Betrayal Jack Forge, Lost Marine, Book 6
James David Victor
Copyright © 2019 Fairfield Publishing
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Except for review quotes, this book may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, without the written consent of the author.
This story is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual people, places, or events is purely coincidental.
The fleet raced onward in tight formation, its left flank skirting dangerously close to Skalidion space. Deep inside that space, a squadron of tac boats scanned the area for enemy movement. Surveillance drones surrounded the squadron, extending their sensor range a few more crucial astro units.
As he launched a data drone to relay the latest sensor data back to the fleet, Jack Forge opened the squadron communication channel.
“All boats, report in,” Jack said, initiating an end of watch check on all systems.
Jack’s old friend and Marine brother was the first to respond. Although Jack was the battalion commander, the pair had come up through the ranks together. They were friends, and Sam would normally call Jack by his first name, but only in private. On the squadron channel where all could hear, Sam observed protocol and addressed Jack by his rank.
"Copy, Major. Commander Torent reporting in. All systems green here, sir. Torent out."
Jack looked at the holoimage of the tac boat formation on his flight console and zoomed in on the tac boat that Sam Torent was sitting in, confirming the systems report. Jack had selected the flank surveillance squadron personally and had volunteered for the task himself. Even though he was deep in Skalidion space, Jack felt secure that the Marine teams around him were the best of the Scorpio Battalion, if not the entire fleet. It was about as comfortable as Jack could be, given the circumstances.
The rest of the squadron reported in with only one tac boat reporting a minor maneuvering thruster control error. The squadron was operating effectively, and Jack maintained the heading.
The holoimage of the squadron flickered on the holostage. The eight boats were arranged in line and moved forward as one, holding formation to within a millimeter of their assigned position. Jack's boat sat in the center of the formation, the fixed point that all the other tac boats took their position from.
The port side of the line faced Skalidion space, and they all knew that was the most likely direction from which danger might come. Jack zoomed out the view on his holostage and displayed all data within the squadron’s surveillance sphere.
A slight flicker of a signal on the edge of the sphere caught Jack's attention, and he was immediately on full alert.
"Check port surveillance feed. All tac boats check port-side. Signal detected."
Turning in his seat, Jack called back to his crew, a group of three Marines all selected for their ability to effectively service the tac boat’s weaponry.
"Make ready the guns. Skalidions." Jack turned back to his flight console
It was a guess, a judgment call. Without confirmation from the rest of the squadron, Jack could not be sure that it was the Skalidion, but Jack needed to be ready. Every second would count, if it was.
The signal on the holostage came closer, and Jack reset the resolution. He focused on the far-off signal, still only a tiny reflector in the vast expanse but closing the distance fast.
"Signal confirmed, Major." The voice of Commander Sam Torent crackled over Jack's flight deck communicator.
"Copy that." Jack looked at his holostage and saw the tiny reflector now with a code displayed alongside it. The identification made by all eight tac boats was confirmed. A Skalidion fighter was racing toward the squadron.
“Just one?” Jack said to himself. The Skalidions never came alone.
"All boats, recall all surveillance drones. Prepare to defend. Dispatch data update to the fleet. We have encountered the Skalidion."
Jack's small crew reported all guns ready. The two hail cannon gunners were standing ready at their position on the port and starboard sides of the cramped boat. The high-energy laser operator hung from the top-mounted laser turret, his head and shoulders in the center of the small rear section.
Jack checked all systems on his flight deck. The boat was fully functional and green across the board. All combat systems were ready. The holostage showed the line of tac boats and the single Skalidion fighter closing in, heading directly for the center of the line. On the edge of surveillance range, Jack saw the fighter swarm. A hundred reflectors in a tight formation raced in. The lead Skalidion was soon caught up in the swarm, just one more fighter lost in a hundred-strong swarm bearing down on the small tac boat squadron, determined to destroy anything and everything in their path.
A reply from the fleet flagship came as a text-only message, short and clear.
Deploy kinetic hail curtain defense and withdraw to the fleet.
"All tac boats, orders from the fleet. Port-side hail cannon will deploy kinetic hail curtain. Maximum spread. Set heading back to the fleet and prepare to maneuver at speed."
Jack set the new heading to the fleet several astro units away on the starboard flank of his squadron. The port-side hail gunner called out to Jack that the defensive fire pattern was set.
"All tac boats, fire on my mark and then withdraw to the fleet at maximum speed. Mark."
Immediately, the boat was filled with the dull sound of the cannon firing. Three short blasts and the gunner reported that his rounds were away. Jack turned to the flight deck and activated maneuvering thrusters, spinning the heavy little boat on the spot. He looked to the image on the holostage and confirmed the squadron had rotated ninety degrees, main drive systems firing up and throwing the tac boats across space toward the fleet. With every tac boat underway on their new heading, Jack hit his drive and followed.
The kinetic hail curtain sat within sensor range, and Jack saw the Skalidion swarm racing toward it. Their main green fire weapons flared to life and burned channels through the deadly hail. Many fighters streamed through, but many more collided with the wall and were instantly obliterated.
Ahead of the tac boat squadron, Jack spotted a new group of signals on his holostage. These signals were already accompanied by the Fleet ident codes marking them as a squadron of Blades. The fighter wing was racing in to engage the swarm.
With the swarm clear of the hail curtain, all Jack and his squadron could do was run. The support of the Blades was still several minutes away. Jack looked at the range finder on the holostage and could see clearly that the Skalidions would be on the tail of his squadron before they met up with the Blades. With their tails turned, the tac boat squadron was vulnerable. Their green fire would tear through the drive systems first, and with his drive systems out of commission, the Skalidion fighters would easily overpower his small squadron. It was hopeless.
Unless he turned to fight.
"All tac boats, this is Major Forge. All weapons stand by. We will engage the Skalidion."
Jack shouted over his shoulder to his three-man crew, "Get those guns ready. It's all on you to keep them firing."
Communication from the Blades crackled over Jack’s flight deck communicator.
"Attention tac boat squadron. This is Commander Scherer of the Orphan Blades. You have orders to return to the fleet. Leave the Skalidions to us, Major Forge. We'll take it from here."
"Negative, Commander,” Jack replied. “They'll be on our tail before you can get here. The only chance I have is to fight. Get here soon. We’ll need all the help we can get."
Jack closed the channel to Scherer and opened one to his squadron.
"On my mark, come about one-eighty. We will have to face them down. Hail curtain, and then prepare high-ex ordnance. High-energy laser on wide beam. Let's try and even out these odds. Stand by to maneuver. Mark."
Jack hit the flight console controls and spun his tac boat on the spot, the inertia field straining and pressing Jack to the side of his flight seat. The instant the tac boat was facing the advancing swarm, he heard the hail cannon activating. The holostage showed the ordnance race ahead. At only a few hundred meters, the hail rounds exploded and threw out the curtain of sparkling kinetic hail. The rounds all detonated within seconds of each other and created a shimmering defensive shield several hundred square kilometers across that hung in space, sparkling and deadly.
The Skalidion fighters had closed in on the tac boats so close that the sudden appearance of the hail curtain took them by surprise. The first dozen Skalidion fighters collided with the defensive curtain, detonating and creating a fiery ball that spread. With a dozen more enemy fighters destroyed, Jack had reduced the odds against them. Now his squadron was only outnumbered ten to one.
The Skalidion fighters further back in the swarm had time to fire up their primary weapons and burned a channel through the hail curtain, but Jack and his squadron were expecting this. The breaches in the curtain were now targeted with hundreds of high-explosive rounds. The hail cannon pounded away, firing at the fighters that slipped through the gaps in the hail curtain.
Jack looked at the holostage and saw the Blades were still too far away to help.
The flicker of the laser assembly firing on wide beam danced across the flight deck. Jack called out his support and encouragement to the laser gunner in the small turret on the topside of the tac boat.
And then the Skalidions opened fire.
The boat on Jack's starboard side took a hit from the green fire. The pilot called out the hits. Jack was surprised to hear any communication from the tac boat, given that Skalidion fire was usually powerful enough to burn through a tac boat and vaporize all inside.
"Forward maneuvering thrusters inoperable." The pilot of the tac boat on Jack's starboard reported the damage. "Losing stability. I'm dropping out formation."
Opening a channel and watching the targeting data streaming in from his own weapons, Jack sent a message to the stricken tac boat.
"Keep firing, Marine. The Blades will be here. Keep fighting. Forge out."
The Skalidion swarm swept in on the tac boat squadron. Jack recognized their tactics. All the boats on Jack's starboard took fire to the forward maneuvering assemblies, so half the squadron began to tumble out of control. Jack could see that the Skalidions were firing to disable rather than kill.
The swarm raced past the tac boats and on toward the incoming Blades. As they closed into weapons range with the Blades, the Skalidions tightened formation. The green fire erupted from the front of the fighters in a tightly-packed salvo. It burned through the center of the Blade squadron, annihilating one of the Blades in an instant. They took evasive action and returned fire. Their forward laser assemblies lit up and accounted for an equal number of Skalidions. The Blades were outnumbered, though. In fact, the remaining Skalidions still vastly outnumbered the tac boats and the Blades combined.
Another tightly-packed salvo from the Skalidion fighters and they turned in a sweeping arc, heading back toward the tac boat squadron. Jack was already turning his boat to give fire. The four tac boats on one flank of the squadron were tumbling, with only the rear maneuvering assemblies and main drive giving them any form of control.
The swarm swept in on the damaged tac boats and fired again. Jack felt sure they would be destroyed on this sortie, but the Skalidion green fire only grazed the boats on the lower port side. Jack knew for sure now that the Skalidions were merely attempting to disable the tac boats. The rear maneuvering assemblies were rendered useless by the Skalidion swarm and left the tac boats tumbling in space.
Quickly running a check on the local star maps, Jack saw that the tumbling tac boats were caught in a gravity well and were slowly being pulled toward a nearby star. Two massive terrestrial planets orbited in the habitable zone around the star. The tac boats were falling toward the outer most of these two.
The Skalidion fighters swept past the tac boat formation, with the trailing fighters colliding lightly with the stricken boats to nudge them further into the gravity well speed their fall.
With the tac boats’ maneuvering capabilities limited, if not completely destroyed, Jack knew they were completely vulnerable to enemy fire. At least planet-side, the four-man Marine crew would stand a chance of survival until the fleet could mount a rescue. The alternative was destruction.
Opening a channel to the four stricken tac boats while also maintaining his battle position, Jack sent his orders.
"Make for that outer terrestrial. Set down and await rescue. If you have the opportunity to give fire to the enemy then don't hesitate, but your priority is to put your boat down and await rescue. Forge out."
The Skalidion fighters arced in again and came racing back toward the remaining tac boats. The last embers of the previous hail cannon curtain were no defense against the swarm still numbering more than sixty individual ships. The gunners fired on the Skalidions as they arced to race back in for the second sortie, and Jack noted with satisfaction that the gunners’ aim was good and half a dozen Skalidion fighters were dispatched before they brought their weapons to bear against the tac boats.
The damaged boats tumbling toward the nearby star system had regained some control and set their heading for the planet. Main drive systems burst to life and flung the boats toward the planet, out of the battle space and toward safety.
Jack watched on the holostage as the Skalidion fighters closed in, and he braced himself for the inevitable onslaught. The Blade squadron was only seconds away from joining the tac boats. Maybe their combined capabilities would be a match for the remaining Skalidions.
The Skalidions laid down a tightly-grouped salvo of green fire and arced away, following the boats falling to the planet.
Jack took evasive action as the green fire salvo raced in. A boat next to Jack took a glancing blow, its outer hull on the lower port side boiling away into space, but a group of Blades coming up on Jack's rear took the brunt of the fire, the billowing, seething mass of bright green pouring over the nose sections of three Blades and vaporizing the hull composite.
The Blade pilots ejected from their fighters moments before they exploded. The pilots in their tactical suits would be protected from the vacuum of space for a short time, and Jack knew they were too small a target for the Skalidion fighters that were moving rapidly across the battle space. Too small to be deliberately targeted, at least.
Jack zoomed in on one of the Blades pilots adrift in space—the leader, Commander Scherer—as a Skalidion fighter closed in.
"Commander Scherer, this is Forge. That Skalidion is coming for you. Hold on, I'm coming."
Jack maneuvered his boat the short distance toward Commander Scherer and watched Scherer with the external sensors as the pilot pulled his pulse pistol off his hip and fired at the incoming enemy. An almost entirely useless act of defiance.
As Jack closed in, he saw the flicker of the laser assembly across the flight deck followed by jubilant shouts from the laser gunner. The Skalidion fighter closing in on Scherer vaporized as a high-energy laser blast connected with its drive system.
Jack stopped the boat meters from Scherer. The external sensors showed that Scherer was maneuvering toward the boat, until finally Scherer gripped hold of the hull near the boarding ramp.
"De-pressurizing tac boat," Jack shouted back to his crew. "Open boarding ramp, let's get the commander in here."
The main flight of Skalidion fighters were still in pursuit of the stricken boats, but a small group of Skalidions were closing in on the Blade pilots loose in space. Jack watched as one pilot was captured by a series of fine strands that fell from the underside of the Skalidion fighter, catching him up in a tangle of dark fibers. The pilot fired his pulse pistol into the underside of the Skalidion, the pulse rounds ineffectively flickering off the dark green ship.
"They are not trying to kill us," Jack said to himself. The swarm chasing the tac boats to the surface was not pursuing to destroy. They were pursuing to capture.
Looking back, he saw the tac boat boarding ramp open to black space. Commander Scherer pulled himself inside, his pulse pistol still in his hand.
Opening a channel to the remaining tac boats and Blades, Jack gave his orders.
"This is Major Forge. I'm taking command of this mixed squadron. Set heading for that terrestrial giant. Blades engage those Skalidions in pursuit of our tac boats. Let's go and save our people."
With the Skalidion swarm shepherding the damaged tac boats to the planet’s surface, Jack and his mixed squadron were able to close on the rear of the swarm. Jack pushed his main drive to its limit and closed the distance still further, eager to take a shot while the swarm was still in deep space.
"All Blades, this is Forge. Move up and engage the Skalidions." Jack watched in satisfaction as the Blades raced past the tac boat squadron and closed in on the Skalidions’ rear. The Blades’ forward lasers flickered to life and took out several Skalidion fighters, their drive sections exploding under the assault.
Jack watched the Blades fire another salvo and account for another handful of enemy fighters. He leaned on the flight deck, moving closer to the holostage, and considered why the Skalidions were allowing themselves to take the punishment. Surely pursuing the stricken tac boats was secondary to defending themselves against the Blades.
Jack launched a surveillance drone, fearing suddenly that a fresh wave of Skalidion fighters was moving in. However, space was empty for several astro units, filled only by Jack, his mixed squadron, the Skalidion fighters, and the tac boats falling to the planet surface.
The flash on the holostage informed Jack that the first of the damaged boats had entered the massive planet’s thick atmosphere. The nearly out of control tac boat tumbled as friction heated one side, throwing it off balance and presenting a fresh cold face to the friction. The craft heated almost to the point of vaporizing the hull.
Soon enough, all four stricken tac boats were tumbling through the atmosphere, leaving long trails of fire behind them. Communications ceased from the falling boats as they burned ahead, with the remaining Skalidions on their tail.
The Blades slowed their approach and entered the atmosphere cautiously. All sensor readings were scrambled during re-entry, and the Blades were vulnerable. Jack synced his tac boat squadron’s sensors with the Blades’ and boosted their targeting accuracy. The strategy was rewarded with an almost immediate explosion of a Skalidion fighter as the Blades were again able to pick out their targets.
Jack entered the atmosphere behind the Blades, burning trails all around. He zoomed in on the damaged boats and saw they were battling to achieve a safe landing. Drive systems were powered, and their remaining thruster units fought to maneuver the boat into some sort of safe landing orientation.
As the tac boats fell, Jack saw several Skalidion pilots detach from their ships. The short, spindly figures somehow dropped alongside the tac boats maneuvering for a safe landing as they fell the last few kilometers. But still, several dozen Skalidion fighters shepherded the boats to the surface seemingly unaware or unconcerned by the presence of the handful of Blades firing to their rear.
Then the Skalidions turned and fired a salvo of green fire at the Blades on their tail. Jack's heart sank as two Blades erupted into a ball of fire and debris, orange erupting from the fighters’ main drive and mingling with the green that tore through hull and the pilot alike.
Communication from one of the stricken tac boats broke through.
"This is Scorpio Two. Have regained partial thruster control. Landing imminent. Scorpio Two out."
Jack saw the heavy impact on his holostage as Scorpio Two violently touched down. The impact was followed by three others in quick succession, spread out over a small area. The boats had held formation as best they could, and thankfully were on the ground.
Their external sensors fed their readings back to Jack. He could see the Skalidion fighters that had abandoned their ships land on the surface. Gravity here was three times standard, but the Skalidions seemed unimpeded as they ran toward the downed tac boats.
The Blades racing low across the surface fired their flank hail cannons. Ordnance tore up the ground, and the Skalidion pilots running toward the boats exploded violently. The remaining Skalidion fighters engaged the Blades in ship-to-ship combat. The thick atmosphere of the planet slowed the Blades and reduced their maneuverability, but the Skalidion fighters, small and mobile, moved through the thick atmosphere as easily as they did through the vacuum of space.
"This is Forge. All tac boats set down and create a perimeter. All Marines, arm yourselves, and I'll see you on the surface."
The Skalidion fighters hunted down the Blades as Jack prepared to land his craft. He saw one Blade after another succumb to the green fire. A small group of fighters peeled off from the attack on the Blades and circled back to the downed tac boats. The Skalidion pilots detached from their crafts and dropped to the surface.
Combat reports from nerve-shattered Blade pilots filled the communication channels as one after another was destroyed by the pursuing Skalidions.
"This is Forge to all Blades. Break off, climb to orbit. Report tac boat location to the fleet. Get out of here, Blades. I'll take it from here. Forge out."
Jack's tac boat touched down heavily. The boarding ramp immediately began to open, and a fine dust swirled into the interior, clinging to every surface like sticky powder. It even covered Jack's faceplate. He wiped away the dust, leaving smears over, then activated his enhanced data view to help him see past it.
"Keep those guns active," Jack said to his crew as he ran to the boarding ramp. "If those Skalidions move in, we will need your firepower."
