were the ones still gripping their harness for support, much to the amusement of seasoned veterans. It was an ages old ritual, ever since the first combat drop by Imperium forces thousands of years ago.
Pierce grit his teeth as the immense force of Helscape’s gravitational field threatened to tear the shuttle apart. It had been so long since his last drop that he’d almost forgotten how superb this feeling was. The force tearing at them lessened once they broke through the atmosphere, and Joneth unbuckled himself so he could mingle with the troops. Ever since his first battalion-level command, Pierce had insisted on dropping with the soldiers rather than his command staff. You could learn more from your people than from sitting with a bunch of stuffy officers.
His troopers came to expect this out of him, and each, in turn, offered a thumbs up and curt battle roar. He gave them a slap on the shoulder here, a reassuring nod there. It was all part of the role he lived. There was nothing like it in all the worlds of the universe — the sheer knowledge that, when the shuttle touched down, all you had to depend on was the fellows to your right and left. By doing what he did, the morale of the units far exceeded the standard in Imperium infantry units.
The crew chief hollered his name, and Pierce turned to see two fingers raised. Pierce smiled and took his seat. The Chief double-checked everyone to ensure they wouldn’t be jarred loose before strapping himself in. They had one minute.