Jack ran down the boarding ramp and out of the tac boat. His tactical suit’s stability field alerted him to the high gravity, but his local field kept him from collapsing. The dust on the ground was ankle-deep, thick, and sticky. It clung to his boots as he waded through it as if marching through syrup. Fine particles kicked up by the landing of the tac boats clouded everything in a thick white cloud. Visibility without the enhanced data view was reduced to mere centimeters. Jack swung up his pulse rifle and took a position just outside his boat.
"Attention Major Forge. This is the lead Blade. We have been ordered back to the fleet. All Skalidion fighters have detached from their craft and landed on the surface. We detect thirty-six Skalidions advancing on your position from the planet's magnetic north. Good luck, Marines. Blades out."
Commander Scherer came down the boarding ramp and took a knee next to Jack, his pulse pistol held loosely in his hand. He wiped his hand across his helmet’s faceplate to no effect.
"Nice place you've got here," Commander Scherer said.
"And we've got some neighbors moving in that I'm not too keen to meet," Jack replied. He brought his pulse rifle up to his shoulder and sighted into the distance. The Skalidions were moving in.
The sound of pulse rifle fire started sparsely at first, but by the time Jack fired his first round, the sound was sustained. The laser assembly on the upper hull of Jack's tac boat activated, a beam of high-energy laser lancing out from the assembly. The dust on the surface rose in huge clumps and stuck to the assembly as it fired. The thick white dust scattered the laser from a thin, focused beam to a diffused mass of light that reflected off the swirling dust, creating a wall of orange that was impossible even for the enhanced data view of Jack's tactical suit to penetrate.
"All tac boats, this is Forge. Stand down high-energy laser. All laser gunners grab a pulse rifle and join the ground force."
"Jack, this is Sam." The message came on a private channel.
"Go ahead, Sam." Jack scanned his field of fire, connecting his enhanced data view to the rifle targeting systems.
"I got Skalidions moving in on the west perimeter. Dozens of them. Giving fire now."
Jack saw movement in the thick dust only twenty meters out. A Skalidion, its handheld green fire weapon raised, came running. Jack pulled the trigger on his pulse rifle and let out a short burst. The pulse rounds punched through the dust and veered sharply off target. One round caught the onrushing Skalidion in its right hip and sent it tumbling to one side as it fell.
"There is something wrong with the pulse rifles," Jack heard a Marine calling out over the open channel.
Another Skalidion rushed at Jack. The pulse rounds he fired to slow the attacker veered off course. Jack analyzed the data through his rifle’s targeting system. The planet’s thick electrostatically-charged dust was scattering the pulse rounds through the strong electromagnetic field. He scored a glancing blow on the next Skalidion, knocking it off balance but failing to bring the enemy down. The Skalidion came on, closing in even more.
The Marines’ panicked shouts filled the open channel.
"They have taken Bill!" the Marine repeated his report. "They snatched him in some kind of black net and dragged him a—” The report ended with a scream.
The Skalidion rushing toward Jack was only five meters out when he saw the black fibers spinning out from the end of the Skalidion’s weapon. He activated his electron bayonet and made ready to dispatch the Skalidion in close combat. The black fibers leaped forward and wrapped around Commander Scherer’s head and shoulders, pulling him to the ground and dragging him through the dust.
Jack rushed forward, slashing out with his fizzing bayonet. The white blade was practically invisible in the swirling white dust, but Jack knew exactly where the tip was and easily sliced through the fibers.
Scherer skidded to a halt, pulling himself to his feet and tearing at the fibers around his upper body, all while aiming with his pistol. Scherer let off a rapid series of shots in the general direction of the Skalidion that had tried to trap him. Jack took two steps forward and lunged with his bayonet, the blade slipping through the Skalidion’s large thorax. He lifted the blade upwards, and it burst out through the upper shoulder of the Skalidion, who fell into the dust. A cloud burst up as the alien disappeared into the ground, covered by the swirling white haze.
Jack grabbed Scherer and pulled him back toward the perimeter. Panicked reports from Marines all around the perimeter came in, and Jack heard more reports of the black fiber nets that were snatching the Marines as they fought.
"All Marines, we are getting out of here. All active tac boats make ready to leave. Fall back to your boats. We leave on my command."
Walking backward toward the open boarding ramp and looking at his wrist-mounted holostage, Jack checked on the progress of all Marines units. Although the swirling dust made it impossible to see his hand in front of his face, the green lines of the holoimage cut through cleanly and Jack could make out the arrangement of tac boats. The Marines were abandoning the crashed craft and falling back to the four functional ones. All Marines were at their boarding ramps in moments.
The Skalidions closed in on all sides.
Falling back to the boarding ramp, Jack let off a sustained blast of covering fire. The pulse rounds swirled off course, some spiraling forward, others arcing up or down to slam into the dusty surface. Jack edged up the boarding ramp and then took a knee and let off another sustained burst. Even though the rounds flew wild, it would surely be enough of a deterrent to the Skalidions advancing on his position.
The medical data from all tactical suits told Jack that of the Marines who had landed on the surface, three were now dead. Six others were in a heightened state of distress, pulse and temperature high, and they were moving away fast, dragged from the tac boat formation by their Skalidion captors. Jack picked out one of the Marines and tapped into the suit’s enhanced data view. What Jack saw through the eyes of his Marine both chilled him and brought him to boiling point. A Skalidion carried the Marine in a thick black web, dragging him through the white dust, moving at speed. The Marine was completely immobilized and could only scream his fear and frustration.
"Jack," Sam Torent said over a private channel. "Have you seen what they are doing? We have to help."
Jack could see exactly what the Skalidions were doing. The entire attack had been designed to take live prisoners. Jack was only aware of the numbers that had been taken, but now he was aware that his friend Sam Torent was not among the dead or the captive, and Jack couldn't help but feel relieved.
"We can't fight them; they have the advantage. We must retreat."
"Don't be so kravin heartless, Jack," Sam said angrily. "We can't let them go. We can save them."
"We can't save them, Sam, and we could lose even more. We need to know why they didn't just try to destroy us. We need to report back to the fleet." Jack activated the boarding ramp and began to close it. Commander Scherer was in the pilot seat. Jack turned to him and gave him a thumbs up and the okay to lift off. "All Marines, head back to the fleet. That is an order."
As the tac boat lifted off, Jack counted the cost of his perimeter patrol. Four the best tac boats in the battalion were lost along with nine of his Marines—three dead, six taken prisoner by the Skalidion.
"We are off the ground," Scherer reported. "Heading to orbit. Visibility low. Sensor readings unreliable. Plotting a course for the fleet."
Jack opened a channel to the squadron and all surviving Marines. "This is Scorpio One. All tac boats make directly for the fleet with all speed. Forge out."
Jack looked at the thick dust still covering his tactical suit. His gloves were covered with it, and it clung defiantly to every surface. That he had lost nine Marines was bad enough, but that he had been surprised by the Skalidions’ attack and their determination to take live prisoners was worse. The Skalidion had lost dozens of fighters for every Marine they had killed or captured. They had paid a heavy price for their reward. They wanted live prisoners, and Jack wanted to know why.
With the fleet still hours away, Jack could only think about what the Skalidion plans were. The sooner he could report this turn of events to the fleet, the sooner the intelligence service could try and unravel the mystery.
A proximity alert sounded from the flight deck. Jack walked a few paces to the deck, climbed up the few steps, and dropped down into the co-pilot seat next to Commander Scherer.
"What is it, Commander?" Jack asked.
"Ship detected, Major." Scherer sent the signal to the holostage and projected it on full resolution.
The ship was unmistakable. Jack had encountered them so many times before that he would recognize one right away. He had been inside and outside of these craft. But why was one here now, sitting directly in his path?
"Receiving a communication," Scherer said.
Jack tapped the controls and sent the communication to the holostage. The image that appeared was both familiar and surprising. A Devex warrior in full exo-armor appeared on the holostage.
And then the Devex spoke.
"Fleet vessels. I demand attention."
Jack looked at the active scans. It was a single Devex raider. A powerful ship to be sure, but no match for four battle-hardened tac boats and their Marine crews.
"We can just punch our way through," Commander Scherer suggested.
Jack shook his head. "Open a channel, Commander. Let's see what this Devex has to say."
Just as Jack opened the return channel, the sensors showed another raider move out of the sensor shadow created by the first. And then a third appeared.
"This is Major Forge of the Fleet Marines. Go ahead, Devex Raider. You have my attention."
And they had Jack's curiosity too. What were these raiders doing so far away from their support, positioning themselves in front of the tac boat squadron? Jack wasn't sure he wanted to know. It was not going to be good news, he was sure of that much.
The image of the Devex warrior sitting on Jack's holostage remained motionless as Jack considered the situation. Commander Scherer looked at Jack with a mixture of surprise and amazement.
"It could be a trap," Scherer said.
Jack nodded. He opened a channel to Sam’s tac boat. The image of the Devex warrior shrank away and was replaced with the image of Sam.
"It could be a trap," Sam echoed.
"Whether it's a trap or not, we can't hang around here. We either go back to the fleet right now or we see what this Devex has to say."
"It's your call, Jack," Sam said. "I've got your back. Whatever you decide."
Reopening the channel to the Devex, Jack knew he had to decide.
"How can I assist?" Jack said.
"We have your people."
The Devex had a history of snatching people by the thousands and converting them into the armor-clad Devex warriors, into mindless automata acting under the direction of the Devex. But why were they telling Jack that now?
"How many people do you have? What do you intend to do with them?"
The Devex warrior on the holoimage remained motionless. It may well have been a still holoimage rather than a live transmission from inside the Devex raider. Maybe this was how the Devex were attempting to distract Jack in order to launch their attack on his small yet powerful tac boat squadron.
Jack opened a private channel to Sam Torent and sent him a silent message.
"Launch surveillance drones, Sam. Check the area for other Devex."
The reply came back within moments. Jack knew Sam was on the case. Returning his attention back to the Devex warrior, Jack felt suspicion above all else.
"The Devex will trade the humans to the Skalidion. The Skalidion will allow one of our planetary systems to exist within their territory for the payment of fifty thousand humans."
Jack felt the eyes of Commander Scherer and the rest of his tac boat crew drilling into him. The Devex, not content with transforming humans into their own warriors, now were selling them to the Skalidion. Jack didn't know whether being forced to be a soldier was worse than being forced to be a slave.
Jack had never wanted to be a Marine. He had been forced into service against his will. The Fleet Marines needed recruits, and Jack had been pressed into service. But the Fleet Marine Service had called him to duty to fight for humanity and survival in this distant corner of the galaxy. Some might call it slavery, but Jack had embraced the service. Now Jack called it duty.
"Why are you telling me this?" Jack could not believe what he was hearing. This was either some bizarre trap, or maybe the Devex was simply boasting. Jack had to discover more.
"The Devex are split. Humans are not our enemy. The Skalidion will only destroy. We will help you rescue the fifty thousand humans before the Devex can deliver them to the Skalidion."
"You should have gone to the fleet. My tac boat squadron could barely rescue fifty people, let alone fifty thousand."
"Your fleet is too far away. Devex will be arriving to transport the humans soon. You must defend the humans in their transport until your fleet can arrive."
Jack sat back in his chair. This was extraordinary. The Devex trading humans for land. A Devex coming with intelligence. Jack received a private signal from Sam.
"Go ahead, Sam. I hope it's good news."
"Dispatch drone has contacted the fleet. We have a reply. Investigate the hostage situation and report."
There was no room for doubt now that Jack had orders from the fleet. Whether the Devex was telling him the truth or it was some elaborate ruse, Jack's next move was clear. He would investigate the fifty thousand hostages and report back to the fleet.
Speaking now to the Devex, he was able to be confident and clear in his objectives. It made everything much simpler.
"Where are the hostages?"
“I will lead you there. Follow my lead vessel. The humans and their transport are hidden on a planet on the edge of Skalidion space. Your ship must use full power. Are you ready to follow me?"
Sending orders to his squadron to make ready for new heading, Jack replied, "Ready now."
The Devex raider in front of Jack's tac boat turned in an instant and powered away, leaping to top speed in a moment. Jack activated his tac boat’s drive and followed the raider with orders to his squadron to fall in behind.
As the tac boat moved off after the raider, Jack checked the holostage and the position of the other Devex ships. They fell in behind Jack's tac boat squadron.
A private channel from Sam Torent opened, and Jack knew what his old friend was going to say.
"We’ve got three raiders with their blasters right on our tails. Let me drop back and get some guns on their rear."
"Negative, Sam. If they wanted to attack us, they could have done it by now. For all we know, their claims might be genuine. We hold formation. Keep an active scanner on the raiders behind us. If you see any hint that they are powering up their blasters, break formation and get ready to fight."
The channel closed without reply, but Jack knew he could rely on Sam. He focused his active scanners on the Devex ship in front. The raider was operating at close to its top speed. Jack had flown a Devex raider himself, so he knew their capabilities only too well. The raider was much quicker than a tac boat, but it did not have the maneuverability, the firepower, or the sensing capabilities that Jack had at his disposal. If this was a trick, the Devex would pay heavy price for their attempted deception.
A communication alert flashed on the flight deck. A message from the fleet transferred via the dispatch drone had been received. Jack sent the message to the holostage and the holoimage flickered to life. He recognized the black uniform of the Fleet Intelligence agent before the image cleared up enough for Jack to see that it was Agent Reyes, his old friend Sarah.
The message was brief, but even through the cold, detached tones of the intel agent, Jack could detect the friendly warmth of his friend.
"Major Forge, we have confirmed a civilian transport has been lost. It dropped from formation several days ago. The last we heard from the captain was that he was in orbit above a planet on the edge of Skalidion space. Engine repairs were expected to take several days. We expected the transport to rejoin the fleet but have had no communication from the captain. We believe this is the transport your Devex contact is referring to.
"Fleet Intelligence has dispatched a destroyer to your location and will track you to the lost transport. You can expect support but do what you can until help arrives.
"Good luck, Jack. I'll see you when you return."
Jack sat back in the chair. What could a handful of Marines do to protect fifty thousand civilians? Even a full battalion of fully equipped Marines would struggle to assist that many. Jack had fought against the odds before, and won, but sooner or later, his luck would run out. The only way to maintain his luck was to plan carefully and do his best.
A star up ahead grew as the caravan moved in closer. The tac boat reported the gravity well of the massive red supergiant, and Commander Scherer piloted the boat into a stellar orbit, following the lead Devex.
Jack directed his active sensors toward the inner system, searching for signs of the civilian transport. The active sensors detected a signal on the surface of a large, green, terrestrial planet shrouded by a thickly clouded atmosphere. The signal was unmistakable. Jack had found the missing civilian transport.
Life signs from the transport were barely detectable. The Devex had previously used Dox vapor to incapacitate passengers aboard civilian transports. Jack guessed the weak life signs he was detecting were the fifty thousand civilians all asleep, having succumbed to the vapor.
Commander Scherer altered course to follow the raider. He turned to Jack.
"Altering course, Major. Looks like the Devex are heading to that green planet."
Pointing at the active sensor report on the flight deck, Jack nodded. "That's where the people are, so that's where we are heading. Instruct all tac boats to follow the lead raider."
Sitting back and watching the planet grow larger on the holostage, Jack could not help but be suspicious of the Devex. He had fought them too many times to just accept that they now wanted to help him. He had been moments away from being converted into one of the Devex warriors. He found it difficult to trust them.
The tac boat plunged into the upper atmosphere of the terrestrial planet, the orange glow from the red supergiant scattering in the thick, high clouds that swirled into vast circular patterns.
Dropping below the upper atmosphere, another cloud layer appeared—a diffuse green like a rippling carpet across the sky. The tac boat burned its way down to the green clouds. The raider punched through the cloud layer and vanished from sight, which made Jack’s suspicions intensify.
He thought back to the Skalidions that had captured his Marines on the dust planet. Maybe a handful of Marines were to be added to the fifty thousand civilians being gifted to the Skalidions.
The tac boat cut through the clouds, which immediately cleared to a green haze.
Below him, the surface was wet, covered in thick dark green and purple flora, and dotted with bodies of black water. The water was little more than shallow ponds, but they covered most of the surface, broken only by dense clumps of the colorful foliage.
And in one black lake, half submerged and surrounded by thick foliage, Jack saw the upper hull of the vast civilian transport.
The lead Devex opened a communication channel to Jack's boat. It was virtually motionless on the holostage. Its dark gray armor and dark gray helmet with the black eye-slit stared back at Jack.
"Here are your people. You will save them now."
"I have orders to protect the people." Jack stared at the holoimage of the Devex warrior. Curiosity overcame him. He could contain himself no longer. "Why?" Jack asked, leaning closer to the holostage. "Why are you helping me?"
The Devex remained motionless. The holoimage flickered slightly, giving some illusion of movement. The warrior spoke in the same cold tone. "Not all Devex hate humans. Not all Devex want to help the Skalidion."
It was all the information Jack felt he was going to get. "Thank you for your assistance, Devex," Jack said. "We will take it from here."
"The Devex will be here soon. You are too few to protect these people. You will be killed or captured and delivered to the Skalidion."
"I have my orders. I will protect these people as best I can."
"I will assist you. I will be your ally. My Devex warriors will stand alongside you, Jack Forge."
Jack sat back in his chair. This was unbelievable. The Devex that he had fought for so long were now offering to stand at his side and fight against their own people to save this shipload of human civilians.
"The lead raider has touched down, Major." Commander Scherer held the tac boat five hundred meters above the surface, almost grazing the tops of the tallest trees growing out of the dark swamp below.
"Inform all tac boats to conceal themselves a kilometer away from the transport."
Jack looked at the holoimage of the Devex warrior. He could not work out if this warrior was lying to him or not, but either way, he did not trust him to stand at his side during a battle.
The active sensors informed Jack of a change in the civilian craft’s energy profile. The main reactor was active, but energy was being fed to the main drive. The civilian transport was making ready to lift off.
The Devex warrior on Jack's holostage spoke suddenly.
"Devex warriors are aboard your civilian craft, Jack Forge. I detect a dozen Devex warriors within the central command center. They are attempting to return to Skalidion space. Our arrival has made them act."
"All tac boats. New orders. Set down on the upper hull of the civilian transport. Gain access to the craft. We will attempt to gain control of the command deck. Forge out."
Jack canceled the channel to the Devex. He placed a holoimage of the civilian transport on the stage, showing the power readings across the ship. The main drive was in its final stages of activation. The maneuvering thrusters were coming online. The ship was only minutes away from attempting to take off from the dark waters of the swampy surface.
Jack's tac boat touched down. Climbing out of his seat, Jack could see his three Marines armed and waiting at the boarding ramp that was already partially open. Commander Scherer was out of his seat and hot on Jack's heels. Jack stopped and turned to Commander Scherer.
"Remain on the tac boat, Commander. Inform all pilots to keep their boats ready." Jack opened a channel to the rest of the Marines. "Gain entry by whatever means you can. Converge on the command deck. If this ship gets off the planet, we might never save these people. Move out, and I will see you on the command deck. Forge out."
Jack grabbed his pulse rifle and walked swiftly down the boarding ramp onto the upper hull of the civilian transport. A maintenance access port lay just a few meters away, and Jack's Marines were already attempting to open it.
Jack received the communication from the Devex. He fed it through to his wrist-mounted holostage and saw a Devex warrior appeared on his wrist.
"The Devex on the command deck know you are coming. They have posted four warriors to protect the entrance. I will try to disrupt them."
Jack's crew pulled open the access hatch, and the first Marine dropped into the civilian transport. Jack watched the next two Marines drop before stepping to the edge himself. Looking back along the length of the transport, he saw the drive assembly hidden in the green mist flaring to life, churning the mist into tight eddies.
Dropping into the dark of the civilian transport below, Jack's enhanced data view showed him the corridor and the direction he needed to take to get to the command deck quickly.
The three Marines ahead of him moved low and fast. Then the corridor lit up with the rapid stream of the white energy bullets from a Devex blaster.
As one Marine was struck and the stream of white raked the corridor, Jack pressed himself to the smooth, curved wall for cover and brought up his pulse rifle to return fire.
Pulse rifle fire lit up the dark corridor, silhouetting Jack's squad. From the darkness beyond, streams of the Devex energy bullets came pouring past them. A second Marine took a bullet to the right shoulder, his pulse rifle snatched from his grip. He fell squirming in agony, pressing himself to the corner of the corridor, scurrying back and seeking cover.
"Take that wounded man," Jack said, pointing at the first fallen Marine. The Marine wounded in the right shoulder grabbed the fallen Marine with his left hand and dragged himself and his Marine brother back around the curve of the corridor and into cover.
The stream of Devex fire slammed into the walls, creating superheated spots of molten white composite. In the flickering light of the weapons fire, Jack saw the corridor smoke and vaporize under the Devex onslaught.
"Maintain the fire," Jack called to the Marine on the other side of the corridor. Jack's enhanced data view showed him the readings from the other Marine. Heth was in a heightened state of anxiety, his pulse racing, but his pulse rifle was steady, and he laid down a withering hail of fire.
Moving toward the streams of energy was the last thing Jack wanted to do, but it was the only thing he could do. With his rifle to his shoulder, he moved forward, firing steadily at the Devex warriors hidden in the darkness.
Communication from the rest of the Marines came through to Jack's communicator. All Marines had entered the civilian transport within a few hundred meters of the command deck section.
The transport’s command deck was a self-contained unit at the front of the craft, with a single corridor leading into the secure area. A hallway lay at a right-angle to the command deck access corridor. Jack was moving along that one now, coming toward the deck from the right with Marines rushing up behind him in support.
Reaching the intersection, Jack risked a look down to the command deck. Jack saw a flash of a Devex warrior’s rapid-fire blaster before darting back into cover. He broke cover and fired straight along the hallway.
A Devex warrior had his head snapped back by Jack’s pulse rifle round, its blaster falling from its grip. The three-meter-tall Devex warrior was out of the fight. But next to it stood another, its weapon busy pouring white energy down the long corridor.
Unclipping a grenade from his tactical suit waistband, Jack took a knee and set the detonation protocols to deliver a low-yield explosion with a maximum EM flash output.
"All Marines activate flash shielding on your faceplates. Now." And with his order still echoing in his ears, Jack tossed the grenade around the corner and into the darkness. "Heavy fire." Jack broke cover and let loose a rapid-fire burst from his pulse rifle into the darkness. Marine Heth on Jack's right moved across the open end of the corridor to the other side, his pulse rifle firing into the dark as he moved.
The flash from the grenade lit up the corridor in a seething white burst that washed all color from the scene. Only the flash shielding on his helmet’s faceplate saved Jack’s sight from being completely overwhelmed.
The Devex warrior, now lit by the lingering flash, was turning its head away from the sudden brightness. Its blaster was still aimed along the corridor and firing, although the aim was off and bullets raked the ceiling. Jack took careful aim and delivered a series of pulse rounds to the warrior’s chest. The pulse rounds glowed orange on the Devex exo-armor, lighting up and lingering as the flash from the grenade faded, returning the corridor to darkness with only the glowing orange points on the Devex warrior’s chest as any sign of light.
"Move up, Marines,” Jack said to those that had finally caught up with him in the corridor. They paused for only a moment before running into the darkness, Jack close behind.
After only a dozen meters, the corridor was again filled with the deadly white energy as another pair of Devex warriors opened fire. The Marine in front of Jack was thrown off his feet as Devex bullets slammed into him. Jack kept running, leaping over the fallen Marine. As he landed, he fired from the hip, spraying pulse rounds to the far end of the corridor. The Marines on Jack's left also opened fire. The flashes of pulse rounds and Devex energy bullets flickered in the dark.
The return fire from the Devex subsided. A fourth Marine fell in next to Jack and added his pulse rifle fire to the attack. Jack brought his rifle to a shoulder and advanced steadily.
The outline of the corridor mapped out on Jack's enhanced data view showed him the closed blast doors to the command deck a few meters ahead. Lying in front of the door were four fallen Devex warriors.
Rushing to the door with Marines on either side of him, Jack checked the activation panel. It was deactivated, so Jack fired up his electron bayonet and prepared to cut his way through. He found a join at the center of the door where the two sides of the blast door met. He pressed his bayonet into the gap, and the blade slid in easily. He moved up and down the seam, the blade cutting through the locking catches.
Jack deactivated the bayonet and pressed his fingers into the seam, pulling on the door. A Marine grabbed the other side and pulled as well, but it did not move. Out of the darkness, the last Marines came running. Jack turned and saw Sam Torent, and he called Sam over with a wave of his arm.
"Get up here, Commander Torent, and see if you can pull this door open for me."
Sam slung his rifle over his shoulder and stepped up to the door. He unclipped the gauntlet of his right arm, pressing the fingers of his Mech hand into the gap. The fingers slid into the tiny gap between the two panels, and Sam pulled.
The door slid open a fraction. Immediately, the flashing of Devex blaster fire from inside came pouring toward the narrow gap. Several white energy bullets made their way through the space and into the corridor, streaking past Sam Torent's hand and helmet.
"Put some fire into that command deck," Jack said, pointing toward the gap that Sam was slowly pulling open.
A Marine took a knee, jammed the muzzle of his pulse rifle through the door and fired. A second Marine, holding his pulse rifle high above his head, jammed the business end of his weapon into the gap. Sustained fire poured in, but still, the Devex were defending the command deck.
Jack stood opposite Sam and gripped the right side of the two-panel door. He squeezed his fingers into the gap that Sam had opened. With the fingertips of both hands into the gap, Jack activated the suit’s maneuvering thruster on his wrist and added their power to his own. The door jerked open.
The two Marines firing through the central gap were now fully exposed to the Devex fire and took several white energy bullets, knocking them both off their feet, their pulse rifles falling uselessly to the corridor deck. Jack stopped pulling, leaving a one-meter gap between the two sides of the door and a vital piece of cover on either side.
"Grenades." Jack pulled a grenade off his waistband. The remaining Marines following Jack's command. Jack nodded, and four grenades were tossed into the command deck. Taking cover behind the partially open door, the Marines counted down to the blast.
The explosions burst through the narrow opening like a cannon blast from the muzzle of an old gun. Jack moved into the command deck the instant the blast subsided, firing his pulse rifle.
The command deck was large and oval with a similar layout to the Scorpio’s command deck that Jack knew so well. Just inside the doors was the high command chair. The chair looked down onto the deck with its various systems, arranged in two semicircles on either side. At the far side of the command deck sat the large main holostage.
And lying on the floor were the eight Devex warriors that had been attempting to get the civilian transport off the surface. One was crawling toward a control console, but Jack took aim and stopped that.
"Check those Devex and make sure they're down." Jack moved quickly toward the command chair and climbed up. "Secure all stations."
Jack tapped on the command chair’s armrest console and accessed the drive system. The main drive was off-line, and there was an energy overload building in the main power conduits. The Devex had sabotaged the drive system, but their botched attempt looked set to destroy the entire ship. Jack accessed the main reactor systems and began to power down, but the buildup needed to be discharged somewhere. Only the main drive could channel so much energy. Jack relayed the power surge through secondary conduits and diverted it to the main drive assembly.
With all subsystems deactivated and only the drive receiving power, any sudden activation of the main drive would throw passengers about violently. But it was too late. There was nothing more Jack could do.
"Brace. Brace. Brace. The drive assembly is going to discharge in three, two, one."
The sudden acceleration hit and pinned Jack back into the command chair. The Marines on the command deck slid back to the aft side and were pinned to the wall. The civilian transport rumbled as it plowed through the swamp it was partially submerged in. After several terrifying seconds, the ship stopped. Jack felt the pressure of acceleration drop away.
He opened a channel Scherer on the tac boat.
"Commander, this is Forge. Patch your active sensors through to my location." Jack tapped the armrest panel and brought the deck's emergency power online. "Let me see exactly where we are."
Data from all four tac boats streamed through to the command chair, and Jack rerouted the signal to the main holostage, which flickered into life. The image of the civilian transport on the surface of the planet dominated the center, and behind it, a trench a kilometer long was gouged through the muddy water and swamp foliage. Four tiny points of light with the tac boats’ ident codes were shown holding position a hundred meters above the upper hull of the transport.
And further above, on the edge of the lower cloud plane, were the four Devex raiders that had brought Jack to this planet.
Communication from the Devex came over Jack's tactical suit communicator. Jack displayed it on the command chair’s armrest holostage.
"Well done, Jack Forge. You have taken the transport. The crew holding the ship sent a message to their people. They will not give up their captives so easily. More Devex are on the way and will be here soon."
Jack wondered how soon he could expect support from the fleet, and if he could expect more attacking Devex sooner. He looked at his force, which were picking themselves up off the command deck floor—a dozen Marines armed with personal weapons. Jack had four functioning, fully-armed tac boats. It was enough to take down a handful of Devex, but if they were throwing a larger force at him, he would not only need every available gun, he would need a watertight defense plan.
The channel from the Devex crackled to life again. "I have Devex warriors determined not to let your people be taken by the Skalidion. We are here to help you succeed, Jack Forge. We will fight with you now."
Jack could not easily accept the offer of help from those he could not trust, but they had brought him here, and they had alerted him to the number of defenders on the command deck. And now they were alerting him to the arrival of a large force of Devex warriors. As impossible as it seemed, maybe this group was here to help for whatever reason they had. And Jack could certainly use a group of well-equipped Devex warriors.
"Allied Devex warriors, I accept your support. Follow my orders, and we will save these people from the Skalidion."
Sam Torent staggered toward the command deck, the first of the Marines to get back to his feet. He looked quizzically at Jack.
"Do you really believe they are here to help, Jack?" Sam said
"Do you really think we can fight off the incoming Devex without their help?"
Sam shrugged. He walked over to the main holostage, tapped the control panel, and showed the planetary system at the center of the display. On the outer edge of the system, past the outer asteroid belt, came a group of signals. Twelve small ships moving at high speed.
Climbing down from his command chair and crossing to the holostage, Jack opened a channel to all Marines and the Devex warriors in his alliance.
"Incoming enemy Devex. Stand by for my orders. Check your weapons. Get ready. They are going to want this transport back. Whatever we do, we can't let them win."
The Skalidion swarm gathered at the edge of the system, the latest target in Phisrid's expansion. The observer drones showed her the enemy defenses. The Devex fleet was concentrated around a small terrestrial planet of the inner system. Three small moons each had large defensive weapon platforms, while a fleet of warships orbited the planet, protected by the moon-based defense platforms.
Hundreds of Devex raiders swept around the warships, searching for first signs of contact with the enemy. Vapor trails through the atmosphere of the terrestrial planet showed Phisrid that the Devex were evacuating the civilian population. Huge starships were moving out of the system at speed.
Phisrid realized the Devex were aware of her presence. She did not need the element of surprise, because she had the numbers. Phisrid initiated the attack.
The pheromone signal spread from the nest asteroid and out to her attack swarm that was poised and ready. She watched through the large dark eyes of the observer drones as the attack swarm jumped to high speed.
A hundred thousand Skalidion fighter craft led the charge. Behind them came hundreds of builder drones, all eager to devour the Devex matter and transport it back to Phisrid's nest asteroid.
The Devex forces were stronger here than they had been in the last handful of systems. They were concentrating into larger numbers as Phisrid pushed deeper into their territory, but with the civilian population fleeing before her, Phisrid knew this was not the final battle. She would push the Devex deeper and deeper into their territory until eventually they could run no further. They would put up a final defense. That would be a battle that would seal her ultimate victory over the Devex and establish her nation as the greatest in the entire Skalidion Empire.
The Skalidion fighters raced across the dark void toward the Devex forces. The flickering of lights on the Devex planet and its orbiting moons announced the first salvo from the defensive platforms. Dark rounds in dark space moved toward the swarm, eventually reaching their targets and detonating in vast billowing white plasma eruptions, destroying handfuls of Skalidion fighters at a time. The Skalidion green fire generators erupted, adding boiling plasma to the white energy of the Devex weapons.
Phisrid sent the attack pheromone signal again, strengthening its potency and driving her attack swarm into the deadly onslaught from the Devex defense. More fighters were destroyed, second by second. In the charge to battle, Phisrid counted her fallen fighters in the thousands. Still they advanced. And still they fell. Smashed and vaporized by the powerful planet-side and moon-based defenses.
The Skalidion fighters were nearing weapons range, and Phisrid knew her remaining fighters would soon return fire. The green fire of the Skalidion fighters concentrated into a single blast would annihilate one of the three moons in an instant. As her swarm made ready to fire, they moved into range of the Devex fleet.
The fire from the planet and its orbiting moons was now joined by thousands of rapid-fire blaster cannons on the warships. The white energy bullets streaked across space, every one capable of tearing a Skalidion fighter part. And they did so. The front of the Skalidion fighter swarm lit up with a thousand flashes as more fighters were destroyed.
And then came the raiders.
The Devex raiders were fast and heavily armed. They closed in on the Skalidion swarm on the flanks of the main defensive salvo from the fixed guns and the warships. As the Skalidions raced on into the heavy fire on the leading front, they took fire on the flanks from the raiders.
Another thousand fighters destroyed. But Phisrid had the numbers, and another world lay at her mercy. Phisrid sent the attack pheromone again, driving her swarm into a frenzy. In an instant, the green fire generators on the tips of the Skalidion fighters activated and launched a concentrated salvo. The deadly green fire raced toward the moon exposed on the flank of the Devex defense. It scorched the moon’s surface, and the defense systems erupted in huge explosions.
And then the swarm scattered.
Phisrid moved her nest asteroid deeper into the Devex system as her fighters engaged the raiders. The Skalidion fighters outmaneuvered the raiders easily, flipping end over end, darting left and then right, decoy fighters racing head on, flanking fighters delivering their deadly green fire into the vulnerable drive systems of the Devex. Her surviving fighters were more than a match for the massed Devex attack, and within seconds, the builders moved in to devour the broken remains of the raiders, their hulls still glowing with the energy of the green fire attacks.
The swarm scattered into a loose formation, evading the heavy weapons from the planet and the two remaining moons. In a seemingly uncoordinated mass, the fighters scattered green fire across the warship flotilla. The fighters moved between the warships. The planet-based defensive platforms were now useless as the Skalidions used the Devex ships for cover. But once within the flotilla, all fighters turned their weapons on a single warship. Green fire slammed into the heavy outer hull from all directions and burned through, melting its way to the interior and destroying the warship’s capability in seconds.
And then a second Devex warship succumbed to the same punishment, and then a third.
Phisrid watched with satisfaction as the remaining warships began to fall back. They fell down the gravity well toward the system’s star and kicked their drives up to perform slingshot maneuvers out of the system and deep into interstellar space.
The Skalidion builders moved in to devour the burning wrecks left behind while the fighters turned their attention to the surviving moons. The fighters formed up into the tightly-packed attack formation, delivering the massed green fire blast. It raced over the surface of the moon, scorching the rock and vaporizing the defensive platform as it fired in one last defiant act against the Skalidions.
Hunter drones returning from the edge of the battle to the nest asteroid brought with them trophies for Phisrid. Devex warriors captured from the broken ships, plucked from the void of space, were delivered to the central nest where Phisrid controlled her swarm.
The hunters deposited the bodies at her feet. Phisrid scooped one up with her massive hand. She cracked open the exo-armor and thrust the soft interior to her rasping mouth.
The warrior was dead and tasted sharp. It was not the soft, sweet taste that came from the humans, as she had learned. It was not enough. She dropped the half-devoured Devex and instructed the builders to collect this pathetic offering.
As frustration emanated from her throughout the nest, the nurse drones collecting her latest spawn grew nervous. Phisrid snatched a nurse and devoured it greedily, blood and soft tissue splattering across Phisrid's limbs and upper body, gore floating in congealed lumps around the nest interior.
Phisrid had only enjoyed the taste of human remotely through her builder drones. She needed the taste for herself. And a group of Devex on one planet had promised her just that. A single observer Skalidion still remained in that system, one Phisrid had conquered not long ago. The humans they had promised had still not been delivered. Phisrid would give them more time. She could contain her thirst for fresh humans a little longer
With the current battle reaching a swift conclusion, Phisrid watched as her swarm swept down to the planet. Millions of Devex still remained, left behind, abandoned. Phisrid would not abandon them. Her builder drones would devour them. Her fighters swept across the surface of the planet raining green fire onto every structure that remained, and then the builders came, methodically rasping their way through all matter before delivering their loads back to the nest asteroid.
It would take days for her builder swarm to scrape the surface of the planet clean, all matter delivered to Phisrid and her expanding empire, but Phisrid and her swarm would move on to the next Devex system, and the next battle.
Counting her losses, Phisrid was satisfied that she had gained more than she had lost. By the time she reached the next Devex system, she would have spawned new fighters that would more than replace her losses.
Phisrid's empire was growing, her forces growing stronger, but bigger battles lay ahead. Devex warships escaped from every battle, which meant more to defeat in each subsequent battle. Eventually, they would combine the last of their forces. She would need the greatest fighter swarm ever spawned to finally defeat the Devex. That time was nearing. Her time was now.
Standing on the command deck of the civilian transport, Jack watched the incoming Devex ships on the main holostage. A dozen raiders had entered the system on a direct route for the swamp planet, but the thick green clouds that shrouded the planet gave cover from the Devex sensors. Jack knew he did not have the numbers to hold off a determined Devex attack, but if he used the cover wisely, he might be able to hide from the Devex the fact that he had limited numbers available to him.
To defend a city-sized civilian transport with over fifty thousand sleeping civilian passengers, Jack’s entire force consisted of a dozen Marines, four tac boats, and the unlikely assistance of a small group of Devex warriors. The raiders that were approaching knew for sure that Jack had already taken control of the command deck. The new group were here to seize back their prize, a prize they would soon be delivering to the Skalidion.
Opening a channel to Commander Scherer, Jack knew he only had one option: fight hard, hide whenever possible, and not reveal his numbers to the Devex. Jack was fighting a defensive operation with limited resources. He had to hold out until the fleet arrived to take the civilians off this damp, hot planet.
"Commander Scherer here," Scherer said from the flight deck of the tac boat. "What's your plan, Major?"
"You have command of the tac boat squadron, Commander."
Jack tapped the controls of the holostage and focused on the civilian transport. Docked on the upper hull were the four remaining tac boats of Jack's original eight-boat squadron.
"Move them away from the civilian transport," Jack said. "The Devex will probably attempt a frontal assault. I want the tac boats ready to attack their flanks before they can put down. Don't give away your position until you have to. Use the cover of the swamp to evade the Devex. Hit them hard when you can and stay hidden. Do you copy?"
"Copy that, Major," Commander Scherer replied.
Jack watched the holoimage of the tac boats lifting off the transport’s hull. They stayed low until they were clear, and then dropped toward the surface of the swamp planet and skirted over the dark waters, dodging the thick clumps of dark green foliage, before setting down several kilometers from the transport. The boats settled into the dark water and the foliage and were obscured even from the civilian ship’s surveillance equipment.
Jack zoomed out the holostage view, shrinking the massive civilian transport down to the size of a ration block. Then he zoomed out even further, the civilian transport shrinking so it was lost on the planetary surface, and the planet shrank down to the center of the holostage, showing the position of the incoming Devex raiders relative to the planet. They were closing in quickly, getting closer by the second.
Communication on Jack's tactical suit communicator distracted him from the holostage image for a moment. He climbed up onto the command chair and sent the communication to the armrest holostage. His unlikely ally appeared.
"We stand ready to aid your defense, Jack Forge," the Devex said.
Jack could still not quite believe that these Devex were truly here to help him, but since his first encounter with these supposed allies, they had done nothing to suggest they were anything other than genuine. And Jack needed all the help he could get.
"Ally Devex," Jack said. He saw out of the corner of his eye the Marines across the command deck turn and look, wondering what Jack would say to these one-time enemies now uncertain ally. "Move your raiders away from the civilian transport and take cover, stay hidden, be ready to defend the transport. If you have any intelligence on how the attacking Devex will proceed, let me know immediately. Do you copy, Ally Leader?"
"The attacking Devex are arriving ahead of the main force.” The Devex stared out of the holoimage and remained completely motionless. “We will not be able to hold against a warship when it arrives."
“We must hold until support arrives," Jack said, climbing down from the command chair.
Walking to the main holostage, Jack zoomed back in on the civilian transport. The Devex raiders, tiny points of light next to the huge civilian transport, raced away to conceal themselves in the dense swamp foliage.
The sound of footsteps across the command behind Jack had a familiar sound. He could recognize the approach of his old friend Sam Torent blindfold.
"Can we trust them?" Sam said.
Jack watched the allied raiders conceal themselves in the swamp and vanish from sensor view. He zoomed out the holoimage and checked the location of the attacking Devex. They would be entering the atmosphere in moments.
"I hope so, Sam." Jack turned from the holostage to face his old friend. He laid a hand on Sam's shoulder. "But I know I can rely on you. Take half the Marines and position yourselves outside the command deck. Let the Devex approach. I'll hold them here while you move up on their rear and hit them in the tail. Sound like a plan?"
Sam nodded. "I'll keep my squad mobile," Sam said, unstrapping his pulse rifle from his shoulder and holding it across his chest. "We'll hit them and run, and then hit them again."
Sam pointed at the Marines who were to join him. All stepped up, instantly ready for action. They fell in step behind Sam as he moved swiftly off the command deck, running down the corridor to take up position in the vast ship.
Turning his back on the holostage the moment the attacking raiders entered the upper atmosphere, Jack looked at the remaining Marines on the command deck. The Marines were standing ready, loosely spread about the large command deck. Pulse rifles at the ready.
"Listen up, Marines. We've got an attack force moving in determined to take this ship. A Fleet destroyer is on its way, but we're the only thing that can stop the Devex now. The narrow entrance to this command deck will reduce the effectiveness of their numbers, but we still have to fight doubly hard to maintain our position. I haven't had time to get to know you personally, but if you are Marines, you won't let the civilians down, you won't let the Marine Service down, and you won't let yourself down."
An alert from his tactical suit’s communicator told Jack that Commander Scherer was moving to attack the incoming raiders.
"Take your positions," Jack said, swinging up his pulse rifle. He walked toward the command chair and looked down the command deck corridor, preparing to fire on the enemy that would soon be moving into that narrow kill zone. "Get ready for action."
Climbing up into the command chair and activating the main holostage, Jack looked down on the image of the civilian transport. The enemy was closing in and reducing speed, making ready to land on the transport.
A blast of hail cannon fire tore out of the dark green swamp and slammed into the starboard side of the lead raider. The attacker broke off its descent and arced away from the hail cannon fire.
The next raider altered course and charged toward the source of the fire. It lit it up its rapid-fire blasters, and a stream of white energy bullets slashed through the green mist and the dense foliage. Tearing up the dark leaves and slamming into the black waters, the stream of bullets searched for a target.
A second blast of hail cannon fire slammed into the attacking raider from a hundred meters to the left of where the first blast had come from. Jack fed the ident data from the tac boats into his wrist-mounted holostage and looked for the position of Scherer and his tac boat squadron.
The tac boats were arranged in a line of three several kilometers off the civilian transport’s starboard side. The boat now firing sat in front of the line and was moving laterally, changing location between blasts of hail cannon fire.
Two of the attacking Devex broke off from the main group and raced across the dark swamp toward where the hail cannon fire was coming from. Their rapid-fire blasters raked the swamp, the fierce white energy bullets burning through foliage and turning the dark water to steam.
Jack watched the tac boat move sideways through the foliage, crashing through one dense patch after another, its maneuvering thrusters throwing up swamp water around it.
The attacking raiders that had broken off from the main group concentrated their fire toward the single maneuvering tac boat. A stream of white energy bullets slammed into the dark water centimeters from the boat’s forward section.
At that instant, a blast of hail cannon fire from the two flanking tac boats behind the single moving tac boat slammed into the two attackers.
The kinetic hail struck the forward section of both attacking ships. First the hull material was superheated in tiny points where the kinetic hail struck, and then it glowed across the entire section as more of the tiny rounds hit and detonated, eventually vaporizing the entire forward section of both raiders.
The first Devex that had been hit was fleeing across the swamp and drawing close to the position of the hidden allied Devex. Jack watched closely. What were they going to do, given the opportunity to destroy an already crippled Devex Raider? Were these allies truly here to support Jack? Or were they going to show their true colors and join the attackers?
The damaged raider began to climb toward the clouds. With its drive systems pointing directly down to the surface and within range of the hidden allied Devex, Jack clenched his fist and urged the allied Devex to destroy the damaged craft. Jack imagined what the situation would have to be for him to open fire on one of his own craft. Jack knew the Devex would never open fire on their own. For all the intelligence the allied Devex had provided, Jack knew that he could not authorize the destruction of his own kind.
Jack punched the air in front of him in frustration as the signal from the Devex craft raced away to high orbit. A communication channel sparkled into life from the allied Devex.
"I did not want to give away our position," the Devex said. "Better we maintain our cover until we are really needed."
Jack closed the channel. He could not bring himself to reply. He felt the Devex were always going to pick their time to act and would never choose to destroy their own kind. If the allied Devex continued to provide Jack with useful intelligence, then they could still be a useful ally, but Jack knew they were not adding to his combat strength.
The attacking raiders all moved off toward the location of the hidden tac boats. Advancing in loose formation, they fired wildly into the dense foliage. The bullets smashed through the dark leaves. Commander Scherer appeared on the main holostage, looking out at Jack.
"They are zeroing in on our position, Major. I will have to break cover. If I attack, we have a chance. If I sit here, we are finished."
Jack knew the risk, but the Devex were firing blind. They knew there were enemy craft with heavy firepower somewhere in the swamp, but they did not know exactly where, and crucially, they did not know how many.
"Maintain cover, Commander. Divert power to your upper hull integrity field. If they zero your position, break cover and engage. The longer they are hunting for you, the less time they'll have trying to retake the civilian transport."
Jack accessed the sensor data from the tac boat squadron and presented the data on the main holostage. Now viewing the enemy from the tac boat’s point of view, Jack could see the white energy bullets slamming into the swamp all around. The rounds were coming ever closer. If one hit a tac boat, then the feedback from the collision would be enough to highlight its location. One lucky hit was all the Devex would need. And seven raiders were more than a match for four under-crewed tac boats.
Jack opened a channel to the allied Devex. He could not simply watch his boats be destroyed.
"Ally Devex, this is Forge. The attacking raiders are focused on finding the tac boat squadron and have their tails to you. Advance and give fire. Bring them down now. I am giving you an order."
"I do not take orders from you, Jack Forge," the Devex replied coldly.
"Then what good are you to me," Jack said, spitting in anger.
The tac boat on the far right was struck by a single energy bullet. The hull integrity field absorbed the energy, distributing it over the surface of the field, but the point of impact glowed momentarily like a small sun deep in the dark swamp. All attacking raiders turned their fire on that location.
All four tac boats leaped vertically from their hiding places in the swamp, hail cannons blasting out huge gouts of kinetic hail at the attacking raiders.
"This is Commander Scherer. Breaking cover, Major. Time to fight back."
Jack watched the four tac boats climb and then scatter as the remaining attacking raiders concentrated their fire on the one that took the hit. As the tac boat performed emergency evasive maneuvers, it was struck again on the port-side hail cannon. Streams of Devex energy bullets plowed into the same point, spinning it off course. The main drive flared and kicked the tac boat away, but the raiders had it in their sights and fired a merciless stream of bullets into the drive section.
One of the Marines standing in the command deck was staring at the holostage and shouted in frustration.
"Eject, krav it. Eject."
Jack watched the sensor data on the main holostage. He remained quiet but was thinking the same thing as his fellow Marine. No ejection procedure was reported. The tac boat turned on one of the raiders firing on it. The high-energy laser and both flank hail cannons fired briefly before the tac boat erupted in a billowing cloud of orange fire. The green mist surrounding the boat glowed brightly before turning dull brown. The burning boat crashed into the black water, leaving a white cloud in its wake.
The instant the tac boat was destroyed, the raiders turned on the remaining three boats.
Commander Scherer, leading his three-boat squadron in a head-on charge, came in all guns blazing. The hail cannon blasted a series of high-ex rounds before switching to high-velocity kinetic hail. The Devex raider’s white energy bullets raced away in a chaotic stream, flickering through the green mist..
And then the allied Devex raiders broke cover.
Jack leaned toward the holostage as he saw the raiders rise slowly out of the dark swamp. The four allied raiders moved together, their forward sections pointing directly toward the left flank of the tac boat squadron as it raced in on its headlong charge toward the attacking Devex.
Jack held his breath.
The allied Devex jumped to high speed, the green clouds swirling behind them as they raced toward the two sets of ships moving into. The allied raiders opened fire, their streams of white energy bullets tearing across the sky. And all four white energy streams slammed into the lead attacking Devex.
The raider erupted in billowing explosion before arcing down to the dark swamp. The allied raiders’ bullet streams re-targeted the next attacker, and the tac boats targeted the same ship. High-energy lasers slammed into the nose, and white energy slammed into them from the side, catching them in a crossfire. Another attacking raider fell to the dark waters, and the remaining attackers broke off the attack and began to retreat.
Commander Scherer was in no mood to let any of the enemy escape. Now one-on-one, with the Devex in retreat, the tac boat squadron engaged with all weapons targeted on the raiders’ drive sections. Before the attacking raiders could make it through the lower cloud level, all were falling back to the planet broken and in flame.
Jack opened a channel to Commander Scherer. "Good work, Commander. You held them off. Relocate and grab some cover."
"Copy that, Major. Send a thank you to our new allies. Scherer out."
Looking at the image of the four allied Devex raiders on the holostage, Jack saw them turn and slowly return to their original hiding place. He leaned on the holostage to open a channel, but he noticed the ship at the rear of the formation drop behind its companions.
Jack checked through the logs of the battle to see if that raider had taken any damage. It hadn’t even fired a shot. Just as Jack began to wonder if the ally was as committed to protecting these people as the Devex leader, the raider began to climb rapidly through the atmosphere.
"Allied Devex, this is Forge. One of your Raiders is leaving. Why?"
"The raider will not respond."
"Stop it! If that raider gets away, it will be able to tell the Devex how few of us there are down here. Stop it now!"
Jack looked at the image on the holostage and saw the three remaining allied raiders slowly and turn toward the escaping ship that was already in high orbit.
"If you can't convince that Devex raider to stop then you must shoot it down."
"Understood. It is the best and surest way to ensure no information is delivered to the Devex on the defensive strength you have here."
Jack watched the holoimage of the ships in pursuit of their recent companion. And then the raider leaped to high speed and raced toward the system’s star. It fell down the star’s gravity well and scorched through the corona, slingshotting away out of the system.
"We were too late, Jack Forge. The raider has escaped. We will take cover and wait to defend your position when the next wave of Devex comes. We do not want these humans being given to the Skalidion. We are on your side."
"They let it get away," one of the Marines shouted in anger as Jack closed the communication channel.
"Focus, Marine. Concentrate on your job and we’ll be fine. Expect another attack soon. Take some rations, rest if you can, but be ready. They'll be back again soon."
And Jack knew that when the Devex were told how few defenders there were, they would send the proper number of raiders to swiftly and successfully complete the job. Before long, the corridors outside the command deck would be filled with pulse rifle fire and white energy bullets.
The battle had only just begun.
The workshop deep in the heart of the carrier ship Scepter was dark. Sarah Reyes' workbench was lit by only a harsh white light shining down from above. Parts of Devex exo-armor lay scattered across the bench, and next to it lay a pile of parts taken from a Devex warship. Sarah had finally discovered the secrets of the Devex matter transport. In front of her lay the small device, a test device, and now she was about to test it.
The device was no larger than a pulse pistol, but it took ten times the energy to activate even once. Right now, it was little more than a one-way ticket to the far side of the workshop. But with extra work and resources from the Fleet Intelligence Service, she knew she could develop the technology, and soon she would be moving individuals the length of the fleet carrier.
The current system of transport loops operating through the carrier worked well enough. Mag-rails moving transport pods at super high velocities could move a person from the forward command deck to the rear drive section in moments. However, this personal matter transport device could move them the same distance almost instantaneously.
And it was not just the chance of moving personnel the length of the fleet carrier that had the interest of Sarah Reyes and Fleet Intelligence. They also knew that there would be real benefits in moving personnel from ship to ship within a moment.
The Fleet Marine Service was particularly interested in its development. Currently, the service was operating at a fraction of its strength. Too few Marines were joining, and now the three destroyers each had an active battalion of less than a hundred individual Marines. With the development of the matter transport device, squads and companies could be moved from one ship to another in a moment. It was not an answer to the under-staffing problem, but it would allow the Marines a high degree of flexibility with their current force.
Sarah checked the power system on the device. Everything was ready. The test could begin.
Turning to the assembled spectators, Agent Reyes cleared her throat. The Chief of Fleet Intelligence, Chief Agent Pound, was here, and he stood next to Admiral Henson. The admiral’s daughter, Riya Henson, was also attending. It was her experience with the Devex exo-armor that had once encased her body that allowed Agent Reyes to finally decode the mysteries of the matter transport device.
The medical staff present consisted of a single doctor and a medical drone. They stayed back from the main group, and everyone ignored their presence, hoping they would not be needed.
General Wallace stepped forward along with the Scepter’s highest ranking Marine, Colonel Snipe, and standing in between the two high-ranking Marine officers came the person who would test Agent Reyes’s device. A young, brave, and slightly nervous Marine who had volunteered for the test walked toward Agent Reyes and the small, innocuous-looking device.
Sarah stepped toward the Marine, who was dressed in his shipside work uniform, and attached the device to a tactical vest, holding out the vest for the young Marine to put on. The Marine slipped it on in an instant, without a moment’s hesitation, and stood ready for Reyes to begin.
"Just relax," Reyes said. "I will activate the device. You just focus on your breathing and staying on your feet. Good luck, Marine."
Reyes stepped back. The Marine nodded, indicating he was ready.
Sarah stepped up to her workbench and stood next to a large Devex device. She made the last adjustments to power, targeting, and range. Then, satisfied everything was ready, she turned back to the assembled group.
"Our Marine volunteer will now traverse this workshop, traveling from his current position to the far side of the room. It is a distance of only eight meters, but the Marine will complete the journey in less time than it would to take even a single step."
With a final nod at the Marine, Sarah Reyes activated the device.
The feeling of every hair on her body standing on end was partly her own excitement and partly the huge amount of energy released from the activation of the small device. The air around the Marine went dark and seemed to collapse in on itself. The sudden eruption of energy at the far end of the room pulled everyone's attention.
The Marine appeared, and a light wave of energy rippled out from the point where he re-materialized. Sarah looked him in the eye and saw a combination of relief and sheer terror all realized at the exact same moment. A smile began to spread over his pale, frightened face as he realized he'd survived the trip. And then he looked down.
Following his gaze to the deck, Sarah saw immediately that Marine’s boots were embedded in the deck plate. The Marine began to whimper and shout. He tugged and grunted. He had made a supreme effort to bury his emotions, but the sight of his feet embedded in the deck to just above the ankle was almost too much to take.
The doctor and the medical drone moved forward. Agent Reyes ran across to the Marine and called for him to remain calm.
"It's okay, Marine. Hold still. It's just a little targeting error. Calm down."
"My feet!" The Marine held his right leg just above the knee and looked down at his feet cut off at the ankle by the deck plate. He tugged at his right leg but stayed fixed in place. "My feet!" he shouted again.
Grabbing him by the shoulders, Sarah looked into his eyes. "At ease, Marine." She used the sternest voice she could muster. "It's okay. You are fine.”
She pulled at the straps on the top of the boots and pulled them loose. She loosened the boot from the upper ankle all the way down to the deck plate.
The doctor arrived and kneeled next to Sarah Reyes, scanning the Marine’s ankles with his medical device. He looked at Sarah Reyes with a smile.
"Pull your foot up, Marine," Sarah Reyes said, looking up.
The Marine pulled and out came his foot, sliding out of his boot.
Sarah Reyes stood up and addressed the group of spectators as the Marine loosened his second boot and pulled his foot out.
"The matter transport device creates a void that the body being transported can materialize in. With the targeting scanners fully functional and calibrated to the correct level, this will not happen. The system is completely safe. It's safer than most of our transport systems.”
“But what if the Marine had been transported fully inside the deck plate?” Colonel Snipe asked. “Or the bulkhead? What if we sent a squad into a mountain?”
Sarah shook her head. The Marines would be fine.
“The space created for the matter transport destination is a skintight fit inside any material. If a Marine found themselves inside a rock, they wouldn’t be able to move, but they could simply reverse transport and get themselves out of there and be none the worse for it, and they would be the first person to report on what it’s like to be inside a rock.”
Chief Agent Pound stepped forward, clapping a slow, firm solo applause. “Great work, Agent Reyes. How soon before we can fit out the intelligence enforcer tactical suits with this device?”
General Wallace stepped forward. “The Marines should be first in line for this equipment. We need to move squads about the fleet as quickly as possible if we are to respond to any threat.”
Reyes interrupted. “I can get one device ready for a field test in a matter of days. I still need to refine the targeting systems, and power consumption is still far too high. I will have a field test device ready soon, but a production model suitable for active service is still a long way off.”
The assembled spectators drifted away, leaving Sarah alone in the dark. She resumed work. The test had yielded a lot of data, and it would help her refine the device.
The Marine stepped over to Reyes quietly.
“I didn’t hear you approach,” Reyes said, covering her surprise.
The Marine pointed to his boots still embedded in the deck pates and then to his feet covered only in his thin socks.
“Thank you, Agent Reyes,” the Marine said. “I’ll be ready to volunteer for you again for the next test.”
Reyes looked up at the Marine. He was looking at her with a mixture of respect and longing. She hadn’t seen anyone look at her in that way since...
“Thank you, Marine,” Reyes said. She saluted. “Dismissed.”
The Marine, clearly with more to say, held his tongue. Reyes was a Fleet Intelligence agent and outranked the Marine by a long way. He turned on his heel and left.
Reyes looked back to the work. Since she had been promoted to the intel’s science division, no one had been able to create a friendship with her. The only man she knew who still looked at her the same way was Jack Forge. Friends before the fleet began its race across the cosmos in search of a new home, Jack knew Reyes for who she was before. She looked forward to the next time they could be together. The next time she could be herself.
But she had not heard from Jack since he left on his patrol mission. He was not due back for some time. Sarah promised herself she would make a call to her old friend as soon as she finished work on the portable matter transport device.
The small cabin deep inside the cramped mass of living quarters of the civilian ship was a far cry from her office aboard the Scepter, but Special Agent Mallet needed an unregistered location for her search. Jack Forge was out there somewhere, and Mallet wanted him dead. The scanning equipment she had stolen from the Fleet Communication Service recorded every conversation between every person on every ship. Picobits of data every second poured into her clandestine surveillance systems, every bit processed, cross-checked, cross-referenced, and stored. All to find the location of Jack Forge.
The last-known location of Jack Forge was aboard a tac boat squadron sweeping the far-left flank of the fleet, skirting along the edge of Skalidion space. Only communications from the tac boat squadron to the fleet could give away Jack's location, but he had gone silent and vanished just as Mallet had been prepared to pounce.
A well-placed combat drone far out on the edge of Skalidion space would be enough to cripple Jack's tac boat and alert any patrolling enemy fighters. All Mallet needed to do was give Jack a bloody nose. The Skalidions would close in and finish the job for her.
But he had been silent. Mallet just needed one communication from Jack and she would have him. And then the message came. Jack had sent a coded message to the fleet that he was going off-mission to defend a civilian transport on some swamp planet.
Mallet read through the report. It spoke of Devex allies and a trade with the Skalidions to deliver thousands of human bodies. It was intriguing, but nothing could divert Mallet from her single-minded mission to kill Jack Forge.
And now she had him.
The surveillance feed from Mallet’s micro-drones scattered dozens of meters away from her hidden location went off-line. They could have been any number of reasons why her surveillance net had been momentarily deactivated. The cramped and overloaded civilian vessel was forever experiencing power fluctuations, and some of these could affect her micro drone surveillance net. It was possible that a civilian had found one of her micro-drones and had deactivated it to sell it on the black market. Fleet Intelligence tech would sell for hundreds of ration blocks, or a dozen crates of Amber.
There were any number of reasons for the slight disruption in her surveillance drone net, but, ever suspicious, Mallet guessed correctly: She had been found.
Mallet powered down her equipment and set the micro-drones hidden inside the equipment to emit a broad-spectrum flash that would destroy all the data she had been gathering and analyzing. The huge amount of data was useless to her now that she had the one fragment that she needed: the location of Jack Forge.
With the data destroyed, Mallet grabbed her pulse pistol and stuffed it in her underarm holster. She fastened the front of her black jacket and stepped to the door.
The door opened before Mallet could get there. The empty opening looked out onto the narrow gray corridor, but the faintest shadow on the far wall told Mallet that enforcers were in cover on either side of the open doorway.
"Mallet. This is Agent Visser. Step out with your hands behind your head. We can do this easy, or we can do this nasty. Step out, now."
Mallet had trained with Agent Visser and knew the old drunk’s demeanor only too well. She was a shoot first and make up the questions, and the answers, later kind of agent. Mallet had guessed the agency was on to her; she just didn’t realize how close they were. She clenched her fist and cursed Visser.
"I want amnesty." Mallet drew her pulse pistol. "I want to be released from the agency." Mallet activated the small micro-surveillance drone she'd held back and sent it drifting out into the corridor. The surveillance drone activated and projected a holoimage of Mallet stepping out into the corridor with a pulse pistol in her hand.
“You know I can’t agree to that.” Visser’s voice echoed along the corridor. “We can still use you, Mallet. You were a good agent, before you started your vendetta against Forge. This is your last chance to come back to the agency. Don’t throw it all away.”
The movement of the shadow on the corridor wall showed her the two enforcers bringing their pulse rifles onto the holoimage. Mallet sent instructions to the micro drone to show the holoimage turn its pulse pistol toward the far end of the corridor where Mallet guessed Visser was standing, shielded behind a squad of enforcers.
Mallet sent the detonation code to the micro drone the same moment she heard agent Visser call out a warning to the enforcers in the corridor.
The detonation was small, but in a confined space, it was powerful enough to disorientate the two enforcers covering the doorway. As one fell, the muzzle of his pulse rifle moved over the threshold, allowing Mallet to grab it. She pushed it as she stepped forward, bringing her other hand around. She aimed the pulse pistol out into the corridor. She fired. Flashes of pulse rounds lit up the hall.
Mallet felt the pulse rifle fall loose. She brought it into the room just as pulse rifle fire lit up the corridor.
The enforcers to the right Mallet’s open door must surely have been taking cover. Training would have told him to press himself to the floor and the wall. Mallet knew he could only be a meter away from where she now stood. She swung up the rifle, aimed at the bottom of the wall, and fired a stream of pulse rounds. The deck and outer wall of her small cabin exploded as the pulse rounds tore through.
Mallet released the power pack from her pulse pistol in one hand and dropped it into the other. She slid the power distribution node into overload mode and tossed it out into the corridor. She pressed herself as far back into her small room she could, and the detonation roared down the corridor. She saw the fallen enforcer skidding along the floor, driven by the blast. Before the dust could settle, she was out in the corridor, pulse rifle at her shoulder and firing into the distance.
The targeting screen on the top of the pulse rifle showed her the enforcer locations. They were taking cover at a junction. Agent Visser would not be far from them. With her rifle delivering a sustained fire, Mallet advanced. The rifle muzzle moved only marginally left and right as she transferred her aim from one side of the end of the corridor to the other, laying down a sustained barrage to keep the enforcers in cover.
Mallet was sure Visser would be delivering her orders silently to the remaining enforcers to capture Mallet alive. Mallet had no need to take the enforcers or Agent Visser alive. If she could escape and leave them alive, that would be fine. But if she had to take them all down to get away, she would.
Reaching the junction at the end of the corridor, Mallet slowly turned and fired at one end. The enforcer on a knee took a pulse round directly on the faceplate, sending him backward. Mallet turned and fired behind her at the two enforcers standing there.
Mallet leaped back and landed behind the enforcer she had just murdered. His body still partially upright against the wall, she knelt to take cover—using his tactical suit as a shield as she fired her rifle at one enforcer then the other.
Standing behind the two fallen enforcers, fists raised, was Agent Visser.
Mallet stood and aimed the rifle at Visser.
Then the holoimage collapsed. Visser’s image disappeared just as she appeared for real behind Mallet, a pulse pistol aimed at the rogue agent’s head.
Mallet spun and reached for the pistol. She moved in a flash and pushed it aside. A pulse round blasted into the corridor wall centimeters from Mallet’s head.
As Mallet twisted the pistol from Visser’s grip, Visser ripped the rifle from Mallet. In a swirling moment, both agents were disarmed and in reach of the other.
Visser delivered an immediate blow with her right knee to Mallet’s left side. The sound of a rib breaking causing Visser to grin again.
Mallet fell back a step, fist raised. She waved off a punch as she cradled her side. And Visser came forward, delivering a series of rapid blows at Mallet’s head. She fended one punch with her right arm, then turned and fended the second with her left, releasing a wave of pain from her left side. Mallet brought her left arm down to protect the wounded area, spun on her left foot and brought her right up to connect sharply with the side of Visser’s head.
Visser fell back laughing, her hands raised ready to defend or deliver an attack.
Mallet paused. She flexed her left side and tested the busted rib. A med-pack and a few minutes of rest would make it right again. She had a med-pack in her back pocket, but she knew that the instant she reached for it, Visser would attack.
Mallet reached for the med-pack.
Visser came fast, focused on delivering another punch to Mallet’s wounded side. As Visser moved in, she left the left side of her head exposed for a fraction of a second. Mallet grabbed the med-pack and set the pack to release a soporific. She spun on her right foot and brought her arm around, the med-pack in her palm, and she slapped it hard onto Visser’s head, just as the punch was delivered to her broken rib.
Mallet fell back, screaming in pain. She blocked it out as best she could and cradled her wounded left side. She watched as Agent Visser reached for the med-pack. She took a step back, tearing the med-pack away, but it too late. The soporific had done enough work that Visser was staggering around like the drunk she was.
Mallet advanced slowly, left arm cradling her broken rib, right arm raised with a clenched fist. Standing over Visser, Mallet knew her old partner expected some cutting remark. But all Mallet had for Visser was a heavy blow to the head.
Visser lay motionless on the floor, the soporific and the heavy blows rendering her unconscious. Mallet scooped up her pulse pistol.
"Always thought you'd be the one to kill me," Mallet said. She fired a single pulse round, stepped over the body of Agent Visser, and walked off down the corridor.
Mallet needed a med-pack for her busted rib, she needed a ship, and she needed to make Jack Forge pay.
The Devex raiders entering the system came far too quickly and in far greater numbers than Jack had initially feared. His position was vulnerable, he was outnumbered, and support was too far away. Jack had been in tight spots before, but this time, he knew he had a fight on his hands.
The holostage initially showed the raiders as a single hazy signal. As they drew closer the surveillance equipment aboard the civilian transport, he began to pick out individual craft. Now Jack could see the numbers thrown against him. In short, it was too many. But Jack would not run, even if he could. He would stay and fight. There was no choice.
Jack checked the position of his ships. He had three remaining tac boats from his squadron of eight, and he had the three allied Devex ships. They were positioned several kilometers from the civilian transport ready to respond to any attack.
But the small group was no match for the thirty-six attacking Devex raiders now entering the inner system. Every raider could hold eight Devex warriors, and the heavily-armored, powerfully-armed Devex warriors were a formidable fighting force. Jack could not hope to hold the civilian transport indefinitely, even if he had a battalion of Marines. The number of Marines under Jack's command would not even qualify as a full squad.
Jack's fighting force was only eight Marines armed with their personal weapons, three battered tac boats crewed only by a pilot, and three allied Devex raiders whose allegiance was not rock solid. One raider had already fled. Jack was sure the attacking Devex knew exactly what they were up against.
The attacking raiders entered view above the swamp planet. They adopted a geostationary orbit high above the civilian transport, half-submerged in the dark water. The location of the transport was known to the Devex and could not be hidden. If the Devex simply intended to annihilate the ship, they would be able to obliterate the target from orbit. A stream of deadly white energy bullets from the raiders would reduce the lightly armored, unpowered civilian transport to vapor in the matter of minutes.
But the Devex were not here to destroy the civilian transport. They were here to secure the fifty thousand live humans asleep in the transport.
Jack watched a group of enemy craft break off from the massed squadron in orbit and begin their descent toward the civilian transport. They were here to retake the ship and deliver the civilians to the Skalidions. Jack could not guess why the Skalidions wanted the humans alive, but Jack decided it was most likely hideous. He would do his best to destroy the craft and all its passengers before he let them fall into the hands of the Skalidions and their nefarious purposes.
The first wave of raiders entering the lower atmosphere turned north. North of the civilian transport, hidden in the dense foliage and partially submerged, were the three remaining allied Devex. The attacking raiders spread out and swept forward, searching for the allied Devex.
A second group of attacking raiders swept south, spreading out and flying low toward the three tac boats.
The ships were outnumbered. All they could do now was hide.
Opening a channel to the two groups of ships, Jack sent a single simple message: "Maintain cover."
The flights of attacking raiders to the north and south simultaneously lit up their rapid-fire blasters. They advanced slowly in a line, raking the swampy surface with their white energy bullets. The water and vegetation erupted in a boiling blast ahead of the Devex line as the Raiders swept the swamp, firing blindly in searching of the hidden ships.
A third group of attackers swept down from high orbit and headed for the civilian transport. Jack watched the signals on the holostage closely. All he could do was wait.
The third group of Devex slowed as they approached the upper hull of the transport. They touched down and immediately began cutting through the outer hull.
"Sam, are you seeing this?" Jack sent a private message to Commander Torent.
"Can't take my eyes off it, Jack," Sam said casually. "Guess they'll be moving on your position before long."
"Copy that, Sam. I will hold them here. You stay mobile, hit-and-run, keep them looking over their shoulders. Keep them guessing."
"Any word from the fleet?" Sam said.
Jack hesitated. He glanced around the command deck and saw the small group of Marines looking at him. Their helmets covered their faces, but Jack could guess the concern that was etched on them. The only thing he could do to assuage their fears now was to be confident.
"Nothing yet, Sam," he said over the communication channel, but also so all Marines on the command deck could hear. "They know our situation. They will attend when they can. It doesn't change what we have to do."
The internal surveillance network alerted Jack that the inner hull had been breached and intruders were now moving through corridors on the upper deck.
"All Marines stand ready. The Devex are aboard."
Commander Scherer watched the enemy sweep across the dark swamp, their rapid-fire blasters tearing through the water and drawing ever closer. The stream of white energy bullets from each raider swept from left to right as they advanced slowly, every square centimeter of swamp taking fire.
With all systems powered down, Scherer knew his tac boat would not survive a hit. A single white energy bullet would not be enough to destroy the boat, but it would punch a hole through the upper hull. The impact would give away his position and then would come the concentrated weapons fire that would tear the tac boat apart.
Commander Scherer understood Major Forge's orders, but he did not want to sit and wait to be hit. He made ready to power up his tac boat and leap into the sky to engage the attacking raiders. It was likely he would not last any longer in a dogfight with the raiders than he would sitting still in the swamp, but at least he would warm up his guns and possibly take one of the Devex with him.
With the raking stream of white energy bullets now only a couple of hundred meters away from the nose of his boat, Scherer made the decision. He would order the two boat pilots with him to power up, ascend vertically, and fire on the nearest attacking raider.
It would be a short battle.
The small holostage showed him the civilian transport at the center of the image, his three tac boats on one side and the three allied Devex raiders on the other.
And it was the allied Devex Raiders that drew his eye now as he made ready to make his first move. They were breaking cover. They came out of the swamp with their white energy bullets streaming into the lead attacking raider, and they came under fire the instant they fired.
The line of raiders closing in on Scherer’s position turned suddenly and raced to join the attack in the north.
Commander Scherer activated his tac boat systems in a few swift movements. He sent a message to the other two tac boats and to Jack on the civilian transport.
"We have an opportunity to kick these attacking raiders in the rear. Attacking now. Scherer out."
The confirmation and agreement from the two tac boats came almost instantly. Scherer guessed they'd been waiting to attack just as he had. A brief acknowledgement from Major Forge came a few moments later as Scherer was lifting out of the swamp.
"Engage attacking raiders. Good luck. Forge out."
Before the three tac boats had cleared the low canopy of the dense swampy vegetation, they were already firing. The high-energy lasers lit up, a beam appearing between the emitter and the target Devex drive systems instantaneously. All three tac boats targeted the nearest raider. The laser beams blinked out a moment later as the raider’s drive system erupted in fire.
Climbing vertically, the three tac boats fired a salvo of kinetic hail. Huge gouts of hail blasted out from both flank cannons on all three. The kinetic hail slammed into the attacking raiders and knocked them out of the green sky.
Away in the north, the allied raiders diverted their fire to the next nearest raider. The first allied Devex went down in flames, all attackers concentrating their fire on one ship at a time. With the first allied raider crashing back to the black swamp, the attackers switched fire and within seconds had smashed another ally.
Commander Scherer lit up his high-energy laser and fired his flank hail cannon into the next target. One tac boat had taken a hit as the attackers flipped end over end, bringing their rapid-fire blasters onto the tac boats on their rear.
And then the second tac boat went down. As it spiraled into the swamp, its high-energy laser activated and it slammed several short-lived beams into the nose of the nearest raider. The moment the tac boat crashed into the dark waters, the raider it had targeted exploded, white plasma rippling over the hull.
Commander Scherer was the last remaining tac boat, flying head-on into four enemy ships. He fired a blast of hail as a defensive curtain and brought his tac boat about. He banked the ship and turned a tight high-G turn, the stability field around his chair failing near his left ankle. He felt it being crushed under the pressure. Now fully in retreat, he diverted all power to the drive and blasted away from the attacking raiders.
With the upper canopy of the dense swamp foliage flicking over the lower hull of his tac boat, Scherer raced away.
"Commander Forge, this is Scherer. Scratch four attackers. Scratch two tac boats. Scratch two allies. I am in retreat. I'll try and draw off these attackers. Good luck, Major. Commander Scherer out."
And as Scherer raced away, his attackers closing in behind, he swiveled the flank hail cannon to fire at his pursuers. The instant he gave a blast of high-energy kinetic hail, he felt the tac boat buck. The nose pitched down while the tail pitched up. Collision alarms sounded and system failure lights lit up over the flight console.
A white energy bullet sliced through the rear section and exploded just above the flight console. Scherer twisted out of his seat and stumbled toward the boarding ramp. He activated the ramp as the boat tumbled out of control, taking more fire.
Scherer leaped from the tac boat and was flung away by the sudden explosion of the main drive. He tumbled in midair and fell. The deep green leaves slashed against his tactical suit before he hit the black waters of the swamp.
Jack Forge crouched in cover on the command deck, his pulse rifle aimed down the only corridor that would give the attacking Devex access to the transport’s central command systems. He glanced at his wrist-mounted holostage as the report from Scherer came in. All boats were destroyed, status of the pilots unknown. All missing in action.
The last communication from the leader of the allied Devex was that they had fought and destroyed six of the eight raiders sent against them. Jack confirmed the numbers.
But there were more to come. Jack had lost all his ships, and he'd not even taken half the Devex. Now all Devex warriors would be focusing their attention on the civilian transport’s command deck, and Jack.
The surveillance net throughout the civilian ship’s interior relayed every step of the Devex warriors that had broken through. Jack watched on his wrist-mounted holostage as they advanced closer.
He patched his enhanced data view through to a corridor internal sensor node. He looked out of the node at the advancing Devex.
The Devex that attacked were too big to stand up in the corridors of the civilian ship. They advanced slowly, stooped to fit within the smooth white hallway. They advanced with their long, heavy rapid-fire blasters in their hands.
The three-meter-tall Devex warriors could not easily maneuver through the corridors, but they came on with speed nevertheless.
Approaching a mid-deck junction, the Devex warriors began to climb down a set of stairs to the deck below, still several decks above Jack's location.
But another group of Devex was already even closer. Jack switched to the surveillance node in the nearby corridor where the closest Devex group was.
A group of six Devex warriors came along the corridor. They moved in twos, side by side, their huge bulk making very little room for anything else.
Jack assumed that of the eight Devex warriors that had arrived in their raider, six advanced on the command deck and two remained behind to defend their ship. But with so few Marines at Jack's disposal, the Devex did not need to defend their raiders. He did not have the numbers to be diverted from his very simple plan to hold the command deck.
The Devex warriors on the command deck level were now only a few corridors away. They advanced toward the cross corridor that led to the long hallway outside the command deck. Jack knelt next to the command chair, the back of which was facing the partially-open command deck blast door. A Marine knelt on the other side, pulse rifle aimed down the long corridor. Two Marines were in position at the open command deck entrance, one on either side. A group of four Marines to hold off the first six Devex.
The small device scuttling down the corridor, bouncing and clattering as it came, caught Jack's attention. Possibly a surveillance device, maybe a grenade, but whatever it was, it was Devex. Jack took aim at the small bounding item. It was already halfway down the corridor and closing in fast. He pulled the trigger and let off a single pulse round.
Jack hit his target, and the small device detonated in a brilliant white flash. The blast wave slammed into the corridor’s white wall and punched a dark sphere in it. The blast wave raced toward the command deck.
"Door," Jack called out the simple order.
The Marines on either side began to push the two parts of the sliding door together. The blast wave hit before they were shut.
The partially-closed door buckled inward. The blast wave that made it through the gap slammed into the command chair, knocking it off its small pedestal. The chair flew over Jack’s head and landed on the holostage. Jack saw the holoimage flicker and finally blink out as it was smashed by the falling wreck.
A second small device came bouncing down the corridor. This time, all Marines were alerted to the danger and a stream of pulse rounds raced down the corridor toward the device. It detonated further away this time, punching another sphere into the smooth corridor. The lights flickered and died, plunging the corridor into darkness. The blast wave came again and slammed into the partially-closed doors, racing into the command deck.
Jack took cover behind the broken plinth of the command chair, but he still felt the blast wave slam into him and push him across the floor. If one of those devices made it into the command deck, it would kill or injure all four Marines.
Jack checked the location of the nearest six Devex on his wrist-mounted holostage, now his only link to the ship’s internal surveillance system. They were in the cross corridor, just out of sight at the end of the corridor. He saw one of the six Devex take an item off its hip—a tiny silver sphere, another blast grenade ready to be thrown.
"Stand ready, Marines. Another one of those blast grenades any second."
And then Jack saw movement behind the Devex.
A group of four Marines, led by Sam Torent, appeared in the cross corridor. With two taking a knee and two standing behind, they poured a stream of pulse rifle fire into the rear of the six Devex warriors. One fell, then another. The four still standing turned to return fire. One was struck in the faceplate and fell back. Another took a pulse round to the hip, then the shoulder, and finally the throat before falling into a crumpled mass on the floor.
The surviving warriors opened fire, but the Marines were already retreating back along the corridor, leaving a grenade behind.
The detonation of the Marine’s grenade disabled the surveillance node at that section. Jack lost his view on his wrist-mounted holostage for a moment and then reconnected with another nearby node. When the signal returned, six Devex warriors lay in the corridor.
That was when the left-behind grenade detonated.
The six Devex warriors were slammed against every surface. One was flung along the cross corridor to the junction with the command deck corridor. Jack aimed with his pulse rifle and focused in on the single Devex warrior with his pulse rifle’s sighting screen. The Devex warrior was still and silent.
Cheers went up from the Marines on the command deck, and Jack allowed them a moment of jubilation before bringing them back to order.
"Steady now, Marines," Jack said firmly. "It's not over yet."
"Jack, this is Sam," Sam’s voice came over a private channel. "Redeploying now. Two more groups of Devex advancing along the port and starboard side, heading to either end of the cross corridor. I'm going to be cut off if I stay here, and they'll be kicking me in the nose and the kravin ass."
Jack felt a smile tug the corner of his mouth. Sam Torent was a born Marine—brash, bold, and never overwhelmed by the task.
"Copy that, Sam," Jack said. "Keep mobile. Keep hitting them."
And as Jack watched Sam relocate on his wrist-mounted holostage, moving fast through the corridors of the civilian transport, he saw the next group of Devex moving up into position to assault the command deck.
"Stand by, Marines," Jack said. He raised his pulse rifle, settling it against his shoulder, and took aim. "Here they come."
The silver sphere came bouncing down the corridor. A Marine at the partially-open door shot it with a single pulse round, and it detonated at the far end of the corridor where the Devex were positioned. Jack checked the surveillance node on his enhanced data view and saw that the warrior group had been blasted by their own grenade.
"Great shot," Jack said. "That'll make them think twice about throwing one of those at us again."
The next group of Devex stepped through the carnage. Jack knew they would change tactics. The only way into the command deck was with a frontal assault. It would be brutal work, but the Devex warriors were determined. They needed to take the command deck in order to take the ship. They needed to take the ship to secure the fifty thousand live humans aboard. They needed the humans to give to the Skalidions in a desperate attempt to save their own skins.
The Devex stepped into the far end of the corridor two abreast, their rapid-fire blasters alive and pouring the fizzing white energy bullets along the corridor.
A white energy bullet slammed into the door. Jack saw the interior glow white hot as the energy bullets struck the far side. Given enough fire, the door would melt away under the onslaught. Jack took careful aim through the narrow gap between the doors and fired.
His pulse rifle poured a stream of well-aimed pulse rounds into the Devex on the left side of the corridor. The other Marines picked their targets and let loose streams weapons fire. The two Devex fell quickly. One, refusing to die, crawled forward, its huge rapid-fire blaster still pouring a stream of white energy bullets toward the command deck. One more pulse round to the Devex helmet and the warrior collapsed to the deck.
And then came two more, firing the instant the Devex in front had fallen. They stepped over the fallen warriors, the corridor even more cramped for them as they picked past the bodies. The energy bullets came on incessantly. They raked the sides of the corridor and peppered the partially-closed door. Many streamed into the command deck, slamming into the far side.
The Marines returned fire and another Devex fell, only to reveal yet another one marching steadily along the corridor, its blaster lighting up the moment it had a clear line of fire.
"Maintain the fire, Marines," Jack said as he fired another stream of pulse rounds. Jack paused to take aim and fired again, the rounds racing away through the gap between the doors and down the corridor to connect with an advancing Devex warrior.
A Marine on one side of the open door had his rifle knocked out of his hand. Jack glanced for a moment to check the Marine’s status. He dropped the broken pulse rifle and drew a pulse pistol from his hip holster, aimed down the corridor, and resumed firing. Jack noted with satisfaction that the Marine had not lost his aim. The first pulse round struck the next Devex warrior high on the helmet, the second lower down. A third and a fourth hit the chest exo-armor. It glowed white hot under the assault of the pulse rounds, and then the Devex fell, first to its knees and then face down just centimeters further along the corridor than the other fallen Devex.
And still they came in pairs, their rapid-fire blasters pouring fire toward the command deck. Jack saw the door on one side of the corridor was now glowing white hot. Soon the composite would begin to crumble. All he could do was maintain the fire.
The latest pair of Devex stepped over their fallen and came closer. The Marines’ fire intensity continued until they fell. Behind them lay a corridor with only dead Devex lining the deck. Jack shifted his aim from one end of the corridor to the other, flicking his pulse rifle lightly across the space. No more Devex came.
Jack checked the nearest surveillance node and saw a group of six Devex warriors holding around the far end of the corridor, just out of sight.
There had to be a reason why they stopped.
"Sam, report." Jack flicked through all the nearby surveillance nodes, checking the corridors on his wrist-mounted holostage.
"I'm preparing to move. Devex attempting to outflank me. I am looking for a way past them. Attempting to enter transport loop channels. How is the fight at the command deck?"
"They must be planning something. I am moving to support you now."
"Negative, Sam," Jack said, scanning the far end of the corridor ahead of him." As long as they are hunting for you out there, the pressure is off me up here. But you're right, Sam. They are planning something."
Jack accessed the main surveillance systems and scanned the surrounding area. He zoomed out to maximum range. Jack was able to scan as far out as high orbit. And there, above the civilian transport, was the unmistakable shape of a Devex warship.
And now Jack knew why the Devex warriors had stopped. Their main assault group had arrived. Thousands of Devex warriors would soon be pouring into the civilian transport, not this time to convert them into Devex warriors but to capture them and hand them over to the Skalidions.
Jack knew he couldn't fight them all. He was trapped, surrounded, outnumbered, and outgunned. He was out of chances. But if the Devex wanted to take back the civilian transport, they would have to go through him.
Jack would fight to the bitter end, and by that bitter end of it, the Devex would know they'd been in a battle with the Fleet Marines.
"Make ready, Marines." Jack checked his rifle’s power load. "Devex warship incoming." Jack had seen before how the warships could clamp onto a civilian transport, punching huge boarding arms in through the outer hull. Dozens of warriors could pour into the civilian ship. Jack knew he could not hold them off forever.
"Sam, get back here. I need you on the command deck."
"On my way," Sam said.
Jack checked the surveillance node at the end of the command deck corridor and saw the group of Devex taking cover around the corner in the junction. If Sam was to make it back to the command deck safely, that group needed to be removed from the fight. Jack stood and called for the Marines’ attention with a wave of his hand. All eyes fell on him.
With a swift series of hand signals, Jack told the Marines to stay in their position while he advanced on the enemy position at the far end of the long, straight corridor where he would engage and destroy them.
All three Marines on the command deck shook their heads. Jack repeated his hand signal and made ready to make his attack.
Unclipping his last grenade from his belt, Jack depressed the activation circuit. The three Marines copied his action, stood, and faced the partially-closed command deck doors.
Nodding in agreement, Jack agreed to let the Marines deploy their grenades ahead of his assault. With a few quick steps toward the doorway, Jack brought his arm back and pitched the grenade far down the corridor. In a single movement, he stepped aside and pressed his back to the left side of the door. Before his grenade hit the floor, the second Marine was up to the opening and tossed his after Jack’s. The third and fourth Marines pitched their grenades in the same fashion.
And with the timings coordinated, the detonation came as one blast.
The debris roaring down the corridor came blasting through the gap, scattering fragments of Devex exo-armor and corridor composite into the command deck. Before the dust had settled, Jack pressed himself through the narrow opening between the two door panels and ran along the corridor.
The hallway was littered with the fallen Devex from the earlier attack. Jack sprinted and hurdled the first, landing lightly on his left foot before leaping again to clear a second. He landed on a third and ran over the next. Nearing the end of the corridor, Jack activated the electron bayonet at the end of his pulse rifle.
With the rifle raised and the bayonet held forward, Jack ran toward the right side of the hall where the Devex were waiting to make their next move. One risked a glance along the corridor just in time to see Jack’s electron bayonet thrust through his helmet.
Slamming into the end of the hallway, Jack faced the right side of the intersection. A Devex warrior hunched in the corridor was raising its blaster. Jack flicked up his rifle, the electron bayonet slicing through the end of the weapon. White plasma burst from the end of the broken blaster like liquid fire. The warrior dropped the gun and staggered back into another hunched Devex warrior.
Thrusting forward with his electron bayonet, Jack inched closer to the first, who fell away. Jack recovered his rifle and thrust forward again, ripping the bayonet up and out of the next Devex warrior’s shoulders. As the warrior fell aside, Jack was squared with two more, their blasters aimed at Jack with only one meter separating them. Too far for Jack to thrust.
Staring into the helmet of the nearest Devex, Jack imagined all that had happened to bring him to this corridor, to the end of this battle, and to the end of his time as a Marine. He remembered running over the grassy prairies of his youth, the difficult training he'd been through to become a Marine, and his rise through the ranks. He remembered every Marine he had known, those who had fallen, and those who would go on after him.
With a battle cry rising in his throat and his muscles tensing for one final thrust, the two Devex warriors standing before him fell aside under a hail of pulse rifle fire. Jack instinctively dropped to the deck and pressed himself to the side of the corridor. As the Devex fell, Jack looked to see a small group of Marines running toward him.
"Jack, on your feet."
Climbing to his feet and deactivating the electron bayonet, Jack recognized the voice of Sam Torent.
"Jack, fall back. We've got Devex after us. Hundreds of them."
Jack urged Sam and his small group to hurry and run to him. Jack waited at the corner of the two corridors and waved the Marines down the long hallway toward the command deck.
"Go, go, go!" Jack waved the Marines on. Sam slowed as he came near.
"Get going, Jack," Sam said. He grabbed Jack and pushed him toward the command deck.
As Jack was bundled around the corner, he saw the first Devex warrior turn into the end of the intersection in pursuit. Sam raised his pulse rifle and fired. Jack grabbed his friend and pulled him around the corner and into cover. A stream of white energy bullets raced by like a stream of heavy, horizontal rain, every drop fizzing like white fire.
Jack pulled Sam. Sam pulled Jack. The pair pulled and pushed each other along the corridor back to the command deck, laughing at their narrow escape. With the end of the corridor only a few paces away, Sam turned sideways and raced through the narrow gap, colliding heavily with one side of the door. Jack turned sideways and led with his shoulder aimed at the narrow gap, and as he glanced back down the corridor, his pulse rifle raised in his right arm, he saw the Devex warriors turn from the cross corridor into the hallway leading to the command deck.
He fell into the command deck as the Devex bullets raked the walls and slammed into the doors. Lying on the floor, half inside the command deck, Jack fired. He lay on his back and scurried backwards, laying down heavy return fire. He was pulled into cover.
"Guess you got us cornered good and proper now, Jack?" Sam looked down at him and pulled Jack to his feet easily with his Mech arm.
"Maintain the fire," Jack said. "Two Marines that side, two Marines that side." Jack pointed to either side of the narrow opening, the door panels still smoldering from the previous attack. "If they try a forward assault, I want you to fill up that corridor with fallen Devex warriors. If fire won't hold them back, maybe their own dead will. Heavy fire, Marines."
Jack looked at his wrist-mounted holostage. He accessed the civilian transport’s surveillance network and checked how many Devex ships were now around the swamp planet. He detected a new signal, on the edge of surveillance range. A faint signal was received by his tactical suit’s communication system.
The Scorpio had arrived.
The Scorpio command deck was a buzz of activity. Command deck officers were all at their consoles, busy and focused on their specific tasks. Captain Pretorius stood in front of the main holostage, his second-in-command, Commander Chou, at his side.
Racing toward the inner system, the Scorpio was flanked by two frigates and a squadron of Blades.
The frigates and fighters raced ahead to meet the Devex Raiders that swept up from the planet surface to meet the new threat, but the warship continued its descent through the planet’s thick atmosphere. The puncture arms were partially deployed, poised and ready to grip the civilian transport in its deadly embrace.
The Blades and frigates opened fire with every available weapon. Hail and high-energy lasers slammed into the raiders that raced to meet them.
Pretorius targeted the warship. He could deal with the Raiders in his own time, but the warship had to be stopped now or all the people would be lost.
"Make ready all combat drone pods," Pretorius said.
Commander Chou checked the targeting calculations. A command deck officer called out that all combat drone pods were ready.
Tugging his cuffs, Pretorius gave the command.
"Fire all tubes."
The combat drones dropped from the Scorpio, and their rockets kicked to life, flinging them across space toward the swamp planet and the Devex warship descending through the atmosphere.
The combat drones raced past the battle between the raiders and the Blades and frigates, on toward the swamp planet and the warship. The first combat drone collapsed its anti-matter containment field, exposing its deadly warhead to the outer hull of the warship.
The huge fireball created by the drone slammed into the massive ship, pressing the forward section down suddenly. And then the line of combat drones detonated one after another all along the warship’s upper hull.
"Scan for damage," Pretorius said, walking back to his command chair. He climbed up into the chair and activated the communication console on his armrest.
Commander Chou zoomed the main holostage image in on the Devex warship. The outer hull near the rear of the massive ship was smashed, venting gas and plasma into the green clouds of the swamp planet.
Pretorius looked in satisfaction as the warship began to retreat. It banked away to port and raced through the dark green clouds, blasting out into orbit and disappearing from view on the far side of the planet.
"Commander Forge, this is the Scorpio. Do you copy?"
Pretorius leaned forward in his chair and looked at the holoimage of the civilian transport on the planet below. The Scorpio entered geostationary orbit above the civilian transport. The faint reply from the ship below came over the communication panel on Pretorius's armrest.
"This is Forge. Good to see you, Scorpio. We have fifty thousand sleeping civilians down here who don't know it yet, but they are happy to see you too."
Pretorius smiled and leaned back in his chair. If anyone could pull off the impossible, it was Jack Forge.
"I have orders from Fleet Command to deliver an engineering team to the civilian transport. And I have a relief squad of Marines ready to take over from you, Major. I think you and your people have done enough down there. I'm sending a tac boat down to collect you now. Pretorius out."
Looking at the main holostage, Pretorius saw the raiders turn and flee. The frigates held position while the Blades continued pursuit, high-energy lasers and hail cannons seeing the Devex off.
Pretorius climbed down from his command chair. "You have the command deck, Mr. Chou. Inform me as soon as Major Forge is aboard."
Being back aboard the Scorpio was the closest feeling to being home that Jack had these days. Every corridor in the huge ship was so familiar to him. He passed the Marine deck where he'd assembled with his troops on so many occasions. He passed his old squad barracks from the time when he had been a new recruit and squad leader. Now, he walked toward the forward section of the destroyer and the command deck.
Commander Chou directed Jack to the officers’ lounge when he stepped onto the command deck. He walked straight to the lounge and found the captain standing at the small side cabinet pouring a heavy tumbler of Amber.
"Good work, Jack." Pretorius turned around and stepped over to him, holding out the tumbler with the dark liquor at the bottom.
Jack shook his head in refusal and wrinkled his nose. What Jack really needed was a heavy ration block and a shower.
"The people on that ship, Captain?"
Pretorius took a sip of the harsh liquor and then placed the tumbler on the small side table.
"A group of engineers are down there now and will have the ship ready to fly within the hour. We will rejoin the fleet as soon as they have completed the work. The Devex have all but cleared their people from this region. The Skalidions are moving in on a new front. They are closing in on the fleet. All Fleet craft are being assigned to a rearguard to protect the civilian transports. We are sending the fleet across an interstellar void and leaving this region. The Skalidions can have it all."
The message over the lounge communicator cut over the captain.
"Captain to the command deck. Priority message from the Scepter."
Following the captain out of the officers’ lounge and back onto the command deck, Jack noticed all officers looking nervously at the captain. The holoimage of the admiral appeared on the holostage.
"New orders, Captain Pretorius," the admiral said as Pretorius stepped up to the holostage. "The Scorpio will return immediately."
"But what about those people down there?" Jack said. "The Skalidions wanted them alive. They are coming to get them right now."
"Major Forge," the admiral said. "This is not your call. The engineering team will have the transport ready to fly. They will have their chance to escape this region, but only if we give it to them. The Skalidion are moving in on the fleet. The Devex have abandoned us. We need to give the civilian fleet a chance to run. I need all ships in the line."
"We are on our way, Admiral," Pretorius said. He instructed the command deck crew to set the heading and activate the main drive.
"Captain," Jack said, turning to Pretorius, "let me stay with the group of Marines and protect the engineers and the civilian transport."
"Negative, Major. I need you to head up the Scorpio Battalion. If we are going into a fight, I'm going to need you on board." The captain placed a hand on Jack's shoulder "You are needed here, Jack. Go and grab a bite to eat, rest up if you can. We'll be taking our position in the line before the end of the watch."
Jack nodded and marched off the command deck toward his quarters. A shower, a bite to eat, and he'd be back in action against the Skalidion.
Jack woke suddenly in his quarters, slumped over his small desk. The alarm sounding throughout the ship alerted all crew that the Scorpio was taking its place in battle formation.
Sprinting through the corridors, sleep forgotten, Jack raced toward the command deck.
The main holostage showed the Scorpio moving into position. At the center of the formation was the huge carrier, the Scepter. Surrounding the Scepter were squadrons of Blades, and further out from the Blades were the frigates and corvettes, fast and powerful weapons platforms. All were positioned and standing ready for action.
And in the front line, the destroyers.
The destroyers of the fleet were arranged in a line bow to stern. The Canis, the Aquarius, and finally, coming into position in the center, the Scorpio. Each had their port-side hail cannon batteries presented toward the front where the Skalidions were coming from. The destroyers would slow the Skalidion attack, but Jack could not believe that the three destroyers could stop them.
Standing at the holostage and studying the formation, Jack realized the power of the combined fleet. It was a formidable arsenal of hardware. Even though it was a mere shadow of the once-powerful fleet that had consisted of three massive carriers and a dozen destroyers, it could still strike awe into Jack.
Sitting in his command chair, Captain Pretorius was busy communicating with the other destroyer captains and the Scepter. The command deck officers were all busy, but Jack could tell they were not too busy that the nerves did not show through the slight cracks developing in the overworked and overwhelmed personnel.
Looking up to Pretorius, Jack could see his old friend and mentor showed no signs of stress. He was focused. He was calm. He was determined and ready to fight.
Pretorius looked down at Jack at the holostage.
"Sleep well, Major?" Pretorius smiled.
"The civilian transport?" Jack said, remembering the ship he had left behind.
"Back with the others. The passengers are still asleep, I hear. They'll never know what you did for them. Is the battalion ready, Major?"
Jack nodded. Before he’d drifted to sleep at his desk, he had instructed his officers to deploy the battalion throughout the ship. The Marines were positioned at vital locations, ready to repel any Skalidion that tried to infiltrate.
The admiral appeared on the main holostage, a priority message to all ships. The image of the Scorpio in its position amongst the fleet shrank away while the admiral dominated. Jack could see the old admiral was breaking under the strain. Even over the slightly-distorted holoimage of the admiral, Jack could see the slight signs of stress—a nervous smile here, a twitching eye muscle there, the furrowed brow and the permanent curl of his lip.
"Hear this, all ships. Skalidion fighter swarm incoming. Tactical command will now pass to Group Captain Tanaka. The civilian fleet is away and heading toward the interstellar void. We will hold the Skalidion here. We will beat them back, join the civilian fleet, and leave this wretched region of space behind. Good luck to us all."
It seemed clear that the admiral was suffering under the strain, but Group Captain Tanaka was a resourceful and competent battle leader. Jack had no doubt that she would use the fleet effectively.
The image of Admiral Henson faded to be replaced by Captain Tanaka.
"Defensive hail curtain deploy on my mark. All support warships move up into the destroyers’ line. The fleet will make ready to redeploy to these coordinates. Tanaka out."
Jack watched the holostage as Tanaka’s image faded and the fleet reappeared. Commander Chou zoomed the image out to show the full extent of the surveillance sphere around the fleet. Moving in at high speed toward the Scorpio’s port side was the Skalidion fighter swarm. Several astro units away below the fleet’s starboard side was a new star and protoplanetary disk. In that chaotic space of swirling dust, gas, and rock lay the redeployment coordinates Tanaka had set.
Captain Pretorius activated a ship-wide address. Jack heard his voice echoing over the communication notes throughout the ship and from the captain himself sitting up on his command chair.
"All batteries make ready to fire kinetic hail defensive curtain. All sections make ready for high-speed redeployment to new coordinates. Navigation, double-check we are not going to be flying into a protoplanet when we get into that system. Pretorius out."
Jack looked at the holoimage of the advancing swarm. It was a huge elliptical mass of the small fighter craft that Jack had seen in action only recently. They darted about within the swarm and advanced as one, closing the distance to the fleet rapidly.
They closed in on the point where the kinetic hail defensive curtain would be deployed. Jack looked up to Pretorius. The captain tugged his cuffs and then calmly issued the fire order.
The port -side hail cannon battery of the Scorpio erupted as one and delivered a huge mass of kinetic hail. The two other destroyers in the line fired simultaneously. The smaller frigates and corvettes fired their hail cannon and added a small but significant amount of hail to the defensive curtain.
The kinetic hail raced across the space between the fleet and met the incoming Skalidion swarm at the predetermined coordinates. Mere meters ahead of the Skalidion swarm, the kinetic hail erupted into a shimmering cascade of high-density hail fragments, creating the vast defensive curtain.
The leading front of the swarm was annihilated as it raced headlong into the curtain.
And still they rushed on, hundreds of Skalidion fighters annihilated in a moment. They punched deep into the hail curtain. Although only a few dozens of meters thick, it was thousands of meters in circumference and created a vast wall. The fighters at the rear of the formation altered course in order to maneuver around it, but those directly in front plowed on regardless. Many more were destroyed until finally a Skalidion punched through the hail curtain and left a narrow channel of empty space behind it, through which flooded Skalidion fighters by the dozens.
"Secondary defensive curtain. Fire." Pretorius remained calm. "Drive systems to full power. Let's get out of here."
Jack watched the surveillance image disappear from range. The primary hail curtain was still destroying Skalidion fighters, but thousands more were now breaking through and even more were circumnavigating it.
Looking ahead to the protoplanetary disk, Jack could see the benefit of fighting the Skalidion in that space. It was chaotic and would prevent the swarm from advancing in a single mass.
And if the fleet could achieve a tight stellar orbit within the chaotic protoplanetary disk, they would be able to fight as a single unit. Jack knew the Scorpio would be one of the deadliest ships in that fight.
Phisrid raged. The Devex warrior before her had promised to deliver thousands of humans alive. The Devex had failed her. She had promised to spare his planet from the swarm. She would not spare them now. Even though she knew they were fleeing and abandoning the planet they had so desperately wanted to keep, she was determined to have her revenge. Their leader cowering before her would have to be sufficient for the moment.
Phisrid wrapped one of her secondary arms around the Devex while another arm secreted a thick chemical communication pheromone slime over it. She sensed his pleas and the bargains he hoped to strike, to deliver even greater numbers of live humans to her.
“Give me one more chance,” he pleaded.
Sending the signal through the pheromone slime into the Devex leader, Phisrid told him his planet now belonged to her. He would belong to her. She would satisfy her hunger for humans herself.
And even as the Devex warrior pleaded, she crushed the life from him, squeezing the body within the heavy exo-armor. It cracked like a shell, the soft parts of the Devex leaking out of the exo-armor as it cracked in her grip.
Phisrid raised the broken Devex to her mouth and rasped at the soft parts leaking out. The taste was bitter and sweet. But human was all sweet, and Phisrid had to have the taste. She could not ignore the lure of that taste. She would have that taste again. But not remotely through her builders as they transmitted the flavors to her through the pheromone field.
No. She would have the taste in her own rasping mouth.
Phisrid dropped the broken Devex at her feet. A builder drone scuttled in and began to drag the body away, breaking it down into its constituent matter. This single Devex would be broken down and secreted on the outer shell of Phisrid's enormous nest asteroid to provide some part of the spawn pods ready to develop a new generation of Skalidion drone.
Phisrid snatched a nurse drone from the inside of her central chamber and ate it. Her daughter nurse drones were a favorite treat, but nothing could stave off the hunger for more human.
Looking through the eyes of her distant observer drones, she saw her fighter swarm breaking through the human fleet’s defenses. A shimmering wall of fiery shards destroyed her fighters and blocked their way to the fleet. And beyond that fleet lay hundreds of civilian craft, each packed full with thousands upon thousands of live humans.
Her hunger would never be sated, but that many humans would satisfy her for a long time. She urged her swarm onward into the seething protoplanetary disk where the fleet were retreating.
Her swarm would be fragmented in that swirling mass of rock and dust. She sent out the pheromone signal to other swarms within her nation. All drones, all fighters were to converge on the protoplanetary disk. The human fleet must be destroyed. She must have human flesh.
The fleet moved swiftly through the protoplanetary disk, moving as individual ships through the swirling mass of rock and dust, heading toward the very inner system where clear space would give the fleet a chance to reform into a battle formation and fight off the incoming swarm.
The Scorpio plunged toward one of the larger protoplanets and used its gravity well to draw it on ever faster. At the last moment, Captain Pretorius gave the order to flip the Scorpio around the protoplanet and send it at all speed toward the inner system and the new, bright blue sun. The Scorpio arrived in stellar orbit as the first of the major battleships. The Blades, the corvettes, and the frigates, the fastest ships in the fleet, had already made it to the inner system and were there to receive the destroyers and finally the Scepter.
The fleet formed into its battle formation, and a moment later, the Skalidions began to infiltrate the protoplanetary disk. Each fighter came on fast, but the chaotic swirling mass of the infant planetary system caused them to spread out into a diffused mass.
And in went the Blades, racing away from the fleet formation to engage the Skalidion fighters.
The Fleet fighters danced around asteroids and protoplanets and picked off the Skalidion craft. Lasers and hail cannons tore through one Skalidion after another. The Blades moved independently, every Blade pilot a superb fighter. They operated throughout the swarm seemingly at will, picking off the Skalidions that seemed only able to fight as a mass.
But the Blades could not hope to destroy the thousands of Skalidion fighters pouring into the system. Soon they would be overwhelmed and swallowed up by the sheer number of Skalidions. With every Blade chalking up a huge number of kills, it was difficult for them to fall back. But then the orders came.
It was now the fleet’s turn to engage the swarm.
Cannon and laser batteries lit up across the fleet. Dozens of corvettes, dozens of frigates, and hundreds of tac boats all fired into the protoplanetary disk and picked off Skalidion fighters. And then the main ships of the line added their firepower.
The Scorpio was filled with the dull thump of hail cannons firing repeatedly. The hail spread outward from the inner system, smashing dozens of Skalidion fighters every second. Smaller protoplanets were torn apart by the huge amount of kinetic hail, and the debris flung out from the smashed planets further disrupted the Skalidion formation, some destroyed by wildly flying chunks of rock.
Jack watched the holostage closely. Despite the huge amount of destruction going on within the swarm, Jack could see the inevitability of them breaking through. They relied on the sheer weight of their numbers. Even though the fleet were destroying more and more of them by the second, there were too many, and the Skalidion would not give up this fight.
The sudden flicker of green light throughout the protoplanetary system told Jack one thing: The Skalidion fighters had battled into firing range. Every fighter within range was firing their weapons.
A seething mass of green fire raced toward the fleet. The Scorpio took the first hit. Collision alarm sounded on the command deck. The stability field control console officer called out the impact and the reduction in the field strength covering their forward section.
And then another bolt of green fire struck, and another, and another. The Scorpio began to shudder under the impacts.
Jack looked up to Captain Pretorius in his command chair. The captain appeared completely at ease. He was looking at holofiles on his armrest and managing the ship. Jack looked back to the holostage. The fighters closed in and were moving freely through the fleet’s formation. The Blades were re-engaging the Skalidion fighters, chasing them between the ships of the fleet.
Thousands upon thousands of Skalidion fighters raced between the ships, pouring their green fire into their targets. A frigate went down, its signal lighting up red on the Scorpio’s main holostage. Then a tac boat, then another frigate, and then the warning from the Scorpio’s stability field officer.
"Captain. Outer hull stability field at thirty-five percent."
Captain Pretorius did not look up from his work; he simply called out his orders.
"Laser fire command. Protect the field generators. Target any Skalidion firing on those locations."
The fleet formation was completely surrounded and shot through with Skalidions. The position had fallen. But to flee now would mean destruction for sure. Only by fighting as a fleet could they hope to win.
And then the signal from the civilian fleet. A new swarm of Skalidions were moving in on the unprotected civilian fleet as it raced toward the safety of the interstellar void—the vast empty space, devoid of stars, a passage to a new region of space and safety. But they were not going to make it. And the message chilled Jack.
The Skalidions were capturing the civilian transports and taking the passengers alive.
With the Scorpio rocking under the onslaught of Skalidion green fire, Jack Forge stepped over to Captain Pretorius up on his command chair.
"The Skalidion are all controlled by a swarm queen," Jack said.
"Your point, Mr. Forge?" Pretorius said, looking at his work, rocking in his seat as another blast of struck the Scorpio.
"If we can attack the queen, we can disrupt the Skalidion attack. We can triangulate between the civilian fleet and our position and pinpoint the location of the nest asteroid. If we can locate the nest, we can locate the queen and kill her."
Captain Pretorius tapped away at his armrest controls. He placed a call to Captain Tanaka.
Tanaka appeared on the central holostage. The image was fragmented as the Skalidion green fire slammed into the Scepter.
"Yes, Captain?" Tanaka said, looking out of the holoimage onto the command deck of the Scorpio.
"Major Forge has a request," Pretorius said.
Without waiting for an invitation to speak, Jack stepped up to the holostage and looked up into the large holoimage of Captain Tanaka.
"The Skalidion Swarm Queen. She must be nearby. She can only operate over a certain range, and if the civilian fleet is being attacked as well as the fleet here, then we can locate her. We can attack the queen."
Tanaka turned away, looking to someone on her command deck.
"We are searching. But if we move to intercept the nest, we will expose ourselves even more to this fighter swarm. And the nest is mobile and will surely move off if this queen detects us. Do you have a suggestion, Major Forge?"
"Give me a tac boat and a combat drone and I'll destroy the nest."
The image of Captain Tanaka shrank aside and was joined by the image of Chief Agent Pound. Jack was not surprised to see the Fleet Intelligence Agency listening in to all conversations, but he was surprised to see the chief agent interrupt his call.
"Fleet Intelligence has been working on a plan that might suit the major. Report to Agent Sarah Reyes. She has Devex technology that can help you now. Intel authorizes release of the tac boat and combat drone. Proceed with all haste, Major. Good luck."
The image of chief agent shrank away from the holostage. Group Captain Tanaka restored to full size. She looked down at Jack.
"Well, there you have it, Major. You are working for intel. Report to Agent Reyes. Tanaka out."
Jack was already running off the command deck. He knew where Sarah Reyes was working. She was aboard the Scepter. The tac boat was prepped by the time Jack reached the Marine deck, the boarding ramp lowered. Jack ran up the ramp, and a Marine pilot initiated takeoff the instant Jack was aboard.
Dropping into the copilot’s seat, Jack activated the holostage. The Scepter was close, but hundreds of Skalidions moved between the ships. A squadron of Blades swept in to cover Jack’s tac boat as it headed toward the Scepter, their cannons tearing a path through the swarming fighters.
The white-knuckle ride ended with a combat landing on one of the Scepter’s huge landing pads. Jack was out of his seat and running in an instant. An enforcer fell in with Jack, escorting him to Sarah’s workshop, but Jack was too fast and soon outpaced his escort.
Sarah’s workshop was guarded by a single enforcer, but he stepped aside as Jack approached, clearly already informed by his commanding officers to let Major Forge into Agent Reyes's workshop.
Sarah came walking over toward Jack quickly the moment he came in. She had in her hands a large backpack. She held the shoulder straps out.
"Put this on, Jack."
Jack turned around and held his arms out for Sarah to slip the backpack on him.
"No time for a quick hello?" Jack said. Sarah spun Jack around as soon as she had slipped on the backpack and handed him a small device.
“This is the targeting device. The transmission device is in the backpack. Target the center of the Skalidion nest, strap this backpack onto the combat drone, and then send. It's the Devex matter transport device that I've shrunk down. You can transport the drone from your tac boat directly into the center of the nest asteroid. Just make sure you clear the area before it detonates. We have set it to ultra-high yield. It's going to destroy everything within a few kilometers."
"Another one of your projects?" Jack said.
Sarah ignored the question. "The tac boat and combat drone are ready for you now. Good luck, Major."
"Major? Are we all formal now, Sarah?" Jack said with a half-smile. He had known Sarah since his first days aboard the Scorpio. He thought they were friends, but now she was Fleet Intelligence. She was now as cold as any agent Jack had encountered.
Sarah laid a hand on Jack’s shoulder. "I'm an intelligence agent, Jack. It's difficult to have friends now. But you can rely on me. We will always be friends, but I might have to send you on a dangerous mission one day. We need to keep it professional."
"A dangerous mission?" Jack said with a smile. "You mean more dangerous than this?"
Sarah marched Jack toward the exit. She called out to the enforcer guarding the door, who stepped in.
"Escort Major Forge to the Marine hangar and his tac boat."
Jack had lost many friends, and now it seemed he had lost another.
"Thank you, Agent Reyes. I will not let you down. "
Former Agent Mallet watched through the micro drone she had hidden aboard the Scepter as Jack Forge climbed aboard a tac boat. She had followed him closely, waiting for her chance, and now she had him in her sights. She would finally get to kill Jack Forge.
As the tac boat lifted off and drifted out of the doors into the space filled with the weapons fire, Mallet made her move.
Mallet dropped from her hiding place high on the side of the hangar deck. She rushed across to the single Blade fighter being rearmed to be returned to the fight. She dropped the pilot with an electron blade to the back of the neck, and then she slashed the throat of the engineer who was closing up a conduit cover.
"Thank you for getting a ship ready for me," Mallet said, stepping over the body as she climbed up into the cockpit. She sent her cloned security codes to the Scepter command deck and gave herself clearance to leave.
Mallet had been one of the best agents in the fleet. If they had just given her Forge, a disposable Marine major brought up through the ranks, they would not have turned her into an enemy.
She would have her revenge on Jack Forge now.
Jack raced away from the Scepter. A squadron of Blades fell in on his position.
"We are the Blades," the lead Blade came over Jack's flight deck holostage. "We have orders to see you safely out of the protoplanetary disk. Kick up to full speed and watch out for those flying rocks. You leave the Skalidions to us. Blades out."
Jack hit the main drive and flung the tac boat out from the blue star into the swirling chaotic mass of rocks, dust, and Skalidion fighters and fleet ordnance. He sent the tac boat on the heading that had been preprogrammed into the flight system.
The flight console was lit green. Every system was operating at peak efficiency. Jack had no weapons, he noticed. All he had was his sidearm—the Fleet Marine pulse pistol strapped to the hip holster of his tactical suit.
Racing away from the battle raging below him and heading toward the location of the nest asteroid, the Blades left without a word, leaving Jack racing across interstellar space.
At full speed, Jack closed in on the nest location faster than expected. Jack checked the active scanners for the asteroid, but what he located was a swarm of Skalidion fighters surrounding it. The swarm queen had not left herself defenseless. Jack cut the main drive and continued toward his target on stealth approach. The tac boat was dark and silent. He closed in toward the nest asteroid.
Climbing out of his chair, Jack moved to the back. The small passenger area designed to carry a squad of Marines was now dominated by the single combat drone. The long, black torpedo with its own on-board drive system and targeting system easily filled the compartment. Jack grabbed the backpack Reyes had given him and looked for a suitable spot to attach the matter transport device.
And then the tac boat bucked violently. Jack was thrown forward, a collision alarm sounding from the flight deck. He grabbed the backpack and hooked it over his shoulder, walking back to the flight deck.
The Skalidions must have found me, he thought.
Checking the passive scanners for the attacker, the boat bucked again. Jack rocked in his seat. He slipped his arms through the matter transport backpack and held it over his chest to save it from being lost as the boat was thrown about. He checked where the fire was coming from…
…and saw a single Blade.
And then Jack saw fighters from the defense swarm stream across space toward him.
A message appeared on the flight deck holostage.
"I know you can hear me, Jack. This is Mallet. You killed Stone. You've killed so many. But you won't kill again. The Skalidions will take care of you now. I gave everything to destroy you, Jack."
Jack stared at the holostage and the image of the former Special Agent Mallet. Jack couldn't believe she was here now.
Jack checked his proximity to the nest asteroid. He was still too far out for the device to send the drone to the nest. Jack knew there was only one way he could deliver the combat drone now.
He set a collision course.
He made ready to kick up the main drive, to break his covert advance and to go racing toward the asteroid where he would deliver his deadly payload.
The tac boat rocked again. This time, Jack knew it was not fire from Mallet’s ship. Something had hit the tac boat. And then the screeching and the tearing echoed around the ship. Jack looked up and saw the hull being torn apart. Looking down from the dark space above was a Skalidion drone, fine strands reaching for Jack. It pulled him out and raced toward the nest asteroid.
Jack struggled against his hands clamped at his sides. He tried to grab his pistol off his hip, but he was stuck. The nest asteroid was growing ever closer. He looked back at his tac boat as it was torn apart by a group of Skalidion builder drones.
If the builders tried to devour the combat drone, it would be destroyed. But he was still too far out for it to destroy the nest asteroid. Jack had failed. He had been captured. Jack could only guess what was coming next.
Jack was carried into the nest asteroid through a tunnel on the outside of the dark surface. The lights on his helmet lit the way. Small Skalidions scuttled aside as Jack was carried into the interior.
The tunnel opened out into a vast internal chamber. And within that chamber stood the single largest Skalidion Jack had ever seen. It was almost the size of a corvette. A huge head was ringed by a hard bone crown, many arms protruded from the huge central portion of the queen’s body, and a vast bulbous abdomen with a slime-covered tube protruding from the end deposited small, black, glistening globes to the floor that were carried away by small scuttling creatures.
Jack was released and floated freely in the inner chamber. He drifted toward the large face of the massive Skalidion Swarm Queen.
Dark eyes dominated the large head. A huge rasping mouth that was larger than a person dripped with thick slime. Jack twisted and reached for his pulse pistol. As he turned, he saw another person drifting in the chamber beside him. They were dressed in black enforcer uniform, and Jack knew it was Mallet.
A channel opened on Jack’s communicator.
"They may have captured me too," Mallet said, "but it least I'll get to see you die."
Jack twisted and grabbed his pulse pistol. Mallet collided with him and wrestled for it. She punched him hard in the helmet, using her wrist thrusters to add weight to the blow.
An arm with many fine, fibrous fingers reached out from the huge queen and gripped Mallet around the chest. She was tugged away from Jack toward the queen. The pulse pistol was wrenched from Jack's hand and now floated away from him. Jack activated his thrusters and moved toward the weapon.
With the channel still open from Mallet’s suit, Jack heard her laughing manically as she was drawn ever closer to the huge rasping mouth of the Skalidion queen. The crushing of her bones silenced her laughter and brought on a brief shriek of pain. Jack reached out and grabbed the pistol as he saw the fleshy parts of the former agent erupt from the tactical suit only to be sucked up by a number of feeding tubes that reached out from the Skalidion queen’s mouth.
Jack reached for the pulse pistol and took hold of it with fingertips just before he was grabbed by the dark fibrous fingers of the swarm queen. She drew him in. The large rasping mouth grew ever larger in his vision. With his arms pinned at his sides, he could not bring up the pistol to take aim at the Skalidion, but Jack was not sure how much damage a pulse round would do to her anyway. However, within reach of his other hand, strapped to his hip, was the matter transport activation unit. On his chest, he had the matter transport device. Jack thought fast. And acted even faster.
With the targeting and transmission device in his right hand, Jack estimated the distance to the swarm queen. He input the coordinates and activated the device on his back.
Jack had traveled using the Devex matter transport device before and the sensation was even more disorientating this time. Light seemed to flood his senses. He could feel space-time expand and contract around him and through him.
And then Jack dematerialized. He felt the tight grip of the queen disappear. And then Jack re-materialized. He could not see, and he felt pressure on all sides. Jack knew he was inside the Skalidion.
The warm, slimy, internal mass of the queen gripped him in tight slick. He moved his arm through the thick slime and internal structures. Blinded by the material all around, Jack operated on touch alone. He brought the pulse pistol close to him, still gripping it with his fingertips alone, pulling it through the slimy mass. And finally, with the pulse pistol gripped firmly in his hand, Jack activated the electron bayonet.
The white blade shone through the dark slime surrounding him, and he moved the blade little by little this way and that. He quickly freed up a cavity and was able to move more freely, then he began to slash away—left and right, up and down, moving all around, cutting through the thick slime until it became a thin liquid. Then Jack came to a hard edge.
Jack thrust the blade forward and it burst out of the queen’s thorax. Jack sliced upward, downward, and cut an exit. With his suit’s thrusters burning, boiling the slime and liquid behind him, Jack burst out of the Skalidion.
The swarm queen thrashed violently. Jack brought his pulse pistol up and took aim at a small drone coming toward him. Jack realized the small Skalidion was tumbling, its legs thrashing uselessly, and it mirrored the frantic actions of its mortally-wounded queen.
Jack turned and saw the queen collapse to the side of the central chamber. Dark red slime oozed out of the opening Jack had cut through her thorax. All around, the Skalidion drones were helpless. Jack looked again at the queen. Her arms were thrashing but less violently now, and she tore at the opening in her thorax. She gripped her the drone and pressed it into her rasping mouth. Blood from Mallet was still smeared over her face.
Taking aim, Jack fired a round into the huge mouth. The pulse rounds slammed into the hard teeth, smashing them into fragments. Jack moved in closer, as close as he dared. The thrashing queen was slowing but still moving. Jack unclipped the pistol’s powerpack and set it to overload. He raced toward the massive head of the Skalidion queen and pressed the pack into her face. And then, kicking up his suit’s thrusters, Jack raced across the vast internal chamber of the nest asteroid. Skalidion drones floated around helplessly, uselessly, and Jack made his way to the access tunnel that had brought him into this terrible place.
As Jack raced down the dark tunnel, he felt the rumbling of the detonation. Bursting out into space with fire, slime, and Skalidion body parts racing after him, Jack found himself alone in the dark. The defensive fighter swarm that had been surrounding the nest asteroid drifted aimlessly. None approached Jack. Their bright green outer hulls dimmed and lost color by the moment.
Jack opened a communication channel and sent a message to the fleet. A simple message.
The Skalidion Swarm Queen was dead.
Jack woke up in the familiar surroundings of the Scorpio's med-bay. He had spent far too long in this facility, but here he was again.
"At least you're alive, Jack," Sam said. His old friend patted him heavily on the shoulder.
Jack winced as Sam touched him. He looked at that bruises from shoulder to elbow on both arms where the queen had gripped him.
"Yeah, and in enough pain to know it." Jack sat up on the bunk. A med-drone rolled over and pressed Jack back down.
Sam grabbed the drone with his Mech arm and held it back. "Don't touch him, drone. That is Jack Forge there, hero of the fleet. If it wasn't for him, we'd all be dead. If he wants to sit up, he can kravin well sit up."
Jack sat up and pulled the various probes off his body, dropping them onto the small unit next to his bunk. He felt strong enough to walk, and he'd spent enough time in the med-bay.
With his pants on and still pulling on his jacket, Jack walked out of the bay toward the command deck. As he walked along the corridor, Sam at his side, he received salutes, applause, and cheers from the crew and officers that passed.
Stepping onto the command deck to applause, Jack held up his hands to call for quiet. He did not like the attention. He had only been doing his job.
"You are supposed to be in the med-bay, Major," Captain Pretorius said, climbing down from his command chair. "Do you need me to suggest to the admiral that we submit you for a court martial for disobeying medical orders?" Captain Pretorius stepped up to Jack, his hand held out for a handshake.
Jack took the captain's hand and shook it warmly. He looked over at the holostage. Only an image of the Scorpio appeared there. The commander put a hand on Jack’s shoulder and walked toward the holostage. Pretorius gestured at it and looked at Jack.
"This is where we are, Jack," Pretorius said. "In the middle of nowhere. We have entered the interstellar void. Navigation estimates it will take several months to cross. No stars, no planets, no Devex, and certainly no Skalidion. We estimate there to be a rich region of space on the other side, though. We’re certain to find a new home. I know you don't want to hear it, Jack, but it’s all thanks to you."
Jack looked at the holostage. Commander Chou smiled back and then zoomed out to show the fleet, the entire fleet, military and civilian. Hundreds of ships all being escorted by the three destroyers, the single carrier, and dozens of corvettes and frigates. All making for the far side of the interstellar void. They seemed to hang in empty space, drive systems powering them across the empty region.
"So," Pretorius continued, turning Jack away from the holostage and marching him off the command deck, "will you return to the med bay, Major, or do I have to order you?"
"Thank you, Captain, but I'd like to return to my quarters for now. I don't think I'll be taking orders from you now, with the greatest of respect, but I think my days as a Marine are over. My intention is to resign my position. I'm leaving the Marines."
Pretorius stopped and looked at Jack. He nodded, tugged his cuffs, and placed a hand on Jack’s shoulder.
"No one has done more than you, Jack. If anyone deserves to give up their position, it's you. You should be able to retire, and once we get to our new home, you should be able to live anywhere you like, and live a long and happy life in peace. But I won't accept your resignation. The admiral won't accept your resignation. You are a Marine, Jack. And when we get to the other side of this interstellar void, we will have a whole new set of challenges. Someone of your ability is going to be required to give his service. I'm sorry, Jack, but you won't be leaving us. As it stands, I can order you. I order you to take a vacation. We are all alone out here, so you can be sure you won't be disturbed. I'll inform the admiral that Major Forge is on leave."
Pretorius marched Jack off the deck and left him at the door. He patted him heavily on the back and sent him on his way.
Jack walked down the corridor, his eyes fixed on the deck plates in front of him and Sam Torent at his side.
"I hear some former swerveball players have set up a mini league. They're playing a match at the end of red watch over on one of the civilian transports in the central arena. You want to go?"
Jack kept looking at the deck. "You got tickets?"
Sam laughed hard and hit Jack hard on the back. "Tickets?" Sam laughed again. "I don't think you are going to need a ticket, Jack. But I might.?"
Jack looked up at Sam.
"Guess I'm on vacation." He shrugged. "I can't think of a better way to start a break than going to watch a game. Do you think we could have a few sips of Amber while we are there?"
"A few sips?" Sam said, laughing and hitting Jack again. "A few bottles maybe? A few cases even!"
Jack was still feeling a little worse for wear. A sip would be more than enough. A short break could be good, and a couple of tickets to the game with his friend for company would be the best.
"Sure," Jack said. "Let's make the most of being a hero while we can. Guess we will be back to normal soon enough. Now who do I have to talk to for some halfway line tickets?"
And as Jack walked through the familiar corridors of the Scorpio, with his old friend at his side and free time ahead of him, he felt like he was moving into new and unfamiliar territory.
Whatever lay on the far side of the interstellar void, Jack knew he wouldn’t face it alone, but he would face it soon.
Thank You For Reading
Thanks for reading this installment of the Jack Forge, Lost Marine saga. Jack is doing everything he can to save humanity but there’s still a lot of work to do (and fighting) if they are going to find a safe haven for the human race.
The next story is called Enemy Within and you can order it on Amazon.
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And if you would like to know about the events that led to Jack and Sam being stranded in space, check out the Jack Forge, Fleet Marine series where Jack goes from unwilling Marine to savior of humanity.
Get Recruit, Book 1 in the series:
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